Friday 31 May 2013

Ramen Ya (Paramount Shopping Centre)

Shop 9, The Paramount, 108 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Ramen Ya on Bourke on Urbanspoon
Welcome to the brightest spark in the saddest shopping centre in the middle of the CBD. This is a nice set up and has a pleasant vibe. It seems Urbanspooners are unsure about this place and have been quite divided in their opinion. The score at 74% likes is relatively low. So, what is going on here? I have been there a few times and to be honest, I am not sure why there is so much hate. Yes, it's not the most authentic place and the ramen has more alkaline than I normally like it, but generally, it's pretty tasty. So - the nay sayers are probably going to not enjoy my defence of this place. In fact, this place has a lower score and number of raters than Kokoro Ramen (which I reviewed a while back), but I personally actually prefer Ramen Ya to Kokoro Ramen. Anyhow ... on with the review.
The Place
This is really a nice set up and has a very contemporary feel to it. I absolutely love the paper lanterns here - check out the photos (to the right). Mirrors and glass everywhere, and a high ceiling gives it a sense of space. At lunch time, it has a real buzz and is usually crowded. Parking is easy at the Paramount Shopping Centre parking.

This is not set up to be really child-friendly because there's not a lot of actual space between tables - so don't let the kids run about as the wait staff are balancing huge bowls of hot soup as they whizz around the restaurant. One complaint I have is that the stools are majorly uncomfortable - perhaps, the idea is to eat and run - not stay and chat.

Things to do Nearby: Chinatown is closeby and Collins and Little Collins Streets are a short stroll away - so is Bourke Street Mall.

The Food
So, there are a number of Urbanspooners who decry the quality, taste and authenticity. True, this is not the most authentic of ramens (but what are you comparing it against?) - ramen from different regions of Japan also taste different. For me, the issue is the taste of the ramen itself, there's too much alkaline water for my liking, to be perfectly honest.

However, I absolutely loved the rich Tonkatsu Soup - so tasty. Definitely tastier than some other places without being overly salty. My Tonkatsu Tsukune Ramen was very generous and overall, I would go back for more. However, that was not the real highlight for me.

See how thick the soup is in the Char Siu Ramen (Tonkatsu base)
Ok - it's not pretty but the soup is tasty - this was the Tonkatsu Tsukune (Minced Chicken) Ramen

The real highlight was the Tori Karaage. This is Fried Chicken heaven with really succulent pieces of chicken thighs, a great balance between the moistness inside and crunchiness outside. I don't care what people say but this is as good as, if not better than some of the Karaage in Japan. The trick is in the freshness of the chicken. This was good.
Just not enough of it!
The Service
The service here is excellent. At lunch time, they want you to order at the counter before taking a seat and the food comes pretty quickly. They run at a more leisurely pace at dinner time and you take a seat, and they come and take your order. Either way, they are always polite and friendly, and happy to answer questions.

Ok! One more pic of the pretty lights!
I would go back here for the Bento and for the Karaage. It's a good place for a cheap and quick meal. I don't get the nay-sayers who do one vicious review and are then gone. No, it's not as nice as some of the other places around but it's certainly not the worst.

Cultural Moment
Ok, I have been wanting to write this because I love ramen - which originated from my pre-teen love of 2-minute instant noodles. When I progressed to ramen, I thought I was so sophisticated. The truth is I used to think that if I could have these noodles every morning for brekkie - my life would be complete. And on special ocassions, breakfast in bed treats for my parents would be me cooking instant noodles for them. You get the idea! I was VERY young! My cooking abilities progressed very quickly from there.

So, back to ramen - there are regional variations of ramen (and I am not talking about the soup and protein). There is actually an excellent article on wikipedia on ramen (yes!) and there is actually some really good information there, so check it out.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Don Tojo

164 Cardigan St, Carlton,VIC 3053

Don Tojo on Urbanspoon
This is a funky place that is reminiscent of the original Don Don on Swanston Street. It's got the same vibe and has all of the original buzz that used to be part of Don Don. Don Tojo is part of the chain and this Carlton branch has got the balance right between cheap student hangout and great delicious food. They also serve a range of alcohol here as well.

The Place
This is a quick meal place where you get to perch on high chairs while you dine, or a small table to share with a few others. It has a great vibe, some interesting murals and is quite fast paced, with funky music in the background. There's also some space outside in the sun. Although it's perfectly fine for kids, the set up is not particularly child friendly. It's more a Uni Student hangout.

Things to do Nearby: Lygon Street is not so far at all, and the Melbourne Museum is a 10 minute walk.

The Food
The food is as good as any Don Don in Melbourne. It's undoubtedly fast food, but is nutritious and tasty. They have a limited range of offerings but what they serve, they do really quite well. You can see how busy the kitchen is and it's great to see efficiency at its best without compromising on taste. In particular, I really like their Teriyaki Chicken Don (pictured below) and their various Bento boxes withe generous servings of fruits.

The Service
Quick and fast friendly service but with minimal interaction. This is pretty much a fast food place but they are always relatively friendly and despite the huge turnover, manage to keep the place generally clean and tidy.

I do enjoy coming here for a quick cheap yummy meal. It's really affordable and if there's no space to sit, wait for 5 minutes, and a place will free up pretty quickly. Otherwise, you could do takeaway and have it in the gardens.

Cultural Moment
This one is a repeat from the original entry for Don Don - I think it's entirely appropriate and so, here it is again...

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

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

Saturday 25 May 2013

Monk & Me (Malaysian Restaurant)

9 Evans Place, Hawthorn East, VIC 3123

Monk & Me on Urbanspoon
This fully licensed restaurant has been around for a while and is pretty much an icon in this area. It seems to have the formula right with a upmarket feel and look, jazz music and a good variety of dishes. It gets busy and noisy and yet continues to achieve on relatively low Urbanspoon Scores. So, what's the story? I think the key is in understanding the clientale. I have to say, the food here is not bad, which is not to say it is authentic or that it is the best Malaysian in Melbourne.  

Tables are close to each other
The Place
The space is pleasant enough though it suffers from bad sound insulation when it gets crowded. There is nothing to indicate that it is a Malaysian restaurant - the vaguely Asian deco and artworks are not specifically Malaysian - though it does hint of exotica (just enough - not too much). For a restaurant of its calibre, it does still space diners rather closely to each other. The tables are all moveable for different configurations to fit differently sized groups of diners. There's usually heaps of parking around, either on Campberwell Road, the car park around the shopping area and The Well.  

Things to do Nearby: Shops of the area, heaps to explore.  

The Food
This restaurant focuses on shared mains rather than popular hawker dishes. The food is not bad. It is relatively tasty but the truth is, it is not all that authentic, and is somewhat watered down in terms of spices. Here's an example, the Mee Goreng (which was a very generous portion) was really tasty but did not have a kick and was very sweet. If I were to judge it on the basis of noodle dish, I'd say that it's rather nice. However, if I were to compare it to what I know is authentic Malaysian Indian Mee Goreng, this dish would fail and might even cause a minor shock with the sweetness.
Sweet Mee Goreng (tasty tasty)

In short the range of dishes here are not bad, but the level of authenticity is lower than expected. It lacks the richness of spices or the kick from the chillies. It appeals to a westernised audience and does very well on that level.
A range of appetisers - the lohbak (Meat Spring Rolls in the foregound) is good and reminiscent of Penang LohBak
The Service
For the set up and for what it charges, the service here is far from desirable. Smiling is at a premium and there's just no effort to engage anyone in any sort of way other than to take your order, bring your food and collect your money with a very hollow "Thank You". This is really unfortunate and the attitude and complete of facial expressions from different wait staff is rather offputting. It gave a sense that they were doing me a huge favour and that I was really an inconvenience... errrr, ok, maybe I won't bother you again in the future.

It's not my go-to place for Malaysian but once in a while, I'd come to see if it has changed. This is however, very doubtful but I still would come anyway because even if I don't get my authentic Malaysian fix, I can still expect some good "Malaysian inspired" dishes - IF I feel like putting up with unsmiling unengaging wait staff.

Cultural Moment
Not all Mee Gorengs are equal. To my knowledge, when people from SEAsia talk abotu Mee Goreng, they can refer to either the Indian Mee Goreng, or the Indonesian Mee/Mie Goreng.  I will talk about the two here.

The Indian Mee Goreng is also known as Mamak Mee Goreng. Mamak refers to Indian Muslims who inspire this dish in Malaysia and Singapore. This style of mee goreng uses Hokkien Noodles, and contains various de-seeded chillies, a little bit of sweet soy/oyster/tomato sauces combined, tomatoes and curry powder as well. This is on top of the usual garlic, shallots, spring onions, onions, bean shoots and sometimes, shredded cabbage. It can be a bit greasy but is usually a balance of pungent, sweet, tangy, and curry flavours with a bit of kick from the chillies. When you have a Chinese cooked Indiam Mee Goreng, it can be overly sweet sometimes.

Indonesian Mee Goreng is clearly different because firstly, it uses thing egg noodles (ramen style) or even instant noodles on occasion. It doesn't usually use tomato sauce or curry powder. Instead of bean shoots, they usually use shredded carrots mostly and cabbage only. They also tend to use more garlic and black pepper in this dish and sometimes, are more liberal with the thick caramalised soy sauce and kecap manis (Sweet soy).

Here's the thing though - lots of people might argue that if you just throw similar ingredients in - you have mee goreng. If you google it, you will probably find all sorts of recipes that completely mix up the two styles and make it all indistinguishable. You see, that's just not right. That's just different ways of frying noodles. The fact is, you'd find it difficult to get Indian Mee Goreng in most of Indonesia, just as, if you ordered Mee Goreng from an Indian Stall in Malaysia or Singapore, you are not likely to get Indonesian Mee Goreng.

