338 Clayton Rd Clayton, VIC 3168
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu & Sun 11.30am-3pm & 5pm-9pm; Fri-Sat 11.30am-3pm & 5pm-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Cheap Eats|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9544 9520|
"There's an hour wait," is a likely greeting at some social-savvy hotspots around town. But this would have to be a first for Clayton, 20 clicks from the CBD, and from a business that doesn't have a website and only takes to Facebook to announce it has opened another new venue.
This latest one from husband and wife Ye Shao and chef Tina Li is another instant hit, the 10th in the Dainty empire to transpose what's trending in China's Sichuan Province to here in Melbourne.
Let's join the dots. In the past year, it's been noodle-soup bars (four Tina's Noodle Kitchens). A few years ago it was individual hotpot speciality restaurants, rather than the traditional larger hotpot for the table-type restaurant. And more than 10 years ago it was the regional speciality of Sichuan food that caught the attention of monolingual Melbourne – then dominated by Cantonese.
Like any barbecue joint, from American to Korean, this Chongqing one embraces both meanings of barbecue: a way to cook and to party. The tunes are pumping, red neon signs urge you on to "Keep Calm and Grill On", and there are big glasses of beer.
The grill is massive, a 1.4-tonne dome (that's a small hippo) looming at the end of the room fuelled by bamboo and wood charcoal.
Ordering requires a little DIY. Along with the lavish colour photo menu there's a loose-leaf tick-the-box menu and a pen.
First, tick a fish: Murray cod (which the Marine Conservation Society advises to eat less of), barramundi (OK) or orange roughy (no). They are sold by weight, so the dinner bill can be a surprise ($75 for our 1.2 kilogram barra).
Next, choose one of eight flavours, from oyster mushroom, pickled vegetables or one of the most popular: chilli, Sichuan pepper and cumin.
Finally, sides from a possible 20, including springy enoki mushrooms and braised lotus root.
The fish, living in a tank just inside the kitchen moments before, is sandwiched in a wire holder and slotted into the grill-oven sideways. Once grilled it goes back to the kitchen where the flavour is added.
It arrives simmering in a deep tray with coals underneath. The chilli, Sichuan pepper and cumin broth is a murky red-brown bobbing with whole dried chillies. The fish, a large mass, lurks just below the surface that's lightly scattered with fresh coriander leaves.
The grilling browns the surface and seals in the flavour of the fish. The simmer adds a complex flavour that's high on chilli, fizzing with pepper and earthed with ginger and cumin.
Eating it, I felt the same tingly, pumped, slight euphoria you get after a run. Unlike running, I wasn't happy to find I was finished: fruitlessly fishing through the trough-like pan for more fish – pulling out the head, stabbing for its cheek – even desperately munching on ginger cubes in the hope it was a piece of fish that had strayed from the skeleton.
I'm betting there will be a second Dainty Fish & Grill restaurant before the year's out. Let's wait and see.
Do … Come for lunch when there is no wait time (yet).
Don't … Stop at the fish, have a stab at the sword-like skewers.
Vibe ... Beer hall barbecue.