It is not every day that begins with a taxi ride with a Fijian driver who has become an amateur winemaker, having bought his house from an Italian who helped him with his first two vintages. His annual production, he told me proudly, is 60-odd bottles a year produced entirely from the rows of Isabella grapes he grows in his garden – although he prefers whisky!
I learnt all this on the short, early morning ride from The Langham Hotel in Melbourne to the suburb of Fitzroy, made chic since the opening of Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co (good food, wine and service but lousy acoustics that could so easily be improved). My destination was the Lune Croissanterie 2.0 (pictured above right) on the corner of Rose Street.
Once inside, I began to appreciate the advantages of being in a relatively inexpensive part of a city where rents are considerably lower than in London, a situation that allows Lune’s founder Kate Reid and her enthusiastic team to produce what many believe are the world’s finest croissants.
Reid founded her company in 2012 in Elwood then moved to her new premises in 2015 with her brother Cam and renowned café operator Nathan Toleman in what was a disused warehouse space that sits at the end of a terrace. Here Reid has created Lune Croissanterie 2.0 in what must be ideal trading circumstances.
The space has plenty of natural light. It houses a modern, glass-enclosed, pristine prep area where several female pastry chefs weigh out the dough that comes out of a massive industrial mixer right behind them. Behind them is a series of baking ovens, the offices and the customers’ lavatories.
In front of this are two counters. The smaller one holds that day’s production, about six or seven items in total, including a plain croissant, a glazed Kouign Amann, a speciality of Brittany, and a delightful-looking Danish. Next to these, stands a barista, bearded of course, and on the wall that day’s price list.
Croissants and coffee ordered, I took a seat at the far corner overlooking the croissant-rolling area and enjoyed myself immensely. I watched as the pastry chefs rolled out the dough and measured it out for the 2,000 croissants a day that is their maximum production and savoured my breakfast. The croissants are fabulous: buttery and beautifully rolled, obviously with great care bordering on affection. They are far better than any I have enjoyed recently in France. My bill for a latte, a croissant and a Kouign Amann came to A$16, about £10.
The queue to buy croissants, to take away as well as to enjoy with a coffee, is, I am reliably informed, extremely long at the weekend. As the place is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, the best time to get here is from 7.30 am on a Monday or to enjoy them at either Cumulus or Marianne, the only two cafes in the city that Reid supplies.
That lunchtime I made a return journey to Flower Drum in Melbourne’s Chinatown, which I remember first visiting 30 years ago.
Little has changed. The restaurant is still on the first floor, reached by a lift, and when you arrive and turn to the left, you see a manifestation of this longevity: awards from the Good Food Guide run by The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper, stretching back to 1980. The room, on a very hot day, was cool; the dark wooden furniture unchanged, as were, seemingly, several of the staff. There was Bill with his rolling sailor’s gait, the ultra-considerate Paul, and the manager of our part of the restaurant looking very smart in his tight, sculpted suit with his long hair, now predominantly grey, hanging well over his shoulders.
Flower Drum made its name for the Cantonese food it pioneered in an era when this style of cooking, technically difficult and without any undue spicing, was the first style of Chinese cooking to make its mark outside Asia. Here Cantonese cooking established itself in Melbourne and it was this soothing, reassuring style of food I was looking for.
I began with some dim sum, a scallop sui mai, a prawn har gao, a vegetarian fun gor and a scallop cheung fun, each clean and well prepared. With this I drank a glass of Pinot Gris 2014 from T’Gallant. Then I went slowly off piste ordering a clay pot of crab meat vermicelli with ginger and then a vegetarian dish described as ‘1000 leaf tofu with pumpkin sauce’, with which Paul insisted I ordered a bowl of plain boiled rice. What arrived was a black plate covered in the dark yellow of this distinctive fruit on which were layered scores of the thinnest layers of tofu, in the middle of which was a mound of sweet corn and green chilli. It was absolutely delicious and with this I enjoyed a glass of 2016 Pinot Noir from Oakridge’s Willowlake Vineyard.
But it was the dessert that I was really looking forward to. As well as fresh fruit, Cantonese cooking is well known for its many puddings, often based on milk or almonds, and I had spotted one simply called ‘double boiled milk pudding’. This, Paul announced when I ordered it, would take 20 minutes as the milk had to be double boiled but this only reassured me that I was in the right restaurant to order this dish.
What arrived in a bowl with a lid on it was, for me at least, pure heaven. Light and creamy in texture the almost solid pudding had a gentle wobble to it as well as several pieces of crystallised ginger on the top which had just enough spice and heat. I paid my bill of AU$150, including wine and service, very happily.
Dinner that evening was a very different type of Chinese meal in a very different location. It was, by my request, at Lee Ho Fook in Duckboard Place in one of the many lanes in the heart of the city close to Flinders Street Station, a restaurant that has been opened by young Chinese chef Victor Liong, who cooked for a while at Mr Wong in Sydney.
The restaurant is on two floors, the narrow ground floor a bar where we met our friends for a beer. And it was here that I was overruled as to what we should eat, the majority plumping for Victor’s eight-course banquet menu at AU$88 per person. Because this was a Monday evening and the first Monday following the Melbourne Cup, the restaurant was quite empty. Whether this was a factor or whether it was because Victor himself was in the kitchen, I don’t know, but whatever the explanation, we ate very, very well.
Among the highlights were a great combination of smoked eel, candied kombu and pink peppercorns; their extremely popular, crisp aubergine with spiced red vinegar; plates of steamed Goolwa pippies with rice noodles; a dish of grilled local Wagyu beef cut into strips to be wrapped in cos lettuce as though it were Peking duck; some absolutely delicious Cone Bay barramundi with ginger and spring onion sauce – a fabulous way to serve this fish; and then finally a plate of slow-roasted Grampian duck with star anise and their special fried rice with diced prawns. All this was very varied in both texture and flavour and we ended with a delicate coconut, chocolate and cherry mignardise.
As well as serving exciting food, both these Chinese restaurants showed that their desserts ought never to be overlooked.
Lune Croissanterie 2.0 119 Rose Street, Fitzroy; tel +61 3 9419 2320
Flower Drum 17 Market Lane, Melbourne; tel +61 3 9662 3655
Lee Ho Fook 11–15 Duckboard Place, Melbourne; tel +61 3 9077 6261