Melbourne Restaurant Reviews: The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

YES, this is yet another Melbourne food blog!

Ezard (revisited)

187 Flinders Ln
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9639 6811

Two years ago, Adam and I had only been dating for three months. Not a terribly huge milestone but nonetheless a cause of celebration for me because back then, most of my relationships were as good as over within two months. Heh.

Two years ago, I was still a povo university student (still am now, but at least I’m working 30 hours a week) and so when I got my tax return, I knew I had to take Adam to dinner as a ‘thank you’ gift for taking me to lunch and dinner when I had no money at all.

Two years ago,  I decided to take Adam to Ezardas it commanded rave reviews from all around the country. It would be the first time we would enter a fine dining restaurant as a couple. Unfortunately, that night also happened to be the night where we both got hooked. Seriously hooked. And to this day, Ezard has been the cause of our dilapidating bank accounts, our increasingly demanding palates and our propensity to become harder-to-please patrons when it came to haute cuisine. Even as I write this, I’m wondering what would have happened if I had taken Adam to Oriental Spoon for our three month anniversary… heh.

Anyway, it’s been a while since we had been to a fine dining establishment and so I decided to take Adam to Ezard to celebrate our “it’s been two years since our first outing as a couple to a fine dining restaurant” anniversary. Yeah, it sounds stupid but hey, any sort of justification for spending a wad of money on food is better than no excuse at all right ? Having loved our first visit there back in 2007, we were eager to recommend the restaurant to friends over the last two years. When a bunch of them visited in the last few months, however, I was surprised when each of them told me that they didn’t find it as awesome as I did. Whether Ezard was really diminishing because of Teage Ezard’s concentration on Gingerboy or simply because it really DID suck, I don’t know. Hence, tonight’s visit was going to be an interesting one. Was the food going to be as good as it was back in 2007? Were there going to be any major differences? And how does a $65 main taste?

So we rocked up to the New York loft-like basement of the Adelphi Hotel on Flinders La at 6pm where a handful of tables were already filled. We were led towards the nicest corner tables towards the back where it was more romantic than out the front but unfortunately, this also meant that it was much darker than the rest of the already-dim dining room which, of course, meant that photo-taking was going to be a bitch (Libby’s effed up dining mantra: soft romantic lighting = bad, bright lights = good). Rarrrr.

Like last time, we were given bread to start off with. Next to a bowl of Ezard’s Parmesan, garlic and rosemary infused olive oil were a trio of spices which we could dip our breads in or use as seasoning for our meals. My favourite was the nori and bonito salt which I likened to eating a dried agadashi tofu.

Our starter of Ezard’s signature Japanese-inspired oyster shooters ($5.50 each). First, you’re supposed to gulp the contents of the sake glass in one go (ginger, mirin, fresh oyster, wasabi and all) and while your mouth is burning, you then grab the nori filled with soba noodles and chew on it to ease the burning down your throat. A sublime experience and no wonder the restaurant apparently sells about a thousand of these every week. You MUST try this if you go to Ezard. Meanwhile, the little bundle on the Chinese soup spoon is an amuse bouche of lime-cured kingfish which is to give you a taste of what’s to come, I guess. Nothing worth singing about.

Adam’s seared Canadian scallops with spiced pumpkin puree, chorizo and cumin caramel ($24.50). While I’m not a fan of meat and shellfish combinations (tacky 90s surf and turf, much?), I was surprised to find that this dish worked quite well. Traditionally, the succulently sweet and juicy scallops may not have bothered to mesh in with the rough and spicy chorizo crowd on their own but with the help of the smooth and sweet duo of pumpkin puree and cumin caramel, an amicable union was formed. Lovely.

My open wagyu beef burger with quail egg, onion jam, cresses, smoked tomato and truffle oil mayonaise ($25). Another successful dish. The base was an amazing sourdough bread which, despite being smeared with creamy mayonaise and sticky onion jam, remained crispy until the very last bite. There wasn’t a lot of overbearing ingredients in the “burger” which enabled the natural juices of the wagyu mince ball to permutate nicely, and even the chefs went easy on the truffle oil. Delightful.

Our mains took a while to come which made me start to get a little bit cranky. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of waiters around though. The restaurant was filling up to the brim and the waiters had to deal with more than a few food wankers who HAD to ask stupid questions like where the beef came from (like you would be able to tell the difference, you fat feck, and like your date even cares) and at what temperature the fish is to be seared at. Grrr. The food eventually did come though.

