Tonka, Mukka, Horn Please, Babu Ji: Melbourne isn’t short of high quality, modern Indian cuisine. But this year a new generation of restaurateurs and chefs has joined the ranks with its own spin on contemporary Indian, served in carefully considered, beautiful spaces.
Bhang is in a converted former warehouse in a street off Sydney Road in Brunswick. Owners Sway Quach and chef Dougal Colam (also behind Tom Phat) did the fit-out themselves: lots of timber, exposed brick, minimalist track lighting and vintage Indian film posters.
The Bhang menu is devoted to regional Indian street food such as kori gassi – a spicy chicken, coconut and tamarind curry from the coastal city of Mangalore – and gobhi korma, which is a northern-style charcoal-roasted cauliflower. The drinks list features beer and wine by small producers, and Indian-inspired cocktails that make use of ingredients such as chai and cumin. And if you want to ramp up the spice? “Just ask,” says Colam.
A large, turban-clad, impressively moustachioed man watches over the space at Piquancy, the latest spot from the owners of St Kilda’s Babu Ji. There’s a GYO (grab your own) fridge containing 40 beers, and the pretty-looking food tastes light and crisp as often as it does rich and aromatic.
Start with panipuri – golf-ball-sized puff-pastry shells, half-filled with mashed potato and chickpea. Pour a little herby, salsa verde-like liquid into the opening atop each ball and pop it in your mouth for a crunchy, creamy snack. Alongside butter chicken and goat curry, you’ll find a black-lentil stew jacked with garlic, ginger and garam masala that’s been simmered for 12 hours.
Ninety per cent of the menu is gluten-free. One of the owners is intolerant himself, and he’s particularly proud of the gluten-free naan, which he and his mum developed over several months back home in North India.
Atta’s head chef and co-owner, Harry Dhanjal, didn’t go to culinary school. He learned to cook his elegant, contemporary version of Indian “from eating out in India”, books, talking to other chefs and experimenting in the kitchen for 16 hours at a time. This theme of self-sufficiency extends into other parts of his new Albert Park restaurant: he and business partner Brij Patel designed the venue themselves.
Atta is in a heritage-listed building, which has a gallery-like feel; timber trusses run along the high ceiling, there are grand arched windows, and sleek modern photographs line otherwise sparse walls. Dhanjal’s dishes are “indigenous” but “elevated with new flavours and ingredients.” So his version of a lamb dish dating to 300 BC has been modernised with the use of a sous-vide and a large bell jar. As for the not-to-miss dish, Dhanjal recommends the dal bukhara – a black-lentil dahl cooked for 18 hours, with coriander butter.
Ravnish Gandhi worked in his family’s acclaimed Indian restaurant, Bombay by Night, for 25 years before opening Cafe Southall in St Kilda. His venue draws as much from the London restaurant circuit and the Melbourne cafe scene as it does the culinary traditions of his family’s homeland. Its whitewashed walls are only occasionally interrupted by a hint of golden velvet or red bentwood, while a couple of Gandhi’s beloved Rolleiflex cameras hide in plain sight.
A pared-back breakfast menu of just four dishes includes akuri, a Parsi specialty of eggs scrambled in turmeric, ginger and sauteed onions, served on flaky paratha made in-house by Gandhi’s Ma. Dinner is more familiar, with classics including saag paneer and chicken tikka masala alongside a few left-fielders such as a lahori keema bhindi: slow-cooked lamb mince stir-fried with okra and dark-roast spices.
And there’s a tandoor, of course, for flatbreads (and Gippsland lamb cutlets). “If you’re doing North Indian food, you need a tandoor,” says Gandhi. “What’s the point of eating North Indian food without good bread?”
For Melbourne’s latest, subscribe to the Broadsheet newsletter.