Melbourne, Victoria: Eating Out

By Michael Harden
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Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne, Victoria

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne, Victoria [©Great Wine Capitals]

The Point Restaurant, Albert Park Lake, Melbourne, Victoria
Interior of Esposito at Toofey's Restaurant, Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria

It is difficult – if not impossible – to define the dining scene in Melbourne. It is a scene of such breadth and diversity that no box is large enough or the right shape for everything to fit. While this is not such good news for writers trying to succinctly capture the qualities of Melbourne’s dining scene, it is the best news possible for food and wine lovers wanting to add some brilliant and exciting dining experiences to their list.

There are a few generalisations you can make about Melbourne’s cafes and restaurants. For starters, the quality of ingredients is always pretty high because Melbourne is not only blessed with a strong market culture but is surrounded by farming regions that pump out a remarkable range of good fresh ingredients. Add a conveniently situated ocean full of seafood and you have an excellent starting point for a solid dining scene.

The markets have played an important role in the development of Melbourne’s eating culture, not only by an easily accessible supply of ingredients but also by educating the public about the joys of eating fresh, top quality produce.

Ask any chef where they shop and you will inevitably hear about the fruit and veggie stall at the Queen Victoria Market where they always get their salad leaves and herbs or another at the South Melbourne Market where they believe you can get the best potatoes or the deli at Prahran where they treat their cheese with respect.

Increasingly, the best chefs in Melbourne are also discovering the small, artisan producers from the regions surrounding Melbourne, sourcing rare breed black pigs or salmon roe from the Yarra Valley, rhubarb from Nagambie or rabbits from Gippsland. Often these ingredients are name-checked on restaurant menus which further educates the public about what they are eating. One of the greatest assets of a strong dining culture is a well-informed public that forces chefs to keep raising the bar. Melbourne’s diners are a very well informed mob who are very particular about their produce.

Another generalisation about Melbourne’s restaurants is that they lean towards a more casual, informal style of eating. While there are still a few top-notch, fine dining experiences to be had – places like Jacques Reymond in Windsor and Grossi Florentino and the Flower Drum in the city – Melbourne is no longer a hub of the Big Night Out dining experience.

Part of the reason for this was the economic wobbles experienced by Victoria in the 1980’s that drained money out of the top end of the market. Some fine dining establishments closed leaving a pool of people with great food knowledge and service skills looking around for something else to do. These people began to move into the café scene, keeping the casual café approach but upping the ante in terms of food and service.

Marios in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy was one of the pioneers of the new style Melbourne café and, as proof that it hit the right nail on the head, is still going strong after twenty years. Owners Mario DePasquale and Mario Maccarone had both worked in formal restaurants but wanted to open the type of place they longed to eat in but couldn’t find. The food was kept simple and cheap but was made using quality ingredients, breakfast was served all day and a high standard of coffee was rigorously maintained. The café also opened late but what really set Mario’s apart was the excellent service courtesy of a solid core of funky looking waistcoated waiters. It was the most visible sign that café culture was finally being taken seriously. Marios has had a fleet of imitators but remains one of the best examples of the quintessential Melbourne-style café.

Around the same time one of Melbourne’s defining dining styles also emerged – the chic Italian café. Maurice Terzini’s uber-stylish Caffe e Cucina that opened in Chapel Street in the late 1980’s was the blueprint for the look and approach that continues to be a recognisably Melburnian style – linen draped tables, dark wood panelling, bentwood chairs, dim lighting, wooden blinds and traditional Italian dishes made with authentic, brilliant ingredients. This style of café thrived on the increasing numbers of Melburnians wanting to eat quality food in a less formal manner and fed off the city’s strong Italian influence. People understood the concept of these new cafes because, after a history of Italian immigration stretching back for a century, dishes like Spaghetti Bolognese had been adopted as something of a national dish. The added style and quality of these new places struck a chord with the Melbourne dining scene and are now an established feature of the city. Those wanting to try this uniquely Melbourne blend should make a booking at Becco and il Baccaro in the city or St Kilda’s Melbourne Wine Room or Café Di Stasio.

Perhaps an even more important factor in Melbourne’s shift towards an informal style of eating comes from the fact that going out for a meal, drink or coffee is just something that Melbourne dwellers do. A cooler climate with distinct seasons plays a big part in why eating out is as much a part of the Melbourne lifestyle as going to the footy or breathing. When the skies are grey and the wind is icy popping into a cosy bar for a glass of red or huddling with friends over the warmth of a fortifying pasta or a bowl of hot and sour soup seems like a very sensible thing to do.

The Melburnian love of casual dining crosses many cultural boundaries. The apparently unstoppable love affair with designer pizza is one example and Fitzroy’s Ladro with its buzzy dining room, fabulous service, fantastic wood fired pizza courtesy of chef Rita Macali and constant waiting list for tables shows that variations on the Italian theme still have plenty of life in them yet.

