It’s well and truly a post-pandemic Diwali, folks, and while we’ll still be cautious, we’re not going to hold back. As our restaurants return to normalcy, staff shortages notwithstanding, they’ve opened their doors wide to welcome us back in. Come on, admit it, you’ve missed them!
And since it’s Diwali, and the desire is up for the sweet things in life, here’s our list of the top ten desserts in Indian restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Chalo mouh meetha karen!
Feel free to add to this list and include a story behind the dessert of your dreams from your favourite Indian restaurant – whether traditional or a modern interpretation, satisfying in its simplicity, or dripping with decadence and desire!
Phirni, ENTER VIA LAUNDRY
Helly Raichura is currently serving a phirni at her exclusive Enter Via Laundry that is going down particularly well with her guests. Phirni is an unusual rice pudding, thick and creamy, for which the rice is coarsely ground before it goes into the milk.
Helly’s version is a fruity phirni, the fruit here being blood orange. The pudding comes served in a ramekin, covered with a layer of thinly sliced blood orange, which is in season currently.
If you think that’s unusual for phirni, get a whiff of the saffron used. A luxurious dose of Iranian saffron, with its stronger aroma, elevates the dish to a celebratory level. Being deeper in colour, it goes well with the blood orange too.
Even more intriguingly, there’s a brittle finish to it all, which you tap with your spoon to break before diving in.
Inside, you’ll find the texture is similar to crème caramel, only grainier.
“There’s a technique to phirni that must be perfected,” Helly admits. “Every step has to be just right. It’s a difficult dish to make especially if you’re making it for 40-50 people. But I’m quite pleased with the way it’s been received. It’s quite a festive dish.”
Perfect for Diwali season then – especially one that’s post pandemic.
Gronut, URBAN TADKA
No list of Indian desserts is complete without the iconic gulab jamun, perhaps the best known of Indian sweets. This one at Urban Tadka is not exactly traditional, but it is so spectacular that you simply have to try it.
Is this really a gulab jamun? Or is it a fancy donut?
“It’s a gronut – a gulab jamun shaped like a donut,” co-owner Inder Dua explains. “We serve it hot with cookies and cream ice cream, topped with Persian fairy floss and chopped pistachios.”
He goes on, “We’re always finding new ways to present traditional favourites. We don’t want to transform flavour, just tweak presentation.”
The gronut does wonders for the gulab jamun, actually. “Cooking gulab jamun balls in large quantities, we’ve found the centres can remain hard. Changing the balls to a donut shape, the heat travels uniformly throughout, and the end result is fluffier and easier on the palate.”
Of course this meant they had to create a custom saancha (mould) to produce donuts of uniform shape and size. But the effort was well worth it. Just watch your waiter’s face light up when you say you’d like to try the gronut.
“People dine out for an experience,” Inder muses. “We’re happy to provide one.”
Chidiya Ka Ghosla, ATTA
The Chidiya Ka Ghosla (literally ‘bird’s nest’) at Atta restaurant is wonderfully intriguing, in both flavour and texture. It comes in a white chocolate shell, with a delicate pistachio floss creating the nest illusion. Inside, you’ll find two varieties of kulfi – blueberry and cardamom – to represent ‘eggs’.
The chef at Atta Harry Dhanjal is responsible for creating this exotic dish (he chooses to call it a ‘composition’). Describing the different layers in it, he says, “The pistachio floss, which most people tuck in to first, melts in the mouth like air. Then there’s a symphony of flavours – the blueberry kulfi bringing in a hint of sourness, the cardamom kulfi a delicate richness, and the chocolate doing its own thing.”
Because, he concludes with a smile, “We want your dining experience with us to end on a high note.”
Mohanthal with Ice Cream, CHATKAZZ
How often is it that a restaurant puts a dish on the menu because clients asked for it repeatedly? Well, Chatkazz at Harris Park says it listens to its regular customers.
As a restaurant Chatkazz is known for its hugely diverse menu, but its distinct Gujarati cuisine and Mumbai-style street food truly stand out. And so, if you want a traditionally Gujarati dessert like Mohanthal, this is where you’ll find it.
“Yes it’s true – you probably won’t find this dessert on any other restaurant menu,” manager Hiren tells us.
Mohanthal is a fudge made of chickpea flour or besan. It is prepared much like burfi although it is grainier in texture, spread out in a plate (thal) to set and then cut into pieces.
At Chatkazz, a Mohanthal slice is heated in a pan to melt, and then poured into a bowl. It is served hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and nuts sprinkled on top.
A spectacular winter dessert.
Kulfi, DAUGHTER IN LAW
“Tastes like chai,” non-Indian diners have said to Jessi Singh, chef and owner at Daughter In Law, after their first bite of his kulfi.
“I know it’s actually the cardamom and cinnamon they’re referring to,” Jessi laughs, “but I find myself calling my kulfi ‘chai kulfi’ now!”
Kulfi is a perfect palate cleanser, says Jessi, especially after a spice-heavy meal. His version is fully home-made, cooked in the traditional way he learned in his native Punjab.
Full cream milk sits simmering for 8-10 hours, with cloves and pistachios going in as well as the other ‘chai flavours’ his diners readily identify.
An interesting addition though, is honey, locally sourced from Mornington. “It’s an amazing binder, with just the right amount of sweetness,” Jessi reveals.
