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Every year at about this time, I exhume an ongoing hope. To wit: the daydream of the perfect all-you-can-eat buffet. In my mind, a dozen Escoffiers stand behind their gleaming stations and serve exquisite tastes to refined patrons. In my experience, three scary mothers from Wantirna claw each other for the last prawn.

It was time to take the buffet crusade up a notch.

The $89 price tag gave me high hopes for Melba. There are few all-you-can-cram establishments that can exact such a fee. Had I found my gourmand’s nirvana?

Well, yes and no.

Dining at Melba involves passage through the brassy lobby of The Langham. Things become more muted once in the restaurant, but the feeling is still more cruise ship than elegant dining space.

The rules of buffet eating are as simple and inflexible as the rules of Fight Club. First rule of buffet: don’t talk about carbohydrates. Avoid bread, noodles, pasta or rice, and just chow down on premium produce. Here, the seafood station is an obvious target. Crabs, Moreton Bay bugs, yabbies and prawns are all in abundance, and crustacean fans could probably just gorge on this and get their money’s worth. I loaded up my plate with half a dozen oysters. I had planned on taking the full dozen, but felt death rays burning my back as others waited for the tongs. I succumbed to the buffet-pressure to move along. Which I did. To the prawns which, happily, had not been entirely annexed by Wantirna. The seafood sauce is nicely tangy with a sharp horseradish bite, and the oysters are superbly fresh.

The second rule of successful buffet navigation is to never approach them hungry. You’ll either be completely sated by one small plate or make straight for filling things that are fatty; it’s a classic newbie mistake.

The third rule is to keep your courses and dishes focused and appealing. Wedding oysters to curry and pork crackling may seem like a good idea. But, it looks like the world’s least attractive three way. Resist the panic-buying mentality that grips you as you approach the islands of food. Do a reconnaissance first, and plan your courses based on their attractiveness.

And the islands of food at Melba look mighty appealing. The Asian stir-fry station is manned by a team of cooks who will throw your choice of ingredients into a hot wok while you wait. It’s certainly more visually appealing than the bain-maries of Indian curries and overcooked veg in the carvery.

Electing to stick to my plan of consuming only premium produce, I bypassed the stir-fry station and made for the counter where excellent sashimi is expertly cut to order.

There is value to be had at Melba, if you choose wisely. There is no lack of premium ingredients; nor is there a lack of supremely average fare.

Nothing here is quite so average as the service. Of course, at a buffet one primarily serves one’s self. However, for eighty-nine bucks, I expect my napkin to be refolded when I return to table. And I gave the young, uninterested staff plenty of long absences to think about replenishing my flatware. They seemed as interested in this as they were in taking my drink order. Which is to say: not at all.

As my dinner companion, Frank from Fairfield, has it, this is the Bunnings of cuisine. Variety, occasional great value, and no one in an apron around when you need ’em.

Melba, The Langham, 1 Southgate Ave, Southbank, 1800 641 107. melbarestaurant.com.au

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Gigibaba

Mercifully, in our town, the risk of being dealt poor food is pretty low. In Melbourne, the buzz about a new kitchen is most often generated by fussy bees. Certainly, food is what drives the year-old hot hive, Gigibaba. Chef Ismail Tosun’s food is inspired, singular and exceptional. It’s a resolute heads-up here for Turkish small-plate dining. It’s thumbs down, however, for service.

When I moved as a teenager from the leafy suburbs to the bare inner city, I became familiar with the rudeness endemic to certain of Melbourne’s eateries. I never particularly enjoyed watching a hungover VCA student hurl rigatoni in my approximate direction; but, for the single figure price tag, I tolerated it. It was a fair deal: she was working out her frustrations at not being born in the East Village – I was getting fed for virtually nothing. Moreover, I was confident that one day, I’d afford myself the luxury of dining in places not entirely staffed by a sneering Second Year Drama class.

But then, a funny thing happened. The down-at-heel aesthetic of inner-city life went upscale in the late nineties. Even Starbucks successfully corporatised the dodgy student experience. Communal dining tables, mismatched flatware and other signifiers of “cool” became standard not only at shitty yet dependable St Kilda cafes, but in the high end of the CBD. Nonchalant or just plain terrible service was all part of this let’s-pretend-we’re-poor mini boom.

The bubble has not burst at Gigibaba. It’s not so much that the staff here is rude; they’re just affectedly casual, preferring loud conversation with each-other to interaction with diners. This, I suspect, is not actually a mistake but, rather, part of a pre-GFC master plan.

In true faux-poverty style, the place does not take bookings. Further, as we are proudly told by a waiter who has taken time out from grooming his beard in the bar mirror, the place does not have a sign or a website. Naturally, food is served on floral thrift-store Nanna-ware. Most ascetic of all, wine is served by the millilitre in beakers. This science lab chic might have been cute before the market crashed. Now, as I look at the small volume of decent plonk I can afford, I’m reminded how much money I lost in 2008.

