I mention this because a food blog is by its very nature a subjective record of one individual's tastes and opinions. If Mr Baklover were to write a food blog, it would probably be a Nhu Lan greatest hits interspersed with the occasional souvlaki from Stalactites. But for better or worse, this is my blog and therefore a record of merely what I like - not at all a definite judgment on restaurants, dishes or cuisines.
We had planned to visit the new Chilli Padi in Flemington but due to my epic food blogger fail (forgetting to charge my camera battery), I pleaded my friend to come home for a beer while I charged up and then we headed for closer territory - First Taste in Footscray, a southern Chinese claypot rice and herbal soup restaurant.
First Taste have a number of branches across Melbourne and Sydney and are really popular. The windows in the Footscray branch are somewhat blacked out by large-scale images of their dishes but as we dined, the door constantly swung open, admitting couples and families hungry for something warm and comforting.
Ginseng Stewed Black Chicken Soup, $5.80
The menu of Chinese herbal soups is quite impressive, with pigeon, pear & white fungus, even frog fat. Black chicken is a Chinese herbal ingredient that is thought to be very restorative, particularly for a woman who has just given birth. You can see the tiny blue-black skinned chickens for sale in the chicken shops in Footscray market. Apparently they are silkies, small, fluffy white chickens (see an interesting New York Times article here). The flavour was great and you could really taste the fresh, clean ginger. However, the meat was still in the pot and it had that scummy, brown-feathery look that meat gets when you cook it for stock. I love my stock but I hate the collapsed vegetables and gross, flaccid carcasses I have to dispose of. The meat in this reminded me of that - I much prefer to use bones for my stock, drain, even strain through muslin (aka old baby wrap) to get rid of all the brown floaty bits before poaching fresh meat eg chicken breast in it if I want to have chunks of meat in my soup. So this was a bit of a fail for me.
Coconut and Herbs Stewed Crocodile Meat Soup, $6.90
We also tried crocodile with coconut. This broth was really intriguing - it tasted somewhere between pork and seafood. I think the coconut was sweet coconut juice rather than milk. I liked its flavour a lot. The crocodile meat was very oily and rich, similar to eel. It had a good flavour but had so many tiny shards of bone that stuck in your teeth that we got put off. Thankfully these soups had nice little lids so we did not have to be the embarrassing gweilos who did not finish them - at least until we were safely halfway down Hopkins Street!
Quail with rice, $8.80 (add Chinese sausage, $2)
The main attraction here is claypot rice. Searing hot stone bowls of rice arrived at our table, a toasty aroma emanating from them. I went with quail with optional added Chinese sausage ($2). The quail was tasty but after the bony soup, I was a bit boned out and didn't persist with teasing all the meat off the tiny quails. I did like the Chinese sausage.
X.O.Sauce Hand-made Prawn Ball with Rice, $8.80
These prawn balls were quite tasty, obviously home made, dressed with XO sauce. XO sauce is seen on menus at Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and I absolutely love it. It's a total umami overload (umami being the elusive, savoury "fifth taste" of Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, meat stock and MSG). It's made with small, dried seafood like tiny scallops and prawns, chilli and garlic as well as Chinese air-dried jinhua ham which is like prosciutto. The name XO comes from XO cognac as it was thought to be very special like that particular brand of drink.
Chinese Broccoli, $4.50
We also shared a bowl of Chinese broccoli or gai larn, well-cooked and dressed with a thick sauce that seemed quite mild, thick and beany compared to the classic oyster sauce.
The claypots were well made, the rice having crusted perfectly, lifting from the bottom with lots of toasty crunch. I just was not mad on the whole thing, though. It was quite dense and filling and actually pretty plain. It reminded me of a Chinese version of Aussie pub grub - simple, slightly stodgy, filling food that isn't going to win any prizes for originality, but that is what you want. Notably I do not eat much pub grub or much other heavy, filling fare - my palate is heavily skewed towards fresh, light Vietnamese, Malaysian and South Indian flavours. So I was not rapt with my soup and claypot, but that is not to say you will not love them. I know plenty in the area do including a reader, Monica. So go try them out - if you are not a fan, there is always Nhu Lan up the road for a banh mi. Say hi to Mr Baklover at the counter.
104-106 Hopkins Street, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9689 4274