HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

DSC04130 384x540 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

A sunny weekend saw us taking a trip out to the Yarra Valley, armed with a recommendation for lunch at Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander.

Unlike most of the other wineries in the Yarra Valley, Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander isn’t located on an expansive piece of green land – it’s just a straight turnoff from the Maroondah Highway into the carpark. The huge steel building is hard to miss, particularly as it’s located in the same vicinity at the White Rabbit Brewery and an outpost of Beechworth Bakery.

DSC04138 332x540 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

The website describes Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander as a ‘grown-ups’ playground’ and it’s a very apt description for the complex. Under one roof you’ll find a bright, buzzy bistro, a bakery and patisserie, a temperature controlled cheese room and cheese tastings at the counter, a coffee roastery and a selection of gourmet provisions for sale.

DSC04141 540x360 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

DSC04149 540x413 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

As a result of the many activities happening under this cavernous space, just be aware that it is very noisy. The concrete interior bounces all of the music, chatter and sound of kids running around to quite high levels.

DSC04186 540x361 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

The bistro menu covers tapas, pizzas, non-pizza main courses with a comprehensive selection of sides, kids dishes, breakfast, baked goods and desserts thrown in the mix.

DSC04214 433x540 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

After watching the pizza-maker working the organic sourdough dough with his well-practised elegant economy of movement and show-stopping throwing technique, our table of 6 decided to share five pizzas and two salads for lunch.

DSC04200 361x540 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

Very quickly we received  our pizzas on ceramic pizza stones 
– roasted 
eggplant, 
barrel-
aged 
feta, 
red 
peppers
 and parsley ($21), roast 
mushroom,
 asiago, 
black
 truffle 
oil, 
roasted 
garlic and 
parsley ($23), spicy 
pork 
sausage, 
buffalo
mozzarella,
 San Marzano
 tomato and chilli
 ($23), Calabrese
 salami,
 San
 Marzano 
tomato, 
oregano
 and 
buffalo 
mozzarella
 ($24) and prosciutto,
 San
 Marzano 
tomato, cravero 
parmesan and parsley ($24), plus two bowls of iceberg, 
witlof
 and 
chive 
salad
 ($8.50).

DSC04160 540x319 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

DSC04166 540x340 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

 The mark of good pizza is the base and these bases were thin yet held the toppings well and had been wood-fired to bring a hint of smokiness. Everyone agreed that the roast mushroom pizza was particularly outstanding. Earthy, juicy mushrooms enhanced by the heady twin aromas of truffle oil and garlic and topped with melted cheese – a culinary perfect match.

DSC04175 540x361 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

For dessert we each had a spoonful of the bread and butter pudding. It was a huge bowl of wintery comfort food satisfaction for just $10.50 and was made with french pastry, marsala soaked sultanas and vanilla bean custard.

DSC04179 540x295 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

My only complaint was that the custard had split by the time the dish arrived at our table. It didn’t affect the taste but seeing a pool of oil in the pudding (and knowing it was going in my stomach shortly) wasn’t very appealing.
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While individually the prices of each pizza were high (when you compare it to say Ladro, Queen Margaret or Espressino), our total bill plus a beer/soft drink per person only divided to $30 a head. A bargain I think for the quality and quantity of food.

DSC04144 344x540 HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

If after your meal you’re still up for wine tastings it is available everyday between 10am and 6pm and  if you dine in the bistro you’ll receive 10% discount off any take-home wine purchases. You can take also winery tours daily at 11am and 3pm.

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville +61 3 5962 6111

10am to 10pm weekdays
8am to 10pm weekends & public holidays

minilink HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

HOT: WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

DSC04122 374x540 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

For the last week I’ve been watching the corner of Gertrude and Napier Streets with interest.

WLG stamped on the walls. Brightly coloured metal chairs lining long tables on the pavement. A dude with an enormous 19th century handlebar moustache working the tables.

The answer? The WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant has landed in Melbourne to occupy salon/bar Rue de Fleurus for 2 weeks only, from 15 November to 27 November.

DSC04071 482x540 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant is a tourism marketing campaign for the city of Wellington, New Zealand. It aims to showcase Wellington’s finest locally sourced produce, wines from neighbouring wine regions, restaurants, cafes and hospitality faces beyond a glossy travel agent brochure, by bringing a slice of the Wellington experience straight to our doorstep.

Tickets for the $35 three course dinner have been selling like hot cakes and in-the-know Melburnians have been clamouring for the 50 or so walk-in spots as well. I was lucky enough to be invited to sample the restaurant thanks to Positively Wellington Tourism.

Wellingtonian chefs, sommeliers and hospitality staff have been brought over especially for the pop-up restaurant’s two-week duration. The 3 course menu has been devised with their input – there’s a taste from each chef in the starters tasting plate and a main course choice by each chef ranging from fish to meat to vegetarian. Everything has been brought over from across the sea – even the award-winning Antipodes drinking water.

DSC04077 363x540 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

Your dinner starts with a shared tasting plate to which each chef has contributed.

DSC04081 540x363 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

Tick off the following:

Manuka salt cured lamb shortloin with  beetroot, walnut and balsamic salsa;

Grilled Marlborough scallops, celeriac puree and pancetta crumbs;

Fried goat’s cheese balls with Manuka honey and Kiwi chutney;

Maple syrup smoked Regal King Salmon with horseradish creme fraiche and tiny capers (the highlight for me); and

Pig’s cheek ‘schnitzel’ with roast lemon chutney.

DSC04094 540x416 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

From the choice of five mains I choose  the the pan-fried Cook Strait groper atop a large dollop of lemon potato puree with baby herb salad and crispy fried white bait with preserved lemons by Tom Hutchinson (Capitol) while D had slices of perfectly judged Horopito-seasoned beef with slow-roasted tomato, potato fondant and green beans by Rex Morgan (Boulcott Street Bistro). The other chefs involved are Shaun Clouston (Logan Brown), Jacob Brown (The Larder) and Terry Lowe (Black Barn Restaurant and Vineyard).

DSC04091 540x300 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

For dessert we tried to the two dessert options. The Whittaker’s Dark Chocolate Pavé with fresh raspberries, Manuka honey cream and damson plum coulis was the ubiqutious ‘something chocolate’ on the menu and we both agreed that the Licoricello pannacotta with vodka lime parfait and pistachio wafer was a more exciting dish.  I particularly loved the texture of the pannacotta – smooth, silky and not a hint of rubber at all, plus the sharp hit of 42 Below vodka.

DSC04097 540x331 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

DSC04104 540x394 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

The hospitality staff have been pulled from various Wellington establishments and service is very smooth when you consider that the staff are working together for the first time.

DSC04116 540x365 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

As a marketing and awareness campaign, the WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant is smart and it works. The food is delicious. The wine is delicious. The atmosphere is young and fun and the guy with the handlebar moustache turned out to be our friendly waiter for the night (and can be found at Duke Carvell’s Swan Lane Emporium back home). Who knew that Wellington could be a gastronomic travel destination?

Plus only after dining at WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant was I aware that Wellington was only 3 hours away from Melbourne (and Sydney and Brisbane) and considered by Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2011 to be the coolest little capital in the world – two facts emblazoned on the dining room wall in front of me.

DSC04113 402x540 HOT: WLG Wellington Pop up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

Tickets have sold out but there are walk ins available each night and unreserved outdoor seating. Just go!

WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant (taking over Rue de Fleurus for a two-week period) 153 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Tuesday 15 November – Sunday 27 November 6pm til late. Closed Mondays

 

HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

DSC03187 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

Out of all the dining venues in Federation Square, my favourite is the Transport/Taxi/Transit complex.

Transport is great for a quiet riverside drink (though it can get rowdier on weekends), I often take visitors to experience the slick food and expansive Yarra views at the high-end Taxi restaurant and we even arranged our post-wedding drinks at Transit.

A few months ago Taxi introduced the Bento Lunch, a more accessible way to try their Japanese inspired fine dining menu. For $45 you receive a meal consisting of four separate courses of sushi/sashimi, a soup, a main course and dessert. It’s bento without the actual bento.

I was invited to sample the Bento Lunch and was most impressed with the quality of the produce and the startlingly fresh flavours.

DSC03167 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

The lunch commenced with a platter of super-fresh salmon, tuna and alfonsino (a deepwater fish I’d never tried before) served with a sinus-clearing hit of freshly grated wasabi. So different from the insipid green toothpaste you often get served.

