The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

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Archive of ‘Melbourne CBD’ category

Review: Grand Trailer Park Taverna (Melbourne, VIC)

Upstairs, 87 Bourke Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 9972 3699
http://www.grandtrailerpark.com.au/

A recent trip to Melbourne saw me and a group of eight other lovely people congregate at Grand Trailer Park Taverna, Melbourne’s newest burger joint, for a Saturday lunch. I’m not one to fawn over burgers that much these days but when my workmate told me about a new burger place in Melbourne that named their dishes after Ivan Drago, Cynthia Benson and Bananarama, I knew I had to check it out #because80sgeek.

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Tucked in the space that was once occupied by Sino-hipster bar Happy Palace, Grand Trailer Park Taverna is kitsch, campy and lots of fun. A lot of the tables were housed in hollowed out faux caravans (or trailers, rather) – kind of like those old school birthday trams they used to have at McDonalds. There were also tables outside on the balcony, the perfect place to sit outside in the sun with a glass of cold beer and perve on Melbourne’s beautiful set walking around on Bourke Street below.

For some reason, the photos I took for this post turned out kinda whack so please forgive me. In hindsight, I kinda wish I made like Thanh and Winston by walking over to the sunny area to take photos where the light was a lot better than our trailer-covered table but give me some credit, I’m not THAT shameless (hah!).

Francis Underwood ($16): beef, American cheddar cheese, tomato, butter lettuce, potato mac and cheese croquette, special burger sauce and American mustard

Francis Underwood ($16): beef, American cheddar cheese, tomato, butter lettuce, potato mac and cheese croquette, special burger sauce and American mustard

All the burgers here are served on lightly toasted brioche buns. Our table enjoyed a variety of different burgers but sadly I didn’t get to try most of them. One burger I did manage to try though was Winston’s Francis Underwood burger. It was essentially like the default (basic) KSA burger but with a slab of potato mac and cheese croquette in the middle.

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I must admit, the croquette was da bomb. The sheer size of it made the burger too big to handle for my little hands (no sniggering, please). In fact, it took me two bites (one at the top of the burger, and one at the bottom) just to get all the flavours in (okay no sniggering for real, please). Aside from the fact that the bun was probably a bit more Brumby’s bread than buttery brioche, it was a pretty impressive burger.

KSA ($12.50): beef, American cheddar cheese, special burger sauce and American mustard; large hand-cut chips ($7.50); Markers Mark bourbon, salted caramel and maple bacon milkshake ($17)

KSA ($12.50): beef, American cheddar cheese, special burger sauce and American mustard; large hand-cut chips ($7.50); Markers Mark bourbon, salted caramel and maple bacon milkshake ($17)

I kept mine simple with the KSA i.e. the basic cheese burger (so, essentially the Francis Underwood minus the croquette really). I have no idea what KSA stands for – definitely not Kosher Supervision of America – but it didn’t matter for my burger was also pretty fantastic… apart from the not-so-buttery-brioche, that is. Great flavours, generously-sized and did not try too hard – at the end of the day, that’s all you want in a burger.

As for the chips? Bleh, forget about them. They were soggy, bland and lacking in flavour. I’d recommend you give them a miss and order the potato mac and cheese croquette instead if you do feel like something starchy on the side. My bourbon, caramel and bacon milkshake, however, was fantastic – then again, you can hardly go wrong with bacon. Or whisky. Even salted caramel is aiight sometimes.

We were on our way out after a very satisfying meal before the cute bar dude stopped us and made us stay for a dessert on the house. Well, if you insist, Lucas…

Return of the Mack ($18): vanilla ice cream, warm chocolate sponge cake, warm chocolate sauce and whipped cream

Return of the Mack ($18): vanilla ice cream, warm chocolate sponge cake, warm chocolate sauce and whipped cream

The dessert was meant to be shared between two – but the remaining five of us struggled with it. Because I’m not a fan of chocolate desserts, I found it a bit too rich for me (after two spoonfuls, I declared defeat). However, it got resounding thumbs up from everyone else so don’t listen to me.

Grand Trailer Park Taverna is a better place to eat, drink and perve than Happy Palace so I, for one, welcome this new tenant with open arms. While I suggest you forgo the chips, the burgers are definitely some of the best in the city. Go before it starts attracting Mamasita-like queues.

Grand Trailer Park Taverna on Urbanspoon

Review: Shortstop Coffee & Donuts (Melbourne, VIC)

12 Sutherland Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
http://www.short-stop.com.au/

I’m a sucker for a good donut so when I heard that Anthony Ivey (the cute Market Lane and Doughboy Doughnuts dude) was opening up his own permanent donut store in Melbourne CBD, you can imagine how excited I was. Located just off Little Lonsdale Street, Shortstop Coffee & Donuts was the result of six months of researching in the ‘States (read: eating donuts) and many hours of fine-tuning donut recipes to bring probably the best donuts Melbourne had seen since Krispy Kreme first opened to much fanfare in Fountain Gate roughly ten years ago. God, those were the days.

