In the weeks before visiting a new city, I fiercely research restaurants and cafes - this pretty much ensures that I have a near impossible itinerary carved out even before I get on the plane every time. In that aspect, I am a little bit of an organisational nut, but it's all for the sake of ensuring that I can't miss out on THAT great restaurant! Melbourne is one of the few exceptions - I've come to familiarise myself immensely just by walking around. I like to move around the CBD a lot and even a week long visit could constitute staying at two, maybe even three different hotels. Location is everything to me in Melbourne and I don't mind the slight inconvenience of packing and unpacking if it means that I get to discover so much more beyond my temporary doorstep! In fact, when I visited in July 2012, I discovered ChinChin whilst walking back to my apartment from a fantastic lunch at the delicious French bistro, PM24. Although ChinChin is a well known Southeast Asian institution in Melbourne, back then - I barely knew enough about it!
This time around, with M and Zowy in tow, I decided that it was time to experience what ChinChin had to offer. Our general approach to popular restaurants is to take advantage of their all-day operating hours. The key to checking off as many venues as possible from your restaurant wishlist, even when you don't make reservations, is by dining at "un-popular" hours. We strolled in at 4:30PM and got a table, no problem - had we walked in a mere 20 minutes later, we would have had to wait in the ever growing line of hungry patrons!
You've gotta hand it to ChinChin, they've got great branding and even better looking forks and spoons. Unfortunately for us, we were squished around a table that was barely an inch away from the table next door that housed another party of three. Even though its just after 4:30PM, the restaurant is already 3/4 full and absolutely pumping. There are engaging conversations going on left, right and centre and we have to bunch up even more around our small table to audibly discuss the dishes we're going to order.
The menu is an A3 sized whopper and if you're a little lost, they've got a great system where you just have to flag down your nearest staff member and just request "feed me!". $66 per person later, you'll be presented with an array of their most popular dishes. It's a great option for when you have no idea what you'd like to try, however, I was dining with two Malaysians and I wouldn't completely disregard my Singaporean taste buds either. We decided to steer away from the typically Chinese/Malay/Indian flavours that we knew would be best eaten in traditional hawker stores in our respective homelands. Instead, we wanted to gear ourselves towards fresh Thai and Vietnamese flavours that we weren't so familiar with but found enticing all the same!
Something that I quite like about Melbourne - you can request for 500ml of wine instead of just a glass or going for the full bottle. It's great for sharing and I left it to Zowy and M to have at it. Regular readers will know that I'm slowly starting to get into wines and I'd more likely take an interesting cocktail any day!
As soon as I spotted the prospect of pork, apple and peanuts on the menu, I knew that I had to try this salad. Let's face it, it's not much of a salad - it's almost like a surf and turf that could keep me coming back daily, maybe even twice daily. There are so many layers of crispness and crunch, starting with the roasted peanuts, to the crumbed barramundi and finishing with the sweet green apple. The gelatinous, fatty pork and the fresh cilantro are soft and so fragrant in their own right. There's truly so many tiers of flavours going on that one mouthful will leave you questioning and hooked in for another.
I love dishes that beat me around the head with bright, spicy flavours, whilst simultaneously also soothing my tastebuds with a hit of zesty freshness. This was one of those; it's exciting, it's textural and it's got a perfect balance of sweet and savoury flavours. It was my favourite on the table that day and was the dish that truly warranted Chinchin's golden reputation.
Crying Tiger was the only dish amongst our small spread that was recommended by our waitstaff. We had decided to go slow and only hit three dishes and see where we were at the end of it. This recommendation was made based on the fact that the three of us admitted to being quite the lovers of spice. Although, I shamefully admit that I didn't enjoy chilli or curry for many years...one day, I decided to take the plunge, pucker up, bite my lip and learn to love these spicy flavours. It's paid off and I'm by no means afraid of walking out of a restaurant with a numb tongue and a throbbing head!
I wanted to like it - I badly, so badly wanted to like it. In fact, in the end I left the salad alone and picked out the tender wagyu slices. If you've ever had mediocre Chinese takeaway, you've probably come across deep fried rice noodles. They're often the "bed" for pedestrian dishes like Lemon Chicken and Black Pepper Beef; soggy, oily and overall rather unpleasant. The ground roasted rice didn't help with the textures of the salad either - if you've ever accidentally inhaled a mouthful of sand at the beach, you'll know why this dish just wasn't working out for me. It didn't nearly pack as much of a punch as the Crispy Barra and Apple Salad dish did - all three of us were aimlessly seeking for that hit of chilli that we were promised.
You can't put odd cuts of animal on a menu and not expect me to order it! On a side note for those who are none the wiser, myself included until the power of Google - Nuoc Cham is a Vietnamese style dipping sauce. The accompanying "Asian Herb Salad" can very much so be likened to a traditional Thai Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad), minus the papaya. I had to give myself a little pat on the back - my usual disdain for cilantro and bean sprouts weren't holding me back from inhaling forkful after forkful of this salad! It was a very fresh, vibrant and spicy salad, which further dimmed our impression of the previous Crying Tiger dish.
Fish "wings" may be a little misleading; your seafood isn't about to
flutter off the plate, but it will taste absolutely delicious! Much like
the wings in chicken, I think that the wings in fish carry a lot of
flavour. So unfortunate that most of it is usually cast aside along with some other parts
of the fish carcass! I can vouch for deep fried fish fins and fish
tails; they're super crispy and delicious! If you've ever had Japanese style fish wings, they're usually grilled rather than battered and fried up like we saw here. It was slightly darker than I would have liked, but the simple seasonings really did allow for the flicks of Nuoc Cham dipping sauce to shine through.
The kingfish meat was sweet and slightly flakey; another minute or so in the fryer would have definitely sent it beyond the realms of being overcooked. The texture may have been a little tough but like any other fish wings variation I've tried, this was exceptionally flavourful. I felt a little cruel snapping off the fish fins but there's no better way to dispel your guilt like enjoying some popcorn-like fins!
They may have transformed nearly every square inch of the restaurant into viable seating space, but it didn't stop Chin Chin from reaching full capacity by the time we had finished our mains. It was the generous serving of Kingfish that got us in the end; despite being advised that we hadn't ordered nearly enough food - I guess we proved them wrong!
Since I dine in Melbourne only about once or twice a year, I haven't covered quite nearly as many restaurants as I'd have liked. However, from what I have seen - I did notice that the service is not really on par with what I've come to expect in Perth; especially from high customer turnover powerhouses like ChinChin. As I've mentioned previously in my travel posts - it's good to build up expectations and understand the local dining environment to avoid disappointment. I do get it - there's a line down the street and they want to shuffle
people along as quickly as possible. But if there's one thing that I still
don't appreciate as a customer, it's definitely having the bill shoved in my face as soon as we decided not to have dessert. In comparison we had stayed in PM24 almost 45 minutes after closing time after a friend had arrived late for lunch. The staff were nothing but courteous and patient with us, even taking the time to discuss their post bill house-made marshmallow ritual just as we were about to up and leave.
Chinchin for me was one of those restaurants that I just had to tick off my Melbourne list. With regards to the food; the barramundi, apple and pork dish was enough to entice me back. The menu is extremely extensive and I wouldn't mind picking another oddly timed moment to come back and try more. I found it exceptionally entertaining how appalled and resistant both M and Zowy were to the $12 murtabak and might just have to agree - there's always hawker stalls and street food for that. But in the meantime, Melbourne locals are still lucky to have this chic South East Asian inspired establishment in Chinchin and for Perthians who are keen to check out local offerings, this is a good place to include on your list!