For every souvenir shop selling kangaroo magnets at Circular Quay, there’s a host of chefs delivering some of Australia’s best produce at our finest restaurants. From Matt Moran’s ARIA and Ross Lusted’s The Bridge Room to Peter Gilmore’s Quay and newcomer The Spice Room, this tourist mecca is an equally attractive foodie destination.
For some reason Indian restaurants have a certain sameness in Sydney, few beyond The Spice Room have broken out of the mould. If you’ve seen The Lunchbox, or, better yet, spent time in India, you’ll recognise a dabbawallah’s bike, laden with metal tiffin boxes welcoming diners into the Spice Room. Instantly, you think street food. Walk up the stairs, each of which are labelled with key Indian spices such as turmeric, cardarmon, fenugreek, bay leaves and panch phora; and an elegant, almost lavish restaurant space is revealed. A mix of imported wooden furniture, which I’m told are over 150 years old, gold tableware, gilt framed Maharaja paintings and the alluring smell of spices; hints of refined Indian dishes. As the décor suggests; there’s a mix of casual street food like onion bhaji, samosa chaat and pani puri shots, tandoor delights and also upmarket Indian dishes. Often when restaurants try to achieve too much, a menu becomes confused but The Spice Room manages to do it all; and do it all very well.
As a keen cook, I like getting involved at a restaurant. As a starter, a DIY dish, dahi batata sev puri involves filled crispy hollow semolina puffs with a rather unglamorous looking cubed potato mix before being filled with a shot-glass of tangy tamarind water and popped whole in the mouth. The best dishes at The Spice Room come via the tandoor oven. Heated to between 200 and 300°C, this oven cooks everything from naan to lamb kebab. For indecisive diners, the mixed grill is a great way to taste it all; tandoori king prawns, chicken tikka and tandoori lamb cutlets. A dish of ling fillets, marinated in yoghurt and pickling spices before being grilled to create a smoky crust, is again a great showcase of Indian flavours. From the north of India to the south, the spiced seafood treasure takes you all the way to the beaches of Kerala with its richly spiced garam masala coconut sauce, coating a generous serve of prawn, scallop and calamari.
A cedar dowry chest at the bar delivers Indian bent cocktails such as a tamarind margarita, Goan martini and, my favourite, the anar pom-pomtini; a vodka based martini with fresh pomegranate juice. An Indian meal wouldn’t be complete without a lassi (traditional Indian yoghurt drink) and The Spice Room’s mango and cardamom lassi is a revelation, the subtle spice cutting through the sweetness of the fruit.