Melbourne – appetite at the ready
‘You’re coming to Melbourne? Let’s go to this brilliant [café/ bakery/ restaurant] I know about!’ So began every conversation with friends as I planned my annual visit back to Melbourne, where I grew up and where my food career started. It’s a town passionate about food, knowledgeable about ingredients, happily exposed to culinary influences from around the world and creative enough to mix them all together.
I had a week in Melbourne, which isn’t really enough time to explore it’s exciting food scene, ranging from the excellent Queen Victoria Market to some of the most elegant restaurants in Australia by way of several interesting ethnic food enclaves; not to mention a fairly hardcore coffee culture. This feature offers a taste of some of what’s on offer, but to really find out what’s going on in one of the most vibrant of international food destinations, there’s no replacement for actually going and exploring for yourself.
Once a somewhat dicey and depressed eastern suburb with a slight Asian influence; Box Hill now has a confident, multi-Asian voice. The central market stocks all the leafy greens, odd vegetables and condiments your heart desires. Clutching bamboo steamers and jars of different chilli sauces, I sighed over rows of fresh bean curd, kimchi, dumplings, bamboo shoots and salted jellyfish. Next door they made snacks and pickles – sliced pig’s ears, chicken feet, duck tongue, noodle salads and dumplings made before your eyes. The pig’s ears were particularly popular. Across the aisle butchers displayed them fresh if you wanted to pickle your own, alongside the more sedate options of ducks and whole quails. Out on the surrounding streets, Szechuan, Hong Kong, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants compete with noodle and dumpling houses for your lunch and dinner money. There’s even a shop making fresh tofu.
Buffeted by a spring gale I found refuge in David & Camy Dumpling and Noodle Restaurant. A large pot of jasmine tea sorts you out until lunch arrives. Fishball and greens soup reminded me why I so love Chinese soups…In a clear broth float bouncy addictive fishballs, bok choy, spinach and mushrooms. You can add black vinegar and soy sauce until you achieve a balance of salt and sour. But most people were here for the dumplings. Huge plates of white, pillowy steamed dumplings (prawn, beef, duck, pork and vegetable) were ordered by everybody from canny students to retirees. They even sell bags of frozen dumplings to take home. Drat. Next time!
Final stop was Cha-T, a specialist tea shop where most customers sit down to drink a pot of very interesting (and pricey) tea. Closer scrutiny showed flat or round pressed cakes of Yunnan pu’er tea for sale in different sizes and fermentations. A pressed dome of lightly fermented pu’er was collected to take home for the Man in the White Hat.
Even waiting for the tram (a local Melbourne institution), a ribbon of ginger and garlic floats out from the modest noodle shop at the stop; just in case you need one more taste before leaving. Thank you Box Hill.
Melbourne’s city centre (or CBD) is alive with the sounds of grinding coffee and steaming milk. Every possible corner, laneway or arcade has a serious coffee machine pumping out excellent coffees to a never-ending queue of fussy drinkers. Even though a full day of appointments and errands meant less time to explore the city centre, I still walked smash into the middle of new food van pop-up Rue & Co while thinking about lunch. Replacing a large lump of fossilised bird guano from the Pacific island of Nauru that stood in the small square for many years, Rue & Co consists of three food vans (Kong – Korean; Jimmy Grants – souvlaki; St Ali Church of Secular Coffee – coffee & food), cheerful astroturf, and plentiful seating. Settling on slow-cooked pulled pork, kimchi and Japanese mayonnaise (wrapped in flaky roti bread) from Kong, I retreated to a table and happily worked my way through the tasty, oozy goodness. I then tidied up enough to grab a St Ali coffee, though I reeled from the price (AED13 for a small coffee! And from a VAN!) before ambling on further.
In the pretty and historic Royal Arcade, the ever-reliable Suga sweet shop pre-dates its European equivalent (and soon to open in Dubai) PapaBubble by a couple of years. Now in its 16th year, Suga still makes all its sweets by hand in front of your fascinated eyes. While they no longer have the fabulous chocolate flavoured ‘Koala Droppings’, their range is still extensive enough to tempt anyone. A bag of nectarine flavoured sweets was quietly crunched while chatting to the amiable staff. Next door is an old favourite, Love It – an independent jewellery store that stocks a witty, individual and elegant selection of affordable baubles; it is almost impossible to walk out empty-handed.
On an unlovely part of the CBD’s Elizabeth Street lies Borek Bakehouse – complete with a stern-looking grandmother pulling fresh dough in the window. These chewy, flaky delights are filled with cheese and spinach, spiced lamb or spicy potato; heaven on the cheap in an often pricey town.
This comfortable, leafy suburb, divided into dry (no alcohol establishments) and wet (alcohol service allowed) halves is showing encouraging signs of culinary creativity. New, independent patisserie Provence Artisan Bakers churns out breads, pastries and custard tarts delicious enough to fight over.
In search of dinner with a friend, we wandered past brand new Elyros, a Greek restaurant and wine bar. Pushing our noses to the glass doors to find out more, a charming French (!) waiter informed us it was a soft launch for family and friends only (its Facebook page now shows a goat stew worthy of serious consideration). Only slightly crestfallen we ambled on, my friend reeling off a list of alternatives until we settled on Meat & Wine Co for kangaroo fillet, a large glass of vineous goodness and cheerful, relaxed service. While it might be a South African mini-chain, its kitchen handled the kangaroo fillet with respect, allowing all the iron, gamey flavours to come through. The onion rings were (whisper it) better than at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut in Dubai, and the side dish of broccolini was handled with the same respect for ingredients as the meat.
