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Tutto Bene

October 29th 2008 09:56
Peering proudly over the river as part of a Disney Castle-style complex that gives Melbourne's Southbank an inherently sunny disposition, Tutto Bene looks almost too good to be true. So ideal, in fact, was the spot, that I could not help but fear that such a never-fail look and location might easily have allowed its owners to rise prices or dip standards and still operate a healthy profit. After trying some of Melbourne's best and cheapest restaurants in the last six months, I even think I also secretly hoped that my first brush with something with an extra dollar mark after its name might make me wonder what all the fuss was about and slink back to my more familiar suburban locales.

That cruel cynic in me, however, was quickly dashed. First, was the impressive use of space and light, which saw one half of the restaurant as an old, auburn, dining hall while the other formed a long, open balcony which basked in fine fresh air and offered exceptional city views. It was a room and balcony made for young lovers or old romantics and it immediately set my heart alight a little.

Though the dreamer in me may already have been sated then, the realist still needed to be convinced by the food on offer at Tutto Bene's. It was not a courtship that would take long.

First, and though the bread itself may have been slightly under-seasoned, was Tutto Bene's rich, homemade olive oil in which to dip. Strong but smooth with a pungent olive taste, once I was able to tear myself away from the stuff, I was not surprised to read on the menu that this golden brew was a multi-award winner.

Mains were a simple affair, with a choice of risotto or rich-sounding meat and potato dishes. From that long list of risottos, each of our 7 chose a different one to his or her liking, and found their taste well-satisfied. My tricolore of parmesan cheese, pesto and tomato, topped with sardines and capers was creamy, classy and diffident at each different mouthful; a house special with truffle oil and porcini mushrooms sounded simple but was gob-stopping in its richly powerful, earthy flavours, while other choices with fish, meat or vegetables respectively were all mopped up with such eagerness and efficiency as to leave Tutto Bene's dishwashers standing idle. Each one had its own, well-defined flavours and was clearly made with a seasoned hand, and each was a full and satisfying serve for little over $20.

After that, there were several sweet touches still to come through desserts. Coffee was again a house brand and, just like the olive oil, was strong yet smooth and obviously a work of many year's love and dedication. On top of that, a playful selection of biscotti provided a sweet, nutty seam with which to tie a ribbon on top of a meal that, to my surprise, had been every bit as good as the price, the talk and the look had promised.

Tutto Bene
Mid Level, Southgate


October 15th 2008 12:03
When asking around for the cheapest and best places to eat in Melbourne, Samurai on Glenferrie Road is a name that pops up frequently. By almost all accounts, it was the place to go in this part of the city for good Japanese food on a budget. Expect to leave full and fully-flavoured, I was told, but also to be shepherded out in double-quick time as staff attempted to make room for the next group of well-rehearsed locals or tipped-off tourists. It was an exciting, almost illicit image that made me keen to try the place out.

Arriving early, at around 6.15 on a Saturday evening, we were quickly afforded a central table in the still uncluttered dining room. Yes, it was small enough to meet and greet elbows with most of my neighbours, but with smiling staff and simple, softly coloured surroundings, I felt quickly at ease. And, though waiters did somewhat beehive between tables, keen to take orders as quickly as possible, I was able to read that more as practical than pushy, especially pre-theatre booking as my group were.

Onto the food itself, which arrived in next to no time. Where other restaurants may have doubled or tripled their prices for more of pomp or presentation, the food at Samurai was as unsubtle as the service, as simple as the soft interior, and yet full of all the things I want from my meals out; interesting textures, clever combinations and cracking flavours.

Agedashi tofu, for example, was two slices of fried tofu that were of a joyous, almost jelly consistency which came swamped in a delicious dashi soup that tickled all along my tastebuds. Another entrée found chunks of char-grilled eggplant, heavy in a thick miso sauce that gave each mouthful a knockout piquancy and punch.

The mains we tried were similarly brutish and brilliant. Assorted sushi pieces were casually presented but jewelled with the kind of fresh, tasty fish that many other Japanese restaurants can only point to on their posters, while Chukadon was sliced chicken and vegetables in an effortlessly glamorous chef’s special sauce. Once again, the so-sticky rice that was served on the side was a perfect balance of both taste and texture for the slightly salty, slightly crunchy meat of this dish.

With change from $20 in my pocket, I walked out of Samurai feeling as though I had indeed discovered a secret, imaginative world where great, exotic food could still be easily accessible and affordable. Looking at the long queue already forming to get in well before 7 o’clock, I realised I was not the only one.

804 Glenferrie Road

By Basia

June 4th 2008 06:03
It must be rare to want to go back to a place where the food was moderate at best but, if I am ever passing through Hawthorn around lunchtime, I feel almost certain I would not be able to resist popping in to By Basia, on Burwood Road, again. Considering just how uninspired I was by my meal, it is a strange statement to make.

Unable to decide between a plate of cous cous served with mediterranean vegetables and a pasta salad with pesto and chicken, my waitress offered to give me half-serves of both for the price of one. Thus a large, pristine white bowl came packed with carbs and dotted with spots of colour by way of grainy-green pesto and a sunshine assortment of vegetables.

However good it looked there was much here that had gone awry. In the cous cous dish, coriander was little more than a garnish when it should have been integral; a paucity of olive oil left the grain disappointingly dry, while hospital-cut cubes of vegetables meant it lacked something in both flavour and texture.

Similarly, though there was plenty of chicken in my pasta portion, the pesto I was most keenly anticipating was not nearly dense enough to make much impression on my taste buds. Instead, this dish came to be more coloured with the deep-green of fresh spinach, an odd, flat addition, which gave little of note in either taste or touch.

Though these were hearty portions of modern lunch classics, here they seemed to have been translated from paper to plate with little attention to rendering any of the definite contrasts and flavours that can make both dishes so enduring in the right hands. The cous cous was dry, crumbly and dull and the pasta far too plain. Why then, would I ever go back to somewhere with such simple food?

The reason for such apparently misplaced loyalty is twofold.

First, the coffee at By Basia was sensational. My flat white came served with an artful, exuberant fan pattern etched onto its frothy top which was crying out for attention. Underneath, the rich coffee came with a sweet-but-subtle chestnut flavour, which meant I could give my attention to little else. It was a coffee that wouldn't have felt out-of-place with tasting notes and a spittoon.

And what made By Basia even more delectable was service that was truly joyful. Smiles and greetings were abundant without being sickly; water and cutlery delivered cleanly and on time and every other request catered for. My young waitress not only helped by suggesting I combine the two options I was dithering interminably over, but was also keen enough to remember me after I had initially asked for more time to make my choice, and in spite of the swamp of business people who had then deluged her.

Thus, despite somewhat insipid food, there was something about both the caffeine and the culture of By Basia that could make you notice the sun in the sky and the glow in your stomach all the more brightly, and will thus keep me warm to the idea of a return visit.

By Basia
460 Burwood Road

With the rival eating attractions of Richmond and St Kilda just a few minutes away by car in either direction, any restaurant that sits on booming, busy Punt Road is going to have to work pretty hard to draw in its fair share of customers. To that end, using everything from its very name and nature onwards, Yeah Maan seems to have tried to approach the issue by offering things not readily available elsewhere in the city; not only is it one of the very few Jamaican restaurants in Melbourne, but it is also defiantly alternative in the way it looks, feels, and even sounds. A relative anomaly in a city that concentrates so heavily on Asian and European cultures for its cuisine, I hoped my visit here would be well worth its detour.

That things are a little off-centre at Yeah Maan is immediately evident. Decoration is voluptuous and varied; posters of Jamaican heroes vie for attention with landscape paintings that come blasted with reds and blues and yellows. It is different, certainly, but also slightly incomprehensible; in truth, I felt as if one of the house cocktails had exploded in my face but, with a packed Saturday night crowd who seemed to be happily tucking into their meals, I was more than prepared to re-focus my attention and get down to business

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Everything was perfectly set. A warm day, an empty stomach, and an earthy, outdoor seat in amid granite greys and grassy greens. Add to that engaging and attentive staff who were outgoing without being sickly, an intriguing menu full of new flavours as well as a liberal spread of older favourites like croque-monsieur, filled Yorkshire puddings and home-made burgers, and not forgetting its well-inked reputation, and I will admit to having a ripple of excitement running through me as I waited to eat for the first time at Cafe Vue on Little Collins Street.

Though opened as a sidearm to the massively successful Vue De Monde (recently voted among the top 100 restaurants in the world) Cafe Vue has been doing good business all of its own for some time now, offering a range of affordable lunchtime staples like salads and sandwiches, as well as its now-famous lunchbox, comprising four or five small courses, changed on a monthly basis, and all yours for just $15

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Noodle Kingdom, on the outskirts of Melbourne’s Chinatown and smack in the middle of the CBD, is one of those rare and exciting places where you can pretty much trace the course of your dish from its very creation to its eventual presentation before you. First, walking along Russell Street, your eye is immediately drawn inside as a man who seems half-chef and half-fairground entertainer feverishly rolls, stretches, slaps and then slices large wads of dough into the restaurant’s eponymous main dish. Venture further inwards, and it is then possible to sit and watch a large, open kitchen where a highly charged troupe of other workers scurry around beside this Noodle King to stow, season and serve your order. As dining experiences go, it’s certainly more AFL than it is a la carte.

And yet, intriguing as it might be to see such a base, butch kitchen in action, the main reason I was here was not for the show, but to see how well fed I would get on one of the large selection of noodle dishes on offer for under $10. I was not to be disappointed

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Do other countries do the barbecue with quite as much vim and vitality as Australia? Can anyone outside the US really understand the rules of American Football? Or presidential elections? And how does Kevin Rudd’s Chinese accent sound and do some locals steal a secret snigger when they hear it? Trying to transfer elements of one culture on to another can be a hit and miss affair and it was with that in mind that I turned up an interested eater at Barista by Italcaffe, hoping to find out whether one of Australia’s biggest coffee bean importers could bring an authentic slice of Italian cafe culture into their very own cafe.

To that end, the owners at Italcaffe seemed at least to have chosen the perfect spot. While only seconds away from the bag-swinging and foot-stomping of the Chapel Street shopping precinct, Barista itself sits on a quiet side street which might easily pass for a winding lane in Rome, Florence or Venice. Move closer and, happily, this image does not falter

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Bubbling Baths defy expectations

April 28th 2008 04:37
Sorrento, 90 km east of central Melbourne on the beautiful, beach-laden Mornington Peninsula, suffers something of an image problem. According to local legend, for example, it is the area with the highest concentration of tennis courts per square metre in the whole world; though one wonders whether the residents of Malibu or Monaco might have something to say about that, there is certainly no shortage of white lines and net cords on view behind the massively managed hedgerows and towering iron gates that mask so much else of Sorrento.

Probably unsurprising then, Sorrento now has something of a reputation of being overly pricey and pretentious to those outside of this tennis glitterati; worth a weekend for its brilliant beaches and smooth surf but a little sickly for too much longer than that is the general gist

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Blunt Vegie Bar lacks a cutting edge

April 25th 2008 01:55
The credentials on the way to Vegie Bar, on Brunswick Street, were abundantly clear. Not only does this long-running Fitzroy staple share a border on one side with a plant and garden store (green produce from which blooms out onto the street as you walk up), but the billboard at the corner of its nearest intersection has even recently been decked out in an enormous poster for the local Green Party candidate’s attempts to become a Senator. As both vegetarian and organic get ever higher in many people’s everyday esteem, I wondered then what surely one of the greenest establishments in Melbourne could offer me.

From the very start, Vegie Bar seems to have taken its green theme with the utmost seriousness. Thus, as I sat down and stared at the high, slanted ceiling, at the slow twist of the overhead fans and at the assortment of plain wooden furniture, I frankly couldn’t help but get the impression I were eating in a shed somewhere. And with a heavy, hypnotic sun streaming in through the large window fronts and slow, languid music on play, I almost felt as if a selection of farmyard animals were about to wander through the premises at any moment. And somehow, in that setting, I don’t think I would have minded that

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Taco Bill topples at the last

April 23rd 2008 06:14
I admit I was expecting the worst as we walked toward Taco Bill in Camberwell. Though un-affiliated to its American near-namesake, Taco Bell, the slightly grotty exterior of this Camberwell institution did nothing to dissuade me from the gut-rumbling feeling that the Mexican cuisine I was about to eat was going to be all grease and no guile.

Things got worse before they got better. The atmosphere in the dining room was painfully stale, the walls washed in ugly brown and – always a sin and an especially big one in a relatively small dining room such as this – the TV was on, beckoning concentration away from both friends and food. Maybe that, I figured to myself, was another sign of what we were in for, and that those at Taco Bill would rather us remember what we watched here than what we ate

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