by Mei Leong
Mountains of sweets at Abla’s Patisserie, Prahran Markets.
Leaving with one overused credit card, blisters and an even bigger food baby, this last trip to Melbourne was a blast. We ventured into Melbourne’s inner city suburbs and I promptly fell in love with Melbourne all over again (I still love Perth but, you know). Here’s a run down of the places we hit over three days and two nights. Apologies in advance for the photo heavy post!
(Directory’s at the end of the post.)
Pear-fect pastry at French Fantasties.
There’s a French ‘neighbourhood’ of three shops on Toorak road. There’s France Soir (apparently a very good French bistro – haven’t been so maybe next time…) and another two shopfronts combining a traiteur and boulangerie called French Fantasies. Once you look into the traiteur’s window, you’ll see why it’s called French Fantasies – it’s baguettes, pies, rillettes and mustards, wall to wall.
The imperfect, perfect snail.
However since it was breakfast time (even I can’t stomach a pie that early) we hopped into the boulangerie. On display were big slices of cheesecake, long, broad eclairs and wide as your hand palmiers. Seriously, I don’t know how French women don’t get fat.
We managed to get one of the last snails (which according to C are ‘THE best in Melbourne’). Sinfully buttery, its soft layers were curled around the custard and plump, soaked sultanas. It may not look like much, but there’s perfection in imperfection at work here. Even the crust was caramelised to the point it resembled its namesake gastropod.
The pear pastry (also the last of its kind that day) was darn good. Layers upon layers were crisp with the tang of cultured butter and fragrant with the vanilla soaked fruit. The coffee wasn’t half bad too. This place is definitely worth a stop – if only to drop in and speak to handsome French men…. (It’s amazing what an accent can do.)
With its dark interior, mirrored bar and waiters in bow ties, Bamboo House does old school proud. Perhaps even better than Flower Drum. Patronised by middle aged business men (the younger and Asian populace tend to favour Shark Fin Inn just over the road), the restaurant is more a treat than a regular weeknight dinner stop. Especially if you come for their specialty, duck.
Before diving into some duck, I highly recommend starting off with some of the pan fried beef dumplings. Simply put, they’re excellent in every way (inside is a wagyu or similar quality filling, outside a flexible dough skin fried to a crisp).
Sichuan tea smoked duck on steamed lotus buns.
So back to the duck. As with every pièce de résistance, it arrived with a flourish. It’s proudly shown to us for our approval before the buns are split and filled with slices of smoked duck and lashings of hoisin sauce. We showed our approval by gobbling them up in record time.
The dish is almost perfect. The cute-as-a-button buns are cross hatched to resemble a lotus flower and are cute as a butoon. Each is light, barely yeasted and sweet. It takes a couple of chews for the faint tea smoke to come out of the duck and when it does it is sublime. The mild smokiness adds another complexity to the sweet sauce, fatty duck skin, acidic spring onion and pillowy bun. Oh my.
Sausages at the Prahran Markets.
Pastries and duck tend to go to the hips, so it’s just as well Melbourne is a city for walking (that is, when the weather cooperates). Prahran Markets make up the triumvirate of the city’s famous markets but, unlike South Melbourne or the Queen Vic, it’s a lot more casual with a sprawled layout. There are also hardly any tourists about.
If you ever visit, there are two vendors of note in the main hall. The potato guy (M J Mow Gourmet Potatoes – his family’s had a stall at these markets for over 120 years!) is rather famous for having, well, a lot of spuds. Rare, common and in between, every potato in season is represented. There’s also Damien Pike (aka mushroom guy). He’s the man to see if you have money to burn on edible flowers or if you have a hankering for white truffles during summer. The markets are also a good place for organics, with quite a few specialty shops surrounding the main hall.
The meat hall is utterly gorgeous with piles of flesh, sausage and fowl catching the eye. Like all good Melbourne markets, oysters are available freshly shucked to order.
Lobsters awaiting their fate.
If you love Lebanese sweets, then you have to – repeat have to – visit Alba’s Patisserie at the Prahran Markets. There are little mountains of baklava, date filled ma’mouls and many other syrup soaked, buttery treats (and freshly made Turkish delight) for a dollar or two each.
Pre-packed boxes of Abla’s sweets make great take home gifts, each containing a small bite of almost everything in the display. It’s a nice spot for people watching too, it’s right by the entrance and tram stop. It would be hard to beat an afternoon here. settled in with a pot of fresh mint tea (I detest mint but a girl can dream…) and something sweet, like the dainty pistachio bites.
The Essential Ingredient
From the entrance it doesn’t seem like much, but The Essential Ingredient is mecca for food, the kitchen and anything that falls in between. In fact the shop (in my opinion) is the main attraction of the Prahran Markets. There’s a ton of French crockery (ever wanted a gravy boat shaped like a cow – it’s here), cookbooks, a wealth of knives and tapas clay dishes. The company seems to supply commercial kitchens so there’s a big range of baking equipment, like eclair flexi-pans, panettone paper cases, macaron kits and fancy cake tins.
But where the store really comes into its own is confectionary food stuffs. There’s a table covered in coloured chocolate, bulk bags of Callebaut chocolate, powdered egg whites (great for stabilising macarons), rare flavourings and more.
The food section is especially good for hampers because you could make an entire kit – like a paella kit complete with pan, smoked paprika and rice – and pop it into a cute wooden crate stamped with The Essential Ingredient duck. Upstairs hosts book signings and cooking lessons that are well worth keeping an eye out for.
I could spend all day in here. Boy I wished we had an Essential Ingredient in Perth.
The dark, inviting interior of 38 Chairs.
A dark interior with a flair for casual, Italian cuisine, 38 Chairs has an air of a local very comfortable with its identity. Specials are written on to the tile wall, the coffee is robust and the row of leather banquettes sit under the kitchen pantry. I get the feeling 38 Chairs is a second home to many.
A good strong coffee to start a day of shopping.
It’s off the main strip so we stopped in for a quiet brunch. I had Gennaro’s eggs, a simple baked egg dish. The glazed pot held baked eggs with duck ragu, tomatoes and a ribbon of pancetta on top. C had the poached eggs with avocado. It wasn’t mind blowing but it’s hard to fault simple, good food.
Left: Wonderbao’s stylish steamers. Right: Roast pork belly buns.
Wonderbao was THE find of the trip. Never underestimate the magic of mindless web surfing, I found this place on Urbanspoon. Anyway, like many good things in Melbourne (you guessed it) it’s hidden down an alley way. Wonderbao takes this to an extreme by being at a junction of two alleys off a laneway. Yep. But it’s definitely worth getting lost for. (It’s not that bad really – about a 5 minute walk from Melbourne Central).
Slightly bigger than a shoebox, if you count the crates outside there are maybe seven seats in total. The bao is made on the premises and considering that bao dough is deceptively hard to perfect, the finished product is superb. The pale, yeasted buns are steamed in huge bamboo steamers (each stylishly hallmarked in inky black – love). They come out fluffy and warm in a variety of flavours, with the pork belly buns (Momofuku style) the most impressive.
A custard bao and a taro bao – go for the custard bao if you deciding between the two.
We caught them just before they were about the close and as luck would have it, we snapped up the very last of the roast pork belly buns. Even though the carrot was substituted with mustard pickle (they ran out of carrot), each bun was succulent, well seasoned, sweet and light. Next time we’ll have to try the braised version (they had run out of that too – boo).
The custard bao was also pretty good. Hot and sweet, the filling was generous and looked like sunshine.
Oysters at Cutler & Co. The smaller oyster is a Moonlight Kiss, the larger a Rusty Wire oyster. Both are sourced from Moonlight Flat Oysters.
Cutler & Co
Booked something like two months in advance, we managed to score an early seating at Cutler and Co. The restaurant front is deceiving. What looks like a warehouse entrance opens to a dark, warm, sophisticated space – a really nice surprise coming off the rain drenched street. Somewhere between fine dining and casual, the service was immaculate, with the food even more so. It was a meal to remember.
We had an appetiser of oysters, eating our way through two oysters so different in flavour it was hard to believe they came from the same oyster farm. The Moonlight Kiss oyster was extremely creamy, metallic and almost bitter – an acquired taste. The Rusty Wire tasted more like a common oyster, a little salty with a slippery, resistant texture.
There was an amuse bouche we almost forgot about. A delicate sea vegetable cracker with two dots of smoky eggplant puree, it was a genius combination of bitter, salty and roasted seaweed flavours.
Smoked and fried duck, morcilla and gingerbread
The entrees well and truly introduced us to the finesse of Cutler & Co’s kitchen. My entree of thinly sliced smoked duck, crunchy cubes of rillettes-like shredded duck and a slab of morcilla was rich in flavour. All this was made even more marvellous with gingerbread sauce (and carrot powder I think). Surprisingly, the spiciness of the gingerbread sauce offset the bloody morcilla nicely. (Who would’ve though ginger and blood would go together?)
C ordered the radish salad with kingfish sashimi which was simply art on a plate. The sashimi’s rawness was intensified by slices of tart, green strawberries. The whole raw factor was then tempered by the creamy avocado puree and crunchy radish. An unusual union of flavours, but it worked well.
So pretty. Kingfish sashimi with green strawberries, avocado and sorrel.
Confit suckling pig, braised turnips, mustard and prune.
My main of confit suckling pork belly wasn’t blow your socks off good, but well executed. The pork was succulent, each piece with a hat of thin, crisp crackling that shattered in the mouth. The turnips and slightly sweet sauce were interesting – the firm turnips had this funk that gave the pork a fuller taste. The prune sauce enhanced the fragrance of the fennel pollen and the hot mustard, rounding off the almost animalistic taint (taint in a good way) of the dish.
On a side note, the lettuce leaves with mustard cream were especially good – super fresh and crunchy.
Okay, so on to dessert…
Chocolate ice cream sandwich, vanilla parfait and salted caramel. Amazingly decadent – would happily pay $19 over and over again to eat this.
The ice cream sandwich was divine! Sitting in a pool of salted caramel sauce was a block of vanilla parfait sandwiched in chocolate sponge just begging to be eaten. The sides of the parfait were scorched, imparting a touch of burnt caramel. In one word, it was decadent, made even more so with a quenelle of chocolate ice cream sitting right on top. I would pay $19, again and again, to eat this again and again (a definite, gaseous no no for a lactose intolerant but at least I would die happy).
Long live the ice cream sandwich!
C’s dessert: earl grey ice cream, chocolate, Pedro Ximénez and honey. This was excellent too.
Downstairs we go into Spice Temple. It’s dark, whispered conversations and the sound of a crushed ice and liquor being gently shaken echo through the space. It’s dim and sexy – a good spot for a quick drink as any. It’s also a good spot for an impromptu, late night gorge on Chinese.
It turns out you can order the entire restaurant’s menu in the bar (provided that it can fit on the tiny table). The fish fragrant eggplant was sweet and salty, with a punch of heat followed by the numbing, tingling sensation of prickly ash. For a bit of snacking we ordered the cumin lamb pancakes. Spicy, fragrant and slathered with chilli paste, the wedges of lamb sandwiched between pancakes were the perfect late night food.
We had a really good time in the Shanghai-ish themed bar. It was quite surreal holding a bowl of rice, chopsticks in hand in the midst of a cocktail bar at midnight, but that’s what you get in Melbourne – anything goes. The service was particularly lovely (handsome too, ahem). Thanks for having us, Spice Temple.
(No photos from Spice Temple – it was too dark anyway. You’ll just have to see for yourself.)
Scarily close to C’s flat is Drugstore Espresso, a terribly convenient (and usually excellent) antidote to the night before. (The night before being Cutler & Co, shopping – Crown Towers’ shops are open till midnight, crazy! – late night snacks at Macca’s and KFC, that meal at Spice Temple and finally, cocktails at Rockpool…)
Drugstore Espresso’s Mr Miyagi burger.
Anyway that very day, Drugstore’s Miyagi burger was named in The Age’s top burgers list and to be honest, on that day it shouldn’t have made the list. On presentation alone, the burger (complete with pickle speared totem pole style) and chips looked promising. But on first bite, it was obvious the kitchen was having an off day. The brioche buns were dry, the beef patties were over cooked (shame, since they’re wagyu). Even the coffee was a bit funny, perhaps even rancid.
Still, I’m hopeful for Drugstore (and its ability to produce a burger possibly better than Huxtaburger’s). Till the next time, Drugstore.
Dinosaurs versus terrariums at the Rose Street Artists Market.
Rose Street Artists Market
When you’re next in Melbourne, I’d recommend hitting up some markets. There are more markets in the city than you can poke a stick at and it’s a (potentially free) way to experience Melbournian life. The Rose Street Artists Market is an excellent opportunity to sneak a peek at Fitzroy and perhaps pick up something unusual.
Rose Street Artists Market, a different shopping experience off the tourist trail.
