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Melbourne, Australia’s foodiest city

Melbourne, Australia’s foodiest city

The influence of migrant chefs has shaped the restaurant scene

The influence of migrant chefs has shaped the restaurant scene

Josie Delap | December/January 2017

Tucked away on an unlovely stretch of road, on the south bank of Melbourne’s Yarra River, lies the Kettle Black. Its loveliness more than makes up for its surroundings. In a city obsessed with coffee (no chain has made much headway), the brew at this café is excellent, and the food matches up. A giant ricotta and blueberry hotcake, candied crisp around the edges, the syrupy sweetness cut through with a thick dollop of cream and a scattering of tart berries, comes freckled with nuts and seeds for crunch and herbs for freshness. It is the Platonic ideal of a pancake. In London or New York, the queue on a Saturday morning would be out of the door, the place overwhelmed by gaggles of hipsters and fashionable foodies tripping over each other to Instagram these breakfast treats. The Kettle Black is indeed busy – but it is not overrun. Families, runners and cyclists still squeezed into their Lycra fill up happily alongside trendier types.

That it is so relaxed speaks to the abundance of good food in Melbourne; there is more than enough for everyone. You could head farther north to Seven Seeds for Waffles Benedict, a celebration of sweet, salty and smoky with ham, and its chipotle mayonnaise. Or you might veer east towards Hammer & Tong 412 for some breakfast ramen – eggs and bacon bathed in a dashi broth.

Melbourne’s culinary richness is in part thanks to the nature of its cityscape. Lacking Sydney’s brash beauty, restaurants cannot rely on the charms of their surroundings to woo customers; their food must do the work. And it does – with gusto. The city’s grid-like layout makes travel easy and out-of-the-way spots accessible. When a former chef from Vue de Monde, one of Melbourne’s glitziest dining spots, took over the Clayton Bowls Club bistro, in a distant suburb, it was packed at once.

The city has also benefited from the absence of a clearly defined Australian cuisine. Australia has few national dishes to cling to, and so it has embraced those of its migrants, nowhere more enthusiastically than in Melbourne. Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Afghan, Chinese – all have made their mark. The various groups have been cooking side by side for long enough that today they are influencing each other in intriguing ways. At Matteo’s (above), a long-time Italian favourite, Matteo Pignatelli and his wife, Franca, surprise you with flashes of Asian flavours. Miso eggplant, collapsing into itself, accompanies a braised beef cheek, sticky with a sauce spiced with Japanese togararishi pepper. The buttery softness of a tartare of tuna and kingfish is offset by the crunch of panko breadcrumbs, made savoury by the unexpected addition of bonito flakes. A cobweb-thin prawn cracker covers choux pastry “gnocchi”, fried to a sticky golden crust, which lie on a slick of miso-cauliflower sauce.

Melbourne has its share of fancy spots, such as Attica, where menus are complex and the prices high. But what makes the city special is the number of welcoming places serving interesting food without pretension or extortion. Syracuse, hidden in an alley off an unremarkable bit of Melbourne’s business district, is one of these. Philippa Sibley serves soft milk buns, their bulging tops baked glossy gold, with crisp, cold radishes and a whipped-up splodge of basil and black garlic butter. Her nettle and truffle risotto relaxes across the plate, a sigh of grassy green, its garlicky snails, huddled in the middle, provide barely more resistance than the grains of rice. The rhubarb tart, its crust nutty with brown butter, with sweetly floral rose ice cream ribboned with sharp strawberry sorbet, brings the meal to a delicate conclusion.

Even at Lucy Liu, a deeply trendy Asian joint bright with neon, the staff cheerfully greet my one-year-old daughter for dinner, plopping her on the bar to watch the chefs at work, shredding fiery green papaya salad and frying mouth-numbing Sichuan duck. The warmth of Melbourne’s welcome is everywhere and for everyone.

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