At present, Shortstop is only open on weekdays which initially made it hard for me to visit. I finally got my chance, however, one Queensland long weekend. I met up with my friend Gian for morning tea there one Monday morning for a guilt-free donut and coffee. (guilt-free because we were both going to the gym later that afternoon.)

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The store itself isn’t too big, yet the minimalist interior equipped with blond wood furnishings and circle motifs made the space look bigger than it was. There were also a few places to sit down if you don’t feel like going back to the office either. I was also glad to see no lines when I rocked up – this was about two or three weeks after opening, according to Anthony who happened to be there that morning.

Latte ($3.50)

Latte ($3.50)

The espressos here are, of course, made with Market Lane’s Seasonal Blend beans and Schulz Organic milk, my favourite brand of milk – it’s a shame I can’t get them in Queensland. *sob* Naturally, my coffee went down a treat. Filter coffees are also available for all you hipsters out there.

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Shortstop gives you the option to order donuts online so by the time you rock up, you’re good to pick them up and leave. Without knowing how busy the store was going to be by the time I rocked up, I decided to pre-order my donuts. According to the website, there is a minimum order of six donuts per online order though I could have sworn the number was a lot higher initially. In any case, I took home nine donuts – two of which I shared with Thanh over lunch later that day.

Bourbon crème brûlée ($5); cinnamon, cardamom and sugar ($4)

Bourbon crème brûlée ($5); cinnamon, cardamom and sugar ($4)

We shared the above two donuts. We found the cinnamon donut nice enough but just that, nice. Taste-wise and texture-wise, I’d rather it was only slightly better than those cinnamon donuts you get at those stodgy donut franchises you see in shopping centres.

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The bourbon crème brûlée donut, on the other hand, was heaps better. Think a fried massive ball of, well, dough injected with a velvety vanilla crème patisierre infused with Maker’s Mark bourbon. The top was then sprinkled with sugar before being torched until crispy. While it’s not something I’d be eating on a daily basis, I decided that I liked it – hell, I could have even sworn there was enough alcohol to bring my BAC over 0.05.

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I took the others back to Queensland with me where I got to share them with my very excited workmates. As you can see, each donut has been divided up into little pieces. If you’re anything like me and Gian, one donut is so rich and filling that you’re better off enjoying them in little bites.

Here are my thoughts in dot points:

Strawberry and lime ($4.50): I love that the icing wasn’t one-dimensional like a lot of strawberry iced donuts. I loved that the lime injected a bit of tang to it too. The girls in the office really loved this one but then again, I think they’re more into strawberry-flavoured things than I am.

Peanut butter and jam ($5): Texture-wise, I found this one a bit too cakey for my liking. However, I gave two thumbs up for the taste. Not that you can do much wrong with peanut butter and jam anyway.

Australian honey and sea salt crueller ($4): Surprisingly, this was my favourite of the lot (after all, my friend White Steve did warn me to ‘watch out for the one with the biggest hole’). Its texture was much softer than the other donuts, so much so that it literally melted in your mouth. I also loved the irresistible combination of salt flakes and sticky honey; it also goes to show that you don’t need complex flavours and textures to make a good donut. Simplicity is key and I’ll be buying more of these next time.

Banana and chocolate hazelnut ($4.50): This was another cakey donut so I didn’t rate it terribly high. I’m also not a fan of chocolate or banana-flavoured things so I knew this was already destined to fail in my books. That said, everyone else in the office loved it so maybe it was just me who was weird.

Earl Grey and rose ($4.50): Another cakey one, but I liked the flavours of this one. I loved that the dough was slightly spicy – think speculaas or something to that effect, but with rose water. And even better was the rose petal icing. Too pretty!

Red velvet ($4.50): As mentioned, I’m not a huge chocolate person so I didn’t rate this one. One of the girls, however, declared this as one of her favourites due to the intensity of the dark chocolate and beetroot flavour profiles.

So there you have it, my thoughts on the entire Shortstop menu – or at least the menu that was valid at that point in time. I know the guys add and minus donut flavours all the time so you might very well see a few new items by the time you visit. As for me, I’m definitely not ordering nine donuts again. For one thing, it’s a task to carry them up to Queensland along with all the other food I always bring back from Melbourne. Secondly, there are some flavours that I wouldn’t eat again. The Aussie honey and sea salt one on the other hand… hell, I’ll take half a dozen, thanks!

