Consistently rated as one of the most liveable cities in the world, Melbourne is sophisticated, cool and urbane, a city whose European charm is a backdrop for a melting pot of cultures. Melbourne’s renaissance began in the mid-1980s with a series of infrastructural improvements that included the refurbishing of heritage buildings, gardens and streetscapes, and the creation of public spaces that encourage an outdoorsy lifestyle.
The city’s network of atmospheric laneways is a secret lair of chic cafés, speakeasies, and vibrant restaurants serving up creative cuisine. Food is at the very heart of the city. Since the arrival of early European settlers, the city has embraced a variety of cultures, and with these, diverse food traditions; it is hardly surprising to encounter a blonde-haired blue-eyed Aussie carefully shaping dainty dim sum behind the glass window of a Chinese restaurant, or a Chinese-Australian turning out perfect meat pies in a traditional Aussie pie shop.
With a bounty of fresh produce sourced from the paddocks, farmlands and vineyards of regional Victoria, and top chefs passionate about what they dish up, it’s no wonder people rave about Melbourne’s food scene. On a recent visit that coincided with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, a celebration of exquisite eats and top drops, I sampled the best of Victoria’s cuisine, and witnessed first-hand the hard-working ethos and passion that drive the city’s chefs.
GOOD ENOUGH FOR MUM
An understanding of the city’s heritage is essential before enjoying its bounty. Instead of signing up for a standard tour of staple attractions, I enlisted the help of Daniel Platt, an expert guide and native Melbournian, who runs Localing Private Tours, an outfit true to its tagline, ‘Tours for people who don’t like tours’. With Localing, there’s no formulaic script repeated day in, day out, and no whistle to attract your attention. Localing prides itself on tailoring intimate tours based on a customer’s area of interest.
Clad in shorts, a T-shirt and sunnies, Platt met me on Bourke Street, in the city’s retail and shopping precinct. Melburnians have surveyor Robert Hoddle to thank for the neat, grid-like layout of the city’s central business district (CBD). The Hoddle grid, designed by the surveyor in 1837, features streets that stretch east-west parallel to the Yarra River, and run north-south perpendicular to the waterway. Its simple geometric layout makes the city easy to navigate.
“The gold boom of the 1850s put Melbourne on the map. Waves of migrants – Italians, Scots, French, among them – poured into the city, bringing with them their unique cultures. Back then, it was a one-way journey. You came and did not leave.” The legacy of the early settlers and migrants are evident in the city’s eclectic architecture of Romanesque and neo-classical buildings.
Platt walked me through several of the city’s laneways, once neglected alleys that are now a hotbed of creativity, and a fashionable place to be. The laneways once supported the main boulevards of the inner city grid, and were used primarily as delivery lanes for service vehicles. Today, these side streets are abuzz with activity – graffiti colour its walls, and hole-in-the-walls offer everything from supper to spirituality. “It was once an offence to carry a spray can on public transport, but now, street artists have room for expression. Their art has become part of Melbourne’s attraction as an edgy and cool city.”
Founded on the spirit of entrepreneurship, Melbourne is bursting with charm and character. “Sydney is a one-nighter, but you take Melbourne home to mum,” Platt summed up cheekily. He also told me that Nguyen, a Vietnamese family name, is the most common name in the phonebook, a fact that underlines the city’s vibrant multiculturalism!
ON THE BAR CRAWL
There are more than 150 bars, from small and intimate watering holes to swanky setups, in and around the CBD. Melbourne’s bar scene today is a far cry from the 40s, 50s and 60s, when pubs were considered the domain of the working man. Back then, pubs were shuttered at 6.00pm, and no one tarried over a drink. In fact, the working crowd would clock off at 5.00pm and rush down to the pub for what was known as the ‘six o’clock swill’ – downing pints as fast as they could before closing time! Needless to say, it did not make for a pretty sight.
These days, the city’s collection of bars and pubs are incredibly varied, with tantalising tipples to suit every taste, and, more importantly, the establishments stay open way past 6.00pm! I joined Kathy Deacon from Meltours on a three-hour romp through the city’s drinking establishments, tottering in and out of bars, sampling creative cocktails and exotic elixirs, all in the name of research.
At the opulent Gin Palace, a subterranean hideaway specialising in, as its name suggests, gin, guests can sample a list of over 200 labels from all around the world straight up, or in a martini. Not bold enough to drink it neat, I opted for one of their winning cocktails – the Summer Cup, a tasty tonic that consists of Finsbury Platinum infused with white tea and citrus peels. Light, fruity, and with just the barest of bites, the cocktail was a refreshing surprise, and a great choice for those unaccustomed to gin. Next door to the plush comforts of Gin Palace’s velvet sofas is Bar Ampere, its name alluding to its location above a power station. This bar stocks the largest collection of absinthe in the Southern Hemisphere!
