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It has been months since I ate at Tonka (20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne). My work crew chose it as the venue for our 2013 Christmas lunch, and the photos I took have been lying in wait (taunting me!) ever since.

It's not that I didn't want to write it up; but I've had a backlog of posts to write - and the delay possibly also says something about my reaction to Tonka: I didn't need to rush the write-up, because I knew it would still be there. Like its sister restaurant, the excellent Coda, Tonka boasts that X-factor: a mixture of classiness, cool design, warm service, and of course, high-quality, original food, accompanied by perfectly matched drinks.

Tonka's take on food is widely seen as 'Modern Indian', although it's more Modern Australian/Indian, with touches of other influences. As one workmate put it, this place gives us "a fine dining version of Indian". In any case, it seems to have filled a gap in Melbourne's dining scene that no one realised was missing. Now that Tonka's here, it ain't going nowhere anytime soon.

So, here we are. As usual, I'm working off my notes, photos, Tonka's website and social media pages, and online reviews. And, also as usual, I'm not really reviewing the food (although that is a major part of this blog), but the venue as a whole: atmosphere, design, service, food, drinks, and how they all combined to form my overall impression of the venue at the time of my particular visit. In short, I'm recounting the experience of a Melbourne Patron - perhaps with a few opinions thrown in for fun. :)

Factors that influenced our decision to try Tonka, and probably our expectations of it:
  1. We'd dined at Coda for numerous work occasions before, which had set the bar pretty high. (No pun intended, although there are actually some tall bar areas at Coda. Hmm.)
  2. We had been hearing of Tonka's existence long before it opened, both via the industry and the media.
  3. We're all fans of various Asian cuisines, and were interested to see what this 'Modern Indian' thing was all about.
  4. The venue formerly housed the infamous club Honky Tonks, renowned for its general craziness and seediness. (Apparently the venue's new name pays homage to the old.)  I wanted to see how well the place cleaned up :) 

Tonka is down the end of a steep, graffitied city laneway off Flinders Lane, heralded by a sign of neon letters. The entry seems dark, but the further through the venue you go, the lighter it gets. I didn't even notice the Tonka Bar, the more casual of three sections in the venue.

Restaurant bar

Pass by the open kitchen area, somewhat clinical-feeling but calm, to the restaurant bar with its heavy benchtops, and lastly you'll come into the dining room, with low bench seating and loads of natural light from the huge south-facing windows. Apparently, from the restaurant, there's a good view of the Flinders railyards and the MCG, but from where we were seated (close to the bar area), all I could see was the bushy green of trees just outside the window. (Still a pleasant effect!)

One of the first things you notice is the overhead feature, a tumbled mesh artwork by Naomi Troski. Modern and chaotic, it is a real point of interest in the design and warms up an otherwise minimalist space. Otherwise, there is a general feel of spaciousness and airiness. Surfaces are hard, edges are strong, and tones are neutral.

"Drift" (2013) by Naomi Troski

Tonka's website states the design was based on "the blue city of Jodhpur... with splashes of Jaipur's pink". I didn't get much of that vibe, personally, but then, I've never been to India. The Indian influence stems from co-owner/executive chef Adam D'Sylva's heritage (well, that, and Italian). D'Sylva, along with Kate and Mykal Bartholomew (i.e. the Coda team), employed ex-Jorg and Jacques Reymond chef Michael Smith as head chef of Tonka, and Sundar Singh as tandoori chef.

At our work functions, we tend to order everything on the menu, because - hell, why not! There's also a variety of beer, wine and cocktail drinkers amongst us. (All in all, it makes for good blogging!) Tonka's drinks are taken care of by Coda's lauded sommelier, Travis Howe; and bartenders James Tait and Adam Roderick (fomerly of Der Raum) have managed to put together a smashing cocktail list. Here are a few we had - Miguel's Milk Punch, Darjeeling Fizz, Jungle Bird and Pink Lady:

And then, the food. I was surprised by how light many of the dishes were - not in a modern, we're-so-cool, only-use-one-tenth-of-the-plate kind of way, but because my prior experience of Indian food had led me to believe it's usually quite heavy. (In the stomach. Filling. You know.) ...Not so! We had a variety of dishes, and only two were curries - not overly heavy ones, either. All dishes were lovely explorations of flavours.

Soft-shell crab

Spatchcock tandoori

Atlantic salmon

Fried cauliflower

Beans, rice and pappadums

Lamb curry

Chickpea curry

Aromatic, I had expected, and aromatic much of it was. In fact, the oft-cited Pani Puri, a sort of Indian hors d'oeuvre, arrived with 'aromatic water' to sprinkle over the top. I'm all for sauces and/or sprinkling, but I had to chuckle at that: it seemed a little too close to pretentious for my liking!

Pani Puri with aromatic water

However, they were delicious. My other personal favourites were also some of the 'smaller' menu options:

Tuna tartare with pomegranate

Scallops on cauliflower puree

My boss seemed to enjoy the prawn and chicken salad because it involved some self-dressing - plus, it was very tasty.

Sprinkling... lots of that going on

Prawn and chicken salad

Service, as is always the case at Coda and what we expected at Tonka, was exemplary - warm and obliging. One of our boys described it as "relaxed professionalism". A request for some vegetarian options was easily catered to, and poor Travis was calm under pressure when I began badgering him about which of his excellent aromatic wines might be preservative-free or organically produced. I'm not sure they were, in the end, but I didn't really care, they were SO good.

Just when we thought we wouldn't be able to eat ever again, of course we ordered dessert. Visually spectacular as well as enticing, flavour-wise, the desserts at both Tonka and Coda would be enough for me to happily survive on, oh, forever.

Chocolate parfait

Ginger cake

We were a little wobblier on our feet by the time we left Tonka, probably not really in keeping with the restaurant's polished style. I think this sentence (a direct quote from one of my workmates) sums up both Tonka and our inebriated state quite nicely: "It's just like Indian food, but really good."  It had been a very pleasant Christmas lunch, and I eagerly await the next time my work wants to buy me a huge delicious meal at Tonka.

Leaving via the other leg of Duckboard Place and ACDC Lane allowed a few more photo ops of Melbourne's famed laneway graffiti.

Tonka on Urbanspoon

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