A few of our favourite things

The Town Mouse owner Christian McCabe.
The Town Mouse owner Christian McCabe. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

It's a little like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge. No sooner have we put one edition of The Age Good Food Guide to bed than it's time to start work on the next. But before that job begins in earnest, let's take a moment to reflect on the year just gone, during which more than 64 reviewers hit the road, eating more than 1000 meals at 600-plus restaurants around the state in their selfless pursuit of Victoria's best dining experiences. Here are some of the highlights.

Best look-and-learn moment: Lau's Family Kitchen, St Kilda
Even on a steamy summer evening, Gilbert Lau (father of the owners and former long-time Flower Drum maitre d') can sometimes be found waiting on tables, opening the door for customers and showing young staff members how to plate up a dish.

Best "come in from the cold" welcome: The Town Mouse, Carlton
Open arms, solicitous welcome, seamless shuffling from footpath to bar to table when you arrive without a booking, cold, tired and feeling like such a popular place could not possibly accommodate you.

Favourite Sunday night dinner out: Valentino, Toorak
This Calabrian-inspired newcomer makes a restaurant meal feel like a family meal.

Best legal buzz: hot and numbing dry wagyu beef at Spice Temple, Southbank
This plate of blackened, chewy-textured strips of beef deeply flavoured with Sichuan pepper and chilli lulls you into feeling safe before doing exactly what it says on the label: it's hot; it does, in due course, start to numb, and it's always great.

MoVida's anchovy with tomato sorbet.
MoVida's anchovy with tomato sorbet. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Best virtuous start to the day: breakfast at Cumulus Inc, Melbourne
Among all of Melbourne's brunch decadence, the oh-so-simple set brekkie of perfect boiled egg, fresh OJ, toast, home-made jam and coffee or tea at Cumulus is transformative. Good for a bright lifeline in a hangover, or just a pristine start to another grimy workday in the city.

Dining with the stars: Mama Baba, South Yarra
We could quibble about the definition of "star" but television show hosts do create a frisson of excitement in a dining room. And so it was when celebrity chef Gary Mehigan and celebrity vet Chris Brown dined at different tables at Mama Baba one Saturday night in April.

If these walls could talk: Neighbourhood Wine, Fitzroy North
Once the secret gambling den of late criminal Alphonse Gangitano is now a sexy upstairs speakeasy with arguably Melbourne's largest billiard table. The wine list and Euro-leaning menu aren't bad either.


Best retro moment: mac and cheese at Huxtable, Fitzroy
The on-trend mac and cheese has been a hit new addition to the menu at Daniel Wilson's Smith Street favourite, with a double-smoked hit of mozzarella and chipotle sauce that is a world away from the blue-boxed Kraft version.

Guaranteed smile starter: anchovy with smoked-tomato sorbet at MoVida, Melbourne
It's been around for years but MoVida's salty, fleshy anchovy on its crazy-cold tomato sorbet, resting innocently on a sourdough crisp, is still the cheeriest thing you can have on a grey day (and damn fine under a blue sky, too).

Start 'em young award: Baby, Richmond
The scene: early evening at busy pizza joint Baby. Characters: a couple with two young children. Cue: restless fidgeting and whingeing. Enter: waiter with two small balls of dough for the kids. Cue: contented silence as the kids get to work shaping their "pizzas".

Ilona Staller's prawn and anchovy souffle.
Ilona Staller's prawn and anchovy souffle. Photo: Eddie Jim

Best anachronistic night out: Eleonore's, Yering
This opulent Yarra Valley restaurant is like dining in a BBC costume drama, only with food that is both artful and completely unfrumpy.

Best posh junk food: beef brisket souvlakakia at Gazi, Melbourne
It's wrapped in nicely charred, soft flatbread and absolutely bursting with marinated, slow-braised brisket, parsley, red onion and aioli. Golden fries poking out the end seal the deal. Daintier than its street-wise cousin, it's hard to stop at one souvlakakia at George Calombaris' reborn Greek joint.

Best counter lunch: Reuben sandwich at the Builders Arms Hotel, Fitzroy
Unless you sat at the bar, you might never know the kitchen rustles up a fine Reuben sandwich. The corned beef is cold-smoked in-house and it's served on toasted rye bread, with a pickle on the side. It goes down very nicely with a serving of thrice-cooked chips, too.

Eel, curd, wild rocket and egg at Gladioli.
Eel, curd, wild rocket and egg at Gladioli. Photo: Ken Irwin

Best long-player: Gougeres at Jacques Reymond, Prahran
Another contender for best posh junk food, this complimentary appetiser has been a JR staple for more than 25 years. It's sophisticated but it's still a cheesy puff.

Classiest roadhouse: Tea Rooms of Yarck, Yarck
If you happen to be driving by when a coffee or sugar craving strikes, the Tea Rooms' array of cakes and coffee machine deliver. The menu is a chalkboard and in Italian, so it's a point-and-eat affair that might involve bomboloni, millefoglie, tiramisu or panna cotta.

Best private tour: Attica, Ripponlea
Every party at Ben Shewry's fine diner gets a bespoke turn around the courtyard kitchen garden, complete with a cup of steaming apple cider and a marshmallow to toast on the open fire.

Most heart-stopping condiment: chicken-skin butter at Little Hunter, Melbourne
The words "chicken", "skin" and "butter" were probably never meant to appear together, but you'll be glad they do when a small pot of the stuff arrives with a complimentary loaf of house-made bread loaded with aged cheddar and cocoa butter.

