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WHEN it comes to throwing a lunch party, Melbournians sure know how to do it bigger than anyone else. Imagine, over 1,500 diners filling up a 530 metre-long table to create "the world's longest lunch" at the recently concluded Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
It was just one of the highlights of the 17-day long dining marathon touted as Australia's top food and wine event. Other distractions for the food-obsessed included a pop-up artisan bakery and bar set up on the busy banks of the Yarra River headed by baking superstars Justin Gellatly (London's Bread Ahead) and Eric Kayser (Maison Kayser, Paris); masterclasses featuring some of the world's better known chefs including Ruth Rogers (River Café, UK), Jeremy Charles (Raymonds, Canada) and Singapore's Janice Wong (2am:dessertbar); plus classes on cheese-making, pickling and cocktail mixing.
But there's a lot more to Melbourne than just the microcosm of gastro-delights packed into one space. The city's ever-changing F&B landscape is full of gems just waiting to be discovered - all you need is an empty stomach and a nose to sniff them out.
This is one restaurant that has made an impression since its opening with its bold, innovative cuisine. Little wonder as chef owner Ryan Flaherty had clocked in stints at the Fat Duck, El Bulli and the Laboratory of Arzak. The talented and affable young chef took the bold step of going solo last year with Mister Jennings, and an even bolder step by setting up shop in Richmond, a suburb not quite known for posh dining.
Chef Flaherty has one word to describe his cuisine - reflective. "It reflects the season, my mood, my current staff, my hangover, my clientele, and it's very reactive to everything that is going on around me," he elaborates. One certainly sees a reflection of his time in Spain in his composition of crab, salmorejo, chilli, and black pepper. Carpaccio is given an Australian twist with by using frozen kangaroo served with wasabi and refreshing nashi pears. Chef Flaherty's cooking isn't just about clever plating of different ingredients on a dish. He understands the simplest is often the trickiest to prepare, and here again, yet another bold step - to offer just a plain but perfectly grilled baby barramundi, served with just lemon and parsley.
Burch and Purchese Sweet Studio
Desserts don't come with more complex combinations of flavours and textures than those handcrafted at Burch and Purchese Sweet Studio, run by husband and wife team Cath and Darren Purchese. British-born Darren is backed by an impressive resume, having worked at prestigious establishments such as the Savoy, Goring and Brown's hotels in London. His trademark treats are created by layering sponges, jellies, cream, mousses and spreads, in brilliant colours, and in a myriad of flavours.
Take, for example, Coconut, Passion fruit, Ginger, Mint - a delectable tiny tower of salted oat and ginger crumble, passion fruit curd, coconut "caviar", mint jelly, passion fruit jelly, coconut mousse, brilliant white chocolate velvet spray and white chocolate and mint wafer. Each creation is available either as a whole cake or deconstructed versions in 130ml clear acrylic tubes which beautifully show off the cake layers.
Gewurzhaus Herb and Spice Merchants
The heady scent of mixed spices hits you even before you open the door to the Gewurzhaus Herb and Spice Merchants shop. Home chefs will get lost in the wide range of spices, salts, sugars, herbs and peppers available here. The variety of salts from around the world is certainly impressive as these include black lava sea salt and the highly prized fumée de sel (around S$50 for 168g). You can also take home ready-mixed and milled blends - the shop has over 100 of these, freshly prepared on site from whole ingredients. A packet of the very complex ras el hanout will take the leg-work out of getting the right mix of spices for the tajine, and what about replacing normal cocoa with Mayan chilli chocolate spice for that extra kick in cakes, fudges and cookies?
The Town Mouse Bar and Restaurant
Although this hip eatery opened just over two years ago, it has already garnered over a dozen awards including the Conde Nast Gold Standard and a chef's hat from Australia's The Age Good Food Guide. Heading the kitchen team at The Town Mouse is New Zealander Dave Verheul who had worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK such as The Savoy Grill and The Fat Duck before moving Down Under. His food is modern Australian with a small menu offering tapas-style dining and interesting combinations begging to be tried. Standout dishes include goat's cheese profiterole, caraway, thyme and honey; heirloom tomatoes, tofu curd, gazpacho, basil and sesame; and slow-roasted salt grass lamb shoulder, vadouvan and charred yoghurt.
- The writer was in Melbourne as a guest of Tourism Victoria and Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines flies to Melbourne 28 times weekly, visit www.singaporeair.com/melbourne for more details
Cutting edge cuisine by the lake
A SHORT drive from Melbourne will take you to the unspoiled surroundings of the Lake House - an award-winning hotel in the town of Daylesford that, as the name suggests, offers a postcard setting of lush tranquil greenery and a scenic lake. The property is sprawled over six acres (2.4 hectares) of never-ending gardens and forest and is the perfect place to indulge your inner nature-seeker, but we are here to check out the hotel's equally acclaimed restaurant.
Owners Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker started Lake House some 30 years ago, and are credited with reviving the local economy by encouraging farmers in the area to grow and supply specialty produce. A regular guest on Masterchef Australia, culinary director Alla has always insisted on buying local wherever possible, using produce from the hotel's own gardens, with menus changing according to the season.
At dinner, the latest harvest is outlined on the front page of the menu: rainbow chard, red and chiogga beets, zucchini flowers, quinces and medlars, Sommerlad heritage chickens, Sher Wagyu, netted yabbies and plenty more. Any of these could end up on your plate, and reading the list is the perfect "amuse-bouche" to whet our appetites.
The food coming out of Chef Alla's kitchen has been described as "cutting edge, modern Australian". The eight-course tasting menu showcases innovative elements of fusion that are restrained and never overkill. Veal tartare and mojama (cured tuna) is served with bonito and nori for an added touch of umami to a deliciously simple dish. Next is locally netted yabbies, so fresh it can be eaten on its own but the accompanying smoked trout jelly lends a pleasant smoky flavour to the natural sweetness of the shellfish.
Bug agnolotti, on the other hand, is best eaten without the sour and overly salty kimchi that overpower the delicate pasta stuffed with Moreton bay "bugs" or slipper lobster. The slow-cooked pork belly, which is tender but over-salty, doesn't cut it either.
The standout dish, though, would have to be the tempura quail in nori. One bite into the deep-fried maki-sized quail wrapped in seaweed and the crispness gives way to flavourful juice oozing out of the meat. It's also pretty to look at, dotted with little blobs of wasabi and umeboshi as condiments.
The pre-dessert is a cheekily-named Playtime platter, with refreshing palate-cleansing plum shot, crunchy strawberry granite with white chocolate sorbet and a bulb of toasted marshmallow on a stick sitting in a pretty pot of flowers. Just the thing to prepare us for the next wondrous combination of tastes and textures.
The final course for the evening, "a summer ramble" brings to mind a berry-foraging afternoon in the woods, digging through the chocolate bark, mossy green pistachio sponge, crumbly brown pralines and honeycomb, and rich honey ice-cream to arrive at the sweet blackberries and black currants.
Considering where we were staying for the night, it was a fitting finish not only to a scrumptious dinner but also an inducement to do some rambling of our own the day after.