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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Toki Japanese Restaurant

88 Grattan St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 9748

So this place has the dubious distinction of being the first restaurant I have double-reviewed. The first time I went there, I had the ramen, which was something of a disappointment. So this time around, when I went on a date with Mr J, I was decidedly not going to go down the noodle route. Besides, eating noodles on dates is for whores. You know what I mean.

We started off with some gyoza. Now I realise it’s a style thing, and that gyoza are not jiaozi, but it always bothers me that gyoza filling is kinda loose – it makes me thing that they’re under-cooked. These gyoza were no different. Not to say they were bad – indeed the flavour of the filling was quite good – but I’m starting to think this Japanese staple isn’t really one of my favourites.

Mr J was feeling indecisive, so he ordered the bento, which had a little bit of everything. It looked like a lot of fun, though I’m not sure how anyone could eat that much food. Wait, anyone except me. Luckily I didn’t order it, because I’m sure I would have hoovered it all up. And hoovering on dates is for whores. You know what I mean. FYI Mr J did not hoover. He’s not a whore.
I ordered the buta something or other. It was like a pork sukyaki, in a cast iron bowl with, swimming in porky broth.
It was really good, though the vegetables were a tad over-cooked, and a bit of a floppy mess. Still, the flavour was simple, but somehow not bland. I quite enjoyed it, though I didn’t finish it. Partly because the serving was very generous, and partly because I didn’t want to look like a whore.

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Papa Gino’s

221 Lygon St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 5758

There’s a time and a place for everything in life, so they saying goes. I’m not sure who said it, but they’re a very forgiving soul. Because conversely, life’s too short to [insert something negative here]. My insert negative is [go on bad dates].

Recently single again, I’ve started picking up the pieces of my life and going through that strange process known as ‘moving on’. It’s strangely coincidental, but every time in my life that has marked the end of a significant relationship, has also been marked by my moving house. But I digress. I recently went on a date, which life was too short to have really happened. I won’t go into details, because you’re reading to find out about Papa Gino’s, not the travails of my dating adventures. That’s another blog entirely!

After a couple of beers, which impaired my judgment somewhat, I agreed to move on for dinner. Since I was a bit inebriated, I was quite happy when he suggested pizza. I’m a patient guy, so I thought I’d give the conversation a chance to improve. I also thought it might still be early enough for us to get a table at D.O.C.. Alas, I was wrong on both counts. So given my relative inexperience and lack of knowledge about pizza on Lygon St, we ended up going to Papa Gino’s.

I won’t lie and say I’ve never been there before – I used to go there very occasionally for work lunches – but I’ve never really liked the place. It’s a bit too bustle-y, the chairs are uncomfortable, the lighting is strangely bright, and well, the pizza is mediocre. The only saving grace is that when the place isn’t too busy, the waitstaff are charming. But in the evening, it’s usually busy.

This night, he ordered the quattro gustri. Out of these, I think the margherita was probably the best corner. I’m really not a fan of shredded ham on my pizza. It makes me think of McCain’s frozen pizza, and let me just say, as far as pizzas go, McCain never did it once, let alone again. The other mushroomy and olivey corners weren’t terrible, but weren’t much to write about either, so I won’t.

Always one for carb-on-carb action, I ordered the campania, which was topped with diced tomato, mozzarella cheese, potato, onion, prosciutto. It wasn’t a bad combination of ingredients, but the quality and the execution let it down, I think. The tomatoes, which while obviously fresh, were under-ripe, and therefore a bit bland and watery. The potato was sliced too thickly, and this made the pizza feel a lot heavier than it needed to be. Similarly, the onion was a bit too chunky, and could have been cooked a little longer, too. The prosciutto was fine, but it’s hard to stuff up prosciutto, right? I’m going to try to be positive here and say the herbs were a nice blend of oregano and rosemary.
I wouldn’t recommend Papa Gino’s – at least not for pizza, and not for a date. Perhaps if you’re wanting somewhere for a group of colleagues to go for lunch? Perhaps. Even then, I’d stay away from the pizza.

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Hotel Lincoln

91 Cardigan St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 4666

You can thank/blame the duck enabler for this one. I had heard through the twitters that Hotel Lincoln had a duck pie on the menu, so on a Friday night, after a couple of hours of indoor climbing at Hard Rock, I wandered up Cardigan St with my sister and brother-in-law – I’m never going to get tired of the idea I have a brother – and Mr E and Ms J for some dinner. To my chagrin, and the disappointment of Ms J, we found out that the duck pie was only available on Tuesday nights, so no duck pie for us.

