Despite my name (Indira Naidoo) and appearance (brown) I have sadly never been to India the country of my forebears. I'm a fifth-generation South-African-born-Indian who grew up in England, Australia and Zimbabwe. My claim to Indian-ness is mostly genetic and therefore rather tentative. (Even my Australian Anglo-Irish husband has visited India twice).
Like most Australians I've only really experienced India through cricket and its exported food culture - and through the ocassional 'Where are you from and why have you never been to your homeland' rant from a sub-continental taxi-driver.
So to say that Indu Restaurant has made me want to visit this fascinating country, like, right now, is a testament to its entrancing powers.
Mardi Gras night in Sydney and there is a frisson of excitement in the city as sequins, feathers and tiny shorts are dusted off for their once-a-year outing. Unlike the rest of the crowd we're heading to the opposite end of the city centre... to George Street and to the tantalisingly hidden basement entrance on Angel Place of Indu Dining.
As we walk down the concrete steps and through the industrial firedoors to the restaurant bar, we know we're in the right place: the heady aroma of Indian spices is unmistakable.
The restaurant's dimly-lit cocktail bar is a James Bond den of seduction and intrigue. Huge earthenware pots of warming cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods, cumin seeds, and star anise line the Dosa bar's work bench.
It's these aromatic spices combined with a confident modern Australian interpretation, that expertly transforms Indu's menu into the sorts of ethereal dishes you're unlikely to find anywhere else....
The Village Negroni ($18) combines garam masala-spiced gin with lillet rouge and campari. Then for those with a sweet tooth, there's the already signature cocktail The Kerala Kolada ($19) mixing spiced rum, pineapple, coconut and chai syrup, with a coconut sorbet.
We move through to the main restaurant. Tonight I'm dining with 3 of the best palates in the business - two restaurateurs and my husband who thinks about eating almost as constantly as I do.
As we settle into our gold and green embroidered semi-circle banquettes, our waiter for the evening
Pedro (aka Pesto due to the auto-correct setting on his iPhone's annoying habit of mispelling his name) recommends we start with a Spanish Gin Mare. Our cocktails come served with ice, a slice of sweet mango and a sprinkling of freshly crushed black pepper. Invigorating. This is food foreplay.
The restaurant is starting to pump now.. helped along by an unexpected playlist of rock and pop hits from the psychedelic 70s including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd.
With so many dishes to try, we've decided on the Indu feast with Lamb Raan ($80pp) so the kitchen can showcase the best of its coastal village menu.
To begin our tasting journey along the shores of India and Sri Lanka, Pedro prepares a coconut sambal ($14) at our table using a mortar and wooden ladle. In goes some roasted coconut, red chilli, red onion, and cashew nuts. They're lightly mixed together and served in a coconut shell with some sweet Indian milk buns. The sambal is an explosion of fiery flavour that can be added to all our other dishes.
We're flooded with feel-good dopamines from the chilli. For a moment I'm lost in space and time. I've been transported to a village on a beach surrounded by coconut palms, the air thick with humidity, fishing boats returning with their morning catch, the sand warm between my toes...
... and then I am brought back to Sydney with a jolt, Brown Sugar blasting through the restaurant's speakers. Our next dish has arrived - smoked goat's leg, zucchini ribbon raita, pomegranate, chilli and bacon jam ($18). I am a devotee of goat. A tasty and environmentally-friendly animal that we just don't see enough of on Australian menus.We tear pieces off the crispy, tangy pancake-like dosa and scoop up some curry and accompaniments. Earthy and unctuous but still so light. Such clever cooking.
Our next dish is a cooling salad of watermelon with mint, cucumber, radish, hung yoghurt and cardamon pomegranate molasses ($16). Exotic and refreshing.
And don't come to Indu without ordering one of the parathas($6). These flatbreads are made at the Dosa Bar and are layered with buttery flakes of the crispiest pastry. It will be hard to stop at one.
More excitement at the table as Pedro delivers the five-spice crusted barramudi on string hoppers (a type of rice noodle) and gently floods the plate with a tumeric and coconut mollee sauce ($34).
The barramundi is robust and flavoursome under that glorious crust. It's so squeaky fresh it was probably swimming happily somewhere just a few hours ago. The sauce however is a little muted and lacks the same zing of our other dishes.
I love a great rice dish and the lemon rice with crispy lentils, smashed peanuts, green chilli and fresh coconut ($9) is a perfect accompaniment....
..... for the highlight of the meal 'The Great' Lamb Raan as the menu describes 'marinated and slow roasted for more than 48 hours with yoghurt and spices and served with fresh mint chutney and lunumiris', a spicy sambal ($45 half serve, $80 full serve). The meat is impossibly tender and fragrant and the mint and sambal balance out that richness. All my fellow diners said this was the dish that knocked it out of the ballpark for them.
Chef Bimal Kumar and his kitchen team are doing the almost impossible here. Within a few months of opening, Indu feels as though it could help redefine modern Indian cuisine in Australia. Owner Sam Prince's committment to supporting local communities in India and Sri Lanka also makes Indu a unique enterprise. He's partnered with the Palmera group, an Australian not-for-profit, that directs some of the restaurant's earnings to needy projects in Asia. The first goal of their 'Village to Village' programme is to build a chicken coup for a community in Northern Sri Lanka. This is food that tastes good and does good as well.
Despite its serious philosophy Indu knows how to be playful. As our meal winds down we are each presented with a palate cleasing watermelon and mint popsicle ($6).....
....so we can make room for the gulab jamun (deep-fried milk curd balls) rolled in coconut sand and served with saffron anglaise and honeycomb shards ($16). A little rich for me but the rest of the table wolfs it down.
So ends this eating adventure. How fitting that on Mardi Gras night we've dined on food of every vibrant colour of the rainbow. We retire to the bar where it is a little cooler to finish our wines ( By the way, there are some delicious Indian wines on the drinks list you should try).
Indu is a truly exciting dining experience. Whether in couples or celebratory groups the magic of this place is how it uses food to tell our story and bring people together.
The next time you feel like an exotic holiday but only have a night to spare you now know where to go.
photos: Cole Bennetts
Saucy Onion dined as a guest of Indu Restaurant.