What predictions did you make for the post-lockdown dining landscape? Sharp growth in the Filipino sector? It’s no secret that Melbourne’s been Pinoy-curious for a while now. But with the arrival of Serai, and the innovation before it of places like West Footscray’s Chibog and Footscray’s brilliant Kariton Sorbetes, we’re seeing the relatively underrepresented cuisine branch off in directions we mightn’t have considered just a few years ago – with delicious results.
A sleek new CBD effort from chef Ross Magnaye, Shane Stafford and Ben Waters, Serai has taken those emblematic flavours of the Philippines – zesty-fresh calamansi; the radically purple ube – and matched them with local produce and wine, modern technique, and some banging Filipino-inspired cocktails for one of Melbourne’s most anticipated openings of the year.
Maybe you’re a Filipino expert. Maybe you’re newly enthused. However you roll, and whatever your exposure to Filipino cuisine, here’s what to order when you dine at Serai, as told by Ross the boss.
How about a drink?
By no means we are wine experts, but we know what we love to drink, and that’s reflected on the wine list. Shane, Ben and I wrote this list and, trust me, there have been a lot of hangovers. We keep the wine list nice – around 35 to 40 wines on the list when we opened. We try to focus on natural Australian wines, particularly from Victoria – Philip Lobley, Arc, Defialy and Mandi, to name a few. We also have this banging wine called Sonshine Vins Petal: a 2022 grolleau gris and muscat rouge from Alsace on the list. I know it’s not Australian, but it’s really, really, really delicious.
We also have an amazing and fun cocktail list written by our bar manager Ralph Libo-on . He draws inspiration from his Filipino heritage, so will be using ingredients such as ube, calamansi and coconut. There’s a drink inspired by the Brandy Alexander called the Ube Wan Kenobi: Cognac, ube, coconut, Half and Half, crème de cacao and bitters.
I’m here for a good time not a long time.
At Serai you can either sit at the bar and chill, or you can get loose. If you’re after a quick snack, I’d suggest the McScallop, which is basically tempura Abrolhos scallop from Ash Bros seafood with crab-fat sauce and pickled papaya in a pan de sal bun. Wash it down with the Sigurd chenin blanc for a match made in heaven.
Got anything light and fresh?
If you’re after something really fresh and nice, the kingfish sinuglaw, burnt cucumber and chicharon is very tasty. It’s basically the Philippines’ answer to ceviche: the perfect start to a meal and a really nice balance of flavours. Pair that with a Sus Maryo Spritz, which translates to “OMG Spritz”: calamansi liqueur, rhum agricole, cardamom tincture and prosecco.
What if I like tasty food but don’t eat animals?
We have a beautiful wood-roasted pumpkin dish using a pumpkin called kuri from Mushrooms Anonymous that has a really bright colour and sweet taste. We are basically trying to do a tocino dish with the pumpkin; tocino means “to cure” in Spanish and Filipino. Normally you’d use pork, but we’re marinating the pumpkin tocino-style, then cooking it over the wood fire for a beautiful smoky flavour. We’re serving it with a side of confit garlic pureé and coconut vinegar and letting the pumpkin really shine.
Name the dish that captures the Serai vibe.
A lot of people haven’t really tried Filipino flavours or food before, so I think they all capture the Serai vibe. But if I had to name one, it would be the wagyu bistek, cooked over the fire and served with a salted duck egg pureé, caramelised onion jam and Don Papa rum jus. It sounds like a lot of flavours, but they all go really well together. This dish highlights what we represent: the wagyu is Australian and cooked over the wood fire, the flavours are Filipino, and the techniques are modern.
Let’s go big. Let’s go crazy. What have you got for me?
Start with the Boracay Elixir, a cocktail done with Sichuan gin, calamansi shrub, lime and barrel-aged bitters. Order a bottle of Francois Dhumes Tete de Bulle sparkling gamay – a baller and super-sexy drink – and go for the chef’s set menu, which might include seared kangaroo over the wood fire with bone marrow and caramelised milk bread, or grilled Skull Island prawns with buro spiced butter. You might get shots of spirits during dinner if you’re lucky. Follow that with a bottle of Lucy Margaux chardonnay and a Philip Lobley cabernet franc.
And to close?
To finish off, we are doing a take on taho which is a simple, traditional street dish from the Philippines that consists of tapioca pearls, caramelised syrup and tofu. We put our twist on it by making ice cream out of soy milk and tofu to create this unreal flavour. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but believe me, you will love it. The Ube Wan Kanobi would also be a nice way to finish.