Max’s Cafe and Wine Bar

1-3 Leake St, Essendon
Phone: 9374 2632

You can tell a lot about a person from the places they choose to take you on a date. When I’m in charge of choosing the place, you can tell that I’m indecisive and often disorganised. I’ll most likely suggest to meet somewhere in the vicinity of a few good options, then make us traipse around seemingly aimlessly, dismissing options out of hand because they’re too busy, not busy enough, or because I’ve heard something bad about it from friends. But I’d like to think that more often than not, I come up with the goods. That’s one good thing about being a food blogger, having other food bloggers as friends; you have a pretty good idea of where the good places to eat are.

Anyway, when I went out on a second date with Mr D – the first was just drinks at a bar – and we were in his ‘hood, naturally I decided to let him choose. The first alarm bell rang when he declared that he didn’t really like Asian food. I really should have said, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” then and there. But I thought I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, and so we ended up at Max’s.

Upon walking in, we were summarily ignored by the three waitstaff who were managing three other tables between them. The place looked like a reputable establishment, so we approached one of the waitresses and asked to be seated. We were told to “just sit anywhere”, so we did, and waited for about five minutes before another waiter came over to us to ask if we needed anything. Yeah, menus might be useful. Well, they would have been, had they not been filled with the most banal of cafe/pub dishes. I can’t even remember what was on there – it’s that forgettable – but I’m fairly sure there was probably something like a tandoori chicken salad, some sort of steak, and two or three bland-sounding pasta dishes. So when in doubt, benchmark the place. We both ordered the chicken parma, with chips and vegetables.

Now I know my photography isn’t great – something I’m ironically proud of, actually – but the food was actually that insipid looking. To be fair, the chips were OK. The parma itself was pretty big, but the chicken was dry and bland; I have a suspicion it was one of those terracotta chicken tiles you can buy at the supermarket deli. But the most distressing thing about the whole affair were the ‘roast vegetables’. Yes, they had been roasted, but probably not that day. And that certainly wasn’t the last cooking process which had been applied to them. Ah, the uneven heat distribution that can only be produced by a microwave. Some pieces were still cold, while others almost burned my tongue. Interestingly, conversation over the course of the meal also ran hot and cold. We had a few things in common, but I found myself having to think hard for the next conversation topic, which is never a good sign. But I digress.

The fact that I am an insatiable glutton is well known to you regular readers. It’s a rare occasion that I don’t finish a parma, because I very rarely order one unless I’m actually hungry. As a result, the act of leaving chicken on a plate is a form of silent protest for me. I protested at Max’s. Sadly, I doubt any of the staff noticed.

I’m not going back. Nor were there any subsequent dates with Mr D.

 

The Hungarian

362 Bridge Road, Richmond
Phone: 0421 993 132

Let me say first off that I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my red gingham shirt to this place. Because there’s so much of it in the window and on the tables as to almost give me a kitsch aneurysm.

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I like this place. It has a sense of humour. Take their menu, for instance. Everybody loves a good pun. Although, at what point does Calibri become the new Arial or Times New Roman, inspiring disdain for the lack of imagination and effort in font selection? It hasn’t quite reached the tipping point yet, but I predict that day is nigh.

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It also serves a ‘Monsterschnitzel’.

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Although I wasn’t up for a monsterschnitzel that night, so I opted for the goulash, which comes with noki, a knubbly spaetzle/gnocchi type of noodle. I’d asked for it hot, which basically led to the waitress bringing out a jar of ‘pista‘ (a Hungarian type of paprika/chilli sauce) which is just as well, because the goulash itself had very little chilli heat to it. It was a pretty big serve, though, and came with a little side dish of red cabbage slaw.

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Mr D had mushroom and potato crepes, with a little garden salad. He was quite happy with them, and I took a bit of one; the crepe was nice and light, and the mushroom filling was pretty tasty.

