The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

YES, this is yet another Melbourne food blog!

Friends of Mine

506 Swan St
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9428 7516
http://www.friendsofmine.com.au/

Let me introduce you to some friends of mine: perfectly poached eggs, magic mushrooms, ripe avocado, Alex Lloyd-amazing lattes and the illustrious Shirley, a regular dining companion. Lump these beauties into a small wooden table by the window on a sunny Tuesday morning in Richmond and there you have it… a fan-tabulous breakfast at Friends of Mine, yet another project by cafe-extraordinaire Jason Jones of Porgie + Mrs Jones, Snow Pony and Bright Young Things fame.

Situated on the corner of Swan and Stawell streets, Friends of Mine is a bit of a hike just for breakfast if you happen to be a city-worker. Sure, it’s smack-bang on the number 70 tram line and sure, it’s only a short walk from Burnley train station but unless you happened to be Kevin Bartlett on your way to the SEN studios or a GE employee, I can’t really see a reason why anyone would be willing to go out of their way just for breakfast.

Hopefully this post will change your mind.

Despite having been opened for a month and a bit, FOM is already a bit of a hit if the decent-sized breakfast crowd that was here on Tuesday and the positive reviews on food blogs are anything to go by. The location may slightly suck, but I guess the fact that Jason Jones is pretty up there in Melbourne’s cafe scene helped FOM’s cause. Oh, and the fact that the cafe was both homely yet cool and sophisticated at the same time. And the fact that the service was always friendly, even at 7:30 in the morning.

I loved the little trinkets and photographs that dotted the cafe’s brick walls, such as the wooden clogs in the previous photo. I would have taken more photos of all the random things they had hanging on the walls but I must have been too distracted by the neon sign illuminating the 7-11 store across the street. This photo, kindly stolen from Shirley’s iPhone, is the back of the menu which we both thought was ‘awwwww’-worthy. At the same time, though, the kid looks like he wants to give us the one finger salute, hah.

To start off our day, we both ordered lattes ($3.50, a strong for Shirley and a skinny for me). My latte was nothing short of amazing. It was velvety and sweet all the way down, with the slightest hint of bitterness.

Shirley’s eggs Benedict, done the Jason Jones way ($16.90), was a testament to the old adage that great things come in twos. Instead of the usual bacon, a slab of smoked ham hock terrine was sandwiched between the warm muffin half and perfectly poached eggs (which the menu referred to as a ‘googie’) which was then drizzled with a lovely hollandaise sauce and sprinkled lovingly with basil. I was initially skeptical when I saw what looked like slices of spam (and me no fan of spam) but after a tentative mouthful, I was hooked. I fell in love with the ham which had a texture similar to corned beef – pair it with the gooey eggs and you have a royal engagement that is as grand as William and Kate’s.

My smashed avocado also deserved an award ($16.90). The loveliest, smoothest avocado was, well, smashed Gary Hall Jnr-style, gently injected with a bit of lemon juice for a bit of an acid trip and mixed with wonderfully fragrant thyme buttered mushrooms and marinated feta. The mixture sat proudly on a sturdy podium in the form of a wholegrain toast slice (clearly they don’t do Wonder bread here), garnished with torn basil leaves. For an extra $2, you had the option of adding a poach egg on top which I SHOULD HAVE DONE but given how incredibly good this was, I can’t say that I was not satisfied. The perfect vegetarian breakfast and great for those who refuse to or cannot eat eggs. Paul Pfeiffer would be most pleased.

Eating at a place like this made me wish I was a GE employee (which a bold statement coming from myself if you happen to be a friend of mine). The food was amazing, the service so friendly and more importantly, just being there created a natural endorphin that made you happy and set you up for the rest of the day. I know I can’t see myself putting on a GE lanyard or replacing Tim or Andy on SEN to be able to come to FOM for breakfast on a regular basis. I do, however, see myself coming here on weekends, days off and sickies.

My biased opinion says that we will smash [those avocados] like guitars.”

presentment

Friends of Mine on Urbanspoon

Sister Bella

22 Drewery Place
Melbourne VIC 3000
No phone
http://www.sisterbellas.com.au/

A typical Melbourne bar: hidden in a grungy laneway; hipsters; an ‘eclectic’ playlist; an A4 sheet-sized menu offering chips and aioli, shaved jamon at $20 a pop and cheese croquettes. Oh, and it must be a ‘well-kept secret.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love my Melbourne bars as much as I loved this week’s Gossip Girl episode but sometimes they can be a little formulaic and tiresome (I’m referring to the bars here […and okay fine, current plot lines involving Serena van der Woodsen and her flavour of the week]). Not Sister Bella though.

Sister Bella, my drinking hole for a number of years, is the younger sister of the (now beheaded) laneway bar St Jerome. The place itself is a little tricky to find but if you saunter down Drewery Place and past the orange-streaked door bitches at Baroq and turn left, the Coopers sign hanging above a nondescript entrance is where you stop at. Sister Bella ticks all the above boxes and then some – a split-level venue covered in ratty timber floorboards, cheap beer sold by the bottle and random statues such as that of the Virgin Mary in the most unexpected places including the area near the ladies’ bathroom. And while they will never play Aretha and Annie at Sister Bella, you can rest assured knowing that The Smiths receive regular play. During the week, there is plenty of room to breathe but go on a Friday and Saturday and you will find yourself fighting over personal space with those who are here for a drink after a gig.

