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

Miss Chu: South Yarra Edition

Despite the fact that I’ve eaten from Miss Chu’s Exhibition Street location in the city quite a few times since it opened, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to blog about it. This is for the reason that even though I’ve always really enjoyed the food, the vibe of the restaurant itself has always left me stone cold. From frequently being ignored as a solo diner by waitstaff who always seem to be more focused on prepping or talking among themselves, to being overcrowded in the furniture-stuffed small space, to that slightly paranoid feeling that everyone else around you is in the venue purely to be seen, Miss Chu as a place has always made me feel uncomfortable. Indeed, the times I’ve enjoyed Miss Chu the most has been those times when I’ve been with friends in the city and we’ve ordered Miss Chu’s to deliver: that way I was able to focus on the delicately flavoured, well put together food without feeling that I was far too uncool to be allowed to experience it.

So when I discovered that the second Melbourne Miss Chu location was to be opened around the corner from one of my workplaces, I was all kinds of conflicted. Because even though I was excited to get delicious rice paper rolls is a location convenient for me, I was worried that the same problems that I’d experienced at Exhibition Street would also be prevalent at South Yarra.

Biting the bullet, Muffin and I decided to visit for lunch after we had seen a film at the Como. I was interested to see how Muffin would react to the food and space, given that she had never had Miss Chu’s before.

The South Yarra space is still a bit furniture-crammed, but it’s much more brightly lit and cheery than Exhibition Street’s dark cavern. I particularly liked the strings of light fittings with blue and white patterned porcelain bowls that had been converted into lampshades, an idea taken from the Exhibition Street store and refined in a much more striking way.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in ordering – you order using little take out sheets where you tick the boxes next to what you want, which is simple enough, but when I took it to the counter it took quite a while for any of the numerous staff to acknowledge me, then once a waiter had noticed me there was drama with the till – it seemed like no one present was terribly familiar with how to use it – then the wrong bill was tallied up and my correct docket had to be re-found. This isn’t intended as a slight against the staff, they were very apologetic and much friendlier than any I’d encountered at Exhibition Street, it just seems that this might be a case where the many staff are trained to fulfill certain roles on the floor and in the kitchen and aren’t briefed on things that fall outside of those roles. Which probably works marvelously well when the joint is pumping but, you know, less well when there’s not much happening.

Anyway, onto food. We got the two types of vegie rice paper rolls, the vegetarian with egg omelette, avocado and balsamic caramelised onion, and the vegan option with tofu, mushrooms and spinach. I’ve always really loved the egg omelette roll, despite the fact that the caramelised onions never really make their presence known, it’s still a lovely fresh burst of a thing to bite into. The vegan option is much the same, just lacking the same touch of umami possessed by the egg ones (umami is one of those pretentious, over-used food blogger words that I should avoid using, isn’t it? I just feel like I use ‘savoury’ too much in place of it. Eh, bygones). What really makes the rice paper rolls exciting is the little bottle of, by all accounts house made, chilli sauce served with them. This stuff is liquid crack – it’s not terribly hot, but is more subtle with loads of spice and sweetness and I just want to slather it over everything.

I can’t go without dumplings, so I had to make sure some English spinach and tofu steamed dumplings hit the table. They had lovely thin and delicate wrappers that were steamed into a smooth gelatinous consistency, and come swimming in a gingery soy sauce. Gingery anything always goes down well with me, and it made up for the fact that the filling itself wasn’t amazingly flavoursome.

Next were the vegetarian net spring rolls. Or LITTLE CRISPY TUBES OF AWESOME. The net pastry means that you get a huge dose of crispy, which is just how I like my fried things. Do be aware though that you only get four in a serving, they’re not terribly big and you will be struck with the desire to want more almost immediately.

Wanting a cooling beverage, I decided to order a coconut water, which I’ve never had before. Annoying diet food trend side, it was quite refreshing, and I did like the fact that it contained softened curls of coconut flesh as well.

So my conclusion by this point was this: despite various annoyances with the set up of the place, the food is genuinely pretty good. The flavours have clearly been softened slightly for the desired clientele (so if you’re looking for a proper Vietnamese chilli punch, look elsewhere), but is still tasty enough to mostly be worth the bother. Muffin had been very pleased too with the food, and came away with a very positive first impression.

And then as we were leaving, I spotted the delivery scooters lined up out along the footpath in front of the restaurant. In particular, the large slogans emblazoned on the scooters proclaiming “You ling, we bling!”

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.

Did I miss the memo saying that it was totally cool now to use racist caricature language in marketing?  I mean, we’re talking about a venue and a brand that has set itself up to be as cool and on-trend as humanly possible, and presents a menu of “authentic”-branded Vietnamese food that, and let’s be blunt, is deliberately designed to appeal to young white people. This smacks pretty forcefully of being straight up hipster racism.

