Shop J, 535 Little Lonsdale Street (enter via Healeys Lane) Melbourne, Victoria 300003 9973 1761
|Opening hours||Mon–Fri 10.30am–10pm; Sat–Sun 5.30–10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Diner's Club, Mastercard, Visa|
Mr Nice Guy is Middle Fish, the sequel. For those who missed season one, here's the plot: bubbly southern Thai girl (Pla Liamthong) meets down-to-earth Aussie chippy, ''Mr Nice Guy'' (David Holtum). He pops the question, then, fresh-faced and with zilch hospitality experience, they open Middle Fish, a new-wave Thai cafe in Carlton known for its bright regional flavours.
Season two, and they've done it again, opening Mr Nice Guy in the CBD with partners Bon Faisingha and Sandra Phungmanee.
Two-month-old Mr Nice Guy takes southern Thai cuisine on a brave new adventure. There's Asian-Euro fusion food (such as risotto, and lemongrass cheesecake), there's fine-dining ''foam'', and jugs of Singha on tap keep it real.
The upbeat Liamthong, who is now front-of-house, and Holtum seem more confident - they don't look like they're in as much shock as when they opened Middle Fish - and it translates to a savvier operation all round.
''This time we are dealing with it better,'' Liamthong says. ''It was very challenging to work together. We've learnt so, so much.''
Thai artist Torlarp Larpjaroensook designed the colourful, happy interior, using Thai bathroom tiles to decorate the walls and make the tabletops. A vast, darkened mirror opens up the smallish space and, like Liamthong, there's an innate cheeriness to the room.
In the kitchen is Shanghainese chef Jiaqi ''Will'' Tang, who has done stints at Cafe Vue, Vue de Monde and Maze (Gordon Ramsay's ''shooting star'' restaurant that blazed briefly in 2011).
The menu is about sharing, from the chicken ribs to the excellent springy fish cakes, a combo of basa (half mousse, half fish chunks), red curry paste, potato and kaffir lime leaves. Dunk one in sweet chilli sauce, sip your Singha and, hey Thailand, here we come.
I didn't like the pad thai spring rolls, a head-on prawn wrapped almost ''taco style'' in a sheet of sticky rice noodle. Pulling apart the prawn (no finger bowl) detracted from the relaxed, bar-snack vibe. Good flavours, though.
In a town awash with pork belly, this signature was a standout, the meat succulent and aromatic with cinnamon and star anise, the fat rendered and the crackling with crunch. It came with Chinese broccoli and an unnecessarily faddish oyster sauce foam (so 2009) but the flavours worked with the dish.
An Issan-style family dinner is a bargain at $50 - a whole chicken, a little basket of sticky rice (could have been a bit hotter) and a papaya salad, maybe with house-smoked tofu. The chook is triple-cooked: brined in coconut and lemongrass, slow-cooked in coconut stock, then roasted; a little cup of jus is poured on at the table. Some people may baulk at the pinkish hue of the meat and the skin could have been a tad crispier, but it's still a good dish.
Whole barramundi is stuffed with fiery kang som paste, ginger, leek and lemongrass. I did have an excellent chilli-high moment when a bird's-eye exploded in my mouth.
Mr Nice Guy - it's a fun experience and with great service. It's the sort of sequel you hire again and again.
Twitter: @ninarousseau, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Do … Bring your mates
Don't … Forget to ask about the ''beer of the week''
Dish … Hurstbridge pork belly
Vibe … Sharing is caring