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Despite the impact of the GFC* on the CBD** (Australians love abbreviations) Melbourne boasts a vibrant and innovative restaurant scene that can rival anything to be found in Europe or America. Melbourne also hosts a magnificent food and wine festival each March which attracts an international roll call of chefs, critics, wine-makers and sommeliers.

A brief visit on a trip to see some of Victoria’s vineyards, in February, meant that dining opportunities were limited but we were determined to sample some of the city’s gastronomic highlights. Here are details of four restaurants with which we were really impressed.

Blue Chillies

blue-chillies-revisedLocated on super chic Brunswick Street in Fitzroy this no nonsense Malaysian diner enjoys a diverse urbane, urban clientele and is deservingly popular. This was recommended to us by local resident Dan Buckle, the gifted young wine-maker at the celebrated Mount Langi Ghiran estate.

Attentive but relaxed black-clad waiters brought us the short, confident menu and wine list. Two of the day’s special starters featured whitebait – fried in fritters with a spicy dipping sauce and marinated with vegetables in a dark unctuous amalgamation. Both were delicious with a steely Clare Valley Riesling 2008 from Neagles Rock (which we import to the UK so were pleased to see on the list) but the light and crispy, piscine fritters won the day. Main courses were equally successful. Slow cooked pork belly with bak choi and a ragout of spicy shredded beef were deeply satisfying and perfect comfort food for weary travellers. Service is efficient if a little detached and pricing restrained for this part of town. 3+/5

Jacques Reymond

Secluded in the smart suburb of Windsor (which looks and feels like Hampstead) this is the address for refined Gallic gastronomy in Melbourne. The sprightly, silver-haired, eponymous patron is something of a celebrity chef Down Under but that doesn’t detract from the day job of serving up cutting edge contemporary cuisine based on a firm classical French foundation.

Thick white linen and (arguably over) attentive uniformed waiters set a deliberately opulent tone in a tastefully designed dining room. At eight courses the Menu Dégustation is not for the time poor (or cash poor for that matter) but this is high end cooking from a talented chef at the top of his game. Small portions of exquisitely presented food dazzle the taste buds. Highlights included Hiramasa Kingfish and Ponzu with Hervey Bay Scallop and a fantastic Crispy Quail Breast with Tajine Flavours and Black Rice but everything here is meticulously crafted and very well thought out.

Jacques daughter Nathalie, who is head sommelier, has compiled a list featuring lots of iconic Aussie wines as well as a fair smattering of fine French bottles. Brian Crozer’s clean, dry, Petaluma fizz saved us from the enthusiastically suggested Dom Perignon comme aperitif but a Grosset Springvale 2006 Riesling and a stonking Curly Flat 2005 Pinot Noir both showed Australian wine in a very pure light. 4/5

Cutler & Co.

Cutler & CoCutler and Co., on Gertrude Street, which opened to a fanfare of favourable criticism last year, is widely acknowledged to be the hottest dining address in town. This former metal works artfully blends old (unpainted plaster walls) with new (a space-age black bar and Blade Runner-esque neon sign). The customers are a similarly mixed bag of middle-aged gastronomes and bright young things.

The food is knowingly accomplished but stays the right side of poncy. The service is equally astute – Adam at front of house and head sommelier Sally both manage to be on the ball but quite discrete which is typical of Cutler and Co.’s understated élan. Everything we sampled here was delicious: flaky anchovy pastries and feisty peppers de Padron to start with, followed by Heirloom tomato salad with marinated vegetables then a delicate pressed quail terrine with a foie gras ‘cigar’. A tuna sashimi with cucumber and cuttlefish was also faultless. Indeed, the only slight oddity was the cheese offering of our local Montgomery Cheddar which is excellent but seemed unnecessary food mileage.

The wine list here is noteworthy and Sally’s selection of a Springvale 2007 Pinot Noir, from Tasmania, was a treat as was a Mount Langi Ghiran 2006 Shiraz that was generously gifted to us by thoughtful Mr Buckle.

The patrons also own Cumulus Inc. An ‘informal all day eating house in the CBD, which we very much look forward to visiting. 4+/5

St. Jude’s Cellars

St Jude's CellarsTo prove the point that Cutler and Co. isn’t a one-off gem Fitzroy also boasts St Jude’s Cellars (on Brunswick Street) that exudes a similar minimalist perfectionism and quiet self confidence. The Victorian dining room is light, airy and welcoming with a central bay of floor to ceiling shelving that doubles as a wine shop. Bottles can be bought here to ‘drink in’ for a modest $15 corkage fee. If anything the service here is even more astute that at Cutler and Co. The savvy staff sensed that we weren’t au fait with the menu and offered to bring us a selection of dishes until we’d ‘had enough’. This took quite a while because the cooking here is exemplary. A nervy Shobrook Riesling was delicious with a dozen Fine Claire oysters followed by whitebait and terrific little balls of smoked haddock ‘Kromeskywih garlic mayonnaise. Main courses of poached veal loin with corned hash browns and Western Plains pork bell with confit fennel, apricot and burnt honey were also impeccable. A bottle of 2007 Emily’s Paddock Shiraz from our friends the Laughton family at Jasper Hill was necessarily costly but helped round off an exquisite dinner and a wonderful trip. 5/5

Clearly one could linger far longer in Melbourne and sample other great restaurants but our brief snapshot was more than enough to start us planning a return visit.

Jason & Tom

With thanks to the Laughton family at Jasper Hill for their terrific hospitality.

*Global Financial Crisis

**Central Business District