Is there a go-to dish at Ricky & Pinky? It's a legitimate query, given that this riff on a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant is part of the same stable responsible for such cult Melbourne menu items as Supernormal's lobster roll, Cumulus Inc's tuna tartare and the char-grilled ox tongue at Marion. Short answer: there are several contenders.
The clearest candidate is the garlic bread with seaweed butter. It's stupidly tasty, a salty-sweet umami bomb - a house-baked Asian milk bun (brioche-like, but not as buttery) oozing melting butter mixed with seaweed paste, lemon juice and garlic. Arrive hungry and wash one of those down with a beer and the world will feel like a better place.
But then what of the quail? It's marinated in a mixture of soy, ginger and Shaoxing wine, coated with a crust of tapioca flour, cumin and fennel seeds, crushed cardamom pods, chilli powder and Sichuan pepper and then deep-fried. It's not subtle, sure, but neither is it overbearing. The levels of chilli heat and Sichuan tingle are in balance and the bird is cooked carefully enough to retain plenty of juice.
Smashed cucumbers and radishes with chillli oil.
Then there are the smashed cucumbers and radishes, fresh and crunchy in their black vinegar, soy, ginger and sesame oil dressing, finished with a flourish of boisterous house-made chilli oil.
The menu is full of these crowd-pleasing moments: dumplings, pickles, fried rice, drunken chicken - even a superb ginger pudding, based on a classic Hong Kong dim sum sponge, given an update with an Anglaise-like custard and a sweet, clean ginger syrup.
So, in terms of a single go-to dish, there might be a squabble among the group. But the argument won't be about whether to eat at Ricky & Pinky. Run a finger over the 30-plus dishes on the menu and it's all yes, yes, yes with only the occasional maybe. This is one of those restaurants that wants you back. It's familiar and comforting, but the cooking is sharp, the flavours clean and the sense of fun front and centre.
There's fun in the design, too. It blends what used to be the Builders Arms bistro and the more upmarket Moon Under Water into a single new restaurant, leaving only the original public bar area intact.
The removal of a couple of walls has opened the space up beautifully, giving it a lively sense of flow and bustle that it didn't have before. Retro Aussie-Chinese restaurant flourishes are complemented by a cool palette of two-tone green carpets, soft leather banquettes, black bentwood chairs and creamy white walls. Arches of gold piping frame the kitchen entrance and help define the dining spaces, while a large circular mirrored light fitting above the former Moon Under Water dining room adds further restrained glitz, if glitz can be said to be restrained. There's a fish tank, more than a few lazy Susans and bright splashes of red and gold from the Ricky & Pinky-branded paper napkin rings, packets of towelettes and the upholstered embossed wine list. Cheerful young waitstaff wear shirts with monogrammed pockets.
There's both humour and nostalgia in the look, referencing a time when Chinese food in pub kitchens was a common Australian trope. The smoothed modern edges read as fond and respectful rather than ironic - at times a little too much so. The room could easily take a little more flash and dazzle along the lines of the red and gold theme without lurching into parody.
The kitchen, though, nails the balance. Andrew McConnell's Asian-food bona fides include not just his restaurants Supernormal and Golden Fields (now mod-Euro Luxembourg), but also the five years he spent cooking in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1990s. (The name Ricky & Pinky is a reference to an old Hong Kong tattoo parlour; its artists' work remains in evidence on McConnell's leg in the form of a not especially well-inked dragon.)
The cred is further bolstered by ArChan Chan's presence in the kitchen. Chan, Ricky & Pinky's head chef, hails from Hong Kong and worked for McConnell at Golden Fields, Supernormal and Cutler & Co before spending a year at Sydney's Moon Park. Her training, background and obsession with quality ingredients are a fine fit here. She produces dishes that both play it straight and mess with the formula a little.
The straighter dishes include fried wontons filled with chopped prawns, chicken-wing meat, garlic chives and a good shot of white pepper. They're served in a sweet-and-sour sauce that delivers sticky sweetness without overdoing it, balanced by a subtle saltiness. There are good Sichuan pork dumplings, too, doused in a house-made chilli oil with an attractive Sichuan peppercorn backbeat, plus texturally appealing rice cakes, crisp on the bottom and chewy inside, served with slivers of fresh sweet lap cheong sausage made at Meatsmith, McConnell's butchery.
The XO pipis with Chinese doughnuts also plays a straight bat. The pipis, big and meaty, are steamed quickly in a mix of stock, Shaoxing wine and clam juice before being tossed with an XO sauce made to a recipe by none other thanGT's Tony Tan that has a rich, admirable depth of flavour and finely tuned levels of salt and heat.
The Ricky & Pinky version of fried rice moves into less traditional territory. A vegetarian beauty of a dish, it comes with preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms braised in soy and sake, choy sum and spring onion. It not only looks beautiful under a flurry of pale-yellow shavings of cured egg yolk, its superb sticky texture and punchy mushroom flavour push it firmly into must-order territory.
Grilled wagyu rump cap with XO mushrooms.
There's modern thrills in the bonito vinaigrette that accompanies freshly shucked oysters, too, and in the expertly cooked wagyu rump cap glazed with soy, sake and vinegar, served in slices over XO mushrooms and topped with a couple of spring onions in tempura batter. It's a dish both elegant and robust.
Some of the less orthodox dishes still need work - a take on ma po tofu lacks balance and comes across like a weird fusion Bolognese topped with tofu.
Ginger pudding with ginger syrup.
The approach to alcohol at Ricky & Pinky is both modern and successful, though. The red and gold embossed drinks list has its retro moments with Carlton Draught on tap, Tsingtao in longnecks and a cocktail list that includes a Japanese Slipper and Long Island Iced Tea. There's also a good, punchy version of a Bloody Mary that tosses fish sauce and chilli into the recipe to great effect.
The wine list at Ricky & Pinky is a sophisticated beast with solid mark-ups and a catholic selection, especially when it comes to small producers from both the New and Old Worlds. There are about 25 pages of wine, but for those fatigued by the thought of wading through all that, there's a short, one-page list of bottles in addition to 15 wines by the glass.
The short list is a concise, reasonably priced abridgement that might include pinot grigio from Italy, Mornington Peninsula pinot gris, South African chenin blanc, Austrian riesling, Barossa shiraz and New Zealand pinot noir. Minimal-intervention and skin-contact wines sit comfortably beside classic and conventional bottlings in a way that feels in keeping with Ricky & Pinky's inclusive good-time nature.
Order an XL fortune cookie at the end of the meal. Don't expect profundity in the message (going on recent experience the fortunes are very much a work in progress), but the cookie itself is very good - a classic tuile that's precision-cooked to caramel-coloured perfection.
*Ricky & Pinky.
Ricky & Pinky may not have the crisp urbanity of some in the McConnell stable, but its appealing earthiness, sense of fun and ArChan Chan's sharp cooking have put a noticeable spring in the step of the Builders Arms. Lively, retro-styled, good-humoured and super-tasty, Ricky & Pinky is a classic case of right place, right time.