91-93 Flinders Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 2800
Nothing gets a self-confessed foodie’s mouth frothing than the opening of a brand new restaurant. Okay, except for delectable salted caramel macarons and freshly-shucked Coffin Bay oysters. But you get what I mean. As soon as we foodies catch news of a spanking new eatery opening in two day’s time, we’re there before the ribbon is even cut, before the bottle of Mumm is uncorked and before the door is opened. As for restaurants that are staffed by former one/two/three-hatted restaurant staffers? We’re camping outside the entrance in our sleeping bags a week before opening night.
Papa Goose, for example, ticks all the right boxes and then some. Plonk a minimalist Brooklyn loft-style spilt-level warehouse in Flinders Lane that is not too far that you can’t make it there in six-inch Manolos yet not TOO close to the Swanston Street intersection to give the place an air of aloofness that doesn’t quite reach pretentiousness. Decorate with rusty wires and trinkets scoured from a rubbish tip to appease the hipsters. Have an open (or semi-open kitchen, above). Offer an eclectic menu that includes curious ingredient combinations such as foie gras and mussels as well as a mandatory reinvention-of-a-classic-dessert number, an ‘Eskimo Pie’ in this case. Then chuck the ex-head chef of Pure South, Neale White, and general manager extraordinaire, Alison Hulm. Excited? You bet!
Fellow foodie, Jan, and her BFF were celebrating their joint birthdays this Saturday and chose Papa Goose as the dinner venue because of its 92% rating on urbanspoon.com. Once all the guests arrived, we were presented with freshly-baked crusty bread and bowls of peppery Kalaparee EVOO. After several rounds of photo-snapping and present-swapping, we were presented with a complimentary starter: a seafood velouté served in an espresso cup. It was beautifully tasty, creamy, herby and velvety without being too rich. Jan did say that it erred on the ‘too fishy’ side but an ichthyophile like myself didn’t mind at all. If this was an entrée on the menu, I’d order it every single time. Without fail.
Jan’s entrée: Blackmore’s wagyu karubi carpaccio, pickled shitake, truffled potato, radish ($17). The tapestry of delicate shavings of wagyu created a striking canvas to accentuate the vibrancy of the shitake, potato cubes and radish shreds and the addition of capers added a slight tangy edge to the dish. I guess if I wanted to be particularly fussy, I would say that they went a smidgen overboard with the truffle oil though.
I shared an entrée with Adam: Veal sweetbreads, wagyu bresaola, scallop, white raisins, muscat ($19). Each element, when eaten on its own, didn’t do anything for me. Grab a little bit of everything and eat it all in one go, however, and your tastebuds will be in trouble deep. Ooh yeah.
Another complimentary palate cleanser arrived just before a ‘Dookie or Nimrod?’ debate got heated, this time a red grapefruit granita with a slice of cucumber. A soothingly refreshing brew with a subtle tang that left us begging for Summer … and our mains.
(FYI, I say ‘Nimrod.’)
Jan’s main: Blue cod, King prawn, ratatouille, smoked tomato and caper butter ($34). The fish, from the waters of New Zealand, had a lusciously clean flesh that was tenderly pan-fried and dressed with a delicious tomato and caper butter that was gentle enough not to smother the natural sweetness of the fish but smoky enough to challenge ol’ man Robinson. The dish actually came with a globe artichoke but because Jan isn’t a fan of artichokes, the kitchen kindly omitted it from the dish.
My main: Pan-roasted snapper, shallots, smoked bacon, mussel, foie gras, cannellini bean ($34). Jan’s fish may have been better – mine was a tad too dry – but my dish does not get minus points for lack of flavour. To quote Jan, the sauce could best be described as “tasting like carbonara” what with the rich, creamy mixture dotted with bacon. To make things slightly more interesting, the addition of foie gras AND mussels to the mix proved a slightly weird combination which nevertheless managed to just work. It wasn’t bad but it was perhaps a little too rich for my liking.
Oh, but if you paired the snapped with a glass of Delatite V.S. Riesling ($11.50), the fish tasted MUCH better. The sharp citrus and floral notes of the wine combined with a powerful mineral-tasting finish cut through the creamy sauce effortlessly like a sharp knife in warm butter. A Heath Shaw-worthy save.
Adam’s main: Hopkins River eye fillet and tail, silverbeet, root vegetables, chervil, salsa verde ($36). Armed with small lashings of seeded and Dijon mustards, this rare-cooked steak and oxtail combination proved a lethal combination for both Adam and I. Adam declared it as ‘probably the best steak’ he’s had while I adopted a stricter approach to my judging and said that it scraped into my top 10. All the trimming were lovely, but I think it just lacked that level of juiciness that I’ve come to know and love when I’m eating rare-cooked steaks.
Another complimentary palate cleanser, a silky, smooth vanilla and pear sorbet, was paraded brought to us by the ever-attentive and constantly-friendly waiter who deserved kudos for dealing with a large group of squealy and most-likely-very-annoying diners effortlessly.
Adam and I shared Papa Goose’s interpretation of the famous Nestle-owned iced confectionery, the Eskimo pie ($15). I’m not usually one for chocolate desserts as they are usually too rich for me but damn, this one was a voluptuous structure of vanilla ice cream with hazelnut and praline bits hidden within. Topped with a crusty chocolate biscuit and drizzled with a pool of hot chocolate sauce with a crispy burnt caramel tuille placed on top, this is a dessert that you won’t forget in a hurry.
After only being in business for two months and nary a review in Epicure at the time of writing (though Larissa Dubecki’s review will apparently appear in tomorrow’s edition), I’d say that Papa Goose has done pretty well. To immediately say that it’s going to receive at least one hat in the next edition of The Age Good Food Guide might seem a little premature at this stage. I am, however, quietly confident that they will snag it if they continue with what they are doing (while making improvements on the way, of course) and then some. I’ve made up my mind, I’m gonna keep coming back to this baby.
167 Exhibition St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+ 61 9650 9877
In the last twenty or so years, we’ve seen some significant amalgamations. Time Warner. The Brisbane Lions. DJ Earworm’s infectious “Like, OMG Baby”, a collection of this year’s hottest and sickliest Summer tracks condensed into a neat four-minute package. And the sushi burger. As its name suggests, it combines two of the most popular fast food items together, the sushi and the burger, into one little neat package. And they sell like hotcakes at J Cafe.
Nestled comfortably between rows of little shops on Exhibition St, J Cafe serves an array of Japanese dishes but everyone comes here for their famous sushi burgers. Its convenient location means that theatre-goers could easily pop into the cafe for a take-away burger during intermission at the nearby Her Majesty’s Theatre. Conversely, the Friday drinkies crowd can sit down for a meal in between Matt and John’s set at the nearby Elephant and Wheelbarrow and a night of dancing with and pashing random strangers to the tune of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Seven Nation Army” at the European Bier Cafe.
Adam and I were there for a sit-down dinner one Friday night. We both decided that the sushi burger was definitely the way to go so we set about ordering a sushi burger bento box each. A standard sushi burger bento box was $17 and consisted of a bowl of miso soup, a sushi burger and a choice of entree from a list of four. The option of choosing an entree from the ‘specials menu’ attracted an extra 50 cents. The ika shogayaki, a specials menu item, caught Adam’s eye so he went for that to go with his teriyaki eel sushi burger.
Miso soup. Very hard to eff up miso soup. Next!
Adam’s teriyaki eel sushi burger. To be honest, we both thought it wasn’t that fantastic. There was nothing wrong with the taste, it was just the rice-filling ratio that did our heads in. Too much rice, not enough filling. Plus, the fillings were scant – only two pieces of sliced cucumber and one thin slab of eel.
My ebi mayo (fried prawn) sushi burger. Battered prawns, a generous dosage of creamy mayo and some lettuce. Nothing to it, really. It was much better than Adam’s but having to swallow a mouthful of sushi rice really did my head in.
I chose a serving of gyoza as my entree (which came after my sushi burger, funnily enough). Although they were more ginger and cabbage than pork, they still went down a treat with the simple salad that came with it – several pieces of cucumber, tomato, lettuce leaves, mashed potato and an orange quarter as a palate cleanser. Nice.
Adam’s ika shogayaki (pan-fried squid in ginger sauce). I think I liked this one better than my gyoza; the equisitely tender pieces of squid were grilled in a lovely ginger sauce before being served with the same salad that came with my gyoza. Ribbons of mayo covered the creature that I wished was Paul the Octopus to make it a delicious dish.
The scores of foodies raving about sushi burgers and the almost-full dining room on the night we went is a testament to the success of the amalgamation between the sushi and the burger. Indeed, it is an interesting concept and definitely not one that would be listed alongside failed mergers like that of Daimler Benz-Chrysler. I would suggest giving the sushi burger a go just so you know what it’s like – and if you enjoy it, then good for you – but for now I think I’ll just stick to sushi hand rolls and hamburgers with beef patties, thanks!
171 Little Bourke St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9663 3868
“I’m going to Da Hu tonight!” I told fellow-foodie friend, Dave, one day. “The Who?” he replied, somewhat tongue-in-cheekily. He is well aware of my penchant for referencing music and pop culture in my titles but this time, he was the first to see the existence of a homophone binding the restaurant’s name and the name of one of my favourite bands together, which was more in-your-face than Roger Daltrey’s on-stage presence. I must be so blind.
Shirley and I were craving Peking duck the other week. Like, really craving it. But because we were too tight to pay an arm and a leg for four measly slices of (albeit amazing) Peking duck at Flower Drum and because we couldn’t be arsed tramming it up Smith St for a good value duck banquet at Old Kingdom, we made do with Da Hu. Now even though Da Hu has been around for long as I could remember, the place has never really caught my attention. The upstairs restaurant sits on the corner of Lt Bourke and Russell quietly content to watch punters stroll past to more out-there restaurants such as the ‘Drum, various bustling dumpling restaurants and vivacious Sichuan dining rooms. Not to fear though, Da Hu still attracts a steady stream of patrons without making an effort.
Complimentary prawn crackers. Unidentifiable brown gunk around the edges of some of the crackers deemed them too skanky to eat.
