Ravnish Gandhi thought he'd farewelled the hospitality industry when his parents sold Bombay by Night, the Indian restaurant he'd worked in since the age of 16, graduating from after-school dishwasher to maître d'. Long considered one of Melbourne's best Indian restaurants, its sale more than two years ago freed him to move back to India to pursue other business interests. "But I missed Melbourne so much I decided to move back. Plus you couldn't get a decent coffee anywhere."
This week he opened Café Southall in St Kilda and, like Bombay by Night did when it opened in 1999, the Carlisle Street café looks set to break new ground in Australians' understanding of Indian food - in this case, in the way the metropolitan middle class like to eat breakfast and lunch.
"The food is current breakfast and lunch cuisine eaten in most metros of India; it's completely different to the dinner fare served in current restaurants in Melbourne… much lighter and with many vegetarian choices."
It also marks a return to the beginning for the Gandhi family, with his father, Jaspal, and mother, Arvind, in the kitchen for the first few months, before returning to their semi-retirement and working just one day a week. "We're really going back to how we started - my mother will be doing desserts, my father the bulk of the cooking."
The interiors include the work of furniture makers Arteveneta.
The menu runs from the immediately recognisable - samosas, vegetarian biryani - to the exotic. Their onion uthappa is a fermented-rice pancake, pan-fried and topped with onion and shredded vegetables, or simply an egg sunny-side up, while the upma, a south Indian savoury breakfast staple, features steamed semolina with vegetables, fresh curry leaves, mustard seeds and fenugreek with a side of fresh coconut, coriander and mint chutney.
"It's stuff we ate at home in the south-east of India for the past two years, plus Bombay snacks and Melbourne options. It's really different for Melbourne. Indian food in Melbourne is still very much caught in that time warp, which we were even guilty of at Bombay by Night, but this is very now, very contemporary."
The tight 35-seater has played by the hipster rulebook, as Ravnish calls it, with Dukes Coffee, their own house blend of masala chai with ginger, assam tea, cardamom and black pepper, and a smart fit-out by Arteveneta's Orio Randi.
And the name? It's a reference to the London district, west of Charing Cross, which is home to migrants from the Punjab. "Southall forms the perfect marriage of Britain and India in a small area. It felt right because Café Southall is the marriage of Melbourne and Bombay."
Café Southall opened on 19 June for breakfast and lunch. From next week, the dinner menu will be available for takeaway pending liquor licence approval.
Café Southall, 124 Carlisle St, St Kilda, Vic, (03) 9537 3496, cafesouthall.com. Open Monday to Saturday 7am - 4pm.