Chef Benjamin Cooper at Chin Chin. Photo: Eddie Jim
It starts in January with the commissioning of 500-plus reviews and wraps up today when the Good Food Guide goes on sale. Editor Janne Apelgren recounts the journey.
NO-BOOKINGS Chin Chin is undoubtedly one of Melbourne's hottest restaurants. People tell of waiting more than an hour for a table. A block away at Mamasita, the wait can be longer. Restaurants such as these are a nightmare to review — just getting in the door is tricky. But as we assign our reviewers for the 2013 guide, it's clear no-bookings dining is the future for many.
From outside Chin Chin on a summer's evening, it looks like the year will be a good one for diners. There are high-profile openings due from chefs such as Andrew and Matt McConnell and Sydney's three-hatted Mark Best. But a walk down Flinders Lane later the same evening tells another story. While buzz-worthy restaurants are backed up, many more have only half a dozen diners in them. As economic conditions tighten, we begin to witness dining's great divide.
Throughout the next six months, the guide's review team will devour 1100-plus meals in about 560 restaurants. Reviewers will fan out across the state like a military operation.
THE review team of 66 is in place. There are some new recruits, including a Japanese-Australian blogger who has lived in China, the US and Italy; a historian and former Age wine writer; and a publishing entrepreneur who has owned a few good restaurants in his time, too. Most have come recommended by other reviewers and editors.
Michael Ryan, The Age Good Food Guide's 2013 Chef of the Year, and team at Provenance, Beechworth.
We begin with a detailed spreadsheet of more than 600 restaurants and whittle the list down to 550, knowing we will add a few, and lose a few, in the next six months. We read menus, call locals and ask around to hone the list. Each reviewer is assigned about 10 restaurants, including a weekend's dining in country Victoria. While on the road they review at least two, sometimes three, restaurants or cafes a day.
Each reviewer receives a 13-page handbook guiding them through the process. They should order entrees, mains and desserts, and have a budget of $190, including $40 for wine. Most spend less, but some restaurants cost a great deal more. The reviewers' bill for Vue de Monde comes to almost $600 (two reviewers dine together) and the restaurant is visited more than once. Grossi Florentino is visited four times, by four reviewers.
There's a long list of do's and don'ts. Always book. Don't tell anyone you're reviewing. Research before you go. Order thoughtfully (don't order steak unless it's a steak restaurant, order a variety of dishes — not things that have similar ingredients or cooking methods). Despite these instructions, year after year reviewers tend to gravitate towards the siren call of zucchini flowers, pork belly, duck, scallops, salted caramel and creme brulee.
Sit around the communal bar at Casa Ciuccio, Fitzroy. Photo: Supplied
In the past we told them to be discreet about note-taking and photographing food, perhaps nipping into the loos to write notes. This is barely an issue now — restaurateurs assume someone photographing their food and taking notes is a blogger rather than a reviewer. Sophisticated reservations systems make it trickier to book under false names, though. Regular reviewers often find that when they give their mobile number to confirm a booking under a false name, the restaurant says, "We have [insert reviewer's name] under that number."
They are given a checklist of things to consider. Was the greeting professional? Was the meal well paced? How were problems handled? Are there good and bad tables?
As reviews start to come in, we watch for patterns in writing style, dishes ordered and observations. A favourite is "quintessentially Melbourne", usually of somewhere secreted down a lane.
Vareniki at The Crimean in North Melbourne. Photo: Eddie Jim
It's a label owned by somewhere such as European, where, at a quick after-work dinner, a pigtailed waitress has just the right amount of attitude. Media guru Harold Mitchell arrives, a regular, for coffee. The place is louche, bohemian, dark enough to be flattering to almost anyone, as the waitress notes, though she can barely see the water she is pouring. But the food is great. The beef rib, braised, is sticky, crusty, sweet and tender, with a kiss of PX sherry. There's banter and riposte. This is quintessential Melbourne. The crowd is dressed in black, with retro specs and boots, even in summer.
ONE of our first kill reports comes in, from a seasoned reviewer, on a peninsula restaurant: "We had dinner on Saturday night with two foodie friends who have a house there and have been a couple of times. None of us thought it was up to scratch. Very slow service, unprofessional (for example, pouring an entire bottle of white into four glasses). The three servers were young and very inexperienced. Plates left for ages before clearing etc ..." I phone a local reviewer who knows the place and the area, and who concurs it's not guide-worthy. It's dropped.
