88 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 11am-2.30pm; daily 5pm-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6526|
You don't always know which words are going to stop you in your tracks, blot out all noise and turn a fuzzy, multi-tasking brain into a laser-focused machine. At Mrs Singh, the words I heard were "butter chicken creme brulee". Suddenly, I was all ears, all mouth, all desire. Whether I needed stealth, strength or simply a credit card, my whole being strained towards this dish.
Mrs Singh is a new wine bar and eatery from Jessi and Jennifer Singh, the clever minds behind Daughter In Law, Babu Ji (Melbourne and New York) and Sydney's Don't Tell Aunty. Jessi was born in India, Jennifer in Brooklyn, they've lived and travelled all over.
Their new restaurant celebrates their many influences and passions in a venue that puts an arm around authenticity, gives it a good tickling, and spins the ensuing laughter into a lounge bar with amazing wine and cocktails, and food that leans heavily towards India without quite falling over. New York meets New Delhi. Punjab does Paris. Mumbai dances with Melbourne. It's playful and unique.
So that crazy brulee? Butter chicken flavours – tomato, ginger, garlic, fenugreek – are cooked with chicken liver to create a smooth, gently spiced pâté that's then sealed with a shatter-crisp sugar shell. Cracking the top with a teaspoon feels like (I imagine) smashing a champagne bottle on the bow of a new boat, launching something sleek with abandoned glee. Boats don't come with garlic truffle naan, though, so I'll take the brulee over the brigantine any day.
Drinks are a major focus, overseen by top sommelier Bathia Dheeraj (previously at Sydney's Est) in his first Melbourne appointment. He's a big get, and I'm not just saying that because he found an 1985 Armagnac that I needed to try. It can be tricky to match beverages to spicy food but Dheeraj is having a lot of fun doing so and Melbourne drinkers are the winners.
If you go at lunch, the thali (a tray meal) is an array of curries with rice, raita, naan and papaddam. It's pretty straight; the champagne trolley doing the rounds is less so. Late at night, there are un-Indian pizzas – pepperoni, maybe – taking advantage of the oven left by Pezzo, the Grossi-owned previous tenant.
In the evening, Mrs Singh is happy to see you for snacks or a full feast. Indian breads are topped with European cheeses: comte with coriander, maybe, or blue cheese with turmeric. In India, paratha are paired with whatever's around; there's no law forbidding fancy cheese.
Small plates rule, arriving in a pacy parade of big flavours and bold colours. A tandoor oven is put to work on huge prawns. Beetroot is roasted too and drizzled with mint chutney. Fall-apart lamb ribs are served with pickled watermelon. Dumplings are stuffed with pork vindaloo.
Raw fish dishes aren't common in India, but they seduced Jessi Singh in California. Mrs Singh dresses kingfish, prawn, whatever's good, with lime, chilli, coriander and coconut cream and serves it ceviche-style. Raw tuna is cubed and served with champagne-infused watermelon. Other seafood dishes include a dude-foodie lobster brioche roll with slaw, served with curried potato crisps and fried curry leaves.
The food is a riot but with its velvet seats, cool tunes and high ceilings, there's something of the luxe hotel lobby bar about Mrs Singh. Just like a good hotel, the sincere welcome and professional approach don't exclude mischief. You'd never have thought Flinders Lane needed another restaurant but Mrs Singh has sashayed in and made herself instantly essential. More champagne, please.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
Atta's 'Dirty Samosa' dish. Photo: Joe Armao
ALSO TRY: MODERN INDIAN
Ambitious Indian fine dining with theatrical flourishes is the approach here. Just about everyone orders the sikandari raan, a classic northern Indian goat dish done here with lamb and presented at the table under a smoke-filled dome.
159-161 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park, 03 9696 3388
Restaurateur Ganeev Bains has created a restaurant that's Indian-ish and modern Australian-ish so he's called it "Ish". Think mushroom curry with dulse seaweed and snow peas, or steamed swordfish with garam masala and tomato marinade.
199 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 0420 214 855
Vikram Kotamraju says his dream is to create a restaurant that evokes his childhood but he's definitely not doing it in obvious ways. Modern dishes include oyster with an edible shell and bush herbs, plus butter chicken with Goan prosciutto.
401 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, 03 9347 1991
I'm a big fan of this spirited Indian burger joint and craft beer hall. They reinvent Indian street food classics in burger form and go wild with fusion dishes such as biryani arancini.