Misty’s Diner

103-105 High St, Prahran
Phone: 9510 1959

It kind of happened by accident, really. I happened to be in the neighbourhood, and Mr I happened to be free. The (healthier) Japanese restaurant we were thinking of going to happened to be closed, and I happened to suggest that we go to Misty’s. A lot of stuff happened to make this blog post happen.

You know how some movies are so bad that they’re good? Like Showgirls. Misty’s is a bit like that. A guilty pleasure, which is best enjoyed by others who also appreciate the novelty of the experience. So, of course, I went with Mr I (of evolkween fame). I mean after all, we watched The Room together, so our novelty/kitsch appreciation levels have been suitably verified.
imageMisty’s is an American style diner, with a retro Hamericana decor – airbrushed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis and the kids from Happy Days adorn the walls – and the super-processed menu to match. And it’s attached to a CAR WASH, people. It doesn’t get more Hamerican than that. And you know what? It’s fun. The music is that 50s-60s era ‘rock’n’roll’ that my dad used to listen to when I was growing up, and even on a Monday night, the place was full and buzzing.

After both exclaiming at the calorie-laden menu, and joking about ordering salads – I think Mr I was only half joking, but I shamed him out of it – I went for the trio of sliders, with a side of chili con carne fries. Ugh, my arteries are hardening just thinking recalling it.
imageIt seems odd to judge the quality of this type of food, because eating it is something of an exercise in pure calorie ingestion. Nay, I jest. But it does feel a little strange to complain about the quality of the sliders, given that I had ordered mini-burgers, on white bread, covered in re-hydrated de-hydrated diced onions. But the fact of the matter was that the burgers were over-cooked, and pretty dry. Fortunately, I had opted for the optional side of ‘bleu cheese’ dressing, into which I dunked – DUNKED – each slider before shoving it into my mouth. The resulting explosion of fat and sugar on my tongue, and indeed all over my face, was something I’d rather you not tell my personal trainer about. Hahaha, no, I don’t have a personal trainer.
imageThe chili con carne fries weren’t bad. There were a lot of beans in them, which I suppose is good for fibre, right? The helpful waitress had explained to me the gradings of their hot sauces, and advised me to stay away from the hottest one, with some extravagantly long name, because it has Death sauce in it. I took her recommendation, and went for the second hottest one, the XXX sauce. Fool me. I had to dump the whole lot on the fries, as the heat was pretty lacking.

Mr I had the Western and Bacon burger, involving mushrooms, smoky barbe-qua sauce, and an onion ring. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, even if he didn’t get much of it on his face. imageimageHe had a side of con queso fries, which we both thought would have meant ‘with cheese’, but seemed to mean with taco mince and some cheese. He had them medium hot, which basically meant lacking in any spice at all.imageAll in all, we both had a good time there. I’m not sure I’d go back in a hurry – there are better burgers in town, and well, it’s on the wrong side of the river. 😉
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Sun Kee

352-354 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Phone: 9827 7110

My grandfather turned 93 this year. Ever since his 90th birthday, which I missed because I was in Viet Nam, but was apparently quite the to-do, each birthday celebration has become a big occasion. Which is fair enough, because who knows how many of them he has left, right? Not to be too morbid, but 93 is a pretty good run, by anyone’s standards. These birthday dinners usually involve the entire extended family, spanning four generations now that my cousins have kids, and this year, the added complexity of a pre-arrange seating plan – which was promptly abandoned when my generation decided we were re-instating the kid’s table, instead of sitting with our parents – and I kid you not, HALF AN HOUR of photos with Grandpa before sitting down to eat. I was starving and flash-blind by the time I sat down to eat.

Not to be disrespectful, but perhaps Grandpa should have chosen more wisely for his 93rd birthday. I doubt the family will be back to Sun Kee anytime soon. The food was passable, but not exciting, and the service was patchy and not very attentive. To be fair, our group was rather large – three tables of 10 – so perhaps they were a little under-staffed. Odd, seeing as it was a Saturday night, and wed booked ahead, but stranger things have happened. A little more disconcerting was the fact that the maitre d tried to serve us port which had been brought as a gift for Grandpa, at the start of the meal, as though it were red wine.

