The Penny Drop

Deco vision: Inside the Penny Drop in Box Hill.
Deco vision: Inside the Penny Drop in Box Hill. Photo: Paul Jeffers

913 Whitehorse Rd Box Hill, VIC 3128

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Opening hours Mon-Tue 7am-7pm, Wed-Fri 7am-10pm, Sat 8am-10pm, Sun 7am-4pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Seats 100
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9077 7455

Conjure your image of Box Hill for a moment: the steamy fleet of yum cha trolleys, a glossy brace of lacquered ducks and discount vitamins by the kilo. It's the scene in your head, even if you've never been. This eastern culture bowl holds mythical status as Melbourne's heartland for tea shops, Korean barbecue supplies and, depending who you ask, Melbourne's best pho.

What you may notpicture is espresso martinis and Kentucky fried tofu banh mi. You certainly don't expect them in the foyer of the ATO.

But here it is at Penny Drop, the all-day eatery on Whitehorse Road proving there are now three certainties in life: death, taxes and the gentrification of Box Hill.  

Furious fish: salt and pepper snapper with its own crisped spine
Furious fish: salt and pepper snapper with its own crisped spine Photo: Paul Jeffers

Across from the station where Metlink inspectors are making it rain tickets with grim enthusiasm, Penny Drop rises like a Deco vision in blondwood, pink and greys – all sweeping curves, crisp lines and dripping pendant lights. It's like David Rockwell's Oscars set crashed into a Temple and Webster. Just swap stools and plate glass windows for a little velvet and you'd have a '40s Broadway dream.  

This is Steven Liu and Mary Lai's follow up to their successful coffee pop-up and it's as big a learning curve – jumping to a 100-seat cafe, restaurant and bar – as you can imagine.

To that end, when you're offered an espresso martini at happy hour, take it. It's where they play to their strengths. Tim Webb shakes a strong game while the wine and beer list steers more Big Name Craft and Marlborough Savvy Bs over small producer gear.

Son in law eggs - hold the rice crackers
Son in law eggs - hold the rice crackers  Photo: Paul Jeffers

On plate it's what you might call an adventure. Taste oysters. Smash spicy wings. Hell, get some orecchiette. Preferably not in one go. In some cases, not at all.

Ridged fingers of okra fried off with nigella and coriander seeds mostly demonstrate why they're usually pickled or braised. Orecchiette with broccoli, basil and ricotta salata tastes like your lazy-night-in-sweatpants pesto pasta. Surprisingly, it's the Home Economics reboot of an iceberg salad in condensed milk dressing that's the dark horse, the fried shallots and crunchy radishes hitting a salty, sweet and fresh balance rarely nailed elsewhere.

You're probably filing the rest under disco Asian. They're certainly not shy on sugar. Cubes of pork hock swim in a masterstock glaze like porcine candy, reminiscent of the deep fried, sugary hunks from Chin Chin's famous salad – minus the salad. Son-in-law eggs – those crisp-shelled, sunny-centred shirt-wreckers are dressed with an onion caramel, chilli threads and microherbs. Take away the plain and chewy "red curry rice cakes" and it's one of the better plates.

Pork hock in onion caramel
Pork hock in onion caramel Photo: Paul Jeffers

A little too often you search for the oomph. Kentucky fried tofu in our banh mi is lacking Louisville love, paired with a daikon shred that tastes more wet than pickled.

Skip, and refocus on the whole snapper, fillets removed and deep-fried along with the whole carcass in a salt and pepper dusting so they zing sweet, salty and bicarby, the fins and bones crisped up like a giant, animal-shaped chip. Was the papaya salad dressed at all? It's hard to tell when a second measure of nam jim also fails to give zip.

Penny Drop is beautiful. But how great would it be if the dishes were as carefully executed as the room? If staff, as well as being friendly, focused a little less on chatting and more on delivering drinks? 

I've heard great things about breakfast. But I'm here because Box Hill, for all its charms, has little on the high-kicking dining scene at night.This little penny needs buffing before it fills that slot. 

The lowdown

Gentrification hits Box Hill in the form of espresso martinis and Kentucky fried tofu banh mi

Vibe: Disco Asian in a blushing Deco dream

Pro Tip: Top up your myki – ticket inspectors love Box Hill

Go-to Dish: Salt and pepper snapper's fried spine is like a giant fishy chip

http://www.thepennydrop.com.au/