125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 8663 2000
Full disclosure: @thatjessho works at Chin Chin, and she’s a good friend of mine.
It might just be because of the makeup of my tweetstream, but twitter seems to be abuzz about Chin Chin. And why not? It’s just plain awesome.
Chin Chin serves modern Thai food – executed exceedingly well by Andrew Gimber and his kitchen – in a comfortable, casual space. Think of it as Cumulus Inc., with a South East Asian twist, and less atttude. In fact, all of the staff have been friendly and great, and I’ve been in three times now. I daresay if I lived in the city, this would be my new local.
My first visit there, Jess was telling me about the fitout, which I love, and how the place used to be the infamous Icon bar. Where the bar was often set alight, and all sorts of code violations happened on a regular basis, until they were shut down late last year. Take an impressive long marble bar, a theatrette commercial kitchen, and smartly re-configurable seating, and add a small modicum of quirky but warm finishes; you have a winning combination. Not really surprising, given the pedigree of Projects of Imagination (Cumulus, Golden Fields, Coda). And yes, they did remember to add hooks for the bar-stool seating areas. You’ll find them under the bar.
More importantly, the relaxed but sophisticated feel of the place is not so much a facade, but a reflection of the menu. The first thing I tried was a Tamarind cocktail. Sort of like a less slushy margarita, the Sichuan pepper salt rim is the kicker which takes this cocktail out of the ordinary. I would have liked a touch more tamarind, but I like my sour cocktails really sour. I think it comes from eating warheads candies as a kid.
The menu is broken up quite logically into starters, soups, salads, curries, bigger dishes, and desserts. You can work your way through it – I know I’m trying to – or you have the option of just saying “Feed me!” and the kitchen will send out a procession seven different items for $66 per head. Which is a good way to go, if you’re not adept at balancing a Thai menu. It was much like my experience at bo.lan in Bangkok, whose chefs, like Andrew Gimber, had also trained under David Thompson.
We started off with the Kingfish sashimi. Laced with coconut cream, lime and Thai basil, this is a deceptively simple dish, and probably a contender for the least spicy thing on the menu. The fish itself was wonderfully fresh – both times I tried it – and the flavour combination of the adornments works beautifully, especially the thin strips of kaffir lime garnish.
Fried school prawns with nam prik pla gapi, basil, lemon and crudites. First of all, let’s clear one thing up. Crudite is just fancy French for raw vegetables. Which are a good foil for the deep fried prawns and the salt and spice in the nam prik, a Thai dipping sauce made of chilli, lemon, palm sugar and fermented shrimp paste. Especially the little witlof leaves, which are useful for making a little scoop and loading up a few of these little puppies for a mouthful of BAM, as Jess would say. I liked this dish, but I have to say, personally, I prefer my school prawns just a little bit larger, because that usually means they have bigger heads, which is where the flavour is!
Next, we had the spicy eggnet omelette rolls, filled with spanner crab and chilli jam. The spanner crab was wonderfully delicate, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the eggnet. This might have been an expectation thing, because when they arrived at the table, I expected them to be crunchy, but they were much softer, and a little bit chewy. Pro tip: they have enough structural integrity for you to pick them up and eat them like a spring roll. Don’t make the mistake I did of attacking it with a spoon and fork. It gets messy.
Grilled roti madtarbak. I thought this was more of a Malaysian dish than a Thai one, but there’s a lot of over-the-border cross-pollination between the two cuisines, I guess. These were filled with a tasty beef mince, and accompanied by a sweet and tangy cucumber relish. The roti itself was well made, with a super crispy top layer, that was super flaky.
Interlude: our entrees last night. We were seated in a slightly more dim part of the restaurant, hence the noticeably dodgier photography. But hey, we both know you don’t read this blog for the photos. We started with the oyster omelette. Topped with a crispier version of the eggnet, this oyster omelette was fine, but I still prefer the super-crispy one at Four seasons in Hong Kong. The chilli sauce that came with it, however, was wicked!
Spicy corn and coriander fritters. Sorry, they look like little fried turds. But they were super tasty little fried turds! Eaten lettuce-wrap style, I quickly became a big fan of these. I could see myself polishing off a whole dish as a beer ‘snack’.
Anyway, back to my original visit, and on to mains. Ordinarily, I don’t get excited by curry dishes in Thai restaurants, unless it’s a red duck curry. I have a soft spot for that one. But this green rockling curry has changed all of that. It’s quite simply the best Thai curry I’ve had in Melbourne. The flavours are balanced expertly, so that you’re not overwhelmed by any one flavour when you first taste it. Indeed, I was a little worried at my first bite that I wasn’t going to like this – it seemed somewhat timid in terms of the level of spiciness. However, ten seconds later, and the flavours have somehow miraculously developed in my mouth – a clever slow burn, rounded out by the rich sweetness of the coconut, while still tasting fresh and zingy thanks to the lemongrass, galangal and shredded kaffir lime leaf. The rockling was also an astute choice for this dish; present but not too fishy, and practically melting in your mouth. Also, big ups for including pea eggplants. Little semi-bitter nuggets of joy!
Soy marinated crispy quail, dusted with Sichuan salt. Served with a lemon wedge and Sriracha, this was a perfectly good rendition of a classic dish. The quail was juicy and plump, and it was well seasoned. Somehow, it just didn’t wow me, and I think it might be better as an starter than as a bigger dish. That’s a fair bit of quail to commit to if you’re eating on your own, or as a couple. As a shared dish, it was ok. But then again, I wouldn’t recommend eating quail on a date anyway. It’s fiddly and can easily get stuck between your teeth.
Steamed chicken with Chinese broccoli and Miss Michelle’s XO sauce. A take on khao man gai without the khao (rice). The house XO sauce here was a winner, but unfortunately, it was let down by the chicken, which was a little over-cooked for my liking.
Salad of crispy barramundi, pork belly and green apple. I maintain to this day that the first time I ate at Chat Thai in Sydney, they served me a ‘green mango’ salad that had substituted granny smith apple for green mango. I lived in Viet Nam for a year, I know what green mango tastes like. But I digress. I like the fact Chin Chin’s making no pretensions about their ingredients. Because when it comes down to it, the green apple works really well in this salad. As instructed by Jess, it’s important to balance each mouthful of this salad, making sure you get a little pork and a little barramundi. The barramundi is quite salty, and the pork belly is sweet and luxuriously rich. Both texturally and flavour-wise, the two are an amazing match. Definitely try this dish – you won’t be disappointed. Winner.
Interlude II: last night we tried the tripe salad, a special on the menu at the moment. The tricky thing about ‘the specials’ is that they’re not marked on the menu at all, and as the menus/placemats are printed daily (I think) dishes have a potential to come and go pretty quickly. Let’s hope this one doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon! Essentially, this is larb, but take out the minced chicken or pork, and substitute some soft-yet-springy tripe. If you’re at all into offal, as I am, or even just as long as you’re not put off by tripe, you’re going to love this dish. A hefty whack of chilli and toasted ground rice sealed the deal for me, and @eatnik pronounced it better than the tripe at Chinese Spicy Barbie Kitchen, which is a big call, but she’s right. To be fair, they are serving different parts of the anatomy, but let’s not get into the specifics of omasums.
We also had a Massaman beef curry, which was a little too sweet, and heavy on the cinnamon, but I didn’t manage to get a shot of that one. The beef was wonderfully tender, it was just the style of curry wasn’t quite to my liking. I did manage to get a picture of the wild boar, stir-fried in red curry paste with snake beans. But as you can see below, it wasn’t really a good picture!
Which is a shame, because the dish is superb. A good level of spice, and yet the flavour of the boar still manages to shine through. You can tell it’s not just pork. It’s somehow more flavoursome, and has a touch of a gamey flavour to it.
Anyway, back to my first visit, and onto desserts. Ms S decided on the three colour pudding, a re-interpretation of the Vietnamese che ba mau or Malaysian cendol. For me, this was a bit too sweet.
On Jess’ recommendation, I ordered the ‘floating gem’ dessert. And it was A-MAZ-ING. An island of mango granita is surrounded by a sea of jasmine syrup, which has judiciously been lightly salted, and around it float the gems of lychees, lime segments and toddy palm. The toddy palm was something new to me; it’s a sort of jelly, not unlike a soft agar. What I loved about this dessert was that it wasn’t too sweet. There was a potential for that – granita, syrup, fruit, jelly – but the salt in the syrup, and the little chunks of lime, make it interesting, tasty and refreshing. There’s another part of me, the wanky part, that likes the concept behind this dessert, because it’s something of a metaphor for a tropical island! Anyway, I highly recommend this dessert.
So my impression of Chin Chin overall? Destined to be one of my favourite places in Melbourne. Aside from the problem I have with kerning in some of the branding – is it Chin Chin, or is it chinchin? – the food is amazing, the service is good (and handsome), and I feel comfortable eating there. They’re already packed out almost every night, and they don’t take bookings generally, unless you’ve got a group of more than eight, so RUN DON’T WALK people.