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Published October 29th 2017
Foodies are flocking to this fusion place in droves
An Indian wedding is an amazing spectacle of colour, music, feasting and festivities. We may never be lucky enough to attend such a gathering, but there is an Indian marriage of a different kind going on in Melbourne that is open to us all.
One might best describe it as the union, of traditional Indian foods with delicious cuisines from around the world.
Fork and Fingers is in the trendy eatery strip on Union Road, Ascot Vale. It is a new restaurant (opened late 2016) that proves beyond doubt that Melbourne really is a great big melting pot and that restaurants such as Fork and Fingers are igniting the fire under the pot.
This innovative restaurant has cherry-picked culinary elements from other cultures to come up with an Indian-slanted but decidedly international cuisine.
The restaurant's décor is modern with startling exposed brick walls, street-art style wall murals and antique but these days hipster Edison-style light globes looped above you at various levels. There is a small children's play area at the very back stating this is a family-friendly restaurant, although on the evening we attended most of the other tables seemed to be 'foodie' couples or groups who had heard about this place and had come to try it out.
Perhaps to get you into the zone, food-related clips from films such as Abdul and Victoria and the Viceroy's House flickered silently and surreally in the background.
My daughter and I were met by one of the lovely owners, Rohini Saini, who handles front of house, as well as being Fork and Finger's creative director. While Rohini went off to organise our drinks, we played spot the nationality on the menu. On the left-hand side are the more traditional Indian dishes, but on the right-hand side are fusion dishes melding ingredients from around the globe.
We had already heard by word-of-mouth about the Italian/Indian-inspired Butter Chicken Lasagna. In fact, the dish is so famous that locals refer to Fork and Fingers as that 'Butter Chicken Lasagna place.'
But we also spotted items such as Mexican tacos, filled with beef vindaloo, Swiss-ted pave bhaji fondue and even an Indo American fusion of tikka and pan-fried rockling, coated with aromatic spice on a brioche bun that resembled an American mini-hamburger.
When I flicked through to the Facebook page on my phone I noted that Bill Shorten had also recently been here enjoying this multi-cultural cuisine.
Even Bill Shorten drops in for some of this amazing cuisine
These were accompanied by amazing shot glass drinks, which she tells us, originated as an Indian street food. On the top of each glass is a carefully balanced hollow ball of paani puri (puffed up Indian bread) filled with various Indian spices, and tamarind (a tropical fruit).
Essentially, you eat and drink it any way you can but one of the best ways is to pour some of the liquid into the puffball, and then pop it into your mouth and let the slightly salty, sweet, crunchy and spicy flavours explode in your mouth. There is a non-alcoholic version where the liquid is infused with mango, garam masala and the tiniest of baby chickpeas, and the vodka version, which is a real shot in the mouth.
We leave it up to Rohini and her brother Ishupal to choose our dishes, especially after they tell us about the incredible thought and dedication that goes into creating their dishes. The concept of the restaurant grew from Rohini's and her husband Satinder's eldest son's food needs. He often had to take a dish to school or gatherings but wanted Indian food that didn't look quite so Indian for his friends.
Thus the Butter Chicken Lasagne creation was born. The males in the team, Satinder and Ishupal, both work in the corporate world of banking. They began taking this dish to work when there was a call for team members to bring in some home cooking.
Their workmates loved the Butter Chicken Lasagne so much, that they soon found themselves with plenty of orders to fill. Most of their colleagues requested the original dish when they were hosting dinner parties as they wanted their guests to try something really memorable.
Satinder, Ishupal and Rohini then started coming up with lots of other fusion menu ideas, which is why they started Fork and Fingers to find an audience for their creations.
Business trio Ishupal Singh, Satinder Singh and Rohini Saini
Wanting chefs in-line with their vision, they headhunted chefs who had backgrounds in creative Indian cuisine having worked in restaurants such as Tonka of ( Gourmet Traveller fame) and the award-winning Babu Ji in St Kilda.
Now all new dishes have to pass a taste test and get the thumbs up from at least four out of six people who road-test the dishes, including their highly trained chef as well as the three owners.
