Where: Punjabi Curry Cafe, 87 Johnston Street Collingwood
What: The best Indian I’ve had in Melbourne that’s not cooked by my mum
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
As tempted as I always am by the wafts of curry that emanate from bain-maries in food courts, I know the bloat after will be far from worth it. As sad as it is, the food of my homeland makes me sick like no other – it’s a cuisine that thrives on copious amounts of onion and garlic – unless it’s prepared by someone who subscribes to the Hare Rama Hare Krishna school of thought that onion and garlic “increase passion and ignorance” and should therefore not be consumed. In my experience, the only thing onion and garlic increase is ill-timed bursts of flatulence, which I can’t see being conducive to passion but has probably resulted in feigned ignorance on my part whenever my partner starts coughing furiously.
The person who first recommended Punjabi Curry Café to me introduced me to Tayyab’s in Whitechapel, London – which has, by far, some of the best Indian I’ve had. So let’s just say I had high hopes after being continually disappointed by the sad excuses for Indian food in Melbourne – Red and Green Pepper might be good if your sole aim is to line your stomach before a big night, but good Indian they are not (especially if you’re used to the likes of South Indian banana leaf rice).
Slightly tricky to get to if you’re not a fan of buses, the restaurant is tucked away in an unobtrusive corner of Johnston Street past Wellington Street. But anyone familiar with the Tote will know that good things are worth travelling to this little enclave for. Just a few doors up is one of my favourite cafes Bluebird Espresso and a block or two away is much frequented watering hole Bendigo Hotel.
Even though Punjabi Curry Cafe prides itself on its North Indian food, there were many dishes on the menu that you wouldn’t find in a typical North Indian restaurant in Melbourne. They had Indo-Chinese dishes such as Veg Manchurian – which are fried vegetable balls in a spicy, sweet and tangy sauce and pretty much my favourite thing – and Nepalese dishes such as Chicken Momos. The curry list was extensive and ranged from the familiar Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala to the Punjabi-specific Balti Chicken and Kadai Prawns.
My dining companion and I shared the Palak Paneer, fresh spinach and cottage cheese cooked in herb curry, and the Chicken Madras, a spicy chicken curry. My two other friends had a curry each to themselves – love their style.
And then came the question of accompaniments. I told myself I would dutifully stick to basmati rice, but everyone implored me to try an inch of the garlic naan. I hadn’t had garlic naan in years but told myself ‘why not!’ as is the motto of my life. It was all for you guys.
Curry is probably one of the least photogenic cuisines as it is very hard to make a bowl of muck look good, but believe me when I say these curries were the best I’d had in a Melbourne restaurant.
The Palak Paneer was rich and mouth-wateringly delicious, and I can see why my friend ordered a bowl of it for herself. The Chicken Madras was just the right level of spicy – let’s be honest, I can always go more spicy but this still had a kick – and was a nice departure from the overly creamy curries that I am used to eating in Melbourne where they substitute chilli for coconut milk.
Malai Kofta is a curry comprising deep fried cheese and potato balls (can it get any better) stuffed with dry fruits (OK it got worse) cooked in a creamy sauce. My friend ordered this for himself, and I sampled a little chunk of the kofta – rejoicing at my luck in not getting a gnarly raisin in that mouthful and relishing how good it tasted.
I don’t react well to raisins in my Indian:
My father has always said this about me – you give me an inch and I’ll take a mile. Which is exactly what I did with the garlic naan. Considering I hadn’t eaten it since before that earth-shattering day when I was diagnosed with my intolerances, I think I was quite restrained – I only ate two pieces (covered in innumerable little bits of garlic, mind you) and used it to mop up the various curries. The naan was buttery, pillowy soft, easy to tear into little pieces and pure heaven coupled with the curry – totally worth the three bloats after.
Punjabi Curry Café wasn’t as packed as it should have been, perhaps due to the fact that it was a Tuesday night or the abnormally cold June weather, but I will definitely be back.
They allow BYO and do pickup and deliveries, the latter of which includes a free meal upon every 10th order placed – an incentive if you ever needed one for staying at home and enjoying delicious Indian without venturing out of your warm confines.
Punjabi Curry Café is open from 5pm to 11pm Monday to Sunday and from 12pm to 3.30pm on Saturday and Sunday.