Whatever you eat, eating out in Melbourne is a delight, but there is a food movement there at the moment that doesn’t involve food trucks or Mexican food (don’t ask) and that’s the food of Melbourne’s contemporary Asian restaurants.
Sure, modern Asian has been around a while, but new restaurants keep opening in Melbourne that are pushing the boundaries in different ways and really expanding the options for dining on great Asian fare.
Most have something in common. They have chefs at the helm with a real love and deep knowledge of Asian cuisine — even when they don’t necessarily have an Asian heritage themselves. These chefs have lived, worked and travelled widely in Asia, and that’s evident on the plates.
Some of Melbourne’s contemporary Asian restaurants stick to the classics to a certain degree, such as Flower Drum — which compared to some of the others below might be considered old-school, however, even Flower Drum is experimenting to a certain degree and presenting traditional recipes in a refined contemporary style.
Some eateries play with pan-Asian fare, cherry-picking the chef’s favourite Asian dishes from many countries within the region. Others are recreating traditional dishes using better quality or pointedly local Australian ingredients or produce — from kangaroo to marron — to recreate their Asian favourites or inspirations.
What we love about the contemporary Asian restaurants is that they strengthen Melbourne’s already strong mid-range dining options.
These can be casual eating experiences or formal, or both. For instance, Flower Drum of a weekend evening becomes a special occasion restaurant, however, eat there mid-week for lunch and you’ll find Asian tourists tucking into food of the quality they can find back home. If not better.
Here’s where you should be eating out in Melbourne if you want to sample the best of the city’s contemporary Asian cuisine restaurants.
Our Pick of Melbourne’s Contemporary Asian Restaurants
Not your local neighbourhood Aussie bastardised Cantonese
Terence: “Where else should we go?” we asked Aussie chef Neil Perry when we explained what we were up to in Melbourne. “Flower Drum, you must go to Flower Drum,” he said. And so we did. This Cantonese restaurant has won more awards than they have delightfully old-fashioned walls to hang them on, but still the service is incredibly warm and attentive. The highlight for me was the Peking duck, the best I’ve had outside Beijing, err Peking.
Lara: Of all the Asian restaurants we ate at, this is the only one that comes close to the formal Chinese dining experiences I had as a child when my parents took us out in Sydney in the 70s on Friday nights. It has that elegant, old-world atmosphere that I miss — the warm greeting from manager Jason Lui, whose father helms the kitchen, the formally attired waiters, the refined service. And it’s all of the high standard it is because these people have been doing this since the early 1980s! And then, there’s the food… all sublime, but I especially loved the Barramundi Noodles — noodles shaped out of Barramundi! — and the Blackmore’s Wagyu beef cheek braised in ginger, red date, garlic and water chestnuts.
Asian hawker-style in a nightclub-like atmosphere
Terence: While I wasn’t sold on the atmosphere for a lunch time spot (the décor is made for low-lit, night time ambiance), nobody else seemed to mind and the tables of office workers around us were making dents in the cocktail menu. (Who said nobody ate out for lunch in Melbourne anymore?!) The food, however, hit every Asian flavour note that the menu suggested. The crispy prawn, avocado, chilli peanuts and lime aioli, served on a betel leaf, was a refreshing combination that belied its cross-cultural heritage, while one of our Thai favourites, red duck curry, was presented as a leg of duck with fall-off-the-bone tender meat. Note: must go back for dinner and cocktails.
Lara: This was one of the most fun lunches we had in Melbourne. All of the food was incredible (and service was excellent too), but highlights for me were the son-in-law eggs wth chilli jam and herbs, the Wagyu and bamboo dumplings with cashew soy, and the roasted ocean trout with smoked ginger and lemongrass dressing. All delicious. For daytime dining, book one of the tables near the window. Unless of course, you’re not planning on doing anything after — there’s a bar upstairs, after all. It’s that kind of place.
Easygoing Elwood meets sexy Saigon
Terence: While some Melbourne food fanatics on Twitter sniffed at the thought of travelling to Elwood for a meal (apparently it’s on the “wrong” side of the river), we loved the few days we spent in an apartment there and from what we could see Chef Geoff Lindsay’s smart Modern Vietnamese restaurant didn’t appear to be lacking clientele. We’re huge fans of Vietnamese food and not one morsel of food presented to us would be mocked in Ho Chi Minh City. It just looks prettier. Would it stop us from ever going for an eight-dollar bowl of steaming pho in Richmond? No, but that’s not the point.
Lara: I love the chic contemporary décor, the casual vibe, affable service, and the buzzy atmosphere that Jane Lindsay, who runs front of house, is responsible for, but most of all I love Geoff Lindsay’s food. This is a guy who learnt how to cook as a kid and learnt about Vietnamese ingredients and regional cuisine from a Vietnamese greengrocer friend 15 years ago! He and Jane have travelled all over Vietnam and return regularly for ‘research trips’ (yes, that’s what they call them), and it shows. The menu changes with the seasons and availability, but if they’re on the menu, order the green rice fried tiger prawns, which you wrap in Vietnamese mint and lettuce. They were enormous, delicious, and great value too. Also look out for their themed nights, inspired by regions or places in Vietnam, from the Mekong to Dalat.
A Melbourne favourite reinvents itself
Terence: When we ate here last year for our Mouthwatering Melbourne story, Chef Jake Nicolson’s food was fantastic, unpretentious, contemporary Australian fare. Since that visit, however, the hotel has had a change of ownership. The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the aroma of a Japanese Robata grill permeating the whole hotel. Things had definitely changed! Chef Paul Wilson of the Melbourne Pub Group (which has taken over the hotel) was perhaps marking out his territory, even though Jake Nicolson was still in the kitchen. While I still can’t get my head around the cherry-picking nature of the Pacific-Rim menu, every single morsel of food I tried was fantastic.
Lara: The Melbourne Pub Group have really made a name for itself in Melbourne for establishing some brilliant watering holes and wonderful dining experiences, ranging from traditional comfort food done beautifully at the Middle Park Hotel to contemporary Californian-Mexican at the Newmarket Hotel. Every time we go to a city now where we find the pubs lacking a certain something, I find myself wishing the Melbourne Pub Group would open something. The food at the new Circa is so eclectic we weren’t sure where to place it, in this post or another we’re working on, on contemporary ‘ethnic cuisine’. Chef Paul calls it Pacific Rim, and even though that brings to mind a horrible mid-80s Australian-style of fusion, it’s the most apt description for a menu that includes flavours from Korea to California and ingredients from China to Australia. Loved everything we tried, from a Western Australian marron roll with Vietnamese herbs to the Japanese Robata grilled calamari with green papaya and sticky pork sauce, to the Wagyu beef yakitori with pine mushrooms and shiitake. Whatever you want to call it, it’s all tasty stuff.
Some like it hot
Terence: If this Chinese Sichuan joint didn’t get enough publicity from Anthony Bourdain’s visit, the plugs from David Chang, Rene Redzepi and every other chef on stage at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival must have had the restaurant ordering those famous numbing peppers by the tonne. The hype is justified. You don’t come here for the ambiance, you come here to get your mouth seductively anaesthetized by even the lighter (pepper- and chilli-wise) dishes on the menu such as the dry stir-fried beans and pork mince and the kong pao chicken, both of which do not warrant the ‘dainty’ modifier. Order beer. Make mine Tsingtao.
Lara: Like Omah’s, this was a restaurant that took me back to extraordinary meals we’ve enjoyed in China and Hong Kong. Wow. The kong pao chicken, a favourite of mine, was one of the tastiest I’ve ever tried. The hot spicy stewed beef with Sichuan peppers was also delicious despite setting my mouth on fire. And I just loved those beans with pork mince. What I also loved were the prices. With the high Australian dollar, Melbourne is an expensive eating city for foreign visitors, so being able to get away with a $40 bill (three courses and a big bottle of Tsingtao) for lunch is extraordinary in itself.
St Kilda salutes you!
Terence: Chef Andrew McConnell is an extremely well-respected chef in Melbourne, but I have to be honest and say that both his high-end restaurant Cutler & Co and the more casual Cumulus Inc didn’t entirely win me over. The funky, casual, Golden Fields, however, might just be the restaurant where the chef displays his purest passion and sense of fun. Chinese and Korean dishes mix freely on the menu, the needle drops on the record player for some great tunes, and it just makes you want to graze the menu — as several other well-known chefs were doing on one occasion we ate there. Yes, we ate here more than once…
Lara: Travel and food writers who aren’t based in a place don’t have time to eat at restaurants more than once — ours is a very different role to that of a food critic — so we have a rule never to eat at the same eatery more than once (there are so many others we should be trying!) but we broke our golden rule in Melbourne at Golden Fields. What drew us back for seconds? The laidback atmosphere, friendly staff, and flexibility of the menu and experience. You can go with a group and feast on a banquet or go on your own, sip a glass of wine and eat some oysters. I loved everything we tried (both times), the lobster rolls on hot buttered buns, twice cooked duck on steamed bread, shredded chicken with house-made cold rice noodles, the rolled Berkshire pork belly with white kimchi and yuxiang sauce… Okay, the pork belly was my favourite. And, yes, Andrew McConnell is a really lovely guy.
Malaysian made fun
Terence: Malaysian food is somewhat underrepresented in Australia’s contemporary Asian cuisine despite the fact that there is an abundance of Malaysian restaurants in both Sydney and Melbourne and a watered down version of laksa (a Malaysian soup) appears on many café menus in every major city (even a tea room we know in Alice Springs has a laksa day!). What I loved best about Omah’s, besides the authentic flavours of every dish we tried — from the satay to yes, the laksa — was the fact that people were having fun here. It may have something to do with wearing bibs and chowing down on fantastic, spicy whole crabs. My advice? Join them. Order the salted egg mud crab. One each.
Lara: I would have eaten at Omah’s a second time too had we have had time. Melbourne locals tweeted us on Twitter about how amazing the mud crab was and it was truly spectacular. I loved the fact that there were big tables of friends ordering a crab each! It really took me back to great meals we’ve had in Kuala Lumpar and Penang, the sauce dripping down our wrists as we sucked every last morsel out of the crab shells. It made me want to go back to Malaysia and that’s amazing when a cuisine in a different country is as authentic as it is in its birthplace that it can do that to you. It doesn’t happen enough. The small soft shell crabs were also scrumptious and the beef rendang, again, incredibly authentic. Where are we going next? I think Malaysia is calling…
*Golden Fields and Omah’s have since closed. We will update this guide when we are in Melbourne in April 2017.
17 Market Lane
03 9662 3655
27-29 Crossley Street
03 9662 4200
133 Ormond Road
03 9531 4900
The Prince Hotel
2 Acland Street
03 9536 1122
176 Toorak Road
03 9078 1686