Friday, March 15, 2013

Urbanspoon's guide to Melbourne

During the final few days of my Melbourne trip I decided to eat out, Urbanspoon style. I chose the top three most popular 'moderately priced' restaurants on Urbanspoon's list, to see why they were so highly thought of. The three restaurants were Hardware Societe, Hutong Dumpling Bar, and Mamasita.

My first stop was Hardware Societe for lunch. I walked in and was given a seat at the bench tables overlooking the kitchen. Since I was eating alone it was the perfect place for me to have some viewing entertainment while I waited. Looking around, the cafe is effortlessly cool and eclectically stylish, while managing to not make a nerd like me feel out of place. Waitstaff, all of whose personal style fits the feel of the cafe, are friendly and ridiculously efficient. From my perch I could appreciate the kitchen's fabulous system of organisation.

Pork belly with potatoes, beetroot and a baked peach $19

On tasting my meal, I was slightly disappointed with my food. It was in no way bad, in fact the jus was amazing, and a perfect accompaniment to my pork. The beetroot also was great with the potato that it rested on, but somehow, after my overwhelming admiration of the ambience and service organisation, I expected food that had me moaning with glee. While I enjoyed my meal, I enjoyed the rest of my dining experience more. The opinion I had formed of the cafe's high service standard was reinforced when the boss realised that I had found a sticker still on my baked peach, and didn't allow me to pay for my meal.

Next on my hitlist was Hutong Dumpling Bar. I had read that it was Melbourne's answer to the Sydney favourites Din Tai Fung or New Shanghai, so I was excited for dumpling goodness. Of course, I was also secretly hoping that Hutong's dumplings were not quite as good as Sydney's.

Xiao long bao  $11.80
Pan-fried pork dumplings  $13.80
Chinese broccoli with garlic  $15.80

The flavour of the xiao long bao was good, with a wonderful ginger punch, but the wrapper was not dainty and delicate like Din Tai Fung's. The upside of the thicker wrapper was that clumsy eaters didn't rip it as they were picking the dumplings up with their chopsticks.

My hopes of Hutong not living up to Sydney's Shanghai favourites were realised as we bit into the pan fried dumplings. Unfortunately these dumplings were far below the quality produced by New Shanghai (and numerous other Shanghai restaurants). These dumplings weren't left in the frying pan long enough to gain a gorgeously crispy base, and the meat filling didn't have as much flavour as I would like. I was left unsatisfied, as my rendition at home is far superior.

The greens, which were perfectly cooked, couldn't make up for the pan-fried dumplings and I was left feeling a little sorry for Melbourne diners, if Hutong really does have the best Shanghai dumplings in the city. Tell me, Melbournites, was there somewhere better I should have tried instead?

Our final meal in Melbourne was at the popular Mexican restaurant, Mamasita. Arriving at 5:45pm on a Saturday night, we were greeted with the news that we had a 50 minute wait for a table. Apparently, if you're wishing to avoid a wait, it's a good idea to arrive before 5:30pm.

Chickpea fritters, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and jalapeño herb sauce  $19
Tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa  $9
Tostaditas with chicken and avocado, chipotle mayo and fresh cheese  $14
Steak taco, and fish taco  $6 each
Quesadilla with lamb, cheese mint and jalapeño sauce  $16

We ordered too much. Wavering between four options or five, the two of us called upon the knowledgable waitstaff, who suggested five. Well done to them on the up-sell, but it probably wasn't necessary. Of course, having said that, had we not ordered all five, I would have missed out on my favourite dish of the evening, the chickpea fritters. The fritters themselves had a super-smooth texture, and reminded me of a deep-fried tofu dish, but then the jalapeño sauce packed a chilli-punch while the tomatoes and zucchini refreshed a heated palate. While my previous two urbanspoon-suggested eateries couldn't bring me to moans of food-glee, this dish could, and the joy of eating ridiculously good food continued throughout the evening.

Another favourite was the dip starters. Diners have two choices when choosing what to dip in their guacamole or salsa - either the tortilla chips, or crispy pork skin. Never being able to turn down something that sounds crackling-esq, I had campaigned all afternoon, trying to talk boy into letting me order the pork skin. Once seated in Mamasita, I finally managed to get him to change his mind, when we were told that the crispy pork skin wasn't available. Sadness! However, the tortilla chips were a worthy substitute, and were quickly inhaled.

Dish after dish of perfection came to us, and the only slight hiccup of the entire, enormous meal was that the taco tortillas tasted a little floury, and seemed a touch undercooked. The flavours in them, however, were good, but due to the tortillas, the tacos were our least favourite dish of the meal.

Highly recommended by both boy and myself were the chicken tostaditas, with their mound of delicious chicken, avocado and chipotle mayo, Also a winner was the lamb quesadilla. Time after time we would look at each other as we were munching and marvel at the simple pleasure of eating amazing food.

The service at Mamasita was worth studying. I really appreciated, despite the long queues, that once seated, there was no rush or feeling that we needed to move on until we were ready. However, I found that compared to the friendly (and efficient) service at Hardware Societe, the big wide smiles at Mamasita were almost forced, like they needed to remind themselves to work at being welcoming.

I can understand why both Mamasita and Hardware Societe are regarded as some of the best of Melbourne's moderately priced eateries, and I'd happily return to both. However, I'd probably leave my Shanghai dumpling dining to other suggestions, or Sydney's options, rather than sticking with Hutong Dumpling Bar.

The Hardware Societe on Urbanspoon

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

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