This is exactly the kind of eatery I have been waiting for; outrageously unrestrained flavours served all day in a snazzy setting. Chin Chin needs no lengthy introduction here because the last time I looked on Urbanspoon, it had 50 blog posts and 140 reviews after being open for a mere five months. Entrepreneur and Pearl restaurant owner Chris Lucas must be one fine master in persuasion for luring two of Australia’s top Mod-Asian chef gurus to head his latest venture in Melbourne’s CBD; Executive Chef Andrew Gimber (ex Jimmy Liks, Nahm) and Head Chef Ben Cooper (ex St Ali, Nobu, Ezard, Nahm, Longrain). So with CVs that impressive, does the food match up to the frenzied media hype? Without a doubt, it is an absolute yes!
The slightest mention of the words Modern Asian used to conjure up images of pretentious surroundings serving over ambitious dishes with mismatched ingredients and flavours; so initial thoughts of dining at CC was somewhat discouraging and the venue would have easily been dismissed if I heard as so much a whisper of bad food being served.
The no bookings policy was quite daunting at first but when we realised we could literally eat there at pretty much anytime from 11am to 2am almost every day, we were on our way. I loved the food so much the first time that I went back twice more in a span of a week. The first visit was on a Friday evening with one of us going earlier at 5.15pm to secure a table; less than a five minute wait was all. When I arrived at 5.30pm, the place was almost full and the last of us arrived at 5.50pm to witness a long queue at the entrance with a two and a hour wait time for the next seating. The place was buzzing with hungry patrons trying to make sense of their conversations over the blarring retro music. The interior was no less impressive; large glass windows, high ceilings and self titled wallpaper all added to the funky atmosphere. They also managed to fit a pretty long bar as well as a high kitchen bench seating overlooking chefs at work; all in an open canteen style dining hall.
The menu emphasis is Thai with touches of Malaysian, Vietnamese and Indian influences and the eating practice is sharing. What CC does darn well is having the guts to shove aside the safe boundaries while other establishments tip toe around it or simply miss it altogether. The offerings on the menu seemed well thought out and all the dishes we ordered were perfectly executed and utterly intense. So if you like extremity, CC will tick all your boxes. The level of sourness and hotness where it is duly necessary will not disappoint even the harshest of skeptics. I must also add that for the very first time where there was complimentary use of a bottle of chilli sauce on our table; we never had the chance nor the need to use it.
It was difficult to choose what to order because most of the dishes looked so appealing and reading the ingredients didn’t help because it just made it all the more difficult. So we ordered our drinks first, a refreshing house granita of Basil, Frozen Coconut and Pineapple. Our waitress returned and was very helpful and was as excited as us when we picked our dishes. However, when we ordered the Duck Liver Salad she immediately warned us that it was very “hot”. One of us boasted that she had never been intimidated by that word so it was swiftly ordered. The meal started with a couple of Entrees; King Fish Sashimi and Corn Fritters. The King Fish was very appetizing and tasted much like a deconstructed cold curry with layers of very vivid flavours; lime juice, lime segments, pounded basil, hairline kaffir lime leaves, coriander sprigs, chillies and a drizzle of coconut cream. It is a dish that uses all traditional Thai ingredients transformed into a very modern presentation.
The Corn Fritters were served up with iceberg lettuce cups, mint and ginger slivers with a tasty sweet chilli jam. The fritters were moist on the inside with a little crunch on the outside although it could have done with more corn and chilli. It was a nice dish but we could have easily gone without when compared to the others.
