Cafes and Restaurants

Chin Chin takes a liberty too far

I love Chin Chin. I’m friends with Jess and Ben and love the food and pretty much everything about the place (especially the cutlery). In fact, I’ve probably been there more in the last 3 months than anywhere else, including my favourite hamburger shop.

But today, they’ve taken a big step backwards – they spammed me on my mobile phone. I received the SMS message “Gogo is a-gogo, Chin Chin’s new underground cocktail bar is now open daily….”. I presume the only way they would have my number is because I’ve left it on file for them to call me back when my table is ready. Sounds like they’ve sent this message out to everyone who has done the same. Not cool.

What I find so interesting though is that they would even consider that they needed to do it. The Twitter and Facebook campain that they used prior to launch of the restaurant worked a treat, at time of posting they have 1581 followers on Twitter. The Twitter account regularly talks about all things Chin Chin related and no one would really care about a week or so worth of Tweets about the new bar.

My bet is that whoever sent that Tweet didn’t consult people like Jess or Ed and they are now regretting it.

Paul Jewson’s Fitzrovia opens in St Kilda

Sticky Lamb Ribs

Since moving on from Outpost, Paul Jewson has been a busy man. I’ve seen him in the kitchen at St Ali, he’s been working at St Ali in London and turns out he’s and partner Marco Pulagni have been turning the Waldorf in St Kilda into the beautifully rendered Fitzrovia. At 155 Fitzroy St, it’s just near the newly opened Golden Fields, Baker d Chirico and Miss Jackson in what’s becoming a fine-food hotspot.

I’ve long been a fan of Paul Jewson’s food. It ticks all my boxes (I don’t really have boxes to tick), it’s generous, has big flavours and is always seasonal. It’s hard to say what the plan is, but when we dropped in on Sunday the daytime menu was poorly printed on the dodgy computer printer. We were told it was “temporary”, but I’m not so sure it was, not in the sense that it will ever be “fixed” anyway. It was the same at Outpost and the ever-changing menu works perfectly, especially when the food has this sense of style. I just wish they’d get a good printer.

The dinner menu, though, is a far more refined affair in presentation and substance.

The restaurant comprises 2 separate areas. At the front, a 2 level, minimally lit, glass atrium, perfect for breakfast or brunch and come evening a perfect place for a pre-dinner aperitif or glass of wine. The dining room is a more traditional dining area with a huge open doorway into the kitchen. Currently the walls are sparse, but trimmings are coming and it won’t take much to turn it to a understated, classic dining room.

The kitchen itself is somewhat of a feature, it has a huge marble-topped island table crowned by a rustic, hanging pot rack. It doesn’t have the carefully manicured design of Outpost, but it is far more functional and will provide a great vibe on a busy night.

The 2 brunch dishes we had were sticky lamb ribs on a smoked corn salad and scrambled eggs with bacon and tomatoes. The ribs were in the no-fork-required territory with the sauce overpowering the flavour of the meat. The scrambled eggs were as good as they get, endless folds of soft, rich egg with a tomato chutney with a nicely balanced tang. The chutney was so good that I ended up eating the last of it on toast.

The REAL Melbourne top 30 (or perhaps 15) cafes.

As ridiculous as that article from the Melbourne Magazine was and how seemingly random it is, I’m going to produce an equally ridiculous list which I hope you’ll agree is marginally more accurate. There’s no real criteria except for me making shit up.

  1. Monk Bodhi Dharma. Balaclava.
    Despite the fact they only serve vegetarian food it is great. The coffee is second to none with a real focus on roasting light and letting the beans speak for themselves.
  2. Brother Baba Budan. City.
    They don’t serve food here, but it isn’t important. Consistently pumping out the most consistent coffee in Melbourne despite the fact there is usually a massive line up of people waiting for their takeaways.
  3. Auction Rooms. North Melbourne.
    With a well executed, refined menu, and an in-house roastery ensuring a supply of great coffee this cafe has been at the pinnacle of Melbourne cafes for quite some time.
  4. St Ali. South Melbourne.
    Like each of the previous cafes, (except Brother Baba) food and coffee are on equal footing. Each day sees a different single origin on, selected from a range of exceptional coffees.
  5. Seven Seeds. Carlton.
    The menu here is more of a light lunch menu and the food is well-made and considered. But you can really forget about the food and just come for the coffee. In my eyes, the Sevens Seeds blend is the best black coffee blend in Melbourne.
  6. Duchess of Spotswood. Spotswood.
    The food at Duchess is closer to a high quality restaurant than a cafe. Sometimes a touch rich, and not for everyone, but the quality is outstanding and worth trying.
  7. Proud Mary. Collingwood.
    Absolutely jammed full of the coolest people in Melbourne all weekend, the food rocks (try the Pork Belly Sandwich) and the roasting and production of the coffee showcases some rare and expensive coffee that are full of flavour.
  8. Market Lane. Prahran.
    Market Lane is one of the few places in Melbourne that focuses on coffee and only coffee. Attached to the premier coffee importer, they have access to the best coffee and roast it to show the fruit.
  9. Three Bags Full. Abbotsford.
    I’m not sure how many times I can say, good food + good coffee = good cafe. Three Bags Full does well to maintain quality even though it gets ridiculously busy.
  10. Deadman Espresso. South Melbourne.
    A short but sweet menu, and good, well-made coffee are enough to put this on the list. The all day breakfast menu on weekends sells this cafe short as it all too often does.
  11. East Brunswick Project. Brunswick.
    As far as the higher quality roasters in Melbourne goes, Padre roasts their coffee much darker. The specialty coffee ground doesn’t like it, but the everyday punters love the Padre lattes cause they taste how they expect. People come in droves to the East Brunswick project for this exact reason.
  12. Captains of Industry.  City.
    A quirky little spot, right in the middle of the city. The big windows and the light make it a perfect place to relax for a late lunch or afternoon tea. The food is simple, fresh and pleasing.
  13. Pope Joan. Brunswick.
    Like Duchess, the restaurant quality food is backed up with solid coffee. Chef Matt Wilkinson manages to cook eggs more ways than you thought imaginable and still keep them interesting.
  14. Brunswick St Alimentari. Fitzroy.
    As much a deli as a cafe, the nicely portioned Italian food is the perfect winter lunch food. The chicken schnitzel rolls are great and sold-out very early on, so get in quick.
  15. Miss Jackson. St Kilda.
    I’ve written before about why I like Miss Jackson. It’s a cafe by the hungover, for the hungover.
  16. MART. Middle Park.
    Long has MART been on the edge of Albert Park in the old stationmasters house. Though it’s hardly changed, the corn fritters still rock and the eggs never fail.

You might have realised, but there’s only 16 cafes here. My top 16, I’d love to hear what’s missing, comments on the ranking and who shouldn’t be there. Perhaps I’m too focused on the new and the specialty coffee? Let me know.

Andrew McConnell’s Golden Fields opens on Fitzroy St, St Kilda

It’s been open a couple of weeks now, and I managed to drop in before a gig at the Palais. Golden Fields is McConnell’s latest outpost – it’s pretty much a reinterpretation of Cumulus, with a Chinese twist. In fact, it’s so close to Cumulus I feel a little deflated.

The food is great and the service sparkling, but it is a little too similar to what has come before it.

The menu borrows some of the very best from Cumulus and Cutler & Co. The lamb shoulder appears similar though it is spiced with cumin seeds (though I didn’t actually try it). The pork buns are straight off the Cutler bar menu, they are as amazing as ever and the fried prawns and pork tail are very similar to a blend of 2 Cumulus dishes that have since been retired. The similarities don’t end there, the interior design is straight from the same playbook: white tiles, big bars, open kitchens and coat hooks. It’s good but not ground breaking.

The menu works well, as you’d expect. The feature of McConnell’s cooking and menu construction is that each dish is simple yet effective. The way you order a variety of dishes builds all the complexity you want. The beef belly and rump was brilliant, subtle flavours and awesome textures. The shredded cabbage and Moreton Bay bug salad is so simple it’s brilliant.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, the food rocks and I’ll be back. I’d suggest that the menu will evolve and grow into its own skin. I hope next time, I won’t just be thinking how much like Cumulus it is.

Chez Dre – South Melbourne

South Melbourne is an easy suburb to overlook in the pursuit of good eating, yet it is a mistake too many people make. Luckily for me, most of the time I’m hungover and looking for breakfast I’m too lazy to go too far from home and South Melbourne is the next suburb over. It really is a treasure trove of cafes – St Ali, Deadman Espresso, Gas, Q11 and Padre are all a short walk (a long par 4) from each other and they each rock in their own way.

And now there is a newcomer that fits right in – Chez Dre. Brought to you by Stephen Sam of the nightclub Miss Libertine and a pastry-chef-whose-last-name-I-don’t-know, Dre. Stephen tells me that when Dre returned from France, he really wanted to work with Dre to open a cafe/patisserie because he knew how creative she was, that it was a no-brainer. So they got hunting, found the space and pretty much signed the papers the next day.

The space is awesome. It’s a big, long space with a massive, curved open kitchen as a feature and a beautiful sun-drenched courtyard. The fitout hasn’t been over worked yet the elements play off each other well. The design on the polished concrete floor is great, the lighting plays well with the natural light, and the enamel cups and vases (jugs) are brilliant.

The menu too is understated; I get the feeling it is just a stepping stone to something bigger and better. French is the order of the day – for breakfast there’s baked eggs, stuffed field mushrooms and a breakfast platter with ham, cheese yoghuty and muesli. The lunch menu consists 4 or 5 baguettes filled with beautifully fresh ingredients, a plougmans lunch, a goat cheese salad and pate with bread.

Where Chez Dre really excels though is on my least favourite food group, the sweets. The menu too is understated; I get the feeling it is just a stepping stone to something bigger and better. The cabinet is full of all manner of tarts, macarons, madeleines and cakes. I’ve tried a few of them, a heart-shaped caramel tart, the lemon tart and a macaron or 2. The caramel was smooth and not too rich, the lemon tart as tart as could be, and the macarons as to be expected in Melbourne, capital city of the United States of Macaron, are perfectly formed and flavoursome. Did I mention the sweets rock? I don’t even like sweets.

