Soju Girl restaurant co-owner Grant Macara. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Soju Girl has ample credentials. For a start, it was set up this time last year by part of the service-focused team that runs Ellacure near Bruce Stadium, which is itself a success for service, attitude, and food that hits the right note. Second, Soju Girl mixes up eating and drinking, small plates and big, which seems to be the way people want to eat right now. And it brings upfront Asian flavours to a contemporary menu.
We've had a certain wariness, though, about the combination of bar and restaurant here, since you enter on what is clearly a lounge-style bar area, off to your right is a large bar space with a row of little tables, and the restaurant is through an opening to the left. The worry is that the activities of the bar will detract from the mood of dinner. So we deliberately put Soju Girl to the test by visiting at drinks time on Friday night - if drinks are going to take over at any stage, this would be it.
But it turns out all of this over-thinking was unnecessary, since this place is very focused on its food, and as you'd expect from this team, looks after its customers very well. There's no doubt it's busy tonight, in the restaurant, too, which fills quickly with what feels like a pretty young crowd.
Crispy Pork Hock with palm sugar caramel and crispy fried onion was on the menu at Soju Girl.
The menu is organised around a long list of small plates, with just a handful of big plates, which you could also call mains. But you'd be just as well served having three small plates and dispensing with the mains altogether, if you're after a more casual kind of meal. Determined to traverse the menu in it's entirety, we start with four of the small plates, plus lotus chips, which are really for the child at the end of our table - we tried for bread for her, but there's none on the menu. The lotus chips ($7) are great little snacky things, salty, moreish and suited to the Oz-Asian theme, and they're part of a little bar menu that includes pickled cauliflower; and steamed and salted soy beans.
Crispy pork hock with palm sugar caramel and crispy onions ($16) is crisp for sure. The little squares of pork hock are strong tasting, more so than pork belly, and share that satisfying fattiness. They appear, though, to have been deep-fried, or at least well fried. On top are little onion circles, that look to be battered and deep-fried as well. So although we quite enjoy these, especially the first one, and like the caramelised sweetness, the overall effect is pretty full on. This is very much in tune with these fried-up meaty times, and it's a whole lot more upmarket than a deep-fried Mars bar - I'd hazard it's also a lot nicer and less calorific - but it shares that sense of overload. Doesn't pork hock carry enough of this itself, without the need for such treatment?
Pepper-spice soft-shell crab ($18) comes as a prettily messy little pile of crab, deep-fried in a clean, light batter, on a green papaya salad - shredded papaya, chilli, coriander, Thai basil, tomato. A pretty good dish.
We've probably ordered a certain kind of dish here, to the partial exclusion of the lighter seafood dishes - of which there is quite a list. Among the ''large plates'', the whole baby snapper with chilli jam and Thai herbs has impressed on a previous visit. But we do have at least one fresher snack on our table - smoked trout on betel leaf ($6.50 a piece), crisp with vegies, pungent with fish sauce, aromatic with coriander, piled like a tiny salad on the leaves.
Due to the presence of a foie fan among us, we've ordered foie gras with roti and umeboshi plum ($20), but even though foie and umeboshi plum is not an unheard-of pairing, the mildness of the foie can't really muscle up to the super sourness of the plum on this plate, and served as four little parcels wrapped in roti, the combination feels a little weird.
From the list of big plates, we head for the coconut-braised duck in a yellow curry ($37). Which we end up taking home since we've over-ordered and have dessert to go. It's hot and full of freshness in the spice and the vegies - coriander, basil, cucumber, asparagus, lychee and other bits in here alongside the two pieces of duck on the bone. A good, pungent curry in a big serve.
We veer drastically from the Asia in dessert, hearing our waiter's declaration that the chocolate fondant with peanut butter ice-cream and salted caramel ($18) is her favourite. The ice-cream is surprisingly mild, which is a good thing. The fondant is extraordinary in the runniness of its warm chocolately filling, and you feel that it might be one of those fiddly fondant recipes that has you making the inside bit separately from the outside bit to ensure they emerge with such contrasting textures. The result is very good.
We forgo the sticky black rice with banana jam for a lychee and citrus terrine with mango sorbet ($13). It's a little slab of jelly, in which the fruit pieces have been kept in as big chunks, a refreshing enough dessert with an odd kind of jam alongside - apricot, I think, not my thing, and a lovely mango sorbet.
Soju Girl is fairly dimly lit, with dark furniture. The tables are dark and shiny, and the carpet and chairs (comfortable, nice chairs, wooden, but with arms) are dark. It's a quite dim room and pretty in a plain kind of way. Despite the crowd throughout tonight, service is very good. They don't lose sight of us, and whoever comes to our table has the know-how to answer questions about the food and the wine. The wine bottles come to the table for pouring every time we order a glass.
The wine list focuses on well-priced wines, with a good range of regional wines and imports, with plenty to choose from by the glass.
Soju Girl looks to have found its niche. It's popular, properly focused on the food, and knows the key to a successful evening is to look after its customers.
Address: Melbourne Building, 43-45 Northbourne Avenue, City
Phone: 6257 5328
Owners: Derek Brown, Grant Macara, Andrew Hollands
Chef: Derek Brown
Hours: Monday-Wednesday lunch noon-3pm, dinner from 5pm; Thursday-Saturday, noon until late
Licensed: Yes, plus BYO, wine only, corkage $13 a bottle
Vegetarian: A few small plates and one large plate; most dishes gluten-free
To pay: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Eftpos
Wheelchair access: Yes, including disabled toilets
Seats: 90 in restaurant, 100 or more in bistro, 21 in courtyard out the back
Summary: A busy, fun place for good, Asian-themed relaxed food, small plates, big service, decent wine.
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end.14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.