Shu II: Christmas in August

I was lucky enough to get invited to a special pay-what-you-feel degustation dinner at Shu back at the start of August. Shu’s chef, also handily named Shu, apparently throws a Christmas in July-themed dinner every year for his friends, and this year decided to make it entirely vegan and invite some vegan-friendly food writers and bloggers too. WHAT A TREAT, especially as since my first visit I had very much been hanging out for the chance to visit Shu again, because there really is nothing else like it in town.

After starting off with a palate waker-upper in the form of a zesty cocktail involving vodka, lychee syrup, lime, Vietnamese mint, and cheeky whack of chilli, we got stuck into the menu which had been split into four sections.

For the chilled and raw portion, we had Shu’s signature dish of a daikon roll filled with enoki mushrooms, Asian herbs and lettuce with a Sichuan spicy soy sauce. These remain beautiful to look at, unwieldy to eat, but crunchy and flavour-packed and dang you can see why this stays on the menu. The silken tofu with beans and sprouts with pickled chilli relish was a gelatinous square of white topped with really just straight-up minced chilli, which made for a fiery mouthful. I particularly liked the cucumber and seaweed with soybean skin, spicy tahini and roasted pumpkin seeds which was this saucy, crunchy mouthful with a lot of complimentary flavours flying around.

On to the hot dian xin section: I was raving over the crispy beetroot and wood ear roll with green chilli dip, which was really a well-fancy spring roll, all violently magenta inside and crunchy and earthy and OH MY. The pan fried shiitake and cabbage wonton with pickled chilli jam and Chinese vinegar was a perfectly cromulent dumpling, with a nice amount of pan-fried charredness. I was also very much into the steamed tofu pocket stuffed with preserved mustard greens and peanuts, which was basically like a triangle of sandwich with the tofu acting as bread, and I do like some well-judged bitter greens.

Onto a selection of bigger shared plates! If you remember my first review of Shu, you would not be at all surprised that I was all over the home town noodles. These are still an absolute menu star and if you have the chance to have them I FIERCELY insist upon it. The pan roasted eggplant rolls, pickled vegetables and roasted cashews were good, although I didn’t find them as rave-worthy as a lot of other dishes, although they’re worth trying if you love your eggplant. The crunchy coleslaw tossed with seeds, nuts, and Sichuan pepper infused soy sauce was more my level, lots of greens and textural components to keep things exciting. I was also a fan of the assorted Asian mushroom ginger and fennel stir fry in sweet soy sauce because stir fry! Mushrooms! Ginger! All good rich stuff combined well together. The wok fried seasonal vegetables with dried chilli and Sichuan pepper required me to eat around the whole dried chillis, but was otherwise very pleasant, although by this point I was getting full! I had enough room to have a few tastes of the crispy tofu and grilled beanshoots in preserved Pixian bean paste, which had some interesting flavours but didn’t really connect lastingly with me. Fair given all the food I’d already absorbed!

I can go fifty-fifty on raw desserts, so I had a little trepidation about the raw avocado cheese cake with blackberry syrup and toasted coconut chips that finished the menu. But really, I should have have had a lot more confidence in proceedings by this point, because it was a DAMN FINE dessert, raw or not. The filling had that wonderful avocado creaminess while not having the taste dominating (avocado in desserts is another thing that often doesn’t work for me, but this hit just the right notes), with the bulk of the flavour being carried by the berry-packed blackberry syrup and surprisingly – and I say surprisingly because this is ordinarily my least favourite part of any cheesecake – the base, which was filled with so many flavours that I struggled to identify them all. Luckily Catherine is a desserts whisperer and identified them all by taste alone before we confirmed with Shu.

Shu remains unique, experimental and a proper experience. Vegan degustations happen every Wednesday night, with all-you-can-eat dumplings on Thursdays. WELL. What are you waiting for?

For more perspectives on this dinner, you can read Catherine’s take at Cate’s Cates, and also over at Veganopoulous which comes with a lot of fabulous photos.

Shu

147 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9090 7878

www.shurestaurant.com

Shanghai Dragon Dumpling House

When you work in the one area for an extended period of time, sometimes your eat out lunches fall into a repetitive rut. I’d certainly got to the point in late December where any day where I accidentally forgot to bring along my prepared lunch resulted in sad trundlings around the streets surrounding the office, attempting to find sustenance that wasn’t comprised of 7/11 items (don’t pretend you also don’t succumb occasionally to sad 7/11 lunches, I see through your HOUSE OF LIES).

Luckily my workmate and keen foodie Kate had been keeping her eyes peeled, and stumbled across a brand new place in which to get everyone’s favourite meal, ENDLESS DUMPLINGS. Shanghai Dragon Dumpling House is in a slim shop on Russell Street and, like most of the cheap and cheerful dumpling places that this city is so fortunately endowed with, decor is basic but everything is clean and shiny. The menu isn’t overly burdened with vegetarian options, but on this day all I was after was a vegetable dumpling soup, and this was easily attainable.

The soup comes not only with dumplings but with handmade strands of thick, white noodles, which are smooth and soft with the teeniest bite to them. The soup broth isn’t terribly flavoured, but there’s many a condiment set out on each table so that you may create you own broth flavour explosion. I swirled about a lot of soy sauce, vinegar and a teeny spoonful of chilli oil and that did nicely for me. The dumplings themselves were fat and almost spherical, and once you bit into them they were bursting with lots of spinachy greenery, little diced cubes of carrot and other unidentifiable vegetables, and plentiful mushrooms. Very solid and pleasing dumplings indeed.

I was quickly able to back up this visit with a take-out order the following week with some film programming buds of mine. We ordered vegetarian dumplings in both their steamed and fried versions, and they were as fat and vegie-filled as ever. The steamed ones did get a little stodgy after a few, but the fried ones were piping hot and deliciously crunchy, as most fried things are.

I’m certainly never going to turn my nose up at another agreeable place to enjoy dumplings at. What I am really curious about, though, is the fact that the menu at Shanghai Dragon lists vegetarian xiao long bao. Holy of holies! Whether this just means that these are veg-filled dumplings containing the standard gelatinous pork broth of the traditional xiao long bao, or whether it is indeed a vegetarian rendering of the most popular dumpling in town is something that I will be investigating most keenly on my next visit.

Shanghai Dragon Dumpling House

163 Russell Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9078 7637

Vegie Mum

It is high irony that I didn’t find out that their was a mock meat vegetarian restaurant in Doncaster until after I’d moved away from the eastern suburbs. I assumed that the only way I would ever get to Vegie Mum would be hoodwinking my family into a dinner by ‘forgetting’ to tell them that none of the meat was real during a visit home, but that was without me counting on the ingenuity of food bloggers. So there I found myself, zooming along to Eastern Freeway in the company of Steph, The Simple Eater, Cindy and Michael for a Sunday night of serious soy eating.

Vegie Mum is situated in a strip of shops off of Doncaster’s main drag, but it seems that Vegie Mum’s presence means that it is anything but a quiet enclave. Sunday night or no, the place was heaving at the seams, with the manager helming the floor like a circus ringmaster, which culminated twice in leading rousing renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ to various patrons where EVERYONE was encouraged to sing, much to my inward glee.

The menu is huge, so I was pleased to hand over ordering duties to Steph and The Simple Eater, knowledgeable as they are after many Vegie Mum visits.

First up was a complimentary tiny bowl of tomato broth – not at all flavourful, but clearly acting as a palate cleanser.

The Simple Eater had done her research and wrangled for us an off-menu entree platter consisting of taro fritters, mock chicken drumsticks, mock jellyfish salad, and an Asian-leaning mound of scrambled egg. The mock jellyfish was an interesting melange of soy textures, and who doesn’t like a bit of scrambled egg? (Well, vegans don’t.) I, of course, gravitated naturally towards the fried starches, and devoured a few of the taro fritters, generously dunked into what was most likely a sweet plum sauce. The out and out winners of the platter were the drumsticks, which were dead-on in terms of mimicking chicken texture while also being crispy on the outside and madly flavourful.

My favourite dish of the night came out early in the form of the combination flat rice noodles. This consisted of lots of vegies (primarily broccoli, carrot and bok choy) with ample examples of a variety of mock meats, from chicken to pork and little mock prawns in the shape of actual prawns, all wok-fried together with a light, sweet sauce and flat rice noodles, which are my very favourite type of noodles yes please thank you very much.

We had to honour the Chinese take out cuisine of our childhoods by ordering a plate of the lemon chicken. The crispy soy strips were hot and juicy, and once smothered in the accompanying bowl of sweet-tart lemon sauce became enormously agreeable vegie versions of a classic.

A plate of handily pre-cut roti arrived at this point, which was handy as a lot of saucy dishes followed which required mopping up, which the thinly cut, lovely roti did very well.

I was never fussed with seafood even when I ate meat, so I wasn’t as keen on the idea of the Assam soy fish as some others were. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the battered batons of tofu wrapped with skeins of seaweed served alongside a vegie-packed tamarind stew. While I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile myself fully to tamarind, fishy mock meats definitely warrant more exploration.

The Sichuan eggplant hot pot was far more my bag, with great big chunks of eggplant that had been simmering in stew juices so that the eggplant flesh had become achingly soft and just melted in your mouth. Gorgeous stuff.

Clearly someone had felt a little guilty about our endless feast of soy, and leavened up proceedings by ordering some steamed greens, consisting of lightly dressed bok choy. I certainly took full advantage of a chance to cleanse the palate with some fresh greens.

The mapo tofu was the only true disappointment of the evening. This was not mapo tofu is any real recognisable form as there was no chilli factor at all, and while tofu, mock beef and vegies is nice and all, without chilli it ain’t mapo tofu.

The final dish was a plate of char kway teow, which had been delayed due to a vegan snafu where it had originally been made with egg after being requested without. While char kway teow is ordinarily one of my very favourite dishes, I actually ended up preferring the flat rice noodles from earlier, it had a greater variety of content, and this char kway teow wasn’t as smoky as I generally prefer.

There was also a chicken curry floating around, but I didn’t get a taste of it, which I wasn’t mourning terribly as I wasn’t in the mood for curry that evening.

If you had room for them (which I did because I cannot be stopped) there was also a complimentary plate of orange slices and jelly for dessert.

While there were some dishes that didn’t meet our high expectations, Vegie Mum is still a very fine purveyor of mock meat goodness that is well worth making the traveling effort to get to, for where else will you get the chance to serenade someone happy birthday over a plate of mock meats and rice noodles?

To read Cindy and Michael’s account of our visit, head to Where’s the Beef?

Vegie Mum

27 Village Avenue, Doncaster

Ph: 9816 3222

Shu

In shameful Hayley-is-the-slowest-writer-EVER news, here is my report on my dinner at Shu enjoyed in the company of Steph and Cindy & Michael, which they all managed to blog about back at the start of October a mere week after out visit. I know, I am THE WORST.

Shu is a Sichuan restaurant in Collingwood that has started to do Wednesday vegan degustations, where you can enjoy 10+ dishes of vegan goodness for the princely sum of $40. No, that is not a typo, it honestly costs only $40.

Rebecca from Shu had got in contact with Steph to let her know about vegan Wednesdays and was our waitperson for the evening, so it was known from the get-go who we were and that we would be blogging about the evening. BUT we paid our way fully, and from what I observed from other tables I don’t believe we received any special treatment, but should you wish to throw a pinch of salt on my pronouncements that’s your prerogative.

A quick note on Shu’s decor before getting onto the proper business of food – sitting in this restaurant is like eating dinner in a 1980s fantasy film with a slightly skewed Chinese aesthetic. It is the very best kind of veering just short of tacky AMAZING.

The very first dish was an array of little soup spoons filled with cubes of housemade tofu siting in pools of cinnamon-infused soy sauce and topped with a rocket flower. The cinnamon soy was a fantastic flavour explosion of a concoction, more infused soy sauces I say.

Next came rounds of sliced purple carrot topped with housemade chilli, borage flowers and broad beans. Kind of unwieldy, I probably would have benefited from being able to cut them into littler bite-sized pieces rather than levering them straight into my face, which got a bit awkward. The chilli was also quite intense in a way that was actually a bit distracting.

The daikon rolls with enoki, cucumber and zucchini flowers that was next presented is apparently one of Shu’s most popular dishes. I could easily see why – it’s beautifully presented, with curled tubes of thinly sliced daikon encasing the very strikingly arranged fillings, and it was just as fresh and bouncing with flavours as I’d anticipated from the sight of them. A little awkward to eat, yes, but wholeheartedly worthwhile.

I would have been very sad if there wasn’t anything dumplingish offered as part of proceedings, so I was very pleased to see the crispy tofu, soybean and sesame dumplings hit the table. They were very good little morsels indeed, so much so it was a little deflating that there were only four of them!

Here we entered into the “oh so many greens!” portion of the menu. A mizuna, trumpet mushroom and pickled cucumber salad had a nice touch of tartness due to the cucumber, and it was followed by some sauteed kale, broccoli, cashews and garlic tops, which ran towards being slightly bitter, but I’ll happily accept kale in all its forms (yes I know I’m totally a vegetarian stereotype, I’ll let myself out).

Next, something a little more hearty in the form of chilli eggplant with broad beans, calendula and onion. Frankly for me this dish was far too busy, I had no idea where I was meant to focus with it, so left it to the others to finish.

Two tofu-based dishes were next – fried tofu with beanshoots and nasturtiums, which was a very nice dry stir-fry indeed, I really got into the lightly spiced tofu, accompanied by a saucy bowl of tofu with wild coriander slicked with chilli oil, which provided a little bit more heat (we were all actually a little surprised that there wasn’t more heat going on across the board, accustomed as we all are to the more “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH CHILLI OR PEPPERCORN” style of Sichuan cooking).

More greens! The proliferation of greens was clearly due to so many being in season all at once, and is a good thing to keep in mind whenever dining anywhere were everything is seasonal – you may get a lot of dishes including many of the same ingredients. The new broccoli and cauliflower shoots had been lightly sauteed and sauced;  it was interesting to see a use of brassicas at the start of their bloom, rather than full flower, as it were. Also served was a plate of likewise sauteed and sauced mustard greens, which were a bit too bitter for my tastes.

