Ready, set, eat! Belinda Jackson gives her taste buds a workout in Melbourne's newest restaurants.
"DOES she like it?" asks celebrity chef and restaurateur George Calombaris as he hovers at our table with hands clasped, face concerned.
The food critic puckers her lips and spits the spoon out, clean. Yes, George. The 10-month-old baby does like your strained pumpkin. The baby is happy. And George is happy, too.
"My mama is Greek. My baba is Italian. This is my food," reads a large banner in MamaBaba, the newest addition to the Calombaris empire, which includes The Press Club, St Katherine's and the gorgeous Hellenic Republic. This night, MamaBaba is a sea of South Yarra blondes and more than one instance of leopard print but all eyes are on the TV star chef, who orchestrates my tortellini filled with a prawn mousse with prawn saganaki, tomato and feta: a bargain at $26, considering a $45,000 pasta machine had a hand in its creation.
Calombaris's restaurant, opened in January, is one of a battalion of new eating houses to hit Melbourne in the past few months. Last year was a blockbuster for restaurant openings in the southern city, from big, brassy numbers (The Atlantic, Crown complex) to the oh-so-Melbourne phenomenon of a glitzy cocktail bar up the back of what looks like a trashed laneway (EDV, off Malthouse Lane).
And if all these newcomers weren't enough for the hungry hordes, the city is in the midst of its 20-day food orgy, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, where chefs and winemakers from the world's top restaurants indulge us: think great Dane Rene Redzepi from Copenhagen's NOMA, currently the world's top restaurant, or Spanish indigenous wine varietals champion Telmo Rodriguez.
Geared up for a weekend of eating for Australia, we choose as our flop joint the newly refitted Mercure Melbourne Treasury Gardens, on Spring Street, at the eastern edge of the central business district. It's brilliantly positioned beside the Treasury Gardens (good for walking off too many dinners) but it's worth spending the extra few bucks for a garden-view room with a balcony. The hotel is on the corner of food nirvana, Flinders Lane, and no more than 10 minutes' walk or taxi ride from eight of The Age's top-10 restaurants for 2011.
Sweep your radar around the hotel and five minutes on shanks's pony will find you sitting down to eat in Calombaris's The Press Club; the spearhead of the Spanish charge, Movida; PM24 (Philippe Mouchel does fashionable French and rotisserie organic chicken); and Chin Chin, which, despite being open for seven months (so old!), is still hip to the eyeballs.
Like so many CBD restaurants, Chin Chin has a walk-in policy. Which means no bookings and plenty of incredulous looks when one wanders up at 7pm, table-hunting. However, on a Friday night at 6.15, I slip into a banquette seat within minutes. "Saturday night and I ain't got nobody," croons Sam Cook as good-looking city girls in pencil skirts and go-get-'em heels hoover up the kingfish sashimi and shredded lime leaves. Chin Chin is vibrant, cute and saucy - perhaps a little too saucy for my spanner crab and chicken salad. But it just proves that with neighbours including Andrew McConnell's Cumulous Inc, Flinders Lane is still one of the hottest strips in town.
Another night, another restaurant and demonstrating that Melbourne still is true to its European roots, South Yarra's Bistro Gitan has the Veuve champagne flowing fast and furious as the white-clothed tables fill up. You can grab a bar stool without a booking and snack from the petite plates, or work up to the steak-heavy mains. More exciting for me is the specials list and my wild barramundi with a hazelnut sauce romesco is sublime, with a glass of 2009 Castro Martin Albarino right for a light meal.
Union Dining continues the European charge: the Richmond dining room has just opened a terrace for drinks and tasty open steak sandwiches, while downstairs, the Sunday lunch is a "shared provincial" affair, with a $55 set menu showcasing very slow-cooked baby lamb. We curl up with a glass of Heathcote Bianco and snack on harissa-spiced prawns, roasted figs, ricotta and zucchini tarts, all before the main event: the best way to plan is to block out three hours on your Sunday and put your back into it.
Foodies' diaries have a red circle around last week's relaunch of Circa, one of the city's best tables, perfectly at home in St Kilda's iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, where chef Paul Wilson is bringing indigenous ingredients into the kitchen, then marrying them with Asian cuisine in the summer and looking to European cuisine in the winter.
It's a marked deviation from Melbourne's current Mexican wave of restaurants, including the impossible-to-get-a-seat-at Mamasita, the Newmarket Hotel's tacos, funky little Fonda, the Taco Truck and the next cab off the rank, Senoritas, which opened on Friday. San Telmo is Argentinian and the Aylesbury, with its rooftop bar, is more than a nod to Spanish. (For those not in the know, My Mexican Cousin actually serves Creole food, so don't head there for your quesadillas.)
Yet there's plenty of fresh new Thai action going on, with Easy Tiger wowing all comers and gorgeous little Middle Fish, a warehouse buried in a lane near Queen Victoria Markets. Sunday morning and the hotel breakfast room is full of immaculately coiffed Garuda stewardesses sipping juice through glossy lips. We decide to skip the bacon and eggs and take the free city tram around the CBD grid, to cruise Middle Fish's southern Thai brekkies: best decision I've made in a while. The mussel omelet is tasty and the rockling soup with brown rice doesn't leave you stodgy and bogged down.
Trying to keep up with Melbourne's new food openings is almost impossible: you have to stick to the rules - don't eat the bread and choose between dessert and entrees. Staggering back to my snappy king-sized room after yet another stellar night, there's only one course of action: another weekend, another list of new restaurants. And then someone tells me about Melbourne's food-truck revolution - tacos on wheels, anyone? Bring it on ...
The writer was a guest of Mercure Melbourne Treasury Gardens Hotel and Tourism Victoria.
Picnic packages from $250, which includes Garden View king room, picnic hamper, Victorian wine from the Grands Vins list, rug and petanque set, until end March. Rooms from $150, Mercure Melbourne Treasury Gardens, late check-out Sundays, 2pm, mercure.com.
Bistro Gitan, mains from $29, 52 Toorak Rd West, South Yarra, (03) 9867 5853, bistrogitan.com.au.
Chin Chin, mains $17-$33, 125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, (03) 8663 2000, chinchinrestaurant.com.au.
MamaBaba, mains $19-$33, 21 Daly St, South Yarra, (03) 9207 7421, mamababa.com.au.
Middle Fish, breakfast from $13.50, 122-128 Berkeley St, Carlton, (03) 9348 1704.
Union Dining, Sunday lunch $55pp plus wine, 270 Swan St, Richmond, (03) 9428 2988, uniondining.com.au.