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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 3: Farewell to Wonderland :(

So, here it is, the end of the road…

If you haven’t already, you should read Part 1 and Part 2.

*    *    *

After sitting at our table for maybe four hours at this point, we were well into the late afternoon. So naturally, it was time for breakfast!

Adventurous as my palate is, it’s never been as open with overly strange desserts. Creative, cutting-edge gelatarias may experiment with sausage ice cream (hint – they do) but I probably wouldn’t try it unless coerced or dared. I made one exception with this next dish – the Not-so-full English Breakfast – and this skeptic was certainly schooled.

This course was really the most fun I’ve ever had eating out anywhere. Let me present-tense it for you so you can live in the moment: A waitress arrives at our table with a trolley and tells us she is going to serve us bacon and eggs. She shows us an egg (with the Fat Duck logo subtly marked on it) and “explains” that their eggs taste just like bacon and eggs, because they feed bacon sandwiches to the chickens who lay them, oh and they flew them all the way over to Melbourne from the UK – all this with a straight face, mind you, and I could imagine the more gullible maybe believing her.

The eggs of bacon-sandwich eating chickens

The eggs of bacon-sandwich eating chickens

The young woman then cracks some of the magic eggs into a saucepan to cook; oops, she then says, she has forgotten the gas – how is she going to cook the eggs? Oh look, here is a silver jug inexplicably handy, “I carry this with me everywhere and it seems to solve all of my problems, so I’ll just try it…” The jug just happens to contain liquid nitrogen, which she pours onto the eggs and then stirs with a wooden spatula. After hardly any time at all, the mixture inside the saucepan looks exactly like scrambled eggs, except that it has a “mysterious” cool mist surrounding it, and *gasp* – it’s actually ice cream! Magic and bacon sandwiches, indeed.

Some sorcery is happening here

Some sorcery is happening here

Some other wait staff then appears with plates of thick sticky brioche French toast. The slice of toast on each plate is topped with a thin strip of streaky candied bacon – beautifully glossy, satisfyingly crunchy and sweet. A generous helping of the nitro egg-and-bacon ice cream then tops it all off; and while the ice cream itself isn’t mind-blowingly amazing, eating all three elements on the plate together, the result is a glorious party in your mouth. On the side, an adorable little jar of marmalade each with a red gingham lid which just happens to be edible.

Nitro egg and bacon ice cream with candied bacon on French brioche toast

Nitro egg and bacon ice cream with candied bacon on French brioche toast

Marmalade with edible lid

Marmalade with edible lid

Oh, but that’s not all. We’ve all been given tiny, individual cereal boxes with a cartoon of a wizard Heston and the Fat Duck Melbourne clock printed on the front, and on the back, the story of how Heston came up with this amazing dish. Cereal is inside the box, yes, but 1) the cereal isn’t made from any type of grain but actually flakes of dried, sweet root vegetables and pop rocks and 2) there’s also a very inedible piece of chunky jigsaw puzzle. I’ll get to the puzzle piece later. To go with our all-natural not-cereal, there’s a surprisingly creamy and delicious parsnip milk. Quite simple, so good – I wish this was my breakfast every day.

The story of Heston's Not-So-Full English Breakfast

The story of Heston’s Not-So-Full English Breakfast

Carrot and parsnip "cereal" and my puzzle piece

Carrot and parsnip “cereal” and my puzzle piece

*    *    *

Just before the next course, we got our chance to forever leave our mark on the Fat Duck. Well, at least for the next few months – I don’t know what they’re planning to do with the massive jigsaw puzzle on the wall when it’s finally complete at the end of the Fat Duck’s Melbourne run. On the back of the puzzle piece we each received, there is a unique ID which both tells you where your piece physically goes, and I guess so you can brag to people that you were puzzle piece T19 S47 (*ahem* that’s me) and be forever commemorated as a 2 cm bit of super-thick cardboard. Yes, each diner gets their own unique bit of the puzzle, but you don’t get to (have to?) walk up to the monstrous thing on the wall and figure out where to put it – a staff member comes by your table with a 9 x 9 board specifically for the time period of your reservation (eg. Lunch, Wednesday 6th May) which greatly narrows down the area in which you have to hunt for where your piece belongs.

My piece of the Fat Duck Melbourne puzzle

My piece of the Fat Duck Melbourne puzzle

*    *    *

Being deathly intolerant to strong liquor, there’s not a lot I can say about the Whisky Wine Gums which marked the end of our journey, not counting take-home goodies. It was clever and cute that they arrived stuck to the glass of a framed map of Scotland – each candy is made from a different Scotch Whisky and is placed on the map at the region in which the distillery originates. I had a small bite of each whisky gum (in order to not die, and saving the rest to take home), and even to my extremely inexperienced palate, each one was distinct in flavour and strength – some were smokier, some were sweeter, some tasted “more alcoholic”. Okay. That’s all I’ve got.

Scotch whisky wine gums

Scotch whisky wine gums

*    *    *

We certainly weren’t to be sent home empty-handed. After the whisky gums, we were each given a gorgeous pink-and-white striped paper bag with a card entitled “Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop”, with a menu of the bag’s contents listed underneath. The card also said “smell me” – I felt as silly as Alice when I obeyed, but it smelt like, well, a sweet shop. I definitely felt like a little kid right then. Certainly no candy shop today would give me such an adorable paper bag to put my sweets in, so it was like I’d stepped into a 1930s movie where I was out of my depth.

While we would have had plenty of time to open up each of the goodies while still chatting leisurely at our table, we all opted to take them home to extend our Fat Duck experience for as long as possible.

Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop

Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop

So, what was inside? My favourite was a thick playing card made of white chocolate – Queen of hearts on the front and a classic card design on the back. Perfectly printed – how do you print a sheet of chocolate this perfectly? Or is it hand painted that precisely with food colouring? There was a little dome of dark chocolate – lightly aerated like a high-end Cadbury Bubbly and filled with mandarin jelly, an “apple pie caramel” wrapped in a clear edible film, and lastly, the “oxchoc”, made of wagyu nougat (who knew?), Guinness and beef caramel. The strange combination of this last one prompted me to save it in my fridge for three long days before I finally gave in and devoured it – not because I was worried about it being too weird but because I wanted my final tangible remnant of the Fat Duck to be as adventurous and interesting as the whole wonderful afternoon was for me. This last surviving candy turned out to be rich and delicious, but the flavour wasn’t as beefy or Guinness-y as I expected – it was there, but subtle. A satisfying end.

Queen of Hearts white chocolate playing card; aerated chocolate and mandarin jelly; apple pie caramel; oxchoc - wagyu nougat and Guinness beef caramel

Queen of Hearts white chocolate playing card; aerated chocolate and mandarin jelly; apple pie caramel; oxchoc – wagyu nougat and Guinness beef caramel

*    *    *

At the beginning of this epic, monstrous thing, I mentioned spilling very expensive juice everywhere. I also mentioned in the FAQ that we received a tour of the Fat Duck’s main kitchen. I’ll explain both –

I really did spill strawberry and pepper juice across half the table. This was a good thing. Why? Well, while they were cleaning it up, they discreetly whisked us away to the kitchen for a little tour! This had me thinking I should strategically spill drinks at all upmarket restaurants if I want to see what goes on behind the scenes.

One of the kitchens of the Fat Duck Melbourne

One of the kitchens of the Fat Duck Melbourne

We were told that the kitchen we were standing in was one of the three kitchens where the Fat Duck magic is cooked up – we were in the hot kitchen, and there was a cold kitchen, and another one downstairs somewhere. It was very quiet for a commercial kitchen (great, now I’ve done that thing where I’ve typed “kitchen” so many times it doesn’t look like a word anymore) but with no lack of bustle and activity. It was super organised, with no yelling, and every chef was focused intently on their task in their workspace.

During this little impromptu kitchen tour, which I later confirmed definitely was not a privilege extended to all guests (just VIPs or especially clumsy ones, I guess), we gained some other titbits of insight into the Fat Duck Melbourne. For example, there are 35 or so chefs working in the kitchens all up, and about the same number of front-of-house personnel. This means that the number of staff at any one time exceeds that of the number of diners that can be seated in the restaurant at a time (56).

Plating up the roast marron in the kitchen

Plating up the roast marron in the kitchen

Taking into consideration their wages, the cost of the superior ingredients and fancy equipment and the probably astronomical rent prices in the Crown complex, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Heston couldn’t possibly be making much profit out of the restaurant from the seemingly exorbitant prices alone. Plus, it took the top two Masterchef contestants – who had been cooking under time constraints daily for three months – five hours to create just one course; I can’t begin to imagine how many hours of work goes into the preparation of the entire repertoire of culinary wizardry.

I had the good fortune of dining with companions who also realised this, and fully appreciated the entire experience. Although I had never met two thirds of my table before that day, we all got along fabulously through our love of food – conversation followed easily with casual discussion of the dishes and banter with the staff.

The Great Fat Duck Melbourne Jigsaw Puzzle

The Great Fat Duck Melbourne Jigsaw Puzzle as at the beginning of May.

Would I go back? Yes. But probably not for the next couple of years at least – not merely because my poor bank account needs time to recover (or that I don’t have chance in hell of getting another reservation anytime soon), but because I want to give Heston and team a chance to create some new weird and wonderful dishes before I visit them again. Due to how much time, science and ingenuity goes into dreaming them up and perfecting them, the courses offered at the Fat Duck don’t change as much as at other high end restaurants – it can take some years to be retired, while a few stick around as iconic staples. So, while my afternoon in Wonderland was amazing, I’m not in a hurry to drop another seven hundy until I get to try a good proportion of totally new things.

But I will be back, Fat Duck. Bye for now and thanks for a great time.

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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 2: The adventure continues

You should go and read Part 1 HERE.


Okay, let’s go.

*    *    *

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a Very Important Course, not only because it’s one of the most talked about, but it’s also the symbol, the icon of the current Fat Duck brand, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is full of Alice in Wonderland motifs and references both sneaky and obvious. This dish is essentially a mock mock turtle soup. For anyone who doesn’t know, actual mock turtle soup is a soup made from cheap organ meats that imitate the texture of actual turtle meat used in green (non-mock) turtle soup. Yep – nothing like a bit of light 1700s food trivia. Well, there are no calves brains here at the Fat Duck in 2015, and nothing is as it appears. There is something that looks so like an egg, you would never believe it wasn’t if you weren’t told by your waiter that the egg yolk was made of swede and the egg white of turnip – not a single ounce of vessel-of-potential-chicken-embryo in it at all.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

The tea party bit goes like this – you are given a clear teapot and a clear teacup. In the teacup sits the aforementioned not-an-egg. Planted in the mock egg are tiny golden enoki mushrooms. Arranged around this are tiny cubes of ox tongue (I think!) and pickled turnip and cucumber, garnished with tiny micro parsley. Then you’re presented with a “gold watch” that is not gold nor watch, and is used like a tea bag, except it’s also not a teabag. Confused? Drop the not-a-teabag-or-a-watch in your clear teapot and when dissolved in warm liquid, it disappears and turns the darkening liquid into a beautiful mushroom-y stock. Pour this into the teacup with the not-an-egg and voilà, your mock mock turtle soup.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

But wait, there’s more! The soup is served with little mini sandwiches with toasted bread that includes among its delicate fillings black truffle, bone marrow butter, egg white salad and a really good mayonnaise. Of course, not even sandwiches can be presented ordinarily at the Fat Duck so the platter is decorated with a big, feathered top hat – on theme as ever.
If I had to describe this course with one word, it would be whimsical. If I had three words, I would add weird, and what-is-this-sorcery? As much as I enjoyed the experience, I honestly believe my brain was too confused to form a truly accurate and critical assessment of the actual tastiness. I think it was delicious?

