Four months into the year and Melbourne has already chalked up a number of impressive new restaurants we believe will be some of the best of 2018. They represent many continents but share a commitment to pushing Melbourne dining and Australian cuisine forward, in style.

An exciting young chef is reimagining South East Asian cuisine on Punch Lane in the CBD and, a couple of doors down, Bar Saracen is showcasing Middle Eastern food but not as you know it. Nearby, down another city laneway, contemporary Korean has a new champion. In fact, the CBD is home to a significant portion of the best openings of 2018, in basements, down laneways, just as Melbourne likes it.


Sunda, CBD

Twenty-seven-year-old Khanh Nguyen is one Australia’s most exciting young chefs. He spent nearly a decade working in Sydney’s best restaurants before opening Sunda, his sexy new South East Asian restaurant in Punch Lane. Nguyen’s time at Noma Sydney introduced him to native ingredients, and he uses them sparingly to add sharp, citrus-y accents that readily complement the sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours of his innovative take on Vietnamese, Malaysian and more. An XO egg-noodle dish mixes squelch and crunch thanks to a showering of chicken-skin crackling and native pepperberries. Cigar-sized baby corn is a show stopper, laid out on a dark plate, creating a tiger-stripe effect. Briny oysters get topped with curry oil and mounted on a pillar of whipped egg white, salt and seaweed powder. The fit-out features rough brickwork, internal aluminium scaffolding and plywood accents, clearly referencing a construction site. Which, by the way, part of the restaurant still is. The mezzanine opens in May.


Mjølner, CBD

Behind a heavy gold and black carved door on Hardware Street you’ll find the new restaurant and bar from Sven Almenning (Eau de Vie, Boilermaker House). It's a retro-futurist Viking dining hall filled with handmade axes and whole-beast cooking. The host wears a coarse cotton smock, leather apron and a dagger at his hip. The dragon-headed prow of a Viking longship bursts forth from the wall. Mjølner isn’t subtle, but boy is it fun. The menu isn’t an ode to what the Norse explorers ate 1000 years ago. Rather, Almenning asks, “What would Vikings eat today?” His answer: short rib braised for more than 12 hours and served with caramelised brussels sprouts and sticky pan juices; roast porchetta; venison cured then seared in a hot pan and rolled in ash. Dinner begins with a complimentary Stone Skål – an amber shot of stone-boiled vermouth, mead and honey. For dessert, try a delicate bombe Alaska, which is set on fire right in front of you. Despite the theatrics and embellishments, this is no themed restaurant – it's something much more refined.

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Ishizuka, CBD

At Ishizuka, a new fine diner inside a basement on Bourke Street, owner and chef Tomotaka Ishizuka serves kaiseki, a centuries-old Japanese haute cuisine tradition. The degustation-style meal is meticulously prepared and punctiliously served in a prescribed order, using only the freshest seasonal ingredients. Ishizuka was the head chef at Crown’s Koko, and his eponymous restaurant has just 16 seats, all around a central counter. Kaiseki is devoutly seasonal, so the nightly set menu ($215 per person) changes regularly. But you can expect artfully plated dishes of seafood such as urchin or spanner crab; soup; sashimi; and grilled plates, such as red bream or Wagyu from Mayura Station in South Australia. Ishizuka’s signature dish is a simmered duck breast, known as kamo jibuni. The drinks list is small but solid, with about 30 wines and 10 sakes curated by ex-Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple sommelier David Lawler. The subterranean space feels like the inside of a light and airy cocoon, with a huge white dome reminiscent of a Japanese lantern.


Messer, Fitzroy

Copper Pot co-owners Ashley Davis and Sascha Rust have been inspired by Europe’s food markets at their new Gertrude Street restaurant. There’s a generous assortment of salads, and a snacks menu that features Davis’s take on flammkuchen or tarte flambée, a moreish woodfired flatbread of German-Alsatian origins. It’s a local custom to beeline for one of these at the weekly farmers’ market, and you should do so at Messer. The menu is weighted roughly 50:50 meat to vegetables, including a number of nose-to-tail meat dishes such as the tender ox tongue, and the entire roe, flesh and skin of a Yarra Valley trout. Local suppliers are a focus here, and include Oliver Shorthouse from Ramarro Farms (a Cutler and Co manager turned farmer) and Phil McAdam (the Port Phillip fisherman behind Messer's hyperlocal sardines). When Rust isn’t in the kitchen (or working the “Big Green Egg”, a smoking barbeque fuelled by cherry-wood charcoal from local orchards) he’s foraging for pink peppercorns, lilly pilly berries and samphire to top that night’s dishes.


