Hotel Nest (high tea)

Hotel Nest
107-111 Victoria Avenue
Albert Park VIC 3206
+61 3 9699 9744
www.hotelnest.com.au/

And so the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival party continues. We decided to focus on sweets this time, and with a handful of high tea events taking place at various venues around the city we decided that it was our duty to attend one of them. While most of the high tea events were pretty generic, there was one that caught my eye: the Port-a-Portea high tea at Hotel Nest. Described on the festival’s web site as a ‘designer afternoon tea… inspired by the latest fashion collections, including IT bags and shoes, and designs by Chanel and Prada”, Shirley and Linda exclaimed, ‘SOLD!’ before I could point my finger at the event and say, “I Jimmy Choo-choo-choose you.” A booking was made two weeks beforehand which then had to be changed because Linda realised she had double-booked (what normal girl chooses the air show over high tea? Pffft). A cancellation fee would have normally been charged on my credit card, the number of which was given to the lady at the time of my initial booking, but thankfully they let me off this time.

Located in charming Victoria Avenue and 10 mins from the beach, Hotel Nest well, nestles snugly between rows of little shops, cafe and residential apartments. The main bar looks like any gastro pub but in the function rooms upstairs, the polished timber and white walls combined with a cute DJ spinning some chill-out music created a scene that was both classy yet modern at the same time. The little bird cages dangling from the ceiling were also a cute little touch too. I, however, wasn’t sure about the random placing of Prada and Chanel shopping bags all over the tables in the room though – I thought that they were cute, yet a bit try-hardy.

Shirls and I sat on a rather smallish table in the middle of one of the rooms and took in the scene while the room began to fill with pretty fillies dressed to the nines in silk and lace dresses, stilettos *this* high and foundation *this* thick. I looked at my simple sundress, which was bought from General Pants Co, and my coral Bloch ballet flats. And sighed. But not to worry, for each table had a tea menu, telling us what teas were available, fastened onto a clipboard with an Hermès ribbon. That made us feel fashionable. Heh.

Having read negative reviews of Hotel Nest’s (normal) food, I was actually worried what high tea was like here. Still, I told myself, it can’t be worse than the afternoon we had at Hotel Windsor so with an optimistic smile, I accepted my Lavender Love cocktail from our host whose name I couldn’t remember except that she looks a lot like Alyssa Sutherland but shorter. And ditzier. The cocktail was ridiculously sweet but good. Real good. Made with a splash of Veuve, apple cider, honey, lemon and a spring of lavender. The first time I took a sip, I almost choked as the sweetness was overpowering, but the more I drank, the more I liked.

Our savouries arrived. Each of us were given a plate of sandwiches and a cut of ham and cranberry baguette. From L-R: cucumber and cream cheese, curried egg and chicken and chive. I thought it was odd that they would cut the sandwiches in halves rather than quarters (sandwiches look prettier in quarters!) but it was much more than what the jokers at Hotel Windsor gave us so I didn’t whinge. While the baguette was perhaps a little flat and bland, I thought the sandwiches were alright – not the best I’ve had but they didn’t suck (well, except for the cucumber sandwich which Shirley thought was ‘tasteless’).

For some reason, the other tables were getting their sweets towers before us. This annoyed us a little bit because we were seated earlier, and long finished our sandwiches. Faux Alyssa Sutherland was nowhere to be seen and our tea cups remained empty. Luckily, our tower came before we really started to get cranky. It was a simple tower which was not jam-packed to say the least but the vibrant colours and the funny shapes of all the sweets that we were about to devour got us all excited.

Top tier: a luscious chocolate mousse and a creamy blueberry and vanilla panacotta competed for attention while sundry ‘fashion items’ surrounded them. There was a wisp of Persian fairy floss which I took to be a scarf or a shawl, a Tiffany’s gift box (which was a pound cake covered in that trademark Robin’s egg-coloured icing) and a rich dark chocolate crocodile Hermès Birkin masquerading itself as a Chanel. As for that biscuit on the left? I have no idea what it’s trying it to – it just looks like something Claudia Kishi would wear as an earring.

Middle tier: there was a square made out of dark chocolate and strawberry, a lovely combination of bitter, sweet and sour all packed into one block; a honeycomb slice that was not too sweet but still needed a bit of oomph, oomph, baby; a pistachio macaroon[sic] that was more sugar and dye than pistachio; a mini vanilla cupcake that was soft and fluffy as the fabrics in an Ellie Saab wedding gown and finally, a piece of salmon on toast which clearly did not belong.

Bottom tier: honeycomb slice, vanilla cupcake, pistachio macaroon[sic] and loserish salmon toast made another appearance, this time joined by two newcomers: a mushy berry marshmallow and a sundried tomato, cream and chive tart, the perfect morsel to counteract all the sugar that would no doubt contribute to Type 2 diabetes.

This Tiffany’s pound cake was my least favourite. Sure, it looked pretty, even when cut in half, but the cake was rock hard and the icing just tasted off – like someone had chucked bath soap into the icing mix or something. Revolting.

FINALLY, we got tea. I started off with an apple tree tea which was described on the menu as “sweet” but it wasn’t overly so – and that was a good thing. The apple flavour was strong and a slight tang was present. No sugar required. Shirley’s first tea (and the second tea I ordered) was the berry green tea, an organic Japanese green tea which was infused with a blend of raspberries, red currants and strawberries. Like the apple tree tea, it was flavoursome but the flavours were still delicate enough to let the natural taste of green tea shine.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper high tea without scones. We got one scone each which I thought was a bit tight but given how full our tummies were, we were really in no position to complain. I can’t say that the scones were the best I’ve ever tasted (they weren’t hard but they weren’t as fluffy as clouds either) and while I liked how they presented the Chantilly cream and strawberry vanilla jam, it made getting the cream and jam slightly difficult.

At this stage, we were offered more cakes and sandwiches which I thought was a nice gesture (and certainly the first time I’ve had this happen to me at high tea!) but we were too fully so we said ‘no.’ My waistline and that Fleur Wood asymmetrical dress that’s been hanging in my closet for six months now and is SURELY out of fashion would thank me.

Finally, we received a tiny shot glass of raspberry and lemon sorbet. It was cool, tart and refreshing, the perfect finish to what was a faaaaabulous afternoon, dah-ling!

Hotel Nest may (apparently) serve crappy pub food but for a place that doesn’t specialise in high tea, we were both happy. Okay, so there were some things that needed work such as the service which was laggy at times, their willingness to let anyone wearing more than one centimetre of foundation into the function room and their crappy pound cake. Plus, I also felt slightly jibbed. I thought that the entire high tea was revolved around fashion but apart from a few choice items on the top tier of the tower, nothing was remotely related to fashion (unless they’re trying to tell us that marshmallows are the new macarons). And where were the nibbles inspired by Prada? I couldn’t see any biscuits resembling a platform shoe, dammit! But anyway, they did get most of it right which is more than what I can say for high tea specialist, Hotel Windsor. Apparently Hotel Nest do high teas regularly during the year so it’s worth a look into if you are unable to make the final pret-a-portea high tea for the food festival this Sunday.

Miss Chu (Melbourne)

Shop 2, 297 Exhibition Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9077 1097
www.misschu.com.au/melbourne.php

Charging a premium for Asian food and trying to justify these price hikes by insisting that ‘only premium ingredients are used’ or tweaking one or two elements of a certain dish and calling it  ‘Modern Asian’ seems to be the craze du jour in Melbourne’s dining scene right now.

While this practice has been successful for some (Gilbert Lau and Anthony Lui at Flower Drum, Teage Ezard at Gingerboy and Martin Boetz at Longrain), others haven’t been so lucky (gweilo-ising banh mi (Vietnamese pork rolls) by putting beetroot and roast chicken in them, for example, and charging $6 per roll at Flinders Street have made banh mi purists like myself aggravated). You may be someone who is into innovative dishes and have thus, welcome this trend… or you may be a full-on purist and scorn those who would dare pay $28 Teage Ezard’s Singapore noodles which may or may not contain fully organic noodles and peanuts that were handpicked by magic raccoons. Whatever your stance, ‘gweilo-ised’ Asian or ‘Modern Asian’ or whatever you want to call it is here to stay so suck it up, princess.

The newest bitch in town goes by the name of Miss Chu, who has transferred from Sydney because her school had no gymnastics team. Created by Laotian-born Vietnamese Nahji Chu, the inaugural Sydney kiosk-slash-caterer of the same name has seen an unexpected demand for its rice paper rolls so the crowds have given Chu the unofficial title of Sydney’s “queen of rice paper rolls.” And I’m not talking about your standard prawn rice paper rolls. Oh sure, they sell them here ($6 for two rolls, no less) but they also have fancy flavours such as satay chicken and coconut, and the vaguely worded ‘vegan rice paper rolls.’ Miss Chu also sells other food of the Vietnamese persuasion, namely vermicelli salads and pho. Oh, and dumplings are also on the menu. Yes, DUMPLINGS. And the good news? Miss Chu is all about using organic and fair trade ingredients which is always a plus in my books.

They also don’t use MSG (whooop) nor garlic (oh noes!)… And +1 for finally being the first to tell people how to pronounce ‘pho’ properly.

Last Thursday after work, Adam and I decided to pop down to Exhibition Street to have a taste of Miss Chu (ooh, sounds durrrrrr-ty!). Seating options are limited to two small tables outside or a handful of tables and wooden benches inside where the mood lighting can either diminish your ability to take awesome photos of food, or make your blind date partner look hot. Or both. We ordered from the bar as instructed, then sat on make-shift wooden-topped milk crates as we enjoyed the following delicacies:

Quick to land on our table was a plate of two tuna sashimi rice paper rolls. At $12, these obviously-nicked-from-the-Japanese rolls don’t come cheap but the creamy avocado, the luscious pieces of raw tuna, fresh mint (both the conventional and the Vietnamese kind) combined with a hint of wasabi all wrapped together in a secure rice paper blanket made for a refreshing starter. It tasted even better with the chilli soy sauce that came with it too. And yes, $12 is expensive for rice paper rolls (especially when you can get four for $5 in Footscray) but then again, the quality ingredients really made this dish and secondly, you don’t hear anyone complaining about being charged $12 for three potato croquettes at a tapas bar, don’t you?

Another thing I should mention here is that I don’t think the rice paper rolls are made to order. They came out really quick and I later found out that they were grabbing them from underneath the counter which hopefully had some sort of refrigeration system in place. But whatever, most places don’t make them to order anyway and the tuna sashimi ones were fresh enough for me so I can’t complain.

Although the focus is on snacks, there are some larger dishes for those who want a proper dinner. The wagyu beef pho sounded too good to pass up so we ordered a bowl of that. At $13, you’re paying almost double the price of a Hopkins Street pho, something that will send Adam’s budget-conscious parents into a frenzy. I was kinda expecting it to be something special but truth be told, I would rather much have a ‘proper’ pho from Footscray, MSG and garlic and all. The broth was just too plain and not at all fragrant like a pho should be. I hated how they popped the sliced chillies into the soup, assuming that we would be okay with that but I’m someone who does NOT like chillies in her pho so I was annoyed to spend half the time picking them out. And although there was a generous amount of bean shoots in the broth, we did not get a plate of leafy herbs as is customary at Vietnamese restaurants. At least the slices of wagyu beef were soft and full of flavour.

And at least they weren’t tight with the noodles.

In saying all that, Adam actually found the plainer soup to be a refreshing change from the MSG-laden broths that he is accustomed to.

We also ordered a bowl of pork Hanoi spring roll warm vermicelli salad ($12). The noodle-spring roll ratio was a bit off but then again, what place WOULDN’T give you a bowl with lots and lots of noodles and hardly any spring rolls? The Hanoi spring rolls, which are like ‘normal’ Vietnamese spring rolls but use a rice paper wrapper instead, were fried to a crisp and had a lovely delicate filling – a bit of pork mince, a bit of mushroom and I was happy. I don’t think this was the best rendition I’ve had though (Nam Giao in Springvale FTW) but it wasn’t half bad either. Next time, I think I’ll try the vegan sauteed shitake, enoki and shimeji mushroom vermicelli salad because goodness knows how much I love mushrooms… mmmmm…

The second time we went, we decided to sit outside where the lighting was a bit better and order dumplings to nibble on. Personally, I think Miss Chu works better as a place that you can order a drink at, and share a few plates of nibbles whether it’d be dumplings or spring rolls.

First off the rickshaw rank is a bowl of scallop and prawn dumplings (three for $5). They were very much like the yum cha kind, but more plump thanks to the big arse prawns and scallops they used. Their almost gluggy skins was a sign that they had been sitting on the steamer for a bit too long but whatever, I’ll overlook the skins because I thought these were freaking fantastic and as for the tangy soy sauce that the dumplings were served with? Loved it.

We also ordered some ‘Shanghai pork’ dumplings (three for $5), an obvious attempt at recreating the xiaolongbao. They might have looked the part but the absence of soup in the dumplings meant that they were not proper XLBs. Still, the filling was tasty (sweet, but not very) and actually better than some of the mediocre ones I’ve had at CHINESE places which says something. Or maybe not.

They also sell char siu (BBQ pork) buns at $2 a pop. Because the dough was gluggy and the filling a bit skimp (not to mention TOO sweet), you’re better off going to Nam Loong on Russell Street to get your steamed bun fix.

We also had Hanoi spring rolls on their own (4 for $5), served with lettuce and nuoc mam. The spring rolls were alright, but not the best Hanoi ones I’ve had as they weren’t THAT crispy. That said, they were still tasty and the nuoc mam was one of the better ones I’ve had.

