Tuesday 7 April 2009

Rice Queen: more than a camp-bitchy name?

Rice Queen
2/231 Smith Street, Fitzroy - aka one floor below Panama (map)
9419 6624
Open for dinner Thursday to Sunday

I knew what the phrase meant, but wanted a bit more context: is it used as a term of affection or does it further marginalise individuals in an already marginalised group? So last week I posed a gay culture pop quiz question to the Sisters in a group email:

Broadly speaking, on a scale of 1 to 10, how offensive is the term rice queen in gay circles?

To which S replied in his inimitable, fabulous manner:

When used by some white gay men, I think it is used as a pretty objectionable term to imply that sexually desiring Asian men is something to be ridiculed or pitied.

However, to solely fetishise wo/men of a particular race is also problematic.

And that's why living the post-progressive life is for me...

And my housemate DJ subsequently replied:

Transcript of in-person briefing to housemate at midnight last night:

D: "As with everything, context is king. Was the term used as an insult? Or an attempt at 'humourous' self-description? Either way, it necessarily involves a (real or imputed) fetishisation of the ethnic other."

C: "Orientalism, anyone?"

D: "Exactly. And it also buys into the problematic practice of racist sexual stereotyping."

Except when being used by post-progressive types amongst themselves after a vodka cranberry or three...

After a bit more email back and forth in a similar vein and further pseudo-academic banter with DJ, I decided it would probably be acceptable to visit a restaurant (sorry, an "Oriental diner and bar") named Rice Queen. I went along on Saturday night with best-friend-K, Miss G and Willski, stopping off first of all with b-f-K for a pre-meal drink upstairs at Panama Dining Room.

Panama Dining Room

Ooooh. Campari and grapefruit, and Pimms and lemonade.

Panama Dining Room

Panama habitu├ęs will recall that the floor below PDR used to be a latin dance studio. What is now the Rice Queen front room used to be the backstage area, and the RQ owners have retained the unvarnished floorboards and made it the bar area. It's a lovely space, I just wish they'd replace the chairs with less hideous/uncomfortable ones.

Rice Queen

It's a diner, so once the waiter has brought you a menu it's up to you to walk up to the bar, order food and drinks, pay cash and take a number. The dishes are cheap ($7-$15) but I did start to have some misgivings when I saw just how pan-Asian the menu is: Japanese and Chinese and Indian and Thai and Vietnamese and Malay and Sri Lankan...

Rice Queen

...and yeah, turns out my misgivings were well-founded. Jack of all trades, master of none and all that. The food wasn't BAD, just not terribly interesting or authentic.

We started with a couple of silky bean curd san choi bow ($7 each) and masala dosa ($9 each). The dosa had nice coconut chutney and curried potato, but was a little chewy for my liking.

Silken bean curd san choi bowMasala dosa

The $12 Thai fried rice cakes (basically Thai arancini with jasmine rice, beef and Thai herbs) were unsophisticated but quite tasty. The grilled lemon chicken with a coriander spiced paste and served with a half-hearted coleslaw ($15) was disappointingly bland.

Thai fried rice cakesGrilled lemon chicken

I did however quite like the shredded green pawpaw salad pounded with chilli, fish sauce, tomato and snake beans ($13) and the Sri Lankan vegetable curry with cashews, sambal and chutney ($12), but both dishes were crying out for a bit more kick to them. What's wrong with a good whack of fiery spice, I ask you?

Shredded green pawpaw saladSri Lankan vegetable curry

When Brian reviewed Rice Queen he mentioned the slow service. On Saturday night our food also took ages to arrive (over 25 minutes before the san choi bow and dosa came out), despite there being only six occupied tables in the whole place.

It's got potential, but I really hope Rice Queen lifts its game by (a) speeding up the service, (b) getting some decent chairs in the bar area, and (c) taking a few more risks with the food, specialising in a cuisine and doing it well. Can someone let me know if it does?


amanda said...

Great review... probably won't bother trying this one now though.

Ps. I love the banner.

claire said...

Glad you like the Melbourne Gastronome banner Amanda! All credit goes to the very talented Chris Zissiadis, whose photographs can be viewed here and here, and can be purchased here.

Love your cute Melways-inspired banner too! :)

Sarah said...

Hey Claire,

Shame it wasn't that good!! Oh, and I find "Oriental" waaaay more offensive than "Rice Queen".

Oh, and Chimes do the best thosai in Melbourne, IMHO.


xox Sarah

fitzroyalty said...

Hi Claire, it's good to see you eating your way along Smith St! Rice Queen is a bit underwhelming isn't it? It could be so much better, and the slow service is simply unnecessary.

claire said...

Ooooh Sarah, thanks for the Chimes tip! I haven't been and I loooove thosai, so it's a done deal. Will check it out soon! xox
ps Agreed re "oriental", but that's what they're subtitling themselves as!!

Hiya Brian, yes as you can see I've been dining almost exclusively on your turf as of late. :)

Ten Dollar Meals In Melbourne said...

Great to read this - I was thinking of calling in to check it out but I will think again!

bunchesmcginty said...

Hey, you had so many hits, it seemed time for a miss.

Ali-K said...

Shame about the food. Did they steal the chairs (in the bar) from a Dr's surgery? They look like the chairs at every uncomfortable place I've been (waiting rooms, suburban libraries, airports...)

Mary said...

I disagree. I believe RQ is entirely awesome for what it sets out to be. This is a place where you can eat quality food,very cheaply and hang out in a convivial atomosphere. It is inspired by asian food and does not purport to be a faithful execution thereof. If you want authentic then go to Ying Thai or any of the places along Victoria St, Abbotsford or in Footscray etc.

I think that you have entirely missed the point of Rice Queen. Yes we have all read the Edward Said book in the 70s and yes the term 'orientalism' was considered offensive in that time but this is not the spirit in which Rice Queen now positions itself. Perhaps do some research into how the name was determined by the owners.

Don't be put off going to RQ by this review.

roger said...

I love Rice Queen and I think all new restaurants should be given at least 3 months to find themselves and iron out problems. We should celebrate anyone trying to do something different. It has been opened by some very experienced people and it is CHEAP. where can you eat so well for under $15? and not wake up with a thirst you could photograph from MSG? ( which I love and hate ). So try it for yourselves, the view is great, wines, location also. Who cares about the name? really? anyone?

claire said...

Hi Mazzawack: As I said in my review, I reckon Rice Queen definitely has potential - I just don't think it would hurt to take a few more risks with the food.
But as for the name, I don't see how the intentions of the owners are really that relevant - the effect the name has on patrons and potential patrons is what counts, as they'll be hearing the name out of whatever context it was determined in by the owners.

Hi Roger: Agreed that all new places need some time to find their feet. I'll be interested to see what (if any) adjustments are made.
Oh, and yes you may disagree, but some people do care about the name. But the owners would have known going in that choosing a somewhat provocative name like Rice Queen would have an effect on some of us!

Ralfer said...

I ate at Rice Queen and the food was some of the most disgusting I'd paid to eat in a while. It actually left me feeling a little off for the evening. Dissappointing cause the place is cool - mayeb just go there to drink

Anonymous said...

You need to go back and revisit this now. It's had a difficult teething period but the menu is taking more flavor risks and I love the service now. However things get very very loud - both in music and packed house trying to talk over the top of each other. Try going around 7:30 during the week for the best experience.