Burgers and bao: a year in Melbourne's dining scene
Good eating and drinking with bar-style seating ... Bar Di Stasio. Photo: Daniel Mahon
Escoffier must be turning in his grave. The humble meat patty slapped in a bun has been the food hero of the past year. The trend blasted out of the starting blocks a few years back and has now (we can only hope) reached critical mass. Show us a restaurant that doesn't have some version of the burger, slider, po' boy and bao and we'll show you a restaurant where a Good Food Guide reviewer just didn't look hard enough.
Burgers are the fun-food story that launched a thousand newspaper columns. They weren't the only re-imagined junk food on the menu. The low road met the high with chicken wings, souvlaki, hot dogs, mac'n'cheese and fried everything.
But the flip side to all those kilojoules is an industry in turmoil. Food juvenilia, with healthier margins than traditional fine dining, is a response to market forces. The year's overriding theme is that diners are spending less and expecting more. The bottom line is that the screws are tightening for restaurateurs.
Since the Good Food Guide went to print last month, the local restaurant scene has suffered the loss of Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons and The Aylesbury. The former is, sadly, gone forever; the latter is being turned into a Spanish workers' cafeteria. And there's more. The concept at Trocadero is being reworked. The ambitious Virginia Plain lasted only seven weeks after being rebranded Mercy Bar and Eatery before it bit the dust. Canterbury's Wildflower is gone. Davis Yu's Claremont Tonic has devolved into the southside's answer to Touche Hombre, and Louie is no more.
But for every departure there is a newcomer. There are 100 new restaurants, cafes and bars in the 34th edition of The Age Good Food Guide. For the diners of Victoria, the world is your freshly shucked oyster. Here's what else to expect on the eating hustings.
1. Top eat street
Smith Street has ripped the crown from its intersecting rival, Gertrude Street, to become Melbourne's latest dining king. The once-scuzzy strip - still a bit scuzzy, truth be told - has best newcomer Saint Crispin, next-door neighbour Gorski and Jones, Huxtable and Huxtaburger, and about a dozen newcomers of all stripes, making it one hell of a street party. The off-Smith thing is buzzing too, with Hell of the North and George Calombaris' Jimmy Grants.
2. The slash scene
The slashie - previously the domain of model-actresses and singer-dancers - has become increasingly useful in the food world. The proliferation of bar/cafe/restaurants has kept everybody on their definitional toes. The most impressively performing category has been the bar-restaurant. The drinking scene has come of age at places that equally promote great food and serious drinks. It seems we no longer have to be convinced that good eating and drinking can coexist with bar-style seating - think Ombra, Cumulus Up, Neighbourhood Wine, The Town Mouse and Bar Di Stasio.
3. Second-string syndrome
George Calombaris said it himself: he probably won't make any money when the Press Club opens as a much smaller 30-seater later this year, but it will feed his creative fires. There's not a lot of money in the higher end of dining, hence the Press Club finding its good-time Greek mojo with Gazi, and opening souvlaki bar Jimmy Grants. Davis Yu devolved Claremont Tonic, his South Yarra stab at modern Asian, into the southside version of his city Mexican cantina Touche Hombre. Brooks showed that if you're going down the fine-dining route, it's best to do it with a bar attached.
Other well-known operators moved even further back into the supply chain: restaurateurs are turning food-and-drink importers.
Rumi and The Moor's Head owner Joseph Abboud is flying the flag for Lebanon's 961 beer, and MoVida opened a bakery, only to sell last month to head baker Michael James (he's now operating as Tivoli Road Bakery).
4. Molecular moderation
This was the year the last vestiges of the molecular revolution finally burnt out. Ingredient shape-shifting for its own sake is the antithesis of the prevailing rustic mentality. But the baby hasn't been thrown out with the sous vide bath water. What remains is technique that adds something to a dish. That also means no swipes and smears. The backlash has begun: no one's using the term foam any more, and even gel is on the nose. Instead, let's try ''espuma'' on for size.
5. China, meet Italy
Yes, they're like apples and oranges, but China and Italy are indivisible from regionality, rusticity and authenticity. If we really have to decide on a cuisine of the year, Italy would have to take line honours - from Neil Perry's triumphant display of classic Latin charm at Rosetta to Riccardo Momesso's Calabrian authenticity at Valentino. Pizza is going from strength to strength, but so are dumplings. On the Chinese front, Man Tong took the Hu Tong story up a notch and Dainty Sichuan, now in the city and Box Hill as well as South Yarra, went from strength to fiery strength.
6. Gardening goes indoors
The green revolution has taken over decorating duties. The table adornment du jour is the terrarium. Pots of herbs and baby vegetables have taken up residence next to the salt and pepper shakers - pumpkins were seen everywhere from the Healesville Hotel to Grossi Florentino and Moon Under Water. Brussels sprouts attached to their stalks, artichokes and fruit on the bough gave florists a pretty new array of playthings.
7. Bottoms up
The wine list became the drinks list more than ever before. It's the year of the cocktail. Bartenders (please don't call them mixologists) are as hip as baristas thanks to their bespoke drinks lists, often composed with thematic consistency and an eye to food-matching. Check B'Stilla, among others, for the triumph of the mixed drink over the traditional wine list. Speaking of which, the debate over so-called orange natural, low-intervention wines continues to ignite passion and opprobrium in equal measure. Tequila continued its upwards trajectory - no longer seen as just a party in a glass, but a worthy spirit with its own traditions and variations.
8. Smokin' hot
Where there's smoke, there's flavour. Little wonder it became the biggest food story of the year, in cahoots with the craze for authentic American barbecue and all things manly and meaty. Is meat, is good.
9. Tunes, please
Restaurants are no longer places to simply go and eat - they're a curated experience, and that extends to the music. It's no longer enough for restaurateurs to put a few of their favourite tunes on an iPod: exhaustively sourced playlists soundtrack a meal, changing pace whether it's the 6pm kick-off or the full-throttle 8pm peak hour. The typical hipster mix tick-tacks between indie heroes and '70s radio favourites such as Fleetwood Mac. Win extra points for an in-house DJ (Acland Street Cantina and Mama Baba).
10. And what we ate
Previously unloved leafy greens including kale and nettle got with the year's rustic program. Everything was better with lardons, including super-caramelised brussels sprouts. The art of smoking extended to hitherto untouched ingredients, including salt and chocolate. ''Wild'' mushrooms had to be foraged by the chefs to have any cred - alternatively, log-grown shiitake and shimeji had plenty of respect. Salted caramel reached oversupply, but we haven't tired of it yet. Wallaby made a bounding comeback, secondary cuts were the new primary cuts, and the year's ''it'' ingredient was the sustainable, and delicious, blue cod from New Zealand's remote Chatham Islands.