Eat out: Biji Dining at Little Andorra, Carlton North

Chef Harry Mangat has popped up at Little Andorra.
Chef Harry Mangat has popped up at Little Andorra. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Sick of your own four walls? You're not alone. Chefs trading spaces is the smash hit of summer. Attica is doing summer camp in Seville; Anchovy has set up shop at Sutton Grange, and Bia Hoi's Jerry Mai is smoking up the lawns at Mornington Peninsula winery Ocean Eight.

It's not just away games, either. Joe Grbac'sā€‹ Saxe is sadly no more, but Sandringham can rejoice that he's spicing up their amaro-loving wine bar Sidebar. And in Carlton North, Luke Bresnan's record-spinning neighbourly wine bar Little Andorra has become the temporary home for chef Harry Mangat's ever-roving contemporary Indian pop-up, Biji Dining.

Mangat meets Andorra is the best of two very good worlds. Bresnan is staying front and centre at his wine bar, a picture-perfect corner of Nicholson Street, whose vine-festooned frontage is prime real estate for a summer of outdoor dining. That means your access to a well-made martini and a richly textured palomino wine from Andalusia is unimpeded.

Mangat, meanwhile, a New Delhi-raised, Melbourne-shaped chef, has sold out his contemporary Indian pop-ups since starting them in 2016. Having sampled his menus both in lockdown and fresh out, I can tell you they deserve more than a fleeting glance.

Mangat cut his teeth at Hare and Grace under Raymond Capaldi, and had a short but universe-shifting stint at Attica, where then-sous chef Peter Gunn recruited him for his IDES pop-ups. You can see the influence in Mangat's menus ā€“ a flush of snacks and three main dishes ā€“ which frame flavours of his roots through a contemporary kitchen lens.

Right now that looks like tandoori chicken rillettes, meat from the whole bird cooked down with fenugreek, cinnamon and ghee, and sandwiched between a cumin seed cracker, pickled cucumber and a tissue-paper-thin layer of spiced chicken crackling.

Masala cauliflower on a chickpea flour cake.
Masala cauliflower on a chickpea flour cake. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Oysters bathe in coriander oil-dotted coconut cream, lightened by rice vinegar and a spice-infused coconut water. The briny, rich and refreshing hit is testament to Mangat's ability to tame complex ingredients in beautifully resolved bites.

The light, the bright and vegetable-leaning get a lot of airtime on Mangat's menus. A lockdown hit saw topli nu paneer, a Parsi-style, basket-set curd cheese become a silky, mellow focal point for an electric dish with bright spring vegetables, coriander oil and fluffy chickpea flour sponge.

This was a year in which many Indian chefs stole the spotlight. Helly Raichura of Enter Via Laundry cemented her place as one of Australia's most important and exciting voices with fastidiously researched menus celebrating the diversity and excellence of regional Indian cuisine. Sunda chef Nabil Ansari and Pt Leo chef Adiityaa Sangwan both unleashed showstopping menus drawing on family roots and careers in contemporary restaurants.

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What was exciting was the diversity in these first-person narratives. All did vital work in shifting perspective of what Indian-Australian cooking could be, and here's hoping that it remains one of 2020's lasting legacies.

That's going to take some buy in. Sangwan and Ansari have now returned to their full-time roles, but smart restaurant backers should note audiences picked up what they were putting down.

Smart diners, meanwhile, should race to book Raichura's upcoming residencies on bucolic estates out near Geelong, and the same goes for Mangat's pop-ups, which will head to Avani wines on the Mornington Peninsula when he finishes at Andorra in December.

Oysters in coconut cream.
Oysters in coconut cream. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Don't wait until then. Go now to have your mind gently blown by the complexity and vim of cauliflower that's brined, oiled and baked with a spice mix including Indian black salt, whose sulphuric quality drastically dials up the flavour of the veg. Set on a pan-fried chickpea flour cake, and washed in a vibrant coconut broth, fermented chilli and young bay-leaf oil, it's a revelation.

There's not a dish on the menu unworthy of that label. Mangat doesn't twist the familiar. He builds from a solid cooking foundation and takes you on a journey all his own.

Pork scotch is rubbed in a heady mix of aromatic spices and kashmiri chilli then slow-roasted and smoked over hickory chips for a sweet, earthy finish. A black garlic reduction glossed with pork fat brings a world of depth and balances out gingery pumpkin puree.

Cos with cumin caramel, almond cream and coriander.
Cos with cumin caramel, almond cream and coriander. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Dessert finishes on a high of ethereal cardamom-spiked rice pudding with a sharp shot of rhubarb and the crunch of beetroot meringue.

Could Mangat finally down some roots? You'd hope so, but he's avoided it to date, preferring to avoid the pitfalls of business ownership that this year has laid very bare. Whatever he decides post-summer, he's definitely going places. Follow.

The low-down

Address 555 Nicholson Street, Carlton North, 03 9042 2255, littleandorra.com.au

Carrot halwa, orange custard, candied pistachio, caramelised white chocolate and ginger feuilletine.
Carrot halwa, orange custard, candied pistachio, caramelised white chocolate and ginger feuilletine. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Open Wed-Sat, sittings 5.30pm or 8pm; Sun 2-5pm.

Drinks Interesting small producer Spanish, Italian and Australian wines. By-glass options are whatever the bar is enjoying.

Pro tip After Andorra, Biji will pop up at Mornington Peninsula's Avani Wines, avanisyrah.com.au.

Cost $60 a head, pre-paid upon booking; $85 on Sundays.

Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back onto its feet.