Thursday 28 February 2013

Pho Bo Ga Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant

241, Swanston Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Pho Bo Ga Mekong Vietnam on Urbanspoon

This place rides on a number of things; location, history, and price. The food is mediocre at best and has gotten worse each time I have tried it to the point where I am not that keen as there are other Vietnamese joints in the city now. The place also has history - with Bill Clinton and Jackie Chan both having had their offerings and raved about it - but seriously - that was a long time ago.

What helps it is really its location where it continues to attract of healthy number of SEAsian tourists in the city who are looking for something familiar on the Swanston Street scene - the numbers of tourists then continue to perpetuate the idea that it is a popular place to eat. Also, you will have groups of students after a cheap eat. That's my explanation of the crowd.

The Place
Bright, Mirrored, Noisy and Cramped. It's like eating in a very busy cafeteria, so if you like that kind of buzz, this is the place for you. It is really conveniently located on Swanston Street, hence the crowd.

Things to do Nearby: It's on Swanston Street - there's plenty to do and see.

The Food
The food is really not very exciting. I always try to look for the positive but there's not a lot here other than one glimmer of hope.

Pho - this is the mainstay of the restaurant needs to be the highlight. However, the speed with which they serve them and quantity of serves they get through because of the crowd, means that the soup is usually never steamy hot. At best, it's lukewarm. The ingredients are not bad at all and mostly fresh. However, the soup itself is a bit too sweet and lacks the Beef pho taste of the best Pho restaurants in Melbourne - it's really quite watered down. One thing though - I quite like their beef sausages which are really peppery (love pepper) but it might be too hot for many.

Ok - their chilli sauce left on the tables are a bit scary because I seriously do not know how hygenic they are. Unlike many places that at least try to keep the containers clean - the ones here are somewhat greasy, and sometimes the sauce is dried out.

Broken Rice - this is pretty average here and again, while the servings are generous, there's not a lot of excitement here.

Spring Rolls - ok, this is where it's at - I kind of like their deep fried spring rolls! I don't normally do spring rolls but their tiny ones are really crunchy (if a bit salty) and great with the fresh lettuce. Some would say it overcooked - but I like how crunchy it is! Not to everyone's taste. But then, one can't live on spring rolls alone.

The Service
It's really efficient here and they have never gotten my orders wrong. The speed is phenomenal (hence, the lukewarm soup) and never rude. But that's about it. So, nothing much to write about.

I used to be a fan way back but even back then, I always wanted hotter soup but now, I know better and expect better. One needs to improve with time and its sad when an institution stagnates in its offerings and lives off its past reputation. Hopefully, this place will improve but I fear that as long as they live off the trade of one time visitors in the form of tourists - they won't improve. Melbourne has much better Pho restaurants.

Cultural Moment
Vietnamese food in Melbourne is characterised by the various Pho offerings, broken rice (com tam), Vietnamese roles (banh mi), Vietnamese coleslaw, and many Chinese Vietnamese dishes. You know you are dealing with Chinese dishes when you see things like crispy noodles, sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken.

While Phở, Cơm tấm, Bánh mì are all relatively authentic in Melbourne, I think that's where it ends. In Vietnam, the food is a lot earthier. more herbal, and stronger tasting all round. There are so many exciting Vietnamese dishes that do not seem to be available here (unless if there are secret menus I am not aware of). For example Chả cá thăng long which is a fabulous grilled fish dish, and Nem rán which is the northern style spring rolls are amazing!

I hope that at some point, a Vietnamese Restaurant in Melbourne will take up the challenge of offering these earthier tasting dishes that will truly introduce Australia to a whole new insight into Vietnamese cuisine. If you are aware of any of these - point them in my direction - please...

Garage Cafe (Indonesian East Javanese)

221, Berkeley Street, Carlton, VIC 3053

Garage Cafe on Urbanspoon

This quirky licensed cafe set in a garage is a place I go sometimes for lunch meetings. However, while the food is ok - it's not always value for money and the service, while friendly, is never timely. Like the setting - the place is full of contradictions. It could do better but after all these years, still doesn't seem to have hit the right balance.

The Place
It's a garage! Big space for cars and a quarter of it fitted out as a dining space. Probably quite apt given that it is surrounded by car parks and car servicing centres and garages. However, if you are there for a meal - it's not everybody's cup of tea. It also gets ridiculously cold in winter because the heaters struggle to cope with such a big space and relatively warm in summer because the hot air doesn't have anywhere to go.

Thing to do nearby: It's a 10 - 12 minute walk to Queen Vic market in one direction and to Lygon Street in another. It is also close of The University of Melbourne.

The Food
While affordable, I don't really think you get value for money here. It's mid-range for what it's offering which is actually a pretty basic meal by and large. One word of warning... if you are a vegetable lover or vegetarian, this is seriously not the place to be. They put no focus on their vegetables at all - when you see their menu - it will say the meal is served with cabbage (one leaf), tommato (couple of slices) and cucumber (couple of slices) - they don't even call it a salad, because it's not. The Gado-Gado here is usually slightly more overdone that most places and might also not suit the Aussie tastebud. Also, in line with my other reviews - I won't order the Thai style dishes here - since it is a Javanese Restaurant - unless if you like Javanese style Thai food...

Having said that, there are a few highlights here;
Chicken Opor (pictured right) - this is the real highlight here. It's a lighlty spiced coconut milk based chicken stew East Javanese style. Really yummy and heartwarming especially in colder climes. Not spicy at all and really nicely balanced sauces - just wished there was more chicken in the serve.

Garage Full Penyet - which consists of rice, served with fried chicken and assorted meatballs and beancurd, and aforementioned vegies, can be nice. However, some would consider it a bit to dry as there's basically no sauce to go with this other than the really hot chilli sambal.

Mie Komplit - this is not bad and quite a generous serving of noodles. Ocassionally, it needs more sauce and meat, and the wontons need to be less well done. Consistency can be an issue.Some might find it a bit salty. Ok - this really doesn't sound like a recommendation does it? Well - let's say that 7/10 times, they get it right.

The most ridiculous thing here is their lemon lime bitters - costs something like $4.50!!!

The Service
The service is unfailingly polite and friendly. However, I suspect that because there never enough staff here, it is never timely unless if you are one of only 2 groups eating. if you are in a hurry... you need to forget this place and come back when you have a long meeting to get through. They are always apologetic in line with their friendliness but it doesn't always make up for the time it takes to serve up the food (especially if you are really hungry). If you are dining by yourself, bring a book.

Yet - I still go there even though it doesn't rate all that highly. It has the few dishes that I like that's served well and they are friendly. If the mood takes me for Chicken Opor and I am nearby, I would go there, knowing full well I might have to wait a while

Cultural Moment
Javanese cuisine includes a number of key dishes that might might have been given broader Indonesian/Malaysian names reflecting the dishes they resemble the most. These include:
Opor - a lightly spiced coconut milk braised dish (usually chicken or beef, ocassionally duck or beancurd) - Garage calls it a curry.
Pecel - A sauce for salads with peanuts, chilli, tamarind, palm sugar, also used in Gado Gado
Rawon - a thick black sauce/soup with buak keluak (a Southeast Asian nut - poisonous when fresh and has to be pre-treated ) spices, candlenuts, usually with beef. Buah Keluak is also used in Peranakan cooking. Garage serves this occasionally as a Special Dish.
Soto - a clear soup that can include almost any meats and combinations of vegetables - really home cooking style soup, usually found with a top thin layer of oil (where the taste is too).
Bakso - any one of the variety of meatballs. Indonenian meatballs are unlike the European style (Swedish or Italian) meatballs. It's not made from mince - more from paste of pulverised processed meat and tapioca flour, giving it a texture prized amongst Indonesians. Bakso, can range from the simple ones such as the ones made from beef, or fish, or pork to the more intricate ones, stuffed with seafood, or other meats, or even eggs. Baksos are served in soups, with rice or with many different types of noodles. It's an important part of the non-vegetarian's staple in this region. It can be deepfried, or cooked in soups.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Blue Chillies (Malaysian)

182, Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, VIC 3065

Blue Chillies on Urbanspoon

This is one of my favourite places to dine. It has offerings of both traditional dishes and contemporary Malaysian with positive innovations. I will try to make the distinction between the two in the blog entry. It means that depending on my mood and the preference of fellow diners, the choices are still there. This is worth a visit, if you just do your research a little bit and know what your preference is before you order.

The Place
This is a tastefully decorated cozy place, whether you are after a romantic dinner or dining with a group of friends. Despite not updating their style for a while, this is not dated at all. The space is relatively comfortable across two levels. It's has a warm and friendly atmosphere with displays of paraphernalia and foodstuff from Malaysia.

Things to do nearby: This is on Brunswick Street and just a few minutes walk from  Gertrude Street. There's plenty to do nearby most times of the day.

The Food.
The food is generally reliably tasty though I would like some of the portions to be bigger. However, the trick is understanding the difference between contemporary and traditional dishes and where your mood is when you are at the restaurant. Let us start with the traditional dishes;
The Noodles dishes are all generally very authentic and your basic hawker offerings back in Malaysia, including; Fried Kway Teow, Hokkien Noodles (KL Style), Indian Mee Goreng.
The Aromatic Curries such as the Chicken Curry and the Beef Rendang are tasty as well.
Blachan Spinach (not kangkong, which is a species of convolvulus) - blachan is a spicy fermented shrimp paste - this is truly a Malaysian dish and done quite well here.
All their desserts are traditional too and worth a try.

They have done the smart thing by putting all their traditional dishes in the noodles and curries and sides. When you then look at the Chef Specials, that's where the contemporary innovations are:
Assam Fish - is a contemporary updated version of the dish back in Malaysia with less assam intensity and more lemongrass flavouring, balanced with a slight sweetness. It works as a contemporary dish.
Diced Chicken in dark caramel sauce and topped with peanuts - is another innovation on a number of positive notes, it's tasty and has layers of texture. Lovely and what contemporary Malaysian should be - my only suggestion for improvement is - throw in a few dried chilli to take it to a whole new level.
Thriced Cooked Duck is brilliant and again, layers of flavour here but not for those who like their dishes either really savoury or really sweet - this one calls for balance.

The Service
The service is generally welcoming and friendly. They struggle ocassionally when it is really busy with keeping up with the diners. This is why I prefer to go earlier ahead of the crowd. This is one of the best service from Malaysian restaurants in Melbourne. When you are there and don't feel the love - you need to just raise your hands, smile and they will mostly remedy the oversight.

This is a relative pricey place for a Malaysian restaurant but this is not your cafe or food hall Malaysian. It's a place to go to where you can have relaxing chats, experience non-rushed excellent dining in a cozy and friendly atmosphere.

Cultural Moment
People need to enjoy innovation in food... while dreaming about the good old days and traditional dishes. I for one think that there's a place and time for both types of dishes. However, as a migrant, I suspect I am sometimes guilty of living in the past (not that there's anything wrong about dreamlike reminiscing of the food I loved as a kid).

However, the number of times I have been back to those dishes when I go back to those "good old places" and it's just not the same anymore. Is it because the place has changed, or it just wasn't that good in the first place and your memories are just ever so slightly flawed, or could it be, that your tastebuds have evolved and you have grown and the good old days might have been good 20 years ago but your tastes have changed? I suspect it's a combination of all of the above. In particular, after years of being in Melbourne, my tastes have definitely changed - for eg. I cannot bide the level of chilli hotness I was once able to. I prefer less greasy food. I seek out blachan like I never did when I was back in Malaysia and Singapore!

So, while I look for traditional dishes in my Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants, I am always also on the lookout for genuine positive innovations. So, I am not talking about the westernisation of a cuisine or watering down of flavours. I am looking for innovation that still maintain the integrity of the cuisine's flavours but made manifest in new exciting ways and combinations.  Here's to innovation and development of Asian cuisine.

Monday 25 February 2013

The Old Raffles Place (Singaporean Restaurant)

70, Johnston Street, Collingwood, VIC 3066

The Old Raffles Place on Urbanspoon

This is a pretty low scorer on Urbanspoon. Granted, it is not off a high number of raters but it's clearly a bit divisive. So, what's the story here? Is it good or not? The punters seem divided and in some ways, so am I.

The Place
This is a basic eating house with not a whole lot of atmosphere. In fact, the most interesting thing is watching the quirky characters and other people crossing the intersection of Johnston Street and Wellington Street. They try to evoke a sense of history by providing snippets on the walls of Singaporean history but it's not presented very well. Basic furnishings with fake plastic plants make up this somewhat dated restaurant.

Things to do nearby: Not a lot around - close to a few pubs in the area or a 5 minute walk up to Smith Street, or 15 minutes to Brunswick Street.

The Food
I have been here many times and I believe that the standout dishes here are the hawker style dishes, including:
Char Kway Teow - is pretty good here and not as greasy as some places. If you like it a bit spicier - say so at the start. For the uninitiated, this dish might be a bit too salty or greasy - but if you are that health conscious - don't order this one. There are 2 different types served here Penang style or 'Racecourse' style. Pick your preferred ingredients and go with it.

Hainanese Chicken Rice (pictured above) - So, the thing is - like the pavlova for NZ and Australia, Hainanese Chicken Rice is a bit of a contention between Singaporeans and Malaysians, each claiming to have the best versions of the dish. The one served at Raffles Place is not bad as Chicken Rice goes. However, unlike many of the other places (usually Malaysian) in Melbourne that serve this dish, they do not make any attempt to warm up the chicken before serving it up. While this is ok for Singaporean and Malaysian tastebuds - it tends to strike the Aussie tastebud as stange and even unpalatable.

Chye Tow Kway - is really not bad and one of the few places in Melbourne that serves this. It's a sweet dish and preserved turnip - my verdict is that I like it with more turnip, but it's not bad.

Since the demise of Singapore Chom Chom, this is one of the few places in the city that serves Singaporean hawker style food. However, with Killiney Road Cafe opening up everywhere, this place is going to face fierce competition soon I think.

They have names most of their dishes after famous suburbs and eating areas in Singapore - Kallang, People's Park, Jalan Kayu, Toa Payoh, Lorong 29, Bedok etc. These places are indeed famous for some of the dishes that are named in the menu. Of course - you need to know Indonesia is not in Singapore :) , so, maybe don't order the gado gado.

The Service
The service is brusque. There's no other way to say it. It's bad enough to drive a good Singaporean friend of mine (Ed) who is always on the look out for authentic fare to never go here again. Brusque, abrupt and totally informal, some might find it charming - but most diners would be appalled at the "can't be bothered attitude". I liken it to visiting a reclusive and slightly cranky old Uncle who is not very excited about being interrupted.

While the food comes out quickly enough - it struggles to cope when it's busy and some diners will have their food way before others.

Having said that the food is slightly above average, the service and atmosphere are definitely below average, I still go there primarily because there's not a lot of competition for this cuisine in the vicinity. In addition, the few dishes there that I like - they do really well. So, as I said from the start, I am not sure if I do like this place or not - I will however take friends who want to try Singaporean hawker food there because of those few good dishes, and only when it's not a busy time.

Cultural Moment
Singaporean Cuisine and Malaysian Cuisine - what's the difference? It is really hard to describe even for someone who comes from the region. I have thought about this a lot (throughout many years of living in both countries). I think the best way is to begin by talking about the differences between their common dishes.

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Rice, of Malay origins) - tends to be richer and wetter in Malaysia than Singapore. The chilli sauce in Malaysia is more savoury than the more common sweeter version in Singapore. There are many Chinese hawkers in Singapore who sell Nasi Lemak, and therefore serve them with a range of things that also suit the Chinese palate (including luncheon meat and sausages), while in Malaysia, the Malays have the best Nasi Lemak.

Laksa - see my separate post on Laksa here.

Hainanese Chicken Rice - This is quite a difficult one but I think that Chicken Rice in Singapore is fluffier, less greasy, and less garlic which the Malaysians really just go for it with the garlic and the chicken fat. Either way - this is one of my favourite dishes, but the trick is also in the chilli sauce that's served with it. It has to be the right style of chilli sauce or everything is spoiled.

Roti Canai/Prata - Of South Asian influence - In Singapore, when you order Roti, it's usually Prata while in Malaysia, you would get Canai. What is the difference - I have never really been able to tell. While some argue that the curry they are served with are different - that's a difference in the curry, not the roti itself, right? Maybe it's that Canai tends to have a swirly pattern, while Prata is flatter overall. It's a mystery to me.

Hokkien Mee - In Singapore, this is usually a dish that has two types of noodles (egg and rice), light sauce, pork belly bits, prawns and bean shoots, served with lime and chilli. In Malaysia (particularly Kuala Lumpur), you are looking at a rich dark soy sauce with prawns and fish cakes. Completely different dishes but the same name. Raffles Place serves the Singaporean version.

Overall, I think the dominant cultural groups of the two countries have a very strong influence on the similar dishes of both countries. With the dominant Malay tastebud in Malaysia, I think the food in Malaysia (West Malaysia at least) is always a big spicier, richer, and more favoury. I have heard time and again, Malaysians complaining that Singapore dishes are 'bland' and Singaporeans saying Malaysian dishes are too salty. In addition, the Chinese cuisines of the different regions also have an influence on the two countries. It might be argued that Malaysia is more strongly influenced by the Cantonese (which is commonly spoken in KL), by the Hokkiens (in Penang), while in Singapore, the Teochews preference for a slightly sweeter taste and the other dialect groups- all of which bring their own distinctive preferences in terms of the cuisine. Of course East Malaysia is again different with the influences of other cultural groups.

One last thing - no such thing as Singapore Noodles in Singapore - the closest thing they have in Singapore that's similar is Hong Kong Noodles!

Saturday 23 February 2013

Laksa King

6 - 12, Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington, VIC 3031

Laksa King on Urbanspoon

Extensive menu on the black board
This place has a healthy 89% score from more than 3600 raters. They must be doing something right, and I think the formula is the correct blend of relatively good food, affordable pricing, nice setting and reasonable service. They used to be a cheap as chips no frills eating place (Ah! I remember those days) and seem to have matured into a more sophisticated dining house that might still be trying to figure out its identity (like many teenagers).

The Place
The setting is rather nice and tastefully decorated - with a range of seating configurations. The generous scattering of bamboos brings the place to life. The seats are comfortable but also designed to not be so totally comfortable - you won't want to leave. It can get a bit noisy sometimes and needs better sound insulation for what it is.

Things to do nearby: This is round the corner from Flemington Road shops, next to the Newmarket Train Station.

The Food
Generally, we are talking about Malaysia hawker style food that's of acceptable standard and authenticity. However, some of the dishes are NOT completely authentic for the diehards... what they have done is maintained the right level of authentic flavours with a slight twist. For example, a bit more vegies with some of the dishes, less oil with some of the others, others are sweetened up a bit, and yet others are toned down ever so slightly in terms of spice. Overall - one could say this is relatively authentic but the diehards might complain. In short, there are other more richly authentic Malaysian Chinese places in Melbourne, but this one has taken into consideration a more Melbourne sensibility in terms of taste.

One other thing, as I have mentioned in other postings, Malaysians don't make a distinction between lunch and dinner dishes really. So, there's nothing to stop you from ordering a rice noodle dish in the evening - most Malaysians would. In other words - I am not a huge fan of their 'main meals' here and am more likely to order their hawker dishes (which is how this restaurant started out in the first place).

The highlights include:
Laksa (of various combinations) - The dish for which the restaurant is named. They have to live up to their name. They try to explain that there are 2 types of laksas (there's actually more - but only 2 are served here). Firstly - beef laksa (as far as I know, doesn't exist in Malaysia) - have never had it and will never have it. It's just not right. Roasted duck laksa is served rarely in high end restaurants in SEAsia that are trying to innovate and might be worth a try. Any other combination of laksa is nice enough here thought ocassionally, not steamy hot enough.

Ipoh Fried Noodles (Wat Dan Hor) - Fried flat rice noodles with egg sauce and combination of meats and vegetables. This is a dish to order when eating in - not takeaway (it will get gluggy and too starchy). Have it with a small side of sambal belachan.

Fried Kuay Teow (Fried flat rice noodles) - This is really a deceptive difficult dish to get right. The reason is this - the wok has to be really really really hot and the cook has to be ready to use plenty of oil for this to work. A less experienced person, even with the right amount and combinations of sauces and ingredients might still get this wrong. It's really hard to get the wok hot enough to achieve a smoky flavour for the rice noodles without burning them. Can't do it at home because the wok never gets hot enough and fire alarms go off. In a general kitchen like Laksa King's where they might use the same wok for a range of dishes - they have to constantly wash the wok with running water (which cools down the wok). In Malaysia - some hawkers cook nothing but Fried Kuay Teow and so maintain the right temperature. At Laksa King - they do this surprisingly well and it's not bad here (though not the best in Melbourne).

Things I'd avoid - most of their beef mains - looking at their menu - you can see most of it is non-Malaysian and consists of Teriyaki, Peking or Black Bean... seriously! They also have the classic Westernised dishes or Honey Chicken and Lemon Chicken. Not my scene.

The Service
The service is quick and efficient. However, don't get upset with their queue management. Depending on who's doing it and how attentive - they might slip up here. The service is nothing to rave or complain about. Do not hesitate to call for attention if you need anything - and they'll come to you.

This place has become a bit of an institution because of its original reputation, its recent renovation and a whole generation of Australians who were introduced to Malaysian cuisine by dining here. Since then, there's been many more competitors, including 2 relative new comers to the area (one being next to it, and another around the corner). It is still able to hold its own but there are certainly dishes that others are doing better.

So, is it moving in the right direction as a maturing restaurant? In my opinion - it's still trying to decide what is it's direction; to focus on its original calling of honest to goodness Malaysian hawker fare or to position itself to include mains that are perceived to be more upmarket and appeals to a more broad Australian sensibility. I suspect that the more it does the later, the less authentic it will become and the more die hard Asian diners might start to turn away - OR will they maintain authenticity through their hawker dishes and innovate through the others. I would suggest that innovation doesn't have to mean Westernisation but to innovate through authentic development of their staples - so NO honey and NO lemon chicken...

Cultural Moment
Not all laksas are equal. There are regional differences which could mean that the dishes are sufficiently different in taste and ingrediants. Some have a curry base, others an assam (tamarind) base, and yet others with a belachan (dried fermented shrimp), or herb base. Essentially, laksa's are a type of noodle in soup dish that's combined the Malay and Chinese cuisines (about 500 odd years with the coming of Admiral Cheng Ho (the Muslim Eunuch from the Chinese Imperial Court) to the Malay peninsula.

In this section, I will focus on some of the key types of laksas from Malaysia and Singapore. There are laksa variants in Java too which will not be covered here.

Curry Laksa (as served at Laksa King) has a curry base with coconut milk. Traditionally served with two types of noodles (Hokkien and vermicelli) and with fish cake, bean curd puffs, and even cockles. Also served with chicken pieces. Most places in Melbourne that serve Laksa serves this style of laksa, variously known as Laksa Leman (which has a richer coconut milk base), Laksa Mee (in Penang restaurants to differentiate from the Assam Laksa).

Assam Laksa (also served at Laksa King) is a sour tamarind and fish based soup (no coconut milk). Assam is the Malay word for tamarind. Traditionally, they use the thicher rounded rice noodle that's really smooth. Other restaurants might serve this dish as Penang Laksa (where it originated and clearly has a Thai influence too) - Penang being s  northern Malaysian state close to Thailand. I have to say, when I was a kid - I used to think that Assam laksa was a bit of a joke because unlike other laksas, there was no substantial protein of any kind - only bits of shredded fish and cucumber which were very insubstantial - No value for money - I thought, because no meat came with it.

Sarawak Laksa (originating from the Borneo state of Sarawak) is the laksa I grew up with and therefore - the best. Ha ha! This is completely different to the other two laksas. It has no curry base and it not tamarind sour. It has a more sambal belachan, galangal and herbal base, with light coconut milk. The ingredients are completely different to the other two as well. It uses vermicelli only, shredded chicken, shreded plain omellete (which absorbs the laksa soup), been shoots, shelled prawns and a generous serve of cilantro. Lime and fried sambal belachan on the side to taste. For true Sarawak Laksa - one really has to go to Sarawak. There's a place that sells a version of it in Melbourne which will be reviewed in the near future.

Johor Laksa (from the southern state of Johor) is like a child of the Curry and Assam Laksa - with a combination of the ingredients from the Assam Laksa but has a curry based and served with Spaghetti!! It's less soupy and is almost like a thick sauce that's poured over the spaghetti. Sambal belachan, lime and even preserved turnip.

Kelantan Laksa (from the Eastern Malayan State) is also served with either the thick vermicelli like the Assam Laksa, or Spaghetti like the Johor Laksa. It has the ingredients similar to the Assam Laksa but is also a soupy and the coconut milk is stirred in only at the end of the cooking process unlike the other laksas where the coconut milk is boiled in with the soup.

Friday 22 February 2013

Don Don (CBD)

198, Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Don Don on Urbanspoon (before the move)

Don Don on Urbanspoon

Scoring 92% on Urbanspoon from more than a 1300 raters is no mean feat for a fast food joint. The original Don Don on Swanston was a sure hit if you are looking for a quick reliable simple meal. The food is pretty basic and it's not upmarket Japanese dining, but what they serve, they do very well.

However, since moving around corner to Little Lonsdale Street, my impression is that they have lost a lot of the soul and quirkiness of the original space. It's no longer the same and I'd be interested to see how people really feel about the new space.

The Place
The new Don Don is a huge space and to me, it is rather disappointing. I am hoping that this is because they have not finished setting up the new space yet. It feels like a big low cost cafeteria and they have really embraced the fast food joint feel. From the moment you walk in, it feels no different to any fast food outlet. To me, it has lost its soul in the move and the big space is just boring.

Things to do nearby: The State Library, QV and Melbourne Central are all within a minute of Don Don - which means there's plenty of competition for Don Don but it continues to do well.

The Food
Simple Japanese takeaway with highlights that include Teriyaki Chicken Don, their Bento boxes.  I have to say though, they are not big on vegetables and if you are ordering the terikayi chicken don (for example), you'd be lucky to get 2 little bits of broccoli.

It's not a 'sharing plate' kind of place and each complete meal is enough for one person. There's a limited range of old reliables...

very average Buta Teriyaki Don
There are some exceptions to the good food here is that I have never really liked the beef they serve here (Sukiyaki don), probably because they are trying to replicate the thin sliced beef the Japanese love, but somehow, the quality just doesn't match up to the ones you'd get in Japan, and end up being a bit stringy. This might also be because the beef can be a bit overdone, sitting in the sauce for a long time.

I have had the Buta Teriyaki Don and I don't recommend that either - feels more like boiled pork than truly panfried pork. Not a fan.

The Service
This is cheap, and efficient and just what you need for a fast food joint. It used to be cheap and cheerful - now it is just cheap and quick.

It's a reliable takeaway place for me and once you work out the dishes that you like and are reliable - you have a winning formula for a quick lunch in the city.

Cultural Moment
Everywhere one goes in Japan, there are small eating places like Don Don where it's more a takeaway place with no more than 5 stools on the side for those who want to eat in quickly. They are known as Shokudo and it's common to see people eating by themselves off their little takeaway boxes, and in a hurry.

Beyond the Family restaurants, Izakaya and Shokudo - there are a range of other types of Japanese eating places - many of which specialise in particular types of dishes - for example Udon vs Ramen vs Okonomiyaki etc. Here's a link to a site that has comprehensive information about different types of Japanese eaiting places - Japan Guide (Restaurants).

Guhng (The Palace)

19, McKillop Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Guhng on Urbanspoon
This is arguably the Korean Barbeque place that sets the standard for a quality feed in Melbourne. It's also the priciest and doesn't apologise for it. Located in a street that's positioning itself to be the higher end of dining - this is not surprising.  The restaurant has 2 seatings in the evening and I would always book (just in case).

The Place
This is a well appointed restaurant that makes a real attempt at creating a pleasant ambience for dinners. The dim lighting is not so dark you have to guess what you are eating. It has an intimate feel without feeling cramped. They also manage their ventilation really well for a barbeque place and you (generally) don't come out smelling like a bbq pit.

Things to do nearby: Bourke Street Mall is not so far away and Collins Street is about 8 minutes in the other direction.

The Food
The food here is not cheap. One can get carried away quite easily and end up paying fine dining prices - in fact, this is likely to be the case 90% of the time. Even a set lunch for 2 is about $45.

For dinner - I would always recommend going with a group of people so you can order from the banquet menu. It usually comes with a range of condiments (as one would expect from a good Korean restaurant), hot pot (soup), a range of meats and some vegetables. However, the highlight for me here is always the marinated Pork Belly - yummmm.

At the same time, I have never felt bloated from over eating at Guhng (or left wanting more) - because the portion always just seems right with the banquet - they know their stuff.

I do have one comment about their desserts - the only way to describe it is Asian-inspired fusion of your range of ice-creams and panna cotta, oh! And green tea tiramisu - nothing traditional about the desserts here ... all not bad but dessert's not what I am here for generally. I am here for the quality meats and dishes.

The Service
Generally, the service here is above average, friendly and accommodating. However, ocassionally, you might get a newbie wait person who is less confident (and a bit nervous) and one of the others would usually step in to help. They also take time to come to your table to help you with the cooking ocassionally.

I would go here more often if it was less expensive - then I might get sick of it. So, it's probably a good thing, and a special place to get to every once in a while. It's a good place to take a small group of friends to share a pleasant evening. However, with 2 seatings, be aware that if you go at 6pm - they want you out by 8.00pm.

Cultural Moment
Chopsticks - can you use them? The Korean chopsticks are the real test as to whether you have it or not. I know this because I fail dismally - that's right. No one ever taught me how to use a pair of chopsticks properly. So while I am completely proficient in using it the WRONG way of crossing the chopsticks and am usually able to pick up the most slippery morsel, it doesn't change the fact that I am using them incorrectly.

Chinese and Vietnamese chopsticks are similar (longer, thicker with a blunt tapered end) and easiest to use. Some are squared while others are rounded sides. Japanese chopsticks are shorter and less thick (always rounded), and usually end in a point but are still relatively easy to use, if a bit more delicate.

Korean chopsticks are a completely different story! They are half moon shaped, as if someone decided that 1 chopstick was enough and then split it length wise into two - and voila - your pair of chopsticks - now, try to use them... I can't - primarily because I need to cross my sticks to pick anything up and Korean chopsticks can't be crossed. The best I can do with them is poke at something. I am a failure.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Inthanon Thai - Northcote

182, High Street, Northcote, VIC 3070

Inthanon Thai on Urbanspoon

This 88% scorer on Urbanspoon is quietly understated. They produce consistently good food at quite reasonable prices. It is more than a suburban restaurant, and should not be overlooked as a simple takeaway place. It is ideal for a weekday celebration where you don't want to go too wild but want a tiny little treat with one or two close friends on a school night. The one word that keeps coming to mind with this gem is that it is understated.

The Place
This is really a small place that in total sits no more than about 30. It is quietly intimate and no loud music, loud punters, or loud waiters. It has dim lights and is not really a place for big parties. They do have a wine bar.

Things to do nearby: At the top of Rucker's Hill in Northcote near the townhall - sometimes, there are special events happening at the townhall or you could explore the shops along High Street if they are opened.

The Food
The Thai food here is generally good, mostly authentic but not very spicy. If your average Thai joint in Bangkok was a 10 on the level of spiciness, Inthanon Thai would be about 5. Despite that, I quite enjoy the tastiness of the blend of tanginess, touch of spice, rich flavours and fresh ingredients. Highlights for me here include:
Larb - I love Larb and tend to order this dish when I try out Thai restaurants. My complaint with the one served here is that there's never enough! It's not crazy hot like some other places and you could even enjoy it on it's own without having to have copious amounts of rice to take away the heat.
Pad Thai - this dish is pretty good here and a slight hint of tanginess rather than many other places where it is too sweet (yuck).
Red Duck Curry - I like this though again the same complaint about wanting more.
The one thing that could be inconsistent sometimes is the Gai Yang (Barbequed Chicken) which could sometimes be a bit dry if overcooked. Mostly though, it's quite food and really well marinated.
Thai Tea - with a hint of kaffir lime - I really don't know anything about this and will have to ask next time I am there.

So, a Thai person would likely criticise this place as being a bit too westernised and not spicy/hot (and therefore, not authentic) enough. But for those of us who do not have asbestos tongues and like to enjoy the Thai taste without battling the Level 10 chilli - this is pretty good food. Trust me, I had authentic Tom Yum soup recently and one spoonful nearly burned my entire lips and tongue off. That's not going to happen here.

The Service
The service is always polite and lovely. The problem is when the restaurant is full and sometimes, there's still just the one wait person - she's not Superwoman - and you can see it's stressful and only so much she can do. Otherwise, it's all good. I always enjoy coming here because I always feel welcomed.

I would go here anytime I want a small dinner that I know to be a reliable place. There's another thing - this place attracts a really pleasant crowd. Something about the atmosphere perhaps inspires whispered conversations, ocassional laughs, and a sense of good will. Therefore, dining here is usually a quiet experience and quite pleasant.

Cultural Moment
Thai culture is simply beautiful and inspires one of the best levels of service anywhere in Asia (together with Japan). Service in Thailand and especially their restaurants are unfailingly attentive, delightful and welcoming. Therefore, I am a firm believer that a good Thai restaurant even in Melbourne should replicate that level of service - ok I might be stereotyping but certainly found that to be true in my experience.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Nam Loong Seafood Restaurant

171, Russell Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Nam Loong Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

This is a bad review that comes with warnings about the really bad racist service. It's really unfortunate for a place with potential. Attitude kills restaurants. With only 57 votes on Urbanspoon and only 77% likes, this place is still over-rated. Serving up Cantonese cuisine that has the potential to be quite good, it fails to differentiate itself from other similar restaurants close by in a positive manner. For me, it differentiates itself rather negatively.

The Place
Conveniently located on Russell Street in the city, this is an easily accessible restaurant by public transport. You can see the whole restaurant from the street level -  a basic set up with roundtables with pristine table cloth. There's not a lot of ambience though it is a pleasant enough place for a meal.

Things to do nearby: Set right in the middle of town, there's plenty to do around.

The Food
Serving the usual fare of Cantonese Cuisine - their food is ok thought nothing out of the ordinary. Their seafood is relatively fresh and most of the dishes are comparable to other Cantonese style offerings about town.

The Service
The service is what this review is really about. I dined there with 2 other friends, Robbie and Paula - Robbie being Caucasian and Paula being Eurasian. Our bill came to close to $75.

One of the things I noticed was that their service was a bit abrupt. However, I also noticed that they had brought out small bowls of soup to all the other tables that had exclusively Asian diners (do you know where this is going?). Being a soup lover, I asked "What are those soups and do we have to order them?" The waitress said to wait. She went away and then came back to say "It's $1.50 each!" Wow... every single table and every single person in that restaurant ordered their $1.50 soup except us. We finished our meal about the same time as many of the other tables - all of which got served plates of sliced oranges after their meal - except us. I didn't bother to ask how much the orange was.

I have even been told that they have a secret menu for Cantonese speakers though I do not know how true that is.

While it is true that the diners here are mostly Chinese, it's also clear that unless if you are with a Chinese dominant group that speaks Cantonese, it might not be an ideal place to dine. The bad service and double standards are completely reminiscent of the experience at C-Culture which was blatantly racist. I won't have a bar of it. So, I am never going back there again and no one I know is allowed to. Why would you when there are plenty of other places nearby which serves food just as good but with at least non-racist policies?

Cultural Moment
So, apparently racism in restaurants is quite a common thing. You just have to google 'racism' and 'restaurants' to see the range of articles and items on this all over the world. This is rather unfortunate - but in a day and age where there is so much competition and social media - hopefully not too many of these get away with their stupidity. Anyway - that's enough... I am looking forward to my next positive review.

Monday 18 February 2013

Shanghai Village Dumpling

112-114, Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Shanghai Village Dumpling on Urbanspoon

This place has become a bit of an institution in Melbourne for those looking for a quick, cheap and cheerful feed. Let's put it this way - this is not an upmarket cafe where you can hang out and have protracted conversation (unless if you are very drunk and don't really care). With a respectable score of 80% on Urbanspoon, this place is doing ok. The negative reviews tend to be about the bad service, other customers and the lack of ambience. To be honest - I have no sympathy (am I just in a mood?) - this is not the place for ambience and a quite sophisticated dinner. If you want that - take a 1 minute walk down Market Lane to HuTong Dumpling.

The Place
3 levels of chaos, customers packed together pretty closely, and kitschy outdated Chinese deco. That's what makes this place so lovable because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a dumpling factory. Therefore, the punters you see queuing to get in are not going in for refined and sophisticated ambience - they are looking for something slightly above a fish market dining experience.

It's right in the city where there are plenty of options including other dumpling options but yet, continue to attract a wide range of clientale - all looking for a cheap eat.

Things to do nearby: It's set in Chinatown on Little Bourke... also, if you have never been - you should check out the Chinese Museum a short walk away.

The Food
Ok, first off, the menu - the menu (depending on which menu file you get, might have pages missing from it, or might not be in any order) - it's that kind of place, and you just roll with it.
Dumplings galore, of many different varieties. The idea is to order of few different ones, whether panfried, steamed or in a soup, and share with your friends. They also come with a variety of fillings, including combinations of meat, ranging from pork to beef to chicken to seafood. There are also vergetarian varieties (though more limited). One thing to note - dumplings are not always dumplings - ??? See the Cultural Moment section below for the range served here at Shanghai Village, and you'll never have to ask again.

Beyond dumplings - there is also a wide range of dishes you can order from the menu. The highlights include;
Vegetarian Fried Rice - something very enticing about their very simple fried rice with nothing more than eggs, broccoli, and lots of garlic. So yummy, to go with the saltier dumplings and various other dishes.
Fried Beans - are really tasty even for someone (like me) who doesn't like beans. My friends, Paul, Benji, Brad and Robbie call them 'crack beans' because they are that good.
Salt and Peper Calamari - always tasty but the quality of the calamari is inconsistent.

The Service
Hmm. Simply put - they are they to push through your order and ensure you leave in a timely manner when your meal is done. Beyond showing you to your table, providing a menu, taking your order, throwing the dishes at your table, and collecting money - they are not responsible for anything else.

You collect your own cutlery, serve yourself some complementary tea, shift your chairs about and manage your neighbouring diners (raucous or quiet) as best you can. I have seen punters expect some modicum of service here - and I have to say - that's really aiming high. One does not simply walk into Shanghai Village and expect service.

One last thing to say about this place - to compare it to the yumcha houses and up market places like HuTong is laughable. It would be like comparing Hungry Jacks or Maccas to a Wagyu burger served at a 5 star hotel, with musclin salad on the side, handcut chips, and a waitperson filling up your drinks. However, there are times when a fastfood joint burger might be more effective or needed than the any burger of the other variety. This is a Chinese fastfood joint - treat it as such and you will be so impressed like 80% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon.

Cultural Moment
Different dumplings have quite different names in Chinese. In the near future, I will provide pictures to go along with this section.

Guo Tie (literally Pan/Pot Sticker) refers mostly to dumplings that are panfried and parts of it has stuck to the hot surface. So, they tend to have thicker skins.
Shui Jiao (literally Soup/Water Dumplings) which tends to be served in a broth (of different varieties). These dumplings would have really slippery, delicate, and thinner skins. Mostly, these are filled with various combinations of seafood (prawns in particular) and pork.
Zheng Jiao (Steamed dumplings) refers to your steamed dumpplings which usually has meat and vege combination fillings. Of course, there are many varieties of this in the Yumcha places. However, the main Zheng Jiao are the steamed ones which are pretty chunky (unlike their delicate yumcha dimsum cousins). The vegetarian dumplings are best served steamed.
Yun Tun / Wan Ton are Cantonese style dumplings and usually smaller in size and may have egg based skin, rather than the rice flour based skins of the earlier described dumplings.

There are subtle differences in terms of which flavours work best with which style - so, here's to getting to know your own preferences and your dumplings.

Not served in Shanghai Village but available at other joints are the Baos (or buns) which some people call dumplings as well.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Red Emperor Chinese Restaurant

3, Southgate Avenue, Southbank, VIC 3006

Red Emperor on Urbanspoon
Quite a low score of 78% on Urbanspoon for a supposed Chinese fine dining institution. I think the main reason is that for an establishment that purports to be a leader in Chinese cuisine, it's pretty average and the service is not quite fine dining either. It's got a great setting and has the trappings of  fine dining restaurant but that's about it.

A caveat here - I have only been there for dinner and therefore, this review does not include the yumcha offering... might have to do that sometime in the future.

The Place
You can't fault the place - it's a great venue and if you are lucky enough to sit on the balcony, it's a pretty good view of the Yarra, Flinders St Station and of the northbank of the city, framed by lovely plane trees. It's well set up with pristine table cloth and is not cramped at all like many other Chinese restaureants. Parking is as expected om Southbank, where you should expect to pay. This is close to Flinders Street Station and all the St Kilda Road Trams.

Things to do nearby: The Arts Precinct, Southbank, and Federation Square are all within 5 minutes walk.

The Food
The food is pretty average which is what makes it somewhat disappointing. Although there are a number of dishes from different regions of China, there is clearly a strong Cantonese influence in this kitchen. The dishes are also someone sweet which is common to cater to more of a Western taste.

The most disappointing dish is the Calamari with Spicy Salt and Pepper, there are plenty of other restaurants who serve much better calamari that are of the same range including Bokchoy Tang and Sharkfin House. At $32, this was really below standard.

This doesn't sound encouraging so far - but it's not all bad - the dishes are ok, just not outstanding or very memorable, but it's certainly not bad food (with the above exception). Perhaps, because I am paying so much more, I am really expecting something really special. However, I can pay the same and get somewhat better dishes (but of a different kind) at Bokchoy Tang, across the river.

The Service
The service is polite but not attentive for the fine dining restaurant. There are also not very communicative and somewhat aloof. For a fine dining restaurtant, I tend to expect a bit more interaction and knowledge about the items on the menu. Non of these were very forthcoming.  They just didn't do anything to make it a special ocassion for diners.

In addition, the wait staff would stand around and have a good old yarn amongst themselves, on the restaurant floor. It is better than average service for the Chinese restaurant but it is not fine dining service, other than the fact that they are all very well presented.

I am not not enamoured with this place. It would have been nice to have been impressed but I wasn't. Therefore, there is no real draw card for me. However, I might go back to try the yumcha to compare.

Cultural Moment
Ok - I am taking a risk here and this is just my opinion. Westernised Chinese food is not a bad thing. It can be quite tasty. There are some dishes that are particularly prone to westernisation probably because they are more popular amongst non-Chinese diners and are more similar to European dishes. In addition, Cantonese dishes are the ones most prone to this treatment simply because they are usually what the non-Chinese diner thinks about when they want "Chinese" - it's the same everywhere and this is partly due to the immigration of the Cantonese and their cuisine to all parts of the world in the 19th Century, more so than the Chinese from other regions. Therefore, Cantonese cuisine has spent the longest time overseas.  Here are some dishes that fall into this category;

Sang Choy Bow - really not very common in Asia but served everywhere from the lowest of Chinese restaurants to fine dining places like Red Emperor, in Australia. The sauteed pork/chicken/duck is undeniably Cantonese in style, with not a lot of spice, or heat. It is served with lettuce and seemingly healthier and small enough for an entree. The concept of an entree is not really common in Chinese dining... but when Chinese restaurants in Australia, Europe and North America first opened up and became popular more widely - they had to decide which dishes could be classified as an entree. Sang Choy Bow is an ideal candidate for an entree - together with Spring Rolls and Prawn Toast.

The twin fried 'goodness' of Spring Rolls and Prawn Toast that are popular in Australia are also of Cantonese Origins. There are many different types of spring rolls in China and SEAsia, from deep fried to non-fried, from vegetarian to non-vege and from the tiny ones to ones that could qualify as a meal in their own right. The ones that pass for generic Spring Roll in Australia, tends to be the small ones with lots of vege and definitely deep fried. The Prawn Toast, in my opinion, is probably the most Westernised dish - I mean, it won't even have existed if China had not met Europe. So, think about it... bread toast (triangular shaped)... the Chinese do not eat loaves of bread - at least not till Western cuisine was introduced to China - their 'bread' consisted of 'Bao' before that. Meanwhile, the Cantonese term for Prawn Toast is Ha To Si - Ha (being prawns), To Si (is actually derived from the word Toast - indeed a Chinese pronunciation of Toast). When introduced to Japan - this dish is now called Hatoshi.

The fruity dishes of Sweet and Sour Pork, and Lemon Chicken are also highly popular in Australia. Both tend to appeal to European tastes of mixing fruits with meat. Sweet and Sour Pork in some parts of China mainly consist of vinegar and sugar, rather than tomato sauce. Lemon Chicken is almost a derivative from Sweet and Sour Pork, just that it's for Chicken. In North America - they even have Orange Beef...

Beef and Blackbean is a popular dish too in Australia but the blackbean sauce that is popular here is probably the most tame and least spiced of the full range of 'douchi'/'daocheo'/'daocheong'  (Mandarian/Hokkien/Cantonese). Fermented beans in their various incarnations bring all sorts of different flavourings, from the subtle to the punchier pungent ones. The tame 'Blackbean' sauce that's highly popular is almost a drop in the ocean of douchi sauces. But it's still tasty :)

Probably - the most 'westernised' thing about Chinese cuisine in Australia is the treatment of the humble chicken. Chicken dishes in many parts of China and SEAsia are still served bones on, because it is truly believed that that way - the chicken tastes better and the juices are still mingled in with the sauces. In most Chinese restaurants in Australia - we tend to get either bits of the thight or the chicken breast with no bones.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Warung Agus Balinese Restaurant

305, Victoria Street, North Melbourne, VIC 3051
Warung Agus on Urbanspoon
Scoring 88% on Urbanspoon, this is authentic Balinese food at its best and friendliness to match. It reminds me of what you might get in Ubud, a more cultured, understated, uninterupted meal of an excellent standard. Most importantly, the Babi Guling reminds me of the one served at Ibu Oka (more on that later). This is not a halal restaurant in case you are wondering - Bali might be part of Indonesia but there's a strong non-Muslim element to the culture - more on that later. This is quite an expensive place to eat and the portions are not big, but I think it's Oh! So worth it.

The Place
The ambience here is less Kuta and more Ubud (for those familiar with Bali). There's a certain rustic class and warmth to this eating place that can be quite communal but private at the same time. The deco is really well done and parking is not too bad.

Things to to nearby: Errol Street is around the corner and Queen Vic Market is not far off. Not much else other than that.

The Food
The food is good if expensive. Let's be honest, you can't compare value for money with actual Bali - anyone who does that is just silly - because we're NOT in the same country. I am going to start by focusing on the good stuff that's a must when I visit.

Krupuk Singkong - cassava crackers with their chilli sauces are really a great way to start off the meal though I know that 50% of the time, the table is tempted to order a second serve of this.
Babi Guling  - the traditional roast pork with crackle is as good as any, and definitely reminiscence of the Ibu Oka one in Ubud, with none of the risks of eating in a roadside stall seving hundreds of people. This pricy dish (and which dish is not pricy at Warung Agus?) is really well worth it.
Ayam Betutu - this traditional Balinese dish is not so traditional here because most restaurants in Bali would serve Bebek Betutu - bebek being duck and ayam being chicken. They actually use spatchcock here. I think the next time I go, I am going to ask them why? I suspect it's the ability to source small ducks consistently in Melbourne more than anything else. Nevertheles, the rich taste of spices and lemon grass is well worth a try. You'll have to order this one first because it takes a while to bake.
Sate Lilit Babi - Minced pork satay Balinese style is pretty authentic here. Yummy-, never enough of it.
Es Jus Jeruk Nipis - Fresh Lemon juice blended with ice and sweetened - really refreshing and terribly expensive but I really don't case - if one's happy to pay $6 for alcohol - this is MY alcohol.

A note for punters who are more familiar with general Indonesian cuisine about their Gado Gado and their Cumi Cumi. Their gado gado here is called Toge which is actually bean sprouts - and there's copious amount of it, and therefore, quite different to the general Indonesian style gado gado. I also do find that the Balinese usually do tend to prefer their veges more cooked and softer than in Java where veges are left quite crunchy. Cumi cumi are little babi octopi - and tends to me cooked to the point of crunchiness too. However, the Balinese tend to like theirs with a lot more sauce I think than the Javanese and not as sweet.

The Service
The service is really good here most times and they take time to explain the dishes when ordering and when the food is served. This is quite rare these days at many restaurants. When it's the family members serving the food - it's even better and there's a sense of pride in the restaurant and the food. That usually fills me with warmth and confidence, which is a great experience. I really like the service here.

This is a nice place to show off to friends and family you care about who like to try Balinese food, and are interested in spicy and tasty food. It's not a place I'd go to every week or month simply because it is quite expensive. However, it's a special place to go to once in a while and really enjoy the whole experience.

Cultural Moment
This may be unfair but I think that Ubud serves more authentic Balinese cuisine than your average Kuta restaurant which has a stronger Javanese influence. I am also entirely biased in my preference for Ubud, the cultural centre with less influence from international brands (aka Maccas, KFC, Billabong, etc). The food is also spicier, less sweet and I am more willing to try the little road side eateries here which are sometimes run out of the back of locals' homes. You can really taste the difference, compared to some of the restaurants that are really Javanese and/or Westernised. This is not to say that the Kuta restaurants do not serve good food - it's just different to cater to a different dominant clientale.

The tourists that like Ubud (like me) are usually not fans of Kuta and if they have to be close to the beach - would tend to stay in Seminyak. On the other hand, there are those who absolutely love Kuta who would find Ubud a bit naff or even, not very exciting. Each of these groups of tourists would tend to stay put in the town of choice and take a day trip into the other. There's also a third group of lesser known Bali tourists who travel up north to the Kintamani area and Gunong Batur where they might have a more immersive experience (though sourvenir pushers are pretty full on), or the northern Lovina Beach where they might live with local family run accommodation.

Simple Balinese Words include:
Warung: Eating Hut
Suk Semah : Thank you

The names :
First born - Wayan (Waah - yaan)
2nd born - Made (Maa - deh)
3rd born - Nyoman (Nyeo - maan)
4th born - Ketut (Keh - toot)

Friday 15 February 2013

Old Kingdom

197, Smith Street, Collingwood, VIC 3066

Old Kingdom on Urbanspoon

I am just going to put it out there - this is quite possibly the best Peking Duck in Australia and better than even some of the places in Asia. However, scoring a more than respectable 89% on Urbanspoon, the issue is that, this place is a bit of a one hit wonder. If you are not having duck - you might as well go to any suburban Chinese restaurant of the 70s in Aus. I think all my friends would agree with this broad assessment. Shout out to the Lamberts for introducing me to this gastronomical delight.

If you are going to have the duck (why won't you), you need to call in advance to book. The genral formula I follow is 1 duck for 2 - 3 persons, 2 ducks for 4 - 6, and 3 ducks for up to 9 people. There are 2 seatings at Old Kingdom, 6pm or 8pm.

By the way - it is really annoying to go to restaurants that purport to serve Peking Duck, but all it is is Cantonese Roast duck in a pancake - that is NOT Peking duck. You want real Peking Duck - come to Old Kingdom.

The Place
The restaurant probably hasn't  been refurbished since it was first opened. One does not go for the ambience or tasteful deco. The kindest thing some might say is that it's nostalgic and quirky. Although there are two floors, they will still squeeze as many people in as possible. So, it can get pretty noisy.

Things to do nearby: It's situated at the busy end of Smith Street and just round the corner (okay - 7 minutes walk) from Gertrude Street, and 12 - 14 minutes from Brunswick Street. However, in the evenings - lots of things are closed.

The Food
Like I said earlier - I have had other dishes here and they are sub-par. The duck on the other hand, is World standard quality. So, I am just going to talk about the duck. It's 3 courses.

Course 1 - The Peking Duck is brought out and carved with prodigous speed in front of you, the audience. The crepes, spring onions and cucumbers, and hoisin sauce are brought out too. If this is your first time, they'll instruct you on what to do. Basically, you have the best parts of the duck wrapped with cucumber, spring onion/scallion, and hoisin sauce in the crepe. It's most delicious. One piece of advice for first timers - don't be greedy with the sauce - a teaspoon will be adequate - try it first and if you really want more, then, go for it.

They will then leave the scrawny duck legs and wings for excited punters to pick on. This is not the place for people who believe in elegant eating, and only with utensils.

Course 2 - Peking duck meat (without skin because you've had all of that), is sauteed with garlic, spring onions, soy sauce and bean shoots. It's good to have this course with steamed rice and it's really quite delicious. Recently, they have introduced the option of having the dish with fried noodles. I have yet to try this.

Course 3 - is the least glamourous but also my favourite course because I like soups. This is more a duck broth, with bean curd, duck bones, and preserved Chinese vegetables, and black pepper. Palate cleansing and really quite refreshing.

Alright - if you are still hungry, maybe order a fried ice-cream. I have only had to do that once in the many many many times I have been there with many different groups of friends.

The Service
The service used to be really friendly and entertaining. Now, it's friendly and more matter of fact as they never seem to have enough servers. This is not surprising because, carving the duck is a skill that one does not acquire over night. Please do not expect a fine dining experience :), and you won't be disappointed.

I continue to be impressed and will continue to visit. It's really nice to know that one of the world's best Peking Duck restaurants is in my backyard and at a very affordable price. I have been to Quanjude in Beijing which is a household name associated with Peking Duck, and while the experience there is amazing - the duck here can stand proud in comparison.

Cultural Moment
Peking Ducks originated from Peking (Beijing) and is now popular across China. It's not your average run of the mill roasted or broasted duck. It's considered to be an imperial dish and is highly valued. The preparation is also substantially different to that of roast ducks. In particular, there is a step that involved pumping air between the skin and the fat and meat of the uncooked plucked washed duck (which is crucial for the crispy skin). Traditionally, the duck is carved in front of the diners and is served with steamed pancakes. The ones at Old Kingdom are served with very delicate crepes - it still does wonders.

This is a must try dish when one visits Beijing - but be prepared - ducks in China have a lot more fat than the ones in Melbourne.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Pho Dzung Tan Dinh Vietnamese Restaurant

208, Victoria Street, Richmond, VIC 3121

Pho Dzung Tan Dinh on Urbanspoon

I have had a lot of Vietnamese phở in my time around Melbourne, Singapore and Vietnam. Pho Dzung in Richmond is very much near the apex in terms of taste. Scoring 88% on Urbanspoon means that they are pretty consistent too - the ocassional slips ups, I believe, occur when they get crowded, the soup becomes less steaming hot, and the waitstaff are a bit flustered.

There are a number of different branches of Pho Dzung around Melbourne but the one in Richmond is the best. This review is only about the Richmond branch. This place has a lot of competition along a busy restaurant/cafe street but still does well. In particular, it attracts a huge Vietnamese clientale.

The Place
Set on Victoria Street, Richmond, it can be a hassle to park but usually, you will be able to find something off Victoria Street (or just take the tram in). It's a basic Vietnamese Eating House with mirrors on both walls, making the place look bigger than it is and allowing you to ocassionally catch your own reflection munching away. When it gets really crazy busy, they will open up their second level upstairs and if you are lucky, you might get to sit on the balcony.

Other things to do nearby: Victoria Street Asian groceriesand Victoria Gardens is about 5 blocks up.

The Food
The menu is what you see on the board (in the shape of a pot) on the wall. Mainly, one goes to Pho Dzung for the phở or broken rice or spring rolls. That's about all they serve anyway. Basically, I go there for just the noodle soup - once really does not need anything else - when one sees the size of the bowls.

The options for the noodles are between different cuts of chicken or beef PLUS all the various gizzards, innards and yes - they use the word pizzle! Whatever combination you pick, you get a healthy serve of tasty soup, with a healthy amount of basil and bean shoots on the side to add as you like. My favourite is the Special Beef Combination, that has beef brisket, sliced beef, tendon, beef (with black pepper) sausage, beef balls (not what you think - this is actually made from beef pounded to smitherins and with flour added), with a few generous squeezes of lemon for I like tangy phở, and a bit of chilli.

This is truly good soup and one of the few places where I don't feel immensely thirsty an hour after my meal. This means that it's not as salty as some other places and maybe there's a lot less MSG. I'd like to think there's no MSG - but I am sure there's some. I will ask the next time I am there for the sake of the blog entry :). I hope I don't get barred from the restaurant!

The Service
The service is polite and quick. They are there to facilitate you getting your food - no real prolonged conversations should be expected because they don't even have to bring you a menu. No complaints so far, they usually get the orders right.

At the end of the meal, you just walk up to the counter, tell them which table you were sitting at and pay. Simple.

Probably the best Vietnamese Noodles east of Melbourne - If I lived closer - I'd probably be there at least once a week. I like - very much.

Cultural Moment
Phở is really quite a healthy dish and was popularised in Australia when the Vietnamese came to south after the years of conflict in Vietnam (to put it mildly). Most of them came from south Vietnam (Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City) where I have found the phở  AND the food generally to be a bit sweeter than similar dishes in the north. A local once told me that this was because since the 1920s, there were always more foreigners/westerners in the south, who prefered their food a bit sweeter - hence, tastebuds have changed over the decades. In the north, I find that  phở is somewhat 'earthier' and more herbal, than the south.

In addition, a differentiation between  phở in Vietnam and Melbourne is the use of lime versus lemon. Lime is a lot more subtle - while lemon really packs a punch. While I like both, on my mood - I do like my food quite tangy, so tend to go for the lemon of Melbourne. The following picture was my first ever phở in Hanoi... notice the noodles are softer than the south...and a lot more greens

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Nelayan Indonesian Restaurant

265, Swanston Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Nelayan Indonesian on Urbanspoon
Scoring 82% likes on Urbanspoon, this is a no fuss place that serves up good basic Indonesian fare. It is worth noting that Nelayan is also Halal-certified.

The Place
This is not a huge place and is set up almost like a canteen, with most of the food being served from the bain-marie. You order your food up front, pay for it, grab your utensils and off you go to find a table. It's the same thing if you are looking for an ala carte meal - order and pay first, then wait for them to bring it to you. It's not a place to have a long yarn and there's not a whole lot of space between tables. You could watch people walk by on Swanston St as you enjoy your meal.

Ok, this is going to be a strange thing to say but I don't like their chairs! They need to replace them, many are clearly quite unstable and I have visions of crashing on to the floor in the middle of a meal - freaks me out. You can also help yourself you water and very watered down tea, but they are just sitting on the tray by the fridge where people are queing up for food... hmm.

Other things to do close by: It's on Swanston Street near Lonsdale. QV, Bourke Street Mall, and Melb Central are all close by, and so is Chinatown.

The Food
This place serves basic authentic Indonesian fare that's quite simple and delicious. There are a number of different dishes that are quite good for food from a bain-marie. Their ala-carte menu is not bad too.
However, the main highlight is:
Beef Rendang  which is probably one of the best rendang in Australia. I can't speak highly enough of it. It pretty much melts in your mouth and has a rich sauce - I am salivating just thinking about it. My friend Scott loves it too!

The Service
Cheap and Efficient. No fuss, no demands. The problem is consistency - some of the servers give you lots while others are a bit miserly - it's all luck of the draw.

This is a good place to go to if you are in a hurry and want some light spicy Indonesian food that's really quick. A great place for a quick meal under $10.00 (if you dare to risk the chairs).

Cultural Moment
This is quite a good place to check out what the local Indonesian community is up to. There are all sorts of posters and notices from the Indonesian Community and Student groups, advertising everything from Career Fares to Indonesian Church gatherings.

Tuesday 12 February 2013


371, High Street, Northcote, VIC 3070

Yen Yen on Urbanspoon

Scoring a 70% from very few ratings, this is a relatively new establishment. I actually think it's the best of the 3 Vietnamese joints that have opened up on High Street, Northcote, in the last 3 years or so. Mainly, because I think it's the most Vietnamese of the three (of the other 2, I think, one is really westernised and the other is more Chinese). This is also a licensed venue.

The Place
Similar to many Vietnamese Restaurants of its kind, the tiles look a bit tired (though the restaurant opened only recently) and the deco consists of various Vietnamese enamel wood paintings. It's a rather no-frills place. Parking is usually easy with a big car park just behind the shop.

Other things to do nearby: Situated on High Street in Northcote, you have the shops there and Northcote Shopping Centre, a small tired shopping mall nearby. The shops on High Street are much more interesting.

The Food
The food here is not bad, depending on what you order. Again, if you focus on key Vietnamese staples, you can't go wrong;

Pho / Beef Noodles; not bad here though not the best in Melbourne.
Broken Rice: their combination special broken rice is really quite good though my complaint is always that I wish there was more. :)
Vietnamese Coleslaw: really fresh, tangy and yummy. Simple and lovely in summer.

Again, not the place I would order things like Mongolian beef, or curry... because those are just not Vietnamese dishes.

The Service
The service is not bad and I would call it unintrusive politeness. Having said that, sometimes, they 'get lost' in the kitchen, and don't have enough staff to see what's going on in the main dining area. So, punters could be left trying to get their attention.

I think this is quite a cheap and cheerful place, that I would quite happily come through to have a quick meal before I am on my way to do other things. There is no fuss and the food is pretty good though it's not comparable to some of the places in Richmond or Footscray.

Cultural Moment
Broken Rice (Cơm tấm) refers to the broken rice grains - hence, you'll see that there are not full grains. In the past, this would have been the left overs and cheaper grade rice, consumed more commonly amongst the poorer sections of society. The broken rice gives it a different texture to full grain rice. It is more popular in Southern Vietnam around Ho Chi Minh City. It is now served more widely and there are restaurants that specialise in seving this dish.