311 Level 3 Melbourne Central, Melbourne (map)
My lovely friend E (but let's call her Gumby-chan) sent me an email early this week asking whether I'd like to come along to a free pre-opening dinner at a mod-Asian bar/restaurant opening soon in the city. Would I??? :)
Cho Gao, marketing itself as a both an "Asian beer cafe" and an "Asian food experience", is the latest addition to level 3 of Melbourne Central. I believe its official opening will be next week.
[sidenote: Next door is the 100 Mile Cafe, the interesting new venture by Paul Mathis (whose ill-fated SOS was in the same premises) where almost all of the food and drink is sourced within a 100 mile radius of Melbourne (thereby supporting local produce and "reducing food miles", as the Epicure puts it). My folks went to the 100 Mile Cafe on Monday night and were blown away by the food - I'm planning on going there soon. Let's hope that snobbish fine diners aren't put off by the shopping centre location!]
Anyway, back to Cho Gao. The night we went it was staff training night, so there were a few service-related hiccups, as can be expected. The head waiter, however, was great - when our bottle of water didn't arrive for over half an hour he brought us all coffees straight away, and showed us the draft tea menu (lots of different Asian teas) he'd been working on that afternoon.
The food menu was a pan-Asian greatest hits that generally erred on the side of caution: san choi bao, Thai red and green curries, Vietnamese chicken salad, pad thai, hawker noodles, etc. Gumby-chan and K1 had the meat and the all-vegetarian variants of pad thai (the two pictured on the left) which were perfectly nice, if a little unexciting. K2 had the Ginger Beef (top right), which was again nice if a little on the bland side. Not particularly gingery. My dish, the red chicken curry with string beans and lychees (bottom right) sounded and tasted the most interesting of the lot - nice contrasting textures.
I may be sounding a little underwhelmed, but that was probably due to the fact that the night before I'd been wowed by the food at Longrain (will blog about it soon). The truth is that although the food wasn't that fancy, Cho Gao's prices are a fraction of those at somewhere like Longrain (although we didn't have to pay that night at Cho Gao, looking at the menu I think the most expensive dish was $15.50), so it wouldn't be fair to expect the same quality.
One thing I really liked about Cho Gao was the use of the space. It has a very long (20 metre) bar running down the right hand side of the venue, but clever use of Chinese screens and partitions means that up to four corners can be made into private function rooms. There's lots of raw, untreated wood which contrasts nicely with the more modern decorating touches. The venue also has a lovely deep balcony looking across Swanston St to the State Library - as it's equally both a drinking and a dining venue, that balcony will be a great spot from which to sample their wide variety of imported beers on a hot summer evening...
Update (1/11/07): I got mentioned in the paper! Many thanks to Ed Charles for the shout out - it's a first for me! :)