Melbourne Food & Wine, Oh So Fine

The annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is happening now. Should I consider these 17 days my new favorite time of year?

Despite involuntary urges to register myself for nearly every fine dining, wine sipping, foodie-mingling experience, I had to restrain myself. Instead, I opted to dabble lightly in the water-themed festivities by attending one free and one paid event.

Nestled in bustling Queensbridge Square (Southbank) and literally on the Yarra River overlooking the city is the Immersery, festival kitchen, bar and rain garden.   In theory, it’s a free event but in reality you won’t leave without being tempted to spend some cash.

The Immersery

The Immersery

The massive pop-up venue has a floating bar featuring live acoustic music, a rainforest and misting rooftop bar serving Victoria’s Seppelt, Coldstream Hills and T’Gallant wine and a tempting menu of dumplings, fine meat selections and vegetarian options crafted by leading chef’s from Melbourne’s top restaurants Silo, Añada & Bomba, Huxtable & Huxtaburger, Borrowed Space, and Tani Eat & Drink. To be honest, after spending $55 on a bottle of Coldstream Hills Chardonnay, $30 on the disappointing meat platter we roamed around to learn a bit more about green living, explored the mist of the rain garden and called it day.

My highlight of the festival however was the King and the Squire five-course degustation held at the Portland Hotel and James Squire Brewhouse last Saturday. I expected pub food and poorly matched beer pairings but left with a stomach full of exquisite deliciousness and ten beers deep.

King Island Tasting Menu, The King and The Squire

King Island Tasting Menu

Sat at long tables the event was a mix of family style sharing and individual serves all paired to the likes of James Squire beers around the theme of King Island, a small island off the coast of Tasmania known for beef, cheese and seafood. General Manager Joe kicked things off with an entertaining introduction of how they conceptualized the King Island theme around Cloud Juice and walked us through each course offering educational tips on the differences between lager and ale, the beer making process and how to pour the perfect pint.

The meal started off with a shooter size serve of gazpacho: seaweed, a hint of chili and quite rich, it was the perfect serving size and ended with a large oyster at the finish. Also, a great paring with the Orchard Crush Apple Cider.

The next course was worth the money alone. As Joe finished telling us about Cloud Juice, the purest of rainwater collected on King Island and bottled to the likes of marketing influenced tourists I saw the masterpiece out of the corner of my eye being served to the next table. Huge buckets full of a seafood wonderland served on ice. Whole lobsters, razor clams, mussels, raw oysters, oysters shots, and 5 pepper fried prawns. A bucket served four people and that was overly generous. As I expertly removed the lobster meat from the claw like a seasoned professional in one pull, the experience combined with the taste sent me back to summers at the Jersey Shore.

Our next course, and we’re nearly full at this stage, was a large portion of very rare steak, almost too rare but also so tender. Accompanied by crispy carrots covered in cinnamon, a beautifully sweet parsnip puree and oxtail dumplings exploding with flavor. While others commented the oxtail was unnecessary and too much meat on the plate I agree there could have been a green however the bitterness of the cabbage on the dumpling exterior was a nice balance to the rest of the dish. The Nine Tales Amber Ale was the perfect accompaniment to the red meat.

Whether you want desert or not when someone puts a warm chocolate fondant in front of you with fresh mint mango sorbet (the one item not from King Island yet there was no shame in admitting it), it’s impossible to say no. Paired with the Jack of Spades Porter it went handsomely with the chocolate.

To close the day was a platter of King Island roaring 40’s blue, sharp cheddar and a soft Brie with two last beers.

After thanking the top chef Nick, Joe was more than accurate when he said, “ I think we all know the hero of the day is the cow!” I’m overly impressed with the attention to detail, serving sizes and both value and superiority of the food. Will definitely be attending a future event at the Portland Hotel.

To top it off, as I said, attention to detail, we were all given a quick tour of the brewery, sample menus from the day’s servings, and a bottle of Cloud Juice!

Degustation Sensation

Microsoft’s Encarta Dictionary is not familiar with the word degustation, degust or degusting. The dictionary must not be a foodie.

All those contributors to Wikipedia know it though. “Degustation is a culinary term meaning a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods and focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company. Dégustation is more likely to involve sampling small portions of all of a chef’s signature dishes in one sitting. Usually consisting of eight or more courses, it may be accompanied by a matching wine degustation which complements each dish.”

And there you have it, the art of degusting. It’s not disgusting at all. It’s delicious.

For my recent birthday I put a message up asking who would be willing to fork over $150 for a degustation wine pairing at a place high on my list of atmospheric dining experiences, Anise, however only one person replied so I opted for the much more sensible Himalayan Café instead.

Luckily, this week was the James Street Food and Lifestyle Trail, a culinary adventure of the delights from the best of what trendy James Street has to offer with pop up restaurants, food and wine pairings, and cultural events. I could only choose one, so Wednesday evening it was off to recently opened Gerrard’s Bistro (where I last tried sheep brains) for their Special Degustation Menu with Ben Williamson, head chef – and a mighty good looking one might I add.

Reservations were required for this art deco restaurant turned food frenzy. Arriving before the 7 pm start, tables were set neatly with cutlery, various wine glasses sized for pour and the evening’s menu set out in the middle. Our group of four was sat in front, a perfect location to listen to chef Ben Williamson explain each course in fine detail following the Red + White wine rep depicting the evenings pairing.

I took out my little green moleskin notebook to begin jotting notes, assuming to go unnoticed, but then was caught red-handed. Yup, I’m a note taker – just in case I feel compelled to write home about it.

Course 1 – Cuttlefish crostini with jamon Serrano, melon Biancavigna ‘Brut’ DOC NV Prosecco, Veneto, Italy

Rumor has it that Prosecco is actually outselling Champagne these days due to popular demand. The pouring was generous and they even came around to top us off! The melon on the jamon was a refreshing touch of sweet summer on the salty dry meat.

Course 2 – Yellow-tail tuna, apple and spring aromatics La Raia, Cortese, Gavi, Italy

The Cortese was nearly my favorite wine of the night. An almond, buttery undertone with a touch of apple at the finish. It perfectly complimented the apple accompanying the “caught that day” raw tuna.

Course 3 – Coal grilled quail, roasted beet, hazelnuts, baby leaves, spice Louis Jadot ‘Cotes de Nuits Villages’ Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France

I’m a sucker for a good Pinot Noir. When my friend mentioned that she doesn’t do foreign wines, I explained that this was the reason I love a good Pinot. Also, another reason why I shouldn’t buy cheap Pinot. The bite size quail though was tender and salty but the beetroot and hazelnuts was a good balance.

Course 4 – Saltbush lamb ‘tagine’, dates, orange, candied olive, ‘shirin polow’- jewelled rice Marchesi Mazzei ‘Zisola’ Nero d’Avola, Sicily, Italy

My first try of the Zisola was that it was too sweet and my immediate inclination was to dismiss it, but after a few swirls and sips I really opened up to it. The lamb tagine was to die for, melt in your mouth, succulent tastes of joy. Really, this was by far the best dish on the menu.

Course 5Rose marshmallow, sheep’s yoghurt sorbet, pomegranate, strawberry leather, spiced rosé
Domaine Ott ‘Les Domainiers’, Grenache/Cinsault, Provence, France

When my wine was poured pink I almost didn’t even give it a try. Rose, no way. But the guys at Red + White are good. Although I was indifferent to the dessert, yes the sheep’s yogurt sorbet was sweet and who doesn’t like a good marshmallow, I could have done without. More memorable was how approachable the Rose actually was. Very mild, not overly sugary and I just say, I would drink it on a warm summer day.

Nearing 11 pm this degustation has gone on for hours. Would you be surprised if I mentioned that by the end the whole room was buzzing from the euphoric atmosphere and lavish wine pours? So much so that instead of complimenting the chef on the amazing meal I was tempted to thank them for stocking my favorite Japanese soap, Aesop, which is always a pleasant surprise to find in a restaurant bathroom.

Unfortunate that I could only afford one event on the James Street Food and Lifestyle Trail but I look forward to future events.