Rajesh Wahi has quite an eponymous reach that extends to three restaurants currently in Melbourne – Ginger Club in Broadmeadows, Ginger Club in Roxburgh Park, and Ginger Club in Melton. The food that he serves and is written about is not fusion but authentic Indian cuisines that are a product of his sound background in hospitality. In India he worked at the Centaur, Delhi, for many years serving former premiers such as Rajiv Gandhi before he moved to New Zealand where he has been credited with quietly changing the concept of Indian food. In Melbourne he ran the successful Balti Indian Cafe in Carlton and Chimney Indian Restaurant in Fitzroy for 11 years and in what was ‘an emotional decision’ sold them to look after his son born after nine years of marriage. Three years ago, he got back into business with a bang setting up Ginger Club in Broadmeadows and subsequently in Roxburgh Park. The one in Melton is a few weeks old.
At a glance, Ginger Club in Melton stands humbly right next to the red glitzy lights of Nandos that one could even miss it signs. But it opens to a surprisingly warm and big space. It is Thursday night and only three weeks old, customers are trickling in for takeaway orders. So we are able to monopolise the company of Wahi, chef and owner. This is Wahi’s ninth restaurant and his stories whet our appetite.
We begin with an entrée of pakoras made of fresh vegetables and sliced onion slightly spiced and deep fried in golden batter, seekh kebab and chicken tikka accompanied by mint sauce. The assortment is a good choice as it gives us a flavourful plate to begin with of crunchy pakoras, soft chicken tikkas that have the succulent taste of meat having been well marinated overnight.
With a menu that is not cluttered with offerings, it is easy for us to pick our mains. Wahi says they specialise in anything with spinach, the tandoor, of course, and any English Indian dishes. Interestingly, when in New Zealand the high number of English tourists visiting that country prompted Wahi to take a three-month tour of England to work as kitchen hand in restaurants just to learn the names of food spelt differently there. The result: he came back with the popular Balti dishes, something that he was already doing but under a different name. It was one of the best breaks he took and resulted in resounding success of his restaurant the Balti House in Auckland where former premier Helen Clarke was a regular customer amongst many others.
Although we gave the Balti dishes a skip, we ordered palak paneer or spinach with cottage cheese, dal makhni, chilli garlic prawns, goat curry, rice and olive and cheese naan or bread. The chilli garlic prawns was not an Indo-Chinese version but it was one of the best I have had in a long time. Cooking prawns is a tricky business says Wahi as it has to be tossed only for a few minutes, otherwise it becomes chewy. And on a nutritional scale, very healthy than what is served under the Indo-Chinese meals with its deep fries and temperings. Overall very tasty food and it helped that Harpreet, one of Wahi’s longest associates, was serving us and explaining the components despite being visibly busy for the big banquet the restaurant was hosting the next day. A special mention must be made of the sweet dish – the gulab jamuns or milk dumplings cooked in rose water and sugar syrup combined with pistachio ice cream. Very comforting, smooth rich desserts on a pouring Thursday night!
Wahi sticks to the regular menu and it is simple and true to taste. He has however started serving South Indian dishes at Broadmeadows. “I want the customers to get used to my food and once they get used to it they can’t go back to any other. That’s the taste we want to build up,” he says. Perhaps that explains why on most days he is at the front of the restaurant explaining to customers the variances of the big cardamom pods they sometimes comes across or the cloves. Having seen his grandfather’s restaurant flourish for 50 years in Moradabad in India, Wahi remembers the chefs whose recipes he still follows. Therefore, he wants his food to “reflect me”.
Ginger Club in Melton is picking up business. For Wahi it is worth dividing his time and driving all the way here every day as taps into this new opportunity and new clients. With more than two and half decades of experience under his belt, Wahi is proud of the fact that Ginger Club retains its Indian-ness and traditional flavour against Melbourne’s fusion and ever-changing food scene!
By Indira Laisram