282 Carlisle St
|Opening hours||Lunch Sat-Sun; Dinner Wed-Sun|
|Functions||Accepts Bookings, Private Dining, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains voltage $20-$40)|
|payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9088 8022|
We should start with the Hainanese chicken club sandwich ($16 for 2) because that’s where you’ll probably want to start your meal, and this little treasure says so much about Moonhouse, a swanky new Chinese restaurant in Balaclava.
The snack is based on Hainanese chicken rice – chicken poached in ginger with fat-glazed rice – a dish that evokes extraordinary passion in Southeast Asian communities around the world. I have spoken to people who have moved from country to country because the chicken rice was not tasty where they lived.
Moonhouse’s reworking taps into key flavor notes, but it’s also hugely new. Poached brisket is infused with ginger and garlic, shredded and layered in crustless white bread with scallion, cucumber and crispy chicken skin. There’s a mysterious, deep saltiness that Chef Shirley Summakwan later tells me the bread is slathered with chicken fat and Vegemite—what a clever trick. There is also a dipping sauce made from thickened viscous liquid. It’s a chicken rice redux that nods to hotel club sandwiches (the crispy skin that provides the crunch of bacon) and festive cucumber triangles.
Taking liberties with classics is brave, but it can also be exciting, especially in Melbourne, where a food culture of thoughtful, reverent riffs makes culinary sense. The sandwich is also a sign of Moonhouse’s ambition to tap into the nostalgia for old-fashioned Australian Cantonese restaurants and reframe them into a bistro setting. That penchant for misty eyes is nurtured in an enchanting interior in a historic Art Deco building, home for a decade to Ilona Staller and an all-too-beautiful red rooster.
The two-storey restaurant is the sixth in the Commune Group. You may have already been to Tokyo Tina, Firebird, New Quarter or Hanoi Hannah, each serving Asian cuisine. My cringe alarm is triggered when white men open Asian restaurants with women’s names in the monikers (Saigon Sally has since closed), but Moonhouse feels mature and respectful.
Senior staff include Korean-born chef Anthony Choi, dessert connoisseur Enza Soto (Japanese-born of Mexican and Sicilian descent), and Indonesian-born Summakwan, who joined the company five years ago as a sous chef. Restaurant groups have an advantage in this tight staffing environment, not least in the ability to retain those with enticing paths. It also means that while Moonhouse is new, it’s taking off.
Dishes that showcase the “Chinese bistro” concept include fried shrimp toast ($16) served with a Frenchy bisque sauce and presented checkerboard style instead of Canto retro triangles. It looks great and there is a good balance between the sweetness of the shellfish and the fluffiness of the protein.
Beef in Black Bean Sauce ($42) sounds like a stir-fry, but this is more like a pubby pepper steak, grilled medium rare in the piece and plated in slices, but still in the shape of a sirloin steak. The mid-priced, full Aussie wine list and themed cocktails complement the food offerings perfectly.
Vegetarians have it easy. The dan dan noodles ($22) run a classic Sichuan dish with sesame paste and pork. Summakkan’s version recalls a dish her grandfather made with instant noodles and peanut butter. She grinds mushrooms instead of pork and dresses up a jumble of bouncy ramen noodles with Sichuan pepper oil. It’s simple and tasty, a glamorous rethink of trashy, late night snackage.
Sweet and Sour Pork is remade with cauliflower ($26) to make another meat-free dish, a brash tumble of pineapple, bell pepper, onion and battered cauliflower in glossy, not-too-sweet sauce.
Bistros and Chinese restaurants both love duck, so it makes sense that Moonhouse would do double duck duty with its jaw-dropping Duck Ceremony ($44). Ducks are aged in house before roasting, leg confit is served with lettuce wraps, and the brisket is sliced and served with pancakes and plum hoisin, made during a summer stone fruit-saving project at Firebird. It is delicious Peking duck lite.
Chinese meals often end with fruit and that’s not a bad way to go here. Rather than simply slicing oranges, the peels are scraped out, filled with fruit jelly, then cut into wobbly, translucent wedges ($12). You might be lucky with grapefruit and lychee or blood orange and strawberry, both pleasantly puckering.
Carlisle Street does a pretty good job for dining. Standouts include the Tulum in a hat Turkish restaurant, the celebratory dinner, 20-seat Pretty Little, and the merry izakaya Bounty of the Sun; there are also a number of good cafes, including the shabby-chic original Wall Two 80 and the Syrian charmer Levanter. Moonhouse is a great addition, a clever project to please the locals and also for dining on the south side.
Appearance: A love letter to Aussie Chinese in a bistro setting
Appetizer dish: Hainanese Chicken Club Sandwich
Drinks: Hip, food-friendly 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