Our pick of Sydney’s best subcontinental eateries.
The Spice Room
No other Indian restaurant says “Sydney” quite like The Spice Room. The waters of Circular Quay shimmer – day or night – just out the window, while the passing trains add to the urban vibe. The small dining room, which is almost always packed to the brim, takes its design cues from traditional Indian havelis (mansions) so expect arched doors, perforated window frames and elaborately hand-carved tables. The menu is exhaustive and for good reason; there are 29 states in India, and the selection of dishes showcases not only some of the best regional cuisines but different styles within them – from street eats to fine-dining. Start off with butter-soft chicken tikka and rambunctiously spiced lamb seekh kebab, before moving onto goat curry inspired by the railway canteens of India and boneless barramundi marinated in pickles. The menu also excels in a department where many Indian restaurants fail: dessert. So leave room for velvety and warm carrot halwa or chilled and creamy ras malai.
2 Phillip Street, Sydney; (02) 9251 7722
In an age of ever-changing menus, it’s important to take note of dishes that are permanent fixtures because they’re so damn good – and the menu at Indu is chock-full of them. Take, for instance, the great raan – lamb rump, coarsely spiced and slow-roasted for 48 hours. Or the Goan pork belly curry – silky soft meat and crisp crackling, served in a spiced gravy. And who could argue with the simplicity and timelessness of Amma’s daal – a rustic, flavoursome red lentil dish, which follows the recipe of owner Sam Prince’s Sri Lankan born-and-raised amma (mother). Head chef James Wallis channels the rituals of authentic South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking in this subterranean dining room with cavernous corners, sheer curtains, potfuls of aromatic spices and effervescent, friendly staff.
350 George Street (entry via Angel Place), Sydney; (02) 9223 0158
Adorned by black-and-white murals and images of royal Indian figures and families, the walls at Malabar set the tone for a refined dining experience. “Malabar” refers to the coastal region in India’s southwest, where fresh seafood is as crucial as meats and vegetables so expect a good mix of dishes on chef Mohammed Sali’s menu. Beautifully spiced mince lamb wrapped in a rice and lentil dosa (crepe) makes for a light starter (specially when shared between two), while soft ling fillets fired up with green chilis results in an excellent main course. Wine is definitely not an afterthought, with each course matched with a suitable drop – a Claire Valley riesling to complement the lingering spice of the peppercorn prawns, say, or a French rosé to go with braised leg of lamb. There’s an offshoot of this restaurant in Sydney’s Crows Nest, too, but nothing beats the vibe and corner-street location at this Darlinghurst eatery.
274 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst
There’s Aki and there’s Abhi – sons of well-known chef Kumar Mahadevan. And then there’s Aki’s and Abhi’s – Indian restaurants named after the boys. While Abhi’s holds the fort in North Strathfield, catering to the Western Sydney crowd with timeless classics such as chicken makhani and kadhai paneer, Aki’s turns up the heat on Woolloomooloo’s Cowper Wharf with contemporary twists such as saffron-tinged scallops and duck kebabs. Nab a table outside for the best people-watching spot on the wharf or settle down in the dining room proper, before ordering from the extensive menu. Delicately spiced blue swimmer crab on a bed of iddiappam (brown-rice string hoppers) is a not-to-be-missed entrée, while eight-hour-slow-cooked goat on the bone makes a divine main course, particularly when paired with flaky, buttery and lightly charred parathas (bread).
1/6 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo; (02) 9332 4600
The entrees at Masala Theory push the limits of what you expect at an Indian restaurant. Hook your fork into the layers of light pastry, garbanzo beans in a rich date-and-tamarind chutney and yoghurt that make up its deconstructed samosa, then throw back a signature curry bombs are twisty – little shots of slightly sweet chicken curry served in a curl of pastry. The the cocktails and mocktails list is just as twisty, with drinks made on cooling bases of yoghurt and raw mango puree. Mains cover curries and meats charred over the tandoor; order the Rajbhog Thali platter for a veritable feast of five different curries served in little copper bowls, plus rice, naan and a dessert of jalebi, an Indian dessert that’s a shocking hue of coral and soaked in syrup. The restaurant itself is wedged into a narrow, renovated terrace on the lower end of Crown Street in Surry Hills with splashy neon artworks and technicolour murals adorning the walls.
545 Crown Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9699 9444
Spiced by Billu’s
There’s no shortage of Indian restaurants in Western Sydney but Billu’s in Harris Park is an institution, where tables rarely go empty on weekends and weeknights feature daily specials – from rajma (kidney bean curry) with rice on Mondays to kadhi pakora (vegetable fritters in a yoghurt-based sauce) on Fridays. But you don’t have to go out west to taste its authentic flavours, thanks to Spiced by Billu’s, recently opened in Barangaroo. Kick off the soirée with spicy, tender seekh kebabs, then follow up with succulent morsels of kadhai chicken, which get a wonderful texture from fenugreek. For seafood lovers, coastal delicacies range from fried barramundi in a capsicum-laced gravy to mussels masala with a good hit of coriander. Soak it all up with flaky parathas or basmati rice tinged with sautéed cumin seeds.
7/33 Barangaroo Avenue, Barangaroo; (02) 9046 0979
The Indian at Brick Lane is more rad than trad. There’s not a homemade roti in sight, nor are you likely to find subcontinental staples like butter chicken and rogan josh on the menu. Instead, prepare yourself for unexpected combinations that take the concept of fusion to the next level, with dishes like: the tandoori chicken burger spring-roll (a gooey concoction of poultry, cheese, onion and pickles, bundled up in hot, crisp pastry) and salmon tostada (cured fish and spiced guacamole served on wonton crackers – a dish more at home at a Mexican taqueria than an Indian eatery). But the best bit is the space – an atmospheric lair of tungsten lamps and murals of mustachioed men on exposed-brick walls. That, or the $50 Feast menu, which includes eight courses and free-flowing wine and beer for one-and-a-half hours.
75 Stanley Street, Darlinghurst; (02) 8964 9318