Farther north, in the suburb of Brunswick, where newcomers from Turkey, Lebanon, and southern Italy once found cheap real estate, A1 Bakery is a kind of hybrid grocery-café where the price of flatbread snacks is only bettered by the unbelievable deals on staples such as pomegranate molasses and sumac. In a neighboring suburb, Rumi filters Turkish, Persian, and Lebanese flavors through a modern lens to create a particularly hip small-restaurant experience.
One of the most satisfying culinary developments of post-millennium Melbourne has been the emergence of second-generation-immigrant success—skilled, often classically trained chefs who mine their own heritage and parlay their ideas into smart, wine-focused, and often quite informal restaurants. We see it at places like Gigibaba, on the high street of Collingwood, a gritty inner suburb still clinging to its working-class and bohemian roots. Everyone from activists to artists, intellectuals to society matrons, shares the long, broad marble bar, where chef Ismail Tosun serves his fragrant, sublimely nuanced takes on traditional Turkish food. Dishes like squab rubbed with cinnamon and chile are a country mile from the usual kebab joint. At Maha, Shane Delia breaks away from the formality of his background in hotels to pursue his Maltese roots—look for ingredients such as the pork sausage known as zalzet malti and for ˙Gbejniet, a peppered sheep’s-milk cheese—and those of his Lebanese wife. The results are surprisingly opulent and absolutely delicious. Then there’s the acclaimed MoMo, recently relaunched in glamorous new digs beneath the Grand Hyatt. Here, in a cosseting space intentionally devoid of overt ethnic references, the godfather of modern Middle Eastern food, Greg Malouf, oversees a menu blending Australian produce with the cuisines of the Levant, particularly that of his parents’ native Lebanon. It’s evocative stuff: “veiled quail” stuffed with rose petals, rice, and nuts and wrapped in fig and vine leaves; leek spanakopita; the thick Turkish frozen dessert known as knife-and-fork ice cream.
Courtesy of Frank Camorra—born in Barcelona, raised in Geelong, outside Melbourne—we have our very own Spanish revolution at Australia’s seminal tapas bar and restaurant, MoVida, which proved so popular that last year Camorra opened an adjacent bar, MoVida Next Door. Now fans who can’t face the weeks-long wait for a table at the main restaurant can drop in for a Manzanilla and a plate of calamari with squid ink.
And then there is George Calombaris, who, in 2006, did the unthinkable when he opened The Press Club, a modern, high-end tribute to Greek cooking reflecting the chef’s three passions: Greece, classical cookery, and molecular gastronomy. On the one hand, you can get the best spit-roasted lamb in town; on the other, Kalamata-olive sorbet with candied olives.
Without exception, the places we Melbournians see as defining our city’s dining culture, the places that attract the most interesting and innovative chefs and restaurateurs, are a long way, metaphorically at least, from our very own Vegas-style manufactured “dining precinct.” Yes, excellent restaurants are to be found under the mall-like umbrella of Crown. But as Nobu has discovered to its cost, Melbourne is a fierce meritocracy.
Long may it reign.
A1 Bakery 643–645 Sydney Rd., Brunswick (03-9386-0440; a1bakery.com.au)
The Abyssinian 277 Racecourse Rd., Kensington (03-9376-8754; theabyssinian.com.au)
Bar Lourinhã 37 Little Collins St. (03-9663-7890; barlourinha.com.au)
Café Di Stasio 31 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda (03-9525-3999; distasio.com.au)
Chu The 270 Victoria St., Richmond (03-9427-7749)
Cumulus Inc. 45 Flinders Lane (03-9650-1445; cumulusinc.com.au)
Gigibaba Turkish Meze Bar 102 Smith St., Collingwood (03-9486-0345)
Maha Bar & Grill 21 Bond St. (03-9629-5900; mahabg.com.au)
Minh Minh 94 Victoria St., Richmond (03-9427-7891)
Momo Restaurant 123 Collins St., Lower Plaza Level (03-9650-0660; momorestaurant.com.au)
Movida Bar De Tapas Y Vino 1 Hosier Lane (03-9663-3038; movida.com.au)
The Press Club Restaurant And Bar 72 Flinders St. (03-9677-9677; thepressclub.com.au)
Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne 8 Whiteman St., Southbank (03-8648-1900; rockpool.com)
Rumi 116 Lygon St., Brunswick East (03-9388-8255; rumi.com.au)
Sarti 6 Russell Place (03-9639-7822; sarti.net.au)
Trunk Food And Wine Precinct 275 Exhibition St. (03-9663-7994; trunktown.com.au)