Sunday, 26 October 2014

Gradi has a home at Crown Melbourne - Recalled To Life

There are too many "food blogs" in Melbourne. I always thought this one differentiated itself because it did not promote spin and it certainly did not romanticise restaurants that provided remuneration or compensation to "turn up" and of course take the requisite photographs that embodied the marketing theme that the campaign of the day dictated. It took a relaxing evening watching the Cricket recently and a few bottles of wine to realise that there are a fair amount of very poor blogs in cyberspace that only survive with marketing dollars or are just a weak photo essay; neither of which take any intelligence or thought just to provide some sort of lame advertising after the writer was compensated a free hamburger or dumpling. When I was passionate about posting on this site before there was never any spin and I never took a bribe to promote an agenda. With that being said, I will introduce Gradi at the Crown Casino in Melbourne which opened a few weeks ago, which has received the customary marketing blurbs in Time Out Melbourne and Gram Magazine, but there has been no formal review until now. Exciting, hey?

The dining room after the lunch rush: Gradi Crown Melbourne
The original and award-winning restaurant is not the newly opened location at the Crown Melbourne, but is in fact 400 Gradi on Lygon Street in Brunswick. This outpost became a talking point when it was recently awarded with the title of "World's Best Pizza" at the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy. Much like the awards that are sponsored by San Pellegrino and Lavassa Coffee, it is all subjective I feel. Much like hamburgers and steaks, what one person finds wonderful, another will scoff at and since pizza can be a visceral experience, usually consumed out of a box after making a phone call late at night with a dodgy television show on and a bottle of vodka, dishing out a "best pizza in the world" award is a stretch however I was still keen to taste this fabled creation during my tour de force.

The view of Cory Campbell without the helmet from Gradi
Located where the defunct and once one-hatted restaurant Guiseppe, Arnaldo & Sons once was underneath the Kings Way ramp that now features street art and a dedication to Cory Campbell at Vue de Monde, Gradi (dropping the 400) offers a new and sleek fit-out and falls in-line to the new look that Crown Melbourne is trying to promote - one that disavows the bogans (which take up residence in the newly renovated food court, much like the seagulls do on the promenade) but tries to suck those that are hard and fast with their money into their void, this humble writer included. The principal is Johnny Di Francesco who was not spotted when we visited midweek.

When I finally found the restaurant's telephone number after many clicks, the receptionist was very perky and hospitable. I didn't have a high expectation of this place when I rang however the professionalism and the energy put me in the mood to enjoy a long and relaxed lunch. We were ultimately greeted and seated without much fanfare however we were quickly presented with not only the food menu but the wine list where the vast majority of the vintages languished under the $100 mark.

The interior of Gradi Crown Melbourne
The menu was presented on a humble piece of paper with a pleasant typeset after which the staff invited us to enjoy salumi and formaggi to start - where we elected to indulge upon Hot Cacciatori ($12.50 for 70g) and Bufaletto ($23 for 70g) which when presented on a bed of flat bread which not only made for great presentation but provided utility in consuming the very tasty cheese and meat. The Bufaletto is allegedly DOC. I quizzed the waitron as to whether this was indeed a cheese that produced under the Italian laws enacted in 1955 to protect the names, origins, production methods and characteristics of Italian foods. She said "sure" so I am not sure that she really knew, but one has to give the benefit of the doubt in an Italian restaurant. The Hot Cacciatori was spicy - but not "hot" in terms of eradicating your innards but it made a comfortable starter whilst we engaged upon the beautiful Benanti 2012 'Bianco di Caselle' Etna Bianco. Yet another wine that has raised the bar in Italy, which was mineral-driven and very light which not only paired well with the salumi but the formaggi. There was enough wine left over to enjoy it with the Arancini Del Giorno - the crumbed Italian rice balls accompanied with mascarpone and a parmesan cream ($6/each) which really didn't do much for me besides leaving me thirsty.

The award winning Margherita Verace pizza
The Margherita Verace pizza ($21) is what the punters were flocking far and wide to devour after Johnny won the title of the "World's Best Pizza" so how could we resist? It looked nice and and I have to say it tasted pretty good (in comparison to Pepperoni's on Elizabeth Street after stumbling out pissed from Bar Americano recently comes to mind) however the base was soggy, which I really do not think was planned by the kitchen. I did expect more but then again, it is pizza so you can't hold it to the same standard as a medium rare David Blackmore wagyu at Rockpool Bar and Grill or Ben Shewry's potato at Attica.

The highlight was the next course, the Tagiatelle al tartufo e pecorino sardo ($46) - narrow ribbons of pasta prepared with truffle butter, pecorino sardo and shaved black truffle. This was a dish that was magic and when matched with the 2011 Zuani, yet another DOC wine, which was a blend of nearly everything possible made for the best matched dish of the day. The subdued almond flavours of the wine really complemented the freckled truffle-heavy and intense flavours in the pasta. This dish left an impression and left me really wanting more days after enjoying it.

Impepata di volgole - clams in a cool pot
The Impepata di volgole ($30) - sautéed clams with garlic, lemon, herbs, pepper and wine wine was the final dish. The presentation was lovely and the wedge of lemon did assist in relieving the alkaline taste, which really was not very distracting but more amusing paired with the Petite Arvine Valle d'Aosta, which is yet another DOC wine. I am not saying that I don't like pippis, but I expected more of a garlic flavour however they were fun to eat on the back of the third bottle of wine. The playful presentation in a cool pot left a whimsical impression and after polishing off the third bottle of wine, we ended the very relaxed lunch on a high.

