22 December, 2008

'The Spare Room' - Helen Garner

A woman in her sixties welcomes a friend, Nicola, to her home. She prepares the spare room with fresh linen and flowers, and prepares herself for the challenge to come: Nicola is in the advanced stages of terminal cancer and has come to Melbourne for a three-week treatment of alternative medicine.

This is the story of Helen Garner's first work of fiction for fifteen years. Her years of measured, intricately researched non-fiction writing have not harmed her ability to tell a story. What they have done is refined her writing to a very pure, distilled style. All the substance is there - this is a book rampant with emotion and symbolism - but there isn't a single letter of frippery.

Within that reduced language there is still, however, a concern for detail. Falling rain is 'quiet' and 'kind'; an oil heater not only heats but also drips and clicks. In life, we rarely experience something singularly - we see it, hear it, feel it etc. When The Spare Room was published questions were asked about how fictional it actually is, since the main character's name is Helen and many aspects of her life match exactly with the author's. Those questions, however, are not important: what Garner has brought us is literature, not just fiction. It does closely reflect life, but not just hers: as in life, the reader experiences everything in the novel multiple ways.

Garner's key achievement is in the emphasis of her sympathy. This is not a book about a dying woman; it is a book about a dying woman's friend. What does that friend have to deal with? What does she go through in mind and body? What must she, the same age as her friend, think about her own mortality as she watches someone she loves in such pain and desparation? Nicola's end is known from the start. The reader is instead drawn to Helen and the questions of her emotional fate. Often, at the end of a chapter, we are given clues to Helen's responses as the narrative suddenly shifts from the action to focus on a colour, a movement, or other event unrelated to the main story.

So closely did I follow detail in this book, that I found myself affected even by the typeface. It is a gentle, ligatured serif, which leads the eye across the page but also retains a sparseness against the paper to reflect the language. Full stops are diamonds, not circles, and the subtle difference more sharply punctuates each purpose- and meaning-laden sentence.

It was rewarding, too, to have several Melbourne locations so shamelessly referenced. Garner treats Melbourne with the respect that Richard Flanagan showed Sydney in The Unknown Terrorist. It was an interesting contrast to Richard Ford's Lay of the Land, however, where his characterisation via east-coastisms was more off-putting.

This is an exceptional work of fiction, one to savour as one would cling to stolen time with a close friend.

19 December, 2008

Meet you by the stuffed giraffe; Carlton Hotel and Cookie

Carlton Hotel: 193 Bourke St, Melbourne; 03 9663 3216
Cookie: 1st Floor, Curtin House, 252 Swanston St, Melbourne; 03 9663 7660

If you're after eating venues in the city that deliver flare with a capital 'wow', the Carlton Hotel on Bourke St and Cookie on Swanston St are two of your best bets.

Back in the day, the Carlton was a seedy drinking hole (Sydneysiders, think Century Tavern, but scarier; Novocastrians, think anywhere in Newcastle West!). As a backpacker years ago, I once booked a room there and when we arrived at about 8am, mid-week, straight off the overnight train from Sydney, there was already an old bloke at the bar downing pots. The Century Tavern's fate was to become hip and the antithesis of a sticky-carpet bar; the Carlton got a completely different makeover, turning it into a bordello (in a classy way) of sprayed-on velvet, gaudy pillars and taxidermy. That's right, taxidermy. An ostrich greets you at the door, a giraffe minds the step to the balcony and a rhino points the way to the facilities.

If money's tight, the Carlton is a good place to head on a Monday or Tuesday night. On Monday the whole dining room menu is half price; Tuesday is schnitzel night (three variations, each $12). Just as the decor is not your average style for the Bourke St precinct, these are not standard pub schnitzels. There are three options: chicken with sweet potato and a cos and dill salad; veal with chips (crinkle cut, no less) and beetroot salad; and eggplant and haloumi with tomato jam and asparagus (below). Who needs meat?
The everyday menu is divided into Bar Snacks and Dining Room. Some of the same main ingredients feature on both in different sizes and/or interpretations.

An ideal accompaniment to a citrusy beer is a plate of four chickpea and capsicum patties with lemon bean salad and harissa yoghurt. The small patties are moist and satisfyingly dense. The yoghurt carries only a whiff of harissa, while unfortunately the beans got more than their necessary share of oil, which left quite a residue on the plate.

