Umberto Espresso Bar, 822 High Street, Thornbury Tel: 03 9484 8654

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Ciao!  Make no mistake, this is my local.  I feel like family at Umberto’s, I am welcomed, made to feel at home and even taught a bit of basic Italian.  Bellissimo!

This is the charm of this modern inner-urban cafe.  It has a bit of an old school/old country flair that makes it inviting and comfortable from the moment you walk in.  The cafe is run by father and son team Marco & Umberto. Umberto has been in the coffee business for over 30 years and he knows his stuff.  Marco has benefitted from his father’s experience and together they run one of the best cafes in Melbourne.  Without a doubt after a visit or two you will be family too.

A great cafe needs a great coffee.  Marco and Umberto meticulously pay attention to detail in order to ensure that the espresso machine is clean, the grind is right, the beans are fresh and the method is perfect.  Each coffee is dark, rich and you guessed it traditionally Italian.  Both Marco and Umberto know exactly what they are doing and their experience shows.

Now what about the food?  Nonna (Italian for Grandma) has offered up some of her authentic Italian recipes giving the menu the creed required for a cafe that caters to the Italian crowd of the inner north.  The menu is simple and hearty.  Every dish I have tried has been excellent but my stand out favourite is eggs on toast with roast capsicum served with home baked beans and potato cakes (perfect for all you vegetarians out there).  This dish simply is the best breakfast I have had in a cafe in Melbourne.   For dinner you can dine in or take away.  They serve one of the best pasta’s in town, each choice is beautifully done, simple and delicious.  Their pasta carbonara is a favourite.

Umberto Espresso Bar is open from Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner and also serves breakfast on the weekends.

A special note for anyone who enjoys a great festival.  Marco is championing the inaugural Melbourne Salami Festival which will be held on Sunday September 16th in the inner north.  The festival will showcase home made salami with all of Melbourne’s best Italian families vying for top honours.  Come by and judge for yourself.  Italian or not, everyone will be assured of a great afternoon of food and culture.  Join me on the day, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  For more information please visit http://www.melbournesalamifesta.com

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Pei Modern, Driveway Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, 25 Collins Street, City – Tel: 03 9654 8545

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The first thing that came to mind when I heard about Pei Modern was how unusual. Unusual name, unusual location. For me this was not a bad thing, in fact is sparked quite a lot of interest. I wondered how one would make a reastaurant in a hotel driveway work? Well they have and as the name suggests it is unusual and modern.

Pei Modern found its name from the architect I.M. Pei who designed the glass pryamid in the courtyard of Le Louvre Museum in Paris. Pei also designed the canopy which hovers over the driveway at the Sofitel.

The force behind this endeavour is Mark Best who is a celebrated Sydney chef. Best has created a modern dining space which is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner with a substantial all day bar menu on offer as well. Pei Modern also serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.

The concept behind the bistro is to leave the formality of fine dining behind and to create an intimate space for a drink or something to eat. What is very interesting and unique is the attention to detail in specific areas such as a high quality knife that stays with you throughout your meal rather than being replaced with each coarse. There are no table cloths yet the napkin provided is one of the finest linen napkins I have ever seen in Melbourne dining room. Each decision has obviously been well thought out and provides a sense of something new which is enjoyable to say the least.

One of the most important ingredients for a great restaurant is the front of house experience. Many restauranteurs underestimate the impact of the guest experience which is created by the front of house team. Pei Modern has struck gold with Ainslie Lubbock who heads the team. Ainslie is a seasoned professional and you don’t need to see her resume to figure this out. She is charming, knowledgeable, accommodating and has a fun and playful demeanour which suits the restaurant perfectly. It is clear that Ainslie has hand picked her team and everyone from the wait staff to the sommelier were charming and informative without being intrusive.

One very smart choice was Pei Modern’s anti-trend decision to buck the stampede of restaurants who refuse to take reservations. Your bookings are welcome. Bravo I say! As a result your valuable time will not be wasted in a queue and you will not be rushed off your table in consideration of waiting diners. I implore my readers to recognise that restauranteurs now have a choice on how they run their establishments. Should you be offered a booking ensure you show up on time, call if you are running late or cancel with as much notice as possible if you can not make it.

So what about the menu? Pei Modern focuses on the best and freshest local ingredients and as a result the menu changes frequently. It is filled with unusual cuts of meat and interesting flavour combinations. The restaurant is suited for those with a taste for culinary adventure. We had the seven course degustation menu for $90 with matching wines which start at $50. It is clear that head chef Matt Germanchis presides over a menu who’s statement is to be fresh, inventive and bold. Delicacies such as the finest salumi served on wax paper with pickled onions and mustard seed, almond gazpacho and blue swimmer crab, lamb sweetbreads with roasted capsicum and Dutch creams with mojama, coffee and bone marrow were all well thought out and balanced dishes. The succession of courses pleased all three seasoned concierges at our table.

Each course was matched with beautiful wines from Australia and Europe. The sommeliers choices were perfect. Each arriving at the table with a wonderful story on the different use of grape varieties, challenging soil conditions or unconventional process with which the wine was produced. I was impressed with the constancy of theme even in the wines.

The mark of a good restaurant is one that would entice you to return again and again. I will be back, perhaps next time for a glass of wine and to sample of some of the other intriguing items on the bar menu.

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Top 10 Fine Dining Restaurants in Melbourne

Here are my top 10 favourites for fine dining in Melbourne!

  1. Becco
  2. Ezard
  3. Cutler & Co
  4. Shoya
  5. Donovans
  6. Esposito’s
  7. Bistro Vue
  8. Matteo’s
  9. Rockpool
  10. The Press Club
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Insider’s Video Tour of Melbourne

Come along for a tour of my favourite city and check out some of my favourite places with me.

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Lupino Italian Bistro – 41 Lt Collins Street, City (03) 9639 0333

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I had high expectations when visiting Lupino as it is part owned by Richard Lodge, ex-partner in my favourite Italian restaurant Becco. Lupino did not disappoint. Richard was as always the consummate host and what was supposed to be a pasta and a glass of wine turned into a full meal. I am glad I stayed longer.

Lupino is located at 41 Lt Collins Street in the city, between Spring and Exhibition. The restaurant is nicely fitted out with a modern and clean lines look. Macrame hangings adorn the venue and the look is simple, clean and casual.

Lupino is above all else great food, great value and excellent service. The business model is a bit different than most and it seems to be working a treat. Open continuously from lunch to late from Wednesday to Sunday this restaurant does what many do not, offers excellence throughout the day. You can dare I say eat lunch after 230pm or have an early dinner at 5 and still enjoy the full menu. Most Melbourne restaurants will not venture out of the set lunch and dinner times making anything other than fast food an issue during off peak times. Thank you Lupino for getting it right, in particular they are open Saturday lunch, a notoriously hard time to find a good restaurant in the city.

The second unusual business model is that all of the staff are salaried. The restaurant is staffed with professionals who want to be there and is shows. They even go so far as to close the restaurant and take holidays at the same time. In effect this ensures that you get the best in food and service without having to pay an arm and a leg. This is the winning point for Melburnians, you get a great restaurant without out the high price tag. Mains are nicely priced from about $20 to $35, much less than the competition however the quality is every bit as good.

I ate the lamb ragu which was perfect for cold winters night; rich, full of tender lamb and a wonderfully rich sauce that I used the bread to soak up the last bit it was so good. A home made chilli oil was suggested as an accompaniment and it was as promised hot and delicious the perfect cap for a wonderful dish. The salad was fresh, light and perfectly dressed. For dessert I at a home made rhubarb crumble it was again as promised, amazing.

The wine list is well priced and there is a good selection. This is one restaurant where you can ask advice and know that you will get a professional answer without having to make a car payment!

Over all I was very impressed with the restaurant and have promised to return with my partner for what I have no doubt will be another great experience. I highly recommend Lupino and urge you all to give it a try.

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Fed Square mirrors Eureka Tower

Fed Square mirrors Eureka Tower

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Eau de Vie – 1 Malthouse Lane, City

You can’t get much more Melbourne than this even though the first EDV is in Sydney.  Tucked in a Malthouse Lane look for a wood door and brass handle, no sign, no hint, you just have to know.

Eau de Vie is all about the cocktail.  The homemade ginger beer is awesome, just like the homemade stuff from Jamaica, easily my favourite.  Each of the bartenders advertise their inventive concoctions in an extensive and balanced cocktail menu.  There are a lot of choice for everyone from new takes on old favourites to cocktails that are so new they are yet to be named.  Our group of concierges tried a liquorice martini invention and we thought it should be called “Orca”.  Let’s see if the name sticks.  This is a place you can just ask for something different and you will always receive an incredible drink.  Prices are surprisingly reasonable with most cocktails between $18 to $20.

The style of the bar is not as slick and modern as you might think.  For me it is perfect, stylishly modern but with a very classic touch.  They have a lounge room drinks cart.  I love this.  Lots of timber, banquette seating, stools, bar seats, booth-like tables, a private room, galley kitchen for some great snacks.  As you would imagine, it is all about the bar;  long, timber, perfectly back lit, advertising an extensive offering that only a champion bartender would put together never mind use.  The line up of bottles pay homage to a traditional collection of rare books in a private library.  Impressive to say the least.  For the wow factor they are the only bar in Melbourne with liquid nitrogen on tap for fabulously icy martinis!

For something different try the degustation cocktail menu with matched food.  Served at a shared table you get five courses for $130, great value.  Bookings essential.

If you can’t find the bar and wander into the French Brasserie to ask for directions, Hadj the owner will have some fun with you and happily share with you his selection of eau de vie before steering you in the right direction.  Should this happen don’t worry, the French Brasserie is one of the best French restaurants in town so you are in for a double treat and some great hospitality from Hadj and his team.

If you love Melbourne as a city where artistry and quality are celebrated, you will love this bar.  You will find that Malthouse Lane is crammed with quality.  Enough to make you proud to live in our wonderful city.  My suggestion, make a night out of it.

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