• Tonka (Melbourne CBD)

Whilst vegetarian cuisine can come in many styles, India perhaps does it best.  With 40% of the nation’s population opting for a meat free diet, it is not surprising that it was here where I enjoyed some of my most memorable food experiences.  But with any modern take on a food culture, some things are lost, some things are gained.  Melbourne’s star restaurant, Tonka, takes an unfavourable contemporary view; minus the veggies, add the meat.

It was a Wednesday evening and we were celebrating my birthday. Entering the restaurant, I needed directions along the narrow hall to the open dining area with chic decor and fashionable people.

A glass of Even Keel 2011 Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula began the night (along with gifts and cheers).  It was dry with little acid and nicely balanced oak.

Small plates were expensive.  It was $7.50 for a single zucchini flower. It had innovatively been stuffed with smoked paneer instead of the usual goats’ curd and fried.  Whilst described as tempura, the batter was hard and still doughy inside.  The dressed salad greens wilted on the flower’s heat.

Main course for vegetarians is a mughlai vegetable curry $26.  It was mainly potatoes which had been boiled and later added to the sauce so that the flavour did not soak through.  Green jalapenos with their stems left on had been stuffed so that the curry was hot in taste.  Snow peas, capsicum and eggplant did not feature in the curry as much as the plentiful potatoes.

Dahl is a side dish and was pleasant with bite still in the lentils. It was clean.

Cauliflower was ordered as another side, with fried cauliflower, spices and yoghurt.  The cauliflower was slightly charred.  This dish was my favourite but felt light and healthy compared with the richly spiced and creamy Indian food with which I am familiar.

The professional and impersonal staff had suggested two main dishes between four people.  Still hungry, we resorted to ordering more of the lightly buttered naan and rice.  One naan cut into four pieces was $6 and we were horrified to see we had spent $24 just on naan when the bill arrived.  Rice is similarly $6 for a small serve.

It was odd experiencing fine dining Indian food with a modern twist.  The atmosphere was trendy and lively. The service was professional but distant.  The crockery and furniture were stylish.  But was the food really better than a cheap local?

Tonka is more about the experience than the food, and whilst appealing in each of these aspects, none was outstanding enough to justify its popularity.  If it is to pride itself on the fine dining experience, then the dishes should be plated up beautifully and the service should match.  The others enjoyed the duck curry, but I left feeling dissatisfied.

Lots of people talk about Tonka: it has clearly become fashionable as a place to dine. The pedigree of the chefs (Coda, Jacques Reymond) suggests an interesting and creative dining experience. The space that is Tonka is impressive. From a dingy lane off Flinders Lane on a cold wet Wednesday is like finding an oasis in a dessert. The ambience is created by cloud like material on the ceiling, low light, a noisy young in-crowd gathering around the bar and seated at tables, and a young slick professional staff. It’s almost like floating in the clouds at dusk having a party.

Much was promised by the ambience created in Tonka. A scan of the menu indicated there was only one vegetarian main course, but there were a couple of entrees that were vegetarian and also a few side dishes. Indian restaurants are a haven for vegetarians as there are usually many options prepared in a variety of ways. Tonka clearly is not a restaurant that adequately caters for vegetarians.

The first course of Tempura zucchini flower with smoked paneer, urad dal, and pickled white zucchini was an impressive mix of flavours and ingredients that was very tasty.
The main course of Mughlai vegetable curry was a disappointment. On the menu it suggested a variety of vegetables, but it was basically potatoes and some capsicum in a mild curry. At $26 for a small bowl it was unsatisfying and expensive.

The curry was accompanied by rice ($6 a bowl) and naan ($6 each). We were told that 2 main courses would be sufficient for 4 people. This was not the case and we supplemented our main courses with extra naan. A charge of $24 for roti seemed high.

The three sides we had were fried cauliflower, garam masala salt, fenugreek and yoghurt dressing; yellow dal with Kashmiri chilli and curry leaf; and beans foogath, coconut, mustard seed, yellow lentil. The cauliflower was the standout of the sides: it was lightly fried and had some attractive subtle flavours.

We went to Tonka for a birthday celebration and had a birthday cake at home so we skipped dessert.

The overall impression of Tonka was that they have created a very impressive venue, but the food was disappointing. While Tonka aims to be a bit eclectic in its cuisine it is basically an Indian restaurant. There are lots of authentic Indian restaurants in the city and inner suburbs which create wonderful vegetarian dishes at a fraction of the price. Given a choice between ambience and food I would take the food every time.

Tempura zucchini flower, smoked paneer, urad dal, pickled white zucchini

Mughlai vegetable curry, baby eggplant, snow pea and tempura jalapeno


Tonka’s dal with yellow lentil, Kashmiri chilli and curry leaf

Fried cauliflower, garam masala salt, fenugreek and yoghurt dressing
20 Duckboard Place
Melbourne 3000 
03 9650 3155
Tonka on Urbanspoon