The above article was published in the June 2011 edition of Crave Magazine in Hong Kong
Here's a question you ask at your peril: What exactly is Australian cuisine? In response, expect either blank stares or longwinded lectures that involve the indigenous hunter-gatherer diet, colonial influences and the influx of globalization. However, although it is true that the technical and historical composition of Australian cuisine is a rather complicated one, the heart of the matter is in fact quite simple. When you have a free, fertile land and a hodgepodge of different peoples, what happens? They mingle and get creative. There is no reference, and hence no pressure. Imagination runs wild, and a new cuisine is born.
Make a visit to a local coffee joint and you will see what I mean. I was in Melbourne during the annual Food and Wine Festival and when online lifestyle magazine, Broadsheet, was hosting a pop-up coffee store on Crossley Street as a way of promoting the local coffee culture. Not that Melbourne needs much promoting in terms of coffee in fact, because every cup you have there will likely be at least twice as good as your regular Hong Kong version. Why?
“We had a lot of immigrants coming in from Italy, and they heavily influenced our coffee culture. In fact, Australia is one of the few places where the Starbucks giant could not penetrate – they closed over two thirds of their 85 stores countrywide in 2008,” says Nick Shelton, founder of Broadsheet over a cup of perfectly blended flat white from Seven Seeds. “Here in Melbourne, coffee is treated with almost as much esteem as wine.” When you manage to turn coffee into something so distinctively “Melbourne”, credit must be lauded for. The same goes with everything else, from food to wine.
At Da Noi, your Sardinian feast is one that evolves as much with season as with the whim of the kitchen. Candlelit, with creaky floorboards and decked in simple white linen, Da Noi in South Yarra has no menu but serves whatever Chef Pietro Porcu feels befits his customers for the night, and hence no two tables are likely to have the same food. The usual suspects such as osso bucco are paired with an unusual lime scented semolina salad – just don’t expect your waitress to be able to tell you what you’re eating, as they too, get confused by the ever-evolving menu.
Further into town, Cumulus Inc. is your destination of choice if you’re looking for something fun and unpretentious. Located conveniently in the CBD on Flinders Lane, Cumulus Inc. is a “eating house + bar” in a converted warehouse-like space with high ceilings, large windows, and a black-on-white décor. For those of you who have had enough of the minimalist trend, don’t fret, since what Cumulus Inc. lacks in warmth they make up for with an ever-buzzing atmosphere and a busy, friendly, open kitchen. The menu is strictly Australian, with oysters shucked to order, 12-hour cooked lamb - crispy on the outside but a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness on the inside, and an extensive wine list. There is nothing else you can ask for.
A short stroll away, Bistro Vue is the sister and more casual establishment to the “three hat”-ed (the Australian equivalent of the Michelin star) Vue du Mond. Inspired by the turn of the century Parisian bistro, Bistro Vue offers the very best of Shannon Bennett’s Vue empire in an informal yet stylish ambience. Perch at the bar and graze over a selection of their fine cheeses, or linger over a lunch of grilled salmon and wild mushroom bucatini. Ah, and have I mentioned the perfectly cooked tarte tartin for dessert?
Looking for something more out of the ordinary? Check out Longrain at the back end of Chinatown. Big, loud, and generally, a pulsating, boisterous cacophony, Longrain is for all intents and purposes simply irresistible. Expect a bustling, open kitchen, long communal tables, and friendly staff. Grab a seat at the bar with its caipiroskas and lychee martinis and people-watch as its warehouse-esque space fills up with beautiful people while you wait for a table. Then, enjoy whiffs of kaffir lime and fish sauce exploding in your face as you sample Martin Boetz’s modern take on Thai cuisine, put together creatively with Australian fresh produce such as coral trout or mud crab. So much cooler than the Hakkasan crowd.
When you’ve sampled the best the city has to offer, venture into wine country for some further excitement. What South Yarra is to Melbourne, located just a short hour and half away, is what Napa Valley is to San Francisco. Rent a car, drive south, and be prepared to be mesmerized by the beauty of the Yarra river valley. There are more fine wineries here than enough to choose from, but for that extra something which comes in the form of food, De Botoli has it all. Opened in 1982, De Botoli is world renowned for its dessert wine Noble One, and boasts a chef who used to work under the patronage of Gordon Ramsay. At the restaurant, feast on their lovely duck leg confit, take a walk out amongst the vineyards, and bag some of that golden liquor home.
Finally, for that perfect combination of a chic retreat and good food, head to the Olsen Hotel. Inspired by famous landscape artist Dr. John Olsen’s works, the Olsen hotel features 229 suits, a glass bottom swimming pool, and is located in the heart of Melbourne’s shopping district, South Yarra. The hotel restaurant, Blue Bottle, is a tribute to Olsen’s painting Popping Blue Bottles, and inspired by the artist’s Mediterranean travels. It features a calamari-shaped bar, recycled communal tables, lobster-pot lights and calming ocean hues. The menu is simple, down-to-earth fare prepared according to season with the freshest local ingredients and features the likes of a crispy confit porkbelly and spiced swordfish steak.
114 Berkeley St,
Carlton, just outside Melbourne’s CBD
tel: (03) 9416 4661
95 Toorak Road
tel: (03) 9866 5975
45 Flinders Lane,
tel: (03) 9650 1445
430 Little Collins Street
tel: (03) 9691 3838
40/44 Little Bourke Street
tel: (03) 9671 3151
Tel: (03) 5965 2271
The Olsen Hotel
637-641 Chapel Street,
tel: (03) 90401333