Adam’s seven score wagyu beef with sake roasted king brown mushrooms, garlic jam, black vinegar and shallot glaze ($65). This was clearly the most expensive dish on the menu so we were both somewhat surprised to see that it wasn’t as big as we had imagined. Never mind, we thought, it’s all about quality. Actually, the dish was nice. The sirloin steak, cooked med-rare and sliced for our convenience, was literally cooked to perfection. If I had to show a philistine how a perfect med-rare was like, then this would be it. The problem, however, lay in the sauce which I thought was too heavy, too fancy and OMG, TOO SWEET for the wagyu. The same sauce would have been nice on something deep and gamey like venison but I just felt that the wagyu, which was already flavoursome on its own, needed something a little lighter to bring out its natural flavours. On the other hand, I did like the crispy taro chips on top, hehe. So yes, I did like the dish despite the heavy sauce but I didn’t think it was worth $65.

My pan-fried local sea bream with cauliflower cream, roasted jerusalem artichokes, seared scallop, caviar and chive oil ($47.50). Please forgive the poor quality photo. Given how rich and how sweet Adam’s main was, my lighter meal was a welcome treat despite the fact that it lacked the complexities that Adam’s main boasted. While I would have liked my fish to be cooked for 45 seconds shorter and while I wished I could tell Ezard that molecular gastronomy was soooo three years ago, it was nevertheless an excellent dish which each unique element providing their own subtle nuances to the final package.

A side of green beans with a tofu and sesame sauce ($10.50). They were pleasant enough for a side dish but we could have done without.

We were about 80% full at this stage but we couldn’t leave without ordering the ezard dessert tasting plate ($45.50). Not surprisingly, it didn’t fail to amaze but I reckoned that last time’s dessert plate was so much better. Despite the fact that both our visits occured in August, I found it interesting that the plate we ordered in 2007 consisted of predominantly light and zesty Summer notes whereas the plate we had tonight contained richer and warmer desserts. No wonder we were so stuffed and bloated afterwards. All the desserts were fine (apart from the thyme ice cream which was way too weird and clearly “influenced” by Jacques Reymond’s oregano ice cream) but my favourite was the cherry ripe ice cream – too good!

The total bill was $252 but we managed to bring it down to $202 thanks to the Entertainment book discount. This included a coffee for Adam ($6.50) and very strong and textured Red Claw pinot gris for me ($9.50). We had a great time tonight but felt that perhaps Ezard was losing their magic touch which charmed us two years ago. Whether this was because Teage Ezard was, in fact, focusing on Gingerboy and other projects or whether we were easier to please back then or whether we are more experienced diners – or a combination of all three – is something that I’m not sure about. Indeed, the service lagged towards the end of the evening and there seems to be a shift from Asian to more European influences on the menu which may have changed the quality of the food and not necessarily for the better. Regardless, Ezard still manages to draw a crowd and if tonight’s full house is anything to go by, it’ll remain a fixture in Melbourne’s fine dining scene for years to come.

Something weird’s happening with my arms…

PS: On the upside though, at least my food writing has improved since then!

Classic Curry Restaurant

597 Elizabeth St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9329 4040

I decided to take a day off classes today by sleeping in and then going into the city to suss out the lunchtime pilates class at my gym’s Collins Street branch. Unfortunately, the fact that my bus ran late today coupled with this idiotic fob who thought it was okay to buy a daily concession ticket using a $100 note delayed what would have been a smooth run into the city. Naturally, all of this made me miss the class. Sigh. Next week, I hope.

Lunch was once again Indian food, this time at Classic Curry Restauranton the corner of Elizabeth and Queensberry. This place has been around for as long as I could remember and when I was a student, it used to be called Classic Curry Company before a change of owners which prompted the name change. I had first heard about it through Kelly who reckoned that they served really good AUTHENTIC North Indian cuisine. It wasn’t until my workmates Bek and Robert started raving on about it earlier this year, however, did I decide to give it a try. After meeting up with Adam, we walked along Elizabeth Street into a modest dimly-lit restaurant just off Queensberry Street. Although it was past 2pm, there were still a few tables full of white-collared folk who were trying to put off going back to work.

The menu is well-organised, with vegetarian dishes on one side (all $8) and meat dishes on the other (all $9). Additionally, side dishes and breads are also listed along with some special thali deals. Both Adam and I chose the meat thali deal which consists of your choice of chicken or lamb curry (both of us chose lamb) and two vegetarian dishes (which the chef decides on), basmati rice and one serving of naan. All for $9.50 too.

Although the food at Classic Curry is very simple, it is very big on taste. A nice-but-not-as-spicy-as-most daal and a surprisingly zesty (for lack of better word) aloo gobi (the potatoes and caulflower you see on the bottom) went well with the rich and mildly spicy lamb curry. All this was washed down with probably the best mango lassi I’ve had in a very long time ($2.50). Sigh. Prompt and friendly service (friendly for an Indian restaurant), awesome food that tastes like it’s been cooked at home and at great prices too. It might be a bit of a walk from the CBD but do try this place one day. It might look a bit shabby on the outside but the food is heaps better than what a lot of Indian places in the city offer.

