“Whenever I encounter mild food that a waiter describes as spicy, I have to remind myself that some people in Australia call toothpaste spicy.”
A DINING EXPERIENCE REVIEW
Type: Asian Fusion Food: 8/10 Service: 7/10 Value for money: 6/10
- Your bill will be expensive. Whilst the small sharing dishes are priced very reasonably for the amount of food you get, the larger dishes surprised me, with the cheapest item starting at $39 for average sized portions.
- The menu has been designed with seasonality and innovation in mind, so you are sure to find some interesting ingredients in your curries and the freshest flavours.
- Must try: Roasted duck yellow curry and the Kung Pao chicken
First of all, apologies for the poor photo quality (curse the iPhone camera quality in low light).
Cobblestones and black patent pumps are not a good combination, I tell myself as I carefully tread down Oliver Lane. And I’d like to think it is in the same manner as Phillipe Petit walking across a high wire between the twin towers: graceful yet careful. In reality I fear I may look more like a newborn calf, but thankfully Josh notices and grabs my hand to help me balance.
You will reach Coda’s modest and slightly hidden entrance once you overcome this steep cobblestone obstacle course. At street level, the basement windows allow you to peer down nosily at the diners sitting around sleek dark tabletops, feasting on colourful dishes that are dressed in coriander, mint and crispy crackers. You enter through the almost invisible bar, hidden in the shadows and scarcely lit with soft warm light in contrast to the natural light pouring down onto the dining room, and you will be tempted by the mixed scent of fragrant rice and exotic marinades.
The fragrant rice in particular is extremely comforting for me. Not even trying to be the epitome of fob Asian, but this is what my house smells like 95% of the time.
Josh and I are greeted by a willowy young woman with a pixie cut dressed in all black, who leads us to a table just below one of the basement windows. There is still a bit of sunlight, and it dances shyly in my dining partner’s eyes as he moves to pull his chair in. Although it is early, most of the tables around us are already occupied and I can see several groups already on their starters. This place is notoriously difficult with bookings, so I suspect most people (like us) accepted whatever time there is available. If it means having dinner at 5 pm so be it. We are lucky to score a rather decent sitting at 6.15. Not drinks-before-dinner decent, but enough time for us to finish up at work without rushing too much. Appropriately peckish but even more thirsty for a drink, I get started on a glass of Riesling and Josh treats himself to a beer.
There is a bit of uncertainty as we look over the menu. The prices seem varied… Glancing to my left, I can see that the couple next to us has just been served the Hanoi style fried rice paper rolls, which are a steep $9.50 each for something not so large. But then the couple to our right is hunched over examining a spectacular dish that looks to be the duck Larb. For only $20, they seem to be getting way more for their buck than the other guys.
“Shall we get oysters?”
Those words to me are just as beautiful as the words “I love you” in any language. I nod in agreement, and suggest that we also get the pork ribs because it is cheap but sounds heartier than some of the other options under “smaller” plates.
GOD I love oysters. Have I mentioned this to you already? No? Just a reminder then. And the oysters at Coda taste incredibly fresh. I’m talking straight out of the water fresh. Not fishy, but…Oceany. Unappealing to some, but heaven for me. They are creamy and light, served with a sharp, umami sauce that gives each mouthful a bit of a kick. Heaven.
Now, it is possibly a brave decision to follow up strong oysters with rich soy glazed pork ribs, but we are not exactly the conventional Dick and Sally. Still staggering from the punches served by that oyster sauce, we are offered our next starter in the form of a pork rib jenga tower: drenched in a dark, glistening gravy and golden slivers of miso mayo.
Josh is very impressed. You can see it in his eyes and by that huge grin on his face obviously. When he isn’t impressed, he does this raised eyebrow thing usually followed by a polite “ooh, interesting!”.
Right, so this starter is modern-huge. Do you like this made up non-word? I’m using this made up word to describe portions that are much larger than your average modern/trendy restaurant portions. Just last weekend we dined at Uncle in St Kilda where we were served starters that were literally a mouthful per person per serve. This dish of pork ribs is the size of a main at Uncle, Gradi, New Market Hotel etc etc. It is also mouthwateringly good. The overall flavour of the dish is sweet and salty, and the texture rich and fatty. Perhaps it could do with a few more of those crispy pork crackling bits sprinkled on top to add complexity – but other than that: faultless.
I’ve never actually had Kung Pao chicken before, but all I know is that it is traditionally a Sichuan dish so I get a little bit excited and tell Josh that we should order it. Being a spice fiend, I’m always on the look out for a dish that will leave me a bit flushed. It’s like an addiction. Most people get addicted to caffeine or cocaine and here I am addicted to chilli and pepper.
“Now I have to warn you, this dish is a little more on the spicy side,” says the waitress as she takes our order for the chicken. She is looking pointedly at Josh, as if to say you don’t look like you can handle it, but he laughs and tells her he isn’t worried about spiciness. He is like me: a fellow chilli addict.
I chuckle quietly to myself thinking of telling the waitress that the scariest thing about this dish is the price. $39 dollars for Kung Pao chicken! Also, whenever I encounter mild food that a waiter describes as spicy, I have to remind myself that some people in Australia call toothpaste spicy. So most of the time, I completely ignore warnings like this. However this time I stand corrected. Ok, so the dish isn’t flaming-lips -needs-milk-to-wash-down “spicy”, but it sure has a nice heat through it. The spiciness is flavoursome as well, and it is absorbed right to the bone by that insanely tender chicken. There is a savoury, fiery braising liquid that the luscious bird sits in and it is like liquid gold. Spice level: 6/10. Pretty decent.
We are actually already quite full by this point, grossly underestimating the power of rice and not expecting the size of the sticky pork ribs starter dish. Our yellow duck curry arrives at the same time and – whilst hearty and has a lot of height thanks to impeccable presentation skills – is about roughly the same size as the chicken. At $42 a plate, the protein is divided into 4 small portions (2 drumsticks and a breast halved) and is served with addictive crispy taro chips. The curry isn’t like any other yellow curry we’ve ever had, but we’re not complaining. What a dish! The flavour is rich and earthy – more akin to Indian style curries – and like the Kung Pao chicken, the sauce seeps deep into the sweet, fall-off-the-bone duck meat. You can tell that they’ve been cooking these proteins in the beautiful sauces long and slow. The duck literally melts in your mouth.
There is a bit of hesitation when the dessert menu is offered to us at the end of our meal. We are stuffed, but we’ve seen other tables receive their desserts and everything looks spectacular. Eventually, we opt for no sweets in an attempt to save room for fanciful cocktails at Eau de Vie two alleyways down from Coda. If you have never been to Eau de Vie, I highly recommend booking a booth to take a date out during cooler weather. The venue is perfect for long, intimate conversations over impressive looking cocktails. It’s a great post or pre-dinner pit stop when you dine out at one of the restaurants along Flinders Lane.
Overall, the dining experience at Coda was delightfully elegant and imaginative. Probably one of the better fusion restaurants in Melbourne that I think gets the “fusion” aspect right. It’s not the deconstructed-spring-rolls type of fusion asian food that is becoming way too common now, and it’s not the overpriced asian street-food dressed up on slate plates in renovated warehouses either. I urge you all to treat a loved one to a meal here, and remember to mind your table manners!