When it comes to excellent and authentic Indian restaurants, the area of Sydney where I live is a bit of a desert. Such a shame because I do love Indian cuisine. However, an opportunity recently presented itself where I was invited to dine at an award-winning Indian restaurant. I leapt at the chance.
Malabar at Darlinghurst is a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of South India, that part of India famous for being ‘on the spice trail’. Spices, that were discovered long ago and imported by the Greco-Roman world and later by the European nations, where pepper became so valuable it became a currency considered more stable than money.
And all these years later the spice trail of Southern India continues bringing spices like pepper, cardamon, cinnamon and curry leaves to every part of the globe. Mohammed Sali was born in Southern India where he grew up to become a chef then work at prestigious hotels in India and the Middle East, and now his talent has taken him to Australia.
Mohammed opened Malabar in 2003 where he works as head chef, and his Swedish-born partner, Emily, runs the front of house. In December last year the restaurant moved five doors down the street to its current position on the highly visible corner of Victoria Street and Craigend Street.
Mohammed says Indian cuisine is based on wellness and, as it dates back 5000 years, is one of the oldest cuisines in the world. There are historical Indian books from that era that give advice on balancing meat with vegetables, instructions on what foods pair best together, and information on under what circumstances food should be eaten. Mohammed has taken this approach into his kitchen with a goal of creating healthy food which can improve, repair, strengthen, and sometimes cure the body.
Malabar is very centrally located however, parking on the streets near the restaurant is an issue as there is a time limit of just one hour. We did find valet parking within 50mtrs of the restaurant for just $15.00.
We arrived at Malabar on a scorching hot summer’s evening. I was trying to keep cool by wearing a sundress however when we stepped into Malabar I experienced ‘climate change’. The restaurant is very cool and coming inside from a 27C (80F) evening was a bit of a shock. I’d advise bringing something to put over your shoulders to keep you warm.
The interior of the restaurant is stunning. Brand new, a lot of effort has been put into sound-proofing the venue so there is no issue with noise. The 110-seat restaurant is contemporary and minimalist with incredible, wall-sized black and white images depicting scenes from a royal Indian wedding in 1905. Your eyes are drawn to these images that depict India as it was over a century ago.
The lighting in the restaurant is very contemporary and while dim enough to be flattering, there is still enough light to see what you’re eating. There is plenty of wait-staff who are dressed in smart uniforms, are attentive, gracious and smiling.
The kitchen is run completely by Indians as Mohammed says they best understand the spices and the balance of Indian flavours.
We were shown to a table with a view through the window to the city’s skyline. As the day had been very hot I started with a gin and tonic made with organic tonic water. It was very refreshing especially with the slice of orange giving it some citrus notes.
Drew started with an Indian beer, a Kingfisher, and apparently, Malabar was the first restaurant to import the beer into Oz.
Our first entree to arrive was the Kheema Dosai. Southern India is famous for it’s dosai that is a crepe however unlike the French version, it’s made with rice and lentils. It was extremely light and crispy and filled with homemade lamb mince with fenugreek, fresh ginger and a hint of cinnamon. The dosai was served with a coconut chutney that was delightful and while the crepe was crispy, the filling was very soft creating a wonderful contrast of textures.
The next dish was one of my favourites of the night. It was the Cauliflower and Potato Bonda which is a traditional street snack. These little balls reminded me of aranchini balls but were cauliflower florettes mixed with spicy potato, coriander and red onion and served with a mint yoghurt. Excellent flavours in these balls that were light and delicate but packed with flavour.
The Mellagu Prawns, tiger prawns tossed in peppercorns, red onion, tomato relish and fennel seeds, had a lot of heat which is typical of Southern Indian cuisine. Good thing I’m happy with a lot of heat! Drew loved these prawns.
We were given the opportunity of trying some Indian wine. I didn’t actually know that wine was produced in India. Apparently you can’t buy Indian wine in Oz and Malabar is one of the few places you can find it. We had a bottle of Grover Zampa La Reserve Viognier from the Nandi Hills, India. It’s a very light-coloured wine that smells like it’s going to be quite fruity but is actually very dry. On a hot night it was a very drinkable wine.
We tried a selection of curries for our main course. The first was Lamb Varutha; lean diced leg of lamb braised with homegrown curry leaves and coarse peppercorns, seasoned with garam masala based on fennel and star anise. The aroma as this curry hit the table was incredible and I couldn’t wait to try it. The lamb was extremely tender and it was deliciously spicy.
The curry I really loved was the Duck Moilee; duck slowly simmered in coconut milk with red chilli and seasoned with coriander and fennel powder. This was a more creamy and mild curry and the duck fell from the bones with a gentle nudge. I enjoyed this with the paratha bread.
We also had the Goan Fish Curry cooked in light coconut milk with a blend of chilli, turmeric, cumin and coriander seeds. This was a curry with a modest kick of chilli and definitely a favourite with Drew. He said it was ‘absolutely fantastic’ and too good to eat with the provided rice and breads and instead wanted to enjoy the flavours all by themselves.
There are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and another curry that Drew really enjoyed was the Baby Eggplant and Potato Curry. This was a more mild curry that was soft in texture and excellent sandwiched between some naan bread.
We didn’t need anything else but there were desserts on the menu and as I don’t know a lot about Indian desserts, we decided to try them. The first was Rasmalai which is a handmade steamed paneer bonda in a velvety cream with a saffron and cardamon infused milk. I didn’t really enjoy the texture or taste of this dessert.
The next dessert we tried was the Gulab Jamun that are served warm and are a sticky sweet milk dumpling soaked in rose and cardamon sugar syrup. This was like a doughnut and as I’m a fan of rosewater, I really enjoyed the syrup that soaked into the dumpling.
My absolute favourite dessert was the Mango and Pistachio Kulfi which is Indian ice cream made from condensed milk. I loved the presentation and thought the little mango pearls were stunning as well as a delightful burst of flavour as they popped in your mouth. A chilled and refreshing dessert like this is an excellent way to finish off an Indian feast.
During our meal I watched as Mohammed went from table to table, warmly greeting the diners. There was fuss made of a woman celebrating a special birthday, attention given to a large table celebrating an event, and warm greetings to other diners who clearly are regulars. Mohammed is a warm and friendly chef who is keen to meet and converse with diners at his restaurant. If you ask him questions about South-Indian cuisine, his face lights up and he’s eager to share his knowledge with you.
Malabar is a stand-out Indian restaurant that offers a comprehensive menu together with an extensive wine list in a contemporary and stunning setting. The flavours in the dishes presented are incredible, original and so interesting you pause as you taste each dish. For anyone seeking an authentic Indian dining experience, I can highly recommend Malabar at Darlinghurst.
Verdict: I can’t wait to dine there again.
Malabar South Indian Cuisine: Cnr Victoria Street & Craigend Street, Darlinghurst
Hotly Spiced and Crew dined as guests of Malabar.