Punters make their way to Sister Bella for some mulled wine during the cooler months but the cheap beers are also popular. Not sure how well the Melbourne Bitters sell though.

I can’t remember how much we Adam paid for these beers but they wouldn’t have been that expensive.

The first time I actually ate something here was in August this year (lag, much?). If you go before 6pm, the pizza (which are already a steal at $7.50 – $9 anyway) are only $6. Bargain. The chorizo, Spanish onion, basil, mozzarella, preserved lemon pizza ($9) is one of their most popular flavours, an exciting mixture of spicy sausage and mild, gooey mozzarella with a hint of lemon juice creating a lovely tangy contrast. Although a little bit oily, the pizza wasn’t bad at all and would do if you feel like a bit of Bimbo Deluxe-type fare but can’t be bothered tramming up north.

My friend, Nick, implored me to try the grilled roo burger ($12.50). While I’m no fan of kangaroos (meat or football team) or any of Nick’s recommendations involving food, I nevertheless decided to give this a try. A grilled patty of  lean roo meat was teamed up with a strip of crispy bacon, cheese, tomato, rocket leaves and relish and squeezed between two brioche bun halves. While I liked the way the sweet buns effortlessly brought together the mish-mash of tastes and texture inside the burger like a Wayne Carey-captained North squad, the gaminess of the roo just spoiled it for me. No matter how roo is cooked, I don’t think it’ll ever do it for me – the smell is just too off-putting. The chips, though, were beautifully crunchy and the tarragon aioli made for a perfect accompaniment.

On the night we had the burger and pizza, the service was slow and showed signs of ‘cbfness.’ We waited something like 45 minutes for our food to come … heck, we probably would have waited longer if it weren’t for Adam marching up to the bar politely asking them where our food was. Was it busy? Heck no, this was 4:30pm on a Thursday afternoon and there were only three other occupied tables. Never mind, once we got our food all was forgiven and many more beers were consumed to the sounds of ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.’ Aahhhh.

Momo Station

Shop 25, Tivoli Arcade
235-251 Bourke Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 431 052 014

Nepalese cuisine is something that I’ve only just discovered. Apart from eating half a bowl of aalu tarkari (potato curry) courtesy of a Nepalese colleague during a work morning tea, I’m not too familiar with the cuisine of the small country up in the Himalaya. I’ve been told that Nepalese food is a milder version of Indian food with small bouts of Chinese influence, but whether that’s true… I don’t know. What I DO know is the Nepalese they make some terrific dumplings. The Nepalese momo, brought over by the Tibetians, is a dish that has satisfied sherpas on the run for many decades now – think of it as the Nepalese equivalent of Maccas, but with less additives. Although they are available (at the cost of an arm and one of Jessica Hart’s legs) at Nepalese restaurants such as Ghurka’s on Flinders Street and its sister restaurants, a place that specialised in momo did not exist. Until now.

Arriving on platform 1 a few months ago was Momo Station, a modest cafe that is run by said colleague’s friend. Before I go on though, let me say that my review is in no way influenced by the fact that it belongs to a friend of a friend – and that goes with other reviews too. Anyway, it’s a cafe that attracts a steady stream of diners during the day, mostly students who have just finished class at RMIT’s business campus nearby or Nepalese workers who have trekked all the way from the other end of the city.

The staple dish at Momo Station seems to be the chicken momo ($7.50) and if you think are similar to Chinese dumplings, you’re not wrong. What makes the momo stand out on its own, however, is the coriander and cumin that goes into the chicken mince filling to give it an uplifting taste. Its distinctive flavour also means that people can never call the momo a wannabe jiaozi. A small bowl filled with simple chicken broth and dollops of home-made tomato chutney and store-bought chilli sauce completed the meal. I should also add here that eight pieces for $7.50 is a bargain in Melbourne when you consider the fact that you only get half the amount by paying the same price at other Nepalese restaurants.

The beef momo ($6.50) also came with the chicken broth, chutney and chilli (actually, they all do except for the vegetarian momo). Pleated like a har gow rather than in a twist, the beef filling was pretty good – probably a tad sweeter than the chicken – but I preferred the chicken ones.

For an extra 50 cents, you can request your momo to be pan-fried. My advice is to stick to steamed momo though – not only were the skins soggy and oily rather than crispy, the delicate fillings were drowned out when the skins were fried.

For all you herbivores, a vegetarian version is available ($6.50). The fillings were a mixture of carrots, potatoes and greens held together by an egg mixture and lots of coriander. They were okay but not something that I’d rush to order again. The fact that we got like, four pieces of sliced cucumber and three pieces of carrot when meat-eaters were given soup (which, to me, seemed more generous) made me feel like I got heebed.

You can also order ‘proper’ meals ranging from noodle soups to chow meins, both of which seemed popular with fellow diners. As for me, I’ll stick to the chicken momo, thanks.

Chicken momo, here we are… one magical moment.

