Thursday 27 June 2013

Killiney Kopitiam (Carlton)

114 Lygon Street, Carlton, VIC 3053

Killiney Kopitiam Lygon Street on Urbanspoon
Not all franchises are created the same. I think there's a lot to be said about trying different branches and figuring out if they are the same. In this case, it is certainly true that the CBD and Carlton branches of Killiney are quite different. The Carlton Killiney is miles ahead of its CBD sister in terms of set up, service and food. Unsurprisingly, it has a higher score on Urbanspoon than the CBD branch. This is also a certified Halal restaurant.

The Place
This is a tiny restaurant and well set up with movable chairs and tables for different configurations. It also has a lot more character and is quite a charming space. Although it's a small space, it can get very buzzy but that's part of the atmosphere. It also has limited outside seating on Lygon Street itself. Parking around tis part of Lygon is always a pain but you might get lucky around Queensberry or Pelham Streets.

Things to do Nearby: The Museum, IMAX, Trades Hall and the shops of Lygon Street itself are all within walking distance.

The Food
The food here is more consistent and more tasty than the Killiney in the CBD. The Hainanese Chicken Rice here was served with succulent pieces of chicken. It lives up to the reputation of Chicken Rice from Singapore primarily on the freshness of the chicken and the tasty hot side broth.

Laksa - The laksa here is rich in coconut milk and has just enough spice and chilli for me. I also love the rich red colour of the laksa here.

Char Kway Teow (pictured above) - Moist thin noodles, generous amount of egg and really quite tasty and smokey without being too greasy. I think this is quite good CKT. However, it doesn't have enough bean shoots, and they don't include Chinese sausage for those who like that. You can also ask for more chilli. All things considered, it's much better than some of the CKT I have had around town.

The Service
As I indicated in the other blog entry for the CBD branch, "Ordering at the counter and having the dishes brought to you is very much a kopitiam style of delivery. That's what you'd expect at a kopitiam in Singapore. It might not be what people are used to." The service here is really friendly and smiles all round and they really do make an effort. They ocassionally also come out to talk to diners and take photos for them. So, it's all very obliging service which earns a lot of points from me.

A good go to place at this end of Lygon if you are after cheap and good Southeast Asian fare. It continues to be one of the busiest restaurants at the Queensberry end for very good reasons - nice setting, good food, friendly service and cheap!

Cultural Moment
I recently went to Singapore and decided to check out Killiney Kopitiam in Singapore. There's usually a real buzz in the ones back in Singapore but they make much of the Kaya Toast and also has won various awards in Singapore. The challenge of course is the question of maintaining the standards now that they are operating across different countries - Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and now, Australia. What I find really interesting is that they have chosen Melbourne to kick off their Australian operations.

Why not Perth, I wonder... Perth hosts one of the largest number of Singaporeans outside of Singapore. Did you know that? It's in the same time zone as Singapore and has lots of land. Singaporean love that (especially since the mothership has so little land).

Monday 24 June 2013

Pho Toan Vietnamese Restaurant

471 High St, Preston, VIC 3072

Pho Toan Resturant on Urbanspoon
With so much competition in the area, another Vietnamese restaurant that wants to do well has to really stand out or do something really niche. This restaurant is one of the newer entrants but hasn't really distinguished itself yet. It also has one of the lower rated places in the area.

The Place
This is a comfortable space and has a basic set up. It is not too gaudy and they don't seat people too closely together, which is good. It is well ventilated and because all the chairs and tables for moveable, it is easy to fit prams as well.

Things to do Nearby: The Preston Markets and High Street Shops of Preston are all close by.

The Food
The food is not bad overall but it doesn't actually stand out all that much. Most of the dishes I have had there have been ok but not outstanding. The Vietnamese Rice Noodle soups here are somewhat sweeter than I like. I believe they use quite a bit of star anise in the soup. It's not all bad and some people do like that sort of sweetness. They do have very generous portions too. They also do the usual range of Vietnamese and Chinese stir fries

The Service
The service is really friendly and polite. They bring things out in a very timely manner and seem to do brisk takeaway trade. It's really one of the frienlier places on High Street, Preston. Perhaps, this is one of the ways it has distinguished itself. I do like the service here.

I like this relatively friendly joint and would probably come again once in a while because they have food that's actually rather decent.

Cultural Moment
Friendliness is important in any culture when it comes to restaurants. I am a bit afraid this 'cultural moment' is going to turn into a bit of a rant. I think people need to say "Please" and "Thank You" a whole lot more wherever they go. What is wrong with a bit of courtesy? Is it because people take it for granted and no longer think it's necessary?

What's with the ordering of food by shouting out "We want more spring rolls!" at a waiter walking past your table? This actually happened when I was dining at Pho Toan. I kid you not! I have seen people walk into restaurants, sit down without looking at the wait staff and just indicate "Give me X or Y" - no eye contact, no engagement.

Am I being too much for a "prim and proper Church lady?" or is my expectation of basic courtesy setting too high a bar. These sort of behaviour from diners is so common these days, it's no wonder some restaurants just 'return the favour' by being downright unengaged too. Hmm, maybe I should just mind my own business :).

Saturday 22 June 2013

Wang Fu Jing

191 Lygon St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Wang Fu Jing on Urbanspoon
Named after one of the most famous streets in Beijing, known for its food stalls as well as being a bit of a tourist trap. This fully licensed restaurant on Lygon has a great location and set up but doesn't seem to attract the crowd like its namesake. It's also not very well known and given the prime location, this does not bode well for a restaurant. So, what is going on here?

The Place
This is a well set up place with tasteful and unashamedly Chinese deco. It has the trappings of a mid range restaurant and is quite beautifully lit at night. The tables are big, though they are placed quite close to each other. However, it is not well maintained in parts and seems slightly rundown.Over some of the weekends, they have a chef doing demonstrations in the window in a tiny space. It is not necessarily well set up for kids and parking is the usual Lygon Street struggle.

Things to do nearby:: Lygon Street shops, the Museum and IMAX is very close by

The Food
The food is rather average Northern Chinese style which is probably why it doesn't have a huge crowd. In the menu, it also has a range of Southeast Asian dishes like Char Kway Teow, Singapore Noodles, Char Hor Fun! It totally baffled me but the dishes I saw being served had a distinctly Northern Chinese look, and combination of ingredients. I wonder why they have felt the need to offer the range instead of focusing on the dishes they do well.

Their dumplings are not bad at all but they are competing with Dumpling Den which is no more than 5 minutes away, and serves them up just as well. I also have had the Fish Flavoured Shredded Pork Stir Fry with Rice (pictured right). This is a quintessential Beijing and Shanghai dish, which has a balance of sourness, spiciness and sweetness. The one I got was pretty much just sweet and greasy.

I think it's important to get the balance right. The reality is, this area could do with a good mid range Asian restaurant that serves good food and provide great service. However, currently, it doesn't seem to have found its range yet.

The Service
The service is polite and very Chinese. It hasn't really adapted to Western standards. Why do I say this? Well - primarily because although they are really polite, they do not hesitate to seat strangers together at lunch time without asking their customers if they mind sharing. It's just a matter of fact, there's space - just seat the newcomers where existing diners are half way through their meal, without asking. In addition, the dishes come out when they are ready and are not timed together. These are somewhat typical of places I have been to in China. It's not necessarily a bad thing, because they are really polite - but some might be a bit surprised.

I might go again ocassionally for lunch because it does have a nice set up but I will avoid the Southeast Asian dishes. It's a great place for a lunch meeting because of the bigger tables and the fact that it's not one of those really busy noisy student joints.
Sorry about the blurry pic :(
Cultural Moment
Wang Fu Jing is a place that's almost a must to visit when in Beijing. It's now a huge pedestrian mall with shops on either side, from the big brands to quirky local products. The street side stalls that serve up a huge range of local delicacies (some of which might be a bit challenging, such as starfish, scorpions and grasshoppers) is worth trying. Quite affordable mostly and you can eat as you walk along the streets or in the small bars. It is a buzzing street market and my recommendation is to go at night.

The one thing worth noting is to be very careful about 'friendly con-artists' who pose as students wanting to practice their English and taking you to a bar for tea and then - you will be surprised how much a pot of tea could get up to. Just hang on to your enthusiasm about meeting local strangers and you should be fine.

Monday 17 June 2013

Lazzat on Lygon

112 Lygon St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Lazzat on Lygon on Urbanspoon
With an increasing number of low cost Asian eateries in this part of Lygon, it's important to differentiate itself from others, particularly when visitors to Lygon have come to expect relatively good service and food over the years. This is a small place that is very informal and has not necessarily stood out for anything other than the style of food and its halal status (though it's not the only halal restaurant in the area either).

