Eater – Page 30 – Dani Valent

Eater

We’ve all got to eat so it might as well be good! I’ve been a restaurant critic for almost 20 years, and have been writing a weekly restaurant column in Melbourne’s Sunday Age since 2006.

My approach is to always take a restaurant on its own terms: there’s no point slamming a burger joint because it doesn’t have white tablecloths. I try to be constructive in my criticism and I’ve always got the diner in mind: there are many places you could choose to go. Why should it be here?

 

Five Points Deli

The key characteristic of a classic American deli sandwich is that it’s impossible to finish it. If you can’t get your mouth around it at all, that’s even better. Legend has it that this enthusiastic overdoing it sprung from well-remembered scarcity among Jewish immigrants, a post-ghetto gluttony that turned sandwiches into towering, victorious constructions, albeit built with humble meat cuts such as brisket (from the cow’s lower chest). But do more digging and you’ll find that the massive sandwich probably had more to do with mid-century New York deli-preneurs looking for bragging points.

Delhi Streets

“It’s a puri and it’s also a party,” said our friendly waiter at Delhi Streets, a new Indian street food eatery that’s all about festive fusion. Puri is puffed dough – the Indian version of choux pastry – and it’s usually a palm-sized snack. This version is a petite shatter-crisp globe containing curried potato, chickpea and tamarind chutney. That’s a party in itself but the real revelry is the vial of spiced broth to be tipped into the puri. It’s a one-bite fiesta and a fun, zingy introduction to a cheap, casual, light-hearted restaurant.

Cutler & Co

I reckon it’s the best show in town. Sitting at the kitchen bench, watching owner Andrew McConnell, head chef Rory Cowcher and their crack team prepare some of Melbourne’s most wonderful food is better than any movie or theatre spectacle because you view the process then eat the proceeds. It’s an immersive, intoxicating performance.

Arbory Bar & Eatery

Not all Melbourne hangouts feel like they’re built for all Melbourne people so it’s exciting to come upon a place that’s as democratic as Flinders Street Station, which Arbory happens to abut. This 100-metre long dining and drinking terrace runs between platform 10 and the riverbank. It’s completely outdoors, though well sheltered by umbrellas and cosied by heaters. I’ve been there on a bitterly cold, sideways rainy night and even shrugged my coat off to eat my burger.

Ovest

Three pizza lovers walked into a restaurant. The first one said, “Wow, it smells good in here.” The second one inhaled, “Yeah, how good does it smell?” The third one (me, actually) mused, “I’ve got a good feeling about this meal.” So began a fragrant, fabulous Footscray interlude.

Northern Light

Northern Light is a delicious conundrum. The tiny room, strung with light globes and giving the impression of a budding astronomer’s sharehouse, looks like a promising place for a snack. Instead, the waiter (charmingly) pushes a nine-course banquet ($95). The menu mentions sushi rice, miso and yakitori but the food isn’t really Japanese. The wine list is short and moderately priced (mostly $60 to $90) but the offerings are skewed to Europe and rather daring. Chef Adam Liston’s food is creative and thoughtful but is so easy to enjoy in this casual setting that there’s a risk of wolfing it down without due appreciation.

Glovers Station

You know those derelict but magnificent buildings that you fervently hope will be turned into something lovely? Too often, desires are dashed and bulldozers move in. Sometimes, as with Glovers Station, good people act in the most marvellously Melbourne way: they bring excellent coffee and delicious food to a neighbourhood in need. This 1935 mock Tudor structure was a garage with arched entrance, stucco facade and quirky turret. Where lumbering EK Holdens once gorged on leaded fuel, now towering prams have disc brakes engaged so their drivers can top up on muesli with activated almonds. As in the good old days, friendly attendants see to all needs; they’ll fill your water but perhaps don’t ask them to check your oil.

Donovans, St Kilda

It was the chargrill that did it. Last August, it sputtered and sparked and started a fire that saw this 20-year-old beachfront restaurant close for six long months. But after a $3-million refurbishment it was the smoky charms of a new (safety-enhanced) charcoal grill that wrapped Donovans’ many winning qualities in a culinary bow for me. One mouthful of succulent, smoke-swaddled baby barramundi and I was swooning. A fish on a plate – and that’s all it was – can say a lot about ingredient sourcing, cooking skill and a restaurant’s overall confidence. This barra was pretty shouty.

Stokehouse City

When St Kilda’s Stokehouse burnt down in January 2014, Melbourne lost a favourite venue. Tears spilled, teeth gnashed. Six months later, owner Frank Van Haandel elbowed another of his restaurants, Comme, out of the grand Mietta’s building and installed a version of Stokehouse in its place, as though Melbourne should never be without its Stokey. Stokehouse City was meant to draw regulars but it hasn’t turned out like that. Apparently St Kilda folk don’t much come to the city and CBD lunchers tend to keep meals short and wine consumption tight. Rolling out of lunch at sunset, ties akimbo and shirts untucked, doesn’t really play when the office is a tram stop away.

© Dani Valent 2021