The rules are simple: the venue has to have opened this year (or in late ’18 at a stretch) with major revamps also getting a hall pass. And the dish (or drink) must be one we can’t get out of our heads.

Cabbage heart at Gaea, Fitzroy

As a born-again pescatarian, it was exciting to see that almost every dish on the set menu at Gaea matched that of my carnivorous dining partner. As the savoury crescendo of the night hit the table, though – his, a single piece of crisp-skinned duck breast; mine a great hunk of cabbage – the contrast was a bit deflating. But this is one clever cabbage. Time spent on the barbeque means it’s meaty and rich, and three days spent compressed with cabbage dashi imparts a satisfying butteriness. Then chef-owner Mo Zhou serves it just-warm, with a little butter and some preserved black truffles underneath a cabbage crisp. It’s cabbage, amplified, and it’s so much better than that sounds.
– Ellen Fraser, Melbourne editor

Fried shallot at Old Palm Liquor, Brunswick East

The cider-brined pork chop was the undisputed highlight of my first meal at Old Palm Liquor, but subsequent visits got me hooked on the fried shallot. It’s much like a bloomin’ onion of Outback Steakhouse fame – the vegetable is roughly split into pieces, battered and deep-fried – and the accompanying pickled jalapenos and cashew-infused sour cream provide some much-needed acid to foil any residual oiliness.
– Nick Connellan, publications director

One of the best things I’ve eaten this year is the fried shallot with cashew sour cream and pickled jalapeno at Old Palm Liquor. A modern, vegan riff on that Outback Steakhouse classic, the bloomin’ onion, it’s crunchy, salty and slightly sweet – perfect with a natty wine.
– Anna Webster, contributor

Negroni Bianco at Di Stasio Citta, CBD

I’m not a Negroni fan. It’s just too strong for me – the red vermouth and Campari are too domineering. I’ve tried to like the drink over the years, but we’re just not meant to be friends. Citta’s Negroni Bianco, however, is a different story. It’s a milder, fresher, less bitter take on the classic cocktail, made with white vermouth instead of red (and no Campari). It’s light and delicious and really easy to drink. Not too sweet, not too savoury – just right. Now a committed Negroni (Bianco) drinker, I ordered one at another Melbourne venue a few weeks later – a very respected drinks institution. It was no good. Far too strong. There’s something special and bright about Citta’s version. The perfect daytime drink.
– Katya Wachtel, editorial director

MGX Burger at Bar Margaux, CBD

The whole city fell in love with the burger at Margaux this year and for good reason. The thing is so damn decadent. It's two patties tall, comes dripping with bordelaise (a sauce made with red wine and bone marrow), and eating it is a sleeves-up-and-lean-forward situation. My recommendation is to roll up with a close friend after a night out, find a dark corner, then order a bottle of champagne and a single burger. Slice that puppy in half and share the spoils. It’s the perfect late-night supper.
– Nick Shelton, publisher

Salt-and-pepper tofu at Mono-XO, Fitzroy

It’s usually a bad thing when your condiment is the same colour as a bar’s lavender neon lighting – but not so at Fitzroy’s idiosyncratic “charcoal and rock’n’roll” bar Mono-XO. Mayo coloured pink with pepperberry comes alongside three big fried and skewered blocks of delicate salt-and-pepper tofu. The bean curd has been marinated in a combination of soy, sake, garlic, ginger and onion, then breaded with shichi-mi tōgarashi seasoning, kombu powder and potato starch. I was made for lovin’ this baby.
– Nick Buckley, contributor and former assistant editor

Deconstructed lemon meringue tart at Oster, Richmond

If ever I’m considering dessert at a restaurant, it’s because I’ve spotted some sort of rich, chocolatey mess on my initial scan of the menu. Except if that rich chocolatey mess is competing with a lemony, biscuit-heavy number – and Oster’s deconstructed lemon meringue tart is just that. A stack of lemon curd (made with organic lemons from the owner’s neighbour, Lizzie), a disc of shortcrust pastry, a delicate Swiss meringue that’s flamed as it’s plated, and some house-made raspberry sorbet. It’s equal parts zing and biscuit-crunch and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I visited in October.
– Stephanie Vigilante, audience growth coordinator

The God Feather at Spitfire, Brunswick

I’ve been evangelising over the souvas at Spitfire all year, especially the God Feather. And I’m not done spreading the good word just yet. Every component is so on song. There’s the chicken, beautifully flamed on charcoal; the harmony of the caramelised onions, chives, chips and cheese sauce all working together; and the char and chew of the cooked-to-order flatbread it all comes wrapped up in. And it only costs $14. And on weekends you can get it until 2am. Surely I’ve converted you?
– Callum McDermott, directory editor

Grilled chicken and rice at Good Nights, Windsor

Just when you think the most demolishable (non-traditional) Hainanese chicken rice is at Good Days, along comes Good Nights. Talk about sibling rivalry. The former’s boneless version is neatly contained to one plate, while the latter serves a half or whole chook “family style” with all the trimmings (on kitsch floral tablecloths to guard against the inevitable mess). That chicken-fat rice. Those segments of perfectly charred cos. The green-shallot sauce. I would happily eat this nightly, but I don’t live in Windsor and my at-home replication attempt(s) failed dismally.
– Tomas Telegramma, things to do editor

Taco Italiano at Cutler & Co

Ladies and gentlemen, the genius of Andrew McConnell in a palm-sized, eat-with-your-fingers microcosm, as represented by a single tortilla cradling roast suckling pig, shredded cabbage and a slick of salsa verde. This sure-shot on the Cutler bar menu might riff on Mexican, Italian and even Chinese food traditions, yet it feels and tastes utterly Melbourne. A two-bite snack powerful enough to make McConnell's abalone katsu sando and salmon roe doughnuts an afterthought. Almost.
– Max Veenhuyzen, Perth editor-at-large

Caviar with Pringles at Milney’s, Fitzroy

Initially, I thought this $90 menu item was a gag. So I order it as a joke, and soon it appears before me: a tub of sour-cream-and-chive Pringles on a silver platter, with a golden tin of Ossetra caviar chilling on ice in a crystal bowl. Without instruction, but taking cues from the mother-of-pearl spoon provided, a friend and I scoop the buttery black caviar onto a Pringle and begin to feed each other. It's lavish but accessible, and we're left to wonder if it's genius or ridiculous. Both? Neither? Or who even cares? It goes well with beer.
– Kate Shanasy, contributor

Scallop bao at James, South Melbourne

With its assonant hints, you’ll be saying “scallop bao” out loud before you’ve even decided to order it. And you should order it. Then, when you bite into the fluffy bun, you’re met with the fried scallop, a prawn in panko, a buzz of cucumber pickle and a slap of mustard Kewpie, the whole lot given crunch with a shiso and cabbage slaw. The first time I had this was at a dinner with a mate, and we’ve been back and had it again. If I was allowed, I’d still be sitting there, eating the bao. The scallop bao (say it out loud).
– Hilary McNevin, contributor

Popcorn chicken with curry leaf and white pepper togarashi at Lagoon Dining, Carlton

“These guys should open a spin-off takeaway chicken shop and serve nothing but this.” That’s my partner on our second visit to Lagoon Dining. We came back for many reasons – the delish modern-Asian food, great service, intimate atmosphere – but this popcorn chicken was top of the list. The meat is tender, and the togarashi (with white pepper, Korean chilli and Sichuan peppercorns) is moreish with a spicy kick. A third visit is already in order.
– Chynna Santos, contributor

Potato bread rolls, macadamia butter, black garlic at pop-up Anco, Melbourne

Yes, one of the best dishes I had this year was a simple bread roll, but Mika Chae and Kim Kim, the South Korean chefs behind pop-up Anco, do it so well. The bread is made with mashed potato, so it has a soft and light crumb with a crust that is thin and crackly, almost like a croissant. And the rich and nutty macadamia butter immediately melts when it's slathered onto the hot roll. I would be totally happy to just have a plate of these rolls and a glass of wine for dinner.
– Tony Lao, contributor

Vegan fried mushroom burger at 300 Grams, Northcote

Since going vegetarian at the start of the year, I've looked long and hard for something that satisfies the greasiness, spiciness and comforting experience of eating a Southern fried chicken burger. I’ve tried faux-meat, mushrooms that come out too dry or with unreliable consistency, and lentil patties aplenty, but few come close to the joy of deep-fried chicken in a soft bun. 300 Grams changed that for me with its vegan fried mushroom burger. It’s not trying to replace chicken (nothing could do it justice), but the Portobello mushroom is tender, hot and juicy, and comes wrapped in a light vegan batter. The slaw is crunchy, and the jalapeno-infused mayo is spicy enough to make you pause, breathe and give thanks that this burger exists.
– Emily Barlow, campaign manager and contributor

Dinner roll at Baker Bleu, Caulfield North

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here since this roll’s been around for a couple of years now. But Mike Russell opened a second bakery in Caulfield North this year, so I think I can sneak this one in on a technicality. The sad reality of being in my mid-30s is that I'm trying to avoid any “unnecessary” bread – especially if it comes alongside a bowl of pasta. But to deny yourself the Baker Bleu dinner roll with good butter is to miss a moment of pure joy. For me, the best way to experience it is to sit at the bar at Carlton Wine Room and order it alongside chef JP Twomey’s eggplant ragu and a glass of Little Ra Ra Roopa sauvignon blanc. It really is one of life’s small pleasures. I was never going have abs anyway.
– Nick Shelton, publisher

Soy sauce ice-cream at Kenny Lover, Thornbury

When Subway starts releasing salted caramel cookies, you know the flavour combo is as stale as last night’s footlong. But at Thornbury’s lurid-orange ice-cream parlour Kenny Lover, the pairing is given new life thanks to a healthy slug of soy sauce.

Waves of sweet, salty and umami are brought to your tongue by a slightly different process than your usual scoop. Rather than starting off with a heated mix of cream and eggs, a crème anglaise, the Kenny Lover team churns together locust bean gum (a natural thickener), cream and toffee as a base. The process, called cold stabilising, allows flavours to retain their fresh, uncooked flavour. The soy sauce brings salt and a deep savouriness to counter the caramelised sugar. This thing is a revelatory ice-cream.
– Nick Buckley, contributor and former assistant editor

Toasted rice, coconut and mango ripple ice-cream at Kenny Lover, Thornbury

A cup full of this stuff is silky-smooth, except for the slivers of mango. But – and I’m aware this sounds very strange – the rice flavour is so pronounced, I could almost make out its toasty, crunchy texture in my mouth. Both times. It’s that good.
– Tomas Telegramma, things to do editor

Mochinuts at 279, West Melbourne

Inspired by the wildly popular Pon de Ring from Japanese bakery Mister Donut, this doughnut is a connected circle of six little balls of dough designed to be torn off and eaten one at a time. Each one has an airy, chewy texture, and is an excellent accompaniment to a cup of coffee or matcha latte.
– Harvard Wang, contributor

Spiced lamb borek at Maha East, Windsor

Resembling a deep-fried spring roll, the thin and crisp pastry of Shane Delia’s spiced lamb borek cracks on first bite, revealing a dark, rich lamb mince. It’s offset by a sweet raisin jam and a light dusting of salty olive soil. I highly recommend a pomegranate sour with a couple of these.
– Tony Lao, contributor