Earlier this month, I had the extreme good fortune of winning a competition to be one of two “Festival Explorers” for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - I literally screamed and jumped up and down with excitement when I got the notification that I won. Don’t believe me? Ask my colleagues about my reaction!
As part of the experience, I was flown down to Melbourne for a long weekend, put up in a nice hotel room for three nights, and sent along to three full days of dining and wining experiences (with a friend) completely gratis. I was shaking with excitement when I got my itinerary from the lovely Natalie and Lyndal who are part of the Festival team.
On Friday the 28th of February, I took an extremely early morning flight down to Melbourne and shared a chauffered car to our hotel with the other Festival Explorer Jess Walcott and her partner Vic. We were to spend some time together over the next few days at specific events, but would also be going our separate ways throughout the weekend as we tried different food events.
As we arrived at our hotel, Radisson on Flagstaff Gardens, so early in the morning, our rooms weren’t quite ready for us. By the time my room was ready, I had waited a few hours (fine by me, it was quite nice to relax in the lobby with the newspaper and a drink!) and the staff decided to upgrade me to a Gardenview Room for my troubles. The room was spacious, comfortable and practical – the right kind of hotel for my needs which was literally showering and sleeping at night as I spent most of my time out and about rushing from one Festival event to the next. I did spend some early mornings in the well-equipped hotel gym as well, trying to do a bit of exercise to keep up my diet and exercise regime.
My first Festival experience on the Friday was lunch at The Immersery (Festival Kitchen, Bar and Raingarden). As I could take a guest to each event with me, I invited my younger brother to join me for lunch, as he finishes school early on Fridays. We were very impressed by The Immersery – for a temporary structure, it was remarkably well-designed, and really captured the ‘green garden’ theme, with a large focus on the Festival’s 2014 theme of ‘water’.
We chose to have our lunch on the pontoon bar that had been attached to the Immersery for the duration of the festival. We tried a selection of dumplings from The Immersery’s special dumpling lunch menu, designed by “The Chef Collective” made up of Joel Alderson and Adam Liston (Borrowed Space), Florent Gerardin (Silo by Joost), Jesse Gerner (Anada & Bomba), Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed (Tani Eat & Drink) and Daniel Wilson (Huxtable and Huxtaburger).
They range from fairly traditional (Wonton of prawn, ginger and water chestnut with crispy shallot and peanut crumb) to something that you’re unlikely to find at a yum cha restaurant ( Flinders Island wallaby tail, water chestnut and shiitake soup dumpling). Overall though, each dumpling had something special and unique to offer, and having a ‘tasting plate’ of dumplings is a great way of easing into the Festival experience.
After a short break in the afternoon, I meet up again with Jess and Vic with my friend Beth and we share a cab to Konjo Ethiopian Restaurant in Footscray. We’re one of the first guests to arrive for their special “Dancing with the Tides” experience as part of the Festival, and before long we’re enjoying performances from a fantastic Ethiopian musician and two traditional dancers as we’re served a welcoming spice tea and take part in the hand-washing ritual right at the table.
I’ve had Ethiopian food before, and injera bread is one of my favourites. Before it was brought out to the table, I explained it to Beth as a crepe-like bread, but with holes on the top like crumpets. We use the limitless injera to eat the platter of miscellaneous dishes and stews that are brought to us to share, family-style. The four of us absolutely demolish the first platter, with my personal favourite being a supremely spicy lamb stew. Servings are plentify here though, and before long we’re served more injera and the chef is coming around personally doling out ladles and ladles of various stews.
We finish off our dinner with an Ethiopian coffee, and while I’m not a big coffee drinker, even I can appreciate the richness and depth of flavours and aromas in this brew.
Overall, I rate Konjo a fantastic 8 out of 10 – service is friendly and the food is plentiful, hearty and full of flavour. I think I’ll be back – my work’s Melbourne office isn’t too far from here and I can see us coming here for lunch the next time I’m in town!
Just because we’ve finished dinner doesn’t mean that the night is over though! We go our separate ways as Beth and I head to 1806, a classic retro-style bar complete with red velvet drapes, cushy Chesterfield lounges, and bartenders in braces and bowties. We’re here to try the Festival’s “Bar Express” offering, where a number of bars around the city offer a signature cocktail for $15 during the Festival. We try the Bittered Brandy Sling at 1806, with Hennessy VS, Blanche Armagnac, sugar syrup and orange bitters. This is a strong cocktail – the type you would sip slowly over the course of an hour as you lounge back elegantly in your seat and observe all those around you. It’s certainly not a sweet cocktail that you can down in two gulps, and it proves to be too much for me as I’ve been abstaining from alcohol. I manage half the cocktail before I have to leave it aside.
Next time, I think I’ll be back to try some of their lighter cocktail offerings from their extensive and award-winning cocktail list, as well as trying a few of the nibblies on the bar menu.
The next morning, I head to Cumulus Inc again for breakfast with my good friend Nadine. With a table reserved for the Festival Explorers, we sit down straight away and get our drinks (pink grapefruit juice for me) before settling in to study the custom multi-course breakfast menu that’s been designed for us.
To start, I have heirloom tomatoes on toast which usually comes with goats curd, but I opt to not have that because of my choice to go dairy-free. This is a super simple but delicious dish – the tomatoes are lightly sauteed simply with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Simple, but very effective as it really brings out the natural intensity of the tomato flavour.
Nadine chooses a main of the potato and cheddar waffles (raved about it!) and I choose the house smoked ocean trout which was a nice clean, crisp and fresh dish. I was really glad to see Cumulus’s signature 65/65 egg included in this dish as the runny yolk was perfect mixed through the sorrel and into the trout.
We finish our breakfast with a course of sweets – grilled and caramelised figs, and sweet soft madelines. I’m a big fan of Cumulus Inc for breakfast, and maintain my previous rating of 8 out of 10 for its breakfast menu. I would love to go back the next time I’m in Melbourne and try their evening dinner menu.
It’s going to be a long day of eating, and after a quick spot of shopping with Nadine (I bought a ball gown!), I head to Fatto Bar and Cantina to meet my friend Michelle for one of the Festival’s “Restaurant Express” lunch. Like the “Bar Express”, the Festival’s “Restaurant Express” brings dozens of Melbourne restaurants together in offering a custom lunch menu at only $40 for two courses with a glass of wine.
As a seafood lover and in keeping with the Festival’s theme of “Water”, I decide to order the roasted scallops to start, while Michelle orders the salsicce (sausages). The scallops are simply heavenly – they’re roasted to a crisp on the outside, but remain soft on the inside. The subtle use of chillis and vinegar also combine well and really make the dish quite special. Michelle’s sausage bites are well seasoned and fried – but honestly, not quite as special as the scallops.
When it comes to the mains though, Michelle’s choice is much better, with the lamb chops smelling absolutely heavenly. My crab spaghettini on the other hand, wasn’t anything special as I found the pasta a bit too soft for my liking (granted, I prefer pasta al dente) though the crab and chilli combination was a winner.
Overall I rate Fatto Bar and Cantina a 7 out of 10 – the food is well cooked and is a great option for Italian food if you’re near Flinders Street Station. If you’re willing to go a bit further afield though, it still can’t beat some of the old family-run Italian restaurants on Lygon St in Carlton.
In the afternoon, I met my friend Adam for the Acqua Panna Global Wine Experience as we attended the “Noble Rot, Liquid Gold” panel. As part of this experience, we taste-tested twelve different sweet wines from around the world, ranging from the classic German mosels to Canadian ice-wines and my personal favourite, a sweet wine by Klein Constantia estate in South Africa.
With panellists including some of the world’s greatest wine writers, Melbourne’s top sommelier and a French wine maker, I learnt a lot that afternoon about the very process of making a good sweet wine. I took a multitude of notes on each wine, which I then passed onto K’s father, a wine connoisseur and collector, when I returned to Sydney.
On Saturday night, I returned to The Immersery with my friend Katy for dinner. It was definitely worth visiting during both the day and at night as well, as the vibe and atmosphere is totally different. While it’s very relaxed during the day, the night sessions were a lot louder with more music and drinking, especially as there were cocktail face-off events between Melbourne and Sydney bartenders hosted here at the pontoon bar!
Given the amount of eating that day, I had quite a light dinner of the Vegetarian Tasting Plate designed by Silo by Joost, which included fermented brown rice risotto, eggplant tagine, gazpacho and quinoa cucumber salad. Light and refreshing, the crisp and simple salad was a great way to settle my stomach after a big day of eating.
On Sunday morning, I had a quick breakfast at The Immersery (crumpets!) before taking the opportunity to catch up with my Dad and see a bit of what else was happening at the Festival. In particular, I quite liked the Little Chef’s Corner, where children could take free classes in making easy dishes – I watched the rice paper rolls class for a while, and was very impressed by our next generation of chefs! I also liked the amount of greenery that the Festival staff had arranged all around Southbank, with mini-garden displays designed to educate and inform people about how easy it is to grow your own food.
For lunch, I met my friend Allison for the Festival’s “The Delicious Pest” lunch at the Left Bank. With a multi-course seafood-based lunch in store, I was sure that even a seafood lover like me would be unable to stomach seafood for a while. We had a number of entrees, but the one that stood out the most to me was the ‘pop up sushi bar’. Now I love sushi about ten million times more than most people and eat it nearly every week (mmm, sushi train!), but even I’ve never seen little sushi ice-cream cones like the ones we were served.
I also enjoyed the smoked mussels, which were topped with an interesting range of spices and herbs, transforming rather ordinary mussels into something spectacular. The baked fish was a bit too much for me, though the fish was cooked surprisingly well encased in the herbed dough.
I also enjoyed the two dips that were served with polenta and pumpkin bread, and ate entirely too much bread and dip and spoiled my appetite for the main. How can you resist though, when the dips are so perfectly balanced and more-ish?
I found the main a tad overwhelming – a simple steamed whiting with a nice dressing would have been perfectly delicious and delectable when it’s fresh, but stuffing it with both calamari and sea urchin was just a step too far. Simple is sometimes better, and I feel as though The Left Bank veered too far towards “adding more!” when it comes to the Delicious Pest Festival lunch.
Overall, I rate The Left Bank a 7 out of 10 based on The Delicious Pest lunch. Their normal restaurant menu looks much better than what we got on the day, so I would consider going back on a Sunday afternoon for a regular meal and a drink, especially as they have a fantastic acoustic covers singer on Sunday afternoons to provide some easy listening tunes.
Finally, my last Festival dining experience was a Sunday night tapas dinner with Beth at Mamasita, a restaurant that I’ve been wanting to try for the longest time but never seem to make it to whenever I’m in Melbourne.
You know what kind of night it’s going to be when as soon as you sit down, you’re brought a shot of tequila to start your meal!
I don’t eat octopus that often, so I never really know what to pair it with. I was surprised by how well the bell peppers and olives went with the octopus with the addition of fresh herbs.
The corn was my pick of the night – it’s deceptively simple at first glance as it just looks like corn cobs with cheese and paprika. But once you actually bite into it, you realise how simple actually makes the best dishes, as the cheese has semi-melted into the warm juicy corn, and the paprika adding a burst of spice. It’s so simple that I might even try replicating this at home!
Why cook prawns when you can cure them? This ceviche style dish was deceptively hot, with multiple little chillies adding a real after-burn that was only barely tempered by the cucumber.
The deconstructed tacos and quesadillas were very yummy, but I’m so glad that I didn’t Google “Huitlacoche” until after I had eaten the quesadilla, because “Huitlacoche” is actually a fungus that grows on corn! It sounds less appetising than it actually was in real life.
This ceviche was much like the prawns in that it was deceptively spicy with a definite lingering burn, though the coconut milk did a great job in cooling down the dish overall.
Onto the first of the mains and the duck tart just blows our mind. The duck is so soft that it simply falls apart in your mouth as you eat, it’s tender and succulent with a strong tamarind taste. It’s a rich tart which would make a substantial meal on its own.
The final main of a bouillabaisse-style seafood stew is fantastic when spooned over a serve of the Mexican tomato rice, which just soaks up all the delicious flavours and rich seafood broth.
I forget to take a photo of the dessert, which is probably a good indicator of how remarkable the “Mousse de Chocolate – Frozen chocolate mousse with dulce de leche, crème fraiche, sesame praline and roasted figs” actually was – I couldn’t wait long enough to take a photo before I dug in!
Overall, I rate Mamasita a strong 9 out of 10 – you get a real experience when you dine here, and each dish is as strong as the last. There’s no such thing as a bad menu choice here, and I can’t wait to go back.
I cannot rave about my experience at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival enough.
I feel truly lucky to have been selected as a Festival Explorer, and to have had the opportunity to try so many new places to eat (finally, I get to Mamasita!) and so many interesting food and wine experiences. It was fascinating to see how different places interpreted the Festival theme of ‘Water’ differently, and I feel like I learned a lot as well, particularly at the Acqua Panna Global Wine Experience.
As a now-Sydneysider who still has strong ties to Melbourne, I can definitely see myself scheduling one of my regular visits to family in Melbourne to conveniently coincide with the 2015 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and booking a few Restaurant Express lunches, a few Bar Express cocktails, and maybe a special event or two. There’s definitely something for everyone at the Festival.
Thank you to the Festival organisers who chose me as a Festival Explorer, and to the different restaurants and bars who hosted me throughout the weekend.
Gourmanda attended the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as one of two Festival Explorers after winning a competition. All experiences described were attended free of charge.