Shop 50, 342 McCullough Street
Macgregor QLD 4109
+61 7 3344 4832
Do you think you eat your way through a massive bowl of ramen, the equivalent of five standard bowls, in less than 25 minutes? I’m a slow eater and not really one for ridiculous amounts of gluttony (I’m aware that this is a food blog and all) so I quickly said ‘no’ to this challenge. My friend Peter, on the other hand, slapped $35 down the counter and was pretty much like, ‘Bring it on!’
We were at Ramen Champion, one of Brisbane’s many ramen restaurants. Being from Melbourne, the two of us never really got much of a chance to try amazing ramen down south. Our luck changed, however, when we moved up north. There was sunshine! There were geckos roaming around our houses at night! And most important of all, there was good ramen to be had!
A popular Japanese franchise that does extremely well in Singapore, Ramen Champion has been in Brisbane for several years now. It’s located in Sunnypark Plaza which is in Sunnybank (though Google says it’s in Macgregor but whatever, same thing). Sunnybank tends to get hectic on weekends and the weekend that had gone by was no exception – we made it to Ramen Champion at around 11:45 and by the time we left, the place was buzzing with young families and uni students wanting to get their ramen on.
Basically Ramen Champion’s ramen challenge involves this: you pay for their giant ramen (which is apparently the size of five normal servings) and you try to finish it, broth and all, in less than 25 minutes. If you can do it, you get your $35 back as well as a $50 voucher for your next visit. You also get your photo on the wall of fame; there are about 10 proud men on that wall, one of which happened to be an old Tinder date of mine. Ramen Champion limits their giant ramen to three servings a day though so your best bet is to get in early for a chance to get your beaming mug on that wall.
I ordered a serving of gyoza to start, with Pete helping himself to one piece to warm up. Because he had avoided eating breakfast that morning, his stomach was growling like mad. The gyozas were nice enough but I wouldn’t say they were best I’ve ever had – too much cabbage and not enough pork for my liking.
Champion ramen ($9.90); giant ramen ($35)
I had the champion ramen, the most ‘basic’ of the six options on offer. The broth was a classic tonkotsu-style pork bone soup and on top of the generous amount of lovely handmade noodles, there were two pieces of flame grilled chashu, nori, half an egg, spring onions and bean shoots. The menu photo also had menma (fermented bamboo shoots) so I was expecting some, only to find that there were none. To be fair, menma was not mentioned in the menu description; instead the vague descriptor ‘vegetables’ were used but I’m not sure if that was the right term to describe a pinch of spring onions and bean shoots. Regardless, I enjoyed my ramen; the broth may not have had as much depth as some of my favourite ramen places but it was rich without being too fatty. The noodles, however, was the thing that did it for me – they were flawlessly silky and chewy as handmade ramen noodles should be.
You can’t tell from this picture, but Peter’s ramen really was heaps bigger than mine – to me, it looked like a massive birdbath filled with a lake of endless noodles swimming in a rich tonkotsu broth. The waitress set the timer at 25 and off he went, determined to polish the bowl of soup noodles off like he did with Superbowl’s pho challenge years ago.
Unfortunately at the 16 minute mark, he admitted defeat. He may have been able to finish a huge bowl of pho without any problems, but he forgot that ramen was heaps more fattier than pho. Challenge aside, the giant ramen really is great value for money considering that the standard champion ramen bowl is ($9.90). It comes with a seemingly endless supply of fresh, homemade noodles, ten slices of chashu (as opposed to the standard two) and four egg halves (as opposed to one egg half). As soon as I had finished my ramen, I eagerly helped myself to some noodles and chashu. In the end, I had almost two bowls before I, too, admitted defeat.
2/59 Hardgrave Road
West End QLD 4101
+61 7 3255 1610
When I’m in Queensland, I don’t bother going out for Vietnamese food. I’ve eaten at a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Gold Coast and none of them serve the real deal. Disappointingly, the majority of them serve pho that’s been sweetened to the point of no recognition – and for that reason, I usually wait until I’m back in Melbourne or Sydney for my pho fix.
The night I was due to fly to Europe, though, I decided that I wanted pho. It was going to be a while until I get my fix and I wanted it right then and there. My flight was leaving from Brisbane Airport, but not until after midnight, so I decided to swing into town for my favourite Vietnamese dish. With my friend Brad agreeing to eat whatever I wanted in exchange for a lift to the airport, I thought it was a sweet deal. And so we went to his favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Trang.