Across the river in South Yarra, the Ay Oriental Tea House is putting a new spin on the way people consume Chinese food. Owner David Zhou has taken an old pub, given it a colourful and stylish makeover that manages to straddle 1920’s Shanghai and 1960’s pop art, and begun serving yum cha all day. There is an extensive list of teas (all of which can be purchased in the tea shop at the front of the building), a good winelist and a menu of tea-based cocktails. The Teahouse has a wonderful flexibility and you feel as comfortable coming in here for a pot of tea and a couple of steamed buns as you do ordering a bottle of wine and making a meal of it.

David, who also owns a couple of tea shops and an excellent a la carte Shanghaiese restaurant called David’s, had originally planned to go back to his native Shanghai to get some ideas for his latest venture but he ran out of time. He was forced, he says, to “believe in his own vision” and has created a unique “European/Oriental/Aussie” business that now has people from Shanghai coming in to take photos (and possibly the idea) to show back in China.

Over at Docklands, Middle Eastern flavours are being given the casual treatment at Mecca Bah. Co-owner and executive chef Cath Claringbold came to love the taste of sumac, labne and harissa while working under the godfather of modern Middle Eastern food in Melbourne, Greg Malouf. She presents a more formal version of her Middle Eastern food at Southgate’s Mecca, but at this waterfront café and bar the approach is relaxed with a menu full of dishes designed to share and a constant stream of Turkish pizza coming out of the wood-fired oven.

One of the other great Middle Eastern dining experiences in Melbourne, aside from a trawl up and down the Turkish and Lebanese shops and cafes on Sydney Road, is at Abla’s in Carlton. Now well into its third decade, Abla’s may look homey and unassuming but owner Abla Ahmad’s delicious take on Lebanese home cooking has been enormously influential on the Melbourne dining scene. Abla’s has changed little over the years so eating here gives you both an excellent dining experience and a glimpse at the roots of Melbourne’s robust modern Middle Eastern dining culture.

The ever increasing move to casual dining and the absence of a busy crowd of top end dining in Melbourne does not mean that there is no innovative cooking happening. On the contrary, there are some enormously talented chefs working in the city who constantly push the boundaries to maintain Melbourne’s reputation as an edgy and exciting place to eat.

Chefs like Geoff Lindsay at Pearl, Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde, Teage Ezard at ezard and Andrew McConnell at Circa all, have little in common in terms of cooking styles and influences but do share a bond in terms of a fanatical devotion to artisan produce, a rigorous technical approach to their food and an understanding of the origins and philosophies of the cuisines from which they take inspiration.

Andrew McConnell is executive chef at St Kilda’s Circa, The Prince and, with his partner Pascale Gomez-McNabb, owns a restaurant in Carlton called Mrs Jones. Melbourne born and bred, Andrew is a chef who has worked and travelled extensively overseas (including stints in restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai and a couple of years as a tour chef for pop stars like Madonna), leans towards European techniques in his cooking, and is a complete fanatic when it comes to the quality of his ingredients. His experiences overseas have helped him appreciate the freedom the Melbourne dining scene offers.

“I believe Melbourne is one of the most exciting places to cook professionally in the world mainly because we don’t have any rules or any real history,” he says. “There is an openness from the public to diversification and experimentation and it is exciting because there is nobody around like in Europe looking at what you are doing and saying, oh you can’t do that.”

Andrew believes that Melbourne does not possess a particular style of eating (“unless you consider diversity a style”) but looking at the unique and thoughtful way he combines ingredients and his commitment to sourcing the best ingredients he can find from the city’s surrounding regions, you could say that Andrew McConnell is cooking a particular Melbourne style of food.

“I like to think that it is my own interpretation of Melbourne,” says Andrew. “After travelling extensively and living in and learning about the cultures that influence our food here, I have combined those experiences with what I learnt growing up in Melbourne. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, though. It is more personal than anything. I’m really just a Melbourne boy.”

“Many chefs here look outside of Melbourne for inspiration but I am very proud of what we have here and the resources we have. It is great to be interested in what is going on outside of Melbourne but we have to realise that we are a big and smart enough dining culture to start looking at what we’ve got, where we are now and where we can push it.”

Of course the best way to understand to see which direction the Melbourne dining scene is being pushed is to get out there and eat. It is a job well suited to any true food and wine lover.

Five Great Laneway Restaurants

  • Mo Vida – authentic tapas and Spanish sherry in Hosier Lane

  • Syracuse – superb winelist and a romantic setting in Bank Place

  • Yu-u – great yakatori in a hidden basement location off Flinders Lane

  • Vue de Monde – masterfully worked food and edgy attitude off Little Collins Street.

  • Supper Inn – crispy suckling pig in this bustling late night Cantonese place on Celestial Avenue.

Five Geat Winelists

  • France-Soir, South Yarra

  • Charcoal Grill On the Hill, Kew

  • Cookie, City

  • Melbourne Supper Club, City

  • Circa, The Prince, St Kilda

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Melbourne (VIC)

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