After a much needed respite, I was back on the streets of Melbourne, which were now teeming with Saturday patrons. The restaurant was in walking distance so made my way down the very crowded Elizabeth St and after several false starts due to Google Maps insisting I could apparently break through walls, I arrived at my destination, Serai Kitchen.
The restaurant had just received several Best New Restaurant honors, and I was very intrigued by the concept of Filipino style food but with Australian ingredients.
I took my seat along a bar which faced the open kitchen – my favorite when dining alone. There a very tight knit group were in the thick of dinner service. The young chef had on something I had never seen before in a restaurant – a Go Pro camera attached to a Yankees ball cap. One of the servers explained he was wearing it to record their Sat dinner service and see where it could be improved.
I had initially thought of having a couple of dishes but after that they explained the Feed Me Chefs option, it was a no-brainer to do that. Plus it was my first real vacation in over 3 years, and I deserved it, dammit! There was, however, my usual garlic challenge to overcome. After speaking with the chef, they said they could make some adjustments except for a couple of the sauces. I agreed that would be fine and off I went!
The amuse was ‘Selat lumpia’, organic pineapple, spiced coconut, smoked caviar. While the flavors were delicious, they were overpowered by the massive blast of chilis that now exploded in my mouth. The current server (they rotated between courses) saw me struggling and asked what was wrong. I politely asked to turn down the heat a bit. She agreed it was a bit too spicy.
The first course had a much simpler (but delicious) profile – ‘Kinilaw’ cured kingfish crudo with limes. Very fresh and lightly seasoned to keep with the raw preparation.
Next was one of the highlights of the meal – ‘Kare kare’, hash brown, peanut sauce, herbs, salted duck egg. The chef served me this one and explained that kare kare is traditionally a pork stew but he decided to use those flavors into a hash brown dish. The perfectly crisp hash browns were augmented by the really fantastic peanut sauce. Delicious.
While I waited for the next course, I noticed how quiet the kitchen was. The expediter calmly called out the latest ticket and the small teams went to work. Even the chef was noticeably silent for the most part. I could tell it was an extremely efficient kitchen.
The third course was in keeping with the concept of local product with Filipino techniques – Port Lincoln calamari, smoked ‘longanissa nduja’ dressing. Longanissa is a typical Filipino sausage that in this case had been kept out of its casing and added some Calabrian chilis to make it into a ragu. The heat was definitely back with this one but wasn’t overwhelming like the amuse. The wood fired squid was tender and smoky. Another winner.
The fourth course was by far my favorite – Savoy cabbage “tocino”. Tocino is usually a roasted pork dish with a sticky BBQ sauce but in this case substituting fire roasted cabbage. As you can see, it sure as hell looks like a BBQ pork dish – and even tasted a lot like it. Mind blown.
I think wisely knowing it would be hard to top that, the next dish was a lot simpler – Gippsland lamb ribs, sticky ‘adobo’ sauce. At last some actual Australian lamb! The rib was nice and smoky from wood fire, and the sauce added some nice sweet and sour notes.
The sixth and final course is why I was there – ‘Lechon’ western plains free-range pork belly, smoky pineapple ‘palapa’. Filipino lechón is known for being some of the best pork around with its signature ultra crispy skin. This version lived up to that and then some. The skin was both very crispy and bursting with flavor from the lacquered shell. The pork belly had real texture and depth so it, and the drippings added some sweet notes that paired really well with the pineapple relish, which thankfully wasn’t as chili forward as the amuse. It was served with some steamed jasmine rice which I initially ignored but after a quick taste understood why it was there. Made into more a sticky rice consistency, it helped sop up the accumulated juices from the pork. Simply outstanding.
Dessert wasn’t included which was actually fine because I was beyond full anyway. I watched as they turned over the kitchen and put away everything. The chef scrubbed down the counters himself and then offered a large bag of Hungry Jack burgers and fries to the delighted staff. I paid my bill (an absurd value of $70 for that feast plus a glass of Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and “bottomless” bottles of sparkling water, and I said my final goodbyes. Truly a special meal.
The night wasn’t quite over though as I hopped into an Uber across the river to the Crown Casino to meet up with an old friend. When I arrived, I wasn’t quite prepared for the extremely different environment I was now in as I made my way through the maddening crowd and the constant noises of the casino floor. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally got to the Atrium lounge where the Mad Dog himself, Mark Tabberner spotted me from behind the decks and gave me one of his bone crushing bear hugs that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.
He had a job to do so as he went back to it, I scanned the revelers in various states of intoxication. It’s funny how regardless of where one goes in the world, casinos attract a certain… clientele, especially during the witching hours.
I bopped along to Mark’s very energetic set of classics and house remixes of pop tunes and enjoyed the people watching – which ranged from an alarmingly late stage pregnant woman dancing perhaps a bit too strenuously to packs of younger men on the prowl to what seemed like at least 2 wedding party groups drinking the night away. Sorry, dear readers given casinos rules about photos, you’ll just have to picture it in your mind’s eye.
At around 1am, my aching body made it clear it was time to head home. I said my goodbyes and one last bear hug to make my escape from the scene. Uber prices were still in premium modes so I grabbed a cab and soon collapsed into a deep sleep. Tomorrow appeared to be the best weather yet and of course, more great food.