Address: 243 Hinemoa St, Birkenhead.
Phone: 09 480 2806
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 6, Value: 8, Ambience: 7

The question must often be asked when the menu implies sharing. But our inquiring "have we ordered too much?" prompted the immediate flight of our young waitress, citing a medical difficulty.

We had some sympathy both for her condition and for the nature of the question. How was she to know if we all ate like gluttons or as the diet-conscious? But the more mature maitresse d'hotel who eventually arrived to fill the breach was up to the task and, taking a look at us, decided we had not overdone it.

The problem, as usual, was that we were tempted by rather too many items on the menu of Mulan, a new venture in Birkenhead.

The list breaks its offerings down to Bites of South East Asia, Picks of South East Asia, Home of South East Asia and, yes, you've guessed it, Sweet of South East Asia. It's not easy to discern the logic behind the distinction between the Pick and the Home, but however they are characterised, Malaysian chef James Balakrishnan, formerly of Madam Woo, certainly knows his way around the flavours and spices of the region. He also adds to the atmosphere by emerging from the kitchen to check the customers are happy with his efforts.

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Although the establishment -formerly a Thai restaurant - is new, it has obviously picked up an instant word of mouth reputation. On a midweek evening it was bustling. The group ahead of us had to be turned away and booking, as we had taken the precaution of doing, is certainly advisable.

The interior is simple and clean and buzzing with noise, and the acoustics - with all the windows wide open on a summer evening - don't make communication with the staff easy. And you do need to communicate because the young staff, though polite, friendly and enthusiastic in the New Zealand way, are not all entirely on top of the game and a certain air of confusion reigns.

We decided not to seek much advice, skipping the routine appetisers of satays and spring rolls and going straight for the more substantial offerings.

Fried wombok, shallots and soy (top), banana prawns cooked in lemongrass, mint and tamarind (R) and flash-fried squid in chilli jam, kaffir lime (L). Photo / Getty Images
Fried wombok, shallots and soy (top), banana prawns cooked in lemongrass, mint and tamarind (R) and flash-fried squid in chilli jam, kaffir lime (L). Photo / Getty Images

If the service had sown the seeds of doubt about why Mulan is popular, the food remedied them. I have no idea why dishes were called "On the Battlefield" or "Golden Shield" but the first, of banana prawns done in a mixture of lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, toasted shrimp paste and tamarind, was greeted with lavish praise by all of us.

The second - squid, skilfully flash-fried to avoid turning rubbery, and dressed with a spicy blend of chilli jam and kaffir lime, was similarly welcomed even by the member of our party who normally avoids squid because of its often-chewy texture.

We were less impressed by the chicken larb. The meat was delivered in nuggets and the cucumber-based salad lacked spark despite the presence of mint and coriander. But praise returned for the fresh fish fillets in piquant lemongrass, ginger flower, okra and tomato sauce.

There was a complete contrast in the beef massaman, a rich blend of decent quality lean meat with a coconut cream and roasted peanut sauce.

The Tom Ya Bak was a dish we'd not encountered, pork belly cutlets diced and attractively served with shitake mushroom, cinnamon, star anise and soy. This offering ambushed our meat lover by including tofu, which he accepted gracefully, and capped his approval by, like the rest of us, singling out as one the night's best dishes - the side serving of fried wombok (Chinese cabbage), tastily dressed with crispy shallots and soy.

Our approach to ordering had resulted in none of us being able to face a dessert and, looking at the Ice Kagan (kidney beans, red beans, sweet corn, banana, evaporated milk, icecream and syrup), I was quite relieved.

You may not expect the slickest service at Mulan but you will get interesting, flavour-rich food and good value, a combination that should guarantee continuing popularity for Mulan, even when its novelty wears off.

Our meal: $221 for six dishes, one side dish and eight glasses of wine.

Wine list: An underwhelming list, with just enough choice to get by and the beer selection seems better tailored to go with the food. The Mills Reef Hawkes Bay chardonnay was a respectable routine offering and the Brightwater Nelson riesling went down well enough as did the Mills Reef Hawkes Bay syrah.

Verdict: Unpretentious but delivering decent-quality food in a lively atmosphere at reasonable prices, this is the sort of neighbourhood restaurant every suburb would like to have.