Monday 9 December 2013

The new ACCC guidelines: Australian law and online reviews

Last week the ACCC released its first guidance materials relating to online product reviews for businesses and review platforms. The arrival of the guidelines was warmly welcomed by those of us concerned with disclosures and misleading conduct online - in the absence of specific guidance in the Australian legal context, we'd had to look to equivalent guidelines in the US (see the FTC's 2009 Guidance on Endorsements and Testimonials and the updated-for-2013 Dot Com Disclosures guidance for digital advertising) and the UK (see the ASA's recent publication Blurring advertising and blogs – why it pays to know the ad rules).

In light of the confusion surrounding the ACCC guidelines from some people online ('So if I only post positive reviews of my wines on my site, is that in violation?!' one wine person tweeted to me) I thought I'd write this post setting out the guidelines, as they intersect nicely between my blogging and my professional expertise relating to consumer law.

A couple of initial points:

- Contrary to what you may have heard, these are not 'new laws' that the ACCC is introducing. Misleading or deceptive conduct continues to be prohibited under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (CCA) incorporating the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), punishable by penalties of up to $1.1 million. What the guidelines do is help to identify misleading conduct in the specific context of online reviews.

- The ACCC guidelines relate to 'review platforms', which are defined as 'sites, sections of sites or software tools (eg apps) which publish reviews about a range of goods, services or businesses and whose predominant audience are consumers seeking product or business information to inform a prospective purchase. Review platforms generally publish reviews on their own site. Sometimes review platforms are engaged to collect and publish reviews on another’s site.' The guidelines confirm that the principles equally apply to blogs and discussion threads. It also makes no difference whether the reviews are by experts or 'everyday' consumers (eg Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor).

The quotes below come from the ACCC guidance and the summary for businesses on the ACCC website.

Disclosing commercial arrangements with reviewed businesses
Commercial relationships between review platforms and businesses may influence the overall rating of a business on the site. For example, a review platform may allow businesses that advertise on the site to select a review to appear at the top of the page or prevent negative reviews from being automatically uploaded. This may mislead consumers by creating an impression that the business received more favourable reviews than it actually has. Disclosing commercial relationships between review platforms and businesses helps consumers make better informed decisions about the business and its products or services.

Platforms which allow commercial relationships with reviewed businesses to impact upon the content or presentation of reviews, in particular the inflation of review results, risk breaching the CCA. In circumstances where a commercial relationship does not affect the review results, it is recommended that there is disclosure of this relationship to consumers using the review platform.

For platforms opting to rely on disclosure, suggestions as to how this disclosure may be made include:
- a prominent explanation of the nature and extent of the commercial relationship and its impact, if any, on the review page of the affected business
- distinguishing review results which are in any way promoted or improved because of a commercial relationship with the platform through shading or other means so that their content is not confused with ‘organic’ review results.

If you have a commercial relationship: disclose it.

The guidance goes beyond the obvious point of disclosing advertorials to include the ways in which commercial relationships between the business and the reviewer or review platform may influence in subtler ways, such as the business being able to manipulate review results.

This excellent article on the guidelines in the Fin Review by Cha's Kitchen points to @stickifingers' commendable use of the #myclient hashtag when tweeting about her clients.

‘Consumer reviews’ written by businesses or on behalf of businesses
The writing of reviews by a business about itself as though it were a consumer is misleading; as is writing negative reviews about a competitor when the author has not experienced the product or service. Engaging an individual, a search engine optimisation firm or other public relations firm to deliver reviews by persons who are purporting to be, but who are not in fact, genuine consumers is misleading.

You should not write reviews when you have not experienced the good or service reviewed or reviews which do not reflect a genuinely held opinion. You should not solicit others to write reviews about your business or a competitor’s business if they have not experienced the good or service. The ACCC considers such conduct to be misleading.

You should not encourage family and friends to write reviews about your business without disclosing their personal connection with your business in that review.

