Banana leaf-wrapped rice dishes are top-tier creations. There’s bibingka, nasi lemak, Thai sticky rice or khao tom mud, as well as countless other delights that benefit from the aromatic and very slightly sweet flavour imparted by the tropical leaf.

At Cinta, a new Indonesian grill in Carlton, the signature (and yes, banana leaf-wrapped) dish is nasi bakar.

Nasi bakar, which means “burnt or grilled rice,” is an Indonesian street-food staple. Steamed rice – sometimes made with coconut milk, and often seasoned with ingredients like tamarind, garlic, chilli, dried anchovies and shrimp paste – is wrapped tightly in a banana leaf and secured with a toothpick before being steamed and finally grilled. Usually, in addition to rice, the burnt-green package is also filled with beef, chicken, salted fish, tofu or a variety of other hearty ingredients.

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At Cinta, nasi bakar is available on its own for $8, or as part of a set that comes with fiery sambal, rice crackers, and fried tempeh and tofu, served with protein options including charcoal-grilled chicken, beef ribs, prawns, squid and dendeng, a spicy sliced and dried Indonesian beef. The all-halal menu also includes chicken satay, gado gado, grilled whole barramundi, and bagator (fried fish dumplings with peanut sauce).

In the kitchen (mostly at the charcoal grill) is chef and co-owner Mawar Mardi, who cooked at various street-food spots in Indonesia before immigrating to Australia with her husband, Cinta co-owner Aladin Mohamed.

When the couple first moved to Melbourne, they had difficulty finding the dishes they missed from home. Given chef Mardi’s culinary background, it made sense for them to open a restaurant. Their first spot, Indo Eats in Werribee, opened just prior to Covid and is still operating today.

Their second restaurant, Cinta (which means “love” in Indonesian), opened near Lincoln Square in Carlton earlier this year.

Keeping neighbourhood demographics in mind, Mohamed and Mardi crafted a menu that caters to the budget-conscious. “There is a large student population in the city and Carlton," says Mohamed. “We want to provide healthy, flavourful food that delivers on taste and price.”

The nourishing food is matched by the restaurant’s atmosphere. Cinta is an inviting space with bright yellow chairs, tropical print wallpaper and a neon sign that reads “Eat, love, repeat”, which Mohamed says is the restaurant’s motto. Tables outdoors are shaded by vibrant red umbrellas, extending the lively communal dining atmosphere onto the street.

To drink there’s teh tarik, a milk tea popular in Southeast Asia; Milo dinosaurs (iced Milo topped with Milo powder); sweet guava juice; mung bean juice; and more.

When you’re ready to pay at the counter, you can browse a mini grocery section stocked with a range of hard-to-find Indonesian snacks including crisp peanuts, fish-ball crackers and fried butternut-pumpkin wafers to take home.

127 Pelham St, Carlton
(03) 7002 9570

Mon to Fri 11.30am–2.30pm; 5pm – 9pm
Sat & Sun 11.30am–9pm