Monday 29 April 2013

Thai Tiki Hut

571, High St, Northcote, VIC 3070

Thai Tiki Hut on Urbanspoon
Opened in early 2013, this place is still doing a roaring trade with its fun set up in a relatively small space. It is helping to provide new life to a couple of quiet Thornbury High Street blocks. While it is currently a relative unknown, I suspect it has the potential to become one of those famous suburban restaurants that people will travel to in the near future. It's of course, going to depend on how well Thai Tiki Hut caters to the wider audience in the medium to long run. This is a fully licensed restaurant.

The Place
Nice huh? I quite like it.
This is a fun set up with booths (set up like huts) to one side of the restaurant and moveable chairs and tables on the other side that can cater to groups of different sizes. It has a great atmosphere though I think eventually, they will have to turn the music down a little as the volume of the bustling crowd rises. The noise ventilation isn't great and it does get loud in here. One complaint I have is that the ration of plate size to table top size is not great. The tables are rather small at best but the big dinner and serving plates do not help the situation. Otherwise, I do like the space as there's a lot to see. Parking shouldn't be too bad in the evenings in this area, and there's always on street parking on Darebin Road too which is close by.

Things to do Nearby: While there's not a lot to see in this area of High Street, Thornbury - back tracking a couple of blocks back to Northcote will find you in the midst of the High Street shops of Northcote which are both charming and quaint.

The Food
The food is not bad but there are a few things that I think they are still adjusting to. Firsly, they served slightly overdone rice, and I am a firm believer that if you are a restaurant for which rice is a staple, you need to get this right and if this is wrong, you have to start again. I am hoping this is not a natural occurence and that it was a once off mistake. Otherwise, I am going to list here one highlight and one let down.

Pad Med Marmuang
 The highlight for me was the Pad Med Marmuang (Beef Stir Fry with Cashews) were better than average for a number of reasons. It's not overly sweet like some of the other places around town. The beef is really well marinated, fresh and tasty.  You can also tell from the picture to the left that tt was not greasy which is always good. It could do with a bit more black pepper and chilli but otherwise, it's pretty good.

The Larb (Warm Pork Salad) on the other hand was a let down. While the balance of flavours was there, the issue was that the meat was dry (as if it was pre-overcooked in stock/water) before being mixed in to the salad. Therefore, instead of juicy bits of mince, it was dry mince and this made for a less than ideal dish. If they can fix that, this would be a go-er.

The curry puffs here were not bad either here, served with the light peanut sauce, rather than the usual Sweet Thai Chilli Sauce.

The Service
Understated and polite service, this place works well when it is not too busy. However, I think they need more than 2 wait staff even on a busy Monday night when the restaurant was more than half full to take the pressure off. The area for improvement here is in the timing in which the dishes were served. At the moment, I think the kitchen is struggling to get the dishes out at the same time for each table. Ours was not the only table where one main came a good 7 - 10 minutes before the next. If you were sharing dishes, this would be fine but if you were not, then some are going to have to either wait a while or start first. They need to get all these kinks right to truly sustain its current wave of honeymoon popularity.

I liked this place and am looking forward to going again to try a range of other dishes. I look forward to it growing though I suspect I will be annoyed when I can no longer just walk in without a reservation on a weeknight when I feel like it. In the mean time, I have a hangy take away menu.
Cultural Moment
A Tiki Hut is a Polynesian inspired hut with the whole straw roof and outdoorsy feel. It became very popular in the 1950s and 1960s around the same time as that famous cocktail - Mai Tai (which has nothing to do with Thailand). I am not sure what the connection is between Thai culture and the Tiki - it seems to be a theme running through a few restaurants in Melbourne that combines Thai and Polynesian themes (usually Thai food with Tiki deco and cocktails).

Saturday 27 April 2013

Grand Tofu (Malaysian Restaurant)

314, Racecourse Road, Flemington, VIC 3031

The Grand Tofu on Urbanspoon
There are about 4 Malaysian restaurants in this vicinity and all of them have a relatively strong reputation. This makes it really hard to compete but with a range of great dishes and also fresh Yong Tau Fu, The Grand Tofu certainly more than holds its own. How can 4 Malaysian restaurants within a 400 metre radius do well with consistent crowds most nights? The answer is relatively simple - they are all good at what they do, and each of them have their own strengths.

The Place
This is not a huge restaurant, with basic decoration and just a bustling place with no fuss. It's certainly child friendly and they have boosters rather than high chairs. It can get pretty friendly as there is not a lot of space. Lots of light and very clean... it feels like eating in one of the food courts of Malaysia. If you are going with a large group, it's best to book because there is limited space. Not that many round tables for largish groups.

Parking can be a pain, given it's on Flemington Road. You have to know the back streets which is where the parking is or park at Newmarket Train Station.

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

The Food
The food is good, there is no doubt about that. Of course, people are going to compare between this and the other Malaysian places around the corner. The fact that it gets just as crowded as all the others means that it is doing something right for many people. Having been here a number of time, I really believe that it's their hawker dishes that stand out more than anything else. The Grand Tofu also has the distinction of having a good selection of Niang Tofu (to the right). They also cook it to order with a choice of basic Chicken broth, Tom Yum soup or Curry Soup.

One important thing to note is that the food here is not greasy. So, for the health conscious, this is a great thing. Generally, I don't like greasy food but there are some dishes which really need to be a bit greasy - for authenticity and to retain the flavours better.

Here are some of the highlights;
Hainanese Chicken Rice - the Chicken Rice here is very home cooked style and the white-cut chicken is fresh. The chilli could do with a bit more vinegar but it's all pretty good.
Yummy Eggy Wat Dan Hor
Wat Dan Hor (Combination Hor Fun) - is yummy. The egg sauce and the fresh seafood taste really good even though I would have liked the hor fun to be a bit smokier.

