Finalists for Victoria’s New Restaurant of the Year Announced
Two cross-currents shape Melbourne’s cuisine, both represented among the finalists for The Age Good Food Guide 2023 New Restaurant of the Year Award.
One of the trends is the thirst for luxury as Australia experiences another Roaring Twenties, resulting in dens of pleasure such as South Yarra’s Yugen and CBD restaurants Warabi and Grill Americano. But a different, quieter movement is also accelerating.
A handful of foreign-born chefs are opening restaurants where they combine their immigrant upbringing with a keen sense of Australian culinary culture, whether it’s the Filipino roots that underlie Serai in the CBD or Lao influences at Jeow in Richmond.
This weaving of undiluted flavors from a chef’s homeland with modern Melbourne sensibilities is an exciting development for Australian cuisine at the moment, says Besha Rodell, Good Food‘s chief restaurant critic, who describes the trend as a salvage kitchen.
“It’s about taking the flavors and techniques of traditional immigrant dishes and reclaiming the narrative, not to appeal to Western tastes or to impose an 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 say, this is my food, this is my representation of it and it’s no less authentic than someone who cooks strictly authentic dishes in the Philippines, because that’s what has been my life.”
At Serai, chef Ross Magnaye picks influences from his upbringing in Davao City, in the southern Philippines, and his time working and dining in contemporary Melbourne restaurants. This 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 the binary between “authentic cuisine” and “fusion cuisine”. “It’s a really false distinction, because it completely discounts the very authentic lived experience of people growing up with their feet in two cultures.”
At Richmond’s Jeow, chef-owner Thi Le honors Lao restaurants in suburban Sydney and Melbourne, where she’s eaten almost every week since she was a child.
The Vietnamese-Australian chef closed her Southeast Asian-owned restaurant Anchovy in June to make way for Jeow. This allowed him to devote himself to Lao flavors, alongside quality products from suppliers such as Great Ocean Ducks.
“I’m sure if I was cooking next to a Laotian aunt, she would say: Thi, what are you doing?” she jokes. “But I’m not saying it’s 100% authentic.”
Regional newcomer Chauncy’s menu 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. The trip prompted Naepels and his partner Tessa Murray to move from Melbourne to Heathcote to be closer to their vegetable suppliers.
Yugen, Warabi and Grill Americano, meanwhile, have tapped into a different vein now supporting catering in Melbourne.
Yugen, tucked away in the din of Chapel Street, literally sparkles with gold, thanks to a clever lighting system. There’s a star-studded cage for small groups overlooking the dining room, an upscale six-person sushi bar, and a menu studded with status symbols.
Culinary director Stephen Nairn thinks this escape is a magnet. “I think diners are now able to separate what is just a good, enjoyable meal and what was actually an experience.”
At Warabi, only 29 guests can bask in the rarefied atmosphere typical of Japanese gastronomy. The $245 menu showcases several techniques, with luxury at every turn, from wagyu to foie gras. Grill Americano also attracts 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 a unifying force between glam and next-gen fusion, it’s that Melburnians are in for a good 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, serakitchen.com.au
408 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, warabimelbourne.com
605 Chapel Street, South Yarra, yugendining.com.au
The Good Food Guide 2023 The magazine is on sale from November 15 for $9.95 from newsagents and supermarkets or for pre-order at thestore.com.au.