George Megalogenis savours an impressive Japanese meal with a green twist
SOMETIMES the smallest items on a restaurant bill can be the most revealing. At the 100 Mile Cafe, in Melbourne, the table water enjoys price parity with a glass of wine: Yarra Valley Still 750ml ($8); Terra Felix Marsanne ($8).
I do not notice this detail until after the event, but hindsight can be a powerful thing.
The writer in me thinks: ‘‘ Great, I have an opening paragraph that doesn’t mention either the venue or the food.’’ The diner in me groans: ‘‘ Rip off.’’ C’mon, admit it; no bottle of local water is worth $8, even in these climatically altered times.
For $8 you’d want to remember it. But, as I write this some time later, I can’t tell you if it tasted any different from Melbourne tap.
This restaurant is a new kid in a central business district shopping centre, the gargantuan Melbourne Central development. It is Paul Mathis’s sec- ond stab at a green statement in the same space.
The previous incarnation, SOS, was a short-lived Italian-style restaurant that served only ecologically sustainable seafood and vegetarian meals (and was favourably reviewed in Travel & Indulgence , October 7-8, 2006).
The hook for the Japanese-style 100 Mile Cafe is that ostensibly about 99 per cent of the content is sourced from a little imaginary back yard within a 100-mile (161km) radius of Melbourne. The exceptions are the miso from NSW, the coffee from Byron Bay and the gin from Tasmania.
‘‘ Local food is fresher and tastes better than food shipped long distances,’’ the restaurant boasts.
It also ‘‘ protects the environment’’ and ‘‘ helps make farming more profitable and selling farmland for development less attractive’’. How very Japanese. Of course, when the Japanese tell us they can’t import our rice because they prefer their local suppliers, our farmers mutter something about free trade. But I digress.
The retro economics of the 100 Mile Cafe doesn’t mean the food is no good.
M and I arrive within a minute of each other and we are in a mood to unwind. She has a glass of the Terra Felix Marsanne while I have the first of three Crittenden ($10 each).
The menu looks intimidatingly wholesome. Beside each dish is a calculation of the average distance the produce has to travel to get to home plate. For entree M has the yaki-niku style porterhouse with asparagus and a mizuna, pear and walnut salad (av. 69 miles, or 111km, $18). I take a punt on the house-made vegetable gyoza (Japanese dumplings) with a sesame vinaigrette (av. 70 miles, $16.50).
M doesn’t share, which is her way of saying it’s delicious. I return the compliment by gobbling all of the gyoza. This dish is a rare treat. I’m a big fan of the regular gyoza with pork. But the vegetarian alternative is probably better than any I’ve had before. The vegetable filling is chunky and the sesame vinaigrette gives it a nice kick.
The wines go well with the entrees, so I sneak in a second glass of the sav blanc before the mains come, then a third.
Our mains also present lessons in pristine dining. M has chosen a second entree for hers; she is munching away at the chicken and shitake remoulade done tempura style (av. 52.5 miles, $17) and offers me a portion. It is nice, though I’m not the one to rate chicken, it being my least-preferred meat.
I’m having the suki yaki, which is scotch fillet slices and spinach rolled in cabbage, tofu and shitake with enoki mushrooms in soy, sake and mirin dashi ($32). The distance travelled is 67.2 miles.
I’m not sure if it is the restaurant’s theme that has us thinking this way, but M and I nod in agreement that the food is seriously fresh. The suki yaki is good clean fun. There is nothing complicated about this dish and hindsight tells me it is reasonably priced when compared with the H O.
The paradox of eating food this healthy is that dessert suddenly feels like a betrayal. If the food had been vegan stodge, I’d have picked the stickiest sweet to awaken my palate. But not now.
We baulk for a moment, though. The warm bitter chocolate fondant with cherry ice cream and pistachio praline (all desserts are $14, and list no miles travelled) is tempting. But we pass, and, instead, order on spec a glass each of the Long Gully Ice Riesling ($9). It looks intriguing on the wine list and doesn’t disappoint. Again, the word that comes to mind is fresh.
The restaurant has one last state- ment to make as we prepare to leave. We are given a packet of onion seeds to take home, a form of politically correct doggy bag I have not encountered before. Only problem is, this city slicker doesn’t have a garden. That’s why I have to go out to eat healthy food. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
100 Mile Cafe Level three, Melbourne Central, 211 La Trobe St, Melbourne; (03) 9654 0808; www.100milecafe.com.au. Open: Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. Cost: $60-$75 a head, if you skip the $8 table water. Drinks: Local reds and whites on offer, about 50 of each. Boutique beers from local brewers. Getting there: Take the escalator on the corner of Swanston and La Trobe streets. If you try the back way to the shopping centre, via Elizabeth Street, you’ll surely get lost. Reason to return: For the food, even if green politics aren’t to your taste.
Good health: Melbourne Central’s new 100 Mile Cafe serves fresh, locally sourced produce