Saturday 30 March 2013

Killiney Kopitiam (Bourke Street)

Shop 11, 108 Bourke St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Killiney Kopitiam Bourke Street on Urbanspoon
This is a Singaporean Cafe chain started in 1919 as one shop in Killiney Road and is now a chain in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Australia.  So, they must be doing something right internationally, yet they have a rather low score on Urbanspoon. Although it is usually busy during lunch time and early evening, the food is a bit lacklustre and average at best here, which might explain the rating. It is also listed as a Halal restaurant.

The Place
Set near the ill-fated Paramount shopping centre which has very low occupancy rates and has never really picked up, this is still a relatively good location near the top half of Bourke Street. There is not a lot of parking here being where it is. The space is light and airy and it has the feel of a basic eating hall, with furniture that's similar to a real kopitiam (cafe) back in Singapore.

Things to do Nearby: Top bits of Bourke Street and 5 minutes from Chinatown and Collins Street either side of Exhibition Street.

The Food
When I first saw that Killiney had launched in Melbourne, I was really excited because there are not that many Singaporean offerings in Melbourne, compared to Malaysian (with the demise of Singapore Chom Chom which was truly Singaporean). I have been to Killiney Kopitiam in Bourke Street a number of times. I have to say that the food is not bad but it is average at best and most of the dishes would lose out to competitors in various places around town.

Hainanese Chicken Rice - with Jalan Alor close by, and Coconut House not too far away, this place ranks a distant third on Chicken Rice to both the Malaysian places. This is disappointing because I genuinely believe that on average, the Singaporeans do better Chicken Rice than Malaysians - yet, here, that's not bearing out. The rice itself is ok, light and fluffy but chicken is generally overcooked and chewy, which is not how it should be.

Fried Hokkien Noodles - This is one of my favourite Singaporean dishes but it's a bit tasteless and dry here at Killiney Kopitian Bourke Street.

Laksa - The laksa here is rich in coconut milk but lacks spice and tastiness overall. It's not the same as the Killiney offering in Singapore itself, and lacks the layers of flavouring.

The Service
Ordering at the counter and having the dishes brought to you is very much a kopitiam style of delivery. That's what you'd expect at a kopitiam in Singapore. It might not be what people are used to. I don't mind the concept as the staff are friendly and smiles all round make you feel welcomed. The first time I was there, I didn't realise this and they had to explain the system (that I had to go up to the counter to order and pay first).

Although this doesn't sound like a positive review, it's not exactly a bad one. I'd still go there when I am missing the specific Singaporean dishes that they offer here, because I can't really get it anywhere else in the CBD. Old Raffles Place still has better Singaporean food if you are willing to go slightly out of the city, and can put up with the bad service.

Cultural Moment
Fried Hokkien Noodles mean different things to West Malaysians Malaysians, East Malaysians and Singaporeans. In West Malaysia, it is primarily fried in a dark savoury soy sauce with fish cakes, pork lard, (sometimes, cabbage), and bean shoots. In East Malaysia, it is in a sweet dark soy sauce with just basic bean shoots and eggs. In Singapore, it's fried in a light soy sauce, with prawns, calamari, eggs, pork belly bits, bean shoots and spring onions (and is usually combined with vermicelli). Hence it's important to differentiate them from each other as they are all quite different.

The Hokkien noodle is used also in Laksas (in combination with vermicelli), in a Hokkien  Prawn Noodle Soup dish (that has a very strong prawn based soup), and in Mee Goreng. It's a versatile noodle that packs a punch because it is a lot more substantial than your average egg noodles, the kway teows, and vermicellis.

Hokkiens originally came from the Fujian province in China.Hokkien is the dialect I speak and the dialect of my Mum. It is also the dominent spoken dialect in Taiwan, thought their Hokkien is a lot more 'chim' which means 'deep' referring to the sophistication and complexity of their version of the dialect. The ones used in Singapore and Malaysia are slight changed by the inclusion of local Malay, Tamil and English words.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Izakaya Hachibeh

143-145, Bourke St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Izakaya Hachibeh on Urbanspoon
Looking at the very positive reviews on Urbanspoon, I was really quite looking forward to dining here. The welcome was warm much like in Japan and it seems like a really good start.
The Place
Going up stairs, I really got to see the whole place and it did feel somewhat run down. The carpets on the stairs really needs to be replaced and the well worn floors felt grimy. On the positive side, it had a pretty good buzz going and this is a central location (though parking in the area is always a challenge). This is also a relatively dark restaurant and probably good for a romantic dinner.

Things to do Nearby: Close to Bourke Street Mall and a short walk to Little Bourke, Little Collins and Collins Streets.

The Food
The food wasn't exactly disappointing but there was nothing to rave about. In short, it was somewhat average. Firstly, I didn't have any of the sushi and sashimi and so, cannot comment on them. Having said that, we did order a number of dishes;

Agedashi Tofu - this is my go to dish to work out the quality of the restaurant and while the dofu here is ok, it's about average and the dashi was tasty. However, the tofu was harder than most of the best places for this dish. I tend to like bonito flakes with my Agedashi Tofu, which they didn't have. This was not an issue, so overall, it was average.

Yakisoba - My friend Naomichi makes the best soba and this was far from it. How do I put it, it tasted like really good plane food but no more. Tasty but the noodles were a bit too soft, almost like it was reheated.

Gyoza - This was the highlight of the night (though I did see one of the wait staff keep a whole big pack of frozen gyoza in the fridge). It still tasted fresh and the vinegary gyoza was really tasty.

Tonkatsu - The tonkatsu we ordered was really over done. I will let the picture speak for itself - it wasn't burnt but it was heavy and quite well done.

Gesu Kara Age - The squid tentacles were yummy with the right balance of fishiness, lemon, and deep fried goodness. It wasn't greasy and was actually quite light.

Beef Kushisashi - This was pretty average and so not much to comment on.
The Service
The service was unfailingly polite, quick and really friendly as you would expect of a true Japanese restaurant. The wait staff were all Japanese and provided a great level of service.
I might come here to try the sushi and sashimi but not the other dishes. What I expect of a good Japanese restaurant is light, fresh and tasty dishes. Hachibeh was not bad as I have definitely had worse Japanese meals in many Chinese run places, but this was not at the top of its game, for the prizes it charges.

Cultural Moment
The humble tonkatsu has been around since the late 19th century and is offered everywhere in Japan, either as a main, as a snack, in a curry sauce or as sandwich filling. While most places use pork, it's also possible to have chicken, beef, mince, and ham. It should be lightly crusted with panko (bread crumbs) and lightly fried. One of the most amazing thing I have had in Japan is Katsu Sando (Katsu Sandwich), light white bread, whether with some shredded cabbage or egg, it is a great snack to have on the move, in trains or just a quick snack going from one meeting to another. It is sold in most corner shops that sell those amazing bento boxes.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Mamak (CBD)

366, Lonsdale St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Mamak on Urbanspoon
This is a West Malaysian place - clearly, distinctly and proudly so, not to be confused with Singaporean tastes. Singaporeans tend to prefer their Prata to be crispier and to achieve that, it tends to be a bit greasier. Malaysians tend to have Canai that fluffier rather than crispy - that's what I have seen all over Malaysia and Singapore. It is still very popular and queues go on as late as 8pm on weekdays. It is also pricier than many other Malaysian eating places. Ok - I hate to say this but too many people expect to pay Malaysian prices for roti because after all, it's just 'bread' - but this isn't Malaysia and the number of wait staff they have here and the efficiency speaks for itself. The main question of course is whether it is worth waiting for? I think it's not bad at all but depends on what you are looking for. However, there are some reasons why some might not like it and I will explore these in this entry.

The Place
This is near the corner of Lonsdale Street and Elizabeth Street. It is a busy noisy place, and not for those who like a bit of quiet. The ambience is a noisy mess hall with everyone trying to outdo each other. While the tables are set wide apart enough, it doesn't stop the noise from being somewhat overpowering at times. This doesn't seem to deter most of the diners I saw here. It's not a great place for kids and can be a bit overwhelming. The airconditioning here is great and that's amazing given the Roti kitchen is set within the restaurant itself. Parking is not great on Lonsdale Street itself.

Things to do Nearby: Melbourne Central is nearby, and QV is about a block and a half away. JB HiFi is just 2 doors down.

The Food
I like! Mee Goreng! Could do with more spice though.

2 different rotis
Mamak cuisine is strongly influenced by South Indian cuisine, but with a Malay twist especially with the curries. There is no questioning the authenticity of this place but whether it is nice or not is discussed here. My crew ordered a number of dishes to try range of Mamak offerings.

Mee Goreng - is really good here with al dente Hokkien Noodles and the right balance of spices. It was my favourite dish of the night. It is of the drier Malaysian style of Mee Goreng, unlike some of the more soggy and wet Singaporean styled mee goreng, Therefore, this is authentic and yummy, though my personal preference next time is to ask for extra lime, to give is a bit more tang.

Roti - there is no doubt that the Roti here is of high quality. I watched them doing it fresh and yes, why would you go to a number of other places that sell frozen roti when you can come here for fresh made roti that's not too greasy. Well done on this front - though the accompanying gravy needs some improvement and there needs to be more of it. The murtabak was ok but really thick and because it's not greasy like the ones in Malaysia, it is a bit dry and it is much thicker than many of the places in Malaysia. It also needs a bit more seasoning though the whole point is to let the curry gravy seep through (though there's not enough gravy here). Overall the roti quality is impressive.

Satay - was the biggest disappointment of the night for me. Don't get me wrong, it is a well presented and tasty dish. The meat is relatively well marinated. The sauce was sweet and while the amount of nuts and spice was right - the sweetness was all wrong. Therefore, it was not to my taste - but if you like sweet satay sauce - go for it - definitely much better some of the horrendous deep fried offerings some places have.

Kari Ikan - The fish curry is very KL (Kuala Lumpur) and tasty but not as tangy as some of the best offerings from Malaysia. They also use the Malaysian prefered cut of fish, and the vegetables (tomatoes, okra and eggplant) that go with the curry are beautiful.

The Service
For such a harried place - the service was really good and friendly, and given the amount of activity, it could go wrong so easily but that wasn't the case here. Minor mistakes in timing is easily dealt with by calling their attention to it. This is really well done and the wait staff is well trained. Most of our food came together when it was supposed to, even when the dishes are coming from different stations of the kitchen. It is certainly friendlier and more personable than many of the other Malaysian and Singaporean places to eat.

I'd go again because overall, the food is not bad but just for a quick meal and not as a place to hang out because of the noise level. The things that stand out for me here are the rotis and the mee goreng. I am also impressed with the service and they clearly have a pretty good system going. I am also excited by the wider clientale that seems to be enjoying mostly authentic West Malaysian fare. The one thing that's not authentic about this place is that you can't really hang out here - like many of the Mamak places in Malaysia.

Cultural Moment
I spent a whole year eating Mee Goreng 2 times a week from a Mamak Stall in Singapore - I used to give tuition to two kids, when I was a teenager - and they would buy me food from their favourite stall and their favourite dish. Why did I now say something about variety? Because I was just grateful and didn't want to create a fuss. However, what is Mamak?

Mamak is a term that refers to Indian Muslims, primarily in West Malaysia and Singapore. Historically, they have been in the area for a very long time as trading between the Malay peninsula and the Indian sub-continent dates back to 800AD (or even before). The term Mamak actually means Uncle originally though most Chinese don't actually know this. There are those who find the term somewhat derogatory while others have just used it as a descriptor of a culture. It's all in the tone - like many other terms we use to describe cultures other than our own all over the world. It can be either affectionate, descriptive and perjorative but usually not mutually so, depending on the person using the term - know what I mean?

A Mamak Stall is a real hangout place for many young people in Malaysia in particular because of the cheap and tasty dishes, by the road sides. However, like the 'dhabas' of the Punjabi region, some more successful Mamak Stalls more recently have evolved into Cafe style eating houses with air-conditioning - some are even opened 24 hours. The best ones sell the most reliable and tasty usual Mamak fair of roti canai, curries, mee gorend, maggi goreng and rarely - Indian rojak which I love but can't get in Melbourne.

Monday 25 March 2013

Fomo Thai

171, Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

FOMO Thai on Urbanspoon

This place is so new than when I first wrote this blog, there was no Urbanspoon entry for it yet. It's a great new setting, and there are clearly teething issues with the service but they have the food down pat. I am looking forward to trying this place again in a few months to see how they have progressed. It's not the cheapest place to eat in town but it's not bad food at all. I hope this licensed place takes off really well.

The Place
Near the corner of Bourke Street and Russell Street, parking is always going to be an issue but if you are in the city, it's really easy to find. I like the contemporary deco and the whole place has a nice feel to it. It might become a student joint eventually but I think it's really aiming at young professionals. It's not a huge restaurant and you are likely to be sitting pretty closely to other diners.

Fried Rice

Things to do Nearby: It's 4 minutes from Bourke Street Mall and round the corner from Collins Street. Plenty of shopping around.

The Food
For a first visit, I was quite impressed. Firstly, the food is beautifully presented ala Jamie Oliver - rustic but beautiful. Even with the menu - they really have spared no expense. As for the food, we tried three different dishes:

Gai Yang Ha Dao - Char-grilled chicken with the best tasting spicy hot dipping sauce, this is so yummy that it's going to be difficult to not order this the next time I come just so I can try other dishes.

Crying Tiger - This was not bad here but a little overdone. Crying Tiger should always be medium rare but ours was closer to medium but it was still tender. Not the best but by no means, average.

Deally delicious grilled Chicken

Khao Pud Paak - Vegetarian fried rice - this was our nod to vegetables for the night but it was tasty fried rice that brought the sense alive. Really a nice way to start the meal and my only complaint was that it was a bit small in terms of the size - even though we ordered the large serving.

The Service
There're are clearly teething problems with timing, service and attention to detail. They are very friendly which is typical of many Thai restaurants. However, they are not yet very organised and might be understaffed given how new they are. The food did come within the acceptable wait time though they struggled with the one grass jelly drink I ordered.

I am looking forward to going again in a month or so to track the progress of this place but of course to try new dishes to see how well they compare to other Thai places around Melbourne. I do have a good vibe from this place and hope they do well. It is however, not cheap and I am not going to go every week.

Cultural Moment

Crying Tiger - doesn't look much like in the menu

Thailand has the distinction of being the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonised by Western powers nor the Japanese or Chinese, evern through the most turbulent wars and colonisation frenzy of the 19th and 20th century. Understandably, this makes the Thai quite proud of their history and their leaders who have managed to avoid the influence and 'shackles' of foreign power by being a buffer zone, playing the powers against each other, giving away beats of land, negotiation and collaboration with agressive conquerors at one point or another.Successive Kings during this time tried to modernise their government in an effort to stave off colonisation and played the English (in Burma) and the French (in Indochina) against each other.

As a result - I think that Thai cuisine has probably the least influence from Europe and actually were the influencers of the cuisines of their close neighbours. For example, Malaysian cuisine is heavily influenced by the Chinese and Melacca has Portuguese influences, Vietnamese cuisine has more than a touch of the French, Burmese cuisine is influenced by Indian dishes through the British Empire bringing large numbers of Indians for settlement, the Indonesians have their rijsttafel  and The Phillipines are influenced by the Spaniards and Americans. Thailand has remained Thai at the very core and it shows arguably the best balance of Thai spices and sauces that is quintessentially based on Southeast Asian herbs and spices. In fact, Thai flavours do influence their close neighbours because at one time - the Siamese Empire reached far into the Malay peninsular, parts of Indochina and Burma. Therefore, it's not unusual that Thai restaurants are so very popular throughout most of Southeast Asia.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Desi Dhaba

134, Flinders St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Desi Dhaba on Urbanspoon
Desi Dhaba doesn't rate very highly on Urbanspoon and having only been there once, this is based on one visit. I think I would go again at some point as the first visit has been relatively pleasant and I like the quirky deco of the place. This place is connected to the Tandoori Times chain of Indian restaurants. The clientale here is a healthy mixture of both Indian and non-Indian groups of diners. This place is supposed to be Halal certified too - though it does serve alcohol at the bar.

The Place
Set near the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets, this place is diagonal to Federation Square and so, parking will have to be paid mostly. It's a place that I think balances between quirky and tacky - I will let the pictures here speak for themselves. I suspect it can get noisy in here though when I visited with Paul and Robbie - it was relatively quiet (other than the loud Bollywood music which I love). There's a lot of space here and they don't try to cram diners in, which is great.

Things to do nearby: Federation Square, Russell Street, Little Collins and Collins Streets are all within 5 minutes walk.

The Food
This place serves a wide range of Indian cuisine (both north and south) but I think has clearly north Indian sensibilities. It claims to have authentic dishes but they are not as spicy, rich or hot as the dishes in India. However, the food is relatively tasty and well presented. The naan bread was average and 2 ofthe 3 dishes we had were yummy.

Paneer Saag - a common dish in many restaurants, it's pretty good here too and not overly salty as some places are wont to do.

Chicken Tikka - was not as tasty as some other places and not as well charcoaled or tangy as I would have liked it. I have had much better Chicken Tikka than this.

Goan Lamb Vindaloo - had a good kick and the goat was tender, it was yummy and you definitely rice to go with this one.

Chicken Tikka
The Service
The service was nonchalant. We were not greeted, walking in and though I don't want to be precious about it, it would have been nice to have been acknowledged when walking into a restaurant. Once we got settled in though, the food came pretty quickly even when there was a crowd. Although not very personable, it was not rude either.

I'd give it another go to try a few other dishes given the extensive menu. However, I would hope that the service would be better the next time.

Cultural Moment
A dhaba is usually a road side eatery. It could range from a tin shed to a dedicated purpose built building that is like a truck stop. It reminds me of some of the 'truck stop' eateries in Australia, that's attached to petrol stations in country roads. You could quite easily google image 'dhaba' to get a sense of the range of dhabas in India.

I believe that Dhabas in India tend to focus on Punjabi cuisine - the Punjab region covers parts of North India and Pakistan.

Famous Punjabi dishes in Australia include Tandoori Chicken and Chicken Tikka, Rogan Josh, Saag Gosht and Paneer,and Biryanis. All very yummy but does not have the chilli crazy hotness of their southern cousins.

Friday 22 March 2013

Secret Recipe (Melbourne Central) CLOSED and CHANGED HANDS

Melbourne Central - Store L03, 308, 211 LaTrobe Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Secret Recipe - Melbourne Central on Urbanspoon
In Singapore and Malaysia, I only ever went for the dessert and not really for the meals. They have the same cakes here which are fantastic but that's not what this review is about. The desserts are not Asian inspired and range from blackforest cake to cheese cake - all very yummy! However, that's not what this blog is about. How did the Asian dishes hold up? In my opinion, not very well.

This is a Halal certified cafe and to my knowledge, the only Halal restaurant in Melbourne Central.

The Place
This cafe is set within Melbourne Central in an almost hidden corner, next to Nando's on Level 3. Blink and you miss it. Parking within the Melb Central carpark is entirely possible. This is a relatively open cafe with not much ambience. It's relatively spacious and because of where it is situated, can be somewhat noisy during peak hours.

Things to do Nearby: You're inside Melbourne Central and across from the State Library.

The Food
Usually comes with Prawns :) This is ok but not 'Penang' enough
The food is not completely authentic or like what you might get back home. Their best dishes are not their "Asian Classics", meaning there's not a lot to rave about. The most recent Asian dish I tried here was the Penang Char Kway Teow - which had very little Penang influence because it didn't have the spice, the smokiness, and the finer kway teow (flat rice noodle) common to CKT from Penang.

Their Shrimp Wontons  are less wontons and more 'money bags' but relatively tasty.

Overall, the serves here are really small for the price one pays, especially the Asian dishes. I actually left, still feeling hungry, which hasn't really happened in any of the other restaurants I have blogged about thus far. An average meal with a drink would easily come up to near $20 - not your cheap cheerful Asian eatery.

The Service
The service is inconsistent and not very attentive. They are friendly enough when they notice you and generally very nice. However, they lack the consistency means that sometimes, you get good service, and sometimes, you could be sitting there playing on your phone for a while unless if you call out to them.

I would go to Secret Recipe for the cakes, that's the highlight for me here. Not a place I would go to if I wanted Asian - which is ironic - given they are a Malaysian chain. When next I am in Singapore and Malaysia - I might go try their dishes and see if they are comparable.

Cultural Moment
What is halal food? In Arabic, Halal means 'lawful'. The opposite in to Halal is Haram (which is prohibited). Foods that are prohibited include pork or any by product of pork; blood; animals not slaughtered in the name of God; Alcohol; and Carrion. There is a prescribed Zabiha methodology in the slaughter of animals under Islamic law. In many parts of the non-Muslim world, there are some Halal certified restaurants and cafe which serve food from a wide variety of cuisines (such as Secret Recipe, that also serves pasta and a range of meat and 3 veg options).

There is also sometimes, the question of whether kosher food is similar to halal food? To my knowledge, they are different primarily because one of the requirements is the Zahiba method of slaughter of the animals, which includes the pronouncement of God during the slaughter - not required in kosher practice. Then, there's the difference in the treatment of alcohol between the two as well. Clearly, they are not the same in all circumstances.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Chef Lagenda Malaysian Kitchen (Flemington)

16, Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington, VIC 3031
Chef Lagenda on Urbanspoon
Translating into "The Legendary Chef", this place has a lot to live up to, and it does in some ways with key signature dishes but fails in service and the over-intensity of other dishes. I would still go though for a few dishes that I do like here.

The Place
Pokey place that's well spaced inside and well ventilated. Tastefully decorated and comfortable chairs, I do like coming here ocassionally. The toilet being accessed through the main dining space is not ideal though. Parking is generally ok around the area along Pin Oak Crescent and the back streets.

Things to do nearby: This is set in the main shopping area of Flemington.

The Food
It's hard to compete witht the size, reputation and variety of Laksa King next door. However, there are some dishes they do particularly well, including;

Hainanese Chicken Rice (above) which is probably the best one west of Melbourne. The Lagenda Meal deal is a good deal and their chicken rice is fragrant, with perfectly cooked white cut chicken or roast chicken. The chilli sauce is a bit too sweet with not enough vinehar for my liking. Not the best in Melbourne but easily the best in the west.

Lobak is like a very meaty spring roll with beancurd skin wrap. In East Malaysia - we call it ngo hiang. Coming from East Malaysia - I tend to prefer more savoury than sweet dishes. The lobak here appeals to me because it's not overly sweet and the skin is lightly crisp. Good way to start a dinner.

Some of their other dishes can be very intense. Their laksa and tom yum soups for example are really really rich, which is not for everyone.

Spicy Seafood Laksa

The basic Roti with curry (pictured below_ - came with a strange sauce which was a cross between a curry and a satay sauce - very weird and sweet. I didn't like it at all.

The Service
The service is pretty average and informal. They don't always pay a lot of attention and friendliness is at a premium. This is a challenge to many diners and is often the thing that lets them down. However, the food does come relatively quickly and together, for the whole table.

Because I love chicken rice, I will visit Lagenda more than Laksa King. This is more a place for a quick meal and no fuss dining. Not for family gatherings really because it's not well set up for that.

Cultural Moment

Beef Rendang and Coconut Rice

Actually, the service here is better than most of the eating houses in Malaysia. Here in Australia, we expect a certain level of service, which we rarely get but continue to expect. In many parts of Asia (exceptions are Japan,Thailand and Vietnam) - service is a fine art form of leaving the customer alone except when serving good and collecting money. There is no desire to get to know the diners and repeat business is not necessarily seen as a function of good service but good food. It's only in the finer dining places that you get a higher level of service - just.

Yet, in Australia, there's a sense that we do expect more from the places we go to eat. Why aren't they more friendly? Why aren't they more communicative? And often, it's a bit of a let down - though I have to say, I am let down a lot less in Melbourne than in places like Perth and Brisbane. For me - I'd at least like an acknowledgement and a smile... I don't ask for too much - I think :).

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Colourful Yunnan (Chinese Restaurant)

680, Swanston St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Colourful Yunnan on Urbanspoon
I have never been to the Yunan region and cannot vouch for the authenticity of this place. However, it does remind me of the eating houses in the backstreets of other parts of China where they haven't really catered to tourists of any other cultures - except maybe rural-urban migrants. It feels authentic, the other diners slurping away at their meals makes the place feel very authentic and the greasiness of the food too reminds me of many parts of China. I also have confirmation from a fellow blogger (who's from Yunnan) that this place IS authentic. Check out her blog entry on this restaurant at Sweet and Sour Fork. This is not as cheap as many of the Chinese eating places that has sprouted up in Melbourne in the last 5 - 7 years.

The Place
Situated on the corner of Swanston Street and Grattan Street, the target market here is clearly the large number of Chinese International Students studying at The University of Melbourne and RMIT University. The place is set up as a no-frills diner that has just passable cleanliness and you are situated pretty closely to other diners. It is a licensed venue and sound insulation is not that great. Parking is ok round Cardigan Street in the back. This is not a kid friendly place in my opinion.

Things to do Nearby: Lygon Street and University of Melbourne are just around the corner.

The Food
This is hardcore mainland traditional Chinese fare. When they tell you it's hot - it's CHILLI hot. Don't play with fire if you are not used to this cuisine. This is not a place for your tame Cantonese and Southeast Asian Chinese cuisine. The dominant flavours here are chilli, vinegary sourness, soy and intense savouriness. Also, the dishes here use oil pretty liberally and so, by Australian standards would be considered very greasy. The greasiness also means that when the dishes first come out (especially the fried noodles), it can be blistering hot (not just chilli hot).

Suffice to say, this is not for everyone and the clientale is dominated mostly by mainland Chinese students (their clear target market) who all seem very happy with the offering. They serve Yunnan's most famous dish - Cross Bridge Noodle - which is their version of the hot pot in a bowl of Chicken soup, and thin slices or meat and fish are ingredients, together with their mixian rice noodles. The menu at Colourful Yunnan tells the origin story of this noodle.

There's also a range of Fried Noodles with a range of meats, spicy or non-spicy. If you are a novice to the world of spice - go for the non-spicy one. The picture to the right is Fried Noodles with Chicken. Notice the gleam of the grease. There was actually a lot of chicken in the dish. The smoothness of the rice noodles were fantastic. It was yummy but I think it would have been better to share it with someone else and having another less greasy dish to go with it.

Then, there's the famous Spicy Fish dishes - you just have to look at it to feel the chillies. It's not for everyone but I am sure it brings back wonderful memories for many Chinese Students as this is a popular dish back home.

The Service
I actually think the service is not bad at all despite some other reviews on Urbanspoon. You just have to ask and check if you fill that you have been ignored or they have forgotten something. The are not rude and uninterested - just a but disorganised and ocassionally flustered when busy. They make up for it with being apologetic if they have made a mistake and are generally friendly.

When I am feeling like an adventure and something quite different to what I would normally gravitate towards - I'll venture here to try a new dish I haven't tried before. I can almost imagine some of the dishes because they sound almost familiar but I know they are different to what I know. So, for me, it's not my range of comfort food. It's in the range of adventurous dishes and it's not a place I'd take just any of my friends, just those who are at that very point - feeling adventurous.

Cultural Moment
Yunnan is a region of China that borders the Southeast Asian Indo-China countries of Burma, Laos and Vietname. They also have the largest number of Ethnic Minorities in China - quite different to the Han Chinese. This means that even to the rest of China - there's a certain level of exoticness in the cuisine. Also, because they border the Southeast Asian countries - their dishes are also most likely to use lemongrass and other spices from the region.

Like I keep saying, not everyone is going to like every cuisine in the world. There are some cuisines that would present more of a challenge either because its less common and so, we are less aware of it, or it's just not our style of food. There's no point judging such cusines by the same standards we are used to. It's like going to Japan and complaining "Why don't they speak more English?", it's ridiculous right?

For me, Yunnan cuisine represents an culinary adventure for me. If I can get past their greasiness - I think I will learn more about this cuising over time. Maybe one day, I'll have another story to tell. Maybe I should plan a trip to Kun Ming.

Monday 18 March 2013

Mama Roots (Vegetarian and Vegan)

599, High St, Northcote, VIC 3070

 Mama Roots on Urbanspoon
Asian inspired fusion vegetarian meals are not my first choice. So, perhaps my expecations were low but I was really pleasantly surprised by some of the Asian themed dishes. This is a great find in Northcote and its a relatively new place. Some of the initial harsh comments on Urbanspoon from diners seems no longer relevant as I didn't have any of the problems the initial diners had. The food was well balanced and the one thing that most people agree on, is the warm friendly service, with a smile.

The Place
This is not a huge place but tastefully decorated with a variety of seating arrangements. Lovely little cafe style dining joint with a friendly atmosphere. Parking is great across the road. There were quite a number of diners there when I went with a small group of friends but the sound level was just a small murmur.

Things to do nearby: There's not a lot nearby though about 10 minutes down the road is the High Street, Northcote shops.

The Food
There's a range of dishes here including non-Asian ones. So, I am just going to focus on the Asian-inspired dishes. When I say Asian - I mean South Asian mostly here. It's true that one would not leave this place hungry. The serves are generous and if you order the banquet as we did - there's plenty to go round. The highlights for me include:

Firstly, the starters...
The humble Curry Puff was tasty and light to start with. It was not greasy like some places and could be seen as really simple. However, the balance and lightness was just light for a starter.
The Tofu Balls are sweet and light, not too heavy and a nice way to begin the meal.
I am always partial Corn Fritters and the ones here are moist, light, tasty and well balanced as a starter.

The Tofu Burger here is simply delicious. I am already thinking about when I can go back there to have it again. It's is wonderfully well balanced, moist, and just tasty. Delicious and nutritious... yummy.

I also has the Laksa which looked like a deceptively small serving. This is fusion laksa at its best because it wasn't overpowering and just the right level of coconut milk. It did have spice and some of my friends, Deb and Robbie found that it had a bit of a kick to it. The only problem I had with it is the bits of lemon grass in it. The old style of leaving everything in the soup could be annoying for some.
Lasksa in a Claypot
There were other non-Asian inspired dishes here that I haven't reviewed but suffice to say, I think there's enough of a range to inspire most people but - when you go to a place such as this - you have to be a bit adventurous.

The Service
This place has really friendly service and I felt really welcomed coming here. They are pretty accommodating. They will take time to explain their menu which changes from time to time. I think this is an important thing because many of the dishes, as described on the menu are not familiar ones. They are innovations and with any innovation, it's always good for a diner to ask questions if they are not sure. So, ask, and they will explain what you could expect. One of the friendliest places to dine in Melbourne and my fellow diners agree on the personal touch this place offers.

What a great find for a local restaurant. I never thought I'd find a vegetarian restaurant that I would rave about (other than the Moroccan Soup Bar) but I do like this one and will likely go back again and again. A real delight.

Cultural Moment
Fusion cuisine can be tricky. Not only is it tricky because it's trying to bring different cuisines together, it is also tricky because you are possibly introducing new tastes to set tastebuds, and not serving anything that's expected. This presents a challenge especially when you are crossing cultural food boundaries - spices in salads, tang to dishes, new combinations of ingredients, unexpected twists in flavourings and textures. I honestly think this is a niche market. Most people know what they like and tend to go for their traditional favourites and their well known dishes. Even those who like contemporary cusine tend to favour particular flavours. Only a small group would put up with real fusion dishes. It's a brave neighbourhood restaurtant that does that, and I applaud Mama Roots. The good news is that they have a range of innovative dishes but also the more expected traditional ones. As I always say when it comes to dining across cultures - know your own tastes, ask the right questions and order accordingly.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Straits of Malacca (Malaysian Cafe)

162, Swanston St, Melbourne, VIC 3000 (THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED)

Straits of Malacca on Urbanspoon
This is prime location on Swanston Street and should do well. However, it is plagued by inconsistency and so, while usually busy, it only gets a middling rating for me and a pretty low score from Urbanspoon. With its location, if it was good, there would be lots of people raving about it but unfortunately, that's not the case.

The Place
This is a not a comfortable space as the furniture is of the kind that gets you in and out as quickly as possible. Sometimes, the place feels a bit greasy as well. Mostly though, this place has the potential to be better than the fast food joint cafe it currently is. They are clearly targeting quick meals and smallish groups. Ventilation here is not fantastic and it can get really cold or really hot depending on the weather outside. It's easy to see why that's the case because the whole frontage is open most days.

Things to do nearby: Bourke Street Mall and Swanston Street Prime Shopping Area

The Food
The main issue here is not that it's not good food but that it's not consistent. It's not even attributed to how busy it is. I have had both great and very very average dishes here when it's really busy. There are a couple of highlights here for me;

Combination Noodles - one of the few places that make Wat Dan Hor with two types of noodles like they do in West Malaysia, so you get the smokiness of the flat rice noodles and the crispiness of the rice vermicelli. However, while I have had great versions here, my most recent one was pretty average (pictured here, without prawns, normally comes with succulent prawns)

Indian Mee Goreng - with a hint of tomato sauce, a lot of spice and beancurd puff. This is pretty good.

I am not a fan of their nasi goreng and their laksa here.

The Service
Again, the issue here is consistency. While they are usually non-obtrusive but attentive, the politeness varies from time to time. However, overall, they are pretty down to earth and friendly. I think that the service is actually better than most eating houses of a similar standard.

I would go here once in a while for a few dishes which I know they do well. It's not a hangout place and so, it's a quick meal and then you're out of there. It is not as good as some of the other places within walking distance but I won't rule it out, just to break things up a bit very ocassionally.

Cultural Moment
Malacca is one of the straits states of West Malaysia on the Malay Peninsula. It was a major trading port for a long time, untill Penang and later, Singapore took over as the pre-eminent port city of the region. It has a long history of multiculturalism, with the arrival of the Malays, the Chinese (15th Century with Admiral Cheng Ho and Princess Hang Li Po) , the rise of the Peranakans (with the settlement of the Chinese and inter-marrying with the locals), the arrival of the Portuguese from Goa (conquering the area in the early 16th century and bringing with them Roman Catholicism), the Dutch then taking over from the Portuguese in the 17th Century. It has a rich cultural heritage with each arriving culture leaving its mark quite significantly. St Francis Xavier actually spent some time in here.

The diverse cultures of Malacca are not necessarily represented here in the cafe, which is dominated by Chinese cuisine, some Malay and Peranakan influence here and there. Much more could be done to highlight the Peranakan cuisine which is largely absent in Melbourne.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Dragonboat Restaurant (Little Bourke)

203, Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Dragon Boat on Urbanspoon
Once upon a time, this as a place to be, and even the likes of Elizabeth Chong, would have been seen here. For those who don't know, she was probably Australia's first Asian Celebrity Chef, with award winnng books, and appearances on TV, introducing Australia to Chinese food. Dragonboat was a bit of a standard bearer but in the last 5 - 7 years, things have gone downhill a little bit, even their website hasn't been updated for at least 3 years with old pictures. Maybe, this is why the Urbanspoon rating is so low.

The Place
Nice Contemporary Deco
This particular branch was renovated only few years ago and stands out as probably one of the best laid out and most tastefully decorated contemporary Hong Kong style restaurants in Melbourne. Other than the ridiculous stairs they make the elderly and the kids climb, this is really quite a nicely set out restaurant. It's got a great ambience. Initially, after the renovations, they had balcony dining as well but this has since been covered up because of the unpredictable Melbourne weather. Lastly, there's also a "side cafe" attached to the restaurant, where you can sit quite informally (limited space) and pay a much lower price for your dimsums - this is more cafe and takeaway style.

Things to do Nearby: Set in the heart of Chinatown and in the same arcade as JB HiFi on Bourke Street. This is pretty much the centre of town with heaps of shopping to do.

The Food
What's with the Capsicum?
Since the renovations, Robbie and I have been twice. Disappointed the first time, we thought we'd give it another go about 6 months later. I have also been a few times prior to the renovations. The food here is generally quite disappointing but there is one bright spark. I reckon that this place has the best Pork Spare Ribs (spiced) and it just rocks, with the right amount of spice, salt and is not to greasy. However, that's kind of where it ends. The disappointing dishes included; rather dry Lotus Leaf Sticky Rice (with too much dried shrimp); Congee that was thin gruel with tiny tiny tiny bits of pork and no trace of century egg, Beancurd Roll that was contaminated by the bits of capsicum they threw on the dish as a garnish; and the worst of the lot - sweet Siu Mai - sugary sweet and so wrong.

It's just not to my taste - probably because I like my yum cha a bit more savoury and saucy rather than dry and sweet. So, for the amount I am paying here and I do feel it's more expensive to a number of other places (maybe because of its location) - I am not going to be coming back in a hurry.

The Service
The service was pretty bad the first time around with wati staff who weren't sure what they were doing and were completely inflexible and not very knowledgeable about their offerings - for example, every single dimsum was "dumplings". This time round, we had a couple of wati staff who were able to explain their range of offerings - so it's perhaps the luck of the draw.

If I happen to be close by and am by myself and wanted quick take away dimsum, I'd go to the side cafe and order a few things to takeaway. However, it's probably not worth me going another time as I question the value for money - which is a pity for me because it's such a pretty space.

Cultural Moment
This is Robbie's observation - 'this is gweilo yumcha'. I didn't say it! Robbie's caucasian - so he can get away with it. It's somewhat westernised I think and as pointed out too - more than 75% of the diners where are caucasian. Half the Asians here were not Chinese, and the rest maybe were tourists?

The term 'gweilo' is a Cantonese term that is used to denote Caucasians. It actually translates roughly to "Spirit/Ghostly Fellow" - referring to the colour of the skin. It is said that in their first encounter with the Europeans, the southern Chinese thought that the they were spirits - (which is interesting as many indigenous Australians stories say the same thing about their first encounters with the Europeans). So, a woman might be referred as "gwei poh", a boy "gwei zai" and a girl "gwei mui". While it does sound racists - many expatriates in Hong Kong actually own the term and would even refer to themselves as such. It's not necessarily a derogatory term, though it can be used in a derogatory way, depending on the tone. If you are really interested - there's an autobiographical book titled "Gweilo: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood" by Martin Booth.

Incidentally - I didn't grow up using those terms to describe Europeans - in Malaysia and Singapore, ther term used was 'ang moh', which translates to "Red/Copper Hair", again describing that which is the most obvious difference between black haired Asians and other foreigners. 'Ang Moh' on its own is purely an adjective and not meant to be derogatory but again, in the most racist instances (yes! they exist everywhere) the adjective could be added to any other noun that are much less flattering. The terms 'ang moh' is Hokkien, not Cantonese, and it always amuses me that it is actually similar to Aussies use of the term 'rangas', except, 'ang moh' refers to ALL Caucasians, not just our beloved copper fiery ginger friends.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Taiwan Cafe

273, Swanston St, VIC 3000

Taiwan Cafe on Urbanspoon

This is another cramped cafe where they have a 'quick in quick out' policy. The food is generally rather delicious if you can put up with the cramped space and eating in very very very close vicinity to your neighbours. The offerings can be rather salty and somewhat filled with MSG - perhaps that accounts for the low Urbanspoon rating - or perhaps it's because how cramped it is.

