Should authenticity be the end-all, be-all of ethnic cuisine? For some people, the answer is a resounding yes, and in many cases, sticking to the roots of a cuisine with a long tradition is a wise and respectable choice. Going the other route, attempting to either merge a cuisine with local sensibilities or worse, reinterpret the cuisine altogether, can lead to poor results. Think of the countless restaurants boasting "modern Thai," "modern Indian," or "modern Chinese" that have big promises on the menu but disappointing flavors and execution and it's hard not to automatically dismiss the notion these days. But every once in a while comes a restaurant that makes you think: Maybe "modern" isn't always a bad thing.
Longrain is one of those restaurants. Located just on the edge of Melbourne's Chinatown, it's an offshoot of the original location in Sydney. Here, executive chef Martin Boetz has crafted a menu that's a respectable balance of refinement and authenticity, drawing mainly upon Thai flavors with a touch of Southern Chinese inspiration.
Notable menu items include the whole fried fish with chile, lime, and tamarind dipping sauce (market price), a must at a large table with its beautiful presentation; char-grilled grass-fed beef, Vietnamese mint, and roasted pepper dressing, a delicious balance of sweet, sour, and hot (AUD 39.50/$41.08); for vegetarians, a yellow curry with roasted kabocha, grilled fennel, and pickled mustard greens, which features passion fruit for an exotic twist (AUD 35.00/$36.40); and though it's one of the most expensive items on the menu, the jungle curry with Bultarra salt bush lamb, wild ginger, pea eggplant, and holy basil (AUD 42.00/$43.68) — a curry that's properly hot with properly strong notes of lemongrass, Kaffir lime, and ginger but balanced at the same time, with incredibly tender slices of lamb.
And that dish in particular sums up what the food is like at Longrain; if the volume's been turned down slightly to suit Western palates, it's not obvious. But also worth mentioning is the fact that many of the influences are distinctly identifiable, which sets Longrain apart from similar restaurants. The whole fried fish, for example, is a classic Thai dish; the char-grilled grass-fed beef will have anyone who frequents holes-in-the-wall exclaiming "beef nam tok!"; and the green papaya salad sticks to the formula, though it could be a tad hotter. It's unlikely, then, that anyone will be disappointed with the food here.
Two things may cause hesitation, however. The first is pricing — though the atmosphere is trendy-chic in a converted warehouse, the service is good, and, as Melbourne is not a cheap city, it's probably tough to walk out of there without spending at least AUD 100 on a dinner for two. Have they turned down the spice while turning up the price then? That would be a crude assessment, because the food is definitely deserving of a little splurge, just not quite as much as suggested. So, perhaps this should be reserved for special occasions only. But that brings us to another sore point — namely, the restaurant's limited reservations policy. It's first-come, first-serve with a waiting list unless you're a large group booking dinner or coming for lunch.
Still, these are minor quibbles, and don't take away from the fact that a night at Longrain would be both time and money well spent.
Closest tram stop is Spring St./Bourke St. (35, 86, 95, 96).