We'd been hearing about it for months and months. Chris Lucas and his never-fail Lucas Group venues had closed what was Pearl Cafe at 599 Church Street (corner of Newton Street), Richmond, and left the small 60-seater site to marinate for a while.
Things went quiet next to Petbarn, then suddenly the new fit-out was complete, and Broadsheet was running a competition in cahoots with Mercedes-Benz for winners to experience the as-yet-unopened restaurant, Kong, at a special (and very well-publicised) dinner.
There were also tastes of the food - with mixed reviews - through Rue & Co, a pop-up Collins Street venture between Kong, Jimmy Grants and St Ali.
Everyone was anticipating Executive Chef Benjamin Cooper's menu - would it be all "chilli, chilli and more chilli", that he had proclaimed as his preference on a Masterchef immunity challenge? Or would his expertise from heading up the kitchen at the ever-popular Flinders Lane haunt, Chin Chin, plus former stints at Ezard and Longrain, be the starting point from which he would dive into something completely unknown?
Extensive PR and social media tinklings ensured we knew what Kong was about to reveal itself as: a Japanese/Korean pit BBQ restaurant. Sorry... wha?! Japanese AND Korean, with American barbequing techniques thrown in? Um... okay.
30 May revealed all, and fear not, Cooper's puppy-like enthusiasm for trying random stuff means that, like Chin Chin, there is no one way to exactly define the cuisine at Kong. It's a bunch of things chucked in together, with Asian flavours, lots of pickled stuff and lots of chargrilled meat. I'm still not quite sold on the marriage of styles, but my first and only sample of the food to date was six days into opening. Considering the venue is down the road from my work, it would be almost sacrilege NOT to try it again, to obtain a more certain opinion. =P
Its branding and website design, with pastel colours, circular fonts and cutesy panda faces, definitely pitches Kong as Japanese more than anything - however, apparently Cooper had been perfecting his kimchi recipe for months ahead of opening.
Kong is a walk-in only restaurant - that is, they don't take bookings - and is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. My friend and I rocked up at midday on the first Thursday of lunch service, hoping we were early enough to secure a table. Fortunately, it was not even close to being an issue, as we were the second party seated! However, by the time we left, at 1pm, the entire place was packed, and there was a queue forming out the door.
Our waitress was charming and down-to-earth, happily explaining the premise of Kong dining, whilst offering me a copy of the menu and a pencil for taking notes when I asked if it was OK that I blogged about the meal.
I also particularly liked her spotty apron (sported by all the waitstaff), and in the open-style restaurant, you can see directly into the kitchen, where kitchen staff are wearing cute red baseball caps with the words "KIM", "CHI" or "BBQ" on them.
Interior design of the venue was courtesy of Collingwood firm Eades & Bergman, whose other hospitality projects have included the Meatball and Wine Bar, and Bomba Bar (formerly The Aylesbury). It's clear that as much seating has been packed in as possible, with additional places available via bar stools at benches surrounding the kitchen.
The main dining space is light and bright, with blonde wooden fittings, natural-toned crockery, large street-facing windows, and colourful accents of lime green, red, yellow and blue (particularly in the lighting, pipe system, and branding).
There is a subtle vibe of fun - evident, for example, through signs encouraging a "HAPPY LIFE" or insisting that "It's not ordinary cabbage, it's fermented cabbage." Kong's social media channels continue the vibe through the tone of Tweets, and the fact that on its Facebook page, Kong is described as a "Theme Park Ride".
Metres down the road is Baby Pizza, also of The Lucas Group, and there is rumour of a potential new Lucas Group site just over the river, on Chapel Street, South Yarra. The crowd at lunchtime is mainly office workers, coming out of the woodwork from converted warehouses and furniture/design/coffee companies down the laneways off Church Street. I've not yet been past Kong at dinner time, but I've been told there is usually a queue. Fortunately, according to its website, a takeaway ordering facility will be available soon.
Naturally, there is a meat focus at Kong, so we centered our meal on the Bossam BBQ Tray, which included pulled chicken and pork, pork belly and beef brisket, served with lettuce, pickles, kimchi and walnut ssamjang. The idea is, you gather together a few elements, heap them into a lettuce leaf, then go for gold.
Entrees and sides were a pleasant mix of flavours, including wagyu beef and kimchi mandhu (which looked remarkably like gyoza, and were served with a soy vinegar sauce), a bun each (I tried the soft shell crab one, while my friend had the pork belly), and a BBQ zucchini and tofu salad, again served with soy vinegar dressing. I had a glass of white wine recommended by the waitress - no idea what it was, but it went perfectly with our food.
Despite sharing only two small dishes plus one main and one side, we left Kong quite stuffed. I think the bill came to around $70 - pretty reasonable when you consider the amount of food we ate, and my glass of wine.
Kong is a welcome addition to the burgeoning lower Church Street food scene, joining the ranks of Top Paddock, Baby Pizza, Fonda Mexican, Mr Burger and Pillar of Salt. Try it for something different, for a midweek dinner with friends.