Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Premises

I had a conversation with an interesting person recently about the change in the way coffee in Melbourne tastes.  No, I'm not talking about instant versus espresso but rather the coffee flavour and the milk consistency have undergone some sort of slow mutation.  I remember when I first started drinking coffee, a latte was $2 and would often come with a serviette origami-d around it, I guess to protect your hand because it was so hot.  Now in trendy cafes, the coffee is barely lukewarm and the milk has a silky consistency so there is almost no distinction between the froth and the coffee at the bottom of the glass - kind of like a coffee milkshake, as this person correctly opined.

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The actual taste of the beans varies from the classic "espresso" taste of Genovese or other big name brands to very unusual flavours from the micro-roasters.  The Premises in Kensington is very much this newer style of coffee.

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I love the space - two shops have evidently been joined so that The Premises has two street frontages, hugging the florist on the corner.  The aesthetic is gorgeous with old wood, school-type chairs, lots of open space and light.  The staff are all lovely - no 'tude here.

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Delicious, perfectly made coffee using Seven Seeds.  The beans have a strange, almost smoky flavour though.  It's almost like you can taste the oils on the beans.  It's not unpleasant but gives the coffee another dimension.

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And what of latte art?  We used to love Flavours of Lakhoum in Richmond where the barista would draw women's faces in the froth, sometimes apparently trying to resemble the drinker.  It seems a bit naff now but it was so sweet at the time.

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A good ole bacon and egg roll, this one with homemade BBQ sauce.  It was enormous, football-shaped and half was plenty for an adult.

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Free range egg with "Newmarket bacon" (not sure what butcher or supplier this is?) - the bacon was sensational, really smoky and meaty.  I do wish the roll was toasted, though, as there was a lot of bread and some textural variation would have been nice.

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I wish I could give you a spiel about how "I always choose the bacon and egg roll/caesar salad/spring rolls to give me a benchmark of how good a place is", but I can't.  Sometimes you just want what you want.

More great local coffee at the original "best cafe" in Kensington, Fruits of Passion.  Their food is a bit stuck in the 00's but the coffee (Vittoria) is unreal.

The Premises
202 Bellair Street, Kensington (map)
Phone:  9376 7565
Closed Mondays

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Footscray is changing, but it's more a waltz than a sprint, with two steps forward and one step back.  I was excited when Yoghurt House opened because it was something different, a diversification of the usual restaurant/hairdresser/chemist patchwork of our suburb.  But then its neighbour Dimmeys shut down, creating a real black hole in Footscray's fabric.  Yoghurt House got their window smashed, cut down their number of flavours and eventually shut their doors.

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This is why the reopening of somewhat tired Ha Long into the new and groovy Sen is very exciting.  Not because I have anything against mirrored walls and buckets of chopsticks, but because it is great to have choice.  Now if you want a classier Vietnamese experience, there's no need to jam the doors at Sapa Hills.

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Sen is different because the decor is understated and modern and the menus are a pleasure to hold and browse.  The staff wear a smart pink uniform and there are no TVs.  According to Billy, it was bought out by the chef of Ha Long, so one hopes that because this person has had experience in the restaurant, they knew what they wanted to change.

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Banh hoi chao tom ("Sugar cane prawns with fine rice vermicelli), $12

Well, change not this, chef - it is unreal!!  Banh hoi or "fine rice vermicelli" are little "mats" of very thin rice vermicelli noodles prepared somewhat like Sri Lankan stringhoppers in that they are formed by pressing through a sort of mincer and then steamed.  They are traditionally hard to make so are a celebration food.  Also here is chao tom or sugarcane prawns, a thick paste made of prawns and other seasonings, formed around sugarcane and grilled.  It is so tasty and the sugarcane infuses it with a touch of sweetness.

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To eat, take a noodle mat, some sugarcane prawn meat and vegies and wrap in lettuce a la spring rolls.  Dip in the seasoned fish sauce - swoon-a-licious!

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Bun moc ("Vietnamese rice vermicelli soup, Northern style"), $9

The rest of the menu has a northern Vietnamese bent, evidenced in this bun moc or pork meatball soup.  Deb highly recommends the bun moc at Dinh Sonh in Little Saigon Market.  Like at Dong Ba, you take the plate of lettuce, bean sprouts and red cabbage and tip into the hot broth.  This ups the vegetable ante and gives a lovely fresh vegetable angle to the meal that pho sometimes lacks.  The broth here was tasty, clear and refreshing, while the meatballs were yummy little flavour bombs of pounded pork mince and earthy black fungus.

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Bun cha Ha Noi ("Rice vermicelli with Hanoian style grilled pork"), $12

Another Northern dish, grilled pork belly and pork meatballs as a DIY salad with vegies and vermicelli noodles.  Just load up your bowl, tip over the thin, tangy dressing and dig in.  I loved the thick, rich, dark soy marinade on the pork.  This was quite good - I'm not sure a match for Sapa Hills' epic version but tasty nonetheless.  The dressing differs from the typical seasoned fish sauce in that it is not as sweet and somewhat milder in flavour.

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Bo La Lot ("Grilled beef in vive leaves"), $10

I am having some success with making my kids branch out from their customary grilled chicken and white rice with these bo la lot or beef mince in betel leaves.  Kind of like a sausage roll!  But green!  These were pretty good - the mince was not too fatty and they were well seasoned.  To eat, place in a piece of lettuce with herbs and pickled vegies (a nice and unusual touch) and dip in seasoned sauce.  Pay $2 more and get the banh hoi version, I reckon.  On learning these were for the kids, the waiter brought the dipping sauce without chilli especially for them.

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Water spinach with garlic sauce, $12

Ha Long was reputed to have amazing Chinese broccoli with garlic and this water spinach or rau muong was divine!  The garlic must have been poached or pickled somehow as it had lost all its acrid intensity and was just smooth and almost creamy in flavour, just like roasted garlic cloves.  Some of the stems were a bit woody but overall, an great dish.

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Com chien ca man ("Fried rice with salted fish"), $10

If you normally just eat combination fried rice, try something different with this fried rice with salted fish.  The salted fish gives a delicious umami tang to the otherwise kid-friendly meal of white rice, lightly seasoned and tossed with egg, chicken and a little lettuce.  Some of the pieces of salted fish were a bit chunky but the flavour was totally oh-yeah.

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Ca phe su da, $3.50

Think there is no good coffee in Footscray?  Think again.  I love the jolt you get when you take the first sip of an excellent Vietnamese iced coffee like this one.  Smoothies also got the thumbs up.

This is a great restaurant - they are very welcoming to kids and the service is friendly.  Sadly they have none of their intriguing "Nem Sen" or lotus spring rolls as they cannot get the appropriate ingredient from Vietnam.  The list of bun or rice vermicelli salads is particularly impressive - Billy has given them a big thumbs up as having best bun thit nuong in Footscray!  (Stop by Half-Eaten to see more Sen deliciousness).  And who needs a TV when you have fish?

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Sen on Urbanspoon

74-76 Nicholson St, Footscray (cnr Nicholson and Droop) - map
Phone: 9687 4450

No wheelchair access

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Touchscreens at China Red

My friend M is the anti-cool.  Years ago he buttoned all his shirts up to the neck until that became hip, when he defiantly unbuttoned them back down.  The mention of perhaps a little product in his hair prompts snorts of derision.  He refuses to drink lattes, insisting on more proletarian flat whites.  Looking for dumplings in the city one night, Hu Tong booked out, I suggested with some trepidation we try China Red.  "It's trendy though," I said warily.  "It's got touchscreens."

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China Red certainly still has a buzz about it.  It's in the new centre in Little Bourke that also houses the fabulous Shanghai Dynasty, the mediocre Dragon Boat and Malaysian Jalan Alor that Bryan recently gave a gold star.

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It seems a bit the poor man's Hu Tong with an open kitchen where you can watch dumplings being made plus a select range of said dumplings including xiao long bao, the soup-filled, floppy-bottomed little parcels Hu Tong has made Melbourne fall in love with.

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It's deceptively large with a second, windowless lower level.  You are packed in tight but I quite like the aesthetic - simple, clean lines and bold colours.  Ordering is done via the touchscreens that hover above the tables.  There's a full spread of dumplings plus various mainland-Chinese dishes like fried Szechuan dishes covered in whole dried red chillies and various sesame oil-dressed salad-type dishes.

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In the end, we didn't get to use the famous touchscreens at all!  We were in the middle of the restaurant and received regular menus.  The ironic thing is that this most modern of Chinese restaurants has gone back to the "number system" of suburban Chinese eateries.  Where once families called up on a Friday night to order "a 19, two 24s and a 63", at China Red the happy waitresses need the numbers not the names (I think because they must input via the same system as the touchscreens).

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Stir-fried prawn with salted egg yolk, $22.80

I have always wanted to try a "salted egg yolk" dish.  I am sorry to say but yuck, yuck, YUCK.  The prawns were really good, juicy, fresh and butterflied, but I hated the sauce - kind of crumbly, sandy egg yolk bound somehow with light sauce.  I hate hardboiled eggs so I don't really know what I was thinking.  Not China Red's fault at all as I think this must have been well executed - I just hated it.  The steep price made it ache all the more.

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Shanghai "shao-long-bao", $11.80

We watched the chef making these as we entered.  They do seem well made but they aren't as good as Hu Tong's, though.  The mince seemed really fatty and the broth that came out did too, while Hu Tong's is much clearer and cleaner in taste.

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Pan-fried dumpling, $10.80

I liked these a lot, though.  The mince inside was tasty, not grainy or dry, and the skins were pleasantly thick but not doughy.  They had gorgeous fried bubbly bottoms.  With the provided dipping sauce of soy and vinegar - very good.  They are so much more expensive than the usual 15 dumplings for an insane $7 or $8, though.
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We were in and out in 20 minutes, I kid you not, but this simple meal with two beers and rice cost us over $65.  OUCH!!  I think if you choose wisely, you could have a good meal here.  I am not that clued into mainland Chinese food to really pick well, though.  I must add that the service was great.

So where else in the city apart from Hu Tong is great for dumplings?  Hipness optional. 

China Red
Shop 6, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne (map)
Phone:  9662 3688      
Hours:  Mon-Thu 11:30am-10:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wee Jeanie

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As we sat at Wee Jeanie, Yarraville village's newest cafe, there was a feeling of deja vu.  On the next table, diners attacked sourdough bread topped with chubby avocado halves and a creamy rocket salad.  Bryan ordered baked eggs with eggplant kasundi.  "Hold on a minute..." I thought.  "These guys are ripping off Cornershop!"  My outrage was misplaced, however - Wee Jeanie is owned and run by the team behind Cornershop.  Does this satellite stack up to the mothership, however?

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Wee Jeanie has taken over the premises of the old record shop in Yarraville village, opening up their back courtyard.  It's quite lovely to wander along the cobblestones alongside the quaint old station as the autumn leaves fall, before slipping into Wee Jeanie via the back door.

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Inside it's classic Melbourne cafe chic - lightly-varnished wood, raw and whitewashed brickwork, creative light fittings (these ones made of preserving jars).  It's a small space that the minimalist chic makes feel much bigger, with the kitchen behind the counter, a bench seat along one wall and tables facing it.

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Coffee, $3.70

It must be said, we waited a long time to order and eventually went to the counter.  (Bryan had been there for longer than me so it wasn't a case of my sneaking in the back made the staff not notice.)  Coffees took a very long time and only arrived just before our meal.  This is in contrast to the snappy service at Cornershop and indeed, most of Melbourne's better cafes, where immediately upon sitting and being given a menu one is asked, "A coffee first?"  Made with chocolatey Coffee Supreme beans, a latte here was quite mild in flavour, good but not outstanding.

