cuisine - Victorian Rule

The Waiting Room at Crown
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Whether it’s a globally lauded eight-course degustation or getting stuck into vibrant hawker cuisine at the Suzuki night markets, Melbourne is an oasis for gourmet travellers. Max Veenhuyzen prepares this appetiser for eating and drinking in the Victorian capital.

The Waiting Room at Crown

I’ve long wondered why I always seem to arrive in Melbourne just as the city is being swept up in the excitement of some major festival or event. Then I realised it’s because there’s always some major festival or event happening in the Victorian capital, from international sporting fixtures, exhibitions, and concerts, to city-engulfing celebrations.

From the moment you set foot in Tullamarine, the airport’s wall-length advertisements and banners set upon you, promoting some world-class event whose charms are too hard to refuse. Even magazines like Oryx are trying to draw you in.

For those disembarking in Melbourne in March, brace yourself for walking into a metropolis bulging at the seams on account of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (MFWF), the city’s March-long celebration of the joys of eating (we’re eagerly awaiting official confirmation that April will be decreed jogging and dieting month).

First held in 1993, the MFWF will be turning 19 in 2011, and as in previous years, this year’s festival line-up is, almost impossibly, bigger than the last with food femme fatale Nigella Lawson headlining a distinctly feminine line-up that also includes fourth-generation Spanish chef Elena Arzak and Hong Kong’s Margaret Xu.

Tony Tan

As well as celebrating the olfactory pleasures of eating and drinking, the festival has a strong cultural component that looks at the role played by cuisine in different cultures the world over.

For cultural creative director Tony Tan, this might mean researching to the nth degree the finer points of hosting an Afghani wedding celebration, or spending a weekend sifting through the outer suburbs for hidden food and wine secrets.

“During those two weeks of the festival, it’s a foodie adrenalin rush,” he says.

“You really get so involved because there’s so much going on. You don’t want to miss out on eating anything from dumplings to the most exquisite Spanish meal. Melbourne is just one of those amazing cities that can pull an event of this nature together.”

As an out-of-towner who’s been caught up in the whirlwind of eating and drinking that is MFWF, it’s impossible not to leave the Victorian capital with a sense of eating as an occasion (and a few extra kilos), yet this grandeur tends to be the exception rather than the norm.

In the dining stakes, Melbourne’s strong suit tends to be restaurants that are casual rather than cashed-up.

If you’re after big-night-out eating, Sydney’s probably the destination for you; but if unstuffy eats and service from laidback waiting staff appeal, take a seat (or head to the bar for an aperitif while you wait for a table).

Perhaps the strongest component of this eating ethos is a thriving café culture, no doubt directly related to Melbourne’s stalker-like love affair with coffee.

And with more operations like St. Ali (bespoke coffee roasters who source and roast beans direct from growers from around the world) setting up shop, the city’s supply of high-quality coffee won’t be drying up anytime soon.

While it would be easy and no doubt gastronomically rewarding to while away an entire visit exploring the grid-like CBD on foot, making time to explore Melbourne’s inner suburbs will also pay dividends.

The city has long been linked to Italian cuisine, and with Spanish flavours arriving in Melbourne en masse; this Mediterranean journey, centred largely up and down the streets of Carlton and Fitzroy, shows no sign of abating.

But if your Melbourne itinerary includes time in Ripponlea, home to the last of Australia’s grand suburban estates, just 20 minutes from the city centre, securing a table at Attica would be a sage move indeed.

The only Victorian restaurant in the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants count for 2010, Attica’s cutting edge, produce-driven, and (perhaps most importantly) tasty cuisine owes as much to patron-chef Ben Shewry’s rural New Zealand upbringing as it does to the wild ingredients he forages for around his Bellarine Peninsula home.

A recurring name at international food festivals and events (in January he was in France for the Omnivore event in Deauville), Shewry has forged a name for himself and his Melbourne restaurant through hard work and unwavering self-belief.

“Because Australia’s so far away from the rest of the world’s culinary centres such as Paris, London, and New York, it’s hard to look at what they’re doing, so I never did,” he says.

“Melbourne’s got all these different styles with many people doing their own thing. To me, that’s the key to a successful restaurant city, people having their own style, their own opinions, their own beliefs and passions, and that they follow through with them, for better or for worse. It’s nice to see people cooking in a way where they’re not copying others. It’s really important to have your own voice.”

As you would expect, there’s a lot of voices in old Melbourne town.

Ben Shewry, Attica

Yet as diverse as they are, they come together choir-like to sing the praises of a city whose food scene is in equal measures substance and style, from the whisper of an artisan bread maker in St Kilda to the sound of booming baritones like Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa who have opened Australian outposts at Crown, also the adopted Melbourne home of omniscient Sydney restaurateur Neil Perry and his Rockpool restaurants. It’s a sweet tune.

Add to that a wealth of nearby wine regions that are within a day trip of the city centre, and the raison d’être behind Melbourne’s love of wining and dining becomes clear.

By the time you’ve read this, you may well have missed the proverbial boat – or Qatar Airways flight – to attend this year’s marquee festival events, but fear not my friend: the reality is that Melbourne is a year-round celebration of food and drink and everyone’s invited to the party.

Just be sure you’ve given yourself enough weight allowance for the trip home

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