Thursday 23 January 2014

Veggie Kitchen

159, St George's Rd, Northcote, VIC 3071
Veggie Kitchen on Urbanspoon
Blink and you'll miss it. This restaurant is not a part of a shopping or dining strip. It is located in a tiny row of shops on St George's Road. It is across the road from Batman Park. This tiny Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant is a lovely option for diners in the north.There is not a lot of space but diners here seem quite happy with the configuration. While it is tiny, it's not cramped.

It is quite a dim restaurant as even during the early evening as there is not a lot of natural sunlight. However, it has a simple warm feel to it. You almost feel you might be visiting a friend's home (in Taiwan) for an intimate meal.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination but I like this place enough to look forward to going for a visit regularly.

Things to do nearby: Nothing much around here other than Batman Park and it's a 10 minute walk to High Street, Northcote. The No.112 tram stops near the front.

The Food
I am going to write about the quality and tastiness of the dishes. However, in the later section, I am going to talk about Chinese Vegetarian food more generally because it is quite a different style of vegetarian cuisine to Western vegetarian in that it uses substantial gluten products.

Chai Po Omelette
My favourite dish here is the Chai Po Omelette (Omelette with preserved turnip bits), which is light and fluffy and flavoursome. Yes, there is a bit of grease on this but what good omelette doesn't. It is a great way to start the meal or even with rice. Dare I say it is even better than my Mum's? No! More that it is a different version, fluffier and very light compared to my Mum's which is packed with turnip and most solid.

The Lettuce Delight (Vegetarian Sang Choi Bao) is built on layers of texture and flavours, with crispy soy and tofu bits wrapped in fresh lettuce. I am not a huge fan of Sang Choi Bao to begin with but this is not a bad dish. I prefer their Tofu Rolls which are really flavoursome and just simply yummy (and not only because it's deep fried).  For me, the Tofu Rolls are preferable preferable to the Beancurd Rolls on offer - simply because it has different textures compared to the Beancurd Rolls.
Tofu Roll and Vegie Delight
Beancurd Rolls and Curry Puffs (homemade)
There are also the various dumplings on offer here and I think the surprise package for me are the Pearl Rice Balls - balls of glutinous rice goodness with mushroom, celery and tofu. Delicate little balls dipped in bean sauce which are really yummy, though I normally don't like celery. They also do vegetarian ShioMai (Shao Mei) which don't look great but are actually quite light and flavoursome. You can tell from the pics below that they are not factory made (given the varying sizes) and are clearly made on premises and the freshness shows.

Pearl Rice Balls
There are also larger dishes and mains on the menu (though I did prefer the smaller ones already described). The two larger dishes that I did like were the Panfried Oyster Mushrooms and the Stir-Fried Vermicelli (both pictured below). The Mushrooms were smokey and really flavoursome and I could have had a double serve. However, I would have like some sort of sauce to bring the brocolli and the mushrooms together (though that might have detracted from the flavour of the mushrooms). 

What was undoubtedly delicious was the vermicelli which had the right balance of flavours, texture and freshness. I loved it and it is just as good as the ones offered by many vegetarian places in SEAsia (if not better than most).
Panfried Oyster Mushrooms
Stir-Fried Vermicelli
We also tried the Sweet and Sour Tofu and the Hong Shao Tofu. To me, these dishes were more average, compared to all the ones I have already mentioned. For example, the Sweet and Sour dish needed perhaps a bit more vinegar and onions while the HongShao dish could do with a bit more smokiness. Don't get me wrong, these were not bad dishes at all but in comparison to the excellent small dishes, they just weren't as great.
Sweet and Sour Tofu and Fried Rice

Hong Shao Tofu
The Service
The understated friendly service is just charming here. They know their food and they take pride in it which is great to see. The dishes came in a very timely manner (even second orders) and the politeness and quiet pride makes this place a lovely down to earth place to dine in. What a comfortable dining space.

It is lovely to know that Chinese Vegetarian Cuisine is well represented here in Melbourne. Sure, they have made some nods to Australian sensibilities but in a positive manner. For example, there is a lot less grease in the dishes here compared to similar dishes in Asia. That is surely a good thing. The layers of flavours are still there and for a non-vegetarian, I still enjoy going there.

Cultural Moment
There are two main ways to indicate vegetarian dishes in Chinese cuisine; There's sùshí (素食) ("vegetarian cuisine") and  zhāicài (斋菜) ("Buddhist cuisine"). Instead of me writing about it extensively, there's a pretty good wikipedia entry on this topic - Buddhist cuisine.

While western vegetarian dishes rely primarily on fresh vegetables, Chinese vegetarian cuisine extensively employs the use of bean curd (tofu) of various types and wheat gluten (used in many of the 'mock' meats), in addition to fresh vegetables.

It is also crucial to remember that Chinese cuisine is not just about freshness and balance of flavours, textures are just as important. The inter-play between crunchiness, softness and chewiness in the one dish is sometimes seens as really crucial. For example, the Lettuce Delight served at Veggie Kitchen does this well in that it has the fresh crisp lettuce, the crunchiness of the soy and tofu flakes, and chewiness of little bits of beancurd. Another example is soy crisp, and Chinese doughnut, and boiled peanuts in congee.This is one of the things that many who have not grown up with Chinese cuisine struggle with. Enjoying differing textures is important in many dishes. The use of wheat gluten is a bit of an art in Chinese vegetarian cuisine because you get completely different textures ranging from really soft to really crunchy varieties. So, the long and short of it is - this is an acquired taste for those who are not familiar but it is all very Chinese.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Petaling Street Chinatown

1F/188 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Petaling Street on Urbanspoon
This is a Malaysian chain that is in both Melbourne and Sydney and by many accounts, of varying quality across branches. It truly is a Malaysian hawker food hall experience rather than a restaurant. Therefore, like the food halls in Malaysia, you get varying quality for different dishes at this place and across branches. While some dishes are really quite good, others are sub-par. This is no different to places in Malaysia where they might do some dishes really well while others are well - non-edible. Above all, it is a huge improvement from its days on Swanston Street when I had nothing good to say.

The Place
The Chinatown branch is located on Little Bourke Street, pretty much the heart of Chinatown. Access is up a set of stairs and I have not found any wheel chair access. It does get very crowded much lunch times, which means that it has garnered a positive reputation generally. They certainly do not cramp you all in like sardines and there's plenty of space to move, which is good.

It is also well ventilated and even at it's busiest, you can hear each other without having to shout over the din, which is always a plus. The deco is nothing to rave about but really, this is a comfortable functioning space.

Things to do Nearby: This is in Chinatown and a few minutes walk from Bourke Street and Lonsdale Street.

The Food
The food is of varying quality. While some on Urbanspoon might be critical, I believe that it is mostly dependent on what one orders. Some of the highlights here for me include the Wat Dan Hor (Egg Gravy Fried Flat Noodles with seafood), and they are one of the few places that do the Nanyang (Southeast) style Roast Chicken with their chicken rice.
Chicken Rice with Roast Chicken

The other dish that I have had here is the Char Kway Teow - again, compared to many other Malaysian places in Melbourne, nothing to rave about, especially since they seemed to include copious amount of canned clams. Also, they called it Penang Char Kway Teow on the menu, which is not right. They use big flat noodles instead of the more delicate thinner ones. There is no taste of 'hay kor' (prawn paste). So, while it passes for generic Malaysian Char Kway Teow, the diehards are unlikely to be happy with this.
Not bad but not a standout either - and definitely not of the Penang variety.
I suspect that most of the people who do not like the food here are more critical Malaysians and those who might think there's too much MSG in their dishes. However, I continue to maintain that this is not unlike many Malaysian food halls where some dishes are great, and others are far from it.

The Service
This is the main improvement from the Swanston Street days. Firstly, they are no longer rude and actuallly make an effort to engage with diners when they are ordering. That is a positive thing indeed though the bar was not set very high in the first place.

They are still struggling to get the food ordered by each group of diners out at the same time. This is likely because they have different stations in the kitchen working at different speeds. However, I believe it is a lot better again than what it was on Swanston Street when some diners would finish their meal before others have been served. Whilere there is still room for improvement, it's certainly not the disaster it used to be. Hence, that might explain the good number of diners at lunch here.

I would go there over a period of time to try out its extensive menu and I will add more dishes to this blog entry as I try them. However, it's certainly not my first go to place for Malaysian because like many other Urbanspooners, there's just not enough here that stands out, making it a middle of the road place for Malaysian dishes.

Cultural Moment
The food halls of Malaysia are seldom renowned for their high quality dishes. You do get some stand outs in each food hall sometimes, and they become famous very quickly. However, for every hawker that is good, there're probably 7 - 8 others that are average at best. Even on the famed Petaling Street of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia - there are some well known individual stalls that sell specialised dishes while others are hit and miss. I think that's worth remembering when going to Malaysian restaurants and cafes in Melbourne - it's highly unlikely that one kitchen with a few chefs are going to be amazing at every single dish on offer. Unfortunately, many Malaysian restaurants seem to fill the need to include every hawker dish on its menu. Personally, I think they should cut the number of offerings and only focus on the ones their chefs are good at. On the other hand, if you cut down the number of offerings, some might complain about the lack of variety. This is perhaps why the food halls of Malaysia seem to work well because when you have specialist stalls, they try to perfect their art over time, and if they don't - then, they don't survive.

Monday 20 January 2014


48 Lygon St., Brunswick, VIC 3057

Matsumoto on Urbanspoon
This restaurant is part of the cluster of restaurants in Lygon Street - Brunswick (north of Brunswick Road).  I have had varying experiences here over the years, depending on the time I visit and the dishes I order. Like all other restaurants in this area, parking is a bit of a nightmare, especially weekends as you will be challenged by permit parks, and limited space. Be prepared for this if you are driving.

The Place
It's a corner restaurant and is easy to find and is quite spacious. It does not cramp diners in together and is child friendly (high chairs are easily organised).  It's also well lit and has a buzzing atmosphere. It feels welcoming and although it has been around for more than 10 years, it doesn't look like a tired old place. Despite having steaming dishes and shabu shabu, it is still well ventilated enough so you don't come out smelling like a hotplate of sizzling mess.

Things to do Nearby: Mostly other restaurants, Gelobar and Pubs.

The Food
I want to start by talking about their Shabu Shabu set. It is delicious, fresh and there's heaps of it. It's a generous serving size and there's also lots of fresh mushrooms and vegetables to complement the fresh beef. The only improvement would be in the range of dipping sauces to accompany the fresh cooked food. Yummy for those who can really eat lots.

Generous Tamago
They do pretty good sushi too the fish is fresh generally. The sushi boat filled with sushi is something they are proud of and lots of punters seem to order it. I preferred to choose my own range of sushis, so I stuck to ala carte sushi instead. It's not cheap to dine here and some Urbanspooners have argued that they get better sushi in some of the takeaway places in town. However, I believe that that's quite subjective. I know just as many places where the sushi has been sitting in the cold fridges for a while.

The gyoza (pictured below) is generous and chunky. It was so good that we were three quarter ways through it before I remembered to take a photo!
The stir fries and the various popular rice (don) dishes here are below average in my opinion. This is where they fail somewhat and down rise about your run of the mill food hall Japanese. To some, this means a lack of authenticity as well. For example, the overly sweet Teriyaki Chicken (pictured below) caters to the Western palette and is someone too cloying for me. The Katsu Don (also below) was pretty basic and does not have any sort of layers of flavours, missing sauce, and flavouring. So, my advice is to stick to sushi and noodles and Shabu Shabu.
Teriyaki Chicken
Katsu Don
Wafu Salad

The Service
The service is hurried but friendly and they are really keen to take away empty dishes. That's what comes to mind. They are unfailingly polite and friendly but seem to be in a constant slight panic. The food does come out in a timely manner each time I have been there.

They seem to have received mixed reviews and it's the same from me. They are ok but not great. For a city that is spoilt for choices, Matsumoto doesn't stand out, which is not to say they are bad at all. They don't seem to have carved out a stellar reputation but have maintained their status as a relatively reliable suburban Japanese restaurant that offers more than a takeaway experience. The crowd there is testament to this.

Cultural Moment
Hot Pot or Shabu Shabu or Steamboat - this East and SEAsian style of dining is very popular in the region, from China, Korea and Japan to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malayisa and Brunei. Essentially, it's about boiling a variety of fresh sliced meats, vegetables, seafood and surimi in yummy yummy soup.

Of course depending on which region you are in, the soup base is different, from the delicate chicken broths to the intense chilli filled soups. Some places even offer up two soups at the same time in pots that are divided down the middle. My childhood memories of steamboat consist of the family firing up the charcoal to put in the 'pipe' in the middle on the hot pot before pouring the hot boiling soup into the pot. Gone are those days as most people now use electricity or portable gas steamboats.

Some might not enjoy the idea of 'cooking your own' at the table but that's the fun of it. It's community dining at its best.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Pho La Que Basil Leaf

369 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, VIC 3065
Pho La Que Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon
This is quite a new addition to Brunswick Street and could be missed if you are not paying attention. On a street saturated with choices of restaurants, this is one of two Vietnamese restaurants and it seems to be surviving well enough against intense competition.

The Place
Tastefully decorated with contemporary sensibilities, this small restaurant feels warm and welcoming. I love the huge picture of the water lilies against the green wall.

Due to the newness of the restaurant, it is still spotlessly clean and all the furniture does not look worn out like some other places along Brunswick Street. It is a rather dark restaurant because of the awning up the front and the chosen colours and dim lighting, quite unusual compared to some of the glaring Vietnamese restaurants with huge mirrors and florescent lighting in Richmond or Footscray. If you sit by the window, there's always people watching to do.

Things to do Nearby: It's in the heart of Brunswick Street and on Saturdays, there's Rose Street Market.

The Food
The food here is pretty authentic and comes with generous serving sizes and I didn't feel overly thirsty after the experience which usually means for me, less MSG. The challenge they were always going to have was being compared to the Vietnamese outlets of Footscray and Richmond. How can a Brunswick Road restaurant possibly compare? Well, I think they hold their own - they might not be the best I have had but it's a really decent and generous fare here. The small pho was adequate for me and I saw other diners hoe into a large - it was huge!

What about the taste? The soup was fresh and rich though a bit on the sweet side (but not overly so). I was not surprised that they did steer away from the more traditional 'exotic' components such as beef sausage, and minimised on the tendon and other guts. I think they are catering to the Brunswick Street punters here. Some would say it's not as good as Richmond or Footscray but that's a matter of taste, I am arguing.
The Service
The service is friendly, quick and unobtrusive. They are accurate and happy to accommodate variations in the items (I usually ask for more lemon and less raw onions with my pho - and they were quite ok with that). What I also really like is the fact that they are not in a hurry to chase you out of the restaurant when you are done, especially on Brunswick Street.

If I am feeling like a cheap Vietnamese meal on Brunswick Street, I'd probably go again. It's cheaper than the average Brunswick Street cafe (other than maybe Palookaville).

Cultural Moment
What's happening in Melbourne's main eating strips? 10 years ago, if someone says Lygon Street, you'd say Italian restaurants, Lonsdale Street brings up images of the Greek restaurants, Richmond and Footscray conjures up cheap Vietnamese, and Brunswick Street would suggest trendy cafes and bars.

In a moment of multicultural exuberance, we now have a Lonsdale street peppered with Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants; Footscray is host to a number of great African (mainly Ethiopian/Eritrean) restaurants, Lygon Street (even the Italian quarter) is now also known for Thai and Indian restaurants, Richmond is starting to sprout cafes that serve sandwiches and Korean outlets, and Brunswick Street cafes are starting to turn towards more multicultural offerings in their menu as well.

To me, this is exciting because I get a diversity of choice in any of these places and I feel totally spoilt. We are sooooo lucky in Melbourne (and many other parts of Australia) where we can get good international offerings right on our door steps. I don't think people realise this sometimes. In most other countries in the world, great cuisine from other cultures are not so readily and easily accessible. I heart Melbourne!

Monday 6 January 2014

Roll'd Barkly Square

90-106 Sydney Rd, Brunswick, VIC 3056
Roll'd on Urbanspoon
Roll'd is suddenly everywhere! The Barkly Square branch opened up towards the end of last year and since then, seems to be doing well. I have visited a few times now ordering different dishes and going at different times of the day or different days. I have two main conclusions, 1) not all Roll'd are created equal, and 2) this place struggles with consistency. So, if it's great one day, might not be so the next but if it was bad, then it might be good the next. It's not a disaster but consistency is a pretty important thing for the discerning Brunswick punter. Let's face it, because it's a chain, no one is going to drive across different suburbs to eat there - they can probably find one closer to them.

The Place
This is a really small space and really nicely decorated. In fact, it's one of the more trendy looking Roll'd I have seen. It's also very open, with lots of air and sunlight. It's a space for quick and casual dining. It's a small step above a food court but I really do like the deco here. It opens out into a courtyard of sorts, so you can even eat outside and people watch. I don't think they do high chairs here other than the high bar stools for adults.

The Food
The basic funky menu has items that are all given quirky names - but doesn't hide the fact that they are basically rice paper rolls, noodle soups (pho), rice vermicelli and Vietnamese rolls (Banh Mi). The ingredients are usually pretty fresh. The quality of the noodle soup might vary between days, sometimes they are tastier, other times, a bit sweet and diluted. I wondered if it depended on the time of day.

The rice vermicelli dishes here are the highlight for me, especially the version with the pork crackles... CRACKLING with fresh salad (pictured above). So good and so fresh. However, there was one visit when the vermicelli was drowned in fish sauce. Other than that, it has usually been good. The other highlight as pointed by some other Urbanspoon reviewers are the spring rolls here. Robbie likes the vermicelli with the spring rolls but I just can't say no to crackling.

The Banh Mi  (Vietnamese Rolls) depends on who's making it and how harried they are. This is where they really seem to struggle with consistency. While the ingredients are still fresh, the quantity and balance of sauces varies quite a bit. Normally, at most Banh Mi places, consistency is not expected because each one is customised. However, with Roll'd, you have set menu items and so, people tend to expect the same thing each time.

Finally, the rice paper rolls - here's the thing. I have seen various Roll'd (not just this one) roll these rolls (sorry - couldn't resist) as early as 7.30am to get it ready for the punters. It is hard to maintain softness to the paper over more than 3 hours. So, I am guessing that depending on the day, it's good to check when they made the rolls. This is tricky and also where consistency might be a problem.

The Service
The service is the other thing that's not really consistent here. Firstly, some times they have lots of staff and everyone seems to get a bit confused and other times, they don't have enough staff and the poor things look so harried when they are trying to put the dishes together. Occasionally, the right combination of staff makes everything flow seamlessly. So, perhaps the consistency issue is more a logistics and rostering issue more than quality. The wait staff at the counter is always unfailingly polite and friendly.

This is a good place for a quick meal in between shopping at Barkly Square - a fresh lunch or early dinner. It's all very casual.

Cultural Moment
What would you like in your Banh Mi?
Essential ingredients are the baguette, butter, pâté, cilantro/coriander, pickled carrots/cabbage/turnip, cucumber slices. mayonnaise, chilli and hoisin or chilli sauce. Some places include crushed peanuts (which I love)

Then there's the fillings depending on what the punter likes. This includes choices from roast pork, grilled pork, barbequed pork,  pork meatballs (smashed), pork belly slices, pork floss, pork roles (cha lua), canned sardines, roast chicken slices, even tofu and fried egg in some places. Obviously, most of the versions have some sort of pork combination with a less than cursory nod to punters who might not like pork or can't have pork. In many places in Ho Chi Minh City, banh mi carts will have many of these choices and other than the essential ingredients, punters get to pick one or two fillings to go with their rolls.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Ying Thai 2 (Thai Restaurant)

110, Lygon Street, Carlton, VIC 3053
Ying Thai 2 on Urbanspoon

There are so many Thai restaurants in Melbourne and so many Aussies are now 'experts' in Thai cuisine, with their own preferences in terms of flavours. This is not surprising as other than Chinese Cantonese cuisine, Thai cuisine is probably one of the most familiar to Aussies.

Ying Thai 2, in many ways satisfies a broad range of tastes, and is one of the increasing number of non-Italian places on Lygon Street, which seem to congregate in the section south of Grattan Street.

The Place
This 2-storey restaurant is really comfortable and also has seating outside on the foot path. The multicoloured plastic chairs and table complement the murals of kids playing traditional games. The dominant colour is bright green and it does get very busy at lunch and dinner time. It does feel a bit like a student hang out at night, though it attracts a large number of office workers around lunch time. It's not exactly kid-friendly because of the limited space.

The Food
This is Thai food the way I like it - intense flavours with a kick. This is really authentic Thai street food with all the usual suspects but there are some highlights for me here that are not usually available in the most Melbourne Thai restaurants. Of course, they have the usual Pad Thai, range of Thai Curries, Fresh but Intense Salads, various Thai Stir Fries, and Fish Cakes. However, what I want to highlight here are the more unusual dishes which I really like.

Kao Pud Nam (That Fried Rice with Pickled Pork) - I like sour things and the Thai pickled pork bits in this dish is perfect for me. If you like sour and chilli together, this is like fried rice from heaven.

Kai Jeow Poo (Omelette with Crab) - Here's one for the crab lovers. This is really tasty and goes really well with rice. However, sometimes, it is a bit dry though mostly, it's just full of yummy goodness. They do a version with minced meat too (Moo Sub) which is tasty as well.

Guoy Teow Nuer (Beef Rice Noodles - pictured above) - Yummy peppery beef soup with flat rice noodles and tender beef as well as liver. I love this dish which is a traditional road side dish in many parts of Thailand. I wish more Thai restaurants in Melbourne served this.

Sai Oua ( Northern Thai Pork Sausage) - If you like pork and kaffir lime, you will like this sausage. It's probably a bit dry for Western sensibilities but should be dipped in Thai Sweet Chilli sauce to round off a really tasty entree.

The Service
The service is really casual and harried. They always seem to be under staffed or a bit disorganised, even during the quieter periods. However, they do get the job done but don't expect great service. I have to say that most Thai restaurants in Melbourne provide great polite service which makes this place a stand out for the wrong reason.

It's a bit of a student joint which is perhaps why it is so casual. However, they do serve some great dishes that I can't get anywhere else and their dishes have the level of intensity I expect from authentic Thai restaurants. Some might not be used to such flavours, being more used to the more watered down flavours of the many Thai Take-aways around town. One thing though, and as many other reviewers of Urbanspoon seem to agree, this place used to be a much stronger performer (and what's with the use of crab sticks fish extenders?).

Cultural Moment
There are many Thai Restaurants now in Melbourne and as I said at the start of the entry, many in Australia now like Thai food their way. I have been to my fair share of very popular Thai restaurants all over restaurants and many of them have somewhat different balance of flavours which might be characterised as follows;

Sweetness - where most dishes seem to be dominated by a sweetness of sugar, sweet chilli and even honey. There are some who do like these restaurants where the dishes are not too sour, not too hot and spicy and while the food still has a kick, it  usually tampered by sweetness.

Minimised Spiciness - these places capitalise on really fresh salads and mild dishes that hint at Thai flavours without the intensity of most places you would find in Thailand. The highlights here tend to be more delicate flavours and the use of lime to replace fish sauce in some dishes. Many like these places for their freshness.

Intense Flavours - where the dishes are more unadulterated and might be too sour, too hot and spicy and too much fish sauce flavoured. However, this is how I have found many places in Thailand to be. Even the fresh salad like Som Tum can be intensely flavoured with hot chillies, fish sauce and lime juice. Nothing subtle about the dishes offered in these places.

So, take your pick - I do like all of them at one time or another, but my preference is for the intense flavours. What is great about Thai food is that the there are so many options now in Melbourne and whether it's salad or noodles or soups that you like, Thai cuisine probably has something for you.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Brunswick Mess Hall (Lucky Panda Kitchen)

400, Sydney Rd, Brunswick, VIC 3056
The Brunswick Mess Hall on Urbanspoon
This is a great find on Sydney Road and a great addition to the area. There is also a bar for a few drinks, a great buzz, all in a mess hall environment. This is a good revamp for the Brunswick Mess Hall and I am looking forward to more visits.

The Place
The Mess Hall is beautifully set up and appeals very much to my aesthetics - high ceiling, wooden beams and flooring, plants every where and a general feel of a chilled space. The big windows let a lot of light in. There is also quirky video projections on the back wall (that's not a giant puffin in the picture below). It does get noisy in here but I like to call it a nice buzz.

There is also a full bar here and what really excited my good friend Caroline was that they gave away free soda water!

Possibly the only thing that I didn't like about the place was the high tables and chairs. I like eating with my feet on the ground.

The Food
There is a variety of Asian dishes served up from the Lucky Panda Kitchen. There is a mix of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Thai dishes here. We tried a range but the real highlights were the following;

Vietnamese Coleslaw was really fresh with the right balance of acidity, fish sauce, sweetness and lashings of freshness. This was one of the best dishes of the dining experience.

Roast Pork Belly on Asian Greens was really well done and I just wished there was a whole lot more of it. It was definitely crispy crunchy on top and tender where it needed to be. They managed to achieve the crispiness without being overly salty.

The Steam Fish Fillet in Soy and Ginger Broth here was excellent with fresh fish and steamed just right. The delicate flavours was how it should be for this dish. This is also done with preserved plum and the fresh lime and herbs really helped the dish.

The flavours here are traditional and true to their roots. For example, even their Pad Thai which I didn't rave about used fresh uncooked bean shoots, which is the way it should be. They have stuck to their guns with the flavours and this means I am likely to be back soon.

Compared to similar trendy places, the dishes here would be considered smaller. This means some might consider it not value for money. For example, places like Tom Phat and Palookaville have much bigger servings. This is why it is not a cheap place to eat. Nevertheless, I will definitely be back .

The Service
You write your order down on pieces of paper and order at the bar and they bring out the food. What is great about this place is that they are very attentive about the dietary requirements of their diners. So, this was a real positive.The food also came relatively quickly and the wait staff clearly know the food. The bar staff are also very friendly.

This is a nice trendy place that serves pretty good food. It's not a family restaurant although it is family friendly. This place works well because of the space, ambience, service and food. That sounds like it's something everyone would like but that is not necessarily the case. Not everyone would like the trendy bar setting with minimal service and too cool for school feel. I did though and so, I will be back for more but will probably order more dishes this time.

I am impressed with a kitchen that can served authentic dishes from four different cuisines. Therefore, in theory, this place should work. However, I am not entirely sure that a pub going drinking crowd is quite necessarily ready for this type of food because other than the gyoza and spring rolls, the other dishes are not really pub food. In addition, it's pricier than normal pub food, even for those who are looking for a cheap eat at a pub. Therefore, it might take a bit of getting used to. 

Cultural Moment
Pub Meals in Asia are not very common (other than in Japan). Some would call it 'drinking food' which is food you eat while you are drinking (alcohol). While there has been a longer tradition of this practice in Japan which is what Izakayas are. Therefore, common pub meals in Japan might include yakitori (skewered marinated chicken), karaage (fried chicken), gyoza (dumplings), edamame (soybean pods) and even sushi.

The rest of Asia however, is just starting to build this trend because for a long time, pubs in SEAsia tended to serve no more than peanuts, fried achovies and maybe some other 'small dishes'. Drinking establishments were never really known for their culinary experiences until recently when modern trendy clubs are starting to offer innovative small dishes and tapas to attract more clients. Certainly, in most parts of Asia, people don't think of a pub / night club as their dining option and most would eat in the street stalls before proceeding to drink and party into the night.

Friday 3 January 2014

PappaRich Northland

Northland Shopping Centre, 5-20 Murray Road, Preston 3072
PappaRich on Urbanspoon
Newly opened on the 26th December 2013. I actually went on the very first day and tried a variety of dishes and again in the new year for more. While some restaurants might take a while to work out the details, service and management, this place seems to have it all sorted out already. There also seems to be a constant flow of diners each time I have been there. As they would say in Malaysia, "Very auspicious start".

This is a halal chain and elsewhere in this blog, is another entry for the QV branch.

The Place
Unlike the city branch, this place is more kid friendly and has high chairs as well. Given its location, I suppose it has to account for large families. It is not a huge space and the clunky standard PappaRich chairs and tables makes it hard but they try to make it work well. Plenty of light during the day and very airy, which is important given that that diners are sharing space with part of the kitchen.

Compared to other branches of PappaRich, the decoration here is a bit more understated. What really amuses me is the soundtrack choice here which includes hits from the 50s to 70s (Doris Day and Olivia Newton John feature prominently).

The Food
The food here is pretty good with well balanced flavours. Although they do not offer the intensity of spices one would expect back in Malaysia, there is a still a good kick in the flavouring. If there is one complaint, the food is not presented as nicely as the very enticing pictures in the menu. However, don't let that fool you, the flavours are intact.
The star of the offerings is their Roti - made on premises, fresh and accompanied by a variety of curries. For the uninitiated, watch that sambal (that's the red chilli paste).
Char Kway Teow (CKT) - this perennial Malaysian favourite is also on offer here. The one offered here is not bad at all but doesn't have the sweetness or darkness of the KL style CKT. It uses finer flat rice noodles which is difficult to get right but ends up quite yummy. I would have liked mine with more of a kick but nevertheless, I was quite happy.

Combination Crispy Noodles (pictured above) - this was less stellar and rather plain. Don't get me wrong, it's ok but compared to the other dishes, it didn't shine. Might need more egg or perhaps even real fish slices to give it more star quality.

Nasi Goreng - Malaysian fried rice with it's smoky flavours laced with frozen mixed vegies. This is what you might get in parts of Malaysia but with less chillies. The fried chicken maryland that came with it could not be faulted though. Very yummy.

Fried Chicken Skin - I know this is bad for you but it is so good (mildly curried and served with Thai Sweet Chilli Sauce)... eat it while it is hot and deal with the consequences later.

The Service
The service here is really pretty good and fast! Perhaps because it was still relatively new, there was no queue and they accepted reservations. However, once we settled in and ordered (you have to write your own orders down and call them over), the food came very quickly.

They are very polite and hospitable though some of the wait staff had some difficulty understanding the range of accents. One thing that they do need to learn is that most diners might not have knowledge of Malaysian cuisine in the area and they need to be careful about the assumptions they make about their diners. Perhaps, take time to explain some of the items in the menu (even though diners are supposed to be self-managing).

This is probably going to be a regular haunt, so watch out for regular updates. I guess that is an endorsement as good as any. I am looking forward to my next visit already.

Cultural Moment
A good restaurant needs to assume that their diners might have a very different culinary experience and therefore a different expectation of what they are about to get. In a restaurant where diners make their own order with minimal interaction, it's important to check with them what they have ordered. This systems only works really well if diners are familiar with the dishes on offer.

Terms are are often used in many restaurants which might seem self-explanatory but convey a wrong picture to the reader based on the reader's experience. For example, fried crispy noodles - what picture does this conjure up for you? Is it the fried thin crispy egg noodles, or the ones that are thicker that come like a bird's nest, or the ones that are almost like crisps? They are all very different in texture and taste.

So, while some restaurants try to deal with this by showing pictures of what is on offer, others do not. Even when you have pictures, you do need to explain what the flavours are like PLUS when the food comes out, it should look like the pictures (many don't). So, I always believe that a good restaurant has wait staff who are able to explain their offerings to even their diners who have had the least experience with the particular cuisine. That's key to successful restaurants and also hey! It's an opportunity for multicultural education!