Cuisines from around the world as well as a menu of native dishes converge on Melbourne’s infinity platter, writes ANURAG MALLICK
“No, not an Indian restaurant! We want to eat local,” we implored, walking down the graffiti-lined ACDC Lane, wondering just what we were doing in a dark Melbourne alley. Despite our guide Tony Polletto’s reassurances about Tonka’s rave reviews, the backdoor entry didn’t do wonders to our confidence. But, by the time we finished with chef Adam D’Sylva’s ‘gourmet Indian restaurant with a twist’, we were eating more than our words.
Named after Honkytonk, an earlier establishment at the same place, Tonka’s food can be best described as… honkytonk. The incredulous menu seemed like the handiwork of some mad scientist in a lab. Fremantle octopus, rasam, vermicelli upma, pickled papaya! Port Phillip Bay scallop, Jerusalem artichoke, Kashmiri chilli and chana dal chutney! Smoked corn-fed chicken betel leaf with garlic chutney, pomelo and sweet papaya pickle! Chicken liver parfait, honeycomb, spiced peanuts and charred pav! And these were just the starters.
It was irreverent, daring our taste buds to go where they had never gone before… The delectable spanner crab salad with puffed rice, green mango, peanuts, coriander and green chilli was basically a crab bhel. For mains we had rotis, Avani’s lamb curry, Duck korma and barely had space for Tonka’s gulab jamun with saffron syrup and silver leaf.
Over the last few decades Melbourne has emerged as an exciting and innovative food and drink destination. Be it street food, fine dining, a quick coffee, cool places to grab a drink after work or a specialty dinner, there’s astonishing variety in Melbourne. Hell, you could even have a three course meal on the world’s first travelling tramcar restaurant. The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant with its conspicuous burgundy boxcars moving about the city is a great way to enjoy the sights and bites.
One big contributing factor for the city’s exciting cuisine is its ethnic diversity. A Greek Precinct, Little Italy, Chinatown and its own Little Vietnam; Melbourne has it all. The city’s multi-cultural mix started with the 1850s Victorian gold rush attracting Chinese prospectors and immigrants in droves. Melbourne’s Chinatown, centered around Little Bourke Street between Swanston Street and Spring Street, is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world and the Southern Hemisphere. The neon lit avenue has top restaurants like Dahu Peking Duck, Hutong Dumpling Restaurant and the Flower Drum, hailed as the best Chinese restaurant in Australia.
Melbourne also has the largest Greek population in the world outside of Greece and much of the migration happened after the Second World War. The Greek Precinct, adjacent to Chinatown on Little Bourke Street, is abuzz with eateries like Tsindos, Kalamaki and Stalactites, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. We headed to celebrity chef and Masterchef Australia judge George Calombaris’ restaurant Gazi. Named after a food quarter in Athens, it offers Ethnika Vromika or ‘Hellenic dirty food’ – hawker style tastes in a plush setting.
Greeted with ‘Kalispera’, Greek for ‘good evening,’ we sat under a ceiling dominated by 3000 inverted terracotta pots. Opposite the kitchen two open suitcases hung on the wall; the names and date are of George Calombaris’ grandfather and grandmother and the year they migrated from Greece to Australia. Instead of the 10-course $69 tasting menu called ‘Doing It Greek Style’, we tried all the dips with our pita basket – tzatziki, melitzanosalata (eggplant), cauliflower and beetroot besides the finest souvlaki in town.
The royal blue plates bore a huge eye in the centre and we learnt that what we had been calling Turkish evil eye was actually a 6th century BC Greek symbol called mati that once appeared on drinking vessels.
Between the gold mining boom and two world wars, many Italians too moved to Australia. They brought with them the culture of coffee and cafés. The stretch of Lygon Street between the intersections of Elgin and Queensberry streets in the suburb of Carlton is known as Little Italy. The Lygon Street Festa every November is one of Australia’s largest outdoor street festivals and celebrates Melbourne’s vibrant Italian culture and cuisine. Toto’s Pizza House here was the first pizzeria established in Australia.
One of the earliest cafes in town, Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street began in 1912 and has been serving the same blend of Vittoria beans for the last 60 years. However, Melbourne’s café scene exploded only in the 50s, owing largely due to the piston-driven espresso machine invented by Achille Gaggia in 1945 and the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. We dropped by at the troika of Italian establishments on Bourke Street run by Guy Grossi serving coffee, wine and antipasti. The Cellar Bar was a typical Italian bar while Grossi and Florentino had quintessential Italian fare.
Besides reinterpreting cuisines from around the world, Melbourne’s uniqueness lies in transforming unused spaces into fashionable dining venues. The tiny switchboard room where the controls of the Manchester Unity Building were housed was reinvented into the Switchboard Café. Center Place, once a seedy bylane between Majorca building and Center House where hawkers sold stamps and coins is today a European style, lamp-lit alley with outdoor dining. When the General Post Office shut down, the Postal Lane for delivery trucks was converted into a clutch of restaurants, still bearing signs like ‘Beware of Motor Cars’!
Housed in a brick building at the corner of Exhibition and Little Lonsdale streets, Trunk was built in 1859 as the Mickveh Yisrael synagogue and Hebrew School. It later became a state school, social welfare and child care centre, Salvation Army labour bureau, creche and eventually an Italian restaurant in 1980. Taking its name from a 150-year-old heritage listed Coral Tree, Trunk has one of the largest courtyards in CBD. Their pizzas and seafood risotto paired well with excellent Victorian wine. Staying at Citadines on Bourke Street, we were well located in Melbourne’s Central Business District.
The hotel had an excellent French-Japanese restaurant downstairs with a sake bar called Heirloom. Every morning, the orange juice and fried breakfast of sausages, eggs, bacon, toast and coffee had become a ritual. Another Melbourne tradition is Koko Black hot chocolate, blended and brewed over two hours to achieve its signature smooth velvety texture.
Be it Mocha, Hazelnut or Orange, each drink comes with a recommended chocolate pairing – Chilli hot chocolate with caramelized coconut, Classical Belgian with salted caramel dark praline and Cinnamon with raspberry purée praline. After a pitstop at their Royal Arcade outlet on a Melbourne Secrets walking tour, we encountered them again at the Dairy Hall in Queen Victoria Market.
Started in 1878 and spread over 17 acres, Melbourne’s much loved ‘Vic’ Market is the oldest and largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. Land up on an empty stomach for the 2-hour Hunt & Gather Food Tour ($49). Our eager guide Mandy Ho started off from the oldest building the Meat Hall lined with butcher shops.
At Seafood & Oyster Spot, the livewire fishmonger Yianni almost force fed us fresh oysters. At the Art Deco Dairy Hall, we tried peppered kangaroo, kilishi (West African style beef jerky) at Tribal Tastes, cheese at Curds & Whey, Rooftop honey and stuffed olives and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) at Hellenic Deli. From bratwurst (German sausage) to börek (Turkish baked filled pastries), Melbourne offers the globe on a platter…
Like alchemists, Gewürzhaus mixes various herbs, spices, sugars and salts from around the world for their artisan spice blends. Drawn by the tantalizing aroma of spices in the air, we took whiffs of Australian Bush herbs to Black Lava salt from Cyprus.
Flying back from Melbourne on Singapore Airlines, instead of using the regular salt pepper sachet I pulled out the recently procured black truffle salt for my cheese and crackers. The flight attendant was curious. “Your own secret spice blend, Sir?” “No”, I smiled back, “It’s a pinch of Australia.”
Fly from India to Melbourne (13½ hrs) via Singapore on Singapore Airlines – 4½ hrs to Changi Airport Singapore and 7½ hrs to Melbourne.
Where to Stay
Citadines on Bourke Street
131-135, Bourke Street, Melbourne Ph +61 3 9039 8888 www.sitadines.com.au
Where to Eat
Trunk: 275 Exhibition Street Ph +61 3 9663 7994 www.trunktown.com.au
Heirloom: 131 Bourke Street Ph +61 3 9639 1296
The Cellar Bar: 80 Bourke Street Ph +61 3 9662 1811 www.grossiflorentino.com
Gazi: 2 Exhibition Street Ph +61 3 9207 7444 www.gazirestaurant.com.au
Tonka: 20 Duckboard Place Ph +61 3 9650 3155 www.tonkarestaurant.com.au
Queen Victoria Market (Closed Mon & Wed) Ph (03) 9320 5835 www.qvm.com.au/tours
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 20 November 2016 in Sunday Herald newspaper.