Introducing Niübi: The Newest Kid in Melbourne’s Chinatown
When thinking of affordable Asian food in Melbourne, what comes to mind are no-frills venues with quick, indifferent service from no-nonsense waiters. Not so at Chinatown’s newest pan-Asian restaurant, Niübi! Instead, sitting high in the middle of the CBD, you’ll find an ultra-modern, inviting space offering a refreshing reincarnation of the Asian dining experience that gives the term ‘fusion’ a different meaning.
The brainchild of up-and-coming hospitality group, Team Rassassy, Niübi is a slang, Mandarin expression, frequently used amongst Chinese youth and netizens that means ‘fucking awesome’ – a sentiment the team hopes every visitor will experience in their venue. A four-storey brick warehouse, 11 Heffernan Lane where Niübi stands has strong historical links with Asian cuisine, not only as the location of one of the first Chinese restaurants in Melbourne in the 1800s, but also the first Chinese eating establishment in the city frequented by Westerners.
Placed at a site with such a pioneering history, Niübi aims to live up to its heritage of cross-cultural ideals with their offering and service. The venue describes itself as fusion, but not in the way you would expect. In fact, developed by chef, Iven Foo, Niubi’s menu stays true to authentic South-East Asian flavours, with only subtle tweaks to suit Australian palates. Foo achieves these traditional tastes with an array of spices that, since not readily available locally, are imported directly from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The result is a selection of homey, heartwarming dishes, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in Melbourne.
Like those popular in Asia, Niubi offers a set meal format with a curated selection of an entree, meat side, vegetable side and signature dish. On the more affordable end of the scale, customers can choose Niübi’s flavorful and aromatic Curry Fish Head. Or, enjoy a more premium option with the best-selling Live Mud Crab Soup with Vermicelli, cooked fresh from the tank and set in a perfectly-balanced, creamy soup. For those seeking a truly unique piece of luxury, the succulent Asian Buttermilk Live Lobster, slow-cooked in a sauce of buttermilk – an uncommon ingredient in Asian cuisine – , curry leaves, chilli flakes, condensed milk, and curry powder, and served with mantou (deep-fried buns) is one to note.
For the slight Western presence in Niübi’s menu, it is the team’s approach to hospitality and the aesthetic of the interior that provides, not a fusion of cuisine, but a fusion of experience. Designed by T-A Square (Superhiro, Kurimu The Glen, Gotcha Tea), the venue’s chic, ultra-contemporary interior is certainly worthy of the ‘gram – despite the building being heritage-listed. Positioned in a playful and carefree arrangement that marks a stark move away from cramped, unorganised layout typical of many Asian restaurants, spacious, pastel pink booths, wicker dividers and a bold red feature ceiling create an aura of warmth, inviting visitors to settle in and get comfortable.
This fusion of experience is formed too, in large part, by the way that staff interact with visitors. Having observed the genuine friendliness so prevalent across Melbourne’s hospitality scene, the Niübi team knew that they wanted to go beyond mere professionalism and politeness to forge a close affinity with every one of Niübi’s customers. As Carr Lam, Niubi’s General Manager, states, “We want to create a relaxed atmosphere where customers are not only enjoying their food, but also the experience of mingling, joking with our staff through relaxed conversations and laughter”. As such, staff are encouraged to approach customers with authentic amiability; treating them as they would dear friends to foster a strong sense of inclusivity and community.
With many residents returning to their home countries and international travel plummeting, Melbourne’s iconic Chinatown has been one of hardest hit by COVID-19. However, as Melbournians rediscover the joys of dining out, Niübi has every confidence that the venue will act as a driving force to return the cultural precinct to its former glory. Whilst international borders may be closed, Niubi aspires to allow their customers to travel through their taste buds with a truly eye-opening, gastronomic experience.
A sleek, photogenic venue with delicious food offerings no doubt already attracts attention. However, it is the youthful enthusiasm and genuine desire for connection with their customers that has Niübi capturing hearts. Whether as a warm up to a big night out, or for a long recovery lunch the morning after, Niübi is the place to go for a new experience moulded by the golden trio of tantalising Asian flavours, of Melbournians’ love of dining out, and, of genuine, Australian hospitality. In short, it’s truly ‘fucking awesome’.