Service was polished throughout the 3.5 hour experience, which is a testament to the processes and procedures that this very young restaurant have already put into place which is a credit to the management. There is a view to the Southbank Promenade but I wouldn't recommend trying to jostle for position as the majority of the outlook is the walkway eclipsed by the offramp that runs over the restaurant. Off course there is a view of street art commissioned by Melbourne City Council that can be enjoyed in between courses. Like with other Crown restaurants, the visiting masses are seemingly tourist and transitory. Would I return? Sure, but on a quarterly basis at most or when I need to entertain a customer.

Crown Melbourne, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank VIC 3006
(03) 9696 9888
My Rating: 13.75/20
Service: 3.5/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 3.5/5
Value For Money: 3.25/5
X-Factor Multiplier: 1

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I posted this review, 44% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Gradi. Still, at the time there was a very limited review pool so it will be interesting to see how this changes over time.

Gradi on Urbanspoon

Monday, 26 August 2013

The 2014 The Age Good Food Guide Awards

Three Hat Restaurants: Jacques Reymond, Vue de Monde, Attica, Flower Drum

*Flower Drum regained a hat

Restaurant of the Year: Attica

Citibank Australia Chef of the Year: Ben Shewry from Attica

Regional Restaurant of the Year: Tani Eat & Drink (Bright, VIC)

Kitchen Aid Young Chef of the Year: Oliver Gould from Stokehouse

Wine List of the Year: Brooks Restaurant

Regional Wine List of the Year: Provenance Restaurant (Beechworth, VIC)

Best Short Wine List: Bar di Stasio

BYO Restaurant of the Year: France-Soir

Donlevy Fitzpatrick Award: Cumulus Up

Sustainability Award: Clive Blazey from Heirloom Seed Company

Innovation Award: Stephanie Alexander

Citibank Service Excellence Award: Vanessa Crichton of The Rockpool Group

Sommelier of the Year: Mark Protheroe from the Grossi Group

Regional Restaurant of the Year: Healesville Hotel

New Restaurant of the Year: Saint Crispin

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Senoritas - 180 About Face (40 Days and 40 Nights)

It is strange thinking that it has been 40 days and 40 nights since I made a post on this blog. I re-read some of my previous posts and wondered why I was writing about some of the boring experiences as if they were putting me to sleep, I can imagine the public not being too bothered. I vowed to myself that if I started posting again, as I was a bit turned off of dining out in general after a run of bad experiences, that I would actually write about the negative - a theme that I have shied away from in the recent past.

How time flies in the world of hospitality. Before I write my thoughts on my recent trip to Senoritas, here is a wrap-up of what you may have missed:
  • Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons, the Italian restaurant in Crown that a few years ago actually had an Age Good Food Guide chefs hat closed a few weeks ago. I ate in there once and thought the service was generally bad and the food was poor. In the spirit of not speaking ill of the dead, I will just say that this place will not be missed and I hope that it is transformed into something that will do Crown justice,
  • Mercy Bar & Eatery, which is what Virginia Plain morphed into two months ago also shut its doors. This is a shame as I was a fan of Andy Harmer's work along with Mat Bayer's humour and general outlook on service. I am sure they will pop up again somewhere soon as Melbourne needs these blokes active in the industry,
  • YAR, the Korean/Japanese confused restaurant at Freshwater Place on the Southbank Promenade closed. No big loss as the food was dull. It is currently being renovated and TGI Fridays will be opening in its place soon.
  • Meat and Wine Co. also at Freshwater Place on Southbank Promenade, undertook a renovation and the place looks much nicer not only from the outside but also the inside. I had lunch there a few weeks ago and I was bemused as they were still renovating the restaurant whilst attempting lunch service. A relaxing lunch turned into a quick one mainly because it took ages for anyone to bring me my first Kosciuszko pale ale, but also its replacement. They did apologise for shoddy service and claimed the restaurant was poorly staffed at that time. If I wanted to eat at a construction site, I would have walked over to Prima Pearl or even the Grocon Myer site.
  • Alberts Wine Bar at Southgate closed. I spent many relaxing days that turned into nights at this place and am sorry to see it go.
  • Shed 5 at South Wharf closed its doors some time ago. A sign posted on the door states that they plan on relaunching as something else at some point but there hasn't been any sort of activity at the site for months. It really comes as no surprise to me that they shut and if you keep track of my weighted rankings, you will understand why.
Now for Senoritas.

I originally wrote about Senoritas on Meyers Place almost a year ago to the day, so it is fitting that I became motivated to write again after visiting this Mexican place, which I have previously evangelised as the "Best Mexican" in Melbourne and made no secret about this when musing about other Mexican themed restaurants in person or on Twitter. Much like how the hospitality scene can change on a whim, using the above restaurants as an example in a mere forty days, Senoritas has gone from being my favourite to being one of my least liked very quickly.

After seeing the spectacle that is King Kong, the epicurean emo and I presented ourselves at Senoritas without a booking. We were told to sit wherever we wanted so we went straight for the bar. We were then advised to sit anywhere besides the bar, partly because other diners in tables were oddly all seated very close to the bar and sitting on a high stool there would have been in turn awkward for all parties, but the staff was using the bar as a convenient place to temporarily (I hope) store rubbish and cartons. In the past, the bar had been a convenient place to dine mainly because there was effectively no wait for alcoholic beverages.

Without looking at the drinks menu, I ordered a Dos Equis beer and was advised that they do not stock that. Pacifico was offered as an alternative, which I happily ordered. The food menu changed since my previous vist and when service came to take our order I quizzed her as to whether the "Tostada de Pollo a la Diabla" can be served as tacos - a special that Senoritas had on offer when I dined there in the past. I was told that it wasn't possible which really vexed me. It really isn't hard to put spicy chicken in a soft corn shell and serve it as a taco, but I suppose like with everything there is a process and without it utter chaos can be expected to transpire if you don't follow a formula. We instead ordered "Pescado a la Parrilla" which essentially was the fish of the day in a taco, the Panuchos de Cochinita Pibil, the slow roasted pork shoulder tacos and the Crustaceos Enchilados, the spicy Moreton bay bugs. The server looked at us with a horrified look and claimed that was a fair amount of food to order. Four tacos and a half of a bug per person I thought was reasonable. We also decided to have the Salsa del Dia, the salsa of the day as a starter since it was nearly 10:00 PM and we were very hungry. The salsa was dark and very sweet. It was a strange taste that I personally did not like and after enjoying the trio of freshly made salsas at Senoritas in the past, which were not only really good but provided an array of flavours ranging from mild to hot, I was disappointed.

The fish tacos arrived and I immediately understood why the server looked shocked when we placed our order. These were not classic tacos that I expected, not only from my history of dining at Senoritas, but also taking into consideration the "street food" concept. There was a huge mound of corn salsa that blanketed the fish and extended nearly to the edge of the soft shell. It was nearly impossible to eat with your hands, a mess was ultimately made and I could not taste the fish which was marlin. A 40ml serve of Ilegal Mezcal Anejo tequilla was required to take the edge off along with a refill of beer, before taking on the next round of tacos.

Slow roasted pork shoulder tacos with cinnamon, orange, thyme, beans and pickled red onion followed. Not only visually unappealing, the sweet taste of the pickled red onion put me off. I scraped it off and tried the blob of beans and pork, which looked completely out of place on a soft taco shell, and once again, there was so much product on the soft shell, it was nearly impossible once again to eat with your hands and I made another mess in the process. The lack of flavour and general dissatisfaction caused us to send our dishes back to the kitchen. The host quizzed me as to why I did not like this dish, so I told him my thoughts. I also asked if the chef had changed in the restaurant as the recipes and influence had changed drastically and I was told that the head chef had indeed changed which explained why the tastes had made a very distinctive 180 degree turn.

The Moreton bay bugs cooked in lime and achiote butter was grandfathered partially from the previous menu and head chef however it was previously served with a dash of habanero pepper. I asked if the hot pepper was an option and I was given a side of habanero chili which really added the kick that I wanted. Although the bug was fine, I was reminded why I stopped dining out as frequently as I once did. I started thinking I could have made much better Mexican inspired food at home (including purchasing fresh seafood which would have been fun to grill) for much less than my share of the $183 food and drinks bill at Senoritas.

The simple yet authentic tastes that I learned to love and expect at Senoritas is now just a fond memory much like their tequila tasting nights. Although I do like the dark yet colourful brooding fit-out, it is not a substitute to return for this menu or the current interpretation of Mexican food.

16 Meyers Place  Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9639 7437
Current Rating: 12/20 (-3.5 change)
Service: 3/5 (-1 change)
Ambiance: 3.5/5 (nil change)
Quality: 2.5/5 (-1.5 change)
Value For Money: 3/5 (-1 change)

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I first reviewed Senoritas on 23/08/13 , 62% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon liked the restaurant. One year on, at the time of this blog post, 72% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like it.

Señoritas on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Moroccan Soup Bar - Turning Hipster Part 1

I finally got around to spending a lazy day in Brunswick traversing Sydney Road and the general area and it helped that I found someone else to join me in my journey. He had also had never frequented this area of greater Melbourne so it was indeed a time to explore. It certainly made the day more amusing if not interesting to have a companion that was keen to eat, drink and wander about with reckless abandon. Our legs were put to the test when the sun set as it is a thirty minute walk from Sydney Road to St Georges Road in Fitzroy North, which is where the Moroccan Soup Bar is located and where we decided to have a "cheap and cheerful" dinner after indulging a bit at lunch.

We turned up and this place and it was heaving human bodies. We were told to come back at 7:30 PM and that a table should be ready so we retreated to the Deco Bar, which is only a few metres away, and strangely devoid of customers, to top up our blood alcohol levels before returning at 7:30 PM on the dot. We were given the best seat in the house by far, which is strangely near the entrance to the toilet. This is one of the few tables that is away from the main thoroughfare of the restaurant which is always occupied by staff or patrons coming and going.

There is no menu at this place. You have two options which are communicated by word of mouth from the server. A "banquet" for $20 and a "banquet with dips" for $25. Having stockpiled cash as everything in Brunswick seemed to only accept cash, we were happy to splash out the extra five dollars and go for gold. About two minutes later a range of dips and bread came out. There was no explanation as to what anything was, but I was able to deduce a cous cous dip which was quite nice and some seriously good bread that I used to pick up one of the dry pieces of falafel.

Being so hungry, it didn't take long to eat everything included for the dip first course. I thought it was pretty cool that just the right amount of bread was provided to clean up everything served.  Only a few minutes later, the mains were delivered. Strangely I was expecting some soups (hence the name of the place, thus my expectation if not confusion) but along with rice and beans, some curry variants were presented. The highlight of a bland lot was the vegetable stew. The dips had a bit of spice, but these mains did not however we found them quite filling and ended up leaving some behind. Other patrons who were obviously regulars had plastic takeaway containers with them (there is an IGA not far away in case you want to buy some) and were filling them up before leaving. Although there were some desserts left to come, we could not eat any more and simply just paid the bill with a gold note (another cash only venue) and retreated to the pub.

For $25 you will receive a fair amount of food that should satisfy most people that do not have high expectations. The restaurant is the closest to a machine that I have witnessed and can quickly turn over tables with their no-nonsense approach to customer service. This is probably why we were not offered anything to drink as they didn't want us to stay in our seat for an extended amount of time, let alone take the time to use the bathroom. My experience would have been highlighted if beer was available, but I suppose there is a time and a place for everything.

Moroccan Soup Bar, Fitzroy North
Moroccan Soup Bar
183 St Georges Rd., Fitzroy North, VIC 3068
(03) 9482 4240
My Rating: 12.50/20
Service: 2.5/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 3/5
Value For Money: 4/5
Comment: Cash Only, only open in the evenings Tuesday - Sunday

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 90% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like the Moroccan Soup Bar.

Moroccan Soup Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tonka - Rajasthani Royal of the Melbourne CBD

Besides fighting off the flu, I was experiencing an even larger problem as my good self and one other couldn't decide on somewhere to enjoy some food and wine. We agreed that Twitter should provide the answer in the end and that we would frequent whatever restaurant or chef first appeared as the latest tweet in my timeline. On this occasion, Tonka on Duckboard Place in the CBD won this dangerous game of Russian roulette and I am very pleased that it did.

Tonka, Melbourne
Interior of Tonka
At the former site of Honkytonks, a place long forgotten by most as it was a pretentious dive that only let you in if you had alligator shoes on or a big wad of sweaty green notes on you, service was more than happy to escort us to the the "sommelier's table" which is a high table next to the working wine bar. A new and clean fit-out replaces what you would have found in a bad wet dream and it was easy to sit back on my perch at least and inspect the symmetrically arranged bottles on the shelf only a metre away. Thoughts soon turned to the wine list that is influenced by Travis Howe, the 2013 The Age Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year (who is shared by Tonka's big brother, Coda) and it was with no hesitation that I choose a bottle of 2012 Ocean Eight Pinot Gris ($68) to kick things off. I am a bit partial to the Ocean Eight wines and I was delighted to see this Mornington Peninsula producer on the wine list.

Executive Chef and part-owner Adam D'Sylva along with Head Chef Michael Smith have designed an intriguing Indian-inspired menu which after inspecting demanded an extended tasting session because there were just so many intriguing things on offer. Pani Puri ($4.50/each) was the first selection from the "smaller" menu to arrive after consulting with Jonathan, our all-rounder server/sommelier. True its literal meaning, this Indian "street food" with deep fried bread "Pani" intermixed with aromatic water "Puri" combined with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney made for a very tasty entry point to this journey across the Indian subcontinent. The addition of the aromatic water made this not only traditional but cleansed the palate and made the Pinot Gris even more accepted as my tastebuds rejoiced after being subjected to little sustenance, sudafed and sleep in the recent past. Soft-shell crab pakors ($8.50/each) with pickled cucumber, lemon, chilli and mint followed close behind the Pani Puri and I was not disappointed. It was nice to see the crab presented almost like a caricature that you would see in a drawing, or a dream and not some smooched and smashed bastardised crustacean that looked like it was hit with a copy of The Age (Good Food Guide) before being served. What was served actually looked like a crab, just suspended in time and it was cooked properly. I am always scared that the head will be mush, but that was not the case at Tonka. It was yet another addictive starter that not only was visually attractive but could be enjoyed with reckless self-abandon.
Tuna tartare, pomegranate, ginger and wasabi

The smoked trout betel leaf ($6/each) with coconut, chilli, pomelo and kaffir lime provided such enjoyment, that it required me to order another round. Rarely do I enjoy something so much that I order it again (the last time was Venison Carpaccio at Sarti, which I have so far written about) but this was truly an enigmatic and amazing starter that left my senses guessing as I consumed the leaf and everything that was placed on it. Truly complementary to the Ocean Eight Pinot Gris, like the crab, I could have been content spending the rest of my time at Tonka just eating smoked trout on the edible leaves however not to be constrained, we moved on to other offerings.

There are a plethora of items to entice you from the "Smaller" menu so we found ourselves sucked into a vortex of sorts where the only way to escape was to gorge and just hope that our stomachs would accommodate what was being offered. My favourite dish came next, the tuna tartare ($22) with rice poppadoms, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi. Pomegranate and tuna are natural pairs and I am surprised that I do not see it on menus more often. The kitchen delivered an amazing dish which not only complemented the wine brilliantly but this was also the highlight of my dining experience. We couldn't resist the Punjabi masala lamb cutlets next ($8/each) which were moist and devoid of fat however the masala is what stood out. Indian spices which really made the dish and certainly made the meat to taste even better - would have been best paired with a red wine so a 2010 Wedgetail Pinot Noir ($88) from the Yarra Valley in Victoria was ordered and quickly poured for us. This provided a bridge of sorts that had me chewing the remaining remnants of meat off the bone and disguising my inappropriate tongue action from the other diners who fortunately did not notice my ungentlemanly behavior. 

Tonka, Melbourne
The view towards Flinders Street
Char-grilled Mooloolaba prawns from Queensland ($10/each) with black pepper and kaffir lime dressing provided yet another bridge from the "Smaller" menu to the "Bigger" adult-oriented list of delights and reminded me that despite my love affair with smaller tapas-like tastes and offerings, there was another world to explore. This is where Jonathan's consulting was called upon. With so many attractive menu options, we didn't know just how much we would be able to pack in our already engorged stomachs so thinking that the bill should be damned, he suggested the remainder of the items that we happily agreed to order.

What was truly convenient was that the restaurant allowed us to order half-servings of items from the "Larger" menu so that more tastes could be experienced. A half order of lamb curry ($19) with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds appeared with another half order of Rajasthani duck ($19), cucumber, mint and buffalo curd. Not discounting the lamb, but I really enjoyed the duck and when matched with the mint and buffalo curd, the "Wow!" factor was experienced. We couldn't help but be talked into the Thirlmere corn fed chicken ($29) direct from the tandoor, an authentic clay oven that the restaurant has on-site to authentically cook not only chicken, but also Hiramasa kingfish which was also available on the menu that I regret not trying. Along with fried cauliflower ($8) and serves or rice ($6) and naan bread ($6) we enjoyed a flavoursome feast and managed to vanquish the the bottle of Wedgetail Pinot Noir with no problems whatsoever.

