Two cross-currents are shaping Melbourne dining, both represented among the finalists for The Age Good Food Guide 2023 New Restaurant of the Year award.
One trend is the lust for luxury as Australia experiences another Roaring Twenties, resulting in pleasure dens such as South Yarra’s Yugen, and CBD restaurants Warabi and Grill Americano. But a different, quieter movement is also gathering pace.
A handful of overseas-born chefs are opening restaurants at which they pair their immigrant upbringing with a strong sense of Australian food culture, whether that’s Filipino roots underpinning Serai in the CBD or Laotian influences at Jeow in Richmond.
This weaving together of undiluted flavours from a chef’s homeland with modern Melbourne sensibilities is a thrilling development for Australian food right now, says Good Food’s chief restaurant critic, Besha Rodell, who describes the trend as reclamation cooking.
“This is the act of taking flavours and techniques from traditional immigrant dishes and reclaiming the narrative, not to appeal to Western tastes or to impose some idea of extreme authenticity, but to express the experiences of chefs whose identities are tied to more than one country or culture,” she says.
“They’re saying: this is my food, this is my representation of it and it is no less authentic than somebody cooking strictly authentic food in the Philippines, because it is what my life has been like.”
At Serai, chef Ross Magnaye cherry picks influences from his upbringing in Davao City, in the southern Philippines, and his time working and eating in contemporary Melbourne restaurants. It results in dishes such as kangaroo kinilaw, a type of raw dish similar to ceviche.
Rodell is happy to see chefs such as Magnaye breaking down the binary between “authentic cuisine” and “fusion food”. “That’s a really false distinction, because it completely discounts the very authentic lived experience of people who grew up with feet in two cultures.”
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At Richmond’s Jeow, owner-chef Thi Le honours the Laotian restaurants of suburban Sydney and Melbourne, where she has eaten nearly weekly since she was a child.
The Vietnamese-Australian chef closed her hatted South-East Asian restaurant Anchovy in June to make way for Jeow. It’s allowed her to devote herself to Laotian flavours, alongside high-quality produce from suppliers such as Great Ocean Ducks.
“I’m sure if I cooked next to a Lao auntie, she’d be like: Thi, what are you doing?,” she jokes. “But I’m not saying this is 100 per cent authentic.”
The menu at regional newcomer Chauncy is a passport to chef-owner Louis Naepels’ French upbringing, his Italian cooking prowess honed at Grossi Florentino, and his time in Spain’s Basque country. That trip prompted Naepels and partner Tessa Murray to move to Heathcote from Melbourne to be closer to their vegetable suppliers.
Yugen, Warabi and Grill Americano, meanwhile, have tapped into a different vein sustaining Melbourne dining now.
Yugen, tucked beneath the din of Chapel Street, literally glitters with gold, thanks to a clever lighting scheme. There’s a spangled cage for small groups overlooking the dining room, an upmarket sushi bar for six people, and a menu studded with status symbols.
Culinary director Stephen Nairn believes this escapism is a magnet. “I think diners are now able to separate what’s just a nice pleasant meal and what was actually an experience.”
At Warabi, just 29 diners get to bask in the rarefied atmosphere typical of Japanese fine-dining. The $245 set menu showcases several techniques, with luxury at every turn, from wagyu to foie gras. Grill Americano also lures pleasure-seekers, with several prime cuts of beef on the menu, backed by silver service and a dining room defined by marble and leather.
If there’s one unifying force across the glam and the next-gen fusion, it’s that Melburnians are up for a great night out.
New Restaurant of the Year finalists
178 High Street, Heathcote, chauncy.com.au
112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, grillamericano.com
338 Bridge Road, Richmond, jeow.net.au
Racing Club Lane, Melbourne, seraikitchen.com.au
408 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, warabimelbourne.com
605 Chapel Street, South Yarra, yugendining.com.au
The Good Food Guide 2023 magazine is on sale from November 15 for $9.95 at newsagents and supermarkets or pre-order from thestore.com.au.
Good Food Guide 2023: Victoria’s New Restaurant of the Year finalists, revealed – Good Food first appeared on Atablefortwo.com.au.