Cheeky Monkey – Richmond – Sunday 2 July 2017 – Breakfast

Peking pork pancake – spring onion + ginger pancake, crispy hock, cucumber, herbs, fried egg


It must fill the owners and staff with a sense of pride to see a cafe develop to the point it can move down the block into a much larger, and nicer space, due to its popularity. From humble beginnings, one Swan Street cafe has stood the test of time.

I have not been to Cheeky Monkey since New Year’s Day in 2010. The talk that day was about a huge New Year’s Eve and about one particular bucket that was used for more difficult duties than it was built for, by a guest at my place. Given the hangover from the night before, it was all about bacon and eggs to soothe us, but I do remember it being a good experience.

There wasn’t however anything notable to make a revisit necessary. There were many locals in Richmond equal to Cheeky Monkey, and they were closer to home in the northeast of the suburb. Somewhere along the way the quality increased to an extent necessary to grab big crowds. Today we are eating one hundred metres further up the road in a modern designed and furnished room, adjoined to a florist, making the scene even more attractive.

Peking pork pancake

As I thought might be the case, the menu is enticing, and the coffee makes an instantly good impression as we choose. The Peking pork pancake stands out and I’m glad I followed through and ordered it. The pancake itself is well made and holds the crispy pork hock, along with its classic Asian counterparts in spring onion, cucumber, and an array of herbs, topped by a fried egg. It feels like a brunch classic, although I don’t know how long it has been on the menu.

Corn fritters and crispy bacon, tomato + avocado salsa, coriander yoghurt

Catherine goes for the corn fritters, served generously, accompanied by bacon, and plenty of tomato and avocado, sitting in a coriander yoghurt. It’s a good dish, perhaps a bit large, but that isn’t a criticism. In fact, it is probably a sign of why Cheeky Monkey is bustling most days of the week.

While we haven’t yet been back, there is no doubt it will not be seven years again between visits! The coffee is particularly good, so I’ve had a few here since, and have even used the florist multiple times. It seems the combination of these businesses appeals in more ways than purely providing a good looking (and free) fitout for the cafe.

Cheeky Monkey Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Union House – Richmond – Wednesday 16 August 2017 – Dinner and Lunch at the Bar

Veal Schnitzel

New places often spring up without an obvious explanation. I am often fascinated by the amount of due diligence owners conduct before opening a new cafe, restaurant, bar or other casual eatery. There are some inexplicable openings. Naturally they lead to closing in quick time.

For example there is a burger joint that opened on Swan Street that took longer to renovate, than the time it was actually trading for. Whether the reviews were accurate or not, it was empty every time I walked by. They opened across the road from a flashy, large branch of Grill’d, that was popular and cheap. To open across the road you need to be confident your product is better, and resilient enough to see it through.

Further down Swan Street, in the old Union Dining, a new bar has sprung up. I see eye to eye with whoever opened the now named, Union House. Only months before, Catherine mentioned how the food at most pubs in Richmond is too similar on the menu, and not differentiated enough in terms of quality. It seems to me that Union House identified this gap and acted on it.

Add a clean lined, spacious renovation, both upstairs, downstairs, and in the terrace, and you have the ingredients for a lengthy member of Richmond’s dining scene. There are the obligatory selection of beers on tap, and a balanced focus on eating and/or drinking.

Chicken and leek pot pie

Union House differentiates itself on food though. While I’ve eaten from the bar menu twice downstairs, the broader offering (as well as the bar menu) is available both upstairs and downstairs. It is not a “gastropub”. It is more a few focussed pub classics at a price reasonable enough to eat here multiple times over the space of a month or less.

I’ve tried the veal schnitzel and the “pub steak” and they are both simple meals that are well executed. Catherine has tried the chicken and leek pot pie, which comes out looking a bit bereft of greenery, but is again tasty and well made. In fact, don’t expect any greens or leaves with the pub steak either (not that I took any issue as it came with a good mash, and nice pepper sauce). A little bit more resting could have aided presentation, but it didn’t impact the taste.

Pub steak

At lunch, my work colleagues enjoyed the rockling burger, though Natalie thought the colour palate used during the renovation was unattractive. Lastly, Julie was a touch concerned with the chicken in her burger, still enjoying it as a whole, with the jury out on whether it was actually very slightly under-cooked. Horses for courses I think in this case, but something to be weary of nonetheless.

With counter service downstairs, it is certainly more your typical bar. On the couple of occasions I’ve eaten here I have found the staff to be fine, one of the managers taking time to offer Catherine and I a quick tour upstairs, such was the enthusiasm in the opening week.

While a bit further down Swan Street, Union House is a great option for more discerning diners off to the MCG or AAMI Stadium, though it will naturally stay quieter than places like the Corner Hotel, The London, Richmond Club and the Precinct on game days. The real test will be if locals come in regularly, and I think they will. Both the food and the price point are compelling.

Union House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Demitri’s Feast – Richmond – Saturday 29 April 2017 – Dinner

Feta, honey and figs
Salmon, fennel and celeriac

Transformations don’t always work. There was a famous one in Sydney very recently where Rockpool turned into Eleven Bridge and closed in the same breath. Having been a customer here at Demitri’s Feast for a number of years, I know why this significant transformation will work.

There is more than a couple of reasons, but the two most significant are custom, and experience. Demitri himself has many terrifically loyal customers and I find it impossible to know whether they were friends through the old cafe, or independently. After 20 years of operating cafes, he decided a change was needed and turned Demitri’s Feast from a daytime cafe, to a late morning to late night mezze bar. Ask anyone in hospitality and deciding to go back to working nights is not a decision taken lightly.

Greek salad

The cafe naturally had to be fully renovated to be true to the new formula. The Richmond premiership posters are gone, along with the classic cafe counter, and bright tones. Now there is a tasteful bar, featuring tanned wood. There is more seating inside, using stools to make best use of the smaller space. Outside has been updated too, but keeps the same feel, though I have chosen to sit inside both times I’ve dined here.

Calamari

Over those couple of times, both alone, and with Catherine too, every dish I’ve tried has been good. There are selections of both smaller and larger share plates. Of the smaller plates, the broadbean keftedes stand out as both delicious and surprising. Demitri himself recommended them and he was right. They are full of flavour, the broadbeans obviously enhanced with a variety of spices. A combination of feta, honey and figs, is generous. Initially it looks like a lot of feta, but we seemed to keep coming back for more. More intricate is the salmon, fennel and celeriac offering, which pays attention to the subtlety of the salmon, enhancing it with a scattering of fennel.

Chicken skewers

On our way to the more substantial offerings, there is a Greek salad that is exactly the way it should be. Tradition dictating its make up, and it is particularly pleasing to see no lettuce being used as a filler. The calamari is a good size, plenty of golden, briefly fried pieces. The chicken skewers are given a good dose of spice, and are cooked beautifully over a flame. They are a highlight from the larger plates. So are the lamb cutlets, which find the right level of cooking, and again are oozing in flavour.

Lamb cutlets

Demitri’s is offering a collection of simply cooked meats, done well, and a bunch of smaller dishes that show a bit more subtlety and technique. This formula works, and this mezze bar is not looking to change it. There is a well constructed, reasonably diverse list of wine and beer, including a lager that Demitri’s brews themselves. There is no particular zone for each of the floorstaff so you see them all a number of times. Coordination is not so important as the dishes arrive in a dispersed fashion and you are never long without a drink.

Greek salad

The only pain point, and I use this literally, is for people who are not tall using the stools. There might need to be a rethink on them as shorter types like Catherine and I were in a bit of discomfort after the first 45 minutes. It is an easy fix by dining outside, but I do like the atmosphere of being near the bar.

Broadbean keftedes

It is normally a risk to change up a good formula, and let go of the amazing margins on coffee. In this case I am sure it will be a success. Demitri’s Feast is offering a great range of mezze and drinks, with a warmth of hospitality. It is a place where you can go regularly without breaking your budget too.

Demitri's Feast Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Union Dining – Richmond – Saturday 28 May 2016 – Dinner

Oven baked snapper fillet, soused red cabbage, harissa spiced chickpeas, yoghurt sauce

Oven baked snapper fillet, soused red cabbage, harissa spiced chickpeas, yoghurt sauce

Positive review after positive review; some describing Union Dining as their favourite, or at least their favourite in a category. It feels like this restaurant has been around for a long time, and continues to be a feature of Richmond dining.

The first time we dined here it was newly open and nice, but just nice. With the number of restaurants we like to try, repeat visits are treasured like an old family heirloom. However, another visit for work at a function upstairs was quite impressive, especially thinking back to slow cooked casserole style lamb, but that was now over three years ago.