DSC03170 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

The soup course was a salmon miso soup with wakame seaweed and shimeji mushrooms. I don’t tend to get very excited by soup – I can take it or leave it (and most of the time I leave it, just takes up room unnecessarily in the stomach). However, this light broth had a very rich flavour as the soup stock had been made with ground salmon bones. Loved the slithery little mushrooms as well.

DSC03198 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

The main course offered two choices – snapper or pork belly. I chose the sticky pork belly with seared scallops and a spicy red nam jim sauce. I loved the strong flavour combination in this dish but the pork belly lacked the crisp crackling that I really love about the cut. On the other hand, the snapper with red pepper essence and crumbed mussels presented a very crispy skin.

DSC03195 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

Dessert was a lineup of three sorbets – mandarin, green tea and passionfruit and coconut. I particularly loved the punchy freshness of the mandarin scoop.

DSC03199 HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

The Taxi Bento Lunch is offered seven days a week and is available with a changing menu right up till Christmas. It’s not your everyday grab-a-quick-bite-in-your-lunch-hour option but it is a great opportunity to try out Taxi at a cheaper price point. The service, views and food are all top rate – who needs to know you only paid $45 for it?

For other bento-style lunch options around town, check out Yu-u, Nobu and Matteo’s.

Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne +61 3 9654 8808

minilink HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

The Town Hall Hotel is a handsome gastropub where you can expect fine dining quality of food and service, without having to wear your best frock or bear the fine dining prices.

P1080285 HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

The bistro menu has a heavy Italian focus and spans small, medium and large plates to cater for any appetite (they also have a sharing bar menu). A particularly good deal is their lunch special available Tuesday to Saturdays – 2 courses (with items mostly from the a la carte menu), a glass of wine and coffee for $35.

We visited for lunch on a weekday and were greeted warmly by the waiter. There were only a few diners so service was very attentive, with water glasses filled, orders promptly taken and crumbs and plates cleared.

P1080270 HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

A friend had recommended their amazing gnocchi so W ordered a medium dish of gnocchi with a simple sauce of aged balsamic, butter and parmesan ($20). D also ordered a medium dish of seafood taglierini ($25) while I went the full hog with the two course lunch special, selecting a sweet corn risotto with quail and crispy pancetta and a raspberry and vanilla cassata for dessert.

The gnocchi lived up to expectations – soft pillows that melted in your mouth with the texture of marshmallow rather than potato and flour. Can anyone tell me what the trick is for such featherlight dumplings?

P1080272 HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

The pasta was equally simple but well-executed – a seafood melange tossed in a classic olive oil, garlic and chilli mix served over delicate, al dente pasta.

P1080276 HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

My risotto was perfect – a smooth porridge-like consistency while still retaining the bite of individual rice grains. The dessert was very berry sweet and very cold, a perfect way to appreciate the warm Spring weather on the day.

P1080280 HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

I’ve also had dinner at the Town Hall Hotel before, when the dining room was much busier, but I think I actually prefer the quieter ambience of the lunchtime. Either way, it’s a refined yet relaxed gastropub that’s worth a visit.

Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy +61 3 9416 5055

minilink HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

DSC02859 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

I can think of no better way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon than in front of an open fireplace drinking tea. Better still, drinking tea, eating cakes and lounging around reading an Evelyn Waugh novel.

DSC02899 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

I recently indulged in my perfect rainy-day afternoon scenario with High Tea at the Lobby Lounge of The Westin Hotel. The Lobby Lounge is on the ground floor of the hotel and is a space set apart from the main reception marked by leather lounges, an open fireplace and bookshelves. It’s quiet enough to read a book and the leather bucket seats are just right for sinking into.

The Westin is all about contemporary glamour and so their high tea is a modern take on the traditional afternoon tea. For $45 ($55 including a flute of Chandon NV Brut) you receive unlimited tea or coffee plus sweet and savoury morsels presented on a sleek tiered platter reminiscent of a vintage drinks trolley. The teas from Jing Tea range from black, green, white and herbal infusions and I tried the White Peony tea and the whole rosebuds. Each pot would normally cost $7 so if you really like drinking tea then unlimited tea is good value!

DSC02865 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

Tier 1 contained two scones – original and cranberry and raisin. They were quite crusty on the outside and I feared that they might be dry but in fact they were light and fluffy inside. Not the best scones I’ve ever had but nice enough with jam and cream.

DSC02894 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

Tier 2 held the savoury bites and they weren’t just the standard cucumber sandwiches. First up, smoked leg ham, brie and semi-dried cherry tomato in a black olive and parmesan ciabatta. A mouthful of a description and a delicious mouthful too. The smoked chicken with apple and walnut compote filling was a little tasteless in comparison, though I did like the crunchy sunflower seeds in the polenta bun. To round out the savouries, a teensy smoked salmon tart and a classic crustless sandwich of egg mayonnaise and watercress.

DSC02884 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

Tier 3 was a colourful array of sweet delights. I liked the pastry of the vanilla marscapone and fresh fruit tart and the lemon tart but the pistachio macaron was too sticky and wet in texture. The two chocolate desserts – a chocolate creme brulee and black forest slice – were a really decadent end to the afternoon tea and I could feel myself dozing over my book as the sugar coma took hold.

DSC02873 HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

I enjoyed The Westin’s contemporary take on high tea and it’s a nice pit stop after some city shopping. High tea is served on weekends from 12-4pm and bookings are recommended as there are only five tables in the Lobby Lounge.

Love afternoon tea? You can also try The Langham and Stranger’s Corridor.

High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne +61 3 9635 2222
minilink HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

P1080185 HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

The pizzeria Queen Margaret is not named as a reference to QEII’s sister, but to Queen Margherita of Savoy, the first Queen of the united Italy and for whom the magherita pizza was named.

Queen Margaret boasts eighteen (!) pizza varieties on its chalkboard menu, spearheaded by not just one but three riffs on the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil margherita pizza.

My Italian friend tells me that the only way to judge a pizzeria is by its margherita, but I’m actually not such a fan of it myself so I’ll leave someone else (namely Melbourne Gastronome, who was sitting at the next table) to report back on the comparative qualities of the three margheritas.

Instead, our table of three ordered three pizzas – Sock it To Me (tomato, hot salami, mozzarella, olives, roasted peppers $17), Easy Tiger (tomato, prawns, fior di latte, chilli, cherry tomatoes, basil $18) and Just Magic (mushrooms, thyme, pancetta, mozzarella $18) plus the QM Salad of rocket, pear, fennel, parmesan, wanuts and balsamic dressing to share.

P1080166 HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

The pizzas came out promptly and hooray! presliced. I loved the heady aroma of the earthy mushrooms and crispy pancetta on the Just Magic and the prawn pizza had a satisfying chilli heat to it, compared to the hot salami which wasn’t very hot at all.

P1080170 HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

As for the bases, they had the bubbly misshapen texture that I like and a base that held the fresh ingredients without turning into a soggy mess. However, if I’m nit-picking the  base was a little too bready – I prefer a bit more chew to my dough (my pizza gold standard is still Ladro and Supermaxi). Having a glance around at other diners it seemed that most people had also left the puffy crusts on their plate.

P1080172 HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

Our salad was deliciously fresh through relatively pricey at $9.50 for a small bowl given that the pizzas range from a very reasonable $15 to $19.  If you must eat something green with your meal you might be better off with spinach, greens and lemon for $6. For those who don’t want pizza there are two non-pizza option – lasagna al forno or a spinach and ricotta agnolotti with tomato sauce (both $18). They also cater for those who can’t eat the wheat-based pizza bases with gluten-free pizza at an extra $2.

Although I think we could have quite happily skipped dessert, a bit of pressure from the blogger at the table decided that we’d share two desserts – a flourless chocolate cake with sour cherry and coconut ice-cream and an apple galette with rum raisin ice-cream (both $12). While both sweets were quite good they were not remarkable and I think if your appetite is not up to it the desserts are not a must-do. The rum raisin icecream was missing a lot of the rich rum flavour and the chocolate cake was a fairly standard affair.

P1080179 HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

The restaurant was buzzy and casual on a Friday night, full of friends, families and local couples. Service was prompt, though our sweet waitress seemed a little unexperienced and unsure of herself – I’m sure time will cure that.

Our total bill came to a very reasonable $30 a head without drinks and we walked out with bellies extremely full, with much talk of unbuttoning waistlines and having a lie-down.

Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy +61 3 9482 5988
Tue-Sun 5pm – late
minilink HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

DSC02567 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

I can’t cope with Melbourne’s growing trend for restaurants that don’t take bookings (too uncertain, too impatient, too hungry). But I really wanted to have dinner at Ilona Staller. What to do?

Answer – dispatch my Balaclavan friends R and A to plonk themselves at the bar at 6:30pm on a Saturday night while I navigated the car park known as Punt Road southwards. I arrived at 7:30 and we had our table by 7:45. Success!

Ilona Staller is the sister restaurant of St Kilda institution Cicciolina and the link between the two restaurants is clear. La Cicciolina was the nickname of one Ilona Staller, a Hungarian porn star, Italian politician, wife of Jeff Koons and an intriguing character all round.  Both restaurants serve modern European bistro food in a relaxed yet polished setting. Both restaurants have a no booking policy but are famed for their bar service and cocktails so most people don’t mind lingering for a drink until space becomes available.

DSC02558 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

The one thing that is different with Ilona Staller is that it’s housed in a huge Art Deco corner building with its name emblazoned in blue neon, the opposite of the small and unassuming Cicciolina back bar. The upstairs bar looks like a mid-century vintage lounge room, while the bar downstairs is verging on what I’d term Italian porn-star chic with zebra print bar stools and gaudy neon.

DSC02554 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

Anyway, enough with the comparisons. To the food! The menu starts with small bites then moves to entrees, pastas and main courses. The pasta dishes are large enough to satisfy a main course appetite so unless you’re game to eat the traditional Italian way with pasta and a main course, I suggest you pick one or the other.

DSC02543 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

I decided on a small bite of calamari with aioli ($12.50) and an entree of prawn and anchovy souffle ($19.50). The calamari is ostensibly a bar snack but I think the lightly battered tender rings are actually a really good value option as an entree. As for the souffle, while I enjoyed the subtle flavours of the seafood and the prosecco veloute, I can’t say I really loved it.

DSC02541 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

Frankly, I wished I was a bit hungrier and had ordered one of my friend’s more substantial dishes – plump orzo in a vegetarian mix fragrant with garlic ($25.50) and a perfectly al dente risotto with shredded duck ($29.50).

DSC02534 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

DSC02536 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

It’s almost a given that I will order any souffle shown to me, so hence it was with dessert. My second souffle of the evening was a traditional chocolate souffle paired with cherry ice-cream ($15.50) – a grown-up version of a Cherry Ripe if you will. The souffle was small but intensely chocolatey while being light and airy.

DSC02549 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

The bombe ($15) was also a hit – R exlaimed in wonderment that he’d never eaten anything like it before. A cross-section of meringue that was light yet at the same time substantial in flavour (not just an airy foam), enveloping a filling of smooth marscapone and a nugget of espresso gelati in the centre. To take it outside the ordinary, the unexpected addition of prunes poached in an espresso syrup.

DSC02548 HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

The restaurant was very busy on a Saturday night and we found the staff professional in dealing with a full house, constantly filling water glasses and attentive to taking orders quickly.

Ilona Staller is a smart restaurant doling out satisfying, well-executed dishes – a continuation of the 17 year old success story of Cicciolina. I’m sure Southside locals will love them both just as much.

Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle Street, Balaclava +61 3 9534 0488

Noon ‘til 11pm, 7 days
minilink HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

DSC02294 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central
Restauranter and tea merchant David Zhou has expanded his Oriental Teahouse empire to Melbourne Central. The entrance is not immediately obvious from Elizabeth Steet which is a shame as the fitout is gorgeous – warm and earthy tones beckon you inside while punches of firecracker red accentuate the concept’s Chinese origins.

I have blogged about the dumplings at David Zhou’s restaurant before and so I was excited to be invited to attend a Dumpling Masterclass with David at his new store. In my family dumpling making is a communal activity and each Chinese family has their own dumpling recipes, so I was particularly interested to see what David would be teaching about his dumplings.

The evening began with one of David’s steamed barbecue pork buns and a glass of sparkling wine. I think these pork are some of the best in Melbourne (and definitely better than Golden Dragon Palace, which I would otherwise rate as the best overall yum cha in Melbourne). The filling was recognisably pork and devoid of any flourescent red food colouring and the bun itself was pull-apart fluffy without a hint of stodge or sogginess.
DSC02224 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

The official proceedings began with quick demonstration by David of his dumpling filling – finely chopped cooked bok choy, pork mince and a succession of different condiments – light soy, dark soy, sesame oil and the secret ingredient, black Chinkiang vinegar. A small tablespoon of the filling was then twisted into a little egg wrapper pouch and every person got to fill their steamer with their creations.

DSC02232 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

DSC02226 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

As you can see, with my efforts I tried to experiment with different wrapping styles (that’s another thing my family does – everyone has a distinctive style so you can tell whose handiwork you’re eating).

DSC02236 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

The test is in the eating though and these dumplings were delicious! Juicy, with a thin silky wrapping and perfectly matched with the soy dipping sauce.

DSC02260 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

DSC02275 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

I could have had a lot more of these but fortunately Oriental Teahouse‘s expert chefs presented us with another steamer of their expertly wrapped dumplings using the very-hard-to-execute translucent crystal rice wrappers.

DSC02284 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

The final course was a small taster of one of the kitchen’s signature dishes, Szechuan Pepper Chicken – tender pieces of marinated chicken breast stir-fried in a mildly numbing velvety pepper sauce. It’s on the takeaway menu for a very reasonable $12.90 and I think it’s a healthy and tasty dinner option paired with steamed rice for those days where you’re just too tired to cook after work. You could even order ahead and pick it up on your way to the train station…

DSC02280 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

To complete the meal we were given some health-giving unfurling pearls of white tea. Oriental Teahouse has a large retail section of imported teas and tea accroutements, including these elegant hand made glass mugs. Tea tastings are offered to customers and the process is taken very seriously, as you can see with the special cup-warming procedures and drainage areas built-in into the bench.

DSC02263 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

At the end of the evening I noticed that the most popular yum cha dumplings were available frozen to take home. Over the next few nights RM and I shared the crystal prawn dumplings ($18.80 for 10), very juicy and addictive shanghai juicy pork/xiang long bao ($15.80 for 10), vegetarian dumplings ($15.80), those fantastic barbecue pork buns ($11.80 for 6) and some equally excellent egg custard buns ($8.90 for 6).

DSC02298 HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central

These are my favourite discovery about Oriental Teahouse! The dumplings are made fresh daily and snap frozen, so that when you take them home they are comparable to restauant quality. I was very impressed that the freezing didn’t seem to impact the taste or texture of any of the dumplings, even the ones containing fresh prawn. A whole steamer only required 6-10 minutes to cook and so they make a fantastic meal when you’re in a hurry. Honestly, I cannot recommend them enough – I’m going to keep a steady stock of them in my freezer for emergencies.

Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central +61 3 9600 4230

HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

P10708031 1024x729 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

I don’t shy away from being decisive on this blog so I’m going to make bold claim.

Golden Dragon Palace has the best yum cha in Melbourne.

So. I’ve put it out there now.

Of course, I haven’t eaten at every single yum cha restaurant in Melbourne. It’s possible that there are places that do even better dim sum than Golden Dragon Palace that I’ve not gotten to yet. Or you’ve been there and disliked it so much that you cannot believe that I would dream of saying such a thing.

But based on my knowledge of Cantonese food, including decades of eating yum cha (my mum has a diary entry saying that I was eating dim sum at 6 months old) and my journeys around Melbourne’s Chinese restaurants, Golden Dragon Palace is dim sum heaven.

It’s called Golden Dragon Palace but I wouldn’t really describe it as a palace – more a brick behemoth containing elaborate wood carvings, porcelain vases and glass etchings. It serves dim sum from trolleys starting from 11:30am on weekdays and 11am on weekends, when it’s so popular that there are three sittings and bookings are advised.

P1070787 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

On a Friday it was reasonably full with a mostly Asian clientele. From my experience Chinese people are very discerning about their food and hold no loyalties to a particular restaurant as soon as the standards drop. In fact, I’ve known people to gossip about where a particular chef has defected to and the whole Chinese community will then troop along to the new restaurant to follow the master. So the fact that Golden Dragon Palace still attracts a large crowd on a weekday is testament to its solid reputation.