Fried Rice
The Grand Tofu Special Fried Rice is a traditional special fried rice that takes me back to when I was a kid. Young Isaac who was with us at dinner thoroughly loved it too.

Mee Goreng
Mee Goreng - while tasty, it's a bit too "Chinese" for me rather than Indian. It has a tad too much curry powder, not enough grease and tomata. Still good, just not my preferred style.

They also have great Char Kway Teow here, which could do with a bit of grease but nevertheless, is tasty.

Meanwhile the Calamari Tentacles (below) are like Chinese KFC... it's a bit chewy but the flavours are all there. If there's one suggestion I have for The Grand Tofu, it's that there's a bit too much salt in some of the dishes and it could be taken a notch down. However, if this was a Hakka place, that's quite understandable- they love their salt.

The Service
When it comes to service, this place beats all the other Malaysian places within 100 metres (that's the other 3). Friendly, down to earth, ready to explain how things work and obliging. If you are not sure, ask and they will be happy to respond to your needs. They are much friendlier than the other places around here.
For example, we were a group of 9 and had orders quite a few dishes. When they all started coming at once, I requested that they stop and that we start again once the first 5 or so dishes were done, they did it and even apologised for 'rushing us'. Now, THAT's service to suit the diners.

I would go again especially when I want hawker style Malaysian dishes. They do a roaring trade and do it well. One of my favourite places in the area. Thanks to Niro, Justin, Al, Nishi, Jan, Robbie, Isaac and Zara for coming to this one so I can order many many things to try out.

Cultural Moment
Niang ToFu is a quintessential Hakka Dish. The Hakkas were a very migratory group amongst the Chinese, and though a smaller group as a whole, produced some of the most influential leaders in Chinese history both in China and overseas. Famous Hakkas include Sun Yat Sen, The Soong Sisters, Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiao Ping.

Niang Tofu pieces in the fridge, drinks in the front at Grand Tofu
Hakka cuisine is characterised by two key things; texture and preserved ingredients, the use of salt, vinegar and dehydration. These characteristics are highlighted in dishes like Niang ToFu (Yong Tau Fu in Cantonese) where the textures of the fish balls and the vegetables are key features, Salt Baked Chicken, various Meat Balls and Fish Balls, and Yam Abacus Seeds (like a Yam gnocchi), as well use of various rice wines. One interesting thing that I noticed when I went to India was that the Chinese restaurants in India had strong Hakka influences - since then, I have discovered that the Hakkas are the dominant group of Chinese migrants to India. Check out the very excellent Hakka Food Blog if you are interested.

My own Grandma, my Godpa and one of my Aunts were Hakkas and so, I am familiar with a number of their great dishes. However, it was really Godpa's family that really celebrated this cuisine and for that (and other things), I am always grateful.

Friday 26 April 2013

Bangkok Rain

176, Rathdowne St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Bangkok Rain on Urbanspoon
What a treat! More people need to get here and enjoy the offerings of this under-rated Thai Restaurant. It's not even that far from the city and is probably one of the best Thai restaurants in the inner north region. This is authentic 'home' cook to order Thai and you can actually let them know how spicy you want your dishes. It's a great family run restaurant. If you have not been there, I suggest doing so now. The flavours are well balanced, the ingredients are fresh and it's not over powering like some Thai places can be.

The Place
This is a small cafe that has a really amazing mural, feels really cozy, and is always clean. It's a bit dark inside but that's part of the ambience. They usually have jazz music going too. I really like the space even though you tend to be seated rather close to other diners. It's also a child firendly space. The one thing that is somewhat difficult is probably the parking around the space - there's not a lot of it and you have to park on the street (Rathdowne and other off streets close by).

Things to do Nearby: Lygon Street is not too far and a 15 minute walk gets you to Brunswick Street. This is close enough to Cinema Nova (no more than a 10 minute walk).

The Food
Yummy Fish Cakes
They have a great selection of curries, stir fries, appetizers, soups and they are good for vegetarians too.

The highlights amongst the appetizers are the Thai Fish Cakes and Curry Puffs with their generous serves of Thai sweet chilli sauce. The Thai Fish Cakes are freshly cooked and balances the fish paste with the crunchiness of the snake beans. The Curry Puffs come with light pastry and yummy filling.

With the stir fries, the various Fried Rice offerings are really yummy without being greasy like so many other places. The other dishes such as the Cashew Stir Fry and the Basil Stir Fry are also good to sample. They are not too sweet and are cooked to order. They can go from really mild to seriously hot - you just have to know how you like it.

I have also had the Tom Kha Gai here which is love, fresh, and authentic (though I would like a bit more tanginess). I have to say that the ingredients are really fresh. None of that pre-cooked meats coated in sauce business that you might find in some places. Therefore, you have to be prepared to wait a bit more than some of the quick and fast food type places.

Fresh Tom Kha
The Service
This family run restaurant it very down to earth with a no fuss attitude. They are always happy to engage in conversation and to explain the dishes. It's all a bit casual and might put off some people but really, this is all very informal and relaxed and I suggest that if you are going there, you need to take that on too. Despite the casualness, I have always found them to be most attentive and willing to help out. If you are lucky, the chef herself might bring her proud creations out to you.

I like the informal feel and the authentic food. It's a place that I am proud to recommend and even most of Urbanspoon readers love it. All the comments seem to be favourable. So, give it a go.

Cultural Moment
Ok - this is a cultural moment with a difference... it's not very cultural but I am inspired to discuss it. The quandary of whether one should highlight a hidden gem and share it with everyone - at the risk of diluting the experience for one self. Should this be done? Should we let everyone know? So, if after reading this - you all start going and everyone has to line up to get in because it gets so popular, then I have just spoilt it all for myself, haven't I?

