Saturday, October 31, 2009

Café Chilli, Siam, Bangkok

Café Chilli is situated in a more relaxing location past the hectic food hall on the ground floor of the Siam Paragon shopping complex. 

This place serves Northeastern Thai cuisine (which neighbouring Loas) tends to be hot and spicy, with sticky rice being the preferred staple.  The Northeastern Thais also prefer their meat grilled and their curries without coconut milk.

Today I wanted a substantial lunch and having walked past this place with piggy-eyed curiosity, I decided to venture in and sample what this place had to offer.

The décor is dark wood with plush red and cream soft furnishing.  There is a mezzanine area and a few tables in their outside (but also still being inside the shopping complex) terrace area.  Huge matching dark brown lamp shades hang from the ceiling.  It's Eastern modernity with a touch of pure Western class.

I sat by the window which had a good view to the other tables.  I'm afraid to say, that I really am one of those nosey 'I like to see what everyone else is eating' sort of a gal. 

As soon as I sat down, a menu was quickly presented to me to peruse through.  Everything sounded so wonderful and the few pictures that there were, made the food look doubly enticing.

There was a delicious list of appetizers, from which I chose the 'Steamed Pork Larb Dumplings' (160 Bht) and from the A La Carte section, I chose the 'Steamed rice topped with chicken with chilli and basil' (170 Bht).  I asked for the latter to be mildly spicy as these days, I cannot take my food too spicy.  There were also soups, salads (som-tam) and lots of yummy sounding grilled meats and curries to choose from.  Had I had come with another person, I definitely would have ordered the Thai style grilled chicken...

Nevertheless, I was happy with my choices and my pot of hot jasmine tea came to soothe my weary feet.  Presented in a white china tea pot with a transparent cup and saucer, it was rather charming.

My steamed pork larb dumplings soon followed and looked mouthwateringly good (at least I thought so).  To briefly explain, Larb is a type of Loas meat salad.  These dumplings were wonton wrappers filled with minced pork, chopped water chestnuts, finely chopped chilli and coriander.  Not only did they look good, they tasted very good too. 

The chilli dipping sauce was a little too spicy for me, so I just stuck with dipping them into the soy sauce.  I didn't think I would finish all six, but when I left the last one just sitting there, I tried to look away.  But temptation got the better of me and I grabbed my fork to gobble it up.

Having taken a little break after my delicous appetizer, my steamed rice topped with chicken, chilli and basil arrived.  It came with a complimentary fish sauce with sliced red chilli dipping sauce.  This is one of my favourite dish, but looking back, perhaps I should have chosen a more typical dish from the Northeast. 

Anyhow, the chicken was minced, but not too finely so which is how it should be in my opinion.  I proceeded to mix the dish up together so that the rice got covered with the delicious chicken.  If you have been to Thailand, you may notice that a lot of Thais tend to mix their rice/noodle/salad dishes up before eating.  This is to ensure that all the flavours and textures are mixed in together to create a beautiful fusion. 

Seeing as the chicken had enough salt for me, I only needed to a touch of the chilli fish sauce.  What I liked about this dish was that they were generous with the basil leaves as some places can be a little stingy with their basil. 

All in all I enjoyed my lunch.  I was too full for dessert.  But the lady sitting on the table right opposite me had the coconut ice cream with four condiments.  I wasn't entirely sure what they all were, but they included peanuts, tapioca looking jellies and a couple of other sweet looking things.  What a perfect way to end a meal... I was really too stuffed.

The staff were super friendly in this place and very attentive.  Before I even had a chance to top up my tea myself, there was always somebody on hand to do it for me.  

I'll admit that I can probably get the steamed rice with chicken in chilli and basil in the busy food hall for less than a third of the price here.  But I really enjoyed having my lunch in a relaxed environment without the hustle and bustle of trolleys, loud clattering and trying to look for an empty table amongst the sea of hungry people.

I'm a sucker for comfortable surroundings and so I like this place for just that.  I really enjoyed my appetizer, but I don't think the chicken with chilli and basil was anything amazing.  It was what it was.  I would however like to come back again to try some more of the grilled meat dishes.  And next time, I will bring a local! 

Café Chilli
Ground Floor, Siam Paragon Shopping Complex, 991 Rama 1 Road, Bangkok 10330
Tel: +66 (0)2 610 9877-8
Nearest BTS: Siam

Monday, October 26, 2009

Arirang, Sathorn, Bangkok

Tonight, I was invited to dine at a nearby Korean restaurant in town.  My hosts (close family friends) told me that everything 'Korea' is really big in Bangkok right now, almost to the point of calling it 'Korea fever'.

I love a good Korean bbq, so I was really looking forward to experiencing my first Korean dining experience in Bangkok.

Having arrived by car, there was a car park attendant at the ready to help.  They even open the doors for you here which is a lovely touch.  Car park attendants are usually on a low wage so they always appreciate a tip.

We were greeted with the usual Thai hello - 'Sawasdee' as we entered the restaurant.   There are a few private dining rooms upstairs, with the main open restaurant on the ground floor.  Tonight, our hosts had already booked one of the private dining rooms upstairs.

Our table had two circular barbeques, one at either end.  Our hosts had already arrived and so they had taken the liberty of ordering us all a feast. 

The first to arrive were the selection of Banchan, which are simply small side dishes.  Every Korean restaurant will serve Banchan at the start of the meal and there is usually a mix of cool, sweet, salty, spicy and sour.  Our Banchan tonight included a deliciously dressed fresh lettuce salad, cool seaweed, kimchi (fermented chilli cabbage), diced kimchi turnip, spicy papaya pickle (Thai influence), oyster mushrooms, garlic nuts and spinach amongst a couple of other things.  I have to say that I loved them all and my favourite was definitely the Asian dressed lettuce salad. 

However, there was one that was, well let me simply put it by saying that it was a rather bizarre pairing - a ball of cold mashed potato with strawberry sauce.  Yes, you read right and yes, it was plain weird.  I'm not even sure Heston Blumenthal would have thought of putting these two together, although I have heard some say his bacon and egg ice-cream doesn't taste quite as strange as it sounds...This dish definitely did!

A great thing about this place is that you can have as many refills of Banchan as you like (obviously within reason) and no, we didn't ask for more of the above dish.

We were then brought a mix of Korean mini pancakes.  I have never seen it served this way and I have only ever had the Korean scallion pancake, which by the way is utterly delicious when done well.  Even so, seeing as I don't know a great deal about Korean food, I can't say whether it was authentic or not.  I will say that the huge serving plate consisted of a variety of mini pancakes - courgettes (zucchinis), carrots, taro, minced pork.  Each mini pancake was so deliciously tasty; I could have just eaten the whole plateful. 

Our hosts had ordered a hot kimchi dish with slices of fresh tofu.  Hot kimchi was another first for me and I have to say, it was really rather good.  However, I didn't particularly care much for the fresh tofu slices.  As a good source of lean protein, I do eat quite a bit of tofu. Personally,
prefer it cooked in a hotpot or stir fried with some vegetables.  So I do think this dish could have done without it.

A gorgeous rice dish arrived which consisted of rice, grated carrot, shitake mushrooms, spinach and minced beef.  It was oh sooo good; by far my favourite.  My hosts kept telling me to slow down as we still had the bbq beef and pork ribs to come.  However much I tried to resist, I simply couldn't stop my arm from reaching in for yet another spoonful.  This savoury rice dish was yum, yum, yummy!! 

Unfortunately, because I got a little side tracked with stuffing my face full of food, I forgot to take pictures of the barbequed beef slices and the pork ribs.  So I apologise for there being no pictures of these two dishes.  Let me just tell you that having barbequed the beef ourselves (well one of the hosts to be precise), it was oh sooo good.  And the juicy, tender pork ribs had been wondefully deboned - which made for excellent munching without any mess. 

As I said, I don't confess to knowing a great deal about Korean food, but I really enjoyed my first Korean banquet in Bangkok.  It was truly delicious, the smell of the barbeque meat didn't stick to my clothes (always a bonus and means that the air vents worked well), and the staff were pleasant.  I would definitely come back here again. 

Arirang - Sathorn
199/1 Sathorn Soi 12, Sathorn Neua Road, Bangkok
Tel:  +66 (0)2 635 4775 
Nearest BTS: Surasak

Arirang - Sukhumvit:
212/8 Sukhumvit Plaza, Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok
Tel:  +66 (0)2 653 0177 
Nearest BTS: Nana or Asok

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thanying, Bangkok

Having been here a few years ago for lunch, I was excited to be going back for dinner.  This place is on a road that runs between two main roads - Soi Silom and Soi Sathorn.  It is also conveniently just a few minutes walk from Surasak skytrain station.    

Thanying restaurant offers 'genuine royal Thai cuisine,'  The restaurant is named after Her Serene Highness Princess Sulabh-valling Visuddhi, who was once the head cook in the Sukhothai Palace Kitchen for her sister, Queen Rambhai Barni.  The Thanying kitchen is now supervised by Princess Sulabh's son. 

As we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by the front of house who took us through to our table.  All the tables were smartly presented with white linen table cloths and individual place settings adorned each one.  The place settings were charming arrangements; consisting of a single white flower and a rolled napkin inside the base of a pyramid (see photo at the top). 

Subtle sounds of soft jazz played in the background, which made for a relaxing atmosphere.  And the restaurant was just starting to fill out as we arrived. 

Waiters came to take away our place settings and unfold the napkins on our laps.  They then brought us menus to peruse and digest through. 

The food menu is split into an array of appetizers; spicy & tangy salad; pastes & dips with side salad; vegetable dishes; spicy & tangy soup; clear soup; sweet curries; red & green curries; herbal curries without coconut milk (from Northern Thailand); prawns; wild catch seabass; salmon; crispy fluffy catfish (which is extremely tasty); squid; thai beef/pork/chicken; sun dried beef (one of my favourite childhood snacks); pork ribs; crab; rice and noodles.  There really is no shortage of choice.

We ordered a couple of appetizers - vegetarian spring rolls and deep fried chicken in Pandan leaves.  The latter is a very popular dish in Thailand and is often served with a slightly sweet dipping sauce.  Both dishes were under 150 Baht each.

When the spring rolls arrived, they looked delightfully crisp and were a beautiful golden in colour.  I spooned over a little of the syrupy sweet chilli sauce and as I cut into one, I could hear the crisp, crunch and crackle of the deep fried pancake skin which was like beautiful music to my ears.  The filling was light and subtle in flavour and not at all overpowering.

The deep fried chicken in Pandan leaves looked like delicious parcels of yumminess.  After removing the Pandan leaves, the chicken was tender and not too chewy.  There was not an ounce of fat on them and they needed only a touch of the accompanying syrupy and sweet pandan sauce.  In case you are not familiar with Pandan sauce, it is made from a mixture of ingredients including tamarind juice, fish sauce and palm sugar. 

I must confess that both appetizers were heavenly appetizing.  I already want to go back to try some more.

Since there were five of us, we ordered a few mains.  For me, no Thai meal is complete without a Thai curry.   Coconut based Thai curries are gorgeously smooth and tasty.  The most commonly known of the Thai curries are the 'red' and 'green' variety (respectively made from red chillies and green chillies which give them their vibrant colour).  

We ordered the Thai beef green curry (160 Baht) and it came in a standard sized bowl with torn lime and basil leaves floating on the top.  Underneath were generous slices of beef, Thai baby aubergine (eggplant) and a few Thai pea aubergines.  Thai baby and pea aubergines are green, unlike the dark purple skinned variety that is common in the West.  Thais generally like their curries hot, but you can specify the spicyness of your curry - mild or medium.  I love to flavour my rice with curry sauce and this one was especially fragrant and aromatic. 

The next dish brought to the table was the 'Stir fried squid with chilli and basil leaves'.  The curly strips of squid were tender, juicy and tasted divine with the basil leaves and the delicious sauce drizzled all over.  This dish wasn't too spicy and the chilli added just a hint of spice - just how I like it. 

We ordered some 'Stir fried Morning glory (Chinese water spinach) with soy bean sauce' which is stir fried with garlic and slithers of red chilli.  Morning glory stalks are hollow and the leaves resemble arrow tips.  When cooked, the stalks are crunchy whilst the leaves are soft and luscious.  Morning glory is simply scrumptious and these were nothing but.  Mmmm...

The next dish to arrive was the 'Chinese kale, bean sprouts and carrots spicy & tangy salad.'  I had never eaten this before, so I was looking forward to trying something new.  It was essential to mix the salad before serving so that all the vegetables and dressing came together.  Unfortunately though, I found this salad a little too sweet for my liking.  In general, Thais have a penchant for sweet tasting things and for me, this dish was one of them. 

Another sweet dish, the 'Sweet crispy noodles with soybean sauce and lime' was also a little too candy-coated for my palate.  I think I'd rather stick to savoury soft noodles.

A favourite of mine and the last dish to arrive at our table, the 'Glass noodles with mushroom and prawn claypot.'  My first thought was how small the dish looked and my second thought was, why were there only two prawns?!   OK, so there were plenty slices of mushroom and spears of green onion, but this dish is all about the prawns in the glass noodles...

Nevertheless, I helped myself to a conservative portion sin prawn so as not to appear to be greedy.  The glass noodles were soft and flavoursome from the sauce and mushrooms. 

My only criticism though - I wish there had been more of this dish.  I felt it was a little on the stingy side, even for Thailand.  But perhaps the kitchen had run out of prawns tonight...?

Being too stuffed to even think about dessert, I will conclude by saying that the food here is tasty, generally well presented and although not all dishes will appeal to all tastes, there is an abundance of choice to satisfy everyone. 

The ingredients were fresh and the dishes were well executed.  I would definitely recommend it as a great place to come to enjoy some fine traditional royal Thai cuisine. 

The staff are polite and attentive.  The ambience is relaxing and best of all, nobody is rushed; everyone is simply left on their own to digest their meal and to indulge in some fabulous tastes of Thailand.

Thanying Restaurant
10 Soi Pramuan, Silom, Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: +66 (0)2 236 4361

Nearest BTS: Surasak

Friday, October 16, 2009

Greyhound Café, Bangkok

'Life is a journey full of pictures, places,
stories and good tasting recipes.'
(From the cover of the Greyhound Café menu)

Settled in a busy hub of Bangkok, in an area known as Siam. This particular branch of the Greyhound café chain is nestled in a corner on the ground floor of the Siam (shopping) Centre.

The Greyhound café chain offers a modern twist on Asian as well as European cuisine. The décor is a mix of comfortable soft low seating and wooden dining chairs. There is a white chalked menu written on a large blackboard which follows the edge of the open bar below it.

There are brushed steel cylinder ceiling lights and exposed ventilation tubes.  It all makes for a contemporary and slightly industrial warehouse feel.  The background music sets off a relaxing atmosphere. Having eaten at two other Greyhound Café's, I know the quality of food is quite decent.

Being a weekday lunchtime, it wasn't too busy at all.  They sat my dining companion and me down on a table by the window with soft seats.  Menus were duly brought to us and I noticed how they matched the café's signature interior of black and white.  Inside there was a good choice of food which was divided into European Bistro - Soup + Salads, Appetizers, Main Dishes - European (of which I spot Battered Fish & Chips for 220 baht), Main Dishes - Thai + Asian, Noodles and Vegetarian fare.

There is also a one page laminated 'Specials' menu which includes an Italian Fest listing mains such as Beef Ossobuco Stew in Red Wine, Rigatoni with Italian Sausage, and Mussels in White Wine, all under 250 Baht each. There is also a black photo album menu which basically consists of photographic illustration of the dishes.

Wanting a light starter, I chose the Vietnamese Spring rolls (130 baht) from the Appetizers, followed by Pounded Shrimp Fried Rice (150 baht) and my companion opted for the Grilled Salmon with Japanese Soba Sauce & Miso Soup (280 baht).

A waiter took our order to the kitchen and came back to lay our place settings with black leather place mats; white linen napkins; a fork, a spoon and a black pair of chopsticks - all of which are standard Thai cutlery.

Our Vietnamese Spring rolls arrived with a side of freshly washed lettuce leaves and fresh basil, and a bowl of sweet chilli dressing. Vietnamese Spring rolls are rice paper rolls typically filled with lettuce, herbs and prawns and/or shredded chicken. They are a healthy alternative to the deep fried spring rolls and are utterly delicious. These Greyhound Vietnamese spring rolls were prawn and chicken and with the hot and sweet chilli dressing, they were scrumptious and fresh.

Our mains arrived soon after and my Pounded Shrimp Fried Rice came with a bowl of minced pork ball and cabbage in clear broth and a bowl of fish sauce with sliced green chilli. Fish sauce with chilli is a common condiment to any Thai meal.  It is widely used in many Thai dishes and is a staple in the kitchens of every Thai family.

Fish sauce is derived from fish that has been left to ferment.  It may not sound particularly appetizing to the Western palate, but if you've ever eaten Thai food, I can guarantee that you've had dishes with it as one of the ingredients.

My favourite brand is one with a label that has a picture of a giant squid on it.  It is suitably called 'Squid Brand' fish sauce.  It can be found in most good Asian stores and in many Western supermarkets too.

OK, so back to my Pounded Shrimp Fried Rice; it is quite simply fried rice with pounded shrimp and chilli paste.  Here, it came with a small slice of fresh lime, sliced green chilli, shredded raw mango, a fried egg (typical for a fried rice dish), dried shrimp and small nut size chunks of fried pork skin on the side.

The great thing about many Asian fried rice dishes is that you can take away what you don't want and mix the rest together.  On this occasion, I took away the chilli slices, squeezed over the lime juice and proceeded to mix the rest together.

spooned over some of the chilli infused fish sauce to finish it off.  It tasted superb!  I loved the mix of different textures - crunchy, soft and chewy all at once.  The rice wasn't too spicy and the different flavours exploded in my mouth.

The soup was a delicious accompaniment to the rice.  Asian soups are usually thin and clear broth based.  Fried rice dishes are always served with a bowl of soup in Asia.  Not only is it tasty, but it also acts as a palate cleanser to the fried rice.

The Grilled Salmon with Soba Sauce also came with a clear broth soup and sweet soy sauce.  It was well presented and the salmon was soft and tasty.

Although the food was good, the waiters didn't smile once. They were however, courteous and somewhat attentive.  But at least the front of house manager made up for their aloofness and he made sure to smile at us when we arrived and as we were leaving.

I can't speak for their Western dishes, but their Asian food really isn't bad at all.  Bear in mind though that you will pay more for food here that you can get elsewhere for less.  You're paying for the upscale contemporary surroundings, which I have to say are very pleasant and pleasing.

Greyhound Café can also be found on the 2nd floor of the Emporium Shopping complex and on the 3rd floor of Central Chidlom department store in Ploenchit, Bangkok.  The food is fresh and tasty, the ambience is more European than Thai and it's a reliable choice to enjoy lunch or dinner.

Greyhound Café
Siam Centre (GF), 989 Rama 1 Road, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330
BTS: Siam

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Melbourne Supper Club

More an upmarket, sophisticated havana smoking type of a place than somewhere to dine per se, The Melbourne Supper Club is a late night bar on the first floor of 161 Spring Street with fabulous views of Parliament House.

Patrons enter through an inconspicuous wooden door and take a short flight up some wooden steps.  Upon reaching the top, I was pleasantly surprised to see a long, airy light room with high ceilings and a huge arched window at the front.  A large framed picture dominates the main wall which is easily recognisable as, the lady with the torch that appears at the beginning of every Columbia Pictures Production.

The seating is a mix of leather Chesterfield and bright, lipstick-kissing red sofas, velvet tub seats and warn leather studded wooden dining chairs.  It's a little bit old school, but very cool old school.  Even the waitress with her quirky demeanour and head-to-toe black Victoriana-esque style added to the coolness the place.

Taking a seat by the window, the view over towards Parliament House and below, towards Spring Street were excellent.  With the dinner jazzy music playing in the background, the place took on a relaxing ambience.

On the table, our waitress placed a red hardback bound menu with 'Melbourne Supper Club Bar' written in gold stencilling on the front.  The menu reads like an extensive library list of wine and other alcoholic beverages.  For wine buffs, I can imagine that this place is probably a little like being in wine heaven.  The wines are priced by the bottle, but there is a separate page for wines that come by the glass.  The prices vary, but let's just say you could end up paying a few hundred dollars for a bottle of wine if you're not too careful.

On finding the food, I discovered the one and only page dedicated to it.  The choice was rather limiting which was a little dissappointing.  However, I guess this place executes the meaning of supper quite literally as 'a light evening meal'.  Seeing as we had come to eat, we ordered a couple of 'Around the Table' plates; Chevap sausage rolls and Selected house dips with Turkish bread.  Having never had Chevap before, I discovered that it is a Serbian type of sausage typically made from veal or beef.

As the evening sky turned to dusk, the place slowly filled out with groups of after-work office crowds and pre-theatre guests from the next door Princess Theatre.  Some took their place on the Chesterfield sofas, others headed up the stairs to the next level and out towards the roof terrace. 

Before my hunger had a chance to set in, our Chevap sausage rolls arrived along with our house dips and Turkish bread.  The sausage rolls were a beautiful golden crisp in colour and came with a side of tomato sauce and a side of tomato relish.  The pastry was deliciously chewy with just the right amount of meat inside.  They were hot and filling; for $16, you get six mini sausage rolls.
The trio of dips turned out to be salmon, tzatziki and hummus. The generous basket of bread consisted of warm Turkish bread and wedges of paprika pita. At $13, this was good value. The salmon was smooth and subtle, the tzatiki was light and fresh as one would expect it to be.  And the hummus was packed with a good garlic punch.  This turned out be my favourite of the three dips.

Having consumed a light supper, I felt more than satisfied.  As I sat back to soak in the atmosphere and take in my surroundings, I did'nt feel the need for anything else.

The Melbourne Supper Club has olde worlde charm mixed with modern day touches and a smattering of bourgeoisie about it.  It's grown up escapism in the city, yet only a stone's throw away from the bustling streets of trams, cars and crowds. 

The staff are not the friendliest, but they are polite.  They simply make sure that you are watered, and fed if you wish to be so. 

If you're after an early evening bite or even a late night snack where you want to sit back and relax, this is the place to come.  But if you're after a good substantial supper, I'd probably suggest you head elsewhere. 

The Melbourne Supper Club
Level 1, 161 Spring Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9654 6300

Monday, October 12, 2009

Brunetti Café, Melbourne

I have been told how good the cakes at Brunetti are by several others.  So given what a gorgeous warm afternoon it was today, I decided to stop by for a coffee and 'une petit' treat.

Brunetti City Square, as it is referred to on their website, resides on the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street.  There is an upstairs seating room as well as an outside patio area with plenty of tables.  At the back there is a bench piled high with broadsheets and tabloids, providing free reading material for paying customers. 

It's a self service style café, where customers place their orders (of savoury and/or sweet) at the patisserie counter and wait at the bar to collect their drinks. 

Everything here looks utterly delectable.  There is a vast array of sweet mignons (dainties) which all look adoringly irresistible.  As usual, I want to have more than one.  But in the end, it was a toss up between the 'Vanilla Custard Tart' and the 'White & Dark Chocolate Mousse'. 

Seeing as I have to watch my (non-existent) waistline, I stuck with just the Vanilla Custard Tart.  At $1.80, this is hardly indulgent.  I ordered a skinny flat white (at what seems to be the standard Melbourne price of $3.50), picked up my Vanilla Custard Tart and made my way to the bar to collect my beverage.

There were a few seats available outside and I chose a seat at the back along the pretty mosaic tiled communal table.   

The Vanilla Custard Tart has a trio of layers - a short crust pastry base, a custard centre and a gelatin top with sour cherries.  With all the different textures and sweet flavours, this little tart comes together beautifully.  The pastry was slightly chewy, the vanilla custard was delicious - not too sweet at all, and the cherries were the right side of sour.  It reminded me of a good old fashioned English custard tart, only with sour cherries on top. 

(I forgot to take a picture before I stirred my coffee,
but at least I remembered before I ate my tart!)

My skinny flat white coffee was creamy yet strong.  There wasn't any bitterness and it was the perfect accompaniment to my delicious sweet treat. 

