Friday, 23 January 2009

No Ink'ling - Piccolo Mondo

The stretch along Lygon Street that is Melbourne's Little Italy has always posed a bit of a conundrum for me. Just about every City guide book will list the street as a not to be missed destination for a sampling of the 'Restaurant City' that is Melbourne. And yet this busy and highly competitive length of packed eateries jostling for customers' attention each evening appears to be largely denigrated and dismissed by local foodies. Why is this? The area is certainly lively enough to spend an evening out in, and there are no lack of choices supposedly specialising in various regional Italian cuisine. Surely not every single one of them is simply after the naive tourist dollar. It's not that Italian food is currently out of vogue either, with endless accounts and reviews of contemporary meals enjoyed at fashionable back-to-basics pizzerias and inventive risotto joints right around Melbourne and its many suburbs. But rarely on Lygon Street.

Dishes served with little imagination, and if you finished that bowl of pasta nero you'll be pooing black for a week!

Our most recent venture to the area led to Piccolo Mondo, just one of the dozens of Italian restaurants lining the virtual epicentre of Lygon Street. We'd already dismissed the attention of many of the restaurant touters one encounters when walking down that street, but somehow paused to listen to what this one had to offer. Perhaps it was the pretty whitewashed Victorian terrace with cosy dining courtyard that was the venue. Perhaps it was the Italian caricature that was spouting the benefits of the experience, built like a tank with broad square-jacketed shoulders, no neck, threateningly bald, heavy baritone accent, hand like a nugget of lead resting on my shoulders. He could take out my kneecaps. Actually, we don't mind the touts in the least; it's all part of the game, a bit of fun, never threatening and the area will be infinitely less colourful if they were indeed banned like some would have it.

In the end though, the meal didn't really live up to what was promised. A heavily dressed bocconcini and tomato salad ($5) was something one could easily toss together at home, only with a more refined hand. A blackboard special of Linguine al Nero di Seppia ($24.90), what I'd anticipated as squid ink pasta, was in fact just regular linguine tossed with pieces of squid and a heavy squid ink sauce. Though it tasted quite okay at first, the thick iodine-heavy inkiness simply became too much especially with the overly huge serving. It's a rare complain when it's about a serve being too generous but seriously, that pasta bowl would not be out of place sitting atop a vanity as a bathroom basin. Our other dish of seared veal served with sauteed prawns and mushrooms, Scallopine Bosco ($34.50) was similarly overly portioned on a satellite dish of a plate. Quite palatable but again no subtlety, a heavy hand with the marsala.

So then, what is it about Lygon Street? At the risk of painting the lot with one broad brush, perhaps it has become not so much a true cultural enclave but a cartoon interpretation of a Little Italy. On reflection I have so far never been blown away by any of the continental restaurants I've tried there. Like Piccolo Mondo these appeared to be trapped in the last decade, either failing to notice that the food expectations of much of the dining public has matured or are simply refusing to innovate for fear of bastardising what they may consider as 'homely traditional' cuisine. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm also all for finding that cosy trattoria known for its spectacular spag bol 'just like nonna used to make'. Do any of these places still exist in Carlton?

Isn't there anyone out there with restaurant recommendations for the area?

Food: 13/20 - Okay food with individual serves enough to feed a small family for a week.
Service: 14/20 - Polite but not too focussed on food; apparently a recent change of Management.
Value: 12/20 - Quite cheerful but not cheap.
R-Factor: 12/20 - Not that likely.
Spot Score: 13/20 - The search continues.

Piccolo Mondo
240 Lygon Street, Carlton VIC.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Footscray Welcomes the Ox

Though I could continue to reflect back on the food encountered on a recent trip to Hanoi, there's really no reason to when similar action is currently happening right here in Melbourne! We hopped on the train last Sunday to join Footscray's Lunar New Year festivities on Hopkins Street, held a little earlier this year so as to not coincide with the Australia Day long weekend. The local Vietnamese community was out in force under beautiful blue skies to welcome in the Year of the Ox and to showcase the fantastic array of celebratory food they have to offer.

Happy red and gold lions welcome in good luck and prosperity for the new year, and scare away evil spirits from the previous one.

One of the many stalls selling celebratory treats for families to enjoy streetside or take home for later. Pork floss ideal for adding a final flourish to one's Bahn Mi.

Rows of barbequed sweet corn came complete with handles.

Skewered Bo La Lot (marinated beef-mince rolled into betel leaf 'ciggies') in chargrilling procession and $3.50 per stick. These were smoky and delicious!

Stallholder kept busy frying up cubes of rice cake (Bot Chien) with egg. A fiver got us a medium takeaway container's worth. Tastewise a little bland and definitely needed boosting from the soy sauce with cut birdseye chillies supplied, plus a further layering with garlic chilli paste from the large help-yourself jar.

More deepfried goodness...knows-what ($5). Some version of Banh Khot? Anyone?

Chargrilled glutinous rice encasing a whole sweetly caramelised banana (Chuoi Nep Nuong) was $2.50 a pop. A new encounter for us and quite a delicious chew drizzled with coconut milk.

Sampled another novel sweet treat, light and crispy rice crackers spiced with fennel seeds(?). Two dinner-plate sized crackers sandwiched loads of malted toffee syrup and slivered flesh of fresh coconut ($5). A gooey crunchy oily sticky sweet and savoury party in your mouth! Extra fun to be had watching wisps of toffee float away into hair of unwary passers-by.

Yet more deepfried temptation in the guise of battered banana fritters ($2 each). Even so, alas by this stage we'd reached deepfried and barbequed saturation and did not try them.

But a large cup of freshly squeezed green sugarcane juice ($5) was very welcomed relief, the extreme sweetness cut with a squeeze of citrussy cumquat.

Late afternoon, but hungry hoards continued to descend on Hopkins Street to enjoy the atmosphere, food, free concerts and a rare fabulously clear Melbourne day.

The celebrations were to continue to 10 pm culminating in a fireworks display but the heat and gluttony proved too much, much earlier, for even the superheroes among us. Overtaxed super senses defeated Spidey, another ice-cold sugarcane juice perhaps? Overall impressions from our inaugural visit though, one of the better street festivals around town to see in the Lunar New Year and a terrific opportunity to sample examples of Vietnamese streetfoods without leaving the country. We'll try to make it again next year.

Celebrating the Lunar New Year or Tet is the festival highlight of the year for Melbourne's large Vietnamese community spread around several suburbs and surrounds. Check out more Tet festivities that were held at Richmond's Victoria Street at Off the Spork, through the captivating camera lens of Agnes, fellow Melbourne based blogger and fried food aficionado.