Merah: it's Malay for red. It's also what you'll see when you visit this new Northcote eatery and try the fiery hand-mixed sambal. Taking a minimum of eight hours to prepare, Merah's spicy sauce is soaked overnight with a fragrant blend of candlenut and lemongrass.
Aline Viravouth and Marcel Nantharath, who took over Carlton's favourite midweek Malaysian, Nasi Lemak House, in 2008, have built Merah from the ground up, bringing in One Design Office to help dress it up.
Merah's colour palette runs through muted grey and banana leaf, the better to concentrate on the food. "What we do is minimalistic and bright," says Nantharath. "We wanted to the food to pop."
At Merah, they're looking to refine their take on Malaysian. You'll find all the classics: char kwai teow, chilli crab, beef rendang and (of course) nasi lemak. What makes the difference here is the traditional white charcoal shipped in from Malaysia to produce that signature smoke.
And being Northcote, there's a solid vegan section, with an all-plant jungle curry laksa served with soba noodles and char hor fun that swaps out oyster sauce and pork for a mushroom base. "It tastes just as good as the meat version, so we're pretty proud of that," says Nantharath.
If you eat or drink only one thing, make it the fried chicken with a side of sambal aioli and lemon, plus a passionfruit, coconut and coriander juice on hand for when things get too intense.
Open Tue-Thu 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sun 11am-10pm.
238 High Street, Northcote, 03 9489 3121, merah.com.au