If you’re not across Filipino food, you really are missing out.
At Serai Kitchen, the menu marries the sweet, sharp, salty and savoury notes of traditional Filipino food with the heat of an open flame to stunning effect. It’s different and very addictive.
Location: 7 Racing Club Ln, Melbourne, VIC 3000 Ph: (03) 9600 0016
You can smell Serai Kitchen before you even enter Racing Club Lane. And believe me. That’s a good thing.
Chef Ross Magnaye promised his restaurant would bring Melbourne diners ‘Filipino over fire’. And as the mellow perfume of wood smoke and charring produce wafts enticingly towards you, you know you’re in for a culinary treat.
It seems that Filipino fare is finally inching its way into the culinary limelight. Given that it’s a cuisine that loves a BBQ, it’s astounding really that it’s taken so long for us fellow smoke & char-loving Aussies to embrace it. Even more so, given that the Melbourne dining scene showcases the some of the best dishes from so many other Asian countries.
Personally, we’re ecstatic to find Adobo sauce cropping up on hot chips and vivid purple Ube appearing in desserts across the the city. However, at Serai, things are a little more refined.
For clever Asian-inspired cooking of a different kind, read our review of Coda, Melbourne.
Don’t be put off if you find yourself playing ‘guess the entrance’ outside the multiple rusty doors of Serai. What’s on the inside is totally worth persevering for.
Once inside, the dining room is white-walled and uncluttered. It’s a space of industrial ceilings and hanging globes lights – ideal to bring out the subtle shades of charcoal in any self-aware Melburnians wardrobe.
There’s a well-stocked bar across the back wall and it looks like a few punter have popped in just for a drink, which can’t be a bad thing.
Potted ferns and spiky native flower arrangements soften the urban cool.
Where to start?!
If you’re unfamiliar with Filipino cuisine, then are you in for a treat.
Although a couple of our party were lucky enough to have enjoyed Filipino fare in the past, others were newbies and so we plumped for the Serai Tasting Menu.
Our culinary odyssey began with the ‘Kinilaw’ Cured Kingfish, Pinakurat & Calamansi – fleshy lobes of Kingfish, singing in pitch-perfect harmony with fiesty Pinakurat vinegar and zesty Philippine lime. Now we’ve eaten a lot of cured Kingfish over the years, and this one was a stand-out.
After that, a rough, earthenware plate bejewelled with delicate tartlets appeared at our table. This was the ‘Selat Lumpia’. Fine, crispy cups of pastry, filled with marinated Organic Pineapple, Spiced Coconut and Smoked Caviar. Talk about a flavour bomb. Surprisingly, our absolutely charming waiter informed us that this belting nibble was actually vegan, as even the ‘caviar’ was plant-based. Honestly, I defy anyone not to love such a tiny, utterly delicious morsel.
Next, we ventured into the Crispy Things section of the menu.
‘Kare kare’ was described as Hash Brown, Peanut Sauce, Herbs & Salted Duck Egg. Well, it was nothing like any breakfast-style hash brown that I’ve ever eaten. Instead, light as a feather, mini potatoes materialised, sprinkled with a sunshine scattering of finely grated salted duck egg. Again, we all could have polished off 3 of them each, they were that moreish.
If wine bar cool and great food appeals, see our piece in Embla Wine Bar
From there, we moved on to the Wood Fired offerings. This consisted of 3 contrasting dishes.
Opaque rings of Port Lincoln Calamari rested on a vivd smear of Smoked ‘Longanissa Nduja’ Dressing. The char on the edges of the calamari marrying beautifully with the smoke and chilli heat of the sauce.
Alongside came a plate of delicate Gippsland Lamb Ribs with Sticky ‘Adobo’ Sauce – a combo that packed some serious flavour. The vinegary sharpness of the Adobo cut through the fatty sweetness of the lamb and resulted in some very enthusiastic finger-licking.
The final dish was another unexpected star. The Cabbage ‘Tocino’ – Organic Savoy Cabbage and Roasted Garlic – was nothing like the sulphurous mush of my childhood. Rather, it was a wedge of meltingly soft brassica, charred almost black on the outer edges. This aggressive fire treatment gave the savoy incredible caramel-sweetness, whilst keeping the inner leaves of the plant juicy. Amazing. And one to try on the BBQ at home, if I ever pluck up the nerve.
For winning flavour combinations of a different kind, check out our post on Straight Outta Saigon
Our last foray into the savoury part of our meal brought forth a spin on the Philippines much-loved suckling pig, Lechon. At Serai, we feasted ‘Lechon’ Western Plains Free-Range Pork Belly, doused in a Smoky Pineapple ‘Palapa’. Now I’m not generally a huge fan of fruit with my savoury, but this was definitely an exception. Buttery pork swimming in a tingling salsa of pineapple, chilli and herbs.
If the magical mix of Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian and more excites you, see our Best Asian Fusion Restaurants in Melbourne
Stuffed, but not defeated, we bravely faced dessert.
Taho is a popular snack in the Philippines, and no wonder. It looked an old-fashioned ice cream sundae in a tall glass, However, the creamy layers and toffee-like sauce proved to be curds of silken tofu and a brown sugar syrup. It was all too easy to eat.
Similarly iconic is ‘Leche’ flan and the one at Seria arrived lush and satiny, with a fragrant passionfruit accompaniment.
The last plate to hit the table was a whimsical take on the Aussie classic – the ‘Gaytime – and a Pinoy-Colada. Neither were easy to split between 6 of us, but we genuinely didn’t care. They were delicious.
If first nations food and indigenous ingredients sound like your kind of meal, then read our review of Mabu Mabu
Update – MasterChef Australia
You may have seen Serai Melbourne featured in a cook off of on 2023 Season of MasterChef Australia.
For his dish, Ross Magnaye produced a version of Serai’s Seared Kangaroo ‘Kilawin’, Wood Roast Bone Marrow & Toast ($22). Lacking the Kangaroo element, he substituted with Wagyu and put up a dish which had the judges raving about its balance and umami-forward flavours.
As if getting a booking at Serai weren’t hard enough already!
If smoke and drama work for you, see our review of the flame-tinged, modern Vietnamese fare at Firebird Restaurant.
Further Update – The Gourmet Traveller 2023 Best New Restaurant
Well, the accolades are coming thick and fast for Serai. And frankly, we’re not surprised.
Congratulations to the Serai team!
Firstly, the wine list features mainly Australian drops, which we always like. Moreover, there is a focus on Natural drops. It’s another plus point that marks this thrilling restaurant out as being at the cutting edge of what Melburnians currently want.
If you prefer a beer, they stock Filipino San Miguel, along with a handful of domestic brews.
But really, the libations flying off the bar were the tropical-slanted Cocktails and Mocktails.
I can confirm that we sampled a few before the evening was over, and they were all great.
If innovative cocktails and classy decor work for you, read our take on Bouvardia, Melbourne
Serai Kitchen fills a Philippine archipelago-shaped hole in Melbourne’s culinary map with flavour to spare. If you’ve never tried Filipino fare, you might not be aware of just how much you’ve missed out on. Thankfully, visit to this welcoming, smart restaurant will soon remedy that.
The food is different, interesting, clever and – best of all – delicious. Whilst the drinks (or at least the cocktails) are fun and compliment the menu well.
Meanwhile, the staff come and go with perfect timing and winning smiles and are more than happy to explain unfamiliar plates.
I’m already thinking that on a cold winter’s evening, those smoky aromas from the open flames in the kitchen will be virtually impossible to resist.