72 Flinders St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner Wed-Sun|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6717|
Five years ago, chef Manpreet Sekhon was sitting in a glamorous Flinders Street restaurant musing on an impossible dream. "I wish I could have a restaurant in a place like this," she told her husband. "The feeling, the setting, it's beautiful."
The place was Press Club, the George Calombaris salon where leather horseshoe banquettes sat under golden lighting colonnades and the Aussie-Hellenic menu included a tahini-chocolate dessert attended by mini marshmallows pegged to a tiny Hills Hoist.
At the time, Sekhon had already opened her Geelong restaurant, Eastern Spice, and the Melbourne customers who travelled an hour for her rogan josh and scallop coconut curry were always begging the "curry queen", as she became known, to open a place in the city.
She obliged them in the spring of 2020, bravely launching Masti in Fitzroy as tumbleweeds blew down Brunswick Street, and quickly luring the inner north with subcontinental cocktails and vegan dishes like chickpea vindaloo and stir-fried spiced okra.
She never let go of the Flinders Street dream, though. Press Club closed in 2019, was briefly reborn as Elektra, then shuttered as its ownership company went into administration a month before lockdown.
Full of pride and joy, and leaning into the possibilities of a softer rental market, Sekhon reopened the fancy room as Elchi in early March.
The comfy-glam fit-out is still great, somewhere between club room and limousine. A large part of Sekhon's project is to show that a dining room this swish is an entirely appropriate canvas for contemporary Indian food.
She's right. In Melbourne, our dominant style of Indian restaurant is mid-market with long, page-turner menus built around multipurpose curry bases.
But in India, and particularly in the northern state of Punjab where Sekhon is from, carefully spiced meat and vegetable dishes trace their heritage to Mughal palaces as well as village food stands. It's also completely normal to eat dhal and naan in the kind of gleaming five-star hotels where Sekhon trained and spent her early career.
The one-page menu at Elchi is an eclectic collection of street food, grills, regional classics and restaurant staples, all with Sekhon's spin.
Golgappa is a popular street snack, often called pani puri. A bite-sized crisp dough shell is typically filled with potato and green chilli, then a tamarind dressing is poured in and the whole thing is quickly popped in the mouth before it collapses. Elchi serves the classic as well as cheeky versions with tequila or vodka spiking the dressing.
Bhel puri is another ubiquitous snack, usually made with puffed rice, onion and potato tossed with chutneys. Elchi turns it into a grain salad of buckwheat, corn, pomegranate arils and peanuts. Tamarind and mint chutneys are smeared on the plate. It's a street dish trying a bit too hard to get gussied up; the original is livelier and brighter.
Amritsari fish is a famous dish from landlocked Punjab, classically made with freshwater fish that's spice-rubbed and fried. Sekhon uses whole snapper in a signature main course striving for wow factor. The deep-fried skeleton is curved on the plate, golden-crumbed fillets nestle into the rib cage and the juicy wings are tucked in at the back. It's a finger-licking procession with gentle chilli and lemon notes and the pungent whip of ajwain spice.
The deft facility with spices that earned Manpreet Sekhon her curry queen moniker is on show in dishes like paneer lababdar, featuring house-made fresh cheese in a tangy tomato gravy, and the three-pulse dhal glossed to a rich finish with ghee.
Jalebi is a flour fritter soaked with syrup, but Elchi makes it with battered apple dusted with cinnamon and pistachio. Though the Granny Smith rings look a little lonely on the plate, the delicate, well-judged flavours point to an exciting melding of Indian heritage and local produce.
I enjoyed Elchi. I love the idea of re-colonising a space like Press Club and showcasing the brilliance of Indian food. But there's already a strong push in Melbourne to redefine subcontinental eats. Nearby Tonka, Jessi Singh's Daughter In Law and new Bar Bombay Yacht Club, Helly Raichura's Enter Via Laundry, Fitzroy's ISH and the exciting pop-ups of local chefs Harry Mangat and Mischa Tropp are pushing Indian cuisine down thrilling local byways with acuity and finesse.
Elchi is in the mix, but the presentation isn't sharp enough nor the dish ideas sufficiently resolved to rank it with the very best. I look forward to seeing this promising restaurant's execution align with its happy, worthy ambitions.
Vibe: Contemporary Indian in a glamorous, clubby dining room
Go-to dish: Amritsari fish ($80, serves 2-4)
Drinks: The wine is fine but the India-spiced cocktails are the real draw
Cost: Small: $4.50-$18; large: $24-$32; dessert: $6-$20
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine