Review: 400 Gradi Brunswick (Melbourne, VIC)

99 Lygon Street
Brunswick East VIC 3057
+61 3 9380 2320

A few months ago, my other half Bean made a passing comment about how it was impossible to get amazing pizzas in Sydney. I must admit that I’m not too familiar with the Sydney pizza scene (and we’re not talking about that SBS comedy, too) so I can’t confirm either way. In saying that though, I haven’t had an excellent pizza in Sydney myself. And of the few places I’ve been to that served pizza, they were unremarkable, too doughy (a la Anglo-Italian style) or just plain sucked.

During one of our Melbourne visits, Bean wanted to try some Melbourne pizza and I wanted to try a place I hadn’t been before. Enter 400 Gradi and enter our friends Aaron and Cathy who were also keen to join us for some pizza after an afternoon at the NGV. 400 Gradi has been around for quite some time but I never got around to trying it while I was living in Melbourne. Since my departure from the southern capital, 400 Gradi has since expanded from one single restaurant in Brunswick to venues at Crown Casino and in Essendon.

Melburnians love 400 Gradi. Owner and pizzaiolo Johnny Di Francesco made a margheirta pizza at the World Pizza Championships in Parma in 2014 and won the specialita traditionale garanita (STG) prize. Naturally, his win sent Melbourne’s media delirious and so they were quick to be all ‘world’s best pizza’ and ‘hashtag Melbourne pride’ for the next few months after that. 400 Gradi’s reputation has having the world’s best pizza remains, though I don’t necessarily agree. Not that I’ve tried every single pizza in the world but I still think Emma Pizzeria in Rome lead the way. Regardless of whether or not you think 400 Gradi’s pizzas are the best in the world, they’re still pretty good. And they certainly beat any pizza I’ve had in Sydney (though I’m happy to be proven wrong, Sydneysiders).

400 gradi means ‘400 degrees’, referring to how hot a proper wood fire oven must be for the pizzas to get their thin, soft crust that’s charred in spots after being in there for a short stint (usually 60-90 seconds). We ordered two of 400 Gradi’s pizzas: their Caserta and Diavola.

Caserta ($24) and Diavola ($24)

Excuse the terrible photo – we were sitting in a very dark corner and gone are the days where I’d carry a DSLR. Both pizzas were topped with San Marzano tomato, rocket and fior di latte; the Diavola had slices of hot salami (‘hot salami very very hot!’ warned the menu) while the Caserta came with 20-month-old prosciutto di Parma. A few people have said 400 Gradi’s pizzas are expensive. Sure, they’re not massively cheap but then again, they’re definitely not Domino’s or Pizza Hut so I thought the prices weren’t too bad, though they were pushing it a bit. We all enjoyed the pizzas, especially their thin and pillowy crusts and appreciated the effortless melding of toppings that came in generous proportions.

We also ordered a serving of pappardelle with slow cooked lamb ragu to share. I may have thought the pizza prices were justified but I honestly can’t say the same about the pastas. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the pappardelle was perfectly cooked and the lamb ragu was divine but seriously, that little blob on the bottom plate was about as much as each of us could get. I dare say that even I ordered this dish for myself, I’d still be hungry.

Pappardelle al Sugo D’agnello ($32)

I haven’t been back to 400 Gradi as I’ve heard they’ve gone slightly downhill after their expansion. I don’t doubt they still do an excellent pizza though and I’d be more than happy to visit for seconds – but will most likely skip the pasta.

400 Gradi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Kumo Izakaya

152 Lygon Street
Brunswick East VIC 3057
+61 3 9388 1505

Dave and I usually have our post-work dinner sessions in the city but one Wednesday night, we thought it would be nice to get out of 3000 for once. On that night, we decided to tram up Lygon Street to try the hippest izakaya in East Brunswick, Kumo Izakaya.

Kumo used to be a bank and its sandstone exterior still screams out ‘inner city wog.’ Walk in, however, and you will be transported to sleek, sleek Kyoto.

There is a communal table in the middle that sits 26 and booths scatted all over. There is an eight metre long bar for those wishing to be perched high up, while a small handful of tiny tables are set aside for those who don’t wish to dine on the wild side (i.e. us).

All the pretty saké bottles were tempting us. Kumo has an impressive list of eighty or so saké brands, including a $330 bottle of Yuki no Bosha. You can order one bottle to share (or have on your own), or do a saké-matching degustation.

So we caved in by ordering a bottle of Hakutsuru Tanrei (180ml for $14.50) to share. Made with the finest rice and pure natural spring water from Mount Rokko, this semi-dry saké was smooth all the way through, punctuated with sweet melon notes. This would have been the perfect saké if you were to order a number of salty dishes.

I ordered the Ikebana cocktail ($17), a fruity mix containing West Winds gin, Kumo ‘Honeydew’ shochu, lemon juice, elderflower and basil, finished off with a dash of Free Brothers peach bitters. Nice enough. Meanwhile, Dave went for the Kinshachi Akamiso lager ($16). Hailing from Nagoya, this beer is special because it’s made with soy bean miso before being mixed with malt and hops. This gives this beer its distinctive slightly salty taste. I had to LOL when Dave said that it tasted like ‘Guinness with a little Vegemite.’

At Kumo, you know you’re in good hands when the two head chefs (yes, two!) have boasted careers in acclaimed eateries such as Yu-U, Bar Lourinha and the Royal George. Head chefs Iguchi and Hamabe created a menu that neatly divides Kumo’s dishes into neat boundaries, from steamed options to sashimi options and of course, fried options for izakaya purists. For indecisive (and hungry) diners, the omakase is there for $75 a head, which includes dessert. Dave and I, however, decided to choose our own dishes.

Sorry, I couldn’t help but giggle at this. While I appreciate Kumo making an effort to warn those with allergies, I’m pretty sure that not even an idiot would NOT realise that kingfish ‘contains seafood.’

We started off with a small plate of sashimi moriawase to share. For $18.80, we got six pieces of some of the freshest kingfish and salmon we had in a long time. While we enjoyed the slices fresh, a dab of wasabi and some shredded daikon was there if you were looking for something to dress the raw fish up.

We kept things raw with the tuna yukke with onsen-poached quail egg in a crunchy cup ($16.80).

Dave and I really loved this dish. We were instructed to break open the barely-poached quail egg and mix the yolk with the little bits of yellowfin tuna. The marinade was beautiful, with the lovely soy and sesame flavours shining through. To some, though, it may have been a bit too dense for it did drown out the natural flavours of the super-fresh tuna. Not for us. We also loved the ‘crunchy cup’ which was essentially a filo pastry-like base which we broke into shreds, using it as a chip to dip into the raw tuna.

The next dish was one of that night’s specials and thus, doesn’t appear on the regular menu. The sea urchin sashimi and ponzu mousse wrapped in kingfish ($15.80) was a bit of a novelty item and not really something I’d be rushing to order. I was amused to see that the menu did not mention the block of tofu, which happened to be the very ingredient that was wrapped in the kingfish, while the sea urchin ‘sashimi’ was essentially just sea urchin roe on top of the whole thing. Sure, everything was fresh but it just didn’t tickle my fancy.

Things veered into heavier territory with the udon salad ($12.80). Dave and I have never had udon served as a cold salad so we were curious to see how this was going to work. We were amazed to find that the result was a delicious blend of chewy and carb-y goodness tossed in a creamy sesame sauce and azuki beans to boot. I’ll definitely be making this one at home!

The seared scallops were the first of our hot dishes to arrive. They normally came in threes and for $12.80 but the helpful waiter said that he can give us an extra scallop for an extra $4.80 to save us squabbling over the last one – that sounded good to us. The scallops were lightly seared so that they remained super juicy in the middle. They were drizzled with a pleasantly light soy and butter sauce and topped with bonito flakes. Decent.

Next, we had the ‘king prawn fry’ wrapped in potato with green tea salt ($16.80). I’m not sure if it was just me, but I did find the price of two king prawns wrapped in a dense potato coating a little bit steep. They were great but not special – I did find the potato coating a bit thick and the prawns a bit on the anorexic side. I did, however, reckon the green tea salt that accompanied the prawns was a nice touch.

We then had one of the few items off the ‘steamed’ menu, a chawanmushi (Japanese savoury egg custard, $10.80). Kumo’s version comes with chestnuts and is flavoured with shiso butter and soy, giving the whole thing a lovely silky, buttery texture.

We liked the sound of the ‘crispy potato ball with octopus topped with BBQ sauce, mayo and bonito flake’ ($13.80) so much that it didn’t even cross our minds that this dish was actually the humble Osaka street food commonly known as the takoyaki. Never mind. I like takoyaki more than I like the fail photo above but for some reason, I thought this version was pretty average. Maybe it was all the BBQ sauce instead of the traditional Worcestershire-like sauce that didn’t do it for me.

Finally, it was time for dessert. Dave ordered the decidedly exotic-sounding kokuto kumo ($12.80), which was advertised as a ‘black sugar umeshu dessert’ but was a bit disappointed when he received what merely looked like an ice cream in a cocktail glass. It wasn’t a bad-tasting dessert but the vanilla ice cream (as opposed to the traditional brown sugar ice cream) was a bit, well, vanilla. The entire thing didn’t really excite us either and we couldn’t even taste the umeshu.

I fared a bit better with the Houji tea brownie with black sugar ice cream ($12.80). Houjicha is a Japanese green tea that’s been roasted over charcoal, thus giving it a woody flavour. This was evident in the delicious brownie I had, which wasn’t overly sweet either (sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the black sugar ice cream).

The bill was almost $200 but we received a sweet $58.89 off thanks to the Agenda 30% discount (if you book online beforehand and secure the booking with a $10 deposit). There may have been a few dishes that missed the mark but overall, the food at Kumo was pretty solid. I liked the restaurant’s concept and I like that they try to create twists on traditional Japanese classics. However, I personally think that some dishes such as the chawanmushi and takoyaki should be left untouched unless you know that the end result is going to be WOW.

I also thought that Kumo reminded me of Akachochin what with the whole saké thang going on, similar menu offerings (not the exact same dishes, of course, but sufficiently similar) and super-friendly staff. While Kumo was great, I did think it was missing the shine that Akachochin has – presumably something to do with Paul Mathis, no? Regardless, I still think that Kumo is still finding its feet and hopefully it won’t be long until it gets up there with Akachochin, Izakaya Den and the like.

Kumo Izakaya & Sake Bar on Urbanspoon

Baba Levantine Trading Company

80 Lygon St
Brunswick East VIC 3057
+61 3 9380 8534

My teacher friend, Jen-from-Wallan, was in town for the school holidays so Shirley and I arranged a lunch date prior to her driving back up to whoop-whoop. Because Jen isn’t a fan of driving in the CBD, we made sure to find a place that was not in ‘3000’ yet still accessible for me who lives in the Eeeeee and Shirley who lives in the W-W-W-www (remember Ali G?). When trying to come up with lunch spots, I recalled my work colleague, Robert suggesting I try Baba. Given that he is a foodie philistine who best described the restaurant as “ethnic and delicious”, I was initially reluctant to take his advice but we threw caution to the wind and decided to lunch there.

Situated in the what-used-to-be-the-culinary-wasteland end of Lygon Street, Baba Levantine Trading Company, as the name suggests, acknowledges the importance of the once-flourishing trading activities that occured between Europe and the Ottoman Empire and subsequently draws influence from a variety of cuisines in the region. It is a casual eating house during the day while a tune-spinning DJ creates more of an up-market, funky atmosphere at night.

Despite the restaurant’s website saying that it opens at 12pm on Saturdays, the owner had barely began unstacking chairs and tables when we walked in. Saturday morning hangover, got it. Once we did the whole squealing OMG-I-HAVEN’T-SEEN-YOU-IN-AGES, JEN thing, we got right down to business.

Baba’s dishes are, like most Melbourne restaurants’ dishes these days, designed to share. Whether you’re in the mood for some dips, some little mezze plates (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian), some pide or something larger such as a claypot dish, there is something for everyone. And for those who just can’t decide, Baba makes it easier for you by offering ‘Food Safari’ banquets ranging from $25 to $39.50 per head. I’m normally one to try everything at restaurants and thus, would go for a banquet without a second thought. None of us, however, were super hungry so we decided to order from the a la carte menu. After ordering some drinks (a tourag mint tea for me, $3 for a subtle but refreshing pick-me-up), we waited for our food.

It was just as well that the three of us had a LOT to catch up on because the food took a pretty long time to come. A pretty, pretty, pretty long time. While I may forgive the restaurant for not being open and ready when we arrived, taking way too long despite a full kitchen and despite only two other tables being occupied is not at all good. I get that Saturday afternoons are generally more cruisier than weekdays but c’mon, Shirley had a wedding to go to later than evening and I had … well, something to do… so there should be no excuse! I will, however, let it slip this time only because the food was darn good.

Take the batata harra ($8.50), for example. Deep-fried potato pieces were spiced with a fragrant blend of coriander seeds and leaves, garlic and chilli and then drizzled in yoghurt. This dish would probably be a side-dish but heck, I could eat it on its own for lunch as it was so filling and so tasty.

Then came the pan-fried Crystal Bay prawns with garlic, parsley and isot pepper ($16.50). They were served sizzling fresh from the pan and were flavoured with gay abandon. Although the prawns were a little on the dry side, the tingling sauce did make up for it, the isot pepper giving the sauce a mild smoky flavour.

We decided to share a pide, which were supposed to be designed for one. Although they were priced between $10-14, they were disappointingly on the skinny side and not even half as big as the first pide I’ve ever tried (at Circular Quay, out of ALL places). Still, the spicy sucuk, kasarli cheese and smoked tomato with coriander and fresh chilli pide ($13.50) was lovely. I really like the balance of flavours, all neatly arranged on a flat, long pide bread. I did, however, feel that the kasarli (which tasted like a saltier mozzarella) combined with the already salty sucuk made the pide more salty than necessary.

Finally, we shared a claypot dish which was supposed to be large: chargrilled spiced lamb fillets with shaved fennel and cucumber and roast lemon dressing ($21.50). I liked the succulent lamb fillets which were tender to the bite as well as cooling fennel and cucumber salad which was dressed in a lighter, cooler version of an aioli. I didn’t think the braised chickpeas in tomato offered much in terms of taste, but I acknowledge that they were necessary as a filler.

To conclude our journey down the Levant, we decided to order desserts. Shirley, a chocolate mousse fanatic, was bummed that they did not have the Turkish coffee chocolate mousse and pistachio tuille ($11) available, but we made do with sharing two desserts. One being a lively rosewater panna cotta (wiggle wiggle, haha!) with a sultry and slighty tangy rhubarb and pomegranate jelly sauce ($12).

… and the other was an apple sorbet with a fresh apple and mandarin salad ($9.50), hands-down the better dessert out of the two. Although this dish is more of a ‘Summer’ dessert, it was the perfect way to end our lunch despite it being cold outside. It was refreshingly simple yet full of beautiful flavours from this season’s juicy mandarins. Loved it.

Although it doesn’t look like much food between three girls with iron tummies, we were all actually full in the end (though to be fair, it was probably the carb-heavy potatoes that did it). Despite the running-on-Turkish time service and despite the chocolate mousse not being available, everything else was wonderful. At the very least, Baba made us realise that Turkish food does not always equal greasy kebabs and heavy pides; it could be light, fresh and more importantly, fun. Kinda like what Holly Valance did to Tarkan’s Şımarık (c’mon now, you didn’t think that ‘Kiss Kiss’ was a Holly Valance original, didn’t you?). We’d definitely be back  but this time  I expect them to have taken lessons in speed from Mesut Ozil.

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