When it comes to eating out in Melbourne ‘ethnic’ cuisine is probably what first comes to mind. Judging by our last story on Contemporary Asian Cuisine in the Victorian capital, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Melbourne was an Asian city with Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian restaurants all flourishing. Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine is a little more complex than that.
Well, it is, sort of, and they are, but Australia, and Melbourne in particular, has a long history of immigration from Europe and the Middle East and the diversity of Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine scene reflects this.
It all began with the British – explorers, occupiers, adventurers, convicts, and farmers – who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788. Although there was an Italian convict on the First Fleet, and French wine-makers and merchants arrived soon after.
The Chinese represented the first large wave of immigrants during the 1850s Gold Rush.
Greeks and Italians settled here in large numbers after World War II, as did Maltese who arrived under the first assisted passage scheme in 1948.
More French landed in the 1960s and 1970s following independence of French colonies in Asia and Africa.
There’s a misconception that migrants from the Middle East didn’t arrive until the 1970s, however, the first Lebanese made Sydney their home as far back as the 1880s, as did Syrians from 1891, escaping the Ottoman Empire.
The Lebanese continued to come until the 1950s, with a second and third wave arriving after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Lebanese civil war in 1975.
Egyptians started arriving in the 1940s and 1950s, with an influx after the Suez Crisis, while Turkish settled from 1967 under a new assisted passage scheme.
Of course, there were many more immigrants who made Australia, and especially Melbourne and Sydney their home. Russians started arriving after the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and World War II. Latin Americans, from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador came in the 1960s and 1970s, escaping military rule.
Asians, including Vietnamese and Cambodians, made Australia their home in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. And beginning in the 1980s, Iranians, Afghans, and later Iraqis, fled Down Under, escaping war and poverty.
So if the French, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Maltese, and so on, have been here for so long, cooking, eating and serving up their food, can we still call their cuisines ‘ethnic’? I don’t think so. I’ve been eating pasta, pizza, moussaka, kebabs, salt and pepper calamari, and so on, for as long as I can remember. Maybe we need a new term to describe Australian food that has its roots elsewhere, but is no longer ‘foreign’, or Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine?
When it comes to Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine, these are some of the best options in the city right now. What all the restaurants below have in common is that, like the Asian restaurants we reviewed in our last post, they are contemporary. This is the food of the moment.
This is a very different breed of restaurants to the no-frills neighbourhood places my parents took me to, and the ones Terence and I would frequent in Sydney when we were younger. These are cool, stylish places, albeit casual and relaxed, with their chefs tipping a hat to their traditional roots in a manner that is very much of this moment in time.
Eating Out in Melbourne – Melbourne’s Ethnic Cuisine
Middle Eastern food that’s not about a vertical spit
Terence: When René Redzepi gives you a restaurant recommendation, you listen. His rhapsodizing to us about what Chef Joseph Abboud was doing at Rumi appealed, however, I have to admit that after a dozen years living in the Middle East, I wondered what this restaurant (or any Australian restaurant) could offer that would transcend so many great meals we’ve had that express the best of Middle Eastern cuisine. Ironically, what Chef Joseph has done is what so many restaurants in the Middle East don’t do – take a wider view of their rich cuisines. And I say cuisines because you’ll not only find ‘Arabic’ cuisine, including Lebanese and Syrian specialties, here but a little trip over to Iran and Turkey for spices and cooking techniques. What I love about this restaurant is the bravery to leave quintessential dishes off the menu and the tendency to opt for more rustic, traditional, and less celebrated dishes. To me, this is the best example of Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine.
Lara: Creamy labne, green olives in fennel, bastourma, and pickle vegetables… it all took me right back to the many restaurants we’ve eaten at across the Levant. But then there was the burnt eggplant with Persian butter milk dressing, mint and crispy onions; the quail and shallot kebab with toum and sumac; the fish baked in vine leaves, pickled grapes and verjuice; the almond milk pudding with barberry and pistachio, and Turkish pumpkin with sweet labne, pepitas and walnuts… this is food that feels like something a Lebanese grandmother would make for a big family gathering, only made with aplomb. It was all really scrumptious stuff and I loved washing it down with Lebanese arak. The Abbouds were about to get on a plane for a holiday in Lebanon, and I tell you, I felt like going with them after that meal.
Inauthentic Pizza – and proud of it
Terence: When chef Joseph Abboud (see Rumi, above) found a great Italian pizza dough recipe he really liked, ideas started fermenting in his mind. Partnering up with his like-minded Lebanese-Australian mate John, the result is this fun and funky space serving up Lebanese and Turkish ‘pizzas’. The Lebanese version is called manoushé, a breakfast staple in Lebanon, while the Turkish take on it is pidé. Here, the firm favourite is the ‘Beiruiti’, served with the seductive spice mix called za’atar, with fresh tomato, olives, onion, labne and roquette. On the Turkish side, it’s hard to go past any version of pidé that has the spicy sausage called sujuk, so try the Mustafa Kemal with sujuk, tomato, egg and spinach. I just wish he’d open a branch in the city centre…
Lara: What a revelation. I was so annoyed our tight scheduled meant a rushed meal. While this is super-casual (yet a super cool-looking space, with old Egyptian movie posters and kitsch Lebanese trinkets around the place), and a fast-food concept, it’s an eatery I could easily have lingered in, picking at dishes of olives, pickled vegetables and bastourma, before taking some time to try a few different types of their “inauthentic pizza”. I guess this is the eatery that best exemplifies ‘ethnic’ food that is uniquely Australian. You’d never see manoushé and pidé on the same menu in the Middle East. Only a Lebanese-Australian (or Turkish-Australian), with their anything goes attitude could get away with something like this and succeed. Alhamdulillah!
A Melbourne legend’s offspring add to the new French Spring
Terence: It’s wonderful to see French bistro dining getting renewed attention in Melbourne. For all the chasing trends (although a hip Asian space with a rock’n’roll soundtrack or a Mexican taco truck are stuff we have to write about), there is something life affirming about Melbourne having three newish French bistros with a fine lineage. In this neighborhood corner bistro’s case, it’s three of the offspring of renowned chef Jacques Reymond who have set up here, with the head chef coming from Reymond’s eponymous restaurant.
Lara: The atmosphere of this light-filled eatery really appealed to me, especially in the late afternoon when it felt both distinctly Parisian and yet very Australian, if that’s possible and I guess it is. I loved seeing the mix of people dropping in, from a bloke in a suit who called in to have a quick cold beer, to groups of office friends getting comfy in the lounge for post-work drinks with glasses of wine to a couple in the corner who were deep in conversation all afternoon. The food suited the casual vibe, from the baby beetroot salad with trout, cucumbers and crème fraiche, to the escargots in their shells in butter and olive oil. This is a great spot to head for dinner if you’re staying at Hotel Hatton nearby.
Out of the ashes of a Gordon Ramsay Nightmare
Terence: This eatery started off as maze and maze Grill at the Crown Metropol, Gordon Ramsay’s first and probably last effort in Australia. After Ramsay liquidated the business, executive Chef John Lawson stayed on and developed the concept that is now Mr Hive Kitchen & Bar. The casual, pub-style atmosphere is fitting with the current trend towards informality, but the cooking is exacting and the presentation a treat. Sharing plates of dishes such as their excellent chicken liver parfait are rich and rewarding, while the suckling pig to share for two, served on an enormous board, is a definite highlight.
Lara: Considering the location, handy for guests staying at the Crown Metropol, yet a bit of a stroll through the casino and mall for everyone else, I was surprised to see this place just buzzing soon after 6pm, and jam-packed by the time we returned later that night. As much as I love the new décor, it has a great vibe at night. While Ramsay’s influence is apparent (British food based on French technique), this is very much John Lawson’s style of food – and it’s much more casual and fun, very Melbourne, and very now, compared to anything Ramsay has ever done. I also liked the roasted scallops with cauliflower cream wild rice and spice, however, that suckling pig board with its boudain noir, deep fried pigs head, pork belly, cheek, rack, and more, was truly spectacular. It’s a must-eat for diners.
Everything old is hip again
Terence: I remember on our trip to Melbourne late last year, we stayed close by this airy, high-ceilinged space and often marveled at how buzzy it was whenever we passed by. Chef Philippe Mouchel’s modern take on the French bistro and rotisserie is a fantastic space, with a long open kitchen where guests can see the chefs at work, tending to juicy, plump chickens on the rotisserie. Everything we tried here, from the charcuterie plate through to desserts was what we expect of a French bistro, but is so rarely delivered back in Paris.
Lara: I agree! The chicken was some of the most succulent and flavorsome we’ve ever tried. It was at Bistro Guillaume on that last trip where we were enlightened by how stupendous a chicken can taste, as if I’ve just tried poultry for the very first time. The charcuterie plate, with its duck rillettes, terrines, and salamis was also one of the tastiest we’ve ever nibbled. There were a couple of things I really loved about this restaurant, that the charming Chef Philippe is at the pass, serving plates, and making sure everyone is happy, and that he’s evening packaging up take-away chickens in paper bags — and yes, that’s the other thing, that they do take-away! It’s worth pointing out that at lunchtime it’s primarily suits dining here, but don’t let that put you off in you’re on holidays and in casual clothes, this is one of Melbourne’s busiest and buzziest dining rooms and nobody’s going to care what you wear.
Terence: One of the great things about not living in Australia, where citizens who have electricity are subjected to the endless promotion and cross-promotion of cooking shows, is that we really had no idea who Chef George Calombaris was when we arrived in Melbourne. In short (for our mostly non-Australian readers), George Calombaris is a celebrity chef on a TV show called MasterChef, who has an ever-growing restaurant empire. While PM24 (above) is part of the same empire, it’s the odd one out in terms of cuisine. Chef Calombaris’ other restaurants are traditional and modern Greek, and Med-MidEastern, while Mama Baba works the DNA of his Greek mother and Italian-Greek father into a slick operation that was still finding its feet when we ate here. Chef George was on the pass that evening, taking time out to chat and have photos with food bloggers. As we were leaving, he was taking a photo of a finished dish with his smartphone. I made a joke about him tweeting his meal. “When you write menus for several restaurants,” he replied, “You need to keep track of what the dishes look like.” Indeed.
Lara: Mama Baba had not been open long when we went and there were guests streaming in from the time the doors opened. This is another funky-looking eatery that hums with the chatter of conversation. There’s a long enticing bar and while tables are close together the high ceilings ensure the place doesn’t feel the least bit cramped. The menu is divided into snacks, ‘Pastas (Mama)’ and ‘Pasta (Baba)’, mains, salads, and sweets, and even baby food. I highly recommend having a taste of pasta from each side of the family. I preferred Mama’s tortellini with prawn saganaki, tomato and feta to Baba’s agnolotti with slow roasted pork mortadella, artichoke, guanciale and date. However, what I really enjoyed were the snacks. I did not understand the Melbourne phenomenon that is ‘the Parma’ until we tried these mini chicken parmas wth jamon and tomato ketchup – they were so tasty.
Melbourne’s ethnic cuisine – Where to Eat
116 Lygon Street
03 9388 8255
The Moor’s Head
Rear of 774 High Street
03 9484 0173
52 Toorak Road West
03 9867 5853
Mr Hive Kitchen & Bar
8 Whiteman Street
03 9292 8300
24 Russell St
03 9207 7424
If you found this guide useful we recommend: Appetising Australia; Best Food Experiences in Australia; Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Australian Cuisine; Eating Out in Melbourne, from European to Asian and Back Again; and Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Asian Cuisine.
We ate at these restaurants between September 2011 and March 2012 during research for Mouthwatering Melbourne, a magazine story focused on the gastronomic scene in Victoria’s capital.
- Mama Baba and PM24 have since closed. We will be updating this guide in April 2017.