Review: Marae Izakaya, Chadstone

Growing up as a teen in the Eastern suburbs, Chadstone Shopping Centre was the place to go. I have fond memories of catching the 75 tram and then the 903 bus to Chadstone on a Saturday, wiling away the hours window-shopping or catching a movie with friends in the afternoon. 

In fact, the very first movie I ever went to was at Chadstone. My poor suffering father took me to see the cartoon classic Thumbelina, and promptly fell asleep in the cinema, snoring loudly next to me as I watched the screen with rapt attention and dreamed of flying with a fairy prince.

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Given my recent residence in Sydney, I hadn’t explored Chadstone since they started renovations a few years ago. One weekend late in 2016, I decided on a role reversal and took my dad out to Chadstone, treating him to a meal at Marae Izakaya in the new dining district, just as he’d treated me to a movie as a child.

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We started with a drink each in their waiting area – a Kanpai Samurai cocktail ($14AUD) for Dad who has been enjoying his cocktails, and a more sedate House Made Iced Mint Green Tea ($6AUD) for me. Made with sake (naturally), the sweetness of the apple juice in Dad’s cocktail was offset by the slight tang of a twist of lemon. Very dangerously drinkable! My iced green tea was very strong and slightly on the bitter side – which I like, but I imagine others would find challenging.

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Before long, we were shown to two spare stools at the sushi train. There’s ample variety of dishes on the conveyor belt. Unlike other sushi trains, there’s only two prices you need to worry about at Marae Izakaya – all dishes are $4.50AUD each, except for the ‘premium’ dishes on floral plates which cost $8AUD. It’s certainly not a bargain sushi train experience unlike places like Ozeki Sushi in Sydney.

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Dad’s never really eaten much sushi, despite having spent a good six months living in Tokyo in his youth. “I was only 28,” he says, “and too busy teaching the Japanese fur workers how to make fur coats to eat fancy expensive sushi. We used to just eat a lot of ramen and donburi, and drink lots of beer. Plus I couldn’t spend that much on food when I was working there, because I had to save the money to send home for you and your mother.”

I don’t recall my father living in Tokyo – but to be fair, I was a two-year-old in Hong Kong at the time, youngest of seventeen cousins, and spoiled by the whole extended family. My father’s absence didn’t even register a blip on the radar!

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We made up for the lack of sushi during his time in Japan by eating our fill at Marae Izakaya though! Dishes like this beautifully smoky Seared Salmon Belly Nigiri were clear favourites.

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But the real highlight was this unassuming dish of Raw Chopped Octopus, marinated in lemon, sesame and wasabi. I’m quite picky about octopus, and raw octopus is even harder to do well. Both Dad and I ended up raving about this dish though, picking at every last bite and eyeing the conveyor belt hopefully waiting for a second serve which never materialised.

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At least we got this superb consolation price – eel sushi, or Unagi Nigiri with its sweet and smoky sauce.

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As you can probably tell, we don’t bother with pedestrian fare such as chicken teriyaki or California rolls when we have sushi! Instead, we opt for top quality seafood sushi like this Seared Scallop Nigiri – might as well get our money’s worth of fresh seafood right?

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The Agedashi Tofu was a winner with its crisp fried skin and soft smooth tofu inside. I think we must have taken this off the conveyor belt within minutes of the chef placing it on as it was still piping hot. Let this be a lesson to you as well – pick your seat at a sushi train carefully, and aim for proximity to the chefs! 

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As we nibbled on some crispy-skinned Gyoza, Dad mused on the possibility of visiting Japan again. “It’s nearly been thirty years,” he said. “It would be nice to see how it’s changed. Your brother seemed to enjoy going there earlier this year. Maybe we should all go next year?”

I was flabbergasted – Dad’s never really expressed much of an interest in visiting anywhere other than various destinations in China. He wasn’t even particularly enthused about our (then upcoming) trip to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore, other than the opportunity to try some of the local food. I’d best capitalise on his interest in Japan and keep my eye out for some cheap flights!

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As we finished our meal with a premium plate of fresh Tuna and Salmon Sashimi, I started to flick through Tokyo apartment listings on Airbnb on my phone. While it might be another 18 or even 24 months before we look at booking another overseas holiday (for a variety of reasons!), I do like to start doing my research early!

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Marae Izakaya serves up high-quality fresh sushi and sashimi in a flashy and sophisticated setting. The queues are long on a weekend, but at least the turnover is relatively quick – and you can always wait in the lounge with a cocktail in hand! It’s not a cheap feed, but every dish is worth it. At $80AUD for a meal for two, I wouldn’t do it every weekend, but it does make for a nice treat.

It seems that the new dining district in Chadstone is as much of a drawcard as the new retailers – gone are my teen memories of soggy focaccias in a dimly lit food court. I look forward to trying out some of the other new eateries – Fonda, Mezz, Woodstock, just to name a few.

Marae Izakaya is located in the new dining district in Chadstone Shopping Centre, 1341 Dandenong Road in Chadstone.

Review: Taco Bill, Collins St, Melbourne

In my younger and sprightlier days, I collected more than my fair share of sombreros from Taco Bill. As any Melbournian with a penchant for icy cocktails will know, you’ll be rewarded with a sombrero if you order and finish a large fishbowl margarita (approx $30-40) from Taco Bill. Alas, those days are over. If I was to try to finish a fishbowl margarita now, you’ll find me passed out in the gutter rather than celebrating with a sombrero on my head and tacos in hand.

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These days, my meals at Taco Bill is a lot more sedate. My most recent visit was after a plasma donation appointment, so drinking was definitely off the cards. Located just up the road from the Blood Donor Centre on Collins Street, Taco Bill is a basement level restaurant that seems pretty non-descript from street level but then explodes into a riot of colour, noise and laughter as you descend down the stairs.

Mexican Punch
Mexican Punch

K ordered a glass of Mexican Punch out of curiosity, as the menu gave no further explanation of what ‘Mexican Punch’ actually is. I think he was hoping for something not dissimilar to sangria, but this was more like plain red cordial. Coloured sugar water, and nothing more.

Seafood quesadilla suprema with Mexican rice
Seafood quesadilla suprema with Mexican rice

We ordered dishes to share – the first a Seafood Quesadilla. I was quite pleasantly surprised with this quesadilla – the prawns and scallops used were plump, juicy, and plentiful. While there was probably too much creamy sauce in the quesadilla for my liking, that definitely comes down to personal preference. My only criticism is that the guacamole had started to change colour, indicating that it wasn’t made fresh as it should have been.

Beef and chicken fajitas with guacamole, tortillas and Mexican rice
Beef and chicken fajitas with guacamole, tortillas and Mexican rice

Our second main was the Beef and Chicken Fajitas, served with warm tortillas and rice on the side. The guacamole included in the meal suffered from the same issue as the other dish, having been pre-made hours earlier. The chicken and the beef weren’t particularly remarkable, but I loved how the onions had caramelised, as well as the smoky flavours throughout the dish.

Charred corn
Charred corn

We also ordered the Charred Corn to share, simple buttery grilled corn. Nothing out of the ordinary, though the chopped coriander on top was a nice touch.

The two mains, side, and a drink came to a final bill of $52 – however, we had a Daily Deal that entitled us to $50 of value for only $25, so paid $27 at the end of the meal. A bargain for two people!

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Taco Bill will never be a renowned Mexican restaurant, drawing in fans from all over Melbourne and food pilgrims from further afield. However if you’re after some decent comfort Tex-Mex food, and a restaurant that welcomes boisterous catchups with friends over fishbowl margaritas, Taco Bill is the place to go. 

Taco Bill is located at 412 Collins St in Melbourne, Australia.

Belle’s Hot Chicken “All the Chickens After Party” for Good Food Month

In a continuation of my birthday celebrations, K booked seats for us to dine at Belle’s Hot Chicken in Richmond for their special ‘All the Chickens Afterparty’ event held during Good Food Month. Now don’t be too impressed by his initiative – he only booked the tickets after I sent him a link to an article about the event in a spectacularly unsubtle manner! 

The reason we were particularly keen to go to this event is because a series of random events have conspired over time to prevent us from going to Belle’s. We’ve tried to make plans for dinner at Belle’s numerous times, yet something always seems to pop up at the last minute to prevent us going. Not this time though!

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This sold-out fried chicken five course degustation event was designed by head chef Morgan McGlone as a tribute to some of his favourite fried chicken dishes from around the world. Naturally, the majority of them are inspired by various American joints.

For the reader’s information, I’ve included Morgan’s descriptions from the menu in this blog entry in all italics after the photo of each course. I found the descriptions and explanations particularly useful in understanding his motivation for including particular dishes – whether it was motivated by personal nostalgia or pure reverence for the dish.

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House Made Sweet Mint Tea ($6) and Country Time Lemonade with Melbourne Moonshine, $11

We started with a drink each – eating five courses of fried chicken is thirsty work! I went for a refreshing House Made Sweet Mint Tea with a squeeze of lemon for a slight tangy twist, and K opted for their Country Time Lemonade with Melbourne Moonshine. I found the Melbourne Moonshine mix a bit too strong for my liking, but K enjoyed it with the strong lemonade.

Buffalo Chicken Ribs, Blue Cheese and Celery
Buffalo Chicken Ribs, Blue Cheese and Celery – Batters Box, Nashville TN

Batters Box is my favourite dive bar in the world. It was the bar that was closest to Husk in Nashville where we (line cooks and I) would go after service and talk about how much we hate our jobs and how tomorrow we are going to go right back to work. They serve the most insane buffalo wings there with a store bought blue cheese dressing. Tonight we are giving you the same style Buffalo Wings but we make the dressing here.

