Footscray Market: Opening Hours

My local market doesn’t have a website, so as something of a community service, here is the opening hours of the Footscray Market over the Christmas/New Year’s period.

24 Dec – open 7:00am-6:00pm
25-28 Dec – closed
29-30 Dec – open 7:00am-4:00pm
1 Jan – closed
2 Jan -7:00am-4:00pm

Normal opening hours for Footscray Market are:

Tuesday and Wednesday – 7:00am-4:00pm
Thursday – 7:00am-6:00pm
Friday – 7:00am-8:00pm
Saturday – 7:00am-4:00pm

Xiao Long Bao in the Gastrodesert: Little House, Bundoora

Xiao Long Bao, Little House, Bundoora

I think that it was Australian food writer John Lethlean who labelled the region north of Heidelberg in Melbourne as a gastrodesert. On the surface, it’s gastronomically grim up north; the oleaginous wasteland of charcoal chicken and Smorgy’s. People speak with fondness of shopping mall food courts and premixed bourbon and cola. If Stuff White People Like was written by an Australian white person on unemployment benefits, these are the Likes with which they would Stuff themselves.

Like any desert, the surface appearance is deceptive. There is a whole hidden ecosystem, not as rich as much of , but still prepossessing. Witness the above xiao long bao, the Shanghainese soup-filled dumpling that is currently enrapturing well to do Melbournites via the CBD restaurant Hutong. This was to be had in Bundoora, well north of the Heidelberg hinterlands at Little House Restaurant. I’d always thought that the idea of a hidden menu at suburban Chinese restaurants was a racist conceit. Sure, there is the occasional suburban menu where you need to read between the lines of poor translation but my experience is that restaurants put whatever they’re trying to sell at front and centre. The specials board in Mandarin tend to turn up on the menu elsewhere in English. The secrets involve organ meat.

This is not the case at Little House. Xiao long bao appear nowhere on the menu – I’d received a tip from a previously unknown source that these were some of the best dumplings in the state, a claim that I was only going to verify simply because it sounded too ludicrous to carry any truth. Anonymous tipsters paid big bucks in Hong Kong, so why not north of the gastro-divide?

Granted, it is not as good as Hutong’s version – Little House’s xiao long bao has slightly thicker pastry and is not formed with the same delicate hands – but it is a good third cheaper and it fits with the homely appeal of Little House. They are a dumpling that is well above average. Hutong is opposite Melbourne’s best known Cantonese restaurant, Flower Drum. Little House is next to a suburban tattooist run by a man named “Nugget“.

Little House, Bundoora, Melbourne

The rest of the menu is modest Shanghainese with a heavy dose of Szechuan – mapo tofu, lamb, chili aplenty. Malaysian is on the sign but barely referred to on the menu, maybe a remnant of a previous owner.

Location: Little House Restaurant, Dennison Mall, Bundoora, Vic

Hùng Vương, Footscray

You could probably map pho in Footscray as a means to learn Vietnamese legends of prehistory. Hùng Vương was a mythical king; the founder of the first Vietnamese dynasty. He descended from a dragon and taught the Vietnamese people to cultivate rice. Nothing of Hùng Vương’s past can be verified.

The restaurant Hùng Vương’s past is easily verified. It has been serving up phở on Hopkins Street, Footscray, for almost two decades – a period that has seen it gentrify from cheap phở joint to slightly upmarket phở joint. The renovations from a few years ago – dark timber veneer and polished floors – looks like a loving homage to Vietnamese phở franchise juggernaut Phở 24.

Phở from Hung Vuong, Footscray

The pho remains constant: sweet and beefy; soggy flat noodles and a hint of cinnamon. The tendon count is impressive in the phở bo dac biet: two gigantic, glossy chunks of connective tissue. It is also one of the few times that I craved more slices of lung in a dish.

In something of an attempt to be more social, I met up with food blogger Jeroxie, non-food blogger but pho aficionado Cloudcontrol and chilli junky Th0i3 for the trip, a short gustatory interlude before hitting Saigon Supermarket for Vina supplies. I have never seen a man put more chilli (oil, fresh and sauce) into a bowl of pho and retain some vestige of sanity.

Having lived in a nation where I was the only food blogger, it still seems like a novelty that there are hundreds of people doing the same nearby. I probably should get out more.

Location: 128 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: (03) 9689 6002

Cycling the Red Hill Rail Trail

Just to expand my repertoire from writing about food, an article that I wrote back in early June is up at Wall Street Journal on my bike ride across the Mornington Peninsula and the Red Hill Rail Trail, south east of . I, of course, ate and drank my fill as I went – beers from Red Hill Brewery, various pinots and shiraz, wild mushrooms from Merrick’s General Store, local bread and cheese. No pics from me, just words.

As a bit of bonus content for Last Appetite readers, here’s the Google Map of the journey that was originally supplied to the illustrator, Poul Lange (who also blogs).

Bánh Xèo from Đình Sơn

Yes, I’m going a bit nuts on the Vina diacritics.

Banh Xeo, Melbourne

The equation that can’t be avoided when you travel for food is the one where you compare Third World prices to First World and try to account for the differences, offseting rent, ingredient quality and labour. It is a fun but fruitless diversion. The above bánh xèo from Quan Đình Sơn, next to Saigon Supermarket in Footscray is $10 for a crepe the size of your forearm. A full cubit of bánh xèo.

$10 would buy 16 plates of bánh xèo from my local market in Cambodia but it wouldn’t buy one this good. Once again, my weekend phở trip gets derailed.

Half eaten Bánh Xèo, Melbourne

Đình Sơn’s is packed with shelled prawns and slices of fatty pork. The crepe skirts the border of crispy and chewy. It’s rich and coconut-y. The side plate of cos and butter lettuce, used for rolling up chunks of the crepe and dipping in the sweet dipping sauce nước chấm, is generous and refilled as I plough through it. There isn’t much else in the way of distraction in the restaurant: the obligatory TV is on the blink; there’s barely enough mirrored tiles to form an entrancing hall of mirrors; their shrine is perfunctory. Shoppers pass on the way into Saigon Supermarket and pick up meals to go from the bain marie.

The menu boasts about a hundred Chinese and Vietnamese dishes but the key here is to order from the corkboard just below the plastic menu board which contains a few kho dishes, dry fried noodles and the bánh xèo, written up in permanent marker.

Dinh Son restaurant at Saigon Supermarket, Footscray

Location: Shop 1, 63 Nicholson Street (cnr Byron St), Footscray VIC 3011

Phở Chu The, Footscray

Pho Chu The, Footscray

I had grand plans to work my way through the phở of the Melbourne suburb of , bucket-sized bowls of beef soup every weekend, but never quite got there. There are no less than 20 phở establishments within easy walking distance but every time that I kick things off, I get the nagging feeling that it is just not worth the effort. Phở in Melbourne is above average. Terrible phở is the exception (but not impossible to find). Brilliant phở only exists in people’s homes.

I’d love to be proven wrong.

You’ll never find a rich, herbal phở on the streets of Melbourne. The herbage that accompanies usually will only stretch to basil with the occasional appearance of mint. Sawtooth coriander, ngo om (rice paddy herb), or any other miscellaneous herb that could differentiate an outstanding bowl of phở, while widely available across Melbourne, never make it into a phở restaurant. The broths are beefy but the spice is toned down. The meat in each bowl is great – a big step above the Saigon street corner – but it can’t carry the dish.

Chu The has two outlets: one in Richmond, the other in the dead centre of Footscray, opposite the market. The Footscray joint is packed, all the time. Their phở bo dac biet (beef special), above, is sweet and umami. A few glassy fingers of tendon are glassy and cooked to rubbery perfection but it is otherwise much of the same.

The damage: small bowl of phở bo dac biet: A$7.50

Location: 92 Hopkins St, Footscray

Gordon Ramsay’s Melbourne Restaurant

Unless you’ve been bound up in real news in Australia (e.g. remember Iraq? there’s still a war there), you’ve probably heard the words Gordon Ramsay Lesbian Tracy Grimshaw combined in some unholy fashion with great density. Chef Gordon Ramsay has been in town, stirring up the sort of misogyny that could only be surpassed by a visiting rugby team.

The media is loving it and milking it for a full week of coverage. The Prime Minister has weighed in saying Ramsay’s comments’ “as reflecting a new form of low life” which left me wondering what were the older forms of low life that are of concern to an Australian Prime Minister? Libertines? Footpads? Mountebanks?

Generally when you meet chefs or see them interviewed, their obsession with the minutiae of ingredients and the process of transforming those ingredients into food is evident and inescapable. Any attempt to interview them about nigh on any other topic eventually gets steered back to eating. What is most dismaying about Ramsay’s flight through town is his lack of focus on food and the media’s lack of care.

He’s planning to open an outlet of his Maze restaurant in Melbourne in the Crown Casino complex, and it hardly rated a mention by himself or anyone else. Odds on bets are that it will be doing haute tapas as it does in Cape Town and New York which will lead to an inevitable showdown with Movida. Anchovies at high noon. It is opening in the middle of an economic downturn. These are compelling food stories and they’re not being told. Ramsay seems to be too busy telling dick jokes to talk about food.

This is the outcome of food and television. Food plays a backdrop to human drama rather than a central focus because food alone makes for bad television. To be sure, television can mirror the soft-focus porniness of food magazines or blogs – the panning shots of a steaming meal, wide vistas of a cornucopia of ingredients – but to draw and keep an audience it needs narrative drive.

The narrative of food alone is either recipes or the path from living animal or vegetable to the plate. You could tell these stories almost without human intervention. By themselves, neither of these narratives are engaging because for the former, we’ve had almost 70 years of the “stand and cook” model of recipe TV to be oversaturated and for the latter, most of the public still don’t want to know from whence their food came. If you eat food with a head on it, you’re amongst the minority.

This is how we end up in a situation where we have food television without food. Human drama is the driving force behind food television. It seems that (in Australia, at least), we want chefs who say “fuck” to camera (Ramsay) or game shows (Masterchef). Nobody wants to see the prep chef peeling potatoes in the basement. The prep chef is only intriguing when she knifes someone.

Most telling of this whole foofaraw is a comment by Jason Atherton, one of Ramsay’s chefs, who is also in Melbourne at the moment presumably to begin staffing Maze. In Hospitality Magazine, he mentions:

“Atherton said Gordon Ramsay will spend as much time at the Melbourne restaurant “as the concept needs him”.”

It’s similar to McDonald’s: the concept needs the clown Ronald to make the occasional appearance. (At least, it used to). Gordon Ramsay’s primary qualification is no longer chef, it’s television presenter; the provider of drama against a food backdrop. He still needs the pretence that he cares about food lest the whole edifice and concept behind his restaurants crumble. The concept needs celebrity to survive and give it sustenance. It needs celebrity to somehow differentiate itself and draw in the punters who would never otherwise throw down a hundred dollars for a meal.

It no longer needs food.