High Street runs north forever. If you keep going it eventually joins the Hume Highway so you could end up in Sydney if you kept driving, or Brisbane for that matter, but I stopped in Preston where cheap cafes, two-dollar junk shops and hot bread stores glare at each other across the busy narrow road. A taxi was trying to nose out from the kerb, so I waved it on and pulled in behind it and parked. We got out into the hot dusty street, walked twenty metres, pushed open a glass door and entered a dim, cool, quiet place. It was just on midday, a late-summer Tuesday.
We sat right next to the fish tanks. We always sit next to the fish tanks. It amuses the children and sometimes I think it amuses the fish.
In one tank, two barramundi were making lazy right-angle turns around each other, and in the other several lobsters were piled up like a train wreck in a corner, but they were just having a group hug, antennae waving about like gladioli in the front row of a Dame Edna Everage performance. The lobsters took no notice of the tranquil warehou with a vacant stare that hung above them like an aimless blimp. Two fishnets sat on top of the tanks waiting for the next order.
A waiter had a flask and cups on the table almost before we had finished sitting down. It takes a minute or two with children. I poured tea. We ordered, but not fish. Not today.
I usually eat the same thing when we eat out. It’s not that I’m not adventurous, but there’s a particular kind of satisfaction to be gained in enjoying something you’ve come to know and like. Most places, I don’t even read the menu.
This time, I ordered from the display case near the front door, opposite the miniature Buddhist temple made of plastic and stuck with burnt-out jasmine incense sticks. The display case had a return that cornered the front chop-chop chef’s work area and fronted onto the street, so that passers-by could see what they were missing out on. Over the chef’s head in the front window hung roasted ducks the colour of red varnish. Every now and then the chef took one down from its S-peg, wielded his chopper and sent a plateful of peking duck off the kitchen to be finished.
A barramundi watched open-mouthed and motionless as the waiter placed on our table an oval platter of Chinese broccoli, shiny with oyster sauce, along with a plate of cantonese beef and vegetables on rice, a bowl of szechuan chicken’s feet, two steaming bowls of rice, a small dish of chilli flakes in oil, two sets of chopsticks, and two forks.
The barramundi shut his mouth and moved off again, having seen it all before.
The chicken's feet were tasty and gelatinous, and its szechuan chilli was a slow burn rather than a bushfire. Perfect. And cheap: the waiter had explained apologetically that the price of the dish was one dollar more when eaten at the table than you pay for take-away. That made it $5.50, demonstrating the efficiency of eating the whole animal, rather than just eating the breast and the leg and throwing away the rest. They call it nose-to-tail or beak-to-claw, but it just makes sense. But you have to like chicken’s feet. That’s the sticking point. Most people don’t. They don’t even like the name. They don’t like the idea of eating something with the word ‘feet’ in its title. They’ll gladly take a warm mousseline of something stuffed with a cave-cured something else with shards of sorrel-infused pickled walnut, deep-fried julienne of mugwort and a frisson of hollandaise made from the eggs of free range Cape Barren Geese and set upon a buckwheat raviolo rolled out of organic emmer flour and stuffed with an unthreatened yet completely rare and expensive fish species. But chicken’s feet? No! Shudder!
The place is huge. The waiters must walk miles every shift. There are two entrances: the one at the front off High Street, and another via a passageway through to the market at the back. There are twenty large round tables, each capable of seating up to twelve people, and smaller ones around the walls. The smaller ones are where the regulars sit. A shriveled Chinese lady who must have been pushing ninety sat at one, leaning over a bowl that was bigger than her head. There was one of those four-wheeled pensioner shopping trolleys next to her table and it was fully loaded and she was obviously refuelling. From out of the almost clear soup in her bowl she hauled out a procession of delicacies including items from the animal and vegetable groups. At a larger table was a group of real estate agents – no, not the ones seen in Coburg last week – and they were slurping up soup and noodles in between talking on telephones and one of them spilt a drop of soup on his perfect yellow tie and looked at it with a hurt expression as if about to cry.
William and Thomas ate their rice and some beef from Tracy’s plate and declined my chickens’ feet – not that I would really have given them any due to the small bones – and then they ate some Chinese broccoli which is their favourite vegetable and mine, especially in fine oyster sauce and a drop of sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
The old Chinese lady had finished her soup and left the restaurant, pushing her heavily-laden shopping trolley into High Street without any trouble at all. We drained the tea flask. It was a hot day and you have to keep up your fluids. I had a fine bead of sweat from the warm burn of the chilli.
There was only one barramundi in the fish tank now, and it looked lonely, but fish always look lonely. As we got up from the table, a waiter came out of the kitchen bearing a large platter that sizzled with ginger and garlic and fish sauce aromas and there was a large, glistening, scaly mound in the middle. He took it to the real estate agents’ table.
We paid the bill and I pulled open the heavy glass door. Outside in High Street it was still hot and dusty, and a north wind was blowing, probably all the way from Sydney.
C-Culture seafood and barbecue Chinese restaurant
437 High St, Preston