The first course was made of one of my favourite combinations – Buffalo Chicken with Blue Cheese. Honestly, blue cheese with spicy fried chicken is one of the best combinations in the food world. However in this case, I would almost say that the standout element wasn’t the chicken or the blue cheese dressing, but instead the celery salad. With a vinaigrette dressing and punctured with random bursts of red onion, it was a lovely refreshing little salad side that acted well as a palate cleanser.

Chicken & Waffles
Chicken & Waffles – Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, Los Angeles CA

Chicken and Waffles has been on the Belle’s menu since day one…though it might sound like a strange combination when you put them together they really do work; just ask Snoop Dogg! I like to eat this once every 2 months especially with Hot Tenders.

I’m a Chicken & Waffles fiend – as evidenced by visits to places like Mr Big Stuff. This was just perfect with a lightly battered chicken tender, a warm and fresh waffle, and oodles of sweet maple syrup. Note to self – this is available as a regular dish on weekends at Belle’s!

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House Made Cardamom Lemonade, $6

Fried chicken is thirsty work! Two courses in, I’d already drained my sweet tea, so I ordered myself the House Made Cardamom Lemonade (no moonshine!) to get me through the final three courses. This wasn’t quite as refreshing as the tea as the tangy cardamom lingers on the palate, but was enjoyable in its own right.

Chick-Fil-A Southern Fried Biscuit
Chick-Fil-A Southern Fried Biscuit – Hapeville, Atlanta

No one makes the Chicken in a Biscuit like Chick-Fil-A, you might not agree with their policies but there is no doubt that their spicy Chicken biscuit is the BOMB.COM! We are serving them tonight with buttermilk biscuits and a spicy thigh fillet, cheese and pickles.

I’ve never tried Chick-Fil-A before and to be honest, I probably never will given that I would still make a point of boycotting them the next time I visit America. Variations of their meals made by other people though? Fair game when it’s Chicken in a Biscuit made by Belle’s. While I still can’t get over the fact that an American ‘biscuit’ doesn’t have chocolate chips in it, one can’t deny that their biscuit/scones go great with a juicy fried chicken thigh fillet! Too bad it doesn’t have structural integrity, with the bottom half of the biscuit crumbling to pieces in my hand with every bite I took.

Mission Chinese Chongqing Wings, Cucumber Salad
Mission Chinese Chongqing Wings, Cucumber Salad – New York City, USA

Danny Bowien and I met whilst I was working at Husk Charleston, we have kept in touch and have caught up all over the world recently in Copenhagen at the MAD Food Camp 2016. This year in February Danny did a dinner at Attica with my buddy Ben Shewry and we hosted the after party at Belles Fitzroy. These wings are the go to dish when you eat at Mission Street Chinese restaurant I hope tonight we do them justice.

Oh man. These Mission Chinese Chongqing Wings had my lips burning with every bite. There’s a crazy good amount of spice on this fried chicken, with the type of spice that really lingers on the palate and brings tears to your eyes. This is where the pickled cucumber salad comes in handy as it helps to cool your palate, especially with the fresh coriander and spring onion in the mix as well.

Belles Hot Quail, Red Eye Dressing, Cauliflower Salad
Belles Hot Quail, Red Eye Dressing, Cauliflower Salad – Sydney/Melbourne, Australia

Hot Quail is a dish we put on at the start of the year. Chef Scott and I wanted to try frying other types of birds and this was the one we loved the most. It is served with a red eye mayonnaise which is a play on Red Eye Gravy…the pickles in this dish extinguishes the heat of the Quail.’

We finished our degustation on the Belle’s Hot Quail, but unfortunately, I was so stuffed by that point I couldn’t manage much more beyond the quail breast. I have to say that I definitely prefer chicken over quail – I find that quail is still a bit too ‘game-y’ for my liking. That cauliflower salad was beautiful though!

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Having a five course fried chicken degustation brings to mind the crazy Fried Chicken Crawl I did through Sydney a few years ago. It’s not something you would want to do every week, or even every month. As it is, I think this one single night of fried chicken bliss probably increased my rate of heart disease threefold! As an occasional treat, or as a fitting end to an ongoing 30th birthday celebration though, it’s a pretty mind-blowing and button-popping experience.

I’d love to return to Belle’s to try some of their more standard dishes. Their fried chicken expertise is evident and as much as I enjoyed their degustation, I’d like to try some of their standard dishes like Chicken Ribs in Peach BBQ sauce…mmmm yum…

Belle’s Hot Chicken is located at 107 Swan St in Richmond (and other locations too – Fitzroy, Windsor, Barangaroo, Tramsheds).