La Camera

446 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Phone: 9827 8531

First off, let’s just be clear this is not the Southbank La Camera. This is the one on that strip of Chapel St which has quite a few non-descript eateries, sandwiched between the Jam Factory and Commercial Road. We were going to see a movie at the Jam Factory, so it seemed natural to grab dinner at one of these places first.

La Camera – “the room” in Italian – is a pretty unpretentious Italian bistro. The service was upbeat and responsive, though the place wasn’t exactly busy the night we stopped in.

I ordered the lasagna, because I was in a meaty mood, and it had been a while since I’d had lasagna. It arrived, as you can see, smothered in extra bolognese sauce, and there was no end to the meat-and-tomato flavour which pretty much defines the dish. It was a touch too acidic from the tomatoes, but I think that’s a sign of freshness (?) and would have liked a little more cheese, but all in all, I wasn’t disappointed.

Mr N had the lemon and lamb risotto, which was nicely subtle. He kindly let me sample a spoonful. I wouldn’t have thought of pairing those two flavours in a risotto, but it worked. The rice seemed just a touch on the over-cooked side for me.

Miss S had the spaghetti napoli – she’s a vegetarian – which she said was good.

Not having been to many of the restaurants along that strip, it’s hard for me to say if La Camera is relatively good or bad, but it serves up decent Italian standards, so if that’s what you’re in the mood for before a movie, I’d say give it a shot. The food came out pretty quickly too, so that helps!

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Gold Leaf Preston

419 High St, 1st Floor Shop 7, Preston
Phone: 9470 2882

Recently, my friends Mr J and Miss C left our little metropolis for the big city lights of London. Over the past few years, we’d learned that while he would often be a no-show for drinks and weekend parties, Mr J was always present for yum cha. So it was apt that our send-off for him and Miss C was just such a dumpling extravaganza.

We headed to the suburban wilds of Preston, where covertly above an unglamourous little shopping arcade, lay one of the Northern suburbs’ hidden gems – Gold Leaf Preston.

The interior was distinctively more ‘glamourous’, with its recessed ceilings and mechanical rotating faux crystal chandeliers.

But let’s get to the food! Despite being relatively new, Gold Leaf Preston is one of those oldskool yum cha joints, with an army of waiters – the footsoldiers who refill your teapots, and handle special orders – and a strong artillery of cart ladies, who bombard each table with dumplings, buns, congee and offal. And then dessert. It’s a battle you just won’t win, but it’s a sweet, sweet surrender.

We were waiting for a few people who were running late that morning, but we started off with a cold dish of jellyfish and marinated baby octopus. It sounds a little confronting for brunch, I guess, but I love the texture of jellyfish!

Once the majority of our yum cha contingent had arrived, we tucked into the hot stuff.

My childhood favourite, haam sui gok, also known as ‘football dumplings’. Pork and mushroom inside a deep fried chewy, slightly sweet dough wrapping. These were a little on the lukewarm side of warm, and a little disappointing.

Steamed rice noodle with prawn. A yum cha standard, these were pretty good – not too pasty, and super slippery between your chopsticks.

Steamed dumplings with prawn and snow pea shoot. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! I love snow pea shoots, in any form.

Seafood parcels, and prawn and chive dumplings. The dumplings at Gold Leaf were consistently good, though I was a little put off by how many variations they had on offer before being presented with the classic har gao and siu mai.

Fried taro dumplings. These took over as my favourite after the haam sui gok got the boot. Filled with pretty much the same filling (pork and mushroom), the ‘wrapping’ is essentially mashed taro, which flares up into these crispy, feathery puffs when deep fried. These ones were pretty good, though I think the taro might have been cut with some potato, as it was a little too smooth on the inside.

Here comes the offal. Tripe on the left, and pork spare ribs on the right. The ribs at Gold Leaf are distinctive, as they don’t use the traditional black bean in the braising sauce, but rather another type of soya bean paste. Still very good, and a little more homestyle – my dad braises pork and pickled radish in this bean paste quite often.

Steamed shiitake and enoki mushrooms with tofu. This dish was a little bland – I ordered it because we had a vegaquarian on the table, but in the end she didn’t have any of it. I don’t really blame her – it wasn’t very good.

Whole prawns wrapped in beancurd skin and deep fried. I was starting to hit the wall by this stage, so I didn’t try any of these, but usually prawn + deep fry = WIN.

Ubiquitous chicken’s feet. Again, in a break from tradition, these chicken’s feet are prepared with soy and black bean, as opposed to the more commonly found bright red variety. They were quite good, though the skin wasn’t as loose or melty as I’ve had at other restaurants.

Prawn and ginger dumplings. I love these dumplings, even though the wrappers aren’t as delicate as the pearlescent har gao wrappers. It’s always a struggle to resist slurping up the juices in that little dish after the dumplings are gone.

Scallop dumplings. I usually like these, but Gold Leaf’s rendition had scallops which had obviously been treated with bi-carb to soften them, and had lost the meaty texture of a good scallop, as well as some of the scallop’s natural sweetness. A shame.

The classic siu mai. A pretty good dumpling, but not a standout, here.

The classic har gao. The skins were a bit too thick for my liking, but the filling was a good texture, and overwhelmingly prawny. That’s a good thing, in case you’re wondering.

Pan-fried dumplings. The skins on these were too thick, I felt.

Steamed roast pork buns. The buns were fluffy and sweet, and reasonably light, though the filling was a little on the bland side, for roast pork. Not bad, but I’ve definitely had better.

For dessert, there were the obligatory egg tarts, but for once I opted out. They looked pretty good, though, hey?

Gold Leaf is a pretty sure bet for competent and consistent yum cha. It’s not stellar, but if you get that craving every couple of months like I do, it will definitely satisfy. It’s probably mid-range in terms of price; about $20-25 per head to stuff yourself silly.

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EARL Canteen

500 Bourke Street (enter via Lt Bourke), Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9600 1995

So after weeks of reading about pork belly rolls and macarons, I finally had the opportunity to visit EARL Canteen in the city for myself. And let me say right off the bat, the hype about the sex sandwich is justified.

EARL – named after the Earl of Sandwich, that eponymous inventor – serves up gourmet sandwiches/rolls/wraps, using high quality sustainably-sourced ingredients, with a focus on freshness and seasonality. The proprietors Jackie and Simon both have great food/hospitality pedigree, but you can read more about that elsewhere. I want to talk about the food!

Monday morning, I stopped in for breakfast. I’d hear EARL made their own crumpets, and they serve them with either a blood plum jam, or lemon curd. Lemon curd, people! Sour is one flavour which doesn’t get enough play, in my opinion.

The crumpet was soft yet springy. I’ve never had fresh crumpets before, but this one made me want to try making them myself one day. It being a Monday morning, I also had a coffee. I don’t know much about coffee, but I’m sorry to report this one wasn’t great. However, I did learn through twitter later in the day that was indeed looking to hire a barista, so I’ll chalk this one up to them being understaffed on this one occasion.

I came back for lunch. The girl that served me remembered me from that morning, which is always nice. It was time to get down to business, though. “I’ll have the pork belly, thanks.”

Juicy slabs of belly pork, replete with crisp, crunchy crackling, nestled on a bed of apple, cabbage and fennel coleslaw and some wilted silverbeet. All of that goodness is somehow -just- squeezed into a Dench sourdough baguette. Here’s another shot:

I’ll be honest – it’s hard to eat. And I was very glad it came with a knife ad fork, because at one point, I had to lift a slab of pork belly out with my fork and eat it sans bread. So I could then jam the bread into my mouth. I think that’s part of the reason they put napkin dispensers on the tables instead of only giving you one when you order your meal.

As you can see, I did manage to get through it without making TOO much of a mess. BTW, is it just me, or is Harry Kewell being a little overexposed right about now? Not that I would complain about Harry Kewell exposing himself.. but I digress. See what a sex sandwich does to you?

I stopped in the next afternoon to pick up a few macarons on my way home, because I had been informed that the legendary salted caramel macarons were back (it’s the one on the right). I also had one each of the coffee and rose-flavoured ones. The salted caramel was clearly the stand-out, though. I like these macarons, because they’re not overly large like the Lindt ones – there’s only so much sugar and almond meal one should ingest in a minute.

Cut to Thursday lunchtime: the other item on the menu which most had me intrigued was the truffled mushroom. Oh, and yes, I am aware there are also wagyu meatballs on the menu. I’m a sucker for mushrooms, though. This time, I got the order to go – all the tables were full!

Again with the Harry Kewell. I did it to myself, so maybe it is just me…

The mushroom and truffle concoction comes with a gooey, runny egg, and wilted spinach, all wrapped in a soft, floury tortilla. Again, this was a messy eat. The amount of fungal juice (I say that in the best possible way) was a little overwhelming, and it dripped steadily into the container. I restrained myself from drinking the fluid after I’d finished the wrap, but only because I was in public. Take the wrap back to your office and close the door, so you can have your way with it, is my recommendation. It was another success, flavour-wise, though I wish it would’ve had something with a crunchier texture in there – it was all a bit soft.

EARL is a bit pricier than your regular sandwich joint, even for the city, but what you get for your money is still excellent value, in my book. Now, to convince my boss to shell out another $3,000 so I can spend another week at a training course in the city…
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Seven Seeds

106 Berkeley St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 8664

I’m not really much of a coffee drinker. I’m that loser who gets sneered at by coffee nazis for having two sugars and soy milk in his latte. Yeah, I know, I may as well be drinking decaf, I’m that derivative. So while I’ve heard nothing but good things about Seven Seeds, I haven’t exactly rushed out to try their coffee. But I did finally get around to it last week.

First off, I have to say I really like the decor – the fit-out is a nice mix of post-industrial chic, with just enough wood and use of textiles, so the airy warehouse space doesn’t feel too cold or severe. The warm lighting helps, too. As did the cheery smiles of the waitresses on the day. Definite thumbs up for service here.

My lunch companion, Mr A, is something of a coffee addict, though by his own admission, he prefers his coffee “like a two-by-four across the back of the head”. He opted for a flat white. Being curious of the hype, I thought I’d finally give the Clover coffee a try. Mr A tried to explain to me how the Clover machine works – something about a vacuum and the coffee being dipped, then extracted… it was all a bit too technical for me.

Anyway, it comes out in a cute little flask-coffee-pot, and you pour it yourself, like you would a cup of tea. I tried a sip of it without adding sugar, and to my surprise, found that I didn’t really feel the need! Clover coffee, to me, seems much less intense in flavour, and I can understand what all those afficionados mean when they go on about the various hints and notes of different flavours in the coffee. Like wine. The other great benefit of this Clover coffee, as I was to discover as the afternoon wore on, was that I didn’t experience the manic buzz nor the headachey, heart-palpitating lows which normally forms the rollercoaster ride I go on after drinking a coffee. I felt mildly more alert, so some of the caffeine is definitely there, but I guess the pharmacokinetics are different.

Along with my coffee, I had the avocado mash with grilled haloumi and dukkah on toasted sourdough. Topped with rocket, the whole thing was a winner for me. The saltiness of the haloumi was offset by the creamy avocado and the acid of the lemon wedge supplied for squeezing. I wouldn’t have minded a touch more dukkah, but I’m just being picky now.

Mr A had the special pressed sandwich, with an omelette, cheddar cheese, tomato chutney and spinach. He seemed quite satisfied by his choice. It certainly looked appetising.

I was feeling a little cheeky, so I took a chocolate brownie back to my office for afternoon tea. It was lusciously moist, and I had to do a lot of finger-licking to get all the icing off my hands.

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Kenzan @ GPO

GPO Building, Rear 350 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 7767

It was a cold and rainy Melbourne night in April. Not exactly the perfect environs to showcase the best of Melbourne to Ms J from Adelaide, but hey, she chose to visit that weekend! Making the most of the gloomy mise en scene, we trudged down to the GPO to check out the atmospheric little eateries which run along the side. Now regular readers will know of my ardent admiration of Ramen Ya, but on this occasion, we opted for Kenzan, as Ms L who was dining with us is a vegetarian, and one of the few flaws amen Ya has is that they don’t seem to have much on offer for vegetarians.

I was hoping to add to the ever-growing list of ramen offerings in Melbourne which I’m hunting down to review, but I was sadly informed that the ramen wasn’t on offer that night. Except the cold ramen, which didn’t sound too appetising in that weather. So I ordered the unajyu. Hard to go wrong with eel. Kenzan’s version is pretty minimal, though; just rice, eel and some shaved nori. Still, it works, though it’s a tad on the expensive side for what you get.

Ms J had some sort of gyu special – beef wrapped around spinach with a teriyaki sauce and something of a chunky vegetable salad. It was quite impressive to look at, and she enjoyed it immensely.

Ms L opted for the vegetable udon, which she also quite liked. Look at her shake that shichimi togarashi! Go Speed Racer, go!

I will be back to Kenzan@GPO, but mostly just to try their ramen – there’s reportedly a Tonkotsu Winter special! There are more reasonably priced Japanese restaurants in the city, with food that is just as good.

