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the alderman

134 Lygon St, Brunswick East
+61 3 9380 9003

If you ever wondered what the touristy end of Lygon Street used to be before it got all honky-tonk, wander north past Brunswick Road to Lygon Street in East Brunswick. There, custom furniture shops sit alongside funky hairdressers and neighbourhood bars flourish next door to old school social clubs.

Just north of the vibrant Brunswick Road – Edward Street precinct sits The Alderman, a quiet, unassuming place with a handful of tables and bar stools in the front bar and a scattering of seats through the back rooms. The dark wood panelling and simple bar area are inviting on a chilly late summer’s evening, when a deep purple shiraz seems more the order of the day than a cool gin and tonic.

I sit at a barstool by the window and watch the hipsters stroll by and roll by. I’ve just come from work and I feel deeply out of place in my corporate wear. Perhaps it’s not too late to pop next door to Rhubarb and get an interesting asymmetric bob or something?

The Alderman is mostly a modest drinking hole, but they serve a small list of snack-sized plates from the Sicilian place next door. A plate of salami sprinkled with EVOO looks tame enough, but there is a bite to the sausage that goes very well with my shiraz. The chickpea chips sound interesting, and out they come in an old-fashioned wooden bowl, perfect right-angled triangles of deep-fried loveliness drizzled with a tangy lemon mayonnaise.  We order seconds. I am not a huge lover of arancini: I think it’s because they are reminiscent of a Scotch egg and no amount of perfectly sculpted rice will ever trump a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and deep-fried. However this one is the nicest I’ve had in a while, and big enough for two to share.

There is a decent list of wines by the glass and the beer list is, I am told, a good one.  A pretty good place for a quiet drink alone, a catch-up with friends or a rainy afternoon with a mulled wine and a good book.

 

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I’m a food blogger: a sporadic one, I’ll grant you, but a food blogger nonetheless. So why did this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival leave me cold?

Some of the initiatives sound great, for example Lauren Wambach’s Rickshaw Run in Footscray, or the wonderful SpeakEasy Cocktail Tram (I wonder how many people dressed up this year?). But I feel many fall a bit flat, sounding great on a website but ending up a bit disappointing in their execution.

One recent case in point was the Taste of Melbourne event that took place in Albert Park last November. We headed down there late on Sunday morning, cancelling our usual breakfast plans to spend a sunny day grazing amongst the stalls. What we got were hour-long waits for tiny portions of food from a dozen or so trendy restaurants, and the rest of the food stalls banned from selling ready-to-eat food so that the named few got the revenue. Our only spoils were a couple of sticky beef buns and a soft shell crab tortilla to share from The Smith. They cost $20 and barely made up a couple of mouthfuls of food each. We left after two hours, stomachs still rumbling.

And so it was that, in the spirit of eternal optimism, we headed down to The Immersery last night, expecting to spend the evening sampling some good food and wine. Southbank was buzzing with crowds enjoying the Moomba festival, the Food and Wine festival and one of the last balmy evenings of summer. We found our way to the floating bar and settled in.

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The festival’s website painted an exciting picture:

A bustling riverside meeting place and home to Victoria’s hottest food, wine and cocktails.

Celebrate the wonder of water at the Festival’s spectacular hub anchored to the Yarra River in Queensbridge Square; a bustling riverside meeting place and home to Victoria’s most inspiring food, wine and cocktails over 17 days.

The website also promised “fine drops from Victorian wineries including Seppelt, Coldstream Hills and T’Gallant”.

What we got was a wine list that featured only the three wineries mentioned above, all of which undoubtedly offer great quality wines, but the narrow choice was disappointing. There was a couple of cocktails of the day if you were interested, and a handful of beers and ciders.

The food offerings were two tasting plates, both costing $30 and neither looking larger than a starter. We surreptitiously inspected what our fellow diners were eating, decided we were all much more hungry than that, and toddled off to find some proper food on Southbank. Pity, because the river views were perfect.

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Thankfully there are other, much more entertaining, experiences to try in this great foodie city, like the growing fleet of food trucks, or the Footscray Food Blog/Consider The Sauce annual picnic and Westies awards, so all is not lost.

