Sophisticated modern-Asian dining, its roar has the potential to reverberate far beyond the inner north.
In the last half-a-decade or so, Melbourne’s northside has been increasingly viewed as an up-and-coming place, a favourite of the hipster and bohemian, the student and young professional. Mirroring this trend, a few inspired dining venues have emerged from its generally nondescript road strips. Easy Tiger is one of them, a small eatery which at night, quite literally glows golden like a Thai beach bangalow. Inside, the vibe is almost as beach-club-like, laid back and bouyant. Its interior decor matches its non-surf-dude clientele though, tasteful and discreet. It’s a geometric lay-out. Two rectangular communal tables on one side, and a few angular tables for trios and duos on the other, juxtaposed against the curvy low lounge seating at the window. Setting itself apart from Melbourne’s exasperating obsession with black bistro chairs, large galley bars and warehouse industrial chic, there’s none of that stock-standard aesthetic here — wide 1970s retro chairs with posterior-friendly cushioning, caramel-coloured tables, walls panelled with recesses that are back-lit, accentuating a sentinel line-up of tinted glass tumblers. The one decor touch that alludes to Easy Tiger’s culinary focus is a tribal-esque palm frond and fish wall mural, it reminds MoMo & Coco of large kites that we used to fly as children, and also of a very typical South-East-Asian dish that sees the wafting of smoky and spicy aromas accompanying the unwrapping of fish heaving with steamed white flesh.
MoMo & Coco visited for an after-work dinner. The modern South-East-Asian/Australian shared-plate-style a la carte menu was a lovely one-pager. Aside from a very tempting banquet option of 8-9 plates for $65 pp, the menu was set out in three straight-forward sections of “street food, rice courses and desserts.” A quaint glass cup of slightly sweetened, freshly brewed green tea was served as a palate cleanser upon arrival, an immersive touch. We started with the Mar Hor ($4), a ball of very finely minced to the point of imperceptibility, prawn, pork and chicken, that was slightly sweet as a result of being cooked in palm sugar, and which yielded a texture and a flavour not unlike the South-East-Asian paste of rojak. The pineapple wedge on which it was daintily perched provided a perfect zesty counterbalance. Once the traditional province of medicinal intentions, the likes of Longrain, Gingerboy, Coda (modern-Asian-Australian restaurant favourites of ours) pioneered the betel leaf into something delectable. Thatched with a net of prawn pieces, crushed peanuts and shredded coconut, Easy Tiger’s Betel Leaf rendition ($5) was a similarly flirty, flavoursome appetiser. While desirably gooey-centred, the Son in Law Eggs ($4) by contrast, were in need of being spiked and stuffed, the dried chillies crusting it superfluous at the epidermal level.
To the rice courses, the Fried Kurobuta Berkshire Pork Ribs ($24) were succulent meaty logs, but eaten alone, it too lacked the flavour punch commonly associated with South-East-Asian food. No matter, we doused it with its accompanying red chilli vinegar, and saturated also the Tea Smoked Ocean Trout Salad ($25), parcelled-up rosé-pink trout, tossed through a technicolour salad that was superbly fresh, bold and fragrant with shredded vegetables, coconut, peanuts. Be forewarned, each larger plate comes with a generous serving of rice, special mention to it because it was consciously cooked in the Asian way, not grainy like Indian/Arabic rice, not creamy as Italian risotto, not sticky as Japanese rice, and clearly, not boiled (!). A special mention to the wine list too, showcasing a mostly Australian cellar, roughly half of which were available by the glass at decent prices, with particular emphasis on white wines as the natural complement to Asian food with its crisp acidity.
Although MoMo & Coco cannot and do not presume to know more than professional restaurant reviewers, we always snort when we read reviews that articulate that “Asian desserts” are well..non-existent. It’s a generalisation that by analogy would declare desserts from Eastern Europe/Caucasus to be of similar make as Western European desserts. Although East Asia may perhaps generally lack in the sweet department with its predilection for the more savoury accents of green tea, red bean, black sesame, and their infusion into soup-based or mochi-ball-type meal-enders, desserts from South-East-Asia express an entirely different and sweeter story. With Gingerboy and Coda long-time favourites of MoMo & Coco for their sensitive understanding and re-interpretation of South-East-Asian sweetness, we now add Easy Tiger to our favourite list. With only three desserts available, we sampled all. The first, the “Coconut Jelly” ($14) was a tropical island utopia of a dessert. A perfect palate cleanser after the main savouries, it was a creamy yet light panna cotta mound, well-flavoured with coconut. It was wreathed by a coral reef medley of poached jackfruit, tangelo slices, puffed rice grains and slivers of raw coconut…hmmmmm…irresistible…
The second irresistible sampled was the “Steamed Pudding with Banana Fritters” ($14), doubly inspired by the Nonya dessert apom bakwa (short broad pancake cake discs drenched in palm sugar) and the popular hawker dessert of goreng pisang (fried banana stumps). Here at Easy Tiger, a soft albeit somewhat dry pudding was lightly infused with the essence of yellow bean, perched on a pool of palm sugar and served at a lovely equatorial temperature. Its spongy airiness was well-partnered and contrasted with the creamy sensation of the golden logs of banana fritters. Careful deep-frying of the banana meant that its characteristic poignant flavour was amplified, expressed also in a pungent banana waft. Another scrumptious dessert, simply hmmmmm… irresistible…
The finale was the “Monsieur Truffe Chocolate and Pandanus Dumplings” ($14). Derived in part from the traditional South-East-Asian/Nonya dessert broth, kuih ee (colourful gelatinous rice balls in syrup), also known in East Asia by the name of tang yuan, Easy Tiger’s close interpretation was evocative of a pretty tropical island archipelago strewn with whimsy green shoots and floating on a shimmering lukewarm sea of salted coconut cream. The latter was in turn, dotted with basil seeds turtles. It was a well-considered dessert, with the sculpted balls of honeydew and cantaloupe conferring a refreshing touch to the doughy pandan balls; and likewise, the salted coconut cream providing a lovely cloying tendril of sweetness against the molten, slightly grainy, ashy dark chocolate sourced from Easy Tiger’s neighbour, the Monsieur Truffe chocolatier. It was a pity then that there were two detractors — the first was that just three of this exquisite pandan balls were parsimoniously plated up; and secondly, that an overly-cautious hand had injected the pandan flavour, with the pandan imperceptible but for its phosphorescent green shade. MoMo & Coco liked this sweet irresistible, but we really could have loved it as much, if not more, than we did the preceding two irresistibles.
The service rendered was professional, unintrusive yet intuitive. They were there on the double when you needed them, and not when you didn’t. Drinks and food arrived in a most timely fashion. Evidenced by his sharp recommendations and his detailed introductions to each dish, the enthusiasm and passion of an older staff member was contagious. The only quibble that MoMo & Coco perhaps make was that a younger staff member served us the bill…without it being summoned. If a venue is not timed-seating (and heaven help Melbourne if more restaurants go down that path as many have with the no-bookings epidemic), dining should be at the patron’s leisure, unless, of course, it approaches closing time (which it had not when we promptly left at 9pm after 2.5 hours).
Unlike a recent newcomer of similar culinary focus (we refer to the much-vaunted Chin Chin of a popularity which we simply do not comprehend), it’s so very easy to fall in love with Easy Tiger. There’s an ambience that’s dynamic and relaxed. There’s a generally good understanding of what hospitality entails in the hospitality industry. There’s a decor marrying perfectly with gastronomic offerings that follow the path of what Australia does best — elegantly and deftly fusing well-balanced, nuanced South-East-Asian flavours and ingredients to mostly Western foundations, rather than futilely (and foolishly) trying to recreate in totality South-East-Asia. Overall, it’s sophisticated, refined modern-Asian/Australian dining for the more discerning diner. However, as is the similar misfortune of similarly-focused restaurants, Longrain, Gingerboy, Coda etc, Easy Tiger occasionally seems like a subdued lamb rather than a tiger. Whether modern or traditional, South-East-Asian food is about incisive poetry, rather than a sfumato painting. Flavours need to be fired through with a resounding gunshot, not a soporific tranquiliser. Easy Tiger could possibly sketch less easy strokes and embrace more bold lines, because its roar certainly has the potential to reverberate far beyond the inner-city northern fringe.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Easy Tiger Restaurant, 96 Smith Street, Collingwood, Vic 3066.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Thai/South-East Asian.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert that you can fit in, but especially the “Coconut Panncotta” and the “Pandan Chocolate Dumplings.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Sophisticated modern-Asian dining, its roar has the potential to reverberate far beyond the inner north.