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KL Bunga Raya

34 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Phone: 9329 1762

Always on the search for good places for lunch, my colleagues and I wandered up to Errol St, North Melbourne. Unsure of exactly where to go, but with the idea that Asian food was the order of the day, we stopped at KL Bunga Raya, an unassuming little Malaysian restaurant. Having been to Nasi Lemak House the day before, I wasn’t super enthusiastic, but the smells upon walking in soon changed my mind.

I ordered the Curry Laksa, a pretty safe bet – laksa is like pizza and sex: bad laksa is still laksa – and also a good benchmarking dish for any Malaysian Restaurant, I think. This laksa delivered flavour in spades, with loads of curry flavour, as well as the sweetness and richness that indicates a heft amount of coconut milk and palm sugar. It lacked something in the way of heat, I felt, but then I do like my Malaysian food reasonably spicy. The amount of chicken and seafood was generous, but for me the standout ingredient was the eggplant; soft and richly smoky, melding with the laksa soup so beautifully. The overall size of the dish was also quite generous, and I would have been happy to have this for dinner, let alone lunch.

Mr R also had the laksa, but he opted for the Seafood Curry Laksa, which has no chicken, but calamari and mussels.

Ms S had the Char Kway Teow, which looked and smelled good – not too dark or oily, and with a decent amount of char and wok hei (wok air/breath – a certain smokiness which is one of the intangibles of good stir-fry cooking).

I liked KL Bunga Raya. It’s simple, classic Malaysian food, at the expected cheap prices (most rice or noodle dishes are under $10).

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Bimbo Deluxe

376 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9419 8600

Bimbo Deluxe is an odd place. From the large bulbous glass bottles of infused vodka above the bar, to the strange little bell-shaped room with the funny accoustics up the back, it’s got a mix of character and enterprise that never really gelled for me. That aside, cheap pizza is a pretty strong draw-card. With $4 pizzas at most peak periods (except Friday nights), it’s hard to argue. Especially with pizzas that are pretty good, even if they’re not on par with Ladro or D.O.C. And even when they’re not $4, they’re still pretty cheap (most under $10).

This visit, I was going to order the agnello (lamb) pizza, as I’ve had it before and it never fails to satisfy, but on Alex‘s Foursquare recommendation, I opted for the fontina and potato pizza.

Such intense cheese, and carb-on-carb goodness, how is it possible to go wrong? They didn’t go wrong, but I should note this pizza is pretty heavy going once it starts to cool. You really start to feel the stodge of the potato and cheese combination.

Mr D had the roast pumpkin and pine nut and rosemary pizza.

The pumpkin, again, is a little heavy, and its sweetness makes it quite rich. The rosemary is a naturally great foil for this, and pine nuts are well toasted and plentiful.

While it isn’t somewhere I’d go on a first date, or take my family out for a meal, it’s a casual, if somewhat grungy – both tables we sat down at had pizza debris and there were no staff around early evening bussing or cleaning – place which serves up decent pizza which is so cheap you can afford an extra beer or two!

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Char Siu House

37 Errol St, North Melbourne
Phone: 9328 2812

Char Siu House is little Chinese restaurant, of the primarily Hong Kong BBQ ilk, in Errol St, North Melbourne. I used to live around the corner from here in 1996 when I first moved to Melbourne, and it was a bakery back then, I believe. But the times they a-change, and bread is replaced by pork. And chicken. And duck. So who’s complaining, really? Interestingly, Fungs Asian Food and Sushi Bar, the local Chinese takeaway joint in 1996, is still open and doing remarkably well. I remember their food being pretty horrible, but it’s been over a decade, so perhaps things changed there, too.

I stopped in at Char Siu House for lunch a while back. The ladies who run the place are lovely, even if there’s a bit of a Fawlty Towers-style feel to the way they yell things out to one another. But that adds to the charm of the place for me. It helps that I can speak Cantonese, too, I think. I don’t worry about what they’re saying, because I know it’s pertaining to the couple on the next table’s char kway teow. This time around, I sampled the BBQ hanging in the glass case at the front of the restaurant.

Roast duck and roast pork (not char siu, but the other kind, the belly pork with the salty, crispy crackling) on rice.The duck was nice and gamey, though a touch on t he salty side. The crackling on that pork was wonderfully crunchy, and the pork was fatty enough to make me feel a tad guilty. Then I got over and shoveled in the next mouthful. The servings are generous, though it seemed a little stingy on the cursory bok choy (underneath the mounds of meat in that photo). Chinese tea is free, as in all good Hong Kong BBQ joints.

While this place isn’t up to City BBQ or Rose Garden standards, it’s decent, and sometimes you just need a hit of meat with animal skin on it.

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