HOT: Din Tai Fung, Emporium Melbourne, Level 4, 287 Lonsdale St, Melbourne

ding tai fung melbourne

Melbourne dumpling-lovers, start your engines. Din Tai Fung Melbourne has arrived.

This famous, and long-awaited, restaurant chain has taken up the whole of level 4 inside Emporium Melbourne. You can’t miss the entrance as there will be crowd of hungry people outside.
din tai fung melbourne

Inside the decor is a surprising combination of Scandi-chic with an Asian sensibility designed by Design Clarity.

din tai fung melbourne

It’s not often you spot filament lights in Asian restaurants and they combine together with other ‘hipster-cafe’ features such as an abundance of blonde wood, a long retro blue banquette, curved lines and wall-hanging greenery.

din tai fung melbourne

Particularly Asian elements still creep in though – waiters wield bag stands to protect your handbags and shopping and coat covers for the back of your chair.

din tai fung melbourne

You order by ticking off a paper menu with over a hundred items. Daunted, I call my (Chinese) mother to provide ordering advice (though there is a picture menu available to assist). She says ‘every visit to Din Tai Fung would not be complete without their famous xiao long bao’.

din tai fung melbourne

These darling 18-times pleated soup dumplings (6 for $10.80) are made by an army of mask-clad chefs in the large kitchen and then carried in a sky-high tower of bamboo steamers to be distributed to expectant folk.

din tai fung melbourne

Din Tai Fung’s XLB are superb. The weight of the piping hot broth, the thin pouch of dumpling skin, the the perfect balance of texture and flavour, all go towards making these some of the best xiao long bao you’ll find anywhere in the world. What’s amazing is the consistency of the product – I’ve had Din Tai Fung’s XLB in Sydney, Hong Kong and Shanghai and each time they send me into a food orgasm.

din tai fung melbourne

Din Tai Fung are also famous for their noodles, and my mum suggested trying the braised beef noodle soup ($16.80). It’s a steaming bowl consisting of a fat wad of handmade noodles sitting underneath four slices of beef shank in a flavoursome broth. The pliable noodles are a highlight though the beef could be more tender.

din tai fung melbourne

Finally, I try one of their steamed buns ($3). The vegetarian bun comes so beautifully pleated I don’t want to touch it. I take a bite and discover the fluffiest of pillows with a loose mixture of shredded vegetables and mushrooms nestled inside.

din tai fung melbourne

Din Tai Fung may be a global restaurant chain but it’s one that’s of consistently high quality and reasonably priced. It’s an exciting addition to Chinese dining in Melbourne and it was telling that on my visit 95% of the patrons were Asian, young and old. It’s safe to say they know a good dumpling when they eat it (and are willing to line up for it).

My final tip is to arrive 5-10 minutes before opening time. The kitchen is quick but each table still takes around 45 minutes to turn around. So if you miss the first tranche of the 230-odd seats you’ll have to hang around salivating over your paper menu until there’s room.

Din Tai Fung, Emporium Melbourne, Level 4, 287 Lonsdale St, Melbourne 9654 1876

Mon-Wed 11.30-2.30pm, 5.30-9pm

Thu-Fri 11.30-2.30pm, 5-10pm

Sat 11-3pm, 5-10pm

Sun 11-3pm, 5-9pm

Click to add a blog post for Din Tai Fung on Zomato

HOT: Sunshine Pho Fever, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2014, Sunshine

Sunshine Pho Fever

Pho is pho is pho – right?

WRONG. This Vietnamese rice noodle soup is a dish which many people hold dear to their hearts. Everyone has their favourite haunts and a discussion about where in Melbourne to find the best pho in Melbourne leads to much passionate and parochial debate.

My Vietnamese friends always maintain that their mum’s pho is the best and can’t be replicated – but if they deign to go out for pho then the most authentic is to be found in Sunshine.

So in order to sample the culinary delights of Sunshine’s pho I participated in Sunshine Pho Fever, one of the events held at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

The progressive dinner started with a Vietnamese ice coffee or bubble tea from Sao Café (308 Hampshire Road). I chose watermelon and scoffed at RM choosing taro – but in fact the maligned yam tasted much better than the fake sweetness of the watermelon flavouring.

From there the group split to try different restaurants. We were directed a few doors up to Phở Hien Saigon (3/284 Hampshire Road). The owner explained that his broth was an adaptation of a recipe of his family and had been cooked for 12+ hours and left overnight to infuse before being served the next day. Every day new stock is made – the stock is not reheated over and over again. We were given a small bowl of either beef or chicken pho to sample, along with a huge plate of aromatic herbs and bean sprouts.

