Kimchi Grandma

I am starting to think that I am cursed. Cursed to never experience the Aussie-fied vegan vittles at The Sweetwater Inn. Because every time I have organised to go there, something has happened to make those plans fall into a heap.

The most recent fail was a Monday when Alison, Kim, Pat, Bennett and I made plans for a Sweetwater dinner, but due to misinformation across a variety of web platforms didn’t realised until half an hour before we were all meant to meet up that it was closed on Mondays. Confusion abounding, we all fluttered about in indecision as to where we would go instead, at least until Pat took charge and insisted we head towards Carnegie, as due to the high concentration of restaurants along Koornang Road we would be guaranteed that at least one good place would be open.

Once in Carnegie we scouted up along Koornang to see what was doing. I was secretly hoping that perhaps I might get a second bash at Auntie’s Dumplings, but once we discovered Kimchi Grandma was open we all gravitated towards it. I remembered reading quite a few recommendations of it as a very good option for cheap Korean, and you should all know by now that my desire for Korean food at all times overwhelms all other concerns.

Perhaps, however, I should have taken a moment or two to quickly google a few vegetarian reviews of Kimchi Grandma before we had gone inside and seated ourselves down. For here we have an example of the true pitfalls of picking a place on a whim – I opened up the menu and, combing through it, found two vegetarian options. Two.

“We can go somewhere else,” said Kim anxiously, but I didn’t want to make any further fuss on an already fuss-filled evening. Truth be told though, I was starting to feel the loss of Sweetwater even more.

So what were these two vegetarian options? For entree there were potato croquettes, which were four hash brown-shaped discs of finely crumbed creamed potato, sporadically dotted inside with the occasional piece of corn, carrot and pea. The croquettes were drizzled with two sauces, one a kewpie-like mayo, the other soy-sauce based, and were served on a mound of dressed green and purple cabbage. These were pretty nice, very simply done, but warming and the sauces in particular were quite finger-licking. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if the croquettes’ original provenance was from a freezer packet.

The sole vegetarian main was the jabchae, sweet potato noodles stir-fried with zucchini, carrot, mushrooms, onion and what looked like wom bok, and the key ingredient, TONS of sesame oil. Now, jabchae is a constant in my own kitchen, I adore it, potato noodles and sesame oil are constantly craved by me so jabchae is perfect, and very easy to make. But it means I’m pretty critical when it’s served up to me elsewhere, and Kimchi Grandma’s frankly wasn’t that great. The vegetables were pretty thin on the ground, and there was SO MUCH GARLIC. I never put garlic in my own version, and whenever I’ve eaten it out there’s rarely any garlic beyond a minimal amount as, you know, the point of the dish is the sesame flavours. But there were chunks of garlic all through this, to the point where the noodles at the bottom of the bowl were clumped with it. I ended up not finishing the jabchae, which should be surprising to you given my general state of unmitigated gluttony.

Also, got to be honest, the service here is lackluster. We were left sitting for at least 15 minutes without any staff coming near us after we were originally seated, and any time we needed attention it took quite a while for us to attract anyone, even with five of us waving hands and throwing out expectant looks. If you’re a later evening diner the staff will also start to do things like stack chairs and mop floors around you while you’re still eating, so if you find this (rightly) off-putting there’s another strike for you.

While omnivores will no doubt enjoy Kimchi Grandma’s offerings – indeed, all my omni friend enjoyed their dinners happily – for vegetarians the options are minimal and rather grim. There’s so many other Korean restaurants around town with plentiful vegie options that this place can be safely avoided without worrying that you’re missing out.

Kimchi Grandma

125 Koornang Road, Carnegie

Ph: 9569 2399

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Dainty Sichuan Box Hill

Well, it has finally happened. I have, after years of unrepentant, seemingly bottomless gluttony, been defeated by food.

How it happened: Mere weeks after experiencing my first taste of Dainty Sichuan at their South Yarra restaurant, Steph invited me along on a food bloggers expedition to Dainty’s new hotpot-orientated outpost in Box Hill, in the company of Cindy and Michael from Where’s the Beef, and W from The Simple Eater.

Up on the first floor of a building a street back from Box Hill’s Centro and train station, this new Dainty is HUGE. And it is constantly bustling, steam curling up in billows above full, chattering tables. Hotpot is a very social eating activity, and best enjoyed with a group of friends over a few hours.

There’s a variety of stock bases on offer to start your hotpot, with the most obviously vegan ones being the mushroom base, and the chilli base. Being wracked with indecision as per usual, I decided to cut my loses and and go for the half/half option so that I could have half a pot of each (they don’t mix them together – instead a divider in placed in the hotpot to keep the two stocks separate). When your pot is delivered, you then turn on the little hot plate set in the table in order to keep your stock bubbling away through the evening. Each person has an individual pot, and the waiters will refill it for you throughout the evening as you eat it/it gets evaporated into steam.

There’s a vast cornucopia of vegie things you can order for your hotpot. Here’s what we went with, following Steph’s lead:

  • potato slices
  • lotus root
  • seaweed threads
  • vermicelli noodles
  • pumpkin slices
  • Chinese cabbage
  • mushroom combo, involving oyster, enoki, and lord knows what else, it was a BOUNTY
  • extra oyster mushrooms, because
  • potato noodles
  • cubes of frozen tofu
  • dried tofu sticks

HELLO GLUTTONY.

I made the very quick discovery that while everything I put into the mushroom side of the pot to simmer away in turned out incredibly tasty, only certain things worked well in the flaming heat of the chilli stock. The potato slices made the most use of the chilli stock, soaking up the heat and becoming molten discs of intensity. The pumpkin slices worked equally well, leaving me with the impression that chilli and starches were clearly the best of friends in this situation. With the other ingredients though the chilli was definitely too much for them and didn’t lend anything complimentary, so I ended up sticking most things in the mushroom broth. The potato noodles were a particular favourite, as well as the lotus root and the oyster mushrooms, which just soaked up broth like tasty fungi sponges.

Make sure you also visit the enormous condiments station to whip together some wee bowls of sauce to dip all your hotpot ingredients into. I ended up being very boringly anglo and just mixed together some soy sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds (which WAS delicious, I stand by the obviousness of it), but there is so much for you to play around with, seriously, go wild.

To drink, nearly all of us went with a lychee ice. Cool and refreshing and definitely required if you go with a chilli stock base – being able to cram a cooling whole lychee in my mouth became necessary at certain chilli-numbing portions of the night.

Also if you end up with any leftover hotpot ingredients, Dainty will actually pack them up for you to take home with a small 20c fee to cover the plastic containers. Waste not want not!

Over the course of nearly three and a half hours we ate and chatted, and this is the deceptive nature of hotpot coming into play – it is very easy not to realise how much you have actually eaten until it is too late. In my case, I didn’t realise until I got home and laid down on the couch to watch some Rage.

Yeah. That was a mistake.

Cue me spending the next 24 hours gingerly only imbibing lemon-honey tea and the occasional Ryvita, while my tummy ached and made many upsetting sounds.

Touche, Dainty Sichuan, you bested me with your endless spread. I’ll be handing in my Glutton’s Card now with the requisite amount of shame.

Dainty Sichuan

Level 1, 2a Cambridge Street, Box Hill

Ph: 9041 4318

You can read Where’s the Beef’s account of our visit here.

Saigon Sally

Venturing south side for a visit to the Astor brought Jojo and I to the doors of Saigon Sally for a pre-film dinner. You may remember me visiting Sally’s sister restaurant Hanôi Hannah way back around when it first opened and while liking it, I did at the time have some issues with the sameness of the vegetarian options and the fact that it was so popular that it was hard to get a seat in the tiny space. Indeed, so pumping is Hannah that I have a feeling that there weren’t any subsequent visits made by me!

Little sister Sally, however, seems to have taken a look at Hannah and run in almost the complete opposite direction (as younger siblings are often wont to do in the face of elder ones).  For one, you can make bookings at Sally, which means you can avoid queues. Thousands of points from me already. Secondly, there are a number of vegetarian dishes that are all interestingly varied, and actually have a sense of theatre to them, which is rare for a place that isn’t coded as ‘high-dining’. It situates its menu as drawing on Vietnam, but frequently looks across into other Asian cuisines for inspiration, meaning that there’s quite a few intriguing things going on in these dishes.

Sally is much bigger than the slightly-better-than-a-bolthole Hannah. The walls are covered with painted art and vintage Vietnamese posters acting as wallpaper, and the middle of the room is dominated by a square bar which I imagine would be a highly entertaining place to while away a Friday night watching cocktails getting made before your eyes.

But no! No digressions into alcoholic dreamscapes, we had a film to get to and needed full bellies. To start, I went with the bahn khot – rice flour bilini tofu, with smoked coconut milk and crispy shallots. On a stone platter with three depressions was presented three rough rice flour cups filled with soft tofu, sharp rounds of sliced chilli, with an oozing undercurrent of thick coconut milk that’d gone all tart like a creamy, savoury yoghurt. A little eyedropper vial was given alongside so that you can squeeze red vinegar over the cups to your own taste. A cute idea, it’s fun to shoot the vinegar everywhere, though I did end up getting weird flashbacks to being given Dimatapp when sick as a kid. Tangents aside, this was a thoroughly tasty and intriguingly put together dish. And fun! Food should always be more fun.

From the ‘sides’ part of the menu, I also ordered the simply monikered ‘tofu + seaweed’, which was comprised of silken tofu, pickled wakame, thai basil, sesame and kewpie. A big block of soft tofu, which had been lightly brushed with some kind of sesame oil based dressing took up the majority of the dish, was silky in the mouth and had soaked up much sesame goodness. Strewn across and around the tofu was much greenery. The pickled wakame had been dipped in a tempura-ish batter and flash-fried, creating great textural contrast. Charred snow peas brought another taste profile in (and was possibly my favourite component, I can’t go past charred fresh vegies!). It was a big serving for a side dish, and very good value for money considering the flavour excitement that was happening with it.

Jojo had the broken bibimbap: poached egg, broken rice, lemongrass, pulled pork, and what looked like lots of shredded vegies. I am mad for bibimbap and am a little sad that Sally doesn’t appear to do a vegie version, especially as Jojo was very pleased with this pork one.

Also, a note for those for whom gluten is a dreaded dining demon, all bar one of Sally’s menu items are actually gluten-free, including ALL the desserts! Sally’s dessert chef is actually coeliac himself, so you are in safe hands! On a separate dessert-only visit I sampled the bahn bo, little steamed coconut puddings with scads of caramelised banana and a ball of coconut sorbet, which somehow managed to be both light and rich, and all-over delicious.

As I’m sure you’ve twigged to, I am quite keen on Saigon Sally. The food is rather fancy from what you may have been expecting from the look of the venue and the very reasonable prices. It’s certainly a case where taking traditional recipes from a variety of south-east and east-Asian cuisines and playing around with them has resulted in thoughtful, well-rounded dishes that pay respectful homage rather than becoming unsuccessful imitations or, worse, crappy Westernisations that just don’t work. Saigon Sally is doing something very clever with its food, and is well worth exploring.

Saigon Sally

2 Duke Street, Windsor

Ph: 9939 5181

www.saigonsally.com.au

Bayte

Bayte has been on my “oh dear god you need to visit this place NOW, what is wrong with you?” list for, well, basically forever. Potential delicious Lebanese food times cannot be ignored. I was however stymied several times in visiting due to both their erratic opening hours (they see to have settled down now and are reliably open for lunch and dinner from Wednesdays to Fridays and from 9am-11pm on weekends), and the fact that whenever I tried to visit they were groaning at the seams without room for yet more patrons.

Clearly I was going to have to scheme to visit at a less popular time. Utilising my “how to walk into a table at Chin Chin” timing rule, I waited until 3pm one Saturday afternoon to saunter in with Julian in tow. Behold! Many a free table was awaiting us! See, starving yourself for hours to eat at an unfashionable time does have it’s benefits.

Since it was drifting into late-afternoon, the menu was restricted to the mezze options, but there were so many of these to choose from that we didn’t feel at all constricted in terms of choice. Luckily we were able to order quite a few of the items that Where’s the Beef had enjoyed during their visit, whose enthusiastic post was at the forefront of my mind.

To start with I insisted we had to have some of the chargrilled flatbread, which had been universally recommended to me by those who had Bayte-d before me, plus anything that we could smear the flatbread with. Hence the generous dishes of labne and baba ganoush that quickly arrived. The labne was handmade, as far as I could make out, ridiculously smooth and that face-twisting kind of tart that only really fresh yoghurts can create. The baba ganoush was smoky and a very impressive example of the difference between freshly made and the rubbish you get in the supermarket. A warning though that the chargrilled bread is truly excellent and you will be in danger of over-ordering it in order to eat it with everything, which could get sneakily expensive.

Being me, I couldn’t go past any mention of potato, so insisted that we order the bataata meshwi – barbequed potatoes served with homemade tomato sauce. SWEET BABY JEEBUS THESE ARE DELICIOUS POTATO CRACK. You must order these. Dunk them in the thick, also smoky tomato sauce (more a chutney or jam, really), and really savour the crispiness without and the fluffy within. UGH SOMEONE BRING ME SOME NOW.

At $5 a pop, we were rather hoping that the single felafel served with almond taratour, radish and baby coriander would prove to be the most amazing felafel to have ever graced tastebuds. Our doubting ways brought us undone – this is a felafel as close to being worth $5 as you are going to find. The felafel itself is soft and deftly combined, with no harsh grainy texture, and well spiced. Topping the felafel with the petite radish wedges was the real stroke of genius, with the sharp, juicy crispness contrasting in a delightful fashion with the felafel itself and the smooth taratour.

I very quickly followed by this pleasing first visit with an evening one a week or so later on my lonesome. On that occasion I started with the pumpkin kibbee, two fat, crumbed balls of fried pumpkin hiding a caramelised centre of onions and almonds, surrounded by a generous moat of hummus. Very more-ish indeed!

My main meal was the bamieh bi zayt, an okra, tomato and olive oil stew with walnuts, sliced chilli and scads of fresh coriander. This is the type of dish you’re not going to get anywhere else, and I really recommend ordering it with a serving of the flatbread so that you can mop the bowl clean. Perfect for the last few cold nights Melbourne has in store us.

As should be obvious, Bayte was everything that all the press and stories from friends had promised it to be. It’s possibly a *touch* expensive, but I would argue that the quality of what you receive more than shores up those few extra dollars. Besides the food, the staff are lovely, the space is so nice to sit in (seriously go back to that Where’s the Beef post and look at at the pics), it is just a complete package. Get on it, and don’t blame me once you OD on flatbread.

Bayte

56 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9415 8818

www.bayte.com.au