Nomad Restaurant – Melbourne, City – Dinner – Tuesday 30 November 2021

As if travelling back in time ten years, Flinders Lane is yet again one of the coolest restaurant strips in the world. Multiple high profile openings, and the buzz to deafen the most serious hype.

Tonight I didn’t even realise until we booked our parking, that we were going to the old Ezard dining room. This basement oasis of turn of this century dining excellence is once again a hot ticket. It is Tuesday night and this illustrious, completely restyled venue, is very busy. We’ve waited 16 minutes after our 8pm booking, with no drink, so this Nomad place better be worth it. Having been recently pushed out of early restaurant bookings, we held our nerve, and our judgement.

I noticed the kitchen is now mainly at the back of the long rectangular room, with a larder at the front. It’s dark and minimalist, and seems a bit tight to walk along the pathways but staff are quick to step aside. Tonight we are thankful to have one of the experienced Sydney sister venue staff as our wairperson. While she leaves Melbourne to go back to Sydney soon, we certainly noticed all staff are well trained on the menu, waiting etiquette and have a friendly persona. The speed, and depth of explanation about the gluten free options on the menu, were very impressive.

We began with some rock oysters and the wood roasted plant escabeche. The oysters were delicious and the flavour profile in the escabeche was diverse, even if the nature of a marinated dish means a soft texture.

The combination of baked ricotta, Ortiz anchovies, and wood roasted peppers, worked so well I was imagining tapas in San Sebastian. Smoked mussels, piment d’espelette, and a pure garlic puree called toum were superb, only topped by the perfect accompanying hash brown. It may not be an exaggeration to say that pure garlic might be the toum-stone for your date, but here we felt it wore off reasonably quickly.

For our main dish, Murray cod is presented skin side up to keep the crispy texture, topped with saffron butter, and sided by spring vegetables and vine leaves. Cod is an outstanding fish, with its meatiness and depth of flavour, not to mention its versatility. On that front, my Gamay by Sentio in the King Valley was a decent red match, while Catherine’s Mulline Geelong Chardonnay was a natural winner. The Roman beans as a side were more of a hit with Catherine, but I did like trying a side that was a bit different, even if I got a few chewier ones.

Earlier I’d tried the versatile Sutton Grange Fiano and was not disappointed. Catherine had the “gin drink” to start as her cocktail, and it was terrific, but we almost went mad with staff trying to remember the song that talks about “the whisky drink”. It is Tub Thumping by Chubawumba!

The olive oil ice cream sandwich is already signature, and we got a separated gluten free version where I got most of the gluten part, and half of the creamy ice cream. Down the road at a restaurant where Coda now resides is where I tried my first olive oil ice cream 13 years ago, and maybe that is the best way to summarise the impact Flinders Lane dining has had on me.

In one triangle on Flinders Lane we had been to three venues in barely over a month. This has to be one of the great times to dine out between Swanston and Russell. Inventive, risky, but surefooted, and focussed, Nomad is making its mark.

Oakridge Estate – Yarra Valley – Saturday 13 November 2021 – Lunch

Put aside the logistical challenges with dining an hour from home, and from the time you come up the drive, there is nothing quite like lunch at a winery. The open spaces filled with leafy vines, the sense of calm, and the same air about the floorstaff. The feeling of privilege in being away from home.

Oakridge Estate epitomises this feeling. The expansive rectangular building with floor to ceiling windows running the length of the dining room, the space between the tables, and the restraint to focus on the view, are important elements in a superb dining experience. The food is exemplary, and the winery recently received Halliday’s Chardonnay of the year, so wine is covered with aplomb. Today, those elements share the limelight with service.

Accompanied by our little boy for an 11.45am lunch, we had a waitperson who was simply a star. Her demeanour, especially with Sydney, made our meal better in a way that is difficult to describe unless you have felt that pressure before. Dining with a toddler is neither an art or a science. It basically doesn’t work and there is no simple equation that offers a solution. Our waitperson navigated this imperfect situation, and went some ways to solving it.

The other element of service that I appreciated is the absence of any stuffiness, but the awareness of fine dining expectations, and when those expectations should be flexible. One aspect of good service that is often overlooked is the rule to not serve a course without all diners being at the table. Awareness by the diners can help, but I have often seen people get up at an inopportune time and the waitperson have to make a 180 degree turn back to the warmth of the pass. In our situation, Sydney needed to go to the toilet when entrees were close to being served. Another waitperson got to the table and realised, but assessing the situation decided to check with me before putting down the dishes. I made sure they were comfortable to break the rule on this occasion.

Fortunately the food and wine was equal to the standard of service. We began the lunch menu with a relaxed share course of salumi, pickles, and charred asparagus, with a healthy serving of sourdough, which set our appetite on its way. My quail and smoked bacon cannelloni then put an accent on presentation, with an interesting contrast of radicchio and nasturium to the softness of the cannelloni, and its subtle filling, that grew on me to my last bite. Catherine’s gluten free option of Jerusalem artichokes with a nut puree, and smoked nuts, was on the other hand huge on flavour, and did have me a little jealous, despite the beauty of my dish.

For mains I chose the kangaroo loin, topped with a thin slither of kohlrabi, drizzled in a sauce, and accompanied by saltbush and cherries. It was perfectly cooked, and technically very well executed, but didn’t have quite the depth of flavour I’ve enjoyed in some kangaroo dishes. Again, Catherine’s rainbow trout stole the show, with another intense flavour offering consisting of a miso and smoked trout soy, with onion weed and sesame. Perfectly cooked trout has been on the menu several times when we have dined out lately and it has been, on each occasion, a big winner.

Catherine had the lead but I paired it back somewhat with dessert. My meyer lemon tart with burnt fennel, whey and honey, was pure delight. Perfect technique, and just the right amount of sweetness, were evident in this delicious dessert. The brie icecream, beautifully presented on a disc of chopped strawberries, with pinot vincotto and lemon thyme, was a terrific dessert too though.

Knowing (having asked) that we could take home the residual of a bottle of wine here, we chose to invest in the 2018 864 Block Chardonnay (that won the Halliday award) and we were pleased we did through lunch, and even more as we shared a final glass back home. It has that wonderful balance of elegance and intensity, that I find can be a feature of great chardonnay. I also was recommended a glass of the Syrah for my kangaroo, which was perfectly matched, and also a tremendous soft expression of shiraz.

Having thought back to this lunch and the contrast with Levantine Hill, I’ve realised that service today, post our lockdowns and loss of great international staff, is even more key now. The competitive advantage of talent on the floor is far more pronounced. In Melbourne and surrounds it used to be taken for granted. Now you need to be weary. Oakridge delivered on all fronts and I can’t wait to visit again.

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

Levantine Hill – Yarra Valley – Sunday 14 November 2021 – Lunch

There is no doubt in my mind that you can have a very enjoyable lunch, think you could return again in the future, but not recommend to others going in the first place. If you are confused that is my intention.

The situation is not complicated, but there are a series of levers that are pulling my thoughts on Levantine Hill in different directions. My conclusion, which I rarely begin with, is that this was a disappointing experience. Most of the elements that lead to this conclusion are quite distinct to each other.

Expense is something that I do not talk about in my writing, because I find it often is polarising, and rarely impacts my level of enjoyment of a meal. Here, the value is quite simply appalling. Yet I was so determined to try Levantine Hill that even after Catherine called the restaurant to confirm how the menu works, I insisted on going. Why was I so determined? I know Teage Ezard is no longer connected, but I was hoping his lengthy tenure would still be a creative influence.

There are different options, and a caution that this is better for groups from the outset. However, it was Catherine and me, along with our toddler. For $90 per person you get shared snacks, and the choice of two dishes. Given our penchant for dessert, this meant one main, with some additional sides, and dessert. Conservatively this meant our main was a $100 dish. It was not.

Before I get to the food, which was good to pleasant, with some particular highlights, the service from one of our waitpersons was a concern when contrasted with the prior day at Oakridge Estate. Unfortunately she was simply flat about being at work. Not rude, maybe a little abrupt, but simply not concerned with how our meal was. With a menu description of “Persian spice poached chicken, mushroom oil, barberries, broccolini, tahini labne” I wasn’t sure how the main would be presented so I asked “is there a lot of broccolini, or do you think we should order the salad as a side”. She said the broccolini was chopped up and there was a decent amount, but not a lot. What she didn’t say is that the poached chicken basically comes out as a salad. She allowed us to buy a side salad for a salad!

In a sense that is a pretty mild critique, but she also hit my chair countless times as she walked past the table, and eventually we did our best to interact with the other more attentive staff. One in particular was terrific and seemed to notice the level of our service was not acceptable at a high achieving restaurant. The main floor manager was also terrific and showed a lot more enthusiasm for our little boy, which is always a nice touch.

The poached chicken dish was pleasant but did lack the flavour intensity you would hope for. It was honestly quite akin to a cafe chicken salad. We had been told the fries were beer battered and intense, but not for Catherine who is less gluten tolerant, but I wanted them anyway. Again, in trying to be accommodating our waitperson brought more normal fries, but obviously hadn’t heard I wanted to try the others. It was innocent, but unattentive. She hadn’t mentioned a gluten-free option and we still paid the amount for the gangster fries that I never tried.

The snacks to begin were generous with delicious hummus, and a pomegranate drizzled labne. Normal and gluten-free bread for the table, olives, and some other offerings including cucumber with taromasalata, and a “chickpea crisp” which was a real highlight, showing the flavour intensity the kitchen had the ability to achieve. Slight touches again were missed, with no extra bread offered, even though we’d noticed most tables receiving it without even asking.

