Vietnamese Grill Bar (Or, The Case of the Spam Soup)

I’d like to dedicate this post to Cindy and Michael from Where’s The Beef, and all the other lovely food bloggers who were at the Where’s The Beef 1000th post celebration and got to hear the following frightening tale firsthand. Intrepid food bloggers, Ballroom Blintz salutes you! And hopes you never encounter a Spam Soup of your own.

You’re familiar with the Tuesday Ladies Who Lunch, now it’s time to introduce the Wednesday Lunch Crew. A bunch of my mates from work who all go to RMIT or Melbourne Uni (and occasionally some Monash blow-ins, who, being that I am a good Melbourne Old Girl, get a right royal dose of stink-eye, the cads) all meet up on a Wednesday for, wait for it… lunch.

Now, I wasn’t even going to blog about Vietnamese Grill Bar at all as, to be honest, we mainly go there on our Wednesday lunches because it’s convenient, not because the food is all that mind-blowing. There’s a couple of nice vegetarian dishes (I have a fondness for the vegetarian vermicelli because it comes with diced pieces of spring roll on top!), the lemon chicken is apparently very good, or I assume so because there are members of our party who order it every time we go, and they do a range of smoothies using fruits like custard apple and durian and avocado that I look forward to sampling each week. But really we go there because there’s big communal tables and the food comes out obscenely quickly (I mean it, obscenely quick. I have a suspicion there’s a TARDIS in the kitchen).

However, there was an incident  during our last visit that offered up an example of culinary oddness that I just had to share.

At Vietnamese Grill Bar the menu is pictorial, so generally it’s a a case of “oh, that looks nice”, point and there you go. The rest of us on this occasion had gone with our regular choices, but Muffin decided to be adventurous and try something new. She located on the menu a soup that brimmed with a plethora of vegetables and had the title ‘hot & spicy soup’, or something similar, and decided to go with it.

The kitchen performed it’s regular temporal time shift, in that Muffin’s meal arrived while she was still in the bathroom. Everyone at the table stopped talking and looked into the bowl.


Then, “Hmm,” said Bengel, looking perturbed. “That looks… interesting.”

There wasn’t any greenery to be seen, nor anything vegetabley. Big round disks of what looked disturbingly like Spam or strassberg luncheon meat  crowded the surface, floating on top of a thick, red slick of chilli-infused oily broth.

Muffin returned to discover everyone making faces at her meal. She made a pretty damn impressive face herself. “This doesn’t look anything like the picture!” She conferred with the waitress as to whether this was actually the right meal. The waitress was adamant that it was.

Muffin set her shoulders, as if to steal herself for a challenge. “Suppose I’d better eat it then.”

In Muffin’s words: “It was just the weirdest thing. There were no vegies to speak of, only meaty disks and some tempeh. I tried a bit of the meat, but it had such a fatty and processed taste and texture that I couldn’t finish and just ended up fishing around for tempeh, which surprising tasted alright. But the Spam combined with that thick red layer of oil on top just pushed everything a little too far into the flat-out gross category.” Lucky Bengel donated to her some of his battered squid, otherwise Muffin would have starved!

I am now completely fascinated as to discovering whether this was an authentic Vietnamese dish, or just something completely crazy whipped up by a chef after living far too close in proximity to a hole in the fabric of time and space. All my research has come up with so far is that apparently homemade spicy sausages in soup is quite common, but it’s a big jump from handcrafted sausage to Spam!

Vietnamese Grill Bar

305-307 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Edit 28/1/2011 – After disappearing behind a wall of newspaper for a few months, Vietnamese Grill Bar is apparently no more, and has been replaced by a restaurant called Tofu King. While according to a tweet by Where’s the Beef there’s little to no vegetarian action to be had at the pleasure of the soy monarch, there’s a terrible place inside me that hopes the Spam Soup is continuing to bewilder and terrify.

Madame Sousou

Back when Muffin and I were on the way to go to Peko Peko, we got on the wrong tram and ended up on Brunswick Street instead of Smith Street (Hayley! How did this happen?! You’ve been living in Melbourne all your life and can’t even differentiate between the 112 and 86 trams? FAIL. GIANT, EMBARRASSING FAIL). Realising our mistake, we decided to walk the few blocks down to Smith Street and scrambled off the tram… right in front of Madame Sousou.

Immediately drawn to the warmly lit windows, I peered in… and was completely swept away by a haze of romanticism. It looked like someone had uplifted the most  picture perfect cosy Parisian restaurant and incongruously plopped it in Fitzroy. Or at least what I wished a Paris restaurant would look like (Paris and I had ISSUES. No, I don’t want to talk about it).

“Hayley, you’re about to get run over, get off the street!” I had been so enthralled by this dream vision that I’d stopped stock still in the middle of the street and Muffin feared I would die.

