Day/Night 5 – Melbourne, Old and New

After having dim sum yesterday in a modern setting, today it was time to do the same in the Melbourne institution, Flower Drum. One of the tricks that I’ve used for years when traveling is to do lunch at the really famous (and usually, really expensive) spots as it’s easier to book and typically much cheaper. Flower Drum was no exception based on what I saw with the menus on line. Unlike the graffiti alleyway entrance of Lee Ho Fook, this was much more traditional, both outside and in.

After being greeted by the host (no free beer though alas), I was confronted with the massive menu, which seemed to have an endless number of options. Not entirely sure how to tackle it, I decided to start simple with a scallop siu mai and what I had heard was one of their specialities – braised lamb spring rolls with lamb gravy.

The siu mai had a generous amount of scallops with a nice chewy wrapping – simple but good. The lamb spring rolls, however, were another level entirely. The unctuous, tender lamb meat was mixed with some bean sprouts and the light fried wrapped was ultra crispy. But it was the lamb gravy dip, rich and deep with flavor, that really made it otherworldly. Outstanding.

Next up were the Duck wontons with tangerine peel in roast duck reduction.

The wontons were full of the roasted duck with some herbs to break up the richness. The star though was the duck reduction, which I ended up finishing off as a soup. Delicious.

Last up, I ordered one of their specialities, which caught my server off guard because it actually wasn’t on the menu. He explained it would take a little while to make which I said was fine.

Behold! The Potato Pear – Fried pear shaped potato croquette with chicken, quail, duck liver sausage, asparagus, mushrooms and water chestnuts. The best way to describe this is it was like eating a mini meat pie but with potatoes instead of a flaky crust. It was pretty damn great and very filling so I was glad I had decided to make it my final course.

Needing to walk off that last dish, I noticed that about a mile away was the famous Lune bakery, world renown for the only thing they make – croissants. I had heard they usually sell out by noon but decided to risk it even though it was soon their closing time of 2pm. As I figured, they were indeed completely sold out so alas no pics/reviews for you, dear readers.

I had passed by the sign above walking up to Lune and in the now slightly rainy weather, it seemed like a good time for some tasters. James Squire proudly proclaimed to be the first microbrewery in Melbourne. The beers weren’t quite at the level of the Collingwood ones but the English brown ale and especially the smoked porter were a nice way to wait for the rain to subside a bit.

After some blogging (yes, my work is never done), rest and giving my barking dogs some relief, I was soon back in an Uber to check out a new wine bar in Fitzroy that had been getting a good reputation. The Napier Quarter owner had also suggested it to me so off to Bar Liberty!

They had initially set me up at the bar but I asked if I could get a table instead, which turned out to be in the smaller back room.

The server suggested a Cab Franc, which I really didn’t care for and quickly replaced it with this much better option that was similar to the first glass I had at Napier Quarter – light and very refreshing.

I decided to again just try a few smaller dishes, looking for things I hadn’t had yet but were Australian influenced. In this case, pierogi of smoked eel and lamb tongue with an apple and garum glaze. Both were quite tasty and a nice way to start.

I switched to something a bit heavier for my second glass – a local Sangiovese blend as I selected another couple of dishes. First up was Heirloom Zucchini, Mead Vinegar, Lovage and Buckwheat. Basically a zucchini salad with the sharp acidic vinegar to add flavor. Last up I needed some starch so I went with confit local potatoes with preserved lemon and mustard. The chunky bits in the picture were the chopped on preserved lemons, which went great with rich potatoes and tangy mustard.

I was pretty full so after chatting with the chef about some Sydney recommendations, I said my goodbyes and made my way back home. Tomorrow was the homestretch of my time in Melbourne with a bit of shopping and a final epic meal.


Melbourne Day/Night 4 – Going Local

After some much needed sleep, it was time for a day where I planned to do as the locals do on a typical Sunday afternoon. First up, brunch at the new school dim sum restaurant, Lee Ho Fook. As it turned out, the restaurant was in walking distance and with the temperature finally cooling down, it was a very pleasant stroll about a mile away.

