Although its tag line "Your handmade noodle shop" doesn't say anything about the cuisine and connotes Beijing la-mian, Kitchen Inn specialises in food from Sarawak, a state in East Malaysia, and more specifically popular Chinese dishes from the cities of Kuching and Sibu in Sarawak.
I walked past the renovations several times on route to Queen Victoria Market with the sign saying "opening soon". It finally opened on 18 October to an endless queue of Melburnian foodies, Malaysians and Sarawakians.
The brightly colour and flashy facade draws you into a classic Malaysian coffeeshop look alike with utensils and sauces on marble top tables. Even the serving bowls mimic the old-fashion shallow "chicken bowls" with the brushstroke cockerels.
Seating is divided between the outdoor pavement and a few tables indoor so the eatery gets crowded real quickly. I visited at the opening time and couples and families were already gathering in twos and fours, ploughing through the extensive pictorial menu for reasonably priced good eats.
I learned from a friendly waiter that the owner, cook and himself were from Sibu and he reckoned the dishes at Kitchen Inn were as close to home as possible in Melbourne, especially the Kolo Mee.
With his vote of confidence and bowls of the same already marching out of the kitchen, I put in an order for the noodles (AUD8.50), a Special Soup (AUD6.50) and a cold Teh C Special (AUD3.50). I felt the Kolo Mee with the extra prawns was more of a distraction from the basic flavours. I also decided on a taste test of the Penang style Fried Kuey Teow to see if Sibu folks could cook Penang food.
The Teh C Special was actually the popular 3-layer milk tea in Kuching, consisting of a bottom layer of "Gula Melaka" or Palm sugar syrup, a middle layer of evaporated milk and topped with red tea. These 3 ingredients arrived floating on top of each other in typical Kuching-fashion. A quick stir and you're ready to down this sweet emulsion.
The Special Soup was actually a Chinese clear pork broth with meat ball and pig organs. The waiter was kind to replace the meat balls with more pig organs for me. The liver and kidney were clean without any unpleasant smell and still tender when served.
The Special Soup could do with some improvements when compared to the traditional dish known as pig organ soup or "Zhu Za Tang" in Mandarin. Firstly, it should contain a greater variety of pork cuts including lean pork, pork belly, intestines, blood jelly in addition to livers and kidneys. Secondly the soup stock should be richly flavoured by pork bones and not the watered down broth that was served. The folks at Home Thai definitely do a better job with their Thai-Chinese pig organ soup.
The Penang style Fried Kuey Teow smelled right but looked and tasted wrong. Having had plate loads of the original in Penang, the version that arrived had the smoky stir-fried smell of rice noodles on a really hot wok with oil. However, the brownness and sweetness (probably from adding sweet or dark soy sauce) was akin to the Singapore version. Unfortunately our Sibu friends did not pass the Penang taste test but like Drew Carey, I would still award a 1,000 points for frying up a tasty Fried Kuey Teow.
Kolo Mee originated as a poor person's tossed noodles in Kuching. Today it is an ubiquitous part of the city's social life.
Having travelled and eaten the local fare in Kuching several times, the Kolo Mee at Kitchen Inn did not disappoint.
There were minor differences with the original but the main textures and flavours were present in the thin egg noodles, flash-boiled and tossed with a seasoning of oil and soya sauce, and topped with minced pork and slices of Chinese barbequed pork also known as "Char Siu". The sweet-salty-oily seasoning was ample to prevent the noodles from drying out too quickly. It was missing the fragrance of pork lard at serving but I believe the cook adjusted the seasoning to suit the local palate. This was the star dish. I would return to sample the Sibu Kampua Noodles.
If you're planning to make a trip to Kuching or Sibu, Kitchen Inn is still a good place to familiarise yourself with the culinary culture of Sarawak. It is also excellent for Sarawakians missing home and locals just looking for a taste of the multiethnicity that is Melbourne.