Royal Exhibition Building
Nicholson St, Carlton
September 15th – 18th 2011
If you’re a food wanker, someone who wishes they were a food wanker or someone who gets sucked into these marketing exercises that organisations such as Brand Events arrange, then you would have no doubt been to the Taste of Melbourne festival over the weekend. Now in its fourth year, the festival celebrates all that is glorious about Melbourne’s foodie scene, with a focus on top restaurants offering sample-sized dishes for punters to try in exchange for ‘crowns’, which are vouchers that you can buy on the day.
After being underwhelmed last year, I had originally decided to flag this year’s event. However, after being bribed with complimentary tickets in exchange for some services rendered for my friend, Mitch (no, not that kind, you sicko), I knew I couldn’t let those tickets go to waste. After spending most of my weekend treating Martin, who was in town for a few days, to food, booze and shopping, I decided that Sunday afternoon would be the perfect time to cap off what would have been yet another epic weekend in Melbourne for my other half. So after enjoying bún bò Huế at Dong Ba for brunch, followed by a bánh mì (him, not me), we made it back into the city and trammed it to the Royal Exhibition Building where the festival was held.
It was 2:30pm by the time we rocked up, so the building was still packed with heaps of foodies, their partners and hundreds of DSLRs snapping away. The number of participating restaurants may not have increased from last year’s total, however there seemed to be more going on in terms of demonstrations, produce stalls and more importantly, alcohol-tasting stalls. Can’t argue with that. After making a visit to the exhibition’s ‘bank’ to purchase a $50 book of crowns and grabbing a rather awkward-looking rectangular show bag with a free copy of The Age, we followed our noses along the food trail.
The first stall we stopped at was that of George Calombaris’ latest venture in Kew, St Katherine’s. I chose to buy a serving of ‘KFC’ (‘St Katherine’s fried Lilydale chicken’) purely because of the name (12 crowns) over the Turkish lamb dumplings. In hindsight, however, I should have got the dumplings. While there was nothing wrong with the chicken, which arrived freshly hot from the back kitchen as opposed to having sat on the bench, it wasn’t mind-blowing either. Martin likened it to a dressed up chicken karaage which I had to agree with – our six or so battered chicken pieces were coated in a mixture of mayonnaise and smoky BBQ sauce, with the latter tasting a lot like ponzu sauce. It was something that we could have either made at home or ordered for $7.50 at a non-descript Japanese restaurant. Not worth 12 crowns.
We got thirsty. Thankfully, an army of alcoholic beverage stands were located conveniently next to the St Katherine’s stand. We sampled some Patrón tequilas while we received a history lesson from the dude manning the stall. Yes, he said, tequila comes from the agave plant and not the cactus. Fools. Then it was a quick swivel to the right where we feasted our eyes on the green fairy in the form of a a wormwood shot and a lovely green citrus-y punch. I was taking my time with my shot while Martin was getting impatient so he dared me to scull the rest of it off. Not one to back down from a challenge (and a drinking one at that), I downed my shot in a matter of seconds and from that point on, the remainder of the festival became one hazy mess. Bear with me, please.
Choosing to eat a sweet dish may have seemed rather odd at this stage but Martin couldn’t help but drool over the plates of pistachio panna cottas that were sitting prettily at the Sarti stand (10 crowns). I enjoyed this dish immensely at last year’s Taste so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I saw that Martin had a similar reaction to the dish. We both savoured the lovely not-overly-sweet vanilla-based panna cotta, which contained hints of nuttiness which was beautifully contrasted with the ruggedly salty pieces of caramel popcorn.
The famous wagyu burger from The Botanical. Having already tried it before, I gave it a miss this year. But damn, they were adorable.
Creamy Beechworth honey is Chris Judd.
And so is this cube sushi-maker thingimibob. I would have bought a cube myself but shucks, I ought to start learning how to make PROPER sushi rolls first…
The guys from Tripod Farmers in Bacchus Marsh were spruiking a new salad green: the wasabi salad. Having tried the next new rocket leaf at the Good Food and Wine Show earlier this year and deciding that I loved it, I was pleased to see the guys make an appearance at Taste. They know it’s not easy convincing people to eat their greens, so they were giving away cups of parmesan, pear and wasabi salads. They were delicious, and I’m looking for a place that stocks this stuff as we speak (PS. They sell them at South Melbourne market and Toscano’s).
Jindi, the cheesemakers, were holding free cheese matching sessions which was something I would have attended but for the line of people wanting to get in. Instead, I settled for some camembert cheese samples. Yum.
Hop, Holland, Hop!
We earned another round of drinks, this time cold ciders from the Rekorderlig bar. My apple and blackcurrant cider might have tasted like diluted apple and blackcurrant juice (booo), but I loved Martin’s Winter cider which was essentially an apple cider infused with cinnamon and vanilla. Too bad they’re phasing it out, though *sad face*
Before we knew it, it was one hour until the end of the festival. We quickly hurried downstairs to grab the last few spots at Sensology’s cocktail-making demonstrations – but not before being tempted by food. Discounted food. We decided that we couldn’t go wrong with Tobie Puttock’s Kitchen Cat‘s pulled pork paninis which were normally 12 crowns, but were out the table at 2 for 8 crowns. What a bargain! Having tried pulled pork at Trunk Diner a month or so ago (and liking it), and then eating it again at Birdman Eating only a few days ago (and not liking it so much), I was curious to see how Kitchen Cat’s version would fare. Given that the rolls had been sitting around for a while, the pork was starting to dry up and cool down which didn’t make them fun to eat. I loved the crusty ciabatta and the addition of sauerkraut (which I would have normally turned my nose up at), which cut through the sweetness of the pork nicely. I wouldn’t say that it was as good as Trunk Diner’s pulled pork, which still managed to retain its tenderness despite being left in a brown paper bag for several hours, but it didn’t completely suck either.
More bargains were to be held at Mezzo Bar & Grill‘s stand. They were offering a deal where you could grab whatever two dishes you wanted for 12 crowns, a steal given that the dishes we grabbed were 12 and 10 crowns respectively. First up, we had the pizza ‘lunga with smoked mozzarella, cured ocean trout, rocket and candied walnuts. Translated to ‘long pizza,’ this dish was essentially a rectangular piece of crispy flat base decorated with salt-cured ocean trout, and lots and lots of fresh rocket. The result? A very salty dish. Ideally, the peppery rocket leaves would have cut through the saltiness of the fish but the leaves itself were drizzled in a heavy mixture of olive oil and salt so it was essentially like eating salt on top of salt. As for the candied walnuts and smoked mozzarella? There were none.
Their Sher wagyu meatballs, Sicilian couscous and salted ricotta dish fared a little bit better, but by not much. Again, it was salty but thank goodness for the tanginess of the tomato stew (was that the Sicilian couscous? I don’t know) and the sumac-dusted rocket leaves which provided some much needed relief. But still, it was just too much saltiness even for a salt-lover like myself. Hell, I’ve already been to Mezzo Bar & Grill but if I was someone who had never been and decided to taste those two dishes at the festival, I would not have bothered making a booking.
By the time we had declared ourselves full, the festival was about to close. Sadly, we could only watch as the last participants finished up their cocktail demonstrations at the Sensology stand. For 10 crowns, I would have loved to learn how to make my own cocktail and drink the fruits of my labour. What a shame.
Oh, who am I kidding? I only wanted to attend the class to perve on the hottie cocktail demo dudes!
To allay our thirst for a final drink, we stopped by a stand that was manned by a friendly yank who was one of the owners of the Fee Brothers beverage mixer company. I can’t remember the name of the chap who chatted with us, but he proudly showed us his range of flavoured bitters from rhubarb (which rhubarb-hating Martin admitted to not hating) to peach.
We enjoyed our ice, cold bitters as well as the dude’s friendly nature that we ended up getting sucked into buying a bottle of bitters each, a cherry one for Martin and a peach one for myself ($30 for the two bottles). I guess we all know what I’ll be drinking this summer…
To be honest, I wouldn’t have paid admission to get into the festival as it was essentially the same old stuff as last year’s so thank goodness for the complimentary entry tickets. The dishes we had weren’t overly brilliant or anything (except for the panna cotta) and there were more food wankers this year than in previous years, thus alleviating the fun factor just a little bit. That said, I had a better time this year. Better produce stalls, more sampling and best of all, lots of bargains to be had on the last day meant that our crowns went a long way. Compare this to last year’s event when we were continually buying books of crowns and spending a motherload of money, but still going hungry at the end of the night and you’ll see that it often pays to rock up on the last day. Whether I’ll go again next year will depend on how busy I am (it’s not an event that I’ll ditch other commitments for), what restaurants are being featured (if they feature the same old restaurants and/or lots of restaurant that I’ve been to, then I am less likely to go) and whether Essendon is playing a finals match on the weekend.