Monday 19 August 2013

Zhen Hong Restaurant

191 Russell St., Melbourne, VIC 3000

Zhen Hong on Urbanspoon
What a brutal start on Urbanspoon with reviewers panning everything from raw pork, to bland dishes to poor service? So, what is going on in this prime location? They have totally revamped the space from the previous A1 that was here. So, I decided to give it a few tries to see what the deal is.

The Place
This is actually a pleasant set up and good space where they don't squeeze 100 people into a space meant for 60. That's a great change for a restaurant in the area. This new and clean restaurant has tables in different configurations for small and largish groups. It is easy to find and could be relatively child friendly because of the generous space. It also doesn't get too noisy even on a packed night.

Let me just say that the piped music was terrible - it was almost a mix of outdated bad Richard Clayderman substitute with an overuse of tubular bells in one of those creepy Cirque Du Soleil tones. Parking in the area is also difficult unless if you pay for it at Mantra across the road.

Things to do Nearby: You are on the corner of Russell Street and Little Bourke - heaps of shops.

The Food
There is a mix of both northern and southern Chinese dishes. I actually think that they have managed to differentiate themselves from the many other similar restaurants within a stroll. While they are supposed to be Hong Kong styled, they are tinged with northern Chinese flavours.

I am not sure that they have achieved this. The Hot and Sour Soup (pictured below) needed more of everything in it because currently, though it's not a bad soup, it's really basic, mostly eggs, peas and szechuan peppercorn.
The other dishes follow similar formula of a medley of onion, carrots, capsicum, and celery. To me, this is just not right. You can't just put the same vegetables into different dishes that are supposed to taste different. Capsicum and celery are pretty overpowering vegetables. The noodle soups came with canned baby corn. So, in the end nothing really stood out for me despite a number of visits because it all tasted a bit 'same same'.
Beef Brisket on Rice
Braised Beef Noodles
Pork Ribs Noodles (with hidden capsicum and celery)
The Service
They are pretty friendly here and take time to explain dishes. This is probably where they are doing much better than many other Chinese restaurants. They are actually smiling and talking to the diners and with each other. This is not the usual harrassed surly wait staff that you might see at some other places. However, like many similar places, they struggle to get all the dishes out at the same time - it's possible for one diner to have his/her meal some 5 minutes before the others. Don't wait - just start eating.

I am not sure that this would be my go to place in the area. I like the setting and the service but I have yet to find dishes that really stand out for me, and the thought of having to deal with all that capsicum means it will probably be a while before I go back. It's not a disaster - it's just not a stand out. Maybe, that explains the lukewarm response on Urbanspoon too.

Cultural Moment 
So, I did actually ask them what style of food this was. They unequivocally claim to be Hong Kong style. This confused me quite a bit because the dishes had a definite non-Hong Kong feel to them. I also could not place it at definitely northern Chinese - which confused me even more.

It is true that the braised beef brisket on rice, has a Hong Kong feel to it - but the flavours were not authentic. However, the noodles were very different from what one might get in Hong Kong. Even the Hot and Sour Soup is actually more northern Chinese - because Hong Kong style Hot and Sour Soup tends to be way sweeter. So, this leaves me wondering if I am perhaps overconfident about my knowledge of Hong Kong cuisine, or maybe they are just really northern Chinese cooking Hong Kong dishes and have brought their own flavours to the table. I am not sure. If you every try this out - I'd love to hear from you (especially if you know Hong Kong food).

Thursday 15 August 2013

No.1 Delicious

83 Franklin St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

 No.1 Delicious on Urbanspoon
This is a place recommended by my Chinese friends from Northeast China. So, when Catherine suggested we go there for lunch, I was in. Then, I went again the following week just to try out a different dish. First thing to note was - don't bring a vegetarian. There's not a lot of options for them here. In addition, and rather strangely, they don't have a lot of options for Chinese Tea other than basic Jasmine Tea.

The Place
This is quite a nice set up and even though it is located near student central that is RMIT University, it still has a clean contemporary rather nice feel to it. This is not to say that students can't eat at nice places, just that this place has set it up nicely, instead of going for the cheap basic cafeteria feel. They recently renovated the place to make it somewhat more upmarket, creating a more relax atmosphere, where it used to be more frantic (at least from the outside looking in).

Things to do Nearby: This is about a block away from Queen Vic Market, Melbourne Central, and the State Library. It's very close to the Baths and RMIT University, as well as Vertical Indoor Rock Climbing.

The Food
Braised Pork - no green because I asked for it without capsicum
The food is authentic northern Chinese offerings, if a bit less spicy and chilli ridden than most places. Almost every dish I have tried here has had a hint of Szechuan peppercorn, without it overriding the flavours in its usual tongue numbing quality. This is a good thing for those of us who like a bit of spice without it killing our tastebuds.

The other really good thing about the food here is that, it presents authentic northern Chinese flavours but without the too common accompanying grease, and layer of chilli oil.

The highlights for me here include their Braised Pork (Hong Shao Rou) on Rice. It's really yummy, without being overly salty, or laden with MSG. It might look rather plain, but their generosity with the shitake mushroom made me very happy.
I also ordered something here that most of my friends would not touch with a barge pole - all the more for me - which is Stir Fried Pork Liver (pictured below). This dish was a delightful balance of salt, vinegar, and spice, and without being too sweet. It's not for everyone and it's not common in Melbourne, but this is a great find for me.

Catherine had the Seafood Fried Noodles which really didn't interest me - but I took a photo. It looked a bit like basic stir fried noodles with some seafood thrown in. Catherine didn't look that impressed either.

The Service
The service here is what I would call unobtrusive and polite. They are good at greeting diners and showing them to their tables but then leave you alone most of the time. If you want something, you actually have to call out for it. It's not that bad but don't expect attentive, chatty service and you'll be fine. The dishes were not served at the same time - so, start eating before it gets cold.

Cultural Moment
Offals - it's not just an Asian thing - there are plenty of European cultures that eat offals too. I know I have written about this topic before when I was focused on Cantonese cuisine (City BBQ). However, in this piece, I am going to share a bit about my childhood.

My childhood memories are filled with the wonderful tastes and smells of home cooked stir fried pork liver with ginger, spring onion and oyster sauce, or Chinese sausage with pork liver, or even just BBQ roasted Pork Liver (from Kuching, Sarawak). It was always a highlight of special meals for me. Come to think of it, it is features unusually frequently for me. When I left Malaysia, to go to Singapore, I started learning Mandarin, and I remember, one of the first phrases I learned in Mandarin in the text book was "Wo xi huan chi chao zhu gan" - "I like to eat fried pork liver!" I kid you not - it was in the text and I remember thinking - "Wow - this text book knows me!" It was also one of the first dishes I learned to cook as a pre-teenager. So, me and pork liver - we go way back. It makes me happy and thanks to No. 1 Delicious, I have rediscovered it in Melbourne.

Friday 9 August 2013

Hanani Sushi

331 Smith Street, Fitzroy, VIC 3065

Hanani Sushi on Urbanspoon
This is possibly going to be my shortest entry so far in more than 6 months of blogging. It's a simple eatery with a fresh feel. It is a great addition to the area as a no fuss, friendly, and informal space, that serves fresh Japanese takeaway food.

The Place
This is a little place along Smith Street, next to the pub and well positioned in front of the tram stop. It is clean and feels a bit trendy because of the simple deco they have used. It doesn't feel like a tired old grotty takeaway (partly because it's new but also because of its set up).

Things to do Nearby: Smith Street shops or a 10 minute walk to Brunswick Street along Johnston Street (the section with all the furniture and new home living shops)

The Food
The food is fresh made sushi, done by Japanese chefs... I was so excited that I didn't take any photos. They had the usual rolls and my favourite was the plain and simple Inari (rice in beancurd skin), which was not overfilled with rice, and tasted like they do in Japan. It's hard to go wrong with Inari (which actually means rice in Japanese) but some places do serve it up really dried our. That's not the case here.
Katsu Don
They also have a small range of cooked meals - donburi style. I had the Katsu Don (Fried Crumbed Pork on Rice) which was basic but nice is served with teriyaki sauce. It looks and tasted similar to some of the quick meals I had while in Japan where it was basically the katsu and don - and a bit of ginger and spring onion - nothing else. So, don't come here expecting fancy Japanese, but a quick meal/snack and you won't be disappointed.

The Service
They are friendly here and it's really functional service. They do not feel the need to shout out greetings at you like many other Japanese places in town but still come across as really easy going and polite. All good and informal.

This is going to be a great place for a quick lunch (in or takeaway) and a no fuss quick takeaway meal on the way home from work, or just a snack in the middle of the day.

Cultural Moment
The humble Katsu Don comes in different forms in Japan. As my brother said when he came back from a trip to Japan, he had "Katsu Everything" - highlighting that it's a highly popular dish in Japan. There's Katsu Sandwich, Katsu on it's own with Salad, Katsu with Ramen and of course, Katsu Don.

Katsu Don itself is basically the crumbed pork cutlet served on rice. However, variations include being served with worcestershire sauce, miso sauce, shoyu (soy) sauce, or with a wet egg omelette over the katsu plus any combination of sauces. You could event find places where they substitute the pork for chicken or beef. So, the long and short of it is, you could potentially have katsu don 5 days of the week and never have the same meal twice. Yummy fried goodness... but of course, everything in moderation, right?

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Shophouse Kitchen

Shop 29 210 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Shophouse Kitchen 大食家 on Urbanspoon
This is a new set up as of June 2013 and is a place you have to queue to get in for dinner. Surprisingly, with the crowd, it has a relatively low score on Urbanspoon and there are some really harsh comments from diners with one review. It proudly says that this is a concept by David Loh (of Food Republik fame in Box Hill, and Dessert Story), a quite renowned chef of Malaysian origin, who is also inspired by Taiwanese and Hong Kong cuisine. This is one of the few times I have to disagree with Urbanspooners - I had a good experience here at Shophouse Kitchen and look forward to coming back again when it is less crowded. I think a lot of the bad reviews were from the initial teething problems to do with service and food preparation timing. They seem to have improved since June.
The Place
This is a tastefully decorated, that befits the kinds of eateries in the area. There are lots of things to look at inside, including the upside down fortune sign (in neon lights). There is a definite buzz here and the crowd dines amenably in a rather tight space. As things settle down, I hope this place will become a more leisurely dining space rather than the current somewhat hurried feel.

It is however, a very well ventilated and insulated place. There is no smokiness and the sound level is just a buzz. You can actually hear each other without needing to shout at your friends. This is very well set up.

It's not exactly kid friendly because of the tight squeeze (but that shouldn't be over stated - there are worst places). Parking is probably easiest under QV itself.

Things to do Nearby: This is set within the QV Compound.

The Food
I believe they do use a bit of MSG and I hope I am proven wrong and they stop using this very quickly. I think it was just in the minced meat sauce in my noodles. Beyond that, there were some really good dishes. Firstly the noodles quality was excellent. We tried the Minced Meat and BBQ Pork Noodles, Braised Pork Belly Noodles, and the Crispy Wonton and Crispy Pork Noodles (all pictured in succession below). Suffice to say they were all very tasty. What I think is important to highlight is that they didn't feel too salty unlike some places that serve similar dishes (the exception was the minced meat sauce which was salty). The other meats didn't have a high level of salt which makes for a very pleasant change.
Minced meat and BBQ Pork Noodles

Yummy braised pork belly (without being too salty)
Crispy wontons and Crispy Pork
We also had some of the Panfried Chicken and Shitake Mushroom Dumpling which was really succulent and tasty, with a thinner than average dumpling skin. Then, there was the Wontons in Chilli Oil and Black Vinegar, which I felt was less stellar. Although, it had 2 little chilli symbols on the menu, the wontons were not very hot. As regular readers of my blog might know, I when I am promised vinegar and sour things, I like it to be really sour - the wontons had a more peanut sauce taste than vinegar. In hindsight, I should have added the readily available black vinegar. (Pictured right, wontons on top and dumplings below.)

Finally, when I say that Hot and Sour Soup  (pictured below) was on the menu, I had to try it. I try this item whenever it is available at a restaurant. I have to say that it was not bad. Firstly, it wasn't sweet which was really good, it had no hint of tomatoes, which is even better. There was some szechuan pepper corn in it, some chilli oil and definitely black vinegar. You can add vinegar to taste too if it's not sour enough. It had shredded chicken too. The tofu they use was not of the silken variety but just your basic tofu (which was not ideal for me). Like I said before, it was ok but not necessarily the best.

Shredded Pork and Shitake Mushroom in Abalone Sauce with Crispy Noodles
The crispy noodles was pretty yummy but you have to eat it quickly because once it gets to room temperature, it's not great and maybe there's just too much of it. You have to like shitake mushroom and abalone sauce for this dish.
Curry Seafood (tricky dish to get ride - pre-cooked seafood added to curry sauce)
The Service 
To begin with, queue management is everything when you have a new place like this. It kicks off people's impression and sets the tone for their attitude. Depending on the waitstaff looking after the queues, there are some hits and misses here. I didn't experience too many problems here and it was relatively well managed despite the cold. However, it is important that all staff who are managing the queue are able to interact with queuing customers, keep them informed or even have a discussion with them about items on the menu while they are waiting.