Throughout this three hour ad-hoc dining and feasting extravaganza, the various personalities providing service remained consultative, witty, chatty and good humoured. The setting allowed us to escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the CBD with food and beverage providing fuel for good conversation and debate. I think we managed to solve half of the world's problems just over the tuna tartare and if that is not noteworthy, nothing is. I really like what Tonka delivers, both the fare and the professionalism are standouts and I certainly look forward to returning to happily to take on the rest of the menu but to also watch this place evolve from strength to strength.

Tonka, Melbourne

20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9650 3155
My Rating: 15.75/20
Service: 4.25/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3.75/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 70% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Tonka.

Tonka on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 July 2013

Bowery to Williamsburg - Swanky

When I read that a "NYC Eatery" opened in the CBD the other week called Bowery to Williamsburg my first thought was that the Mexican craze was now officially dead and buried like WorkChoices but that to my shagrin, "American" style food was on the rise. To the point, when I think of a New York City style eatery, my first thoughts are big and bold sandwiches with a Jewish flare in a swanky yet professional environment. When the name of the restaurant makes reference to a train line that runs from the heart of Manhattan to Queens, it made me even more intrigued so it was with a fair amount of curiosity that I turned up to this place for lunch with one other.

Bowery to Williamsburg, Melbourne
Philly Cheesesteak, Macaroni & Cheese, Pretzels, Dill Pickle
The reputation of Bowery to Williamsburg proceeds itself as it comes from the pedigree of the Hardware Societe, one of the more popular laneway eateries if you believe Urbanspoon and of course my good self as I love their French-inspired breakfasts along with the warm and personable service. Following in the footsteps of its successful brother, this is another laneway haunt, within rolling distance downhill from Coda Restaurant and when we arrived we were not only greeted outside by service but advised that there would be a short wait for a table inside since that was the preference on this cold winter day. A short wait turned out to be a matter of seconds and we were happily escorted to the one long communal table inside within full view of the active and controlled food preparation area. I immediately thought that I could have been resting my arse at a Jewish deli in Manhattan as I spied the Kosher Salt, Lox (the Yiddish word for salmon) and of course bagels and a schmear of cream cheese on offer on the blackboard. Unobtrusive music plays in the background and the human machines behind the display counter creates some very attractive looking sandwiches judging from what others were eating off wooden boards next to me with a smile.

After having a very average "Philly Cheese Steak" at Misty's Diner last week, I couldn't help but order the "lunch special" which was just that. If anything was going to define a NYC inspired eatery in Melbourne it was that. Sure, I was tempted by the lox but I was intrigued if anything by this special offering. A side of macaroni and cheese, which would be served in a glass jar along with half of a garlic dill pickle accompanied the cheesesteak sandwich in a very reasonable time after placing the order. I was immediately pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, by the volume of this sandwich, a bulbous artifact that had cheese permeating from all directions and as I would find, effectively constraining the steam inside the sandwich which kept the tender morsels of steak moist. There was a fair amount of sweet capsicum and nothing bizarre that overwhelmed the trio of primary tastes. The bread was fresh and I was not only content but impressed. The macaroni and cheese was creamy and a well balanced accompaniment to the feature and when a bite of the crispy dill pickle was taken, there was not only a crunch, but a taste of garlic and the texture of a pickle that I would expect to find in New York, not one of the silly sweet and sour pickles that are so commonly sold in Australia. In fact, the only place I have readily found true garlic deli dills is Costco besides of course Bowery to Williamsburg.

The coffee was so good that I had two cups and enjoyed languishing at this place having pleasant conversation not only with my guest but also with service. Although the cafe has only been open a few weeks you would never know this and the impression at least that quality products has been flogged for some time is well pronounced. This is one of those laneway cafes that I personally will look forward to visiting when the weather improves as there is outdoor seating however heatlamps will warm your cold and tired bones and it does provide a different perspective albeit there is no funky music on offer. This is one of the few times I have been excited to find a "cheap and cheerful" place that I look forward to returning to.

Bowery to Williamsburg, Melbourne

Bowery to Williamsburg
16 Oliver Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9077 0162
no web site
My Rating: 14/20
Service: 3.5/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 3.5/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5
Comment: Cash Only, Open for breakfast and lunch Monday - Friday

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 94% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Bowery To Williamsburg.

 Bowery to Williamsburg on Urbanspoon

Mart 130 - Albert Park Railway Station Converted

I really like discovering places in and around Melbourne that reuse buildings that have a fair amount of history which in turn has a story to tell. If you happen to come across Mart 130, located at the Albert Park tram stop on Canterbury Road in Middle Park you would think of it as a little innocuous cafe conveniently located actually at stop 130 on the route 96 tram line en route to St Kilda, but it is so much more.

Mart 130 is housed within the former Albert Park railway station. Like how Beacon Cove Restaurant and Pizzeria reuses the old Port Melbourne train station, the old train station in Middle Park originally opened in 1860 and was decommissioned as a physical station in 1987 when the railway line was converted to light rail. Oddly Albert Park was originally called "Butts" and it was renamed as Albert Park in 1872. 

I like this cafe because it isn't far from the Albert Park Driving Range, so it is convenient to hit a bucket of balls and then wander down to Mart 130 and get breakfast and coffee in the morning when it suits. There is a vibrant inside dining area but also a peaceful long and wide balcony which overlooks Albert Park. Not unlike the other times I have frequented this place, it is always busy and curiously it is popular with tourists. How so many large groups of tourists that arrive via the 96 Tram brandishing high end cameras found about this place is a mystery to me as I came across it quite by chance when I was out exploring the area by food after smashing some golf balls.

Although Mart 130 is somewhat known for its large breakfasts, including corn fritters which I can attest to the wonderful flavour and large portions, on my last visit, I tried the split pea and ham soup and also a pressed sausage on brioche from the limited lunch menu. The soup had not only a fair amount of ham, but was rich and the perfect winter warmer. The sandwich of sorts arrived at the same time as the soup however I didn't have any trouble powering through either. The sausage brioche not only looked nice on the plate, but it was also tasty.

This place is a spot that should be on your breakfast calendar. It is quite easy to kick back here and enjoy the newspaper, coffee and some quiet time or also make it a meeting place considering the convenience of the tram stop being at its doorstep. Wait times can be long for a table considering the popularity of this place however all good things do come to those who wait.

Mart 130, Middle Park, Melbourne

Mart 130
107 Canterbury Road, Middle Park VIC 3206
(03) 9690 8831
no web site
My Rating: n/a
Service: n/a
Ambiance: n/a
Quality: n/a
Value For Money: n/a
Comment: Cash Only

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 89% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Mart 130.

Mart 130 on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Misty's Diner - Not Jack Rabbit Slim's

There were a few choices in and around Melbourne that had a perceived "American" theme which needed to be pursued on the Fourth of July, which was the day the American's celebrate independence of sorts. I thought it would be appropriate to give Misty's Diner on High Street in Prahran a try as it was also possible to get your motorcar washed next door in the adjoining facility.

When you enter this diner, it is like stepping back into time onto the set of Happy Days but on steroids. I was joking with a mate at the Collingwood-Carlton match last night that the Hungry Jack's at Wynyard station in Sydney has been decorated with 50's memorabilia, photos of Elvis, Marilyn, old American license plates: a supposed reference to a more innocent and bygone era where us human beings were not attached to smartphones, Facebook and R&B. Given that I did not see a patron in Misty's Diner, let alone ever in that Hungry Jack's that has lived through the 50's and 60's, we are left to romanticise this era and relive it in brightly coloured booths with a menu of pure comfort food that can easily be used as an answer as to why there is an obesity problem not only here but in the United States.

After entering the diner, I immediately noticed the volume of rubbish left behind on tables that had previously been vacated. It was lunch time service and it looked rather busy however a fair amount of the tables were dirty which was off-putting  We were greeted with "how can I help you?" by the server in costume. A vexing question to be asked in the diner. Was I there to deposit a cheque like I did at the bank some days past? No. Was I there to discuss why my power bill went up by $500 this quarter? I think not. What did we want to achieve here? Oh, I remember now... lunch. So I asked for a table for two and we were taken past the warzone of filthy tables and around the corner next to the kitchen and seated in a corridor of sorts that provided access to the car wash.

We were left to our own devices for about twenty minutes to read the indulgent menus and fortunately for me, I was able to watch a replay of the Andy Murray match at Wimbledon as the television was within eyesight. When service finally came around to take our orders, I thought an "Alabama Slamma" alcoholic beverage would be a good way to start, along with some buffalo wings with a side of bleu cheese dressing. The Philly Cheesesteak also spoke to me as I had not had one in years, and it certainly wasn't anything close to being authentic back in the day so I was excited knowing that one was on offer.

Whilst waiting for food, a few other patrons were seated in the corridor next to us and after being ignored for a while, they got up and left. It would seem they were not interested in pleasant conversation like we were and of course the tennis so given the wait not only for service but also food, which was confirmed by the waitress later as she didn't actually write down our order when she originally took it.

When the access door to the car wash began to open and close repeatedly and strangely the people would move from the car wash to the kitchen via the thoroughfare that we were sitting in, we would be hit by a blast of air but it would be forewarned because of the squeaky door. An early warning alarm in a way.

The "Alabama Slamma" was pretty much pure tomato juice and fortunately I ordered a side of salsa which I used to liven this drink up. Yes, I put salsa in my drink. I didn't taste any vodka. I am not saying that there wasn't any in this specialty drink but the tomato juice certainly disguised the meager shot, if that, which was added. The buffalo wings were in fact very small chicken wings with little meat on them. Certainly not the huge wings that you can purchase at Costco, and I reflected that I could prepare something much better (and cheaper) at home. There was nothing special about the bleu cheese dressing and appeared to be mass produced.

Although the Philly Cheesesteak was decent enough, it did not "wow!" me. The side of chilli fries was bland and I needed to use the side of salsa that I was using to liven up my alcoholic drink to add some zing to the American style chilli. I had high expectations for big tastes considering the carbohydrates that I was consuming and I was left feeling that I just ate for the sake of eating. Although the ambiance is amusing and the theme, like visiting the Dracula cabaret needs to be experienced at least once in your life, I will remain haunted by the characters of Happy Days that star on the wall that I was forced to look at when my eyes did not find my food, dining companion or tennis that exciting. These are images that would scare children. Richie, Potsie, Ralph and the Fonz all look like they survived a dose of radiation after a nuclear attack and not even the confectionery on display by the till could get me to stick around long after it was decided that drinks and conversation should be enjoyed elsewhere.

The scene from Pulp Fiction comes to mind when Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace are both eating at Jack Rabbit Slims when the discussion turns to the quality of a $5 shake. You will not find anything that cheap at Misty's Diner and despite the comfort food and costumes, you will be left with a laugh or two along with a memorable experience, however for me, they will be for all of the wrong reasons.

Misty's Diner, High Street, Prahran

Misty's Diner
103-105 High St., Prahran VIC 3181
(03) 9510 1959
My Rating: 11/20
Service: 2/5
Ambiance: 3.25/5
Quality: 2.75/5
Value For Money: 3/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 71% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon liked Misty's Diner.

 Misty's Diner on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Hell Of The North - Fitzroy Freezing Over

What originally intrigued me about Hell of the North was the name of this restaurant and bar in Fitzroy. I was originally sucked into the grasp of this well designed space by the name and the name alone. I originally thought the name made some sort of bizarre reference to hell because the venue was a challenge to get to by road being located on Greeves Street with "No Entry" signs posted both on one entrance on Smith Street and also from the other direction on Gore Street. An enigma as such that fortunately Google Maps and the driver were able to decrypt and I reckon if the Apple Maps application was being used we would have ended up in hell itself - Docklands. It was during my first visit when we sat at the bar and drank Charlie Sheen inspired cocktails. It was when I quizzed the affable lady behind the bar as to what the name of the premises was all about as surely everything that is found behind the stately yellow door that you open bares no resemblance to hell but actually quite the opposite. I was advised that this place shares its name with a bicycle race that is held on Easter Sunday in France which is famous for its cobblestones and treacherous terrain. So not only did I become educated whilst knocking back cocktails but I gained a new found appreciation for bicycle racing and I didn't have to spend days watching it on the television. I can continue to devote my time to criticising our national cricket team instead.

My second visit to Hell Of The North was a planned systematic affront on what I considered some of my favourite places to go in Fitzroy as I was entertaining a blue-blooded cockney that was visiting from Sydney. His missus was at a conference and being the true mate that I am committed my afternoon and evening to not only show him some of the out of the way places in the area but to also get him pissed. Nice guy I am. Knowing that the menu would suit this gentleman, I once again threw open the yellow door with the intention to eat but also knowing that the restaurant and bar would impress.

Although we considered the "Let Us Feed You" option ($65 p/p) we decided to pick and choose from the menu. The cold day demanded that a French Onion soup ($12) would start us off. This was not only hearty but rich and full of flavour which was complemented by a perfect amount of cheese that was in turn part of every spoonful that entered my mouth. There was a great balance of onion and cheese which made this one of the better soups that I have had in a while. Beef Tartare ($17) was the next starter of sorts to follow. The raw meat was not bastardised by any bizarre spices or an unholy trinity of interpretation but instead it was a basic yet brilliant serve that ultimately highlighted the professionalism of the staff who noticed we were running out of bread and brought another round without having to be asked. We were left to drink beer, eat like false prophets and converse in this very attractive space that also includes an outside terrace for dining and drinking.

Along with a quantity of alcohol that even Charlie Sheen would be jealous of, we both ordered the Ox Cheek ($26) with Pommes Puree and a Bordelaise sauce. The highly concentrated and rich sauce was a natural pair with the cheek, which was so tender that it could be cut with not only the back of the knife, which is always a good test, but also your fork. The cockney gentleman that I was with is highly critical of cheek and I had a certain amount of satisfaction in the end that he enjoyed it also. We pondered the intriguing wine list but remained faithful to beer given the early hour.

On both occasions that I found myself at Hell of the North I was impressed by the service and the relaxed but professional attitude. On the first visit I got the opportunity to inspect the sommelier's wine book, enscribed with a pencil and is timeless as the wind. The stories that can be told if those pages could only talk just adds to the allure of this place.

Although you will not find ice cubes in hell or Fitzroy freezing over any time soon, this place is a great escape from the mortal world where you can be excused from being lead from light into darkness.

Hell of the North, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Hell of the North
135 Greeves St., Fitzroy VIC 3065
(03) 9417 6660
My Rating: 15.25/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 93% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Hell of the North.

Hell of the North on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dainty Sichuan + Ganache Chocolate, South Yarra - Oil Spill

I fondly remember reading Epicure in The Age a few months ago. There was a rambling yet detailed article describing the restaurants in and around Melbourne that are perceived to prepare and sell spicy food. Combined with this knowledge and the fact that a few people have suggested that Dainty Sichuan in South Yarra is the place to be, I organised a meeting there with the hope that I would shed tears and be overwhelmed by the flow of phlegm from my orifices.

Heavy wooden tables with a hot plate built into the centre welcome you after you are taken into the dining room. I immediately thought of turning the hot plate on since the control was near my left hand and frying the phone that was placed on the plate but I thought better of it, even though it would have amused me. We had a table that was near the window so I could not only keep an eye out for the parking ranger (there is a one hour parking limit) but also spy on the pedestrians on the footpath on Toorak Road when the conversation became tedious. Service is quick to deliver not only a small list of "specials" but also a photo-menu that could be confused with Go the F*** to Sleep by Adam Mansbach. Neither one of us particularly liked looking at the photos of the dishes being flogged as they were not works of art in any sense of the word and I really think that the photos themselves distract from the experience. Trying to segregate the bias we had for no doubt the ugly dishes in the photos, we decided on a three prong attack that would attempt to best judge the chilli flavour.

Wontons in Chicken Soup ($11.80) was first delivered. Huge bowls of soup that contained upward of twenty wontons each made for a substantial first course of sorts. There was no hint of chilli in the soup and this was intended because this soup was meant to short-circuit the chilli inherent in the other two dishes that were ordered. Kong Pao Prawns ($12.80) and Chongqing Chilli Chicken ($27.80) rounded out our order. There were six small prawns bathed in a bed of chilli, onions, peanuts and Sichuan pepper. This had a "two chilli" rating which meant it should have been moderately hot and spicy but it just didn't affect me in any way. The prawns are quickly consumed and you are left to pick at the peanuts and the onions with your chopsticks. There is a substantial amount of chilli oil that does provide some flavour but I expected more. The Chongqing Chilli Chicken was avertised as a "Chef's Choice" and it was served on a large plate in a bed of dry chillis. The chicken was served as small morsels, think KFC's popcorn chicken just with two bones running through the meat. This dish had a "three chilli" rating which indicated it was going to be as hot as hell - or as hot as it could possibly get however once again, I didn't find a substantial amount of heat. In fact, I found the chicken as dry as the chilli pods and after a while it became tedious to bother removing the chicken from the small bones. The Chicken Wonton Soup provided a needed distraction and although there was nothing complex about it, a void was filled and a sense of balance was achieved between the mildly hot dish and parity.

Despite my disappointment with my senses not being irradiated, I want to return and try some of the other dishes, like one of the hot pots, just because they have more of a potential to carry more spice. Their "Spicy Soup" along with some of the other venues in the area that can be frequented as an aside makes the journey to Dainty Sichuan worth it.

Needing to cleanse my palate I walked about 100m toward Chapel Street and gave Ganache Chocolate my custom next. Although they do not have a substantial selection of desserts, chocolate and of course macarons as say Burch & Purchese or Luxbite, which are both in the area, I can't resist their raspberry chocolate mousse. When I am in the area, I  go out of my way to get one of these lush and soft indulgences, that or enjoy a hot chocolate in either their small yet comfortable dining room or even more secluded parlour room at the rear of the building. I have been known to drive an hour out of Melbourne to the Chocolate Mill north of Daylesford to get a hot chocolate as the one on offer there is about as perfect as you will find however Ganache Chocolate does come close and ultimately saves some petrol and time in the process.

Dainty Sichuan
176 Toorak Rd  South Yarra VIC 3141
(03) 9078 1686
no web site
My Rating: 12.5/5
Service: 2.75/5
Ambiance: 3.25/5
Quality: 3/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5
Comment: One hour parking on the street so beware of the parking ranger. 1% surcharge on cards however there is an ATM in the restaurant.

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 86% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Dainty Sichuan. A further 84% like Ganache Chocolate located at 250 Toorak Road, South Yarra.

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon Ganache Chocolate on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 July 2013

Harbour Town Hotel + Costco - The Shadow of the Wheel

It was with a sense of disbelief that I saw the Southern Star "Wheel of Misfortune" turn the other day at Docklands. Not because it is back in operation, but for other insidious reasons no doubt. I am surprised that it did not just decide to roll down the Tullamarine Freeway just because it is tired of being inactive. It casts a shadow over the Harbour Town Hotel in the Docklands Harbour Town precinct and is supposed to be a draw card to not only this area in general, but also to this pub. It will be interesting to observe what happens when it ultimately goes back into service and whether or not the public will flock to this much maligned area.

Before taking on Costco which is next door, I called into the Harbour Town Hotel with the hope of getting a pub lunch and a pint of beer. Upon entry, you are affronted by a sign that says "please wait to be seated" in this pub that reminded me of a RSL just without any pokies in sight. Service escorted me to a table near the window, which is where the other patrons had been seated. One thing that irks me about service in general is when they assume a diner is interested in a view, in this case the outlook was to a construction site and gantries constructed over the walkway near the merry-go-round at the base of the Southern Star wheel. It isn't exactly the view from Lui Bar or Vue de Monde at Rialto Tower so I don't understand why exactly everyone was being wrangled into this area. As 90% of the dining room was vacant, I simply just moved my tired and thirsty old bones elsewhere. I was a bit annoyed that despite the bar area being long, you couldn't sit at it and were instead forced to dine with a perceived sense of civility at a table. Despite being taken to a seat, the patron still needs to get up and order food and drinks at the bar. Ultimately the food is brought to you however it just seems like a process from hell.

After consulting the list of daily specials and other things that were being displayed on the LED televisions, I ordered a chicken parma. There was a substantial amount of breaded chicken and in the end I did not finish it all just because it was so excessive. Unlike the beautiful chicken that I received at Porgie + Mr Jones recently, this was a bit dry and there was only a small amount of sauce however most would be satisfied with the size of this dish and the accompanying salad.

Besides the Nandos and the Coffee Club, there really is not much dining choice in this area. Normally I would just have a hot dog and drink ($2.50 with as many drink refills that you want) from the Costco membership warehouse however on this trip to do my monthly shopping, I wanted something a bit more substantial. The truth be told, there were some value-for-money lunch "deals" at the Harbour View Hotel and it may be a popular place in the evening to watch the footy on the weekend however would I go out of my way to visit this place if I was not intending to provide custom to Costco? I certainly would not.

Costco Docklands
Bulk buying is addictive at Costco Docklands
It also amazes me still that there are so many people that do not know what Costco is. It is a membership-only warehouse where you can buy items in bulk to put it simply. Individual membership costs $60/year and after the first time you shop there you will have saved that amount of money - I know that I did. I purchase a fair amount of liquor, non-alcoholic drinks (just picked up a slab of Cherry Coke for $9.99) and even white goods from the warehouse. The Hoover that I purchased broke down after six months and Costco was happy to take it back after I wheeled it into the warehouse dirty, without a box or a receipt and issued me with a store credit - no questions asked. The return policy is very American and is truly amazing. There is also a substantial meat and produce section where not only prime cuts of beef (think Waygu) and whole ducks that are on offer but also freshly made cakes, bread and fresh seafood. You can't go wrong with twelve freshly shucked coffin bay oysters for $11 either. Besides my love-affair with Costco (sometimes I will walk there from Southbank just to get a duck) there is a cafeteria of sorts that sells pizza, churros, salads and of course the aforementioned $2.50 hot dog with all you can drink soda. That has to be one of the best value-for-money quick and easy lunches in Melbourne and it is usually what I have before taking on the hordes of shoppers in the warehouse.

You can get a"guest pass" at Costco on Monday-Thursday if you want to check out the warehouse. Be aware that Costco checks membership cards if you try to park in their parking structure on Friday-Sunday.

Harbour Town Hotel, Docklands
Harbour Town Hotel
9/12 Star Circus, Docklands VIC 3008
(03) 8080 9800
My Rating: n/a
Service: n/a
Ambiance: n/a
Quality: n/a
Value For Money: n/a

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 64% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Harbour Town Hotel. A further 90% like the cafeteria inside Costco.

Harbour Town Hotel on Urbanspoon Costco on Urbanspoon