320 Rathdowne Street
Carlton North VIC 3054
+61 3 9349 4888
March has got to be one of my favourite months of the year. The sun is still out to play for at least a few more weeks (even though us Melburnians haven’t really had a proper Summer this year, I bet none of us are complaining about tomorrow being 27 degrees!),
uni has started, footy season is about to commence and most importantly, the annual Melbourne Food and Wine festival is upon us! New Yorkers may have fashion week and Utah may have that little film festival but we have a pretty damn impressive festival that celebrates all things, well, food-y and wine-y. For 10 days, I stuff myself silly with food and drink way too much – not that I do that for the remaining 355 days of the year *cough* Sadly, food festivals means spending a lot of money. Like, money that I don’t have. While I would have LOVED to see Nigella Lawson on stage, tickets to her session are way beyond my budget. As are most of the events that are arguably money-making farces. There are, however, some reasonably priced options that you can still enjoy during the festival. And the restaurant express lunches are just one of them.
Basically, there is a list of restaurants that are offering diners the chance to do two courses + a glass of Victorian wine + tea/coffee for only $35. Okay, so there are restaurants that do that sort of stuff all year around. But there are also participating restaurants that don’t do these deals throughout the year, except for the festival. And the quiet achiever of mod-Italian cuisine, La Luna Bistro, is one of them.
Located in quiet and leafy Rathdowne Street, it is a 10 min bus ride from the CBD. Shirley and I walked to the door on the Rathdowne Street side of the building, only to realise that the door was actually locked. There was another entrance on the other side of the building, on Lee Street which, thankfully, opened to let us in. No biggie, but a sign on the not-in-use Rathdowne Street side would have helped. The maitre’d greeted us, asking if we were here for the express lunch or the suckling pig banquet and when we replied the former, we were led to a cozy table by the window.
This photo is supposed to convey the simple, clean lines that, along with polished wooden furnishings, created an elegant yet no-fuss atmosphere which is portrayed in chef Adrian Richardson’s cooking. Fail, Libby, fail. Elsewhere, wrought-iron lampshades dangled from the ceilings while a chalkboard with a simple illustration of a cow with labels pointing to each cut of meat told us that this place focused on the beef. And the spelling and grammatical errors on the restaurant express menu told us that the menu-writer needed to spell-check his or her work.
For my wine, I went for the 2010 Jamsheed Le Blank[sic] Plonk. I was told that it was a riesling but it didn’t taste like any riesling I’ve had (and I’ve had plenty). There was hardly any sweetness but a lot of tartness and acidity. When I googled up the wine on my iphone4, I found that it was not actually a riesling per se but a field blend of 40% Gewürtztraminer, 40% Riesling and 15% Chardonnay and 15% Sauvignon Blanc from various Victorian regions. Hmph, a straight riesling my ARSE. While it was drinkable, I can’t say that it was a wine that I particularly enjoyed – and it would have been nice to have been told that it was a field blend and not a riesling. Oh, and Shirley swapped her wine for a Coke – they didn’t have Diet Coke which I thought was pretty odd…
From a menu of three entrees, three mains and three desserts, Shirley and I decided to get an entree and a main each. Shirley ordered a board of proscuitto[sic], pickled peppers and crisp bread. It may have been a ridiculously simple dish but it was executed extremely well. Taste-wise, each element was subtle but the varying textures made for a dish to be enjoyed. I don’t know why they decided to go Yankee on us and call it a ‘pepper’ when capsicum would have done fine though.
Just as I took that shot of Shirley’s entree, the maitre’d came up to us and told us that no photos were permitted in the restaurant. I stared at her, dumbfounded because it was only the second time in my food-blogging career (if you could can call it that) that I’ve been specifically told “no photos.” She told me that in order to take photos, I would have to seek prior permission from the restaurant which I obviously think is bullsht because er, why? Just WHY? Secondly, I had been setting up my shots for the last 10-15 minutes prior to our entrees arriving. She (and the other waitresses) would have seen me take 20 shots of my wine glass but she chose to tell me NOW? I said nothing to her, but instead put my camera away and she was satisfied. But whenever she wasn’t looking, I did whip out my camera and flashed-flashed before she came back. HAH! No time to adjust settings though, hence why some of them look a bit whack.
I had the local figs (stolen from Mum’s tree), watercress, goat’s cheese, balsamic syrup. Like Shirley’s entree, this dish was insanely simple but tastier … and a lot more fun to eat. The figs were fresh as you can imagine and bursting with a ton of sweetness. The watercress salad, however, was the star of the show. Mixed with bits of mild goat’s cheese and drizzled with a bit of balsamic, its tarty, bitter and sour flavours all rolled into one to pack a punch against the sweetness of the figs.
Shirley’s main: free-range beef sausage, creamy butter mash, artichoke and mushroom dressing, cress. Richardson prepares his sausages on site, using free-range, grass-fed and organic products and all this was evident in this dish. While we both thought that the sausages were a bit on the crumbly and dry side, I did like the clean taste of the meat and gluten and fat levels were kept to a minimum. The mash was, as its name suggested, creamy and buttery. It was a toffy version of the bangers and mash and I loved it.
My main: Steak and heart pie, aioli and minted peas. Look, it was either the pie or the ricotta gnocchi, pea’s[sic, WTF, SIC], mint, garlic butter, truffle pecorino. It was a tough choice as both dishes sounded really good (even though the ‘heart’ bit kind of put me off initially), but in the end the pie prevailed because 1) I was in a place that specialised in meat so it would have been silly to go vegetarian and 2) people who add random apostrophes to pluralise nouns suck. Again, I liked this dish better than Shirley’s choice. A deliciously rich filling of beef and gravy was encased in a thick, home-made shortcrust pastry and accompanied by a generous blob of mashed potato and mashed peas with mint mixed into it. I couldn’t really see or taste any organs in the pie which made me wonder whether the heart was mashed up to the point where it was not recognisable or whether the ‘heart’ was simply a metaphor for the dish being made with a lot of heart. Or both. Whatever, I liked it.
To finish off, we took up the restaurant’s offer for coffee. I had a latte and Shirley (who usually says ‘no’ to alcohol and coffee and therefore, MUST be a closeted Mormon – only kidding!) asked for a hot chocolate. Shirley’s hot chocolate was apparently “really watery” while the milk in my latte was burnt. This ain’t amore.
The food may not have looked big but it was filling and kept me happy until dinner time. Despite the whole ‘no photos’ thing making me slightly annoyed, despite spelling errors on menus (not a major thing and certainly not something that reflects the quality of the food but I’m someone who will be quick to judge someone if they use “his” instead of “he’s” and hold it against them) and despite the substandard hot drinks, I can see myself coming back for dinner. Richardson’s passion and genuine love of quality local produce is evident in his cooking and if this express lunch is only a fraction of what he can do, then I can’t wait to experience a full-blown La Luna dinner. But I’ll be uber-stealth with the photo-taking next time.