I can honestly say that I will definitely be back to try the White & Dark Chocolate mousse.  And I will most probably go out of my way to pass this cafe on several other occasions, just so I can try the many other gorgeous things on offer.   A girl can never have enough cake you know?!

A cautionary note of warning:  Just watch out for the greedy pigeons that flock here too!

241 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9663 8085

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Kum Den, Melbourne

I had yet to venture out to Chinatown on a Friday night.  Having spent all day eating out, I thought I may as well continue to do so for my evening meal. 

This wasn't a planned visit.  My friend and I purely ended up in Chinatown for sake of ease, vicinity and value for money. 

We wondered up Little Bourke Street and we came across a well lit place down one of the many dark Chinatown laneways called 'New Kum Den'.  OK, so at the time the name didn't really register in my famished state.  On reflection, I can see how it may not sound like the most tantalizing of places. 

We stepped onto the front porch and on hearing the sounds of lively chatter starting to emanate ever louder, we both smiled in approval and opened the door leading into the restaurant.

We were instantly greeted by the manager as we asked for a table for two.  With a quick glance around, he pointed in the direction of a table at the back next to the wall.  It gave us the perfect viewing point from which to observe dishes being brought out to the other diners. 

Personally, I love being able to see what other people have ordered so that I can assess what the food looks like and try to guess what they are.  It also gives me an idea on portion size.

So, on looking around, we saw that portion sizes were indeed generous here.  From our brief, but careful observations, we decided that choosing one dish each to share, would be more than adequate for the both of us.

A polite waiter arrived with some menus for us.  On viewing it, I can explain that the menu is broken down into easy headings of appetizers, the different proteins, noodle and rice dishes, followed by a handful of desserts. 

We agreed on the 'Seafood combination and tofu claypot' (at $22.80) and the 'Shredded beef with black pepper sauce on fried noodles' (at $12.80).  For refreshment, a pot of Chinese tea to refresh and cleanse our palates was ordered.

For those who have never experienced Chinese claypot dishes before, let me start by saying that they are extremely tasty, and claypot cooking is also one of my favourite methods of Chinese cuisine.  It's an ancient technique of cooking food (which is not only confined to Chinese cuisine).  All the ingredients are placed together in what is a traditional Chinese style unglazed single handed claypot.  The claypot, having been soaked in water releases steam when cooking.  The end result, when done well, is a beautiful steaming hot pot of deliciousness. 

It didn't take too long for our dishes to arrive, but it was long enough given the rumbles in my tummy. 

The seafood claypot had slices of carrot and a handful of coriander on top.  There was an abundance of plump prawns, sliced scallops and curly squid, all of which we agreed were cooked to perfection - tender, juicy, and so not chewy at all!   There were also pieces of soft white fish, fried silken tofu (which was lovingly melt in your mouth) and gorgeous bok choy greens at the bottom.  It was a meal in itself and a truly magnificent one at that.  I have to confess, it was really very, VERY good indeed.  And we managed to scrape out every last morsel!

(I forgot to take photgraph before I tucked in again, sorry folks!)

The noodles with beef had slices of spring onions (green onions) and white onions in a peppery sauce which softened the bed of crispy noodles underneath.  As we sampled this dish, my friend announced with a little disdain on her face, how much they reminded her of 'two minute packet noodles'.  Sadly, I had to agree.  

In order to add some 'kick' to this dish, we decided that chilli paste oil was essential.  Although this dish, especially when compared to the Combination seafood and tofu claypot, was bland in flavour, I must admit to finding noodle dishes in Chinese restaurants (the world over) pretty bland in taste.  It seems that chilli is an essential condiment to enhancing noodle dishes.  Nevertheless, any lack of flavour did not stop us from polishing most of it off. 

As we sat back to digest our meal, our plates and bowls were cleared leaving behind a splattered canvas of pepper sauce, chilli paste oil, tea and other small remnants from our dishes on the white paper table cloth. 

The restaurant was heaving and suddenly the sound of 'Happy Birthday' started to jingle over the loud speakers.  It sounded like something from a Japanese karaoke tape.  'Hello Kitty' where are you?!

We saw a waiter walk towards the round table of diners next to us carrying a small dish of what looked like a square white jellied dessert with a single lit candle.  Everyone started to clap and sing along to the Happy Birthday tune being belted out.  The table next to us jeered 'Happy Birthday Hayden!'  whilst everyone applauded.  He obviously relished in the attention as he stood up and started doing a body wave holding the little dessert in the palm of his hand to the rapturous clapping of the whole restaurant.  We both laughed, a little out of astonishment and a little out of embarrassed amazement. 

However, this light entertainment brought smiles and laughter to everyone in the place.  And just as we settled down to resume our previous conversation, we heard the same Happy Birthday tune being belted out again.  This time, everyone started to ardently look around trying to figure out who the next birthday victim was.  It turned out to be a lady sitting at another round table and unlike the last guy, she looked utterly embarrassed.  She received her birthday dessert looking very much so, and managed to smile at her fellow friends on her table.  