We shared an entree of spicy scallops ($8.50) to start off with. They were fried in crunchy batter before being seasoned with garlic, fried onion and shrimp and peppers. They weren’t spicy at all.
A plate of pan-fried dumplings (six for $7.50) was next. A far cry from the ones dished out at Shanghai Village et al both in terms of taste and value for money, they were the most horrible dumplings I had the misfortune of trying. They were soggy, oily, almost cold and by golly, the fillings were mushy and drenched in some sort of sweet flavouring that I couldn’t identify (like sweet soy, but not that) – it was like they were trying to mask the meat or something like that.
With that in mind, I guess I should not have been so surprised to find that they used the exact same filling in their xiaolongbao dumplings (six pieces for $6.80). They were only marginally better than the pan-fried dumplings, only because they were steamed rather than fried and hence, not (that) oily.
Given our lacklustre entrees, I wasn’t expecting much for the main event in spite of the admittedly impressive arrangement that was presented to us, with each condiment neatly contained in little bowls.
For $25.80, we enjoyed half a duck which, to me, was pretty cheap for Peking duck. I wouldn’t say that it was the best duck I’ve ever had but given our crappy entrees (and hence, my probable clouded judgement), the duck was something that I would pay $25.80 for again. The meat-fat-skin ratio was spot-on for the most part (not including the bits at the end where it was pretty much 10% skin, 5% meat and 85% fat) and if you carefully tipped the oil onto one corner of the plate, you can grab a nice piece of duck that was plump and tasty. As for the condiments? I couldn’t fault the pancake at all (perfectly thin, not at all soggy) and thought the way they chopped up the cucumber and spring onion into little matchsticks before arranging them in a little bowl was cute (though they were a little dry).
It is obvious that Roger Daltrey did not have Da Hu in mind when he wrote “Here For More.” If one was to judge Da Hu by the spread we had that night, one would struggle to find a good reason to go back. That said, if you were stranded in the city, craving duck and can’t afford Flower Drum, then grab yourself a partner and cut yourselves up a half (or even a whole) duck before heading to Maxim’s downstairs for dessert.
114 Smith St
Collingwood VIC 3066
+61 3 9416 0055
My bias against Collingwood FC shows in this post. Pies fans, you have been warned.
Rule X+1 when it comes to relationships: If your boyfriend is a Collingwood supporter, never let him be the one to choose the venue for Grand Final Day festivities… because chances are that he’ll pick one right in the heart of Smith St, Collingwood. Trust me, I learnt the hard way yesterday.
We were walking down Smith St and as we drew closer to the dingy, bluestone hotel decorated with black and white streamers and balloons with scores of Pies fans kicking Sherrins outside the door, my eyes popped out. “We’re going here?” I asked Adam incredulously, “Seriously? Is this some kind of a joke?!” “Well, you left the planning up to me!” he protested feebly.
For some reason, we stayed at the Grace Darling. Maybe it was because we couldn’t be bothered trawling around for another pub (and we certainly weren’t heading back to the BC). Maybe it was because the Collingwood Football Club came to formation at this very pub (and as much as I despise the club itself, I do love a bit of history). Or maybe it was because they had Coldstream cider on tap. Heck, it certainly wasn’t the legions of local hipsters who had just jumped on the Collingwood bandwagon with their brand new black and white scarves straight from Rebel Sport. Whatever it was, I was glad we stayed.
Even though hearty fares such as the beef and lager pie and the free-range chicken parma both sounded smashing, we were told that the kitchen was not serving mains until 2pm. Grabbing a lone table next to the bar, we ordered some bar snacks to share. Armed with pints of White Rabbit ale and Coldstream cider respectively, Adam and I munched on some sliced white bread dipped in olive oil as more Collingwood bogues trickled in to the sounds of AC/DC. Sigh.
We started off with some chunky fries + aioli ($8). They weren’t the best chips in the world but they weren’t bad either – fluffy inside, crunchy outside, could have done with a bit more crunch though. The aioli, however, was the deal breaker – it had hints of five-spice powder which made it stand out from the rest like Dane Swan’s tattoos. Yum. (the aioli, not Dane Swan)
The Italian meatballs and shaved parmesan ($8) arrived with the deep fried river prawns + lemon + aioli ($13). The soft, tender meatballs were seductively coated in a rich, tasty tomato sugo, all of which was lapped up by broken bits of bread. As for the prawns, let’s just say that it’s not hard for a hotel/restaurant to eff up fried prawns. The prawns at Grace Darling were nothing spectacular but they kept Adam and I happy right to the first bounce. The five-spice powder-scented aioli made a reappearance too, so I’ll give them a tick for that.
The scores at full-time may have been a wash but I cannot say the same about the food here. Just as the real Grace Darling saved the crew of SS Forfarshire back in the 19th century, the food saved me from what would have otherwise been a sucky five hours in a room with a crowd of Collingwood fans. Ahh food, the constant saviour. While the bar snacks we had were excellent, I was disappointed not to have tried the mains. But I guess that’s a good enough reason for me to return again next week. That, and to see the Pies get slaughtered by Nick Riewoldt’s men in Grand Final v.2!
533 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy North VIC 3068
+61 3 9481 1177
It’s not very often I return to a restaurant after I’ve had a less than savoury experience there. If the service is disastrously bad, I won’t be back. If I ‘don’t agree with the food,’ it is improbable that I’ll make a return visit. If the wait staff are annoying hipsters with Dane Swan arms and attitudes to boot, forget about it. Matteo’s was, in my opinion, a restaurant in my “won’t go back there again” list. There was nothing wrong with the service and nothing wrong with the atmosphere. Sure, I thought the concept of east-meets-west was interesting but the way that head chef Brendan McQueen went about doing it just didn’t do it for me like it did for other people. So when I heard that Matteo’s was offering a ‘Victoria in a Bento Box’ lunch to celebrate the start of Spring, well, that changed my mind really quickly. A showcase of McQueen’s spin on the new season’s local produce for $38, including a glass of Victorian wine. Sold. The catch? It was only available for lunch on weekdays, and only until the end of September.
I had told the lady on the phone that I was here for the bento box when I made the booking yesterday. So as soon as Adam and I sat down, the waiter simply asked us if we would just to have our bento boxes presented to us right away. Yes, please! Gotta love no-fuss service. A glass of Hoddles Creek Estate chardonnay which was satiny, sweet with hints of oak and citrus kept me happy for the duration of lunch while Adam enjoyed a smoky, bold glass of De Bortoli shiraz.
Clockwise from top left:
- Teriyaki glazed smoked eel on rice-crusted tofu, pickled plum and bonito mayonnaise: I’m not an unagi person. While Adam scoffs down bowls of unagi and rice, I curl my nose up. But wow, this eel dish was the best I’ve ever had. The skin was carefully removed as well as that nasty gelatinous layer of fat that turns me off, leaving a nice half-centimetre piece of delicate eel flesh that was gently smoked then glazed with a sweet teriyaki sauce. Delicious.
- Brendan’s sweet corn soup, ‘kakiage’ corn fritters: Matteo’s version of a good old ‘gweilo’ Chinese classic was more pureed sweet corn then the cornstarch-y stuff they serve at Chinese restaurants. It was topped with a couple of crispy corn fritters that were dusted in green tea salt (Izakaya Den, anyone?). I quite liked Brendan’s interpretation of this dish but Adam thought it was too ‘intense.’
- ‘Kim chi’ spicy pickled wombok cabbage: We both hate kim chi, but we both loved this. It wasn’t overpowered with garlic, that’s why.
- Karaage Japanese fried lemon chicken, galangal & lemon grass sauce, cucumber salad: Another version of a classic gweilo dish. The lemon sauce was so subtle that you could barely taste it (nor see it), but that meant that you could taste the fresh flavours of the galangal and the chicken remained crispy until the last bite.
- Steamed ‘chawan mushi’ custard with shrimp & shiitake mushroom, sweet dashi sauce: ZOMG, the BEST chawanmushi I’ve ever had. No kidding. The custard was so fragile that it deserved its own ‘HANDLE WITH CARE’ sticker, and eat bite so, so smooth like that Santana song. As for the sweet dashi broth? Sweeter than most, but that’s what made it really work. If they made this a permanent fixture in the menu, I’d be going back. Seriously.
- Steamed coconut rice + spring onion and ginger: Given that rice cookers are inexpensive, there is no reason why a two-hatted restaurant should still be cooking rice over a stove and present it to us all gluggy and gross. That’s all.
Dessert: a coconut creme & dark palm sugar caramel, with honey murcott mandarin & longans. To be honest, I really felt that the two little dishes worked better on their own rather than in conjunction with one another as I failed to see any sort of connection between the two. Not that I was complaining though, the creme caramel was sublime – just as smooth as the chawanmushi – and the fruit salad was lovely, the taste of the fresh fruits being elevated by little strings of kaffir lime leaves. The dessert was a fitting end to our epic bento box meal just as the mandarin segments were used to celebrate the end of Winter and the juicy logans the start of warmer weather.
Brendan McQueen’s bento lunch certainly changed my opinion of Matteo’s. Okay, so it was more Asian rather than east-meets-west and whether a more ‘East’ approach will be utilised in future menus or whether it’s only limited to this bento box is something that I’m unsure about. Despite a fantastic meal, I’m still reluctant to go back to Matteo’s for a la carte dining, but if this bento box is going to be a permanent fixture (one for every season? OH YEAH!), then I will definitely be back. Nice work, Mr McQueen.
380 Burwood Hwy
Burwood East VIC 3151
+61 3 9887 8011
Ask a self-confessed foodie what they think of all-you-can-eat restaurants and a typical response would be a look of extreme repugnance. Fatty, greasy foods most likely to have originated in a processing plant in Campbellfield before being fried in tallow, then basking in the bain-maries for hours – not exactly the kind of stuff that epicureans go for.