I don’t normally rave on about drinks but this is a drink that is just as good, if not better, than the food here. It’s a young coconut, pineapple and mint cocktail served in the cup that the young coconut juice (young coconut meat included) came in – $9 with vodka or $5 without. Coconut water/juice is currently the next Vitamin Water (vomit) and I think it’s smart that Miss Chu is taking advantage of this fad by actually making a coconut-based juice that actually tastes delicious (c.f. Cocobella or whatever the fudge that crap is called). The cocktail is punchy and light with just the right amount of sweetness. Best of all, the  mint and coconut meat are both pureed in with the fresh pineapple juice to give it a smoothie-like texture. The only bad thing about the drink is that there is a negligible amount of vodka in the $9 version so you’re probably better off getting the virgin version and buying a bottle of Beer Lao for lack of better drinks. Or walking down a block to Trunk or Troika.

And another good thing about this place? They do free delivery within 1kms. On these funky bikes! Exhibition Street is a bit of a hike from my office so I knew that I could never venture here for lunch but the thought of having rice paper rolls of warm vermicelli salads delivered to my work got me REALLY excited. Until the dude behind the bar told me that they could only deliver if your order exceeded $35. Bummer.

Not to worry, everything is available to take away. I bought two boxes of rice paper rolls and split them with Adam so that we could eat them for lunch the following day. While not ideal (one year old rice paper rolls, really?), they were still ‘good’ by the time 1pm came and hey, anything beats eating a crappy cheese sandwich with soggy lettuce!

Yep, even a rice paper roll that looks scarily like a dead penguin…

Pingu was actually a roast duck and banana flower rice paper roll ($8 for two) which was actually more mint, banana flower and betel leaf and not so much duck which was a bit disappointing. But still, it tasted alright – just wished there was more duck in it!

Much better was the free-range egg omelette with avocado and balsamic caramelised onion ($6 for two). It was beautiful – the creamy avocado (which still managed to stay green despite sitting in a fridge all night and all morning) went well with the sweet and almost tarty caramelised onions. Dip in some nuoc mam (provided) and you have yourself the best light lunch ever. Well, not ever, but hey, I work at William Street and at 1pm on a Friday afternoon, I’m easy to please.

But no seriously, despite the rolls not being fresh, the skins still remained supple (not dry nor soggy) and the ingredients still retained their flavours.

Okay so the food steers towards the gweilo-ised Vietnamese . And those who are accustomed to paying $5 for four rice paper rolls might berate me for going to this joint when going to any random Vietnamese restaurant on Victoria Street would have been more economical. I may say to you, “Yeah, you’re right” when it comes to the issue of pho (or “fur”), call it a tie when it comes to the warm vermicelli salads (hopefully the vegan mushroom one will blow me away though and change my mind) but when it comes to rice paper rolls and steamed dumplings at 9:30pm on a Wednesday night, I’m glad that there is a DECENT option in the city. Yes, they’re slightly pricier than Chinatown but it’s a small price for no MSG and ZOMG, scallop and prawn dumplings that are so lusciously delicious. And judging by the number of walk-ins on the two nights we were there, it looks like this bitch is here to stay.

MissChu on Urbanspoon

La Luna Bistro

320 Rathdowne Street
Carlton North VIC 3054
+61 3 9349 4888
www.lalunabistro.com.au/

March has got to be one of my favourite months of the year. The sun is still out to play for at least a few more weeks (even though us Melburnians haven’t really had a proper Summer this year, I bet none of us are complaining about tomorrow being 27 degrees!), uni has started, footy season is about to commence and most importantly, the annual Melbourne Food and Wine festival is upon us! New Yorkers may have fashion week and Utah may have that little film festival but we have a pretty damn impressive festival that celebrates all things, well, food-y and wine-y. For 10 days, I stuff myself silly with food and drink way too much – not that I do that for the remaining 355 days of the year *cough* Sadly, food festivals means spending a lot of money. Like, money that I don’t have. While I would have LOVED to see Nigella Lawson on stage, tickets to her session are way beyond my budget. As are most of the events that are arguably money-making farces. There are, however, some reasonably priced options that you can still enjoy during the festival. And the restaurant express lunches are just one of them.

Basically, there is a list of restaurants that are offering diners the chance to do two courses + a glass of  Victorian wine + tea/coffee for only $35. Okay, so there are restaurants that do that sort of stuff all year around. But there are also participating restaurants that don’t do these deals throughout the year, except for the festival. And the quiet achiever of mod-Italian cuisine, La Luna Bistro, is one of them.

Located in quiet and leafy Rathdowne Street, it is a 10 min bus ride from the CBD. Shirley and I walked to the door on the Rathdowne Street side of the building, only to realise that the door was actually locked. There was another entrance on the other side of the building, on Lee Street which, thankfully, opened to let us in. No biggie, but a sign on the not-in-use Rathdowne Street side would have helped. The maitre’d greeted us, asking if we were here for the express lunch or the suckling pig banquet and when we replied the former, we were led to a cozy table by the window.

This photo is supposed to convey the simple, clean lines that, along with polished wooden furnishings, created an elegant yet no-fuss atmosphere which is portrayed in chef Adrian Richardson’s cooking. Fail, Libby, fail. Elsewhere, wrought-iron lampshades dangled from the ceilings while a chalkboard with a simple illustration of a cow with labels pointing to each cut of meat told us that this place focused on the beef. And the spelling and grammatical errors on the restaurant express menu told us that the menu-writer needed to spell-check his or her work.

For my wine, I went for the  2010 Jamsheed Le Blank[sic] Plonk. I was told that it was a riesling but it didn’t taste like any riesling I’ve had (and I’ve had plenty). There was hardly any sweetness but a lot of tartness and acidity. When I googled up the wine on my iphone4, I found that it was not actually a riesling per se but a field blend of 40% Gewürtztraminer, 40% Riesling and 15% Chardonnay and 15% Sauvignon Blanc from various Victorian regions. Hmph, a straight riesling my ARSE. While it was drinkable, I can’t say that it was a wine that I particularly enjoyed – and it would have been nice to have been told that it was a field blend and not a riesling. Oh, and Shirley swapped her wine for a Coke – they didn’t have Diet Coke which I thought was pretty odd…

From a menu of three entrees, three mains and three desserts, Shirley and I decided to get an entree and a main each. Shirley ordered a board of proscuitto[sic], pickled peppers and crisp bread. It may have been a ridiculously simple dish but it was executed extremely well. Taste-wise, each element was subtle but the varying textures made for a dish to be enjoyed. I don’t know why they decided to go Yankee on us and call it a ‘pepper’ when capsicum would have done fine though.

Just as I took that shot of Shirley’s entree, the maitre’d came up to us and told us that no photos were permitted in the restaurant. I stared at her, dumbfounded because it was only the second time in my food-blogging career (if you could can call it that) that I’ve been specifically told “no photos.” She told me that in order to take photos, I would have to seek prior permission from the restaurant which I obviously think is bullsht because er, why? Just WHY? Secondly, I had been setting up my shots for the last 10-15 minutes prior to our entrees arriving. She (and the other waitresses) would have seen me take 20 shots of my wine glass but she chose to tell me NOW? I said nothing to her, but instead put my camera away and she was satisfied. But whenever she wasn’t looking, I did whip out my camera and flashed-flashed before she came back. HAH! No time to adjust settings though, hence why some of them look a bit whack.

I had the local figs (stolen from Mum’s tree), watercress, goat’s cheese, balsamic syrup. Like Shirley’s entree, this dish was insanely simple but tastier … and a lot more fun to eat. The figs were fresh as you can imagine and bursting with a ton of sweetness. The watercress salad, however, was the star of the show. Mixed with bits of mild goat’s cheese and drizzled with a bit of balsamic, its tarty, bitter and sour flavours all rolled into one to pack a punch against the sweetness of the figs.

Shirley’s main: free-range beef sausage, creamy butter mash, artichoke and mushroom dressing, cress. Richardson prepares his sausages on site, using free-range, grass-fed and organic products and all this was evident in this dish. While we both thought that the sausages were a bit on the crumbly and dry side, I did like the clean taste of the meat and gluten and fat levels were kept to a minimum. The mash was, as its name suggested, creamy and buttery. It was a toffy version of the bangers and mash and I loved it.

My main: Steak and heart pie, aioli and minted peas. Look, it was either the pie or the ricotta gnocchi, pea’s[sic, WTF, SIC], mint, garlic butter, truffle pecorino. It was a tough choice as both dishes sounded really good (even though the ‘heart’ bit kind of put me off initially), but in the end the pie prevailed because 1) I was in a place that specialised in meat so it would have been silly to go vegetarian and 2) people who add random apostrophes to pluralise nouns suck. Again, I liked this dish better than Shirley’s choice. A deliciously rich filling of beef and gravy was encased in a thick, home-made shortcrust pastry and accompanied by a generous blob of mashed potato and mashed peas with mint mixed into it. I couldn’t really see or taste any organs in the pie which made me wonder whether the heart was mashed up to the point where it was not recognisable or whether the ‘heart’ was simply a metaphor for the dish being made with a lot of heart. Or both. Whatever, I liked it.

To finish off, we took up the restaurant’s offer for coffee. I had a latte and Shirley (who usually says ‘no’ to alcohol and coffee and therefore, MUST be a closeted Mormon – only kidding!) asked for a hot chocolate. Shirley’s hot chocolate was apparently “really watery” while the milk in my latte was burnt. This ain’t amore.

The food may not have looked big but it was filling and kept me happy until dinner time. Despite the whole ‘no photos’ thing making me slightly annoyed, despite spelling errors on menus (not a major thing and certainly not something that reflects the quality of the food but I’m someone who will be quick to judge someone if they use “his” instead of “he’s” and hold it against them) and despite the substandard hot drinks, I can see myself coming back for dinner. Richardson’s passion and genuine love of quality local produce is evident in his cooking and if this express lunch is only a fraction of what he can do, then I can’t wait to experience a full-blown La Luna dinner. But I’ll be uber-stealth with the photo-taking next time.

La Luna Bistro on Urbanspoon

PM24

24 Russell Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9207 7424
www.pm24.com.au/

If you’re as old and as loserish as me, you would have no doubt spent nights on yahoo! chat or mIRC instead of studying. You’d be chilling in one of the channels, talking in to everyone who was in there with you (the channels I frequented were #asianmelb, #melbourne and #donnyre (shut up)) and every now and then, some random would go to you, “Hey, MiSs^sensASIAN, can I PM you?” (I suspect that my suggestive-but-now-lame username contributed to the barrage of such requests, heh). These days, no one asks me if they could PM me.  For one thing, no one cool does the whole chat thing anymore. But I have had requests from friends who wanted to PM24 me. And well, I don’t have a problem with that.

PM24. That’s the name of French cuisine extraordinaire, Philippe Mouchel’s new restaurant – the PM is his initials and no, the 24 doesn’t refer to the fact that he’s open 24 hours a day (ooh-er, dirty!) but to the location of this simple, but stylish French restaurant (24 Russell Street). Lovers of his former home The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel, including yours truly, may have sobbed with TBBPM simply became known as The Brasserie with Mr PM left the building – but as soon as news got out that he was collaborating with Mr Everywhere, George Calombaris, on a brand new restaurant, we were weeping with joy. Shirley and Dave also happened to be fans of TBBPM so a visit to PM’s new dig was inevitable. Although Chinese New Year stuffed our timetables up, we managed to squeeze in lunch one fine Sunday at PM24 where a four-course $65 lunch banquet was the flavour of the day.

We liked the look of PM24. I didn’t take any photos of the restaurant (except for a single shot of one of the chefs preparing food in the open kitchen, above), but please believe me when I say that it looks good. It’s stylish without being too toffy. It’s not a big room, but its massive ceilings create a room that’s got depth. Timber floors and banquettes replace the almost sterile surroundings of PM’s former Crown restaurant. What to make of the absence of tablecloths? Perhaps a nod to its Russell Street location, a street that doesn’t abide by the rules. Oh, and it reduces the cleaning costs considerably too.

We were seated right in the middle of the restaurant and told that the ONLY thing we could order was the $65 lunch banquet. Four courses, no substitutions. Shirley and I were cool with that, but Dave really wanted to try the corn-fed duck and was subsequently disappointed for being denied the chance. Thankfully, he’s not one to kick up a fuss about such things so once we gave the menu a once-over and a nod, the show began.

First up, deliciously warm bread. Ah, gluten, the sht that makes everything taste good. The day we had the lunch was the last day I could indulge in simple pleasures such as freshly baked bread before I went grain-free for two weeks (not as bad as it sounds, but I’m someone who loves her noodles, dumplings and pasta so you can imagine the amount of whimpering I did every time I went out for dinner and couldn’t order pappardelle). It was freakin’ fantastic bread and it took a lot to stop at just one piece.

I do, however, suspect that the PM24 folk stole the whole bread-in-canvas-holder idea from the guys at maze Grill

A glass of riesling is usually my go-to drink whenever I dine out and in this instance, I was given a glass of Max Ferdinand Richter Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett’ 08 from Mosel, Germany ($17). While I thought the mark-up was more than a little bit steep, I was too focused on enjoying my last drop of alcohol before I went on this no-grain eating plan (it goes without saying that no alcohol was to be consumed). It was, by far, the sweetest riesling I’ve ever tried (I almost thought it was a moscato) with its strong apricot notes and an intense acidic aftertaste that lingered like a stalker outside her victim’s house.

The first dish that was presented was a tomato gazpacho. Okay, so this looks NOTHING like that chilled tomato soup dish that Spaniards (and I) love. Such a massive bowl with microscopic cubes of heirloom tomatoes and chopped chives made Shirley and I snigger. I mean, we were all for avant garde fare but seriously, this?

‘But wait!’ exclaimed the waiter, rushing back to our table. He produced a jug of love, sex and magic cold tomato puree and filled our bowls up with the stuff. It had the right combination of sweetness and tartness and was welcomed on a day when the sun was actually shining down on Melbourne. I love gazpacho so I eagerly lapped mine up, whereas the other two weren’t as keen on theirs.