Reviewers are asked to supply as much information as they can, in notes not for publication. If we have to downgrade or drop a restaurant, a "kill" report details why.
Ocean trout miso chowder at Kazuki's at the Raglan, Daylesford. Photo: Eddie Jim
Reviewers often wrestle with recommending a restaurant be dropped. Sometimes we'll send another for a second opinion. But usually the decision is made after two threshold questions: "Would you go back there and spend your own money? Would you recommend it to a friend?"
SINCE opening the guide website and app to users' reviews, feedback has become a valuable resource. Our audience is savvy and discerning. Yelp and Google-owned Zagat, both from the US, launch their restaurant review sites in Australia while we are compiling this year's book. But social media can still feel, to an educated diner, like asking the bloke next to you at the tram stop for an opinion on where you should have dinner — a hit-and-miss affair.
In mid-April we begin visiting the higher-scoring restaurants, including Provenance at Beechworth. Within moments of the plates landing, my dining companion and I are speechless. We've rarely eaten food this good. There's not a misstep in six dishes. I think of all the ugly dots, the drying smears, the dirty dusts and soils and unctuous foams I've consumed in recent months and I think, if only those chefs would come here and eat. We have three or four restaurants on our roster for country restaurant of the year, so with two weeks to go before the birth of her second child, I dispatch Larissa Dubecki, who is just three days into maternity leave, to see if she endorses my enthusiasm. At 10.08pm, she texts me. "Provenance astounding." I do a little jig. We have our regional restaurant of the year.
The Age Good Food Guide 2013. Photo: Peter SCHOFIELD
It's also time to put together a list of potential "best new" restaurants. The panel — Larissa Dubecki, Michael Harden, Dani Valent, Richard Cornish and me — believes Pei Modern is a front runner.
We decide almost unanimously that manager Ainslie Lubbock deserves our service excellence award this year. Service is delightfully confident, unobtrusive but not stitched up. During my visit, one of the team sends a tray of beers sprawling across the neighbouring table. Lubbock apologises, races off for a mop-up cloth, then a waitress says, deadpan: "Welcome to Pei Modern." Everyone laughs. Things go wrong in restaurants. It's how they handle it that tells you as much about the quality of the place. Hiccup over, everything's as smooth as the Dutch cream potato with mojama, coffee and bone marrow, which goes straight to the top of the dishes-to-try-before-you-die list.
IT'S likely I'll be recognised at Attica, which has already been reviewed but is being revisited to confirm it keeps its third hat. So I send my dining companion in first. She is seated in the second, smaller room, which is dominated by a spectacular black-and-white skyscape by a photographer friend of chef Ben Shewry. The second room is cosy but lacks the buzz and energy of the main dining room. It's also a wee bit cold. But it's all twos, which separates us from some of the larger groups in the main room, one of which has bravely decided to dine with a crying baby.
The dining room is full of disciples, food tourists and dish-snapping diners, as befits Shewry's now-global profile as the southernmost proponent of nature-fuelled cuisine. The profile means he travels more, but does this show? The staff know me, which means I have to shift my focus to what's going on at surrounding tables, whether the service is the same as I'm getting. But this team is tight. Attica's the best it's been. It looks like we'll retain four three-hatted restaurants.
A fortnight later, early on a Sunday night, Circa is quiet. There seem to be two good-size functions in, but the dining room, in all its Scandi blond-wood spaciousness, is not crowded. Someone has observed this restaurant's had more lives than a cat. The ridiculously cuisine-hopping menu could be a train wreck, but it works. Evidence the Korean-inspired taco, with beef ribs and perky cabbage slaw. Or deep-fried soft-shell crab with kimchi and pork pancake. It's ridiculous and breaks every rule in the book but, boy, it's good.
Late May, it's time to head to Loam. The man at the next table has kidnapped his wife. "We just got in the car and went west," she tells staff. "I had no idea where I was coming." She looks happy to have ended up here among the olive groves, despite the fact that the weather is brutal, with a month's rain in a day, and the unsealed road is crossed twice by overflowing creeks. The airy room is a blank canvas. It sounds corny, but the room is warmed by the hospitality of the team, who look like they've wandered from the set of that beer commercial with the secret valley and fountain of youth. Three years in, they're the same team who launched the place, incredible for the hospitality industry.