Sunshine Pho Fever

While I haven’t tried every single pho in Melbourne my phở  journey so far draws me to declare Phở Hien Saigon is a contender for the best phở I’ve had in Melbourne. The broth was light but flavoursome, not murky and muddy in flavour or appearance, and I had to stop myself from drinking too much of the soup knowing that there would be more phở to come. I liked the bright, spacious restaurant too (with ubiquitous flat screen TVs in the corners) and the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurial young owner who has recently expanded his restaurant and wants to keep growing.

Sunshine Pho Fever

The next stop was Nhi Nuong/ Two Sisters (255 Hampshire Road). To welcome the Sunshine Pho Fever guests the owners had prepared a wildly intricate fruit display and had live singers – the two sisters themselves – entertain us.

Sunshine Pho Fever

They were so excited to welcome us into their restaurant, even festooning our central table with balloons, that it was all quite humbling. As for the phở, the broth was rather oily and was too strong in anise flavour for my taste. Still good, but not as good as Phở Hien Saigon.

Our final stop was Thuan An (253 Hampshire Road) where we were not served phở  (thank God – apparently last year people were given  a third bowl!) but instead a small taste of their signature coconut prawns and a freshly squeezed pennyworth, coconut and mung bean juice. I’ve never tasted pennyworth before and it was refreshing and sweet – but you have to make sure the restaurant squeezes the leaves fresh as many places will use bottled juice. The coconut prawn was crunchy and juicy and certainly a dish I’d return to try in full, though I hope they don’t normally serve it was strawberry sauce!

Sunshine Pho Fever

As we stumbled out back onto Hampshire Road I vowed I will never again say that too much pho is never enough (I quote I made when I ate it every day in my 3 weeks in Vietnam). Two small bowls of pho in one night is too much! Having said that, Sunshine Pho Fever was a bargain for $45 per person and was a great introduction to the great Vietnamese food that can be found in Sunshine. 

Sunshine Pho Fever, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2014, Sunshine

Pho Hien Saigon on Urbanspoon

Nhi Nuong - 2 Sister Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thuan An Restaurant on Urbanspoon

HOT: Laksa King, 6-12 Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington

Laksa King

In my daily life I don’t have much cause to go to Flemington…except to visit Laksa King.

If a place hangs its shingle on a single dish, then you’d better believe that the laksa at Laksa King is outstanding. And while the menu boasts 120+ items of Malaysian and Chinese food, the must-have dish is definitely a gigantic bowl of spicy noodle soup. There are eight versions to choose from!

The laksa is a bargain for under a tenner ($9.80) and it comes in a deep vessel that’s bigger than my head. I choose the combination curry laksa in which lurks shredded chicken, sliced fish cakes, prawns, tofu, a hunk of deep-fried eggplant, bean sprouts and egg and rice noodles, all garnished with a sprinkling of fried shallots. Everything is revealed once I dig my spoon and chopsticks underneath the spicy, lava red soup.

Laksa King

There’s much slurping and brow-wiping as I hoe into the bowl. It has a satisfying chilli spice with a good kick, the soup isn’t too oily and the coconut milk doesn’t overpower or dilute the base stock. The noodles are cooked al dente and for someone who doesn’t tend to like eggplant the squidgy vegetable makes an interesting textural contrast.

Laksa King dole out so many bowls of its laksa a day that there must be a hyper-efficient production line in the kitchen. I got my lunch around 3 minutes after I ordered it – even before the waitress could bring me a bottle of tap water. Bet you McDonald’s can’t beat that speed!

Laksa King

Laksa King is hugely popular for good reason. The buzzing restaurant is very large, light and clean with stylish pendant lamps and dotted with greenery. I was expecting more grungy plastic furniture and wipe down plastic tablecloths so the decor is a nice surprise. The service is fast and friendly and the restaurant caters  for friends, single diners and families (they have high chairs). The food is delicious, cheap and fast – next time I’m going to try their dumplings/wontons which I spied being made from scratch in the kitchen.

Laksa King

All hail the king!

Laksa King, 6-12 Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington 03 9372 6383

Lunch 11:30am – 3pm

Dinner Mon-Thu, Sun 5pm-10pm

Dinner Fri-Sat 5pm – 10:30pmOnly closed on Christmas Day

Laksa King on Urbanspoon

NOT: Kokoro Ramen, 157-159 Lonsdale St, Melbourne

In the documentary and cross-cultural love story ‘Banana in a Nutshell’ there’s a funny moment where the Chinese girl and her Anglo boyfriend argue whether cereal is a breakfast food or ‘anytime’ food. It mirrors the kind of conversations that I’ve had with RM before – to me cereal is only for breakfast, whereas he thinks it’s weird to eat noodles in the morning.

This is just a roundabout introduction to say that I LOVE NOODLES and consider myself a bit of a noodle freak. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, I could eat them all day (and for 3 weeks in Vietnam, I did). So when I heard Kokoro Ramen had opened I rushed there, post-haste, to broaden my noodle horizons.

Kokoro Ramen is a roomy ramen joint where the noodles are made fresh on site. The colourful menu is fairly overwhelming with all the possible options (you can even create your own toppings with your choice of broth) so I went straight for the menu recommendation – deep-fried soft shelled crab with the Tokyo chicken and seafood stock base ($14.90).

The bowl that arrived was generous with the noodles and less generous with the toppings – but I guess for under $15 you can’t be expecting too much seafood. At least the crab was juicy yet crunchy, spurting out soup stock at every bite.

But when it came to the noodles and the broth, disappointment set in.

I love noodles that are bouncy and toothsome, with a slight chew and glutinous resistance. These noodles were deadened. One chomp and a nothingness of noodle dough lying in your mouth.

I also found the broth very bland – spoon after spoon I sniffed and slurped, trying to discern some skerrick of chicken or seafood flavours. All I got was a semi-salty murkiness. There was no fragrance, no clarity. And I didn’t have a blocked nose…

On my visit Kokoro Ramen was busy with blue-shirted male office workers in a scene reminiscent of neat Japanese salarymen bedding down for their lunch at their local. And the ramen at Kokoro Ramen is certainly filling and reasonably priced and makes a change from a ham and cheese sandwich, so if you work in the area I can see the attraction.

However, I’m voting with my feet and walking that extra couple of blocks to Ramen Ya.

Kokoro Ramen, 157-159 Lonsdale St, Melbourne +61 3 9650 1215


View MEL: HOT OR NOT in a larger map

Kokoro Ramen on Urbanspoon

 

HOT: Shanghai Street Dumpling, 342 Little Bourke St, Melbourne

A couple of years ago RM and I had a week’s holiday in Shanghai. We ate ourselves silly in all manner of restaurants, with a particularly memorable dumpling gorge at Crystal Jade which is still my gold standard for dumplings worldwide (well, limited to the dumpling places that I’ve tried around the world).

Shanghai Street Dumpling brings a little bit of Shanghai culture to Melbourne. It’s a tightly spaced, no-frills restaurant that specialises in Shanghai style dumplings, mini buns and a plethora of noodle and rice dishes with most dishes under $10. There are queues outside all the time but tables turn quickly.

For a quick and cheap pre-movie meal RM and I shared some of their must-try dishes – the xiao long bao ($8.80), the shen jian bao ($7.80) and boiled dumplings.

The bamboo steamer of xiao long bao contained eight squat little parcels bulging with piping hot soup and a pork filling inside. The skins were variable in thickness – some very delicate, some a little less so. Evidently they don’t use the Din Tai Fung method of weighing each ball of dough to the exact gram before rolling it out, but that’s not to say that the thicker-skinned dumplings were bad. Just noticeably heavier in the chewing.

As for the filling – oh my! Subtle flavoured pork broth swimming with a gently moulded pork mince inside.

The plate of pot-sticker mini buns came out next, with the bases browned and a nice even dough wrapping a juicy meatball. Eat them with the table-top chilli sauce for an added dimension.

Finally, despite the unglamorous name of ‘boiled dumplings’ I actually loved the chicken filling of these dumpling more than I expected. Very sweet, very juicy and perfect slathered in that chilli sauce again.

If you like dumplings, get yourself in the queue for Shanghai Street Dumpling as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed! After several disappointing outings to old favourite Hutong Dumpling lately, I’m switching allegiances.

Shanghai Street Dumpling, 342 Little Bourke St, Melbourne +61 3 9600 2250

Mon-Sat, 11.30am-8.30pm

NOT: Mrs Noodle, 487 Swanston St, Melbourne

It was a case of mistaken identity.

Mrs Noodle and I were not supposed to meet. My date with dinner was bibimbap at Big Mama, but feeling a bit harried in the torrential downpour and spying a ‘Mama’ restaurant sign from the tram, I jumped out and found myself getting drenched in front of Mrs Noodle.

Lured by the idea of a warming bowl of hand-pulled noodles versus trying to find Big Mama with a flipped out umbrella, I pushed open the steamy doors. Inside was a rather spacious restaurant, but only half of it seemed to be properly furnished, with faux-antique dark wood furniture on white tiles. There were a handful of people slurping large bowls of noodles and I ordered a bowl of Sichuan noodles with pork mince ($8.80).

Under the impassive gaze of the numerous bored staff, I dug into the volcanic aromas emanating from the huge bowl. Full marks for flavour. But the noodles? Sadly they were not up to scratch – way too soft, more like rice noodles than wheaten noodles. I suspect the lack of elasticity was the result of not enough kneading and throwing in order to really work the gluten in the dough.

So the search for great la mian continues. At the moment the best bouncy noodles I’ve come across in inner-city Melbourne is actually the ramen at Ramen Ya. What are your suggestions?

  • Mrs Noodle, 487 Swanston St, Melbourne +61 3 9662 2626

NOT: Noodle Kingdom, 175 Russell St, Melbourne

Did I miss a trick with Noodle Kingdom?

I had read a heap of favourable reviews about this no-nonsense handmade noodle joint, including raves from The Age, Herald Sun, Eat Drink Stagger and Eat My Radish (some of them albeit about the Preston branch) and in need of a quick dinner one night I decided it was time to give their la mian a go.

Placing myself in the narrow corridor aka dining room, I ordered the house speciality, Lanzhou beef noodle soup ($8.50). What was soon delivered was an impressive looking bigger-than-my-head bowl of thin noodles (definitely handmade due to the irregularity of widths) with slices of beef. I dipped my spoon in – and frowned at the completely tasteless broth. Had another go. It was literally like water.

For the first time in living memory I actually considered doing the unspeakable and pouring a whole heap of soy sauce into the soup to boost the flavour. Instead, I opted for a whole heap of chilli sauce – you can see the aftermath below. Sadly, all it did was burn my mouth off without adding a  skerrick of flavour. Even the undeniably springy and toothsome noodles couldn’t make up for my disappointment.

I think I’m going to give Noodle Kingdom one more go with their other house specialty, beef brisket with hand pulled noodles, but only because I’m feeling left out by my less-than-impressive noodle experience amongst the chorus of yays.

For other soup noodle options nearby, try The Grand BBQ or Gold Star Noodle House.

  • Noodle Kingdom, 175 Russell St, Melbourne +61 3 9654 2828

Noodle Kingdom on Urbanspoon

HOT: Sichuan Dining Room, Mid City Arcade, Shop 3-5, 194-200 Bourke St, Melbourne

While I aim to write the decisive guide to Melbourne, sometimes it is very hard to be decisive.

As I was writing this post Sichuan Dining Room had me veering from HOT to NOT to HOT to NOT again. As you can see  in the end I’ve leaned towards HOT. Mainly because our meal was sufficiently interesting to entice me to sample more of the restaurant’s Sichuanese dishes – though I can’t say I would necessarily recommend our particular dish choices.

On a weekday lunch hour I joined Kat and her husband at the plastic day-glo restaurant. Although I’d hesitate to call it a restaurant, it’s got more of a cafeteria feel to it, with the big flatscreen TVs broadcasting Chinese history soaps, perfunctory service and waitstaff with a seemingly limited ability to speak English (easily forgiven when our Chinese waitress has the most beautiful flawless skin I’ve ever seen – I digress).

There is another Sichuan Dining Room in Hawthorn which Kat highly recommends (we’re not sure if there is a link with this city establishment) and based on her previous Hawthorn dining experience we ordered fried sweet corn with egg yolk ($15.80) and one of few non-fried dishes on the menu, steamed pork ribs with ground rice ($16.80) with three bowls heaped with steamed rice ($1.50 each).

Both dishes were great paired with rice – the pork was soft and not too fatty, with a good hit of chilli. I’m not sure why it was presented wrapped on an aluminium pedestal, so if someone can enlighten me that’d be great. The sweet corn was an alarming orange colour and looked like it’d been sprinkled with whatever artificial substance Burger Kings are made of, but they tasted pretty good, sort of just like salty pops of corn. Kat said that the Hawthorn version was much better, though this wasn’t bad. Having never had the dish before I can’t really tell you whether it was a good or bad version, but I suspect it was on the wrong side of authenticity.

Kat accompanied her meal with a hot mango milk tea with sago pearls ($3.50) while I had the coconut juice with grass jelly ($4). As you can see, they both looked like iced coffee and were served to us barely lukewarm, so I’d avoid ordering from the housemade drinks menu.

I’ve had good reports from Jess about their soup noodles, and my meal certainly wasn’t firmly NOT – so I’m happy to give Sichuan Dining Room another try.

