22-128 Berkeley St
Carlton, VIC 3053
03 9348 1704
Willem had forewarned me about Middle Fish’s impending opening early in December last year, he works nearby and could see the place shaping up. The café, just two warehouses down from Seven Seeds, was to serve Southern-style Thai food and from what I hear, it’s meant to be pretty authentic!
What I don’t like about Thai food in Melbourne is it’s mostly not spicy enough, waay too sweet and rich, or insanely overbalanced with salt, tang and spice. Will Middle Fish be any different? Could this be one of the last bastions of authenticity?
Keen to visit, I was crestfallen to learn they don’t open for dinners just yet… couldn’t fit lunch into my schedule till after Christmas. As the weeks rolled by, I watched Melbourne Gastronome, Where’s The Beef, and The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar post about Middle Fish. Nooooo…. I’m not the first!!!
Ha ha… childish, isn’t it? Wanting to be the first-in with new places. :) I have my own little joke: the day I publish a post before Broadsheet does would be the day I’ve “made it”. Hah!
Yes, I blame Willem for getting me all excited about Middle Fish, but we finally met up for lunch there ten days ago. Look at how nicely put together the place looks! It’s a big, cavernous space, reminiscent of Melbourne’s warehouse-industrial cafés of late, but also with subtle touches of Modern Thai art pieces and decoration.
Stalks of Native Australian plants sit in a conical flask, next to emptied red bull bottles filled with raw sugar. Yet, when you sit down, water is served inside ornate Thai-style metal bowls. A true juxtaposition of cultures and style.
Being Willem’s third visit when we went, the staff now recognise him as a ‘frequent flyer’ customer. Out of Thai loyalty and friendliness, we were served complimentary tasting mini-bowls of their Tom Kha – chicken in coconut soup of galangal, tamarind, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass & coriander.
What a smashing start! The soup was amazingly spicy, delightfully fragrant, tangy, gently milky and not too sweet. The chicken pieces were small and on the bone, which was exactly how I liked it. While I’m no expert at Thai food, I think this bowl leans pretty close towards authenticity. I would order this again.
The Thai milk tea $4.00 I had with this meal was served in an adorable traditional vessel. Okay, it’s probably just decorative, but I like little touches like these. The drink was gently milky sweet and quite floral in taste. I’m used to having Malaysian iced teh tarik (pulled-tea), where the tea tastes strongly over-brewed, tannic, with lots of condensed milk. So this gentler version didn’t really hit the spot only because of my personal taste preference.
The Glass Noodle Salad – pork carrots tomatoes, spring onions, roasted cashews and bird seed chilli $12.5 did not disappoint. It was wonderfully zingy, spicy and zesty, a perfect balance once again without too much sweetness. Willem wasn’t as enamoured with this dish only because they used large chunks of raw onion. But that’s the Thai way, apparently.
We next went adventurous with the Kang Som – Southern Thai curry w Queensland banana prawns, green papaya and lime $14.5. More soup rather than curry, the broth was pretty tangy-spicy, reminiscent of Assam fish but soupier. The soup was also strong with the taste of prawn shells and it held the slow-burn kind of heat that creeps up on you. I wasn’t used to the prawny flavour, but as we ate, that smell slowly dissipated as my tongue got enveloped with chilli heat.
A little disappointing that it didn’t come out as a curry like it says on the menu, but still an interesting dish. A good one if you came in a big group and shared a little of everything.
The Kang Som’s accompanying plate of rice was moulded into the shape of a fish!
We walked about the space after our savoury mains to explore it in detail. Willem pointed out how he loved this wrought-iron artwork that stretched across one wall, depicting fish leaping out of waves. While we were dining, I spied the café’s owners brainstorming from across the half-fenced room, they’re probably trying to decide what’s the next step to take with the café.
Looking back, I wonder whether Middle Fish came about like this because of its owners: Thai-born Pla and Australian partner David. ‘Pla’ means fish in Thai, and naming it Middle Fish seemed to convey a marriage between Pla’s Thai roots and Dave’s Aussie grounding. Yin and Yang… authentic Thai food in a modern Australian café setting.
The buoyantly friendly girl serving us that day (Pla’s sister?) was just soooo adorably sweet and lovely. Aaaaah… so Thai!! And just to set things straight, Willem and I are gay, so the above comment isn’t meant to come across as lecherous.
Willem and I finished off with a shared banana roti served w sweet condensed milk $7.5 for dessert. The roti itself actually tasted a little savoury, so it balanced well with the caramelised bananas. I quite liked it, though the roti could’ve been a little thinner and crispier. This dish is usually incredibly sweet in Thailand, and just this once, I was very glad they didn’t go overboard with the use of condensed milk here.
Having enjoyed that last meal, I organised another visit here on New Year’s Day, last Sunday. Yes, they were open! This time, I brought three Singaporeans in to see what they thought of the food here.
I think they got puzzled with the decor, it certainly isn’t your regular Thai-style restaurant. But as the intricate water bowls arrived and they looked at the simple but interesting menu, I could see they were getting more and more excited about the place.
It was a really hot and dry afternoon, with temperatures going at 35ºC, a little crazy to have spicy Thai, no? We went through several bottles of water and they were kind enough to supply us with large bowls of ice. Neither lasted very long between the four of us.
I’m a bit of a camel when the weather’s hot… hehe. More pleeasse!!!
And can we also add that we loved that all-wood share table we were sitting at? I could almost hug it.
One interesting aspect I noticed from my previous visit was how they had a proper Synesso espresso machine, Bonsoy milk, and croissants displayed on the front counter. I suspect they’re also thinking about snagging the brunch crowd.
True enough, looking at the menu, it had already expanded into having a “Thai Breakfast” section, with interesting authentic-sounding dishes. Not sure how that would fit in with Melbourne-style micro-foamed coffees… but I’m always game to try anything once!
Love this paradoxical picture! Call me crazy, but because I wanted to sample (and comment) on their “Western” coffees, I actually tried a piccolo $3.8 even when the weather was killingly hot. That day’s beans were from Five Senses. The milk wasn’t folded in as nicely as I’d like, but I could taste berried hints in my drink, not too bad.
Between my band of Singaporean diners, Kelly and Alvin are weaklings when it comes to spicy food. After ordering, Kelly actually asked the kitchen to go mild with their chosen dishes. So here’s Kelly’s toned-down Ka Nhom Jeen – Southern Thai fish curry soup w crab leg meat $14.5.
The dish came with Thai vermicelli, pickled vegetables, steamed pumpkin and water spinach shoot with coconut cream. She loved it. There was a nice balance of spicy and fresh flavours when everything was put together. She thought the dish tasted both homely and delicate, one of the better Thai dishes she’s had in Melbourne. From my sample sip, I liked it too.
Kelly did comment, however, that the portion size was on the small side. But it was healthy and very good, while it lasted. Also, to avoid disappointment, Ka Nhom Jeen doesn’t contain fish pieces even though it says ‘fish curry’. We assumed it’s because the curry itself was fish-based, with little pieces of crab meat adorning it.
And here’s Alvin’s much-enjoyed (albeit toned-down) Gapi Fried Rice – caramelised pork belly, green apple, bean shoots, carrots, red onions $14.5. Sigh… I truly hope Pla and David won’t take these requests as yardsticks. I really want the Thai flavours to remain spicy and true…!
Alvin really enjoyed this dish, he found it comforting. When I asked how he liked it, he just blurted out “one of the best…” and then couldn’t finish the sentence. So I assume there’s definitely no complaints there. The small sample that I stole from his plate tasted pretty good indeed.
Fakegf and I shared a salad and a curry dish. The Thai North-East beef salad $12.5 was delicious! It had beef with jasmine rice roasted with Thai herbs and spices, red onions, spring onions, coriander, chilli, lemon and lime.
Whether it’s beef, chicken or pork, I’ve always enjoyed Thai laarb salads. This one really reminded me of Laarb Neua, there was a mild-medium chilli heat in it and the other flavours were balanced beautifully. We enjoyed it, but also agreed that the salad could be two or three times spicier. We wouldn’t have minded more kick!
The Green Curry – beef, snake beans, Thai baby eggplants & basil $14.5 that we shared sang a similar song. Authentic ingredients, nice balance of flavours… however, this time it was waay too mild in chilli heat.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a yummy dish, so rustic and reminiscent of home-cooked food. But this time although the ingredients were fantastic with flavour, texture and crunch, the curry itself leaned towards being sweet, creamy and weakly-spicy. I was half-disappointed. Fakegf liked how there was a bit of sourness from the Thai baby eggplants. But we both agreed the dish could be much much spicier and maybe less sweet.
I may be wrong, but within one week, I thought I noticed a drop in overall heat levels in the dishes at Middle Fish. We wondered whether it’s because that was such a hot day that the kitchen decided to cook things less spicy. Or maybe Kelly’s request for two dishes to be toned-down made the kitchen mistakenly tone-down everything.
After we finished everything and hung around chatting, I grew itchy and wanted to try the Thai ice coffee w sweetened condensed milk $4. But the guy heard my order wrong and I received a bowl of regular iced coffee $5.5, complete with a hefty scoop of luscious ice cream. Before I clarified that it was a mistake, I was almost outraged that they were serving THIS as Thai ice coffee. Haha!
And it’s now time for a confessional, dear readers. Here sits a bowl of Five Senses coffee, extracted from a Synesso machine, and then pimped up with ice cream and cubes of ice. As a self-proclaimed coffee snob, piccolo-ing all over Melbourne, turning my nose away at bad cups… I should be throwing this bowl out of the window. It goes completely against the grain of how good coffees should be appreciated.<
And then I took a sip…
I LOVED IT!!!!
Aahahahaha… can you believe it? Since I’ve started really appreciating coffees last autumn, I’ve never ever had an iced coffee unless it’s a cold drip. But having an iced coffee from an espresso shot that’s extracted well, that’s what made this cup so so delightful. It tasted really fresh, and the iciness was exactly what I needed for that swelteringly hot day, both caffeine fix and parched lips satisfied at one go!
I’m liking it at Middle Fish so far. Two enjoyable visits… warm, humble staff. Interesting space with a juxtaposition of concepts, and a homely sense of authenticity in its dishes (apparently cooked by Pla’s aunt from Thailand). To make it clear, I think this is the best Thai I’ve had so far in Melbourne, although I have yet to visit I-Spicy.
I think the people behind Middle Fish are still figuring out the menu and the crowd they want to have. In Melbourne, it can be difficult keeping spice levels high and flavours true to home without scaring away many (dare I say idiotic?) customers. So I can understand the difficult path they are facing ahead of them.
Because Willem works nearby and visits often, there’s no doubt I’ll have updates as to which way they’re headed. It’ll be an interesting space to watch. I wish Pla and David the best in their co-endeavour. Am loving it so far!