Revisiting a restaurant after many years can be like catching up with an old friend. With all the incredible openings in Perth over the last few years, dinner in Fremantle is a somewhat uncommon practice for Alissa and I. Combined with my general reluctance to go out and eat Indian food whenever I come back from a trip to India, its been at least 4 or 5 years since I last dined at Maya, a much lauded Indian restaurant and small bar located on Market St, just off the main drag of the Cappuccino Strip. When I dined here last it was between my first and second trips to India, and I recall thinking the food was some of the better Indian I've had in Australia. After a stalled attempt to book the Winter Dego advertised on their website in July (they weren't offering it at the time), I received an email informing me that they would be served their 'Winter Banquet' every Wednesday of August. At an extremely reasonable 10 dishes for $38, this is quite likely one of the cheapest tasting menus in town (albeit seasonal), and after conferring with a few friends eager to get in on the bargain, we made a booking for six for the first Wednesday of the month.
Located in a heritage listed building in, Maya is an expansive affair, boasting three dining rooms and a small bar upstairs, and oozes with a colonial charm that is at once typical of Fremantle, and yet also evokes some of the British architectural grandeur of Mumbai (albeit a Mumbai with better maintained/less dusty buildings).
Joining us for the dinner were our friends Jason and Verity. Jason and I have been friends from almost a decade, and in the typically small world that is Perth, went to university with Alissa. Also along for the meal were regular dining buddies Justin and Sarah, who previously dined with us at Pleased to Meet You, The Old Crow and (sans Sarah) the Red Cabbage spin-off St Michael. Having told my parents about the Winter Banquet, they had also coincidentally booked a table on the same night and were seated a few tables away from us.
Dinner was served in courses, with each entree dish served one after the other is plates for us to share between two or three, depending on the portions on the plate. First to arrive was the Fish Fry, served on a bed of mint and coriander chutney and topped with daikon radish. The fish itself was nicely fried, with the meat not dried out and with an outer coating that was both crisp and spicy. The chutney added some additional slow burning heat, with the daikon providing additional crunch and and a pleasing sweetness. A good start to the meal, the dish remained one of Jason's favourites of the evening.
Beautifully plated Chicken Tikka followed, and featured a similar presentation to the Fish Fry, while being topped with finely diced onion and a liquid cheese sauce that we thought may have been made from paneer. As you'd expect from an Indian restaurant of this calibre, the chicken had the unmistakable flavour of having been cooked properly in a tandoor, with a good outer char and smokiness contrasted against the juicy meat within. The cheesy sauce on top was a lovely surprise, as were fine julienned pieces of ginger that provided a gentle, spicy heat.
As good as the previous dishes were, the Wagyu Beef Samosas with Plum Ketchup stole the show for me. The pastry casing itself was very well made, and so perfectly crispy it cracked in my mouth as I took my first bite. I had been a bit skeptical of what Wagyu could bring to the table considering the meat was minced, but what seemed like overkill ended up being inspired, with the beef inside being super tender and juicy. Beef of course is a seldom eat meat in Hindu India, but any meat of this quality would be rare to find, and as a result this was a dish that was actually better than what you'd get in all but the most expensive restaurants in India. Throw in the Plum Ketchup that tasted like a sweet fruity tomato sauce, and this was a definite meal highlight.
After our three entrees, mains were served in two courses. First to the table was a copper vessel and serving spoon...
... containing our accompanying rice. The rice was a simple, mildly spiced yellow rice which was well cooked with long, individual grains that were not clumped together.
Cauliflower's reputation as one of the meatiest of vegetables was upheld by the Sunehri Ghobi. The cauliflower was cooked wonderfully, with a difficult to describe texture that was at once crunchy and spongy, with some nice golden edges. We couldn't quite tell what sauce it was served with, but there was a real concentration of rich tomato flavour and spices that made for a very delicious dish - so much so that it ended up being the joint favourite dish for my Mum, and one of the best cauliflower dishes I've eaten in a year filled with great cauliflower dishes.
An Indian restaurant staple, Butter Chicken's ubiquity has resulted in a host of some fairly ordinary versions. For me, a good butter chicken must have a few key elements - the chicken must have that barbecued smokiness of having been cooked in a tandoor, there should be a richness of roasted meat and tomato combined for an umami overload that gives the dish a certain 'Vegemitey' quality, and it has to be swimming in ghee (clarified butter). Maya got the first two elements spot on, and it was easily one of the best Butter Chicken dishes I've had outside of India. Where it was let down a bit for me was the lack of the heart attack-inducing oil slick of ghee that usually glides across the curry's surface in India - see for example the Chicken Tikka and the Mutton Kadai we had at Delhi Darbar in Mumbai. This is a totally unhealthy quantity of butter so I can understand Maya holding back a bit, but putting health aside and think purely in terms of overall flavour, I'm yet to have a Butter Chicken that truly lives up its name in Perth.
The second round of mains were brought out once we'd worked our way through the Ghobi and Butter Chicken, and we tried the Palak Paneer first. This is another of our favourite go-to dishes whenever we eat Indian, and Maya's version was very good if not exemplary. The paneer had a soft, fluffy texture very much in the Northern Indian style, with the spinach cooked well enough. While Jason and Alissa really enjoyed the dish, I felt that I've certainly had better, with the Palak Paneer we had at Trishna in Mumbai being one such example.
Perhaps my feelings about the Palak Paneer were a result of it being paired with the incredible Lamb Neck Curry - easily my favourite dish of the night, and a dish I would compare favourably with the best Indian I've eaten in India. The flavoursome meat of the lamb neck was cooked until it was soft but not falling apart; my comment at the time was that it was 'pliable, but yet to become mush'. The curry itself had a refined richness that felt very northern in its restrained spiciness and yet abundance of flavour. The most prominent spice was a lovely cardamom note that worked as an excellent counter-balance to the dish's dry chilli heat. Nice touches to round off the dish were the fine batons of fresh ginger, and braised turnip that had absorbed the flavour of the curry like a sponge.
This second round of mains was served with Naan. The Naan was really soft and fluffy; I've had Naan cooked to this level that has been a little undercooked inside, but these were made to the optimum thickness for the temperature to cook through without burning the outside. Still, Alissa and I both felt that the garlic and butter slathered Naan of Trishna and the refined quality served at Indian fine diner Dum Pukht remained our favourite versions of this bread.
Finally, we were presented with a trio of desserts to share in couples - Mango Kulfi served with Fresh Fruits, a Chocolate Phrini topped with diced strawberries and a large Gulab Jamun that had been sliced in half. As an ice cream aficionado, the Mango Kulfi was easily my favourite, having a nice sweet acidity and intense mango flavour. As with the beef in the Wagyu Samosas, Australia is lucky to have seriously good mangoes and the flavour of the Mango Kulfi trumped many that we've had in India. Phrini, being a type of rice pudding, was a really interesting dessert. Jason described it as tasting almost like a chocolate mousse, with a slight, fine texture of rice that you might not even notice if you didn't know what it was. I didn't love it to be honest, but Justin thought it was the best of the three so your mileage may vary. Finally, the Gulab Jamun was spot on, being really soft with the sweet sugar and cardamom syrup soaked to the core.
The Verdict: Excellent +
Returning to Maya after many years, I couldn't believe I hadn't come back sooner; this was without a doubt the best Indian meal I've had outside of India, and at $38, one of the best value tasting/banquet menus I've had in Perth. Some dishes may have been less stellar than others, but the Wagyu Samosas, Sunehri Ghobi, Lamb Neck Curry and Mango Kulfi were dishes that were as good or better than what you'd get in India. Being a limited seasonal offering, Maya do offer three year-round tasting menus for groups of 4 or more, and given the quality of the food, the excellent standard of service and the ability to BYO wine, I'd be happy to return and pay $47-$55 for their full menu in the future. Interestingly, the owner was telling my parents that they'll soon be offering dosas for a breakfast menu, and it looks as if he'll be becoming part of the new exciting Northbridge, with a tapas-style Indian restaurant in the works. Until then (and even after its open), Maya is definitely worth the visit to the old Port City.