HOT: No 35, Sofitel Melbourne, 25 Collins St, Melbourne

Free yourself! There’s no need to eat a soggy sandwich at your desk this week.

As part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, loads of restaurants all around Melbourne and regional Victoria are putting on Restaurant Express – a 2 course lunch, glass of Victorian wine and tea/coffee for $35. As the name suggests, you’ll be in and out within 60-90 minutes, so it’s the long lunch without the long timeframe. Plus a chance to try some fancier restaurants which may normally be outside the range of a lunch budget.

A and I took the shiny lift which deposited us into the one-hat restaurant of Sofitel Melbourne, No. 35.  Being on level 35 in the Paris end of Collins Street and enclosed completely by wall to ceiling glass, all tables look over either the city or the bay. Our window-side table gave us a grey drizzly view of the high towers of Exhibition Street and A remarked that it was reminiscent of the skyscraper views of Hong Kong.

Being an express menu, there is basically no choice, so I’m not sure how diners with dietary requirements might be catered for. Entree was a flat disc of shredded suckling pig fried with a crispy shell then placed on a dab of mustard and prettily garnished with julienned apples and radishes.

The main was a crispy skinned salmon fillet with crushed potatoes and a parsley and spring onion dressing. A simple fail-safe crowd pleaser – nothing too exciting or fancy but guaranteed to satisfy most palates.

Dessert was the most unusual offering – coconut tapioca with a neat quenelle of cucumber mouse and a fat swirl of mango mouse, sprinkled with a sugary crunchiness and tarted up with some lime. A declared it a winner and the best course.

The service was the kind of faultless attentiveness that you’d expect from a high-end hotel restaurant. Most notable was the fact that my lemonade was served in a miniature carafe! Cute.

You’ve got until 14 March for a chance to partake in Restaurant Express – I’m starting to compile a wishlist for the next few days…

HOT Chat: Owen Thomas of Hipside Guides

I liked the idea of Hipside Guides as soon as I heard about them – a city guide written by a local to help visitors and locals find the the cool, hidden places of Melbourne. Kind of like MEL: HOT OR NOT, in map form! Today’s HOT Chat is with Owen Thomas of Hipside Guides – thanks Owen!

Owen, tell me a bit more about your background and how you came to start Hipside Guides?

I’m a relative newcomer to Melbourne, originally coming from London. I married an Australian and we moved here four years ago. One of the first things I looked for when we arrived (after an umbrella and sunglasses) was a guidemap, but none of the ones available met my requirements. So I decided to create my own.

It’s been a really fun way to get to know my new home city and I’m hoping it will also help other visitors and settlers, as well as any locals who want to explore beyond their usual neighbourhoods. It’s easy to take a place for granted when you’ve lived in it all your life, so a fresh perspective can never hurt.

In my previous life, I was a programmer and artist working on computer games, but strangely, map-making does seem to run in the family. One of my father’s first jobs was analysing aerial photographs for the air force and my brother is also a cartographer, mapping everything from wildlife to landmines.

What makes Hipside Guides different from other tourist maps or guides available about Melbourne?

There are mainly excellent books on Melbourne, but these days, who really has the time to read them? A good guidemap can give you an overview of a city in a fraction of the time and you also get a better impression of how everything fits together.

The Hipside Guides Melbourne Guidemap has a slightly hand-drawn look, making it visually very different from other maps that are available, but I’d say the main distinction is in its scope and level of detail. Most tourist maps cover just the CBD or a specific suburb, and don’t actually tell you much more than the location of the major museums and landmarks. At best, a few provide superficial ‘top ten’ type lists of the most popular bars, shops and restaurants. And of course, the free maps are either sponsored by the featured businesses or by local government, which has to affect impartiality to some degree.

The Hipside Guides Melbourne Guidemap covers the CBD, as well as a large part of the surrounding area. It features over 350 businesses and institutions, selected purely on merit. Alongside the usual, well-known destinations, I’ve made a point of including as many of the smaller, quirkier places as possible.

This isn’t a guidemap just about shopping and dining. Melbourne has a really fascinating history, which is clearly visible in its architecture and public artworks, so I’ve picked out the better examples and peppered the map with interesting facts, anecdotes and background stories.

With all its laneway hidey-holes, Melbourne is a city which really rewards those with the curiosity to explore, and that’s something I’ve tried to reflect in the guidemap. The intention was to create a deliberately sprawling and information-overloaded map, designed to be pored over and explored just like the city itself.

There are a lot of places on the map! How did you go about selecting which places to include in your guide?

I began with lots and lots and lots of walking. Then I walked some more. In Melbourne, you have to explore even the grottiest of laneways, because they often contain the best surprises. I try to never pass an open doorway or a shop without exploring inside and I’m sure I’ve sampled far more drinks and meals than is probably healthy. Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

I’ve looked for places that are exceptional or at least unusual. It’s easy to forgive a few rough edges if a place has a unique charm or is offering something out of the ordinary.

Of course, all guides are ultimately subjective, but I’ve done my best to keep its appeal as broad as possible. It isn’t a guide just for tourists or hipsters or any other single group, but for anyone who wants to get an understanding of the city as a whole. I personally may have no interest in poetry bookshops (Collected Works) or spice merchants (Gewürzhaus), but they’re all part of what makes up Melbourne and I find it wonderful that such places exist.

What has been the most challenging thing you’ve faced in starting up your own business? What advice would you give to a small business owner?

I think any independent publisher will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is getting exposure, so opportunities like this interview are really important.

Getting distribution into shops is also difficult, but at least people are getting more used to buying over the internet these days (you can get your copy from www.hipsideguides.com for $12.95 including free delivery).

As for advice to other business owners, I don’t think I’m qualified to give any just yet. Ask me again when I’ve sold my first million!

What are your next plans for Hipside Guides?

As soon as time allows, I want to expand the Hipside Guides website with more interactive features, more updates and maybe even a blog. And, in the long run, I’d like to apply Hipside Guides to other cities.

Finally, where are your HOT places to visit or things to do in Melbourne – maybe an entry that couldn’t fit into Hipside Guides?

The Butterfly Club is one of my favourite spots (204 Bank Street, South Melbourne +61 3 9690 2000). It’s a great little cabaret venue, but it’s also worth visiting just for a drink. From the outside it’s just another respectable-looking old house, but when you venture inside you find every available surface jam-packed with super-kitsch memorabilia. It’s one of the few places in Melbourne that can make even Madame Brussels look a bit on the timid side.

As far as shops go, Lost and Found is hard to beat (12 Smith St, Collingwood +61 3 9419 4477). It’s a real treasure trove of retro clothes, furniture, art and bric-a-brac. It’s a huge place – more of an indoor market than an individual store really – and it’s easy to lose a few hours searching through the all the racks and piles. You do tend to feel your age, though, when you discover your old toys in a vintage store.

One place that I couldn’t quite squeeze on to the map was New York Tomato (24/2-6 New St, Richmond +61 3 9429 0505). It’s a fantastic café, but it tends to be forgotten because it’s a little out of the way and simply because it’s no longer the new kid on the block.

If you really want to impress an overseas visitor, though, just take them to see the flying fox colony at the Bellbird Picnic Area in Yarra Bend Park. Australians barely notice their own wildlife, but to many foreigners a bat is a rare, mouse-sized creature that flits past in the dark and is gone, so the sight of 10,000 monster bats hanging out in broad daylight is quite mind-blowing.