20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne, VIC

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Tonka's go-to dish: pani puri.
Tonka's go-to dish: the Pani puri. Photo: Eddie Jim

Larissa Dubecki

There are more than 1.24 billion people on the Indian subcontinent and 300,000 Indian-born people who call Australia home, with arrivals coming in such numbers that India recently zipped past Britain and China as our biggest source of immigrants.

So where the bloody hell are our great modern Indian restaurants? Sydney has had a few ripples, but here in Melbourne we've been immune to the new-wave Indian crashing over London and the noble regional Indian that spices up New York. We're stuck in second gear, like the banged-up Toyota that delivers your chicken tikka masala and rogan josh on a too-tired-to-cook Sunday night.

Tonka, Melbourne's first serious stab at upmarket modern Indian, is uncharted territory. So is its location. The breakneck Duckboard Place is a recherche off-Flinders Lane address that's prime bait to the cool-hunting crowd, especially with a name that references cultish nightclub HonkyTonks that once stood on the site.

Melbourne's Indian scene takes a big step forward at Tonka.
Melbourne's Indian scene takes a big step forward at Tonka. Photo: Eddie Jim

HonkyTonks was like the '60s - if you can remember it, you weren't there - but I dimly recall it was up two, possibly three, flights of rickety stairs. Tonka is on the ground level, a vast space that begins at an open kitchen with ringside seating, and ends with a great view over the Flinders rail-yards. It says good things that my biggest gripe is a bit of history-fudging designed to lure in the ex-nightclub crowd. Going by the clientele on a Wednesday night, they're all grown up and able to afford the occasionally stiff prices and to appreciate its corporate blond good looks with fluffy wire petticoats hovering near the ceiling, a stylistic nod to the owners' other restaurant, Coda.

The window dressing is good - although I'm naturally disappointed there's no longer a DJ in the women's toilet - but the substance is better. Tonka raises the bar with the help of fine produce, the subtle, mysterious spicing of the headline curries and support act street foods, and proper service values.

Co-owner and chef Adam D'Sylva's Indian and Italian heritage is evidenced on Tonka's menu. Curious? Yes, and a little unwieldy like Coda's south-east Asian-French thing: not fusion per se, although the burrata with coriander relish and charred roti sounds like it comes perilously close. D'Sylva says he didn't want it to be too monocultural, so alongside the pani puri - a roadside snack of delicate pastry filled with spiced potato, a livening splodge of date and tamarind chutney and a splash of dried mango and mint water - you'll find a tuna tartare with ginger and fresh wasabi. It sounds like a flavour blockbuster, but that aromatic heat is kept to a background whisper, so the oily fish is what you remember. A peppery, properly charry Mooloolaba prawn with kaffir lime dressing takes things further south-east Asian; the soft shell crab pakora, pasted with minced ginger, garlic and coriander, has a feathery-light tapioca batter replacing the stodge of beef tallow and flour.

Beer is the best drink for Indian food, although the wine list is so considered (light, refreshing and aromatic-leaning) you can throw that truism out the window and also forgive them for not stocking Kingfisher.

Mains - or ''bigger'', as the menu prefers it - aren't confined to dishes your average Mumbai IT worker would immediately recognise. There is interpretation and invention and modification - particularly the absence of the ghee and cream that can make Indian food such an artery clogger, and the heat that can make it such a challenge. The lamb neck curry, for instance, has a rich roasted coconut base tricked up with smoky black cardamom and poppy seeds. The gravy is glossy, intense and complex. Love it. Same goes for the caramel crust on the chicken from the tandoori oven. The radiant heat makes for charry, glistening deliciousness; underneath it the bone-nibbling meat is juicy, smoky and sweet. It pays to follow the big format of the Indian meal: thick rice pappadums with a coriander-tomato-red onion diced salsa are a worthy add-on; fried cauliflower with garam masala salt, fenugreek and yoghurt doubly so.

