The first time I went southbound to Melbourne was in the depths of wintery gloom last July. This year was a completely different story. It seemed a miracle that for two whole days, the city was crisp but radiating sunshine. A week before, I surprised a friend by mentioning an unplanned visit I wanted to make for her birthday the coming weekend. She was stoked, as you would be if you finally got to explore Melbourne’s overwhelmingly huge food scene.
The fear of missing flights, forgetting to pack essentials and the worry of not getting to see and do it all was suddenly replaced with glee and hope the minute I landed. It was 8.30am and I was so ready. The following 48 hours were pretty much perfect, with a few hiccups here and there (we’ll get to that in a bit).
A fellow food fanatic, Dev had a list of places we were to discover. For the most part, instead we decided we’d go for what we felt like in the moment. Except for Grain Store, which in her books was a complete must. As soon as we arrived at the cosy, Swedish-inspired destination, I knew brunch nirvana beckoned. It ticked every box you’d want in this eat-out category: stunning design, innovative cooking methods, consistently brilliant presentation and on-point flavour. My Autumn Mushroom Bruschetta and Poached Eggs ($20) had ooze from the eggs, a smoky eggplant purée, crunchy sourdough, the sweetness of pear and cider relish and a tart goat’s yoghurt. It’s like someone detonated a flavour bomb in my mouth or something. Dev’s Polenta Corn Fritter, Avocado & Smashed Greens ($18) wasn’t quite as spectacular but was a pretty spot-on use of polenta with sweetness from the tomato chilli jam salsa, zippy greens and gooey eggs. Our chai lattes were from Prana ($4.50) so you really can’t go wrong, heady with warming spices and a subtle sweetness. I was so keen for the heaving table of glistening cakes and pastries which seemed to squeal and shout to me but I resisted. I knew we had a long day of eating ahead of us. I didn’t want to leave though, Grain Store was the highlight of my trip.
We went on a trek around the city, working off our feasting and absorbing the wonders of this European-influenced, cosmopolitan landscape. My favourite areas of the central space included Degraves Street, the narrow, cobblestoned alleyway we all associate with exceptional coffee, cheap but quality eats and a glass of wine at the night’s end. They literally optimise every space they can here, in fact I recall three restaurants lined up all tight and narrow in the one lane. It’s insane!
We dodged shoppers at Melbourne Central Shopping Centre, I found a lolly store where I quickly became addicted to coconut roughs YUM! And I was dying to get to Shortstop, one of Melbourne’s most innovative and creative donut destinations I fell upon via Instagram. Think Apple, Bacon, Honey + Thyme or New Orleans Iced Coffee Crullers. Mmm. Google and Apple maps were both being brats so by the time we stopped running around in grid circles (squares?), they had RUN OUT OF DONUTS. AAAAAAH. I had a little freak out as my deep-fried dreams were shattered. As we were doing the walk of shame back to the CBD, I glanced up and the shop to the right of Shortstop was Raw Trader! Now, if you don’t know about my vegan dessert addiction, it’s no secret anymore. What’s crazy about Raw Trader is that it’s run by one of my closest friends’ cousins! That was one helluva coincidence! These vegan experts make fresh and flavoursome refined sugar- and dairy-free takes on classic sweets like Lemon Slice, Carrot Cake, Caramel Slice and more. My idea of food utopia. I opted for a cheaper option – Cherry Ripe Slice ($6.50) as some of the prices were definitely on the higher end. I once blogged about how beginners to the vegan dessert world shouldn’t compare them to the ‘real deal’ as they are in totally different categories. If you want dense and nutty, you go for vegan. If you want ultra sweet and sticky, you go for cake. Both are loved by me. The tart cherry flavour was definitely there, lingering on my tastebuds alongside textural crunch from the almonds and sweet goodness from bitter chocolate.
Once I was happy, night was approaching so this meant more walking! We still had no clue what we wanted for dinner so as stores were shutting their doors, we were in need of a bar to linger a little. Let’s skip the part where we Urbanspooned our brains out and got nowhere but a dark and dingy alley with a very suss-seeming bar. But finally a touch of luck when we came across an ancient building with seven floors called Curtin House housing a clothing store, restaurants and bars on every level and a real surprise: the rooftop bar! Yaaay! Such a cool find! The weather held up so well that not a glimpse of rain was in sight on the bright city skyline. There was a food truck serving burgers so we got us some fries, a few drinks and chatted the night away. Then, the first thing that came to mind for dinner was Huxtaburger! Of course, why had I not thought of the burger chain holding the title of one of Australia’s best burgers?! Big call and I had to know if it was worthy of the title. Finding anything in this tight-knit city is near impossible so after 45 minutes of searching, we found a city branch of Huxtaburger. The only thing signalling its existence a red and blue neon sign. Seriously? We walked in, the weather chilly, and found ourselves in a mini diner with a few stools, a drink refill station and a counter with burgers being made fresh to order. One thing apparent was the constant buzz of people, somehow all knowing that this little place was here in this no man’s land. Rule number one is to always get the original of a famed food so I opt for the Huxtaburger ($9.5) while Dev thinks the Clair ($13) is more worth her while. The burgers take all but five minutes to arrive and I hesitate to take a bite, thinking ‘what if I don’t know what a good burger tastes like compared to the general population?’ I trust my senses but at times I think, ‘who am I as one subjective human to know what is good and what is bad?’ Taste is very biased.
Anywho, let’s get down to business. What did I think? The nation’s most popular burger is…overrated! Delicious but certainly not the best meat sandwich this mouth has devoured. The brioche bun was to-die-for however, soft and squidgy, I wish there was more of it. The filling involved all the regulars which was all well and good but the pattie was the let down, with bits of fat clinging to my teeth and slightly too much pepper in the mix. My second last bite was a dream as that’s where all the mustard came in, maybe I came on a bad day, I’d like to think. Dev’s burger was dish of the day for both of us. The southern fried chicken was perfection; juicy, tender chicken with a spicy kick, creamy jalapeño mayo and crunchy coleslaw. Ooh yeah. I never did a blog review of Mary’s (which is now a half hour walk from my new flatshare!), but Mary’s beats Huxta by a mile and a half. Good, decent burger fare but defs not the greatest for me. It was getting late, our feet were sore from 9 hours of non-stop action so we caught a train home and slept off our food-fuelled adventures.
Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street, Melbourne VIC 3000. (03) 9654 5394.