Thursday, 27 February 2014

Red Opium, East Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Thai food will always conjure up memories of my childhood. Being young migrants, my parents didn't have a lot of money during the lean years of the late 80s/early 90s, and it wasn't until around the mid-90s that we were affluent enough to afford the pleasure of going out for a proper restaurant meal. During that time Sala Thai in Fremantle became a firm family favourite for birthdays and other special occasions. Thai cuisine left a strong impression on my palate from that young age; its ability to balance sourness, sweetness and heat in the one dish is still a pleasure to this day, and David Thompson's two cookbooks are regular sources of inspiration in our kitchen at home. Alissa and I have returned to Sala Thai a few times, however are always on the look out for new places to try. When we heard of Red Opium's concept of 'Thai-inspired tapas', it immediately made our ever-growing restaurant wishlist. 

Located in East Perth in what used to be a basement karaoke bar, Red Opium really lives up to its name. Drawing inspiration from 1940s opium dens, the design aesthetic is executed wonderfully, with liberal swathes of red and an Asian fusion theme that is at once iconic and yet on-trend and modern. 

Alissa particularly liked the paintings that graced the walls and their depiction of individuals of ambiguous gender - suggestive of Thai kathoey/ladyboys.

I had been wanting to try the Khantoke Dinner Set ($50) which requires 4 or more diners, making this an excellent occasion to catch up with good friends. Joining Alissa and I were Hayley and Dugan. Hayley and I used to be part of Spatula, an art collective that interrogated and challenged contemporary food production before the four of us in the group decided to focus on other projects. Dugan was something of a silent fifth member, and his skills as a welder were instrumental in helping us build our most famous, final work - a three wheel macadamia-nut crushing tricycle that became an on road cooking show (seriously).

The Khantoke Dinner Set includes three of Red Opium's tapas-sized items, a soup course and four mains to share. Yin and Yang Dips were the first to arrive - one being creamy prawn and coconut, the other mince pork and tomato. The arrangement of papadum-like crackers on one side of the dish and pork scratchings on the other seemed to suggest dip-specific pairings and Dugan's experiment with the prawn dip on the pork scratchings proved to be 'interesting' but not necessarily complimentary. Within their pairings however, these dips were very good indeed. The creamy prawn and coconut dip reminded me somewhat of a very fishy congee, which worked well with the crackers.

Being a pork fanatic, the mince pork dip was probably the more immediately likeable of the two options, and the idea of using pork scratchings instead of crackers was inspired. This was a fairly simple dish that didn't necessarily blow our minds but did at least set Red Opium off to a good start.

A plate of Assorted Spring Rolls served with a Thai dipping sauce was the next small plate to arrive. As it turned out, there were two or three different types of fillings to these spring rolls, of which I tried two. My first sample was the fairly conventional vegetarian spring roll common to Asian restaurants of all descriptions. Most Asian restaurants tend to be a bit lazy when it comes to spring rolls, opting for frozen factory produced mass productions that end up underwhelming. These definitely tasted like they were made in-house, and the resulting freshness meant this was a cut above the average. The other I tried was a meat spring roll filled with a red curry mince pork. This was even better than the vegetarian spring roll, reminding me of thin casing samosas - but all the more delicious for the red curry inside.

The dipping sauce itself was excellent, having that lovely balance of sweet, salty and sour you'd expect. Not wanting to waste what was left in the bowl, Hayley decided to drink the rest.

The Son in Law Eggs were the last of the small share plates to arrive, and continued the quality standard of the previous dish. Twice cooked with a nice crispiness and sweet due to the tamarind, this was a fairly simple and traditional dish done well.

Acting as an intermission between the tapas-sized share plates and the large main plates, the Tom Yum Goong was amongst the best I've had. There is a complexity of flavour to Tom Yum soup that in perfect balance results in a dish greater than the sum of its parts, and Red Opium achieved this with their version. The Tom Yum came in mild, hot and extra hot options, and I could feel the tingling burn of the extra hot and coughed as it made its heat apparent.

The mains appeared on the table in quick succession. First to arrive, the Som Tum salad with Soft Shell Crab was announced as a 'coleslaw' by the waitress - a reasonable analogy for this classic green papaya salad. The balance sweet/sour balance of the dressing was excellent, with the papaya providing a nice, fresh crunch. Also providing crunch were the crispy soft shell crabs. These were not exactly necessary given the sheer amount of other food, but were a welcome addition.

