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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Little Ramen Bar

Anyone who's met my current housemate will know she is a massive ramen fan. Along with nachos, it's pretty much all she eats. In fact, she was one of the first to take me to Shop Ramen on Smith Street, which has since become one of our favourites. Having lived with her for a while now, I am happy to admit that her ramen obsession has rubbed off on me. So it was not unusual that a group of us decided, after an afternoon drinking session at Naked In The Sky one Saturday, to head to Little Ramen Bar (346 Lt Bourke Street, Melbourne) for dinner.

A tiny joint near the corner of Lt Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Little Ramen Bar is consistently packed, often with a queue outside the door. Fortunately, the staff have a great system in place, manning the door and ushering in patrons as soon as a table becomes available. There is usually a quick turnaround, so even though waiting might be annoying to some, it's usually not for long.

The front door queue

Most tables seat 2-4, but the staff were kindly able to arrange a few tables together for us as a bigger group on this occasion. Unfortunately it did mean people received their food at different times, but in such a busy and tiny casual eating establishment, we weren't going to hold it against them! (Plus we had heaps of edamame, gyoza and sake to keep us happy in the meantime.)

Sake in my belly now

See? Edamame! 

Gyoza nom nom nom 

Nice and hot gyoza made for some amusing photos

The staff were clearly busy and difficult to flag down, but once we had their attention, they were extremely attentive and obliging. Service with a smile - that's what we like!

One of our party was vegan and his requirements were happily accommodated for - a vegetarian ramen was adapted to vegan, and served in a white bowl (as opposed to black) to differentiate it from the other ramens.

Vegan-ised ramen

Most of the rest of us went for a variation of the Classic Ramen: traditional Tonkotsu broth with a slice of BBQ pork, seaweed, bamboo shoots and spring onion, in a choice of Miso, Shoyu or Shio. The broth is beautifully rich and fatty, apparently from over 10 hours of cooking. Both the pork pieces and the eggs were tasty without being too strong in flavour (I don't like them too strong, personally), and by gosh, just a regular ramen is filling - let alone the Godzilla option, a supersized ramen recommended only for the extremely adept or hungry eater with a massive stomach!

Classic Ramen

Another friend went for the Spicy Miso Ramen, which he seemed to enjoy. He did look a little pink in the cheeks, but that could have been due to the sake :)

I think he likes his Spicy Miso Ramen... he's kissing it!

Decoration is minimal in the Little Ramen Bar, with chunky, pale wooden furniture, a few traditional flags and images, and touches of black in the staff uniforms, crockery, and branding. It's a good use of space, considering how small it is, but due to its popularity, I for one, cannot wait for the day they decide to expand to a bigger venue.

Wood on wood on wood

This is definitely a more traditional ramen restaurant, both in style and recipe - not to mention typically Japanese in size! It is an excellent 'cheap eats' option in the CBD and I would recommend it - except that your party in the queue will add to my wait time :)

Little Ramen Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


It has been months since I ate at Tonka (20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne). My work crew chose it as the venue for our 2013 Christmas lunch, and the photos I took have been lying in wait (taunting me!) ever since.

It's not that I didn't want to write it up; but I've had a backlog of posts to write - and the delay possibly also says something about my reaction to Tonka: I didn't need to rush the write-up, because I knew it would still be there. Like its sister restaurant, the excellent Coda, Tonka boasts that X-factor: a mixture of classiness, cool design, warm service, and of course, high-quality, original food, accompanied by perfectly matched drinks.

Tonka's take on food is widely seen as 'Modern Indian', although it's more Modern Australian/Indian, with touches of other influences. As one workmate put it, this place gives us "a fine dining version of Indian". In any case, it seems to have filled a gap in Melbourne's dining scene that no one realised was missing. Now that Tonka's here, it ain't going nowhere anytime soon.

So, here we are. As usual, I'm working off my notes, photos, Tonka's website and social media pages, and online reviews. And, also as usual, I'm not really reviewing the food (although that is a major part of this blog), but the venue as a whole: atmosphere, design, service, food, drinks, and how they all combined to form my overall impression of the venue at the time of my particular visit. In short, I'm recounting the experience of a Melbourne Patron - perhaps with a few opinions thrown in for fun. :)

Factors that influenced our decision to try Tonka, and probably our expectations of it:
  1. We'd dined at Coda for numerous work occasions before, which had set the bar pretty high. (No pun intended, although there are actually some tall bar areas at Coda. Hmm.)
  2. We had been hearing of Tonka's existence long before it opened, both via the industry and the media.
  3. We're all fans of various Asian cuisines, and were interested to see what this 'Modern Indian' thing was all about.
  4. The venue formerly housed the infamous club Honky Tonks, renowned for its general craziness and seediness. (Apparently the venue's new name pays homage to the old.)  I wanted to see how well the place cleaned up :) 

Tonka is down the end of a steep, graffitied city laneway off Flinders Lane, heralded by a sign of neon letters. The entry seems dark, but the further through the venue you go, the lighter it gets. I didn't even notice the Tonka Bar, the more casual of three sections in the venue.

