My husband migrated here in 2006. He brought a fresh eye to Melbourne - looking for something to do, he would exclaim, "Let's go get an Italian ice [gelati] and walk along the Yarra!" Um, people who live here don't do that - much to our detriment in fact, as it's indeed a lovely thing to do. For dinner, he loved to go to "Chinatown", usually to eat Singapore noodles with gusto, much to my chagrin.
I love going into town now. I still get a buzz now going in on the train, seeing the Heavenly Queen gazing benevolently over the Maribyrnong, then screeching round the bend from Spencer Street, high up all Bladerunner-like. This visit I found Little Lonsdale particularly lovely to wander up, from QV and the State Library to this peaceful block with spreading trees...leading up to Laksa Bar.
This place has been getting a bit of buzz and for enticing reason. They purport to offer eight regional variations of laksa. In a laksa-mad city, this seems a particularly smart business move.
The fitout is smart, if a bit concrete bunker-like, with exposed bulbs and silver-shiny industrial trimmings. Order at the counter where candlenuts and cinnamon quills are displayed in apothecary-like glass bottles, hinting at aromatic alchemy in the kitchen.
Satay tofu (entree), $5.80
Lovely, juicy cubes of lightly-fried tofu with refreshing onion, cucumber and pineapple, nestling under a cosy cloak of "generation recipe" satay sauce. This was quite yummy, very sweet and tangy with tamarind, although not all that peanutty.
Nasi lemak with house sambal and fried chicken, $11.90
Nasi lemak ("rich rice") is coconut rice with trimmings, including crispy anchovies and peanuts, perhaps some fried chicken or fish, and plenty of sambal - house-blend chilli sauce. All the components of this were promising. The coconut rice was luscious (not at all like gluggy suburban Thai joints - this was light, the grains were separate and it melted in the mouth). The ikan bilis and peanuts gave fantastic crunch and the garguantuan chicken drumstick was tasty. I liked the sweet sambal, despite it not being very hot at all, although apparently it wasn't very "correct" by Malaysian/Singaporean standards.
Asam laksa, $13.90
This famous dish from Assam features mackeral, tamarind and tomato for a tangy, fishy, spicy, dark soup. This was a disappointment, overly sweet with no mackeral flavour and really tasting just like tom yum. The (presumably defrosted) ginger flowers had an unpleasant flaccid texture. Jo and Bryan, Singapore food connoisseurs, agree that one of the best Assam sauces in Melbourne can be found on White Lotus' mock fish, of all places!!!
House curry laksa (seafood), $15.90
The moment of truth! We stared. We spun the bowl. Cue giggles. Fried wonton skins, a chopped fried egg, a wedge of lemon, battered fish? The toppings are certainly untraditional, save for the generous helping of cockles, tiny blood-coloured crustaceans that are an essential element in authentic Singaporean-style laksa and char kway teow. The broth was very mild, extremely creamy with warming spices like cinnamon and cumin but no chilli heat or seafood flavour (we did ask for the menu's promised "higher level of spiciness" but none ensued). The bowl was so chockers with noodles (half yellow Hokkien, half rice vermicelli) and toppings that there wasn't much broth to sample at all.
Bryan's authentic home-made Singapore-style laksa - drool over it here
You can also read about authentic Singapore laksa here
I don't really know what to make of this laksa. It is like craving chocolate mud cake - dark, dense chocolate cake, where the fork cuts through it just like a spade through rich, dark loam. The "give" of the chocolate ganache icing on top - swipe it through a little cream for rich, luscious perfection. To order chocolate mud cake and then be presented with a chocolate sponge with cream in the middle, perhaps covered in chocolate shavings. "Oh," you say. "This is nice, but I really wanted thick, rich mud cake." "Well," replies the waiter, not unkindly, "that's how we do our mud cake". You see my quandary - it was well made but not laksa as I know it!
On leaving, I could see a chef in the open kitchen gently shaking candlenuts into a commercial food processor. I do believe they make the spice bases, the sambal and the sauces from scratch. While the satay tofu and nasi lemak were good, in the case of laksa, I'm just not sure it really does what it says on the tin.
TOM YUM LAKSA??!! That's like having Christmas Easter eggs! Oh wait - don't tell me they've done that already?
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Laksa Bar (Facebook)
1/108 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Phone: 9663 1941
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-10pm, Sat & Sun 5pm-10pm
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