Nothing more than a Mod-Thai version of Mamasita, but with pedestrian food, glacial service.
Following hype usually leads to profound disappointment, whether that be the top 10 best-selling books, must-adopt fashion trends, must-buy share investments etc. Through double-glazed doors, the newest restaurant hype in Melbourne town, Chin Chin, is simply vast. The main dining hall is furnished in what seems to be becoming a definitive Melbourne signature — dark woods, industrial lighting, bare tables. An open kitchen allows dining patrons to see the chefs conjure their magic. A long galley bar is lined with bottles labelled white on black, “Ping Pong Chin,” a playful, yet perhaps stark reminder of schoolyard taunts for some. With a nod to its auspicious opening in the Year of the Rabbit of 2011, a pink neon outline of a rabbit on the far back wall squeals fun rather than class. Huge rotating fans are positioned at the top of foundational pillars, yearning for summer exercise. Chin Chin in winter already pulsates with the deafening roar and throbbing heat characteristic of a bustling South East Asian hawker centre…and it keeps similar hours.
MoMo & Coco visited twice. Our first visit was a few weeks after official opening, after the peak dining hours of 6-9pm of a Saturday, and focused on Chin Chin’s sweet irresistibles and cocktails. Our second was an after-work dinner with colleagues on a Monday, where we sampled a gamut of food from the Mod-Thai, shared-plate style a la carte menu, decompartmentalised into “little things, soups, green stuff, curries, barbeques, a bit more, on the side, sweet things.” On that latter visit, our party selected crispy Vietnamese-style spring rolls encasing Lilliputian cubes of tofu, shitake mushrooms and spinach brought alive by its soy and yellow bean dipping sauce ($8); a “Morning Glory” salad of watercress basking in soy, yellow bean and a heavy hand of salt ($14); an aromatic Penang curry of eggplant and sweet potatoes erring towards an Indian rendition rather than a typically Penang Nyona or Malay style ($16); and a listless muddy Massaman beef brisket curry with pink fur apple potatoes ($19). The one highlight was the more fusion dish of soft pull-apart pork with a skin of caramelised molasses, flanked by a sweet sour salad in a light pool of lingering spicy vinegar ($24). We do not depart from the philosophy of this blog lightly, but it must be said because it has not, that for people who have grown up eating South-East Asian cuisine (such as a few members of our dining party), the subtleties and nuances of that region’s cooking failed to manifest in the overwhelming majority of Chin Chin’s dishes. It was either too much or too little, disappointingly food-court-like fare.
Chin Chin’s dessert menu was short and sweet, and like its savoury menu, pare-backed to the Eastern origins of the dish, no fussing about nor fancying with fusion things. Where the savouries failed however, the sweet irresistibles succeeded, showcasing a sensitive understanding of South-East Asian desserts, their texture and flavours and how to harmoniously combine both. Of four desserts available, we sampled three (excluding therefore, a platter of miscellaneous sweet things). The first Chin Chin irresistible sampled was the refreshing “Three Colour Pudding” ($11). It comprised a layer of savoury red beans, followed by the cream of sweetened condensed milk, intermeshed with little green worms of pandan-flavoured tapioca jelly. Swirled with caramel and garnished with a granita of coconut essence, it adhered closely to its South-East Asian heritage of a Malaysian cendol, with a touch of inspiration taken from the shaved ice of an ais kacang.
The second irresistible sampled was the “Palm Sugar Ice Cream Sundae” ($14), and is likely to become the more favoured irresistible for those unused to South-East Asian irresistibles. Here, a cap of honeycomb held no discernible saltyness despite the menu making such a claim. It further varied in generosity between our visits. Together with fine morsels of lime jelly lying at the bottom of the glass, the crunchy honeycomb somewhat balanced three scoops of ice cream featuring the robust, cloying sweetness of palm sugar. Though quite delightful, it was essentially nothing more than three scoops of ice cream.
The third irresistible sampled was the “Coconut Cream with Tapioca and Sweet Corn” ($9). One of MoMo & Coco’s dining companions considered that it looked like dishwater effluence. Thankfully, it did not taste like it. Served straight from the refridgerator, a tumbler of chewy and soft tapioca beads was compacted with golden nuggets of corn, topped by a thin spread of creamy and unusually salty coconut milk cream. A light finish. However, like most traditional Asian desserts, it proved divisive for those unused to such a textural and flavour combination. For others though, the differently salty coconut cream and sweet underlying components of corn and tapioca culminated in an addictive concoction.
Special mention to the service staff, for entirely the wrong reasons. MoMo & Coco heeded the siren call of Chin Chin and were greeted by harpies. Overworked, flustered not rather sharp. More interested in getting the bill to the table than getting food to the table. A staggering one hour for simple desserts to arrive. An usherette with attitude issues, leaving one dining companion thinking that a door sign “Chinks not allowed at Chin Chin” would have been appropriate. Food alone does not result in patron loyalty.
So the key question: is the hype warranted? Would we return?
If you prefer a modern Asian-Australian dining experience that is less raucous, far more refined, where service is consistent, professional and colour-blind, and where irresistibles are created from a Western foundation that fuses Eastern flavours with an elegant flourish, MoMo & Coco highly recommends Gingerboy, Coda, Golden Fields and Heirloom, because when in Rome, do as the Romans do. For Eastern-inspired cocktails and bar food, explore Cookie and Seamstress. For a more East Asian focus, rather than South-East Asian, go underground for Izakaya Den, upstairs at Shoya, and keep a level head at Robot. Although it does not come with our highest regard, if you are not averse to paying hefty prices for communal dining, consider Longrain. If you are new to modern Asian/Australian cuisine, make a reservation at Red Spice Road.
And Chin Chin? MoMo & Coco give it due credit for being brave and staying admirably close to its South-East Asian agenda, especially when it came to the irresistibles. Yes, there’s nothing mediocre nor horrible about the food at Chin Chin, but there’s absolutely nothing to rave about either. It’s all rather pedestrian. Uninspired. Because it makes no culinary breakthroughs, because dining-out is not only about the food, but also about the whole experience of service, ambience and an actual ability to converse with your dining companions, Chin Chin is nothing more than a Mod-Thai version of Mamasita — a similarly super-hyped darling of print media and the band-wagoning strands of social media, similarly housed in a palpably boisterous carefree venue, but… with consistently careless, mercurial, glacial service. It might be for some, but it just isn’t our type of dining venue. And really, Melbourne has better.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Chin Chin Restaurant, 125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Thai.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert that you can fit in, especially the more traditional.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Nothing more than a Mod-Thai version of Mamasita, but with pedestrian food, glacial service. Beware the harpies.