The Place
Lazzat has the potential to be a nice set up but is essentially a basic eatery with quite nice decoration, set up by previous management. It's not a huge space and when it is full, you would end up sitting very close to other diners. Ocassionally, when it is at its peak, the buzz from other diners create a great atmosphere but when it is quiet, it is very quiet and the silence is almost deafening (without any background music). Now, I am not a believer in loud background music being imposed on diners, but something in the background can actually help.

Things to do Nearby: This is on Lygon Street and also a short walk to the Museum and IMAX Theatre.

The Food
Having been here when it was under the previous management when they served great food from the bain-marie, I thought I'd give it a go since new management has taken over the reigns. The food was different and the bain-marie is gone (well, it's still there, but just covered up). On the day I visited with my friend, Catherine, half the items on the menu were not available (no Nasi Lemak and no Roti at lunch time. I tried ordering the oxtail soup and that was not available as well). Some day, I might get to try it. The food here reminds me of what you would get in a cafeteria in a Malay Kampung back in Malaysia where they cook a range of dishes (including Chinese dishes) with a Malay twist and taste. That's not to say it's not authentic but one knows that Cantonese fried noodles done by the Cantonese will be different to those done to suit Malay tastes - nice, but different.

Steaming hot fresh fried seafood kway teow
The Seafood Char Kway Teow (fried flat rice noodles) is really quite tasty though it's not as spicy as I expected. They use really fresh seafood and the noodles are well done overall, with the right level of smokiness and moistness.

The Fish Ball Soup (as pictured above) is a basic soup that serves well as a side but it is a basic soup for $5.00 and not a main on its own.

The Biryani Rice was a big disappointment to me. I think I was expecting too much for $9.50, but I have had Nasi Biryani here previously and it had been good. In the Cultural Moment section, I am going to discuss Biryani as it should be done. In this case, this was a disappointment because it was a very dry offering with not real flavour. The lamb curry was basic and not spicy but to top it all off, it was served with a basic dhal and pickles on a plastic thali style plate. I was clearly expecting too much! However, the main problem was not just the way the food was served but it's really about the quality of the dry rice.

The Service
The service is really friendly and casual. I think they have a great kampung style hospitality that is understated but friendly. It's not fine dining service but works for me. Some might not be used to the relaxed casual manner of the service, but it's almost like visiting friends for a meal together.

I would go again to try the other dishes because I do like this style of food and think that they do some dishes well enough to try the range (if they were available).

Cultural Moment
Biryani rice originates from Indian and Persian cuisine and the best biryani would have been great one dish meal wonders where the spices, rice and meat are brought together and the flavours are infused throughout the dish. The meat and the rice are usually cooked separate initially and then brought together, layered and baked in the oven to finish up the cooking process. As a result, there are layers of flavour and texture throughout this dish. However, it is very easy to get it all wrong and have really dry rice.
It is clearly not a dish that one can take short cuts with. In many parts, it is served with raita or pickles as well. Of course, there are many different regional differences all over the South Asia and Southeast Asia, with different combinations of ingredients. Ah! I miss good Nasi Biryani.

Sunday 9 June 2013

I Love Phở 264

264, Victoria St, Richmond, VIC 3121

I Love Pho 264 on Urbanspoon
There is a bit of hype here and the facebook is filled with pictures of young attractive people of various demographics... but is the food good? Firstly, it is usually packed - really packed across both levels and there is a constantly flow of people. The clientale is a mix of demographics and they clearly have broad appeal. How does a restaurant do so well on Phở in a street of Phở restaurants?

The Place
They do pack you in here across two levels. They have put a lot more effort to the ground floor which is nicely decorated and well insulated. The upstairs dining area (pictured right) is like the dining space of someone's apartment with minimal effort in decoration - not very exciting. Sound insulation is not great here and it does get pretty noisy. In the upstairs section, it gets worse when they play their TV and Laptop at the same time.

They do seat you very close to each other like many similar restaurants of its kind. It's not a great place for prams though. Parking is usually a challenge in the area but if you know the back streets, you'll find space, or the Hive a bit further towards the city.

Things to do Nearby: This is on Victoria Street with all its exciting shops and Ikea is about a 5 minute drive away.

The Food
So, I understand why it does well here. One could argue that this is more authentic and less sweet than many of the other places that serve phở in Melbourne. While I won't say it's similar to the ones served in Hanoi which are more herbal, there's a lot of similarity to the Saigon phở. The food is undoubtedly good on four different levels. Firstly, for a place called "I Love Pho" - the phở better be good and it is. The soup is pretty good and tasty, and served at the right temperature and freshness. This is great and only to be expected if they want to do well based just on phở. The idea is, you can add the various condiments to it to your liking as well, which chillies and lemon. It is also not as intense as some other places where the soup might have been boiling a long time with beef bones being added throughout the day.
Steaming hot fresh noodles with tasty clear soup

Secondly, their ingredients are really fresh and this is really good because some places might have good soup but second grade meats. This place uses really great fresh meat.

Thirdly, they have a range of options with their meats - from your basic shredded chicken to beef tripe and everything in between in different combinations. This means that there is something to appeal to everyone's taste. The Special Beef Combination  (pictured right) has a wide range of meats from sliced meat to tendon to brisket to beef balls. For the hardcore fans, this is great.

Fourthly, they also offer a small range of other dishes like the requisite spring rolls, paper rolls and also beef stew. The spring rolls are fresh and tasty as well with a generous serve of lettuce.

The Service
The service here is not bad - better than most places that I have been too (though there was one slightly cranky staff member). The food all comes at about the same time and to be able to do this across both levels is a good thing. In addition, they are also very generous with their condiments and sides. I asked for extra lemon and they brought a whole one sliced up - which is more generous than most places I have been too. Pretty good in my books.

So, now, there are two places that I would go to for phở in Richmond. I am sure to return again and again as I do like it here and I like the set up though I would prefer to sit downstairs.

Cultural Moment
In a previous entry, I discussed phở briefly - which might be interesting for some of you, so there it is again.
In addition, there is a recognised difference between northern (Hanoian) and southern (Saigon) phở. I could go into it but I think it would be much better to go to those with more authority on this. So, I am going to redirect you to two great sources of information on the differences;


These are really interesting reads and if you want to know about the culture of phở. Enjoy!

Minh Tan 2 (Chinese and Vietnamese Restaurant)

192 Victoria St, Richmond, VIC 3121

Minh Tan 2 on Urbanspoon
How does one differentiate itself from some 30 other Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in the same stretch of street? One way is to offer something the others don't have - Yum Cha. However, if a restaurant does offer something different, that something needs to be good or it might tar the rest of the offerings from that very restaurant. Minh Tan 2 has survived on Victoria Street for a very long time, so, it must be doing something right.

The Place
This has the set up of a typical Cantonese Vietnamese Restaurant with the ducks and chickens hanging in the window, special item menu handwritten on pieces of colourful paper and pasted on the wall, overcoming any original decoration or wall paper or even mirror, take away section up the front. It has been around for a long time and is fully carpeted to help with sound insulation. However, I think it's time for fresh carpets. This is not a huge place and when it gets crowded, you will be sitting with your back against other diners (which can be annoying). It's not exactly child friendly but I have seen many parents negotiate their prams and high chairs in this place successfully with kids who have patiently sat there the entire meal - so maybe, I should say that it's not a great place for kids who want to run around and parents who like to let them do so. You'd do so at your own risk. Like all places on Victoria Street, you are looking for parking either onstreet or on the side streets, or undercover park at The Hive.

Things to do Nearby: It's Victoria Street, great to explore the shops here for Asian Groceries and Food. Alternatively IKEA and Victoria Gardens is a short 5 minute drive away.

The Food
Yummy Lotus Leaf Glutinuous Rice
The food from the ala carte menus is actually not bad and the BBQ meats are pretty good and reliable. There are a number of Cantonese dishes here that are comparable to any out there in Richmond. However, what I want to focus on are the yumcha offerings, which is not the norm on Victoria Street. It is also one of the cheaper yumcha places in Melbourne - most affordable.

First off, the Loh Mai Kai (Lotus Leaf Glutinuous Rice) is simply one of the tastiest in Melbourne. It is a generous portion, and comes with a chicken, chinese sausage, and roast pork. It has just the right level of salt. It is the traditional way to serve it without being overly greasy.

They also do a good Fried Prawn Roll which is golden and crispy. The prawns taste really fresh and I really enjoyed them, though I would have preferred this with mayo rather than plum sauce.
The other dim sums are ok but nothing to really rave about. However, I am pretty sure they do use quite a bit of MSG here because I was really thirsty afterwards. Nevertheless the main issue here wasn't about the quality of food but that with yumcha, they have a really limited range of offerings. They do have the staples and that's about it. Therefore, if you are expecting the full range of dim sum dishes, you might be disappointed. This is certainly not set up to be a full yumcha experience that many might have become accustomed to. It's reminds me more of a coffee shop yumcha like the ones in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, where they are famous for a few key dishes and that's it. In addition, they are not great at explaining what the key dishes are and so, you can expect some communication barriers in terms of ordering the dishes you want.

It certainly won't be my go to place for yumcha, though I reiterate, their Cantonese BBQ dishes do just fine.

The Service
The service is less than desirable. They really don't make much of an effort to explain how they work or to engage. It's what I would call indifferent service. They are not necessarily rude or anything - just uninterested. This is particularly annoying when they don't even explain their ordering system for yumcha. I wanted them to at least try - which they didn't. Most unfortunate.

While it's not the top of the list for yumcha, it's great for takeaway especially if you are looking for BBQ meat. They also have a range of pastries that you can takeaway - for me, that's the best way to partake in the food here without putting up with the service. For others, they are most likely to go to any of the other restaurants nearby that may make more of an effort.

Cultural Moment
What is it about bad service from places like these? Do they really genuinely not care about communicating with their customers or do they sincerely think that this is acceptable? There are so many places that do this in Melbourne, especially places that serve Cantonese food. It's almost a stereotype.

Firstly, having been to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia where there are similar restaurants, I have to say that it's not a cultural thing! There are all levels of service in SEAsia as one might expect. So, what is it about the places in Melbourne that are well known for this sort of service?

I think there are two main reasons; 1) There are some restaurants that are targeted at students, and they are low cost and have a clientale that's doesn't really care. They are there to just eat and run, and would themselves ignore the wait staff; 2) There are places where unless you speak their language, would make minimal contact and effort at trying to communicate in any way. This applies to the managers as well as their untrained wait staff. So, because most of their customers are people who speak their language, they are fine with serving them. However, the moment you have non-Cantonese speakers, the service level is reduced as a proxy for reduced communication. You have entered their World without knowing their rules. Live with it and if you don't like it... write a blog entry!

Friday 7 June 2013

Minang Nasi Padang (Indonesian Restaurant)

Pelham St And Swanston St, Carlton,VIC 3053

Minang Nasi Padang on Urbanspoon
This is a tiny Indonesian cafe that serves Nasi Padang, which is basically rice and a variety of Indonesian dishes from the bain-marie. This is the traditional way for serving nasi padang (which will be discussed in detail in the cultural moment section). However, Minang's offerings are relatively humble in that there's usually only about 8 - 10 choices of dishes whereas some places in Southeast Asia can have up to 25 choices. Not surprising as it's likely more popular in that region than in Melbourne. This restaurant started operations on Swanston Street (across from Nelayan, which was their main competitor) but never attracted much of a crowd. This seems to have changed since they moved to their current location, even though they now have Norsiah's Kitchen as their competitor around the corner. Admittedly, Norsiah serves quite a different style of food to Nelayan, which was more similar to Minang's - perhaps, that's why they have both successfully carved out their own territory and clientale.

The Place
This place is tiny and really squishy. It's an eat and run space or many choose the takeaway option. It's also not particularly comfortable here and other than keeping the place clean, there's not much further effort in maintaining an atmosphere for diners. Sometimes, small groups of students would dine here and have a chat but most people just leave as quickly as they come.

Things to do Nearby: This is very close to Lygon Street.

The Food
The food here is relatively yummy depending on what you choose. One thing I have to say. The food is authentic and it's what you would expect from good nasi padang cafes. However, that doesn't mean that the dishes would suit everyone. They always rotate their dishes unlike some of the other places that serve food from the bainmarie in the CBD. There's always variety and some days, you might find there are a number of dishes you want to try while other days, you might not be so sure.

The meals are usually $6.50 for three choices from the bainmarie on top of rice. It's pretty simple and basic. Yes, the serves are not big but it's $6.50. Very few places charge that sort of price.
On this day - none of the vegetables appealed to me
They will always have a range of curries, proteins, stirfry vegetables, something deep dried, and nuts! I love their roasted peanuts.

The Service
The service is unfailingly friendly and basic. They serve you food from the bain-marie, you pay and that's it. However, it is always very pleasing as they are always very friendly, and happy to explain what the dishes are. Also, given the limited seating, they are very good at clearing up very quickly after diners have left, so it's usually pretty clean.

If I am looking for a quick meal by myself, this is the perfect place. The servings are usually a bit small  but enough if I am not looking for too heavy a meal in the middle of the day.
Cultural Moment
Nasi Padang refers to the West Sumatran Indonesian cuisine. In fact, Padang is the capital of West Sumatra. This traces to the cuisine of the Minangkabau people of the region, influenced by Indian and Middle Eastern elements. Interestingly, even though they have come under Dutch administration for a number of years, this does not seem to have had a huge impact on their cuisine.

In terms of the food itself, there's quite a bit of coconut milk. Stur fries, and deep fried dishes are common. One of my impressions of this cuisine is that a lot of the dishes come in hues of orange, yellow and red - representing chillies and spices like tumeric, but also ginger and galangal.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Bali Bagus

85 Franklin St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Bali Bagus on Urbanspoon
This is cheaper Balinese food compared to the famous Warung Agus and Wantilan Bali. However, it's not just Balinese food despite the name - there's a fare whack of other Indonesian offerings on the menu. So, to begin with, this is a cafe - not a restaurant, and a bit of a student hangout. It's really good value for money and there's a good variety of dishes, so there's likely to be something for everyone. You basically order your food at the counter, and they bring it out to you. Grab your utensils and water and then wait for the food to come to you. It's also listed as a Halal restaurant though it does serve Bintang Beer.

The Place
This is a cafe with some nods of Balinese art work but it really is still just an eating hall with not a lot of atmosphere unless at lunch time, when there are lots of students around creating the buzz. It is relatively clean but there's nothing to write ome about. What I do like about it is that they don't try to squish the diners together and there's plenty of space here, even for big prams. Parking really depends on the day of the week but it can be a bit of a challenge on Franklin Street with shoppers and visitors to Queen Vic Market.

Things to do Nearby: Queen Vic Market is pretty close by (5 minute walk) and Melbourne Central is 7 minutes in the other direction.

The Food
There's a range of dishes here that's very appealing for those who like Indonesian spices. It's not a place that serves really hot chilli dishes but rely on a balance of spices and sauces. Like many Indonesian places, they do like their food to be a bit on the sweet side. So, even the spiced dishes have a level of sweetness to it.

The highlights for me have included the Iga Konro Bakar (Grilled Beef Ribs with Peanut Sauce, pictured above) is just beautiful (even though it comes with absolutely no veges). If you are into ribs, you need to try this but it's strictly and unapologetically carnivorous. The really basic but aromatic beef soup is also really tasty if you like that style of plain soups. Some people might like the satay sauce to be a bit crunchier but in this case, the smooth sauce works very well.

Fried Bakso as a side - 'surimi' meat balls - not pretty - and not that great
They also do good Stewed Sweet Beef Rendang, not as savoury and spicy like what I am used to but is certainly yummy to have as well with rice. I have also had the Mie Goreng Bali here which is pretty nice and reminds me of the ones served on the beaches of Legian in Bali (only twice the size).
Sambal Goreng Udang (Stirfried Prawns with Chilli Sauce)
Ayam Goreng Bumbu Bali (Fried Chicken with Balinese Sauce - a bit sweet for me)
So, in short, they do serve a range of Javanese and Balinese dishes including various 'Penyet' dishes. Penyet basically refers to 'flattened' and grilled proteins, very popular in parts of Indonesia.

The Service
Friendly counter service, supported by a quick efficient kitchen, that just gets the orders right. They keep the place clean and serve the food but don't really engage with diners. So, don't expect too much conversation. They tend to leave you to it.

What a great place for a quick value meal with a difference. Many of the dishes are under $10. There's really not a lot to complain about. Don't expect the restaurant quality food of the upmarket Balinese restaurants but expect hawker style Indonesian food and you will be fine. Finally and seriously - people complain about the lack of engaged service, sides, presentation and perfection. I don't know, for $10, I am happy that they are polite and smile at you when you order, I don't expect much more than that - maybe I have low standards.

Cultural Moment
Halal food is not easy to find in Melbourne but is actually more common that you think. The easiest way of course is to check out one of the two websites that list the places that do sell Halal food. The best thing though is also to verify with the outlets directly.

The two sites are;
Halal Melbourne (not an easy to navigate interface)
Halal Square (that covers all cities of Austalia)

Halal Square also includes bakeries, butchers, catering and a whole range of cuisines. I hope that that's a good resource for some of you out there.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Ghin Khao (Thai)

242 Swanston St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Ghin Khao on Urbanspoon
This restaurant is usually full in the evenings and even at lunch. Yet, it has a really low score on Urbanspoon with quite a bit of displeasure focused on the service and authenticity of the food. It is in a prime location on Swanston Street to attract passing trade, workers around the area, students and tourists. Perhaps it is just trading on location. However, I do know that the previous restaurant in this exact location didn't do as well because it was pitched at the wrong level. Ghin Khao has clearly got something right from the crowds it attracts. So, what is it all about?

The Place
Pretty Lights
This two level space is tastefully decorated and contemporary. It is an attractive looking restaurant though like many places in the area, they do seat the diners a bit too close to each other. However, it's no where near as squishy as some of the others withing 100 metres. It's not bad at all as far as sound insulation and ventilation goes. So, it's actually well set up across two levels. I have seen groups of up to 10 dining here with ease.

Things to do Nearby: Set right on Swanston Street where much of the action is, and a block away from QV in one direction, and Bourke Street Mall in the other, there's plenty to see.

The Food
Firstly the portions here are very generous and they don't hold back on relatively fresh ingredients. The food is actually not bad at all but it is watered down considerably for Australian tastebuds. This is not to say it doesn't have authentic flavours - all the basic tastes are still there but they don't have the intensity you might expect, if you are comparing it against the food in Thailand. Some would argue that the lack of intensity renders the food here inauthentic. Yet, having been a Thailand a number of times, I know that not all Thai dishes have to be that intense and not even all Thai places serve food with that sort of richness - which some might even accuse of being bland.

In fact, there're few things more authentic than a dish like Khao Pad Naem (see above) - which is Thai Fried Rice with Pickled Pork (or they call it fermented pork here which sounds just a tad unsavoury). This is one of the few Thai places in Melburne that serves this dish. Their version lacks a kick but the flavours are not bad at all so that even the novice will find the spice level very manageable.
Rather average Chicken Curry Puffs with Disappointing Peanut Sauce
Chiang Mai Noodles (with soft and crispy noodles) Yum but not for the vegetarians :)
The Service
This is where it all falls flat. This place doesn't have the expected friendly Thai service that one has come to expect. When they serve the food without even looking at you, it starts to grate badly. When it gets crowded, the pressure really gets to them and their service becomes very brusque, hurried and definitely non-personable. Also, they have trouble keeping track of who's sitting where so that when you want to pay the bill - it, usually takes longer than necessary. Finally, diners in the same group are very unlikely to get their food at the same time. So, unlinke most Thai restaurants where service leaves little to complain about, this place really doesn't seem to put in much of an effort - but with a location like this and the continued crowd, I am not sure they care.

I would go there when it is less busy to try a range of different dishes, and perhaps when they are under less pressure.

Cultural Moment
As they say on the menu, Ghin Khao literally translates to "Eat Rice" - a call to let others know it's meal time. In most Asian cultures, meal times are still family events and the traditional basic rituals are still very much intact. Mostly, it's set around inviting elders to eat, or waiting for them to start, and then inviting peers to eat. The call to eat, therefore, is not unusual and happens in most parts of Asia.

I am not going to write a piece here on dining etiquette - the fact is, it's different in different parts of Asia and maybe I'll do it at some point, but not here. For now, what's important is to remember to 'invite' hosts and elders to partake before you dig in, or even better, to wait for them to be seated and start. However, in some places, it's just as likely that the Host will want you to start and insist on it - go with the flow.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Rice Bar (Not only Rice)

121, Grattan St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Rice Bar Not Only Rice on Urbanspoon
What is in a name? I simply cannot work out how they came by their name... perhaps they think it might be an interesting talking point. This is one of those nominally Malaysian restaurants that offers generic Asian dishes from a range of countries from China to Indonesia to Singapore and of course, Malaysia. This is really targeted at students, though it does attract a good lunch time crowd from workers from the area. This is pretty no frills, and so, if you are expecting top quality, you need to just move on to the next restaurant. If you are looking for cheap and cheerful, then - check it out.

The Place
This is a squishy space and there's a likelihood of diners getting to know more about fellow diners than they need. This is a serious case of eating side by side with strangers, especially during peak periods. Then, you have to try and get out and weave through the limited space too. Not easy. So, it does get noisy. This is really not a great place for children because of the limited space, unless if you want to sit outside, by Grattan Street - in which case you have to watch them, or put them on a leash.

Things to do Nearby: Lygon Street is really close by.

The Food
There are hundreds of offerings here but the question is, do they do it well? I don't know that they actually do a bad job of it all though nothing really stands out. Yet, it does continue to attract a good crowd. So, it is a mediocre restaurant with a range of some good dishes while others are less stellar. There is not a whole lot of pride (in my opinion) in their presentation, given the speed at which the food comes out.

Rice Bar Special Beef Brisket on Rice - the veg was cold
The speed at which they bring out the food is pretty amazing, which basically means that you have to expect a proportion of pre-cooked food. It's that kind of restaurant. There's a range of SEAsian dishes here that are not bad, but there are no real stand outs. In fact, the one disappointment is that they have taken my favourite dish off their menu - Hakka Stewed Pork with Black Fungus. Very sad.

Other mainstays of SEAsian dishes include Hainanese Chicken Rice, Char Kway Teow, Curry Noodles, Nasi Lemak, Tom Yum Soup, Laksa, Kung Bao Chicken, various Fried Rice.

The Service
The service is basic and really efficient. The food does come out really quickly though not in order that suits all the diners at the table at the same time. They don't make a huge effort with the casual diner, though if you are a Cantonese speaker and a regular, they might step it up a bit and be friendlier. Otherwise, don't expect any engagement.

I would go there ocassionally when I am looking for a quick no fuss meal. I think that these sorts of restaurants have a place in Melbourne, because there is always a demand for cheap and cheerful, with relatively tasty

Cultural Moment
Dining with strangers is not everyone's cup of tea. Dining with strangers, who are speaking at the top of their voices, is definitely not pleasant. However, this is more common practice than you think in many parts of  Asia. It's probably less popular here in Australia as culturally, we do like our space and privacy.

However, many of the Asian restaurants have probably not actually factored for this and assumed that diners here are just going to behave in the same manner as those back in Asia. Their target audience is clearly international students from those nations that are used to this. The risk of course, is the annoyance from the wider group of diners that would struggle with this.

For me, if I am dining alone, this can provide interesting entertainment for the 30 minutes or so you are there. You learn all sorts of things about people's attitude toward just about anything under the sun, from politics, to the Universities, to 'manhunting' (from a group of girls), to the quality of food.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Boundary Espresso

107 Plenty Road, Preston, VIC 3072

Boundary Espresso on Urbanspoon
So, ocassionally I do a blog of a cafe/restaurant that's not Asian but offers the occasional Asian-inspired dish. Boundary Espresso is one of those but really only has a couple of dishes in this category. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the dishes that much that it deserves an entry here. From its name, it seems that coffee is the big thing but since I am no coffee drinker, I am just going to focus on the food and the tea here is great too.

The Place
This is a tiny place that can seat no more than 22 inside at a squeeze, though there are a few tables outside too. There are some tiny tables and a long table that seats up to 6. It's a nice little corner cafe and the parking is on the streets that surround it.

Things to do Nearby: There's not a lot to do nearby but a short drive will take you to the Preston Shops and Markets.

The Food
So we're here to talk about the "Asian coleslaw" which is in two of their dishes, the Asian Style Salad and Baked Eggs, and Pide with Smoked Chicken and Asian Coleslaw. This is more a Vietnamese style salad (but with wombok rather than cabbage as the base).
The Pide with Smoked Chicken and Asian Coleslaw (with a side of Roquette) 
Baked Eggs with a huge serve of the Asian Salad (with smoked tofu)
The freshness of the salad is undeniable and it's also got an amazing lime based dressing. Just beautiful, and balanced out with crunchy peanuts and shallots. If you love nuts in your salad, this comes with a generous serve of them. Then there's the smoked proteins (chicken in the pide, and five spiced dense tofu in the salad), which may or may not be to your taste but the highlight is the salad.

The Service
This place is well run and efficient, with very welcoming friendliness. It's a pretty relaxed atmosphere and they make every effort to see to your needs, while making do with the small space they have. Just what you need in the morning. In fact, I observed them dealing with slightly difficult customers, all with a smile.

I shall be back! There are other things (non-Asian) I can't wait to try, including the Chorizo baked eggs, Mushroom with truffle oil, and green eggs with ham. All sound so good.

Cultural Moment
So... was the salad really Asian? Have you seen Margaret Cho's Asian Chicken Salad video? It's hilarious.
In my books, it certainly is, with it's fresh balance of sesame, lime and peanuts. It's really yummy - and just reminiscent of Vietnamese salad dressings. It's great to see Asian flavours taken in a new direction. So, this is a great addition to the area.

So, what is the difference between Westernised Asian dishes and Asian-Inspired dishes?

I think that Westernised Asian dishes are those that take an original Asian dish and twist it to the point that the flavours are either watered down or have lost their core balance. On the other hand, Asian-Inspired dishes are those that take the core Asian balance of flavours and apply them to different dishes and in different combinations. Would you agree?