We then headed to Bar Americano, a teeny-tiny standing-room-only café-bar, and waited to be admitted – only 10 people are allowed into the premises at any one time! And so, patrons need to wait to sample some of the fanciest cocktails the city has to offer. Oh, and if you need a pick-me-up after a round of drinks, they also pour espresso till 11.00pm. Next up was Chuckle Park Bar and Café situated in a narrow alley. This quirky spot reminiscent of someone’s backyard (replete with a caravan for a kitchen) offers no-frills cuisine and thirst-quenchers. Think pulled pork rolls, ice cold beers, and as an added bonus, cocktails served in jars.
The bar crawl wove through the laneways, and soon we were in Berlin! Or to be precise, Berlin Bar, one of the coolest hangouts in the city. This chic bar is split down the middle into – you guessed it – East and West Berlin, with drinks to match each side of the border. Sip on the West Berlininspired Kaffe Kapitän, a delightful combo of Kraken Rum, Kahlua, espresso and chocolate, or cross over to the East with Brandenburg Gate that combines bourbon with passion fruit, rhubarb and carrot juice. No bar jaunt would be complete without a trip to kitschy Madame Brussels, a rooftop cocktail bar kitted out in AstroTurf and pastel furniture, and named after a woman who once presided over a house of ill-repute. The menu at Madame Brussels lists cocktails bearing double entendres, with such tongue-in-cheek selections as the playfully christened Madame’s Fruity Double D Cups, a gin-spiked fruit punch.
AN ITALIAN AFFAIR
There’s no better cure for a hangover than a hearty meal. We were just days away from the reason for my being in Melbourne – Bank of Melbourne World’s Longest Lunch, the highlight of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. But first, I was scheduled to meet the maestro behind this year’s menu, and one of Australia’s leading authorities on Italian cuisine, celebrated chef Guy Grossi, whose food is inspired by a proud Italian heritage.
According to Grossi, the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s attracted thousands of migrants, lured by the prospect of a brighter future. This early wave of migrants included Italians, who introduced their culinary traditions of coffee, vino and pasta to Australia. Grossi’s father sailed to Australia in 1960, in search of greener pastures like the many Italians before him. Today, the Italian community is the second largest in Melbourne.
At Ombra, an intimate salumi bar run by award-winning Grossi, black and white prints of the chef’s family decorate the walls, and house-made salami, thick as arms, glisten invitingly in a display window. Brimming with vintage-chic, this cosy restaurant is inspired by the salumerie (meat and sausage shops) of Italy. Grossi, who owns several successful restaurants including the upscale Grossi Florentino, and the Cellar Bar, celebrates his heritage with a nod to the age-old culinary traditions of his forebears. Making the most of nature’s abundance, Grossi and his kitchen team dry, smoke and salt meats, as well as pickle, ferment and candy vegetables to feed hungry Melbournians who frequent Ombra for its rustic offerings.
Over platters of antipasti, Grossi explained his food philosophy to me. “The dishes I serve at my restaurants combine produce procured in a sustainable manner, and the customs and traditions of my Italian heritage. My chefs aren’t allowed to pick up the phone and order something without knowing what it is or where it comes from. Food that is sustainably produced tastes better, and is better for you as well – that is our emphasis.”
It was the first time the restaurateur would be cooking for the World’s Longest Lunch, which is in its 24th year. A team of 180 chefs tasked with prepping and putting the finishing touches to the three-course meal would be assisting Grossi on the day of the event. “It’s an absolutely amazing event and I’m so proud to be a part of this year’s festivities. Prep is already underway, and come Friday morning, everything will be shipped to Albert Park circuit for the final stages.”
Grossi’s three-course Italian-inspired menu employs locally-sourced sustainable produce. “I chose the dishes carefully without wanting to over-complicate things. It’s important to understand the nature of the event and make sure the food is not merely functional. Every little detail has to be well executed.”
THE FINALE APPROACHES
Waking up bright and early the next morning, I made my way to Krimper, an inviting café in a renovated warehouse on Guildford Lane. Its owner, Malaysian-born architect Mun Soon, converted the space from its former incarnation as a furniture factory into a gorgeous open-plan café with exposed brick walls, recycled timber furniture and factory floor chairs from the 1960s. Several of the building’s old features such as an old lift car were retained. While its interiors are Instagram-worthy, the food is superlative. On the menu are big brekkies, such as Bao-nedict, stout braised pork, sandwiched between fluffy bao (steamed bun), accompanied with poached eggs drizzled with hollandaise; and French toast served with caramelised peach halves and honey infused mascarpone. Sinking my teeth into the cushiony comforts of thick, French bread, I was in heaven! I kid you not, Krimper is my new favourite breakfast place in Melbourne, and the best bit: they open all day!
OFF TO THE WORLD’S LONGEST LUNCH
After a sumptuous breakfast, I headed to Albert Park circuit, home of the Australian Grand Prix and the venue for the 2016 Bank of Melbourne World’s Longest Lunch, the highlight of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
What started out as a modest programme visualised by Australian advertising legend Peter Clemenger in 1993, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has grown exponentially over the years, and now encompasses more than 200 events held across the state of Victoria. The festival is at the forefront of promoting Melbourne as a gastronomic hotspot, through its showcase of the abundant fresh produce, passionate producers, talented chefs, innovative restaurants, and expert winemakers of Victoria.
Always held at iconic locations in the city, including the Fitzroy Gardens and Melbourne Cricket Ground in previous years, the World’s Longest Lunch celebrates not only food, but the beauty of Melbourne and the region. This year’s setting was the spectacular Albert Park racetrack, which annually hosts the Australian Grand Prix.
On the track, a 500-metre long table covered in white linen, was being set for the midday proceedings. Immaculately dressed wait staff tirelessly arranged cutlery and tableware, making sure each item was perfectly positioned. Wine glasses were examined for fingerprints and polished till they gleamed, and complimentary boaters (to keep the sun at bay) were laid out at every place setting.
Diners, all 1,600 of them, began to trickle in, and took their places at the table, right in the middle of the racing track. Many came dressed to the nines, some bejewelled, and several in flamboyant costumes with chequered-flag designs to match the location! A marching band provided entertainment for the diners.
Wines were poured, menus were studied, and conversation flowed freely between sips of wine. The grand finale had finally arrived! Out from the tented makeshift kitchen, stepped 150 wait staff, balancing entreés of Tortellini Zucca, handmade pumpkin pasta, in a silken sage and nut butter sauce. The pasta starter, set the tone for the rest of the meal, and each course that followed seemed to top the one before.
Grossi, in chef’s whites, was a towering presence in the kitchen, tasting sauces and supervising the presentation of the dishes, making sure every component of the meal was worthy of a world-class event. After the first round of plates were cleared, out came the main, Pollastrino Arrosto, a baby chicken stuffed with risotto, accompanied by roasted carrots and whipped ricotta. The perfectly cooked chicken, was moist and fork-tender, and the risotto filling fragranced with herbs, creamy with just enough bite. Chef Grossi’s Latte, a delectable dessert with several milk-based components – wobbly buttermilk panna cotta, layered with crumbs of browned milk, and topped with a crunchy milk crisp, added the final flourish to the sumptuous three-course meal. Dessert was served with a bottle of artisanal cold brewed coffee, and a 2015 moscato from local wine label, Montevecchio.
TO ANOTHER YEAR
As diners clinked their glasses and toasted the end of another successful long lunch, I thought of all the hard work invested in the smooth running of the affair. I could not imagine the hours, days, weeks, and months of planning and preparation that had gone into orchestrating one of Melbourne’s most elaborate feasts. With simultaneous long lunches hosted across regional Victoria, pop-up events, and master classes in food and wine led by acclaimed chefs from across the globe, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival celebrates the fine produce of Victoria, and Australia.
Passionate chefs, amazing produce, and the love for the good life are the ingredients that make Melbourne a world-class destination for foodies. Whether you’re tucking into a bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) in the suburb of Richmond, slurping down noodles in Chinatown, or nibbling canolis in a pasticerria (pastry shop) in Carlton, Melbourne’s diverse flavours are top class.
TRAM TO MARKET
A three-hour guided excursion that celebrates the city’s iconic trams and markets, as well as its love for good food, the Tram to Market tour takes guests on a journey of exploration. Hop on a tram and discover the city’s best cafés, delis and restaurants along the way. The tour includes tastings at various stops en route, free city tram travel, and a tour of Melbourne’s legendary Queen Victoria Market. www.queeniesfoodtours.com
RAISE YOUR GLASS
Wine country is only a short drive from the CBD. Choose from these diverse regions that press and pour outstanding varietals.
YARRA VALLEY From Tuscan-style villas to tin sheds hidden amongst the vines, the region is home to more than 70 wineries that produce cool climate favourites. Pioneers like De Bortoli, and newbies such as Mandala Wines continue the tradition of fine wines with their innovative offerings.
MORNINGTON PENINSULA Known for its pristine beaches and green hinterlands, the peninsula is also famous for its boutique cellar doors. Here, passionate vintners grow grapes for the region’s acclaimed pinot noirs, and newer varietals like pinot grigio, pinot gris and shiraz.
GEELONG & THE BELLARINE Going back to its roots as the largest grape-growing region in Victoria, Geelong and the Bellarine is experiencing a revival with a list of award-winning wines. Meet the makers and celebrate the best of the harvest at Toast to the Coast, an annual event that brings together winning wines and exceptional eats. www.visitmelbourne.com
GETTING THERE AirAsia X and Indonesia AirAsia X fly to Melbourne from Kuala Lumpur and Bali. Go to www.airasia.com for details.