Shortstop Coffee & Donuts on Urbanspoon

Review: Hakata Gensuke (Melbourne, VIC)

168 Russell Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 6342

http://www.gensuke.com.au/

When it comes to good ramen, Melbourne is slowly but surely gaining legs. Just when I was ready to proclaim the fair southern capital as the ramen cesspool of Australia, it brings us gems like Mensousai Mugen and Fukuryu. And now, we have Hakata Gensuke.

Hakata Gensuke is that diminutive Russell Street eatery that’s got massive queues forming outside since day one. It’s a franchise created by Chef Kousuke Yoshimura and this is his first Australian restaurant. Unfortunately they don’t take bookings so if you’re craving a good honest milky Hakata-style pork bone-based broth ramen and missed the Jetstar flight sales to Japan once again, then you have to come here – and line up.

Pete and I rocked up at 11:45AM one Saturday afternoon, hoping that we’d be one of the first in line for when they did finally open at 12 – unfortunately, we weren’t. There was already a steady line of hungry customers by the time we got there. But like the Tokyo subway system, the guys at Hakata Gensuke are very efficient – a wait staff was already giving everyone in line ordering forms and pens so we could order before we were even seated. Thankfully, the turnover here is quick so we only had to wait half an hour for a table. Yes, only.

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We walked in to cries of ‘Irasshaimase!’ and sat on the counter by the wall. The restaurant’s fast-paced vibrant atmosphere and simple timber furnishings was almost enough to make Pete think he was back in Tokyo.

Signature tonkotsu ramen

Signature tonkotsu ramen

Both Pete and I ordered the tonkotsu ramen. The dish starts at $13 and comes with noodles (you can decide whether to go soft, normal, hard – or very hard if you’re down for it), one slice of cha-shu pork and wood ear mushrooms. You can also decide whether you want the ‘normal’ broth, or one that’s lighter (presumably diluted with dashi). There is the option to get spring onions too at no extra cost.

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You can also chuck in some add-ons for a couple of dollars. I requested the ‘special topping’ add-on: three slices of cha-shu, three pieces of seaweed and one egg ($8). This meant that I ended up paying $21 for my ramen; not cheap at all.

Look, the ramen was lovely – the noodles were beautifully chewy, the broth was equal parts milky, rich and flavoursome. I can certainly see why people would happily wait up to an hour just to sit down and pay more than $20 for a ramen. But would I do it again? Probably not. As good as the broth was, I just think $21 is ridiculous, especially when I can get ramen just as good, if not better, for almost half the price at Hakataya and Muso in Gold Coast. You’re all probably asking why I can’t just stick to the default $13 tonkotsu option – um sorry no, one slice of cha-shu, no seaweed and no egg ain’t going to cut it.

Chicken karaage ($5)

Chicken karaage ($5)

Conversely, the snacks are better-priced. We loved our chicken karaage, which was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, made all the more addictive with a dash of spicy salt.

Hakata gyoza (five pieces, $5)

Hakata gyoza (five pieces, $5)

The pan-fried gyoza were also done well – think crispy bottoms, delicate skin and a juicy pork filling accentuated by lots of garlic and ginger.

While I love a good ramen, I don’t love the idea of waiting in line AND paying a fortune for something that’s meant to be the Japanese version of a dish that’s supposed to be comforting, filling and down-to-earth as the Vietnamese pho. Screw that.

Hakata Gensuke on Urbanspoon

Review: Crazy Wing (Melbourne, VIC)

177 Russell Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 9663 6555

Melbourne can get ridiculously cold during winter and autumn (and okay, spring) so it’s good that there are some eateries in the southern city that really turn the heat up with their food offerings.

Take the infamous Crazy Wing, for example. You know, that place that promises super-ridiculously-hot chicken wings that will slowly burn away your internal organs as well as your dignity. There’s a few of them around but the most well-known branch would have to be the one just around the corner from Chinatown. For an Asian who doesn’t mind a bit of heat, it comes as a surprise to most when I tell them that I was a newbie to the whole Crazy Wing thing until just recently. In fact, it was Nate who took me there for dinner one night – fancy that, a wog taking an Asian to an Asian restaurant that specialises in hot food. Foodie game fail.

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Service isn’t Crazy Wing’s strongest point – as soon as we were seated, a paper ordering slip was shoved at us by a snarly waitress.

Fried rice with egg ($8)

Fried rice with spicy chicken ($8.80)

However, the food came out real quick. I don’t normally order fried rice at Asian restaurants #becauseasian. That said, we knew we were going to need some respite after torturing our tongues. For $8, the portion was tiny and it didn’t really taste that fantastic – hell, the chicken wasn’t even spicy. But props for wok hei.

Chilli spicy wings ($2 each)

Chilli spicy wings ($2 each)

We ordered four ‘level three’ wings (with one being the tamest and five being more diabolical than an Asian bitch scorned) – so, two each. In hindsight, I should have ordered a level one just to compare but whatever, next time. Neither of us were game enough to try the hottest one though.

