Reporter's Notebook: Hungry Hound in Australia

April 10, 2009 (CHICAGO) Melbourne's World-Class Market
April 12

I got up early this morning to make my way up to Melbourne for its world-class Queen Victoria Market. This public market takes up several acres of space near the center of the city, and by 9:30 a.m., was already bustling with activity. The market is divided into a few main areas: the chotchkes, or clothing section, where you can buy anything from electronics to toys to Australian Uggs; then there's the fresh produce area, covered by large, tin-roofed shelters; finally, a restored building housing at least a dozen high-quality butcher shops and fish mongers, all with immaculate displays of sausages, ground beef, whole chickens and other proteins. I was really struck by the availability of just about every part of the animal: ox tails, whole lamb heads, even tails and tripe. Next to the butcher section, there are quite a few deli counters, just heaped with beautiful displays of olives, local cheeses, aged and cured meats and some truly magical blends, dips and sauces. Since Melbourne has the largest Greek population outside of Athens, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find four or five kinds of feta here, along with more than a dozen olive types, prepared seafood salads with baby octopus and calamari, plus crazy-good, fresh pita and savory dips for dunking them into later. Once again, it made me realize how vital a market is to a city's culinary identity, and why Chicago needs to have a market of this caliber, if it is ever going to be taken seriously as a food town.

While I was in Melbourne, I also checked out a unique concept called "Lord of the Fries," which proclaims is the best vegetarian fast food in the country. Set up like a burger and fry joint, you pick out how many burgers (regular or mini) you want, which toppings you prefer, and then if you want the hand-cut, homemade fries, you get to choose from about a dozen custom-made sauces to go with them, either in a cone or box. I chose a Vietnamese sauce that was more like a chili-mayo, while a traditional Belgian struck us as a fairly typical garlic aioli. Unfortunately, they were out of the Texas sauce, which included melted cheese. The veggie burgers were pretty good - I tend to like all of the toppings like lettuce, tomato, mayo and crisp pickles - but the fries were the real stars: crisp, thick and hot, they could have been enjoyed all by themselves.

Finally, since it was Sunday, we hit a little dim sum restaurant; in Australia, they refer to dim sum houses as "yum cha," which makes more sense, since they are essentially tea houses with small snacks. We tried the Oriental Tea House, on busy Chapel Street, which had an immense tea selection up front, with brigades of servers offering up dozens of little dumplings and fried treats during the hectic dim sum service. All of the usual suspects were there: steamed har gao (shrimp dumplings), fried taro, stir-fried beef with lychee, even lightly-fried octopus and a terrific scallop shiu mai that I couldn't stop eating. The great thing about eating there was the walking around afterwards. Chapel Street has a great mix of both the casual, 20-something clothing stores, as well as the high-end boutiques and designer stores. Tons of great cafes and coffeeshops line the street, and it's easily accessible by public transportation.

Biscuits.. Scones.. Say What?
April 11

A light breakfast today in the seaside town of Barwon Heads. This mini fishing village reminded me of Martha's Vineyard or some other bucolic East Coast seasonal mecca. The "heads" denote the area where the water runs from Port Phillip Bay out into the Pacific Ocean. You'll see a lot of container ships and freighters, as they navigate the bouys to enter the Bay, making their way to and from Melbourne's shipping ports. At the appropriately-named restaurant, At The Heads, we loved all of the light spilling through the large, floor-to-ceiling windows, and appreciated a simple breakfast of thick sourdough toast, topped with a gently-poached egg, plus sides of roasted tomatoes, a giant grilled mushroom and some fatty bacon. I did have a few "lost in translation" moments, however. When I spotted what appeared to be biscuits up on the front counter, I asked our server if I could have one with some jam. She brought me over a chocolate chip cookie. Huh? Apparently, those biscuits are referred to as scones here, while what we call a cookie is really a biscuit. Then I asked for an iced coffee. Naively thinking I would get a glass of ice in which to bathe my coffee, instead, I got a tall glass of coffee syrup, diluted with some milk; on top of it all, a large scoop of vanilla ice cream. Yum, nonetheless, but not exactly what I was thinking.

