Cong Tu Bac Lieu

Shop 4 Westville Central Shopping Centre, 62 Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9004 1781

As a foodblogger, I get a little jaded sometimes; especially when it comes to Vietnamese food, because I live in the Vina Mecca that is Footscray. The vast majority of Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne have very similar menus, which is convenient because it makes it easier to compare them, but also leaves me a little bored sometimes.

When Nha Hang Cong Tu Bac Lieu (CTBL, because Nha Hang just means restaurant in Vietnamese) opened a couple of months ago, Lauren and I got rather excited. We always get excited when new things open in Footscray, though none would excite us more than a bar, or maybe even a licensed restaurant that stays open past 10pm.

My first visit to CTBL was for lunch, and they were serving a limited menu, as they didn’t have the gas on in the kitchen. A little disconcerting, but you have to admire the sheer (foolhardy) balls of running a restaurant using portable gas stoves. I ordered the sweet duck noodle, as it was the only dish on the limited menu which I hadn’t heard of before.
imageThe noodle used was the thick rice vermicelli, like you would get in a bun bo Hue, topped with stewed duck, carrot and a block of pig’s blood, all in a broth which was a bit too sweet for my liking. But having never tried the dish before, I don’t know; maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. All I know is that it’s wasn’t really for me.
imageMy next visit was also for lunch, and again, they still weren’t serving the full menu yet. This time I went for the more familiar classic, com tam bi suon trung (broken rice with shredded pork skin, pork chop and egg). When I’m not sucking down soup noodles, this is probably one of my favourite dishes, and CTBL makes a very decent version.
imageThe pork chop was nicely grilled, and the yolk of the egg was still gloriously runny. There’s something about a runny yolk, fish sauce and broken rice which just evokes memories of my childhood. I think my only complaints with this dish were that I would have liked more fish sauce – I love to drench my rice with it – and I prefer it when the pickled carrot is julienned rather than sliced. But I’m nit-picking; it was a great rendition.
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Visit three rolled around another week later – CTBL was becoming something of a regular haunt of mine on weekends, as I kept returning to see if their full menu was available yet – but still no full menu. To their credit, the interim limited menu had been refreshed, with a few dishes I’d never seen before. This time, I went for the banh tam bi xiu mai (rice vermicelli with meatballs), another dish which I haven’t seen anywhere else in Footscray.
imageThis is a semi-dry dish of thick rice vermicelli, which comes topped with shredded pork skin, peanuts, pickled carrot, and a couple of xiu mai (pork meatballs). I might just add that the xiu mai at CTBL are awesome. They look horrible – as most meatballs do – but they’re tasty and a little peppery, and wonderfully soft. The other interesting element to the dish is coconut milk. You toss the lot around, and the combination of the tomato-based xiu mai sauce and the coconut milk creates a flavour which is unlike most other Vietnamese noodle dishes. Apparently, it’s a specialty from the Bac Lieu province in the Mekong delta.
imageI found it a touch odd at first – the flavour was a little bland, ans sweet – but then I added some of the accompanying fish sauce, and the whole thing came to life. As usual with Vietnamese food, the dish is a balance of sweet, sour and salty. Without the fish sauce, it didn’t taste right; as soon as it was balanced, however, it was delicious, and I couldn’t believe how great it was.

A couple of weeks later, I visited again, this time with Lauren and her daughters. I insisted she try the banh tam bi xiu mai, and she was similarly intrigued and delighted by it. We also had the bun chao tom (rice vermicelli with grilled prawn on sugar cane) which was a good fresh and light option for lunch.
imageI’m intrigued to try CTBL for dinner some time, as they have an interesting array of dishes aside from the regular stir-fries and salads. Finally, the other thing that I love about CTBL is the people running it. Each time I’ve been there, the staff have been friendly and helpful. I don’t think I’ll ever have a single ‘local’ restaurant that I will always go to, but CTBL is definitely deserving of many repeat visits.

Check out what Lauren thought of the place.

Dumpling Den

88 Grattan St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 7702

I believe that food comprises a large part of my memory. I remember my father introducing me to sardines in tomato sauce on toast for breakfast, and crunching on Sunnyboys at the local swimming pool in the height of summer. Indeed, I write this blog on memory alone; I don’t take notes while eating, because that would get in the way of my eating.

