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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Secret Recipe

Level 3, Melbourne Central, CBD
Phone: 9639 8884

I think I’ve blogged about my tendency towards indecision when choosing places to eat on the spot. It’s very rare that I’ll have specific cravings, so when I meet up with someone for dinner and we don’t have a destination in mind, I tend to be more useful as a reference guide than an executive decision maker. I understand that this can be frustrating, and sometimes frustration leads to rash decisions. That’s how Mr R and I ended up eating at Secret Recipe, in Melbourne Central.

I wasn’t aware at the time – though I had my suspicions – that Secret Recipe is a franchise operation. It’s a chain of ‘fusion’ cafes which originated in Malaysia. The rather mass-produced looking menus, replete with stock photography blandly inoffensive fonts kind of gave it away. Alarm bells? Perhaps.

One thing the place has going for it was there’s a rather long pour on the wine.

Also, the chips were quite crisp, although I had ordered them as a side to my meal; in a combination which obviously perplexed the waitress, as she served them as an entree. We soon worked out that neither of our meals would be forthcoming until we’d polished off the chips and the waitress had taken the empty plate away. So I ended up eating more chips than I had intended…

… before my char kway teow arrived. I know, I know, CKT with chips? Weird. I take back not craving specific things. I clearly crave FAT. The char kway teow wasn’t offensive, but it was pretty timid, even with the optional sambal served on the side. ThereĀ  was a lack of the smoky wok hei which typifies a good CKT, but that wasn’t really too much of a surprise given the modern, sterile feel of the Secret Recipe operation. Though I would have thought that a Malaysian franchise would get CKT right.

Mr R went the pasta option. Some sort of agnolotti (pumpkin?) with a cream sauce. One of us was clearly going to fare better than the other; it’s rare to find a restaurant which can do both pasta and Malaysian food well. He seemed to really enjoy it, so perhaps despite its Malaysian roots, the Secret Recipe of the place is in its mastery of Western food. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given that would be its selling point back in Malaysia.

If there are any secret recipes to this place, beyond taking common Malaysian and Western dishes, putting them on a menu together, adding some comfortable seating and executing food at a passable but mediocre standard, I certainly didn’t catch on.

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Gaijin Japanese Fusion

135 Commercial Rd, South Yarra
Phone: 9804 8873

With the exception of one aberrant year when I was living in the suburban wilds of Noble Park, I have spent the entirety of my time in Melbourne firmly entrenched on the North side of the Yarra. I have an unjustified and irrational dislike for things on the South, much like a Yook has for a Zook. Every now and then, I venture to the other side, however, and even more rarely, I find something I truly delight in. Gaijin is one of those things.

Nestled in the heart of the gay club district of Commercial Road, Gaijin serves up some innovative sushi, as well as some old classics, and some new classics. Mr N and I stumbled upon it last week, but having already eaten, had to wait until this week to come back. I was a little dubious at first, as I am at all Asian fusion restaurants, and their modern branding reminded me of the epically annoying Cho Gao ‘Asian beer bar’ in Melbourne Central. But one look at the menu, and trepidation quickly changed to anticipation.

I ordered the sushi platter, as my belly was feeling rather cavernous. The sushi platter lets you choose any four sushi rolls off the menu, of which you get a half-serve. Unless, like me, you choose one of the baked items, which comes only in a whole serve, and then you only get three types.

A the back, on the left is the Spider vs. Dragon Roll,and the right is the Tasmanian Roll. At the front it the Baked Dynamite Roll. Here’s a look from another angle for you:

Spider vs. Dragon combines two of my favourite seafoods: soft-shelled crab and unagi (eel). That was always going to be a winner in my book. I was a curious about the Tasmanian Roll, because it sounded a lot like the New Yorker (with salmon and cream cheese) which I’d tried at other contemporary sushi joints, and is probably a ‘new classic’ – only with avocado and crab stick, and DEEP FRIED. Oh yeah. It was quite good, though I would have omitted the crab stick, really. I’m no a fan of seafood extender, really.

Which is why my final choice was somewhat of a gamble. The Baked Dynamite is a California roll (inverted rice) topped with baked scallop, crab stick and negi. Essentially, a creamy scrambled eggs with seafood. Almost Mornay-ish, but it totally works. The eggs were supremely creamy and *almost* runny. Luscious.

All the ingredients tasted very fresh, although I must say with such interesting flavour combinations at work, I can’t really comment on the quality of the seafood. Also, I was a little put off by the fact I had to ask for wasabi. But I guess the chef didn’t feel it necessary or appropriate with the cheesy sauce and the deep-fried sushi. Silly chef! Wasabi is always appropriate! (Caveat: my father has wasabi with his steak.)

Mr N wasn’t feeling quite as hungry as I, so he ordered the Teriyaki Chicken. I tried a piece, and I have to report it was underwhelming. A little over-cooked, and just too damn salty.

So my advice? Get the too Gaijin, but stick to the sushi. The donburi was not that impressive. Oh, and for those insatiable gluttons out there like myself, Gaijin currently is running a promotion from Tuesday to Thursday where you can have all-you-can-eat sushi (from a select menu – don’t worry, it’s got all the good stuff on it) for $35 per head, providing the whole table chooses this option. I’m definitely heading back!

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