Perhaps we took too long with our snacks because, as the staff whisked our remaining dips away, we received our mains. Immediately. At exactly the same time. I’ve spoken about the chicken. Naturally we asked for a break before dessert, worried that our mains would be cleared and dessert would appear on the table simultaneously. We were offered a break, but reminded we needed to leave by 2pm. The question on our mind was if we had of selected the four courses how would we have eaten everything in a bit over two hours. It dawned on us that the staff were under pressure to get us to move on, and that is the only explanation why we would not receive a break at all between snacks and our main. It was not comfortable dining.

The hazelnut semifreddo, with rose water pastry, strawberries, honey roasted nuts, and white chocolate, was a fitting dish for a reputable dining destination. It was a sweet way to end proceedings, and again highlighted the flair of the kitchen. We’d had a break and could enjoy the dish, and relax a touch before we ventured back into the windy and rainy Sunday weather outside.

Through lunch I had really enjoyed the Levantine Hill Estate Pinot Noir, and in a serious bonus, was presented with a bottle for free, simply for paying with an Amex card! Catherine had a couple of glasses of the Katherine’s Paddock Chardonnay, which is their flagship, and it is an elegant, French leaning Chardonnay. The restaurant’s polished concrete floors, half barrel looking group tables, sleek design, and views out to helicopters landing for lunch, is quite stunning.

I can imagine others raving about their experience, which is why I might still return even if I can’t recommend this restaurant on my one experience. What I think might have tripped up the restaurant is the change to a Middle Eastern slant, and the format of the menu. I honestly do not think it fits at the moment. The comforting, sharing nature of this cuisine, cannot work with rushed dining, and the prices are extravagant for what you get. It is the first time in a very long time that I felt ripped off, and that was before the 15% on weekends and public holidays.

Levantine Hill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Society – Melbourne, City – Sunday 7 November 2021 – Lunch

A bold venture; drama on the floor, and in the kitchen; the lashing of a pandemic. There have been some big storms in Melbourne recently, but the perfect storm feels like Society. Imagine spending literally millions on the bones of a three star restaurant, and no longer having the star chef, or star maitre’d?

There is a postscript here about what fine dining means (and more specifically how sommeliers should interact with their guests), but I don’t want to take anything away from a tremendous lunch. The imagination behind Society, and the ability to pull it off, during a pandemic, is mind boggling. You feel like it is a big day out.

We dressed for the occasion, incredibly excited for our 2pm lunch sitting. At a new precinct, 80 Collins, Society sits as the flagship, a beautiful brooding dining room, with three grand, but modern, chandeliers taking centre stage, stage right, and stage left, with lengthy shadow curtains creating the backdrop. There is grandeur and refinement.

I do not know if the menu has changed since the sudden departure of Martin Benn, who back in July (before three pandemic driven cancellations) was the reason for our booking, having loved our time at Sepia in Sydney. Either way, it reminds me of Gimlet, which is just down the road, with a broad sheet of great dishes, allowing you to choose your own adventure. We had our usual negotiation, but I was pleased to find Catherine was also interested in the entree “Society Seafood”, especially given the lobster ravioli had run out (which gladly we were told before we set our hearts on it).

It’s not dainty, but for a big eater, I’m glad it is not called a “platter”. For Catherine and I the portions on this plate are perfect. Starting with the delicate crab tart, mixed with yuba (dried tofu skin), and some spice, which had me reminiscing about curried egg sandwiches, each bite was memorable. Next the soft scallops, on the most divine cornbread like vessel, topped with caviar, were rich and delicate, as only scallops can be. The smoked trout took me back to one of my favourite dishes at Farmer’s Daughters only months ago, and the scarlet prawn with tiny cubes of ginger, was an equally delicious finish to the plate.

After such an extraordinary seafood extravaganza we needed some equally incredible mains, and we got what we asked for! First we need to mention the 2014 Montrachet we were drinking was about as elegant (and expensive) wine as we’ve tried, perfect with the entree, and even better with Catherine’s Murray Cod. I tried some and was swept away by the intense beauty of this fish. Richer, but no less beautiful, was my duck breast with the amount of jus that you dream of, engulfing the plate, and a generous disc of black pudding with juniper and blackberry further showcasing the technique of the kitchen. The nebbiolo I tried with the duck was a match, but the chardonnay with the Cod far outshone it.

To say we were excited by dessert by this stage is an understatement. The options, all four of them, all were so difficult to make that we found ourselves talking to nearby tables about them. My choice, “Metropolis”, is stunning and to perfect script with the restaurant. Behind the dark chocolate crack of the literal facade copy of the building, you have utterly delicious cherry and biscuit, and the playfulness doesn’t get old to the last bite. Catherine was equally stunned with the delicate feel of her tart, but the strength of the technique, and more importantly, the flavour spectrum, to create something that is unique in her blueberry and white chocolate tart.

While there had been times where service was not as precise as Chris Lucas’ script from day one; the effort, and mostly the experience of the staff was there to be seen. You have to give praise to the fact that a very expensive restaurant opened for five weeks, then copped a three month lockdown, and lost a head chef that had been in the world’s 50 best restaurants with Sepia. If we didn’t know we couldn’t have told.

In particular, the help of staff at the end of our meal when we had lost a $600 voucher we’d purchased a month prior, was terrific. They could have quite easily have made us pay, but they could see we had made the purchase and honoured it.

I do have to say that it wasn’t quite the same feel as my social media had filled my imagination with though. It is certainly beautiful, and a big day out feel, but there were quite a few diners (gents especially) that didn’t get the memo and dressed like they were off to a nice lunch at Young & Jackson’s. Each to their own, and all power to those less discerning dressers, because what they got to enjoy on the plate would have made them feel amazing anyway.

Society is very close to what it was intended to be and I hope they strive to get there. We’ll be back once we save our deposit again!

Postscript: is fine dining supposed to be comfortable?

Fine dining is supposed to be the height of hospitality where exceptional food, service, and setting, come together in perfect harmony. In my personal opinion, whilst there are a lot of intimidating factors (especially the cost of exceptional dining), if you put aside expense, to many, fine dining should be about comfort. Not comfort in the sense of tracksuit pants, rustic food (though there is nothing wrong with rustic food), and sloppy manners, but comfort within the bounds of fine dining society. Do you see what I did there?

Well, I have dined in some very intimidating places and have been schooled fairly well. I love restaurants, and I am experienced, but certainly not expert. The best restaurants I’ve been to have a manner of putting you at ease to allow you to enjoy the experience, even though you know you could be walking out poor! The reason for my lengthy introduction to this topic is one interaction with the sommelier on Sunday at lunch.

I’ve put this at the bottom of the review because it shouldn’t take away from the meal itself, but it, like other negative experiences, does stand out. I feel I need a little explanation to begin. Catherine doesn’t drink a huge amount, and favours white wine, especially chardonnay. I love chardonnay, but normally need at least one glass of red to enjoy with any heavier meat dishes. Many years ago while in Biarritz we had our first (and only) premier cru Montrachet, and it still vividly lives in my memory.

Today, I wanted to recreate some of that experience, so I perused the menu and realised that there are many areas of Montrachet, and I wouldn’t know one from the other. I noticed that for up to around $250 I could get a special bottle for our 12 years of knowing each other anniversary (yes, we celebrate that!) It is the most I’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine with Catherine, except for Dom Perignon on other special occasions. I asked for the sommelier and said that we would like a bottle of premier cru Montrachet, for up to $250. I thought the request was more than reasonable.

The sommelier said they have something off-list that sounded like it would be perfect for us, and that she would go and try to find it. In the meantime Catherine said something like “I bet she comes back with something more expensive” and I said something, as I normally do because I am optimistic like “no, she heard what we asked for”. When the sommelier came back she said she found the bottle and it is a 2014, giving a great description, which we were excited about, before saying “it’s $290”. I thought I misheard so I did say “did you say two-ninety” and she replied “is that alright? I know you said $250.”

This is a situation that a tax professional of over 20 years, who has got through school and uni and post-grad, and 20 years of work, still cannot handle. I wanted to say “what the” but what came out was “sure, it sounds great”. Think of the scratchy voiced kid in the Simpsons. I think she realised we were unhappy with the underhandedness of the gesture and came back with an offer of two glasses of Margaret River blanc de blancs by Vasse Felix, but only I could properly take her up on the offer because Catherine wanted to just have a couple of glasses. Given they knew this was an anniversary I’m a bit skeptical, and it may have been on the house anyway.

The whole situation was uncomfortable because Catherine and I would not even normally look at bottles that far over $100 in the first place and we had been upsold on the most expensive bottle we’ve ever bought at a restaurant. To come back to the initial question, what the sommelier did, whether intentional or not, is not my definition of hospitality, and not the service you should expect in fine dining.

Twenty-one years ago I ate at Rockpool in Circular Quay and could barely afford the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, but no one in that fine establishment made me feel uncomfortable about that. That is service. Oh, and Neil Perry was dining on the table next-door (for some reason in his own restaurant) which I realised as I flew home the next day to Perth, given he featured as the new executive chef for Qantas!

Hazel – Melbourne, City – Tuesday 2 November 2021 – Dinner

There are not too many people who would rather style over substance when it comes to food. Sure, there is a place for the fancy, but genuine flavour is prime. While some of my favourite dishes I’ve had are beautiful to look at, the reason I remember them is the taste, which is the sense that dominates when it comes to dining, even though visuals are also important.

Here, at Hazel, the style is strong, but the substance is palpable. Is it crazy to say my favourite dish was the barbecued potatoes with shoyu (Japanese style soy) and saltbush. To say these potatoes are cooked perfectly is a tremendous understatement. Like most of us, having had potatoes in the many forms, many times, this one had me thinking of the perfect consistency of Attica’s “potato cooked in the earth it was grown”. It was that good that to call it a side is offensive. I could happily have these on the bar on their own prior to my other favourite dish of the evening.

Before I get to my dessert, with the potatoes, Catherine and I also tried the chopped salad, and scotch fillet with mushroom butter. The chopped salad, you may find humorous, was epic. It is hard to describe why, and how, it was so great, and I’ve tried a few times to blank looks. In summary it is a combination of the most gorgeous fresh vegetables chopped in a small and rustic fashion. If I could get this in my repertoire I could win friends with salad.

The scotch fillet was very nicely cooked, and the mushrooms really shone. Somehow the steak took a back seat to our “sides” but was still excellent. Earlier we had a pig’s head croquette each, which were rich and delicious, topped with some nettles that had seemingly been pounded in a mortar and pestle. The charred octopus could have been a little more charred for my taste, but the broad beans were superb, and featured in the chopped salad too.

Back to dessert. The honey tart is quite simply stunning. Paired with cultured (sour) cream to balance the sweetness of the honey, this is a meticulously created dessert, from a technical perspective primarily, but because of the perfect technique, the result is a dish that I want to eat again now.

This ode to farm-to-table dining in the city is not in a rustic space. The dining room is sleek and stylish, with pale tones, and a bar acting as the centrepiece of the main room, with other spaces upstairs and next to the main room. There is a minimalist feel, with artistic touches, such as the sketch on the menu, which captures your attention immediately on being seated. The location in Richard Allen & Sons on Flinders Lane near many polished restaurants such as Kisume and Supernormal, is a smart choice from management.

We recognised one of our waitstaff who worked at places such as Bistro Gitan, and had a great manner about her. Generally service was good, and there is no stuffiness, even though the whole venture is very professional. When we entered early after Melbourne Cup day at Flemington, there was one table with a little baby enjoying herself (but very well behaved), and when we left a couple of hours later the whole restaurant was full on a Tuesday.

Catherine had discovered Hazel because the head chef, Brianna Smith, worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. We haven’t been to that three Michelin star masterpiece, but we’ve been to the city sister restaurant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Hazel captures some of that vibe. Though in the end, the only vibe we needed is what was captured on our plates during a delicious meal, showcasing the best local producers and their seasonal produce. The low waste cooking, and sustainable sourcing, adds even more weight to the script.

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

What it means

I like to be a regular. In principle. In reality it has never been possible because I also like variety. That is until recently.

Variety has been sorely missed during this pandemic. Queue the lines about the longest lockdown, which for the record, was not anywhere near the harshest lockdown globally, but dragged on like the 2019 grand final. If you think I’m embellishing you were not in Melbourne. No one lives here for the weather. Going out is a way of life; it is life itself.

I wrote a bit about Pillar Of Salt when the lockdown had just begun. At the time I knew a lot of the staff by face, but not by name, and I must admit we were all okay with that. The person who had the most impact on me, with a simple “things have changed” type disclosure, told me over the weekend that they were leaving. That was simultaneous with another resignation from someone who I, and my wife, had really built a friendship with.

It’s hard to admit in a sense, but I’m really quite sad about it. Their sense of “this place reminds me of a very difficult lockdown” is fair, but in my mind “you were part of the reason my family got through lockdown”. Again, I’m not embellishing. Sometimes we went weeks with only having conversations between ourselves and the staff at Pillar. I’m genuinely sad thinking about that ending, but I know that in other post-lockdown times it is not the same when you get busy.

I want to tell the staff at Pillar Of Salt, and I want other hospitality staff to know, that the relationship with customers is important. It means a lot, and I hope everyone takes some time to remind the cafe and restaurant staff of the places they frequent that they are important to them. I’m an emotional person and I can tear up a bit when I talk emotively, but I hope I was sincere when I told people like Franco and Lauren what they meant to Catherine, Sydney and I, over the past 18 months.

At the start of the lockdown, Sydney was 10 months old. Between Catherine and I we would have averaged four to five trips to PoS a week since then. In that time he learned to walk, talk, wave at the staff, speak to the staff, have countless baby-cinos, and hear how his Mummy and Daddy interact with people. It’s 20 months later now. That’s an important legacy.

Opening a venue

Here’s two photos of two different venues soon to be opening at the most incredibly difficult time the hospitality industry has ever faced.

As I often do, I was walking, almost aimlessly, down one of the main streets in my neighbourhood, and immediately noticed two new openings almost across the road from each other. I am not a stranger to the openings along Swan Street. With degrees of critique, interest, novelty, and intrigue, I always want to try the next vendor trying their luck.

Swan Street has had a serious history of success and failure. Not unlike the local football club, there was a very long and bitter drought, followed by a rate of success that defied any detractors. Today the lambs have herded elsewhere, but there is still a buzz along this drag. And not unlike the overall fortunes of the street, many businesses have quickly failed, and many businesses have made their minimum stake plus much more.

You can, however, pick the successes and failures quite accurately, based on my past experience. It is not actually very different from any other street that attracts crowds of diners and drinkers. Gimmicks, and half-baked concepts will ultimately fail, and focussed offerings, with careful maneuvering, might last some distance. Staying for an extended period is fraught, and many successful businesses turn, either pre or post their sale.

