What’s cooking in Melbourne?5 min read . Updated: 29 Jun 2019, 09:45 AM IST
- What is Australian cuisine?
- Some of Melbourne’s most talented chefs are trying to answer the question with inventive recipes and multicultural culinary influences
It’s a Wednesday night in April, and Attica, one of Melbourne’s most celebrated fine-dining restaurants, is packed to the last table. Conceived by chef Ben Shewry and his team, the 16-course dégustation menu is a celebration of Australian ingredients.
The opening dishes include a trio of tarts—named An Imperfect History Of Ripponlea—made with ingredients representing three communities living in Attica’s neighbourhood. The Red Kangaroo With Truganini combines kangaroo meat, saltbush and finger limes. Desserts include Black Ant Lamington and bunya nut ice cream. “We do our best to not only make (the ingredients) delicious but also educate our staff and guests about what’s in our backyard," says Matt Boyle, sous chef at Attica.
Compared to Attica’s larger-than-life aura, Brae, a boutique property and sustainable restaurant in Birregurra (about 2 hours from Melbourne), is more understated. The seasonal menu is filled with inventive dishes—a Sea Lettuce, Corn And Southern Rock Lobster; Black Lip Abalone Grilled With Pork Jowl; Prawn And Kohlrabi, Wild Mushrooms, Egg Yolk And Australian Citrus. The Parsnip And Apple dessert is especially famous, as is the Iced Oyster—a platter of oysters filled with a combination of sheep’s milk ice cream and brine. Owing to my lactose intolerance, the chefs replace the dish with one titled Final Days Of The Tomatoes. I am so disappointed at being deprived of the oysters that my dining companion, Mumbai-based chef Prateek Sadhu, offers me a spoon from his own plate. It doesn’t console me, not until I spoon the tomatoes in my mouth and experience an explosion of flavours, intensified by the addition of air-dried bonito (a kind of fish), salted plum and wakame (a kind of seaweed). It isn’t just tasty—it’s sensational.
Attica and Brae aren’t just spectacular specimens of the fine-dining scene in and around Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city and capital of the state of Victoria. Their dishes, and those of many other restaurants across the city, are also an attempt at answering the question—what is Australian cuisine? I am on a quest to find the answer with Sadhu, co-founder of the experiential fine-dining restaurant Masque, who is meeting chefs and discovering the region’s rich produce. “It’s my first experience with a lot of ingredients, like saltbush and kangaroo meat," he says. “The ingredients are local and indigenous, but the food offers a very international take."
Brae was established in an organic garden—founder Dan Hunter and his team have since expanded the space, designing the menu to make use of the produce growing here. Similarly, many of the ingredients in Attica are grown in the restaurant’s garden while the others are sourced from various parts of the country.
Australia has a natural advantage when it comes to produce, with each region offering a wealth of seasonal produce, from herbs and vegetables to meat and seafood. Laura in the Mornington Peninsula offers a fine example of region-focused cuisine. Laura is the newest addition at Pt Leo Estate, a sprawling property encompassing a sculpture park, 5-acre vineyard, an eponymous 110-seater restaurant and a cellar-room of wines produced in-house and procured from across Victoria.
Named after a Jaume Plensa sculpture exhibited in the park, Laura’s five-course menu incorporates ingredients from various parts of the Peninsula. The olive oil comes from Cape Schanck, heritage-farm duck eggs from Moorooduc and mussels from Flinders. The property’s general manager, Roger Lancia, says, “We have a working vegetable garden that is slowly growing in size with the business’ demand but Phil Wood, our culinary director, spends a lot of time driving around to local farmers and building amazing relationships."
While the use of local produce is a common thread, a chef’s take on these ingredients varies greatly. Take, for instance, the irreverently laid-back IDES, a fine-dining restaurant on Collingwood Street abounding in souvlakis, dumplings, ramen and kebabs.
Founder Peter Gunn, a former Attica alum, describes his food as Melbourne style or modern Australian. “I guess modern Australian is a simple way for people to understand it," he says. “It’s not native Australian, which is a real thing, and people really do excel at (it) here. This is not my focus but we use only Australian produce and ingredients." The menu is as offbeat as the location—Grilled Green Olives, Marron Tail With Green Cabbage & Green Nori and Pumpkin Flowers In Braised Pumpkin Seeds And Oxtail Broth. “What stands out for me in IDES is the umami flavour, which I love," says Sadhu, adding that it reminds him of dining in Singapore.
Eating out in Melbourne often has that effect—a result of the intermingling of indigenous and immigrant pop cooking cultures. Asian flavours have a dominant influence on Melbourne’s chefs. At Lûmé, executive chef John Rivera combines local produce with culinary lessons from his Filipino heritage. On the menu is Barbecue Pork Glazed In Black Banana, Ube Cake—a Filipino cake made with ube halaya (boiled and mashed purple yam)—and Western Australian Marron served in “tiger’s milk" (extracted from tiger nuts) with smoked padrón peppers and toasted macadamia. Lee Ho Fook, founded by Victor Liong, draws on Chinese Australian cooking traditions to offer dishes such as Black Fungi, Garlic Cucumbers And Aged Black Vinegar, Steamed Cone Bay Barramundi, Ginger And Spring Onion Sauce and Crispy Eggplant With Spiced Red Vinegar. At Supernormal, a buzzy restaurant at Flinders Street, Korean rice cakes and Szechuan vegetables coexist on the menu with New England lobster rolls and raw oysters
The culinary scene in Melbourne and Victoria is, in many ways, reflective of Australia as a whole—a gastronomic culture still in the making but perennially defiant of quick labelling. “What we can learn from here is the honesty of approach," says Sadhu. “It’s about taking native ingredients, preserving them and looking at them through a different eye."
Restaurants in Melbourne and across Victoria feature an assortment of foraged ingredients in innovative dishes. Here are some of chef Prateek Sadhu’s favourite picks of the local botanicals and herbs:
Finger lime: Arguably Sadhu’s favourite from the trip, finger limes are filled with pulpy juice vesicles that pop like caviar.
Quandong: A native variety of peach, this was a staple ingredient in Aboriginal cuisines. We spotted it in chutneys and desserts during our food sojourns.
Saltbush: “I have never seen a herb which is naturally so salty," Sadhu posted on Instagram. These whitish leaves are packed with flavour and used in salads, meats and stir fries. The ground leaves can also be used as a substitute for salt.
Wattleseed: A traditional bush food, these seeds are extracted from acacia and add a nutty texture to dishes. They are also used as seasoning.
The author was in Melbourne at the invitation of Tourism Australia.