So let the meal begin. Our first course is Boti on Fire, which are tandoori oven cooked, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of lamb. They are nestled on a bed of quinoa, which has scattered ruby pendants of pomegranate seeds and threads of delicately chopped cucumber and tomato. Then the spice-infused meat is topped with pieces of pear poached in red wine. These have then been dabbed with creamy goat's cheese - a small addition that marries all the incredible flavours together. And the dish literally does become a ring of fire as there is a circle of spiced rum on the plate that Ishupal sets alight before your eyes.
Boti on fire - I definitely wanted to fall into this ring of fire
Next, we are served Dahi Kebab, which is hung curd (yoghurt drained in a muslin bag) Indian croquettes, garlic scented goat cheese with a refreshing tangy kiwi salsa. The result is subtle, sweet yet slightly spicy. A great vegetarian option.
On the screen behind me, I see a clip of Queen Victoria, who loved her food and employed Indian chefs to cook lunchtime curries being served her banquet.
We are also served up with a culinary delight to equal anything she may ever have eaten. Our dish is scallops united with a mango salsa. They are cooked with the chef's secret ingredient and are incredibly succulent. They are stunningly artistically presented on white shells, but the most eye-catching feature is the central tower of shaved sweet potato crisps.
Apparently, these crisps are proving so popular that the owners are thinking of bagging them up as a takeaway snack food.
The next course is tacos vindaloo a fusion of Tex Mex and this well-known Indian curry. The slowly simmered slight spiciness of the curry contrasts well with the coolness of the raita. I find this the most exquisitely presented of all the dishes with a trailing fishbone pattern of yoghurt piped on the plate and then studded with plump red pomegranate jewels and the stunning red and rich green of crunchy radish and cucumber spirals.
Our banquet continues when Ishupal comes bearing the much-heralded butter chicken lasagne. It had concerned me that it would not meet the hype I had heard, but in fact, it surpassed all my expectations. The portion was large and I could clearly see the melded layers of incredibly succulent pieces of butter chicken, with mushrooms and a touch of basil between soft layers of lasagne. There was just the right binding of a creamy tomato based sauce and herbs that twirled the dish into an Indian/Italian romance. One that was definitely ordained in heaven.
It came on a bed of pea puree and crowned with a crafted lattice of Parmesan that was embedded upright on the creation. The salad of pea tendrils and purple flowers with the tropical palm tree crafted from a spring onion made the salad look as exotic as the vegetation on a tropical island.
Close up of this very special salad which has an orange dressing
We were offered other curries but felt that we just had to leave room for dessert. We shared a gulab jamun cheesecake. It appeared like Christmas pageantry with a white snow-like layer embedded with the jovial redness of strawberries and the rich green of kiwi slices.
My daughter was also given a kulfi (traditional Indian ice-cream flavoured with pistachios) on a stick. This was presented with great aplomb as Ishupal held it and she was asked to pull it out of the rocket shape mould. It slid out perfectly formed and was the creamy coolness that is the perfect finale to an Indian meal.
Fork and Fingers, as well as being an innovative fusion restaurant, is also one of those rare things in Melbourne: a BYO. But before you go running to your wine rack at home, I should advise you that the drinks here perfectly complement all the dishes and add much to your overall experience. There's Amrut's flagship Indian single malt whisky and a range of Indian beers such as Kingfisher from Bangalore and Haywards 5000, which is India's largest selling strong beer.
The team have also brought in beers from Matsos, an Asian influenced and exotic brewery in Broome and the lychee and mango varieties pair superbly with Indian fusion food. They have also carefully selected wines. I had a glass of Nazaaray Pinot Noir Blend 1, a multi-award winning wine from the Mornington Peninsula. This is a harmonious drop with some sour cherry notes that paired beautifully with dishes such as the Boti on Fire lamb creation.
Next time I will try some of their amazing range of lassi drinks, such as the cranberry and fruit tingle varieties.
While this restaurant is on the other side of town for me, it is certainly on my family's radar for future get-togethers over amazing fusion dishes and perfectly paired drinks. And I have to say that in writing this review, I have to agree with Anais Nin famous quote on writing that — 'We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.' And that is certainly the case when reviewing such a great restaurant.
**Note that there is a wide range of gluten-free dishes and the hospitality is wonderful.