(My beloved Haighs choc frog)
"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens...."
I'm definitely having a Julie Andrews/Maria moment as I contemplate my favourite Melbourne edibles.
Salty fish and chips on the beach, gigantic bags of mixed lollies from the corner milk bar, iced coffee Big Ms, Gran's tomato sandwiches and Mum's lamb roast. These are just some of my favourite food memories of growing up in Australia.
(Breakfast of slow cooked egg, home made baked beans,
prosciutto with bearnaise at Circa, St Kilda)
prosciutto with bearnaise at Circa, St Kilda)
But sometimes a diva needs to put on her heels and get amongst it to discover some new edible delights. Enter:
* Longrain: One of our best restaurant experiences last week was at Longrain (City). Set in a former horse stable stylishly converted, with long communal and large round tables (it has a touch of Busaba-meets-cocktail-bar about it) this is modern Asian/Thai inspired dining at its best. Hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours are combined in beautifully presented and delectable dishes. And when I say it's "banquet" style dining, I'm not talking puny little shared plates which stack up to a fortune. Forget about it. Although most dishes ring in at around the $30-$40 mark, they bear a generous bounty which left me scheming about how to get back for more.
For mains, we shared between four an impressive looking eggnet filled with pork, prawn, peanuts, bean sprouts with sweet vinegar, the steamed whole baby snapper with lemongrass, lime and roasted chilli paste (succulent, moist, mmmm....), crispy duck salad with sweet fish sauce, green mango, chilly and basil (refreshing and moreish) and a tasty caramelised pork hock with chilli, vinegar and deep fried shallots (pictured below). All wonderful.
Desserts were divine - I was left licking my lips over a large scoop of the coconut sorbet, and managed to steal the odd spoonful of The Peanut Gallery's coconut caramel custard with grilled banana before he started growling and bearing his fangs at me.
This is easily the best Thai food I've had for years. A special thanks to loyal regulars Mitch and "Chef" Jeff/Brett for guiding the way.
Some other favourites, old and new
(Ichi Ni Izakaya, overlooking the beach)
* Ichi Ni Izakaya (The Esplanade, St Kilda): Devour sushi and teriyaki tempters on the Esplanade overlooking the St Kilda waterfront, right next to Melbourne's treasured "Espy" pub. We enjoyed a fresh bento box of teriyaki unagi (eel - fatty, fishy and firm), sashimi tuna, kingfish and salmon, salad with goma dressing, rice and miso for less than £9. Wash it down with a Japanese beer (make mine an Asahi, sayeth the TPG) or sake and lap up the views.
(The bento lunch at Ichi Ni)
* Lau's Family Kitchen (Acland St, St Kilda): Nestled next to Il Fornaio (one of my favourite bakeries, mentioned in Part 1) at no. 4 Acland Street, Lau's offers quality Chinese food from the son and brother of Gilbert Lau, the master who brought the high end The Flower Drum into the world. Prices have gone up since we last dined here a couple of years ago (large dishes are generally around the $30 mark), however Lau's remains in a whole different league to most Chinese joints in town. This is not a place for lazy Susans (sigh) but the modern, dark wooden decor is at once low key and slick. Our leisurely Sunday lunch consisted of prawn and scallop dim sum, sweet and sour pork, and orange roughey in a light soy sauce with steamed rice, chinese tea and wine. Delectable all round. And with local Melbourne celebrity, Steve Vizard, sitting a few tables along from us, I was even able to tick the celebrity sighting box. Check.
* Misuzu's (Victoria Avenue, Albert Park): Gorgeous Japanese restaurant, in a converted town house with rooms upstairs and down - and one in a cool Japanese bar setting. Latterns hang from the trees outside, swinging in the breeze, as you feast on delectable Japanese salads, sushi, dumplings, big bowls of udon noodle soups and whatever tempts your tastebuds. All at reasonable prices. And a great sake list.
* Old Kingdom (Smith Street, Collingwood): Totally old school Chinese joint. Book ahead. Order the duck. Watch the old guy from the kitchen carve up your amazing Peking duck and turn every other bit of your quack quack it into every possible duck dish under the sun. Cheap, cheerful, and the lazy Susan lives on. Enjoy.
* Victoria Street, Abbotsford: Cheap, cheerful and fresh Vietnamese fare can be found at almost any of the bustling restaurants lining this gritty inner surburban strip. Don't come for silver service, and don't order the birthday cake for your grandma - it comes in the form of a fried banana, 2 strategically placed scoops of ice-cream and a sparkler. One of my favourites is Tran Tran (recently renovated, but still has its old school charm).
(Casual mood belies the quality wine list and fare at Cicciolina)
* Cicciolina (Acland Street, St Kilda): There's something incredibly addictive about this place. For me, it epitomises Melbourne. A friendly mix of laid back, simple but stylish atmosphere, fab wine list and beautifully executed Italian dishes. The pastas are superb, and on last visit I tried the risotto (usually risky, but not here) with braised cuttlefish, squid ink (resulting in a near emergency with TPG's new Thom Browne shirt), tomato, parsley and lemon oil. Brilliant. TPG hopped into a scrumptious rigatoni with rabbit, chorizo, smoked paprika and verjuice ragu.
Over the years, we have given the terrific wine list a fair work out too. This is an essential stopover for me on every trip to Melbs. There's a no bookings policy, so get there early (ie. around 7pm at night) and have some drinks in the back bar if you have to wait. A late lunch usually guarantees a table too (I have rolled in there in my flip flops straight from St Kilda beach).
* The Cellar Bar at Grossi Florentino (Bourke St, City): Quality, authentically Italian dining at reasonable costs. This tiny Italian restaurant/bar is in the shopfront underneath its upmarket (and beautiful, grandiose, iconic) Grossi Florentino high end counterpart, but shares the same kitchen so.....yuh, it's good. Bustling and romantic, you can keep it simple with a perfect bowl of pasta (such as a hearty parpadelle with duck liver and mushroom ragu), or roll yourself up in the tradition of Florentinos for an evening of lavish fare. I would say this place was so very Melbourne, if it wasn't also so very Milan. If you splurge on the wonderful fine dining option upstairs, bask in the renaissance style paintings on the walls, rich furnishings and do not, I repeat DO NOT, leave without trying my favourite dish, the duck and wild mushroom tortellini. Rich. Superb.
* France Soir (Toorak Road, South Yarra): Parisian style bistro, with great wine list, (pardon my French) kick arse langoustines, gorgeous duck, and even the plain old butter lettuce with blue cheese (washed down with a chardy) is heavenly.
* Go for fantastic thin based pizzas packed with flavour at I Carusi II (St Kilda), Ladro (Collingwood) or Mr Wolf (St Kilda). Any of these give London's Franco Manca a serious run for its money and come out easily on top in my opinion.
* Sample basic, unpretensious Italian at Pellegrini's Espresso Bar (a Melbourne lunch time or late night institution - sit at the bar for pasta, or an espresso) or The Italian Waiters Club (very simple, but cheap prices, noisy atmosphere and drink your wine in tumblers at formica tables), both in the city centre.
* Go upmarket at The European, the wonderful Melbourne Supper Club (also great for a late night, post theatre top shelf vino), Becco or Italy 1. All in the city centre.
* Syracuse, tucked away in the city centre, is one of my dinner favourites, where the tasty modern European food follows a wonderful wine list, to be enjoyed in the beautiful surrounds of soaring ceilings, ornate archways and mansionesque grandeur. Thanks to the ex-London crew for a fabulous evening, and especially to my gorgeous models, Sarah & Ver:
(Seared duck breast on lentil salad with fried shallots)
(Slow roasted pork belly with baby braised onion
and poached cherries at Syracuse)
* Sarti (city centre) is fun and friendly, contemporary Italian with an outdoor terrace which is fabulous for after work drinks or dinner in summer.
* Da Noi (South Yarra) used to be a huge favourite but fell out of favour on our last trip - we felt the $65 chef's menu was steep for the fatty, cheap cut of osso bucco (the pea puree was a highlight) and average dessert tasting plate on offer, although the linguine with roe and smoked trout starter was lovely. I harbour enough sentimentality and fond memories to give it another go in future. Set in a gorgeous, converted terrace house, this tiny local powerhouse takes the ordering dilemma out of your hands as the chef selects surprise dishes to match your appetite and wine selection - just tell them what you don't like and how much you want to eat. Not one for control freaks. Usually it's seasonal and delicious.
(Da Noi - and its fare below)
* Punch Lane (City): One of Melbourne's best wine bars, with good, hearty food to match. Another good pre or post theatre option.
* For a fanastic Spanish option, try Movida Bar de Tapas Y Vino (City). I'm hankering to try the newer Movida Next Door, which gets rave reviews from my Melbourne insiders.
* For your saganaki fix, excellent Greek options include: Hellenic Republic (Brunswick East), Jim's Greek Tavern (Collingwood, one of the originals), Pireaus Blues (Fitzroy), and George's Greek Tavern (popular with the Malvern locals). Zorbas Souvlaki (Bridge Road, Richmond) is also an old favourite for that late night grease requirement. I'm keen to try The Press Club (City Centre). None of the above beats the stuff coming from TPG's Mum's kitchen, or Yia Yia's if you happen to be in Lesvos and fancy 8 types of cooked meat in 40 degree Celcius weather.
* Carlisle Wine Bar (St Kilda East) and Il Fornaio (St Kilda) are laid back, but lovely Euro and Italian options respectively.
* Babble Bar & Cafe (Prahran) is great for an ultra casual lunch to dull the hunger pangs in between shopping bouts on Melbourne's retail therapy highway, Chapel Street. Outdoor seating available and all the windows are flung open for an outdoor feel even on the inside in summer. Hearty big chicken sandwiches, salads, and I saw a chicken parma that had me drooling.
And, of course, all the breakfast options mentioned in Part 1 (Breakfasts) also double up for a great lunch - see St Ali and Mart 130 for example.
For fine dining:
(Wagyu with mustard ice cream and truffles at Jacques Reymond)
* I love Vue de Monde (extravagant, original, fine dining theatre - chef and francophile Shannon Bennett is the closest thing Melbourne has to Heston Blumenthal - City Centre), Jacques Reymond (modern Australian take on classic fare - see my earlier review here - Prahran), and Cafe Di Stasio (serious and formal, and known for surly service, but the set lunch menu is a bargain at $30 (around £15) for 2 courses and a glass of wine - St Kilda).
* For beachside dining right on the waterfront, Donovans and the Stokehouse (upstairs) are heard to beat. Both are on the St Kilda waterfront. Donovans, a Melbourne seafood haven, has that shabby chic feel that only a millionaire's beach shack could obtain (although the food wasn't at its best last time we visited). The Stokehouse has a gorgeous outdoor deck to sip your apertif as the sun sets, and our meal here last year was better than ever.
* Taxi Dining Room, Momo and Verge are also terrific high end options in the City Centre.
Still to try:
Christmas trading hours - bah humbug! So far, my attempts to try the following places have been thwarted, but I'm one determined diva: Cutler & Co (Fitzroy), Gingerboy (City), Cumulus Inc (City), Movida Next Door (City), Gibibaya (Fitzroy), Izakaya Den (City), Rockpool Bar & Grill (Southbank) and Bistro Guillame (Southbank).
Fiesty snacks on the run:
(Deli scenes from the South Melbourne Market)
* The classic hamburger, take it away at the legendary Andrew's Burgers (Albert Park - do yourself a favour)
* Hot jam doughnuts (Queen Victoria Market - also doing a night market packed with food stalls on Wednesday nights)
* Dim Sims (or "dimmies"), Australia's own Chinese style street food which seems to appeal only to the local palate (South Melbourne Market, and fish and chips shops nationwide)
* The Four 'n Twenty pie with sauce (any decent milk bar)
* The Half Moon Bay Fish and Chippery for fabulous fish 'n chips (Black Rock) - crisp and fresh, outdoor seating on the foreshore, with all the staples plus some lovely extras like sweet potato fritters.
* Jock's ice-cream (Albert Park) - award winning ice-cream, perfect for a stroll along the beach, from Melbourne bloke with crazy hair.
* The chocolate kugelhoph at Monarch bakery (Acland St, St Kilda). Brunetti's in Carlton is another often quoted Melbourne icon for its Italian coffee, cakes, chocolate and gelato but while I will vouch for its panatone and nougat, it's cakes are no better than you will get at a lot of Melbourne's Italian cafes. More of a place to go for its history and to witness the scene.
(Sweet cannoli at Brunetti's)
* Haighs chocolates (especially the scorched almonds, capuccino bar, multi-choc balls and peppermint chocolate frogs. Oh, and the beautiful mixed chocolate box that TPG used to buy me every month - what happened to that tradition, by the way?)
* Oh dear, don't even get me started on Australian chocolate bars: Cherry Ripes, Tim Tams, Chocolate Royals, Mint Slices, Darrel Lea rocklea road & red licorice.... And savouries: Twisties (cheese flavour, always and forever), Barbecue Shapes.....
* And I haven't even started on my favourite places to have a chicken parma (aka parmiagana). That's a whole blog in its own right. However, I did notice a new place called Mrs Palmers has opened in the city, and is dedicated to this worthy cause.
Out of town:
* Fabulous wineries abound in the Yarra Valley (check out the cheeses on offer as you sit among the cows at the Yarra Valley Dairy) and the Mornington Pensinsula (complete with knock out views - ocean on one side, rolling vineyards on the other).
I'm exhausted. That's my tip of the iceberg guide to Melbourne. Hope that's enough to keep you going until my next visit. In the meantime...
"When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling saaaaad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don't feel so baaaad"