Australia is discovering good food. Cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle have seen a proliferation of fine restaurants. But whenever we mentioned going to Melbourne, the immediate response was: "It has the best food in Australia."
"A lot of it has to do with our immigrant population," says Warrick Randall, a Melbourne journalist and contributor to the city's "The Age Good Food Guide."
"After World War II more foreigners settled in Melbourne than anyplace else in Australia. There are 131 nationalities with a resident population here, and the ethnic dishes these people brought in have had a tremendous influence on our cuisine."
Another factor is the freshness and variety of local ingredients. "We can get everything you'd want here except goose liver and cranberries," says Claire Kearny, a restaurant reviewer for the Epicurean, Australia's glossy gourmet monthly.
"The local market gardens are growing a huge variety of fresh produce, and the best fishing fleet in the country sails out of Melbourne Harbor," Kearny says. Tasmanian trout and Atlantic salmon are being bred on the island of Tasmania just south of Melbourne, and Moreton Bay bugs, a kind of prehistoric crayfish, have long been a local delicacy.
Two of the best restaurants in Melbourne, Mietta's and Stephanie's, are personal statements created by remarkable young women. "Both Stephanie and Mietta are uncompromising in their search for perfection," Kearny says.
Mietta's is perhaps the most elegant restaurant in Melbourne, which by Australian standards is a dressy city.
We entered the former German Club that dates from 1887 and ascended a huge mahogany staircase. The dining room is large and formal, with high, molded plaster ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Tall candelabra stand on marble pedestals around the room. Mietta O'Donnell, a woman dressed in black and wearing a pink rosebud, greeted everyone who entered.
"Mietta's grandparents operated an Italian restaurant that for 30 years was the place to go in Sydney," Randall says. "Five Italian families started restaurants here in the '20s and '30s, and they were called 'the restaurant mafia.' They created our interest in eating out."
When Mietta started her own restaurant 15 years ago, she substituted the Italian menu of her family for a classic French approach.
Paris-trained chef Jacques Reymond blends classical technique and fresh Australian ingredients to create such dishes as Yabbies a la Nage--tiny, sweet, freshwater prawns--cooked in Chablis wine and served in the shell, delicate Tasmanian salmon served on a bed of fresh pasta and topped with the briny taste of sea urchin, and hare fillets served with mousselines of squash and beets.
Australian cheeses--a Griffiths goat cheese, Tikmboon Triple Cream and a Queensland Unity Blue--preceded a dessert of egg and coconut pudding topped with pieces of candied pumpkin. Dinners at Mietta's run about $50 Australian ($40 U.S.) per person, without wine.
Wine expert Ken Johnson manages the restaurant's wine cellar, which has an extensive collection of French wines as well as some of the best Australian vintages.
While Mietta's is a classical statement, Stephanie's is a highly individual one with many roots.
Stephanie Alexander is the chef, and for 10 years has operated the restaurant with her husband, Maurice, a former barrister.
"I learned to cook at my mother's knee," says Stephanie, a straightforward woman with short blond hair and a ready smile. "My mother was Australian, but she had very catholic tastes. By the time I was 10 I was cooking Hungarian goulashes."
In an old mansion, Stephanie's has made an indelible mark on Melbourne's dining scene.
We were seated in what must have once been a large drawing room, at a table set with hand-embroidered linens and fresh garden flowers, and sampled an hors d'oeuvre of Parmesan bavarois with a spicy goat cheese wafer.
The entree (in Australia, the entree is the first course) was a terrine of summer vegetables in a tomato jelly with a salad of pear and watercress and toasted olive bread. A small terrine of fresh snails in a spinach and mushroom sauce came topped with puffed pastry.
For the main course we tried lamb cutlets served with a pesto sauce and accompanied by eggplant sauteed with anchovies and baby tomatoes. Fresh bocconcini --a cheese like mozzarella--finished the presentation.
Braised lamb shanks, perfectly done and falling from the bone, were accompanied by orange-flower-perfumed pumpkin.
Other dishes included Moreton Bay bugs, a kind of crustacean with a prehistoric look, very sweet and tender, served with julienned vegetables and a sauteed turnip cake, and a roasted filet of beef that had been sliced thin and rolled around bits of young asparagus to make a spiral pattern on the plate.