Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kong BBQ, Richmond, Victoria

It was on a quiet Sunday evening when I caught up with my chick bestie Jacqui while languishing in Melbourne (oh alright, it's not actually much of a hardship to languish in Melbourne).  Jacqs, being a fellow foodie and a Melbourne resident for many years, knew to pick somewhere good for dinner.

So after a drink at the Botanical (love that place, including the bottleshop, where you can decide to crack open the bottle right there and then and get stuck in it, for a modest corkage fee), she took me to the back streets of Richmond (well it's 599 Church Street, but it felt like the back streets, deserted with the wind blowing through, when we turned up - hope there are no Tigers fans reading who take exception), where lay the new brainchild of the makers of Chin Chin: Kong BBQ.

Of course, Kong, like so many hip Melbourne eateries, doesn't take bookings; so we got there early at just after 5pm to beat the queue, and got a table almost straightaway.

What is up with this latest Melbournian obsession with fusing Korean cuisine into its culinary style?  Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, and it is certainly a welcome addition of variety to the almost ubiquitous Pan-Asian style (i.e. Thai & Southeast Asian) that seemed to dominate modern Melbourne cuisine during the last decade.  Naturally (so it seems), Kong's menu is heavily (some would say intrinsically) Korean influenced, starting from the cutesy panda sign ("It's not ordinary cabbage, it's fermented cabbage") to your left when you walk into the restaurant.  Wait a minute - pandas aren't Korean??

Our friendly waitress told us about her Korean heritage and cheerfully explained the menu items to us.

We ordered a whole bunch of richly flavoured and spicy delights, such as spicy pork buns and crab buns (both utterly delicious), a chilli beef brisket cooked in their oven fired by chemical free charcoal made from sustainable Australian hard-wood (ahh a conscience free meal), and Dukbokki.

So what is Dukbokki?  The menu described this dish as "rice cakes", so we were kind of expecting rice squashed into some kind of patty-like form, and were taken completely by surprise when it arrived, complete with whole chillies which I was unwilling to leave behind, and slathered with a rich, thick, spicy sauce.  It was a spicy, richly flavoursome and interestingly textured experience!  Apparently Dukbokki is a popular street food in Seoul, and I can understand why.

Jacqs and I had a great time - giving each other crap (which is what besties do best), mock-lamenting the fact that her husband Marc (poor fellow … not) who has been hanging out to eat at this restaurant missed out because he decided to go for a boozy trip into the countryside, and generally catching up on life.

So is this authentic Korean?  I have no idea, but I rather suspect that it's a Melbournesque take on Korean cuisine.  And with the cheerful, prompt service, great food and reasonable prices, you'll certainly enjoy it, particularly if you like richly flavoured, spicy cuisine.  Even the price of having to carb-load (you can't escape it in this restaurant) to try some of its best dishes is a small one to pay.

The best laksa in Australia? At Chef Lagenda, Flemington, Victoria

Having had to spend a Sunday in Melbourne after my Saturday board meeting so that I could make a meeting on Monday, I took the opportunity to catch up with old friend Euj who now lives there with his wife and their two furry children.

Euj took me to this out of the way little lane way next to the Newmarket train station in Flemington for brunch.

Well worth the trek (good thing he was driving) - Chef Lagenda on Pin Oak Crescent in Flemington looks like a normal "dodgy" hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant from the outside, but its two-storey tardis like interior is filled with tables that got filled up extremely quickly while we were sitting inside.

Being a laksa aficionado, I couldn't go past the laksa, which Euj had talked up quite a bit (just to set the scene).

Legend has it that their laksa stock has been brewing in the same pot for years, and I can certainly believe that.

A huge steaming bowl arrived filled with a rich broth brimming with a complex flavour of spices and chilli, with generous servings of meat and prawns (normally, you can count the number of prawns in an average bowl of laksa on one hand and still have spare fingers, but I kept fishing out prawns - was there no end?), complete with a roasted/fried slice of eggplant which added an additional smoky depth of flavour and texture.

I dare say that this might be the best laksa in all of Australia.  I'm fully aware that this is a big call, but I'll say it anyway.  Make the pilgrimage and decide for yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Supernormal, another classic Andrew McConnell eatery in Melbourne

I recently had to go to Melbourne for the first time this year for a board meeting, so I decided to look up Google for a new quality Melbourne establishment to check out.  At the top of the search listings was the name Andrew McConnell, and I couldn't go past that, having been a fan of Golden Fields and Cumulus.

Located at 180 Flinders Lane, Supernormal is just around the corner from the Westin, the front is so quiet and nondescript that I would have walked right past it if not for the beguiling neon lighting and the fact that it was pumping.

