The roti man or bread vendor is quite a common sight in Penang. They are usually on their rounds in the mornings and from tea time (about 4pm), plying their stock-in-trade in a road contraption that resembles a hybrid between a motorcycle and a ‘meat safe’.
During my school days in the afternoons, I would wait patiently for the ‘ting ting ting’ sound (produced by striking a metal cup-like object with an iron rod) which signalled the arrival of the roti man. And when he did arrive, I’d rush out of the house, coins in hand, calling “Roti! Roti!” (Bread! Bread!). That was how the bread man was usually addressed.
My little hands would then frantically try to undo the catch on the little glass framed doors of the ‘meat safe’. The aroma of freshly baked bread, buns, cakes, candies and savoury snacks would waft out tantalisingly.
A couple of years ago in The Age, Melbourne Restaurant Critic Matt Preston, made this comment about The Roti Man in Middle Park -
'...unless the Roti Man lifts the quality of its service I can see another name being added to the "MIA" list.'
Perhaps he was referring to the fact that since Melbourne visionary, the late Donlevy Fitzpatrick vacated the same venue many years ago - in this expensive inner City Bayside suburb, to pioneer the new groove down the road in St.Kilda - many restaurants have come and gone without as much as a by-your-leave? For me there had always been an air of impermanence about the flash-in-the-pan restaurants that followed there in the wake of someone who customarily initiated the zeitgeist. And they did their dash by not really understanding what it is that the area needed or wanted, that is until The Roti Man arrived.
Two years after the Matt's review, The Roti Man is still there. And I believe that it may well have become 'the modern Indian (he) yearns for'. I wonder if he has visited there of late?
Our encounter with The Roti Man was a spontaneous one. An extraordinarily long takeaway menu had arrived in the mail box around the same time that Mr Stickyfingers was diligently tearing out soon to be expired discount vouchers from the 07/08 Entertainment Book. He noticed The Roti Man and quietly slipped the voucher in his wallet. Meanwhile I was unfurling the extra long, roll folded menu like a snake from a charmer's basket. It featured two goat curries and many other tempting dishes like Kerala Fish and Chicken Chettinadu, not usually found on local Indian Takeaway menus, so I silently made a mental note to order from them in the future.
Then, at 9pm on saturday night after visiting the recuperating Madam Roseleigh (my soon to be Mother Inlaw) Mr Stickyfingers instructed me to look in his wallet and gave me the choice of a number of vouchers hidden within. I chose The Roti Man. I was famished and by that stage really wouldn't have cared if the meal had tasted like a reheated can of Pataks, just like the familiar cheesy hits and memories produced by the many Gold FM equivalents of Indian restaurants in Melbourne.
Stepping in from the cold I noticed that the layout of the restaurant had not changed in years, but it now felt softer and warmer than it had in a long time. The high ceiling was hung with colourful saris and staff buzzed around in saffron shirts. We were cheerfully taken to a table by the fire and it was evident by the rumpled table cloths around us that the place had been packed to the rafters - including the verandah table and the street tables, which still hosted a few happy revelers. A good sign in an area where locals are just as happy to drive to St.Kilda or the city for a meal.
The dine in menu was full of promise with dishes I'd not seen on a menu in Melbourne. I wished that I was with a large group - as a number of tables were - so that I could sample many dishes. Most notably there were at least twenty vegetarian dishes on offer. We chose two curries, a salad, plain rice and two kinds of bread ($3.50-$5), which was overkill.
The delicious wafting smells of curry had me giddy with hunger. We chose a baby goat curry ($16.90) which was tender, spicy, rich with tomato and a coriander based masala, onions and peppers. The thick sauce in this generous portion was ideal for mopping up with bread. Mr Stickyfingers had chosen a combo of garlic and cheese naan which was thick yet fluffy and soft - outstanding. I had chosen a plain paratha which like the naan came in a basket and was so generous as to make our fragrant basmati rice virtually redundant.
The first mouthful of the Paratha whizzed me back in time to the early seventies and of patting out a small ball of the bread dough in my hand. I was only very little and standing on a stool in an Indian neighbour's kitchen in the UK, forming neat little patties with the heel of my palm. Our neighbour then took them and rolled them out with a dowel thin, foot long rolling pin that was thicker at one end. The taste was exactly as I remember it from childhood, a chewy, thin wholemeal bread with a unique fragrance I thought I would never smell again without visiting India. I curled my toes with excitement.
Another dish I thought I would never see in Australia was our salad - Behl Puri ($9.50). It is a crunchy combo mixed through with a tamarind thinned hot mango chutney. The foundation ingredients are crisp puffed rice, fried wide flat noodles, chat masala, puri chips, fresh coriander, onion, cucumber and tomato. The combination of flavours and textures is pure genius. Eaten usually as a snack, it was in this instance a large serve and the ideal foil for the richness of the goat curry.
Mr Stickyfingers meanwhile was frenzily attacking the Parsi Chicken($17), a pale, mild curry from Mumbai. The chicken itself was a little dry, but again the masala was stunning. I think I detected nigella seeds and dried coriander in the mix, the body of the sauce is made with dried apricots, yoghurt and jaggery making it unlike any of the curries Aussies currently identify with as Indian. The three dishes were an ideal combination of complimentary flavours.
I murdered a Kingfisher in the process of devouring our meal. The curries were not muddy or cloying, as I had become accustomed to eating elsewhere. The clarity of flavours meant that I could pinpoint the spices, the seasoning and the nuts and was unable to hold back from tasting mouthful after mouthful. Tearing apart the last pieces of bread and soaking up the sauces, I felt as though I had eaten enough for two. We counted ourselves lucky that we hadn't ordered entrees, though if I had two stomachs, there may have been room to squeeze in the mango or pistachio kulfis or the flambeed gulab jamun or even the chocolate roti.
Unlike Mr Preston, we were not only lulled by the warmth of the room and a table by the fire, we were charmed by our waiter - a witty raconteur - and all the staff were certainly eager to please. They also deftly and gently managed a local drunk who wandered in and was handling a tablecloth in the manner of a Matador. It was a welcome cheerful flicker of warmth that came unexpectedly after what seems like months of disingenuous or offhanded treatment in restaurants. Cheeky wit, efficiency and helpfulness were booted up another notch when I asked about the chefs. As it turns out, all the chefs are Indian, but the front of house is staffed by Malaysians, hence the Roti Man name.
It led to our discussing our plans to visit Malaysia with our waiter and we were then introduced to staff from Kuala Lumpur and Penang. On the backs of dockets, visitor itineraries and dining recommendations were jotted down. A business card was handed over and we were directed that were we to visit a certain restaurant in Penang, we would be taken care of by the sister of one of the wait staff on presenting the card. The phone number of a sibling was proffered in case we needed help or directions whilst in KL. We were overwhelmed by such kindness and it was a timely reminder of the generosity of Malaysian Indians.
I count myself lucky that The Roti Man is a local venue for us. It is indeed the kind of modern Indian restaurant that many curry munchers like myself have been waiting for. As soon as we return from Malaysia I want to introduce a group of my old friends to it so I can selfishly try more dishes - but I know they'll love it too.
10-12 Armstrong St, Middle Park, Victoria.
Ph. 03 9699 4244