The Wandering Palate Best Asian Restaurant of the Year
Dandelion – Viet Inspired Australian Freestyle
Chef Geoff Lindsay is the archetypical Australian Freestyle champion. That is in the culinary sense; the Michael Klim of the kitchen who’s successes and comebacks has tantalized Melbournian palates with his uninhibited flair dazzling the Australian restaurant scene for decades, as much as he has inspired countless chefs and restaurateurs in culinary recalcitrance and creative genius that I personally believe is a cuisine unique to Australia.
I coined Australian freestyle cuisine when I first started visiting Asia many moons ago, however began using it in conversation a lot more when I actually moved to Hong Kong, some 13 years ago and came to the realisation that the best contemporary Asian food and fun dining was in fact in Australia, which is after all, a part of Asia.
An evening at Dandelion is indeed pure fun, driven by the hum of human communion; a relaxed buzz of social interaction, eating and compotation. The food is Vietnamese-inspired but by no means constrained to this cuisine with Lindsay’s Pan-Asian repertoire seemingly endless and popping up between menu items or as specials – I am immediately thinking of (craving actually) his family-style, shared-dish set menu with Steamboat of Sour Fish Soup, Whole Mud Crab wok-friend with black pepper, Babi Guling Balinese spice stuffed and turmeric glazed suckling pig, served with blood sausage – Oh, get me on a plane now.
And speaking of family, on a recent visit our table comprised of two families with children ranging in age from 8 to 16 and they all loved the food and the place, moreover we were all seated and rolling up our sleeves up by 5.45pm, with Dandelion open from 5.30pm. What a stroke of logical genius opening at 5.30pm, actually mindboggling why so many ‘local’ restaurants (anywhere) don’t see the potential in families wanting dine early enough to finish and have the children in bed at a sensible hour, moreover you can have the tables re-booked for the next wave.
Actually, it must be a Melbourne thing, as my two other favourite family eating spots here open at 5.30pm; Supermaxi in North Fitzroy and Hellenic Republic in Brunswick North. But before you start conjuring up images of prams and suburban neurosis, Dandelion is geared towards all walks of life and oozing cosmopolitan sophistication with an edgy, mildly chaotic energy and friendly verve.
It was certainly a very smart move to target the socioeconomic environs of Elwood and an underserviced very healthy middleclass catchment that extends all points of the compass. The business model is brilliant, as is the restaurants fit-out and ambience, both of which we can attribute much to Lindsay’s wife Jane.
It’s an incredible transformation of space when you consider that it is a standard shop-front, but once inside airy and leafy with a marvellously innovative vertical wall-garden of herbs, spices and tropical plants that immediately programs the olfactory senses to Asia; and an open-plan kitchen at the rear with frantic activity, immersing diners in an almost street-level, hawker market ambience.
I’m inclined to think Dandelion is a more mature Lindsay, rounded by years in the restaurant game and the tribulations of life, and he no longer needs to prove himself or chase that gastronomic celebrity status – he’s proven himself so many times and there’s much respect and admiration from both diner and professionals – but it is however blatantly obvious the food is vintage Lindsay and as always, driven by produce, GREAT PRODUCE celebrating its provenance.
I am convinced this chef has never been constrained by food cost in creating and execution of a dish and whilst that may not seem good business sense, it’s good for the diner, and I applaud it. Championing the very best Australian produce has always been the soul of Lindsay’s food and you can see it in every dish, leaping out of the plate visually in its vibrant colours and freshness; always generous portions of high-quality ingredients sourced from artisan producers and identified by the grower or regional provenance.
Lindsay is spot on here, reading the global food trend and dining publics demands and interest in where the produce comes from; organic produce, humanely reared free-range poultry and meats, sustainable seafood and fish, not only ethical and better for you, but actually has a whole lot of flavour.
And this is what set’s Dandelion apart and leaves many restaurants in Asia for dead; where the Singapore street food scene is stagnating in slabs of cheap frozen prawns and intensive-farmed chickens (can you imagine the chicken dish capital of the world does not allow the sale of chilled free-range chicken – apparently it’s a bio-hazard linked to Avian influenza), the contrast of Lindsay’s vibrant food is profound in his version of Vietnamese Pho Soup, served as a huge bowl intended for sharing and using Glenloth Corn Fed Free Range Chicken for A$19. In his Beef Pho he uses Wagyu beef with raw sirloin, braised brisket and tail for A$23 – both are incredibly wholesome and satisfying interpretations of this iconic dish.
I can already sense those puritanical Singaporeans and all those intrepid backpackers who have braved the back streets of Ho Chi Min and Hanoi and think they are getting their ‘authentic’ fix when back home in Melbourne at little Vietnam’s Victoria Street but have you ever considered where the beef or chicken comes from when you demand paying a pittance and you revel in this so-called bargain.
Actually, I have no idea what authentic really means in terms of food. Sure, commentary and discussion on Asian cuisine will invariably involve words like ‘authentic’ and ‘tradition’ however, these are words I personally avoid in a culinary sense as food and cuisines are a timeline, a gastronomic history that is part of our anthropological evolution since the beginning of time. We are a pretty smart mammal adapting and developing with our environment and social needs exceptionally well and relative to any food, recipe or ingredient, you can be assured all of these facets in any cuisine, culture or tradition have changed over time.
You may well consider inhaling acrid bus and motorbike fumes on a street pavement, slurping Pho with buffalo hide ‘authentic’ but I much prefer Chef Lindsay’s version and I am sure the burgeoning Vietnamese middle-class would too.
The ubiquitous rice paper roll is another dish where Lindsay is touchstone. The comparison here is again largely a question of produce but also innovative flair. Invariably rice paper rolls are pathetically sparse on good ingredients containing meagre pieces of chicken or chopped up frozen prawns and bulked up with too much rice or vermicelli noodles and shredded carrot and the likes with little trace of fresh herbs or any of the zing and explosion of flavour they should have.
Moreover, it is imperative to roll them freshly or certainly how it’s done in our household (and we make these a lot of these in my extended Malaysian Chinese family) but few restaurants or food stalls do and they arrive dry and tasteless, mints and leaves wilted and rely on a dipping sauce to redeem them.
Lindsay however excels in rice paper rolls, indeed freshness is emphasised with his ‘wrap and roll bar’ and menu items like “Roll your own! Fresh rice paper roll with spicy pork grilled on sugarcane, rice paddy herbs and leaves, elephant ear stem” or “Coconut roast rock lobster with rambutan and Thai basil”, and “Torched salmon, salmon caviar and shredded choko, granny smith apple and yuzu soy” or “Soft shell crab and avocado with Mrs T’s magical sauce” – all incredibly tantalizing, generously lavish in ingredients and exhilarating in flavours that invigorate the palate and senses.
Communal dining is clearly the way to go here; certainly to get the most out of the melange of flavours with their curries, claypot and wet dishes and as Lindsay explains “Viet curries are spicy but lighter and cleaner than Thai or Indian curries often involving the deft use of tart fruit like pineapple or green papaya”. We immersed ourselves in “Duck legs, braised with sugarcane, pineapple and chilli Kampot peppered pineapple salad, saw-tooth coriander” and the “Toasted coconut goat curry with confit shallots, potatoes and buddha’s hand pickle”.
Just the very notion, “From the coconut grill” gives the olfactory’s an adrenaline rush with irresistible menu items like, “Hoi-An style tiger prawns with chilli butter and Viet XO sauce”, and “Baby chicken grilled with turmeric, lemongrass, lemon leaves”, and how could one not order their signature dish, indeed “The Age Good Food Guide Dish Of The Year 2012 – BBQ Pork spare ribs with a refreshing lychee and mint salad.”
To be honest, we had so many dishes and ate so much food on my recent visit it become a bit of a blur, but there was that wonderful lingering infusion on the palate of tangy mints and zesty herbs and spices. Also lingering in the limbic system is the visual feast of the herbs and leaves used whole, or roughly torn and generous in portion; stunning presentation and exhilarating flavours that pair wonderfully with racy riesling and tangy sauvignon blanc, as much as they due with off-dry chenin blanc and pinot gris. And bring on the pinot noir.
The wine list here is brilliant; deftly concise and user-friendly, wonderfully eclectic and in the wine styles in synchronicity with the food, which can be attributed to Lindsay’s long-time cohort and legendary veteran sommelier, Grant Van Every, co-curator of the list with Jane Lindsay. Melbournians are tough on wine lists and expectations run to the extreme on price/quality rapport and wines by the glass – charge too much for wine in Melbourne restaurants or have pedestrian wine and you will be empty.
Smart, snappy, contemporary wine lists is again something that restaurants around Asia have yet to grasp with too many shrines to Bordeaux (invariably completely incongruous with the food), hardly a pinot noir in site (mindboggling), red wines listed first (bizarre), reds wines with steamed fish (even more bizarre!), a roll call of commercial crap (predictable) and London mark-ups but the waiter can’t even pronounce the wine little lone tell you what it’s like or if it pairs well with the food.
Don’t get me wrong, there are great restaurants all over Asia, however if you are looking at the trends of dining and how the metropolis’s in Asia are evolving (rapidly) in their tastes and lifestyle, they yearn for everything western. Ironic in a way, with westerners fascinated with everything Asian (economies – save us!) and have embraced (Asian) communal dining culture so intensely, as cool thing, in sharing dishes and socialising, yet all across Asia there is an insatiable desire for western luxury, in every sense; prime cuts of meat, haut-cuisine and formal dining to impress – a curious polarity – a timeline of food and socioeconomic evolution in developing countries.
I wonder if Lindsay’s style of dining would work though in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, from a local perspective rather than the expatriates. I can see it in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia where the people are friendly and full of life. But Hong Kong, Singapore, China? I am not so sure; we would have to get the waiters and the diners to take some happy pills first as I doubt they have the necessary inherent sense of humour or fun gene to grasp what a place like Dandelion is all about.
I am envious of Melbournians, who are insanely spoilt with such great affordable eateries like Dandelion; an owner-operated restaurant that screams out passion and personality, a place I would go once, even twice a week if I lived in proximity. Melbournian’s, you don’t know how lucky you are, or maybe you do, but don’t lose sight of the brilliance and perseverance of your top owner-chefs and the bounty of great Australian produce; it makes a world of difference.
Here, in the Asia metropolis’s, we have to contend with pedestrian soulless restaurant groups with android staff and outdated concepts, outrageously priced, sub-standard produce (a lot of food-miles) and a restaurant scene stagnating in ‘authentic’ – ‘traditional’ restaurants. Yes, there is a massive growth and the major cities are dynamic, but the restaurateurs are not keeping pace with the diners, who are craving what the other metropolis’s have and the next generation wants to have more fun – when they eat.
There is a roll-call of Olympic-level, Australian Free-style chefs; Will Meyrick (Sarong), Christine Manfield (Universal Restaurant),Cheong Liew (Neddy’s), Kate Sparrow and Le Tu Thai (Nediz-Tu), David Thompson (Darley Street Thai, Nahm), Teage Ezard (Ezard’s) Andrew Blake (Blake’s at Southgate), Daniel Wilson (Huxtable), Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), Martin Boetz (Longrain) to mention a few.
However, it is Geoff Lindsay who takes No 1 position on the podium today and Dandelion is bathed in gold.
For a visual feast of Dandelion, visit http://pinterest.com/dandeliondining/dandelion-images/