Re that last point: undisclosed personal connections can also mislead, even if there's no commercial relationship. When I write about places that are run by mates of mine I always err on the side of disclosing our connection (even if it risks making me sound like a pretentious name-dropper).

Detecting and removing fake consumer reviews
Businesses and review platforms that do not remove reviews that they know to be fake risk breaching the CCA.

Whilst it is not always possible to detect every fake review, review platforms should have appropriate processes and procedures in place to detect and remove fake reviews. A best practice approach is to reactively (relying on complaints information) and proactively (using automated or manual internal systems) seek out fake reviews, including after they have been posted.

There is no precise formula for identifying fake reviews. In relation to the detection of suspected fake material, reviews which may warrant attention include those:
- which are part of a significant ‘spike’ in reviews about a particular business over a limited period of time
- written from the same email or IP address as each other or as the business reviewed
- written about the same business, good or service where the accounts of those who wrote reviews demonstrate abnormal similarities, e.g. similar email addresses, user names, passwords or IP addresses
- which use overly positive or ‘marketing-speak’ writing styles
- which do not make sense
- which use the same exact language as other reviews of the same business or product.

Reviews may mislead consumers if they are presented as impartial, but were written by:
- the reviewed business
- a competitor
- someone paid to write the review who has not used the product
- someone who has used the product but written an inflated review to receive a financial or non-financial benefit.

Tips for businesses:
The ACCC considers conduct such as the following to be misleading. You should not:
- encourage family and friends to write reviews about your business without disclosing their personal connection with your business in that review
- write reviews when you have not experienced the good or service reviewed or which do not reflect a genuinely held opinion
- solicit others to write reviews about your business or a competitor’s business if they have not experienced the good or service.

In their online advice for consumers, the ACCC also warns consumers to 'be wary of reviewers or online contributors whose profile indicates that they have only ever written one review. The profile may have been created to write a fake review.' To their credit, websites like Yelp are going to considerable lengths to try to weed out fake reviews.

Incentivised consumer reviews
Incentives should only be offered in exchange for reviews of your business (its products or services) if:
1) incentives are offered equally to consumers likely to be complimentary and consumers likely to be critical, and positive and negative reviews are treated the same
2) the reviewer is expressly told that the incentive is available whether the review is positive or negative
3) the incentive is prominently disclosed to users who rely on affected reviews.

When an online review platform offers an incentive, it should do so in accordance with the three recommendations set out under the guidance for reviewed businesses relating to incentivised reviews. It is recommended that disclosure of any incentive which the platform offers in exchange for a review be placed by the platform prominently on the review page of the business whose reviews are affected by the incentive.

When provided with an incentive, many people tend to write a positive review: as Phil Lees notes, the Norm of Reciprocity is strong.

The ACCC's use of the term 'incentives' is sufficiently broad to cover perks like free meals, samples for giveaways and other non-financial benefits.

An incentive disclosure case study: when Third Wave Cafe in Prahran opened in October, the owner wrote to just about every food blogger in Melbourne, inviting them to come in and have a free meal. Of the 32 blog posts listed on Urbanspoon reviewing Third Wave Cafe over the last two months, 27 make some form of disclosure about the incentive they received (ranging from the specific - 'sponsored post: our meal was paid for by TWC' - to the vague - 'we were invited to visit TWC'). Five of the blog posts are silent as to whether they received incentives (it is unclear whether or not they received the incentive). Of the 27 that did disclose, a handful did not do so until the end of the post (often in the form of an italicised disclaimer). The US FTC has suggested that disclosures of this nature may not be sufficiently clear and conspicuous.

In its media release announcing the guidelines, the ACCC said it was also concerned about businesses artificially inflating their review results by offering consumers generous incentives in exchange for reviews of their products or services. Promotions of this nature may need to be reviewed in the future to ensure they meet the three recommendations set out above.

The omission of credible consumer reviews, inflated (average) reviews and the ‘big picture’
The removal of review content is a regular feature of consumer review platforms and is warranted where it prevents fake, offensive, defamatory or irrelevant reviews from being published. Deleting or hiding reviews suspected of being fake or reviews which are offensive, defamatory or irrelevant is not misleading as consumer review platform users anticipate limited removals to improve the quality of reviews.

Online review platforms should ensure that the overall impression created by a body of reviews on a review platform is not misleading. Platforms which selectively remove or edit negative reviews because of a commercial relationship with a reviewed business risk creating an overall picture of consumer opinion which is misleading.

If the total body of reviews doesn’t reflect the opinions of consumers who have submitted the reviews consumers may be misled.

Content moderation policies of review platforms ensure users and businesses have a clear understanding of when and why online consumer reviews will be removed. It is recommended that consumer review platforms make their policy for publishing and removing consumer content accessible to platform users.

Note here that the guidelines are referring to reviews on review platforms, rather than reviews of a product on the product's own website.

The guideance confirms that if you're a blogger who only writes positive reviews then that's your prerogative; if however you went back to edit/remove your old blog posts that were critical of a business because you now have a commercial relationship with that business, that's a problem which may be misleading.


One issue that is indirectly touched upon in the guidelines is the question of bloggers who solicit freebies. Provided that disclosure is made, solicitation probably isn't misleading (just tacky as hell, in the eyes of several who think such behaviour gives bloggers a bad name).

RELATED: I'm going to be speaking on a panel at next year's Chef Jam at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. I'll be on a panel with Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying and Fool magazine's Per-Anders Jörgensen, debating 'the rise, and rise, of the food blogger'. Wish me luck!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

From Red Spice Road to Burma Lane

Burma Lane
118 Little Collins Street, Melbourne (map)
9615 8500
Open Monday-Friday 12-3pm and 6pm-late, Saturday 6pm-late
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Urbanspoon

Burma Lane, Melbourne

With the just-opened Burma Lane, the Apples and Pears Entertainment Group promised a modern, Australian take on the best of Burmese cuisine, and it looks like they've delivered. Unlike the Group's other Red Spice Road restaurants, where the emphasis is on sharing large plates, here the menu is structured more in the Chin Chin mould, with several small bites, a few noodles, a few salads, and half a dozen bigger bites in which curries feature prominently. The drinks list includes a selection of lassis, and any cocktail list that includes a 'Margaret Pomeranz' (Tromba Blanco tequila, pomegranate liqueur and lemon juice, in case you were wondering) gets a thumbs up from me.

I wandered in for lunch yesterday and started with a hard-to-go-wrong kun sar thi ($4.50) betel leaf with shredded chicken, shallot, green mango and Sichuan pepper. And as it's virtually impossible at this time of year to not order broad beans when they're on a menu, I ordered a tasty little broad bean fritter with crunchy broad beans and spinach relish ($4.50).

Kun Sar Thi
Broad bean fritter

For the Kachin beef salad ($16), the beef is slow-cooked and then pounded in a mortar and pestle with the spices and herbs, which include sawtooth coriander, chilli and Sichuan pepper (the northernmost province of Burma, Kachin, shares a border with China). The pounding that the beef takes gives it a wonderfully tender texture, and the fresh herbs, onion and belachan gave it a big flavour punch. Highly recommended.

Kachin beef salad

The Little Collins St space that was Mahjong Black was a bit of a tricky site, at once shiny and gloomy. The new owners have lightened the place up, and will continue to tweak the interior over the next year. The main focal points are the Shepard Fairey street arty portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi that watches over the restaurant from above the stairs, and the bird cage chandeliers. The floor staff are skilled at explaining some of the more unfamiliar elements of chef Adam Trengrove's Burmese menu, and the restaurant seems to have all the elements in place that have made its Red Spice Road siblings successful.