Next came our plate of entrees to share (clockwise from 6pm): a confit of duck salad with frisee, olives, green bean, duck prosciutto and crispy quail egg; pan-seared scallops with piperade and radish and salami with wasabi butter. The three of us oohed and aahed over the presentation and over the duck salad which was the highlight of the plate. The ooh-ing and aah-ing stopped though, after the delicious duck salad was devoured. The piperade that came with the salad was a little bland (and for me, a tad too sweet) and didn’t really do much to the scallops. Meanwhile, the radish and salami didn’t inspire us and in fact, sat next to each other on the plate awkwardly – like two people who got set up on a blind date and realised that they had nothing in common. The wasabi butter was delicious and not unlike the seaweed butter Dave and I enjoyed with Linda at maze (seriously? copying Mr Ramsay AGAIN?) but definitely went better with the second round of bread than the radish and salami. But seriously, the duck salad tasted fresh and lovely, with the various textures and colours contributing to a dish that I wouldn’t mind having a bowl of for lunch. The only downer was the fact that we were given one measly slice of quail egg and hellooooo, there are like, three of us on the table?!

Our mains took a while to come (something like half an hour). In between our entree plates and cutlery being cleared away, we indulged in harmless gossip and witnessed an adjacent table being given a la carte menus instead of the list of food that was to be served in the $65 banquet. This annoyed us, especially Dave who was really keen to go a la carte, because we were specifically told that it was banquet only for lunch on Sundays so why the eff were other people given a la carte menus?

Before we got really narky, our mains finally arrived. Three pieces of poached rockling fillets arrived, coated with a lovely duglere sauce. This is a dish that would featured in my kitchen during the cooler months so I was glad to see it being served here, just before the mercury dropped for autumn. The fish was plump, and succulent and super-fresh while the slightly sweet yet acidic sauce was delicate enough to bring out the fish’s natural flavours. A solid performance.

The others were looking for something with a bit more substance and their prayers were answered by the arrival of the rotisserie rump cap served with roasted vegetables. Oh, and crowned with a roasted garlic clove and a sprig of rosemary.

It was textbook stuff – perfectly cooked beef that still had a bit of pinkness and the vegetables were fine. For some reason though, it failed to inspire me and I don’t know why *sad face*

Not even trusty old Bearnaise could save it *even sadder face*

And we couldn’t really make friends with this oak leaf salad with a stodgy French vinaigrette.

Dessert was a fig clafoutis tart. I would have preferred the traditional cherry filling instead of figs though (not that there is anything wrong with figs but I love cherries more and they WERE in season so why not use them?). While Shirley loved the dessert, I thought that it was too sweet and too rich for my liking. The sugar from the riesling had almost knocked me out for dead so imagine what one spoonful of tart did for me so when Shirley asked if I would like to give her the remainder of my tart to her, I gladly said ‘yes.’ Not to the creamy vanilla ice-cream though. That, I ate, heh.

The three of us really wanted to like PM24 but we all left feeling a bit jibbed.  Some dishes were good, but others were just okay. Like PM’s old Crown restaurant, the food here was modern French bistro fare but we all agreed that the food was much better at TBBPM. Another thing that crossed my mind was ‘Where was George Calombaris’ involvement in all of this?’ We expected that he would play a role in shaping up the dishes but there was nothing that suggested that George was ever here. Perhaps Mr Calombaris was involved from a financial perspective? I doubt it though, because I can hardly imagine that Mr Mouchel would be needing money after many successful decades cooking for Melburnians. Overall, we thought it was an alright – but not fantastic – restaurant. We agreed that we would visit to try some of the a la carte options that Dave sadly missed out on – but only after we’ve exhausted all the other French bistro restaurants in Melbourne. For now though, PM24 (well, PM24’s Sunday banquet lunch) ain’t getting any ‘cyber’ from my end.

PM24 on Urbanspoon

Snow Pony

95 Whitehorse Road
Balwyn VIC 3103
+61 3 9816 8911
www.snowpony.com.au/

The Box Hill-Doncaster corridor is not normally where you’d find a decent café so when Jason Jones of Porgie and Mrs Jones fame decides to set up a café in Balwyn, a stone’s throw from Box Hill, he was onto something. Snow Pony, his second café, nestles comfortably on Whitehorse Road yet far away from the hustle and bustle of the Balwyn Maccas-library-restaurants part of the same road. Still, the fact that Snow Pony is out of the way does not detract happy brunchers from rocking up to pretty much the only cool café for miles (correct me if I’m wrong, guys) and queuing up for a table.

When Adam and I went, the wait was 10 minutes which is nothing when it comes to hot brunch spots in Melbourne when you think about it. But when you’re sitting there in the freezing cold for that long, every second feels like forever, especially if all you have to keep you company is one grumpy Adam and Hendo’s battered copy of Kiyosaki and Lechter’s ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ which had been in Adam’s possession for four years.

When we got our tables (in the courtyard, which would have been perfect had the weather been sunny), we were quickly given water and asked if we would like coffees. Literally two minutes later, my latte was placed in front of me and Adam received his long macchiato. We were impressed; here we were, in the middle of a roaring Sunday afternoon trade and everything was coming out quick. Damn! This is going to be a fantastic meal, we thought. Wrong, wrong, wrong like Nicole Kidman’s Dior Oscars gown. WRONG!

My latte, brewed from Allpress beans, was alright. The problem? They used skinny milk instead of the ‘normal stuff.’ Okay, so I didn’t specifically order a “latte with the fatty full-cream milk, please!” but when one says “a latte, please” they’re implying that they want a ‘normal’ latte and you should only use skinny milk when they specifically ask for it, e.g. “a skinny latte, please!”

I know a lot of people wouldn’t find it a big deal but it’s the principle more than anything. Adam knows for a fact that a lot of baristas sadly chuck in skinny milk because they assume that 1) that’s what customers want anyway and 2) people wouldn’t tell the difference between skinny milk and normal milk. The problem with this? 1) No, customers do not always want skinny milk – in fact, some people find the taste too watery and 2) Yes, some people CAN ACTUALLY TASTE THE DIFFERENCE. Oh well, at least I can give them props for presentation.

We may have been impressed with our coffees coming out at the speed of light but thirty minutes had gone past and there was no sign of our food. We guessed that the reason why our coffees came quick was to detract us from the slowness of the food. Both Adam and I had finished our coffees long before which is a massive accomplishment for me, in particular, because I’m someone who takes FOREVER to consume things.

Finally, our food came. Just under 40 minutes. Okay, I understand. It was Sunday and this is supposedly the only GOOD café (well, if you’re going by the ‘featured in Cheap Eats’ definition of ‘good’ anyway) within 10 billion miles so I should be lenient. But still.

I ordered the Giddy Up ($18.90). I’m currently going through a ‘healthy breakfast’ phase and hey, any dish which contains eggs (poached, please), avocado, thyme mushroom, tomatoes and a bit of bacon sounds good to me! Oh, there was crunchy organic sourdough from Noisette in the mix too but that went untouched. Look, it was alright – and even without the bread, it certainly filled me up right up until dinner – but taste-wise, it didn’t blow me away or anything. Hell, it didn’t even cause a gentle breeze. A far cry from the delicious breakfast that Shirley and I enjoyed at Snow Pony’s younger and cooler sister, Friends of Mine.

I do love gooey eggs though. Even if they’re a tad runny.

Adam was attracted to the sound of the steak sandwich. According to the menu, it was a ‘Hopkins River eye fillet steak sandwich, [with] with beetroot + blood orange relish, caramel[ised] onions, bacon, roast tomato, aged Maffra farmhouse chedder + a poached googie egg.’ Damn, the menu writer should really be a copywriter for Sterling Cooper or something like that because that sure sucked us in!

Moo. The steak wasn’t rare  like the one we enjoyed at Coin Laundry (seriously guys, best. steak. sandwich. ever.) but at least it wasn’t rock-hard like the steak sandwiches I’m used to getting at fish and chip shops. I guess that’s some sort of consolation though, for the steak sandwich was just okay. Like my breakfast, it filled Adam up but taste-wise, he thought it was a little on the bland side. A shame, because it did look so good!

We had a 25% off voucher from the Entertainment book so we only got to pay $35.85 instead of $47.80. Look, I really wanted to like this place as I love what Jason Jones does, but I really expected more going by my experience at Friends of Mine. On the other hand, the only-okay food could be due to bad ordering on our part (and my stupid no-grain eating plan which prevented me from ordering 95% of the items off the menu, including the delicious-looking McPony ham, cheese and egg muffins). If I had not been to Friends of Mine prior to coming to Snow Pony and was unaware of what Jason Jones was capable of, I would have written Snow Pony off completely and told people not to bother. I do, however, am going to attribute our ‘bleh’ experience to bad ordering and a staff or two being too hungover to rock up to work. While I’m not going to return in a hurry, I won’t be sending it straight to the glue factory just yet (Mr Jones, you’ve just dodged a bullet).

Snow Pony on Urbanspoon

Beer Deluxe Hamburger Bar

Federation Square
Swanston Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 0166
http://www.beerdeluxe.com.au/hamburger-bar.htm

There are days when you really CBFed with the whole table dining thing and all you want is a burger and a beer. Sure, you can get both things in every pub in the city but it goes without saying that finding a good burger amongst  a sea of mediocrity is as hard as coming first at Mitre Tavern’s weekly trivia night. Enter Beer Deluxe, the not-so-new (but definitely not an oldie) beer barn that’s taken city workers by storm. Well, okay, maybe not all city workers but certainly myself, Adam and my work crew and their partners.

It is first and foremost, a bar with ample space and a beer list that is as long as our federal constitution. It also serves food, but I wouldn’t know what the grub’s like because I’ve only ever eaten at Beer Deluxe’s burger bar which is right next door to the ACMI and completely outdoors.

Although the burger bar doesn’t serve as many beers as Beer Deluxe proper, there is enough non-Foster’s Group beer to keep beer snobs happy. From strong, bold, chocolaty Belgian beers to crispy apple ciders to wheat beers, there is plenty for everyone. On a gluten-free or low-carb diet? Stay away from the food and get a bottle of Hitachino Nest White Ale ($11 for a 330ml bottle), a Belgian-style white beer from Japan which has a strange herb-y taste and takes a lot to get used to – but at least you don’t get the awful bloat-y feeling that normally comes with downing a ‘normal’ beer.

The chips here are pretty good and at $6.50, why not?

The burgers here are also given the thumbs up. The plain ones come with lettuce and tomato sauce and start at $6.50. What more? Keep adding (cheese, egg, bacon, an extra pattie, whatever) until you’re happy with what you’ve got. Alternatively, the lot is $9 while a burger deluxe (double pattie with lettuce, bacon, onion, and cheese) is a steal at $11.50 as it also comes with chips on the side. Too tight to pay $11.50? Come on Thursday evenings and get the burger deluxe and a glass of draught beer for only $9.50.  What a steal! Cheap Eats writers, I hope you’re reading this…

Okay, so this ain’t Andrew’s Burgers and the patrons at this bar are sadly, not size six female beach volleyball players in skimpy outfits but CUBs who swear a lot but whatever, the bartenders are friendly, the service is speedy and the burgers are delicious.

Beer Deluxe on Urbanspoon

Izakaya Den

114 Russell Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 2977
www.izakayaden.com.au/

If you live in Melbourne and haven’t been to Izakaya Den, you’re probably on the same level of cool as Annie Wilson. And by cool, I really mean loser. With a capital ‘L.’ Seriously, if you haven’t proceeded down the steps of 114 Russell Street, walked straight ahead and into a fashion store, scratched your head before heading out and then realising that Izakaya Den’s entrance is, in fact, a discreet doorway hidden by a screen, then you’re a loser. And yes, I, a food-blogger, who’s only JUST written about this oh-so-hot izakaya in 2011, can only be chucked in the very same category as poor Miss Wilson (though in order to recoup some semblance of coolness, I did visit way back in August 2010).

Shhhh, it’s a secret.

Walking into this ‘no bookings, please’ venue is like walking into a Tokyo bar. Not that I’ve been to Tokyo before but I have seen Lost in Translation and this is a place where I can see myself downing shots of sake and bottles of Kirin with Bill Murray. It’s cool, sexy and would be pretentious if not for the bevy of extremely hospitable wait staff.

They take your coat to hang in the coat room and give you a cute pebble with your coat room number on it (which doubles up as your ‘table’ number), and lead you to your seat – either at the long bar or on one of the high wooden tables that dot the bunker-like space.

On both occasions, Adam and I chose to sit at the bar. There’s nothing like watching the bartender expertly whip up your shochu sour ($14) while you wait for your food to cook, and giving a smug nod to those who would dare rock up after 7pm on a Friday night only to be told that they would have to wait in line.

I love how they present the menus – rolled up in perfect scrolls and secured with a rubber band.

Let’s now talk about the food. Let me be frank from the start: Izakaya Den is not a place where you’d go to for a filling dinner. While it is possible stuff yourself until you’re full, this would mean running your credit card dry as the food doesn’t come cheap. Six measly dishes, for example, would not only set a party of two back $100 (not including drinks), but a trip to Maccas to fill the still-empty space in your stomach. Do, however, come here for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles though; it’s the perfect spot for it.

Speaking of perfect, take a look at the sweet corn kaki-age ($7). And no, don’t look at my crappy low-light photography (yes, I’m aware that it needs a LOT of work). Oops, too late now I guess. The tasty morsels of crunchy corn were deep-fried and served with a green tea salt. I really loved the contrast between the sweet kernels of corn and the salt which was infused with that lovely delicate green tea taste.

Next came the tuna tataki ($18), the dish that gets many a food blogger going. Six beautifully seared pieces of fresh tuna sat on blobs of wasabi or red chilli mayo. The little tiles of tuna would have been awesome on their own – they were amazingly fresh – but the sweet and creamy mayo that accompanied each slice made them taste even better. A highly recommended dish.

I can never get enough of fish, so a serving of fresh salmon rolls was required ($16). Each roll of fresh salmon was wrapped around some avocado and pickled kombu. Topped with some ponzu-marinated shredded daikon, the roll provided a lovely balance of flavours.

Enough seafood, here’s some poultry. Presenting the den fried chicken ($9), the ‘Den’s version of a karaage obviously. The skin was beautifully fried to a crisp, and the meat inside tender and juicy. A dollop of Japanese mayo and a wedge of lemon accompanied the plate of chicken which went down nicely with a bottle of Kirin ($7).

Here’s something with a bit more substance – the lamb ribs with red miso sauce ($18). I wasn’t expecting much from this dish, especially since I’m not a huge fan of lamb ribs but I must say that this was a pleasant surprise. Put succulent lamb flesh and bone together with a sticky, sweet miso sauce dusted with sesame seeds and you have yourself a winner. Ding ding ding!

All that food wasn’t going to fill us up, but sadly our wallets were slowly emptying – and it wasn’t even dark yet – so we had to end the procession of savoury nibbles and move onto dessert. We settled for the Fuji apple millefeuille ($10) which was a tower of apple sorbet and dried apple slices. A slow drizzle of honey and pineapple pieces (which seem kinda arbitrary but anyway…) completed the picture. Adam was a bit ‘meh’ about the dessert but I, as a lover of fruity desserts and frozen treats in general, loved it.

Although you’re better off going elsewhere for Japanese food that adequately fill your tummies, I would recommend Izakaya Den if you have an hour or so to kill before dinner, or if you’ve just had dinner at Maccas but can still squeeze in a tiny dish or two before karaoke with Scarlett Johansson.

Las Chicas

203 Carlisle Street
Balaclava VIC 3183
www.laschicas.com.au

Walked out the front door on a Monday morning and realised that you forgot to eat breakfast on your tram ride to the tram stop?

Not to worry, for Las Chicas will save your arse (well, only if you happen to live in the Balaclava area).

Situated literally on the foot of Balaclava railway station, it is the perfect place to grab breakfast. Or brunch. Or lunch. Its vivid graffiti-lined walls tells you that you’ve indeed come to the right spot, yet strangely they seem eerily out of place on a typically dead Saturday morning (we are, after all, in Jewish territory here). Once inside, however, you are treated to warm welcomes and smiles – not an easy feat on a Saturday morning. Then again, if you happen to be running a café that is already half-full at 7:15am on a Saturday morning, well, why wouldn’t you be smiling?

Its name suggests that the menu is tainted with Spanish flavours, however the foods seems to draw inspiration from everywhere. I could only spot a couple of items from the extensive menu that was even remotely Hispanic – the breakfast burrito, an interesting mix of scrambled eggs, rocket, bacon, salsa, guacamole wrapped neatly in a soft tortilla, which is something I’ll order next time. This time, I opted for a dish that seemed like it had the serious case of yellow fever – a shallot omelette topped with enoki mushrooms and sesame spinach ($15). It was served with a ‘Japanese-style- dipping sauce which was nothing more than tamari and vinegar.

Let me just say that the omelette looked bigger in real life than in the photo. I’m telling you, guys, it was like an omelette on ‘roids. I struggled to finish the beast; how many eggs did it take to make the omelette? Your guess is as good as mine. How did it taste? Well, I love eggs, I love mushrooms and I can force myself to like spinach (especially when covered in sesame seeds) so I did enjoy the omelette – not so much the dipping sauce though, which was a bit too sour for me (substituting the vinegar for something sweeter would have made it perfect). I was so full that I didn’t bother eating the slices of buttered toast that went with it, nor did I start to get hungry again until late in the afternoon. Ah, the breakfast of champions.

A passable soy latte provided the caffeine component that was required at such a ghastly hour ($4). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the best I’ve had either.

No time to sit down for breakfast? Apparently all the items on the menu are available to take-away so you can have breakfast at your desk, or be the envy of your office come morning tea time. While I struggle to see how one would be able to courier a serving of eggs Florentine safely into the office on a train, thankfully items such as brekky loaves make such tasks easier.

I chose a semi-sweet carrot and date brekky loaf which was served with a generous dollop of pistachio ricotta ($7.50 for half a serve, $15 for a full serve) and graciously presented to me in a plastic take-away container. The carrot loaf was, as its name suggested, not too sweet but the sugar quota was met by the sticky sweet dates. The pistachio ricotta had a lovely, creamy texture and gave the bread a much welcomed savoury and nutty boost. The perfect morning tea to go with your crappy Nescafe.

While the shallot omelette is something that I can confidently recreate at home, I reckon I’ll be back again to try some of their other innovative breakie dishes. that burrito being #1 on my list. It’s a place that you’ll happily pretend to forget your breakfast for, and a place that you’ll gladly miss the 7:38am city-bound train for.

Las Chicas on Urbanspoon

Quanjude

299 Queen Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 9670 0091
www.quanjude.com.au/

A long, long time ago (okay, November 2010 – we’re not talking bygones here), seven hungry ducklings congregated at Quanjude, an upmarket Beijing restaurant that proudly specialises in peking duck. Shirley and I had been looking forward to this dinner for quite some time (Shirley, for the steamed barramundi out of all things – WTF?!) and me finishing uni exams was the perfect excuse to have a somewhat extravagant dinner.

Located on the corner of Queen and La Trobe Streets in the city, it shares a block with Republic Tower, the smaller and much more humble little sister to Eureka. Yeah, Republic Tower WHAT?! But seriously, if you spend as much time in the city as I do and have not noticed the sometimes shocking murals that appear on the tower’s front (‘Haye’s Last Meal’ being the last one I can recall), then I shall put you on the same boat as holders of a full Victorian driver’s licence who cannot complete a hook-turn. Sadly, no gory murals were adorned for my amusement when we approached Quanjude. Just a simple ad for Tassie’s (then) new museum, MONA, and one Dave waiting patiently, heeh.

The restaurant, which is actually a peking duck franchise from Beijing, itself can only be described as Flower Drum v.2. While silence, rather than Richard Clayderman, is background noise here, the whole red and gold to the key of dynastic opulence verging on garishness is the modus operandi here. Things here were either adorned with gold or decorated in some dragon motif and was a bit too much for me.

Cute!

Shirley and I had already decided that we were going to go for the $68 seven-course banquet. The others lingered on the a la carte menu but in the end, everyone on the table decided that this banquet was the way to go. I don’t know whether it was because all the spelling errors on the menu were doing their heads in (for example, ‘sea peach’ instead of ‘sea perch’ and on the wine list, a glass of ‘saur blanc’ was on offer) or whether they realised that Shirls and I are the trendsetters of the group. I’d like to think the latter.

First up, the seafood san choi bao. It’s not a dish I’d normally order, whether it’d be in pork form or otherwise, but I’m glad that this was included in the banquet for it was pretty good. The seafood component comprises of fresh prawns, squid and scallops, while chopped water chestnuts and pine nuts provided the textural component.

The second seafood component came in the form of a steamed Shanghai crab meat dumpling, which was essentially a xiaolongbao filled with shredded crab meat instead of pork. To be honest, I’m someone who doesn’t particularly like random variations on the traditional xiaolongbao because I just don’t think they work as well. And even though Quanjude’s crab meat xiaolongbao was tasty enough, I wasn’t terribly blown away. There wasn’t much soup in it, for starters, and Shirley even found a piece of crab shell in one of her dumplings. But uh, the skins weren’t gluggly so yay, I guess?

The stir-fried King prawn with goose liver pate was a dish that, on paper, was enough to make my mouth water. But when a plate with these things came out, I was somewhat gobsmacked. It seemed to me that they were deep-fried, rather than stir-fried, and where was the goose liver pate? It was mixed in with the batter. While I do enjoy goose liver pate, I just didn’t like it like this so the whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth (literally).

Next came the steamed wild barramundi fillet with ginger and shallots. I give props to the presentation – a fillet is much, more approachable than a whole fish, plus you get more meat :). Taste-wise, it was alright – nothing that any Chinese restaurant in Melbourne can’t do.

Then came the Peking duck. The chef wheeled his trolley right next to our table… and proceeded to carve the bird up with his back turned to us, dammit.

This is the dish that makes Quanjude famous. It has won many local foodie awards and has supposedly blown away the jocks off many bloggers and diners. What did I think? It was a very good peking duck, and certainly up there with the likes of Flower Drum and Old Kingdom. Was it the best? No. Okay so the crepes were beautifully soft and paper-thin, and the slices of cucumber and spring onion were as delicate as a young lotus flower while the hoisin sauce had a hint of sesame that made it one of the tastiest I’ve had. But the duck? It was dry and didn’t have enough fat on it which, I guess, is good for those watching their waistlines (though if you were on a diet, then WTF are you doing eating duck?!?!) but just made the meat err on the dry side and ruined what would have been probably the best Peking duck I had ever had. Oooh, so close.

Our final main was the wok-fried eye fillet with Kung Po sauce, with was served with a side of special fried rice. The vegetables may have been undercooked and hard, while the steak overcooked and hard. But the sauce? It was lovely. I loved the way the numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chillies combined with the deliciously tangy malt vinegar to create a sauce that almost knocked me out for a six. Shame the steak was cooked so badly.

Ah, fried rice. Nothing we haven’t seen before. Moving along now…

For dessert, we had fried ice cream with strawberry sauce. This was a strange one, and I’m not entirely sure if I liked it or not. I don’t like strawberry-flavoured anything in general, so I eyed my ball of impending doom with much reluctance. I was, however, surprised to find that I did like the sauce – it wasn’t too sweet and it had the right balance of tartness and tang. The problem, though, was that it didn’t match the rest of the dish. The strawberry sauce with something else (I dunno, crepes?) would have been pleasant and the ice cream by itself would have made me happy. But the two of them together? It was like forcing Dan and Blair from Gossip Girl to become a couple. Yeah, that bad.

I don’t think any of us thought the banquet was particularly mind-blowing; I sure didn’t get any foodgasms. There were some elements that were good, but others just didn’t do it for me. In addition, there were some dishes that had the potential to be stars but were let down by one or two elements – the Peking duck would have been awesome but for the meat, and the steak delicious if it was actually cooked properly. If I were to come back again, I’d avoid the banquet and give the duck another go along with the san choi bao and pick several other dishes from the a la carte menu.

Quanjude Peking Duck on Urbanspoon
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Tofu King

305-307 Swanston St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9650 0068

305 Swanston Street in the city is cursed, or so Adam believes. Countless restaurants, including several of the Vietnamese persuasion, have made their homes there only to be bowled out only a few months after opening night. I dined at a couple of those restaurants over the last few years, the last time being the Vietnamese place whose name escapes me, and yeah, okay, the food was terrible. Ditto the food that the block’s previous tenants made (again, Vietnamese) but c’mon? A curse?

305 Swanston Street’s newest tenant is Tofu King, which is part of the China Bar empire. It’s an eatery that specialises in yong tau foo, which is essentially a noodle soup topped with an assortment of stuffed items, tofu and non-tofu. A typical yong tau foo place in Melbourne would have their stuffed items laid out behind the glass cover and it’s up to us to choose what goes into our soup by pointing to the item and getting one of the ladies to scoop it out.

Not at Tofu King though. Here, it’s pretty much a DIY job. Simply grab a bowl, a pair of tongs and then embark on the grueling task of what goes into your soup. Maybe some Chinese donut pieces stuffed with seafood? Or maybe a prawn stuffed mushroom? Whatever you desire, you’re the one with the tongs, not some random person. And yeah, okay, this DIY isn’t really ground-breaking stuff but I guess some people do like the idea of being in control so if this place ever becomes popular, that would be the reason why.

Once you’ve gathered your six pieces, you go to the counter where you tell the dude what broth you want (either clear or laksa) and what sort of noodles you want (Hokkien, flat rice, vermicelli, egg noodles, and so on) and off you go to find a table while they cook the lot for you. All for $9.90, which is on the slightly pricey side.

And raid their plentiful condiment supplies.

Of course you always end up with way too much…

I opted for a clear broth with flat rice noodles. My ‘pieces’ ranged from a crispy-about-to-go-soggy beancurd skin stuffed with fish, a Chinese donut piece stuffed with seafood, a seafood mix wrapped in seaweed and various seafood and prawn dumplings. They were fine but I thought the broth was salty and somewhat bland. A few spoonfuls of lovely chilli oil changed it for the better though.

Adam went for the laksa broth with Hokkien noodles. If I thought mine was salty, I wouldn’t be surprised if a cup of Dead Sea water went into his broth. Yowsers. It goes without saying that the laksa broth was not tasty and beautifully rich, just flat and salty. Ick.

Of course, yong tau foo ain’t the only option here. There are more than two dozen pan-Asian dishes (mostly China Bar staples such as char kway teow and the like) for those who don’t like the whole decision-making process when it comes to ordering yong tau foo. Aaron is one of them, so he ordered a plate of Singapore noodles ($9.90) which is probably not the first thing I would order here but anyway. It seemed to have more shredded lettuce than noodles which made me LOL because… since when do they serve Singapore noodles with lettuces? And lots of it too? Anyway, it was salty (see a pattern here?) and pretty ‘bleh’ but then again, I didn’t expect any less.

Look, I can see this restaurant breaking the 305 Swanston Street curse and being somewhat successful. It’s reasonably packed whenever I walk past and the display of yong tau foo items is certainly alluring at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Personally though, if I wanted yong tau foo in the city, I’d walk the extra block to Grand BBQ at the Target Centre .

Tofu King 酿三宝 on Urbanspoon