"This is good. This is unbelievably good." David Chang loves noodles. Right now, he's eating a bowl of khanom jeen nam ya, the Thai fermented rice vermicelli with fish curry sauce, basil and mustard pickles, at Sydney's Spice I Am. "You've had Thai food in America, right?" he asks between bites. "You must just shake your head, like, what the f*?" A week into Chang's first visit to Australia, courtesy of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, and he's clocked some serious flying hours at out-there restaurants and holes-in-the-wall alike. "This is all super-fantastic," he says, carving his way through nam khao tod, som tum, hoy tod, yum pla krob and more. "If this was in New York, there'd be 200 people outside."
To equal the culinary balance of trade, he has brought a taste of his Manhattan Momofuku restaurants (the Lower East Side's Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Momofuku Ko and the newly opened Má Pêche, in Midtown). The dinner he and Momofuku Ko chef Peter Serpico gave at Cumulus Inc had the Melbourne food world scrambling for tickets, and the dinner he hosted in Sydney, with local chef Dan Hong and his team covering Momofuku classics at Lotus, was likewise a sold-out smash. Chang made enough of an impression that Cumulus's pork strap is now listed on the menu with miso-buttered leeks and "Chang's kimchi", while Lotus owner Justin Hemmes was inspired to draw up plans for a Momofuku-esque restaurant of his own, with Hong at the helm, in Sydney.
Much as Chang enjoyed the dinners, as well as the likes of Quay, Tetsuya's, Attica and Embrasse, the restaurant he's rushing to tell his friends about is not yet garlanded with accolades nor well known outside Melbourne. "The single best thing I've had to eat in my time in Australia is the fried eggplant at Dainty Sichuan," he says. "They fry it, I think they roll it in sugar and fry it again, and then they toss it in chilli madness." Chang is far from a stranger to Asian food, but the food at the South Yarra favourite, he says, was better than at similar restaurants he'd visited in China because of the quality of produce. "Their version of chopped-up chicken in a pile of chillies is the best I've ever had, and the tofu dishes were amazing, the silken tofu with preserved egg - so subtle." Serpico - a famously tough cookie - was equally impressed. "He said this was one of the top five meals of his life."
Chang's other adventures in Australian eating led him to Pho Chu The on Victoria Street, Richmond, for "one of the best bowls of pho I have ever had". Never one to do things by half-measures, he had two bowls on his first visit and three when he came back for a second round. "We don't have anything like that in New York." Melbourne also introduced Chang to the possibilities of Greek food. "I'd never eaten in a Greek restaurant before. You go to a diner in America and you get Greek salad or souvlaki or all that s*, but you never have Greek-Greek food, so Hellenic Republic was delicious. Lots of lamb, and the saganaki was fantastic."
Cumulus Inc was, to his mind, the most Australian of the restaurants he visited. "I love the fact that they have an extensive oyster selection, I love the fact that they work with local farmers, I love that pork strap. I'm wary of tuna tartare, but theirs is f*in' righteous." Working in the kitchen, meanwhile, Chang was interested in the unfamiliar cuts of meat on the menu. "When we did the Momofuku dinner, we switched the pork belly for the pork strap that they use. I wanted to try something new on the buns. It was a cut I'd never thought about using but it's beautiful because if you cook it sous vide you have a layer of fat, tenderness and, more importantly, this fantastic skin."
The discrepancy between the nightlife in Melbourne and Sydney also piqued Chang's interest. "Melbourne has this great bar scene, but the bars in Sydney are all glitzy and glam. Why aren't there more bars like Gerald's in Sydney? Pete Serpico tried hula-hooping there. I was there with Massimo Bottura, watching a pretty girl dance on the bar while people hula-hooped on the street, and I thought, this is sort of like being on mescaline. And Siglo? That place is dangerous."
"Infatuated" with Australia, Chang says we can expect to see more of him. "I've travelled a lot with Serpico, and we both think this is a place we could move to. That's the highest praise Serpico could give to anything." Just don't expect him to go entirely native. "I'd describe Vegemite as awful," he says. "I was thinking about making a dashi out of Marmite, but Vegemite? Never."