Biryani House

343 King St
West Melbourne VIC 3003
+61 3 9329 4323

After my morning classes and after submitting my response to a legal problem (a few days prior to the due date!), I went into the city to have some lunch with Adam. While I usually have a class at 2pm, I decided not to go because this stupid subject is the biggest waste of bullshite subject I’ve ever had to encounter in all my years attending university. It’s a methods-based subject which teaches us to read and write like lawyers and apparently it’s only been around for 1-2 years. Frankly, if Popovic, Burnside, Toohey et al never studied such a subject, then I don’t see why us budding lawyers must take it too. A waste of $1000 if you ask me but anyways, I digress.

We went to Biryani House, which is situated on the corner of King and William Streets and practically a stone’s throw from my work. If I didn’t bring my lunch from home every day, I’d probably go here for lunch but then my workmates would get pissy if I brought in smelly curry into the office, heh. From the name of the place you could probably tell that this place specialises in biryani, a Muslim-influenced Indian dish made out of basmati rice and served with goat, lamb, chicken, beef or vegies which originated in the city of Hyderabad. It is, in fact, Hyderabad’s most famous export apart from V.V.S. Laxman… and for a good reason too.

We both shared a serving of lamb biryani ($8.90), chicken tikka masala ($8.50) and two servings of butter naan ($1.75 per serving of three pieces of naan, so six in total).

The biryani (which cannot be eaten in the pretty bowl it comes in, but instead spooned out on a plate) was full of flavour from the word go. The basmati rice was cooked in a wonderful mixture of yoghurt, ghee, onions, clove, lemon and cardamon. The lamb, too, was just as nice and not too spicy for my taste. It may look and sound like a rich and heavy dish, but I was surprised to find that it was light compared to other Indian places and just enough to keep us full for the rest of the day up until dinner time. Our biryani went well with the creamy, tomato-based sauce that formed the chicken tikka masala which was then mopped up with our naans once the rice was finished. Everything was then washed down with a refreshing glass of mango lassi ($2.50). Ahhhh.

In other news…

-Okay, did I say that the biryani was light? I wonder why, then, my stomach was still feeling like I had just spent two hours eating at Foodstar about two hours later and why I decided to go to Body Balance class at the gym? I did a half-arsed class because every time we did the downward dog, I felt like my insides were going to spill out of my mouth and onto the floor… (didn’t happen though, thank goodness).

- I buy one major purchase every year to treat myself (Okay fine, so I bought two this year [the Macbook and the Chanel]), not including the billions of dinners I go through every so often. My mum and Adam both reckon I shouldn’t buy anything next year but rather, invest in shares. Pffft, when I get my tax return next year (expecting another big one because my work taxes me way too much for some reason), I’m going to buy a DSLR and THEN, I might consider letting Adam invest my money in whatever share takes his fancy – I don’t care what, at least as it makes me some money, hahaha. Big Question: Which DSLR? (Note: MUST be a Canon).

Umi Cafe (CLOSED)

Shop 10, The Strand Arcade
10/250 Elizabeth St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9662 3368‎

I spent quite a bit today. Probably more than I’ve ever spent in one day. Yep, my tax return cheque had finally cleared and what better way to reward myself for all my hard work this year than by spending it on some new toys (a brand spanking new Macbook Pro and  medium caviar Chanel 2.55 in black). In order to assuage my guilt, though, I decided to go thrifty for lunch. As you know, Adam used to work at the Strand Arcade on the corner of Lonsdale and Elizabeth St in the city but he doesn’t any more. In that same arcade stands a small cafe which sells a smogasbord of things, from pies to sandwiches to… yep, Japanese food. The owners of Umi Cafemay not have read the memo that states “too many items spoil the restaurant” but they do know that tight arses like me and Adam respond well to cheap food so we decided to give their Japanese offerings a go, which are only available on weekdays.

The Japanese dishes are represented by those plastic models that the Japs are famous for. All the options were cheap, with all bentos a measly $8 and one ramen dish for a paltry $6.50. I think the most expensive dish was the unagi don, at $11. In the end, both Adam and I chose bentos because their plastic representations looked nicer than the fugly brown rice and noodle dishes. Heh.

My ebi furai (fried prawn) bento. The four sushi pieces in the foreground is one sushi roll cut into four bits, the filling of which we got to choose from the glass cabinet at the front. I chose cooked tuna while Adam chose prawn. The sushi wasn’t really spectacular – I mean, ANYONE can make sushi rolls really – and frankly, neither was anything else. The fried prawns were fine on their own and even better with the mashed potato salad, but not so great with the mayonnaise that came with the prawns – too salty. Also way too salty was the spinach and sesame salad. As for the spaghetti and mixed herbs on top? I just didn’t see the point.

Adam’s karaage (fried chicken) bento. Same as the one I got, but with chicken. He also made a comment about how our food looked EXACTLY like their plastic versions on the shelf. Heh. Oh, halfway through our meal Aaron bumped into us on the way to the post office. He said something like “I saw a girl sitting in the window who looked like you, Libby, but I was like, ‘Libby wouldn’t eat at a proletariat place like that!’” Oh, Aaron, har-har-har .

Okay, so the meal was cheap so we can’t really whinge about it. I mean, you got what you paid for right? After all, most places charge way more than $8 for a bento box. We shrugged as we walked out and promised each other that we may be back to see what a $6.50 ramen would taste like. That was, until that annoying MSG tickling sensation down my throat started kicking in…

Dai Duong

5/64 Hopkins St
Footscray VIC 3011
+61 3 9689 9899

Adam’s dad turned another year older over the weekend. Well, actually his REAL birthday was way back in June but for some reason, he prefers to celebrate it on his “Chinese birthday” which is determined by the lunar calendar. He wanted yum cha, so Adam and I took the train all the way to Footscray straight after church on Sunday morning. Footscray, because Adam’s grandma (his dad’s mum) lives there and is too fragile to travel such long distances. The place we went to was called Dai Duong, located around the corner from the Franco Cozzo carpark. Stepping into the large restaurant, it was clear that it was run by Viets. Heck, if the name and the atmosphere didn’t give it away, at least the disco ball, the dance floor and half a dozen plasmas dangling from the ceilings did.

With the absence of Adam’s mum (who was up in Sydney for a wedding), the five of us (me, Ads, his dad, his grandma and his aunty Vivian), we shared a pleasant meal in somewhat shabby surroundings. The food itself was on par with the offerings at Fu Long in Box Hill and the prices rather standard, but the atmosphere was, how do you say it, “less refined” no thanks to the many tables of toothless bogans who actually skipped the yum cha offerings and ordered sizzling beef and cans of VB while they looked at us weird Asians eating ham sui gok and other “strange things” and – oh forget it, I don’t want to say any more… *bangs head repeatedly on desk*

Standard food offerings for dumplings were combined with a few unusual dishes, including two variations of prawn dumplings – one topped with flying fish roe (putting them on AFTER steaming them instead of before, would have prevented the roe from discolouring) and one that had green skin, the filling of which contained prawn and chives.

More standard yum cha dishes.

My fave yum cha dish apart from the har gow: zha liang. I was impressed with this version as the ja gwai sticks actually retained their crispiness and the fact that they actually came with greens. Thumbs down for only receiving six pieces though. Tight arses!

The total cost was approximately $150 for the five of us, which was pretty standard. In hindsight, however, I probably would not come back here again if it were up to me. While it wasn’t overly bad (apart from having to sit near bogans who smelt like piss), the food itself wasn’t enough to justify a trip to Footscray especially since there are 10 billion yum cha restaurants in Doncaster/Box Hill/Templestowe/Glen Waverley. Having said that though, Dai Duong is probably good if you live in the west and given that there are hardly any yum cha restaurants on that side of town, it would be best if you dined there rather than go all the way into the city. As long as you don’t mind bogans gawking at you while you’re eating.

In other news…

1. My workmate Bek told me that Chanel was going to open a store in Chadstone soon. I was surprised when she told me the news this morning because although Chadstone is said to be “the fashion capital”, I don’t particularly throw myself at it. While there are some nice shops inside the shopping centre, I think that it’s the most overrated thing in the world since the invention of Cadbury chocolate and I always tell people that I think Chadstone is “too zone two” for my liking. Oh well, I guess it’s better than opening one at say, Highpoint.

2. I bought a “Bettina Liano” black cotton skirt on eBay and when I opened up the package, I was surprised to receive something that suspiciously looked like something that WASN’T from Bettina Liano as it was made out of that cheap polyester-blend that tracksuit manufacturers use to make their garments. Upon further inspection, I found that the inner-side tag (the one which lists washing instructions) were in Japanese and that the Bettina Liano tag itself looked like it was carelessly sewn on. I’m in the process of writing a complaint to the seller who better explain herself or she will be in BIG TROUBLE.

Ghin Khao

242 Swanston Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 3345

I’ve been craving phad thai all week so I decided that I would try that Thai place on Swanston St. Always popular with the students, Ghin Khao has been around for quite a while yet it’s a place that I’ve walked past numerous times without giving much thought. Given that it seems to be popular though, we figured that it must do an alright phad thai and so we ventured into the two-storey restaurant at around 2:30pm yesterday. The term “ghin khao” is the Thai equivalent of the Cantonese “sik fan” and with an extensive menu that has a decent selection of snacks, soups, salads, noodles, curries, rice and desserts you would definitely be doing some serious sik fan-ing. There are even several decently-priced banquet options for those who are particularly hungry which I would normally go for but I didn’t want to eat too much for the time being.