Once you get in, they seem to be well staffed so that you are served pretty quickly, and if you are not, just raise your hand and smile for a bit of attention. The food comes when it comes depending on what you order. So, start eating instead of waiting, it's that kind of place. Mostly, they are friendly and efficient if not very personable.

I will be coming to this place again, and again - there are too many dishes I want to try.

Cultural Moment
It's really a pleasure to see that all Shophouse Kitchen's menus that are in English have accurate descriptions and no spelling error. This is going to be a bit of a rant and is going to sound very politically incorrect but I am going to say it anyway... what is it with places that can't get their menus right - with wrong spelling, wrong descriptions and wrong contextualisations. I have seen so many Asian restaurants like this. Even the signages are embarrassingly wrong in many places.

I can completely understand this in a country where English is not the first language - completely understandable and acceptable. I don't even expect people to have perfect English here in Australia - I certainly don't - you just have to read my blog to know that. Even Aussies don't have perfect English. However, when producing a menu or a signage, SURELY a restauranteur would check with someone that they have the terms right - and that there are no embarrassing mistakes? SURELY, it's easy enough to get the people who produce the big signages to do a quick check? SURELY they have at least one random English speaker who might be able to suggest that glaring mistakes be avoided. However, this is clearly not the case.

I am going to offer my humble services - if you are an Asian restaurant owner and need someone to check your menus and signages - holler at me, and if I am available, I'd be more than happy to help out. How about that? So anyway, that's my rant done... don't throw shoes at me!

Monday 5 August 2013

Good Luck Tea House

310 Chapel St, Prahran, VIC 3181

Good Luck Tea House on Urbanspoon
Yumcha in Prahran in quite a prominent location should do well but there would likely be high expectations here. The challenge is that such a restaurant would have to balance perceived sophistication and quality with affordability. For a place on Chapel Street that has been opened since 2010, it has an unusually low number of raters on Urbanspoon. Strategically, I think that while things are going ok in terms of the venue, location, food and service - these things are not necessarily coming together. I mean, I am not an expert in running restaurants but I am a diner. I think that the "All You Can Eat" big poster approach is a strategic error for this restaurant because it just makes people question the quality of the food here on Chapel Street. If they marketed it as a Yumcha banquet with a better looking menu, the perception might be a bit different and they might even attract more of a lunch crowd for meetings - to complement the dinner crowd. With HuTong in Commercial Road having a lower rating than the Market Lane branch - this is an opportunity for Good Luck Tea House which they don't seem to be taking advantage of.

The Place
This is a good generous space which doesn't squeeze diners together. It is also a clean restaurant, tastefully decorated and they have a relatively nice layout overall. It is is permanently on mood lighting, and is quite different from Chinese places with fluorescent lights.

It is relatively child friendly and parking should be ok across the road behind Coles.

Things to do Nearby: This is near the junction of Chapel and Commercial Roads and so, you have all the shops nearby.

The Food
The food is actually not bad at all. The yumcha offerings are pretty decent for an "All You Can Eat" place. I have only had the yumcha here and my verdict is that it's not bad. $19.90 for yumcha is really cheap these days and if you are there with a small bunch of friends, you can try nearly all the 35 dimsums on offer.

The highlight for me was the Chicken Feet (Fung Chao - pictured below), lightly spiced, and braised in black bean. It was really tasty... and I had all four to myself - so HAPPY.

Other highlights for me included:
Beancurd Roll (also pictured above, next to the teapot) which was braised and was really yummy when eaten hot and steamy.

Salted and Spicy Squid Tentacles (pictured below) which has a light batter, not overpowered by garlic, salt and pepper and very fresh... others in Urbanspoon have criticised this before, but I found mine most succulent, fresh and tasty.

The Service
They have what I call unobtrusive polite service. Not overly friendly and chatty but it gets the job done with basic efficient delivery of food.

It's not bad overall and presents a nice alternative to dining choices on Chapel Street. I just think that it's the "All You Can Eat" sign that's putting people off. But the quality is actually there.