Restaurant bar

Pass by the open kitchen area, somewhat clinical-feeling but calm, to the restaurant bar with its heavy benchtops, and lastly you'll come into the dining room, with low bench seating and loads of natural light from the huge south-facing windows. Apparently, from the restaurant, there's a good view of the Flinders railyards and the MCG, but from where we were seated (close to the bar area), all I could see was the bushy green of trees just outside the window. (Still a pleasant effect!)

One of the first things you notice is the overhead feature, a tumbled mesh artwork by Naomi Troski. Modern and chaotic, it is a real point of interest in the design and warms up an otherwise minimalist space. Otherwise, there is a general feel of spaciousness and airiness. Surfaces are hard, edges are strong, and tones are neutral.

"Drift" (2013) by Naomi Troski

Tonka's website states the design was based on "the blue city of Jodhpur... with splashes of Jaipur's pink". I didn't get much of that vibe, personally, but then, I've never been to India. The Indian influence stems from co-owner/executive chef Adam D'Sylva's heritage (well, that, and Italian). D'Sylva, along with Kate and Mykal Bartholomew (i.e. the Coda team), employed ex-Jorg and Jacques Reymond chef Michael Smith as head chef of Tonka, and Sundar Singh as tandoori chef.

At our work functions, we tend to order everything on the menu, because - hell, why not! There's also a variety of beer, wine and cocktail drinkers amongst us. (All in all, it makes for good blogging!) Tonka's drinks are taken care of by Coda's lauded sommelier, Travis Howe; and bartenders James Tait and Adam Roderick (fomerly of Der Raum) have managed to put together a smashing cocktail list. Here are a few we had - Miguel's Milk Punch, Darjeeling Fizz, Jungle Bird and Pink Lady:

And then, the food. I was surprised by how light many of the dishes were - not in a modern, we're-so-cool, only-use-one-tenth-of-the-plate kind of way, but because my prior experience of Indian food had led me to believe it's usually quite heavy. (In the stomach. Filling. You know.) ...Not so! We had a variety of dishes, and only two were curries - not overly heavy ones, either. All dishes were lovely explorations of flavours.

Soft-shell crab

Spatchcock tandoori

Atlantic salmon

Fried cauliflower

Beans, rice and pappadums

Lamb curry

Chickpea curry

Aromatic, I had expected, and aromatic much of it was. In fact, the oft-cited Pani Puri, a sort of Indian hors d'oeuvre, arrived with 'aromatic water' to sprinkle over the top. I'm all for sauces and/or sprinkling, but I had to chuckle at that: it seemed a little too close to pretentious for my liking!

Pani Puri with aromatic water

However, they were delicious. My other personal favourites were also some of the 'smaller' menu options:

Tuna tartare with pomegranate

Scallops on cauliflower puree

My boss seemed to enjoy the prawn and chicken salad because it involved some self-dressing - plus, it was very tasty.

Sprinkling... lots of that going on

Prawn and chicken salad

Service, as is always the case at Coda and what we expected at Tonka, was exemplary - warm and obliging. One of our boys described it as "relaxed professionalism". A request for some vegetarian options was easily catered to, and poor Travis was calm under pressure when I began badgering him about which of his excellent aromatic wines might be preservative-free or organically produced. I'm not sure they were, in the end, but I didn't really care, they were SO good.

Just when we thought we wouldn't be able to eat ever again, of course we ordered dessert. Visually spectacular as well as enticing, flavour-wise, the desserts at both Tonka and Coda would be enough for me to happily survive on, oh, forever.

Chocolate parfait

Ginger cake

We were a little wobblier on our feet by the time we left Tonka, probably not really in keeping with the restaurant's polished style. I think this sentence (a direct quote from one of my workmates) sums up both Tonka and our inebriated state quite nicely: "It's just like Indian food, but really good."  It had been a very pleasant Christmas lunch, and I eagerly await the next time my work wants to buy me a huge delicious meal at Tonka.

Leaving via the other leg of Duckboard Place and ACDC Lane allowed a few more photo ops of Melbourne's famed laneway graffiti.

Tonka on Urbanspoon

Monday, 7 April 2014

Stagger Lee's

(As seen in GRAM magazine)

25 March 2014 saw the opening of Proud Mary owner Nolan Hirte's second venture, this time on Brunswick Street: Stagger Lee's.

Not quite open for two weeks yet, this place is already ridiculously busy, and has had the gossip mills churning for months - so it already has a lot to live up to. Its location, 276 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (corner of Victoria Street, a hop-skip-and-jump south of the prominent Johnston Street intersection), has already won half the battle for the venture. Guaranteed foot traffic, some outdoor seating, a nice amount of natural light, proximity to all the action of Brunswick Street, and a window bench for people-watching ensure the place is set for the levels of popularity everyone expects it to enjoy.

Although there are many cafes to choose from along Brunswick Street, most are overpriced and lacklustre in standards, catering more for the shopping lunch crowd or afternoon-latte-sipping hipsters. Not many do a rip-roaring breakfast/coffee actually worth going back for.

Hirte and former Proud Mary Manager, Monica Chhay, have brought in Chris Hamburger (apt name for a chef, no?) - formerly of Twenty and Six Espresso, The Aylesbury and St Ali North -  to run the kitchen, and his food is not for the faint-hearted. Like at Proud Mary, strong and rich flavours dominate the short menu. There is a sweet-laden pumpkin loaf, a 'Mexican' dish complete with tortillas, salsa and fried eggs, a rich mushroom and polenta dish not dissimilar to one I've enjoyed before at Proud Mary, the 'Mama's Stack' containing potato, cabbage and corned beef with egg -- even the porridge is accompanied by whacks of flavour in the form of salted butter, brown sugar and vanilla poached rhubarb.

While my peanut-allergic, non-egg-eating boyfriend stuck to a safe ham and tomato croissant for breakfast this morning (which looked very nice, as croissants go), I decided to try the Big Boi's Breakfast (but only after the waiter assured me it could also be consumed by Big Gals): saffron white bean ragu, smoked ham hock, house morcilla, poached egg, herb and garlic crumb, and toast.

Initially, when it was brought out, I didn't think it was mine - it looked like baked beans (as in, the usual tomato sauce kind, not what I had envisaged as a 'saffron ragu' of beans) dotted with pieces black pudding (which I had not equated to 'morcilla', having never heard of that term for it). I don't mind baked beans or black pudding; I had just not anticipated either in the dish from its menu description.

In any case, I ate it and quite enjoyed it. I wasn't blown away by it, as I have been previously by most of the dishes at Proud Mary. There was an awful lot of bean ragu, and the good bits (crumbly black pudding, chunks of smoked ham hock, and crunchy croutons) seemed sparse in amongst it. I hardly noticed the one poached egg; the strong flavours of everything else kind of made it redundant in the dish. The accompanying toast was delicious: well-toasted, but not burnt, buttered to perfection (I LOVE cafes that aren't afraid to butter your toast for you!), and ideal for mopping up excess sauce. Given the choice, I probably wouldn't order the Big Boi again, but I'm glad I tried it. Next time, I'd like to sample the Steel City Oat Porridge, Pumpkin and Walnut, or Mama's Stack.

Unlike its predecessor, Stagger Lee's boasts a liquor licence, and although evening beverages are not on offer *just* yet, wine, beer and ciders are already available during current trading hours (7am-4pm, Monday to Friday, and 8am-4pm weekends). Other drink options include a "Bucket of Blood" (Bloody Mary), juices, smoothies, shakes (at $10 a pop, they seem pricey, but do have interesting flavours), a range of teas, and of course, The Coffee.

Sticking to single origins and filter coffees only (Proud Mary's, by contrast, offers both singles and blends), Stagger Lee's was always going to kick arse in the coffee department. Cold drips are dotted around the cafe, a different origin filtering through each, identifiable by their masking tape labels. On our visit, there were several grinders sitting opposite the huge shiny white coffee machine (which was resplendent with its fluoro blue lighting effect - does that make it go faster?!), but the grinder mostly in use today was roaringly loud. It may grind a bean or two nicely, but it didn't much contribute to the ambience.

Service was charming and efficient, but a few dishes at our communal tables were mixed up - small blunders are to be expected in the first few weeks of trade - and dealt with promptly. Guests were seated promptly, or given fair estimates of waiting times. People seemed to be moving in and out all the time -- it seems a pretty smooth operation so far, for the newest newbie in town.

I remember the cafe's site in its former incarnation as an 'old man' espresso bar: red brick, dark, lots of wood, with grey-sports-coated and tan-golf-capped older European men sipping espressos at its edges and staring moodily at the world going by. I never went in because it screamed of depression. Its new occupants have swept out the dark, old vibe and kept a few of the venue's 1970s-style charms as part of an overall eclectic design.

Wood-panelled ceiling and painted brick behind the counter have stayed; other walls now have pleasingly varied textures, whilst maintaining the warm, hard surface consistency throughout (looks great; not so sure about the effects on acoustics though). Furniture is typically chunky wood tables and short metal stools. There are sprigs of native flowers, filament-exposed hanging lightbulbs, brown glass bottles for water, mini glass milk jars of raw sugar, and splashes of colour in the form of bright aqua crockery. The overall effect is pleasant chaos.

And the name? Stagger Lee's is apparently the title of an oft-interpreted song about the murder of an American gangster. As the follow-up act to Proud Mary, I wonder if we are in store for an American folklore onslaught, in the form of multiple funky cafes serving gung-ho coffee and gutsy food. Another day in Melbourne, another slice of Americana. If this one hangs around, I'd be cool with that.

Stagger Lee's on Urbanspoon