An eye-catching quartet of Paani Poori ($10.90/4) is our first introduction to the new Lal Qila. Building upon the repertoire of their successful Cleveland Street restaurant, this more luxurious King Street Wharf spot refines their offerings with a few fine dining touches.
Presented on top of shot glasses of vividly green tamarind water, Lal Qila keeps these tasty puffs beautifully crisp. This dish is an update on a popular street food in India and Pakistan (where they're called gol gappy) that starts with hollow, fried pastries, punches a hole in them, fills them with sweet chutney, chickpeas, potato and a spice blend called chaat masala, then pours in tamarind water for a whole-of-mouth vegetarian experience that's hard to beat.
If you’re not familiar with Pakistani Mughlai cuisine – the food of the Muhajir people, the Muslim immigrants who left India after the partition to settle in the newly formed Pakistan – order some Pappadums ($5.90) while you peruse the extensive menu. The menu writing alone is worth your attention – you can feel owner/chef Namir Mirza’s genuine enthusiasm for the dishes he’s presenting.
Pakistani food can be understood as conquered cuisine, with each of the conquerors – Persian, Roman, Greek, British and others – leaving traces on the dishes.
You’ll also find hints of these conquerors in the restaurant's décor, which eschews the dim lighting and colourful clutter of the Surry Hills space, for a more elegant, white-tablecloth affair.
Along the figurines, you’ll find some wonderful geometric pieces common to Islamic art, which has had a somewhat varied attitude to figurative art (art that depicts people) over the years.
Being a Muslim restaurant, Lal Qila does not serve alcohol, though they are happy for you to bring your own. They have created a rather unique range of mocktails, which may be an acquired taste. The watermelon-based Jaam-e-Lal Qila ($7.90) was slightly more palatable than the Jaam-e-Taj Mahal ($7.90), which has a heavy, funky masala layer that my mouth struggled to find refreshing. Next time I’d bring wine.
The tandoor oven is put to good effect here, with marinated, thick-cut ling fillets scrubbing up as my favourite item on a well-presented Shahi Thaal ($34.90) mixed platter for two.
It’s quite a lot of food, so if you’re after a smaller adventure into this style of cooking, consider Shahi Kebab-E-Beef ($24.90) - flavoursome beef turned red with tandoori spices, and cooked in the tandoor oven after being squeezed onto metal skewers.
Our mains arrive in an avalanche of food and flavours. I’m impressed with the number of different styles of dishes that are available here, branching beyond the ubiquitous Indian curries you’ll find across Sydney.
Alive with fresh ginger, a hot plate (tawa) of Zafrani Tawa Chop ($26.90) chosen in chicken, has a garam masala, tomato and onion base. Refreshed at the table with a squeeze of lemon, this dish would likely suit those who are not crash hot on heavy curries.
For those who are into curries, we went gaga over the gravy of Handie ($28.90). As we were eating a lot of other meat dishes, we chose to have this one in paneer (cheese) and didn’t regret a thing.
Dipping a traditional sesame-seed sprinkled Pakistani bread - Roghani Naan ($4.90) – into the aforementioned slow-cooked Mughlai curry was a revelation.
For a gentler, smoky curry, the Shahzada-e-Saleem Khas ($22.90) or white korma takes yoghurt and well-sweated onions, and turns them into a thick aromatic sauce. While it will have its fans, I reckon I’d skip over it for a chance to eat biryani.
Arriving in a high-topped dome of starch-free, golden rice, our Dumpukht Biryani ($22.90) was the envy of surrounding tables. It hides well-cooked, bone-in goat pieces, and the portion of it we couldn’t finish re-heated beautifully for lunch the next day.
Put your well-exercised palate back together with an icy treat. There’s a mango kulfi (ice cream) called Aam Ki Kul ($7.90) or an even better pistachio, almond and rose syrup drizzled, condensed milk ice cream called Shahi Kul ($7.90). Be careful not to spear your mouth with the sharp end of the stick.
30 Lime Street, Darling Harbour
Ph: (1300) 525 745