Our water cups. I couldn’t decide whether I liked them or not. On one hand, kudos for the Ghin Khao crew for trying to prettify things. On the other hand, they were flimsy as and could not hold much water. Plus, they looked like those cheapo bangles that you can get from Diva.

My surprisingly awesome phad thai goong ($13.90). I say surprisingly, because I thought my food was going to be average at best. After all, this was Swanston St and secondly, I wasn’t sure it was an authentic Thai place. Anyway, it was a lovely combination of rice noodles stir fried with a handful of prawns, tofu, dried shrimp and peanuts, all brought together by a wonderful fish sauce and tamarind sauce. I was also glad that it was a refreshingly light version rather than the heavy version that we’re so accustomed to seeing in Thai restaurants around Melbourne. Plus, the noodles still retained its chewiness throughout the meal and never went soggy at all which is a bonus for me too. Apart from the fact that the noodles were thinner than what I’m used to and apart from the fact that I got a wedge of lemon instead of a lime, I’d say that this was a pretty darn good phad thai.

Adam’s not-so-awesome-but-still-yummy-nevertheless massaman beef curry ($11.90). It was, like mine, quite small but definitely not lacking in flavour. The curry itself was an aromatic mixture of the usual suspects, coconut milk, potatoes, cinnamon, fish sauce, tamarind, to name just a few ingredients. It was sweeter than other versions which didn’t really bother Adam at all but I probably would not have been happy if I had that one dish to myself as it would have been overkill (yeah, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth).

Good service, yummy food but the portions erred towards the skinny side for the price we paid. We’d still come back if we’re feeling like Thai food and couldn’t find anywhere else to go though.

Happy Cook

156 Springvale Road
Nunawading VIC 3131
+61 3 9894 1663

My mum had her birthday over the weekend and my dad will turn another year older tomorrow, so what better way to celebrate than with some food (the ONLY way our family celebrates, heh). After hearing good reviews from my Aunty Emi about this “super fantastic new duck restaurant” in Nunawading, we decided to try it (we being my family plus Adam). Strangely and fobbily named Happy Cook, this place hasn’t been around for too long. Established by the same guys who ran the once-famous-now-irrelevant Fortuna Village in Chinatown, however, it didn’t take long for word to get around about this place and so when we made the booking for dinner on Sunday night, we were told that it was going to be busy and that there were strictly two sitting available: one at 5:45pm and one at 7:30pm, the former which we chose.

Situated on busy Springvale Road amongst a row of old school op shops, locksmiths and other small businesses reminiscent of Nunawading’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon population, the Peking restaurant is a bit of an eye sore. But although the bright Christmas lights and the shiny disco ball in the very small restaurant may send some of us into giggles, the atmosphere is generally inviting particularly on such a cold night.

Happy Cook is supposedly famous for its Peking duck. Apparently it’s now “the” place to go for good-value Peking duck, rather than the very inconsistent Old Kingdom in Fitzroy. In fact, Happy Cook’s Peking duck is so in-demand that one must pre-order a duck or two before they come here or they will miss out. That’s what dad did when he made the booking and so all weekend, I was looking forward to trying just how good this duck was. Come Saturday night, however, and mum is on the phone to Aunty Emi (the one who recommended this place). Aunty tells mum that it’s in fact the crispy aromatic duck that’s good, rather than the Peking duck and  so dad rang the place again to cancel the Peking duck request.

Presenting the “Crispy Aromatic Duck.” There were six of us at the table, but we only ordered half a duck because Kenneth hates duck ($25 for half a duck + 6 pancakes, $48 for a whole duck + 12 pancakes). Basically, the set up is exactly the same as a traditional Peking duck, the only difference being the way that the duck is cooked. The duck is soaked to get rid of the fat before being deep-fried, which lends to its very crispy texture (both skin and meat). Frankly, I found the crispy aromatic duck way too dry for my liking and I actually missed having that little bit of fat that one would expect to find in a good Peking duck. As for the aroma? Well, there wasn’t any, really. I could taste the slightest hint of five-spice powder and Schihuan peppercorns, but that was it. I think I’ll stick to Peking duck next time.

That was our entree. The rest of the dishes were to arrive after we had finished our duck. 30 minutes after the duck had been cleared, however, we were still waiting. I would have been less pissy if it weren’t for the fact that EVERY OTHER TABLE had their dishes already, including those who had actually ordered after us. It took a bit of “where’s our food? this ain’t good enough”s from my dad to the waiter but finally we got there. We weren’t happy about waiting so long for relatively uncomplicated dishes to arrive and whether the wait was actually worth it is a bit of a jury question…

In the foreground, you can see a plate of sauteed gai lan (Chinese broccoli) which wasn’t actually on the menu (so I don’t know how much it was), but the kind waiter was lovely enough to prepare it with garlic for us. It was nothing to bitch or sing praises about. In the background is a dish called “mock crab” ($19.80). The waiter explained that the dish was invented in the Qing Dynasty by some guy who wanted to please the visiting ruler at the time by making his favourite dish, which happened to have crab in it. Now, this was in Beijing where one could not get fresh crabs to make said dish so he whisked together some egg yolks and some fish meat and did something to it so that the texture resembled that of a crab… and voila. To me, this dish was nothing more than scrambled egg whites whisked with fish and scallops but strangely enough, it wasn’t too bad especially with a bit of vinegar to break up the saltiness of it. Definitely a must-try, just for the experience.