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The service was charming, if a little harried; most of the tables were full, and it appeared there was one person in the kitchen, and one lady working the front of house. She did apologise for the delay profusely, even though given the circumstances, there wasn’t really that much of a delay.

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I’d go back again, because it was fun, and interesting to try something slightly unusual as far as restaurants in Melbourne go. Oh, and they have this special on some night – I think it’s Tuesdays? – where you get a percentage discount based on your age. I’m taking my parents.

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A Thousand Blessings

251 Highett St, Richmond
Phone: apparently they don’t have one?

I don’t remember much about this place, apart from the fact there was absolutely no chilli in my omelette, despite it being a listed ingredient in the menu. Hence this is basically a post where the photos do the talking. I remember the place was busy – it was a Sunday afternoon – and the fitout is a little kitschy-cute. Firemen from the nearby station frequent the place, if that sways you at all. I’m looking at you, Bryan.

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Footscray’s best buns

One of the great things about writing a foodblog is it can justify some pretty insane eating activities, like doing a ramen crawl around the city, or blind testing mince pies and banh mi.

Recently, I decided it might be time to embark on another (slightly ridiculous) experiment: it was time to find the best BBQ pork buns in Footscray. Now I should just clarify here that when I talk about BBQ pork buns, I’m talking about the Chinese char siu bao – you know, the fluffy white buns filled with sweet and salty red pork filling that you get at yum cha – and not the Vietnamese style grilled pork banh mi rolls.

This came about when I was looking over the search terms for the blog. Someone had searched for “Footscray pork buns”, which in hindsight was probably referring to banh mi, but it got me thinking that with the number of local yum cha and bakery joints in Footscray where you can get a quick char siu bao fix, it was about time I found out which one was the best.

It would be a pretty tricky thing to try to ascertain on your own, but with a bunch of eager bun-eating friends, it’s not so arduous (yeah OK, arduous is a bit of a stretch). So six of us gathered at Lauren‘s place, and between us we amassed between us an array of pork buns from eight different sources.

imageFor those of you playing at home, yes, there were a few frozen and refrigerated buns from local Asian grocers, as well as a pack of buns from Costco! Docklands is right next to Footscray, so I figured it would be OK to include them…

imageThe clearly-not-char-siu-bao yellow buns in the mix are some lau sa bao (flowing sand buns) from Yummie Yum Cha, which I brought along because the others hadn’t tried them before. They’re filled with an egg custard which is made using the yolk of salted eggs. If you haven’t tried them before, do yourself a favour next time you’re at yum cha. Not all places have them, but Gold Leaf and Shark Fin outlets usually do.

imageAfter some convoluted randomising and cross-marking of the buns, the first batch of buns went into the steamer.

imageTen minutes later, the gorging taste-testng began. On average, we had half a bun of each variant tested, though there were a few buns which were bigger than others, so some cleaver action was necessary. We decided on three criteria against which we would judge each bun.

First, the dough, or bun, itself. It should be light and fluffy,a little sweet, and my personal preference is to be able to peel the thin skin away from the outside of the bun. It’s a childhood habit playing with my food that I never gave up.

Next, the filling. The flavour of the pork should be present, along with a balanced sweet and savoury sauce.

Finally, we judged the overall balance between the two elements. A bun that’s all bread and no pork is no fun; but similarly a bun with too much filling will feel a little too sickly rich and heavy.

imageOne of the better buns: check out the fluffy white bun, and the solid chunks of pork filling.

imageAnd one of the day’s less impressive specimens: a heavy, doughy bun, and overly sweet filling. The atomic red hue of the filling was a little alarming, too!

imageSo without further ado, here are my final results. I should note that we weren’t all unanimous in our scores, but 5 out of 6 agreed that the buns from Master Restaurant were our favourites, and the foul, offensive vegetarian ‘BBQ pork’ buns from the Vincent vegetarian Asian grocer were voted unanimously the worst buns of the day.

