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

Heyday Hong Kong Cafe

16 Celestial Avenue
Melbourne VIC 3000

Heyday Hong Kong Cafe means different things to different people. To some, it is a place where you’d go when the line at adjacent Supper Inn is too long and you can’t be bothered waiting. To others, like my Honkiphile friend, Aaron, it is a place where you can stretch your feet and relax with a cup of Hong Kong-style iced milk tea after a long day of shopping in the city. And to others, well it means nothing because you don’t know it exists.

HHKC is one of Chinatown’s many cha chaan teng cafes, Hong Kong-style cafes that serve cheap Western-style Hong Kong dishes. For example, you may get a piece of steak which is marinated in a sticky soy sauce, served with steamed bok choy and white rice. Or you may get spaghetti with bolognaise and bits of fried spam on top. It may sound dubious to most, but it’s a formula that works well in Hong Kong and if the number of cha chaan teng places in Melbourne is anything to go by, it also works well here.

HHKC’s daggy purple signage and its very small seating area (it literally seats 10-15 patrons) isn’t designed to comfort. And its simple menu of toasts, rice dishes and fusion pasta dishes aren’t going to be winning any awards either. To come here and order a cup of iced milk tea is always a given whenever I’m around Aaron, but last night was the first time I actually had any food to go with my tea.

I ordered a creamy chicken and mushroom on rice which was $10, including a cup of iced milk tea. Both Aaron and Adam insisted I get this because they thought that I’d like it. ‘It tastes like risotto!’ they both cried, ‘We eat it all the time!’ Let me assure you, guys, that I will not listen to those two again and no, it does NOT taste like risotto. Unlike a perfectly-cooked risotto, the creamy sauce and the rice did NOT mesh well together. Eating the sauce was akin to eating a can of cooked Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup mixed with a bit of thickened cream. I couldn’t handle it, seriously. I spent most of my meal picking out the chicken thigh pieces, bits of corn and mushroom and whatever uncovered blobs I could get while Adam happily ate away the creamy sauce. Gross, man.

Aaron’s girlfriend, Cathy, ordered a French toast ($4.90) which wasn’t anything like your typical French toast. Here, they battered three slices of white bread in a sweet egg mixture before deep-frying it until it looked like a fried beancurd. Aaron told me that they usually slap a small piece of butter on top but we were given none this time. Instead, we had to make do with a squeeze of golden syrup to make it more sweeter than it already was. It wasn’t bad at all – but not something I’d order (and attempt to eat) myself.

Look, I appreciate cha chaan teng cafes and what they’ve done. They’ve fed impoverished students at very reasonable prices and they’ve introduced a new type of cuisine into the Australian vernacular. I can certainly understand its appeal and why they’re popular with my crew but I’ll stick to my risottos and ‘normal’ French toasts, thanks.

Pireaus Blues

310 Brunswick St
Fitzroy VIC 3065
+61 3 9417 0222
http://www.pireausblues.com.au/

Who would say ‘no’ to a hearty and lazy Greek lunch on a lovely Sunday afternoon? Not I! I, along with fellow foodies Shirley, Linda and Brad, may not have Greek grandmothers but I guess the next best thing would be to go to apparently one of the most esteemed Greek restaurants in town. Located in the heart of bustling Brunswick, Pireaus Blues has been touted by a few of my other foodie friends, the guys on 3AW and the people behind The Good Food Guide. One of my friends even suggested that their lunch banquets ($29.95 p/h) were not only cheaper but better than the ones they dish out at Hellenic Republic. There was only one way to find out…

Rocking up at 1pm to an empty restaurant made me slightly apprehensive but once a big, fat Greek family of 10 billion rocked up to crank up the atmosphere, I gave a big sigh of relief. Waters were poured and menus were given but what, no lunch banquets on the menu? All we could see were a la carte items, but no sign of the $29.95 express lunch banquet that was advertised on their website. We asked a middle-aged waiter about it. ‘Sorry, we don’t have a lunch banquet menu,’ he said. ‘But we saw the menu on your website,’ Linda insisted. He further denied the existence of such a menu before Brad whipped out his smart phone and lo and behold, there it is. ‘Wait, lemme see that!’ exclaimed the waiter, before running into the kitchen with Brad’s phone in his hand.

As the minutes went by, so did Brad’s nervousness (‘He’s probably going to swap my phone for a crappy Nokia brick.’). Finally, the waiter came back and said, ‘Yeah, okay you’re right. It does exist. We can do it. BUT I’ve been working here for four years and no one’s ever ordered the lunch banquet before.’ Yeah, shut up. Also, he also said something about Pireaus Blues being the best Greek restaurant in the state or something to that effect. I can’t remember what the context was but we all thought it was a rather lofty statement to make when things were not even off to a good start. But anyway, Linda, Brad and I had the lunch banquet while Shirley decided to be different and order an entree of calamari and a moussaka for her main.

We started off with a quartet of dips. Starting from 12 o’clock and going clockwise, we have your standard tzatziki, a lovely eggplant dip, a luscious skordalia and a fair taramosalata. The lovely, warm and slightly puffy pita bread that came with the dip was delicious.

Next, we had the loukaniko (Greek sausages), which is my favourite sausage behind the Turkish sucuk. And the bratwurst. And the chorizo. It was lightly chargilled with a hint of chilli to give it a slightly fiery kick. Sliced red onions and a wedge of lemons completed the package. So simple, yet so effective. We all loved it.

Our final entree was a grilled saganaki. They used a slice of kefalotyri cheese instead of my preferred haloumi which was a slight downer for me. Plus, it was dry. Then again, given how much I LOVED the saganaki at Hellenic Republic (haloumi and figs = soulmates), I guess any other saganaki we try at other restaurants will always pale in comparison.

The calamari kicked off the procession of mains ($15.50 for the entree-sized version that Shirley paid for). Each calamari tendril was lightly coated in flour before being plunged into the fryer to come out all light and crispy with the inside being deliciously tender. Shaved fennel and dill topped the tangle of calamari while our friend lemon wedge made yet another appearance.

Next, we had the lemon lamb, apparently a signature dish. It was also apparently slow-cooked but I thought the lamb was a bit on the dry side. I mean, it tasted nice – it had a lovely tangy flavour which worked well with the natural juices of the lamb – but the texture was a downer for me.

On the side, we shared a Greek salad which was alright (I mean, what does one say about a Greek salad?).

For dessert, we shared a bowl of halva ice cream. The other dishes may have stuck to ‘safe’ Greek taverna territory but I was impressed with the ice cream as it was the only time Pireaus Blues showed SOME innovation in their dishes. Not saying that tried and traditional dishes suck or anything but given that most of the dishes we had over the course of this lunch were either okay or just ‘good but not fantastic’, I wasn’t expecting much from the dessert. I loved the ice cream, which had a lovely nutty tahini base and a lovely sweetness that was slight. The addition of semolina gave it a starchy texture while ground pistachios added a bit of crunch and extra taste. Delicious.

We realised, later on, that a glass of house wine was supposed to be included in our lunch banquet but we were never offered it at all. Not even when I ordered a glass of slightly-too-warm Heathcote Shiraz did they say something like “Oh, you get a glass of house red as part of the banquet.” Tools. We also realised that all the food above cost almost $90 in total which, to me, seems like a bit of a rip. Sure, we were satisfied but we were really expecting to be FULL – the portions were just too damn tiny. I can’t see myself going back here again. The food was alright (apart from the ice cream and the calamari which was amazing, and the sausage which you can just buy from Jonathan’s and grill at home) but nothing that was worth coming back for. As for the service? Forget about it. Best Greek restaurant in the state? Haha in your dreams, malaka!

Pireaus Blues on Urbanspoon

Spicy Fish (Melbourne CBD)

209 Little Bourke St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9639 1885

Happy Chinese New Year to all my wonderful readers!

Despite being Asian, my family isn’t at all into the whole Chinese New Year thing (Something to do with being ‘too white-washed.’ Dutch-washed, more like it). Adam’s family, however, are still very much into their Chinese roots and usually plan something every year, usually overpriced ‘lucky banquets’ at one of the many Chinese restaurants in the city. For some reason, however, they didn’t bother organising a dinner this year. Perhaps my parents’ influenced them, perhaps they were over being ripped off or perhaps they just wanted to go home and watch The Biggest Loser. But when your son is dating someone like me, there’s no escaping the inevitable eat-out that MUST occur at least once in the CNY period. Yes, my family may not be into the whole CNY thing but they are all for the idea that any excuse to eat out is as good as any.

We ruled out most of the restaurants along Russell Street as well as the more high-end ones, and settled on Spicy Fish, a ‘normal’ Chinese restaurant just outside the Target Centre. It was the perfect choice for us as the food was not expensive enough for Adam’s parents to turn to the menu and be all like, ‘WAH SO EXPENSIVE! WE COULD HAVE EATEN AT X FOR $A LESS!’ Their focus on Shanghainese and Sichuan cuisines (while dabbling in ‘gweilo’ Chinese dishes such as lemon chicken) also made things more interesting for Adam and I who have grown accustomed to his parents’ preference for Cantonese retaurants (and nothing else) when it comes to eating out. It was packed to the brim when we rocked up just before 7pm on the evening of Chinese New Year’s Day so we were grateful we booked beforehand.

Seated at the very back of the restaurant, we were studying our menus when not long after, the lion came into the restaurant and did its thang. Nothing wrong with that (well, apart from the noise) but we weren’t impressed when the waiters stood there gawking at the festivities for the next 10 minutes and practically ignoring all the diners. Not cool, man. Once the procession disappeared, though, it was back to business.

Unfortunately some of the dishes we wanted were completely sold out (all fish head dishes, for example) but eventually we chose two appetisers to share and three mains.

First up, the xiaolongbaos (six for $7.50). Yeah, yeah, why order XLBs at a place that’s not renowned for their XLBs? Well, because I read a blog that said that the XLBs were good. They weren’t.

Their gluggy and thick skins already told us that they weren’t good to begin with. If you needed more proof that these were crap, however, the lack of soup and the gritty meatball-like filling that was sweeter than a Maccas burger bun are also very good indicators.

Thank goodness for chilli oil though.

Our second appetiser was a plate of shredded turnip pastries (four for $6.50). They were beautifully golden and flaky, and the piping hot turnip filling was delicate yet tasty at the same time.

Our mains arrived quickly for a place that was extremely busy. First up, the Sichuan prawns ($21.80). Fresh King prawns and vegies were coated in a sticky sauce that was equal parts tangy, sweet, and spicy at the same time.  Kind of like kong pao sauce, but not as flavoursome. It was spicy enough for Adam and his parents to enjoy, yet mild enough for a wuss like me to enjoy without breaking into a revolting sweat.

We HAD to have this: the dry chicken with hot chilli ($17.80), opting for the boneless chicken option (who on earth would use the option with bones?!). Three chillies placed next to the menu description indicated that this dish was the hottest of them all. Given that I was sharing a meal with three chilli lovers, we dismissed the three-chilli rating and ‘pffft pfffft’ed all over the place. When the mountain of fire was presented to our table, however, my memory of having tried the same dish at Sichuan house a year ago became as vivid as the colours on the plate. They say that the chase is always better than the catch (if you got my Scooter reference, I love you) and this phrase certainly held true here. Poking into the chilli and finding bits of chicken was the fun part. Eating it, not so much. It was hot, man. REALLY HOT. Even Adam and his parents were drawing sweat. To be honest, I only thought this dish was okay. The Chong Qing chicken at Sichuan House was not only bigger, it had a greater depth of flavours. Here, all I could taste was garlic, chilli, and salt. Oh, and they were a bit tight with the chicken too (I only had five little pieces). Not cool.

This is what the plate looked like after all the chicken was gone.

Given how hot the last dish was, thank goodness for the scallops with vegetables ($21.80). The scallops were of a decent size and the size of the dish was reasonable for the price we paid. Although I can’t say that this was the plate of scallops I’ve ever had, I graciously lapped this one up to diffuse all the chilli remnants from the previous dish.

The calm before the storm.

Okay, so this Sichuan-Shanghainese restaurant may not serve the best Sichuan food in Melbourne nor does it serve mind-blowing Shanghainese. That said, it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. Heck, Adam and his family were happy with their meal and to be honest, I can see myself going back again if I’m in a cbf-walking-long-distances-for-Chinese-food mood. Next time though, I think I’ll just order a lemon chicken, heh.

Spicy Fish on Urbanspoon

New York Tomato

6 New St
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9429 0505

On weekends, it’s so easy bludging like a mofo day by day. You’re out of touch with the daily grind of your normal working week, and out of touch with the rhythm and blues (oh, did I just make a Billy Joel reference? Snap!), that all you want to do is to sleep in until 2pm. Or 3pm. But sometimes getting up really early on a Sunday morning (like, Rage early) and making the trek to Richmond for brunch with friends is worth it. And if you’re going to New York Tomato, oh yes, it’s ESPECIALLY worth it.

You’re probably thinking, ‘New York Tomato? WTF name?!’ and you wouldn’t be the only one. The story behind the name, however, is simple. The cafe simply sits comfortably on the corner of New and York streets in Richmond. As for the tomato bit? I can’t think of a good explanation for that, except for the apple being associated with the big city and the Italian word for apple translates to ‘golden tomato’? *big shrug*

Aaron and Cathy, who will always be forever joined to the hip, and I had rocked up just before 11 on a Sunday morning thinking that it wouldn’t be TOO packed. We had assumed that people would still be nursing hangovers from the night before and SURELY wouldn’t be up until after midday? Wrong! It was a full house and there was already a line of people waiting to get in. We were told to stand outside and they would call us when a table became available. That was cool with us but not so cool was when the group of four who were behind us got let in before us, only because we were too busy talking and didn’t realise that the group were ‘jumping the queue’ until it was too late. I mean, I don’t blame us for being awesome enough to engage in such heated conversations but it wouldn’t have been hard (nor rude) for the staff to butt in and go, ‘excuse me, your table is ready?’

But anyway, that was the only bad thing that happened during our visit so rest assured that the rest of this post will be all happy happy la-la, sunshine and rainbows for NYT. We did, eventually, score a table (and a  spare copy of the Herald Sun) in the courtyard outside. And right under a bicycle too. Because it’s not like we don’t see enough of them around in this part of town on weekends.

I must also add that I love how they grow their herbs out in the ‘waiting area.’ From fresh mint to basil to thyme, and even Vietnamese mint which I thought was interesting as it’s a herb that’s normally confined to Vietnamese restaurants.

Raw sugar in an old drink bottle; salt and pepper in old I-Don’t-Know-What bottles.

My skinny latte ($3.30) was a solid performance. It ticked most boxes – smooth, creamy and full of flavour. It was slightly on the warm side though.

Aaron loves this tea so his decision to get the chai tea with vanilla honey ($4) was a no-brainer. He (and us girls) were expecting a pre-made mug of not-really chai that you can buy from T2 so we were surprised to see him get a somewhat elaborate set-up. Hot, sweet and fragrant milky tea was served in a Chinese-style teapot with the vanilla-infused honey sitting prettily on the side. It’s not often that we see cafes serve chai latte ‘the real way’ so we were extremely happy with this. BIG thumbs up.

This is Cathy’s Open B.R.A.T. (bacon, rocket, avocado and tomato) sandwich ($16.50), their version of the traditional BLT sandwich. Haha I would have loved them to appeal to my love of all things 80s by calling it the B.R.A.T.P.A.C.K sandwich but coming up with things that start with P, another A, C and K would have been too hard. Well, the P would have easily stood for the beautifully poached egg, a crown on the empire that consisted of crispy pieces of bacon, creamy avocado, cooked tomatoes and toasted sourdough. I would take the B.R.A.T.P.A.C.K. over a normal BLT any day. And current-day Rob Lowe.

Aaron went for the quesadilla ($15.50), an odd addition to a breakfast menu, I thought. I was proved wrong though. The soft tortilla rounds were gently stuffed with refried beans before being pan-fried. A mild spiced tomato salsa with jalapenos, parmesan and coriander made their house on top, with our friend poached egg popping by for a bit. It was a dish that would have worked well as both a lunch and a breakfast dish (and also a dinner dish). It was tasty and filling, but not overly so that your stomach wouldn’t feel gross an hour later.

I usually order eggs for breakfast but I was on a mission to have an egg-free breakfast. With this in mind, I chose the Belgian waffles ($15.50). Yes, I know, no eggs and what’s this, Libby? A sweet breakie? Something must REALLY be wrong! But no, I’m glad I chose the waffles because this was a freakin’ awesome dish. Crispy, mismatched pieces of waffles met up with slices of poached vanilla pears and strawberries to form a non-concrete jungle where dreams are made (Jay-Z reference, yo!). Blueberry maple syrup made things sweet and sticky, while a spiced hazelnut labne balanced things out. It was effking delicious, though not something that I’d order every single time as I will always be a savoury tooth at heart.

The three of us thoroughly enjoyed our brunch. We also had enough food in our tummies to last us until dinner time so I’d say it was good value. Ignoring the queue-jumping incident, we thought that the service was friendly and well-paced for a leisurely Sunday morning-turned-afternoon (read: not crazy Cantonese fast, but not boozy Waurn Ponds winery slow either). And we’ll be back. As for you newbies, do head down to the corner of New and York Streets in Richmond. Why? Because these streets will (sing it with me, guys) … make you feel brand new.

New York Tomato on Urbanspoon

Bottega Restaurant (pre-theatre dinner)

74 Bourke St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 2252
www.bottega.com.au/

I’m usually one to choose new or untried restaurants over places that I’ve been to before. I think it’s fair to say that the rate at which Melbourne’s restaurants are popping up is on par with Melbourne’s residential property growth rate. Seriously, it’s hard to keep track of all the openings but you can’t just help but get excited every time you read a twitter post on a hot new cafe that’s just opened up on Smith Street or when Epicure informs us that Guy Grossi is about to open yet another new restaurant with a casual flourish. But sometimes, I love to go back to the restaurants that have won me over many years ago. Take Bottega, for example. A generally positive experience but in hindsight, after eating at more than my fair share of Italian restaurants, I may have been a tad harsh (comparing Bottega to La Porchetta? Hah! Really?!) and my writing in 2008 honestly sucked (cringe). I was meeting legal eagle, Matt, for dinner last week and given that the choice of venue was up to me, I decided to revisit the Italian restaurant on Bourke Street hill that wasn’t part of the Grossi empire.

Because we’re geriatrics, we rocked up early enough to take advantage of their pre-theatre dinner offer: $40 for two courses or $50 for three, both including a glass of wine. The old Libby would have immediately gone for three courses but in the end, I settled for two only because sugar-fiend Matt wasn’t going to order dessert and I didn’t want him to sit there awkwardly while I gobbled down a tiramisu or coconut pannacotta. So an entree and a main each it was, from a selection of two choices respectively.

Matt chose a Chardonnay Viognier from All Saints Estate while I went for its red counterpart, the Sangiovese Cabernet because I was going for the veal as my main. Yes, Libby drinking a red. A travesty on par with accepting a £50 million offer to switch clubs (cough). But whatever, gotta do things properly as who on earth drinks white with veal?! Bread and butter was provided, though no photos are. Tough.

Matt’s entree was a semolina-dusted calamari accompanied by agro dolce and black olive vinaigrette. Although I didn’t try the agro dolce or the vinaigrette, I think the calamari tasted just fine on its own. The coating of semolina was delicate, yet contained a lot of punch in terms of taste. In fact, the first thing that came to mind was ‘OMG KFC’s original recipe chicken!’ something that head chef, Joseph Vitale, would probably not be pleased to hear. I do give it a thumbs up though.

I chose the warm Caprese salad, a perfect dish for such a balmy evening. A spectacular display of bright colours and flavours culminated to make a salad that was light, yet still filling enough to stop my tummy growling at least until the mains had arrived. The  sweet heirloom tomatoes, the lovely Shaw River buffalo mozzarella and other sundries such as the chopped fresh basil, capers and marinated onions were seamlessly wrapped together in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and vinaigrette.

Matt’s house-made gnocchi was another winner. I love pasta, I love cheese and I LOVE LOVE LOVE mushrooms so why I didn’t chose this dish on the night is something that’s been bugging me ever since. Oh wait, it’s because I don’t normally order gnocchi at restaurants as I, more often than not, get disappointed. Gluggy, bits of dough drown by a very mediocre sauce is what I normally get even at high-end restaurants. Not this time though. Each pasta was a light, fluffy pillow of potato that formed the perfect catalyst for soaking up the creamy and earthy mushroom sauce. There was also a tint of truffle oil in the mix, but not an amount that would normally drive me nuts. Shreds of sharp and spicy provolone piccante, a semi-hard Italian cheese, completed the package giving it a not-needed but much-appreciated flavour boost. LOVE.

I also loved my veal osso buco, accompanied by a polenta bianca. Although more of a June-in-Melbourne dish, I nevertheless enjoyed the tender chunks of veal and the rich tomato-y broth that was characterised by shreds of bay leaves, cinnamon, chopped carrots and gremolata. The soft polenta mix provided the perfect accompaniment to the veal. Delicious.

Our decision to omit dessert was a very sound one as neither of us could fit any more in (just as well I chose not to order a side dish too, heh). Our meal was very good – on par, if not better than the meal that I enjoyed in 2008. The food was excellent and service on a similar level. I guess the only thing I have to whinge about was when I gave them my entertainment book card (which would have shaved 25% off the bill), only to be told that I was not able to use when ordering express lunches or pre-theatre dinners. While I understand that restaurants may choose not to honour the card in conjunction with another offer (in this case, the pre-theatre offer), I’ve been to other restaurants where they happily took my card in similar circumstances – in fact, this was the first time I’ve been told that I wasn’t able to use it. Fair enough, but still. I guess I’ll know to ask the next time I go for a pre-theatre or express lunch meal.

But, uh yeah, Bottega. Go there!

Bottega on Urbanspoon