Bowled over

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Coracle Cafe Restaurant, 63-65 Anderson Street, Yarraville. Phone: 9315 1411

Yarraville village’s long-standing Chinese restaurant has gone.

Truth is, it went some time ago and Coracle has taken a while to arise at the same location.

The place is beautifully fitted out, mostly in blacks and whites and pale wood, with the big windows letting the light pour in.

In the months leading up to its unveiling, the name alone conveyed little information about what would be the nature of the new place … so the outcome is a bit of a surprise.

Let’s call it, definitely for want of a better phrase, Asian fusion.

Sure, as you’d expect, there’s a nice, tight list of breakfast items on the menu; and there’s brunchy things such as Vietnamese-style poached salad and “Super Green Gyoza”.

There’s banh mi, too.

Yes, $10 is a whack more than you’ll pay for banh mi in Footzcray or St Albans.

But the ones we see being inhaled around us look fabulous.

The more substantial heart of the menu, though, is the line-up of seven Coracle Bowls.

Yes, these are by way of the poke bowl trend – but Coracle’s efforts transcend just about all else we’ve tried.

On the one hand, the Coracle kitchen crew appear to with work the same basic toppings for each bowl offering, with individual tweaks as advertised.

On the other, there are super smarts at work here that kick our meals – three bowls over two visits – up and into the realms of magic.

The bento bowl ($17) is brilliant in every way.

The foundational success of every Coracle bowl very much appears to the prosaic nuttiness of the brown rice bases.

(Though Bennie’s mileage in this regard is not so extensive as that of his father …)

But here, the excellent toppings complete the job by sheer dint of quality and – equally important – by their deft apportioning.

Dressed salmon cubes, kale in sesame oil, two kinds of pickle, tobiko, broad beans, seaweed salad and more – all taste as mighty fine as they look.

Bennie enjoys his Korean bowl ($16.50), with excellent bulgogi beef.

Though he opines that more by way of starker flavour and texture contrast would’ve made him even happier.

The vegan bowl ($16.50) is very good, too, though what are listed as “tempura seasonal vegetables” are quite a long way from crunchy battered.

We are having such a fine Saturday lunch time we go the whole hog with the Coracle brownies ($6).

These don’t look anything special, especially as the melted marshmallows atop are rather unsightly and add nothing at all.

But the eating of what is both moist and chewy is of immense, top-quality choc pleasure.

The brownies are sluiced down with very good cafe lattes ($4).

It’s early days yet, but I strongly suspect Coracle will become one of our regular local haunts.

Cheeky, cheap and excellent

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Cheeky Chewies Cafe, 18 Aviation Road, Laverton. Phone: 9369 9913

Asian fusion?

We’ve been won over by this concept, particularly by West of Kin in Braybrook.

But there, the food is ambitious and the prices tend to reflect that.

At Cheeky Chewies, a bright new arrival in Laverton, the vibe is more everyday cafe, with asking prices to match – there’s nothing above $20 and most of the more hefty dishes clock in at about $16.

Actually, while Cheeky Chewies is self-described as offering “Asian fusion”, truth is this place is more about mixing, on the one hand, Western-style fare (a parma, fish and chips) with, on the other, pretty much straight-up Asian offerings.

 

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Over two lunches on successive days, Bennie and I eat very well indeed, with only a couple of minor flat spots.

The service is top-notch and we like this place a lot.

On our first visit, we tackle a bunch of the “small dish” offerings listed on the menu (see below).

Chilli wontons (top photo, five for $10) are dynamite, the delicate casings housing a lovely pork mince filling, with both doing a lovely tango with the zingy vinegar chilli sauce.

 

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“Super Crispy Chicken Wings” (four for $8.90) could more accurately be described as wingettes, but are excellent.

Nothing flash is served up here – simply superbly cooked, unoily chook.

My heart sank a little when I saw a bottle sweet chilli sauce being wielded in the kitchen, but thankfully that jam-like concoction is served on the side and is ignored.

 

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“Cheezy Pumpkin Bags” (three for $8) display the same expert frying skills, but we detect none of the advertised cheesiness – just pumpkin.

And the dipping sauce tastes like plain old mayo to us, though we are assured it really is “homemade honey mustard sauce”.

The lesson here for Bennie and me is, I suspect, never order anything involving pumpkin.

 

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The “What-A-Burger” ($16.90) is OK, the nice slab of pork having a good lemongrass kick.

But for the price, this offering seems a little on the austere side when there are so many high-powered burger options across the west at similar prices.

 

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The Cheeky Chewies nasi lemak ($14.90) is listed in the breakfast section of the menu, but can also, of course, do lunch duty.

It’s wonderful – better, fresher and more interesting than most equivalents you’ll find in regulation Malaysian eateries.

If there’s one thing that prevents nasi lemak being as popular with us as, say, pho or Hainan chicken rice, it is the inclusion of anchovies.

Invariably, they seem to us stale, nasty blemishes.

