Melbourne, Australia, has been quietly cultivating a reputation as a serious destination for the food-obsessed for quite some time. It's the host of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, which happens in March every year and attracts chefs from around the world, and home to an international food scene that not only draws upon influences from its Southeast Asian neighbors, but also gives a nod to Mediterranean influences as well, thanks to its large Greek and Italian immigrant population.
And no discussion about where to eat in Melbourne would be complete without mentioning Guy Grossi, an Italian chef born of parents who came with that very wave of immigrants in the 1960s. He is widely credited for helping to transform Melbourne's food scene, efforts which culminated in the opening of his famed restaurant in 1999, Grossi Florentino, at the site of the historic Café Florentino, one of Melbourne's most iconic, historic restaurants. So his places, then, are on the obvious list. What about restaurants that locals frequent?
Lunch: Dainty Sichuan (176 Toorak Rd., South Yarra; 3-9078-1686) is not for the faint of heart, nor stomach, for that matter. Those seeking that mouth-numbing sensation known as ma la that is the hallmark of Sichuan cuisine will be rewarded in this temple to fiery Chinese cooking. Located on a busy, shop-lined street just south of Melbourne's central business district, this restaurant is definitely off the beaten path when it comes to Chinese food but is well worth the trip. Order the Fish-Flavored Eggplant, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, covered with a sweet, salty, spicy glaze; Hot and Spicy Fish Slices, served in a cauldron of bubbling, red liquid and chiles; Cumin Lamb Slices, because lamb is a must in Australia and because it's delicious; and of course, plenty of rice to help put out the fire. One more thing: Anthony Bourdain was here. (Photo courtesy of Will Budiaman)
Lunch: Wander along the waterfront of the Yarra River long enough, and you'll soon work up an appetite. Stop in at The Deck (Southgate, Upper Level U 1/2, Southbank; 3-9699-9544) for a leisurely afternoon lunch featuring the best seasonal ingredients Australia has to offer. We visited just on the cusp of fall, and chef Hayden Smith was determined to show off some local produce and seafood. We had heirloom cherry tomatoes, dressed simply and served with burrata; local barramundi with grilled yellow zucchini and manila clams; and a soft-shell crab salad that had a sambal vinaigrette that made our day. The Deck also offers both prix fixe and à la carte menus at lunch and dinner. (Photo courtesy of Will Budiaman)
"Tea": Nothing beats cocktails and people-watching with a view after a long, hard day at the beach. Captain Baxter (10-18 Jacka Blvd., St. Kilda; 3-8534-8999) hosts happy hour on Thursday and Friday afternoons from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with sparkling wines for AUD 5 (about $5.20) and Pimm's Cups for AUD 10 (about $10.40). It doesn't sound like the best deal in the world unless you've been to a few other bars in Melbourne (or St. Kilda, for that matter), where cocktails can easily run you anywhere from AUD 15 to AUD 19. Plus, it's hard to beat the view, which looks out onto the sand at St. Kilda beach and Port Phillip Bay beyond, as well as the occasional public volleyball match during the summer. An extensive tapas bar menu doesn't hurt either, and dinner, if you can get a table, is worth staying for. (Photo courtesy of Will Budiaman)
Dinner: Executive chef Martin Boetz's Sydney restaurant Longrain (44 Little Bourke St., Melbourne; 3-9671-3151) has come to Melbourne, and the new location does not disappoint. Boetz's Thai- and Southern Chinese-inspired dishes like jungle curry with Bultarra salt bush lamb; whole fried fish with chile, lime, and tamarind sauce; and char-grilled grass-fed beef with Vietnamese mint and roasted red pepper dressing are memorable and well-executed. Cocktail bar and extensive wine list available. No reservations except for lunch and groups of six or more at dinner.
Dinner: Cutler & Co. (55-57 Gertrude St., Fitzroy; 3-9419-4888) is the place Melbournians go to impress a date, the boss, or guests from out of town. Don't miss out on chef Andrew McConnell's refined approach to modern Australian cuisine with a twist — dishes like Western Australian marron with serrano ham and whipped cod roe and a salad of peas, zucchini, sunflower seeds, onion, and Bergamot reveal his affinity for featuring slightly unconventional ingredients in his dishes without going over the top. The dining room follows suit; it's modern and trendy without too much fluff, not a bad place to spend a few hours. (Photo courtesy of Cutler & Co.)