Pan-fried beancurd in shrimp roe ($15.80). This was an interesting interpretation of stuffed beancurd. Rather than heaping the shrimp mixture on top of the beancurd so that it created a puffy pillow, the shrimp roe seemed to be mixed into the batter before being fried so that the skin was a nice, crispy layer of subtle shrimpiness. Yum.

Special combination stir-fried hand-made noodles ($13.80). There was a decent selection of noodles which made it hard for us to choose one, so dad randomly chose the most gweilo of them all (don’t ask me why). Actually, the hand-made noodles were really nice. They were the same size as Hokkien noodles but made with wheat and very delicate. I would have much preferred trying their Shanghai noodles or dan-dan noodles because the combination of overcooked char siu and seafood extender isn’t exactly appealing but oh well, next time…

Of course, we had to order a beef dish because my brother hates pretty much everything when it comes to Chinese food… except beef. We ordered a Mongolian beef ($16.80) which was surprisingly quite good, again very delicate, sweet and succulent. One of the better versions. My only gripe about this dish was that the menu said it was going to be “hot” … and it wasn’t.

The bill was around the $110 mark, which is reasonable for a group of six (and we were all very full). Although none of the dishes were actually very spectactular, they were all well-balanced and made for a very pleasant dinner. Again, I have to say that I’m sure the dinner would have been a lot better had we ordered the Peking duck as it seemed like the way to go (90% of the tables were having it). Because of that, I’m making my parents not listen to Aunty Emi again when it comes to eating out because seriously, how can someone who thinks that the Indian food at Shoppo’s foodcourt is the best Indian in Melbourne? Pfffft. Again, the service may have been slow but they were really nice which is refreshing for a mainlander place, plus the restaurant was spotless. I won’t be here for a while (my dad is still pissy about having to wait 30 minutes between courses) but if I’m in the area and feel like Peking duck, I would no doubt give Happy Cook‘s a go.

Mirka at Tolarno

42 Fitzroy St
St Kilda VIC 3182
+61 3 9525 3088

The Winter chapter of the Melbourne Food and Wine festival is currently in town for the next three weeks which, of course, means taking advantage of the cheap $35 two course lunches that some of Melbourne’s finest restaurants have on offer. The organisers, however, have also decided to introduce the $45 dinner menus this year which is basically the same as what they offer at lunch except more expensive, knowing that Melburnians would hardly blink at the thought of having to fork out an extra ten dollars for dinner. Because it was going to be a relatively warm Sunday, we decided that a trip down to St Kilda would be nice and so we chose to have lunch at Mirka at Tolarno on Fitzroy Street.

There is a bit of a fascinating history behind the Tolarno hotel, which is as colourful as eccentric artist Mirka Mora herself. It’s been around forever as a hotel before Mirka and her husband, Georges (both Holocaust survivors) took over in 1966 to turn it into a French bistro which thrived as a Bohemian epicentre for the arty-farty crowd for many years. Then in 2007, Guy Grossi (yes, he of Grossi Florentino fame) bought the tired-looking hotel because well, if you had that much money, why not hey? Hiring an architect by the name of Peter Elliott, he managed to revamp the hotel into something that looked more modern yet was still able to retain some of its heritage, thus old met new. In order to pay homage to Georges’ artist wife, Grossi renamed his new venture Mirka at Tolarno and decorated the main dining room wall with murals created by Mirka, herself. In a way, Grossi understands the long-established link between food and art which are both very important pursuits in Italian history and culture and both pleasures designed to celebrate life, as it should.

We rocked up to the vividly-coloured hotel for our 12pm booking and were instantly led away from the sunny dining room with all the colourful murals of birds, trees and children … and into a small, dark room which was directly adjacent to the bar . While the room itself wasn’t anything to bitch about, I would have loved to sit amongst all of Mirka Mora’s vivacious murals while eating my lunch but we were told that some old bird was having a 60th birthday celebration in the main dining room which was strictly off-limits to other diners (insert expletive here).

The menu was divided into the standard entree-main-dessert, with three options available in each course. Although Tolarno was known as a French restaurant back in the day, Grossi’s Italian roots clearly shine through with a lot of the menu taking the Tuscan route and borrowing heavily from Grossi Florentino‘s menus. While most people chose the $35 two course option, there is also an option to have three courses for $45. Because we are tight and because none of us aren’t huge dessert fans, we decided to  just pick an entree and main each. In order for us to choose a dessert over an entree, the dessert list needs to be REALLY enticing but in this case, none of the desserts sounded particularly sexy. In fact, they reeked of Julie-From-Masterchef: flourless chocolate cake and vanilla ice-cream… I mean, really!

Immediately after placing our orders, we received some bread, butter, marinated olives and grissini which was exactly what we got at Grossi Florentino and Grossi Florentino – The Grill. Apart from the fact that the grissini was slightly burnt, there really isn’t much to talk about here…

Our entrees did take a while to come and for that, I blame the boisterous party of old farts in the other room. Just as well as they came when they did though, otherwise I would have finished my glass of house white (which is included in the $35 p/h cost). Anyway, that was Adam’s entree: A “timballo“, a baked pasta dish made famous in that delicious foodie movie “Big Night.”

This is what it looks like after Adam decided to go Romper Stomper all over his plate. It was simply just a really, really, really good pasta bake made with penne pasta and a rich, intense ragu of pork and tomato. Utterly delicious and surprisingly, the highlight of lunch.

Sadly, my entree paled in comparison. While I’m not saying that it was bad, it was just bland after the excitement of the timballo. Remember when Franz Ferdinand hit it big when they released “Take Me Out” in 2005? And after that, their subsequent songs never quite lived up to TMO? Yeah, it was like that. Hence, my broccoli and ricotta gnocchi soup lacked that same level of intensity, the same spark and the same zing as the timballo – oh, what am I saying?! I was just jealous that Adam got the better dish for once!

There was also a bit of a wait for the mains but strangely enough, we weren’t pissy about it. I think this was because we were actually half-full from the other filling entrees and so we were just content to sit back with our wines. On that note, I was actually surprised at how full I was because apparently this place was notorious for their apparently small servings but I guess management actually listened to their diners and hence, decided to enlarge their portion sizes.

Adam’s stufato of lamb with carrot and parsnip puree. ‘Yuck, what the heck is that?!’ was my initial reaction upon seeing the dish and indeed, it tasted as odd as it looked. A single piece of lamb rump was slowly stewed to give it that tender melt-in-your-mouth sensation which, I reckoned, was the only thing going for the dish. Tastewise, it was just too sweet for our liking … even when Adam doused the entire thing in salt and pepper. Also, the puree tasted suspiciously like pumpkin more than carrot and parsnip… FAIL.

My main, thankfully, tasted much better. Now, I’m not particularly a quail person. I never used to mind it but countless nights eating dinner with Adam’s family and having to sit through many, many plates of roast pigeon/quail no thanks to Adam’s dad have put me off the thing. Thus, I was somewhat shocked when this plate was presented to me. When I read the menu, I simply saw “polenta” and “mushrooms” without really seeing “quail” and that was what made me order it, without really thinking about it. So when I saw the bird presented to me, I realised that I would actually have to eat quail and at that point, I started gulping. Yeah, I know my thought process is pretty effed to say the least, but didn’t someone once say that geniuses often have unstable minds? Ahem. Anyway. Surprisingly, this dish was actually quite nice. I may be over Chinese-style quails but this dish reinserted my faith in the bird because it was cooked really well. It was marinated in a blend of red wine and olive oil along with a handful of fragrant herbs and spices, including a generous dosage of sage. It was accompanied by a large mushroom stuffed with a polenta mash that was infused with the slightest drop of truffle oil which gave it a nice, pleasant aroma without making it taste too contrived and synthetic which is often the result of chefs using too much truffle oil (HATE).

We were offered coffees at this point and because it was included in the $35 cost, we couldn’t say no. Adam ordered his usual short macc while I was my boring self and ordered a latte. While Adam’s coffee looked “technically perfect”, mine was probably lighter than most. Taste-wise, it wasn’t superlative (the beans were off) but it is still nevertheless miles ahead anything you can get at Maccas. Another thing that I should mention here is that there were literally no grinds at the bottom of the cup once we had drained our coffees which, according to Adam, is a hallmark of a really, really good coffee machine. Also, props for the lemon curd-filled raspberry macaroons that they gave us with our coffees. Adam reckoned that they were the best thing about this lunch and while I wasn’t sure whether he was actually being serious, they were indeed pretty delicious.

Overall, a pleasant Sunday lunch. The food was a bit of a hit-miss but surprisingly, better than our meal at Grossi Florentino – The Grill. While the service was a bit 40-in-a-60 zone at some stages, it remained very friendly and very lucid when it wanted to be courtesy of some smooth talking by the manager, Carlo Grossi (Guy Grossi’s son and coincidentally, one of my brother’s friends from high school) whose finesse and maturity puts him in a league way beyond that of other kids his age. Can definitely see myself coming here when the weather is perhaps a little bit warmer so that we can stroll down to St Kilda beach after lunch. Just don’t order the freaky lamb dish again, will you Libs…

Chinatown Dumpling Restaurant (CLOSED)

Shop 3, 254 Swanston St
South Melbourne VIC 3205
+61 3 9663 3893

1. I was in the city running errands all day today. When I finally finished at around 3pm, I decided that it was time for a late lunch.
2. Grabbed Adam and decided to grab a quick bite at Chinatown Dumplings because it was nearby and because I felt like dumplings. Even though our last few visits have been terrible, it was either that or Dumplings Plus and because I’m over Dumplings Plus, Chinatown won hands-down.
3. There are several tables by the window looking out onto Swanston St when we get there but for some reason, the waitress puts us at a table out the back next to the kitchen where it was so dark that you couldn’t see anything.
4. We ordered a serving of fried pork dumplings (15 for $7.80), a serving of steamed chicken and prawn dumplings (10 for $7.80) and a spring onion pancake ($3.50). Yes, the prices have gone up since our first visit.
5. Our fried pork dumplings arrived literally one second later. No kidding. One second. They were covered in a ghastly residue of cooking oil and they were NOT crunchy!
6. We weren’t given bowls so we had to run around and ask a waitress for a couple of them.
7. Our tea flask refused to pour out tea (there was something blocking the opening) so Adam had to wrestle with the lid to unscrew it before any tea could come out.
8. Our spring onion pancake arrived, burnt on the bottom.
9. The waitresses and chefs were beginning to get cozy with their meals at the back, presumably to get ready for the dinner rush. They had forgotten our steamed dumplings. And when we politely reminded them that we still had one more dish coming, we get a rude response from one of the waitresses “steamed dumplings always take 15 minutes to cook!”
10. Our steamed dumplings come and they fall apart with a slight nudge of the chopstick. Sigh.
11. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, we see some sort of INSECT (not a cockroach, though rather similar) scuttle right across our table before disappearing behind the chopstick dispenser.
12. After paying our bill, we got the hell out of there vowing never to return.
13. I’m currently writing there while clutching my stomach, and drinking copious amounts of tea and honey.

And the Dumpling Conspiracy is still very much alive…

The Grand Tofu 2

5/53 Kingsway
Glen Waverley VIC 3150
+61 3 9574 7676

There is another yong tau foo eatery in Glen Waverley. It also happens to have the same name as the one that’s been standing around the corner from the train station for years, The Grand Tofu. The Grand Tofu 2, however, is on the same strip of shops as Village Cinemas, Bob’s Kitchen and JG Dumplings so one can easily have a bowl of noodles and soup after a session at the cinemas or after a afternoon in the library. Adam and I decided to visit the restaurant in its third week of business sometime last week at around 11:30 in the morning. Although it was not yet officially lunchtime, the place was swarming with people and we were lucky just to find a table towards the back of the restaurant. Now, the only reason why we wanted to eat here was to try some yong tau foo which, some of you know, involves standing by the counter and choosing your soup base (clear, tom yum or curry), your noodles (rice, vermicelli or Hokkien) and six of the 15 or so little dumplings/stuffed beancurds/wantons/UFOs laid out on display in the glass cabinet. The protocol that we’ve been following at all other yong tau foo restaurants was to march up to the counter, choose your items, pay for them and then find a seat.

Not in this case.

So after we’re hastily seated, we get up to choose the stuff that would be going into our meals. But while we’re halfway choosing, we’re ushered back into our seats and snidely told us that “this wasn’t the way they do it here.” Apparently, we were supposed first sit on the table, wait for someone to come around with a menu, read the menu on the table and actually TELL the waiter, while seated, that we wanted to order yong tau foo. The waiter is then to write ‘yong tau foo’ on his piece of paper before he prints out a ticket from the cashier which is then handed to us. We are THEN to get up from our table, with the ticket, and then hand the ticket over to the bored-looking lady who is manning the tong yau foo cabinet who THEN proceeds to make our dish according to our specifications. This so-called “procedure” is not only confusing to first-timers but also inefficient, adding an extra 5-10 minutes to our waiting time. I’m one of those people who can get frustrated easily over little things like these but I just so happened to be sick (the potentially swiney kind of sick) that day so I was especially grumpy.

Admittedly, our yong tau foo were quite decent though not any better than other places I’ve been to. I ordered one with a clear broth and rice noodles which I then added some chilli oil to make it a bit more spicy for me. I wasn’t happy about the lack of dumplings they had in that cabinet, but I did make up for it by putting in an extra prawn and pork wanton and stuffed fried doughnuts alongside my fish cake and fried vegetarian bean curd skin. Adam’s curry soup, while tasty, didn’t seem to have the same punch as my clear broth though.

Each bowl was, from memory, $9.50 which is the standard these days but I probably wouldn’t go there if I have to deal with the cumbersome ordering procedure again!