Search This Blog

Monday, May 5, 2008

Eating Melbourne

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I got the impression that Melbourne was over-rated and less than great. Maybe it was the 8 or so hours Chris and I spent there a couple of years ago for the purpose of a business meeting and - ostensibly - a bit of sightseeing. The same 8 hours wherein the fair city put on a fine show of its famed bad weather and we got on the homeward flight cold, wet and having seen nothing much except a rain-swept St Kilda and the inside of a peak-hour city tram.

Okay, I admit it. I was hasty in making judgment, and, it now seems, horribly unfair. Melbourne, despite its strange weather patterns (which were again on display this time around), is lovely. And, more importantly to my mind, a food mecca not to be underestimated.

Coming from Perth, which is deemed a 'small and isolated city' (but which is also a great place to call home, make no mistake), I'm always fascinated by the larger cities' ability to offer such a varied and thriving food culture. The sheer number of little boutique-style cafes and shops in these places would simply not be sustainable here due to our lesser population. Hence my excitement at eating my way through such places - the biggest downfall being the number of meals one can realistically cram into a single day, which severely limits my capacity to try everything!

The Tour

Apart from much general discovery, Chris and I spent a relatively fine Saturday morning in the CBD on a dedicated 'Foodies Walking Tour', led by the lovely and exceptionally knowledgeable Allan Campion. Not only is Allan an expert on his foodie information (partly due, I'm sure, to the research he undertakes to co-author the Foodies Guide to Melbourne each year), he also offers many 'hidden extras' about the history of particular businesses and locations as you go along. And although my inclination was to give you a blow-by-blow account of every place we visited on the tour, and what we ate, I think it might be best to tantalise just enough that you might go on the tour yourself, rather than experience it through your computer! So, in no particular order of importance, highlights were:

  • A visit to Maxims Bakery in Chinatown (cnr Little Bourke and Russell St's). Tiny, typically Asian and full to the brim with pastry delights. We tasted the interesting melon cake (which Allan rightly said was probably not something most 'Westerners' would choose, but was great to try) and the egg tarts during the tour, and were compelled to return a couple of days later for a gluttonous feast of curry beef buns, coconut buns, bbq pork puffs and curry puffs. I can happily say everything was great (and it's cheap enough that you can try A LOT of things withough blowing the budget, although the same probably can't be said about your waistline after you do this).

  • A stop at the iconic Grossi Florentino restaurant for a sneak peek at their upstairs Mural Room (complete with brief history of the business from Allan), followed by salt cod fritters and a glass of wine in the downstairs bar. We didn't have time to go back for a meal during our stay, but it will certainly be on the list for next time. A place that serves up handmade pasta with guanciale (pig's cheek, and no, I didn't know what it was until we asked!), cavolo nero and olives is a place I want to eat at...

  • Chocolates and a chat with the chocolatier at Koko Black. There are several stores around Melbourne, and if you live there but haven't visited one before then I would suggest it's high time you did. Classic high-class chocolatey goodness. Nothing else to say.

  • A wander past Quists Coffee, Melbourne's first commercial coffee roasters. They were unfortunately closed the day of our tour, however we went back to try their coffee and were not disappointed. I might add here that appearances can be deceiving - apart from their prominently-situated coffee machine (which is truly a thing of beauty), Quists doesn't look like much from the outside. One tiny macchiato, however, will convince you otherwise.

There were many other fascinating discoveries made during Allan's tour which Chris and I referred back to over the course of our visit, and I sincerely hope that whether you think you are a 'tour person' or not (I have to say that it's not usually my first inclination to go on a tacky guided tour of a city when I go somewhere new), you'll give it a try if you get the chance. It was well worth the time and cost, and something any food-oriented soul should enjoy.

The Restaurant

Oh, what a joy it is to go to a restaurant you've heard so much about and find that not only does it live up to your expectations, it actually exceeds them. On several occasions I've visited much-touted venues only to be let down by one thing or another and gone home a bit perplexed as to the deservedness of their reputations (the most recent that springs to mind is Sydney's Pier, where the service didn't quite match up to the setting/food/prices despite it's long-standing good name).

MoVida, in Melbourne's CBD, impressed on all counts. So much so, in fact, that I almost cry when I think about how far I must travel to visit again. The tapas style of eating is one which appeals a lot, due to its emphasis on eating many different things throughout the meal. Great for those of us who can never decide what to have, although at MoVida I wanted to try almost everything on the menu, which left another problem entirely: be a total glutton and try everything that looks good, or make a concerted effort to choose only the 'best' of the menu??

Ultimately, our party of four went with the recommendation of our fantastic waitress and chose around 3 tapas each, then 5 racion (mid-sized plates) to share. Although we probably could have gotten through another 1-2 dishes between us, our restraint was later rewarded with the ability to fit in dessert - it's always a plus when you don't leave knowing you've eaten so much that you won't be able to sleep that night!

I'd like to be able to tell you that everything we consumed has a matching photograph so you can actually see what was ordered, but, well, we were far too busy devouring it to worry about pictures! And to be honest, any photographs I could have taken would probably only detract from the deliciousness...a crumbed and fried ball of goodness might be about the best thing one can eat, but lets face it, there aren't many ways to make it beautiful on camera. So you'll just have to trust me. And if you really want to see it, their quirky website has a few funny little pics that will whet the appetite.

Highlights: the diminutive Croqueta, crunchy and golden on the outside, silky and mushroomy within; Vieira, jamon y espuma (baked scallop on the half-shell with jamon and potato foam), the potato foam giving a little nod to the molecular gastronomy groupies; the Gambas con pancetta (pastry-wrapped prawns with pork belly and chickpea shoots), possibly my favourite EVER prawn dish; and, surprisingly, an unassuming and simple little number of Espinacas con garbanzos (sauteed spinach with chickpeas and spices), which defied all expectation and was one of the best dishes of the night. The current menu lists these gorgeous treats and more.

Go there. Go there now. Although you will want to book a table - it's not a huge restaurant and reservations need to be made well in advance (it took us 5 weeks 'thinking ahead time' to get our Sunday night booking). And if you don't live in Melbourne, like us, you'd better start thinking about planning a trip. It's that good.

A couple of other things

Try a cheap and cheerful vegetarian lunch at the Trippy Taco if you're near Collingwood, and churros with an array of different dipping chocolates at Chocolateria San Churro (several locations, we patronised the Brunswick St store in Fitzroy more than once). Gills Diner in the city is also good for a casual dinner (despite a rather unfortunate brand of service from our less-than-friendly waitress - all other reports have been favourable, and the food was great).

Still to come in the next post: my newly-acquired cookbooks from a little shopping expedition during our trip, with a recipe full of chocolatey ooziness to delight one and all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your very clever emily.
i enjoyed this one most. cept it made me super hungry. darn it.
:) caitlin