Friday, May 26, 2006

Penang Coffee House

Penang Coffee House
395 Burwood Rd Hawthorn 3122
(03) 9819 2092
No Reservation Taken - Just get there and line up like everyone else.
The ‘chhhhhh’ of pungent curry paste hitting a red hot wok competes with ‘hhuuuuuuuu’ of the shaved-ice machine and the bubbly rumble of tofu and lo-bak deep frying in oil – the scents are always the same yet discernable to the knowing nose – yes, you have ventured into Penang Coffee House in Hawthorne.
A while ago PCH was perched in the enviable location of right next to Swinburn University and the train station, now they are a few blocks up the road – all the locals and regulars know where to find the new abode, but if you haven’t been before it’s all the same to you. The service and the food are the same as before, which is the important thing. I was in love with the old place because it was cramped, noisy, hot, busy and in a never before seen colour of green. New place is sparkly, white and roomy.
Okay, on to the important thing – FOOD. Your menu arrives – a green laminated (a good idea for pesky liquids and food stains) outline of what’s on offer – the food is obviously Malaysian but don’t be mistaken in thinking it’s your average Malaysian fare – it’s not. It’s geared towards the Hawker Food Stalls in South East Asia, where the aforementioned lo-bak sits with the curried chicken drumetts, satay skewers and fish cakes.
Noodle dishes like Char Kwai Teow packed full of pink-edged slices of roast pork, translucent prawns and crisp crunchy beanshoots stun the diner into blissful sounds of ‘mmmm’ and ‘ohhhhh’. The king of soups here at PCH is the laksa lemak – the most satisfying bowl of rich, coconut broth redolent with fresh herbs, curry paste and the unmistakable scent of fish sauce. Thick, soft egg noodles tangle with thin slippery ones ensnaring shreds of poached chicken and pork, beanshoots add texture to go with the deep fried slices of tofu which soak up as much of the yummy goodness of the soup.
If soup isn’t your thing then you can’t go past beef rendang coupled with a perfectly golden roti which comes hot and crunchy waiting to be broken off into bits and dunked into the pungent dark meaty goodness of the curry. You might want to get a milkshake on the way home if you get the rendang, but heartburn never felt so good. Ever. Personally I love the Ayam Kapitan chicken – and would often get this to share, and by share I mean use both hands, mouth and feet if I could while wielding my chopsticks to prevent anyone else from sampling the deep-fried pieces of peanut and chilli coated chicken which comes with sweet chilli sauce. I think it’s the only think I’ve vowed to love for all eternity…that and Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s a religion really.
There isn’t anything I wouldn’t recommend here – there are oodles of noodle dishes, vegetarians will not go hungry and even the most fanatic chilli lover will be impressed – everything is done in enviable balance, the hot, sweet, sour and salty flavors come together in a harmony that leaves one lusting for more.
P.S When you go, ask for ‘Mandy’ and tell her where you heard about the place, it’s good to name drop as you’ll get the best service and she’ll be tickled pink that she’s the best.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Mekong, Vietnamese, Melbourne CBD

Telephone : (03) 9663 3288
Adddress : 241 Swanston St Melbourne 3000

Short review: cheap and cheerful.

Long review:

Food was good, cheap Vietnamese fare. The egg noodle soup with thin-sliced beef was great value at $7-ish - you can pay that for a basic sandwich in the city. Serves were generously sized. The chicken-and-prawn spring rolls were crisp and tasty.

While I don't have the worldliness of my dining companions, Rowan and Chai, I'm not convinced it's the best Vietnamese food I've ever had. Having eaten at Saigon Palace in South Caulfield pretty much weekly when I lived near there, I'd have to say that Mekong's soup stock was a little too rich by comparison, and lacked subtlety in flavour. The vegetables were clearly terrified by the stock, and had hidden themselves well.

Chai and Rowan had the presence of mind to order broken-rice dishes with BBQ meats. They looked sensational, and smelt terrific (their arrival ten minutes or so before my meal added a certain piquancy too, I'm sure).

How to describe the service? It would be overstating to say it was unfriendly - perhaps extremely disinterested would be fairer. I had a moment of genuine alarm when, after taking orders from my dining companions, the waiter stowed his PDA and fixed me with a deeply apathetic stare. I had visions of a Vietnamese soup nazi shouting "No soup for you!" in my face. The truth was less interesting - he took that order on paper.

The decor was clearly from the Cheap Takeaway school of design - serviceable, but basic. Tables were jammed in so tightly that portlier diners would probably need the services of a shoe-horn to get into chairs. Every seat was taken, and hungry prospective diners milled near the entrance, eyeing our table pointedly.

As Chai pointed out, we weren't eating there for the service. Quite right. The food was the point, and the food was great for the price. Will I be back? Hell yes. Gotta try the broken rice!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Locality review - South East

Hungry in the South Eastern suburbs? The following eateries are my pick of what's on offer in Oakleigh and environs.

1. Clover
Thai and Japanese
3A Station St, Oakleigh
Though it is good advice to be suspicious of a restaurant that combines 2 disparate cuisines, it is a literal marriage of these two cultures that lead the owners do so. No doubt because of its heritage, it works.

If you want some soup – there is miso, tom yum or a tom kha to choose from. Spring rolls or gyoza (and much more) for entree. Strangely the pairings kind of work. The sushi and sashimi is averagely good but it is the stir fries (“Wok Toss” dishes) that appeal to me the most. For a healthy meal, I can’t go past the beancurd and vegetables with fresh ginger and light soy.

There is also a good choice of Thai curries, salads, noodle and rice dishes. Food is of a uniformly good standard and the breadth of choice means there is something for everyone.

The restaurant is comfortable, service prompt and also offers takeaways.

2. Gasi Busi
80 Poath Rd Hughesdale
I spied this restaurant one day while checking out the organic grocery opposite. It was closed at the time but the menu looked interesting and cheap, yet the glimpses I got of the interior looked enticing.

We rocked up without a booking on a Saturday night and lucked the last table. The décor was more of a good Japanese restaurant, than the utilitarian Korean joints in this part of the world.

For a fussy eater like me, there was a pleasant amount of choices. Hard to decide whether to go for a sizzling plate, be tempted by the deep friend fish with cabbage salad or opt for a traditional hot pot. The dumplings for entrée were delicious, with an oddly meaty texture despite being vegetarian. We were hungry and service was slow. When mains arrived we descended like starving wolves.

The benchmark of Korean food, for me is the hot pot. I love the little bowls of pickles that come with it. My soft tofu and seafood came bubbling in its little vessel (sadly not made at the table). The flavour was great, but the seafood was scanty – tiny little shrimps and miniature mussels. His kimchi hot pot with pork had a hotter, sweeter sauce with a greater depth of flavour. The side dishes were pleasing, except for the broccoli covered with the special bbq sauce – I just didn’t like the flavour.

It was a pleasant experience with great flavours, nice surroundings but slightly marred by the slow (though very friendly) service and small servings.

3. Nights of Kabul
Afghan and Persian
39 Portman St, Oakleigh
Try not to let the tacky décor and vastness of this too often under populated establishment put you off. What they lack in decorating taste, they make up for in efficient service in this family run restaurant. The food really is worth checking out.

I love the pastries and the rice dishes here. For a non-meat eater the menu gets a bit repetitive with many of the mains mimicking the entrees, but it is a good, cheap, tasty meal. Carnivores have a wider selection. The lovers of ridiculously inexpensive wine will marvel at the prices, but connoisseurs should bring their own.

I haven’t made it on the nights of special entertainment – with traditional music or dancing, but I’d choose it over the vast Greek one across the road any day.

Honourable mention
Lecco Pizzaria on Atherton Rd. This is a cozy little eatery with red checked tablecloths and a couple of tables on the pavement. I've never eaten anything else here but the pizza was so good I came back for more – and I don’t even like pizza!

Shihans Chilli Bar, 137 Koornang Rd, Carnegie - a small shop selling Sri Lankan groceries and homemade delights from the bain marie and freezer. Great dhal. Worth stocking up on a couple of curries to keep on hand at home.

Final word
All of the restaurants would qualify for being a "cheap eat" - with mains all under $20, most between $10-15. None a foody mecca but still satisfying enough to palate and wallet.

Post originally published in confessions of a food nazi.