Archive for January, 2010

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.


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The Buffet at Melba

Every year at about this time, I exhume an ongoing hope. To wit: the daydream of the perfect all-you-can-eat buffet. In my mind, a dozen Escoffiers stand behind their gleaming stations and serve exquisite tastes to refined patrons. In my experience, three scary mothers from Wantirna claw each other for the last prawn.

It was time to take the buffet crusade up a notch.

The $89 price tag gave me high hopes for Melba. There are few all-you-can-cram establishments that can exact such a fee. Had I found my gourmand’s nirvana?

Well, yes and no.

Dining at Melba involves passage through the brassy lobby of The Langham. Things become more muted once in the restaurant, but the feeling is still more cruise ship than elegant dining space.

The rules of buffet eating are as simple and inflexible as the rules of Fight Club. First rule of buffet: don’t talk about carbohydrates. Avoid bread, noodles, pasta or rice, and just chow down on premium produce. Here, the seafood station is an obvious target. Crabs, Moreton Bay bugs, yabbies and prawns are all in abundance, and crustacean fans could probably just gorge on this and get their money’s worth. I loaded up my plate with half a dozen oysters. I had planned on taking the full dozen, but felt death rays burning my back as others waited for the tongs. I succumbed to the buffet-pressure to move along. Which I did. To the prawns which, happily, had not been entirely annexed by Wantirna. The seafood sauce is nicely tangy with a sharp horseradish bite, and the oysters are superbly fresh.

The second rule of successful buffet navigation is to never approach them hungry. You’ll either be completely sated by one small plate or make straight for filling things that are fatty; it’s a classic newbie mistake.

The third rule is to keep your courses and dishes focused and appealing. Wedding oysters to curry and pork crackling may seem like a good idea. But, it looks like the world’s least attractive three way. Resist the panic-buying mentality that grips you as you approach the islands of food. Do a reconnaissance first, and plan your courses based on their attractiveness.

And the islands of food at Melba look mighty appealing. The Asian stir-fry station is manned by a team of cooks who will throw your choice of ingredients into a hot wok while you wait. It’s certainly more visually appealing than the bain-maries of Indian curries and overcooked veg in the carvery.

Electing to stick to my plan of consuming only premium produce, I bypassed the stir-fry station and made for the counter where excellent sashimi is expertly cut to order.

There is value to be had at Melba, if you choose wisely. There is no lack of premium ingredients; nor is there a lack of supremely average fare.

Nothing here is quite so average as the service. Of course, at a buffet one primarily serves one’s self. However, for eighty-nine bucks, I expect my napkin to be refolded when I return to table. And I gave the young, uninterested staff plenty of long absences to think about replenishing my flatware. They seemed as interested in this as they were in taking my drink order. Which is to say: not at all.

As my dinner companion, Frank from Fairfield, has it, this is the Bunnings of cuisine. Variety, occasional great value, and no one in an apron around when you need ’em.

Melba, The Langham, 1 Southgate Ave, Southbank, 1800 641 107. melbarestaurant.com.au

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Mercifully, in our town, the risk of being dealt poor food is pretty low. In Melbourne, the buzz about a new kitchen is most often generated by fussy bees. Certainly, food is what drives the year-old hot hive, Gigibaba. Chef Ismail Tosun’s food is inspired, singular and exceptional. It’s a resolute heads-up here for Turkish small-plate dining. It’s thumbs down, however, for service.

When I moved as a teenager from the leafy suburbs to the bare inner city, I became familiar with the rudeness endemic to certain of Melbourne’s eateries. I never particularly enjoyed watching a hungover VCA student hurl rigatoni in my approximate direction; but, for the single figure price tag, I tolerated it. It was a fair deal: she was working out her frustrations at not being born in the East Village – I was getting fed for virtually nothing. Moreover, I was confident that one day, I’d afford myself the luxury of dining in places not entirely staffed by a sneering Second Year Drama class.

But then, a funny thing happened. The down-at-heel aesthetic of inner-city life went upscale in the late nineties. Even Starbucks successfully corporatised the dodgy student experience. Communal dining tables, mismatched flatware and other signifiers of “cool” became standard not only at shitty yet dependable St Kilda cafes, but in the high end of the CBD. Nonchalant or just plain terrible service was all part of this let’s-pretend-we’re-poor mini boom.

The bubble has not burst at Gigibaba. It’s not so much that the staff here is rude; they’re just affectedly casual, preferring loud conversation with each-other to interaction with diners. This, I suspect, is not actually a mistake but, rather, part of a pre-GFC master plan.

In true faux-poverty style, the place does not take bookings. Further, as we are proudly told by a waiter who has taken time out from grooming his beard in the bar mirror, the place does not have a sign or a website. Naturally, food is served on floral thrift-store Nanna-ware. Most ascetic of all, wine is served by the millilitre in beakers. This science lab chic might have been cute before the market crashed. Now, as I look at the small volume of decent plonk I can afford, I’m reminded how much money I lost in 2008.

Almost everything at Gigibaba screams “Slumming it!”. Everything, except the food that is. Shopworn irony might abound in this new Smith Street hub but it’s found nowhere on Tosun’s near perfect small plates. The former Perth superstar and Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent award winner is not just an extraordinary cook, he’s an innovator. Here is modern Turkish cuisine as you’re unlikely to experience outside Istanbul. There is nothing playful or ironic about the pickled octopus salad; the lamb cutlet; the exquisite quail. There’s no mocking nod evident in the must-order cauliflower or the dessert plate. In his menu, Tosun does not so much defy convention as advance it. Great skill and an abiding respect for Turkish cuisine leads this chef to some stunning conclusions. One of them, surprisingly, being the bill. Two of us drained a 500ml beaker and crammed some of Melbourne’s best food into our pie holes for under a hundred bucks.

There’s no doubt Tosun will shortly rank among the country’s most influential chefs. He belongs in our omnivorous city which will forgive him his fashionable foibles for such wonderful food.

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