In contrast, a buffet restaurant is what gets a lot of Asian parents going. Take my parents for example, they may be excellent cooks and have reasonable non-Asian food knowledge but when you ask them where they want to go to celebrate their birthdays (which are only three days apart), both of them would have this humungous grin on their face while saying, “All-you-can-eat!” Le sigh. In addition, they kept harping on about the always-packed China Bar Signature Buffet restaurant which has stood atop the hill on the corner of Burwood Hwy and Springvale Rd. I may not like buffet restaurants but I do like making my parents happy and fine, I must admit that I was curious to see what the CHINABar franchise’s inaugral buffet restaurant would be like. I mean, a restaurant with parked Civics and Camrys taking all of the space must be doing SOMETHING right, don’t you think?
When making the booking, we were firmly told that we had to be on time for our 11:30am booking in order to be out by 1pm for the second session diners to arrive. That was cool. What was NOT cool, however, was the fact that we were still all waiting outside the door at 11:35am while waiters frantically ran around inside to get all the tables ready. I also saw the manager and another lady standing at the door, checking their clipboards and looking at the angry line. Unlike their minions scurrying around, they seemed cool, calm and collected, as if to say “Son, look at all the people waiting outside this restaurant!” *chortle chortle* (failed attempt at effortlessly easing a Ben Folds reference in there)
No men’s singlets, but ladies’ spaghetti straps are okay. No sport shorts, but demin Daisy Dukes are okay. No rubber thongs, but 6-inch sandals are okay. Smart casual attire, that means anyone in a three-piece suit will be barred from this joint. Got it.
We may not have been pleased about waiting for 10 minutes outside but once we were at the front of the queue, everything from that point on ran like clockwork. We were shown to our table in the centre of the spacious and ornate-for-a-buffet-restaurant dining room and were, again, reminded that we had to be out by 1:30pm.
Oolong tea was poured from a Bodum and into cute, colourful tea cups. Nice.
Knives and forks as default cutlery at an Asian restaurant? Okay then.
For $29 a head, you were free to roam around and take as many steaming baskets of dumplings as you want, indulge in hearty Malaysian dishes such as nasi lemak or warm your soul with a bowl of piping hot congee. An extra $20-26 a head will not only allow you to dine here for dinner, but also sample dinner-only items such as seafood (oysters, mussels etc), Peking duck and sashimi. I’ve heard from many accounts that the $49-55 cost (depending on what day you choose to visit) was not at all worth it though.
Yum cha staples: sui mai, xiao long bao and har gow. They weren’t the best, as you would expect, but they were certainly adequate given the setting.
The most annoying thing about the yum cha offerings at ChinaBAR Signature was that each bamboo container only held one single dumpling. I think it was to prevent wastage – which I agree with 100% – but it was a pain in the arse having to carry back several containers just for four measly items.
Cramming as many dumplings onto a plate became a bit of a task – both in aiming to use space effectively and in balancing.
Once you’ve had your fill of dumplings, you are free to move onto heartier stuff and a bowl of congee is the best way to warm your heart on a cold winter’s night.
Adam was shocked to find that the Hainanese chicken rice was extremely good, better than most places that specialised in this dish. All the flavours were clean, fresh and there was none of that nasty E621 that seems to infilitrate food court and dime a dozen pan-Asian eatery versions.
There was also no shortage of ‘gweilo’ dishes.
… and dead insects.
If you reckon you can still fit in dessert, there are several dozen little sweet treats for you to choose from. Mini vanilla puddings, creme brulees and chocolate tarts are there for the taking along with desserts of a more Asian persuasian such as the green tea sponge cake and red bean pudding.
Or those Ice Toto icy poles that come in flavours such as durian, melon, taro and red bean (or “fob popsicles” as Shirley affectionately calls them).
For a buffet restaurant, I really wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting third-rate Food Star quality food that made you feel sick after one plate but I was surprised to find that the food quality wasn’t TOO bad for a buffet restaurant. The folk at New Quay at Docklands charge us the same amount for lunch, but the food at CHINAbar was miles ahead of the creamy bacon and strawberry-type pasta dishes at New Quay (true story). For $29, we were all pretty full (and I did eat my money’s worth of dumplings) and it goes without saying that my parents LOVED the place that they wouldn’t stop talking about it. That said, I can’t see myself going here very often and the only reason I would voluntarily come back here would be if my parents specifically requested that I take them there for their birthdays again. Furthermore, I don’t think the $49-55 price tag for dinner is worth it. At the end of the day, you’re basically eating the same thing as well as getting average Peking duck and seafood that’s been soaked in an iodine bath.
The service could be best summed up as an example of Cantonese efficiency. Our oolong teas were constantly being refilled and our plates cleared in a timely manner. I guess the only thing that irked me was when they kept pressuring us to leave at 1:15, even though half the table had not yet begun dessert. While I understand that they need people to be out of the door in time for the 1:30pm session diners to start eating, waving the bill in front of our face and telling us to hurry up (and keep in mind that we WERE kept waiting at the door when we did arrive at the restaurant on time for OUR session) is not cool.
