Picture an eatery that’s open from midnight to 7am. You’re probably not imagining a venue that’s especially salubrious or one that specialises in meals much fancier than a kebab with a side of soggy chips. But in Midnight Diner, it’s quite the opposite. This is a place of calm, with a short menu and an obliging chef who’ll do what he can to cook what you want.
Especially if it involves instant noodles.
There’s something very appealing about this early-hours oasis. Like an Asian Cheers, where everybody knows your order, it fills up every night with regulars. Arrayed around the three connected benches that make up the eating area are the two jovial businessmen who like a beer and love a feed, the girls who order the same thing every night, and the local “dandy” who owns a dodgy nightclub.
And behind the counter is the chef and proprietor, known as the Master (Huang Lei). Clad in blue robes, towel tight around his neck and a scar running across his left eye, the Master is at the centre of Midnight Diner, and not just because he makes a mean soup. He speaks very softly and humbly, but with a core of confidence and possession. Watching him prepare food is one of the joys of this series, with brightly lit shots lingering on bubbling woks and soaking noodles.
In short: don’t watch Midnight Diner unless you have your local Chinese takeaway joint on speed dial – or at least a leftover bag of prawn chips in the pantry.
Speaking of the cuisine, this is a Chinese remake of a Japanese adaptation of a manga series, and both those influences show through here. The venue is set up more like a sushi restaurant or izakaya than the Chinese eateries we’re familiar with in Australia, and the Master dresses like a Japanese chef. And as for the manga influence, the performances of the diner’s regulars border on cartoonish – you can almost see the comic panels.
Of course, that makes the chef’s quiet, understated way of doing business even more powerful. He’s the one who stops this series spilling over into broad comedy, especially when a mysterious woman enters his empty establishment to order soy-sauce noodles with a runny fried egg. The pair of them, speaking slowly and quietly about food, look on the verge of tears and it makes for an unsettlingly touching scene in the midst of the laughter.
Overall, this is a simple premise well executed, with heart, humour and hot dogs that are cut to look like tiny octopi.
Stick around at the end, too, for bonus recipes – get that salmon right and you’ll be scouting the neighbourhood for a place to set up your own midnight diner!
Stream Midnight Diner now at SBS On Demand.