Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BTO: Fuss-free & fabulous

Business Times - 09 May 2009

Fuss-free & fabulous

Melbourne's best new restaurants have eschewed all pretensions and are delivering delicious dining experiences. By Audrey Phoon


TO sum up the modern Melbourne gastronomic holiday in a suitcase: bring summer clothes and a winter coat to weather the Victorian capital's four-seasons-a-day climate, but leave the evening wear behind - you won't need sequins or suits to eat at most of the city's best new restaurants.


Over the past year or so, a wave of fresh, pared-down concepts has set about redefining Melbourne's dining scene by offering eating experiences which are, if not as grand, then certainly as gratifying as those offered by the old fine-dining guard (the three-hatted Vue de Monde, the delicious but hushed Ezard and the perennially booked-out Flower Drum among them).


These punctilios-free establishments - some don't take reservations, others encourage self-service - probably encapsulate the spirit of the city better than any posh restaurant can, and they're kinder to recession-hit pockets besides.


Here's a list of Melbourne's freshest and funkiest eateries. Dig in.


Cumulus Inc
45 Flinders Lane,
Melbourne 3000
Tel +61 3 9650 1445


MORE than a few Melburnians call Cumulus one of the best new restaurants of 2008, but it must also be one of the most nondescript from the outside. After all, the 11-month-old eatery - located in a plain grey building at the quiet end of Flinders Lane - could easily be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill cafe: its entrance is located down a drab brown-tiled hallway, and despite its no-reservations policy (unless your group is bigger than eight) there is no queue of diners spilling out onto the street.


But venture behind the door, and the restaurant - or 'eating house and bar', as it calls itself - emerges as a bustling, industrial-chic space flooded with natural light from a wall of large glass windows behind a steel-topped bar. There are hardwood floors, an open kitchen, quirky lightbulb constellations and best of all, a menu of tasty dishes - printed simply on a single thick sheet of cream-coloured paper - that more than makes up for the restaurant's bland exterior.


Cumulus is run by The Age Good Food Guide's 2007 Chef of the Year Andrew McConnell, who helms the well-regarded Circa and another new venture as well (more on that later). As can be expected of a top chef, the food, designed to be shared, is spectacularly fresh and unpretentious. Whether you're tucking into a dangly slice of the house-cured wagyu karubi (A$16) or a tender chunk of cold poached organic chicken with creamy tarragon mayo (A$17), or spooning up mouthfuls of the yummy cracked wheat and freekeh salad (A$10), there's really nothing much wrong with this place (okay, so the seafood escabeche was a teensy bit oily, but who's quibbling?).


Some have wondered why McConnell christened his restaurant Cumulus; we think it's because everything here works to transport diners to cloud nine.


Cutler & Co
55-57 Gertrude Street,
Fitzroy 3065
Tel +61 3 9419 4888


ANOTHER old building, another bit of McConnell magic. This one is the chef's latest, having opened not two months ago in a suburb about 10 minutes from Melbourne city. It takes up a dingy-looking warehouse in a district that's known for its bohemian vibe, outlet stores and quirky types, and a giant neon purple ampersand lights up the floor-to-ceiling glass frontage at night. Despite the unlikely environment though, what's served here is actually more refined than the fare at Cumulus Inc (albeit with prices to match).


For starters, there are Ortiz anchovies encased in crisp pastry straws (A$9), and Spanish Padron peppers fried in olive oil and salt (A$9), after which you can move on to, say, wood-grilled quail buried beneath a heap of fresh figs, greens and pomegranate seeds (A$20); a beautiful tomato salad with a medley of tomatoes precisely arranged alongside three types of basil and scoops of fromage blanc (A$17); or crisp-skinned suckling pig (A$39).


The menu is kept small, with just five options for each course and, as with Cumulus, most of it is good.


Just remember to make a booking before you go - there may be more than 2,000 standalone restaurants in Melbourne, but Cutler & Co somehow manages to be packed to its aged rafters nearly every night.


Bistro Guillaume
Shop 7, Crown Entertainment Complex
8 Whiteman Street,
Southbank 3006
Tel +61 3 9693 3888


ONE look at the elegant Bistro Guillaume and the 'bistro' in its name just doesn't make sense. Since when do parquet floors of the French herringbone design + wood-and-solid-marble countertops + extravagant puffball-skirt pendant lamps = bistro? In the eyes of its owner, however, the sum probably tallies. That's because the less-than-a-year-old Bistro Guillaume belongs to Guillaume Brahimi, the head chef of Guillaume At Bennelong, an even more luxurious haute French restaurant within the Sydney Opera House.


Of course, Brahimi doesn't turn out the same New World cuisine at the bistro as he does at Bennelong. Bistro Guillaume's menu is a list of classic French bistro fare that ranges from escargots (A$21 for a half-dozen) and onion soup with gruyere croutons (A$16) to steak frites (A$39) and some of the best duck confit (A$38) and tarte au citron (A$18) we've ever had.


Instead of importing most of his ingredients from France, however, the chef makes good use of fresh Australian produce - the snails are from Hunter Valley and the beef from Shepparton in Victoria, for instance - and everything is produced with top-notch restaurant flair and flavour.

Service is faultless and for pre- or post-dinner drinks, you can traipse down to the restaurant's wonderfully sultry Parisian-styled Le Bar in its basement.


Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons
Promenade Level, Crown Entertainment
Complex 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank 3006
Tel +61 3 9694 7400


THE salumi cabinet in the centre of Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons (or GAS, as it's known among locals) resembles an installation from the travelling body-parts exhibition Body Worlds, and it also sort of sums up the decor in this Italian restaurant: slightly off-kilter and macabre, but still pretty cool.


The staff wear lab coats and the walls are dark and mirrored, creating a sort of strange inky world where you are served - oddly enough for such a futuristic joint - rather rusticky Italian food: home-grown wild chicory salad (A$22); a variety of offal; thick Berkshire pork sausages on lentils in a cast-iron pan (A$29); and so-thin-they're-almost-clear slices of pink prosciutto (A$12), cured in Lismore in New South Wales and served on sheets of waxed paper branded 'Salumi by Robert Marchetti'. (Marchetti is the head chef at GAS.)


For dessert, among other things, there's a divine baked pot of chocolate, served chilled and showered with chocolate pearls (A$15).


You'll have to pick out your own cutlery and condiments from stainless steel bins embedded within the tables, and the staff can be brusque, but this is still a fun dining experience and a must-visit if you're a design fanatic.


Eureka 89 Dining
Level 89 Eureka Tower
7 Riverside Quay, Southbank 3006
Tel +61 3 9693 8889


YOU would do well to consider throwing on a jacket or a fancy top for this one because the spiffy views might otherwise put you to shame. Eureka 89 Dining is right on the top of the Eureka Tower, which means that you can take in a sight worth a bit of wobbly-knee on a clear night, although it also means the restaurant is a beacon for tourists.


Still, thanks to Eureka's top-tier executive chef Raymond Capaldi, the stylish food is light years from Disneyland chicken legs and churros. Even if, at A$120 per person for a six-course dinner (A$190 with wine pairing), it's not exactly cheap. For that, you get more-than-decent fare (the current menu includes a velvety smooth pumpkin veloute and an escabeche of quail with walnut and lactose-flour 'soil') plus one of the best restaurant views in the city, which makes it all a little less painful.


The fact that the restaurant opened this Valentine's Day indicates that it's also positioning itself as an occasion restaurant. So if you're aiming to pop the question, this heady marriage of restaurant-in-the-sky and vertigo-inducing views may be just the thing to elicit the answer you want.

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