I walk inside and get greeted with a fateful of classic minimalistic McConnell decor, with loads of kitschy (but in a good way) Japanese touches.  And of course, the maitre d' - don't you love going to a restaurant where you don't have to stand around like an idiot hoping to get someone's attention so you can be seated?  With an over-abundance of staff, you never have to worry about this at Supernormal.

As expected, there was a queue, but because my dinner companions had abandoned me due to a late and crappy flight into Melbourne, I didn't worry too much - there's always room for one.  The friendly, chatty staff were surprised that I was from out of town, since they had only been open in this location for a few months.

By the time I finished my first glass of crisp, delicious Glaetzer-Dixon Uberblanc riesling, my seat was ready, and I too was ready for a feast of overindulgence!

The menu is predictably full of Asian influences, but it looks like the last decade's Melbournian Pan-Asian approach (read Thai, Southeast Asian, etc) has moved to predominantly mainland Chinese with Japanese and Korean touches (albeit complete with the classic Golden Fields lobster roll, which you can even takeaway, for those in withdrawal!), and the table setting at the bar included cutesy little touches like a sesame seed mill and a pot of chilli.  And a limitless little saucer of more-ish soy-roasted seeds.

One of the many great things about this restaurant is that they will also do half-serves for the single diner, which is great for those of us lone travellers who want to try more dishes but don't want to pay the price of having to buy a new pair of larger pants.

I start with a dish from the raw menu: spicy tuna and ama ebi prawns, accompanied by the Junmai Genshu "Ine Mankai" sake, made from red rice which truly lived up to the notes on the menu - smoky with cherry flavours.  I could have told you in excruciating detail about how the tuna and prawns tasted, but it was so good I scoffed it down too quickly.

Then of course, I had to order the duck bao - if you ever eat at a McConnell restaurant - you need to order the duck.  A beautifully presented drumstick of twice cooked duck - presumably oven roasted and then deep-fried (so good) until the skin was crunchy, flaky and crispy.  Kentucky Fried Duck, not that there's anything wrong with that.  The idea, of course, is that you slather the little buns with the sauces and condiments, tear bits of duck off the drumstick for filling, and chow down.  I couldn't help but eat some of the duck on its own before catching myself and doing it the "right way".  The red rice sake really came into its own here, perfectly complementing the rich flavours of the duck and the over-slathering of hoisin sauce I liberally painted over each bun.

I then ordered the szechuan chicken with peanuts, chilli oil and house made noodles.  Hmmm it must be a new Melbourne culinary style to serve noodles that don't actually look like noodles.  Well, I guess they did look like those packing noodles you get in a parcel.  But these were great - like an Asian gnocchi; soft pillows of chewy … err noodle-stuff.  The balance of flavours was spot on - enough szechuan peppers to give you a slight tongue-numbing experience, but not so much that you felt like you were at the dentist for a root canal procedure.  I washed down with the "River in the Sky" - the Junmai Ginjo "Nagarawa Tenkawa".  The menu says it's "wonderful with spicy food", and it's right.

 And finally, on the recommendation of my fellow frequent traveller Kimmie, I ordered dessert despite the fact that I was now quite stuffed: the Peanut Butter Parfait.  Even though I haven't eaten a Snickers bar in more than 10 years, I will tell you that it tasted like Snickers.  Thick, rich, chocolatey, peanutey and thoroughly decadent.

Next time you're in Melbourne, do yourself a favour and pop into Supernormal for something special.  Yes, you will have to queue, but being able to drink a glass or two of wine while you people-watch is quite painless.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Slowtown Coffee Roasters: Namibian Artisan Coffee Roasters

It's been a while since I reviewed the quality of coffee in Namibia; but I am glad to see that the Third Wave of Coffee has arrived on the shores of this great country.

On my recent visit to Namibia, I popped into The Joy of Food in Windhoek, which offers cheerful service and a great menu that is perfect for breakfast and brunch (located in the garden area right next to Fresh n Wild).  While there, I discovered a new Namibian delight, as the coffee they served was from Slowtown Coffee Roasters, based in the coastal town of Swakopmund.  What got me was the fact that their bags of freshly roasted coffee beans (which were on sale at The Joy of Food) had the roasting date written on instead of a "use-by" date (which many coffee aficionados know is useless for telling you how fresh, and therefore how good, the coffee will taste).

These guys source their own single origin green coffee beans from coffee farms all around the world, and roast them in small batches.

I tried an espresso made from organic Honduran coffee beans, just roasted slightly over a week earlier, and was delighted to feel the rich, thick crema on my tongue and taste the complex flavours of a great coffee: spicy and nutty with honey tones, and a crisp lemon finish (as promised on the label).  It was so good I bought myself a bag of beans to bring home with me, which has sadly finished as I write this.

Yet another reason to go to Namibia!