Favourite weekend break: Chris's Beacon Point Restaurant, Apollo Bay
Chris's beautiful treetop views and sophisticated Greek cooking provide a delicious escape from the city grid.

Look, ma, no meat: Small Victories, Carlton North
For a chef who makes his own bacon, sausages and blood pudding, Alric Hansen is a dab hand at vegetarian dishes. His house-made pappardelle with roasted pumpkin, walnut sauce, pickled beetroot and pecorino will satisfy even hardened carnivores.

Best "less is more" dish: Fior di burrata at Casa Ciuccio, Fitzroy
The essence of simplicity, this soft, buttery cow's milk cheese is drizzled with incredible olive oil, a pinch of chilli salt and a single basil leaf. It's heavenly with a few wedges of the house-made bread.

Best old-school service: Epocha, Carlton
From the rickety cheese trolley to fish silver-served at the table, the proper, warm service and attention to detail from owners Angie Giannakodakis and Guy Holder make perfect Good Food Guide 2014 sense in Epocha's romantic, old-world surrounds.

Local hero: Ilona Staller, Balaclava
For its glowing bar, great service, comfortable booths and family-friendly meal deals. Runner-up: Pinotta, Fitzroy North, whose gorgonzola gnocchi is perfect Sunday dinner material.

Best seat for dining solo: three-way tie
For a masterclass in bar service, grab a stool and observe the staff at MoVida Next Door, Cumulus Up or City Wine Shop, who all achieve the right balance of witty banter, flirtation, up-sell and professionalism.

Game for anything award: Winchelsea ostrich at Jack and Jill, Geelong
Chef Leonie Mills isn't afraid of experimentation. Her Geelong restaurant may be the only place in Victoria where you'll get to sample this lean, tender but not overpoweringly gamey meat, which she serves with an African spiced red-lentil filo parcel and braised pickled red cabbage.

Best reason to skip dessert: gelato at Gelateria Primavera, Melbourne
Take a sneaky passeggiata home via Spring Street's Gelateria Primavera for Massimo Bidin's game-changingly good fresh-churned gelato.

Best excuse for a detour: Gladioli, Inverleigh
Now we get it: the Geelong bypass was built to get Melbourne diners to Inverleigh as quickly as possible.

Top cocktail: Rosey Posey Fizz at Gazi, Melbourne
Made with gin, cucumber, rose water, soda and, yes, Greek yoghurt.

Best bar snack: Melanzane fritte at Bar Di Stasio, St Kilda
If you thought you didn't like eggplant, you haven't tried these golden crumbed fritters.

Best off-the-beaten-track brunch: Truffled scrambled eggs at Jindivick Harvest Kitchen, Gippsland
Served with locally baked sourdough and warm country hospitality, this fragrant, earthy and delicious brunch dish might have gone unordered were it not for the persuasive powers of the cafe's staff.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie award: Wallaby tail soup at Flower Drum, Melbourne
This complex, slow-braised soup of wallaby tail, yam and red bean demonstrates an inspired use of native produce and is bound to cure whatever ails you.

Move over, lobster roll: duck pancakes at Golden Fields, St Kilda
A leg of twice-cooked duck, crusty as a meteorite on the outside, tender and succulent on the inside, arrives with marshmallow-like steamed bread and chunky batons of cucumber.

Best lingering flavour: the custom-made sweet, salty, hot, sour candy rock at Easy Tiger, Collingwood
Saunter out onto Smith Street as the meal melts on your tongue like a little Post-it note reminder of all the amazing flavours you've just enjoyed.

Best more cheese, please: monsieur and madame at Bistro Gitan, South Yarra
More fine fromage from famille de Reymond:heavenly croque madame, not to forget delish monsieur, plus fondue nights at Bistro Gitan.

Farewell, old friend: the sun sets on Sunnybrae, Birregurra
The slightly melancholy edge that intensified the already brilliant flavours of George Biron's food when eating at Sunnybrae on one of its final weekends.

Best pizza moment: the wondrously light, honeycombed crust of Riccardo Momesso's pizza at Valentino, Toorak
Based on a traditional Calabrian bread recipe that includes minimal yeast and two days of proving time.

Best extreme makeover: goodbye Nudel, hello Ombra, Melbourne
The pitch-perfect transformation of the former Nudel Bar into Ombra, a moodily lit, rustic-edged treat of a salumi bar.

Best spontaneous long lunch: Albert Street Food & Wine, Brunswick
Saturday lunch that started with Philippa Sibley's amazing rabbit terrine served with burnt carrot aioli and tiny bits of crisped-up rabbit belly and finished with a toe-curlingly good walnut and date tart.

Best cocktail meets taxidermy award: Chesterfield and Elk Room, Fitzroy
Michael Madrusan opens the Chesterfield and deer head-strewn Elk Room at his brilliant bar the Everleigh, making fans of sophisticated bars and cocktails for grown-ups swoon all over again.
■ Contributors: Janne Apelgren, Gayle Austen, Nathan Chisholm, Leanne Clancey, Justine Costigan, Emiko Davies, Roslyn Grundy, Michael Harden, Michael Harry, Jane Ormond, Michelle Potts, Lucinda Schmidt, Gail Thomas, Dani Valent and Patrick Witton.

■ The Age Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age this weekend, from participating newsagents, Coles, Woolworths and 7-Eleven stores, while stocks last. It is also available today in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99.