Eater – Page 36 – Dani Valent


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?


Ripponlea Food and Wine

A good restaurant isn’t always the most innovative or edgy. It can simply be a place that gives you what you want, whether that’s a commuter coffee, great poached eggs, or a frisky glass of wine after a frazzling day. In essence, a good restaurant makes you feel good: it’s as straightforward and as complicated as that. Ripponlea Food and Wine has only been at it for two months but it’s making such a decent stab at being a welcoming local restaurant that I reckon it’s worth rolling in from other parts of town. The heritage corner site extends over four shopfronts and the cool fit-out finds a happy meeting place between rustic and industrial. Laptop-friendly window benches and a cosy gossip chamber near the open kitchen are big pluses.

Puerto Tapas Vino

No, this can’t be it. Surely not. This open-air car park with easy access to beauty salons, banks, podiatry practitioners and pet supplies looks a fine place to pull in for the daily necessaries but it doesn’t feel like somewhere I’d head for fine dining. That’s until you walk through an arcade and find Puerto, smack on the water, serving really good Spanish food in a large dining room that’s been decorated with offbeat opulence and an eye on the long game.


A mature and satisfying restaurant culture needs buzzy newies but it also needs restaurants like Matteo’s. For 20 years, Matteo’s has balanced consistency and innovation, striving for high standards ahead of saturation coverage. Proprietor Matteo Pignatelli grew up in the northern suburbs, making pizzas in his family’s takeaway shops; he’s a genial presence here and in Melbourne’s broader hospitality scene. He’s watched them come, he’s seen them go, and through it all, he’s welcomed diners into his glamorous restaurant, a sprawling and venerable villa that once housed the legendary Mietta’s.


Just about every shopping strip has a Japanese restaurant but few of them are as welcoming, versatile and delectable as Komeyui. Chef Motomu Kumano opened his small, amiable restaurant nearly three years ago, after six years at Kenzan followed his move to Melbourne in 2005. The heart of Komeyui is rice, cooked in a special cast-iron pot (hagama) that’s been superseded by electric rice cookers in most Japanese kitchens. The old-time technique is trickier than pressing a button but Kumano believes it brings out the true nature of each grain of rice and that the iron vessel conducts health benefits too. I’m no rice-soul-spotter but I can say that this rice is distinct, nutty and lively.


I won’t ever know what it feels like to be Sophia Loren, but I reckon the closest I’ll get to it is here, at Rosetta, where the glamorous, plush surrounds and sensual food are so overwhelming that I had to retreat to the toilets to practice batting my eyelashes. Unfortunately, my optical antics prompted a kindly lady in the powder room to enquire if I’d poked myself with a mascara wand. Ah well, at least the waiters still regarded me as though I’d just flounced off a yacht in the Riviera, thirsty for prosecco and hungry for linguini or love.


Globe Cafe did all-day dining on this site from the mid-1990s through to late 2013, riding all the culinary waves from big cakes to gravlax stacks to chai lattes and, according to my back-of-napkin guestimate, serving enough serves of their popular eggs benedict to fill an Olympic pool with hollandaise sauce. Mmm, swimming.


LuxBite is a dessert cafe in South Yarra, a suburb where sweet-tooth emporia and teeth-whitening clinics seem to operate in roughly equal numbers. The talented owners, Bernard Chu and Yen Yee, worked the pastry stations at restaurants including Rockpool, Quay and Comme before opening their own sleek, petite pleasure dome in 2010. LuxBite is deservedly beloved for its east-meets-west macarons (pandan, say, or Kaffir lime) and superbly outlandish cakes but should also be celebrated for its Malaysian-style savoury snacks and brunches. When a pastry chef’s fanatical rigor is applied to scrambled eggs they will be the most jiggly, creamy curds you’re ever likely to eat.

Lee Ho Fook

Innovative food is often very showy, a culinary yell, a prima donna trying to impress the palate. Not at Lee Ho Fook, where much of the Chinese food looks straightforward: a crunchy battered prawn, seafood with a dab of XO sauce, glistening fried rice, mushrooms smooshed with tofu. It even tastes pretty straight – at first. But the flavours in each dish develop as you eat, coming into themselves slowly, like a Polaroid. For example, the battered prawn crunches like any well-behaved crustacean but it tastes extra intense because it’s crumbed in more prawn (dried, grated prawn mousse mixed with tapioca flour) and dusted with freeze-dried honey and soy. It’s a simple dish boosted by mysterious wiles.

Xuan Banh Cuon

Within a few minute’s walk of Sunshine’s shiny new train station, in the western hub’s not-so-shiny shopping strip, a hungry person can choose from Indian, African, Chinese, Latin American, Italian and Afghani menus. Among all this multi-culti yum, a tasty little pocket of Hai Phong is thriving. Specialties from the northern Vietnamese port city don’t make much of an appearance in Melbourne so it’s exciting to come and eat steamed rice paper rolls (buan cuon), red noodles with crab paste (banh da cua) and sticky rice cakes.

Sookie La La

Authenticity is all very well but it’s not always a clincher when it comes to eating out. Sookie La La calls itself a diner and its logo is a silhouette of a squat glass coffee pot, prompting visions of waitresses in monogrammed aprons calling people ‘hon’ as they deliver ‘cawfee’ and apple pie. The image is cute but I don’t really want to drink that stewed drip coffee. Luckily, Sookie La La hasn’t bolted itself to the American dream so they serve fresh filter coffee (a bottomless cup, if you like), good espresso and tweaked versions of American dishes. Authenticity plays second fiddle to awesomeness and that’s just as it should be.

© Dani Valent 2021