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Melbourne is all about quiet charm

Ain't no sunshine in Australia till you’ve enjoyed Melbourne, they say. While the city has none of Sydney’s in-your-face wow factor, it is like any cultured European city, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Mar 15, 2014 19:42 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Melbourne,Vir Sanghvi,Australia

Almost everywhere I went in Melbourne, I heard Ain’t No Sunshine, that old Bill Withers song. They played it in the hotel lobby. They played it in the shops and they played it in the restaurants. Which was ironic (but great: it is a terrific song) because Melbourne was blazing with sunshine. The heat wave of a month ago had subsided so the temperature was pleasant (shirt-sleeves weather all day) but the sun gave the city a bright glow as it bounced off the gleaming skyscrapers on to the roofs of the old buildings.

I’d been to Australia before but never to Melbourne. The old Australia we heard about, of swagmen, Crocodile Dundee and Sir Les Patterson, is dead. And Sydney is the new Australia’s advertisement for itself with an amazing harbour, the Opera House, and such world-famous chefs as Tetsuya, Peter Gilmore and Mark Best. Melbourne still looks a little like the old Australia; certainly it has none of Sydney’s in-your-face wow factor. But it has the quiet charm of a cultured European city. And like all great European cities, it takes a little time to discover all the things that make Melbourne so special.

Melbourne has none of Sydney’s in-your-face wow factor. But it has the quiet charm of a cultured European city

I was there for the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, a global event that showcases the best of the new Australia’s food and wine culture. We kicked off with what they called The World’s Longest Lunch. Over 1,500 people sat across each other on a long row of tables on the banks of the Yarra River, three of the city’s best chefs cooked a full meal, a winery supplied four different wines and an enthusiastic team of waiters provided restaurant-quality service. The food was okay (not easy to produce gourmet meals for 1,500 people) but the experience of sitting by the river, watching the Kookaburra birds and getting to know strangers – Australians must be among the world’s friendliest people – was magical.

You could choose what you wanted to do at the festival and most of the events I chose were wine-related. I’ll do a separate piece on Australia’s wines later but the food in Melbourne was quite extraordinary. Though we think of Australians as being Brits who were sent off to the southern hemisphere for a variety of reasons (not all of them creditable), the reality is that Australia has always been more multi-cultural than we realise. Even when there was a White Australia immigration policy (till the Seventies, after which it has been torn to shreds), the Europeans who came to Melbourne were not always from Britain.

The Italians got to Australia around the 1860s, even before later waves of Italian immigration hit America and you can see their influence everywhere, especially in the city’s coffee culture. Melbourne has more coffee shops and cafés per capita than any other city in the world. A good cup of coffee is easy to find and all the best cafés are hidden in little alleys and known only to locals and regulars.

The Greeks came here soon after and Melbourne boasts of having more Greeks (well, Australian-Greeks now) than any city in the world outside of Greece. Even the Chinese beat the immigration policy by getting to Melbourne during the Gold Rush (mid 19th century) on which the city’s prosperity is based. Australians claim that the dim sum was invented in Melbourne (well, I’m sure the Chinese have something to say about that!) but nobody can deny that the city has the world’s oldest Chinatown, older even than the Chinatowns in the US, which were created much later when Chinese workers were drafted to build the railroad.

The best cafés in Melbourne are hidden in little alleys and known only to locals and regulars (left). Also, Melbourne has the world’s oldest Chinatown, older even than the Chinatowns in the US (right)

And of course, there are Indians. (There are Indians everywhere!). If you call for a cab in Melbourne, the chances are that it will be driven by an Indian. It is as likely that the driver will claim that he is a student (well, he’s certainly there on a student visa) or that he originally got to Melbourne to enrol in a course of study of some description.

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival tries to capture some of the city’s diversity. For the Festival fortnight, they took over part of the riverfront and built a pop-up restaurant (or should that be ‘bob-up’– it was anchored to the Yarra River like a pontoon) and asked young chefs to design special menus. So, modern dim sum were on the same menu as a fermented brown rice risotto and a classic slow-braised pork dish.

Restaurants around the city reflect this ethos. I had dinner at Tonka, a small-plates place run by Adam D’Sylva, an Australian chef with an Italian mother and an Indian father. D’Sylva’s better-known place, Coda, reflects his Italian heritage but Tonka is his take on Indian flavours. Indians may find the food takes a little getting used to but the restaurant was packed out and noisy. Then there’s the excellent Longrain, an Australian-style Thai restaurant, which confirms the general view that Australian chefs (David Thompson, Dylan Jones, etc.) can turn out wonderful Thai food.