Cost per bun Bun (dough) Filling Ratio Total
Yummie Yum Cha $1.20 7 5 7 19
Seng Hork (from Asian grocer) $0.93 6 7 7 20
Victoria Bakehouse $1.60 6 5 4 15
To’s Bakery $3.00 4 3 5 12
Master Restaurant $2.00 8 7 7 22
Sun Wong Kee in Little Saigon $1.80 7 6 7 20
Yum Cha at Home (from Costco) $0.95 5 6 6 17
Vegetarian BBQ Pork Buns from Vincent Vegetarian Grocer $0.94 5 1 6 12

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Sung’s Kitchen

118 Franklin St, West Melbourne
Phone: 9329 2636

When four of my bestest buddies moved interstate last year, I was a little worried that I would be lonely. Who was going to come with me to restaurants and trust me to order twice as much food for the table as was necessary? Was I going to be able to find others who would join me in unflinchingly eating ‘challenging’ offal dishes every time they appeared on a menu? I felt a little abandoned.

But this is the way life works; people come into your life, and people go. And while I still miss my friends in far off places, my separation anxiety didn’t last that long. Because I live in Melbourne, and in Melbourne you don’t have to look to hard to find kindred souls if your passion is adventuring through food. And let’s be honest: there’s not really any better way to make new friends than to share food.

New friends bring new experiences, and I was excited when one of them suggested that we go to Sung’s Kitchen. I hadn’t heard of the place before, though a little research revealed that it’s been around for a while.

As Ms E and Ms I have been there before, they took care of the ordering while the other Ms E and I gossiped about our love lives. It got so Sex and the City so quickly…

First up was this cold chicken and glass noodle salad. Interesting texturally, with the strips of celery and cucumber, I found it a touch on the bland side. But then again I’m not a huge fan of Taiwanese Dan Dan noodles, which have a similar peanut/sesame dressing.image

The dumplings which arrived at the table next didn’t really do it for me either. The skins were somewhere in that no-man’s land between delicate and light, and substantial and chewy. The filling was also a little forgettable.image

Art this point, I was starting to wonder if I should have asserted myself a little more during the ordering process, rather than ranting about how there are no good single men in this city. For those of you playing at home, I’m Miranda. Minus the need to wear a suit at work. My faith in I&E was redeemed when the next dish came to the table. Fried: tick. Sauced: tick tick. Visible chillies: tick tick tick. The ‘Ministry Chicken Ribs’ were incredibly moreish, and I think everyone was just being polite when we were down to the last one; we all wanted that last rib.image

I was recovering from a cold at the time, so I requested that I&E order a soupy dish. This pork, seafood and tofu number really hit the spot. Well seasoned, so it crossed the bland/clean flavours line – which is one way to judge if a chef really knows what they’re doing when it comes to Southern Chinese (read Cantonese) food – the pork was reasonably tender, and the wo ngaa baak (that’s what we call wombok in Canto) still had a hint of crispness about it.image

The last dish was also a winner, though it sounds strange and unappetising on the menu. “Shanghai scrambled egg white”; what, am I having breakfast at a cafe next to a gym? But no, it was actually great. The egg white was chiffon-y and delicate, and it was riddled with little slivers of crab meat. I’d definitely order this again.image

So anyway, as you can see, even though my old partners in crime have moved away, things will always remain half- mostly eaten.image

Sung's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Baking the cover

I changed jobs about three months ago, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with my working conditions. I’ve got a stupidly large desk in front of a window adjacent to a tree where various native birds have turf wars with crows, presumably for nesting spots, I find the work I’m doing is actually engaging, and my team is full of bright, fun people. Who are obsessed with cake.

Whenever anyone asks, it’s a reflex action for me to deny having any particular skill in baking. It’s not that I can’t bake, I just feel that I’m more of a cook than a baker. To me, baking feels like a science, all about precise measurement and timing, whereas cooking involves creativity and a certain amount of flair. I’ve never been very good at following precise instructions. But as you’ll see, I’m getting better at it.

