It’s funny what the cooler weather can bring. No more turning up at work already sweating through your clothes first thing in the morning, the enticing aroma of trying new slow cooker recipes, how much easier it is to make shortcrust and flaky pastry without the whole lot dissolving into your hot hands. Night Owl enjoys waking up early when she can to run into work, as now being conveniently close to the Bridge it’s a lovely path along the water into the hustle and bustle of the city. Back in summer I refused to join her as it was hitting mid to high twenties first thing in the morning – over-heating is not my thing. Now the weather’s cooled down dramatically, I take one bleary look outside at the non-Daylight Savings sky outside, declare it’s still nighttime, and roll over back to sleep. Perhaps it’s just time to concede that mornings are not my thing?
Nights are though; maybe I’m becoming more nocturnal than Night Owl? It was one chilly night when Night Owl met me downstairs from my office block near Downing Centre, and we traipsed up the back ways of Surry Hills to Crown Street. It reminded us nostalgically of our early days of dating where we would usually find somewhere new for brunch in Surry Hills or Darlinghurst, and while away the weekend afternoon hours before I walked her up to her next shift at her bar on Oxford Street. There’s always something new and exciting popping up around that part of town, and we had been invited to try a restaurant relatively new to the Crown Street food strip: Masala Theory.
It’s adorably shabby chic and has an old world charm about it, from the fluoro-wheeled bicycle hoisted up on the wall, to the brightly painted wall murals contrasted against the peeled-back white walls, and decorative tiled tables. The music is a funny variety of Bollywood-remixed Top 40 songs such as Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. It’s eclectic, funky and charming.
We are greeted enthusiastically and start with papadums, served with a coriander-based dipping sauce, and two lassis – a mango and a lavender. The lavender lassi is lightly fragrant and not purple in colour in the slightest. Mildly perfumed, it’s refreshing and creamy – I suspect I may need it to combat my spicy meal!
The chef comes to check on us, and I point out some of the dishes I have in mind, but otherwise say that I’m open to suggestions. The first dish he brings out was my requested Three Sisters Chat ($15) with crispy-fried English spinach, garbanzo beans, black chickpeas, sweetened yoghurt, date-tamarind chutney and mint chutney. No prizes for guessing what iconic landmark this dish is modelled off?
The spinach leaves are individually fried and form the height of the dish, standing up in a pile of the beans, chickpeas and chutney, before being flooded in yoghurt. I’ve never had chat before and it’s everything you could have asked for – crispy, creamy, carby, savoury, sweet, spicy.
As we devour it, we are brought over a small dish of Beetroot Poriyal ($6) with mustard seeds, chillies, lentils and coconut, and two Keema Pav ($14), brioche sliders overflowing with a fragrant mixture of lamb mince, onions, tomatoes, mint and garam masala. The brioche is soft and buttery, and it’s the perfect size and the filling is the ideal texture to lift up to your mouth without the mince falling everywhere.
For our mains, we had ordered the Butter Chicken ($25) because of course I wanted to see how it was done here, and the Salli Boti ($27), the chef’s special goat curry, with black cardamom, cinnamon, onion-tomato gravy and topped with match-stick potatoes.
The Butter Chicken was simply divine – tender chunks of chicken thigh, and a beautiful tomato-based gravy which wasn’t overly creamy. The Salli Boti was divine in its own chapter, with the contrasting textures of the falling-apart braised goat meat and the crunchiness of the matchstick potatoes. Both were wonderful curries and didn’t pack much heat; perfect with our Jeera Rice ($6 – Basmati rice tempered with cumin seeds and whole spices), or scooped up with some naan. Can I just say that the Cheese Chilli Coriander Naan ($6) will blow your mind? Should you not be able to finish your curries (because they are very generous servings), I would advise that you pack them home, because like most slow-cooked things they taste even better the next day, and the cheese naan is incredible when popped into the microwave for a short couple of seconds.
At this point we’re struggling, but I plead with Night Owl to persevere with me through to dessert. We order the Chai Panna Cotta ($12) with nut praline and cinnamon glass, which is a deliciously creamy and lightly spiced affair. Served in a shallow dish it’s a perfect consistency and size.
We’re curious to see what the Deconstructed Motichoor Laddoo ($13) is about, with saffron rabdi and dry fruits. The chef explains that it’s a common dessert served at Indian and Bengali weddings, and Night Owl suspects that she’s had it during her brief trip to India many years ago. When it’s brought out, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen or eaten.
It’s amazingly crunchy, nutty and fragrant, and the texture reminds me a little of couscous. Night Owl does some research on her phone and discovers that laddoo are ball-shaped sweets, usually made of coconut, wheat semolina or chickpea flour, combined with sugar and other flavourings before being cooked in ghee and molded into a ball shape.
Deep-fried in ghee – No wonder it tastes so good…. While laddoos (or laddu) are normally about the size of a small fist, these ones have been made miniature and are comprised of chickpea flour, which explains their moreish flavour. I eventually have to make Night Owl put the half-empty glass on the opposite side of the table to me, so that I wouldn’t eat any more.
It’s high time that Indian food in Sydney moved away from the curry-in-a-hurry market! The food is different, flavoursome and delicious with a relaxed yet hip vibe – Masala Theory is a welcome addition to Surry Hills’ Crown Street and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
545 Crown Street,
Surry Hills NSW
(02) 8318 0741