St Kilda Rd's Orient East. Photo: Eddie Jim
In many cities, you go to hotels to find the great restaurants. In Melbourne, not so much. I'm suspicious of our hotel restaurants, imagining unwitting travellers falling prey to uninspired venues doing exactly as much as they can get away with. But then there's Orient East, which busts that mould open. It's a fun, clever post-colonial homage to British Malaya in the Seasons Botanic Gardens on St Kilda Road (opposite the Shrine). It serves visitors to the hotel, but also has a handy office-worker catchment, making it part of Melbourne life, rather than a sterile tourist-only zone.
Kitsch wall panels and pop Penang signage work towards a happy, beachy mood in the multi-level dining space. There's a terrace, too, but the resort vibe will swing more easily when the weather warms. The menu is a light-hearted mash-up of Malaysian classics and stiff-upper-lip British fare, which works nicely with the need to offer room-service mainstays such as burgers and club sandwiches.
Aficionados get antsy about authenticity when it comes to dishes such as char kuay teow, a stir-fried rice-noodle dish. I haven't tramped the streets of Kuala Lumpur doing taste tests so I can't comment on the faithfulness of this version, but the Penang-style CKT was enjoyable from first bite to last, wet without being sloppy, both fishy and porky, and the flat noodles tangled without clumping. Above all, a lovely, smoky wok-hei (wok ''breath'') brought the dish together.
Orient East's soft shell crab bun. Photo: Eddie Jim
Hainanese chicken rice, another much-disputed dish, was soft and subtle, the gingery poached chicken served with chicken-flavoured rice (delicious), a pot of broth (comforting), and chilli sauce (punchy).
A snack menu includes bao (steamed buns) that are equal parts Chinese staple and Melbourne zeitgeist. The roast pork belly in plump folded bun was a most enjoyable pig in a blanket and the soft-shelled crab bun even better, the peppery crisp crab and spongy bread contrasting happily. On the colonial oppressor side of the ledger, the fish and chips ticked the right boxes and the chunky tartare sauce got a triple tick and a gold star, too.
Desserts included a banana fritter blast of sugared fat (that's a compliment) and restrained coconut ice with tapioca pearls. Service was a little slow and our beers weren't cold enough but, overall, this is one hotel restaurant that's delivering good times in a tasty package.
3.5 stars out of 5
- (03) 9685 2900
- Prices - Snacks, $5-$9; mains, $14-$34; desserts, $8-$12
- Features - Licensed
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 6.30-10am, noon-2.30pm, 5-10pm; Sat and Sun, 7am-2.30pm, 5-9pm
- Author - Dani Valent