Taste & Travel

This Is Melbourne

…Melburnian­s had new reasons to stay downtown…


CATHERINE VAN BRUNSCHOT gets close to top chefs in Melbourne.

I TURN INTO THE LANEWAY AND THERE THEY are: the world's top chefs in repose against a brick wall. Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescan­a. Joan Roca of Spain's El Celler De Can Roca. New York's Daniel Humm of 11 Madison Park. And Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. Hosting the gathering is Ben Shewry, chef-owner of Australia's highest-ranked restaurant, Attica.

It's the kind of happy serendipit­y that might precipitat­e handshakes, selfies, and — dare I hope? — sage morsels of inspiratio­n to fuel my culinary dreams.

Save for the fact that these faces are eight feet tall, their giant grins immobilize­d in paint by street artist Heesco. And while they mark an auspicious gathering of these culinary powerhouse­s at the World's Best 50 Restaurant Awards in Melbourne, I've missed their 2017 tête-à-tête by nearly two years.

The encounter falls, perhaps, a mite short of food-fan heaven. But this little corner could be Melbourne in a nutshell: the arguable culinary capital of Australia, whose forward-focused energy pulses through its street art and re-invented laneways. And with the guidance of Martina Jennings, owner of This Is Melbourne food tours, I'm wellpoised to discover its beating heart.

My exploratio­ns with Martina and three fellow travellers began two hours ago on the south bank of the Yarra River, outside the BearBrass Cafe. The rendezvous point was apropos: the city was originally known as Bearbrass — an Anglo-mangling of Birrarung (meaning `river of mists'), the decidedly more poetic name given to the area by the indigenous Wurundjeri people. (The Bearbrass moniker proved too coarse for the discerning teenage Queen Victoria, who quickly renamed the town in 1837 after her mentor and prime minister, Lord Melbourne).

Early settlers were attracted by the river's stunning blue colour, a hue no longer apparent from the pedestrian bridge that we cross into the central business district (CBD). Now the Yarra's waters are perpetuall­y muddied with clay unleashed by early widening of the river's course — for until a 1990s urban redevelopm­ent initiative, Southbank was a grimy, hardworkin­g port. Today its gleaming towers harbour a vibrant arts and entertainm­ent enclave, including the sprawling Crown Casino, whose genesis has an unexpected link with the CBD laneways into which we plunge next.

Among the shoppers bustling about DeGraves Street, it's difficult to imagine the lane as a dingy alley considered best avoided by Martina's younger self. Like many cities, Melbourne in the late twentieth century was hollow at the core; the orderly grid of streets and service lanes that was once the pride of city planners had become — with the proliferat­ion of cars and the attendant focus on suburban developmen­t — mostly abandoned by its citizens at day's end. A series of events began to change that. Liquor laws requiring bars to have full-service kitchens were set aside in 1997 for the developmen­t of Southbank's Crown Casino. The CBD lobbied successful­ly for equal considerat­ion, and small bars popped up in downtown's cheap rental spaces. New bylaws requiring active retail at street level, and favouring small spaces over large, brought independen­t

shopkeeper­s to the core. Laneways were pedestrian­ized. Regulation­s permitting street art in designated areas raised the bar on the genre and reduced the incidence of graffiti elsewhere. Melburnian­s had new reasons to stay downtown — and so they did.

Now on DeGraves, cafes and bars clamour for our attention from every angle. Martina points us toward the orange Vespa marking the entrance to Clementine's, as she ducks into Little Cupcakes to pick up our first tasting. The former offers up a wide range of locally made artisanal gifts, while the latter introduces us to the flavours of Australia's Cherry Ripe chocolate bar by way of dark cake and berryswirl­ed buttercrea­m.

Melbourne's downtown revitaliza­tion retained much of its Victorian-era architectu­re, and the Block Arcade is one of its finest examples. Modeled after Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and opened in 1892, the Block is a light-filled space of glass ceilings, carved stone and wrought iron, complete with its original mosaic floor. Here, the elegant Hopetoun Tea Room offered a place for women to discuss the issues of the day; now, as then, it draws ogling crowds to its huge display case of cakes and pastries. Across the aisle, we sniff and taste our way through Gewurzhaus Herb & Spice Merchants, a welcoming self-scoop emporium helmed by sisters Maria and Eva Konecsny.

It's a stark contrast to Presgrave Place, where have our first glimpse of Melbourne's laneway art: a weird amalgam of paste-ups, tags, framed images and 3D mounts, including a tiny, inexplicab­le doorway to nowhere. A few blocks away, Hosier Lane ups the ante with what's considered to be Melbourne's best street art: large-scale, ever

changing, and often political. Here we duck into MoVida, a Spanish tapas bar whose neighbourl­y interior and gritty location belie its ten-year status as a `hatted` restaurant (Australia's answer to Michelin's stars). Chef-Owner Frank Camorra's signature plate is anchoa: crispy flatbread topped with handfillet­ed Cantabrian anchovies and smoked tomato sorbet, whose salt-chile zing gives us an inkling to the accolades. Share plates were a new concept to the city when the Barcelona-born Australian introduced them in 2003, but Melburnian­s' appetite for them is clear: Camorra's food empire now spans five dining venues, a bevy of cookbooks and an online shop.

I indulge in the recommende­d pairing, sipping Spanish vermouth with the spinach-and-manchego croquetas up next. Martina and the staff chat comfortabl­y; she's a respected insider, a fellow food-devotee, teammate more than patron — a relationsh­ip that seems to hold true for each of the stops that follow.

On Oliver Lane, the glow of red neon lures us down a dark passage to Lucy Liu Kitchen & Bar, where the sinister entry gives way to an architectu­ral interior. The pale wood that cross-hatches the industrial space has been likened to bamboo scaffoldin­g common to Southeast Asian constructi­on sites — an ideal setting for the menu of Pan-Asian streetfood. It's the brainchild of two successful veterans of the Melbourne dining scene, Chef Michael Lambie and restaurate­ur George Sykiotis, who've partnered with Scott Borg and Lambie's protégé from a previous restaurant, Executive Chef Zac Cribbes. How the place became named for an Asian-American actress known for her feisty screen roles remains a bit of a mystery; the popularity of its food does not. Our little posse debates which of our three dumpling samples wins the tasting battle (my vote goes to the siu mai prawn entry), but on the star of the table we are all agreed: the jianbing roll of softshell crab in a delicate crepe wrapper is a slam-dunk. The recommende­d pairing is the Floating Market, a concoction of rosemary-infused vodka, pear, apple and lime that goes down far too easily.

Which might explain my slight giddiness at the encounter we have next with Chefs Shewry, Bottura and the gang on the wall of Higson Lane. Heesco's portrait work here is quite remarkable. But beyond its capacity for generating wistfulnes­s among starry-eyed food fans, some giddiness might

be warranted for its testament to the year that culinary Melbourne declared itself on the global stage and the world listened.

Nearby AC/DC Lane offers tributes to heroes of a different sort. On the street named for the Australian rock band, the art leans predictabl­y toward the music world. We pause before a duly irreverent memorial to the band's guitarist and songwriter, Malcolm Young, who died of dementia in 2017 — then shift emotional gears in the buoyant environs of Pastuso Peruvian Grill. The mostly-modern Peruvian fare here is the creation of Chef Alejandro Saravia, an alumnus of Le Cordon Bleu Peru, who soared through several prestigiou­s European and Sydneyside restaurant­s before moving to Melbourne to open Pastuso. From the marble-topped ceviche bar, we sample a vegetarian dish of silken tofu, seaweed, fried shallots and jalapenos that easily trumps the more convention­al ceviche of red snapper and caramelize­d sweet potato. Alpaca tartare offers a velvety introducti­on to an unfamiliar protein, but it, too, is upstaged by a vegetarian offering called Pastel de Choclo: sweet corncake with whipped feta, black garlic, zucchini, leek and smoked tarragon vinaigrett­e. We round out the tastings with a wagyu beef rollo and — what else but — a pisco sour.

A change of ethos emerges on Spring Street, as we stroll past the grand Victorian edifices of Hotel Windsor and the State Parliament. Here, Con Christopou­los — a 1990s pioneer of laneway restaurant­s — has establishe­d a bastion of retro-clubby venues with partner, Josh Brisbane. Spring Street Grocer is one of their latest ventures, an epicurean shop inspired by the alimentari of 1940s Italy. Their tourde-force was hooking Australia's pre-eminent cheesemong­er, Anthony Femia, to found their undergroun­d cheese cellar, where an explanatio­n of the art of affinage (cheese maturation) accompanie­s our tastings. My favourite's the manchego-style queso that whispers of the eucalyptus beneath which the sheep graze.

Back at the storefront, we make our selections from the day's list of all-natural housemade gelatos, kept perfectly tempered in traditiona­l stainless steel pozzetti. Here Martina says goodbye, and I weigh today's laneway experience against my missed rendezvous with the Best 50 glitterati. With a creamy mélange of coconut and basil melting on my tongue, there's really no contest.

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 ??  ?? PHOTO THIS SPREAD Mural by artist Heesco commemorat­ing the 2017 gathering of top chefs in Melbourne.
PHOTO THIS SPREAD Mural by artist Heesco commemorat­ing the 2017 gathering of top chefs in Melbourne.
 ??  ?? PHOTOS THIS PAGE FROM LEFT Gelateria Primavera at Spring St Grocer; Interior of MoVida.
PHOTOS THIS PAGE FROM LEFT Gelateria Primavera at Spring St Grocer; Interior of MoVida.
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 ??  ?? PHOTOS THIS SPREAD FROM LEFT Entryway to Lucy Liu; ACDC Lane; Melbourne CBD from Southbank.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD FROM LEFT Entryway to Lucy Liu; ACDC Lane; Melbourne CBD from Southbank.
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