Now that the former Lygon Food Store, a 66-year Italian veteran of Lygon Street, has become a modern Asian diner, it's hard to resist the changing-of-the-guard story. And while it's true that Lygon Street's Italian accent is not as strong as it once was, the better story here is not about loss but gain. Lagoon Dining adds something fresh and relevant to the mix, bringing texture and depth to Lygon Street's canvas.
Texture also comes to mind with Lagoon's fit-out. The moodily lit room with its whitewashed brick walls, rough-edged black granite bar, mustard-coloured curtains at the front door, open kitchen, banquette seating and bright-yellow waving lucky cats is intimate and tactile.
There's texture on Lagoon's mostly Chinese menu too, starting with a sensational hot-and-sour shredded potato dish. Chefs Keat Lee and Ned Trumble, who've previously worked together at Ezard and Longsong, nail simplicity and balance with these desiree spuds. They're julienned, soaked overnight and chucked into a wok with garlic, chilli oil and Sichuan pepper so that they emerge with an enormously satisfying spice burn and barely-cooked crunch. They're splashed with Chinkiang vinegar and tossed with pickled enoki mushrooms, and should be on everyone's radar.
Then there's the char-grilled half cos lettuce. It's teamed with "strange flavour dressing" – sesame paste flavoured with soy, cardamom, star anise, fennel seeds and chilli oil – and nutritional yeast mixed with black sesame and peanuts. There's an option of lap cheong for the non-vegans, but either way, it's a riot of flavour.
The single-page menu is full of bold-flavoured dishes. Most have their roots in China, specifically in Cantonese, Sichuan and Xinjiang cuisines, but there are also forays into Japan, Korea and Malaysia.
A dish of garlic chives, dried prawns, shiitake and cashews is joined by 'nduja in one of the more overt fusion dishes on the menu. It's a good example of how Lee and Trumble roll. They're unafraid to mix and match cuisines, break a few rules and blur some lines.
It's an approach that works to great effect with the charcoal-roasted char siu, made from pork neck the chefs source from Donati's, Lygon Street's landmark butcher. The pork, dry-cured and marinated, is glazed in honey water and served with a spring-onion relish and Japanese tare, a sweet, thickened soy sauce. The meat is tender and flavoursome with sweet and smoky notes.
Then there's fried popcorn chicken that comes with curry leaf and togarashi and brilliant Xinjiang-spiced lamb ribs, tender from a kombu brine, bright with cumin and chilli. The hot and numbing beef tartare has Sichuan pepper as the most dominant spice but is accompanied by Vietnamese mint, pickled shallots, crème fraîche, daikon and Chinese doughnuts in a way that somehow seems perfectly rational.
Service is a high point, discreet but present and deft in a compact room that takes some manoeuvring when full. Co-owner Chris Lerch, another Ezard alumnus, seamlessly fuses his fine-dining background with the more casual approach that matches Lagoon's style.
The one-page wine list is skilfully calibrated to the powerful flavours on the menu. There's funky, salty tsitska from Georgia alongside a clean, pretty riesling- grüner veltliner blend from Austria, nebbiolo from Italy and sparkling wine from Victoria. Keep the cocktails in mind, particularly the refreshing Highball with sake, lemon curd and tonic.
There are just two desserts. One's a mango pudding, bright and vibrant in looks and flavour, the other a malt parfait that's finished with blueberries in a Pedro Ximénez caramel. Consider both of them instead of torturing yourself with an agonising decision.
Lagoon Dining might well be a signal that Lygon Street is changing. But when change comes with this level of charm and flavour, it's hard to see it as anything but a positive.