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Taste of Travel

Dishing Up the World in Melbourne

Ethnic cuisines spice up this Aussie city that's home to more than 100 nationalities

June 09, 2002|KIM ZETTER

MELBOURNE, Australia — Sydney and Melbourne have long been rivals in everything from business and culture to weather and sports. Sydneysiders crack that the only good thing to come out of Melbourne is the Hume Highway exiting town. Melburnians point out that the same highway, which connects the two cities, also comes out of Sydney.

But if the two cities didn't have enough to bicker about already, they now can add food to the list.

Food is a national obsession in Australia, and the talent of some of the nation's chefs has put the island continent on the culinary map.

The trend began in Sydney in the '80s with world-class results, but Melbourne is trying to grab the baton. The number of food festivals, markets and restaurants in the city attests to its fixation.

But the real surprise is not the gourmet offerings of this former culinary wasteland; it's the variety of its ethnic cuisines.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 30, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant captions--In "Dishing Up the World in Melbourne" (June 9), an article about dining in that Australian city, the captions on two photos were transposed. The photo on top shows Warung Agus restaurant. The smaller photo below shows Lemongrass restaurant.

Housing a mix of more than 100 nationalities, the city has food and flavors to match. And it's all set against a Victorian backdrop of manicured gardens, turn-of-the-century trams and houses adorned with intricate iron lace balconies.

With 2,500 restaurants in Melbourne, you'll find everything from Balinese to Lebanese, Fijian to Greek, along with a generous helping of modern Australian (a fusion of local produce and foreign spices using classic French, Italian and Asian cooking techniques).

Even better for Americans is the value, since the Aussie dollar is worth only about 56 U.S. cents.

When I spent four weeks with friends in Melbourne in February, I had just been laid off from a job, so the prospect of inexpensive eats was appealing. And coming from San Francisco, where the ethnic offerings are not always as varied as you would expect, I was interested in trying a range of flavors.

My first stop, though, was a conventional one. Lygon Street is the city's version of Little Italy, packed with family-run restaurants serving heavily sauced tourist fare.

Immigration waves, following relaxation of the White Australia policy after World War II (it wasn't completely abandoned until the 1970s), have deposited a number of other ethnic enclaves around the city: Little Saigon on Victoria Street in Richmond; Chinatown in the CBD (Central Business District); the Greek section of Lonsdale Street; the Ottoman Empire (Turks and Lebanese) on Sydney Road in Brunswick; and Bollywood (Indian) in Dandenong. Not to mention the burgeoning industrial neighborhood of Footscray, home to Vietnamese and Ethiopians.

As I walked down Lygon weaving a path around waiters and pedestrians, an Italian barker cooed softly from his doorway perch. "Ciao, bella," he said, gesturing toward an empty pavement table that apparently had my name on it.

But on this hot summer night, passing the gantlet of restaurant hawkers, all I wanted was gelato. I found my treasure at Casa del Gelato, a gelateria with the warmth of a neighborhood pub. Standing on the corner and scooping the cool, creamy mounds from a cone--peach and ricotta, two specialty flavors of Casa del Gelato owner Ottorino Pace--I could smell the thick aroma of toasty espresso and sauteed garlic in the air.

The capital of the state of Victoria, Melbourne was founded by John Batman in 1835 as a British outpost and purchased for a pittance from Aborigines who made their home on the mud flats of the Yarra River. Named after Lord Melbourne, Britain's prime minister from 1835 to '41, it was Australia's capital from 1901 to 1927, before Parliament moved to Canberra. Despite Sydney's iconic opera house, Melbourne, with 3.2 million residents, stakes a strong claim to being the country's intellectual and artistic hub. Add to this its numerous parks, relaxed attitude and multicultural edge, and it's easy to see why so many immigrants prefer it to Sydney.

And Melbourne has many other attractions beyond its food. Moonlight Cinema, in the city's 157-year-old Royal Botanic Garden alongside the Yarra River, is a great mix of bucolic setting and celluloid classics. The city is also mad for sports. If the townies aren't gearing up for the Australian Open tennis tournament or Australian Formula One Grand Prix--a loud spectacle that runs through town--then footy (Australian Rules football), bike riding, sailing and golf consume them.

Outside Melbourne, the countryside offers spectacular views along the Great Ocean Road, which rivals Highway 1 in California. Or you can take bicycle tours of the country's renowned Yarra Valley wineries; swim and surf along the Mornington Peninsula; take a day trip to Phillip Island to see the nightly parade of waddling penguins as they emerge from the sea; or observe other pudgy critters at the Koala Conservation Centre.

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