The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

YES, this is yet another Melbourne food blog!

Event: Taste of Melbourne 2010

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.

Joseph’s Restaurant & Bar

The Mansion Hotel & Spa at Werribee Park
K Road
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.

Joseph's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Don Too (dinner)

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.

DonToo on Urbanspoon

EARL Canteen

500 Bourke St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9600 1995

I’m probably the only food-blogger who has yet to post a review of EARL Canteen. I’ve lost count of the number of bloggers who have raved on about this gourmet sandwich bar which opened with much fanfare a few months ago. While I’ve been to EARL several times in the last two months, I decided that I was not going to do my write-up until I had tried what bloggers have dubbed ‘the sex sandwich,’ the sandwich that has caused hundreds of punters to place phone orders for and write poems about, and caused walls to shake and the earth to quake. And today I FINALLY had it.

Situated just outside NAB, EARL Canteen is one of a few decent eateries that have recently popped up in the foodie wasteland end of the city (coincidentally, this area also happens to be the legal district). NAB’s share price may have gone to shite but when you have the option of going to places such as MoVida Aqui or Terraza, or EARL Canteen for lunch, who cares? I’ll try not to waffle on for too long as EARL Canteen has been written about over and over by 99% of Melbourne’s food bloggers and sounding like a broken record isn’t cool at all. We know that EARL is established by prominent Melbourne foodies, Jackie (of Eating with Jack fame) and her partner, Simon.  We know that the cafe is named so to pay tribute to the Earl of Sandwich. We know that EARL ‘keeps it real’ by using only the best and freshest ingredients to make their $10-15 sandwich worth every cent. And we know that the canteen’s ‘utilitarian-chic’ decor gives it a warm yet no-nonsense atmosphere.

We also know that the EARL lunchbox is arguably better value than Cafe Vue’s famous lunch box. $13.50 got me a box with a wagyu corned beef and pickled zucchini sandwich with a side of spinach, pumpkin and chickpea salad and a passion fruit friand. Who knew that pickled zucchinis could taste this good and pairing it with wagyu corned beef was nothing short of genius.

On my next visit to EARL, I vowed to get myself one of those aforementioned ‘sex sandwiches’: the pork belly sandwich. On the day, I made the mistake of rocking up past 1:30pm and found myself being told that the pork belly sandwiches had sold out “quite some time ago.” SEXSANDWICHRAGE! Swallowing my disappointment, I ended up getting the REAL steak sandwich to take away ($13.50). It was a balanced mix of juicy grilled skirt steak, caramelised onion, provolone, beetroot, tomato, cos lettuce, mustard and a hint of aioli. It was a far cry from those greasy steak sandwiches from your local fish and chip shop that often come to you with the bread utterly soaked through and the contents dripping out.

Sure both sandwiches were great, but NOTHING could compare to THE pork belly sandwich ($13.50). Take several thick chunks of Otway pork belly, shreds of green apple, fennel and cabbage and wilted silverbeet all wrapped up in a Dench’s baguette. I honestly cannot say why I liked this sandwich so bloody much. It could be the pork belly skin that was so crispy that you forgot that you were actually eating fat. It could be the tender chunks of young pork meat that, when eaten with the skin, created an amazing contrastual experience. Or it could be the sourness of the apples, the bitterness of the cabbage and the creamy mayo that tied all ingredients together to provide one loin-quivering experience.

Not only are EARL’s sandwiches freakin’ fantastic, their coffees aren’t bad either. Using beans courtesy of Coffee Supreme, their long blacks are muscular yet surprisingly delicate at the same time.

Meanwhile, their skinny lattes paled in comparison. Props for the excellent frothing, but its taste was so subtle that it was leaning towards ‘weak.’ It was a good thing I had a passionfruit macaron filled with chocolate to go with my coffee this morning though ($2.50 for the macaron). For a short time, Duncan of Syrup and Tang supplied Melbourne’s #1 macarons to EARL Canteen. Sadly, I never got the chance to try them but hey, I’m happy to settle for Melbourne’s #2 macarons (his words) anytime!

Perfect for a pick-me-up in the late afternoon. Pictured here with Nescafe: coffee and rose macarons. They may have cracked in transit but they were still perfect in my eyes. They were tiny and delicate, yet surprisingly still punchy and full of flavour. Beautiful.

