Boxxing clever

So much for the mean streets of Northbridge. It wasn’t quite the lawn bowls set, but the groups of young people, the meandering older couples, the wild-eyed men of the street, even the spivs and small time tough guys, were all singularly non-threatening. Mind you, with cops on almost every corner and patrol cars and mounted coppers doing their highly visible rounds, who’s going to get nasty?

That was the state of affairs at 7:30pm on the way to dinner. On the walk back to the car, the change in attitude was palpable, as if the wraith of malice had arrived with the night. It’s curious, but while King’s Cross is a much more genuinely dangerous place to be at night, one never feels the malevolence or unpredictability of mood one feels in Northbridge.

Having said that, it is the grittiness of Northbridge which is its attraction. It’s seamy in the way that our parents warned us sideshow alley was seamy, with its colourful shysters and gipsy heartbeat. And, like sideshow alley, it’s the underlying frisson of danger which is at the heart of Northbridge’s attraction.

Our destination this evening was Boxx, a newish restaurant on the corner of Lake and James Street in a building which use to house an Italian baker. Boxx has been given the sassy, sleek make-over in the way of modern restaurants: banquettes, retro ’50s light fittings, polished concrete, stainless steel and the occasional burst of lush fabric or soft coloured lighting to juxtapose the hard edge of urban cool minimalism.

The Boxx theme is innovative. Its menu is creative. And the cooking is superlative (well, mostly).

The young couple which owns Boxx, a doctor and a trained chef, has chosen a wide ranging grab bag of cultural references – it is a restaurant with what it calls an ‘infusion’ demeanor. The food, in particular, pulls off the fusion thing with considerable aplomb, with Thai, Chinese, North African, Indian, Vietnamese and French influences all

represented, often in the one dish.

Boxx is licensed with all the wines on the short list available by the glass. (That alone got me off to a great start – a restaurant that cares for its customers’ needs, not its own convenience. Have I mentioned this before?).

A Madras vegetarian plate ($6.50) came with two plump hand-made samosas, two cheese and herb rolls, the size of small spring rolls, and two pots of chutney, one mint, the other tamarind and tomato.

Magnificent samosas, quite unlike the mass produced caricatures one most often finds in cafés, takeaways and non-Indian restaurants. The vegetable filling was dense and rich, the pastry flaky and light. The cheese rolls were made, I think, on paneer, a creamy, tofu-like Indian cheese, and were hot with a melting core. Very good. The condiments were also excellent, especially the tamarind chutney.

The duck and charsui risotto orientale ($15.00) was enormous, Apart from the rice being somewhat gluggy, it was superb and full of charsui (over-roasted neck of pork in a red charsui sauce, most often seen hanging up in the window in Chinese barbecues) and shreds of roasted duck meat (also done in the Chinese barbecue method). Too much white pepper had gone in at the final seasoning, but all in all a generous, well-made risotto based on a good stock.

Boxx has a range of dishes all priced at $7.90 if you order them in the (takeaway, white waxed) box. These include chilli pepper squid, beef satay, ginger and spring onion fish, Thai green curry and tandoori chicken salad.

We chose the honey lamb kebabs which were served with a fluffy couscous and mint chutney. The couscous was superb with a fine zest of lemon and orange peel. Excellent. The kebabs were a little too tough to enjoy, but the flavours were good. Lots of food for $7.90. The puddings were the star turn.

The Boxx gulab jamun ($6.00) was a fresh take on this classic Indian sweet dumpling in syrup. Three of the small balls were served in a high martini glass with a deep fried wonton skin dusted with sugar as a textural counterpoint. Rosewater flavours abounded in both the batter and the syrup. A scoop of vanilla bean icecream on the side was a well-teamed addition. The flavours were exquisitely rendered; so adult that I suspect, for many, it would be an acquired taste.

Likewise the poached apple ($6.00) served with sticky black rice made on coconut milk. The apple had been poached in star anise and cinnamon infused syrup and was still very firm. The flavours were delightful. The sticky rice gave no concession to sweet tooths and was dank and musky, but very restrained on the sugar. A thin clear syrup of undetermined origins was ladled around the mound of rice. It was unclear exactly what it was supposed to add to the dish.

Presentation was simple – a small work of poster art on a plate.

Chef Lidia Sakarapani, prior to returning to Perth to open Boxx in February, had been in Liam Tomlin’s brigade at Banc in Sydney. It’s fair to say that, in all of Australia, this is the brigade that young ambitious chefs aspire to joining. Tomlin runs one of the finest kitchens in a traditional, feudal and sometimes brutal manner but, for those who last the distance, it’s the culinary equivalent of a Harvard MBA. At Boxx, one gets occasional glimpses of high end technique, presentation and innovation as Ms Sakarapani dips into her Banc bag of tricks. This makes for some surprising twists and turns with the food, of which the desserts are delightful examples.

It’s early days and the mechanics are being sorted out. The kitchen lagged behind the night we were there and it looked as if a bomb had hit it towards the end of the night

– a tell tale sign of a kitchen un-prepped, understaffed or without well implemented systems. No doubt these will be sorted out once the restaurant shakes down.

Boxx is inexpensive and modern. At first glance it looks like just another style-over-substance-noodle-bar-meets-fusion-meets-gen-next-cool-café-start-up. It’s much more. The food is taken seriously and one suspects this and its pricing will make it a hit, once the service has been smoothed out.

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