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, my boss playfully suggested that she had a new project for me. I thought she was going to ask me to re-write some content for a website or something, but instead she held up the current issue of Delicious magazine and said with a huge smile on her face, “I think you should make this.”

I’m fairly sure she was just joking, but always up for a challenge, I decided to call her bluff. Thus I embarked on a two day process that pretty much rivalled the burger cake in terms of difficulty.

First of all, the cake wasn’t a single cake at all. It was a tower of four cakes, each of which were made up of two tiers: a shell of dacquoise and a ‘filling’ of a cake with buttermilk and shredded coconut. Then there was the fact that the measurements weren’t so much in cups and tablespoons, but in grams and millilitres; that made me a little anxious.

So let’s get to the making of. First up was beating the dacquoise, which is basically a meringue with almond meal folded through it.

imageIt ends up pretty thick, so to get an even covering of each of the four cake pans, you have to pipe it in. As you’ll see, I got better at this piping thing as I went along.

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imageThen came the ‘cradle cake’, which was more meringue, with plain flour, butter, buttermilk, baking powder and shredded coconut.
imageAgain, this was piped into the cake tin, and I guess its called the cradle cake because it’s cradled by the dacquoise.
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imageThey go into the oven for 50 minutes, and then cool in the tins. At this point, I went out to the last roller derby bout of the year, had my face painted, got a little boozy, and then stopped off for laksa on the way home.
imageSo by the time I got home, the cakes were well and truly cool. Then the sandwiching began. Cake, whipped cream, sliced mango, more whipped cream, then cake. Repeat.
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imageThis then gets covered in cling wrap, and sits in the fridge overnight. The next morning, it’s time to make it look pretty. Which is a process of piping – yes, more piping – meringue around the cake stack. Now for some reason, the instructions called for the sugar to be boiled into a hot syrup before it’s added to the egg whites. I’m not sure exactly why that is – I’m sure there will be more experienced bakers out there who know – but my best guess is that it forms a harder crust when you brulee it and then let it cool.
imageOh yeah, there’s bruleeing involved. Which is awesome, because I’ve been a bit of a pyromaniac since I was a kid. Big thanks to Agnes of Off the Spork for the loan of her blowtorch for this step. I was almost going to use this cake as an excuse to buy one for myself like that time when I organised a margarita night as an excuse to buy a blender, but inexplicably, this time I showed some uncharacteristic restraint.
imageAt this point, I started to get a little excited. I thought, “Hey wow! I might actually pull this off!” Of course, there was going to be the issue of transporting the cake to work, and because I didn’t own a cake container large enough to fit the completed cake, I decided to top it once I got into the office. I was a little nervous as I boarded first the train, and then a bus to get to work. Turns out I didn’t really need to worry, because the height of the cake meant it was perfectly wedged in the container, preventing it from moving.
imageFirst, I topped the cake with what I believe Nigella would call ‘lashings’ of whipped cream, then arranged thin slices of mango on top of that.
imageAdd some halved blueberries to that…
imageAnd some little teensy young mint leaves. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any jasmine flowers, which the recipe called for, so this was my voila! moment.
imageAll in all, I think I did pretty well.
imageSo here’s what the cake looked like inside. It was an interesting cake; the dacquoise adds a nice chewy texture, and the coconut and mango are a pretty no-brainer flavour combination. The mint and blueberries gave a nice lift to the flavour too, but overall, I still felt the cake was a little too sweet. I think perhaps it would have been better if the mangoes had been less ripe, and a little more tart. Also, the cake came out a little dry. I think I’d add more cream if I were ever to attempt this again.
imageFinally, thanks to my workmate Eric for taking a proper photo with a proper camera of the cake. 😉

Pho Phi Truong

255 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine
Ph: 9311 6522

It’s taken me about a year since I moved out West, but I’ve finally started exploring beyond Footscray. It took this long partly because I’m lazy, but also it’s something of a testament to the huge number of great restaurants in my ‘hood.

