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Melbourne restaurants — Centre Place, The Little Denn & Shandong Mama Mini

Continuing my ‘mini reviews’ or impressions of some restaurants I got to visit whilst I was in Melbourne recently, which I started with my impressions of Hawker Chan.

On my last day in Melbourne, I decided to try and find some of the alleyways for which the city is famous, and the cafés and street art that are so often features of these alleys. On previous trips to Melbourne I had looked for them, but apparently walked past them completely oblivious to what I was missing. So I’d managed to visit Melbourne and not find a decent café… not a great start!

I started by locating Hosier Lane, one of the more famous street art localities, and had a bit of a wander with my camera.

Street art, Hosier Lane, MelbourneStreet art, Hosier Lane, Melbourne, 23rd January 2018 11:37
Pentax K-x, 10-24mm lens @ 11mm, 1/30 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400.

There were a couple of restaurants here that looked promising, but I decided to push on anyway.

A few wrong turns eventually brought me to Centre Place, a lane so small it’d be easy to overlook. It turned out to be a characterful lane full past bursting with tiny cafés and restaurants, all of which looked worth sampling. Certainly, one meal did not seem enough to do justice to the place. But given I was in Melbourne, I felt I had to try both the coffee and the café culture, and after perusing menus for a bit, picked the Little Denn for some lunch. The menu had quite a few options that looked tempting, but in the end I decided on the eggs florentine with rice pancakes, spinach, and tomato, and added some chorizo. I also ordered a café latte.

Eggs florentine at the Little Denn, Central Place, MelbourneEggs florentine at the Little Denn, Central Place, Melbourne, 23rd January 2018 12:34
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~47mm) lens, 1/20 sec, f/2.4, ISO 200.

I suppose it’s expected that I should say that the coffee was the best I’d ever had, a revelation, a miracle of the barista’s art. I would not award it that accolade, but it was very good. (That accolade would go to The Coffee Academics in HK, for their ice drip coffee — much as I realise this might be heresy to Melbournites!). The food was beautiful too, particularly the rice pancakes; the addition of chorizo made the dish for me. Much of café culture has passed Queensland by, so it was a pleasant change to be able to sit in a good café in pleasant surrounds.

After finishing lunch, I decided I should walk around town for a bit, and then go back for a second lunch. After all, I had a late flight home, and wasn’t sure when I’d get dinner. And I certainly wouldn’t get to check out such good restaurants again for a while. It was dangerously easy to rationalise. I didn’t get much further than Federation Square. By 14h50, I was back in Central Place, and this time I decided to try Shandong Mama’s fish dumplings. At the time, I wasn’t aware that this was an offshoot of a larger restaurant in another part of the city centre, but nonetheless it proved a good choice. This was a tiny place too, with just a few tables jammed in to a small shopfront.

Shandong Mama Mini, Central Place, MelbourneShandong Mama Mini, Central Place, Melbourne, 23rd January 2018 14:41
Pentax K-x, 10-24mm lens @ 10mm, 1/25 sec, f/3.5, ISO 640.

I’d read that their signature dish was their fish dumpllings; I went for the mackerel boiled dumplings. The menu describes this as “fresh Mackerel fillet mixed by hand with coriander, ginger and chives into a mousse-textured filling, wrapped in home made very thin dumpling skin“, which it notes is a “traditional recipe from the coastal city of Yan Tai in Shandong province“. Whilst mackerel can be overpoweringly fishy, in this dish, it was delicate and perfectly balanced with the coriander and ginger; the texture of the mousse was beautifully smooth. The dumpling skin was gorgeous too: thin, moist on top, crisp on the base. Lovely.

Mackrel dumplings, Shandong Mama Mini, Central Place, MelbourneMackrel dumplings, Shandong Mama Mini, Central Place, Melbourne, 23rd January 14:50
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~47mm) lens, 1/15 sec, f/2.4, ISO 500.

I resisted the temptation of a bottle of beer (of which there was a good selection), and instead tried their home-made plum juice, which was also flavoured with liquorice. Given that this was my second lunch, my decision to order ten dumplings rather than six  may have been somewhat rash, but was not regretted. Much. Though the last dumpling was a struggle, it was not an unpleasant one.

By the time I’d finished and paid, it was time to walk back to Southern Cross train station to get the bus to get to the airport to get the plane. It felt like a chance to walk off lunch, in any case, and to go back over my impressions of Melbourne from a too-brief stay. I’ll be back, of course.

