New Indian restaurant bets the house on butter chicken

photos Jeremy Shepherd

It’s Thursday morning and the restaurant isn’t quite open.

Milaap Indian Kitchen, the newest tenant at Eagle Ridge Plaza on Lansdowne Street, is still an hour away from the first stirrings of the lunch rush when proprietor Manish Petwal comes through the door carting a box of kitchen supplies.

“It’s kind of soft-open,” he explains.

Manish Petwal is focused on butter chicken.

As Petwal makes arrangements for aprons and other kitchen supplies, a server sets down a complimentary cup of tea and a samosa for me to try. Both are quite tasty.

Petwal seems pleased when I tell him this. Just a hint of cardamom in the tea, he tells me. However, the conversation quickly shifts to the restaurant’s star dish: butter chicken, or as it’s known at Milaap: Butter(ica) Chicken.

Petwal was born in Rishikesh, India, a town known as the yoga capital of the world. For young people not interested in yoga, there’s the army, he says. And for people not interested in yoga or the army, there’s cooking.

Petwal went into banking.

After moving to Canada for his education, he was set to join a start-up in New Westminster when the pandemic hit.

Petwal found himself stuck in India and, like many homebound people, he also found himself spending more time in the kitchen.

“I started cooking,” he says. “I thought, maybe this is something.”

He appreciates food made with “care and precision.” When it’s made the right way you can taste the difference, he says.

He’d spent the last six years as a branch manager at a bank but now he felt compelled to get into the restaurant business.

“Once I was in this industry, there’s no going back,” he says.

After a couple years working with another Indian restaurant he spotted a disconnect between the wide range of items being offered and the few dishes the customers wanted to heat.

“We have this huge menu but all we are selling is butter chicken,” he recalls observing. “Why not just focus on butter chicken?”

But if the focus was butter chicken, he reasoned, the butter chicken had to be the best.

Chef Ramesh Semwal cooks fresh tomatoes for about six hours for butter chicken.

Petwal spent some in India, sampling butter chicken in two dozen restaurants and then quizzing the chefs.

In Canada, most chefs at Indian restaurants use canned tomatoes, he says. But in India, the chefs rely on fresh tomatoes cooked down over six hours.

That approach, which includes cashews mixed with the tomatoes, is what would make Milaap different, he says.

The location came together fairly quickly, he says, noting the ample parking and low rents at the plaza. Finding staff was a bit more of a challenge, he says, adding that many people aren’t willing to work minimum wage.

“In the beginning nobody wants to work with you because you’re a new restaurant,” he says. “it’s a job with lots of pressure.”

Still, they had a location, they had an idea, and they had chef Ramesh Semwal in the kitchen. It was time to invite customers to taste the difference in their butter chicken.

There were no customers that first day, Petwal says.

“The chef, he has invested most of his own money in this venture. He was getting restless.”

Petwal went to Facebook to push the butter chicken. Daily Hive ran a small story.

“Somehow something blew up and I then got almost ten times the business,” he says.

Prices range from $13.95 for Dal Tarka (split chickpeas) to $18.95 for the Butterica Chicken.

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