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.
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…!
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.
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.
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.
HK in August, so the humidity is simply too much. I escape the city for an afternoon, to Lantau Island. It’s a bit away from the crowded streets of Central or Wan Chai. Indeed, it seems incongruous that such an area should sit so close to the urban singularity of HK, but there it is. Opposites don’t always contradict. Indeed, HK Island itself has its areas of forest: mostly, I suspect, on sites too steep to build on.
Lantau, in contrast, is small towns and villages straggling out to farmland, country houses, temples, mountains, old roads, abandoned bicycles. With no real plan, I walked around, pleased to be surrounded by fields. And, eventually, the edge of the forest, a river, a waterfall. The path goes on. I don’t have time for a long walk, I need to be back in town to see an opera that evening, but I keep onwards. There’s always the urge to look around one last corner, see one last skyline. The temple signposted ahead. A field with a striking arrangement of trees and hills.
Eventually I head back to the ferry, and to the city. By the time I get to Central, the light is golden.
2010 was the first year I visited Burgundy. By coincidence, it was a catastrophically good year across the region — more classical and less rich than 2009, but refined and built for ageing. I barely knew a grand cru from a premier cru — and, with Burgundy, there is such a lot to learn. I visited Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault for the first time, and took a bus north to see a glimpse of the Côte de Nuits. I walked around Beaune. I tried Burgundian cuisine for the first time. I visited the Hotel de Dieu. Burgundy is such a remarkable place.
I was there during the harvest, and would have seen the grapes being picked. I didn’t actually get to work a harvest till 2011, the way things worked out, but it was a good introduction.
Now, seven years on, a lot has changed. Visiting Burgundy again, too briefly, I feel lucky to be able to sample a 2010 from Volnay. Volnay was a village I didn’t immediately ‘get’. Initially, I far preferred the wines of Pommard, which are richer and more full bodied. Volnay, elegant, light, ethereal, escaped me. Over the years, I’ve drifted from preferring Pommard to preferring Volnay. Seven years. A lot has changed.
This particular Volnay — Bernard Delagrange’s 2010 Volnay 1er cru, presumably a blend of premier cru vineyards, is a perfect example. At seven year’s of age, it still seems very young. It’s fresh, and lively, and full of primary fruit. It hasn’t yet developed any aged characters. It has plenty of cherry, with a touch of pomegranate and perhaps cassis, with lots of sweet spice, and is elegant and light. I love the way the light refracts through it — still supple cherry red, translucent. Elegant. It’ll keep a good few years more. It’s a vintage — and a region — I hope to keep returning to.
Colour: light cherry
Nose: cherry, pomegranate, cassis. Dark chocolate. Sweet spice. Old oak, vanilla.
Palate: still seems v.young. Lots of red fruit — cherry, raspberry, pomegranate. Perhaps a touch of cassis. Sweet spice. Fine grained, slightly drying tannins. Moderate, berry-like acidity. Smooth, subtle/supple and medium bodied, elegant. Not the most complex Volnay, but very pleasant and typical of the village nonetheless. Very nice. 13% alcohol.
A train through (and under) the mountains. Brief glimpses of alpine streams, cold and fast flowing. A person walking through a small village. What is the connection that you could possibly have with them in this brief moment — if any?
Later, glimpses of limestone cliffs amongst oak trees. Vegetation so luxuriant it’s almost tropical. Lakes and steep drop-offs to gullies.
I am still unsure what any of this means.
I have a private pet theory for determining the best regions for growing Pinot Noir wines that I unaccountably want to share. It’s this: all the best regions have ’03’ phone area codes. This might seem crazily over-simplistic, but bear with me for a moment. I have proof.
- Burgundy, Alsace, the Jura, & Champagne all have 03 numbers assigned by the French telephone numbering plan
- Tasmania, Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, & Mornington Peninsula also all have 03 numbers assigned to them, by the Australian telephone numbering plan
- Central Otago, Marlborough, & Canterbury all have 03 numbers, under the New Zealand telephone numbering plan
A few exceptions:
- The Adelaide Hills region gets 08 numbers assigned to it.
- Oregon and California both are part of the North American Numbering plan, which does not assign any numbers starting with a zero. Some parts of north-west Oregon get 503 numbers, which may be close enough — though this doesn’t seem to cover the Willamette Valley. D’oh.
- Germany is making some very good Pinot Noirs (which they often refer to as Spätburgunder, “late Burgundy”), but 03 numbers are assigned to north-eastern Germany, not Baden, Pfalz, or Ahr, which are in the south-west.
- Martinborough, NZ gets 06 phone numbers.
Also, some areas may be assigned 03 numbers, but not be suitable for Pinot Noir — for example, some of the warmer parts of Victoria, Australia. To this, I could only respond by waggling my eyebrows, shrugging my shoulders, and leaving rapidly before my hypothetical interlocutor realises that wasn’t actually a valid response to their criticisms.
Nonetheless, I think my theory has validity, and maybe some predictive power. Perhaps I could extend it further. Do good Cabernet sauvignons come from regions with 05 numbers, such as Bordeaux? Great Syrahs from regions with 04 numbers, like the northern Rhône? Though this might be a problem for Australia: 04 and 05 are both assigned for mobile numbers, which suggests that great Cabernet and great Syrah are possible everywhere, and nowhere (though, to be fair, I’ve never actually seen an 05 mobile number in use in Australia…). Italy has a similar problem with Pinot Noir (there called Pinot Nero), 03 numbers in Italy being assigned to mobile phones.
Or perhaps one could suggest that areas with an 08 number are good for a wide range of grapes, as this area code including both South Australia and West Australia. But this would force wineries in France to spring for a freephone ‘numéro vert’ 08 number, which may not win me friends there.
So, for now, I might leave further exploration of this idea aside for now. Still, I suspect it has promise. And I will keep returning to the allure of the ’03’ area code.
Which reminds me, I should open a bottle of something good for tonight, from a winery whose phone number starts with 03………..
Autumn is present in every gold leaf, & in the sudden chill of the air, & in the fungi lurking amongst leaf litter. Up in the hills, smoke rises from cottage chimney stacks, welcoming in winter.
Some places you can’t forget. They bury themselves deep within you, and refuse to leave. Everything else is seen in relation to them – for better, or worse. I grew up in London, and the brilliant blue of a clear winter’s day, or the oppressively leaden sky of a dismal summer day, is always with me.
One such place, for me, has been Burgundy. For one reason or another, I have always visited in late August or early September. Arriving by train, from London via Paris, you first notice how Burgundy still clings to summer, even as London sidles towards the grey drizzle of winter. Changing trains in Dijon, the local train to Beaune – historically, the wine producing capital of the region, where the major wineries had their bases – local stations and vineyards flash by, as well as woodland and cornfields.
Once in Beaune, it’s hard to know what to do. Most of the famous wineries require appointments, or are outside Beaune itself, in the smaller villages, in the cellars of medieval houses, or in concrete warehouses on the edge of the vineyards. Still, as Mike Steinberger said, “there may be different paths to wine geekdom, but they ultimately all converge in the same place—Place Carnot” – so you may as well head straight there. Place Carnot is, more or less, the main square of Beaune: its heart, and its centre. If nothing else, there are bistros and restaurants, and beautiful cakes at Dix Carnot.
This little square surrounds a small park; the tall buildings seem quintessentially French. Just a street off to one side is the Hospice de Beaune, often also called the Hôtel Dieu, with its elaborately decorated roofs made from coloured tiles. Once I’m sat outside Dix Carnot with some improbably elaborate cake, I know I’ve arrived. I can plan: what wineries to visit? Hire a car? A bike? (Yes, many of the villages south of Beaune are within comfortable cycling distance; to branch out further afield and see forests and monasteries, or even just the villages north of Beaune, a car is essential).
Frankly, Burgundy is a maze, and it will take you time to get your bearings. Take the time. Visit again. You will. I feel I am, slowly. For whatever reason, I have only visited in late summer or early autumn. I would love to see the Côte d’Or blanketed under drifts of snow, or with the first buds of spring just breaking. It is a tapestry of ancient villages and tiny vineyards, each with its own subtly different aspect on the hillside, its own soil, its own climate. Vineyards just next to each other can produce profoundly different wines.
The whole region itself teeters on the edge of several climatic zones: it is part continental, part oceanic, with warm weather sometimes coming up from Provence in the south, and cold from Germany or Switzerland in the north. Even the buildings, and the towns, can start to look Provençal at times, at others, they seem northern. Burgundy is a paradox, but a delightfully vinous one.
Cycling south out of Beaune, there are small roads that wind through the vineyards towards the village of Pommard. These roads are shared only with vineyard traffic, they are ideal for cycling. You cycle past stone-wall circled vineyards, the roadside edged with wildflowers. The track meanders on towards Volnay, then Meursault, and onwards towards Chassagne-Montrachet. I have never made it further south than Meursault, so far.
If you know something about French wines, these are names to conjure with. Pommard is known for robust, tannic Pinot Noir, its neighbour Volnay conversely for ethereal, light, perfumed Pinot. Meursault is known for its Chardonnay. Even without an appointment there are small wineries with cellar doors you can visit. Most will have wines from a range of villages, and it is instructive to taste a couple. Even where winemaking techniques are the same, the flavours and aromas differ dramatically between villages.
A place like Burgundy leaves you with many impressions, as you encounter different faces at different times. Looking back through my notes, I encounter everything from pages and pages of detail on viticultural techniques, to gripes about the weather, plans that have gone wrong, or meals that were more than memorable. Like, being forced into a small restaurant on the edge of Pommard for an unplanned lunch by unexpected rain: an inconvenience at the time, particularly since I was counting my pennies, but the sort of thing I would normally dream of. Or a meal at a small restaurant just outside the city centre of Beaune, with a shared, long table, where I ended up in deep discussion with several other diners, and did not stumble out the door until eleven pm. There were people from Japan, from Brazil, from Switzerland, from Holland, from America – and me, from Australia, via Britain. The Brazilians thought that the Europeans worked too hard, and didn’t live enough – something the Europeans objected to.
The conversation spilled out onto the street outside, and, in my head at least, followed me home. What does it say when you meet people you feel you’ve known all your life, but know you won’t meet them again? Such is travel, I guess.
The next morning, Beaune was as quiet as ever. That morning, I drove to Château-Chalon, leaving Burgundy behind for the foothills of the Alps. But, as always, I knew I’d be back.
It’s April already, and here in Australia we’re already bidding goodbye to summer as she flees northwards. I cannot say I will miss summer too much, though that may seem heretical. Here in Queensland, summer brings humidity and far more heat than I can cope with. Autumn, and winter, will bring some relief.
But today I am looking back to summer in Hobart, last December. One day showed the particular contrasts present in one day. In the morning, I drove to Mt Wellington, risking life and hire car on the narrow road to the summit, constantly veering closer and closer to the edge to let large four wheel drives go past. By the time I was part way up the mountain, a steady sleet had set in. The top was coated in snow, like marzipan on a wedding cake. Eucalypt forest clung to the sides of the mountain, by the top, just moorland. It was exhilarating, and the view back to Hobart impressive, but within minutes I began to feel impossibly cold, and had to retreat to the car for warmth.
After lunch I headed for the easier life of the flatlands. Back in the lowlands, it was still summer. I drove towards Richmond, a Georgian village in the wine producing Coal River Valley. Here, there was sunshine, and warmth. I had come back from Winter to Summer — within one day, and fifty kilometres, we had changed season. It was impossible not to revel in the sunlight, and the warmth.
As summer retreats, I can at least be reassured that winter in Queensland will not be as cold as summer on top of Mount Wellington. I can look forward, at least, to woodfires and red wine, and reading. Winter always has much to offer.