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!

Sneaky Melbourne

Melbourne is a sneaky city. There are a plethora of bars, restaurants, pop up stores and hidden secrets behind unmarked doors, down unsuspecting stairways and concealed within graffiti-clad, ‘street art’ painted laneways.

Last weekend I was on a personal mission to get out and about. After spending more weekends away from this city then in it, the bars of Melbourne were calling.

A Friday night in the city is great for after work drinks while suit-donning professionals let off steam after a long workweek. Making our way across Bourke Street, Wes and I found ourselves staring at an obvious office building. Despite the address saying this is where our sought after destination resided, it was only until I noticed the sign within the stairwell pointing us up three flights of stairs that we arrived at Madame Brussels.

Madame Brussels

Madame Brussels

Self described “a rather fancy terrace and public house,” this cute rooftop bar specializes in cocktails and punches and overlooks the eastern side of the city. The inside parlor resembles your grandmothers back garden, with faux grass carpet and flower patterned seat cushions. Although the menu and branding is over-the-top cheesy pink, and the limited food menu wasn’t too impressive, this is the perfect place for a girl’s soiree to sip cocktails and gossip out on the all white balcony in the summer months.

A colleague recommended our next destination – down a laneway in Chinatown, the door more or less unmarked aside from the small coat of arms of Berlin (bear) sign above the black paint. Up one-flight of steps takes you to a door and a glowing green doorbell. After being greeted by a hostess you will either get seated in posh West Berlin, with leather couches and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling or sinister East Berlin, neon lights and all. Being our first visit to Berlin Bar, we opted for the bar stools over the bunk beds in East Berlin and chose our respective beverages from the list of German imports.

Berlin Bar

Berlin Bar

On Saturday afternoon the outdoors were calling so I headed back into the city to meet a friend at the James Squire Brewhouse. I was excited to order a paddle and try five different brews but easily became disappointed as the service was slow and menu options overpriced. After a few pints of their One Fifty Lashes Pale Ale it was time to move on.

As we were craving another pub vibe it was off to the Sherlock Holmes Inn down unsuspecting Collins Street. Dark and rustic with exposed wood beams and Holmes paraphernalia, the atmosphere was a cozy alternative as the sun went down. Best yet, they had on tap all classic British beers that I haven’t tasted in years such as Kilkenny, Hob Goblin and Old Speckled Hen.

Sherlock Holmes Inn

Sherlock Holmes Inn

On with the bar hopping theme it was time to try something different, Robot Sushi. Hidden down a laneway this Japanese bar is a nerd’s paradise. Specializing in Japanese beers and sake, with authentic Japanese bartenders and all, the small bar is decorated with Godzilla posters, fun robot paintings and classic video games. Tuesday nights they even do free anime screenings.

Sticking with my new tradition of brunch and a walk through a new neighborhood on Sundays, I ventured on foot through the shopping haven of Chapel Street in South Yarra, onwards window-shopping through Prahran and Windsor, and finally ended up along the Esplanade of St. Kilda.

St. Kilda Esplanade

St. Kilda Esplanade

Although the beaches of St. Kilda aren’t the best, it’s still reassuring to know that they’re just a tram ride away. Sipping wine over looking the beach and listening to live music at Republica, it really got me pumped for the summer months approaching and all outdoor areas all over this town.

Luna Park, St. Kilda

Luna Park, St. Kilda

Its no wonder that Melbourne was just voted the number one city to live in the world for the third year in a row!