163 Concord Rd North Strathfield, NSW 2137
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri & Sun noon-3pm, 6-10pm; Sat 6-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Family friendly, Groups, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, BYO, Events|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Kumar Mahadevan, Ranjan Choudhury|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9743 3061|
|Free wine for Citibank cardholders here|
The year is 1983 and Indian food in Sydney is dominated by bright red tandooris and samosas that could double as a cricket ball. Gut-burning curries heave with low-end meat, self-loathing and industrial levels of ghee. Dosa is non-existent and balanced flavours are even rarer.
The Indian government isn't having any of this and offers three young chefs the opportunity of a lifetime (or a very sweet deal, at the least): permanent residency and paid work in Australia in return for promoting Indian cuisine at Mayur, a posh new restaurant with a reported $2 million price tag to open in Martin Place.
Kumar Mahadevan was one of those chefs, formally trained in India by the prestigious Taj Hotel group before taking a job with Sheraton in the Middle East.
By Jupiter, did the Indian government receive a return on investment.
The ribbon was cut at Mayur at the MLC Centre in 1985 and was Sydney's first fine-dining Indian restaurant. Prince Phillip, Rupert Murdoch and Mick Jagger were fans. The venture shuttered in 1989 when principal sponsors Air India and the Indian Tea Board lost interest but Mahadevan had fallen in love with Australia and wanted to raise a family in Sydney. With his wife, Suba, Mahadevan opened Abhi's in 1990, named after the couple's first son.
Abhi's occupies the same sliver of a site on North Strathfield's Concord Road that it has since Bob Hawke was in office. The restaurant's neighbours include four pizza joints, three Thai eateries, one Italian deli and Messina Hair Studio. Save for a wooden raja statue and a couple of garlands splashing colour above the bar, Abhi's silver-walled dining room does little to suggest the kitchen – lead by chef Ranjan Choudhury – is responsible for some of the most delicious Indian food in the country.
If the Mahadevans aren't working a shift at Aki's (the ritzy modern Indian restaurant they opened in 2003 at Finger Wharf, Woolloomooloo) you will likely find them on the floor at Abhi's greeting longtime regulars and taking group photos of families celebrating special occasions.
Previous yarns I've read about Abhi's reference a soundtrack pumping Paul Kelly rather than ambient sitar, but darned if I can hear any music above the din of chatter and cutlery on a Tuesday night. Every table is full; everyone is having a beaut time.
Abhi's wasn't always busy, says Mahadevan. "It was very tough going for the first few years. Then, in 1994, Mr Les Luxford wrote a fantastic review of us for The Sydney Morning Herald. That article changed my whole life. People began travelling from all over Sydney to try our food."
Luxford praised Abhi's for "breads and curries where the freshly ground spices are clearly evident" and 25 years later I couldn't agree more. The menu mix-matches northern-style tandoor meats with lighter southern curries and Goan specialities. Palak patta chaat ($16.80) is a much-loved signature of spinach leaves dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried before being covered in a rainbow of yoghurt, date, tamarind, chilli and mint sauces. It's like nachos without the stodge.
It's a shame Abhi's isn't open for breakfast because I would bloody love to kick-start the day with masala dosa ($15.80), a light and savoury rice flour pancake wrapping spiced potato and accompanied by fragrant lentil sambar. It's a terrific lunch regardless, as is the beef ambotik ($23.80), a tangy-sweet version of vindaloo cooked with tomato, peppercorns, cumin and ginger. Ambotik is a Goan dish traditionally made with shark meat but Abhi's is a flake-free zone. You can, however, find an electric-orange Goan fish curry ($29.80) featuring skin-on barramundi fillets swimming in turmeric and freshly ground coconut.
Tikka nimbuda chicken thighs ($16.80) are shown a good time in a tandoor oven that makes meat taste more of itself. A mixed tandoori platter ($29.80) is the menu's lodestar, starring chicken tikka, seekh kebab and hariyali lamb cutlets marinated in masala heady with fresh coriander, spinach, roasted chickpea flour and green chillies. It's excellent with a basket of flaky lachha paratha flatbread ($4.50) and even better with a cold Kingfisher lager ($9).
Although many cheaper curries still flub about in butter or snarl with chilli, Sydney's Indian food has become more complex, fragrant and vital thanks to Mahadevan and other paneer pioneers such as Rathnavelu Nagalingam, who also came to Australia under contract to Mayur and later opened Dakhni in Glebe.
At 59, Mahadevan's love of Indian cuisine is as strong as it's ever been. "There's still a lot of passion in me," he says. "I don't want to retire. I love playing with ingredients too much."
Signature dishes Palak patta chaat ($16.80); masala dosa ($15.80); madras prawn vendakkai ($28.80); beef ambotik ($23.80).
Famous diners Michael Clarke, Mark Waugh and most of the India national cricket team.