Taste of Melbourne 2011

September 18, 2011

As a food blogger, events like Taste of Melbourne are the kinds of events I live for. Certainly I was hopping with anticipation when I first read through the online menu a few weeks ago. Many of Melbourne’s best restaurants all in the one building, offering dishes that you can pick and choose as you please? Excellent.

Indeed, this year’s offering of restaurants was very impressive, including The Botanical, The European, Esposito, The Kitchen Cat, Libertine, The Millswyn, Sarti, Stokehouse and St Katherine’s. So it was with no small amount of excitement that D and I hastened through the gardens towards the Royal Exhibition Building on Friday evening.

The building looked very pretty filled with the late afternoon sunlight, and since we got there quite early during the session we were lucky enough to enjoy the place when it was relatively quiet.

Finally a chance to photograph the beautiful domed ceiling in here! I’m usually only in the Exhibition Building for exams, not a setting particularly conducive to photography, so I took the chance to snap this shot of the ceiling.

Taste of Melbourne is one of the premier food events of the year; as well as top restaurants selling their food, there are also dozens of food and produce stands: wines, beers, chocolates, jams, spices, smoked meat and fish. Exhibition-goers exchange money for crowns (1 crown = $1) which are used to buy dishes and produce (although most produce stands accepted regular money too). The idea is to create your own degustation menu, browsing the restaurants on offer and choosing dishes to nibble as you wander around and sample/shop.
There are also more hands-on opportunities such as cocktail making classes, cheese tasting classes, lectures by sommeliers, or the De Dietrich cooking school, where chefs cook their signature dishes for you to see with a mirror giving you a birds eye view of the bench top. We didn’t attend any of these, but perhaps next year I’d be interested in a wine tasting session, if only for the educational value.

For me though, the main draw was the opportunity to taste food from some of Melbourne’s best restaurants. I should make clear, at this point, that this is by no means a way to circumvent the high prices of these establishments: it wasn’t really a cheap night out. But I do think it was worth it, simply for the experience, for the accessibility of the food, and for the atmosphere of the exhibition.

From the Millswyn: Cured Regal King Salmon w Pickled Daikon, Lime and Vanilla Cucumber

We began our evening at the Millswyn, because we wanted to try their salmon entree before eating other, heavier dishes. This was a delicious dish to start the night with; the salmon was smooth and fresh, accented by the tang of the daikon. The grain of the salmon showed how it had been perfectly cut for maximum smoothness of texture.

From The Millswyn: 10hr Braised Beef Cheek w Beetroot, Spinach & Field Mushrooms.

Having sorted out our “Game Plan” on the train on the way in (share all dishes so as to try many things, head to the most popular places first before they get crazily busy, avoid tempura/quickly fried things and go for slow braises and roasts or casseroles that won’t go bad by sitting pre-prepared for some time), we were keen on the beef cheek. True to form, this was a delicious piece of meat. Braised for so long, it splintered underneath our plastic forks, and was excellently complemented by the mushrooms and beetroot.

To go with our first meal D and I shared, from the Millswyn Bar, a 5 Rum Ginger Mai Tai. I loved this drink, the ginger really freshened it and made it quite fruity. Although (like most things on the night) it had been pre-mixed, so probably would have tasted even better had it been made on the spot.

From St Katherine’s: KFC St Katherine’s fried Lilydale Chicken w BBQ sauce.

“Holy Moly that was dee-licious!!” is what my notebook has about this dish. It was, in all honesty, one of the standout dishes of the night. My first bite made me laugh in glee, it was so damn tasty. To call it KFC (acknowledging the irony) seems a type of sacrilege, because the chicken that St Katherine’s is offering is free-range from Lilydale, the batter is spicy, crispy, crumbly and so damn zingy it’ll have your mouth humming for minutes, and there is no hint of greasiness or oil. It definitely made me want to make a booking at St Katherine’s and order a bucketload of this chicken!

From St Katherine’s: Turkish Lamb Dumplings w Garlic Yoghurt, Sumac & Dried Fruit.
We tried these upon the good word of the server at the Millswyn, who said people had been raving about them all week. I think, when I first tried these, my mouth was still buzzing from the spices of the chicken, so we took a (short) break to marvel verbally about the previous dish before re-commencing on the dumplings. I liked the sumac, and the garlic yoghurt sauce was a hit, but I though the casing was a tad too thick and the pieces of lamb in the centre too small. A nice dish, but not one of my favourites.

The remnants. Love the paper cups in St Katherine’s colours.

The photo is hideously blurry, but the bald man resting his arm on the counter is Shane Delia, co-owner of St. Katherine’s and Maha Bar & Grill. I was star-struck after meeting him, which is a bit silly really given that all he really does is own a few restaurants (that happen to be excellent) and appear on Masterchef every now and then. But he was so smiley and cheery that I couldn’t help it. Plus he called me “lovely”. Sigh….

Fancy Tequila/liquor company Patron. D was keen to try their Espresso Martini made with Patron’s XO Cafe Tequila Liquer.

The fancy Espresso Martini. Quite nice, but I preferred the fruity Mai Tai we had earlier.

From The Kitchen Cat: Pulled Pork Panini

The Kitchen Cat is Tobie Puttock’s latest venture (Tobie Puttock, ex-sommelier at Jamie Oliver’s 15 restaurant in Melbourne). I had this dish circled on my copy of the menu as a “maybe” option, but walking by we were pulled in by the display food and the casually paper bagged paninis.

I was extremely glad we did get it, it was one of the best dishes of the night. The pork had been slowly cooked and then pulled apart (fancy that…), and stuffed into a wonderfully bouncy panini with some pickled cabbage that was quite hot, in a sauerkraut sort of way, and was an excellent foil to the thickness of the pork and bread. A really really tasty dish, and one I would love to recreate, given a recipe.

Things start to get busy…

From Stokehouse: Seared Scallops, Green Chilli Aioli, Almonds & Celeriac Remoulade

Next stop was Stokehouse, which had a particularly enticing menu: we ended up getting all three of their dishes. First up was the seared scallops, which were very pricy at 12 crowns for two scallops, but they were excellently cooked, perfectly sweet and juicy with a slight caramelisation. They were divine, and a real highlight of the night for me. I loved the rather sophisticated accompaniments of celeriac and chilli, providing the perfect tang. But the scallops were the heros of this dish, and I loved them.

From Stokehouse: Grilled Pork & Fennel Slider w Mustard Mayo

Next up was my “other, other” favourite from the night (suddenly there seem to be so many favourites!), the pork and fennel slider. I knew this’d be a winning combination just looking at the menu, and sure enough, BINGO. I wanted to gobble up the whole thing after my first bite, but remembered just in time that D had to have his share too. I loved the aniseed taste from the fennel paired with the strong mustard. I think I preferred the filling of the slider to the pulled pork panini (the two were so similar a comparison was inevitable), but thought the soft, almost sweet brioche-style bun used here wasn’t as good as the hearty panini at the Kitchen Cat. Honestly though, I’m splitting straws trying to compare the two, both were brill.

The Botanical was offering a dish of prawn & pork plums with ‘1000 year old egg’ and pickled ginger. Having seen 1000 year old egg on Masterchef a few years ago I was intrigued, but not quite brave enough to order the dish. However as we were passing by the The Botanical’s stall, a woman stepped away with the dish. (Very politely), I asked her what she thought of the egg and if it was too strange a taste, but she assured me (with a smile) that it was great, very salty and the perfect complement to the prawn and pork. Huh. Perhaps if it’s on offer next year I will order it!

The Royal Exhibition Hall looked lovely decked out in fairy lights; along one side of the upper level paper lanterns had been strung above the tables.

In between eating, D and I perused the produce stalls on offer, including Luxbite, which sadly was not offering free samples. Their mini cakes did look delicious though, and the chocolate one in the middle includes a salted caramel sphere, yummy!

The stall at the European, with beautiful white roses and a map of Italy.

From the European: ‘European’ Kinkawooka Paella

Earlier in the evening we bumped into a school friend of mine, F, who was attending with her dad. They were here to sample the wide variety of wines on offer, and were just heading off to a cocktail class when we saw them. I thought it was fantastic, and a testament to this event, that two people could go for completely different reasons and get just as much out of the evening. Asking each other what we’d eaten that was good, F recommended the paella from the European.

D and I originally had our sights set on the slow cooked suckling lamb, pearl barley salad & truffled pecorino from Sarti, but, for 12 crowns, I simply couldn’t justify this dish, looking down at the dismally small piece of meat that, rather than nestled in a bed of barley, was spartanly sprinkled with it. A half-dish, really. By some stroke of luck, the European was conveniently located next door, and the paella was looking might tasty.

I thought this was an excellent savory dish to end on (although I would have gladly gone on to try several more dishes on offer had my stomach/pocket allowed it), the aroma of the saffron was incredible, and the prawn had a wonderfully charred taste to it. The paella was very well done, I enjoyed the bursts of freshness from the peas and tomato, and it had a good kick of chilli to it.

From Stokehouse: Rhubarb, Violet & Geranium Eton Mess

The one sweet dish we got (and really, most restaurants weren’t offering any sweet dishes and this was the only one that caught my eye) was the Eton Mess. Quite a nice dessert, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. Perhaps my experience was soured by the snooty waiter who couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with me as I placed my order. Nasty man; I don’t care where he works, there’s no excuse for that sort of behaviour.

Regardless, I thought the rhubarb in this dish was slightly undercooked, I would have preferred soft rather than crunchy rhubarb which didn’t seem to have much of a taste. So it was mainly just cream and meringue, although I did like the tanginess of the violet and geranium powder on top, and the strawberry sorbet which gave a pleasantly cool kick.

We had two crowns left over, and fortunately came across an ice-cream stall (forgotten which one, how terrible of me), so each got a micro-cone with raspberry for D and sticky date for me. A fun way to end the evening.

After several hours of smelling and sampling, D and I emerged from the Exhibition Building, me with a paper bag with a jar of Spiced Syrian Fig jam from artisan producer Jam Lady Jam. All in all, I thought it a fantastic experience, and one I would love to repeat next year.