Palak patta chaat $13
Who knew spinach could taste so good?
The secret, of course, is it's deep-fried. To create palak patta chaat, single leaves of spinach are dipped in a thick besan (chickpea) batter and then fried to a crisp golden brown. Piled into a steep and craggy mountain, the entire mass is drizzled with a rainbow of sauces: snow white yoghurt, pale green mint and chilli sauce, and daubs of toffee-coloured date and tamarind sauce.
It's a dish that gloriously combines textural contrasts, the earth-shattering crunch of nutty batter refreshed by cleansing yoghurt, cool mint and sweet and tangy tamarind. It's like an Indian version of nachos, with chickpea crisps. The thick batter means the dish doesn't go soggy, not that it has a chance to, for we demolish the plate with ease.
Chaat are savoury nibbles usually bought from carts on the street in India and Pakistan. The version here at Aki's is undoubtedly elegant, yet the flavours are pronounced enough to please.
Aki's sits at the start of the Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo. It's a glorious day with the sun beaming overhead, seagulls squawking in the distance, and the click clack of well-dressed heels along the wooden pier. Do I find myself down this end of town often? Not really, but an invitation to dine as a guest was too tempting to resist.
Though we may be far from the streets of India, it's reassuring to see many traditional dishes on the extensive menu, even if they have been given a gourmet twist. Iddiappam, or string hoppers, are a southern Indian specialty. Rice flour dough is forced through a special press that creates noodle-like strings which are shaped into a lacy round and steamed.
The fine noodles are perfect for soaking up the sothi, a coconut broth usually made by infusing coconut milk with onion, saffron, garlic and curry leaves. Stringhoppers are usually eaten with fingers and torn into manageable mouthfuls. It doesn't seem quite appropriate to use fingers here, so we use our heavy cutlery instead. On top of the string hoppers are flakes of fragrantly sweet and fresh blue swimmer crab, rich with tomato, ginger and fresh black mustard seed.
I find the crab and the string hopper are little too similar in texture, preferring to appreciate and savour them separately.
Baingan ka bhurta $19
The aroma of the tandoor smoked eggplant is unmistakeable when it arrives. Tinged a burnt orange from the abundance of tumeric, the smoky eggplant flesh has been combined with tomatoes, onions and burnt red chillies. On the rim of the plate are dabs of extra smoked chilli in oil which we mix in with glee.
Our tongues tingle as we relish each spicy but comforting mouthful. It's my favourite dish after the palak patta chaat.
Garlic naan is fresh from the tandoor - not the usual fluffy fat bread you often find, but flatter in size, although still soft, with small bubbled pockets that are tinged with brown.
Madras prawn vendakai $36
as featured on MasterChef Australia
Madras prawn vendaki is a dish familiar to anyone to religiously watches MasterChef Australia. The dish was featured in one of the Friday night MasterClasses, a hearty and colourful seafood stew cooked by owner of Aki's and Abhi's restaurants, Kumar Mahadevan. We find peeled jumbo prawn and bright green okra or vendakai, just cooked so the flesh is still firm without the stickiness that comes from a longer simmer.
The prawn heads have been left in the tamarind soup for extra flavour, boosted by mustard, fenugreek, coconut, cumin and curry leaves.
Patiala goat curry $27
Too few restaurants serve goat, it seems, so we immediately order the slow-cooked goat. The chunks of meat fall of the bone, the deep-red sauce of tomato, ginger, cardamom, garlic, nutmeg and mace tempering its gamey flavour.
Pilau rice has a pleasing firmness, the separated grains are dry enough to absorb the curry sauces which we slather on our plate.
Peshwari naan $5
I'm also impressed by the peshwari naan
which is generously filled with raisins and shredded coconut. The sweetness of this bread always appeals to me, but I find it works so well with curries too.
Chocolate naan with fresh strawberries $13
The dessert has six dishes and after toying with the idea of wattalappam
, a palm sugar and coconut flan, I throw caution to the wind and order the chocolate naan. I'd expected a chocolate dough so I'm a little disappointed when it arrives as a plain naan rolled up with chocolate sauce and sliced like a Swiss Roll.
Fresh strawberries and candied lemon rind don't really work for me either, reminding me more of a chocolate pizza, although I presume this one would be popular with kids.
On the other hand, beetroot halva is a much more interesting offering. Though it resembles a summer pudding, the beetroot halva is nothing like that, a sweet and nutty combination of beetroot, cashews, ghee, sultanas and milk. The earthiness of the beetroot, spiced with cardamom, really comes through. A pat of edible silver foil adds decadence.
An accompanying scoop of rose petal ice cream provides a welcome palate cleanser.
Traditional Indian chai $5
A cup of traditional Indian chai is the perfect way to finish our meal. It's not overly strong, despite the warning that its preparation will take 15 minutes (it takes about ten).
Prices are a touch higher here because of the location, but sometimes a view is enough to make you feel like you're on holiday. And those deep-fried spinach leaves - they're enough to transport you to a momentary state of bliss.
Grab Your Fork dined as a guest of Aki's, Woolloomooloo.
1/6 Cowper Wharf Road
Tel: +61 (02) 9232 4600
Lunch Sunday to Friday from 12pm
Dinner Monday to Sunday from 6pm