Though tucked away on a lonely road the market was bustling. The wares are quirky, handmade and most, if not all are worth buying. Among many good finds were terrariums (complete with Star Wars figurines – too cute!), Japanese ceramics, vintage dresses and artworks.
I’m ashamed to say I totally blew my budget here. Okay, not ashamed. More likely proud. I picked up a 150 year old katagami (previously used for kimono printing) made out of mulberry bark and lugged it all the way back to Perth. Now I just have to get it framed. Anyone know a good framer?
At Monsieur Truffe. Soy hot chocolate, come to mama.
While trudging around Collingwood and Fitzroy, we put up our feet at a chocolate shop called Monsieur Truffe. A display laden with pastries, each with what seemed like thousands of buttery layers, called to us. Especially one chocolate and custard braid. With no regrets we tore it apart and chomped down on the soft centred, crispy, flaky pastry.
(If you share it, the calories are halved.)
Chocolate and custard braid – it was love at first bite.
The interior of Monsieur Truffe. There’s outside seating for people watching, but I prefer to watch chocolate.
Apart from amazing pastries, they do amazing hot chocolates. They work miracles with soy milk. I was so surprised at the thick and creamy consistency of this little cup of soy hot chocolate. Monsieur Truffe’s house blend sits somewhere between milk and dark, straddling the fine line between bitter and milky sweet, a liquid day dream for any chocoholic.
Another place of note is De Clieu, an outpost of Seven Seeds (they also run Brother Baba Budan in the CBD and the original Seven Seeds in Carlton). It’s a good opportunity to rest your legs, check out Gertrude Street’s hipster population and have a caffeine hit.
It’s also an opportunity to buy a bag of Melbourne’s best coffee. There’s a range here, scooped whole and if you like, ground to order. The house blend is great but the single origins are really something.
We’re still working through our bag of Seven Seeds coffee and I like to imagine a little bit of Melbourne came back with us in that bag.
Tucked away in the depths of Chinatown (in Dainty Sichuan’s old space, if I remember correctly) is Sichuan House. Look for the musty red paint and chefs smoking in dirty aprons outside. If a dingy restaurant space is what you see, you’re in the right place. It’s looking bad right now, but push away the doubts. The reward waiting inside, is really tasty Sichuan food – the likes you can’t get in Perth.
Big serves and offal are the go here. Not to worry, the picture menu makes it easy to navigate around the duck tongues and dishes with funny bits.
Playing it safe we order the kong pao chicken. It’s one of the house specialties. The jumble of diced chicken and dried chillies has a pleasant level of heat that’s countered by an acidic, heady vinegar. Bound with lots of deep fried peanuts and wok tossed with sugar, it’s sticky, caramelised, crunchy and dangerously addictive.
Perfectly cooked mixed vegetables and that addictive kong pao chicken.
Notably, it wasn’t the chicken that blew us away but the mixed vegetables. This humble dish of pickled bamboo shoot, mushrooms and pak choy was perfectly crisp, with the tofu soaking up the chicken stock sauce. It was just perfect and shows that even the small things count in Sichuan House’s kitchen.
So if you don’t mind the dingy atmosphere (under the cover of night the restaurant won’t look so bad), the food here is worth going out of your way for. If you can’t finish it all (servings are big – two dishes serve three, easily) you can even ask for a doggy bag.
You might be interested in checking out my other Melbourne posts:
15 Toorak Road, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9820 2818
47 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne VIC 3000
T: (03)9662 1565
163 Commercial Road, South Yarra VIC 3141
Closed Mondays and Wednesdays. Prahran Market is easily accessible by tram.
Shop 185, Prahran Market, 163 Commercial Road Prahran VIC 3181
T: (03) 9827 5881
(Inside Prahran Market) Elizabeth Street, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9827 9047
4a Bond St, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9827 5553
Shop 4/19-37 A’Beckett St, Melbourne VIC 3000
T: (03) 9654 7887
Cutler & Co
55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy VIC 3065
T: (03) 9419 4888
Book well in advance. Worth looking at their Friday lunch menu.
Crown Entertainment Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank VIC 3006
T: (03) 8679 1888
194 Toorak Road, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9827 5058
Rose Street Artists Market
60 Rose Street, Fitzroy
Saturday and Sunday 11am – 5pm
90 Smith Street, Collingwood VIC 3066
T: (03) 9416 3101
187 Gertrude Street Fitzroy VIC 3065
T: (03) 9416 4661
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