You can probably get two six-inch rolls from Subway for the price of one sandwich from EARL but (and not to diss Subway or anything – OH HAI NICHOLAS!) the quality of ingredients and overall taste of an EARL sandwich could roll a Subway sandwich in a blunt and smoke it. I could easily go to one of William Street’s nondescript cafes and purchase a soggy pre-made sandwich for $10, or I could fork out a little bit extra and get a freshly-made sandwich complete with efficient and friendly serve to boot. I know which option I’ll be going for.

EARL Canteen on Urbanspoon


25 Market Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9650 0848

Adam and I were sitting in his first corporate governance lecture for the semester when he decided that enough was enough and that he wasn’t going to sit through another minute of this. Despite my incessant wails of “but this is actually interesting!” and “hey, I was actually learning something!” (I’m dead serious, it was and I was), he affirmed that he would not be continuing with this subject. I would have been fine sitting there listening to what the professor was saying about the Melbourne Storm fiasco and adding my two cents to the discussion but as soon as Adam said, “If we go now, we’ll have lunch somewhere in the city”, I was out the door with him  following behind and onto the first city-bound train.

Shoya, one of my favourite Japanese restaurants, has been on my mind for quite some time. Having dined on cheap sushi rolls and cheap chicken teriyaki whenever I needed my Japanese lunch fix, I was excited to finally head down to Shoya for one of their lunch sets, with prices ranging from $24 to the mid-30s. While all of them sounded wonderful, it was the Shoya set ($28) that got Adam and I excited as it had a better variety of goodies to try compared to the other lunch sets which were either predominantly sashimi or tempura.

Starting with the ‘pickled appetiser’ in the form of a pickled octopus salad. I did feel that the ponzu overpowered the delicate strands of octopus but apart from that, it was a refreshing start to our meal.

Chawanmushi! The famous Japanese steamed savoury egg custard very rarely makes an appearance in Melbourne’s many Japanese restaurants (the only other restaurant I’ve seen it at is Kuni’s) which is a shame because I know quite a few people who love that stuff. It was in a decent-sized ceramic cup and ultra-delicate yet tasty. As I dug deeper into the custard, little treasures including shiitake mushrooms, bits of shrimp and kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes) were uncovered.

Chilled bean curd. Think of it like an agedashi tofu but without the tofu being fried, and chilled rather than hot. The cool, silky tofu provided a wonderful catalyst to the flavoursome tentsuyu broth while the bonito shavings added a lovely textural dimension.

You can’t go to Shoya without sampling their sashimi – it’s like a tourist going to Sydney without seeing the Harbour Bridge.While this little arrangement does not beat the classic ice bowls that they present your raw fish in during dinner time, the frozen orange half and banana leaf base was nevertheless cute enough. As always, Shoya brings out the freshest sashimi in town and my pieces of raw fish and scallop did not disappoint at all.

Oh, the art of simplicity!

Assortment of tempura. I must admit that I’m not a terribly big fan of tempura so I gave a quiet groan when this dish was presented to me. Surprisingly, the gently-fried morsels of prawn, fish and vegetables were pretty good and, dare I say it, almost met the terrifyingly high benchmark set by Tempura Hajime. A little mound of shaved daikon and ginger was also provided to add a bit of ooomph to the tentsuyu which was bordering on ‘too subtle.’

The ‘grilled fish‘ dish was a piece of blue eye fillet marinated in a simple miso sauce before being grilled until it was slightly too dry for my liking. Another mound of shaved daikon, a wedge of lemon and steamed edamame provided a strange accompaniment to the fish. I would have liked to see it come with some sort of sweet dipping sauce as it was so dry and the miso flavour barely there.

We were full at this stage and was ready for dessert but no, we still had another dish to come: the ‘mini’ udon which was anything but mini. It wasn’t a ramen-sized bowl but big enough to equal lunch for me. It was certainly one of the better udons I’ve ever had – a simple seaweed broth, thick strands of fresh and chewy udon noodles topped with soft kombu and spring onions. I could not have asked for a better final savoury dish.

