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Melbourne has been called the food capital of Australia for its use of seasonal, local foods, ethnically diverse flavors and relaxed ambiance. Sound like San Francisco? When the Bay Area was being touted years ago for its innovative use of fresh, artisanal ingredients in California Cuisine, seasoned Melbourne food and wine expert Roy Moorfield said they all just shrugged and said, “what’s the big deal? We had it all along.” And he was right. My friend and I, both cynical food and wine professionals who have worked in San Francisco, New York and Napa Valley, were totally caught off guard by what we discovered. Securing its position as Australia’s food capital is the fact that Melbourne’s sister wine regions – Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula – specialize in the world’s best food wines, chardonnay and pinot noir.
There are about 75 ethnic cuisines represented in Melbourne, much of it culinarily authentic. As Moorfield said, “fusion is confusion.” At the same time, some of the most exciting restaurants are truly innovative such such as Cumulus Inc., Coda and Verge, which are located on or near Flinders Lane.
With the largest Greek population outside of Greece, one can find many traditional cafes on Lonsdale St. near Russell St. or upscale dining at The Press Club. The best Middle Eastern food is at MoMo and tasty Iberian tapas can be found at Movida or Bar Lourinha.
One of the most exemplary of Melbourne’s culinary scene is Coda, an Asian inspired restaurant headed by Adam d’Sylva on Oliver Lane. Each dish outdoes the next with tintillating spices, fresh herbs and bright lime or sriricha infused plates that reduces one to mono-syllabic descriptors: “wow.” Wine service with som Travis Howe is elevated with pairings such as deeply concentrated dry Montlouis chenin blanc that enhances rather than submits to the strong flavors on the plate.
Chinatown centered on Little Bourke not only features Chinese fine dining and dumpling restaurants, but also includes Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai establishments. In a city where the most frequently spoken language after English is Mandarin, its Chinese restaurants reflect the wide range of ethnic Chinese immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. Try the Shanghai broth-filled steamed pork dumplings at Hu Tong or cross Market Lane for upscale Cantonese at Flower Drum.
The Italian and Greek influence no doubt created the strong coffee and alfresco café culture in Melbourne. One can stroll most any street or laneway and be lured to stop at an outdoor café. In Melbourne, even the tiniest proprietors serve up consistently good, flavorful food, such as Self-Preservation on Bourke Street where one can have antipasti or the daily special for example, sautéed sea breem with aioli, brightened with bitter cress and a potato salad with fresh horseradish and capers, enhanced with a glass of local pinot gris.
For a taste of traditional Melbourne, check out the oldest pub and restaurant in Melbourne, The Mitre Tavern on Bank Place, for grilled steak and brews on tap or bottle. In the Block Arcade, savor authentic meat pies at Dinkum Pies or treat yourself to traditional high tea at Hopetoun Tea Rooms.
A foodie visit to Melbourne would be incomplete without visiting the Queen Victoria Market, over 7 hectares of specialty food, fruit and vegetable stands and several halls of knick-knack vendors. There is also a diverse array of outdoor food stands preparing lunchtime dishes and snacks, such as Spanish paella, Italian whole roast pig, Middle Eastern wraps, Sri Lanken inspired vegetarian food and Asian dumplings.
The Bar Crawl
Being a university town, Melbourne has a great after-hours scene. Most of the bars and lounges are “themed” and very unique. Check here to navigate through the choices.
On the Fringe
If you like SOMA or SOHO, go to Fitzroy, just outside of the city centre. There are many great restaurants, bars and cafes such as Cutler & Co., Gertrude St. Enoteca & Bar and Naked for Satan, and cool shopping too.
There are too many eateries in Melbourne and not enough time to try all of them, but here is a short-list to begin your adventure. To get the maximum experience in the shortest amount of time, attend part of the annual Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in March. As an indication of how serious they are about food, the Festival brings together not only Australia’s best chefs, but culinary stars from around the world. It’s also a great time of year to visit Melbourne being late summer and near harvest.