Friday 25 April 2014

Ajisen Ramen CBD

130 Bourke Street Melbourne, VIC

Chii-Chan - Ajisen's Logo and Mascot

Tori-Karaage Ramen

Tonkatsu Bento

Twee's Hut

Shop 26, 343, Little Collins St, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Twee's Hut on Urbanspoon
This is a bit of a gem and in the same genre as Roll'd - a funkyed up Vietnamese eatery with a more contemporary feel, except it hasn't been given a franchise treatment yet. How does it measure up? I think it does better than Roll'd and is more authentic and the food feels like it has been prepared with more love and pride.

The Place
This is set up like a fast food joint and pretty basic and simple layout. A no fuss eatery that's great for a quick lunch, any busy day of the week. They manage to keep it relatively clean despite the high turnover of customers and constantly flow of diners.

Things to do nearby: This is just across the lane from Galleria and less than 5 minutes walk to either Collins Street or Bourke Street Mall.

The Food
Hue Noodles
I have had both Hue Noodles and Classic Saigon style Vietnamese noodles here, and they are pretty good and certainly better than Roll'd in my opinion. There is a very strong hint of lemongrass in the soups here and while it doesn't have the grunginess of the eateries in Richmond or Footscray, you can expect tasty soup here. Don't expect intestines, blood jelly, tendon here - they stick to the basic chicken and beef slices.

I do like the Hue Noodles they have here because it's not overly greasy, and still packs a punch in the soup. This is quite different to the usual beef noodles most Melbournians are used to. I like it because I like the beef slices, the sausage, the thicker rice noodles (see below) and the spicy soup. If there's one criticism of that might be leveled - it's that they are not as generous as some of the more traditional places with their beanshoots and lemon.

The Service
This place has a fast food outlet sensibility, so you have to order at the counter and while they were a bit organised at the start, they seem very much more on top of things now that they have had some experience with the crazy lunch time crowd. Always friendly, if harried, they are more likely to make conversation with punters if they are not crazy busy. They will also take time to explain the dishes and clear take pride in their food. I like this place for a quick lunch because I like people who serve their food with a smile.

It's a good place to go to if you are after basic Viet fare. Other reviewers have also raved about the crispy pork and I can't wait to try this. I have tried to order it before but was too late in the day and they had run out. I will definitely be visiting again.

Cultural Moment
Some people get so used to "old school" approaches to ethnic cuisines that anything that moves a bit away from what they used to might be seen as authentic. Twee's Hut and Roll'd would fall into this new more contemporary way of doing things. Gone are the bright lights, wall to wall mirror, free cheap tea and greasy chilli paste. In with funky names, less grease, less choice, and less "special combinations". I don't have a problem with any of these - there is a time and place for both "old school" and contemporary approaches. You just have to know what you are in the mood for.

To be honest, my main challenge with the contemporary approach is the demise of "special combinations" - which basically refers to the various other parts of the cow (including tendon, innards, blood jelly, pizzle, marrow) or chicken (giblets, liver, skin). Yes! They can contribute to high cholesterol but I am not having them every day and I'd like the option. I hope this art form doesn't disappear and I wish for contemporary approaches to include this in their repertoire, but that's just me. As they say in Vietnam, I LOVE phở.

Friday 4 April 2014

Petaling Street (Clayton)

367 Clayton Road, Clayton, VIC 3168
Petaling Street on Urbanspoon
There is something to be said about crowdsourcing for opinions and times like this, one would go - "OK - Urbanspooners were being fair". One of the lowest scoring Petaling Street Outlets in Melbourne here, and I didn't believe it. In addition, I know I especially liked the dishes from the CBD branch. After all, this is in Clayton where the competition can be fierce, and Springvale is not too far away. How can this be?

The Place 
A simple set up with the kitchen in the back and rows of seats for diners and movable configurations. The decorations are relatively simple with pictures of the dishes on offer and a large mural towards the back of the restaurant. This is a well ventilated space with easy access. However, the first warning sign for me should have been the sticky wooden tables.

This is set within the busy Clayton Road shopping strip and parking is round the back where it can be a challenge on busy days.

