MFWF Express Lunches & More

This is the first year I’ve actively checked out Melbourne Food & Wine Festival events. While I was somewhat excited when I first grabbed the MFWF program, I soon found out that many of the events were at a price point I’m unable to afford. However, the Restaurant Express lunches stood out as great value for money. In essence, 85 restaurants have decided to open their doors for MFWF and serve:

two courses, a glass of Victorian wine plus tea or coffee for only $35.

Some of the restaurants in that list were high-end fancy ones that would need a bit of saving up before justifying a visit. But the Restaurant Express afforded us a chance to have a taste of many of these places at a great price.

Botanical 3283
Alfresco dining – Botanical, South Yarra

I understand that judging a restaurant solely from these express lunches can be quite unfair. But I looked at it as a way to have a feel for which restaurants I would actually want to go back to for dinner. I think the Restaurant Express is a good way for restaurants to earn new customers, provided they do it correctly. Those that served up dishes that reflects the establishment’s passion towards food came through as winners.

I also think that the lunch express concept also allows me to have a feel for how the management behind restaurants consider and treat their customers. Some places were stellar, while others treated us like cattle, or would make us feel like cheapos. In my books, no matter how much or how little we are paying, we are still customers and deserve to be treated in a manner that befits the restaurant’s philosophy towards how its service should be like. During the rush of an express lunch with multiple seatings, you can really tell which places handles service well and which can’t.

Atlantic Restaurant 234
Selection of oysters – The Atlantic, Southbank

As part of my efforts towards ‘taking a step away from blogging’, I’ve made a promise to myself that any MFWF event will not involve my dSLR. This in its own right has saved me many hours of photo-editing, so I can concentrate on writing. But I admit I’m slightly sad that the overall photo quality of this post isn’t of a standard that I’m personally proud of. The pictures here are taken from my iPhone and Fakegf’s Instagram stream. I’ve also tagged on here two additional MFWF events: Greenhouse by Joost, and a Cuban Crayfish Party. Now let’s get going!

Botanical, South Yarra

w Fakegf, Ees, LittleDeath
The Botanical on Urbanspoon

Botanical 3277

Botanical is an unusual restaurant in terms of layout. There is a front portion where casual brunchers hang out, and you have to walk past all that to the restaurant section inside. Gave it a slightly hotel-ish feel. We lunched here on MFWF’s first Sunday. Service was warm, friendly and attentive. The waitress named the two choices of wines that was on offer, and she came over ever so often to see how our meal was going. But I’ll have to say that the food and wine here overall did not impress us.

Botanical 3270

I had the cold poached veal, confit tuna, raddichio and capers as my entrée and it was an odd combination of flavours. There was a puree-like spicy tuna slathered over the meat and I wasn’t that fond of the sprinkle of raw onion on top.

Botanical 178
Crispy pork, Thai salad, peanuts Rock cod, creamed silverbeet, sauce vierge

As for the mains, both dishes were okay, but just weren’t stand-outs. I wasn’t that fond of the use of pure coconut cream over the rice for my pork dish, and the skin did not have the promised crispness of good crackling.

Botanical 184 Botanical 180
Nougat glace, poached peach

Botanical 182
Balthazar, blood orange terrine

We shared the desserts and found the Balthazar particularly interesting, with a lavender mousse on the side. The “blood orange terrine” was actually a fresh and citrusy slab of iced blood orange.

Matteo’s Restaurant, Fitzroy North

w Fakegf
Matteo's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Matteos 198

We visited on a Tuesday and liked this restaurant. Good service, good quality wines, really interesting menu with lots of choices, and delicious food! They’ve run a wonderful express lunch service for this festival and have managed to make us customers still feel like valued diners. Both Fakegf and I agree that we’d like to re-visit and sample more of the menu.

(NB: I have since then revisited Matteo’s for dinner, and regret to say it was disappointing.)

Matteos 3298

Fakegf really liked her entrée of deep fried baby squid filled w red rice & shrimp, heirloom carrot salad, sea urchin butter sauce. She found the sauce delicious, and exclaimed how “theres Q!” to the squid. (“Q” is a Taiwanese way of saying that there’s a bounce or bite to the meat)

Matteos 3299

I enjoyed a tartare of Hiramasa kingfish, Yellowfin tuna, Atlantic salmon as entrée. It was different, tasty and interesting. They all had Asian elements to it, but it was fusion done well.

Matteos 3306

Fakegf’s vegetarian mains, the tempura zucchini flowers filled w goats’ cheese, black vinegar-glazed beetroot, soya bean salad was also perfectly done. I loved the discs of juicy-sweet beetroot underneath.

Matteos 207

I had the fish of the day, which was pan fried trumpeter w rice paper roll filled with vegetables and vermicelli. This was the only dish I was more equivocal about. The fish was firm-fleshed but tasted good. The chewy sticky rice paper roll reminded me of Chinese soon kueh (steamed bamboo shoot dumplings), an Asian dish I am not fond of. Thankfully, Fakegf actually loves soon kueh, so I passed her most of it.

Matteos 3308

We paid $6 more for a chocolate ganache tartto go with the complimentary teas. Once again, the tart tasted great!

Embrasse Restaurant, Carlton

w Fakegf, Damo, K

Embrasse Restaurant 3337

I rushed here after work on a Sunday and it turned out to be another lunch express success. Professional service, short but fascinating menu, lovely wines, and both mains on offer were stunning winners. I have already blogged about Embrasse last year, but have forgotten how wonderful the food here was. I was really glad to see that food quality remained proudly marvellous despite this being a cheaper $35 lunch express. I won’t speak any further about the dishes… let it just be known that every dish was lovely. I could sense a lot of thought and passion put into each item.

Embrasse Restaurant 3340
Black pudding croquette, garden peas, dried Bay leaf oil, pickled beetroot

Embrasse Restaurant 3343
Silver Dory poached in a brown butter, burnt onion, chive, carrot cooked under a pile of mud, grapes, cucumber, cauliflower custard

Embrasse Restaurant 3342
Roasted corn feed chicken, eggs, stone fruits, our own rooftop honey, baked onion

Embrasse Restaurant 3345
Coconut mousse, frangipane, passion fruit, corn, orange blossom

Atlantic, Southbank

w Fakegf, Ashley
The Atlantic on Urbanspoon

Atlantic Restaurant 3356

I’m not sure where I stand with The Atlantic. The dishes were a little hit and miss, but the hits were really good. Service was formal and could be a little bit more relaxed, and I sort of suspect they weren’t all too fond of us express lunch goers. I also somehow feel that some of the dishes on offer isn’t that representative of what this restaurant is capable of, as if the menu has been tweaked down.

Atlantic Restaurant 3359

Fakegf’s soup entrée of rockfish soup, saffron and rouille was beautiful. Ashley commented how it was like a bouillabaisse. While the soup looked thick, it tasted quite light, uplifting and wasn’t overly creamy.

Atlantic Restaurant 3362

We shared an extra course for $18 so that we could try this salad of smoked ham hock, green lentils, slow cooked egg. While the egg and ham hock were yummy, that unexpected creamy sauce on top sort of killed the dish for me, making things just too rich for my liking. I prefer light entrées.

Atlantic Restaurant 244

Fakegf had the wagyu beef cheek spaghetti with chopped parsley. She found it clean and simple, and “free of sauces” – which was good. But she says the pasta could be a little more al dente and wished there was a squeeze of lemon on the side to help lift things.

Atlantic Restaurant 3370

Ashley and I both had the grilled Tuna fillet, sea salt and lemon as mains. It was very yummy, actually… loved the charred, pan-seared flavour. However, one of Ashley’s steaks was cooked right through. The chosen scatter of salad leaves gave us the illusion of eating at a seaside fish ‘n chips place, sans sea breeze.

Atlantic Restaurant 3376

Ashley had an interesting sounding spiced cassonade, pistachio praline for dessert. She liked it.

Atlantic Restaurant 3372

This dessert of goats curd honey parfaitreally intrigued me, and it came out even lovelier than I’d imagined. Loved the use of fresh seasonal figs, and the parfait came as a semi-freddo with a gentle tease of fragrant honey. The scent of goats curd comes in ever so often at the back of your mouth. Wonderful.

Pearl Restaurant, Richmond

w Fakegf, Ees, LittleDeath
Pearl on Urbanspoon

Pearl Restaurant 3401

We came here on a Saturday and had a less than optimal experience. Service was rushed and I could sense from little actions here and there that they just did not like this lunch express idea. They’d come to our table and ask whether we’d want red or white, without explaining what sort of wines they were or which estates they came from. Maybe it was because we lunched here on a busy Saturday, but I just felt like we weren’t treated all that nicely. Aside for the outstanding dessert, we did not really enjoy the food there either. Many of the (more enticing) items on menu also required an additional supplement of $10-$15, almost defeating the purpose of a set price $35 express lunch.

Pearl Restaurant 3402Pearl Restaurant 3407

My entrée of heirloom tomato salad w buffalo mozzarella, rustic croutons, torn beef, white anchovies and tomato vinaigrette was somehow not as yummy as I was hoping it would be.

Pearl Restaurant 3409

Both Ees and LittleDeath opted for the slow cooked western plains pork w coconut caramel, hand rolled noodles and green papaya. The pork was really fatty with not much meat at all, and Ees found the sauce too sweet for his liking. They did not enjoy it.

Pearl Restaurant 3413

While Fakegf’s dish of prawn and bean curd pad ped with Thai and pea eggplants, fragrant herbs and steamed coconut rice was reasonably good, the odd thing was how she still got served with a fork and knife to eat this dish. Such a gravy-based dish, served with rice in a bowl would at least warrant a fork + spoon (or spoon + chopsticks) situation, wouldn’t it? The dish reminded us of Indonesian gado gado or Malay tauhu goreng, the gravy was nice and peanutty and she told me the bean curd was good. The dish also leant towards being a more street-food type of dish, which to us felt a little odd to be presented on the menu in such a formal restaurant. But I guess that’s because it’s lunch…

Pearl Restaurant 3414

Just to give some variety, I decided to supplement an extra $10 to get a more ‘exciting’ main: one side only seared yellow fin tuna, sweet smoked fish salad with sunflower shoots, galangal and kaffir lime, young coconut and lemon oil. It arrived looking like a new take on wraps, with a thin slice of lightly seared tuna cradling all the other ingredients in a roll. Nice idea, but I soon found the seasoning inside all those herbs in the wrap just too cloyingly sweet and savoury at the same time. On its own, it wasn’t enjoyable. But I managed to get-by by stealing some of Fakegf’s coconut rice.

Pearl Restaurant 3416

We ended on a high note with the drunken date and spiced gingerbread ice cream sandwich w medjool date puree and caramelised fuji apple. This dessert was wonderful.

Maha Bar & Grill, CBD

w Fakegf, I-Hua
Maha Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Maha Bar And Grill 3476

Food at Maha was good, but we had issues with the service. Most of the Restaurant Express participants limited each lunch seating to one and a half hours, and they’d normally tell you that when you make your booking. But Maha’s time limit was a mere one hour and that was just too rushed. In order to help speed things, each table had to collectively decide whether the 2-course meal would be all entrées and mains (ie. no dessert), or if it’s going to be mains and desserts only.

Sadly, this concept wasn’t communicated to us clearly right at the start. So when I tried to order an entrée after I-Hua had already specified for a dessert, the waitress started getting impatient with me and spoke to me as if I was a kid. Needless to say, the three of us were pretty unhappy about that. And before we could even read the menu fully, we almost immediately got asked what wine we’d want, red or white, and whether we have decided what to order. With customer service, there is a flow that needs to be respected, rushing us like this just isn’t cool. We as diners do not enjoy being herded in and out like cattle.

Maha Bar And Grill 3478

So we sacrificed entrées and went straight to mains, which turned out to be a Middle-Eastern style smorgasbord of many dishes called the Maha ‘soufra’ sharing board, meat, fish, salad and rice. I’ll have to say that it was an enjoyable spread!

Maha Bar And Grill 3479

So here’s all the mains put together on my plate. I couldn’t get enough of the 12 hour roast lamb shoulder w pistachio and green olives. The almond pilaf was also really good, so buttery… Other components of this platter included rockling w tomato & sumac, a fattoush salad, and Turkish bread.

Maha Bar And Grill 3481

The girls had the turkish delight doughnuts, walnut and white chocolate parfait, which I couldn’t taste much of, aside for an insane amount of sweetness.

Maha Bar And Grill 291

My dessert choice of coconut cherry salad, smoked coconut sorbet sounded interesting, but tasted quite weird, I must say. I did not really warm to the desserts here.

Maha Bar And Grill 3480
Peppermint tea, served alongside with our desserts

I think the main problem here lies with the actual management decision on squeezing the lunches into one-hour seatings. This puts the staff in a difficult position, trying to serve customers in a such a short time frame.  All parties involved get unhappy as a result. So it isn’t really the waitstaff’s fault. In fact, I felt a little sorry for our waitress in the end, she was really trying her best and I could see how stressful it was for her.

My Thoughts

I concede that reviewing restaurants based on their Express Lunches isn’t a really fair way of approaching things. But this is just a food blog, and I’ll allow myself to have my own little observations. Fakegf and I chose to do these meals because we wanted to see which places we’d want to return to for dinner. And out of the six places visited, Matteo’s and Embrasse won our hearts. We’d happily come back to sample the menu proper at these two restaurants.

This may come across as presumptuous, but we thought that the food served at Atlantic and Pearl somehow did not feel representative of what the restaurant is about, and what it is really capable of…

And finally, let’s talk about service. Granted, many of us Express Lunch-goers can come across as opportunistic and ‘thronging for a good deal’, but restaurants should also realise that many of us are also avid foodies, with sincere intentions of coming back if the food is good. In this regard, service staff should bear that in mind, and not treat us any differently from the customers they’d get at dinner service. I think food service in Melbourne is already very good, but I sense there is always more space for humility, respect, and improvement.

Greenhouse By Joost

Greenhouse By Joost 3328

MFWF also had many other interesting things going on. But I really warmed to the sustainability concept behind this pop-up restaurant. Fakegf excitedly described how the outer walls were enveloped with pots and pots of herbs. Everything’s recycled. In fact, the urinary wastes from the restaurant’s restroom is used to fertilise the herbs!

Greenhouse By Joost 3324Greenhouse By Joost 3326

We popped in here for a nibble at 4pm on a Saturday and shared a cabbage, radish, pomegranate salad $15 and a plate of spiced chicken, quinoa, yoghurt $25. The chicken was nicely charred outside, but needed a bit more ommph in seasoning.

Greenhouse By Joost 3320

This custard cider $6, however, was absolutely delicious!

Greenhouse By Joost 3322

Great concept going on here. I really like the idea of sustainability, recycling, food miles, and eating seasonal, local produce. Check out Joost’s websiteto find out more.

Cuban Crayfish Party

w Billy and friends

Cuban Crayfish Party 02

For those of you who’ve managed to read this far, I bow to you. This is the final MFWF event I’m covering. While the pictures look vibrant, I’ll have to say that this event was a washout. The event description on the MFWF website made us think that we’d be seated and served many courses of food, and lots of crayfish, while listening to Cuban music, with the option of joining in and dancing. So it sounded worthwhile spending $75 for this.

What we got instead was a standing-only event. The promised cocktails turned out to be mojitos that were almost devoid of rum. But we weren’t here for the drinks, we wanted the food. Turns out it was just finger food… and worse still, the trays of food came out so slowly that if you weren’t assertive, you get nothing.

Cuban Crayfish Party 01

These four little croquettes were just about all I managed to get from the trays. It was like watching seagulls in action. A lot of attendees were so unhappy about this that they left even before the final crayfish course came out. 75 bucks for this? I think we all felt cheated.

Fortunately, Billy and friends were fun company. We resorted to having wines and beers (which were free flow) to make our money’s worth. Being a lightweight with alcohol, my worldview became rosy and beautiful rather quickly. But some of you may be wondering what does Fatboo get up to when he gets drunk?

Cuban Crayfish Party 03


Ha ha ha!!

Oh dear… so Lame-O.

Cuban Crayfish Party 04

Being a foodie, I did however, remember when the crayfish arrived… it was overcooked.

I honestly could not remember that Sunday afternoon very well at all, but the next day, I found my Instagram stream littered with nonsense, many of which I had to delete. *blush* The final (blacked-out) picture here was taken around 10.15pm that night, I think I was in my bedroom…