Little Press & Cellar
Asking food reviewers to recall the highlights of a year’s gluttony is a bit like daring them, at the end of a massive meal, to stick a finger down their throat and tickle their uvulas. But for the sake of celebrating The Weekly Review’s big first birthday, we’ll swallow our gastric reflux and cast a rheumy eye back over the year that was in local?gastronomy.
First thing that comes up; when did food get so achingly fashionable? The mega-hype that now surrounds the simple act of cooking and eating – fuelled by magazines (mea culpa), lavish awards, TV shows and an avalanche of cookbooks – has created the surreal situation in which restaurant diners can feel as if they are merely bit-players in another man’s or woman’s quest for global fame and countless riches. (Gordon Ramsay’s Maze comes forcefully to mind.)
Perhaps that’s why it’s so pleasing to see chefs staying true to their culture or ideals, putting integrity over celebrity – the likes of Alla Wolf-Tasker at Lake House, the newly energised Pietro Porcu at Da Noi and the terrifically talented Frank Camorra at MoVida.
Cafés and casual-dining establishments have paraded themselves down a similar catwalk with an increasingly lengthy list of ingredients per dish, presented on boards, tiles and imported hand-made plates. When did a simple burger, pasta dish or panini morph into a lunchtime fashion experience? The emergence of the “next door” (thanks, MoVida) – a quick-bite stopover, such as Little Press & Cellar at The Press Club – has given us all a chance to peek at expensive trends minus the price tag.
And coffee? Now there’s a fashion-conscious, dressed-in-black, name-dropping Melburnian. This year there’s been an attitude that cafés not offering their customers a selection of single-origin or single-estate beans on a daily basis, presenting pour-over, syphon or filter or cold-filter brewing options in glass beakers are just not trying hard enough. Of course, there must be single-origin Colombian panela cane sugar on the table too and, in some cases, exclusively sourced milk. We should, though, thank industry leaders such as St Ali, Seven Seeds, Auction Rooms, Proud Mary and Market Lane Coffee and their expensive tastes. They have given us all a glimpse of the world around us and are strong supporters of the developing nations that supply their lifeblood. And pleasingly, they’ve given plenty of attention to quality imported tea and cocoa, too. But to their credit, some well-known Melbourne cafés such as Journal, Café Racer, Maling Room and Batch Espresso have largely eschewed haute caffeine brewing techniques, taken the best of the new offerings and remained faithful to traditional espresso. In many cases so have the hardcore caffe latte lovers who refuse to drink coffee without the addition of soy or cow’s milk and will happily sweeten it with white sugar out of a paper packet.
This has been a year for celebrating meat in all its gory. Chefs like to call it a nose-to-tail philosophy, which can sometimes seem like a trendy justification for putting lots of cheap offal on a menu. MasterChef alumnus Chris Badenoch is a cheerleader for the cause, offering diners rolled and steamed bits of a pig’s head with side orders of sauce gribiche and pork crackling. The European has an entire nose-to-tail subsection to its dinner menu, while Millswyn chef Nathan Johnson’s suckling pig nose-to-tail is a surgical arrangement of pork packages, including deep-fried patties made from pig’s head and trotters and a sous-vide pork belly with celeriac and fennel. Honourable meaty mentions go to Becco’s tagliata and Philippe Mouchel’s rotisserie birds at PM24.
That’s a trend that cafés have yet to pick up on, although pork belly is now omnipresent, at least on a menu taking itself seriously, and pork crackling is scattered through salads and over soups and curries. But keep your ear to the ground and watch out for battered pigs’ tail Caesar salad and pork-cheek pizza.
The fad in produce has been for natural, nearby and old-school, which perhaps explains why every restaurant worth its sustainable shtick has heirloom tomatoes on the menu. The fruit species may have been rescued from the past but the frequent tastelessness of the tomatoes themselves is a modern affliction.
Kingfish has been equally pervasive, prepared every which way from sashimi to carpaccio. Two of the best versions were Ocha’s new-look sashimi of lightly seared kingfish dressed with ponzu, and Stokehouse’s kingfish ceviche with salted grapes, flying-fish roe and sunflower seeds. Carpaccio – of fish, meat or vegetables – has become as common as pannacotta, with some seriously good adaptations. Josie Bones’ luscious plate of ocean trout scattered with crisp gingerbread pieces and zesty St Clement’s jelly still lingers.
You’ll find soft-shell crab in everything from takeaway Japanese hand rolls to salads on your local lunch menu. And share plates such as antipasto and charcuterie platters, or new-wave tapas lists are avenues for global adventure as increasingly brave and experimental chefs give diners a sample of their meat-curing (or procuring) skills, or tastes of lavish, imported ingredients.
At True South in Black Rock, Argentinian chef Mauro Callegari serves seared, spiced tuna with avocado mousse and croqueta de arroz (rice croquette with smoked mozzarella and chives), while at St Judes Cellars and Pope Joan – the places to be seen this year – the sourcing of quality ingredients has been impressive.
Dessert has been a groundhog day of granitas, whether Atlantic’s granita and ice-cream lollipop, Pearl’s cracking tamarind and finger-lime fancy or Andrew McConnell’s trailblazing ginger granita with coconut sorbet and lychees. Flavoured ice never tasted so posh. (Pearl also deserves mention for being first to take the iPad plunge, delivering its wine list and menu to diners via tablet computer. It’s so brazenly 21st?century, we expect the trend will spread like SARS.)
And while we’re on dessert, let’s take another quick look at coffee. Once cafés simply needed a box of toys and space for a pram to be in vogue; now there’s the emergence of the “coffice”. Cafés serving top-notch coffee, fabulous imported single-origin teas and up-to-the moment lunch and breakfast menus are now more than relaxed business meeting places. This year, they have become the new boardroom or even the job interview room. One new and notable case in point is Maison Ama Lurra in North Melbourne, which boasts private meeting rooms and free Wi-Fi.
Food fashions aside, there have been many chefs bold enough to buck trends and create their own excitement. Cheong Liew’s saucy, spiced Loligo squid with smoky curry leaves; Raymond Capaldi’s unorthodox cauliflower cheese with Comte gnocchi; Gigibaba’s irresistible flame-grilled lamb cutlets seasoned so simply with sea salt and wild oregano. Get ’em while they’re hot. Likewise Huxtable’s jalapeño and cheese croquettes. Oh, and Mamasita’s elotes, those gorgeous grilled corncobs coated in creamy cow’s milk cheese and chipotle mayo. Ay caramba.
We’ve eaten well (and drunk tea and coffee in style) in Melbourne this year.