Things to do Nearby: Clayton Road Shopping

The Food
The food ranges from ok to questionable. We had a number of dishes, none of which were spectacular and one was a total fail. I'll start with the ok dishes - the Wonton Noodle Soup (pictured right) was actually not bad with nice generous wontons thought the char siew (BBQ pork) that went with it wasn't anything to rave about. Nevertheless it is what you would expect from a basic wonton noodle soup.

The Salted Fish Vermicelli was alright as well but not as smokey as some of the best in town. The problem here is the addition of capsicum slices... WHY?

The other dish that was not too bad was the Prawn Hokkien Noodle Soup which had a really rich prawn broth. It was somewhat greasy which detracted a bit from the tastiness of the dish but the ingredients were generally fresh.
Salted Fish Vermicelli
Prawn Noodles
FAUX Lobak
Some other dishes were truly disappointing. The Lobak was a joke! They serve fishcake filled beancurd skin to pass if off as lobak. They acknowledged they had changed it but still insisted on calling it Lobak - 'bak' in Hokkien refers to meat, not fish. It was like eating inferior deep fried fish cake. Then there was the Roasted Chicken Rice. Now, I have had the authentic version in the CBD branch but the one here was served with a lightly fried chicken (pictured below) - nothing like the Nanyang style roast chicken that I had been hoping for. The best thing about the dish was the chicken broth that came with it!

The Service
The basic service was not all that attentive and nothing to rave about. One has to call out for attention here and don't be shy about doing so, expecially if you are sitting towards the front of the restaurant, or you might be forgotten.

I was disappointed but the worst thing was, I had my parents with me - I was trying to show off what good food we have in the area and I took a risk and it didn't pay off. Ah Well! I have taken them to some pretty good places before this. Ok, so it's not the worst restaurant

Cultural Moment
Why did I assume that because of the location of this restaurant, that it was going to be excellent and authentic? One word - stereotyping! Why would I think that just because it's in an area where there are a lot of "Asian" diners, that it would be authentic - that's like saying all Chinese restaurants in Chinatown must be good. Even in Malaysia, not all Malaysian restaurants serve good Malaysian fare. Haha! Ah Well!

It also showed me again that not all branches of the same franchise/restaurant are equal - especially amongst Asian franchises. This has shown to be the case for Killiney Kopitiam, Es Teler, PappaRich, YimYam, and now, Petaling Street. In the end, I suspect that it comes down to the more complex dishes on offer in Asian franchises compared to your run of the mill chicken or burger outlets where menu items are really standardised. Asian dishes depend very much of the chefs working in particular branches - which makes it harder to standardise. A lesson that I am reminded of again today.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Green Pepper Thai

343 High Street, Northcote, VIC 3070
Green Pepper Thai Restaurant on Urbanspoon
This is the 6th Thai restaurant now along High Street between Northcote and Thornbury (all within 7 - 10 minutes drive of each other). In terms of all the Thai restaurants along this stretch, Green Pepper Thai is probably the most cafe style with a strong take-away vibe in terms of its set up. Of course, I encourage healthy competition but I think each of these Thai restaurants will find their own niche in the area.

The Place
It does have a strong take away vibe with the basic tile flooring and simple decorations. The open kitchen is situated within the dining space as well, which therefore, relies heavily on the industrial gas hoods to do their work effectively. If you are sitting facing the kitchen, you get to watch the chefs at work which might be interesting for some. When it does get busy, it will get pretty loud as there is no real sound insulation here.

What I really like about the set up is the fact that they do not cramp diners in really closely to each other. There's plenty of space and you don't feel like sardines!

Things to do Nearby: The shops of High Street, Northcote are blooming and upgrading with the continued gentrification of the area.

The Food
The food here is not bad but Melbournians are pretty spoilt for choice in terms of Thai food. It is not strictly authentic and is pretty watered down in terms of intensity. That doesn't mean it is not nice. In fact, I think it works quite well if you are looking at catering for diners who can't take really spicy or hot dishes. The dishes tend towards sugar and sweetness. I tend to prefer more tang in my Thai dishes but I have lots of friends who would love the sweetness to lighten the intensity of flavours.

