Review: Ramen O-San (Sydney, NSW)

Shop F1A, Sussex Centre Food Court
401 Sussex Street
Haymarket NSW 2000
+61 439 945 245

For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about Sydney restaurants – after all, I’ll be moving there soon so I may as well make myself more comfortable, right? And one of my favourite things about being in Sydney is being spoilt for choice when it comes to ramen restaurants. They can be found pretty much everywhere from Chinatown to Chatswood and there will normally be a restaurant that will make the type of ramen you prefer, whether it’s a bowl of nutty miso ramen or a thick collagen-laden tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen.

I have a long list of ramen places I work through whenever I’m in Sydney and in 2015, Ramen O-San appeared on the bottom of the list. Ramen O-San is owned by restaurateur Kazuteru Oh (hence, the name O-San); the Kyushu-born O-San is also responsible for Busshari and Kujin so I knew Ramen O-San was going to be good. My Sydney friend Lawrence was also keen on checking Ramen O-San out so when I was up in Sydney for a weekend, we decided to visit. Better late than never, right?

Ramen O-San can be found at Sussex Centre Food Court in Haymarket. Here, you can often find owner Kazuteru Oh manning huge stockpots of tonkotsu broth that’s been simmering for 12 hours so that the collagen from kilos of pork bone, skin, belly and trotters can create a rich, thick broth that’s full of flavour. The broth is also MSG-free – not that you really need flavour enhancers for a broth that’s being cooked for that long anyway! O-San’s ramen noodles are also handmade, which is always a plus in my books.

Lawrence ordered the signature tonkotsu ramen while I decided go to light with the chicken soy ramen. We both added a soy-marinated egg in our ramen ($1.50 each). O-san’s tonkotsu ramen is thick, luscious and decadent. There is also the option to opt for an even thicker broth upon request, something that Gumshara fans would no doubt be up for. Nevertheless, the default tonkotsu option here does the job – and Lawrence slurped every last drop.

Tonkotsu ramen ($9.80), chicken soy ramen ($9.80)

If you feel that the tonkotsu broth might be too heavy for you, O-San’s chicken soy ramen is a lighter option but one that still delivers on the taste front – at least that’s my opinion of it. I was expecting it to taste like a Tokyo-style shoyu ramen (i.e. heavy on the soy) but instead the broth was much lighter. Think light chicken broth with a just the lightest dash of soy.

Chicken soy ramen with chashu pork

Sydney’s ramen scene might have plenty of healthy competition but I’d definitely list O-San as one of my top places along with Manpuku and Gumshara (yes, sometimes I do crave a super thick tonkotsu broth). There’s a ramen for everyone and best of all, everything is authentic right down to the noodles and well priced.

Ramen O-San Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Ben Thanh Hot Bread & Bakery (Melbourne, VIC)

Shop G32A
46-58 Buckingham Avenue
Springvale VIC 3171
+61 3 9548 4500

In Berlin, I turn to the city’s many doner kebab kiosks for a sub five-euro lunch when I’m on the go. In Melbourne, my cheap and portable lunch equivalent is most definitely a Vietnamese pork roll (banh mi thit). For less than a $5 note, you can get your mix of protein and carbs in one neat little package – and there’s plenty of vegetables and fresh herbs in the mix to convince yourself that you’re eating something that’s kinda healthy.

One day, I caught up with my friend Thanh in Springvale for breakfast. We decided to stop by one of his favourite Vietnamese sandwich kiosks, Ben Thanh Hot Bread & Bakery in Springvale Central. If you’re familiar with the shopping centre, it’s the bakery that’s directly opposite the KFL supermarket with windows adorned with posters of shoplifters they’ve photographed and shamed (lol).

Like any banh mi kiosk in Springvale, you can take your pick of sandwich fillings including Ben Thanh’s famous roast pork. I always stick to the mixed ham sandwich though so that’s what I ordered to take away.

Assorted fillings

 

Banh mi packaging

My go-to for banh mi in Melbourne is Footscray’s Nhu Lan (also in Richmond) but I have to say that Ben Thanh offers an excellent substitute – especially since both sit at the $4.50 mark. I think the bread at Ben Thanh is better – it’s softer, fluffier and boasts a bit more texture. I also think they’re more generous with the pickled vegetables and their pâté has a bit more bite. That said, I think Nhu Lan wins overall – their cold slices are tastier, their sandwiches are bigger and they retain their crispiness better after they’ve sat around for a few hours.

Mixed ham banh mi from Ben Thanh

In saying that, Ben Thanh is still an excellent choice for banh mi if you’re in Springvale. I’d definitely go again, though I’m also open to other suggestions if anyone has any!

Ben Thanh Hot Bread & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Salona (Melbourne, VIC)

260A Swan Street
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9429 1460
www.salona.com.au

Melbourne is home to the largest Greek population outside of Greece – that’s a commonly known fact, especially if you’re from Melbourne yourself. This means there are more Greek restaurants in Melbourne than you can poke a souvlaki at. In addition to having some excellent Greek restaurants, however, Melbourne does have its fair share of mediocre ones. You know the ones I’m talking about: white washed walls, greasy and unseasoned meat platters and plates of soggy fried calamari with chips. They’re boring, overpriced and uninspiring.

Not Salona, though. They’ve been in the hospo business since 1972 and continues to retain a strong clientele. When I was living in Melbourne, I took the availability of Greek food for granted. It wasn’t until I moved did I realise how much I missed it. So when my friend Thanh asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner during a Melbourne catch-up, I was quick to say Greek food. Our friend Brandon tagged along and he, too, was more than happy to sink into plates of meaty goodness. (though Salona also do some vegetarian options these days – mushroom pastitsio, anyone?)

The restaurant itself is warm and cosy, especially during winter. The best way to do dinner at Salona is to order a bottle of Greek red wine to share (we got the Enotria Land Cabernet Sauvignon, $95) and select as many dishes to share. Be warned: things can get a bit messy.

I usually shy away from ordering dips at restaurants. To me, $10 for some bread and a little bit of dip brings out the Asian tightassness in me. That said, I do love a good taramasalata (cod roe dip) and Brandon was taking quite some time to get here so up went my hand and soon after, some dip landed in front of us. Salona uses a mixture of white and red cod roe in their dip, before infusing it with lemon and olive oil. The dip was sensational and so was the warm pita bread that came with it.

Tarama ($9)

By the time Brandon rocked up, we were ready to attack. Our first starter was the scallops, served with kalamata olive jam and mountain tea jelly (mountain tea being a Greek herbal tea). I loved how the team at Salona dared to play around with modern twists and this dish worked beautifully.

Grilled scallops with mountain tea jelly and kalamata olive jam ($17)

For the saganaki, I was expecting a neat wedge of saganaki in a pan and perhaps some prawns in a tomato and leek sauce on the side. Close, but no filo cigar. The prawns, tomato and leek were all baked inside the pan, which was closed off with some gooey kafelograviera cheese. It was decadent and oh-so-perfect given the chilly winter air outside.

King prawn saganaki ($17)

As to be expected, there was quite a lot of lamb on the menu so we were good to narrow our selections to just two options. First up, the lamb ribs glazed in a lovely ouzo and honey mixture and served with skordalia. The ribs were deliciously succulent and their sticky sweetness paired well with the garlicky potato puree.

Ouzo and honey glazed lamb ribs served with skordalia ($16)

Then came the lamb shoulder, which had been slow cooked in a rich tomato braise. While it was comforting and tasty, I enjoyed the lamb ribs more – the flavour combination for that dish was way more interesting.

Lamb Riganato shoulder served with baked potatoes ($34)

Of course, we had to order a salad to balance out all the meats. We ditched the ubiquitous Greek salad and went for the roasted beet salad, served with spring onion, walnut, grilled manouri cheese, house made pomegranate balsamic. I can’t really describe the salad as light but it was definitely tasty and would definitely stand on its own as a single meal.

Roasted beef salad ($17)

In hindsight, the Angus beef (the last of the savoury dishes to arrive) was probably a dish we didn’t need to order as we were pretty much full at this stage. Still, we weren’t going to say no to trying some beef ribs – especially since it was served on a pea and herb skordalia, something that I was curious to try. Put simply, they substituted the potatoes for peas and garlic for herbs. As a result, the puree was delicious but definitely lighter on the stomach than the traditional potato version. The beef ribs themselves were cooked in a rich tomato stew, very similar to the lamb shoulder so there was a bit of déjà vu happening. It was a nice dish but like I said, something that I could have happily passed.

Angus beef rib Kokinisto served on pea and herb skordali ($33)

We were ready to split but when our waiter came around with the dessert menu, telling us that the galaktobouriko was ‘really good’, well, how were we to say no? FYI, galaktobouriko is a type of semolina custard that’s either baked with filo in a shallow dish or wrapped in filo pastry and served individually as fingers. In this case, we got the shallow dish option that came with a LOT of vanilla bean custard. The custard was lovely, though I was hoping for a more even ratio of custard and filo to even out the richness. The lemon and cinnamon fused syrup on top did help a bit though.

Galaktobouriko ($13)

In Melbourne’s Greek restaurant scene, there are a lot of hits but just as many misses. As for Salona, I liked some dishes better than others but I would definitely class this one as a hit – and one that I’d definitely return to again.

Salona Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Kobe Teppanyaki (Melbourne, VIC)

261/265 Blackburn Road
Doncaster East VIC 3109
+61 3 9841 9889
http://www.kobeteppanyaki.com.au/

In the early 90s, a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant opened just around the corner from our place. The restaurant was Kobe Teppanyaki and it always seemed to be packed in the evenings every time we drove past. For some reason, though, it never crossed our minds that we should try the restaurant. This was despite the fact that it was always busy and a lot of our family friends gave it glowing recommendations. Three decades later (!), it was time to finally give Kobe Teppanyaki a go.

I can’t remember what the occasion was but my entire family including my brother (normally AWOL due to work commitments) was present so it must have been a special occasion of some sort. Anyway, it was a Sunday afternoon so it was reasonably quiet when we arrived. It did pick up just as we were leaving, but I think it’s safe to assume that Kobe Teppanyaki gets the bulk of its customers in the evening.

Inside Kobe Teppanyaki

Wine is BYO at Kobe Teppanyaki, something I kind of wished I knew before arriving. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to enjoy green tea with a Japanese meal – at least in my opinion anyway. We were also given a sesame bean sprout salad as an amuse bouche.

Tea and bean sprout salad

Our Kobe sushi combo served as the perfect starter for this family of five. The menu says that it’s recommended for 3-4 people but I honestly thought this was a good size for the five of us. The usual suspects were there – kingfish, salmon and tuna – as well as the ubiquitous California roll. Some might be yearning for something more creative but I thought this was a solid effort and the fish was fresh.

Kobe sushi combo ($48)

Zucchini and pumpkin are my two least favourite vegetables (unless the pumpkin is in soup form – that’s a different story) so I silently groaned when I saw them featured in the mixed tempura platter. But you know what? The tempura zucchini and pumpkin were actually delicious – in fact, everything on that platter was. The light, airy and crispy batter was so addictive that it made me reach for a second zucchini.

Tatsuta age ($13), mixed tempura ($19)

The tatsuta age (fried chicken) was also tasty. When it comes to Japanese fried chicken, I prefer karaage but curiously they didn’t have it on the menu. What’s the difference? Well, karaage batter is made with wheat flour while tatsuta age uses potato starch. Still, the tatsuta age made everyone else on the table happy so there were no complaints there.

I’m a sucker for a good agedashi tofu and Kobe Teppanyaki’s version was one of the best ones I’ve had. At the more-than-$10 mark, it’s not cheap but it’s a small price I’d happily pay again for that thin yet handsomely flavoured dashi broth and the crispy batter coating the tofu squares.

Agedashi tofu ($11)

We ordered a serving of gyoza, only to be surprised when they came out with yellow siumai-like skins. We thought that maybe they wrote down ‘siumai’ on their order pads – after all, siumai was also on the menu, at the same price. The siumai, however, were described as steamed and obviously these had been pan-fried. The fillings were also 100% gyoza-like what with all the juicy cabbage so perhaps that’s just how they do it here. Yellow skins aside, they were tasty though I thought the price point was a bit steep for six dumplings.

Gyoza (six for $13.50)

I thought the kaisen soba noodles were delicious – but then again, I generally love most things that involve seafood and noodles so when you put them both together, well, it’s hard to go wrong. Lightly flavoured with soy, the noodles were soft fried and served with a generous handful of seafood including prawns, scallop and squid.

Kaisen soba ($21.50)

I’m not one to order teriyaki beef at Japanese restaurants (it’s the equivalent of ordering sweet and sour pork, in my opinion) but my brother is a fussy eater when it comes to Asian cuisine. Pork is generally out, whole fish usually gets a no and you can forget about offering him seafood; beef is usually a safe bet. Surprisingly, the teriyaki beef got resounding ‘yum, this is actually good!’ from everyone on the table, including myself. Sliced juicy eye fillet pieces were marinated in a delicious teriyaki sauce before being lightly grilled and served with some bean sprouts. A great dish to round off this leisurely lunch.

Teriyaki beef ($31)

While I wouldn’t recommend Kobe Teppanyaki for a cheap lunch, I’d definitely come back again for dinner to try their famed teppanyaki dinners. If you live far from Doncaster, I wouldn’t strongly urge you to make a special trip. If you happen to live in the area, however, this is a great spot to keep as your local if you want something more substantial than your cheap and cheerful takeaway options. Don’t forget to order the agedashi tofu!

Kobe Teppanyaki Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Persian Flavours (Melbourne, VIC)

338 Springvale Road
Forest Hill VIC 3131
+61 3 9878 3087

Persian food. I must admit that I don’t know much about it, despite growing up in a suburb that has one of the highest concentrations of Persians and Iranians in Melbourne. I went to school with Persians. Our next-door neighbours were Persians. And every time I went from one end of this particular suburb to another, there’d always be a network called ‘Persian Empire’ present every time I tried to look for WiFi on my iPhone.

Thus, I’m surprised that it took me this long to try Persian food – and funnily enough, it was my dad who recommended Persian Flavours, a restaurant on Springvale Road. I say ‘funnily enough’ because he used to avoid going out of his comfort zone when it came to food but he (and my mother) are a lot more adventurous now.

A quick browse through Google brought me to the conclusion that Persian cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring cuisines, especially the Caucasus. There’s also a lot of Turkish influence as well as inspiration from north Indian cuisine. The owners of this restaurant seem to be heavily swayed by the latter because the menu seems to focus heavily on curries and charcoal grilled meats ‘from the tandoori oven.’ I also see typical Indian restaurant highlights such as butter chicken sitting alongside goat curry, nan bread and tikka masala.

I dined here with my parents and sister on a Sunday night; we ordered several dishes to share between us: lamb koobideh, butter chicken, nan bread and kismish polow (sultana rice). All the dishes arrived very quickly and our waitresses were very friendly throughout the evening.

Persian Flavours: assorted dishes, definitely enough to feed four people

‘Koobideh’ is the term given to meat skewers (usually beef or lamb, occasionally chicken) cooked over hot coals. The meat is minced, seasoned with parsley, onions and spices before being grilled. Persian Flavours’ lamb koobideh came in pairs and were served with side salad and plain nan bread (though you also have the option of going for Persian rice with tomato if salads ain’t your thang).

Lamb koobideh ($15.80)

We also ordered a serving of kismish polow ($7.50), sultana rice cooked the Persian way (parboiled, drained, then steamed). Soft, fluffy and fragrant, the rice was tasty enough to enjoy on its own thanks to the sweet sultanas and fried onions but it also did a great job in soaking up all the sauces from the butter chicken we ordered (see below).

Yep, butter chicken, a dish that you see on every Indian restaurant’s menu in Australia. This dish is probably the Indian equivalent of the ghastly Chinese lemon chicken but if I were to be honest, I don’t mind a good butter chicken – and my family agrees with me. (though wow, I can’t believe how bad that photo is!)

I couldn’t taste the difference between Persian Flavours’ butter chicken and one that you’d get at a good Indian restaurant but it doesn’t matter for it was delicious. Creamy and nutty, with the fragrant burst of browned butter shining through, this dish was a winner and paired well with the kismish polow and the two types of nan we ordered, garlic and plain.

Butter chicken (small, $11.50), garlic nan ($3) and plain nan ($3)

Persian Flavours always seems to be packed every time I drive past on a weekend and I can see why. The food is excellent value for money and everything we had was delicious. The service is warm and very efficient, with the staff making you feel right at home. I can definitely see myself coming back to try more Persian dishes, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I get tempted by the curries again…

Persian Flavours Takeaway & Eat In Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Sabb Der Thai (Melbourne, VIC)

1/1-3 St Johns Avenue
Springvale VIC 3171
+61 3 9546 0599

I love noodle soups. Tonkotsu ramen, beef and brisket pho, curry laksa, soto ayam – you name it, I’ll slurp it til the cows come home. Obviously, they’re an ideal meal to enjoy during the winter months but I’ve been known to enjoy a piping hot bowl of noodle soup when it’s humid and 35 degrees outside. Another type of noodle soup that I’ve recently added to my list is the Thai boat noodle.

So, what are boat noodles and why the hell are they called that? Historically, this dish was served along Bangkok’s canals. Back in the day, the street seller would paddle his this dish from his boat; today, they’re rarely sold on the water itself but rather in riverside stalls. Also known as kuaitiao ruea, this dish boasts a deep dark broth flavoured with dark soy sauce, pickled bean curd and spices as well as pork and/or beef bones. Traditionally, the cook will also add beef blood in there for extra texture and depth, though not a lot of places in Melbourne seem to do that.

I have my preferred places in Melbourne to eat boat noodles, with Jinda Thai and Soi 38 being firm favourites. I am also aware that a handful of Thai restaurants serving boat noodles existed in Springvale and when my friend Thanh told me about Sabb Der Thai being his favourite place to grab this dish, I knew I had to try it. So after a meeting with my accountant in Noble Park, I met up with Thanh for some boat noodle goodness.

We ordered a bowl of beef boat noodles and a plate of som tum (papaya salad) to share. You might be thinking: ‘Man, you guys are tight asses! Sharing a bowl of boat noodles between two?’ Hah! Well, what if we told you we had a small bowl of pho each at Pho Hung Vuong 2 and shared a banh mi before coming here? Uh huh.

Beef noodle soup ($11.50), salted crab som tum ($9) and Thai iced milk tea ($4)

I’m not normally a fan of som tum but Thanh insisted that I gave this one a go – after all, som tum is one of Sabb Der Thai’s signature dishes. I decided that their version was delicious: light, refreshing and dammit, very very spicy! Thank goodness for my glass of milk tea, even though it was a bit on the sickly sweet side. We ordered the salted crab version of the som yum but you can also choose from several other renditions, including their dried shrimp one.

Sabb Der Thai’s other go-to dish is obviously their boat noodles. You can choose from about five different noodles (we chose rice stick noodles) and go duck, beef or one of several versions of pork. We chose beef and it came topped with beef slices, braised beef pieces and beef balls.

Beef noodle soup ($11.50)

After my first spoonful of soup, I can see why Thanh goes to Sabb Der Thai pretty much every week. The broth was addictively tasty – and they added just a little bit of blood in it to create depth, but not so much that you get that metallic aftertaste (which I don’t really like). My only mistake was not coming here on an empty stomach as I would have definitely been down for smashing an entire bowl rather than half a bowl!

After this visit, I can now add Sabb Der Thai to my list of places to get boat noodles in Melbourne. Next time, I’ll give the duck version a go as well as try their tom yum pork noodle soup. The only problem I have with Sabb Der Thai is that it’s not exactly easy to get to from my (parents’) neck of the woods, let alone from Melbourne’s west. Thus, I’ll keep going to either Soi 38 or Jinda purely based on convenience alone. That said, I will definitely swing by Sabb Der Thai the next time I’m visiting my accountant – I just need to remember to save my banh mi for later.

Sabb Der Thai Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Famili Ria (Melbourne, VIC)

1115 Riversdale Road
Surrey Hills VIC 3127
+61 3 9808 6767

I’m always amazed at how quickly the Indonesian food scene is growing in Melbourne. Growing up, there were hardly any places that would be good enough for my parents to leave the house and fork out money for dishes they could cook at home. Today? There are quite a number of excellent Indonesian restaurants – even my mum will reluctantly admit that they’re ‘just as good’ as her own cooking. One such restaurant that has opened up in recent years is Famili Ria in Surrey Hills.

I’m not sure where the misspelling of ‘family’ comes from; the Indonesian word for family is ‘keluarga’ which is obviously way off the mark. Never mind, though. This place makes probably the best pempek in any Indonesian restaurant in Melbourne, at least in my opinion. So, what are pempek? They’re savoury fishcakes from Palembang in South Sumatra. They’re made by mixing Spanish mackerel and tapioca flour along with a handful of seasoning ingredients to produce a chewy pattie that’s similar-but-not-quite-the-same to the Thai fish cake.

There are about 300 different types of pempek; you can get them in different shapes, sizes, textures and fillings – my favourite is the one that is deep fried and filled with egg. Traditionally, pempek are served with a sweet and sour sauce called kuah cuka (literally ‘vinegar sauce’ in Indonesian), which is quite rich and tangy – definitely nothing like the neon red sweet and sour sauces you see slathered on ‘pork’ at faux Chinese food court stalls around Australia. They can also be served with condiments and noodles, though my family prefers them served simply with kuah cuka, pickles and some prawn crackers on the side. Although pempek is a Palembang specialty, you can find this dish everywhere around Indonesia. My mum even makes her own version at home, however it’s not exactly a 15-minute job in the kitchen so it’s always nice to enjoy it at a restaurant – and one that’s just as good as Famili Ria.

The restaurant itself is pretty Spartan (think: melamine bowls and budget tables and chairs) but that’s not an issue at all. My main gripe is that it often gets really cold, especially in winter, so my tip is to rug up accordingly with lots of layers!

Inside Famili Ria

I’ve been here a few times and I usually deviate between two dishes: the pempek sampler and the mie tekwan, both pictured below (there are two servings of pempek sampler).

Pempek sampler and mie tekwan at Famili Ria

As mentioned earlier, there are around 300 types of pempek available but Famili Ria focuses on five: telor kecil (small, with egg), panjang (long-shaped), bulat (ball-shaped), keriting (curly) and tahu (tofu stuffed with fish cake). You can choose your favourite one or enjoy them in all one neat bowl called the pempek sampler. If you’re new to this, I highly recommend the sampler as you can try a variety of fish cakes and decide which ones you like best. The sampler also comes with egg noodles, vermicelli, cucumber and dried shrimp as well as kuah cuka on the side.

Pempek sampler ($12.50)

Famili Ria also does non-pempek dishes and they’re all delicious too. My dad likes to order the bakmie ayam (chicken noodles) while I tend to deviate towards the tekwan (noodles in shrimp broth with mini fish cakes).

Mie tekwan ($10.50)

During winter, the mie tekwan is an instant heart warmer and I love how the broth is so delicate yet complex and tasty at the same time with a hint of sourness for extra flavour.

If you’re looking to expand your Indonesian food repertoire beyond chicken satays and nasi goreng, I highly recommend Famili Ria for their pempek as well as their bakmie ayam and tekwan. Just remember to wear several layers if you’re visiting during Melbourne’s winter months!

Famili Ria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: 400 Gradi Brunswick (Melbourne, VIC)

99 Lygon Street
Brunswick East VIC 3057
+61 3 9380 2320
www.400gradi.com.au

A few months ago, my other half Bean made a passing comment about how it was impossible to get amazing pizzas in Sydney. I must admit that I’m not too familiar with the Sydney pizza scene (and we’re not talking about that SBS comedy, too) so I can’t confirm either way. In saying that though, I haven’t had an excellent pizza in Sydney myself. And of the few places I’ve been to that served pizza, they were unremarkable, too doughy (a la Anglo-Italian style) or just plain sucked.

During one of our Melbourne visits, Bean wanted to try some Melbourne pizza and I wanted to try a place I hadn’t been before. Enter 400 Gradi and enter our friends Aaron and Cathy who were also keen to join us for some pizza after an afternoon at the NGV. 400 Gradi has been around for quite some time but I never got around to trying it while I was living in Melbourne. Since my departure from the southern capital, 400 Gradi has since expanded from one single restaurant in Brunswick to venues at Crown Casino and in Essendon.

Melburnians love 400 Gradi. Owner and pizzaiolo Johnny Di Francesco made a margheirta pizza at the World Pizza Championships in Parma in 2014 and won the specialita traditionale garanita (STG) prize. Naturally, his win sent Melbourne’s media delirious and so they were quick to be all ‘world’s best pizza’ and ‘hashtag Melbourne pride’ for the next few months after that. 400 Gradi’s reputation has having the world’s best pizza remains, though I don’t necessarily agree. Not that I’ve tried every single pizza in the world but I still think Emma Pizzeria in Rome lead the way. Regardless of whether or not you think 400 Gradi’s pizzas are the best in the world, they’re still pretty good. And they certainly beat any pizza I’ve had in Sydney (though I’m happy to be proven wrong, Sydneysiders).

400 gradi means ‘400 degrees’, referring to how hot a proper wood fire oven must be for the pizzas to get their thin, soft crust that’s charred in spots after being in there for a short stint (usually 60-90 seconds). We ordered two of 400 Gradi’s pizzas: their Caserta and Diavola.

Caserta ($24) and Diavola ($24)

Excuse the terrible photo – we were sitting in a very dark corner and gone are the days where I’d carry a DSLR. Both pizzas were topped with San Marzano tomato, rocket and fior di latte; the Diavola had slices of hot salami (‘hot salami very very hot!’ warned the menu) while the Caserta came with 20-month-old prosciutto di Parma. A few people have said 400 Gradi’s pizzas are expensive. Sure, they’re not massively cheap but then again, they’re definitely not Domino’s or Pizza Hut so I thought the prices weren’t too bad, though they were pushing it a bit. We all enjoyed the pizzas, especially their thin and pillowy crusts and appreciated the effortless melding of toppings that came in generous proportions.

We also ordered a serving of pappardelle with slow cooked lamb ragu to share. I may have thought the pizza prices were justified but I honestly can’t say the same about the pastas. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the pappardelle was perfectly cooked and the lamb ragu was divine but seriously, that little blob on the bottom plate was about as much as each of us could get. I dare say that even I ordered this dish for myself, I’d still be hungry.

Pappardelle al Sugo D’agnello ($32)

I haven’t been back to 400 Gradi as I’ve heard they’ve gone slightly downhill after their expansion. I don’t doubt they still do an excellent pizza though and I’d be more than happy to visit for seconds – but will most likely skip the pasta.

400 Gradi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Town Mouse (Melbourne, VIC)

312 Drummond Street
Carlton VIC 3053
+61 3 9347 3312
http://thetownmouse.com.au/

Every time I’m in Melbourne, I always inevitably end up at Embla. Situated on Russell Street just around the corner from New Armenian juggernaut Sezar, Embla is my favourite Melbourne wine bar thanks to its dynamic rotation of natural wines and an exciting grazing menu to boot. Before Embla was born, however, there was Town Mouse.

Town Mouse is a modern Australian-slash-European mid-end eatery in Carlton; its style is accessible, down-to-earth with a splash of effortless panache. It’s also versatile in that it’s a suitable venue for casual mid-week gossip sessions with your girl pals as well as an ideal place to take your better half for an anniversary dinner or some other restaurant.

Christian and Amber McCabe founded the Town Mouse along with Amber’s husband Jay Comeskey. They then grabbed Chef Dave Verheul from the other side of the Tasman and set up a restaurant that got Melbourne talking in 2013. Obviously, there’s been many staff changes here and there especially after Christian McCabe and Verheul opened Embla in the city in 2015 but Town Mouse remains one of Melbourne’s most loved restaurants.

Bean and I came here for a Saturday lunch session, straight after arriving from Sydney. It was a cold and drizzly Melbourne afternoon but Town Mouse’s warm and familial dining room more than made up for it. We started off with a glass of wine each along with some warm sourdough bread with roasted sesame butter. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t note the wine we had but it would have been a Pinot.

Red wine, housemade bread, roasted sesame butter

Our first starter was a duck liver parfait (split in two #becausetightarse). When you combine creamy parfait (with a hint of smokiness) with a crispy wafer-thin slice of potato and a pickled cucumber to even things out, your tastebuds will most definitely start wanting more. I refrained from ordering five more though – we still had more dishes to get through and quite frankly, the bread was starting to fill us up! (yes, we ordered more)

Duck liver parfait, pickled cucumber and crisp potato ($4)

Next, we had a brandade made with olive oil and smoked eel rather than the traditional salted cod. I was quite taken back by the presentation as I was expecting the brandade to be served in a little bowl or perhaps a jar a la Melbourne hipster style, but this was nice. We had some toasted sourdough crisps to scoop up the yummy brandade though the crisp/brandade ratio was slightly off and we had to use our fresh bread to mop off the remains.

Smoked eel brandade, lemon and sourdough ($11)

The beef tartare was probably my favourite starter. For the most part, I’m sceptical when chefs play around with native ingredients as it can go either way (usually the wrong way). Town Mouse, however, got it down pat. The textures and flavours all balanced out perfectly, with the beef and cream actually showcasing the naturally herby and tangy flavours of the saltbush and lemon myrtle respectively.

Beef tartare, cultured cream, saltbush and lemon myrtle ($14)

From beef to… beef. If you’re onto a good thing, why not roll with it, right? Our main dish was the beef oyster blade with was served with sautéed rainbow chard leaves and sprinkled with a walnut and rye bread crumb. Like Town Mouse’s other dishes, this one skilfully combined all the ingredient’s textures and flavours effortlessly – though I think Bean found the chard too bitter so he left most of that to me.

Beef oyster blade, rainbow chard, yoghurt, walnut, rye ($26)

We chose the potatoes for the sides. They were nice enough but probably the weakest dish we had; I didn’t think the yuzu mayonnaise did much and I wish they seasoned the potatoes a bit more. They also made us disgustingly full but this was not at all the restaurant’s fault – just keep this in mind if you’re going to order them. In hindsight, I wish I ordered one of Town Mouse’s other sides such as their roast cauliflower with almond and broad bean miso or perhaps their slow roasted red cabbage with prune, parmesan and red apple. I didn’t because Bean hates most vegetables and doesn’t eat cheese (yeah, I know).

Fried chat potatoes, yuzu mayonnaise ($10)

At this stage, we would have been happy rolling out the door and going home for a nap but when I’m dining with Bean, ordering dessert is pretty much mandated. I don’t like chocolate that much so I tend to stay away from the token chocolate dish whenever I scan dessert menus. Town Mouse’s chocolate option, however sounded so intriguing that even I couldn’t resist saying no. To be fair enough, the main ingredient was a pear poached in cider while chocolate played a secondary role. But still.

Anyway, this was probably the most interesting dessert I’d had in a long time – there were so many different flavours fighting for attention but there was no sign of overpowering. Even the liquorice remained subtle.

Cidered pear, chocolate, pumpkin seed, liquorice and brown bread ice cream ($15)

 

The sign to the bathroom made me giggle

Given how many times I’ve been to Embla, it seems a little sad that I’ve only been to Town Mouse once. But given that I’m only usually in Melbourne for a short period of time, locations that are more convenient for me will often win over those that require a little more effort to get to. My next visit to Melbourne, however, will be a little longer so I’ll definitely make sure I squeeze a Town Mouse visit there. It’s a great little place and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a city worker who loves Embla.

The Town Mouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Blok M Express (Melbourne, VIC)

380 Little Bourke Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9600 2534

Growing up in an Indonesian household, I’ve been ‘hashtag blessed’ to come home to delicious home cooked Indonesian meals thanks to my mother. On winter evenings, there’d be crockpots of beef rendang, sayur asam and semur waiting for me as well as a rice cooker bursting with fluffy white rice to soak up all the liquids. During the summer, I was more likely to see satays and gado gado. Every now and then, my dad would even have a crack at nasi goreng (he’s actually pretty good).

Thus, it is no little wonder that I rarely go out for Indonesian food. Growing up in Melbourne, there weren’t many Indonesian restaurants around. And out of the few that were there, none served food good enough to command my mum’s attention or my dad’s wallet. Meanwhile in Sydney, good and authentic Indonesian restaurants can be found on Anzac Parade. I remember going on family road trips to Sydney when I was a kid; my parents insisted that they wanted to take us to see all sorts of Sydney sights but in reality, the real reason why they wanted to go to Sydney was to eat Indonesian food. In hindsight, I didn’t blame them. Sydney’s Indonesian food offerings were miles better than what Melbourne could provide.

In the late 90s though, everything changed. 1998 saw a lot of Indonesians, including a female cousin of mine, flee Jakarta and move to Melbourne. When things in Indonesia calmed down, many Indonesians returned; others stayed in Melbourne and opened up restaurants. These days, I still prefer eating Indonesian food at my folks’ house, but it’s also nice to have options if I’m out and about.

Blok M Express in the city is one such Indonesian restaurant that I’m happy to recommend. This diminutive eatery is named after Blok M, a vibrant district in South Jakarta that’s famous for its boutiques, restaurants and bars. Think Chapel Street in the 1990s when it was actually quite lively and nothing like the wasteland it is now. Blok M Express is cheap and cheerful, making it a popular lunch or dinner spot for international students and professionals working in the area. Its house specialties are grilled meat dishes, particularly their ayam bakar (Javanese char-grilled chicken). This particular dish is marinated in a spicy sauce comprising kecap manis and various spices including coriander, turmeric, galangal and tamarind juice. Of course, Blok M Express offers other Indonesian dishes too if you don’t feel like grilled meats.

The last time I visited was with my friends Aaron and Cathy after an afternoon at the NGV. It was late Sunday afternoon on a long weekend so there weren’t many dining options available to us, yet Blok M Express happened to be open. We walked in, ordered at the counter (cash only FYI) and shortly after, our dishes arrived.

Cathy ordered the gule kambing, an Indonesian lamb curry. The menu described it as a ‘special lamb curry cooked with tasty appealing spices’, I guess their lazy way of saying it’s cooked in coconut milk, cloves, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, galangal and kaffir lime leaves amongst other things. The best thing about this dish is that it’s comforting and mild so if fiery hot dishes ain’t your thing, give this a try.

Gule kambing ($10.50)

Aaron ordered the ayam campur (literally ‘mixed chicken’), which came with two pieces of ayam bakar along with some mixed vegetables, rice, sambal and oxtail soup. While I won’t give props to the limp vegetables and while the oxtail soup was laced with a lot of MSG, I have to say that the ayam bakar was very close to the one my mum makes at home – there was an excellent balance of spicy, sweet, smokiness and sourness.

Nasi Campur ($11.50)

I’m a sucker for soto ayam, Indonesian’s contribution to the world of chicken soup. It may not look as pretty as a bowl of pho thanks to the yellow hue provided by lots of turmeric but it’s soothing, delicious and sure to perk you off when you’re having a bit of an off day. To be honest, I’ve had better soto ayam elsewhere; I’m not saying it was bad but it lacked that depth and flavour that I’ve come to expect from a good soto ayam. Another thing: I’m not sure why they chose to use cheap faux Asian pink prawn crackers instead of the Indonesian prawn crackers which are 100 times better. If it was a cost thing, fair enough – but why not use Indonesian onion crackers? They’re inexpensive but would work much better than the pink stuff. I guess it was my fault for choosing a dish that Blok M Express isn’t known for but I had no regrets.

Soto ayam ($10)

Even though my soto ayam wasn’t amazing, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Blok M Express to people wanting cheap and quick Indonesian food in the city. Definitely stick to menu specialities such as the bakar items and the gule though and you’ll walk out happy.

Blok M Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato