Epocha, 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton. Tel. 9036 4949. www.epocha.com.au
Great location, great value: the worker’s lunch at Epocha, 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton. It’s at the city end of Rathdowne, opposite the Carlton Gardens. Owners Angie Giannakodakis (ex-Press Club) and Guy Holder have turned the place (which was once a ‘gentlemen’s’ club) into an impressive restaurant.
The menu is a mixture of small and large plates, to be shared - although you could eat them on your own, sharing isn’t compulsory. Like a venison carpaccio with mushrooms a la grecque and hazelnuts (it’s like eating autumn), or gravlax with potato salad, apple and fennel. Maybe a whole fish as a large plate, or whatever the roasted bird is, or beef rib… now that is to be shared, 550g is far too big for one.
Back to the worker’s lunch, which is available Tuesday to Friday. Last week we began with a demi-tasse of pumpkin soup, accompanied by some pate on a crouton, and a mushroom arancino. There was a choice: penne with pesto, served from a big hollowed out cheese wheel; chicken thigh with couscous, or fish and chips. We had the penne, lovely creamy cheesy pesto, and added glasses of wine, green salad, and cauliflower cream, and finished with coffee. Still a great value lunch, in comfortable and engagingly quirky surroundings. I like the use of second-hand dishes – lots of Royal Albert and old glass.
Some excellent cheeses, and stunning dessert cakes.
Sunday lunch is a roast. Dinner is from the menu. Upstairs is Hannah’s bar, where I’d be starting with a drink and a snack before something more substantial.
Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy. Tel. 9416 5055 www.townhallhotel.net.au
Long-time hotel, at the corner of Napier Street, and it’s had another facelift by its owners Harry Lilai and his wife Michelle. Nothing major: when they took it over a few years ago, they made some bold decisions and painted the downstairs dining rooms red. Big bold happy red. The red has given way to white – although there are some flashes left. The effect is clean and fresh, and very assured. Upstairs, also white-painted, there are excellent function rooms.
The food hasn’t changed. It’s as good as ever. Harry made a big name as chef with Cecconi’s at Crown (it moved to Flinders Lane) . His cooking style is Italian, and an engaging combination of traditional and innovative. The cicchetti (snacks) include a great take on devils-on-horseback (or is it angels?) – hot dates filled with taleggio, wrapped in pancetta. The baccala arancini are a knockout.
The menu offers small, medium or large plates. Does no one dare to say entrée or main course these days? Here, it makes sense. However smart the bistro, it’s still part of a pub, and the mood is as dressed up or casual as you want it to be. The bar menu is a ripper, with steak sandwich ($18) or veal and pork polpette ($10).
In the bistro, don’t miss the osso buco ($30). Prices are sensible here – main courses are $30, the steaks a few dollars more. The bombolone (Italian custard-filled donuts) are the signature dessert, and just lovely to eat. Sweet, creamy, rich, brightened by orange blossom water.
Closed on Mondays.
Small Victories, in Carlton, which is where the old Rathdowne Street Food Store used to be. It’s got a long counter/bar, a number of rooms, an easy-going atmosphere, and some very lively food, in the contemporary style. Which means that they’re playing around with textures and techniques. Dishes I liked a lot included a lightly cured venison with a beetroot cream, and scatterings of coffee and cocoa flavours. Cocoa and venison work together as far as I’m concerned – they share a darkly intense flavour. The chef is Alric Hansen (ex-Bar Louriha and The Crimean), in partnership with Ben Farrant (ex-Gill’s Diner).
Those who like breakfast will like it particularly for baked eggs, three different styles. Me, I’d go for the avocado with labne, herb and walnut dressing. The coffee is excellent; so is the tea. Lovely green tea, here.
Small Victories, 617 Rathdowne St, Carlton. Tel. 9347 4064 www.smallvictoriesrestaurant.com.au
Footscray/Seddon/Yarraville provides consistently good eating. Latest finds include Konjo Café and Restaurant at 89 Irving St, Footscray. Coffee’s the thing here, sourced from Ethiopia, but there are meals, too. Very casual, open daily from 7am.
Also Ajitoya at 82 Charles St, Sedddon, a small and very good Japanese café, licensed for beer and wine. The set meals are great value – I had agedashi tofu, served with rice, a salad, a bowl of excellent miso. Everything’s presented attractively, everything tastes true to itself. Simple good food, and no fuss. The beers are Japanese, and include Japanese craft beers. There’s also a Japanese food store, and some take-away – but if they are busy, take away takes time. Closed on Mondays and Sunday evening.
Treats to catch now: white truffles at The Point, Aquatic Drive, Albert Park. Tel. 9682 5566. They've been flown in, and can be ordered to be grated over whatever you fancy. I adore them. And I'm very fond of the restaurant, which has one of the great views of Melbourne, overlooking Albert Park Lake, an excellent chef in Justin Wise - a chef who understands sauces and layering flavours - and skilled staff. Carnivores do well here: they hang their own meat, and the there's a choice of beef. My favourite dish currently is the shabu shabu with fine slices of wagyu, and Otway shitake mushrooms. And the rhubarb and apple for dessert. Quite gorgeous.
Ombra is another new favourite, the latest in the Grossi Florentino cluster on Bourke St. It’s next to the Cellar Bar, where the Nudel bar used to be. The trend is to bars and wine bars; this is a different style again. Ombra, so-called because in Verona, ombra came to mean a glass of something, rather than the glass of something served in the shade (ombra). You can imagine how the word slid in its meaning: “Do you want to go and sit in the shade?” would have been a way of saying indirectly “Do you want a drink?” It’s also in the shade of the Bourke Street trees, and perhaps even in the shade of Grossi Florentino.
This is casual – an ideal place for a drink, and lots of things are served on tap, which minimises waste and the energy needed for recycling. The food choices are all about preserves and pizza. Lots of salumi – cured meats – and meats especially cured for the Grossi family. I love the way fine slices are served on waxed paper on a wooden board. (That way there’s no risk the fat will ever taint the timber.) Take your pick of capocollo, motadella, sopressa, cacciatore, musetto….
It reminded me of a tiny place in Turin, a kind of bar where the choice of drinks was chalked on to a board, along with the day’s selection of salumi. I found it looking for a snack – and got a roll filled with 30-month old prosciutto and house-made preserved yellow peppers. Simple, really good quality.
At Ombra, there are house-made preserved vegetables, too, as well as cheeses, salads, a range of cicchetti (little snacks, such as crisp lamb ribs and oxtail crocchette. Three classic pizze – margerita, marinara, and bianca.
There’s a serious side of all of this. Ombra wants to preserve not only food, but Italian culture – through food. So there’s Friends of Ours, just anyone who wants to join in discussions about food and preserving, and maybe attend an event or two. I’m a Friend. Of course.
Ombra, 76 Bourke St, Melbourne. Tel. 9639 1927. www.ombrabar.com.au
A special treat: celebrating the writing of More than Melbourne, which will be released in early September, we went to dinner at Florentino, upstairs. It’s ages since we were there, and the food has changed a fair bit. It’s no longer solidly traditional Italian, but it combines tradition and contemporary ideas, which makes it rather more interesting.
I was just thrilled by the place: by the beauty of it and the care that goes into everything (not a crease in the tablecloth!), by waiters who knew about the food and lots about the wine, by the range of choices (a la carte, and three set menus, including a vegetarian degustation) and by the quality of the cooking. We had the five course dinner, with a couple of extra courses thrown in, just for fun.
We started with an appetiser that combined an apple and fennel jelly with lemon ‘snow’, some raw sliced tuna, a hint of avocado, and slice of bottarga. It worked wonderfully – bright fresh flavours, good textures, a fair amount of acidity, so it was refreshing. Then came Fremantle octopus with lightly pickled baby vegetables and a goat’s cheese croquette, and a dish that stopped me in my tracks: nettle tortellini filled with crab, a cauliflower veloute, with some avruga caviar. There was a slice of cauliflower, too, dry and rather dull, but without that, it was an absolutely stunning dish.
What did I eat next? Oh, go for yourselves and find out, or make your own choices.
I’d forgotten how exciting a really good restaurant is – how it stimulates thinking as well as the appetite, how much it pleases all the senses, how pleasing good waiters are. The five course menu here is $140, which seems to me to be great value. I’ve spent $100 a head on some quite ordinary meals, and paid as much for wines that were served with less knowledge and courtesy.
Grossi Florentino, 80 Bourke St, Melbourne. Tel. 9662 1811. www.grossiflorentino.com
On a simpler level, Porgie + Mr Jones has had a refurb. It’s looking very smart indeed – open, spacious, casual. I’d been there a couple of times, including a grumpy breakfast. I was the grumpy one. I have little tolerance at breakfast, and still less about fruit juice, which I don’t like, except for just made. I asked if the orange juice was fresh. Yes, said the waiter. But it wasn’t. I meant freshly squeezed then and there, he meant freshly squeezed by someone else in other premises. I was snarly for about five minutes, but haven’t been back to breakfast, which is a meal for consenting adults, in my view. Lunch, on the other hand, was better. I think I had a baguette.
It’s mean to remember that, but maybe not, because I feel so much better about it now. It seems to have become much smarter, much more focussed.
After its refurb, it’s looking much less cluttered, much more – well, professional. It’s still BYO, and now open from breakfast through a very smart lunch – try the bresaola, or the pumpkin risotto if you want a change from baguettes or soup. Also open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. I’d recommend the beef cheek, if it’s on the menu. Two courses $55, three courses $70, and BYO. How lovely is that! (Note it’s cash only, but there’s an ATM next door, very handy.)
Porgie + Mr Jones, 291 Auburn Rd, Hawthorn. Tel. 9882 2955. www.porgiemrjones.com.au
Another refurb: this time at Café Latte in Malvern Rd, Toorak. It’s looking good, its dining space unbroken by a bar (as it used to be). There’s a big white-painted room, the walls with paintings and framed mementoes, and a clever round light fitting, a great circle above the room. I was there for lunch recently and recommend the $35 lunch. Two of us ate there: one had orecchiette with broccoli to start, followed by braised goat; I had the salume (with some buffalo mozzarella), followed by scaloppine with capers. Generous servings, nicely cooked food, well presented. The cost included a glass of wine (unknown, because the waiter didn’t say what it was, but just fine). It’s so long since I’ve had scaloppine, I’d forgotten what a simply good dish it is – and the capers were a bright salty lift. Very good value.
Café Latte, 521 Malvern Rd, Toorak. Tel. 9826 5846 www.cafelatte.com.au
ON THE MENU
Look out for goat, or capretto on menus. The Australian Meat & Livestock Corporation is encouraging the consumption of goat meat. When it's good, it's fabulous, like the best spring lamb but without the fattiness. If it's in season, it is likely to be on the menu at Cecconi's Cantina, 61 Flinders Lane, City. Tel. 9663 0222.
OUT TO LUNCH (or dinner)
Another lunch spot to recommend: Gill’s Diner, on the corner of Gills Alley and Little Collins Street. It’s been around for a few years, but it’s a while since I ate there. Little quick café/sandwich bar and bakery, and behind that is a big noisy place, with bare tables and tiled walls. There’s a printed menu and blackboard specials. For a quick lunch, I’d recommend the sandwiches. We had a quick lunch in mind, but it wasn’t so quick after all….just allow an hour for lunch, you’ll be fine. I had a chicken and leek pie, served with a house-made tomato sauce in a little jug, chips, and a version of fattoush – an odd mix of things, I thought, until I remembered that pie and chips go together like fish and chips. What makes a good pie? Light pastry, generous filling, succulent chicken. A dish I was pleased to have eaten.
Gills diner, 360 Little Collins, Melbourne. 9670 7214.
Rather grander, and a real treat for lunch or dinner is The Point. Chef Justin Wise, who succeeded Scott Pickett, has hit his stride now. Go now for a salad of autumn globe artichokes with fresh borlotti beans and a champagne dressing. And a version of shabu shabu: beautiful fine slices of wagyu beef in a big wide bowl, some fresh shiitake mushroom slices, and a rich broth poured over at the table. Wonderful dish to eat – both comforting and exciting at the same time. At The Point, they serve chardonnay with fine slices of wagyu (whether as shabu shabu or tataki), and a good chardonnay has the weight for the beef, and an acidity to balance the fat. And no tannins to disguise the meat. I also tried Bass Grouper with clams, black lentils, and a madras curry sauce. Very fetching – the fish can stand up to the spices.
The Point, Aquatic Drive, Albert Park. Tel. 9682 5566. www.thepointalbertpark.com.au
I’ve taken to Sher Wagyu in a big way. I went to two Melbourne Food and Wine Festival dinners at The Point restaurant at Albert Park Lake, both featuring Wagyu. A nice coincidence: 20 years of the Festival, 20 years of Sher Wagyu. I particularly like Sher Wagyu (not only because I so like producers Nick and Vicki Sher) because however high the marble score, it never cloys the palate. Some of the dishes from the chef’s night are to be found again, I think. Izakaya Den’s chef made a tataki of wagyu with a wasabi cream (served with a 2010 Wantirna Estate Chardonnay – who would have thought?). Ezard’s chef made an open burger with quail egg, onion jam, and beetroot chips – how clever a take on the traditional burger is that? The Point always serves great meat – Justin Wise’s braised intercostal was pretty special.
CITY LUNCH SPOTS:
For something much simpler, Somerset Place (off Little Bourke Street, near the corner of Elizabeth) has The Little Mule for breakfast and lunch, and good baguettes and toasties, with very good coffee and a relaxed atmosphere. Try also Captains of Industry, which is a tailor as well. Larger, smarter, breakfast and lunch, and open until 5pm for snacks and drinks. Great crunchy baguettes, but I found the coffee uncomfortably bitter. Have water or tea instead.
To watch this year: the return of small neighbourhood restaurants. This is what I’m thinking about. Estelle at 243 High St, Northcote, tel. 9489 4609 (contemporary and very skilled food, simple setting), Merricote at 81 High St, Northcote, tel. 9939 4792 (brilliant charcuterie, snacks and entrées), and Pinotta at 43 Best St, Fitzroy North, tel. 9481 3393 (Italian). All north of the Yarra - does that mean it's a north of the Yarra phenomenon? I'll check it out. The only downside of them all is that they don't do Monday.
As for cafes, my two current favourites are Ora, at 156 Pakington St, Kew, tel. 9855 2002, which is where the wonderful Japanese restaurant Ocha began. Ora has excellent coffee, and an imaginative breakfast/lunch menu. Latest recommendation: the sweet corn omelette garnished with fresh leaves (including wild fennel). Open at weekends, too. The other cafe is Olio e Pane, 328 Auburn Rd, Hawthorn, tel. 9818 2375, which used to be the Oliv shop, and has now expanded into a cafe with food that features olive oil. I had the smashed avocado on Zeally Bay sourdough toast with lime-infused olive oil. Added benefits: the opportunity to taste a range of excellent olive oils, even on Mondays. Olio e Pane is also open on Mondays, but not on Sunday.
North of the Yarra likes a night or two off. St Kilda never sleeps. I went again to Golden Fields, Andrew McConnell’s Asian-style restaurant at 157 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, which is open every day of the week. I love the raw foods here – the kingfish with salmon roe in particular, and the tuna with avocado and radish. The décor is smart simple and noisy – better as a drop-in than for the full dining experience (rather like Cumulus in Little Bourke St). The house-made kimchi was a bit of a disappointment for us, who had chosen lighter dishes – and the kimchi is full-on spicy. I loved the option of lychees at the end of a meal – though these lychees had been around for a while and their skins were browning and dry, not pink. It doesn’t really affect their flavour, but it looked a bit sad.
For those new to Melbourne, five places you wouldn’t find if you didn’t know they were there:
Izakaya Den, basement of 11 Russell Street.Seriously difficult to find because there seem to be a number of doorways at street level. Go down the stairs… Long bar with the kitchen behind it, noisy, very smart Japanese and a tempting drinks list. I like the lunch sets a lot. There's a choice chalked on to a board, vegetarian or otherwise. I had lunch with someone who ordered one vegetarian, one salmon, which meant we could share.
Supper Inn, 15 Celestial Avenue.Unprepossessing approach, down a laneway without much charm, and then into a building without glamour and up a staircase. Chances are you will have to wait on the staircase if the restaurant is busy. It’s the late night place for eating, and the early dinner as well, since it opens at 5.30. Choose from the specials written in Chinese and English on coloured paper. Very good Chinese food, waiters always harassed.
Money Order Office, Driver Lane. Driver Lane is off Little Bourke St, and the restaurant is easy to miss. Look for the bar and then head downstairs to an untidily eclectic mix of tables and booths and chesterfields, where the food is clever contemporary but still satisfying. Choose from two or three courses, or a full degustation. Sit around over a fortified wine afterwards.
Maha, 21 Bond St, Melbourne. Bond Street is little more than a laneway connecting Flinders Street and The restaurant is warm, richly coloured, and smells deliciously of spices and lamb when you come in. The food is centred in Lebanon, with excursions into Malta (when owner-chef Shane Delia’s family is from), and clever contemporary presentation and techniques. Bring your best appetite.
Mamasita, Level 1, 11 Collins Street. There’s a staircase leading up from a doorway near the 7 Eleven store. Mamasita takes no bookings, it’s hugely noisy, and serves really good Mexican food, all bright herbs, spices, chillies of different kinds, corn, coriander, some meat and fish. Easier on the ears for lunch, and you don’t have to queue.
Philippe Mouchel's new restaurant PM has taken off. Remember to book, because these days it always seems full. I really like the space. It's a long restaurant, with a bar at the front, a huge open kitchen along one side that looks on to the dining area. For me, there's a lovely mix of old Melbourne building (the proportions are those of an old factory) and very smart French bistro. There's good light - windows on to a laneway in the private room at the back (which isn't completely private because it's has glass walls) and light coming in from Russell Street. The colour scheme is basically black and white, with red leather banquettes (very comfortable for me).
What do I recommend? The rotisserie is at the heart of the kitchen, like a big red fire engine, and I'd suggest anything from the rotisserie. I had roast chicken with roast vegetables (they cook in the heat and absorb delicious juices). Everyone loves the roast chicken, but Alex is kind enough to say he prefers the one I cook at home. Alex had roast rack of lamb with a herb and panko (Japanese breadcrumb) crust. Start with the charcuterie platter, or the crab-filled zucchini flowers with piperade and red pepper coulis. Have the spinach or a green salad. Finish with the paris-brest (a deliciously rich pastry that is shaped like a wheel, first created to commemorate the bicycle race between Paris and Brest) or the ice-creams.
How's the food different from, say, brasserie Philippe Mouchel at Crown, or his food at Langton's? It's hard to characterise, but I think the cooking is simpler, more bistro. It may appear more relaxed, freer in style, but it's very precise, very considered. It makes me think of good writing - the sort of writing that appears quite effortless (think of Penelope Lively or even Colm Toibin) but is the result of considerable effort and skill.
There's a limited choice menu for lunch Monday to Friday and for pre-theatre. The wine list is considerable, with some attractive wines by the glass, especially a pinot blanc/pinot gris blend, but it's very pricey. One of those sobering lists for me - too expensive to drink too much.
PM24, 24 Russell St, Melbourne. Tel. 9207 7424
Lunch at The Italian in the city, to talk through a project. It's a place I like a lot, because it's full of good things and a warm welcome. I love the little bar and the way they do coffee in the café area, I love the sense of occasion, walking upstairs to the restaurant, I love the light that streams through, and the terrace on a fine day. It's great to be in a restaurant where you can sit and talk properly, where the chairs are comfortable enough and the waiters professional enough to know when to approach and when to stay away. I had a brilliant salad of poached veal tongue with capers and herbs, some leaves and a quartered not-quite-hard-boiled egg. The salmon carpaccio is a beauty, too. We both had risotto to follow - she had the seafood that was the day's special, and I had the risotto with spring vegetables. We drank very modestly - by the glass - which seemed a pity given the extent of the wine list and the range of Italian wines. I've been back recently with friends from California, who were absolutely delighted by it and kept saying they wished there were a place as good in the Napa. That night we drank a great deal more. They had the veal tongue (at my suggestion), I had a tuna carpaccio, Alex had fried calamari to start. I had duck to follow, Arlene and Michael both had the fish soup. I keep going back - for a quick pre-theatre dinner last week where we had the specials of the day.
The Italian, 101 Collins St, Melbourne. Tel. 9654 9499. www.theitalian.com.au