So recently I was out visiting a friend on a weekend morning in Sunshine. He had to go to his parents’ place for lunch, so I wandered down to Hampshire Road, the main drag of Sunshine. I think. I still don’t really get the layout of that suburb. Anyway, I didn’t get very far before I came across a pho joint. And for me, there’s not really many better options for solo lunching than pho. It’s funny, but I tend to mostly be on my own when I eat pho. It’s partly because not that many other people have it for breakfast, but also I think it’s a subliminal thing – I tend to inhale it, and then have to sit around waiting while others finish off their bowls.imagePho Phi Truong strikes a nice balance between that slick modern Vietnamese restaurant which seems to be opening up everywhere, usually an existing restaurant which has renovated, and something a little more homely. There are still TV screens on the wall, as well as slightly kitsch Orientalist art. These things are the tropes I look for in a Vietnamese restaurant. These, the thermos of hot tea which confounds newbies due to the lack of a visible spout or opening, and of course the condiment station, which I like to peruse while I wait for my pho. Come to think of it, I think I may need to start documenting these. The staff here were also very friendly, and the waitress tried to speak Vietnamese to me – which I always take as a compliment – before I baffled her by replying “Xin loi, khong hieu (Sorry, I don’t understand)!” imageIf this bowl of pho were to be a food porn rip-off of a mainstream movie, it would be “Crunching Herbs, Hidden Offal”. The basil was super fresh and the bean shoots nice and crunchy.

imageThen the pho arrived – I ordered my usual bowl of pho bo dac biet – and I was a little underwhelmed. A healthy mound of onion and spring onions floated in the centre of the bowl, with a few islands of rare beef dotting the broth around the continental garnish. I was a little worried.
imageI didn’t need to be. There was plenty – and I mean plenty of beef and offal hiding under the onions. The broth was also pretty good – yes, there’s liberal use of MSG here, but I’ve never been averse to that – having a good balance between being beefy and warmly spiced with cardamom and star anise. My one major complaint about the pho here is that I could have done with a little more actual pho. So plentiful was all of the meat and offal, I ran out of noodles well before I ran out of the accompanying cow parts. That could just have been an unlucky one off – has anyone else who’s been there had the same experience?
imageI’m not a coffee drinker, but I am partial to some ca phe sua da (ice coffee). Phi Truong does it the ‘proper’ way – ie. the way I became accustomed to having it in Sai Gon – with crushed ice instead of cubes. I prefer it this way, because the ice melts faster, meaning even your first few sips aren’t so intensely sweet from all of that condensed milk.imageI went back a couple of weeks later with Lauren and her girls, to test out the other items on the menu. I’ve said it many times before that Vietnamese restaurants often have encyclopaedic menus, but usually only do a few dishes exceptionally well. And more often than not, pho joints are prototypical of this theory. Great pho usually means the rest of the menu is mediocre, and vice versa. Phi Truong, however, has managed to strike a balance. Good pho – though not quite great – while also serving up impressive rice dishes and salads. The bo luc lac var com chien (‘shaking beef’ with fried rice) was excellent; juicy and charred, and virtually without sauce. The way it ought to be, in my book. I’m not a fan of bo luc lac with a sauce, which is pretty common, and probably a valid way of doing it. I seem to remember that’s how Luke Nguyen’s version is, but I prefer it unsauced, with lemon and five-spice, salt and pepper to dip it in. The ‘red’ fried rice – there’s not magic ingredient here, just tomato sauce – was also wonderfully garlicky here.imageWe also shared the goi hai san (seafood coleslaw) which was light and refreshing, full of squid and prawns, and tons of fresh herbs. Surprisingly, not served with those white prawn crackers to which I’m quite partial, though.  imageLauren’s daughters shared the com tam suon bi trung (broken rice with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and pork/egg pate) and some salt and pepper chicken ribs. They’re still only little though, so we helped them polish both dishes off. Actually, if memory serves, we weren’t actually able to finish all of this food. The pork chop was well marinated, and still on the juicy side of well done.imageIt’s hard to go wrong with salt and pepper-dusted fried anything/ Chicken ribs are a prime example of this. These were great, though if I were to have this on its own, I’d want some more vegetables, or maybe a little bowl of chicken broth, or some lemon juice. Something to alleviate the dryness. Not that the chicken itself was dry; far from it, it was still moist and tender.imageBoth times I visited were on weekends for lunch, and both times the place was bustling with local families having lunch. Always a good sign. Interestingly though, I recently was down in Sunshine on a Friday night, and Phi Truong was virtually empty, while the place next door was completely full. I’m not sure if their kitchen closes earlier? Anyway, I think Phi Truong is worth a visit.imageAnd yeah, in case you’re that way inclined, they also have a spit for hire (I think they can arrange animals to put on it, too). There’s a big sign for it up at the counter when you go up to pay.

