Royal Exhibition Building
Nicholson St, Carlton
August 26th – 29th 2010
… is not something that a proud like myself would not normally say. I mean, I’m so lucky to be living in such a great city with (mostly) awesome people, (generally) great weather and most importantly, a smogasbord of fabulous restaurants, cafes and bars to choose from. Having visited a handful of cities over my lifetime, I can honestly say that when it comes to food, Melbourne beats all of them hands-down (and when I say ‘all’, I really only mean like, five of them *sigh*). If, however, you were foreigner who happened to waft into the Royal Exhibition Building this weekend, with the aid of an umbrella (sorry, Mary Poppins fever),were told that this exhibition, ‘Taste of Melbourne’ showcased some of the best food from Melbourne’s dining scene and then had to draw inference from what you sampled at this festival, you would most likely be disappointed (and ZOMG, long sentence much?).
Me and my crew (and our beavy of cameras) attended Taste on its opening night on Thursday. Like Taste 2008, this year’s festival followed the same format. Gather some of Melbourne’s best restaurants in one roof where you can sample miniature versions of their signature dishes in exchange for some ‘crowns’ (each crown = $1), chuck in some produce stands, hound some celebrity chefs to do cooking demos, set up a few beer stands to keep the blokes happy while their ladies go gaga over the cupcake and Scanpan stands and charge gullible punters and wide-eyed foodies $25 for the privilege of walking around the building. It was a marketer’s wet dream.
I was tight-arsey smart enough to book tickets early so that we could take advantage of the $45 entry fee + $30 worth of crowns deal, thus saving each of us $10. Looking around the venue, there seemed to be more stands compared to 2008 but for some reason, less restaurants and none of the produce stands excited me (read: there were less stands handing out freebies). I must admit that the REB did look prettier at night than during the day though.
With the aim of trying dishes from restaurants that neither of us had been to, Dave and I started proceedings with a wagyu burger from Luke Mangan’s restaurant-slash-pub, The Palace. Although a burger is not a conventional first dish when it comes to these festivals, we were glad that we chose to have it early as the line for the burger were like Chinese traffic jam proportions later in the evening. For 10 crowns, we received a burger that was bigger than both of us expected (meant to be a compliment, by the way). The burger was nice enough, with the soft wagyu pattie melting in your mouth and the sharp cheddar, the tangy chutney and vegies doing their bit. I wasn’t sure if I liked the fact that it was served on white bread though (yes, I’m one of ‘those’ people) whereas Dave thought the meat tasted too ‘artificial’ (?!).
Yep, there was plenty of that going on.
Duck tortelloni with pea puree and truffle oil from The European (8 crowns). On paper, this sounded like an extremely promising dish. In reality, this had to be the most disappointing dish I had on the night. Left out on the bench for way too long (and being told that we couldn’t have the hot ones sitting at the back), the pasta had dried out and so had the duck meat filling. Props for a lovely, rich pea puree and the subtle use of truffle oil to elevate this dish but at the end of the day, it didn’t really do it for me.
PS: I’m aware that a lot of the photos in this entry are blurry. I have no idea whether it’s because my camera needs cleaning, my hands are more shakier than usual (due to not-quite-escaping the Winter cold) or because my photo-taking skillz have gone down the toilet, or a combination of all three.
Next came the Schiaciatta, a Sicilian pastie, with beef, corn, chilli and oregano from Mezzo Bar & Grill (8 crowns). I’m no pastie fan so slapping a Sicilian name to this dish would not be able to sway me. It tasted exactly like any normal pastie that you can get from a cafe.
One of the better dishes of the night was Charcoal Lane‘s wallaby tataki, ginger, soy and horseradish (10 crowns). The Charcoal Lane stand was located upstairs, hence the variance in lighting (or it could just be my sucky photo-taking skillz here). The dish definitely looked better when I had it though. The soft, tender slices of wallaby were seared for the briefest of moments before being doused in a lovely ginger and soy dressing and garnished with horseradish for balance and texture. It was so delicate yet tasty and made me so happy that I was willing to overlook the fact that the dressing was a bit too salty. Has this dish convinced me to book a meal at Charcoal Lane? Absolutely.
Eating a dessert at halftime might seem a little odd but because Sarti was right next to Charcoal Lane’s stand (and because they were so far away from the other stands), I decided to grab a pistachio ‘panna cotta’ with caramel salted popcorn from Sarti’s stall (8 crowns). I thought I had been lucky to snag a great dish with the wallaby tataki but good lordy, this dish was pretty damn good too! The panna cotta was delicate and smooth, with subtle hints of pistachio and the right amount of sweetness. This was contrasted perfectly by the little balls of sticky, crunchy caramel salted popcorn. Another wonderful dish. And yes, I’ll be making a dinner booking for Sarti as soon as this entry is finished.
We had also planned to check out some cooking demos, particularly the one held at the Australian Gourmet Traveller Chef’s Table by MoVida’s Frank Camorra. Unfortunately, you had to nab a seat like, half an hour before the demo was supposed to start so naturally we missed out. There were also some interesting sessions on how to make cocktails, how to match beer and cheese and one on wine appreciation on offer, each of them requiring you to surrender a bunch of crowns. I would have been all for attending the wine one (at 6 crowns, it was a steal) but I actually didn’t know that the course existed until I re-read the brochure when I got home after the event. D’oh.
Livornese seafood stew (8 crowns) from the Melbourne Wine Room/Mr Wolf stand. Both of these restaurants are owned by Karen Martini, one of my favourite local chefs so naturally I had to have something from the aforementioned combined stand. The vitello tonnato (sliced poached veal with tuna and caper mayonnaise) was what everyone was getting, but I decided that this was stew weather (it reached a maximum of 13 degrees that day) so I picked up a bowl of what looked like every sea creature imaginable, couscous, 5 ml of stew and a stick of bread. And an effing spork which could barely hold enough liquid in it. Mofos. Okay, so the prawn-based stew wasn’t bad – I can certainly see why it a Karen Martini signature dish – but it could have been better if they had not skimped on the stew.
This was the last ‘WOW’ dish that I had for the night so once you’re done reading this paragraph, you can exit this window (haha jokes). While everyone was, at this stage, queueing for The Palace‘s wagyu burger, there was a shorter line for its eye fillet with potato mash and sauce Bordelaise (12 crowns). This little piece of steak received two thumbs up (and two big toes up) from yours truly as it ticked all the boxes. Soft, creamy mashed potato (not potato mash… pffft), a generous piece of eye fillet med-rared to perfection all held together by a gutsy bordelaise sauce, syncopated by fresh herbs. It was beautiful. Yep, I’m definitely heading to The Palace one evening.
Trying to make the most out of our ticket by scabbing all the free stuff. Free cheeses, free shots of wine, ginger drinks, beer and champagne alongside various random citrus-infused alcohols. It was a shame that Yarra Valley Foods did not have the bite-sized bread pieces topped with salmon roe this year. Sob.
Tuna carpaccio, goats feta, rocket, ginger eschalot dressing (12 crowns) from The Palace (again!). A far cry from The Palace’s two other (heartier and more filling) dishes, this appetiser was refreshing on the palate. For some reason, this photo makes the fresh paper-thin slices of tuna look more like salmon but either way, it was simple yet effective both in taste and presentation. A great dish for the warmer months, I reckon. Dinner at The Palace, anyone? Like, NOW?
The most disappointing dish of them all. I sent Adam away to grab a dish from the Libertine stand upstairs – smoked duck, apple and walnut rillettes – and was flabbergasted when he came back with a glorified version of what local Asians call “a $3 bread”: the banh mi, or the Vietnamese pork roll. ‘I couldn’t find the Libertine stand!’ he protested as I greased him off before suspiciously eyeing Longrain’s salted Western plains pork & prawn sweet roll with pickled vegetables which attracted 10 crowns (HIGHWAY EFFING ROBBERY!). Call it all you want, jazz it up with fancy schmancy ingredients and slap a Longrain name on it, but at the end of the day it’s just a f*cking banh mi. With no taste, I might add.
The girls: Shirley and I.
Half of the boys: Adam and Sam (who was mighty tipsy at this stage, heeeh)
There were still heaps of undiscovered stalls to explore but at this stage, most of us just wanted to go home and the fact that my nose was running and my mood sour made me scream for bed instead of cocktail lessons. We, however, could not leave without lining up for some free ice cream at the Ben and Jerry’s van. Cookie dough ice cream FTW, guys.
So there you have it. Taste of Melbourne 2010 wasn’t bad but it could not match the relatively lofty standards set by the inaugural festival in 2008. The fact that the big guns like Nobu, Grossi Florentino, The Press Club and Jacques Reymond were a no-show this year assisted in dampening some of the excitement and ditto the lack of freebies on offer (though the latter may not be a biggie for all you non-tight, non-Asian readers out there). Additionally, the Masterchef effect meant that more people were wannabe epicureans so the crowd numbers skyrocketed this year, which meant that there were longer queues and less room to walk, thus deflating the enjoyment factor just a little.
Finally, the food quality this year was significantly diminished. While I understand that churning thousands of dishes for patrons is by no means an easy task, this does not explain the variances in quality between the nefarious pork and prawn roll and the sublime eye fillet steak. If Luke Mangan can do it, then so can Martin Boetz, you know what I’m saying? If Mary Poppins landed here and all she had was the pork and prawn roll and the duck tortelloni, she would undoubtedly give Melbourne’s dining scene a big, fat cross. On the basis of this festival alone, it is improbable that I would return next year. Unless they brought back the big guns or did a revamp and included Melbourne’s little gems such as the humble cafes and coffee houses that don’t strive for fame and grandeur in next year’s program (after all, they are an equally important part of Melbourne). Or something.