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Published November 15th 2018
The spirit of Punjab in country Victoria
In the heart of the Grampians lies Halls Gap and at the heart of Halls Gap, there is the Spirit of Punjab Restaurant, a vibrant Indian restaurant that attracts locals and tourists by the dozen. It's so popular, in fact, that in order to meet the demand on weekends there are two sittings; one at 5pm and one at 7.30pm.
Unexpectedly, the garden contains a series of brightly coloured statues which depict the religious stories of peaceful Punjabi village life. In the rear courtyard where diners can take in a magnificent Grampians view of greenery, a lake and the ring of mountains, we are amused by the Disney characters in the collection. Rose bushes grow along the railings of the outdoor terrace dining area and creep up around the statues, a pretty reminder that the weather is warming up and that this will be the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine from the nearby Seppelt's Great Western winery.
The owners of the Spirit of Punjab were determined to bring an understanding of the subcontinent to country Australia when they opened the restaurant eight years ago. Most of the staff wear the traditional Sikh turban and beards. Waiter, Gary, tells me that they want to share the message that, despite having a different religion and culture, Punjabis are just as peace-loving and hospitable as everyone else in the region.
This is my son's first visit to an Indian restaurant and, due to his capacity to handle some spice, we decided to choose a 'mild-medium' option for his first Indian meal. The chilli menu ranges from mild (no chilli) through to 'Volcano Hot'. The Grampians is an area built on volcanic rock but, be warned, this spice warning is not a play on words and there's a chance this level of chilli may, indeed, cause a feeling of fire in your mouth and belly.
The Kakori Kebab, a minced lamb kebab cooked in a clay oven with herbs and spices, is delivered to our table on a bed of salad, quartered lemons and yoghurt infused with finely chopped mint. The kebabs look like sausages on the plate and have a spicy tang, which is cooled by the yoghurt. Crunchy pappadums burst out of their basket and we gobble up the delicious lentil crackers hungrily.
For our main meal, we order a mild-medium butter chicken and the chilli, though truly mild, attacks my son's taste buds and he flaps his arms around and clutches at his throat theatrically. I push the plate of plain naan bread towards him and he swallows a little before trying another mouthful of chicken. Clancy's face flushes red and he starts to fan his face again. Our waiter notices and quickly brings a bowl of yoghurt to help him cool off. When this doesn't appeal, a sweet mango lassi appears and Clancy discovers his new favourite drink.
About to be blown away by spice
The menu offers 90 different authentic Indian dishes and the chefs are obviously skilled and proud. Every dish is plated up artistically. Diners in the restaurant are tucking into vegetable samosas, dhal mahkani, lamb rogan josh and juicy prawns dishes which make my mouth water when I see the waiters parade past our table holding sizzling hot plates of these fragrant meals. For groups of four or more, banquets are available and I highly recommend this course of action. I can't wait to return to the Spirit of Punjab Restaurant and indulge in more of their delicious offerings.