Sunday, March 18, 2012

Culinary Adventures in Melbourne

For quite a while now, I have been keen to get down to Melbourne to dine at Cutler & Co, chef Andrew McConnell's inner city restaurant. It seems that in every bit of foodie press I came across in the 2 years or so since they opened, their praises were being sung over and over. Named the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year in 2011, McConnell's establishment has the reputation for being one of the country's finest. The planets seemed to align this month when a cheap airfare offer and an overwhelming desire for a weekend away sealed the deal, and I finally headed south to see what all the fuss was about.

The restaurant is situated in what was originally a small factory in Fitzroy, inner city Melbourne. The dining room is frankly gorgeous, beautifully designed and just the sort of place you can happily spend a few hours. We chose the degustation menu in order to sample a range of dishes - although there was a moment when we did consider ditching that option when we saw that one of their specialities is suckling pig! Drool.... Still, we don't get to Melbourne often so we decided on the option that would give us the maximun experience of what Cutler & Co has to offer.

Dining Room - Cutler & Co

From the moment our waiter brought us a selection of the to die for house made bread, we knew we were going to be in for a treat. We began with a selction of appetisers, including an earthy and moreish smoked octopus, fresh as the sea oysters, marinated green olives and the most amazing foie gras "cigars" - crispy on the outside, velvety, creamy on the inside, served on a cigar box. The courses that followed were just one perfectly executed flavour hit after the other. Building from lighter seafood dishes and moving up to meat and game, the menu is perfectly balanced. The transition from one to another makes complete sense and there isn't an attempt to get over contrived and fussy for any reason.

Some of the dishes are beautifully simple - the heirloom tomato salad is a case in point - where others showcase more complex flavours and presentation - the duck, beetroot and grape course for example. The produce is first rate, featuring some of the best our country has to offer. I was very excited to finally get to try some fresh white truffles from Tasmania in the process. The meal was just perfect as far as I'm concerned - the kind of food I like to eat, prepared and served by people who clearly take pride in what they do. Despite huge expectations, Cutler & Co did not disappoint. For those of us who don't live in Melbourne, it is well worth the plane fare.

Although we travelled to Melbourne for the Cutler & Co experience, we also had a couple of other noteworthy meals worth mentioning, that gave us something of a restaurant trifecta!

Neil Perry's Spice Temple puts it's culinary focus clearly on regional China, avoiding standard Cantonese fare, which we are most used to seeing here in Australia. The menu pays homage to regional Chinese delicacies and draws inspiration from the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang. We randomly turned up at their door just before they were opening for lunch, thinking that it was going to be unlikely that we would get a table, given the crowd of people waiting to get in. The accomodating staff managed to get us a table, although we had to be out in just over an hour - which was fine for a lunch date.

Dining Room - Spice Temple

The dining room has a distinctively dark and sensual vibe, which really appealed to me, and a gorgeous backdrop for the beautiful regional food we were about to enjoy. The lunchtime menu focuses on yum cha style options, once again giving us the chance to sample a number of dishes. And they were all fabulous - from the succulent, juicy fleshed, crispy on the outside pork belly and the salt and pepper tofu with a knock your socks off hot and spicy relish, - to the best BBQ pork buns I have ever eaten. Just wonderful.

Sunday night saw us catching up with good friends, who had booked us in well in advance for what ended up being our third gold star food experience in Melbourne. When we arrived we understood why - the place was rocking - packed out and buzzing early on a Sunday night. Located in a laneway just off Flinders Street, chef Frank Camorra creates his beautiful Spanish tapas at Movida. Earthy, voluptuous and real are the words that come to mind. But this isn't standard tapas. With a few deft tweaks of creativity and an eye for gorgeous presentation, the food goes from luscious to simply exceptional. Sardines with tomato sorbet, the to die for Baccalau (traditional salt cod) croquettes, pressed quail and the textural and taste bonanza of the pork jowl with jamon, the menu impressed.

Dining Room - Movida

As well as the recurring theme of really great food, our trip to Malbourne also highlighted the pure delight of experiencing first rate service. All of the above establishments not only excelled from an eating point of view, but also with their knockout service skills. Waitstaff who all knew the menus down to every minute detail, could answer queries about those menus and the ingredients, were professional and efficient without being stuffy or overbearing and made the whole dining experience a delight. Waitstaff of Melbourne, we salute you.

For a whole selection of pictures from our culinary weekend, including individual menu items and some gorgeous shots of Melbourne, head to the following album:

The next major event on the dining agenda is an evening at chef Mark Best's restaurant Marque, to celebrate our first wedding anniversary - another experience that has been on my must do list for ages. Marque has recently been judged by Gourmet Traveller as the number one restaurant in the country for 2012. I have been looking at the menu online and it looks amazing. Expectations are high to say the least.

Other plans later in the year include a trip to Borneo, where I'll be sampling as much of the local food as I can get my hands on, and towards the end of the year, a 2 week culinary road trip that will see us follow the route of the major stages of the famous Targa Tasmania Rally around Tasmania. Andrew will get to indulge his love for cars and racing circuits, and together we will be sampling the culinary delights of our island state along the way. Lots to look forward to, with the usual Gourmet Goddess updates along the way.

Contact details:

Cutler & Co - 55-57 Gertrude Street Fitzroy VIC (03)9419 4888
Movida - 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne VIC (03) 9663 3038
Spice Temple - Crown Complex 8 Whiteman Street Southbank VIC
(03) 8679 1888.

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