The Little Denn, 6 Centre Place, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia
Open 6h30-17h00 Mon-Fri, 7h30-19h00 Sat-Sun
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/littledenn/

Shandong Mama Mini, 5 Centre Place, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia
Open 11h00-21h00 Mon-Sat, 11h00-17h00 Sun, no reservations

Melbourne restaurants — Hawker Chan

I visited Melbourne for a few days last month, a rare chance to try a few of the restaurants there. I will post a few impressions here on the blog. They are not quite reviews: I don’t feel I can be as authoritative as that. Nonetheless, it was interesting to try some different dishes, and different cuisines.

Hawker Chan, MelbourneHawker Chan, Melbourne, 22nd January 2018 17:17
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1/24 sec, f/2.4, ISO 50.

One place I felt I really had to visit in Melbourne was Hawker Chan. This is the local branch of a Singaporean restaurant that has been described as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred eatery, one of quite a few that have opened around Asia. It’d been a while since I’d got to eat so well, so I didn’t need much encouragement to go looking for it. And it’s not often that you get such good food for less than AU$16 (~€10.20)!

Realising that the queues would be potentially quite impressive, I tried to arrive early, getting there at around 17h20. There was already a queue, but just enough that I had time to decide what I wanted before I got to the till. It may have a Michelin star, but there’s no table service! Since the soya sauce chicken with rice is their signature dish, I had to have that. I also wanted bean sprouts, so ordered that too. There will still tables free, so I sat and waited for my meal. Again, no table service: your number shows up on a board, and you go and collect it.

I had no complaints once I actually got my dish. The chicken was rich, tender, and moist. Like Peking Duck (北京烤鴨) the skin was tender, rich, and moist, but the skin crispy and flavoursome. It wasn’t as rich as duck, but richer than I’m used to for chicken. As with Peking Duck, the meat and bone were cut through with a cleaver, allowing it to be eaten with chopsticks. The beans and rice, and the bean sprouts I’d ordered as a side, complemented it perfectly — as did the various chili sauces, and the sweet tea. Chicken can be a bit dry, or a bit bland, if not cooked well — but there was nothing to complain about here. I could understand why this dish attracted the attention of the Michelin inspectors.

It was still early when I left to get the tram back to my hôtel — but, by then, the queue was out the door and starting to stretch along the street. Another quiet weekday for Hawker Chan…!

Soya sauce chicken and rice, Hawker Chan, MelbourneSoya sauce chicken and rice, Hawker Chan, Melbourne, 22nd January 2018 17:42
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1/20 sec, f/2.4, ISO 50.

As the tram rumbled back out to the suburbs, I had some time to think. Arriving back at the hôtel, I bought a half bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon and some chevre as a de facto desert. Impressions of a restaurant, or of a wine, can be shaped by preconceptions. Sometimes, even good food can disappoint if it fails to live up to the hype. I had high hopes for Hawker Chan, based on what I’d read, and it comfortably exceeded them. Realistically, eating out so well for so little in Australia is a rarity, so perhaps I am being less critical than I normally would. The main course was AU$6.80 (~€4.30), the soya bean sprouts AU $6.00 (~€3.80), and my plum juice AU$3.00 (~€1.90) — AU$15.80 (~€10). Nonetheless, I loved the meal, and would be a regular if I lived in Melbourne. I would be interested to see how it compares with the original in Singapore, too…

Hawker Chan, 157 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia
Open 10h00-22h00 Mon-Sun, no reservations.
Web: http://hawkerchan.com.au/

Storm light in the vineyards

Storm Light, Vineyards, Beaune, FranceStorm Light, Vineyards, Beaune, France, 9th September 2017 19:43
Pentax K-x, 18-125mm lens @ 18mm, 1/320 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400. Panorama created using Lightroom.

Late summer, at the tipping point of autumn. Harvest ahead. Cycling back to Meursault in the early evening. Rain hanging around, spitting, threatening. Grey clouds glowering overhead. As the sun disappears, the clouds relent & turn golden with the dusk; bluegrey & gold, like slate and fire, iron and gold. However the day seemed prior to this, it is a benediction; it is like the threat inherent in those splattered rain drops has passed and been forgotten.

But I was heading back to Meursault. Still in Beaune, not yet in Pommard, & needing to be back before the light faded for the evening. But I couldn’t move on: the light changed from gold to galah pink, the clouds still glowering slate grey above the vineyards.

Sunset, Vineyards, Beaune, FranceSunset, Vineyards, Beaune, France, 9th September 2017 19:59
Pentax K-x, 10-24mm lens @ 10mm, 1/60 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400. Panorama created using Lightroom.

Eventually, I got back to Meursault. Late, I struggled to find a restaurant open. Luckily, the Hôtel du Centre was still open, just. The dinning room was starting to empty. A couple, a businessman polishing off the last of a bottle of wine. I had magret du canard and a glass of red burgundy. My luck was still with me: the duck was beautiful, rich, flavoursome, seared outside and bloodily red inside. The sole mishap, that I was given a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône instead of the requested Santenay, was no mishap in that it was an excuse for two glasses of wine rather than one. What had been a desperate attempt to get something, anything, to eat, was anything but. What was to be a simple meal, an unexpected pleasure. Serendipity! The meal finished with a glass of an armagnac older than me, and a petit café.

