Whenever I visit Melbourne, I always try my best to squeeze in a day trip outside the city somewhere. Of course, it doesn’t always happen – especially when you’re only in Melbourne for two or three days – but when it does, I always have the best time. It’s nice to get away from the big smoke – not that Melbourne is a massive city in terms of population and size by any means but you get the hint.
Earlier this year, Aaron and Cathy took me down to the Mornington Peninsula to explore some markets, go for leisurely walks along the coastline and check out some rose gardens (not my idea, btw). By the time we arrived in Mornington, the three of us were quite peckish – but it was still too early for lunch. At this point in time, Aaron had just started using Instagram and suggested we check out, The Winey Cow, a café that recently followed his account. ‘They do cheese and wine, hence the name,’ he said. ‘But they also seem to do decent coffee.’
At 10am, cheese and wine didn’t seem like the best idea – but coffee was just what we needed. We ordered some banana bread to share between the three of us too – yes, it was a bit of a tight ass move but hey.
I’m usually meh when it comes to ordering banana bread at cafés but this one was pretty good. The bread was buttery and dense, and we enjoyed it warm. We were given three topping options: date whip, espresso butter and berry mascarpone; all sounded great but we went for the lovely espresso butter in the end.
I would have loved to stay longer to try their interesting brunch options such as their Southern Affair (housemade cheesy cornbread with southern spiced pulled beef) or black pudding and bacon risotto croquette. Alas, we had a rose garden to visit so brunch will have to wait another time.
As much as I like to hate on brunch, there are odd instances where I do actually say ‘yes’ to the odd brunch invitation. These include the following: when an interstate or overseas friend is in town for only 24 hours and brunch is the only time they are free, when I’m too lazy to drive and there’s no non-brunch venues open that particular Saturday morning (a ludicrous notion in Melbourne but all too real in Gold Coast) and when I see a brunch menu that’s actually super interesting enough for me to muster up some enthusiasm.
Mammoth in Armadale fits the latter category.
It also didn’t help that my friend Brandon was moving back to Malaysia and this Wednesday morning was actually the only time we were both free. To his credit though, he promised that I wouldn’t yawn when I saw Mammoth’s menu. ‘Apparently they do a lobster donut burger,’ he said. Well, dammit, I was SOLD.
Although it was a Wednesday morning, we were both surprised to see this café almost full. We were lucky to snag the last table but had we rocked up even five minutes later, we would have had to wait. We were informed that the famous lobster donut burger had sold out (nooooo), so we decided to peruse the menu for a bit while enjoying some coffee made with the Tightrope blend from Five Senses.
Brandon was right: Mammoth’s brunch menu had all sorts of unusual twists. Lobster donut burgers aside, there was also a cherry lamington puffed pancake and something called the North Shore (ham hock, pineapples and all sorts of other stuff that seemed more Hawaiian pizza than Mosman chic). You can also order poached eggs on toast if you want to stay on the conservative side, but that was seriously the most ‘normal’ thing on the menu. Much to my relief, you couldn’t get smashed avocados on toast here (and I’ll refrain from making a joke about house prices because I’m sure you’ll all sick of them). You can, however, order some avocado on the side for $4. Mind you, Mammoth’s sides menu offered cooler-sounding items such as egg and bacon popcorn or backyard fried haloumi with house-made HP sauce.
Brandon had the Mammoth version of the classic eggs benedict. It came with all sorts of things that you wouldn’t normally find in your eggs benny: duck sausage, orange and corn blini, pickled onion, fried egg and smoked maple Hollandaise. If you disregard the fact that my photo of this dish isn’t very good, the presentation was actually quite cool – and the overall dish was tasty to the last mouthful, too.
I had the char spanner crab egg crepe. On paper, this dish sounded like one of those annoying ‘Asian-inspired’ dishes that could go either way – thankfully, I gave it two thumbs up. The crepe was fluffy and light, with a generous amount of crab meat in it. Throw in some water chestnut pieces for a bit of texture and a bean shoot salad on the side ‘just because’ (though tbf, it was lovely). I wasn’t sure if the lemon sorbet added anything to the dish, though.
We shared the only dessert that was available on the menu that day, the Golden Gaytime panna cotta. I’m not usually one to order panna cotta at restaurants (it’s such an easy dish to make but restaurants serve it because of high profit margins) but in this case it was hard to say ‘no’ to the combination of honeycomb, sable biscuit and chocolate coated popping candy. A great dish to finish off on.
