Top 10 dishes of the year
Smash it and see ... The Gazi pavlova gets its Greek on with a meringue dome, painted with dehydrated raspberry and mastic, hiding a bunch of goodies.
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1. Beef with charred vegetables at Brooks
There's a flair for the dramatic at Brooks, the uber-Melbourne drinking den and clubbish restaurant. A stark white plate; a shroud of pitch-black leaves. Inside there's charry/pink hay-infused wagyu rump cap on a swipe of blackened carrot puree with mimolette (think gouda fondue) and the bright relief of ginger and red wine gel. We could get into the technical explanation – the soft, charry leaves are made of mashed potato mixed with bamboo charcoal – but that would be missing the point of Nic Poelaert's food, which is mystery and whimsy wrapped up in some stonkingly delicious flavours.
Brooks, 115-117 Collins Street, city, phone 9001 8755.
2. Bonito at Cumulus Up
The empty space above the Andrew McConnell mothership Cumulus Inc that was destined to be a bar had almost entered the realm of myth. And then, finally, it opened. And it was good. Cumulus Up is the embodiment of the year's biggest food trends, yet it's no slave to fashion. It's officially a wine bar but the food is too good to write off as a second-order batsman. Such as this soy-marinated bonito, lightly torched and dressed in ginger vinegar and topped with grilled Korean laver (seaweed) with sesame seeds. It's sort of Asian, sort of not – and totally modern.
Cumulus Up, Level 1, 45 Flinders Lane, city, phone 9650 1445.
3. Pani puri at Tonka
Delicate. Light. Ethereal. Not words usually associated with Indian cooking, but pretty much your go-to adjectives to describe the pani puri at Tonka, Adam D'Sylva and the Coda crew's modern Indian restaurant. A street snack re-imagined for the high end, the crisp little fried pastries are filled with potato and mung bean and topped with a splodge of tamarind and date chutney; it's up to the diner to add a splash of the "aromatic water" comprising, among other things, mint, chilli and mango powder.
Tonka, 20 Duckboard Place, city, phone 9650 3155.
4. Garlic soup with calamari at MoVida
The tapas revolution has come, gone, and come around again since MoVida started doing its thing a decade ago. How Frank Camorra manages to always stay ahead of the trend curve is a surprisingly traditional story: hard graft backed up with plenty of travel and plenty of imagination. This sopa (soup) is the embodiment of the MoVida aesthetic and why we keep going back for more – a broth that's heady with chorizo; a single soft, white calamari ring. So simple, it's the perfectly realised tapa.
MoVida, 1 Hosier Lane, city, phone 9663 3038.
5. Pavlova at Gazi
What was Gazi going to be? A dumbed-down Press Club? An upmarket souvlaki bar? Both, and neither, as it turned out. From the undulating ceiling of terracotta pots to the Europop soundtrack, Gazi is full-on fun, and the fun just gets better with dessert. The Gazi pavlova gets its Greek on with a meringue dome, painted with dehydrated raspberry and mastic, hiding a bunch of goodies. Smash it and reveal a painterly little scene of red grapefruit sorbet and lemon curd, fresh meringue and musk stick, and jewel-like pomegranate seeds.
Gazi, 2 Exhibition Street, city, phone 9207 7444.
6. Shaved calamari, dill, oyster cream and fermented apple juice at the Town Mouse
All up – no down. The seating, that is, at the Town Mouse, which looks like a bar, sounds like a bar and acts like a bar, until you try the food, at which point, all bets are off. Chef Dave Verheul's food is surprising. Elegant, textured and original, he takes something as ordinary as calamari, cooks it sous vide then freezes and slices it into soft ribbons, adds salted cucumber and winks of dill oil, finishes with a gutsy moat of fermented apple juice and a mollifying base of oyster cream.
The Town Mouse, 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, phone 9347 3312.
7. Duck merguez and clams at B'Stilla B'Stilla my heart.
Morocco blips once again on the trend radar thanks to the efforts of Jason Jones, who did a similar thing for Mexican at Mamasita. For his follow-up trick he takes the flavours of Marrakesh to backstreet South Yarra. The namesake b'stilla (pigeon pie) is a thing of textbook beauty, and then you get this modern-rustic creation of charry duck sausages joining forces with the briny heft of diamond clams and the sweetness of baby heirloom carrots, in an aromatic, jammy base of eggplant.
B'Stilla, 30B Bray Street, South Yarra, phone 9826 2370.
8. King George whiting in paperbark at Attica
Attica's diners are a trusting bunch. Presented with a twig basket filled with unfamiliar foraged herbs, walnuts nestling in sawdust or an ash-covered bark bundle, they prepare to tuck right in. But in the case of the paperbark parcel, the bark's not for eating. Instead it protects a pale whiting fillet, adding a slight smokiness and a touch of dining theatre in the process. Flavoured with green tomato, lemon myrtle, house-made pearl meat butter and sea plants, the whiting is as delicate as you could want – assuming you don't try to eat the bark.
Attica, 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, phone 9530 0111.
9. Tagliarini neri with warm spanner crab, fresh chilli and lemon zest at Rosetta
It's a room with va-va-voom. Snowy ruched curtains, plush velvet seating, domed ceilings, and framed black-and-white photos give Neil Perry's Italian job a heaped helping of Latin charm. Tagliarini neri tunes into Rosetta's monochromatic theme, combining fine strands of squid-ink pasta with loads of hand-picked crab, olive oil, lemon zest, finely chopped parsley and the barest hint of chilli.
Rosetta, Crown Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank, phone 8648 1999.
10. Marron coral at Vue de Monde
From the bewitching city views to the detail-rich interior, there's plenty to take in at Vue de Monde. And then there's the food . . . a parade of small courses. Among them is a dish listed as marron coral. At the table, a waiter daubs roasted garlic sauce on a plate with a charry leek "paintbrush", then spoons on umami-loaded marron coral "gravy", to be wiped up with bread. It won't win any beauty contests but it tastes sublime.
Vue de Monde, Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins Street, city, phone 9691 3888.
The Age Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age this weekend from selected newsagencies, Coles, Woolworths and 7-Eleven stores while stocks last. It is also available today in bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99.