The usual yum cha narrative goes something like this. You wake on a Sunday morning feeling shabby, perhaps unaccountably, possibly for sins well remembered. Dumplings call and fried calamari and, if you’ve grown up with them, chicken’s feet, too.
Ned Radojcic didn’t get the memo about South Yarra being a gluten-free suburb and he somehow accidentally opened a bakery here. In come the locals, shimmering in their activewear, bemoaning the problematic and pesky presence of flour. Radojcic, a Yugoslav aircraft engineer who arrived from Belgrade in 1989 with $238 in his pocket, begins his ‘breaducation’.
Sometimes a restaurant’s trappings are so many layers of distraction. At ESP, they serve to shine an ever more focused light on the food. Yes, there’s crisp service and excellent, interesting wines. Yes, you’ll be cosseted in a gleaming, comfortable dining room replete with gorgeous furniture and tableware. And yes, these accoutrements are all profoundly enjoyable. What you don’t get is smoke and mirrors. This is a chef’s restaurant and the trappings are there to support the sublime efforts of the kitchen.
I’m eating compost for dessert and I couldn’t be happier. Shiraz lees (a yeasty debris of the wine-making process) have been repurposed as a heady purplish granita. Grapefruit peel is blitzed into a powerful citrus paste. Coriander stems and roots are the flavour base for an insistently herbaceous ice cream, and egg whites are whipped and baked into crisp shards of meringue. It’s a curious, pretty, highwire balance of sweet, tart and fragrant. I’d love it even if it wasn’t an environmental statement.
You know you shouldn’t lick the plate. You know it’s not okay. But you’re also sure it would hurt a lot to watch a plate of delicious shellfish butter be taken to the kitchen to be scraped into a bin. Then, while you’re weighing up two evils, a waiter asks a question so insightful and timely that you’re not sure whether to answer or merely weep. “Would you like some sticky rice to mop up that butter?” Yes. Oh yes. Make it happen.
Just 10 paces from one of Melbourne’s most trodden (and waited upon) stairways – the narrow steps leading to no-bookings Mexican phenomenon Mamasita – is a new staircase you need to know about. This three-cornered climb leads up to Uncle, the new city iteration of the bright and buzzing restaurant that brought modern Vietnamese to St Kilda three years ago. The CBD Uncle has taken over premises once inhabited by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. It’s doubtful the ladies would appreciate the smashing cocktails (I love the crisp, tart Uncle Tom’s Collins with ginger liqueur and smoked beetroot syrup) but surely they’d rock out for the lively food.
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.
To understand the restaurant as mood piece, you couldn’t do better than to lose a few hours at Il Bacaro. It’s not about the food – though the Italian food is good. It’s not about the wine – even though the restaurant’s name celebrates Bacchus, god of grapes. It’s that food, wine, ambient interior and, crucially, service, meld to create an atmosphere in which every conversation is important and every joke becomes 15 per cent funnier. Life, with all its glittering sensation and swirling emotion, is bigger. If you’re doing business, you can count on discretion (I once interviewed Julia Gillard in a corner nook; we shared calamari then she had ravioli). If you’re doing romance, count on good advice and a general sense that every choice is a sign of your cleverness and sophistication.
A lot of dishes land on a lot of tables every day, provoking thoughts like ‘yum’ and ‘oh dear’ and ‘I wish I didn’t have to share’. It’s a rare dish that elicits a ‘wow, I have never seen that before’. That’s what happened when Lucy Liu’s blackened pork hock arrived. In my mind, the surging sizzle of the open kitchen ebbed to spacious silence. The chatter of adjoining tables became soundless gesticulation. The metallic halos of faces over phones turned to an air-brushed blur. And sharp and shouty among all this was a pig’s foot. Chef Michael Lambie deserves applause for that: it’s hard to come up with show-stoppers.
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.