Some dishes are simply iconic. To a confidant, you might mention a certain pasta you tried last week. Eyes roll in ecstasy. “Oh my God, I live for that sauce.”
This status can’t be bought or designed. It’s bestowed only on Melbourne’s most culinarily creative, fastidious – or sometimes downright lucky.
Broadsheet spoke to institutions across our city about how some of Melbourne’s most revered dishes came about, and why they’ve stood the test of time.
Abla’s chicken and rice
As far as BYO institutions go, Abla’s is legendary. The same applies to its pilaf. It’s known and beloved as (arguably) the chicken and rice. Owner Abla Amad wouldn’t dream of taking it off the menu. She’d never even think of changing the formula.
“Never,” says Amad, who opened the Carlton restaurant in 1979. “It’s always the same ingredients and presentation … simply chicken and rice – ‘djaj a riz’ in Lebanese.”
This iconic dish has lured in the masses for the past 39 years. So what does it owe its staying power to?
“First, the simplicity of the ingredients,” Amad says. “Organic chicken, a little minced lamb, rice, cinnamon and allspice, almonds and pine nuts. That’s all. Second, its presentation: it’s served in a cake tin with a hollow centre, which makes the dish look like a dessert in some ways.”
Amad got the idea for this slightly esoteric presentation after visiting her mother in Lebanon nearly 40 years ago. At that time, serving chicken and rice in a cake tin was in vogue. She brought the idea back to Melbourne, where she’s used it every day since.
Bar Idda’s mulinciani
Owner of Brunswick East’s Bar Idda, Alfredo La Spina, says that in Sicilian mulinciani translates simply to “eggplant”. A name just like the dish: uncomplicated and straight-up. And that’s what La Spina puts mulinciani’s enduring success down to.
“Classic flavours never go out of style,” he says. “Only the presentation. The combination of eggplant, tomato, basil is as Italian as the flag.”
Since Bar Idda opened in 2009, this lasagne-esque dish has emerged as a clear customer favourite. The recipe was handed down from La Spina’s fraternal grandmother. It’s been fine-tuned along the way to help Bar Idda’s kitchen keep up with demand, but the whole process of preparing the dish still takes a total of three days, which covers slicing, salting straining, pressing and baking (the at-home version takes three to four hours).
“She would make one of these every Sunday for all the families,” La Spina says. “And we’ve got five aunties and uncles, so she had to make six trays of it. It was up to someone in each family to drop over to her house and pick it up.”
Some customers call his eatery “the restaurant with the eggplant” says La Spina. “We once had a couple fly back from Perth to revisit their favourite dish … we could never [take it off the menu] due to fear of the reaction.”
It was inspired by McConnell’s food-centric travels through Spain, where he tried a similar lamb dish that he still remembers as one of best things he’s ever tasted.
“It’s a real event to share a large joint of meat at the table,” McConnell says, fondly. “Especially in a restaurant. For many people it triggers a nostalgic memory of family dinners past.”
He’s never toyed with the idea of altering or removing the dish, recognising and respecting the power of its fall-off-the-bone flesh, and caramelised crust of garlic, lemon, oregano and salt flakes. It remains one of the restaurant's most-ordered dishes. It’s served with a salad of quick-pickled red onions, sumac and parsley to cut through the weight of the lamb.
Dainty Sichuan’s fish-flavoured eggplant
For the less chilli-capable among us, Sichuan restaurants can induce anxious and reflexive sweating. Tony Jiang, operational manager at the Dainty Sichuan restaurant group, believes that this is why the South Yarra outpost’s deliciously crisp fish-flavoured eggplant has stood the test of time.
“Not everyone is a chilli lover,” Jiang says. “This dish is only one degree of chilli, out of our three levels on the menu. I think the majority of people can handle this entry level, so that’s why all customers love this.”
The fish-flavoured eggplant lives on the vegetarian page of Dainty Sichuan’s menu. There’s no fish in the dish – not even fish sauce. Instead, crisp cubes of eggplant are flavoured with ginger, garlic, chilli, black vinegar and Shaoxing wine.
Jiang says it’s been made that way since he started working at Dainty Sichuan 14 years ago, excluding a few tiny tweaks to jazz up the presentation.
“It’s a very good dish, but only for dining in,” Jiang says. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone get this to take away. The most important thing is timing. Once the chef cooks it and we bring it to the table, you’ve got to eat it as soon as you can. Otherwise you won’t feel that crispiness of the eggplant.”
Donovans’ chicken pie
Kevin and Gail Donovan have been slinging pies beachside for 21 years. The old-fashioned chicken pie has been on the St Kilda institution’s menu since the beginning – as have nine other dishes – first created by founding head chef Robert Castellani.
Patrons have become unreasonably attached to some of these dishes – especially the pie, with its light, super-flaky crust and tarragon-spiked creamy chicken and mushroom filling.
When Kevin and Gail (briefly) decided to remove the chicken pie from the menu, blood ran hot. “Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘God, if I have to serve another chicken pie … or if we have to make another roll of puff pastry in the kitchen … I’ll scream’,” says Gail. “But remember when we took the chicken pie off?”
“It was revolt,” says Kevin.
“I tell you, it was chaos. They weren't just little emails and phone calls we got. ‘We're never coming back’, they said,” recalls Gail. “And 30, 40 [calls] on Monday morning.”