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has its place in terms of tourism and industry publicity, but I have concluded that it’s often better to keep it local and personal, rather than rely too much on these huge commercial festivals to deliver on what is, after all, a passion for most and a labour of love for many.

Wow – 6,300 hits on my food blog in 2013. Thanks for all your support! I promise more in 2014.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

oistins fish fry

Because of our family connections here in Barbados I’ve always stayed within strolling distance of the small fishing town of Oistins, about 12km east of the capital Bridgetown. By day it’s just a busy little town, with traffic crawling down the main street past the fish market, the supermarket, the post office and a few fast food joints. On Friday nights, however, the place explodes into the best night out in Barbados as the fish market closes down and makes way for the fish fry.

Oistins Gardens hosts dozens of family run stalls, selling the freshest fish cooked to perfection. Locals jostle with hundreds of tourists who come by the busload from far-away Speightstown and the other posh west coast resorts, queuing at their favourite spot to pick up a huge plate of marlin, mahi mahi (known locally as dolphin fish), tuna, flying fish and more, all served with your choice of rice and peas, macaroni pie (a local speciality which is essentially macaroni cheese but served in a much more solid state like lasagne), fried plantain or breadfruit chips, salads and more. A plate of food will cost you B$25-30 depending on the fish you choose – around US$12-15.

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A strong rum punch will cost around B$5, but you will see most locals sticking with soft drinks and tourists will pick up a few Barbados beers to wash down the feast.

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Many of the families who own fishing boats also run the fish fry stalls, and they all have their secret recipes. Pat’s Place right on the main road always has queues waiting for their amazingly well marinated fish and huge portions. You pay at the counter and get your takeaway container with your sides, then stand patiently beside the barbecues until the fish fryer dumps an enormous lump of freshly grilled fish on top. Always ask for a takeaway container – you’ll get much bigger portions than if you order a plate.

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Angel’s, further into the market, also does great fish but their macaroni pie is one of the best in the market. In years gone by you used to be able to wander around buying your fish from one place, your macaroni pie from another and so on. You still can do this in theory, but the queues will mean a long wait for your dinner.

Entertainment, apart from people-watching, is laid on too. A huge stage hosts a procession of local talent, all dancing to their favourite tunes and maybe passing the hat around later for the crowd to show their appreciation. Every Friday night for years a local guy has donned a black fedora and red sequinned shirt to do a mean Michael Jackson impersonation, right down to a perfect moonwalk across the stage. He is followed by other amazing dancers – mostly men – and the occasional over-enthusiastic sunburnt tourist who can’t resist the urge to join in. Just remember if you are tempted: they are laughing at you, not with you.

Round the back at another bar, people are dancing to old-time music for proper dancers to enjoy. Local couples dress to impress and show off their salsa, waltzing, jive and other Strictly Come Dancing moves: the women in spangly dresses and silver shows, the men with smartly pressed trousers and old-fashioned manners. It’s a joy to watch and tempting to join in, the standard is high.

There are a few market stalls now, too. Jewellery, Barbados towels, hand-made dolls, summer dresses and polished conch shells line the edge of the fish fry, right down at the water’s edge. Groups of men sit at another stall playing a competitively fought game of dominoes whilst their mates watch on and shout encouragement.

Friday nights are not the only night to enjoy Oistins – in fact, Saturdays have a lot to offer without the hordes of tourists. The same fish fry stalls are open but tonight it’s karaoke night, with a small group always lined up along the huge stage to tell the DJ their song and belt it out for the crowd. One chap comes along every Saturday night and sings “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. He has every nuance of the ballad, and more passion than you can shake a stick at. Thing is, he’s tone-deaf, but his heartfelt rendition gets a standing ovation every week. This week we had a couple of great Luther Vandrosses and even a pretty decent Bette Midler doing “Wind Beneath My Wings”.

Actually, if you head down to Oistins any night of the week, quite a few of the fish fry shops will be open to accommodate the local crowd, so even if weekend nights are out it’s worth a trip down. Round off your evening’s entertainment by getting a ZR there and back. It might just be the ride of your life.

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It seems that the Lakehouse is already struggling. After making this lovely riverview spot our new regular Sunday brunch haunt, it’s goodbye to the new kid on the block.

Over the past month or two we’ve persevered at the Lakehouse only for each visit to disappoint in some way. We’ve had a few problems with delayed food – caused, they said, by the kitchen struggling to handle large tables – but forgave each time on the basis that it was handled very well by the servers.

Next time we visited our lovely waiter recognised us and delivered Orlando’s breakfast with an extra complimentary egg to make up for the delays we had before. We were then charged for that “free” egg and another to boot. It took us three visits to the counter to get them taken off the bill.

Last weekend was the worst yet. We arrived to see a pretty big family lunch in progress – in retrospect we should have walked away at that point. We were immediately recognised and the lovely waitress, poor Natalia, told us in advance they were going a little slow, but they knew we’d had problems before so they would work hard to serve us quickly.

After almost an hour the apologetic Natalia came back and said our breakfast was on the house as we had been delayed so much. Fifteen minutes later she came back and gave us a voucher for yet another free meal as a gesture of goodwill. At that point I was fascinated to see how long it would take, so we stayed and chatted.

It took just over two hours to serve us two pretty simple breakfasts (portions a little larger than usual, presumably another gesture).

Lakehouse breakfast

My main point is this: if the Lakehouse’s kitchen grinds to a halt with a table for forty, then they need to consider very carefully whether they should take such large bookings. If our eggs and bacon were delayed by two hours, I doubt that large table was served all of their meals at roughly the same time.

The Lakehouse has the option of limiting numbers for a single booking or offering a set menu for large tables, as many other restaurants do. Or I guess they could increase the staffing in the kitchen when they have large bookings, although that of course will eat into their profits. I am not sure if it’s greed or a simple lack of management on their part, but something needs to change.

I’ve read other reviews that compare the Lakehouse to Lazy Moe’s, and I’d have to agree. After just a couple of months and a fair amount of perseverence, the Lakehouse has become for me yet another disappointing suburban den of mediocrity. My advice to others is that if you see a table for ten or more when you arrive, turn around and go somewhere else. The food just won’t be worth the wait.

Back to the drawing board for us.

Lakehouse Restaurant on Urbanspoon

big boy bbq

31 Hardware Lane, Melbourne 3000
http://www.bigboybbq.com.au

I’m not a fan of Hardware Lane. It’s the city version of the tourist end of Lygon Street: all pushy door staff and so-so food. But we like Golden Monkey, a rum bar at the top of Hardware Lane that hosts the Melbourne Rum Club, and we also love a good rack of ribs.

And so we found ourselves on Hardware Lane on a busy Saturday night waiting for a table at Big Boy BBQ, “Melbourne’s first dedicated ‘low and slow’ smoked meat experience” in their own words. It’s a smallish place, wih seating for maybe 40 inside and another dozen outside. You order at the counter, your food comes out quickly with no fancy presentation, and drinks options are limited to a small fridge by the check-out. But boy is it worth a visit.

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Big Boy offer sandwiches, ribs and barbeque meat all slow-cooked on the premises and served in generous portions. Sides are all-American diner fare, from deep-fried onion strings and coleslaw to the best smoked beef chilli in Melbourne – maybe even Australia. The platters are favourite though. The Little Girl and Little Boy serve 1-3 (they say), whilst the Big Girl and Big Boy serve up to six. All I can say is everything looked BIG.

We played it safe with a ribs and wings combo: four decent-sized chicken wings and a half-rack of ribs (lamb or pork) with two sides, all sat on a few slices of white bread to soak up excess juices. The wings weren’t bad: we do really good wings at home so we rarely order them when we’re out. These ones were fairly well cooked and seasoned, with a trickle of Big Boy BBQ sauce to keep them moist. I wouldn’t bother with them again, though – in the end they just took up valuable stomach space.

The onion strings were a tasty alternative to fries with the meal, picked up with fingers and dropped into our mouths like noodles. The smoked beef chilli was just the best chilli I have tasted in years, possibly ever: slow-cooked beef with brisket burnt ends, and plenty of bortlotti and kidney beans thrown in. Next time I’ll be super-sizing this particular side order.

