Classic Asian flavour meets Melbourne café culture

Claire Wiltshire 12 June 2008

Melbourne is a melting pot of cultures with an abundant range of eateries reflecting the impact of food traditions from many parts of the world. Local foodies can experience a huge array of Asian restaurants, which, clustered in specialty locations, can almost be plotted on a map.

Head west for the bustling Footscray markets with Vietnamese and Malaysian dishes and ingredients; Chinatown in Burke Street is home to some of the most respected restaurants in town, and everyone loves a cheap bite in Bridge Road, Richmond. But, if you want to bring your fondness for Asian flavours to the breakfast table, it can take some practice before an authentic bowl of noodle soup or congee is a comfortable fit. The Melbourne breakfast ritual usually includes a few decent coffees accompanied by a leisurely indulgence in the papers - something you're not likely to experience in a poky noodle house.

Lucky for those who enjoy a cuppa with a side of pork chop, Tom Phat is pioneering ways of bringing our tastes together. The restaurant is right at home in the diverse surrounds of Brunswick's Sydney Road, where Turkish restaurants rub shoulders with Japanese, alongside funky cafés and Greek cake shops. Tom Phat is run by husband-and-wife-team Dougal Colam and Sway Quach Colam who bring to life a collective passion for Asian food, drawing on their epicurean adventures in Asia.

After opening nearly four years ago for lunch and dinner, it didn't take long before Tom Phat introduced a fun breakfast menu to match the spirit of the place. The brekkie dishes naturally reflect their innovative spin on Asian cuisine, inspired by flavours sampled overseas. ‘We love Asian food, we love Asian flavours and we've travelled extensively,' explains Sway. ‘The Roti Omelette, which incidentally got picked up by the Cheap Eats guide as their breakfast of the year for 2007, was inspired by a dish we had at a little hawker store in Malaysia. Their version was roti bread shredded with eggs and other stuff. We loved it and wanted to take all those inspirations and interpret them into a dish that's unique, tasty, and beyond your standard poached egg on toast.' The famous Vietnamese dish Pho is a morning favourite in a country where the first meal of the day does not include hollandaise.

Sway herself is Vietnamese, and while her husband, and Tom Phat chef Dougal are not, their vision for Asian-inspired breakfast is shared. Dishes such as the Uncle Ho's Breakfast build on more traditional ideas, but add sophistication and a café atmosphere to the experience. ‘You can go to Footscray and have broken rice with a pork chop and fried egg, but I've created my own version,' says Dougal. ‘With a really good pork chop,' adds Sway. ‘We create really good quality food, not just your standard slap-dash bowl of noodles for seven bucks.'

Other unique Tom Phat dishes include Viet Eggs, fried with chilli soy and spring onion, and Sri Scrambled Eggs with spring onion, curry leaves and crispy roti. An old favourite, the Scrambled Tofu, had a brief hiatus, but has since been reinstated thanks to popular demand. The original breakfast menu also included baguettes and even though the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine allows for bready options, Tom Phat felt it didn't quite define their style. ‘We couldn't compromise in that way, that's not Tom Phat,' says Sway. ‘We took a big risk with our menu; we didn't know if people were going to embrace what we did - the Roti Omelette or the Viet Eggs - but the response to this breakfast menu has been amazing.'

Dougal admits some things he enjoys on his trips to Asia don't translate as well back home. Perhaps quirky specialties like iced coffee made with condensed milk are enhanced by the amazing atmosphere of street dining in the winding alleys of Hanoi. Tom Phat originally offered this Vietnamese style coffee, but they've since focused on serving up the kind of cups caffeine-wise Melbournians expect.


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