The Age Good Food Guide 2015: dishes of the year
Slow roasted red cabbage, prune, parmesan and red apple at the Town Mouse. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
1. Barramundi in two parts at Vue de Monde
When describing Vue de Monde you might think you'd need words like ''hush'' and ''formal'' and ''reverent''. Instead, you need ''fun'' and ''finger-licking''. The dish that sums it all up is the barramundi, served in two stages. The collar comes first - a kind of nose-to-tail fishy bit that was used for staff meals before it graduated to the dining floor. It's dusted in lemon myrtle flour and deep-fried to a crunchy, salty crisp. Next, the fish head arrives. It's been baked on high heat so the cheeks have steamed under the skin. Those plump morsels are extracted with silver spoons by skilled servers and placed in lettuce cups to be eaten sang choy bao-style, with the fingers, dripping in duck fat ''butter''. It doesn't hurt that the barramundi is clean and meaty: once swimming wild in the waters around the Tiwi Islands, these barra are line-caught, salt-water purged, then brain-spiked to an instant death by indigenous fishermen. The dish as a whole is a fabulous intersection of haute cuisine, clever drama and a good giggle.
Served as part of a degustation (from $200), Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins Street, Melbourne, 9691 3888
2. Slow roast red cabbage, prune, parmesan and red apple at the Town Mouse
"If I tell you, I'll have to kill you," was what chef Dave Verheul didn't quite say when I asked him to share his cabbage recipe. I tossed it up: it would almost be worth dying to learn brassica magic like this. Anyway, suffice to say this sublime dish involves butter, vacuum packing, a few days, chilling, heating and a proportion of salt measured to one-tenth of a per cent. The result is a dish that eats simply and luxuriously and that is its genius.
$15; 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, 9347 3312
3. Minted Potato Medium Rare at Attica
''Potatoes and me were ready to have a little break,'' says chef Ben Shewry, on the 2013 retiring of the dirt-baked potato dish that held him hostage for a few years. After not looking sideways at a spud for some months Shewry started experimenting. ''I smashed a raw potato with a pestle and mortar - as you do - and put it in a bag with a tablespoon of brown butter and potato juice,'' he says. He boiled it, but not for too long, and lit upon the not-raw-but-not-soft texture of the finished dish. Served with cheese cream and seven types of mint from the Attica garden the result is humble but shape-shifting. It tastes really good but the thrill lies in this: when you eat the results of such deep and unblinking regard of the potato you wonder just what else might happen.
Served as part of a degustation ($190), 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, 9530 0111
4. Quail sang choy bao at Lau's Family Kitchen
Great Cantonese cooking is all about making you wonder how something so straightforward can lead to such rapture. Lau's nails this over and over again. In the case of the sang choy bao (which was a hot dish at the Flower Drum in the 1986 edition of the Guide) it's about every glistening grain of rice, juicy chopped quail, and exactly the right proportion of colourful, crunchy vegetables mounded in crisp, cold lettuce cups that hold to the last bite. It's the details that turn a good meal into a memorable experience; on my most recent trip to Lau's it was the fact that the kids got smaller lettuce cups that fit perfectly in their palms.
$17 a serve; 4 Acland Street, St Kilda, 8598 9880
5. Sea bream, white soy and ginger at Supernormal
The ''it dish'' at Supernormal is the fried custard with ginger syrup but I'd go back for this one - and it's got a syrupy ginger sauce too. Finely sliced bream (brain-spiked, firm and sweet) is laid over shredded daikon, and dressed with white soy, white balsamic, grapeseed oil and - the key - a sweet Japanese ginger vinegar. This ebullient emollient acts like a forcefield around the seafood, making everything clean and smooth. There's extra texture from twice-toasted nori, brushed with sesame oil and crushed over the top.
$16; 180 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 9650 8688
6. Frozen kangaroo, wasabi, leaves at Mister Jennings
Let me count the ways I love this frisky little dish. One, it helps kangaroo taste great, crusting a fillet with five-spice and coriander. Two, chef Ryan Flaherty riffs on molecular gastronomical games with temperature by freezing the roo and slicing it paper-thin so it thaws on the tongue. Three, it's plated up like a jaunty carpaccio, with wasabi-spiked avocado puree, a rich red wine and veal jelly, and cut and thrust from freeze-dried raspberries, puffed quinoa and kampot pepper. It's sophisticated, storied and unafraid.
$16; 142 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9078 0113
7. Hot Pot at Dainty Sichuan
If I even think about a visit to Dainty Sichuan I get a pulse-pounding, brain-tingly trace memory of Sichuan pepper, chilli and how I CAN NEVER GET ENOUGH of this food. The hotpot is a fun way to do Dainty with a group: choose a broth (S-double is the go), sauces, and dipping ingredients from a long sheet of prosaic and mysterious morsels (yes to ''dried beancurd skin'' and ''spicy beef'' but no to ''towel gourd''). It's fun, it's cheap and if you go to Dainty in the city you can follow up with a trip to the excellently bizarre Rainbow Karaoke across the corridor.
$31.80 per person, plus $10-$20 for shared broth; Level 2, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9650 2188 (also South Yarra and Box Hill)
8. Scampi at Rosetta
Rosetta's ''crudi and carpaccio'' menu of thinly sliced raw stuff is a showcase of premium seafood and meat, thrown together with Italian flair. Impeccable scampi are prised from their shells and scattered with orange, pistachios, mint leaves and olive oil. Everything gleams, flavours meld and linger and the intense, restrained saltiness is like a kiss. Even so, I'm sure if I swooned before the chef he would shrug: "This little thing? I just put it on the plate…"
$30; Riverside, 8 Whiteman Street, Crown Complex, Southbank, 8648 1999
9. Skewers at Yu-u
Even though it was one of Melbourne's first hidden laneway restaurants, Yu-u still has a stumbled-upon secret feeling. The yakitori menu is a highlight, partly because the grill is in the open kitchen and you can watch (and smell) your skewers as they sizzle. We had an arm wrestle over this one: Guide co-editor Janne Apelgren assures me the wagyu skewers are the bomb, but I am passionate about the chicken skin on a stick. Either way, fat is flavour. (Yu-u avoid the press. To get this shot we had to buy takeaway and swindle the skewers. Don't worry, it's all been posted back!)
$4; 137 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 9639 7073
10. Crispy eggplant spiced red vinegar at Lee Ho Fook
Even people that hate eggplant go all ''oh, the eggplant!'' here. That's because it's cut into fingers and fried in a tricky batter of tapioca and rice flour, then soused in an even trickier red vinegar sauce that's cooked to a caramel that sticks to the eggplant but doesn't make it go soggy. The ingredients are similar to Sichuan fish-fragrant eggplant but the method takes these flavours to a brave, shatter-crisp new place.
$18, 92 Smith Street, Collingwood, 9077 6261
11. Parsnip at Brae
Eight months ago, the day before Brae opened, chef Dan Hunter decided his not-quite-finished parsnip dessert was awful. "I cooked it for the staff and didn't even plate it," he says. Then, overnight, he figured out the plating, and the apple and parsnip mousse that turns two ingredients into a highlight dessert. Baked, fried parsnip skin is shaped like a tuile over apple and parsnip mousse, among chunks of dehydrated and freeze-dried apple, splodged with chamomile and apple-flavoured caramel.
Served as part of a degustation ($180); 4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, 5236 2226
12. Rivers and Lakes at Lake House
Showcasing the Daylesford region has been the Lake House project since it opened in 1984, so it never made sense to truck in seafood. Rather, the bounty of local rivers and lakes is highlighted in a shared dish that comprises, perhaps, smoked eel, brook trout that's been cured and shredded for rillettes, cured Murray cod, yabbies, a jellied consomme made from all the bones and a puree of local watercress. It's a tableau of the region and of the classic rigor that's always a feature of Alla Wolf-Tasker's kitchen.
Served as part of a meal or tasting menu (from $80); 4 King Street, Daylesford, 5348 3329
The Age Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on August 30 from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au/theagegfg2015 for $24.99. #goodfoodguide