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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Fonda Mexican

I am fonda Mexican. Boo-doom-TISH!

Side wall of Fonda Mexican, Richmond

Actually, I'm not that fond of Mexican. I used to be very anti-chilli - thankfully, not the case anymore, although I still prefer other people to cook with chilli for me, rather than cook it myself. Plus, Australia wasn't so fortunate in the '80s and '90s as it is now, with such a large spectrum of international cuisines available to us - so I never grew up eating Mexican food. Then, when I did, it was mainly crappy Tex-Mex: lots of heavy, fried, oily, cheesy stuff that actually barely resembles Real Mexican food. Only in the last few years have Melburnians been privy to (hopefully more) genuine Mexican flavours - and fresh ingredients - through the likes of Mamasita, Chingon, Acland St Cantina, and Fonda Mexican. So, I'm coming around. :)

Fish taco from Fonda Mexican, Richmond

In 2001, David Youl and Tim McDonald opened the original Fonda Mexican at 248 Swan Street, Richmond (luckily for me, only a short walk from my office). The aim was to provide fresh, healthy Mexican food, served quickly, at affordable prices, in a restaurant environment (rather than a high-end restaurant or fast food venue). The menu is smartly executed by chefs Ravi Presser (ex-Cumulus Inc.) and Lupita Manzo (ex-Cantinero, Manly, Sydney).

Fonda Mexican, Swan Street, Richmond

With an instant fan base, owners Youl and McDonald stumbled across a former Salvation Army site which turned into their second venue (144 Chapel Street, Windsor), a 130-capacity restaurant with a 60-person bar upstairs. More recently, they opened the third, 200-seater Fonda on the former site of Mercy Bar + Eatery in the CBD (31 Flinders Lane, Melbourne). Tantalisingly, the website currently also promises yet another "New location coming soon...".

I have only been to the original Richmond Fonda (which is relatively small at 55 seats, compared to its sister venues), so that's all I can tell you about. We had a phase at work of pre-ordering takeaway Fonda over the phone, then popping up to Swan Street to collect it.

Footpath seating at Fonda Richmond

They used to make chicharrons - basically deep-fried pork rind, that came out like meat-flavoured prawn crackers, but tougher to chew - served with a tomato salsa and guacamole. Sadly, these are no longer on the menu, but they were my favourite.

Corn tortilla crisps with guacamole and smokey salsa

Now, whether eating in or taking away, I usually go for an entree of tortilla crisps or a fish taco, followed by a chicken quesadilla or mushroom burrito. Ingredients are always fresh, and (unless I eat too much) the food is substantial, without being too heavy. I find it all wonderfully textured and a great combination of flavours. Fonda's tortilla press was imported especially, and the freshness when you bite into your burrito is evident.

Fish taco

Fonda's design is clean, strong, bright, modern and colourful - no tacky red tablecloths or yellow sombreros here. It is clearly trying to appeal to the young social crowd - and succeeding. Having said that, I find the service is often rushed, and a little too-cool-for-school. The design (at the Richmond site) is also a bit messy: you're not sure where to wait, order or sit, and there isn't much guidance provided. I love the colours, but there are lots of hard surfaces, so it can get a bit noisy.

Additionally, although the food is cheap, the drinks are on the pricey side. It can be a bit confronting when your soft drink - albeit a genuine Mexican one - costs the same as your taco!

I'm not sure it lives up to the huge amounts of hype it was afforded in its early days, but Fonda is a solidly good restaurant. It's casual enough to pop into for a quick lunch or dinner, but also funky enough to bring a bunch of friends with you and test your chilli tolerance levels, washed down by a Pacifico. I think Fonda has succeeded in achieving its goal of making fresh, healthy, affordable Mexican food more accessible, and I will continue to take advantage of that.

Fonda Mexican on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Madame Sousou (closed)

I think of Fitzroy as my 'hood, and as such, I have travelled Brunswick Street many, many times. There is a point just south of Johnston Street where the shops start to dwindle away; things seem quieter. On the corner of Bell Street is a charming, olde-world-looking restaurant called Madame Sousou (231 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy), with neatly arranged footpath tables and chairs facing the street - just like how they do it in Europe. It looks warm, inviting, traditional and European - many of my favourite things! But it was only recently that I tried it for the first time.

My best friend happened to have an Entertainment Book voucher for Madame Sousou, so we thought we'd give it a try. I'd like to point out here that both my friend and I are seasoned diners, and have been happy to pay exorbitant prices for meals, many times in the past. The Entertainment Book seemed a good way to try venues we hadn't been to, and at a saving - and who doesn't like to save a bit of dosh?! But we are by no means miserly when it comes to the bill - especially when the venue is deserving. Unfortunately this time, I'm not sure it was.

Many others have lauded Madame Sousou for its French fare and excellent breakfasts. We were there for dinner on a weeknight and honestly, it wasn't that impressive. We had a glass of wine outside first (it being not too cold for a winter's night), and had to flag the waiter down to order our drinks. The first wine we wanted wasn't in stock. Not a good start! But the waiter did apologise for the delay, and suggested a perfectly nice replacement wine.

Moving inside, we were seated by the window, which gave us a lovely aspect of the street and restaurant interior. Our waiter was new - in fact, this was his first shift - so we were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt if there were any slip-ups. However, our table service seemed to alternate between him and a more senior staff member... perhaps not so much room for forgiveness, then. The senior staff member made a face when we enquired which dishes were eligible for the Entertainment Voucher. Hmm. Was this not a program you guys willingly signed up for?

We ordered oysters and mains (from the senior staff member), and got down to business: catching up over our wine. Forty minutes had passed before we realised we hadn't received our oysters. In my friend's words... How long does it take to shuck an oyster?! When we enquired, the oysters were brought out quickly, and the waiter redeemed himself by providing us with a complimentary sparkling each, by way of apology. Me, I'm always happy to be bribed with alcohol ;)

And then, the mains. I had ordered the salmon, which was cooked OK - its sauce was nice. My friend had ordered a steak 'medium-rare', and it came out totally overcooked, done 'well'.

The chips and salad that accompanied it were again, OK - fine, but nothing special. The bread and butter were fresh and lovely.

I noted that our used glasses and plates were not cleared off the table for a long time, despite there only being several other tables of diners in the restaurant at the time. I'm glad we had the Entertainment voucher, because overall, I don't think the meal was worth paying full price for.

I did very much enjoy the décor of the venue: warm, dimly lit and elegant, lovely chandeliers, and the French music overhead was pleasant, too. The tiny bathrooms seemed to be fairly environmentally-friendly (plus), however the toilet paper dispenser was broken, and the soap dispenser nearly empty (minus).

I was heartened by the fact that the staff tried to rectify their wrongs; however, it really takes exemplary service, accessibility to staff, and care taken to keep the small things in order, as well as great food, drinks, vibe, décor and a unique angle, to cut it as an awesome restaurant these days -- especially in a highly competitive area like Brunswick Street. To be fair, we could have been there on an 'off' night, so I'd like to try Madame Sousou again - perhaps for breakfast, which seems to be well-regarded by locals. But I'll be looking for my French dinners elsewhere for a while.