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A day trip out to Creswick one Tuesday saw my friends and I swing past Ballarat for a short recharge and refuel – at popular lunchtime institution L’Espresso, to be exact. Founded as a record shop in the 1970s, the establishment eventually became a place for locals to wine and dine to soft jazz music and a Euro-centric buzzing atmosphere. You could even see CDs being offered for sale here. Yup, a piece of Melbourne in Ballarat.
I already had my morning coffee in Melbourne earlier that day but like I was going to pass up a chance to have another one – after all, we were heading west to do an afternoon hike and I needed all the stimulants I can get. The coffee was a little bitter, sadly.
As its name suggests, L’Espresso’s menu has an Italian focus so there’s a lot of pastas to share around the table. There’s also sandwiches, pizzas and specials, including hearty regional dishes for the cooler afternoons. Aaron opted for the linguine Bolognese topped with freshly shaved Parmesan, a L’Espresso classic that, like good jazz music, doesn’t go out of style.
I decided to go vegetarian (why, I don’t know) and went for the homemade. Soft and pillowy – and loaded with a generous amount of delicious fontina cheese and crunchy garlic-spiked breadcrumbs, the each gnocchi square was glorious. There was also enough broccoli in the dish to make me feel a little less guilty about eating such a rich lunch.
Cathy went for one of the seasonal specials, a pork belly cassoulet which she managed to polish off before either Aaron and I got a chance to sample some. She declared her dish to be delicious but wished for a slightly bigger portion, though she only said it because Aaron’s and my pasta portion sizes were quite heavy.
With satisfied tummies, the three of us left L’Espresso ready to venture on our afternoon hike. Had we not made plans to be back in Melbourne by 6pm that evening, we were pretty sure we would have been back at L’Espresso later that afternoon (or evening) for some post-hike carbs.
I was down in Melbourne over the Easter weekend to visit the family, catch up with friends and soak up as much good coffee (not to mention, food and wine) as I can. There was also a day trip with the folks thrown in the mix too. After spending the morning at a market down in Red Hill, we found our way up to Rye before stopping at Sorrento for lunch. As you can imagine, the main strip was flooded with Melburnians wanting to escape the big smoke for a whiff of fresh air, coastal vibes and overpriced cafés.
Just Fine Food was one of the latter.
Now, Just Fine Food is famously known for its vanilla slices. If you’re a dessert lovin’ Melburnian, no doubt you would have made the drive down Eastlink for that slice of clould-like vanilla heaven. My dad isn’t an avid by any means but he does have his favourite dishes – and he would go out of his way for them, even if it means a long drive to get that dish in his belly. A good vanilla slice is one of them.
My parents had been going to Just Fine Food for a number of years before they changed hands. And although new owners meant a new menu, Just Fine Foods wouldn’t remove their vanilla slice – and why would they, it’s their best selling item by far. I’m not one to go out of my way for cakes but even I had to admit that I was curious about this so-called amazing vanilla slice.
Despite it being Easter weekend (and thus, packed), we were able to squeeze into a spare table in the middle of the tiny café. There, we placed our order – just a coffee each, a pie to share and a vanilla slice. We didn’t want to go big because we had already consumed quite a lot of food at the market beforehand. Plus, we also had a Persian feast in Melbourne to look forward to that night.
For a non-single origin/house-roasted coffee made with the blood, sweat and tears of a bearded hipster, our lattes were on the pricier end of the spectrum. It wasn’t a terrible coffee but for that price, I did expect a little more depth and flavour.
All of Just Fine Food’s family-sized pies were sitting on display behind the glass counter so I knew they were going to cut out a slice. I wasn’t sure how big each slice was but for $18.50, I was expecting a quarter. Imagine our disappointment when we received a slice that was probably smaller than three party pies joined together – and as flat as a pancake, too.
To be fair, the filling was actually very tasty; each bite was generously packed with chunks of chicken followed by a healthy dose of homely spices and chopped leek. The pastry, though, was extremely disappointing; it was soft and soggy so it was obvious they just nuked it in the microwave rather than say, an oven or pie warmer. The chips were also underseasoned.
Thankfully, the vanilla slice was reasonably priced – and mighty delicious. A layer of gorgeously crispy puff pastry hid a slab of smooth, silky French vanilla that wasn’t too sweet – a plus in my books. And on the bottom, there was a smidgen of strawberry jam for a lovely bit of tartness. I could definitely see why people were going crazy over this cake.
For not a lot of food, our lunch was expensive – well over $40 for a measly slice of pie, a cake and three coffees. Even without the 15% public holiday surcharge, it would have still been pricey. I recommend sticking to Melbourne for coffee and getting lunch at the fish and chip shop next door, but definitely do pop in afterwards for a slice of vanilla heaven. (Great, I now have Dave Dobbyn in my head.)
Hipsters, ridiculously low speed limits and vegans aside, Fitzroy is actually a pretty cool place to spend a morning in with your mates. And despite the fact that it was Easter Monday, a fistful of places were still open – an Easter miracle, even with penalty rates and all. On the corner of Gore and Johnston Streets lies Addict, yet another brunch place in Melbourne’s inner burbs. What’s slightly different about Addict, however, was the fact that we did not have to wait in line for a table nor was the menu another boring list of poached eggs/smashed avocados/$4 bacon permutations. In fact, a table for three was immediately vacant by the time we walked in (another Easter miracle, I reckon) so walked in and ordered our first coffees for the day.
Addict uses Market Lane’s seasonal blend for their white coffees, which included the short macchiato I ordered ($4). You can seriously never go wrong with Market Lane and the beautifully familiar blend of milk chocolate, stone fruit and caramel notes went down like a treat.
Our original plan was to just have a coffee at Addict, before venturing to lunch elsewhere. My friends already had breakfast but I was starving as I’d left the house on an empty stomach. That said, I’m not one to waste stomach space on boring breakfast fare so had Addict’s menu consist of the usual poached eggs/smashed avocado/$4 bacon rubbish, I would have held on for another hour or two. Thankfully, Addict’s menu was actually interesting enough to capture my attention – and keep it. I ordered their sweet and savoury board ($18), which came with crispy bacon, mushroom and tomato relish on toast on one side and coconut and chia pudding on the other side. The savoury bit did its job (and hey, who doesn’t like mushrooms and bacon?) but it was the coconut chia pudding that did it for me.
While one of my friends screwed his nose up when I offered him a bite (‘Sorry, you lost me at vegan and gluten-free’), my other friend enjoyed it – and so did I. I loved the smooth, silky pudding that had every mouthful accuented by crispy bits of puffed buckwheat. The fresh fruits – the last of summer’s bounty – added a refreshing touch, too.
I can definitely see myself visiting Addict again when I’m back in Melbourne. It’s got an interesting menu with lots of options to keep me entertained and the service is quick, friendly and to the point. Now, let’s hope they have the smoked snapper congee with puffed wild rice on the menu the next time I visit – with no poached eggs on the side, naturally.
Rather than just sticking within the inner city boundaries when I’m dining in Brisbane, I’m slowly familiarising myself with its suburbs. As clichéd as it sounds, they say you can find some real gems if you’re willing to drive out – and they’re right. If you’re a ramen fanatic like I am, then I strongly implore you to make your way down to Runcorn Plaza, where many locals like to line up every weekend for their fix at Genkotsu Ramen.
The line was at least 20 people deep when Peter and I arrived. And because the restaurant is very small, it’s impossible to fit everyone at once. True to efficient Japanese style though, the turnover here is super fast and we were seated within 15 minutes or so.
I wanted gyoza but Peter wanted fried chicken so karaage, it was. Each morsel was crispy and full of flavour.
Peter ordered the tsukemen and declared it one of the best he’s ever had, a good call from the Tsukemen King. $12 gave him a very generous serving of fat noodles and a plate heaped with chasiu, menma, soft-boiled egg and shavings of bonito. I tasted the cool broth and it had plenty of depth, with a lovely acidic burst shining through.
I ordered a shoyu ramen. While I expected something a bit lighter than the soy-laced milky tonkotsu I received, I definitely wasn’t complaining. I also thought it was one of the better ramen I’ve had, at least in Australia. It had so much taste, depth and oomph. Loved it.
My ramen was topped with chasiu, menma and half an egg (which was slightly beyond what I’d say would be a soft-boiled state). House-made thin straight noodles completed this glorious package, soaking up all the collagen, fats and goodness from the broth. I was so happy.
You can also order weird ass ramen dishes such as prawn or soft shell crab ramen if you want something a bit fancy. Personally, I think the simpler shoyu ramen is plenty enough for me. Sadly, Runcorn is a bit out of the way for me to make this trek a regular thing but thankfully, Genkotsu have recently opened up a branch in Toowong which is more accessible.
These days, there aren’t many reasons for me to want to venture into Surfers Paradise. Call me boring, but I like the peaceful stillness that comes with living in an area that’s slightly inland, away from the beaches, crowds and loud bogans. In saying that, I do occasionally leave the house and make my way to Surfers Paradise if I feel like some ramen or if I’m meeting out-of-towners, who usually end up booking accommodation in the heart of Surfers because they don’t know better. Sometimes, I even like to come in for some coffee at Paradox Coffee Roasters.
Gold Coast may not be Melbourne when it comes to the coffee scene, but you can still find little gems scattered here and there if you know where to look. When it comes to regular coffee haunts, Blackboard is my #1 not just because the coffee there is good but, admittedly, because it’s very close to home. If I have time to kill and if I feel like venturing into Surfers though, I’d go to Paradox – personally, they have slightly better coffee.
I’ve never had a terrible coffee here. Regardless of whether I order a latte, an espresso or a macchiato, they always seem to get it right. Paradox’s house blend is a velvety mix of Nicaraguan and Ethiopian coffees, with delicious berry and rose notes. I don’t have lattes very much these days but when I do, I tend to order them here – the blend goes well with milk, with delicious caramel flavours shining through.
On one occasion, I decided to have lunch here. Paradox has a very extensive menu filled with gourmet sandwiches, vibrant salads and an all-day breakfast menu that starts light with granolas and bagels before shifting to heartier options such as eggs, hotcakes and big breakfast-type dishes. I decided to go for the lamb salad which came with a generous serving of warm Flinders Island slow roasted lamb shoulder, crunchy root vegetables (so, carrots), sultanas, smashed pomegranate and fresh mint.
I was so full halfway through that I couldn’t finish everything on my plate (I did eat all the lamb though); for $17, you’re definitely getting good value for money. Would I get the lamb salad again? Probably not. It was nice and all but I just got bored eating it after a while – in hindsight, I should have gone for the house-made spinach and crab gnocchi with heritage tomatoes.
But that’ll be a dish for the next time I decide to trek to Surfers.
Sometimes, all you want is a snack of several pieces of gyoza and maybe a beer – at least that’s what I told myself one afternoon when I was shopping in Brisbane. I wasn’t hungry enough for a massive lunch but I was certainly peckish enough to want more than just a $2.50 sushi roll from a food court. And so, I ended up at Harajuku Gyoza in Fortitude Valley.
I grabbed my seat at the bar was greeted by probably the most awesomely kitsch plate I had seen in recent memory. There’s seriously nothing like grabbing bits of food with your chopstick off a sumo wrestler’s butt, I say.
The best thing about Harajuku Gyoza is that their serving sizes are small (between three to five pieces of gyoza) so it’s perfect if you want to try more than just one variety. The only problem is that if you end up ordering a few plates, the bill will add up. I paid $32 for my meal – so much for a ‘snack.’
Oh, and I ordered a frozen beer slushie because why not? Because the beer had been frozen, the slushie was watery. In hindsight, a normal beer would have been better but hey, the slushie is great purely for the novelty factor. It also brought me back to my Tokyo trip two years ago where I tried a banana beer slushie for the first time in Shibuya. The beer was interesting, the Tinder date was (unfortunately) the complete opposite.
So that’s what the prawn gyozas look like – I liked that they used whole prawns rather than minced ones. That said, three pieces of prawns wrapped in gyoza skin for $8 did seem like a bit of a rip. Better were the poached pork gyozas – they were plump and juicy, bursting with a tasty filling. I will definitely try the fried version next time.
In addition to more substantial savoury dishes, Harajuku Gyoza also has a dessert menu featuring sweet-filled gyoza. My peanut butter and white chocolate gyoza were surprisingly quite delicious; each dumpling contained a simple yet tasty filling of crunchy peanut butter and melted white chocolate. A quick stint on the grill resulted in a gooey, warm filling. Definitely worth a try if you have room for dessert.
In hindsight, Harajuku Gyoza was definitely not a destination for a cheap snack – then again, I admit that my eyes were bigger than my stomach that day and over-ordered. Still, I’d say it’s a good place to bond with your Tinder date over beers and a selection of shared plates before – plus, the peanut butter and white chocolate gyozas ain’t bad too!
Gold Coast seems to be in the midst of a burger and donut hurricane, with new establishments opening up seemingly every other fortnight. A while back, Betty’s Burgers took the Noosa cool crowd by storm before deciding to open a second outlet in Surfers Paradise. Gold Coast went NUTS when they heard that the ‘Shake Shack Rip-Off’ was opening in the 4217, despite the fact that a decent amount of new burger joints had opened shop in the space of a few months. I guess burgers are here to stay on the ‘coast…
Adam and I had the chance to check it out some weekends ago. After a leisurely (and by that, I meant boozy) Saturday afternoon session, we decided to walk over to Chevron Renaissance to suss this place out. At 6pm on a Saturday evening, the place was still dead (though it got busier as we left). Orders are placed at the counter, you’re then given one of those vibrating buzzers and asked to wait until it starts beeping.
Although there is a nice selection of burgers on the menu (including fried chicken, pork belly and mushroom), Adam and I decided to keep things simple with the Betty’s Classic and share a serving of fries which came sprinkled with ‘sea salt seasoning’ (read: just salt – and they were average). Beers at Betty’s range from pure bogan (XXXX Gold) to pure hipster (Pabst Blue Ribbon), and we both selected something in the middle – you won’t see this Victorian drinking XXXX Gold!
The Betty’s Classic was essentially a cheeseburger: Angus beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and Betty’s special sauce completed a perfunctory package, bursting with striking block colours. As someone who thinks value for money equals generous serving sizes, Adam wasn’t wowed by his burger (‘for the same price, I can just walk down the road and get a bigger burger at Boom Boom Burger,’ he muttered). I, however, thought it was great. The closest comparison would be a Huxtaburger burger – the package came in a soft, buttery bun that was deflated rather than plump. The patty was well seasoned and while the burger itself wasn’t massive, I think it did the job for $10. I can see why Noosa and Gold Coast burger lovers adored Betty’s.
Another product that Betty’s is known for is the concrete, essentially frozen custard mixed with whatever descriptor is added to that particular concrete flavour. For example, the blueberry cheesecake concrete is a mix of vanilla custard, New York cheesecake, blueberry sauce and lemon that’s been mixed, blitzed and frozen. It’s interesting and certainly one for dessert fans – I enjoyed my concrete for what it was but it’s not really something I’d be in a rush to order again.
The burgers though are probably up there with Gold Coast’s best, despite what Adam thinks. For $10, you’re not getting the biggest burger ever but you’re getting something that’s tasty and will sufficiently satisfy your stomach even if you opt for no fries (which I strongly recommend).
There aren’t many places I’d go to for brunch in Brisbane – heck, there aren’t many places I’d eagerly eat brunch at in Melbourne. I just don’t like brunch; I don’t like the food, the whole culture of waking up late and queuing for more than 30 minutes to pay more than $20 for a dish I can easily whip up at home and the microherbs. Oh goodness me, those damn microherbs. Sorry, not for me. Unless you can offer dishes that are more exciting than bacon and eggs or avocado on toast, you won’t see me lining up at your door.
But Shouk Café is a little different, though. Yes, it’s one of Brisbane’s most popular brunch places and yes, it serves avocado. However, the service is efficient so you generally don’t have to wait too long even on weekends and their smashed avocado comes with Persian feta, dukkah and prik grapefruit gel. In actual fact, most of their menu items have Middle Eastern influences – think eggs benedict served with toasted challah and sumac peppered hollandaise, for example.
Paddington is one of Brisbane’s oldest suburbs, full of tree-lined streets, old Queenslander houses and hilly roads that are a pain in the ass for manual drivers to drive around in. The leafy suburb is also home to Paddington Antique Central, said to be Queensland’s oldest antique store, which is just around the bend from Shouk (itself a former corner store).
I had my first coffee of the day (at 2pm, no less), a short macchiato ($3.50) made with Veneziano coffee. It wasn’t the best coffee I’ve had in Brisbane (a bit too pungent for me) but it did the job. Far better was the falafel salad I hungrily devoured; there were a handful of crispy green falafels on the plate, with fresh heirloom tomatoes, Lebanese cucumber, radish and pickled kohlrabi thrown in the mix. To tie everything together, a (not really that) spicy green yoghurt sauce did the trick.
I’m not one to order vegetarian dishes at cafés, especially when there are at least half a dozen meat dishes to choose from. However, Shouk’s falafel salad was spot on and a dish that I’d happily order again. It was delicious, fresh and filling – so much so that I had to weakly ask for the reminder of my lunch to be boxed up so I can finish it at home.
Do you think you eat your way through a massive bowl of ramen, the equivalent of five standard bowls, in less than 25 minutes? I’m a slow eater and not really one for ridiculous amounts of gluttony (I’m aware that this is a food blog and all) so I quickly said ‘no’ to this challenge. My friend Peter, on the other hand, slapped $35 down the counter and was pretty much like, ‘Bring it on!’
We were at Ramen Champion, one of Brisbane’s many ramen restaurants. Being from Melbourne, the two of us never really got much of a chance to try amazing ramen down south. Our luck changed, however, when we moved up north. There was sunshine! There were geckos roaming around our houses at night! And most important of all, there was good ramen to be had!
A popular Japanese franchise that does extremely well in Singapore, Ramen Champion has been in Brisbane for several years now. It’s located in Sunnypark Plaza which is in Sunnybank (though Google says it’s in Macgregor but whatever, same thing). Sunnybank tends to get hectic on weekends and the weekend that had gone by was no exception – we made it to Ramen Champion at around 11:45 and by the time we left, the place was buzzing with young families and uni students wanting to get their ramen on.
Basically Ramen Champion’s ramen challenge involves this: you pay for their giant ramen (which is apparently the size of five normal servings) and you try to finish it, broth and all, in less than 25 minutes. If you can do it, you get your $35 back as well as a $50 voucher for your next visit. You also get your photo on the wall of fame; there are about 10 proud men on that wall, one of which happened to be an old Tinder date of mine. Ramen Champion limits their giant ramen to three servings a day though so your best bet is to get in early for a chance to get your beaming mug on that wall.
I ordered a serving of gyoza to start, with Pete helping himself to one piece to warm up. Because he had avoided eating breakfast that morning, his stomach was growling like mad. The gyozas were nice enough but I wouldn’t say they were best I’ve ever had – too much cabbage and not enough pork for my liking.
