Given that I’m the kind of person who wakes up thinking about pork buns, I didn’t leave it too long to get to Tuan Tuan, a new Cantonese-Filipino brasserie in Carlton. The restaurant is Australia’s first incarnation of a brand that’s famous in Manila, particularly for its “snow” buns stuffed with barbecued pork.
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139 QUEENSBERRY STREET, CARLTON, (03) 9995 5407
My score: 3 ½/5
These fluffy baked domes have a topping – a thin layer of cracked cake-like batter – that (vaguely) resembles a snow-capped mountain peak. Eating them starts crisp then subsides into plump squish. The signature char siu-style barbecued pork filling is almost as sweet as the avowedly dessert-leaning pineapple and almond varieties. They’re dainty morsels, baked throughout the day to ensure requisite airiness and freshness, and I can imagine waking up with a powerful craving and transporting myself, zombie-like, to Queensberry Street.
Beyond the buns, the menu is an eclectic melange of Hong Kong-style curries and congee, Malay laksas and Macanese rice dishes. If there’s a thread to the menu, it’s Asian comfort food. The prices are comfortable too, with a keen eye on the student market.
Even though Tuan Tuan is inexpensive, the aesthetic gestures towards smart French brasseries with broadsheet menus clasped in old-fashioned newspaper holders, upholstered banquettes, and grand high ceilings which shelter a sizeable tree. Ordering is via tick-a-box note sheets.
I loved the turnip cake, a dim sum classic that’s actually made with radish and is fried to a golden crisp. It’s served with the restaurant’s own XO sauce. Ask for more of this pungent condiment to spark up the gentle, comforting congee, a rice porridge served with Chinese doughnuts.
Hong Kong curries are mild, flavoured with curry powder and coconut milk; this rich base is a fine foil for the crunch of a breaded pork cutlet.
All the laksas have a seafood base, full of flavour thanks to rockling bones, pork bones and a three-hour cook, smoothed into a creamy broth with the addition of soy milk. The soup combos ($18) include an enormous bowl of noodle-rich laksa, chicken wings and a drink. The only problem with the largesse is that it is hard to eat this and a serve of snow buns.
I had trouble falling in love with the Macanese rice bakes. The food of Macau is a fusiony whirl, melding Portuguese and Chinese flavours with influences from everywhere Portuguese colonists plundered. Tuan Tuan focuses on creamy baked dishes. I have no doubt that crab stick and rice under a cloying sauce would make Macanese expats weepily joyful but it made me think of pre-Deliveroo TV dinners.
The franchisee for this first Australian Tuan Tuan is Clarion Xie, who also owns the mega-successful Dessert Kitchen in Little Bourke Street. She’s brought her city eatery’s signature shaved ice desserts to Carlton. Fruit is blended with milk, frozen and carved into soft, silky, icy drapes in a purpose-built machine. They’re a bit magical.
A liquor licence is pending but in the meantime, enjoy the kooky mix of coffee, tea and evaporated milk, popular in both Hong Kong and Malaysia, and as good a symbol as anything for the optimistic and energetic medley that is Tuan Tuan.
First published in Brisbane Times, 10th November 2018.