Mekong on Swanston St: The meaty taste of disappointment

Mekong on Swanston Street, Melbourne

I’m starting to become accustomed to the sense of betrayal that I feel after eating once again at old favourites in Melbourne. Most continue to please (or at least, meet expectations). But Mekong on Swanston Street in , to use more common language, has gone to shit.

Well before I left Australia for Cambodia, Mekong on Swanston St was my reliable lunch joint. I’d worked my way through every offal-packed variation on their basic beef (bo) and chicken (ga). The stock was shining example of pho in Australia: both meaty (which is the key to Australian-style pho) and evenly spiced with star anise and cinnamon. Week to week, there was no variance. At a rough estimate, I would have spent between one and two thousand dollars at Mekong over the years.

It became my yardstick for a damn good bowl of phở; the sort of joint that you would recommend to newcomers to Melbourne to whet their appetite for the more challenging journey into suburban . Their staff had a vindictive shirtiness that was always refreshing. A friend often described one of their staff members as a “malign dwarf” but it came from a warm place in his heart.

But no more.

Phở from Mekong, Swanston St, Melbourne

These days the pho at Mekong is like your average oil rig worker: big, meaty and covered in grease. The subtlety has disappeared; the serving sizes seem more gargantuan. The restaurant is still as packed as ever.

Bill Clinton had two bowls

Also, the mention that “Bill Clinton had two bowls” is a lie. He ate two bowls at Pho 2000 in Saigon, Vietnam and has never set foot in Mekong in Melbourne. Unless he had two bowls sent up to him on one of speaking engagements in Melbourne, Bill Clinton did not eat two bowls of this particular pho.

Location: Mekong Restaurant, 241 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia

Vue De Monde, Melbourne

When Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future Yet Come decides to take me out to dinner, he’d probably take me to Vue De Monde to wallow amongst the Baby Boomer dugongs in suits and pearls. That crystalline vision into how my life would transpire if I spent the next twenty odd years focusing upon crapulence would scare me much more than a pauper’s grave.

It did scare me.

This is no fault of Shannon Bennett’s, the oft lauded chef behind the restaurant frequently name-dropped as the best restaurant in Australia.

The only thing that Bennett has left lacking from Vue de Monde is a sense of pomposity. If you were fresh from doing the rounds of France’s most ostentatious eateries I’m not sure whether this would delight or disappoint. The room at Normanby Chambers in Little Collins St, Melbourne is lit with bare strings of oversized, chromed bulbs, the focus of the entire room being upon the open kitchen with mirror above the staff doing the plating. The architectural message is that you’re there for the food and for the front-of-house theatrics that accompany it.

(The Laguiole silverware is a little pompous but much like a Hard Rock Café, it is available for purchase in the gift shop. The fish fork would be a handy piece of equipment for aerating compost.)

It isn’t the level of service that sets apart Vue de Monde but its distinctiveness. It is not a slavish attentiveness that is confused for service at many a fine dining establishment but the ability of staff to have some agency in their roles. If I was making a bad decision in choosing a wine or dish or attempting to customise something to meet my foolish caprices, I get the feeling that Vue De Monde’s crew would tell me that I’m making a grave mistake in no uncertain terms rather than an obsequious “has Sir considered the…”-type suggestion.

The egalitarian service is the most Australian element of the whole experience but does rest upon retaining and training the best of staff, the people that you can rely upon to chat comfortably about how a thermomixer works or the technique used to turn parmesan into a rough sand. Delicious, delicious sand. There is no menu; you submit yourself to the whims of those service staff. They can be steered in a particular direction but the absolute and final control over your food is out of your hands. They chose:

Amuse bouche: A single cos lettuce leaf containing a smear of jamon paste and a sous-vide quail egg balanced atop a wine glass half filled with silky ham consommé and pea foam.

Plate of salmon from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Salmon attacked from all sides: smoked, sliced, jerked, creamed; some sort of dried fish foam (salted cod, perchance?) and a frankly superfluous layer of gelatinized something. There is caviar and micro-herbage. Cubes of fried sourdough on each end.

Mushrooms: tubes of liquified Swiss Brown (?), slightly gummy and al dente on the outside but squirting silky shroom juice from within; with pan-fried shimeji (?) and slices of eringi(?); tarragon emulsion. My mushroom identification skills would kill me in an unforgiving forest.

Gel canneloni, serrano ham and parmesan sand from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Gel cannelloni with powdered parmesan cheese and olives; two perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes topped with their own dried skin; some respectable Serrano ham. Where the hell do you get a tomato this impeccable and ripe in winter? I love technique; the mix of industrialisation of food (gel) with small-producer artisanship (ham). It also seems to look like an in-joke about hot dogs, to which I am obviously not averse.

Foie gras, frozen in liquid nitrogen then powdered in a thermomixer, served cold with a dash of “Thai” curry sauce (poured at the table) and three flawless nasturtium leaves. I wish that I could get dispensation for punching people every time that they call a curry “Thai” because it contains coconut milk. But the foie gras, melting on the tongue, is awe-inspiring and smooth like chocolate.

Cold shot of verjus with hibiscus tea, served in a martini glass.

Toro and tuna ceviche from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

A dainty square of toro on a perfect corn puree; tuna ceviche topped with glass noodles soaked in a lightish soy, shredded fennel(?) and something else green. All surrounded by tuna bone stock and butter. A microdot of sesame salt on the side. By this point my palate is pretty much shot from all the permutations of fat.

Hare: two slices of hare loin on pureed, roasted garlic; a gamy hare jelly; yeast foam; a sourdough lattice. More microherbs.

We skipped out on dessert. I would possibly have burst an internal part. My stomach is still not well trained back into ingesting huge quantities of high fat, Western food. I walked out feeling like somebody had inflated a balloon full of rich creamery butter within me. I’m still recovering.

Probably the only complaint that I could muster was the umami-ness of nigh on everything; all playing on the centre and back of the palate rather than forcing anything to the edges of sour, astringent or bitter. I could have probably specified against this in advance. I’m sure that if you’re a much bigger aficionado of French cuisine, you’d pointy out that I’m missing much of the subtlety but the effect of having so much umami does feel like the chefs aren’t painting from the full palette available to them.

Price: we ate and drank at roughly the speed of $1 per minute per person, for three hours. You do the math.

Location: Vue de Monde, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, Australia
Phone: +61 3 9691 3888.

Taieri George

Taieri George

Spiced beers generally fit alongside those other joke beers like chili beer or a perfectly-skunked Corona. In the official judging guidelines, they’re relegated to the category of “Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer” to languish amongst the beers that simply don’t work elsewhere. At best, they get passed off as a Belgian specialty ale, a beer with too many characters to characterise.

Most of the people who brew them are certifiably mad; the type of brewer who thinks that the one missing flavor from their porter is pumpkin. I like the hint of coriander and orange peel in a Hoegaarden but don’t really want a beer that boasts that its primary appeal is that it tastes unlike beer but more like garden.

Thus I approached Taieri George with caution. It comes from the brilliant brewers at Emerson’s as a spiced ale, brewed seasonally and released on March 6, the birthday of brewer Richard Emerson’s father, George. It’s also named after a train. A train in New Zealand.

Emerson’s says: “The beer pours a reddish brown hue and offers a delightful aroma of freshly baked hot cross buns with a hint of chocolate…the luscious malt and spice flavours are balanced with just enough hop dryness”

Taieri George

I say: It is much like liquified hot cross bun, pouring with a foamy, dirty brown head at the suggested 8 degrees C. I imagine this is how the Easter Bunny tastes if you put him through the Pacojet. The added cinnamon and the spiciness of the nutmeg aren’t at all cloying and balance with the malt, and the high alcohol content remains slyly hidden. This is a fantastic beer for Winter. This batch, bottle-conditioned since March, would probably hold up to more aging, developing into something even more complex for next season.

ABV: 6.8%

A$10.99 per pint bottle