282 Carlisle Street
|work hours||Saturday Sunday lunch; Dinner Wednesday Sunday|
|Features||Accepts Reservations, Private Dinner, Bar|
|the prices||Medium ($20 – $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa and Mastercard|
|phone||03 9088 8022|
We should start with the Hainanese Chicken Club Sandwich ($16 for 2) because it’s probably where you want to start your meal, and this little treasure says a lot about Moonhouse, a new fancy Chinese restaurant in Balaclava.
The snack is based on Hainanese chicken rice – ginger-boiled chicken with fat-glazed rice – a dish that arouses an unusual passion in Southeast Asian communities around the world. I’ve talked to people who have moved to other countries because chicken rice wasn’t as good where they live.
The Moonhouse rework turns off the main flavor notes but is also hugely new. Boiled breast mixed with ginger and garlic, sliced and layered in crustless white bread with spring onions, cucumbers and crispy chicken skin. There’s a dark, deep saltiness that Chef Shirley Smackoan later told me because the bread was covered in chicken fat and vegemite – what a clever trick. There is also a dipping sauce made with thick chard liquid. It’s a revival of chicken rice that alludes to the hotel’s club sandwiches (the crisp leather toppings for a crunchy bacon) and fancy cucumber triangles.
Taking liberties with the classics is gritty, but it can also be exhilarating, especially in Melbourne where the culture of food from the considered and revered countryside makes cooking sense. The sandwich is also a nod to Moonhouse’s ambition, which is to tap into the nostalgia of old Aussie Cantonese restaurants and reshape them into a bistro vibe. This mystical fondness is nurtured in a deceptive interior in a historic Art Deco building, for a decade in the home of Ilona Staller and before that, a very beautiful Red Rooster.
The two-story restaurant is the sixth in the Commune Group. Perhaps you’ve been to Tokyo Tina, Firebird, New Quarter, or Hanoi Hana, all of which serve up Asian cuisine. My alarm system goes off when white men open Asian restaurants with women in nicknames (Saigon Sally has since closed), but Moonhouse feels mature and respectful.
Among the top employees are Korea-born Group Executive Chef Anthony Choi, dessert sizzler Enza Soto (Japanese-born of Mexican and Sicilian descent) and Indonesian-born Sumakuan, who started with the company five years ago as an assistant chef. Restaurant groups have an advantage in this tight employment climate, not least in the ability to retain people with attractive paths. It also means that even though Moonhouse is new, it’s up and running.
Dishes that showcase the “Chinese bistro” concept include fried shrimp toast ($16), which is served with French biscuit sauce and served as a checkerboard rather than retro Canto triangles. It looks great and there’s a well-balanced balance between the sweetness of the oysters and the fluff of egg whites.
Beef in Black Bean Sauce ($42) looks like it’s fried, but this looks more like a pepper steak, roasted medium rare in the cut and sliced, but still shaped like a sirloin. The mid-priced, all-Australian wine list and themed cocktails blend perfectly with the dining offerings.
Vegetarians have it easy. Dan Dan Noodles ($22) are about a classic Sichuan dish that includes sesame paste and pork. She remembers Smackoan’s version of a dish her grandfather made with instant noodles and peanut butter. She chops mushrooms instead of pork and dresses a tangle of bouncy ramen noodles with Sichuan pepper oil. It’s simple and delicious, a great rethink of a late-night snack.
Sweet and sour pork is recombined with cauliflower ($26) to create another meat-free dish that’s chunks of pineapple, capsicum, onion, and cauliflower mashed in a glossy, not-too-sweet sauce.
Bistros and Chinese restaurants both love ducks, so it’s fitting that Moonhouse does double duck duty with the Duck Ceremon on display ($44). The duck is aged in-house before being roasted, and confit shanks are served with lettuce wraps and shredded breast and served with pancakes and plums, made during a summer project to save firebird’s stone fruit. It is delicious light Peking duck.
Chinese meals often end with fruits and this is not a bad way to go here. Instead of simply slicing an orange, the peel is scraped, filled with fruit jelly, and then cut into wobbly, translucent wedges ($12). You might get lucky with grapefruit and lychee or blood orange and strawberry, both of which wrinkle with pleasure.
Carlisle Street works well for dining. Notable venues include Tulum Turkish Restaurant, The Dinner Party, 20 Seater Pretty Little, and the optimistic Isakaya Bounty of the Sun; There’s also a handful of good cafes, including the original shabby-chic Wall Two 80 and charming Syrian Levanter. The Moonhouse is a great addition, a smart project set up to please the locals and serve as a south side dining destination as well.
vibration: A love letter to the Australian Chinese in a small place
Go to plate: Hainanese Chicken Club Sandwich
drinks: Contemporary, food-friendly Australian wine list and fun cocktails
cost: $120 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend; Pesha Rodel is on vacation