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Mar 11, 2012 09:52 PM

Melbourne trip report, Jan-Feb 2012

Just want to provide a little context before jumping into the food...

My partner and I are from the USA originally (SF, Boston, NYC) and lived in Hong Kong for about two years, where we took years off our lives through dim sum over-consumption. We're now six months into an around-the-world trip that has so far included South America, Mexico, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. We usually eat out two meals a day, which is insane. Everyone told us, if we were going to Australia and we loved food, Melbourne was the only destination. Meanwhile, I'd spent a week in Melb in 2008 and felt instantly at home, my most recent "home" being San Francisco.

But it's important to note that one or the other of us had been hitting the restaurant wall for several months (my sweetheart struggled especially in Argentina, and we both OD'd on Thai food after two months in Thailand). So we arrived in Melbourne with palate fatigue and a long list of exotic restaurants and reservations. We spent our first week in St. Kilda, where we had good food at Cicciolina and I Carusi II. But we also had a memorable encounter with a $50-something chicken pie at Donovan's that caused my partner to completely lose his s***. His head couldn't wrap around the concept. Pie = $50? What!!??

Then, because of my curiosity, we actually rented a car and drove the 1.5 or 2 hours to Drysdale to have lunch at LOAM. You can read more on my blog, if that interests you, but net-net was that some of the dishes were over-the moon (pan fried baby snapper with lemon cream and basil seeds), while others were undeniably, aggressively anti-social (a dessert made from unsweetened potato foam, parsley powder, tart al-dente apples, and rose-petal vinegar jelly). The ambiance and staff were highly polished and bizarrely artificial for a place billing itself as a hunter-gatherer-forager kind of joint. My sweetheart had a Hungry Jack burger on the way home.

So that was the point at which we both simultaneously hit the restaurant wall in Melbourne. Because of US interest rate policy and whatever, our dollar is very weak, so we would look at food photos from a restaurant and ask each other, "How badly do you want to go?" Is it worth another $150+ meal? In the end, we chucked our reservations at Attica, Cutler & Co, and the Royal Mail. I'm sure they're fabulous, but we were beyond fabulous. And we spent the rest of our time in Fitzroy/Collingwood pubs, at Turkish joints, and at ok noodle shops near the flat we rented in the CBD. I *don't* recommend staying in the CBD, by the way.

I also made a brief but enthusiastic trip to South Melbourne Market, which was a ton of fun. They sell everything-but-everything there. Handmade dim sum to steam, turkish breads, fruits, veggies, bicycles, clothing, vacuums, fresh flowers, wine, etc., etc. Really fun.

All that said, here are some of the mostly middle-brow places we enjoyed:

Cicciolina (St Kilda) -- heirloom tomato salad, roasted root veggie salad, confident/experienced staff

Inkr7 (St Kilda) -- great steak and gruyere sandwich, warm pumpkin salad, slightly funky, but delicious

I Carusi II (St Kilda) -- great thin-crust red onion, chili, prosciutto (?) pizza; flavors really well balanced

Cumulus (CBD) -- great steak tartar, summer squash with smoked-goat cheese salad, comfortable ambiance

Huxtable (Fitzroy) -- heirloom tomato salad, duck with crunchy lentil salad, bright on-the-money flavors

Papa Goose (CBD) -- actually some of the best food on our trip, chicken liver pate with peach chutney and brioche was great, fantastic scotch fillet, beans with chili and almonds...but oddly amateur-hour (if friendly) service and ambiance

Movida (CBD) -- a few excellent dishes, like the marinated portobellas (field mushrooms?)

PM24 (CBD) -- good steak frites, a little over-priced, but pleasant

Noir (Richmond?) -- cooking wasn't super sharp, but menu and presentation were more creative than anywhere else...the purple potato piped full of its original filling looked like a Star Trek concoction, while our cheesecake reminded us of the new Marina Bay casino in Singapore

Der Roam (Richmond?) -- dorky environment, but wonderful flavor combination like my drink of rum, lime, and lapsang souchong syrup

Hardware Societe (CBD) -- perfectly prepared lamb salad, some of the best cooking of our trip

Babka (Fitzroy) -- great plumb cake with cream

Palookaville, Standard Hotel, Fox Hotel, Little Creatures -- all very serviceable pubs with veggie options, good small plates, nice staff, good vibes

Laurent (CBD) -- nice lamb sandwich with eggplant, great crust

Naked Espresso (CBD) -- funny barrista, great coffee, beautiful coffee maker!

Then, here are some places that were disappointing in some way or unsatisfactory:

LOAM (Drysdale) -- some food was fantastic, but other stuff was almost...insulting

Carlisle Wine Bar (CBD) -- I loved the atmosphere, but the pistachio breaded squid were mushy, our expensive Manchego was meh, and nothing stood out...a shame because I loved the atmosphere

Coda (CBD) -- fusion-y Asian-Italian dishes that just didn't come together

City Wine Shop (CBD) -- great menu, charming staff, crappy cooking...we skipped dessert based on the execution of the mains

DOC -- definitely a case of the sum of the parts is less than the whole...great ingredients, lousy pizza (doughy, gooey, un-balanced flavors)

Bar Lourinha (CBD) -- went there twice and bailed, couldn't find anything on the menu that appealed

Cafe Vue (CBD) -- tasty -- and tiny -- pastrami sandwich, costing $$$, eaten while sitting on stool...why are we wasting our time?

Brother Baba Budan (CBD) -- why the fuss? I don't get it

Manchester Press (CBD) -- good, but is my $10 bagel and long black paying for all of these men to hang out doing nothing wearing aprons?

My most lasting impression of Melbourne food was of *quality* -- high quality ingredients and very serious food preparation or food craft. It almost didn't register as cooking...but more as craftsmanship. Other impressions...irresistible goodies in the supermarket, like chocolate covered pineapple lumps, scorched almonds, soft licorice, anise cream-filled chocolates, etc. And fabulous cakes and puddings everywhere you turned. If we were to return, I would ferret out better Lebanese, Greek, Turkish, and Japanese food than what we tasted on the fly.

That's my 25 cents.

@ zinfanatic -- sorry I didn't get this up sooner. Will be curious what you think!

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  1. Thanks chloehk, We are in Melbourne now. had a good meal at Anada and had nice sever who gave us a list of places to try. The dinner places he recommended are also too high priced for us.We had a fabulous lunch today at Chin Chin. We also able to sit watching over part of the kitchen!
    tonight I had made reservations at PM24 as they had advertised on their website a two course dinner before 6:30 for $37. When we arrived they said they did not have it because of the holiday- Labor Day! however I spoke to them and said I had reserved on best restaurant switch that caver. they obliged. The food was just good- not great. ore to come and more details on the meals if needed.

    2 Replies
    1. re: zinfanatic

      Hate typing on this iPad! should read with that caveat. Caps are disappearing also! Will report more on all meals in Tassie and wine trip too soon.

      1. re: zinfanatic

        Yes, I agree about PM24. Not fabulous overall, but we had a very good steak ;-)

        Vis-a-vis 2008 I stayed at a place in Freycinet called Sheoaks (I think...not quite sure). They made a wonderful breakfast, super yogurt with homemade stone fruit compote. For some reason that stood out in my mind. Hobart also surprised me by how elegant it was. Launceston I just wanted to get out of. Also, there's a bird sanctuary outside of Hobart that I remember being stunningly beautiful and quiet...just this long spit of land looking out to Antarctica.

        Are you going to New Zealand? There's a similar feeling to Tasmania. We were just there for three weeks and absolutely loved it. The raw food stuff is phenomenal. I've never had apples that good before. And honey. And green-lipped mussels. And really good Turkish food. Oh, and amazing plums. And the ocean is soooo blue. I'm ready to move, seriously.

        My favorite place was Waiheke Island. We spent four days there in a rented flat with a big deck and a nice wood stove. We didn't wind up doing any of the winery stuff, just toured around ourselves...the best part was the un-peopled eastern part of the island. And there's some quite decent food there (Mudbrick winery has a good cafe in town, as well as their own restaurant). We also loved Wellington, even though the weather sucks. It's just super fun! Good food there too. Funny...we went to a pizza place called Scopa four times. Not sure what they were putting in their pizza, but we kept finding ourselves drifting back that way. Cooking in Auckland seemed a bit more on-the-ball -- probably our best meal was at Ponsonby Road Bistro, but we didn't do any of the upscale places like the French Cafe or Merediths (nor did we go to Logan Brown in Wellington).

        But anyway, looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in Melbourne...

      2. Questions, questions, questions!

        The coffee was no good at Brother Baba?

        Did you wait to hear the specials list at Bar Lourinha?

        Were you able to make it to A1 bakery on Sydney Road?

        The Standard Hotel in Fitzroy? Are you serious?

        1 Reply
        1. re: kersizm

          The coffee at Brother Baba was great. But there are tons of places with great coffee in Melbourne. I didn't get what was special about it.

          Vis-a-vis Bar Lourinha, everything on the menu was sooo rich with no lighter options to break it up. We already had enough pancetta-wrapped, mayonnaise-smothered, deep-fried, cheese-filled to last us a lifetime. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with it, just not for us.

          As for the Standard Hotel...I was going by memory. We didn't eat there. I was thinking about a place in West Melbourne, maybe Hotel Spencer? We met up with some Melbourne folks there and they chose the venue. The food was surprisingly good.

          And no, sadly we didn't get to A1 Bakery.

          We may come back next winter. If we do, I'll be sure to re-post for more recommendations...

          You guys have such a phenomenal offering of goodies...cakes, puddings, licorice, scorched almonds, chocolate-covered honeycomb, etc. I could easily get really fat. One day I went to International Cake and bought pistachio baklava, macadamia tart, rum ball, and a yo-yo...just to have a bite of each. The actual items were better looking than they were tasting, but I looved the style of sweets (Mediterranean? Turkish? Lebanese? Greek?). Sounds like A1 would have been a better choice.