So, what were the highlights for me? I liked the Tom Yum Soup above all the other dishes I ordered. Why? Because it was clearly not concocted from a commercial soup base and had been done from scratch with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and enough Assam (Tamarind) and they didn't hold back on the chillies either but it wasn't overly greasy like how they tend to serve it in Bangkok. Nice clear hot and sour soup.
Really nice tangy hot Tom Yum Soup
The other dishes were also all freshly made which I really appreciated and although the balance of flavours tended towards sweetness, I did enjoy most of them. The one dish I was disappointed with was the Larb which again was sweet rather than sour (perhaps I would have like more lime or fish sauce - but that's just me). They also love using long beans in all their dishes... most of the dishes we ordered had these :).
Green Papaya Salad with Yummy Crisps

Pad Met Marmuang - Beef with Cashews

The Service
It is rare to ever get bad service at a Thai restaurant. This is no exception. They were attentive, timely and friendly. It's what you would expect from a good suburban restaurant and I really like the down to earthiness of the service. The food came out in a timely manner and even when it got busier and when there was takeaway orders, they still paid us enough attention where needed.

This is a good place for a quick week night meal without being overly fancy. I would likely go again to try more dishes and try more of their curries.

Cultural Moment
I want to talk SOUPS. In many parts of Asia - soups are a whole table event. One soup is ordered and everyone shares it. It very much a collective experience. When I was growing up, we even all drank from the same bowl - dipping our spoons into the central bowl. It had been this way for hundreds of years (no I am not a hundred years old - I am talking about the practice - rude!).

With modern day health consciousness and sensibilities, this practice of double-triple dipping with personal spoons into a central bowl has changed for the most part in many countries (but not all). However, the practice of the whole family or table having the same soup hasn't changed. In many restaurants in Asia, they still bring out a central bowl and then smaller bowls for individuals and a large ladle - makes a lot of sense and lots of restaurants have done this for a long time. This practice is starting to spread to homes so that it's become the norm. There are some things you can't change - and the practice of sharing soup (the modern way) continues to thrive. This sort of sharing collective dining is a practice to be celebrated.

In Australia, our more individualistic dining habits have led to individual serves of soup so you can decide what you want and there is no need for collective negotiation. It's just the way it is. So, when one travels to Asia and Southeast Asia - when you order soup - be aware - it might be a BIG BOWL meant for sharing - not one of those tiny individual bowls. I know this because I sometimes forget this when I am travelling - like the time I had a BIG bowl of Tom Yum with my main in Bangkok and that other time when I had a BIG CLAYPOT filled with Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup in Hong Kong, with my fried noodles. DUH!

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Golden Dragon Palace

363 Manningham Rd, Templestowe Lower, VIC 3107
Golden Dragon Palace on Urbanspoon
For an Australian city, Melbourne enjoys the luxury of choice when it comes to yumcha - from the city centre to the suburbs. There are many articles and blogs written about where one can get the best yumcha in town. The thing about yumcha is that it is pretty tricky to compare for a number of reasons which I will discuss in the Cultural Moment section. What I was curious about is why is this place only a 77% on Urbanspoon?

The Place
This is a stand-alone building with undercover parking under the building and more round the back. The interior is darker than your average Chinese restaurant and the dimness and full blast air conditioning makes it a rather cold place.

There is an element of Chinese charm in the decorations, with interesting pieces of sculpture situated along parts of the restaurant. The fact that it has walled off the toilet section is good and there's quite a bit of space between tables which is useful, so you don't feel crammed in with other diners. They also have high chairs which is good.

Things to do nearby: Localised shopping centre but not much else around here.

The Food
They offer the full range of yumcha dishes but the highlights for me here include; Pork Spare Ribs (quite possibly the best I have had (for me) in Melbourne, with a great balance of flavours), Beancurd Pork Rolls, and Sui Kow (Prawn and Pork Dumpling). The Squid Tentacles here are also pretty good but order it and eat immediately - don't let it cool down too much. These four highlights really made my dining experience here more than any of the other dishes.
Pork Spare Ribs - half eaten before I remembered to take the photo

From the top - clockwise - Beancurd Pork Rolls (2 lots because they were YUM),  Har Kow (Prawn Dumplings), Ham Sui Kok (Glutinous Pork Dumpling), Yee Chee Kow (Sharkfin Dumpling which is so called because it is shaped like shark fin - doesn't actually contain shark fin). It is also worth mentioning that this is possibly the only place in Melbourne that serves the Salted Egg Custard Bun, which has a sweet bun encasing salted egg custard - a very nice way to finish the meal.

Salted Egg Custard Bun
Mushroom and Seafood
They also have the biggest bowls of congee at Yumcha that I have had in Melbourne. Most places have smaller serving sizes. So, having one by yourself can be a bit much. One of the challenges here in this establishment is how cold the air conditioning gets. It is great when you first stepped in from the heat outside in summer. However, the downside is that, the food cools down to room temperature really quickly as well. This was one of the first things I noticed. So, if you are part of a crowd that likes to order many dishes and then slowly pick away at the dumplings - it is likely that you are going to be eating some cold dumplings.

Sui Kow and Chicken Siu Mai
The Service
Firstly, they need a much much much better queue system. It can be the source of angst and a bad first impression. There are many who do not queue who speak Cantonese and others who are regular visitors. Somehow, this is a place of who is pushiest and loudest wins. They really need to fix this. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the 77% on Urbanspoon - not that they would care if their pushy customers keep coming back and battle it out in Cantonese while other diners get put off and just complain on Urbanspoon.

The assumption of the place is that you know what you are ordering. The wait staff are not great at explaining the dishes. For those of us who know the dishes, it is a lot smoother and easier to navigate. This place is clearly set up for the familiar yumcha officionados and not for beginners (for whom this would be somewhat overwhelming). Other than that, service is actually not too bad and better that some of the places in town. A few of the waitstaff are also very attentive once you say, "Thank You!" and give them that very rare smile.

I would go again but I would book in advance and avoid queueing angst. Even then, people jump ahead to say they have booking loudly ahead of you anyway. It's a place that I'd go to once in a while for particular dishes. Not going to be a regular here for me, but the occasional visit for something different.

Cultural Moment
What does best yumcha mean? To me, that's very difficult to judge because so many elements have to come to bear and most places are great at some elements but seldom all of them at once. In addition, every individuals or group of diners have different preferences about how these elements should be presented. What are these elements?

Steam or Fried: Some people prefer the steamed offerings while others go for the deep fried dishes. When you have too much of one and not enough of the other, you lose the balance. In addition, some places do great steam dishes but have overly greasy fried dishes. Others do great lightly fried dishes but their steamed dishes are not great. It's all a bit subjective.

Vessel and Content: The art of dim sum is very much a balance of the vessel (skin) and the meat/veg (content). The skin is such an important part for old school traditional yum cha lovers, where it needs to be delicate and still be able to hold the content. It should also have great texture that helps highlight the contents but not overpower it. For many other diners, the skin is just a vessel and they might judge the dishes on the tastiness of the protein inside alone.

Everyone knows what dimsims are: But no one can agree on what it should taste like. It's like Spaghetti Bolognese - how many versions are there and how many "Best SpagBol in the World" are there? This romanticised idea of the best siu mai, har kow or even pork spare ribs (see above), is just that - an idea that is dear to the person who proclaims it, and sometimes, makes little sense to anyone else.

Meat for Vegetarians: Yumcha can be a real nightmare for vegetarians. Some places do great vegetarian dim sums but many places struggle because withouth specialising in vegetarian cuisine, there's only so much you can do with beancurd, beancurd skins, mushrooms and Chinese broccoli. If you are gluten free, this will be even more difficult.

Yumcha Service: Yumcha service in Hong Kong is pretty gruff, not something many non-Hong Kong diners would appreciate. There is no time for you to sit there and consult the whole table about whether you should order a particular dish and go through every single dish in the cart and check with everyone. Yet - there needs to be a better way of explaining what the dishes are - not like one particular place in town where every dish is explained as "SEAFOOD DUMPLING". At least make some effort. Some people think this is part of the charm, others take serious offence to this.

Seating: Where are you seated and are you getting enough attention and where along the journey of the carts (from the kitchen) are you placed? Some places have their cart operators move all in one direction, so if you are at the end of that journey - you constantly get room temperature dishes and 'leftovers'. Then you have to order dishes. Others are better at managing the circuit... this is why if I am hungry at Cocktail parties with Finger Food, I usually stand at the point where waiters enter with the food - but I digress. Even placement, can have an impact on your experience in one restaurant.

Wine and Tea: Most understated in the whole experience but really important to me is the variety and quality of the teas served. After all, Yumcha translates to "Drinking Tea". The teas offset and balances out the meal and represent a crucial part of the experience for me. It is integral to the whole ritual and if all you have is cafe grade jasmine tea - that's a fail for me even if you have the 'best siu mai'. In Australia, people have wine at Yumcha - WHY? Because they can and so, for some people, the matching of wine of the dim sims becomes important but because this is not traditional practice, the ability of restaurants to match the wines on offer to Yumcha styke dishes can be rather questionable.

So, from my point of view, finding the best Yumcha for you can be a rather personal experience, which is ironic given that Yumcha is inherently a group experience. That's why the idea of proclaiming the BEST YUMCHA is a somewhat difficult thing to do. So, what do you do? TRY MANY and TRY A LOT. Enjoy Yumcha.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant Footscray

 118 Hopkins St., Footscray, VIC 3011
Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant on Urbanspoon
I want to start by apologising for not posting the last few weeks. I have been busy. However, this weekend, I took time out from being busy and went to an old favourite in Footscray, with my parents. I have not been here since I started this blog. So, I was looking forward to seeing if this joint stood the test of time. Being one of only 2 places in Footscray that serves this style of cuisine, it runs the risk of being complacent in terms of food quality and standard but this is not the case here.

The Place
It is not a huge space and so, like many Chinese places, it does cramp diners together a little bit during busier times. It has been around a long time and so the place feels very used and the once really nice paintings on the walls are now plastered with pieces of paper highlighting various items on the menu (in Chinese) - WHY? I love those paintings but you have to agree the colourful pieces of paper adds absolutely no charm to them!

When it starts to get busy, there's a natural hum and buzz and they keep people flowing in and out really quickly (more about this later). Despite the limitations, it maintains the place relatively cleanly and even has high chairs for toddlers and somehow manage to accommodate the supersized prams that some punters pushed into the space (when I was there).

Things to do nearby: This is in the heart of Footscray and across the road from Footscray Market

The Food
The food has indeed stood the test of time and continues to be very authentic and pleasing. I really think it has one of the best Siu Yok (Crispy Roasted Pork) and Char Siew (BBQ Pork) in Melbourne. The Siu Yok is really crispy and they even cut it up in relatively small pieces, as they do in most of Asia (unlike most similar places in Melbourne where they give you huge chunks of meat). The Char Siew is sweeter and salty and nicely caramalised.

Half eaten by the time I remembered to take a photo
We also ordered Seafood Combination Crispy Noodles, which was quite fishy but the noodles were excellent and the sauce was really tasty (thanks to some MSG). I have had many dishes here over the years and this place knows it's South Chinese (Cantonese) cuisine. They do it well and they seem to be consistent over the years.

The Service
Sorry - bad photo!!
Are you a Cantonese speaker? If you are, you will probably find the service very very passable. If not, you are more likely to receive somewhat brusque and 'rustic' service. I am trying to be positive mostly because I honestly believe that the service here is better than many many similar such places in Melbourne, where they don't even make an effort. Here, they even do the very correct thing of bringing out bowls of their free soup to ask if you would like one. Of course, the service level declines once they have a big crowd and English ability becomes more strained under pressure and if you speak too slowly, softly or uncertainly, you might be met with an impatient response (because they have to get to the next diner). I know that sounds awful, but I know they have the potential to actually engage when they are less stress. I have been to other places where you might be the only diner and still get ignored!

This visit reminded me that I should make an effort to come back more often (but only during less busy periods). I am already planning this because I dream of Siu Yok!

Cultural Moment
Footscray is a multicultural mixing pot with so many varied cultures coming together and interweaving in public spaces. For some, such diversity can be confronting but for most people here, there is at worst, tolerance and at best, celebration through cross-cultural interactions and a distinct lack of political correctness.

What do I mean by this? Well, from my interactions in this space and watching others go about their business, it seems that people don't feel they have to be anything other than themselves in Footscray and expect others to be the same and no less. The interactions seem genuinely authentic and raw; The brusque Cantonese waitperson is brusque to everyone, even Cantonese speakers (just that their conversation is longer and louder); The rough (really rough) guy looking to score, is generally truculent to everyone of every race and makes no differentiation and all avoid him; The proud Sudanese woman with her amazing extensions is pushing her pram while talking loudly to everyone in the same tone, whether it's her friend or the grocer; The old Vietnamese lady selling vegetables from her garden in the street corner, speaks animatedly in Vietnamese, about her produce to a punter. They all cross each other's path and I don't detect anyone making significant adjustments to their behaviour. Yet, it all works because I believe there is a general acceptance that you are what you are and your culture is part of you, and as much as I want to keep my culture intact, you have the right to do so too. This doesn't mean there's no judgement though, but I think they keep that quiet. Yet, it all works somehow because people don't seem to feel a need to tell others how they should all be the same... perhaps, that's why it works on a Saturday morning in Footscray.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Grain Asia Cafe

Shop 46 Box Hill Centro, Box Hill, VIC 3128
Grain Asian Cafe on Urbanspoon
Competition in Box Hill is tough with so many Asian options. How does one do well in light of that? It would either have to be really cheap, or tasty, or offer dishes that others do not. Where does Grain Asia sit? By the way the translation from their Chinese name could have been Grand Asia, but it seems they have gone with Grain for some reason.

The Place
Treat this like a food court and you won't be disappointed. It has a similar set up for quick easy meals with no fuss. Sometimes it is clean and other times, slightly greasy when it is really busy. It's a bright place with not a lot of decoration to speak off. The most interesting thing is perhaps watching them cook behind the glassed off section. It is relatively child friendly. This is easy to get to in that it sits on top of the train station and there's multi-storied parking.

Things to do nearby: Explore Boxhill Centro and its range of multicultural mix of shops.

The Food
This place serves a large variety of hawker and yumcha style dishes that originate from China to SEAsia. They are primarily Chinese dishes. Firstly, the dishes here are generally ok, they are not bad though 'nothing to write home about'. As I have said before in other entries, when a cafe offers such a wide range of dishes, it's inevitable that some dishes are going to be done well while others are mediocre at best.

If I was to use one word to describe the food here, I'd use the word 'rustic' but not in a romantic manner, but to denote plain and a bit rough round the ages, including the use of MSG. It certainly doesn't serve up any sophistication or pretensions. They use huge chunks of ingredients, big pieces of meat and vegetables, thicker noodles and greasier soups. That's not to say they are not tasty - don't get me wrong. Some of the dishes are very tasty. Some of the servings are also relatively generous.

Beef Fried Hor Fun (with thick flat rice noodles - quite greasy but tasty and a favourite of mine)
Beef Brisket and Wonton Noodle Soup (lashings of tradition including the requisite grease)
Salt and Chilli Chicken Ribs on Rice
There also do a number of stir fries with rice (Hong Kong style) of varying quality and sizes. For example, some of the dishes come with huge servings while others like the Salt and Chilli Chicken Ribs are relatively small (compared to some other places). One of the dishes I really like here is the Glutinuous Rice wrapped in Lotus Leaf. They serve this up in a generous portion that's not too salty and has a good balance of textures and basic flavours.
Glutinuous Rice wrapped in Lotus Leaf
The Service
This is food hall service - fast, efficient, not a whole lot of interest in any other communication but not particularly rude (from my point of view). The issue is in the demeanor of the wait staff who make you feel as if they are doing you a favour. So, they come across as brusque at best. Even though the various dishes are prepared in separate sections of the kitchen, the food generally comes out quickly around the same time. However, one doesn't go to a food hall for service.

I would go there perhaps when I am looking for a really quick no fuss cheap meal. This is only if I am aware of the few dishes I particularly like from here.

Cultural Moment
Despite the brusque service, there are still many punters here, mostly Chinese. That prompts a question about Chinese expectations of service. Is it that the Chinese don't expect much in terms of service? I don't think so personally. The issue is around context and Chinese communication does tend to be highly contextual from my very personal experience.

In a food hall, there is usually no expectation of service and people will put up with brusque service. On the other hand, in many Chinese restaurants all over Asia, there is an expectation of good service and extreme politeness. I don't think it's any different in Australia but certainly we do hold cafe wait staff to a much higher standard than they do in most of Asia - this is just my observation.