After 25 years with his family restaurant, Ravnish Gandhi believed he was ready to walk away. From his early teens, he washed dishes and waited tables at Bombay by Night, an acclaimed Indian diner run by his parents since 1990. When it sold in 2015, Gandhi thought he’d said goodbye to late nights and dirty plates. He was wrong.
“Sometimes the universe speaks to you and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” he says.
So, even though Gandhi’s photo film wholesale business is still going strong, he’s opened Cafe Southall, a slick St Kilda diner serving Indian cuisine. Drawing as much from the London restaurant circuit and the Melbourne cafe scene as it does the culinary traditions of his family’s homeland, Cafe Southall has a foot in both the old world and the new. “I feel that really old-school is good – in small doses. I think a lot of Indian venues are going down the road of those old Chinese restaurants. You need to change, or they’ll just disappear slowly,” Gandhi says. “There’s a change in the last few years. People like Babu Ji – I’m happy to see that.”
To that end, Gandhi is serving a pared-back breakfast menu of just four dishes. Akuri, for example, is a Parsi specialty of eggs scrambled in turmeric, ginger and sauteed onions, served on flaky paratha made in-house by his Ma. Upma is a Southern breakfast staple made from steamed semolina, green peas and peanuts, tempered with fresh curry leaves and fenugreek – enriched by an optional egg.
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. There’s a tandoor, of course, for flatbreads and Gippsland lamb cutlets marinated in hung yoghurt. “If you’re doing north-Indian food, you need a tandoor. You can’t ignore it,” says Gandhi. “What’s the point of eating north-Indian food without good bread?”
The Carlisle Street space is also a picture of restraint. 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. “Food and photography, that’s what I’m all about.”
Along with Tonka, Mukka and Horn Please, Cafe Southall is an exemplar of contemporary Indian-Australian cuisine. But it’s also Bombay by Night circa 1990: while his Dad’s in the kitchen, Ravnish is waiting tables. “Even though it’s my business, it’s my family’s business, because everybody’s effort goes into it,” he says. “For my family, a restaurant is like a home.”
124 Carlisle Street, St Kilda 3182
Tues to Sat 9am–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9pm
(03) 9537 3496