Image courtesy Rockpool

It’s after 11:30 pm and I haven’t eaten. In Spain, this is normal. In Melbourne, however, options dwindle quickly.  As fortune has it, Partner and I are at Crown Casino. As fortune also has it, we have both been freshly eliminated from a seven hour poker tournament and we need a feed. A franchise burger ain’t going to cut it.

We’re not in a gambling mood; but we have to play dinner lotto nonetheless.

There are plenty of dining options at Crown, more than 40 eateries in fact, but few of them offer a full menu close to midnight.

After what seemed like a 10 km trek from the poker room we ambled into Rockpool Bar & Grill, arriving at the maître d‘s desk looking faint and dishevelled. Were they still serving dinner?


If we promised to order just steak and not dawdle over our food, were they still serving dinner?


I don’t normally beg, but it turned out to be my first winning move of the day. I’m not sure whether it was our desperation or our disappointment that got us over the line into the dining room. Whatever the case, seconds later we were seated and given time and space to review the menu.

Not that we needed much time. We were here for the celebrated steak, so it was a matter of choosing between the different cuts and varying qualities. The menu delineates between the all lower-case ‘david blackmore full blood wagyu’ (the priciest), ‘cape grim dry aged 36 month old grass fed’ (I ordered the T-bone, medium rare), and ‘rangers valley dry aged 300 day grain fed’ (partner ordered the fillet, rare). Most of the steaks here cost around $50, with prime cuts of the wagyu creeping above the $100 mark.

There are plenty of other enticing looking options on the menu, like steamed live Tasmanian clams with Joselito Iberico ham, chili, tomato and chickpeas, but here the wood fire grill is King, with quail, pork sausages, lamb, chicken and seafood all getting a lick of it’s complex charry goodness.

It’s my second visit, so I have a vague idea of what to expect. In fact, I’m not sure if my first visit actually counts because I was little bit too high on beer and poker to notice anything but the perfect steak and substandard “mac-and-cheese”. The home-style dish was grainy; a mac-and-cheese no-no.

It’s late and I want a fat-and-carb side dish so I’m tempted to order it again.  But, I figure if my drunk brain was critical, my sober one would be even more unimpressed.

We order a modestly priced half bottle of 2005 Château Bernadotte Haut Médoc from an encyclopaedic, wonderful, steak-friendly list. I can barely make out its brick red meniscus. It’s dark in here, but it is almost midnight. I’m a bit nervous about finding my way to the bathroom and back again without running into something or getting lost.

The steak-friendly sides like potato puree and creamed silverbeet hover at around the $10 mark, likewise the salads. We opt for the chopped cos calad and tomato, olive, and basil salad. They’re good. The steak is perfect. The wine is invisible but wonderful.  The service was efficiently cheerful. I wished we’d been here earlier so we could dawdle. Here, the atmosphere is of the lingering kind.

Rockpool Bar & Grill

Crown Casino Complex

8 Whiteman St, Southbank
Ph: 8648 1900

Tea Garden

Fried crispy noodles with vegetables & mushroom

When bargaining on a new postcode, we all have a few non-negotiable demands.  These might include anything from a skilled beauty therapist within waxing distance, a Pilates studio or, as is the case with an older male acquaintance of mine, the assurance of viewing Aussie Rules practice at least bi-weekly.

Personally, I won’t settle on a new address without guarantee of adequate public transport, a decent pizzeria and a 24 hour convenience store.  At the top of my priority list, however, is proximity to a cracking Chinese restaurant.

It doesn’t have to be Sichuan. It doesn’t have to shun MSG. In fact, the more evocative it is of eighties Australian-Chinese cooking it is, the better.  For those of us raised on the honey prawns or sweet and sour fish of the Women’s Weekly Cookbook, this particular local take on Cantonese cooking says nothing short of comfort.

In later years, we Australians have opened our mouths and demanded authenticity to fill them.  This, of course, is a wonderful thing.  These days, we need only travel to Box Hill, Springvale or Chinatown to experience a first-rate version of provincial Chinese cooking.  But, every now and then, I crave nothing more than the traditions of 20th Century Australian-Chinese cooking.

