Spice Temple, Melbourne 12-2012

Neil Perry's expanding restaurant empire in Melbourne relatively recently added an Asian food focussed place at Crown Casino next to Rockpool. Although seemingly predominantly Szechuan-based, the main attraction for me to come here was for the reputation of having a more upmarket and diverse take on yum cha.

As yum cha translates to drink tea, it is expected to have tea with the meal. The standard Cantonese restaurant will vary from providing free standard (usually Jasmine) tea or charging $1-2 per person for this. Some specific tea houses provide tea flowers or leaves generally for $5-7 per pot. Spice Temple charged us $5.5 per person to share one pot of tea. $11 for a pot of tea is quite extortionate. I suppose that comes from having a restaurant in Crown and being known for reputation, expense and more upmarket takes.

- Fried Salt & Pepper Silken Tofu with Spicy Coriander Salad - tofu with lovely flavour and delicate texture with a very spicy chilli sauce (I think the word salad is a bit generous);
- Soy-Baked Fremantle Octopus with Broad Beans - tender octopus, crunchy broad beans, inconspicuous flavour;
- Hot & Numbing Dry Wagyu Beef - fantastic deep salty meat that served the best dish of the lot. Surprisingly not very hot despite the name;
- Crab, Flathead & Spinach Dumplings - thick gelatinous coating a pretty unmemorable filling;
- Cumin Pork Ribs - delicate meat off the bone, great texture but needed a bit more salt to accentuate the cumin;
- Braised & Fried Pork Hock with "Floss" - pieces of crispy pork with skin and fat to chew through the various textures;
- Egg Custard with Crab & XO Sauce - really tasty and chilli sauce lifting a smooth custard with intermittent morsels of crab meat;
- Steamed Scallop Dumplings - quite small dumpling with a watery scallop filling. 

Next time I would order the Fried Wagyu Beef. Most of the dishes from the Fried list are worth getting. Avoid the standard dumplings as they cost 2-3 times more than other yum cha restaurants for a smaller dumpling that doesn't taste particularly different nor with finer ingredients. If you are ordering tea to share for two, try specifying it for one - I can't possibly justify on their behalf charging double just to provide an extra cup.

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Casa Ciuccio, Melbourne 12-2012

I didn't want to make a trek all the way back to Melbourne and not try somewhere new and cool. Along the top end of Gertrude Street near the dining haven of Cutler & Co came the new venture from what could be the best tapas in Melbourne at Bar Lourinha (still on my list to try).

It seemed like an excellent combination for a Thursday night - staying out of the middle of the city, ample free parking around, takes reservations and had availability last minute, and on the new and cool list being awarded "Best on Trend" in The Age Good Food restaurant wrap for 2012 only one week prior.

On this day the specials from the coal roast pit were kid and veal ribs.

- Yellow-Fin Tuna 'A La Gallega' - expected a cube of raw tuna and actually got a piece cooked straight through. Didn't like it and wouldn't recommend it.
- Kingfish Ceviche, Lemon Oil - honestly don't remember it;
- Anchovy Montadito - fried bread rectangle housing a thin but powerfully strong anchovy slice. Delicious;
- Northern King Prawn, Smoked Chilli, Lemon - deliciously succulent large prawn, charred crispy shell and full of flavour. Outstanding;
- Tomato, Buffalo Mozzarella, Parsley - juicy salad to cut through the grilled flavours;
- Five-Spiced Pork Belly - like an outstanding and quality version of char siu. Less crispy and thick crunch (which of course has its own appeal) and more delicate meat, sweet pork and five-spice flavour. I like it;
- Pit-Roast Kid - quality thick portions of goat meat to chew on and be happy. A couple of pieces were a little tough, but the majority was delicate and smooth;
- Chocolate Bunuelos & Hazelnut Sauce - soft balls of fried dough with a deep chocolate enriching the insides and a lovely nutty sauce. 

Next time I would order from the standard menu Pork Belly, Anchovy Montadito, Northern King Prawn plus any meat special of the day from the coal roast pit. It isn't particularly cheap, but the food and open atmosphere are nice.

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Huxtaburger, Melbourne 10-2012

A brief break in between a wedding ceremony and reception seemed like the perfect opportunity to try Melbourne's reputed best burger. Given the explosion of London burger joints, it isn't surprising we've been putting many to the test.

I tried the Denise burger, which is a Huxtaburger - beef pattie, mustard, mayo, tomato sauce, tomato, cheese, lettuce, pickles - upgraded with jalapenos and sriracha mayo. What can I say, it is an ugly but very soft breaded bun (from Breadtop I've heard), a strongly flavoured salty meaty pattie and some standard supporting ingredients. Overall very good and split the crowd as to whether it was preferred over MeatLiquor (I prefer the latter for its unadulterated meat and megagrease bun).

Crinkle cut chips were simple to complete the classic pairing, and washed down with some nice cider.

Next time I would order the Bills or Theo just for some change and comparison. Chipotle chips are also available on specific request and I think they would more memorable than the basic one.

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Oriental Tea House, Melbourne 10-2012

I've long-sampled most of Melbourne's reputed yum cha venues. The popular favourites around town are Golden Dragon Palace, Taipan, Gold Leaf, Shark Fin House, David's. My regular is the lesser known Minh Tan 2 in Abbotsford. The latest front runner is Neil Perry's Spice Temple - but unfortunately I wasn't around on a day on which they were serving lunch.

One place on the list that is conveniently located in the middle of the city is Oriental Tea House. Actually it is unexpectedly in the business district of town rather than in Chinatown which would potentially be off-putting. How surprising it was that the food turned out to be great.

First of all, as the name suggests, this is a tea house. They specialise in drinking tea, selling tea, teapots and other tea accessories. As an aside they serve yum cha to mainly corporates and caucasian retirees. I suppose this would usually be ominous for Cantonese, but give it a try.

- Chicken Feet (steamed with Black Bean Sauce);
- Scallop Dumplings (Minced Seafood wrapped & topped with a Scallop) - quality dumpling with a tasty scallop;
- Chilli Wagyu Beef Dumplings (Wagyu Beef Marinated with Kaffir Lime Leaves steamed in a Wonton Skin served with Special Chilli Sauce) - outstanding smooth texture with a beautiful chilli dipping sauce;
- Roast Duck Dumplings (Beetroot Wrapper with Shredded Duck, Chicken, Pork & Vegetables) - not a bad combination, but more striking appearance than taste revelation;
- Deep Fried Octopus - very nice fried flavour, although texture not as tender as Minh Tan;
- Sticky Rice (combined with Chicken, Mushroom, Egg Yolk, Prawns, BBQ Pork & Chinese Sausage steamed in a Lotus Leaf) - simple standard version.

The tea was a pure Jasmine flower in a clear pot. Perfect to complement the meal.

Next time I would order the Wagyu Beef Dumplings and any selection of the Seafood Dumplings (prawn or scallop). All the other dishes are standard but good quality Cantonese that probably cost a little more for the setting and table service. But you'll be satisfied. There are a lot of teas to select from also.

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Longrain, Melbourne 10-2012

It was a much anticipated reunion with my favourite restaurant in Melbourne. All I knew is that the Crispy Fried Pork Hock was waiting for me.

We opted for the tasting menu just for ease. My friends had raved about a Whole Crispy Fried Fish that had been removed from the menu. Due to fate or otherwise, it was an optional add-on for the tasting menu.

- Caramelised Prawn, Eschalots, Chicken, Pork & Sour Pineapple - very strong sweetness with the palm sugar & peanuts glueing the ingredients together was a bit thick & heavy;
- Oyster (with Red Chilli, Lime Juice, Crispy Eschallots) - warm tasty steamed oyster in a salty soy broth, much like those from Cantonese restaurants;
- Eggnet, Pork, Prawn, Bean Sprouts, Cucumber Relish - delicious combination of vegetable textures (perhaps a little too heavy on the beanshoots) with a nice sweet & chilli fish sauce dressing;
- Green Curry Grass-Fed Beef - beef slices seemed a little confused; I assumed they were slices of fillet but cooked too much to be soft. I think a slow cooked tender cut would have been better;
- Caramelised Pork Hock, Five Spice, Chilli Vinegar - the perfect combination of soft juicy pork, gorgeous crunchy exterior and smothered in thick sweet palm sugar sauce. My favourite comfort & luxury dish in Melbourne;
- Whole Crispy Fish, Chilli, Lime, Roasted Rice - soft fleshed flounder with crispy skin topped with Asian herbs & a light sweet sauce;
- Steamed Chinese Broccoli, Oyster Sauce;
- Black Rice, Vanilla Tapioca, Custard Apple Cream - sweet combination of textures with rice grains, soft sago & smooth icecream.

Longrain still remains my long staple favourite. I miss it already.

It is also one of the reputed cocktail bars in Melbourne which serves to lessen the boredom in accepting their no reservations policy (you can book only for 6+ people). This is the only reason I would hesitate to recommend it to travellers - the wait can be unpredictable. Under those circumstances get a cocktail or two and you can order small items from the bar menu (Betef Leaf recommended).

Next time I would order my favourites from the a la carte menu - Betel Leaf with Pomelo and the Caramelised Pork Hock (the smaller bar menu option is enough for two and better value) in particular. If getting the tasting menu option, I'd choose the Sour Orange Fish Curry rather than the Green Curry Beef.

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Ezard, Melbourne 10-2012

The reason I rate Ezard as my choice for a fine-dining restaurant in Melbourne (reflected by the standing as Tripadvisor #2) is a lovely combination of reasonably easy to get bookings in the last week, location in the middle of a quiet restaurant area of the city, lovely romantic dimlit setting, and most importantly the food is a superb modern take on South-East Asian cuisine.

I've been here twice before, once for the tasting menu and once for a la carte. I think in the end I preferred the a la carte as the many choices all beg to be tried. 

- Parmesan-Infused Olive Oil with Three Dips (ground chilli & palm sugar, ground Szechuan pepper, nori & sesame seed salt) - gorgeous fluffy bread with lovely crust to soak the parmesan flavours & whichever combination of sweet, chilli or salty you fancy;
- Japanese-Inspired Oyster Shooters - amazing sweet mirin liquor with a slight wasabi kick before the oyster ocean trickles through. One of the greatest things you'll ever eat. This is served with a little soba nori roll which has a lovely chewiness and strong seaweed flavour;
- Char-Siu Quail (with Mandarin Pancake, Lime Cucumber Salad & Roasted Rice) - tasty alternative to Peking duck with a lighter and more tangy touch;
- Steamed Blue Swimmer Crab Dumplings (Yarra Valley Salmon Roe, Celery Cress & Tom Kha) - soft ravioli pasta filled with crab meat surrounded by a thin form of the classic Thai lemongrass & coconut broth and little gifts of salmon roe;
- Red-Roasted Barossa Chicken (with Zucchini & Mint Fritters, Chiang Kiang Caramel, Garlic Jam & Fried Sambal) - perfectly cooked chicken, an indistinguishing fritter, a sweet & salty sauce;
- Masterstock Fried Pork Hock (with Chilli Caramel & Spicy Thai Beanshoot Salad) - thin-crispy skin surrounded an oblong piece of succulent pork with delicately soft fat. Caramelised slices of chilli provide sweetness and a final surprise of heat. The salad is fresh and sits on top of a light sweet sauce;
- Green Beans, Korean Chilli & Roasted Peanuts

The greed within us was satisfied by the Dessert Tasting Plate comprising of smaller forms of each of the individual desserts:
- Espresso Chocolate Marquise, Soft Meringue (middle) - extremely strong coffee flavour;
- Fromage Frais Pannacotta, Poached Rhubarb, Strawberry Water, Saffron Fairy Floss (bottom) - really tasty and sweet fruit;
- Honeycrunch Icecream, Toasted Gingerbread & Sugar Swirl (bottom right) - nice icecream with gingerbread so strong to the point of being bitter;
- Pistachio Frangipane, Caramelised Strawberry, Tonka Bean Icecream (top right) - combination of bean-flavoured creamy icecream, squishy pistachio and sweet fruit;
- Sable of Apple & Pear, Earl Grey Tea Creme Brulee (top) - don't remember much of it;
- Salted Caramel Parfait, Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch (left) - heavy sweetness with more saltiness than I'd normally expect.

My favourite desserts were obviously the Pannacotta and Pistachio Frangipane but I'm quite biased towards ones with fruit and a soft textured core. Meanwhile partner liked the Espresso and Salted Caramel best. Each taste bud to their own.

Next time I would order a larger number of Oyster Shooters. It is the signature flavour from Ezard that you will remember above anything else. The Blue Swimmer Crab Dumpling is also very highly recommended and features in the degustation such is its popularity. I liked the Pork Hock but the heavy flavour of the Longrain version still remains my favourite. All the other dishes are great but much more optional. It still remains the most consistent restaurant for a memorable one-night meal in Melbourne.

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