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The level three wings were hot enough for both of us. Nate does hot food quite well but he admitted to finding his wings ‘almost uncomfortable to eat.’ I thought they were just right – any hotter and I would have started sweating too.

I guess I can see why Crazy Wing is popular. The food comes out quickly even in busy periods (we were there around peak dinner time on a weekday night), the wings are a bit of a fun novelty thing and, apart from the fried rice, the menu items aren’t overly expensive. Next time, I’m game to go up a level – or two.

Crazy Wings on Urbanspoon

Review: Operator25 (Melbourne, VIC)

25 Wills Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9670 3278
http://www.operator25.com.au/

Melbourne city café Operator25 had been on my breakfast and coffee radar for quite some time. And given that I (used to) work around the corner from the café, it seems kind of strange it took me so long to visit – and by that, I meant two months after I resigned from The Company after six long years.

The café’s name is a nod to its roots ; formerly a building where telephone operators would work the switchboard all day, the beautiful heritage building now serves some of Melbourne CBD’s nicest cups of coffees and an interesting breakfast and lunch menu. Great news for legal eagles, AFP officers and Flagstaff Garden loiterers who are always complaining about the lack of good cafés on this side of the city.

My dining companion this afternoon was Paix. I met my friend Paix through my cousin, Jason. He moved from Indonesia to Singapore where he met Paix. As timing would have had it though, she ended up moving to Melbourne to study so I was asked to look after her just in case she needed anything as she was settling in. Strangely enough, we became good friends and we catch up for coffees and dinners whenever we can (which isn’t too far as she lives in Berwick).

Lattes ($3.80)

Lattes ($3.80)

We both ordered lattes; hers was a soy latte and mine was meant to be a full cream milk latte though I suspected they used skinny milk for mine because like I could tell the difference, right? Regardless, Operator25’s milk-based coffees are made using freshly roasted beans from Brunswick’s Code Black Coffee. The seasonal blend changes regularly but today, our coffee was lovely and buttery with a slight fruity finish.

Balinese marinated pulled pork, coleslaw, chilli mayonnaise, coriander and fried shallots on brioche roll with sweet potato wedges ($19)

Balinese marinated pulled pork, coleslaw, chilli mayonnaise, coriander and fried shallots on brioche roll with sweet potato wedges ($19)

I was curious about the Balinese marinated pulled pork bun so I ordered it despite not being hot on the sweet potato wedges (not a sweet potato fan, you see). I’m not exactly sure what made the pork Balinese per se except for perhaps the hints of kecap manis in it; nonetheless, it was a nice and filling dish with plenty of flavours and textures that took me right from lunch to late in the evening – hell, even the sweet potato wedges were nice and crunchy.

Honey baked oats, dried cranberries, sultanas, coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds, almonds, poached fruit and natural yoghurt ($9)

Honey baked oats, dried cranberries, sultanas, coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds, almonds, poached fruit and natural yoghurt ($9)

Paix wasn’t too hungry so she chose what sounded like the lightest meal on the menu. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for her, her dish was larger than she expected and she struggled to finish it all. Everything was mixed up on the bottom before being topped with yoghurt and kiwifruit (presumably the ‘poached fruits’ change according to the season). It was a dish that I would have happily ordered for breakfast if I had been bothered enough to get up extra early for work when I was still an employee of The Company.

Operator25 brings an interesting menu and great coffee to the normally good-food-deprived legal end of Melbourne’s CBD. Our meal was fantastic and my only regret was not visiting this place sooner.

Operator25 on Urbanspoon

Review: Hihou (Melbourne, VIC)

1 Flinders Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 5465
http://www.hihou.com.au/

No one in Melbourne does cool like Simon Denton. He’s the guy who bought us Izakaya Den and Nama Nama as well as Verge before closing that restaurant and re-opening it as Hihou. It was my birthday week so Nee and I decided to celebrate over a lovely mid-week dinner and drinks just before I was due to fly to Sydney for the Writers’ Festival that weekend.

The word Hihou means ‘secret treasure’ and without wanting to turn this post until something dirty, Hihou is indeed one. You have to find a black door just off the Flinders Lane/Spring Street corner, a few steps from Nama Nama. I was given clear instructions by a couple of fellow food bloggers but despite those and despite my geographical aptitude, I still had to ask a Nama Nama staff for help. Gawd, such fail. Regardless, I got there in the end; I found the hidden door, I found the door bell I was supposed to ring and up I went.

We were seated on super low stools and at a super low table by the window, overlooking Flinders Lane. Hihou is extremely sexy and sophisticated – and no, I’m not referring to the hotties in suits who were downing Japanese whiskies on the communal table in the middle of the diminutive dining room. Rather, I’m talking about the demure dark lighting, the gorgeous garden views and the calm and serene atmosphere – it was almost like I was at the Park Hyatt and I was Bill Murray. (I’d say Scarlett but I’m afraid I’m lacking in the chest department)

‘Cuban’ spicy tuna cigar ($6); eel and tofu croquette with tonkatsu sauce ($4 each)

‘Cuban’ spicy tuna cigar ($6); eel and tofu croquette with tonkatsu sauce ($4 each)

With a glass of Yamazaki in my hand, we decided to order a few dishes to share. I’m not sure what made the tuna cigar ‘Cuban’ (jeez, not all cigars are Cuban!) but whatever, it was lovely. I loved the delicately crunchy shell and the slightly creamy tuna filling which gave a bit of heat.

Meanwhile, the eel and tofu croquettes weren’t as stellar. I just found the filling too mushy and watery. (thanks to the tofu, perhaps)

Hihou dog: sesame brioche, arabiki pork sauge ($12)

Hihou dog: sesame brioche, arabiki pork sauge ($12)

We split the Hihou dog in two (ooh-er, dirty). It was a very simple dish – just bun, sausage and ‘kraut – but because it’s a Simon Denton establishment and because Japanese coarse grind sausages are used, naturally there was a price hike. It was delicious though, and we loved that we were given an assortment of sauces to dress our sausages up in. (oh stop it…)

Buckwheat crêpes with duck breast, pickled mushrooms and leek ($21)

Buckwheat crêpes with duck breast, pickled mushrooms and leek ($21)

We also loved the duck crêpes, a DIY dish that involved chucking a sliced duck breast or two onto a thick, doughy crêpe piece and dressing it with pickled mushroom and leek. I loved how the mushrooms’ earthy flavours paired beautifully with the duck meat and the sweet, soft crêpes.

Seared tuna with spring onion puree, ginger, dashi and fried parsnip

Seared tuna with spring onion puree, ginger, dashi and fried parsnip

The seared tuna was another fantastic dish, a study in Japanese effortlessness. The tuna pieces were super fresh, making them an excellent catalyst in soaking up the zesty ginger and dashi dressing. The fried parsnip chips also added a lovely crunchy to the dish.

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We skipped dessert because none of the dessert options wowed us (too much chocolate, imo) so ended up having cocktails instead, a lovely way to cap off a sexy, sleek dinner.

Hihou on Urbanspoon

Review: Paperboy Kitchen (Melbourne, VIC)

320 Little Lonsdale Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9642 0147
http://paperboy.com.au/

I love my Vietnamese food more than every second person I know loves tuning into The Bachelor. But it’s getting to the point where every second person (probably the same people who love Blake, Amber et al) is opening up a Vietnamese ‘street food’ eatery in Melbourne and its surroundings. Bloody enough, already!

But like a sucker for a romantic story, I’m also a sucker for anything vaguely related to good ol’ honest Vietnamese food. Thus, you can sort of see why I was keen to check out Paperboy Kitchen. I had a day off work on the day and Sophie happened to be in town so we decided to catch up for an early lunch. It wasn’t busy when we rocked up just before 12PM so we were lucky to grab a Little Lonsdale Street-facing table where we can walk the world go by while we ate.

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The menu at Paperboy Kitchen is simple – it’s pretty much all ‘rolls and bowls’ (that is, banh mi and vermicelli salad bowls). There’s also a small selection of sweets and drinks too. We ordered our food at the counter before being given a giraffe (as opposed to a number) to take with us. Cute.

Pulled lamb and hoisin bowl ($13.50)

Pulled lamb and hoisin bowl ($13.50)

All rolls and bowls come with Asian slaw (bloody ‘Asian slaw’), pickled carrots and daikon, Sriracha mayo and coriander. Lamb isn’t commonly found in Vietnamese restaurants and under normal circumstances, Sophie wouldn’t have ordered it. However, she currently lives in the States and apparently lamb isn’t big there so you can understand why her eyes lit up as soon as she saw lamb on the menu.

The slow cooked lamb shoulder came drizzled in sticky hoisin sauce which is just as well because the meat was pretty bland. Still, Sophie got her lamb fix so she was pretty happy.

Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50)

Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50)

One does not go to a Vietnamese place without ordering Vietnamese iced coffee and certainly not someone who needed to get a ton of editing work done later that afternoon. Paperboy Kitchen does a neat Vietnamese-style single origin filter coffee with a lovely layer of condensed milk for the same price as a coffee at a Vietnamese restaurant. The only difference here is that Paperboy Kitchen doesn’t rip you off by putting as much ice in the glass – and let’s not forget the striped straw.

