OK, HANDS up who's been to Mauritius? Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, lucky old you. I haven't, so sit down at the back. Which means I have no idea if the Mauritian dishes they serve at Bukhara are authentic - in much the same way that most of us don't know if the Indian food we eat is truly Indian or Indian strained through Western sensibilities and a bucket of sugar.
Take vindaloo, for instance. In Britain it's the eye-watering curry of choice for boofheads who fall into a late-night restaurant after 10 pints of lager and then proceed to insult the waiters, order five more pints of lager and demand a hotter-the-better vindaloo, the kind of thing that could strip paint off a car door.
But it doesn't have to be like that - an example being the vindaille of fruit de mer, one of the house specials, which the menu says is a popular dish in Mauritius and which subsequent research shows it truly is. Vindaille can translate as vindaloo (or vindalho or vindallo) but it is as far from the British curry house paint-stripper as it is possible to get.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Bukhara is hidden in the increasingly desert-like environs of night-time Double Bay, where the only sounds are the occasional sharp intakes of breath as people notice the prices in the few swank boutiques that actually post prices.
The entrance to Bukhara is a single door tucked between a jewellery store and something selling gold-plated Lamborghinis or something - not quite a knock-three-times-and-ask-for-Vinny scenario but there's a distinct speakeasy feel as you search for the sign in the empty street and immediately find yourself climbing narrow stairs.
Upstairs the claustrophobic feeling is dispelled as it opens out airily above the two shops. There is a small shrine at the top, festooned with fresh, colourful fruit, and a sense of informal cosiness is maintained - despite the size of the space and the large wraparound windows - thanks to the dark flagstone floor, ochre walls and just enough downlights to maintain an intimate penumbra and yet still enable you to see your food.
Modern Mauritian food is a wonderful bonding of many other cuisines - reflecting the ethnic diversity of its people. French, Indian, Chinese and African join together in a melange of tomatoes, ginger, chilli, onions and spices such as cardamom, cloves, saffron and cinnamon.
And so the menu boasts such things as poulet aux quatre coco and duck canelle rouge - which is described mouth-wateringly as "breast of duck simmered in five whole spices, red wine with orange, sauteed with peeled tomato, olives, garlic, and a touch of thyme".
How can you go past that lot? Well, we do. For us, if it doesn't say "Mauritian speciality" or "Mauritian delicacy", then it isn't going down the gullet, monsieur, non, non.
And so we begin with pan-fried scallops a la facon du chef ($13.90) and crab creole ($11.90) - both of which are excellent. The scallops are marinated in pepper, ginger and herbs before being pan-fried in white wine and served on a small puri (a sort of Indian biscuit-cum-pancake).
The texture contrast between the four perfectly cooked, plump scallops and the slightly crunchy puri is lovely and, unlike so often with more substandard scallops, the other flavours do not overpower their taste. Small sprigs of coriander garnish add colour and zest.
The crab creole is beautifully presented and pretty tasty, too, with just enough bite (cayenne, I think, rather than chilli) to lift the dish but, again, not overpower the delicate taste of the crab and the zucchini flowers themselves.
But it's with the mains that we strike gold. It is a tad on the expensive side for one dish ($25.90) but the fish vindaille is a triumph and my otherwise picky dining companion is moved to say: "When I come back, I come back for this."
And why wouldn't you? It's a wonderful mix of seafood - prawns, king prawns, mussels, scallops, squid and a fleshy white fish - that positively glows both on the plate (the turmeric's to blame) and in the mouth. Onions, mustard seed (with fish, yes), lemon juice and capsicum complete the picture. It's spicy and heartwarming but it is, thankfully, by no means a vindaloo.
The Mauritian beef ($18.90) is a little disappointing after this but this is only in comparison. It looks dark and dangerous in Bukhara's funky white crockery but doesn't have anything special to lift it up alongside the vindaille. It is still, that said, one of the better beef curries I have had in Sydney.
We team these with basmati rice ($4 for two portions), an excellent "smooth but not too smooth" dhal ($13.90) and a huge bowl of the freshest, tastiest okra ($15.90) I have ever had. Not to everyone's taste, okra (also known as ladies' fingers) is one of my favourite Indian dishes but can often be overcooked and gluggy. Not so here - sauteed in onions, tomato and coriander to just the perfect crunchiness they are a highlight.
If I have any complaint, it would be the lack of smaller, cheaper versions of the vegetable dishes - if the okra and the dhal were side dishes, too, we'd have left room for dessert.
- 02 9363 5510
- Cuisine - Indian, South American
- Prices - Entree $7.90-$15, Main $13.90-$25, Dessert $7-$12
- Features - Licensed, Bar
- Chef(s) - Vijay Baboo
- Owners - Vijay Baboo, Heman Pullut & Jean-Noel Seetaloo
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Visa, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Dinner Sun-Thurs 5.30-10.30pm, Fri-Sat 5.30-11pm
- Seats - 100
- Author - Keith Austin, reviewer