Writing

The year is 2019.

The year is 2019, and I’m a dad with a two-year-old girl.

Once every two weeks ish, for various reasons - meeting clients, in-between shoots, after fixing the computer at Chika’s school, I’d find myself in the middle of the CBD, hungry, like a scene from the Japanese TV show The Lonely Gourmet.

What do I do? Where do I go?

Dainty Szechuan Noodle House

R0040645.jpg

La Zi Ji aka Chong Qing style spicy chicken is a dish I can’t cook at home (and if I try my apartment block will smell like chili for the rest of the year). The dish is 20% chicken and 80% dried chili. Coupled with the tongue-numbing peppercorn, garlic and probably opium, the umami of this dish is off the roof.

I love La Zi Ji, but the only option was to go all the way to Dainty at South Yarra and order the main dish by myself, which is impossible (and kinda sad) for a modern dad in 2019.

So when I realised the Emporium basement branch offers a soup noodle option, it replaced ramen as my heart-stopping, my soul-warming, spirit-lifting dish.

I do not recommend having your first date here.
Also avoid if you have a client meeting after.

This dish will clear your sinus. The constant sniffing, drooling and wiping of the mixture of tears and sweat off your face is the norm. If you have suffered a trauma recently - be it the end of a relationship, work abuse, financial difficulty etc and need to cry it out, do it with this dish. No one will judge you.

For the longest time, this is the only place I'd spend money on in the CBD.
It’s cheaper than therapy.
Here’s a life pro tip: ask for the thick noodles for a better texture. Less chili bits to stick on.


Go Noodle House

LRM_EXPORT_28238572166651_20190509_081158317.jpg

Speaking of thick noodles, the antidote to the spicy La Zi Ji noodle, is the Pan Mee at Go Noodle House.

I'm not being racist here, but you do need to be Asian to decipher the menu at Go Noodle House.
I've missed count of the times I see a white family sitting down, having a look at the menu and walk out. Because they can’t find the dumplings, the spring rolls, the prawn crackers.

The menu has a flow chart of numbers and alphabets representing different dishes and toppings.

I tend to ignore everything and go for the only dish worth getting here: Pan Mee.

Pan Mee (literally translated as block noodles) has different reincarnations - Ban Mian, Mee Hoon Kueh, Dao Ma Chet, they’re variations of noodles served in rich anchovy broth, topped with ground pork, green leaves and more crispy anchovies.

My parents used to bring me to a dirty store next to the supermarket. Rooted in my memory, it’s why tsuke-men, and udon with their bonito stock resonate with me deeper than pork broth ramen. Truth be told if I were to ever open a ramen shop, this flavour will be my starting point.

But why bother? In the year 2019 I have Go Noodle House. They add a touch of rice wine into the broth which is an improvement. Superfluous? Sure, but I can live with it.

If you're there without me, just write down ‘501’, and 'X' for the thick noodle.
While you’re at it, write down ‘AD 00’ for the fish ball with explosive roe topping.


Miznon

LRM_EXPORT_36888468598336_20190509_135620472.jpg

The year is 2019, and this is my favourite restaurant to bring friends to in the CBD. I’d be laughing five years ago if you told me I’ll be eating along the tourist end of Hardware Lane, but here we are.

With Dainty and Go there’s a chance that my company can’t handle spice, not fond of noodles, or are just plain racist. Everyone, EVERYONE - vegetarians, meat lovers, seafood enthusiasts, will find something at Miznon. It is a sneaky dirty-modern restaurant disguised as a trendy fast food eatery. If you don’t pay attention your wallet will suffer.

If you're going with friends, make sure one of you grab the table outside, because if you're stuck in the basement the loud music will make you feel like you're in a Abercrombie & Fitch store in the 90s. My theory is that everyone's high on drugs and the music is just to numb their sensations. Maybe I’m just old.

People usually go for the falafel or wagyu pita, but I'm a sucker for the golden fish. It's like a supercharged Fillet o' Fish (no offence to FOF, it's the golden standard of fish burger) - soft pita bread with its pocket filled with fried fish, egg with diced tomatoes and tartar sauce.

If your crowd is a big one, try the roasted whole baby cauliflower so you can say you've had it on Instagram. My best discovery is 'run over' - nicola potatoes smashed and flat pressed in (I think) a sandwich machine with butter, sour cream, garlic and herbs. They serve it on a torn bit of cardboard box, that's how cocky they are.


Cartel Roasters

R0040649.jpg

Cartel used to be Little Mule. I know because I shot Little Mule for Broadsheet. It’s not far from all the three places mentioned above, handy if you’re looking for an end of meal boisson. They're a roaster from Geelong, and the first to charge $5 for a flat white in Melbourne. The beans are super floral here, Chika said it's one of those things that once you get used to, you can't go back. So we treat this place as a treat.

It’s hidden in an alley, good coffee, and the staff leaves you alone.
Just right for a dad in 2019.

Harvard Wang
The spirit of Kyushu.

The old lady walked to our table with a deep narrow bowl of beef intestines and pork offals soaked in fat, sesame seeds and marinade. She poured it right into the stone pot in the middle of the table, followed by a mountain of cabbage, enoki mushrooms, then another layer of garlic chives. 

Please do not touch this, she said before turning the heat to high, and walked away. 

Five minutes later all the ingredients had sunk into the pot, the fat melted and shimmering on top of the stock, bubbling in aggression. The lady returned to give a pot a good stir. She scooped out and adjusted the fat to her liking, and announced that it was ready. 

It's not difficult to figure out the stock - soy sauce, sugar, miso, most likely locally made. Combined with the melted fat it was probably too thick too heavy too sweet to drink by its own. Even if you're squirmish with innards, you should chew it properly, appreciate the texture, and swallow with a sip of water because a nice old lady had spent her limited remaining life to prepare a dish for you.

We have a thing for hot pots. I assume it's something primitive, like how our ancestors gathered around borne fires. A hot pot, be it a Korean Jigae, or Hong Kong Da Bin Lou, or Malaysian steamboat, or a Chinese Ma la huo guo or in this case - motsunabe at a restaurant straight out of a JRPG game in Fukuoka , brings people together. There's a sense of reunion if not unity that we are kinda in this together, even if it's food poisoning. 

But since the restaurant is cooking I think we're safe. 
Plus, we get to eat more if there are more of us. 

I imagined for many Japanese it tastes like home cooking.
'Taste' is probably the wrong word, it probably 'feels' like home cooking. 

I asked for rice, but Chika's dad gave me this look: no, young man, you're not ready for rice yet. 

The lady (it's weird, all staff in the restaurant are female - not a single man in sight) chucked a fishnet basket worth of noodles into the pot, good to go in another five minutes. We ate nothing but noodles and sauce. The unmistakeable earthy taste of kansui from the noodles pierced through all the layers of sweet, savoury and the thick fat umami. If I have to relate, it tasted like the Malaysian Ulu Yam style Lor Mee

Once we're done, The old lady returned with more stock. She poured in two serves of rice with a cracked egg. The stock reduced and the rice crisped at the bottom, like a bibimbap, reminding us of the existence of the stone bowl. We were given pickles to finish it off like pan fried rice balls. 

Every time I say my wife is from Fukuoka, I'll be at the receiving end of the question: Have you tried motsunabe yet? And did you like it? 

I never fully understood the big deal behind it because from photos it looked like a big pot of stew with, well, organs. The translation is literally 'organs in a pot'.

But now I think I get it. When people ask if you've been to karaoke, they don't really mean if you like singing off key to random words down the screen with pirated video of random couples in the park. The point isn't the dish. 

It's the anticipation, the drive there, the greetings, the tatami mats, the beers. It is waiting for dad to finish and deciding to have three serves of champon noodles, only to ask for two more. The ingredients are dead simple, probably invented when there was no choice of meat. But with the sauce that passed through generations and the honest ingredients breaking down slowly, it became a soul-healing stew, a noodle dish, fried rice. All in one. It is the meal to conclude Sunday and be mentally prepared for Monday. A reminder that we once came from a simple place. That we do not need much to be happy, which I think is the general life philosophy of Kyushu. 

So when people ask if you've tried motsunabe, they are asking if you've experienced real hospitality. Are you still a tourist, or have you been baptised? 

So yes I have, and it was delicious.
Thank you old lady.

 

Harvard Wang
WTF Tony.

It was five past midnight, and I was cleaning my kitchen.
I should've been sleeping but I couldn't stay still.

I had just found out Anthony Bourdain was dead.

My instant reaction was betrayal, then slowly manifested to anger.

Angry because the internet suddenly became an expert on suicide prevention.
Call a helpline. Find support. It strikes everyone. RIP. We love you.
Even at the death of other's expense, we try to make it about ourselves, how we think everyone else should react to this news.
Seeing how the food-related publications jumping on this anti-suicidal bandwagon, trying to dig back whatever old pixelated photos they have of the man (probably still lying in the morgue), all the tourism handles paying 'tributes' by sharing some snippets of random throw-away compliment he gave in some interview ages ago, just to squeeze out some social media juice, makes me sick. 

Seriously.
Please stop.

Please go away with your diluded post-rationalised constructive help.
Stop showing off how concerned or how smart or how PC you are.

Just let me be at loss. 

Let me feel betrayed that the best-case-scenario version of a food lover, a chef, a TV star, a rehab, an ex-addict, a man with sense of humour, a talented writer, an ex-husband, a father, a boyfriend, had cease to be.  

Let me morn as I try to make sense of this disappointment.
How this person who was supposedly the ambassador of embracing life went the complete opposite direction. 

I want someone to yell with me, to feel pity, lost, confused, and hurt.

I always thought maybe one day, the end game was to make so many, many friends as I explore.
With (or without) great wealth, one can still be humble, adventurous and content with life. 

Of course, one suicide does not change that. 
But damn it, I really wish it wasn't you. 
WTF Tony. 

I don't need echoes of 'suicide prevention', 'seek help', or 'inspirational' post, like one ugly block of anti-terror concrete bollard after another. 

I want someone to tell me it wasn't all a front. 

That despite all of this, you enjoyed yourself. 

The fact that I don't actually know you infuriates me more. 
You're a mere stranger, but it hurts. 

I guess that's why I was scrubbing the stove top.
I guess that was how I paid my respect.

Harvard Wang
Minamishima 2018

On paper, Minamishima is the best Japanese restaurant in Melbourne.
Because no one else is offering the same thing.
Or should I say, no one else bothered?
Flying in fish from Japan, making sushi on the go, having two kitchens to deal with counter seats and private dining areas, while restraining its design to be conservative and not screaming with neon lights and social media flamboyance? 
I also heard that the restaurant pays employees for their time to taste new dishes from the menu. 
This is a passion project, hands down.

Alright, a disclaimer:
I'm not going to explain our 18 dishes one by one. My bro-date was surprised that I didn't bring my camera, but from my experience: Sushi is sushi. There're already plenty of sushi images from Minamishima on the internet. It's my first fine dining experience since my wife had a baby so I just wanted to enjoy myself - the phone is sufficient. 

So highlights:

1. My dining partner's pregnant wife works here, so we were greeted with complimentary champagne. Then fugu sashimi - the jelly made from the fish broth was great. Also free was the black abalone with liver paste mixed with rice - so special it was served on a red plate. Towards the end, we were also served a 9+ marbled beef dish from the kitchen. 
2. The Hokkaido octopus was great.
3. Fresh ginger, how I missed you. 
4. Surprised to know that Victoria is producing yuzu now.
5. Salmon fish roe from Yarra Valley was refreshing. I actually prefer them than the ones in Japan. 
6. I like the broth (come on, can't we say soup?) served towards the end with stingray that reminded me of one of Chika's dress.
7. I love the different green tea chocolate dessert to finish.
8. The toilet tap. OMG the toilet tap. 

And things that made me go 'er': 

1. I'm not sure of the shiny plates? It leaves 'snort trails'. It seemed like a pain to clean, and when they did it's still smudged.
2. The sinew (chewy fibre-ry tendon bit) in my tuna otoro. Granted my partner said his was fine, so maybe I was just unlucky.
3. Also, why was everything being 'aburi'd? Flame-torching is a good spectacle, but I couldn't help but think they were afraid to serve them raw?
4. The rice from my anago sushi kinda fell apart. 
5. I was expecting something more - like sea urchin, or, giant scampi, or the Beluga caviar and golden foils I saw online. It might be a seasonal thing, but having bonito, flounder, mountain yam, and mackerel felt a bit, pedestrian? My wife's remark came to mind: they probably fine-tuned the menu to please Australians rather than Japanese now. 
6. My partner wasn't impressed with the beef. I agree that 'dashi foam' is kind of a blast from the past, but hey, we're in a sushi establishment. At least they tried something out of their comfort zone.
7. The sushi chefs kinda mumbled while describing the dishes. I was embarrassed to ask them to repeat a 3rd time so a few dishes I kinda let it slide. 

All in all, Minamishima deserves its three hats.
The other two options are Attica - which is twice the price and sucks 6 hours away from your life, and Brae which is in, well, Brae.
Or you could buy a ticket to Japan just to fork out another $500 to achieve 'authenticity'. 

The more restaurants I shoot and observe, the more I realise $180 wasn't too bad for the effort to be Melbourne's best. 
I enjoyed my time and for a brief moment, forgotten that I was in Richmond. 
Like I said in the beginning, you can't find this elsewhere in Melbourne.

Most memorable meal in 2016.

I was grumpy that I had to wait.  

Even though I was next in line with mobile data to kill time.

Still, it’s not like this is a shit hot ramen restaurant.

My plan to see sakura for the first time was ruined by the rain. 

So I googled ‘unagi ya’ and surprisingly there’s one ten minutes away from my Shin Osaka hotel with the exact same name. 

One thing we definitely can’t get in Melbourne, is unagi. 

Eventually an old man signalled me to enter, and I noticed the three salarymen who were in front of me had not gotten their meal.

There’s a little sign in front of me with a long paragraph of explanation which I deduced to ‘no photo’.  

Ha. 

Over the counter I saw a pipe with water running into a big black plastic tank. 

Next to the tank, a big chopping board, and a bigger charcoal grill. 

On the wall hung a small sign:

Today’s eels are from Tokushima. 

Sitting around me, all salarymen. 

They were slow to take my order, and I later realised why. 

After I pointed to ‘Una-ju’, the chef reached into the tank without warning and grabbed an eel, completely alive, from the tank, and pushed a 3-inch golden nail through its eyes onto the big chopping board.

Now that he’s established a support point, he ran the knife through the eel in one motion from head to tail like how I slice my zucchinis in half.

Bones out in one piece, in the bowl. 

The blood and guts gets brushed off the now dark red wooden board, in the bowl. 

My brain was yelling close to the pitch of boiling point. 

I wanted unagi, but I did not expect this. 

Service was slow because they kill, debone and cook an eel for every customer on the spot. 

Next thing I know the eel’s been poke through eight skewers, transferred to the grill. 

The other younger man came to me. 

My tamagoyaki entree was served.

With a tiny tomato and shiso leaf.

Cut back to the older man seasoning the sticks, he flipped them over once. 

I finished my entree, and saw him transferring the stick to another sink filled with tare. He dragged a full ladle of the sauce on the stick. 

He chopped the unagi into pieces, plated them on top of the rice, already pressed in a box, with a cover nice enough to store jewellery.

Why bother?

Unlike Brad Pitt, I know exactly what was in the box.

The unagi was charred to brown perfection.

The meat melts and then I tasted the skin, crispy with the soy marinade. 

I had a chopstick of rice, and I took a bite of my pickle. 

I drank my soup with mitsuba herb, directly from the bowl. 

More salarymen came in.

’The usual, half the rice’, one said.

I looked down at my own box, trying to ignore the three eels turning from ‘beings’ to ‘cuisine’ in the next 10 minutes. 

My chopstick holder was also an unagi. 

Two men fillet, cook, serve and wash in this space.

Rice were also prepared fresh on premise, the dashi is boiling away on the stove. 

They were dancing with the skill and confidence of what we call ‘only in Japan.’

I made sure I finished everything on my plate in respect for mister unagi. 

And with bittersweetness I realised everything I eat, whether in plain view or hidden behind a factory, goes through the same process. 

To naively say ‘no, no, just show me the dish’ is hypocritical. 

I drank my tea, saw him flip the eels one last time, and got up to pay.

I remember Chika and I once had an argument in Ueno because I refused to pay 7000 yen for unagi.

Today’s lunch was 3300 yen.

And I’m sure it’s much better than the ones in Ueno. 

I told the man in exact words: 

“ This unagi, me first time.” 

He said thank you. 

I asked if I could take a photo, he gave me a shrug. 

It made me feel not so guilty by sneaking a shot with my phone before this. 

I took a proper photo of the shop. 

As I was leaving the shop I saw a giant black car with a driver waiting outside.

Must be waiting for his bosses inside.

I have to tell Chika about this right now, I thought to myself. 

image
image
Lygon’s canteen.
image

85% of Lygon Street are tourist traps. 

The other 10% exist for locals to feel smug about themselves for being ‘in the know’.

(The remaining 5% is the twilight zone, which you have absolutely no idea how they are still open for business.) 

The D.O.C. folks sit at that little divider between the 85% and 10%. 

The pizza place itself has become a tourist attraction. The pizza is good, but I can’t get over the poor sound insulation and the rude service. Plus that one time they got my take away order wrong, and then tried to hard sell me on the wrong order. 

Reading the last paragraph, I realised I’m one of those white people that complains about Chinese restaurant. See, here’s my defence - I have no expectation in a Chinese restaurant. 

In fact, this is the proof that subtle racisms (or soft power as the PC white people put it) exists: 

Charge $20 for a spaghetti aglio e olio, no one bats an eye lid; $20 for seafood chow mien? The whole world loses their mind.  

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about D.O.C. Pizza; I want to talk about D.O.C. Espresso, the toned-down canteen around the corner that serves everything but pizza, which is actually in the 10%. 

There’s a kitchen in the corner that fits three guys at most. They cook your pasta, they prepare your ciabatta, prepare your cheese board, they run to the grocery store next door when stock runs out. 

This is simply a place that tries to work like a family business if they were a family business in Italy. But with a bit of taste, since they spent all that money on uniforms and branding. 

Now, whether if it’s up to standard, well, ask any Italian, and they will say the best food is being prepared by their nonnas, and frankly I see that as being unfair. 

Chika and I find it better and refined compared to the ‘left side’ of Lygon Street where they will whack 500g of pasta on your plate with pre-made sauce. You can spend less and get more lasagna across the street, but then you’ll just be the 85% - a tourist. 

How should I put this, D.O.C. Espresso is sandwiched between Brunetti, the super money-grabbing establishment, and the little and unreachable nonna shops your Italian friends claims to be authentic. 

It is casual and suave at the same time. 

Strip away the benefit-cost analysis, it is the pasta / ciabatta restaurant Lygon deserves. 

Just don’t complain about the price.

Or rude Italians. 

They come with the package. 

The solution to ramen.
image

The only two days I was out last week, I saw two new ramen shops. 

One in the Target foodcourt in Chinatown; and the other in Fitzroy, with yet another crafty neon sign screaming ‘RAMEN’. 

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: 

What’s the end game for this?

I’m supposed to be the ramen correspondent for Broadsheet, but when this new shop in Chinatown, Bankara, is already renovating for another branch along Swanston street, while the other, merely a pop-up shop of Shizuku from around the corner (but with more craft beers!), what can I offer to Broadsheet that’s anything new?

“ Oh hi ms. editor, there’s this new place, but erm, they serve the same food, same recipes. Just different location. And some new cool Japanese lanterns. “ 

You get the point. 

Yesterday, my friend took me to Pho Hung Vuong in Footscray. 

The menu’s simplicity surprised me. 

On the board, poorly handwritten, was the English version, the Vietnamese version, and the Chinese version. 

There was a queue, but turnover was quick. 

We walked out paying roughly $15 per person with side orders of spring rolls and colourful drinks. 

No one was there to socialise.

We were there to eat and GTFO, with sweat on our foreheads.

That’s the underlying rule. 

It was everything a ramen shop’s supposed to be. 

So back to the question, where do we go after ramen? 

I think the answer never left. 

Every shitty ramen experience (we do pay a hefty $20 a bowl in Melbourne so expectations are high) is a yearning for a good old fashion bowl of pho. 

After the heavy tonkotsu fat becomes too much to bear, the clear chicken / beef broth embrace us like old friends.

Ramen will stay, like how tacos are staying.

How souvas and dumplings are staying.

Yet for those of us looking to return to that simple and fulfilling experience that ramen once provided us, my prediction is that we will be falling back to pho.

That is, if the udon movement doesn’t catch on. 

But that’s for another post. 

Japanese Sydneyphohungvuong, pho
Best Tantan-men in Melbourne.
image

First things first. 

The Chinese owns Dandan-mian.

No debate about that.

The ‘Dan’ refers to the poles street vendors used to carry the noodles and sauces on each side. 

You hail them down, they scoop the noodles from one basket, and top it with the sauce from the other basket. 

It was street food.

Peasant food.

Due to the specific spices found in the dish, the Chinese wiki pinpoints 1841 as the year Mr. Chen Bao Bao made it famous from east Sze-Chuan. 

So the Chinese owns Dandan-mian. 

When stripped bare, it’s simply minced pork with spicy sauce with carbs. 

I’m pretty sure if you order it at a fancy Chinese <cough> Din Tai Fung <cough> restaurant, it’s grounded from their worst cut of dumpling meat, because, you know, spicy sauce covers everything. 

See also: Chinese business.

I have not been to the east of Sze Chuan so I cannot say that I’ve eaten the authentic dish from China.

But I’ve eaten the Japanese version many times. 

When you see a staple historical Chinese dish, there’s sure to be a cluster of bastardisation under the table - a Taiwanese version, a Korean version, a Thai version.

I mean, the dish ‘went viral’ 160 years ago, coupled by the way Asians migrate in this world, you can’t really expect to claim a dish as your own.

( Except for Singapore. Singaporeans claimed Hainanese Chicken Rice as their own and that’s a dick move. )  

The Japanese calls the dish Tantan-men, with a T. 

Ha, no one will suspect a thing! 

But to be fair they’re not trying to be sneaky, they openly categorise the dish under ‘Japanese Chinese cuisine ‘. 

It is not as spicy as the Sze Chuan version. 

Instead of using real peanuts like the Chinese, they add sesame paste to give the broth a milky appearance.

( Some ramen restaurants do that to fake the white pork broth look. )

Bok Choy is a must, next to your default soft-boiled egg. 

Now this is a very, very long winded introduction to the best Tantan-men in Melbourne. 

But I need to provide the context, because I don’t want some Shanghainese saying Diaoyutai Islands Tantan-men belongs to China and some other dipshit saying this Dandan-mian is not as spicy or nutty as the one they had in Beijing. 

So based on my experience with the Japanese interpretation of a Chinese spicy minced pork noodles, Shizuku Ramen takes the belt in Melbourne. 

And get this, I don’t think the kitchen team is Japanese at all. 

We went in on a Thursday night at 10.30pm and maybe because it wasn’t crowded it had a very heavy Malaysian / Singaporean vibe going on. 

But when it comes to flavours, the spicy ones, the balance of MSG, I trust the Malaysians to get it right. 

The only improvement I can suggest, is to add bean sprouts to the dish.

But you know, that’s just being really picky.

They should really up the font size of the menu.

When you print words so small, I can’t bring my parents here.

Also, they will think you’re trying to skimp on paper. 

FYI for other Tantan-mens in Melbourne, Gekkazan comes a close second, Little Ramen bar third.

The best(?) ramen in Tokyo.
image


“ Here, use the umbrella if it’s too hot, ” said the ramen shop owner, in his pristine white apron and shirt. 

I was relieved because sweat was indeed dripping off my back. We were standing directly under the 35-degrees sun and I contemplated using the umbrellas even before he offered them.

As soon as he went back into the shop, a girl in front of us collapsed. 

She was part of a Chinese family of four.
I wasn’t sure if she was the sister, or the girlfriend of the son, but she was suffering from a heat stroke. 

Chika yelled towards the shop for some cold water and little less than 10 seconds later, everyone was surrounding the girl. 

I thought if anything, we should give her more space. 

After she recovered, the mother said, “ don’t worry, you will feel better when you have some ramen.”

And they continued queuing. 

Unlike Melbourne, you don’t find a queue by accident in Tokyo. 
It’s not like you turn up to a cafe, and go: bummer, there’s a line. Let’s put our names down. 

The question is not ‘if’, but ‘where’. 
You have to queue. 

I picked Kagari because it was closest to our hotel. 
Also it has a reputation of being the best, yet affordable and unique ramen joint in the heart of Ginza.  

Once we walked through the door, I knew why it was affordable. 
The shop could only sit eight people.
Eight skinny Japanese. 

Our orders were taken during the queue so not long after we sat down, our dishes were served on the counter. 

And I was at a lost of words. 
I saw asparagus, cherry tomatoes, lotus root and baby corn. 

I’ll say it again:
I saw asparagus, cherry tomatoes, lotus root and baby corn on my ramen.
None of those were traditionally Japanese.
None were traditionally ‘ramen’. 

The soup was creamy and thick. 
I could see on the menu it says tori paitan, which translates to ‘chicken white soup’, but I can’t figure out what was making it so rich.
Chicken fat? Egg yolks? Cream? 

“Butter,” answered Chika. 

And it was delicious.
Delicious because I’ve never eaten ramen like that before. 
If anything, it felt like a noodle dish removed from the middle of a degustation course. 

After the meal I did more research and found out that Kagari is in its own category. It is not shoyu, miso, or shio based. 

It was quite a shock to our system.
We walked out of Kagari feeling … unsure of how to feel. 
Perhaps it was the heat, I’d assume the dish would taste much better during winter. 
Compared to Japanese netizens, we were not as mind-blown. 
Maybe because I whispered to her half-way, “ this is like eating pasta,” and took some magic away. 

But seriously, if you walk into a ramen restaurant in Melbourne and saw this dish. You’d flip out. People get really angry when you take away the charshu, the green onions, sesame seeds. 

(Shop Ramen in Fitzroy comes to mind. Most ramen purists scoff at that place. King oyster mushrooms? Pork belly? Beef brisket? That’s not real ramen, that is blesphemy!)

And here I am, finding asparagus in my Tokyo ramen. 
Full circle.

Chika was sitting at a couch two nights ago, and she said, “ maybe that ramen was really good after all. ”

For me, that was her seal of approval.
That’s the best compliment you can receive from a hakata tonkotsu purist. 

And I understand where she’s coming from. 
Since returning, my brain often wanders back to that buttery, umami corner, the crunch of young asparagus, glistening chicken fat floating on top, neutralised by the noodles.
All carved out by Kagari. 

It has now acquired the majority of market share of ‘great chicken soup’ in my mind. 

You’d think you can tell on the spot if a dish is good or not.

But when it comes to ramen, it is not as easy as you’d expect.  

Saigon on Lygon.
image

Like any other love story, I stumbled across Saigon Pho by chance. 

It was a very cold winter afternoon during 2014, and I was simply looking for something to warm me up. I remember thinking ‘this will do’ as I walked pass the shop. 

Everyone has a story like this.

Everyone has a pho shop like this in their neighbourhood.

Chances are, you think your pho shop is better than my pho shop. 

But this, this is another secret place that makes me proud to live in Carlton. 

I can’t put my finger on Saigon Pho. 

It isn’t crowded, which is a good thing.

Sometimes it closes on Saturday, which is not such a good thing.

Sometimes the soup is inconsistent.

From time to time, they switch their rice noodles. 

But just like any loving relationship, I keep coming back to it. 

I brought my parents here. I brought my parents-in-law here. 

And after frequenting here for the past year, I’ve grown accustomed to the taste of the grilled chicken pho. The glistening sweet broth, coupled with the unlimited chili paste is now my standard to judge against other pho shops. 

I went to a so called ‘famous’ one in Richmond last week and all I could think of was how I like my usual and have wasted my pho quota of the year. 

When I realised they have another shop in Footscray, my heart jumped for joy.

Not because I will go to Footscray, but because of credibility.

Another branch with real Vietnamese street cred?

I now have real pedigree to brag about. 

You might think your pho shop is better than my pho shop, but you know, that’s just your opinion, man. 

Box Hill and I.

The last couple of days I was approached by Broadsheet to cover a series of restaurants in Box Hill for their winter print edition. 

None of the restaurants, none of them, have heard of Broadsheet. 

Even though the writer had interviewed them, even though Broadsheet had contacted them, this was their standard reaction when I walked in: 

Huh? What? I don’t know. Talk to my boss / my boss is not in.
You’re in my way. 

Even if I tried speaking in Mandarin / Cantonese, some still gave me this look like I’m trying to scam them for a plate of BBQ pork on rice. ( A poor reflection of my language skill, perhaps? )

This one particular restaurant was so uncooperative, that I had to purchase my own plate of dumplings to get a proper dish shot. It’s like I’m walking in with a suitcase full of money, and they are complaining that the money is in $50 notes, not $10. I later gave the dumpling to the university students next table in exchange for some ‘action’ shots. 

This other restaurant asked me to stand next to the kitchen and take photos of the food before they send it out to the customers.
So I can kiss food styling good bye.  

I’m not too fussed by it.
I gotta do what I gotta do. 

But at the end of the day, while I sat on the Belgrave express train back to Flinders Street, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I had done something wrong. Like I have caused some trouble, or offended someone. A dirty aftertaste. 

Like I was unwanted. 

It’s exactly like culture shock when you’re in a different country. 
Clearly, there were miscommunications. But I’m not sure if it’s a language thing, or a cultural thing. Maybe the restaurants needed more notice. Maybe we did not emphasise what a PR gold mine Broadsheet is. Maybe they were already being kind and accommodating. ( ‘A’ is for Acceptable, boy. )

If another photographer had taken this assignment, would it be much easier? Because, you know, white people. 

Or maybe, they simply do not care.
And maybe, that is not a bad thing.

Just because the CBD can’t wait to drop their pants to get on Broadsheet, doesn’t mean all restaurants in Victoria feel the same way. 

One old lady owner gave me this look, just like the Frenchman from The Matrix.
Like she was hinting: I’ve survived all your predecessors, my restaurant will outlive your publication.

Maybe, she had a point. 

How many times have we been to a new joint in town, and upon looking at the menu, realised we actually have to pay for their interior designer, architect, and the expensive memorabilia they brought in from Japan? 

Maybe these restaurants are too busy cooking good food, doing the right thing. Making ends meet. Maybe they don’t really give a shit about social media. They are cooking for the people in Box Hill. 

Who was I to think that one strategy that is working for coffee and brunch will work for roast duck and spam and egg sandwich? 

Don’t take things for granted. 
it is still about the target market. 
Not all assignments are the same. 

What an experience. 
What a lesson. 

The Fat Duck in Melbourne.
image

Disclaimer: This post will consist mainly of words. I have already posted my photos of the Fat Duck a month ago. This is what I think from a dining experience point of view.

With that out of the way, let’s begin with perhaps the longest post of this blog ever.

When Yuuki messaged me about the extra seat at Fat Duck, I felt like I’d won a lottery ticket I did not purchase in the first place. In this case, winning a lottery ticket to spend $525. 

And that is the beauty of the ballot system. You enter a draw, and then if you’re so lucky to get a seat, you are then prompted to pay and secure your seat. Two firewalls. No one is pointing a gun to your head. So if you still walk out complaining about the food and price, then you’re the idiot for not doing your research, really.  

If you’re still rolling your eyes over the price, stop it.

Never have I seen Melbourne so hung up about the ethics of food pricing. People seem to think of all things wrong in Australia, nothing is worse than a casino overcharging their patrons.  

Why are we spending tax money to destroy the Great Barrier Reef? Why drive an Audi when you can cycle? Why bother with modern art? Why fly to Europe? Why get so excited when you scored tickets to the AFL VIP booth? Why drink organic cola? Why ride a hot air ballon? Why buy a million dollar house? Why pay to watch Beyonce when you can YouTube?  BOTTLED WATER? WHY?

The truth is, we simply like to splurge to feel better about ourselves. 

For the experience. 

Don’t over analyse, don’t feel obliged to take the moral high ground. Just accept the twisted, unfair, incomprehensible actions we call human nature.  

(Also, if I write and photograph this meal, I can claim it as portfolio-building and self-promotion expense. Which I am doing right now. Very meta, I know. )

One thing worth mentioning, is my company. 

Half of my table have been to the original Fat Duck in Bray, TWICE. One of us even ordered the most expensive wine pairing. So there was a certain melancholy mood throughout the meal. They knew what was coming most of the time, and did not make such a big ‘whoop’ out of every dish. In fact, there was an overall relief when they realised there’s a photographer on the table. (We can enjoy our meal without taking out our phones!) 

Even so, I have no idea how to judge my experience in Fat Duck, because I had no other comparison prior to this. When was the last time you had a Waldorf Rocket in popsicle form? How much broth melted from a golden watch have you tasted in your life? How does their liquorice poached gel salmon compare against your mum’s? How did your last Alice in Wonderland inspired digustation go? 

My point is, I was a Heston virgin. And I’m pretty sure most of the 52 other diners on that Thursday afternoon were no different.  

Every dish for me was a new experience. And since we did not receive the menu until the very end (sealed in envelope with wax), it was an exercise of taste buds to brain stimuli. 

The chicken liver pate in Golden Gaytime form was undoubtedly the table’s favourite. It usually come like a Magnum ice cream, but they customised it for the Australians.

Another dish tailored made for Australia was a roast marron, with shiitake, confit konbu and sea lettuce. 

It seems weird to me lately, that all ‘Aussie’ spin on dishes end up having Japanese ingredients in them. (Oh Aussie spin? Here’s some macha-infused soba and sashimi with a side of tataki and onigiri seasoned with togarashi spice topped with Kombucha. There, that should be Aussie enough.) 

Anyway, I digress. 

I personally like the Hot and Iced Tea. When you consume it, the left side of your mouth feels cold and the right feels warm. Yup. Science. The word ‘viscosity’ was tossed around the table. 

I am still unsure about the “Sound of the Sea”. I read about it, I saw photographs of it, at this point I’ve experienced it.

But, I am still unsure about the “Sound of the Sea”.

I know the earphones with the sound of sea waves splashing is supposed to enhance my experience, but I don’t think the dish is incomplete without the earphones.

Maybe it worked better in Bray, because it was a brick cottage in a small town, more in-tune to nature, more susceptible to nostalgia. For me, it was the only dish that made me feel extremely self-conscious. If there were ever a wank meter, that was probably the point it went ‘Wank! Wank!' 

The wank meter experienced another jolt near the entrance, where the glass dildos reside. There was nothing playful in the last sentence, it was really a bunch of glass dildos from MONA Tasmania, obviously catering towards the sophisticated modern art crowd, which I thought was unnecessary. Seriously, we will not think less of you if you do not have glass dildos at your reception.

Not to forget the part where we each get a jigsaw puzzle, to complete a square, which will be later form a bigger part of a mural, with Heston in the middle. By then, one of us on the table (the one with the expensive wine-pairing) shouted: WHY IS HE SUCH A NARCISSIST?! It was probably the $500 Royal Tokaji talking, but she did have a point. 

Another dish outside of my comfort zone, was the nitro-scrambled egg and bacon on french toast. I know it’s to juxtapose our normal dining experience. (Breakfast towards the end, hot becomes cold, salty is now sweet, eh? Eh? EH?) But I still like my scrambled eggs hot and savoury. It is always risky to play with something fundamental and personal such as scrambled eggs on toast. 

I liked the whiskey wine gums. They were basically edible info-graphics. By peeling the wine gums off the map, you can really associate taste with geography and interaction. (Ok now I’m setting off my own wank meter.)

But it is true. We are not really eating food at the end of the day, are we? We are consuming design, science, technology, history. We expected to be entertained.

And speaking of design, never have I realised the importance of plates. Maybe because I was taking photos for most of the 6 hours we were there for, but every dish complimented the colour, texture, and size of the plates. 

One cannot avoid comparing Fat Duck to our very own Vue De Monde, ( I vaguely remember Shannon saying he is pals with Heston during a shoot), but I’d say everything was just taken up a notch.

I’m not saying VDM is not as good, because they’re not charging twice as much to entertain us. 

The good thing about paying upfront, is that you don’t have to worry about how much each dishes cost. You are here, really, for the show. The one thing that jolted me back to reality, was the beverage list. When I saw the $120 price tag next to a cup of Pu-Erh tea, I was ultimately reminded that yes, I’m in casino, and people need to pay rent, and make money. 

The money we paid, goes to marketing, branding, their renovation in Bray. After this meal, after this six months, when the final giant Heston mural is completed, all 90,000 of us, with our instagram and blog posts will effectively serve as human billboards for the new venture. 

We’ve been brainwashed enough by Heston’s TV shows and thick glasses that we already understand what his food is all about. Like H&M and Uniqlo, we are only happy that someone famous is finally here in Australia. (The current trend is probably foraging, which I am certainly no one is Australis is ready to pay money for.) 

But one thing I cannot fault, was the service. The staff to customer ration was 1:1, and sometimes there’ll be eight waitstaff surround our table. They adjusted the cutlery for the left-handed guests on our table without cue, they present and clear the plates in sync, they yelled out ‘snail porridge’ with jazz hands. Creepy, but dedicated. 

And this is the thing, they’re all here for a short time frame, and probably were just happy to be here without any visa issues. 

From a photography point of view, it was a joy trying to find different compositions to accentuate main features of 14 different dishes. And since I have the same amount of time as a normal diner, I had to make snap decisions, while obeying their strict rule of not standing up. 

The final surprise came in the goodie bag we took home. An edible queen of heart card, which was actually a raspberry tart.

For me, that represented the whole Heston Blumenthal brand. They should sell them in the supermarket. 

Overall, I enjoyed my experience very much. Probably because most of us on the table understood what we paid for. Had I dined with my parents it would’ve been a completely different experience. (Why so much smoke? Why so much bubble? Why so bland? Why so sweet? Why so salty? Why so complicated?)

My Carlton secret.

Those who don’t know go to Lygon Street for pizza; those who know too much (and love rude Italian attitude) go to DOC. 

We, the locals who are not too fussed and just want simple honest pizza, have Kaprica

I don’t remember what it used to be. Gauging from the Japanese ‘push’ sign it might’ve been an old Asian eatery. They didn’t seem to do much with the space, which is the right call for a rustic Sicilian pizza place.  

The handwritten then photocopied menu just shows how much owner Pietro Barbagallo not care about superfluous design, which is reflected on the food. 

No hype, no fad, no wood-fire oven. 

We usually skip through the capriciosa or even the more popular brocolli pizza and opt for the spicy salami. Sometimes we order the garlic chilli prawn tagliatelle to share. 

The surprise, was the dessert. They serve perhaps the best sweet tarts. I suspect they use the same dough for the crust. The wife makes me take away the lemon tart all the time.

In short, it is our secret neighbourhood pizza place. Our Thursday night place. It is one of the reasons I am glad to be living in Carlton. 

Ramen Hakkenden

I don’t think the manga, ラーメン発見伝 (The Ramen Discovery Quest) is available in English yet. This panel is translated by yours truly. 

It’s a manga about a young salary man trying to crack into the ramen business. 

But upon reading this page, I had to put the iPad down, and curl into fetal position. 

I wasn’t expecting a shonen manga to be this realistic. 

And this manga is at least 10 years old. 

Harsh, man. 

Only human.

Have you been watching Hannibal? 
You should.
The art direction and cinematography is amazing. 
Scully from the X-Files makes an experience. 
Most of all, watch it for the FOOD PORN.

And the reason they make the food look so amazing, is to fuck with you.
Your eyes and mouth are watering, confusing your brain and gut that deep down, the main ingredient being cooked and served is nothing but human meat. (Fictional, of course.)
Then again, I use to have friends in medicine who confessed feeling hungry constantly during autopsy / surgery. 
(Yeh good luck seeing your doctor the same way again.)

But seriously, you won’t find better looking food in any other show. 
Even the cooking channels. 

Read how the food stylist Janice Phoon pulls it off. 
And how hectic it is to work on set. 

In her early entries she mentioned pigs have the most similar organs to us. 

And also human meat will taste more like veal rather than chicken. 

Japanese Sydneyhannibal
My first meal in Tasmania.

The minute we arrived in Hobart Airport and picked up our rental car, Chika set the GPS to a cheese factory in Richmond she so enjoyed the last time.

We walked into the cafe hungry.
She ordered a salmon sandwich and I ordered the farmer’s plate that was described as ‘pork pie with pickled shallots, zucchini, tomato relish, sausage, cheddar cheese and bread’. 

What came out completely surprised me: 

image

I was expecting a hot dish.
When you list out the ingredients like that in the menu, my mind is picturing the cheese melted with the sizzling sausage with the pickled veggies on top next to a steaming hot pie. 

I was not expecting the dish to be served cold, and EXACTLY as listed in the menu. 

Maybe when caucasians order 'chicken rice’ from a Chinese menu, this is what they’re expecting: 

image

Don’t get me wrong, my farmer’s plate was delicious. 
It wasn’t what I had in mind, and it was certainly not the cafe’s fault I expected differently. 

My first meal in Tasmania gave me a culture shock.
And also a deeper understanding in how people interpret menus differently based on their culinary experience. 

Why we need shitty restaurants.

So your friends and relatives are visiting Melbourne for the first time, and you need to take them out for a meal. 

Where do you go?

If your answer is THE best place in Melbourne, then ERRRRK, you made a big mistake. Even if it’s a nice place, YOUR nice place, still, you can’t pass go, can’t collect your $200. 

See, I’ve witnessed that path, in 2010, when Seven Seeds was hip and still serving toast soldiers with half-boiled eggs. The place was the anti-establishment back then. Seven Seeds serving breakfast, or real food, was a big deal. Before then they were only a cafe serving sandwiches with fancy names like ‘grandmother ham’ with gruyere cheese and pickle. Breakfast was a big deal because non-uni students can come in during weekends for a purpose. It was so cool to dine in the same warehouse where they roast their famous coffee beans from El Salvador. 

See, I knew that.
The international female student knew that.
Her parents from Malaysia, didn’t. 

I remember the disgust on their faces, imagining the $9 they were going to pay for eggs and bread crusts in a warehouse that’s not even furnished. The girl was trying hard to explain what good coffee they are having, but I know the mum is calculating the actual cost of their food, versus the exchange rate, versus the same ingredient in Malaysia. 

From that exact moment, Melbourne became a 'crazy expensive wanky impossible’ place to the parents and they probably ended up cooking most of their meal at their daughter’s home, using non-acclimatization as an excuse for the rest of the trip. 

The problem was the lack of context.

What the girl should’ve done, is to bring them to Union House in Melbourne University. She should’ve brought them to the shopping mall food courts, Victoria Market food stands. Yes, I’m talking about those really nasty, dirty, no hat restaurants. Heck, bring them to Don Don. 

I’m talking about setting the scene. The expectation. You don’t start a movie with a climax. And that’s the mistake I see most people (by people I mean Asians, white people don’t consider bringing people to restaurants as 'hospitality’) make. They try too hard to impress their guests with constant climaxes. 

What they end up getting, is a food experience equivalent of the recent Superman movie: PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH - Wait, what’s the story? WHO CARES! PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH!

They will leave Melbourne feeling desensitised. 

Start from the shitty restaurants, then work your way up. 

Besides, what is terrible for you, may turn out to be a gold mine for your guests. I remember some friends of mine who loved Mekong even though I’ve warned them about the MSG, the lukewarm soup, the sticky floor. They would visit the place everyday because where they came from, I quote: “Vietnamese is not so authentic." 

It took me a few years to recover from that and realise, after all, it was their trip. They didn’t see or know the city like I did. 

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong in connecting with restaurants, no matter how good or shit they are. 

We shouldn’t be the parents dictating what their children should or shouldn’t eat.

We need the shitty restaurants to provide the full picture. 

And let them decide what they want to experience. 

The one next to Supper Inn.
image
image

Heyday isn’t a restaurant; it is a miracle. 

Everytime I come here, I cringe. 

The Heyday menu to me is like Kryptonite to Superman, it renders me helpless.

I always imagine a giant mystical creature like a three headed Cerberus being chained in the kitchen.

After you order they whip the creature, and it would gobble up all the ingredients from the floor, chew them up then spit on a plate. 

Tadah! Calamari with spicy Thai sauce on rice. 

The dishes don’t look or smell appetising. 

In fact I want to say it’s terrible.

Where else would you find a small hole in the wall serving toasts and omelette with spam? 

Did I mention the side dish - instant noodles with beef curry? 

WT actual F. 

But if you ask anyone from Hong Kong in Melbourne, ANYONE, chances are they know about this place. 

Heyday is a miracle, because after all these years, against all common sense of operating a restaurant, it is still standing.

Surviving strictly on word-of-mouth and nostalgia.

For me the bastardisation of toast and egg, east and west, is just part of the shadow of British colonisation.
(See also: Malaysian kaya toast.) 

I have a feeling if you’re not actually from Hong Kong, you won’t get it. 

And they don’t give a shit if you don’t.

Heyday is a physical time capsule. 

With all the political crap happening at the moment, 17 years after Hong Kong was ‘returned’ to China, I beginning to sense and appreciate the importance of this place.