10th November 2016
98 Chapel Street
Windsor, VIC 3181
Ok, so, get this: I had booked a long-overdue dentist appointment with my regular, preparing for an arduous and expensive afternoon of teeth cleaning and scraping. I get there, sit down, and 10 minutes later, this unfamiliar bloke comes out and goes ‘do you remember me?’ (I obviously didn’t). Seeing the dumb look on my face, he followed up with ‘don’t you? It’s been a long time; high school?’ And then I realised he was in fact, more familiar than I had initially realised. Long story short, that’s how I ended up giving $355 to someone whom I had last seen as an annoying 13 year old classmate.
Thankfully, that was the only major surprise I had for the day, which in and of itself was enough to leave me reeling a little. Anyway, with my teeth being more or less as good as they ought to be, my plan for an early dinner at Hawker Hall remained unsullied. For those people who have been to any of Chris Lucas’ restaurants – his first one is Chin Chin, you may have heard of it – you’ll recognise his stamp on Hawker Hall almost immediately. Continuing the saga of Asian-Food-Made-Cool popularised by Chris Lucas himself, Hawker Hall turns its eye to treats offered at the iconic food markets strewn throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
Compared to some of his other restaurants however, Hawker Hall is enormous. But maybe that was exactly what he was going for, because with the roofs disappearing into the sky, and strings of amber lights fighting with neon signs to cast a perpetual twilit glow over the tables, the vibe of a bustling night market that Hawker Hall evokes is almost uncanny. I was very impressed with the attention to detail that made the illusion complete, all the way down to the bright plastic cutlery that I remember from my time in Malaysia.
The Pulled Pork Lettuce Cups ($16.5) was a salad in only the loosest sense of the word, but it was a cracker of a dish nevertheless. The pulled pork was moist and tender, contrasting with the sweet and sour slaw. The twist comes in the form of little fried anchovies, or ikan bilis, which adds a salty crunch every few bites. Wrapped in a cool lettuce leaf and dipped in the plum dressing, there was real substance behind the style.
The Pork and Chive Wontons ($13.5, 5pcs) were fat little nuggets, the filling dense with prawns and wrapped in a translucent skin, the greenness of the chives just peeping through. They sat in a pool of black bean chilli sauce, the addition of peppercorns tingling the lips, and just a hint of black vinegar to bring out the sweetness of the seafood.
Wok Tossed Pipis ($19) is one of the most delicious things I can think of to eat. The fat shellfish were stir-fried with pungent, spicy sambal in a smoky wok, and then poured over crispy segments of Chinese doughnuts so that they soaked up the sweet, briny flavours in the sauce. Don’t be shy; go on and use your fingers – they give you plenty of wet wipes.
I was very much intrigued by the Economy Noodle ($13), which was an oodle of whatever noodles they had lying around on the day. Today it was a combination of thick egg noodles and wide rice noodles, stir-fried with sweet soy, pieces of egg omelette, and a handful of crisp shallots. It was the quintessential plate of smoky, greasy hawker noodles, perfect with a cold drink or two.
Who here likes Macca’s Apple Pies? I haven’t had one in ages, but it was the first thing the Roti Apple Pie ($13.5) reminded me of. The golden, crescent-shaped pastry did look more than a little bit like the fast food pie, but that’s where the similarities stop. Imagine soft chunks of apple braised with cinnamon, then wrapped in the crispiest, most amazing deep-fried roti that disintegrates into wispy, buttery layers in the mouth. And what’s more, it’s served with a scoop of slightly bitter burnt caramel ice cream. The combination is spot-on, and it’s an insanely good take on the classic. This is without a doubt the best dessert I’ve had this year (barring the Tipsy Cake – that’s in a league of its own).
As you can probably tell from the selection of dishes I had, the chefs at Hawker Hall are ambitious folk. The spidery print of the menu spanned across an A3 sheet and 70-something dishes, and included everything from dim sum to curries, salads to satays. If you come here expecting authentic South-East Asian cooking however, then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I adored my meal at Hawker Hall, but you have to remember that the food here is about having fun, rather than recreating traditional dishes meticulously. And I have to admit; whilst eating my plate of saucy pipis and wok-fried noodles, I found myself just a little bit transported to the infectiously fun atmosphere of a vibrant hawker market on a sultry, tropical evening. And isn’t that the greatest compliment you can give a restaurant?
Rating: 15.5/20 – hawker life.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.