Filipino food has not been a major player on the Australian restaurant scene until recently. Its many influences – varied Indigenous cuisines mixed with imports from Portugal, China, Spain, Malaysia, the US and Japan – have engendered more puzzlement and questions, even dismissal, in this country than it has accolades. Then along comes Serai, chef Ross Magnaye's boisterous Melbourne laneway diner that opened in 2022 and immediately lodged the cuisine on the map.
The shift in thinking Serai has introduced is not purely about novelty, though. For starters, dining at Serai is a whole lot of fun, its stripped back concrete-industrial look and booming soundtrack an invitation to party as seriously as you dine against a backdrop of flash and flame from the wood fire in the open kitchen. The place (like its owner chef) has an appealingly irreverent swagger and a witty sense of humour. Two of its best dishes for example are called the McScallop (a single-bite burger featuring a fried scallop and crab fat sauce) and a Pinoy Colada (coconut and pineapple ice-cream served, Splice-like, on a stick), both as delicious as they are amusing.
Speaking of pineapple, Serai is perhaps the best evidence yet that this fruit does in fact belong on savoury dishes, whether that's in the form of a powerful spicy, sweet and smoky palapa that accompanies a spice-rubbed pork belly or Magnaye's deft reinterpretation of selat lumpia from spring roll to little tart, where smoked pineapple is teamed with a curry sauce and salty tapioca "caviar". For service to pineapple alone, the restaurant deserves a medal.
Serai's drinks list joins in the fun too. Though, as with the food, there's thought and experience at the foundation of the party. Given the current wine climate, it might seem inevitable that Serai's wine list is mostly an all-minimal intervention affair but it also makes real sense here. The funky, vibrant flavours are an excellent match with the food, well up to the task of going toe-to-toe with all the spicy, fire-licked combinations. The cocktail list is also tightly woven into Serai's overall vision, with mezcal washed with sesame oil, house-made pandan liqueur and coconut cream bitters on the ingredients list.
Serai's championing of Filipino food does bring something new to the mainstream Australian food scene and we're always ready to applaud that. But on top of what it's cooking, it's how it goes about doing it. Serai might cosplay being loose but, at its core, it's a smart, thoughtful and tightly scripted affair.