My mate Patrick leans forward from the banquette running down one entire flank of Gingerboy's small, but perfectly formed rectangular CBD dining room, little 'stars' (baby lights) twinkling behind his head from within the black, high-gloss bamboo walls, and laconically mutters, "I think we'd better have the stir-fried crikey."
What the? It takes a moment for the penny to drop. There, on the right-hand side of Teage Ezard's new, compact, informal menu is the offending item: stir-fried stingray with green curry and coconut cream. It was, of course, a stingray responsible for Steve 'Crikey' Irwin's untimely demise and, well, the Aussie sense of humour is such that the ray and that late, loveable rascal of television are now, apparently, inextricably linked.
And, bad taste aside, that Aussie approach is not inappropriate here: Gingerboy is a very modern Australian restaurant. It's an Aussie chef's response to the flavours and inspiration of our region, to working in Hong Kong (as so many Australians in so many fields of work do), and a sign of how far we've come that the Asian lexicon of a restaurant like Gingerboy is now so familiar to us.
Ezard has been, of course, a big name in Melbourne for years with his Asian-inspired, boldly flavoured high-end dining at his eponymous Flinders Lane restaurant. He segued from cult status at Fitzroy's Guernica in the late 90s into his own flash place and new career with barely a hiccup. And now, like so many chefs approaching or hitting their 40s, Ezard's working the brand, developing a career for himself beyond the tools - as they say in the trade - and doing it well. Books, consultancy abroad, a more managerial approach and, finally, after many years of talk, a second restaurant. One that augments, rather than cannibalises, his existing business.
Gingerboy is Ezard's other half: a funky interpretation of traditional Asian dishes and flavours from various parts of Thailand, Malaysia and China; street and family food dressed up for the urban hip. It's a modern Australian interpretation of an overt cuisine and culture, and there is nothing demure about the place: metallic gold tiles line the Crossley Street façade, making this discreet CBD laneway one of Melbourne's most congenial (Becco is right next door, with some interesting retailers opposite). Architects Elenberg Fraser, designers of Vue de Monde, helped give Gingerboy its brash Hong Kong-meets-Melbourne look. Inside, it's Ferrari-red for the open kitchen, a funky backlit bar festooned with Asian graphics and that cave-like bamboo and mirrored dining room, all black, twinkly and comic book complete with transparent Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chairs, high-gloss tables and an oversized low, red light shade. They've sorted potential acoustic issues cleverly, too, because even at night, the buzz doesn't fatigue.
Having a restaurant already has been a boon on the personnel front, with a number of Ezard staff crossing over and former Ezard chef, Chris Donnellan - back in the country after a stint at Nobu London - taking on the role as head chef. Ezard himself and sommelier Jane Semple are working both sites.
Over one week, I gave Gingerboy my attention three times; it's a concept I like and a food style that - when put into experienced, sympathetic hands - I particularly enjoy. Ezard and his team have those hands, but I find them erring on the safe side just a little, particularly when it comes to the amplification of the more aggressive ingredients: chilli, lime, fish sauce and spices. The emphasis is more on subtle layers of spicing, which would seem less appropriate here than at the fine-diner down in Flinders Lane. This is particularly noticeable with Thai-inspired dishes such as green papaya salad - Ezard's version of som tum - which gets a textural twist of fried glutinous rice nibs scattered through the salad. The rough - authentic - edges of raw garlic, dried shrimp, tamarind, chilli and lime have been given a bit of a polish. Ezard is not trying to imitate David Thompson.
Depending on the size of your group (this is a far easier restaurant for singles and couples than that obvious close neighbour Longrain) you will probably trawl the list of 'small courses'. Maybe deep-fried oysters served in their shells on shredded iceberg with a Thai dressing of chilli, fish sauce and garlic. Or the irresistible son-in-law eggs, one of my favourite snacks here: deep-fried whole eggs with firm whites but runny centres, the eggs' exteriors all blistered and knobbly, served on a dark chilli caramel sauce with a garnish of fresh coriander, mint and fried shallot.
Ezard's always had an affinity with pork, and the nam prik ong at Gingerboy, a Thai stir-fry of minced pork, holds its own: a layered hit of dried chilli, galangal, garlic and myriad other ingredients that produce a dark, aromatic dish cooked with tomatoes and garnished with toasted white sesame seeds. The dish is served on lettuce and herbs.
And for those who venture into Gingerboy early with young children - the informality of the place encourages the notion - crunchy fried salt-and-pepper chicken spare ribs, served with a pot of green chilli soy sauce, are outrageously moreish, a sophisticated mini KFC with a Sichuan pepper hit you shouldn't miss with a cold Thai beer.
I expect the menu will change frequently, but what you'll always get is Ezard's unerring sense of what sort of Asian dishes work well in this kind of modern environment. Anyone who has been through his second book, Lotus: Asian Flavours (Hardie Grant), which is based on his experiences in Hong Kong, China and Thailand, will know what sort of things might rotate on the Gingerboy carte.
Move up to 'larger courses' and the same cautious approach to flavour applies. The emphasis is on subtlety and balance.
A mussaman curry of duck legs is fragrant with cinnamon, coriander and dried chilli: the brown gravy is thickened with some starch from kipfler potatoes and whole shallots, the legs of duck garnished with fresh mint.
The whole fried snapper sits erect on the plate, draped with a dressing of roasted chilli and lime, accessorised at the end with warm coconut cream. The finishing touch is a little salad of onion and young coconut flesh with herbs including kaffir lime. It's one of those dishes that needs to be consumed the moment it arrives.
Elsewhere is a steamed sea bass dish that speaks with a Japanese accent - the dressing is based on mirin, ginger and soy - and another excellent pork offering: steamed and then coconut-grilled Kurobuta pork belly with a chilli/lime/peanut dressing and a topping of green mango salad. Very Thai in its inspiration.
And yes, the stir-fried stingray - a fish Ezard has been cooking at his premium restaurant for the past two years - may offer Irwin fans some kind of perverse revenge, but it marries very well with the spices and herbs of a green curry paste and a softening finishing drizzle of coconut cream.
I'm less convinced about the overall success of the desserts, modern creations with Asian twists. And at $14.50, they're not cheap for what they are. A disc of firm coconut rice pudding, for example, is given a caramelised palm sugar finish and topped with pieces of mango rolled in a chilli sugar. I can take it or leave it. A dessert platter of five small versions of à la carte choices had me upping the thumbs to a tapioca brûlée pudding with an orb of mint sorbet, but less certain about the Chinese doughnut filled with raspberry chilli jam or the green steamed pandan dumpling - looking a bit like a steamed pork bun at yum cha - with a palm sugar and mandarin-peel gula Melaka (Malacca sugar) sauce.
I suspect desserts will receive less patronage here than at a more Western restaurant anyhow. Gingerboy is less the long lingering dinner than it is a quick, social lunch or pre-theatre bottle of wine and shared dishes with friends. In other words, it fits the modern Australian city-based lifestyle very well.
And crikey, that can't be a bad thing, can it?