Le Bon Ton – Collingwood – Sunday 28 June 2015 – Lunch

Otway Ranges pork shoulder

Otway Ranges pork shoulder

When our waitperson was taken aback with my innocent statement “he’s a big eater” I was surprised. Equally, she was surprised having thought I’d said “he’s a big vegan”. As we had a laugh, we both nodded to the fact that you don’t bring a big vegan to Le Bon Ton.

Baja Fish Tacos - Smoked corn salsa, spicy avocado, radish & roasted poblano crema

Baja Fish Tacos – Smoked corn salsa, spicy avocado, radish & roasted poblano crema

Le Bon Ton is hallowed by night owls who grace the dining room through to the early hours of weekend mornings. Today, we are far more civilised venturing in for a late lunch. I had never been to the pub previously here, but it looks no different from the outside to all those years ago; grungy and a complete dive.

Fried Chicken - Southern style buttermilk soaked tenders with cracked pepper white gravy

Fried Chicken – Southern style buttermilk soaked tenders with cracked pepper white gravy

Inside however there is inventiveness and detail, especially in the beautiful bar area. There are several different areas that are spacious and comfortable. The floorstaff we encounter are friendly and know the menu backwards. Their guidance on what and how much to order is good, and it is easy to grab their attention for another beer.

This is Southern American barbecue, from Louisiana to Texas. We are hungry, deciding to order several dishes to share between myself, Catherine, and her aptly named brother, Angus. To begin we share Baja fish tacos and the fried chicken. The chicken is perfectly cooked, has huge flavour from the generous seasoning, and comes with plenty of jalapenos to provide some kick, softened by the white gravy. The tacos are a good size, with a finger of crumbed fish swimming in avocado and the cream of roasted peppers (called Poblano). The smoked corn salsa works in well for another punchy starter. Great beer food!

Lilypad

Lilypad

For main we focus on one of the meat dishes available and try several sides. We choose the Otway Ranges pork shoulder which like the other meats is cooked for twelve hours over iron bark and fruit woods. It is fantastic, the slow cooking making the meat extremely tender, and the marinade doing the rest. Along with the pork we tried the mac and three cheese, tangy coleslaw and fries. You can’t beat great fries, especially when they are this seasoned, teetering on the edge of oblivion, but not quite falling over it. The spicy ketchup served with them is addictive.

Of the other sides, amazingly I liked the coleslaw more, even though I could taste the onion for a while after finishing. The mac and three cheese wasn’t as creamy as others and probably needs to be served in cast iron, clay or the pan to keep it hot through the meal. Even average mac and cheese is good though and this one is duly finished off.

Mac and 3 cheese

Mac and 3 cheese

There is a good selection of cocktails, beers, wines and spirits (focussing on Absinthe). Catherine tried the lilypad which she enjoyed, served with a very interesting leaf on top that I can’t name but it is spicy! Angus and I stuck to some well known US beers like Sam Adams Boston Lager and Coors.
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It took a while to make it to Le Bon Ton. Now that I have confirmed it is a great place, hopefully my memory bank will remind me the next time I’m in need of a great feed at 2am after a big Friday or Saturday night. Though lunch or dinner at any time here is equally exciting.

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Messina Gelato – Richmond – Numerous Occasions

Strawberry and choc mint

Strawberry and choc mint

Magnificent gelato provides some of my fondest food memories. There are few other foods that capture the imagination of young, old and in between, like ice cream.

Before I write about Messina Gelato I need to recount how I found my favourite gelato in the whole world, and my last experience there. A little over ten years ago I was the majority way through a ten week world trip spending time in the home of gelato before finishing up in Hong Kong. Having spent some time in the north-west towns of Torino, Alba, Genoa, and Varazze, my next plan was for Florence.

Being on my own, and starting to tire from my plan of walking hotel to hotel once getting to the next city, I decided to try to book in Florence. After five (expensive) phone calls on my Nokia, I decided Florence was not going to happen this time. Instead, I extended my time in Rome and headed there by train. Six years later I had the opportunity to spend time in Florence and Pisa, and it was as good as I thought it would be.

Messina Gelato

Messina Gelato

Once in Rome I met a bunch of people at the hostel near the Vatican, and naturally had an affinity with the food lovers. One of the guys was particularly helpful and pushed me in the direction of San Crispino which at the time only had one gelateria (there are now a couple) near the Trevi Fountain. It blew my world. Everything I had learned about ice cream was obsolete. I had a new standard, a new natural high that was insatiable. I attribute at least one of the kilograms I put on that trip purely to San Crispino.

I have returned twice to Rome since then but all too briefly. Both times have been with Catherine, once the day before I proposed, and the second time was just one night during our honeymoon on the way to Santorini. That night we managed to try five different flavours each between two of their shops on a walk that took us by the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo de Fiori, Trevi, The Roman Forum and Colosseum, all after dinner. There is no other place in the world like it.

Bounty and apple pie

Bounty and apple pie

Besides the gelato at Messina being exceptional, there is a great deal that reminds me of San Crispino, and naturally then of Rome and Italy.

The consistency between sites is amazing. Having recently been to both Smith Street, and the new shop in Richmond, not to mention the original shop in Darlinghurst in April, I can confidently say that the growth in shops has not changed the consistent high quality. The staff have an obvious appreciation and enjoyment from working for such a successful brand, and the free tastings that must come with the role!

The gelato, whether it be creamy or not, usual or unusual, fruit, nut or otherwise, is brilliant across the board. I wouldn’t like to list the number of flavours I’ve tried through guilt, but so far in Richmond between Catherine and I we have tried pistachio, bounty, chocolate sorbet, strawberry, choc mint, macadamia crunch, banana split, raspberry, and apple pie, and it is difficult to pick between them, but they are all beautiful. The flavours really shine. For example, in the choc mint you can really taste the actual mint, not some sugary manufactured mint flavour. In the macadamia there is a handful of macadamias (at least) and in the apple pie they have had to focus on the stewed apples no less than a quality baker would.

I was so excited about Messina opening in Richmond that I followed its progress almost day to day. The sign going up was a milestone, and about a week later the doors opened. We were just about to walk down last Sunday and Catherine stopped and said “but that would be my fourth time in eight days”. We decided to wait a couple more days!

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Anchovy – Richmond – Saturday 13 June 2015 – Dinner

Grilled green prawns, sweet tamarind, Vietnamese mint

Grilled green prawns, sweet tamarind, Vietnamese mint

I’m excited! Modern Vietnamese has hit Bridge Road in Richmond in a big way. The good looking clean lines of the interior translate to the food being dished out.

Anchovy is the new kid on the block and has made an instant impact. Having tried to get a table after 9pm the week prior (and not succeeding), we book a table tonight by email during the day. It is a system that works well on this occasion.

Vietnamese blood pudding, ginger, cos

Vietnamese blood pudding, ginger, cos

Given the crowds, we are excited about trying several dishes and seeing what Anchovy’s modern take on Vietnamese looks like. For the rice paper rolls, and the spring rolls, it does not look too different. The rice paper roll is expertly wrapped containing a delicious fish that is growing in popularity in Bonito. I love this fish since first trying it at Provenance in Beechworth and the inclusion in the rice paper rolls is intelligent. The spring rolls are delicious; better than most. When wrapped in the mustard leaves with a few select herbs and dipped in the sweet chilli you have a starter hard to not order.

Spring rolls, mustard leaves, herbs

Spring rolls, mustard leaves, herbs

My favourite starter was modern. Great blood pudding, soft consistency, wrapped in a cos lettuce leaf, covered with Vietnamese mint, coriander and pickled ginger. Absolutely delicious for offal fiends like myself. Next we tuck in to several chargrilled prawns. It is not the cheapest dish on the menu but the green prawns are a good size, are beautifully cooked just through, and the sweet tamarind in the juices and Vietnamese mint, add to what is simply great food.

Rice paper roll, bonito, coconut, perilla

Rice paper roll, bonito, coconut, perilla

For our larger dish we share the pan-fried flounder. There are four nicely sized fillets. Again, the skill of the chefs is shown in the well cooked fillets which are accompanied by a lot of spring onions, coriander and a burnt butter that adds excellent flavour, but does not in any way detract from the flounder which stars. The quality of the food has been as exciting as its potential offered. We simply must try dessert despite the good portion sizes.

Pan-fried flounder, spring onions, mustard greens, burnt butter

Pan-fried flounder, spring onions, mustard greens, burnt butter

Finishing off with the beignets is a delight. They are light and expertly cooked and prepared. The coffee cream and condensed milk additions could divide diners who are often either for or against coffee in dessert, but it works, and coffee certainly has a role in Vietnamese culture. Something that I really like about this dessert has been a feature of the entire menu. A few excellent components in the dish, combining together to enhance the star, but not going too far.

Beignets, coffee cream and condensed milk

Beignets, coffee cream and condensed milk

The whole experience tonight has been fantastic. Sitting on the bar the service has been enthusiastic and skilled. The restaurant is busy creating a good Saturday night buzz, and the refit of the previous tenant has really made its mark. Anchovy is a newcomer that packs a professional punch; I look forward to seeing it move through the ranks.

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Port Phillip Estate – Red Hill, Victoria – Monday 8 June 2015 – Lunch

Barbara pumpkin angolotti, lemon, Amaretto, sage

Barbara pumpkin angolotti, lemon, Amaretto, sage

The first time I walked into Port Phillip Estate I was stunned with the modern architecture. It stood out from the rest of the more rustic, traditional, Red Hill wineries at the time. While it created a trend in the area, it is still unique in its scale.

That day was not the day for fine dining but inspired me to one day return and enjoy the incredible view over lunch. Years have passed, but several positive reviews illustrated the dining room had settled into a high performance groove. I was eager to say the least to have a try for myself.

Pan seared scallops, lentil salad, parsnip puree, bitter leaves

Pan seared scallops, lentil salad, parsnip puree, bitter leaves

It is not cheap to eat in the dining room, especially on a public holiday, with a prix fixe for two or three courses. Thankfully there are many exciting options, and the descriptions of the food have the potential to live up to the expense. Catherine and I both order the Kooyong flagship Chardonnay (the Farrago) which has only just begun to be offered on the menu by the glass. It is an elegant, high quality expression of a local vineyard that shares the cellar door with Port Phillip.

Aylesbury duck, organic beets, almond, quince, Earl Grey

Aylesbury duck, organic beets, almond, quince, Earl Grey

It is time to start eating and I have done an extremely gentlemanly gesture and ordered one of the two dishes that Catherine couldn’t choose between. The “Barbara pumpkin angolotti” consists of one large piece of al dente filled pasta, simple but delicious pumpkin, with balance to the creaminess provided by lemon, and a nice infusion from sage. Catherine was torn but ordered the pan seared scallops. Large, beautifully seared scallops, slightly translucent, are served with a lovely parsnip puree. The lentil salad seems an unusual accompaniment but it works alongside the bitter leaves which are a more regular compliment.

After a terrific start, our main courses took it up a notch. My Aylesbury duck, the breast in particular, was incredibly well cooked. The beetroot sauce combining with the duck like a classic should, and the quince providing the slight sweetness that is so well married to game. Presentation stood out, but the taste was an escalation.

Catherine was taken by the sound of the ricotta salata gnocchi. Another delightfully presented meal, with the puree of Chanteney carrots a highlight on the plate in more ways than one. Everything worked nicely together with the gnocchi. There is a great deal of thought that has gone into each of the elements.

Ricotta salata gnocchi, roasted Chantenay, barley, nettle vinaigrette

Ricotta salata gnocchi, roasted Chantenay, barley, nettle vinaigrette

Normally after such tremendous savoury courses you could forgive the desserts not being as intricate or well thought through. Forgiveness was not needed as I tasted my first mouthful of the roasted Red Hill figs, rice pudding infused with more fruit, and chunks of honeycomb. Huge on flavour and while rich, not a dessert that overcame me by the end with too much creaminess.

Caramelised honey panna cotta, poached estate quince, roast almond ice cream

Caramelised honey panna cotta, poached estate quince, roast almond ice cream

While enjoyable, the caramelised honey panna cotta probably missed the mark a touch on the star component which was presented in a flat circular dish, rather than in the usual pyramid form. It was set, but you couldn’t get the usual creamy mouthfeel from each taste. However, the poached quince was amazing, meaning a reconfiguration could be all that is needed to take the dish to the level we found in the rest of the menu.

Roasted Red Hill figs, aromatic rice, honeycomb

Roasted Red Hill figs, aromatic rice, honeycomb

Expectations are sometimes the most difficult element to meet. The food had well and truly exceeded my expectations even though Port Phillip Estate is recognised as one of the best on the Mornington Peninsula. The clean lines of the restaurant and amazing architecture naturally lead you to believe the service is going to be equally classy. It has many fine dining features, even including a small stool being brought out for Catherine’s bag.

While the maitre’d did an excellent job, and on more than one occasion pinch-hit for the floorstaff, it was not enough to overlook some of the oversights. When your waitperson has said more than twice “thank you for your patience” normally it is regarding the food. In this case the kitchen was keeping up with a three-quarter full restaurant on a public holiday, but our waitperson was not keeping up with the simple things. As an example, while we waited quite some time to order dessert, eventually Catherine had finished her sparking water, and the rest of which was in a bottle a little while away to keep the table uncluttered. We sat there for several minutes waiting for her to notice that we needed to order and/or have our water topped up but to little avail. The same happened with the bill and we actually took it up to the maitre’d on our exit. At these times when we patiently waited, our waitperson was on the floor clearing plates, or getting drinks for the larger tables; just not ours.

Service faults aside, we had an excellent meal. The food was fantastic and the view impeccable in this dining room that was purpose built for the surrounds. The experience here is exceptional whether for a day trip or while holidaying on the Peninsula.

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Grain Store – Melbourne, City – Sunday 7 June 2015 – Breakfast

Polenta corn fritter, avocado, and smashed greens, poached eggs, tomato chilli jam salsa, sweet potato crisps

Polenta corn fritter, avocado, and smashed greens, poached eggs, tomato chilli jam salsa, sweet potato crisps

Spoilt is an understatement when it comes to the excesses of brilliant cafes in Melbourne. After many years of trying I have learned to relax, take my time, and not attempt to try each and every one of them!

“Crossing off” cafes from my list has slowed as certain favourites have required more frequent visits, and I equally discover each new big thing might not always be my next big thing. However, we will always try a breakfast that offers something potentially exceptional and diverse. According to one of Catherine’s colleagues, the Grain Store offers this promise.

As I searched for somewhere to park while Catherine put our name down I regretted not getting the train into the city but there was some serious shopping to be done following breakfast. We take sustenance seriously, especially on Sunday morning, and by the time our 20 minute wait was over we were primed for the meal ahead. The entire menu appeals making it difficult to narrow down to one selection.

Portobello mushrooms and Gruyere potato rosti, poached eggs, hazelnut hollandaise, root chips

Portobello mushrooms and Gruyere potato rosti, poached eggs, hazelnut hollandaise, root chips

After reasonable deliberations I decided on the portobello mushrooms and Gruyere potato rosti not quite realising that the mushrooms were separate to the rosti. What was served up was a divine breakfast, simple in its nature, but breaking through the usual taste barriers impressively. The hazelnut hollandaise was particularly good at bringing the rich Gruyere rosti together with the rest of the dish.

Catherine was equally impressed. Her polenta corn fritter again taking something regular on breakfast menus, and bringing it to another level. The accompanying avocado, smashed greens, poached eggs, tomato chilli jam salsa, and sweet potato crisps, all adding balance of flavour and texture. A thoughtful dish.

The riches of Melbourne breakfast never cease to amaze. In this venue that reminds me of some of the elaborate, open spaced, cafes in the United States, there is a feeling of decadence. It seems there might be another cafe to add to the list of those I regularly need to attend.
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Botherambo – Richmond – Saturday 6 June 2015 – Dinner

Penaeng 16 hour shin beef with snake bean, young bamboo, coriander, salted prawn, krachai, peanut

Penaeng 16 hour shin beef with snake bean, young bamboo, coriander, salted prawn, krachai, peanut

The renaissance of Swan Street continues in a strength not seen since Smith Street became an epicentre of Australian culinary greatness. Seven years ago when I first moved to Melbourne, Swan Street was an abyss only worthwhile of frequenting for a few specific bars and pubs.

One of the latest to grace the strip is Botherambo which brings modern Thai and Asian flavours to the array of options. It is housed in a good looking corner block that is a mix between alfresco spaces and a more intimate interior. The kind which you try your best to peek into as you go by, but really have to stop to properly take the space in.

Pork and prawn dumplings with lemongrass broth, dried scallop nam prik, coriander, garlic chips

Pork and prawn dumplings with lemongrass broth, dried scallop nam prik, coriander, garlic chips

Tonight Catherine and I have just seen the early evening session of “Mad Max” so we are rocking up at 9pm. The restaurant is in full swing, packed inside on this cold night, but luckily there are a couple of spaces for two available. One of the waitstaff who greets us continues to serve us through the night and she does a terrific job.

There are a few different types of betel leaves on offer on the menu so we decide to try one each. It was a mistake to try the crispy duck. While there are some nice flavour accents, the combination of the firm leaf which is difficult to bite through, with quite stringy duck that is more tough than crispy, doesn’t work well.

After a tough start, our food went from good to excellent. We shared the pork and prawn dumplings which were skillfully wrapped and packed full of flavour. It is a little awkward to share but the broth is delicious and really adds to the overall dish, the firm wrapper providing an excellent contrasting texture to the liquid.

Betel leaf of crsipy duck, young coconut, kaffir lime, coriander, chilli, crispy shallot

Betel leaf of crispy duck, young coconut, kaffir lime, coriander, chilli, crispy shallot

Next comes the best dish of the night. The Penaeng 16 hour shin beef is beautiful. Meat that falls apart in tenderness with deep flavour, along with accompaniments such as snake beans, young bamboo shoots, plenty of coriander, and several salted prawns. One ingredient used that I had not heard of was krachai which is a relative of ginger. There is some imagination and purposeful points of difference in this menu.

As we near the end of dinner, satisfied with the generous amount of food, we notice that the dining room is still quite full. This is a restaurant that has quickly found a following and looks to have the qualities that will see it prosper in a strip that has become incredibly competitive for reasonably priced options.

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Supernormal – Melbourne, City – Friday 12 June 2015 – Dinner

Tuna, avocado, saltbush, kombu

Tuna, avocado, saltbush, kombu

When Supernormal opened last year it was the beginning of an exciting time for modern Asian cuisine in Melbourne. Sure, it was really just the relocation of Golden Fields from St Kilda to the City, but the hype of another restaurant with huge potential on Flinders Lane was reason for celebration.

We tried it as soon as we could in May last year and had a good experience. Circumstances have been against me getting back there since then. I missed out on not one, but two, work dinners when on business trips to Perth. Tonight we want something high in quality but quick as we are off to watch TV On The Radio at the Forum. Thankfully Supernormal has room and we only need to wait fifteen minutes while enjoying a glass of the Cabernet Franc.

Especially during the wait time, as we peruse the menu and make our selections for instant ordering, we notice how friendly and polite the waitstaff are. They offer to answer questions about the menu, quickly serve us a wine, and just make some general chit-chat. In no time the wait is over, but the rapport has been built, setting up a pleasant experience.

Slow cooked Szechuan lamb, spring onion pancake, coriander paste

Slow cooked Szechuan lamb, spring onion pancake, coriander paste

Last time we had tried a bunch of the smaller dishes but tonight I really want to try the Szechuan lamb. So we begin with a selection from the raw dishes. The tuna is extremely generous in its portion size, but to our tastes, is a little chewier than we expected. The flavour is great though, and the combination with the avocado puree, and the crunch of the saltbush is very nice. The saltbush is basically used instead of soy and its saltiness is quite addictive. There was no saltbush left on the plate at the end and it would work as a nice snack.

The Szechuan lamb does not disappoint in any way. In fact, it is absolutely gorgeous. The meat pulls apart easily, the spices used making for an exceptional depth of flavour, and a perfect amount of heat. The spring onion pancakes are more akin to flat bread in their harder texture, making for a strong vessel for the giving meat. The coriander paste is delicious and we probably could have gone for more. Once the pancake is finished we turn to the steamed rice which soaks up the remaining juices, and the lettuce leaves with nashi and miso are excellent in themselves, as well as providing some refreshment between tastes of the amazing lamb.

Lettuce leaves, nashi & miso

Lettuce leaves, nashi & miso

Having finished our glass of Cabernet Franc we turn to the Sangiovese from Beechworth which has been recommended by our waitperson who continues to be perfectly attentive. It combines well with the lamb and we are completely satisfied and ready for the concert.

I really like eating on the bar at Supernormal. It is interactive, but you can easily have intimate conversation and forget about the world around you between chats with the waitstaff. For the second time we’ve had a great experience here and judging by the full restaurant, so are many others.

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