Common(er) claws

122 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Phone: 9415 6876

Disclaimer: I ate and drank for FREE at the Commoner on the night in question.

‘Twas the night before the anniversary of that guy being nailed to a cross. Some call it Maundy Thursday, but in my ten years of Catholic education, I never learned the meaning of Maundy – it always sounded rather drab laundry, like dull greyish white socks which hadn’t been washed with enough bleach – so it was a pleasant twist when I received an invitation to the Commoner’s launchy Thursday for their April themed event. They’re running different events throughout the year, all with delightfully dorky punny names based on movies. ‘Claws’ = Jaws, but instead of sharks, they’re serving crustacea.

I was allowed to bring a +1 to the launch, but with it being the night before an extra long weekend, many of my friends already had plans to be away. Thankfully, the hard-working @thatjessho was stuck in town and on good behaviour, as she was working on (not-so) Good Friday. So she happily came along, and it was a good chance for the two of us to catch up over free flowing Red Claw pinot gris and invertebrate canapes.

First up were lobster custard cigars. Oh, and by the way, if you want pretty pictures, there were a host of other bloggers at the event, including @msihua @ironchefshellie and @myfoodtrail, so I’m sure you can find much better lit (Jess and I resorted to lighting the food with our phone screens for one another) and framed photos. Anyway, these cigars were a nice way to start the evening – a cold savoury custard with little chunks of lobster meat piped into crisp and slightly crumbly cigars. The custard was a little too salty for my liking, but I’m quibbling; they were pretty good.

The next item was a crayfish, lobster and scallop terrine, wrapped in smoked salmon, on melba toast. I liked the texture of this; the terrine wasn’t an amorphous mass, and had nice big chunks of shellfish in it.


By this stage, I was craving something warm, and right on cue, these soft-shelled crab sliders arrived. They were quite good, but there were tweaks that Jess and I both agreed we would have made. First of all, the little round buns were cute, but the height of them meant there was too much bread when compared to filling. The other thing was that the remoulade (I can’t remember if it was celeriac or fennel) was a classic accompaniment, but the saltiness of the crab still required something with more acid or cream to temper it. We concluded it needed mayo.


Prawn cocktail with a Bloody Mary sauce. Well, prawns with a Bloody Mary, really. The prawns were wonderfully fresh, and cooked perfectly, but the standout was actually the Bloody Mary. It was mixed expertly, in the thicker style befitting its use as a sauce, yet still balanced well with spice and lemon, so it didn’t have the heavy feel some Bloody Marys have; instead, it was bright and fresh.


Then came the highlight of the night, in my humble opinion. Beer-battered scampi with french fries. The scampi were amazing. Fried until they’re just done, so the flesh was still bouncy and succulent, and hadn’t lost any of the fresh sweetness that often disappears when you overcook seafood. The accompanying fries were miniature and cute; they reminded me of the packet Smith’s french fries I used to eat as a kid. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They were a good vehicle for the aioli (or was it tartare? I can’t recall exactly). The wedge of lemon was pretty unnecessary, really, as the scampi was best eaten as it was presented.


There was also a chilli crab chowder, with crispy pig’s ear flakes on top. This was quite good too, though I’m not sure how it would translate to a full bowl-sized serving. I had arrived late, so I missed the kataifi-wrapped prawn, but Jess told me it was awesome.

This was all finished off with a brown ale pudding with a salted caramel sauce. Which I could have eaten kilos of; it was that good.

All in all, this was a pretty impressive tasting menu – it’s being served all month as a 5 course degustation – I’m not sure which dishes will make the cut – for $80/$120 with matched wines.

Fake meat

I read (most of) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals while I was on holiday in Malaysia, while eating my way to using a new notch on my belt. It made me think more closely about what I choose to eat, but ultimately, it hasn’t really made me change the way I eat. I’m an unapologetic omnivore.

