Tonka – Melbourne, City – Monday 17 November 2014 – Dinner

Tuna tartare, rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi

Tuna tartare, rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi

Indian food is deep in flavour, rich, complex, and generally, the ugly ducking of culinary history. We all know beauty is only skin deep but presentation makes a difference. A restaurant purporting to be modern Indian poses many questions. These questions were answered in the affirmative by Tonka.

It is Monday night and our first choice of restaurant was not available due to a large function. Not far away down an alley is a space where I’ve had one huge night and many, many, rejections by the door person. I stopped trying to get in to Honkytonks nightclub. Luckily, there is space on the restaurant bar free after only five minutes and we are “in”. The nightmare rejections have come to an end and all it took was for the club to turn into a restaurant!

Pani puri, crispy parcel filled with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney with aromatic water

Pani puri, crispy parcel filled with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney with aromatic water

The menu comes out and it is down to business. As our bar/waitperson begins her definitive affinity to smashing perfectly good Riedel glassware, we read through the smaller single bites, smaller share plates, and bigger dishes. We are out on a school night having heard Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre about slow food culture. Suddenly it hits me that this is not your normal school night out place and it is pretty expensive. Most glasses of wine (and certainly the ones we chose to go with our food) are $17 to $19 a glass. It could possibly be a premium for all the ones being smashed.

I have wanted to try Tonka since it opened so I forget about the prices and start focussing on how to narrow down the menu which is full of terrific looking dishes. To start we try the pani puri. There is a light “aromatic water” that you pour into the open crispy shell. By necessity you are guided to then eat the entire package in a single bite which explodes mainly with soft potato and spice. It’s fun and a nice way to start.

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Next we share the tuna tartare which is beautiful in both its presentation and taste. The serving is quite large, giving you the opportunity to almost cover each pappadum with the tuna. The pappadum itself is infused with spice and like no other I’ve tried – it doesn’t breakdown when bitten, is still crunchy, and adds flavour rather than being merely the vessel. Pomegranate bursts through each bite, there’s chilli and coriander for punch, and the tuna is superb. It is an impressive dish and answers some questions about how to do contemporary Indian.

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

The lamb curry comes out in standard style though the lamb itself is absolutely perfect. Too many times you find Indian restaurants either not cooking meat for long enough, or not using consistently good cuts (it’s not about the quality cuts – it’s about the right cuts). Here, the lamb is singing and the sauce is divine. Besides the basmati rice, we were encouraged to get a side of fried cauliflower, which we in fact didn’t need, but definitely enjoyed. Again there’s a modern touch and promotion of the main ingredient into a different league.

Ginger beer cake, walnut, pear and buttermilk

Ginger beer cake, walnut, pear and buttermilk

Service had been good despite the unfortunate continued difficulty with carefully getting glasses out of the dishwasher. While we were completely satisfied, having had such good savoury courses we needed to see if the modern touch on dessert works here too. In a word – yes. The ginger beer cake is amazing and the pastry chef’s here know technique well. Each component was well executed and combined together deliciously.

From initial surprise at how busy the restaurant is on a Monday, to being a little taken back by the prices (our original aim was a much cheaper and less indulgent meal), by the end I was thoroughly satisfied and impressed. My questions were answered, and the answers were delicious.

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