Friday 25 April 2014

Ajisen Ramen CBD

130 Bourke Street Melbourne, VIC

Chii-Chan - Ajisen's Logo and Mascot

Tori-Karaage Ramen

Tonkatsu Bento

Twee's Hut

Shop 26, 343, Little Collins St, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Twee's Hut on Urbanspoon
This is a bit of a gem and in the same genre as Roll'd - a funkyed up Vietnamese eatery with a more contemporary feel, except it hasn't been given a franchise treatment yet. How does it measure up? I think it does better than Roll'd and is more authentic and the food feels like it has been prepared with more love and pride.

The Place
This is set up like a fast food joint and pretty basic and simple layout. A no fuss eatery that's great for a quick lunch, any busy day of the week. They manage to keep it relatively clean despite the high turnover of customers and constantly flow of diners.

Things to do nearby: This is just across the lane from Galleria and less than 5 minutes walk to either Collins Street or Bourke Street Mall.

The Food
Hue Noodles
I have had both Hue Noodles and Classic Saigon style Vietnamese noodles here, and they are pretty good and certainly better than Roll'd in my opinion. There is a very strong hint of lemongrass in the soups here and while it doesn't have the grunginess of the eateries in Richmond or Footscray, you can expect tasty soup here. Don't expect intestines, blood jelly, tendon here - they stick to the basic chicken and beef slices.

I do like the Hue Noodles they have here because it's not overly greasy, and still packs a punch in the soup. This is quite different to the usual beef noodles most Melbournians are used to. I like it because I like the beef slices, the sausage, the thicker rice noodles (see below) and the spicy soup. If there's one criticism of that might be leveled - it's that they are not as generous as some of the more traditional places with their beanshoots and lemon.

The Service
This place has a fast food outlet sensibility, so you have to order at the counter and while they were a bit organised at the start, they seem very much more on top of things now that they have had some experience with the crazy lunch time crowd. Always friendly, if harried, they are more likely to make conversation with punters if they are not crazy busy. They will also take time to explain the dishes and clear take pride in their food. I like this place for a quick lunch because I like people who serve their food with a smile.

It's a good place to go to if you are after basic Viet fare. Other reviewers have also raved about the crispy pork and I can't wait to try this. I have tried to order it before but was too late in the day and they had run out. I will definitely be visiting again.

Cultural Moment
Some people get so used to "old school" approaches to ethnic cuisines that anything that moves a bit away from what they used to might be seen as authentic. Twee's Hut and Roll'd would fall into this new more contemporary way of doing things. Gone are the bright lights, wall to wall mirror, free cheap tea and greasy chilli paste. In with funky names, less grease, less choice, and less "special combinations". I don't have a problem with any of these - there is a time and place for both "old school" and contemporary approaches. You just have to know what you are in the mood for.

To be honest, my main challenge with the contemporary approach is the demise of "special combinations" - which basically refers to the various other parts of the cow (including tendon, innards, blood jelly, pizzle, marrow) or chicken (giblets, liver, skin). Yes! They can contribute to high cholesterol but I am not having them every day and I'd like the option. I hope this art form doesn't disappear and I wish for contemporary approaches to include this in their repertoire, but that's just me. As they say in Vietnam, I LOVE phở.

Friday 4 April 2014

Petaling Street (Clayton)

367 Clayton Road, Clayton, VIC 3168
Petaling Street on Urbanspoon
There is something to be said about crowdsourcing for opinions and times like this, one would go - "OK - Urbanspooners were being fair". One of the lowest scoring Petaling Street Outlets in Melbourne here, and I didn't believe it. In addition, I know I especially liked the dishes from the CBD branch. After all, this is in Clayton where the competition can be fierce, and Springvale is not too far away. How can this be?

The Place 
A simple set up with the kitchen in the back and rows of seats for diners and movable configurations. The decorations are relatively simple with pictures of the dishes on offer and a large mural towards the back of the restaurant. This is a well ventilated space with easy access. However, the first warning sign for me should have been the sticky wooden tables.

This is set within the busy Clayton Road shopping strip and parking is round the back where it can be a challenge on busy days.

Things to do Nearby: Clayton Road Shopping

The Food
The food ranges from ok to questionable. We had a number of dishes, none of which were spectacular and one was a total fail. I'll start with the ok dishes - the Wonton Noodle Soup (pictured right) was actually not bad with nice generous wontons thought the char siew (BBQ pork) that went with it wasn't anything to rave about. Nevertheless it is what you would expect from a basic wonton noodle soup.

The Salted Fish Vermicelli was alright as well but not as smokey as some of the best in town. The problem here is the addition of capsicum slices... WHY?

The other dish that was not too bad was the Prawn Hokkien Noodle Soup which had a really rich prawn broth. It was somewhat greasy which detracted a bit from the tastiness of the dish but the ingredients were generally fresh.
Salted Fish Vermicelli
Prawn Noodles
FAUX Lobak
Some other dishes were truly disappointing. The Lobak was a joke! They serve fishcake filled beancurd skin to pass if off as lobak. They acknowledged they had changed it but still insisted on calling it Lobak - 'bak' in Hokkien refers to meat, not fish. It was like eating inferior deep fried fish cake. Then there was the Roasted Chicken Rice. Now, I have had the authentic version in the CBD branch but the one here was served with a lightly fried chicken (pictured below) - nothing like the Nanyang style roast chicken that I had been hoping for. The best thing about the dish was the chicken broth that came with it!

The Service
The basic service was not all that attentive and nothing to rave about. One has to call out for attention here and don't be shy about doing so, expecially if you are sitting towards the front of the restaurant, or you might be forgotten.

I was disappointed but the worst thing was, I had my parents with me - I was trying to show off what good food we have in the area and I took a risk and it didn't pay off. Ah Well! I have taken them to some pretty good places before this. Ok, so it's not the worst restaurant

Cultural Moment
Why did I assume that because of the location of this restaurant, that it was going to be excellent and authentic? One word - stereotyping! Why would I think that just because it's in an area where there are a lot of "Asian" diners, that it would be authentic - that's like saying all Chinese restaurants in Chinatown must be good. Even in Malaysia, not all Malaysian restaurants serve good Malaysian fare. Haha! Ah Well!

It also showed me again that not all branches of the same franchise/restaurant are equal - especially amongst Asian franchises. This has shown to be the case for Killiney Kopitiam, Es Teler, PappaRich, YimYam, and now, Petaling Street. In the end, I suspect that it comes down to the more complex dishes on offer in Asian franchises compared to your run of the mill chicken or burger outlets where menu items are really standardised. Asian dishes depend very much of the chefs working in particular branches - which makes it harder to standardise. A lesson that I am reminded of again today.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Green Pepper Thai

343 High Street, Northcote, VIC 3070
Green Pepper Thai Restaurant on Urbanspoon
This is the 6th Thai restaurant now along High Street between Northcote and Thornbury (all within 7 - 10 minutes drive of each other). In terms of all the Thai restaurants along this stretch, Green Pepper Thai is probably the most cafe style with a strong take-away vibe in terms of its set up. Of course, I encourage healthy competition but I think each of these Thai restaurants will find their own niche in the area.

The Place
It does have a strong take away vibe with the basic tile flooring and simple decorations. The open kitchen is situated within the dining space as well, which therefore, relies heavily on the industrial gas hoods to do their work effectively. If you are sitting facing the kitchen, you get to watch the chefs at work which might be interesting for some. When it does get busy, it will get pretty loud as there is no real sound insulation here.

What I really like about the set up is the fact that they do not cramp diners in really closely to each other. There's plenty of space and you don't feel like sardines!

Things to do Nearby: The shops of High Street, Northcote are blooming and upgrading with the continued gentrification of the area.

The Food
The food here is not bad but Melbournians are pretty spoilt for choice in terms of Thai food. It is not strictly authentic and is pretty watered down in terms of intensity. That doesn't mean it is not nice. In fact, I think it works quite well if you are looking at catering for diners who can't take really spicy or hot dishes. The dishes tend towards sugar and sweetness. I tend to prefer more tang in my Thai dishes but I have lots of friends who would love the sweetness to lighten the intensity of flavours.

So, what were the highlights for me? I liked the Tom Yum Soup above all the other dishes I ordered. Why? Because it was clearly not concocted from a commercial soup base and had been done from scratch with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and enough Assam (Tamarind) and they didn't hold back on the chillies either but it wasn't overly greasy like how they tend to serve it in Bangkok. Nice clear hot and sour soup.
Really nice tangy hot Tom Yum Soup
The other dishes were also all freshly made which I really appreciated and although the balance of flavours tended towards sweetness, I did enjoy most of them. The one dish I was disappointed with was the Larb which again was sweet rather than sour (perhaps I would have like more lime or fish sauce - but that's just me). They also love using long beans in all their dishes... most of the dishes we ordered had these :).
Green Papaya Salad with Yummy Crisps

Pad Met Marmuang - Beef with Cashews

The Service
It is rare to ever get bad service at a Thai restaurant. This is no exception. They were attentive, timely and friendly. It's what you would expect from a good suburban restaurant and I really like the down to earthiness of the service. The food came out in a timely manner and even when it got busier and when there was takeaway orders, they still paid us enough attention where needed.

This is a good place for a quick week night meal without being overly fancy. I would likely go again to try more dishes and try more of their curries.

Cultural Moment
I want to talk SOUPS. In many parts of Asia - soups are a whole table event. One soup is ordered and everyone shares it. It very much a collective experience. When I was growing up, we even all drank from the same bowl - dipping our spoons into the central bowl. It had been this way for hundreds of years (no I am not a hundred years old - I am talking about the practice - rude!).

With modern day health consciousness and sensibilities, this practice of double-triple dipping with personal spoons into a central bowl has changed for the most part in many countries (but not all). However, the practice of the whole family or table having the same soup hasn't changed. In many restaurants in Asia, they still bring out a central bowl and then smaller bowls for individuals and a large ladle - makes a lot of sense and lots of restaurants have done this for a long time. This practice is starting to spread to homes so that it's become the norm. There are some things you can't change - and the practice of sharing soup (the modern way) continues to thrive. This sort of sharing collective dining is a practice to be celebrated.

In Australia, our more individualistic dining habits have led to individual serves of soup so you can decide what you want and there is no need for collective negotiation. It's just the way it is. So, when one travels to Asia and Southeast Asia - when you order soup - be aware - it might be a BIG BOWL meant for sharing - not one of those tiny individual bowls. I know this because I sometimes forget this when I am travelling - like the time I had a BIG bowl of Tom Yum with my main in Bangkok and that other time when I had a BIG CLAYPOT filled with Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup in Hong Kong, with my fried noodles. DUH!