White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant
185 Victoria St, West Melbourne
Phone: 9326 6040

So when Bryan and Lauren recently (re)visited White Lotus and raved about the faux meat dishes, I knew this was something I also wanted to re-investigate. These ‘fake meats’ have been made for centuries by Buddhists, who are strict vegetarians. They’re made of different manipulations of beans and grains, like tofu, tempeh and glutens, and you know what? They do lack that satisfaction that comes with smashing a rare eye fillet steak or a bucket of fried chicken, but at times, they’re a pretty close facsimile.

I met up with two members of the Delta Force Five for dinner at White Lotus, and let’s say I was a little trepidatious. The place is only open three night a week, and looks like it may have opened in the eighties, and not have been renovated since. The lighting is a little dim, making the overall effect dingy, but the service is friendly, and as you’ll see, the food is interesting. Apologies for the god awful photos, but as I said, the place was dingy.

We started by sharing some mixed entrees. Spring rolls and wontons – the vegetarian versions of which are nothing new – and fried taro cutlets. These were awesome. Seriously, taro is probably one of the most under-rated vegeatbles around. Potatoes got nothing on the density of that starch.
image At Ms K’s request, we got the Sweet and Sour ‘Pork’, an Aussie Chinese classic, and one that is dear to my own heart. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so great. Funnily, what let it down wasn’t so much the fake pork. While that wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t offensive, either. What let the dish down was the batter, which was already a bit soggy by the time it arrived at the table. I would have thought such masters with glutens and flours would be able to mix together a great batter which stays crunchy!
image Ms N insisted we order the ma po tofu, which was really quite good. The replacement for the pork mince was something like TVP, but this didn’t really detract much from the dish, which is all about the tofu and the spicy sauce anyway. This is definitely not the best ma po tofu I’ve had in Melbourne, but it’s passable.
image Finally, I ordered the roast ‘duck’, because I’d heard of the amazing textures in this dish. Three different treatments of non-meat had been combined to create the meat, crispy skin, and even subcutaneous fat layer of the roast ‘duck’. The flavour wasn’t quite there, but texturally, this was amazing. A couple at another table came in, and just ordered two serves of the roast ‘duck’ and rice, and I can see why. I wouldn’t share this if I didn’t have to.

White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Yong Green Food
421 Brunswick, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 3338

A few nights later, I caught up with my old housemate Le Singe. I’d heard a lot about Yong Green Food, especially the ‘rawsagne’, but in the end it was too cold and gloomy a night for raw food that hadn’t been heated above 40 degrees. So we started by sharing the mung bean pancake, which was really quite enjoyable. It wasn’t as thin as a crepe, but not really pancake thickness either; maybe as thick as a pancake made using plain flour. You could taste the mung beans, which reminded me a little of banh xeo, and the flavour gave me the overall impression of being healthy, though not in a bad way, like spirulina. The dipping sauce was a bit meh.
image Yong Green Food is primarily vegetarian, with a heavy Asian slant to the menu, but given the name and the cute little waitresses who all had similar bob haircuts, I’d say there’s a pretty strong Korean bias happening there. So I thought I’d try the Korean BBQ dish, which was sliced soy ‘beef’ with vegetables and rice.
image While there was nothing offensive about this dish – it was perfectly edible – it was pretty disappointing. The ‘beef’ didn’t have even the slightest hint of being grilled, so the term ‘BBQ’ was a pretty outlandish claim. There was also a lack of spice, which again was a bit baffling.

Le Singe had the teriyaki chicken, which she quite enjoyed.
We had arrived quite early, because I had a soccer game late in the evening, and gobbled up our food by about 7:30. We were promptly given the bill, which we settled, and then we continued to chat away. A few minutes later, one of the waitresses came over and asked us to leave, because they had people waiting for a table. Now I understand the need to turn tables over, and not keep people waiting, but unless you’re clearly advertising specific seating times, I think asking customers to leave once they’re finished is pretty bad form. It was a disappointing end to a somewhat disappointing meal, really. I probably won’t be back anytime soon.

