Box Hill is home to Sichuan hotpot restaurants, Korean barbeque joints, sushi trains, Taiwanese hawker stalls, hole-in-the-wall canteens and more. It’s now also home to all-day eatery Zero Mode.

Owner Cain Xu is Chinese, and head chef Kyo Tze Jian Tan grew up in a family of cooks in Malaysia. Together, the two are hoping to bring a fresh and modern take on Asian cuisine to the area. They work collaboratively to come up with new ideas: each dish starts with an idea from Xu – a flavour combination, an ingredient or a rough concept – then Tan works on recipe development, cooking and testing.

Drunk Prawns is Xu and Tan’s take on a traditional Shanghainese dish. King prawns are marinated in sake, brushed with butter and grilled over charcoal, then tossed in a tomato-based sauce with pork mince and jiuniang (sweet fermented rice, a by-product from making rice wine) and finished with prawn oil that Kyo makes from scrapped prawn heads.

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The Osmanthus Rice Cake is an osmanthus-flower-infused pork steak (the flower tastes a bit like apricot) on a bed of sticky rice cakes, served with maple syrup and a house-made spicy tamari sauce, and topped with tangy freeze-dried strawberries.

“Rice cakes are a traditional Shanghai food, and there’s a pork fillet [dish] with lemongrass and ginger that’s Malaysian, so I wanted to mix the two traditions together,” Xu says.

There’s a good handful of these sweet, savoury and spicy combinations on the menu, some a bit unorthodox, but all grounded in familiar flavours. The Wild West Waffle comes covered in a net of bubblegum-pink fairy floss that obscures the rest of the dish. It looks more like a dessert when it first arrives. Drizzle it with chilli sauce to reveal the crisp fried egg with runny yolk, fried chicken, sriracha-maple bacon and house-made waffle underneath.

Xu also wanted to nod to the Korean trend of pairing fried chicken with beer, which is how the Boozy Broth ramen dish came about. An Asahi beer glass is filled with thick udon noodles and a broth of pork, chicken and ginseng. It’s then topped with a foam of egg white and cream cheese, and served with crispy fried chicken, a mix of mushrooms, some kimchi and more noodles on the side. It sounds – and looks – a bit strange, but it works.

More familiar is the Wagyu beef burger with caramelised onion and sweet pickles; bao buns filled with barbequed duck; and a salmon bowl with avocado, edamame, pickled vegetables and chilli mayo. There’s a short menu dedicated to deconstructed sushi, too. Try the grilled Wagyu with olive jam, foie gras, wasabi paste, prosciutto and deep-fried nori.

The pair’s ethos is to create dishes from scratch wherever possible, hence the “zero” in the name. The ramen broth is cooked for 14 hours, they make and ferment their kimchi in-house, and the rice cakes are made with two types of rice and steamed, rolled, then cut by hand. A labour-intensive ginger paste used in the weekends-only ginger rice highlights the star ingredient without being too overpowering. Xu says sauce reigns supreme here – Kyo often develops that element first and the rest of the dish follows.

“He’s the king of sauce,” Xu says. “You can have some of them with just rice.”

On the drinks list, there are ales from Tasmania’s Moo Brew, a pear cider from The Hills Cider Co, sweet lychee cider, and a selection of cocktails, including the tequila-based Sour Mode (with notes of elderflower and lime) and the Japanese Mode (a powerful hit of gin, sake and yuzu).

Xu, who also owns Balwyn cafe One Plus Piece, is serious about coffee, bringing in Seven Seeds beans. Hot chocolate is from Mörk. Other warming drinks include Prana Chai and matcha from Matcha Maiden. Cakes are from Bibelot, and breads are from Noisette.

Melbourne design agency Studio Equator is behind the modern, pared-back space: there are light-grey walls, a white espresso bar, honeycomb tiling around the kitchen, and circular fixtures all over the space. There’s also an unfinished loft-style second level that promises more seating when complete. In the morning, the floor-to-ceiling windows bring tons of natural light and contrasting shadows into the space. At night, things get a bit moodier and the neon signage kicks in, adding a colourful glow to the room.

Zero Mode
G03, 850 Whitehorse Road, Box Hill
03 9939 2873

Mon to Fri 7.30am–10pm
Sat & Sun 8am–10pm

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on August 7, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.