On Friday night I met up with Beth, Mich and Tracy (three lovely ladies from my lab, who've all appeared on these pages before) for dinner. Beth is still dependent on crutches and will be for some time yet, and in the last few weeks at home she has become a regular at the closest restaurant to her home, Nila Junction. The name of Beth's 'local' was unknown to me until only minutes before we arrived and I was very pleased to be visiting Nila - Tracy and Johanna had both already recommended it to me (and Johanna has reviewed the Nila City restaurant here). Nila Junction has the look of a kebab shop or similar takeaway - all tiles and lino, formica tables without cloths and a big shiny hot box. The only thing to set it apart was the TV in the corner, blaring Bollywood hits. Even as they bounced boisterously off the smooth surfaces, our own boisterous conversation was easily heard around the table - I just felt compelled to bob my shoulders to the beat occasionally.
Nila's menu is extensive but quite different to what I usually see at Indian restaurants (you can see it for yourself here, though this menu isn't exactly what we saw). Rather than the clutch of fried entrees followed by a longer list of saucy curries, a few unusual entrees appeared; the smattering of vego mains was devoid of the usual palak paneer and malai kofta but included a Malaysian and a Thai-style curry; then appeared extended lists of roti, dosai, and pizza dosai (!). Deer and goat curries are also available for the adventurous omnivores out there. The most noticable thing of all was the price - not one of the vegetarian dishes exceeds $10, and most mains hover around the $6-7 mark. Our party comprised three vegetarians and one former vego so we chose a bunch of meat-free dishes, spread them around the table and happily sampled as many different things as we could. Unfortunately I didn't get to try the dish that had me most intrigued because they were all out: the tomato rasam with a lentil doughnut. (After breakfast cake earlier in the week, I was really keen to sample a dinner doughnut... next time, Cindy.)
The first to arrive was my plate of pakora ($1.95). Fresh-from-the-frier slices of battered... zucchini, I think. The first curry off the ranks is Tracy's pumpkin puli kolambu ($5.50), the spiciest dish of the night but also tangy with tamarind and very tasty.
We ordered three dosai plates: two of the masala dosai ($4.95), then a cheese dosai ($5.95). The lentil pancake was crunchy, chewy and tender in just the right proportions, with the masala ones filled with warm spiced pototoes, turmeric yellow with black mustard seed polka dots. The cheese one was just that, filled with stretchy, tasty, melty cheeeeeese. The moderately spicy rasam cut through it like a charm. The curry is the Malaysian option, masak lemak sayur campur ($5.50), with tofu, mixed veg and coconut milk. Pleasant, but lost in the crowd of fun dishes this evening.
The third curry is a chickpea masala ($5.50), and very tasty it was. Just a bowl of this and some bread or rice, and I'd be a very happy luncher on any day of the week. Tracy and Beth both ordered cups of teh tarah ($1.50): hot, frothy and condensed milk-sweet tea. I had a punt on the crazy pink concoction on the right, a flavoured rose milk ($3). It was indeed sweet and rosy, with the fragrance and colour reminding Beth of musk sticks. It was more intensely flavoured and less viscous than a lassi, but would do the same cooling job against a challenging curry.
There were a couple of roti to soak up the curries, both plain ($1.50) and potato-stuffed ($3.95). The roti were excellent, piping hot and deliciously flaky. As this gaggle of girls began to slow down (only with the eating, mind; the conversation hadn't lost momentum), Beth's friend Merrick arrived and galantly mopped up our leftovers with two fresh roti. With a new person to be intermittently distracted by and from, we hung around for almost another hour and by then I was ready for what I wanted: dessert. Merrick cheerfully backed up my suggestion and Tracy and Mich subsequently folded without a word of coaxing from me. Merrick generously shared a roti pisang, stuffed with banana ($3.50). If you've ever been a fan of the banana sandwich, you need to try a banana pastry sandwich. Yummo.
Tracy ventured into the unknown with the roti tisu ($3.50), "handkerchief thin crispy corn shaped bread topped with condensed milk". Wow. As big as a hat, the shape successfully kept the bread sheet crisp, even as it dripped in sweet, sweet milk. Several of us took great pleasure in helping Tracy finish this. Mich and I each ordered gulab jamun ($1.50): to be honest it's not the best one I've had, and the syrup was all sugar and no spice at all, not even a whiff of rose water. But I would have left mildly dissatisfied if I didn't at least try it.
Nila Junction sure ain't the Taj Mahal but I'd much rather hang out here for a couple of hours with friends or just to grab a cheap lunch. While not the fanciest Indian food on the block it is astounding value for money and there's nothing like a Bollywood filmclip to brighten my day and get my head bobbing.
Edit 04/07/2010: Nila Junction is no more but there's another cheap and cheerful Indian cafe in its place.
Address: 702 Sydney Rd, Brunswick
Ph: 9383 4888
Price: veg food $1.50-$10