129 Smith St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun 5pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Cheap Eats|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9416 2767|
You know when you're eating something and you decide each mouthful is your last but then, without your brain engaging, your hand goes back to the food and suddenly you're chewing again?
That's the way it is with the MCC Masala peanuts – and lots of the other southern Indian snacks – at Madras Brothers, a cool new Indian restaurant on Smith Street.
The peanuts are a bowl of moreish spicy rubble: deep-fried skin-on nuts are tossed with roasted spices, then tumbled with fresh onion, tomato, lemon juice, pepper and coriander leaves. They're spicy and fresh, tangy and hot, juicy and crunchy. They're in your hand, then in your mouth then the bowl is mysteriously empty.
Like all the food here, it's on the menu because it means something to Rishi and Magesh Venkatachalam, the two brothers who opened this restaurant in June. The peanuts are a classic snack at the Madras Cricket Club, frequented by the brothers' uncles, and a common haunt when Rishi and Magesh were boys.
They also have fond memories of the Bombay sandwich, a toastie served on the streets outside Alsa Mall, one of the first shopping malls in Madras, built in the mid-1980s. Like a club sandwich that escaped to the untrammelled streets of India, it's a white-bread squish of potato, tomato, mint chutney and tomato sauce.
The boys would grab one on their way into the mall and another on their way out. And yes, Bombay (now called Mumbai) is a decent 1300 kilometres north-west of Madras, but the southern city and the northern hub engage in much culinary back-and-forth.
Pani puri (puffed and stuffed crispbread spheres) are found all over India; the brothers' version celebrates the Sowcarpet rag trade area of Madras, filled with potato, chickpea and mint and served with a tamarind-tangy add-your-own dressing. Taste bombs don't come any cuter.
Fermented rice and lentil batters are the basis for numerous southern Indian dishes. Dosa are crepes made from a thin batter (the closest you'll get here are bowl-shaped hoppers), idli are a steamed dumpling made with a thicker mix, and kulipaniyaram are made with idli batter that's combined with flavourings such as onion, green chilli and mustard seeds.
Madras Bros serves idli in a rich tomato gravy – a typical Chennai breakfast and a comforting Fitzroy supper – but the kulipaniyaram are even better, flying-saucer shaped, fluffy and sturdy all at once, and served with a curry-leaf studded coconut chutney. So good.
Street snacks dominate the menu but the curries are good too, especially the Chettinadu chicken perfumed with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Still, it's all too easy to build a meal from the little dishes, especially when your hands keep picking up titbits without telling you.
Rishi and Magesh arrived in Melbourne 17 years ago to study engineering and accounting, respectively but their family in India runs restaurants and coffee plantations – in the end, they couldn't resist the siren call of hospitality.
Ten years ago, they bought Saris, a classic curry house in Traralgon, two hours east of Melbourne. They later opened The 3844, a civilised bar in the same pub-punctuated Gippsland postcode. Along the way, Rishi worked at bars and restaurants in London, picking up tricks that helped the brothers hone their vision.
Madras Brothers is the happy result. The food is authentic – it ain't broke – but the brothers have eschewed Indian restaurant tropes in favour of a crisp, contemporary feel. This is a Melbourne restaurant showcasing southern Indian food not a cliched attempt to staunch homesick expatriate pangs – though it does that along the way.
The drinks focus is a clear signpost to modernity, as is the appealing beer garden at rear. You can easily come here for a spiced martini and a little nibble, or a decent ale and a bunch of snacks, as a curry night with pals.
While you're here, decode the Tamil script on the rear wall. It translates as "I am Tamil" and has chest-thumping connotations. And why not? These Madras brothers have plenty of reasons to be proud.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)