I had the champion ramen, the most ‘basic’ of the six options on offer. The broth was a classic tonkotsu-style pork bone soup and on top of the generous amount of lovely handmade noodles, there were two pieces of flame grilled chashu, nori, half an egg, spring onions and bean shoots. The menu photo also had menma (fermented bamboo shoots) so I was expecting some, only to find that there were none. To be fair, menma was not mentioned in the menu description; instead the vague descriptor ‘vegetables’ were used but I’m not sure if that was the right term to describe a pinch of spring onions and bean shoots. Regardless, I enjoyed my ramen; the broth may not have had as much depth as some of my favourite ramen places but it was rich without being too fatty. The noodles, however, was the thing that did it for me – they were flawlessly silky and chewy as handmade ramen noodles should be.
You can’t tell from this picture, but Peter’s ramen really was heaps bigger than mine – to me, it looked like a massive birdbath filled with a lake of endless noodles swimming in a rich tonkotsu broth. The waitress set the timer at 25 and off he went, determined to polish the bowl of soup noodles off like he did with Superbowl’s pho challenge years ago.
Unfortunately at the 16 minute mark, he admitted defeat. He may have been able to finish a huge bowl of pho without any problems, but he forgot that ramen was heaps more fattier than pho. Challenge aside, the giant ramen really is great value for money considering that the standard champion ramen bowl is ($9.90). It comes with a seemingly endless supply of fresh, homemade noodles, ten slices of chashu (as opposed to the standard two) and four egg halves (as opposed to one egg half). As soon as I had finished my ramen, I eagerly helped myself to some noodles and chashu. In the end, I had almost two bowls before I, too, admitted defeat.
When I’m in Queensland, I don’t bother going out for Vietnamese food. I’ve eaten at a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Gold Coast and none of them serve the real deal. Disappointingly, the majority of them serve pho that’s been sweetened to the point of no recognition – and for that reason, I usually wait until I’m back in Melbourne or Sydney for my pho fix.
The night I was due to fly to Europe, though, I decided that I wanted pho. It was going to be a while until I get my fix and I wanted it right then and there. My flight was leaving from Brisbane Airport, but not until after midnight, so I decided to swing into town for my favourite Vietnamese dish. With my friend Brad agreeing to eat whatever I wanted in exchange for a lift to the airport, I thought it was a sweet deal. And so we went to his favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Trang.
Trang has been serving West End residents for a number of years now and people continue to return for its no-nonsense Vietnamese food, lively atmosphere and fast service. And given that we live in Queensland, half the menu consists of suburban Chinese dishes but hey, you’re catering to the locals after all…
Speaking of which, we started off with spring rolls. They were nothing special, but adequate fillers to nibble on while we caught up on gossip and AFL talk (it’s so refreshing to meet a Queenslander who does know a thing about footy).
Brad was like, “I had this really, really nice dish the last time I was here – but I couldn’t remember what it was called! It had thin white noodles, chopped up spring rolls and a whole bunch of random thi-“
“Bun.” I said. “And most likely the combination bun. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a drink.”
I was right, though (saved). Trang’s combination bun came adorned with chopped spring rolls, crispy skin chicken and grilled pork as well as fresh herbs. I didn’t get to try any of it – Brad polished it all off before I could get around to doing it.
At just over $10, Trang’s pho would be in the slightly higher end of the price spectrum in Melbourne (but not by much). However, I thought this was just about right for Queensland. There was a reasonable amount of complexity and depth in the broth and, much to my delight, none of these pour half a container of sugar on me business. I also loved that they used thicker-than-normal rice noodles – the thicker the better, I say (while trying hard not to snicker). One thing I didn’t like though was the use of red onions instead of traditional onions – is this a Queensland thing or something?
It won’t win any awards on Victoria or Hopkins Street, but it’ll definitely do.