However, that's not in the spirit of this blog or of sites like Urbanspoon. I think a hidden gem, when shared can become more polished rather than diminished. Here's hoping that they continue to do well and continue to improve and flourish. I look forward to many more outings in the hidden gems I have discovered around town and to share them with you.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Tao Tao House

815, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn, VIC 3122

Tao Tao House on Urbanspoon
After reading the hype on Urbanspoon, I was quite excited to try this place. So, when friends suggested it, I was in very quickly. This is what I call 'posh yum cha'. They have actually made an effort with the whole set up of the place and it was not the usual frenetic pace that some might expect - in fact, it was down right slow. I don't dislike this place but neither is it on the top of my list.

The Place
Well appointed, nice dark wood, great contemporary Chinese deco and good ventilation. It's a relatively small space to work with though they can accommodate prams and high chairs. It is genuinely one of the nicest set ups for a suburban yumcha restaurant, comparable with some of the most recently renovated in the heart of the city where they have really made an effort.

Things to do nearby: The shopping area of Glenferrie Road.

The Food
The food here is not bad. The dim sums are fresh and of relatively high quality. However, the posh dim sums are also of the range that would tend to appeal to more western sensibilities. My suspicion is that instead of MSG, they use sugar. It is a good thing not to use MSG, but too much sugar means that the balance of flavours will be skewed.

There is not a wide range here at Tao Tao House. The highlights for me here were the BBQ Pork Pastry (Char Siew Shou) and the various other fried dishes. The steamed dishes are somewhat bland for me. They don't seem to offer congee either.

In terms of desserts, they have a range that's enviable amongst yumcha places. However, they are really more fusion desserts, such as mango crepe pancakes. Check out the review at Coco and Momo - the dessert bloggers linked to my blog.

Don't get me wrong, the quality is there - the delicate transparent skins of some of the dumplings and the freshness of the meats and seafood is admirable. However, for me, it's not as tasty as many of the other places around Melbourne.

The Service
This is a real let down for such a well set up place. They waiter staff are not well trained and neither are they very attentive. In fact, when they actually spilled sauce on my jacket, there was not even an apology and they just got on with wiping the floor instead. Not the best service...

Let's face it, this place is helmed by Hong Kong chefs but they seem to attract a primarily non-Chinese clientale. The dishes, while nice and of more than acceptable standard, just doesn't appeal completely to my tastes. I might try it out once in a while to see if it's changed but it's certainly not my go to place for yumcha (which by the way, I do a lot).

Cultural Moment
Some people like a less crazy paced yumcha experienced, such as the one at Tao Tao House. To me, it's just not the same. It just doesn't seem right or authentic as an experience. I need it to be a bit crazy, loud, jostling but friendly, smiles and just a general buzz around the place. That's a true yumcha atmosphere.

This is not to say that the service should be rude. Many places in Melbourne have shown themselves to be able to create the same atmosphere while still providing a friendly service. The trick is in how well trained the wait staff are and how interested they are in genuinely helping punters have a good time (whether you speak the language or not).

Penang Coffee House

549, Burwood Rd, Hawthorn, VIC 3122

Penang Coffee House on Urbanspoon
Once upon a time, this was well known place amongst Malaysians and Singaporeans as an old reliable, but sadly I think that it hasn't kept up with the times. While it has moved premises, it still looks somewhat dated. This is a family style cafe and is one of those curiosities of the 21st century, a restaurant that does not accept any card or eftpos. For what it is, it's not that cheap and there are a number of other places in the city that have cheaper and yummier food.

The Place
This is a basic cafe with minimal deco and plastic flowers. It really has made no effort to create any sort of ambience and seems to thrive in its suburban drabness. The relatively small tables are movable into configurations that would feet most sizes. It's also relatively child friendly though sound insulation is not great. It is generally a clean restaurant. Parking is on the street.

Things to do nearby: Set near the shopping streets of Hawthorn, near Swinburne University, it might be worth exploring the shops.

The Food
I had been looking forward to this as I once had really good Char Kway Teow here. However, this last minute, the food was really underwhelming. While the Char Kway Teow and Fried Rice Vermicelli (Bee Hoon) from neighbouring tables smelt really good, the dishes that we ordered were not that great.

Beef Rendang - was not very authentic and somewhat bland, and had minimal spice. It reminded me of Chinese style rendang served in Malaysia that's not very flavoursome, and tends to be uninspiring.

Beef Rendang and Ayam Kapitan
Ayam Kapitan - Fried chicken with a basic tangy chilli sauce. The spiced batter was quite nice though the chilli was more sweet than hot.

Kueh Pie Ti sans Chilli Sauce
Kueh Pie Ti - one of the few places that serves this in Melbourne, Pie Ti should be fresh and a good balance between freshness and crunchiness, savoury and chilli. Here however, it's nothing to write home about.

Sambal Kang Kong - There was shrimp paste in this but the spice level is really 'westernised' as in - there was just a hint of it. It is tasty but for any diehards, this would also have been a disappointment. The vegetables were fresh though.

Roti - quite different to the ones in Malaysia
The Roti here seems to be deep fried, or whatever it is they do to make it crunchy - it is nice enough though. However, don't expect the same standard as more recently opened up places that serve great Roti around town.

Hor Fun sans egg sauce.
The Combination Hor Fun was not bad, but lacked the smokiness of the ones served in some of the places around town. I think if they used eggs in the sauce, they would need to use less starch

The Service
The service here is pretty basic and relatively frantic. However, the problem is that there were only 2 working the floor and when it got busy, they started to get on edge and the smiles became more strained. The food did not come out in any sort of order.

The meal was not up to standard and to be honest. In the 80s, when there were fewer Malaysian restaurants around town, people would have been grateful for the servings here. However, fastforward 30 years later, there are many more Malaysian restaurants with punchier and more authentic tastes. Their chillies mean business, their assam is truly sour, their dishes use strong garlic, and they do not apologies for their authenticity. It's educational and many in Melbourne have moved with the times too to explore the frontier of authentic Malaysian tastes. Unfortunately, I don't think Penang Coffee House has kept up. Therefore, I shan't be returning.

Cultural Moment
Penang (Pulau Pinang) - the Pearl of the Orient according to Malaysians was for a while, a key port city in Southeast Asia, taking over from Malacca before being superceded by Singapore. This meant that its food bears strong Chinese (particularly Hokkien), Thai, Malay and South Indian influences, and elements of Nyonya cuisine. Much of these were missing as the focus was mainly Chinese style.

Some of the most famous dishes from Penang include Assam Laksa, Oyster Omelette, Loh Bak (minced pork roll), Penang Char Kway Teow, Hokkien Noodle Prawn Soup, Rojak (Fruit and Veg Salad with Shrimp Paste), Mee Goreng, Lok-Lok and Satay amongst others. A veritable feast and Penangites swear by their version of these dishes.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Wantilan Bali

571 Burwood Rd, Hawthorn, VIC 3122

Wantilan Bali on Urbanspoon
The restaurant has a relatively high score and is one of few authentic Balinese restaurants in Melbourne that appeals to a broad audience. It's always gratifying when a high score from Urbanspoon translates into a pleasant experience. The clientale is a healthy mix of Westerners, Asians and Indonesians. While the food here is authentic, it's not as intense as many of the places in Bali itself and is lighter than the offerings of Bali

The Place
This is a clean and tastefully decorated restaurant, with a contemporary sensibility and some nods to Balinese sculptures and works of art. It actually looks better than the pictures on their website. At night, it's really got a rather nice ambience. Sound insulation is not great especially when it gets crowded. Parking is never great in the area and on street parking can be limited.

Thing to do nearby: The shops of Burwood Road in Hawthorn East are worth exploring. This is close to Swinburne University too.

The Food
There are some really good choices here with a range of predominantly Balinese offerings. Having had many of the following dishes in Bali, I find the flavours here a whole lot more subtle, less spicy and chilli hot, though still tasty in their own way. I got to sample the following dishes.

Mixed Sweet Potato and Potato Chips - what a great side dish - these thin crispy tasty chips are seriously good, with a light dipping sauce. If they sold these in bags... I would be chomping on it now.

Cumi Mebase Manis - light tangy calamari salad that's a good side more than a main for me. The calamari is tender, sweet and fresh.

Betutu Siap
Betutu Siap - this is one of the 2 most famous Balinese dishes. Betutu (which is a slow cooked in spices) is eaten in many places and usually involved duck or chicken. Here, this dish, while moist and tender, is less spicy than the offerings of Bali. Nevertheless, it remains tasty and great with steamed rice.

Be Celeng Guling - more commonly known as Babi Guling, this is served here almost like pulled pork, wiht broken up crackling. While tasty, the pork is not as tender as some other places. However, the subtle spices here work and it's less greasy than most places. Wish there was more crackling (who doesn't?).

Mixed Ribs
Pork and Beef Ribs - These are probably more Javanese than Balinese - but so what, they are so good. Melts in your mouth, balance of sweet and savoury, and smokey. The slight disappointment is the chilli paste that comes with it here - it was more of a chilli jam, rather than a hot sambal oelek that would have been better with this dish.

Gado-Gado - Again, a main from Java, this is dish hinges on its peanut sauce. They do it well here and while some people like crunchy nuts in theirs, the one here is somewhat smoother but tastier than most places.

Lawar Gadang - This was a hit on the night as a fresh simple salad. Lawar is a major part of Balinese cuisine in its various forms. It's also one of the only ways I would eat snake beans because it is chopped up to beats. This one has a kick here.

Mie Goreng - Of course, nothing beats having mie goreng on the beaches of Bali, served by the little warungs, stir fried fresh. The Mie Goreng here is served with crumbed prawns and satay - perfect for those who are not into food that's too chilli hot.

The Service
Bubuh Injin
The Service here is courteous and friendly. While it is a bit slow, I prefer to call it a casual pace. It is certainly not rushed. The dishes all came at once and for a group that was sharing dishes - this meant everyone had to try and eat everything at once. The concept of dishes coming out at the same time, is good if the diners are not sharing, so everyone can start their meal together. However, if diners are sharing, it's probably better if dishes come out sequentially to give everyone to savour each dish before moving to the next. If they can get this right, that would be great.

I won't mind coming again. Here's where the comparison with my other favourite Balinese place in Melbourne - Warung Agus begins. The food in Wantilan Bali is less punchy, spicy and hot than Warung Agus. What it has is a subtle balance of flavours especially with the various salads. It is also definitely cheaper than Warung Agus. Whether you prefer Wantilan Bali or Warung Agus, really depends on how punchy you like your food.

Cultural Moment
There are many Balinese highlights for me. There are some places I would still go to, even though I have been before, just because the experience is beautiful, spiritual, rich and meditative. The really special places for me are;

Ulu Watu which is just  beautiful at sunset and dusk. Temples clinging to the side of the cliff by the sea, this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.

Tanah Lot the temple by the sea, is beautiful too and you usually have to battle with other tourists for the best views.

Tirta Empul is where Kings and the public bathed in the holy waters by the Hindu Temple. Still used today, if you are gamed enough to join everyone there.

Gunung Kawi, where legend says the carvings were done overnight. It's a beautiful walk through the rice fields, though walking back up the valley after the visit is great for fitness. While this is relatively run down, the temple and carvings continue to be impressive if you are a history fan.

Tirta Empul and Gunung Kawi are near to Ubud, where you might stop off for Ibu Oka's Babi Guling.
Ulu Watu is close to some seafood places by the sea, most of which are great.

Friday 19 April 2013

Linx BBQ Yumcha Cafe

93, Cecil St, South Melbourne, VIC 3205

Linx Cafe on Urbanspoon
This is no frills dining with variable food tastiness based solely on how long the food has been sitting out, when you order them. This is yumcha as you might have in a corner store on the streets of Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur with a cuppa for brekkie, with no fuss, no service and no attitude. It is not as busy or famous as the South Melbourne Dim Sim, but really - lots of people enjoy a cheap meal here especially on Saturday an Sunday mornings. So, why are there so few comments and raters on Urbanspoon? Can it be considered a hidden gem? Or is it not glamourous enough for the general Urbanspooner?

The Place
This is a basic corner shop with a small space in and outdoors. There is no deco, no ambience and nothing much to speak of - but there is the market atmosphere, and it gets a bit grotty by 2pm and like the market stalls of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, it's cheap and cheerful. Child friendly? Plenty of space for prams but I doubt they have high chairs. There is also parking all around (including the free one under Woolworths).

Things to do nearby: South Melbourne Market - great eclectic mix of shops and Clarendon Street shops are not too far away either.

The Food
This is basic street hawker style dim sum with the usual suspects of dumplings, buns, BBQ and roast meats. You can even buy cold or frozen ones to takeaway and steam at home. While they do a range of basic fried rice and various dishes served from the bain-marie, the highlights are the dim sum and roast meat offerings.

The highlights here for me include; Siu Mai, Hor Yip Fun (Lo Mai Kai), Ginger Prawns. The BBQ Pork, Roast Pork and Roast Duck are also nice. Lastly, great Fried Calamari (Yow Yu Sou) here IF is it freshly cooked and hasn't been sitting in the bain-marie for more than 15 minutes. The turnover is pretty quick here, so chances are, you will probably get a fresh serve. However, there's always exception to that. It's important to pay attention to what's been sitting there and what's just been brought over from the steaming area and main kitchen (clearly visible from the cafe). If you are not a dim sum variety veteran and need some guidance - check out all my other blog entries with the Yumcha tag and they explain all the different offerings.

The Service
You order the food at the counter, pay and self-serve. If the dish is not ready, they'll bring the food to you when it is. That's the basic service there and when it is busy, it can be a bit rushed. They are seldom ever rude but there's no time for pleasantries either. You kind of have to know what you are there for and order it all at the same time. This is not your leisurely yumcha carting experience - think of it as Hungry Jacks but with Yum Cha.

This is a great place for a quick brunch if you are in the vicinity and if you are not too fussy about posh service but just want some fast food for yourself and the family with a difference. There is no call to compare this to the yum cha restaurants around town, that would be comparing Maccas to Huxtaburger - which would be just silly. That's not to say the food here is not of quality, it's just the style is different.

Cultural Moment
Hawker style yumcha are very popular in the cities of Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, and even in Singapore in some parts. The locals love it because you get good quality brekkie, lunch or even mid night supper without the fuss of going to a restaurant. This is how many locals do it, with a big pot of tea and no frills service, grimy floors, uncomfortable chairs and freshly steamed dim sums. Order up a serve of congee  star with the dumplins. It takes a family usually about 30 minutes to polish off a good variety of dim sums before they go off on their way to the markets or night markets. The atmosphere is vibrant and market like - nothing posh. It's probably one of the best dining experiences of SEAsia and if you have never tried it before, you should the next time you are in one of those three cities.

The food served here are arguably less flash than the ones at the restaurants, they might be served in bamboo or even stainless steel steamers, but the reality is, the quality varies from the ones which are really notable and popular to the less frequented ones. There are lots of local guides who will be able to tell you where to go.

Thursday 18 April 2013

BuuBBub (Burmese and Thai Restaurant)

353, Smith Street, Fitzroy, VIC 3065

BuuBBub on Urbanspoon
Although this is branded as a Thai and Burmese restaurant, it is Burmese run. There are not that many Burmese restaurants in Melbourne. So, I always look out for them with interest. The less common dishes doesn't mean they are not nice, just that not as many people are aware of them or cook them well. This restaurant is licensed and also has a cash only policy.

The Place
This is a nice simple eating house where the tables are well spaced. Sound insulation is not great here and I imagine it would be really noisy if it was more crowded. It's relatively child friendly because there's a bit of space for prams and the like. The lights are comfortable if a bit low.

Things to do nearby: Set on Smith Street near Johnston Street - between the up and coming shops of Smith Street, the outlets, there're many shops to visit. Otherwise, walk along Johnston Street to Brunswick Street.

The Food
For this blog entry, I am just focusing on Burmese offerings, although the Curry Puffs (Thai style are worth mentioning) - we had both the chicken and vegetarian ones and they were quite tasty, not a lot of substance or meat or vege but the taste is there with fine light pastry.

Mohinga (on the left) is a really fishy soup with rice noodles. The restaurant and many other sources call it Burma's national dish and it is sold everyway by street hawkers. The Mohinga here is not quite sour enough for my taste though it is tasty. A word of warning for the wise, I requested that it should be medium spiciness - but boy! I was sweating. (I will share some resources in the Cultural Moment section about these dishes) I should have asked for much more lemon, though lime would have been preferable.

Ohn-No Khaw Suey is a coconut milk and chick pea based chicken broth noodle dish. Thick soup with wheat noodles (which is hard to find in Melbourne) - the restaurant serves this with Hokkien Noodles, which is not quite right and their version is really sweet. It could have done with a more savoury taste and again, more lime. It was also missing the crunch of something crispy on top - something to give the crunch it needs (which could be crunchy noodles, or crispy bean fritters, or even prawn crackers).

The Service
The service is friendly but they do struggle a bit with English. There's no doubt it is friendly and down to earth, with not attitude. A little bit of patience is important in such a situation. So, if you can deal with that, it's actually not bad service at all but I can imagine some people being frustrated especially if it's really crowded and people are really hungry.

I look forward to going a trying the other dishes here but until then, I will hold my judgement of this place.

Cultural Moment
I know too little about Burmese cuisine though I am lucky enough to have tasted Nanna's Burmese dishes. It is probably better to share some great internet resources with you. Different regions of Burma, unsurprisingly have slightly different versions of Mohinga, some with fried fish fritters, others like it sweeter with tomato thrown in, while the most common is the one in Rangoon. Luke Nguyen featured this in his program on SBS;

So - to me, Mohinga is to Penang Laksa and Ohn-No Khaw Suey is to Curry Laksa. Khaw Suey was my introduction to Burmese cuisine, and the version that I had was spicy, tangy, fishy, coconuty, soft, crunchy, savoury and sweet all at the same time. It was really good, and Nanna made - all other versions since have been to thick or too sweet or lacking something or the other. Ah Well.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Kedai Satay

186 King Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Kedai Satay King Street on Urbanspoon
This is a simple eatery that does not present itself as anything other than a basic cafe where you have to order at the counter, with staff who have a pretty casual attitude (much like many places in Indonesia), and then wait patiently for the food to come. The food ranges from really yummy to really average depending on what you order. I do like it and will go again and again (though I know that it doesn't always serve the healthiest meals).  

The Place
A basic eatery with tables close together across two levels. Limited outside seating is also available, and is usually crowded around lunch time. Set on King's Street, there's no easy parking (unless you pay) but for those who work in the area, it seems to be quite a hit. It can get pretty cold here and is not the most child friendly venue as there's limited space. It's a relatively clear restaurant and kitchen (which is obvious to all customers).   Things to do Nearby: It's near the Bourke Street corner of King Street. Flagstaff Garden is a short walk away and Etihad Stadium is down the road.  

The Food
It serves traditional Indonesian hawker style dishes, with some really notable highlights and some really average dishes. On the whole, it's more hit than miss (unless if you are a health freak - then by all means - move along very quickly).

Grilled Beef Ribs

Grilled Beef Ribs and Grilled Lamb Ribs - without doubt, these are the stars of Kedai Satay. Lip smacking, greasy, tasty grilled ribs with a side of coleslaw, on steamed rice. It has a touch of spice, peanut sauce and is inclined towards sweetness (that the Indonesians love so much - more on this later). Now that I have tried many of the dishes - these are the ones I will go back to... not just me, but Robbie craves this too.
Soto Ayam and Soto Betawi - These iconic Indonesian soups are traditionally pretty greasy (ie, there's usually a visible layer of hot tasty oil floating on the soup). The ones here are no exceptions but not as greasy as some I have seen. What they do here though can be pretty spectacularly chilli hot (especially the Soto Betawi). If you are in between business meetings, I'd advise against ordering these. They will burn your tongue and if you are like me, my collar was really wet by the time I was done.
The Satay here - the cafe's namesake is pretty average and for those not used to Indonesian satays, they tend to drench it in peanut sauce rather than have a side dipping sauce. This is also tampered with the dark sweet soy.   They have recently introduce a range of Penyets (smashed meats - sounds worse than it tastes) which I am looking forward to trying. Will update this blog once I have sampled them.

Nasi Udok (There wasn't much left by the time Adeline was done)
The Service
You order at the counter, they bring the food to you. It's a casual and friendly place. There's very little attitude here and they do what they have to do in a friendly manner. As some reviewers on Urbanspoon have pointed out, sometimes, the staff has her baby in arm (while taking your order) - so cute (and baby is currently 7 months if you were wondering).  

Like I said earlier, I would go again because it does serve tasty food. Once you know what you like, that's what you'd go there for. Of course, like any place, there will be some dishes that are not well done, so it'd be ridiculous to base a whole review on one dish. Overall, this is definitely one to recommend.  

Cultural Moment
From my childhood days, Indonesian food has intrigued me. It seems like Malay food, which I am more familiar with, yet, it's just not the same. Many of the dishes seem even to have similar origins and yet, there are distinct differences.

From my perspective, here are the major differences that might help you decide which you would prefer at different points;
Spices - While both cultures like their spices, I think that Malay dishes are much punchier and rich, while Indonesian spices are much more subtle. Perhaps the punchier Malay dishes are due to Indian influences which are less obvious in Indonesia, where a balance of spices are go way back.

Sweet Soy (Kecap Manis) and Tamarind (Assam) - Okay, Indonesians love their Kecap Manis like Aussies love their vegemite... well, even MORE so because they put it in their satays, their springrolls, their tahu telor (deepfried beancurd with eggs), and just generally as a dipping sauce. We don't do that with vegemite! Sweet soy is virtually missing from Malay cuisine, so Malay satays, springrolls and tahu telors are quite different and tends to be much more savoury. Malay cuisine on the other hand features Assam more prominently, clearly the influence of Thai culture, which is more tangy.

Raw Vegetables - Other than the ocassional raw tomato, cucumber (sometimes, more of a garnish), there's not a whole lot of raw vegetables dishes in Malay cuisine. Indonesian cuisine on the other hand features a number of dishes with raw vegetables, like karedok (think Gado Gado but with raw vegies), lawar (which is more Balinese), and they also serve lots more raw vegetables as sides.

Gravy - In my mind, Malay cuisine serves up a lot more sauce and thick gravy than Indonesian dishes. It's just an impression but most iconic Indonesian dishes are drier than famous Malay dishes. Even when Indonesian dishes have lots of gravy, it tends towards the more watery kind, while Malay dishes are much thicker.

Some people think that Malay cuisine is hotter but this means they haven't tried the killer sambals of Indonesian cuisine. I think that while Malay dishes integrate their chillies into the dishes directly, many Indonesian dishes have the chillies on the side as a requisite, so that punters can add as much or as little as they like.

This is my limited perspective on the main differences. Would be happy to hear if you have different opinions or anything to add.

By the way, 'Kedai' means Shop.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Wonton House

181 Russell St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Wonton House on Urbanspoon
This is one of 3 branches of Wonton House and also one of many Cantonese styled restaurants in the CBD around Russell Street and Little Bourke Street. Therefore competition is stiff. What this place does well is the setting, with its tasteful modern Chinese deco (though it cannot help but post a few special items in paper form on the walls - sooner or later, they all seem to do this). The food is average and the service is actually a bit better than some of the places I have been to. Because of its relatively nice setting and middling flavours, it attracts an eclectic mix of clientale that ranges from Chinese to Europeans.

The Place
Being on Russell Street, there's a lot of competition and this place stands out because it is clean, tastefully decorated and never too rowdy. The lighting is just right and there's great ventilation. Although I do find the stools somewhat uncomfortable, this is like many other restaurants that are not set out for you to linger a long time. There is however, an upstairs room for more private functions. It's one of the nicer places in Chinatown for its price range and is really its edge. The tables are not spaced too closely together like some of the other places that tend to attract a student crowd, so there's space for prams too. Parking is of course difficult in the area unless you pay for it.

Things to do Nearby: You're basically in Chinatown and the Bourke Street and Lonsdale Street precincts. Heaps to do and it's across from the Comics Lounge.

The Food
One thing I have to say about this place - there's no issue with portion size - in fact, I think they tend towards being overly generous. The quality of the food though is middling. It's far from being the worst but it's also not the best. This place is no Rose Garden, which serves a similar style of food. However, it does the basics relatively well if you want to dine in a slightly classier place.

The Wontons are presumably their signature dish and they are ok but not as smooth and fresh as some other places. Dont' get me wrong, they are still tasty but sometimes are a bit hard (or overcooked).

The Braised Beef Brisket is a highlight though it is a bit sweeter that the way I like it. The ones served with rice are nice and rich tasting, the ones in the soup are less impressive for me.

I also had the Salted and Spicy Chicken Ribs on Rice, which is another highlight and while it is good, the ones here are pretty heavy... and comes with absolutely no vegetables (for those of you who care - which I do too). You can see this in the picture above.

The Service
The service is relatively ok but variable depending on who is serving you. They are not overly unfriendly, but neither are they friendly. They are helpful when they can and when their English allows them to. When it is not busy, they are more patient and have more time to work out and explain things with those who do not speak Cantonese or Mandarin. It is certainly better service than a number of similar places nearby such as Pacific Seafood BBQ House (downright rude) and Nam Loong Seafood (with its somewhat dodgy and racist policies). Like a number of other reviewers have mentioned, they occasionally do stand around and laugh a bit loudly... but it means they are happy workers which can only be a good thing, as long as they pay attention to the diners, which they do.

It is a middling place as I have said before. Yes, there are places with better food - but few have as nice an environment in the vicinity, where you don't feel rushed and have to cope with the attitude. Sometimes, I just want a more relaxed environment and this place offers that while still serving relatively nice food. So, while I won't be a frequent diner, it will be an option once in a while.

Cultural Moment
Ok - this is a rant... Why can't we have it all? There are so many Cantonese Style Eateries around town but not one single one has the right combination of great service and great food in a nice clean setting. You usually get one, or at best two of those three things. Will someone tell me why? Can the restaurant owners tell me why? It must be possible to have all three. Surely, this is not a Clark Kent/Superman thing where you have to choose which one you want and not have the other. Some of the best food is served in the most basic and dodgy eating places. I have yet to experience a place where everything is just right.

Am I too demanding and one of those diners who always find something to whinge about? Hmmm... time for self-reflection... I honestly think I am quite reasonable. I try to look at each restaurant from different perspectives and contextualise it for what it is, its target audience, and they type of restaurant it sets out to be, and then judge it in that context. I hope you, the reader, think so too. Would love to hear from you.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Basil House (Thai Vietnamese Restaurant)

461 High St, Preston, VIC 3072

Basil House on Urbanspoon
While this place advertises and serves both Thai and Vietnamese food, it really does much better with it's Vietnamese and Chinese offerings than its rather woeful Thai dishes (with one exception). It's a family restaurant with average dishes, with some highlights that are reliable. It serves above average slightly westernised Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes. The clientale here is mostly non-Asian.

The Place
This is a big basic dining hall with not much atmosphere. However, it is a very family friendly space and set out so that tables can be moved to accommodate a range of family structures and sizes. Being a family restaurant, it can get pretty noisy in there sometimes. It's a relatively clean restaurant. Parking here is generally great a the Preston market car park (except market days).

Things to do Nearby: Preston Market and High Street Shops. The Townhall is across the road for some special events, and the library is just behind the townhall.

The Food
Ok, so this is not the best and most authentic Southeast Asian offering but it is also less greasy, relatively tasty and comes with great portion sizes. As I keep saying, the Thai offerings are not that great with the exception of the Tom Kha (coconut milk based hot and sour soup). The real highlights are in the following dishes;

Beef rice noodles of various combinations are relatively tasty and while they do not rate as highly as the ones in Richmond or Footscray, they are not bad for a northern suburb restaurant, with tasty soup and generous servings of bean shoots.

Broken rice is very basic here but still nice and reliable.

Dry rice noodles here of various combinations are also good and comparable to the ones in Richmond. Also, because they do quite good spring rolls, having them with the noodles is a good combination.

Ok, I am not a fan of any of their chicken dishes here because they tend to use par-boiled chicken thigh strips and just add the sauce. As a result, it's just not tasty, from my perspective. I am also not a huge fan of their various Chinese dishes and other non-Vietnamese dishes.

