Benjamin Cooper and the Lucas Group + Japanese/Korean food= a surefire hit. Anything The Lucas Group touches is usually gold and KONG is no exception. Ever since I watched Benjamin Cooper wax lyrical in a video earlier this year about the excitement that was to come (Hello! Pulled pork roti rolls! You must be kidding! I die!) I could not wait to saunter from my apartment up the road to Richmond for one of this year’s hottest restaurant openings. After the wave of Mexican restaurants that opened last year, Korean seems to be the NKOTB (new kid on the block) in Melbourne.
Never having tried a traditional Korean BBQ I was not sure what to expect. Like all of The Lucas Group restaurants, KONG has a no bookings policy and like its famous sister Chin Chin, you can expect to wait. On this particular Friday my friend raced to KONG after work to get our name on the coveted list and then I met her down the road at PA’s (The Prince Alfred) for pre-dinner drinks. I will not lie…we waited a long time…around 1.5 hours!! The only saving grace with putting our name down early, meant that by the time my phone finally buzzed through the happy news our table was ready it was 8pm and we were suitably ravenous.
Walking up Church Street the neon lights of KONG welcomed us inside. The restaurant seats 60 on larger communal tables as well as more intimate tables finished in blonde wood, with bar seats around the open kitchen. It is light, bright and warm. Despite the frenetic pace we are warmly greeted and seated (much to my excitement) in pole position at the bar looking into the open kitchen. The staff moved around the kitchen with purpose, wearing red baseball caps emblazoned with “Kim” “Chi” or “BBQ” while the floor staff raced around in cute red spotted aprons (I want one!)
To begin we chose one of the cocktail jugs with lime and ginger soju, fuji apple, lime sherbet, orange bitters and ginger beer, while we perused the menu and attempted to narrow down our selection. The menu is seriously delicious and you can see a lot of thought has been put into all the flavour combinations. Such a hard decision…running through our order with our server he looked puzzled and suggested we probably had too much food for just the two of us. We pause, look at each other and explain that he hasn’t seen us eat! Our slight frames belie the size of our bellies!
With a menu designed to share we started with some dumplings (my memory fails me as to what is in them?), the pulled pork roti roll with slaw kimchi (a fermented cabbage) and burnt chilli mayo and a soft shell crab bun with salted duck egg, relish and coriander. The pulled pork roti was ‘finger licking good’ with the heat of the burnt chilli mayo hitting the tastebuds with a punch. Pulled pork and roti are a match made in heaven. The soft shell crab buns are a taste sensation too and quickly become one of the evenings highlights. Next up are two perfectly smoky grilled scallops sitting in their shells in a pool of tobanjan (chilli bean sauce) and mirin topped with pickled relish. The smokiness fills the mouth and the scallops are cooked to perfection. The sauce is almost buttery and we both look at each other and nod our approval.
Pulled pork roti roll with slaw kimchi and burnt chilli mayo
Wood grilled scallops with tobanjan and mirin pickled relish
BBQ peanut butter wings with gochujang and chipotle
BBQ corn with chilli salt and miso butter
Apple and walnut tart with miso butterscotch and Japanese whisky ice-cream
Any time I see corn on the menu after experiencing Mamasita’s life altering Elotes Callejeros I have to order it. KONG’s take on BBQ corn is just as good, grilled to perfection and topped with a slick of miso butter and a dash of chilli salt.
The next dish is possibly THE favourite dish of the evening! A plate of BBQ chicken wings generously marinated in peanut butter, chipotle and gochujang, which is a savoury and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chilli, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. The dish comes with two refresher towlettes to mop up the ensuing sticky mess. This dish is the bees knees, the bomb dot com. And just like that my two great loves become one!
Our stomachs not yet satisfied, we move on to our main of wood roasted chicken with chrysanthemum, ginseng, chestnuts and perched on top a fried ramen egg oozing golden yolk. This comes with our side of wok-tossed Asian mushrooms, red oak lettuce, ponzu sauce and chives. The chicken is perfectly cooked and succulently juicy. However, we both decide that it lacks some of the zing of the other dishes and while tasty misses the mark a little. The peanut butter wings have resoundingly whomped all the other dishes out of the ballpark.
Dessert at KONG is a real surprise. Quite often Asian restaurants don’t hit the mark with dessert (there is only so much you can do with a fried banana fritter!) However, take my word for it when I say that while the peanut butter wings are the standout on the savoury menu; the Apple and Walnut tart with miso butterscotch and Japanese whisky ice-cream is its partner in crime. The base is perfectly buttery and short, the apples and walnuts are super delicious and the buttery miso and rich whisky ice-cream just ties it all together so nicely. Of course, it looks very pretty too. We also tried the coconut sago trifle that was layered with passionfruit and pineapple. The coconut sago was sweet and creamy with the fruit providing a welcome tart relief.
Do yourself a favour and get along to try KONG. Trust me when I say you won’t be disappointed, the pandas will make sure of it! They also offer many of the items as takeaway which can be ordered online and picked up at the store (Thai takeaway be gone!) #kongforhappylife
599 CHURCH STREET
(03) 9427 1307
* This article was first published on journeysaroundtheglobe.com in September, 2014. Melbourne Girl has been granted written permission to re-post this article and all photos by the author.