Chow House

Transforming the dining scene ... Chowhouse.
Transforming the dining scene ... Chowhouse. Photo: Natascha Mirosch

4a/39 James Street Fortitude Valley, QLD 4006

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Opening hours Tues-Sat 7am-10.30pm,Sun-Mon 7am-3pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Breakfast-brunch, Family friendly, Groups, Licensed, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Timmy Kemp
Seats 100
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 07 3852 5155

Chow House is typical of the new guard of diners sweeping into Brisbane's dining scene.

Less fine dining, more casual, but still with an emphasis on quality food. These are the kind of places that defy being shoehorned into a genre. You want to call us a bar? No problem, grab a stool and we'll make you the city's best espresso martini. Breakfast? Of course – how would you like your eggs done? A romantic dinner a deux? Sure, take a seat while we light the candles and fetch a wine list.

At Chowhouse, the means opening for breakfast to dinner, with a menu ranging the globe and sliding up and down the price scale, too.

Timmy Kemp is renowned for her ability to cook duck.
Timmy Kemp is renowned for her ability to cook duck. Photo: Natascha Mirosch

Born from the metaphoric ashes of James Street Bistro after its canny owners recognised that it was looking a little down at heel among all its newbie neighbours, the transformation came with a change of direction and a new name.

The space has been enclosed with towering, battened walls of plants, wooden ceiling fans and massive feature lights of woven cane to give it a cool, green, conservatory feel. There's an inside area, with polished concrete floors and a window into the kitchen, but most of the dining and drinking takes place outside, where there's lots of street action and beautiful people to gawk at.

Dishes on the eclectic menu – a nasi goreng breakfast, street food-inspired plates and mains that wouldn't look out of place in a fine diner – are loosely united by Asian flavours, albeit with a few ring-ins (corned beef sandwich, carrot, potato and pea empanada, churros).

Surprisingly complex ... satay skewers on lemongrass stalks with peanut sauce.
Surprisingly complex ... satay skewers on lemongrass stalks with peanut sauce. Photo: Natascha Mirosch

In addition to the street-food share plates there's a grill section, warm Asian salads, a rice and noodle selection, meat, fish and sides.

It could easily be another case of too many dishes with none done well, were it not for the presence of chef Timmy Kemp. Thai-born Kemp was part of a cheffy rat pack that ran Brisbane's restaurants in the late 1980s, early '90s, in the process transforming our dining scene forever. With her classical training she is the master of a properly made sauce while her background and natural talent have given her an instinctive ability to combine flavours and cultures.

And as always there is an inherent sense of generosity. From the "street food" menu, two skewers of pork balls are somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball; tender, juicy and served with a piquant house-made sambal oelek. Sate skewers on lemongrass stalks served on a banana leaf are a million miles from the plebby pub norm, the chicken moist beneath its surprisingly complex peanut sauce. Accompanying this is a glass containing batons of crunchy pickled veg, the lightest touch of sweetness cutting through the vinegar. Two beautifully cooked, butterflied, boned quail are served on a nutty, crunchy-skinned rice cake topped with a quail egg with an Asian slaw. If it all sounds a bit too healthy, try the main of a hefty chunk of melting pork belly beneath a bubbled crackling, strewn with deep-fried pig's tails on a viscous pool of star anise-scented jus. Fresh relief is offered with the accompanying orange and lychee salad.

Of course you can't eat Kemp's food without trying duck. She grew up on a duck farm and is renowned for her ability to cook it. Here it's been ever so lightly smoked in green tea, the fanned slices rosy pink, a thin layer of soft fat precision-seasoned, with a sticky hoi-sin, a steamed bun and a green onion and pickled cucumber salad.

The wine list suits the price point and probably the demographic but it would be great to see a few more aromatics in there, especially by the glass.

Desserts will send your blood sugar skyrocketing. They're a little disappointing after all the Asian complexity and lightness; heavy and a bit out of date. I'd recommend finishing with a refreshing iced-tea infused with lemongrass and kaffir lime instead. Or just sit back and kick on to cocktail hour.

Wine: A well-priced list of largely familiar Australian wines; about 17 by the glass as well as local and international beer and an interesting cocktail list