When I push open the door and walk in, The Poet has just opened for lunch. Already I can hear the sizzle of hot pans and smell the heady aroma of fresh spices and the smoky fragrance of a tandoor oven.
This Belconnen café and restaurant has been open for just seven months. Madhav and his team transformed the original space, previously a sushi bar, into The Poet, using their own inspiration and physical labour, no professional decorating team involved. The result is a relaxed industrial look; I am drawn to the emerald-hued chairs and the greenery.
“When it came to choosing our name, we wanted to go with something local,” Madhav says.
“The Corner across the street is run by a writer whose last name is Corner. His latest book is called The Poet and we liked the name.”
Modern apartment blocks and high rises housing local businesses tower over this Indian restaurant, and it is no surprise that The Poet has already attracted a strong local following.
“We are in the right place to sell the right food,” Madhav says.
He worked a long time in the hospitality industry, from the distribution side. They dreamt of opening a restaurant and jumped at the opportunity when it finally came along.
“We are a traditional Indian kitchen, but we match our flavours to Australian tastes. Chef Jay and I have started creating our own curries.”
Several dishes on the menu pique my interest, like Chicken 65, an Indian take on fried chicken. It has curry leaves in it, so I am there!
I order the slow-cooked goat curry, the lamb biryani and the highway chicken. Madhav says that The Poet’s Highway Chicken Curry is a menu highlight. It’s chicken cooked in the ancient technique from a time when there were only basic ingredients to play with: raw masala, tomatoes, salt and chilli.
While I wait for the mains, I nibble on some Mushroom Crisps and indulge in an authentic chai.
The steaming, fragrant chai tastes like my childhood in a mug, scented with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
The juicy mushrooms have been coated in a chickpea flour batter, crispy and delicious.
The accompanying yoghurt mint dip is only seasoned with black salt, cloves and mint, but the layers of flavour and the resulting heat they bring out are surprising.
Lunch was so good I went back a few hours for dinner (don’t judge me – you weren’t there, but you probably will be).
My takeaway dinner arrives and I race home.
The heat factor is deep red in these curries, so I cannot differentiate the flavours at first. I rest my burning tastebuds for a few moments and then start over with a slower approach. The goat curry has a buttery smooth sauce, rich with herbs and spices, and tender goat meat chunks that add flavour from being cooked on the bone.
The Highway Chicken Curry packs so many complex flavours into one dish despite having four ingredients besides chicken. The tomato sauce has taken on a creamy quality. I could eat it for days!
I think the lamb biryani is my favourite. Totally unique flavours that I cannot quite identify. Long delicate strands of basmati rice, moist marinated lamb on the bone. Spectacular.
At The Poet, sides need to be ordered separately. You can order from an exotic assortment of rice sides, plain to saffron, yellow or cumin rice. While The Poet uses a tandoor oven, it is not just naan on the bread menu. You can also get layered pastry-like chapatis and flaky parathas. My buttery naan is superb, perfect for sopping up hot curry, but I eat it on its own. Soft and dense, blister-kissed by the tandoor and brushed with salty butter. Yum!
It is contagiously refreshing to see a brand-new location with the owners excited and enthusiastic about connecting with locals and keen to see how their space and menu are received.
Madhav enjoys welcoming diners in.
“I would love to have someone come in someday and tell me, ‘I have been a regular for a long time via Uber Eats and we wanted to come in and eat here in person,” he says.
“The Poet is not just about building a restaurant and serving food and drinks. It’s about life, energy and soul. A place to connect and escape.”
The Poet is located at Unit 1, 41 Chandler St in Belconnen. It is open weekdays from 5 pm to 10 pm and on the weekends for lunch from 11 am to 3 pm, and dinner from 5 pm to 10 pm. Follow The Poet on Facebook to whet your appetite!