I had heard the thing to do was to get the Yum Cha tasting menu, which looked great to me. It was located in an old industrial building with exposed brick walls and minimalist decor. Unlike most Chinese dim sum spots, the music was alternative rock and even electronica at times. Yum Cha is a traditional Cantonese brunch but in this case with some modern techniques thrown in for good measure.

The meal started with a complimentary beer, which they give to solo travelers to the restaurant – a very nice and welcomed touch – and the beer was excellent too. The server explained that there would be 3 different courses – Dim Sum, a main course and dessert.

The dim sum course was excellent with both some familiar standbys like siu mai and prawn dumplings, as well as some things I had never had like sesame shrimp toast (my personal favorite) and a BBQ beef pastry. In my case, given my garlic issue, they had to swap out one of them for green pea shoot with cashew cream and chili powder, which I actually probably preferred to another shrimp dumpling. The main course had a ton of roasted duck and the noodles were perfectly cooked. The final course was basically a caffeinated flan, which given my usual aversion to caffeine had quite the kick. I was initially thinking there would be more food but after the dessert, I was quite sated.

The alley where the restaurant was located had a ton of very cool street art and was next to another alley which turned out to be a tribute to the great rock band AC/DC.

Since it was nice out, I decided to keep walking and go down to the Yarra River and surrounding park.

After being stymied several times trying to use the free tram system in the CBD, I finally found a route that would get me, more or less, home without paying extra, which required a card called a myki, which I didn’t have.

I had reach they would indicate on the PA the last stop of the free zone, so I hopped on and listened for that. Knowing I had 4 stops to get back to my ‘hood, it seemed like I could get close if not almost exactly there. The PA did indeed say we were in the free zone so I waited for the warning for me to bail. Unfortunately, the announcement came after we had left what turned out to be the last free stop, d’oh! Having read about the pretty hefty fines, I knew I had to get off ASAP and bolted at the next stop like the scofflaw I had become. Oh well.

As I was walking back, I realized I finally had a good angle of the 70 story building I was staying in here. One tricky thing about being in such a tall building is having to add in extra time to wait for one of the four elevators, which could range from no time at all to up to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.

After some blogging (again, you’re welcome) and a bit of rest, I headed out back to Fitzroy for a highly recommended local wine bar, Napier Quarter.

This was exactly the type of wine bar I love. Intimate, cozy and an extensive local wine list. When I asked about the wines by the glass, the owner paused and replied “that is a constant and ongoing discussion we will have now.” Great answer.

Having had a Yarra Valley Pinot noir last night, I wanted to try some more local options. He recommended a new experimental blend of the 2 main Pinots – noir and gris. He caught my apprehension but told me to trust him. Interestingly enough, it was only 10% ABV. He was right – bright and very refreshing at a perfect temperature.

My original plan was to have a glass here and then go to another restaurant for dinner. However, I was so enjoying my experience, I called an audible and would eat here too. Plus, they only had one more of the John Dory dish that seemed like the light dinner I really needed at this point. While I was waiting for that, the owner suggested I try the cellar temperature grenache, from a vineyard only a couple of hours away. It had a bit more body than the previous but still relatively light that would pair nicely with the fish.

The John Dory had a tremendously crispy skin and the salsa of fresh anchovies and vine tomatoes was a nice complement – simple but delicious. It was only just after 8PM by this point so I decided to take another stroll down Fitzroy, passing some of the places I had seen on Saturday and even some sort of Latin American festival.

I had read about a place that was one of the first bars in the area as it became a hot spot – Blackcat. As soon as I entered, with the bossa nova beats and the large comfy couches, I knew I was in the right place.

It was like something out of central casting for a hipster bar. The tip jar at the bar said “Let Us Eat Cake too” The bartender could not have looked more bored serving me and charged me for the regular Havana Club instead of the Especial. There were about 4 different language being spoken. The guy across from me was drawing sketches. And the DJ was literally reading a book while spinning.

At one point, a shaggy haired fellow just enthusiastically went over to the DJ to express his love for the current track and how he had just started collecting. The DJ with the wispy mustache was finally engaged and explained about how he secured this limited vinyl edition, suggestion other records to pick up. I sipped my delicious rum (seriously, can we stop with the embargoes and let me sip this liquid gold at home??) as the rain started to come down outside. The DJ bailed soon after, and I took that as my cue to leave as well. It was now pouring outside, which had brought down the temperature considerably. Nature’s way of telling me my night was done and who was I to argue with that?

Melbourne- Night 3 – Filipino Feast and Reunion with an Old Friend

After a much needed respite, I was back on the streets of Melbourne, which were now teeming with Saturday patrons. The restaurant was in walking distance so made my way down the very crowded Elizabeth St and after several false starts due to Google Maps insisting I could apparently break through walls, I arrived at my destination, Serai Kitchen.

The restaurant had just received several Best New Restaurant honors, and I was very intrigued by the concept of Filipino style food but with Australian ingredients.

I took my seat along a bar which faced the open kitchen – my favorite when dining alone. There a very tight knit group were in the thick of dinner service. The young chef had on something I had never seen before in a restaurant – a Go Pro camera attached to a Yankees ball cap. One of the servers explained he was wearing it to record their Sat dinner service and see where it could be improved.

I had initially thought of having a couple of dishes but after that they explained the Feed Me Chefs option, it was a no-brainer to do that. Plus it was my first real vacation in over 3 years, and I deserved it, dammit! There was, however, my usual garlic challenge to overcome. After speaking with the chef, they said they could make some adjustments except for a couple of the sauces. I agreed that would be fine and off I went!

The amuse was ‘Selat lumpia’, organic pineapple, spiced coconut, smoked caviar. While the flavors were delicious, they were overpowered by the massive blast of chilis that now exploded in my mouth. The current server (they rotated between courses) saw me struggling and asked what was wrong. I politely asked to turn down the heat a bit. She agreed it was a bit too spicy.

The first course had a much simpler (but delicious) profile – ‘Kinilaw’ cured kingfish crudo with limes. Very fresh and lightly seasoned to keep with the raw preparation.

Next was one of the highlights of the meal – ‘Kare kare’, hash brown, peanut sauce, herbs, salted duck egg. The chef served me this one and explained that kare kare is traditionally a pork stew but he decided to use those flavors into a hash brown dish. The perfectly crisp hash browns were augmented by the really fantastic peanut sauce. Delicious.

While I waited for the next course, I noticed how quiet the kitchen was. The expediter calmly called out the latest ticket and the small teams went to work. Even the chef was noticeably silent for the most part. I could tell it was an extremely efficient kitchen.

The third course was in keeping with the concept of local product with Filipino techniques – Port Lincoln calamari, smoked ‘longanissa nduja’ dressing. Longanissa is a typical Filipino sausage that in this case had been kept out of its casing and added some Calabrian chilis to make it into a ragu. The heat was definitely back with this one but wasn’t overwhelming like the amuse. The wood fired squid was tender and smoky. Another winner.

The fourth course was by far my favorite – Savoy cabbage “tocino”. Tocino is usually a roasted pork dish with a sticky BBQ sauce but in this case substituting fire roasted cabbage. As you can see, it sure as hell looks like a BBQ pork dish – and even tasted a lot like it. Mind blown.

I think wisely knowing it would be hard to top that, the next dish was a lot simpler – Gippsland lamb ribs, sticky ‘adobo’ sauce. At last some actual Australian lamb! The rib was nice and smoky from wood fire, and the sauce added some nice sweet and sour notes.

The sixth and final course is why I was there – ‘Lechon’ western plains free-range pork belly, smoky pineapple ‘palapa’. Filipino lechón is known for being some of the best pork around with its signature ultra crispy skin. This version lived up to that and then some. The skin was both very crispy and bursting with flavor from the lacquered shell. The pork belly had real texture and depth so it, and the drippings added some sweet notes that paired really well with the pineapple relish, which thankfully wasn’t as chili forward as the amuse. It was served with some steamed jasmine rice which I initially ignored but after a quick taste understood why it was there. Made into more a sticky rice consistency, it helped sop up the accumulated juices from the pork. Simply outstanding.

Dessert wasn’t included which was actually fine because I was beyond full anyway. I watched as they turned over the kitchen and put away everything. The chef scrubbed down the counters himself and then offered a large bag of Hungry Jack burgers and fries to the delighted staff. I paid my bill (an absurd value of $70 for that feast plus a glass of Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and “bottomless” bottles of sparkling water, and I said my final goodbyes. Truly a special meal.

The night wasn’t quite over though as I hopped into an Uber across the river to the Crown Casino to meet up with an old friend. When I arrived, I wasn’t quite prepared for the extremely different environment I was now in as I made my way through the maddening crowd and the constant noises of the casino floor. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally got to the Atrium lounge where the Mad Dog himself, Mark Tabberner spotted me from behind the decks and gave me one of his bone crushing bear hugs that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.

He had a job to do so as he went back to it, I scanned the revelers in various states of intoxication. It’s funny how regardless of where one goes in the world, casinos attract a certain… clientele, especially during the witching hours.

I bopped along to Mark’s very energetic set of classics and house remixes of pop tunes and enjoyed the people watching – which ranged from an alarmingly late stage pregnant woman dancing perhaps a bit too strenuously to packs of younger men on the prowl to what seemed like at least 2 wedding party groups drinking the night away. Sorry, dear readers given casinos rules about photos, you’ll just have to picture it in your mind’s eye.

At around 1am, my aching body made it clear it was time to head home. I said my goodbyes and one last bear hug to make my escape from the scene. Uber prices were still in premium modes so I grabbed a cab and soon collapsed into a deep sleep. Tomorrow appeared to be the best weather yet and of course, more great food.

Melbourne – Day 3 – Beers and Cheers

I had read about the burgeoning beer scene in Melbourne and after some research, found a great option to check it out – The Collingwood Beer Trail. For $20, I would get 3 tasters for 4 different breweries, each of which focused on a different style of beer. Collingwood is an industrial area slowly being gentrified and being taken over by local breweries. The first stop, where I picked up my ticket, was Fixation Brewery.

Known as the brewery that brought West Coast IPA(WCIPA) to Melbourne, it was located in a bright warehouse space which had been overrun today with 3 different Bucks (bachelor) parties (more on one of those later.)

Before the beer, I had my first toastie – in this case, a smash cheese burger with mustard – which definitely was a good choice to sop up all of the beer I was about to imbibe. Ah yes, the beer. Since they focus on IPAs, I chose 3 of their more balanced (not bitter) options.

Sun Ray – Session Hazy IPA (HIPA)

Fixation IPA – WCIPA and the only beer they brewed their first 2 years.

Fuzz Club – Peach & Apricot infused HIPA and the best of the lot.

Next up was Molly Rose, which was a very small brewery that focuses mostly on Farmhouse Ales and Sours. Since I’m not really much of a sour drinker, I went with 2 of their farmhouse ales and their version of an Aussie lager.

When Life Gives You Lemons – Hazy Lemon Ale

Grapefruit Shimmy – Grapefruit Farm Ale

Lager #3 – Aussie lager

All 3 were light and very refreshing – really quality beers. As I was sampling, I notice this guy with devil wings who has handcuffed to another dude. I assumed and turned out to be correct, that this was part of one of the Bucks parties I had seen at Fixation. The groom was the one with the wings and various members of the party rotated being handcuffed to him to make sure they didn’t lose him – smart idea. They had already been to the next stop I was heading to so I wished them luck and continued down the trail to The Mill.

The Mill didn’t really have a focus, more just whatever the brewer wanted to do at any given moment. I opted for 3 different styles.

Oisihi – a brand new rice lager he had released last week
Dark Lord – a black IPA with 6.66% ABV
Feathered Serpent – Mexican chile stout

The first 2 were very nice, the last one eh not so much. In order to make it extra spicy they had dumped an entire bottle of an extreme hot sauce, which ended up making my mouth and lips catch on fire – no gracias. Fortunately, the server took pity on my and gave me their new Rose sour instead, which was very tasty.

After threatening all day, the rain finally started falling. I asked the server how far the final stop was and he said “oh you’re going to get drenched, mate.” Great. But given the area, seemed like Ubers would be hard to come by, and it really wasn’t that far – what’s a mile anyway? Well, when you have 10 different styles of beer in your belly and rain coming down – longer than you think. Still, I took this as a sign for me to press on.

I eventually arrived as the last spot – The Stomping Ground Brewery and Beer Hall, which was about 10x the size of the previous stops.

For my last 3 tasters, I chose some darker beers given the turn in the weather.

Bearbrass – nitro milk stout
Tropical Coconut Stout – self explanatory
Bunker Porter – a Baltic porter

All of these really paled in comparison to the previous stops but were still OK. The Bunker Porter was the best of the three by far, so I saved that one for last.

After over 3 hours of tasting beers, I was ready to head back to my place to rest up. Later I was going to what would probably be one of the highlight meals of my trip plus meeting up with an old friend at his DJ gig. To be continued…

Melbourne Day/Night 2 – Downshifting

I woke up with a surprising amount of energy but given it was going to be up to 92, I decided to tread carefully with my plans for the day. I had initially walked by the Melbourne Central mall when dropping off my luggage. I had noticed a “sushi train” style restaurant, which seemed like the ideal spot.

Sushi Jiro had been highly recommended and I quickly understood why as this was far from most of the sushi train restaurants (well at least outside of Japan) in that it look actually really good. I could either select from the plates that went by or I could order from the pad in front of me. If it was something already on the train, they just counted it up with whatever plates I took. Otherwise, they would simply just charge it to my tab.

Everything was incredibly fresh with the salmon belly with Japanese scallop and salmon roe nigiri (black plate) and the lobster inari (the gold plate) particular highlights. I took it as a good sign I was one of the few gaijin there. Considering the quality of the fish, it was a very reasonable $30 for 7 plates plus an Asahi Dark ale.

Sushi Jiro was part of the larger area that they called Ella (LaTrobe and Elizabeth Street) which had several cool shops around it – from a bottle shop to a large variety of food options.

Not really wanting to brave the heat quite yet, I continued to wander into the actual mall, which seemed pretty conventional until I got to the center.

The entire thing had been built around the massive Shot Tower, which dates back to the early 20th century, named as such because it was where they made bullets for the Australian army during the wars. Not exactly your typical mall centerpiece!

Knowing this trip is a marathon, not a sprint. I headed back to my place to relax (and write the blog post you read yesterday) That proved to be a wise decision and soon enough it was time to head back out, to a hipper part of town known as Fitzroy. Google Maps told me that it was about a 25 min walk, which sounded doable until I discovered it was mostly uphill. Given it was still about 85 out, I decided to not continue on foot and grabbed a quick Uber to my destination – Poodle Bar.

Poodle Bar was part of the new wave of hot spots that had opened up in this gentrified part of the city. Known for its cocktails and interesting take on bar food, I took at a seat at the marble bar and ordered what my bartender, Katie, recommended – Spring Has Sprung – Kettle One, Elderflower, pear, coriander and EVOO – on the top. It was very refreshing and a great choice to start the evening.

The menu had some very untraditional items so I decided to try some of those.

From the top left – wood roasted skewer of duck heart wrapped in guanciale in a tamarind glaze. I’m not exactly a fan of duck heart but fortunately the smoky guanciale was the dominant flavor and the glaze was superb. Next was the smoked eel vol au vent – basically a puff pastry. It always amuses me how pretty much all smoked spreads like this or trout or mackerel, etc all pretty much taste the same. Fortunately, I happen to like that taste so this was delicious. I had read their hand cut duck fat fries were a must so I ordered those alongside my final dish – heirloom tomatoes in a saffron sauce with pancetta bits. I had a feeling they might be great mixed together and I was right. The acidic tomatoes acted as basically a fancy ketchup for the fries with the bacon bits adding another nice crunchy element. I could have stayed for another cocktail but decided instead to keep walking down the main drag and see what else was there.

It was certainly an eclectic group of shops, bars and restaurants. My bartender had suggested a place called Naked for Satan, and really with that name, how could I resist?

Melbourne is known for its rooftop bars and this was one of them. A pretty sprawling complex which had both a downstairs restaurant and the upstairs roof deck.

Katie had told me to try the Mescal Negroni, which took awhile to get but was worth the wait – a smoky blend of mescal, Cyngar and Tio Peppe sherry – and as pictured above, a generous pour. The roof deck was jammed with people so there wasn’t really anywhere to stand let alone sit. I eventually bailed from that area and found a couch near the elevator to get access the rooftop. That turned out to be a good choice for people watching as I could watch the comings and goings. While I considered a final nightcap, I went back to my mantra (marathon not a sprint) and headed home, with this bar pointing me the way.

Melbourne – Day 0-1

(tap) (tap) Is this thing still on? Yes, dear readers it’s been quite awhile since my last post. Suffice it to say the ol’ pandemic had quite the impact on my travels. I was actually planning to take this particular trip later this year but thanks to my friend James’ eagle-eyed spotting, I found a truly great deal to do it now instead via my United miles.

The route to get to Melbourne was via LAX-SFO-MEL so I first had a nice sit down lunch at the United Polaris lounge at LAX. It was nice to be in the lap of luxury for a bit before that first flight, which was uh decidedly not.

Still, thankfully it was only an hour flight, although the landing in 60 mph winds was a bit bumpy – more, a lot more of that, in a bit.

I had an 8 hour layover and thankfully my good friend Stephanie and her husband lived close by so I hung out at their place to catch up and relax before the big flight. By the time I got the airport, the wind had died down just a tad but it was still pretty blustery. I chilled at the SFO’s much larger Polaris Lounge (pic not included bc well, I forgot)

Finally, it was time to board and this seat was a wee bit roomier.

Business class in United Polaris was pretty much mandatory for a 16 hour flight. My plan was to try to force myself into the new time difference (+19 hours) by staying up until the equivalent of 10pm Melbourne time which meant 3am on my body clock. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that but it became pretty easy when about 3 hours into the flight we started experiencing severe turbulence which would last pretty much non stop for the next 10 hours. That seemed like a good time to try some Zzquil and try to pass out. I was only somewhat successful though given I kept being rattled side to side the lie flat seat, which actually makes you feel the turbulence even more fully (First World problems, I know.)

At one point, there was what turned out to be a brief respite of the turbulence when the Fasten Seat belts sign finally went off. I turned on the monitor to see how far we still had to go… 6 hours, proving yet again why a biz class seat was a necessity. I asked a flight attendant at one point if this was unusual and she said that this was a particularly bad time of year for the flight because you are battling the jet stream, which can cause “a bit of discomfort” (no shit.)

After what seemed like an eternity, we made our descent, which the pilot told us would also be “a bit bumpy.” Great. Thankfully, compared to the rest of the flight, it was pretty mild and soon landed in Melbourne, where it was in the mid 80s and windy. It took awhile to get my bag but the customs/immigration side was almost all automated and took a matter of minutes. I grabbed an Uber and headed to the Melbourne CBC (Central Business District) where I was staying. I couldn’t check in until 3pm though (it was 11:30) so I stored my bags at the Melbourne Central Station and took a quick walk up the the hill to the massive Queen Victoria Marketplace – the largest open market in the southern hemisphere.

I wasn’t quite hungry yet so first wandered into the goods section of the market, which had the usual assortment of shall we say a range of products. That really wasn’t what I wanted so instead after cruising through the produce/fruits/vegetables, I headed to the Meat and Seafood Hall.

This got my appetite going but in the heat, I opted for something simple and cold – a Tasmanian smoke salmon wrap with red onions, cucumbers, slaw and a tartar sauce they insisted I add, which I had to admit was quite good.

It was still too early to check in so I walked over to a local brewery’s “beer shed” for a pint of Aussie lager.

The manager, Darrin. who was also a Cicerone, gave me a quick rundown of the Melbourne beer scene and how this particular beer was 100% malt whereas a lot of the more common Aussie lagers are only about 40% malt. It was just what I needed to beat the heat. He also helped advise me on a beer tour I’m doing on Saturday and was quite pleased I was doing it. That was good to hear.

Finally, I was able to check in to my Airbnb in the sky – 26 floor up in a great spot of town with a ton of incredibly varied cuisines steps from it.

A nice, spotless 1BR with what quickly became the best feature – a high pressured rain shower which was a major necessity after so much traveling. I decided to take advantage of the culinary diversity on my block and picked up something I had never tried before – bihun goreng – which is similar to my favorite nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) but instead had fried vermicelli.

To pair with it, I had what Darrin told me was one of his favorite local ales. The dish had the familiar smoky flavor of the nasi goren I love so much but with more texture due to the noodles and the chicken was perfectly seasoned. A great way to cap off a very long first day.