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.

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