When news arrived that Longrain’s casual canteen, Shortgrain, and the adjoining Bunker Bar were being swept away to make way for an entirely new concept, we ran straight over there to see what was up. As renovation work went on in the space, a long communal table was spread with different bowls, plates and platters in shades of charcoal, dusty blue and eggshell white. There were shiny silver dishes, too, and smaller chutney or pickle bowls that fit neatly inside one another. Some were marked with pink Post-its; a triage system locking down which may work for the new venture, which finally opened late last week. It may come as a surprise to some that this new restaurant isn’t serving Thai food, but Indian. Or, Indian-ish. So, why the change?
“The original concept was for Shortgrain to be in the front room, and the bar would operate separately, and then Shortgrain kind of exploded and spread out the back. In a business sense, it didn’t work as well as we wanted it to,” says restaurateur Sam Christie, whose stable of restaurants includes Sydney and Melbourne’s Longrain venues, plus Greek restaurant The Apollo and modern Japanese Cho Cho San which he runs in partnership with Jonathan Barthelmess. So, Bunker Bar is now Indian restaurant Subcontinental, and the street-facing portion of the space does dinner-only takeaway.
Christie already has a lot going on. So, why Indian food? And why now? “There’s good Indian food in Sydney to be had, but you've got to head out to Harris Park to have it,” says Christie. He implies that in this part of town you’re more likely to find a watered-down version of traditional dishes. “It happens with Greek food as well – the sort of food you get in restaurants isn’t what you’d eat in a Greek person’s home,” he says. “They simplify it … which is kind of sad. I'm sure that in a lot of Indian restaurants, the food they're eating out the back is different to the food they're serving out the front. In fact, I know that it is.” After spending time in India during his backpacker years, and living in London for a time, where lack of funds naturally draws one to the curry bargains of Brick Lane and surrounds, Christie has had, “a big taste for [Indian food] for a long time now.” After four years of Shortgrain, he was ready for a shake-up.
Bright splashes of turquoise and crimson have been added to the walls, the army print has gone and the raw bricks have been given a light lick of white. Food wise, what do you offer when you’re looking to change the game? Firstly, Christie isn’t sticking solely to the cuisine of India. The menu, courtesy of Longrain head chef Victor Chung, who is of Chinese/Indian descent himself, takes influence from the mountains of Nepal, Bengal and the tropical, coconut-studded shores of Sri Lanka, bringing a wild variety to the menu. A tandoor has been installed for dishes such as tandoori spatchcock, lamb cutlets and naan (of course). Thanks to the flavours of Sri Lanka, seafood stars here, with mud crab curries available to order in advance. A Bengali curry of king prawns, spinach, coconut and turmeric, or a cashew nut and cardamom duck curry should be on your must-try list. Daal changes daily, and the team is making all the condiments essential to good Indian cuisine in house, such as pineapple raita, mango and chilli pickle and a range of chutneys.
India boasts one of the most vibrant and prolific street-food cultures in the world, and the team has jumped on board with snacks such as pani puri – hollowed-out, fried shells of batter filled with chickpeas, spiced potato, cucumber and tamarind water, plus vegetarian samosas with sweet-and-sour chutney and lamb-and-potato croquettes. These are easily accompanied by a wealth of Indian gins, tonics and beers (Indian Pale Ales front and centre, naturally) that Christie has sourced. The wine selection is in keeping with what’s being served upstairs; lots of riesling to counterbalance the spice, grenache and pinot noir. “Wines without a lot of wood, good acidity and spice, and a lot of fruit,” says Christie.
Try a sweet and milky kelfi popsicle for dessert, or cardamom-spiced, house-made yoghurt with seasonal fruit or sweet naan, with dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon sugar and saffron cream. “At Indian restaurants, sometimes the food can be quite heavy. So we’re trying to get away from that and just lighten it up as much as possible,” says Christie. Make sure you leave room for dessert.