Cultural Moment
Warning: Self Plagiarism Ahead.
Since this post is about the various dimsums ... I thought I'd re-introduce an extensive piece I wrote previously on the different dumplings on offer. If you are an avid yumcha enthusiast, it's worth knowing what you are having. So, here it is again;

Dimsum is a Cantonese word that indicates the variety of small dishes served at Yumcha (drinking tea) session. Therefore, the greatest Yumcha experiences are of Cantonese origins.Here's a limited range of dimsums you will commonly find in Melbourne (each will contain the Cantonese name / Mandarin Name / English Description);

Siu Mai / Shao Mai / Pork Dumpling - is the most common dim sum, which has evolved in Australia into your dimsim (dimmy) in your fish and chip shops. This is a common brekkie dimsum throughout southeast China, Singapore and Hong Kong. Both Robbie and I love this LOTS.

Har Gao / Shia Jiao / Prawn Dumpling - is just that, prawns wrapped in pleated translucent flour based skin, that should not stick to each other when you try to pick one up.

Yee Chee Gao / Yu Chi Jiao / Shark Fin Dumpling - is not Shark's Fin Dumpling. It does not contain shark's fin and is so named because it is shaped like a shark fin. That's all - and it is basically and pork and seafood dumpling.

Char Siew Bao / Cha Shao Bao / Steamed Pork Bun - Bao (refers to the particular style of bun) and is a staple in most places. Filled with steaming barbequed pork (Char Siew), the bun should be light and fluffy (watch out for the piece of paper at the bottom). My friend, Deb loves this.

Fung Chao / Feng Jiao / Phoenic Claws (Chicken Feet) - is what it is. Different places might serve it a bit differently from black bean based to spicy sauce. You either like it or you don't. I like it and I believe my friend Jeremy likes it too!

Chee Cheong Fun / Zhu Chang Fen / Rice Noodles - needs a bit of explanation. A literal translation of Chee Cheong Fun is Pig Intestine Noodles. Don't be alarmed, it's not made from any part of a pig. It just looks like a pig's small instestines, hence, the name. With these rice noodles, a coffee shop might sell it with just the noodles, some chives, sesame seeds and a sweet soy sauce. However, most yumcha places will serve a variety, with Char Siew (called Char Siew Cheong), Prawns (Har Cheong), Fried Dough (Cha Leong which translates to fried double, with the fried dough and the noodles making the double). Ev and Nathan do like these :)

Pei Tan (Shao Yuk) Chok / Pi Daan (Shao Rou) Zhou / Century Egg (Roast Pork) Congee - most yum cha places, one would just ask for congee and this would be the variety served (some places with, and others without the roast pork in the congee). What is century egg? It's preseved egg (that's black in colour and a yellowish gray yolk). I have to have this at every yum cha and the other person I know who loves this is Caroline.

Tan Taht / Dan Ta / Egg Custard Tart - When I was young, I used to think that Tan/Dan means Egg and Taht/Ta was just Tart. I recently found the chinese character for Taht/Ta and it actually means 'Flog' - presuming referring to the flogging to the egg into a custard. I have never been a fan though it is one of the most popular dishes. Deb LOVES this.

One Noodle Friendship

417-419 High St, Preston, VIC 3072

One Noodle Friendship on Urbanspoon
Everyone says don't judge a book by its cover on Urbanspoon about this place and it's true in one basic way - a fishbowl look of the place would tell you this is a basic really no frills place. Yet, if you take a look at dinner time, this tiny place always has punters and can get pretty full of a mixed crowd that has uncovered a real gem in Preston.

The Place
The place is nothing to write home about. It's like a basic canteen that's really down to earth and has absolutely no pretensions about anything. It's just a place to park yourself and slurp noodles. There's also not a lot of space and prams are going to be difficult. Parking is ok depending on time of the day or week as it the Preston Markets parking is available. Of course, on market days, you might not want to compete with the crazy drivers that I find there all the time.

Things to do Nearby: Preston Market and High Street shops. Also, if you in a rush to get to an event at the Preston Townhall, this is nice and handy.

The Food
Fresh, really fresh noodles made on premises, explaining the doughy smell of the place.If you see the plastic screen above, that's where they do the noodles. You can also see them preparing the dumplings in the shop window facing High Street (pictured above to the left of the picture).

I like their various noodle soups, their soy stewed meats in noodles are good because it reminds me of the stewed meats I used to have as a child. These included Stewed Pork Noodles (pictured right), Stewed Beef Noodles and Stewed Lamb Noodles. I didn't feel very thirsty after the noodles here, so they probably don't use very much MSG either - but I can't guarantee that.

