8 Whiteman St Southbank, VIC 3006
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu 12–2:30pm, 5:30–10pm ; Fri-Sat 12–11pm ; Sun 12–10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9292 5777|
So here it is. The fourth branch of the Thai street food phenomenon by Australian-born, Thai-obsessed David Thompson. We're stylistically a ways from Thompson's Nahm, a regular on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and two decades from his previous Aussie restaurant, Darley Street Thai.
Long Chim is his street party – a hot mess of snacks and noodles, fragrant curries and crappy music. It's all the dedication to finding the right kind of turmeric (which he spent months doing) while keeping the tone light.
Melbourne's Long Chim (which follows Long Chim Singapore, Perth and Sydney) resides at Crown Casino complex where No. 8 by John Lawson used to sit. An animated Buddhistic mural by Roly Skender oversees Southbank.
The looks inside follow the mould: plain wooden tables and simple red chairs, a few gongs and accents of green, purple and mesh. The soundtrack is easy listening. Near the door you can smell that special casino air. Almost none of this matters. You're here for a baptism of flavour.
Everyone talks about the magical balance great Thai food achieves – the spot when the sweet, salty, sour and spicy get down in just the right way. After decades studying the art, that space is where Thompson lives.
So when you're told the Chiang Mai larb is hot, it's a promise, not a threat. The bowl of crisped chicken rubble and dried chillies, fragrant with coriander and lemongrass, starts burning somewhere near your lips and finishes somewhere around tomorrow afternoon. Use the cabbage leaves on the side as either cooling wrapper or brow mop.
But heat here is a force for good, not ego; a device for opening receptors and sinuses to all the galangal, dried shrimp, and kaffir lime that make the familiar robust. Throw the salty, limey dressing floating with tiny eyes of green chilli over seemingly simple crab fried rice and it's like flicking a switch on your salivary glands.
You're on a whole new level, complexity-wise. Betel leaves, pinned shut with their own stem, wrap a funky, sticky and sweet mass of roasted coconut, peanuts, dried shrimp and chilli.
Also from the snack section: non-bouncy, turmeric-stained fish cakes have that rain-on-rocks flavour of river trout and tickling heat.
Grilled lamb ribs, all dark spices with dominant cumin and pickled shallots for lift, have a naked flame char like they've been done on a 44-gallon drum, and are the reminder of the immigrant influence on Bangkok's food.
It's like eating in high definition. Siamese watercress gets its secret power from lard and fish sauce, rounding the garlic and miso-like fermented yellow bean paste. The creamy, turmeric-stained mashed prawn curry is all the heady funky excellence of sucking on a prawn head without the confrontation.
Coconut cream plays its part, but there are very few dishes that feel weighted by it. The biggest take home from the green chicken curry peppered with explosive baby pea and stripy green doll eggplants is the top note of kaffir lime leaves and coriander seed.
Some housekeeping: secure a booking. Try to access from the terrace without one and you'll be blocked. Long Chim isn't a cheap date. I'd say $90 a head with a single juiced up highball from the cocktail list at $22 a pop isn't a wild overestimate. But this is street food-inspired, not street in nature.
A lot of exactitude (carried on by group head chef Matthew Albert when Thompson leaves) goes onto each plate, and wines, from local stars and aromatics that suit the food to Dom Perignon to suit the location, have price parity with other casino restaurants.
Melbourne's menu lacks kanom jeen – the thin fermented rice noodles that are Singapore's go-to for lunch, but Thompson tips Melbourne to be the first Australian Long Chim to get it.
For now there's the shrimp-kicked beef laksa containing fine egg noodles and brisket, dressed with half an egg like Thai ramen. Amp to taste from the canisters of chilli vinegar, white sugar and fish sauce.
In other one-plate adventures, it's hard to go past a helluva pad Thai or Prin's noodles, a slutty plate of flat rice noodles, dressed with oyster sauce and sriracha, pork and nubbins of prawn.
Desserts? There's a frozen version of a sweet, intense Thai coffee or tannic tea, or a scoop of durian ice-cream, though dammit, that fragrant cheesy fruit will always taste to me like green mango and two-stroke. There's always the just-warm, eggy coconut cake that eats like a soft flapjack.
Or hell, save your pennies for that future kanom jeen.
Pro Tip: Long Chim Singapore devotees swear by the kanom jeen noodles. Stay tuned.
Go-to Dish: Mashed prawn curry, $38.