Meal of the week No.34: Dainty Sichuan

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Bennie and I enjoyed our visit to Tina’s Noodle Kitchen at Highpoint, but were a little surprised at the full-on nature of the food on offer.

It’s no surprise to find Tina’s has been re-badged under the Dainty Sichuan name and the food brought more into line with what may be commercially viable in a shopping centre.

But there’s good news, based on my mid-week lunch.

The menu now offers such more easily negotiated  dishes, all very affordable and many in combos with rice or noodles.

There’s a tight range of dumpling offerings and things such as eggplant and tofu with rice, egg gravy fish fillet, beef omelette on rice and stewed pork belly with eggplant.

My beef noodle soup ($11.80) is a winner and a larger serve than I can handle – and strongly indicates that while compromises have been made here, this remains food quite a cut above shopping centre mediocrity.

All is very good – the noodles, bok choy chopped for ease of eating, pungent soup, beef not fall-apart tender but of gratifyingly high quality.

Truth to tell, though, this is at the upper limits of what even I can handle chilli-wise.

Still, even that must be counted as a plus in such a context.

 

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Highpoint fried chook

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Nene Chicken, Highpoint. Phone: 9318 2843

It’s clear that western suburbs have bought massively into Melbourne’s mania for burgers.

The fried chicken thing isn’t quite as manic and our western neighbourhoods have mostly not risen to it charms.

There’s invariably fried chook on hand at charcoal chicken shops, such as the newish Manok, but it often seems like an after-thought. We are never tempted.

There’s fried poultry at westside Korean places such as Frying Colours and Snow Tree.

But as for any joints specialising in fried chicken of the American, or southern American, tradition … well, nope.

Not so far as we know.

 

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Nene is Korean, too, but we wonder on the drive to it if maybe it’ll constitute a western suburbs fried chicken hot-spot.

The utter folly of going to Highpoint on a 40-degree weekend day less than a week before Christmas proves to be of pleasingly little consequence.

The parking situation is intense.

But once we’re inside, things in general and all the people are surprisingly cool and civilised.

The Nene menu comes with so many variables, it takes us a while to work out what we think will work for us.

Here’s how, in the end, we order:

Kimchi chicken burger (9.95 – on a milk bun with salad, onion, dressing and kimchi with bulgogi sauce.

Regular original fried chicken ($10.94) – four pieces with coleslaw and pickled radish; upsized ($4.95) with chips and a drink.

Extra drink ($3.70).

This all pans out to $29.95 for a satisfactorily sized meal for Bennie and I.

 

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Bennie’s kimchi burger is probably our repast’s highlight – it’s a refreshing change from the many kinds of beef and chook burgers we’ve had this year.

He gives it seven out of 10.

 

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The chicken turns out to be five pieces rather than four – though it must be stated these are very small pieces.

It’s good and non-greasy without being in any way notable.

Despite the small sizes, I am happy for Bennie to have a couple.

His burger was good but it lasted all of a minute.

The cubed and sweetly pickled radish is nice; the coleslaw is rubbish – dry and tasteless.

 

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The chips are fine and there’s plenty for both of us.

Nene Chicken strikes us as being just OK – and a long way short of fried chicken nirvana.

And there are several better options close by in the new Highpoint food precinct.

But it’s still better than the usual Kind of fried chicken grease-fests Found at such shopping Centres.

Full-on Chinese at Highpoint

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Tina’s Noodle Kitchen, Highpoint.

Having checked out the swish new food area at Highpoint by myself, it’s a real pleasure to return with Bennie for another look and taste.

He, too, is impressed by it all.

We immediately note that the Vietnamese operation, Saigon Square, appears to be ready for business.

Sadly, we discover that it’s only open this day for friends and family, while the public opening will be the following day.

So we move on over to Tina’s Noodle Kitchen.

Like me, again, Bennie is knocked out that such adventurous and unadulterated food is being served at a shopping centre, at Highpoint.

It’s a nice place, with lots of tables and an air of spaciousness about it.

There’s a stack of staff members taking care of business and the open kitchen adds to the ambiance.

We take our time to peruse the long and lavishly illustrated menu (see below).

