Melbourne is a better place after Ross Magnaye saw a Filipino-sized hole in its eating culture.

Sure, there were casual Pinoy eating places in the `burbs, mostly catering to a grateful audience of expats. But as for a bigger format restaurant playing with its cultural traditions and taking them to a wider audience… no dice.

“When I was younger and started cooking fine dining, I thought, ‘I wish I could put my own
culture into it,’” says the former Rice Paper Sister chef who opened Serai with chef partners
Shane Stafford and Ben Waterslate last year to instant acclaim. “As my career progressed, I got my confidence up that my culture is delicious. It’s all about having that knowledge and knowing that you can spin it in a way you’re proud of.”

As my career progressed, I got my confidence up that my culture is delicious

Time Out’s Restaurant of the Year (also our Best Casual Dining Venue) is a shot in the arm for the city’s food culture. Riffing on Magnaye’s Filipino heritage without suggesting anything like straightlaced authenticity, the fire-licked food is irreverent, playful and fun while also introducing the non-Filipino Melbournians to a new world of flavour.

“I definitely want more people to try Filipino food, but I don’t do it just because of that,” says Magnaye. “My main aim was just to open a restaurant people enjoy visiting.”

Mission accomplished. Backed by a pithy, natural-leaning wine list and a whole lot of buzz, the menu is a tour-de-force of things we want to eat. Such as the lechon, the roasted free-range pig married to a pineapple-infused, gently spicy-sweet palapa sauce. Or the deliciously inauthentic McScallop, a cheeky riposte to the golden arches starring a single fried scallop
doused in deliriously rich crab-fat sauce cut through with papaya pickle and sandwiched in a toasted pandesal bun. Or the cracking dessert of leche flan with its smoke-licked, custardy base topped with passionfruit pulp.

So what’s next for Melbourne’s latest chef crush? The breaking news is that Magnaye has plans for a bar in the works (the details of which he won’t divulge just yet). And he’s hoping for a break – “sometime in the next two years” – after a tsunami of interest in Serai. “The Filipino community has really embraced us and been so supportive. My family came in the other night and my mum was so proud. It was awesome. I really do get a bit emotional about it.”

Read our full review of Serai here.

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