One of the many benefits afforded to residents in and around Brunswick is a plethora of food options across all of the major categories, in particular Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine. Despite this, one country whose food is under-represented (much to Jeff’s lament in particular) is Malaysian. Enter Fat Baba, which opened its doors in June 2015 to attempt to fill this gap by offering authentic Malaysian cuisine, with a particular focus on the Nyonya style which combines Chinese ingredients with traditional Malay and Indonesian cooking techniques.
Located in the northern reaches of Brunswick on Moreland Road, Fat Baba occupies a slightly out of the way space in an area dominated mostly by Indian restaurants which can make it hard to find. Luckily the unassuming frontage is adorned with an easily recognisable sign and a cheery logo presumably meant to represent a ‘fat dad’.
While we were perusing the menu in the window we were welcomed inside by the very friendly staff and once through the front door we were presented with a very spacious dining space – a definite plus compared to many Asian restaurants which seek to cram as many patrons into a given area as possible. The simple white walls and roof combined with occasional bursts of colour and the feature wall at the back were augmented by the venue’s corner location resulting in significant amounts of natural light. extensive use of colourful and cheery art
The rest of the place was adorned with more art and other nice touches giving the venue a very Malaysian feel, including street signs which refer to well known streets in Malacca (Meleka), the third smallest state of Malaysia which is located in the south of the peninsula and is the home to many Nyonya restaurants.
The table settings were clean and simple with black chairs providing a pleasing contrast to the white tablecloths and the butcher paper layered over the tablecloths being both practical and helping to enhance the authentic feel of the venue.
To start with we ordered a couple of typical Malaysian drinks – ‘kopi-O’ (iced black coffee) and also ‘teh tarik’ (pulled tea). The latter, made using condensed milk to offset the bitterness of the tea, is considered the national drink of Malaysia and poured repeatedly from distance between two vessels during the preparation process giving the appearance that the beverage is being ‘pulled’, resulting in a frothy head. This was done well by Fat Baba and definitely reminded us of the teh tarik that we had tried in Malaysia – a great start to our meal.
Turning to the menu, Nyonya food typically uses a wide range of spices resulting in aromatic food that has flavours ranging from sour to tangy to spicy (and often combinations of these). Fat Baba serves up a range of traditional Nyonya dishes such as Asam fish (fish fillets served in a sour, tangy broth), beef rendang (a thick, coconut-based curry), laksa and sambal squid and also other Malaysian classics like Nasi Lemak (coconut rice served with a range of accompaniments) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice). On this occasion a number of contributors to The City Lane and partners/friends were in attendance which allowed us to try a number of dishes on offer.
Nyonya Chicken Wings ($9.50)
For our entree we started with the Nyonya chicken wings – these were marinated with spices and coconut milk and then fried. These were quite small and possibly some of the smallest wings we have eaten but what they lacked in size they made up for with great flavour driven by more than 10 different spices used in the marinade. The spicy sauce served on the side was an excellent accompaniment giving the wings a bit of kick.
Oh Bao ($9.50)
To go along with the wings we ordered the Oh Bao which were grilled tofu stuffed with cucumbers, fish cake and marinated pork belly. Tofu itself does not bring much taste to the table so in tofu-based dishes it is important that the other ingredients and/or sauces are flavoursome to compensate for this. Unfortunately this was not the case with the Oh Bao and we found both the fish cakes and pork belly to be rather bland, meaning that overall the dish did not have the strong flavour that is characteristic of Malaysian food.
Pong Teh/Nyonya Stew ($15.50)
Pong Teh is a signature dish of the Nyonya style and is a stew that consists of meat served in a gravy made from fermented soy beans. This dish has a salty or sometimes a slightly sweet flavour and is usually made using chicken or pork – we tried the pork variety on this occasion. While this was one of the dishes that we were most excited about from reading the menu, the Pong Teh (like the Oh Bao before it) lacked the flavour punch that we would have expected from this style of food, and although the pork was cooked well the dish was overall quite bland.
Gerang Asam/Nyonya Tamarind Fish ($19.50)
Asam fish is another Nyonya staple dish made from fish fillets (and in this case eggplant) cooked in a tangy, slightly sour tamarind-driven broth. Although the last two dishes had disappointed, Fat Baba’s asam fish was spot on – the broth was wonderfully aromatic with the flavours we are accustomed to from eating this dish in Malaysia and the fish fillets were cooked perfectly with firm flesh that stayed retained form in the broth and of itself had excellent flavour. This is definitely a dish that we would come back to again and again.
‘Devil’s Curry’ ($15.50)
Jeff and Paul are big fans of spicy food so when they spotted a dish described as ‘devilishly fiery’ they simply had to try it out. The Devil’s Curry is a dry curry made with chicken and potato which is a traditional dish from Malacca. The curry did was somewhat spicy but we felt that it definitely did not live up to its ‘devilishly fiery’ promise (though this could reflect our relatively high tolerance for spicy food). Combined with chicken that was overcooked and therefore dry, we were ultimately left under-whelmed. We did pass this feedback on at the time and we were told that the kitchen is more than happy to up the spice level on request so we would recommend that any spiceheads out there request ‘extra hot’ if they order this dish. Definitely a dish that has the potential to be great with a little tweaking.
Sambal Squid ($19.50)
To finish off we had the sambal squid which is another Nyonya classic made from squid (called ‘sotong’ in Malay) sauteed in sambal which is a spicy paste made from chilli and a variety of other ingredients usually including shrimp paste, lemongrass and lime juice. The preparation of sambal usually involves grinding the chilli peppers and also burning or frying the shrimp paste which releases the aromas of the key ingredients creating a flavoursome (and usually very spicy!) sauce. This dish was done very well, the squid was tender and not chewy and the sambal had good authentic flavours – although again the spice was not as intense as we would have liked.
Despite a couple of misses, we feel that Fat Baba is making a decent (although not exceptional) attempt at serving up authentic Malaysian cuisine in a bright, casual atmosphere in an area of Melbourne where this cuisine is lacking. The main weakness is that the flavours arenot as ‘punchy’ as we are accustomed to from Malaysian food, however we are keen to come back another time and try the ‘extra hot’ version of the Devil’s Curry and may well revise our opinion in due course. Where Fat Baba succeeds is in the traditional Nyonya seafood dishes which have spot on authentic flavours. We would recommend that anyone living into the area who enjoys the this side of Malaysian cuisine head in and check them out, and have a feeling that given some time to settle in and test the waters, there will be more hits than misses.
188 Moreland Road
Mon – Sat: 11:30am to 2:30pm; 5:30pm to 9:30pm
Sun: 5:30pm to 9:30pm