The penultimate dish was where we started to really lose our minds in excitement. Little individual bowls of hand-made noodles with asparagus, preserved gai lan and walnut-infused oil were such unexpected taste explosions that we all exclaimed about them loudly before shutting up to tuck properly in. I would have been happy to curl up with a giant bowl of this alone.

The very last dish was a plate of crispy, spicy potatoes. We weren’t paying attention to what the spices actually were because we were too busy devouring them with a zeal that was bordering on cult-like. These taters and the noodles, that’s what I would like to eat forever, please.

While not every dish was an unqualified success, I still feel that Shu’s Wednesday vegan degustation is something that all Melbourne residing veg*ns should have a go at. The best thing about the menu utilising seasonal ingredients is that it changes from week to week, and for $40 the value is quite honestly obscene. It’s not the kind of burn-it-up Sichuan cooking that most of us are used to, but it was actually quite lovely to experience a more subtle interpretation of Sichuan’s rich culinary tradition.

To read Steph’s account of our visit, head over here to Vegan About Town.

To read Cindy and Michael’s account, head to Where’s the Beef?

Shu

147 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9090 7878

www.shurestaurant.com

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.

Dainty Sichuan

Finally, a much longed for experience has been crossed off my foodie wish-list: I have finally sampled the vegetarian fish-flavoured eggplant at Dainty Sichuan! Indeed, it was my first visit to Dainty Sichuan entirely.

Jen and I were so keen to get stuck into some eggplant action that we actually showed up to their Toorak Road location before it had even officially opened for the day. Oops! Never mind, five or so minutes of loitering on their doorstep later, we were let in and sat ourselves down as the first customers of the day.

The decor at Dainty is a little rough around the edges, and the tinny orchestral arrangements of 60s pop tunes being piped through leaves a bit to be desired. I’d heard plenty of stories about the waitstaff being brusque, but ours were perfectly fine, if impersonal.

To the food! To start with we had garlic cucumber – sticks of cold cucumber graced with a very simple, slightly warm, minced garlic sauce. This is the sort of dish that I could happily gobble away at every day, the cool crispness of the cucumber contrasting beautifully with the fresh, comforting garlic sauce. This involves A LOT of garlic though, so not a dish to order if you’re on a saucy date, as you will be living in Stinktown afterwards.

Next was the mushroom threads served with a dome of white rice. This was a reasonably plain dish (I assume it’s more often ordered as a leavener against some of the more chilli-drenched dishes) but I’m such a happy mushroom fan that I was quite contented with it. If you like the sound of lightly stir-fried mushroom lengths with a light soy sauce that you can moosh around with rice, this for you.

We had to wait a bit for the fabled eggplant to reach the table (we’d nearly finished our first pot of chrysanthemum tea!). The eggplant is cut into wedges, basted in sweet, chilli-ish sauce, and fried. Fresh out of the fryer, the eggplant is molten, soft and delicious – although I’m still not sure what it is exactly that makes it “fish-flavoured”. It does seem to be the type of dish you should order and eat first, though – having already filled ourselves with cucumber and mushrooms, we were already struggling a little, and once the eggplant starts to cool the wedges start getting soggy and stick to each other. The flavour build up also gets very sweet after a few pieces, there not being as much chilli heat involved as you might expect to balance out the sweet. From reading other blog posts about the dish, it seems as if it’s best enjoyed shared among a big group, so you can devour a few pieces each when it’s still nice and hot and at optimum tastiness. Shared between two (who are already a bit stuffed) it does tend to outstay its welcome.

My first Dainty experience wasn’t awe-inspiring, but nor was it a disappointment. I’d really like to go back and explore the menu a bit further; I had my eye on a black fungus and chilli dish, and in general I’d like to find out whether there are more vegetarian dishes that employ scads of chilli so I can have more of a fiery flavour experience. There’s also their new outpost in Box Hill that is devoted to hotpot that has definitely made me keen for more Sichuan food times. It may not quite meet the hype, but Dainty Sichuan definitely deserves it’s well-known place on Melbourne’s culinary map.

Dainty Sichuan

176 Toorak Road, South Yarra

Ph: 9078 1686

Blog Amnesty: The Beaufort, Baby, and ShanDong MaMa

As you may have noticed, posts have been thin on the ground here at Ballroom Blintz lately, as my life has been comprehensively taken over by my day job (speaking of my day job, EVERYONE COME SEE ALL THE FILMS AT MIFF!). Despairing slightly at my backlog of posts, I decided to take a leaf out of Claire from Melbourne Gastronome’s book and declare blog amnesty and do a few quick round ups of places I’ve recently visited before they completely slip out of my mind.