Trang has been serving West End residents for a number of years now and people continue to return for its no-nonsense Vietnamese food, lively atmosphere and fast service. And given that we live in Queensland, half the menu consists of suburban Chinese dishes but hey, you’re catering to the locals after all…
Spring rolls ($7.90)
Speaking of which, we started off with spring rolls. They were nothing special, but adequate fillers to nibble on while we caught up on gossip and AFL talk (it’s so refreshing to meet a Queenslander who does know a thing about footy).
Special combination bun ($13.90)
Brad was like, “I had this really, really nice dish the last time I was here – but I couldn’t remember what it was called! It had thin white noodles, chopped up spring rolls and a whole bunch of random thi-“
“Bun.” I said. “And most likely the combination bun. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a drink.”
I was right, though (saved). Trang’s combination bun came adorned with chopped spring rolls, crispy skin chicken and grilled pork as well as fresh herbs. I didn’t get to try any of it – Brad polished it all off before I could get around to doing it.
Pho tai ($10.90)
At just over $10, Trang’s pho would be in the slightly higher end of the price spectrum in Melbourne (but not by much). However, I thought this was just about right for Queensland. There was a reasonable amount of complexity and depth in the broth and, much to my delight, none of these pour half a container of sugar on me business. I also loved that they used thicker-than-normal rice noodles – the thicker the better, I say (while trying hard not to snicker). One thing I didn’t like though was the use of red onions instead of traditional onions – is this a Queensland thing or something?
It won’t win any awards on Victoria or Hopkins Street, but it’ll definitely do.
At least while I was in Europe.
21 Queen Street
Brisbane QLD 4000
+61 7 3306 8888
What does a $22 bowl of pho taste like?
That was the question I was asking myself as I walked into Brisbane’s Treasury Casino one Thursday afternoon after a morning meeting. When it comes to Vietnamese food, I’m a purist – well, if you consider Footscray, Springvale and Cabramatta pho houses to be legit (which I think they are). I don’t like try hard pun-ny names using the word ‘pho’ nor do I like overpriced modern interpretations of Vietnamese food – they look good but often lack the essence of the original dish they’re trying to add a spin to.
Yet, I’ve been wanting to try Luke Nguyen’s modern Asian restaurant in Brisbane (Fat Noodle) for quite some time. As a chef and an all-round nice guy, I respect him and his passion for teaching the greater population about the nuances of regional Vietnamese food. I have a few of his cookbooks at home and have attempted one of his traditional recipes with a reasonable amount of success.
When you walk into Fat Noodle, it’s obvious that you’re not at your typical pho house in Footscray. You’re greeted with solid timber furniture, sleek black lines and teas served in ornamental teapots. Apart from the odd solo business diner, you pretty much get the place to yourself for the first half of your visit. Then as it hits 1pm, you’re surrounded by elderly casino patrons, tourists and groups of gossiping Asian aunties who have obviously spent way too long in Australia. (By that, I mean more than 30 years because that’s how long my mother has been in Australia and she still refuses to pay more than $10 for pho.)
Fat pho noodles ($22)
So why did Fat Noodle charge double the standard price of a bowl of pho? For starters, Treasury Casino’s rents are high – that’s a given. But the ingredients? Well, you have the thin slices of sirloin and brisket coming from an Angus, so that’s that. Then you have the bone broth (groan) that’s been cooked for 20 hours. As for the bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil and chilli on the side? They may have come from farmer’s markets or they may have come from a no-name wholesaler, who knows.
As much as I wanted to like this dish, I couldn’t. While it wasn’t terrible, I expected more flavour and more punch for a broth that’s meant to have been cooked for 20 hours. It was so plain and muted, nothing like the cheapie bowls of pho I’ve come to love over the years. While it’s true that there was no MSG used in this broth, I still felt there was something missed – depth. If this pho had been amazing, I would have happily paid a premium for it again and again. But it wasn’t. I doubt I’ll see myself coming back for a second bowl of pho – or any of the overpriced mains, for that matter. I’m better off driving across to Inala for pho – or making my own at home (still a work in progress but hey).
25 Edinburgh Avenue
Canberra ACT 2601
+61 2 6287 6287
With Eightysix done and dusted, I wanted to check out another restaurant that has gotten Canberrans excited. Located in the NewActon (one word, no joke) precinct, Monster Kitchen and Bar is a favourite weekend lunch or Friday night dinner venue for a few of my Canberra friends.