Those restaurants exist, of course.  Aussie-Chinese chefs have, after all, been evolving these flavours since the gold rush.  But, to be frank, they’re often fairly ordinary.

There is, however, a chef who is maintaining the tradition of Aussie-Chinese.

Shannon Chan has brought his solid nothing-experimental-just-great food from Tea House at Chinatown to an area that desperately needed it: mine. Since Tea Garden Oakleigh opened on the corner of Dandenong Road and Warrigal Road, partner and I whizzed past numerous times in the car, wary yet hopeful that the dearth had finally being addressed.

After dining in, and days later taking away, I can confirm: this place rocks.

Here we have clean lines, minimal decor, linen and the sort of attentive silver service rarely seen outside of places like Vue de Monde.  But, frankly, they could hurl dishes like the sautéd King prawns in home made xo chilli sauce at me and I’d still beg for more.  These are a big ticket item at $28.90. But the taste, oh the taste, immediately takes the sting out of the cost.

Deep fried shredded beef in Peking sauce is tasty but a little one-dimensional. The Peking sauce is a not dissimilar to a hoisin or sweet and sour sauce, it glazes the lightly battered beef strips beautifully. It’s not complex but I did eat it in three seconds flat.

Fried crispy noodles with vegetables & mushroom is something I’ve put in my mouth again and again. It’s a generous serve of pak choi and shitake mushrooms with not-so-crispy noodles. Any disappointment about a lack of crunch is eclipsed by perfectly balanced flavours and expertly cooked greens.

For locals, there’s extraordinary value to be had from the take away menu, where prices drop dramatically. The sublime sautéed king prawns we had are only $19.80 if you take them home to scoff in private. And, the way we eat them, it’s probably for the best.

All hail the return of the Women’s Weekly aesthetic.  Every now and then, it’s the only way to eat.

Tea Garden Oakleigh

1384 Dandenong Road, Oakleigh, Tel: 9563 1238


River Kwai

There is a terrible man of my acquaintance called Bob the Food Snob. A few years back, I told you about the friendly food rivalry Bob and I enjoyed.  The bad news is, it continues.

Our competition still revolves around a teenage drive to be hipper-than-thou. We maintain a schoolyard race to be first at discovering anything delicious. Like a pair of enemy truffle pigs, our snouts are always down trying to unearth a treasure.   We get extra points for finding truly exotic cuisine. First there was the annoying Armenian Incident, followed by the intense southern African mêlée and the too-close-to-call Afghan dispute. Damn you, Bob, I found that pilaf first. Now, the battle lines have been drawn over Burma.

The race is on to find the best Burmese food in Melbourne, and although I have three more places yet to visit, I’m feeling fairly smug about striking a vein of the good stuff at my first outing.

I approached River Kwai Thai & Burmese restaurant expecting to find a cheap Asian suburban eatery; a busy hive packed with students from neighbouring Monash. Not so. From the plush carpeting, warm red walls and quality fittings to the friendly and gracious welcome, River Kwai makes a great, non-studenty first impression.

River Kwai Tofu

Here, Thai dishes dominate the entrees and soups. Partner and I opted to start with one of the items from the vegetarian section of the menu, River Kwai Tofu. Deep fried and served with tamarind sauce, it points to Burma’s proximity to China. The sour punch of the tamarind relocates the compass to South-east Asia.  It’s this sort of spinning, I will later tell Bob, that we can expect from Burmese cuisine.  Thanks to history and geography, the food of the nation has been heavily influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai technique.

Nonetheless, the menu delineates clearly between Thai and Burmese curries. We order the Burmese Kyak Thar Arloo Hin, a chicken curry. With a tip of the hat to India, ground coriander and cumin make their way into the mix. The overall flavour is more akin to Malaysian curries and the comparison is buoyed by the inclusion of potato. It has a sweet, slightly sour and persistent full flavour without too much heat. We’re not in Thailand anymore.

Kyak Thar Arloo Hin

I resist a sending a smug SMS to Bob and get stuck into the next dish.

Nir Gratiem takes us back in the direction of the Thai border. But, we travel by way of China. This stir fry is extraordinary.  The beef has the silkiness often found in good Chinese cooking; probably the result of some chemical treatment and definitely a secret no cook will divulge to me no matter how I beg. The meat is dressed with garlic and pickled peppercorns and carries a clinging gravy based on oyster sauce, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Nir Gratiem

Actually, it tastes like a South East Asian peace treaty.  So, I ordered extra and dropped it off to Bob. I think he’s annoyed that I found it first; he’s declared a cease fire in order to regroup.

River Kwai

3/1310 Centre Road, Clayton South P: 9545 5688

Open Monday-Sunday 5.30pm-10pm

The Bitter End

If there’s a bottle of Angostura Bitters gathering dust in your larder, take it out and cradle it. Then, immediately hide it again. There has been a rash of worldwide burglaries perpetrated by desperate bartenders as supplies of the concoction dry up.

OK, that’s not entirely accurate. But if the stuff doesn’t start shipping again soon, well: just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s an Angostura drought, and no one seems to really know why. Reports about The Great Angostura Crisis of 2010 have appeared in publications from The Guardian to the Washington Post. It seems that the House of Angostura had some sort of dispute with the company that supplies its bottles. Just what stopped the bitter flow is uncertain.  It’s a mystery. Just like the recipe itself.

The exact Angostura formula is reputedly known by only eleven people. It’s made of gentian root, alcohol and goodness’ knows what else. The heady secret has been protected since 1824, when it was developed by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a doctor in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela. The drink may not have played as key a role as Bolivar in Latin America’s liberation from Spain. But it did have a pivotal impact on cocktail creation. This is the stuff that levels a Pisco Sour, gives a Mai Tai its complexity and makes a Manhattan cocktail sting.

Today, the oversized label on the bottle is packed with information on a variety of applications, from adding zest to soups and salads to plum puddings and stewed prunes. The most civic-minded use for the drink is, of course, in Lemon, Lime and Bitters. The designated driver would be lost without this grown-up soft-cocktail. For, even though Angostura has a 44% concentration of alcohol, it is always used as a condiment and never as a solo drink.

The magic, mysterious liquid still holds the Royal Warrant of Appointment to Queen Elizabeth II.

For the moment, however, it is bartenders who are tackling the crisis head on.

Happily, there is help at hand. To tide us over, or, perhaps, to convert us, a new line of bitters from Germany have landed in Australia. The Bitter Truth line features Old Time Aromatic Bitters, which are the closest match for the Angostura drink.

Launched in 2006 by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, the range also includes bitters enhanced by lemon, orange, grapefruit, celery and the truly exotic Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole. The varieties available will bring a new kick to old favourites. They may well inspire a new generation of pungent, peculiar cocktails.

That’s the wonderful thing about cocktails, of course. They can help you see a silver lining in even the darkest cloud. But, when the mists of alcohol clear, the sad fact remains: Trinidad’s most famous export is currently on hold.

I’ll report back when the shortage is resolved. In the meantime, I think we should all keep an eye on Buckingham Palace. IF ER’s supplies run out, there might be a constitutional crisis.

MoVida Aqui

Anchoa, Cantabrian anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet

I do get a little bit twitchy when a great restaurant expands. As a business spills into an adjacent shop front, I bite my nails as an appetizer. Sometimes, I can move happily on to the next course. St Kilda mainstay Ciccolina extended some years ago with great success. We habitués now ride out the no-bookings policy at the bar, noshing on the same glorious antipasto plate served in the restaurant.

Up the food chain a little, there are restaurants that replicate themselves. A visit to Nobu, for example, proves that cloning can be a very risky business.  Recipes can suffer and a TGI Fridays franchise feel is what passes for a “vibe” in some of the high end chains.

It’s impossible to reproduce the chemistry of an original restaurant. The best we can hope for is a really good translation.  When I heard that Frank Comorra had parlayed the back-lane MoVida into a huge Bourke Street locale, I started biting my nails again.