To explain these dishes, the noodles are not actually served with the stewed sauces. The noodles are served with a clear soup base (either pork, beef or lamb bones based depending on what you have ordered), and then the pieces of stewed meats and basic vegetables are added in to the noodle soup. So the dish becomes a quite delicate balance of flavours, with the hand rolled noodles as the star. The noodles are of great quality, it's thicker that the manufactured ones in the city. They are huge bowls of noodles though they don't give you an overdose of the proteins, you get a very generous serve of noodles. They also do dry noodles and fried noodles here but the soups are the highlight for me.
Pork chop Noodle Soup (pork chop is a quite salty)
Minimalist Zhajiag Noodles (more on that below)
They also do fresh dumplings which are slightly smaller than many of the dumpling shops in the city, though they are still rather tasty. There are different ones all made on premises. I prefer the fried ones here to the steamed ones.

The Service
The service here is basic, but very friendly, unlike many other dumpling places in the city. They are friendly, take time to explain and take time to clarify what you want. The dishes seldom come out at the same time for each table but they do come in pretty quick succession. They key to note is that they are friendly, which is important at a place like this. It is such a refreshing change from the surly waitstaff in many similar places.

For a quick no frills yummy meal in Preston, if you can get in to this place, it's a go-er. It's now my go to place for Chinese noodles in Preston.

Cultural Moment
Two quintessential Northern Chinese Noodles are DanDan Mian and ZhaJiang Mian. These are dry noodles and what I call Chinese Spag Bol. So what it is are handmade noodles, cooked al dente and then dowsed in a meat sauce. It's usually minced or finely diced pork, with lots of garlic in both the sauces. The difference is in the base of the sauces.

DanDan Mian has a rather spicy chilli base. Some places do really spicy DanDan sauce that only seasoned diners can cope with. In Melbourne, this is usually more adapted to our taste where it is more manageable. Many places would use Szechuan peppercorns in the sauce as well.

Zhajiang Mian has a 'stir fried' sauce with a fermented bean paste base. This uses a thick fermented soy bean paste which has a tangy taste. The one pictured above at One Noodle Friendship is really concentrated and doesn't have enough meat (for my taste). If there is a spice here, it's more a sprinkle of it.

Friday 2 August 2013

Blok M Express

380 Little Bourke St., Melbourne, VIC 3000

Blok M on Urbanspoon
Looking for an Indonesian place in the shopping precinct of Swanston Street, Elizabeth Street and Bourke Street is not easy. There are not many, but in amongst all the Malaysian, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are 2 Indonesian place. One is Nelayan which is easy to find on Swanston Street. The other is Blok M Express which is on the way to Hardware Lane, and easily forgotten. However, it has a pretty good rating on Urbanspoon and definitely worth a look for lunch or early dinner.

The Place
It's a pretty squeezy set up because of the way they have set out the tables and chairs. There's not a lot of room to move and it can get uncomfortable when there's a crowd. However, the new layout with the counter in the back has alleviated some of this problem - though they continue to keep the diners very close to each other. It is also a rather tired place and needs a good clean, I think. It's not a great place for kids because of the layout, and parking in Little Bourke - good luck with that. It is however, a good place for a quick lunch.

Things to do Nearby: You are in the middle of the shopping area of the CBD - heaps to do.

The Food
So, this is where they shine. Most of their dishes are really quite good. Firstly, for an Indonesian place - the food here is not very chilli hot. For lovers of really spicy food, you might be a bit disappointed. For those of us who do like chilli but not at crazy levels, this is pretty good.

If you are vegetarian, I think you might struggle here a bit beyond your basic gado gado, tofu and tempe.

The highlights for me here include:
The twin soups, Soto Ayam (Chicken soup) and Sup Buntut (Oxtail Soup - pictured right) which are clear soups, with similar bases. They do tend to be slightly greasy because that's how these soups are but if you like a tiny bit of spice in your soup, shallots and spring onions, these are must tries.  Sometimes, the oxtail here is a bit oily but that's oxtail for you. They also do a Fried Oxtail dish which is really yummy for oxtail lovers.Note the lack of vegetables - it's pretty much garnish, won't you say?

They also do good whole barbequed  fish (either bakar or belado). Bakar is just plain barbequed fish while Belado comes with a slather of chilli sambal sauce which is rather spicy, savoury and a bit sweet. Good balance of flavours there. They also have Ayam Rica-Rica, a great Indonesian chilli sauce slathered chicken which I haven't tried yet but will do so in the next visit (and update here).