But there are times when I don’t remember. Most often, it’s because I’ve been drinking too much, but sometimes I’m just otherwise distracted. The latter was the case when I visited Dumpling Den. It was a first date, you see.

I’d been meaning to try out Dumpling Den for a while, and dumplings didn’t appear on this list of things not to eat on a date, so I figured it was a good idea. I don’t agree with a lot of things on that list, by the way. I agree that things that get stuck in your teeth or that will inevitably end up all over your shirt should be avoided, but I don’t think you need to avoid eating something on a date just because it’s kind of phallic or has sloppily suggestive juices which you’ll need to wipe from your mouth. Where’s the fun in that?

So we ordered two types of dumplings – fried pork, and steamed chicken and prawn – and I promptly forgot to note anything about the food as we talked about bands, family, the nature of friendships, and Benjamin Law.
imageI remember less about the pork dumplings – not much aside from the fact they were a little tricky to separate as they’d become something of a homogeneous mass in the process of pan-frying them together – than I do about the exact hue of his eyes. I don’t really remember much about the other dumplings either, but I remember us bumping knees under the table. I don’t remember if the chilli oil was worth writing about, but I remember he ordered an orange juice. OK, I confess I don’t even remember that; I just saw it in the picture below.
imageWhat I do remember is feeling a little nauseous, but I don’t think that was the dumplings, I think it was just butterflies in my stomach; I was a little nervous.
imageIt’s not often that my memory fails me, when it comes to food. In fact, I’d say it’s something of an extraordinary circumstance. But then, he’s a pretty extraordinary guy.

So this review’s a little pointless, hey? Well, no, because I know he’ll read it. ūüėČ

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Fake meat

I read (most of) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals while I was on holiday in Malaysia, while eating my way to using a new notch on my belt. It made me think more closely about what I choose to eat, but ultimately, it hasn’t really made me change the way I eat. I’m an unapologetic omnivore.

White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant
185 Victoria St, West Melbourne
Phone: 9326 6040

So when Bryan and Lauren recently (re)visited White Lotus and raved about the faux meat dishes, I knew this was something I also wanted to re-investigate. These ‘fake meats’ have been made for centuries by Buddhists, who are strict vegetarians. They’re made of different manipulations of beans and grains, like tofu, tempeh and glutens, and you know what? They do lack that satisfaction that comes with smashing a rare eye fillet steak or a bucket of fried chicken, but at times, they’re a pretty close facsimile.

I met up with two members of the Delta Force Five for dinner at White Lotus, and let’s say I was a little trepidatious. The place is only open three night a week, and looks like it may have opened in the eighties, and not have been renovated since. The lighting is a little dim, making the overall effect dingy, but the service is friendly, and as you’ll see, the food is interesting. Apologies for the god awful photos, but as I said, the place was dingy.

We started by sharing some mixed entrees. Spring rolls and wontons – the vegetarian versions of which are nothing new – and fried taro cutlets. These were awesome. Seriously, taro is probably one of the most under-rated vegeatbles around. Potatoes got nothing on the density of that starch.
image¬†At Ms K’s request, we got the Sweet and Sour ‘Pork’, an Aussie Chinese classic, and one that is dear to my own heart. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so great. Funnily, what let it down wasn’t so much the fake pork. While that wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t offensive, either. What let the dish down was the batter, which was already a bit soggy by the time it arrived at the table. I would have thought such masters with glutens and flours would be able to mix together a great batter which stays crunchy!
image¬†Ms N insisted we order the ma po tofu, which was really quite good. The replacement for the pork mince was something like TVP, but this didn’t really detract much from the dish, which is all about the tofu and the spicy sauce anyway. This is definitely not the best ma po tofu I’ve had in Melbourne, but it’s passable.
image¬†Finally, I ordered the roast ‘duck’, because I’d heard of the amazing textures in this dish. Three different treatments of non-meat had been combined to create the meat, crispy skin, and even subcutaneous fat layer of the roast ‘duck’. The flavour wasn’t quite there, but texturally, this was amazing. A couple at another table came in, and just ordered two serves of the roast ‘duck’ and rice, and I can see why. I wouldn’t share this if I didn’t have to.
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Yong Green Food
421 Brunswick, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 3338