The Place
Seriously, this is a not a place to 'hangout' because of a number of things. Firstly, there's the low comfort seats and if you are really tall, the tables are probably too low for you, and you'll look like an overgrown spider crouched over a morsel. Then, you have to put up with really cramped space and close dining. Hopefully, you don't have a big bag with you, no space really to put anything. Finally, because of the crowd and space, you tend to have a pretty high level of noise. Given it's location, parking will usually have to be paid undercover parking at QV or Melb Central. This place is most definitely NOT toddler friendly.

Things to do nearby: This is set near the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale, so there's mostly plenty of shopping around.

The Food
The food is pretty yummy if a bit salty for some and let's be honest - with plenty of deep fried offerings, braised fatty belly meats, and rich salty tasty sauces and soups, this is NOT the place for the very health conscious. Some highlights include their Pork Belly, Taiwanese Beef Noodles (with or without various condiments such as the preserved vegies which makes it even more salty, but I like the tanginess), Crispy Fried Chicken (XL) in different dishes. Personally, I am not so sure about the overly battered popcorn chicken but what ever floats your boat I guess. These are huge servings by the way.

The Service
Consider this a fast food joint and you won't be disappointed. It's not better or worse than the countless other Chinese fastfood joints. They don't go out of their way to be friendly or rude - they are just food pushers. It gets a bit worse when it's busy and timing of dishes for diners is never good as no attempt to bring the food out together for those dining together.

I would go only during offpeak hours for a number of key dishes when I am craving it. For example, I like my preserved Chinese vegetables (mustard green) and most places do not cook with this ingredient. It's too salty. There are times when I feel like it and this is where I go for that.

Cultural Moment
Taiwanese cuisine, although Chinese, is different to the many Cantonese style or Sichuan and Shanghainese Style restaurants around town. There tends to be a stronger Hokkien and Hakka influence, moderated by a Japanese tinge. This is largely because of their history in the last 150 odd years. Although there has been waves of migration for many different reasons from the Fujian province to Taiwan (Formosa) since the 1600s, I think that the influences and changes of the last 150 years have been most marked.

One thing I am really curious about and have never experiences are the indigenous cuisine of Taiwan.

Pho Bo Ga Bang Bang (Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant)

337, High Street, Northcote 3070

Bang Bang on Urbanspoon
Part of the trilogy of Vietnamese Restaurants on High Street in Northcote, this is the last one I am reviewing of the three. It's also the one with middling rating compared to the other two at 75% approval on Urbanspoon. I think it's rather Chinese is some ways because the Vietnamese dishes are a bit lack lustre. Because this is the last of the three Vietnamese Restaurants on High Street, I am going to do a bit of comparison with the other two.

The Place
This is actually the best looking Vietnamese Restaurant on High Street - the requisite mirrors are there and not over the top decorations. The lighting level at night is also good. Sound insulation and ventilation is great. It is a good space though there are no round tables for bigger groups. It is also the cleanest feeling of the three joints.

Things to do Nearby: High Street Shops and Northcote Social Club is not too far away.

The Food

Stuffed Chicken Wings - no garnish

If I had to rank to food of the three places, my favourite would be Yen Yen, followed by Bang Bang with Lâm Lâm a distant third. I find Bang Bang like its relative location to the other two is smack in the middle because there is a greater level of authenticity but overall, it's not very well presented nor the tastiest. Their entrees are usually presented with no garnish which makes it look rather unloved. I know, it's a minor thing but lots of people eat with their eyes too - it has to look appetising.

In terms of the tastiness of the dishes, it's not bad and there's a mix of really authentic ones and fried flat noodles (that look like char kway teow with curry powder and lemongrass) - which makes them neither here nor there. Because nothing stands out and nothing is particularly disappointing - there's not real highlight here one way or another for me.

The beef noodle soups are not all that tasty and doesn't carry with it the rich been stock of the best Vietnamese restaurants. This makes it rather generic tasting but at least its not overly sugar sweet (which is completely wrong). The soup is also not very hot when served.

The Service
The service here is the most attentive of the three. Though not always smiling, they do pay attention and the times I have been there, it's been most effective and relatively friendly, and really quick even on a busy night.

So, comparing the three places - I would tend to go to Yen Yen as my first port of call in the area. However, ocassionally, I'd give Bang Bang another go. Lâm Lâm is not always to my taste because it's too westernised.

Cultural Moment
Phở is arguably the most iconic Vietnamese dish in Australia and the most well known even to non-Vietnamese diners. It's a bit ironic then that even the Vietnamese acknowledge that this dish didn't become widely popular even in Vietnam till after the 1900s. Even then, it did not take off in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City till the mid 1950s. I have to say, having been to Vietnam that I prefer the Hanoi Style of more herby, savoury tasting soup than the more sweetened Pho Saigon.

Those of you wondering what's in the Special Beef Combination Phở that's served in many Vietnamese restaurants, (other than the beef brisket and sliced beef) here's an example of ingredients might be included from the most common to the less common and really 'special stuff'; (are you ready?) tendon, tripe, beef balls, beef black pepper sausages, marrow, pizzle (know what that is?) and blood jelly. Many places stop at the beef balls while the most hard core ones can keep going. Enjoy!
Bang Bang Special Beef Combination only has Brisket, Sliced Beef, Tendon and Tripe