Stokehouse – St Kilda – Thursday 23 March 2017 – Dinner

There are a host of reasons we love to go out to eat. In a relative sense, there are not many restaurants that create more than the experience itself. Every now and then though, something more comes out of a visit. For Catherine and I, our first date at Stokehouse continued through to marriage!

Yellowfin tuna ceviche

I remember our lunch far better than I normally would. It was an incredibly hot November day. So hot that I brought a backpack with a towel so I could have a swim afterwards. St Kilda was pumping, and my taxi took at least 20 minutes just to get down Fitzroy Street. Catherine looked beautiful and had gone to a heap of effort.

We started off with oysters and I had no idea it was the first time for my guest. The things you do on first dates! The restaurant had a celebratory feel the day after Stakes Day at Flemington. Every aspect was wonderful and it goes without saying that it was the best first date (and the last) I’ll ever have.

Poached marron salad

When we found it had been razed by fire there was a sudden sadness. We knew with such an iconic place, rebuilding was likely, and that is why we are here tonight, a few months after the reopening. It is modern. These days, recreating the original would probably be as difficult and expensive as making a bold new statement. The design is stylish, making great use of the beach view, with enough detail inside to keep interest in both.

Our greeting, through to the goodbye, were warm and friendly. It seems the floor has found its feet. We took up the offering for a drink on the terrace to begin. Watching the sun go down is one of those added extras that is difficult to value. As long as the view doesn’t outshine the food, or give the restaurant something to hide behind, it is extremely valuable to the way you are feeling as you begin your meal.

Heirloom tomato salad

Once seated and reading through the menu, I realised that Stokehouse wasn’t primarily about seafood anymore. In fact, only two of the six mains are fish. I was in the mood for seafood and ordered both the special ceviche of yellowfin tuna, and a couple of Sydney Rock oysters to begin, plus the fish and chips for my main. Catherine ordered the marron salad which would have been my choice, and also the market fish of Barramundi. We were undoubtedly going to try dessert too.

Fish and chips

Our sommelier was particularly helpful at providing alternatives to the bottle I was thinking of, but in the end we stayed on course with the Louis Michel Premier Cru Chablis. He was right that the wine is quite light for a chardonnay, but it is exquisitely made, and was a pleasure to drink, especially with our entrees. The yellowfin tuna ceviche showed off the star ingredient. It had a pleasant amount of citrus, and was superbly presented. Interestingly the dusting on top was bayleaf, and that worked too. The Sydney Rock oysters were exactly what you want to eat on the beach and would be a great entree alone this evening. Catherine’s poached marron salad with a motley of fresh vegetables, was a brilliant way to start. The marron beautifully cooked and working nicely with the finger lime cream and rhubarb vinaigrette.

Barramundi with smoked almond puree, beurre noisette and carrot reduction

The fish and chips are not my usual order at a restaurant like Stokehouse but tonight I really felt like fish, and I wanted to try something different to Catherine. Her Barramundi was a perfect serve with a good fillet of fish, perfectly cooked, in a smoked almond puree, with a beurre noisette (brown butter) sauce, and carrot reduction. Each bite I tried was delicious, though I was very happy with my own choice. The lightly battered whiting, on top of a picket fence of thick chips in a pool of tartare sauce, was exactly how fish and chips should be, but rarely are. Our waitperson had suggested the heirloom tomato salad to cut through the oil, and that was a good idea, with several kinds of tomatoes all exhibiting good flavour. A simple enhancement would be some more basil throughout.

‘The Bombe’

We definitely had room for dessert, and we needed it! Catherine’s ‘The Bombe’ was a terrific take on the classic dish. The white chocolate parfait in the centre, next to the strawberry sorbet, all housed in a well executed meringue, were all delicious and beyond. We like desserts that don’t hide the fact that they are sweet and this was a prime example, without being sickly (though it is a large serving). On the flip side, my dried lime cheesecake, was more restrained on the sweetness, but still delivered in spades. This version wasn’t your classic, but it wasn’t so much deconstructed as just not having a base. The mango and coconut curd are friends with the creamy cheesy lime, and while again it was a good serving, I could have kept going.

Dried lime cheesecake

The original Stokehouse felt a bit more sleek at times, but the new version is still finding its feet. One thing is for sure, all the floorstaff were eager to make our night memorable, and they succeeded. The food we ate was up to scratch for what you expect of a place with the reputation Stokehouse must carry. That reputation creates expectation so we were careful, but it is impossible to not be excited by the potential embodied by this restaurant. Thinking about the experience brings a smile to my face.

Stokehouse St Kilda Beach Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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

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

Fried zucchini flowers

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

Grilled prawn skewers

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

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

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

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

Croquettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating In The Same Place Twice

The famous Tipomisu at Tipo 00

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

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

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

Pancakes at Lolo and Wren are out of this world!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huxtaburger hits all the right buttons for my taste in burgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitzrovia – St Kilda – Monday 26 December 2016 – Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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