F-Duck seems to be Red Opium's signature dish. Their version of the famous Duck and Lychee Red Curry, The duck comes as slices of roasted breast with a whole drumstick. These were juicy, meaty and well seasoned pieces of duck that were thankfully not overly fatty. The red curry may look a bit stingy but actually was about the right amount for the four of us. Having already tasted the red curry in the spring rolls we knew that it would taste authentic, however what was interesting was how the curry was smoother and more refined than what I would usually expect from red curry. It reminded me of the refined curries of Dum Pukht, and the inclusion of baby carrot and some brussel sprouts made it look like a classical French dish. This is definitely a must-try dish.

I don't eat beef very often and don't order it unless its part of a tasting menu, so it was a surprise for me to find the Masaman Beef Curry to be the dish of the night. As with the F-Duck, the curry was smooth and refined in comparison to other Masaman curries I've eaten, and its nuttiness was addictively good. Most impressive was how melt-in-your mouth soft and flavoursome the beef was, so much so Alissa originally thought it was lamb. This was quality beef cooked perfectly; just touching the beef with a fork was enough to cut off a piece to eat.

Arriving a little while after we'd already been enjoying the other dishes, we had completely forgotten about the Cod of the Day. We were already beginning to feel really full by that point, however it was great to try yet another fantastic dish. Tasting the fish and its tangy, sweet sauce took me back to the '90s when we used to order a similar fish dish from Sala Thai. As its one of their more expensive dishes and since we're generally there with smaller groups, I have not ordered the fish in at least over a decade so it was a lovely nostalgic trip tasting this sauce again.

We were really full by the end of the meal, and ended up leaving a potato and some of the Som Tum salad behind. Seeing that I had been taking photos and guessing that I was a blogger, the staff seemed concerned that we had not eaten everything and asked if there was something wrong. We reassured them we were just extremely full and that we really enjoyed the meal. After paying, Hayley opened a belated birthday present Alissa and I had bought her in Singapore - some Royce' chocolate.

Hayley kindly shared the chocolate with us - a nice, small dessert to cap off a satisfying meal.

The Verdict: Excellent
For $50 each the Khantoke menu was excellent value, giving us a good taste of what they have to offer and left us so full we couldn't even eat it all. Red Opium's small share plate and mains concept combined with its hip design aesthetic is a real winner and would be a strong recommendation for one of the best Thai restaurants in Perth. We'll have to give Nahm Thai a go next, but we'd definitely come back for more. I've gotta know what a Deconstructed Green Curry is all about...

Red Opium on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Little Lang Nuong, Girrawheen, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

It is often said one must not leave Hanoi without eating a bowl of bun cha, and I'd contend that after eating it you'll forever crave it. Forget about pho- sure, its become wildly popular and trendy in Perth -but for those in the know the porky goodness of bun cha is where its at. However this is a far rarer dish than pho. No where near us seems to do it, and after desperate cravings pushed Alissa into serious online research we discovered Little Lang Nuong in Girrawheen made a version of this delicious dish.

Living in Bateman, Alissa and I would rarely have any reason to travel any further north than Osborne Park, so Girrawheen was a somewhat unknown region of Perth suburbia. Turns out, the main shopping precinct of Girrawheen is something of a Little Vietnam, filled with heaps of Vietnamese restaurants and grocers.

For a restaurant buried deep in suburbia Little Lang Nuong had a surprisingly modern interior, with cool bubble seats along the right wall. This was nicer looking that the decidedly utilitarian interior of places like Tra Vinh in Northbridge. The restaurant specialise in grilled meats, and their menu also includes Cha Ca (grilled fish) and Nem Lui (marinated pork skewers). Of course, we were here for the bun cha so stuck to our plan, along with an entree of spring rolls and a passionfruit pulp drink.

I love the drinks at Vietnamese restaurants as they seem to come up with inventive beverages with flavours like soursop and sour plum that provide both a tart and sweet hit. After taking a sip of the drink, Alissa said, 'ooh, you will like this'. Sure enough, this was very much to my liking being refreshingly sweet and sour. This was a perfect drink for a hot summer day.

The wait for our meal was a tad bit long considering we were one of only two tables of diners in the restaurant, however Alissa and I didn't mind. Our entree of spring rolls were good, similar but better to the kind served at Lido. It would have been nice if they were served with a nice Vietnamese dipping sauce, but we thankfully had the bun cha to dip it into.

Little Land Nuong have three different options for their bun cha - one with nem cua be (the spring roll) for $12, with pork (also $12) or with both ($14). For me you can't do bun cha without either of the two, so we had both. When the plate arrived we were happy to see it presented in the customary DIY assembly style and not dumbed down into a westernised pre-assembled version. As a plus over the version we ate in Vietnam, it was good to know the herbs and vegies would be fresh, clean and not reused for other customers.

The pork came both barbecued and in the burger patty form as expected. The patties were probably not as good as what we had at Bun Cha Dac Kim as it did not taste as flame grilled or as porky, however the grilled slices of pork were excellent - sweet, tender and having a lovely barbecued flavour. I think the fattier pieces at Bun Cha Dac Kim were better, but this was of comparable quality.

The nem cua be was also very good, with the crispy outer wrapping being as delicious as we remembered in Hanoi. Alissa liked this better than what we had at Dac Kim, but I remember the version in Hanoi having more filling, and in a more generous serve to satisfy my greed for nem cua be. Still, it was very satisfying to taste these again in Australia.

The Verdict: Excellent
Alissa felt that it was as good as what we had in Hanoi, however I felt that Bun Cha Dac Kim did it better. For the most part the differences between the two are minor, with the only criticism I would make of Little Lang Nuong being that I felt the broth/dipping sauce was saltier and less sweet than the Dac Kim version. However, this was not a deal breaker and Alissa and I are so happy to have found a bun cha place in Perth to tide us over until the next visit to Vietnam. With Cha Ca and other delights on their menu the return drive to the northern suburbs will be well worth it, and cannot be too soon.

Edit 21/3/14: we came back to Little Lang Nuong a few weeks later so my parents could try the Bun Cha, and this time it was even better than the first time. I've raised the verdict to Excellent reflect this. Having also eaten Bun Cha at a few other places in Perth, I'm prepared to call it - this is the best Bun Cha in Perth

Little Lang Nuong on Urbanspoon

Daisy's Cafe, Jandakot, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Working in the Cockburn Central area has its perks. Driving down the freeway against the flow of traffic is one of them, as is being able to bring my bike on the train for the same reason. Nevertheless, I can't help feel a little jealous of CBD workers knowing I could be eating Dosukoi or Nao everyday or popping in for a banh mi at City Provisions. With less choices immediately available you've really got to search harder to find interesting places to eat in Cockburn Central, and Daisy's Cafe is one of my favourite finds in the area.

Located east of the Freeway on Berrigan Drive near Glen Iris Golf Course, Daisy's Cafe is in the middle of nowhere even by Cockburn standards. Its name and appearance give away very little about what kind of food they serve, and I'd bet there are many locals who have no clue its a Chinese restaurant. The plain and slightly cluttered interior does little to suggest it is anything other that a regular suburban Chinese, however with a menu that includes such interesting items such as 'Typhoon Shelter King Prawn' and 'Yam Duck', I had to try them out. 

Being a work lunch break, the more interesting items were going to have to wait for another visit with Alissa. I instead went with the Combination Hor Fun. Immediately, I was impressed with the amount of meat included, as it was similar to what I would expect from a home cooked version of the dish, not the usually stingy quantity given in many Chinese restaurants. 

Tipping it into a bowl so I could stir it up, I discovered the added bonus of juicy prawns buried beneath the surface! Tastewise, this was a very good hor fun - far better than the disappointing version served to us at Two Chefs in Singapore, with a good egg to noodle ratio. The egg was still saucy and not set in spite of it having been driven back to the office in a plastic container. The noodles were cooked expertly, having that nice char taste of being cooked in a wok and the seasoning and sauces used were in perfect balance.

Two weeks later, Alissa and I visited Daisy's together. Alissa was a bit hangry (hungry and angry) from a long, frustrating peak hour drive from North Perth and because our initial plan to drive to Fremantle for dinner at Run Amuk was thwarted by my forgetting the camera, us having to double back and then having to choose somewhere a bit closer as a result.  

We ordered a serve of Fried Wontons as our entree. This was of a very good standard; nice juicy wontons of a decent size fried nice and crispy. They were about what I would expect for this dish, neither surprisingly good or a disappointment. 

One of my biggest regrets regarding our time in Hong Kong was that we didn't get to eat the Yam Duck my cousin found so addictive that he ate it repeatedly when he was there. As such, I was very happy to discover a place so close to home that made this dish. As with the hor fun I had tried before, this was a generous serve of duck. I've long loved the dim sum deep fried yam, and combining that flavour with duck made for an inspired dish. Crispy coating and duck, served with a sweet and tangy chilli sauce - what is not to like? My only criticism would be that some slices were more yam than duck and as such tasted a bit floury, but with a serve this generous there are bound to be sections less duck-filled than others. 

The Typhoon Shelter Kings Prawns were even better. What struck us immediately was how generous the serving size of prawns was. Tasting it we were greeted by juicy, perfectly cooked prawns in a salty/spicy batter, served with the crispy garlic and spicy salt. Alissa and I have had similar versions of this dish with squid or tofu instead of prawns, and there is always something magical about that garlic and spicy salt combination. The use of prawns here made it even more delicious. This was an addictively good dish, definitely something to order again. 

The Verdict: Very Good
Daisy's Cafe may be in the middle of nowhere, but its definitely a cut above the average local Chinese restaurant. The people who run this place seem like genuinely nice people, with the woman in charge of front of house being very friendly and the chef occasionally singing as he cooks. Serving sizes are generous, and they don't do the usual bulking up with excessive quantities of onions many lesser Chinese restaurants are guilty of. In spite of being amongst the more expensive Chef Specialty dishes, both or mains were $18.50 each; very reasonable for the quality of food served. With many other excellent sounding items on their menu for us to try, Alissa and I will definitely be back.

Daisy's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Zensaki Sushi and Izakaya (Barrack St Branch), Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

If Alissa would let me, I would eat ramen every day of the week. In a lot of ways its my perfect dish - noodles (my carb weakness), pork and/or fried chicken, and a broth seemingly invented by people trying to figure out how to make each slurp so rich in glutamate content that its an umami explosion. So when I discovered Zensaki have been doing ramen for years and I'd never noticed, this was a situation that needed to be rectified quickly. Would I discover a new worthy competitor for the title of 'Perth's Best Ramen?'

Located on Barrack St between the Hay and Murray St Malls, Zensaki do both a sushi train and an extensive a la carte menu divided into sections - Starters, Salads, Deep Fried Dishes, Grilled and Pan Fried Dishes, Skewer grilled, Bento sets and Ramen, Udon and Soba Noodles. 

Accompanying us for the meal was our friend Gita, who worked with Alissa in their theatre company The Duck House, and was her housemate before Alissa and I moved in together. Gita is an excellent cook and foodie, and as she is a vegan it meant we would get to see what how Zensaki would do catering for dietary requirements. 

As it was fairly late for dinner, Alissa and I decided to quell our hunger with an item from the sushi train. It was a soft shell crab roll topped with egg, prawn and sweet chilli sauce. As far as sushi goes it was at a decent standard, but nothing mind-blowingly good - I've definitely had better. The flavour combination seemed not particularly classically Japanese, and the egg in particular seemed strange as it was the texture I'd expect from an egg sandwich with mayo. It would have been better if it had been tamago, and with a different sauce instead of sweet chilli. As this was a one off sample of items from the sushi train we cannot give a full review of what their offerings are like overall, and I'd like to think it was more to do with a bad selection on our part than a necessarily bad sushi train selection in general. 

Gita ordered some Edamame beans for us to share. These were a nice salty snack, about the average standard for these healthy and addictively tasty beans. There is not much more you can do with a dish that is boiled or steamed beans with salt, and this was done well enough. 

My order was the 'Ultimate' Ramen with tonkotsu broth, from their choice of tonkotsu, miso, shoyu and shio. Since I didn't want the salty-sweet flavour of teriyaki sauce to affect the flavour of my broth and since I don't like bean sprouts, I chose to omit these items. The broth was sadly a bit lacklustre. I don't expect any ramen place to reach the kind of insanely porky gravy-like consistency of Gumshara in Sydney, but part of what makes tonkotsu such a delicious broth is how concentrate the flavours are and how the hours of boiling result in some kind of magical chemistry that gives it its that milky collagen-enriched consistency. Zensaki say their broth takes 24 hours to make, however they must be watering it down as this was a little thin, and a bit tasteless. 

Which is a shame, as they got everything else pretty much spot on. The chashu slices were amongst the best in Perth with a lovely melt in your mouth flavour that bested the chashu at Kai. The egg yolk was nice and half set and the karaage was tasty and remained crispy in spite of being in a broth. The noodles may not have been the best I've had, but they did have a nice springy consistency and were better than the non-ramen noodles Arigataya served us. Speaking of which; if only Arigataya's broth could be combined with everything else Zensaki do - that would really give Nao and Dosukoi a run for their money. 

Of the main dishes ordered, Alissa's was easily the best - Soft Shell Crab Udon Noodles Soup. Presentation alone as impressive, being served in a metal bowl on top of raised wooden rack. The 'in-house broth' tasted like a miso-soy that was quite nice with the udon noodles, which were fat and juicy as udon should be. Topping of deep fried soft shell crab had that satisfying crunch you expect from soft shell crab. Fewer components than the ramen, but they got everything right. 

I felt bad for Gita when I saw the Stir Fry Vegetables, as they did not look particularly tasty or well made. 'What's that on top?' Gita asked at the sight of the moving flakes sitting on top. 
'That's katsuobushi,' I said, 'and you'll want to remove those since its fish'.
Of course Zensaki were not to blame for the katsuobushi being on top as they didn't know that Gita was a vegan, but the low standard of the dish in general was very disappointing. Gita scraped the katsuobushi onto a side plate and I tried one of the carrots in the pile. Even encrusted in katsuobushi, the carrot was very bland and uninteresting. I regularly make stir fry at home and I could have done a better job, even when I can't be bothered and use pre-prepared veggies. I noticed Gita continuously pouring soy sauce on the vegetables before combining it with her bowl of rice. 
'Not enough soy?' I asked.
'Not enough of anything'

The Verdict: Good
I'm not sure what to make of Zensaki. On the one hand, they did a terrible Stir Fry Vegetables, a thin, tasteless tonkotsu broth and the one sushi train item we tried was good but not amazing. Conversely, they made a mean udon and got everything else right in the ramen. Perhaps they have such an extensive menu that they don't quality control all their dishes, and if Gita and I ordered better we would have had a more satisfying experience. Still, if its not good, it really shouldn't be on the menu and they should seriously rethink that stir fry. From a ramen standpoint, I'm wondering if Zensaki are just not tonkotsu specialists and that one of the other broths may be better. The first time we had Kai, the miso broth was disappointing yet the tonkotsu was a winner so it was a good thing we didn't give up on them. For this reason, I'd come back to Zensaki again as I'd like to give them a second chance. However, if I was gonna bring a vegetarian to a Japanese restaurant, Zensaki would not be the place. 

Zensaki Sushi & Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Pacific Rim Mix Plate, Applecross, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

I must have driven and cycled past it hundreds of times when I lived in Alfred Cove, but it looks so unremarkable that I never even considered it as a place to eat. With it hideous burgundy awnings, a strange red cloud painted on the wall that I only later worked out is supposed to be a hibiscus and a tacky palm tree, hibiscus and 'Aloha!' decal pasted onto the windows, Pacific Rim Mix Plate looks like a restaurant that is hardly trying to look modern, hip, or even good.

The interior continues the theme of tackiness with some tiki torches thrown in for good measure...

... with its best design feature being a palm tree and ocean painted on the back wall. But as Urbanspoon's highest rated and most popular restaurant in Melville (95% at time of writing), they are definitely proving that good food speaks for itself.

I knew very little about Hawaiian food before coming here other than pineapples thrown into Chicken Treat combos, so it was a real surprise to find its an odd fusion of largely Japanese and mainland American cuisines served in bento box-style sets that include a main, steamed rice, American-style macaroni salad and a tossed lettuce salad with your choice of sauce.

For mains Alissa and I went with the Maui Chicken Bites and the Katsu Chicken respectively, along with the Spicy Pele sauce. The Maui Chicken Bites were basically chicken karaage, and very good chicken karaage at that. Just the day before I'd had Arigataya's floury version of the dish, and this HAWAIIAN version was a better, crispier example. The non-Japanese Spicy Pele and Sweet Chilli gave the Maui Chicken a bit of a southern fried chicken quality, and it kind of tasted like a better version of a KFC wrap if it was served with rice instead of fries.

My plate was much the same as Alissa's except for the Chicken Katsu. Again, Pacific Rim Mix Plate did a better Katsu than the average food court Japanese with the chicken maintaining a fresh juiciness and the outer crumb being crispy and golden brown. The side of cold macaroni salad was particularly delicious, with a nice tangy mayo-style dressing that made us wish we could have had a bit more. While the rice and chicken had Japanese origins, the attitude of our meal was that of utterly American comfort food - it wasn't particularly sophisticated (and not particularly healthy), but I'll be damned if it wasn't addictively delicious. A few bites in Alissa looked up and said, 'I'm sad that this meal will have an end point as I could keep eating!'

I couldn't agree more.

The Verdict: Very Good
Sure, its not the best looking place in town and the food is not particularly sophisticated, but everyone needs a good comfort food joint like this for when the fried chicken cravings kick in and KFC is a bridge too far. At $12.90 a plate for our dishes and their most expensive meal combo being $16.90, Pacific Rim Mix Plate are excellent value too. Its not exactly food that I would travel long distances for, but if you're south of the river in the Melville area you've gotta come in to see why this restaurant is so justifiably popular. Since we're less than a 10 minute drive away its a no brainer; we'll have to come back for the Creamy Tarragon Fish, Huli Huli BBQ Spare Ribs and Tilapia with Sweet Wasabi in our near future.

Pacific Rim Mix Plate on Urbanspoon