You can find Monster on the ground floor of Hotel Hotel, which is possibly Canberra’s coolest venue, let alone hotel. We happened to be staying at Hotel Hotel so making our way down two flights of stairs and into the restaurant was no effort on our part. We must have walked past, through and around Monster several times during our 24-hour stay in Canberra. And while Monster was never busy, there were at least a handful of tables full so there was a constant buzz from early morning breakfast through to late night supper. Guests also had the option to sit in either the enclosed dining area or in the open plan lobby space
Our first Monster experience was a quick breakfast on a Sunday morning. All throughout this meal, I had the abomination that was Ne-Yo’s ‘Beautiful Monster’ playing in my head and it continued until we left Monster with the not-unpleasant-but-could-be-better coffee tastes in our mouths. Not unpleasant – I guess I could also say the same about the service here: it was inoffensive and safe but frustratingly slow and lacking in any real personality.
For example, there were only two or three other occupied tables when we arrived for the breakfast service. All we wanted was a plate of crumpets to share and two coffees. The coffees took more than 15 minutes to arrive, with the crumpets arriving 10 minutes after. I guess that’s not too bad but when you’re used to having coffees arrive in less than 5 minutes, 15 minutes just seems excessive. Secondly, we were seeing groups of up to five staff standing around talking instead of, you know, taking orders, serving dishes and checking to see if everything is okay. Eventually the staff did come around to take our orders – but in their own time, something that MVB thinks is a Canberra-wide issue.
But anyway, onto the food.
Crumpets with Hotel Hotel honey ($11)
For breakfast, we had house made crumpets. Served with fresh honey obtained from the hotel’s very own bees (from hive #9, to be exact), they were warm and cakey without being too desnse. It was a perfunctory breakfast to start the day on.
Lunch was a bit more interesting. After checking out, we sauntered into the enclosed dining area at 12pm; because we had to leave for the airport by 1:15pm, we decided to go light on the food.
Unfortunately, the food did take quite some time to arrive. Look, I get that it’s Sunday; people like to take their time when eating and if you’re assigned to work on a Sunday, no doubt you’d be feeling a bit slow after a big Saturday night out. That’s all well and good. But a 35-minute wait for the first dish to arrive while there are only three other small tables occupied? I ain’t got time for that!
38-hour pork neck bao ($9)
To be far, the first dish – the pork neck bao – was delicious. The pork was gorgeously soft and fatty while the spicy cucumber kimchi created a spicy crunch. Kudos to the kitchen for getting the bao on point too – it was beautifully fluffy with just the right amount of subtle denseness.
We wolfed down the bao in a matter of minutes … and then our empty plate sat there for another ten. After 45 minutes, there was no sign of our other dishes. I signalled for one of the waitresses to clear the plate and after asking if the other dishes were on their way, we were told that they would be ‘coming very soon.’ MVB then asked for the bill at this point in time just to we can quickly eat as soon as the dishes arrived and not wait around another 10 minutes for a bill to be produced. It was also his way of letting the staff know that we were in a rush, though I’m pretty sure our ‘we’re just here for a quick meal before our 2pm flight’ when we walked in would have sufficed.
Grilled WA octopus with almond cream, paprika, fennel ($29)
Finally, our mains arrived and we wasted no time in demolishing them. The grilled octopus was cooked extremely well; gloriously tender with a gentle bite, the tentacles were served with almond cream as well as paprika and fennel for good measure.
Pulled lamb shoulder, pistachio, yoghurt, vine leaf, pomegranate, brik ($29)
I found it a bit odd that the lamb shoulder was only going for $29, especially given that the smaller octopus dish was the same price and given that mains were in the $40-something mark at Eightysix. Not that I was complaining, of course, the lamb was gorgeous and easily the highlight of our now-rushed lunch.
The meat fell just as easily as me after several glasses of whisky, while the other elements worked in unison to add flavoursome layers to the dish. I also liked how they added brik pastry pieces for a lovely crunch. We only had about 10 minutes to devour this and the octopus – which we did.
The mains were Monster’s saving grace but would we go back? Only if we were staying at Hotel Hotel again and only if we were too lazy to go elsewhere to try something new. The food was Canberra-good but the overly relaxed service really didn’t do it for us to make a special trip back there if we were staying elsewhere next time.
Corner Elouera Street and Lonsdale Street
Braddon ACT 2612
+61 2 6161 8686
When it comes to dining out in Canberra, I’m sorry but there really isn’t much that will excite the discerning tastebuds of fickle Sydneysiders and Melburnians. If Melbourne is all about third wave coffee, ice cream shaped into delicate paper-thin scrolls and ‘artisan’ burgers, then Canberra is still stuck in the 1950s meat and three veg era.
Regardless, there seems to be a gentle stir in our capital’s dining scene; there are more options to choose from, places are open much later and you can see open kitchens all over the place. One such place that has got Canberrans raving is Eightysix, a favourite haunt for foodies and Braddon’s social set. I came here with Rachi one Friday evening and the place was buzzing and packed to the brim.
Eightysix offers a contemporary menu that is all about share plates (apparently a concept that Canberrans are still getting used to, according to a friend). There are also vegan and gluten-free options, plenty to appease the Bondi Hipsters. Meanwhile, the wine list incorporates wines from all over the place, including a few from the Canberra District like the Mt Majura Riesling I had ($12 a glass).
Carrot, verjuice, honey, hummus ($26)
We started off with a carrot salad. I initially raised an unkempt eyebrow at the price of the dish (more than twenty bucks for a salad?! What is this?!) but I must admit I enjoyed every bit of it. I love the different dimensions of sweet interspersed with the nutty hummus, and it was good to see poor ol’ verjuice making an appearance too. This salad was also vegan and gluten-free.
Spanner crab and saffron risotto ($36)
We passed over the lamb ragu pappardelle for the spanner crab risotto. You can’t really go wrong with the combination of sweet crab meat, creamy stock and the richness of saffron – indeed it was a tasty dish. If I had to be picky though, I’d say the risotto was hovering dangerously close to the ‘cooked for too long’ side.
Black chicken with buttermilk slaw ($42)
Rachi’s favourite dish, the black chicken, formed our main event. Two pieces of Maryland appeared in front of us; cooked sous vide in a Southern barbecue-style tomato jam, then charred until blackened, the chicken was gloriously delicious – think smoky flavours, sticky skin and juicy meat. At $42, it’s not a cheap but it was beautiful dish in its simplicity.
Caramel popcorn sundae ($16)
We shared Eightysix’s famous caramel popcorn sundae for dessert. For me, I’d say this was the highlight of the meal. Topped with salted caramel popcorn and peanut brittle, the sundae was not overpoweringly sweet which, as you know, is always a plus for this savoury fiend. I also liked the way they stuck a baby cone upside-down into the dessert – almost like a one-finger salute to the conservative Canberra dining scene.
Leaving the buzzing venue, I can see why this was Canberra’s jewel in the dining scene. The menu is fresh and exciting while the staff are friendly, efficient and relaxed (though I’ve heard people argue that they’re too relaxed). While the rest of Canberra sleeps at 8pm, Eightysix dares to push boundaries and I admire them for that. In saying that, I did find the prices quite steep for what the food was – and I still can’t believe I paid $26 for a carrot salad.
If Eightysix were to compete in Melbourne or Sydney, no doubt it would get slaughtered. There are dozens of restaurants in those cities that offer the similar kind of food – and wouldn’t charge as much for the experience. Then there are restaurants that will charge more than $20 for a salad or more than $45 for a main – but you’ll get a better dish. Of course, comparing Canberra to Melbourne and Sydney is like comparing Coles apples to organic oranges so suffice to say that, for Canberra, this is as good as it gets.
21 Lonsdale Street
Braddon ACT 2612
+61 2 8074 9458
I ended up on Lonsdale Street on Braddon for lunch last Friday afternoon. A far cry from the bustling Melbourne thoroughfare of the same name, Canberra’s Lonsdale Street is peacefully quiet. You can jaywalk during ‘busy’ traffic periods and every few minutes, you may even see some form of human life.
This is one of Canberra’s busiest streets.
Jokes aside, it also houses some of Canberra’s nicest foodie haunts. I can’t remember how I ended up at Autolyse, a French bakery and bistro in one where ‘nothing is over $20.’ I doubt it was MVB’s ringing endorsement that got me in (‘they used to have a branch in Sydney but they shut down’) – rather, I was most likely drawn in by the promise of handmade breads all made using natural ingredients.