“Muffin, Muffin,” I babbled, hands flailing. “We totally have to go to that place sometime. That place there!”

“Yes, yes,” Muffin said, taking me by the elbow and guiding me away. “But first we should make sure that you live to eat anywhere.” This is why we are faux-lesbian life mates, she takes care of me.

But in the end I ended up not going to Madame Sousou with Muffin at all, but with The Boy, reneging on our epic love! I AM REVEALED TO BE FALSE AND INCONSTANT, FORGIVE ME, DEAR MUFFIN (Fun fact: Apparently Muffin’s mum reads this blog. Hello, Muffin’s mum!).

Now, Madame Sousou isn’t cheap. She’s a classy lady, and an expensive one, too. Much more expensive than me and The Boy were really expecting for our quiet Sunday dinner, but hey, we should all indulge on occasion.

(Incidentally, Madame Sousou has a terribly nice business card. Nerdy hobbies relevation: I like collecting the business cards from cafes and restaurants, they’re pleasing things. Madame Sousou’s might be my favourite, except maybe for one from The European that’s all white and EMBOSSED and reminds me of that scene in American Psycho. “Look at that subtle off-white colouring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark!”)

The Boy was utterly overwhelmed by all of the deliciously described dishes. He wavered all over the menu, like a flitting hummingbird undecided as to which blossom might contain the best treat. I was similarly flighty, plotting in my head what would give me a filling meal for the best price. The waitress was enormously patient with us, and dealt marvelously with The Boy’s indecision especially. She went through each of the dishes with such enthusiasm and obvious love for the food, and won over The Boy with her recommendation of the mussels. “I don’t even like mussels ordinarily,” she said, leaning in to us conspiratorily. “But these are just so wonderful.”

As for me, I ended up going with the cep and pea risotto, teamed with a very nice German riesling. The risotto was rich and filling, the peas popping with freshness, and was just the thing I needed. The Boy wouldn’t stop talking about the amazingness of the mussels in their creamy sauce (and I wouldn’t stop stealing the potato frites that accompanied his meal).

What made the meal, though, was the dessert, tarte tatin. This, this was not a mere dish of nutrients cobbled onto a plate. This was ART. Perfectly caramelised pastry and poached pears, with a dome of ice cream on top and a drizzling of honey (there was something special about the honey, lord knows if I can remember what. Magic bees, maybe? Let’s go with that. MAGIC BEES!). Honestly, I can’t remember enjoying a dessert so much in a long while; The Boy was lucky I didn’t grab our shared dish and gobble the whole thing while hissing “Mine!”

Madame Sousou is the perfect place for that special evening where you want to be nice and cosy with your beloved and whisper sweet French nothings into their shell-like ear. Or, if you’re me, it’s the perfect place to go any time, to sit back in a corner with a glass of wine and tarte tatin… just don’t expect me to share next time!

Madame Sousou

231 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy

Ph: 9417 0400

Lot 6

Back in the deep dark mists of the mid-2000s when I was doing my undergrad, Castro’s was the place to eat at Melbourne Uni. Oh Castro’s, with your surly lesbian baristas and  faux-socialist allure, you were so cool. Sure, their hot bevereges were nearly always lukewarm, but they had the best goddamn vegan muffins that I have ever encountered.

Now that I have returned to Melbourne Uni after some years in the wild to have some postgrad-study times, Castro’s is now distinctly NOT the place to eat. It seems to have been taken over by new management; the surly lesbians are gone, as are the vegan muffins, replaced by hard lumpen things that have the gall to call themselves baked goodness. Conversely The Potter, which used to be very gauche, is now the go to place for most arts students. And they now have AMAZING muffins. But not vegan (oh, fig and coffee vegan Castro’s muffin, you were my true love, I miss you). It’s like all I knew is topsy-turvy!

But I digress.

Finding myself behind on the latest foodie happenings at Melb U, my fellow Tuesday lunching ladies and I decided to try one of the newer establishments to recently crop up on campus.

Lot 6 is out the back of the ERC Library. You can tell it from the acres of astroturf laid out the front, which has quite a few tables and chairs laid out on top of it. Inside cruises with an industrial vibe, high ceilings and metal furnishings. We decided to commune with the artificial nature outside.

Despite the fact that this was a lunch, you all know about my love for breakfast at inappropriate times (there’s NEVER an inappropriate time for breakfast!), I immediately gravitated towards the Swiss bircher muesli with sour cherries and cinnamon yoghurt. Kim and Jess were more attuned with the actual time of day, with Kim going with the Cooper’s beer-battered fish and chips with lemon mayonaise, exclaiming “$12 fish and chips! You can’t go past $12 fish and chips!” while Jess had coffee and what is described in my notes as a “ham pressed sandwich thingy”. Professionalism, I has it.

Let’s talk about how awesome this bircher muesli was. SO AWESOME. A lovely smooth and creamy jumble with a hint of cinnamon that wasn’t overpowering. What I really enjoyed was that the muesli was sitting in a little lagoon of sour cherry juice, which contrasted really well with the sweet gooey muesli jumble (not using tangy natural yoghurt, I assume). Topping it off was a little collection of whole sour cherries, which I saved till last in order to amuse myself by twirling the stems around obnoxiously.

My cohorts were having a different kind of food adventure. I asked Kim at the start of her meal what is was like. “Yeah, it’s alright.” I was suspicious! Alright is not a word that indicates potential foodgasm of joy. Had to keep an eye on her. Jess was picking the rocket out of her sandwich ‘thingy’. “How is it?” I asked. “It’s full of ham. So much ham.” I took this to be a positive comment.

Kim’s consumption rapidly decreased to idly picking at her fish with her fork. Around about the time I was twirling cherry stems, she said “I want to change my review. It’s average. Decidedly average.” I pressed her on why, wanting details for you, my dear reader. “The fish is quite bland. And the chips are all soggy, there’s no crunch to them.” Jess and I taste-tested the remaining chips and came to the same conclusion: quite horridly squishy and blah. “How can you muck up chips?” I said, quite scornfully (I do not take crimes against the noble potato lightly).

Jess drained her latte, probably to rid her mouth of the taste-memory of the chips. “At least the coffee’s good. Not Seven Seeds good, but good.”

Lot 6 is very new; it’d only been in it’s first week of business when we visited. So I’m going to be nice and attribute the lackluster aspects we experienced to opening jitters. The good aspects were very, very good (I am definitely going to need to have another bowl of bircher muesli soon), and I really hope that the poorer elements end up improving. Melbourne Uni needs more awesome food places, especially considering the amount of meal times I’m now spending there!

Lot 6

University of Melbourne

Gate 6 Swanston Street

Peko Peko

“Where are we going?” flailed Muffin in excitement.

“I can’t tell you. It’s a SURPRISE. A food surprise!”

The food surprise was a place that I’d been longing to go since, well, since Where’s the Beef reviewed it way back in December 2008 (wow, you get to sampling things reeeeal quick, Hayley), Smith Street Japanese eatery Peko Peko.

We arrived bang on 6pm on a Friday night to an empty restaurant. But! We were promptly told that all the tables inside were completely booked out and our only option was to eat at one of the outside tables on the pavement. Shame, seeing as the space inside is cozy and gorgeously decked-out, but we acquiesced and sat outside. Funny though, by the time we left just over a hour later, there were still quite a few free tables inside. I honestly don’t mind being told by staff “You can sit inside, but have to be out by this time to make way for a booking”, this is the lot of the walk-in diner.

We started off with a wee bowl of miso soup each, which was good and refreshing, and featured a few cubes of silken tofu, I love that! We also ordered the tempura, the vegetable gyoza, and the chilli soba.

The tempura consisted of eggplant, tofu, sweet potato and zucchini, served with a light soy dipping sauce and a heavy sprinkling of shredded nori.  Goodness, I love shredded nori. Let’s have it on everything. The batter on the tempura was nice, light and not too oily, the dipping sauce was great (so much so that we kept hold of it to dip the gyoza in as well), though I seem to recall that we only got one piece of tofu? Muffin, did you get a bit of tofu or did I gobble it all up?!

The gyoza came next. Upon eagerly biting into them, Muffin and I immediately looked at each other and simultaneously said “Garlic chives!” Overwhelmingly garlic chives, in fact, neither of us felt we could taste much else. On my dissection of a gyoza I couldn’t discern much else in the filling other than said chives and some cabbage. Bit of a disappointment.

Any gyoza-related disappointment, however, was swiftly swept away by the chilli soba. Holy balls, was this dish amazing or what! I make a lot of these noodle and vegetable soups at home so am a little snobbish when ordering them out (clearly I secretly consider myself some kind of uncrowned Queen Of Soups), but this was something else: soba, chunks of more silken tofu, capsicum, beanshoots and this amazing broth that made Muffin and I swoon – I was completely guilty of filling my little bowl with just broth and drinking it down like it was your favourite delicious carbonated beverage of choice. We spent a fair amount of time discussing what exactly might comprise the broth to make it so delicious, but in the end just gave up in favour of consuming more broth.

Contented bellies all round, and a very enjoyable surprise dinner for my dining companion. Next time though I’ll be sure to book so we can eat inside, and might go for the sweet potato gyoza if I’m feeling dumpling-ish.

Peko Peko

199 Smith Street, Fitzroy

Ph: (03) 9415 9609