Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pan-Asian Delights in Melbourne

The fashion pack struts graffiti-adorned “laneways” to enter chic bolt-hole boutiques, while office workers clink glasses at riverside bars and sports fans cheer at Melbourne Cricket Ground. By nightfall, this city of many incarnations is united by a universal passion for food – and a love of Pan-Asian cuisine that owes directly to Melbourne’s embrace of its vibrant immigrant culture.

Founded on the Yarra River in 1835, Melbourne’s early development was defined by the gold rush: discovery of the precious nugget brought limitless riches and unprecedented development to the city’s bluestone-paved streets. Before long, this resulted in an animated multicultural mix, as Chinese migrants joined wealth-seekers from as far away as Europe and North America, all packing their gastronomic heritage along with their dreams.
Today this legacy can be seen in vivid Pan-Asian cuisine, which blends Southeast Asian spice with modern cooking techniques to arrive at a culinary crossroads representative of the city itself. Part-artist, part-sports-fan, part-style-seeker, Melbourne is as layered as a Pan-Asian spice mix: the fire of chili pepper echoes in an electrifying night scene where unmarked Left The many restaurants and bars of Federation Square, on the banks of the Yarra River, have made it a favorite meeting place doorways lead to dramatic rooftop cocktail bars; the piquancy of lemongrass bristles in the kitsch style of edgy Gertrude and Brunswick Streets; the sweet nuttiness of coconut hovers in the eclectic galleries.
But if the contemporary nerve center of the city lies in the challenging architectural style of Federation Square, the birth of Pan-Asian cuisine can be found a few blocks over in the historic stretch of Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown. The second-longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world, it is from here that those once-challenging flavors were disseminated, scattering into Melbourne’s modern culinary lexicon.
Finding inspiration in the steaming dumplings, spicy soups, and textural curries of China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, today’s chefs have respectfully turned tradition on its head to create a flavor canon as adventurous as those first émigrés. Within the industrialchic space of South Melbourne’s St. Ali, slow-roasted pork belly pairs with sweet fish sauce, pat chun, star anise, and jellyfish salad, while the greenhouse-style dining room of Verge serves barramundi with Chinese celery and smoked beets. But even among such bold, boundarypushing flavors and the big-ticket cultural and sporting events, Melbourne and its exotic palate provide space for the subtleties – for laneways and lemongrass.

Hosier Lane is one of Melbourne’s many “laneways”; it is well known for its street art

Best Places to Eat Pan-Asian Food

Housed in the chic basement of Melbourne’s über-hip Adelphi Hotel, Ezard has been setting the pace with its fabulously unobtrusive approach to experimental, Asian-inspired fine dining for more than a decade. The highly successful and well-regarded chef behind the plates, Teage Ezard, calls it “Australian freestyle” dining, but others simply call it unforgettable.
Exhilarating dishes will test a diner’s limits and still leave them wanting more: from the old Ezard favorites of Japanese-inspired oyster shooters and masterly stock-fried pork hock to seasonal treats such as Chinese-style roast duck with shaosang wine dressing, shiitake mushrooms, and steamed rice noodle roll.
Ezard’s success lies in combining the finest produce with an inherent talent for knowing when to shout and when to whisper. Dishes will stomp across your palate one moment (think five-spiced Bangalow sweet pork belly with yellow bean and peanut dressing) and tiptoe the next (perhaps steamed crab wonton dumplings with young coconut, mango, and crispy shallots). The bill may leave you gasping, but such sorcery will never come cheap.
187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Victoria; open noon–3 PM Mon–Fri, 6–10:30 PM Mon–Sat;
Also in Melbourne
Experience Pan-Asian cuisine at its best with the winning trifecta of Coda Bar and Restaurant (; moderate), the hawker-style cuisine of Gingerboy (; moderate), and the upmarket cocktail atmosphere of Longrain (; expensive). Or try a more traditional (and cheaper) option at the Supper Inn (+61 3 9663 4759; inexpensive) on Chinatown’s Little Bourke Street.
Also in Australia
In Sydney, internationally lauded chef Tetsuya Wakuda marries the Japanese philosophy of natural and seasonal flavors with French technique at his restaurant, Tetsuya’s (www.; expensive), to riotous acclaim. For a beachside view try Bistro C (www.; moderate) in the vacation town of Noosa, Queensland.
Around the World
San Francisco is home to an enormous Asian community and is renowned for its stellar Pan-Asian cuisine. Enjoy Asian fusion (and amazing mojitos made with rice liquor) at Lüx (415-567-2998; expensive), or – for a left-of-center dining experience – try the Chinese-style savory buns from the mobile Chairman Bao Bun Truck (twitter: @chairmantruck; inexpensive).

Simple Pan-Asian fusion: trout steamed in banana leaf and lemongrass with wild and sticky rice

Food Shopping in Melbourne

The gastronomic tourist trail for gourmet junkies will lead you from one end of Melbourne to the other. Victoria Street, Richmond, is a short tram ride and a world away from the Central Business District (CBD). Home to an enormous array of Southeast Asian grocers and restaurants, it is a hub for exotic fruits, Peking duck, and cheap-but-good Thai and Vietnamese food. The Queen Victoria and South Melbourne Markets are the city’s top open-air food markets, the latter being home to the best steamed dim sum in Melbourne. Not to be missed, the Abbotsford Convent’s Slow Food Farmer’s Market brings together stunning fresh produce and artisanal food producers in the beautifully scenic grounds of a former Catholic convent.
A Day in Melbourne
The flavor of Melbourne is best experienced by sampling a mixture of the city and some of its inner-city suburban neighborhoods: St. Kilda for beaches and glamorized grit; Fitzroy for eclectic urban cool; and the CBD (Central Business District) for its chic dining and bar scene.
MORNING : Start in St. Kilda with breakfast on the deck of the St. Kilda Sea Baths. Walk the historic pier or drop into Luna Park before taking in the buzz of the Acland Street Precinct, famous for its continental cake shops and vintage clothing stores.
AFTERNOON : Take a tram to Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, to experience Melbourne’s hipster scene. There’s kitsch housewares, intelligent fashion, alluring wine bars, and great contemporary art spaces.
EVENING : Grab a tram or taxi back to the city bustle and Federation Square for a water-view apéritif at Riverland Bar. The rest of the night is for Pan-Asian drinks and nibbles: try hawker-style food at Gingerboy or a lychee martini at Longrain.

The many restaurants and bars of Federation Square, on the banks of the Yarra River, have made it a favorite meeting place

Getting to Melbourne
Tullamarine Airport is 14 miles (23 km) from downtown Melbourne, which can be reached by shuttle bus (SkyBus) or taxi.
Where to stay in Melbourne
Bishopsgate B&B (inexpensive) offers good beachside accommodations in quaint St. Kilda.
Hotel Causeway (moderate) is a centrally located hotel in one of Melbourne’s historic shopping arcades.
The Olsen Hotel (expensive) is contemporary luxe with an artistic bent. It offers rooms, suites, and “residential suites” with kitchenettes.

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