This week I am

Thinking with great affection of long-running restaurants in Melbourne. In the search for the hot, the new, the latest, we tend to neglect the restaurants that keep doing their job of pleasing diners, year after year. The places that make it past a decade should be taken very seriously. Their owners/chefs are committed, usually keeping up with trends – often in a low-key fashion – and they don’t employ public relations companies.

So, let’s hear it for places like Ocha http://www.ocha.com.au  in Hawthorn, and Caterina’s Cucina e Bar in Queen Street, and Mercer’s in Eltham, as well as Stavros in Albert Park.  Ocha is the

 the Japanese restaurant in Hawthorn. It began in Kew, a tiny place serving thrilling modern Japanese food. A few years ago it moved to larger premises in Hawthorn, and it’s just celebrated 20 years. Happy birthday, and many happy returns! It’s still an exciting place to eat, still offering excellent dishes – particularly seafood, although there was a beef dish with wasabi mash that attracted my attention for a while. There’s a very good wine list, they’re good about BYO (of course there’s a corkage charge), and it’s a restaurant where you can have a conversation while eating.

Mercer’s http://www.mercersrestaurant.com.au in Eltham does everything right, for me. It’s in an old house, lovely big verandah. It’s comfortable, the staff are friendly, and the menu is up-to-date. Last time I was there – a week ago – I began with the tartare of kingfish and crab between layers of brik pastry, with a riesling gel on the top of the pastry. Great fun to look at: a bit like a rectangular pastry, and as precise as good patisserie. Lively and clean flavours, perfect to start. Then a spiced duck breast with Khmer style leg, on buckwheat noodles, presented in a handsome dark bowl. Two additional benefits here: a very fine and balanced wine list, lots of regional wines, other Australian wines, some imported wines – breadth and depth in the choices, and very fair prices. Two course minimum, $63, excellent value.  Three courses $77, and a $96 degustation menu. Tempting, but for me the grand dessert at the end of the meal would be wasted.

The other thing that pleased me greatly about Mercer’s is that Stephen Mercer is so good at training apprentices. Two of his kitchen staff have won the Thierry Marx award that gave them the chance to work in Thierry Marx’s kitchen in Paris. The most recent was Kylie Spratling, a later-to-start apprentice whose enthusiasm and energy are infectious.


Eating in Paris. Dinner at Allard last night, www.restaurant-Allard.old French bistro acquired by Alain Ducasse not long ago. Entry is facing the kitchen, there are two dining rooms. Nice old-fashioned look, with patterned wallpaper, lots of prints hanging on the walls, terracotta tiled floor, soft red (coral really) leather banquettes, heavy white tablecloths and linen napkins.

We ate a frisée salad with croutons and lardons, and salad of mushrooms with chive cream. Both came in big bowls, actually enough for two. Chunky croutons and lardons, just cooked. Lovely mushroom salad, intense mushroom flavour in those little white mushrooms.

Bread is brought more or less when food arrives. Multi-grain, with a far-too-big piece of butter cut from a huge slab. Glasses of Sancerre and Chablis to start, and a bottle of Moulin-a-Vent that they didn’t have.

Lamb chops (un trimmed) and a wonderful almost caramelised ratatouille, and beef cheek with carrots presented in a large dish. Would have been plenty for two..An outstanding sauce.

Little things go wrong rxcentre24.com. The waiter forgot what we had ordered and had to double check  (just as well, because he had ordered the wrong dishes for us), wine out of stock on a medium-sized list, a disaster in the toilet that had have the staff mopping.  All things that can happen.The wine was decanted, but simply poured into the decanter, leaving a huge slick of cream of tartar down the side (wine diamonds, if you prefer). Even less forgivable was the tea, an Earl Grey Tea bag in a pot. Yes, I know the French go for tea bags, but this was simply horrid. I couldn’t drink it , said politely to the waiter that it was unworthy of the restaurant. Still charged 6 euros for it.

Would I go back? Maybe. I’d share an entree, spend more on wine, and skip tea.


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