“Straight off the bat, I want to say how incredibly proud we are of Raja,” Nick Mathews-Bowden tells Broadsheet. Nick and husband Kirk Mathews-Bowden own the elevated Potts Point Indian restaurant, which opened in July last year, and Ezra, the locally loved bar and restaurant next door. “Myself, Kirk, [head chef] Ahana [Dutt] – we’re all disappointed that [Raja] hasn’t got the traction it needs to,” he says. Raja’s last day of trade will be Saturday May 4.

Ultimately, the numbers made the decision. “This is the most challenging market I’ve ever traded in, and I’ve been working in the industry for 20 years now,” Nick says. “We could always tell it was going to be crunchy, but it was probably only in the last two or three months, when you could feel everyone’s ability to dine out getting more and more reduced – it’s made the decision for us. I totally understand where people are coming from. Anyone who buys groceries, anyone who pays a mortgage or pays rent – it’s just becoming tighter and tighter and tighter.”

When Raja arrived, the couple labelled it as “unapologetically Indian”. Head chef Ahana Dutt – former sous-chef at Firedoor and "next big thing" on Broadsheet's most exciting chefs of 2023 – created a menu that’s playful yet fine, not limited to any one region. She looked to her memories of growing up in Kolkata, her mum’s cooking, and a recent research trip. Nick and Kirk’s travels inspired dishes, too – the garlicky mud crab with green chutney and roti an ode to one they ate at Trishna, a restaurant in Mumbai.

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There are dishes of fish ambot tik (a sour Goan curry) and a cavolo nero saag paneer that heroes locally made buffalo curd. A classic Bengali fish chop is reimagined as a fish-and-potato-filled zucchini flower that arrives on a smoky tomato sauce.

“Ahana is so incredibly talented and creative,” Nick says. “In terms of taking this chance and going through this journey with Ahana, I could not be more grateful. Zero regrets. I think she’s one of Sydney’s hottest young chefs, and I don’t think this will be a moment that defines her.”

Raja has been community-minded from the get-go; many of its diners are also regulars at Ezra. The Middle Eastern restaurant is more approachable cost-wise, a sure-fire reason for its continued success. “That’s what gives us the heart to continue there – you can see a bit of a drop off, but we’re still holding really steady.”

Raja has the framework for a longstanding restaurant: a talented chef, a warm and welcoming fit-out and a fun drinks list (hello to the spiced milk punch). On Sundays, key-ring-holding Club Raja members nabbed 50 per cent off their food bill. But something has to give if, collectively, we’re not dining out as much – and we’re seeing it in real time across the hospitality industry. The Nilands shuttered Charcoal Fish earlier this month, and beloved Annandale cafe Cornersmith closed in March. Matt Whiley cited Eveleigh’s low foot traffic as the driver for Re’s move; the same motive was behind Izgara’s trip to the CBD.

“In Sydney, hospitality is pretty tight-knit,” Nick says. “Huge scene – five million people – but really in hospo, it’s one degree of separation from everyone. I always say, ‘It’s not just you. Don’t think for a second “OMG, what’s going on?” We are all in the same boat together.’ It’s sometimes heartening to think we’re all going through it.”

With three weeks of service left, Broadsheet’s rec is to book in – stat. “It’s the greatest irony,” Nick says, on the likelihood of a flat-chat finish to the project. “I’m the kind of person that has 10 different restaurants on my mental list at any given time. So if Raja’s sitting on anyone’s list, I’d really like for them to have the chance to check it out.”

There are no concrete plans for the space, but there’s word of a more casual concept moving in over the coming months – after the team’s taken a breather. “For anyone to thrive in this industry, you’re made of pretty tough stuff. It’s a bumpy road, but 100 per cent there are sunnier days in the future.”

Raja’s last day of service will be Saturday May 4.

raja.sydney
@raja.sydney