Of course, this is another in the series of ‘family dinner Cantonese banquet’ posts. For other versions, see my earlier posts about Vessel and Fu Long. I’d also like to caveat here: I’m probably being a bit harsh, but I’ve been to so many different Chinese restaurants in my life that serve this type of Cantonese food, that my standards are pretty high. Not unreasonably high, I would say, but perhaps I’m pickier than most when it comes to this type of food.

We started off with a soup. Seafood soup, with tofu and feathered egg. A reasonably standard soup, though not executed that well. There was very little seafood in there, and the corn-starch thickened broth in which it was swimming was flavoured with little else other than MSG.

imageThen came the crab. This wasn’t bad, but for some bizarre reason, the usual accompanying egg noodles were missing. I’m not a huge fan of crab – it’s too fiddly for my liking – but I am a huge fan of the egg noodles that come soaked in the ginger and spring onion crab gravy. Alas, not tonight. A theme of disappointment was setting in.imageOn to the main course parade. First up was a simple dish of scallops with sugar snap peas and carrot. This was not bad. The main problem was that we had to wait another five minutes for the waiters to bring the rice out, by which time the dish had gotten cold. Which wasn’t too pleasant, given the amount of oil coating everything. A shame, because the scallops were nice and sweet, as were the peas.imageFried whole prawns in salt and pepper arrived next, which are always a winner. That rule stood firm here, and these were probably my favourite dish of the night. Not too oily, and super crunchy, I enjoyed eating these things whole. Yes, I’m an itinerant prawn head eater, and poo-poo all of you who don’t at least suck the brains out. There’s a reason tha prawn heads are used to make a good bisque; that’s where all the flavour is!imageContinuing the fried theme, there was crispy duck with taro next. This is a roast duck breast which has been pressed onto a layer of taro, and then battered and deep fried. Yeah, it sounds sinfully awesome, huh? And usually it is, but the duck was dry and over-cooked here, and the dish was a little lukewarm when it arrived at the table. The accompanying sauce wasn’t particularly inspiring either; an insipid soy sauce gravy.imageShiitake mushrooms with bok choy and carrot brought about an end to the reign of deep fried supremacy. Again, another standard dish, which was done reasonably well. imageAfter that quick breather, like the short reign of a usurper with no heir, the deep fried dynasty was quickly re-instated. With another classic, though of slightly more dubious reputation. Sweet and sour pork. Now I’m not going to malign it because of its association with bastardised Margaret Fulton Chinese cooking, or because it’s a massive hit of a calorie bomb: fat AND sugar!? It’s just not that common that you will see this dish served in a Chinese banquet like this. I think it’s a little bit ballsy, in fact, and I commend them for it. And you know what? It was good. The problem with most sweet and sour pork dishes is that they’re too sweet, and not sour enough. And often the salty element is lacking, too. Not so at Sun Kee. The pork was well seasoned, and well cooked; the sauce was a good balance of sweet and sour. imageIt’s a shame that this moment of brilliance was quickly eclipsed by the next dish. Sliced fish – I think it was rockling – had been battered and deep fried, then smothered in a corn and egg gravy. This was just bland and gross.imageAs were the ‘seafood noodles’, which didn’t really have much seafood, and felt like a bookend with the disappointing soup opener. I have a feeling that this might actually be the intended concept, but when you execute both dishes this poorly, why bother having that concept in the first place?imageOh yeah, I skipped out before they served Grandpa’s favourite durian sponge cake with layers of fake cream, but I did manage to get a quick snap of these awesome crazy agar jellies my aunt made!imageSunkee BBQ Seafood House on Urbanspoon

Dainty Sichuan

176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
Phone: 9078 1686

It’s been a long time between visits. The first – and until recently, the latest – time I visited Dainty Sichuan Food was in its first incarnation on Smith Street, in Collingwood. I still remember that night; it was the first  time I’d tried Sichuan food, and it was something of a revelation. We had ordered the Chongqing Chilli Chicken, and upon finding that is was a bed of dried chillies interspersed with miniscule chunks of chicken, we’d been a little disappointed. Though Dr D had the wisdom to take the left-over dried chillies home with him, and a couple of nights later made a fiery chilli soup which was a testament to just how much firepower those chillies contained.

Cut to about seven years later, and Dainty Sichuan is now Southside – a large contributing factor to my not having visited sooner – and about four times the size of the original shopfront. It’s gained a cult following, and the menu has expanded to match the new expansive restaurant. And yet it’s still hard to get a table on weekends! Luckily we’d booked, and we moseyed on down with our two bottles of sparkling – gotta love a BYO restaurant – from nearby drinks.

Normally I don’t comment too much about my dining companions’ chilli tolerances, but it’s relevant here. I like to think I can handle my chilli. I’m no lightweight, but nor am I a chilli fiend. My dining companions this night were otherwise. Mr I is something of a lightweight. I think it’s because he’s tall and lanky, like one of those sweet yellow peppers you can munch on as if it were a banana. Ms D, on the other hand, is a bonafide chilli hound. She’s little and fiery, like a Thai birdseye chilli. We like to joke – though it’s not a stretch of the imagination – that she likes to have yum cha because dumplings are a good accompaniment to the chilli oil. So in deference to Mr I’s delicate palate, we opted for some less challenging dishes.

First up was the kung pao chicken. This came in a massive metal dish, and when it arrived, we started to worry about the fact we’d ordered three dishes between the three of us.

I much prefer this dish to the signature Chongqing Chilli Chicken, largely because it’s not drowned in a sea of dried chillies, and the fresh green chillies are a much tastier option, IMHO. Also, you get much better chicken! Little chunks of thigh fillet, as opposed to the chopped up wing bits in the CQ Chilli Chicken. Finally, the peanuts in this are awesome, and come into their own when you hit that point where you’ve all ‘finished eating’ but all continue to pick at bits off the plate for the simple reason that food is still sitting in front of you. Peanuts rock in this situation! The dish overall had a nice balance of heat and saltiness, though – like most dishes in Sichuan food, I find – was heavily dependent on the steamed rice as a foil. I guess that’s the way the style of cuisine has been designed.

Having read enough blog posts about Dainty, I knew the one dish I had to try was the spicy eggplant. Though I’m a little disappointed with it, to be honest. I think I had a notion that they were going to be like eggplant chips. And they were, mostly. But the insides weren’t soft and gooey, and the glaze had a touch too much vinegar for my liking. Still, perhaps it’s just me, because the eggplant seems to garner universally glowing reviews.

The other dish we had was sliced pork belly, with bamboo shoot. This dish was a winner! The pork belly (winning here) was lightly salt-cured like bacon (winning there) and then stir-fried with bamboo shoot, garlic chives, leek and chilli (everywhere is winning).

As you can see, we had a lot of food.

We got through most of it, and even Mr I liked it. See? (That was on our way out.)

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

The Botanical

169 Domain Rd, South Yarra
Phone: 9820 7888

I was interviewed on Joy FM last weekend, along with @thatjessho and @melbgastronome. One of the questions which @dillonpete asked us was what our worst dining experience of 2010 was. Whether it was out of politeness or we genuinely couldn’t remember anything truly woeful, we all answered that there wasn’t any standout failure in our memories. Little did I know that mine was still yet to be had, this late into the year.

Now I know there are ethical issues about writing a negative review about a restaurant, especially based on only one visit, but I have always believed that this blog is a reflection of my own personal dining (and sometimes cooking) experiences, so please take what I’m about to write below as such. I’m not professing to be giving an expert opinion here, I’m merely sharing my recent experience at the Botanical with you all.

The Botanical has recently re-opened after a few months of being closed for renovations. It had been open for about two weeks by the time we visited. It was already pretty busy at 7pm when I arrived, though I managed to score a table large enough to seat the five of us (they don’t take bookings for the casual dining section). The others arrived just before 7:30 and we fairly promptly ordered. We’d all ordered an entree each, and a main, and a bottle of wine for the table. Here’s where things started to go wrong.

About ten minutes later, the wine still hadn’t arrived, so Ms D mentioned it to one of the many waitstaff hovering around the bar area. She replied, “Oh, so you’re the table that ordered that wine! Sorry, but we’re all out of that wine.” A little perturbed by the fact the bar wasn’t informed which table the wine was supposed to be going to, we nonetheless ordered another bottle of wine. Which arrived quite promptly. A minor hiccough, right? Completely forgiveable, especially seeing as the waitress who took our order had professed that it was her first day working there.

Then the entrees came. Ms D had the quail, and the others ordered oysters (I didn’t manage to get a decent shot of the oysters, but they looked pretty good). Everyone was pretty happy with their entrees. Except yours truly. Why? Because it didn’t arrive.

