Naked In The Sky – Fitzroy – Tuesday 7 February 2017 – Dinner

It is well documented that Melbourne has inconsistent weather. Just when you think it might be a bit of exaggeration and urban myth, you’ll be reaching for an umbrella in sunshine, or will be carrying one aimlessly for hours wondering why you bothered. Like other cities with fickle weather, as soon as one of those spectacular days come along, there is a stampede to take full advantage, as if there will never be another nice day. It is panic!

Then you sit and talk about how great the weather is. For hours. And no one questions it, because they are all thinking the same thing. Today is one of those days. We should be sitting at home, eating a home cooked meal, but this could be the last chance we ever get to eat outside in complete comfort.

Fried zucchini flowers

On days like these, there actually aren’t a crazy number of options. If bars and restaurants relied on Melbourne having spectacular weather they would be broke faster than a pub with no beer. Functional outdoor spaces here need to have heating, blankets, parasols, wind breakers, or shades, and that is not cheap. As we ran through a list of options that ticked the box for quality food, and drinks, with evening sun, we didn’t exactly have 50 places in mind.

Grilled prawn skewers

Naked In The Sky was the eventual pick. A beautiful view of the city, tapas style eats, and a renowned bar were the reasons. Luckily there was a steady flow of comers and goers and we grabbed a table pretty quickly on this random weeknight. It was basically full though.

The menu is littered with great options to share, even with just two people partaking. Catherine and I chose the zucchini flowers, croquettes, prawns and sliders.

The food is honest and tasty, with generous serves being the norm. There are fluctuations in the flavour intensity, and execution, but on the whole this is a pleasant place to eat. The standout tonight for me were the fried zucchini flowers filled with pea and mascarpone. They are beautifully fried, and the filling is an intelligent combination. The prawns were nice and juicy too; the croquettes on the other hand lacking the depth of flavour that is part and parcel of this delicious fried snack. The sliders were the weakest of the four.

To wash down the various dishes we both had a glass of white. Mine was a Verdejo with good versatility and balanced fruit, and Catherine had a Margaret River Chardonnay. The selection is extensive, and there is the right balance between focus on providing a place for a drink, and a place to offer sustenance.

Croquettes

The next time there is a spectacular day in Melbourne I wouldn’t blame anyone for dropping everything in a panicked state, and heading straight for Naked In The Sky. There’s a good chance we’ll see you there!

Naked In the Sky Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Station Hotel – Footscray – Saturday 18 February 2017 – Dinner

Steak is complicated. People love it; people think it is easy to cook, and often believe they do it better than most restaurants. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is true that many people believe it.

Culturally we think we have steak down pat. Chuck it on the barbie, flip it once, and Bob’s your uncle. But really, it is just like chicken, in that it is often well over cooked, as opposed to well cooked. It is supposed to be easy, but I think that is more perception than reality.

The reality is we are familiar with steak and it is forgiving to the majority of us who are not overly fussy. We quite happily pay $15 at the pub, knowing that the product being served is less than ideal. But funnily enough, we are used to average steak. We are used to buying it, cooking it, eating it, and serving it.

How many times have you said “it wasn’t the best steak I’ve ever had, but it’s fine”. This is why there is such disparity in the quality and price of this dish across restaurants in Australia. The Station Hotel in Footscray has been towards the top of the steak game for many years. Tonight I’m paying around $35 for porterhouse steak with confidence.

My steak is simply presented and perfectly medium rare as I ordered. You cannot expect and you certainly don’t get the same for $15 at most pubs, on a consistent basis. The bearnaise sauce, another sign of technical excellence, not often in the repertoire of your average home cook, is easily my favourite accompaniment for any steak.

Is it value? Not every single time. But experiences like this make me wonder why I don’t get to places like The Station Hotel more often.

Station Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Eating In The Same Place Twice

The famous Tipomisu at Tipo 00

I have slowed down the number of reviews I am writing and there’s a combination of factors.

The main one is I’ve been going back to a lot of restaurants for the second time (or more) since I started writing back in 2014. Sometimes I feel compelled to write another review, or add to my previous one, but often the experience is similar and there is no need to.

It is an excellent sign if I step into a restaurant multiple times. I do my best to only go back if I’ve been particularly impressed, and the overwhelming impression on me is quality food. If I walk back in the door it is not predominantly for any other reason, putting aside places I feel need a second try, or that I had a limited experience at. For ease of reference, the restaurants named below either link to my review, or the restaurant webpage.

Pancakes at Lolo and Wren are out of this world!

Breakfast is more accessible but it is worth listing off a few of my favourites, where repeat visits mean half a dozen or more times, not just two or three. Pope Joan (Brunswick) is consistently impressive with the added feature of a great casual outdoor space, and a menu that is at home with coffee, or your chosen alcoholic beverage. Top Paddock is a local I’m proud of, dominating in the flavour stakes; dishes are as terrific as they look, and the coffee is exceptional. Out in Brunswick West, Lolo and Wren is a destination in itself with pancakes that are not to be messed with. Further afield The General Food Store in Emerald is always worth the drive. In the city, The Grain Store, is a bit of razzle dazzle with a decidedly American brunch feel.

Arabesque has been on the menu at The General Foodstore in Emerald for a long time, and for good reason

When it comes to lunch and dinner I’ll combine unless specifically mentioned. There is no good way to do this than travel through my mind along city streets, and through the inner and outer suburbs as best I can.

600g Ribeye Steak at Cumulus Up was the kind of special we love

It wouldn’t surprise anyone that when I first think of going into the city I start with Flinders Lane. Like most restaurant lists in Melbourne you can’t get away from Andrew McConnell (and why would you want to?) I’ve been to both Supernormal for modern Asian, and Cumulus Inc (and Up) and I’ve always left wanting to come back. Around the corner Lucy Liu is on a par with Supernormal, and back down Flinders to the corner of Exhibition Street you have Gazi and its delicious souvas.

Fantastic “duck bao” at Supernormal – twice cooked duck, vinegar & plum sauce

Wandering North between Exhibition and Spring is a food paradise with Bar Lourinha serving up consistently spectacular tapas, San Telmo celebrating Argentinian barbecue like no other in Melbourne, Gingerboy doing justice to expensive Asian hawker food, and Longrain serving up Thai excellence. City Wine Shop has a knack with simple wine friendly dishes full of flavour, and upstairs The Supper Club does my favourite Croque Monsieur in the world (sorry France), plus every late night drink you could hope for.

The Croque Monsieur at Supper Club is the pre-bedtime hangover cure

While there are great Italian restaurants all over Melbourne, with honourable mentions to Guy Grossi’s establishments (including The Merchant), Becco, Rosa’s, and a host of others, I keep going back to Tipo 00 and I am addicted. They have nailed what I love. A few doors down you have Brother Buba Budan if you need some caffeine before or after during the day. Not far up the hill on Little Bourke you have my latest and greatest wine bar find, Kirks. The food here is wine friendly and it feels a bit like being back in Paris.

Huxtaburger hits all the right buttons for my taste in burgers

It might be on the cheaper side, but Huxtaburger and Gami are quality faster food options. With places like Belle’s, Meatball, Jimmy Grants, Fonda and Grill’d all over the place, including down the road from home, I don’t often go into the city for faster food though.

Fried custard at Supermaxi is just as epic as the Maxi pizza, and other terrific offerings

Back on Italian and our favourite suburban haunt is Supermaxi, which has been the venue for celebrations, pop-ins on the bar, take away pizza, and semi-romantic dinners! It is brilliant. Still in the North and D.O.C. Carlton is consistently my favourite pizza in Melbourne.

An Easter Egg from Burch and Purchase is both delicious to look at, and eat!

If you want a bakery I can’t stop going to Tivoli Road for its versatility. Great, actually better than great, sourdough; pies and sausage rolls that are a proper feast; treats that have addictive qualities. Not far away Burch and Purchase is serious business on desserts and chocolate. At Easter you can get some hot cross buns from Tivoli and Easter eggs at B&P and you are a hero. For more classical cakes, my favourite is easily Beatrix, which has a selection that could literally kill you with pleasure!

Tulips DIY at Attica is on the border of too much, but it works

It is harder with the fanciest and most expensive places. If you stretch out the time that bit longer I can recommend (based on return visits) Attica, Ezard, Flower Drum and Cutler & Co (also check out Marion next door, which is great in itself). Closer to home in Richmond I’ve been to Mister Jennings and Noir more than once in more recent times.

Any chicken dish at Cutler is special – this roast chicken is accompanied by house ground polenta, baby corn & miso

There is only one way to keep up with the enormous number of restaurants in Melbourne and it is to limit your return visits. But if you want a quick list of where you are likely to hit a home-run this above should clear the fence, and probably the stadium!

Fitzrovia – St Kilda – Monday 26 December 2016 – Lunch

img_6405We are fickle. It is like going out to bat in cricket. You make a long walk out to the middle; get your bearings by taking centre; and if you don’t perform you make that long walk back to the pavilion, sometimes never to return to the middle. It might be a stretch but that is a metaphor for a café’s first performance.

There are a range of customers that allow café owners to make a profit. The base, or annuity if you like, is the regulars. The cream is the others. Those who come once but recommend to others (who themselves will hopefully visit more than once), and those who are patrons, but just less regular.

The regulars are easier. If the café walks out to the middle, bats a bit too far out of their crease, and makes a wild shot only to be caught out, they’ll still get selected to return and give it another crack. Some of the less regular patrons might even do the same. But what about when there is an off day, or an off section of the café, and a potential multiple visitor comes in?

We visited Fitzrovia for the first time on Boxing Day. It took us some time standing at the entrance to be greeted by the ticket seller. When we eventually sat in the stand we noticed others had better views of the wicket. Fitzrovia went out to bat and seemed to defend its wicket in a reasonable manner.

It was like we were watching a different game though. The flashiness we’d heard of in the reviews was missing. There were no wild shots being made, but eventually the tired forward defensive shot led to an edge, and Fitzrovia was caught in the slips, making a walk back to the pavilion that was no more memorable than any of the other batsmen I’ve seen in the tail. The performance left a lot to be desired and it’s unlikely they’ll be chosen to bat again. Maybe they can carry the drinks?

This might seem harsh. The toastie was great; a generous serving with cheese oozing out like you love, and plenty of meat. The thing is there are hundreds of great cafes that can serve the same quality of food. The coffee was good, without any frills or any flavour note that piqued my interest. The point is that there are too many cafes in Melbourne that are killing it, to go back to one that should not be open on Boxing Day.

The holiday period is important. There are less options meaning there is more of a need to experiment with new places, or travel for the privilege of a decent meal. That means there are more first timers coming through the doors. In other words, if you are going to stay open, performance potentially matters more over the Christmas holiday period than any other time during the year.

Contrast that with staff who would probably rather be doing anything other than working, on the day after Christmas (which can be a very tiring day). The question is whether I should be apologising for going for a post-beach feed on Boxing Day? I have decided I don’t. It is incumbent on the café to provide as close to the same performance each time a customer steps in.

Today we waited for a long time to be seated which is fine normally, but several staff saw us and didn’t approach or even gesture. We actually thought it must be full and we would have to wait for the manager to put our names down but it wasn’t. There were several tables upstairs completely empty. Then we were seated by the one person who seemed to care, but it was not her section so no menus came until we asked for them. In fact, it felt like the section was not part of any of the floorstaff’s portfolio, so it was again up to the one staff member to come and take our food order. We left to pay before the plates had been cleared.

Looking at the reviews (that attracted us to going to Fitzrovia in the first place) this is not the usual experience. Unfortunately it was ours and there is unlikely to be a reason to go back again. Fitzrovia has been retired from our Starting XI after one uncharacteristic performance.

Fitzrovia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hanoi Hannah – Windsor – Friday 27 January 2017 – Lunch

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Lime ‘n’ pepper squid

Discovering the fresh and clean flavours of great Vietnamese food still feels like a recent experience for me, even though it is now over a decade ago. When memories are that vivid, there is something special about them.

Having enjoyed a good amount of quality pho, and rice paper rolls in the past, my first time at Hanoi Hannah a few years back triggered an even more passionate spark for the modern slant on Vietnamese that is prevalent around the world. There is no denying that an excellent bahn mi, a firm rice paper roll containing a quality protein, or a deeply flavoured pho, are some of the most comforting dishes available.

This is weird, but I would have eaten at Hanoi Hannah only about once for every ten times I think about it! For some reason it is never convenient, often not through distance but the knowledge that it’s popularity means I’m a good chance of making the journey only to be turned away. Today is different because Catherine has a late lunch, meaning that a 1.45pm start is as easy as pie, or the Vietnamese equivalent.

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Porkbelly sliders

There is some added pressure though. With only a short lunch break, I am in charge of getting a table, and ordering everything early. Metaphorically eating pressure for lunch, I order the lime and pepper calamari, yellowfin tuna rice paper rolls, and porkbelly sliders, along with a homemade lemonade, and a can of Bia Hanoi. I would take credit, but in my experience you cannot go wrong with any dish on the menu, so it was a piece of cake.

The calamari is very tender, needing only an extra dash of lime to be perfect. With a hint of wasabi mayo, the yellowfin tuna is wrapped in a firm rice paper, exhibiting all the freshness and quality you would hope for in this less usual offering. The porkbelly sliders are housed in a brioche bun for a some more richness, and are great, but overshadowed by the former dishes.

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Yellowfin tuna rolls with wasabi mayo

There is a vibe at Hanoi Hannah that is hard to duplicate. The staff are energised, even on the day following Australia Day celebrations. They enjoy their time, and must be proud of the product they get to sell.

Any time is a good time to eat at Hanoi Hannah. While there might be a wait on many occasions, it is undoubtably worth it.

Hanoi Hannah Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Frank and Connie’s Kitchen – Hepburn Springs – Sunday 1 January 2017 – Dinner

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Lamb ribs with chimichurri

New Year’s Day started much like many other years when you enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the beginning of a new year. In fact, Catherine had to cancel poached eggs and Istra bacon at Lake House! Somehow I managed to enjoy mine, went for a quick run later in the day, and encouraged her to venture out to try Frank and Connie’s Kitchen in Hepburn Springs.

The night before we had been lucky enough to sit next to owner and head chef, Caliopi, and her other half who works the floor, Abby. Hearing about the newly started venture we wanted to try for ourselves, and having some excellent (and familiar) restaurants on the CV, there was little doubt changing our original plans was a good idea.

A stone’s throw from Daylesford, Hepburn Springs has plenty to offer with quality accommodation and a growing quality of eateries, with Frank and Connie’s a testament to this. The restaurant is homely, with a very open kitchen overlooking a small number of tables inside and out. The comfortable feel translates to the menu, which focusses on good quality ingredients, big on flavour, but not over-embellished.

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Southern fried chicken with coleslaw and relish

Having been recommended the lamb ribs the previous night we had already locked them in, and also ordered the fried southern chicken wings, and sides of roasted potatoes and a leafy salad. The lamb ribs duly arrived first, along with a chimichurri sauce. The punch of flavour in both the slowly cooked ribs, and green sauce, make for a classic combination that is done beautifully.

The wings are simply presented like the ribs, but are also packed with flavour in the crumb and are well cooked. The coleslaw is generous, and between those two aspects and the relish, there is a growing but pleasant heat. The roasted potatoes are delicious and certainly their inclusion on the menu is not as a filler, or an afterthought – they are a great dish in themselves. We were too full for dessert, but took the “Nana’s biscuits” home and were glad we did!

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Roasted potatoes

The fact that Frank and Connie’s is growing a great reputation is not surprising in the least. The food has the depth of flavour that only experience can achieve, served by surprisingly ‘with-it’ staff considering it is New Year’s Day, at very reasonable prices. The wine list is influenced by France, with a good spectrum of locals too, providing interesting drinking.

This is the type of place that must have locals thanking their lucky stars. There is a good chance they’ll be competing with plenty of spa country tourists going forward though. Given the restaurant is almost full early this evening we will be making a booking when we next visit!

Oakridge – Yarra Valley – Thursday 15 December 2016 – Lunch

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A few weeks ago, a group of us visited Rochford Winery for their “A Day On The Green” which involves a casual Saturday on the lawn in the beautiful Yarra Valley watching great bands. As I drove towards Oakridge Winery our main concern from that day was answered – the stage is kept broadly intact between gigs!

That was a momentous day, but today is no less momentous. I have my Mum in town and I’ve finally secured a lunch booking at Oakridge. In recent times, Matt Stone has stamped his class on this heavenly patch on Maroondah Highway near Healesville. The long, glass dominant, streamlined building, with more than a flourish of red making it stand out from the leafy vines, is impressive.

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Like most wine regions, the Yarra Valley is full of excitement. There are some glorious vineyards, the quality of restaurants is continually growing, and the area is bordered by green hilltops and mountains. On days other than today, it takes only a little over an hour to get here, but alas, there are roadworks galore today.

One of the great things about winery restaurants is the ability to make the most of the view. Being outside the city means there is less expense for an incredible fitout, and the abundance of land available means any shape can be used that accommodates the scene. Here the long rectangular building runs lengthwise to one of the vineyard blocks. From my vantage point I can see right down between the trellises down to the irrigation lake. It is gorgeous.

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Another great thing is the incredible wines on offer. Usually back vintages are available, along with the reserve styles, often at no real mark-up. Here is no exception with the 864 (Reserve) Pinot Noir available by the glass, and a 2009 Chardonnay also by the glass. To begin the Chardonnay is surprisingly fresh for a seven year old, made in a high quality fashion, with great subtlety and softness.

It combines well with my entrée of pastry with caraway seeds sitting alongside a medley of ocean trout, thinly sliced vegetables, dill and caviar. The presentation is immaculate, but surprising, with the pastry completely separate. Keeping it separated does assist with the texture, each bite crisp, softened by the fresh trout cream, and complimented by the other fresh ingredients.

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While first course was lovely, I had high hopes for the dry aged duck breast. Here, again, the presentation is simple and inviting. The duck breast is beautifully cooked, adorned by a delicious sauce, and classically matched with beetroot and berries. It is the type of duck dish that you would use to convert a non-believer. Expertly prepared, but not confronting.

The 864 Pinot is ridiculously good, especially when enjoyed alongside the duck. The whole cliché of duck and pinot is one of the best clichés in my book. The pinot noir fruit from nearby higher altitude Yarra vines is exceptionally made into a quality wine, but it is costly as a result.

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Mum also enjoyed the wines and her couple of courses. She began with the Spring vegetable tart, and while it sounded simple, the staff said it is a great dish to try. They were not wrong, with a novel composition of flat (but flakey) pastry topped with fresh cheese, vegetables and leaves. As pretty as it is a nod to the produce available in the valley.

It is always a point of difference when the main courses are even better than the entrees. For a time I was often ordering two entrees because mains were used more to fill an appetite and less to provide interest, and show technique. That has changed at more and more restaurants. Here, Mum’s lamb was not just beautifully roasted, but was presented with flair, the croutons providing texture, and the puree depth.

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The service we received was nice, without being a talking point. Later in the meal we found the sommelier to have excellent knowledge of the wines and the vineyard, as you would hope for, and his explanations to some of our questions provided the cream on top of this fantastic experience.

Driving away from Oakridge was hard. We had enjoyed a fabulous lunch but found some late afternoon traffic back into Melbourne that was pre-Christmas crazy! Luckily the driving had been more than worth the effort. Dining at Oakridge is memorable for many reasons – if only we had time to get out to the Yarra more often.

Oakridge Wines Cellar Door and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato