Arte Assavakavinvong wasn’t interested in moving to Brisbane.
“I’d heard it was hot here,” he says, laughing. “That’s why I left Thailand in the first place.”
Assavakavinvong first moved to Melbourne from Ayutthaya (a small, historic city 80 kilometres north of Bangkok) to study in the mid-90s before returning to become a chef in 2007. He worked his way up the ranks at Longrain Melbourne before becoming head chef at Village People Hawker Hall in 2015, and then returning to Longrain to become head chef in 2018. In short, never mind the weather – Assavakavinvong was a star chef down south. So why move north to open Melrose, the Venzin Group’s flash new rooftop restaurant and bar on Oxford Street in Bulimba?
“As soon as I had the first Facetime interview with Gina [Venzin Group director Giorgina Venzin], I knew I wanted to work with this person,” he says. “That first impression made me feel like there could be something better. Why don’t I give myself a chance to move to another place that could be better than Melbourne? I’d been there 14 years. You want to challenge yourself.”
You suspect it was easy to get swept up in Venzin’s pitch. The rooftop Melrose would be a 110-seat restaurant and bar inspired by the lavish beach clubs of Bali and Koh Samui, decked out in timber, terracotta tiling and plenty of greenery, and it would feature a retractable ceiling. Sitting with Assavakavinvong in the newly completed space, that pitch has become a beautiful reality, right down to the angular rattan chairs, rose-gold table lamps and handsome ceiling fans.
“The design changed many times along the way,” Venzin says. “Because we saw other designs popping up and wanted to make sure we were different. But coming in here now it feels very much like our dream of a beach club in Bali or Thailand.”
Venzin says it’s a big step up for the group, which is best known for its enormously popular Pawpaw cafe and approachable Mons Ban Sabai Thai restaurant. To that end, she and co-owner Chris Hollingsworth have looked to hire front-of-house staff from outside of their existing venues, where possible.
“We want people better than us,” Venzin says. “To teach and lead us. We come from a different style of restaurants. So we’ve put together a team from different backgrounds. We need to give Arte the space he deserves to showcase his food. It’s made us all level up.”
Assavakavinvong has certainly come correct, dragging along a bunch of chefs who worked under him at Longrain, including sous chef Raymond Chi. They’re cooking an efficient menu with influences that range from Thailand southeast through Malaysia to Bali and Indonesia. Assavakavinvong says the intention is to start with flavours that would be familiar to Longrain regulars, but in the longer term slowly push into more adventurous territory.
On the bites menu are prawn and pomelo betel leaf wraps, steamed buns with pulled jackfruit or Moreton Bay bug, and a yellowfin tuna larb. Elsewhere, there’s a selection of Indonesian skewers (beef, sticky pork or okra), and a mains menu that features soft-shell crab stir-fried with curry powder and Chinese celery, and a Malaysian style chicken curry. A feature of the kitchen are three traditional tao charcoal burners used to prepare turmeric-spiced spatchcock and trout served in banana leaf. It’s a style of cooking close to Assavakavinvong’s heart – he grew up learning to cook with his mother in a local Ayutthaya market while her parents ran a business making the clay cooking vessels.
“My dad worked for my mum’s parents,” Assavakavinvong. “That’s how they met.”
For drinks, there’s a 60-bottle wine list, easy-drinking spritzes, shaved-ice tropical cocktails, and a mix of craft and imported beer.
“Everything we do is very authentic and fresh with high quality ingredients,” Venzin says. “I don’t think there are any other menus like ours around. This is the level it needs to be [to be successful]. We’ve made sure we’re doing something completely different.”
37 Oxford Street, Bulimba
Wed & Thu 3pm–Late
Fri to Sun 12pm–Late