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The Hindu goddess of sustenance, Lakshmi

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Pay What Your Heart Feels
By: Jonathan HOPPER

Published: 11/05/2012

Seated in a restaurant on the banks of the Swan River, the South Perth lights dancing off ripples in the water, dining on traditional Indian cuisine. It's a superb way to spend a Tuesday evening.

The finishing touch on the experience is the knowledge that there won't be a triple figure sum at the bottom of the bill. On the way out, the cashier smiles, asks if you enjoyed your meal and says: “Pay what your heart feels.”

Since 1991, Annalakshmi on the Swan has been serving traditional Indian food in a restaurant entirely run by volunteers. Restaurant manager, Arun Natarajan, described the 'pay what your heart feels' concept as a seed for indirect community support: “We leave it to every individual's conscious to give what they want.

“Somebody who can afford to give $20, in return, through us, they are feeding many other people who can afford to only give $5,” Mr Natarajan said.

The concept also spawns one of the most diverse gatherings of diners ever seen in a Perth restaurant. Children run and hide amongst the maze of modest plastic chairs while their parents dine overlooking the river. The less fortunate enjoying their meal provide an amazing contrast to tables full of people donning expensive suits coming to eat after a day's work in the CBD.

Then, every few minutes, heavy footsteps can be heard coming up the stairs at Jetty number 4, Barrack Street. International backpackers make up a large portion of the customers at Annalakshmi. Mr Natarajan said it is also quite common for them to return the next day and volunteer some of their time to prepare for the following night's meal.

There aren't any waiters at Annalakshmi. The food is self-served from bain-maries with large metal plates provided. Once the meal is finished, it is up to the diners to place their cutlery and dishes on a trolley bound for the washing-up sink. While it is a little more hands-on than a regular dining experience, it fits very well with the amazing home-style cooking.

Two rice dishes were available on the Tuesday night we dined there, along with a very colourful lentil dahl. Alongside the dahl was a potato curry with mustard seed, hing, cumin and fenugreek, among other spices. This was by far the highlight of the night's selection with the potato cooked for just the right amount of time to deliver a gentle crisp texture.

Mr Natarajan said that the two main dishes change each and every night the restaurant is open.

The savoury Indian pancakes on offer, while heavy in mass, didn't leave any of the bloated feeling that can occur after eating a few too many sugary, flour-based pancakes. This is due to all the food at Annalakshmi being vegan and gluten free. The exception to this was the small bowls of kheer for desert, a milk-based sweet spiced with cardamom.

The only issue with the food at Annalakshmi that diners may have is the lack of hot spice. While amazing and differing flavours were jumping out of every dish, diners looking to get a bit of a sweat on may be a little disappointed. But as it is a set menu, supplying something everyone can enjoy is a wise idea.

It is quite astonishing considering the premium rental prices coupled with the 'pay what your heart feels' concept that Annalakshmi is still serving food after 20 years in Perth. Mr Natarajan said that making ends meet, while essential, was never a priority for Annalakshmi: “We believe you do something beautiful, and have faith in it, and money will come, money is a by-product.”

Check Annalakshmi on the Swan's website for opening times and call 9221 3003 for a booking.