MELBOURNE | Serai is a modern-Filipino restaurant tucked down a Melbourne laneway. It aims to introduce Melburnians to a cuisine that, despite being utterly delicious, remains underrepresented in Australia compared to other Asian cuisines.
Building on the path forged by Janine Barican at West Footscray’s Chibog, and John Rivera at the innovative Kariton Sorbetes, chef Ross Magnaye, Shane Stafford and Ben Waters, have joined forces to show how Filipino flavours and tradition, Australian produce, and a passion for creativity can combine to great effect.
I attended a canape style preview event a few days before Serai opened, and knew that I had to get back for a proper sit down meal as soon as I could. Shortly after, I did just that, on behalf of What’s On Melbourne.
The space is small, a former ice-cream shop stripped down to its bones with lots of exposed concrete, white walls, and green plants. Against one wall is a long bar with stools, perfect for a drink and snack. Seats and tables suitable for couples and bigger groups fill the centre. To the side is the open kitchen, lined with stools for a full view of the action – nab one of these spots if you can. Being a completely open space with lots of hard surfaces, things do get very loud when the restaurant is busy.
Philippine-born chef Magnaye was the former head chef at Rice Paper Sister, of which Stafford was one of the owners. Serai sees Ross heading up a kitchen once more, after a series of pop-ups over the past two years, including a seven month stint cooking at pop-ups in Bulgaria last year.
The menu is broadly split into raw seafood dishes, and things cooked over fire on a custom built charcoal grill by Melbourne’s ‘The Brick Chef’. The food here is full of vibrant, punchy flavours and textures that excite the taste buds.
It’s an a la carte offering, with dishes designed to share. If you can’t decide what to order, the ‘feed me’ option will get you a chef’s selection of delicious things. It’s a combination of dishes that combine the familiar and unfamiliar to great effect. For example, the McScallop is a tempura Abrolhos scallop from Ash Bros seafood, with crab-fat sauce and pickled papaya, in a pan de sal bun.
Start with the singulaw – raw kingfish mixed with charred cucumber, fermented coconut, and lime, served with an airy puffed chicharron, which you break into little crackers to scoop up the kingfish mixture. It’s got great heat to it, and activates all the flavour receptors.
Must order is the seared kangaroo ‘kinilaw’. Diced, smoked and seared kangaroo is used in place of seafood. It’s mixed with coriander, fish sauce, chillies and lime leaf, served atop a chunk of wood-roasted bone marrow. Scoop it all out with a spoon, and pop it on top of the toast that’s served on the side for one of the most delicious things you can eat in Melbourne at the moment.
The ‘Lechon’ Western Plains free-range pork belly, topped with smoky pineapple ‘palapa’ (a dressing of sorts) is another go-to, with the sweetness and tang of the pineapple and palapa cutting through the succulent fat and richness of the slow roasted pork belly. Wonderfully charred Skull Island prawns, served in spiced buro butter, with pan de sal on the side to mop up all of the wonderful sauce, is a delight.
Make sure you save room for dessert (I ate half of my sizeable lechon and got the rest take away which I enjoyed for lunch the next day). A creamy calamansi and coconut icy-pole, the ‘Pinoy-colada’ is light and refreshing. Serai’s take on Taho sees soy and tofu ice-cream (trust me it works) topped with tapioca pearls, caramelised syrup. There’s also a Filipino take on Aussie ice-cream favourite, the Golden Gaytime.
For drinks, minimal intervention Aussie wines are the focus, along with Filipino influenced cocktails and mocktails. Try the ‘Ube Wan Kenube’, a blend of Don Papa No.7 Mt. Kanlaon rum, brandy, creme de cacao, ube coconut half & half, and bitters. Another favourite is the ‘Boracay Elixir’ – Diplomatico Planas, Sichuan tincture, calamansi shrub, bitters, lime, and mint.
Two of my favourite restaurants in the USA, that have pushed Filipino food forward in the modern-American context are Los Angeles’ Ma’am Sir (sadly now closed, a casualty of COVID), and New York City’s Jeepney. Eating there, I’ve thought to myself ‘when is Melbourne going to get something like this’? Serai is the answer to that question. It’s resolutely Filipino, and the definition of ‘modern-Australian’. It’s the kind of place that makes dining in post-lockdown Melbourne so exciting.
7 Racing Club Lane
Telephone: (03) 9600 0016
Tue – Sat: 12:00pm to 3:00pm; 5:30pm to 10:00pm