December 23, 2011

Secret Melbourne

Locals say Melbourne is all about hidden gems. How true. Over just a couple of days here, we came across quite a few treasures where we would certainly not have expected them - some in narrow side lanes, some behind neglected facades or even completely unmarked doors..

Obviously you need to know a little. Happy accidents occur, but you may be better off not relying on them too much, at least not exclusively. This is of course even more true if you're in town just for a few days. Before you head to the Victorian metropolis, find ways to be let into the secret by some who know, procure alternative guidebooks or magazines, and of course browse blogs and forums, or you might miss out what may possibly be the most exciting aspect of this city. Here are some well hidden gems that  on their own were enough to make our stay in Melbourne worthy.

Lorca, 7-9 Centre Place, CBD

Off the main streets, Melbourne's side lanes are full of cute boutiques, slick galleries and welcoming coffee shops. Parallel to Swanston Street, Centre Place and Degraves Street are particularly lively in the morning. I was amazed by the number of Melburnians taking the time to stop for a good brew and a proper breakfast on their way to work - while in most big cities around the world people in the morning tend to be rushing to their offices, a paper cup in one hand and a rather sad snack in the other.

We started our first day in Melbourne like the locals, with a toothsome breakfast at Lorca, a Spanish-inspired cafe on Centre Place.  I went for the French toast with poached pear. It came nicely prepared with moist golden brioche, and proved to be a lovely way to smoothly slip into the chilled atmosphere of the Australian city.

L'atelier de Monsieur truffe, 351 Lygon Street, Brunswick East

A simple red door, that's all. You definitely need to know about this one, or you'll walk past without noticing it, or at the best just a little intrigued about what may be standing there. Now you know, you must give it a go next time you stop in Melbourne.

Behind this red door, a wide and bright space hosts a coffee shop as well as a small chocolate production line - from the roasting of the bean directly imported by the French owner to the multitude of bars and other cocoa-based items available for sale and featured on the menu.

We did not go for anything chocolaty though, as the savoury breakfast options quickly caught our eye that morning. I chose the 'rosemary and zucchini flower scrambled eggs with house-smoked salmon and watercress oil', and did not regret it a second. This was one of the best breakfasts I have ever had. Not only was it beautifully presented, but the fresh herbs combined with the top quality of the produce made this classic somewhat original, and full of flavours coming together in perfect harmony.

Babka, 358 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy

I learnt about Babka through Luxe City Guide, the pocket-sized foldable booklet which I like to carry with me when I travel, as it usually comes up with offbeat addresses and shopping itineraries which nicely complement the information provided by standard guidebooks. Once again, I'm hugely thankful to the little publication, as Babka turned out to be another culinary highlight of our stay in Melbourne.

We stopped by for a cake and a cuppa early afternoon and got the last table available in the small but very busy cafe. All cakes looked extremely enticing, from the baked cheesecake to the apricot and plum crumble to the pecan and honey pie to the tarte tatin and everything in between. We decided to share a slice of pecan and honey pie and another of custard and pear tart. One word: divine. My first mouthful of pecan pie together with a little bit of delicious thick cream instantly put an immense smile on my face. I had not even finished my plate yet that I was already making plans on which cakes we should have on our next visit. Unfortunately we did not have time to return to Babka, but this single visit will surely leave us with the long-lasting memory of some of the most delightful cakes we ever tasted.

City Wine Shop, 159 Spring Street, CBD

Our local friend and host Ken took us to this wine shop/bar on our first night in Melbourne, his favorite place in town he said. We had just arrived after a fabulous week driving along the coast from Sydney, and unfortunately our camera had just run out of battery so I was not able to photograph any of the delicious items which we tasted that night.

Apart from boasting a great selection of wines, City Wine Shop offers a daily changing selection of innovative while comforting and highly flavoursome bistro-style dishes. As trivial as it may sound, the polenta chips Ken ordered while we were waiting for our mains absolutely blew me away. A few good hours later in my bed, I was still working out how I would try and reproduce the perfectly rectangular golden sticks of moist and nicely perfumed polenta once back in my kitchen..

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