A couple of months ago when the other half’s birthday was looming I suggested we maybe hire a car and hit the South Coast, or something, for the weekend. Get out of the city, fresh air, small country towns …
“Why don’t we go to Melbourne?” was the response. Well then Melbourne it is. Not quite the country getaway but at least we escaped Sydney for a bit. The Marriott was booked for Friday and Saturday night, flights were also booked, everything was set. I even went as far as reserving a table at Union Dining in Richmond for an early 6pm dinner.
Thanks to a slightly delayed landing at 5pm we were already pushing it for time; having just an hour to get from the airport to town, check into the hotel, drop the bags and cab it to Richmond. There’s nothing like a little pressure, right? Ok, so I called the restaurant and said we may be running late but in actual fact we got there five minutes after 6. Nice one.
Housed in one of those old colonial buildings with iron lace veranda’s you see all over inner city Melbourne, Union Dining feels like a French brasserie with all the subtle trimmings. There’s a bar area, a casual dining space and a darker, more intimate dining room through the archways. What are we drinking? A nice savvie from Marlborough, NZ. Cheers to not being in Sydney and most importantly, Happy Birthday. We can relax now.
A couple of starters get the food ball rolling. A very French caramelised onion tart (18) with pear & walnut salad, olives and a deliciously-light pastry. Simple flavours. Simple construction. I went with the kingfish carpaccio (20.5), pickled beetroot, horseradish cream and green chilli. The flavours on the carpaccio were very subtle and earthy, even with the mild horseradish cream. Nice touch with the torn parsley leaves, a herb I just love thrown into a salad.
One of the nights specials was the slow roasted Western Plains suckling pig (80), cooked to absolute perfection and dabbed with an apple and onion soubise. By the size it’s obviously a meal meant for sharing and the price includes a generously-proportioned shaved savoy cabbage salad that was the perfect accompaniment, even if those raw onions lingered on my palate for the rest of the night.
Getting up bright and early for breakfast is pretty much natural for me and I temporarily forgot that the sun rises later in the middle of winter in Melbourne than it does in Sydney. It was still dawn as we took a cab up to North Melbourne, arriving at Auction Rooms just as they opened for Saturday morning breakfast. What a stunning space! As cyclists drifted in and out to grab takeaway coffees, we began with a perfectly made macchiato (3.8) and piccolo (3.5) using Small Batch beans they roast themselves.
The breakfast offerings are a step away from the usual cafe staples but if you want your regular toast or porridge, you can have that too. My maple glazed kaiserfleisch (18) was an ideal winter breakfast. Two thick strips of deliciously smokey ham, toasted sourdough and two runny poached eggs bobbing about in onion soup. The second strip of ham was lurking in the creamy shallows, a nice little surprise as I spooned around the bowl. The tomato-braised northern beans (19) weren’t half bad either; flecked with smoked haddock, sourdough crumbs and golden poached eggs. Quite rich but quite delicious.
Just before we jetted off to Melbourne I read about a coffee I hadn’t heard of previously. A coffee named magic. First of all, what a stupid name, but I didn’t want to judge until I ordered one myself to see what they’re all about. I felt like a complete dick ordering it at Auction Rooms, but hey, we’re in Melbourne so I could only assume they’d know what a magic was. What we have is a flat white served in a smaller-than-normal cup, about a third smaller. Technically it’s a double ristretto topped with steamed milk. It’s stronger in flavour and actually pretty good. I guess all those flat whites I’ve been getting in smaller cups were actually magic’s in disguise. Supposedly Melbourne’s Seven Seeds developed the magic as a way to make soy milk emulsify better with coffee, but if this is untrue, do tell. Pity the name sounds like a bit of a wank. I wonder if Melbourne’s pram brigade are ordering baby-magics for their toddlers now?
Ok, time to move on before I regurgitate my breakfast.
As the Melbournites awoke from their slumber on this rather chilly morning we mosied down to Queen Victoria Markets, had a very quick look around and stumbled on this cute little cafe across the road from it.
With seating for no more than eight backsides, Market Lane Coffee clearly takes pride in what it puts out to the public. Some would label them coffee nazi’s thanks to not catering to the soy and skim milk market. Hmm, I wonder if they do decaf? If I was them I wouldn’t; I mean, do you go to a bottle shop and buy non-alcoholic wine? If you do I don’t want to hear about it.
Twice we stopped by Market Lane. First just for a macchiato (3.5) and then the following day to test them out on this silly magic coffee variety available in Melbourne. We were told they don’t do magic’s because their coffee cups are on the smaller side and with the type of pour they do, it’s just a stronger flat white. Good to see there’s a Melbourne cafe unwilling to hitch the magical bandwagon as it trundles about the graffitied lane-ways. If that bandwagon turns up in Sydney I’ll puncture its wheels endlessly.
On a side note, I love the coffee at Market Lane be it flat white (4) or macchiato. Just the right drinkable temperature. Also love the jars and large bowl of rapadura sugar (or jaggery) dotted about.
