Is Tonka the new, Indian-accented Longrain? After a couple of sessions at this sizzling new spot by the Coda crew of Adam D’Sylva and Kate and Mykal Bartholomew, I’m thinking it might be.
It has the mandatory city laneway digs – in this case the dog-leg Duckboard Place, which seasoned clubbers might hazily recall as the old home of Honkytonks.
It has the luxe industrial thing down pat – in this case an almost clinical interior softened with ceiling art of white plastic mesh bundled into clouds.
Most importantly, it has the goods. Like Longrain, Tonka takes an Asian street food – in this case, sort-of Indian – and elevates it to event dining. It’s not trying to replicate authentic Indian dishes so much as riff on them, often with brilliant results.
Tonka opens into a bar of canteen stools and shoji screen, continues past the kitchen and a corridor of spice jars to the restaurant, which is a surprise. I’ve tried and failed to book a table here three times, so assumed the space must be petite. It’s not. It’s quite grand. It has well-spaced tables and banquette-lined walls and windows onto the plane trees of Flinders Street and beyond to the MCG and Arts Centre spire. So Melbourne.
We front up earlyish on a Tuesday and begin grazing at the bar with a bottle of (overpriced) Pecorino from the (overpriced) winelist. Seriously, while you can get a white for $48 and a red for $45, there’s a crowd in the $100-plus bracket. And is anyone really likely to order a $520 marsanne with a $38 curry?
There are more echoes of Longrain in the miang kham-style betel leaves topped with a jumble of smoked trout, pomelo, toasted coconut and salmon roe. They flood the palate with popping flavours and are very good but not as feisty as the originals at you know where.
I am not a fan of the lamb kebab. It’s meant to be wrapped, Vietnamese-style, in a lettuce leaf with chilli and herbs and then dipped in mint yoghurt. The fuss is not rewarded with anything special. Luckily for us it’s the only dodgy note.
A soft shell crab pakora is more tempura than pakora; a red, spidery crustacean embalmed in a light tapioca batter, deep-fried, and then dredged in a seasoning that’s up there with KFC chicken salt for instant addiction. Apparently it’s known among kitchen staff as “Adam’s sexy salt” and the precise mix is a secret (again, like KFC) but includes star anise, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns. Whatever, this stuff would make a brown paper bag taste delicious. It’s so sensational that when the waitress accidentally brings a second serve of crab to the table, it takes all our willpower not to dive into it.
Instead we turn to pani puri, literally bread and water. Tonka shrinks it to a miniature fried and puffed puri bread stuffed with spiced potato, lentils and date and tamarind chutney. The “water” is a brew of green chilli and mango that’s poured over the puri. Each bite is an explosion of aroma and spice that leaves the mouth warm and tingling and wanting more.
The maitre d’ arrives and escorts us down the back. The bar is the restrained warm-up act but the restaurant is the access-all-areas experience.
Masala lamb cutlet
There are so many things I want to try – lamb curry, chicken biryani – but we resume the binge with a half-serve of chickpea curry or chana masala, its tomato base pleasantly overlaid with heady spices, and a slab of Hiramasa kingfish baked in the clay tandoor oven. Its blackened surface flakes open to reveal snowy insides that are moist and bursting with flavours. Fabulous fish. It seems off-kilter to pair it with a Vietnamese salad of hot mint, fish sauce, lime juice and chilli, but I guess Indian cuisine isn’t known for light salads.
Sides of dhal and cauliflower almost steal the show. The cauli is fried with fenugreek and garam masala salt and tossed through a dreamy-creamy yoghurt dressing. Tonka’s dhal is a gutsy mush of yellow lentils infused with the smokiness of Kashmiri chili and curry leaf and the bite of mustard seeds. It’s so compelling you might find yourself spooning it down, straight from the pot.
By this stage I am gazing longingly at each dish on the table and wanting lasting relationships with every one. Except perhaps the naan which, at $6 a piece, I couldn’t afford to support.
The dessert star is a baked saffron meringue. It’s like an Eton mess, but the Eton in Lahore, not Britain. The three puffy, browned meringues are impeccably textured – crunchy-crumbly outside but chewy like soft toffee inside – and suffused with saffron which, to me, tastes odd and unnecessary. There’s plenty else going on with the fruit salad – strawberries, lychees, pistachios, pomegranate and lime – and leaves of borage, lemon balm and something oystery.
Is Tonka the new Longrain? You’d better go find out for yourself. But book well ahead.
We rate it 8 out of 10 Eat this TONKA
20 Duckboard Place, city Cuisine
Adam D’Sylva and Michael Smith Hip pocket
About $100 a head with wine Open
Monday-Friday noon-3pm, Monday-Saturday 6-10.30pm Highlights
Transcendental degustation Lowlights
The grog prices Bookings
In theory, yes Phone
9650 3155 tonkarestaurant.com.au