6 Grey Street Saint Kilda, Victoria 3182
|Opening hours||Sun-Tues, 5-9pm; Thurs-Sat, 5-10pm; Fri-Sun, noon-3pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9534 2447|
It opened on Valentine's Day and, at almost a month old, Babu Ji is already well-established. It's the third in a line of next-generation Indian restaurants from Jennifer and Jessi Singh of north-side's Horn Please and Kyneton's Dhaba at the Mill (which they sold late last year).
Their evolution of the Indian-Aussie eatery elevates traditional dishes with top local produce and fresh presentation, and delivers it in comfortable spaces that are uncluttered and clever, with wry glimmers, such as vintage Bollywood projected high on a white wall.
Like its siblings, Babu Ji has dash - check the 'tache on the eponymous babu-ji ("mister"), and listen for '70s and '80s Hindi disco tunes. But Babu is anchored by a terrazzo floor, heavy, swinging saloon doors and the lofty, windowed room that was the fancy bit of the George's Melbourne Wine Room. The food, too, is part serious, part playful.
Starters ("from the street") are real surprise packages. Gol gappa are crisp wheat-puff pods that, when slammed whole, release layers of flavour - a cool, creamy yoghurt meets a zippy blend of coriander, mint, green chilli and lime, and an ooze of jaggery-sweet tamarind.
Tikki (Dutch cream potato croquettes) come as a trio of three flavours - a sweetly coconutty blue-swimmer crab; a fresh spinach with a spurt of mango chutney; and a spiced beetroot blended with spring onion and fresh mint. Each one is delicately dabbed with yoghurt and chutney, and garnished with a tiny spear of capsicum and sprinkle of black Himalayan salt, crushed pomegranate seed and green mango powder.
The tandoor adds its characteristic char to the crisped skin of a rainbow trout fillet; its softly spiced flesh is lightly dressed with honey and ginger. As with all the dishes we tried, flavours are clear, subtle and fresh.
"I don't use oil," says Jessi Singh. "It's water-based cooking; I took out the oil and the red chilli to make food that fits a healthy lifestyle." His tight 20-dish menu covers all points of India, and is split into starters and curries - "from the pots".
The black-lentil dhal is creamy from its day simmering, and smoky from its time atop the tandoor. The lamb curry is slow-roasted pieces of leg in a clovey gravy, and there's a turmeric-golden coconut fish curry made with local rockling and topped with shaves of fresh coconut that's paradise in a pot.
Well-drilled staff cut it equally comfortably with the 5pm family shift, the late-evening influx and the lunch crowd, for whom there are samosa burgers and pressed paratha wraps.
Note to Cupid: I'll take places like this over heart-shaped chocolates every year.
Do … Just rock up; bookings only for six or more people
Don't … Feel sheepish about helping yourself to the beer fridge; it's encouraged
Dish … Tandoor-charred rainbow trout
Vibe … Jolly fine fun
Note: Corkage $10 a bottle