Pho Phi Truong on Urbanspoon

Flavour town

Level 1, 202 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 1268

A few months ago, @eatnik’s pal @submelb gave us the scoop on a new hotpot joint. He was rather excited by it – to be fair, he’s a pretty excitable fellow, so that’s not necessarily saying much – and even though we’d all just eaten, implored that we all go and check it out. We wandered in, had a bit of a peer around, and resisted @submelb’s insistence that we had to check out the toilets, as they were ‘the best!’.

imageTo be honest, Flavour Town is a pretty impressive affair, as far as hotpot joints go. Decked out with comfortable booth seating, or round tables for larger groups, partially screened by beaded curtains, of the luxe rather than the tacky kind; think of opium dens, but shiny. The other neat-o thing at Flavour Town is – if you get in early, or you book – there is the option for individual soup pots. This takes away some of the communal eating experience I think, but it’s handy if someone’s got a cold, or if you’re a bit short-limbed and have trouble reaching the communal pot in the middle. Both times I went, alas, all the individual soup pot tables were full.

You can mix and match your soup bases – there’s chicken, pork bone and spicy. We went for the latter two, both times. For those of you who haven’t been to hotpot before, you order a whole lot of raw ingredients, and then proceed to cook them yourself at the table by dunking them in the boiling soup. It’s a lot of fun, but if you’ve got kids, you may need to exercise some supervision.

imageThe first time I went was with @thatjessho. We ordered a whole bunch of stuff – far too much for the two of us – so I’m only going to go through the highlights, ie. the things I would recommend. Above, the chrysanthemum leaves (tong o) which are, in my opinion, the best vegetable for hot pot. They have a very distinctive chlorophyll-y flavour, and work well in any soup. Next to that was the pig’s blood jelly. This stuff is already cooked, to some extent, but it actually gets better the longer you leave it in. As do the potato slices (below, left). The potato soaks up all of the flavours which the other ingredients have imparted into the soup, so drop the potato in early, and let it sit there until much later. You’ll be glad you did.

You’ll also be glad you ordered the ‘egg fish balls’, which are fish balls filled with a salty yellow fish roe. The texture and the vaguely salty-sweet flavour of the roe were an interesting surprise.

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See?

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Oh look, chicken hearts. YES! The dried bean curd skin on the right? Meh, it’s something of a filler for me. Jess was into it though.

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Being offal-coveting Asians, we of course ordered both kinds of tripe. Bryan would call them the reticulum (top) and the omasum (bottom), but I like to call them the Honeycomb and the Carwash. image

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Here’s some time lapse action of how our soup pot progressed throughout the meal.

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It got a little manky towards the end, and that’s even without us ordering any thin-sliced fatty beef or lamb!

The next time I returned was pretty much the same affair, only with less offal and more flesh. So I didn’t bother to take photos.

Oh, and last time I was there, Flavour Town was – lamentably – without a liquor licence.

Flavour Town Hot Pot 滋味堂 on Urbanspoon

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. 😉

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