Restaurant Reviews

Tonka, Melbourne restaurant review

The talented team from Coda is turning out serious Indian street food in a smart laneway dining room with a welcome mix of seriously good drinks and service to match, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden
It starts with the pani puri - little fried pastries filled with spiced potatoes and mung beans, a dab of date and tamarind chutney and finished at the table with a little splash of "aromatic water" (with mint, chilli, cumin and dried mango powder, among other things). Snack satisfaction in a single bite.
But it's not just that they're surprisingly airy, with a thrum of background chilli heat that piques interest. Nor is it that they look the goods, carefully arranged on a rough-hewn plate around a little blue jug of the aromatic water. What really causes the ears to prick up is that this traditional Indian street food is being served in a dining room with a name chef in the kitchen and a couple of experienced, successful restaurateurs pulling the whole wine-décor-service thing together out the front. Is this the modern Indian restaurant we've all been waiting for? The answer, somewhat predictably, swings both ways, but mostly the ayes have it.
Knowing that the team behind Coda - chef Adam D'Sylva and Kate and Mykal Bartholomew - is piloting Tonka helps to bridge the cognitive gap between what the place looks like and what it is. Because, despite a design mission statement that speaks of the blues of Jodhpur and the pinks of Jaipur and a menu full of tandoor cooking, dhal and curries, Tonka has more in common with its sibling, Coda, than it does with its more traditional Indian cousins.
For starters, the sizeable clean-lined space with its cloud-like white mesh sculpture hovering over the main dining area, views through huge windows to the MCG, subtly painted and polished oak floors, bare timber tables, backlit banquettes and large bar area is leagues away from what Melburnians have come to expect from their Indian restaurants. Even the name (which comes not from the trucks or the beans but from Honky Tonks, the nightclub that used to call the laneway site home) comes from left field.
Then there's lauded Coda sommelier Travis Howe, breaking the Aussie-Indian tradition of non-existent or numbingly prosaic wine lists. At Tonka, the 13-page list gathers together an arsenal of excellent German riesling, French vouvray, Mornington Peninsula pinot noir and Tuscan sangiovese to take on the often feisty spices that define Indian food. There's serious cocktail chops behind the bar, too, where ex-Der Raum bartenders James Tait and Adam Roderick have put together a list of seasonal, themed cocktails like the Tonka Lassi (white rum, fresh mango, honey, yoghurt and crushed pistachio) and Darjeeling Fizz (tea, peach vermouth, gin, lemon and agave nectar).
The drinks work brilliantly with smaller items on the menu (fritter-like soft-shell crab pakoras served with pickled cucumber and yoghurt dipping sauce flavoured with preserved lemon, mint and green chilli; lamb cutlets coated with a Punjabi onion and tomato paste with cumin, coriander and chilli) and help make the timber-topped bar with its cute purple- and red-legged barstools a destination in itself. Try finding another Indian restaurant in town pulling that one off.
Then there's the presence of co-owner Kate Bartholomew, charming and unflappable, whose personable, efficient service style is enthusiastically emulated by her young and, given the distance they need to cover in this busy 120-seat restaurant, fit team of uniformed waitstaff. It's invigorating to be looked after by people who seem genuinely energised by the food and booze they're serving.
With D'Sylva responsible for the menu, there's plenty of Coda-style coming from the kitchen too. And just like at Coda where the carte incongruously lists French bistro classics next to South East Asian street food, there's some hedging of bets and leaping of continents at Tonka, too, some of the hedging more successful than others.
The tuna tartare, for instance, with its dice of sashimi-grade fish dressed with a light house-made ponzu sauce and tossed with spring onions and coriander, does not immediately shriek India, despite the presence of some very good rice pappadams with an excellent black pepper, chilli and garlic kick. But while it may be something of an awkward fit with the Indian mantra, the dish is a success, skilfully blending interesting textures and good flavours.
There's not so much fun to be had with the spanner crab and puffed rice salad. Tossed with a green chilli chutney, tomatoes and herbs, it looks and tastes like it blew in from Thailand. That's not such a bad thing, especially given D'Sylva's penchant for mixing influences and his past experience at places such as Longrain and Pearl, but this dish is lead-footed, tending towards the limp, particularly with the puffed rice that quickly takes on moisture, loses any hint of crunch and ends up like soggy rice bubbles.
These non-Indian dishes, successful or not, may have been added to the list to broaden its appeal, to reassure those whose experience of Indian food has been aggressive spices and hugely rich ghee fests. But the best plan here is to stick with the Indian dishes, because that's where the best fun is, particularly when you can witness how the plating and execution stymies preconceived ideas about the rich heaviness of Indian food. 
This comes to the fore most obviously with some of the curries here which, though certainly robustly flavoured and spiced, demonstrate great balance and finesse. There's an attractive lightness to the excellent Goan fish curry, a deeply coloured number chock-full of mussels, prawns and barramundi, flavoured with Kashmiri chilli (red, mild) and fenugreek seeds, with some nicely sour moments entering the mix via kokum fruit. There's plenty going on here, but the fresh vibrancy of the dish is the strongest lasting impression.
Avani's lamb neck curry (Avani is sous-chef Ved Navghare's mum) is similarly impressively light on its feet despite the deep rich colour and the presence of freshly grated coconut and serious black cardamom-dominated flavours.
Tonka has a couple of tandoor ovens - modern stainless steel versions of the traditional cookers - that are responsible for some of the menu's great moments, including some impressive naan. One dish that should, if there's any fairness in the world, gain something of a cult following alongside the various sliders, waffles, dumplings and betel leaves around town is the Kakori lamb kebab. Lamb mince spiced with cardamom, white pepper and crushed cashews is skewered and cooked in the tandoor, emerging with its signature smoky depth of flavour. The kebabs are served with lettuce cups to wrap around the meat and dip into mint-flavoured yoghurt. The little coriander, mint, chilli and burghul salad on the side, a little like an Indian tabbouleh, is great spooned into the lettuce cup with the meat.
Similarly good is the tandoori chicken that's coated in a marinade of garlic, ginger, yoghurt and spices before being thrust into the oven's super-hot clay interior. It's a good chook, free-range and corn-fed, and it stands up well to the roasting process, hitting the table juicy, smoky and spicy in all the right places. 
D'Sylva has assembled an impressive kitchen team that includes head chef Michael Smith (ex-Jorg and Jacques Reymond) and tandoori chef Sundar Singh. But it's surely no small part of the equation that D'Sylva's father is Indian, so heritage is at play here as much as his experience cooking Asian and European food in this country and overseas.
This array of influences is apparent throughout the menu, particularly in the simple but effective presentation. It's also visible in Tonka's sweet stuff, like the pretty-in-pastel saffron-baked meringue that comes with longans, strawberries and glistening pomegranate seeds, flavoured with rosewater and teamed with pistachio ice-cream. The gulab jamun are also worth a look, Tonka's version of the traditional cheesy sweet made with ricotta flavoured with star anise, cinnamon and saffron that's rolled into bite-sized balls and then fried. They're very addictive, syrupy but not too sweet, with a little square of silver leaf sitting on top that finishes the night with a bit of bling.
Team Bartholomew-D'Sylva know how to run a successful restaurant and they've repeated many of Coda's moves - laneway location, cool, pared-back design, friendly service, tightly focused wine list - to great effect at Tonka. The best bit about their new joint, though, is that they've applied all that well-honed, crowd-pleasing stuff to a cuisine that's never been treated like that in this town. It's exciting and, with any luck, the start of a whole new Indian wave.