'Asian fusion' is a bit of a dirty phrase these days, which is bad news for culinary giants like the Commune Group (New Quarter, Hanoi Hannah, Tokyo Tina and Firebird) who’ve built their brand around the concept. But with their newest venture Moonhouse, located off Carlisle Street in Balaclava, it’s clear they are trying to move away from gimmicks towards something with a bit more substance.
Whether or not they’re succeeding is a bit murkier.
The menu, led by executive chef Anthony Choi, head chef Shirley Sunnakwan and pastry chef Enza Soto, plays on old-school Chinese-Australian dishes like Peking duck (prepared two ways), prawn toast (reimagined as perfectly cut, sesame-crusted squares with lobster bisque for dipping) and Hainanese chicken rice (served in mini-club sandwich form on crustless rounds of soft white bread). With nods to both the Hainanese dish and ubiquitous poached chicken sandwich found at every Aussie café, this spin has universal appeal – nearly every table in the packed restaurant had one.
As with the group’s other venues, the food is undoubtedly whitewashed. Even with a healthy lashing of chilli oil, the chicken and prawn wontons, served in a broth we thought tasted faintly of salt and little else, feels dumbed down for a non-Chinese audience – though to be fair, we did overhear the person next to us complaining that their noodles were "too spicy".
Where the menu shines is in its vegetarian and vegan fare. Deep-fried tofu can be notoriously flavourless, even when marinated, but somehow the Moonhouse crew manage to pack it with deep, savoury notes that hold their own against the meat. Their version is served on a bed of creamy tofu purée and garnished with fried onions to maximise the delightful crispness of the tofu. Their Lo Mai Gai – or as they call it, XO Sticky Rice Mushroom in Lotus Leaf – swap chicken for tender, soy-braised eggplant that could easily be its own standalone dish. And even the standard stir-fried veg is a winner, hitting sweet, sour, salty and spicy in just the right amounts.
With any restaurant, it’s all about the trifecta of cuisine, service and ambience. And ambience is the one area the restaurant has almost nailed. The odds were already in their favour here. Formerly home to Ilona Staller, the Art Deco building has great bones. But the Moonhouse team have played up its glam factor, adding asymmetrical hanging globe lights (the moons, if you will) and shielding the kitchen with deep red panes of glass that beautifully catch the flicker of flames from a burning wok.
The one glaring fault is that the tables are too close together. By the end of the night, we'd bumped the neighbour to one side and learned far too much personal information about the one to the other. We had to look the other way awkwardly while the latter snapped at the well-meaning but overbearing waiter. Admittedly, the attentiveness was slightly off-putting, but it’s better than being ignored all night, right?
Generally, though, the energy is convivial rather than overwhelming – good for dates and family outings alike. With a decent wine list to boot, Moonhouse invites you to linger – at least until you decide you don’t want dessert, at which point I received the check immediately.
If you’re after traditional Chinese fare, this is certainly not the spot. But if you’re in it for the ambience, it’s worth a visit. Regardless of how you feel about the Commune Group, there’s no denying Moonhouse is a step up for them.