Sunday, September 11, 2011

Been been to Chin Chin?


Address: 125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Victoria, 3000

Phone: (03) 8663 2000

Open: Monday to Sunday, 11am until late

"Have you been to Chin Chin yet?"

If I could track which sentences I hear the most in a month, the one above would surely be in the top ten. It's not that I didn't want to go, it's just that I couldn't face making a trip into the city only for my dreams to be thwarted by the trendy Melbourne restaurant no-­booking policy.

The circumstances of my visit could not have been better. It was Friday at the office, and after a morning of brainstorming ideas for clients, lunch was just around the corner. My boss, who confesses that his mood and the volume of his stomach rumbles have an inverse relationship, suddenly suggested we try Chin Chin. This meant two things: lunch was going to be an hour early and I was finally going to Chin Chin! 

We made a beeline from Queen Street to Flinders Lane in record time. Upon our arrival, we were escorted to the very last table available, which happened to be for four people. We could hardly believe our luck. 

Chin Chin is the latest creation of restaurateur Chris Lucas, who also has current ties to Pearl and former ties to The Botanical. The absurd level of hype around Chin Chin has been attributed to social media, but is certainly maintained by the food and impeccable service. The crowd here is fitting, with bustling Bangkok the main inspiration for the restaurant. That being said, the menu offers much tastier fare than your average market stall, and there was an absence of misspelt English descriptions, such as 'Crap Soup,' a personal favourite encountered one holiday.

One can infer from the stylish space that the taste buds are in for a treat. Walls covered in propaganda style posters support high ceilings. Black beams separate the bar from the tables and are punctuated with teal green fans, which match the bar stools. 

The bar frames an impressive selection of sprits and liquors, and is tiled black and white with the street number, '125.' The shelves behind the bar are a standout feature, housing brown glass bottles with custom labels, reminiscent of large medicine jars. The cylindrical lights suspended above the bar are apparently made from the liners of wool containers and the warm lighting cohesively draws together what would otherwise be a cold, warehouse space. 

Being 2011, there is also a neon pink light in the shape of a rabbit (if you are savvy with Chinese, you will know it is the year of the rabbit). You’ll find it behind the larger table at the far end of the bar. If you’re sitting where I was, you can also play games with your camera and give the person sitting opposite you ‘bunny ears.’ 

Chin Chin's soundtrack admirably includes Radiohead and The Whitest Boy Alive. These tuneful bands play a combination of upbeat and chill out tracks, and strike the perfect balance with the inevitable noise of a full house in a sound-enhancing space.  

The restaurant reminded me of an incredibly slick cafeteria, especially after we were seated at the end of a row of 12 or so tables lined up to the inch. These tables are where the whole of Melbourne wants to sit. Although Chin Chin has a large capacity, there were queues out the door at 12.30pm on a Friday, with a similar scene anytime after 5.30pm during the week. Even though it is constantly packed, the area has been designed so one doesn’t feel cramped. 

If you want to get above the crowds, sit at the raised bar overlooking the kitchen. Watch talented chefs Andrew Gimber (formerly of Jimmy Liks fame) and Ben Cooper (Nobu and Ezard) work alongside a young team to piece together mouth-watering dishes.

The prominent Thai flavours maintain a faultless equilibrium between salty, spicy, sweet and sour and use traditional bases such as nahm prik (a type of chilli paste). We ordered Beer Lao to accompany our food. Being a Friday, it was time for a fun fact. According to my boss, the government in Laos owns the beer and has a monopoly in the market, meaning Beer Lao is the only brew you can buy in the country. Not entirely a bad thing since the beer is light, crisp and palatable. It complemented the seven dishes we ordered to share.

The food was brought to the table quickly despite the crowds. As we polished off a plate or two, another would emerge just in time to replace the last. In order of appearance, we demolished:

Crispy sardines with nahm prik pla yang and steamed vegetables 

A simple dish featuring crunchy, whole sardines for those who enjoy a burst of salty goodness. The smoked eggplant, mushroom and white fish relish rivalled the sardines and was a delicious combination that left us wanting the recipe. The boiled egg and soft, steamed vegetables (including bok choi, baby corn and carrots) that accompanied the dish were bland in comparison. However, anything more complex may have overwhelmed the main elements.

Salt and pepper crusted soft shell crab with green papaya salad and nahm jim

Always a sucker for soft shell crab, this plate did not disappoint. The fried batter was crisp without being too oily and the crab meat was sweet. While delicious and cooked to perfection, the batter slightly overpowered the crab. The green papaya salad was just like they make it in Thailand: spicy enough to make tourists’ eyes water! 

Wok fried salt and pepper squid with nuoc chum and Vietnamese mint

With the flawless balance of batter, seasoning, and tender flesh, the squid is a must try. The mint cut through the spicy nuoc chum dipping sauce, which had a hint of fishiness to its flavour. The batter-to-squid ratio was spot on, with the former featuring a delicate crunch.

Crispy, soy marinated quail with Sichuan salt, lemon and siracha sauce

The quail was devilishly delicious. The sweet, soft meat left us wishing that quails weren't such small birds. Regardless of size, it was plump and seasoned with expertise. The quail was so full of flavour it didn't need its accompaniments of lemon wedges, coriander and hot Thai sauce. As they say, it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

Green curry of rockling, eggplant, snake beans and Thai basil

This was one of the milder dishes, but it was by no means inferior to the others. The colour of the broth was amazing. Strong coconut undertones complemented perfectly poached rockling and sweet Thai eggplant. When combined with crunchy baby corn, punchy lemongrass and kaffir lime, it was arguably the perfect curry.

Caramelised sticky pork with sour herb salad and chilli vinegar

The sticky pork is one of the most talked about dished at Chin Chin and I nearly succumbed to it after over a year of not eating pork. I think I will have to begin again after seeing this dish - the phase is over; it just isn't worth it any more! It was presented beautifully with the fresh salad perched on top of the aromatic pork. This dish, I was told by my dining companions, gets the sweet, salty and sour combination just right.
Crispy skinned mandarin duck cooked in master stock and braised with yellow bean

Is it too hard to pick a favourite dish? Maybe. But if my life were on the line, this would be it. Put it this way, The Age's Larissa Dubecki said of the dish, "Everyone orders the mandarin duck ($33) and ought to go away happy." While one could leave it there, the duck is to die for. It comes served sparkling in a mandarin glaze with plump mandarin segments bordering the succulent meat. Although it is sticky and sweet, the skin, as promised, is crispy. The fruity hit comes through in the sauce, which, if you were at home, would lick off the plate in a frenzied moment of madness. 

Unfortunately, there was no room left for dessert. I would love to go back with $49 and order all four main dishes off the dessert menu. The palm sugar ice cream sundae with salted honeycomb and lime syrup would be my first choice though. 

It is fair to say that Chin Chin lives up to the hype hype. What separates this hot spot from the other most talked about restaurants is that you don't leave thinking, 'been there, done that, time to move on to the next place.' Instead, you dream of that duck, that curry. You want to go back. You want to go back so much that you will even endure a 30-minute wait at the bar to be seated. Chin Chin is simply that good. 

With a modern twist on Thai in the middle of the city, the freshest ingredients one can source, and an emphasis on sharing at an affordable price, Chris Lucas has struck gold. And if you’re patient –  or lucky – you can taste it too.

Chin Chin on Urbanspoon

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