Melba

With its marble and hushed beiges, Melba is dictionary-definition refined.
With its marble and hushed beiges, Melba is dictionary-definition refined. Photo: Eddie Jim

1 Southgate Avenue Southbank, Victoria 3006

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Opening hours Daily, 6.30-10.30am; noon-4pm, 6-10.30pm
Features Licensed, Wheelchair access, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly
Chef Anthony Ross
Payments AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos, Diner's Club
Phone 1800 641 107

The buffet restaurant is a fixed-price window into human nature. Hunter-gatherer instincts kick into gear like the past 12,000 years never happened. People wander about with gleeful expressions, like they've just taken down the last wildebeest on the savannah. Plates heave with improbable combinations. Chinese dumplings, Italian ham, Indian kebabs and porcini jus. And now we shall feast.

The buffet is a curious thing. The last bastion of the tomato rose is so out of fashion the dial almost inevitably had to turn back in its favour. The Langham Hotel's contribution is patriotically known as the Melba. Crown recently opened its version, called the Conservatory. Swanky hotels love the buffet. They're the practical answer to feeding large volumes of people, although I'm sure their in-house training manual forbids use of the b-word and expressions such as ''all you can eat''.

The Langham's signature (buffet) restaurant is a mix of self-serve and cooking stations where toqued chefs wait for orders. There are salads and charcuterie, a carvery and a whole lot of seafood on ice. There's Indian and Italian; there are Asian stir-fries and British roasts. It is, quite literally, a world of food.

Highlight: Naan and lamb boti kebabs.
Highlight: Naan and lamb boti kebabs. Photo: Eddie Jim

As refined as a buffet restaurant may be - and the Melba, with its marble and hushed beiges and chandeliers and grand water features, is dictionary-definition refined - it taps into something primal. You could be a Rockefeller and still feel a burning need to get value for money. And then some. Just to be sure. Which gives room for the argument that the high-class buffet is a bit like a high-class hooker - better window-dressing, but essentially the same underneath.

The imperative to consume $99.90 worth of food weighs heavily, so let's get cracking at the sushi counter. The sushi guy slices up the dependable trio of kingfish, farmed Tassie salmon and yellowfin tuna and adds a pre-made uramaki (inside-out) roll of eel and cucumber with sesame and tempura crumbs. The slight mushiness of the tuna aside, it sits comfortably in the middle of Melbourne's sushi bell curve.

Onwards to the cold seafood. The oysters - Pacifics from South Australia - are pre-shucked, which means no briny liquor, but they're juicy enough, with no drying around the edges. I couldn't bring myself to try one of the mussels on the half-shell, which looked cryogenically frozen, but the king prawns are blessed with pop and bounce, and the half-blue swimmer crabs and yabbies are OK without making you feel guilty about dousing them in Thousand Island dressing.

Beyond the seafood the Melba's long suit is Asian food. The Peking duck has dry crepes and good roast duck, and the Singapore noodles are licked with the fiery fragrance of the super-hot wok, but the xiao long bao wait for no man.

The highlight for me was the Indian food. The naan is excellent: the perfect sopper for the eggplant masala. The lamb boti kebabs from the tandoori oven, marinated in papaya (it tenderises the meat) are authentically, charrily delicious.

There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. A gustatory form of Stockholm syndrome takes hold. I start to understand why eating etiquette is abandoned, and why someone would save repeat trips by bundling asparagus spears, sushi, prosciutto, quinoa salad, smoked salmon and roasted wagyu topside onto the same plate. There's a staff of sweet, name tag-wearing waiters who clear everything away without seeming to judge the waste. Going by the sign asking people not to dip prawns in the chocolate fountain, I gather they've seen it all.

Clearly, Melba is for people with big appetites. It's for people who equate volume with value. It's for the terminally indecisive. Above all, Melba is for people suspicious of restaurants. That's my conclusion after eavesdropping on the neighbours, a couple who skipped lunch in preparation for their title bout. As primed as racehorses, they were happy to be upsold mineral water because they knew what they were up for with the food. And of this much they were sure: they weren't about to go home hungry.

THE LOWDOWN
The best bit
The giddy excess
The worst bit
The waste
Go-to dish
Naan and lamb kebabs

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email: ldubecki@fairfaxmedia.com.au

http://melbourne.langhamhotels.com.au/restaurants/melbourne_restaurants.htm