A few nights later, I caught up with my old housemate Le Singe. I’d heard a lot about Yong Green Food, especially the ‘rawsagne’, but in the end it was too cold and gloomy a night for raw food that hadn’t been heated above 40 degrees. So we started by sharing the mung bean pancake, which was really quite enjoyable. It wasn’t as thin as a crepe, but not really pancake thickness either; maybe as thick as a pancake made using plain flour. You could taste the mung beans, which reminded me a little of banh xeo, and the flavour gave me the overall impression of being¬†healthy, though not in a bad way, like spirulina. The dipping sauce was a bit meh.
image¬†Yong Green Food is primarily vegetarian, with a heavy Asian slant to the menu, but given the name and the cute little waitresses who all had similar bob haircuts, I’d say there’s a pretty strong Korean bias happening there. So I thought I’d try the Korean BBQ dish, which was sliced soy ‘beef’ with vegetables and rice.
image¬†While there was nothing offensive about this dish – it was perfectly edible – it was pretty disappointing. The ‘beef’ didn’t have even the slightest hint of being grilled, so the term ‘BBQ’ was a pretty outlandish claim. There was also a lack of spice, which again was a bit baffling.

Le Singe had the teriyaki chicken, which she quite enjoyed.
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We had arrived quite early, because I had a soccer game late in the evening, and gobbled up our food by about 7:30. We were promptly given the bill, which we settled, and then we continued to chat away. A few minutes later, one of the waitresses came over and asked us to leave, because they had people waiting for a table. Now I understand the need to turn tables over, and not keep people waiting, but unless you’re clearly advertising specific seating times, I think asking customers to leave once they’re finished is pretty bad form. It was a disappointing end to a somewhat disappointing meal, really. I probably won’t be back anytime soon.
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Crazy wing

177 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 6555

There seems to be a proliferation of new Chinese barbecue places in the last few months: Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen, Crazy Wing and a new Oriental BBQ joint in Footscray to name a few. They seem to be influenced by Northern Chinese cuisine, and the grilled goodies come out on skewers, usually rubbed with spice mixes that are heavy on the chilli and/or cumin. I’m all for them, because food is always better on a stick. Roasting a pig? Better on a spit.

@thatjessho, @eatnik, @eatnik’s cousin and I went to try out Crazy Wing recently, because not only is the place all about food on a stick, it’s about chicken wings on a stick. And if you don’t like chicken wings, there’s probably something wrong with you. Or you’re a vegetarian. Or both.

Crazy Wing runs similarly to a hotpot place. You’re presented with an order form at the table, on which you fill in the items you want. I’m fairly sure you can add to that later, but we were already a little greedy in our ordering, so there was no need to find out if that was an option.

We started off with some ‘blotch’ soup. That’s the other thing I love about these places. The translations are invariably hilarious. It was basically a vegetable and egg flower soup, with little lumps of dough in it. It sounds worse than it was. I wasn’t a huge fan – it tasted of nothing – but @eatnik quite liked it, and @thatjessho did not. It’s a pretty big bowl though – we syphoned it off into four little bowls – so it might actually be good for dousing flames. You’ll understand later.imageBecause we were all starving, we ordered some cold dishes, and true to expectation, they arrived at the table quickly. The cucumber with garlic was awesome. Very garlicky, but I think the sauce had been cooked and then cooled, because the garlic didn’t have an overly raw taste to it. Note to self: order more of this next time.imageWe hoed into the Chinese cabbage and chilli before I had a chance to take a photo, but that’s just a testament to how good it was. It’s essentially kim chi, but it was a bit sweeter, and had less of a vinegar flavour to it.imageThen the grilled stuff started to arrive. There’s a wooden tray in the middle of the table, and the waitresses walk around the restaurant clutching bundles of grilled stuff on skewers which they dump on the tray. It’s all very practical, and I’m sure it saves them a lot of washing up. The first items to hit the tray were tripe, chicken livers and enoki mushrooms wrapped in bean curd skin. Out of these, I’d go the chicken livers again, but the other two weren’t that great. Despite having had them at Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen and here, I’m still not sold on grilled enoki mushrooms. I much prefer them in soup or a stir fry. I feel they just end up a bit stringy when you grill them.imageThen came the grilled pork intestines. These were a-MAZ-ingly good. If you like offal, run, don’t walk, people. I mean if there’s an offal-on-a-stick Holy Grail, this is most likely it. The intestines were well seasoned, and grilled so they were just cooked; they were soft rather than chewy, and had a nice char to the outside.imageChicken hearts and chicken gizzards were next, which were alright, but a little dry and overcooked, I thought. imageThen came some calamari, which tasted good, but was a little rubbery. I think perhaps a thicker part of the squid would have been better?imageThen came the onslaught of wings. It was a Tuesday night, so the 2-for-1 deal – there’s a different one every night – was the Honey Spicy Wing. So we ordered four. Our original intention was that by ordering four, they’d charge us for two. Of course, they interpreted this as us ordering four, and so we got eight serves. With two wingettes in a serve, that was sixteen Honey Spicy chicken wings. Lucky they’re pretty great! I could eat these things for days. Oh yeah, there’s some grilled capsicum under there, too. It was a bit raw, which is to say, kind of gross.imageOf course, we had to try the signature ‘Crazy Wing’. I’d read that they were intolerably spicy, but of course, that sort of talk just egged us on. We ordered two serves, so we could each try one wing.image@eatnik’s cousin and Jess gave up after a single taste, it was that insanely – crazily – spicy. Jess labelled it “offensive”, and claimed to have seen God. I found them stupidly, uncomfortably, and insultingly hot, but funnily enough, the only thing which seemed to make it tolerable, was to eat more. I had run out of soya bean drink by then, you see. So I finished my wing, but I don’t think I’d eat another one soon, unless someone dared me to for money. Because putting things in my mouth for money is how I roll, right?imageSome grilled Chinese leeks and scallops with garlic also helped with the residual heat… as did grilled bread. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as soft, or sweet, as I was expecting. imageI’d definitely go back to Crazy Wing, not the least because there’s what seems to be a secret upstairs BBQ buffet. We couldn’t figure out if it was just a staff dining room, or if there was a Crazy Wing club that you could be initiated into – presumably by eating multiple Crazy Wings – before you were allowed to grill your own stuff-on-a-stick.imageOh yeah, I almost forgot. Don’t bother about the eggplant. It’s worse than the capsicum.

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A wedding banquet at Tao’s

201 Bulleen Road, Bulleen
Phone: 9852 0777
My cousin Ivan got married recently. It was a joyous day, full of fun, sunshine and suckling pigs. Let’s kick this post off with a picture of one in the back seat of my car.
imageLet me tell you, had the groom’s brother not been in the passenger seat, I would have been tempted to skip the wedding and just drive off with the pig. But I guess that may have lead to a different and not altogether wholesome consummation in the back seat. Also, it may have jeopardised the Chinese ritual gaining of entry into the bride’s home, and therefore the wedding itself. Given that my cousin’s bride is a totally awesome new addition to the family, that would have been a bad thing.

The day’s festivities went off without a hitch, and it was great to catch up with a lot of my extended family whom I don’t see very often. There was a buffet lunch of various roast meats – including that saucy back seat swine – and various other Asian snackery, which of course led to an afternoon carb coma. I took a brief afternoon nap while some of my aunts and uncles whiled the afternoon away playing mah jong. Seriously, I love how Joy Luck Club my life gets sometimes.

That evening, we headed off to Tao’s, a restaurant which has been around in Bulleen for years, but has somehow flown under my radar all this time. With a name like Tao’s, I expected it to be a traditional Chinese wedding banquet – you know, with the crab, the abalone, the quail and the whole steamed fish. I should have known my cousin wasn’t quite that orthodox. This is a man who perpetrated a balut (fertilised duck egg) pizza on an unsuspecting crowd; a gastronomic experimenteur to be sure.

Tao’s serves what I suppose should be called Asian fusion food, as cliche as that sounds. The flavours are most definitely pan-Asian, but the presentation is most definitely not, falling into that ‘modern’ Western genre, with a definite nod to somewhere Patrick Bateman would eat.

The meal started off with a trio of amuses. From the left, we had some sort of flavoured mayonnaise, an oyster with a spring onion mignonette, and some sort of bacon-wrapped morsel; octopus? That would sort of make sense, with the smear of squid ink across the plate. You’ll have to forgive me, but my memory’s a little hazy. When I say my cousin got married recently, I mean a couple of months ago now. I remember the oyster being very good, and wishing I had another grissini stick for the mayo.

imageFrom this point on, we all started getting different dishes. Thankfully, I was seated with family members who were all very accommodating in letting me photograph their food before eating. I didn’t document it all, but sit back, this is gonna be a long post.

First up was the drunken chicken. Cute presentation with the little sherry glass, though I’m not sure what the gelatinous cube was. It was probably some sort of consomme, I expect.

imageThis was some sort of seared beef thing – the first of a number of dishes my younger second cousin received which caused his sisters to become very jealous. It looked pretty good, but I didn’t particularly understand the jealousy. He did seem to get all the red meat; maybe his sisters have an iron deficiency. This is also the first dish served on a tile. There were a lot of tiles this night. Unlike Jess, I quite like my food on tiles, if only for the fact it means the sauces tend to be less runny; serving a dish with a runny sauce on a tile would just be silly.

imageThere was also a soft-shelled crab in this course. Now this was the dish that incited food envy in me.

imageSo for each course, there were some feature dishes, and then a ‘default’ dish that half of the table would receive. The feature dishes were rotated for each course, so everyone had a different experience of the dinner. I thought this was a novel idea, but it seemed to cause a little confusion for the staff, and it didn’t help the pacing of food service, which is always a problem at large functions like weddings anyway. The default for this course were some panko crumbed prawns. They were OK, but the sauces were both a bit bland.

imageBut then, this course was served with a glutinous rice ball which was just delicious, so maybe it’s relative.

imageStuffed with a pulled braised pork, steamed and then lightly pan-seared, this was a total winner. Let’s be honest though, just about anything which has been thrice-cooked is going to be pretty awesome.

imageThe next course was soup. The presentation of this bonito broth was cute, though I would’ve felt a little weird drinking it like tea. My sister said it was a bit ‘meh’, but another of my cousins thought it was stellar.

imageI had a pumpkin soup, which was a touch on the bland side. It came in a cute little pumpkin bowl which was just on the right side of kitsch. I’m not a fan of pumpkin soup usually – I find it’s often too sweet – so it’s not surprising I wasn’t too impressed with this.

imageOnto mains! My sister got the pork belly, which looked great, but wasn’t really melting-soft, and also could probably have been a served little hotter. Again, just one of the problems inherent with function catering, I guess.

imageI got a corn and herb-crusted salmon, which was really quite good. The raked coriander sauce was a good match to the fish and the creamed corn topping – the little quenelle is more of the corn mixture – and the broadbean salad was pleasant, though those three rogue corn kernels were a little contrived.

imageI’m happy to report that the salmon was cooked reasonably well. About medium OK, it’s a touch on the done side for my liking, but I’ll eat just about any meat raw, so I’m hard to please in this department. Given the horror stories you hear about fish courses at wedding receptions, I’d say this was a good showing.

imageWhen this arrived at the table, its recipient was absent, so the rest of us spent a while trying figure out what it was. It was a teriyaki chicken, presented okonomiyaki style.

imageLet’s revisit my younger second cousin, who again got the red meat. A sizzling piece of beef fillet – I’m not sure if it was wagyu – on a hot rock, on some little rocks, on a crazily heavy plate. The staff at Tao’s have strong wrists.

imageWe all got a little pot of fried rice with our mains. It was cute, and tasty. Even if it was a little frustrating trying to eat it with that little spoon.

imageOn to desserts! Quite judiciously, the wedding cake – little red velvet cupcakes – was served along with the desserts. Now not that I don’t like Asian desserts, I’m quite glad these desserts weren’t given a fusion twist. First up was a great creme brulee, which my sister and her husband fought over.

imageI believe this was a chocolate cheesecake, though it might have been caramel, given the little pieces of popcorn on the top.

imageI got a little shortbread sandwich with fresh cherries. I’m a fan of fruit-driven desserts, as it usually means they’re not quite so sweet, and in this case, it was a boon, as the cupcakes were pretty sweet.

imageThe final dessert option was a pannacotta with a mango coulis. I think this would’ve been a great counterbalance for the cupcake, too.

imagePhew! Are you exhausted? I was, a little, after a long day of celebration. When I went to chat to my parents at the end of the night, there were exclamations of how full we all were, which is how my family expresses their satisfaction with food. That, or we burp loudly.

Anyway, I quite liked the playfulness of the food at Tao’s, and I suspect that it would be a much smoother experience dining there in a group of smaller than 100. All in all, it was an excellent end to a wonderful day, which was the start of what is sure to be a joyous marriage.

Congratulations, Ivan and Thanh!

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