If you would like an example I would point to one of my old favourites, Meatmother. What a business! Packed downstairs and up, outside, and with no standing room at the bar, this joint was printing their own cash. I do not honestly know what happened but I do know two things. Meatmother opened another venue in the city, and ultimately the Richmond outpost was sold.

An instant failure was Shannon Bennett’s Benny’s Burgers. Potentially in a haunted premises, from literally day one this venue attracted almost nothing. It didn’t help that the sentiment was negative, and that my first experience here left a great deal to be desired. Sometimes it is impossible to know.

Which brings me to the venues across the road from each other; one on the popular Cremorne side, and the other on the more attractive Richmond side of Swan Street. I really do not like being presumptuous, or negative, but clearly one of these premises is set up for success, and the other for failure.

Let’s start with the potential success story in my eyes. Simplicity, crispness, focus of concept, and modern font. Yes, if the product is terrible quote the “you can’t judge a book” but purely on the marketing and graphic design, there is a seamless offering that I am looking forward to. It is also on-point with a growing trend, and differentiated from the popular offerings close by, especially for office worker lunches, once office workers can once again lunch.

The quite obvious failure is an accident waiting to happen. I wouldn’t walk into this place in Croydon (there are some nice places in Croydon) let alone Cremorne. It is unclear what is being offered, and I’m filled with the threat of stacked glass cabinets, and the discomfort of not knowing whether you are eating yesterday’s “special”.

It is incredibly naïve and presumptuous to judge a venue by its introduction to the street in the form of signs and window dressings. It is also incredible naïve to expect the public to support a new offering not showing enough care prior to opening. In the same way some speakers come up to the podium and declare “I am incredibly excited to be…” you can tell the difference in the body language.

I’m not brave enough to open up a dining venue. I can hardly pass too much judgement in my position. Though I really hope one of these venues is being used for more than providing sustenance to a hungry public! Good luck to both of them. The one supreme differentiator is quality.

Send for help

This is not a restaurant review, or a commentary on dining out, per se. This is my commentary on some things that are impossible to share quickly with my small but diverse audience who occasionally read my thoughts (thanks, by the way). I have a lot of intelligent people who contribute to my considerations, and provoke my desires to debate, but they are all equally aware that I am not easily perturbed, and reasonably easy to fire up. I hope they all know that I care and if they are close enough to me they respect my ability to point out my perspectives.

These few paragraphs are about my reality. I am writing this for all and sundry, so it is not directed. It is not an opinion piece for a newspaper (which are sadly on a sharp decline from an integrity perspective), and it is not an attempt to get a bunch of likes. I’ve now written over 350 reviews about dining establishments and I keep on doing it, but any hack could see that it is not to instigate a follow, or acquire a like.

My mood, and my emotion, are not isolated to a pandemic. I am one of the most emotional people I know. I am one of the most excited and depressed people I know too, but close friends and family know that is because of some of my life experiences, and the tragedies I have got though. In any case, I am generally sad about the pandemic (naturally), but also about the lockdown, and the reactions to it, both positive, negative, and neutral.

Again, caveating, but for the last time in this short piece of thought, the current place we are in, in all parts of Australia, is exceptionally brilliant. Apologies to my friends, family, and colleagues, in the United States of America (USA) but we have a population of around 26 million with less than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19, and the USA has over 606,000 deaths with a population of almost 330 million. That means that in Australia less than 4 people in 100,000 have died from COVID-19. Basically, you are more than 50 times more likely to have died in the USA than Australia from COVID-19, even if some statistics are flawed, that is important to keep in mind.

Now that I’ve started, my next thought draws on the stat about less than 4 people in 100,000 who have died in Australia. That stat will not change quickly (we all hope), but with vaccination we are almost ensured it will not, unless there is a serious issue with the vaccine, or a mutation. There seems to be a couple of unarguable general propositions about the vaccine. One is that it protects those who get it from the worst impacts of the virus, and the other is that about 1 in 100,000 people seem to die for no good reason from it (I know it is blood clots).

Let’s dissect the first proposition. Delta is tearing the world apart, because it is: between more contagious, and twice as contagious, as Alpha. It is anyone’s guess what the difference would be if Delta came first. However, evidence suggests that as bad as Delta is, the impact of the vaccination is dulling its deadly impact. I understand the initial proposition from the Australian authorities (this is easier than just passing blame to one Government body) is that certain age groups should take one vaccine over another, based on the threat of dying from the vaccine as opposed to the virus.

Well, in certain age groups the mathematics are crazily against taking a certain vaccine. Most gambling professionals would be stacking their bets on anyone under 40, and especially under 30, ending up dying. The undeniable fact is that at this point in the pandemic there have been less than 160 contract COVID out of 100,000 people, and less than 2.5% of those people have passed from the virus. If you start to do the statistics based on your location, or your age group (or both), and comparing those to the complications of certain vaccinations, the odds are ridiculously simple.

Now that we have established the base line, and one that I urge you to try to argue against because it would generate more comments from this blog than have ever been found, let’s get to our way out. I am not being provocative at all, but our leaders have given us an absolutely ridiculous target. Before reading further, if you have time, this article is neutral and sums it up well. While there have been good intentions, no country has raced to the 70-80% as expected. I am not going to try to prophesise, but is it possible that in each and every one of those countries (and ours) they have been subject to the “silent” or worse, and not fairly called, the “despicables”?

In other words, there are a lot of people that are not going to admit to being hesitant about taking the vaccine when you run up to them shouting like a crazy person that you have had the vaccine. Believe it or not but there are a lot of people that don’t tell you anything personal about themselves, and that includes those close to you. There are anti-vaxxers, who will not have the conversation with you, because you have already demonstrated on social media that you think you are amazing and superior to them. So they will stay silent and completely fuck it all up for us.

I have not sworn in my writing, except to swear that I will never stop going back to Lake House, and will always order two scoops of ice cream because one is barely enough. However, I will take a chance and say that anyone who thinks that getting a jab in their arm makes them superior to others is seriously deluded. We will not get to 70% vaccination by the end of 2021. The State and Federal Governments of Australia, educated by their people (ie, they will do what the majority will vote for), will have to decide whether lockdowns are still the answer in summer. My assessment is we will not get to that.

There will be a point in time in September, or at the latest October, where the Governments will give a final opportunity to the entire population to get vaccinated or risk the results. We all know the economy is important to all of us in some sort of balance with life (a balance on life that we value more than a lot of other countries) but at some stage there is a line in the sand. As long as all people including youngsters have the option, we need to go back to free borders, and freedom. We are reasonable Australian people, and there will never be a shoot out, or a rebellion, but we have always had the right outcome eventually.

I love this country and I do not dispute lockdowns. To propose the biggest clique that has arisen in all eternity, the time has come to have a discussion. On the basis that the discussion will never happen, we need to be realistic about how amazing our Governments have been (yes, with a lot in their favour circumstantially), but also start to not just accept lockdown extensions, and not just accept zero tolerance for tragedy. On this note, we have not accepted the 958 deaths from COVID-19 that grow by the day, but put that against the total 169k deaths in Australia in 2019 and you do have some perspective. Further, more people died in road tragedies in 2019. I am not about to say that there is a correlation between traffic accident deaths and COVID-19. When COVID-19 spreads it is horrific.

My whole point is that we have been very lucky through circumstances, through public acceptance of lockdown conditions to protect each other, and now through access to vaccinations, that we should understand our privilege. There is no issue with deciding to not get vaccinated at all, but you need to accept that it creates risk for yourself and your loved ones. It is simple science and there is no doubt. You do not need to be yelled at to make it more sensible, and those people yelling are not becoming more sensical either.

I would not be doing my personal duty if I didn’t upset everyone I know. If you are purposely going against lockdown rules (whether the spirit of the rules, or the actual technicalities of the rules) you are a selfish person. On the flip, you are losing sleep worrying about selfish people you need to set your sights on objects that are worthwhile. If you are still a bit sore about being called selfish, please get over it, and reflect on why you are a bit sore. Maybe it is because you know you have slightly bent the rules and your conscience is telling you. If you want to go and yell at people because they are meeting up for a coffee, go for it, but you are complete proverbial too. Some of those people were thinking about killing themselves this morning, and some have been subject to domestic violence overnight. So get over yourself.

We are not in this together. This has been the most separating aspect of life in Australia ever. When it ends, and politicians (and our friends), try saying how united we are, you should remind them what a proverbial they were during this crisis. I know people who literally hate where I came from as if Hitler was their leader. I know people who thinks Gladys should be subject to medieval law. Seriously who would have those types of jobs. They pay relatively nothing, and they only reward those who get told “yes, yes, yes” each and every day. You think these representatives are being told “yes, yes, yes”?

To close, we are screwed. Lockdown worked last year so politicians will hold on to it. Vaccinations will never hit 80%. Certain vaccinations during lockdowns are riskier to take than the chance of catching and dying from COVID-19 (statistically it is proven). I believe the norm for East Coast Australians in the next 12 months is to break rules slowly more and more until they mean nothing. By next winter the world will have moved on, deaths will not be important to politicians, and everything will be normal but very scary.

As a final note I am not emotionless. My colleague in Houston had their son-in-law see almost 10 people in cardiac arrest last week due to COVID-19, and the 20k cases a week in Texas take their toll. It is devastating and I don’t want my family and friends, and their family and friends, to suffer. If it could save one of my loved ones, I’d lockdown another few years, but that is simply not the equation.

Footnotes:

As of 15 August 2021 Australian deaths from COVID-19 are 958 and population was 25.36m (as per Census 2019) and 25.8m (as of Worldofmeter)

As of 15 August 2021 USA deaths from COVID-19 are 621k (per Google, but 606k comes from article quoted below) and population was 328.2m (as per 2019 US Census Bureau)

As of 15 August 2021 there have been less than 40k COVID-19 cases in Australia. With 958 deaths there have been 2.4504% of people die of the virus.

The article is interesting because the whole hesitancy is not examined, but it does show that those who can get the vaccine do not always choose to get it, even if it is easy to get access to.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare there were over 169k deaths in Australia in 2019.

1,195 people died on Australian roads in 2019 per RoadSafety.Gov.Au

https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/achieving-herd-immunity-with-covid19.htm

https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/VACCINATION/xklvyxrdgpg/

https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2020/05/28/parenting/coronavirus-vaccine-parents.amp.html

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210720-the-complexities-of-vaccine-hesitancy

Farmer’s Daughters – Melbourne, City – Friday 30 July 2021 – Dinner

At the age of 43 it is both exciting and terrifying to think I have hopefully at least this much longer to live. Somehow destiny has led to my work being at its busiest at the same time as my birthday each year. Coupled with long nights in a regional role, reporting to global leaders, by the time it comes around I feel twice my age. Instead of “queue the violins” I take solace that it is also a time of excessive celebration.

Tonight, Catherine has us booked into Farmer’s Daughters, where we have been trying to go for months, surviving two lockdowns in between. The only thing I want consistent tonight to the last time we indulged in the city is the pre-drinks at Bouvardia, and indeed this fine cocktail bar living up to the last time we were there. It is absolutely superb. Our fingers are crossed that this dinner that follows is superb too.

While it did take five minutes for us to be seated for our 9pm booking, we did have one of the great tables in the room on the restaurant level. You get a feeling about a place fairly quickly, in this case we were excited, with great initial interactions with the staff.

As it turns out, those initial interactions chartered a course for the rest of the evening, and it showed that service can still be terrific in Melbourne. Despite having wanted to visit Farmer’s Daughters for some time, I actually don’t know a great deal about the restaurant. What was quite obvious, looking at the wine list is that this is a restaurant that celebrates local.

Naturally this extends to the food. Farmer’s Daughters on the restaurant level has a tasting menu consisting of five courses. Whilst you get the menu at the end, the kitchen takes you on a journey of their choosing, subject to dietaries. At the moment, that journey is centred on Gippsland. Our starters, skewers of O’Connor beef, locally grown broccoli, romanesco and cauliflower, and beautifully untouched Lakes Entrance kingfish, were all tremendous and diverse examples of the wealth of local produce in this bountiful region of Victoria.

As Catherine enjoys her Frankland Estate Riesling (Great Southern), and I, my Purple Hen Fume Blanc (Phillip Island), we are served with a dish I’ve since heard is a consistent favourite, and for good reason. The baked Baw Baw Alpine trout, sitting in a shallow pool of mountain pepper cream, with trout caviar, is superb from the first taste to the last. The subtle balance of the flavours, and the soft textures, broken by bursts of caviar, is an outstanding dish. We saw it on the pass as we were guided to our table, and really couldn’t wait to try what we saw, as it is also visually appealing.

Showcasing the fresh produce of Gippsland, sugarloaf cabbage is served bathed in clam butter, with Snowy River Station seagrass. It is a thoughtful vegetable based course. By now we’ve moved on to two new white wines, with mine an Arneis by Adelina (Clare Valley) and Catherine the Cannibal Creek Chardonnay. The latter is another wine from Gippsland, and while not exclusively choosing local wines, the sommelier / wine service has done a terrific job of mixing interesting producers and varieties, and doing their best to also showcase the region where the food is centred.

Our next course of garfish from “Campfire Corner Inlet” is a bit chewy and not to everyone’s taste. Crusted in a Japanese spice mixture called shichimi, which adds great flavour, and served with Wattle Bank oyster mushrooms, replacing the fish with many others would make for a more pleasurable dish.

On the back of a lowlight, but not bad dish, the venison course again hit the high notes. From Terramirra Park, this venison almost melts in the mouth. Beetroot, smoked parsnip, and black garlic accompany to lift the dish even further, but honestly the venison could be served by itself and it would still be terrific. By this stage I’m drinking the Xavier Goodridge ‘Pa Pa’ Pinot Noir, another find from the riches of Gippsland, and life is very good indeed. The attentive wine service also pours me a half glass of the Sagratino/Mourvèdre that I was keen to try by Aphelion.

Service all round had been excellent, and there were few times we were looking around for want of anything. While our table made a big difference to our comfort, I felt that everywhere in the restaurant seemed equally well served. Add to the quality food and service, the whole setting from the expansive glass frontage to Exhibition Street, to the sleek beige interiors, is signalling a new sophistication coming to Melbourne dining.

Dessert is served and looks like a cross between a decadent creme biscuit and a macaron. This take on a pavlova with carob, macadamia and mandarin, has that post-crack give I like in a merengue, and enough sweetness to keep us happy. It’s clever, local, Australian themed, and a nice way to end a high quality and focussed offering from the kitchen.

Good looking spaces are sometimes easier to create from scratch than sketch out of the past. Farmer’s Daughters is a great demonstration of a purpose built restaurant with a local focus that doesn’t remove ingenuity but enhances the experience.

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.