Vanakkam

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Vanakkam, 359 Barkly St, Footscray. Phone: 9687 7224

Ordering a feed for two at an Indian restaurant is a breeze, right?

Couple of snacks – samosas, pakoras, whatever – couple of curries, rice, some naan?

Well, no.

It isn’t that straightforward at all these days – especially not at a place like the relocated Vanakkam in Barkly St, with curries AND dosas AND a goodly line-up of Indo-Chinese dishes.

We muddle along and have a great time even if our choices are a little on the stodge side.

But they’re all good or better – and two are very excellent indeed.

And, naturally, we order WAY too much food – but happily, the final dish that arrives is the one most suitable for doggy-bagging and making do for Bennie’s school lunch the next day.

We’ve taken our time getting to the new Vanakkam – seems like there’s been a lot of Indian action to keep up to date with lately.

But we leave as extremely happy – and bulging full – chappies.

The service is fine and our food arrives far more quickly than such freshly made dishes might suggest.

We are not really thinking about our visits to the old Vanakkam as we nut out our order, but we sigh with memory-fuelled pleasure as our plate of onion baji ($7) arrives.

Of course we remember them – they’re so very good!

In this case, the serve is even bigger, but the onion rings are just as delicious.

The batter is not crispy, but is admirably unoily and scrumptious.

Our lamb dosa (&10) is good, too.

Crispy pancake and the usual slurp-worthy sambar, chutneys and potato filling, the latter a little more gooey than is usually the case.

The lamb is quite plentiful and seems to be mostly in the form of smallish, unspicy chunks that could’ve been carved straight from a roast leg.

Maybe they are.

It’s all well and good, but it makes us – OK, me – wonder why we ever variate from the tried-and-true spud-filled masala dosa.

Kaju uthappam ($12) is our standout dish.

The base of this “Indian pizza”, which comes with the same side dishes as our dosa, is made from rice and black lentil flours, and is a little crunchy, very delicate and utterly moreish.

The topping is of cashews nuts that have become soft in the cooking, coriander and what are described to us as “poori” spices.

So simple and so magnificent.

Our dinner adventure had been embarked upon with Bennie expressing a wish for noodles.

There are none to be had on the Vanakkam menu – the closest we can get is their take on nasi goreng ($13), which unsurprisingly has little or nothing to do with the south-east Asian dish of the same name.

Being more of a glorified fried rice, it’s still mighty fine, with a fried egg atop, and plenty of cubed, crunchy vegetables and battered chicken bits.

It has the same sort of peppery spiciness that comes with the fabulous schezwan chicken fried rice to be had at Dosa Hut up the road.

We’re stonkered before we get even close to halfway through this large serve, so the rest goes home with us.

Vanakkam is a very welcome addition to the intense and oh-so-welcome Indian activity in West Footscray, and we’ve only scratched the menu’s surface.

And BTW, the biryanis other customers have been eating look really great.

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Salaam Namaste Dosa Hut

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Salaam Namaste Dosa Hut, 604 Barkly St, West Footscray. Phone: 9687 0171

Does a restaurant have any sort of obligation to tell customers what is in their food?

The food for which they are paying and which they are eating?

My persistent inquiries about the seasoning specifics of my rice meal at Dosa Hut are met with smiles, giggles, shrugs and vague mutterings.

It’s all good fun and I’m not even close to chagrined that I fail in my quest.

Bemused, maybe.

But maybe, too, some things are meant to remain unknown.

Dosa Hut should be celebrated widely in the west for being the first eatery to bring dosas and associated goodies into our part of the world.

That seems a long time ago now.

That first incarnation had a dingy shack aspect with a service vibe to match.

A second incarnation – detailed here – took a significant step towards a more formal and professional approach.

Now Dosa Hut has its third incarnation – and it’s another cool step upwards.

There’s branded windows, chic interior decor, a lot more room.

As far as I can tell, the menu remains much the same – though I suspect the range of dishes available of the Indo-Chinese variety has grown.

My simple, plain samosa ($1.95)  is beaut – mildly seasoned, beautifully tender potato, ungreasy pastry exterior.

From the Indo-Chinese list I choose “Schezwan Chicken Fried Rice” ($12.95). 

You might be thinking that’s quite a hefty amount to pay for a glorified Indian take on a familiar Chinese staple in a cheap eats diner.

You would be wrong.

This is a killer dish; a sensation.

Heaps of fluffy rice is riddled with chewy fried chicken chunks, omelette, peas and finely diced green onion and carrot.

It’s all quite dry and very un-oily, though like just about everything in the Indo-Chinese recipe book, it’ll never pass for health food.

The first few mouthfuls indicate spice levels of a benign nature.

That, too, is misleading. This dish has a magnificent slow-burn spiciness that glows yet never really reaches high-intensity levels.

Given the staff’s reluctance to clarify my seasoning queries, I’m only guessing. 

The orange colouring from a mix of turmeric and chilli powder?

The magnificent slow-burn heat from a LOT of white pepper?

It matters not – I love every mouthful.

It’s a big serve, one that should really be shared.

But I go closer to finishing it than I thought I would.

Salaam Namaste Dosa Hut on Urbanspoon

Pandu’s

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Pandu’s, 351 Barkly St, Footscray. Phone: 0468 378 789

It seems there are very few Indian restaurants in Melbourne – or, at least, in the wider western realms in which we roam – that do not offer at least a few Indo-Chinese dishes on their menus these days.

Pandu’s, however, is one of a very few that offers nothing but.

Before venturing out to dine at the new Pandu’s in Footscray, I fossick around online trying to find out more about this intriguing food style – without much success.

So before Bennie and I order our meal, I ask Pandu himself.

Having presumed Indo-Chinese tucker is the spawn of metropolitan India and/or the worldwide Indian diaspora, I am somewhat surprised to hear him attribute it largely to states close to the border with China such as Assam.

He tells me there is no use in his kitchen of traditional Indian spices such as cumin or coriander. There is a heavy use of ginger and garlic, and sauces such as soy and Sichuan.

There’s a zingy aspect to it all that I have attributed to vinegar and/or lemon juice. These are used, I am told, but not so heavily as I have imagined.

(If anyone can offer more by way of the life and times of Indo-Chinese food, we’d love to hear from you!)

We’d enjoyed a couple of cool meals at the previous Pandu’s premises in Buckley St, so are very much looking forward to checking the new place out.

The fit-out of the rather large eatery is rather unusual.

On the one hand, the seats are plush in a way that cheap eats us are quite unaccustomed to.

As opposed to a recent comment on our Pandu’s preview post, we found them perfectly comfy and fine for dining.

The dark-stained tables, on the other hand, appear to be have been constructed out of glorified plywood.

The overall effect is one of ritzy cheap eats – and we like that a lot.

If that means this specialised restaurant delivers Indo-Chinese food cheaper than do your average Indian places who have some Indo-Chinese on their menus, then we’re all for it.

And it does. Indeed, the prices seem to have hardly risen at all in the transition.

Pandu knows perfectly well who we are and what we’re about, so we score a couple of complimentary offerings, though I have no doubt these or our actual menu choices are no different from what other customers receive.

Just saying …

A complementary salad is just some simple spinach leaves and shredded vegetables. A spiced eggplant sludge and yogurt combine to make a dressing for what is a nice appetiser.

The choice of vegetable-chicken sweet corn soup ($4.95) is down to Bennie, but I’m interested to see what the kitchen does with this Chinese staple.

The answer is … not a lot different.

It’s less viscous than we’d receive in a Chinese place, and there are a few more vegetable varieties, but nevertheless it’s a nice, plain starter given what we know is to come.

Chicken 65 ($8.95) is another Bennie choice on account of his fondness for the version at Hyderabad Inn up the road. He’s an expert!

This is OK but could be hotter and the chicken lacks flavour.

The seasoning and accompanying jumble of curry leaves, onion, capsicum and chilli is ace, however, and is the same flavour explosion we’d loved about vegetable 65 and mushoom 65 on previous visits.

Mixed noodles ($11.95)? They’re Bennie’s choice, too. Why isn’t he writing this instead of slothing it on the sofa watching Cartoon Network? One of life’s mysteries …

A big bowl of squiggly egg noodles is packed with finely chopped vegetables and pieces of chicken, omelette and prawn.

This is a mild but pleasing dish, with each of us seasoning to our specific requirements from the small bowls of tomato and soy sauces and chilli oil and chilli vinegar provided.

This seems like an Indo-Chinese version of the revered Nepalese chowmin.

Cauliflower Manchurian ($8.95) is the hit of the night – although I’d in no way suggest this is due to the fact it’s not a Bennie selection.

In contrast to the dryish chicken 65, the large and battered cauliflower chunks are coated with a dark, sticky and sweet sauce. The vegetable pieces are pleasantly firm and – best of all – the cauliflower flavour comes through despite the high level of seasoning.

Another flavour bomb!

We’ve stuck mostly to water during our meal, but have also enjoyed complementary long, tall glasses of housemade cashew milk, which the restaurant sells for $3.95.

This is divine – lusciously creamy, sweet and perfumed with cardamom.

It’s less drink and more like dessert – think pannacotta or creme brulee!

We’ve enjoyed our debut repast at the new Pandu’s – the mix of plain (sweet corn soup, noodles) with rampant seasoning (cauliflower, chicken) has been spot on.

Pandu’s Indian-style barbecue is scheduled for action the day after our visit, so awaits our next visit, at which time we’ll seek to explore some of the fish and prawn options.

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Yummy India

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Yummy India, 21 Westwood Drive, Deer Park. Phone: 8337 0760

Yummy India in Deer Park has long been on our radar and finally the day has arrived.

We just didn’t think that in a million years the day would arrive on a Good Friday.

We’d already made Good Friday plans that involved the eating of Lebanese food in Coburg, but then the Yummy India folk posted on their Facebook page the day before that, yes, they’d be open over Easter – including for Good Friday lunch.

Really?

A pre-drive phone call ascertains that all is good and as advertised, so off we go.

The allure of Yummy India has for us is certainly to do with the pursuit of a good feed.

But it must be confessed the appeal is also undoubtedly to do with the restaurant’s location – on a Deer Park industrial estate and surrounded by fencing and swimming pool companies.

Of course, on this Good Friday there’s not a lot of traffic or any other kind of business going.

Like us, our mate Tony is transfixed and delighted by the sheer perversity, magicality and uniqueness of such a setting for such a restaurant.

Unsurprisingly, we are the only Good Friday lunch customers, although the service we receive is of the highest order and very friendly.

Our genial waiter tells they expect some takeaway orders and more trade by dinner time.

He certainly does the right thing by us right from the start be preventing us from over-ordering in a spectacular fashion.

The sort of rich and hearty food available here is quite a ways removed from the dosas, snack food and cut-rate thalis that are our normal Indian fare.

Nevertheless we’re out with a good friend and prepared to spend some money in order to get a fulsome, well-rounded lunch.

Three entrees, three mains and all the bits and pieces?

No, no, we are told – that’s too much.

And so it proves to be.

When asked about spice levels, I say – over Bennie’s protests – that medium will be fine.

Our entrees – which are at the upper end of our spice capacities – prove Bennie correct, and luckily we are in time to have the rest of our meal adjusted towards the mild end of the spectrum.

We are still learning our way with Indo-Chinese food, but that learning is involving increasing levels of enjoyment.

Apart from spice levels a tad too high for us, chilli and garlic mushrooms ($11.95) and chicken 65 ($12.95) have the high levels of oil we are coming to expect from this kind of food.

Moreover, despite the different names the flavours of both seem very similar, and the chook and mushie protagonists chewy where elsewhere I’ve enjoyed a more explosive crispness.

Not to be too picky, though – we enjoy both.

These are, of course, rather pricey for what are listed as entrees, but the serves are very big.

That trend continues with our main course curries and even the super large serve of raita ($3.50).

Indeed, I’m pretty sure the metal pots in which our curries arrive are bigger than those used in many other Indian restaurants of this type.

Nawabi chicken ($13.95) is, I’m told, based on a cashew nut gravy with your standard Indian spices and some tomato paste.

There’s some whole cashews, too, and what seems to be largish chunks of chicken breast are tender.

It’s  good, rich chicken curry.

The lamb lajawab ($12.95) is our meal’s highlight.

It, too, is based on a cashew nut gravy.

But this one is heavily laced with honey, giving it an aromatic flavour that is unlike that of any curry any of us have previously tried.

It’s delicious!

The lamb pieces are on the small side, and there’s not that many of them, but the meat is tender and lovely.

Apart from the advertised nuts and spices, I suspect both our curries also likely have a cream quotient on board, but if we were going to get squeamish about such things we would never have come.

Our garlic naan ($3.50) is oddly unbuttered and even quite crispy but still fine.

The aloo paratha ($3.50) has an obvious and oily sheen, but is quite good, too.

Despite a few mis-steps, Yummy India has restored our faith in the value of more formal, “special occasion”, expensive and rich Indian food.

The prices seem very typical, but the serves are large. Our lunch fare ends up costing us about $22 each, which is very good value indeed.

Where else would you get such a fine Indian meal on a Good Friday lunch-time?

And certainly, parking is never going to be a problem here, no matter the time or day.

(For those seeking lighter food, Yummy India also does idli, vada and dosas.)

Yummy India on Urbanspoon

Pandu’s – an update …

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UPDATE (July 29, 2012): Review of the new Pandu’s is HERE.

Dropping into the site of the new Pandu’s in Barkly St, I find the man himself in the house.

He’s a little reticent about having his photo taken, but couldn’t be more friendly and is happy to show me around.

And I gotta tell you – the place is looking a million bucks.

He tells me he actually had ritzy expansion plans for the former site in Buckley St well advanced before the rail link developments nixed them.

The new site entails a hefty increase in rent and a major investment – as these photos indicate.

Inevitably, this will involve higher prices for his take on Indo-Chinese tucker.

However, the prices at the old joint were rock-bottom cheap and he assures me his new price tags won’t be in the same ball park as those of a somewhat similar establishment up the road apiece.

Pandu is aiming for a late March opening date.

There’s going to be nooks, crannies and booths all over the place.

Incredibly, all the furniture is being crafted and constructed on-site.

The new restaurant will boast an Indian-style barbecue – not quite Tandoori cooking but with some of those elements. Sounds like a heap of juicy, marinated meats and vegetables to me!

This space (above) will be the site of the new kitchen.

In this area will be a waterfall and fish pond.

Pandu’s

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UPDATE (July 29, 2012): Review of new Pandu’s is HERE.

172 Buckley St, Footscray. Phone: 8307 0789

Having driven to and from Geelong during the day, and knowing I will be doing so many times in the coming week, I know I should be hunkering down on the sofa with books and music.

But a wanderlust is upon me, so a cruising I go.

It’s a bleak Wednesday night and I know not where I am headed.

As Ann Peebles sings like a viperish angel about tearing some unlucky soul’s playhouse down, I throw a left from Victoria St on to Buckley.

This is a dreary stretch of road that for anyone except those who live there means “the bit that heads to either Williamstown Rd or Sunshine Rd”.

For as long as I’ve lived in the west, situated halfway along has been a former neighbourhood shop that has never been anything but unused or moribund.

Or so I presume – wrongly.

As I pass I see lights, an old-style neon “Open” sign and people – well, two of them anyway.

Joy bubbles up at the realisation that where there was once a vacuum there is now life.

In I go.

I am gobsmacked to discover that Pandu’s has been open for a year and a half. Pay attention, Kenny!

The decor and ambiance are straight-up inner-city low-rent ethnic tucker, which fact makes me feel right at home right away.

This is a place purveying Indo-Chinese food, about which I am a rank beginner. I wish I had Ms Baklover of Footscray Food Blog with me, as she’s a fan of this food genre and doubtless much more hip than me on how and what to order.

I suspect my meal is far from the heart of Indo-Chinese food. What can I say? I adore soups and noodles.

I quiz the staff whether their hot and sour soup resembles either Thai or Chinese concoctions, and receive little clarification, order it anyway.

My soup ($4.95) certainly looks like the Chinese dish of the same, but slurping it reveals profound differences. This is much less viscous than most Sino versions I have tried. It’s laden in a swell way with ginger. There’s also egg, carrot, peas and other stuff I am unable to identify. It’s delicious and of what I would describe as mild-to-hot spiciness.

My hakka noodles ($7.95) resemble the Nepalese chow min served by Fusion Cafe & Mo:Mo Bar, only this is less seasoned and drier. You can order these with egg or chicken. I go for the egg, which rubs shoulders with fine slices of onion, green chilli, carrot, capsicum.

Extra seasoning is done at table thanks to three little bowls – one apiece of chilli-infused vinegar, soy sauce and tomato sauce. It’s bags of fun mixing varying amounts of each for different flavours.

It’s a big serve, but I scarf the lot.

By the time I am done, there are four other tables taken by what seem to be regulars and a nice vibe has evolved into being

I am excited about returning with Bennie and exploring the menu (see below), which even has a section of haloumi cheese. There’s also sections on salads, spring rolls, rice, noodles, cauilflower and mushrooms (which seem to be staples of Indo-Chinese food), chicken, fish, prawns. I am already hankering to try the American chopsey and a rice dish called  7 jewels of Pandu’s.

Even better, Pandu’s is open seven days a week.

Dosa Hut

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604 Barkly St, West Footscray. Phone: 9687 0171

Dosa Hut, as far as I’m aware, was the first to bring dosas and the like to our part of the world – and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

For the past year or so, it fell out of favour with us, and by then there were other places to get our dosa fix – most notably,  Vanakkam India.

The reasons we moved on from Dosa Hut were simple – in its earlier days the place had a makeshift ambiance that made us feel a little ill at ease. It was a bit like we felt we were sitting amid hurried preparations for an eatery that was soon to open – rather than enjoying one that was already up and running.

As well, the service had a sort of distracted air about it.

Following a Thursday night foray, I’m very happy to report that Dosa Hut has changed – for the better.

The place has had a low-key fit-out that makes it seem much more welcoming. There’s an extended menu that takes in not just dosas, idlys, vadas and biryani of various stripes, but also noodles, uttapam, omelettes, a range of snacks and even a modest list of Indo-Chinese dishes.

There’s even a display cabinet to one side of the servery filled with fine-looking Indian sweets.

As well, the service could not be more efficient or smiling. I wasn’t counting, but I reckon I received my dosa about five minutes after ordering.

Here and elsewhere I have experimented with various dosa types – variations including onion, cheese, egg, chick, lamb and so on.

But for me, and countless others no doubt, masala dosa is the king.

My Dosa Hut masala dosa ($7.50) was beaut.

Every element of it was fine – crispy pancake, potato stuffing laced with mustard seeds and curry leaves, sambar and two chutneys, one that seemed to be tomato/chilli-based and the other of creamy coconut.

A warning though: All three accompaniments had a degree of chilli hit about them, even the usually cooling coconut number. Nothing to worry most anyone used to eating out in the west, but their combined heat might be a little too incendiary for kids.

It’s real nice knowing Dosa Hut has become a place we’ll be returning to again.

In the meantime, things are changing in Barkly Village.

Opposite Dosa Hut, what used to be an old-style pizza/pasta joint is now a swish new thin-crust genuine Italian pizza place called Gusto On Barkly that is Very High on our “to do” list.

And a bit further down the road towards Footscray proper, what was once half a video rental establishment is soon to become another dosa/biryani outfit!

Oh happy day!

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