When our local experts agree on the city’s best Italian pasta bar, rest assured it’s eccellente.
Head chef at Vue de Monde, creative director of Vue Group and cookbook author
Qantas magazine restaurant reviewer and author of food-industry memoir Prick with a Fork
Is there a restaurant that really nails the Melbourne vibe?
SB: Melbourne’s weather aligns itself to the idea of hiding away. We don’t have great beaches so instead we go to a great restaurant or bar. Melburnians also love to eat something they couldn’t cook at home and a place that’s great for that is Tonka. It’s really cool and unexpected with its cross-pollination of Australian ingredients and Indian food cooked by an Australian with an Indian background. It just sums up Melbourne.
LD: I’m going with Cumulus Inc. Flinders Lane is the Golden Mile of awesome places to eat and drink and owner-chef Andrew McConnell was one of the pioneers. He took over this incredible, gallery-like space and it buzzes from morning until late at night. The share plates are topnotch and work any time of day.
Housemade crumpets with whipped ricotta at Cumulus Inc.
Melbourne is known for Italian food. Who’s doing it best?
SB: The boys who run Tipo 00 – Andreas Papadakis, Luke Skidmore and Alberto Fava – are doing beautifully understated food and sophisticated pasta dishes that aren’t overly complicated. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; they’re just doing things very well.
LD: Tipo 00 is a very authentic little pasta bar. You walk by at 5 pm on any night and there’s already a queue out the door. But it’s worth the wait – especially for the pappardelle with braised rabbit. It’s my lifeblood.
Andreas Papadakis of Tipo oo
What’s your favourite fine-diner?
SB: I’m really proud of what Clinton McIver is doing at Amaru in Armadale. He was my sous chef at Vue de Monde and he’s cooking modern, creative food with a real lightness to it, using only the best local ingredients. Watching him evolve over the years has been amazing.
LD: Ben Shewry has grown Attica in Ripponlea into a world-leading restaurant. He never rests on his laurels so every time you go there it’s different. It’s not stuffy and he has a very playful sense of what fine dining should be. At the moment, he’s doing some really fun Australiana-inspired dishes, such as possum sausages, and he’s been experimenting with Vegemite. He debuted a lamb pie with Vegemite pastry in 2016 and more recently did a Salada with Vegemite and tomato, although the Vegemite was actually black garlic and the Salada wasn’t really a Salada, as is the tricky way of fine dining.
What is Melbourne's best laneway bar?
SB: That’s a tough one because there are so many. I recently checked out Bar Tini which is part of the MoVida group. They make a great Martini, which is what I drink – gin with an olive. A good bar is about the people. You want a friendly, professional approach that is still relaxed. I also like to sneak out to Cumulus Inc. for a quick Martini.
LD: Arlechin, the Grossis’ place behind their Florentino restaurant. They realised they had this brilliant little space, which they used for storage, and did an immaculate fit-out. There’s a great cocktail program because they roped in Joe Jones (ex-Romeo Lane). The food is amazing, especially the Midnight Spaghetti, which is a sort of puttanesca. It’s exactly the kind of dish you want to be eating with a cocktail late at night.
What’s a great spot for brunch?
SB: There’s a place called Drugstore Espresso on Toorak Road and I like it because it’s in such an odd location, just across from South Yarra train station. For me, it’s avocado toast with a poached egg on top and a bit of salt. Everyone thinks avocado toast came from somewhere else but we say Melbourne claims it!
LD: Higher Ground is the obvious choice – it deserves all the accolades it gets. The brunch menu suits anyone; you can have a really delicate steamed barramundi served Japanese-style with mushroom dashi or you can go for the world’s ultimate bacon-and-egg sarnie.
Tucking into a perfectly poached egg at Higher Ground
Melbourne's best coffee?
SB: Jardin Tan, my place on the Tan track in the Royal Botanic Gardens. A good coffee is all about different notes – everything from fruitiness to nuttiness. It shouldn’t be over-roasted and it should show good crema, too.
LD: Seven Seeds, in a converted warehouse in Carlton, is the HQ of Melbourne’s coffee godfather, Mark Dundon. Every cup is guaranteed to be a belter. I drink a “magic”, a Melbourne invention that’s like a three-quarter latte with the magic ratio of milk to coffee. A lot of Melburnians like the milk cut down a bit so it’s stronger.
Where do you go for a snack at the city’s famous food markets?
SB: I normally go to Queen Victoria Market. In the middle of the cheese and deli section there’s a hot-dog stand called Bratwurst Shop & Co. I’ve been going there since I was a kid and the German sausages are sensational. I take mine with all the trimmings: sauerkraut, mustard and ketchup.
LD: At Prahran Market there’s a cheese stand called Maker & Monger that has an amazing menu of grilled-cheese tastiness. You could die happy after eating a toastie here. The Fondue is the pick: Swiss gruyère, double-smoked ham and mustard on sourdough.
Who’s doing interesting bar food?
SB: Chablis Bar at Kisumé is great for a snack. I go for the sushi, which always involves otoro [tuna belly] but I also love the more creative dishes such as crisp Wagyu truffles and the little rice-flour pancakes folded with frozen white-chocolate mousse and raspberries on the Chef’s Table menu.
LD: Embla calls itself a wine bar, which criminally undersells the food offering. Chef Dave Verheul does the best roast chicken in town and you ought to make a beeline for anything he does with stracciatella, too.
Is there a great restaurant that flies under the radar?
SB: Lau’s Family Kitchen in St Kilda doesn’t get the cred it deserves. Gilbert Lau (ex- Flower Drum) and his sons do an amazing job, serving the sort of food you can’t cook at home, in an understated atmosphere. It’s classic Chinese and the spring rolls are the best in Melbourne.
LD: It would have to be Pasta Adagio in Richmond. Owner-chef Carmine Costantini is an exacting-to-the-point-of-obsessive kind of guy. He makes the most wonderful Italian cucina povera. I know people who would crawl on their knees over broken glass to eat his bolognese ragù, it’s that life-changing.