Varun Gujral, the head chef at the new and upmarket Manjits@TheWharf, presents an exciting modern take on age-old favourites, as foodies Instagram away. RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA and KIRA SPUCYS-TAHAR report
As a young boy experimenting with cocktails in the family kitchen, Varun Gujral scandalised his mum when he suggested sawing her rolling pin in half to make a muddler. He was looking for something to crush fruit for an ‘imli’ (tamarind) margarita.
This week, his family stood by and watched as Sydney foodies savoured Varun’s special brand of modern Indian cuisine at the family’s brand new restaurant, Manjits@TheWharf.
At the official launch of the up-market restaurant at Lime Street in Darling Harbour, Varun oversaw a menu that brought a whole new meaning to the world of Indian food. For the entrées, the fish malai with infused oils and bharrah kebab with beetroot and mint raita proved to be crowd favourites. For the main course, it was hard to go past the theatrics of the baingan taka tak, arriving at the table under a cloche filled with steam as the eggplant was smoked to perfection. The chicken biryani baked in a pie brought to life that old children’s nursery rhyme, while the Kochin bug curry had people squabbling over the last mouthfuls.
Guests were also treated to a naan making masterclass, able to ‘slap’ the dough against the inside of the traditional tandoor oven, and watch as it slowly baked under the heat of the scorching wood fire beneath. Everyone was able to embrace their inner desi, with women adorned with bindis and shawls, and the men encouraged to wear pagris atop their heads.
As guests ate their way through the extensive tasting menu, there was a lot of love in the room. Manjit paid an emotional tribute to his family, including sons Varun and Karandeep, daughter-in-law Natasha, wife Kanwal (who was at home taking care of new baby Nishka), as well as his committed team of wait and kitchen staff.
Sydney’s Indian community is more than familiar with the name Manjit, the Balmain-based restaurant launched by Manjit Gujral that has now gone on to become much more.
With Manjit’s Function Centre, and with its outdoor catering, the company has stamped its mark in as leaders in the field. But with the new venture, Manjits@TheWharf, they are pushing the boundaries of Indian cuisine.
And it’s 28-year-old chef Varun, who’s spearheading this innovation in the kitchen, creating his works of art for a new generation of Instagram-obsessed diners.
Pani puri with vodka? So last century! Over here, it comes with caviar.
Scallops, cooked ever so gently and served with an ‘artist’s palette’ spread of 17 different powdered spices to dip into.
Fish malai with yuzu and miso infusion.
Chicken tikka marinated in soy sauce and mirin.
Rogan josh improved with pomegranate molasses.
Chat papdi served in an ‘ice cream cone’ pastry.
Mango lassi, aerated.
A reconstructed Shahi Tukra (Indian-style bread pudding), and apple jalebi (inspired, apparently by the humble McDonald’s apple pie).
‘Malaya Prawns’, a modest tribute to the neighbour next door who has always been an inspiration.
The biggest naan you’ll ever see, which goes a quarter of the way round the tandoor, and can easily serve a table of six. (“It’s still a work in progress,” the young chef notes with hesitation. “We want to go all the way round the tandoor in one big splash!”)
Much effort goes into presentation – it’s all very Instagram-worthy!
Like with most chefs, it all started at home for Varun who lists his grandma as a major source of inspiration. From those early family influences, he honed his skills at Manly College, worked at Shangri La’s Blu Horizon Bar and Altitude, and at The Pullman, and then at his own family’s establishments Manjit’s at Balmain and the function centre at Concord.
The hard-working Varun, aka the most eligible bachelor in Sydney’s Indian community, impresses with his enthusiasm for invention and innovation.
“The Balmain restaurant is good old-school fare,” he states. “With Manjits@TheWharf, it’s my own interpretation.”
But it’s tough work. He claims to be experimenting constantly, and admits some dishes take three or four years to perfect.
“I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas! There have been many experiments that went wrong, of course. Coffee and lamb for instance is a sensational new combo, but with the Indian elements it all clashed badly.”
He’s just gone through a tamarind phase (even putting it into ice cream), and reveals lemongrass is the current flavour of the month in his kitchen.
He’s excited also at the prospect of getting his hands into native Australian ingredients like finger lime and Davidson plums. Balmain bugs in Indian style have already made it on to the menu, having passed the scrutiny of the senior Gujrals.
His favourite from all his preparations? Scallops, from the current menu. The dish came about as he tucked into an “over-masala-ed” preparation at an Indian restaurant interstate. “It was a beautiful piece of Australian produce, and I thought it deserved so much more respect.”
The restaurant won some acclaim for its ‘Roo Vindaloo’ on Australia Day, and this has urged Varun to consider camel and emu.
‘Outside the box’ and ‘pushing the boundaries’ are clearly Varun’s favourite phrases. Not surprising, given Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame and Heston Blumenthal are his other inspirations, as is Atul Kochchar of UK who is developing Indian cuisine to a new level.
The reconstructed Shahi Tukra is a case in point. Some commentators claim the deconstruction takes away from the essence of the dish.
“I think it enhances the enjoyment of the dish,” Varun shoots back. “You can feel the textures in the fresh baked bread in my shahi tukra, and you pour over to the consistency you want. I’m constantly seeking ways to improve age-old preparations, and what better way to do it than by making them more interactive?”
You’d agree with dad Manjit when he says, “It’s time to let NextGen take over, with their special interests taking the company forward.”
And what are Varun’s own long-time plans?
“A smaller venue maybe where I’ll cook for maybe 30-35 people at a time. But that’s a fair way away. The Wharf is my life for now!”
He’s been on the phone at constant intervals throughout this interview talking plans for the upcoming Valentine’s Day rush…
Oh, by the way, the Imli Margarita from those teenage days is on the menu: give it a try, but only if you are an old hand at Indian cuisine.
Aerated mango lassi – now that’s more like your conventional Indian restaurant order, but in new clothes!
Plus for the ten best reasons to go to Manjits@TheWharf, click here
Photos: Kashif Harrison