599 Church Street, Richmond, Victoria

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Buzz feed: Kong's fluoro-lit canteen.
Buzz feed: Kong's fluoro-lit canteen. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

Larissa Dubecki

It was Gore Vidal, I think, who said the definition of bravery in New York was going to a restaurant that hadn't been reviewed. By that reckoning, Melburnians are a fearless lot, and Kong the scene of our greatest pluck. The queues are abominable and have been so since day one. To snaffle a table more or less immediately, the choice is simple: nursery hour or deviant o'clock. Otherwise you'll be cooling your heels at the back of the queue.

Actually, that mightn't be so bad a fate for the Gen-Ys at whom this place is so clearly aimed. I suspect it's a Tinder and Grindr hotspot, scene of many a hook-up. As for me, I've invented the dunch. Or the linner. Whatever you call it, it's the new mealtime of the 11am-to-late, switched-on, febrile food economy.

If you had any doubt that restaurants have become places of entertainment, look no further than all of Chris Lucas' establishments. Chin Chin, Baby, and now Kong work off the no-bookings business model, which can succeed only on high-speed turnover. But Lucas' particular oeuvre goes even further. He shows that modern restaurants are not only about flavour, but feeling. The open kitchen, with its baseball-capped chefs, the sizzle of the open flame and the thump of the smoker door, are as important to the mise-en-scene as utilitarian rows of bare tables and fluoro lights. So too the crowd, utterly pleased with their own cleverness in being there. It's more like a nightclub, with kimchi instead of ketamine.

Chilli ribs and pickles at Kong.
Chilli-slathered pork ribs give a good slow burn. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

The food at Kong is Korean-ish with a sub-major in Japanese-ish. It lays no claims to authenticity but wallows liberally in the current fetish flavours of kimchi and all things fermented, dashi and ponzu and - erm - peanut butter. The barbecue peanut butter wings with gochujang - fermented red chilli paste - might sound like a parody but they taste far better, although the record ought to note the peanut dominates.

The food comes fast, each dish on top of the last, a reminder that the kitchen is aware of the impatient crowd baying for admission. Flavours are supercharged, as if to compete with the din, although they skew sweet rather than hot. The cloying profile of Kewpie mayo, street food's simpering accomplice, pops up in an overpriced $24 dish of ragged kingfish sashimi - offcuts, maybe? - with jalapenos and gochujang, and again dousing a ''spicy'' cabbage slaw, which it isn't.

I suspect the kimchi stew, a red swamp of cabbage and beef intercostal, is the sort of thing every Korean will have a different opinion on, depending on how their mother cooked it. If I had a Korean mother, I'd ask her to go harder on the backbone of salt and chilli fire. Like I said, heat isn't such a thing here, although the pork ribs slathered in a piquant chilli tomato sauce give a good slow burn. They're the must-order: smoky, tender and messy. You really must order the pickles as well. Use them indiscriminately.

The dumplings, slippery crescents stuffed with minced beef and oily kimchi and dressed in a light, clean vinegar, are also excellent - a lovely diplomatic union between Korea and Japan. And you can blame not Kong but an entire nation for their strange ways with beef tartare, the add-ins of pinenuts and smoked dashi salt plus a mayo-like cloud of eggy soy making palate-slapping sense.

There's almost nothing recognisably Korean about the fried soft-shell crab - practically all batter - in a steamed bun. On the other hand, the fried rice cracker with smashed edamame, walnut ssamjang and sticky sweet soy is probably too Korean - that is, one of those dishes that doesn't translate to a local audience.

What does translate here at Kong is the energy (off the charts), the pop art (pandas - so kawaii), the cool waiters (occasionally too cool for school, which only adds to their peer-group cachet) and the rollicking drinks list with wine jugs and sake cocktails. Chris Lucas' genius is knowing his target crowd is hungry for more than just smoked brisket and pulled pork. And at Kong he's nailed just how to serve it up to them.

The best bit
The smugness once you have a table
The worst bit
The queues, the queues
Go-to dish
Barbecue baby back pork ribs, $22/$36

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki

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599 Church Street, Richmond, Victoria

  • Cuisine - Korean
  • Prices - Typical smaller dish $12; larger dish $36; dessert $13
  • Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Outdoor seating
  • Chef(s) - Benjamin Cooper
  • Owners - Chris Lucas
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Daily 11am-late
  • Author - Larissa Dubecki
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Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Reader ratings (5)

10 comments so far

  • There is no way in the world that I would queue up at a restaurant regardless of how good it's supposed to be.

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 11:51AM
    • Well aren't you just too cool. This place looks good, would love to check it out.

      Date and time
      August 05, 2014, 12:05PM
    • @Lazor. Yes very cool in Melbourne in winter. Enjoy the queue. Too many other good restaurants in Melbourne who will take a booking.

      Date and time
      August 05, 2014, 12:29PM
  • The queues, the queues lol

    This type if dining is not about the food, it's about the cred that comes with finally managaing to score a table at the hottest ticket in town
    Just like a nightclub

    Not for me thanks
    I'll book a table at any one of the numerous other restaurants around town that offer very very fine dining and DO allow me to book a table

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 12:43PM
  • Seems ironic - to me the very act of queueing for a discretionary experience seems very uncool. Like a lemming. I'm sure Kong serves good food but nothing you cannot get elsewhere without the uncertainty of getting a feed.

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 1:24PM
  • If the place is principally 'Korean', how come all the graphics are Japanese? There's zero Korean design here. Oops?

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 1:28PM
  • A group of us made the mistake of going out of our way to try and eat here one night. We were treated with such contempt, the manager or whoever he was pretty much turned up his nose and told us there would be a three hour wait, even though the place closed in three hours. We obviously weren't the type of 'crowd' they were looking for, ironic since we no doubt would have spent much more there than the 'career students' the place seemed to be full of.
    Reading this review I am glad we didn't waste our time or money. I'm with Catherine, I'M paying YOU for a service. Why would I wait in the cold when there are plenty of great restaurants in Melbourne where the staff appreciate the people who keep them in a job. (And with ratings much better than 13/20!)

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 1:42PM
  • I've been to Kong twice and really enjoyed it. Fun atmosphere, great staff, fantastic food and very reasonable prices.

    Yes it's a 'trendy' place to go but your reasons for going are your own. You don't need to line up for hours at all. Just get there, put your name on the list and leave your phone number then go to one of the many local bars or pubs for an hour or so. Before you know it, you get a phone call and go back and your table is ready....EASY!

    Date and time
    August 05, 2014, 1:43PM
  • I was lucky that I went there for a lunch on a weekday at 2PM. There was no queue. However, $18 for a small piece of little burned chicken breast with little bit of kimchi was just way too much. Also, this place is no where close to Korean style at all. No need to say it's nothing worth for queueing.

    Date and time
    August 18, 2014, 12:20PM
  • Its not hard to have queues when you only have 60 seats......

    Date and time
    August 18, 2014, 12:52PM

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