With the spring racing carnival about to reach its peak, another carnival is just beginning. The month-long feast that is The Age Good Food Month officially gets under way this Saturday.
Festival organisers report that tickets to this Sunday's big Mediterranean brunch with headliner Yotam Ottolenghi have been snapped up faster than a pile of pistachio-rosewater meringues. But with dozens of one-off extravaganzas and good-value deals slated for the coming weekend, an enticing range of options includes Barbecue Madness, a new category in this year's festival. Eateries all over town are firing up grills and smokers this weekend. One-off events on Saturday include waterside meat-fests at Gasolina (South Wharf) and Alumbra (Docklands); an Americana-themed garden barbecue at the Park Hyatt; and four food trucks converging on the Arts Centre Testing Grounds at Southbank to dish up Jamaican, Korean, South American and Australian-style barbecue from late morning until 10pm. Prices start at $10-plus for food at the truck get-together and run to $69 for the Red Spice Road courtyard Thai "beach party" in the city. These are just a few of what's on offer; more barbecues at other venues are planned for this and every Saturday this month.
If you're planning to turn the Cup weekend into a long weekend, set the GPS for rural Bannockburn, outside Geelong this Saturday. Stock up on spring vegetables from the Golden Plains Farmers Market before heading for the on-site marquee, where you'll have booked a sit-down Regional Table banquet lunch prepared by chef Matt Dempsey and his team from Inverleigh's two-hatted Gladioli restaurant. The $120 price includes wines from the Austin family and a transport pass to the Toast to the Coast festival.
Back in Melbourne's CBD, Syracuse Restaurant and Wine Bar opens its grand Victorian doors this Saturday as part of the Surprise Saturday Lunch series for a six-course degustation – the menu features oysters, tuna, duck and lamb and matched wines from the restaurant's enviable cellar for $105. At the same time, just a block away at MoVida Aqui, chef Frank Camorra and Epicure's Richard Cornish will regale lunchers with tales of their excellent Andalusian adventure, hunting down recipes for their sunny new cookbook, MoVida Solera. A five-course meal with drinks is $120.
That night in Northcote chef Rob Kabboord goes Dutch, putting a modern European spin on traditional dishes from his ancestral Netherlands in a six-course World Dinner at one-hat Merricote. Expect novel takes on ingredients such as herring and beetroot. It's $95, or $155 with drinks. Head back to High Street the next day for a Sunday spring lunch at another hatted restaurant, Estelle – a $50 surprise three-course menu will feature a soup or salad, a roast and dessert.
Sunday roasts are on the menu all over town, including in Port Melbourne, where Dalmatino's Ino Kuvacic is cooking the first of a series of Sunday family lunches of Croatian-style lamb on the spit ($35). In Bendigo, the Woodhouse is staging a $55 (children $35) two-course menu of roast meat – maybe wagyu beef roasted over red gum – and a rib-sticking dessert of Harcourt apple-raisin strudel; includes a glass of wine or soft drink.
Lunch isn't just a weekend thing. The festival's Let's Do Lunch program runs all month, so it's time to start planning some quick escapes from the office or weekday get-togethers with friends. City restaurants taking part in the $38 set-meal deal starting Monday include Shane Delia's hatted Maha, and George Calombaris's cheeky Greek Gazi; wine, beer, tea or coffee is included. In Richmond, Church Street Enoteca has a two-course special of grass-fed eye fillet carpaccio with artichoke, followed by sea bream with capsicum puree and saffron potatoes. Over at Southbank, your $38 will buy a bona fide banquet at bustling Man Tong Kitchen comprising hot-and-sour soup with shredded duck; entrees of xio long bao, chilli wontons and Peking duck; crisp mango prawns; fragrant deep-fried duck and milk custard.
Bargain-hunters should also check out Good Dinners Under $30. Appealing deals include Koy Restaurant's five-course Turkish feast, including sucuk sausage and raki-cured ocean trout, starting Saturday in South Melbourne. Araliya St Kilda has a Sri Lankan-inspired three-course menu of scallops, a choice of duck and pork, then coconut cigar and cinnamon ice-cream for dessert; the offer starts Monday and is available most weeknights until the end of the month. The World Dinners part of the program features a $22 meal of soup or pastelle (a samosa-style pastry) followed by your choice of main (perhaps beef, chicken or goat) and an African-style doughnut at African Village Kitchen in Dandenong.
Carlton's elegant one-hat Epocha, co-owned by The Age Good Food Guide 2015 Service Excellence award winner Angie Giannakodakis, usually closes on Mondays but this Monday – Cup Eve – it opens for a Hats Off dinner. Begin with champagne in the charming bar upstairs before cantering through six courses accompanied by wines from one of Melbourne's most exciting lists; all up, it's $160.
The Age Good Food Month is presented by Citi. Details and bookings at melbourne.goodfoodmonth.com