The coffee is good, without being mind blowing. There’s the obligatory Synesso and the coffee is roasted and blended by the Maling Room. Interestingly enough, they don’t seem to have a single origin on, which is surprising considering that Maling Room gets and roasts some good beans.

All in all, this place rocks. It’s about as far from a hipster cafe as can be imagined. Being that it’s located really close to the South Melbourne Market, on a lane just off Coventry st, I expect it to be packed to the hilt on weekends with the market. The space is big enough though, that it probably won’t feel too packed. During the week, it’s sunny, spacious yet friendly and homely. Perfect for a quiet coffee and a cake.

Ben Cooper’s Mopho Noodle Bar opens in South Yarra

There has long been murmur’s of another St Ali venue in the same South Yarra complex as Outpost. Finally it has arrived.  It is a noodle bar serving up well made, south-east asian inspired noodle dishes with good ingredients and plenty of flavour. The concept is a simple, effective and plays perfectly into the hands of Chef Ben Cooper. One of my guilty pleasures is the dodgy noodle box shops that seem to be everywhere, so making amazing noodles is alright with me.

Mopho NoodleThe fitout too is simple and effective. Black panelling and dark wooden tables and chairs are the order of the day. The walls are almost completely covered with cupboards with black cross hatched doors which let you see the dry stock stored within. To some extent, it is a very similar feel to Outpost in that you can see all the ingredients while you dine. The kitchen is separate though and has plenty of fridge space, wok burners and bench space.

The menu is categorised into different styles of dishes, soup noodles; wok noodles; salad noodles; and curries. The dishes themselves are mostly approachable such as the hokkien noodles with slow roasted bbq pork and oyster mushrooms, the classic pad Thai and the spicy pork wontons, egg noodles and shaved cabbage. The menu is by no means limited though and 18 dishes provide a heap of variety.

The 3 dishes that we had were the steamed chueng fung with fried bread salad and soy ginger sauce, the rendang with beef brisket and japanese pumpkin and the scallops, bacon, sambal olek and shanghai noodles. For each of the dishes the key spices really stand out giving each dish a unique spice and tang. The rendang was my favourite, the mouth-melting gelatinous brisket was balanced nicely with a good amount of chilli.

The prices range from $13.50 – $20 and while it isn’t particularly cheap, the higher quality of food is well worth it.

This dish has introduced me to 2 new “favourites.” Brisket is pretty much pork belly from cows. And brown jasmine rice which has a great fluffy texture and more flavour than the white variety.

Though I loved all of the food, my favourite thing about this place is the panda motif. The panda is holding chopsticks and has a green mohawk and star tattoos. It’s a Ben Cooper look-a-like and a pretty funky icon at that. I can see it being sold in plush doll form sooner rather than later.

The Mopho Noodle Panda

Currently Mopho Noodle Bar is open Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm. There are plans to open on Saturdays and Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights but they are taking things slowly. Currently there is no liquor license or EFTPOS but both are to be remedied reasonably soon. It is located at 9 Yarra St next to the South Yarra train station.







Duchess of Spotswood

It’s a funny place, Melbourne. We say we are open-minded and progressive, yet we are creatures of habit, refusing to leave our suburbs for anything but the most special occasions, drinking at the same coffee shop day-in-day-out and being bemused when someone sits in our seat at the local. In saying that, there’s nothing better than having a reason to leave – to make the trip, not only across the river, but across the Westgate.

And what a reason there is. In an effort to not mince my words, Duchess of Spotswood is off the charts. It’s armed with a combination of amazing food; great coffee; a comforting space; the friendliest staff; and something only it’s “remote” location can explain, a lack of crowds. It’s so good, I saw a house for lease across the road and for more than a fleeting moment considered calling the agent.

Putting your finger on what makes a place tick can is tricky. Though the mere fact that nothing in particular is outstanding is a sure sign of quality. While there is no clear intention, everything works well to provide the illusion of a olden English home. The quiet location, the white-washed walls and the airy and bright space complements perfectly the concept of the menu. The staff are friendly and familiar and take the time to remember you were here last week, even so far as remembering your order.

Of all the highlights though, the food that Chef Andrew Gale is dishing up is the crowning achievement. He has taken a mix of seasonal ingredients (white asparagus), complex flavours (black pudding, and smoked eggs) and some instant crowd pleasers (house special bacon and pork belly) and rolled them into a menu that works for everyone from the everyman to the most conceited food nazi. Add to this a couple of specials and leaving unimpressed simply isn’t an option.

The food is in the style du jour – english. There’s the Duchess of Pork – crispy pork belly with a fried egg and truffle sauce; the lancashire hash – black pudding wrapped in a potato hash, served on a bed of beans with crispy pork neck; field mushrooms and white asparagus toppped with a smoked egg and crispy pork neck; a ploughmans lunch, pickles and cheese. None of this is to mention the specials, like a school prawn salad with toasted quinoa, walnuts and blood orange segments which take seasonal to another level.