The Underground Gourmet: A Guide to Melbourne
Australians have never really garnered a refined reputation in comparison to their other Commonwealth compatriots. I guess it’s safe to say that Australia is to the South what Canada is to the North; where Canadians are referred to as American try hards, Australians are seen as British convicts. These are stereotypical premises; however, sadly, we are in a world where stereotypes act as our short summaries (purposefully redundant). We would all like to boast that we do not attach ourselves to such notions, but in reality, within our deepest hopes and aspirations, we all expect to hear colloquial phrases such as “put some shrimp on the Barbie”, see white men in safari outfits channelling Crocodile Dundee, meet scantily clad beautiful surfer girls on the beach asking us ‘where the bloody hell are you (we)’ and to take a walkabout with a Fosters in one hand, a koala wrapped around your leg and roos hopping in the distance. I’ll apologize in advance for ruining your image of down under but all of the above are terrible misconceptions; Australians don’t even drink Fosters.
The Australia I know is: scorching hot during summers, has an incredibly laid back attitude when it comes to work and is so ethnically varied it puts Benetton to shame. So how does this rant translate into Food? Well, it doesn’t. My point being that Australians aren’t known for their culinary prowess, in fact, I’m pretty sure that you can stop any random passerby off the street and ask them what Australian food is like and their best guess will be barbecued seafood (i.e. above barbie reference) . What people fail to realise is that Australia is extremely well positioned geographically that they can basically grow most international produce locally, which is quite appropriate since brining in food through Aussie customs is an unpleasant experience. The variety of their home grown produce, their immediate access to fresh seafood and their excellent meats and bovine, coupled with a gang of multiracial sun kissed Chefs, makes for a potent mix of seasonal, straight forward, specialist cuisine. Proudly armed with my newly acquired knowledge, my rehearsed English twang and with Men At Work blasting in my ears, I set off to eat the city that could soon put New York and Paris to shame: Melbourne.
There is quite a high strung rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney; locals can’t seem to decide which city is better. In my opinion, if you are looking for fine dining international cuisine where the setting of the restaurant is as distinguished as the food on your table and you can stare romantically at lush bays and world renowned artistic landmarks, Sydney is the city for you. On the other hand, for those of you looking to get lost in winding streets trying to find the restaurant your friend recommended by going through alleyways, staircases and ending up in a basement of a brick laid wall building that has been reupholstered into a gem of a cocktail lounge with simple and flavourful food being served by a discreet knowledgeable waiter singing along to the live band playing the Doors, then Melbourne is the place for you. Personally, in Sydney i feel like a tourist who has to catch up with everyone, read the local version of the Zagat and purchase a heap of guide books so that i can plan the perfect itinerary, whereas in Melbourne, i arrive at the airport and even though it’s my first time in the city, i feel like a local, planning takes a back seat because you are never far from a good meal and an interesting drink.
Now that i’ve laid the ground work, i will take you through my trip with some of the standout places i’ve tried and an insider’s guide to Melbourne and it’s many neighbourhoods
Distinct Districts not to Miss: It’s easy to want to be lazy and stay within the vicinity of downtown Melbourne since this is where you’ll find international shopping stores, Chinatown, the Greek Quarter (on Lonsdale St.) and renowned restaurants such at The European for the bests of Breakfast, Lunch at Attica and Vue du Monde for diner, all of which i strongly recommend you do, however these are givens, you will also want to visit the fringe of the city and the places where locals spend their days. Here is a list of my favourite inner city suburbs:
- St. Kilda – Atmosphere and feel: Think Venice Beach meets Melrose, St. Kilda, is a quaint little suburb not too far from the city which is slowly regaining popularity with the locals and the tourist. It’s one of the only places in Melbourne where you have an easy access to the beach, even though these in no way compare to the beautiful beaches of Sydney. – Food-spectations: Drive down Acland street and enjoy their numerous cafes and cake shops. The street is an interesting mix of high and low end, ground floor apartments are being transformed into colourful cafes and restaurants that cater to both the back packers that stay there and the inhabitants of the Edwardian houses on nearby Robe Street. – Non Foodie Attractions: Feel like a kid again in Luna Park, a historic old school fun fair that has become somewhat of a landmark in the suburb. – Be an insider: Start off with a great modern Australian and seasonal lunch at Cicciolina Restaurant, followed by grabbing what is considered to be the best pizza in Melbourne at I Carusi II, a quaint little Italian joint with stone ovens and hand written menus. After having your food fill for the day choose from a huge selection of draught beers and listen to some of the best live up and coming bands in the legendary St. Kilda venue, the Espi
- Fitzroy – Atmosphere and feel: Melbourne’s answer to the Marais and the East village, this inner city suburb is considered an artistic and bohemian culture hub. Fitzroy has a very active street art community and its main streets (Brunswick, Smith and Gertrude) are filled with an eclectic array of music, record, art and speciality shops, restaurants and bars, set amongst Edwardian and fashionably dilapidated Victorian low rise buildings. – Food-spectations: All of Brunswick and Smith Streets are filled with different types of cafes, restaurants and bars. Anything from Vegan to Afghan cuisine can be found here, with different al fresco, basement or rooftop dining options. – Non Foodie Attractions: Home to many art and music festivals all year round. Check local listings to be sure not to miss any. The most famous ones are the Latin American and the infamous Fringe Festivals. Spend the whole day just browsing through retro and vintage stores, trendy boutiques, local designers and quirky libraries. – Be an insider: Start off in the huge industrial looking micro-brewery, Little Creatures Dining Hall, and enjoy fresh Little Creatures Beer accompanied by innovative beer snacks and mains. This restaurant impresses everyone that sets foot in it. After having walked all over the suburb, sit down at Cutler & Co see why it was named Australia’s Restaurant of the year for 2011 by the Gourmet Traveller. Finish off the night in a secretive and seductive bar off the main strip and throw yourself in a decade long passed at Burlesque Bar, a unique and original night out; just don’t bring the kids.
- Richmond – Atmosphere and feel: This fringe suburb is visited by both locals and tourist not only because of its second hand and outlet factory shopping where prices are lower than elsewhere, but also for the simple fact that it’s very easy to want to just relax and kick it in Richmond. – Food-spectations: This is where Little Saigon (Victoria Street) and an additional Little Greece (Bridge Road and Swan Street) are located. – Non Foodie Attractions: Richmond has one of the best live music scenes in Melbourne, ask around for scheduled shows. – Be an insider: Stroll down and around Victoria Street and jump into any Vietnamese haunt, it will leave you wanting more each time. For dinner head on over to Little Greece and try one of the longest standing Greek food institutions in Melbourne, the beautifully conceived Felicos.
- Carlton and Brunswick – Carlton is home to multiple cultural sights of Melbourne, notably the Royal Exhibition building and the Melbourne museum and has a Little Italy on Lygon Street, which is where most of the ever present Italian settlements used to reside, get ready to discover many cafe’s, trattorias, gelati shops and pastelarias. I didn’t spend too much time in Carlton as we were just passing through, but all of the restaurants looked and smelled authentic, i did manage to fit in a wonderfully crisp and honey ricotta filled canoli at Bar Idda though. I’d whiz through again just for that little devilish delight. – Brunswick is Carlton’s less touristic sister. I also did not have much time to explore this part of the fringe as much as i would of liked. It is the home of the best Lebanese and Maghreb restaurants and Sydney Road, the longest shopping street in Melbourne. Sydney Road is always bustling with activity, and is one of the fullest streets of Australia in terms of bars, restaurants, night clubs and shops. Since we passed by when I already had filled myself to the brink of implosion, I only managed to fit in some Lebanese flat bread from the world famous A1 Bakery and felt obliged to take away some Turkish mezzes from Baba.
Things I WILL go back for:
Victoria Street: I am a self proclaimed noodle soup slut. Whether it’s sunny or raining, I love diving into the first hole-in-the-wall Asian noodle bar and being comforted by the sweaty chefs imbued by the fog of steaming broth. Out of all Asian noodle soups my all-star, crème de la crème is the Vietnamese Pho. Sadly enough in the Philippines we only have one good Vietnamese restaurant, maybe because the cuisine is too lean and healthy for the local oily taste buds. So imagine my excitement when i find out that there is a Little Saigon in this city. That’s right; it’s like the smaller more refined sister of China Town. What’s beautiful about this little community in the district of Richmond is that most of the people that live here are from Vietnam, therefore any restaurant you go to caters to Vietnamese, the smells, sights and sounds are all authentic. There are not only restaurants, but butcher shops, fresh markets, eateries and fish mongers from Hoddle Street to the Yarra River. If it wasn’t for the weird mix or Aussie and Viet accents I would think that I was lost in the 36 old streets of Hanoi. Any of the low plastic stools and tables will do and they are all “Cheap as Chips” to boot. For some awesome authentic straight forward cuisine try Minh Minh.
China Town: Even though i had my Asian Fix with Little Saigon, China Town is still a notable foodie haven not to be missed. Usually when you go to a Chinatown, wherever you are in the world you will have a big variety of Chinese Restaurants, but depending on how big the community is, sometimes there is no distinction made between regional cuisines. Melbourne on the other hand is known to having the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western World. This is the type of China Town where there is a notable difference made between Hunan and Canton cuisines and where if you walk into a Szechuan restaurant, the Chef’s toiling in the back are all from the region and the waiters bark at each other in the local Szechuan dialect. What more, other underrepresented (culinary speaking) Asian countries cuisines such as Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian and even Bhutanese all have authentic restaurants in this district. You will also easily find some of the most interesting meeting places in Melbourne here as local speak fondly about the underground clubs in the C-Town. I find that authentic Szechuan food is the hardest to find around the world and I was told that Melbourne does it right, so we opted for the infamous Sichuan House on Corrs Lane, where dried chilli fanatics flock for a meal filled with tears and sniffles (of joy of course); the Eggplant dish covered in deep fired chillies, garlic and ginger, is reason enough for me to brave the 8 hours flight south.
Fast Food Convert: I always find it incredibly amusing when Fast Food chains change their names to fit the market, in Quebec KFC is directly translated into French with PFK, here in Melbourne Burger King goes under the name Hungry Jacks. This is proof that people in these two countries take their fast food seriously. I usually cringe at the stuff since overly processed food is my kryptonite, but since i was travelling with a fast food lover, it was only natural for me to cave in. I had my first ever light bulb moment with a French fry (Chips) in Melbourne: we went to KFC because i was told that the fries were to die for, being the culinary snob that i can be, i entered the Red and White completely sceptic, but once that morsel of crispy sinful potato hit my lips, i knew i was dead wrong. I have got to give it to whoever came up with the simple idea of double frying thick fries (soggy in and crunchy out) and tossing them with Chicken Salt. If i hadn’t just met the family who accommodated me during this trip, i would have ordered more than one pack and I wouldn’t have shared anything. I rarely have a pang of sadness when I finish whatever I may be eating, but when I saw what was left in the oil stained paper bag, depression hit.
Australian Cuisine: It’s really tough to qualify what Australian cuisine is, but after walking around the city and visiting a couple of restaurants you will begin to realise that there are certain ingredients on menus that keep on reappearing. If I were to quantify the nation’s dishes: they are usually prepared with a very limited amount of ingredients, so that each element shines on its own, proteins are cooked with the freshest grilled vegetables and herbs and are finished with either clear broths, citrus or Asian influenced sauces. This differs from their European counterparts where sauces are either cream or tomato based and vegetables are usually prepared as side dishes. On my last day in the city we set out on the search for typical Melbournian restaurants. The first we encountered while shopping on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, I quickly realised that people here enjoyed their lunches in an Al Fresco setting and while I was trying not to be distracted by the Afghan, Vietnamese, Greek and Vegetarian restaurants around me, I was drawn to The Fitz: An imposing white wash brick colonial style two story building with picnic tables shadowed by majestic trees overlooking the artsy scene. I glanced quickly at the daily specials black board and saw words like Pork Belly with Savoy Cabbage, Tiger Praws, Scallops and Mussels tossed with Chilli Pesto, Macerated Goat’s Feta and Olives and i was immediately sold. We sat down, drank our local white wine from a stained glass carafe and I ordered the Grain Fed pesto marinated chicken and honey roasted pumpkin finished with sugar snaps, cherry tomatoes, shaved parmesan and chilli jam, while my friend had the Marinated Calamari in chilli, ginger, garlic and coriander powder, hot woked and served on a cabbage, snow pea and ricotta salad. The food was indescribably fresh and i could taste every singular ingredient separately.
