MELBOURNE | Several months in lockdown for Melbourne in 2021 wasn’t something that we all planned for as we said goodbye to 2020, but so it was. It was a very tough year for the hospitality industry once more, and unfortunately we lost some great venues.
Thankfully, many were able to power through, and several more opened their doors for the first time. It was a year of supporting old favourites, and discovering new delights, appreciated so much more by what the city went through.
In this list, I’ve put together a selection of dishes that have stuck in my mind as we prepare to say goodbye to 2021.
My criteria is that the restaurant had to have opened this year, or the dish needed to be new to the menu in 2021. Given the turmoil of the year, I’ve extended things back slightly, to include late 2020, encapsulating venues that have yet to experience a full year of ‘normal’ trade.
In alphabetical order, here are my memorable best new Melbourne dishes of 2021.
Beef Tartare (Gray and Gray)
I’m a fiend for a good beef tartare, and have enjoyed several great versions of it this year. One of the best is that on offer at Russian/Georgian restaurant Gray and Gray. On a unique and exciting menu full of highlights, this one stands out. A simple combination of raw beef with basturma (air-dried cured beef), cured egg yolk, and rye crisp.
Burrata & Fennel Jam (NOMAD)
After over a year of pandemic-related delays, the Melbourne outpost of Sydney restaurant, NOMAD, opened late this year, and it well and truly lived up to expectations. Make sure you order the famed burrata with fennel jam. Paired with the housed baked wood-fired flatbread with Persian lime and wattleseed za’atar, it’s one of the best things you’ll eat this year.
Caramel Glazed Eggplant (Laurus)
Laurus is a contemporary Chinese restaurant that sees head chef Roger Lui showcasing the dishes and flavours of Southern China. It’s only been open for a few weeks, but the outstanding caramel glazed eggplant is already shaping up to be a signature item. It’s crispy red-vinegar-caramel-glazed eggplant, lightly fried with a tapioca and rice flour batter, topped with coriander and spring onions.
Falafel Box (Wazzup Falafel)
Wazzup Falafel is a food truck started this year by personal trainer turned cook Ahmad Alalaea. He started Wazzup Falafel with the aim of introducing Melburnians to the joys of Palestinian style falafel, which is different to the kind of falafel that most are used to in Melbourne. For me, they’re some of the best falafel in town. Both the falafel box and special wrap are outstanding.
Koji Waffle Ice-Cream Sandwich (Aru)
Despite only being open just a few weeks before Melbourne was plunged back into an extended lockdown, Aru became one of the city’s must dine at venues. Food is influenced by the flavours of South East Asia and Australian native ingredients, and it’s all fantastic. Special mention, however, has to go to the kaya jam, Davidsons plum, and salted koji waffle ice-cream sandwich. My Melbourne dessert of the year.
Pasta (Hope St Radio)
Hope St Radio is one of my favourite new Melbourne venues. It’s truly unique space, home to a live broadcasting radio station, bar, and restaurant. It’s a community driven space with a focus on all things local. Head chef Ellie Bouhadana’s menu features comforting, home style dishes. Pasta is a highlight, with flavours that rotate with the seasons.
Pork Cotoletta (Tippy-Tay)
Tippy-Tay is a new Italian restaurant housed inside Garden State Hotel. It takes inspiration from Florence, the Amalfi Coast, Calabria and Naples. It’s a cute space with a lot of character, full of simple food designed to share with friends. The pork cotoletta is a must order item. A juicy golden crumb fried pork cutlet severed with a sharp mustard sauce and Tuscan slaw.
Puffed Rice Salad (Etta)
Etta is a restaurant that opened with a bang and has somehow kept getting better as the years have gone by. Chef Rosheen Kaul has made the menu her own, but it’s still very much an Etta/Hannah (owner) menu too. The current menu, which launched in October, is the venue’s best yet. There was nothing between the excellent puffed rice salad, a textural delight mixed with Spring Bay mussels and pork sausage, and the wood-fired cabbage flower, with Sichuan and white sesame dressing. Order both.
Sushi (Tochi Deli)
This under-the-radar Japanese cafe, hidden inside the Brunswick Market on Sydney Road, is an absolute gem of a venue. The freshest seafood combines with fresh cooked and hand rolled koshihikari rice, for some of the best sushi you’ll find in Melbourne. Each bite at Tochi Deli transports me to my travels through Japan.
Robata is a new Japanese restaurant from the team behind San Telmo, Pastuso, Palermo, and Asado. It’s their first venue that doesn’t focus on South American food, and they’ve pulled it off wonderfully. There’s a lot to like here, but special mention has to go to their tsukune. A moist yet firm charcoal grilled chicken meatball served with with tare, and cured yolk. Just like they do it in Japan.
Vegemite Glazed Kangaroo Skewers (Miss Mi)
It’s hard to pick a highlight from Miss Mi, one of the most exciting new restaurants to open in Melbourne in 2021. If there’s one dish that exemplifies head chef Esca Khoo’s philosophy however, this is arguably it. A Malaysian satay skewer reimagined as a BBQ red kangaroo skewer, glazed with Vegemite, served with avocado and macadamia. It’s very, very good.
Wagyu Char Sui (Kekou)
Kekou has been open for a few years now, but the constantly evolving menu of Thai-born chef Oak (Chittrawat) Kunnalok always excites. Oak brings the influences of his homeland and mother’s cooking to the menu, along with flavours from across the region. A new addition is a take on char kway teow. It’s topped with wagyu beef MB9+, and bass strait scallops, and is full of wonderful wok char.
Have you tried any of these memorable new Melbourne dishes of 2021? Check out my Melbourne City Guide for more tips on where to eat and drink, and what to do in Victoria’s bustling capital.