55a New Quay Promenade 

03 9670 0999

Whatever happened to Docklands? NewQuay is quieter and quieter these days. A handful of restaurants are closed down and the others never seem hugely full, even on weekends. And so it was with some trepidation that I headed down there to meet a friend for dinner on a Thursday evening.

The $13 charge in the pay-and-display car park was the first unwelcome surprise, quickly followed by the gale force wind that greeted me as I turned onto the promenade. NewQuay looks fantastic on paper: a waterside eating, drinking and entertainment precinct, with well-appointed apartments, street art and one or two nice hotels, but summer or winter it almost never appeals. I forge ahead stoutly, driven more by the prospect of some intellectual stimulation and a glass of wine than by anything approaching culinary excellence.

At six o’clock in the evening, Cargo has yet to heat up, literally and figuratively. I settle into a window seat and pull my jacket closed. A glass of Barossa shiraz helps to lift the gloom, and my friend and I get down to the serious business of catching up.

It’s not an enormous menu but we are both drawn to the pizzas. We go old-school with a capriciosa and a good old mushroom pizza. No smalls and larges here – they’re all the one size. There is a wood fired pizza oven here, but they don’t make a big deal of it.

The pizzas are served in less than ten minutes, both a generous dinner-plate size with a fair (perhaps overly generous?) sprinkling of Italian herbs. I had ordered mine well cooked, and it came just so: a little charred around the edges but on the whole sturdy enough to pick up by the slice without losing all the topping.

Not the most inspiring pizza I’ve ever had, but decent enough and a fair price. The anchovies on the capriciosa were not standard topping but added beautifully to the overall saltiness.

We watch the boats come and go on the water outside, and again I am stuck with the mystery that is NewQuay: it appears to have all the elements of a great locale, but somehow it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. And with car parking charges more than even the astronomical St. Kilda, there really doesn’t seem any reason to go there above all the other great entertainment spots around Melbourne.

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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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the lakehouse 2: drowning, not waving

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.

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the commune

2 Parliament Place, Melbourne
03 9654 5477

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.

The Commune 1

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.

Commune 4

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.

Commune 3

Commune 2

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.

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dumplings plus

Highpoint Shopping Centre, Maribyrnong
(Level 2, near Woolworths)
Phone: 03 9318 1699

Well it’s been all go up in Knifepoint recently, with a swish new wing opening and all manner of fancy stores now available in the Wild West. The lovely new Woolworth’s is handy and well-stocked, and the other food stores in that precinct a great addition to our local shopping options. A macaron shop, a lovely continental deli, a huge fresh fruit and veg store, an Asian supermarket and a pretty decent butcher’s. It’s all good.
Another fantastic new addition down by Woolie’s is a new branch of Dumplings Plus, that Swanston Street stalwart. It’s always bustling inside and on the takeaway queue. Don’t pay attention to the opening hours mentioned elsewhere: they confirmed themselves on Saturday evening that it’s a 6.30pm close every night except Thursday and Friday when they stay open till 9.30pm for late-night shopping.
All the dumplings are made on the premises, so at busy times be prepared to wait a few minutes. The pork (or vegetarian) dumplings in chilli oil are ridiculously tasty and quite inexpensive at just under $10 for a dozen. The san choi bau are tasty enough but not the very best I’ve tasted in this Shanghai-dumpling-obsessed town. And you only get eight for your ten bucks.
One small downside so far, but nothing major: there are no Chinese bowls so you are confined to a shallow side-dish-type object to mix up your soy/vinegar/chilli sauce combo for your dumplings, or if you plan on sharing plates between a few of you. Weird, not useful for keeping the food hot and pointless if using chopsticks.
It’s worth coming back again and again for dumplings alone, but Orlando has his eye on a few other non-dumpling treats when next we visit. Further reports to follow.

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