Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Melbourne 2017/2018 - Fresh, Vivacious and Delicious

An annual pilgrimage to Melbourne has been a part of my routine for over a decade, since I started "going out" with my now-wife.  I have always looked forward to these trips, not least from a gastronomic perspective.  Which is not to say that Melbourne's restaurants are necessarily better than Singapore's, but they are different and in a very good way.  

For me, where Melbourne really excels is not its fine dining, although Attica is an obvious standout, and Brae seems to be one also (I haven't tried Brae but I enjoyed owner-chef Dan Hunter's food when he was cooking at the Royal Mail).  Rather, its casual Mediterranean restaurants are where it's at, and they frankly run rings around our "Michelin"-starred Italian restaurants for the most part.  Super-fresh produce, often cooked with an irreverent modern Australian twist, service with genuine personality and knowledge; these all combine for an excellent experience that is often also great value for money.

Here are a couple of highlights from my recent trip, which I hope you will find useful.

1.  Tipo oo
361 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
Tel: +61 3 9942 3946

I first visited Tipo 00 in 2015 with my friend, linguistic expert and macaronier extraordinaire Dr Duncan Markham.  I have had the pleasure of three more visits since then, sadly without Duncan, but the place has continued to satisfy and delight even without surprising.  Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of finally introducing my mother and brother to my little hideaway in Little Bourke Street.

Tipo oo's is quite a simple formula: fresh ingredients and house-made pastas, generous servings at reasonable prices, charismatic service in perpetual motion, and good coffee.  Duncan pondered that it couldn't be that difficult to do what Tipo 00 does, or even improve on it.  But few can (or want to), and Tipo oo is now booked solid a month ahead for its two nightly dinner services.  Try reserving a month ahead, or join the queue around 11.15 am for a crack at its no-reservations bar seating.  Or you could try its sister restaurant Osteria Ilaria (367 Little Bourke Street, Tel: + 61 3 9642 2287) which serves a cheaper and simpler menu, sadly without the homemade pastas which to me are the main draw of Tipo oo. 

The open kitchen

Complimentary foccaccia, with ricotta cheese, basil oil and Sicilian sea salt.
Crunchy, oozing with good extra virgin olive oil, with the tartness and creaminess of the excellent homemade ricotta.
Spaghettini with Snapper, Fennel, Saffron and a hint of Chilli.
Heady stuff, and great value at $28 for a large portion.
A daily special of Pappardelle with Wagyu Beef Brisket

Now it's hard to be impartial when trying to score a place which you absolutely adore.  But I don't think any reasonably objective observer would object to a score of 14.5, so that's what it will be.  Score: 14.5/20.

2.  The Cellar Bar at Grossi Florentino
80 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Tel: + 61 3 9662 1811

Grossi Florentino is one of the grand old ladies of Melbourne dining and is priced accordingly, as evidenced by the two Porsches which I spotted on the street abutting the restaurant.  For those of us with rather more plebeian budgets, and who are looking for a good Italian restaurant in the CBD that is not Tipo oo, the Cellar Bar serves good Italian classics at competitive prices.

I find the food at Cellar Bar more traditional and less inclined to modern twists than Tipo oo, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  And the dishes are generally a couple of dollars cheaper too, with none of the pastas exceeding $25.  With ample alfresco tables, a dinner on a sunny December evening is a more than enticing prospect, and the light, summery menu works perfectly with the atmosphere.  I can recommend all the dishes that we had, which were a spaghetti vongole with chilli, pappardelle with lamb ragu and fettuccine with pork sausage, pecorino and white wine.  Desserts are also excellent, especially the rarely-encountered torta di riso, the first time I had seen it on a menu since my sole visit to Bologna in 2003.

Outdoor Seating at the Cellar Bar

Sicilian Cannolo with Crushed Pistachios

A rare but always delicious encounter with the Bolognese rice-based dessert, Torta di Riso

The Cellar Bar was a very welcome find, and a good chance to experience something of what the Guy Grossi empire has to offer, if one is not prepared to stump up the big bucks for the "Upstairs" alta cucina dining experience (I wasn't).  Now if someone put a gun to my head, I would say that I preferred Tipo 00, but only by a very slender margin.  Score: 14/20

3.  Gold Moon Chinese Restaurant
3 Well Street, Brighton
Tel: +61 3 9593 3388

To generations of Melburnians, good Chinese food invariably meant the Flower Drum, which is also incredibly expensive.  I visited a dozen years ago, armed only with my meagre graduate salary and an ardent desire to impress my-then girlfriend.  To cut a long story short, I paid a lot of money for some not-particularly-impressive Chinese classics.  Flower Drum could be described quite accurately as a Chinese restaurant for white people, in the sense that it placed a lot of emphasis on "extras" such as ambience, space, service, etc. which tend to be valued more in Angl0-European restaurant criticism.

Which is why Gold Moon, in the posh beachside suburb of Brighton, is a very welcome new opening.  What caught my eye was an ridiculously good value $25 all-you-can-eat "yumcha" (which is what the Aussies call "dimsum") lunch, which Gold Moon offers seven days a week.  The food here is very good: the dumplings done 101 ways are tasty and made with finesse, the fried squid tentacles are bouncy, tender and fresh as anything, and the chicken feet are just stunning.  You get a yumcha menu from which you can order different dishes, and the waitstaff circulate with trays of dishes not on the menu, typically the cheaper fried stuff, roughage and carbohydrates (spring rolls, prawn toasts, vegetables, fried rice, fried noodles, etc).

So much for the food, but the service is on a completely different level.  Apart from one waitress of Indian appearance who was quite switched on and totally spoilt our kids, the others may well have come from a different (and not very good) planet.  A couple of instances: when I sat down and ordered a smattering of dishes to commence my all-I-could-eat repast, I asked the manager (ex-Flower Drum, apparently, not that you could tell) to leave the menu with me so I could order more as I went along.  He just stood there looking at me, incredibly reluctant to hand it over.  I insisted.  With an audible sigh, he relinquished it, admonishing me "I don't mind giving you the menu, but the main thing is you don't waste food!"  My jaw dropped: fancy some old Chinese dude trying to lecture me!  I mean, where the f--k was I, my family home at Chinese New Year???  Determined to punish him for his impudence, I ordered a shitload more food and finished it all.  After all, "the main thing is that I don't waste food", right?  Tosser.

Then two late-40s ladies (and you couldn't call these anything but "ladies", in that cultivated, well-dressed, Brighton blonde kind of way) sat at the table next to mine.  Throughout their lunch, they took just the cheap stuff from the trays and were blissfully enjoying it, pausing to exclaim every 15 minutes or so how much they were loving the food.  At no point were they told about the menu where all the good stuff resided.  I'm not sure whether this was staff neglect, Chinese restaurant racism or the manager just "not wanting to waste food" again, but either way, it rubbed me up the wrong way.  So of course I told the ladies about the "secret" yumcha menu, and they were shocked and grateful in equal measure.  

The ever-sensible Dr Markham asked me why I bothered going there, given the above trespasses.  I just shrugged.  "The food is worth it".  Score: 12/20  

But if this all seems like too much aggravation, Humble House (11 Church Street, Brighton.  Tel: + 61 3 9592 6747) just down the road is also excellent.  Its chef-owner Ki Wah Lau was the longtime executive chef at Silks at Crown Casino, in its heyday perhaps the only real rival to the Flower Drum.  The beef in mandarin sauce is splendidly moist and tender, and the egg beancurd with wild mushrooms is umami-plus, although I really wish they would be more generous with the beancurd.  Now I wouldn't say the food is better than at the Gold Moon, but the service is far superior, not that that's really saying much.  Score: 14/20

4.  Maha
21 Bond Street
Tel: + 61 3 9629 5900

Maha is home to celebrity chef Shane Delia and his unique take on modern Middle Eastern cuisine.  Again, if you are looking for cuisines which are rare and rarely done well in Singapore, a visit to Maha should be on your itinerary.

Full disclosure: I didn't actually visit Maha.  But when I spoke to Duncan on my last day, he asked if he had ever recommended Maha to me.  He hadn't, for which he said he was very sorry, before describing Maha as his current "go-to place for deliciousness" and speaking longingly of the great value lunch menus (4 courses for $60 and 6 courses for $80).  Coming from Duncan, that's good enough for me; you can read my review of it next year.  Score: Unscored (sorry, I'm a bit pedantic about not scoring restaurants which I haven't visited).

And on the way out...

5.  Café Vue
International Terminal, Tullamarine Airport
Tel: + 61 3 9310 5091

My dear wife booked me on Scoot on the way home to Singapore (thanks hon), and I was determined to have a decent meal on the ground before what would be the longest 7.5 hours of my frickin' life.  I actually managed to finish Zola's "La Bête Humaine" during the flight, which must surely go down as one of the greatest feats of speed and endurance in human history.

Thankfully, I got a new credit card a couple of months back, which entitled me to two (!) visits to Priority Pass lounges worldwide.  At Melbourne, Priority Pass members have an AUD $36 credit to spend at one of three options: Bar Pulpo (an offshoot of the Movida group), Café Vue (an offshoot of the Vue de Monde group) and Urban Provodore.

I'm a big fan of Movida but Bar Pulpo was an intense disappointment when I tried it a couple of years back.  I had never heard of the Urban Provodore so Café Vue it was.

Poached Eggs, Smashed Avocado, Sourdough and Caffe Latte

Before expectations are built up due to the Vue de Monde association, Café Vue is a no-frills eatery with hard surfaces aplenty and a pay-before-we-serve-you policy.  It is relatively kid-friendly, however, with large booths accommodating a few large-ish family groups when I was there.

I wanted the Blackmore Wagyu burger with house fries, but was told it was only served at lunchtime.  So for my $36, I got two poached eggs on sourdough toast and a scoop of smashed avocado scattered with feta cheese and toasted quinoa ($25), a caffe latte made with the "Vue de Monde house blend" ($5.90, which is a total rip-off by Melbourne standards), and a bottle of Acqua Panna ($5.20, another rip-off, but good to bring on board your budget flight).  Having left all of my Pacific Pesos with the Wife, I offered to pay the 10 cents on my credit card but the cashier kindly refused and put 10 cents into the cash register from her tip jar.

Food - good.  Service - minimal but friendly.  Coffee - bland and average, which proves that having a "house blend" is not necessarily a good thing.  Overall, Café Vue is perfectly acceptable but nothing more.  Score: 11.5/20.


I am glad to see that Tipo 00 and Humble House are still doing well, and the Cellar Bar and Gold Moon were nice discoveries.  And thanks to Duncan, the first thing I'm going to do after booking my next flight Down Under is to book lunch at Maha.

The local food mafia seem to say this every 12 months, but it does actually seem that Melburnians are eating better than ever.  I mean just ask the guys at the World's 50 Best, who were bribed, oops, I mean, PERSUADED to host their big annual shindig for 2017 in Melbourne.  

Of course, that pretentious, hifalutin' crap is completely irrelevant to a vast segment of the local population, but I hope my recommendations above prove that you can eat very, very well in Melbourne for $30 a head or less.  I did.

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