CBD Restaurants Coda and Tonka Reboot With Two New (But Not Really New) Chefs

After a fruitful 14-year partnership, owners Kate and Mykal Bartholomew recently parted ways with founding chef Adam D’Sylva, the man behind the famous duck curry, crispy tapioca and prawn betel leaf and many other hits. But newly empowered head chefs Hendri Budiman and Chanon Boriharnvanakhet are already devising their own hits.

Published on 13 June 2023

In 2009, Avatar took the top spot at the box office, Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister (for the first time), everyone was worried about swine flu and Mykal and Kate Bartholomew opened Coda with chef Adam D’Sylva.

Mykal was working at Movida, one of a few restaurants co-owned by his dad, Peter Bartholomew. Kate had just finished university and was front of house at Taxi and Vue de Monde.

“I was eating staff meals at Movida and said, ‘I’ll die if I keep eating pork belly and tripe and chicken livers and black pudding’,” Mykal says. “We were turning away as many people as we were welcoming, so I knew if I opened [something new], we’d be full and the food would be the opposite.”

Mykal’s dad advised him to get out on his breaks and wander the area. The right space would pop up. And it did. He and Kate – not yet married – would walk home together down Flinders Lane, past a new restaurant called Mini Modern Greek. The entrance was on cobbled Oliver Lane, but the half-subterranean space had high windows offering views of suited and stockinged legs striding past on the street above.

“They had the misfortune of opening a Greek restaurant in the CBD at the exact same time as [George Calombaris’s] Press Club,” Mykal says. “I offered to buy it and they were happy to sell.”

His dad put the couple in touch with D’Sylva, a talented 30-year-old with Indian and Italian heritage who’d already held head chef roles at top Southeast Asian restaurants Pearl and Longrain in their respective heydays. He came on as a partner.

“Mykal and I wanted to do something French, with a Joel Robuchon Atelier vibe, but less expensive and more accessible. Adam really wanted to cook Asian,” Kate says. On the strength of a few drinks one night, D’Sylva suggested French Vietnamese. “We thought that was genius,” she says. “Then I remember looking at the menu the night before opening and thinking, ‘This isn’t French Vietnamese.’ There were some Vietnamese dishes and there were some French dishes. I thought we were in trouble. There were snails and rabbit cassoulet as well as duck curry. But we opened the doors and people just went bananas for it.”

Coda is emblematic of a transitional time for Melbourne dining, particularly in the CBD. The previous milieu of white tablecloths and lofty gastronomy was fading out, and a new generation of restaurants like Cumulus Inc, Izakaya Den, Chin Chin and Mamasita were showing that restaurants could be cool, casual, fun and more affordable, while still delivering top quality food. This was reflected in their respective designs, which also felt more down-to-earth. Fourteen years on, Coda’s chicken-wire lightshades are unchanged and now perhaps unremarkable in a dining landscape where casual has become the norm. But they once represented something bigger and more profound.

Signage in grungy Duckboard Place | Photography: Arianna Leggiero

The sequel
In 2013 the team was ready to strike again with an upscale Indian restaurant nodding to D’Sylva’s heritage. “Kate and I were going to Sydney a lot back then,” Mykal says. “I said to Kate, ‘Everything in Sydney has a view.’ Nothing in Melbourne apart from Taxi and Stokehouse had a view. We saw this space in Duckboard Place. It was burnt out. There were squatters living here. I looked at that view and I said, ‘That’s Melbourne.’”

The laneway space was undeniably special – and it had history. From 2000 to 2006 it had been Honkytonks, a debaucherous, fever dream of a nightclub known for its Rave Juice cocktails, eclectic clientele, grand piano DJ booth and yes, sunrise views over the adjacent trainlines and down to the ’G. Among Melbourne nightclubs, only Revolver was (and is) more notorious.

The entrance to Tonka | Photography: Arianna Leggiero

This background, and the link with Coda, set Tonka up for success from week one. D’Sylva wowed diners again, this time with a novel, not-totally-Indian menu featuring the likes of creamy burrata with coriander relish and roti, and soft-shell crab pakora with preserved lemon aioli.

Sit at table 32 and it’s like being part of a Paul Kelly song. You can see the Arts Centre, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Rod Laver Arena, AAMI Park, the MCG and the Nylex Clock. And artist Naomi Troski’s ceiling installation, a mass of white steel mesh ruffles reminiscent of a tutu, has become one of the most iconic features of any restaurant in town. Neither restaurant’s had a proper facelift yet – there’s been no need.

The dining room at Tonka | Photography: Arianna Leggiero

The spin-off
Seven years busy flew by. Then, in 2020, everything changed with the first of the lockdowns that decimated the industry. With no restaurants to run, the Bartholomews plotted an escape to Lorne.

“I told Hendri [Budiman, Coda’s head chef] we were going, and he said, ‘Cool. I'm in’,” Mykal says.

Other staff followed – though not D’Sylva – leading to a Coda spin-off inside the Lorne Hotel. It turned out to be a blessing, giving Budiman time and space to refine and evolve the menu, away from the pressure of the city and loyal customers who didn’t necessarily want to see things changed.

Somewhere along the way, it also became clear that the 14-year partnership with D’Sylva, who’d taken on new projects, including Lollo and Boca, had run its course. He left the business in March, a few months after Coda shut in Lorne.

Coda head chef Hendri Budiman | Photography: Arianna Leggiero

The new (old) guard
Hendri Budiman has been at Coda since 2009, albeit with some breaks to work in other places. He came from nearby Italian stalwart Il Solito Posto, where the head chef told him he had nothing more to teach him, but that he’d had dinner at new restaurant, Coda, and thought it would be a good fit. Budiman became head chef in 2014, reporting to D’Sylva.

“I was hesitant to change too much at that time in case Adam didn’t agree,” Budiman says. “But then … I became more daring in what I wanted to do, which was predominantly Chinese and Southeast Asian and very influenced by what we crave in different seasons.”

In summer the new Coda will focus on light, fresh Thai and Vietnamese dishes, with plentiful use of seafood and herbs. As the weather cools, the kitchen will bring pork, steak and lamb into play, alongside Cantonese flavours and techniques. Case in point: Budiman’s hot and numbing crispy lamb with whipped chickpeas and sansho pepper. Coda diehards will be happy to know that crispy tapioca and prawn betel leaf, a 2009 invention, is staying.

“That can’t go anywhere. It’s everyone’s favourite,” Budiman says. “We don’t have to stick to Chinese. We can do whatever we like, as long as we stick to the Coda ideology of freedom to cook. But it’s not fusion.”

Over at Tonka, a new head chef is three months into the job, replacing Kay-Lene Tan, who is now the executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton. Born in Thailand, Chanon Boriharnvanakhet is part Australian and moved around Southeast Asia a lot as a child. He started cooking in Bangkok, and continued when he arrived in Melbourne 17 years ago.

A Coda alumnus, he too headed for the regions during lockdown, working at Trawool Estate, before coming back to take over the reins at Tonka. Under Boriharnvanakhet, the restaurant is returning to its roots of contemporary Indian with a twist, now incorporating native Australian ingredients.

Tonka head chef Chanon Boriharnvanakhet | Photography: Arianna Leggiero

He’s changing up the traditional pani puri starter made with potato and aromatic water using ingredients such as celeriac, lemon verbena and muntries. Oysters are fired on the grill and punched up with confit chilli, garlic sauce, lemon juice and amchur (dried green mango powder) for tang.

“It makes sense that we don’t venture too far from where we are and what Tonka is,” he says. “Tonka has never been a traditional Indian restaurant, but more contemporary and fun. I want to showcase what we have here in Australia.”

Mon to Tues midday–3pm & 5.30pm–9.30pm
Wed to Fri midday–3pm & 6pm–10.30pm
Sat midday–10.30pm

Mon to Tues midday–3pm & 5.30pm–9.30pm
Wed to Fri midday–3pm & 6pm–10.30pm
Sat midday–10.30pm