Slow cooked beef bowl ($12.50)

Slow cooked beef bowl ($12.50)

I went for the beef bowl because the menu said that it came with a pho dipper – that is, a splash of pho broth on the side to dip your braised brisket pieces in. While I loved the concept, I think I’d rather much prefer to have a proper bowl of pho to slurp on as opposed to having it on the side to dunk. Like Sophie’s lamb, the beef was also bland so the pho dipper really did nothing to accentuate the dish. Not even the gooey egg (an extra dollar or two or something like that) did much to pimp up the dish, though I always appreciate gooey eggs regardless.

In a city full of Vietnamese food-loving hipsters, Paperboy Kitchen will thrive. To be honest though, I can’t see myself going back for ‘just okay’ food at those prices, even if I was desperate for Vietnamese food (I can sit through a 10-minute train ride to Footscray). For the coffee though? Yeah, why not.

Paperboy Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Review: The Last Jar (Melbourne, VIC)

616 Elizabeth Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9348 2957
http://www.thelastjar.com.au/

Disclaimer: Libby and Nick dined as guests of The Last Jar and Sattler PR.

It may be spring in Melbourne but the nights are still cold and miserable. Fine, if you like that sort of thing (I don’t) but for everyone else, it sucks. Thankfully, there is a plethora of soul-warming and stomach-soothing options around town to keep the faux winter blues at bay – at least until those 40-degree summer days hit us.

If you’re sick of pho, ramen and soup kitchens, then a good Irish pub is the key to keeping warm – apart from steamy Tinder dates, if you’re into that sort of thing (I’m not [anymore]). And while Melbourne is full of Irish pubs, rarely do you come across a decent one that’s free of dull and boring food and tacky Gaelic clichés. The Last Jar, however, is not just another Irish pub.

Owned and operated by Michelin-trained chef Tim Sweeney, The Last Jar is housed in what was formerly The Arthouse, a Melbourne punk institution back when I was listening to 5ive, The Offspring and Savage Garden (oh dear). It is a traditional Irish gastropub that serves classics such as the good ol’ Irish stew as well as more contemporary stuff such as whiskey cured salmon (omg, what!). Everything is fresh and locally sourced – and yes, they do have Guinness on tap because WTF kind of Irish pub wouldn’t?

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After chilling in the front bar with pints of Guinness, Nick and I retreated to the dining room where we continued our debate on whether I would go down the M1 or M2 (FYI Nick, M1 was too narrow of a road while M2 was smooth sailing all the way through). And of course, we couldn’t say no to another round of Guinness.

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At The Last Jar, the dark soda bread is made in-house and the butter is churned by hand. Together, they made a fantastic Hayden-Langer-esque partnership – I loved tasting the rich, creamy butter against the sweet and nutty bread that was made with oats, treacle and malt. Beautiful.

Sea snails with garlic butter

Sea snails with garlic butter

The snails were on the specials menu tonight and not something I’d normally order at an Irish place. Nick, however, had never eaten snails before so he was keen to give these babies a go. He loved them, I loved them. They were beautifully cooked – tender like a good calamari dish. Meanwhile, the garlic butter sauce was delicate rather than rich like the ones I’m used to eating at French restaurants but lovely all the same.

Irish stew ($24)

Irish stew ($24)

Nick loves the Irish stew they serve at The Quiet Man so he was keen to see whether The Last Jar’s version compared. As soon as it arrived, Nick automatically deducted points because la-di-da, it wasn’t served in a hollowed out bread loaf like the stew served at The Quiet Man. Bloody hell. Nick, however, begrudgingly admitted that the stew was hearty and tasty. He did have a point though – the stew at The Quiet Man was a lot more homely, more rustic.

Roasted half Milawa chicken, buttered roasted potato and salad of ham hock, cabbage and peas ($29)

Roasted half Milawa chicken, buttered roasted potato and salad of ham hock, cabbage and peas ($29)

I think I might have been on one of my ‘I’m going to limit bread’ eating spells when I ordered the roast chicken because dammit, since when do I voluntarily order chicken at restaurants? No regrets here though, for the chicken was delicious. The skin was beautifully crispy and the meat was unbelievably succulent and juicy; the whole bird was just so full of flavour. It was easily one of the best chicken dishes I’ve had.

Sticky date and walnut pudding with butterscotch and quince

Sticky date and walnut pudding with butterscotch and quince

Nick loves his sticky date pudding and although I was too full for dessert, I agreed to share a pudding with him. As expected, The Last Jar’s version of the humble dessert had slight quirks – the pudding’s taste was accentuated by walnuts and we both loved the butterscotch sauce and blob of quince on top. What a fantastic way to cap off a fabulous meal.