Even though people like myself are wary of buffet restaurants, even if the efficient-yet-almost-rude service might be off-putting to some people and even if there was an insect in my food, I can certainly see ChinaBAR Signature staying around for a very long time unlike the previous few occupants that have stood on top of Burwood Hwy hill and vanished. The concept of a buffet restaurant may not be new but the concept of offering Asian-only foods in a clean, refined setting will always attract a steady stream of patrons. That and an abundant supply of har gow.
306 Lygon St
Carlton VIC 3053
(03) 9347 5500
I love Italian food. God bless the carb-loving, sugo-slurping and meatball-rolling Italians. If I had no choice but to live on pasta for the rest of my life, I would die a happy girl. Nick and I, we both love our pastas. In fact, we’re the stuff of Dr Atkins’ worst nightmares. And while Lygon Street isn’t where I’d normally go for ‘authentic’ Italian food, I usually can’t say no to any meal that involves pasta of some sort. To DiMattina‘s we went one wet Wednesday evening in July, one of Nick’s favourite restaurants and where I had a decent chicken tortellini some five years ago.
DiMattina’s, owned by Paul DiMattina’s of Western Bulldogs fame, is one of those restaurants that don’t put themselves out there but still attract a steady stream of clients – kind of like my cousin … ahaha, okay bad analogy. Unlike the other Italian restaurants on the Safeway side of Lygon Street, there are no checkered tablecloths and no spruikers outside DiMattina’s. Rather, the restaurant itself is bright and welcoming and its Roman-style mural and AFL memorabilia paying homage to both the owner’s Italian heritage and AFL career. The cynics in us may argue that the family-friendly and almost bogue-tastic decor may send Brenda and Eddie running in the opposite direction, but it would certainly make the likes of Gatto and his boys feel right at home.
Sitting in a rather clumily positioned table in the middle of the room, we ordered our drinks – a glass of Mrs Wigley moscato for myself ($7.50 – yes, I know and shut up) and a bottle of Coopers Sparkling for him ($6.50). And although my moscato was presented to me already poured, the waitress did actually come back to take my glass back to replace it with another one as the first glass was “flat.” Tick. Slices of adequate herb bread whetted our appetites for our pasta mains ($3.90 for four slices).
Both our mains arrived at the same time, ‘suspiciously quick’ I might add. I had the penne ortolana ($21.90 for a main-sized plate), a vegetarian pasta consisting of swiss brown mushrooms, snow peas and cherry tomatoes, with the opinion of having prawns mixed in there for an extra $4 (I didn’t). In all honesty, this dish is something that I could whip up at home with my eyes closed and I’m spewing over the fact that I didn’t order a lasagne ($19.90) instead. And while I liked that the olive oil prevented this dish from being heavy, it didn’t really bring all the vegies together. I still ate it all though.
Nick had the penne pollo ($21.90 for a main-sized plate), a chicken, mushroom, spring onion and cream. Again, this was a dish that I could make at home but it was miles better than my ortolana. It may have been cream-based, but it wasn’t overly heavy. It was perhaps a little bland, but with the addition of a fist-sized amount of parmesan, it was winner in Nick’s eyes.
Our pastas may have arrived ‘suspiciously quick’ but the rate at which our desserts arrived made me wonder whether the people at DiMattina’s had ESP or something. Surprisingly, the highlight of tonight’s dinner was not the shade of Nick’s purple shirt but how deliciously good my vanilla creme brulee ($12.50) was. My main may have been mediocre but my creme brulee certainly made up for it – it had a perfect crunchy crust and a soft, silky filling with the right amount of sweetness. It was accompanied by a small tub of vanilla ice cream topped with a strawberry. Yum.
Nick’s sticky date pudding ($10.90) was just as good but not quite. Like my creme brulee, it was accompanied by vanilla ice cream and a strawberry. Unlike mine, however, his mound was moist and sticky rather than silky smooth (oh deary me, double entendre unintended). I liked that the pudding wasn’t terribly rich or sickingly sweet, and the caramel sauce created a lovely hit.
The total came to $85.10 but waving my Entertainment Book card around meant that the damage was only $64.90. Like Billy Joel’s ability to churn out the greatest hits and Brad Johnson, DiMattina’s seemed to have worn itself out with age. The menu was shorter, the mains were not as memorable as last time and our fellow diners looked as exhausted as one would feel if they had to sit through yet another rendition of ‘Piano Man’ at a karaoke lounge. Still, I can’t say that I will rule DiMattina’s out for future Lygon Street dinners. It still attracts a decent amount of regulars, their service is not only friendly but also efficient (like, ridiculously efficient) and their desserts are pretty damn good. If only I could say the same about the Western Bulldogs. Poor game this weekend, boys, poor game. Sigh.
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.
The Mansion Hotel & Spa at Werribee Park
Werribee VIC 3030
+61 3 9731 4130
I love day trips out of the city. Although I consider myself very much a city girl, I love the allure of endless green (well okay, brown) paddocks that stretch for miles and miles next to unending straight highways. I love the smell of fresh air, unmarred by smog, a cocktail of mismatched perfumes and of ‘urban-ness.’ And I love the fact that food from restaurants outside of town taste so much different. So when Adam proposed a day trip one day in July, I was jumping up and down in excitement. But when he suggested “going to Werribee,” that excitement fizzled like a sausage on a BBQ that hadn’t been poked. Werribee. The home of sewerage, Volt 240 nightclub and animals (and I’m not talking about the ones who live in the enclosures of Werribee Zoo either). And Werribee Mansion, our destination for the morning/afternoon. It may only be a mere 30 minutes from the CBD but as you exit the Princes and turn onto K Road, you feel like you’re not in Kansas Melbourne anymore.
Built in 1877, the mansion was owned by the wealthy Chirnside family but is probably more famous for appearing as the backdrop for many ABC Kids’ shows and television commercials. Given the mansion’s beautiful Italianate architecture style and its sprawling gardens, you can see why it attracts thousands of visitors each year.
On the day we visited, Zeus must have had a bad day because heavy clouds loomed over the mansion, threatening rain. This made our exploration of the mansion even more creepy given that there were next to no visitors around on the day, being a dreadfully cold Tuesday and all. After spending some time exploring the various rooms around the mansion (you can imagine how excited I was when I walked into the dining and kitchen areas) and fending off Adam’s “hurry up!”s, we decided to break for lunch…
… but not before visiting the ‘Seminary Years’ exhibition where this fella scared the bejesus out of me when I turned a corner. Of course, it was just a cardboard figure of a trainee priest but far out…
Lunch was at the Mansion Hotel & Spa, a separate building located a short walk from the actual mansion. Formerly St Joseph’s Seminary, the site has since been transformed into a boutique hotel that’s popular as a wedding site or as a place for couples to get away for a weekend.
The restaurant itself, Joseph’s, is situated in a sunny corner of the ground floor just shy of the library. Its sleek but classic decor blended in well with the rest of the modern-style hotel, but its dark oak doors and simple lines provided a respectful nod to the hotel’s origins.
As soon as we walked into the restaurant, the clouds made way for the sun to shine into the dining room. Perfect, we thought.
Things could not have gotten more perfect, we thought, as we were led to a table right by the window where we could admire the scenery while we ate. Of course, when the sun did change positions throughout our lunch, casting a glare on our table which made photo-taking a little bit difficult. Grrr. A $35 two-course plus glass of wine lunch special was being offered so we decided to go with that. Three choices for entree, main and dessert respectively with the option to pay an extra $7 if you wanted to go three courses. We started off with two courses each (an entree and a main), with the option of going back for dessert if we were still hungry.
A glass of Adelaide Hills pinot gris was poured for me (and a shiraz from Adam) while sliced bread pieces were offered, a choice between white, wholemeal and olive.
The bread kept coming to us throughout the course of our meal which was a plus for me. Even better because the bread were poppin’ fresh from the oven and tasted delectable with a hint of sweetness that went well with the olive oil provided.
Adam’s entree: Mansion Caesar salad, an interesting take on the good ol’ Caesar salad which is by no means my favourite salad. That said, I really like the way they took out all the ingredients and arranged them in their non-chopped up forms. I liked the gooey poached egg and the use of a crispy side of prosciutto instead of bacon. A slice of crispy bread stick completed the arrangement, providing a necessary catalyst to soak up the flavours. Having said all that, I think you really do have to be a fan of Caesar salad to fully appreciate this dish.
My entree: Crispy pork with Asian salad. I’m always wary when non-Asian establishments such as this one offer something as indeterminate as an “Asian salad” because they usually taste nothing like a goi ga or a larb or anything like that. And if you happen to work with me, you’ll know that an ‘Asian salad’ served at the cafe next door to us is nothing more than coleslaw greens,shredded chicken breast pieces in a sweet chilli sauce *facepalm* I wasn’t expecting much from this dish but I was surprised to find that it wasn’t too bad. Okay, so it could have done with a little less sugar and a dashing of fish sauce. The fresh, crunchy vegetables and the crispy pork belly pieces did make up for it though but it’s not something I’d order again.
Adam’s main: Braised beef pie, potato foam, mushy peas. We were expecting a proper pie for this one so imagine our bewilderment when this was presented to Adam. All we saw were a saucepan with mashed potatoes, a slice of bread and a bowl of cooked peas which were lazily mashed with a fork. ‘WTF?’ we thought. ‘Where is the pie?’
There it was. Underneath the creamy, soft pillow of mashed potato-ey goodness was a rich, hearty gravy laden with beef mince and lots of tomato flavour. The bread was pretty much the ‘crust’ of the pie which we broke off to dip into the saucepan. It was the perfect meal for such a cold day. It was pretty good. Larry David pretty good.
My main: Fish of the day (which was salmon – it always is), tomato and cucumber salsa and crushed potatoes. Adam’s wonderfully comforting dish was going to be hard to top and although my dish wasn’t too bad, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. The salmon fillet was overcooked and the salsa and crushed potato tower didn’t really add anything to the dish apart from making it look pretty. To me, the three elements didn’t really mesh together and I’m not sure if it’s because the fish was so dry or whether it was just me. I guess the only good thing I can say about the dish is that the salsa was pretty good on its own – very light with a lovely tangy flavour that would otherwise be a successful accompaniment for another dish.
Okay, we were pretty much full at this stage but not quite full enough to leave without having dessert. Plus, I wanted to make up for my lackluster main. Out of the three options on the dessert menu, the vanilla panna cotta, blueberry puree and butter crumble looked the most enticing. I was rewarded with great contrasting flavours and textures, from the sticky, sour blackberry compote to the subtly sweet, silky panna cotta to the crunchy cocoa butter crumble. I savoured it all while Adam tried hard not to bitch about his ‘okay-but-not-good’ short macchiato.
Joseph’s certainly play it safe with their food – this is something that may piss off those who are looking for bells and whistles when they fine-dine but will most likely keep the large group of seniors in the corner happy. I wouldn’t recommend driving here just for the food but certainly give the place a go if you’re going to be at Werribee Park all day doing other things such as wandering around the mansion and going to the zoo. The service was generally pretty attentive as was evident in the way they kept topping up our bread and our water although the fact that there were flies buzzing around the dining room (and the staff didn’t do anything to remove them) might be a cause of concern (in the middle of WINTER, no less). We might have still been in metropolitan Melbourne but sitting by the window, you really couldn’t tell. It was great just to have a long, lazy lunch in totally different surroundings. It was only when we jumped on the Princes again did we realise that *sigh* we were really back in Melbourne.
330 Little Lonsdale St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9670 7113
Ah, ramen. There is seriously nothing better to tuck into on a cool Winter’s evening. Except for pho. Or braised lamb shanks. Or lasagne. Or pumpkin soup. Ahem. Given the lack of decent ramen options in Melbourne, however, it’s not surprising that ramen does not rate highly on many people’s top Winter comfort food lists. Too much MSG. Too little MSG. Crappy instant noodles. WTF ingredients (lettuce, anyone?). I think the owners of Don Too (the younger sister of Don Don) have realised this and have subsequently wanted to tap into the barely touched market of super-duper awesome ramen in Melbourne. When I first read that normally-lunch-time-only Don Too now opened its doors for dinner on tummyrumbles, I was stoked. And when I read that they had a ramen-only menu for dinner, my reaction was similar to when I found out that both my rucks scored 100+ points in Supercoach this round. No seriously, I think that is worth a ‘WOW.’
Don Too opens its doors for dinner at 5pm. Because of its relatively secluded location and because people have been accustomed to the fact that Don Too was a lunch-only venue, the early hours of a weekday evening is pretty much dead. To find yourself in an empty split-room cafe with smooth jazz tunes blaring from the speakers on a rainy night is a sure-fire way to head to the counter with reluctance but on the other hand, you can actually bag yourself a seat which is normally not the case if you come here during the day.
When the lady at the counter bent down to pour my glass of house white from beneath the cash register while trying to block my view, I suspect that she was doing the dodgy and pouring me *shock horror* cask wine. Indeed, my unidentifiable wine tasted bolder and cheaper than what a standard “house wine” at any pub would taste like. That said, when you are given a serving that is way more than a standard glass and when you are only charged $2.50 for it, why complain? And why complain about VB and Pure Blonde being two of the local beer choices available in bottles when they are only $3 a bottle? ($5 Asahi also available).
Among the limited selection of sides/entrees available were a plate of gyoza (six pieces for $4.80). My initial thought upon seeing all the black bits was, ‘ick!’ but once I bet into the crispy-bottomed and soft-topped parcels of pork and cabbage, dipped in vinegared soy, all negative thoughts disappeared. They were tastier and I guess bolder than many versions I’ve had. Tick.
The first time I came here for dinner, I ordered a charshu ramen ($13). I love that they didn’t put MSG in the broth which was very subtle but arguably on the verge of being slightly insipid. The chewy noodles (all 250gms of it), the soft, smoky charshu pork slice and the awesomely gooey soy-marinated egg halves made up for it with fresh bean shoots, chopped spring onions, a broccoli floret and a toddler’s handful of corn kernels creating prettiness and contrasting textures. Yum!
The second time I went, I decided to give the miso ramen ($9.30) a go. It is pretty much the same as the charshu ramen, just with a different broth. Oh, and the charshu was, for some reason, fattier and not as smoky as the charshu in the other one. I was surprised to find the seasoned miso broth being the more tasty of the two – perhaps a little too tasty if I want to be extremely fussy but I won’t. Having said that, I would definitely go the miso ramen over the charshu one next time.
Adam, who has a penchant for ordering the strangest items off menus, ordered a marinara ramen ($13.20) which could probably be best described as a cross between a ramen and a bowl of marinara pasta. It was weird enough seeing a ramen broth that was tomato-based, but to also see fresh prawns, pippies, mussels and calamari really did my head in. While I give props to Don Too for daring to be different, this was definitely not something that I’d be rushing to order again. Adam, on the other hand, loved it and said that it tasted exactly how he imagined it to be.
For those of you who are used to the walk in, place order and eff off routine at Don Too, you may be surprised to find that your ramen will take longer than the walk from your office down to the eatery. Just be patient though and you will be rewarded by probably the best ramen in Melbourne.*
*Pending a visit to Momotaro Rahmen.