122-128 Berkeley St
Carlton VIC 3053
+61 3 9348 1704
I know I’m probably a bit late in saying this, but I would like to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a safe New Year! I hope that the lead-up to Christmas Day hasn’t been too stressful or too draining for you, and I hope that you had a wonderful day of fun, laughter and lots and lots of yummy food with your loved ones today. We normally have some sort of meal at our house but this year, we were a bit slack with organising something so we decided to take the easy route and have yum cha for lunch. No stressful trips to Queen Vic Market’s seafood hall on Christmas Eve, no slaving away in the kitchen for hours, whipping up gingerbread houses, chucking them in the oven and then forgetting about them as you go off and watch Carols By Candlelight, and no more leftover Christmas ham that will eventually form lunch for the next two weeks.
So why, oh WHY, the fudge did I decide to torture myself yesterday by going to Queen Vic Market when I had nothing that I needed to buy? Why did I think it would be a good idea to wander around the seafood hall, getting squashed by frantic mums and dads desperately stocking up on cooked prawns, Moreton Bay bugs and trout? Why didn’t I just stay home? I don’t know. I must be a masochist. Nevertheless, I ended up leaving with a bag of walnuts, a bag of sweet cherries at $10/kg (BARGAIN!), bananas at 50 cents/kg and a bag of organic salad greens at $5/kg so my trip certainly wasn’t a waste.
To reward myself for my efforts, I decided to head over to Middle Fish cafe, this Southern Thai cafe that had just opened up on Berkeley Street with very little fanfare only a couple of weeks ago. You wouldn’t think it, folks, but inside one of those warehouse-looking structures lives what I reckon is Melbourne’s coolest Thai eatery.
Stepping away from the heat of the sun and into the cool (both temperature-wise and style-wise) warehouse was a relief to my senses. I couldn’t get over how cool everything was, from the booths formed from old train carriage sleepers to the chandeliers which were made out of metal Thai rice bowls to the funky traditional Thai-inspired industrial artwork by Thai artist, Torlarp Larpjaroensook. Nope, you wouldn’t find any purple walls or skinny Buddha statues here. Just fun, eclectic and unpretentious steez. While it’s true that the warehouse thing has been done to death in Melbourne, somehow owners Thai-born Pla and her Aussie partner, David, have ensured that Middle Fish was Not Another Friggin’ Hipster-Warehouse-Bullshit-Eatery. It may be because the warm and friendly personalities of both Pla and David replace the snide attitudes of some of the staff that work in some of those places. Or because the menu consists of not paninis and free-range eggs done 10 billion ways but rather simple Southern Thai dishes, accompanied by an array of cold drinks by the bottle or coffee by Five Senses. Whatever it is, this is a place that I’d be sure to frequent quite a bit next year given that it’s so close from Melbourne University, where I’ll be doing my new Masters course.
It was almost three o’clock when I visited, and thus expected the place to be getting ready to close. ‘No,’ said Pla, cheerfully while indicating to the sign above the counter. ‘Of course, we’re still open for lunch.’ I plunked myself gratefully at a table in the corner and studied the menu, which was divided into breakfast items, specials (‘try this’, it urged on the menu), salads and soups/curries. The head chef, Pla’s aunty, is from Southern Thailand, which means the food is as well so don’t come in expecting Massaman beef curries, pad thai or even Thai fish cakes here. Instead, expect dishes such as Southern Thai dish curry soup with crab leg meat, and caramelised pork belly fried rice, or the local favourite, tom yum with Queensland banana prawns and rockling fillets. Had the weather been cold, I would have chose one of those dishes but because it was hot, my eyes darted to the salad section instead.
I ordered my food, while sipping some ice, cool water and read the latest Frankie magazine. Not long after, Pla returned with an amuse bouche of half a son-in-law egg. Although I prefer Teage Ezard’s sticky, gooey son-in-law eggs from Gingerboy, this one was still pretty good. The yolk was not quite hard, thus allowing the delicate flavours of the tamarind, palm sugar and chillies to seep through the centre. A great start.
My som tum, a Thai-style spicy fruit salad ($12.50). Pla did warn me that it was spicy and asked if I could handle the heat. ‘Pfft, of course, I’m Indonesian,’ I said, perhaps a little arrogantly but I guess Pla would have got the last laugh because although I managed to finish the salad off without begging for milk, it was still reasonably spicy! Later on, David explained that there are many variations of this dish in Thailand, and the most popular ones use green papaya and other fruits that you can only get in Thailand. They’ve had to be a little creative with the ingredients here but I reckon they did a pretty good job. Instead of green papayas, I got apples. I also got sweet pineapples, sliced cherries, carrots and salad greens. It was all held together by a sweet, tangy sauce that was oh-so-hot but at the same time, refreshing. I also loved the saltiness that the dried pieces of shrimp gave, and also the crunch of the peanuts. This dish reminded me so much of the Indonesia’s equivalent, the fruit rujak, but I prefer the som tum a little bit better, heh!
I also bought another salad dish to take home with me, a North-East Thai beef salad ($12.50), probably the only Northern Thai dish on the menu. Like the som tum, this salad was also very flavoursome and fresh, but thankfully not as spicy. The vegies – sliced red onions, chopped spring onions, coriander and salad greens – were obviously beyond fresh while the fatty minced beef proved to be excellent in mopping up the chilli, lemon and lime dressing while elsewhere, bits of roasted rice provided that extra crunch. This dish is traditionally served hot, so by the time I dug into it at home several hours later, it was starting to lose some of its shine. It was still good, but the flavours weren’t as intense so I ended up shoving half of it in the fridge for next time. Next time was supper this evening when I awoke from my long siesta, somewhat hungry. For some reason, I couldn’t be bothered heating the salad up so I ended up eating it cold. And you know what? It was magnificent. The flavours magically intensified in the cool air overnight, and made the whole thing taste so much better. I probably would have preferred this cold version over the, dare I say it, hot version.
I know I’ll be back multiple times in the new year to try their richer curry dishes for dinner, their banana roti with condensed milk for breakfast, or simply to just chill on the couches with a juice or a coffee (if I end up drinking it again) before class. I may as well enjoy Middle Fish while it’s still in its baby stages because I can only imagine that it’ll be overrun by hipsters and Melbourne Uni students when they find out about this place, the next best eatery to have been established next to the university since Seven Seeds.