In Short: Masala Darbar delivers an authentic Indian dining experience in Surry Hills. If you enjoy a good dosa, it’s definitely worth sampling it here.
Cleveland Street is quite the enigmatic street. It runs through trendy Surry Hills and Redfern; a suburb that’s going through gentrification at break neck speed, yet it’s noisy and a hive of activity. In many ways it’s a metaphor for India. A country that’s shaking off its colonial past and developing into being a tiger of Asia. It’s only appropriate that the Surry Hills end of Cleveland Street is home to a bevy of Indian restaurants. Masala Darbar presents itself as a restaurant that prides itself on authenticity. A family operation, with the head chef being the father and two siblings running front of house, there are decades of cooking experience to draw on.
We arrive for an early dinner and take a seat by the window to watch the frenzy that’s Cleveland Street. The decor is contemporary, though as a photographer myself, I really enjoy perusing the imagery on one of the walls. As with our visit to Banarasi Babu, Masala Darbar take a minimalist approach resisting the temptation to adorn the restaurant with paraphernalia from the subcontinent.
With south Indian blood running through my veins, we decide to focus on dishes that represent the south. First off to arrive at our table is Malabar fish fry. Chunks of marinated fish with southern Indian spices, with a crispy spiced batter, and grated coconut. The fish remained moist, and I loved the mint and yoghurt dipping sauce.
For me growing up here in Australia, having mum prepare the rice flour and lentil mix was rare, and signalled that it was a treat. Usually, the batter mixture was left to ferment overnight and we would enjoy lovely dosai the following day. At Masala Darbar, the masala dosa is impressively long, thin, and crispy and has that tangy sourness from the fermentation. It meets all the requisites for a perfect dosa/dosai. An added bonus with a masala dosa is it’s filled with a spiced potato mix. What sets Masala Darbar’s version of dosa apart is the serving of a spicy relish of onion and garlic. I really enjoy this condiment, which is commonly served with the dosa in Chennai.
We interrupt our southern Indian sojourn to try everyone’s favourite, butter chicken. It’s ubiquitous, standard fare of almost every Indian establishment in town. Masala Darbar’s take is executed to perfection. While most butter chickens tend to be sweet, I appreciate the spicy kick here, and there’s still the unmistakable smokiness that’s imparted into the chicken. Safe to say that Masala Darbar passes the butter chicken test.
To finish dinner, we sample another south Indian curry, a Malabar prawn curry. It’s an aromatic, mild curry with a deft hand used in spicing the curry. It’s thick gravy clings to chunky prawns, that were perfectly cooked absorbing the flavours of the gravy. I love the coconut milk that does it magic dance with chilli powder, coriander seeds, fenugreek and cardamom.
If you can tear yourself away from Crown Street when in Surry Hills, just walk a couple hundred metres, turn left, and you will find yourself sampling Indian food which is meticulously prepared. While the menu is extensive, I thought the south Indian dishes we sampled really hit the mark.
*Coco and Vine dined as guests of Masala Darbar & The Bamboo Garden Agency