Since opening a few months ago Horn Please has brought a bit of buzz to Indian food in Melbourne, breaking into the Broadsheet scene and popping up in The Age a bunch of times. We ducked in early on a Sunday evening to check them out. I was expecting the hype to mean queues and high demand for tables but things were pretty manageable, probably thanks to the fact that we turned up early (and possibly because half of Melbourne has headed off to the beach or something).
You can see why there's been a good response - the folk at Horn Please (who also run Dhaba Mill in Kyneton and its associated food truck) have gone for a much more stylish fit-out than your typical Indian place. There's a projector firing Bollywood clips at the wall, trendy light fittings dropping from the ceiling and a modern airy vibe. It's a step up from Gujju's or Kake di Hatti - the only remotely similar Indian place I can think of is Lakshmi in Carlton North.
Sunday night is buffet night, and we ended up sitting confused for a while, unsure whether we could still order off the menu or how the buffet worked. After eventually flagging someone down (the few waitstaff were strangely inattentive given how quiet it was), it was explained to us: you can pay $20 and hit the buffet, you can order off the menu, or you can do some combination of the two. We went for a combo, ordering the naan basket ($12, featuring plain, garlic/chive and sesame/onion seed naans) to accompany our attack on the all-you-can-eat curry pots.
There were four vego options on offer (I gather this is the norm, although the specific curries vary regularly): coconut pumpkin curry, aloo bengan, Punjabi khadi and dhal makhani, along with rice, hot sauce and a lovely mixed pickle. We sampled a bit of everything. The coconut pumpkin curry is rich and sweet, with turmeric, cinnamon and mustard seeds providing a very mild spice. Cindy found the richness a bit too much (despite making a pumpkin and blue cheese pie for dinner the night before!) but with a generous dollop of spicy pickle, I thought it was a winner. My main complaint was the sauce:pumpkin ratio, which was way too high. The dhal was a more substantial stew, heavy on the lentils and aromatic with ginger and cumin. It could have used a bit more salt, but was otherwise a nice protein-heavy mush.
The two stand-outs though, were the Punjabi khadi (yoghurt and turmeric based curry, with zucchini, eggplant and chickpea flour fritters) and the aloo bengan (spiced chunks of kipfler potato and eggplant). The fritters in the khadi were wonderful - streets ahead of the standard kofta-style veggie dumplings churned out by most Indian places. Again, I thought they were a bit drowned in the sauce (look at that lonely fritter in the top-left quadrant of the plate below!), but you could keep going back for more until you had your fill. The eggplant and potato curry had the spiciest and most flavourful sauce - where the other curries were going for subtlety and mildness, this one went for a nice hot kick.
A special mention for the naan breads which we failed to photograph - they were wonderfully light with the perfect blend of crispiness and breadiness. I'd come back for them alone. Horn Please also stands out from other Indian places in the drinks department, offering an exclusively local wine list and a stunning array of craft beers. While I wasn't completely won over by the food, I was pretty impressed by the concept: Indian food with fresh, high quality ingredients, a great atmosphere and excellent drinks. I'm keen to go back and try the a la carte menu - especially to sample some of the street-style entrees. Hopefully Horn Please starts an Indian-inspired food craze in Melbourne to rival the Mexican madness that's taken over in the last few years - there's a lot of potential here and I'm keen to see it take off.
Horn Please has already racked up a reasonable number of blog reviews, with Fitzroyalty giving it a rave review. Other positive write-ups came from Gourmet Chick, Epicureaddict, Sharking for Chips and Drinks, Food Words Maz and Time goes by so sweetly....
Newish vego blog Ebezilla was much less impressed, noting the lack of really interesting flavours, despite all the fresh ingredients. I do wonder if they're missing the mark a bit with the vego options, as we fell closer to this view than to the completely positive views of the meatier bloggers.
167 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
Sunday night buffet $20, a la carte veg curries $12-$15
Accessibility: Horn Please has a flat entry way, but there's a single step up from the front bar area to the main restaurant section. Things are reasonably well spaced out. Ordering and payment is at the table.