230 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria 3066
All street food is fast and cheap, but in Malaysia it's also ballsy and dished up mess-hall style: eating elbow-to-elbow amid clanging woks, sizzling grills and plumes of steam. Two-month-old Masak Masak moves the hawker ''street'' experience indoors, with street art (a spray-painted orang-utan that's more urban jungle than Malaysian jungle) and street cred from a short menu that reads like a best-of: Hainanese chicken, beef rendang, laksa.
Malaysian-born Travis Tong is part-owner and chef. Tong moved from Malaysia to Sydney, where he lived for five years before moving to ''more friendly'' Melbourne and working as a functions chef for the Atlantic Group, and chef at LuxBite. For his own place, he reasons that opening on action-packed Smith Street adds new flavour to the strip.
The menu is dotted with dishes you don't see every day. A starter of dried anchovies, whole chillies and peanuts in sticky-sweet toffeed kecap manis clusters must be one of the world's best beer snacks. The only thing missing is the beer - Masak's liquor licence is in the works, and about six weeks away. Grilled stingray has its sweet, soft, flaky flesh spread with tamarind-sambal and crisp-fried curry leaves, and twangs homesick-heartstrings for anyone who has lived in Malaysia or Singapore. But it's an exotic dish for many. It's alternately salty, spicy and sweet (served with a side of pineapple pieces, fresh chilli and sliced red onion), but is mild by Malaysian standards.
There's ''live'' cooking action in the window-front charcoal-grill and bamboo-steamer booth. From a stream of smoke emerge satays - beef and free-range chicken; like everything here, they come on a camp-tin plate - as they would if served on a Malaysian street. Satays have a lovely char flavour and juicy meat, and accompanying peanut sauce (pooled in chilli oil) for dredging. Be sure to stab a chunk of cucumber, red onion and ketupat (compacted rice dumpling) between bites of meat.
While Masak Masak is mostly authentic Malaysian, it's not doggedly so, serving some dishes with a twist. The lunch-only curry laksa comes unconventionally with pickled carrot and cabbage, and wong bok. And, at dinner, there's a hot-dog-style brioche bun filled with omelet and house-made pork jerky.
There is, perhaps, even more scope for whimsy on the menu considering Masak's Smith Street location. It has, so far, been pretty quiet: slipping between the cracks of Asian-student haunt and hip, hybrid bar-diner. But it's well priced, authentic and has a fresh vibe. It won't be long before the bar is stocked with booze, and the people start piling in elbow-to-elbow - causing the frenetic clanging of woks, the grill booth to be all sizzle and steam, and the place to be positively smokin'.
Do … As Malaysians do, and eat some dishes with your hands.
Don't … Expect an alcoholic drink yet.
Dish … Grilled stingray, pineapple salad.
Vibe … Fresh and bright: just add patrons.
Nina Rousseau is on leave.
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