The next couple of salads were the highlights of our meal, Crispy Barramundi Salad with Caramelized Pork Belly and Duck Liver Salad. Deep fried Barramundi chunks tossed in an extremely sour salad of julienned apple, mint and charred whole chillies; the pork was tender and delectably sweet and it worked so well when eaten together with the salad. The fusion of Thai and Vietnamese on one plate couldnt possibly be any better. The Duck Liver was served medium rare tossed in a bed of an even more sour salad of coriander, mint and roasted rice powder. This dish really challenged our preconceptions of how hot a restaurant would dare serve a dish and its harmless appearance confirmed we were right until the first mouthful. Masked by the rice powder were the hottest chilli grains we had eaten in a restaurant to date. Tongues were torturously numb for a few minutes and there was nothing we could do to make it go away. Despite that, we finished off the dish and almost drank up all the sauce.
Next were soy marinated deep fried crispy quail thighs served with lemon and Sriracha chilli sauce. The meat was plump and succulent and thoroughly seasoned. This was brought out with our mains which was quite odd. It was definitely an Entree dish but it was still delicious nonetheless. Then the Moreton Bay Bug Jungle Curry made its debut and it looked every bit like what a Jungle Curry should look like and more. The curry was light and brothy but in no way bland with rare sights of pea eggplants and whole Thai birdseye chillies, perfect with steamed rice.
The barbecued Barramundi was notably wild and not farmed, dressed in red coconut curry, basil and grilled in banana leave. We found this dish a bit too sweet but apart from that it was perfectly cooked. I would imagine people who love this sweet dish would be like us loving our hot chillies and acidity. It did go well scooped up with the in-house Roti. The next few dishes were ordered on our second and third visit; first up was Spanner Crab and Chicken Salad. This was a very light and refreshing dish that was chilled; tossed strips of chicken, spanner crab, herbs, cherry tomatoes, topped with salmon roe. The hint of coconut milk and chilli did not go unnoticed and worked well with the copious amounts of lime. Another salad was ordered; Soft Shell Crabs with Papaya Salad with some wickedly lethal Nahm Jim dipping sauce. To eat the trio in one mouthful at a time was the only way to enjoy the explosive flavours and textures.
The Son-In-Law eggs were very enjoyable and was the only sweetish dish we ordered apart from the grilled Barramundi and Sticky Pork. It was half boiled eggs flash fried with runny yolks drowned in a sweet chilli sauce that had a hint of tamarind topped with basil leaves. The crispy school prawns were served with crudites (small raw vegetables) and a very pungent side sauce that tasted a whole lot like Sambal Belachan; an addictive dipping sauce that Malaysians have a high regard for. The taste was spot on and would have certainly made my dad proud.
We also ordered the Hot and Sour Skate Curry. They must have run out of Skate because it looked and tasted a whole lot like Snapper. It had a hint of a tomato base with crunchy vegetables, charred chillies topped with a mount of basil . The flavours combined were something quite new to us and the quick nods of approval around the table did not surprise. We didnt need much rice with this because we just slurped it like soup.
The last main dish was the much talked about Caramelized Sticky Pork and it did deliver on all levels. The pork was melt in your mouth tender, laced with an intoxicating tangy chilli syrup topped with a salad of raw eggplant, charred chillies, mint, banana blossom and coriander.
After a good run of excellent dishes, we held our hopes high for CC’s small dessert choices. Three desserts were ordered; Layered Jellies with Coconut and Poached Pineapples, Palm Sugar Ice Cream with Lime Syrup topped with crushed Honeycomb and Three Coloured Pudding. Apart from the Palm Sugar Ice Cream, there were no wow factors with the other two.
A special’s board would be enticing; it would be interesting to taste CC’s version of Mango or Durian with Sticky Rice if they ever decide to do it.
We thought all the meals were outstanding and CC deserves a pat on its back for having the balls to go all out to give our tastebuds a fine lashing. It must be a frightful thought for Asian chefs to digest the fact that one does not have to be born Asian to produce such bold flavours and variations in Asian cuisine. Anton Ego’s quote immediately came to mind – It is not easy to be a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere. My only concern is will CC be able to maintain its courageous stance and not let their limits be defined by instinctive critics. Well, we can only wait to see so until my next favourite restaurant, CC wins all the glory for now.