By guest writer Matt Fleet
With its large cultural mix and huge, tropical local larder, it’s not surprising that Melbourne’s food scene is so exciting and dynamic.
For years, Melbourne has become home to Southeast Asian, Chinese and European travellers and settlers, and is now seeing a fresh influx of African, Indian and Middle Eastern immigrants – all bringing their own cultural and familial flavours and recipes to the mix.
On one hand, you have the world of fine dining, largely driven by Australia’s booming economy – even Heston Blumenthal has taken the Fat Duck there for a prolonged holiday.
But Melbourne has – like London and New York – very much seen a rise in informal, sharing, “back to basics” dining – served up with the relaxed Aussie vibe the country is famous for. American BBQs, Mexican cantinas and Asian hawker shops rub shoulders from Footscray to Windsor via the bustling city laneways.
Further fuelling this casual-dining movement is Melbourne’s rapidly growing inner-city population. A large percentage foreign students, this group has triggered the rise of many cheap, authentic ethnic eateries in and around Melbourne. We headed into the laneways to see what we could find…
A massive Melbourne food trend, Korean food is doing big business in the city at the moment and there are a seemingly never-ending number of restaurants and canteens offering up a mix of the authentic and Western-fusion fare. A lot cater to the late-night post-pub crowd and the huge local student population; staying open late into the night serving their often cheap and filling flavour-packed foods.
Not the type to do things by halves, we tried two Korean restaurants, next door to each other on Healey’s Lane, one of Melbourne’s lesser-known laneways down near Flagstaff station.
The first, Jang Gun, is simply a chicken-and-beer joint, Korean style. This could almost be thought of as Asia’s answer to KFC – only so much better.
We opted for the whole chicken (there were three of us): half original, half soy garlic and a side of corn cheese. The chicken had just the right amount of crunch, hiding the succulent chicken within, whilst the soy garlic added just that extra depth of flavour. The corn cheese reminded me of a rich macaroni cheese, and was just as moreish.
With a basic picture-menu stuck in the window, this feels like a pretty authentic Korean experience. And if you fancy yourself a midnight snack, it’s open until 4am.
But Jang Gun isn’t the only Korean chicken-and-beer place in town. The Melbourne food trend extends to Gami, with a few sites around the city, offering up basically the same menu, but in a more Western-friendly way (they even do home delivery), whilst Da Rin downtown on Swanston Street is the newest kid in town, offering a range of local craft beers to go with their crispy, juicy chicken.
Unlike Jang Gun – Suda, its next-door neighbour, offers up a more contemporary menu, full of small tasting plates ranging from Korean staples such as Bibim-Bab, a hot rice dish topped with seasoned veg, egg and sliced meat, to interesting Western-fusion dishes such as jamon, manchego and kimchee croquettes and Korean pasta with a mash-up of toppings including Napoli salami, Parmesan, shiitake mushrooms and pickled vegetables.
Suda’s winning dishes were their k-popcorn chicken, the perfect crunchy and sticky fried-chicken mix, sesame broccolini, delicious and reminded me of Bone Daddies’ tenderstem broccoli with yuzu mayo, steak kalbi skewers, short-rib given a Korean makeover, and crumbed seafood pancake, the perfect comfort food and a Korean late-night staple.
Xiao Long Bao at Shanghai Street, another of Melbourne’s food trends
Melbourne’s Chinatown is a long-established food-lovers’ haunt and we’d heard that some of the best Xiao Long Bao (filled, steamed dumplings) this side of Shanghai could be found in the aptly named Shanghai Street, so we headed there for lunch.
The sight of dumplings being rolled and steamed by their hundreds in the window had us rushing inside, and once there, the back-to-basics dining room could have come straight from the 80s – and probably did – but it was heaving with diners. We ordered the signature Xiao Long Bao, and they were light, fluffy and unctuous – exactly as they should be.
Shanghai Street is so popular with the lunchtime crowd that they’ve opened a new place on Little Lonsdale Street, which, when we walked past at lunch, had a queue out the door, proving just how popular these little buns of goodness that make up this Melbourne food trend are.
Had time been on our side, we would have investigated Melbourne’s Chinese food trend further at Andrew McConnell’s new city restaurant Supernormal for some super-styled dining, or at Chin Chin to see where Melbourne’s cool kids go for their Pan-Asian fix.
Both taking chief inspiration from America’s deep, dirty South, Fancy Hank’s market-friendly menu boasts Deep-Southern classics like collard greens, Kansas-city style pork ribs, hush puppies, corn bread and pulled pork shoulder, while Le Bon Ton goes the whole nine yards with pit-smoked meats, oysters, buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken.
However, this being Australia, the self-proclaimed land of BBQ, you would expect a bit of local flavour to be thrown into this Melbourne food trend. The Sweetwater Inn in South Yarra do just that, serving local craft beer, hearty barbecued meats, plus kangaroo tartar, Fosters-battered fish and even a vegan menu to cater to Melbourne’s health-conscious.
Middle Eastern, Moroccan and North African fusion menus can now be found in some of New York and London’s most fashionable areas, and, as usual, Melbourne is not far behind. Fuelled by an influx of immigration from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa, the flavours of the Middle East and North Africa are also finding a new home in Melbourne – meaning you no longer have to head to the outer suburbs to track down a decent pide, pilaf or pastilla.
Following a tip from a friend, we headed to B’Stilla in South Yarra for dinner to discover a taste of this Melbourne food trend. Set up by Jason Jones, former head chef and co-owner of legendary Melbourne Mexican institution Mamasita, B’stilla is his take on authentic and approachable Moroccan food.
Opting for the fish tagine, overflowing with mussels, fish and preserved lemon, and the beef short rib with carrot jam (a rough, earthy mash), we enjoyed a great depth of flavour that was lifted by fresh herbs and a delicate use of North African spice.
An obligatory bowl of cous cous was light and zingy with lemon and fragrant with herbs, and the cauliflower with a pine-nut and ras-el-hanout sauce was probably the favourite dish of the night – crunchy, charred cauliflower and a smooth, moreish sauce. Easily the best Moroccan food I have eaten.
Street-food and Markets
Melbourne doesn’t appear to be awash with street-food carts like London – maybe because there are so many other good, cheap eating options? However, every Wednesday night the Victoria (Vic) Market (Melbourne’s city food market – and by far the best in Australia, I would say) turns into a night market heaving with food stalls showcasing foods from across the globe and highlighting the ethnic diversity to be found in the city.
At a glance, we spotted Sri Lankan hoppers, Filipino spit-roast hog, Sicilian BBQ, Greek souvlaki, Southern-style soft-shell crab burgers, Bangkok-style laab, Venezuelan arepas and the obligatory Mexican BBQ mescal mash-up staffed by moustached hombres.
Vic Market’s nighttime offering has been so popular that it is expanding into the adjacent car park.
But it’s not only in the city and inner suburbs where great food can be found – you only have to venture out a short way to find new wonders.
Footscray is about a 10-minute train ride from the city centre and is traditionally a largely Vietnamese area. Come here for the perfect Pho or a cheap, delicious Bahn Mi from one of the many local bakeries, a cool avocado juice or super-sweet iced coffee (the Vietnamese love their condensed milk). It’s also home to an amazing market, Footscray Market, with a huge range of seasonal tropical fruits and Asian greens.
Coffee and Brunch
You don’t have to look hard in Melbourne to find good coffee and a hearty brunch. In fact, at times it seems like every city laneway has a stripped-back café offering the latest single-blend brew. Ask any local and you’ll get a different recommendation every time – so we put a few to the test.
Staying in North Melbourne and in close proximity to the newly opened Code Black Coffee Roasters, we stopped in for a smooth and strong flat white and some brunch. The poached eggs and toast and bircher muesli we ordered was pleasant and broke our fast, but we looked on with envy at our fellow diner’s large plates of creamy scrambled eggs.
For a less-ordinary breakfast, we headed to local Ethiopian café Konjo on our way to Footscray Market for their version of fuul, an extremely hearty, spiced and herby fava bean dish so loved in the Middle East and North Africa, and dark coffee. The perfect way to start the day.