The menu implicitly acknowledges the vexed question of Indian desserts. I'm a sucker for the super-sweet gulab jamun - India's churros, they're butter-fried doughnuts drowning in saffron syrup - but the less glycemically inclined might prefer the deconstructed coconut rice pudding with mango sorbet. It's modern and thoroughly decent, but my mind keeps wandering back to those curries. I think Melbourne's Indian food scene just took a big step forward.

The best bit The Indian restaurant comes of age
The worst bit Cross-cultural confusion
Go-to dish Pani puri, $4.50
Vegetarian Three starters, one main
Dietary GF available
Noise Ceiling baffles squelch the noise of percussive bass and the babble of voices
Service Good
Value Mostly reasonable
Outdoors No
Wheelchairs Yes, although the laneway is very steep
Wine list A smart Italian-leaning list that goes well with the food

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or ldubecki@fairfaxmedia.com.au

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.

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20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne, VIC

  • Cuisine - Indian
  • Prices - Typical starter, $10; main, $38; dessert, $16
  • Features - Gluten-free options, Licensed
  • Chef(s) - Adam D'Sylva and Michael Smith
  • Owners - Adam D'Sylva, Kate and Mykal Bartholomew
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, noon-3pm; Mon-Sat, 6pm-late; bar open until late Mon-Fri from noon and Sat from 6pm
  • Author - Larissa Dubecki
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4 comments so far

  • Must profusely disagree with this review. Unfortunately the Melbourne food scene has been hijacked by a 'hype over substance' view of new restaurants. I would usually say nothing as I'm in the industry but I just can't abide Larissa Dubecki suggesting that a Lamb neck curry at $36 is reasonable. it is not. I've eaten at Tonka like many of my fellow colleagues and we all agree that something really strange is happening in the restaurant scene in Melbourne. Melbourne diners use to be discerning, have high standards and demand the best when paying top dollar. To call Tonka's value 'mostly reasonable' is a gross understatement and insult to the average diner. The typical thing you hear these days is 'I've heard its amazing', 'the head chefs the guy from...' so on and so on. People convince themselves of high quality experience before they visit. If this kind of hype over food quality continues then sadly melbourne's food scene will dramatically suffer, unlike sydney which is booming with legitimate mid-range restaurants doing interesting and tasty food opening on a weekly basis. Sad to say Melbourne's food capital of Australia tag may be coming to an end.

    Date and time
    May 21, 2013, 1:05PM
  • Since when did Char grilled Mooloolaba prawn with black pepper and a kaffir lime dressing OR O’Connor scotch fillet, coconut sambol, lemongrass cream have become part of the Indian cuisine......Looks like just another eating joint cashing in on the hype of ethnic cuisine...

    Date and time
    May 21, 2013, 4:53PM
  • *Shrug*... I think Larissa nailed it. We've eaten at Tonka several times now and it keeps getting better and better. If you love those fantastic Indian spices and are after something a bit different, I'd strongly recommend you give Tonka a look. The staff are great, beautiful wines to match, and the fit out is stunning.
    Sure, $36 for a curry is a change from an $18 pasta at La Porchetta, but you're in a beautiful Melbourne restaurant serving delicious interesting food, so I'm not sure what you're expecting, Steve? Maybe I need to "be in the industry" to understand your lofty views...
    Try Tonka for yourself and make up your own mind. You'll probably see me in there again when you go!

    Tim Astell
    Date and time
    May 23, 2013, 6:59PM
  • An Indian restaurant firstly without trying to keep to its roots by having Kingfisher or any other variant of Indian beer...... Not sounding really authentic already is it? Secondly, Tim, 6.59pm, you perhaps can't compare a $36 curry to an $18 pizza, when you should be comparing Indian, with umm, Indian? Also, I am over the whole concept of 'street food' when the prices are certainly not in line with 'street food' and are an insult to the 800,000 or so impoverished Indians back home.

    Date and time
    August 19, 2013, 3:00PM

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