Restaurant Reviews | Page 8 of 39 | Dani Valent

Restaurant Reviews

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?

Estelle by Scott Pickett

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.

Brother Shota

When Han Kim was a boy in south Korea, his father insisted he get up at 5am to come to the fish market. There Han had his first lesson for the day, choosing seafood for the family’s Japanese restaurant before heading to school. By the time he was 16, Han was working alongside his father, on track to take over the family business.


It’s 2009. You’re a young chef working at a hot restaurant in London. You’re charged with a serious duty – making the bread sauce that’s served with partridge. Overtasked and distracted, you make a terrible mistake: you leave the sauce too long and instead of being smooth and silky it becomes sad and sludgy. The bollocking rings in your ears for days.


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.

Code Black

I’m eating duck waffles for brunch and I’m thwacked over the scone by a thought: geez, Melbourne is good. I’m in a well-loved four-year-old Brunswick cafe and the food is so plainly at the standard of a very good restaurant that I blink a few times, take a bite break, and look around.


I walked into Pigro on a Friday night and instantly knew I was in a good neighbourhood restaurant, the kind of place real estate agents might reference at local auctions. The place was busy but a waiter saw us straight away, smilingly acknowledged us even though she was busy, and arranged a table with swift cheer. It set the right tone.


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.

Dear Abbey

‘Dear Abby’ is a US advice column known since the 1950s for its crisp wit and no-nonsense wisdom. It’s also a tortured John Prine ballad from the 1970s (“Dear Abby, Dear Abby, My fountain pen leaks, My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks…”) And, since late 2016, it’s also a magnetically appealing cafe opposite the Moonee Ponds Woolworths carpark.

© Dani Valent 2019