Out of the test-lab come new restaurants, MoVida Aqui and the adjacent outdoor Terraza. The original MoVida appeal is found not only in sensational food and wine, but in its cloak-and-dagger location.  There’s a particular romance to the Hosier Lane joint.  Tiny and tucked away, this place always made me feel very Boho. Seated with my small plates and rioja at the bar, I was a subversive diner.

At Aqui, one feels more upright. The place is large, bright and a million airy miles away from it’s forebear in terms of ambience. Massive windows afford views of the Supreme Court. Here, the legitimate city, and not the back alley, is part of the experience.

Perhaps the shift from cobblestone to avenue is not yet complete.  There are some mild kinks in the service. I was offered a choice between sparkling or “Melbourne” water.  When offered “Melbourne” water, all I could think of was muck from the Yarra. So confused and embarrassed, I asked for tap water specifically. Odd.

For the most part, Comorra sensibly offers a distinct experience. But he has been unable to resist a little decorative tribute to his original. The light fittings housed in milk crates are a design misstep. It’s as though the feel of a laneway has been transposed into an airline club lounge.

There’s no hint of airport in the food, though.  Many old favourites have made the transition intact. The Anchoa, Cantabrian anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet, has survived the trip up the Bourke Street Hill without melting. The braised beef cheek, however, didn’t seem to like its new surrounds so well.  It was a little dry and unappetizing.

New offerings include Bocadillo de calamares.  It’s a little like a calamari mini-burger, served with Basque guindilla and mayonnaise. It’s super-garlicky, the calamari was perfectly tender, and I could have eaten two. Codorniz, charcoal grilled quail served with housemade morcilla and chickpeas, hits all the right sour BBQ notes. An octopus salad appears that is OK but forgettable.

Paella del Marisco, Bomba rice cooked with seafood and saffron, is generous and flavoursome. I’d like say that it was spiked with a little too much rosemary; but I’ll concede the possibility that my membership in the original MoVida cult is clouding my judgement.

This new MoVida-for-the-masses ticks enough boxes for a return visit and a further education in some of the best Spanish cuisine in the country.

MoVida Aqui & MoVida Terraza, 500 Bourke St. (entry via Little Bourke Street)  Ph: 9663 3038.


Kingfish tataki

In our town, we revel in our Food Capital status. And so we should. At any hour, we can partake of the great multi-culti banquet that built our reputation. We can taste the authentic stuff or sup on elite spins of every folk cuisine from Cambodia to Kabul.

But there’s one continent that’s a little under-represented. God, how I miss the Americas on a plate.

My homesick stomach led me to Nacional in Albert Park. Here, Chef Leena Monson is quietly playing with broad American flavours as any hip New York chef from the West Village to Williamsburg might. But the American undercurrents of this menu have been overlooked since a 2009 debut. These undercurrents are easy to miss. On the face of it, Nacional could pass for another chic, inner-suburban joint. The interior and ambience screech Melbourne, from the artfully designed lighting to the impeccable row of tea canisters from T2. At breakfast and lunch, Nacional balances the cafe-restaurant divide with grace. At dinner time, Monson lets loose with the remarkable American flavours about which she is clearly passionate. Meat matched with fruit, like a daily special on the board of pork chops and peach, is a quintessentially American marriage. From there, her unions go South in the best way. From New Orleans, we have BBQ prawns and grilled corn bread. A south-west and Central American influence creates blue corn-crusted soft-shell crab with mashed avocado and lime. Then, we really cross the border with ingredients and condiments like annatto, chipotle and chimichurri.

Prepared for our Tex-Mex, Cajun, mid-west and Central American fusion, we order from a list that comprises 38 beers. The wine list is hardly underdone. But, tonight, it’s time for a Corona.

Eager to sample Monson’s talents broadly, we order from the printed menu. Here the focus is on small plates designed for sharing at around the $18 mark.

Four pieces of complimentary warm grilled flat bread arrive unadorned shortly after our beers. A good start.