Paladarr Thai Issan

7 Rowe St, Alphington, VIC 3078

Paladarr Thai Issan on Urbanspoon
Upmarket Dining in the suburbs is rare but when it is done right, is always a treat. Paladarr Thai has all the trappings of a potentially good restaurant other than its relatively obscure location. It has some really lovely offerings which is topped with attentive and friendly service. While it is not perfect in all things, there is a lot to like about Paladarr Thai Issan.

The Place
This is a very nicely decorated restaurant with the right balance of traditional Thai paraphernalia and contemporary sensibilities. This is a really well set up space with heaps of room between groups of diners. There are also private dining rooms here for larger groups. It is a fully carpeted and curtained restaurant, which means that you are very likely to get a nice quiet meal and be able to hear the conversation without having to raise your voice. They also don't feel the need to play loud distracting music, which is nice. Parking is usually ok in the evenings around the restaurant and where the Alphington Train Station is.

Things to do Nearby: This is a first so far - there's NOTHING to do nearby.

The Food
There is a lot to like about the freshly cooked dishes here. The ingredients are really lovely and the only issue for me is the portion size - they tend towards the smaller size. Otherwise, most of the dishes are really quite lovely and meant to be shared. There are not a lot of very spicy chilli offerings on the menu. They have gone for the lightly spiced range of Thai dishes. The one real disappointment for me here is that they don't serve Thai tea! Here are some of the highlights for me;

Creamy Crumbled Pork in Coconut Milk (pictured above) is a lovely starter and really delicate, great with the pieces of roti, and fresh vegetables.

Northern Thai (Lean) Pork Sausages (pictured below) here have a really lovely taste but because of the use of only lean meat, it tends to be a bit dry. However, I am happy to put up with a little bit of driness for health because the flavours are atill there.

They also do a spectacular Deep Fried Whole Fish with a salad. It's simply beautifully balanced in terms of both flavours and textures. The green apple, green mango and cashew salad is completely refreshing but tangy, to balance out wiht the savoury crispy fish. So Yummy!

Their range of curries are never over spicy and may not have enough kick for the diehard Thai chilli fans. However, even for the diehard fans, the Mussaman Curry (pictured left) is a hard to criticise, as the curry which usually has the least chilli. The Mussaman here is really tasty and the beef is close to melting in your mouth. They tend to add the nuts in at the end so that they are still crunchy.

I have to say though that they do serve a range of 'Thai inspired' desserts which do not necessarily appeal to me. I prefer my Thai desserts more traditional but the ones here are completely contemporary, including Rickett's Point icecreams, coconut panacottas and of course the lemon tart pictured here.

The Service
Basic flavoursome Pork Belly and Chinese Broccoli
The service here is what you would expect from a fine dining restaurant. They are very attentive, friendly and most willing to explain how things work and what the dishes are. The food comes out in a timely manner and different courses are very well timed. The hot towels at the very end is such a lovely touch.

When I feel like a nice relaxed meal where I won't be hurried and can expect great service and am happy to pay a little bit more, but can't be bothered going into town, this would be my go to place. For a bit of a special meal, without worrying about having really spicy food, this is not a bad place to go back to.

One of the few places in Melbourne that serves Betel Leaves
Cultural Moment
There is a range of Thai curries and I am going to be talking about them here. In many Thai places in Melbourne, you could have any of the styles of curries with any protein. I just don't think that's quite right because each of the curries have quite a specific flavour that does go better with a particular protein.

Gang Keow Wan (Green Curry), green from the additional coriander, green chillies, basil and kaffir lime, this is probably the most famous ad popular curry. Usually meant to be a bit sweeter and less hot than the red curry. The best meat for this is chicken pieces (not necessarily breast meat only).

Gang Phet (Red Curry), is supposed to be a whole lot hotter with red chillies (fresh and dried) being the main event of the paste. The paste here is also used for Tod Mun Pla (Thai fishcakes). This strong curry tends to be good with red meats, especially roast duck or sliced beef. Sometimes, fruit is added here for natural sweetness to tamper the hotness of the chillies.

Gang Pa (Jungle Curry) from northern Thailand, with no coconut milk to tame the chillies here. This is a watery curry and it's like chilli soup, perfect with wild boar or pork.

Gang Mussamun (Peanut Curry), is introduced by the Muslims to Thailand, and is a less chilli hot curry, but uses quite a bit of cumin, coriander seeds and usually includes star anise. This curry is mild and works really well in combination with potato, nuts and chunky pieces of beef, or tofu.

Gang Som (Sour Curry) is another curry which generally doesn't use coconut milk, but fish stock and some tamarind would be perfect, as well as pineapple in the soup. You can probably guess that this would be great with talay (seafood) and any number of fish.

Gang Kari (Yellow Curry) uses tumeric and both coconut cream and coconut milk, making it a very rich curry - not always thick like mussamun but the coconut milk does make it rich. It's also usually a bit less spicy than the other curries. Chicken on the bone goes really well with this.

Gang Panang (Penang Curry) is influenced by the northern Malaysian Penang region, and uses coconut milk It also uses cumin and is a lot less sweet than Mussamun curry. Usually suits chicken pieces.

Friday 24 May 2013

Masak Masak (Contemporary Malaysian Restaurant)

230 Smith St, Collingwood, VIC 3066

Masak Masak on Urbanspoon
This is a funky place that thrives on simplicity. "Masak Masak" means 'To Cook", and in some cases in Malaysia, the term Masak Masak has a more playful informal connotation.  It is more expensive that your average Malaysian cafe, more trendy, and has a contemporary feel in presentation. Note that they do close between lunch and 6pm (when they re-open again for dinner)
Grilling Station to the left
The Place
Simple deco with a big mural and basic chairs. The place can get noisy because sound insulation isn't great. There is a sense of space here from the way it's set up, though I suspect it will struggle to cope with big groups. The repetitive single reggae track drives me a bit nuts though. Finally, when they are grilling the satays and beef ribs - it gets pretty smokey inside. Parking on Smith Street is always going to be a problem but you could try Stanley Street around the corner.

Things to do Nearby: During the day, the Smith Street shops can be interesting a couple of blocks down, you have some of the outlets. During the night? Not so much.

The Food
There is a range of modernised Malaysian dishes - they call it Malaysian hawker food with a twist. The Hainanese Chicken Rice (pictured left) is a serve and a half. There's probably about a third of a whole chicken in one servce. The white cut chicken is tender, on the bone and ever so slightly pink, much like the way it is served in Malaysia/Singapore. This is one of my favourite dishes here. Check out how much chicken there is!

The Charcoal Grilled Beef Ribs  (pictured below) are pretty tasty too, but the sambal oelek might not be to everyone's liking - it's a bit of an acquired taste if you have not have this style of sambal oelek before. The ribs on their own are pretty nice anyway - though it's not a dish for one person on its own (unlike the Hainanese Chicken Rice which can be shared or be eaten by one person (and a half)).

Beyond those two highlights, there is a range of lesser dishes which are worth trying. If you like noodles, the Western Malaysian style Kon Low Mee (pictured below) is probably one of the dishes that is most similar to its origins. The Buffalo Wings is realy crispy chicken wings with onion sambal - the wings themselves are nice but the onion sambal needs more tweaking in my humble opinion - it lacks something, and feels a bit undecided. Does it want to be spicy, or tangy or sweet or savoury? At the moment, the onion sambal has no dominant taste, leaving it neither here nor there.
Possibly the most traditional dish on the menu other than Satay
Buffalo Wings

The Service
Lo Mai Gai (Sitcky Rice) was a little bit one dimensional for me
The service here is really good and what is even more impressive is that they actually come round and see if you need anything during your meal. I asked for more soup and promptly got given more. They take time and make an effort to see how you are going without being intrusive. I think it provides better service than your average Malaysian joint... though I have to say the service at most Malaysian restaurants have improved remarkably over the year compared to some others.

I think it is a place I would go to once in a while to try out new dishes or for the Hainanese Chicken Rice. It doesn't have a huge range and for the traditionalists, this place is guaranteed to disappoint. However, for those who want to see what innovation might look like with Malaysian cuisine, this is worth checking out. Don't come here looking for the traditional dishes - they might have the same name - but that's about all.

Cultural Moment
Sambals, Belachans, Cincalok are the various dipping sauces of Malaysia that usually contain some sort of preserved, or fermented seafood or vegetables. While various versions can be found all over South and Southeast Asia, I am just going to focus on the Malaysian ones here.

Belachan is fermented shrimp paste, which can be eaten with a squeeze of lime and fresh chillies, or fried till it's dark and dry, or used in stir fries. It can be fried up with shallots and garlic too and sprinked on dishes to add another layer of spiciness, or even stirred into soups (like laksa). Belachan is usually sold as a block that might look like a thick block or wedge of chocolate from a distance until you get a whiff of it.

Sambal is a chilli paste primarily and so, Sambal Belachan is chilli paste mixed with belachan, shallots, limes and sugar in various combinations. They can be used as an accompaniment to various dishes to given them an added 'kick'. In Sri Lanka (where you have Sambol) and Indonesia, there is a wide range of sambals that include a great variety of ingredients ranging from peanuts to bananas to petai (stinky beans) to anchovies.

Cincalok refers to a condiment that consists of shrimps fermenting in water, lime, shallots, and chillies. This is usually served wet, as dipping condiment, or the Peranakans love having it in omelettes (which I think is the best way to eat it because I can never take it on its own).

Chilli dipping sauces are also common in Malaysian Chinese cuisine, ranging from processed chilli sauces (which may be sweet or savoury or garlicky or super hot), to fresh cut chillies (green, red or padi) in vinegar or soy sauces, or ever preserved green chillies.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Coconut House (and Little Coconut House)

449 Elizabeth St, Melbourne,VIC 3000

Coconut House on Urbanspoon
This place has had mixed reviews over the years primarily centred on their variable friendliness and service level. In addition the standard of the food is also variable at times though it has improved over the years. Finally, they must be doing something right with the crowd they attract. Yet, they have a relatively low Urbanspoon Score. What is going on here?

The Place
This is a pokey place. Both the 'mothership' and the little offshoot 3 doors down are small and pokey. They try to fit in a lot of people into the space and it's really not designed for a leisurely meal. It's really an "Eat and Go" place. As a result, cleanliness is hard to maintain though they do try their best. Also, it can get noisy in the main restaurant. So, this is also not a child friendly place and parking requires a hedging of bets around Franklin Street.
The Deco at Little Coconut House
Things to do Nearby: This is about halfway between Melbourne Central and Queen Victoria Market. Also close to the State Library.

The Food
This is a West Malaysian restaurant with authentic West Malaysian Chinese tastes. The food comes out really quickly which means that it is never steamy hot enough for me. However, there are 3 main things that are worth trying here;

Hainanese Chicken Rice - the rice itself is nothing to rave about but very passable. However, the chicken here is pretty good and they also have roast chicken (which they call BBQ chicken). That's a plus in my books to have both options. The accompaniment chilli sauce is ok too, though the soup is never warm enough.

Curry Laksa - so, while I am not a huge fan of curry laksa, the one here is not bad afterall, but I usually have the chicken laksa, not the seafood laksa. The soup though, is pretty tasty and rich enough for my liking without being sickening. By the way - you can order extra noodles with your laksa, though all the servings are pretty big as it is.

Mee Pok (pictured right)- this is one of the few places in the CBD that offers Mee Pok - which is SEAsian thin 'fettuccine' - it's a flatter egg noodle. They serve the Mee Pok here with either a curry or soy base. The texture of the noodles is what you would expect of the West Malaysian / Singaporean mee pok. The soy base mee pok here with either BBQ Pork, or minced pork or combination of both, tend to be sweeter than what I like. However, it's what they do in Kuala Lumpur. They like it sweet generally.

The Service
This is variable, depending on who you get on the day. Over the years, they have actually improved (believe it or not?). They also have to coordinate between Coconut Hourse and Little Coconut House because there's essentially one kitchen. They transfer the food across in a very hygenic way within bainmarie containers. They have a good system of getting the food out really quickly, which of course means that there is probably of pre-cooked food that's never steamy hot enough. Most of the time, the wait staff are pretty friendly these days.

I'd go there ocassionally when I want Chicken Rice and I am in the area. With the major competitors here being the iconic Rose Garden and the newcomer Kitchen Inn, it would be hard to survive if they weren't any good (Just ask the former owners of the cafe that used to occupy the Kitchen Inn space). However, they continue to attract a healthy number of students and people working in the area. So, they seem to be holding their own. Therefore, despite a relatively low Urbanspoon score, it's far from a disaster, it's really a matter of whether the style of food appeals to you, now that the service has improved.

Cultural Moment
Slurping Noodles is something you are likely to hear at Coconut House, from international student diners sitting very close to you. In Australia, one doesn't slurp noodles - it attracts attention of other diners and can be quite annoying to down right rude.

So, where do people slurp their noodles loudly?
In China, Korea and Japan, slurping noodles is perfectly acceptable and is a sign that you are enjoying the food, and complementing the chef. It also cools the noodles as you are eating them. There are some minor differences in techniques though - some Chinese tend to scoop it in rather than slurp it (though, just as noisily). All generations continue to do this today. However, not everyone does it - all I am saying is that, it is acceptable.

Therefore, slurping is also quite normal amongst the older generations of Chinese in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore - though you won't see that as much amongst the younger generation. Amongst the younger generation in SEAsia, you are less likely to see this and they might even view the older generation's noodle slurping habit with some annoyance (much like the disappearing art to swirling tea/coffee in the saucer to cool it down, and then slurping it straight from the saucer).

The question then is, should a young Chinese man in Melbourne be slurping his noodles loudly? Is this a case of 'when in Rome' or 'people should be comfortable with their culture'? What do you think?

Monday 20 May 2013

City BBQ (Hong Kong Restaurant)

178-190 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, VIC

City BBQ on Urbanspoon
In Sydney, Hong Kong Restaurants like this would be a dime a dozen. Unusually, in Melbourne, there are only 4 such places in the Chinatown Block, most of them relatively small. This is one of them and not necessarily the best one nor the worst. They offer Siu Laap cuisine, with a range Cantonese dishes from the kitchen.

The Place

Back to back chairs

This is a small space with a lot of tables and chairs cramped together. If it is full, it is likely that your chair will be pushed up against someone elses - not necessarily a pleasant condition. It's not the cleanest restaurant, having been around a long time and the ventilation is not great either. This is really a place for a quick meal, not to lurk around and have a chat. It is also unsuitable for little children because of the very limited space. Parking is really on Russell Street, Lonsdale Street, or undercover parking around the area.

Thing to do Nearby: In the heart of Chinatown, and a short walk to QV, there're plenty of shops to explore.

The Food
The usual Cantonese fare is on offer. However, having served generations of Melbournian - the food here has become somewhat watered down over the years. The roast meats are passable though a bit dry ocassionally. Mostly the best of the BBQ meats is the Soy Sauce Chicken. The Crispy Roast Pork (pictured to the right) is not always crispy and usually quite fatty. 

The dishes from the kitchen are not bad but don't usually pack a punch. For example, the Salted Fish and BBQ Pork Fried Rice (pictured below) was no different to any Special Fried Rice offered elsewhere - there really wasn't much salted fish (more of a hint really) and the bits of salted fish I managed to find were not very authentic or 'pungent'.

The one highlight here for me is the Lo Mei Tong Min which is really the Stewed Pork Intestines and Stomach Noodle Soup. Yes - I went there and I love it. Not many places serve this in town - this is one of those places and only early during the day (before they run out).

The Service
The service is variable here depending who's serving. Sometimes, you might get chatty wait staff and other days, it's not very friendly. In other words, it's variable service here at best.

This is average fare that I would go to only once in a while because there are a lot of other options. This doesn't make it a bad restaurant, just an average one in the light of better competition close by. They need to somehow differentiate themself better in the future.

Cultural Moment
Ok - this entry is not for everyone - but if you are really curious about the food culture around the insides of animals - keep reading. There is a Chinese saying "Anything to walks, crawls, swims or flies with its back to Heaven can be eaten" - and not just the meat but also the offals (the insides) - some places call them chitterlings.

Firstly, I am not a proponent of eating everything that moves - far from it. However, I do believe that anything on the inside of a few select creatures (chicken, beef, pork, seafood, goat) can be eaten. For the Chinese - pork, beef and chicken are key to the art of eating offals.

Beef - key components that are popular here include the instestines, tripe, tendon, lung, pizzle, all usually in stews.
Pork - is used the most in the art of eating offals - including ears, tongue, kidneys, liver, stomach, intestines, tripe, lung, blood, and even fallopian tubes! These can be prepared in stews, soups, stir fries or deep-fried in a whole range of sauces.
Chicken - liver, gizzard, heart are often used in stirfries.

There you have it, the art of eating offals - don't be squemish - I have just given it a name. The reality is, if any of you have eaten a sausage, a meat pie, or pâté, you are likely to have had the above in some combination or other.

Dumpling Den

88 Grattan St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Ma's Dumpling Den on Urbanspoon
Dumplings in Carlton to add to the increasing number of Asian restaurants in the area. Melbourne has been exposed to Chinese Dumpling culture for a while. More importantly, Melbourne is used to the iconic Tattersall Lane shops which are ridiculously cheap. And then, Hu Tong Dumpling comes along, and Matt Preston highlights the delights of Chinese Dumplings, and then suddenly it's not only cool to have these dumplings, it's also classy. So, what's Dumpling Den like?

The Place
This is a rather pleasant dining space with contemporary deco. It is usually relatively cleaner than the average dumpling place in Chinatown. The tables are close to each other and it's not a huge space, so it does get a bit cramped sometimes. The few times I have been there, they seem to have a penchant for playing power ballads in the background in the evenings. It's not a particularly child-friendly place because of the set up, and parking is difficult around the area, though you might get lucky around Cardigan Street.

Thing to do Nearby: Really round the corner from Lygon Street and a 10 minute walk to the Melbourne Museum and IMAX.

The Food
The menu here is a lot more limited than the usual dumpling places these days in Melbourne. There's probably about a quarter of the offerings you might see in many other dumpling houses.

The food is not bad as dumplings go. The servings are very generous, particularly the soups. The dumplings are actually bigger than some of the ones in the CBD area. They also taste slighly sweeter than the ones I am used to. the higlight for me is the Dumpling Soup  (pictured right) because of the really nice soup that's not too salty. I had the soup without noodles because the skin of the dumpling was enough carbs for me. You can see that they also throw in some fresh herbs like cilantro and fresh shallots to add fragrance to the soup.

The Fried Pork Dumplings (pictured to the right) are also quite nice, but the skin is quite thick and they are not as juicy as some of the places in the CBD. Unlike the soup dumplings, the steaming/poaching process followed by the frying dries out the juiciness a little bit.

The Service
The service is ok and friendly if a bit distracted ocassionally. They tend to leave diners alone and there is not a whole lot of interaction generally.

This is not a bad place for dumplings if you are happy to pay Carlton prices for offerings which you can get at a slightly cheaper price in Chinatown or Box Hill. The quality is there, though some would complain about the thicker skin.

Cultural Moment
A few years ago, I was in Harbin in China. Harbin is the capital of the Heilongjiang Province - which is the most northern-easterly region of China. To them, every else in China is considered "South China". This is where the trans-Siberian railways become the China Far Eastern Railway. Culturally, it has had a history of influences from the Russians and the Jews, and the architecture of the city makes it look like more of a European city, rather than a Chinese one. It has been called 'Oriental Moscow' and I was really fascinated by the city. So, even the food has some Russian influence here and there, including some sort of a 'Chinese Salami'. The beauty of being hosted so generously by Chinese colleagues is that they completely take the dining decisions out of your hands, to show you around and get you to try a full range of dishes. It can also be a challenge...

What does this have to do with this blog entry? Well... it was also the first (and last) time I had Donkey Meat Dumpling. I didn't really know what it was until I had bit into it. Interesting but not my thing really. There's a certain gamey and smokey taste to them - I say them because I decided to have 2 - to confirm the taste. So, clearly, there's a whole range of dumplings we might not even be aware of out there.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Gourmet Dumpling House

71 Glenferrie Rd, Malvern, VIC 3144
Gourmet Dumpling Restaurant on Urbanspoon
The name of this joint belies its very basic set up and non-pretentious food. It's a very simple eating space across two levels and in an area where there's not a lot of competition offering this style of cuisine, it continues to do quite well. Dare I say if this was in the CBD or Springvale or Box Hill area, it might not do as well? Don't get me wrong - this is not a bad place to dine at all - but it's certainly not 'gourmet dumplings'.

The Place
This two level space has had minimal investment in terms of creating some sort of an ambience, or even rudimentary deco. In fact, the framed contemporary Chinese artworks hanging on the walls have been kept in the shrink wrap plastic they probably came in originally. It's not an especially clean space and the tables are quite close to each other. The upper level is an even more basic open space with not even the aformentioned artworks. So, don't expect anything flash now.

Parking can be difficult depending on time of day.

Things to do Nearby: The shops of Glenferrie Road, Malvern mostly.

The Food
The food is not bad but nothing to rave about. It feels like they do use frozen ingredients in their food and the dumplings are definitely pre-made. The dumplings are the mainstay of the menu and there's a good varietly in soups, steamed, or fried. They are of middling size (I have had bigger and also much smaller). They are relatively tasty though the Vegetarian Dumplings (pictured to the right) are a bit bland. The Fried Chicken and Prawn Dumplings were really nice and juicy, while the Beef Dumplings are also very tasty.

The Special Fried Rice uses northern Chinese ingredients, rather than the Cantonese and Yangzhou ones. However, what is disappointing is that they use a lot of frozen vegetables, and the shrimps aren't the freshest in it. The taste is still ok but not brilliant.

The Hot and Sour Soup is quite tasty if a bit thin, but again, contain the frozen vegetable cubes and shrimp. If you are not fussed about frozen foods in a restaurant, the food is still tasty. What as most disappointing to me were the greens that were very bland.

Hot and Sour Soup, and Special Fried Rice
The Service
The service is like the rest of the restaurant, rather functional. There's not a lot of banter between the staff and customers, or even between the staff memebrs. Unlike many places where during a quiet time, staff might engage in a bit of light conversation - this was not evident here. They get the job done, it's not rude and not completely offputting

If in the area, and wanting some dumplings, it's worth trying out. However, I won't be going out of my way to drive here for dumplings as there are many others of higher quality in other areas.

Cultural Moment
As you would likely know, not all Fried Rice are equal. I am just going to focus on the Chinese varieties here in this entry. Of course, there will always be variations depending on who's cooking it and what they like. Over the years, restaurants might also have chefs that will add a bit of this and a bit of that to their fried rice, depending on their influencers. This list is just a general guide.

Yangzhou (Teochew) Fried Rice (most common in Australia and often called 'Special Fried Rice') - The key in this fried rice is the use of diced BBQ Pork (Char Siew), in addition of shrimp, peas, spring onions and eggs, with garlicky goodness. In SEAsia, they sometimes add sweet Chinese sausage to this dish too.

Fujian (Hokkien) Fried Rice - This is vastly different from the more common Special Fried Rice, and consists of a basic Egg fried rice, with garlic, and a good dollop of thick sauce (soy and/oyster sauce base with meat, mushroom, shrimps) poured all over it.

Beijing Fried Rice - This is the most basic of Fried Rice. If you grew up having Special Fried Rice, this might be a bit of a disappointment. It is basice Egg Fried Rice, with fluffy garlicky eggs, and spring onions. This is the dominant style in Beijing.

Shanghainese Fried Rice - Think Beijing Fried Rice but with bits of cubed Chinese ham. Still relatively basic as a dish.

Cantonese Fried Rice - There are a few varieties here and the Cantonese are most likely to vary the ingredients in their fried rice. The base is always eggs, spring onion, and garlic. Then, they are likely to add one of the following (chicken pieces, sliced beef, crispy pork, or even salted fish on top of the other ingredients).

Moral of the story - always ask what's in the fried rice, don't assume it's what you are used to.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Spice 9 Girl (Chinese Cafe)

103D/604 Swanston St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Spice 9 Girl on Urbanspoon
A Szechuan Restaurant in Carlton is not out of place at all given the number of Chinese international students in the area. It does brisk business attracting not just international students, but also workers from the area. I am always surprised by the range of clientale. Perhaps, this is not surprising, since Melbournians are probably more familiar with Szechuan cuisine than they are with other regional Chinese cuisine such as Yunan, Shandong, and Xinjiang.  

The Place
Right across from Lincoln Square, this is an easy to find restaurant, with some parking along Pelham Street. It's an eatery with floor to ceiling windows all around, letting in lots of natural light during the day, and it means you can pretty much see what people are eating just by walking around the restaurant. It doesn't have great ventilation or sound insulation, and has a bustling feel to it, since the tables are placed quite close to each other. They don't need a lot of deco, since it feels like you are part of the outside - watching passerbys rush to their next destination. However, the deco they do have actually consists of wise words to the students who dine here about piety, studying hard, progress, integrity etc.  It's a relatively child-friendly place, though I suggest that you'd want to be very careful what you order for them - just saying.  

Things to do Nearby: After a meal here - you might want to walk to Lygon Street for gelato to cool yourself (and your tongue down).  

The Food
Beef Brisket in Szechuan Spicy Sauce (with dried chillies)
This place is unapologetically Szechuan, which means it is spicy and chilli hot. My favourite dishes here are the Twice Cooked Pork in Spicy Szechuan Sauce and the Beef Brisket in Spicy Szechuan Sauce. If they ask you how spicy you want it... and you say "Really hot", you better mean it. I have learned my lesson and for me, it will always be mild here at Spice 9 Girl. Even then, I come out sweating.

They also do a range of hotpots that you can share, soups and noodles. On one visit, I actually ordered their Sour and Chilli soup. You have to understand - sour and spice is my favourite combination. However, knowing the chilli levels here, I actually asked them just how hot this is. The waitress very nicely said, "It is quite a mild one. Should be ok". So, let me share a photo of the soup with you below... so - needless to say, I didn't finish it. The issue is not so much the chilli, to be honest, but the mouth numbing Szechuan peppercorn which is in abundance.

Really should be called "Billy Don't Be a Hero" Soup because you will be going to war.
The Service
Relatively friendly service here. The relatively quiet wait staff are very efficient and never rude. Their English is not great so you might have to be patient. So, nothing to rave about but nothing to complain about. In case, you were wondering - no, I didn't get a refund for the soup I ordered but couldn't see through. The waitress just giggled at me "Can't handle it?"  

If you go in with your eyes wide open, you should be fine. This in unadulterated spicy and hot Szechuan food. Know the items and your own limitations and you will likely enjoy this.

Cultural Moment
Szechian cuisine is characterised by the use of chillies (dried and fresh), strong garlic, Szechuan peppercorn (completely tongue numbing), ginger and peanuts. Some of the most famous Szechuan dishes characterise the use of these ingredients really well. They include;

Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup - one of my favourite soups in the world if done right, with a balance of sour, hot and spiciness. Not the Sour and Chilli soup above with an overdose of Szechuan peppercorn though.

Kung Pao Chicken - one of the most famous Szechuan dishes which is a stir fry chicken with dried chillies, peanuts, and a spicy sauce - most of the ones all around the world are somewhat less spicy, of course.

Mapo Beancurd (Tofu) - the other famous Szechuan dish, that has been adapted by the Cantonese in Chinese restaurants all over the world. The original includes a spicy bean paste sauce with generous lashings of chilli, as well as water chestnuts and wood ear fungus for texture.

Twice Cooked Pork - less common but possibly because it can be pretty greasy. Thinly sliced pork that first boiled (with ginger and salt) and stir fried in a fiery sauce, usually with vinegar and also dried chilli.

Dan Dan Noodles - Szechuan 'spaghetti bolognaise' with minced pork, a fiery sauce/soup with a chilli oil and Szechuan pepper base. It's pretty much swimming in chilli oil sauce. Most of the onces served in the rest of the world are less liberal with the chilli oil and they might even use a bean paste sauce, adapting to other tastebuds, less robust than Szechuanese ones.

Hot Pot - That chilli oil obsession continues here where you have a soup with lots of chilli oil. It's like a steamboat with chilli soup.

So, just by looking at the list of dishes, you get the idea that you need a pretty strong stomach and tastebud to cope with authentic Szechuan dishes. The irony is that it is believed that chillies were only introduced to Szechuan cuisine only in the last 300 or so years by South Americans but they have clearly taken it on in a big way (this needs more research - I am intrigued!)