There’s something fascinating about where chefs go to eat on their days off; it’s like being let in on a secret. As we move into spring, Broadsheet asked some of Melbourne’s best culinary minds what's thrilling them in Melbourne's restaurant scene right now.
Not far from where Leonardo’s will open is Chinger Biang Biang Noodle, a low-key Asian spot on Victoria Street, Carlton. The menu at the unassuming 20-or-so-seat eatery revolves mostly around noodles, and you can be in and out pretty fast.
“I sometimes eat there three or four times a week it's that good,” Stanton says. “It's my favourite little place.”
He orders the same thing every time: hot oil-seared Biang Biang noodles, lamb dumplings in a fiery hot and sour soup, and the Chinger vegetable salad.
“The reason I love it so much is because there's a guy – I don't know his name –he's like my hero. He's like the noodle king of Melbourne. He stands in the kitchen, he's got other guys working with him, and he just kind of stands over them and makes sure that everything that comes out is 100 per cent spot on,” Stanton says. “He doesn't smile. He doesn't say a word. I'm obsessed with it.”
For a more polished dining experience, Stanton heads to Carlton Wine Room on the corner of Drummond and Faraday streets. The food is elegant modern Australian, but the service is deceptively laid-back. Stanton says the staff immediately puts him at ease.
“When I go there, straight away I just feel relaxed. They're killing it and I love everything they're doing,” he says. “It's in such a beautiful building. Big open windows that overlook the street – they've got an amazing outdoor area – and the incredible wine list … and the staff there are so cool, they're just the nicest people.”
“JP's [head chef John Paul Twomey’s] food is just incredible, it's always spot on. And it's just such a cool little hang out coming into the hotter weather.”
Stanton grew up in Tweed Heads on the Queensland-New South Wales border, so it’s unsurprising the coastal town of Anglesea is one of his favourite places in Victoria. When he can get out of town, he heads to Captain Moonlite at Anglesea Surf Club.
“A lot of surf clubs around Australia have been destroyed by people coming in, renovating them and turning them into sterile environments. Full of pokies and stuff like that,” Stanton says. “Anglesea Surf Club has still got its original bones. It's such an incredible space. It's still got memorabilia all over the walls. Nothing's been knocked down. They've retained its originality.”
There’s an amazing deck overlooking the beach, and owners Matt Germanchis and Gemma Gange are doing “incredible food”.
“Gemma's so awesome on the floor. Great service. In the spring and summer it's the ultimate hangout,” Stanton says. “Matt's an incredible chef. His food is unreal. It's that kind of place where you could sit there all afternoon in the sun having snacks and drinks.”
Chinger Biang Biang Noodle
74 Victoria Street, Carlton
Shannon Martinez – Smith & Daughters
The very un-vegan vegan chef is one half of the team behind Fitzroy eatery Smith & Daughters, and she has a serious penchant for spice.
“Dainty Sichuan – all of them,” says Martinez. “If it wasn’t for the Dainty empire I would most likely suffer from malnutrition.”
The Preston outpost, called Tina’s Noodles, is the chef’s pick for staff, (“my favourite staff in all the Dainty land”), but she says between Chongqing Hot Pot on Lonsdale Street, Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express at Chadstone, and the South Yarra OG, you can’t go wrong.
“Fish-fragrant eggplant, which despite its name contains no fish, is always a winner.” Martinez says. “But for me, it’s all about the noodle soup. I’ve basically tried them all. And I’m yet to have one I don’t love … there’s a good chance I’ll have a Dainty tribute tattoo by the end of the year. Yep, it’s that good.”
“After a lifetime of great pho and bun bo hue [a Vietnamese beef noodle soup], I was keen to be shown something new. And that is exactly what Jerry at Annam has done. It’s everything you love about Vietnamese food, but taken up a couple of notches.”
Mohawked chef Mai carefully inspects each dish as it exits the open kitchen – from soft, fragrant crab banh cuon with fried shallots and a salty-sweet nuoc mam salad, to Chiang Mai pork sausages served with raw cabbage, pineapple and pickled green chillies.
“[She’s] plating up dishes we’re not so used to seeing here in Australia,” says Martinez. “The flavours are big, spicy, fresh and straight-up addictive. Spring and Annam are going to be a match made in spicy heaven.”
Restaurant Shik is Martinez’s third pick, by Peter Jo (better known in the industry as Kimchi Pete).
“Yeah, I know you’ve all eaten Korean food by now. But I can tell you, you haven’t eaten Korean food like this,” she says. The succinct menu at Shik is broken down into entree, grilled, braised and banchan, or sides. You’ll see plenty of seasonal kimchi – fennel and coriander, beetroot and watercress, or brussels sprouts – andjangajji (pickled vegetables). “The side dishes here are the hero and not the afterthought,” Martinez says. “Every ingredient used is of the best quality and the flavours are just about as pure as it gets. Make sure you ask for their house-made sodas, made from all the vegetable trimmings from the kitchen. The parsnip soda is bullshit good! Trust me.”
