Dishes that changed Melbourne – Dani Valent

Firstly, I’m sorry I left your key dish out. The food that changed my life may not have rocked yours: we weren’t born in the same moment, my mum didn’t make the same stuff as your mum, and we didn’t seek out identical flavours or experiences. But because we eat in the same city, our culinary lineage overlaps and we are part of the same eating adventure. Here’s a subjective, incomplete list of threshold dishes that have pushed our food culture to tasty new places.

The Middle Eastern pathfinder
Cabbage rolls at Abla’s
Cabbage rolls have been on the menu at Abla’s since the restaurant opened in 1979. “I learnt to make them from mum in Lebanon,” says Abla Amad. “When you like to do something you don’t take too long to learn it.” Amad, 76, still cooks at the restaurant six days a week and she still prepares cabbage rolls, filled with lamb mince, rice, garlic, mint and tomato. “I make 70 or 80 a day, sometimes more,” she says. “I do it with joy. I don’t do it like I have to do it. I do it with love. I have been there 35 years and I enjoy it so much.”

What came next?

Those picking up the Middle Eastern mantle include Greg Malouf (now at Cle Dubai), Shane Delia (Maha) and Joseph Abboud (Rumi).

Can I get it now?
Yes, Abla is still rolling that cabbage.

Cool Cafe Connection
Vodka-cured salmon salad at Marios
Anytime you have breakfast after 11am you can say a just-caffeinated ‘thank you’ to Mario De Pasquale and Mario Maccarone who opened Marios cafe in Brunswick Street in 1986. As well as extending breakfast into the afternoon, they (along with chefs Karen Batson and John Dench, among many others) delivered dishes like a 1990-ish vodka-cured salmon salad with It ingredients avocado, rocket and cherry tomatoes. Eating it made me feel like the most sophisticated person in the world, and I’m sure that buzz boosted the tipsy factor more than the vodka infusion.

What came next?

A thousand cafes doing eggs with a side of attitude, and Atlantic salmon everywhere.

Can I get it now?
No, and you probably don’t want to, but please go to Marios for the puttanesca.

Raising the Thai-tanic

Grilled Banana Chilli with Minced Chicken at Cookie
Karen Batson (see Marios, above) opened Cookie (for owner Camillo Ippoliti) in 2003, pushing our idea of Thai food beyond gloopy green curry and tame take away. It was a trip to Thailand in the mid-1980s that spurred Batson to become a chef. “It was a revelation,” she says. “It was when I started to tell people I was a cook because that’s what I wanted to be.” In Cookie’s early days she had to convince her team of Thai cooks to serve street snacks and homestyle dishes to Melbourne diners but when they did, it clicked.

What came next?
Longrain made it to Melbourne in 2005 and now we’ve got places like Middle Fish in Carlton and Batson’s twisty take on Thai at Magic Mountain Saloon.

Can I get it now?
Yep, grilled chilli is a fixture on the Cookie menu.

Dessert to die for

Snickers by Philippa Sibley
Chef Philippa Sibley’s fine dining version of the commercial chocolate bar was a sensation during her time at Circa in the mid-noughties. Her dessert comprised a salted peanut meringue base topped with moussey caramel parfait. Atop that were squidges of chocolate mousse and salted peanut caramel held between crisp, shiny chocolate sheets. This mix of transcendent technique and nostalgic sweet spot seduced half the restaurant at any one service and even drew people to make dessert-only bookings to indulge.

What came next?

A flood of low-brow-high-brow desserts and the Snickers was a MasterChef challenge in 2010.

Can I get it now?
Copies abound and Supernormal’s peanut butter parfait, salted caramel and soft chocolate is along similar lines.

If you build it they will come
Rose jam and labne on pide at Ray
In early 2000, when Mark Dundon was building his first cafe, Ray, in Victoria Street, Brunswick, an old drunk wandered off Sydney Road and shared his thoughts. “You’re a bit f—ing far away from it here, son,” he said. At the time, he was right. Now, the location might be considered almost southerly. Ray was off the main drag, it had milk crates, it was tiny and it put a Middle Eastern spin on Melbourne notions of toast.

What came next?
A host of alumni, including Jason Chan (Batch in Balaclava). Dundon pushed Melbourne coffee to new places at St Ali, Seven Seeds and more, and he’s now opening in LA.

Can I get it now?
Try Bayte and Advieh for relaxed Middle Eastern eats.

Shaken and stirred
Saganaki Martini at Press Club
In 2006, George Calombaris came up with this cocktail of gin, tomato tea, dried olives and skewers of fried haloumi. He had recently emerged from a bruising experience at the slightly mad, ego-driven Reserve (I recall a dish with onion and chocolate) and was about to open the first incarnation of Press Club, where Gazi is now. He’d shrugged off some of the fanciness and was focusing on good food rather than extreme food. This martini was a drinkable synthesis of this point on the journey: it’s a gulp of realism that’s also fun, it’s expressive but you can sell it and it’s a migrant mash-up in establishment stemware.

What came next?
A Calombaris (and co) empire.

Can I get it now?
Yes, the drink still gets a run at the current Press Club.

Pizza Frenzy
Thin-crust pizza at I Carusi
Pietro Barbagallo opened I Carusi in Brunswick in 1998; by 2001 it was frantically busy. Barbagallo had been a waiter at Caffe e Cucina and Cafe di Stasio (two more gamechangers) but, long before that, he’d learnt how to make pizza at Geelong Pizza House. “These old Calabrese guys taught me,” he says. “I was 13, stretching pizza dough for eight hours at a time.” At I Carusi he brought it all together. “I had no money but I knew how to make pizza and I knew how to work a restaurant so I combined the two,” he says. 
“I didn’t think about it.” At first he covered his pizza with shredded ham like everyone else but he quickly moved towards the stripped-back artisan style that is now common. He admits that I Carusi was chaotic. “It was ramshackle, a bit dodgy, but there was love there,” he says.

What came next?
I Carusi II, Ladro, Supermaxi, Pizza Meine Liebe, Mr Wolf, Moor’s Head and many more.

Can I get it now?
Barbagallo is at Kaprica in Carlton.

Slider up
Lobster Roll at Golden Fields
It was 2011. I was standing on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda’s favourite wind tunnel, wondering why I was lining up to eat a sandwich. “It’s not a sandwich, it’s a lobster roll,” my friend insisted. And so it was: buttered brioche, sweet steamed shellfish, button-pushing Kewpie mayo, the ping of watercress and sliced shallot. It was the roll that launched a slider frenzy and you only had to eat it to understand why.

What came next?
Brioche buns everywhere and the great no-cutlery crisis of 2012.

Can I get it now?
Sure can: Supernormal sells them by the truckload.

Park it
Burger from Beatbox Kitchen
There was a time when the only food you got from trucks was doughnuts at the footy. Then, in 2009, Raph Rashid started selling great burgers from a tricked-up truck that he parked in various locations in the inner north. He played tunes too. It was cool and fun and made for great neighbourly hanging out.

What came next?
Burgers. Lots of burgers. And Raph Rashid started the Taco Truck in 2011. So trucks. Lots of trucks.

Can I get it now?
Find out where they’ll be @beatboxkitchen.

Grow It, Pick It, Plate It
A Green Salad at Stephanie’s
Today many chefs will tell you about the greens they grow but in 1976, when Stephanie Alexander opened her eponymous restaurant, fresh herbs were rare and good green salads weren’t part of our dining culture. Alexander sourced seeds and worked with open-minded growers such as Daniel Romaneix in Boneo to source the produce that fitted her Francophilic vision of salad. She also attempted to grow for the restaurant. “That was my first foray into trying to pretend that I could grow a lot of something,” she says. “I soon realised how difficult it is and I came to rely on terrific suppliers.”

What came next?
Herbs and leaves aplenty, and many chefs who grow at least a herb or two.

Can I get it now?
Bow down before salad mix because it wasn’t always so, or grow your own using resources available from Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation

Pasta Master
Fresh pasta at Grossi Cellar Bar
Pietro Grossi (father of Guy) arrived in Australia in 1960, sponsored by local hospitality legend Mario Vigano. Since then the Grossi family has helped make freshly made pasta an everyday pleasure. “Pasta fresca has transcended from purely Italian to quintessentially Melbourne,” says Guy Grossi. “Its tactile nature warms the soul.”

What came next?
Diners expect housemade pasta.

Can I get it now?
It may not be on the menu, but at Grossi Florentino Cellar Bar they’ll happily do fresh pasta with the family’s passata.

Sublime Simplicity
Quail San Choi Bau at Flower Drum
It wasn’t long after Gilbert Lau opened Flower Drum in 1975 that minced quail in a lettuce leaf cup landed on the menu. The ingredients are few: quail, mushroom, onion, water chestnut and Chinese sausage, finely chopped and wok-cooked with a little chicken stock. The key is crunchy lettuce. “You need fresh lettuce every single day,” says Lau. “They are only good for a few hours.” The dish was among those that introduced Melbourne to the simplicity and purity of great Cantonese cooking, and also gave people permission to eat with their fingers. “You can try with chopstick or cutlery but it doesn’t seem like the right equipment,” says Lau.

What came next?
Fanatical freshness.

Can I get it now?
Yes, at Flower Drum and also at Lau’s Family Kitchen.

Free Range Fast Food
Pho from PhoNom
I’ve long found it tricky to reconcile my love of cheap eats with my notions of ethical eating. I don’t buy battery chicken or pig so why is it okay to eat them in a restaurant? But pho. But dumplings. But conundrum. So big yay for Jerry Mai, who uses ethically raised meat in her funky Pho Nom stores, and makes delicious pho and rice paper rolls with them.

What came next?
In my dreams, free-range xiao long bao.

Can I get it now?
At Emporium and 567 Collins Street.

Honourable Mentions:
Garfish and Prawn Nori Rolls at Toofeys/Bacash
Tarte Tatin at Bistro Vue
Potato Cooked in the Earth in Which it was Grown at Attica
Caramelised Pork Hock at Ezard


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© Dani Valent 2023