I’m keenly aware that most of this blog’s readers aren’t contemplating a trip this fall or winter to Australia. It’s not just a long flight – and an expensive one – but after investing your time in that journey, you’re kind of committing yourself to a stay longer than most people can easily manage.
But if Australia’s on your radar screen, I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t share some finds with you. And besides, it’s worth remembering that summer in Australia is just around the corner.
Joanne and I visited both Sydney and Melbourne a few years back (see my postings from 4/29/16 and 7/21/16). My takeaway is this: Both Sydney and Melbourne are wonderful dining cities – inventive, vibrant, and very local. The trends and influences feel homegrown, far removed from American clichés and formulaic chain offerings.
Let’s set Sydney aside for now, and focus on Melbourne, where we discovered several worthy spots.
Right downtown on Flinders Lane (Melbourne’s restaurant row for budding independent eateries) we loved a smart, casual place called FATHER GOOSE. On our final night, Joanne and I splurged at a downstairs spot called EZARD…really good. And across from the train station in Federation Square is a cool joint called TAXI, an “industrial chic” venue with what I would characterize as modern French/Australian fare with more than a little nod to Japanese offerings. I’m normally not a fan of the hard and cold edges of “industrial chic” environments, but the colors and brightness of Melbourne warm environments in a way we can’t count on for most the year. More important, the attractive, clever and witty plating of the food won me over. We’d go back……for sure.
A two-hour walk from downtown will take you to Saint Kilda beach, where a great lunch spot called STOKEHOUSE awaits. You won’t regret hoofing it there (but after a big lunch you’ll want to take a taxi back to your hotel).
All of which brings me back to the walk away from downtown. Joanne and I left our hotel in the morning and set out for a stroll through the ROYAL BOTANICAL GARDENS, culminating at BACASH RESTAURANT, located in the fashionable South Yarro district on the edge of the park. While the views of the gardens are wonderful here, they’re trumped by the seafood-centric cuisine of owner and chef Michael Bacash and his wife, Fiona. Everyone says this is THE BEST SEAFOOD IN MELBOURNE. All I can tell you is that Bacash certainly offers the best seafood WE enjoyed there. Michael clearly knows where the best fish swim.
The aesthetic of BACASH is clean, spare and modern. Same with the food, which is precisely plated without being fussy.
We started with the Garfish, an ugly head-on little monster-bastard that looked up at us with resentment (maybe because we were about to eat him). The fish was flanked with prawn and ginger-stuffed nori rolls and cost $23. (For a starter. Ouch.) We also enjoyed oysters in several iterations – all fresh, all briny, all a step up from your standard Blue Points. Joanne and I chose a combo plate of oysters called Raw Wapengo Rocks, along with a version of the same dish given the “gratin treatment” – stuffed with shrimp and Parmesan cheese and browned in the oven. (Full disclosure: We’ve recently added those baked shrimp and Parm oysters to SALUT’S appetizer menu.)
Char-Grilled Calamari with pickled fennel, paprika and saffron aioli was a refreshing departure from the ubiquitous deep-fried offerings. You do pay for the novelty (and the saffron), though – it ran about $20 U.S.
Another hit was the housemade Gravlax atop blini with horseradish crème fraiche.
Among the mains, Bacash offers a worthy Scotch Filet Mignon with wild mushrooms and roasted shallots, as well as a few versions of duck, including a sliced breast accompanied by a confit duck pie with brandied cherries (YUM).
But the main event here is SEAFOOD, and Michael’s “go-to” dish is the Grilled Whole Flounder – simple and buttery-rich with just a squeeze of lemon. Warning: The flounder is not always available. After all, fish is a “hunted species,” so it all depends on how good the fishing was that day.
But, fear not: Great choices abound at Bacash. The Seared Sea Scallops and Chorizo on a bed of sweetcorn puree, for example ($22). Another is a surprise rendition of Grilled Red snapper, cooked Lebanese style with sumac-braised silverbeet (Swiss chard) and finished with caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, tahini and currants (“Jeez, not that again.”)
We didn’t have it, but the Slow Roasted Tasmanian Salmon on Cauliflower Cream bound for the table next to ours looked special, and our neighbors loved it, especially with the accompanying fresh scallops, shrimp, calamari and mussels – around $40.
Two pastas round out the lunch menu: a summery offering of Shrimp-Stuffed Tortellini with Baby Heirloom Tomatoes and a Spaghetti Marinara loaded – and I mean, LOADED – with whatever the day’s catch might have been.
Desserts were not typical at all. I’d never had Sweet Pumpkin for dessert. Nor had I experienced Black Sesame Ice Cream. Both were delicious, clever and definitely memorable.
So, if you are in Melbourne, make a day of it: Take a leisurely stroll through the Botanical Gardens, work up an appetite and have a three-hour lunch at BACASH. Watch your wine intake, though – or you’ll end up Down Under the table.