When it all boils down, it goes into kulfi moulds, the most authentic you’ve ever seen, and then into the deep freeze to set.
At the restaurant, it is served in its mould, decanted on the table.
Just like grandma made it.
Aam Ki Zulfi, NILGIRI’S
Ajoy and Meera Joshi’s Nilgiris is well-known for its menu change every three months.
These days, they’re on a ‘trip back home’ with their food, going back to the original form of subcontinent cuisine one region at a time. (The theme currently is ‘Undivided Bengal’).
“It’s all authentic fare,” Ajoy says. “No anglicised or fusion versions of Indian cuisine anymore. I’m loving retaining the original names of dishes too.”
At the moment, a dessert he’s offering is based on the mangoes from Eastern India.
His Aam ki Zulfi (not kulfi, please note) is a kind of brulee, made with mangoes and almond meal but significantly, with no eggs.
Sitting on top of it, is his version of aampapad (or fruit leather, made of mango pulp and then dried in the sun).
“I cook my aampapad to just before the sukhana (drying) stage, so that it retains its toffee-like texture.”
The top of this mango toffee is decorated with a mango gel or glaze, giving it all a glowing saffron colour.
Go on, crack that shell, but with the gentlest of taps…
Tiramisu Gulab Jamun, ISH RESTAURANT
When opposites attract… magic can happen.
In this Italian-Indian marriage, the light and airy tiramisu comes together with the dense gulab jamun, and converts to finger-licking goodness.
Of course it’s only elements of tiramisu here, as owner-director Akshay Thiparani of ISH Restaurant explains – which come in the form of the coffee mascarpone cream first.
“It’s made from scratch in-house, with high quality coffee beans locally sourced. We sit our pieces of gulab jamun in the mascarpone cream, throw in some chocolate-covered raisins, and then finish off with a drizzle of chocolate powder.”
It’s a recent addition on the menu, and its glass tumbler presentation is adding to the wow factor of it all.
It’s Akshay’s favourite “pick me up”.
Fresh Jalebi, JAIPUR SWEETS
It’s almost as if there’s spiritual blessing behind Jaipur Sweets’ iconic fresh jalebis. No wonder they’re such a big hit.
Such a big hit in fact, that you can safely assume there’ll be a wait of 30-40 minutes before you get your fingers on that hot, sticky deliciousness.
Such a big hit in fact, that the local commerce association says it has raised the business profile of the famous eat street considerably.
Jaipur Sweets launched in the area three years ago, after a successful CBD run. It wasn’t a smooth launch, and exhausted chef and owner Narinder Singh decided he would provide langar (free food service) once a week as a way of saying thanks.
Some 70 people turned up the first week. Today, 900-1000 free meals are served every Tuesday at lunch.
“Everyone is welcome,” Singh says. “This is my form of community service.”
The jalebis, served as dessert, went down like hot cakes, literally. People came back for more on other days of the week. They vanished so quickly that Singh had to start making them on the premises. Very soon he had to install an automated machine, then a second one; today, he’s sourcing two more to keep up with demand.
Talk of Indian desserts in restaurants, and the live jalebis at Harris Park will be on anyone’s list.
Interestingly, there hasn’t been a price upgrade in three years, even though there’s been quality upgrade.
So what’s Jaipur’s secret?
“Only the purest ingredients,” Singh replies. “The best almond meal, the purest saffron, organic sugar, premium quality organic New Zealand ghee.”
And the spirit of seva (community service).
Classic Cassata, DESSERT CORNER
If the term ‘cassata’ brings back childhood memories of ice cream treats, try the fare at Dessert Corner, a Melbourne food truck. While it lists some truly unique faloodas and rabris, owner-operators Deval and Yogi Patel reveal it is the Classic Cassata that’s the biggest seller. “We’ve never had a customer who hasn’t fallen in love with our Classic Cassata,” they laugh.
Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of it all, or perhaps it’s the pure wholesomeness of it. No artificial flavours are used, “only fresh ingredients, from the ground up,” according to the Patels. Like all their preparations, this dish is egg-free, alcohol-free and gelatin-free.
The layers here are vanilla, orange, tutti frutti, mango and pistachio ice creams, with cashew sprinkles on top. The ice creams themselves are dense, quite kulfi-like.
For more ice creams that taste like nostalgia, check out Thandai Ice Cream, Khoya Ice Cream, and the new item on the menu, South Indian Coffee Ice Cream, launched this month on World Coffee Day.
Soon to come, Guava and Black Salt Ice Cream – that should take you back too!
Shahi Tukda, MANJIT’S WHARF
Shahi Tukda is a bread pudding of sorts, enhanced in Mughal fashion with evaporated milk instead of custard, and embellished with saffron and nuts. At Manjit’s, this traditional favourite is presented to you deconstructed. The prepared bread is brought out to you, with the chilled, sweet, luscious cream on the side. Your waiter pours it over the bread as you watch.
“The idea is to balance the crispness with that melt-in-your-mouth feel, and the warm-yet-cold play on the palate,” Chef Varun Gujral describes.
The end result, he says, is like a “big hug from your grandma on a cold rainy winter’s night.”
The concept came to him as he researched the food of the kings – preparations that have lost their meaning or have been forgotten.
Funnily enough, the dish has found fans in modern-day royalty.
“I served it once to King Abdullah, Queen Rania and Prince Hussein of Jordan,” he reveals. “The Prince came back the following night and indulged.”