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

*    *    *
Well, that chaos was followed by Sound of the Sea, another course that engaged many senses. First, you’re given a giant seashell – each person at our table had a unique one. You notice fairly quickly that there are some earphones poking out of the shell; place them in your ears and you’ll actually hear a soothing soundtrack of waves crashing on sand and other (you guessed it) sounds of the sea. The edible part of the course is served upon on beautiful glass-topped block and arranged beautifully to represent a beach. There is the fluffy foam ocean (made from seaweed stock), various flora and fauna of red samphire, green samphire, butterfish, abalone and kingfish, all resting on a bed of convincing coarse textured “sand”, magicked up using fried baby anchovies, tapioca starch and nuts.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

Despite the combination of taste and sound elements, it actually didn’t feel like a complicated dish by Fat Duck standards, at least to the diner sitting at the end of the undoubtedly painstaking preparation process. As with “Walk Through the Forest”, Heston no doubt wants to bring to mind our own personal experiences – this time, memories of sand and sea, perhaps a childhood summer at the beach. I can tell you that this worked quite well on many people, even making some diners quite emotional. Being a bit of a robot at times, I’ll say I enjoyed the dish for other reasons – I love fresh seafood in all its forms, so I loved this course, and thought it was as clever as I was coming to expect from this restaurant.

Sound of the Sea

Sound of the Sea

*    *    *

Before the next course was served, I was delivered my fourth tea – Bohea Lapsang from Fujian, China; a hong cha (straight translation: “red tea”, closest actual translation: “black tea”). The bohea had an unbelievably smoky aroma and taste, very complex, and so rich. This might have been my favourite tea, or perhaps it was only because it was by far the best tea and food pairing of the day – it went so well with the dish that came next that everyone at my table agreed that it was a better match for it than the wine.

a crowd of tea, all for me

a crowd of tea, all for me

*    *    *

The salmon poached in liquorice gel arrived at the table with little pomp and ceremony; yet the dish looked gorgeous, with the salmon encased in a glossy chocolate-coloured coat of liquorice, topped with golden trout roe, lying beside prettily browned witlof and surrounded by morsels of juicy king grapefruit, with droplets of fragrant vanilla bean mayonnaise and dots of balsamic reduction livening up the plate.

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

I’m not normally a fan of liquorice at all (what is the point of it?) but it was quite subtle here – striking a gentle balance between its slight savoury-bitterness and the sweetness of the salmon and caramelised witloof – and the gel casing helped retain the juices of the perfectly cooked fish. Yes, the fish, by the way (having been cooked sous-vide, I’m told) was melt-in-your-mouth tender, almost creamy; and, I’ll admit that the liquorice likely had a strong hand in helping the flavour of this dish meld so perrrrfectly with the smoky bohea tea.

*    *    *

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Calling the Lamb with Cucumber the least memorable course of the day wouldn’t be untrue, but it also wouldn’t tell you that it was still a lovely dish. There was no bad food here – how could there be, with each course having be developed, refined, served and improved over many years? Nevertheless, my recollection of the main part of this lamb course is pretty fuzzy, most of my strong impressions from the stunning accompaniment of lamb consomme jelly infused with mint – dark and meltingly rich, topped beautifully by a borage flower and served with crispy quinoa biscuit. Also on the side were cubes of lamb tongue, heart and scrag, a variety of textures, each full of flavour. The main plate of saltbush lamb saddle – with cumin, cucumber with green pepper and caraway, caviar oil and a gel made from fish stock and mint butter – was as well-cooked and pleasant as you’d expect, but failed to blow me away, though others named it as a favourite dish.

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

*    *    *
The next course was understandably recommended with no accompanying beverage. Seeing that it was the Hot & Iced Tea, it would have been especially awkward to pair a “tea” with another tea. The little glass of amber liquid that turned up looked simple and unassuming, but oh boy, did it pique my interest. Exactly one half of the content of the glass was cold as iced tea and the other half (occupying the other side of the glass) was warm as, well, a nice cuppa. The drink is a somewhat thick, syrupy consistency that is not truly a liquid, but actually a gel made up of millions of tiny bits of broken down jelly – this is how the separation of the hot and cold sides is achieved (well, that’s the easy version – if you want the full method and explanation, chemistry and all, just ask Google). We were instructed by wait staff not to wait too long before drinking and not to turn the glass before drinking – advice which made sense once we understood that it was served at the perfect angle to present even proportions of the hot side and the cold side on first sip. The tea itself? As far as I could tell, it was a regular earl grey with hints of lemon and honey – tasty but not unfamiliar flavours.

it's warm, it's cool, it's hot and iced tea.

it’s warm, it’s cool, it’s hot and iced tea.

*    *    *
Okay, I’ll be honest here – I’m kind of running out of steam after writing about one, two, three… twelve courses and four teas, and the final tea (Cassia oolong from Fujian, China), served right before the dessert courses wasn’t all that memorable for me. Honestly, if you’ve read this far, then… well, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far. Anyway. Moving on.

*    *    *
First up of the sweet courses was the Botrytis Cinerea – no doubt now famous among ordinary Australians due to its starring role in the grand finale of Masterchef 2015 (and this is how I know I’ve waited too long to post this blog). This captivatingly gorgeous – and I mean seriously beautiful – dish was introduced to us as a “tribute to dessert wines on a plate”. Botrytis cinerea, we were told, is a type of mould that can grow on grapes and some other fruits.

Rather embarrassingly, my Fat Duck lunch happened well before the Masterchef season had even started, but I was grateful for Heston showing up in that final episode, because oh boy, did his explanation of this dish save me a lot of time recalling and researching and zooming in on my photos.

Botrytis cinerea - really, "grape fungus". But fancy.

Botrytis cinerea – really, “grape fungus”. But fancy.

The botrytis fungus comes in two forms – a grey rot, and a “noble” rot. It’s this second type, the result of dry conditions following wet or humid conditions, that helps create a great dessert wine grape. “The grapes shrivel up, they lose their moisture and they develop all these really complex flavours. So, what we’ve done is taken the flavour characteristics and then we’ve also looked at what molecules create those flavours and we’ve used that to inspire the ingredients.”

The base of the dish plays on the dessert wine and cheese idea, and is made of a soil of dried parmesan and Roquefort blue cheese powder. Some of the elements on the plate include peach jelly (a sort of wine gum), compressed red grape dipped in nitrogen, a grape fluid gel, citrus sorbet, aerated saffron (kind of a meringue), a green-grape coloured white chocolate sphere filled with pear caramel and popping candy, a stunning gold sugar ball filled with citrus-infused yogurt, and a stalk made of churros. And there’s more – oh, so much more. Tenplay has decided to publish the full recipe on their website, although I’m not sure how many home cooks are keen enough to attempt this thing or even have the equipment that seems to be required!

Oh, my impressions? Delicious, interesting, delightfully varied textures, pretty – definitely favourable, but not my favourite. I tend to most love the savoury dishes in a tasting menu, or maybe I just don’t have a full appreciation for dessert wines due to my intolerance to them. However, there’s no doubt that this dish is an absolute masterpiece and I was completely in awe of its stunning presentation and complexity in flavour, textures and execution.

*    *    *

Read Part 3

Still to come:

  • Egg & bacon ice cream?
  • Yet moarrr tea!
  • Clumsy me is clumsy.
  • What does a Heston kitchen look like?
  • Why was it so worth it?
I have no idea what this is. Seriously, don't ask me.

I have no idea what this is.

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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 1 (dun dun dunnnn)

The Fat Duck in Melbourne

So, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

Yes, I am still alive.

Where have I been? Well, I took a tumble down a rabbit hole recently, and let’s just say that the usual pedestrian variety of “being alive” rather pales in comparison to the magical afternoon that followed.

Down the rabbit hole...

And then there was this tiny door...

Uh huh, the Fat Duck.

With the $525 minimum price tag, you can’t exactly accidentally get to this Wonderland, but after hurtling down that rabbit hole on your own steam (nearly literally – there is a long corridor you must walk yourself down, at the end of which there is a tiny door), all of your mundane, daily worries float away, along with your ordinary, good sense.

Would I like to go with the matched tea tasting, they ask, seeing as I can’t drink wine? Sure, let’s do it! Never mind that this selection of six teas alone costs the same as a full degustation at a regular restaurant. Oh no – that sort of concern is for those poor plebeian souls not currently dining in a magical fantasy land. And a $15 juice to start? Yeah, I’ll have one of those, thanks, and then I’ll promptly spill it all over the pristine tablecloth!

The dining room

Never one for brevity (really, I’m just obsessively thorough), this review is a fairly massive three-parter; but I promise there will be plenty of eye candy along the way if you stick with me.

However, for those with inadequate attention spans, I’ve put together a little FAQ, which I will post here before launching into my usual diatribe. These are actual “frequently asked questions”, mind you – you have no idea how much I’ve been interrogated about my meal in the weeks following it, by all sorts of people from corporate bosses to broke-ass students, close friends to total strangers, McDonald’s lovers to strict vegans.

The Fat Duck Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: How was it?
A: Um, pretty amazing.

Q: Was it worth the money?
A: The short answer – yes, every penny.

Q: What was the food like?
A: Tasty, fun, weird – in a nutshell.

Q: Did you take photos? Can I see them?
A: Duh. Why else are we here?

The Fat Duck Melbourne clock

The icon of the Fat Duck Melbourne – the clock face represent’s the Fat Duck’s tenure in Melbourne and the hand indicates how far we are through that period

Q: What was the highlight of the experience?
A: The front of house staff. They were excellent – each great at what they were doing, and engaging and attentive without fussing over us. Also, the kitchen tour we were unexpectedly given – read to the end to find out how!

Q: Your favourite dish?
A: Tricky one; they all had different noteworthy qualities. Based on taste, probably the poached salmon or snail porridge. Based on concept and all-round entertainment, possibly the not-so-full breakfast with “scrambled eggs” ice cream, or maybe the odd and whimsical mock mock turtle soup.

Q: Did you get to meet Heston?
A: Sadly, no. I believe he’s only in Melbourne for the very start and end of the Fat Duck’s run here, and we were there pretty much right in the middle of the period. I’d say I was personally insulted but actually have to admit I’ve only rarely watched him on TV and mostly know him by reputation.

Q: Do you realise how lucky you are? I entered the ballot [insert ridiculous number] times and still couldn’t get a table!
A: Yes, yes I do. And I actually got in twice (once through a friend, once through my own entry) but decided I couldn’t justify going again. Please, don’t hate me. On second thought, go ahead and hate me – I don’t care, I went to the Fat Duck without having to survive the death struggle the booking process is reputedly, or even jump on a plane.

Okay. Serious business begins here, interspersed with pretty pictures.

By the 6th of May 2015, I’d been waiting three months almost to the day since being invited (by my friend, Erwin) to dine at the Fat Duck Melbourne and more than once during that period I’d wondered about being disappointed after so much hype and anticipation. So, I tried to go in without too much prior knowledge – for example, I diligently avoided reading any reviews of either the Melbourne or Bray restaurants so I wouldn’t have any specific presumptions about the dishes.

I’m pretty pleased to now be able say that the overall experience absolutely lived up to expectations.

Look at this massive wine list!

Get a load of this massive wine list!

What really stood out for me wasn’t the taste of the dishes, but the fun of it all – the food was not only delicious, as expected, but weird and wonderful in a surprising way, as was our entire afternoon. The atmosphere was relaxed and distinctly un-stuffy. The staff members were friendly, funny and knowledgeable; they seemed like they were enjoying their jobs and were open and unpretentious. The delivery of each dish was a little performance, with playfully ridiculous stories accompanying some of them.

The tea tasting was an absolutely brilliant idea – a perfect option for those who don’t or can’t drink and normally feel left out of the matched food/beverage experience. Among those teas were some of the best I have ever tried and the taste pairings were often spot on, sometimes a better match to the dish than even the paired wine.

*    *    *

Our sixteen course journey started with the aerated beetroot, a small, spherical macaron-like appetiser which was unassumingly delicious. A fellow diner commented that it was like a “reverse Malteser”, being crunchy and aerated on the outside and creamy on the inside.

aerated beetroot

aerated beetroot

*    *    *

making nitro-poached aperitifs

making nitro-poached aperitifs

With the nitro-poached aperitifs, we had our first piece of food theatre and a refreshing palate cleanser. Wait staff with a trolley made pseudo-meringues using liquid nitrogen as we watched, the flavours based on our choice between a few options – vodka and lime, gin and tonic, or tequila and grapefruit. I opted for the vodka and lime because it sounded like a great way to wake up those taste buds, get myself good and ready for what was to come.

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

*    *    *

My first tea arrived around this time – a refreshing white tea described on the menu as Pre Rain Organic Anji Bai Cha from Zhejiang, China.

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

*    *    *

The gazpacho came next, red cabbage creating a beautiful reddish plum colour in the soup, poured over a Pommery grain mustard ice cream. Having ice cream as the third course certainly plays with your head a bit, but tasting it, you certainly won’t confuse it for dessert – it played out like a refreshing starter that just happened to be in ice cream format.

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

*    *    *

Next up was a course whose reputation precedes it – the visually fantastic Savoury Lollies, based on actual popular iced lollies/ice blocks/whatever you call them. Despite my loosely self-imposed Fat Duck media blackout, I had already seen many photos of this clever dish. The tiny Rocket popsicle is inspired by a waldorf salad, with layers for apple, celery and walnut; the retro Tangle Twister is actually rolled smoked Australian salmon with a swirly wrap of avocado and horseradish cream; finally, the miniature Golden Gaytime is a perfectly smooth and velvety chicken liver parfait coated in fig jelly and dipped in crushed almonds. Creativity earns the most points here, while the taste was nice but nothing mind-blowing.

Savoury lollies - waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

Savoury lollies – waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

*    *    *

I was then delivered a lovely, strong oolong to pair with the richness of the next few courses – a Traditional Iron Buddha Oolong (Tie Guan Yin Wu Long) from Fujian, China.

*    *    *

Walk through the Forest was the first of the two courses meant to be a multi-sensory experience. Your table is presented with a wooden block covered in oak moss, on which there sits a little plastic dispenser for each person containing what looks like a thin, translucent film, similar to those breath freshener strips. You place the strip on your tongue, and being greeted with a taste of the forest, watch as a clear liquid infused with oak moss essential oil is poured from a teapot onto the moss-covered block, which then instantly and magically turns into fragrant smoke and mist to evoke the aroma of “home fires and damp wood”. Heston wants us to engage all of our five senses here, and it works without feeling too gimmicky.

Oak moss strips

Walk through the forest – Oak moss strips

Smells of the forest

Walk through the forest – Smells of the forest

Up to this point, this course has already provided visual, aural, tactile, gustatory and olfactory stimulation and we haven’t even arrived at actual food yet. The dish proper is quail jelly drowned in an ultra-rich roasted marron cream with pea puree and a dollop of caviar sorbet, served with a thin slice of oak moss and truffle toast. Chopped very finely, the truffle packs a surprising flavour punch for the tiny size of the cracker which somehow reinforces the experience of being surrounded by the damp, dewy greenery of a forest. The marron cream is simply delicious, its richness meant to counterbalance the sharpness and freshness of the oaky, mossy, plant-based accompaniments, and it does that very well.

Walk through the forest - jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

Walk through the forest – jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

On the side, fresh bread is presented with butter infused with oak moss essential oil and truffle that grows under oak trees.

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The Snail Porridge was one of my favourite courses in terms of taste. It seemed quite technically simple and rustic, yet a famous, long-lived Fat Duck dish – a hearty, beautifully textured soup that’s a shade of vibrant parsley green with meltingly tender braised snails, Joselito ham, topped with marinated fennel shavings. As much as I enjoy escargots the French way, I loved this much more. The flavours were rich and complex yet, not being completely drowned in garlic and butter, didn’t overwhelm the neutral-tasting snails, allowing them to actually be the star of their own dish. It was one of my dining companions’ first taste of the mollusc (never having had the traditional French dish) and his opinion was much the same. Yes, this is definitely a yummy, warming, (very expensive) comfort food that I wanted more of when I reached the bottom of the bowl.

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

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The third tea, a Japanese sencha, turned up at this stage – organic Gyokuro from Uji. The leaves were very attractive – deep green and needle-like – and brewed, it was rich and beautifully fragrant with a distinctly sweet taste which accompanied the next dishes well.

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Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

I think the Roast Marron was probably one of the more “normal” siblings in this motley Fat Duck family of dishes, in that most of what was on the plate was actually what it looked like it was. Here, the quality of the ingredients was really able to shine and the marron was fresh and tender. Confit kombu, cured shiitake and sea lettuce lent natural saltiness and umami to balance with the sweetness of the marron. I read in another review somewhere that the writer thought there was too much going on in this dish, but I disagree. If anything, I thought it was lovely, but was slightly underwhelmed by the sheer normality. In hindsight, I think it was probably a good idea to have this little break from the surreal in preparation for the next course, which was definitely the weirdest of the lot!

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Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come... in the next part!

Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come… in the next part!

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Read Part 2

Still to come:

  • All the things!
  • Mad Hatter’s tea party and the mock mock turtle soup!
  • An iPod in a giant seashell!
  • Moarrr tea!
  • Egg & bacon ice cream?
  • That mouldy grape dessert thing from Masterchef…

Fat Duck

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How to survive a food festival

The challenge of getting through seventeen days of way too many amazing food events may not seem like a real problem to you… but it so is. It’s a serious, very serious, first world problem, and one I face at least twice every year. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (MFWF) has just begun and I’m just brimming with excitement about the schedule I’ve organised for us, so indulge me while I share with you the secrets of planning the perfect foodie itinerary. My guide will be interspersed with photos from last year’s MFWF for your viewing (and my drooling) pleasure.

Restaurant Express: Charcoal Lane. Top: Wallaby tartare, horseradish potato salad, egg yolk gel, smoked bread.
Middle left: Sashimi of King Salmon, finger lime & chilli crab, pickled beetroot, radish. Middle right: Tanami spiced Kangaroo Loin, potato gnocchi, pumpkin puree, rosella flower jus.
Bottom: Gremolata & goats cheese stuffed swiss mushrooms, saltbush, golden beets.

There are a couple of main types of food festivals in Melbourne. Events such as Taste and the Good Food & Wine show happen on a single day, or a few consecutive days with much the same programme and food available throughout. These, though not so exhausting, can be challenging to tackle in their own way if you want to experience everything in the limited timeframe available without totally breaking the bank – but I’ll get to these another time.




A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Centre: Scallop ceviche. Right: Crab tostados.

A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Chicken, lime and avocado soup with fried tortilla. Centre: Big bellied beef empanadas. Right: Stuffed calamari with quinoa and broccoli, pepper and piso sauce.

The MFWF belongs to the other type – it’s a massive, city-wide affair, with countless separately ticketed events across numerous venues over a couple of weeks or more.

Coming out of the MFWF alive, without being left with a depressing bank balance and without having packed on 20 kg is no task to be scoffed at if you love food and new experiences as much as I do. Many Melbournians are aware of the MFWF being on, but aren’t aware of how to get involved or don’t really care enough. In many cases, they probably want to check out some events but have no idea where to begin finding out what’s “good”! Take a look at the festival website and you’ll understand this dilemma. “Spoilt for choice” is an understatement. If you feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information, this guide isn’t for you (just look at the pretty food porn pictures). If you like lots of information but just don’t know how to get organised, keep reading!

A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Left: Peruvian warm purple potato and pumpkin salad. Right: Beef asado with green chimichurri

A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Pork belly with black eyed peas. Right: Chicken sudado with saffron rice

Even though I’m passionate about food, as with everything that requires planning, I tackle the task methodically and systematically. Let’s go.

Over the past three years, I’ve started the process in early February, although I would actually recommend starting in mid-January and booking some of the signature events even earlier than that. I keep making this same mistake and so many amazing events are sold out by the time I inquire about them.

Left: WTC Urban Picnic (WTC Wharf). Centre: Queensbridge Square and Urban Coffee Farm. Right: A taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm, on this day featuring Dead Man Espresso

Queuing for a taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm

First, I set a budget. How much can we responsibly spend over the entire festival period, and how much extra can be scrounged up by saving in other, unimportant areas of spending, how much will we save in groceries considering we are eating out several times per week (and do I really need to buy that pair of shoes this month?)? Once I have a solid number, I move on to the next step.

Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Hay ash butter, yeast free organic sourdough. Right: Hay smoked kingfish, citrus emulsion dressing, pickled celery, avruga caviar.

Hay Fever. Otway Pork Belly, variety of mushrooms, hay and dashi infused consomme.

Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Gippsland duck breast, curried cauliflower, wilted witlof, hay baked sweet potato and heirloom beetroots. Right: Nutella Paddle Pop, pineapple ice, hay infused ice cream.

The MFWF website allows you to search events by date and region. Ideally, now that we have a car (we didn’t during last year’s festival), I want to look at all of the events across Victoria, just in case, and all of the dates, but I start by filtering on Melbourne Metro, as I only really want to be going regional on weekends. I go through the full list of events, open every single one which looks remotely interesting in a separate tab, and after every 10 tabs or so, read the descriptions and decide if it’s interesting enough to go onto the initial shortlist. There are lots of deciding factors and a lot of side-research is often involved – price and location, of course, the “theme” of the event, and much more importantly, the reputation of the restaurant hosting it and/or the chef featured. Host restaurants that have been on my go-to wishlist are also prioritised. Anything that doesn’t make the shortlist has its tab closed immediately, with one exception – I leave open the page for the Restaurant Express lunches. I’ll get to those later.

Restaurant Express: Punch Lane. From left to right: Lime cured kingfish, short grain rice, fig & shiitake salad; Beef carpaccio, eggplant croquettes, shallot & black pepper dressing; King salmon, fennel, prawn and avocado salad, white peach dressing, bisque sauce; Pork loin, basil & eggplant, crisp puff pastry fritters.

The shortlist is a spreadsheet and the fields include the event name, a link to the event page, the price and any optional notes (such as “difficult to get to”). At this first stage, there will probably be time clashes, but that’s ok. Each event gets highlighted a different colour based on how much I want to attend it to help me prioritise clashes later on. The list is sorted by date, as the search results are sorted by date anyway.

Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne).

Getting to the end of the full list of events for Melbourne Metro may take me a couple of sessions of a couple of hours each. Worth it. I then move on to the regional events, again opening them in tabs, only clicking on weekend dates so I am not tempted to drive 4 hours out of Melbourne on a Tuesday night for something particularly enticing. I slot these into my shortlist spreadsheet into the chronologically appropriates rows.

Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne). Top left: Cheese tasting at Red Hill Cheese. Top centre: Port Philip Estate. Top right: Wine Tasting. Bottom: Beautiful, fresh produce sold straight from the farm.

Forage & Feast (Lamaro’s Dining Room ). Top right: Confit heirloom beets, toasted grains, St Brandon goat’s curd. Bottom: Two Tastes of Quail – tempura five spice quail, Asian slaw, soy lime caramel & BBQ quail, fried cauliflower salsa, grilled nectarine.

Once I’ve confidently covered every event on the website, whether ruling it out or shortlisting it, I look at my list more carefully. I add up the sum of the event prices, and of course it’s ridiculous. I take a copy of the sheet, and on the duplicated sheet, I write the sum formula at the top of the page. I then started deleting entire event rows from the page – first, out of any scheduling conflicts, I delete the one(s) that appeal less, then the events I can most easily do without experiencing go next – and watch that sum number go down until it’s no more than a teensy bit over the budget I set earlier minus $80 (get to that later).

Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Raw watermelon on dashi ice, dandelion, sweetened bone fruit, umami powder. Centre: Smoked Goat’s Milk Custard, pickled walnuts, peas and their shoots, verjus. Right: Chatham Island Blue Code, tobacco and wood smoke, native sea grasses, grapes.

Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Wessex Saddleback slow roasted over orange wood, kale, cider vinegar. Right: Smoked Burnt Butter Ice Cream, chargrilled corn mousse, popcorn crumb, fried silk.

Now I start making reservations or buying tickets. Keeping in mind that not everything will still be available and I might have to replace some events with backups, I start with the ones I’m most desperate to attend followed by the ones I can book online without calling anyone up. If I come across an event that’s sold out, I can go back to one from my initial shortlist (remember, I made a copy before I deleted ones) and replace it with something of a similar price range. Because the one I replace it with might not be in the same time slot, I might have to jig the schedule around a bit to suit (some events have multiple sessions on different days, some having those are good for this situation), so it’s all in constant flux until I have everything booked in.

Lights Out (The Bohemian).

“Restaurant Express” is run every year by MFWF in partnership with a number of top restaurants across Melbourne – you get a two course lunch plus a glass of wine, and tea or coffee for $40. Although once upon a time, it was only $30, this is still an excellent deal as some of the participating restaurants are of a very high calibre and often quite expensive usually. It’s a good opportunity to sample the food at these establishments before deciding if it’s worth going back for a more substantial meal. Now, often after the whole booking process, I end up with more left over in my budget than just the initial $80 I set aside – if this is the case, I can choose between whether we want to go to two Restaurant Express meals or three, or whatever depending on what is left. As there are dozens of restaurants participating, I choose where to go based on location (CBD is good for a Friday business lunch while the inner north might be a good weekend option) and days of availability (as some restaurants only offer the express menu on certain days of the week). Once I’ve made my choices, I make the lunch reservations, usually online – restaurants don’t take any payment upfront for Express lunches.

Restaurant Express: PM24. Left: Pan Seared Salmon Fillet, crushed potato, wood sorrel, lobster vinaigrtte. Centre: Rotisserie Sirlon, shallot beef jus, potato gratin. Right: Ora King Salmon Gravlax, cucumber remoulade.

Spotlight on SO’ME… with Truffles!

When I first moved to Melbourne, I lived right on the cusp of Southbank and South Melbourne and as KP was still working in Auckland, I spent many an evening after work and many a Sunday afternoon wandering alone through the two areas.

The atmosphere and pace of life of these two adjoining neighbourhoods are vastly different – worlds apart. Southbank is one of Melbourne’s main centres of entertainment and nightlife, thanks to the massive Crown complex and the Southgate precinct, comprising a casino, cinemas, upscale shopping and countless restaurants, food courts, bars and clubs. So, by night, Southbank buzzes with excitement, and by day, it’s a haven for families – you can stroll along the river with a gelato in hand, or there is the Melbourne Aquarium. On the residential side, City Road is littered with high-rise apartments and the Southbank Boulevard area with low-rise ones.

South Melbourne, in contrast, is a much quieter neighbourhood which feels every inch more like a suburb than part of the inner city. Cute old rickety houses populate green, tree-lined streets along with unassuming but often very good cafes and bars also hiding among them.

Clarendon Street serves as its main road and “town centre”, containing everything you could need from supermarkets, pubs, Asian and pizza takeaway joints, Max Brenner, a fish and chip shop (Hunky Dory), Nandos and Grill’d, Telstra/Optus/Vodafone stores, a hardware store, even a printing shop. More recent additions include a modernised Vietnamese pho eatery cheekily called Wat Da Pho and a Malaysian restaurant.

But I believe the real linch-pin of this neighbourhood is South Melbourne Market. I’ve been to quite a few markets in Melbourne, and this is by far my favourite in terms of size, selection of vendors and most importantly, the atmosphere. I now live closer to Queen Victoria Market, but I still always to go to So’Me for all of my meat and produce needs. QVM is too messy, scattered and busy, and somehow the people who shop at So’Me just seem more well-behaved and considerate. Maybe it’s the snob and yuppie in me?

South Melbourne Market has been around since 1867, which makes it 11 years older than its more famous cousin Queen Vic Market, and is also the oldest continually running market in Victoria. Some of the highlights include The Fresh Pasta Shop (don’t let the unoriginal name fool you), Fruits on Coventry which has every herb for Asian and European cooking you could dream of, Padre Coffee for their coffee, Clement for their amazing filled donuts – a variety of flavours available every week (together these two coffee shops are bringing hipster culture south of the river), Georgie’s Harvest for their impressive selection of potatoes and root veges as well as their knowledge and enthusiasm about what they do, and of course most of the butchers and poultry shops are also of a great standard. There are a few cupcake shops and places that sell macarons, and all are fine but none have wow’d me so far.

Here, also, is the practically iconic South Melbourne Market Dim Sims – opened in the 1940s, this was one of the first places responsible for popularising the unique Melbourne-style “dim sim”, not to be confused with dim sums (Cantonese for “snacks”, usually dumplings). A Melbourne dim sim is basically a giant-ified pork siu mai but about twice the size and usually served deep-fried and somewhat adapted to the Western-dude-eats-Chinese-takeaways palate. I’m not the hugest fan – they can’t hold a candle to the delicate steamed dumplings you get at a good old traditional yum cha – but they’re great for a quick winter snack if you get hungry while grocery shopping.

Out of the restaurants attached to the market, my favourites would probably be Simply Spanish and Claypots Evening Star, although one visit to Koy convinced me that it’s not too shabby either. Aside their table service, Claypots does a roaring “street food” trade of skewered BBQ octopus and fish rolls, while Simply Spanish cooks up huge paellas outdoors that serve as a perfect gourmet takeaway dinner.

Also worth checking out nearby: Passionfoods (behind the market, on Ferrars Street, below the Tram 96 light rail) – a well-stocked whole foods grocer which has all the healthy/vegan/organic products your heart can desire, which I much prefer to the smaller organics shop within the market itself – and Chef’s Hat (just across the road from the market) – a huge kitchen supply (and appliance) store with reasonable prices.

^ Passionfoods

^ Passionfoods

^ Chef's Hat

^ Chef’s Hat

Then there’s Coventry Street, running perpendicular to the market, which, lined with its variety of charming fashion, art and homeware boutiques, independent bookshops and cute brunch spots, could be my favourite part of South Melbourne.

My personal food favourites here include Giddiup, a tiny, cute cafe with good coffee, and wood crates for seating, Chez Dré with its delicious breakfasts, French cakes and pastries and delicate macarons.

Amongst all the other wonderful finds on Coventry, I have a soft spot for OnStone – a studio where you can have your own photos and images printed on stone, framed lovingly with recycled wood and backed with recycled styrofoam, and there are also pre-printed art pieces for purchase. Their service is excellent and they once rushed a job for me in 2 days, when I needed it in time to fly back to New Zealand with a Mother’s Day gift, and even let me pick it up after hours.

Adding to the delights of Coventry – Gigi a la maison (photos above), an adorable little boutique full of French-themed household items; a design store I can’t remember the name of with funky random homeware and apparel stocks big stackable crayons, wallets made of recycled paper (many with prints that also happen to appear on Black Milk items), and scrunchable city maps that you can “crumple” up and stick in your pocket on your travels; Nest, with natural skincare and gorgeous homeware galore; and Coventry Bookstore, which has a carefully curated selection of books, a clean, appealing and modern interior and a little children’s nook at the back.

Not particularly interesting but super convenient is the stretch of Clarendon Street between Coventry and Dorcas Streets, which are filled mostly with chain establishments such as Kikki K (not that there’s anything wrong with Kiki K!) and Coles and others I mentioned earlier, like Max Brenner (again, who doesn’t need some Max Brenner hot choccie on a wintry day?)
There’s also a pretty florist and a cute cafe called the Old Paper Shop Deli that I frequented when I first moved to Melbourne as it had such an enticing window display of cakes and sweets (which in taste weren’t always as beautiful as they appeared).

Of the various joints scattered throughout the rest of the neighbourhood, I would mention Garamerica – a good Indonesian restaurant, Dead Man Espresso – they really know their coffee and have beautiful blends as well as single origin beans, Lamaro’s Dining Room and Bar – a great gastropub with a charming atmosphere and a host of devoted regulars and who once took KP and I on a wine and produce tour of the Mornington Peninsula followed by a degustation meal of wild mushrooms and duck and other delights back at the bar, Peko Peko, the Taiwanese cafe I reviewed recently, Hercules Morse, a small bar named after a dog in New Zealand children’s book with an excellent sharing plates menu and friendly, attractive bartenders… and then of course, St. Ali.

Located in a quiet, graffiti’d lane off Yarra Street (which is off Clarendon), St. Ali, along with Chez Dré, was one of my more regular brunch haunts back when I lived on the edge of South Melbourne. I believe I’ve been about seven or eight times, which for someone who likes to constantly be trying new places is quite an achievement. But why? The coffee is excellent, but I’m not a huge coffee drinker nor a connoisseur, and the food, frankly has been hit and miss and I tend to like Chez Dré dishes better. It has to be the combination of a few reasons – firstly, the buzz and atmosphere play a big part. It’s just such a happy, vibrant place to be on a Saturday morning, and the service is efficient but warm, especially if you ask them about the coffee specials. Secondly, when the food is good, it’s brilliant.

St Ali on Urbanspoon

Thirdly, they have seasonal menus, so it’s always worth going to try something else to see if you’ll love it. Fourthly, well fine – it was hip and trendy and maybe we bought into that just a little. Fifthly (I think we might be getting to a number where this isn’t really a word?) they had great lamingtons at the counter and I would grab one to take with me after brunch and sixthly, well, they were just super close.

And then each winter, there’s an extra incentive to head to St. Ali. Truffles. The fungi kind, not the chocolate kind. Fresh, marbled, deliciously aromatic. There’s a sort of shed next to the cafe which played host from July 4th to August 10th to Madame Truffles, a seasonal pop up shop for fresh Australian truffles. When you went in, the helpful and knowledgeable staff would let you smell a variety of truffles and then select the one you wanted to take home. They would point out to you the beautiful marbling detail in a cross-section and explain the differences between the truffles sourced from various areas.

Truffles were priced based on origin and weight, packaged in a little glass jar, and you would take home along with it a little piece of card with the name of the dog who had found your truffle. It was a really cute touch. The first truffle we bought was from Deloraine, Tasmania, and Rex was the doggy who had sniffed it out for us. When we returned, we chose a truffle from Braidwood, NSW and it was a labrador named Sal who had discovered it.

Next door, in St. Ali itself, they were serving the seasonal special dish of truffle toasties, which were as delicious as they sound. Truffle, pecorino and truffle vinaigrette on toasted sourdough – it doesn’t get much better than that. I wish I could share a photo of it, but it was on a phone that I stupidly wiped without backing up before selling it.

Simplicity was the key here – let the truffle’s truffliness speak for itself! Inspired, I went home and experimented with a few dishes and I shall be posting those which I think made the most out of the beautiful truffles we obtained this winter.

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