French Saloon – Melbourne, City – Monday 10 April 2017 – Lunch

It is not every day a collection of restaurants has such an impact on a diverse range of dining and drinking experiences. The European, City Wine Shop, and most importantly The Supper Club (and Siglo), are three places that captured my imagination many years ago, and have held it to this day. It seems without even knowing it, the people behind these stunning establishments, have grabbed me in the opposite end of town.

Kirk’s Wine Bar is not a place that grabs your immediate attention. In fact, it looks like a lot of wine bars I’ve been to overseas. It is the feeling here that is special. Somehow many of those I’ve been with there, feel the same way too. The fascinating part is why I feel drawn to it whenever I’m in that part of town, whether shopping, after lunch, for pre-dinner drinks, or pretty much any other time.

Naturally, upstairs was always going to end up capturing my attention. It’s not the same, but the walk up the stairs is a bit like going up to the Supper Club. What is upstairs though is a tribute to the casual dining of France. Not that the French do anything that is actually that casual. The French Saloon is put together in this manner.

There is not a prestigious fitout, and the tables are not overdone, but there is a sense of bistro luxury and a feeling of belonging, even if it is just any other Monday in Autumn. From the greeting to the goodbye, there is an ease about this place. If only the menu were as easy. There was no debate, but after a fair bit of catching up, we really needed to order something.

Chris had his eye on the kingfish which I was happy to share. I like the sound of the spanner crab toast and we ordered one each. It was a great start.

The kingfish is served with delicate presentation, surrounded by thinly sliced cucumber. However, the staff direct you to mix it all up, allowing the sauce to combine with the oil and creating a smart combination. The spanner crab is curiously presented half adorned with avocado, and the other half with salmon roe. The toast works well initially, holding together, until it all falls apart in the last few bites. As you can imagine, using a knife and fork does not inhibit the delicate flavour.

For mains, we had decided to share the Cote de Boeuf, along with a side of fries and of the gem lettuce with anchovy sauce. Having ordered medium rare, the steak seems on the medium side, but was still beautifully tender and well seasoned. The strong jus was absolutely superb, lifting the steak to greater heights. The chips were excellent, while the gem lettuce could have been a touch too powerful with its anchovy dressing, to refresh and dull the impact of the steak and jus.

The Pinot Noir we were drinking from Gippsland was at the suggestion of our waitperson, as the bottle Chris selected was off the list. It was an excellent choice, not necessarily matching our choices perfectly, but versatile enough to enjoy with, or without food. In fact, the service on a reasonably busy Monday lunch was great.

As we finished lunch, I asked Chris about his phone call into 3AW, where he had shared with the breakfast presenters his insights from his experiences at Eleven Madison Park, which had very recently won the title of “world’s best restaurant”. When we walked downstairs Chris saw one of his friends at Kirk’s and he too got asked about the same conversation! Like so many meals, ending it with conversations about other meals seems fitting.

The French Saloon is different to the other offerings of this group, but it has the same hospitable feel and warmth. I’m sold on everything they do, though I almost wish I didn’t know they were all connected.

French Saloon Bar & Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bar Lourinha – Melbourne, City – Monday 17 April 2017 – Dinner

Yellowtail kingfish ‘pancetta’ & lemon oil

Great places do not get old. They have a personality. Like people, some personalities wear thin after many years, and some become old friends.

While I’ve been many times, it wouldn’t add up to once a year since opening. I’m pretty sure the staff have turned-over in their entirety several times. Yet, there is something about this simply furnished restaurant with a dominant bar, that stays fresh.

At the time Bar Lourinha opened, it was a trend setter. Spanish tapas was not new, but it was waiting for a further push. Add to this novel concepts of the time like “no bookings”, the unusual location on Little Collins Street, and that added ingredient of intrigue, and you have a recipe for a hot restaurant.

Merimbula oysters

It has now been open for over a decade. While Bar Lourinha is no longer the trend setter, it is now part of a restaurant culture that makes Melbourne one of the best CBDs in the world to eat in. It is a part of my personal restaurant folklore, and I’m sure many other Melburnians.

Tonight it is yet another meal here, spending the evening with friends after a performance by Stephen K Amos during the Comedy Festival. Natalie is a pescetarian and there are heaps of non-meat options so we are covered. Her other half, Jason, thankfully chooses one meat dish after I twist his arm!

We share several plates that include some Merimbula oysters, fritters of salted cod (bacalau), kingfish, mussels, pumpkin, mushrooms, and chorizo. The Merimbula oysters are fantastic; but the fritters are a bit too dominated by the potato, to fully appreciate the flavour of the cod.

Roasted mushrooms & garlic cream

In a flash we have one of my long time favourite dishes here. The kingfish is simply plated, but always has a glorious flavour, like they get access to some of the best cuts. At the time it became a signature, you would not find kingfish on every second menu, and incredibly it is no less special here. The mushrooms are the other “everytime” dish. Sitting in a garlic cream sauce, they are always beautifully cooked, keeping firm and juicy.

Mussels, pimenton ‘El Angel’, burnt butter & bread

The mussels were recommended by one of our several waitpersons. Funnily, one of them was always about 20 seconds behind another one, sounding like a round musical composition of “row your boat”. We were asked for water twice, given the specials twice (which was fun trying to remember the ingredients), and eventually the entire system broke down literally. It seems they couldn’t catch a break as when we asked for the bill, they asked for us to wait a little (please). This does not mean the staff were bad, it was actually decent service, but there was a lack of coordination.

Back to the mussels, and the sweet paprika (pimenton) with burnt butter, and they are superb. A terrific recommendation, and a special dish. Like most tapas you are left wanting more. On the flip side, the heirloom pumpkin dish just didn’t work for me, even with some texture from the freekeh and chestnuts. A return came with the chorizo which was served as two sausages and a tenderly cooked potato. While the potato was nice, it was more of a filler, but the chorizo had the richness that we all love it for.

Cheese selection

With some great wines on both the by the glass and the longer list, we ordered a bottle of the Vinho Verde from Portugal by Quinta do Ameal. Catherine and I had come in for a drink the week before (which is where we got the idea to return for dinner) and this is a wonderful white wine with great mouthfeel and balance. I also tried the cabernet franc by the glass which I’d had my eye on the week before, and I’m keen to try some more!

Churros y dulce de laeche

Not quite completely full, we shared a cheeseboard and some churros to finish. The cheeseboard featured some gorgonzola, manchego, and a softer offering that I can’t recall. It is great to enjoy some cheese while still having an appetite. The churros on the other hand don’t require an appetite. I could keep going on these expertly prepared doughnuts in dulce de leche until the restaurant runs out.

I call Bar Lourinha an institution. That might be wrong, but to me it feels like one. I feel comfortable here and everything is familiar and fantastic. Sure, if this were my first visit it might not have that same exact character, but to me it is a favourite.

Bar Lourinhã Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fratelli Fresh – Melbourne, City – Wednesday 27 July 2016 – Lunch

Pappardelle with braised beef cheek ragu

Pappardelle with braised beef cheek ragu

My first Fratelli Fresh experience was in 2008 at Potts Point, which wasn’t the original, but was one of the earliest branches. At the time I thought, “this place is amazing; I wish there were more”. And it did. Not only has Fratelli Fresh continued to expand, but it is now in Melbourne, ready to conquer from an initial flagship position in Alfred Place.

I have been following the Melbourne Italian dining scene for many years as a tourist and over the past 8 years as a local. For most of those years I think the sentiment was to hold the long running Italian restaurants as Melbourne treasures, untouchable by new entrants. While there is no doubt the old school remains extremely cool, there is a growing place for new entrants as the city heaves with growth. Tipo 00 is an excellent example of a break-out, but new, Italian restaurant in the city, that is still honouring Melbourne’s love of all things Italian.

More than any other restaurant undertaking in Melbourne, if you are going to do Italian, you need to do it carefully and properly. Fratelli Fresh is bringing Sydney’s A-game to our proud city, and nothing less would do. The entrance, as it was in the Comme days, continues to be impressive, but is now adorned with a triumvirate of attractive hosts representing both the cafe downstairs, and the steak house (Cut) upstairs.

The downstairs room of Fratelli Fresh is inviting and well thought through. For the first time this year, I’ve walked into a venue that isn’t Scandinavian dominant, and is sensibly (and well) decorated by flourishes of very Italian red, and plenty of Italian paraphernalia reminiscent of the Fratelli brand of the North. It’s comfortable, kept casual with paper napkins, and the artistic writing over the bar is kitsch but not over the top. Both the welcome out in the foyer, and inside the cafe, is warm and our waitperson is attentive, but leaves us to catch up for a time before ordering.

Cheesy Casarecce 'Cacio e Pepe'

Cheesy Casarecce ‘Cacio e Pepe’

There are plenty of good options to stretch out lunch or enjoy a single course. Andrew orders the pappardelle with braised beef cheek ragu, and while I would have been happy with the same choice, I decide on the cheesy casarecce ‘cacio e pepe’. The pappardelle looks great, served generously, and while Andrew says there are a few pieces that haven’t completely broken down, it is still a good dish.

I’m glad I had the warning of “cheesy” because my dish is full of cheesy goodness, making for a really filling main. The casarecce pasta is literally translated to “handmade” and is rustic small twisted fresh pasta, that is perfectly al dente. ‘Cacio e Pepe’ which I had to look up, is “cheese and pepper”, but really I ordered this for the pigs cheeks, which is served in cubes and has the salt and fat goodness that lifts the flavour, with some rapini greens to break it all up a bit. I’d suggest it would not be unwarranted to share the pasta if you are also looking at the wood fired pizzas, or some of the salumi and cicchetti on offer.

With a Butcher’s Bride American pale ale on tap to wash it down, all that is needed to finish today is a long black. My coffee is well made in the no fuss Italian style as you would hope for.

I’m excited about Fratelli Fresh and I’m hopeful they will open even closer to home in the next few years. This will certainly not be the last time I’m here, and it seems that all the experience gained over a decade in Sydney has been beautifully translated into this first offering south of the border.

Fratelli Fresh Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Higher Ground – Melbourne, City – Saturday 9 July 2016 – Breakfast

Lamb sausage roll, cucumber pickle, garlic, anchovy

Lamb sausage roll, cucumber pickle, garlic, anchovy

It is difficult to do justice to this venue in words. It may be the epitome of what a next generation cafe looks like. This is without doubt, one of the most beautiful converted and renovated buildings I’ve ever seen.

To have a place like Higher Ground in our incredible city is a testament to the rise, and rise, of Melbourne as a dining destination. Indeed this would be a difficult undertaking, even in the world’s busiest cities. To go ahead with a project such as this, you need the funds, but much more importantly, the overt confidence, to know you can execute in gusto.

The owners and connections of Higher Ground have built up the funds and confidence for this ultimate of dining projects over a long period of time. High ceilings, several open mezzanine levels, arch windows, sleek lounges, and modern furnishings, show extreme attention to detail. Even after the hour long wait, and the time spent perusing the menu while sipping my first coffee, I couldn’t get over the architecture which needs to be seen to be believed.

The Square One coffee being used is roasted only a couple of streets away from where I live, and it is excellent, with two single origins from Kenya being offered today. I try them both, but the decision on what to eat is not as straightforward. We came for breakfast but it is well and truly lunchtime, and we have been up and about shopping for a couple of hours, building up an appetite in the process.

Slow cooked beans, green sauce of rocket, spinach and cress, poached eggs, feta, fried croutons, pine nut crumb

Slow cooked beans, green sauce of rocket, spinach and cress, poached eggs, feta, fried croutons, pine nut crumb

Catherine narrowed her choice down to either the mushroom and polenta dish, or the slow cooked beans. Unfortunately she chose the latter which needs some work. Under a generous serve of perfectly poached eggs sits too few beans, dominated by the green sauce which lacks seasoning. The main question mark is what the slow cooked beans have been cooked in, because on their own they lack flavour too. Neither of the star ingredients have impact.

My dish on the other hand is up to the standards of sister cafe, Top Paddock. While I’ll definitely be back for the wagyu short rib roll which looks fantastic, I went out on a limb to try the lamb sausage roll. For $20 you expect something out of the box, and this one delivers flavour in spades. The lamb mince is rich, the pastry is delightful, and the anchovy and garlic sauce adds the usual softness. This is a well thought out dish, with the pickled cucumber working beautifully, adding acidity to cut through some of the richness, whether in the same bite, or separately.

On the whole I thought service was reasonable, considering this was the first Saturday the cafe had been open, but I expect some natural improvement. One thing I did notice is the staff knowing a customer on our communal table and that seemed to translate to their order coming far quicker than anyone else. It’s fine to have a network, but I suggest offering special people their own table so our thirty minute wait (after happily waiting in line for an hour) isn’t even harder watching the newcomers get served first having ordered long after us!

You can tell that as Higher Ground settles into its groove that this will become a flagship cafe, with a must-go reputation for locals and tourists. Perhaps it will be mentioned in the same breath as Cookie Rooftop, Supper Club, or Chin Chin one day? There is reason to be incredibly excited. Places that set the scene like Higher Ground are why I live here.

Higher Ground Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lee Ho Fook – Melbourne, City – Wednesday 13 April 2016 – Dinner

Crispy eggplant spiced red vinegar

Crispy eggplant spiced red vinegar

How many laneways in the world offer Chinese, Peruvian, Indian, and Italian? It sounds like having the opportunity to walk around the world in thirty seconds.

One of the newer restaurants adorning this incredible part of Melbourne is the relocated Lee Ho Fook. I never made it to the Smith Street Collingwood location, but it was always somewhere on the list. Besides knowing it is well regarded, I actually knew little about the entire place.

Often it is a good approach to have little expectation of your forthcoming experience. In this case however it would have been better knowing the likely cost of the meal as I had made a suggestion to a group of friends, and this place definitely did not turn out to be cheap Chinese!

As is usually the case when dining for the first time in a new place, the staff were eager to let us put ourselves in their hands to select the food. Normally it is a reasonable idea, but tonight there were several dishes that we wanted to try and we decided that we would order from the menu ourselves. We all took into account the proportions the staff were recommending for a group of four but also watered it down a little on the expectation of trying desert.

Hiramasa kingfish, leeks, cloud fungi, radish, burnt garlic and ginger, white soy cream

Hiramasa kingfish, leeks, cloud fungi, radish, burnt garlic and ginger, white soy cream

This is high quality Chinese with various Asian influences focussing on fresh ingredients and not over doing the number of tastes. For example the crispy fried eggplant is a complete taste sensation. With the liquid content in eggplant playing against you, this is a challenging task. Somehow the team at Lee Ho Fook have given eggplant the facade of being chips, with a slightly softer interior, and lashings of sweet and sour flavour in the mix.

Steamed cone bay Barramundi, Ginger and shallot Sauce; Silken white cut chicken, hainan style garnish; Stir Fried Jade vegetables, New season, snowpeas, sugar snaps and broccoli

Steamed cone bay Barramundi, Ginger and shallot Sauce; Silken white cut chicken, hainan style garnish;
Stir Fried Jade vegetables, New season, snowpeas, sugar snaps and broccoli

Earlier we had started with the almost spooky black fungi in aged black vinegar. As you can imagine the colours are deep and dark, but the flavour is equally deep and powerful, this small dish packing a big punch. Along with the fungi we tried the Hiramasa kingfish, which was one of the prettier dishes of the evening, although the white plate dulls the impact of the beautifully prepared cloud fungi. As a dish it works well, but was not in the top few kingfish dishes I’d had in the past several tries.

For the more fulsome end of the meal, we decided to share the barramundi and the chicken, along with stir fried vegetables and fried rice. My favoured dish was the silken white cut chicken with a Hainan style garnish. The chicken is poached perfectly and there is a generous quantity. The barramundi with a ginger and shallot sauce was Darren’s favourite, and given we’d earlier been introduced to him for the first time by Melita, we were glad he enjoyed it! Add to that the spice content in many of the dishes is mild to medium, it meant that sharing with those less affiliated with chilli heat is more than possible.

Baked Chocolate mousse, crème Chantilly, oolong tea

Baked Chocolate mousse, crème Chantilly, oolong tea; Jasmine infused custard with burnt caramel

This was a good amount of food for four people, especially since most of us were sharing the jugs of tap beer on offer, which is a nice touch. Keen to top off a great evening we ordered two desserts to share. Both were excellent but on the presentation side the baked chocolate mousse could not be matched. This time the plate used is perfect, the creme Chantilly showing up like the moon penetrating through the clouds on a stormy night. The custard is not as spectacular, but is well executed, and a delicious end to the evening.

Service tonight was good, with some tongue in cheek comments adding some spice to the interaction. As I reflect on our meal, a return visit is assured, but with so many great modern Asian options all along Flinders Lane, deciding which establishment to go back to next is a difficult task that is nice to contemplate.

Lee Ho Fook Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Din Tai Fung – Melbourne, City – Sunday 17 April 2016 – Lunch

Crab meat & roe with pork dumplings

Crab meat & roe with pork dumplings

Much has been written about the famous Din Tai Fung. It is famous having begun in Taiwan, having a long presence in Sydney, and now recently taking up residence at the top of Melbourne’s most beautiful shopping centre, Emporium.

It’s not dirt cheap, but at these prices pretty much anyone can have a try, and the reaction is intriguing to me. My modus operandi, besides using weird words that no-one understands, is to not look at reviews in-depth about restaurants until I’ve tried them, which is an impossible task with DTF given the huge amount of press.

Char Sui Bao - pork buns

Char Sui Bao – pork buns

What I learned in my reading is there are some signature dumplings I need to try, that you have to wait a short time to get a table, and that there are a lot of people who have taken issue with DTF, leading to a Zomato score of a lowly 3.0 out of 5. To give an idea of why that is not ideal, there is a filter to hide places under 3.5!

However, when you look at the reviews only by bloggers, there is an entirely different story of 4.5s and 5s out of 5. Why is this the case? I’m not absolutely sure but it was front of mind as we started to eat our way through several types of dumplings following a leisurely stroll into the city.

Xiao Long Bao - steamed pork soup dumpling

Xiao Long Bao – steamed pork soup dumpling

My first thought is there is a cost aspect where DTF is far more expensive than the average dumpling place. When you have such rich and complex flavours bursting through the crab roe and pork soup dumpling, with a wrapper screaming perfection, the $17 for 6 of them doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But it isn’t cheap.

Shrimp and pork shao mai

Shrimp and pork shao mai

Again, the prawn and pork shao mai are carefully formed, with delectable broth combining with the firm texture of the wrapper making a meal that is revered by most, for good reason. Sure, you do not need a dozen chefs in a relatively spacious kitchen, with years of experience, to make a dumpling that is comforting and full of flavour, but you do need that if you want something just that bit more special. The same goes for most food. Teenagers can cook you a burger at Macca’s, so why would anyone pay extra for Huxtaburger, or an even more expensive burger?

While I need to try a few more places, in my experience, the only dumpling house in the city that can match what we are eating is HuTong, which has always been exceptional, especially for their shao long bao soup dumplings. The ones we tried at DTF are just as gorgeous.

Black sesame ice cream and mango pudding with fresh mango

Black sesame ice cream and mango pudding with fresh mango

The pork buns are very good, but not at the level of the dumplings. The surprise though was the simplicity, good level of sweetness, and sound technique in the reasonably priced desserts of mango pudding with fresh mango, and black sesame ice cream. I strongly suggest leaving room!

There is plenty of conjecture about the merits of Din Tai Fung. I am pleased to say that our particular experience was excellent and at around $30 a head we will be back for plenty more!
Din Tai Fung Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cumulus Up – Melbourne, City – Saturday 16 January 2016 – Dinner

600g O'Connor ribeye

600g O’Connor ribeye

There is a cost to popularity. Once you have a defined space, there is only so many chairs you can pack into it. After that, the only option to make larger profits is to increase prices or reduce costs. It is obvious that none of these measures is likely to work in the long term. It is this conundrum that must have restaurateurs constantly asking the question of “what’s next?”

Andrew McConnell asked this question over five years ago when Cutler and Co. was going great guns. He came up with a city restaurant with a bistro feel, with a no bookings policy, and dishes with many influences, often served to share. Cumulus Inc has been full ever since and never forget it came before Chin Chin, setting the scene for the strongest culinary street in Australia.

It is not unusual for a popular restaurant to expand in some way. Think about St Ali going across the street for a waiting room that was the antithesis of any other waiting room you’ve been in; or Cafe Di Stasio and its wine bar; or even earlier and Longrain in Sydney which was the first time waiting in their cocktail lounge was cooler than being seated. It seems Cumulus had only one way to go and that was Up!

Cumulus Up takes advantage of the second floor of the main restaurant. It has its own personality but began life as a place to grab a drink and graze while waiting for a seat downstairs. These days it seems it is almost as difficult to get in upstairs as it is downstairs. It is both intimate with low lighting and dark furnishings, as it is communal.

Cosberg lettuce, confit fennel, verjuice dresing

Cosberg lettuce, confit fennel, verjuice dresing

To be entirely honest, I haven’t been to Cumulus for a while and I did want to dine there tonight. The last time we missed out we had a double miss because Up was closed for a function. This time we are able to go up and we don’t hesitate. As we wait to be seated we are shown the menu and start our usual negotiation. However, once we are pointed to the blackboard specials our choice becomes simple.

The 600g O’Connor ribeye steak, which comes with a Cafe de Paris butter, is just the dish of indulgence we feel like tonight. Initially we were on our way into Richmond before one thing led to another and we had tried a cocktail at Romeo Lane before heading here after 8.30pm. With the addition of roasted potatoes and a leafy salad as sides we are set.

Roast potatoes, horseradish mustard & chives

Roast potatoes, horseradish mustard & chives

As we had ordered, the ribeye comes out medium rare. Other than a few fatty threads it is very tender, with a delicious salty char providing a burst in each bite. There’s enough of the butter and herb sauce to provide a softened texture and even more layers of flavour. When combined with the gorgeous roasted potatoes it doesn’t get much more comforting. Even the leafy salad was great.

Chocolate ice cream sandwich, butterscotch

Chocolate ice cream sandwich, butterscotch

After such a delicious main to share we took a short break before ordering dessert. I needed to try the chocolate ice cream sandwich, claiming the dessert at the same time as mentioning we could share. Catherine went for her second option for us to share with a refreshing combination of lemon verbena, fresh fruit and yoghurt cream. Whilst the latter dish was refreshing, the former took the honours by a mile and is the only one we would go back for. The butterscotch was the icing on the cake.

Yoghurt cream, lemon verbena & mango

Yoghurt cream, lemon verbena & mango

An unanticipated sojourn indulging in wine, steak and chocolate doesn’t get much better than this. Downstairs spawned Andrew’s next adventures into places like Golden Fields (now Supernormal) and Moon Under Water, just as it provided some of the impetus for the next generation of Flinders Lane restaurants. But when downstairs is full there should be no hesitation in going up.

Cumulus Up Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato