88 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6526|
At the end of a laneway in the Lower Parel neighbourhood of Mumbai sits the Bombay Canteen. Opened in 2015, the sprawling restaurant turned the idea of casual Indian dining on its head, its chef and owners bringing modern interpretations and global ingredients to classic dishes.
While most of the cooking aims to celebrate the country's diverse regional flavours, the menu might well include stracciatella. There was also a sense of reclamation to the endeavour, especially in the cocktail program, which took colonial-era drinks and reimagined them as bigger, bolder, fruitier concoctions that spoke of a modern India unbound from its colonised past.
It was impossible for me to walk into Bar Bombay Yacht Club, Jessi Singh's new restaurant on Flinders Lane, and not think of Bombay Canteen. The same sense of joy permeates the space, which was, until very recently, the wine bar Mrs Singh.
There's a similar approach to the menu and overall ethos of the place – that is, to toy with our long-held notions about Indian cooking, to be as creative as possible with its many permutations, and to give a winking nod to the external influences that shaped the food and drinks of the country while proposing a much more inclusive vision and offering.
Singh started sailing a few years back, and the room is decked out in velvet and gold, as well as vaguely nautical colours. Occasionally he will roam the room, giving out captain's hats for customers to wear.
The music is loud, and sometimes bubbles cascade from the ceiling, all of which will come as no surprise to regulars of Singh's other restaurants, such as Daughter in Law.
Also no surprise: the wine list is fantastic and broad, especially suited for lovers of champagne and other French whites.
There is so much cleverness on this menu, perhaps best personified in the butter chicken pâté ($24), made from chicken livers cooked in the tandoor oven then blended with ghee and spices and served with crisp roti flavoured with fenugreek.
A tofu dish ($22) combines the ideas of vindaloo, mapo tofu and lettuce cups, all heaped together in a saucy, numbing jumble.
Roasted corn ($16), a classic street snack in Mumbai, comes with popcorn and a paneer sauce, the cheese nodding to that other great street corn – Mexican elote.
The sailing theme extends to the food in that the menu is seafood-heavy, with dishes like kingfish ceviche with coconut and finger lime ($24), or biryani shot through with crab ($30).
A gorgeous half-lobster (a bargain at $44) comes smothered in a deeply flavoured Sri Lankan-style chilli sambal; it's an invitation to dig in, get your hands dirty and come out smiling.
Many dishes are just one step shy of brilliant, but that step is often a crucial one. That butter chicken pâté, for instance, comes in a jar and tastes great. But it's basically a sauce – not a mousse, not a spreadable solid. The effect would be so much greater if it were texturally rendered as pâté.
The Mumbai corn appears to have been blanched before it hit the grill, which would make the execution of the dish much easier (if it's already cooked, all the kitchen has to do is add char and heat before serving) but robs the vegetable of its crunch and vitality.
Even the lobster, which was fantastic in almost every way, had an odd whiff of propane to it that left me perplexed. Did it get it from the cooking method? I couldn't tell, but it took away somewhat from the sweetness and funk of the dish.
Bar Bombay has been mobbed with customers, and severely understaffed thanks to COVID-19 illnesses and the wider labour shortage, and it's entirely possible these issues will resolve themselves once things settle down. Some nights here feel positively chaotic, but through it all Singh remains a steady and generous presence, often performing multiple jobs (host, waiter, food runner, manager, sommelier) simultaneously.
Mostly, it seems as if Singh is creating a space where he can gleefully do whatever he wants, be it the audacity of marrying vindaloo to mapo tofu, or the ridiculous fun of trying to eat a tequila-filled "boozy ball" while bubbles cascade around you and Who Let the Dogs Out blares from the speakers.
Perhaps most importantly, it's a place where, unlike the yacht clubs of yore, pretty much anyone can wear the captain's hat.
Vibe: Neon-lit glam meets velvet-bedecked yacht club
Go-to dish: Half lobster with sambal ($44)
Drinks: Tropical-tinged drinks (both classics and originals), serious wine list
Cost: About $50 per person without drinks, though it's quite easy to spend more
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine