Shop 2, 297 Exhibition Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9077 1097
Charging a premium for Asian food and trying to justify these price hikes by insisting that ‘only premium ingredients are used’ or tweaking one or two elements of a certain dish and calling it ‘Modern Asian’ seems to be the craze du jour in Melbourne’s dining scene right now.
While this practice has been successful for some (Gilbert Lau and Anthony Lui at Flower Drum, Teage Ezard at Gingerboy and Martin Boetz at Longrain), others haven’t been so lucky (gweilo-ising banh mi (Vietnamese pork rolls) by putting beetroot and roast chicken in them, for example, and charging $6 per roll at Flinders Street have made banh mi purists like myself aggravated). You may be someone who is into innovative dishes and have thus, welcome this trend… or you may be a full-on purist and scorn those who would dare pay $28 Teage Ezard’s Singapore noodles which may or may not contain fully organic noodles and peanuts that were handpicked by magic raccoons. Whatever your stance, ‘gweilo-ised’ Asian or ‘Modern Asian’ or whatever you want to call it is here to stay so suck it up, princess.
The newest bitch in town goes by the name of Miss Chu, who has transferred from Sydney because her school had no gymnastics team. Created by Laotian-born Vietnamese Nahji Chu, the inaugural Sydney kiosk-slash-caterer of the same name has seen an unexpected demand for its rice paper rolls so the crowds have given Chu the unofficial title of Sydney’s “queen of rice paper rolls.” And I’m not talking about your standard prawn rice paper rolls. Oh sure, they sell them here ($6 for two rolls, no less) but they also have fancy flavours such as satay chicken and coconut, and the vaguely worded ‘vegan rice paper rolls.’ Miss Chu also sells other food of the Vietnamese persuasion, namely vermicelli salads and pho. Oh, and dumplings are also on the menu. Yes, DUMPLINGS. And the good news? Miss Chu is all about using organic and fair trade ingredients which is always a plus in my books.
They also don’t use MSG (whooop) nor garlic (oh noes!)… And +1 for finally being the first to tell people how to pronounce ‘pho’ properly.
Last Thursday after work, Adam and I decided to pop down to Exhibition Street to have a taste of Miss Chu (ooh, sounds durrrrrr-ty!). Seating options are limited to two small tables outside or a handful of tables and wooden benches inside where the mood lighting can either diminish your ability to take awesome photos of food, or make your blind date partner look hot. Or both. We ordered from the bar as instructed, then sat on make-shift wooden-topped milk crates as we enjoyed the following delicacies:
Quick to land on our table was a plate of two tuna sashimi rice paper rolls. At $12, these obviously-nicked-from-the-Japanese rolls don’t come cheap but the creamy avocado, the luscious pieces of raw tuna, fresh mint (both the conventional and the Vietnamese kind) combined with a hint of wasabi all wrapped together in a secure rice paper blanket made for a refreshing starter. It tasted even better with the chilli soy sauce that came with it too. And yes, $12 is expensive for rice paper rolls (especially when you can get four for $5 in Footscray) but then again, the quality ingredients really made this dish and secondly, you don’t hear anyone complaining about being charged $12 for three potato croquettes at a tapas bar, don’t you?
Another thing I should mention here is that I don’t think the rice paper rolls are made to order. They came out really quick and I later found out that they were grabbing them from underneath the counter which hopefully had some sort of refrigeration system in place. But whatever, most places don’t make them to order anyway and the tuna sashimi ones were fresh enough for me so I can’t complain.
Although the focus is on snacks, there are some larger dishes for those who want a proper dinner. The wagyu beef pho sounded too good to pass up so we ordered a bowl of that. At $13, you’re paying almost double the price of a Hopkins Street pho, something that will send Adam’s budget-conscious parents into a frenzy. I was kinda expecting it to be something special but truth be told, I would rather much have a ‘proper’ pho from Footscray, MSG and garlic and all. The broth was just too plain and not at all fragrant like a pho should be. I hated how they popped the sliced chillies into the soup, assuming that we would be okay with that but I’m someone who does NOT like chillies in her pho so I was annoyed to spend half the time picking them out. And although there was a generous amount of bean shoots in the broth, we did not get a plate of leafy herbs as is customary at Vietnamese restaurants. At least the slices of wagyu beef were soft and full of flavour.
And at least they weren’t tight with the noodles.
In saying all that, Adam actually found the plainer soup to be a refreshing change from the MSG-laden broths that he is accustomed to.
We also ordered a bowl of pork Hanoi spring roll warm vermicelli salad ($12). The noodle-spring roll ratio was a bit off but then again, what place WOULDN’T give you a bowl with lots and lots of noodles and hardly any spring rolls? The Hanoi spring rolls, which are like ‘normal’ Vietnamese spring rolls but use a rice paper wrapper instead, were fried to a crisp and had a lovely delicate filling – a bit of pork mince, a bit of mushroom and I was happy. I don’t think this was the best rendition I’ve had though (Nam Giao in Springvale FTW) but it wasn’t half bad either. Next time, I think I’ll try the vegan sauteed shitake, enoki and shimeji mushroom vermicelli salad because goodness knows how much I love mushrooms… mmmmm…
The second time we went, we decided to sit outside where the lighting was a bit better and order dumplings to nibble on. Personally, I think Miss Chu works better as a place that you can order a drink at, and share a few plates of nibbles whether it’d be dumplings or spring rolls.
First off the rickshaw rank is a bowl of scallop and prawn dumplings (three for $5). They were very much like the yum cha kind, but more plump thanks to the big arse prawns and scallops they used. Their almost gluggy skins was a sign that they had been sitting on the steamer for a bit too long but whatever, I’ll overlook the skins because I thought these were freaking fantastic and as for the tangy soy sauce that the dumplings were served with? Loved it.
We also ordered some ‘Shanghai pork’ dumplings (three for $5), an obvious attempt at recreating the xiaolongbao. They might have looked the part but the absence of soup in the dumplings meant that they were not proper XLBs. Still, the filling was tasty (sweet, but not very) and actually better than some of the mediocre ones I’ve had at CHINESE places which says something. Or maybe not.
They also sell char siu (BBQ pork) buns at $2 a pop. Because the dough was gluggy and the filling a bit skimp (not to mention TOO sweet), you’re better off going to Nam Loong on Russell Street to get your steamed bun fix.
We also had Hanoi spring rolls on their own (4 for $5), served with lettuce and nuoc mam. The spring rolls were alright, but not the best Hanoi ones I’ve had as they weren’t THAT crispy. That said, they were still tasty and the nuoc mam was one of the better ones I’ve had.
I don’t normally rave on about drinks but this is a drink that is just as good, if not better, than the food here. It’s a young coconut, pineapple and mint cocktail served in the cup that the young coconut juice (young coconut meat included) came in – $9 with vodka or $5 without. Coconut water/juice is currently the next Vitamin Water (vomit) and I think it’s smart that Miss Chu is taking advantage of this fad by actually making a coconut-based juice that actually tastes delicious (c.f. Cocobella or whatever the fudge that crap is called). The cocktail is punchy and light with just the right amount of sweetness. Best of all, the mint and coconut meat are both pureed in with the fresh pineapple juice to give it a smoothie-like texture. The only bad thing about the drink is that there is a negligible amount of vodka in the $9 version so you’re probably better off getting the virgin version and buying a bottle of Beer Lao for lack of better drinks. Or walking down a block to Trunk or Troika.
And another good thing about this place? They do free delivery within 1kms. On these funky bikes! Exhibition Street is a bit of a hike from my office so I knew that I could never venture here for lunch but the thought of having rice paper rolls of warm vermicelli salads delivered to my work got me REALLY excited. Until the dude behind the bar told me that they could only deliver if your order exceeded $35. Bummer.
Not to worry, everything is available to take away. I bought two boxes of rice paper rolls and split them with Adam so that we could eat them for lunch the following day. While not ideal (one year old rice paper rolls, really?), they were still ‘good’ by the time 1pm came and hey, anything beats eating a crappy cheese sandwich with soggy lettuce!
Yep, even a rice paper roll that looks scarily like a dead penguin…
Pingu was actually a roast duck and banana flower rice paper roll ($8 for two) which was actually more mint, banana flower and betel leaf and not so much duck which was a bit disappointing. But still, it tasted alright – just wished there was more duck in it!
Much better was the free-range egg omelette with avocado and balsamic caramelised onion ($6 for two). It was beautiful – the creamy avocado (which still managed to stay green despite sitting in a fridge all night and all morning) went well with the sweet and almost tarty caramelised onions. Dip in some nuoc mam (provided) and you have yourself the best light lunch ever. Well, not ever, but hey, I work at William Street and at 1pm on a Friday afternoon, I’m easy to please.
But no seriously, despite the rolls not being fresh, the skins still remained supple (not dry nor soggy) and the ingredients still retained their flavours.
Okay so the food steers towards the gweilo-ised Vietnamese . And those who are accustomed to paying $5 for four rice paper rolls might berate me for going to this joint when going to any random Vietnamese restaurant on Victoria Street would have been more economical. I may say to you, “Yeah, you’re right” when it comes to the issue of pho (or “fur”), call it a tie when it comes to the warm vermicelli salads (hopefully the vegan mushroom one will blow me away though and change my mind) but when it comes to rice paper rolls and steamed dumplings at 9:30pm on a Wednesday night, I’m glad that there is a DECENT option in the city. Yes, they’re slightly pricier than Chinatown but it’s a small price for no MSG and ZOMG, scallop and prawn dumplings that are so lusciously delicious. And judging by the number of walk-ins on the two nights we were there, it looks like this bitch is here to stay.