147 Johnston St, Collingwood (map)
Open Wednesday-Monday 6-11pm, closed Tuesday
A few weeks ago I was tipped off about a new restaurant opening on Johnston Street between Wellington and Hoddle, serving modern Sichuan food. Modern Sichuan eh? My curiosity was piqued: there's nothing else quite like it in Melbourne.
I was invited along to the launch of SHU last week, but with over 200 people there imbibing Champagne and posing for photos it was hard to get much of a sense of the place. There were lots of fabulous fashionistas wearing outré ensembles, but this dapper little fellow being photographed below was easily my favourite.
I went back for dinner with two friends on Friday night, the third night that the restaurant was officially open for business. The site, once a pizza parlour, has been transformed by first-time restaurateur Shu Liu into a decidedly modern space with nods to Shu's background in fashion: all stainless steel countertops, hanging lamps and beams, coloured light and Philippe Starck-esque clear plastic chairs (which, despite being slightly uncomfortable to sit in for long periods of time, make for a visually arresting window installation).
There's also a nifty little art gallery space at the back of the restaurant. Love the shadows cast by the wire coat hangers.
The menu begins in an eclectic fashion (I was surprised to see items like sashimi, edamame and prosciutto on the menu) but becomes more traditionally Sichuan by the main courses. Apparently the Sichuan recipes used in the restaurant come directly from Shu's mother, and where possible the ingredients used are organic/free range. Of the appetisers we had, we felt the King George whiting sashimi with mandarin, cinnamon and dressing (2 pieces for $5) was a citrussy misfire, but loved the lip-tingling slow cooked quail with Chinese five spice, spring onion and ground Sichuan peppercorn (2 pieces for $8).
My favourite of the appetiser/entrées we ordered was the curious-sounding intercontinental ensemble of pan-seared shishito peppers with prosciutto and Chinese black vinaigrette ($10). Shishito peppers come from Japan, but taste-wise bear a close resemblance to their Spanish cousins pimientos de Padrón. As with Padrons, you're playing Russian roulette with the heat levels of these peppers, but they're also beautifully sweet. Pairing them with the saltiness of the prosciutto and the piquant vinaigrette was unorthodox but rather brilliant.
The poached organic chicken salad with spicy sesame and pink radish ($12) had a pleasant thick sauce a little like what you'd smear over nasu dengaku, but the portion felt on the small size (more radish please!). I couldn't go past the main of char grilled tiger prawns with cumin, dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorn ($35): the three different sources of heat reminded me of my favourite dish at Dainty Sichuan. As much as I liked the prawns, I'd've preferred the intensity of the heat nudged up a few notches.
I was a huge fan of the other main we had, crispy free range pork belly stir fried with Pixian broad bean paste and snake beans ($22). The pork belly was crispy yet succulent, and the paste gave the dish richness and depth. Read more about how Pixian broad bean paste, dou ban jiang, is made here.
In addition to steamed jasmine rice there's also a steamed brown rice option ($4). The other side dish you have to order is the excellent noodles with walnut oil, roasted peanuts and preserved Oriental mustard ($8).
It's only been open five minutes, and some of SHU's first steps feel a little faltering, but I think the restaurant shows great promise. I admire Shu Liu a great deal for trying something modern and different: it's a hope of mine that once the Mexican wave ballyhoo dies down, regional Chinese cuisines could become the next Melbourne food trend.