Red Cliff (赤壁)

358 Neerim Rd
Carnegie, VIC 3163
03 9568 6555
Tues-Sun: 5pm-10.30pm
Sat & Sun: 11.30am-2.30pm
Thought it might be nice to start a post with the end of a meal. Pictured here, the end our second visit to Red Cliff. Hao was eager to have me try this place, it’s near where he lives and he’s eaten here many times. It’s popular amongst his Chinese friends and his mum.
I like it when you’re being introduced to an all-time favourite in somebody’s hood. Hao used to live in Carnegie and had eaten at most of the places down Koornang Rd. That’s local knowledge! I’m still quite curious about his palate, it’s incredibly different from mine. He brought me to Auntie’s Dumplings once, where he proudly said he has tried every item on the menu. I let him do the ordering and that meal ended up being quite difficult for me to stomach – fried rice, pan-fried dumplings, deep-fried sweet taro cakes… oh gosh, where are the cleansing soups and fresh veggies? I walked out of Auntie’s Dumplings with a sore throat and a greasy feeling inside. And both Hao and I are Chinese, we just grew up in different countries…

Red Cliff isn’t situated on the main stretch in Carnegie. It’s actually a lone star along Neerim Road and most of us, even those living within the suburb itself, wouldn’t know it’s there. However drive past this place at night and you’d find that it’s packed!! Hao tells me the food here stems from Hubei (鄂菜) province in central China. He says there’s NO holding back on the spiciness here. Yaaay! At first glance with the menu, I’d almost lump the style of food here with Sichuan cuisine as the dishes looked similar to my untrained eye. Obviously, I have much to learn about Chinese food…

The restaurant sparks from somewhat whimsical beginnings. It is named after John Woo’s 2008 two-part Chinese film named “Red Cliff”. Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro stars in the epic war film. Mmm… yummy actors, really. Will the food be equally hot?
We dined here during weekend lunch hours, where it’s much quieter and there isn’t a wait. I bet the buzz here would be completely different at night. The owner’s mum served us, speaking with Hao in Mandarin. She heard me throw in a few Chinese words, took one look at me, and gave a maternal knowing laugh saying how I was definitely not mainland Chinese and, from my accent, I’m probably from Singapore. Gee… accurate! She was so happy that “foreigners” would come eat at this restaurant. Ha ha ha… the irony! The ordering conversation continued in Mandarin and I heard mention of the words “chilli hotness” and “can he take it?” and “tone it down”.  It seems there has been customer feedback that the dishes have been too spicy. Nooooooooo!!!!! I want it as hot as it is!!
卤味拼盘 $12.80
Mix Stews (gizzard, duck wing, beef, duck neck)
Sadly, they did not have duck necks that Sunday afternoon. So we had two serves of gizzard. I’ve had takeaway duck necks a few weeks back from here and they were yummy. This cold dish was delicious with a reasonable spicy kick plus fragrant-numbing Sichuan pepper action. Hao however tells me that it used to be much spicier. Sadbooo… :(. I liked the duck wings best, nibbling away at the skin peeling things away from bone and tasting the yummy spicy sauce. A great starter dish.
大碗热干面 $6
Big Bowl of Hot Dry Noodles
There weren’t any English descriptions for this dish on the menu, so by direct translation, it means “big bowl of hot dry noodles”. This is something that Hao and his friends would eat with gusto and polish off easily. For me, I struggled. It tasted like a big bowl of warm, thick, carby noodles. No sauce, no accompanying ingredients, no spiciness, nothing to offset the richness, just noodles. They had a nutty taste to it, reminiscent of sesame seeds and peanut butter. While fragrant and probably yummy in its own right, I just couldn’t appreciate it. I think it’s because I generally don’t like too much nuttiness in savoury foods.
猪肚糯米滋补汤 $15
Pig’s Maw Soup with Sticky Rice
Another new menu item. Hao suggested we try this, thinking it’d be mostly a soupy dish with a bit of rice at the bottom of the soup, similar to Korean samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). We were wrong. Turns out it’s really just large intestine congee. Ha ha, I was SO disappointed. To go with the nutty noodles, I really really wanted a non-thick soup! The congee was gluggy, completely bland and again very carby. I struggled to eat the intestines because there were no spices or flavours to mask or complement the scent of the offal.
家乡自制酸奶 $4
Homemade yoghurt
I tried this drink on my first visit. It said homemade yoghurt on the menu, but Hao told me it’s homemade soy milk. I always like soy milk and it’d go with spicy dishes. So why not try that? What arrived was a glass of thick yoghurt that was rather lassi-like. Yet again, another item ordered that didn’t come out as I’d mentally expected. It tasted great though… but considering how carby the other dishes were, the yoghurt just made me feel fuller. It would’ve been good with super spicy dishes though…
Stir-Fry Tofu with Vegetable
We ordered this mainly because I simply wanted some vegetables for this meal. Can’t have another Auntie’s Dumplings re-enactment where everything was carby, oily, fried and without vegetables. What came out was fried tofu in a gooey hot and sour sauce. Sadly, I don’t like gooey sauces and am not particularly partial towards sauces that are sweet and sour. It also wasn’t spicy to me, I suspect matron-mum had told her son to tone it down. Arrrgh! The vegetables in this dish turned out to be shiitake mushrooms, bits of onion and the occasional slice of capsicum. Not vegetable-y enough for me.
Aside for the yummy mix stew starter dish, everything else we ordered was a total miss and I did not enjoy this meal. I think a lot of this happenstance could be just from dishes getting “lost in translation” between the menu, the owner’s mum, Hao and I. They were also probably pandering to my “foreign” palate and needs. And the dishes ultimately ordered probably didn’t merge together into a combination that would’ve been enjoyable. The whole meal felt spartan, with a high emphasis on carbohydrates, thick gooeyness and not much actual vegetables.

Red Cliff, take two.

I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of my first visit. A few weeks down the track, Hao and I once again ate here. This time, I told him “please ignore me, just order what you and your mum likes”. Without hesitation, he said we’ll have the salted fish soup then.
This time, instead of thick thick yoghurt, I had the canned papaya juice. Very nice… milky, yet light and not too sweet. Hao had the prune juice.
卤味鸭头 $5
Homemade duck head
It was a new menu item, but both of us knew any self-respecting Chinese would love such a dish. The owner’s mum served us again, and this time I told her in broken Chinese “我要中国辣!” (I want it China spicy). She laughed at me and walked into the kitchen.
I didn’t know how to go about eating this. Hao then patiently told me “eat the brain first”. D_D
It was delicious! This time the chilli-hotness was much stronger than the mix stews on my first visit. It takes ages to dismantle a sagittally sectioned duck’s head with your mouth and teeth, and that made the entire process so pleasurable. Here’s one dish you simply need to use your hands to eat. Great Sichuan-ish flavours, and there were so many little corners and crevices to sneak into, filled with delicious sauce-infused skin, cartilage, tongue, turbinates mmm.. mmmm!
My dismantled duck’s head.
干煸四季豆 $12
Spicy Long Bean

All the dishes came out together and we ate it with steamed rice and some of the soup’s noodles. I love dry fried snake beans, and this was an order that simply couldn’t get lost in translation because the type of vegetable has already been clearly specified in the dish itself… Cleverbooo! While it was fried, the dish wasn’t oily and had decent spiciness to it. I must mention though that the brown bits in the dish which I thought was mincemeat tasted like 101% pure salt…! Pick at the beans, but avoid avoid the brown bits!

酸菜鱼 $22.80
Spicy Fish with Sour Vegetable

Hao tells me this dish is so popular with him and his visiting mum that sometimes they’d just bring a stockpot to the restaurant and takeaway the spicy fish soup home. This dish was huge! Good for a shared table of 4. At first sip, the soup was very tasty, and quite reminiscent of Itek Tim. But it was very salty and probably not really meant to be drunk.Similar to the spicy Sichuan-style fish soups, I think what we got here is a way of eating soup dishes where you consume the pieces in the soup without drinking the soup itself. The soup being more like a sauce wherein the ingredients sit.
Whenever I eat with Hao, I’m always puzzled at how he only eats with chopsticks, and hardly ever touches the porcelain spoon. For me, I wield the spoon lots because I like putting things in it and I like having lots of gravies and sauces with my rice. That was even how he ate my homemade laksa… no spoon, just chopsticks and without drinking the broth!! Laksa is one dish where you really need to take in noodles, ingredients and broth all in one mouthful. Oh dear… Maybe back home, citizens from Hao’s region in China just don’t have the habit of drinking the soups along with the food in in it…?

I liked this dish. The fish pieces inside were actually very nice. I don’t think they were battered or pre-fried before going into the soup. The fish pieces were slightly springy, but mostly tender, milky and soft. Different from the thick, firm, rubbery fish pieces that you might find in soup dishes at other Chinese restaurants. I did drink a fair bit of the soup despite it being quite salty. It’s just my habit. The glassy sweet potato noodles had a typical firmish, chewy, elastic texture. It’s a noodle type that I am beginning to like more and more.
Part of me feels slightly ashamed that on my blog profile, I declare I’ve got an Asian palate. And yet I struggle to enjoy Hubei-style Chinese food. It goes to show how much of your taste preference depends on the food that you’ve grown up with. I love eating out with Hao because we are both Chinese by ethnicity and yet have such a hugely different taste palate. Even if eating and finding out what he likes takes some mental encouraging and effort when I’m faced with dishes that I wouldn’t normally enjoy, I still love the discovery part of it.
If you dine here, I’d say definitely order the spicy starter cold dishes. And it would be much easier to come with someone who’s fluent in Chinese and familiar with this style of food. And dine with an open mind and please do not evertell them to tone down the spiciness! If Hao were to ask me to eat here again, I’d still say yes, there’s more unusual dishes to try!

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