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Vanilla rice pudding, $9

This was just gorgeous.  I loved the duck egg blue bowl which made scooping spoonfuls of this lovely porridge feel like a little meditation.  The rice was soft, creamy and not at all mushy.  Sumac was an ingenious element which gave it citrus tang, while crushed pistachios created textural variation.  The strawberries were just heavenly, plump and juicy.

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Baked eggs, $12

Bryan's eggs were pretty good.  The eggplant "kasundi" (a type of relish, apparently) was very heavily seasoned with cumin, perhaps too much so.  I thought the eggs were overdone - the yolks were not runny.  However, the feta was creamy and of good quality.

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Wee Jeanie have just opened so they will undoubtedly take a while to find their groove.  I don't know why they are doing identical dishes as those at Cornershop.  Would it not be better to mix things up so that they are two unique places rather than just Cornershop Lite?  Nevertheless, Wee Jeanie seems a good option for locals unable to find a seat at Cornershop bound for Planet Brunch.

Wee Jeanie on Urbanspoon

Wee Jeanie
48 Anderson Street, Yarraville (map)
Phone:  9687 7187
Hours:  Mon-Sat, 7.30am - 4.30pm

Not wheelchair accessible

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gurney Drive, West Melbourne

UPDATE:  This restaurant is now closed.  Kari Leaf is in its place and is reportedly not as good.

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Walking to Gurney Drive past window after window of happy people eating Korean BBQ, resist the temptation to text your friends "want beef ribs instead?"  This small Penang-style hawker restaurant is worth holding out for.

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Gurney Drive is apparently the name of a famous hawker centre in Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia, somewhat near the Thai border.  Penang is most famous for its Assam laksa which is a non-coconut-based laksa, dark and tangy with tamarind.

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Penang Char Kuey Teow, $9.80

THIS HAS COCKLES.  I repeat... COCKLES.  Here in Melbourne, it seems these tiny molluscs are the most elusive feature of authentic char kuey teow.  This version was unlike the Singaporean style which is much darker and richer from the dark soy used.  This was lightly seasoned, had good chilli heat and really tasted fresh and lively.  It was simply the sum of its parts, which were all good quality and so tasty.  Thanks Wendy for the tip a while ago!

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Combination hor fun, $9.50

This is a new favourite of mine even though at first glance it looks so unappealing with so much wet sauce on a small amount of noodles.  The noodles here were the classic wide rice noodles, licked with wok hei and then buried beneath lots of thick, delicious, mild gravy.  Very fresh prawns, calamari and fish cake featured and were divine with a little soy and fresh chilli.

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Nyonya fish, $16.80

A heaping plate of rice flour-dusted, thin fish fillets, curled and crispy, doused in "Nyonya-style" sauce which was tangy with tamarind, ginger and tomato.  This was well executed and tasty but I would try something else next time.  I always think deep frying is wasted on things that then have a sauce over the top!

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Sambal kang kong, $13.80

I must have been a water insect in another life as I can't get enough of this aquatic plant, kang kong or water spianch.  It grows like a weed across Southeast Asia and has intriguing, tender, hollow stems.  You can see huge bunches of it in the markets in Footscray under its Vietnamese name, rau muong.  This was so fantastic - cooked with sweeter Malaysian-style sambal, heady with belacan and dried shrimp and with plenty of well-fried garlic.  I loved it - I could eat this every day!

Gurney Drive was packed when we left with not a spare seat in the house, and for good reason.  Two big thumbs up!

Gurney Drive on Urbanspoon

Gurney Drive
284 Victoria Street, West Melbourne (map)
Phone:  9329 6649 

No Wheelchair access 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Nepalese food in a Braybrook business park

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Food in a business park - what springs to mind?  Bowling ball-sized muffins, hot dogs in a water bath?  It did to me at least.  Who would have thought the unprepossessing Cafe Centro on semi-industrial Ashley Street metamorphosed into a Nepalese restaurant by night?

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These guys need to do some serious marketing.  On a cold winter's night, the lights are dim and the entry concealed.  No one would think to visit unless you had a hot tip (thanks Chris!)  There's no helping the corporate vibe once inside but at least the cavernous space means the kids can run around without upsetting anyone.

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The menu has Indian overtones but with some Chinese accents, reflective of Nepal's location sandwiched between India and China.  Complimentary pappadums to start with a quite lovely sauce made from ground sesame, chilli and tomato.

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Spring rolls, $5

These spring rolls were quite nice, evidently home made and served with a light plum sauce.  The deep fryer needed to be a bit hotter as both these and the pappadums were a little oily.

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Pakheta, $6.95

Pleasant chicken wingettes with a spice mix that was quite unique - I tasted cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper.  One was a bit underdone, but Grandpa still ate it!

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Momo veg, $6.95

I think momo are so cool - they are a bona fide fusion food and are so delicious.  They look like Chinese dumplings but inside these vegetarian ones is a very Indianesque spiced, mashed vegetable filling.  These were good but the steaming seemed inexpert as the skins had cooked unevenly and split in places.

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Momo meat, $6.95

You can find good momo in Footscray at Fusion Cafe and Momo Bar.  These meat momo didn't stack up to Fusion's, however.  The filling was tasty with ginger but somewhat heavy and the skins had split.  The price is also vastly incongruent - 10 for $8 at Fusion.

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 "Matar paneer" (sic), $11.90

Things picked up with the main courses.  This was great aloo matar (incorrectly called matar paneer or peas with cheese on the menu).  Unlike some more Northern-style Indian versions that have a thick brown curry sauce, the sauce was light, tangy tomato with a sprinkle of fenugreek leaves.  I liked the addition of capsicum a lot.  I actually got a child to eat this which is testament to how yummy it was.

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 Okra, $11.90

Excellent okra, diced and dry-fried with tomato, onion and chilli.  This was simple and tasty with quality ingredients.  Props that they had okra - in so many places when you order the more obscure vegetable dishes, they don't end up having them in stock.  The menu says that "meals are served mild to fit local taste" - ask for spice levels to be authentic and you will be rewarded.

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Goat curry ("mutton curry" on menu), $13.95

Boneless goat pieces in a very rich, thick curry sauce spiced with cardamon.  This was good - some pieces of goat were fatty, others meltingly tender but I think that is authentic - the textural variation is part of the appeal and goat always seems very rich.

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Chamre, $5

Oiled, seasoned saffron rice that was quite delicious.  I liked the crunch of the cashews and peanuts.  We had gorgeous, deep-lipped brass trays to eat our meals from.

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Roti baber, $3.90 (2 pieces)

This was yummy roti, I think house-made, cooked as is traditional on a somewhat dry griddle so you get the contrast between the dark, flaky spots where it has touched and the tender pastry in between.

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Masala roti, $4.95

Roti stuffed with spiced mashed potato.  This is really a meal in itself rather than a bread to mop up sauce.  The potato was thick, tasty, spiced with cumin and well seasoned.

As is often the case in Indian restaurants, the price here really added up fast once you add in all the entrees, rice and breads.  I did really enjoy the main courses - it seems like really authentic food, not overpoweringly rich like some restaurant Indian that is so inflated with ghee and cream.  The prices seem steep for the location and atmosphere, however.  Next time it would be worth trying the thali-esque dhal bhat masu or dhal bhat tarkari ($15.95) for variety but lower price, or one of the banquets which start at $20 per head.

9 Ashley Street, Braybrook (map) - if coming from Barkly, go straight over Ashley and turn right at the security gate
Phone:   9396 1400

No Wheelchair access
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