After having spent the day attempting to digest our lunch we were confronted with another painstaking decision, where should we have dinner? After asking around a little, we were suggested to go to different high end restaurants, Asian dives or Italian trattorias, but i wanted to stay true to my goal and stay as Aussie as possible. If i wanted to be a Parisian in Paris i would go to a Bistrot, a Singaporean in Singapore, i would go to a Hawker style stall, so if i want to be a Melbournian, i obviously had to hit the Pub. We sat down in an all wood laden pub in Brunswick, the smell of cedar still strong with a nice open air terrace with potted plants hanging from the walls. Sitting here with my ice cold Victoria Bitter (VB) in hand, I truly felt as if I belonged. There were no menus and no waiters, we went to the bar looked at the chalk board and shouted our selection to the busy Bartender, I opted this time for the Kangaroo steak; which they affectionately called the Roo, I for one would rather not give a pet name to food; they don’t ask me how I’d like it cooked since medium rare is the only way to go. I sit down in anticipation, quite excited to try this meat for the first time. I’m expecting it to be gamy, tough or have a distinct taste like lamb. I’ve tried many different kinds of “bush or game” meat in the past from Bambi to Alligator and even Yogi at one point (don’t judge me, i was forced fed by Russians), but I never tasted one that I would want to eat every day. It arrived looking like a perfectly executed piece of meat on top of thick cut crinkle fries, a beetroot relish, some sautéed spinach, sauced with a delish béarnaise; surprisingly it tasted exactly the way it looked, incredibly tasty and flavourful, it actually tasted like smoked and dry aged grain fed beef. You would be surprised to know that Kangaroo meat is probably the freshest protein you will find since they are regularly hunted and are brought straight from the hunt to the restaurant; it is only free range and is high in protein and very low in fat (2% vs 10-20% fat in Beef), the meat is also attributed with a wide range of health benefits including anti-carcinogenic and anti-diabetes properties, in addition to reducing obesity and atherosclerosis. Most restaurants and pubs around the city carry the meat on their menu and get quite creative with the dishes, I highly recommend it; just try not to think about the fury animals while eating.
A Night Out: Food is great but it’s even more fun if you have something to wash it down with. The Nightlife in Melbourne is as diverse as it’s restaurant scene and I could probably write a separate article focusing on just the booze. You will find everything from sophisticated lounges, pubs, al fresco cocktail dives, obscure little holes in the walls and themed hidden bars, all of them with distinct individual vibes and great music. In fact, the city has one of the most vibrant live music scenes in the world, launching bands like The Temper Trap, Architecture in Helsinki and Cut Copy, all of whom started playing in the small venues scattered across the different districts.
Since this was our last night (a Monday unfortunately) we wanted to experience the night life here and asked one of our local friends to take us around. After our opulent diner we wanted to take it easy for a while to progressively gear up for an energetic night out. Our guide for the evening suggested a cocktail bar, which is music to my ears, since it is hard to find a decent cocktail bar in Manila. She takes us to Polly’s Cocktail lounge on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. The entrance looks like a Versailles garden ornamented with statues, fountains, green vines and night owls having a cigarette; once we enter we are greeted by a very dimly lit room, purple walls, baroque oversized mixed match furniture and rococo mirrors, it actually reminded me of a French Boudoir or a burlesque theatre. We sat down and were handed the menus by a very serious looking bartender with a thick Lion accent, I opened the thick document in front of me and realised that these guys meant business, there were over 100 signature original cocktails listed, all intricately prepared. After 20 mins of perusing the menu like excited little children, we still had no idea what we wanted to order. This is when Polly (the serious bartender) pulled up a chair and asked us questions like what spices we preferred, what kind of night we wanted to have and what are favourite food was; my kind of guy. As we shouted out cocktail names he described each of them in detail without flinching and even told us the back story of the drinks (how it came to be, who created it and why). Before thinking that this is an easy task, let me give you an example of one of the drinks: “Risky Business: Just when everything’s going Orange Blossom smooth, Apricot Brandy and St. Germain Elderflower turn up and tell you that unless Bassano’s Nardini Grappa gets his Pink Grapefruit, you’re Lemon’s Juiced. Best order another; you’re going to need it”
After our lusciously filling and strong cocktails we stuffed ourselves in a small sedan and headed over to the district of St. Kilda, to enjoy the ambiance of an open air live music pub overlooking the bay.As we sipped our Boag’s draught beer, sea breeze inebriating me more than my beverage, and listened to the distant clamour of an acoustic guitar and a didgeridoo, I couldn’t help but go over my whole trip and even though I didn’t initially come to Melbourne for the food, it had become a culinary experience. I was able to discover an eclectic food culture that I’ve never been subjected to in all my travels and was constantly amazed by how everything I tasted was authentic and how I never even encountered a bad tasting dish. Yes Paris is a great city and I crave for the restaurants i used to eat in, and yes New York has some of the most interesting eats I’ve ever found, but I always had to edit the restaurants in those cities and go through tireless trials and errors before I found my favourite spots. The difference with Melbourne is that I was in the City for 4 days, had 12 meals, 3 of those were taken in a house and the other 9 around the city. Those 9 meals instantly became part of my all time favourite spots. Melbourne is a city where a culinary epiphany lies waiting to sneak up on you at every corner.
Nb: i’m not the author or owner of these photographs