Chefs Club Chronicles: Seeking Croissants and Soup Dumplings in Melbourne
One perfect, food-filled day in Melbourne.
I work for Chefs Club, an innovative restaurant group where we showcase the talents of incredible chefs from all around the world. In Aspen and in our New York flagship, our culinary team, led by 20-year Alain Ducasse veteran Didier Elena, executes a curated collection of signature dishes from a dynamic lineup of star chefs. In March 2017, we opened the first Chefs Club Counter, a fast-casual iteration of the same concept. On top of all that, we frequently host guest chefs for residencies that can last from as short as one night to as long as one week.
As Chefs Club’s Curator, it’s my job to answer two questions: Why this particular chef, or this specific dish? And why now? I stay plugged in to what’s happening in food all over the globe, and place great importance on the timeliness and relevance of what we feature in our restaurants. So I travel widely with a voracious appetite.
At the beginning of April, the world’s culinary wizards met in Oz. With the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards and the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival happening at the same time this year, countless chefs, sommeliers, journalists, and bloggers from all over came out to celebrate. I went, too, looking for the most amazing dishes and experiences to try to bring back to Chefs Club. After scouring the area from top to bottom, inside the city and out in the suburbs, these were seven of my greatest finds. Collectively, they would comprise one perfect day in Melbourne.
7:30 a.m. - Sunshine on the Ceiling
I start every day at Patricia Coffee Brewers, and frankly, contemplated booking a hotel nearby for easier access. Why? Well, I’ve not been to a happier cafe anywhere in the world. This is the heart of Melbourne’s business district, but even the office workers slowly sip and chat, impervious to the passage of time. The baristas are beaming. Light permeates every corner of the room. My macchiato turns up next on the marble bar. I look up at the neon light suspended from the ceiling: “Sunshine.” Indeed, that’s the feeling here. patriciacoffee.com.au
8:30 a.m. - La Vie en Rose Street
The plain version alone warrants crossing the International Date Line; the pain au chocolat alleviates the pain of jet lag; and don't even get me started on the twice-baked, coconut pandan rendition. I'm talking, of course, about the buttery, flaky croissants at Lune Croissanterie. Made by a former aerospace engineer named Kate Reid and her brother Cameron, these are among the finest specimens you'll find not just here in funky Fitzroy, or Melbourne, or even Australia. They’d make even a jaded Parisian giggle with delight. lunecroissanterie.com
10:30 a.m. - A “Bit” of Breakfast
In this breakfast-crazy town, it isn’t all about avo toast and #unicornfood. And just down Smith Street, past the vintage shops and the bars where last night’s bad decisions were made, lies a haven from hipsterdom. Chotto roughly translates as “a little bit,” hinting at the brevity of its intended lifespan. The cuisine recalls that of a Japanese ryokan or inn, and Chef Brendan Liew serves breakfast sets meant to be taken with tea. (The highlight of mine: sweet, shoulder-season tomatoes with wasabi and yuzu kosho.) Soon Brendan and his wife Caryn will transform the space into a more ambitious dinner destination, so wake up and go now.
1:00pm - Chinatown Pearl
Home to the oldest Chinatown in the Southern Hemisphere, Melbourne covers the culinary map of China in just a few blocks on either side of Little Bourke Street. I have a few strong regional favorites (Shandong Mama, Dainty Sichuan), but it is Flower Drum that dreams are made of. There, the juiciest jiaozi do a most convincing impersonation of soup dumplings. Crispy-skinned Peking duck arrives in perfect little pancake parcels. Slices of pearl meat, the adductor muscle of hand-sized pearl oysters, taste like the love child of scallops and abalone. At over 60 years old, Chef Anthony Lui is still in the kitchen every day and has been since 1980. Meanwhile in the dining room, his son Jason orchestrates some of the finest service in Australia. flowerdrum.melbourne
3:00 p.m. - White Pages
It’s called culinary ephemera for a reason: shops like the exceedingly wonderful Books for Cooks barely exist anymore. In a space adjacent to the sprawling Queen Victoria Market, Tim and Amanda White look after a collection of over 40,000 food and cookery books. It’s the only store of its kind in Australia, and among the best anywhere in the world. Whatever the holy grail you seek -- an autographed copy of Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, let’s say, or the ever-elusive first Noma book -- odds are they either have it or can get it for you. And if sometimes you just want to sit, read, and daydream about the cookies (ahem, biscuits) one might have enjoyed in 17th century England? Well, you can do that, too. booksforcooks.com.au
5:00 p.m. - Naturally Italian(ish)
It’s a classic tale: a Finnish chef meets a natural wine evangelist from Piedmont at a festival in Sydney. Together, they embark on a spontaneous collaboration entitled That's Amore, the former proposing a cuisine that can't be easily categorized, while the latter pours up a party that can't be easily contained. I've tracked Chef Pasi Petänen's movements for nearly a decade, first as the head chef at Aussie fine diner Marque and later at his not-so-Scandinavian Cafe Paci. For the time being, his cooking is Italian(ish): think gutsy prawn tonnarelli chased with a vivacious rosé from Lazio. His nonna must be so proud.
7:30 p.m. - Gee-troit
Big rewards await the intrepid eater willing to travel outside the city center: Attica in a suburb to the east, for instance, and Brae in the hinterland to the west. But if you catch the train that heads southwesterly along the coast, it’s time to disembark when the surroundings look and feel a bit like Detroit. Welcome to Geelong. Stroll past the library, town hall, and the strip club, not necessarily in that order. Stop when you see an edible diorama in the window, of honeycomb, cured meats and fish tails. This is IGNI, where a decidedly bearded chef by the name of Aaron Turner mans the grill. Red gum wood fuels his fire, and much of the food touches either flame or smoke. There are around twenty-two dishes in his arsenal at any given time, of which we opt for his selection of eight ($150 AUD). All evening, the flavors are bold but not brash, the plates tightly edited but wildly expressive. Collectively, the progression is soulful and downright symphonic. I would move mountains to go back. restaurantigni.com