A cool salad of braised calamari comes with a dizzy combination of artichoke hearts, fennel and watercress. Perfect while you sup a glass of crisp white (and just $7 on a Monday).

Similarly refreshing - and visually stunning - is Cookie's salmon, prawn and pomelo salad with ginger and lemongrass. (What's a pomelo? Glad you asked - it's a large citrus fruit, also known as Chinese grapefruit, though it is sweeter than a generic grapefruit. Pomelos also make up the second half of the cross-breed tangelos, with tangerines contributing the 'tang'.)

Cookie spruiks itself as no less than disco, eating house and beer hall. There's certainly plenty of German/Austrian decoration around the bar, always a bit of a mindtrip when you sit down to their mainly Thai menu in the restaurant (as are the odd Mediterranean touches therein, such as bruschetta and penne). There are juliet balconies for those lucky enough to get there early on a warm night, and in the bar, gorgeous fabric squares adorn the tables (ditto the crockery - see below). To call the drinks list 'long' is as redundant as mentioning that Curtin House is kinda cool - wines by the glass, wines by the bottle, cocktails and beers all run to several pages each.

Their green curry is a fine example of chef Karen Batson's self-taught flair for Asian food. It's listed on the menu as coming with taro and mushroom dumplings, which seemed a bit back to front. Enoki mushrooms swam through the smooth, warm coconut broth, while felafel-like taro dumplings bobbed to the surface.

On our visit, the service was a little back to front as well. The dishes arrived quicker than one would like when not ordering from a buffet, whereas the second part of 'rice for two' arrived after we'd both finished our curries (and was left, or rather dumped, on the table regardless). Our wines, however, arrived care of a waiter enthusiastic about our choices. The two approaches sum up both venues: cool, but always exciting.

17 December, 2008

Bean scene

Ah, the bean. For three splendid months of the year - normally September to November (though late-onset summer seemed to extend the season this year) - our weekly grocery shop consists of as many broad beans as we can carry, with whatever else we need a secondary pursuit. I eat kilos of the things, loving every moment of preparation and consumption.

Broad beans need to be podded - a joyful process, as peeling open their leathery green skins reveals a delightfully downy interior. Once you've freed the beans, blanch for three minutes, refresh in cold water, then slip the beans out of their skins. Use your thumbnail (or knife) to make a slit, then squeeze, and 'plop'! You're down to the good stuff.

The next step is deciding what to do with your vibrant green pile of legumous loveliness. Here are some of my favourite uses from this season:

Risi e bisi is a favourite dish year round, using frozen peas when the fresh ones are out of season. In spring, however, it takes on a new flavour spectrum with the addition of broad beans. I like to mush half the beans and stir them into the wet rice along with stock, adding the other half whole.

Many moons ago, a kitchen-savvy friend served me dinner of pork fillet with a rosemary, red wine and bacon jus. It remains in the Top 5 home-cooked meals I've had the pleasure to savour. And, as I'm wont to do, a couple of years ago I borrowed the idea and ran with it. Pork cutlets, followed by a preparation of the same jus, often grace our frying pan. Gerald's Bar recently inspired an update to that dish, and our last pair of cutlets came to the plate as braised pork on polenta with broad beans. With a little help from Aunty Stephie (which, by the way, was a gift from the same friend who cooked the original pork dinner), we winged a recipe and a method, and came away quite thrilled with the result.
Polenta featured again in a similar dish with a piece of chicken poached with in a simple broth of bay leaves, onion and seasoning.

They're not just for dinner though, those beans. In a home dish worthy of a cafe, mushed broad beans were spread on toasted bread, topped with homemade baked beans (maple syrup is the trick for great beans) and dotted with feta. A thoroughly fulfilling and pleasurable start to the day.
One Sunday night found me with that heavy feeling of cumulative excess from the weekend. When I thought of dinner, my body responded saying, 'Vegetables, hold the meat and carbs (and preferably the oil and butter'. Well, the only sensible answer there is to steam. Artichokes went in first, followed by some carrot to give them plenty of time to soften up, a few strips of asparagus, and lastly, the beans. I hadn't heard my body prohibit dairy, so feta featured once again. This dish was enormously flavoursome (when you cook in season, rich flavour comes guaranteed), filling enough for two meals, particularly wholesome and served the happy purpose of using up a range of ingredients bought for different meals throughout the week.
The last star dish before the bean bonanza began to wane featured a new meat: goat. Maggie Beer promotes this choice and, like lamb, it's best in spring. Queen Vic Markets have a couple of stockists, including Alec Watson (at the back of the Meat Hall). Even when fresh, it's a bit whoofy, so not a good one to handle if you're at all sensitive to fresh-meat smell. It cooks up a treat though - soft, rich and tender - when set to a slow stew with tomatoes, shallots and herbs. We love India on Lygon's version, but took a Mediterranean route, dishing up capretto al forno.
For now, though, it's time to put the bean steamer back in the cupboard. I do have one trick up my sleeve though - I've made a couple of broad bean dips (with garlic, lemon, a dash of paprika and some sour cream or yoghurt to smooth it out and boost volume) and popped them in the freezer, so I'll be able to sate my broad bean cravings at least a couple of times in the cooler months.

