A gourmet dream tour of Australia’s unofficial food capital.
Queen Victoria? Dracula’s Cabaret? Or a colonial tramcar?” I had stepped into Melbourne, famished, jaded, but prepped to turn into an epicurean when Tourism Victoria’s Tessa McLachlan pulled the plate from under my nose.
Australia’s unofficial food capital has approximately 3,000 restaurants and cafes. I certainly was not looking for a hash-brown Victorian meal, a tramcar slumgullion, or the gooey red drink that Dracula took a swig of. I was ravenous and needed a meal. Not just any meal, though. A scrumptious one.
Dracula had to wait. Little did I know that the yearning for all things lip-smacking would push me into Victoria’s secrets! Not the lissome Victorias, but a 17-acre scrap of land that began life on March 20, 1878, as Queen Victoria’s Market with a Meat, Fish and Rabbit Building. And that is where my Foodie’s Dream Tour began with Geraldine Holmes.
But before Geraldine rattled off Gippsland sheep’s milk cheese, veal Osso Buco, live pipis, fennel sausages, eggplant dip, Diane’s Deli’s dolmades and A. McDermott’s cheese and whey, she rustled up countless adjectives for the Indian dishes that she often tosses up in her kitchen.
Don’t be mistaken — Victoria’s Market is not merely a place to buy fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. It is where all paddock-to-plate food stories begin in Melbourne. You can pick a mound of fresh butter, bread popping straight out of the oven, exotic dips, doughnut from a truck that has been parked there for nearly seven decades, squeeze finger lime, buy quail eggs… My palate suddenly turned adventurous, but when the sharp lemony flavour of the indigenous finger lime whooshed up my head, I was ready to barter anything for a good meal. Even a tramcar slumgullion.
This is no ordinary tramcar, though. And the food is certainly no drab slumgullion. The Colonial Tramcar is the world’s first travelling tramcar restaurant. Book a seat, dig your fork in kangaroo fillet, white chocolate and passion fruit parfait, or pan-seared Tasmanian ocean trout, and peer from behind the burgundy jacquard curtains as the tramcar runs through the city’s landmarks and monuments. I, however, was distracted. No, not with the street art that the city is so famous for, or Captain Cook’s cottage that was transported from England into Melbourne in crates and barrels. It was Chef Joe Alagona’s alto. His playful libretto and throaty tenor added a ladleful of flavour to what is often touted as one of the top five places to eat in Melbourne. The tramcar meal is so popular that you need to book a table days in advance.
That afternoon I was full to the gills, but Dracula’s Cabaret was still haunting me on the blue cobblestone pathway. “It is not cabaret. It is theatre restaurant.” Tessa threw some semantics into my already intrigued plate. At Dracula’s, while watching a madhouse cabaret spin a tale of 21st century schlock-horror vaudeville, you can order finger food that come… shaped like fingers (yeah, fingers!), peri peri chicken, olive and feta cheese tart and — surprise, surprise — vegetarian mains. What you cannot miss is ‘Death by Chocolate’, a decadent Belgian chocolate coffin occupied by a lather of Malibu-infused raspberry and coconut mousse.
In Melbourne, one is spoilt for choice. Should it be Chinchin restaurant that is modelled on Asian hawker dining halls and believes in shared eating and walk-ins? Order a platter of braised meat, tortillas, and a bowl of guacamole in Mamasita? Head to Huxtable and ask for ‘uncomplicated’ food from sea, land, earth (that is how their mains are categorised)? Step into an old metal works factory that is now Cutler & Co restaurant and dig into a degustation plate of wagyu bresaola and bonita sashimi? Or, gorge on the oh-so-Australian old-fashioned chicken pie in Donovan’s? Slurp on absolutely sinful strawberry meringue at The Sharing House, which has a quirky Lego-littered décor?
Getting spoilt for choices. I wished for a gargantuan stomach to savour all that Melbourne has to offer on a platter. God, sadly, forgot to pack a gigantic appetite in this petite frame. So, I chose to go streetsy and do what most Melbournians do. Sit in a café, order a pavlova, and sip coffee in Degraves Street.
I unbuckled my shoe, picked a newspaper, caught a breath, stirred sugar into the coffee and remembered John Batman, the founder of Melbourne, who wrote in his June 8, 1835, journal, “So the boat went up the large river... I am glad to state about six miles up found the River all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village.”
Place for a village? Perhaps that last sentence should have read “paradise for a foodie”.
Taste of oz
Pick of Melbourne’s gastronomic best
Top 5 restaurants
1. Chinchin: Asian fusion
2. Mamasita: Mexican
3. Huxtable: Modern Australian
4. Cumulus Inc: Breakfast
5. Cutler & Coe: Degustation food
Top 5 food streets
1. Lygon Street: Italian
2. China Town: Chinese
3. Sydney Street: Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepalese
4. DeGraves, Centre Place: Coffee/cafes
5. Acland Street: Cake shops and bakeries