For restaurant owner Janine Barican, there's a sobering reality about the current shutdown in select Melbourne suburbs. In its short life, her Filipino eatery, in West Footscray – one of 39 suburbs that has reverted to stage-three restrictions – has operated as a restaurant-proper for just six weeks. "We've been closed longer than we've been open," says Barican.
Chibog held its grand opening in February. But last week it was forced to shut its dining room for the second time this year after postcode 3012 experienced a spike in COVID-19 infections. This, just weeks after Barican, like many restaurant operators in Victoria, was given the green light to reopen to up to 20 patrons.
The current lockdown is expected to last until 29 July. Until then, restaurants in affected areas will be restricted to takeaway-only trade.
Before she ran Chibog, Barican was a nurse with eight years' experience. She recognises the public health importance of these restrictions, but still grapples with the prospect of losing the dream restaurant she established with her husband Thuan Le and head chef Alex Yin. "When I decided to open a restaurant I knew it was going to be crazy. But no one knew there was going to be a pandemic," she says.
When the first March lockdown hit, Chibog had been open for just four weeks. As the new kid on the Barkly Street block, they had yet to establish a customer base, and takeaway trade was lukewarm. The restaurant was hemorrhaging money, and Barican decided, with a heavy heart, to temporarily close.
In June as restrictions lifted, Chibog reopened to a slew of positive publicity – the restaurant was booked out throughout July. When news broke about the current lockdown, Barican had the heartbreaking task of calling diners, one by one, to cancel their reservations. "The more I explained, the more the reality sank in – I'm closing again for a whole month."
But this time, Barican is buoyed by diners' response. As she informed patrons about their cancelled bookings, many asked whether the restaurant would remain open for pick-up orders. The interest was enough to encourage her to formulate a condensed menu of Chibog's dishes that could be adapted to takeaway, available three nights a week.
Sisig is Chibog's signature dish. It's traditionally made with pig's head and ears, but here chef Lin uses a secret mix of select pork cuts for an optimal skin-fat-flesh ratio. The pork is simmered, braised and deep-fried, and served with a liver-pate sauce. Sisig is typically served on a sizzling plate, but for takeaway, it's packaged in containers – Barican closes the lid just before the customer's arrival to ensure the pork stays crisp.
The kansi, a soup with osso buco, jackfruit and tamarind, is made for Melbourne's biting winters, with Barican likening it to Thailand's tom yum or Vietnam's canh chua. "It's the perfect balance of sour and salty flavours, and people love the bone-marrow bits." And then there's the chori burger, a street-food dish popularised in the Philippines' Borocay island, where longganisa and a beef patty meet atchara (pickled vegetables) and a brioche bun, and a healthy dousing of banana ketchup. "Banana ketchup is a staple in the Filipino kitchen. It was invented during World War II because of an abundance of bananas in the Philippines," says Barican. "It's a hit for everyone."
Chibog's orders may be rolling in, but there's still a little sting when customers pick up their orders. They often remark on how beautiful the neon-lit dining room looks, how welcoming the staff are. It's a reminder of how hard, Chibog has been working to stay afloat in restaurant-lite mode. And with Victoria's new cases of COVID-19 ticking upwards by the double digits every day, the proposed end date for lockdown looks increasingly uncertain.
"I'll be honest, I don't want to be over-confident [about a reopen date]. But I know people will be there," says Barican. She's already held two grand openings for Chibog. And she's looking forward to the time, sometime, on this block of Barkly Street, when she can hold another.