Not everything works. I had dinner at Spice Temple, a Chinese restaurant (branches in Sydney and Melbourne) run by Neil Perry who must be one of Australia’s most popular chefs. (His best-known restaurant is Rockpool.) The décor was borrowed from Hakkasan in London but the food was pretty terrible. I ate eight dishes looking not for authenticity (a great chef is allowed to play around with recipes) but for flavour. Except for one beef dish which was so-so, the rest of the food lacked flavour or originality. And there wasn’t much authenticity either.

Other celebrity chefs fared better. John Lawson, a Brit, made his reputation in the Gordon Ramsay stable (Gordon Ramsay At The London in New York and then Maze in Melbourne) but his food is far better than the stuff Ramsay turns out these days: a Ramsay staple of scallops on cauliflower purée was elevated by the addition of a slow-cooked pig’s cheek; a duck breast was technically perfect (crisp on the outside and pink inside); and a great roasted barramundi (a favourite fish with Australian chefs) lost out to an even better accompaniment, an almond mushroom. This is a mushroom that looks pretty normal but fills your mouth with the flavour of almond after five seconds of chewing.

I ate the best meal I’ve eaten in the southern hemisphere over lunch one sunny afternoon at Vue de Monde, a stunning restaurant owned by Shannon Bennett, among Australia’s most highly regarded chefs. Vue de Monde is on the 55th floor of the Rialto building and offers spectacular views of Melbourne. Unlike most expensive restaurants run by celebrity chefs, this one is built around an open kitchen and there are no tablecloths, just dark, textured kangaroo hide which is tacked to the table.

I ate the best meal I’ve eaten in the southern hemisphere at a stunning restaurant, Vue de Monde (left), I ate seared kangaroo (centre), a barramundi (right) served two ways, one of which was an amusing take on Kentucky Fried Chicken, among many other great dishes at Vue de Monde

The presentation of the food is unusual without being too gimmicky. The bread comes in a kangaroo leather pouch with heated rocks inside and is eaten off thin slabs of polished bluestone. What look like stones placed randomly on the table open up to reveal salt and pepper and space for butter. The Christofle cutlery (specially made, I would imagine) is etched with botanical forms that reach up the blades of the knives and the handles of the forks.

The food just kept coming. I was hosted by Melanie de Souza, who old Calcutta hands will remember from her days with the Oberoi group in the 1980s, and who is now general manager of Tourism Victoria. Melanie has been there before but even she was taken aback by the procession of dishes: truffle marshmallow, smoked eel topped with chocolate praline, seared kangaroo, a barramundi served two ways, one of which was an amusing take on Kentucky Fried Chicken, little morsels of Blackmore wagyu served inside a marrow-bone with more Wagyu fat shaved on top of it, and an absolutely perfect soufflé served with chocolate mousse. There was lots more food (I reckon we did something like 15 small courses) but I really can’t remember all of it.

Suffice it to say that I ate things I never believed I would eat, let alone like so much: duck’s tongues, lamb’s heart, young wallaby and God alone knows what else. There was not a single dud dish in the whole meal. Critics – such as my old mate Bruce Palling – have complained about the debt Vue de Monde owes to El Bulli. For instance, there was a palate cleaner of fresh lemon balm, parsley sage flowers and more, which the chef then blitzed with liquid nitrogen at the table and asked guests to pound with a pestle to crumble. The chef then ladled cucumber sorbet on top so I guess the dish was very molecular in its conception. And there is an acknowledged debt to Noma: Bennet’s head chef at Vue de Monde, Cory Campbell worked there. But given that I’ve never been to El Bulli or Noma, I have to say I was entranced by the food without being unduly troubled by questions of provenance.

So, should you go to Melbourne? My view is that you should start your trip with three days in Sydney, then spend a couple of days somewhere scenic (Kangaroo Island, the Great Barrier Beef etc.) and finally give yourself four or five days to get to know Melbourne. Australia needs about 10 days (bare minimum) anyway. And Melbourne should be the city you get to when you’ve begun to understand the country. Ain’t no sunshine in Australia till you’ve enjoyed Melbourne.

Photos: Getty Images

From HT Brunch, March 16

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First Published: Mar 13, 2014 16:31 IST