The other half read about this relatively new pizza joint setting up shop opposite the Camberwell Tram Depot in Hawthorn East. Firechief prides itself in providing pizza’s from three types of ovens – a stone-based Moretti twin-deck oven, a regular conveyor belt oven and a wood-fired Valoriani oven. The wood-fired oven was the way to go for us, knowing that the certified DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) chef makes traditional Neapolitan pizza. Here’s hoping we get the pizza we’re on the hunt for. The “Motorino” style pizza we had in New York’s East Village.
Ok, so the sopressa (cooked for 2 minutes at 400° C) pizza (22) at Firechief didn’t quite parallel what we had in New York but it did come close. Topped with a base made from San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte, tiny (and never enough) dabs of gorgonzola, mild casalingo sopressa, basil and chilli. This is one mighty fine pizza. Gorgeous toppings, not too much going on, just not the type of crust we’ve been dreaming about since visiting the East Village late last year.
Rather than do a second pizza I thought I’d go the spicy pan-roasted spatchcock (27.9), cooked arrabiata style with veg and fregola. While it’s all very tasty and generous in size, also impressively deboned, I found the skin could have done with more of the regular “roasted” result. The skin was soft and had no resistance, almost a steamed quality about it.
The sweets didn’t grab my attention all that much but from the five options this was our pick. Orange torta (12). And I’m glad we did. A flourless, almond meal-based cake sugared with white powder and a nice quenelle of unsweetened vanilla bean mascarpone and surrounding dribble of saffron syrup. What a beauty.
Heading back into town we did a leisurely pit stop at a little joint both of us visited a couple of years ago. Self Preservation is a civilised little spot without the hipster crowds; a place where you don’t need to yell just to have a conversation. This gallery-cum-cafe-wine bar may have a limited choice in the food department but on this visit it was all about the coffee (3.7) and a mighty-fine Head Red shiraz (9). A little chillax before dinner-time.
Speaking of dinner-time, I thought a bit of izakaya would have been good choice and a nice way to sit back and nibble away through the evening. Down on South Wharf by the convention centre is a small string of river-front restaurants that recently opened up that stretch of the Yarra to the dining public. Akachochin is a relatively small place that offers table or bar seating in its sparsely decorated and dimly-lit room. Sitting up at the bar is the best possie if you’re into watching food prep, plus the light is a little more advantageous for those of us that cart a camera around. Not so good for me when the light sensor decides to play up as the food arrives.
A complimentary duck confit gets in before any of our ordered plates arrive. Nice touch. Of course we had to choose the butabara (15), or pork belly, that’s stacked in delicious layers with grilled mushroom. The meat is just divine, tender, caramelised, sweet and salty. When I think of karaage I think of meat that’s lightly battered or floured before it hits the fryer, resulting in a crunch that makes me love it as much as I do. The quail karaage (18) has none of the crunch factor but the juiciness and slight gamey flavour makes up for it. Half a soft boiled quail egg sits off to the side along with a mini steamer holding a deep-fried potato cake filled with quail.
One of my favourite dishes was this. Grilled eggplant, oysters and cheese (15). I mean just look at it. Creamy eggplant flesh weighed down in oozing grilled cheese, a couple of fresh oysters and den miso for a little more saltiness. A flavour combo that rocked my world. Some nicely marbled seared wagyu tataki (18) comes rolled and arranged on thick zig-zags of yuzu-kosyou su miso, topped with a tangle of fried leek. I reckon the meat could have been cut a little thinner but aside from that it was all about the delicate flavours, textures and slight zing from the sauce. The sushi anago (8), or sea eel, is like your typical nigiri that’s freshly torched to release even more of those lovely smokey flavours. It was quickly forgotten about when the grilled hotate (15) turned up. Oh man. This actually caused a few pleasurable groans. Served in the shell, these two little curry-salted babies are seared and topped with creamy sea urchin sauce and crunchy fried nori chip. What a sensation.
Our lovely waitress seemed pretty chuffed that we added the house specialty onto our savoury set. Hiramasa namerou (15) is a Japanese style tartar of kingfish chopped with spring onions, moromiso, kizami wasabi and a little olive oil. Shredded daikon gives the mound a fuzzy hairdo and some impossibly-thin rice crackers are the perfect tool to scoop up the fish. The wasabi factor went virtually unnoticed and really could have been amped up significantly but thanks to the furikake shaker on the counter it got the heat it needed.
There are just four sweets available on the menu; a brûlée and a pannacotta, both of which have a bit of a Japanese touch. The sweet potato brûlée (12) surprisingly didn’t taste like its main ingredient at all. The texture was a little starchy but overall it was like a regular thick custard. The pannacotta (14) had a subtle black sesame flavour but the highlight was actually the intense green tea ice cream on the side. The red beans were also a nice addition. All-in-all a fantastic meal and definitely a place I’d go back to.
Another early morning rise brought us to two:bob in Fitzroy North. Two magic coffees, or can I call them short flat whites, and a couple of simple breakfast dishes. Smashed avocado (9.5), fetta and lemon on toast with labna and diced tomato. An easy toast topping that’s delicious when eating out or at home and my crumbed poached eggs (16.5) with asparagus, smoked salmon, pinenuts and toasted sourdough. It was the crumbing concept that drew me to this dish and aside from the snotty whites that were still sloshing around inside with the yolks, it was ok. One thing I really like about this cafe is the former bank building in which it sits. Ok, enough about food and architecture, it’s time to go home.