Wednesday 25 January 2012

Mrs Parma's, Melbourne CBD

It's Australia Day. Others are writing proudly about our country's wonderful diversity and precious natural resources, our multiculturalism, history and values of mateship and democracy. So leave it to me to tell you about the chicken parma.

One of the sad, sad facts of life, is that so many people will go through it not having experienced the glory that is the "parma". I call it a life half lived. If you are not one of my Australian readers, you probably don't even know what a "parma" is, right? Allow me to show you the light.

The original parma at Mrs Parma's

This, my friends, is the parma - the reliable staple of Australian pub cuisine.  It's a large, hammered out chicken breast, fried in crispy bread crumbs, then oven baked with a topping of a tomato sauce and loads of oozy mozzarella cheese. It's almost not a parma if it's not served with a tonne of thick cut chips and a sprinkling of salad for your conscience.

Originally a Southern Italian dish, the chicken parmigiana (or parmagiana di malanzane) is something you take for granted until you leave Australia, find yourself in the dark depths of a hangover and discover to your desperation that it's almost impossible to get your fix elsewhere. No mere princessy chicken schnitzel will cut it when you want the big mama. So it can only be a good thing that, back in Melbourne's city centre, some kindred spirits have set up Mrs Parma's - possibly the first ever restaurant to specialise in parmigianas and beer. What's not to love?

The surrounds may be plain, but these people take pride in their parmas. Size IS important, and it's not lacking here. They take a 230g chicken breast and pound it out to a medium thickness for even cooking, and add quality ingredients like a tasty napoli sauce. I would have preferred it a little thicker, but the piece of chicken was excellent and extra points for covering the entire plate. You can choose from a menu of different parmas - like the Aussie (add bacon, beetroot and fried egg), the Mexican (add tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole and jalapeños) or Parma'geddon (the really hot one). But I'm a traditionalist when it comes to my parmas and my creme brûlées - nothing will ever beat the original.

Chip placement is also crucial and a thing of debate in Australia, usually after drinking one or two of the cold beers that traditionally accompany it. Should the chips be placed under the parma to maximise the volume of them and give the full effect of a plate heaving with calorific goodness, or should the chips be placed to the side to prevent sogginess?

Mrs Parma's fall firmly on the side of the latter - they them up in their own generous side bowl. A simple but revolutionary adjustment to the traditional parma serving method.

They also offer gluten free parmas, and veal ($25) and or eggplant ($19) options to replace the chicken ($23). If you must. These prices include a side of chips and salad - and enough parma to fill your plate and possibly justify a doggy bag home (although I ate all mine and licked the plate).

Mrs Parma's on Urbanspoon

Sunday 22 January 2012

Yarra Valley - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

Lunch by the vines at Oakridge Estate

One of my favourite parts of living back in Melbourne, is being able to take off in the car on a sunny day to be surrounded by some of the world's most beautiful wineries within the hour. Drive east about 60 minutes from the centre of Melbourne, pass Legoland, and you'll find yourself among endless vineyards, rolling green hills and grazing cows in Victoria's beautiful Yarra Valley. For a bit of non gluttonous culture, you can even stop off at the Heide Museum of Modern Art on the way.

As in Burgundy, the order of the day in these parts are the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. There are endless places to sit tasting wines immersed in the stunning vistas, while nibbling fresh local produce,  cheeses, charcuterie platters, wood fired pizzas or some terrific fine dining.

Duck leg at Oakridge Estate

Some of my favourite local wineries include De Bortoli, Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander and Domaine Chandon. But there are tonnes more scattered around the Valley, and all an easy and scenic drive from each other.

We started our recent day trip at the farmer's market at Yering Station - held on the first Sunday of every month. Stock up on gorgeous Jam Lady jams (I like pear, vanilla & ginger), olive oil, honey, tomato and coconut harissa, and, of courses, cheeses aplenty. 

Indoor section of the farmers' market at Yering Station

It's thirsty work. So do yourself a favour and head to the tasting room (all free) where some of the Valley's loveliest wines will be poured for you with a smile. Stock up the boot and head off to lunch.

The restaurant at Yering Station is hard to beat, with great food and magnificent views to match. However, after some more tastings of wine and a punchy pear cider at Punt Road (and some more boxes for the boot), we headed to Oakridge Estate to try out the chardonnay that has been winning awards all over the place. Yes, it's good. 

The Yarra Valley Dairy

We stayed on for lunch outside by the vines - to start, silky pink Yarra Valley venison carpaccio, Bloody Mary sorbet, cucumber jelly and cornichons for me and King George whiting fillet, with a zingy fennel and citrus summer slaw for TPG.  To follow, the Gippsland spring lamb rack with medjool dates, quinoa, preserved lemon, Hoddles Creek hazelnuts and harissa yoghurt was a little overcooked and slightly disappointing given it read like heaven on a plate, but TPG's twice cooked duck leg with white beans, cacciatore sausage, peperonata and red currants was the bees knees. A really lovely (if not earth shattering) long lunch with fabulous wines -  2 courses are $50 or 3 courses are $60.

The cafe and store at the Yarra Valley Dairy

For me, no trip to the Yarra Valley is complete without a stop at the Yarra Valley Dairy. The strong stench of cow dung wafting through the air is the sign that you're heading in the right direction. But put it out of your mind as you head in the door and taste a delicious range of cheeses - we've been gorging all week on Persian feta, goats cheese in ash and creamy cow's cheeses marinated in oil. There's also wine tastings and a cafe for coffee and cake before you make your way home again to stock up the cupboards.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Golden Fields, St Kilda - Melbourne

It would be overhyped if it wasn't totally deserving of all the hoopla. Golden Fields is the schizz.

There are 3 reasons I know some of my London readers at least will clutch their heads and grimace sceptically:
1. It's "pan Asian" (sorry Mr Noodles); and
2. It specialises in small plates..
3. ... for sharing.

Ok, ok, I hear ya. Yes, these things are often a red flag for a place trying too hard to be trendy and take the best from a few Asian food cultures, while achieving neither. But at Golden Fields, everything just works.

To start with, it looks inviting. The dining room is open, white and airy, with dark wooden tables and contemporary style. The full length marble bar overlooks the open kitchen - prop up for a drink and a snack, or settle in to one of the larger tables in the sunny and spacious space for a bigger feast with friends. Move it all outside on a sunny day, and watch the world of St Kilda go by.

The marinated cucumber, radish, ginger and garlic ($7) is a refreshing opener to a salad of juicy poached chicken ($15) and the mud crab with fried egg aioli, scuds and holy basil ($21). Or try whole roasted John Dory with Chinese olives and cauliflower ($32) or Cape Grim scotch fillet (not nearly as grim as it sounds) with black fungus and shitake ($37). For dessert there's a peanut butter parfait with salted caramel and soft chocolate ($10) or crispy black sesame, lime and a dollop of yoghurt ($15).

It won the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide Best New Restaurant. You can't book ahead for tables of less than 8 people (the current annoying trend in Melbourne) but there are plenty of places to have a drink nearby while you wait - it's worth it.

Golden Fields on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Chez Dre, South Melbourne

Crunchy baguette with brie, walnuts, witlof and chutney

 On my wanderings between Gas and the South Melbourne market, I must have walked past Chez Dre a dozen times over the past few weeks without noticing it. Typically for Melbourne's cafes, it's tucked away discretely from the throng in a cobbled lane way with just a small sign above the door opening the way to a spacious patisserie/boulangerie/cafe.

The flat whites are true to Melbourne form ($3.50), and my crunchy half baguette with lashings of brie, walnuts, witlof, fruit chutney and a side of sweet shredded carrot are terrific ($7 half, $12 full).

The croissants and cakes are gorgeous - look out for the passionfruit tart topped with a mini macaron. I also love that there's a "Mac attack" - a coffee and macaroni tasting board consisting of short black, macaroni and a short macciato. There's lots of all day breakfast and lunch options for something heartier.

The space is fantastic - curved open kitchen, velvet booths, big wooden communal tables with colourful vases of flowers, or little round French style cafe tables opening onto the sunny outdoor courtyard. A lovely place to sit back and read the daily papers on route to the market - it's almost close enough to smell the sweet aroma of dim sims in the air.

Chez Dré on Urbanspoon

Friday 6 January 2012

Vue de Monde, Melbourne

Oyster, venison roll, celeriac and sunflower seed, smoked eel with white chocolate and caviar

Shannon Bennett is Australia's answer to Heston Blumenthal - just add a blonde surfie dude wig.

For my 21st again birthday, TPG took me to the 55th floor of the Rialto building, overlooking Melbourne's city skyline, for champagne and indulgence at the magical extravaganza that is Shannon Bennett's Vue de Monde.

Spanner crab, green strawberry, saltbush, parsley

Bennett's French style is hammed up with creative theatrics - each plate as gorgeous to look at as it is to taste. Surprises abound. Who would have thought smoked eel, white chocolate and caviar would be a match of the gods? How about about Blackmore wagyu beef, rose petal and anchovy dust, or ling, herb emulsion, prawn and smoked bone marrow? Do not attempt this at home.

Fried duck egg, lamb sweetbreads, pickled onion, truffle. Yes, seriously.

The scene is pared back sophistication with artwork and furnishings reflecting Australian culture (yes, it's not all about Crocodile Dundee and cricket). Knocking dead the theory that a glamorous view is in direct inverse proportion to the quality of the food, this - Australia's first carbon neutral restaurant - uses home grown and small farm organic produce as far as possible, and keeps bringing home the awards in the process (including Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the year in 2006 and 2007) and was the first restaurant to be rated 19/20 by The Age Good Food Guide in 2006. I loved the place 7 years ago, and it's still got it.

If you visit for nothing else, visit for this - the chocolate soufflé,
chocolate mousse and creme anglaise is to die for

If you're a chops and 3 veg purist, this will not be for you. But for a night of fine dining and theatre all rolled into one, it's pretty hard to beat anywhere on the world stage.

4 courses a la carte costs $150, or the gastronomes degustation is $250.

PS. TPG just reminded me of my favourite course of all - the butterscotchy, butter poached marron with kholrabi, caviar and tarragon butter. Oh my....

Vue de Monde, Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic Australia
+613 9691 3888

I also love "Shannon Bennett's Paris" which has been my trusty guide to Paris' bistros and foodie gems for some years - recommended for any Francophile. Bennett has also more recently published a guide to New York and a guide to France which I wouldn't mind getting my hands on.

Vue de Monde on Urbanspoon

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