The menu is just a list of produce and ingredients, from oysters to duck tongues to salsify, and the place hums with the easy country hospitality of an on-song service team and Aaron Turner's inspired cooking.
THERE'S discussion among the panel about whether our three-hat restaurants deserve to keep their position. There has been uproar about Vue de Monde charging a diner $900 for cancelling a table of six within 24 hours, despite some argument over the facts, and that the table host was unwell. Our panel agrees Vue's reservations system, which often puts time limits on bookings, can be frustrating. But around the world, restaurants are starting to adopt similar policies and taking deposits, which owner-chef Shannon Bennett points out.
We also discuss how Jacques Reymond is faring against global trendsetters such as Attica. One of the panel says a recent meal wasn't at the usual high standard. But the reviewer disagrees, saying it's easy to forget the pleasures of submitting to luxurious hospitality and the confident professionalism of a restaurant such as Jacques Reymond. We schedule a revisit. The welcome is warm, the room chic, the chairs comfy, the linen-dressed tables spaced for conversation, not eavesdropping. Every need is quietly anticipated. But traditional doesn't mean old-fashioned, especially when it comes to the food.
By June we have added about 50 significant new restaurants to the guide, places such as Albert St Food & Wine from chef Philippa Sibley and Casa Ciuccio from Matt McConnell. Restaurateur Paul Mathis has opened half a dozen new venues, including two at the fledgling South Wharf dining precinct. But we have also lost more than a dozen notable restaurants, including three long-time two-hatters (MoMo, Verge and Pearl), some temporarily for a redo and relaunch, most for good.
I'm preparing for a jaunt to central Victoria and the Argus at Hepburn Springs when I hear that its chef, the formerly two-hatted Ryan Sessions, is leaving the restaurant within Peppers resort after little more than three months. Savvy operators Melissa Macfarlane and Frank Moylen (The Crimean) felt pairing up with Sessions would get this hotel restaurant into hat-worthy shape. Early reports suggested Ryan's cooking was lovely but the restaurant was still bedding down. The Argus had been under consideration for the best new country restaurant award, but now would be dropped from the guide.
Another contender for the award is Kazuki's at the Raglan, where we are due for lunch. The chef, formerly of Lake House, is Japanese. His menu is a hybrid of Japanese with French influences. The restaurant is in two rooms on the ground floor of an old pub, the Raglan. Several reviewers have visited privately and raved about the Moreton Bay bug wontons. A pumpkin and chestnut pithivier has lovely buttery pastry and a garland of bright-green brussels sprout leaves glossy with sauteed butter and a kiss of sherry vinegar. The wontons are indeed memorable.
ANDREW McConnell's Moon Under Water, a bijoux dining room behind the Builders Arms pub, is due to open as we prepare to send the book to the printers. The book is 99.9 per cent finished, so we've decided to place Moon Under Water into our Stop Press section — reviewing a week-old restaurant for a guide that will last a year seems a bit unfair. It has opened too late to be considered for our awards.
Moon Under Water has been open only two days when I speak to two reviewers who had snagged a booking for opening night. "One of the best meals of my life," one says. The four-course, fixed set menu, for $75, is a confident move, but as reviewer Andrew Hagger says, "Andrew McConnell has a knack for knowing what, and how, Melburnians want to eat, even before they know themselves". A week later, when I've eaten in the white-on-white room, I have to agree. The restaurant has sophisticated simplicity. Reviewer Larissa Dubecki dines there. With only days till the guide goes to the printer, we squeeze it in.
THE book is with the printers when we get an email from a reader that their favourite local, Garcia & Son, appears to have shut. It's the latest change we've ever made to the book, but we manage to replace it with a feature on good-value dining.
On August 17, the book arrives. Everyone who works on it is subject to confidentiality rules, to keep secret our awards and hats. Invitations to the launch and awards go out and old hands in the business know it's a hint to whether they've retained their hats. Some call asking whether their invitations have gone astray.
It gives us great pleasure to bring the best of the industry together for a night that celebrates their achievements. We have room for about 400, but we could take double that number — a reminder, if it were needed, that we live in one of the world's great dining cities.