I hadn’t been to the Lincoln in years, and I don’t think I’d ever eaten there before. I was expecting something of a gastropub, but I didn’t quite expect that there was what felt a quite prim and proper restaurant out the back! Needless to say, we were all a tad under dressed, and I’m fairly sure the staff were unimpressed when we traipsed in. Still, to their credit, they were supremely professional, and I think they warmed to our table, despite Ms J’s rather gauche insisting question as to whether we’d get bread for the table. She was pretty famished, you see. In hindsight, we perhaps should have eaten in the bar!

As the mains were likely to take a while – you’ll see why below – so Mr E ordered the smoked trout pate with avocado and toast as a starter for the table. The trout was a little too solid to be called a pate in my opinion, but it tasted good, and was well paired with the avocado and shaved fennel.

The mains arrived not long after, with my sis, Ms J and Mr E all ordering the duck cassoulet. For such a hearty dish, the servings were plentiful. I suppose they would have to be, since the cassoulet contained confit duck, pork belly and sausage. I tried a little of the duck and the sausage, but people get a little possessive when it comes to pork belly, it seems… The duck was beautifully cooked, and worked beautifully with the beans. The sausage was a touch on the salty side, I thought.
I ordered the veal osso bucco, with soft polenta and gremolata. On a cold Winter’s night, this dish really hit the spot.
The veal was tender and falling off the bone, and the hearty richness was rounded out by the polenta. This sounds all a bit too heavy, but thankfully the sharpness of the gremolata cut through it. I loved this dish, and my only disappointment was that I wasn’t able to get the bone marrow out with the fat clumsy knife with which I was provided.

My brother-in-law (see, still cool!) had the roasted kingfish fillet, with kipfler potatoes, spinach and anchovy butter.

This was a supremely well-conceived dish. Although I found the kingfish just a touch too ‘fishy’ for my liking, this was beautifully complemented by the buttery-ness of the potatoes, and the saltiness of the spinach which carried he anchovy butter. The squeeze of lemon set it all off perfectly.

The food at the Lincoln was, in a word, great. The service was, in a word, excellent. I was a little disappointed at the small range of option on the menu, but I guess what they do produce, the produce extremely well. I’d definitely recommend you visit, but just be aware that prices are more fine dining than pub, and the atmosphere is that way too.

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Seven Seeds

106 Berkeley St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 8664

I’m not really much of a coffee drinker. I’m that loser who gets sneered at by coffee nazis for having two sugars and soy milk in his latte. Yeah, I know, I may as well be drinking decaf, I’m that derivative. So while I’ve heard nothing but good things about Seven Seeds, I haven’t exactly rushed out to try their coffee. But I did finally get around to it last week.

First off, I have to say I really like the decor – the fit-out is a nice mix of post-industrial chic, with just enough wood and use of textiles, so the airy warehouse space doesn’t feel too cold or severe. The warm lighting helps, too. As did the cheery smiles of the waitresses on the day. Definite thumbs up for service here.

My lunch companion, Mr A, is something of a coffee addict, though by his own admission, he prefers his coffee “like a two-by-four across the back of the head”. He opted for a flat white. Being curious of the hype, I thought I’d finally give the Clover coffee a try. Mr A tried to explain to me how the Clover machine works – something about a vacuum and the coffee being dipped, then extracted… it was all a bit too technical for me.

Anyway, it comes out in a cute little flask-coffee-pot, and you pour it yourself, like you would a cup of tea. I tried a sip of it without adding sugar, and to my surprise, found that I didn’t really feel the need! Clover coffee, to me, seems much less intense in flavour, and I can understand what all those afficionados mean when they go on about the various hints and notes of different flavours in the coffee. Like wine. The other great benefit of this Clover coffee, as I was to discover as the afternoon wore on, was that I didn’t experience the manic buzz nor the headachey, heart-palpitating lows which normally forms the rollercoaster ride I go on after drinking a coffee. I felt mildly more alert, so some of the caffeine is definitely there, but I guess the pharmacokinetics are different.

Along with my coffee, I had the avocado mash with grilled haloumi and dukkah on toasted sourdough. Topped with rocket, the whole thing was a winner for me. The saltiness of the haloumi was offset by the creamy avocado and the acid of the lemon wedge supplied for squeezing. I wouldn’t have minded a touch more dukkah, but I’m just being picky now.

Mr A had the special pressed sandwich, with an omelette, cheddar cheese, tomato chutney and spinach. He seemed quite satisfied by his choice. It certainly looked appetising.

I was feeling a little cheeky, so I took a chocolate brownie back to my office for afternoon tea. It was lusciously moist, and I had to do a lot of finger-licking to get all the icing off my hands.

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295 Drummond St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 2998

When my friend Ms J comes to visit from Sydney, it’s often hard to find a place to go for dinner. Ms J was originally from Melbourne, so she knows all the old favourites, and there’s something of an onus for me to try to take her somewhere ‘new’. (New is a relative term here, as she moved to Sydney a few years ago.) I can’t really take her out for Thai or Japanese food, because let’s face it, while I love many of our Thai and Japanese restaurants in Melbourne, Sydney pretty much does it better. So according to Ms J, one cuisine in which Melbourne wins hands down is Italian. Last time she visited, we went to Donnini’s. This time, I thought pizza was in order, so we wandered down to D.O.C.

It was a Sunday night, and the place was pretty much full. People were waiting about 20 minutes for a table inside, but seeing as the frigid Melbourne winter hadn’t kicked in yet, we were happy enough to sit outside, even though in hindsight, it meant that we had to pretty much inhale the pizza to eat it before it got cold. Which isn’t really too far from my regular pizza-eating practice anyhow, I guess. Oh, and being outdoors in the streetlight is what accounts for the extremely poor lighting in the following photographs!

D.O.C. is one of those thin crust, minimal toppings pizza joints. I’m not an authority on the subject, but general consensus is that this is the more ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ style of pizza. I can see why this style has gained ascendancy, being considered more ‘high-end’, because the minimalism really highlights the quality of the ingredients, and there’s not really any way for the restaurant to hide a poor or mediocre product. Thankfully, D.O.C. doesn’t need to hide anything. The base – the base! – is superb. Thin, crispy yet yielding, without the breadiness which you get at a lot of pizza places. I think it’s a toss up between D.O.C. and Ladro as to which has the best crust in town (that I’ve tried). You should check out MSG’s Pizza Battles for a definitive competition.

Ms J ordered the Pizza D.O.C., with the house special buffalo mozzarella and basil. The mozzarella really is something worth trying; it’s one of those “I don’t care if I’m lactose intolerant and I’ll pay for this later!” moments.

I had the Pizza Napoletana, because I had a hankering for anchovies that night. This pizza delivered, in spades. Beautifully salty, oily goodness. Tempered by the slightly acidic tomato and the rich mozzarella. This combination just really works for me. One sad note: I had a pip in one of my olives, which was a little unexpected. I’ll still be back for more, nonetheless.

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Pugg Mahones

175 Elgin St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 0202

Let’s be frank: Pugg Mahones isn’t the sort of pub I’d choose to hang out in with my friends. But then I’m just not that sort of guy, I guess. Still, I have been there on multiple occasions, with workmates to inflict savage defeats upon our foes in Monday night trivia. It just sort of makes sense to arrive a little early and eat dinner there, because we’re all a little lazy on Mondays. And really, the food’s not bad. Not spectacular, but decent pub grub stuff.

The last time I was there, I had the beef and guiness pie. A satisfyng meal, though the chips have a variability of any busy pub kitchen, and on this occasion, they weren’t all that hot or crispy. The salad is uniformly mediocre.

One of mt workmates had the ‘steak sandwich’ wrap, which was purportedly not bad. Her chips looked better than mine – a different batch, I’m betting. I must have gotten the tail end of the previous one.

Oh, and since it’s a pub, I have of course tried the chicken parma there. It’s pretty pedestrian – I wouldn’t go there expressly for it, but it’s not a bad option on the menu.

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Nasi Lemak House

115 grattan St, Carlton
Phone: none!

A Carlton institution for the last six years, Nasi Lemak House never fails to satisfy me (and countless others who live, work or study in the vicinity of Melbourne University). Although it is open at night, I more often than not find myself there for lunch, when it’s wise to arrive a few minutes before the hour, to grab a table before the lunch-hour regulated hordes descend.

The staple of Nasi Lemak House is the eponymous nasi lemak. Of course, NLH has thirteen variants on this dish, if you include the vegetarian versions. On a recent visit, my friend @tammois ordered the Nasi Lemak Langkawi. Coconut rice, sambal, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), peanuts and a fried egg, topped with a pappadum. The Langkawi variant has fried calamari with a sweet and spicy sauce, in place of the traditional fried chicken drumstick. @tammois didn’t even come close to finishing the whole dish.

While I enjoy the nasi lemak from time to time, I usually find myself distracted by the Malaysian hawker dishes on the menu, such as the Char Kuay Teow, Wat Dan Hor Fun or the Laksa. This time, I tried the Malaysian Loh Mien. It’s hokkien noodles in a slightly sour gravy/soup, with mixed seafood and bok choy. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. The gravy was a rather non-descript savoury falvour, and seemed to lack the tartness I was expecting from the menu description. It could probably quite easily been saved by the addition of chilli or a lemon wedge, but I think next time I’ll go back to the laksa or the char kuay teow.

More photos of subsequent visits.
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