We were excited about eating out in Melbourne. For foodies, the opportunity to spend 12 days eating in Melbourne was thrilling. Melbourne’s food scene is considered by many to be the best in Australia. Just ask any Melbournite. Being lapsed Sydneysiders (having not lived there for over a dozen years), we felt that we had enough physical and emotional distance from our former hometown to even-handedly evaluate Melbourne’s food scene. The verdict? We’re very, very impressed.
We’ve put this first batch of reviews of the top-tier restaurants we dined at under the umbrella ‘contemporary Australian’. What does that mean? Well, it means that what these restaurants are doing is very Australian and very ‘now’ – whether it’s a David Blackmore full blood Wagyu rib eye that’s been grilled on a wood fire (at Rockpool Bar and Grill), where it’s all about premium quality produce and its careful and considered preparation, or a vibrant plate of creatively combined ingredients strewn with bright colourful flowers, where it’s about innovative technique and artful presentation (the rest of the restaurants below).
‘Contemporary Australian’ food is not post-modern, it’s certainly not ‘modernist’ (a term misunderstood and misused in the world of gastronomy), it’s not classical, and it’s not traditional – not even when there’s pavlova on the menu. It’s based on using fresh, seasonal, and often organic Australian produce, taken wherever possible straight from the farm to table, paddock to plate, ocean to fork. It could mean applying French techniques, incorporating Asian ingredients or using Mediterranean flavours, but the outcome is distinctly Australian.
It’s not ‘fusion’ as most of you would know it, because the flavours, ingredients and techniques are applied in subtle, nuanced and organic ways that make sense because of Australia’s multicultural heritage. If a chef grew up as a kid eating pasta one night, Chinese the next, and Thai the night after, it’s only natural that as an adult he’d reach for ingredients from any of those kitchens. Hopefully that goes some way to explaining contemporary Australian cuisine. Here’s a taste of it from Melbourne…
Our arrival for lunch at the restaurant of iconic French-Australian chef Jacques Reymond coincided with the arrival of a delivery of marron, a black crustacean unique to Western Australia, which we were invited into the kitchen to see. We don’t get to try the marron (it was on the evening degustation menu), but we did get to taste seven other exquisite dishes in the elegant dining room of one of Melbourne’s finest restaurants. Jacques Reymond’s feels like a Michelin-starred European restaurant, yet the chef is adamant he’s not cooking French food. “This is contemporary Australian cuisine,” he told us, as we chatted before the meal. “We use 100% fresh Australian produce. What we’re creating here is Australian.” From the house-made bread and butter churned on the premises each day – which were easily the best of both we had in Melbourne during our stay – to each of the seven courses we savoured, Jacques Reymond is doing highly creative, meticulously prepared cuisine that’s uniquely Australian. He is using French technique, but it’s Australian flavours with a distinct nod to Australia’s place in Asia. For instance, the delicious saddle of kangaroo with a light dressing of soy and ginger, with tofu and sweet chilli jam, that we sampled simply wouldn’t work anywhere else in the world. In Australia, it makes perfect sense.
Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne
Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne is what Australia’s most famous chef, Neil Perry, calls a “modern steakhouse” and “a grand dining experience”. Chef Perry, who also has restaurants in Sydney and Perth, was in Melbourne to cook at another of his restaurants, Spice Temple, when we caught up with him. “The flavour of the produce is the most important thing,” he told us. “We’re driven by fresh produce – especially Australian produce – from great aged meat to fresh line-caught fish.” We sampled that aged meat in what must be the most dramatic dining space in Melbourne. It’s a splendid-looking restaurant with a dark sexy wine bar, handsome dining area furnished with plenty of wood, leather and warm colours (tangerine, chocolate), and a huge open kitchen that was a hive of activity. We started with a crudo of Hiramasa kingfish, ocean trout, yellow fin tuna and rock flathead, with horseradish, coriander, and lemon-infused olive oil that was as divine as any sashimi we tasted at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. We had ricotta tortellini, burnt butter, pine nuts, raisins, and king prawns that took us back to our time in Northern Italy (and Neil’s Rockpool restaurant in Sydney back in the day). The highlight of the meal, however, was clearly the steak – an intensely-flavoured rib-eye, dry aged for 49 days, from Cape Grim in Tasmania. There was a subtle smokiness to the meat, which our waiter told us was from Blue Mountains iron bark that had been sprinkled over the coals. Somehow, we made room for dessert – an old-fashioned passionfruit pavlova, the kind our Nannas used to make. This was food that inspired a recollection of as many Aussie memories as it made.
Cutler & Co.
It was a short hike up the hill from our digs at the Windsor Hotel where we were staying to Gertrude St, Fitzroy and Cutler & Co. Designed by owner-chef Andrew McConnell’s architect wife, Pascale Gomes-McNabb, the striking décor is modern European brasserie meets contemporary Australian industrial-chic. We received a warm welcome and staff were superb all night, some of the most knowledgeable and engaged in Melbourne. The room was packed, the atmosphere buzzy, and the vibe casual. Tables were bare, the only signs of ‘fine dining’ being the white linen napkins, good glassware, and an eight-course degustation menu. Our meal began with an unusual assortment of nibbles: Batemans Bay Claire de Lune oysters, olives, pumpkin seeds, fine toast crisps with foie gras whip, prune puree, crisp trout skin, and caviar. What followed was a visual feast: an array of delightful dishes, artfully strewn with minuscule flowers and miniature greens. It was ‘nature to table’ cuisine in the true sense of the term, the ingredients on the pretty plates looking like they’d just been picked from the garden. Despite the restaurant’s enviable reputation, however, only a dish of duck cooked two ways, smoked and fried, with crumbed morcilla, golden raisins, and yellow beetroot was truly divine. Each of the other dishes, while they were an absolute delight to the eyes, didn’t always completely satisfy, and it was because they were under-seasoned. A little salt made all the difference. Australian salt of course.
The Atlantic is located at Southbank, a riverside promenade that’s home to a handful of superb restaurants, several with some of Australia’s most celebrated chefs at the helm. While it’s not exactly an organically grown ‘eat street’, this complex shows how these artificial spaces can work with the right names over the doors. The Atlantic is sleek, shiny and light. It’s a colossal restaurant, cleverly split into smaller and more intimate dining spaces, with a subtle seafaring theme – boat rope lights, net-like curtains, crab-pot lampshades – specializing, naturally, in the freshest of seasonal Australian seafood. The menu details where the seafood has been caught – rock flathead from the Mornington Peninsula, live crayfish from Stanley, yellow fin tuna from Mooloolaba. Passionate about fresh produce and driven by an ocean-to-plate philosophy, Chef Donovan Cooke is also a master of slow cooking. A dish of paprika-marinated octopus cooked sous vide we ate had a sashimi-like quality. Artfully presented on the plate with Ligurian olives, caper berries, Ortiz anchovies, and bright smears of red pepper coulis and rocket pesto, it was packed full of Mediterranean flavour. The pan-seared scallops with blood orange done three ways, on a bed of green and white asparagus, were just as stunningly presented, the bold colours leaping from the black slate slab it was served on. The flavours of every dish were as exuberant as they looked.
Circa, The Prince
In the dark, sexy bar at Circa, The Prince, St Kilda, where we dined later the same evening, we ate more oysters – the best oysters we would eat in Melbourne. “They’re from Jedd Routledge at Coffin Bay,” restaurant manager Jeff told us as he showed us to our table in the intimate, dimly lit dining space. More of the same enthusiasm for fresh Aussie produce was evident at Circa – in conversations with staff, as well as on the plates – where we had yet another truly memorable meal. Warm miso-glazed eel, dancing wasabi, pickled kohlrabi, avocado, apple, and prawn crackers. Rabbit tortellini, morels, broad beans, green peas, Jerusalem artichoke puree, and thyme sauce. John Dory fish, mussels, clams, and spiga pasta with sea urchin butter. Suckling pig, salsify, ham beignet, and spring garlic. It was all sophisticated, thoughtful cooking, but completely unpretentious on the plate. I commented to Jeff during the night that if the plates just had a few more tiny flowers and fussier presentation, the food would have been up there on that top tier with the serious fine dining elite. He smiled, knowingly. Now it must be said here that while chef Jake Nicolson is still at the helm, a change in hotel ownership has seen the restaurant change focus as we write this. We’ll be back there to try the new Circa very soon and we’ll update you once we do.
Taxi Dining Room
Taxi Dining Room at Federation Square is a dazzling space with its soaring ceilings, banquette seating and disco ball lighting, while the vistas of Flinders Railway Station and the trams trundling along St Kilda Road from the floor to ceiling windows are stunning. It’s one of those restaurants with views that are so special and so glam that even if the food hadn’t been sublime we would probably recommend it to visitors for the experience of dining in the place. Fortunately, the six dishes on our degustation menu were even more attention-grabbing (I don’t think we glanced out the window again after the first plate was placed in front of us), from the snapper sashimi with pear, ginger and pomegranates to a desert of Campari soaked citrus fruit with guava ice cream and basil foam. The meal was another playfully elegant example of contemporary Australian cuisine, and with brilliant wine pairings too. The most notable aspect of the food was that it is very precise cooking – as you’d expect from a menu taking a deep bow to Japan. Yet it still manages to be distinctly Australian, and that’s partly because of the lack of pretension and simply beautiful presentation.
Vue de Monde
Up in the clouds on the 55th floor of the Rialto at Chef Shannon Bennett’s newish location for his Vue de Monde restaurant, considered one of Melbourne’s best, we sat on leather chairs covered in kangaroo skins at a black leather table featuring a rock collection (concealing salt and pepper among other things) and Christofle cutlery resting on twigs. Partly due to a tightly packed scheduled (including a shoot scheduled that afternoon and a restaurant that evening) we ate the one-hour three-course lunch at a restaurant famed for its hours-long degustation menus, punctuated by delicious surprises. In hindsight we realized it’s most certainly more of a dinner destination. The dishes were some of the most delightful-looking we had, artfully presented once again, with the beauteous miniature spring flowers that are in culinary fashion. Unfortunately, the visual feast didn’t fully translate to exciting eating and the dishes didn’t really excite. The service was also disappointing. When inquiring how the two different pieces of Wagyu beef placed in front of us were cooked, the waiter replied with a smirk, “very well”. If only it was true, one piece, which we assumed was slow-roasted was overcooked and dry (the other piece which we guessed was sous vide was sublime). The aloof and condescending service by waiters who appeared to double as landscape gardeners, constantly rearranging the rocks on the table and taking little interest in whether we enjoyed our food, didn’t really endear us to the place, regardless of its lofty reputation. Nor the pressure for guests doing the one-hour lunch to leave the moment their time was up. Asking ourselves the classic question “would we go back?”, we’d answer a qualified yes, but only for dinner. Yes, we’re still intrigued.
Vue de Monde wasn’t our last meal in Melbourne. More reviews on a different kind of restaurant in our next post…
We dined at these restaurants on an assignment for Asia’s Lifestyle+Travel magazine; some of this text appeared in the resulting story ‘Mouthwatering Melbourne’ in the Nov-Dec 2010 issue.