Melbourne loves to talk big about its multicultural credentials but until now, there’s been a Philippines-sized gap in the city’s eating CV. We’re totally down with Thai jungle curries, Shanghainese xiao long bao and Malaysian char kway teow, but the Filipino dinuguan, kinilaw and sinuglaw have flown under the popular radar in defiance of Australia’s fifth-largest migrant community.
It’s double the reason to immediately fall in love with a restaurant delivering such a catchy modern hook on Pinoy cuisine you can almost dance to it.
Tucked down a dead-end laneway off Little Bourke, the good-looking room has a series of heavy rust-coloured doors (pro tip: choose the first one) that perplex newcomers but entertain the smug folk already seated inside the latest addition to the canon of Melbourne’s great semi-industrial restaurant spaces.
The entrance/exit scenario is too clever by half, but the rest of the package is just clever.
Opened by ex-Rice Paper Sister chef Ross Magnaye with a couple of chef compadres, Serai’s fire-based cooking riffs on his Filipino heritage without suggesting anything like authenticity.
In this spirit, Serai is aligned with Khanh Nguyen’s Sunda in its confident pan-Asian update: irreverent and exciting, playful and sharp.
The lechon cleaves closest to the original source material. The roasted free-range pig is all crackle and squish, the addition of pineapple into the gently spicy-sweet palapa sauce making it a thing of tropical beauty. But elsewhere, Magnaye’s technically deft interpretations show he deserves to be Melbourne’s latest chef hero.
Like the “McScallop”, a cheeky riposte to the golden arches starring a single fried scallop doused in deliriously rich crab fat sauce cut through with papaya pickle and sandwiched in a toasted pandesal bun. Or the 'Kare Kare' hashbrown, which takes another staple of the fast-food behemoth and adds a fire-roasted peanut sauce, plenty of herby zing and a blizzard of salted duck yolk. Have we seen such a thing before? No, we have not.
Book the ringside seats overlooking the mighty hearth for one of the best shows in town. When Magnaye and his crew aren’t defying third-degree burns at the hearth, they’re meticulously adding glittering jewels of smoked salmon roe to their play on lobster thermidor with sweet chunks of lemongrass-accented crustacean in a crisp pastry shell.
It’s not all irredeemably pretty. Dinuguan with blood sauce subs Wagyu in for the traditional pork in the Filipino stew then sticks it on toast. The meat lolling in a rich dark gravy infused with pig blood, garlic, chili, and vinegar is so comforting you’ll be thinking of it next time you stumble home at midnight.
The place is heaving. Deservedly. The staff are mostly keeping the three-ring circus together, aided by a wine list that swings natural without being too preachy about it and a bunch of mocktails that make not drinking a valid lifestyle choice.
Can’t decide between dessert and cheese? The problem’s solved with their bastard love child of leche flan with its smoke-licked, custardy base topped with passionfruit pulp. Like Serai itself, it’s a reference point and a casting off: at once old, new and wonderful.