Stylish Melbourne, The Queen of Australia
by Fred Ferretti
The conversation, over tea and pumpkin scones one afternoon in
Melbourne's century-old Hopetoun Tea Rooms, danced about. It alighted
briefly upon such topics as the arcane processes of organized cricket,
Melbourne's sport of choice; the happy circumstance of a quixotic climate
that has preserved the city's thickets of full and healthy elms; our
previous evening at the Victorian Arts Centre watching the splendidly
athletic Australian Ballet dance "The Sleeping Beauty"; and the wondrous
quality and quantity of vegetables in the Queen Victoria Market. In the
midst of these ramblings, my companion, a Melburnian, suggested that by
having tea and scones there we were indulging in one of Melbourne's
latest culinary trends. How, I wondered, could a pot of Earl Grey
contribute to a movement, however slight?
"It is not the tea," she replied, "but the scones. Pumpkin scones.
Flo, wife of the former premier of Queensland, Sir Jo Bjelke Peterson, baked
pumpkin scones. Flo and Jo are a rather raffish couple, and Flo's scones
have become a fad. Everybody bakes pumpkin scones now."
Thus are trends created in this most English of Australian cities, a
stately place that alters its habits only after considerable thought and—though it is Australia's fastest-growing city, its financial center, and a
haven for immigrants—that takes much comfort from and insists on
preserving vestiges of its Victorian years. Melbourne is, in fact, the
capital of the state of Victoria, and Melburnians are convinced that the
namesake queen, who was known to have particularly admired the city as an
adornment of her empire, would be content with today's Melbourne, and it
Schooling, social caste, financial achievement, heritage, history, respectability—all of these are vital to Melbourne. With forbearance, Melburnians let you know that theirs is a city founded by English freemen and entrepreneurs, not by convicts, as was its chief rival, Sydney; that it was Australia's capital from 1901 until 1927, when the national government moved to Canberra; and that it is a city that has always set aside time for gentler, cultural pursuits. After all, the Melbourne Symphony can be traced back to the Victorian Orchestra, which performed in Melbourne as early as 1880. Much of
Melbourne, to this day, husbands its Englishness.
Conversely, it is at the same time a most open city, one that has
welcomed waves of immigrants and continues to do so. Melbourne was
founded in 1835 by John Batman, a scout for a Tasmanian settlement
company that bought the site from an aboriginal tribe for a quantity of
blankets, knives, tomahawks, handkerchiefs, flour, and promises, largely
unkept. Initially its settlers, who poured into Melbourne's mud flats off
the Yarra River soon after the city was established, were from England,
Scotland, and Ireland—gold seekers and city planners, professionals and
artisans. Later, in the 1850's, came Chinese immigrants, who were lured by
the gold fields at Ballarat, west of Melbourne, as they had been to San
Francisco. Europeans from Croatia and Hungary, Malta and Italy followed,
and after World War II entire Greek communities flocked to Melbourne. Still
later Lebanese and Turks arrived, and recent immigrants include Vietnamese.
For decades the clothing and fabric businesses along Flinders Lane have been
dominated by Jewish refugees from Europe. The most recent foreign presence
to be felt in Melbourne is Japanese, a significant manifestation of which is
the huge Melbourne Central, a development of Kumagai Gumi, with office
towers, the Daimaru department store, boutiques, and restaurants.
Melbourne has accommodated the newer settlers and become enriched by
them—socially, economically, and gastronomically. Their influx has
added ethnic spice to this place of Presbyterian heritage. Within the city
center, along a narrow lane called Little Bourke Street, is Melbourne's
Chinatown, and along Lonsdale Street is Little Athens. In its spread-out
suburbs, along Lygon Street in Carlton, lies Melbourne's Little Italy, and,
in Richmond, Victoria Street has become Little Saigon.
The Queen Victoria Market, a vast complex of more than 1,200
roof-shaded stalls that have been selling Howell and Pakham's Triumph pears,
Jonathan apples, "bintje" potatoes, huge red peppers, and lamb and beef to
Melburnians since 1884, now also offers fennel, kiwi fruit, Chinese cabbage,
coriander, litchis, unusual gourds, and lemongrass. Similar variety is to
be found in other local markets, such as those in South
Melbourne and Prahan.
Melbourne today is ricotta gelato made by Ottorino Pace in his Casa
del Gelato on Lygon Street; thick cappuccino sipped among the literary
bohemians at the Black Cat on Brunswick Street; baklava in the shop called
Diethnes on Lonsdale; Hungarian whipped-cream cakes along Acland Street just
off Melbourne's St. Kilda Beach; and noodles in broth from behind the
counter of Heip-Loi Mi-Gia in Little Saigon.