Everyone soon settled down again and returned to their normal chitter chatter.  My friend and I were now hoping that they weren't going to do this to every table just for the fun of it.  Luckily for us, this didn't happen.

We decided that we were now in the mood for dessert (probably having seen the birthday desserts!) and we asked for the menus again.  My friend went for the 'Deep fried ice-cream' and I chose the 'Deep fried banana fritter with ice-cream.'  Blow the calories I thought, there's always tomorrow...

Chinese restaurants (the world over) are generally not renowned for their visual assembly of food.  So when our desserts arrived, I really did not expect anything elaborate.  And quite rightly too, no fancy presentation was spared.  I'll let you guess which was what.

Unfortunately, my friend didn't think much of her deep fried ice-cream.  And although mine looked more like a battered English sausage with a lump of lard, the banana fritter was in fact rather nice.  It had syrup drizzled over the top and the banana was sweet and soft.  The ice-cream was nothing to write home about though.  It had the texture of cheap ice-cream with just a hint of flavour.  But for $5 a piece, I'm not going to complain too much.

All in all, the claypot was the winner of the evening.  I would certainly go back for their claypot again and perhaps try some dim sum which looked delightful on the next table.  The waiters were polite and friendly, which is something of a rarity in Chinese restaurants, again the world over.

If you want to embarrass your friend's on their birthday, then be sure to book a table here, inform the waiters and you won't be disappointed.

15 Hefferman Lane, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9639 9857

Friday, October 9, 2009

Madame Brussels, Melbourne

I came across Madame Brussels late one evening.  I was doing an online search for places to visit for afternoon tea.  Suddenly, Madame Brussels popped up on my screen and I was immediately hooked. 

So the very next day, my fellow foodie and I felt compelled to pay this infamous Melbourne Madame a visit. 

It's located on Bourke Street in the CBD and having completely missed the doorway entrance, we had to pop into a nearby cafe to ask the owner for directions.  As we wondered back down the street, we came across an unimaginative office doorway leading into a murky brown tiled stairway.

We decided to ignore the lift and take the stairs.  We were there to eat cake after all! 

As we breathlessly climbed to the top of the stairs to the third floor, our eyes lit up as we saw what I can only describe as a sort of Old English country garden wonderland.  Complete with astroturf, a short winding brick path (not too far off from the Yellow Brick Road in the Land of Oz) leading to the trellis bar and a delightful roof terrace; any thoughts of apprehension were immediately dispelled.

We made our way to the roof terrace and took our pew at one of the duck egg blue garden tables, with white Provence garden chairs. 

A waiter (dressed as though he had just walked off a Fred Perry photo shoot), came to open out our carousel so as to shade us from the beating mid-afternoon sun.  He then proceeded to bring us two pretty pink hardback menus.

Inside, there is a brief bio of the lady Madame Brussels herself.  It makes for an interesting read and she was certainly no shrinking violet.  Then there is a list of thirst quenching cocktails from the 'Iron Fister' to the 'Horned Beast' to the 'Undress Me Sloely.'  I suspect they all taste mesmerisingly fabulous.  For those who fancy a light lunch, there is a snack menu of savoury treats such as housemade dips and bread, sandwiches, French cheese plate, Mother of Pearl sausage rolls and a few other deliciously sounding choices.

Nevertheless, we stuck to our afternoon tea theme and Miss Pearls (the glamourous proprietor and hostess with the mostess) was on hand to put in our order of a pot of tea accompanied by two lemon sponges with pink butter icing (at just $5 each).

Glancing around, I noticed a few other groups of ladies sharing an afternoon tipple and even a group of gentleman enjoying a glass of wine.  Despite its tranquil charm and quaint feminine surroundings (which are probably more at home with the ladies), this place obviously knows how to draw in both genders.  Another group of gentlemen arrived shortly after we had sat down and took their place in the corner of the sunny roof terrace.

As we relaxed in the afternoon sun, it wasn't too long before another Fred Perry-clad looking waiter arrived with our tray of tea and lemon sponges.  The knitted tea cosy was a cutesy pink and white in colour.  But on turning the tea pot around to face us, we were suddenly being stared at by a rather eerie looking doll face.  I imagined it coming from somewhere like a Stephen King movie set...

proclaimed to the passing Miss Pearls what an intriguing tea cosy she had.  As she returned a cheeky smile, we became counsel to the story behind the doll faced tea cosies.

We learnt that everyone seemed to want a piece of Madame Brussels and in doing so, staff kept finding missing tea cosies, blankets and even menus!  In order to put an end to this light-fingered behaviour, Miss Pearls had asked her mother to buy the 'ugliest tea cosies' that she could find.

Her mother did not disappoint and came back with these doll faced knitted tea cosies, confiding in Miss Pearls that "these were the ugliest tea cosies that I could find!"  I have to say, I rather agree with her and I certainly wouldn't want to pinch one of these!

