Subcontinental in Surry Hills spells out its direction as clearly as a compass: walk in and there are photos from The Singh Project; cocktails are christened after prominent South Asian cricketers (you an bat for a Sourav Sour, Miandad Punch, Murali Negroni, etc); and the regional familiarities – such as Samosas ($5 a serve), Vego Bhaji ($18), Tandoori Lamb Cutlets ($10 each), Daal of the Day ($9) – are as straight-up and satisfying as they sound.
This is the newest venue from Longrain – and Subcontinental takes former parts of the neighbouring Thai restaurant (namely, the Shortgrain canteen and Bunker Bar) and re-establishes these areas as primarily Indian territory.
For a little tableside drama, you can order Pani Puri ($3.50 each), a crisp shell-like snack that’s a landing pad for chickpeas, spiced potato, cucumber, and the short stream of tamarind water that the waiter pours into each appetiser soon after your order surfaces. This dish is designed to override your Instagramming reflexes – you have three milliseconds to eat these before they head into far-gone soggy territory. So enjoy the snappy crunch and appeal of the Pani Puri while you can.
For theatricality, you might be tempted by the Sri Lankan Black Curry with Pork Belly & Pickled Eggplant ($32), hoping it could be dark and gloomy enough to land on the cover of a Norwegian metal album. But despite the bleak-sounding name, it just looks like regular curry, and isn’t black at all (and not in a “let’s get in an internet-fuelled argument over whether it’s really white and gold” kind of way, either). Not debatable, though – how much Will and Dan liked it; the slabs of Berkshire pork belly scoring a savoury lift, thanks to the liveliness of the roasted rice and fresh coconut, and the spice-rack arsenal of cinnamon sticks, house-blended garam masala, curry powder, pandan and curry leaves.
Also really excellent is the Burrata ($22), with the Italian cheese proving to be a surprisingly effective stunt double for the usual Indian staple of paneer; its creamy and clean pay-off is well-matched by mint and orange salad, peanuts and the bracing zing of the ‘green sauce’, an invigorating blitz of mint, coriander, ginger, chilli, peanuts and fresh lime and orange juice.
And even though it’s “just a side”, definitely order the Vego Biryani ($14), it’s a treasure-hunt of crisp sebago potatoes, cauliflower and sweet potato semi-buried by a mountain of rice grains, green flecks of coriander and mint, and a good sifting of coriander, white pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, chilli and cumin.
Because we were wary of being face-slammed by chilli, we steered clear of the Grilled Mushroom & Eggplant, Red Curry & Curry Leaves ($29) after being warned that it had blistering levels of heat. The kick and thrill of chilli is great – but when your tongue gets reset with an unending furnace-blast of rage and pain … Well, there’s nothing fun about that.
But when we registered how mild everything else was, we realised we’d been overly cautious and should have been more daring. So next time, that mushroom and eggplant business is in our sights. And if you’re up for pushing your pain threshold, head chef Victor Chung says the Dry Curry of Okra, Potato and Kashmiri Chilli ($18) has the most firepower.
The most fun way to approach Subcontinental is to go with a larger group and to order as many of the smaller and snackier dishes as possible – you end up with a real flavour lottery, rather than betting everything on just one curry.
Oh and the drinks come with an interesting Asian accent, too – whether it’s a regionally inspired Gin & Tonic of the Day or a Plum “Lassie” – which you can order virgin ($9.50) or spiked with rum ($19).
Given the closely timed openings and shared borders, Subcontinental might score comparisons to Bang, another South Asian venture that also recently started operating in the 2010 postcode. One clear overlap is the fact they both have Kulfi Popsicles ($7 each) on their dessert lists. Subcontinental has an ‘original’ and a mango version, and it’s a no-brainer – get the fruit-flavoured one, it’s tropical and punchy and is a pretty good kiss-off to end the night.