Lagoon Dining, Carlton

Where: Lagoon Dining, 263 Lygon Street Carlton

What: Food heavy on salt and spice – my two favourite things

Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Indo Food Bud

Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating

The city end of Lygon Street has seen a replacement of the old guard in the past year – pizza-by-the-metre favourite Da Salvatore has since been replaced by moody pizza tavern Leonardo’s Pizza Palace and more recently, 70-year-old Carlton institution Lygon Food Store gave way to contemporary Chinese restaurant Lagoon Dining. Thankfully Lagoon Dining is making good on the legacy of the big shoes it’s stepped into by churning out some of the best dishes I’ve tasted in a while.

Lagoon Dining fashions itself as a restaurant and bar dishing up “food that leans heavily on Chinese culinary traditions”. But unlike Arielle Haspel behind Lucky Lee’s in New York who was criticised for being “the latest in a string of white restaurateurs who have promoted their Asian cuisine by labelling it superior to food made by actual Asians” and Jean DeNoyer who operates Le Colonial, a San Francisco restaurant that “combines colonial exoticism with French sophistication and high prices”, Lagoon Dining is respectful and thoughtful. Owners Ned Trumble, Keat Lee, Chris Lerch and Susan Wyles met while working at fine dining restaurant Ezard and have joined forces to create a menu that draws from, among other things, Trumble’s Thai cooking background and Lee’s Malaysian one.

The menu is divided into the following categories: snack, raw, wok, protein, rice and sweet. We chose a few from each as well as two from the list of specials reeled off to us.

First up: hot and sour shredded potato with Chinkiang vinegar and pickled enoki ($7). From afar, the slippery sheen of the potatoes looked like noodles. Reminiscent of a homestyle Qingdao and Sichuan dish ‘qiang chao tu dou si’ found in restaurants throughout China, the sliced strips of crisp flash fried potatoes were similar in length and width to French fries and were the perfect vessel for absorbing the heat of the chilli peppers and the sourness of the Chinkiang vinegar. What I thought were anchovies atop the shredded potato were actually strips of fried onion, which only enhanced the umami flavours of the dish. I could’ve polished a whole plate of this myself.

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Before our dinner, Conflicted Pescatarian had decided he’d be foregoing his seafood-and-vegetable eating ways for the night so we ordered the popcorn chicken ($12), also off the snack menu. Seven morsels of crisp and moist chicken were dusted with togarashi (Japanese red chilli pepper) and presented with fried curry leaves, which accentuated the fragrance of the chicken. Our table was divided on whether the fried chicken was too salty but as a savoury fiend, I thought it was perfect. Starved of poultry as he was, Conflicted Pescatarian polished off two pieces before realising there weren’t enough for us to have two each, and Resident Photographer insisted Indo Food Bud, him and I split the remaining two pieces among us. Normally I’d let them have it but I didn’t argue this time.

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I could see why Lagoon Dining said it leaned heavily on Chinese culinary traditions instead of straight out calling itself a Chinese restaurant with the next dish we ordered off the wok menu – snake beans were interspersed with wilted garlic chives, cashews, shiitake mushrooms, dried prawns and nduja, a spicy spreadable pork salume from Italy ($16) in a nod to Lygon Street. The heat of the first dish carried through to this dish on account of the nduja, with a repeat sprinkling of fried onions again adding an umami dimension to the dish. The fresh crunch of the blistered beans was the point of difference in the melange of salt and spice.

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The next dish was one we cherry-picked from the specials and I forget the precise name of it, but it featured rectangular slabs of firm tofu doused in a chilli soy sauce with a liberal amount of coriander leaves blanketing it. As Indo Food Bud proclaimed before we tucked in, it’s lucky none of us had the genetic predisposition for tasting soap whenever we ate coriander because this dish had a lot of it. At this point, Resident Photographer remarked that many of the dishes we’d had so far tasted largely similar and while I agreed, I didn’t see it as a bad thing because I liked the flavours so much. I was continually impressed that the heat of each dish was at a decent level – Lagoon Dining clearly weren’t catering to mild palates.

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The rolled rice noodles with XO sauce, lap yuk (Chinese cured pork belly) and toasted sesame seeds ($16) off the wok menu were exceptional. The rolled rice noodles – reminiscent of cheung fun – were thick and gelatinous in the best way possible, expertly absorbing the treacly sweet XO sauce they were tossed in, and the lap yuk was a pleasing burst of saltiness in every bite. The nutty garnish of the sesame seeds reminded me of the Malaysian dish ‘rojak’ and placed it within the realm of Southeast Asian cuisine.

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Resident Photographer loved how each dish came out consecutively instead of together because it allowed us the time to carefully enjoy the intricacies of each dish, but the careful pacing gave way to a 50-minute wait once all our ‘snack’ and ‘wok’ dishes had arrived. It was a long wait time and we would’ve preferred a shorter break between our entrees and mains.

When our mains did arrive, they didn’t disappoint. The salted fish fried rice ($17), also off the specials menu, was light and fluffy. Instead of Cantonese salt-cured fish, Mediterranean bottarga was used, resulting in a more delicate flavour than the salted fish fried rice I’m used to eating at Chinese restaurants and yellow-speckled rice from the roe. The rice was peppered with small slivers of fried anchovies, similar to the ones you find in a nasi lemak.

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The rice was a treat when paired with the Hunan-style steamed barramundi with salted chilli and spring onion ($38). Chinese steamed fish is one of my favourite preparations of fish and what made this fish Hunanese was the duo jiao sauce used, where chopped red chillies are pickled in a briny concoction and scattered across the fish. This steamed fish was phenomenal – it was tender and easily fell off the bone (though Resident Photographer ate a disproportionate number of little bones that he had to keep picking out), and the fermented soy bean, garlicky and ginger soy sauce pooling beneath the fish was subtle and fragrant yet bold. This was an even more satisfying treat when mopped up with Japanese steamed rice ($6), which we also ordered a serve of.

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By this stage, we probably could’ve called it a day but I was inebriated from the two bottles of wine we’d shared among us and went along with (or maybe spearheaded – who knows) ordering dessert. We ordered the only two on the menu to share.

The mango pudding ($11) was not at all what I was expecting – instead of the firm, slightly gelatinous ones served in Thai restaurants and dim sum places, Lagoon Dining’s mango pudding was flatter and wobblier with less structural integrity, interspersed with slices of pomelo and sitting in a pool of evaporated milk. It was both creamy and fresh from the citrusy hits of pomelo and lime syrup.

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The malt parfait with a muscovado crumb and blueberry ($11) reminded us nostalgically of milo, albeit a very upmarket rendition of it, while the striking sourness of the blueberry compote performed a similar function to the pomelo in the mango pudding in that it offset the indulgence of the malt parfait. I preferred this dessert but they were both delicious.

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Lagoon Dining’s pricing is incredibly affordable when you account for the high quality fare on offer. It pays homage to various culinary regions in China while borrowing influences from Italy, Japan, Southeast Asia and elsewhere to craft interesting, multidimensional dishes that skimp on neither chilli nor salt. I can’t wait to be back as there were half a dozen other dishes that I wanted to try. Seeing I shouldn’t eat anything preserved, cured or salted, it’s no wonder Lagoon Dining resulted in four bloats.

Lagoon Dining is open from 5pm to late on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and from 12pm to late from Friday to Sunday.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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