When it comes to the city’s best Indian food, there’s plenty of Subcontinent drift at play. We went in search of the finest offerings, from good old rogan josh to something more exotic (pani puri pastries, anyone?).
It’s all about produce and presentation at Babu Ji. The handsome, high-ceilinged space just off Fitzroy Street, St Kilda’s main drag, helps make it one of Melbourne’s standout Indian restaurants – but it’s the vibrant menu that really lifts it into the upper echelons. Get the party started with pappadums laced with tamarind, mint and yoghurt sauces, a dish known as papdi chaat (or as the restaurant calls it, “The motherland’s version of nachos and salsa.”) The steamed cake of rice and lentils with caper relish or a main – such as the rich bhuna lamb stew – takes the baton, while the sticky cardamom kulfi ice-cream will take you home.
4-6 Grey Street, St Kilda; (03) 9534 2447
This is another neo-Indian restaurant charming those in the inner burbs with an insouciant mix of Indian motifs (Sanskrit lettering adorning the kitchen, Bollywood films silently projected on the wall) and a streetwise menu. Horn Please kicks goals with masala fried okra dusted in mango powder, a cauliflower-driven take on General Tso’s chicken and ocean trout charred in the tandoor with ginger and honey glaze.
167 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North; (03) 9497 8101
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Kake Di Hatti
Yep, this northside Indian is not trying to win any design awards and the food is firmly in the peasant category. But there are few things more satisfying than the rich gravy of Kake Di Hatti’s dhal or the Country Captain lamb with potato, capsicum and a multitude of spices.
128 Lygon Street, Brunswick East; (03) 9387 7771
Tonka is Melbourne’s special-occasion Indian. At the hip CBD alleyway home of chef Adam D’Sylva, diners can expect a sophisticated spin on classic flavours, showing that the Subcontinent is not all fire and brimstone. Highlights include the delicate, crisp-shelled pani puri one-bite pastries filled with spiced potato and mung beans, into which diners pour a herby, aromatic water, and a vindaloo version of steak tartare with fenugreek raita. The food is exceptional – as is the wine list.
20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne; (03) 9650 3155
Image: Tim Grey
Did someone say “cult”? This Footscray dosa specialist is cheap, cheerful and churns through customers, who flock for the huge, shadow-thin pancakes served with three sauces: a hot orange sambal, a cooling mint and coconut and an in-between coconut and peanut. Beyond dosa, you’ll find pani puri, aloo tikki (potato croquettes) and samosas, as well as some of the best biryani in town.
587 Barkly Street, West Footscray; (03) 8528 5120
It’s all street and heat at this Fitzroy favourite, a hip hangout where the décor will bring back memories of that month spent in Goa. Despite being served on tin plates, the food is no backpackers’ delight: take the road less travelled with lesser-known snacks such as bhel puri, a vibrant mix of peanuts, puffed rice, pomegranate and salsa. Or try the cabbage and potato-filled steamed momos and perhaps a tissue-thin dosa with fresh coconut chutney.
365 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy; (03) 9917 2224
Image: Tim Grey
Influenced by the days of the Raj, this buzzing Northcote restaurant has British-style curries (including Birmingham balti, a half-sweet, half-sour, all-fragrant dish) rubbing shoulders with Himalayan cuisine. Think slow-cooked goat that falls off the bone, ginger and cinnamon-scented lamb cutlets and Nepalese dumplings known as momo served with a punchy tomato and sesame chutney.
102 High Street, Northcote; (03) 9482 1168
Bombay By Night
The black-and-white photographs on the walls and the white linen tablecloths elevate this Caulfield old-timer above the laminate set – and the food is no slouch either. The classic, mostly Northern-Indian menu offers favourites such as chicken tikka, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato curry), excellent naan and housemade kulfi redolent of cardamom and pistachio.
355 North Road, Caulfield South; (03) 9578 6150
Top image: Tonka