282 Carlisle St
|opening hours||Sat-Sun lunch; Dinner Wed-Sun|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Private dining, Bar|
|prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|phone||03 9088 8022|
We should start with the Hainanese chicken club sandwich ($16 for 2) because it’s probably where you’ll want to kick off your meal, and this little treasure says so much about Moonhouse, a swank new Chinese restaurant in Balaclava.
The snack is based on Hainanese chicken rice – ginger-poached chicken with fat-glazed rice – a dish that evokes extraordinary passion in south-east Asian communities around the world. I’ve spoken to people who’ve moved countries because the chicken rice wasn’t nice where they lived.
The Moonhouse reworking ticks off key flavor notes but is also wildly novel. Poached breast is infused with ginger and garlic, shredded and layered in crustless white bread with spring onion, cucumber and crunchy chicken skin. There’s a mysterious, deep saltiness that chef Shirley Summakwan later tells me is because the bread is schmeared with chicken fat and Vegemite – what a clever trick. There’s also a dipping sauce made from thickened poaching liquid. It’s a chicken rice redux that nods to hotel club sandwiches (the crisp skin subbing for bacon crunch) and party-fancy cucumber triangles.
Taking liberties with classics is brave, but can also be exhilarating, especially in Melbourne where a food culture of thoughtful, reverent riffs makes culinary sense. The sandwich is also a signal of Moonhouse’s ambition, which is to tap into the nostalgia for old-school Aussie Cantonese restaurants and reframe them in a bistro setting. That misty-eyed fondness is nurtured in a beguiling interior in a landmark art deco building, for a decadent home to Ilona Staller and, before that, an overly beautiful Red Rooster.
The two-storey restaurant is the sixth in the Commune Group. Maybe you’ve already been to Tokyo Tina, Firebird, New Quarter or either Hanoi Hannah, each of them rendering an Asian cuisine. My cringe alert system fires up when white guys open Asian restaurants with women’s names in the monikers (Saigon Sally has since closed), but Moonhouse feels mature and respectful.
Senior personnel include Korean-born group executive chef Anthony Choi, dessert whiz Enza Soto (born in Japan with Mexican and Sicilian heritage) and Indonesian-born Summakwan, who started with the company five years ago as sous chef. Restaurant groups have an advantage in this tight staffing climate, not least in the ability to retain people with enticing pathways. It also means that even though Moonhouse is new, it’s hit the ground running.
Dishes showcasing the “Chinese bistro” concept include pan-fried prawn toast ($16) served with a Frenchy bisque sauce and presented in checkerboard fashion rather than Canto-retro triangles. It looks great and there’s a poised balance of shellfish sweetness and egg-white fluffiness.
Beef in black bean sauce ($42) sounds like a stir-fry, but this looks more like a pubby pepper steak, grilled medium rare in the piece and plated sliced, but still in its sirloin shape. The mid-priced, all-Aussie wine list and themed cocktails meld perfectly with the food offering.
Vegetarians have it easy. The dan dan noodles ($22) spin a classic Sichuan dish that includes sesame paste and pork. Summakwan’s version recalls her grandpa’s dish her made with instant noodles and peanut butter. She minces mushrooms rather than pork and dresses a tangle of bouncy ramen noodles with Sichuan pepper oil. It’s simple and tasty, a glam rethink of trashy, late-night snackage.
Sweet-and-sour pork is refashioned with cauliflower ($26) to create another meat-free dish, a brash tumble of pineapple, capsicum, onion and battered cauli in glossy, not-too-sweet sauce.
Bistros and Chinese restaurants both love duck, so it’s apt that Moonhouse does double duck duty with its showstopping Duck Ceremony ($44). Ducks are aged in-house before roasting, the confit leg served with lettuce wraps and the breast sliced and served with pancakes and plum hoisin, made during a summer stone-fruit-saving project at Firebird. It’s delicious Peking duck-lite.
Chinese meals often finish with fruit and that’s not a bad way to go here. Instead of simply slicing oranges, the skins are scraped out, filled with fruit jellies, then cut into wobbly, translucent wedges ($12). You might luck onto grapefruit and lychee or blood orange and strawberry, both pleasantly puckering.
Carlisle Street does quite well for dining. Standouts include hatted Turkish restaurant Tulum, dinner party-ish, 20-seat Pretty Little and upbeat izakaya Bounty of the Sun; there’s also a bunch of good cafes, including shabby-chic original Wall Two 80 and Syrian charmer Levanter. Moonhouse is a stellar addition, a smart project set to please locals and act as southside destination dining, too.
vibe: A love letter to Aussie Chinese in a bistro setting
Go-to 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