Restaurant review: Mulan, Birkenhead

By Peter Calder

Address: 243 Hinemoa St, Birkenhead
Phone: (09) 480 2806
Online: mulan.co.nz

It's been a Birkenhead sort of month. Not quite as romantic as a New York state of mind, I grant you, but it will have to do. A plan fell through when a new restaurant's website kept posting an opening date and, the day before, putting it back by a week, and another place was so bad that writing about it seemed too much like kicking a corpse.

All this is by way of explaining why I'm back in Hinemoa St only four weeks after reviewing Moxie, the new incarnation of Eight.Two. In my sights was this cheerful family-run eatery where the chef is Malaysian but where the menu offers the food of Southeast Asia.

It makes this point very clearly: the sections of the menu are headed Bite, Pick and Home, each word followed by "of Southeast Asian" and there will be no prizes for guessing how they mark the desserts. Aside from its slightly dodgy grammar, the list sought to make a distinction that was not entirely clear.

Mulan occupies a long room, a few steps from the top of Hinemoa St, which I suspect has a lovely view by day. They haven't done a lot to it - some inventive ropework on the light fittings - and for atmosphere they depend on ageless Top 40 played at a volume not quite loud enough to be enjoyable.

"Do you have any gamelan music?" inquired one of our group who had travelled extensively in Asia before travelling extensively in Asia was a thing.

"We tried that," said the very friendly kitchenhand who was wandering from table to table in his apron (he is, it turned out, the son of one of the chefs, and perhaps he was auditioning for the main role: "Have you guys been here before or is this you guys' first time?" he asked, proving that he has a perfect command of New Zealand English). "We tried [the gamelan]," he said. "The punters couldn't stand it. Said it was doing their head in."

As is usual in these situations, my dining companions left me to do all the ordering, an unenviable assignment given that their combined "don't eat", "can't eat" and "don't like" lists covered many of the high points on the menu. Making matters slightly worse was that the duck mee jawa, the Malaysian street-hawker classic of meat with egg noodles, tomato, hard-boiled egg and tofu, was not available.

Commendably, since it is uncommon in Asian restaurants here, the pork and chicken are free-farmed, the waitress told me, so I managed to come up with a reasonable assortment, first checking with her whether we had ordered enough for 30 rather than three.

Vegetable spring rolls, though deep-fried, were remarkably ungreasy and a shared bowl of wonton soup, with fresh herbs lending a Vietnamese inflection, was quickly dispatched.

I'd steered clear of a pad thai, a dish I've never much cared for since it so often resembles a homogenous gloop, in favour of a fish concoction using trevally. The sauce, flavoured with lemongrass, ginger flower, green chilli, mint and okra was most tasty without being fiery hot.

I have no idea why a squid dish earned the name Golden Shield, but it was marked out as a signature dish so we had to have it: the squid was flash-fried so as to remain superbly tender and chilli jam, piqued with kaffir lime added a pleasing kick. We tore off chunks of roti canai, the buttery Southeast Asian version of the Indian roti, to mop up the juices.

Best of all was the tau yu bak, a dish that originates in China's Fujian province but no doubt bearing the traces of its passage through Malaysia: pork belly slow-braised with sugar and dark soy sauce gains added texture from tofu and flavour from shiitake mushrooms, cinnamon and star anise.

By this time, we were pretty much done for and no one could manage pudding, particularly since the only conspicuously exotic option was banana fritter by its Indonesian street food name pisang goreng. But this modest and unpretentious eatery had given a good account of itself.

Our young apron-clad spruiker told me the main competition is the fish and chip shop up the road. If you ask me - and I mean no disrespect to the chippy - the one-fish-and-a-scoop brigade don't know what they're missing.

Bites $8-$10; mains $17-$25; sides $4-$10; desserts $8-$10.
Verdict: Down-to-earth and good-value family run Asian

- Spy.co.nz

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