THE BEAUFORT

I’ve been wanting to visit The Beaufort for basically forever since hearing about it’s American-inspired pub food and the high level of friendly service from it’s staff. I popped along with a large group of friends (we were able to book a table, which is always nice these days), and we were all pretty impressed with the nautical fit out, and the fact that a place that had all the hallmarks of too-cool-for-schoolness was actually enormously welcoming.

Drinks-wise, there’s a lot of cocktails and mixes that are a bit of fun and won’t burn holes through your pockets in terms of price. I enjoyed both my Jerry ‘n’ cherry – Sailor Jerry with cherry coke and a slice of lime – and my Perfect Storm – Sailor Jerry with ginger beer and lime (honestly, name a drink after a film and I will order it every time no matter what’s in it).

For savoury I had the portobello mushroom burger, which I remember as being slightly a bit too sloppy for my liking due to the chefs going to town on the sauces, but otherwise it was enormously tasty, very American diner reminiscent. It’s also worth noting that The Beaufort do a lot of vegie and vegan dishes, so no one has to miss out on deep-fried treats.

Now here’s the really impressive part of the evening – the service. I am always interested to see what a venue’s staff do when things go wrong; I always figure it’s the best indication of a place’s real worth. So when we all initially ordered our dinners everything came out very promptly, except Schaefer’s meal (who incidentally spent the whole evening saying increasingly outrageous things in the hopes of getting quoted on this here blog. I AM NOT REPEATING ANY OF THE TERRIBLE THINGS YOU SAID, YOUNG MAN, I CARE TOO MUCH ABOUT YOUR FUTURE EMPLOYABILITY VIA GOOGLE SEARCHES!). Once staff were made aware that a meal was missing, the dish swiftly made it to the table, no dramas. Then we ordered dessert. I initially went with the ice cream sandwich. Soon enough, the same staff member who’d helped us retrieve Schaefer’s meal approached me wearing a facial expression that, as a table of seasoned hospitality workers, we all knew too well: “ohh shit something’s already gone wrong with this table and I don’t want to have to tell them something else is wrong!” They had unfortunately run out of ice cream sandwiches. I wasn’t unduly fussed, and asked if I could have the rhubarb and apple crumble instead. The enormously apologetic staff member wouldn’t even take the extra few dollars difference in price from me, and the crumble was such a deliciously comforting expanse of spicy stewed fruit and oaty topping that I was well pleased.

And then the staff brought us all a round of free tequila shots.

Yep, we’ll all be back.

The Beaufort

421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton

Ph: 9347 8171

thebeaufort.com.au

BABY

For some reason I was unduly prejudiced against Baby since it launched. Not even the connection with my beloved Chin Chin could shake from me the impression that it all sounded a bit wanky – it probably had to do with hearing about the genitalia-shaped neon signs decorating the restaurant (SERIOUSLY JUST DEAR GOD WHY).

While I still stand by the opinion that wang lights are wanky as all get out, luckily the food was amazing enough to turn my doubting Thomas frown upside down. This had a lot of to with the fact that they have a PAN-FRIED PIZZA!

Seriously, don’t even bother looking any further past the buttata pan-fried with fiore di latte and cherry tomato quarters, this needs to be the very first thing you order. As it is pan-fried the dough ends up having this smoky, charred tang to it that ticked all my tastebud fancies. Throw in tons of oozing fiore di latte and this results in a happily moaning Hayley passed out under the table with a food coma.

In non-fried goodness, I also sampled the funghi pizza, which could have used a little more funghi to be honest, it was a bit sparse for my mushroom-loving liking, but otherwise thin, crispy and cheesy. I also insisted on a side of the green beans with tomato sauce as a vegetable-leavener, and ended up reveling in the fact that they were basically delicious tomato crack. Seriously, if you can even look past pizza when you go here, order the beans. Sweet, tomato-laden goodness.

Baby

631-633 Church Street, Richmond

Ph: 9421 4599

www.babypizza.com.au

SHANDONG MAMA

If you are expecting a dumplings gush-fest right now, well, that’s sort of what you’re going to get. As while I really like the vegan dumplings on offer here, it’s a very different dish that has actually stolen my heart.

Everyone across town seems to adore ShangDong MaMa, and after a couple of visits now I’m certainly in the camp of having quite a bit of affection for this wee, unpretentious dumpling house hidden away down a Chinatown arcade. The vegan zucchini steamed dumplings are the only vegie dumplings on offer, but they are definitely well worth sampling, filled to bursting with shreds of zucchini and herbs. Mix your own dipping sauce from the pots of soy, vinegar and chilli on the tables and get dumpling dunking.

I’ve had a couple of other vegetarian dishes, too, with varying levels of success. The garlic broccoli, as I was warned by a waiter, does indeed come out “European style”, with little boiled florets covered in minced garlic. Nice if you like your greens with garlic (which I do), but very basic. The sesame noodles were similarly quite rustic, with soft, handmade noodles served with shredded zucchini and carrot, and topped with a sesame paste that you mix through to coat the noodles and vegetables. Quite tasty and nicely unusual, but definitely the sort of thing that is best to share, as it gets a bit samey when tackled by yourself.

But the dish that now haunts my dreams is the scallion pancake. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as it is less a pancake than two bulky pyramids of potato strands twisted together with splashes of spring onion rounds dotted through it. The strands are crisp on the outside, and as you pull at them (this is very much a fingers dish, good table manners be damned), you uncover the soft centre where the hot potato literally melts in your mouth. It’s a textural wonderland, and deceptively flavour-packed, and if it was a person I would marry it and be contently entranced with its simple, home-crafted charms.

ShanDong MaMa

Midcity Arcade, Shop 7, 200 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 3818

www.facebook.com/shandongmama

Auntie’s Dumplings

For ages now, Michaela has been imploring me to visit Carnegie for this blog. It was grievous to her that her home suburb’s culinary delights should have thus far escaped my notice. Indeed, once I thought about it I was surprised at myself for not having gone eating there before, especially given it’s reputation as a hub for Korean restaurants.

But for my very first visit, Michaela decided that I should be treated to the most widely lauded of Carnegie’s food stops, the venerable Auntie’s Dumplings, which often features near the top of ‘Melbourne’s best dumpings’ lists. Not to be left out of a dumpling adventure, Bennett came along too, forming that oft overlooked superhero team of the Dumpling Trio. Our special powers are unlimited stomach capacity, and being able to breathe soy sauce like it’s oxygen.

Auntie’s is like many a cheap and cheerful dumpling restaurant, in that ambiance is basically non-existent. If you don’t like hustle and bustle, coming during peak meal hours is also best avoided – around 2-3pm when we visited is a good option, as the lunch rush is done with and you get to enjoy your dumplings in a calmer environment.

Our first dish was a trio of fried pumpkin cakes, as insisted upon by Michaela. These were little crisp discs of pumpkin with a very agreeable sweetness to them, a perfect starter.

While we were on fried appetisers, I insisted on a serving of one of my favourite dishes, spring onion pancake. Auntie’s version had a crisp, bubbled exterior, and were very thin, so there was not much fluffiness inside, but it was still a very good example of the dish.

We leavened all this fried goodness with the simple, healthy greenery of a plate of steamed Chinese broccoli, with oyster sauce very kindly served on the side so that Michaela and Bennett could go mad with it while I slopped my own soy/chilli sauce creation over my portion. The broccoli had been perfectly steamed, with leaves wilted but not soggy, and the stalks still retaining a firm bite to them.

Of course, what we were really here for were the dumplings. While Bennett contented himself with some pork versions, Michaela and I got stuck into some fried vegetarian dumplings. They had thick, crispy skins, with a very spinach heavy filling; you were hit with an immediate metallic smell once you cracked them open. Closer inspection of the filling turned up evidence of very finely chopped vegies in among the green, as well as tiny strands of clear noodles, but spinach was the predominant flavour. While if I’m being truly critical, I would in general prefer greater variety and nuance in terms of overall flavour, as a complete package the Auntie dumpling is very seductive.

Auntie’s delivered a pretty top notch dumpling experience. The dumplings themselves are well made, and the other non-dumpling dishes we sampled were highly accomplished in terms of simple done very well. I was also particularly happy that I was able to get an item like oyster sauce served separately in order to make the steamed Chinese broccoli truly vegetarian – by the waitress’ quick, understanding acquiescence to the request, it seems like Auntie’s is used to adjusting ingredients to suit dietary requirements. Best of all, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap! Carnegie may have plenty more culinary treats for me to discover, but it’s going to be hard not to feel the constant pull for another batch of Auntie’s dumplings.

Auntie’s Dumplings

68 Koornang Road, Carnegie

Ph: 9568 6641

MIFF Eats 2012: Electric Boogaloo

Melbourne International Film Festival time! The film nerd Christmas in August! The greatest time of the year! And a perfect way for me to say fie at my bank account and treat MIFF as a period for good films and good food. Knowing that I wasn’t going to get the chance for any overseas traveling jaunts this year, I said to myself “bugger it”, took leave from work for the entirety of MIFF and basically went on holiday, attempting to eat myself decadently silly where I could in between the 45 films I saw. What follows is the most illustrious of the vittles I sampled.

Hako

After watching Step Up to the Plate and consequentially becoming VERY hungry, Jen and I took a stroll down Flinders Lane and ended up at Hako. I remember way back in the days when I was first becoming aware of the Melbourne foodie scene that Hako was quite talked about around town. Things seem a touch quieter at Hako these days, and although we had a pleasant enough meal with nice service and liberal libations of plum wine, there’s only one dish out of the four or so we had that’s really worth reporting, and that’s the herb salada maki rolls. Studded on the outside with seeds and inwardly stuffed with a mix of herbs and greenery, these were deceptively full of flavour and certainly had a lot more depth to them than a lot of vegetarian sushi I’ve come across. Jen and I were tempted to order another round of them, but had already racked up a decent bill so decided to let it go. Should I return to Hako in the future though, it will be for a feast solely comprised of those rolls and plum wine.

310 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9620 1881 

www.hako.com.au

China Red

Okay, I think I’ve figured China Red out. You may remember from last year’s MIFF Eats post that I was well confused about the patchy nature of the food on offer here, with some of it being really great, and other dishes proving to be almost unforgivably lackluster. But given its convenience and the fact that the food comes out super quick (both very important when it comes to trying to fit in a filling meal between films) I hit it up a few times during MIFF, mainly for the bright green vegie dumplings. The skins are still a touch too thick but that’s the only negative I can come up with, the fillings are nice and varied and the entire concoction is properly tasty. I also partook of the spring onion pancake, which was nicely crispy and not too oily, and of course that fabulous mango, coconut cream and sago dessert that just kills me dead. With China Red do your research, figure out the dishes you like and stick to them like glue. The benefits of a fast dumpling cannot be denied.

Shop 6, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9662 3688

www.china-red.com.au

Journal

Ahh, Ol’ Reliable. I went to Journal for two consecutive Sunday brunch visits during MIFF in order to prepare for an extended filmy afternoon and evening. The first contained a creamy celeriac soup, a decadent cherry danish, and a chai served with a generous pot of honey, which is my sole requirement for a good chai. The second visit yielded up a stupidly tasty tomato and basil bruschetta (another example of getting the simple things oh so right), and a flaky croissant served with the daily jam, which just happened to be rhubarb. Can we all band together and make rhubarb jam a thing, because oh man is rhubarb jam a tart-sweet bomb of sticky deliciousness! I ended up being very indelicate and used my knife to scoop up the remains that didn’t end up on my croissant and just slurped it on its own.

253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 4399

Little King

This little gem has easily become my favourite haunt in the city. Hidden behind St Paul’s Cathedral down the same cobblestone alleyway that features the Chapter House gallery space, it’s a tiny lace-curtained bolthole that has some of the tastiest treats and most gorgeous service about town. I have become fast addicted to the soft pumpkin, baby spinach and goats cheese baguette to the point that sometimes I’m blind to anything else that may be in the cabinet. The coffee’s damn nice, at least to a non-habitual coffee drinker like me (I think it the coffee may be done by Padre, take that for whatever it means to you coffee fiends). Best of all, there are always heaps of yummy vegan sweet treats to choose from, which you should totally be doing at all possible times. Especially the banana and dark chocolate muffin. Om nom nom.

Shop 4, 208 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 0030

littlekingcafe.com

Chin Chin

See, I wasn’t lying when I said I used this year’s MIFF as an excuse for decadent food treats! Before viewing the truly excellent I Wish, Jen, Em, Sohi and I managed to score a table at easily the most talked about joint in town (the magic time to go in order to avoid the queues, it seems, is late afternoon). Em has already blogged extensively about this visit over on her blog Enjoy Eat Watch (complete with photos!) so I’ll just do a quick rundown of what I sampled as part of the $65 per head ‘Feed Me’ option – which is OBSCENE value for money, by the way.

– vegetarian wraps with crispy tofu, that come out on a DIY platter. Piles and piles of vegies to choose from in stuffing your wraps, and the peanut satay sauce that comes with it was whizz-bang wonderful.

– crispy corn fritters served with Vietnamese mint, chilli jam, slices of fresh ginger and lettuce leaves. I have to concur with Em and agree that this was the only dish that we sampled that didn’t quite work. All these little fried babies needed was the excellently spicy chilli jam, everything else was extraneous and conflicted texturally.

– a plate of green with the lightly steamed pea and bean shoots with soy honey sauce. I’m a big fan of greens done simply with a good sauce, and this hit the spot perfectly.

– vegetarian fried rice. While nothing will ever compare to my dad’s fried rice, this was still a very satisfying version, with a good proper level of salty soy and a variety of vegie bits and bobs (you always want your fried rice to have a good amount of bits and bobs).

– extreme dessert quartet of sweet destruction: honeycomb parfait with ginger sorbet, banana roti with condensed milk sauce, corn ice cream with caramel coconut rice, and a creamy, coconutty Thai-inspired trifle. While all of these caught my interest in some way, the one that would have me going back in a second would be the honeycomb parfait. Smooth, rich, creamy parfait undercut by the sharp tang of the ginger sorbet: utter bliss.

Needless to say, I am now among the multitudes that found Chin Chin to be utterly worth the hype.

125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

chinchinrestaurant.com.au

Cumulus Inc

I hadn’t tried Cumulus before, mainly due to the fact that I had never really heard of them rated as a good dinner joint for vegos. Indeed, once I was sat at the bar and started perusing the menu, I was dismayed that it seemed to be totally dominated by listings of oysters and charcuterie items. But within the salads and comestibles section I found succour with the cauliflower, chard and taleggio gratin dotted with delicate fronds of black truffle. This is the kind of dish that was so good that I wanted to lift it above my head into the light and declare it the high god king of all that the sun touched, but you know, I would have burnt myself on the hot skillet if I’d done so, so I didn’t.

What is also good about the salad and sides selection is that all bar the gratin can be downsized into half serves. I got myself a wee bowl of the cracked wheat and freekeh salad (I was eyeing off the roasted potatoes with sage and garlic but figured it wouldn’t be advisable to then sit through two films on a tummy filled with double stodge). This was an agreeably nutty side that definitely leavened the going with my cheesy gratin, and certainly felt healthy enough that my cheese guilt lessened considerably.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cumulus was a great experience as a solo diner. Sitting up at the bar you peer directly into the kitchen and can watch the chefs at work, and they all seem more than happy to chat with you while they’re putting together desserts, or cleaning oysters with tiny paintbrushes.

45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 1445

cumulusinc.com.au

Should you be particularly interested in my filmy MIFF musings, you can head on over to 240films.com, where Jen and I are still very slowly going through our reactions to all the films we saw. By the rate we post at, we should have them all done by Christmas.

Enlightened Cuisine

Enlightened Cuisine is always an epic, decadent treat. Mountains of well crafted mock meats, get in my face. And the best way to get mountains of mock meat in your face is to go with the set banquet option, which is an experience Jen and I had been eying off for months.

Having recently benefitted from a slight renovation spruce, the space at Enlightened Cuisine is still comfortably ostentatious, and always sports an eclectic crowd comprising anyone from Chinese families, hipsters, hippies to slightly stately older couples clearly on a fancy vegie date night.

There are two banquet price point options you can opt for, and within those options you have three different menu selections to choose from. We went with one of the $35 per head banquet options, where you get eight dishes all up. We started off with the mock shark fin soup, which was highly intriguing in terms of texture and quite tasty, although like most Chinese restaurant soups it came out scorchingly hot and I of course burnt my tongue. Silly rabbit.

The vegetable spring rolls came next and these were pretty standard, but good and crunchy with a nice array in terms of filling.

The kung po prawn was a mix of vegetables and wee little mock prawns that were most intriguing (to me anyway, I don’t think Jen was too keen on them). The kung po sauce was however VERY overpowering and neither of us liked the taste of it terribly much, so I ended up just fleecing it of prawns then left it be.

The sweet & sour pork however was damn good, same deal with mock meats nestling amongst a variety of vegetables, but the texture of the mock pork protein was freakily reminiscent of actual pork (it totally got the stringy way pork pulls apart right HOW CAN SOY DO THIS IT STILL TOTALLY BOGGLES ME). The sweet and sour sauce was also agreeably well done, I think this was my favourite dish of the night all told.

We’d been looking forward to the ma po tofu, as it’s always fab to experience a vegie version. The mock mince was nutty, the tofu tender and the spice level ratcheted up to “oh my that’s getting a bit warmmmmaohmygodHOT!” Being a chilli weenie I didn’t have as much of this as I probably should have given how nice it was.

The stir-fried mixed vegetables certainly helped to cut through all the rich sauces that accompanied the mock meat dishes.

The fried rice, kind of surprisingly, ended up being the dish that was most eagerly hoovered by Jen and I. It mimics your standard suburban Chinese restaurant fried rice even down to the little cubes of mock pork, but I don’t remember any childhood fried rice tasting this good. Highly impressed when a simple dish like this really brings the goods.

We were pretty stuffed by this point and were already feeling a bit guilty that we’d left so much of some of the savoury dishes untouched that dessert was seeming like an extra challenge. We needn’t have worried though, as the small dish of lychee and longans with ice cream turned out to be an excellent, light way to finish off the meal. I actually hadn’t had longans before, and I was interested to discover how similar they are to lychees in taste but are so different in terms of texture; they almost have a tight crunch to them, and are much firmer. I now want to do a series of longan dessert experiments!

The banquet selections at Enlightened Cuisine are certainly value for money given the obscene amount of food that ends up coming your way. Given how chagrined we were at how much we couldn’t fit in with just the two of us, I would think that the ideal banqueting party number would be three or four people. Now to confirm my hypothesis by gathering together a few more mock meat appreciating people and getting stuck in for round two!

Enlightened Cuisine

113 Queensbridge Street, Southbank

Ph: 9686 9188

http://ecuisine.com.au/index.html