Here at Cheeky Chewies they are prepared in-house and the result is winning.

Blonde and crisp, they enhance the dish.

The sticky chunk of chook rendang is fine.

But the real triumph is provided by the house-made sambal.

It’s of only mild spiciness, but has a rich, deep flavour with a touch of smoky about it – wonderful!

 

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Our Thai-style pork/noodle salad ($14.90) is a quality assemblage of excellently fresh ingredients with the just the right, spirited mix of chilli and lemon.

The cafe lattes ($3.90) that complete our second meal here are superb.

 

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Solid shopping centre Asian

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Asian Street, Shop 10, 50 Old Geelong Road, Hoppers Crossing. Phone: 9748 6908

Hoppers Crossing shopping centre, right next door to the station, has had a revamp.

Honestly, with the opening of whizz-bang Pacific Werribee just up the road apiece, I thought the powers that be may have just called it quits at Hoppers.

But, no, it appear there is demand – so the show goes on.

Of course, nothing is going ever going to make the immediate neighbourhood around here salubrious, with its roundabouts and ceaseless traffic flow.

 

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But we’re interested to see what food is on offer.

We spy a banh mi place, a chic cafe, an Indian outlet – and Asian Street.

This place sells quite a wide range of Asian food – Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, some yum cha, and even provides Asian groceries.

The big question for us is this: Will the food here be any better than the usual shopping centre food court fare?

 

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The quickie take-away offerings appear to suggest not.

 

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On the other hand, we are encouraged by the knowledge that the Chinese roast meats on hand are cooked in house, giant ovens and all.

As well, the place serves dishes quite a bit edgier than normally found in a shopping centre context – spicy green bean jelly noodle, for instance, on the Chinese entree list, as well as a line-up of skewers.

 

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After contemplating the menu (see below), we start with a couple of curry puffs ($2), one vegetable and one chicken.

They look chubby and nice, but collapse when attacked.

They’re OK, but we don’t notice much difference in the fillings.

 

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Bennie happily devours his katsu curry on rice ($11.80).

It’s a solid and generous outing, though the pork seems a bit dry to me.

 

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I do much better with my double roast meats on rice ($12.80).

Soy chicken is not listed on the menu, but I request it on the basis of having seen the roasted birds hanging up!

The chook is fine.

The roast pork is, too, though it is very fatty.

What I’m mostly missing, though, is the attending bowl of chicken broth that routinely accompanies such a dish.

Bennie reckons I’m pushing my luck by requesting soup in such a place, fearing I’ll be brought another entire meal.

 

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Such is not the case!

My soup is brought graciously, speedily and without extra charge.

It’s hot, salty and very good.

There’s not a lot of the food offered by Asian Street around here.

I’d want to take staples such as mee goreng, ramen or cumin lamb skewers for a spin before really sitting in judgment.

In the meantime, Asian Street strikes us as a place that could be a real treasure for locals with a knack for smart ordering.

 

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West of Kin: Winter menu

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West of Kin, 17 Lacy Street, Braybrook. Phone: 9317 7553

West of Kin in Braybrook has quickly established itself as something of a star.

And it continues to defy the cynics by making “Asian fusion” something that works and delights.

I know, because I respond in the affirmative to an invite for Consider The Sauce to be guests of management again in order to try out the new lunch/brunch menu (see full disclosure below).

But instead of resorting to the usual routines in such cases, for the first time (and not the last) I throw open the invite to CTS readers through the blog’s Facebook page.

And the prize goes to … reader Lisa, who rocks up for Saturday lunch with brother Phong, sister Nikki and the latter’s daughter, Jasmine.

A more interesting, gregarious and talk-happy crew I could not dream of – so I thank them sincerely for joining me!

Given we are effectively five hungry adults, and that the new lunch/brunch menu is as compact and succinct as that which greeted CTS on its earlier visit, it’s no surprise we give the list a very solid workout.

Here’s what we enjoy in the course of our lovely meal:

Lap cheong and beetroot arancini with scrambled egg ($8, top photo) are muffin-like treats that are both delicate and chewy – and a very vivid purple inside.

 

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The Hunan-style sticky lambs ($8) are fine – and a holdover from the previous menu.

 

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Japanese croquette with red capsicum and pea and mint relish ($5) is crunchy on the outer wonderfully molten in its core.

 

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For sides, there are beaut, crunchy and unoily wonton fries ($6) …

 

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… a very good Asian slaw ($6) and …

 

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… and kimchi ($6), though this gets a little ignored because of the profusion of food with which we are presented.

 

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The big hit of the day is the prawn burger ($28).

Served on a “steamed black brioche bun”, the patty is chopped-up prawn that nevertheless has the same pop and texture and flavour as the whole variety.

It’s the same clever, and delicious, style that we found in the prawn toast of that earlier meal.

The burger is attended by another bowl of wonton fries, “yuzu” mayo and pickles.