  • Sichuan Dining Room, Mid City Arcade Sh0p 3-5/ 194-200 Bourke St, Melbourne +61 3 9663 5472

HOT: Pancake Dessert House, Shop 18, Mid-city Arcade, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne

When I visited Gold Star Noodle House recently, I noticed the enormous lunch time queues for the nearby Pancake Dessert House and made a mental note to visit at some stage just to see what the fuss was about.

The next week, I was looking for a quick pre-movie dinner option and thought of the no-frills Hong Kong style diner. A quick scan of Melbourne food blogs determined that the dish to have there was the char kway teow, one of my favourite rice noodle dishes, accompanied by hot almond tea, one of my favourite Asian hot drinks. Yay!

On a weekday evening the queues had dispersed but there was still a steady stream of students, after-work diners, Asian and non-Asian alike. The concertina menu of 200+ items, plus more options pasted onto the wall, can be quite daunting, so I’m glad I came armed with a recommendation.

The service was perfunctory and just as quickly as I placed my order the food came out. This is definitely not a place to linger, I was in and out in 20 minutes and had to share a table with a stranger.

The mug of hot almond tea ($1.50 with rice or noodle dish, $2.50 otherwise) was just what the doctor ordered for the cold evening. It would be too much to ask for it to be ground from scratch but I’m a sucker for any form of almond tea, even powdered stuff. In fact, I’ve been dreaming of nursing another mug of it for the last few days…

The large serve of seafood char kway teow with XO sauce lacked the sort of vibrant colour that I’m used to with Hong Kong style char kway teow (which often contains red char siu, Chinese sausage and a lot more green spring onion). But it was certainly very tasty and piping hot, testament to the noodles being tossed with the turbo wok power that imparts the sort of the flavour and taste (wok hei) which is almost impossible to replicate at home. The noodles also didn’t come pooled with a sea of oil, which is one of my great fears with char kway teow. Overall, not a bad dish for $9.80.

As I glanced around I noticed that many people were eating the pick-your-own-toppings soup noodles and the dish-with-rice options – no one was eating pancakes or desserts, very confusing.

I’m keen to try Pancake Dessert House again – do you have any favourite dishes there that I should try?

For  more cheap and cheerful Chinese food in the CBD, try The Grand BBQ.

  • Pancake Dessert House, Shop 18, Mid-city Arcade, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne +61 3 9663 1400

Pancake Dessert House Eatery on Urbanspoon

HOT: Singapore Chom Chom, 188 Bourke St, Melbourne

One advantage of living in a multicultural urban centre like Melbourne is the myriad of opportunities for trying out new cuisine with friends of different ethnic backgrounds who can guide you through the menu maze.

On my first visit to Singapore Chom Chom, I was glad that S, a Singaporean, was on hand to explain some of the more unusual dishes on the 200+ item menu. S credits Singapore Chom Chom as cooking some of the more authentic Singaporean dishes in Melbourne, with many dishes not available anywhere else.

With her culinary background, our party of six non-Singaporeans pretty much just let her point out some interesting dishes and resorted to ordering by number. We selected:

#1 Loh Bak ($8.30) I think meat wrapped in deep fried bean curd? Though it also came with some fried tofu.

#15 Rojak ($8.80) a cold dish of cucumber.

#41 Nasi Lemak Special ($9.80) with…um…I can’t really tell. Fried egg? Fish cake? Peanuts? Curry?

#57 Bah Kut Teh with Rice ($10.80), a pork ribs dish served in a broth. The kind of home-cooked dish that Singaporeans/Malaysians seem to wax lyrical about but not something obviously appetising for me.

#67 Assam Fish ($10.80), a sour-ish fish dish served with rice.

#95 Mee Hoon Kueh ($9.50), a kind of hand-torn starchy noodle topped with crunchy fried fish which is time-consuming to make and hence not readily available in restaurants. I’m glad this was my choice, definitely the kind of soup noodle I like.

#138 A decent Char Kway Teo, though lacking a bit of variety in colour in my view ($9.30).

Washed down with some sweet barley water, a Kickapoo ‘the original joy juice’ (like a lemon squash with a cool name), Sarsi sarsparilla and my childhood favourite, Yeo’s chrysathenum tea.

It was a hearty and super-cheap meal, coming to a grand total of about $18 per head. I’d definitely return to try more dishes, but only on recommendation – I don’t feel confident enough navigating that menu on my own  and I certainly don’t want to be lumped with Westernised Singaporean food!

To read more reviews, try Addictive & Consuming. For more cheap Asian eats nearby, try Izakaya Hachibeh (Japanese), The Grand BBQ (Cantonese) or Ghin Khao (Thai).
Singapore Chom Chom on Urbanspoon