Introducing Piquancy in Hawthorn, gluten-free Indian

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★★★☆

123 AUBURN ROAD, HAWTHORN, 9813 5160
LICENSED & BYO AE MC V EFTPOS
WEDNESDAY TO MONDAY 5.30-10PM
SMALL: $6-$26; CURRIES: $19-$26; DESSERTS: $8

When Piquancy owner Mani Waraich discovered he was gluten-intolerant, his mum freaked out. Bread is the thing in Punjab, the northern Indian state where their family is from, and she worried he might be finished with Indian food. No way. Instead, they worked on a gluten-free naan bread made with quinoa, chickpea and lentil flour. This flaky, pliable flatbread is now a key contributor to the convivial, inclusive atmosphere at Piquancy. “Nothing is worse than watching your friends eat naan,” says Waraich. “I won’t let that happen at our place.”

His place – owned with cousin Ranjit Singh – is a non-traditional Indian restaurant in Auburn village. Open since April, it’s the pair’s second restaurant, and the younger sibling to St Kilda’s Babu Ji. There are family similarities between the two restaurants but the menus are almost completely different and there’s a more neighbourly feel in Hawthorn. Surprisingly, Waraich finds many similarities between Auburn Road and his birthplace of Shivdaspur, a cluster of 25 houses and farms. “Everyone knows everyone, there’s a connection and we fit in so well,” he says.

Waraich grew up on a farmlet and he hopes one day to grow his own food for the restaurants. Quality produce is already a focus and it’s reflected in the prices; this is no Indian cheapie. You can taste it in the free-range achari pork chops, marinated in pickling spices (mustard seeds, onion seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek among them), then grilled in the tandoor. The chops are juicy, tender and full of flavour. They’re served, curiously and successfully, with swede puree, braised red cabbage and prunes. This blending of the traditional and contemporary is a key thread.

A creative approach is also evident in the beetroot paneer, a purplish sandwich where slices of fresh cheese are layered with crunchy carrot, apple and cabbage, and smothered in an earthy beetroot sauce. For the salmon tikka, boneless fish pieces are marinated in a zesty paste of kaffir lime leaves, ginger, garlic and turmeric, then grilled and garnished with dill and candied blood orange. The flavours are vigorous but the presentation is refined. You’d expect the vegetarian selection to be good but you might not anticipate something as luscious and tasty as the anjeer ke kofte, cashew and fig dumplings in a thick gravy.

Almost everything on the menu is gluten-free, not so Waraich can eat it himself, but because many of his customers are avoiding wheat. It’s smart business but also part of a light-and-bright effort that sees olive oil used in cooking instead of traditional ghee: they want you to leave with a spring in your step not a curry slump in the making.

Piquancy is a two-level Victorian with a high-ceiling main dining room dominated by a mustachioed mural and enlivened with Bollywood movie projections. As at Babu Ji, there’s a help-yourself beer fridge and a clever wine list that partners nicely with the food. There’s also an upstairs parlour, which is a good option for your next birthday dinner. But even if you’re not celebrating, the Piquancy crew will try to turn your visit into a special occasion: this is a warm, winning restaurant with an open-minded approach to flavour and a big heart.

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It’s easy to avoid gluten when eating Japanese (make sure you’re seasoning with tamari not soy sauce, and avoid dumplings). Warm up at Komeyui with shareable hotpots, perhaps duck and abalone. If you’re a bone broth fan, order an extra ‘collagen bomb’ for your soup.

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