Chancery Lane – Melbourne, City – Friday 2 July 2021 – Dinner

If there was ever a sign that the hospitality industry is struggling for staff, we saw it tonight. It is really unfortunate that one of the global powerhouses of restaurant service has taken a step backwards, but it is certainly not unexpected. It will get better, though it could be slow progress.

By no means did we have a terrible meal. Any opportunity for Catherine and I to enjoy a long dinner together is incredibly valuable to us. As much as we enjoy flawless, and seamless service, we are not so stuffy to truly care enough to let it impact our enjoyment of a dining experience. That doesn’t mean we don’t notice the misses, especially when they add up.

Twice the floorstaff came to our table with a bottle of wine to pour our glass, only to realise there was no glass on the table. Earlier, our glass for champagne was left unfilled for a long enough period that we got an apology. After almost being awarded someone else’s entree, our mains also took a lengthy amount of time (again, we didn’t mind) and we got an apology for that. There was no need for one of the staff to apologise for it being their first night – you need to work a first night at some stage! They actually handled it well. At one stage I asked for the pinot noir from Burgundy and they said they were new and not familiar with the wines by the glass, so could they bring the menu for me to point to it. Absolutely no problem.

While none of this is concerning in isolation, you could tell Chancery Lane was not running like a well oiled machine on this Friday night. For a Scott Pickett restaurant, where there has clearly been some impressive amounts spent on the luxurious fitout, you expect more. It has a beautiful, big-night-out feel to it, with generally well dressed clientele, and seemingly no expense spared on the surfaces, whether at the bar, or underfoot, and in-between.

Usually the food of Scott Pickett would make up for many of the oversights. We start off with some delicious Mooloolaba prawns accompanied by a “Marie Rose” sauce with a spicy accent, which is better known as cocktail sauce. Wanting to keep plenty of room for main and dessert, Catherine orders the whole flounder with Cafe de Paris, I order the Cape Grim porterhouse, and we also select the gratin dauphinoise, and red oak lettuce salad with pancetta vinaigrette, as sides.

A highlight for both of us is the warm baguette which keeps us going while our mains are delayed. Sublime bread and butter is one of life’s charms, and this has me thinking back to some of the great meals I’ve had, where the attention to detail extends all the way to the simple things in life. On the other hand, while my Cape Grim porterhouse is not bad, for such a nice piece of steak, it lacks a bit. There isn’t the heavy char I’d expect from Scott Pickett having been a regular at Matilda, and the seasoning could be stronger. The truffle jus, and the Dijon helps, but it’s not as good as I’d expect. The sides are beautiful though. The dauphinoise epitomises comfort food, and the red oak lettuce salad cuts through the other elements perfectly.

Personally I’m confused about Catherine’s whole flounder. As the sole fish dish on offer, it is always tough to navigate a whole fish in any setting. It is often delicious and the white flesh of the flounder is very nice. The roe however is not something I was overly aware of. It is not to Catherine’s taste (or texture) and I can sympathise. While I’m sure some love the roe, I think the fish offering could be more diverse here.

We had come this far in our meal, and dessert is a reason in itself to remain, so we hoped our desserts would markedly improve the meal. Catherine’s apple and rhubarb baba, and my Pedro Ximenez, saltana, and chocolate tart, were good, but didn’t elevate to the level we hoped for, and it wasn’t as if we were surprised. Perhaps part of the reason was Catherine’s baba the month prior at Carlton Wine Room was just better, and perhaps it was because the meal couldn’t be properly saved. I should mention the pastry on my tart was first class and showed some signs of the excellence that could be achieved here.

It hurts me to say this, but besides our champagne, and Catherine’s Jean Defaix Chablis, the wines were uninspiring. I was really excited and keen to try a few reds, with some higher priced French offerings by the glass tugging at me. Choosing between Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, all with a few years of age, I thought I might be in heaven. The Clos de Gamot Cahors Malbec was better than solid, but the far more expensive Bruno Colin Bourgogne Pinot Noir was ill-found for mine. Those who think I’m critical need only look at my other couple of hundred reviews to know that if I’m paying $28 for a glass of wine I am generally going to absolutely love it. I would have preferred a local, and given the depth available, I was surprised to be let down.

There’s a lot of depth also in Melbourne’s restaurant offerings. While it is desperately difficult with staff at the moment, there are still many places that are performing terrifically, and more specifically, there are better Scott Pickett restaurants to try. From Vue de Monde, to Bistro Vue, to Chancery Lane, the fortunes of this address seem to have declined.

Carlton Wine Room – Carlton – Sunday 13 June 2021 – Lunch

Carlton Wine Room has changed over the years. Both our visits have been terrific, but have felt like completely different restaurants. I had to look up my last time here with Catherine and it was a little over six years ago. Looking back I feel a little guilty that I said I’d be back quickly, but there was a renovation and change of management in between.

Today we are indulging in a long lunch on the Sunday of the Queen’s Birthday weekend. Gladly our fourth lockdown in Melbourne has somewhat ended, but we did have to cancel lunch in Sorrento due to the 25km restriction. We will surely get to support the French restaurant in Sorrento soon, but today their loss is Carlton Wine Room’s win.

Settling in with a champagne from a house I haven’t heard of, (but is delicious – Laherte Freres Blanc de Blancs), we started to engage in our usual collaborative negotiation of the food choices for our meal. As we agree on the whole snapper, we think about how a bit over eight years ago we had been swayed away from offering fish for our wedding as, given the choice, very few apparently choose it. With Catherine’s preference for white wines, I’m quite happy to let her take the lead, because so many of my other meals involve meat.