Food blogger Kat and I devoured steamer after plate after bowl of authentic Cantonese dim sum and were very shocked when our bill came to a hefty $78!  We ate a lot but be warned that it’s not the cheapest yum cha in town. However, the quality and freshness of the food is undeniable (even though not every single dish was successful) and I’m willing to pay more for that.

The dishes you should not miss include the har gao and cheong fun. They both used juicy fat prawns, with the har gao wrapping the prawns in a delicate, translucent wrapper and the made-to-order cheong fun consisting of a steaming mass of prawns within rows of silky and slippery rice noodles.

P1070785 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

The tofu stuffed with prawn was also excellent. It’s not normally a dish that I get very excited about but this silken, almost eggy, tofu was amazing (and those big fat prawns making another appearance), far removed from the usual white cubes of brick-like tofu.

P1070780 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

I loved the crumbly sweet pastry of these chicken pies, though I would have like more evidence of chicken and less cornflour in the filling.

P1070795 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

The desserts were a highlight. The egg tart pastry is very flaky and light while the filling was barely set and not too sweet. The sponge cake (not pictured), warm straight from the steamer, was incredibly moreish and one of the best I’ve eaten.

P1070800 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

The mango pudding had a subtle flavour of mango, unlike other varieties which are often a fluorescent orange mass of fake mango flavours.

P1070797 HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

Next time I’ll definitely give the xiao long bau a miss. Kat pointed out that she normally wouldn’t order a Shanghaiese speciality at a Cantonese restaurant and she’s made a good point, because the xiao long bao was more like a crude meatball wrapped in a thick skin. No delicacy in the flavours or textures, almost no soup in the parcel and slivers of ginger inside the dumpling instead of served on the side.

Kat and I disagreed on the pork buns. I thought that it wasn’t fluffy enough but quite liked the non-food-coloured pork filling. Kat liked the texture of the bun but didn’t think much of the filling. So it’s a dish that I’d return for again, in the hope that the solidity of the bun was a one-off.

And yes, there will definitely be a return visit. Just looking at the photos is making me drool!

What are your other recommendations for yum cha in Melbourne?

Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe +61 3 9852 4086
Yum cha daily 11:30am-3pm, Sunday 11am – 3pm
Dinner 6pm till late
minilink HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

I am an unashamed omnivore – my favourite meat is duck, followed closely by pork. So when I heard that a Duckfest was being organised at The Provincial Hotel, how could I say no?

The dining room at The Provincial has an earthy stone-set warmth which is a fitting backdrop to the rustic European style food provided by chef Paul Cooper. For Duckfest Paul devised a four course menu using Milawa ducks, with a fifth dessert course (pretty hard to make a duck dessert) for around forty people at $50 a head.

DSC01289 HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

First up was a pat of duck rillette on top of toasted brioche. A sweet little canape to get the tastebuds excited.

DSC01298 HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

Second course was a poached duck egg with duck neck sausage, duck heart and duck liver. I am a little scared of offal but the duck heart was merely a piece of duck meat mingled amongst the landscape of other duck cuts. The poached egg varied in consistency amongst the plates on my table – some were done perfectly with just a bit of runniness while my yolk had congealed into an unappetising goo so I left it.

DSC01300 HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

A winter duckfest would not be complete without some hearty cassoulet. A not very photogenic but very tasty dish for four people sharing a warming bowl of confit duck legs, Toulouse sausage, soft pork belly and just-right beans baked with a crispy crumble topping. I mopped up the majority of the bowl with the soft bread encrusted with rock salt.

DSC01309 HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

The final savoury course was a pan-roasted duck breast, caramelised endive and bacon tart fine, rhubarb puree and duck orange sauce. A tarted up version of a classic French duck a l’orange if you will and just as delicious as the original though more towards the sweet end of the spectrum.

DSC01315 HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

Dessert was an unusual pumpkin seed nougat with chocolate mousse, almonds and honeycomb. I’ve never seen pumpkin seed in a dessert before and it was sweet and nutty in the pillowy soft frozen nougat. A winning end to a fabulous meal.

The Provincial is holding various themed dinners throughout winter, including game dinners and a Bastille Day celebration. For a review of The Provincial’s standard a la carte menu, click here.

Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Dining Room Opening Hours
Monday to Sunday
Lunch 12pm to 3pm
Dinner 6pm to 10pm

minilink HOT: Duckfest, The Provincial Hotel, 299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy