The owners of Madras Brothers understand that people may not really know what Tamil food is or where exactly in India it comes from. But they want their customers to know that it’s worlds apart from many other Indian diners in Australia.
Brothers Hrishi and Magesh Venkatachalam hail from the southern city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras). Both moved to Australia to study in the early 2000s and began working in hospitality. “You just fall into the system and end up with a good understanding of how it all works," says Hrishi.
For the last decade, they've run a curry house in Traralgon called Sari's, making names for themselves in the community and even setting up the town's first boutique cocktail bar at the train station. Their hospo experience skilled them up to face Melbourne's cutthroat restaurant scene so when a 150-year-old Fitzroy space became available, Madras Brothers was born.
Here, the spotlight is on Southern Indian cuisine. "The conflict on the Pakistan–India border forced many Northern Indians to become displaced. So generally there's a lot more Northern Indian cuisine around the world today, and that's what people think Indian cuisine is," says Hrishi.
But Southern Indian cuisine is different — to begin with, there's a lot more fruit and seafood in the south. You can experience this in the meen kulumbu , a fish, coconut and tamarind curry. Or there's the slow-cooked boer goat curry, the vegetarian kurma and the biryani.
But while the six mains are stand-outs, the brothers couldn’t hide from South India’s abundant street food and snack culture. Each of the 17 snacks on Madras Brothers' menu have deeply significant backstories. Try the Marina sundal, a cooked chickpea, tossed coconut, curry leaves and mustard seed starter. It’s a replica of snacks spruiked by children on Chennai's six-kilometre Marina Beach.
Then there's the Madras Cricket Club peanuts. The prestigious MCC was an aristocratic drinking spot and an early food memory for Hrishi, where he’d go with his uncle. They’re roasted, deep fried and seasoned with spices, chopped onions, tomatoes, pepper and lemon juice — the perfect beer snack.
The idli sambar steamed dumplings, inspired by Chennai's landmark Ratna Cafe, are made with fermented lentil curry to be eaten in bulk. The Bombay sandwich is a white bread toastie stuffed with potato, tomato and mint chutney, doused in tomato sauce. And then there’s the pani puri: pastries stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas and coriander with a pour-your-own a mint and tamarind-seasoned dressing on the side.
A nod to their bar is the 'Indian Spice' cocktail list featuring an orange and basil margarita; cherry, tomato and strawberry gin; and a Chai martini. Or, you could go for Southern Indian filter coffee, served near-boiling in a dhabara , a traditional brass cup-and-tray.
There are no Bollywood posters, elephants or Taj Mahal models here. "If you want Indian icons, you should go to India," says Hrishi. Instead, they've styled the space to reflect Melbourne - though they did take their architect and designer on a food pilgrimage around Tamil Nadu for inspiration. As a result, it has industrial sentiments, but bold script on the back wall reads "I am Tamil".
Madras Brothers is open Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday from 5pm to 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday from 5pm to 10:30pm. 29 Smith Street, Fitzroy.
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