A mainstay of the Melbourne University Carlton district, Middle Fish has thrived off the majority student and academic population, feeding them well over the past couple of years. Suffice to say, Middle Fish is the best food going on Berkeley St. Doesn’t hurt being neighbour to the ever-popular Seven Seeds, and I am certainly not suggesting that coffee at Middle Fish is by any means shabby. Pla Liamthong previously worked with Salvatore Malatesta (St Ali) so she knows good coffee. Their coffee certainly holds its own against the relatively fierce competition in the surrounding vicinity.
One thing that keeps enticing me back to Middle Fish is the authentic Thai cooking, the punchy in-your-face flavours and unapologetic use of chilli. It is honest-to-goodness Thai food, something that is lacking and absolutely under-appreciated in Melbourne. You can easily find great Japanese, Korean or Cantonese cuisine in Melbourne city. But Thai, largely cheap imitations. At Middle Fish, you’re getting the real deal. Make no mistake, this chilli punch is completely difference from Chinese cuisine. On a sidenote, I seldom consume rice, but here I say ‘Feed me more’! There is always a good crowd during lunchtime, but it also serves a delightful breakfast spread. Try the Hoy Tod – a breakfast omelette of mussels and pickled bean shoots, topped with delicious homemade Sri Ra Cha chilli sauce. The option of Kao Tom, a breakfast dish comprising of brothy rice soup, a poached egg and shredded chicken breast or crispy pork belly, is very interesting. For the tame-hearted, there are the more typical Melbournian breakfast options, but seriously?!
And now, Middle Fish is rolling out a new menu based on the inspirations of Southern Thailand. A change in menu doesn’t bring hope to those fearful of spicy food. Pla isn’t holding back any of the wonderful, aromatic, saliva-inducing chillis from her curries. I love the industrial, factory-type confines of this joint. It is spacious, lifted by plenty of light, you could comfortably have a casual lunch meeting here. Any tighter and the noise levels might truly reach the lunchtime hawker crowds you find everywhere in South-East Asia. There is the slight issue of no alcoholic options at present, and this is solely down to council zoning issues. However, Pla has personally reassured me that this will be corrected very soon.
So, what’s on the new menu? Firstly, get comfortable at your table. Order some of that cleansing chocolate and almond tea to relax your mind. The mildness of the flavours primes your tastebuds for the most soothing and satisfying lunch you’ll have this summer season. Next, wet your appetite with the well-prepared representative snacks which I’d recommend sharing around the table. For starters, try the mushroom springrolls ($7/3 pieces) and Tiger Prawn springrolls ($8.50/3 pieces). The vegetarian mushroom springrolls have a good crunch factor, and the fried pastry layer is just sufficient to retain the moisture dense filling. The prawn springrolls are made out of single prawns, so none of that cheap minced prawn here! Literally 97% prawn within 3% thin pastry coating. I could easily wolf down 2 serves of these for lunch. Also highly recommended is the Sa La Pao, the Thai version of the steamed bun, that is filled with pork dry curry or Kau Kling ($3.50 per piece).
I also tried mini version of their Fishcake & Bacon burgers which have this tasty gooey Kang Som tartar, a mayo-based filler made with a Southern Thai curry paste. The regular sized burger goes for $14.50, and there is also a soft-shell crab burger for $17.50. For a bit more to crunch, there are a variety of salads including salmon, lemongrass & honey chicken, and Crying Tiger (slices of medium-rare beef).
Within the realm of Asian cuisine, there are what I’d describe as 2 distinct circles of curry – ones you have with rice, and other which you’d pair with noodles. At Middle Fish, you now have the luxury of distinguishing between both. If you’re feeling more peckish, go for the Kang kati, a coconut-heavy dense flowing curry which you’d slather over steaming white rice. Back home, I’d have this with sides of fried vegetables, fried chicken wings and satay. For a more traditional option, the Kang Prik will not disappoint. This is the chicken curry with the lovely aromas of tumeric, incorporating kaffir lime leaves, soft carrots and potato, with intense curry flavours.
The alternative to rice is Ka Nhom Jeen, or Thai vermicelli noodles. Because noodles feel somewhat lighter, and they are the best at soaking up flavour, I’d highly recommend going for a seafood sort of combination. So I’d order the Nam Prik which is tiger prawns in a lovely red, sweet and sour curry made with palm sugar and tamarind sauce, topped with crushed peanuts. Or, and this is what I tried on the day, for a stronger more intense flavour, somewhat unique if you’re not familiar, the Tai Pla, or grilled Mackerel. This dish has got a good level of heat going for it. Basically you have pieces of grilled mackerel in a fish maw curry with pieces of soft sweet potato. A bold curry, if I ever had to pick one.
The previous desserts were limited to sweet rotis, so I’m really hoping Middle Fish has expanded on their dessert range. The steamed coconut dumplings aren’t served hot, these are usually served at room temperature or slightly chilled. A coconut custard dessert (a double whammy combination of 2 of my favourite desserts, how can I resist?!) with densely packed red bean paste filling in the middle. My personal favourite, gelatin coated water chestnut with jackfruit slices in cold, creamy coconut milk. Reminds me so much of chendol.
I think this is a brilliant decision by Pla to shake up the menu at Middle Fish. Starting with the brightly coloured menu, captivating visuals of the dishes, and a short story behind it all. There is a friendly atmosphere to the place, great place to meet up for coffee; although parking is tricky at times. The dishes are priced fairly and their approach to preparation is straight-forward (thankfully nothing complicated). Most importantly, such authentic flavours, exactly what I’m looking for, and it just takes me back to my jaunts to Thailand.
Disclosure: My thanks to Sarah Negri of Zilla & Brook for the invite to this event.