Buzz feed: Kong's fluoro-lit canteen. Photo: Craig Sillitoe
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-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
- 03 9427 1307
- 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