14 December, 2008

Eat here or take-away? It's All Good Cafe and Fishbone II

It's All Good Cafe: 234 High St, Kew; 03 9855 0823
Fishbone: 109 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 4343

What shall we do?
Mused the restless two.
We’ll ride to Kew!

Which, as it turns out, is a quiet place on a Sunday afternoon. It was far enough away, however, and the getting there involved enough serious-effort-inducing hills, that upon arrival we felt we were exploring a whole new town. So cheery were we with our adventurism, that an eatery by the name of It's All Good Cafe seemed a natural fit.

Enhancing the illusion that we had crossed significant borders in our journey from Brunswick East to Kew was a menu of straightforward cafe favourites - not a drop of rosewater or spoonful of labne in sight. As such, I was inspired to partake of a classic myself: caesar salad.It delivered everything a caesar should: goopy egg yolk mixing with tangy caesar dressing (which was just bordering on excessive), complemented by salty bacon and all bulked up with chunky croutons and plenty of cos leaves.

A caesar salad is, to me, is a meal for mind and stomach. It's undeniably a salad - placatory to the mind when there's been a little too much of the fried and fatty going on - but it's satsifying to the stomach in a way a green (or lower-fat) salad isn't for most.

The same theory applied to a recent burger excursion to Fishbone. It may have sounded like a strange request: Can I get the veggie burger but with a meat pattie? I wanted a burger, but I didn't want that heavy after-feeling of grease, onion breath and indigestion. Fishbone's veggie burger comes with pesto, rocket, red onion, capscium and mushroom, which sounded like - and indeed was - a fine accompaniment to their moist but firm meat patties.
A new Brunswickian recently tried Fishbone and commented they weren't all that thrilled on their chips, which have always been a highlight for us. On the veggie burger occasion we got take-away and I will say that the chips did get a little soggy on the trip back home. My tip: make a night of it in that part of Lygon St. Grab a table and eat in at Fishbone; head across the road for a Coopers at the Comfortable Chair craft beer at the Alehouse, then head for dessert at Gelobar.

'Lay of the Land' - Richard Ford

The third in a trilogy of novels about the interior musings and observations of the Frank Bascombe, Lay of the Land follows the same model as the two earlier books: tracing Frank's movements over a holiday weekend - this time, Thanksgiving - involving an enormous amount of driving, a succinct amount of dialogue and a constant stream of observation, and filling in backstory about what has happened in the previous ten years.

At 55, Frank's musings now tend towards mortality and are perhaps more introverted and self-critical than in Independence Day and The Sportswriter. He has entered the 'Permanent Period', a time when a man is old enough and, hopefully, broadly experienced enough, to accept his life as it is, that few grand changes will occur between now and death: 'no fear of the future, life not ruinable, the past generalised to a pleasant pinkish blur'. His life is not without regret, but he now spends more time on rationales and hindsight.

With age also comes greater fallibility. Frank is not as healthy or robust as he was; he falls over on occasions, has mild panic attacks. While still dealing with the death of his son almost twenty years earlier, he finds himself in conversations that he handles badly - as a real estate agent, saying the right thing at the right time, always, has been one of Frank's strongest character traits.

His character traits divide neatly into two headings: those that make him arrogant, and those that make him intellectual. They wouldn't be mutually exclusive lists, however: Frank is often happy to project his intellectualism arrogantly, particularly when wooing women. Frank reflects on a particular platonic friendship in which his conversation made him 'seem as savvy as a diplomat and wise as an oracle, with total recall and a flawless sense of context...at a moment's notice completely ready to change the subject to something she was interested in, or something else I knew more about than anybody in the world.'

