Chef David, Melbourne

As we find ourselves in yet another lockdown, I will be reviewing restaurants I visited way back when but who are still doing pickup and/or delivery during this time. Please support them by ordering whatever you can from them – whether it’s food, merch or fresh produce – to help them stay afloat in these difficult times.

Where: Chef David, Level 1, 462 Elizabeth Street Melbourne

What: One of the most novel fish dishes I’ve ever had

Who: White Russian, Mr Beefcake, Plant Whisperer, Innocent Until Proven Kilty

Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed

Back when we could venture into the city and were indeed rewarded for venturing into the city through the state government’s short-lived Melbourne Money program, we celebrated White Russian’s birthday at Chef David.

White Russian has never appeared on WFYB before, but she is indeed white, Russian and as potent as the vodka-based alcoholic beverage. She’s also extremely in the know about new dining establishments through extensive TikTok scrolling, where the neon-lit interiors of Chef David appear to be making waves. White Russian is even more enthused than I am by offal and different cuts of meat, which is why she was taken by Chef David, which “pivoted”, as they say, from a hot pot restaurant to a Sichuan grill house in mid-2020 and now serves the likes of duck heads, pig intestines and spicy duck blood – though we ended up ordering none of those things. Her husband Mr Beefcake has a personal training business by the same name and is as enthused about cocktails and getting shredded as his wife is about offal.

Chef David’s expansive menu is available for perusing on an iPad, but the waitstaff are more than happy to talk you through it as well. Innocent Until Proven Kilty – who was wearing a kilt the first time I met him – has a severe nut allergy, and the waitstaff assiduously took him through the menu, notifying him of what he could and couldn’t eat. They presumably did a stellar job, because at no point did Innocent Until Proven Kilty rue the fact that he’d left his emergency EpiPen at home.

I’m obsessed with the way potatoes are cooked in regional Chinese cuisines – as this Woks of Life (one of my favourite food blogs) recipe outlines, potato is often treated as a vegetable instead of a carb and is typically eaten with rice. In cold, mountainous regions of China, potatoes are consumed as a staple when other vegetables and fruit become scarce. So don’t let anyone tell you potatoes are devoid of nutrition! Potatoes are particularly popular in Dōngběi cuisine as part of a dish called di san xian or ‘three elements from the earth’, which sees potato stir-fried with eggplant and capsicum – if you want to taste this dish without making it yourself, Northeast China Family on Flinders Lane does a mean version. Potato is also popular in Sichuan cuisine, where it is sliced extremely thin and flash-fried in hot oil made aromatic from Sichuan peppercorns in a dish called tudou si. We ordered an iteration of this dish at Chef David – the potato with sour-spicy sauce ($8), featuring crunchy potato wedges drizzled in tabasco pepper and a sour spicy sauce.

Unlike julienned strings of potato, this dish had crinkle-cut potatoes doused in a fiery, garlicky chilli blend with notes of Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve been known to not be a fan of Sichuan peppercorns, but their numbing properties were understated enough in this dish for me to enjoy them. The crinkle-cut potatoes were delicious while being simultaneously too spicy for anyone to eat more than a few chips at a time.

We also ordered the pork belly skewers ($10), where cumin and five spice-spiked pieces of pork belly were threaded on to skewers and chargrilled. I used to tell myself I didn’t like pork belly because I didn’t like the huge fatty bricks that arrived whenever I ordered it in a western restaurant, but I love the way pork belly is prepared in Chinese cuisines – these pieces were small enough that there was a high ratio of marinade-to-surface, which made them immensely flavourful and pleasantly fatty without being too unctuous. Chargrilled skewers are a popular street food in China, ranging from Xinjiang grilled lamb skewers in northern China to yangrou chuan(spicy cumin lamb skewers) in Beijing.

Ever since I first had it at Dumplings & More, I can’t go past fresh cucumber with garlic sauce ($7) whenever it appears on a menu. Chef David’s smashed cucumbers were liberally doused in garlic and arrived at around the same time as the spicy potato dish, which was excellent timing really.

Known as pai huang gua, this vegetable dish is served across China as a cooling antidote to what us Asians call ‘heaty’ food. The cucumbers are smashed and mixed in with plenty of garlic and drizzles of soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, sugar and sesame oil. As detailed in this New York Times recipe:

“The smashing process, a classic Chinese technique, cracks the skin, helps release the seeds and splits the flesh into appealing craggy pieces. Salting and chilling the cracked cucumbers give them the perfect cool, crunchy, watery mouth feel.”

Because we couldn’t get enough of pork belly, we also ordered David’s deep-fried pork belly ($15) where deep-fried, egg-battered pieces of pork belly arrived in a paper cone. They reminded me of those packets of pork scratchings you can buy from the supermarket, but these were so much more flavour-filled. The double-fried sweet potato starch batter had the numbing spiciness of Sichuan peppercorns in it, dusted off with a dry spice seasoning consisting of, you guessed it, more Sichuan peppercorns and five-spice powder. These were incredibly moreish and would make a perfect drinking snack. And just like with the crinkle cut potatoes, I really enjoyed them despite being able to faintly taste the Sichuan peppercorns.

Because White Russian is an absolute meat fiend, we also ordered the fried spareribs with garlic ($18.80). These little morsels of flavour were so tasty – I can’t recommend them enough.

To order something safe that Innocent Until Proven Kilty could eat with little to no caution, we ordered the sashimi platter ($29). The tuna, salmon and kingfish sashimi; the two scallops obscured so effectively by a clam shell that we almost missed them; and the oysters topped with black tobiko (flying fish roe), spring onion and ponzu sauce were incredibly fresh.

The platter itself arrived with much fanfare, shrouded in the theatrical vapour of dry ice. I benefited from siting sandwiched between Plant Whisperer, who has the magic touch with anything green, and Mr Beefcake – both weren’t much fans of sashimi, so I helped myself with careless abandon.

Chef David’s grilled fish dishes are its crowning glory, and we couldn’t go past the tomato sauce barramundi ($62.80). Swimming in a giant cauldron of tomato broth alongside potatoes, cucumber, Sichuan potato noodles, Spam, marinated tofu and beancurd skin, this dish was quite simply extraordinary – many comparisons to hot pot have been made online. The dish was a medley of varying textural contrasts, from the soft moist flesh of the impeccably cooked barramundi and its skin, redolent of all the flavours of the broth, to the crunch of the cucumber, the pleasant elasticity of the beancurd skin, the salty umami quality of the Spam cubes and the chewiness of the potato noodles.

The fish broth is best eaten spooned over a bowl of David’s egg fried rice ($16), although many of us were simply drinking it as a soup – you may do as you please, but you must order one of the ‘grilled live fish’ dishes on the menu if you visit. Don’t be put off by its hefty price tag – it’s well worth every cent, and particularly good when shared in a group, though we witnessed many pairs sharing it between themselves.

Unlike the famed Sichuan dish of shui zhu yu, which is swimming in Sichuan peppercorns, this dish had no discernible peppercorns and was much sweeter and milder. I couldn’t find an equivalent to this dish anywhere, but I would love to know if you’ve encountered it anywhere else.  

For dessert, we ordered the crispy fried sticky rice donut ($13) after reading rave reviews. This was incredibly interesting texturally – filled with fluffy glutinous rice almost reminiscent of sago and encased by a crunchy exterior. We were sadly too full by this stage to whole-heartedly enjoy it but it’s well worth ordering.

Apart from a few ordering hiccups – White Russian ordered a bottle of red, only to be told Chef David didn’t have a full bottle in stock after giving her a glass of it – it was as smooth a return to dining out as one could’ve hoped for after a lockdown (what we thought was our last lockdown, at the time).

Chef David is serving up a diverse mix of charcoal barbecue and hot pot-like fish dishes that are gaining fans far and wide due to the restaurant’s TikTok notoriety. Not even the tomato broth could cause an unsavoury bloat outcome this time, and I escaped with a mere two bloats.

Chef David is open every day from 5.30pm to 12am. At the moment, it is doing pick-up and delivery through Mr Yum.

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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