Peter Calder returns to the city that introduced him to decent food

The price of the cabbage rolls - just $2.50 - was agreeable and the people in the busy kitchen looked like they knew what they were doing. So I ordered one. But it soon became obvious that I had bitten off more than I could chew. "Delicious," I said as the slightly vinegary filling of spiced rice, studded with mint and pine nuts, worked its magic on my tongue. "Just like Greek dolmades."

The man behind the counter flinched as if I had slapped him. "Not Greek," he said. His voice was flat, but his facial expression was just one notch below menacing. "Not Greek," he repeated. "Turkish. Lahana dolmasi."

It didn't seem the time or place to remark on the similarity between the words "dolmades" and "dolmasi" and wonder about the ancient rivalries between nations whose cultures are so intertwined. I kept chewing and smiled.

I would later discover that "dolmasi" is the Turkish word for "stuffed", though I will not risk venturing an opinion as to who invented the idea of stuffing vegetables, which is common practice everywhere in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. But the lahana dolmasi at Prahran Market is bloody delicious.


Prahran in Melbourne's inner southeast is home to the must-see market. The Queen Victoria Market at the top of Elizabeth St proclaims itself the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere but most of its 7ha expanse is occupied by merchants of fake leather and Asian tat and it has none of the charm with which it impressed me when I first saw it in the 1970s.

Prahran, by contrast, is full of delights. Just inside the front door, there's a falafel cart run by a bloke who says his first name is Oz and his surname is The Falafel Man.

He's Israeli, but is happy to credit the invention of the falafel to the Egyptians, who make them from broad beans in contrast to the Turks who use chickpeas. Oz's version uses a blend - he won't tell me the recipe - and the result is a light, fluffy creamy, crisp-skinned ball that makes the heart sing and morning shine bright.

On a vege stall I find Brussels sprouts the size of marbles and mushrooms the size of side plates. The shops are grouped according to type - deli by deli; butcher by butcher - keeping competition keen. The butchers in the tiled alleyway bellow specials like barrow boys, chuckling as they strive to drown each other out; by contrast the proprietors of bulging organic stores maintain a serene silence.

Gourmet potato specialist Michael Mow doesn't need to shout what he sells either. He tells me has 30 different kinds today - sometimes it's as many as 50.

He is keen, almost to a fault, to induct me into the mysteries of the yellow-fleshed Kipfler, the cigar-shaped pink fir apple, and the Viking (pink all the way through).

"I deal entirely with little boutique providers," he says, slicing open a Scott's purple for my camera. "With the commercial growers, you take what you get. That's not for me."

Melbourne is where I created my earliest memories of decent food. I landed there at the end of the 1970s and revelled in tastes unknown in Auckland, where I'd only eaten at Tony's and a Chinese greasy spoon.


Here all of a sudden were olives and puffy, crisp-crust breads, coriander and feta and garlic and rich pasta sauces and wine that didn't taste like disinfectant.

Every time I go back to that wonderfully cosmopolitan city, my appetite is sharpened as soon as I hit the streets.

Larissa Dubecki, the restaurant critic for The Age, had told me that Melbourne's serious chefs are "diversifying away from sphincter-clenching fine-dining in favour of informal places where food and drink get equal billing".

Typical, she said, was Cumulus Up, a little wine bar above Cumulus Inc at the top of Flinders Lane. It opens only in the evening, when we were otherwise engaged (see page 15) but if it keeps to the same high standard as Cumulus Inc, the "eating house and bar" at street level, it must be great.

I'm not sure about the trend, which we encountered three times in Melbourne, for using the heart of an iceberg lettuce as the basis of a salad - there's little enough taste in a lettuce as it is and the hearts always seemed pale and watery to me.

But Cumulus Inc's addition of parmesan, capers and chopped eggs made for a nice riff on a Caesar. Other items included a thin-crust tart of sultry shredded blood sausage and surpassingly tender octopus, finger-thick tentacles grilled with smoked paprika and served with a garlicky aioli.

Less impressive was Bar di Stasio, next to the cafe of the same name in the hipper part of Fitzroy St, St Kilda. They told me when I rang that it was fully booked and there was only room at the bar, but when we got there, there were plenty of tables. Go figure.

We thought the atmosphere as stiffly formal and the food was lacklustre: their take on the famous insalata caprese of mozzarella and tomato was made with goat cheese and baked, which was a nice touch, but a mixed plate of fried seafood was greasy and bland and the eggplant chips did a disservice to both eggplant and chips.

More joy was to be found back in town at Chin Chin, an upscale version of the hawker dining alleys of Asia. It's bustling and noisy and you'll bump elbows with diners at the next table but that's what the place is about.

The food is a Southeast Asian pastiche - there are touches of Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and even Lao - but every dish gives a sharp new twist to something familiar.

The DIY spring rolls are assembled at the table from the translucent pancakes you may know from the Vietnamese summer roll, into which you lay fried tofu, crisp raw vegetables and a peanut relish; pan-fried barramundi is cubed into a salad mainly of green apple and served alongside melting caramelised belly pork; huge flash-fried sardines crunch up deliciously with a spoonful of the house nam phrik pla yang, that chilli and tamarind paste that the Thais love putting with fish; there are curries from dry red to massaman.

Get there early: the queue was out the door when we left.

No visit to Melbourne would have been complete without tapas at Movida, which now has five branches, including one at the airport and another in Sydney.

The original in Hosier Lane and Movida Next Door which is, well, next door, are must-dine destinations. It's the last word in tapas, this place, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with that silky Galician wine called albarino as we fought over cigars of goat cheese with a skin of quince paste; a sensational wagyu tartare (raw beef never tasted so good); rock lobster sashimi and other sensational offerings.

Peter Calder stayed in Melbourne as a guest of Tourism Victoria but dined at his own expense.

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