Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Melbourne Cup (and glass and plates and cutlery): three days of Victorian dining.

Melbourne dining experiences – everything they say is true. There are thousands of possibilities and combinations and, for the most part, the quality of the food and the service is of a high, high standard. Now bear in mind that I only had three and a half days so when I get asked ‘What did you enjoy the most?’ it is a hard question to answer. There was so much that was superb but also so much that I didn’t get to try. However, if I had to hand out awards, they’d be in the categories below, and some of the winners may surprise you.
I’d been urged to try Cumulus Inc and wasn’t disappointed when I got there. There was a place at the counter for me (it became a theme of my trip: the place for one at the counter/bar) –  quality coffee (a milky mocha to ease me into the day and then a rousing long black to get me up to full speed).
 I enjoyed my sweet and zesty lemon-curd filled madeleine: Marcel Proust would have approved of this variation and it was worth the extra 15 minute wait which gave me time to look around the room and admire the Derby Day fashion parade that was happening around me.
 My smoked trout croque monsieur was a classic breakfast combo of toasty bread, fresh flaky fish, smooth cream cheese and tiny capers. A filling start to the day but perhaps not the most unusual breakfast dish I’d ever tried.

I hadn’t planned to go to The Collingwood Children’s Farm but my friend and guide, Jen, said that the breakfasts were good and that the farm gave every impression of being deeply rural even when it was only 5 minutes’ drive from the dusty Collingwood streets. My ‘Farmer’s Breakfast’ was traditional – sausage, eggs, bacon.
However the sausage was organic pork, the two eggs were poached to just the right consistency (there has to be enough ‘give’ in the yolk) and served on top of buttered sour dough. There were also crispy potatoes cooked in duck fat and a jar of zingy homemade relish. Two mugs of mocha (one on time and the other forgotten until I prompted) and I was ready to explore the paddocks, pet the baby animals, and admire the flower and produce gardens.
One of the many farm friends that I patted.
The winner is:


Hungry after getting up early (6am Melbourne time, 3am Perth time) to make my pilgrimage to the Castlemaine Art Gallery, I found Apple Annie’s Café on Templeton street.  I had no expectations of this café – it was one of several in the town, so the sunshine-dappled courtyard with grape vines and robinia tree was a pleasant surprise and the breakfast, sweet heavens, the breakfast! Warm apple chunks stewed in cinnamon syrup sandwiched between rounds of light-yet-rich brioche French toast. This was topped and surrounded with fresh strawberries and quenelles of dulce de leche and icing sugar dusted the whole. Gorgeous to look at, different from the usual, an elegant mix of tastes and textures – if Castlemaine itself had no other attractions (and it has many), I would return for this alone. Apple Annie’s also offers accommodation so this is probably where I would choose to stay.
Best snack. Nominees - La Vita Buona, Laika,  Movida
My first meal in Melbourne was at La Vita Buona – a café overlooking the plaza just behind the Anglican cathedral. I was physically exhausted having not been long off the plane, but mentally awake with the excitement of new places to explore. This café was quiet and provided a great place to do some people-watching. The waiter was happy to chat a bit and talk about which wines he would recommend. I chose a local red.
 For my snack, I dipped into the lunch menu and ordered a small serve of marinated white anchovies with crostini as well as the ‘Salumi Plate’ – cured meats and cornichons. Basic and tasty, not particularly challenging (but then my palate isn’t always up for gastronomical fisticuffs) it was a good start to my Melbourne dining experiences.
The decision to visit Laika was both a good and a bad one. I had just had a wonderful swim at the St Kilda Sea Baths plus a soothing floaty session in the their hydrotherapy pool. Swimming always makes me hungry - especially for hot chips. There's just something extra summery about the smell of swimming pool chemicals mixed with the vinegar'n'fat smell of hot chips. Laika, thought not a purveyor of hot chips, did offer a delicious Sloppy Joe and beer-battered fries with the welcome addition of a glass of Chandon.
 The Sloppy Joe bun was a bit singed but the filling was a satisfying savoury hit of chili, mayonnaise and pulled pork. The beer-battered fries were crispy and endless. It was a huge bowl - too much for one. This was the reason why I didn't eat out on Saturday night - I was too full to do anything but lie down on my bed and sip tap-water.
And the winner is:


I was urged to go to Movida by several friends so I decided this would be the first stop on a mini bar-crawl that I organised for myself on Friday night. As with my breakfast at Cumulus, there was a table for me at the counter but there difference here was that even in the rushed environment of the Friday after-work crowd, the service was excellent: friendly, efficient, helpful and informative. I made my selections with a glass of cava in my hand. There was a single oyster with merlot jus, jamon and shallots, a pastry 'cigarillo' with hazlenuts and macerated muscat grapes, cold smoked Spanish mackerel with pine-nuts, an 'empanadilla' stuffed with pheasant, chestnuts and bacon, and the white anchovy on a crouton with smoked tomato sorbet.
All was wonderful and different and exciting, but for me, Movida gets my vote purely for the smoked tomato sorbet. Cold, sweet, salty, fruity with a hint of char - one quenelle was not enough. Match it with a Valleformosa Penedes Cava and I can say with my hand on my heart that it was a dish that I will be raving about for a long, long time.
Best dinner. Nominees - La Citta, Chin Chin


La Citta in Degraves Lane was a suggestion made by a friend from Sydney. I was told that it was reliable for a good feed and that is exactly what I had. After my exodus from Cookie (see “Worst Service” below), it was great to be offered a choice of seats, have my aperitif on the table within minutes – a shot of Aperol and a dish of smoked almonds – and then the comfort of risotto. It was saffron risotto with peas and Moreton Bay bugs. When I consulted the wine list, I saw that there was Chardonnay by the Snake and Herring crew from Western Australia. It was a little reminder of home to pick me up after my Cookie let-down. It was excellent risotto – the rice grains with just enough bite and the saffron giving the flavour of the bugs a shove in the right direction. I finished the evening with a strong black coffee. A nicely-rounded meal. I felt better when I had finished and really, really awake.
And the winner is:
I’m glad I got to Chin Chin early. Even the places up at the bar filled up quickly and by the time I had finished my meal, there was a queue to get in. I was in my 80s element as the sound system cranked out tunes by Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Spandau Ballet. I think the 80s might finally have made the jump from cheesy to hip but just in case there was any doubt, the Chin Chin décor, a mix of anime art and fluorescent tubes upped the hip quotient considerably.

It wasn’t on the cocktail list, but I got my first Negroni of the trip at Chin Chin. I like it when the bar-staff say ‘yes’ and then you see then consult a book or website – they are trying and that is worth everything. My Negronis were a little on the fruity side (a little heavy on the vermouth) but did the trick getting my appetite up to speed. The service was attentive – I was asked if I had eaten at Chin Chin before, told how the menu worked, given recommendations. I chose the crab and pork cakes with the salted duck egg and tamarind sauce and the smashed green papaya salad with chargrilled red chilli, prawn floss, peanuts and black beans cooked in chilli oil. Despite the crowds, the food turned up before I had finished my first drink.

The crab and pork cakes were dense and meaty with the floral quality of Thai herbs to lift their fragrance. Designed to be eaten like san choi bau, you wrap a cake in a lettuce leaf, smear on some sauce and squeeze lemon over the top. This is a little tricky when you are also balancing on a bar-stool (one elbow movement too far and you’d be on the floor) but I managed. For me, the addition of tamarind, one of the my favourite fruits because it does sweet and sour, mainly sour, all by itself, was the genius of the dish.
Nothing however could have prepared me for the genius of the salad though. Perfect, perfect distribution of chili – from the searing fresh chili, whole fruits and snippets, to the dark oil that bound the papaya and prawn floss flavours together. The black beans and peanuts provided the alkaline contrast to the acidity of the papaya. Another Negroni, then the offer of dessert which I couldn’t manage, and I fought my way through the queue at the door, wishing I’d been able to come in company so that I could have tried more, but knowing that if I had come in company, I’d probably still have been stuck in the queue.
Best service. Nominees - Movida, Chin Chin, Buda Historic Home and Garden


Movida would have won this hands down, with Chin Chin getting an honourable mention, but for my experience at Buda Historic Home and Garden in Castlemaine. With time to spare before my train back to Melbourne, I decided to walk up to the house and have a look. It was further than I thought and it was a hot and glary day with very little shade for me to hide under.
When I presented my red-faced sweaty self at the ticket desk, the woman in charge ushered me to a shady spot in the garden ‘where you can get some breeze’. I was sheltered from the sun by a copper-beech and surrounded by roses. She went and got me a bottle of cold water to drink and talked me through the map of the house and gardens while I cooled down. Later on, her colleague offered me a lift back to the railway station. The kindness of strangers can make even a simple bottle of cold water a great food experience.
Worst service. One nominee. (which is a good thing when you think about it) No winners, only losers. - Cookie.

I was at Cookie only long enough to get one blurry snap of their menu.

I walked a long way across the CBD to get to Cookie – because it had been recommended to me. I walked up the stairs because the lift was broken. I asked for a seat. The man by the door indicated a seat at the bar and I felt that my luck was holding. I slumped onto the bar-stool and just begun to consider the menu when a voice behind me said:
“You can’t sit there.”
It was a waiter or the restaurant manager. White shirt, black waist-coat, youthful, and a bit sneering.
“But that man said I could.”
“Which man?”
“That man by the door.”
“You shouldn’t have talked to that man. I’m the one who decides and I have reserved this place for someone else.”
I’ve worked with enough young adults over the years to recognise the tone of disdain when it sneaks into a conversation. If he had rolled his eyes, I would not have been surprised. Was he contemptuous of my lack of youth and beauty (certainly the Cookie clientele was very young and beautiful), or the fact that I was dining alone and wouldn't generate as much revenue as a couple or a group? His narrowed gaze suggested that there was something about me that displeased him and he wanted me gone.
“So, is there somewhere else I can sit?” Not that I especially wanted to stay at this point but I was tired and hungry and willing to compromise.
“You can try further down the bar. There might be something.” He waved vaguely at the noisiest, most dense part of the crowd. For the ‘man who decides’ he was being very imprecise.
I was too disgusted and too tired to argue. I left. Left Cookie. Left the Cookie Monster. I got myself to La Citta and had an excellent meal. The Cookie menu had looked interesting but how good the quality of the food was, I will never know as I wouldn’t try it again or recommend it to anyone. Luckily, there was enough of the good and great service in both Melbourne and Castlemaine to more than make up for one posturing prat who wouldn’t know good management practice if someone thumped him on his coiffed head with “The Dummies Guide to Running a Restaurant.”
Cookie - the way it crumbles.
In summary, go to Melbourne! Go to Castlemaine! Try Chin Chin, Movida, La Citta and all the others.
But delete Cookie.