Apart from snacky items at the front and a list of “extras” both vegetable and meat at the rear, the menu appears to be devoted entirely to ingredient-packed soup-noodle combos in a dizzying range of variations, with prices mostly in the $13 to $14 range.

 

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We love our sole dabble from the snack/smaller list – pickled vegetable threads ($3).

But these turn out to be largely unnecessary due to the sizes of our soup-noodle meals.

Beware – these are so big that at a pinch one could serve as a meal for two moderately hungry people.

 

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Bennie chooses the deep-fried pork with pickles ($13.80).

He likes it – with some reservations.

The broth is salty and yummy, while the battered pork goes good though, unsurprisingly, becomes soggy – not necessarily a bad thing – as he progresses.

He slurps the slithery noodles and enjoys the pickles.

He has no time for the handful of quail eggs – he’s never dug them – or the “Canned Luncheon Ham” hidden within.

He may get the terminology wrong, but he sums up his feelings thusly: “Spam doesn’t taste good no matter what it’s in!”

 

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As with Bennie’s bowl, my own spicy stewed beef ($13.80) is a mixture of the familiar and the not so.

The broth is good and towards the more fiery end of the spice spectrum, while the beef is chunky and tasty though quite solid.

For just about every mouthful that is comfortingly familiar another explodes with sheer, exotic strangeness.

I do know that in the process of enjoying this dish I eat at least three varieties of mushrooms or – more accurately, I suspect – fungus for the first time.

My attempts to discover what it is I’m eating – “Is this a mushroom, is this some sort of tofu?” – fail despite a couple of staff members giving it a crack.

They seem disinclined to find someone who can do so.

We enjoy our lunches but perhaps not as much as we may have wished.

I put that down to what I suspect is a mixture of us being pushed somewhat out of our comfort zones – even though we both choose dishes that are, superficially at least, among the least challenging on the menu – and the simple truth that perhaps this food style is not for us.

Nevertheless, we depart full of admiration – and even a little awe – for the fact that such things are being served at Highpoint.

 

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Highpoint – foodie destination?

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It’s been clear – to us anyway – that Highpoint has for a few years now offered better food than other shopping centres, or at least those in the west or north-west of Melbourne.

This hasn’t made it a food destination for us.

But it has meant that if we’re thereabouts anyway, we’re happy to eat – even if that has meant either chowing down at this dumpling place or this Mexican establishment.

But now it seems Highpoint has stepped it up to another level with the opening of new food court area.

Could be Highpoint has actually become a foodie destination.

Think I’m kidding?

I’m not – even though I know there’s a heap of people who will snort derisively at such a suggestion.

 

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The new food precinct is on the lower level and situated alongside JB Hi-Fi.

The food area is big and spacious.

And, frankly, it looks gorgeous.

There’s lots of space between the tables at the various outlets – and the tables and chairs are heavy on wood and combine well with the non-glary lighting.

There’s a lot of exposed beams and other structural stuff when you look up and a lot of concrete – but the overall effect is one of style rather than industrial overkill.

I really do dig it.

 

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Some of the food outlets are familiar – Dumplings Plus from elsewhere in Highpoint, Roti Road from Footscray.

 

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I presumed that only the Korean chicken place Nene Chicken (“1100 outlets all over South Korea”) would be using dispensable cutlery and containers, as it is the only outlet of a real fast-food variety.

But as you’ll see through Pete’s comment below, that is not the case.

That means all here is about reusable bowls, plates, chopsticks and implements.

Applause – especially after my rant about gross wastage at Highpoint of several years ago.

Joining Nene Chicken, Roti Road and Dumplings Plus is Tina’s Noodle Kitchen – and this is where things get REALLY interesting …

 

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It joins sibling branches in Box Hill and Preston and is under the auspices of the Dainty Sichuan crew.

The menu on the Highpoint branch features dishes that I would never have expected to see featured at a shopping centre anywhere in Australia …

 

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In addition to the above pictured snacky things from the start of the menu, also to be had are such outings as tender pork liver in stock soup, lamb tripes, beer duck with konjac cake (with bones), chilli blood curd combination, spicy pork chitterlings, pork kidney flower with pickles, duck web with pickled chilli and many more.

Wow – how about that?

Is it brave and/or crazy?

Or really smart?

Remember, this is a shopping centre … but maybe it’s all of the above.

 

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But for my mid-week visit I do not feel so adventurous so head for Ajisen Ramen, which joins two branches in the CBD.

The menu is way more than mere ramen – I find it hard to restrain myself to a light lunch when contemplating such a long list of snacks/entrees, noodles, donburi, bentos and lunch sets.

But I nevertheless settle on toroniku ramen ($12) with grilled pork cheek, egg, vegetables.

It’s as good a ramen as could be expected – here or anywhere else.

The broth has deep miso flavour and the meat is gorgeously charry in flavour, though quite fatty.

It’s beaut and the price right.

Melbourne’s western suburbs are growing so fast that whole new suburbs and communities are going up in places where there are no old neighbourhoods for restaurants and cafes to colonise.

Of necessity this means any dine-out food will be found only in shopping centres.

But I’ve long worried that the brutal rent regimes involved mitigate against good food – not just food worth eating, at a pinch, but food worth travelling for.

So this is quite something, I think.

I mean, there’s now Roti Road in Footscray central AND Highpoint … I’m a bit stunned, actually.

The new food space at Highpoint has one outlet still to open – Saigon Square.

 

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This place gives me the schnitz

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Schnitz, Highpoint.

Oh dear – there go our lunch plans.

We’re dropping off some garments for alteration at Highpoint.

I know there’s places to get this work done that aren’t at Highpoint but I’ll be darned if I can recall where they are.

So here we are.

The wait time is an hour – and the idea of leaving and then returning to the shopping centre has no appeal at all.

So we better make the most of Highpoint time, as best we’re able.

Sox top-up from Harris Scarfe.

Routine eye furniture maintenance and screw-tightening at Specsavers.

Lunch.

We’re faced with the same choices as ever; some we even like but none appeal muchly today.

So we try one of the newer places, Schnitz, which is situated on the lower level and not far from the cinemas.

It may specialise in schnitzels and parmas but the vibe is all cheerful franchise fast-food, and the lineup of wraps, rolls and plates fits right in with that.

 

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Bennie goes for the No.4 – American Dream – in roll form with a schnitzel with regular crumbs ($11.50), with the combo deal ($5.50) adding a small chips and a small fizzy drink.

Even while I’m still photographing my own meal, he’s enthusing: “The chips are really good, dad!”

He reckons his filled roll is good, with a nice chunk of nicely cooked chook, but he would’ve preferred the roll to be better toasted.

 

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I get the same chips with my schnitzel and coleslaw ($14.50 all up).

I disagree, very much so, on the chips front.

Look, I can handle some chicken salt.

BUT NOT THIS MUCH.

This is chicken salt overkill and renders my chips inedible.

My plain and modestly proportioned schnitzel is rather good, with lovely crumbs and surprisingly tasty and juicy meat.

The coleslaw is fantastic, especially for a fast-food joint in a shopping centre.

Context is everything, I guess.

It’s finely chopped winner, fresh and not dressed to the point of gloopiness.

There are worse places to tuck in at Highpoint; but there’s better ones, too.

Our vote for the best remains with Dumplings Plus and Guzman y Gomez.

Best food at Highpoint? We think so …

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Dumplings Plus, Level 2, Shop 2518, 120-200 Rosamond Rd, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9318 4933

It’s only a shopping centre, but Highpoint has its strengths.

Today one of them becomes very apparent to me.

I am wrangling two lively boys for the next six hours or so, and the weather radar tells me the likes of fresh-air frolics at Point Cook Homestead or Altona Beach are simply not going to be workable let alone enjoyable.

So off we go to the Great Maribyrnong Retail Shrine On The Hill – where there may be a school holiday cast of thousands but where we will be dry and warm.

Some fruit & veg shopping, checking out the book and games shops, lunch at Dumplings Plus … a perfectly acceptable and pleasurable way to fill a few hours.

Since our first visit, we’ve being hearing mixed reports about the new dumpling joint in the new food court section of the centre.

Truth is, we’ve had a few ups and downs ourselves.