Almost everything at Gigibaba screams “Slumming it!”. Everything, except the food that is. Shopworn irony might abound in this new Smith Street hub but it’s found nowhere on Tosun’s near perfect small plates. The former Perth superstar and Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent award winner is not just an extraordinary cook, he’s an innovator. Here is modern Turkish cuisine as you’re unlikely to experience outside Istanbul. There is nothing playful or ironic about the pickled octopus salad; the lamb cutlet; the exquisite quail. There’s no mocking nod evident in the must-order cauliflower or the dessert plate. In his menu, Tosun does not so much defy convention as advance it. Great skill and an abiding respect for Turkish cuisine leads this chef to some stunning conclusions. One of them, surprisingly, being the bill. Two of us drained a 500ml beaker and crammed some of Melbourne’s best food into our pie holes for under a hundred bucks.

There’s no doubt Tosun will shortly rank among the country’s most influential chefs. He belongs in our omnivorous city which will forgive him his fashionable foibles for such wonderful food.

David Thompson

DT 1

David Thompson inspects the produce in Springvale

‘Please, please have him back by 2pm.”

Martin Boetz, executive chef at Longrain, sounds exactly like a troubled father. He looks at me like I’m a bikie about to take his wayward 16-year-old out on a date.

Not a problem, I assure him. We’ll be back by two.

“He has a tendency to wander,” says Boetz, unconvinced and with genuine fear in his eyes. I wonder exactly how much wandering havoc a chef with a Michelin star can wreak.

A couple of years back, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, David Thompson presented a series of dinners at Boetz’s Longrain restaurant. For devotees of Thai cuisine, it was an obligatory event.

Thompson is acclaimed as an authority on Thai culinary technique. His book on the subject, Thai Food, is regarded as a Bible by cooks eager to dish up something more genuine than a tepid green curry.

Since leaving Australia and opening Nahm at London’s Halkin Hotel in July 2001, he has become the world’s sole purveyor of Thai food to win a Michelin star.

I was slavering at the thought of Thompson’s salted chicken wafers with longans and Thai basil, Murray cod with apple eggplants and, most of all, his taste for authenticity.

First, though, I was taking David Thompson shopping.

After an elaborate exchange of emails and promises, I had a tentative “yes”. Chef would join me for an afternoon of shopping and eating in Melbourne’s little Thailand, Springvale.

Thompson darts around Springvale’s produce markets like a fastidious bee. Amid the glorious hodgepodge, he never settles on one ingredient for long and he covers every inch. He’s full of culinary counsel and I’m paying careful attention. “Lemongrass must be thin and young,” Thompson says, hovering near some thick, dried-out stalks. “Galangal must be pink and vibrant.” I’m taking it all down. I nod.

“Fish sauce isn’t simply fish sauce,” he says, before launching into a sermon on the lesser brands.

“Bad fish sauce tastes like a decomposed cat has fallen into a vat,” he says. While my palate has never detected anything cat-like, I have often felt disappointed by the quality of this salty elixir. Thompson recommends Squid brand as a dependable and widely available cat-less stand-by.

I nod. I buy some Squid.

Thompson, as his protege Boetz will affirm, is an eager teacher. Ask a question and he will respond with warm, encyclopedic force. Ask him about fusion cuisine, however, and he turns hotter than a habanero.

“I hate fusion food. Hate it with a passion,” he has been quoted as saying. For Thompson, the marriage of, for example, teriyaki with chilli shows a poverty of skill and imagination.

This chef is not a fusionista. Nor is he inclined to tag along with food trends. The popularity of molecular gastronomy among young chefs has him a little concerned. “It was interesting, and the understanding of chemistry was helpful, but I fear it’s gone too far,” he says of kitchens conjuring airs and foams.

Thompson prefers authenticity to fusion and fashion. This was evident in the presentation and flavours of his astonishing food at Longrain. I’d never devoured his creations before and had, perhaps, expected gravity-defying stacks of Thai by way of France, by way of a science lab.

Instead, each dish was an accomplished but earthy conversation of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Served in communal bowls, harmonising dishes are eaten together for the full score to emerge.

Although critics of Nahm have been aghast at this style, Thompson is resolute in maintaining the presentation. He is also a determined student of traditional Thai techniques.

Trained as a chef in Sydney, Thompson went to Thailand in 1986 and fell immediately in love. “I went for a holiday and was seduced by the place,” he says. Some years later, he emerged from his lemongrass haze, returning to Sydney to open his first restaurant, the acclaimed Darley Street Thai “in the back of a bloodbath of a hotel” in St Peters.

It was in Thailand that he encountered “an old woman who cooked the most delectable of foods. A depth of palate, seasoning, and textures that was just fantastic. Her cooking transformed my understanding of what Thai food was, from being quite pleasant, photographically delightful street food into something else”.

With partner Tanongsak Yordwai, whom he met on that first trip to Thailand, Thompson has collected and translated a substantial assortment of Thai “memorial books”. It is the custom in Thailand to publish a booklet when someone dies. It documents the deceased’s life; their habits, hobbies and often their favourite recipes. Some in Thompson’s collection are more than a century old. He calls this collection of about 600 books “a delicious treasure trove” and uses many of the recipes on his menu at Nahm.

With the spectre of 2pm looming, I whisk Thompson and Yordwai into Pa Wan for lunch. They pore over the menu, which offers arresting departures from the standard Australian neighbourhood Thai joint, and point out that many of the dishes are Cambodian or Laotian.

Thai restaurants in the West are commonly a mishmash, they tell me. Natives of neighbouring countries frequently man the stoves at your local takeaway.

It’s something of a modern miracle that Thailand remains almost singularly unconquered, its cuisine untempered by foreign influence and its citizens blase about defection to the West.

“There are no Thai refugees,” says Yordwai. Consequently, an undiluted version of Thai cuisine can be hard to find.

At Pa Wan, we select sai oung, a northern Thai pork sausage made with curry paste, coriander and lime leaves; nam kra khoa phod, pork ribs deep fried then cured in garlic and sticky rice; yum nhun plar grob, a crisp fish-skin salad; larb gai, the minced chicken salad popular on Australian Thai menus; and gang pa moo, a “jungle-style” curry of pork, baby eggplants, and bamboo.

Each dish inspired a lesson from the master of Thai cuisine. Each market stop was an education.

It was easy to lose my way in this afternoon of higher learning. I may have been a little lost in the extraordinary world of David Thompson but he didn’t go missing for a moment.

In fact, I had him back to Longrain and a grateful Martin Boetz by 10 minutes after two.

Potatoes

Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Of the great passions to which I’ll publicly admit, two are gambling and food.  Every Monday night, I combine both.  At a shady poker league, I make the rules.  One of the unbreakable ones demands that last week’s pot winner provides next week’s snacks.

Usually, the blokes just lay down a lazy fifty for some average pizza.  One memorable night, however, a fella made baked potatoes. The pizzas arrived as usual, but the sizable Irish contingent in our league looked as though they’d just seen the Pope.  Through a misty vale of tears, six young men from County Wicklow landed on the spuds in preference to pizza with a passion.

Carb count aside; if you’ve a little Irish in you, there’s no point in denying your love for this humble root vegetable.

Although, my mother did do her best to ruin the potato for all time.  Thanks to the foul alchemy of over-boiling, she turned them into grey, chalky flavourless little pellets.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Now is a decent time to go on the hunt for out-of-the-ordinary potatoes. There’s an excellent spud seller at South Melbourne Markets and some upright purveyors at Prahran and Queen Vic. Here, you’ll almost certainly be able to find the new staple of posh kitchens, the Dutch cream.  This waxy, rich cream-coloured veg is a genuine indulgence au gratin. It’s of such sterling quality, though, that you can just enjoy it gently boiled in its skin with a little sea salt.

You’ll need your ready reference guide to match a tuber with its purpose.  If it’s mash you’re after, add butter, double cream and waist-band inches to Nicolas, Desirees, Bintjes, or King Edwards. For fries, select low sugar varieties such as Sebago, Russet Burbanks, and Bintje. For potato salads, favour waxy varieties like Pink Fir, Patrone or Pink Eyes. If you’re preparing the classic Nicoise or any of its wonderful springtime variations, you may not use anything but Kipfler. I also like to use chats in a salad. And Malaysian curry powder, crushed peanuts, coriander and good mayonnaise to the little boiled bullets.

My favourite way with potatoes, perhaps a Sebago, is to slice thinly and layer the discs in a baking pan with olive oil and a goodly amount of minced garlic between the spud sheets. The taters turn out equally soft and crispy in all the right places after about 40 minutes at 190°. As winter does not seem to be done with us, this could be served in the next few weeks with quality kransky or wurst and some sauerkraut.  What cold afternoon is not improved, after all, by a good continental sausage?

Potato in an even simpler form is the buzzing gastronomic dish right now in Melbourne.

Ripponlea’s Attica is serving “A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown” to scores of die-hard foodies. I adore all this swooning over Ben Shewry’s $20 spud. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m on the root-vegetable waiting list.

You have to respect the sort of simplicity that requires eight hours to achieve.  Just as much as you have to respect carbed-up Irishmen at the poker table.

 

 

Phở

Pho Houng, Springvale

Pho Hoang, Springvale

I have never really enjoyed breakfast. For starters, I just can’t really face the thought of eating anything first thing. Add to that what is a dearth of breakfast foods I find appealing and there’s a long history of skipping the most important meal of the day. Cereal is boring and cold, bacon and eggs leave a greasy unsettled feeling, fruit is generally too acidic, and toast just sits in my stomach.

Then I discovered phở, and realised my occidental birth may have been accidental. A mistake. THIS is breakfast food. Potent and satisfying, this Vietnamese rice noodle soup is traditionally eaten for breakfast. Footscray and Richmond serve up oceans of the stuff. Some places specialise in either beef, phở bò, or chicken, phở gà. Others, like the popular Hung Vuong, do a roaring trade in both.  This chain offers four sizes, Pizza-style. I cannot fathom who might work through a “Large”.  The “Baby” at $5.50 is just right.

Phở bò tái at Hung Vuong

Phở bò tái at Hung Vuong

The best in Melbourne, hands down, is at Phở Hoang in Springvale. I particularly like their Phở bò tái. It sings freshness, and the stock is particularly rich. After what must have been my twentieth visit, I finally asked why their stock was so good. It turns out the owner also runs a butcher shop around the corner. This means plenty of  bones for the stock pot, and the freshest slices of beef to found floating in a bowl of soup anywhere.

Pho Hoang: 36 Buckingham Ave  Springvale  (03) 9558 4064

Hung Vuong: 128 Hopkins Street, Footscray  (03) 9689 6002

Hung Vuong 2: 150 Victoria St Richmond  (03) 9428 8680

Chicken Pie

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Sharing a roast chicken between two people almost always makes for leftovers. And leftover roast chicken makes for an excellent pie. I always make excess gravy for the roast as well, as it makes for a competent pie filling binder.

I never muck around with making pastry. The frozen puff pastry sheets, even the home brand ones, work well enough for me not to bother. With chicken for filling, which I roughly chop, I either go for mixing it with sauteed leeks or mixed vegetables. Carrots, celery, onion, peas, corn, green beans and asparagus are all chickenlicious.

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Puff pastry needs a hot oven to crisp up nicely. 25 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius is the go. I brush my pie with a mixture of egg and a little bit of milk to get a nice golden colour.

Chicken pie

Chicken pie

As the pie will usually last two meals, say dinner and lunch the next day, I manage to stretch the one chook across three meals. If I make a stock from the bones to create a soup, which I often do, then it can stretch to four or even five.

Pie with rocket and avocado

Pie with rocket and avocado

Airline Food

Coffee and dates before takeoff in Etihad's Diamond Zone

Coffee and dates before takeoff in Etihad's Diamond Zone

Call me perverse, but generally speaking I enjoy the experience of airline food. I love the little compartmentalised tray; peeling back foil to reveal portions that bear little resemblance to their menu descriptions; the challenge of dividing the one door-stop slice of cheese between three crackers with the plastic knife supplied. It helps pass the time, if nothing else.

I'll have the chicken. Qantas economy class lunch.

I'll have the chicken. Qantas economy class lunch.

Things do improve as you move up through the classes, of course. Most often I fly cattle. Every now and then my gig as a travel writer affords me a freebie in business class. And, on few remarkable occasions, first.

Business and first passengers can expect their meals to be served course-by-course from a damask draped trolley. Instead of choosing from the printed menu provided, one selects from the trolley as it wheels past. Here, food is served on real plates, saving it from the steamed sameness afforded by little foil trays.

Chicken fattee with Arabic chick peas, organic five leaf salad, potatoes. Etihad First Class.

Chicken fattee with Arabic chick peas, organic five leaf salad, potatoes. Etihad First Class.

Half a century ago this was de rigueur for all who took to the skies. These days it’s the preserve of those behind the curtain whose private little domain remains a sanctuary from the lumpenmass.

If you rarely fly in anything but pig pen, though, take heart. Whatever the class, food generally does all taste the same. Aircraft pressurisation and altitude compromise the tastebuds. There’s a whole field of science working behind the scenes to inject flavour into that little foil tray. Over-seasoning is the best defence they’ve presented. If you ate the same thing on the ground, you’d most likely find it too sweet or salty to endure.

Yum Cha, Cathay Pacific Business Class

Yum Cha, Cathay Pacific Business Class

Over the years I’ve consumed many calories in the air. A few of them have been more than tolerable. I’ve been seduced by yum cha in business on Cathay Pacific and spoiled forever by an Arabian mezze in first class on Etihad. These, it must be said, were a tad better than the Chicken or Beef options down the back.  Hands-down winner, however, came in a little foil tray on Royal Nepal Airlines. It was the best dhal and rice I’ve ever had, served, gratis, by the national carrier of one of the poorest countries on the planet.