The Last Jar is an Irish pub that I’ll happily frequent again; unpretentious service and beautiful food in a lovely rustic setting – what more could you want? In particular, I would like to try dishes such as the salt ling potato cake and the hot ox tongue sandwich. And a bit more of that soda bread.

The Last Jar on Urbanspoon

Review: Pho Nom (Melbourne, VIC)

Shop 33, Lower Ground Floor
Emporium Melbourne
287 Lonsdale Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 8609 8221
http://www.emporiummelbourne.com.au/Stores/Pho-Nom/

It’s no secret that pho happens to be one of my favourite dishes in the world. There is something special about slurping a broth flavoured with beef bones, a bunch of magical roasted spices, herbs and perhaps a dash of MSG to keep the tastebuds dancing like they’re on crack. The best places to eat pho in Melbourne are Footscray, Richmond and Springvale – and these days, the city.

Given how popular Vietnamese food is with the young and cool kids these days, it’s no surprise that the once humble and limelight-shying cuisine has been shoved into the hipster spotlight. And all of a sudden, we now have several dozen pho places in the city to choose from. Some are very good while others are atrocious. Thankfully, Jerry and David Mai’s Pho Nom is one of the good ones.

Nestled on the lower ground floor of Emporium Melbourne is Pho Nom, a pho specialist that has been attracting a lot of social media attention thanks to its ‘no MSG’ pho. I’ve been to Pho Nom several times already and it’s definitely up there with one of my favourite places to have an early lunch in. I just go to the counter, order my dish and plonk myself on a table with a book to read or a manuscript to edit as I sit there enjoying my pho.

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You help yourself to all the garnishes and sauces at Pho Nom. It’s a good idea because it means that you don’t see a lot of plates of bean shoots being left to waste once the patrons leave.

Pho bo Hanoi ($11)

Pho bo Hanoi ($11)

You can’t go wrong with beef pho; on more than once occasion, I’ve ordered the sliced beef pho. The Saigon version comes with brisket and beef balls for an extra buck and if you’re feeling fancy, you can even get the wagyu version for $15.

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Given that the brother doesn’t have any MSG, it doesn’t pack a lot of punch. As a result, the broth is a lot more delicate – some even say it’s TOO delicate. However, it’s a small price to pay for not having to walk around with an annoying tickle down your throat (the result of eating a dish with too much MSG in it). On other occasions, I’ve tried the chicken and beef pho which is also quite nice. And on all occasions, I’ve had Vietnamese iced coffee because screw trying to work on zero caffeine.

Pho Nom definitely sets the bar high for excellent pho in Melbourne city – and MSG-free pho while we’re at it. Perhaps the no MSG thing will encourage other places to do the same and that can only be a good thing.

Phở Nom on Urbanspoon

Review: Ruyi (Melbourne, VIC)

16 Liverpool Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9090 7778
http://ruyi.com.au/

I think it’s fair to say that one shouldn’t expect the best service at a cheap and easy dumpling restaurant. You go there, you order, you polish off a plate of dumplings with your mates (or if you’re a loser like me, alone) and then you exit stage left, all within the space of thirty minutes – maybe 45 minutes if you’re a slow eater like myself.

But when you go to a slightly upmarket dumpling restaurant, it’s reasonable to expect some level of good service. After all, you’re paying for the fancy fittings, a smile there and there and hospitality by forking out at least $3 for a dumpling. And when you do that, you better hope those dumplings bloody be good!

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Unfortunately, the DDR crew (as in Dave, Daisy, Ricky and myself) got none of that when we dined at Ruyi.

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On paper, Ruyi sounds amazing. The beautiful quasi-Scandinavian Hecker Guthrie-designed dining room is warm, modern and just that little bit earthy – in fact, it’s the sort of look I wouldn’t mind for my future house. Think beautiful sun-reflecting light wood infused with traditional Chinese crimson and jade tones. Throw in some upmarket Chinese food using premium ingredients and off you go.

The DDR crew brought along a guest from Hong Kong to dinner, which meant there were five of us on the table. The menu is designed for sharing so we agreed to order whatever sounded good on the menu. Once that was done, we signalled for someone to take our order – on that night, the owner happened to be in charge of the floor.

So we set about ordering a whole bunch of stuff, a mix of dumplings and mains to share. We began by reciting three dumpling dishes from the menu before the owner interrupted us: ‘Is that all the dumplings you’re going to order? Because we’re actually not like those other dumpling restaurants where $10 gives you fifteen pieces you know.’

Me: ‘I’m well aware of that.’

Owner: ‘Okay, okay, just letting you know.’

I thought that was a bit weird but I continued with the order – just three more larger dishes and two desserts to round off the innings. All up, there were eight dishes between the four of us.

Owner: ‘I’m not sure if you guys have realised but we’re actually not like all the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. Our portions aren’t big and you’re not going to be full – you’ll have to order more, I’m afraid.’

