It all started innocently enough. After blogging about another Sydney café last week, I was contacted on Twitter by a Surry Hills cafe I hadn’t heard of called Coffee Garam and asked if I could stop by for a visit. I’m a bit wary of places I haven’t heard about, since I generally know about a place if it’s worthwhile, especially when it’s in my hood, so I put it on my to-do list and thought little of it.
So on the way home to today, hooning on the Vespa to get out of the rain, it somehow came to me that this mysterious café wouldn’t be too far of a diversion. So I backtracked to Foveaux Street and made the obscure right onto Bellevue Street, and pulled in front of a lacklustre-looking windowfront. I peeked inside, saw two Indian gentlemen serving food to tradies and students, and backdropped by a cheesy-looking row of blackboards touting bland Australian café choices and cluttered with very 1980s generic paintings of produce and foodstuffs. If it wasn’t for the rain, I probably would have bolted.
Instead, I resigned myself to enjoy the free Wi-Fi and order a latte made with Vittoria coffee – good enough, but not the kind of thing that gets you excited in a suburb teeming with terrific Single Origin and Campos coffee. My coffee came back, well, a lot better than I expected. And that’s when I noticed the innocently placed table placards with photos and descriptions of a few types of chaat, otherwise known as Indian street food. I also looked up to notice a fuller list of several chaat on one of the blackboards, squeezed between egg-and-bacon rolls and ho-hum sandwiches. I also noticed that they served pots of Indian masala chai.
I got up to order a chai and, erm, chat about the chaat. The chef, enjoying my curiosity, asked me if he could make me something that wasn’t on the menu. When chefs get excited, it’s always best to let them work their magic, so I sat back down and awaited my surprise. What arrived was an epiphany – a colourful, rich and moreish plate of papri chaat. Before me was crispy strips of deep-fried pastry (I’d actually call them noodles) mingled with pieces of potato, red onion, other crispy thin noodles called ‘sev’, coriander, turmeric-and-chilli flavoured yellow split peas and a coating of silky yoghurt sauce. The chef finished it off with a sprinkling of dried garlic and chilli. I scoffed every bit of it.
How, how I wondered, could such wonderful food be hidden behind uninspired café staples? I asked that very question to the owner, Harvey Parekh, a Mumbai native who quit his sales job at Fitness First to open this five months ago. He said he started with serving chaat, but the local customers only wanted food they were familiar with. It made me want to bash certain locals with a cricket bat, but before I could think of knocking some sense into people between the uprights, Harvey said that he’s looking at building a full kitchen and again expanding his array authentic Bombay treats. “In Bombay, chat is more popular than curries,” he tells me, bemoaning the lack of authentic Indian food in Sydney.
The chef, Raj Mehta, hails from Delhi and it’s obvious that all of his skill and joy goes into the chaat offerings. We’re talking dishes like bhel puri: puffed rice with tomato, green mango, onion, coriander and dual chutneys, one with green chilli, coriander and mint, and the other with palm sugar, fresh tamarind and fennel seeds. “It is originally from Gujarat, but nowadays primarily identified with the beaches of Mumbai (Bombay)”, reads the under-appreciated placard. Then there’s the sev puri: little puffed, fried rounds of dough (puri) stuffed with crispy thin noodles, potatoes, onion and yoghurt, accompanied by tamarind chutney and mint chutney, and spinkled with a chaat masala spice mix.
This is not your typical Aussie Indian food, and it’s a joy to discover it in such an unexpected locale, on the opposite side of town from Cleveland Street’s Little India row. At Garam, there’s also plenty of love given to the masala chai, formed with Hasmuckh tea imported directly from Mumbai – it turns out Harvey’s father is an Indian importer, and it’s his mum that mixes the tea with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and green cardamom. Masala chai appreciation classes will soon be offered, starting with a session this weekend for Twitter peeps.
I’m not sure Coffee Garam has gotten off to the right start, but it appears to be heading in the right direction. A post-Christmas renovation promises new, comfy couches, and an expanded kitchen that can pump out more diverse Indian street food, such as deep-fried spheres of ragada pattice, made with mashed potatoes, yellow peas, onion, turmeric and more. The Garam boys also plan to add a coffee blend dominated by Indian monsoon Malabar coffee, further boosting the Sub-continent flavours that will hopefully start elbowing out the substandard.
I selfishly inquire about the butt-ugly blackboards, and it looks like they’re potentially on the chopping block as well. Which is music to my mouth, since I’ve got a crush on some excellent Bombay chaat and I’d like for the two of us to be alone, with no distractions.
Coffee Garam, 29-37 Bellevue St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 8065 1941; coffeegaram.com