Mammoth changes their menu quite a bit so I’m not even sure you can get all of the above items if you were to go today. I do, however, know that you’ll be presented with a menu full of so many interesting and unique dishes that it’ll be hard for you to choose one. Unless, of course, the lobster donut burger is available and in which case you MUST order it and tell me what you think!
182 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
+61 3 9417 0071
Disclaimer: I dined as Thanh’s guest; he got invited by Blue Chillies for a complimentary meal and I tagged along.
I’ve always been sceptical of modern Asian restaurants, especially when the end result tastes like nothing even remotely resembling Asian food (and no, splashing fish sauce on everything doesn’t work). That said, there are some excellent modern Asian restaurants in Melbourne that do a great job; they’re the ones that strike the perfect (and usually difficult) balance between paying tribute to decades-old cooking methods and contemporary ingredients. Blue Chillies on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy is one of them.
I liked my lunch there because the menu stays true to traditional Malaysian flavours but casually throws in some surprise twists here and there. There’s none of that contrived hipster wankery that you see all too often in this part of Melbourne – and there are no signs of wooden serving boards anywhere. It’s the sort of place you can easily bring your young work buddies before Wednesday night trivia at the pub or your fussy Asian parents to for lunch on weekends.
Our host Ricky warmly greeted us, suggesting we start off with some booze. Thanh stuck with a glass of white wine while I said yes to an aperitif called ‘Linh’s party starter,’ a refreshing mix of ginger wine and apple juice topped with sparkling wine, served in a champagne glass.
We began our meal with some steamed buns filled with duck rendang. This dish itself isn’t on the a la carte menu (at least the current version of it anyway), but it appears as part of Blue Chillies’ celebration and deluxe banquet menus ($50 and $65 per head, respectively). The a la carte menu does offer duck rendang as a main, though so I’m guessing they serve it in bao form to prevent wastage.
As an Indonesian, I grew up eating lots of rendang – but only ever the beef kind. I’ve never even thought about using duck in rendang and I kind of wish I did. The gamey duck flesh paired beautifully with the aromatic spices and chillies in the curry, making it more exciting to eat than the traditional beef version (but probably costlier to make).
I’m not a huge fan of soft shell crab so I didn’t attack this dish as ferociously as Thanh did. Still, I ate it all, piquant black pepper sauce and all. Also, it may not look like it in the photo but the batter arrived on our table super crispy and light.
The rockling with butter egg floss was, by far, my favourite dish of the day. Fish is my favourite meat and I love duck eggs so really, this dish was a winner in my eyes before I even touched it. Take rockling pieces, lightly fry them in batter until they’re gorgeously crispy and then add some duck egg floss on top along with fried curry leaves and chilli for good measure. True, you really can’t go wrong with duck egg but the combination of textures and flavours just made this dish a ‘must order’ for when I next visit Blue Chillies.
Blue Chillies offers a range of curries and noodle dishes for lunch, but Ricky suggested we try the assam prawns instead. The prawns were gently cooked in a beautifully tangy tamarind curry that was light and piquant with the slightest hint of chilli. I like my curries heavy but sometimes it’s nice to go for a version that’s less likely to make you bloat like crazy.
We shared a serving of belachan spinach on the side. At $19, I found the price point of the spinach a bit odd given that it’s a side dish – especially also given that Blue Chillies’ medium-sized dishes were on the $18-20 mark. That said, the serving size was extremely generous – I love belachan (shrimp paste) so much that I would have happily enjoyed this one dish on my own for lunch.
I was a bit of a dill and accidentally deleted the one and only photo I had of our dessert, the pandan crepes ($10). Sorry folks, you’ll just have to rely on my flimsy description of this dish. Picture a pair of mutant-green crepes filled with wok-roasted coconut and palm sugar and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Yup, it’s Blue Chillies’ version of kueh dadar, a sweet Nonya-style dessert that many Malaysians would have grown up eating.
Later on, I was surprised to find that Blue Chillies had been trading since my rebellious teenage years – 1999, to be exact. Yet, I had only just heard about them. I think it’s great that Blue Chillies managed to survive on such a competitive street for so long and continue to do well. Hopefully they’re still around when I’m in Melbourne and craving those butter egg floss rockling fillets.
In my teenage years, Glen Waverley was a suburb full of cheap and cheerful Cantonese restaurants, a place where my friends and I would trek to when we got a tad over the Box Hill or Doncaster Shoppingtown scene. These days, I don’t go to ‘Glenny’ very often but when I do, I’m often amazed at how different the suburb looks compared to my last visit. It’s an area that seems to be exponentially growing at ridiculous rates – and with a rising population growth comes an increase in the variety of eateries this leafy eastern suburb has to offer.
These days, I’m really loving Uyghur food, the cuisine of the Turkic ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region. When it comes to regional Chinese cuisine, Cantonese food will always be my top pick but sometimes I feel like something with a bit more heat and something more robust and down-to-earth. My friends Cathy and Aaron are also fans of Uyghur food so when they suggested we go to Bugda Uyghur in Glen Waverley, I eagerly said ‘sure!’
Bugda Uyghur was not around in my teenage years – but then again, neither was modern Hispanic eatery The Black Toro or burger joint YOMG. In fact, Bugda Uyghur is a bit out of the way; it’s more towards the railway station end than the bustling Kingsway precinct which means it doesn’t get as much foot traffic but it does attract its loyal customers each night.
One does not go to an Uyghur restaurant without ordering some sort of meat on skewer – so we ordered a handful of marinated lamb shish kebabs. The meat was juicy, with the balanced combination of chilli, cumin and the remnants of smoke from the charcoal grill making this thing the best $2 you’ll probably spend this month.
We then enjoyed a serving of barangga laghman, handmade noodles with stir-fried shredded potatoes and lamb. While noodles in Cantonese dishes tend to be more refined, these ones were heartier and thus would probably be more effective if you happen to be carb loading or struggling to fit in some macros for the day. I probably would have been okay without all the shredded potatoes on top, though Cathy loved them for the added crunch they brought to the dish.
If you’re still short of macros after those noodles, then the Anjan polu (pilaf rice) would definitely do it for you. I’d say that most of the dishes on an Uyghur restaurant menu are cooked with some sort of cumin/oil/chilli/lamb combination so if you want a dish that’s milder, this would be it. Yes, there’s braised lamb and yes, there’s perhaps a little bit of heat – but it’s pretty tame… and insanely delicious. I also liked the way the currants added a lovely dimension of sweetness to the dish.
I find it hard to go to any sort of Chinese restaurants without ordering a plate of dumplings. Thus, some steamed lamb dumplings were ordered – no pork because Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim so you’ll hardly ever see pork on the menu at an Uyghur restaurant. Hearty and generously sized, the dumplings were tasty though I think my preference for dumplings is still pork. This is because the other lamb dishes we ordered were seasoned with a lot of flavours, thus masking that distinctive lamb smell that many people find unpleasant including myself sometimes. With these dumplings though, there was nothing to mask the smell which somewhat affected my enjoyment of them.
Bugda Uyghur is definitely a most welcome addition to the Glen Waverley dining scene; I can see myself returning if I’m in the area and am craving lamb skewers or handmade Uyghur-style noodles (though I’d probably order ones without potatoes on them). Shoot me if you ever see me queuing for burgers at YOMG, though.
It’s been a super long time since I updated this blog and this is where I give all the generic excuses about life getting in the way, being busy adult-ing (I don’t like using the word ‘adult’ as a verb but the cool kids seem to be doing it these days) and getting really stuck into the scary but exciting world of self-employment – and by that, I don’t mean selling weight loss teas on Instagram.
Actually, I didn’t think that people still read my blog so for a while, I was happy leave it unattended like an electric slow cooker filled with soon-to-be hearty beef stew. The other day, though, Nee tweeted that she missed me (I don’t live in Melbourne anymore – but most of you already know that) and subsequently started going through my old blog posts. While I’m not much of a sentimental person, that really touched me – in fact, it was enough for me to get inspired to start blogging regularly again.
The last time I saw Nee in real life was in Melbourne more than a month ago. Bean and I were visiting Melbourne – on Grand Final Day, no less. Bean isn’t a sportsball fan and having lived in Queensland for so long, I’ve been so out of touch with the AFL scene so I couldn’t really muster up the enthusiasm to watch the Grand Final. Nee was also free that day so it was a perfect time to catch up for lunch while the rest of Melbourne cheered on the doggies. We’re all fans of Andrew McConnell and I’d been wanting to check out his newest addition to the McConnell empire: Ricky & Pinky, a Cantonese-style gastropub (for lack of better word). Hence, we decided to make it our lunch venue for the day.
Out of all the Andrew McConnell joints we’ve been to, I’d say Ricky & Pinky was probably the less ‘pretty-looking’ out of the lot. It was obvious that the aim was to capture the essence of the much adored suburban Australian Chinese restaurant from the 80s and 90s, hence the green carpeting, fish tank filled with live seafood and lazy susans. But there was also a touch of the modern throw in: gold pipes, sleek white walls and a team of young hipsters. Also, you had to go through the Builders Arms Hotel (a pub) to get into Ricky & Pinky, which was a little bit weird. But anyway.
We picked a bottle of 2011 Magpie Estate ‘The Schnell’ Shiraz Grenanche, Barossa Valley ($59) to share. The wine’s name was fitting in both ways: Bean was flying back to Berlin that evening (‘schnell’ is the German word for ‘fast’ or ‘quick’) and I now have a strong hatred of magpies due to a nasty swooping incident while innocently walking through Bond University last spring. In any case, the wine was lovely – just the right amount of body to keep Bean happy but not too heavy for me (I don’t like combining Asian food with rich reds).
These days, I can’t sit through an Andrew McConnell meal without at least one serving of dumplings. I blame two years of living in Gold Coast and not having access to good and honest dumplings. These dumplings definitely hit the spot: I loved the combination of their silky smooth skins and the fiery chilli oil punctuated with gloriously numbing bursts of Sichuan peppercorns. The filling was robust and tasty, too.
I ordered the spring rolls not knowing what ‘scamorza’ meant. Well, it turned out to be a cow’s milk cheese that was similar to mozzarella but with a milder flavour. It was an odd feeling biting into the crispy spring roll skin expecting your typical filling of minced pork or even vegetables, only to be greeted by a stream of bubbling hot cheese. Bean wasn’t a fan, but I didn’t mind it – I mean, who doesn’t like anything that involves deep frying and cheese?
Next, we had the pipis and XO sauce, a Cantonese classic and the one dish I always insist on ordering whenever I’m at Chinatown institution Supper Inn. I can’t remember how much the pipis were (damn ‘MP’) but we got half a kilo of them, a pretty generous serving. Best of all, the pipis were drowned in a lovely housemade XO sauce – plenty to soak up with the fried Chinese doughnuts provided on the side. Oh yeah.
These days, we find it hard to resist duck when it’s on the menu so it comes as no surprise that the dry aged duck was ordered. Beautifully juicy and tender, each duck breast piece imparted a slight smoky flavour. Serving suggestion: whacked on top of a warm steamed bun with plenty of hoisin sauce slathered all over. Two thumbs up – but not for the unflattering photo of it below (ha!).
We were pretty full at this stage but Bean was enjoying himself a bit too much so he cheekily asked for a serving of the steamed five-spiced salt chicken, one of the items from the mains (all designed to share, of course). Tender and juicy, the chicken was served with a large serving of egg fried rice along with ginger and spring onion sauce (the kind that David Chang made hipster famous). There was a beautiful balance of flavours but more importantly, it was tasty; the perfect dish to end a leisurely Saturday lunch on.
We shunned the dessert menu for coffee elsewhere; if we had more room in our collective stomachs though, we probably would have been more inclined to order more savoury dishes than peruse the dessert menu – like I’d pay $4 for a large fortune cookie. But never mind, we’ll be back next time to explore the rest of Ricky & Pinky’s menu – and maybe order more of those pipis.
I’m not sure what it is about Aussies and their love for Thai food – but when I say Thai food, I’m not talking legit Thai food that you get in the bustling streets of Bangkok. No, we’re speaking of one-dimensional green curries without any discerning flavours or heat. We’re talking pad thai noodles that’s missing the well-balanced ratio of salty-sweet-spicy-sour and the all-important wok hei. And finally, all the fake elephants and purple. Bleh!
Thankfully, you’ll find none of that here at Doodee Paidang, a small chain of Thai restaurants in Sydney. Specialising in tom yum noodle soups, Doodee is a favourite cheap eats joint for Thai international students so you know you’ll expect more than a decent level of authenticity.
Doodee has branches in Cabramatta, Bondi Junction and Haymarket; for folk that work in the city, Haymarket is the most convenient location – that’s where I caught up with fellow foodie Julie for a post-work dinner one evening.
You can choose between seven levels of spiciness, starting with the mild (albeit Thai mild which is different to gweilo mild) Doodee Monster right through to the sadistic Doodee super nova at level seven. Technically though, there really are only five levels – they omit numbers four and six as they’re unlucky numbers. I also liked that you can choose between a jumbo bowl if you’re hungry or a small bowl if you want to try other stuff on their menu, such as rice dishes or non-spicy noodle soups.
Being indecisive, I ended up going for the Dooedee duo ($14). On one side there was the Doodee vermicelli with tender braised pork, fish and beef balls and crispy wonton skin shreds; on the other side, there was the Doodee barbeque pork with egg noodles. There was no chilli in any of my dishes but on every table, there is a condiments island so you can DIY heat. (and suffer the consequences of putting way too much chilli – but my iced Thai milk tea ($4.50) saved the day.)
Meanwhile, Julie went a la carte. She divided her attention between two small dishes: the soft boil rice with prawns ($6.90) and the tom yum noodles with ribs ($6). I snuck several bites from each bowl and loved the gorgeous balance of intricate flavours that came out of every spoonful. And while I’m more of a noodles>rice person, I did find the rice dish much nicer – the rich seafood broth was beautifully infused with pork, chilli and lime.
I have to say that this was one of the best Thai meals I’ve had in Australia. All our dishes struck the perfect balance of spicy, salty and sweet – and if you happen to go for one of the spicy options, heat. The liberal use of fresh herbs such as coriander also helped to lift the flavours of each dish to another level that surpassed your average suburban Thai restaurant.
605 Station Street
Box Hill VIC 3128
+613 9898 8398
One thing I really miss about living in Melbourne is the proximity to dodgy dumpling places. By dodgy dumplings, I mean plates cheap, greasy yet oh-so-damn-tasty dumplings that’s best enjoyed with beer as well as after a hangover. There are plenty of those sots of places in the city and in suburban Asian enclaves such as Box Hill and Glen Waverley.
Unfortunately, these sort of joints are rare if not non-existent where I live now so I have to do without – or make my own from scratch if I’m craving. It’s no wonder, then, why most of my Melbourne trips include a trip to Shanghai Village or Shanghai Street et al. On my last Melbourne trip, I ended up at David & Camy Noodle Restaurant in Box Hill. They’ve been around since 1988 and were one of my go-to places for dumplings when I was growing up; these days, they’re still going strong.
Matt was my dining partner for the evening; in hindsight, this was probably a terrible idea because he had become a vegetarian a year or so ago – something which I completely forgot about. Regardless, David & Camy still has plenty of vegetarian options to choose from.
Like the spring onion pancakes, for example. At $3 a pop, it’s easy to slip in a serving when you’re having a dumpling feast. I make these at home a lot these days so rarely do I order them when I’m out but they’re a good dish to share when you’re out with vegos. Plus, they’re cheap too.
We ordered a plate of Shanghai noodles – sans pork – to share. David & Camy are very generous when it comes to serving sizes and the mountain of noodles we received was MASSIVE. In fact, we couldn’t even finish these between the two of us despite how ridiculously tasty they were (it’s all in the mushrooms, didn’t you know). Yes, it was very greasy and yes, they probably used old vegetables as they had a very limp texture – and yes, my photos are pretty horrible – but so what.
I ordered these, thinking that I’d be able to finish them on my own but after helping Matt with his noodles, I admitted defeat. I think I ate about seven before I gave up and asked for a plastic container. Crispy and full of bite, these dumplings were as good as I remember. While they won’t win any dumpling equivalent of Michelin star awards (they’d probably take marks off for being on the very oily side), they did the job and I was happy.
After a day of roaming Fitzroy and Brunswick, my friends and I ended up at Crown Casino. It’s been a while since I’ve set foot on its carpeted floors and goodness knows why and how we ended up there. It was, however, Easter Monday and a lot of places were either closed or packed out for dinner – maybe we figured that our only chances of snagging a table somewhere without going too far from the city was at Crown.
We ended up at San Antone by Bludsos, a kinda-but-not-really new eatery just around the corner from Village cinemas. Being completely out of the loop when it came to new openings in Melbourne, I didn’t know that this place existed though my dining companions Aaron and Cathy had heard about it. A product of third-generation barbeque pit master Kevin Bludso, San Antone is a new player on the Melbourne American barbeque scene. With restaurants in Compton and Hollywood, Melbourne was San Antone’s third location – and going by how packed it was on a Monday evening, it seems like the gamble has paid off for Bludso. There was a queue to get into the restaurant, but we were lucky just to make the cut for the last empty table.
After having spent the good part of that afternoon hitting the beers, I decided to stay away from alcohol. Instead, I opted for San Antone’s homemade peach iced tea. At $8, the tea was a bit of a rip given that it was rather sweet and one-dimensional; I couldn’t even taste the advertised thyme they added in the drink.
Meanwhile, Aaron ordered the ‘American-style diner coffee’ which was $4 – a laugh because hello, this is Melbourne! This is the land of amazing coffee, bitch! Curiously, the coffee appeared in the dessert menu rather than the drinks menu but Aaron specifically requested to have the coffee ‘served now.’ It took until after we were halfway through our food for his coffee to arrive – and only after three reminders to the staff. As predicted, the mud didn’t taste so good.
We shared a meat platter between the three of us. Although the platter was designed to be shared between two, the waiter didn’t object when that was all we ordered – and it was just the right amount of food to share, too. On the plate was some pulled pork, half a chicken, a chicken sausage and San Antone’s signature beef brisket that had been cooked in Old Hickory smokers on low heat for 12 to 15 hours. They also threw in two types of homemade barbeque sauce (one hot, one not) and some sides: chilli con carne, mac and cheese and slaw.
Oh yes, that brisket.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I was in love with our meal. In most cases, the meat was dry and lacking in flavour beyond smoky but even that was one-dimensional. The only good bit was the brisket, but only because there was just enough fat on the meat to carry the flavour through. I found the sides ordinary too – the chilli con carne was nothing I can’t make at home while half drunk after a night out while the ‘tangy coleslaw’ was anything but tangy. I guess the mac and cheese tasted okay but then again, it’s hard to go wrong with pasta and cheese.
San Antone has hit the jackpot with its mass bogan appeal, but it will have to work hard if they want to steal fans away from the likes of Le Bon Ton, Blubonnet BBQ, Big Boy BBQ et al. San Antone’s initial offerings of authenticity may appeal to begin with, but its dumbed down flavours and price point is likely to deter many from returning.
74/76 Victoria Street
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9429 6147
One thing that Gold Coast lacks is a decent Vietnamese restaurant. There are a few up on the Glitter Strip but sadly, these places often serve a very modified version of pho that’s way overpriced and lacking in flavour. So whenever I’m down in Melbourne, I make it my aim to visit at least a couple of Vietnamese joints, whether it be a banh mi (Vietnamese pork roll) kiosk in Footscray or a restaurant on Victoria Street that dishes out piping hot bowls of pho.
In the past, I’ve enjoyed these Vietnamese meals with my parents. Excited about the possibility of enjoying yet another bowl of aromatic pho, I asked my folks if they were free to do lunch on Victoria Street one Sunday afternoon – they were. And all throughout that Sunday morning, my stomach growled in anticipation: I was finally going to have a proper bowl of pho after three months.
During those three months I was away, however, something strange happened to my parents: their taste in Vietnamese food – and restaurants – changed… and I had no idea how, why and when. In the past, my parents were happy going to places like Hung Vuong and Chu The. Now, they claim they’re ‘too dirty’ and instead, prefer sanitised places like Tho Tho that obviously cater to a western audience. This was very strange – especially since my parents grew up in Indonesia, having happily eaten roadside chicken satays for a number of decades before moving to Melbourne. And even then, they were more than happy with sitting down at a run-down Vietnamese point, slurping bowls of pho.
As it happened, we ended up at Tran Tran, just down the road from Tho Tho. Graced with polished white tile walls and orb lighting, the people running Tran Tran created an impressive space that was clean and contemporary – and not a single Asian was sitting inside. Sadly, these were the sort of places I would have normally avoided if I wanted authentic Vietnamese food. In fact, the waitress actually looked surprised to see us, three Asians, walking in.
I glared at my parents but my dad only shrugged, meekly saying: ‘blame your mother’ before she responded with a: ‘at least this place is smart – it attracts all the orang bule.’ I guess she had a fair point, from a marketing perspective anyway. But anyway, let’s get onto the food.
The three of us shared some prawn and pork spring rolls to start off with. I don’t remember how much they were but they did the job – nothing special but they curbed my cravings for the humble crispy ‘roll.
I had the pho – or as they said on their menu, ‘noodles with sliced beef with a choice of rice or egg noodles’ (dear me). My first thought was: ‘why does it come with fried shallots?’
My second thought was ‘why is there a helluva lot of overcooked bean shoots underneath the noodles?!’
It was the strangest bowl of pho, I’ve ever had – at least in Melbourne. There was a slight hint of flavour in the broth, so at least you can say that they tried to make it taste like proper pho (cf. Berlin where it’s blatantly obvious that they sweeten the crap out of the broth to appease local diners). Overall though, it lacked the depth that one would normally expect from a good bowl of pho.
There is certainly a market for places like Tran Tran in Melbourne; indeed, they were doing a roaring lunchtime trade with happy Caucasians filling each table. But I’d never go back, especially since there are much better places on the same strip. One thing’s for sure though: I’m never agreeing to Vietnamese with my folks ever again.
A weekend down in Melbourne saw me catch up with inspirational foodie friends, Thanh and Hannah. For the most part, Thanh and I don’t particularly love brunch food – or the act of spending half our mornings freezing our bums off in the cold while we wait for a coveted table at Melbourne brunch hotspot #432432 to clear. Yet somehow, the three of us agreed to meet at Pillar of Salt, yet another one of Melbourne’s most popular brunch spots.
I can’t remember what time we agreed to meet that Saturday morning – it was definitely not before 9am (Melburnians don’t get up that early) but we weren’t pushing lunchtime, too. Either way, we were told (sometime between 10am and 11am) that there would be a 30-minute wait. I don’t like queuing for food so in normal circumstances, I would have said, ‘yeah nah, not waiting’ and then looked for other options. Hannah, however, had arrived there a good 10 minutes before Thanh and I – and had already invested that time in line. So we agreed to wait.
I think we waited more than 30 minutes. As the clock inched towards the 45-minute mark, we started to get narky. Why was this café named after the Biblical Lot’s wife attracting such long wait queues? Is the food really that good? Are the coffees made out of magical beans? Finally, we were seated.
From there, the service was speedy with a liberal dose of friendliness and good humour. So far, so good. My (second) macchiato (of the day) was indeed magical, a smooth house blend roasted by Five Senses was enough to curb my hunger pangs and yearning for a GOOD Melbourne coffee. (I had arrived from Queensland only the day before.)
Thanh ordered the kimchi fritters, corn and sweet potato fritters, a dish that I would not have otherwise ordered myself as I’m not a fan of sweet potato. That said, the fritters themselves weren’t too bad – there was a well-balanced mix of flavours and the kimchi was not at all overpowering. I did find all the add-ons (pink grapefruit cured kingfish, pineapple and wombok slaw, sour cream and house-made kimchi hot sauce) a bit too much, though.
I had originally opted for the pan-fried sardines – and Hannah, the porridge. A serious case of food envy, however, saw Hannah constantly eying my sardines and so we swapped. That was okay – I was also eyeing her porridge anyway. The sardines were served on toast with house-made ketchup, pickled red onions, truss cherry tomatoes, capers and preserved lemon. It was a much simpler combination than Thanh’s overly complicated fritters – and it worked. A great balance of flavours and a dish that wasn’t too heavy on the stomach, either.
I’m not normally one to order sweet breakfasts but this porridge was definitely one I can see myself ordering if I came here again. The grains were cooked in almond milk and served with strawberries, bananas, Coyo yoghurt and toasted shaved coconut. For an added flavour boost, they also threw in some agave syrup and activated almonds, which I thought was borderline wanky but anyway. It was a dish that was certainly worthy of a hundred Instagram likes, but also lived up to its good looks. Full of substance, flavour and texture, it was the perfect heart- and soul-warming dish to start a cold autumn morning on.
Boasting some excellent dishes and wonderful service, I can see why Pillar of Salt is one of Richmond’s better places to visit for a weekend brunch. The food errs on the quirky side and when done well, the results were amazing. And despite the fact that there was a constant queue outside, we – and the rest of the patrons sitting inside – did not feel rushed to finish our food and get the hell out. I’d definitely go back – but I’d make sure I’d be there early to avoid the wait.