- Beaumaris, Thai
DANI VALENT July 4 2016
Madoljai means "inspiration" and it's a deliberate name for this new restaurant, opened a month ago by Thai chef Mawan (she prefers to go by one name). Mawan's project is heartfelt: she wishes to show Melbourne traditional Thai food, including resurrecting dishes that are neglected or disrespected. Inspiration is both muse and spur: Mawan uses it to create and also hopes to guide her customers towards a deeper appreciation of her cuisine.
As soon as you taste the food you know she's onto something. The flavours are pure, balanced and deep, and the cooking is sensitive. There are little-seen dishes like watermelon rice crackers, a northern Thai snack, made from steamed sticky rice mixed with watermelon juice and coconut milk, then dried. They're topped here with spanner crab and are a great one-bite starter.
The cutest dish is goong tod, a tiger prawn cutlet fashioned to look like a chick with mashed potato head, sesame seed eyes and carrot beak.
Gai yad sai (stuffed chicken wing) is less showy but pays off in succulent hidden treasures: the wing encloses lime-scented mince and bean thread noodles. The meat is free-range, pointing to a focus on quality produce that's evident throughout.
This is the first time Mawan is showcasing the food of her heritage, having cooked for three years at modern Vietnamese stalwart Dandelion, then as head chef at Mama's Buoi, a hip Vietnamese city eatery. Her ambitious, earnest first restaurant inhabits the somewhat formal premises that housed The Grange steak house until the day before Madoljai opened.
In fact, so swift was the transition that some customers with longstanding reservations turned up to find the ground had shifted under them. They could still have eye fillet, but it was dressed with roasted rice powder and hot-sour sauce. Many staff, including the head chef, have stayed on.
You'd hope that Mawan makes her own curry pastes – and she does. What's even more impressive is that she roasts, dries and grinds the ginger and turmeric that underpin the khao soi gai, a tapioca noodle dish with chicken breast, pickled mustard greens and soft egg in a light, fragrant coconut base. It's subtle and beguiling.
A duck curry is part royal Thai, part Melbourne mash-up. Slow-braised green curry duck leg is served with two types of eggplant (crunchy, seedy Thai eggplant and the peppy pop of pea eggplant), pineapple and tomato. There's roasted Peking duck on the plate too because Mawan (rightly, if oddly) thinks it adds a pleasant extra dimension to a traditional dish.
I'm not sure that Beaumaris has been waiting for this restaurant. The Lobster Cave is still powering on next door, after all. But I hope that the locals respond to Mawan's winsome passion project with sturdy appetites of their own.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)
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