You can take a culinary trip around the world, eating out in Melbourne — from Europe to Asia and back again — and that’s virtually what we did on our recent Melbourne foodie trip, eating everything from Italian, French and British to Japanese, Thai and regional Chinese. To Australians, this kind of eating isn’t unusual.
Like many Aussies of our generation, Terence and I came from a mixed European heritage. Mine were Russian immigrants and early British settlers, while Terence’s ancestors were German and Irish. For my family, it was normal to have a Sunday roast one weekend and eat European family-style the next with a table heaving with colossal bowls of Russian pelmeni and vereniki, cabbage rolls, cutleti, and potato salad, all accompanied by plenty of vodka. On a Friday night, our parents would take us out for Italian, French or Chinese.
During our uni days living in inner city Sydney, Terence and I would eat anything and everything. Though aside from French at a little bistro we used to frequent in Balmain and the Spanish tapas bars we kicked back at in town, we were mainly eating Asian — Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Korean, and Japanese — from neighbourhood joints in Balmain, Glebe, Newtown, Darlinghurst, and Potts Point, most of which we’d find in the Cheap Eats guide.
It’s been interesting to return to Australia and see that over a dozen years later, in some ways, nothing has changed…
Australians, especially those in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, still take a culinary tour of the globe each week, whether they’re cooking at home or eating out. Little do they probably realise, but they’re very lucky. Eating in Australia is not like this everywhere else in the world.
But in some ways, a lot has changed. While the cheap ethnic neighbourhood eateries remain, many that we used to know have been renovated and gone upmarket, or simply gone.
Then there’s a new breed of ‘ethnic’ eatery altogether, established by some of Australia’s finest chefs — from Neil Perry (exploring regional Chinese) to Guillaume Brahimi (who has returned to his French roots) — where the focus is on reproducing authentic flavours (sometimes in a modern or contemporary forms) and using premium quality produce.
At these restaurants, you won’t find yourself poking around a dish wondering if that’s really chicken or pork.
Of the many restaurants we experienced, these are the eateries we enjoyed most…
Eating Out In Melbourne — from European to Asian and Back Again
In the moody, dimly lit, crimson-hued dining space at Chef Neil Perry’s Spice Temple, a small lunch banquet of sublime dishes transported us to China, starting with a Szechuan street food classic, Bang Bang Chicken.
While the presentation was contemporary — succulent pieces of cold poached chicken, stuffed with Szechuan pepper, tidily lined in a row — the spicy flavours were authentic and traditional, the chicken swimming in a deliciously complex, crunchy pool of chilli oil, scallions and crushed peanuts, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
It was amazing — as was the Three Shot Chicken, which the waitress finished off theatrically on a small gas burner at our table. To the chicken simmering in the clay pot, she added shots of Xingtao beer, soy and chilli oil. It knocked our socks off.
As did our final dish from Hunan, Chairman Mao Pork — pork belly slow-braised in Shao Xing wine, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon.
While non-Asian Australians generally play it safe with spice, Perry is a champion of fiery Chinese food.
That same evening we headed to one of Melbourne’s most modish eateries, Chin Chin. Despite the no-bookings policy, we didn’t have to wait for a table. Weekends, however, see long lines of punters outside. (Go on a weekday, people!)
We quickly discovered, though, it would have been worth a wait. Chin Chin is doing modern Asian food, based upon fresh seasonal Australian produce and authentic Asian flavours, especially Thai. Chefs Andrew Gimber and Ben Cooper both worked with David Thompson of Bangkok’s Nahm. That should say enough.
The highlights were a jungle curry with Moreton Bay Bugs and a Massaman curry of coconut braised Hopkins River beef brisket with pink fur potatoes and crispy shallots.
They were fiery, fragrant and rich, more reminiscent of our best eating in Thailand than the anodyne Thai food often served up in Australia.
The place is casual, buzzy and fun too, with its pop culture décor (posters plastered on a wall; video-game graphics on the bar tiles), retro soundtrack, and friendly staff whose personalities are allowed to shine.
We had a similar experience at Bistro Guillaume, where we started to see a pattern emerging. In a space so Parisian it could have been in Paris, with its polished wooden floors, mirrors, and blackboard menus, Chef Guillaume Brahimi demonstrates a return to his roots with this casually-elegant French bistro.
Noted for his fine dining restaurant Guillaume at Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House, Brahimi, who splits his time between the two restaurants, was cooking the day we dined. His focus, he told us, is on “good produce, served simply”. And, wherever possible, seasonal Victorian produce from a supplier who deals directly with farmers.
“Simple is good,” Brahimi said, “It’s not easy to do.”
The menu is short — eight appetisers, eight mains, a few salads, a handful each of side dishes and desserts, and daily specials. We shared a charcuterie plate with the most heavenly velvety pâté, tasty rillettes, and delicious terrine.
The steak tartare, made from finely diced Gippsland beef fillet was the most perfectly seasoned steak tartare we’ve ever sampled.
“You have to try the chicken,” he told us. Perhaps not something we expected to hear from one of Australia’s best chefs, but he was right.
The roasted Barossa Valley chicken with chicken jus and creamy Paris mash was moist and moreish. The chef boasted that they serve around 400 portions of it a week. We’re not surprised.
Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons*
Designed by Rome-based Australian architect Carl Pickering, Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons is audacious — a cool, contemporary take on the Italian trattoria. The restaurant is divided into discrete dining areas, decorated with hand-made Sicilian terrazzo tiles, which in two spaces where the tiles cover the floor, walls and ceiling, look like movie sets.
You might expect from such theatrical surroundings that the food would be full of artifice, all surface over substance, yet the focus is on simple, traditional, regional Italian cuisine (Tuscan minestrone, Venetian polenta etc), made from Australian produce.
We started with a mixed plate of salumi that we’d been salivating over since we spied the glass salumi cabinet, dramatically illuminated by a spotlight, with a red Berkel slicer beside it.
The salumi — Culatello, Ossocollo, Enzo Salami, Cacciatore, and Mortadella — is made from Black Berkshire free-range pigs, by a family of smallgoods-makers, according to owner-chef Robert Marchetti’s recipes.
We followed up with Mezze Rigatoni with house-made pork sausages, sage, tomato, garlic and chilli, and Risotto Nero, black squid-ink rice with calamari, chilli, parsley, lemon, and garlic.
There were no prettily decorated plates here — it was all about the produce and flavour, and it was fabulous.
Without a restaurant booking one evening we decided to try something even more casual so headed out to hotspot Izakaya Den. In a striking, long, black basement space, where a bar runs the length of the room, we selected a few small dishes from the short menu, a kingfish sashimi, spicy tuna tataki with garlic soy, and Kurobuta pork Char Siew, and ordered shochu, shiso, lime and tonics from the menu (in Japanese and English).
In Tokyo, we ate at our fair share of izakayas — traditionally, they’re taverns that serve food — and in Bangkok, where the izakayas are some of the most authentic outside of Japan, we probably ate at one at least once a week.
The food at Izakaya Den was undoubtedly tasty but it wasn’t as sublime as Japanese food can be in Tokyo, or even Bangkok for that matter.
The buzz of the place was probably better than the food, but both were more than satisfying.
The European was another fairly spontaneous choice. We’d strolled by many times during our stay and it was always busy, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The narrow, cosy dining space is more old world than new, feeling all at once British, Parisian and Milanese.
We started off with a glass of wine at the adjoining buzzy City Wine Shop where wine buyer Campbell, who oversees some 800 different wines, selected two interesting Australian Rieslings for us to try.
When our table was ready in the crowded room next door we stuffed ourselves with hearty comfort food: delicious, hot sage-wrapped anchovies, a Beef Wellington with petit pois and foie gras, and beef short ribs with soft herb polenta and grilled artichokes.
This was food that tipped a hat to tradition and left a smile on our faces.
It also said a lot about Melbourne’s dining scene that a noisy little dining space dishing up old-fashioned food could be as popular as any of the chic new Asian places or the high end restaurants serving contemporary Australian cuisine.
It also says a lot about Melburnians, and Australians, and how far we have come — from Europe to Asia, and back again it seems.
More on our experiences eating out in Melbourne in our posts on Eating Out in Melbourne, ‘Ethnic’ Cuisine; Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Asian Cuisine; and Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Australian Cuisine.
We dined at these restaurants on assignment for an Asia travel magazine for a story called ‘Mouthwatering Melbourne
*Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons has closed. We’ll update this when we’re in Melbourne in April.