Update: We attended this venue in October 2018 and some details may have altered since then.
The ranks of the Supers are swelling. The preferred honorific of Andrew McConnell (Supernormal) and Rita Macali (Supermaxi) has been adopted by the not-so shy and retiring Iain Ling to anoint his new Chinese-y diner two doors down from his other gaff, Hotel Lincoln.
The gods enjoy smiting hubris, but Super Ling has won their favour. With the talents of chef Michael Li, Ling has created a restaurant that’s emblematic of the strengths of Melbourne dining, circa 2018. The formula: take one lesser-known cuisine (here, the branch of Chinese food known as Hakka), add a dash of gastronomic wit and serve it in a room of pared-back simplicity.
A tight 30-seater rocking the bling of Bruce Lee posters is the kind of place where you won’t blink about putting your elbows on the table, while Li, working through a hidey-hole hatch down the back, provides an accessible portal into Hakka food.
But first, the mapo tofu jaffle. You could consider it Super Ling’s answer to Sunda’s cultish roti with Vegemite curry, although this particular meeting of old and new is dusted in blitzed chilli the colour of Cheezels and has shades of meat pie in the lava-hot spicy minced pork filling with a puck of silken tofu. It’s the sort of snack you’ll think longingly of next time you’re drunk with only a 7-Eleven for company.
Dumplings? Pork-filled wontons leavened with the spring of cuttlefish makes for the sort of dish anyone feeling under the weather should beeline for; a terrific clear, fragrant chicken broth freshened with jubes of winter melon is an exercise in soul food.
There’s something for most degrees of culinary adventure, from the anodyne charms of a fluffily retro Canto fried rice mined with lap cheong, and rugged Hakka spring rolls filled with pork and barramundi, carrot and squash - amp them with the house-fermented chilli - to the more statement-making fried barramundi collar, a kitchen feat of crisp golden skin and sweet, non-muddy meat in a warming lick of ginger oil, best prised with fingers from every nook and cranny.
Pork belly sticks closely to the authentic script, the unapologetic slices of almost pure fat offset by mustard greens, but Hakka’s meat-friendly credentials reach their apotheosis in a tour de force of mystery meats: slices of beef tongue, brisket and shin and silver-centred slivers of braised pigs’ ear, tender with a thread of resistance, hitting the pleasure receptors of texture lovers.
There’s one dessert: a “mille feuille” of custard and caramelised pineapple anchored by blistered wonton wrappers with the ghost of Sichuan pepper hovering somewhere nearby. Order it.
The drawbacks of a meal that’s both sharable and generous? You’ll be popping to the Lincoln to use the loos. You’ll be struggling to use the cat-crowned kiddie chopsticks with any degree of dexterity (never fear, they’ll sub in proper grown-up sticks at the first wail). You’ll be cursing paper napkins while asking for more fermented chilli.
And you might find yourself earnestly debating the best nomenclature for a place like Super Ling, where restaurant is too strong a word but canteen or diner not hefty enough. Really, it inhabits the exciting new space where cracking service exists along great food at a keen price point, backed by a wine list on more than nodding terms with pet nat and the wider world of vinous funk. Really, it’s indefinable, in the way of most places currently floating our collective boat. And that’s just super.