Gnocchi, taleggio & white wine, King Valley walnuts, leaves, shoots

Gnocchi, taleggio & white wine, King Valley walnuts, leaves, shoots

I have wanted to come back for a while, but there are just too many restaurants to choose from around Richmond. This was our chance! Knowing this weekend was going to be particularly chilly, and with entertainment gold card in hand, we decided to go local and perhaps give Union Dining another go. Finding that there is a 6.30pm Saturday night booking available only 24 hours in advance, we are on our way with only a day’s notice.

A little further up from the current epicentre of Swan Street, the restaurant is set on a corner, with a good looking fitout that attracts more than a glance as people walk by. There is a warmth here with the medium lighting showing off the wooden furnishings, that are better spaced than a bistro, but by no means detracting from the atmosphere of a busy room.

Braised Three Rivers Saltbush lamb, white bean ragu, roast golden beetroots, salsa verde

Braised Three Rivers Saltbush lamb, white bean ragu, roast golden beetroots, salsa verde

As we assess the menu I realise that the mains are not jumping out at me, but I settle on the lamb. Knowing from past experience that meals can be in healthy proportions we decide to share an entree and see how we go for dessert. That entree is the gnocchi, with a taleggio and white wine sauce, scattered with an assortment of leaves and walnuts for some texture. It is a particularly nice touch that we are served separate plates even though we had elected to share, and the presentation of both is inviting. The dish as a whole is enjoyable, but the sauce is not as rich as you would expect given the inclusion of taleggio as a star ingredient.

Moving on to the braised Three Rivers saltbush lamb, and I was right to move carefully into mains. The portion is very generous, especially with the extra comfort of a white bean ragu. Coming together with roast golden beetroots and salsa verde on top of the sauce, the dish is flavoursome and perfect for the cooler months. By the end I was drinking a lot of sparkling water as the level of salt had not been curbed to balance the saltbush used in the lamb. Some tweaking there and it becomes a great dish. Catherine’s oven baked snapper fillet was certainly not as heavily seasoned, and I was going across the table to snatch more than my fair share of tastes. The bright colours of the soused red cabbage and harissa spiced chickpeas worked for the presentation, and became the flavour focus of the dish along with the gorgeous fish.

Earl Grey pannacotta, rhubarb, pistachios

Earl Grey pannacotta, rhubarb, pistachios

There was no way we were leaving prior to dessert, but equally there was no way we could fit in one each, so we settled on the Earl Grey pannacotta with rhubarb and pistachios. The Earl Grey flavour burst through each taste, and the rhubarb was beautifully poached. It was a good finish to a rich meal.

With attentive and friendly service throughout, and good food at reasonable prices, I can see why so many friends and colleagues have enjoyed Union Dining over the years.

Union Dining Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nhan Ngai – Richmond – 25 May and 1 June 2016 – Lunch

BBQ pork bahn mi

BBQ pork bahn mi

Out of all the incredible snacks in bread available around the globe, one of my favourites is the original fusion of cultures delivered by the “bahn mi”. Somewhere in the last decade they popped up in Australia, with the occasional sighting here and there, and all of a sudden they are readily available across the board.

Across the board, with the exception of Richmond! My cravings for bahn mi at lunch since leaving the city three years ago became extreme. Now that extreme craving has been satisfied on a strip in Swan Street that beggars belief.

Prawn rice paper roll

Prawn rice paper roll

Just down from Messina, Rustica, and not far from Belle’s (all taking up residence in the last year) is Nhan Ngai. NN is housed in the old Torch cafe which had a slowly eroded reputation before changing names and eventually ceasing to exist. Now, the main interior is a reasonably well formatted dine in or takeaway casual Vietnamese street food eatery. Although a little cramped and without heating, it is a good effort to fit in seating for around 20 people, and the refurb fits the script.

More importantly, the bahn mi is excellent, and at $8 is a steal. That classic combination of BBQ pork, pickled carrot, spring onion, coriander, and mayo in a crispy bun is executed with skill, and the BBQ pork is flavoursome, well seasoned, and tender. I’ve had two and both have been consistent.

Went back yesterday (4 June) to try the NN Chicken bahn mi - it was very good too!

Went back yesterday (4 June) to try the NN Chicken bahn mi – it was very good too!

My judgement is out on the rice paper roll I tried because unlike the bahn mi, the meat (in this case prawn) is not as generous or flavoursome, and the wrapper is a little too firm. It is hard to judge after one, so I will try some more, but definitely will turn to the NN chicken or the BBQ pork next time. On the plus side, Julie tried the chicken pho and it was given a resounding thumbs up, so that too is on the must try list.

I was excited prior to NN opening, and I’m even more excited now. Having a good Vietnamese street food cafe close to home is a big deal, and Nhan Ngai ticks the boxes.

Nhan Ngai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rustica Canteen – Richmond – Numerous Occasions

Espresso tart

Espresso tart

This is going to sound disrespectful to a bunch of cheap bakeries in Richmond but rejoice because finally there is one really worth venturing to. The Swan Street branch of Rustica Canteen is a shiny beacon in a sea of options that have stood the test of time, but have not overtly improved or raised the bar in recent years.

It is incredible what a clean and slightly fancy fitout can do to a space. Here the designers, whilst sticking closely to the latest script in design101, have done a nice job nonetheless. With the display at the front window and then pushing into the bakery, you quickly get a sense of some of the offerings. These include pastries both savoury and sweet, but flow into serious sandwiches, breakfasts and burgers, all built around the baking.

Brisket sandwich

Brisket sandwich

My first visit was to check out the coffee, and my double espresso was well made on a La Marzocco machine by experienced baristas using Rumble coffee. Another visit was for the hot cross bun, which while tasty, had been squashed by the toasting press, so the takeaway option might be the go.

The peppered brisket sandwich completely blew me away with the quality of the brisket, and the combination was full of flavour, making the relatively pricey $14 seem more than reasonable. From the Gruyere cheese to the house pickles, and the delicious fresh bread (light rye) either side, you have a terrific lunch. That was reason enough to buy a loaf of the house sourdough which was excellent fresh, and just as good for bread and butter pudding the next day.

Rustica coffee

Rustica coffee by Rumble

It seems the presentation of the pastries and sweets is matched by the taste. The espresso tart I’ve tried was beautiful too. Rich espresso ganache housed in a crisp thin pastry with cacao nib crisp and vanilla marscapone, is precisely made and absolutely delicious.

The choice of location for the latest branch would only work if it continues to execute this well. In a small amount of space you have Messina right next door, Grill’d and Hunky Dory immediately opposite, and several other reasonably priced quality options within a stone’s throw. That puts pressure on, but to date, Rustica is standing up to the challenge and Swan Street is richer for it.

Rustica Canteen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Belle’s Hot Chicken – Richmond – Friday 19 February 2016 – Dinner

IMG_4762Complete confidence. In the product, in the delivery, and in the aesthetic. I had a feeling there was nothing wrong with going to Belle’s Hot Chicken‘s Richmond branch from the moment it opened. The teething issues you see in other openings were all dealt with in Fitzroy at the widely acclaimed original venue.

I would be surprised if I haven’t walked past one hundred times since the announcement that Belle’s was opening in Richmond. In the beginning, besides the attack of local graffiti artists, there was not a lot going on next to the Richmond branch of Meatballs. But once noticeable change started, progress was swift, and all of a sudden it was down to the finishing touches.

It is hard to say this, but my particular experience dining around 6.30pm on the first Friday night, was absolutely perfect. This type of perfection is not unattainable. After all, we are talking about quite a defined product and a relatively small restaurant with a good complement of staff. But it was perfect.
IMG_4760
Catherine ordered the Southern (no chilli) and I ordered the medium as the last time I tried hot it defeated me! We both did the tenders and chose sides of coleslaw and Old Bay fries. The chicken was cooked to the second; just done and not any more for maximum flavour. The sides were great as usual with no noticeable difference to the Fitzroy original.

To wash it down we tried the Belle’s Aperol Spritz and “The Arnaldo” which was my favourite – a Long Island ice tea tasting drink but with an iced tea and lemonade over a tequila only base. Service was superb with an obvious concentration to begin with friendliness and professionalism without an ounce of arrogance that could happen at a successful outpost.

It is needless to say that I’ll be back regularly and that I am going to have to exercise more as a result. As the bloke in his seventies next to us polished off his second basket of chicken I realised it was still possible to live a long happy life, especially when fried chicken is involved.

Belle's Hot Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato