Besides the thrilling, original cooking of Anchovy chef and co-owner Thi Le, the most exciting thing about this modern Vietnamese-Australian restaurant is its constant evolution. When it opened in 2015 – in a sparsely decorated Bridge Road shopfront (the minimalist approach remains but is now more upholstered) – Le’s menus immediately showed a promising and unique perspective through mediums as diverse as pickled mussels, Vietnamese blood pudding and salad dressings made with fermented tofu. Once à la carte, Anchovy now serves a set menu of eight to ten dishes that might include a version of bánh bèo served with a cured pork relish, custard apple ice-cream teamed with gingerbread granita, or garfish, expertly boned and topped with jicama and rice paddy. The lockdown experiment of bánh mì through an Anchovy filter (fillings include jungle spice pork sausage and crisp fried egg) is another evolution, which now has a permanent, dedicated space next door.
Quite simply, this is one of Melbourne’s best places to be: a stylish bar-cum-casual-diner livened by wood fire and fermentation, curing and smoking, spotted gum and sandstone. The inspiration (and name) comes from Indonesia’s Aru Islands, a long-time seafaring destination for Southeast Asian trade. Chef Khanh Nguyen’s lengthy menu kicks off with fun, fabulous snacks – a duck sausage sanga on white bread with peanutty hoisin, say, or betel leaves bearing wagyu tongue skewers dressed in Vietnamese sate sauce and pepperberry. Then there’s the forbidden rice sourdough, sticky with palm sugar and served with smoked cultured butter. Of course, the bánh-mì-flavoured pâté en croûte has become an instant classic, but a small plate of mushrooms, tofu and fried Chinese doughnuts does the veg-focused trick with equal oomph. And what of the salty-sweet, crunchy-soft corn and spanner crab fried rice? And the clever drinks? And the smart staff and flexible vibe? The list goes on and on. Just get here.
Attica has set the benchmark for combining humour with culinary rigour and native Australian ingredients with deliciousness and surprise. Ben Shewry offers a journey into intriguing foods, sourced from seas and plains, the Kimberley to the Atherton Tablelands. You may have tried saltbush but what about Atherton almond, quandongs or gubinge? A series of platters, tiny tastes and crocodile ribs glide into the luxury of freshwater crayfish, precious pearl meat and an imaginative take on caviar, along with “‘roo frites” comprising – yes, really – kangaroo skewers and fries. Interactive, theatrical desserts change with the season (think Summer Camp tartlets on vintage glass plates with a finger-lime “friesling” slushie), but good times are guaranteed. There’s a sturdy, quirky uniqueness about this Ripponlea destination, shaped by Shewry through international triumphs and local lockdowns since 2005. Its ongoing journey towards acknowledgement, understanding and recognition of Aboriginal Australia deserves constant applause, as does Shewry’s persistent inventiveness.
Bar Lourinhã’s emphatic 16-year influence on Melbourne’s dining scene DNA has it nudging institution status, even if its fresh, modern energy makes that label seem odd. Matt McConnell’s Iberian-influenced menu is a love letter to the bars and tavernas of the Mediterranean, a blend of skilled cooking and great ingredients that might include croquettes made with corn and smoked chilli, grilled chorizo and pork liver pinxos, Goolwa pipis steamed with fino sherry, lemon buñuelos with dulce de leche, or the irresistible menu fave, spiced chickpeas and spinach. A lively playlist, switched-on staff and décor that successfully mashes cool and glamorous (leather banquettes and dark timber tables) with exuberant kitsch (massed religious iconography and op shop art) help make it both timeless and essential. The blackboard wine list, that leans Spanish without being didactic, takes an “all that’s good in the world” approach, mirroring perfectly the feeling of sitting at Lourinhã’s bar.
Yes, Di Stasio is doing pizza, but don’t expect any culinary dumbing down. If anything, the empire encompassing 30-year-old icon Café Di Stasio, Bar Di Stasio and Di Stasio Città has perfected its art-drenched vision in Carlton. Boasting a transportive, Roman-style piazza and neon-accented brutalism within, this restaurant-as-stage-set passion project elevates pizza to luxurious heights. Lobster with lardo and fior di latte says plenty about its chutzpah, although a classic Margherita hits the pleasure receptors with equal aplomb. There’s plenty more at this Fellini-worthy party – ravioli in a tangy whey dressing with sage and pecorino, say, or charry pancetta-bound spatchcock, right through to salted fior di latte soft-serve mined with bits of olive-oil cake. From the waitstaff clad in pistachio linen to Martinis served with extra olives on ice, the latest member of the Di Stasio famiglia is a full-throated, exquisitely detailed triumph.
Cooking with fire. Fermentation. Serious attention paid to plant-based eating. Minimal-intervention wine. These are all pillars of Melbourne’s current dining scene, but few establishments meld them as effortlessly, comprehensively and successfully as Embla. The proof? You can come here oblivious to fads and gnaw your way through beef carpaccio with globe artichokes and fermented peppers or vadouvan-spiced potato mousse with crisped carrots and cashews. Then, follow those with a juicy, smoky Berkshire pork rack and bitter orange ice-cream with wattleseed and white chocolate. The hearty, visceral enjoyment you get from it all comes from chef Dave Verheul’s mastery of balance, flavour and simplicity rather than any kind of dining-trend bingo. Similarly, Embla’s wine list celebrates excellence in winemaking first and foremost, with the “natural” part of the equation more side note than focus. Excellent, relaxed but engaged service helps, as does the dark and handsome room. It’s a study in how to do it right.
A visit to Flower Drum will convince anyone that Cantonese cuisine is the world’s finest. How could you not be swayed by the pearl meat, wok-fried with spring onion and garlic chives into the textural, smoky essence of edible luxury? Or the “Dragon Boat” king prawn crowned with minced prawn and scallop meat, gently electrified by a chilli-spiked bisque? The only drawback at this Chinoiserie-decorated shrine to Canto cooking is its encyclopaedic menu, an exquisite form of torture for newcomers. The smart play? Stick to the classic dishes on which its reputation has been forged: Peking duck, plated tableside, with a keenly observed ratio of crisp skin to juicy meat, or stuffed garfish in a silken shiitake sauce. Otherwise, put yourself in the hands of the suited waiters – many of whom have marked up decades of service in this august dining room – for the full blaze of fireworks from Anthony Lui’s kitchen.
There’s no dining room in Australia like Florentino’s Mural Room. Almost nine decades’ worth of patina helps, as do the chandeliers and the murals painted in 1935, but it’s the resistance to coasting that’s most impressive. From the scrupulously ironed linen and the quality of the Champagne in the trolley that’s wheeled to each new table, to the charming and seamless service led by chef Guy Grossi’s son Carlo, the level of care, generosity and, yes, love for this dining institution by the Grossi family equate to the sense of occasion. The menu lists big-ticket ingredients – duck, venison, prawns, chestnuts – in combinations that blend classic Italian and modern Australian cooking. It’s pricey, high-end dining with a hefty wine list to match, so perhaps a visit to Florentino isn’t an everyday affair, but with the Tuscan-style Grill and the much-loved Cellar Bar just downstairs, there are other ways to soak up all this history and hospitality know-how.
The best restaurants create their own reality and France-Soir does it better than almost any other dining room in the country. It’s classically, proudly, archly, cheekily French yet so very embedded in Melbourne that it’s hard to imagine the city without it. Any day, any time, three decades past and surely three decades hence, career waiters dispense charm, along with flutes of Champagne and just-opened oysters, aged Burgundy and long-braised beef, peppered steaks and crisp, golden frites, inky espresso and fluffy îles flottantes. Classic dishes – buttery snails, mussels in white wine, a salade Niçoise, roasted duck with orange – are ever-present on the large laminated carte, with seasonal specials written in curly cursive (and in French, bien sûr) on wall mirrors. Everything is just so: the flavours true, the cooking capable, the service efficient and the dining room lovingly weathered. But the real France-Soir magic is the energy, panache and burble of the dining room and the feeling that being here is to be at the heart of a certain ruddy, rollicking slice of Melbourne life.
Soaring 1920s ceilings. Chequered floors. Leather booths. Masses of glass and retro designer lighting. Together, they create the big-city vibe at the heart of Gimlet’s approach and appeal; it feels like it’s always been here. From the centrepiece marble bar comes the signature cocktail – a light, fresh Gimlet garnished with Geraldton wax – perhaps best enjoyed with just-shucked oysters, rye bread and seaweed butter. Easy-going follow-ups might include a crunchy, puffy gnocco fritto with bresaola and parmesan, or quartered local radishes with green zucchini cream for dipping. Aged Muscovy duck, meanwhile, gets zing and contrast from witlof and plum, while house-made casarecce arrives tossed with spanner crab and tarragon. For lovers of all things ice-cream, the gelati of the day might be rhubarb, jasmine rice and candied ginger. Swoon. It appears that Andrew McConnell has done it again, and Melbourne has a new institution.
Looking to channel your inner master-of-the-universe over outstanding Martinis, Barolo by the glass and Josper-grilled steaks as tender as money can buy? All in an extravagant room with no shortage of royal blue upholstery, marble, terrazzo and timber? If so, restaurateur Chris Lucas’s pitch-perfect take on the upmarket, big-city Italian grill will have you grinning like a well-heeled Cheshire cat. In addition to meticulously sourced steaks at suitably heady prices, the sprawling menu provides ample opportunities to live large. Cicchetti in the vein of crumbed and fried olives stuffed with chicken, pork and veal reach for the style and substance you’d find at Harry’s Bar in Venice. House-made tagliolini is equally opulent, tossed with raw scampi and saffron then finished with shaved bottarga. Finely tuned desserts include excellent tiramisù with a hidden layer of tempered chocolate. Spot-on service from white-jacketed waiters and close attention to detail – from embroidered serviettes to scintillating cocktails – make it well worth the splurge.
Melbourne doesn’t have a brilliant track record with restaurants in cultural institutions. Hero, at Fed Square’s ACMI, bucks that trend emphatically. It’s a Karen Martini joint for starters, so you get a menu of excellent, shareable, mostly Italian comfort food. Occasionally, it might stray over the border to France via a sumptuous chicken-liver parfait with amber-coloured verjuice jelly or a steak frites with “Café de Hero” butter. Otherwise the menu involves some hard decisions: mussels in smoked butter and fermented chilli served with ridiculously crisp potato cakes or vitello tonnato that’s textured with fried artichokes and capers? Order both. Philippa Sibley is in the kitchen, too, so dessert is a no-brainer, particularly if there are tarts: sublime lemon, perhaps, or a knee-weakening date and mascarpone number. The wine list is as tight as the cocktails and as sharp as the gorgeously minimalist room. Consider it the dining equivalent of a cinema classic.
The dramatic transformation that occurs as you step from hectic Lygon Street into the upholstered serenity of Kazuki’s is one of Melbourne’s great dining overtures. Calm, knowledgeable waitstaff
guide you across soft mustard carpet, under oversized rice-paper shades, to a linen-dressed table. Then, the carefully ironed blank slate is lavished with seven-plus courses of owner-chef Kazuki Tsuya’s intricate and exquisitely balanced Japanese-European food. It starts with snacks – eight-ish morsels, from slivers of kangaroo jerky robustly flavoured with gochujang to cool cucumber with crème fraîche and a dusting of bottarga or an oyster topped with fresh Tasmanian uni. Similarly finessed dishes follow, like the now-signature Moreton Bay bug dumplings in a foamed butter sauce, or perhaps a superb spanner crab omelette with freshly shaved truffle. Wine and sake lists are as carefully measured as the food and service, and add to the feeling of Kazuki’s being a beautiful respite from a troubled world.
From punk-like beginnings on Smith Street, chef Victor Liong’s vision has recalibrated to a dégustation as respectful of traditions as it is defiant. Faux shark fin constructed of crab in a silken, gelatinous shellfish broth shimmies past the politics of a heartland dish. “Dances of the Sea” – drunken prawns, Hunan-style raw salmon with spicy black-bean sauce and squid sizzled with mustard greens – nods to all points of the Chinese culinary compass. Liong’s creativity breathes new life into classics like duck pancakes where rosy-fleshed breast, arriving in a veil of perfumed smoke, is wrapped in a fried bing with cumquat hoisin. It’s all very Melbourne, too: the upstairs dining room edging on industrial-chic; a wine list that’s irreproachable, especially if you worship Australian belters; the à la carte option at the bar-like chef’s counter downstairs. It’s a polished expression of self from a chef whose identity and skill make for a thrilling ride.
At a time when the world feels a little unhinged, dining at Minamishima is a kind of balm. Setting foot inside this tranquil, clean-lined and moodily lit space is like entering a parallel universe where all is well. And it truly is, whether you’re front and centre at the 12-seat American oak sushi bar witnessing chef Koichi Minamishima’s artistry first-hand or in the upholstered serenity of the dining room. The omakase menu is a masterclass in skill and meticulous attention to detail, featuring a rollcall of sensational produce (some of it sourced from Tokyo’s famed Toyosu fish market) from Hokkaido king crab and Japanese waygu to Western Australian marron and Paradise prawns. Add staff who radiate quiet competency as well as a drinks list that encompasses artisan sake and big-name Burgundy, and you may just find your faith in humanity restored.
At first glance, you might dismiss Omnia as a flashy South Yarra clubhouse for the rigorously tanned and ‘toxed. But while both the room (on street level of a luxury apartment tower) and the crowd fully reflect neighbourhood clichés, the quality of food, service and wine would be applause-worthy anywhere. Chef Stephen Nairn has a glossy CV (Eleven Madison Park, Vue de Monde) and brings fine-dining precision to a menu of beautifully conceived dishes. A fabulous prawn cocktail is constructed tableside. Barrel-aged anchovies are served with preserved lemon aïoli. A pine mushroom tart is as pretty as it is sensational to eat. Bistro favourites, meanwhile – well-sourced steak, excellently cooked Murray cod – are masterful, especially when served with sides like the not-to-be-missed potato rösti with sour cream and meticulously diced chives. The voluminous wine list, along with knowledgeable and personable staff, make this a trusty local worth crossing town for.
Khanh Nguyen is Melbourne’s latest chef hero, and Sunda is his vehicle to stardom. The industrial-cool dining room is an appropriately futuristic stage set for his virtuosic Mod-Asian display, deftly mixing a grab-bag of Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese traditions with native ingredients to deliver something shockingly new. Witness a two-bite canape of puffed taro, dressed to the nines with fermented coconut, smoked bone marrow and the tart citrus spike of lemon aspen; or the precision-plated veal sweetbreads surrounded by a mandala of caramelised cashews and pickled muntries, finished with a glistening lick of roasted chicken jus and the molasses curveball of dark palm sugar. A dining age given to cloning over creativity makes his feats even more remarkable – and yes, that includes the roti with Vegemite curry that continues to be an off-menu winner. Want more? Nguyen’s equally boat-rocking newcomer Aru brings the same unique spin to a share-friendly menu playing with fire, smoke and ferments.
Tulum co-owner Coskun Uysal is one of only a handful of chefs who’ve managed to coax non-Turkish Melburnians away from the idea of the cuisine beginning and ending with kebabs and gözleme. He’s achieved this by acing a particularly difficult culinary manoeuvre: modernising and refreshing traditional dishes. For starters, his food looks gorgeous with finely tuned splashes of colour (a burnt orange cumin and tomato jam accompanying white Tulum cheese; pink petals topping a golden garlic-stuffed whole roasted spatchcock) and careful plating. But the eating is even lovelier than the looks; a scintillating balance of clean and rich where buttery pine mushrooms are teamed with pickled mushrooms, scallops join forces with tarama butter and preserved lemon, and candied pumpkin and mandarin sorbet love each other very much. There’s an increasingly good list of Turkish wine and clever, pretty cocktails, served by well-versed staff in a room of moody lighting and exposed brick. Clever delicious.
The ear-popping mirrored elevator ride to the Rialto building’s 55th floor is a portal to the alternate universe that is Vue de Monde. The view? Spectacular day or night, of course. The wine list? As impressive as it is expensive. The care and attention from young, charming staff who appear to have arrived en masse from central casting? Nothing short of first-class. But even with exceptional supporting players, a restaurant like this must deliver on the plate. It does. Executive chef Hugh Allen has rescued the VDM experience from becoming rote, which is no one’s idea of acceptable at these prices. His ever-evolving tasting menu brims with fresh ideas in clean, elegant and strikingly plated combinations – wasabi-leaf oil with oysters; truffles shaved over waygu brisket; a fabulous golden beetroot sorbet; macadamia “tofu” topped with smoked eel. It really is another monde altogether.