Jewel of India

The Jewel feast.
The Jewel feast. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Unit 16, 1st Floor, Manuka Court , 11 Bougainville Street Manuka, Australia 2603

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6162 1847
Opening hours Lunch Monday to Friday, dinner Monday to Sunday.
Features BYO, Licensed
Chef Venkatesh Ramachandran
Seats 70 inside
Payments AMEX, Diner's Club, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos

If I ate solely from my own heritage it would be potato, potato, haggis and coq au vin on a four-day culinary rotation.

But we are able to leap out of our cultural predisposition and eat food from just about anywhere, and could, without much trouble, tuck into so many cultural experiences, like an interesting spring food from Dongyang in China, tong zi dan, which translates to virgin boy eggs, which is just chicken eggs, boiled in … anyway look it up yourself.

My point, besides showing an addiction to weird food facts, is I rejoice in our culinary melting pot, which is why tonight I'm enjoying dishes filled with words like chettinad, tawa, makhni and bhindi. Clearly, I'm not at the local Anglo-Celt bistro and I'm not looking out over a night market in Mumbai. It's Manuka and I'm watching a parking attendant writing something on my car tyre.

Welcoming ... Chefs Ramesh Nagapolla and Sam Varghese at Jewel of India, Manuka.
Welcoming ... Chefs Ramesh Nagapolla and Sam Varghese at Jewel of India, Manuka. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

I'm at Jewel of India, upstairs in a Manuka mall, which is still for me, after so many years, the place to reacquaint yourself with Venkatesh Ramachandran's beautiful Indian food. He's on the floor these days but still has an eagle-eyed - he is very tall, as my basketball-fanatic son notes - view of the kitchen.

Jewel is one of those places where I wish they didn't have a menu. On the menu, you can find the same curry bases with different protein, but I'd rather see the kitchen decide how best to show each curry, not the diner.

If you want to leave it to the kitchen, there is a banquet option, but that always feels like you're in some huge office party where everyone is drinking as quick as they can to get to the photocopier first.

Having been here so many times over so many years, I'd love to see a sense of change in the menu.

So after consulting with Ramachandran long enough to get a crick in my neck we take his suggestion of the Jewel feast ($69 for two), where you just have to choose a curry or two and add a few more dishes to fill the younger members of the family up.

Chicken chettinad ($18.90) has been on the menu since go. He reminds me this is one of the curries he used to cook back at the Hyatt, where we once worked side by side. It's popular for good reason - an intense pepperiness to the gravy that cloaks the tender chicken pieces, a warming dish with simple southern flavours.

Dal makhni ($17.50) is a signature dish on the menu here and in the sister restaurant in the city. Exotic and sweetly flavoured with butter tomatoes and garlic, the black lentils have this mysterious goodness to them like most things of this colour. It's deep, rich and fragrant on its own, and with rice is a totally restorative experience.

Symbolic ... Jewel of India's menu is full of well-defined foods from around the sub-continent.
Symbolic ... Jewel of India's menu is full of well-defined foods from around the sub-continent. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Fish methi masala ($20.90) is distinctly flavoured with fenugreek, which makes sense, as that's what methi means in Marathi. Here we have a dish that bucks the usual broad criticism of Indian food, that everything tastes alike. The flavours and aromas are so distinct, with the elevated caramel-like smell that fenugreek gives a dish. It's a really good dish, the fish perfectly cooked and still retaining its own flavour among all that's going on.

Everyone loves an active dish, something that arrives to the table and doesn't sit there inanimate. Sizzling lamb tawa ($19.50) does just that; you can hear it coming like a pack of bees after a methi curry. There's more spice and heat here, lots of Indian trade spices - cumin, ginger, coriander, all those garam masala spices I guess - and, again, it's such a contrast to the fish, chicken and lentils. The lamb, once it comes off the sizzle, is juicy, tender and complexly flavoured.

A plate of stirfried okra, cashews and dried chillies fills out the feast, along with all the condiments that make Indian food so interesting - the cooling effect of a good raita, the intense citric life of a lime pickle, and the sweetness of mango chutney.

Sizzling ... Tawa lamb, with capsicum, onion and lots of Indian trade spices.
Sizzling ... Tawa lamb, with capsicum, onion and lots of Indian trade spices. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The naan is excellent, fresh from the tandoor. Crispy yet soft centered, the perfect blanket to wrap up some sizzling lamb. Our meal also includes the repertoire on Indian starters, intensely edible tandoori lamb cutlets, chickpea dusted and fried prawns, chicken tikka, tangdi kebabs.

The service at Jewel is super-efficient and friendly, the wine list is serviceable but uninteresting, and a bottle of Haywards 5000 Indian beer does me just fine.

Having been here so many times over so many years, I'd love to see a sense of change in the menu. But the food is really good and easily the best we've had in Canberra, marked out by the distinctiveness of each dish.

jewelofindia.com.au