Monday, August 30, 2010

Taste of Melbourne 2010 - The Non-Definitive Eater's Guide

Taste of Melbourne was so much fun. Let me get that out first. It's come and gone for another year, but don't worry, it'll be back next year so you can go then. I tried to write a definitive guide, but there was just too much to see and eat, so I did the next best thing, wrote a non-definitive guide from the perspective of one glutinous eater's point of view. Hold on to your sporks, this post is SEMI-EPIC!!!!!!

So what restaurant do you want to go to for dinner? How about all of them. That's what Taste of Melbourne is about. Many of Melbourne's top restaurants serve three dishes that represent their restaurant, all in one location. You buy the dishes of your choice, priced between 8-12 crowns, where one crown equals one dollar. Throw in a lot of wonderful produce stalls and you have one excellent food festival. Armed with a camera and an empty stomach, I tackled Taste of Melbourne over two days, as an enthusiastic guest of Hot House Media and SBS Food.

Firstly, the obligatory shot of the Royal Exhibition building interior that every blogger has used. But how can you not use it, just look at how beautiful the whole building is. I met up with fellow bloggers April, Sarah, Sandra, Emily, Saskia, Penny and Claire on Opening Night. While waiting outside, we saw fire trucks and firemen everywhere, so we weren't even sure we would get in. So what do good food bloggers (or bad ones) do while waiting, we compared the size of our...cameras. Clear out your dirty thoughts. For the record, Emily definitely had the lens.

We went past the Chef's Table where a representative of Regal Salmon gave us a run down about their product. Regal Salmon are from New Zealand and specialize in environmentally sustainable salmon farming. We tried a Salmon Tartare with limoncello and a Salmon Mousse Cone. The tartare was an absolute highlight for me, so fresh. They gave us a pack of Smoked Salmon and Salmon Pastrami, and I can definitely vouch that they are both delicious. I had them with a small squeeze of lemon and reminded myself that not only was I eating delicious food, I was getting tonnes of good Omega-3 fatty acids which will keep my heart in good tick.

So after you've eaten some really beautiful salmon, what do you need, a stiff drink of course. It was off to Sensology 'Art of Cocktail Making' to produce our own special drinks. I loved putting on the apron and getting to shake up my own Grand Margarita (one shot each of Grand Marnier, lime, Tequila and 2 teaspoons of sugar). You shake everything together and serve it in a decorative glass with salt on the rim. Then all you do is sip, sip and sip. It was indeed sinfully good. I loved the hit of sea salt that just kept me going back for more.

The next stop in our Tour de Taste was at the Smeg VIP lounge. We watched a chef cook up some Wagyu tataki while tasting some fatty Grade 8 Wagyu in soy and mirin dressing. Being total food lovers, everyone also 'oohed' and 'ahhhed' over the Smeg fridges and thermally sealed ovens with those backlight knobs. How hot are they in a slightly sexually suggestive way?

So once again, we ate some food, so what do we do next? Go drink more alcohol of course. Off to the Mount Avoca stand to try out their wines. We were shown an 'alcopop' type wine in the Sauvignon Blanc wine which has more sugar, giving a sweet flavour with a low 6% alcohol concentration. A normal crisp Sauvignon Blanc is more my style, with their Shiraz being their top of the line wine.

As the pattern continues, off for more food. We swung by Bultarra Saltbush Lamb and ate tender free range lamb. The lamb actually feed on saltbush, giving a juicy and tender meat. Alberto's Delicacies was next and a real highlight. Owner, Rob, was super excited about food and really joyous. We tried endless dips, from pesto, to roasted capsicum, to my favourite of spinach and feta. Rob generously gave us a pack of his fettuccine and a tub of our favourite dip. Rob said that once we tried his pasta and sauces, we'll never want to eat other types. I did think that was a slight exaggeration, but OH.MY.GOODNESS, the pasta is freaking insanely good. All I did was boil it in water (no salt or oil as Rob instructed) and stirred in the sauce. It was so simple but absolute perfection. I've made myself hungry describing it.

Our last stop was at the Yarra Valley Regional Food Group. The wonderful Lorraine explained all the stores to us despite having a nasty cough. I tried nearly everything in the group, with yummy shortbread biscuits, smooth ice cream, fragrant kiwi and lavender jam.

Phew, that's a lot of food already, but continue holding on to those sporks, I'm only half way through the producers, let alone the restaurant dishes. I went back to Taste of Melbourne on Saturday and tried out some more things.

First place I went to on Saturday was the Green and Black's stand. How can anyone resist the chocolate fountain? That's a rhetorical question as the answer is no one can resist it. Some of us even fantasize about bathing in it, not me of course, I'm just saying, some of us might. Everyone was buzzing around the fountain like bees to honey. I dipped the marshmallow into the chocolate fountain, and it was close-my-eyes-Matt-Preston-face delicious. I caught up with Sarah, who was at the Green and Black's stall, and she gave me some of the Butterscotch Choc Chip Cookies. It was divine. Don't worry, I'll be making them soon and blogging the recipe.

While we're talking about chocolates, I also tried some Sisko Chocolates, with their beautiful chocolate sculptures and looked at The Chocolate Master's intricate chocolate shoes.

With ice cream, the Ben and Jerry's ice cream was very good. I tried the Chocolate Fudge and The Caramel Crunch and both were so good, with a huge tub for two crowns. The Gundowring ice cream is also exquisite. I used to love their coconut flavour the most, but I'm thinking of switching allegiances to their new golden syrup flavour. Finally. The Pat and Stick's ice cream sandwich had caramelised biscuits filled with soft ice cream.

One of the most talked about stands was that of Dello Mano, which of course I had to try. Their brownies were indeed so rich and moreish. I love how they package it as well, really stands out and makes a great gift.

After all that sweet food, you need a nice drink. There was definitely a lot to try. I loved watching this guy juggle bottles of alcohol with such expertise. He was having so much fun and so was the crowd watching him. As for drinks, I tried a couple of cocktails made from Tuaca, which I had no idea what it is, but it was good. The Trumer Pils was an excellent beer, while the Lemon.Z limoncello was a bit too sweet for me. The Martini vermouth was more to my liking, with their flavoured vermouth being something I've never tried, and it was brilliant.

Finally, I got some nice calming blossoming tea from Tea Blossoms. The teas consists of flowers (such as marigold) encased in green tea leaves and wrapped and dried in such a way that when you put them into hot water, they open up like a flower, how artistic.

Ok, so we've gone through all the producers, now for some ultra fantastic restaurant dishes. First you reload your pockets with some crowns from one of these people in the hot pink shirts. Then you start running around sniffing at all the food and drooling. Below is what I ate this year.

One of the most delicious items at the festival was The Palace's Eye Fillet, Potato Mash, Sauce Bordelaise. The meat was so tender that it melted in your mouth, and the mash super smooth. The sauce, capers and horseradish all made the dish so good. The great taste and large serving size was probably what made this dish one of the most popular at the festival. The Palace's other dish, the Wagyu Burger, was also really good. The meat had a great flavour and a great texture. I loved the beetroot sliced extra thin and the bun had the right sweetness. Maze's Seared Hopkins River Beef, Shitake and Aged Soy Sauce sounded really good, but the three thin pieces of meat didn't have too much flavour and was gone before you knew it.

Stokehouse's Wagyu Beef Cigars, Artichoke Tapenade and Horseradish was partly to my liking. I loved the cigars, with the ultra crispy pastry giving way to rich strands of wagyu beef. However, I didn't really like the tapenade, as I thought the horseradish didn't work well with it. Koots Salle e Manger had a Seven Hour Braised Leg of Lamb with Mushroom and Potato Pave and Glazed Baby Carrots. The lamb was excellent I thought, and I did agree with April that it tasted a bit like a sausage roll. However, the pave wasn't that good and tasted a bit funny to me. Longrain served their Salted Western Plains Pork & Prawn Sweet Roll with Pickled Vegetables, which was a play on the traditional Vietnamese Banh Mi. It was so good, with the chilli giving it all a beautiful kick. My only complaint was that I wished there was more pork, as the pork was that good.

The Wallaby Tataki, Ginger, Soy, Horseradish from Charcoal Lane was one of the more exotic dishes. Of course I had to try it as I'd never eaten wallaby. I actually really loved the wallaby, as I thought it had a really great rich flavour, without being smelly. The texture was also great, not chewy at all. The flavours worked well, but could have been a bit less salty.

My favourite dish of the whole festival, and you must remember that I am a dessert fiend, was Stokehouse's The Bombe - strawberry sorbet, white chocolate parfait and toasted meringue. It was utterly melt in your mouth stuff with the strawberries really coming through. The European's Wild Rabbit Sausage Roll with Tomato Kassundi again had an great main component, but I didn't like the condiment. The sausage roll didn't really taste like rabbit, but was still good. The last dish I had was Sarti's Pistachio 'Panna Cotta', Caramel Salted Popcorn. It seems salted caramel is being used by every restaurant and the latest fad. The panna cotta was so creamy and I loved it. Penny said she thought it was too rich for her, but not for me, it was great. I didn't think it could be better, but when I ate it with the salted caramel popcorn, it really did take on another flavour altogether, even better.

After so much eating, it was obviously time to retire to the wonderful HSBC VIP Lounge. I was so fortunate that Lizzy from Hot House Media gave me passes to the lounge for both Thursday and Sunday. The pass gave you three free drinks, and I got into the Martini Cuvee and relaxed in that amazing lounge. It's not often that I get to go into VIP areas so I savoured every minute of it.

Wow, I'm done. I had such a great time running around sampling everything and tasting all the food from the restaurants. I have a few small suggestions that I think would improve Taste of Melbourne a bit:
* The entry fee of $30 at the door or $27.50 pre-purchased seems a bit expensive as you still need to pay for food after. The reduction of $2.50 for pre-purchasing doesn't seem worth it as the hassle of having to remember to bring your ticket is not covered by saving $2.50. Maybe make the pre-purchase ticket price $15.
* Make it so that you can buy small amounts of crowns, maybe 4 being the minimum. It's so annoying to have some leftover crowns.
* Change the position of some stalls so that alcohol related stores and food tables are not at narrow sections of walkways as that is where people tend to have to stand around and it creates massive bottle necks in traffic.
* Some restaurants were great in their food prep and had a lot ready on the tables to go. The Palace was probably one of the worst, with the food being popular and slow so that there were large queues.
* The sessions could go for a bit longer, maybe 5 hours instead of 4. For a hardcore food lover, 4 hours wasn't long enough to see everything.
* The chef's table is a great idea, but it wasn't continuously used so I thought it was a bit of a waste of space.
* Find a better supplier of sporks, as the sporks at this year's festival were like spoons that had been chewed on by a dog so that it had ragged edges.

Apart from these small issues, I think the event was really well organised and run. I will definitely be going back next year to sample more food. I hope you all enjoyed your Taste of Melbourne experience this year, or if you didn't go, mark it down for your calendar next year. I hope to see you then.

Special Thanks To:
*Lizzy Ee and Kathleen Orlowski from Hot House Media
*Aisha Hillary from SBS Food
*Sarah Kucera and Kim McMillan from Bang PR on behalf of Green and Black's
*Sarah Stokely from Nuffnang Australia

If after reading all that, you still have an appetite to read some more, here is a whole host of posts from other food bloggers about Taste of Melbourne 2010.
SBS Blog
My Food Trail
My Food Trail Part 2
Iron Chef Shellie
Off The Spork
Kitchen Wench
...It Pleases Us
Melbourne Gastronome
MEL: Hot or Not
Travelling In My Mary Janes
The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua Part 1
The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua Part 2
The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua Part 3
Sweet Cherrie Pie
Green Gourmet Giraffe
Fragrant Food Fawning
A Few Of My Favourite Things