It was a lovely day outside (21 degrees with plenty of clean, fresh air as an added bonus) but I chose to sit inside – as far as my hierarchy of needs go on weekdays, Wi-Fi sits on top of nice weather. In hindsight though, I probably should have just gone outside – it felt a bit sterile inside, probably due to the ‘medical surgical lights’ (quote from their website) scattered across the spacious open kitchen.
Autolyse’s fougasse sounded interesting and because I’d never had one before, I decided to order that. With the oven-baked dough shaped into a stretched-out Sherrin footy and filled with ham, tomato, basil and cheese, I likened it to the French version of a calzone.
My first impression of it was that it was as hard as a rock. But because I’d never had a fougasse before, I wasn’t sure whether it was meant to be hard or not. Nevertheless, the butter knife they gave me to cut the bread up couldn’t even create a minor dent in the dough. Pretty soon, I gave up and just started picking the filling out of the bread. Sigh.
The fougasse left a bad impression but that (and well, gluttony) didn’t stop me from ordering a slice of chocolate, apple, walnut and cinnamon cake to take with me. I didn’t get to take a photo of the cake but it was actually really good; it had lovely well-balanced texture and the flavours blended effortlessly well together. I liked the crunchy bits of dark chocolates scattered within, too. I liked it so much that I would have gone to Autolyse the next morning if we weren’t pushed for time.
Although my visit to Autolyse was a mixed bag (‘and maybe the hard bread was the reason why they didn’t last in Sydney’ tittered MVB), I won’t rule out another visit. I’ll avoid that ghastly fougasse like the plague but if that chocolate cake is on display, I’d be sure to take two slices home.
30 Lonsdale Street
Braddon ACT 2612
+61 438 366 368
Over the weekend, I found myself in Canberra.
No, I wasn’t kidnapped from my house, dragged into a beaten up Holden Commodore and driven there by a gun-welding ice addict. Rather, MVB was there on a work trip and so I decided to tag along – not just out of sheer boredom but also because it’s been ages since I last set foot in our fair nation’s capital (more than 20 years, to be exact). While many can argue that not a lot has changed in those years, there are others who claim that Canberra is now a vibrant metropolis with its own decent coffee shops, award-winning restaurants and hipster culture.
I had to go there to see for myself.
After a lovely dinner in Braddon, I found myself at Frugii Dessert Laboratory. Lauded by many locals as one of Canberra’s much-loved gems, I knew I had to see what all the fuss was about. I may not be a super big sweet tooth but I do appreciate a good gelato – which is what Frugii specialises in.
As far as Canberra goes, Braddon is one of the most vibrant areas in in the capital so it makes sense for owner John Marshall (affectionately known as ‘Mr Frugii’ by Canberrans) to set up shop there. When Rachi and I rocked up on a Friday evening, the place was full of patrons wanting to get their ice cream on despite the fact that it was unseasonably cold for a summer night.
This is probably not the best visual representation of Frugii’s takeaway container but hey, serves me right for not taking a photo straightaway. I ordered a trifecta of flavours including lemon myrtle, blood orange and Frugii’s famous chocolate gelato, made using house-roasted cocoa beans.
I thought the blood orange and chocolate flavours were gorgeously intense and on point, though I found the lemon myrtle one way too sweet and one-dimensional. While the other two closely resembled the flavours they were meant to take on, the lemon myrtle one was just… sugary.
One thing I did like about Frugii was its small batch approach to crafting their products as well as the friendly, familial manner they served their customers – you don’t really get that in many gelati stores in Melbourne or Sydney. Frugii is certainly a strong player in the Canberra dessert market and their product definitely stands out in comparison to what else is on offer in this food-barren city. Will it stand on its own in Melbourne or Sydney? Given the number of well-well-established gelati stores in those cities, it’s very hard to say.
54 Bankstown City Plaza
Bankstown NSW 2200
+61 2 9708 4306
Upon leaving Pho An, it was time for me to head back up north. I may have been giddily full from eating the most scrumptious bowl of pho but no way I was leaving Bankstown empty-handed; I had to get my hands on a pork roll to take back home with me.
Google took me to Nam Fong, one of Bankstown’s many Vietnamese bakeries that supposedly do a mean pork roll – at least according to the citizens of the internet. Nam Fong was bursting to the brim when I got there; predictably, there were no lines and no order – you simply had to walk and squeeze yourself right up to the front of the counter and catch the eye of one of the thong-welding ladies.
There were so many things I wanted to buy at Nam Long, from the boxes of Vietnamese sweets right through to the meatball baguettes. However, I stuck to my original aim which was to get one original pork roll (banh mi thit) and walk off. After all, it was bad enough carrying one pork roll in your bag on public transport let alone half a dozen of them. (to the folk taking the bus to Padstow, the train to Wooli Creek, the train to Wynyard and the bus to the north shore on Sunday: please forgive me.)
One thing I loved about Nam Fong was its retro pricing: my pork roll was only $3.50. You don’t come across many places that do a decent pork roll for less than $4 these days – at least not in Melbourne. This pork roll did it for me: it had a lovely mix of cold cuts and shredded barbeque pork complimented with the right amount of pickled vegetables and chillies. I also liked that they were very liberal with the condiments – the more fish sauce, pâté and mayo, the better. The bread was also notably crunchy and light, an impressive feat given that it did the 1.5-hour commute back north with me and sat in the fridge for an extra two hours.
I haven’t sampled enough of Sydney’s Vietnamese pork rolls to decide whether this one’s a sturdy winner, but suffice to say that I’d definitely come back again. It’s an excellent value roll for what it’s worth and a winner for those who like it saucy.
27 Greenfield Parade
Bankstown NSW 2200
+61 2 9796 7826
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been more than TWO WHOLE MONTHS since I’ve updated this blog. Given that I was once someone who posted several times a week, this relatively long hiatus was somewhat out of character. If it weren’t for a few lovely readers asking me why I hadn’t updated in so long, I probably would not have been writing this – and that’s a shame because I do love blogging and hence, my keenness to resurrect this blog again. As a promise to you, dear reader, I’ll update this blog as much as I can. And if I ever slack off again, please send me a gentle reminder and I’ll be on my two feet again.
So that’s that.
It’s also been quite a while since I’ve sat down and had a solid bowl of pho so this post seems appropriate. Earlier today, I decided to trek down to Bankstown to try what is apparently one of Sydney’s finest pho. As some of you may know, I currently live in Gold Coast, a city where halfway decent and authentic Vietnamese food is severely lacking. Although I’ve been living (and working) in Sydney for the last month or so, I’m still kind of far away from good pho. And by good pho, I mean one that actually bear some semblance to the stuff they serve in Saigon and not diluted with a ridiculous amount of MSG.
Today, I finally had the chance to make the commute down to Bankstown – to Pho An, to be exact. In the grand scheme of things, Bankstown isn’t all that far – and nowhere near the long GC-Brisbane dash that we GC foodies have to contend with sometimes – but not having a car means that a Bankstown pho trek requires us to set aside an extra hour or two. That was fine.
Naturally though, there happened to be track works along the Bankstown line on the day I set aside for this trek. There were no other days left on my calendar in which I could complete this trek so I thought ‘what the hell’ and off I went.
Was the three-hour travel time worth it?
As I said, it was my first bowl of half decent pho in a long time so yes.
Pho bo tai ($15), ca phe sue da ($5)
I don’t remember the last time I’ve slurped a spoonful of soulfully delicious broth and sighed with happiness. It ticked all boxes: taste, depth and the MSG test (no tickle down my throat). The noodles were thick, glossy and gloriously slippery and they were generous with the sliced beef. I was also impressed with the service – my pho, drink and condiments all came within two minutes of ordering. The only con I could think of was that it wasn’t cheap – a medium bowl of pho was $15 and my Vietnamese iced coffee was $5 (say, what?!). The bowl wasn’t exactly big either; I suppose this is to encourage people to upsize for only an extra $1.50 but I’m not one to be able to order big bowls of pho these days and comfortably finish it.
So would I do the trek from the north shore to Bankstown via public transport for one bowl of pho again? If there were track works happening again, probably not. If I had a car, most likely yes. It was one of the better bowls of pho I’ve had in living memory but far out, getting there was a lot of work!
45 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 8933
A Saturday evening family dinner saw us congregate at Kenzan, one of the finest – and first – Japanese restaurants in Melbourne. Having heard good things about their omakase sushi/sashimi dinners, I had been looking forward to this visit for quite some weeks.
Unfortunately, I am related to a weirdo (cough my brother cough cough) who doesn’t do seafood, let alone raw fish and shellfish so omakase was a bit out of the question. So table a la carte, it was. Still, that didn’t stop us from ordering several sneaky seafood dishes…
Large sushi and sashimi combination ($105)
… like this big arse sushi and sashimi platter that came in a vessel half as big as the table. Despite the fact that it was just over $100, I don’t think any of us expected this platter to be so gigantic. ‘Should we cancel the rest of the dishes?’ asked my mum, looking a tad worried. Puh-lease, we’re a family of eaters – as if!
Each bit of fish was expertly cut and sublimely delicious and fresh. If we took my mum’s advice, I think I would have been happy; there was enough protein in there to stop my stomach from grumbling (and I had to sit through a long 3.5 hour stint at the hairdresser so I did rock up pretty damn hungry). In addition to the usual tuna, kingfish, salmon and prawn pieces, there were also some oysters drizzled in ponzu and soy which my father and I happily ate.
The rest of the food took a while to arrive – about 45 minutes. To be fair, it was a Saturday night so the place was full to the brim. It also didn’t help that the restaurant was massively understaffed that night. With that in mind, I think the place did pretty well to keep the food coming out as best as they could and the staff remained pleasantly friendly throughout.
Kenzan’s menu is predominantly the standard Japanese fare you can find at most mid-to-high end Japanese restaurants in Australia so if you’re looking for surprises, you don’t find it here. It’s all about wagyu steaks, sushi, tempura and all those sorts of things done well so don’t expect avant garde things like dried kombu pizza topped with sea urchin and bonito or anything like that.
Horenso gomaae ($12)
A plate of blanched spinach drizzled with a light sesame seed sauce kicked off proceedings. It provided just the right amount of greens to keep the five of us tricking ourselves into thinking we were being healthy all throughout the evening.
Ebi shumai (four pieces, $16)
The steamed prawn dumplings were impressive; the skins were delicately silky, bursting with a filling of pork fat and prawn pieces. They were also pretty generous with the prawn too, another plus in my books.
Tatsuta age ($20)
My sister loved her fried chicken so this was a ‘must order’ dish. Lightly dusted in flour, the marinated chicken thigh pieces were then deep fried. I’d say this was a ‘safe’ dish – it did everything right, but didn’t wow me enough to want to order it again. Then again, I’m not as much a fried chicken lover as she is.
We also ordered a serving of agedashi tofu ($16) but my photo of it was so bad that I had to flick it into the trash can. It was a shame because it was my favourite dish of the night and probably one of the best renditions of this classic I’ve had, not even kidding. I always love the combination of light crispy batter against cubes of silky soft tofu but the sauce here brought this humble dish to another level. Yes, there was dashi (and lots of it) but there were also mushrooms (and I love mushrooms) with a hint of vegetable stock in there somewhere too. Definitely a dish I’d order again – TWICE. In one sitting.
Gyu teriyaki ($35)
After the wonder that was the agedashi tofu, the grilled beef with teriyaki sauce paled in comparison. To be fair, it was well-cooked piece of steak oozing with juices and the teriyaki sauce was fine. The kitchen even threw us a bowl of rice to go with it. But ugh, I just could not stop thinking about the bloody tofu. Sorry cow, you lost by default this time.
Tempura moriawase ($35)
They also threw in a bowl of rice with the tempura, which we found odd because we don’t normally get given rice when we order tempura. But anyway. The guys at Kenzan seem to be great at frying stuff (case in point, agedashi tofu) because the tempura was probably my second favourite dish of the night. Each piece of prawn, white fish and vegetable were lightly coated, then fried and then served on a paper doily which remained mostly untainted with residue oil for the duration of the dinner. I almost felt healthy eating it.
Mum wanted dessert after our savouries, only to be told that her first choice and then her second choice weren’t available that evening. In the end, we decided to grab the bill because the only option available by then was vanilla ice cream and like we were going to pay for vanilla ice cream at a Japanese restaurant.
To this day, I’m not still not sure how I feel about Kenzan. They do things well and I can see why they’ve won awards and hats as the years go by. I can also see myself coming back to order some dishes again (I’m looking at you, agedashi tofu). But when it comes to the other stuff, there’s a local Japanese restaurant just 5 minutes from my folks’ place that serves the same dishes, cooked just as well but 25% cheaper. Granted, I get that city rents aren’t cheap and all but if I want a good beef teriyaki, why drive into the city, wait for 45 mins and pay extra money for the privilege when you can have the same quality dish for cheaper minus the wait and drive?