To start we share the anchovies, and scallops. The anchovies are served on fried bread spread with soft ricotta, and topped with a very pleasant pickled cucumber. As well as the depth of flavour, the bread has some structure and doesn’t go everywhere as we both expected it would. The tostada was similarly perfect in its construction with a delicious spring onion and yuzu kosho (Japanese seasoning) really pushing the flavour profile, but not completely overpowering the very delicate scallop.

Next up we got to try the whole snapper with Cafe de Paris butter, matched with sides of fried potatoes, and broccoli leaves. Beautifully cooked fish, crispy potatoes, and some salad to soften it all, is a glorious well-known combination for good reason. Adding in the wine selections from CWR and the staff picks today, and you have a luxurious long lunch. There’s the friulano from I Clivi that matches terrifically; its slight oiliness particularly satisfying. However, I did need to try a red. The Austrian, Ceel Blaufrankish, as the other staff pick was worth trying between mains and dessert.

That dessert was a shared rum baba with creme diplomat that was revelatory. The noticeable rum shining through the sponge, with the creme adding even more decadence. While sharing was a good idea, I could have finished one myself.

We finished off our chocolate truffles, peppermint tea and espresso, and headed to King and Godfree’s rooftop for a final glass of wine. Thinking about our experience at CWR, it was certainly a great all-round offering, with the service quite natural and professional too. Having Carlton Wine Room as a neighbourhood wine bar would be brilliant, but having it a few suburbs away is still great. The fact so many seeming regulars were stopping by and happy to have a wine outside on a cold day suggests this is a popular place for good reason. We won’t take six years for our next visit I promise!

The Carlton Wine Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Torissong – Carlton – Thursday 27 May 2021 – Dinner

What is the best moment of a meal? Lately I’ve found it is the opening of proceedings where you are busy catching up. It feels like catching up has taken on new meaning as it’s no longer taken for granted. What once was the usual is now precious moments to find out how your friends and family are going; or in this case how my wife is going.

It is not completely clear when you have a toddler in tow. As much as we adore and love our little boy, the moments in a meal where you get to have more than two sentences of dialogue are few. Tonight it takes me at least two minutes to sort out the booster chair that we brought along, we sit down, check in, open up the menu, order a wine, and by now we are a little less relaxed!

Why are we out on a Thursday night with a toddler? Besides Catherine’s friend not feeling well and having to cancel a night out in the city, it is the eve of our fourth lockdown. We know from experience that in most places it ends when expected, or early, but in Melbourne it takes at least double the time (and potentially weeks or months more). I’m not keen on not eating out for another few weeks and neither is Catherine.

I’ve had the Japanese offerings of Torissong on my list for ages, but didn’t realise it was across the road from The Lincoln Hotel which has become a favourite in recent years. It is on a good looking laneway corner at the bottom (city end) of Carlton on Queensbury Street near the corner of Cardigan. Open windows to the corner and an open kitchen give a sense of space, and it’s simple and minimalist as Japanese does so well.

There’s a formula to ordering at Torissong. You need to choose a teishoku (set menu) and the base is either a premium or higawari (daily special) set. Catherine and I both chose from the latter, with mine a chicken katsu (the kingfish sashimi was sold out) and hers the salmon teriyaki. The bento comes out with a miso soup, shiitake and chawanmushi (egg cooked slow to resemble custard), salmon sashimi, beef sukiyaki, wombok tsukemono (pickled), matcha cheesecake, and we added a serve of prawn tempura (two prawns) to share.

Having kept Sydney happy with some two minute noodles brought from home, and the usual toys, and other games, the teishoku arriving was a further source of curiosity for the entire family. The service was excellent throughout, with one waitperson very attentively offering Syd some chopsticks to keep him occupied as we needed ours to eat! As we tried the offerings of the teishoku there was a consistent theme of excellent depth of flavour and execution.

We love Japanese, and we’ve had a ball going around Tokyo, but we do find a clear distinction between the usual dime-a-dozen Japanese around Melbourne, and the better quality establishments. There is a noticeable quality at Torissong, with items like the couple of mouthfuls of salmon sashimi being really satisfying, the beef being deliciously tender, and the matcha cheesecake finishing us off with a punch of balanced sweetness. All aspects could have been larger, but given the diversity, there was well and truly enough food for us.

My chicken katsu was delicious the way crumbed and fried chicken should be, but did have that extra virtue of not feeling bad for me! Thinking back to a bit of sauce, and some compact steamed rice, with the katsu, and I want to go back immediately. Catherine’s salmon teriyaki was much the same, but the flavour came with the sauce, as opposed to the fryer.

In the end the lockdown was a couple of weeks and it took its toll on us, and many Melburnians. We were glad in hindsight to have got out of the house on the Thursday night, and were very happy with our decision to check out Torissong.

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

A week in Rye with the little guy

When people who love food and going out have a little one, does that diminish the future experience of food and going out? It is a question we are yet to definitively answer, but we are doing our best to accommodate each into the other!

Lunch at T’Gallant

Like most parents, we are very proud of our little 20 month boy, Sydney. He is energetic, cheeky, and beautiful. Those three characteristics do make our regular dining habits interesting though. We have never been shy of putting an over-the-top amount of thought into our next meal, and having Sydney takes it to the next level. I’ve separately written about some of that need for preparation, as well as what works for us, in “Combining our love of food and our little boy!” In saying all of this, I honestly believe our choices, and dining experiences while based in Rye, are very good for anyone.

If you add in a trip to the Peninsula Hot Springs, one of the amazing golf courses, beautiful calm bay beaches like Blairgowrie, and energy charged surf beaches like Flinders, you have a terrific array of adventures. There are picnic (or professional) horse races, the Mornington to Moorooduc train from the preservation society, the Arthur’s Seat Lookout and Eagle “Gondola”, heaps of wineries, craft and farmer’s markets, and so many other attractions to this area. Last year, Sydney particularly enjoyed picking strawberries in Red Hill too.

Panda, Blairgowrie, Dinner

Panda is a place that feels as if it is calling out to you as you pass. Across the road is a beautiful calm bayside beach called Blairgowrie, that at this time of the year is pristine, with clear blue shallow water. Panda is on a corner after the main village, with green grass meeting an alfresco area of a white building that metaphorically says beach all over it.

We had a light dinner with some prawns from the specials, and shared a cheese burger. The burger was delicious, almost surprisingly so, with plenty of pickles and the right amount of sauce, in a brioche bun, with a nicely charred juicy meat pattie. The prawns were tasty too, with a salsa verde, and a thoughtful garnish salad.

What made Panda even better was the service. From the initial greeting at a busy venue, throughout our meal, to the end, the staff really were enjoying their shift. It was so great we had to comment on it, and we realise it is something you shouldn’t take for granted when it is above and beyond like that.

T’Gallant, Red Hill, Lunch

We haven’t been to T’Gallant together, and the last time we had been separately was several years ago. Personally, I feel it is a bit simple to go to a winery for pizza when there are so many other options. With our little boy, we couldn’t be too choosy, and in the end we have a new take on T’Gallant.

Again, the welcome, and accommodating nature of the front of house, made an enormous difference. We didn’t have a booking so we were quite happy to continue on if the winery was full. They went out of their way to make us comfortable, allowing us to choose which table out of the couple that were left.

The set-up here has changed over the years and it is perfect now. There are views to the vineyard and plenty of shady umbrellas, which was necessary on this hot day. The grounds are good looking and well kept. The pizzas are rectangular and I must say huge! You can order “half and half” and the whole translates into a very large board. Quality is maintained even with the large size. It might not be D.O.C. quality, but it is the next best thing, and the wines such as the Pinot Gris are excellent for their style.

One quality you need with a little energetic boy is patience. The same is required for many of the T’Gallant staff. I realise this is a very tough time for restaurants with much of the workforce having left Australia for their own homelands. But we did see some bickering amongst staff, and we did overhear one had been there since school (for over 5 years), but that didn’t make her any more attentive than the rest. You basically had to run after someone to order (and we did, twice). If you are here for a quick lunch order immediately once seated, or just hold your breath and be patient.

Donna Maria, Flinders, Dinner

I’ve written before about places that we go back to, and how it is an immediate sign we really like a restaurant, because often our preference is to try something new. At Donna Maria we enjoyed the food enough that Catherine was back with her Mum, and sister Steph, only a couple of weeks later.

There are several distinct areas to sit and having started dinner early, we enjoyed sitting on the veranda facing the street, feeling the final rays of the sun for the day. Sydney was not in his best form tonight, so dinner was a little difficult, but the staff were great and they ignored the commotion very politely indeed.

To begin we shared the Capresse salad and the special truffled arancini. The generosity of the key ingredients, and the quality of the mozzarella, made this simple salad something to behold. Equally impactful, but with a lot more richness, was the arancini. For main we shared a serve of the crab pasta. Again, this was outstanding, with quality al dente pasta, plenty of crab, and the right amount of crumb to provide texture, but not overpower the star ingredients.

Given our unfolding situation in the highchair (we had to bring one by the way) we took away a serve of tiramisu for dessert. It is a very nice rendition of this Italian classic, and enough for the entire population of one of the neighbouring islands to enjoy! We bid arrivederci to Donna Maria, but Catherine would be back soon after to enjoy another great meal.

The Kitchen, Tootgarook, Breakfast

Despite a little confusion between finding The Little Kitchen, and The Kitchen, we found the actual cafe on a dreary Australia Day morning. The Little Kitchen is charming as a take away joint, with apparently excellent options across the board, but the outside is not comfortable for a family on a rainy day with no high chairs available either. Gladly we realised we were not where we planned just before ordering!

The Kitchen Bistro, Bar & Courtyard on the other hand is equally very busy this morning, but far more comfortable, as the main cafe / restaurant of the two sister eateries. On the other side of the main road, but close to the beach at Tootgarook, it has plenty of space inside and out, but we took the indoors option given the occasional showers.

The coffee is great, and the egg & bacon breakfast burger is full of flavour – the perfect start to a day that would lead to the Balnarring picnic races. We even got a taste of Sydney’s kids breakfast “The Smashy” which was pretty good.

Nordie, Red Hill, Breakfast

In an area rich of options, Nordie has the right balance to satisfy a diverse cafe crowd. On this bright and sunny day, the back courtyard is the perfect setting, but the interior is almost as inviting.

The dishes from the kitchen are attractive and tasty, with my Red Hill Rosti Benedict beautifully composed. While not as attractive, Catherine really enjoyed her smoked salmon bagel, and Sydney enjoyed his fruit toast and jam. The coffee is good too.

I quite like the idea of starting off at Nordie before a few cellar door visits, and then perhaps a late winery lunch. It was a very nice way to end our trip down to Rye, enjoying some Arthur’s Seat views on the way back down to the freeway.

Some takeaway options

Johnny Ripe, Main Ridge – while we have actually dined here before for lunch in the outdoor courtyard, lately we have been taking food away from Johnny Ripe like it is going out of fashion! The vanilla slices are special (you can get them a few other places too, like the Blairgowrie IGA), the lasagne is exceptional value (and delicious), and the pies and sausage rolls are terrific. A great option on a nice day is to take your own picnic blanket to eat on the expansive lawn, or stock up on provisions for your next trip on the Peninsula.

Cornell Seafood, Blairgowrie – we ordered a few serves of snapper, a Greek salad and minimum chips, and we were happy with our dinner.

16 Beach General Store, Rye – on the ocean side, this cafe has a terrific business going for a small general store, smashing out hundreds of coffees a day. They are friendly and have a lot of nice options packed into a tiny space, but the coffee (and chai) is a real winner.

Combining our love of food and our little boy

For two food lovers it has been more than an interesting couple of years. Almost two years ago we welcomed Sydney into the world, and the lead up involved a lot of research about what you could eat when pregnant, plus what you could eat with gestational diabetes. COVID didn’t make things easier, although we did have plenty of excuses to not go out (ie, we were forced!)

Deep thought about both important, and far less important, aspects of life, is one of the reasons I write this blog. Like most with their first child, I am not an expert in anything to do with the little one, and Sydney is unique, just as everyone’s kids are. They all have different personalities, temperaments, interests, dislikes, and experiences. So I thought I would write about some things that help us dine with Syd.

Before we leave the house there is two things that are critical. The first is packing everything! It would be unusual for us not to have a selection of snacks, toys, his water bottle, everything spare for what could go wrong, and five other things that Catherine remembered that I always forget! The second is research. If we are not sure about any aspect of where we are going we either look it up, or call (or both).

There are things that we need to know or our dining experience could be awkward. We’ve been to enough restaurants that don’t have highchairs to know that we need to verbally confirm if we are not 100% sure. We often book for Syd but leave a note, or make a call, to let them know he is a toddler. Restaurants are doing it tough and we do understand if bringing a toddler (or two or more on some catch ups) means a seat is not available for someone else who could be eating and drinking a lot more. We also figure if a restaurant knows a toddler is coming, they can hardly be displeased once we arrive given their prior knowledge. For outdoor dining we also need to be sure that there will be a spot for Syd that is shady enough if it is hot (which hasn’t been an issue in Melbourne recently!)

Lunch at T’Gallant

Syd has been a difficult combination of a small eater, and a fussy one, which is actually a bit like his parents. We’ve found some cafe and restaurant staples that allow him to join in when he is not in the mood to try anything unusual. Fried rice, cheesy pasta (thanks Tipo 00!), and fruit toast, are normally winners, with other plain toasts and avocado growing in popularity. When I’m at a pub, chips are often eaten liberally, but please don’t tell anyone. Normally whatever is on offer is the follow up from snacks, or the snacks are in the back of Syd’s mind as he eats.

We take him to a lot of places, both together and separately too. There is often a small window to enjoy the meal, but very rarely would I say it is relaxing. We do love it though. Whether it is a family dinner at home, which we try to do most nights, or showing Syd one of our favourite cafes or restaurants, it is a great experience for all of us. Between the thousands of wet-wipes, picking up food from the floor for the fifteenth time, and warnings about how close that toy was to knocking down my beer, there is the love of eating with someone who is learning how to eat. He gets to hear about our thoughts in conversation, and we get to talk to him while he is captive in his highchair.

Although I am very finicky and fastidious, I have learned with Catherine’s help, to let Syd get used to eating at his own pace and preference. He has a hilarious habit of eating with the spoon facing down like the way I eat ice cream, and although he can use a fork, he rarely finds it more appealing than his hands. I can’t help but stress a bit, but I’ve learned to relax a touch in the knowledge that his habits will change a lot in coming years, and he will get there. I’m glad to say it has never stopped us going out, and that goes with the occasional episode, and general noise level of being a toddler.

It can however dictate the time we eat, and our preference for certain venues that are a bit more atmospheric. Time wise we’ve chosen to eat very early lunches and dinners when going to quieter and/or fancy places, like Supernormal for example. Breweries are a favourite, as are large noisy places like busy cafes. Outdoor dining is a favourite because of the mess factor, and that goes for home dining too. Hand me the hose!

Catherine’s tip is to look at the menu before you arrive at the restaurant. That helped earlier today when she already knew what she wanted at Red Door Corner Store, and what Sydney might go for. It’s especially helpful with catch ups too, because so many times we just want to chat when we get to the venue, and not have to stop the conversation to read the menu.

The harder you work; the luckier you get. While there is effort in taking a toddler to a lot of dining experiences, there is a lot of joy. When Syd gets to an age where he is expected to start dining to certain standards, he should be well placed, comfortable in the knowledge that he has done this before, and enjoys the experience. We are really proud of him.

Gimlet – Melbourne, City – Friday 27 November 2020 – Lunch

Friday lunch or Saturday dinner? Surely these are the most atmospheric times to dine, but often for different reasons. Today I get to enjoy the intimate side of Friday lunch with my wife, rather than in connection with my work.

There are plenty of power lunches going on mind you. Though we are seated on a table of two above the majority of business lunches. Here we have a view of the good looking dining room that is full of architectural character in Cavendish House.

Gimlet has pedigree. The latest and greatest by Andrew McConnell, there is no doubt it has the bones to succeed. It’s down the road from Supernormal on the corner of Flinders Lane and Russell; it already has a charismatic feel; and it walks the difficult tightrope between intimacy, and a place to be seen.

Before I write about the high quality coming out of the kitchen, and also the bar, I need to point out that Gimlet is not at its peak from a service perspective. Again, it has the makings, but the execution is not quite there yet. There are some noticeable times where the floor is trying to communicate covertly, but is tripping up. A knowing of what to do, but not necessarily how to do it; a nervousness.

Not that service took anything away from our terrific lunch, playing high stakes, and placing our main bet on a half lobster, and a bottle of chardonnay from Burgundy. More of that a little later.

As we finished our Coutier champagne to celebrate being out for a Friday date, and 28 days of double doughnuts, we were presented with our first entree. We began with “seafood salad” which appealed to us, especially after learning it consisted of a Tiger prawn, pippies, and mussels. Those elements are delicious, but the peeled cherry tomatoes, heavy on flavour, are the other half of the equation, along with succulents that do a dual role of enhancing this dish, which is dressed beautifully.

Seafood salad, preserved tomatoes, coastal herbs

The gnocco fritto is superb too. Crisp pockets topped with bresaola, that already had us thinking about the next time we could drop by on the bar for a few snacks and cocktails. At this stage the charred romaine heart side came out.

It was a completely innocent mistake, but we had asked what would go well with the lobster as a side and this was the recommendation, which was a great suggestion, especially with the salty guanciale, and anchovy dressing. However, because it came out with entrees, the lobster wasn’t called away as a main and we waited for quite a while until our waitperson realised. Though, nothing in the world was wrong when the half Southern rock lobster landed on our table.

The selling point as a very expensive main to share was the saffron rice that surrounds and adds flavour to the wood roasted king of seafood. As a combination, the tomatoey saffron rice, along with the indulgent juicy lobster meat, is utterly gorgeous. Add in a 2015 Colin-Morey Bourgogne chardonnay and you have the Friday lunch dreams are made of.

Panettone, zabaglione, Christmas spices and grappa

As we reflected on our delicious savoury courses, we had some room for a shared dessert. The “Panettone, zabaglione, Christmas spices and grappa” seemed to jump off the menu as we enter the Christmas period. Once we had our first taste of the thick zabaglione and rich panettone we couldn’t stop until it was but a memory. Absolutely delicious.

Catherine’s mint tea, and my double espresso, were also good quality as you’d expect, but the extended time they took post dessert to hit the table was again a sign that there is some room to improve. It honestly didn’t matter because I’m already thinking about the next opportunity to get back to Gimlet. It was that great.

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

Park Street Pasta and Wine – South Melbourne – Sunday 8 November 2020 – Lunch

Park Street Pasta and Wine – South Melbourne – Sunday 8 November 2020 – Lunch

It’s like learning to ride a bike, stopping, starting again for a few weeks, and stopping again for a few months. It felt much more unusual last time with empty but full dining rooms, and tonnes of sanitiser. Somehow with masks on your way to the table, and on all the staff, it feels quite natural now?

Park Street Pasta and Wine was our choice for our first big lunch back after 3.5 months of a strong lockdown. Reservations across town were full seemingly moments after the State Government announcement that we were allowed to safely go back to eat and drink the way we used to (in a sense).

The planning concessions allowed the restaurant to sprawl out onto the street, but we were keen for an intimate chance to dine. Our little boy, not in our care for the first time since the middle of July, meant we had some serious indulging to do.

It’s not our style to eat huge meals, or drink a lot (well, maybe not Catherine), but we do like to try multiple dishes by sharing. First up we tried the sardines, which were lightly cooked and full of flavour that we hadn’t enjoyed outside of our home for some time. As we finished our cocktails, mine an Americano spritz to celebrate a return to normality from a US political perspective at least, we were beginning to remember what we had been missing.

Sharing the cacio e pepe brought back memories of Rome. The pepper not pushing the limits, but delicious all the same, and the mafaldine pasta a talking point for both its shape, and its great texture. Next we were back for some more fruits of the sea, with Port Phillip mussels topping a rich and deep tomato sauced spaghetti. Such a delight. The sweet vincotto (balsamic) in the parmesan and pistachio salad led to us finishing every mouthful, which is a bit unusual for even the best of side salads.

Apple and pecan crumble, fior di latte

Turning to dessert, despite the continuing “doughnut days”, we skipped the bombolini, and instead tried the apple and pecan crumble. Deconstructed, it had the freshness of crisp apple to balance the sweetness of the crumble, along with some sweetened fior di latte gelato. A nice finish to a long lunch.

With good expressions of Soave, Vermentino, and several other Italian varieties, the wine list by the glass has plenty to keep diners interested. The weaker point of the meal was not surprising. Service is terribly difficult at the moment with a lot of elements to consider, especially the fact that so many staff are not in Australia any longer (and probably won’t come back). It did not disrupt the meal, but it was not a positive either.

I’m very aware that we are in different times right now. This is a relaxed long Sunday lunch that was overdue, and it was terrific to again be out in Melbourne!

Park Street Pasta & Wine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Here we go again

First time back at Mayday!

When restrictions eased we all wondered whether it was too soon, and whether we should venture out. I work in a field where the answer of “it depends” to problems with no clear answer is the primary reason I am employed. Like the nature of most complicated matters, the answer is best found with hindsight; the actual outcome.

If you ask someone from any other State or Territory of Australia, the answer as we approach the middle of July would be reasonably positive. For Melburnians, whatever the reason for the surge in cases, we know that easing restrictions certainly didn’t help. Did we venture out? A lot of us did.

Time goes quickly. On Monday 1 June, Catherine, Sydney, and I, did not immediately go to sit in a cafe. My conservative nature lends itself to making informed decisions, and I wanted to see what the coming weeks looked like. When cases continued to reduce, a few weeks later we started by going to Mayday on Wednesday 17 June. That is over two weeks of wanting to go and do something normal after 11 weeks of not having the option.

Croque Monsieur

There was a few reasons we started at Mayday. The first was having gone for takeaway coffee several times during stage 3 restrictions, I noticed how much effort was made for distancing and sanitation. The 20 person rule allowed Mayday to space even more than what is necessary, and Catherine and I had a very pleasant lunch with the usual excellent food and coffee that make Mayday one of my Richmond favourites. The flood gates had opened. For the next 3 weeks.

The next day I was at the Cherry Tree with old work colleagues, only two of which still work together, but we have a close knit group of friends now, and had spent several hours having virtual catch ups in the earlier 13 weeks. Through the years I have always loved this pub and its staff and clientele. During the height of restrictions it was a pillar of the Cremorne community, going above and beyond to be helpful, whether it was the deliveries of food and drinks with a free hand sanitiser (during the panic buying times), or just to put a smile on our faces with terrible onesies, or videos of their ute roaming the streets.

It was at this stage that I realised you still had to be careful in where you decide to go out and dine. We were eating outside, and people waiting for takeaways didn’t seem to understand what distancing is. It was a little disappointing having this insight into some attitudes.

Margherita at D.O.C.

On the Saturday (20 June) we were out doing some shopping and decided to go to Carlton. Initially we were headed for just gelato at Pidapipo, but it was getting on and we were a while from dinner, so we ended up with a mid-afternoon snack at D.O.C. sharing a margherita pizza. It brings up something I’ve noticed. Restaurant kitchens catering to less people has a tangible uptick in quality, even in situations where the quality is normally consistently very high like at D.O.C. The margherita pizza today was the best I’ve had from D.O.C. in Carlton or Mornington, and actually the best I can remember having in Melbourne. There is something in that.

Red Door Corner Store – out the back

The next day we met one of Catherine’s parent’s (mother’s) group couples, Aiofe and Jimmy, and their daughter, Saoirse, at Red Door Corner Store in Northcote. Again, this was a cafe we have been to multiple times that we trust to do the right thing. And they did. In fact the whole courtyard is not very large so our table of 6 was the maximum allowed out there. That was until two ladies (who knew better) came through the backdoor to sip on their takeaway coffees. Another small breach that the venue has little control of (they were asked to leave once staff saw, but we didn’t mention the numbers because we didn’t want to be confronting). Lunch was superb and our little boy Sydney, and Saoirse, had run of the courtyard!

Brisket burger at Red Door Corner Store

It was around this stage where some cracks were beginning to appear. We had a table of 5 booked for Sunday 28 June at The Lincoln Hotel (another trusted venue). One of my friends, living in the north-west, had started making gestures that he was uncomfortable to attend. In the end he decided not to come, and 4 of us met up for a long Sunday afternoon lunch, which included me indulging in the Sunday roast (pork belly). Like every venue I had been to, they did the right things, and the basic stuff like taking names on entry and having distanced tables and appropriate numbers, seemed second nature.

Sunday roast of the day at The Lincoln

However, the night before Catherine met up with the mums from her parent’s group and I was concerned to hear about some obvious and blatant breaches. Firstly, the rule of 20 within an enclosed space with a minimum of 4 square metres per person, was breached at least once (but possibly twice with the outside not distanced), and they had a table of 8 that was not split (the rule is no more than 6 for a table). Their names, incredibly, were not taken, and only the host who booked was recorded. It is not my place to mention the venue, but it is very disappointing.

Nice pizza here on Swan Street, but the rules still need to be followed

In what would become my last lunch out for some time, on Friday 3 July I met back up with most of the same old work friends at a new pizza place in Richmond. I’m not going to name the venue, but the pizza is excellent. I had done reconnaissance the week prior, having lunch at 2pm by myself to see what it was like. Knowing Friday is busy we made our booking early and had a table for 5. During lunch a walk-in group of around 5-6 people (I had my back to them) came in. Unfortunately this seemed to be a case of being polite over maintaining the rules.

The classic Shakshuka at Red Door Corner Store

The table was seated very close to our table, to the extent that the back of our chairs would be an inch from each other. It was uncomfortable in any situation, but with the distancing rules, it was stressful. A rational assessment of the numbers meant I wasn’t overly concerned, but I am someone who follows rules, and eventually we said something to the staff, but it had been a good 20 minutes. They moved the table as luckily some more space had opened up. I think Julie was counting the numbers inside every few minutes and arrived at there being about 19. Unfortunately, as we left we realised that the square metre rule only allowed 17, so they were well over for much of lunch. Yes, here is a new venue that is struggling to stay alive. The mental health of the owners and staff would be stretched. But distancing has never been about detection risk or policing has it? It is just a minimum standard.

The postcode lockdown had started the day prior, and the North Melbourne extension would begin two days later. By Thursday 9 July we would be back in stage 3 restrictions. The takeaway-way-of-life would recommence and Catherine and I would be eating Chin Chin at home on a Saturday night, rather than be with friends as we had planned weeks prior.

In the 3 weeks of actually going and sitting in a pub, cafe, or restaurant, I would see even the simple rules be breached. I wouldn’t say there was anything substantial in itself with any of these breaches. The issue is that in a short period of time we had seen most rules being overlooked, or flagrantly breached. Multiply that by our massive population and there is not just an issue in certain postcodes, or certain building structures. With this perspective it is hard for me to blame bad luck and circumstance on the growing numbers, and it is hard to disagree with some further stage 3 restrictions.

Dining post COVID-19

Cutler & Co’s Mother’s Day feast with duck pie!

I’ve been writing this blog for many years. I continue not because many people read it. It’s mainly because I enjoy writing, think a lot about restaurants, and like to capture my thoughts. I’ve also realised that the successful bloggers are often form (photo quality) over substance (writing quality). My average photo doesn’t take long and until a couple of months ago I had an iPhone 5. I have a different perspective.

Lately I’ve been thinking deeply about dining post this health crisis, and I’ve been having quite a few conversations about it in my area.

The Cherry Tree’s parma

Due in no small part to the influence of my Mum, I am very conscious of germs, without quite being a germaphobe, and I am clean, without being a clean-freak. I put safety first so I have been known to touch the handrail of a train escalator, but I am conscious that I am doing it. I have cleaned the bathroom exclusively for almost 24 years since I first left home and still do to this day, and I do it very well, but I don’t do it weekly!

Coronavirus hasn’t rocked me as much as I expected it to. While maintaining safe social distancing from the outset, I made sure I got to experience the last of my cafe and restaurant experiences right up to the restrictions starting, only cancelling once when we didn’t get the comfort we were looking for during the restaurant booking and confirmation process. I wondered how I would cope from going to cafes almost every day to nothing; from going to footy matches and horse racing to nothing; from trips to the shops for one or two items being a non-essential risk. What saved me initially was the novelty factor, which I knew would wear off. Then as the novelty wore off, the new business model for cafes and restaurants doing quality takeaway, completely saved me.

Top Paddock’s pancake

I have a little love affair with the Cherry Tree Hotel. I think Catherine and I have ordered pizzas, parmas, beers, and hand sanitiser, about a dozen times. We have become closer to cafe staff at Pillar Of Salt, and Top Paddock, ordering their excellent coffee and quality cafe fare regularly. We’ve had multiple meals from Vaporetto and Matilda159, and supported a range of places like Tivoli, Lume, Penny For Pound, Mayday, Inward Goods, Blackhearts & Sparrows, Tipo 00, and Cutler & Co, with our continued patronage, which is naturally in consideration for an exceptional product they put out. It has kept life interesting, and I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with Catherine and our little boy Sydney. He turned one during the restrictions but it was still a nice immediate family celebration, and we had a terrific Elmo cake from Swan Street Bakery & Patisserie.

Lune delivery!

What I didn’t expect was a mild discomfort with the easing of restrictions. Over the past weeks I’ve noticed a substantial amount of breaking and bending the rules. I don’t expect that to get better going forward and I’m hoping a certain amount of luck sees us all through. It is probably the reason for my hesitation in making instant restaurant bookings as the restrictions ease using a phased approach. I would comfortably say from my observations that there is around 20% of people who are not thinking AT ALL about social distancing when they are out and about. The rest of the population have somewhere between a healthy respect for others, to a proper diligence about what they are doing, and what those around them are doing. It’s like good drivers. Everyone can drive, but good drivers avoid accidents by anticipating what other drivers are doing. In Australia it seems we do not give feedback to others who do the wrong thing. While I have wanted to, I just cannot bring myself to confront a complete stranger and I’m sure most people are naturally that way inclined.

Tipo 00’s casarecce

The business model of allowing 20 people to dine at the venue is quite complicated. It is not just a question of profit. Reputationally you do not want to have a potential issue through outbreak for the sake of 20 diners and a negligible profit? Gearing up staff levels again might be okay if you have workers who have been stood down or have had reduced hours on JobKeeper, or staff who can increase their hours, but is fraught with hardship for new hires, and potentially threatened by a second wave. 20 people means extra areas to sanitise, extra risk from exposure (to all staff), and there is no guarantee the patrons will accept lower levels of service (ie how many staff do you have ready for a maximum of 20 covers is potentially difficult as the area needs to be large given the social distancing requirements of 4 square metres per person). I can understand why all venues are contemplating not doing it or waiting to see how others are going with the easing.

Pillar of Salt

The best candidate is fine dining. You already expect certain spacing at most expensive restaurants and the margin on food is better. The worst candidate, almost counter-intuitively, is small dining spaces. Because of social distancing, a small dining space might not even be able to hold 10 people! A couple of no-shows and you are having a bad evening. Cafes that are well run and have access to appropriate booking technology might be able to do okay, but it is not the right model to have people waiting out the front for extended periods to get a table. You can start to appreciate how difficult this is. No matter the space, you need to have something to eat more substantial than a snack if you are drinking alcohol. Being from Perth I am used to this rule from my twenties, but I’m not sure how Melburnians will take to it.

Matilda 159’s pork belly

For staff, I am worried they will also have higher stress on top of the fact they are serving multiple diners who they are exposed to for lengthy periods. In some circumstances they could become an umpire between strangers who don’t agree with the spirit of the game, or its rules. For example, if people greet each other with large long hugs (like I saw in the park last Sunday – all under the observation of their kids – good example!) do you ask them to leave? Do other diners complain to the staff and put them in a difficult position? Do the authorities get called for not adhering to social distancing? It is a couple of months since restrictions began and there will be a lot of people who are stressed and anxious, with lesser mental health, and that could be a recipe for confrontation.

Vaporetto’s chicken

On the flipside, I think we have seen a good level of maturity with the majority of Australians, and those I’ve observed in my area. As long as the majority continue to show thoughtfulness and respect when out in public, and use the normal polite and friendly mannerisms we are known for around the globe, I can see a real community spirit as locals start gathering in dining spaces. It really is up to all of us to be patient and show cafe and restaurant staff that they are valuable to us. To be tolerant to others, and where it is needed to be diplomatic when discussing the rules with strangers, or to stick up for those in need. I’m sure we can all appreciate as we see the devastation overseas, that we are very lucky to be able to get a takeaway coffee, let alone sit down in a cafe once again from 11.59pm on Sunday 31 May.

I’ll tread warily, and I may not be one of the first diners on Monday 1 June at any of my favourite places, but I wish anyone reopening all the best. When I step in to your venue I promise to be a thoughtful, respectful and polite diner, and take a moment to look around and appreciate something we once took for granted.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON EASING RESTRICTIONS CLICK HERE

FOR DETAILED GUIDANCE FOR RESTAURANTS AND CAFES CLICK HERE

Why do I feel empty after a nice meal?

Cherry Tree

How many people around the world must have taken to writing to escape the dreary existence many of us now call “life”? My primary issue is the thing I have chosen to write about is temporarily no longer an option. Dining out is not possible.

Lately, I haven’t had much of a chance to write anyway, so at least I’m behind and I can think of some experiences and put fingers to keyboard. Only a couple of weeks ago it was still possible to go out and practice social distancing at restaurants and cafes. Looking back I realise we all had a lot to learn.

Towards the beginning of the closures, Catherine and I had a difficult decision to make. Already a dinner on our anniversary as part of the Food and Wine Festival had been cancelled. We made another booking and in the lead up were excited about the forthcoming experience, but hesitant because the initial difficulties whilst booking had already put us off a little.

Penny For Pound

With about four days to go we were getting nervous with rumours of shutdowns, and every second day there was a new measure being announced by Federal and State Governments. After one last try to contact the restaurant (this time by email) we got a completely unhelpful response that they were open for our booking. They hadn’t answered our questions about the numbers of other guests coming for a weekday lunch, or social distancing practices; and they hadn’t offered anything else to comfort us that they were on top of the changes.

We had to cancel. We knew in our hearts it was the right decision, but it would also be the first anniversary we hadn’t been out for lunch or dinner. When we replied to the restaurant they told us that they hadn’t properly read our email and that they would have responded differently if they had. With the changing dynamic we don’t blame them for being busy just trying to survive, but it does go to show that we can live in our own bubble. A week later and there were thousands of people on Bondi Beach who also hadn’t got the memo.

Matilda 159

The week before I must admit I was going about life carefully, but largely unhindered. I sat in cafes with Catherine and Sydney, and talked about how long we had left before shutdowns, which appeared inevitable. Everyone else was talking about the same things. When the Grand Prix got cancelled and I heard the experts talking about responsibility for others, especially older Australians, it started to hit home, and I started to be pro-active about cancelling catch ups, but even the week after I saw people that I didn’t need to see, and went to places I didn’t need to go.

It is not like I feel terribly guilty about doing so, but it is instinctive for me to follow rules. I am a chartered accountant after all! The blurriness of the rules confused my instinct and so I operated with caution but also within the broad-based boundaries. Take the blurriness out of the rules and I will adapt.

Vaporetto

The first adaption came for our anniversary. Taking away from Vaporetto was an eye-opening experience. Even the most well-adjusted Uber Eats aficionado wouldn’t have imagined the options that would become available literally overnight. All of a sudden we are eating restaurant quality roasted chicken, radicchio salad, and tiramisu. The tiramisu is not your usual. It comes with a scoop of coffee gelato, and bits of honeycomb, all nicely contained so you can have a go at plating yourself in a quasi-restaurant fashion.

Lune Croissants

A week later we have had Cherry Tree pizzas for Friday lunch, and a very fancy pork belly, smashed potatoes, and remoulade from Matilda 159 (on Domain) for Saturday night dinner, and at the same place I’m picking up a bottle of 2014 Voyager Cabernet Sauvignon for half its current value! Lately, we’ve had Pillar Of Salt granola, and their slow cooked brisket, for lunch; and Lune are delivering croissants, cruffins, and kouign-amanns on a Sunday morning! This was never previously possible, especially at the prices being asked, which are more than reasonable.

Pillar Of Salt

I realise a lot of Australians and people around the world are really suffering with their health and the health of their family, or struggling with unemployment and poverty, so I am not trivialising this health and economic crisis, and I feel very sad for the world right now. I enjoy eating, but when I’ve finished my meal I still feel a bit empty because a few weeks ago this meal could have been a celebration of life, and I could have been helping keep a lot more people employed than just a skeleton staff. I also do not want to turn a blind eye to how bad this is around the world. Most of us who haven’t been really sick, or to war, or through natural devastation, just simply cannot understand the pain that is reverberating around the globe right now. So many somber funerals with tiny amounts of mourners (or none at all), so much dismay and confusion, and so much uncertainty.

I do want to help though, and while I’m still employed (not a given to continue), I want to try to support the places that have made me happy over the years. As one person I’ve been served by at Pillar Of Salt tens of times said when I finally asked her name, “It’s not all business now with our customers.” No, this crisis has become very personal, and I think we are all learning more about ourselves. I know I am.