Southeast Asian, Mexican, Texan. If we have learnt one thing about the Melbourne dining scene, it’s that it is partial to trends. As waves of restaurants all offering the same style of cuisine open up across the city, we ask time and time again – when will Indian food be in favour? We are not even asking for a proliferation of curry houses, after all, it is about quality and quantity. The reason Touche Hombre, Radio Mexico and Chingon can all peacefully coexist is because they are good and they each bring something yummy to the table. Anyway, trends and whether or not the city is saturated with places wanting a piece of the latest must-eat fad are topics of discussion for another post. We just want a decent curry, especially after being spoilt for choice during our five years in London.
We have found a few good places, Curry Leaf in Elwood has its moments, Kake Di Hatti in Brunswick East is a cut above and easily cheaper, while our absolute favourite has to be the awesomely excellent Discover India in Yarragon, which blew us away with its curries – infused with fragrant and flavourful roasted spices- crispy naan bread and authentic chai. Worth the two-hour round trip from the CBD, honestly.
We have been planning to visit Dhaba at the Mill on Kyneton’s Piper Street for some time (we are guessing it will be reaping the rewards of a name check in the latest The Age Good Food Guide) and had a taster when we caught their food truck at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival last year. So, when we heard owners Jessi and Jennifer Singh were opening a casual, street-food style eatery in Fitzroy North we scooted up there quick- quick. Horn blaring.
Forget the gaudy gold picture frames, moving waterfall pictures and flock wallpaper so typical of some curry houses, this place manages to make kitsch look cool with overly colour-corrected studio portraits, Hindi proverbs splashed across the bar area and Bollywood films projected on the high white walls.
Staff are super-smiley and quick to help, and we kick off with papadams with the works – fresh mint, date and tamarind, and sweet mango chutneys, alongside chilli sauce and mixed, tangy pickle. Non-greasy, crispy papadums (4 of them) and a great range of dips – from the slow-building, intense heat of the chilli sauce to the cooling zing of the mint chutney. Brilliant beer food – speaking of which, the papdi chaat – billed as ‘the Motherland’s version of nachos and salsa’ – offer pretty easy-eating, too.
These puffed potato chips are smothered with cooling raita and sour green chutney, sprigs of coriander, studded with chickpeas and pomegranate seeds, and shreds of ginger. Addictive and healthier-tasting than their sour-cream-and-cheese-covered corn chip siblings. No complaints – could always use a little more heat, but then that’s just us, and the fact that – of course – these dishes have to appeal to the masses.
Which probably brings me to my only gripe – while the two curries we ordered were really tasty, they did lack the va-va-voom of a really authentic, straight-from-India dish. I wanted to taste the roasted spices, I wanted the heat and the finger-staining sauce. Have the Singh’s fine-dining background conditioned them to cook curries for Aussies, as opposed to curries for hardened curry fans?
As I said, the Kyneton lamb simmered with fennel seed, cardamom, bay leaf and cloves (the rogan josh) and goat curry made according to a ‘classic village recipe’ were good, I would order them again in a second and without a doubt the meat was outstanding – slow- cooked, tender and top quality – that is definitely not always something you find at your local neighbourhood Indian. It’s just that it all felt a bit safe. Curry, but not as we know it.
Oh, and the naan was very fresh and fluffy (again, not as we know it, but in this case that was no bad thing!)
It reminded us a little of London’s Dishoom – touted as a ‘Bombay Cafe in London’, which for all its chat about ‘sweaty taxi- wallahs’ had all the trappings of a chain restaurant – a concept just waiting to be rolled out on a high street near you. I don’t for a second imagine the plan is to open Horn Please 2 next week (and anyway, Australia has managed to avoid replicating the clone culture of the UK) and this is obviously an opening borne out of passion and perfectionism, and is not about making a quick buck.
The fact is, just as the food at Chin Chin isn’t rough-round-the-edges Thai home cooking, the food at Horn Please is a little more refined than bubbling-on-the-side-of-the-street food. Not a problem, just an observation.
We like Horn Please, and will be back to try more (especially as the menu changes every few days – that means heaps more daily-cooked curries to try). The end of meal kulfi (ice cream on a stick drawn from a frozen metal cone – see above) and wine list focusing solely on the Macendon Ranges only helped seal the deal.