As house prices skyrocket in Melbourne, Geelong (southwest of Melbourne) has become one of the outer commuting towns of choice. Finally shaking off its reputation for naff backwardness, a revitalised food scene has gone along with the regeneration of its charming beachfront, parks, and Botanical Gardens.
My food-loving friends dragged me to Tulip for a long gossip over dinner. Chefs Matt Dempsey and Graham Jefferies creatively play with a variety of food ideas; and what wonderful food it is. Ordering the Chef’s Selection, seasonal, produce-driven dishes flowed out of the kitchen. Creamy oysters with ponzu sauce; buttery sweet Jerusalem artichoke with swiss brown mushrooms; fried whole soft-shelled prawns with a smoked garlic mayonnaise (fought over); wagyu beef that so expressed the depth of cow flavour all conversation stopped; and a chocolate-hazelnut dessert that looked dense but was blissfully light.
The next morning we nursed our tender heads in Coffee Cartel Roasters. On an unlovely industrial estate a giant dragon leads you into a café, tea room, and roastery. A Mexican Altura El Cuarenteno bean-based flat white from the La Marzzoca machine straightened us out enough to blink at the separate brew bar with trendy brand-new grinder, the blends and single origin coffees for sale, and a full café (it was midweek!). The barista obligingly pulled shots of buttery, gingery Altura for us to try before we ambled out in search of lunch.
Café Go is a typical 19th century Australian weatherboard house on a corner. In the warm, ramshackle interior the food counter bursts with fresh wraps (roti bread again; roti’s very on-trend right now), sandwiches, quiches, and salads, all overlooked by a chalkboard listing the day’s menu. You place your order, hold onto your soft toy/table identifier (a yellow cow since you ask) and sit in the courtyard enjoying the spring sunlight. After hearty bowls of lamb stew, a killer Portuguese-style custard tart convinced my friends that they need to visit Lisbon. Trailing flaky crumbs out the door I thought ‘Lucky, lucky Geelong to have these places all to itself’.
Richmond is an eclectic inner eastern suburb of Melbourne with many, many cafes, restaurants, bakeries, bars and other shops keeping things lively; it’s also home to Melbourne’s Little Saigon strip of Vietnamese restaurants. My Richmond-based friend steered me clear of Little Saigon, though, and walked me to ‘currently the best café in Richmond’: Café Azul on Bridge Road. Located in a small space wallpapered with a tropical leaf print, Azul focuses on organic and vegan dishes. Run by two sisters, the welcome is warm and chatty and all the dishes vividly fresh. Our chickpea balls nestled up against beetroot, carrot, mixed leaves and yoghurt dressing. All the flavours spoke brightly of quality ingredients and care.
Close by in genteel Canterbury, the charming Maling Road is where you can find Maling Room Café (and now roastery) in the former 19th century post office. Grateful locals and visitors occupy every available seat as the La Marzocca Strada coffee machine cranks out coffee after coffee. And of course fresh coffee beans can be bought to take home. In Canterbury’s Theatre Place (just off Maling Road) is the new Castille de Fleur. The owner Nicole Thomas studied perfumery, aromatherapy and soap-making in France before setting up her own business in Melbourne. Every delightful thing in the shop is made by her in the back and the pure, heady scents from the soaps, lotions and perfumes roll out the door and into the leafy courtyard.
Over in nearby Balwyn is the laidback Arthur Radley café/bistro, which delivered a breakfast of house-made granola and yoghurt with a dinky bottle of milk on the side – and a killer flat white coffee using Maling Room beans. A long brunch allowed us to see its evening menu being pinned up – slow cooked rabbit sounded very tempting.
Centonove restaurant in the eastern suburb of Kew is owned and operated by two brothers who are on the floor every night (one as sommelier). Centonove has built a solid reputation for itself in the past 13 years for the excellence of its modern Italian menu, the wonderful wine list, and the genuine, smooth hospitality of its staff. This reputation is fully deserved. From the warm greeting as we escaped the cold outside (a Melbourne spring can be surprisingly chilly), to the well-placed table, the delicate stuffed zucchini flowers, through to the ten-hour braised beef blade, slow-cooked oxtail and immaculate beef fillet, all washed down with a Yarra Valley Sticks “No 29” Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. Despite my occasional grumblings that chocolate fondants have out-stayed their welcome on menus, I had to admit that Centonove’s version was a masterful balancing act between the soft sponge and the bitter-sweet fondant; nor did I share the buttermilk ice cream that accompanied it.
My week in Melbourne only touched a few of the many food joys this city packs in. For those planning a visit – take a raging appetite, a healthy wallet (prices sometimes exceed central London), and always ask the locals to point you to their favourite place.
Mrs White Hat
Mrs White Hat has worked in the hospitality industry for many years, and is a keen cook and traveller herself. When not lending her appetite to The Man in the White Hat’s restaurant reviews, she can be found near fresh cake with a well-made cup of coffee.