Sreeram Balakrishnan, Ayyappan Ramasubbu and Padma Balakrishnan.
Padma’s Kitchen, 96 Watton St, Werribee. Phone: 8742 6756
One of the great joys of moving to Melbourne so many years ago was discovering the joy of being able to walk a few blocks, or hop on a train or tram, then enter a restaurant and proceed to eat Indian food or food of related genres.
For me, that was all so sophisticated!
But it wasn’t too long after that I started reading and hearing the oft-repeated lament that if only Melbourne’s Indian restaurants served more than the rich, heavier food of north India.
I hesitate to call this demand an incessant clamour, but nevertheless there was obviously a desire shared by many for the lighter, runnier and more coconutty food styles of southern India.
Well, that revolution is truly upon us.
First it was dosas – and then came dosas in West Footscray.
These days, almost all the West Footscray eateries – and those in equally Indo-happy Werribee – offer some form of south Indian food on their menus.
And to that we say: “Yay!!!”
There is still plenty of scope and potential, we reckon, for potential restaurateurs to go even further in exploring regional Indian food, but for now we’re happy to enjoy Werribee’s very own dedicated south Indian restaurant.
The story behind Padma’s Kitchen is an intriguing and romantic one that involves two Indian restaurant dynasties.
Both Ayyappan Ramasubbu and Padma Balakrishnan are from restaurant backgrounds with groups of hotels across Tamilnadu, India, where the original Padma Hotel originated in Trichy.
The couple are planning a vego-only place for the CBD, but in the meantime are working hard on their new Werribee enterprise, helped by Padma’s brother, Sreeram, and a chef and three assistants extracted from the combined family business in India.
Ayyappan tells me the immigration aspects – including accommodation issues and potential family re-unifications – are among the trickiest he and his wife are facing.
Their restaurant is plain but sparkling. Perhaps a little more of a lived-in vibe will come with time.
The Padma’s Kitchen website is one of the more functional we’ve come across – there’s some shockers out there!
So it’s easy to see what sorts of bases they have covered – heaps of dosas, idlis and vadas; regional curries; biryanis … and quite a lot more.
But we choose to visit on Wednesday night, when the restaurant offers a $23 buffet.
This costs more than had we rocked up on a regular night and ordered more modestly and strictly according to appetite requirements.
But we really appreciate the broad range of food the buffet offers us.
The $23 deal comes with the choice of plain or masala dosa, which are cooked to order.
Given the quantity and choice of food open to us, we found our plain dosas superfluous – we reckon ditching them and offering the buffet at, say, $20 would be a winning move.
Here’s how our starters shape up:
Bennie and I each take a single bite of our idlis and immediately think: “This is the best idli I’ve ever had!”
Where idlis are frequently tough and doughy, these are petite, gently crisp on the outside and featherlight inside – excellent dunked in the accompanying sambar!
By contrast, the idli 65 is a on the plain side.
The chicken pakora we are really looking forward to – it’s OK but tastes a whole lot like any kind of pakora and not at all of chicken.
And here’s how our buffets mains work out (clockwise from top):
Curd rice – steamed rice tossed with yogurt and seasoned with curry leaves – sounds so appealing, but I find the literally cold reality uappetising.
But I’m happy to admit that’s most likely down to my own expectations – same goes for the cabbage poriyal. I lust for an Indian cabbage dish that is zingy and crunchy, and more in the flash-fried east Asia styles – but like every cabbage serve I’ve ever had in Indian eateries, this seems to me limp and overcooked. As it is no doubt meant to be!
The mutton milagu curry is a winner – towards the upper limits of what could be called mild and featuring wonderfully tender meat free of fat and gristle in a home-style gravy peppered with peppercorns.
The mixed vegetable kurma is a treat, too, its tender beans, peas and carrot residing in a creamy coconut gravy.
Sambar rice – “steamed rice tossed with lentil curry” – is another good one that illustrates why folks like us are gravitating towards this lighter style of Indian food. This is the sort of thing we make at home!
Our meals are completed with biryani rice (sort of like a damp fried rice), lime pickle and a very good layered flat bread call parotta.
For dessert there’s kesari – and I love it!
As one who finds most Indian sweets simple too rich, this is the go – a semolina-based sweet treat that is subtle and laced with cashew nuts.
We’ve loved our first visit to Padma’s Kitchen, and have appreciated the zeal with which Ayyappan and Padma are going about their business and the eagerness with which they discussed their food, restaurant and stories.