Richard Frank, president of Melbourne's Restaurant and Caterers
Association, is most optimistic about what he calls "this new dimension
in Australian food." Over lunch in his French restaurant, QUARTER
SESSIONS, near Melbourne's law courts, he suggested that these tastes
"recognize that we are European and that we are part of Asia. There is a
great deal of combining and many different flavors. In our better
restaurants, however, we serve basic French. Once upon a time in
Australia, everything was overdone. Let us hope that we do not go to the
During our visit we were able to sample the efforts of two of the
best restaurants operated by inheritors of Melbourne's immigrant tradition.
Gilbert Lau came here from Hong Kong and with his FLOWER DRUM has set a
standard by which every Chinese restaurant in Australia must be judged. As
we ate with him one evening he explained that when he arrived in Melbourne
the state of Chinese cookery was "black water, pots of cabbage, bean shoots,
and noodles, and that was it." These days his fashionable cooks use
crayfish gathered near King Island, off Tasmania; mud crabs from Queensland;
prawns from South Australia; and scallops from Western Australia—all of
which are prepared with a skill surely the equal of the finest cooks in Hong
Kong. One dish Mr. Lau prepared for us was bean curd in a Szechwan sauce of
minced pork, mushrooms, garlic, chilies, and scallions cooked together until
thick and served over a mound of noodles.
More than a quarter of Melbourne's acreage is given over to parklands,
virtually all of it studded with gazebos and bandstands.
Vladizslav Gregurek came to Melbourne from Croatia—"from Zagreb;
it was Yugoslavia, now it is Croatia again"—thirty-two years ago. Five
years later he opened VLADO'S, where ever since he has been cooking his
specially raised and selected grass-fed and grain-fed beef. His restaurant
is unique. There is no printed menu. One is served a roasted pepper, or
sliced tomato, with grated cabbage and vinegar. This is
followed by one of his beef sausages personally made "with just a little
pork"; one of his steaks, which he calls his "diamonds"; and, for dessert,
strawberries. No other vegetables are served, not even potatoes, and there
are no substitutions, ever. Vlado, a round and rosy man, cooks everything
on a small grill at one end of the dining room, handling his steaks with
white cotton gloves. "I am not a cook," he says. "I am just the
instrument. I am happy to be in a profession where I never know enough."
The city that offers this kaleidoscope of flavors is also a place of
exceptional beauty and quickly changeable weather, not unlike London.
Melburnians say that on any day their city may experience all four
seasons. Winters, in June through August, can be clear and crisp or rainy
and windy. Summers, December to February, are often tropically hot,
which in large measure accounts for Melbourne's legacy of green. More
than a quarter of Melbourne's acreage is given over to parklands,
virtually all of it studded with gazebos and bandstands.
A park such as Fitzroy Gardens invites you to its paths among the
elms and palms; to the cascades of flowers in its conservatory; and to
Captain Cook's Cottage, the birthplace of James Cook, the English sea
captain who claimed Australia in 1770 for the English crown. This
ivy-covered house was bought by a Melburnian, dismantled, shipped from its
original site in Yorkshire, England, and reassembled in these gardens.
In this spacious city, there are great green patches with names like
Treasury Gardens, Carlton Gardens, and Flagstaff Gardens, but revered
more than any of these is the Royal Botanic Garden, planted in 1846 along
a bank of the Yarra River, a preserve in which it is possible to experience
the grandeur of a sculpted English garden as well as a tropical rain forest.
The city has even established a park in the suburb of Templestowe called
Petty's Orchard, in which more than two hundred varieties of "antique"
apples are grown, most of them no longer found in commercial orchards.
Melbourne's trams, too, are vintage, some of them true antiques,
many given by their city to civic groups to paint and decorate at whim.
Along streets called Queens, King, Wellington Parade, and, of course,
Victoria and Albert, sit enormous sandstone and limestone piles such as the
Treasury, the Old Mint, and Parliament House—grand buildings that were
erected stone by quarried stone during Queen Victoria's time and have
been preserved with care or restored with affection. Scattered amid them
are fetching small, narrow terrace houses with railings and balconies of
exquisitely wrought lacy ironwork. The city's lone remaining gaslight
stands, preserved as a certified historical landmark, on Collins Street
(which courses west to east through the heart of the city)—one among the
more modest relics of Melbourne's century and a half of history.
Melbourne is where Nellie Melba (née Helen Mitchell) was born and
sang; where Robert Menzies, perhaps Australia's most famous politician, and
Rupert Murdoch, the publishing magnate, were born. Its Flemington
Racecourse is the venue for Australia's richest horse race, the Melbourne
Cup. On warm Saturdays it is not unheard of for 1000,000 people to file
routinely into Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch an afternoon match, and
just across a broad stretch of greensward is the National Tennis Centre,
where each year the Australian Open is held.
Those bewildered, as we were, by cricket might, as we did, go to
South Melbourne to view instead the fascinating precision of the weavers in
the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. (Tours can be arranged: tel 699-7885).
One of only three such workshops in the world, along with Aubusson in France
and Dovecote in Edinburgh, it is housed in a former Victorian glove factory.
The weavers at their looms were duplicating in massive scale the paintings
of Australian artists, and they have produced
hundreds of decorative tapestries for clients throughout the world. More
than two dozen of their works hang in government buildings, in the
National Gallery of Victoria, and in office buildings in the center of
Melbourne. Two particularly striking tapestries are suspended on
opposite walls of the high-ceilinged lobby of The Regent Melbourne hotel,
both soft abstract—one of the wattle, Australia's national flower, the
other of the pink heath, the state flower of Victoria.
The weavers at their looms were duplicating in massive scale the paintings
of Australian artists, and they have produced hundreds of decorative
tapestries for clients throughout the world.
Our pleasant interlude at the tapestry works prepared us for the art
of two brilliant interpreters of Australian cookery, Stephanie Alexander and
Mieta O'Donnell, both still important in the Melbourne food universe,
though not in their original restaurants. Too bad, for these two
culinary outposts were extraordinary and, even now, worth remembering.
STEPHANIE'S RESTAURANT was housed in a colonnaded Italianate mansion
that is on the country's National Trust register. It was a rich retreat,
all varnished paneling, and burgundy velvet draperies, with thick linens and
heavy silverware and in its kitchens Stephanie produces some of the finest
food in Australia. Many contend hers is the country's best kitchen.
Her cooking is fundamentally French, yet "Victorian in every sense,"
she says, with great reliance upon Australia's native food—Tasmanian
salmon, lamb from New South Wales, Fremantle anchovies, and local butters,
cheeses, and olive oil—but she is deeply influenced by Australian
tradition, by the need to have a proper meal. We were served bowls of what
Stephanie calls "Mother's Day Kitchen Garden Soup," a thick puree of onion,
celery and potato garnished with peas and her "bread omelets," tiny cakes
of sourdough bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley fried in duck fat.
This was an apt introduction to the rest of our dinner: roasted
marrons (crayfishlike creatures from Western Australia) with sautéed apples;
roast leg of lamb complemented by roasted garlic; and duck, grilled, the
parchment skin of the leg crisp, quite like Peking duck, and its flesh
moist. Extraordinary cooking, and without undue adornment, taken with a
Yeringberg Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, the vineyards of which we
had visited one afternoon. We concluded our meal with an Amaretto
semifreddo, which Stephanie served between chocolate wafers as a
The other of Melbourne's truly grand restaurants was MIETTA'S, a
place devoted, unabashedly, to classical French cooking, served in a vast,
pale blue Victorian room with bronze statuary, crystal chandeliers, and
damask cloths. Mietta's was owned by Mietta O'Donnell and Anthony Knox,
outspoken advocates of what they call "purity of the kitchen." Their
definition suggests that differing cuisines cannot and therefore ought not
be mixed, nor produced from a single kitchen. The restaurant was reached by
a wide and impressive interior staircase and was once the Deutscher Verein,
Melbourne's German Club. Later it was the Naval and Military Club. A
former chef now has his own well-regarded place, Jacques Reymond's
Restaurant, in Melbourne. The present chef is Romain
Bapst, from Strasbourg, France, who is a very good cook indeed. At one
superb lunch an eel terrine with caviar mayonnaise was served with
pistachio bread. This was followed by cold Tasmanian oysters in an aspic
of oyster juice, which was called "seawater jelly." These were followed
by a chartreuse of pheasant, the meat molded smoothly around a mousse of
crépes, along with a chou farci made of John Dory layered with and
enclosed in cabbage, steamed and served with a caviar beurre blanc.
Over coffee Mietta did acknowledge the increasing importance of
Asian food in Melbourne and in Australia generally. She did not, however,
respect all of its practitioners, particularly those who attempt to mix
Western and Asian influences without thought or skill. "They don't make
proper sauces, classical sauces. They chop peppers and make salsas," she
For our afternoon stroll, we headed to Collins Street, along which
are to be found the boutiques of Gucci, Dunhill, Vuitton, Ungaro, and
Cartier, as well as the Royal Arcade, a virtual clone of London's Burlington
Arcade. The Melbourne Club (members only) is also on Collins, once
Melbourne's street of physicians, its Harley Street. At its eastern end
is the Treasury building, where a century ago the gold from Ballarat was
stored. Opposite are the twin towers of the Australia New Zealand Bank
and Collins Place, a complex that includes THE REGENT MELBOURNE, where for a
portion of our visit we were guests.
At the Regent we ate at both the CAFE LA and LE RESTAURANT—the
former during the day and the latter at night—both excellent, both on
the hotel's thirty-fifth floor, both affording us remarkable views of
Melbourne. Particularly enjoyable were two dishes: grilled tiger prawns
served with pasta and blanched vegetables and dressed with a Thai green
curry sauce; and roast loin of lamb that shared a plate with a flaky
"Pithiviers"—there a pastry filled with shallots, garlic, and a mixture
ROCKMAN'S REGENCY HOTEL, an unobtrusive but luxurious place between
Chinatown and Little Athens, is adjacent to the city's theater district and
favored by the Australian film community. Our suite, appropriately called
"The Apartment," was a delight, with a sauna—the better to relax before
dinner in the hotel at IAIN HEWITSON'S MEMORIES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN.
Hewitson, a large, rambling fellow who has owned a number of
restaurants in Melbourne, was asked by the Rockman's Regency to take over
the hotel restaurant, and he made it his own, cooking foods of the
Mediterranean rim—such as marvelously roasted eggplant, peppers,
artichokes, fennel, leeks, and celery dressed with garlic and olive oil and
served with prosciutto and salami—from Italy, Greece, and Spain. It was
most difficult to wrench ourselves away from what he called "my antipasto"
and sample his other efforts—among them braised oxtail with glazed
shallots, a fragrant joy.
On the south bank of the Yarra River sits the Victorian Arts Centre,
a complex encompassing the Theatres Building, a modern oval topped by a
needle-like spire that resembles the Eiffel Tower in miniature, and the
Concert Hall, home to the Melbourne Symphony. We visited the concert
Hall early one afternoon and to our surprise and pleasure happened upon a
rehearsal of Brahms' Fourth Symphony being led by the orchestra's
conductor of many years, Hiroyuki Iwaki.
The National Gallery of Victoria is right next door. Composed of a
series of long, airy, naturally lighted exhibition halls, it contains,
along with an obligatory but choice group of French Impressionists, a
fine collection of Tang Dynasty figures and other Asian porcelains as
well as a marvelously mounted array of English furniture of many periods.
The museum's strength, however, lies in its collection of paintings by
masters of the Heidelberg school; Australians—native, such as Frederick
McCubbin, and immigrant, like Tom Roberts—who painted scenes of the
countryside and of Australian settlers in Heidelberg, now a distant
suburb of Melbourne.
It is claimed that the National Gallery has the finest collection of
art in the southern hemisphere, and after several visits there who would not
agree with that assertion? Its very location and its bluestone
construction provide an echo of strength to the solid, square granite
Shrine of Remembrance—a bit farther up St. Kilda Road—a memorial to
all of Victoria's war dead, set, like so many of the city's monuments, amid
greenery. Between our visits to the National Gallery and to the small
but sublime W. R. Johnston Collection—Georgian and Regency furniture and
decorative objects left as a legacy to the city and displayed in a
terrace house in East Melbourne (for an appointment call 416-2515)—we
dined in Armadale on High Street, the renowned avenue of antiques shops.
Eating at BROWN'S was like being a guest in a French country house.
Greg Brown, student of the Roux brothers and of Raymond Blanc in England,
was at the stove. His wife, Merran, sees to the dining room from behind an
eighteenth-century writing desk. An open cupboard holds a set of English
bone china, and sofas are grouped around a fireplace, there for guests to
indulge in an apéritif—or, later, a brandy. We sat at a table in the
parlor and enjoyed an intense consommé, an essence of lobster and
carrots. We had lamb ribs stewed with shallots, lentils, and smoked
bacon served in a copper cocotte; and roasted chicken, off the bone,
accompanied by zucchini and carrots that had been dressed lightly with
vinegar from Jerez. Fine cooking, the memory of which is enhanced as I
recall the dessert, a house-made bitter-almond ice cream.
The following day, our last in Melbourne, we went out to the
Dandenoung Ranges, fern-covered mountains about twenty miles east of the
city. These forests are favored by campers and hikers. We are neither, but
we wandered through tulip and rhododendron groves, spotted galahs
(cockatoos) and rosellas (parakeets) in the eucalyptus and mountain ash,
and looked in the many crafts shops set in the clearings.
Later we stopped at a little roadside tearoom called Miss Marple's,
where, among photographs of Margaret Rutherford, peering through a
magnifying glass searching for clues, we enjoyed scones, large and dense,
some plain, some with currants or raisins. They were just fine, as was
our pot of Earl Grey—a proper way, the English way, to conclude our
visit to Melbourne.
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