Review: The Dispensary, Bendigo

I can’t even really remember how long it’s been since I had an alcoholic drink. Two years? Three years? It’s definitely been a significant length of time since I had a drink, and I honestly haven’t really missed it. Most restaurants will do a half-decent mocktail, otherwise I’m generally quite content with a sparkling water or organic soft drink of some description.

I decided on my 30th birthday that I would break my drought with a single drink. In fact, I would start drinking again in polite company keeping only one rule in mind – I will only ever have exquisitely crafted cocktails or extremely expensive wine, and I would truly savour the moment by making one or two drinks last a whole day. 

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I chose the perfect place to rejoin drinking society, with a leisurely lunch at The Dispensary Bar & Diner in Bendigo. The Dispensary’s reputation is spreading far and wide, enough so that I had colleagues in Melbourne advising that I visit the Dispensary when they heard I was visiting Bendigo for the weekend.

Part of their appeal lies in their extremely impressible drinks list – dozens of wines join hundreds of beers, join more than a handful of spirits and pages of cocktails. There’s honestly a drink to suit everyone at the Dispensary, from sweet to smoky and creamy to crisp.

Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11
Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11

So what drink did I break my abstinence with? None other than an Aperol Spritz, light, sparkly, fruity, and oh so very drinkable on a warm day in the country. It’s the perfect drink of Aperol and Prosecco to enjoy on a summer’s day, the type of drink that works well with any type of food. Altogether a perfect choice for re-entering the world of alcohol, although it was strong enough to make me feel woozy within minutes of having my first sip, albeit it was on an empty stomach.

K took the bartender’s suggestion of the Garage Project Hapi Daze beer in a tinny, a pale ale that had an intense lingering taste of hops. A proper beery beer. I loved the design on the tin with its retro surf vibe.

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As you can tell, I really enjoyed my Aperol Spritz…

Pacific Oyster, $4 each
Pacific Oyster, $4 each

…but I particularly enjoyed these Pacific Oysters, which surprised me with their freshness and lingering flavours of the sea. Is it unusual that I had some of the freshest oysters I’ve ever eaten in a tiny regional non-coastal town? Or is it simply a reflection of the pride The Dispensary take in buying the best ingredients? My only gripe is that the adductor hadn’t been cut, which meant that my attempt to slurp down the oyster in one gulp was hindered and a lot messier than it would have been otherwise.

Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8
Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8

These Super Crunch Fries lived up to their name as well, with an audible crunch every time I bit into a fry. I’m going to horrify a lot of people though, as I say that I would have preferred for these fries to be served with a homemade tomato chutney rather than malt mayo, however delicious the mayo was. I think it’s one of those personal preferences that divides the nation – mayonnaise or tomato sauce on your chips?

Edamame with pink river salt, $6
Edamame with pink river salt, $6

No such controversy with the small serve of Edamame with Pink River Salt. Edamame beans are always a crowd-pleaser, especially when cooked as perfectly and flavoured as subtly as these were. 

Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12
Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12

In the interest of ordering more greens and being marginally healthy, we also ordered a side of the Broccoli with Lemon Butter and Smoked Almonds. Health be damned though, when the greens turn out to be smothered in the creamiest and richest buttery sauce you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. The crushed almonds sprinkled on top helped to add a bit of texture to the dish as well.

Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13
Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13

Initially I shied away from the idea of ordering the steam buns as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I’ve been burned you see, by sub-par steamed buns such as the pork belly bun we had at Mathallen Food Hall in Oslo. The bartender talked me into the Fried Chicken Steam Buns though, and I’m so glad he did. The Southern-style chicken tenders were a surprisingly good much for the pillowy-soft steam buns and fresh crispy lettuce and cucumber. A surprisingly excellent combination.

Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12
Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12

The Prawn Toasts with Chilli and Kewpie Mayo were another delight. A wafer-thin sesame-encrusted deep-fried crispy layer hid a piping hot centre of juicy prawn. With an extra chilli kick, these little individual prawn toast bites really hit the spot.

Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15
Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15

While we were quite full by that point, we couldn’t resist ordering a dessert to share. I’m glad we did, because this turned out to be quite the highlight of the meal – Jasmine ice-cream with coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry. I think this dish in particularly highlighted the culinary genius of the chef at The Dispensary. Pairing the slightly bitter yet flowery undertones of jasmine with the snap of freeze-dried coconut and strawberry, and creaminess of milk crumb was a real work of art. One of the best desserts I’ve tasted in recent times.

Chocolate fudge, $8
Chocolate fudge, $8

Did I say one dessert to share? My mistake…naturally, we ended up ordering two desserts! The little Chocolate Fudge bites were the perfect way to end our meal, with the aftertaste of rich dark and creamy chocolate lingering on the tongue.

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The Dispensary was a wonderful place to celebrate a birthday with a long and leisurely lunch. With world-class cocktails and a highly impressive drinks list, one could easily make the mistake of assuming The Dispensary is just another bar. However when you take into account the excellence of the food menu, and the innovation behind some of the dishes, it’s clear that food is just as important as wine to the proprietors of The Dispensary.

It’s definitely a must-visit for any visitor to Bendigo. Even if you don’t count yourself as a wine buff, a beer connoisseur, or a foodie, you won’t be able to help but walk away from a meal at The Dispensary feeling well satisfied with your visit.

The Dispensary Bar & Diner is located at 9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo.

Review: FloCafe, Piraeus, Athens Greece

A mere twenty minute drive away from central Athens lies the port of Piraeus – a town that thinks it’s independent but in reality acts as a satellite suburb of Greater Athens. With a long history stretching back to classical times as the chief port for the Golden Age of Athens, Piraeus as a town has gone through many ups and downs.

At the moment, it’s in a Renaissance period of relative prosperity. Chinese cargo ships anchor at Piraeus as their gateway to the European market, cruise ships with thousands of foreign tourists dock in its harbour every day, old warehouses have been turned into hip clubs and bars for the young and cool Athens crowd, and local families stroll along kilometres of harbourside paths to enjoy the fresh breeze of the Aegean sea.

We joined the local crowds one sunny Sunday afternoon (20 degrees in winter!) and strolled for a while along the harbour before turning into the nearest cafe for a quick and casual lunch. This was actually one of the few establishments on the Marina Zeas that actually offered a minimal food menu – most places are coffee and cocktail bars where locals linger on the outside patio for hours sipping a single drink. FloCafe at least offered a dozen sandwich and salad options for their customers alongside an extensive drinks menu.

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Floshake Mandarin with mandarin sorbet and brownie pieces (4.50 Euro) and Freddoccino (4.80 Euro)

Needing some cool refreshment after the absurdly warm winter’s stroll, we ordered a cold drink each – a Freddocino for K, and a house-named Floshake Mandarin for me. A Freddocino is not dissimilar to a iced frappe but in this case, with the addition of a little bit of chocolate powder to soften the bitterness of the coffee – very drinkable on a warm afternoon.

My Floshake Mandarin was very sweet and refreshing – I only wish they hadn’t advertised it ‘with brownie pieces’. Chocolate sprinkles do not equal brownie pieces! I’d been hoping for a chocolate orange jaffa style of smoothie drink – this was anything but. If they had simply described it as a mandarin sorbet smoothie, I’d have been much more satisfied – as it was, I felt like I’d been lied to!

Chicken Club Sandwich with chicken fillet, turkey, edam cheese, tomato, lettuce, mustard sauce (7 Euro)
Chicken Club Sandwich with chicken fillet, turkey, edam cheese, tomato, lettuce, mustard sauce (7 Euro)

First rule of thumb when ordering off a sandwich-only menu – always order the Club Sandwich if it’s on offer. For me, it’s all about the variety in the sandwich, with (usually) chicken, bacon, lettuce and tomato, sauces, maybe some slices of cucumber, definitely some cheese…it basically ticks off all the food groups.

The chicken club at FloCafe was a little bit uneven in bits, with a chicken fillet that didn’t quite cover all four corners of the sandwich. The tomato and lettuce was extremely fresh though, and the turkey slices helped to make it slightly healthier than the usual bacon variety. With some plain potato chips/crisps on the side (curiously served with ketchup and sour cream, as though you were supposed to dip the chips in the sauces), it was quite a filling meal, and good value.

Baguette with vegetable kebab, lollo verde and olive-sweet chilli sauce, 3.50 Euro
Baguette with vegetable kebab, lollo verde and olive-sweet chilli sauce, 3.50 Euro

We also ordered a sandwich off the vegan menu – a Baguette with Vegetable Kebab. Vegan food is hard to find in Greece…and well, this explains why. The kebab was like a Quorn faux-chicken tender, but very limp and not as crunchy and crispy as it could have been. With nothing but lettuce in a soft white baguette, it made for an awfully plain sandwich without much to recommend it.

There’s not much to FloCafe, other than the fact that it’s one of the few places in a 1km stretch of the Piraeus waterfront that offers more than coffees and cocktails. If you can hold onto your hunger and walk a kilometre and a half down the waterfront back towards Athens, there’s a half dozen or more restaurants serving proper food that you can choose from. However if you’re just after a sandwich to go with your Greek coffee as you wile away hours of a sunny afternoon, FloCafe will do the job.

FloCafe is located on Marina Zeas in Piraeus (Athens), but has multiple other locations elsewhere in Greece. Check their website for more details.

Review: FOOD Str, Athens Greece

It’s really easy to think of Greece as being all souvlakis and gyros, spanakopita and horiatiki, baklava and loukoumades. A lot of restaurants and fast food joints offer those options, but let’s be honest – eating outside the boundaries of your national cuisine can be exciting, the act of which is readily practised by the younger generation who are keen to embrace global eating trends.

Our free walking tour guide around Athens, Vasilis, was a young, dynamic and engaging guide who said to us, “You obviously have to try souvlakis and gyros while you’re here, it’s our national food. But my friends and I also like to eat burgers, and the best place in Athens for great burgers at a good price is FOOD Str“.

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Keen to eat where all the cool, young and hip crowd eat, we headed off to FOOD Str after our walking tour to see if it was just as good as Vasilis claimed it to be. It was quiet when we were there around 1pm, as the official lunch hour for local Greeks seems to be much later – between 2pm and 3pm.

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We ordered two burgers, two soft drinks, and one serve of fries (or ‘potatoes’ as described on the menu’) to share. This came to about 14 Euro – a bit more expensive than burger meals at McDonalds, but very reasonably priced for the hand-made quality of the food here.

Fish Burger (breaded cod, beetroot, mayonnaise, in black bread coloured with cuttlefish ink), 4.80 Euro
Fish Burger (breaded cod, beetroot, mayonnaise, in black bread coloured with cuttlefish ink), 4.80 Euro

K chose the interesting Fish Burger, a strange concoction of black, purple and golden brown that looks less than appetising but this is where appearances can deceive. The fried cod fillet was crispy, crunchy and perfectly fishy, the beetroot and mayonnaise added some much needed sweetness of flavour, and the soft black-tinged bread was surprisingly soft like a brioche bun, making the perfect sandwich for the tasty fishy filling. This burger is a tad more expensive than others on the menu, but well worth the extra expense if only to try some of Greece’s excellent seafood in a burger form.

FOOD Str Burger (beef, mushrooms, crispy lettuce, red and yellow peppers, carrots, handmade tomato sauce, mayonnaise), 3.80 Euro
FOOD Str Burger (beef, mushrooms, crispy lettuce, red and yellow peppers, carrots, handmade tomato sauce, mayonnaise), 3.80 Euro

I went for a more conventional burger choice – the house burger, or FOOD Str Burger. While the mix of the beef patty itself wasn’t anything spectacular, the effect of the charcoal grill added a remarkable smoky dimension to the meat. With the sweet caramelised mushrooms and peppers, and just the right amount of fresh crisp lettuce to bring a bit of crunch to the burger, this was a real winner.

Fresh Potatoes with Blue Cheese, 2.60 Euro
Fresh Potatoes with Blue Cheese, 2.60 Euro

We shared a serve of the Fresh Potatoes with Blue Cheese – which in this instance, I imagine is a description of the fact that the potatoes are freshly cut before being fried into deliciously crispy and crunchy chips perfect for dipping into a strong blue cheese sauce. My only disappointment here is that the dish wasn’t served as I had imagined it – with a runny blue cheese dressing drizzled over the whole cone of chips. Still, I imagine this dip-on-the-side is more of a crowd-pleasing dish, as you can choose how much blue cheese to have on your chips. Personally I prefer ALL THE CHEESE…but hey, I’ve never been good at controlling what I eat!

FOOD Str is a burger joint that stands up against any other gourmet burger joint in Athens, or even in Sydney or Melbourne with their gourmet burger obsession. Burgers and fries alike are freshly made rather than having ingredients pre-prepared, giving a quality that’s hard to find elsewhere. Don’t be intimidated by the menu being in Greek – the waitress is very friendly and can provide you with an English menu on request!

FOOD Str is located at 14 Kalamiotou Street in Athens, Greece.