Hindi lettering graffitis the rear wall of North Fitzroy's new Indian diner, Horn Please. One of the sentences reads "Work is Worship". The other one, according to our waitress, means something like "If you feed a small amount of food to a big man, it's like feeding two cumin seeds to a camel". That's the thing with maxims - sometimes their meaning is lost in translation. The same can be true of restaurant concepts, and cuisines, but on both fronts the message is clear at this fun, dhaba-style eatery. Horn Please (it's named after the No.1 rule of Indian traffic) is the city sister of Kyneton's well-regarded Dhaba at the Mill. Owners Jessi and Jennifer Singh have brought their homestyle Indian cooking and hospitality to the inner north and, after a patchy start, the shift seems to be working well for all concerned. Patchy because my first visit didn't sing with success. The setting is handy - right on St Georges Road, just up from Edinburgh Gardens - and the re-invented terrace interiors of whitewashed walls, weathered floorboards and funky Moghul portraits are suitably smart-casual. There's an open fire, Bollywood movies projected on the walls and, by the kitchen, a bicycle-as-art-installation (so North Fitzroy). A bar fridge at the front offers serve-yourself beers and ciders from a robust list of 20-plus boutique brews, including the rewarding Negra Modelo from Mexico. Staff are warm and friendly but not always razor-sharp, especially when it's busy.
On this Tuesday night there are only five tables, so service is fine. We order a Birthday Villa gewrztraminer sptlese 2008 from Malmsbury. All the wines - six white and seven red - are from the Macedon Ranges and Goldfields regions. There's even a viognier from Guildford, where I grew up, which is surprising. When I lived there the only wine we knew was Passion Pop. Much of the produce is also from up that way, including potatoes from Trentham, beef from Bendigo and lamb from the Macedon area. At Horn Please, central Victoria meets the subcontinent. The sptlese is great, not sweet but with a well-rounded personality that gets on well with fragrant, spicy food. It's good with pappadams and a mini-buffet of accompanying sauces - sultry date and tamarind chutney, sweet mango, Jessi's chilli sauce, classic mint and coriander, and mixed pickle. The wine is also a nice match with plump samosas, packed with piping-hot and dense potato mashed with peas, pomegranate and green mango and cased in a golden pastry of perfect thickness. Served with a tamarind chutney, they leave a pleasant, tangy burn in the mouth.
We're less taken with the Mumbai rolls, a bland snack of pear, zucchini, carrot and cabbage served in a crunchy roll of too-thick pastry. They're like a not-very-good riff on spring rolls. We try the goat curry, apparently made to a "classic village recipe", and find it underwhelming. Spice-wise it tastes like it has been dumbed down for Melbourne palates, and the gelatin-to-meat ratio is poor.The mains are saved by a Punjabi curry of fenugreek and turmeric curd studded with very tasty chickpea pakoras (fried dumplings). Mustard seeds spice it up pleasantly. The dining room empties early; not that surprising given the speed of the food service. On the next visit the place is packed, there's a great vibe inside and the kitchen seems to have hit its stride. Or maybe we just choose better. The one constant, and it's a negative, is the modesty of the menu. There are just four snacky entres (none with meat), seven mains and a dhal. It doesn't exactly convey the wonderful vegetarian dishes India does so well. I miss palak paneer, channa masala, malai kofta. Papdi chaat, slandered on the menu as "the motherland's version of nachos & salsa", is a lively streetfood snack of chickpeas, tomato, pomegranate seeds, coriander and a bit of ginger tumbled on top of fried chickpea-flour crackers drizzled in a gooey, tamarindy sauce. Lip-smacking. Butter chicken is suitably fluorescent and totally scrumptious.
Tender chunks of free-range chook swim in a creamy tomato yoghurt seasoned with smoky fenugreek and ginger that gets better with each bite. Bendigo beef is slow-cooked in a not-very-spicy Madras curry perfumed with ginger and garlic and a heady, unfamiliar something that, the waitress explains, is black cardamom. It's an inspired addition. There is only one way to end at Horn Please, and that's with a special kulfi ice-cream, made with evaporated sweetened milk. They come in a few flavours, including cardamom, honey and pistachio and the one we choose - cinnamon. It's served on a stick, like a cone-shaped corncob, and it's a riot of caramelised sugar and milk. A decadent dessert, in any translation.
Eat this Horn Please
167 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North Cuisine
Jessi Singh Hip pocket
Feast for less than $50 a head. Banquets from $35pp; all-you-can-eat curries and rice Sundays, $20 Open
Monday to Wednesday 6-9pm; Thursday to Saturday 6-10.30pm; Sunday 5.30-9pm Highlights
Reliable Indian in the inner north Lowlight
Limited choice Bookings
9497 8101 www.hornplease.com.au We rate 6.5 out of 10