The Service
The service here is almost unfailingly courteous. 8 out of 10 times, they do well and are quite personable and really friendly. When it gets really busy and they are understaffed - it all begins to unravel, and dishes can be mistimed. Otherwise, they usually make an effort to welcome all diners and check on them. This is why I tend to keep going back - because they are friendly on top of the various dishes that I know they do well.

When I feel like particular dishes that I know they do well, I am like to go to Basil House... it's not exactly my locale but it is easier than struggling with traffic and parking with Richmond. However, I know what I like and it's limited to the dishes I have already mentioned.

Cultural Moment
There are times when I feel like good old westernised Asian dishes that I know are reliable. However, that doesn't mean sub-standard food. It still has to be tasty and appeal to the tastebuds in their own way. More importantly, it should come with good service.

For a restaurant such as this, I can't expect the best of authentic cuisine from Thailand or Vietnam - that's not what I am here for and who am I trying to kid? I don't think the restaurant is trying to do that either. Therefore, I am doing this review accordingly to the clientale it is aimed at and the type of food it produces. If I were to rate it for authenticity - this would have been a terrible review. However, if I am looking for acceptable westernise fare - it's perfectly alright and this suits many people. The trick is to know yourself, know what you are in the mood for, and know a restaurant for it's style of food. I hope this blog helps people to do that for themselves... and not go to different places with the most skewed of expectations. For example, this is a Vietnamese run restaurant, know that and then you can decide whether to stick to Vietnamese dishes or take a punt of the other cuisines offered here.

Friday 5 April 2013

Pacific Seafood BBQ House (Lonsdale Street, CBD)

213 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Pacific Seafood BBQ House on Urbanspoon
This place is the Express / Lite version of the Pacific Seafood chain. It is so quick to get you in and out that express is the only way to describe it. It is also totally 'lite' on service that you shouldn't expect any. This is so unfortunate because it has a great potential to help advertise its more well equiped sisters in South Yarra and Richmond but instead - it actually deters people from going a bit further out. Therefore, unsurprisingly, it has a really low score on Urbanspoon and is easily the worst performing of the chain. This place is clearly targeted at students who can't be bothered to cook and don't mind being treated shabily because they are used to it. A real pity as that should not be how one runs a restaurant.

The Place
This is a convenient place to get to, being just across from QV. It is quite a big space though they are not averse to getting people to share tables. There's not a whole lot of atmosphere here - it's just a dining hall and can get pretty noisy. Parking is either at QV or if you are really lucky, on Lonsdale, or if you know them, there are a couple of good parking spots in Mantra and along Lonsdale which are quite cheap.

Things to do Nearby: Chinatown, QV and Trades Hall and the State Library are 10 minutes and 5 minutes away respectively.

The Food
As far as the food goes, this is about the same as the other branches of Pacific Seafood BBQ, which is to say, it's pretty good and tasty. The servings are quite generous but you shouldn't expect the banquest style dishes that the other branches offers. Here, it's a quick meal and everything from their BBQ Roasts to Instant Noodles is to really get you in and out, rather than dine at a leisurely pace. Therefore, the highlights here are any of the roast dishes.

BBQ Pork and Roast Pork Rice - whether it's in combination or by themself on rice, this is pretty good here and is better than average.

Soy Chicken - the soy chicken here is as it should be (which means that it is slightly pink in the bones), and that means it's not for everyone. The meat is tender because it's poached in soy sauce and not cooked right through. If you are worried about that, don't order this... go for the roasts.
They also have a range of Baked Rice (Hong Kong style) which is great if you like cheesy rice - seriously cheesy with various combinations of meat and flavourings. There's also a thing called French Toast here which is probably not what you imagine. It's a really thick almost half loaf of bread... really - do your research on this one and know what you are ordering.

The Service
The nicest thing I could say about the service here is that it's not rude. So, there are worse places but seriously - not that many. There's a too cool for school attitude about some of the wait staff and others frankly can't be bothered. They treat everyone like a student who's there for a cheap quick eat and won't complain about bad service. Well, I think this explains the low score on Urbanspoon plus it's the worst way to introduce someone to the great food of Pacific Seafood BBQ. They seriously need an attitude check because Melbourne expects better. However, a more recent visit indicates, there might be a slow shift because there is less of an attitude - I will try to get there again later in the year to see if the change is permanent.

I would not bring friends there and I would only go there if I am by myself and would not feel embarassed about "bad Asian service" because seriously - they make no effort. I would also only go there if the other places in Chinatown are really crowded or if I am just going to do takeaway and I happen to be in the vicinity and can't be bothered going further into Little Bourke Street (ie. when I am really lazy or when I am in a mood where I don't care about bad service - which is rare).

Cultural Moment
What does customer service actually mean? I have been to places where customer service is a very loose term. In Kuching where I was born, there is a place where you have to wait for about an hour before you are asked to order, and then another 15- 20 minutes before you actually get your food. I was there very recently and waited patiently for 90 minutes because that's just how the system works but they were actually quite friendly. You just know what to expect from them and they are up front about it. I have also been to places in Melbourne where they tell you what you should have and bring out food they want to serve you and you just have to deal with it but they are friendly and that's just how their system works. Such places have quirky but friendly service.

Then there's really bad racist service like the ones I have mentioned in the other bad reviews on this blog (that's actually a tag for my blog entries). However, you don't have to be racist to profer bad service. The following things add up to bad service;
  • The noticeable lack of smiles;
  • The lack of engagement beyond looking at you to ask you "how many?" when you walk in, and showing you to a table and throwing the menus down and walking away before you can establish further eye contact;
  • Wait staff, who have to be called over so you can order and have no patience when you are unsure and please - no variations to the menu;
  • Dishes coming out in random order and half the table dining while the others sit and salivate;
  • Dishes coming out in wrong quantities, getting variations wrong and worst - wrong dishes;
  • Trying to get you to leave early by cleaning up your table even before all have finished eating;
  • and all done with not a smile in sight.
These are bad in ANY culture...