Disclosure: I was invited to dine as a guest by Zilla and Brook and Mr. Nice Guy
Although you can walk from one end of the city to the other relatively quickly (or traverse that distance even faster with a tram), I find we all tend to have our own stomping grounds when it comes to dear old Melbourne city.
For me, that's usually around Melbourne Central (used to work there), Bourke Street (where my gym used to be) and Spring Street (Spring Street Grocer, duh) and everywhere within that sort of boundary.
Which still leaves a lot of the city regularly unexplored.
So I was quite charmed to find myself walking down Little Lonsdale, up around King Street, where there's a bevy of cute little Asian places, plenty which I had never heard of before!
Which included Mr. Nice Guy, a new endeavour from Pla and partner, David Holtum, who had previously set up Middle Fish in Carlton.
Pla's briefly met me before, asking Brad and I if we were on a first date as we strolled into Middle Fish for brunch a year or so ago. Even if she doesn't remember, her great big smile and infectiously cheery personality left an impression on me, and that certainly hasn't changed, Pla greeting us with all smiles, laughter and a desire to share everything that is the restaurant.
You're a cold soul if you can't smile around her!
The space is colourful, with mismatched colourful tiles, like a quilt and bright yellow chairs, a little busy, but also endearing and entirely playful.
Mr Nice Guy was set up, as Pla and David have always wanted to do dinner, but due to restrictions of their other location at Middle Fish, haven't been able to do it before. Whilst they do focus on delivering authentic Southern Thai food, they're doing it with a slight fusion angle, focussing on delivering the flavours, but marrying it with modern technique.
We're taken into the kitchen so we can watch some of the magic happen before eating, and to get the appetite going. Chef Jiaqi Tang fills the kitchen with gorgeous aromas when preparing the brine for the chicken in a wok making the kitchen smell of fennel and lemongrass, just beautiful! Apparently the chicken is brined for around 12 hours to really seal in the flavours, and that we'll get to sample the finished product later…certainly got us licking our lips!
They also show us how they make their fish cakes, which are a bit rounder and fluffier than I am used to seeing. Made with basa fish and home made chilli, they combine a combination of diced fish and fish mousse to create their desired texture.
After watching a som tam salad be prepared, we're offered a couple of variations of it. Whilst typically these green papaya salads are served as is, Pla explains that she wants to make sure she's looking after the people who come in and so for lunch, pops in a little vermicelli noodle at the bottom and a choice of protein on top, so that workers have carbohydrate and protein to keep them going through their day.
Having visited Bangpop the week before, where Brad and I had eye watering spicy som tam's, I found Mr Nice Guy's a bit on the sweeter side and lacking that really spicy kick, which is I assume is due to the focus on Southern Thai cuisine, which I think generally has less of a focus on the 'Imma-gonna-kill-you' spicy. With that aside though, they were delightfully fresh, with plenty of crisp vegetables, and with still a nice balance of sweet, salty and sour. Definitely would make an awesome lunch option when the weather gets warmer.
Our tray of entrees included the fish cakes, some beautiful fresh oysters, pork neck skewers, mushroom spring rolls and fried chicken ribs (which is really an incredibly under utilised piece of chicken).
A great way to start any meal, especially when everything is finger licking good. I particularly enjoy the sweet pork neck skewers and the crispy and delightfully moreish chicken ribs. The fish cakes, although being incredibly fragrant while being prepared in the kitchen, weren't as abundant in flavour as I thought they might be, although I did like the fluffy and chewy texture. Also deep fried. Mmm.
Home smoked Tasmanian salmon with a coconut reduction, baby beetroot and pickles, introduces some of the modern technique that Pla mentioned earlier, but subtly, without ruining the essence of the flavours. The salmon was just perfect, with crunchy skin. I loved the crunchy sesame garnishes and the brightness the pickled radishes added.
Foam is not something you expect to see at an Asian restaurant (or many places these days, full stop) but there it was with the Hurstbridge pork belly, served on a bed of Kha na and chilli garlic, in the form of an oyster sauce foam. How perfectly clever! Whilst the pork belly was a touch oily, it was still delicious, with skin that crunched between your teeth and tender meat.
A grilled baby barramundi was served up, dressed with a colourful Asian salad and served with nam jim. What Mr Nice Guy doesn't tell you on the menu, is that the fish is stuffed with kang som paste and lemongrass which packs the heat! Thankfully the salad is there to refresh and cool off the mouth a bit!
Not that we weren't full or anything, but Pla insisted we had to try their chicken (which they are dubbing the 'Mr Nice Guy Famous Chicken'), served with spicy cauliflower, leek and jus, and give feedback, as we were acting as guinea pigs somewhat.
Fortunately though, all the feedback was glowing as a gentle hum of joy rose from the diners. Brining the chicken just makes it incredibly rich in flavour, so juicy and so aromatic. Really a standout from the night. The cauliflower that's hidden underneath, is a sneaky surprise as it's absolutely packed with spices and curry. A couple of us were flushing from all the heat! Whilst not unwelcome, it certainly caught some of us off guard!
To finish up, sweets had to come out and in true 'fusion' style, we were met with a deconstructed lemon grass cheese cake with smoked pineapple. The smoked pineapple was beautiful, still juicy but a little char was definitely very pleasant to give it a bit of warmth, and another hidden surprise (Mr Nice Guy seems to be packed with them!) was the pop rocks found in the crumble that everything sat on.
Oh my gosh. I was back in kindergarten all over again. Happy screeching and hilarity ensued.
By the end of it all, it was certainly one of the most enjoyable Tuesday nights I had had in a while, with loads of good company, chatter and laughter, and food of course. Mr Nice Guy may not be carrying what you typically expect, but I really appreciate how they play with the concept of fusion, without taking it too far and becoming something pretentious. The flavours are still the feature, the dishes are slightly more dressed up, but it's all still casual and hearty food.
There's also breakfast and lunch menus, so whatever time of day you might have free, be sure to pop by and see what's on offer, with that Mr Nice Guy around the corner.
Enter Via Healey's Lane
535 Little Lonsdale
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