147 Johnston Street
Collingwood, VIC 3066
I come from Yunnan, a province in China that’s bordered by Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. The food in Yunnan is therefore vastly varied, owing to its many neighbours and the large number of ethnic minorities that call Yunnan home. But all in all, it’s not a cuisine that Melbourne is all that familiar with (though you can get some fine examples at Colourful Yunnan). However, Yunnan does have a much more well-known neighbour, culinary-wise – Sichuan, the home of chilli, oil, and chilli oil galore. Hence, I grew up eating a lot of Sichuan food as well, learning in the process that although tasty, it really isn’t a very tactful cuisine, and tends to leave one reaching for the water to wash away the film of spice, salt, and oil.
So that explained why I was utterly bamboozled (and more than a little curious) when I was invited by Shu of Shu Restaurant to try what he dubbed to be ‘contemporary Sichuan food, made with organic ingredients and served tapas-style’. Are we talking about the same Sichuan here?
Like Shu’s bold new vision for Sichuan food, the interior of his restaurant is fresh and eclectic, paying homage to his artist days as a refurbished warehouse that could double as an exhibition space. All the decorations are hand-made, including a set of wire-frame chandeliers made by Shu himself.
And the drinks are served in beakers! How quaint! I had a moment of squeamishness when I recalled the chemical-caked beakers from my uni days, but these were squeaky clean, and have hopefully seen no chemicals outside of dishwashing liquid! Anyway, for just $60pp (or $45 per vegan-person), you’ll be treated to 12 delectable Sichuan fusion dishes served over 4 courses – definitely some of the best value I’ve come across.
|Steamed Tofu Pockets/Chilled Silken Tofu Jar/Daikon Roll|
Our first course was a selection of cold dishes. Though the trio of starters included an oyster with apple lime and black caviar, my aversion to that one particular shellfish meant that we were served Steamed Tofu Pockets instead. Not that we minded of course; the firm wedge of steamed tofu, marinated in spices, was split in half and stuffed with a classic mix of roasted peanuts and crunchy preserved mustard greens.
|Chilled Silken Tofu Jar|
The Chilled Silken Tofu Jar is something the likes of which I’ve never seen before. A stout tumbler was layered with lima beans, chickpeas, lentils, salmon fillet, house-made chilli jam, and of course, silken tofu. We were instructed to give it a good mix and I have to say, the result was fantastic.
|Chilled Silken Tofu Jar|
The tastes of this unique little salad were held together by the house-made chilli jam, but it was the silken tofu and salmon, contrasting so vibrantly with the chewy medley of beans, that really caught my attention. It was fresh, it was flavoursome, and at $5 a pop on the a la carte menu, it’s hard to resist coming back just for this alone.
Continuing to surprise was the Daikon Roll. Though really just a salad of Asian vegetables and herbs, it was stunningly presented, wrapped up in a translucent sheet of daikon and placed in a shallow dish of spicy soy. Speaking of the spicy soy, this is the real stuff. Whilst the Sichuan influences have been quite subtle up until this point, the lip-numbing peppercorns in this sauce were unmistakable.
|Crispy Fried Spring Roll of Flathead and Fennel Puree/Pan Fried Pork Dumplings/Pan Grilled Organic Chicken Wings|
Chris, who up until this point had battled his way through the unfamiliar herbs and unusual flavour combinations, was glad to see that the second course showcased a selection of fried items. The Crispy Fried Spring Roll of Flathead and Fennel Puree gave a new lease of life to the age-old dim sum staple, and the Pan Grilled Organic Chicken Wings were a succulent, caramelised treat, rubbed in cumin and honey soy.
|Pan Fried Pork Dumplings|
But it was the Pan Fried Pork Dumplings I was exceptionally fond of. Delicately pleated with a traditional filling of pork and ginger, it was the freshly chopped red chillies in the sauce that made the golden bottoms of these dumplings dance.
|Tiger Prawn Salad|
Then came the entrees. The first on the agenda was the Tiger Prawn Salad, tossed once again in that peppercorn-heavy sauce that makes the lips tingle. The fire in the dish was tempered by the cool, crunchy veggies and fresh herbs.
|Slow-Cooked Beef Cheek Slices|
I was incredibly impressed with the Slow-Cooked Beef Cheek Slices. Whilst the marinade was nothing ground-breaking (well to me anyway, as mum uses a very similar mix of spices for her slow-cooked beef), consisting of what I’m guessing to be star anise, peppercorns, chillies, and cooking wine, amongst other things, the texture of the meat itself is a revelation. Never have I had beef that has been cooked to such unctuous tenderness; I was cutting it into pieces with my spoon.
|Pan Roasted Eggplant|
|Pan Roasted Eggplant|
And finally, Pan Roasted Eggplant, smoky and soft, rolled up and stuffed with a mix of nuts and preserved veggies. And that’s how our savouries drew to an end. Except it turns out Shu thought that we were full (and in all fairness, I did say “we’re so full”), and kindly decided not to force the mains upon us as well. I’M SO SORRY SHU!
And you know what dishes we missed? Crispy Fried Twice Cooked Pork Belly. Sweet and Sour Organic Chicken Fillets. Slow Cooked Organic Tofu. I could’ve eaten my hat with regret.
|Organic Raw Avocado Cheesecake|
But still, our meal had a sweet ending. Defying tradition one last time, Shu served up a slice of Organic Raw Avocado Cheesecake. By itself, the cake was a bit bland, though the buttery flavour of the avocado really shone through. Add in the ginger syrup and dried blueberries however, and this dessert transformed itself into a sweet and tasty treat that left a feeling of utter virtuousness.
I like the food at Shu Restaurant, but what I was really impressed with was Shu’s vision of turning Sichuan cuisine into something quirky and elegant, and how well those ideas were translated from paper to plate. Fresh and innovative, this dinner defied all my expectations of what Sichuan cuisine can and can’t be. Good show.
Rating: 14/20 – sichuan tapas. no, seriously.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Shu Restaurant.