Momo Station on Urbanspoon

Koliba

11 Johnston Street
Collingwood VIC 3066
+61 3 9417 3797
http://www.koliba.com.au

When I told my colleague, Sean, that I was going to a Czech-slash-Slovak restaurant for dinner, he told me to 1) ‘Czech Yo Self Before You Wreck Yo Self’ and to 2) drink plenty of Czech beer. I‘m not too familiar with know nothing about Central European cuisine except that it was probably very similar to the cuisines of Germany. And Hungary. And Poland. And *proceeds to list the countries that made up the Austria-Hungary Empire* Well, there was only one way to find out, I thought as Shirley and I walked down the deserted end of Johnson St, away from the bright lights and blaring beats emancipating from the Spanish restaurants on the other end.

Walking into the restaurant, we were somewhat surprised to see that it was emptier than the street we had just walked down. Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? I thought to myself as we were led to a table by the window. Okay, not really but I was wondering why it was so quiet. Plus, I wanted to insert a Bohemian Rhapsody reference in here somewhere (har har). The waitress, looking like a Czech version of Fleur Delacour, promptly brought us our drinks and took our orders, helpfully telling us that the mains were massive and that a bowl of chips on the side was not necessary.

My Budìjovický Budvar ($6.90), not to be confused with the less inferior beer by Anheuser-Busch. My beer snob friends (Hello Aaron! Hello Justin!) may roll their eyes at me for drinking lager but dammit, I don’t mind a lager every now and then and let’s be honest, Czech lagers are certainly better than some of the supposedly toffy locally brewed ales on the market. And even though the head sank as quickly and as unexpectedly as Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, the beer itself was lovely – a rich, creamy, slightly biscuity flavour that somehow managed to be crispy, flirty and clean at the same time.

We shared an entree of topinky s èesnekem a kapií, traditional style fried garlic bread with marinated capsicum ($6.90). Bismillah! This was amazing! The garlic spread was pretty much like garlic bread butter… but without the actual butter and the bread was pan-fried to a crisp, with slices of marinated capsicum draped lazily on each slice. Something you could easily make at home, yes, but we would not have thought of it had we not ordered it. Thank YOU, Koliba.

Vepøo knedlo zelo, Czech national dish ($21.90). This was the Czech’s answer to our meat pie. Or spag bol. Or roast lamb. Or whatever the heck Australia’s national dish was. A more than generous amount of sauerkraut was spooned onto the plate, which would have been good… had we enjoyed it. I’m no fan of sauerkraut (unless we’re talking about the sauerkraut that is served with the amazing bratwursts at Queen Vic Market) and it was a struggle to eat the sour cabbage on its own without wincing. Thankfully the tender slices of roast pork were beautifully cooked. As for the four slices of what looks like bread in the background? They are knedliky, Czech bread dumplings that are texturally similar to the Chinese mantou but not as sweet.

Tradièní hovìzí guláš s houskovým knedlíkem, traditional beef goulash with bread dumplings ($19.90). This was the best dish of the night, partly because my anti-sauerkraut stance made the roast pork dish lose by default… but mostly because it was just that damn good.  I was surprised to see the goulash being more gravy than soup but whatever, it was so tasty that Shirley and I were consistently scooping up the dregs of goulash and mixing it in with our sauerkraut so that we could say that we ate all the cabbage (hah!). That is, if we weren’t greedily mopping up the goulash with the knedliky. The tender pieces of gelatinous beef shanks were not only delicious but also assisted in giving the stew a lovely, rich texture.

Yes, I know. Exposure fail.

We were glad that we were warned about the massive sizes of our mains – we literally could not move after finishing our meals and had to sit around for a while. We both agreed that while Czech food (well okay, the two out of many Czech dishes in existence) looked plain and were not as sexy as say, French or Italian food, their simplicity and their heartiness makes for a winning combination. Although the dishes we had would have been winning Winter dishes, there is no reason why you can’t eat these during the warmer months (we did). The food that we ate may have induced a severe case of Unbearable Lightness of Bloating but nevertheless, we both promised that we’d come back here for more goulash awesomeness, more not-very-inferior Czech lager and the apparently-OMG-WOW pork knuckle dish.

Koliba Czech&Slovak restaurant on Urbanspoon

Number 8

Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex
8 Whiteman St
Southbank VIC 3006
+61 9292 7899
http://www.number8atcrown.com.au/

I’m back, guys! No, I have not returned from some exotic location with a tan to boot nor have I had my internet capped or anything. Quite simply, I’ve been busy with exams. Having to deal with exam date mix-ups, lost USB sticks and a closed book constitutional law exam (FML FML FML FML FML FML) meant that I haven’t had time to sit down and blog. Oh, but I’ve ate. And drank. And ate some more. Blogging, however, is something totally different. And while a two-week absence isn’t normally that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, a LOT can happen in two weeks. New restaurants open, soup are cast aside to make way for couscous salads and leading ladies of popular TV shows get killed off. But anyway, back to food.

The first review off the Flinders Street station rank will be about a dinner that Shirls and I attended two months ago (!!), one which has been on my ‘to do’ list for quite some time (along with Brad Pitt). The photos may be of crappy quality and the commentary may be sketchy (after all, it has been two months) but whatever, a review is being posted tonight and that’s all that matters! (cue appropriate segue to) … Number 8. Apparently Derryn Hinch’s favourite restaurant and one that always seems to be packed to the rafters (okay, I’ll stop now) whenever I stroll past. Like most Crown restaurants, they do a Monday – Friday pre-theatre special where one can enjoy two courses for $43 if they dined before 7pm. Because Shirley and I like early weekday dinners and being tight arses, we decided to give Number 8 a go.

Sitting in an almost-bare restaurant, the waitresses immediately put our chompers to work by bringing us fresh, warm bread and two dips in place of the usual olive oil or butter. A pile of smooth sweet potato gunk appealed to Shirley’s sweet tooth whereas I preferred the garlicky white bean dip. We both thought that this was a great start to the meal. I really wish that more restaurants would bring out dips – don’t get me wrong, I love butter and olive oil is my BFF but to bring out something that’s slightly unusual, well, that gets my vote.

While she had juice, I had a glass of Albarino Valminor DO Rias Baixas (2009 ($15.45). It was a wonderfully complex blend of fragrant citrus notes with a slightly creamy finish. I was glad I gave my usual riesling a miss that night.

Shirley’s entree: Salt and pepper calamari, tomato and lime compote, aïoli and chive dressing. To me, this was their interpretation of the famous pan-Asian dish, the salt and pepper squid. While the squid had a lovely soft texture that was easy to chew, I felt that the dish was a bit too bland. In addition, there was no heat and no cohesion between the squid and the compote salad (and why the effk are they calling it a compote?!). Give me $10 plates of salt and pepper squid from Dessert House any time.

My entree: Handmade ricotta gnocchi, fresh tomatoes, basil, Jingilli olive oil. Those of you who know me will be like, “Since when do you voluntarily order gnocchi at restaurants, miss?!” Well, since the only other option on the pre-theatre menu was wagyu carpaccio, I really did have no choice (and I was over ordering carpaccio for entrees). Okay, so I have a choice which was to order the same dish as Shirley but c’mon, what foodie orders the same thing as their dining companion?! Anyway, the gnocchi was surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because apart from the gnocchi at Ladro, I’ve never had good gnocchi at a restaurant before. I liked that the dressing was a simple, light medley of the freshest herbs and vegies – that went extremely well with the carb-heavy gnocchi. And the whole thing just about filled me up before I even reached my main.

Shirley’s main: Roasted Cone Bay barramundi, baby fennel, à la grecque dressing. You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that this dish looked dryer than a creek bed during the drought years. The kitchen kept it simple with a slab of barramundi that was roasted until most of its moisture was sucked out, then plonked among a bunch of baby fennel quarters before being drizzled with a simple olive oil and herb dressing. Actually, ‘drizzled’ is too generous of a word – there was hardly any dressing at all. Greek gods such as Aphrodite look hot naked, but not dishes like this. Far out.

My main: Free-range Bendigo chicken breast, organic white polenta, herb salad, spiced jus. Although it was also on the dry side, my chicken fared better than Shirley’s fish. The fact that it actually had wet elements in it (i.e. polenta, more than a negligible amount of jus) helped too. While it was an adequate dish (barring dryness), I didn’t feel any excitement when eating this.

We also shared a side of roasted potatoes, smoked paprika and thyme oil. They were crunchy to the bite and surprisingly tasty which is more than I could say for most of the stuff we had tonight.

Despite our lackluster meal, we couldn’t resist ordering dessert. Shirley opted for a serving of Cocoa Barry Venezuela chocolate fondant, hazelnut praline, milk ice cream, Pedro Ximenez reduction ($16). It was a beautifully executed dessert, the highlight being the chocolate fondant that was as rich and warm as Barry White’s voice and just as seductive. The milk ice cream was there to provide a lovely, cooling contrast in case things got a little bit too hot on the fondant side (which it did). Thanks for the sugar, sugar.

I went simple with my dessert: a trio of sorbets and ice creams ($14). At $14, three scoops is a bit of a rip especially when you can get three scoops of better-tasting ice cream at Trampoline a few blocks down. Still, I didn’t mind the subtly sweet vanilla bean and hazelnut ice creams nor did I mind the vivaciously tangy raspberry sorbet. Not a bad way to cap off what was otherwise a rather predictable meal where the highlight of it was the complimentary dips.

Coin Laundry

61A Armadale Street
Armadale VIC 3143
+61 3 9500 1888

The best steak sandwich ever? Really? Quite a big call, I thought to myself as I read Michèle’s gushing review of the newly opened Coin Laundry cafe just a hop, skip and jump from Armadale station.

Adam and I figured that the cafe wouldn’t be terribly busy at 12pm on a Tuesday afternoon, so we lazily made our way there … only to find that it was packed to the rafters with soccer mums with massive turbo prams in tow, schoolkids from the nearby King David School taking a break from class and annoying Asian food bloggers with obtrusive Nikons and Canons (cough cough). We were told that there would be a 15 minute wait for a table which we were okay with. It gave us the chance to go for a walk and catch some much needed vitamin Ds from the sun. Before long, a corner table opened up and we plonked our tushes on the wooden seats.

As the name suggests and as you may have read from several blogs extolling the virtues of Coin Laundry, the cafe used to be a coin laundry. Then owners Steve Rowley and Matt Vero rocked up, ripped out the washing machines and installed a kitchen along with some tables & chairs and lovely ornaments all around the spaciously airy room.

They have specials listed on the giant toilet paper dispenser-looking hanger above one of the entrances, all of which sounded enticing but Adam was here for one thing: THE steak sandwich. As for me? I was, um, going to get a salad. Having said that, the (much longer) breakfast menu, which is available all day, did look amazing so I’ll be back to give the ricotta sweet corn fritters a go. And the caramelised French toast soldiers. And the house-toasted granola served with spiced berry compote and rosewater labneh. Oh, what I am saying? I’m going to keep coming back until I try every single thing on the damn menu!

We enjoyed some beautiful Allpress coffees while we waited for our food, a skinny latte for me and a short macchiato for Adam ($3.50 each). Neither of us normally put sugar in our coffees anyway but when Adam took a sip of my latte, he thought that I had perhaps snuck in a spoonful or two because it was so sweet. It was beautiful though, naturally sweet and smooth with a rather mild taste that was gentle to the palate.

Sugar, sugar; salt, Chris Scott.

Before long, we realised that our coffees had been drained, our Herald Suns read back to front (twice), our facebook pages checked five times on our mobiles and our water jug had been refilled twice. We had been waiting a very long time.

40 mins later (!!), our food arrived. While I’m aware that the cafe has been flat-out since it opened a month ago (not expecting such a positive response and therefore, being understaffed etc), I thought that an apology would not have hurt. But whatever, maybe a 40 minute wait for a steak sandwich is normal in this part of town. And maybe no one in the cafe really had to rush off to classes and meetings and what-have-you, but still. I wasn’t cranky for long though because, well, how could you not when you have food that looked THIS good…?

Adam’s steak sanga with aged Scotch fillet, onion marmalade, beetroot relish, roast tomato and horseradish cream ($18.50). No really, how could you stay mad? You. Just. Can’t.

Seriously, folks, have you seen a steak sandwich that looked like THAT? The loveliest, crunchiest and chewiest bread from Noisette, slabs of perfectly rare Scotch fillet slices, a handful of rocket leaves and a mixture of little extras that made the sandwich so effking awesome, including a beetroot relish that will make beetroot-haters like myself fall in love with that stuff. $18.50 sounds kinda excessive for a steak sandwich but it goes without saying, this was worth every cent.

In awe. Can’t talk.

My salad: warm chermoula spiced chicken with couscous, rosewater infused apricot and pine nut salad, coriander and tahini yoghurt ($17). I had no idea that I had ordered the exact same things as Michèle until I re-read her review tonight (oops), but I guess great minds order alike, eh? This what what half the soccer mums were ordering that day so I decided to follow suit (not because I want to be a soccer mum – okay, fine, I DO – but because it was perfect salad weather). It was an amazing salad which ticked all the right boxes: there was a good balance of textures ranging from the crunchy rocket leaves to the succulent chicken pieces to the smooth and creamy tahini yoghurt, a great combination of flavours from spicy to sweet to bitter and it was extremely filling. I loved how the rosewater and apricots just brought everything together too. Beautiful, just beautiful.

We really did not want to leave the cafe – we were just content to sit by the window and read the Herald Sun for the third time – but studying awaited us so off to Caulfield we went. While I’m no fan of Lisa Mitchell, I would like to say that if the girl that she was singing about in ‘Coin Laundry’ was hanging out at THIS particular coin laundry, then I would give away my Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs to be that girl anytime.

Coin Laundry Cafe on Urbanspoon

China Red

Shop 6, 206 Bourke St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9662 3688
http://www.china-red.com.au/

There are only really two things in the world that Melburnians, as a collective group, are in love with: dumplings and touch screen monitors. Oh, and Christos Tsiolkas. And Gorman. And Fairfax publications. And single-origin coffee. And layering. And hating Collingwood. But let’s just stick with the first two, shall we? I love dumplings. I love them a lot. Those of you who know me in person and those of you who stalk my blog will know this. Whenever a new dumpling restaurant opens up, I get excited. Like ‘I take you home! I make you fish ball soup!’ excited.

While I love my dumpling restaurants like the next Melburnian, I must admit that as much as I get excited over new dumpling restaurants, there is very little that differentiates between dumpling restaurant A and dumpling restaurant B. Sure, the owner of any given new dumpling restaurant may welcome punters into a brand, spanking new dumpling restaurant with a menu that promises something different, with flashy new fit-outs and hoards of pretty spruikers standing outside the restaurant. However, the end product is inevitably the same: dumplings that fail to excite and service that is arguably non-existent. Honestly, this happens all the time so you’d think that I would have stopped getting excited a long time ago.

Enter China Red. A fresh-faced debutante of the Hu Tong Empire, it cleverly combines the two things that Melbournians adore and flaunts them in one neat package: the ability of ordering hot plates of dumplings via touch screens.

Yep, that’ s right. Plonk your tush onto a newly-polished wooden chair and focus your attention on the screen to your left (or right, depending on how you’ re sitting).

To steal a line from Larissa Dubecki, China Red’s dining room epitomises “Asian capitalists’ enthusiasm for communist kitsch” with its clean, polished furnishings dotted with splashes of reds, smiling Maos and touchscreens all over. Think iHu Tong.

Crockery look familiar? They’re exactly the same as the ones you find down on Market Lane.

(Oolong tea was $2.20 a teapot)

The process goes like this:

1. Try not to laugh at the spelling errors on the laminated notices below the screen…

2. … or the foblish.

3 . Select your language.

4. Flip through the pages and if you see something you like, click on the photo, then the ‘ order’
button and select how many you want.

5. RESIST THE URGE TO ORDER MORE THAN YOU NEED. RESIST THE URGE TO ORDER MORE THAN YOU NEED. RESIST THE URGE TO ORDER MORE THAN YOU NEED. RESIST THE URGE TO ORDER MORE THAN YOU NEED.

6. Repeat steps 4 & 5. You can check the bill-in-progress too.

7 . When you’ ve finished, there is an option to finalise the bill (‘Bill enquiry’). Click that when you’re done.

But Libby, you ask, what if I want something that’ s not on the menu (like, I don’t know, water?)? What if I want to order take-away? What if I ordered something by mistake? No problems, click the ‘press here for assistance’ button and your waiter will be at your table within no time.

We had only just ordered a serving of xiaolongbao, our first (of three dishes), when a steamer-full of them arrived (eight for $11.80). Like, literally two seconds after Shirley’s finger touched the ‘order’ button. Looking very similar to those found at Hu Tong (as one would expect), each dumpling had a skin as fragile as rice paper that barely held together a filling of pork and broth. While they weren’t terrible, they were very much a Jan to Hu Tong’ s Marcia.

What prevented China Red’ s xiaolongbaos from reaching Queen Bee status was the fact that there were bits of cooked pigs’ blood in the filling which gave it a can-be-nasty-if-you-hate-pigs-blood metallic taste. Worse still, it was obvious from the fact that they were brought over to us so quickly AND the fact that bits of pork fat were coagulating that the steamer had been sitting around for quite some time.

Thank St Mary of the Cross for the ever-trusty Hu Tong-branded chilli oil to make things taste a little bit better though. I love the way those little Sichuan peppercorns created a spine-tingling numbness in my mouth. I tell you, man, this stuff is good. Like ‘Oh, baby, just you shut your mouth’ good.

The plate of pan-fried pork dumplings (eight for $10.80) made more of an effort to look presentable. Unfortunately, like the wannabe prom queen loser who tried so hard on prom night, these pork dumplings didn’t quite made on the podium. I’m sorry but trying to pose sexily on fancy ceramic plate combined with flabby and oily skin does not a beautiful dumpling make. Loser.

Forgoing the allure of the mouth-watering-looking shenjianbaos, we went for a noodle dish because we heard that the noodles here “were alright.” Making a decision on basis of whatever dish had the prettiest (okay fine, less ugly-looking) photo, we settled for a bowl of Peking noodles with meat sauce ($11.80). A little dry, a little greasy and perhaps a little too nutty, this dish wasn’t anything to sing about.

Towards the end, Shirley ordered a serving of beef fillet in Cantonese-style sauce for takeaway (not pictured). At $18.80, I thought that it was a bit steep and according to Shirley, the meat (the next day at lunch) was tender with a good flavour and texture but the sauce was disappointing – it was “borderline gweilo” and just spoilt the dish. Never again, she said.

While China Red did in fact give us dumplings and give television at the same time, I can’t see myself going back there again. The concept sounds great – especially those who have difficulties communicating with waiter/esses at dumpling restaurants – the food was a huge let-down. With this in mind, I implore Melburnians to forget attempting a ménage à trois with both dumplings and touchscreens at the same time and stick with dating them separately.

China Red on Urbanspoon

Gourmet Dumpling Restaurant

71 Glenferrie Rd
Malvern VIC 3143
+61 3 9509 9718

Don’t you just hate it when you go to an eatery with the intention to write about it (of course) later on… only to flip through your hard drive two months later to find random photos taken at said eatery that have not yet been culled (from fifty to six shots), resized, cropped and stamped before being placed on your blog? It happens to the best of us, and it has been happening to me a lot. The restaurant that I’m about to review certainly fits the bill. Adam and I had a late dinner here two months ago, on a cold, windy day in August. Yes, August. And here I am, two months later, writing this up. Go figure.

Gourmet Dumpling Restaurant in Malvern. Yet another food blogger writing about yet another dumpling restaurant. But shut up, they’re awesome, okay? (I’m referring to dumplings, not food bloggers – ha!). Spending an entire day attending classes and doing countless readings, we worked up a massive appetite and decided to reward ourselves with dumplings. After selecting four dishes from the menu and pouring ourselves some jasmine tea, our dishes arrived one after the other. Like Bette Davis famously said in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Fifteen pieces of fried pork dumplings ($8.50) arrived, each little crispy pocket bursting at the steams. The had hints of that lovely floury texture that the dumplings at Camy’s are famous for (when they’re good, that is) which I love. The pork filling was immensely juicy and slightly on the sweet side too. Bits of visible ginger strands and spring onions also gave the dumplings a  pleasantly clean taste. Not long after, our fried vegetarian dumplings arrived. At $9 for eighteen pieces, they represented good value and were almost as big as the relatively inflated pork dumplings. They didn’t taste bad either. If you think that they look similar to the ones served at JG Dumplings, you may be right. Sources say that they’re owned by the same people.

Chilli oil flecked with bits of shrimp FTW.

Our xiaolongbaos arrived next, presented in a bamboo steamer with a limp bit of lettuce ($8.50 for eight pieces). As you can see here, their skins were as gluggy as Clag paste and as thick as Homer Simpson. To my surprise, I discovered that each dumpling was extremely tasty – the pork filling was beautifully sweet and the broth singing to the key of Springfield. Obviously they weren’t as beautiful as Hu Tong’s ones nor could they be considered ‘authentic’ by any means, but they were tasty enough for me to want to order them again.

Those dumplings were more than enough for the two of us but did we stop? No, we got so greedy that we ended up splitting a bowl of dan dan noodles too ($8.50). We were warned that these were incredibly spicy. ‘Spicy?’ Adam pffted, ‘Yeah, no worries!’ We shouldn’t have been cocky, they really WERE that spicy that it got to the point where we were ordering bottles of soy bean milk and wiping beads of sweat off our foreheads.

But man, they were good. Okay, so they weren’t authentic (actually, I don’t think any of the dishes are 100% authentic. Rather, they seemed to be catering to Western tastes). It wasn’t soupy at all, and they seemed to have substituted the sesame paste which gives this dish a lovely nuttiness to it by adding lashings of sesame oil in it. And call me sacrilegious or whatever, but I actually preferred this ‘gweilo-ised’ version than the original despite its spiciness. Yeah, yeah, what kind of a foodie am I? Also, would I be sacrilegious in saying that the above dish just screams out ‘Chinese spag bol?’ :p

There is nothing ‘gourmet’ about this Gourmet Dumplings, nor can it be considered authentic. But whatever, the folks of Malvern are blessed to not only have a restaurant that actually offers affordable food but one that has food that actually tastes good. Real good.

Papa Goose

91-93 Flinders Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 2800
http://www.papagoose.com.au

Nothing gets a self-confessed foodie’s mouth frothing than the opening of a brand new restaurant. Okay, except for delectable salted caramel macarons and freshly-shucked Coffin Bay oysters. But you get what I mean. As soon as we foodies catch news of a spanking new eatery opening in two day’s time, we’re there before the ribbon is even cut, before the bottle of Mumm is uncorked and before the door is opened. As for restaurants that are staffed by former one/two/three-hatted restaurant staffers? We’re camping outside the entrance in our sleeping bags a week before opening night.

Papa Goose, for example, ticks all the right boxes and then some. Plonk a minimalist Brooklyn loft-style spilt-level warehouse in Flinders Lane that is not too far that you can’t make it there in six-inch Manolos yet not TOO close to the Swanston Street intersection to give the place an air of aloofness that doesn’t quite reach pretentiousness. Decorate with rusty wires and trinkets scoured from a rubbish tip to appease the hipsters. Have an open (or semi-open kitchen, above). Offer an eclectic menu that includes curious ingredient combinations such as foie gras and mussels as well as a mandatory reinvention-of-a-classic-dessert number, an ‘Eskimo Pie’ in this case. Then chuck the ex-head chef of Pure South, Neale White, and general manager extraordinaire, Alison Hulm. Excited? You bet!

Fellow foodie, Jan, and her BFF were celebrating their joint birthdays this Saturday and chose Papa Goose as the dinner venue because of its 92% rating on urbanspoon.com. Once all the guests arrived, we were presented with freshly-baked crusty bread and bowls of peppery Kalaparee EVOO. After several rounds of photo-snapping and present-swapping, we were presented with a complimentary starter: a seafood velouté served in an espresso cup. It was beautifully tasty, creamy, herby and velvety without being too rich. Jan did say that it erred on the ‘too fishy’ side but an ichthyophile like myself didn’t mind at all. If this was an entrée on the menu, I’d order it every single time. Without fail.

Jan’s entrée: Blackmore’s wagyu karubi carpaccio, pickled shitake, truffled potato, radish ($17). The tapestry of delicate shavings of wagyu created a striking canvas to accentuate the vibrancy of the shitake, potato cubes and radish shreds and the addition of capers added a slight tangy edge to the dish. I guess if I wanted to be particularly fussy, I would say that they went a smidgen overboard with the truffle oil though.

I shared an entrée with Adam: Veal sweetbreads, wagyu bresaola, scallop, white raisins, muscat ($19). Each element, when eaten on its own, didn’t do anything for me. Grab a little bit of everything and eat it all in one go, however, and your tastebuds will be in trouble deep. Ooh yeah.

Another complimentary palate cleanser arrived just before a ‘Dookie or Nimrod?’ debate got heated, this time a red grapefruit granita with a slice of cucumber. A soothingly refreshing brew with a subtle tang that left us begging for Summer … and our mains.

(FYI, I say ‘Nimrod.’)

Jan’s main: Blue cod, King prawn, ratatouille, smoked tomato and caper butter ($34). The fish, from the waters of New Zealand, had a lusciously clean flesh that was tenderly pan-fried and dressed with a delicious tomato and caper butter that was gentle enough not to smother the natural sweetness of the fish but smoky enough to challenge ol’ man Robinson. The dish actually came with a globe artichoke but because Jan isn’t a fan of artichokes, the kitchen kindly omitted it from the dish.

My main: Pan-roasted snapper, shallots, smoked bacon, mussel, foie gras, cannellini bean ($34). Jan’s fish may have been better – mine was a tad too dry – but my dish does not get minus points for lack of flavour. To quote Jan, the sauce could best be described as “tasting like carbonara” what with the rich, creamy mixture dotted with bacon. To make things slightly more interesting, the addition of  foie gras AND mussels to the mix proved a slightly weird combination which nevertheless managed to just work. It wasn’t bad but it was perhaps a little too rich for my liking.

Oh, but if you paired the snapped with a glass of Delatite V.S. Riesling ($11.50), the fish tasted MUCH better. The sharp citrus and floral notes of the wine combined with a powerful mineral-tasting finish cut through the creamy sauce effortlessly like a sharp knife in warm butter. A Heath Shaw-worthy save.

Adam’s main: Hopkins River eye fillet and tail, silverbeet, root vegetables, chervil, salsa verde ($36). Armed with small lashings of seeded and Dijon mustards, this rare-cooked steak and oxtail combination proved a lethal combination for both Adam and I. Adam declared it as ‘probably the best steak’ he’s had while I adopted a stricter approach to my judging and said that it scraped into my top 10. All the trimming were lovely, but I think it just lacked that level of juiciness that I’ve come to know and love when I’m eating rare-cooked steaks.

Another complimentary palate cleanser, a silky, smooth vanilla and pear sorbet, was paraded brought to us by the ever-attentive and constantly-friendly waiter who deserved kudos for dealing with a large group of squealy and most-likely-very-annoying diners effortlessly.

Adam and I shared Papa Goose’s interpretation of the famous Nestle-owned iced confectionery, the Eskimo pie ($15). I’m not usually one for chocolate desserts as they are usually too rich for me but damn, this one was a voluptuous structure of vanilla ice cream with hazelnut and praline bits hidden within. Topped with a crusty chocolate biscuit and drizzled with a pool of hot chocolate sauce with a crispy burnt caramel tuille placed on top, this is a dessert that you won’t forget in a hurry.

After only being in business for two months and nary a review in Epicure at the time of writing (though Larissa Dubecki’s review will apparently appear in tomorrow’s edition), I’d say that Papa Goose has done pretty well. To immediately say that it’s going to receive at least one hat in the next edition of The Age Good Food Guide might seem a little premature at this stage. I am, however, quietly confident that they will snag it if they continue with what they are doing (while making improvements on the way, of course) and then some. I’ve made up my mind, I’m gonna keep coming back to this baby.

Papa Goose on Urbanspoon

J Cafe

167 Exhibition St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+ 61 9650 9877
http://jcafe.sushiburger.com.au/index.html

In the last twenty or so years, we’ve seen some significant amalgamations. Time Warner. The Brisbane Lions. DJ Earworm’s infectious “Like, OMG Baby”, a collection of this year’s hottest and sickliest Summer tracks condensed into a neat four-minute package. And the sushi burger. As its name suggests, it combines two of the most popular fast food items together, the sushi and the burger, into one little neat package. And they sell like hotcakes at J Cafe.

Nestled comfortably between rows of little shops on Exhibition St, J Cafe serves an array of Japanese dishes but everyone comes here for their famous sushi burgers. Its convenient location means that theatre-goers could easily pop into the cafe for a take-away burger during intermission at the nearby Her Majesty’s Theatre. Conversely, the Friday drinkies crowd can sit down for a meal in between Matt and John’s set at the nearby Elephant and Wheelbarrow and a night of dancing with and pashing random strangers to the tune of  “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Seven Nation Army” at the European Bier Cafe.

Adam and I were there for a sit-down dinner one Friday night. We both decided that the sushi burger was definitely the way to go so we set about ordering a sushi burger bento box each. A standard sushi burger bento box was $17 and consisted of a bowl of miso soup, a sushi burger and a choice of entree from a list of four. The option of choosing an entree from the ‘specials menu’ attracted an extra 50 cents. The ika shogayaki, a specials menu item, caught Adam’s eye so he went for that to go with his teriyaki eel sushi burger.

Miso soup. Very hard to eff up miso soup. Next!

Adam’s teriyaki eel sushi burger. To be honest, we both thought it wasn’t that fantastic. There was nothing wrong with the taste, it was just the rice-filling ratio that did our heads in. Too much rice, not enough filling. Plus, the fillings were scant – only two pieces of sliced cucumber and one thin slab of eel.

My ebi mayo (fried prawn) sushi burger. Battered prawns, a generous dosage of creamy mayo and some lettuce. Nothing to it, really. It was much better than Adam’s but having to swallow a mouthful of sushi rice really did my head in.

I chose a serving of gyoza as my entree (which came after my sushi burger, funnily enough). Although they were more ginger and cabbage than pork, they still went down a treat with the simple salad that came with it – several pieces of cucumber, tomato, lettuce leaves, mashed potato and an orange quarter as a palate cleanser. Nice.

Adam’s ika shogayaki (pan-fried squid in ginger sauce). I think I liked this one better than my gyoza; the equisitely tender pieces of squid were grilled in a lovely ginger sauce before being served with the same salad that came with my gyoza. Ribbons of mayo covered the creature that I wished was Paul the Octopus to make it a delicious dish.

The scores of foodies raving about sushi burgers and the almost-full dining room on the night we went is a testament to the success of the amalgamation between the sushi and the burger. Indeed, it is an interesting concept and definitely not one that would be listed alongside failed mergers like that of Daimler Benz-Chrysler. I would suggest giving the sushi burger a go just so you know what it’s like – and if you enjoy it, then good for you – but for now I think I’ll just stick to sushi hand rolls and hamburgers with beef patties, thanks!

J Café Restaurant on Urbanspoon