Don't be fooled or put off by the rather dark and rickety staircase that you must traverse to get to this Smith Street, Fitzroy eatery and bar. What awaits you atop the stairs is quite a unique and different dining experience.
That moody ambience continues as you enter the restaurant, but that's just part of the general vibe of the place. The next thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the area. It was obviously some sort of upstairs warehouse in the past, but the owners have done a fantastic job of converting it into the rustic, open-feel venue that it is today.
The place is extremely well set out with a large and well stocked bar in the corner, many tables, large and small, across the floor of the main dining area, a curtained off area for semi-private functions and a stage where a band was setting up. This is more than a simple restaurant.
A very friendly welcome and a window seat was a very pleasant start. The menu is quite an eye opener, covering not just one or two but many Asian style cuisines. You can choose something of Japanese, Balinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese or Indian origin! Vegetarians are catered for, although not overly extensively. A few more non-meat options would definitely not go astray.
The wine and beverage list is also quite considerable. A smooth, light Kingfisher Lager opened things nicely followed by an excellent Margaret River Cab Sav, which complemented the food superbly.
The cauliflower and potato pakoras, accompanied by a mint yoghurt, were a nice Indian touch to begin with. A little on the small side, but very flavoursome nonetheless. The warm Vietnamese Tofu salad was an excellent and very diverse combination of flavours, with the tofu, noodles, roasted nuts and Asian greens presented separately on the plate. The Balinese Pork Belly with Chilli salad was subtle in flavour but delicious, with a fantastic sweet and spicy trade-off. The servings were small to medium sized, but reasonably filling nonetheless.
The aforementioned band seemed a little disorganised at first, seemingly setting up and soundchecking for quite some time. They may be better advised to do this during the afternoon, prior to the main bulk of diners arriving, you would think. But once they started, their smooth, soulful jazz sounds provided an excellent backdrop to proceedings, and makes this a place to kick on in after your meal is finished.
Another slight criticism was that we felt a little rushed at times. The waiting staff actually took our plates away before we'd even finished! Maybe something for management to address with the waiting staff.
Outside this relatively minor gripe however, this was a very fun and different experience. This isn't your everyday eatery, with its warehouse feel, extremely broad Asian menu and the jazz band enlivening things beautifully. And it's in a position to cater for couples and small to quite large groups, with its sheer size allowing for very big tables as well as the cordoned off function area.
Rice Queen is highly recommended if you're after something slightly different in eating out.