Where the previous two novels were lulling, like a long roadtrip taken as a passenger, in the first section of this book accompanying Frank on his litany of errands felt more akin to a dream where, despite constant pursuits, you can never reach your goal and wake up before its resolved. This initial section is highly political in theme. As in Independence Day, a genuine election features, this time George W Bush's infamous 'victory' in 2000. Frank characterises every acquaintance by their political leanings, and in this obsession it feels that perhaps too much of Ford himself has crept into his characterisation.

There are some overtly self-referential moments. Frank says 'Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist's deal and probably not as hard to do well'. Late on Thanksgiving day Franks sees a cross in the sky and considers it a sign, in the form of 'X marks the spot'. It seems a clumsy, beginnerish symbol, but Ford then lists each of the motifs he has used within the story - in case we'd missed them? Or because he, too, is in the Permanent Period and is comfortable enough as a writer to be blatant about his tools and tricks?

Of the two earlier books, The Sportswriter in particular looked at permutations of love. In Lay of the Land Frank has harder-to-resolve issues in his relationships with two wives and his children. He does, however, have this to say: 'there are ideal women in the world...For men, these are women who make you feel especially smart, that you're uniquely handsome in a way you yourself always believed you were, who bring out the best in you, by some generosity or need in themselves.' That all sounds very one way; Frank's opinion of women hasn't improved much. But then again, where he was extremely honest about his problemetic relationship with his son in Independence Day, perhaps here Ford lays men and their version of romance bare.

For a male reader of Bascombe's age, to have grown old with this series would have been revelatory and self-affirming. No aspect of his personality or his circumstance is too inconsequential for digression and description. A favourite way to relax, for example, is to settle into bed and read the Gettysburg address out loud. It's a purely personal response, but by Book 3 Frank has grown into a character too removed from my ken for me to respond as enthusiastically. I don't question Ford's achievement, however, in crafting a trilogy in which each book meticulously captures a time and place, and the themes therein, while presenting a man - already mature at the beginning - continuing to grow.

06 December, 2008

Hellenic Republic

434 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9381 1222

It's open. After months of watching the site morph from a cakeshop; to building shell; to a roofed, walled space filled with light, tiles and little else; then in a mad rush this week gain chairs, tables, shelves, wine bottles, decorations, tills and all the accoutrements of the restaurant world, finally, finally, we have George Calombaris' new venture, Hellenic Republic.

Rather than the plush, darkened, reverential dinner environs of the Press Club, this is a space open on two sides to an abundance of light, offering lunch and dinner during the week with the addition of brunch on the weekends. This is the sort of place where one glass of wine is rarely enough.

Stepping inside does not quite equate to entering a portal to the Aegean coast, although if you answered to the name of Onassis and enjoyed cruising the Greek isles in boat shoes and linen trousers you'd complement the design well. Pine and marble alternate on the table tops; the chair seats are roped, as are the tops of the Mediterranean-blue water bottles (and tap water arrives immediately, although the bottled variety is also available). White tiles and white-painted brick are juxtaposed by judicious splashes of navy, for example on the banquette seats on the back wall. Navy squares also feature in the logo, subtly stamped on the crockery and waitstaff's police-officer-style uniforms. A communal, mosaiced table sits in the front window, next to a huge armoire jumbled with Greek produce and drawer after drawer of spices.

Enough of the interior...what about the food? A brunch selection is served 8am-4pm Saturday and Sunday, with lunch kicking in after 12pm. Dividing the two is a meze plate of beetroot in cumin, green peppers, kalimatas, marinated grilled octopus and fried greens ($18.50). Breakfast could be as refreshing as watermelon, almond and feta salad; or as hangover-shaking as the 'lamb ham sandwich', which comes on Dench ciabatta (the bread of choice throughout the menu), with just the former meat, cured to taste like the latter, and a fried egg.

The breakfast omelette looks to Spain, featuring slices of al dente potatoes, but returns to Hellas with chunks of loukaniko, a Cypriot pork sausage, embedded along with the spuds. Halloumi is melted in with the eggs for extra texture. Surprisingly, the dish is not overly salty, and while it wasn't mind-blowing during the eating, it was undoubtedly satisfying. It comes with two oiled slices of Dench sourdough (in this case strategically placed over a quadrant that got a little too close to the grill!).

