There are two types of hype in the food world, and unfortunately it’s impossible to distinguish between the two until you have actually frequented the subject of the hype. We’ve all been there: arriving at the latest hip establishment, doing your time in the specified waiting zone, then realising it’s no better than your local takeaway. Chin Chin must be one of the most talked-about, blogged-about, places to see and be seen in Melbourne this side of Mamasita, Huxtaburger and St Ali. Upon planning my trip to Melbourne, I almost boycotted it by virtue of this very fact. But that’s the thing about hype: it always gets you in the end. No matter how long the queue, no matter how pretentious the maitre-d, no matter how much you want to be ahead of the trend and somewhere not-yet-cool, somehow you end up putting your name down and traipsing down the stairs to Go Go Bar for a drink and a long wait.
Downstairs there’s a genuinely eclectic mix of hip young things, Sydneysiders attempting to adopt a Melbourne vibe, tourists and old couples on date night. The DJ in the corner is probably a little too enthusiastic for 7.14 pm, though. We’re not in the Cross… or are we? Go go bar has a sexy, moody ambiance that feels a little like a brothel, especially as you go downstairs and enter the brick-walled room with dangling globes strung across the bar and seating areas. The booth seating is leather with small circular tables and stools. It’s definitely not an unpleasant place to wait though, and it has a way of making you feel like you’re making the most of your Saturday evening.
We order a bottle of dry Riesling, which is clean, crisp and pleasant as promised by our attentive waitress. As a snack, we get the Grilled Roti with Spiced Beef and Cucumber Relish ($12). She even sets up the table next to us with plates and cutlery to make our lives easier (there obviously there isn’t enough room for our riesling, plates, and legs at a single table… ah, the curses of being Dutch).
We break the roti into chunks and dig in. Yep, this beef is definitely spiced. And so is the cucumber relish – the chunks of chopped cucumber have been drowned in a sweet syrup and are being kept company in there by fresh slices of chilli. Dipping the roti into the relish results in a sweet, spicy snack that is basically the roti equivalent of a spring roll. This dish is deserving of a place on the menu at Mamak, Sydney’s roti Mecca.
Eventually, we are ushered upstairs to a small corner space at the marble bar. Up here, the world looks different. Early Summer evening light is still peeking through the windows, and groups of diners gesticulate enthusiastically at menus and mountains of dishes in the centre of communal tables whilst staff bustle past. The only hint of what lurks downstairs is the Chin Chin rabbit motif lit up in pink across one wall. At the bar we have the opportunity to watch chefs plating up dish upon dish of sashimi, steamed pancakes with pulled pork, and build-your-own spring roll sets. They eavesdrop on our conversation and pick up on our clear indecision as we peruse the menu, offering advice and encyclopaedic knowledge of the ingredients.
Being that we are now quite hungry but also keen to consume a vegetable or two, we settle for a balance of light and heavier dishes: the dry red curry with snake beans and soft shell crab ($31), the DIY fresh spring rolls ($14), and the crispy barramundi and green apple salad with caramelised pork belly ($26) – which we are told is not to be missed. There is nothing worse than ambivalent waitstaff (“well, i guess it really depends what you like… if you like prawns you might like the prawn dish… but if you don’t, you might not like it?”) Our waitress is attentive and interesting as well as opinionated, describing the dishes in detail and pointing to them in the flesh.
When our food arrives, we all tuck into the spring rolls first, slathering the rolls with satay sauce then piling them high with carrot, bean sprouts, mint, chilli, crispy tofu, and cabbage. There is an abundance of the fillings and the satay sauce is sweet, smooth and creamy. My only criticism is that the dish lacks that next level of flavour that is typical of this type of cuisine. The flavour feels too one-dimensional, and the dish is heavily reliant on the satay sauce to lift it. It needs another sauce, or further seasoning on the crispy tofu. But it’s a large serve and quite good value for money.
Next, the visually stunning barramundi salad. It is an absolute delight. The fish has been deep fried and has a deliciously salty outer crust, which contrasts perfectly with the soft, sweet chunks of pork that are layered throughout the salad. This sweetness is echoed in the batons of green apple and a fresh, light dressing. Sprigs of mint and coriander provide another layer of flavour alongside chunks of peanutty goodness. Barramundi can be prone to blandness as a fish. This dish is couldn’t be further from bland. We devour it.
Finally the dry red curry, which we eat with white rice. This dish doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s a little too intense in flavour with an overpowering sense of the kaffir lime leaves, and a little too sticky and gluey in texture rather than conveying the beautiful crispiness that crab can possess. The snake beans are a delight, but the large chunks of zucchini are not.
So, does Chin Chin live up to the hype? Yep. Should you bother waiting in the queue? Yep. Do I wish we had one of our very own? Yep. No, actually, we’ve already stolen laneway bars and most of our espresso culture from Melbourne, let’s let them keep one thing at least.
125 Flinders Lane
(03) 8663 2000
Best bits: barramundi salad with green apple and caramelised pork, knowledgeable and approachable staff, efficient waitlist system,
Worst bits: dry red curry with soft shell crab and snake beans, high noise levels downstairs in Go Go bar, extreme wait times on weekends.
Price Point: $$
Good for: asian fusion share-food in a sexy space
A bit like: Ms Gs (Darlinghurst, Sydney), Mamak (Haymarket, Sydney).
What you should know: ask for a table at the bar – it’s a shorter wait, and you’ll be able to watch the chefs in action. And arrive early in the evening (just think, dinner at 5.30 means more time for small bar adventures afterwards!)