Marvelous Melbourne! By Melanie Costabile
To sum up Melbourne's culinary culture in a mere two column article would not be doing this glorious city of mine any justice. But I will try to sketch a brief outline of the gastronomic delights and locales that one of the world's ‘most liveable cities,' has to offer. For those of you who haven't visited our bleach blonde shores and sapphire blue waters, you are no doubt missing out on not only some of Australia's and the world's best food and wine culture, but also on a cosmopolitan mix of people that smile, laugh, entertain, cook, eat and enjoy the plethora of epicurean delights available to them. Nestled between the city itself you will find gorgeous local suburbs offering a taste of the people's homeland and you are enticed, lulled and gladly coaxed as your senses become willing participants in a journey of discovery.
Pretend you are on a magic carpet, riding the zephyr wind and your pilot is none other than Ali Baba. Gently, he lowers the crimson and gold carpet into a bustling souk. The decorative ‘Shisha' tobacco pipes are in view, that nutty fragrance dancing through the air is the pistachio nuts roasting and your tummy is already beckoning for a crispy falafel nestled in between pita bread. No you're not in the Middle East, but in Brunswick, Melbourne. Here you will be taken on a Middle Eastern tour of unctuous Turkish delights, of Egyptian and Persian sweets perfumed with gentle and romantic rose water and orange blossom essence, a myriad of mesmerizing Moroccan spices and Lebanese wood fired pita bread that entices you on an Arabian journey, without leaving your doorstep and minus the hot sirocco wind that caresses Casablanca. I've never managed to find Turkish delight in any other Melbourne suburb, quite like that of Sydney Road, Brunswick. Its gorgeous rosewater flavour oozes with every bite, that gentle dusting of icing sugar tickles your mouth frivolously until you can feel your cheeks and your soul take on a rosy, pink glow which lasts all day whilst you smile and give a kind ‘Shokran' to shopkeepers and gently rub Aladdin's lamp just in case those three wishes come true.
A couple of kilometers away from Brunswick, you will literally find ‘little Italy,' located on Lygon Street, Carlton and having an Italian background myself, I am somewhat a little biased about this corner of the world. If you know Italians, you will know that wherever four people eat there is always provision for another six! And this definitely extends to this Italianesque restaurant hub. You will always be greeted with a ‘Ciao,' a big smile and tantalizing smells of basil, tomato and garlic, in my opinion, the Holy Trinity of my ancestors' homeland. For the best pizza and homemade pasta you cannot go past ‘Papa Gino's' basically an institution for rustic, Mediterranean ingredients all brought together in a mouthwatering symphony which simply makes you think, ‘L'Italia e` bella,' Italy is beautiful. This Neapolitan inspired family trattoria is older than I am and was started by ‘Papa Gino' himself and now run by his three sons; Papa would be proud. If you have room after having feasted on soft, pillow like homemade gnocchi and the wafer thin crisp Margherita pizza, walk it off on the way to the piazza, and as you go cool down with the best gelati you will find in Melbourne. Chocolate for a bit of decadence married with a scoop of zesty, refreshing lemon gelati, will have you satiated, smiling and dreaming of walking through the Colosseum with the life giving Mediterranean sun, kissing your cheeks and reciting the poem by Robert Browning, ‘Open my heart and you will see, engraved inside it, Italy.'
Rub the Buddah's belly, so the saying goes, and he will bring you good luck! And there are Buddah bellies a plenty once you find yourself wandering in Melbourne's Little Bourke street, Chinatown. From the silky elegant hawker style noodles, to the glistening, plum burnished sheen of the Peking duck, there are Asian delights aplenty in this rich, noisy, interesting strip of Melbourne city. If you are feeling extravagant, the Lau family's Flower Drum Restaurant in Market Lane has been the epitome of Asian cuisine in Melbourne for a very long time. Dining here you could almost imagine yourself in the rich Ming dynasty, wearing robes of silk and indulging in a fragrant cacophony of flavours and feasts fit for an emperor! The duck is their speciality, but the entire menu is exemplary. If however, you fancy yourself as an earthy, market style foodie, then the Supper Inn at Celestial Avenue is the place for you. Open the creaky door, climb two flights of stairs, and although it doesn't look like much as you sit on the 80's inspired vinyl chairs and tables, for around $6 you can dine on a Singapore style noodle soup with fresh mushrooms or four tender meat or vegetable filled dumplings which satiate you nicely and which will have you so much in the Asian spirit that you will find yourself singing your heart out karaoke style! In fact bookings for a karaoke room is advised a week in advance for a weekend out! In Melbourne, Karaoke Box on Latrobe street or FM Karaoke on Bourke street are the absolute best. I'll finish with a most delightful Japanese restaurant, at the upper end of Little Bourke street by the name of Kuni's. It's here that I often find myself thinking, I should buy a kimono and learn the intricacies of a proper tea serving ritual, but alas, as the Westerner, I am simply happy to sit at Kuni's famous sushi bar and literally feast on some of the freshest sushi seafood, savour the sweet barbeque flavour of the chargrilled yakitori chicken, enjoy the crunch of the golden tempura batter and sip sweetly on the jasmine green tea, enjoying the calm serenity of this Japanese jewel. You can leave Chinatown content and with a belly to rival Buddah's! And as is said in Japanese, Kanpai!
Two blocks up from the silk road you cross over to the gorgeous Mediterranean, albeit with Melbourne's erratic weather blustering up the city corridors it lacks the health giving sun, but nonetheless, step into any of the Greek tavernas, and imagine yourself on the island of Corfu, or in the manic bustle that is Athens, drink to your health with some ouzo and get your teeth into a succulent garlic and lemon infused lamb souvlaki! This is Lonsdale street, and it is little Greece really, with Melbourne having the highest per capita Greek population out of Hellas itself. The metropolis here consists of gorgeous cake shops filled with the ever tempting crispy baklava, the unctuous, cheek-filling custard of the galaktoboureko, and seafaring blue and white tavernas, rustic in style and serving good, wholesome moussaka, the kind that comforts the soul and warms our cold Melbournian tummies on an icy winter's night. Some of the tavernas even have live entertainment, should you wish to grab a plate, smash it on the floor and practice your Zorba step whilst the Bouzouki tingles and strums a sprightly tune in the background. I must mention here though, that at whatever hour of the night or day you may be hungry, the infamous Stalactites, visited by the Cypriot tennis player Marcos Baghdatis, is sure to satiate even the most Herculean of hungers! Located on the corner of Lonsdale and Russell streets, it is a friendly, family oriented restaurant or at 3am, often a meeting place for starving clubbers after a night out, tripping the light fantastic. The souvlaki doesn't disappoint and neither does the service. I'd pay homage to Zeus and Athena for Greek food like this.