205 Russell St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Wed 12.30pm-3.30pm, 4.30pm-10.30pm; Thu-Sat noon-11pm; Sun noon-10.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9650 4336|
Food. It's not just for eating, it's also for debating. Just ask an Israeli about hummus, a Turk about coffee, or a Malaysian about bak kut teh, a pork rib "tea" that's beloved throughout Malaysia and Singapore and has countless variants on a basic formula: pork on the bone boiled in a herbed broth.
There's peppery Teochew-style, richer and darker Hokkien versions and a less soupy "dry" Klong bak kut teh. Everyone with a BKT opinion seems to agree on one thing: it's delicious, fortifying and an essential part of Malaysia's culinary identity. Indeed, when a dish has its own acronym, you know it's important.
Melbourne's cheerful and winning Aunty Franklee makes a hero of the Hokkien-style bak kut teh that the owners, twin sisters Fiorn and Francesca Lee, grew up on in Sabah, in eastern Malaysia.
They cook meaty pork bones for three hours in a broth that's light but herby, stocked with cinnamon, clove, aniseed, fennel and pepper, along with garlic, prunes and angelica root. It's rounded, complex and lightly lip-sticking. The pork is sweet and tender, though still with plenty of chew. It arrives at the table bubbling furiously in a claypot cauldron.
It's traditional to drink tea with BKT because it's thought the tannins cut through the rich meat. I love the Borneo milk tea, a cold, layered drink of coconut syrup, evaporated milk and strong red tea, and the curious pear and white wood drink which is apparently great for sore throats. Fresh poached pear and "white wood", a fungus, jostle with goji berries and dates in a tall glass.
Beyond BKT, there's excellent char kwai teow, a noodle dish redolent with the smoky flavour of the wok, not least because it's stir-fried in lard that's skimmed from the BKT broth.
A similar no-waste approach is apparent with the "mother hen soup", a family favourite that the girls' grandpa Francis used to make for the whole family on Sundays. The base of the broth is a laying chicken that's beyond productive age, boiled for many hours to create a sweet stock.
That's then bolstered with thigh meat and four types of mushrooms: fresh enoki, oyster and sliced button, and dried shiitake. It's a snack-sized bowl with a bucketload of flavour.
I can't stop thinking about another chicken dish here. The turmeric chicken sees an on-the-bone Maryland braised with turmeric to tender juiciness, then it's grilled with sesame oil and chilli and served over a thick peanut sauce. Scattered over the top is the killer blow, a crisp stir-fry of lemongrass, ginger, shallots and fennel seed.
The basic concept is Malaysian but grilling the chicken after braising it is a Melbourne brainwave because the Lees wanted to add an Aussie barbecue angle. It's ridiculously good – go try it, here or in the Aunty Franklee outpost in Hawthorn.
Papaya ice-cream is the only dessert but there's a late-night lounge upstairs called Sweetie and Moustache with over-the-top lava toast, layered crepes and cocktails.
This is such a vibrant part of town, full of great flavours and fun opportunities to debate food and eat big. Melbourne, I love you.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)