The Lucas Group’s Korean slash Japanese barbeque restaurant, Kong, is arguably one of the most popular restaurants in Cremorne. The third in the group’s list of highly successful restaurants, the comparison is often made as to whether it’s as good as the group’s original venture, Chin Chin.
When the hugely popular Chin Chin opened in 2011, it seemed the group had stumbled onto a winning formula: great food, loud music and cheeky persona all combining to create one of the most popular restaurants in Melbourne. In 2013, the Age’s Good Food wrote an article entitled “Is this Melbourne’s Hottest restaurant?” demonstrating its immense popularity. Now, four years on, Chin Chin has seemingly kept the momentum going, with people still lining up out the door almost every night.
After the success of Chin Chin, The Lucas Group opened Baby Pizza in 2012, followed by Kong in early 2014. Baby was well received, with Time Out writing “Before you ask, yes. Yes, Baby Pizza is just as busy as Chin Chin”. Kong opened in much the same fashion, but given it was another Asian restaurant from the group, comparisons began to be drawn between it and Chin Chin. So how does it stack up in comparison?
Walking into the restaurant at the Swan St end of Church St, the first thing you’ll notice is how small the place is. With only 60 seats available, it is noticeably smaller than Chin Chin which seats 100, but the same cheeky persona is there: pandas illuminated on neon signs, Korean language tapes played in the bathrooms, and a giant pac man game projected on the adjacent laneway wall. The cocktail list isn’t as impressive, though they do come served in unique tall cylinders with screw top lids.
Instead of serving up South-East Asian cuisine, Kong heads north to Korea. Here, it’s all about kimchi and other accompaniments to both meat and vegetable dishes. Chef Ben Cooper is loose in his interpretation of the cuisine, borrowing on Japanese influences to round out his menu.
The menu is divided up much like Chin Chin’s, starting with small items before launching into larger share plates. Kong’s starters include wagyu and kimchi dumplings ($18.00 for 4), grilled scallops served with tobanjan and mirin pickled radish ($18.00 for 2), and a canape version of nasu miso – miso glazed eggplant served on iceberg lettuce topped with sesame, chevril and yuzu ($14.00 for 4). The first thing you notice when they arrive at the table is how small they are. Though they are tasty morsels, there’s not much value for money here.
There’s also a list of roti wraps, bao buns and chicken wings to start the meal. The pulled pork roti wrap is a pinwheel of pork, slaw, cabbage and burnt chilli mayo ($12.00) that goes down well with a couple of Asian beers. It’s a tasty bite but lacks the freshness associated with the Lucas Group establishments. The pork belly bun with pickled cucumber and Kong’s own ‘crazy horse chilli’ ($6.00 each) might not deliver on the promised heat but again, is a tasty morsel.
Like Chin Chin, the larger dishes are suited for sharing. There’s a range of BBQ meats, ribs and greens to choose from, as well as a number of rice and noodle accompaniments. If you’re having trouble choosing, the Bossam BBQ tray ($29.00) is a great way to try a few things at once. It comes with a selection of meats, which you wrap in lettuce leaves with some pickles. Similar in style to Chin Chin’s DIY Spring Rolls, it’s fun stuff.
The vegetable dishes are well-considered, with unique combinations such as the wood roasted pumpkin with edamame salsa and ramen egg ($14.00). We’ve deviated off the Korean road here, but it’s all a bit tongue in cheek here. There’s a few safe options too like the
spicy cabbage slaw with pickled vege, soy and yuzu ($9.00) which again lacks the promised heat. At least when Chin Chin promises some spice they deliver, Kong feels like it’s catering to the suburban masses.
The dessert menu kinda feels like it’s there begrudgingly, with only two options: an apple and walnut tart served with miso butterscotch and whiskey ice cream ($13.00) and coconut sago with passionfruit and pineapple trifle ($12.00). There’s black sesame ice cream too ($11.00) but is so boring it’s almost not worth mentioning..
So what’s the verdict? While Kong hasn’t quite achieved the same intangible quality of Chin Chin, it’s still got a lot going for it. The food isn’t quite at the same level as Chin Chin so even though the larger dishes are around the same price, they seem a little pricey. And the small bites are a bit of a rip off. Yes, Kong has the same cheeky vibe, but the location gives it a more casual feel than it’s big brother. So while Kong might be a great place in its own right, the inescapable comparison between it and Chin Chin means it won’t ever been seen as more than it’s little brother.
599 Church St,
Cremorne VIC 3121
(03) 9427 1307
Mon to Sun 11am-11pm