Where: Bowl Bowl, 88 Smith Street Collingwood
What: Drunk food that can only be appreciated five wines down
Who: The Doc
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
Confession: I’d tried Bowl Bowl once before and didn’t rate it, but had since heard from two different friendship groups that I had simply mis-ordered, which convinced me to give it another shot. Sadly, my opinion has not changed.
From the effusive reviews Bowl Bowl had received from my friends, I gathered that a) they had eaten there while inebriated and b) their praise was reserved for Bowl Bowl’s Australian-Chinese dishes like honey chicken and Mongolian beef – dishes that, as Jinghua Qian writes about dim sims, are “often derided as an example of whitewashed Chinese food” but that “are part of a cultural fabric unique to Australia”. Although I’ve tasted many a gelatinous honey chicken, I was up for an experience that would forever change my perception of the dish and so I’d set my sights on ordering it at Bowl Bowl.
Bowl Bowl is a spacious Chinese restaurant on Smith Street that is usually teeming with diners but was empty when The Doc and I visited at 5.30 on a Friday evening, looking to shovel down some food before a talk. Bowl Bowl’s head chef is the experienced Kun Fu, who is from Chengdu, Sichuan – which explains the Sichuan-influenced menu.
Bowl Bowl doesn’t follow convention, proven by the fact that we received cheesy corn chips as a pre-meal snack instead of the quintessential prawn crackers. I’m not supposed to eat corn chips but I did anyway, preparing myself for an hour of blatant intolerance breaches.
Bowl Bowl has a large, varied menu – the first page of which is dominated by a selection of handmade dumplings. Traditional names like xiao long bao have been swapped out for ‘water bomb’ on Bowl Bowl’s menu, while fusion dumplings like ‘Chitalian’ combine Chinese ingredients like ginger stock and rice wine with fennel. The ‘Chitalian’ and ‘veggie bean lover’ dumplings are both available in gluten-free versions so long as you have them steamed, but I wasn’t going to inflict that on The Doc, who can tolerate gluten just fine.
The Doc and I decided to order the ‘red hot cow’, going on the positive reviews I read of it on Zomato. Only available pan-fried, this dumpling combines beef with ripe tomato, onion, mushroom, ginger stock and rice wine. The inclusion of tomato and mushroom intrigued me and terrified me in equal measure, the former because I’m not used to seeing them in dumplings, the latter because they’re both high-histamine ingredients.
Sadly, the intolerance breach wasn’t worth it. This dumpling was akin to a sausage roll in dumpling form, but not nearly as good – any complexity of flavour that I expected from the tomato and mushroom was non-existent, with the hunk of beef tasting like nothing but beef. At the same time, I could see these crisp pan-fried morsels going down a treat a few wines / beers / beverage of choice down. I did enjoy the spicy peanut sauce served alongside the dumplings, but The Doc didn’t feel as though the sauce cut through the richness of the dumplings enough.
The boiled ‘signature’ pork dumplings that we ordered came doused in a scallion, peanut, sesame oil, garlic, Sichuan pepper and chilli sauce. These were better without being amazing – the sauce was more sweet than spicy, and although I’ve since learned that Shanghainese cuisine, for instance, errs on the sweet side after reviewing Nong Tang Noodle House for Time Out, these dumplings contained none of the perfect interplay between sweet and spicy that were evident in Nong Tang’s pork and prawn wontons.
When the honey chicken came out, we were bowled over (pun intended) by how big the portion was, so points to Bowl Bowl for hearty servings. But The Doc was none too impressed – in her view, shareable dishes at restaurants should be small enough that groups of two can order one between them and big groups can order multiple between them. We couldn’t finish this and The Doc ended up doggy-bagging some of it to bring home, so not the worst outcome.
Let’s start with the honey chicken’s good points. The pieces used were clearly high-quality cuts of chicken, and deep-fried to perfection. But instead of being doused evenly throughout with a honey sauce, a few pieces had been drizzled with something more reminiscent of kecap manis than the golden syrupy sauce I associate with honey chicken. But what was weirdest about this dish was the dollop of coconut cream served alongside the chicken – the strong coconut flavour distracted from the chicken without enhancing it, and both The Doc and I were mystified by its inclusion. Again, it could’ve been something that would’ve gone down a treat if I were drunk, but I was sadly not. By this stage, I could feel like tummy swelling to the point of no return, no doubt due to these following ingredients that are considered high-histamine: tomato, onion, mushroom, wheat, honey, chilli and the list goes on.
Bowl Bowl’s 4.2 out of 5 rating on Zomato underlines that The Doc and I are outliers. If I’m ever drunk (likely) and within 100 metres of Bowl Bowl, I could be convinced to visit and would probably have a great time. As far as I know, Bowl Bowl is also the only place other than Mao Please in Chinatown that has gluten-free dumplings – so if nothing else, Bowl Bowl is providing an alternative for the dumpling-loving coeliacs and wheat-intolerant out there.
Bowl Bowl is open from Monday to Friday from 11.30am to 3pm and from 5.30pm to 10pm, on Saturday from 5.30pm to 10pm, and on Sunday from 12pm to 3pm and from 5.30pm to 10pm.