Congress, Collingwood

The food and fit-out at this new restaurant-slash-wine bar are effortlessly polished, and the operation appears to be as smooth as the brushed-concrete columns and dark-brass balustrades that lead you to the lofty but intimate mezzanine dining space are. Head chef Jack Stuart (ex-Michelin-starred The Forest Side in England’s Lakes District) designed the menu with co-owner Katie McCormack’s input, and it includes a roasted quarter Milawa chicken with a thick wedge of charred savoy cabbage and chicken jus. Diners can opt for the $58 chef’s menu, or order several plates to share. The stand out is the soft, peppery, house-made kangaroo pastrami, served on a smudge of cultured sour cream (made from scratch) and a layer of crunchy shallots reminiscent of autumn leaves. The Dutch spice cake with malt custard, tamarind and pecans is a wave to the cakes that McCormack’s oma (grandma) used to make. The 50-bottle, Australian-dominant wine list mixes classic and minimal-intervention wines. You'll be back here a few times.


Bar Saracen

Joseph Abboud (owner of Brunswick’s Rumi and the Moor’s Head in Thornbury and Carlton) and Ari Vlassopoulos (ex-Pei Modern, Hellenic Republic) found a serendipitous location for their new Lebanese restaurant Bar Saracen; its sandy terracotta walls and triangular-archway windows aren’t too different to some of Lebanon’s mosques and churches. The restaurant aims to show the breadth of Middle Eastern cuisine. Yes, there are borek and kofta, but not as you know them. The borek is samosa-sized and filled with prawn, egg and cheese. The Wagyu kofta are raw, like steak tartare with Lebanese spices. The food here is not home-style as it is at Rumi, although the fish taratoor with fried nuts and pickled grapes is an homage to Abboud’s mother’s Sunday lunch recipe. Head chef Tom Sarafian recently learnt how to make filo pastry from a Turkish woman who sells baklava at the Brunswick Market. It’s used in his pistachio baklava with sheep’s-milk yoghurt ice-cream. The team is experimenting with coffee too; Code Black has created a custom-cardamom batch brew – a classic pairing in Lebanon.


Carlton Wine Room, Carlton

The striking 19th-century building on the corner of leafy Drummond and Faraday Streets has got a new coat of paint, new owners and a new spirit. The approachable but considered new Carlton Wine Room is home to a modern Australian menu (with a European influence). The offering is comforting and concise – the handiwork of head chef John Paul Twomey, formerly founding head chef at Cutler & Co. His kingfish crudo is a monochrome dish of thick slices of raw fish nestled into a smudge of creme fraiche and topped with rough slices of translucent napa cabbage and shaved horseradish. Grilled broccolini is served with feathery shavings of cured egg yolk, fat lardons of bacon, and a parmesan, cream and egg yolk sauce. An already-established favourite is the half roast chicken; it is tender and crisp-skinned and sits on a light, mousse-y aioli, with big raw sorrel leaves laid flat, confit rounds of potato, and jus on the side.


Restaurant Shik, CBD

Chef Peter Jo – better known as Kimchi Pete – started his career at his father’s two Korean barbeque restaurants, then worked at Momofuku Seiobo, and as sommelier at Belles Hot Chicken. In 2016 he left Belles to start a series called #DinnerByKimchi, in which he experimented with Korean cooking techniques. Restaurant Shik is his new 65-seat, dimly lit Korean restaurant down cobbled Niagara Lane. The tight menu is broken down into entree, grilled, braised and banchan (sides). Jo works mainly with secondary meat cuts, flamed on the grill, such as Wagyu intercostal, a Rangers Valley beef short plate (the part of the belly right under the guts) and kimchi-marinated pork neck. Kimchis include fennel and coriander, beetroot and watercress, brussels sprouts, and persimmon. The 60-bottle wine list is almost entirely natural. Jo wants people to drink wine in order to appreciate the varying fermented flavours in what they’re eating and drinking. Shik also stocks three types of the spirit soju distilled the traditional way, using rice.


Natural History Bar and Grill

Inside an old 1940s building in the CBD is a suave late-night American diner slash steakhouse slash caviar and oyster bar, brought to you by Morgan McGlone and the 100 Burgers Group. The sophisticated but playful fit-out by Michael Delany takes cues from Manhattan’s Natural History Museum and the century-old Grand Central Oyster Bar. Guests perch on red vinyl stools at the glass-topped porchetta bar; the oyster bar is an oval ringed by dark leather stools and green glass partitions; the central bar, inside the steakhouse, is padded with grape-red leather and brass inlays. Steak comes in the form of a one-kilo club, 500-gram rib eye, eye-fillet; sliced hanger, tartare served with puffed beef tendon chips and hot sauce, and a burger. Before steak is served the waiter resets the table with just a fork. Two minutes later they return holding a wooden box as though it’s a briefcase of money. Inside? Six perfectly polished knives with handles of varying materials laid out in a row, so you can choose your weapon. You'll also find pescatarian and vegetarian options, and the wine list is more than 50 per cent natural. This is, as McGlone says, "a place to let your hair down".


Audience Picks

Ippudo (world-famous ramen from Japan), HWKR (rotating Asian vendors in a slick CBD food hall) and Miss Katie’s Crab Shack (seafood cooked in the style of the American southern) were three of our most-read restaurant-opening stories of the year.