I am not a fan of the satays here primarily because I am not a fan of Indonesian styled satays with their peanut sauce poured over the satay sticks and also a good dollop of ketchup manis (sweet sauce) - just not my thing, but you might like it.
Cute right? It's based on the 3-wheeled taxies in Jakarta - Bajaj

The Service
They are always friendly, though the food doesn't usually come out at the same time for each table. I wish they could get that right. With the change in layout - counter at the back - newbies might not know what to do. Generally, you should just walk up to the counter and grab a menu, and order there. If you are not sure what you want and need to peruse the menu for a while, you'd also want to claim a table (if it's crowded) while deciding on your dishes.

Whenever I feel like Indonesian in the Bourke Street Mall area - and not the bainmarie type food, I'd go to Blok M. It's pretty good and usually reliable. The only thing that turns me off is when it gets really crowded, then I don't really want to be there because of the seating configuration.

Cultural Moment
Blok M is supposed to be a hip and happening place in the business and shopping area in Jakarta. It's also where there is both general and dodgy nightlife. From the research I have done - it's supposed to be the place to be especially during the day but traffic is really bad. I haven't been there yet but will be there in November - I promise to update this when I have done that :)... so - watch this space.

Thursday 1 August 2013

NL House

115 Grattan St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Nasi Lemak House on Urbanspoon
SCORE! The rebranding and repackaging of the old tired Nasi Lemak House into NL House is an exercise in what to do to update your image and offerings. They have clearly done their research, and the target is now clearly students in the area and working adults after a quick meal (takeaway or eat in). This really works and I am most excited about the prospect of watching it grow. I don't mind if it gets really crowded because the new operations work just as well as a takeaway joint.

The Place
This is now a 'fast food' space which seats about 15 inside and again the same number outside on the foot path of Grattan Street. It is not a huge space. So, it also works well if you take your packaged Nasi Lemak (NL) to the nearby parks.

They have updated the look, the feel, and the deco into a funky informal dining space. I love the bright colours as well (though I am not sure about the hazard tapes outside). Admittedly, it's not a great space for kids but then, this is really targeted at students and working adults nearby - not leisurely dining. Parking can be a bit of a struggle in the area as it is near Lygon Street.

Things to do Nearby: It's in the Lygon Street Precinct and the Museum is about 10 minutes away.

The Food
Let's get down to core business - Nasi Lemak. It's what they do and they do it well. Towards the end of their previous incarnation, I was pretty critical of their declining standards because it felt like they had given up. It seems like they are back with renewed energy. The food is fresh and the Nasi Lemak is cooked the way they do it back in Malaysia. What is also nice is the fact that it's not 'fancy' Nasi Lemak and is reminiscent of the many places in Malaysia where you can get a small pack of Nasi Lemak with various accompaniments quite cheaply.

Check out the funky paper boxes they are served in.
Beyond the coconut rice, the accompanying chilli paste is really important in good Nasi Lemak. The ones here induce as much perspiration as the ones back home. So, they are not kidding when they put signs up indicating "Warning - Spicy Eaters Only". The other essential accompaniment to traditional Nasi Lemak is the fried anchovies and peanuts. The ones here are fresh - you can tell if it's been in a container somewhere for too long. Nothing tastes worst than stale anchovies - right? No worries with that here at all.

Some might complain that the chicken is a bit dry on the outside but I can assure you - this is how they do it in many parts of Malaysia and Singapore. It's a style of Malay fried chicken, laden with tumeric, that's quite yummy. Remember that much of Asian food is also about the texture.

The Service
I have to say that one of the thing that has come with the rebranding has been the total change in attitude and service. It is happy, cheery, friendly, helpful and very reminiscent of Don Don's service in the old days (for those who know the old friendly Don Don in the city). It's a huge improvement and I love that they do take time to talk to customers about their various offerings.

Check out the 'wait card" - they have even put in a little saying to keep it interesting (some say tacky - but many will like it - from a cultural stand point).

Funnily enough, I love the saying in my card today because it's just what I needed in dealing with difficult situations. Thanks! NL House!

I am looking forward to more lunches in this new revamped place. They will also be bringing back their various noodle offerings. It's really re-assuring to see improvement and for Nasi Lemak lovers - it's great that there's really good nasi lemak in the area once again.

Cultural Moment
Coconut Rice is popular in Southeast Asia. Nasi Lemak is the Malay style (dominant in Malaysia and Singapore) coconut rice, that has both coconut milk, salt and also pandan (some call this Asian vanilla). In Malaysia and Singapore, this used to be sold in little packages - traditionally banana leaves - but more recently - paper packages. People have it for breakfast/lunch/dinner. What differentiates breakfast - lunch - dinner nasi lemak are usually the accompaniments that go with the rice.

For example, breakfast accompaniments of nasi lemak might include a little slice of omelette, and possible a small fried fish. This is in addition to the requisite chilli paste, cucumber, and peanuts/anchovies mix.

By lunch, nasi lemak might be served with some fried chicken pieces,  or the Chinese might serve a hot dog, or a piece of luncheon meat with it (in addition to the requisite accompaniments mentioned above).

At dinner, you'd replace the fried dry chicken pieces with various curries or rendangs, for a heavier fuller meal. Achar (pickled vegetables) are usually served as well to offset the spice of the curries.

Of course, nasi lemak is not something one should have all the time as it has relatively high cholesterol inducing - some would say - you shouldn't have it more than once a fortnight. But it's so goooood, right? But like everything - moderation is the key.

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam

295 Racecourse Rd, Kensington, VIC 3031

Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam on Urbanspoon
In a highly competitive area because there are four Malaysian restaurants of relatively good quality (including the icon that is Laksa King), this restaurant is usually the least full of the four, possibly because it is a larger restaurant. This doesn't mean that it is not a good restaurant... just that competition is pretty stiff in the area.

The Place
This is a pleasant enough space and large enough so that you don't have to share tables and be forced to listen to the conversations of strangers with their backs against yours. It's certainly the most spacious of the Malaysian restaurants within the 400m radius. There is some attempt to create an ambiance with various objects that might remind one of Malaysia. It's definitely a child friendly place, including having clean high chairs should you need them. When it gets busy, there's usually a buzz here without overwhelming noisiness.

Things to do Nearby: The shops of Racecourse Road in Kensington during the day but that's about it.

The Food
The food is not bad but nor is it a stand out. Admittedly, I have not tried its main differentiator from the other Malaysian offerings in the area - the Crab dishes. Partly, this is because I can't be bothered and I just haven't got round to it. I might be wrong but one of the things that clearly stands out here is their portion sizes. I think it's the biggest compared to the other Malaysian places in the area. I could barely finish my lunch. The Nasi Lemak (pictured right) itself was pretty good and I loved that they had generous portions of achar (pickled vegetables), and peanuts with fried anchovies. The let-down for me, was the Chicken Curry which was basically overpowered by the star anise they used too liberally in a very Chinese curry.

The Wat Dan Hor (below) on the other hand was really tasty though they definitely have a more Kuala Lumpur style with darker soya sauce in this dish, rather than the lighter style of Ipoh and even Penang. For some, this is not authentic - for me - I was very full and happy at the end.
The Service
They do have very friendly service and highly obliging. Probably the second best service amongst the 4 Malaysian places in the area. It is pretty good though the only thing that sets them back slightly is probably their food knowledge of Malaysian dishes is slightly below par, unlike the confidence of the wait staff at Grand Tofu.

I think I would go there occasionally when the other places are really full. The thing about the 4 Malaysian places here is this - you really just need to know your own taste and preferences. All 4 have some very similar dishes but cook them somewhat differently. For example, they all do Hainanese Chicken Rice... but who has the best one? The jury is still out on that one but I like Chef Lagenda because they have the Roast Chicken option. That's just one of the dishes - we could have a debate around it till the chickens are cooked... One day I might compare the various dishes across each of the 4 Malaysian restaurants.

Cultural Moment
Some people ask "How can one place sustain so many Malaysian restaurants?" Ummmm... "How can a tiny suburb sustain 3 pubs?". They might be alluding to the idea that such an exotic cuisine might not attract enough customers to sustain 4 'similar' restaurants but a pub? Everybody here drinks!

However, that's just the point, I think that Malaysian cuisine is no longer considered "exotic" especially when you are looking at a city like Melbourne. Dare I say, most people must have tried some Malaysian food in the past and might be able to name at least a couple of Malaysian dishes. Perhaps, Malaysian food hasn't quite reached the status of Italian food or Vietnamese food yet, here in Melbourne (where you can have a whole street of Italian or Vietnamese restaurants and have them all do quite well). However, I think it must be getting close in places like Flemington, Springvale, Glen Waverly and Clayton.

This is the joy of Melbourne - that you can have enough choice amongst the various cuisines, even the 'exotic ones', and have them all do well so they can all challenge each other to do better. How lucky are Melbournians!