Albert St Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Tue-Wed 12.30pm; Fri-Sat 7pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
Jung Eun Chae is a Korean migrant, a student of Chinese medicine and, after a year of quietly running a six-seat ferment-focused dining experience from her Brunswick apartment, she is suddenly one of Melbourne's most in-demand culinary stars.
As word has spread about the unique experience – where diners are fed five-or-so courses featuring hand-made condiments that have been weeks, years and generations in the making – bookings have become almost impossible to come by. I won't lie. Landing a seat at CHAE will be hard.
This is an unparalleled dining experience. Opening Melbourne's tiniest and most intimate restaurant in an apartment – six seats line Chae's extended kitchen island and her husband needs to leave during service to stay out of the way – has grabbed headlines. There's also a major buzz that comes from the challenge of securing one of those coveted seats (two months' worth of bookings sold out in one minute when I secured mine in February). But to focus on this would do a disservice to the humbling wealth of knowledge and skill that CHAE is bringing to the table.
It is astonishing how much production is taking place inside that flat. Every inch of shelf space is dedicated to traditionally made fermented Korean drinks and condiments, using techniques passed down from her mother.
It offers both a rare and spectacularly delicious glimpse into the complex world of fermentation that underpins much of Korea's cuisine – food that is all but impossible to find in Melbourne.
Ours is a Korean dining scene dominated by fried chicken and beer, barbecue and bulgogi. You might occasionally get a taste of home-style spreads, where your table disappears beneath myriad pickles, rice and whole fish, at places such as Hansang in West Melbourne. But you won't find galbitang, a subtle broth of beef short rib and aromatic vegetables served unseasoned so you can add a yihwa-ju seasoning (rice wine salt) produced in a complicated process that takes two years.
Each dish presents simply, beautifully, in treasured ceramics made by some of Korea's top designers (a single thimble-sized drinking vessel cost Chae $100). But every one is a doorway into a universe of things you did not know.
Our menu starts with salty-sweet hits of walnuts, curls of tempura nori and dehydrated lotus root and sweet potato chips, none of which have come near refined sugar or salt. Instead, the sweet, earthy glaze on the nuts is made with rice syrup and an enzyme found in pears.
That enzyme is also what makes the first course, a vivid pumpkin and broken rice porridge, a sweet, all-natural high.
This food is intentionally medicinal. It is, in almost every case, fizzing and buzzing with the kind of living organisms you pay exorbitant prices to consume in sterile capsules. Chae's goal is for her food to be part of her practice once she has completed her Chinese medicine course. It's the kind of remedy you will want in your world.
Alongside our dishes, she pours tiny samples of cloudy, gently sparkling makgeolli, an alcoholic rice-based drink similar to Japanese sake, only brewed with a different type of mould. After its first stage of fermentation, she adds fruits (we try a dry apricot version, one infused with that piney Australian native Geraldton wax, and a watermelon version she bottles while it is still sweet and fizzy).
Much of the information Chae imparts during your meal will go completely over your head. Your ignorance is unimportant when your mouth can clearly taste the incredible umami depth that comes from the house-made soy sauce Chae uses to elevate rough-cut raw beef tartare.
You could nerd out on trying to follow the four-year process her mother uses to harvest nigari (a seasoning derived from sea salt). Or you can simply focus on the perfect, golden-skinned snapper marinated in Chae's own rice wine, served with plump mussels, a wasabi-spiked soy and a gently fiery broth.
It's pure food that's a far cry from puritanical. The main event sees a huge earthen pot brought to the table steaming with four kinds of rice, layers of corn and green onions ringed by banchan, a plethora of pickles including kimchi, whose cabbage funk is measured and chilli charge is electric, through to unusual perilla leaves that are both earthy and wildly perfumed.
There is that beef short rib soup, which comes alive when Chae's insanely flavour-enhancing salt is added.
A whole steamed and hollowed pear filled with its own fruit, pine nuts and goji berries, is a soothing but still exciting close.
The sips of variously clear and creamy makgeolli add up.
Here's the bad news. Months ago, Chae was already hard to book. Now that Melbourne has cottoned on, you will need to put June 1 in your diary for the next bookings release, and you still might not get in.
Patience for those seats feels appropriate. This is a triumph in so many ways: for dining, for slow food, and for Chae's delivery of it on her own terms, in her second language to boot. This is remarkable dining that's worth waiting for.
A one woman show that drops you into the dazzling world of Korean slow food.
Pro Tip: On the visit, you can buy some of Chae's precious condiments.
Go-to Dish: The menu changes every time, but the kimchi and pickles are predictably dazzling.