Yong Green Food on Urbanspoon

The Napier – a Bogan Burger misfire

210 Napier St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9419 4240

It was an event which had been months in the making. It started last year, even. There was talk of smashing and burger domination. It was scheduled, then re-scheduled, then re-scheduled again. @thatjessho and I were down for some major bogan bashing. Bogan burger bashing, that is. So somehow with the Christmas feasting season, and then the following #fatty adventures, it turned out to be March by the time we got around to hitting up the Napier for the Bogan Burger challenge.

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the bogan burger, it’s a burger comprised of a steak, a chicken schnitzel, a potato cake, bacon and egg, and then a bit of vegetable matter to round it out. Here’s a couple of photos. The reason I don’t have photos of my own is because of Jesus.

It was Lent. And while I’m no Christian, I like novelty activities, and giving up red meat for Lent seemed pretty novel at the time. Now, I had counted on the gaping hole in my soul caused by denying myself pho for the 40 days… wait, so Lent causes a gaping hole in my soul, ready for the Devil to enter??? What I hadn’t really counted on was the fact that the Napier has a strict No Substitutions policy when it comes to their Bogan Burger. Gotta hand it to them for protecting the integrity or their product.

So we spent the afternoon basking in the wan Autumnal sun, sinking pints of cider and shooting the breeze. The Napier’s beer garden is good for that. Eventually, we thought we should probably eat something, though with that much liquid in our bellies, I’m ashamed to say we both baulked at the thought of the Bogan Burger that day. My excuse was my Lenten abstinence from red meat. Jess? Well, let’s just say she abstained in solidarity. Sort of. She ordered the regular beef burger.

… with crinkle cut fries! How much do we love crinkle cut? Nothing bespeaks true pub louder. Well, except maybe beer on tap. But it’s a close call.

As you can see, it’s a sizeable hunk of a patty. Smothered in melted, nay grilled, cheese, tomato sauce, and all that vegetable matter again.

I went for the chicken burger. Now I liked this, it was tasty, the chicken was well cooked, and there was a hefty whack of Caesar sauce/mayo. And I love the fact that the Napier serves their burgers with chips and coleslaw, not that insipid green salad that is difficult to stab with your fork and shove in your mouth. But just once, I’d like a place to do a chicken burger that’s actually a burger. You know, minced, with spices and stuff. A patty. A BURGER.

So no, we didn’t manage to get to the Bogan Burger. Apparently as bogans, we fail.

But as burger smashers, we totally still win.

Napier Hotel on Urbanspoon


36 Johnston St, Fitzroy
Phone: 0411 404 374

I don’t know about you, but this year is flying by for me. Life seems to be full of projects right now; I’ve learned a lot, and made some great new friends in the past few months. It’s an exciting thing when you encounter new people and try new things, but it often means that your old favourites fall by the wayside, and old friends who are much loved somehow get neglected.

Ms A and I used to live together, first in a cosy worker’s cottage in the heart of Fitzroy, and then further out in the Crox’, where I planted my most successful vegie patch ever. She’s one of those important people in my life who I know I’ll be friends with forever. But though our friendship bonds are strong and deep, it doesn’t mean we haven’t grown apart, if only in social circles. It had been months since I’d last had a chance to catch up with her properly, so we scheduled a little dinner rendezvous in our old neighbourhood, the ‘Roy.

For years, I’d heard people talk about Houndstooth, but I’d never managed to get down there. They were known for an ever-changing seasonal menu, and exceptionally good value. The menu works like this: there are four courses on offer – starters, entree, mains, dessert/cheese – and you can choose any combination of them, with a minimum of two courses. Two courses will set you back the miserly sum of $20, three courses $25, and four courses $30. It would be hard to find such good value with this style of cooking anywhere else. It’s a fairly small establishment, with only four communal tables, each seating around 8-10 people comfortably.

imageNot being extremely hungry, we decided to just have two courses. We started with the piadina flatbread, with pickled eggplant. I had expected it to be a little thicker, like pita bread, but it was quite thin, like a more bready version of a crepe. The eggplant was nicely pickled – not too salty or sour – though I thought there was a little too much oil brushed on the bread, and it became a little messy towards the end.

imageWe also shared the Jerusalem artichoke and potato soup. This was a bit of a disappointment. While the flavour of Jerusalem artichoke was very apparent, the overall flavour was still pretty bland, and needed some more seasoning. I wouldn’t recommend you try this unless you’re a Jerusalem artichoke fanatic.

imageAfter a bit of a disappointing start, we were looking forward to the mains. We’d both had trouble choosing, as there were many enticing options. It being a chilly night out, we were both in the mood for some hearty meals. Ms A went for the stifado – we both had a little giggle about the name – which was explained to us as a Greek style sweet and sour beef stew.

imageI sampled a little, and it was indeed sweet and sour, though nothing like the Chinese version. This was much more on the sweet side, and I think it was probably honey and red wine, as opposed to sugar and vinegar. The flavour was rich and warming, and the crumbled feta added a nice piquancy to the overall dish.

I find it hard to look past more unusual meats like goat when they’re on a menu. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an allure of the exotic, I guess. This goat dish was certainly that; braised with vanilla, cinnamon and white wine.

imageI took a moment to just inhale the vanilla and cinnamon aroma that floated up from the dish. It was soft, sweet and delicate. Not at all what you would expect from a goat dish, where so often chefs try to mask the flavour of the goat with bold spices. The vanilla and cinnamon were well balanced with the white wine, and the sauce complemented the goat beautifully. So after a shaky start, Houndstooth really managed to deliver. I mean just look at our empty plates!

imageI think next time, we might try the desserts instead of the entree. And there will definitely be a next time soon, as Ms A and I have resolved to catch up more regularly. Because even though there are so many new and exciting things going on in our lives, it’s good to recognise what’s important, and truly good friends are certainly that.

Houndstooth on Urbanspoon

Naked for Satan

285 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9416 2238

I toyed with the idea of not publishing this post because Naked for Satan has already had enough press in recent months, but I figured I really had to put my $2 in on the pintxos – “PINTXOOOOOOS!” – bar which introduced me to my latest love. He goes by the name of Pedro Ximinez. And he’s sweet as all get out. Unfortunately, he’s not all that much to look at, but looks aren’t everything, right?

Naked for Satan serves up pintxos for $2 a piece. It’s like a tapas buffet plus carbs – pintxos are like a little bite of a dish served on a baguette slice – which is a great idea for a bar, but its not really somewhere I’d go for dinner. The little toothpicks which are monitored – by both cameras and security staff, it seems – are how they track how much you ate, kind of like the plates at a sushi train. They add up pretty quickly, so if you’re on a budget, you might want to keep an eye on it.

I think the pintxos selection changes pretty regularly, so I won’t go too much into particular items – but if it’s on offer, try the chilli mussels, and the one with the slab of goat’s cheese.

My only gripe with the way Naked for Satan works is that there’s the cold pintxos on display, but every so often, some warm/hot pintxos are brought out – canape style – which is fine, unless you miss out on them because you’ve gone to the toilet, or they just circulate in the wrong direction based on where you’re seated.

Anyway, I grazed on pintxos while I was sipping on my sangria, which I was a little apprehensive about when the barman prepared it on the spot, but was actually really good!

As I mentioned before, on the recommendation of one of the barstaff, I tried the Pedro Ximinez sherry. She described it as “liquid Christmas”, so who was I to object? It has since become my drink of choice to finish with – seriously, you don’t even need dessert!

Naked For Satan on Urbanspoon

Mussel Mania at the Provincial

299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9810 0042

November’s Flavour of the Month special at The Provincial is Monday Night Mussels. A bottomless bowl of mussels (with the requisite pommes frites, of course) for $29.50. I met up with some friends to test it out, and also to celebrate Ms A’s final exam (ever)!

The mussels come in three flavours (though I get the feeling these might rotate from week to week, so no guarantee this post will be accurate for the following two weeks). The first I tried was ‘Moules Mariniere’ – white wine, shallots, garlic and cream.

While this was certainly a very traditional style, I found it a little too salty. I definitely liked the crispy little garlic chips in there though.

