Serai review

Serai's dining room is industrial, energetic and oh-so-Melbourne.
Serai's dining room is industrial, energetic and oh-so-Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Racing Club Ln Melbourne, VIC 3004

View map

Opening hours Lunch and dinner Tue-Sat
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard

In recent weeks, as one might expect when taking over a chief reviewer position, the question has arisen several times: What food or restaurant defines the most exciting aspects of Melbourne dining?

It is, of course, impossible to answer. What city worth its salt could be defined by only one thing, one place? Our greatest strength is the diversity of options we have available to us.

And yet, as I sat in the bustling dining room at Serai, I had to admit: this place ticks a whole lot of the seemingly disparate boxes I'd been mentioning when asked that question.

Chef Ross Magnaye in his fire-stoked kitchen.
Chef Ross Magnaye in his fire-stoked kitchen. Photo: Eddie Jim

Yes, it is tucked down a laneway, a facet of Melbourne dining referenced so often it's almost a cliche, but damn if it isn't still a charming aspect of our rebounding CBD.

The dining room has the airy industrial appeal that's been popular at least since Andrew McConnell opened Cumulus Inc. in 2008, using the old bones of our inner city to grand effect.

The wines? They're natural, of course, mostly local but with some gems from Italy and elsewhere thrown in. The cocktail game is strong.

Sinuglaw kingfish with puffed chicharron.
Sinuglaw kingfish with puffed chicharron. Photo: Chris Hopkins

And the food is profoundly personal, refreshingly modern, and in some ways, forging new paths forward for Australian cooking.

It is also deeply rooted in Filipino culture, a fact that shouldn't be surprising, given Melbourne's large and thriving Filipino community, but is, given the relative dearth of restaurants that represent that community.

Indeed, when I left Los Angeles in 2017, it was during a boom in that city's modern Filipino restaurant scene, and I hungrily looked for something similar in Australia. Sydney came closest at the time, with Rey's Place, which was noteworthy especially for its fantastic tropical-tinged cocktails.

Go-to dish: Kangaroo kinilaw on bone marrow.
Go-to dish: Kangaroo kinilaw on bone marrow. Photo: Chris Hopkins

But nothing compared to the verve and creativity I was seeing from young chefs in the US, who were translating the food of the Philippines but adding their own modern American sensibilities and, sometimes, classic culinary school techniques. (One of those chefs, ironically, worked for an Australian cafe in LA. The fact that America got a lumpia sausage roll before we did is a crime.)

Chef Ross Magnaye's ambition to marry modern Australian with the food of his heritage is thrilling enough, made even more so by the fact that what he's turning out of this fire-stoked kitchen is disarmingly delicious.

Take his version of sinuglaw ($23), a dish that traditionally marries fish ceviche with grilled pork belly. Here the base is raw kingfish, mixed with charred cucumber and fermented coconut, singing with lime juice and bracingly spicy. The pork component comes in the form of puffed chicharron, the airy porcine crunch working just as well as a chip to scoop up the fish, or as a crumble mixed throughout.

Patotin duck with bone sauce and calamansi jam.
Patotin duck with bone sauce and calamansi jam. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The menu is full of similarly clever spins on classic dishes, sometimes straying so far from the original that Magnaye has basically created something wholly new, albeit with the distinct flavours of the Philippines shining through.

This is the case with the kinilaw ($23), usually a raw fish dish. Magnaye makes it with kangaroo, which has been lightly smoked and seared before being diced and tossed with coriander, fish sauce, chillies and lime leaf. The whole meaty, glorious mess is then piled atop a roasted marrow bone and served with toast. It's as if the cheffy glory of London's St. John took a detour through South-East Asia, then landed squarely in Australia.

Speaking of Australia, I'm not sure there's anywhere else you'd be likely to find prawns as good as the ones Magnaye is serving ($24), cooked to a creamy medium-rare and slathered with butter that's fermented, funky and aromatic, and served with the sweet, stretchy, fluffy white bread known as pandesal.

Lechon-style pork belly is fruity, meaty, acidic and a tiny bit funky.
Lechon-style pork belly is fruity, meaty, acidic and a tiny bit funky. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Some dishes hew closer to the Filipino originals. The patotin duck ($46) is as sticky and deeply flavoured as the soy-braised kind I've had in the past, though the addition of bone sauce and jam made with calamansi – a citrus that's a bit kumquat-esque, though less sour – ramps up the duck's natural richness.

The lechon ($45), which traditionally is made with a whole pig cooked to a glorious tender heap, is here a little more staid. Pork belly, wobbly and crispy and lined up on a plate, is topped with a version of the Filipino condiment palapa, here made with pineapple. Each bite is fruity and meaty and acidic and a tiny bit funky. And fantastic.

Service is charming, eager and a little bit green. But they're coping magnificently well with the crush of people who've discovered Serai, and that's saying something: this place is packed. And is it any wonder?

If right now, today, someone were to ask me to name the restaurant that best represents Melbourne food – hell, that represents Australian food – this is where I'd take them.

Serai has all the style, all the craft, all the joy of what makes eating in this city and country such a varied complex, and exuberantly evolving pleasure.

Vibe Industrial, energetic, open kitchen, social above all else.

Go-to dish Kangaroo kinilaw

Drinks Natural wines, fun cocktail list, lots of good mocktail options, too.

Cost $120 for two, plus drinks

https://seraikitchen.com.au/