Walking back afterwards, the sky was perfectly dark. Sodium lights lit the village, and the edges of vineyards. I walked past a clos, and looked in through wroughtiron gates at the vines, sleeping before the harvest, unworldly under the orange light. Gold to pink to orange.

Vineyard on the edge of Meursault at NightVineyard on the edge of Meursault at Night, 9th September 2017 21:46
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1 sec, f/2.4, ISO 800. Shot using Camera+ 9.1.

Andouillette in Australia?

Andouillette isn’t really known in Australia. It’s a coarse-grained sausage made from tripe (particularly the small intestines, generally of pork, though veal used to be used prior to the BSE crisis); most sources at least comment on its strong odour. Tripe isn’t popular in Australia to begin with, any unusual or repellent aromas guarantee that it won’t make friends.

I first tasted in in Troyes — one of its spiritual homelands, the Andouillette de Troyes being particularly noted and admired by devotees. I had a plan to work in a small domaine on the Côtes de Bars, in the very south of Champagne. It didn’t work out, for various reasons, but we had a meal at Aux Crieurs de Vin. I had no idea what it was, but I loved the rich, gamey, porky flavour, and the soft, gorgeous, coarse-cut texture.

I encountered it again in a small café on Place Carnot, Beaune, whilst working for a mid-sized negociant there. This time I knew what it was, and a bit about its reputation. I have to admit, if it has a disagreeable aroma, I’ve not noticed — but then, I’ve never encountered it raw. And I’ve heard of people being so horrified by the smell, that they refuse to sit in the same room as someone else eating it. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Maybe they have particularly ultra-sensitive smell?

But all this adds up to a sausage unlikely to be found in Australia. I looked on the internet after coming back to Queensland from Beaune. A passing mention on a market trader’s website suggested I could get hold of it at one of the Brisbane markets … but they’d stopped making it years ago, due to lack of demand. Every now and then, I’d look again and find nothing.

Just last year, though, I had some more luck. Two restaurants in Melbourne seemed to have it, including France-Soir in South Yarra, and Paris Go in Carlton, albeit both as entrées, not as plats principaux. Presumably a butcher somewhere there was making andouillette for both places. But I’m not in Melbourne, and don’t often get there. Close, but still 1730 km too far!

Further searching found a place in Brisbane that specialised in Louisiana style cooking. Andouillette at some point made the long voyage to Louisiana, and became andouille, a smoked, spicey tripe sausage popular in Cajun dishes such a Gumbo. (Andouillette just means ‘little andouille‘, so the name change is completely explicable). French Andouillette it ain’t, but it’s a close relative, at least.

On a rare trip into Brisbane, I finally got to Creole Soul Kitchen on Boundary Street, Spring Hill. I wanted to try a dish which featured andouille, and I was also keen to try the Cajun style Po’ Boy sandwiches I’d heard of, but never previously eaten. Luckily I found I could order an andouille Po’ Boy with a side of gumbo. I ordered a beer, too, and waited for my meal.

It wasn’t an ideal day. November in Queensland is already hot and muggy, and with the full brunt of the wet season ahead, you know it can only get worse. As I waited, the results of the US presidential election were just trickling through, and a Trump presidency was rapidly shifting from being an absurd improbability to a terrifying inevitability. We live in interesting times indeed.

Creole Soul Kitchen, Spring Hill, Brisbane, Qld, AustraliaCreole Soul Kitchen, Boundary Road, Spring Hill, Brisbane.
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1/250 sec, f/2.4, ISO 50.

As predicted, andouille wasn’t quite like andouillette. This is no criticism, really, they’re different sausages, from different cuisines. It had some of the meaty, earthiness of the French andouillette, but seemed more domesticated, less sauvage. Still incredibly tasty though: worth the trip. The Po’  Boy itself I was a little disappointed with, being a touch on the bland side, but the Gumbo was beautiful: rich, earthy, spicy. Next time I might just have that. Or I might try one of the other Po’ Boys, too, but with a full serving of Gumbo. The beer, Blue Moon, brewed with coriander and oats, was beautiful, and perfect on a hot day. Billed as an imported beer, the bottle suggested it was in fact brewed ‘under licence’ in Australia. Not exactly a craft beer, but good nonetheless.

Lunch gradually dawdled to a conclusion, and I paid the bill, and left. I walked back towards Roma Street station. It was still hot and muggy, but at least I had been fortified with good food.

I’m still waiting till my next chance to try andouillette again, however …