Some like it hot. Or not.
Last summer, when Suzanne Wright launched Canandaigua-based Finger Lakes Food Tours, she included Flavors Indian Restaurant on Lafayette Avenue as a tasting stop. Her guests loved it. “They remarked repeatedly how Abhay and his entire staff were so eager to share their hospitality, culture and secrets to the delicious foods they served,” she says.
At the time, the months-old restaurant – the first for Owner/Chef Abhay Thapar – was small, seating only 49. But business quickly flourished. The space soon became “way too congested” explained Thapar, so he expanded into the adjacent storefront in the small strip mall downtown. Today, Flavors spaciously accommodates up to 88 diners.
Most Indian restaurants offer Northern Indian cuisine featuring flavorful curry sauces for meats, poultry, seafood or vegetables; served with breads like naan, a soft flatbread baked in a tandoor clay oven. Southern Indian cuisine is spicier and traditionally served with rice and lentils.
At Flavors, dishes are primarily northern fare and include Chicken Tikka Masala – tender chunks of chicken in a creamy curry, described by Cook’s Illustrated magazine as “the single most popular Indian restaurant dish in the world.” For those who like it hot, Flavors also offers Xacutti, a more obscure, fiery Southern Indian curry.
There is a perception that Indian food is always hot and spicy but Thapar claims most dishes are not. Diners can choose their own level of spice when they order. A daily lunch buffet, also offered on Wednesdays nights, is a great way to sample a variety of foods, sure to please timid palates and adventurous foodies, meat eaters and vegetarians alike.
Any meal can be converted to vegan by substituting coconut milk for dairy. Thapar and his staff are happy to do so. Molly Giles and husband Terry Boothman are vegan, and dine there often. “Terry and I were wishing, wishing, wishing for an Indian restaurant to come to Canandaigua, and Flavors has not disappointed us,” says Giles.
Thapar’s food story
The walking food-tour experiences offered by Suzanne Wright go beyond tasting and into the history of the proprietors and chefs. Thapar, who is just 25, is happy to share his tale. It begins with his passion for table tennis (ping-pong) at age 7. By the time he was 10, he was a ranked junior player with the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) and as a result, received a free private-school education.
In 2003, 13-year-old Thapar came to the United States from Punjab, India to visit his uncle in Virginia, and to participate in a ping-pong training camp. He returned to India, stayed a couple of months, and then came back to the U.S. to play in a tournament. He decided to stay. He loved being in America.
By then, Thapar had become a very independent young man. His busy playing schedule had taught him how to best manage his time. Thapar was only 4 when his father died, and his mother was successfully running the family’s sporting goods store. Today it’s managed by his brother.
Thapar’s plan was to finish high school while playing table tennis competitively, but it didn’t pan out. He never made it past 10th grade, and could not apply for the U.S. Olympic table-tennis-team trials because he was not yet an American citizen (he became one in 2012).
So Thapar went to work. His first job was washing dishes at an Indian restaurant. He fell in love with the business.
Over time, he performed every job in the front and the back of the house, and worked his way up to chef. It is customary for Indian restaurant staff to learn all aspects of the business so they can cover for each other on days off, explains Thapar. “Everybody knows every station.” A dishwasher might be a sous chef (“cutting guy,” he says); a waiter might train to make breads.
When he was old enough, he was free to travel, live and work anywhere. And he did – in numerous cities from Florida to New York. Recently, when Thapar made a list of all the restaurants in which he’s worked, the total was 47.
By December 2014 he was eager to work for himself. He found a suitable location in Canandaigua through an online real estate listing, and was familiar with the area after working in restaurants in Fairport and Pittsford. He hoped that bringing Indian food to Canandaigua would fill a niche. Other restaurants in town served German, Mexican, Italian and Japanese cuisines.
“The New York Wine & Culinary Center has definitely raised Canandaigua’s profile as a culinary destination,” says Karen Miltner, public relations manager of the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection. “Flavors Indian Restaurant has helped round out the city’s options for international dining,”
Presenting Flavors to the community
Thapar finds the local business environment very helpful, especially the Canandaigua events that introduce potential customers to his restaurant. One of them, the new Fire & Ice Winter Festival in February, attracted hundreds of visitors. Downtown festivities ranged from a cool ice-carving demo to a sizzling, theatrical, fire eating/juggling performance.
The main event was a Chili Cook-Off Competition. Flavors was among the dozen local restaurants that participated in the friendly tasting contest. Chef Thapar was thrilled when his chicken chili took second place, losing out to Rio Tomatlán Mexican Restaurant by merely two votes.
“I was afraid of trying Indian food until I tried their chicken chili,” notes festival attendee Cherie Hawes Molloy. “It was the most delicious dish ever and I’m now a huge fan of Flavors!”
Thapar has settled into Finger Lakes life. He starts most mornings with a workout and often puts in 12-hour days, seven days a week. Surprisingly, he doesn’t eat much Indian food during his rare off-time. He enjoys Italian cuisine, and like many locals, you’ll find him eating out at Canandaigua’s mainstay Eric’s Office Restaurant.
Flavors Indian Restaurant
35 Lafayette Avenue
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Delivery and take-out is available.
by Nancy E. McCarthy
photos by Peter Blackwood