Thursday, June 17, 2010

AFB in Melbourne

A couple of weeks ago the girlfriend and I ate our way through a romantic long weekend in Melbourne. The city is famously home to a huge variety of authentic international restaurants, their immigrant chefs and waitstaff having no doubt been attracted by Australia's glowing reputation for inclusiveness and ethnic tolerance.

In case you're planning on visiting Melbourne soon, or perhaps if you live there yourself, I've collated a list of our best discoveries and experiences. We played a kind of 'food tag', asking the staff of each new restaurant to recommend the next one. That's just the sort of middle class, couple-tastic idea which probably would have made me sneer in my edgier single days, but it worked for us, and is recommended as an efficient way to explore local angles in a new city.

Attica restaurant in the Jewish enclave of Ripponlea was recently voted 73rd best restaurant in the world by the annual San Pellegrino list. Number 1 on the list was Copenhagen's Noma, which serves a radish in edible soil, and you can see a similar respect for the root at Attica, where we enjoyed an amuse bouche of carrot garnished with carrot tops and, later, a potato cooked in the earth it was grown. The carrot tasted of delicious carrots, and the potato tasted of delicious potato, and I guess that's kind of the idea – simple things done simply, but still managing to seem extremely fancy and special at the same time.

Snow Crab “Mt Taranaki” featured picked crab under a conical mountain of snow, made from leek and white man's magic. The apple crumble had ingredients like olive and celery. Get the idea? You wouldn't do it every night, but it was the most memorable meal of the trip. To get a table, book a month or more in advance.

Attica's apple crumble chef (yep) recommended Market Lane's Hu Tong Dumpling Bar so we took his word for it. As I told a horrified Raybon Kan on Twitter recently, mystery meat has always put me off the New Zealand dim sum experience so I don't profess much expertise, but luckily Hu Tong has instructions for eating their dumplings displayed prominently on each table (pick up with chopsticks, dip in vinegar, place on spoon, nibble a small hole, suck out brine, greedily devour). We followed them to the letter and the dumplings were unforgettable.

Thankfully the owner didn't let a lack of English experience stop him from posting a lengthy welcome at the front of the menu, which I reprint for your amusement and affection here:

“Bygones has already gone and age has left its traces. Hu Tong witnesses the historical evolution of China from the ancient time till today. In addition, the dishes for ordinary people occurred in Hu Tong, have become the delicious food which the contemporary people are desperate for.”

You can say that again.

The word tapas is hideously overused and I'm embarrassed to risk linking it to my blog in a search engine by including it here. But Movida do the real thing – tasty, best-quality ingredients served in small dishes, in a buzzy, exciting location. Book a month early for this one too, or try for the new Movida Next Door or Anada (food pictured) in Gertrude Street, where I'm told a former Movida chef runs the menu. Anada was my favourite place of all, thanks to a sublime few minutes sheltering from the rain with a cold dry sherry and a plate of crumbed lambs brains with pork belly lentils (on the right).

Mamasita is a newish Mexican restaurant in Collins Street which you'll be able to recognise from the line of stylishly dressed girls in their mid-twenties outside queuing upwards of 40 minutes for a table. The atmosphere is fun, the food is authentic Mexican and the drink list exciting – I had a Michelada: that's like a bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka. I know, the description creeped me out too, but it was amazing, thirst quenching and spicy.

Finally two Vietnamese recommendations, at either end of the spectrum. Coda in Flinders Lane is another cool, buzzy restaurant serving Vietnamese tapas (!) prepared with precision and flair. Or you can head to Thanh Nga Nine in Victoria Street (pictured above and top) where the food is just as good, twice as cheap and the atmosphere is like waiting at the drycleaner for your laundry to finish. So your choice, but both are perfect in their own way.

We didn't even get on to Greek, Italian, Lebanese or Turkish while we were there, so I'm definitely going to have to return soon. My conclusion so far is that Auckland would match Melbourne pretty well if we put our respective British-blooded chefs head-to-head, but if we're going to catch up with their international offering then we seriously need to convince some of our newer, browner guys to start sharing some of their cooking from back home.