68 Commercial Rd Prahran, VIC 3181
|Opening hours||Thu-Fri 11.30am-2.30pm; daily 5pm-9.30pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9529 7811|
There's no reason the Spice Pantry on Commercial Road in Prahran would catch your eye – from the exterior it looks like just another tiny Indian restaurant, set up primarily for takeout. Inside, there are a few tables against the wall and a counter with a glass partition, showcasing various curries and snacks.
But if you look up, you'll see plaques that name the core spices used in Indian cooking, along with a definition. Underneath each is a large jar containing the spice in question. It's a classy touch that seems almost out of place, but hints at the care and enthusiasm that's being put to use in the small kitchen just beyond.
In that kitchen is Anand Tandon, a veteran chef who arrived in Australia from India 35 years ago, lured from his high-end hotel job in Jaipur by an Australian doctor who had just opened a restaurant in Melbourne. Since then, Anand has worked in about 20 restaurants in Melbourne, and owned many of them. He also started a catering company and had two children.
One of those children, Anuj, got a job working as a barista at Epicure in the MCG when he was 16. He, like his father, was bitten by the hospitality bug and stayed at Epicure for the next 11 years, working his way up to become manager. After high school, Anuj studied accounting and eventually landed a job with Deloitte. Throughout his schooling and professional life, he continued to help his father with the catering business. Eventually, Anuj decided that his true passion was in food.
Earlier this year, Anuj gave up his accounting job and he and Anand took over the small shop on Commercial Road. They rebranded and renamed it.
Anand, now 62, does the cooking, and Anuj runs the front-of-house operations. If you eat at one of the few tables in the restaurant, you can hear their warm family banter and even share in it a little. Anuj is a beamingly warm host. And Anand is an incredibly good chef.
The food is deep and bright, each dish shot through with the distinctive flavour of those spices in jars lined up above the counter. The standbys are great – I challenge you to find a better butter chicken in Melbourne – but the less-common dishes are wonderful as well.
An entree called "chicken 65" ($12) is a Southern Indian dish of fried marinated chicken, which comes in a jumble with strips of red onion in a spicy salty sauce dotted with mustard seeds.
Onions play a leading role in many of the best dishes here, like bhindi masala ($12), a vegetarian combination of okra and chopped onions.
The goat bhuna ($12.50) is a saucy dish almost entirely comprised of onions, which are stewed for hours with goat leg meat and aromatic spices. Order it hot and it also comes with hunks of fiery green jalapeno.
Almost all of Spice Pantry's business is in takeout and delivery, and if I lived nearby I'd take advantage of that convenience often.
But it's worth coming in to sit at one of the few tables, if for no other reason than to bask in the warmth of this family's hospitality. Anuj may well be a fine accountant, but it's obvious that feeding people is his true calling.
Go-to Dish: Goat bhuna, $12.50; Chicken 65, $12.