Twenty four hours in the company of George Biron introduced me to two of Melbournes food markets, three of its distinctive restaurants and a café in one of the growing number of areas which, because of their predominantly Vietnamese population, are referred to locally as Little Saigon.
The day began, however, enjoying the citys strong Italian links as Biron explained over a caffe latte in Pellegrinis, an Italian espresso bar that has been a fixture on Bourke Street for the past 50 years (very like Bar Italia in Londons Soho but instead of the poster of Rocky Marciano there is a photo of kangaroos frolicking in the sea) why eating out in Melbourne is very different from Sydney. In the early 1980s the liquor licensing laws in Melbourne were radically liberalised after a report by Professor John Nieuwenhuysen. As a result it is much easier and less expensive for restaurateurs to open here. But whoever opens here, regardless of their reputation, simply cannot be too expensive. We Melbournians demand value for our money.
Biron speaks with some authority. Like so many who have contributed to this city, he was born elsewhere arriving here with his family from Hungary in 1957. After an initial career teaching young chefs at a technical college he opened a restaurant and cookery school in his home on a farm 90 minutes drive from Melbourne which operated very successfully for 10 years, the precise period his partner had stipulated from the outset that she would tolerate it. Since then he has been a softly-spoken but strong advocate for how and why Victoria should continue to improve the quality of its produce.
Our coffees downed, we peered briefly into Florentinos the long standing Italian restaurant now run with panache by chef Guy Grossi and where, in the ground floor bistro, Dame Edna Everage places her regular order for a well- hung chop before heading to the much older Queen Victoria Market. Opened in 1868 this market, the only one remaining of the four which once marked each corner of the city, has provided much of the food to the growing number of the citys professional and amateur chefs as well as their traditional breakfast, a bratwurst sausage topped with sauerkraut in a bun, a residue of the initially strong German farming influence. Although the original bratwurst stand remains, Middle Eastern pastries are now an increasingly popular breakfast alternative just as the increasing number of Vietnamese manning the butchers, fish and vegetable stalls are a tribute to the citys changing ethnic mix.
To show me quite the impact so many Vietnamese are now having on Melbournes culture and food. Biron took me on a ten minute drive out drove out to Footscray, once an area and a series of markets once dominated by Europeans. Now all that seemed to be left was one Italian pasticceria which proudly carries the sign Tony Soprano eats here while almost everything else is in Vietnamese hands, including a series of cafés that offer the most extraordinarily good-value noodle and soup dishes. This market is often the beginning and end of Birons working day. A large bowl of wok fired noodles with prawns, chicken and a home-made prawn cracker may be a stimulating breakfast at the Phu Vinh café (for all of AU$7) while a whole roast duck for AU$16 picked up on the way home can make what he describes as a great supper.
Over in Albert Park, a chic suburb between south Melbourne and St Kilda that is a 15 minute taxi ride from the centre, Asiana exemplifies many of these strong Asian influences but here they are complemented by a selection of some of the best wines from France and the rest of the world. Situated in a rather unprepossessing arcade of shops with a Greek taverna and a fish and chippery close by, Asiana is the result of the passion and hard work of owner Randolph Cheung.
Because it was slightly easier to choose the wines than the food (we eventually settled on two Victorian wines, a Tarrington 2004 Henty chardonnay and Tomboy Hill, Rokewood Junction pinot noir 2002 Ballarat) we handed responsibility for the menu over to Randolph. For AU$60 per person his kitchen delivered an eclectic but well-balanced six course meal whose highlights included Tasmanian scallops cooked in coconut milk and chilli; tempura of Japanese soft shell crab; three large prawns sautéed in an unctuous saffron and almond sauce as well as some excellent Peking duck. But what added immeasurably to the pleasure of this meal was the homely size of Asiana which has no more than fifteen tables on its ground floor and a private room upstairs. It is quite obvious that Randolph leads not just from the front but also from the heart.
Andrew McConnell is displaying the same commitment in a similar building at Three One Two at 312 Drummond Street where he cooks while his wife Pascal controls the restaurant with style and charm. Here and at Asiana such are the size of the rooms that there is a definite sense of eating in someones dining room, although as McConnell was to explain, his particular restaurant has a first class restaurant pedigree. This place has been a restaurant for decades. Originally it was a kosher one, then Greek and for the past couple of decades an Italian one. It has good bones, he added.
This building now appears to be in the hands of a couple who seem intent on maintaining this pedigree. McConnell brings a rather spare but ultimately well-considered feel to his menu which only offers a choice of four dishes at each course as well as a more elaborate tasting menu but everything was executed with great professionalism, most notably a confit of ocean trout with seared scallops, a fillet of beef with creamy foie gras and the increasingly flavourful Western Australian black truffles on the side and a less rich but equally satisfying grilled veal tongue and braised cheek with capers and cornichons.
Finally, although Biron was strongly in favour of the AU$35 business lunch at The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel in the Crown complex on the Yarra river, a shopping trip along Little Collins Street brought us to Shannon Bennetts polished Vue du Monde, whose modern interior and open kitchen with a large mirror directly above the chefs, as in demonstration kitchens, is the very opposite of Three One Two or Asiana.
Bennetts guiding light is France with Laguiole cutlery, Echiré butter and a more formal approach to eating than I had encountered elsewhere in Melbourne the immediate differences. His AU$38 business lunch would also have delighted any Francophile, most notably a home made crumpet enclosing layers of smoked salmon wrapped around crème fraîche and salmon eggs and a more traditional duck confit with an expertly dressed salad. The conversation on the three adjacent tables seemed to be about nothing other than wine.
All of which left me with the conviction that, when it comes to food and wine, Melbournians know how to treat themselves very well indeed.
Some notable Melbourne establishments
Florentino 80 Bourke Street, 3. 9662 1811,
Asiana 181 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park, 3. 9696 6688,
Three One Two 312 Drummond Street, 3. 9347 3312, www.312.com.au
Vue du Monde 430 Little Collins Street, 3. 9691 3888, www.vuedumonde.com,
MoVida 1 Hosier Lane, 3.9663 3038 www. movida.com.au, Spanish restaurant and tapas
Pearl 631-3 Church Street, Richmond, 3.9421 4599 www.pearlrestaurant.com, Geoff Lindsays Australian classic,
Flower Drum 17 Market Lane, 3. 9662.3655, long standing classic Cantonese,
The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel 3.9292 7808, www.thebrasserieatcrown.com.au
Finally, just opened, Jamie Olivers latest branch of Fifteen www.fifteenmelbourne.com.au