From India with love
"If steaming naan bread and bright orange delights from the tandoor are your idea of a typical Indian meal, an evening at this charming restaurant is sure to be an education. Southern Indian cuisine is the specialty here and you won't find a tandoor oven in sight.
What you will discover is a host of deliciously light and fresh dishes that are reminiscent of home-cooked meals I've enjoyed with Indian friends.
It's no surprise, therefore, that owners of three years Ivan Francis and his wife Mini are both south Indians who believe the food they grew up with, and still love to eat, influences the way they cook.
And they are passionate about the nuances of their cuisine, which they say offers simpler flavours thanks to cooking methods using griddles and woks, rather than the northern tandoor tradition.
"Spices are used delicately, producing food that is aromatic rather than cough-inducingly hot (unless specifically requested) and the scents of coconut, lime, curry leaf and coriander pervade rather than invade," Mini said.
Candlelit tables, suspended lanterns and wall hangings add to the intimacy of this popular and casual dining venue which has recently undergone renovations, and now offers a private upstairs dining room for 40 patrons.
An ominous-looking steel door fitted upstairs is a reminder of the venue's history - it was formerly the site of Tim Bristow's illegal gambling den.
A new liquor licence has allowed Ivan and Mini to incorporate a fully-stocked bar. They believe most people are in the dark when it comes to serving wine with traditional Indian dishes, so March saw the first food and wine evening hosted at the restaurant.
Along with weekly specials, an extensive menu with plenty of vegetarian options offers a range of mild, medium and hot dishes.
Much of the appeal for me was found in the mouth-watering traditional toasted and coarsely ground seasonings which included sesame seeds, sun-dried shallots and garlic, coriander seeds, red chillies, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, split peas, asafoetida (a brown natural resin) and lentils.
My guest and I had an impressive start to the meal with the entree prawn pondi ($12.90) and house specialty, mini masala dosa ($8.90).
Five plump prawns marinated in savoury south Indian spices was served steaming hot on a sizzler and sprinkled with coriander. Well worth savouring. The popular dosa, known as the bread of the south, is a light and crisp golden pancake-like disc made from naturally-fermented rice and lentil batter.
Instead of wheat, rice and lentils are the staple food in the southern coastal states, and these are pounded, fermented, steamed, poached and fried to make a range of nutritious and delicious gluten-free dishes.
Served with the southern version of naan bread, paratha, our mains came in dishes designed to be shared between guests. Made with the same type of dough, but cooked on a griddle, this bread is layered, light and slightly sweet.
The medium-spiced Bombay potatoes ($12.90) are a filling and generously-sized blend of sauteed potatoes tempered with mustard seeds and fennel.
The chicken chettinad ($14.90), a traditional south Indian chicken curry, is labelled a hot dish but with coconut and hot black pepper, I found it more spicy than hot.
With a choice of homemade kulfi (ice cream) for dessert (all $8.90), I opted for the artistically-served and delicious orange and cointreau blend.
Bhaji on the Beach is licensed, BYO bottled wine only, and open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday from 5.30pm."