The Soho end of Flinders Lane has a new lease of life. It already had ample energy with all the chic galleries and shiny dining at the likes of Coda and Cumulus. But now another eatery beginning with C has rekindled the Flinders Lane flame.
Since Chin Chin opened in late May on the site of the scandalous Icon Bar it has been mobbed every night. Packed to the gills. Frustratingly full, sometimes. Fellow city restaurateurs have watched in awe as owner Chris Lucas (he of Pearl) cleverly exploited Twitter to build a crescendo of expectation about his latest venture. Melburnians stormed the doors on May 26 and haven’t let up since.
The continued success of Chin Chin is due not so much to social media as to the fact the food here is terrific. Like Longrain and Sydney’s Sailors Thai and Jimmy Liks (where chef Andrew Gimber once worked), this place celebrates the technicolour delights of Thai cuisine.
Placemat-sized menus list dozens of imaginative offerings over three columns under headings such as “little something”, “green stuff” and “a bit more”. It is hard not to over-order.
On one visit three of us tuck into an embarrassment of plates that includes the juicy pleasures of pancakes rolled with red-braised suckling pork, slaw and pungent herbs, and crunchy fried school prawns slathered in a dense prawn-and-fish paste.
Crunchy School Prawns
We tackle one enjoyable dish after another, from the roti madtarbak with its punchy, Indian-accented filling of spiced beef to morning glory, a wok-fried concoction of Siamese watercress with yellow bean and chilli whose texture (crunchy!) and taste are both pleasantly surprising.
Salt-and-pepper squid is the least exciting thing we eat, but its only real crime is being predictable.
Sour-orange curry, a staple of the Thai kitchen, appears here as a heady broth scented with galangal and basil, seasoned with tamarind and fish sauce and thickened with kingfish heads. It is subtly restorative.
The deep dining room is lit by tall windows over cobbled lanes by day and sultry lanterns at night. Asian pop art explodes on the walls behind the bar. There are dozens of tables but diners also bunch up along the bar or at the kitchen bench for front-row seats to the culinary theatre. The drinks list is an intriguing mix of Australian wines with some decent house drops by the carafe.
On another visit, eight of us opt for the “feed me” option where, for $66, the kitchen lavishes diners with a real feast. Highlights include kingfish sashimi that is super-fresh and spliced with fresh lime and chilli, coconut cream and kaffir lime leaves. Corn-and-coriander fritters are fluffy like clouds but much tastier when cradled in a lettuce cup alongside fresh ginger and Chin Chin’s insidiously addictive chilli jam, with its wicked slow burn.
Asian pop art on the walls
We detour to a salad of cuttlefish and glass noodle, fresh mint and carrot, its squeaky-clean flavours cleansing palates midway through a Thai smorgasbord that skips from the fiery Laotian cuisine of the north to the more Malay-accented dishes of the southern border region. And to think all this is prepared daily at a bayside factory then shipped to Flinders Lane.
Chin Chin is feeding hundreds every day – too many for the compact kitchen to handle – so dishes are prepped in the ’burbs and served up piping hot here. If that sounds a bit like a cafeteria, well it sort of is – a 21st-century, outrageously fashionable cafeteria. (Lucas himself calls it “an Asian workers’ eating house”.)
Whatever the kitchen arrangements, the proof is in the sticky pork – glistening morsels of caramelised vice whose sins are partly offset by a salad of sour herbs and a splash of chilli vinegar.
A red curry of wild boar is less likeable because the meat is as chewy as old pig.
But the next offering, a seriously great goat stew, more than compensates. It’s listed simply as “Indian-style barbecued goat” but you’d be hard pressed to find goat this tender, melting and dishy on the subcontinent.
Like many an Asian banquet, ours ends with ice-cream. Plump scoops of palm sugar ice-cream plonked in a chunky glass and showered with salted honeycomb. Hiding at the bottom of the tumbler is a sour lime jelly that helps balance the sugar bomb of the ice-cream-honeycomb combo.
It’s the happiest ending I’ve had in an Asian establishment for ages.
A sour orange curry with kingfish head, galangal and basil.
Chin Chin, 125 Flinders Lane, city
Cuisine \ Modern Thai
Chefs \ Andrew Gimber
Hip pocket \ $66 a head for lashings of food if you choose the “Feed Me” menu option. Wine extra
Open \ Daily, 11am-late
Highlights \ Fine Thai and fun times
Lowlights \ Busy busy
Bookings \ Only for 8-12. Otherwise pot luck
Phone \ 8663 2000
We rate it 7.5/10