Hailing from the successful team behind much-hyped Coda, Tonka resides in the same reassuringly hip end of Melbourne’s CBD, amongst the street art and multiple layers of gig posters on splendidly named Duckboard Place, just off even more splendidly named AC/DC Lane. Despite its name, this stylish new eatery has got nothing to do with the old school toy cars, apart from the use of steel as an important material (the name comes from the previous tenant, nightspot Honky Tonks). Now a restaurant and bar that takes Indian cuisine to soaring new heights, repurposing the space was not without its challenges for local designers Techné Architects.
The 400sqm space is long and thin, so the dining area and bar were placed at either end with the kitchen as a central focal point – the distinction is a handy virtual barrier between formality and informality. Another issue was a lack of natural light, with windows at one end the only source. It’s not too noticeable – you’ll be too busy admiring strong design features, such as Naomi Troski’s beautiful white steel mesh installation Drift overhead, or burying your head in an exhaustive menu that is nigh on impossible to make choices from. Cancel your appointments for the next few hours and order as much as you can afford, the forward-thinking kitchen’s transformation of traditionally staunchy Indian flavours to light, tapas-like small dishes is a revelation. Take your time. Indulge.
Indian street snack pani puri is reimagined with Ferran Adrià’s school of molecular gastronomy clearly in mind; a crispy spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney-filled parcel completed with the theatrical addition of aromatic water: pour it in, swallow whole, embark on a temporary taste sensation that’ll have your caliculus gustatorius partying till dawn. Tandoor lamb kebab, smoked trout betel leaf, tuna tartare with rice pappadum, soft-shell crab pakora… each dish pulled off with just the right balance of complexity and simplicity.
A place of sharp contrasts – grungy street-side presence; elegance and refinement within, cuisine informed by the chaos of Indian street food; executed with flair, precision, clarity – Tonka may be prone to drawing a staid crowd (thanks to its proximity to Melbourne’s business district, and a buzzing reputation), but scratch the surface, and here is something very exciting indeed.