Dessert was a choice between vanilla and green tea ice cream; I chose green tea and Adam went vanilla. I’m not sure if the ice cream was store-bought or home-made but they were generous servings and they were an awesome way to cap off a wonderful lunch. Win.

City Grill Room

535 Little Lonsdale St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9602 2228

I’ve decided to be lazy with this one and do a half-arsed job. See this restaurant’s logo? Does it look familiar to you steak lovers?

If you think that it looks a LOT like famed steakhouse Squire’s Loft’s logo, you’re right.

Last Friday, Shirley and I had dinner at City Grill Room which is just around the corner from my office – and it was pretty much identical to the one that I enjoyed at Squires Loft with Martin and Adam a year ago. Same licensor, almost identical menu items, just a different name (read JLCS Pty Ltd v Squires Loft City Steakhouse Pty Ltd if you can be bothered). Because the food we had at both restaurants were similar, I’m just going to describe the differences between Squires Loft (city) and City Grill Room, if any.

Like last time, we received some freshly baked sourdough slices with a wrapped butter pat, this time ‘Tatura’ instead of ‘Western Star.’ I don’t know about you, but I just find it funny that this place was trying to be fancy by presenting the bread on a slab of wood … and planted a wrapped butter pat to accompany the bread. Additionally, a glass of Claymore’s Dark Side of the Moon shiraz ($9) was ordered purely because of the name. Ticks were given to the hints of bold oak and spice but not for the fact that it was served at room temperature. As in, heated-room-with-the-ducted-heating-set-at-22-degrees-Celsius type of room temperature. Effkers!

500g pork spare ribs (also $27.50). The OMFG of all ribs! Just as good as the ones we had last time, but this time cooked a little longer. Perfect. We actually did ask the waitress if we could take the ribs home in a bag for our doggies but we were told that the bones splintered easily and would cause all sorts of havoc to our dogs’ bodies. Oh well.

For some reason, the 200g eye fillet steak is a dollar cheaper here ($31.50) but the quality is not at all compromised. We both ordered chips with our steaks (big mistake, they weren’t crunchy) and shared a lovely mushroom sauce ($4.50). Oh, and that pile of tumbleweeds in the background? They’re our fried onions. A bigger serving than last time (and strangely, cheaper too at $7), but not as nice.

I was glad to see my steak medium-rare as requested (compared to the rare steak I received last time. Not that I mind rare, it’s just that, well, what reason would a steak house have to stuff up my order?!) and indeed, it was a beautiful piece of moo. Delicious.

To balance things out, we shared a side salad ($6). Nothing fancy, we just needed some greens.

Apart from slight variances in prices, food quality and speed of service (Squires Loft was quicker), it is fair to say that both restaurants are virtually identical. Very similar menu offerings, the same masculine decor and atmosphere (timber and BAD LIGHTING and all). If I had to choose between the two of them, I’d probably pick City Grill Room because their food was slightly better and because it’s closer to my work. That’s all.

Tomodachi (CLOSED)

Level 3, Melbourne Central Shopping Centre
Cnr Swanston and LaTrobe Sts
Melbourne VIC 3000
+ 61 3 9663 1940

My least favourite dining format, apart from all-you-can-eat buffets and brash fast food outlets, is the sushi train restaurant. Like a lot of my friends, I have never had a positive experience in a sushi train restaurant. It goes without saying that Melbourne’s sushi train restaurants serve pretty average food  and given that all those little dishes add up to an astronomical sum on the final bill, sushi train dining is not the most economical dining option if one feels like Japanese food. So when Shirley, a Japanese food nymphomaniac, suggested going to Tomodachi, a sushi train restaurant in Melbourne Central, for our next dinner she was met with reluctance. “Oh, but everyone says it’s crap… sushi train restaurants suck… this place is run by Koreans from Sydney and what would they know about Japanese food… this place doesn’t have an Entertainment Book coupon anymore,” I protested, hoping that she’d change her mind. “No, but you HAVE to try the salmon and enoki roll,” she insisted before bestowing various superlatives on this illustrious sushi roll. Sold.

Sharing the same floor as Cho Gao and Hoyts cinema, Tomodachi is a convenient place to have a pre-drinks or pre-movie nibble. One can sit on a bar stool and pick whatever dish takes their fancy as they churn past, or they can sit in a comfortable booth away from the train. In this instance, we decided to sit in a booth and order from the a la carte menu because the better dishes (such as the salmon and enoki roll) were apparently found in the a la carte menu.

Just because we sat in a booth and ordered off the a la carte menu, we were not prevented from jumping up and grabbing dishes from the sushi train. While other sushi train restaurants colour-code their plates and set prices for each colour, Tomodachi is giving all colours a Fair Go by charging $3.50 for every single plate that rolls out of the train. Not bad, you say. But when you bite into the extremely rubbery grilled unagi, a seaweed inari that fall apart after one gentle prod of the chopstick and a drier-than-morning breath fried prawn nigiri, you can’t help but think, ‘No wonder why people are quick to diss this place!’

Then came the agedashi tofu ($8.90), lightly coated in potato starch before being fried and served in a dashi broth. I liked the way they cut the silken tofu pieces up into manageable bits, but not the way the way-too-salty dashi broth overpowered the delicate tofu.

The takoyaki ($7.80 for 1/2 a dozen) were surprisingly good. They were well-formed crispy balls with the right amount of octopus in each one. Also, props for the generous lashings of mayo and tonkatsu sauce as most restaurants do not put enough, in my humble opinion.

The most disappointing dish from the a la carte menu was the beef tataki ($13.80). The cuts were too thick and too thick thanks to being overcooked on the grill. The lemon ponzu dressing not only failed to bring out the flavours of the beef (hmmm, it probably didn’t help that it had no flavour in it…) but tasted more like potent lemon warhead than sweet and vivacious Liz Lemon.

At this stage, I had not yet been won over by Tomodachi. Apart from the takoyaki, none of the dishes were worth going back for. I was about to throw in my towel but then the salmon and enoki roll ($17.80) came and boy, did it look spectacular. The roll could be best described as a basterdised, inside-out sushi roll featuring a very liberal use of mayo and the deep-fried battered enoki mushrooms on the inside was more likely than not to frighten Japanese food purists. Strangely enough, it worked. This is obviously not the healthiest sushi dish on the planet but one single piece had a wonderful array of bold flavours and contrasting textures that made me go ‘ZIIINGGGGG!’

Our last dish was the tempura lobster salad roll ($16.80) which wasn’t too bad, but not as awesome as the above dish. While I could not fault the lovely lobster filling and the crispy tempura coating, the fact that they stuck a raw bean in the filling annoyed me. Ditto the kecap manis-like sauce which I felt did not work with the flavours of the lobster roll.

Tomodachi reinforced my belief that anything that comes from a sushi train sucks (in Melbourne, at least). If I had chosen to sit by the train and ate only the dishes that arrived on a round coloured plate, I would have walked out of there unhappy. Thank goodness, then, for the few a la carte dishes that made me more inclined to return to Tomodachi. Sure, the a la carte menu had  more misses than Tommy Lee and sure, most of the food can hardly be considered ‘authentic’ Japanese but when you have something that tastes as sickeningly good as that salmon and enoki roll and when you have takoyaki that is better than the place that claims to have the best takoyaki in Melbourne, you know that this is a place that you can’t yet dismiss for good.

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.

Baba on Urbanspoon

Zam Zam

362-364 Lonsdale St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9606 0109

To get good Indian food in the city, I would normally walk up Bourke Street or tram it to Classic Curry on the corner of Elizabeth and Queensberry.  It sounds like a bit of a hassle, but when the only nearby option is a three-hour old curry puff sitting in a bain marie at Curry Bowl, the trip is often worth it. I catch the bus home from Lonsdale St (hello, stalkers!) and for as long as I could remember, there’s never been any decent Indian food in the area. Thus, you can imagine how surprised I was when I found Zam Zam.

I swear, I’ve walked past this place 10 billion times on my way to my bus stop and into JB Hifi but I’ve never actually paid any attention to it. Until now.

Unlike the attention-seeking facade of Funky Curry on Bourke, Zam Zam is a modest sandwich cafe-turned Indian eatery that is very easy to miss. Apparently it’s an off-shoot of a Muslim-run family eatery in Singapore that’s been around for just over 100 years. This means that the Indian food here is not only halal (i.e. no pork) but influenced by Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. Thus, you can order a lamb korma with a side of dhal as well as some murtabak, all washed down with teh tarik.

The two times I’ve been here, my meals have straight from the bain marie though I do believe that some dishes are made to order. A popular choice is the biryani set which comes with two meat dishes and one vegetable ($9.50). You could pick a combination of chickpeas, chilli chicken and minced lamb and pea curry…

… or fried tandoori chicken, dhal and chicken curry. A splashing of yoghurt is optional but if you’re anything like Aaron and likes to make things difficult, then they can dig up some hot pickles and chutney for you.

If you’re not a fan of biryani, $8.50 will get you some basmati rice, two meat dishes and one vegetarian dishes. Last time, I enjoyed some lamb korma, butter chicken and a side of dhal.

Yesterday, Adam and I were in a ‘roti mood’ so skipped the rice and went straight for the roti. Two freshly cooked roti and chicken vindaloo for Adam ($6.50) while I went vego and got some chickpeas instead ($6.00).

And you can’t walk out without washing it all down with a hot cup of teh tarik (pulled tea sweetened with condensed milk, $2.50).

Given that most of the food sits in a bain marie for hours, the food is nevertheless satisfying and filling. I would, however, advise those with weaker stomaches such as Adam to be careful. Having said that, Adam reckons that these two instances of tummy viruses will not deter him from coming back again. I wouldn’t say this joint is the Indian food equivalent of the Well of Zam Zam but the food is good enough for me to not go all the way to Bourke Street for Indian grub.

T.Cavallaro & Sons Pasticceria

98 Hopkins Street
Footscray VIC 3011
+61 3 9687 4638

My good mate, Martin, who lives in the foodie wasteland known as Broadbeach Waters was lamenting the limited availability of REAL cannoli up on the Gold Coast. Real cannoli, he said, had a crispy shell and was filled with soft ricotta, not custard. To be honest, I wasn’t a cannoli person to begin with but all that talk of the famous Sicilian pastry dessert got me keen to find the best cannoli in Melbourne. I did a bit of research and according to Melbourne foodie royalty tummyrumbles, T.Cavallaro & Sons Pasticceria in Footscray was the way to go.

Although Adam and I walk past this humble shop frequently, we’ve never been inside because we had always assumed that it was just a store that sold coffee-making equipment. Given that the windows were always filled with little stove tops and coffee mugs, I’d say it was a valid assumption. Okay fine, so you can see chocolate eclairs and profiteroles in that photo but puh-lease, we’re both pretty tall for Asians so as if we would be bothered looking down to spot the desserts.

The store itself looks like it has not changed since it opened back in 1956. An old-school espresso machine still churns out decent-looking coffees and the recipes used to make the cakes and pastries remain untouched for over 100 years. Every time I walk into the store, there is always one or two Italian female customers ummm-ing over what size they want their god-daughter’s christening cakes to be or whether to order three or four dozen pieces of freshly baked biscotti. Me? I walk straight to the back where the cannoli are and patiently wait for my turn.

As well as the original ricotta-filled cannoli, the more ubiquitous vanilla and chocolate cream ones are available (both are $3 each take-away, or $3.50 eat-in). As soon as I place my order for a couple (and in today’s case, half a dozen), the lady who is as cheery and matronly as La Befana goes out the back to fill my cannoli from scratch. The result is a beautifully crisp shell filled with the softest ricotta or custard centre, none of them being overly sweet. Dust with a bit of icing sugar and you have the most amazing morning coffee accompaniment. They were seriously the loveliest cannoli I’ve ever tried. Even the ‘try-hard’ custard ones were miles ahead of their competitors wilting away in suburban bakeries.

Obviously if you leave them in the car for 11 hours straight, your cannolo’s shell isn’t going to remain super-crispy. The difference between these cannoli and the ones served at any random bakery, however, is that these ones do not get soggy even after  half a day in the car. Soft, yes, but not soggy. And what’s even more amazing is that they still retain a bit of crunch. Best cannoli in Melbourne? So far, YES.

T. Cavallaro & Sons on Urbanspoon