The pommes frites were perfect little sticks of golden goodness, and in this instance, the perfect foil to the saltiness of the Mariniere.

Round Two was the tomato, chilli, coriander and pork belly (yes, that’s right… so much for my month-long moratorium on pork).
This was by far my favourite, the rich tomato sugo having just the right amount of acidity, and a present, but not overwhelming amount of chilli heat. The little pork belly lardons in the sauce were delightful, too.

Round Three – well, I had to try them all, for your reading edification, right? Mussels with Pernod, orange and fennel.

These were a little disappointing. The fennel provided a lovely aroma, but I felt there wasn’t enough orange in the mix, and overall, again it was a little too salty.

For my comeback special – that is my fourth bowl – I went back to the tomato and chilli version. I’m not sure if it was a mistake  – we did see some flames in the kitchen – but the mussels this time had a wonderful smoky flavour. The last bowl was the best bowl!

And where I should have left the night. Of course, the dessert menu came out, and I stupidly couldn’t help myself. I’d swam a kilometre in the pool earlier in the day, so I deserved some dessert, right? I ordered the Citrus Curd Tart with clotted cream.

The tart was wonderfully, well, tart, and the pastry crust was nice and short. Had I not already been gestating an obese seafood foodbaby, I’m guessing it would have tasted like a perfectly refreshing end to a meal. As it played out, it ended up tasting like regret.

The Provincial Hotel / Cafe Provincial on Urbanspoon

Los Amates

34 Johnston St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 0441

For ages, I’ve listened to people bemoan the lack of good Mexican food in Melbourne. I’m not sure I’d agree with that – I’m obviously no authority on the matter, but I’ve had good experiences around town. But I recognise that by and large, we’re served up ‘Tex Mex’ food, rather than ‘authentic’ Mexican fare. And some people take issue with that. Some people take issue with Sweet and Sour Pork at Chinese restaurants, too. Those people need to loosen up.

However, all of that being said, the same people who lament the presence of lack of true Mexican food in Melbourne generally tend to refer to Los Amates as something of a shining beacon in the sea of mediocrity. Of course, this is prior to the opening of Mamasita, which I’m still yet to visit, as I don’t like waiting in lines, and also I’ve heard mixed reviews.

Anyway, I stopped in at Los Amates with Mr J, after having introduced him to Dos Equis (XX) beer at Black Pearl. Continuing my ‘memories of the Yucatan’ theme, as soon as we sat down, I flicked the menu straight to the drinks page. Los Amates definitely gets points for their Mexican cerveza list. Seeing as Mr J wasn’t in a decision making mode, I took the reins, I ordered us both Modelo Especial, and the Taquiza platter to share.

The Taquiza platter is your choice of three taco fillings, with a stack of soft tortillas. You basically make your own tacos at the table. Fun! We had the Cochinita Pibil (braised pork with achiote), Lengua (ox tongue Mexico City style) and the Tinga (chicken with tomato and chipotle salsa), shown below left to right.
I was expecting to love the cochinita pibil the most, as I can still remember sitting at the town square in Cancun, watching families practice for a dance performance, munching on a tostada laden with pulled pork. While Los Amates’ version was good, it failed to capture the same flavours I remembered from years ago. Or maybe my memory’s just failed? In any case, the standout was clearly the lengua. With a soft yet springy texture, and lightly flavoured, the ox tongue was probably amongst the best I’ve tried. Mr J and I kept furtively going back for more, not wanting to seem greedy (that’s the only problem with sharing food) and pretty much ignoring the tinga, which was a bit too salty, in my opinion.

Los Amates claims to be the only authentic Mexican restaurant in Victoria. I’m not sure if they’re the only one, but they certainly are authentic. At least in my limited experience. I’d go back there for sure, if only for more beers and tongue. Ox tongue! It wasn’t that sort of date… 😉

Are there any places in Melbourne which have dishes which arouse your memories of past travel adventures?

Los Amates on Urbanspoon


113 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9419 9128

You know, sometimes you meet people in your life and they will forever be tied to a certain place in your mind, and certain meals that you share. For a group of my friends, who all went to Viet Nam as Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYADs) that place was Viet Nam, and well, that food is Vietnamese. Even though we’ve been back for over a year, every time we catch up, it seems to be at a Vietnamese restaurant. Until recently, when Ms J came over from Adelaide, and made the pointed remark that she was ‘over Vina’. So Mr D and I set about looking for an interesting alternative. We settled on African.

The request from Ms J was that it be close to East Melbourne, where she was staying, so we opted for Nyala African restaurant, on Brunswick St. In the lead up, another of our group had said her colleague was Ethiopian, and didn’t find the food very authentic, but we reasoned that it was an ‘African’ restaurant, not an Ethiopian restaurant, so that’s OK.

Though I’ve been to a few African restaurants now, yet I still haven’t moved past the “I don’t know much about this cuisine, let’s just get the banquet” stage. So we got the banquet.

First up, we got a trio of dips, with a stack of thin ‘mountain bread’. There was a spicy sweet potato, a smoky eggplant, and I can’t remember what the beige one was, so let’s just call it hummus? They were good way to sate the hunger, anyhow, because by the time they arrived, most of us were starving.

Next up were the entrees. A chunk of fried cauliflower (think pakora) and a tasty beef mince mixture, with raisins and flaked almonds.
The two worked together quite nicely, as the cauliflower was a little on the bland side, and the mince was full of punchy flavours. I’m not sure I would recommend either item on its own.

Then the real feast began. First out came the basis of the meal – couscous, some salad, and the all important injera. Unlike Cafe Lalibela or The Abyssinian, the injera here is kind of small, and doesn’t come as the base of the meal on which the rest of the dishes are plonked. There’s still an element of communal eating, in that you’re sharing the food, but it’s not as intimate, because you’re not all ripping at the injera in the middle with your hands. Instead, you portion food onto your place Western style, which is probably more hygienic, but definitely not as much fun!

First up was a beef stew/curry. This was not bad, but not that exciting. Somehow, despite it being a ‘curry’, it was a bit bland.
This was the other beef dish, with a pepper sauce, which was significantly tastier. I think this might have actually been pepper as in capsicum, but it was good either way, despite the Americanism.
Chickenn curry. Tasty, but again, not that memorable. This was one of the dishes which we didn’t end up finishing. There was a lot of food, but this wasn’t such a big dish, so it really should have been polished off. If you’re ordering a la carte, I’d give it a miss.
Then came a sizzling lamb dish. This was by far my favourite. Thinking back, maybe it was goat. That might explain why I liked it so much. In any case, the spice rub had just the right amount of chilli-heat, and I kept going back for more, even after I had proclaimed that I was full. And done. And finished. Oh OK, one more bit of lamb/goat, then.
The second chicken dish had a similar spice rub to the lamb, only there was a tomato-ey sauce to it. It was also a great dish, and if I went back, I’d have the chicken and the lamb/goat.
There was also another vegetable dish, but it was served a little late in the game, so I didn’t have any, and I forgot to take a picture. Food coma was setting in.

All in all, Nyala is a reasonably good place to eat, though I would characterise it as a slightly adulterated African food experience, which is good if you’re looking for an easy introduction to the cuisine.
Nyala African on Urbanspoon

Mario’s Cafe

303 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 3343

About a decade ago – and I can’t believe I just wrote that – I used to go to Melbourne Uni, so naturally, I spent a fair amount of time in and around Carlton and Fitzroy. While time marches on, and many things change, some stay the same. Like Mario’s.

Famous for the career waiters with an attitude which, depending on who you ask, is either surly, no-nonsense, or charming, Mario’s has been dishing up reliably good Italian food since well before I first went there in the late ’90s. So when meeting up for dinner with a group of Mr N’s friends and a little unsure of where to go, we went for the safe and familiar option. The fact it was across the road from Black Pearl, where we were knocking back aperitifs helped its cause, too.

My attention was caught by the specials board, and I ordered the lamb rump with eggplant mash, beans, red capsicum and goat’s cheese.

It was alright, but the eggplant mash needed seasoning, and was a little on the lukewarm side. The lamb was well cooked, but again, under-seasoned. Perhaps this was just some sort of Italian restraint thing I don’t get, but I thought the dish could have done with a sauce.
Mr N’s friend Mr N (confusing when you shorten people’s names to a single letter!) ordered the lasagne, which looked of quite a decent size, but having just come from the gym, he was left a little unsatisfied. Note to bodybuilders: order two serves of pasta at Mario’s.

Mr C had the baked gnocchi with bacon and ricotta (or fetta, I can’t remember – which do you think it is?). It looked like a smallish dish, but being gnocchi, it doesn’t take a lot to fill you up. He was very happy with his choice. I think I would have been too.

Mr N and Miss K both chose to have the braised lamb shank, which looked and smelled great. A super hearty meal, which was what the drizzly Winter night called for.
Mr J went for the classic steak, which came out with homely looking vegetables and potato rosti. Again, looks like it could have dealt with a little saucing, or some mustard?
Mario’s doesn’t really do sophisticated food. But if you’re after somewhere ‘safe’ to take a group of people you don’t know very well, it’s a pretty good option.

Marios Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Provincial Hotel – the Roast Collection

299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9810 0042

A cold and rainy night was sort of the perfect backdrop for my one and only outing to this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Roast Collection event calendar. The streets were unusually empty for a Friday night in Fitzroy, but you could hardly blame the punters, inclement weather always makes me want to stay home too. But the booking had been made weeks in advance, and I was looking forward to catching up with good friends over a hunk of meat. And at $35 for two courses, who was I to pass this up?

I must admit that I haven’t been inside the Provincial before. I always assumed it was just another Fitzroy pub, with perhaps a beer garden out the back. But what probably used to be a beer garden out the back was actually an enclosed glasshouse-like dining courtyard. We were quickly shown to our table by one of the delightful waiters; I should comment right now that all of the waitstaff that night were perfectly charming.

Some wonderfully soft bread rolls came out to the table shortly after ordering, but we were a little perplexed by the lack of bread plates at our table. Never mind, we all tucked in. It became evident that perhaps the bread was supposed to accompany the first course. Leek and potato soup.

This was a hearty way to start the meal, though I felt it could have been a little thicker. And not to quibble, but the soup arrived a good 15 minutes after the bread, so by that stage, all of the bread was gone. 🙁

Having read Penny’s review of her experience last week, on her recommendation, I ordered the 12 hour slow-roasted lamb shoulder, tempted as I was for a bit of roast chicken. The rest of the table, it seemed, had the same idea, and all five of us chose the lamb option. It took another half hour or so after the soup to arrive, but I’m assuming they slow-roast the lamb for 11 hours, and put it back in for another 1hour once the order is received, so that’s understandable. When it arrived, the wait seemed all worthwhile.

We were all a little surprised when the roast arrived at the table still on the bone, and even more surprised when the waitress announced that “now, this is the two person lamb”… meaning an even larger one was to come for the other three of us!

And arrive indeed it did! Served with roast pumpkin, wilted spinach, some sort of sweet jus, and the absolute standout of the evening, pan-seared semolina cakes, which had a creamy, mildly cheesy, ultra-rich texture. It somewhat overshadowed even the melting-off-the-bone lamb! My one criticism of this dish is that it lacked saucing. While the lamb was beautifully cooked, it somewhat lacked flavour. The jus was there, but a little difficult to get off the serving plate onto your own. Thankfully, we were old friends at the table, so none too shy about dipping our meats in the communal jus! I guess that’s part of what serving a roast at the table entails; there’s a communality and intimacy about sharing food that I love about this style of eating.

Between the five of us, we didn’t come even close to finishing neither the two nor three person lamb dishes, and we were all happily groaning about how full our bellies were.

The rest of the menu looked quite enticing, though there was nothing particularly innovative, it had gastropub favourites like risottos and pork belly. Mmmm, pork belly. Might have to revisit.

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