This is a winning twist on “burger”!

 

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The recipients of the egg noodle ramen with braised pork belly, slow-cooked duck egg, nori and spring onion ($19) and …

 

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… the “Korean rice bowl bibimbab” ($18) of braised semi-dry mushrooms, pork, carrot, daikon and more enjoy their meals.

But both seem a little on the routine side when contrasted with the fantasia of sharper flavours and colours that surround them.

 

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The soft-shell crab bun mei with lemon-cured spring onion and gochujang mayo ($14) is a sexy treat that is necessarily light of weight – and is thus gone in a flash.

 

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The master stock shredded duck with egg noodles, fried quail egg and all the trimmings ($28), another survivor from the earlier menu, goes down well – particularly with Jasmine!

But it does seem a little on the dry side to me.

 

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Desserts?

We try all three!

Panna cotta with scorched fruit and saffron syrup ($12) and …

 

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… the choc mousse with freeze-dried fruits and mint sugar ($10) are just as smooth, tasty and wonderful as we expect them to be.

 

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The Taiwanese pineapple cake with yuzu granita ($9), however, is an enigma that leaves us a little bemused.

Maybe the word “cake” leads us to expect more – or, at least, something different.

This has good pineapple flavour but seems more like a “slice” that loses out somewhat on the perhaps unfair basis of visual perceptions alone.

There’s no doubting that granita, though – it’s brilliantly tangy flavour explosion!

As ever, I have endeavoured here to be honest – even when the food is provided without money changing hands.

So … yes, a couple of flat spots.

But nevertheless, West of Kin impresses me – and my new friends – as something special.

My understanding is that the heritage factor prevents signage – but that just makes West of Kin even more of a slinky, oh-so-Melbourne gem.

It’s a gorgeous place to spend some time and the staff and service are very good.

(The Consider The Sauce crew dined at West of Kin as non-paying guests of the management. CTS chose the food involved and West of Kin neither sought nor was granted any access or say in the writing of this post.)

 

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Braybrook brilliance

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West of Kin, 17 Lacy Street, Braybrook. Phone: 9317 7553

Asian fusion?

Fusion Asian?

A mix of Asian flavours?

Or Asian flavours “fused” with something else?

Whatever the case, and no matter how you phrase it, this is something that is not necessarily an easy sell in Melbourne’s western suburbs …

Where there is such a glorious profusions of Asian food to be had.

And when the very word “fusion” comes with baggage that hints at vital compromises of tastes and dishes and ingredients.

Nevertheless, a fighting fit CTS team of three is very excited to be heading for West of Kin.

 

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As the restaurant has come together, and tackled tiresome gas issues along the way, we have seen the photo’s on the WoK Facebook page, read a blog post and a Zomato review by a CTS regular reader (Hi, Loren!).

It’s all looking good and the signs are hot.

Of course, the most miraculous thing about West of Kin is its very existence.

Here it is, shiny and cool and looking lovely.

And situated off Ballarat Road, on a street and in a neighbourhood mostly comprised of auto wreckers, panelbeaters, furniture factories and sundry light industry.

It really is amazing stuff!

West of Kin has three eating areas …

 

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An outdoor garden place that is sure to be very nice on summer days and warm nights.

 

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A bar area for a casual drinking and eating.

 

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And the main dining area.

This has a nice vibe going, with its very high ceiling, exposed bricks and comfortable, elevated booths.

We are shown to one of the booths and proceed to get to grips with the menu (see below).

Tonight, a scant handful of days into the restaurant’s life, we are the guests of proprietors Andy and Tram (see full disclosure below) so have no need to concern ourselves with credit-card pain.

But the food list is so admirably tight that choosing is easy and money not really a factor.

“Taste” courses number nine and are priced between $8 and $11, or sold in trios for $22.

We get three …

 

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Yunan-style lamb ribs, sesame seeds, sweet and sour soy lacquer are lovely, though fatty – as is to be expected.

Sichuan-style beef tartare, fried shallot and garlic, quail yolk has little by way of the feistiness we normally associate with that Chinese province though it is a subtle and delicate delight, served on a prawn cracker.

Prawn toast?

Even if it is served with yuzu mayo and Asian herbs?

Oh how we chortle!

Among the three of us there has been a uniformity of experience with this dish, no matter whether the most humble Chinese noodle shops and posh eateries have been involved.

You know – triangles of white bread, supposedly containing prawn meat and annointed with a coating of sesame seeds.

Seen one, seen them all – so, of course, we order the West of Kin version.

We are stunned and the first of our West of Kin instances of eye-rolling, moaning pleasure inter-mixed with the silence of reverential eating kicks in.

This prawn toast is a sensation, the white-bread base sitting beneath a thick slab of roughly chopped prawn meat topped with black and white sesame seeds and festooned with a heap of herbs.

The seasoning is not listed but the prawn mix, the whole dish, is entirely delicious.

 

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The WoK menu has only four main dishes and we order three of them – they’re all very good or superb.

Superb is the ma po tofu pork and black bean ($22).

Here the penny finally drops for us – fusion at WoK is all about the mix of Asian flavours, not some contrived mash-up of Asian and something other.

And overwhelmingly, the Wok flavours are robust and in no way compromised.

The ma po tofu pork is a hummingly super dish that has us giggling with the excellence of it – and it’s the sort of dish of which anyone’s lovely HK nanna would be rightly proud.

 

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Our other main dishes don’t quite reach the same giddy heights but they are both very fine.

Master stock shredded duck, egg noodle, XO sauce, spring onion, coriander, chilli, fried quails eggs ($28) has heaps of delectably sweet and salty duck meat.

Oddly enough, perhaps the key ingredient here is the unlisted cucumber.

Whereas cucumber discs often accompany many dishes we eat, such as Hainan chicken rice, either eaten or ignored and functioning somewhat like a garnish, here the cuke batons are integral to whole texture and experience of the dish.

Clever and interesting!

 

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None of the three of us are diehard baramundi fans but we enjoy this meaty specimen ($MP), which – according to the menu – has been grilled in its banana leaf with house-made XO and is served with rice.

It has that earthy baramundi taste but there is no doubting the wonders of the luxurious, perfectly cooked and generous quantity of white flesh. And the bones are no hassle at all.

 

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Dessert time!

There’s three available ($12) so we order one of each!

Once more, the assuredness of those in the kitchen shines forth.

Our dessert trio is more European than Asian, but there are Asian flavours utilised.

What’s more, they are used with telling subtlety and profound skill.

The WoK sundae has a familiar flavour that has scratching our heads.

We find out that it’s dried mandarin!

The chocolate de lice, golden leaf, hazelnut crumble is a solid slab of incredibly intensely flavoured and bitter African chocolate.

The stand-alone panna cotta is firmer than most, though still gorgeously wobbly, and is spiced with cardamom.

All three are wonderful in their own ways.

After our meal, I talk with Andy and Tram and am asked for some honest feedback.

We have just one criticism … the main course that has gone untried by us is the whole roasted lamb leg with kimchi butter and chef’s seasonal sides ($56).

We inquired of our server if this would be so substantial that it would spoil and overwhelm our meal – the answer was in the affirmative.

When we see this dish arriving at the booth next to our own, we realise we have been smart as it looks VERY big.

But it also looks amazing so we feel we’ve missed out on a real treat.

Perhaps West of Kin could manage smaller serves of this dish somehow?

Surveying our neighbours’ leg – so to speak – I’m guessing ordering it would require a table of at least four.

But given the pleasure our night here has provided, this seems like a minor quibble.

For a mid-week dinner just days after the restaurant has officially opened, there have been – at the night’s peak – eight or nine tables/booths occupied.

Another good sign?

As we leave, tummies full of very good food, we look back in wonder at this most unlikely of eating joints in an equally unlikely but just-right location.

We are smiling as we do so.

We reckon it’s going to be hit.

It’s actually not that often that I get to write with such unbounded, off-the-leash enthusiasm.

It’s been a pleasure.

Nor is it always the case that complementary food is the cause of the most pleasurable experiences and memories.

But that has certainly been the case at West of Kin.

Check out the Urban Ma’s review here.

(Consider The Sauce dined at West of Kin as guests of the management and we did not pay for our meal. We chose from regular menu and had no restrictions placed upon us in doing so. West of Kin management neither sought nor was granted any input, oversight or pre-publication access to this story.)

 

 

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Among those checking out West of Kin on the same night as CTS were the Urban Ma and her hubby, Wes.

Taking Luxsmith for a spin

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Luxsmith, 5 Gamon Street, Seddon. Phone: 9362 7333

This Gamon Street address encapsulates the recent history of Seddon – and our own history in the west.

When we moved to Seddon, 14 years ago, there was not a lot of coffee stops so Le Chien became a regular.

It was a friendly place with basic food served and – to my delight – Blue Note jazz albums festooning the walls and on the sound system.

It changed hands and got bigger, taking over the TAB next door.

As the area – and the inner west – developed, it became just a very occasional stop for coffee.

We never did dinner there so have no idea how that was.

Now it’s changed again, having undergone a very zippy makeover and becoming a purveyor of what can accurately be called Asian fusion.

We do well do be served at all.

After all, seven of us have bowled up two nights before Christmas and the place is very busy.

But it’s a lovely night so we’re happy to take an outside table.

Things start slowly for us, with the our various drinks taking a while to arrive.

But once the food starts arriving, it does so in a steady flow.

There’s so many of us, we take something of an expansive approach, ordering all the mains and quite of a few of the small, medium and side plates as well (see menu below).

And happily and successfully, we put in double orders of some of the more appealing items.

Here’s what we enjoyed:

 

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Tofu glazed in pepper sauce with crispy shallots, chilli ($10) – nice enough but we quickly move on.

 

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Korean fried chicken wings with Asian slaw and red dragon sauce ($8) are excellent.

They’re hot and crisp and sauce is of just the right quantity and piquancy.

 

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Crispy pigs ears with five spice and hoisin ($10) are delightful nibbles that are both chewy and crunchy.

 

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Sichuan pepper lamb ribs with spring onion and ginger ($18) are outstanding.

They’re fatty, as ribs are, but the lamb flavour is a powerful kick.

 

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Miso-braised eggplant with smoked tofu, shiso (perilla leaves) and sesame ($27) is one of our larger serves.

It’s a sweet, slithery delight with grand eggplant flavour.

 

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Vietnamese lamb curry with potato, chilli and mixed herbs ($29) is nice, with plenty of lamb submerged in that gravy.

But it strikes me as being so mildly spiced as to be bland – and that’s even taking on board that Vietnamese curries are often of a mild bent.

 

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Snake beans and Asian mushrooms in oyster sauce, ginger, onion ($14) are a crunchy/slippery wonder.

 

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Whole fried baby snapper with, coconut caramel, crispy garlic and Asian herbs ($37) is OK but could use more sauce/lubrication as it comes across as quite dry, and that includes the herby covering.

 

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Rare-grilled hanger steak with kimchi puree, ssam sauce, butter lettuce and mixed herbs ($29.50) works a treat, with the beef beautifully cooked and having wonderfully charry flavour.

 

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Soft shell crabs with “traditional Singapore sauce” and grilled lime ($28.50), like the tofu we began with, fails our table’s sharing approach.

Soft shell crabs are ephemeral enough at the best of times; there’s simply not enough crabiness here to register among seven eaters.

The sauce inspires very little by way of comments one way or another from the two Singaporeans at our table, nor another who has lived on the island.

Every single member of our group regularly eats the cheap and cheerful western suburbs variations of the Asian food that inspires what Luxsmith provides.

Yet we all know that making direct comparisons between the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

But because of the pricing, it is unlikely to be the sort of place we’ll head simply upon discovering the fridge is bare.

Our next visit is likely to be to try the congees on the lunch menu!

Many thanks to CTS pals for allowing a social occasion to be photographed!

Check out the Luxsmith website here.

 

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Asian-fusion for Braybrook

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On Ballarat Road in Braybrook – right opposite La Porchetta – is a rather unlovely commercial edifice.

The new part houses a couple of furniture outlets and a gym.

At its glassy and more interesting and two-storied end are a childcare centre and the offices of a certain MP.

This building, as I’ve discovered through reader feedback to this post, has a venerable history.

It’s at that end, the official address is actually 17 Lacy Street, that West of Kin is taking shape.

 

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It is the baby of Andy (above) and Tram Tran, who run Kin in Chapel Street, Prahran.

But where that eatery is pretty much an orthodox Vietnamese place, it’s sister restaurant in Braybrook will be of the Asian-fusion persuasion.

Andy tells me there’ll be tapas-style dishes (priced $7 to $10, or three for $20), as well as offerings with Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese influences.

The menu will be developed by consulting chef Sam Pinzone, who has earned his stripes from his time working under Neil Perry at Rockpool, Jacques Reymond and most recently as executive chef at the refurbished The Rose Upstairs in Fitzroy.

 

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The location is a whirl of carpenters and fitting out at present, but Andy reckons they’ll be up and running in about a week.

West of Kin will be no humble ethnic eatery quietly slipping into the neighbourhood.

It’s going to be surprisingly large and very swish, encompassing in an L shape a bar/kitchen area and a more dedicated dining zone.

Those areas will wrap around a “beer” garden, while Andy says the place will be very friendly when it comes to kids and pets.

 

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Andy and Tram figure this is a good location – and I reckon they’re right.

In terms of eating/drinking, there’s not much to be had between Footscray (in one direction) and Sunshine (in the other).

In terms of eat/drinking any time after about 9pm any night of the week, there’s very little – aside from the nearby kebab shacks – for many kilometres around.

Andy and Tram live just a few minutes away so are well aware of all this.

Andy tells me he’s looking for ward to “doing something for the west” by opening a business that means his friends won’t have to travel to the likes of Brunswick for entertainment purposes.

Plans are that West of Kin will be open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and until 11pm.

Grazing in Yarraville

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Tong Food & Wine, 13 Ballarat Street, Yarraville. Phone: 9687 8877

Far sooner than expected – and after noting the multiple changes coming in Yarraville and writing a preview of Tong – we’re seated for a mid-week dinner at the corner location of what was previously The Bank.

Team CTS consisting on this occasion of B and K, C and J.

We’re four folks who are mostly used to eating heaps of food at ridiculously cheap prices, so it takes a little while to switch gears to Tong’s more refined style of “grazing”.

But we do so, having a real nice time spread over a couple of hours.

The place is fullish for a Wednesday night, there’s a buzz going on and the service – with a couple of hiccups – is fine.

We would only advise that anyone with a raging hunger be prepared to choose multiple dishes.

 

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From the “smaller” list (see menu below), mixed tempura vegetables with dipping sauces ($11) is an agreeable, fresh selection of red capsicum, zucchini and cucumber.

The sauces – one that seems to be of the BBQ variety, the other a lemony mayo – are much stickier than you’d find in a Japanese eatery.

 

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Steamed pork buns ($14), too, are different from those you’ll find at various Footscray outlets.

They’re terrific!

With less dough – they’re more like dumplings – there’s scope for the sticky, unctuous and meaty filling to shine.

 

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Julian and Christine enjoy their beef tataki with grilled quail egg and radish salad ($14), though as they point out it would be more accurate to refer to it as a rare beef salad.

 

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Moving on to the “bigger” section of the menu and … even with all the goodwill and generosity of spirit we can muster, Bennie’s crispy spiced lamb ribs leave us collectively bemused.

Forget the asking price of $16 and what that represents per individual rib.

That this mostly unadorned dish is listed as “bigger” rather than “smaller” surely leaves Tong open to unkind cracks about nouvelle cuisine.

Bennie loves them and wolfs the lot down … but there’s a wait of a good 10 minutes between him cleaning his plate and the rest of us receiving our corresponding dishes.

(I was tempted to use the phrase “main courses” right there but realise that may not be appropriate to the Tong philosophy …)

 

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Our friends enjoy their braised tofu with spring onion and crispy noodles ($18) without becoming truly animated about it.

 

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Our table gets two serves of the spicy eggplant sizzling plate ($17) – and good thing that is, as it’s far and away the hit of the night for all of us!

The eggplant flavour is sublime – I wish I could cook eggplant like that.

There’s a few bits of onion and red capsicum in there, the dish has a mild but effective spicy hit and – like  a lot of eggplant dishes – this is quite oily. In a good way …

 

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Moving to dessert, sticky black rice with coconut and pineapple crisp ($14) goes OK with she who has been most looking forward to it.

 

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Predictably, Bennie likes the sweet red bean dumplings ($9) while I remain wholly unmoved by what seems to be a sort of doughy blandness.

Christine points out that they’re quite like something her mum whips up.

 

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The Tong style and ambitions may not be a natural fit for we four, but as we saunter into the night we reflect on a lovely evening with great company and good conversation.

And good – sometimes very good – food.

 

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Tong – opening Friday

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Tong Food & Wine, 13a Ballarat Street, Yarraville

See review here.

As a follow-up to our recent Yarraville eats goss story, Consider The Sauce is happy to report the following …

Tong Food & Wine, inhabiting the Ballarat Street premises the formerly housed The Bank, will be open for business from tomorrow night (Friday, August 29).

Co-proprietor Ben gave CTS the scoop on the classy fit-out (above) and the compact and very interesting – and affordably  priced – menu (below).

 

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Tong – as it will most certainly become known – will be open for lunch and dinner from Tuesdays through to Sundays.

From 3pm to 6pm food offerings will be of the bar snack variety.

 

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The old bank vault is the office!

A tasty retreat in the city

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Fo Guang Yuan Water Drop Vegetarian Tea House, 141 Queen St, Melbourne. Phone:  9642 2388

The restaurant for lunch is part of a broader set-up.

The dining room proper has a meditation hall right above it, while the outer dining area – in which I am sitting – has a gallery right next door.

They’re all part of a Buddhist centre tucked away in an old Queen St building.

I’m loving the vibe. It’s almost as if I’ve arrived plenty early just so I could spend some time sucking it up.

In a lifespan rapidly approaching the proverbial – or should that be Biblical? – three score, the time I spent as a fully paid-up card-carrying Buddhist seems a long time ago and very brief.

But there’s no doubting the influence Buddhism in general continues to have on my life.

Even if that first-hand experience was in another country and involved the traditions of yet another country and what is generally regarded as a much more complex and some might even say political branch of Buddhism.

It’s a pleasure just to sit, as they say, and rapidly regain my equilibrium in what has been – so far – a crazy week.

I think about the fun to be had in meeting another blogger, Katherine, who writes prolifically in her own pithy and fetching style at New International Students.

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The card motto on our table seems weirdly un-Buddhist to me – but I could well be wrong.

And I think, of course, about food on offer here.

It’s a hardcore vegetarian place, with mock meat prominently featured – something that still doesn’t grab me.

But there’s plenty of other action.

There’s daily specials that appear to be served in bento boxes with bowl of soup on the side that look like they play he same role as miso soup in Japanese box meals.

There’s quite a long list of $8 appetisers such rolls, puffs, dumplings and buns that would seem to offer scope for a nice vego yum cha sitting for two or more people.

And there’s stir frys and soup noodles of various kinds.

But I wonder if I’m soon about to wish we’d chosen somewhere with higher levels of salt, oil, spice and oomph.

And surely ordering laksa in such an establishment is an invitation to be presented with something watery, anaemic and comprehensively lacking in spice or heat levels – or any allure whatsoever.

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I order the laksa ($12).

I’m instantly surprised and delighted.

There’s three chunks of what I presume are mock beef. I eat one. It’s chewy, meaty but – to my mind – kind of creepy.

I wish they’d replace the mock meat with eggplant, but other than that my laksa is a winner.

The spice levels aren’t extreme but it’s identifiably an authentic laksa, denoted – if the taste, flavour and texture were not enough – with a great many curry leaves.

In addition to the regulation egg and rice noodles and bean sprouts, there’s broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, tofu and – most delightful of all – shredded cabbage.

I’d be happy to get such cabbage an any laksa – vegetarian or otherwise – anytime. It’s cheap, healthy and adds textural interest.

This is a beaut laksa – not as fine as, say, those from my favourite laksa joint, but much better than the listless, weak speciman Bennie and I shared the previous week at the new dumpling place at Highpoint.

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Curry puffs ($8) are excellent – grease-free with crisp short pastry outers and mildly spicy spud-based innards.

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Katherine likes her vermicelli with vegetarian dumplings in vegetarian minced pork sauce with soup on the side ($10.50).

It’s presented in a sort-of Korean/Japanese fashion and I’m pretty sure it tastes a whole lot better than it looks.

Certainly, my companion cleans her bowl so it gleams.

For all its charm, I wouldn’t want to visit here to too frequently. I reckon the prevalence of mock meat and certain sameness across the menu might lead to interest fatigue.

But as it’s a tranquil, affordable hideaway/retreat, if I was working in the CBD I would be a regular – even if it was of the sometime variety.

By the time we leave halfway through this mid-week lunch sitting, the place is doing brisk business.

Nice to meet you, Katherine!

 

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How evil are prawn crackers?

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Lunch after a school holiday swimming pool session with Bennie and one of his school mates.

A Chinese restaurant that has already appeared in these pages but that has no relevance to this post, so shall remain unnamed.

As we await our food, we are presented with a big plate of prawn crackers.

Chimp, chomp; crunch, crunch.

Halfway through the rapidly dwindling stack of snacks, I voice a not particularly original observation: “These taste like nothing!”

But then I think, to myself this time: “What are prawn crackers made of?”

Further, could it be they are actually made from the eponymous anti-matter “nothing” that is such a feature of the Garth Nix seven-book fantasy series The Keys To The Kingdom, which Bennie is just about to complete and I am just starting?

And if they’re actually made from prawn meat and other stuff, are there any really nasty ingredients as well?

And if not, are they good, bad or indifferent in health and nutrition terms?

I have a hunch that prawn crackers inhabit the same realm of foodiness, if not in practice then at least a little in theory, as seafood extender.

Some rudimentary sleuthing turns up first of all, and no surprise, a long story at the always informative if notoriously unreliable Wikipedia.

My loss I know, but my Asian travel experiences are virtually non-existent, so living in Melbourne’s west for more than a decade is as close I’ve gotten.

And that’s a pretty darn fine “second best”, IMHO!

Still, while I’ve had the more homely style prawn crackers served at Vietnamese places such as Phu Vinh, I am wholly unprepared for the information that prawn crackers – krupuk in Wikipedia’s preferred name – are widely and enthusiastically eaten all over Asia and beyond, with all the regional and national variations you would expect.

A little more digging turns up various forum discussions, recipes and ingredient lists.

The gist of it all, I gather is prawn meat combined with tapioca flour plus seasonings, including – according to many links – MSG.

But while it seems prawn cracker makings are mostly on the benign side, the cooking process – deep frying – is not.

Presumably, then, they’re on the same sort of footing as potato crisps.

I even find a celebrity recipe!

And a 2012 UK news story in which a company using another celeb chef was pinged for false advertising – no prawn in them thar prawn crackers, M’Lord!

More digging and things start to get seriously weird, as I start turning up questions such as “Can rabbits eat prawn crackers?”, “Can you feed your hamster prawn crackers?”, “Can you feed your hamster crackers and tuna?” and even “Do rabbits eat their own rabbits?”

Still, I reckon commercial variety prawn crackers are the food equivalent of muzak.

How I learned not to hate seafood extender and became fascinated with surimi

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Follow-up post on a visit to Austrimi in North Geelong can be found here.

A ho-hum noodle joint and a lunch unlikely to be blessed by much merit or distinction.

I order the seafood mee goreng.

When it arrives, with dismay I realise I have once more neglected to ask if my ordered dish includes the dreaded seafood extender among its ingredients.

There’s a lot of it.

I fastidiously push it to one side and try to enjoy what’s left.

I depart determined to find out more about this stuff and whether any of the stories are true.

In particular, I’d like to know whether there is truth to the widely-held belief that seafood extender – and its close cousin, the crab stick – is made from tripe. This, I confess, is a significant part of my aversion to the stuff. I suspect many other folk feel the same.

Not surprisingly, I find countless references not just to seafood extender but to tripe being part of it.

Yahoo questions, a forum at Vogue, an IT forum, all sorts of people wondering the same thing as me.

I find a Kath & Kim site debating the topic before the thread descends into rampant spamming.

Even the venerable Snopes site gets in on the act.

But for all the questioning, there’s not too many answers.

Among the more enlightening is a poster at the Australian Kayak Fishing forum who seems to know what he’s talking about.

The answer, it seems, is … no, tripe is not used in the manufacture of seafood extender.

It’s an urban myth.

So now I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to like this, um, product all of a sudden.

But what exactly is seafood extender?

It’s surimi – a term I have not come across until my current trawling.

Turns out seafood extender, crab sticks and the like are part of a venerable – and even revered – Asian tradition, and not necessarily a nasty exercise in bulking up, as suspected by this Western mind despite the amount of Asian food I eat.

Most references I find suggest surimi is best made from pollock, although I also find plenty suggesting cheap and nasty Vietnamese catfish is imported to Australia for the same purpose.

I’m still not warming in any way to seafood extender in my noodles.

It’s flabby and tasteless, just taking up space and bringing nothing to the table at all. And I hate the food colouring that is used in a pathetic attempt to suggest this is real lobster or crab meat.

By contrast, I really like the fish cake slices that are commonly served in many Asian noodles, soups and laksas.

That product has texture and flavour, and is honest about what it is.

Ahhhh! It turns out that, too, is surimi – as are the fish balls and beef balls we’re all familiar with!

I know some people get a bit sniffy about Wikipedia – no doubt with good reason – but its surimi article seems reliable about the many different kinds of surimi and their geographical and cultural baggage.

To my surprise, I find that a major Australian producer of these sorts of products, Austrimi Seafoods, lives right in my town of employment, Geelong.

(And, yes, I’ve contacted them with a view to an interview and tour!)

The company’s product page has a brief summary of the surimi process, while the individual product pages have ingredient breakdowns.

Incredibly, the company produces three different calamari products – Kal-Rings Golden Crumbed (“A formed crumbed ring made from a combination of squid and surimi”), Squid Ring Golden Crumbed (“squid 46%”) and Squid Ring Natural (“Natural squid rings”).

All three of these look like products found in your typical fish and chips shops.

Still, despite my enjoyable and entertaining research, strong doubts linger.

For surely it is not a good thing for food to be so highly processed, mucked around with to such an extent that it resembles no more the original ingredients?

But hold on – isn’t tofu, in all its many, varied and enjoyable forms – just another form of surimi?

To be continued …

Noodle Land

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74 Watton St, Werribee. Phone: 9741 8331

The main drag of Werribee is surprisingly rich in cheap eats potential.

Within a couple of blocks are a number of Indian restaurants, including Bikanos, purveyors of fine chole bhature.

There’s a handy-looking fish and chip joint, a couple of charcoal chicken shops and a variety of cafes.

As well, there’s a couple of mixed noodle places – like the recently reviewed and fine Dragon Express, I suspect they’re both Chinese-based but have wider-based menus that dabble in South-East Asia.

Certainly that’s precisely the case at Noodle Land, which I choose for my Sunday lunch, fuel for my first night shift in Geelong after a two-week break.

Inside are all the usual food photographs, a table of locals who look like regulars happily fanging away and – unusual for such establishments – the cricket on TV.

Even better, there are newspapers.

Being a veteran newspaperman, I take special and perverse delight in reading newspapers I haven’t paid for, even if they are a day old and particularly if they still include the foodie bits and pieces.

Perfect!

I start with a trio of chicken dumplings ($3.50).

Far from being aghast at their khaki green skins, I take them to mean these babies are made on the premises.

They’re quite delicate and tasty, though like their chook cousins, chicken sausages, they have no chicken flavour at all.

Pickled cabbage and carrot – of the kind often found served with Vietnamese vermicelli and rice dishes – on the side is a nice touch.

Hard-won wisdom tells not go with roti with my beef rendang ($10.50), so I go with rice instead.

Quite predictably, this will never make the grade in the Malaysian hot spot of Racecourse Rd and environs in Flemington, but it’s actually pretty good.

It’s very mild, but the gravy is plentiful and of fine taste, and the meat is tender and almost fat-free.

We’re so lucky to be surrounded by incredible and uncompromised food so close to our home that it’s tempting to get a bit sniffy about such fare.

But certainly, I’ve had much, much worse, ahem, “curries” in places of Chinese derivation

If I lived in Werribee, I’d probably be a regular at Noodle Land.

As it turns out, I’m partial to having a feed after having put myself a few kilometres closer to my work duties in Geelong, so the occasional stop in Werribee will likely continue to be part of my routine.

It just may take a long while to get a handle on what’s hot and what’s not.

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