Wednesday 31 July 2013

Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam

295 Racecourse Rd, Kensington, VIC 3031

Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam on Urbanspoon
In a highly competitive area because there are four Malaysian restaurants of relatively good quality (including the icon that is Laksa King), this restaurant is usually the least full of the four, possibly because it is a larger restaurant. This doesn't mean that it is not a good restaurant... just that competition is pretty stiff in the area.

The Place
This is a pleasant enough space and large enough so that you don't have to share tables and be forced to listen to the conversations of strangers with their backs against yours. It's certainly the most spacious of the Malaysian restaurants within the 400m radius. There is some attempt to create an ambiance with various objects that might remind one of Malaysia. It's definitely a child friendly place, including having clean high chairs should you need them. When it gets busy, there's usually a buzz here without overwhelming noisiness.

Things to do Nearby: The shops of Racecourse Road in Kensington during the day but that's about it.

The Food
The food is not bad but nor is it a stand out. Admittedly, I have not tried its main differentiator from the other Malaysian offerings in the area - the Crab dishes. Partly, this is because I can't be bothered and I just haven't got round to it. I might be wrong but one of the things that clearly stands out here is their portion sizes. I think it's the biggest compared to the other Malaysian places in the area. I could barely finish my lunch. The Nasi Lemak (pictured right) itself was pretty good and I loved that they had generous portions of achar (pickled vegetables), and peanuts with fried anchovies. The let-down for me, was the Chicken Curry which was basically overpowered by the star anise they used too liberally in a very Chinese curry.

The Wat Dan Hor (below) on the other hand was really tasty though they definitely have a more Kuala Lumpur style with darker soya sauce in this dish, rather than the lighter style of Ipoh and even Penang. For some, this is not authentic - for me - I was very full and happy at the end.
The Service
They do have very friendly service and highly obliging. Probably the second best service amongst the 4 Malaysian places in the area. It is pretty good though the only thing that sets them back slightly is probably their food knowledge of Malaysian dishes is slightly below par, unlike the confidence of the wait staff at Grand Tofu.

I think I would go there occasionally when the other places are really full. The thing about the 4 Malaysian places here is this - you really just need to know your own taste and preferences. All 4 have some very similar dishes but cook them somewhat differently. For example, they all do Hainanese Chicken Rice... but who has the best one? The jury is still out on that one but I like Chef Lagenda because they have the Roast Chicken option. That's just one of the dishes - we could have a debate around it till the chickens are cooked... One day I might compare the various dishes across each of the 4 Malaysian restaurants.

Cultural Moment
Some people ask "How can one place sustain so many Malaysian restaurants?" Ummmm... "How can a tiny suburb sustain 3 pubs?". They might be alluding to the idea that such an exotic cuisine might not attract enough customers to sustain 4 'similar' restaurants but a pub? Everybody here drinks!

However, that's just the point, I think that Malaysian cuisine is no longer considered "exotic" especially when you are looking at a city like Melbourne. Dare I say, most people must have tried some Malaysian food in the past and might be able to name at least a couple of Malaysian dishes. Perhaps, Malaysian food hasn't quite reached the status of Italian food or Vietnamese food yet, here in Melbourne (where you can have a whole street of Italian or Vietnamese restaurants and have them all do quite well). However, I think it must be getting close in places like Flemington, Springvale, Glen Waverly and Clayton.

This is the joy of Melbourne - that you can have enough choice amongst the various cuisines, even the 'exotic ones', and have them all do well so they can all challenge each other to do better. How lucky are Melbournians!

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Roll'd Goldsbrough Lane

Shop TG10, Goldsbrough Lane, 181 William Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Roll'd CBW on Urbanspoon
This is a simple effective concept, taking popular and healthy Vietnamese dishes and making it really quick, no fuss and easily accessible. It is more expensive that your average Vietnamese restaurant even though it is essentially a takeaway joint. Goes to show what a bit of marketing and upmarket feel can do for any eating place, staffed by young English speaking confident young people - it just attracts people in droves, who don't feel they need to decipher complicated menus with a 1000 dishes. Yet, in this part of the CBD, it doesn't have a lot of Vietnamese competition, so it continues to thrive.

The Place
Limited space to sit outside the restaurant, on Goldsbrough Lane itself. Most people takeaway back to their offices for lunch. It is pretty no frills and easily accessible - not a space for a long lunch or meeting.

Things to do Nearby: This is the CBD with gift shops all around. Southern Cross Shopping Precinct is about 5 minutes walk away.

The Food
Basic Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls that you would find in many Vietnamese Restaurants. Fresh and healthy. I have seen them start rolling these up from about 8am in the morning. They have a lot pre-prepared as there is usually a huge crowd. Variations are not possible as they are pre-prepared and kept cold. Thick rolls filled with various ingredients and vermicelli. The one problem is that their sauces come in really small containers that are difficult to dip the thick rolls in. There's just not elegant way to eat these.

Some might find the rolls a bit bland because they only use the basic ingredients, including your choice of protein, lots of plain vermicelli and some cucumber, carrot and coriander. It's the sauce and protein that's important. As far as rolls go, they are no worse or better than the average Vietnamese Rice Paper rolls. In fact, I like that they use the thinner rice paper that still holds together after the first bite. They are however more pricey.

I have also had their Pho which is average and basically consist of sliced beef or chicken breast. Just very basic pho without being adventurous. It's the typical Saigon style sweeter soup, that's not bad for fast food but again, more expensive than your average Vietnamese joint. It won't be my go to place for Pho though.

The Service
This is basic service where you order at the counter and wait for your food. Basic self service with a good bunch of staff who know what they are doing and get the food out relatively quickly. The quickest things to order would be the rolls. If you want noodles, it takes more time of course. It's friendly service and I think that's part of the attraction.

I would go there if I am looking for a quick Vietnamese lunch and need something fast, easy and healthy, AND if I am in the area. Otherwise, 3 blocks away, there's a range of Vietnamese restaurants on Swanston Street that are cheaper and have similar quality food.

Cultural Moment
Rice Paper Rolls can do for Vietnamese Cuisine what Sushi Rolls have done for Japanese Cuisine, and Spring Rolls has done for Cantonese Cuisine. It's easily accessible, fresh and yummy and can be eaten on the run. On the positive side, these rolls can introduce people to Vietnamese Cuisine in a simple way, that is not too challenging for those who have never had it before. It also provides a great alternative to fast food, or food on the run. On the negative side, I have already started seeing people put "peking duck" into Vietnamese Rolls and passing it off as Vietnamese. This is a California Sushi Roll moment. As people start to mix cuisines, the originals sometimes get forgotten and knowledge becomes very diluted.

I once met someone who said he loved sushi, but then I very quickly realised that what he knew as sushi was simply California Roll - so the heap of actual sushi that I had ordered for us - well... he didn't like any of it, so what do you think? I ate it all of course!

The point is, as innovations are introduced to popular parts of the cuisine, it's important to take note of the classics as well. It's probably important not to pass off innovations as the original because misrepresentation of the cuisine happens way too much. This is not to say that innovations are not good - like having Vietnamese Rolls with mayo - but seriously - if you think you're going to get that in Vietnam, you'll be surprised.

Monday 15 July 2013

Grand BBQ Target Centre

Target Centre, 236 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

The Grand BBQ on Urbanspoon
This is a food hall outlet with a grand name. It is the perfect place for a quick meal if you are in the middle shopping - it's not fine dining and not even casual dining - to me, it's quick dining - just above fast food dining.

The Place
It's in a mall and has its own section - essentially very much like a food hall. There's no atmosphere, it's an eat and go place. You have to fight for a space at busy lunch times and squeeze in with everyone else. It's probably better to takeaway but there's not a lot of places to sit down and eat nearby.

Things to do Nearby: This is in Target Centre - so, for shoppers, this is a place to stop for a quick meal. It's also near Bourke Street Mall.

The Food
The best things on the menu are the BBQ meats. The quality of the noodles is good and it's generally good Chinese BBQ. Therefore, any of the BBQ meats in your favourite combinations with noodles (dry or soup) or rice would work pretty well up to about 3pm. However, everything else is pretty average because of the limited cooking space, some of their dishes are going to have to be pre-cooked and then microwaved. As for the Yong Tofu - well others have written about the MSG laden soup and that's quite true here and the pieces are not fantastic in any case though it's one of the few that does serve Yong Tofu in the area.

The Service
There is none. You order at the counter, pick up your own cutlery and tea and minmalist condiments. Find a seat yourself and then go pick up your meal when your number is shouted out. It is what you would expect from a food hall and so, as long as you are aware of that and accept it, you'll be fine. They could improve on their friendliness though and perhaps be better and more gracious in helping out when requested.

Again - if I am after a quick meal in the middle of a busy day and I am dining alone - this is perfect but not for much else... definitely not for big groups or for traveling with pram.

Cultural Moment
Standards standards standards... there are some of the public reviewers on Urbanspoon and other similar sites that set a pretty high bar for all the restaurants they review - even the food hall type places. In addition, they tend to hold all these restaurants to the faded memories of the best restaurants back in the origin country of the food. So, whether they have come from those countries or have visited those countries, there are those who will say "It's not as good as in Country X".

I have to admit - I struggle quite a bit with that kind of sentiment and review. Firstly, I think it's grossly unfair to hold all restaurants to the same standard (and if you are paying food hall prices - you really have no call to expect restaurant level service). This is not to say you can't expect good food but I think contextualisation is everything here.

Secondly, I think it's also not right to expect restaurants in Melbourne to serve food to the exact replication of the best of the food back in the origin country. Why not? Well, because the ingredients are different, don't people realise that meats taste different in different parts of the world because of the way they are farmed, produced and reproduced? So, you are never going to get the exact replica across all countries where they source their meats from difference parts of the world.

Thirdly, many compare the average food outlet here to their favourite outlet in Country X. The reality is if you compare the average to the average - you won't get much of a difference. There's probably a lot more authentic and nice outlets in Country X, but also probably just as many that serve bad to average food. So, when you say, it's not as good as 'back home' - have you actually thought through what you are saying? Again, it's all about contextualisation.

Anyway, that's enough of a rant. Suffice to say, I have had bad food in all parts of Asia and the reality is, some are worse than the ones in Melbourne.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Bento King

832 Swanston St, Carlton, VIC 3053

Bento King on Urbanspoon
Despite its name which alludes to grandeur - place is definitely a student joint - it's cheap and cheerful, lacks real effort in service though they are not rude, and really basic food. There are many other places around The Uni of Melbourne which are student eateries that make a lot more effort. What it has is location because its situated near all the student colleges. Therefore, don't be expecting anything flash at all.

The Place
It's a cheery place with lovely lanterns that create a pretty picture, especially at night. It's a clear restaurant and usually a bit too cold in winter as it's a relatively open space. As far as basic eateries go, it's a simple space with pretty lights. Forget about parking here but I suspect you won't be driving here just for this place.

Things to do Nearby: Lygon Street is close by and there's the Potter Gallery at the University which is diagonal to this space.

The Food
They serve basic average Japanese food with not particular nods to authenticity. It would be hard to differentiate it from the many Japanese food hall type foods. That's not to say that it is horrible food - it just depends on what you are looking for. There's really nothing to rave about but then, for under $10, one really cannot expect an earth shattering experience either. It's just very basic and many students would argue that it's value for money that's really important here. They have a range of bento boxes and their rice bowls come in 2 sizes, which to me indicates that they really know their student diners rather well.
Small Tonkatsu and Miso Soup
The Service
The service is basic and you order at the counter and they bring the food to you. They are relatively friendly and rather pleasant, which is a plus for a student eatery. Other than taking your order and bringing you your food, there's usually not interest in further engagement.

It's clearly a student joint and given there are so many in the area, it continues to face stiff competition from the likes of Don Tojo and others. It is however, closest to the high density student colleges up the top of Swanston Street.

Cultural Moment
The Bento Box which is one of the most popular way to serve Japanese in the Western World also exists in Japan, in many takeaway places. These pre-packaged meals never fail to look good and appetising but in reality, the quality is of varying standard and you generally get what you pay for in Japan. The more expensive ones tend to be of higher quality and the ones that you buy off the little stalls at the smaller train stations are pretty basic in flavour and if you don't have access to a microwave oven, you're in for a cold meal. It is at the very core a 'packed lunch', and might come in elaborate hand-painted lacquerware or even basic styro-foam or disposable bamboo trays.

The basic component is of course, rice but beyond that, you will find whole varieties of ingredients/dishes to go with the rice. Sometimes, it may include fruits, or other desserts, various kinds of veg or salad, and a main protein. There's a lot of resources online that will be able to provide more information about bento boxes.

Friday 12 July 2013

Chocolate Buddha

Federation Square,  2 Swanston St Melbourne, VIC 3000

 Chocolate Buddha on Urbanspoon
This is prime location and has the potential to be an amazing restaurant. However, there are no queues there unless if there's a big festival at Fed Square. Therefore the 70% score from only about 700 raters, for such a prime location restaurant is not a healthy sign. Yet, I have been there a number of times despite the low score, so, why is the score so low? Having been there previously for a number of years and again just in early February 2014, it's a testament perhaps, to the changing nature of this restaurant from great to mediocre to great food, and varying standards of service over the years.

The Place
Great outdoor seating
Other than its prime location, Chocolate Buddha is also a beautifully appointed restaurant with really tasteful beautiful deco. The large tables work really well too. It is a great setting and even the outside seats from Fed Square and the sun (when its there) which suits some people really well. It is also relatively child friendly though this doesn't mean you don't have to watch them - lots of steps etc around. It is an agile space that suits group dining, casual dining, family dining (outside in particular) and romantic dining. Very few restaurants can achieve this all that well, and Chocolate Buddha's setting is one of those few rare places that strikes the right balance to be able to do that.

Things to do Nearby: ACMI and Fed Square, or a walk along the river, or across the river to the Arts Precinct. The Forum Theatre is nearby too.

The Food
The highlights for me at Chocolate Buddha are the Japanese influenced desserts. The Green Tea and Azuki Ice Creams are great tasting. The Tempura Banana is Banana Fritter supreme and probably one of the nicest way to have it, especially with the Azuki Ice Cream.

In terms of mains, I do like the range of ramens served here - they are not strictly speaking, traditional flavours and have a pretty contemporary twist. However, the soups are not as rich as the best ramens in Melbourne, almost as if they have thrown too many flavours together and nothing really stands out. However, it is still pretty good but not what you would expect if you are used to traditional ramen soups.

The sashimi and rolls (kingfish variety pictured below) are pretty fresh but probably some of the most expensive in Melbourne, again because of its prime location. They also do a contemporary twist with all their rolls, so don't expect your run of the mill classics.
Yummmmmmy lotus root chips with mayo.
Light well marinated pork belly with spring onions

The Service
Between 2010 and 2013, service was what I would call efficiency with attitude. There is a too cool for school feeling about it all here and I always thought I was the only one who felt that way until my friend Paul brought it up too (Thanks Paul!). Maybe, I am just not hip enough or cool enough for them but certainly, I would feel more welcome if they actually came across as more friendly.

However, the last time I went in early 2014, I wasn't any more hip (possibly even more daggy) but the service was really polite, attentive and friendly without losing efficiency. It made me want to go back. What a huge turnaround!

Overall, given the setting and quite good quality food, if I am in a group and in the area, I would go to Chocolate Buddha. Where once, it would not my first go to place in Fed Square and I might have tried it out once or twice a year to track how it is going, now I am actually looking forward to my next visit! For some, this might be too expensive an experiment, but if you do your research properly and know what you are in for, this might turn out to be a nice experience at the Square.

Cultural Moment
I don't particularly like Asian desserts (other than Malay cakes, and Chinese pastries) but I am always pleasantly surprised by Asian influenced desserts. My favourites are Asian flavoured ice creams, and Asian flavoured gateau and mousse.

However, here are some of my favourite Asian desserts;
A variety of Malay steamed cakes that are really moist and richly flavoured. They tend to be rather sweet too, so you can probably only have small slices each time (though it doesn't stop me). My favourite ones include Kueh Lumut (Moss Cake), Kueh Lapis (Layer Cake) of various flavours (especially the ones with haw flakes), Kueh Sarang (Nest Cake of various varieties, including the Malaysian ones, the Vietnamese Pandan variety), and a special nod to Surabaya's Kueh Ambon (which is also a type of Nest / Honeycomb Cake).

A variety of Peranakan (Nyonya) desserts such as Seri Kaya (Kueh Salat, with glutinuous rice), Bingka Ubi (Tapioca Cake),  Ondeh Ondeh (sweet potato flour cake with Malacca Sugar syrup). The other favourite from Malaysia and Singapore is the traditional Pineapple Tarts and lastly, Ice Kachang and Ice Chendol (the last two comes with copious amounts of red beans)

Japanese Green Tea Sponge Cake is a fantastic addition to the group, and green tea as a flavour has been known to influence many international p√Ętisserie chefs. Also, azuki (red bean) paste or ice cream is always a love of mine. In terms of other ice cream flavours I like from Asia, there is sweet corn, lychee, soursop, coconut, and also attap chee (nipa palm fruit).

Shanghainese Pancakes, which are basically crispy pastry wrapped around red bean paste has been something I loved from my home cuisine, since I was about five years old. Finally, there's the Sesame Red Bean Ball which you can get at yumcha, which is essentially red bean paste in a glutinuous rice flour deep fried and covered with sesame seeds - the main ingredient being red bean, which I love.

It is definitely a shorter list than the western desserts that I love.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Rice Paper Vietnamese Restaurant

245 Swanston Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Rice Paper Vietnamese Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Set between two well established Vietnamese Noodle Houses on Swanston Street, this relatively newcomer (since late 2010) seems to be holding its own. I think that like many of the restaurants on this part of Swanston Street, it survives on passing trade rather than a loyal clientale. It's difficult to stand out in the midst of so much competition.

The Place
There's nothing to rave or complain about. Like many similar places, they seat diners very close to each other and although it does create a buzz, it can lead to awkward conversations or people looking at what others are eating a bit too closely. It feels like a well used place and is usually busy in the evenings. They haven't made much of an effort at creating an ambience and it almost feels like parts of the deco are left over from the previous occupier. Nevertheless, the moveable chairs and tables makes it easy for different group sizes and prams.

Things to do Nearby: Right in the heart of Swanston Street and round the corner from QV on one side the Bourke Street Mall on the other side, as well as Chinatown closeby.

The Food
This is not bad food but nothing to really rave about. It is pretty average, especially the rice noodle soups.  The pictures at the front of the restaurant certainly looked really attractive but I didn't order any of the fried foods, so will have to try it out next time.In fact the sliced beef was somewhat chewy, which is unfortunate. They were generous with the noodles but I could not finish the noodles and would have preferred more soup instead. The soup itself was just so so, tending towards sweetness. So, all in all, it's a bit hit and miss.
Beef Satay Stirfry (Vietnamese Chinese Style)

The Service
The service is polite and not rude, which is good. It's one of the places where you write down your order on a slip of paper for them, which minimises interaction a bit. They are good about various request for extra lemon slices for my soup. It's a pretty efficient place too with all the dishes coming together so all diners of the group can start their respective meals together.

It is not necessarily my go-to place, so, I am not a convert. There are heaps of places around, and though I might go back to try out some of the other dishes, it won't be in a hurry. As readers know, I love raving about places that are good - this is not the case here. However, I am not complaining either - it's all just average for me.

Cultural Moment
The Vietnamese came to Australia in large numbers towards the end of and after the Vietnam War (1975 - 1983), and represent the largest movement of Asian populations into Australia since the Gold Rush. They came into an Australia which was just coming out of the White Australia Policy. In that 40 odd years and across 2 - 3 generations, they have had quite a turbulent time in Australia with some spectacular highs and lows. It's an amazing story, part of which is documented in the Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta.

Some of the greatest achievements come in the form of our most prominent Vietnamese Australians across different levels of society. The ones I am aware of include;
Anh Do - Popular comedian, actor and author.
Tan Le - Former Young Australian of the Year (1997) and entrepreneur
Luke Nguyen - Celebrity Chef
Nam Le - Author of "The Boat"
Natalie Tran - Youtube Celebrity
Quan Yeomans - Band member of Regurgitator
Huy Truong - Wishlist and Jurlique Businessperson
In the mix, are also heartbreaking stories of crime and pain. It's a rich history in a short 40 years, characterised by the fight for their rights, the amazing achievements, their loss and struggle with integration, their interaction with the wider community, and even their withdrawal from that same community. It's a study in interaction and integration between cultures - and yet, at the end of the day - it's the stories of the individuals that matter most.

It's also the diverse stories of refugees who have to leave their country and start over in another - what they need is compassion and help - not derision and contempt.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Shark Fin Inn

52 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Shark Fin Inn on Urbanspoon
In most Western cities of the world, the best yumcha would often be found around the Chinatown area. In Melbourne, it's a bit different because the city is peppered with good yumcha offerings from west to east, and north to south. We are so very lucky. Yet, this is not to say that there aren't good yumcha places in Melbourne's Chinatown, just that they have healthy competition from the suburbs. Shark Fin Inn is one of those places in Chinatown that have been around for a while. It's sister branch, Shark Fin House is just a block away (and is the one that usually has queues waiting to get in weekend mornings). From its name, you know that this place was not founded recently, when the consumption of sharkfin has been frowned upon... it's been around since 1980. This is the original restaurant of the Shark Fin group. This restaurant was also awarded best yumcha by a radio program recently - but I'll be the judge of that!

The Place
In my opinion, this is a nicer space than Shark Fin House down the road because it simple has more space, and you are not sitting too closely next to strangers. Across both levels, you get a feeling of space. However, being the original restaurant with little refurbishment since 1980, the decorations are a bit dated, though not completely unacceptable. For example, on the ground floor, most of the deco are the framed up restaurant awards they have received since in the 1980s. I just think that for a restaurant of its calibre, it could do with a bit of sprucing up to give it a more contemporary feel.

It is a relatively child-friendly space though not good if they run around. It has 'private room dining space' that's a bit separate from the main dining space but still open, and a generally congenial atmosphere. Parking is always a pain in the city of course.

Things to do Nearby: This is up the top of Little Bourke Street, closer to the theatre precinct and Parliament House and Treasury Gardens. It's really the start of Chinatown up the top of Little Bourke Street.

The Food
The food is traditional yumcha and the offerings are pretty standard. Most of it is tasty and fresh, though not always at the perfect hot temperature. This is largely because they don't use the steam bath carts that most yum cha places have. They tend to use conventional trays, so the food does cool down quite quickly. The good news too is that I didn't feel thirsty even after the very satisfying meal, which means, they probably don't use too much MSG, if at all.

Chicken Feet, Stewed Eggplant, Beancurd Roll, Glutinuous Rice
The highlights for me were the Chicken Feet (Phoenix Claws) - they were truly tender and yummy. I really enjoyed them. The Glutinuous Fried Rice was not bad, as it was still moist unlike some other places. If you like dried shrimp, they serve it with lashing of it, the way the SEAsians love it.
Pork Dumplings (Siu Mai) and BBQ Pork Pastry (Char Siew Sou)

Seafood Tofu and Prawn Rolls

The Pork Dumplings and BBQ Pork Pastry were not bad, though I had more to my taste elsewhere. The Pork Dumplings were not very juicy and it contained a prawn that was not all that fresh.

The BBQ Pork Pastries were good though the BBQ pork inside was very sweet - some would really like that - I prefer it a bit more savoury.

The Prawn Rolls were fabulous... so yummy and juicy. However, they used the harder styled tofu in the Seafood Tofu, which doesn't work as well in my opinion.

The Service
The service is one of the nicest and best in Chinatown. They are well trained and take time to attend to your needs. They are also not too pushy but very helpful in suggesting dishes you might like, and actually one of the only places that pays attention to what you have already had, instead of offering you the same thing over and over and over again. It is a real pleasant experience, even when it got really hectic. I am really impressed with how well they pay attention to the needs of customers.

I like taking guests here as it is not too hectic and crazy, while the food is still pretty good. Although I don't think it's the best yumcha in Melbourne, it's certainly above average. So, amongst all the places in Chinatown, it's one of the better ones in my opinion.

Cultural Moment
Queueing - it's not a strong point in many parts of Asia (Japan is the definite exception). So, even in Australia - it seems many who originate from Asia also bring that trait along with them. I know I have become comepletely Australianised because I get upset at people not queueing. This was certainly the case here while waiting to get into Shark Fin Inn.

In so many parts of Asia, Asians just jump in, even when there's obviously a queue, every body seems to think they have a good reason for jumping ahead and pushing in. I guess when you have so many people in a limited space, he/she who is loudest wins. There just isn't a queueing culture in many parts of Asia, unless if you are in a place where you have to take a number.

So, today at Shark Finn Inn, there were a lot of people just barging in, ahead of others who had arrived first and were waiting for the restaurant to open. There wasn't a moment where they looked around and wonder why everyone was standing around - they just pushed in ahead to try to get in anyway. You can see the attitude is different - so how do you deal with a situation like this? You pushed ahead too, politely but nevertheless, you push ahead to get service. We certainly did that the moment the restaurant opened or risk waiting for everyone to jump in ahead who had arrived later (even though we had booked ahead). It's all good - no need to get frustrated, just as long as you understand the context.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Mr Nice Guy

Shop J, Little Lonsdale St. (Healeys Lane) Melbourne, VIC 3000
Mr. Nice Guy on Urbanspoon
This has been one of the most enjoyable dining experience I have had recently! Having anticipated this visit for a number of weeks, I was trying not to get my hopes up to high in case I started to expect too much. Well! I had nothing to fear. The atmosphere, service, and food were great and my only regret was I couldn't eat more. This is a licensed restaurant with contemporary Thai cuisine. If you are looking for classical Thai, you are barking up the wrong tree. If you are looking for something innovative dishes with Thai sensibility, this is the one for you. I can't wait to try the other dishes. So, in short, I will be back for more.  
The Place
The place has a funky vibe, supported by funky music. It has a great atmosphere and buzz. It is tastefully decorated with quirky lights and great colours, making the place look really bright and cheery without being tacky. It is well set up with just enough space between diners, and has pleasantly big tables.

It would also be a relatively child friendly space with enough room for prams. Parking is of course, a pain in this part of town especially during the day, but I suspect that day diners would already be in the city, and if you are coming in specially for dinner, there should be parks on Lonsdale most evenings.
Things to do Nearby: This is not far from Flagstaff Gardens, Southern Cross Shops and also Melbourne Central is only about 10 minutes away.   The Food The contemporary dishes here are really tasty with great balances of Thai flavours. The portion size are also pretty big and so, while it is more expensive than your suburban Thai, it is certainly worth it. The Mushroom Spring Rolls (pictured below) for entree was also a touch of genius because it is so flavoursome and unexpected. The crunchy spring rolls on the outside with moist mushrooms in the middle, served with thick sweet chilli sauce was a great start to the meal. It is served with a fresh bean shoots, cilantro salad with a chilli lime dressing.  
The highlight of my experience was definitely the Mr Nice Guy Famous Chicken (with Spicy Cauliflower, Leek and Jus), which was been poached in coconut juice and oven baked to perfect SEAsian tenderness. This means that the chicken is cooked just enough and might still be a bit red at the bone... come on! It's perfectly fine! Millions of SEAsians eat their chicken like this everyday and survive just fine. The spicy cauliflower had a great kick to it and the leek balances the crunchiness of the cauliflower nicely. Finally, the savoury jus provided just the perfect finishing touch, and I wanted to just drink it up!
Whole chicken with the jus on the side
The Som Tum here is of the variation that uses peanuts and relies on a balance of fresh flavours. The twist here is that they add a protein of your choice to it to make it more of a meal on its own. However, what it also does is to add another whole layer of flavour to the som tum... some yum!
Som Tum with Pork Belly, and Sticky Rice on the side
The Service Unfailingly friendly and attentive service, personable engagement with diners, and dishes that are served in a timely manner. There's really not anything I could complain about because even compared to the usual excellent polite and friendly service you would get at many Thai restaurants, this one still stands a head above. Well done and I hope it continues as the restaurant gets busier.    

I look forward to going again and really enjoyed my first outing. I would recommend it to all my friends. The only thing they probably need to work on a bit is the ventilation as the kitchen is in the same space as the dining area and like all places with that sort of set up, one might come out smelling like the kitchen if the ventilation is not quite right.    

Cultural Moment
Som Tum is your classic Green Papaya Salad which is one of the more famous Thai dishes around the globe. Not all som tums are created equal. Of course there are a number variations around Thailand but also in Laos and Cambodia. Some people are going to claim that the som tums you find in Melbourne are not authentic. That is strictly speaking, not true at all.   Back in Thailand, there are versions of som tum which are served with lashings of dried prawns and anchovies, or with brine preserved raw crab meat. Let's just say it does get pretty intense and it's not for everyone. These are also served with really hot bird's eye chillies. Even Mum who loves spicy food finds the raw crab meat in brine a bit too full on. Needless to say, I prefer the more tame balance of fresh flavours, typical of the som tums served around Melbourne.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Ruby Thai

837 High Street, Thornbury, VIC 3071

Ruby Thai Restaurant on Urbanspoon
A newcomer to High Street, Thornbury and a welcome entrant in my opinion. It's still very quiet and they do brisk takeaway and delivery trade. It's no wonder as the food is pretty good. I am looking forward to visiting more to try the range of dishes on offer. This is a licensed restaurant.

The Place
This is a small place that seats about 30. Although it's small, there's actually quite a bit of space and they don't cramp their diners together which makes for a pleasant change. However, as a result, it oddly feels like there is a lot of empty space. I would classify the deco as contemporary with an ocassional nod to Thai artwork. It's a simple set up and I think just needs time to sort out how to use the space.

Things to do nearby: Due to the fact that the restaurant is only open for dinner - there's not a lot to do around here.

The Food
For a first visit, I am highliy optimistic and am looking forward to trying more dishes. I was impressed with the Curry Puffs (pictured below in the background) above all else. You know how sometimes, when you go to Thai restaurants, their Curry Puff has more air and curry inside the pastry? This is certainly not the case here. The serving portions are generous and there are chunks of minced meat and potato in this. This is the real deal - maybe they will eventually serve it with peanut sauce rather than the extremely sweet sauce at the moment - that would make it perfect.

The Deep Fried Wontons (above in the foreground) and the Wonton Soup (pictured below), with generous lashings of vegetables were also winners, with very generous servings and lots of meat in the wontons. Yummy. I have also had the Tom Kha (with chicken) which is not bad though I like mine with more sourness generally.

Gang Keow Wan - Green Curry with Chicken, nice thick sauce, a generous serving and not overpowering. This is not bad at all and what I like most about it is that it is not sweet. It has a very home-cooked feel to to it and would appeal to many people. I ocassionally would prefer my Green Curry to be more pungent - but tonight, this was just fine.
I have also had the Larb Gai (Minced Chicken Salad) and have to say this was probably the most disappointing dish of all as it did not have enough lime and acidity for me, and there was not enough crunchy roasted rice that I look for in Larb.

The Service
Really friendly service and most attentive. This is good and although some of the wait staff are still in training, they did a really good job. There doesn't seem to be any teething problems with service, which is great to see.

This was a really pleasant experience. Being the only diners at the time, it did feel strange but that wasn't the restaurant's fault. I look forward to trade picking to help create a bit of an atmosphere. Meanwhile - it seems that their delivery trade will keep them busy.

Cultural Moment
I want to talk about Hot Asian dishes - Chilli Spicy Hotness that characterises iconic Asian dishes from different regions. Many Asian cultures would claim to have hot dishes that they think others won't be able to cope with. So then, who has the hottest dish in Asia? Which culture trumps the others in terms of ability to induce tears, numbness and towel madness to wipe away the perspiration?

The reality is that most cultures in Asia have some pretty hot dishes, but also different types of 'hotness' I will elaborate on. So, let's start from the furthest east.

Japan - While Japanese dishes are generally not well know for spiciness, they do have the iconic Wasabi paste. Try a small teaspoon of this without tearing up and burning up all your sinuses. While this is not Chilli hot, it is intense and though it does pass one quicker than Chilli hotness, it's intensity can make anyone cry and is most felt in the nasal passages.

Korea - Korean cuisine is filled with all sorts of very spicy dishes, including chilli laden kimchis, and hot chilli soups. On average, there's quite a bit of spice in this cuisine but there's one dish that makes me want to run for a cold drink just thinking about it right now. That's Jjampong - a seafood chilli noodle soup.  It is hot hot hot with intense chilli and the spiciness is in the soup which burns your entire mouth!

China - Ok, instead of talking about it, I should show you the picture in another blog entry. This Hot and Spicy soup is a northern Chinese delicacy. The one in the picture is supposed to be 'medium spiciness'. Northern Chinese cuisine is laden with dried chillies, in ther stir-fries, soups and just as a side dish. Also, because these dishes are usually quite oily, they coat your mouth with a layer of chilli oil that's not easy to get rid of. In addition, not only does this dish use chilli, it also uses the mouth numbing Szechuan peppercorn, which adds another level of 'pain' for the willing.

Vietnam - Vietnamese cuisine doesn't believe in numbing the diner but gives the option through the chilli sauces and fresh cut bird's eye chilli which is pretty naturally vicious. Feel free to add to your Pho and turn it into a bowl of really hot soup.

Thailand - The Thais eat some really hot dishes that are chilli based. Even the innocuous Tom Yum Soup can be cooked with a level of chilli that would make the most experienced chilli eater sweat. You just have to be clear the level of spice you can take. There's no one dish that's particularly vicious but many Thai dishes have the potential for killer chilli levels.

Malaysia and Singapore - Like the Thais, the Malaysians and Singaporeans do eat some really hot dishes, with chilli infused into every day dishes. There's also usually a side serve of chilli sauce, or fresh cut chillies. They do add a range of chilli varieties more liberally to many of their dishes. They also have sambal chillies which they use in their stir fries and curries.

Sarawak - Notable mention because this is where I am from. Like other Malaysians, Sarawakians do like spicy food but there's an added dimension in Sarawak. They produce pepper (not capsicum) which adds a different level of spiciness to many dishes. I am one of those people who can take the intense heatiness of the pepper spice even though my tolerance for chilli is relatively low, compared to the rest of my family. The intensity of pepper spiciness creates a warmth in me which I love in winter.

Indonesia - The range of spicy dishes here is pretty prolific and the Indonesians also like adding chilli pastes to their dishes. Their sambal chillies can be pretty intense and if you are looking for a bit of an adventure in Melbourne, try the sambal at Warung Agus. It's not for the faint hearted. Again, like her other Southeast Asian neighbours, the level of chilli can be introduced to everything from your basic noodle dish to your curries. Sometimes, the chilli is nicely tampered with the sweet sauces that Indonesians love so much.

Sri Lanka - Sri Lankan sambols and intense chilli infused dishes are probably some of the hottest in the world without numbing the mouth. The high chilli content also serve to preserve some of the condiments and dishes, which when used as an accompaniment, will probably drive you to tears. Unlike places in Southeast Asia and China where many dishes are not hot at all, in Sri Lanka, the opposite is probably more true.

India - With Indian cuisine, the more south you travel, the spicier and hotter the food, or you could say - the closer to Sri Lanka, the hotter the food. Some of the curries in South India are really intense and would be impossible to eat without lashings of rice or roti.

So, I hope you have enjoyed reading about hot dishes around Asia - who wins? I don't know as I am not chilli crazy... I like to actually enjoy my food without tearing and worrying about how I look as my glasses collect my dripping perspiration, as I eat. Having said that, I do have a tolerance for chilli but it should be a joy - not a pain.