Monday 19 August 2013

Zhen Hong Restaurant

191 Russell St., Melbourne, VIC 3000

Zhen Hong on Urbanspoon
What a brutal start on Urbanspoon with reviewers panning everything from raw pork, to bland dishes to poor service? So, what is going on in this prime location? They have totally revamped the space from the previous A1 that was here. So, I decided to give it a few tries to see what the deal is.

The Place
This is actually a pleasant set up and good space where they don't squeeze 100 people into a space meant for 60. That's a great change for a restaurant in the area. This new and clean restaurant has tables in different configurations for small and largish groups. It is easy to find and could be relatively child friendly because of the generous space. It also doesn't get too noisy even on a packed night.

Let me just say that the piped music was terrible - it was almost a mix of outdated bad Richard Clayderman substitute with an overuse of tubular bells in one of those creepy Cirque Du Soleil tones. Parking in the area is also difficult unless if you pay for it at Mantra across the road.

Things to do Nearby: You are on the corner of Russell Street and Little Bourke - heaps of shops.

The Food
There is a mix of both northern and southern Chinese dishes. I actually think that they have managed to differentiate themselves from the many other similar restaurants within a stroll. While they are supposed to be Hong Kong styled, they are tinged with northern Chinese flavours.

I am not sure that they have achieved this. The Hot and Sour Soup (pictured below) needed more of everything in it because currently, though it's not a bad soup, it's really basic, mostly eggs, peas and szechuan peppercorn.
The other dishes follow similar formula of a medley of onion, carrots, capsicum, and celery. To me, this is just not right. You can't just put the same vegetables into different dishes that are supposed to taste different. Capsicum and celery are pretty overpowering vegetables. The noodle soups came with canned baby corn. So, in the end nothing really stood out for me despite a number of visits because it all tasted a bit 'same same'.
Beef Brisket on Rice
Braised Beef Noodles
Pork Ribs Noodles (with hidden capsicum and celery)
The Service
They are pretty friendly here and take time to explain dishes. This is probably where they are doing much better than many other Chinese restaurants. They are actually smiling and talking to the diners and with each other. This is not the usual harrassed surly wait staff that you might see at some other places. However, like many similar places, they struggle to get all the dishes out at the same time - it's possible for one diner to have his/her meal some 5 minutes before the others. Don't wait - just start eating.

I am not sure that this would be my go to place in the area. I like the setting and the service but I have yet to find dishes that really stand out for me, and the thought of having to deal with all that capsicum means it will probably be a while before I go back. It's not a disaster - it's just not a stand out. Maybe, that explains the lukewarm response on Urbanspoon too.

Cultural Moment 
So, I did actually ask them what style of food this was. They unequivocally claim to be Hong Kong style. This confused me quite a bit because the dishes had a definite non-Hong Kong feel to them. I also could not place it at definitely northern Chinese - which confused me even more.

It is true that the braised beef brisket on rice, has a Hong Kong feel to it - but the flavours were not authentic. However, the noodles were very different from what one might get in Hong Kong. Even the Hot and Sour Soup is actually more northern Chinese - because Hong Kong style Hot and Sour Soup tends to be way sweeter. So, this leaves me wondering if I am perhaps overconfident about my knowledge of Hong Kong cuisine, or maybe they are just really northern Chinese cooking Hong Kong dishes and have brought their own flavours to the table. I am not sure. If you every try this out - I'd love to hear from you (especially if you know Hong Kong food).


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