160 Spencer St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 6pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Degustation, Licensed, Bar|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9600 5488|
The phase "journey through Asia", printed boldly at the top of a menu, would usually be a significant red flag. The bad taste of fusion, and the bad habit of (usually non-Asian) chefs to lump all of Asia together into one muddied melting pot of inspiration, has led to some of the more confusing and ill-conceived meals I've had over the years.
But at Miss Mi, the new restaurant in the Movenpick Hotel Melbourne on the corner of Bourke and Spencer streets, it's immediately apparent that there is no fusion or muddling going on here. Something much more special is afoot.
It begins with a flurry of snacks, each inspired by a specific country or region. Perhaps you'll get a few spears of green mango and a bowl of jeow bong, a spicy, funky Laotian relish made of chilli and zippy with lime leaf and fish paste, or a decadent take on a Hong Kong shrimp toast, the pulverised shrimp piled high and tasting deeply of shellfish.
The chef at Miss Mi is Esca Khoo, who was born and raised in Malaysian Borneo, but moved to Perth as a teenager. This is Khoo's first head chef position, though you wouldn't know it, given the assurance and elegance of his cooking. His resume includes stints at Dinner by Heston, the Crown outpost of famed British chef Heston Blumenthal, and Noma's 2016 Australian residency (Noma is frequently ranked among the best restaurants in the world).
Khoo says much of the inspiration for his menus at Miss Mi came from a trip through south-east Asia in 2019. It's quite the trick that he's performing here, cooking a degustation of dishes that are faithful in spirit to the customs and flavours of their origins, but adding just enough creativity – and Australian ingredients – to make them singular to Khoo's vision.
The Vietnamese dish banh xeo – crispy, savoury crepes – are here reimagined with a shattery and lacy crepe that is almost cracker-like, under which hides a beguiling mixture of pork jowl and baby octopus. Lettuce and nasturtium flowers are provided for wrapping and garnishing.
There is no fusion or muddling going on here. Something much more special is afoot.
Calamansi, the fragrant citrus native to Borneo and the Philippines, is likely to appear either in your meal or your cocktail. The calamansi smash, made with rum, is a lovely and refreshing tropical concoction, its brightness perfectly suited to the food.
My meal wrapped up with a satisfying goat stew from Myanmar, served with rice and side salads, a tableful of food that would have been a hefty meal on its own.
I do love the tasting menu format here, in that it gives Khoo licence to take you on that journey from the tea houses of Hong Kong to the mountains of Myanmar, but it feels a little incongruous with the setting. This big, airy room calls out for the energy that comes with boisterous and gleeful dining, rather than the staid formality of a degustation.
I wasn't able to finish that delicious goat stew, which was a shame, and I'd be much more likely to return to Miss Mi if I could approach a meal there more casually: a few drinks, a few plates of whatever it is Khoo has concocted that day, a spontaneous midweek meal rather than a weekend blowout. (To be fair, this scenario is entirely possible at Miss Mi's bar, where a la carte bar snacks are available.)
In general, I know the planning and finances of a restaurant are bolstered by the rigidity of a tasting menu, but I'm not sure they're always best for the customer. Having said that, at $95 a person this culinary journey is a bargain, and Khoo's thoughtful, meticulous cooking is a delight.
It gives me hope that we've moved so far past the bad old days of fusion that comparisons to that era barely even make sense any more. The flavours that Asian immigrants have brought to Australia are varied and wonderful and, in the right hands, are morphing into something new and thrilling.
Vibe: Bright and airy. Gets sexier after dark when the trams and Southern Cross Station outside the big glass windows aren't quite as invasive.
Go-to dish: Banh xeo
Drinks: Brief but smart wine list with some lovely choices, especially from Great Southern in Western Australia. Tropical cocktails that pair well with the food.
Cost: $95 tasting menu, without drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine