Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tonka - Rajasthani Royal of the Melbourne CBD

Besides fighting off the flu, I was experiencing an even larger problem as my good self and one other couldn't decide on somewhere to enjoy some food and wine. We agreed that Twitter should provide the answer in the end and that we would frequent whatever restaurant or chef first appeared as the latest tweet in my timeline. On this occasion, Tonka on Duckboard Place in the CBD won this dangerous game of Russian roulette and I am very pleased that it did.

Tonka, Melbourne
Interior of Tonka
At the former site of Honkytonks, a place long forgotten by most as it was a pretentious dive that only let you in if you had alligator shoes on or a big wad of sweaty green notes on you, service was more than happy to escort us to the the "sommelier's table" which is a high table next to the working wine bar. A new and clean fit-out replaces what you would have found in a bad wet dream and it was easy to sit back on my perch at least and inspect the symmetrically arranged bottles on the shelf only a metre away. Thoughts soon turned to the wine list that is influenced by Travis Howe, the 2013 The Age Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year (who is shared by Tonka's big brother, Coda) and it was with no hesitation that I choose a bottle of 2012 Ocean Eight Pinot Gris ($68) to kick things off. I am a bit partial to the Ocean Eight wines and I was delighted to see this Mornington Peninsula producer on the wine list.

Executive Chef and part-owner Adam D'Sylva along with Head Chef Michael Smith have designed an intriguing Indian-inspired menu which after inspecting demanded an extended tasting session because there were just so many intriguing things on offer. Pani Puri ($4.50/each) was the first selection from the "smaller" menu to arrive after consulting with Jonathan, our all-rounder server/sommelier. True its literal meaning, this Indian "street food" with deep fried bread "Pani" intermixed with aromatic water "Puri" combined with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney made for a very tasty entry point to this journey across the Indian subcontinent. The addition of the aromatic water made this not only traditional but cleansed the palate and made the Pinot Gris even more accepted as my tastebuds rejoiced after being subjected to little sustenance, sudafed and sleep in the recent past. Soft-shell crab pakors ($8.50/each) with pickled cucumber, lemon, chilli and mint followed close behind the Pani Puri and I was not disappointed. It was nice to see the crab presented almost like a caricature that you would see in a drawing, or a dream and not some smooched and smashed bastardised crustacean that looked like it was hit with a copy of The Age (Good Food Guide) before being served. What was served actually looked like a crab, just suspended in time and it was cooked properly. I am always scared that the head will be mush, but that was not the case at Tonka. It was yet another addictive starter that not only was visually attractive but could be enjoyed with reckless self-abandon.
Tuna tartare, pomegranate, ginger and wasabi

The smoked trout betel leaf ($6/each) with coconut, chilli, pomelo and kaffir lime provided such enjoyment, that it required me to order another round. Rarely do I enjoy something so much that I order it again (the last time was Venison Carpaccio at Sarti, which I have so far written about) but this was truly an enigmatic and amazing starter that left my senses guessing as I consumed the leaf and everything that was placed on it. Truly complementary to the Ocean Eight Pinot Gris, like the crab, I could have been content spending the rest of my time at Tonka just eating smoked trout on the edible leaves however not to be constrained, we moved on to other offerings.

There are a plethora of items to entice you from the "Smaller" menu so we found ourselves sucked into a vortex of sorts where the only way to escape was to gorge and just hope that our stomachs would accommodate what was being offered. My favourite dish came next, the tuna tartare ($22) with rice poppadoms, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi. Pomegranate and tuna are natural pairs and I am surprised that I do not see it on menus more often. The kitchen delivered an amazing dish which not only complemented the wine brilliantly but this was also the highlight of my dining experience. We couldn't resist the Punjabi masala lamb cutlets next ($8/each) which were moist and devoid of fat however the masala is what stood out. Indian spices which really made the dish and certainly made the meat to taste even better - would have been best paired with a red wine so a 2010 Wedgetail Pinot Noir ($88) from the Yarra Valley in Victoria was ordered and quickly poured for us. This provided a bridge of sorts that had me chewing the remaining remnants of meat off the bone and disguising my inappropriate tongue action from the other diners who fortunately did not notice my ungentlemanly behavior. 

Tonka, Melbourne
The view towards Flinders Street
Char-grilled Mooloolaba prawns from Queensland ($10/each) with black pepper and kaffir lime dressing provided yet another bridge from the "Smaller" menu to the "Bigger" adult-oriented list of delights and reminded me that despite my love affair with smaller tapas-like tastes and offerings, there was another world to explore. This is where Jonathan's consulting was called upon. With so many attractive menu options, we didn't know just how much we would be able to pack in our already engorged stomachs so thinking that the bill should be damned, he suggested the remainder of the items that we happily agreed to order.

What was truly convenient was that the restaurant allowed us to order half-servings of items from the "Larger" menu so that more tastes could be experienced. A half order of lamb curry ($19) with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds appeared with another half order of Rajasthani duck ($19), cucumber, mint and buffalo curd. Not discounting the lamb, but I really enjoyed the duck and when matched with the mint and buffalo curd, the "Wow!" factor was experienced. We couldn't help but be talked into the Thirlmere corn fed chicken ($29) direct from the tandoor, an authentic clay oven that the restaurant has on-site to authentically cook not only chicken, but also Hiramasa kingfish which was also available on the menu that I regret not trying. Along with fried cauliflower ($8) and serves or rice ($6) and naan bread ($6) we enjoyed a flavoursome feast and managed to vanquish the the bottle of Wedgetail Pinot Noir with no problems whatsoever.

Throughout this three hour ad-hoc dining and feasting extravaganza, the various personalities providing service remained consultative, witty, chatty and good humoured. The setting allowed us to escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the CBD with food and beverage providing fuel for good conversation and debate. I think we managed to solve half of the world's problems just over the tuna tartare and if that is not noteworthy, nothing is. I really like what Tonka delivers, both the fare and the professionalism are standouts and I certainly look forward to returning to happily to take on the rest of the menu but to also watch this place evolve from strength to strength.

Tonka, Melbourne

20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9650 3155
My Rating: 15.75/20
Service: 4.25/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3.75/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com
web: www.epicureanofsouthbank.com

When I made this post originally, 70% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Tonka.

Tonka on Urbanspoon