Julian Hills – Navi
“The way we eat has changed a lot since starting a family,” says Hills, chef-owner at Yarraville degustation-only diner Navi. “I’ve always loved good food in any format, but the era of long late-night grazing appears to have disappeared."
Hills lives in Melbourne’s west, which he says lends itself well to parents with young kids; they regularly eat Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indian together as a family.
“I have an addiction to banh mi and I have many favourites, depending on what part of town I’m in,” Hills says. “I visit the Footscray Market a couple of times a week and can’t leave without a crispy-pork banh mi from To’s Bakery. They add these extra crackling croutons that take it to a whole different level.
Even closer to Hills’s home is Advieh, a rustic little cafe with mismatched antique furniture serving Five Senses coffee. Hills loves Advieh’s Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired breakfasts. “My favourite is The Advieh – haloumi, poached eggs, avocado, rich tomato sauce and dukka. Simple, but super tasty.”
Aangan in West Footscray is the family’s go-to for Indian food. There you’ll find classic curries such as beef vindaloo, but according to Hills, “You have to start with the Samosa Chaat – a crushed samosa topped with chaat masala.” The crunchy Delhi-style street snack arrives with raita and a sweet tamarind-laden sauce.
Maria Kabal – Añada
The head chef at Fitzroy’s Spanish staple Añada hasn’t yet been to any of the venues on her spring hit list.
“I’ve been in hibernation all winter,” she says. “But moving into spring I’m ready to reopen the doors to my wallet … me and [owner] Jesse Gerner decided we are going to have a few fun days out eating and drinking to get the creative juices flowing.”
First on the list is Aaron Turner’s acclaimed, inventive Geelong fine diner Igni.
“I’ve heard so many good things about it,” says Kabal. “To me it’s probably one of the most exciting restaurants in Victoria. [Turner] works only with what’s available, and that can lead to some very exciting outcomes.”
Restaurant Shik is on the list too.
“From what I can imagine it will be fresh and full of flavour, the type of food I could enjoy any day of the week, over and over again,” Kabal says. “I’ve always loved Korean food and I’m curious [about] how they represent it … I’d struggle to not order the whole menu.”
Kabal says she’s trying to rearrange her chef roster to get to ambitious new eatery Sunda on Punch Lane, where 27-year-old Vietnamese-Australian chef Khanh Nguyen juggles sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours deftly and with care, plating dishes with the intensity of a great yum cha but presented in a minimal and refined style.
“I’ve been drooling over their Instagram for a while now,” she says. “I don’t think there are a lot of restaurants that do Southeast Asian food the way they do. It seems their take is a lot more modern and quirky. I really, really want to try their bika ambon [an Indonesian cake made with tapioca flour and coconut milk]. It looks so cool and I want to know how they make it.”
Kabal is also trying to get to Lesa, one of the most anticipated openings of 2018, by Dave Verheul and Christian McCabe of downstairs wine bar Embla.
“I’ve had many a dinner at Embla and I’m curious to see how – and if – it will differ from Embla, or rather be an extension of its … existing style and ethos.”
Dave Verheul – Lesa
The kiwi-born head chef is simultaneously running two kitchens – one at Russell Street wine bar Embla, and the other upstairs at Lesa, but between stints behind the pans he likes to duck out to nearby CBD eatery Lee Ho Fook.
“Without a doubt, the best mod-Asian in town,” he says. “And they do Peter Gilmore's spanner-crab dish on request!”
That request will need to be made 24 hours in advance, but it’s worth the forward planning. The spanner crab is turned through egg noodles and house-made XO sauce and topped with prawn floss.
The confident bistro that is French Saloon is another short hike from Verheul’s workplace. The atmosphere is relaxed and leans European, as does the menu – duck with cherries, or oysters and caviar. Verheul’s review? “Great food, great room, great service.”
Finally, the chef’s more casual go-to is MKS Spices’n Things. There are four of these Indian-slash-Sri Lankan grocery stores around town, but Verheul frequents the Ashburton one for its moderately priced takeaway. You probably won’t eat in – there’s not a lot of seating – and the service can be a little slow, but Verheul says the chicken kothu roti “has to be one of the most satisfying things you could eat”. It’s a Sri Lankan roadside specialty made using chopped, fried roti (the result is equal parts crisp and chewy), stir-fried with spices, onion, vegetables and meat.
MKS Spices’n Things
382 Warrigal Road, Ashburton, Victoria
Where Chef's Eat is part of a regular Broadsheet series where Melbourne's best hospitality professionals let us in on their top picks around town.