Grossi Florentino’s chocolate soufflé
“We tried to take our soufflé off the menu once,” says Guy Grossi, head chef and owner of Grossi Florentino. “It was a big mistake. People were genuinely devastated. We had a guest say they wouldn’t come in unless the soufflé was on. So back it went and so it will remain.”
The recipe hasn’t changed since the Grossi family took over 80-year-old institution Cafe Florentino back in 1999 and made it their own – changing up the accompanying ice-cream is as close as they’ll go.
“The soufflé is a very precious and delicate thing,” Guy says. “I once pulled a tray of perfectly risen soufflés out of the oven and the tray got caught. All the soufflés slid down toward me, so to save them I rested the tray on my arm … The tray that just came out of the oven … Saved the soufflés, sacrificed the arm.”
HuTong’s xiao long bao
You never forget your first soup dumpling. That squishy little parcel might sear your tongue, sure, but it will redefine your understanding of what a dumpling can be. For many Melburnians, HuTong’s 2008 opening in Market Lane was a crash course in xiao long bao. 10 years on HuTong is still dumpling royalty, now with a second spot in Prahran.
The xiao long bao at HuTong are perfect in their simplicity and in high demand across both restaurants. Kids press their faces against the glass window that looks from the dining room through to the kitchen, watching dumpling masters assemble each tiny package with the flick of a wrist.
Prahran head chef Jun Jing Hua has been making xiao long bao for more than a decade. The pork mince filling is a tightrope balance of sweet and savoury, and the broth is made by boiling pork skin until it turns to jelly. The little parcels are then steamed, which makes for a dangerous first bite for the uninitiated.
Il Bacaro’s Moreton Bay bug spaghettini
There was a time when hearing the words “bug spaghettini” did little to entice Melburnians into a restaurant. That was well before 1999, when il Bacaro put its Moreton Bay bug spaghettini on the menu. Now it’s a CBD staple.
“We’re very consistent with how we serve the dish, and it’s always the same whether you’ve had it a year ago or had it just yesterday,” says co-owner Marco Tenuta.
One change was made a few years back, though. A garnish of red and green chillies was ditched to maintain a more consistent level of heat – spice levels in different batches of fresh chillies proved too volatile. Now, the dish arrives chilli-free; light strands of just-al-dente pasta coated in a sauce made from olive oil, white wine, fish stock, chilli, garlic and anchovies, ready to be wrapped around plump pieces of Moreton Bay bug.
“People have come from all over the country, and even the world, to eat our spaghettini,” Tenuta says proudly. “Michael Schumacher has had it, Mick Jagger has had it, Justin Timberlake has had it, Kylie Minogue has had it, and even various prime ministers have had it.”
Stokehouse’s bombe alaska
“Who doesn’t love toasted meringue?” asks Ollie Hansford, head chef at Stokehouse. Well, nobody.
The drama of a flambeé isn’t merely theatrical – this is what gives any bombe alaska its textural contrast.
“We’ve adjusted the recipe slightly to add less sugar over time, and there is a constant tweaking of the sweetness of the strawberry sorbet, depending on the season,” says Hansford. “We’ve toyed with standing it up and laying it down, but that’s as far as we have gotten to changing the dish.”
The Stokehouse bombe combines tart strawberry sorbet, creamy white chocolate parfait, fresh strawberries, a sponge base and toasted meringue. Sour mingles with sweet, cold with warm, soft and pillowy with softer and pillowier.
Hansford recalls a visit from his parents, who live in the UK, a few years back. “They’d already tried the bombe and loved it … So, when they came over again they were so excited about ordering it, we went straight to Stokehouse from the airport.”
Supernormal Canteen’s lobster roll
Another McConnell dish, yes. His indelible impact on Melbourne dining means there’s room for two McConnell masterpieces.
The lobster roll was first served at Golden Fields in St Kilda where it was immediately wildly popular. When Golden Fields closed in 2014, the roll took up residence on the Supernormal menu. It had to. And it’s been on the menu ever since.
“I think there might be a riot if we tried to take it off,” says McConnell. “People love them because they provide a little bit of luxury without breaking the bank.”
If dollops of Kewpie mayonnaise are considered luxury, then this lobster roll is the Palace of Versailles. Miniature brioche buns hold delicious little wads of lobster, mayo and shallots. It’s neither snack nor meal, but a happy place in-between.
The dish has become so popular that the restaurant has created souvenir lobster roll keyrings so diehard fans can have the dish with them at all times. To say its following has achieved cult status would be putting it mildly.
Umberto’s osso bucco
When Marco Finanzio was asked if he’s ever altered the recipe of his osso bucco, his reply was one of shock: “Never ever, ever.”
“It’s a classic dish that hasn’t been ‘cool’ to serve in restaurants for a long time,” says Finanzio, owner of tiny Thornbury espresso bar Umberto’s. “You can sit down to as many degustation menus as you like, but the fact is, everyone needs comfort food.”
Finanzio says that this home-style cooking is the secret to the dish’s longevity and popularity. Its slow-cooked veal shanks are an electric blanket on a winter night, only tastier. Since opening in 2010, Finanzio has even seen one famished customer polish off two servings, one directly after the other.
Unlike the dishes above, Umberto’s osso bucco is purely seasonal. But Finanzio says that people hound his team for it year-round.
“When people know it’s being served, we always get customers walking in and immediately requesting us to put a serving aside,” he says. “Before they’ve even been shown their seat ... Just in case it sells out before they get a chance to order.”