Moving on, the lemon sponges were divinely topped with lightly whipped pink butter icing and lovingly sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands.  They sat serenely atop white paper doilies on little china saucers.  The hot pink paper napkins topped it all off rather beautifully.  It was a typical Victoria sponge (like mother used to bake), and with the butter icing and colourful sprinkles on top, I felt like I had gone back in time. 

Miss Pearls certainly pays attention to all the finer little details.  The staff are super polite and ensure that everyone is well attended to.  When the sun goes down and the cold air picks up, there are even blankets should you get a little chilly on the terrace.  However, with lots of outdoor patio heaters, I am sure no one is allowed to get too cold.  With these cute little touches and the quaint English garden décor, it all makes for a delightful and enjoyable time at Madame Brussels. 

There is even a function room at the back which is aptly named 'The Parlour', of which we were given a little preview.  It is wonderfully decorated in a fashionably frou-frou manner.  And in the spoken words of Miss Pearls, it is "The parlour, up the rear of Madame Brussels."  Of which it literally is!

What also makes this room even more special is that regular patrons can choose to purchase the sole use of one of the crystal decanters which are kept locked inside a wooden glass fronted cabinet.  In addition, owners can personalise their decanter by attaching individual charms to them if they wish to do so.  I'll leave you to guess who owns the one with the ivory pearl necklace.

It's all made to appear rather lavish here and Miss Pearls along with her staff make you feel very much at home.  Apart from the contrasting terrace views of the modern architecture outside, this place feels like a dreamy world away from the metropolis that surrounds it. 

 I simply cannot wait to go back for a spot of lunch!

Level 3, 59-63 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9662 2775

Shanghai Village, Melbourne

On meeting a fellow foodie for lunch today, we decided to take a walk through Chinatown.  Having dismissed a few places, we stopped at Shanghai Village. 

Upon entering the pillar box red door to the restaurant, prospective customers are politely informed that they can only pay in cash.  As can be expected when arriving at a popular Chinese restaurant in the peak of a busy lunchtime hour, we had no choice but to join the back of an already eager queue of customers.  Whilst we stood waiting patiently, we watched as a spectacle of waiters buzzed in and out of the kitchen carrying trays of food to their respective tables.  We could have been in any busy Chinatown restaurant around the world. 

Assessing the place, it's impossible to ignore how impressively pink the walls are.  In fact, they wouldn't look out of place in a tart's boudoir.  Along the main side wall, there are Chinese lantern covered lights that sit in between framed beer poster prints.  It makes for an interesting take on East meets West. 

What was more interesting however, was an A4 sheet of paper sellotaped to the wall in front of the entrance.  It had inkjet printed CCTV images of some customers walking out of the restaurant.  Much to our amusement, it was entitled 'The Black List That Left Without Paying.' 

As diners finished up and vacated their tables, the queue started to dwindle and we went up to find an empty table on the mezzanine level. 

As the table had not yet been cleared of the last diners' now empty dishes, it was a case of having to frantically wave down any waiter that managed to catch our eye. Seeing my efforts go unnoticed several times, our next door table reassuringly chirped in that service is a little slow.  I changed tactics and started flailing like a mad woman with both arms.   

I eventually caught the attention of a waiter and he proceeded to clear the table and brought us some menus.  It's vast and the choice is immense, so it took us both a while to read through.  There's a good choice of dumplings, both steamed and deep fried.  Seeing how every other table had a plate of steamed dumplings, we decided that they must be good.  We chose the Steamed chicken and prawn dumplings ($6.50), the West Lake style duck on rice ($7) and the Chinese broccoli with garlic ($10). 

Having forgotten to order any tea, we watched as others gathered to the coffee urn sitting on what looked like an old wooden writing desk.  They grabbed chopsticks and Western style cutlery (fork and spoon), plastic rice bowls and filled small cups with hot chinese tea from the urn; I followed their cue.

The food didn't take too long to arrive.  The dumplings looked pale but interesting, the duck was dark from the soy sauce and the vegetables were a beautiful silky green in colour. 

You can only see seven dumplings, but there were in fact eight.  I accidentally took one before remembering to take a photo!

The chicken and prawn dumplings were suprisingly good.  As I bit into my first dumpling, it exploded with mouthwateringly hot broth that had a subtle hint of vinegar.  It was truly delicious.  The prawn was still whole and the minced chicken was tender. The rice wrapping was soft and not too chewy.  The chinese broccoli was cooked just right, not too soft with a little crunch.  Unfortunately though, the duck was a bit too salty from the soy sauce for our liking.  On the whole, considering how inexpensive this meal was, I can honestly say that this place really does deserve to be one of Melbourne's Cheap Eats. 

It may not be the sort of place that you want to bring a first date to, unless you're a poor student that is.  But if you're after something cheap and cheerful, this is the place to come.  With most dishes being under $10, it really is very good value for money. 

Oh, and remember to pay at the counter on your way out, otherwise you may find your picture gloriously posted on their black list for all to see.

Shanghai Village
112 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9663 1878