After waiting more than five minutes – surely it’s coming, right? I was presented with two sets of cutlery, so the order mus have gone in, right? – we enquired about the missing entree. It was about another ten minutes later that it arrived. I may be jumping to conclusions here, but I’m fairly sure someone forgot about it.

Anyway, I ordered the Beggar’s Pork. Which is basically code for pieces of fried pork loin and belly. Which was four types of awesome, but really could have done with some sort of dipping sauce – an aioli? something with a touch of acid or sweetness? – because the pork was seasoned to be pretty salty. Ironically, the opposite of Ms D’s quail.

I ate quite quickly, because I was aware that the others had finished their entrees long before mine had arrived. I needn’t have bothered, because we were in for a long wait for our mains. It was quite a while after I had finished before a waitress stopped by our table to ask if we’d like another bottle of wine. We said, “Yes, and could you also take these empty plates away?”

Jump forward half an hour. We were getting hungry again, and so we asked a waitress how much longer our mains would be. She went to check with the kitchen and never came back.

Cut to another ten minutes later. The waitress who originally took our order comes across to apologetically tell us that our meal would be another fifteen minutes or so, and that they hadn’t expected to be so busy. Really? You have a function for ANZ on, and you’re not expecting to be busy? Anyway, that might have been the reason for the delay, but reading other responses on urbanspoon recently, I’m not so sure. There seems to be a trend since the re-opening for slow service. Which is a little odd, because there was no shortage of front of house staff, they just seemed to be buzzing around a little aimlessly.

Mr I had suspected something was up when he saw her looking rather anxiously at our table, while discussing something in front of the register with another waitress. Suspicions were further heightened when he overheard other customers complaining about a long wait for food on the way to the bathroom.

In any case, to assuage our hunger, we were presented with some bread ‘to nibble on’. Which is all you could really do to the bread with which we were presented, because it was quite clearly stale.

A little later, we mentioned the wait to the maitre’d. He acknowledged the fault and apologised for the delay, and assured us that the food was on its way, and that the kitchen was organising some sides and dessert for us to make it up to us. At this point, we were hopeful that this experience might be turned around. Responsive service and the promise of free desserts? Not so bad. But then it was another fifteen minutes after that before our mains arrived. By this stage, it was around 9:30pm.

Ms D and Mr C had ordered the Roast of the Day – a scotch fillet with roast vegetables and a carrot puree. Both said it was quite good, especially the carrot puree.

Mr A had the veal schnitzel, which was sadly a little on the lukewarm side of warm. He wasn’t very impressed, but having waited so long, he made do because who knows how long a replacement would take? Mr A is also a fan of anchovies, but he said the slaw with anchovies on top of the schnitzel just really didn’t work.
Mr I ordered the wagyu burger. Unlike Mr A, he did send his burger back, because it was completely raw on the inside.

When the replacement came, it was remarkably underwhelming, and Mr I commented that it wasn’t really much of a burger, and felt like it had been poorly hand-minced. There were visible chunks of beef in the burger, and he said it was rather gristly. At least the fries were good!

I ordered the Angus sirloin, rare. I like my meat bloody. I had the sinking feeling, even before it arrived – again, a good couple of minutes after everyone else’s mains – that this wasn’t going to end well.

The steak, while a decent piece of beef, was well beyond rare, and somewhere between medium-rare and medium, by my estimation. Like Mr A, however, I wasn’t going to send it back, because the potential wait was too much of a deterrent.
The other thing which was a little disappointing about my steak was how much of it was purely fat. I’m not averse to fat on my meat – in fact, I relish it – but trying to eat this much fat in a single chunk was too much, even for me.
Once we had received our mains, the waitress who had originally served us – who had quite noticeably been avoiding our table since she delivered the bad news – returned to check how everything was. I think she was expecting us to be appreciative and happy with the food, because she was a bit surprised when we told her of the raw burger, and the cold schnitzel. She completely misread the situation I think, because her response should have been to apologise humbly, and vanish to tell management or the kitchen. Instead, she tried to laugh off the situation, by saying, “Oh well, I guess it happens to everyone at least once in their lifetime!” Probably not a good idea to reinforce the fact this experience was so bad that it might only happen to someone once in their lifetime. Also probably not a good idea to link that notion to the establishment at which you work.

I should also note that the only sides which we received were the beans which we had ordered, which Mr A proclaimed just about the only thing the Botanical had gotten right that night. I thought this was a little harsh, but overall we had been having a pretty woeful experience.

When we finished our mains, we asked for the bill. The maitre’d seemed a little shocked that we weren’t going to stay for some free dessert, but quite frankly, who knows how long that would have taken to arrive, and based on the food which we’d just eaten, it wasn’t such an exciting prospect. I was tempted to ask him to just deduct the price of whatever desserts they were going to give us from the bill, but I thought that might be a little too impertinent.

The last drama of the night came when we were presented with a bill with two $130 bottles of wine on it. We had ordered two $55 bottles of wine. In fact, there were no $130 bottles of wine even on the casual dining wine list! It seems someone behind the bar had messed that up, too. The wine, which is available in the fine dining section, was from the same winery, so not looking closely, we had simply trusted that it was the correct bottle. An error which, for once, worked out in our favour! Again, when the maitre’d rectified this error, his jovial comment, “well, you’re in luck, because you’ve had some pretty great wine tonight!” seemed to ignore the fact that we’d also endured some pretty woeful service to eat some rather average food.

To return to my original caveat, this was a singular experience. The Botanical has been open in this incarnation for two weeks, so it’s not completely unexpected that they would still be experiencing some teething problems. It takes time to train up staff, and get a kitchen running smoothly. With that in mind, I don’t think I’d rule out returning, but I won’t be back anytime soon. Hopefully a lot will have changed by then.

Botanical on Urbanspoon

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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La Camera

446 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Phone: 9827 8531

First off, let’s just be clear this is not the Southbank La Camera. This is the one on that strip of Chapel St which has quite a few non-descript eateries, sandwiched between the Jam Factory and Commercial Road. We were going to see a movie at the Jam Factory, so it seemed natural to grab dinner at one of these places first.

La Camera – “the room” in Italian – is a pretty unpretentious Italian bistro. The service was upbeat and responsive, though the place wasn’t exactly busy the night we stopped in.

I ordered the lasagna, because I was in a meaty mood, and it had been a while since I’d had lasagna. It arrived, as you can see, smothered in extra bolognese sauce, and there was no end to the meat-and-tomato flavour which pretty much defines the dish. It was a touch too acidic from the tomatoes, but I think that’s a sign of freshness (?) and would have liked a little more cheese, but all in all, I wasn’t disappointed.

Mr N had the lemon and lamb risotto, which was nicely subtle. He kindly let me sample a spoonful. I wouldn’t have thought of pairing those two flavours in a risotto, but it worked. The rice seemed just a touch on the over-cooked side for me.

Miss S had the spaghetti napoli – she’s a vegetarian – which she said was good.

Not having been to many of the restaurants along that strip, it’s hard for me to say if La Camera is relatively good or bad, but it serves up decent Italian standards, so if that’s what you’re in the mood for before a movie, I’d say give it a shot. The food came out pretty quickly too, so that helps!

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571 Chapel St, South Yarra
Phone: 9826 9516

It was a cold autumn’s night. A Tuesday night, which might explain why we were turned away at 11pm at the Italian Waiter’s Club; though I thought the point of that place was because it’s always open late. I guess not. With a hankering for pasta, the thought struck Mr N: Chapelli’s! The “we never close” sign remains conveniently etched somewhere in the recesses of my mind, so I was sure Mr N was onto a sure bet.

When we arrived, the place was still rather lively. So much so that we asked for a table up the back, away from the bustling crowds. This was something of a mistake, because it took a while for the waiters to remember we were there, and come take our order.

I ordered the spaghetti all’arrabiata, which interestingly came smothered with cheese. Not that it was a bad thing, but I’m fairly sure it’s not a traditional touch? It also didn’t stop me adding parmesan and chilli flakes. The all’arrabiata had a decent kick (after I added chilli) and was quite satisfying. Were it not closing in on midnight, and were I not keenly aware I was consuming large portions of carbs, I probably would’ve finished it off. As it was, I wasn’t up to the ask that night.

Mr N ordered the penne off the specials board. I believe there was spinach and chorizo involved? It, too, left him happily satisfied, and he also couldn’t finish it all.

Now I don’t think Chapelli’s is great, nor is it awfully bad. But I think during regular restaurant business hours, you could definitely find better places to go. Late at night, however, when you’re in that rare mood where Chinese, Malaysian, souvlakis or burgers just aren’t going to satisfy you, it’s something of an Italian godsend.

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