We earnestly suggest, for instance, that if you’re looking for laksa that you’d be well advised to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Bennie and I have lucked upon some fine dishes on separate visits – me, solo, and beef brisket soup; Bennie with his mum and their dumplings with chilli.

So we’re intent on trying both again and comparing notes in the company of Bennie’s school buddy.

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My earlier encounter with beef brisket soup ($9.80) had involved an incredibly deeply and lustily flavoured broth and heaps of dark, well-cooked and virtually fat-free meat.

Today’s outing seems rather anemic by comparison but is still quite respectable.

So it goes with dishes – bo kho is another – that vary depending on the freshness or otherwise of a particular batch. And with freshness not always being a good thing.

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Our dozen steamed dumplings ($9.80) come as half pork, half vegetable, not that we can tell the difference – it’s a lottery!

But both kinds are good in a chewy, rustic way.

I am bemused, though, by the sauce in which they swim.

This seems way more about soy and hardly at all about chilli, with only the mildest of spice kicks detectable on about every third mouthful.

So even on a good day, it seems, Highpoint’s Dumplings Plus can be a hit and miss proposition.

But it’s still, for us, the best eats to be had there.

Although we are aware that for many folks, that’s no sort of marker at all.

Management may like to revisit its seating policy.

As we arrived and ordered at the front counter, a group of three women were “reserving” a table each as they awaited friends.

When we left a half an hour later – and having eaten our lunch with three of us crammed onto one of the tiny, exterior two-seater tables – only one of their pals had arrived and they appeared to be a long way short of ordering, never mind actually eating.

At such a popular eating spot with no lack of customers and extremely high turnover, this seems a bit rich.

Perversely, we drive home in bright sunshine.

So very Melbourne!

Hell, yes – dumplings and more at Highpoint

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Dumplings Plus, Level 2, Highpoint

Context is everything …

As Bennie points out, the food we’re enjoying at Dumplings Plus is not necessarily the best Asian tucker we’ve had, but … within the context of Highpoint, it’s nothing short of a sensation.

We’re pretty cool with the whole ambiance of the new additions to Highpoint, particularly when contrasted with the drabness one of us is experiencing at Airport West.

What we have been missing is somewhere to eat in the new food precinct that really sets our hearts thrumming.

Dumplings Plus is it.

While pursuing arts of the martial variety in the city, we’d visited the Swanston St Dumplings Plus several times, so know what to expect in our own backyard.

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We are less certain about the wisdom of fronting up for a feed on a Sunday bang on lunch time.

For sure, it’s busy – this is the place’s fourth day and the honeymoon is definitely on.

The queue for takeaway is never less than 10 deep. There’s waiting time, too, for tables – many of them communal – but so great is the turnover that no one seems to be waiting for more than a few minutes to be seated.

Waiting time for food is a different matter, though no problem.

Several of the dumpling options we attempt to order have sold out, and we’re told 10,000 of those we do order had been sold the previous day.

The staff members are coping well, with smiles all round.

Being of keen appetite, we order a couple of starters from the takeaway display to get things moving with immediacy.

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Big vegetable curry puffs ($2.50) are superb, with wonderfully rich flaky pastry encasing a mildly spiced potato-based mix.

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Sichuan pork noodles are “nice”, opines Bennie.

Heck, I reckon they’re better than that.

I’m unsure if the noodles are hand-made in-house – they seem to be devoid of the irregularities of the strands we enjoyed at the CBD branch – but it doesn’t matter a bit.

Combined with a spicy broth that has enough heat for dad and not too much for lad, there’s green onion, bok choy, pork mince and lots of chopped black Sichuan pickles.

The whole dish has a marvellous and deep smokiness.

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Pan-fried pork dumplings ($11.80 for 10) are showing the effects of the restaurant’s fever pitch activity and high turnover – but only in a real nice, rustic way. Disappointingly, like our curry puffs they come served on plastic.

They’re blazing hot on arrival, with bottoms that are both crisped and chewy, tops that are just chewy alone and nice innards of porky mince.

It’s obvious Highpoint’s Dumplings Plus is an immediate hit – like everyone around us, we’ve had a swell time.

And it’s beyond doubt we’ll be back soon.