The wise men of the east

On the national playing field, WA is ‘B’ team; certainly in the minds of most ‘eastern-staters’. The only trouble is, most Western Australians don’t quite see the world that way. Our legendary parochialism sees us more at the centre of things than we are; a state of denial which has long fuelled this state’s huge capacity to succeed on the world stage.

How though do we stack up against the eastern states in the culinary arts? A recent business trip to Melbourne, followed by a weekend stopover, gave me the opportunity to try a few restaurants and, as a consequence, make recommendations and draw conclusions on the differences between Melbourne and Sydney and Perth.

Comparisons are inevitable. If Sydney is Australia’s Los Angeles, then Melbourne is its New York. Sydney is faddish; Melbourne is thoughtful. Sydneysiders love art openings; Melbournians love art. Sydney is money; Melbourne is culture.

Melbourne’s food too, follows similar lines. In general terms, it is more Eurocentric and restrained than Sydney’s over-reaching, new-world, pac-rim, east-meets-west, fashion-statement-on-a-plate.

Melbourne – long the poor cousin to Sydney as the Australian food capital – has now wholly eclipsed Sydney as the nation’s culinary leader. Melbourne cuisine is largely honest, innovative, elegant and inexpensive. Melbourne’s week long annual Food & Wine festival is now the best in the country.

Perth’s natural rhythms are more Sydney

than Melbourne. Like Sydney, Perth is flashy. A town where money talks so loud it’s virtually the lingua franca. There’s a brash adventurism alive and well in Perth, which many argue is the wellspring of its enviable energy and vitality.

In terms of culinary comparisons, it’s interesting to note that Perth, like Sydney, does not represent value for money in the way Melbourne does. Melbourne restaurants plate up, generally, far superior food at much better prices.

On the other hand, in Perth we’re better off than in Sydney, where restaurant prices are now becoming so ludicrous, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a banner headline, THE $50 MAIN COURSE, when, in 1998, Sydney’s top restaurants began pushing through the half-century barrier for mains.

Perhaps though, where Perth really suffers is in the area of choice. We have a multitude of restaurants and cafés, but little difference.

In fact, with some obvious exceptions (Jones, Star Anise, Chez Uchino), it’s as if the Perth restaurant community is using the same menu. In Melbourne by comparison, Perth’s ubiquitous east-meets-west-predominantly-Mediterranean cuisine is just a small part of the picture.

So, where to dine in Melbourne?

There is nothing in Perth (or Sydney) to compare with Luxe at St Kilda. This restaurant is the brainchild of the team behind Est Est Est. It is so drop dead designer, one expects the food to be all about fashion and not much else.

Never judge a book...and all that. Luxe’s food is so intelligently created, so beautifully cooked, so simply executed, so decorously understated and so exquisitely perfect, it is breathtaking. The waiting staff were coooool, but nice. Even the studiously insouciant Melbournians are clambering over each other to get a table at Luxe. You can’t book. It’s in Inkerman Street, near the corner of Barkley Road. Wear black. If you’re blonde, dye your hair. Be cool.

Also in St Kilda, but on the beach, is Donovans, which is about as far away from Luxe as one can get. On the Friday lunch I and my film industry buddy dined, it was chokka with smiling, rosy-cheeked, balding business types in good suits.

I lost myself in the blue spanner crab risotto and a glass of pinot noir from the Mornington Peninsula. Terrific food.

The Donovans’ décor is pure theme park: Ralph Lauren meets Diver Dan. Despite the life rings, fishing poles, framed photos, rough hewn walls, assorted bric-a-brac and tweeisms, it works marvelously well.

The food is finely cooked and the staff knowledgeable and friendly. An amuse-gueule of thick slices of good bread with a large scoop of fava bean purée, drizzled with truffle-infused olive oil was complimentary. Bread with butter or oil is still complimentary in many Melbourne restaurants.

The Society Restaurant, at the top (Spring Street) end of Bourke Street was a favourite hang of mine as a young journo. Pollies and business heavies used it as their tuckshop. It was one of the first Italian restaurants in Australia to rise above the spag bol, veal parmagiana thing.

Last year, the Society sold to new owners after more than thirty years trading at the same site. The new team has turned it into a French brasserie style of restaurant, with immaculate décor, heavy white napery, good silver and cooking straight from the brasser-ies of Paris. It is now called Republique.

Short menu, great steak frittes (still hard to find in Perth). The older waiting staff are very French. This is classy dining at the Paris end of Bourke Street, and a terrific spot for business dinners or a post theatre dose of francophilia.

Bridge Road, Richmond was once – to my mind – the Notting Hill of Melbourne. It has lost its edge (but none of its charm) in recent years as the prosperous professionals have moved in, closely followed by a support team of specialty food sellers, Porsche dealers and Bang & Olufsen shops.

Hardly surprising then that the Dean of middle class cooking aspirations, Stephenie Alexander, should set up shop in Bridge Road. Breakfast at her Richmond Hill Café Larder on a Sunday morning is a boisterous family affair.

Country Road is the uniform, and although the café is just a short truffle hunt from inner urban Melbourne, street-wise black is already fading to couture beige as one moves further from postcode 3000 and up Bridge Road into the gracious, leafy burbs of Richmond.

Great hearty food is served artistically. The Richmond Hill Café is fun. Take a number 48 or 75 tram from anywhere in Flinders Street or Wellington Parade and you’ll be there in minutes.

Langtons Restaurant is a chocolate brown-carpeted temple to food and wine in a basement at the top end of Flinders Lane. They don’t come much posher than Langtons. The wine steward who served us was an attitude monster who delivered peremptory, smart-alecy service. The food was good, and showed its high church origins (The chef partner formerly ran the Paul Bocuse Restaurant in Melbourne).

Walters Wine Bar at Southbank has great views, good buzz, an exceptional wine list, OK food and sniffy service. Try it anyway. It’s worth the visit.

Luxe. Donovans. Republique. Next time you’re in Melbourne on business, or if you’re already planning your trip to see the Eagles play the grand final at the ‘G’, put a little time aside to visit at least these three. They have vastly different approaches to food and service, yet they all represent a place where, hopefully, Perth will be in years to come.

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