Supernormal Canteen

January 5, 2014

53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy

A week before Christmas, Mr N and I hopped on the McConnell pop-up bandwagon and made our way to Supernormal Canteen, his test run of a restaurant in the shop front next to Cutler and Co. The permanent restaurant will be opening along Flinders Lane early this year, and a short menu is being trialled in his pop-up venue.

The canteen takes over two small shop fronts, and the interior is simple: concrete covers the floor, exposed brick walls are painted white, beautiful pale blonde wooden tables house communal sets of diners, and a sea of big-eyed lanterns adorn the ceiling.

The sight of a hum of diners sitting and eating and talking under the glow of the lanterns is evocative of a Japanese noodle joint, and it’s this casual vibe that McConnell is going for with his latest venture.

Even though it was 7pm on a Thursday night, we were seated almost instantly and, having said hello to a friend sitting at another table at the front of the restaurant (nice to see you, JS!), were brought to the second room for dinner. Looking around, the clientele were mainly young professionals and locals from the area, and the general hum of the place suggested everyone was enjoying themselves.

An Asahi draught (the proper stuff, imported from Japan) and a glass of the crisp Stift Goettweig Gruner Veltliner got the ball rolling.

Between the two of us we ordered three smaller plates and one large dish to share, which was plenty of food. We found our waitress very friendly and particularly helpful at gauging how much food was reasonable for two.

Arriving first with a complimentary bowl of spiced nuts was a fantastic cold salad of silky silky tofu and spicy braised eggplant. The eggplant was particularly tasty, heavy with garlic and chilli.

As you can see we scraped the bowl clean!

Next up came a very pretty plate of chicken and prawn dumplings with chilli vinegar. While the dumplings were delicately made and delivered a swift kick of chilli heat, the vinegar was so overpowering it was almost all I could taste: I struggled to find even the slightest taste of chicken or prawn. I think this dish could use some tweaking.

Our final smaller dish was a plate of wood grilled octopus with fermented chilli. A visually arresting and delicious dish, I particularly enjoyed the baby spring onions folded on top. Unusually, this dish had a decidedly Western palate, the fermented chilli reminding me of an Italian braised red pepper dish.

Finally, we shared the Szechuan lamb with spring onion pancakes and a bright green coriander sauce. Quite a large serving, this could easily be shared between four people. Though I am loathe to use the word, this was a bit of a “fusion” dish: Western style of roasting a large piece of lamb; Chinese flavours and accompaniments. It’s a bit interesting working out exactly the correct way to eat it, but I think it’s just meant to be a riot of meat and chilli and pancake on your plate, eaten however you please.

The meat (shoulder, I think) was beautifully tender and came apart easily with a bit of provocation from my chopsticks.

We didn’t find the desserts particularly interesting so we left it at that.

Overall an interesting culinary night out. The food is fresh, fun and dynamic, though a couple of our dishes could do with a rebalancing of flavours. The staff were generally attentive and engaged with the menu, and the venue itself is undeniably cool.

Am I entirely convinced that the food here is worth it’s price tag? Probably not. Sure, it’s delicious, but for what it is, I think you can get competitively tasty (and cheaper) food elsewhere. Plus, upon leaving the restaurant and in fact waking up the next morning, I was appalled at how I could still taste garlic, chilli and salt on my breath, despite brushing and gargling and minting it up. Not even the cheapest place in Chinatown has had that effect on me.

Having said that, I am convinced that the permanent restaurant will unquestionably be hugely popular and I will be waiting for a table for at least an hour. Till that day, I bid Supernormal’s gasping paper lanterns farewell!

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