WTAF!

I may have been over-thinking things but I detected a tone of snobbery in his voice, like we were just a bunch of fobs who didn’t know that this was a slightly upmarket place. I get that he was trying to alleviate any potential disappointment that we might have when are presented with a plate that’s smaller than what we’re used to when dining at a Chinese restaurant but still, I didn’t like his tone or the way he went about saying it. He also could have done the whole ‘this menu is designed to share, we recommend you order three smalls and two large dishes’ beforehand like most restaurants that offer sharing plates tend do these days but there was none of that.

So I said to him: ‘No, this is all we’re going to order. If we’re hungry, we’ll order more food.’

But who’s to tell me how much food I’m supposed to eat?!

The owner nodded without smiling and off he went. And I’m sorry, guys, but that pretty much soured our Ruyi experience.

But let’s get on with the food.

Pork and crab xiaolongbao (4 pieces for $12)

Pork and crab xiaolongbao (4 pieces for $12)

At $3 each, the xiaolongbao didn’t come cheap. Oh sure, each dumpling contained crab meat and sure, the pork was probably (but probably not) free range pork but still, $3 is as steep as the Grampians.

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They were nice, but not $3 nice.

Handmade wonton in chilli sauce (6 pieces for $15)

Handmade wonton in chilli sauce (6 pieces for $15)

The chilli sauce wontons were slightly cheaper, but $2.50 per dumpling is still not cheap in anyone’s books. Again nice, but not omg-so-gewd-foodgasms-galore nice.

Pan fried pork and chive dumpling (6 pieces for $15)

Pan fried pork and chive dumpling (6 pieces for $15)

It was the same deal with the fried pork and chive dumplings – see a pattern here? In fact, I dare say these were slightly oily and although they don’t look it in the photo, they were a bit soggy too.

Salt and pepper soft shell crab ($16)

Salt and pepper soft shell crab ($16)

I’m not big on soft shell crab so I already knew I wasn’t going to like these. This was a very bland dish; not only that, the batter lack the requisite crunch. Those on the table who are actually into this crustacean also agreed with me – they were also disappointed.

Duck stir fry ($26)

Duck stir fry ($26)

Compared to the soft shell crab, the duck stir fry wasn’t too bad. Throw in a handful of shredded roasted duck and bean shoots into a sticky sweet sauce, how can you fail? Sure, they didn’t fail but they certainly didn’t top the class. The sauce, which I found too sweet in the first place, bogged the elements of the dish down. Not only that, there was a serious lack of wok hei in this dish. It was very dull and lifeless – kind of like me at the moment thanks to my cold but at least I taste (somewhat) delicious.

Summer chicken: chicken pieces, mango, vegetables ($25)

Summer chicken: chicken pieces, mango, vegetables ($25)

We were told that this was Ruyi’s interpretation of the ‘Aussie favourite, the lemon chicken.’ The only difference between a plate of the suburban classic and Ruyi’s summer chicken was that they used mangoes instead of lemons. Big whoop. I found the sauce very sweet and one-dimensional, thus making the whole thing boring.

After that, we had the option to order more food. We were all still hungry so I guess the owner made a good point about us not having ordered enough food. Still, I didn’t like the way we were told that. At this point, none of us were keen to order anything else from the a la carte menu so we ordered a couple of desserts to share and decided to head elsewhere to fill the remaining sad, empty cervices in our stomachs.

Fragrant floral jelly with ice cream and pistachio nuts ($12)

Fragrant floral jelly with ice cream and pistachio nuts ($12)

Compared to the savoury dishes, Ruyi’s desserts were decent. The delicate and herby jelly paired well with the creamy vanilla ice cream, while the pistachio added a lovely crunch. It was a well-balanced and refreshing dessert.

Banana fritter with golden fried frozen milk and chocolate ice cream ($15)

Banana fritter with golden fried frozen milk and chocolate ice cream ($15)

The banana fritters would have been great if they hadn’t used chocolate ice cream – but that’s just me, I’m not a fan of chocolate ice cream. The ‘frozen milk’ was essentially milk custard blobs that were battered and then fried, something that sounded good on paper but were just okay to taste.

Given all the seemingly positive social media hype surrounding Ruyi, we were disappointed with our meal. The owner’s attitude went a long way in diminishing our experience but the mediocre food at not-so-cheap prices didn’t help Ruyi’s cause either. It’s a beautiful restaurant (probably one of the prettiest I’ve been in for a while) but what’s the point when the food and service isn’t up to scratch?

In the end, we all finished our night at a Hot Star Chicken outlet where a few pieces of (quite possibly) genetically modified chicken breast fillets coated in batter and spices and stuff made us happier than the meal we had at Ruyi.

RuYi Modern Chinese on Urbanspoon