Lunch offerings include moussaka, done according to Calombaris' yia yia's recipe; fish of the day, served with chips wrapped in a paper basket; and braised pork (most of which are also available on the dinner menu). And, of course, there is lamb. A glassed and walled area at the back of the restaurant houses the spit, where many a young ovine is destined to be expertly turned over the coals, producing pungent, sweet, tender meat.

The lunch souvlaki is a reprise of the Press Club dish from Taste of Melbourne. Slices of the succulent meat are wrapped in a crisped pita, which is also smeared with mustard and daubed with onion and parsley. Want chips with that? They're right there, wrapped in with the meat. At $14.50, and on the smaller side of huge, I say order two and have done with it, because you'll be sorry when it's finished.

Or, maybe you'd rather save room for something sweet. Dessert offers baklava, rice pudding and galaktaboureko, a dish similar to baklava, but with custard - in this case semolina - instead of nuts between pastry and drizzled with sugar syrup. We were verbally offered loukamades (Greek doughnuts drizzled with walnuts and honey), but when our waiter realised they were part of the dinner rather than lunch menu, SG's hopes were dashed and we settled on galaktaboureko between us. But it wasn't ready yet (ie it's made fresh daily), whereas the loukamades were! A win-win situation, and other than from a long wait for drinks, the only hiccup on Day 2 of the restaurant's existence.

The wine menu is succinct, but hugely respectful of Greek varietals, and is kept short to keep it to wines that fit the food. The dinner menu features a page of share plates - prawns by the piece, vine leaves etc - and two banquet options, alpha and beta ($50 and $60 respectively). An insert in the menu is a perfect demonstration of Calombaris' respect for his diners: the fishmonger arrives daily and they then decide and price the menu accordingly, printing it anew each day.

This is an exciting place to dine. Some of the staff from the Press Club have headed north to man the floor, and while the floor staff may not always be in such abundance as initially (there were at least 10) they're already comfortable with the menu and keep diners feeling the same way. It's definitely more approachable on a budget than the Press Club or its sister bar, and a midday weekend meal is a particularly good way to nibble affordably off the menu. It will be interesting to find out if that relaxed atmosphere is maintained for dinner - certainly the decor and lighting intend it to - something we'll ascertain as soon as we can get a seat!

03 December, 2008

Satay Anika II

140 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 9702

After our last visit to Satay Anika, a well-informed reader recommended their beef rendang. Often referred to as a dry curry, rendang actually goes through quite a different cooking process. The meat, usually beef, is stewed for hours in coconut milk laden with fragrant spices such as ginger, galangal and tamarind. As the majority of liquid is absorbed by the meat it then fries gently in its own juices.
I have to agree with irisav, who left the recommendation on the earlier post: Satay Anika's version is a fine dish. The meat is fabulously soft - it's no doubt the milk connection but it brings to mind Italian dishes with slow-cooked, milk-fed lamb or goat. It's quite a refreshing dish too, without the glugginess or oiliness that can come with a curry, and the strong lime and tamarind flavours really give it zing.

Satay Anika serve up this bread with their meals and it's delish:It's closer to lavash bread than prawn crackers, and while not much good for mopping it's great for scooping.

Their calamari (sotong istimewa - marinated, deep-fried and served with plun sauce) was also decently done.The batter appears thick, but it's actually just a dusting, quite peppery, and it's wrapped around tender flesh.

As an aside, Satay Anika also sell yellow tea (in bags to take with you, rather than for consumption in the restaurant). They've got a fact sheet on the counter as well, explaining the history of tea and the distinctions between varieties, which makes for informative reading on the wellness qualities of tea before tucking in.

'The Lucy Family Alphabet' - Judith Lucy

Acerbic. Sarcastic. Coarse. Nasal. All words frequently associated with Australian comedian Judith Lucy. Sensitive and nostalgic come up much less regularly. And really it's the former group that apply to her book of recollections of growing up in a truly peculiar family in suburban Perth, but her book is not without the latter emotions.

Lucy's family history has informed a lot of her stand-up comedy. Since this book came out most of her publicity appearances have included her re-telling tales from the book in her distinct tone and with trademark nod and smirk. A quick Youtube search reveals some of the stories coming up in stand-up appearances from ten years ago - that's quite a family, to keep a comedian in material for that length of time.

Without the aural and visuals aspects of a Lucy routine, the anecdotes take on a different resonance, and they translate well to the written word, also a credit to Lucy's obvious respect for language and her ability, honed through thousands of shows, of picking the right words to take her audience back in time with her.

I saw Lucy talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, along with Nam Le and David Sedaris. The session was about using personal life experience to create literature, whether fiction or non-fiction. Everyone there, from her fellow presenters, to MC Jason Steger, to the audience, were keen to see Lucy drop her usual dry persona and talk about how she felt about these stories. While her talk was a triumphant mini-gig, she wasn't about to step out from behind the comedian curtain. The book does, however, and it includes some touching commentary about how she genuinely felt about her parents.

This is a great gift for someone who would appreciate Lucy's humour, as well as the not-so-occasional story of rampant drinking. Not just because it's well written but also because it's well presented. It's got that just-right book weight that wraps so well and an engaging front cover. Moreover, it's spot-on holiday reading. Read a bit, read a lot; have a giggle; relax while you're doing it. Dear Lord, I appeared to have turned into a catalogue...

Cafeklatsch: A Minor Place III, El Mirage, Aix Creperie

Aix Creperie: 24 Centre Place, Melbourne; 03 9662 2667A Minor Place: 103 Albion St, Brunswick East; 03 9384 3131El Mirage: 349 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9388 0966

Centre Place could be Melbourne's Diagon Alley. It's narrow, bustling, and for folk stopping for coffee before scurrying to school/work/shopping, there's a certain amount of alchemy going on in those kitchens.

At the lane's northern end lies one of its oldest inhabitants: Aix Creperie. Grab an elusive seat in this shoebox and take your pick: believe you're writing a novel in Paris, contemplating love and bullfights in Barcelona, or learning the language in Rome.

An exhaustive list of crepes, both sweet and savoury, are prepared efficiently by a practised hand. The dough is spot-on: it can hold a hefty filling, but is far lighter than bread. A folded triangle of salami, gooey goats cheese, olives and tomato was a perfect between-shops pick-me-up.
Inevitably, the cafe road leads to Brunswick East. A Minor Place continues to prove that surly service is no barrier for the hordes that flock there for great coffee, good cafe fare and, recently, the odd glass of wine and tapas.

A sunny mid-week afternoon brought us to their milk crates for a bagel with poached egg, bacon, rocket, and salty relish;and some fine-looking pancakes with pear and walnuts.
Back on Lygon St, we hit upon a rare quiet weekend lunch at El Mirage. Their menu does a fine job of mixing up lunch and breakfast to suit your cravings any time of the day. Onion-flecked rosti with feta and slightly piquant tomato relish were lifted by the dots of cheese among the potatoes. Chicken croquettes with saffron aioli were just awesome. Fulsome, flavoursome and fabulous.

Venue challenge;Tiamo 2

Tiamo 2: 305 Lygon St, Carlton; 9347 0911

I recently found myself challenged for a suitable dining location: friends from out of town, looking for somewhere in easy reach of the city, not too pricey, not too adventurous, not too loud. Does anywhere spring to your mind immediately? My additional criteria were that Hardware Lane and the bottom end of Lygon St were both out. It was for a Saturday night too, which can wipe out some suitable weekday options, and the first couple of phone calls I made to book somewhere made it clear that we'd also be in for an early dinner.

The challenge, as I see it, is that within the city, most restaurants fall into one of two categories: $10 noodle bars, or $30+ serious restaurants. That is a generalisation, but given we wanted a Sit-down Talk on a Saturday night many of Melbourne's signature venues - ie the bar-cum-restaurant and restaurant-cum-bar - were excluded from the search. I'm also always anxious to give interstaters a Melbourne Experience: preferably the restaurant should be unlike anything readily available to them in their hometown. When I don't know their tastes very well, though, it can be doubly hard to find a restaurant that serves immediately interpretable food. I'm not knocking the food scene - all the things I excluded from this search are in fact exactly what I love about eating in Melbourne.

Maybe I was making things harder for myself than they needed to be. Interestingly, after putting the challenge to a couple of friends, the three of us independently came up with the same options: Tiamo 2 (on the less-scary stretch of Lygon St, between Elgin and Faraday Sts) and the Hotel Lincoln (on Cardigan St). I haven't been back to the Lincoln since the unfortunate whiting/whitebait incident, and wasn't sure how pubby it would get on a Saturday, so Tiamo 2 it was.

It turned out to be a great choice, suiting all concerned, and having the earlier meal meant we had plenty of space and atmosphere in which to catch up on the last couple of years. Given this was also the night Melbourne decided to hit 10C in November, it was great to be cosied up inside and upstairs, with dishes like lamb shank on the specials board.

The dining and aesthetic highlight was this tiramisu, a generous serve to say the least!
Afterwards, we realised another advantage to our eventual dining location of choice: it's proximity to Percy's Bar. I've only written up a cheap pub meal on quiz night from this venue (also known as Astor Hotel), but it is a fine establishment. Beers are truly cheap, and it's a takeaway alternative to entering the bowels of the nearby shopping centre to go to Safeway. It's got a proper English pub feel of conviviality and homeliness and, without doubt, the tallest barstools in Melbourne.

01 December, 2008


77 Upper Heidelberg Rd, Ivanhoe; 03 9499 9907

It means 'neighbourhood' in Spanish, and Ivanhoe's Barrio has chosen a local landmark - the old firestation - in which to establish an eatery that fits the bill as 'local' and delivers quality Mediterranean fare. Opened in June this year, the restaurant's owners bring plenty of cred - one is former front-of-house at Bottega - to this outer-northeast venture.

Its dinner menu may throw out a challenge to some diners: mains clock in at around $30 (plus or minus a couple of dollars), which immediately places great expectations on the chef and his produce. Two or three diners could be satisfied for a light meal with a few entrees, priced between $15 and $18.

We were seated in a recessed room off the main restuarant floor, with a smattering of decoration and a simple balance of light wood floors and dark wood, undressed tables. Service was enthusiastic, though at times slightly scatty, as different staff appeared at intervals of 5-10 minutes to welcome us (but leave the wine menu behind!).

The wine menu deserves special mention. It's approachable, with lots of the best of Australian varietals and extremely well priced. Many bottles are priced under $35, including Pizzini Sangiovese Shiraz at $33.50.

The entree bruschetta sounds busy - roasted tomato, shallot, beetroot, capsicum, marinated goats cheese and rocket salad - prompting us to think the menu was missing some divisive semi-colons scattered amongst the inclusive commas. In fact, all those ingredients were piled atop two very compliant pieces of bread. It was, overall, a pleasing combination, but at the same time a good argument for less is more: no one flavour was able to dominate so the salty goats cheese lost out to the sweet tomato and the sharp shallot to the earthy beetroot. Our suggestion: a subset of the same ingredients on each piece of bread.

Festive seared scallops with cauliflower puree, grape and caper dressing arrive doing an impersonation of holly and ivy. Plump, but a little too fishy, the scallops are allowed to star, assisted but subtly by their accompaniment. Prawns with potatoes, beans and pancetta, or a succinct mixed antipasto plate are other entree options.

The star main was roast half duckling with seasonal greens, semolina and duck jus (duck also features, with porcini mushrooms, in a risotto as a main). Wonderfully crispy skin lifted easily from tender, moreish, well-seasoned meat. There was plenty of meat at the table: lamb two ways (roasted rump, and slow-cooked shoulder in pastry) as well as scotch fillet. All had been well handled, although the steak did come to the table pre-cut. Why so much meat? Well, we do like it, but there also isn't a vegetarian option among the larger mains.

The fourth main came from the pasta and risotto side: spaghettini with crab, lemon, chilli, garlic and parsley (only edging out pappardelle with rabbit, speck, porcini and truffle because I was still relishing a very similar meal from Enzo in Adelaide). Here was the first of two big differences between Italian Melbourne-chic style, and Italian as the Italians do it. After the taste-bud teasing bruschetta, I went for entree size and, for once, it was actually entree sized! It was just enough though, to be honest. The spaghettini swam happily in cooking juices and the crab was obviously fairly recenty still happily swimming itself.

The second difference comes with bread. Why, in Australia, do restaurants serve up a piece of bread, pre meal, then shut down the bakery? Pre meal, I eat an entree. With meal, I want bread, for mopping of crab juice, or duck jus or steak sauce.

Barrio offers pleasing, well-spaced surroundings, welcoming staff, and, as long as you're feeling effusive and up for more than focaccia and coffee, the opportunity to indulge with a plate of meat and a bottle of wine, or nibble at a modest pasta and a small glass. Just what every neighbourhood needs.