Burma Lane, Melbourne

Thursday 7 November 2013

New openings this week, some special events and an article I wrote for The Guardian

Just because I haven't published a blog post for a while doesn't mean I haven't been beavering away behind the scenes here at Melbourne Gastronome. I've finally brought my New Melbourne Venues and Melbourne Venues Opening Soon pages up to date, after the distractions of a five week trip to the US and moving house and being without home internet (HURRY UP, iiNet/Telstra). I've written little snippets about all the places I know of that have opened in Melbourne since 1 July 2013, or are going to open soon. Which ones have I missed?

This week alone the newbies include Andy Bedford's Charlie's Restaurant that opened yesterday in the site that was Marmalade and Soul, and the Van Haandel's Trocadero reborn as Fatto Bar & Cantina, opening tonight. Next week it's South Side Huxtaburger and Gelato Messina - expect huge crowds at both. And I was interested to learn that Dylan Roberts (former sous at Cutler, last seen running the Claremont Tonic kitchen) is consulting on a restaurant soon to open a few doors down from Hanoi Hannah. For more details see here and here, and keep checking back for updates.

Pelmeni Kitchen
Marina at Pelmeni Kitchen
Uncle fish
Grilled snapper at Uncle
State of Grace, Melbourne
Rene Rezdepi at The Wheeler Centre Melbourne
René Redzepi talking 'bout brains at The Wheeler Centre

One page that I haven't got around to updating yet is the Melbourne pop-ups page, but I'll hopefully do so soon. In the meantime, here are some events worth noting:

- Good Food Month has kicked off - I attended the launch party last week and was impressed with Special Guest Star René Redzepi's candour in his speech about the meltdown he experienced over the pressures of going "from zero to hero" with Noma. He gave a great presentation the following night at The Wheeler Centre too. Browse the Good Food Month website for details of particular events: it runs until the end of November and there are over 300 events to choose from.

- As a fervent fan of the film CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman at their most smoking), I'm really looking forward to the Culinary Cinema movie matched dinner my gal BurgerMary is organising next week on the 14th with The Baron Said. If you're more of a Tarantino fan, they're doing a DEATH PROOF matched dinner on the 30th of November. Click for details.

- StreetSmart's DineSmart event runs from 11 November to 31 December 2013. I've been a fan of this initiative for years. Diners at participating restaurants are asked to make a small donation to StreetSmart on their bill ($2 or more), 100% of which goes to local grassroots charities supporting homelessness.

13956 SSA Dinesmart Blog Banner - Leaderboard

And for those of you who didn't already see me spruik it via social media, I wrote an article a few weeks ago for The Guardian on the Top 10 budget restaurants and cafes in Melbourne. What do you think of my list? I steered away from the obvious usual favourites like A1 Bakery, but the brief was to write about budget places in areas that are easily accessible by tourists. I decided budget meant all menu items are roughly <$20, and I tried to ensure the list had a mix of cuisines and old and new (though looking back on it now I wish the south side was better represented). Oh and to the guy who left a sarcastic comment about Thai slaw - it WAS som tam, you twonk.

Guardian article

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Jinda Restaurant in Abbotsford: a Thai gem

Jinda Restaurant
3-7 Ferguson Street, Abbotsford (map)
9419 5899
Open 7 days, 11am-11pm

Jinda Thai

Krua Thai 2 in Richmond has been on my 'to visit' list for some time now, ever since a Thai friend of mine told me that they serve some of the best boat noodles in town. Last week I learned that the same family behind Krua has opened a new, much larger restaurant called Jinda in the side street off Victoria Street between the railway line and Punt Road, behind the little string of Thai restaurants.

The converted warehouse space (formerly a clothing clearance outlet) is beautiful, with loads of natural light pouring in through the many windows. Gold-framed portraits of the Thai royal family hang above the kitchen and on the opposite wall hangs a portrait of Jinda (the woman the restaurant is named after). Open since mid-July, the restaurant is filled with Thai students and families day and night.

Jinda Thai

Jinda's specialty is Thai noodles ($6 a small bowl, $9 a large bowl), which I was determined to try on my first visit. Most can be ordered with or without soup, with your choice of noodles (rice stick, flat rice, rice vermicelli, egg or glass). I went with the spicy pork soup with crushed peanuts, chilli powder and chilli vinegar. Savoury, spicy and tangy in equal measures, it was addictive and I wish I'd worked up the nerve to order a second bowl.

Spicy pork soup

As well as including chilli powder the condiment station offers two types of chilli vinegar: one with simple sliced chillies in clear vinegar, the other in which the chillies are pounded and mixed with other spices.

Thai condiments

As well as traditional noodle dishes, the menu offers more modern items like larb crispy chicken on rice ($12.90). We didn't order any, but the next table had some pretty amazing-looking 'prawn twisters' - spring rolls whose ends were twisted like Christmas crackers.

Larb crispy chicken

Minced pork gra pow ($9.90 with fried egg $2 extra), enjoyed on my second visit. You can order all the suburban favourites such as Massaman curry and satay skewers, but I'd advise trying some of the more unusual dishes, such as the guay jab (a pork based brown soup with rolled rice noodles, crispy pork and offal) or the mee gati (rice vermicelli with minced pork, minced shrimp and a coconut cream). I look forward to working my way though the menu over many repeat visits...

Minced chicken gra powJinda by night

Friday 4 October 2013

Doughboys Doughnuts pop-up in Melbourne CBD

Doughboys Doughnuts pop-up at Mr Nice Guy Thai
Shop J, 535 Little Lonsdale Street (enter via Healeys Lane), Melbourne (map)
9973 1761
Doughboys Doughnuts pop-up open 7-11am Monday-Friday (and maybe weekends in the future)
Mr Nice Guy Thai open lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, dinner only on weekends
UPDATE: Doughboys Doughnuts ended their pop-up at Mr Nice Guy Thai, but are now having a summer residency at the Mercat Cross Hotel, 456 Queen Street Melbourne - see their FB page for details and opening hours.


Popping up in the mornings for the next month or two at Mr Nice Guy Thai (the cute CBD sister cafe of Middle Fish) comes Doughboys Doughnuts, serving $4.80 doughnuts baked fresh from quality ingredients and "dipped on demand" with insanely sugary glazes. Joining them is Anthony from Market Lane Coffee, serving up ML coffee ($4) with characteristic skill and aplomb.


I recently returned from a five week trip to the US, where I tried the best do(ugh)nuts in Portland and San Francisco (respectively, Blue Star Donuts and Dynamo Donuts) which came in brilliant flavour combinations like cornmeal rosemary cherry, lemon Sichuan, and dulce de leche with hazelnut. The flavours at Doughboys Doughnuts are not quite as zany, but hoo boy they taste really, really good. Today's flavours were orange-zested vanilla icing with crushed up pistachios, dark Monsieur Truffe cocoa with crushed walnuts and hazelnuts, and lemon and lime zested icing with toasted coconut. They don't come any fresher than this.

Choc nutLime coconut

Anthony mentioned to me that depending on how things go, they may end up opening for doughnuts on weekends too. Watch this space, non-city workers. Expect this one to be very, very popular - and if your heart is set on a doughnut you may want to call in advance to make sure they haven't already sold out.

(*cough* For those who, like me, aren't eating much sugar these days, you might want to approach with caution - I ate the equivalent of one doughnut by sampling the three flavours with two friends, and have been in a light-headed sugar daze for the last few hours...)

UPDATE: Doughboys Doughnuts ended their pop-up at Mr Nice Guy Thai, but are now having a summer residency at the Mercat Cross Hotel, 456 Queen Street Melbourne - see their FB page for details and opening hours.

Dipped on demand

Thursday 8 August 2013

For your consideration: New Gourmet Melbourne by Deck of Secrets

I'm excited to announce here on the blog that the Melbourne dining guide I worked on earlier this year, New Gourmet Melbourne, is now available for purchase!


Michelle Matthews, jet-setter extraordinaire and creator of the Deck of Secrets guides, approached me about collaborating with her on a guide to Melbourne's hottest new restaurants, dining bars and cafes. Having been a longtime fan of the Deck of Secrets, I was only too happy to accept. She and I developed the content together, then I joined the small team of writers (I wrote about a third of the cards in the deck, you'll see my name written on the bottom of each one). As someone who writes primarily online, I can't deny that holding the physical deck of cards in my hand is rather satisfying.

So if you've been wondering where all my reviews of Melbourne's new dining hotspots are, the answer is they're in the guide. Please buy a copy! The decks of cards retail for around $9.95 and are sold at bookshops and newsagents around town (see the list of stockists for your nearest option) and online from Readings and Book Depository. And for iPhone users, if you'd rather a virtual deck there's a New Gourmet Melbourne app for $1.99. Let me know what you think!


Oh, and just a reminder: although I haven't published any other new blog posts recently, I am frequently* updating my new stand-alone pages dedicated to New Melbourne Venues, Melbourne Pop-ups and Melbourne venues opening soon - so be sure to keep checking them. Did you know that THREE places (Jimmy Grants, Shop Ramen and N2 Extreme Gelato) opened last Friday night in Fitzroy alone? Madness!

*I have been updating them frequently since I published them on 1 July, but having said that, on Saturday I'm heading off on holiday to the US for five weeks. I won't be able to monitor the Melbourne hospitality scene as closely from the land of the free and the home of the brave, so any tip-offs about new/upcoming places that you could send my way (by email, Twitter or blog comment) would be greatly appreciated...

Friday 12 July 2013

Soi 38: pop-up tour of Thai noodles

Soi 38 is one of the events featured on my new list Pop-ups of Note. To see the full list, click here.

Soi 38 kuay teow bamee bpedAndy and cart

Why have a food truck when you can have a food cart? Andy and Tina from the Thai/Viet Melbourne food blog Krapow own a gorgeous little food cart, manufactured in the Bangkok suburb of Thonburi and imported to Melbourne for the specific purpose of introducing Melburnians some of the delicious Thai noodles dishes that aren't so well known here. The Soi 38 team includes Top, a Thai chef whose food at Appetizer and then Tidlom demonstrated his commitment to bringing more authentic Thai flavours to Melbourne. Having Andy and the other Soi 38 team members all sport blue Vin Vin vests, the kind worn by Thai motorcycle taxi drivers, is a lovely touch.

The Soi 38 cart has already popped up at a few street festivals, but starting next week on 19 July, Soi 38 will have a six week Friday night residency at North/West Melbourne cafe Sketch & Tulip. From 5pm each Friday night, they'll be dishing up $5 bowls of noodles (you'll want a couple of bowlfuls cos they're so damn good) and beers. Of course, each table will have khreuang puang (condiment caddies) containing fish sauce, white sugar, crushed dried chillies and chillies in vinegar, so that you can tweak your dish to your ideal calibration of hot, sour, sweet and salty.

The noodles will change each week:
- July 19: Kuay teow reua nua nahm (beef boat noodles)
- July 26: Kuay teow Sukhothai muu haeng (dry sukhothai pork noodles)
- August 2: Kuay teow tom yum muu nahm (hot and sour pork noodles)
- August 9: Kuay teow bamee bpuu (dry crab egg noodles)
- August 16: Kuay teow bamee bped nahm (braised duck egg noodles)
- August 23: Kuay teow tom yum muu haeng (dry hot and sour pork noodles)

Andy invited me to a family and friends night for a free preview of the boat noodles last week. I've only tried boat noodles in a few Thai places around town, but love the depth of flavour in the broth and the Soi 38 version was by far the best I've tasted! Andy can give you a better rundown on boat noodles than I can:

"Thai Boat Noodles (kwaytiao reua) are a delicious and intensely flavoured but little known traditional Thai dish. They are associated with central Thailand, and are so called because they used to be sold from small boats along the canals and rivers. These days the vendors have moved onshore and the most famous boat noodle restaurants are found in 'boat noodle' alley near the Victory Monument in Bangkok. 

Each bowl of Boat Noodles starts out with a mound of delicate rice vermicelli noodles and a scattering of water spinach and crunchy bean shoots. Added to this is a trio of gently heated sliced rump, tender braised gravy beef and a springy pork ball.

The bowl comes to life with the addition of the complex broth exuding notes of cinnamon, soy, star anise, lemongrass, galangal and pandan and more. The finishing touches are then applied with a touch of garlic oil, a few sprigs of fragrant coriander, a sprinkling of finely sliced spring onions and some crunchy fried pork crisps.

Thai Boat Noodles leave their more well-known South East Asian counterpart, Vietnamese Pho in their wake. Unfortunately Thai Boat Noodles are just not very well known in Australia, it is my dream that Soi 38 will be one of the first small steps in changing that."

Soi 38 is a charming labour of love by people passionate about Thai noodles, and I strongly encourage you to head down to Sketch & Tulip over the next six weeks. Further details can be found on the Soi 38 website and FB page. If you pay them a visit, be sure to wish Andy congratulations as Tina gave birth to their son on Monday!

Soi 38Boat noodles

Monday 1 July 2013

New and upcoming Melbourne restaurants, cafes and bars

Happy New Financial Year! To celebrate, I'm sharing my reference lists of Melbourne hospitality venues that are going to open soon, or have recently opened. Links to further information, reviews and third party sources provided. As these are standalone pages that I'll be updating as new information comes to hand, my hope is that they'll end up acting as something of an historic timeline for Melbourne food and drink openings. Let me know what I've missed!

For the list of anticipated places opening soon, click here.

For the list of places that have recently opened, click here.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

From New York to Melbourne with love: new cafe Bowery to Williamsburg

Bowery to Williamsburg
16 Oliver Lane, Melbourne (map)
9077 0162
Open 7:30am-3:30pm Monday-Friday, cash and walk-ins only

It's been a great week for the sandwich lovers of Melbourne's Paris end. Last Tuesday EARL Canteen opened its long-awaited second store in the Collins Place food court (directly under Pei Modern). I can't tell you how glad I am that they're now located a mere block away from my office building.

And then on Monday a new cafe opened in Oliver Lane, the cobblestoned laneway off Flinders Lane that also houses Coda. Brought to you by Will and Di (the couple who brought you The Hardware Societe), the cafe is called Bowery to Williamsburg and as the subway-inspired name suggests, it's going to put Melbourne in a New York state of mind.

Bowery to Williamsburg exterior

Will and Di have made three trips to NYC over the last couple of years, planning the Bowery to Williamsburg concept. The care they've taken in realising their vision is evident in the fitout, which is elegantly understated yet cosy even on a three degree Melbourne morning.

Bowery to Williamsburg interior

BAGELS! In keeping with the New York deli theme, there are several varieties of bagel on offer - both savoury and sweet - all made by 5 and Dime. Start your day with a sour cherry bagel with a schmear of lemon curd, or perhaps a beetroot and rye bagel with a cream cheese schmear. There are cooked breakfasts too, like poached eggs with maple baked beans and a bacon slab.


Lunchwise, it's one of those sandwich menus you'll agonise over for minutes because they all sound so damn good. Will it be the Reuben, the pastrami on rye? The lox bagel with beetroot horseradish, limed onion, watercress and dill cream cheese schmear? The schmaltz chicken on walnut bread with apple celeriac slaw and prune relish??

Menu cropped

For a set price of $16.50 you get a sandwich plus a side plus pretzels and a pickle (or pay $12.50 just for the sandwich, gluten free bread available for $1 extra). In the end I picked a sandwich almost at random, winding up with the superb hot smoked salmon on rye with heirloom tomato, fried capers, radish and a caviar cream cheese schmear, with a zingy little side salad of zucchini, peas and Persian feta.