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The ribs alone are worth the visit. We chose a half rack of Kansas City style dry rubbed pork, not too wet. There were about a dozen ribs, meat falling off the bone, a little bit spicy but not too hot. Finger-lickin’ good.

Like I said, drinks are limited to a few cans, a few beers and one choice of white wine (750ml bottle) from the fridge, but BYO is welcomed at a dollar a head. Bottomless soft drinks cost $3.40.

Desserts are limited but there’s always pie available.

Big Boy call themselves “slow food, served fast” and it’s true – this is not a place to hang out and make an evening of the dining experience. But if you crave good old American barbecue, this is the place to be. You can always head on over to Golden Monkey afterwards and fill up on Hemingway Daiquiris and Wong Island Iced Teas.

Bring your friends, and your own choice of beer or wine. Call ahead – they will take bookings occasionally. Get down there and feast. You won’t be sorry.

Big Boy BBQ on Urbanspoon

the commune

2 Parliament Place, Melbourne
03 9654 5477
http://www.thecommune.com.au

A chilly Thursday night saw us sampling jazz night at the Commune, a little cafe bar near the Peter Mac and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne. At just past six in the evening the place was almost full of diners ready to celebrate the Commune’s ninth birthday. Perhaps it’s the timing of the jazz night – doors open at six and it’s all over by nine – but the average age of the clientele was what my mother would call “active age” – sixty and (well) over. Apart from our table, of course, who were positively glowing in youthful middle age.

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The music started almost immediately: the John Montesante Quintet are the resident Thursday night band, giving the old standards plenty of welly. I do like a good trumpet, and John Montesante was pretty decent.

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The guest singer for the evening was one Jeff Duff, known to older Australians as the lead singer from the group Kush, now channeling his inner David Bowie after a successful five-night sellout gig in the Sydney Opera House Studio. A “skinny white guy” with a big soulful voice, Duff was striking in a vintage yellow-checked suit straight out of Carnaby Street, and I could see why he was favourite to play the Thin White Duke.

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Foodwise, however, the Commune didn’t shine. The food was perfectly acceptable really, a bit pub-grubbish but nothing impressive. Orlando’s calamari salad and Chris’s chicken parmigiana were OK, but nothing special. Robyn’s steak looked pretty good I suppose, and my lasagne (although not piping hot) was a great choice for soaking up the Langhorne Creek Leading Horse Cabernet Sauvignon we were quaffing.

I guess you don’t really come to the Commune for a gourmet dining experience.

The music was old-school but fab, as was the entertainment of watching our fellow diners at the next table trying to clap along in time to the music (it’s harder than you think, apparently).  During one of the breaks, Montesante himself spied Orlando, and (quite rightly) decided he had to come over and explain to the only black man in the room why he was all dressed up in the uniform of a US Civil War Confederate officer. He enveloped the sitting OG in a bear-hug from above, topping off his greeting with – wait for it – a kiss on the forehead and “It’s a real honour to meet you!”. Maybe he thought Orlando was famous? Many Australians do.

Montesanto then went on to provide the politely-smiling Orlando with a history lesson on why it was ok that he was wearing a Confederate officer’s uniform, because slaves actually fought for the Conferedate side don’t you know, didn’t you see the film Glory, etc. Yes, Orlando replied, I am familiar with the history of the era. Ooh, says Montesante, in a surprised voice, you’re intelligent! Not patronising at all. Come another night, he said, and I’ll be wearing the full Yankee regalia.

He then completed his credentials by explaining that he regularly plays with African-American musicians, including his really good friend (whose name he could not quite remember) who hails from Ohio, Illinois. Must look that up. He then took his leave, calling Orlando his brother from another mother.

Oh, he was a perfectly lovely man, well-meaning and maybe a little drunk. Who knows. He visited Orlando twice more in the evening, inadvertently adding to the entertainment of the night.

As far as food goes, jazz night at the Commune is nothing to write home about. Music-wise it’s a blast, and you are home in your PJs before ten on a school-night. What’s not to like? We’ll probably go again for the laugh.

The Commune Cafe Bar on Urbanspoon

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