Upon further research it appears that this is a pretty standard part of Miss Chu’s marketing strategy. For instance, on the Miss Chu website, the button to click in order to like them on Facebook says “Me likey!” GROSS. GROSS GROSS GROSS.

I sent several ranty emails to my friend Jen (who is well accustomed to receiving numerous frothing, CAPSLOCK-heavy email cries of despair from me) about this whole thing and asked her whether I was over-reacting. Her response started with “Well, considering the business is helmed by a Laotian-Vietnamese woman, maybe they’re being self-consciously ironic and re-appropriating racist phrasing?” but quickly plunged into doubt the more she researched, to finally culminate in her own rage-filled email: “Oh, it gets worse – I just tried to order Miss Chu’s delivered and the website came up with the message ‘WE NO DELIVER WHERE YOU LIVE.’ Whyyyyy, Hayley, whyyyyyy.” Why indeed.

Look, I was willing to forgive a whole avalanche of pretentiousness in order to get some good food, but tacitly endorsing horridly cutesy, ‘ironic’ racist sloganeering for the sake of a few delicious rice paper rolls? Yeah, that’s not something that I’m okay with. Adios, Miss Chu.

Miss Chu

276 Toorak Road, South Yarra

Ph: 9041 5848

www.misschu.com.au

Update: My friend Joe alerted me via Twitter of yet another example of grossness on their website.

Hanôi Hannah

It’s starting to get a little scary how quickly new food ventures in Melbourne are jumped on with enthusiastic gusto by the food-conscious populace. A while back I noticed a roller-door on High Street in Prahran emblazoned in big red spray-painted letters with the words “Hanôi Hannah”. “Hmm, that looks like it might be something interesting,” I thought. I later found out through some internet noodling that it was to be a new Vietnamese restaurant. “Oooh, south-side Vietnamese, that’s a savvy move, I hope it’s going to be good.” A few weeks later I drove past on the way to trivia and saw it was finally open. “Oh yay, I’ll have to give it a peek.”

Then on a day very shortly after, I was doing some internet doodling, and *ping!* up on Twitter popped up a new tweet from Broadsheet… reviewing Hanôi Hannah.

Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. I messaged Muffin. “We have to go have dinner tonight at a new Vietnamese place in Prahran because Broadsheet’s just reviewed it and now the trendies know about it and from now on there’s going to be queues and I hate queues and waaaaaah…”*

“Alright, alright! Vietnamese it is.”

Hanôi Hannah is in a teeny tiny space, easily picked out from the street with it’s halo of red and yellow stringed lights, and my prediction of queues was bang on. Make sure you get there EARLY. Muffin and I arrived at a little past 6.30 and got some of the last seats in the place out on the pavement. A queue formed very shortly after, and existed for the remainder of our visit. In the weeks since our visit, I have never been past it without seeing a substantial number of people waiting to get in, so beware fellow folks with a dearth of patience!

We pretty much ended up ordering all the vegetarian dishes available on the menu to share, bar the spring rolls. Our waitress, who was a bubbly delight, said “That’s pretty much what I had for lunch today, you’re going to love it!”

The tofu and shiitake rice paper rolls were filled with julienned pickled cucumber and carrot slices, and Vietnamese mint. Served with them was a thick, brown dipping sauce reminiscent of hoisin. They were very fresh, there was no hardening or crusting of the rice wrappers, which is a good indication that they are made to order.

The winner dish of the evening was the steamed bok choy with ginger and sesame sauce, topped with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds. Sometimes there’s no other phrase to use for one’s enjoyment of a dish other than an exaggerated and ridiculous OM NOM NOM. So simple, and yet so freaking delicious.

We also had the peppered tofu with carrot, cucumbers, mint and what I think were the sliced up fleshy parts of either bok choy or gai lan. This had a nice little kick to it, with the tofu chunks nicely charred and peppery.

The last dish was a vermicelli noodle salad with tofu, carrot, cucumber and mint, in a light dressing that was probably mostly rice vinegar based. This was quite a plain dish, although light and reasonably refreshing on the tongue. It definitely could have benefited from some chopped up fresh chilli, though, or a whack of ginger. We did notice (too late) that there are jars of that outrageously spicy Vietnamese chilli paste available to spoon over dishes, but I am a little surprised that there doesn’t seem to be much fresh chilli going on.

As you all know, I find it hard to not to finish on a sweet note, so I ordered a pineapple and lychee slushie off of the drinks menu. Freshly blitzed up in a blender at the bar, it was sweet and refreshing, and I particularly liked that there was still the occasional little chunk of juicy lychee to be found in the mix.

While the vegetarian options are admittedly very samey when it comes to ingredients and I’d love to see a bit more variety developed in the future, I really can’t sniff at the freshness of everything we sampled at Hanôi Hannah, and especially it’s cheapness. It’s a tightly run ship with some very nice and engaging staff, and seems to have hit on a market for cheap Vietnamese that the south has been missing. Although whether I’ll have the patience to brave the queues in order to sample seconds, well, we’ll just have to see.

Hanôi Hannah

180 High Street, Prahran

Ph: 9939 5181

http://www.hanoihannah.com.au/

*I am well aware of the irony of a food blogger complaining about people wanting to get into new food places first. I make no claims towards us being a logical breed!

T’relek

Being known as “the foodie” in amongst all your friends and acquaintances can sometimes become a bit of a chore. Most of the time it’s great fun, I love taking people to places that I enjoy and seeing how they react to them, but often times people will be expecting you to, one, always be the person to come up with suggestions for places to eat, and two, have intimate knowledge about every single restaurant, cafe and hole-in-the-wall across the city (I have a hard enough time remembering my own birthday let alone knowledge of that scope!). So it comes as a great relief to be invited out to venues that other people have chosen, and it’s an added bonus when it’s a place I know nothing about.

T’relek came as a suggestion from Lucy, who Amelia, Nik and I were taking out for a celebratory birthday dinner. It’s one of hundreds of Vietnamese places lining Victoria Street, and appears a little more upmarket and shinier than some of the others that I’ve frequented: the surfaces are all glossy and sleek, the light fittings bright and modish, and the entire windowed front of the restaurant can open out into the street, so even in hot weather it’s comfortable.

If you’re eating Vietnamese, you simply have to start with a serving of Vietnamese-style spring rolls, it is the law. I love how thin and long Vietnamese spring rolls are, and how you eat them by balancing them on a leaf of lettuce, loading it up with beanshoots and Vietnamese mint, rolling it up and then immersing it in dipping sauce. It is one of the most happily meditative food experiences that I know of.

After a bungle by the trainee waitress, who thought that we’d wanted to order rice paper rolls, we were presented with two plates of spring rolls, one vegetarian, one prawn. They were crispy and hot, with a minimally flavoured centre, although that doesn’t really matter when we were wrapping each roll up with fresh mint, beanshoots and carrot curls and then dunking them in chilli-flecked sauce. But there were a few hiccups. We did have to ask for more lettuce (we were originally only given two leaves, which for four people… yeah, not enough), and I am pretty much 99% certain that the dipping sauce contained fish sauce, which is a big fat screaming vegie no-no. I really should have asked for clarification before ordering, but I have become spoiled because this town is generally so good with vegie dishes. And really, if you list a dish as vegetarian, the ‘vege’ extends to the condiments! As for the prawn specimens, the overall verdict appeared positive, although Amelia opined that she’d had better spring rolls on Victoria Street (Amelia appears to have eaten at pretty much every restaurant of note along Victoria Street, so I’d heed her word).

For the main, I ordered the rice noodles with vegetables. The noodles were flat rice noodles (the kind used in char kway teow), with the vegetables consisting of snowpeas, carrots, beanshoots, two varieties of mushrooms, some dense yet tasty slabs of tofu and one single lonely green bean. It was an enjoyable enough dish, albeit simple, the rice noodles retaining that fabulous smoky taste from being wok fried, and the vegies were well-cooked and tasty. The one negative was that it was quite oily, which got a little unpleasant towards the very end.

As for the carnivores, they shared three dishes between them, a chicken and vegetable dish that looked slightly curry-ish, a beef and vegetables dish, and the salt and pepper squid. Amelia raved about the squid, and Nik rated both the squid and the beef as his favourite dishes. Lucy was a fan of the chicken, so all three dishes ended up striking someone’s fancy, which is a pretty boss strike-rate.

T’relek is a friendly place that seems to be doing it’s hardest to attract a more discerning clientele. It is sparkling clean and modish, and the service is very attentive; after our waitress’s initial bungle, the head waiter kept a close eye on us, made sure that everything was okay whenever something new was brought out, and was overall jovial. At the end of our meal we were given a free plate of orange slices to finish with, which is always a gesture I can’t help but feel is charming. Yet I can’t wholeheartedly recommend T’relek for the veggie folk, as I don’t feel at all confident that they are as terribly vigilant about keeping their vegetarian options as meat-free as they could be. Perhaps if you plan on visiting, prepare to be more interrogative about what’s in dishes than I was.

T’relek

166 Victoria Street, Richmond

Ph: 9427 1777

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.

Silence.

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.