For dessert though, there was no mistaking a large slice of hummingbird cake (which, oddly enough, I've seen at Art Smith's restaurant Table 52). This hummingbird spoke a little different tune: layers of banana cake with cream cheese frosting, studded with bits of pineapple, rolled in a healthy layer of coconut. Finished off with a "skinny coffee long" (that's a coffee with a little bit of skim milk), I was ready to hit the stores and plan my next meal.

In the afternoon, I encountered my first meat pie. I had seen these before in London, and even noticed that The Publican in Chicago is offering them on occasion. Essentially a flaky pastry dough filled with all sorts of savory goodies, the meat pies you tend to see in Australia range from curried beef or chicken, to plain 'ol mincemeat or cubed beef, seasoned with some salt, pepper, bacon and perhaps a little potato. meat pies

At Ramsay's Patisserie in Geelong, I tried both the curry and the Ned Kelly pie. Named for a famous outlaw who stole cattle and pigs from the British railroad, the Ned Kelly is loaded with bits of beef, bacon and egg, stuffed within a flaky, slightly greasy pie shell; apparently the way to eat them is with a squirt of tomato sauce (ketchup). The curried beef was more like a sloppy joe sprinkled with some store-bought curry powder, while the Ned Kelly reminded me of a McDonald's breakfast sandwich minus the flaky biscuit. Not exactly culinary nirvana, but a fine mid-afternoon treat.

For dinner, we drove down the coast, near the Great Ocean Road, and through the town of Torquay (tore-KEY), one of the most popular surfing towns in the world. Names like Quicksilver, Billabong and RipCurl are as popular as fast food joints might be in other towns. Nearly everyone comes here for the surf and the weather, and the views along the Great Ocean Road tend to be spectacular, on par with anything you'd see along Highway One in California. But our destination was the town of Anglesea, where there is a country club that has gained a reputation for its popular, yet uninvited guests: kangaroos. kangaroos in AngleseaApparently, the smell and taste of the short-length grass all along the course is a lure for the small animals, and so we planned our dinner there so we could actually see some 'roos in action, not just at a zoo.

Let Me See Your Mussels
April 10

We returned to Barwon Heads today, this time to do a little window shopping and check out the Beach House restaurant on the main drag. Like so many other great little finds, the Beach House has that wonderful mix of a clean lines, simple décor and am ambitious menu. You'll see all sorts of Fish 'n Chip shacks along the coast here, but every now and then you'll stumble upon a gem like the Beach House. Tempted to sit outside on the giant porch, it was a little too chilly, so we opted to go inside and start off with a local sauvignon blanc from the state of Victoria. It's truly amazing how many great wines there are, all from a relatively small geographic area on the Bellarine Peninsula. I passed on the mini-Thai fish burger with chips, and instead chose a bowl full of plump, intensely saline mussels that had the punch of garlic and the aroma of fruity, white wine. This is a pairing that always satisfies, especially since they provide a giant wedge of sourdough bread for sopping up all of those addictive juices.

Even though I was pretty full, I couldn't resist a charming little food shop next door, called Annie's Provedore. A gourmet deli to be sure, but this one also sold unique food products from all over Australia and New Zealand, as well as beautifully-displayed food that they made on premise. meat pies from Annie'sThe case of gourmet pasties and savory pies was enough to get me to try a steak and onion version, although I would have been just as happy with a veggie or Thai curry chicken if they hadn't been sold out. I did manage to pick up some flavored licorice and a hunk of chocolate-hazelnut nougat, studded with almonds. Apparently, nougat is big in Australia, and not just in mass-produced sweets, but more often from the pastry kitchens of local chefs.

The eating adventure continues, and on Good Friday, it's all about seafood here in the state of Victoria. Today we went to the Queenscliff Seafood Festival, a family-friendly event that combines music, drinks and lots of fish. There must have been 12,000 people packed into the tiny main park here; long lines of folks waiting for fish 'n chips, grilled Tasmanian salmon and some of the best mussels I have ever placed into my gullet. These particular ones were from the town of Portland, Australia, and arrived with a choice of sauces, including marinara and white wine.

A Vanilla Slice of Heaven
April 9

We took the ferry across the Bay today, to the tiny town of Sorrento. A vacation destination for sure, the main road is lined with the cutest shops and coolest cafes. We had heard the one thing to try for sure was the vanilla slice from the Just Fine Foods store. I hate place like this, because I can never decide what to buy - it all looks so good! Even though I had just had lunch, I was more than tempted by their apricot-hazelnut bread crisps, and the positively Gourmet cover-worthy tarts and savory pies. But the signs, reviews and press clips all pointed to the vanilla slice (as evidenced by every customer digging into one at their table); these "slices" are more like blocks. Think vanilla custard - and not just any custard mind you, but a thick, not-too-sweet, vanilla bean-flecked one- jammed in between flaky pastry and then topped off with powdered sugar. Sounds simple, but when you combine the thick custard with the delicate pastry and the hit of sweet confectioner's sugar, it's a dessert you'll all be fighting for at your table.

Dinner was in the seaside town of Point Lonsdale, where they are getting ready to host their annual seafood festival on Good Friday, we tried a little place called Kelp. I was going in thinking either Japanese salads or some kind of new age, macrobiotic eating emporium. Once again, my preconceived notions were debunked, as I discovered instantly, when glancing at the specials board, I spied a minted pea soup with feta, as well as- you guessed it - pan-roasted barramundi over a seasonal ratatouille. One of the things you need to be aware of in Australia is that "entree" means appetizer, while "main" means main dish. Two of the entrees caught my eye: a rabbit rillet with grilled scampi, as well as some sliced salmon that had been marinated in a local sauvignon blanc with apple and fennel. My sister-in-law got the classic bouillabaisse, which not only contained fish fillets, local mussels and other seaworthy treats, but also Moreton Bay bugs, which looked like a cross between a giant lobster tail and a creature from another world. The meat was firm and toothsome, and the sweet delicacy was just bathed in wine and garlic. I thought the real highlights came from the wine and dessert lists. For dinner, we tried a local sauvignon blanc- and I should point out that wine service in Australia is so incredibly informal, since every bottle from both here and New Zealand now has screwtops - and at $30 a bottle average, they're all steals. For some reason, drinking a sauv blanc with my pan-roasted barramundi was as good as any pairing I've had - anywhere. Then at dessert, I spotted an iced riesling from Tasmania, which at $7 a glass was another steal: unlike many ice wines that are too syrupy and overly-sweet, this late harvest beauty was refined and structured, with hints of apricot and melon; it paired wonderfully with nibbles of banana-galliano cheesecake as well as a crazy-good vanilla bean ice cream that was laced with some butterscotch schnapps.

Munching in Melbourne
April 8

We were exploring Melbourne today, and once again, my preconceived notions of this place were altered. I had always thought of Sydney as Australia's "big dog," with the swagger of the iconic Opera House and that glorious harbor bridge, not to mention the cultural sophistication that is so often aligned with this world-class city. It was host to the summer Olympics, afterall. But Melbourne is just as cool. We walked around Collins Street, an avenue of both the posh (think Michigan Avenue) as well as the funky and offbeat. In a few unexpected places, you'll run into arcades that meander down narrow corridors, lined with boutique clothing stores and amazing food stalls. noodles in MelbourneI munched on curried laksa from a sushi/noodle kiosk, where I had to choose from among five kinds of noodles. One of the sweets we encountered here was the lamington. I had seen these in Chicago before, at Tipsycake, a cool little bakery in Humboldt Park owned by an Australian. So the sight of these square pastries was no surprise. People had described them to me as Australian donuts, but these were nothing like that. Instead, it was more like a soft sponge cake or angel food cake, that had a thin, outer layer of chocolate; the entire block is rolled in finely-shredded coconut., which also gives it some texture.

We had lunch at Donovans, in the St. Kilda area of Melbourne, directly on Port Phillip Bay. Even though everything here is in Australian dollars, I'm used to multiplying prices here by .7, which means they aren't quite as expensive as they seem at first. But Donovan's is more in-line with a Naha or Blackbird-level of eating, both in price and food quality, despite its obvious tourist location on the water.

We started off with unctuous Jerusalem artichoke soup with crostini, a harbinger of the cool autumn weather that is about to come. My brother's seafood risotto tasted as if they had just wrangled up the delicate squid and mussels from the Bay, while my barramundi over mashed potato had all of that lovely texture and meatiness I have come to expect from this great-eating fish. The restaurant itself is a beauty. A former boathouse, it has been lovingly restored to resemble a crash pad for the Martha Stewart set; neutral tones with earthenware vases, colorful plates and glassware, and a set design straight out of a Metropolitan Home Beachfront spread.

Aussie Licorice? April 7

Discovered Australian licorice today. I'm not talking about the long, twisted red and black types we typically see in the States, (they have those too), but rather, a short, stubby, smooth-sided "soft eating liquorice" that is sold primarily by candy stores such as Darrel Lea, a popular chain here. They come in flavors such as mango, green apple, strawberry and black currant, and they have none of the anise flavor that is so typical of the licorice eat at home. Instead, these soft pieces are infused with natural flavors - just stick your head into a bag and whiff - and they rarely stick to your teeth.

I also noticed that in general, Aussies love their sweets. Even though it was the week leading up to Easter, the stores were just jammed with folks buying, tasting and hoarding chocolates and other goodies. It reminded me of a pre-Christmas binge. There are some other good "liquorice" producers in Australia, but I found the Darrel Lea brand to be as good as anything out there.

The Australian Director of Trade tells me that the Darrell Lea flavored liquorice is now available at World Market stores in Chicago, so you don't have to fly all the way here to get some.

Victoria Wine Country
April 6

I've been "down under" this week, visiting family, but I couldn't resist trying to find a few Australian specialties, especially things I can't find at home. We've been staying near the city of Geelong, a quaint town on the Bellarine Peninsula, about an hour Southwest of Melbourne. The towns around here are suited to tourists on holiday, since we're close to the beach. My first shock was the number of wineries nearby.

I have always heard of the Yarra river valley and the Barossa wine regions, but I've never heard of the Geelong Region or the Bellarine Peninsula as a place growing world-class wines. That has certainly changed. Here in the state of Victoria, in just a 10-mile radius, there are several dozen great wineries, all of them producing crisp sauvignon blanc, and quite a few producing the country's best-known grape: shiraz.

One of the reasons sauvignon blanc grows so well here – as it does in nearby New Zealand – is the cool climate, and mineral-packed soil. There is limestone here, as well as volcanic soil, and those vines are able to soak up so much of that, which gives the grapes a seriously defined terroir. Unfortunately, what I'm finding out is that many of these producers are so small, they are unable to find distributors and importers beyond their borders. Take, for example, the excellent Lethbridge Winery, about 20 miles outside of Geelong. I met with the owner/winemaker, Ray Nadeson this week, who has his own unique story: born in Malaysia, raised in London and educated in Australia, he spent years trying to find just the right place to grow his grapes. A scientist by trade, he and his wife have established a boutique winery here, producing about 3,500 cases a year, growing not only delicate sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but also some powerful pinot noir, shiraz and even a few rieslings that rival anything I've had from Germany or Austria.

I've also been spotting a lot of barramundi on local menus. This fish is to Australia what ramps are to Chicago: a local ingredient that any decent restaurant offers on its menu this time of year. The fish is meaty, toothsome and nearly always pan-roasted and served with some seasonal veggies. Speaking of which, I was stunned that not only is early April their fall here, but they're in the middle of the wine harvest, and all of the restaurants are beginning to put mushrooms, pumpkin and squash on their menus!

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