282 Carlisle St
|opening hours||Lunch Sat-Sun; Wed-Sun dinner|
|Features||Takes Reservations, Private Dining, Bar|
|prices||Moderate (food $20 – $40)|
|payments||eftpos, visa, mastercard|
|Telephone||03 9088 8022|
We should start with the Hainanese Chicken Sandwich ($16 for 2) because that’s probably where you’ll want to start your meal, and this little treasure says a lot about Moonhouse, a new Chinese restaurant in Balaclava.
The snack is based around Hainanese chicken rice – ginger poached chicken with glazed rice – a dish that evokes extraordinary passion in Southeast Asian communities around the world. I spoke to people who moved countries because chicken rice was not good where they lived.
The Moonhouse revamp scores important flavor notes, but it’s also extremely new. Poached brisket is infused with ginger and garlic, shredded and layered on crustless white bread with chives, cucumber and crispy chicken skin. There’s a mysterious, deep salty flavor that chef Shirley Summakwan later tells me is because the bread is covered in chicken fat and Vegemite — what a clever trick. There is also a sauce made from thick game liquid. It’s a chicken rice redux that nods to hotel club sandwiches (the crispy skin replacing crispy bacon) and fancy party cucumber triangles.
Taking liberties with classics is brave, but it can also be exhilarating, especially in Melbourne, where a food culture of thoughtful, reverent riffs makes culinary sense. The sandwich is also a sign of Moonhouse’s ambition, which is to tap into the nostalgia of old-school Australian Cantonese restaurants and reshape them into a bistro setting. That misty-eyed affection is nurtured in a seductive interior in a landmark Art Deco building, for a decade home to Ilona Staller and, before that, an overly handsome Red Rooster.
The two-story restaurant is Grupo Commune’s sixth. Perhaps you’ve been to Tokyo Tina, Firebird, New Quarter or Hanoi Hannah, each representing an Asian cuisine. My fear alert system goes off when white guys open Asian restaurants with women’s names in their nicknames (Saigon Sally has since closed), but Moonhouse feels mature and respectful.
Senior staff includes the group’s Korean-born executive chef Anthony Choi, dessert genius Enza Soto (Japanese-born with Mexican and Sicilian heritage) and Indonesia-born Summakwan, who started at the company five years ago as a sous chef. . Restaurant groups have an advantage in this tight staffing climate, particularly in their ability to retain people with attractive paths. It also means that while Moonhouse is new, he’s already on the right track.
Dishes that feature the “Chinese bistro” concept include fried shrimp toast ($16) served with French bisque sauce and presented in a checkerboard shape rather than retro-corner triangles. It looks great and there’s a balanced balance of seafood sweetness and egg white fluff.
The Beef with Black Bean Sauce ($42) sounds like a braise, but this looks more like a bell pepper steak, grilled in the middle and plated in slices but still loin-shaped. The mid-priced Australian wine list and themed cocktails perfectly match the food offering.
Vegetarians have it easy. Dan dan noodles ($22) spin a classic Sichuan dish that includes sesame paste and pork. Summakwan’s version resembles a dish his 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 tasty, a glamorous rethink of useless late-night snacks.
The sweet and sour pork is remodeled with cauliflower ($26) to create another meatless dish, a bold serving of pineapple, peppers, onions and kale breaded in a bright, not-too-sweet sauce.
Chinese bistros and restaurants love duck, so Moonhouse is likely to do double the duck with its duck ceremony ($44). The ducks are aged in-house before roasting, the confit leg served with lettuce wraps and the breast sliced and served with pancakes and hoisin plums, made during a stone fruit saving project at Firebird. It’s delicious Peking duck.
Chinese meals usually end with fruit and that’s not a bad way to go here. Instead of simply slicing oranges, the peels are scraped off, stuffed with fruit jellies, and then sliced into translucent, quivering slices ($12). You might get lucky on grapefruit and lychee or blood orange and strawberry, both pleasantly puckered.
Carlisle Street does very well for dinner. Highlights include the Tulum Hat Turkish Restaurant, a dinner party, the 20-seat Pretty Little and the lively izakaya Bounty of the Sun; there are also loads of good cafes, including the shabby-chic original Wall Two 80 and the charming Syrian Levanter. Moonhouse is a stellar addition, a smart project to please the locals and also act as a foodie destination in the south.
Vibration: A love letter to an Australian Chinese in a bistro
Appetizer: Hainanese Chicken Club Sandwich
Drinks: Funky, gastronomic Australian wine list and fun, themed cocktails
Cost: $120 for 2, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine; Besha Rodell is on leave