Hot smoked salmon

Last but most definitely not least are the sweets, all of which are baked on the premises. It's a veritable AMERICANA CORNUCOPIA, featuring New York cheesecake, key lime pie, caramelised pumpkin pie, vanilla cherry pie, maple pecan pie, s'mores bars and choc-blueberry brownies. I had a little taste of the maple pecan pie and it was heaven.


The coffee is Padre, but you might be tempted by a peanut butter hot chocolate (served with a Reese's PB cup). At this early stage they're only open Monday to Friday, but fingers crossed that weekends will follow soon. Bowery to Williamsburg is a VERY welcome addition to the CBD.

Pretzels and a pickle

Tuesday 4 June 2013

No seriously, get down to Hihou to try the lunch menu

Level 1, 1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (map)
9654 5465
Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30am-2:30pm, evenings Monday to Saturday 5pm-1am

Hihou - Hassun

It's been nearly a year since Simon Denton, Takashi Omi and Miyuki Nakahara opened their elegant, Japanese-influenced bar Hihou above their more casual canteen Nama Nama. For all of that time, Hihou (an approximate pronunciation is "he-haw" - it means treasure in Japanese) has been a strictly evenings-only affair, serving a compact menu of bar snacks to accompany your Negro-Kan (Negroni with an umeshu twist).

Recently Hihou decided to take full advantage of its daytime view overlooking Treasury Gardens, and started opening for lunch on Mondays to Fridays. While the menu features freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters, charcoal barbequed prawns and sashimi, the main focus is the two course set lunch - which at $35 a head represents terrific value, given the attention to detail and quality of the produce on offer.

Simon invited me as a guest to sample the lunch menu the week it opened, but I went back again last week with my lunch date as paying customers, because we couldn't stop raving about the experience and how perfectly balanced the meal had been.

Buckwheat and green tea saltOysters

The set lunch begins with a little appetiser, such as grapes with shiro-ae (a white tofu dressing) and buckwheat, or pickled wombok with kaffir lime and dainty ribbons of wonton crisps.

Grapes with shiro-ae tofu sauce and buckwheatPickled wombok

The hassun first course is a selection of cold starters that represent the season. Expect to see sashimi (the John Dory we had on our first visit was exceptionally good) and vegetables, perhaps with seafood-y accents like scallops or miniature house-dried prawns.

Hihou - HassunHihou - Hassun

For the main course you choose from one of three sets, each made with premium produce. The kodawari set, which I ordered on my first visit, included delicate sous vide Tasmanian red bream and soy beans in a mild gin-an sauce, with miso soup and rice.

Hihou - Kodawari set

The shichirin set, ordered on my second visit, included charcoal grilled (and beautifully tender) Cape Grim Beef rump with green tea salt, grilled daikon, yakiniku dipping sauce, sumashi clear soup and brown rice.

Hihou - Shichirin set

The set lunch finishes with tea or coffee. I *strongly* recommend shelling out a little more for dessert from the lacquered three-tiered treat box that will be laid out before you. The treat box is filled with all kinds of goodies, from traditional Japanese sweets to Western petits fours with a Japanese spin (such as tartlets filled with yuzu instead of lemon). The treats are $3-$5 each, or a plate of five for $18.

Hihou Japanese treat box

I couldn't resist ordering the sweet potato wrapped in miso paper, and the chestnut and buckwheat steamed manju. Both were exquisite.

Hihou sweet treats - sweet potato wrapped in miso paper and chestnut and buckwheat manju

And how kawaiiiii is this pumpkin-shaped shiro-an (white bean paste) wagashi?!

Hihou sweet treats - pumpkin wagashi and sweet potato in miso paperHihou pumpkin-shaped wagashi

It's great to see one of my favourite city bars becoming one of my favourite city lunch spots, and there's talk that in the near future Hihou may also open in the afternoons, offering a Japanese version of high tea. Here's hoping.

A note for the uninitiated: entry to Hihou is via the (unmarked) first door on Flinders Lane. Press the buzzer and you will be ushered in.

A note for herbivores: while the three main course options on the current menu contain either meat or seafood, the kitchen will happily provide a vegetarian option.