Spiced gazpacho with crab salsa, served in an oversized shot glass was a great appetiser. The tomato base was nicely spiced and avoided the chunkiness of clumsier gazpachos. Smoked paprika cured kingfish tataki (pictured), annatto oil and lemon thyme was less successful. The just-cooked thin slices of fish were light on the smoky flavour suggested by the inclusion of the paprika. Likewise, the influence of annatto was negligible. This colour and flavour enhancer derived from the achiote tree is the South American equivalent of turmeric. It was somewhat lost. A squeeze of lime across the plate before it hit the pass would really bring it out and balance a dish that deserves to shine.

The roast pork belly with pickled watermelon rind again suffers from a lack of execution. But, the concept is wonderful. On our visit the pork arrives overcooked and dry, adorned with chunks of superbly flavoured watermelon rind. The chicken escabeche with black garlic had Partner giving me that “Why don’t you cook this?” look. It was near perfect. A real stand out, however, is the beef pincho with chimichurri. It’s not often a girl has something of such quality in her mouth. The chimichurri, a South American salsa verde, is spot on, the perfect counterpoint to nicely cooked skewers of quality beef.

Nacional has all the right ducks in a row, but the pistol’s just not always firing. With a little daring and a touch more care, this new gunslinger could command a fan base of Modern American foodies.

Nacional, 36 Mills Street, Albert Park Ph: (03) 9645 0977

$110 for two, including two beers each.

Lim’s Nyonya Hut

Vegetable achar, prawn sambal and roti

There’s something about laminex. It’s the surface upon which some of the best Melbourne meals I’ve enjoyed have been served: a som tum Thai in Springvale, an Armenian dumpling in Caulfield South and, recently, a pungent, complex achar in less-than-glamorous Syndal.

Lim’s Nyonya Hut is visually unimpressive, a little shop-worn and hardly known for its service. Here, you’ll find no superstar chef or coterie of fashionable eaters. You will find laminex, however, and some of the most challenging, compelling flavours this side of KL.

A good portion of the menu is devoted to hawker food. These Malaysian staples are quick, nutritious and often hang on a noodle. Dive into these street eats and try to navigate past the laksas, of which there are three.

All three are great, of course. The ubiquitous curry laksa isn’t given any fancy makeover here. It’s a straightforward version with both egg noodles and rice vermicelli vying for space in the mild broth alongside generous pieces of chicken thigh and fried beancurd. Added authenticity comes in the shape of plump little meatballs made from fish. The more atypical Assam and Siam laksas centre on fish, the latter being the coconut version. They are pungent and heady, and you need to watch for bones, but they’ll have you travelling for miles just to get your mouth around it.

Likewise, the Char Koay Teow consistently hits the table with that moreish char-flavour that can’t be added but must be loved into existence. This is ‘wok hei’ and it means ‘breath of wok’ in Cantonese, and it takes a fiery vessel and a deft hand to achieve. Chef Beng Lai Lim has such a hand. This guy deserves a coffee table book every bit as much as the CBD’s celebrated superstars – if only for his Char Koay Teow. With nice proportions of flat rice noodles to prawn, egg, Chinese sausage and bean sprouts, you will be jostling for a lunch time table with Malaysian students who know the real deal.

Despite the draw of these reasonably priced ($8.50) hawker dishes, on a recent visit I ventured further into the dinner menu and was glad I did.

The vegetable achar is a mix of lightly pickled carrots, cucumber, cauliflower and onion topped with crushed peanuts and fried shallots. Its fabulous textures underpin a satisfyingly tangy punch: robust and refreshing at the same time. There are few dishes that can pull off such a double act.

The piquant smell of the sambal prawns is like a drug. It’s a generous serve, and the prawns are perfectly cooked, delivering that satisfying ‘pop’ when bitten. The just-cooked onions provide crunchy counterpoint and the sauce is sour and spicy without being too hot. The chicken curry likewise packs a flavour punch without extreme heat. Chicken pieces with flavour all the way to the bone had me pondering how on earth I could replicate this at home. Luckily they actually sell their curry pastes for at-home experimentation…

The take-home version actually works very well. But there is no doubt I’ll be returning to eat at the laminex soon.

Lim’s Nyonya Hut, 240 Blackburn Rd, Syndal. Ph: (03) 9802 3763. BYO.