Recently in Te Anau, New Zealand, I came across a restaurant with an irrestible promotion:
Exactly what I've been looking for. Frankly, you just don't get enough sass on menus these days.
One can't describe flavours without words. Words themselves, especially when they're compiled en masse into books, take on very distinct flavours of their own: delicious, bland, even rancid. Hence this blog, which explores Melbourne restaurants and cafes, as well as a range of literature, is a blend of passions for words and flavours.
Recently in Te Anau, New Zealand, I came across a restaurant with an irrestible promotion:
74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea; 03 9530 0111
A certain Big Event last year has seen us take advantage of various reasons to celebrate. Cumulus Inc has served us well on two visits - one with a family group of 14 that was every bit the Special Occasion, and the second time just the two of us, no reservation, at the bar, enjoying the rapport with the waitstaff as much as the characuterie selection we demolished down to the last pickle.
Rockpool delivered the goods in terms of venue and atmosphere (and celebrity spotting, with Kylie Minogue there taking her parents out to dinner, Spanish underwear-model boyfriend in tow), but also a less-than-perfect service story that's still doing the rounds.
The apotheosis of the food side of our celebratory journey came this week with a long-awaited visit to Attica, the little restaurant that could.
Attica is Melbourne's only representative on the San Pellegrino World's 100 Best Restaurants, coming in at number 53. (Sydney has three restaurants, which seems a crazy representation of the Australian dining scene. Then again, one article mentions that the setting for Attica 'is no match for most of the other restaurants on the list', which tells you something about the prerequisites for inclusion). The fact that a suburban restaurant, tucked in a shopping strip just down the road from Ripponlea station, is punching it with the big guys from Paris, New York and Tokyo, says so much about the quality of food coming out of Ben Shewry's kitchen. The restaurant is also current holder of The Age's Restaurant of the Year gong, and last year Shewry took out Chef of the Year.
Shewry is disturbingly young for what he's achieved. Growing up in country New Zealand, he developed a taste for both cooking and foraging as a kid. He's famous for gathering wild-grown ingredients on a daily basis then incorporating them with remarkable success into the dishes at his restaurant. In interviews, he frequently refers to wanting to recreate the emotion and nostalgia of his childhood on the plates of his diners.
Tuesday night is budget night at Attica, as much as a five-course degustation for $95 represents a cheap night out. It's the night that Shewry and his team try out new creations, which are often riffs on dishes already settled on their regular tasting menus. An extra $70 gets you matching wines - not a bad choice when few of the by-the-glass options come in under $20.
In the high-dining stakes, bread and butter has become a restaurant's, well, bread and butter. At Attica, we received a rye sourdough, with a curl of butter churned from creme fraiche, and cold-smoked olive oil that's whipped at high speed then dusted with black salt. The result is a moussey confection that retains a strong olive flavour without the acidity that can come with the oil in its (more normal) liquid form.
When the reward is worth it, I'm not averse to some serious travel to get to good food. Seven hours on bus and train for a bucatini alla amatriciana in its hometown is one of my most memorable efforts. But an eight-hour drive for what is probably Australia's best gelato may just top that.
Bermagui is a small town on NSW's idyllic South Coast. Less well known than southern neighbours Eden and Merimbula, it is regardless a delightful, perfectly sized town boasting a compact, curving beach of gentle, aquamarine waves.
Or, more to the point, what isn't?
Menus can start to read like shopping lists, or a particularly deconstructionist piece of fiction, if they get too particular about listing every morsel involved in each plate of food.
Then again, it can be surprising when elements of a dish don't make it onto the menu at all. So there's a balance to be struck between being informative, allowing the diner to reasonably picture what they're ordering, and not presenting too much wank in an effort to show you know your produce.
At the moment, I'm loving Monsieur Truffe on Lygon St (a chilli hot chocolate will resolve any problem you choose to take there). I had a lunch special the other day of cornbeef hash salad, and was surprised - though not disappointed - to discover a fried egg atop the plate. It worked fine in the dish, but it's a particularly significant element to have overlooked in its description.
Sometimes it goes the other way: the menu is right, but the dish - or the chef - is new, and things get missed. Or, in the case of Little Henri, the whole place is new and everyone is still getting the hang of things. At a weekend brunch there, the table next to us received baked eggs with ham, gruyere and garlic crumble sans the meat. I'd ordered the lunch bruschetta: smashed broad beans and ricotta with a soft egg. When the dish arrived I was surprised (again!) to find roasted tomatoes plopped on top of each piece of toast, which had been blistered to a point of dominating smokiness. As I pondered the oddity of not including the strongest taste element in the dish, I realised that the promised soft egg was AWOL. Full credit to the staff: after I checked with the waiter, a perfectly poached egg was added post-haste, while my (exceptional) coffee was just as efficiently removed from the bill.
And what about the elaborately explained dishes that don't make it on to the menu - the specials delivered with breathless, rehearsed haste? I always find them a bit of a challenge - if the waiter explains them before you've looked at the menu, you don't know how they fit in with what else is on offer. If you've agonised over the menu already, adding more choice can be a disaster for the indecisive. Listening to a range of specials that takes a couple of minutes to deliver feels like an educative psychology experiment, testing your memory on verbal versus written memory.
Despite specials often being delivered with a boggling amount of detail, the price point isn't always there at the end. My thinking is that a special shouldn't take any longer to explain than a menu item would to read aloud. Particularly if it's something you're definitely not going to order - for example when a waiter launches into the life and times of tonight's oyster special, I'd love to interrupt, but you can tell they're in full flight and cutting them off would only cause a restart so they could find their place in the recital again. I understand why restaurants don't type them up daily, but printed specials really are easier, unless you're a world champion at that 'I went to the shops and bought a comb, a coffee, a newspaper, a tin of paint etc etc etc' game. I'd be all for waiters saying, 'On the specials tonight are a vegetarian entree, a duck main and a pizza. Would you like me to tell you more about any of those?'
It's a science, producing a menu - and an underrated one at that.
87 Burns Rd, St Andrews; 03 9710 1023
What better way to top off a sunny afternoon in the country than with some exceptional pizza? First incarnated as simply the St Andrews Pizza Shop, A Boy Named Sue has been generating quite the buzz from its humble home perched high above - but not so far from - the big city.
Rocking up as the last of the day's warmth flew moonward and the icy night air descended, St Andrews took on the aspect of a ski town as locals hovered around a brazier while awaiting takeaways, and travellers like us gradually divested of woollens as we settled into Sue's welcoming space and took in the smells of woodsmoke, dough and garlic.
Pomegranate seeds turn dishes - whether simple or already extravagant - into beautiful arrays. Here is Little Press's (the bar at The Press Club) individual Yarra Valley lamb cutlet, served with quinoa and sheep's milk yoghurt.
Perhaps not as tasty as the hapuka ceviche with avocado on toast, but far prettier.
Special occasions require special meals. And all the better if they incorporate special drinks too.
The latter was more than adequately taken of by The Everleigh, the kind of place that needs the excuse of a blow-out evening to get me through the door (and up the stairs). It's a gorgeous cocktail bar, taking the trade of bartending super seriously. I've chosen my words carefully there - the menu includes a quote from the 1930s deriding the term 'mixologist' and the notion that being a barman is a professional's job. Instead, it's a trade: that is, an area of craftsmanship.
And the Everleigh staff certainly mix an artful cocktail. All drinkers have the option of Bartender's Choice: you can talk to the staff about your drink preferences - much as you would discuss food at a chef's table dinner - and they'll suggest a suitable mix for your taste.
Taking advantage of this led me to a Detroit Daisy - a tart and hefty cocktail, made with Havana Reserva Jamaican rum, pomegranate juice, lime and mint - and a New York Sour - bourbon with lemon, sugar, egg white and a drizzle of red wine, lending it quite a curious flavour.
Suitably chipper, we headed across the road and up a bit to Cutler & Co, to see what wonders Andrew McConnell's crew could deliver to our evening.
By day, C&C is a warm space, with a dramatic black metal shelter bending over the central bar; muted greys; whitewashed brick wall and a fern garden along the back wall lending colour contrast. By night, while still effective and suitably swish, the lights are a little low, the volume a little high and some of the contrasting effect gets lost in the shadows. What doesn't get lost are the flouncy tulle light covers creating some of that muted effect. They've taken advantage of the building's depth to give each table a bit of space, so you can easily hear your dining partner - and not your neighbours - over the hubbub, although the same couldn't always be said of the waiters.
The first item to arrive at our table was a snack of something something tapioca with something something black sesame. It was brought in a hurry, placed in a hurry and explained in a hurry and the odd ingredient was all we managed to pick up between us.
I've always had great respect for waitstaff who can explain the same specials to dozens of customers with enthusiasm throughout the night. At the other end of the scale, waitstaff can seem almost embarrassed about lengthy dish descriptions, and deliver them in the way you give your name and DOB over the phone - quickly to get it out of the way and hoping no-one else is listening - while already scurrying back to the kitchen.
The snacks were lovely, but nothing on the sourdough bread that came next. Small individual loaves shaped like creme caramels are studded with salt and accompanied by the most wonderful salted butter. They've quite a crust to crack open, but when you do...wow.
C&C keep the menu blessedly simple: six appetisers (three types of oyster); five entrees or a sample of each; five mains; or a kilo of rib-eye to share for $160. Chef's menu is available for $150.