Mangalorean-style XO pipis. Kerala prawn curry with toasted coconut. Kulfi lamingtons with pistachio sponge and milk sorbet.
With a new chef comes a fresh perspective and an opportunity to excite and revitalise a team, and it was with this sense of regeneration that Flinders Lane heavyweight Tonka welcomed Chanon Boriharnvanaghet as its new chef this year. Boriharnvanaghet has since assembled a new team of young creative chefs from a range of backgrounds who’ve brought fresh ideas, techniques and flavours into the Tonka kitchen, and while the menu’s time-honoured classics remain present and intact, there’s a whole lot of new deliciousness to explore as we enter the restaurant’s second decade.
On the eve of Tonka’s 10th birthday, here’s chef Chanon Boriharnvanakhet with what’s good on Duckboard Place.
Tonka is turning 10 this year. What’s it all about in 2023?
As much as Tonka has a strong identity, I believe that as a chef I am responsible for respectfully implementing my own food identity with into the menu.
Some excellent Tonka staples will remain, but there is plenty of room to work around these dishes. My approach to food at this point in my career has become much more minimal: I don’t like overly complicated foods where the customer will have to think and identify what they are eating. Rather, I prefer spending time paying attention to the ingredients presented and focusing on techniques to promote their natural flavours.
Which dish best captures the vibe of your new menus?
I think the tandoor half chicken with preserved lemon raita or the grilled oysters best captures my approach to the menu: simple and delicious. There are other more technical dishes in the smaller section like celeriac pani puri, the smoked mussel idli and the grilled octopus with almond cream and sweet potato crumb.
I’ve always been very larder-focused throughout my career and drawn to smaller intricate items that allow customers to try a variety of dishes. I also believe that many places pay less attention to main course dishes, so I like to make sure that after an assortment of interesting different flavours, people are presented with something simple and well prepared as a main. Something that provides comfort and that is accessible.
How do you see the Indian food scene in Melbourne?
The Indian food scene in Melbourne from my perspective has never really gained as much traction as other cuisines that are in and out of favour. In saying that, there is definitely a wide range of choices, from take-away to casual food hall-style dining to higher-end places, all of which I find are more rooted in family-style traditional Indian.
My approach complements these places. I would like to separate myself from tradition and provide what Coda and Tonka has always brought to the table, using techniques and flavours that represent Indian cuisine, with some variations.
Are there aspects of Indian cuisine that you’re particularly eager to explore at Tonka?
There are several aspects in Indian cuisine that I would like to explore but from no region or culture in particular. Currently, I’m very focused on northern Indian food, but as we get into spring and summer, I would like to explore foods from southern regions in India – particularly coastal seafood-driven dishes.
You’re right in the heart of bar-hopping central Melbourne; is Tonka 2023 somewhere you can pop in for a snack, or more somewhere that’s about settling in for a meal?
Tonka is a place for both snacking and having a full meal, especially now that the Thali Bar is open again; a great area to pop in for a drink and pick from our extensive snacks menu.
And what if we’re at Tonka to go all out and really go wild. How would you go large with a gang?
We have chef’s menus for groups of six or more. We also have groups who book out the whole venue. If this is your type of big night out, you can essentially eat the whole menu, from exciting snacks to chicken and fish dishes from the heart of the tandoor and rich and warming curries with their multitude of accompaniments.
How about those of us who don’t eat the animals? What’s good?
There are some real hidden gems in the vegetarian section. Pani puri, the eternal classic, paneer tikka that comes straight from the tandoor, and the mushroom pakora and pumpkin saag both dial up the heat and remind you that you are in an Indian restaurant.
And to close?
After a big meal with us, clean and fresh is the only way. For this, the ice-cream sandwich currently gives you an edible mango lassi. Plus the gulab jamun is always a favourite.
Tonka, 20 Duckboard Pl, Melbourne, open noon-3pm and 5.30pm-9.30pm Mon-Wed, noon-3pm and 5.30pm-9.30pm Thu, noon-10.30pm Fri-Sat, noon-9.30pm Sun, (03) 9650 3155, tonkarestaurant.com.au, @tonkarestaurant