Tonka's go-to dish: the Pani puri. Photo: Eddie Jim
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. 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
Value Mostly reasonable
Wheelchairs Yes, although the laneway is very steep
Wine list A smart Italian-leaning list that goes well with the food
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
- 03 9650 3155
- 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