First published on 19 Jun 2012. Updated on 21 Jun 2012.
Turn Japanese at this super-elusive subterranean haven. Try and nab a seat at the bar that runs the length of the venue and get an up-close view of what must be the calmest kitchen in Melbourne with chefs and waiters working almost silently, side-by-side in a shared space as narrow as a desk cubicle. Look up for the menu, it’s projected onto the wall. An $18 short set offers silken house-made tofu, pickles, a healthful green salad, rice and thick seaweed-laden miso with one main (think sesame salmon fillet grilled on skewers or salty-charred grilled chicken). The slightly more upmarket option is $28, adding sashimi and more luxurious mains choices such as tuna tataki (thinly sliced, edge seared slices of tuna marinated in vinegar but still quite raw) on wasabi mayonnaise, or sweet barramundi with pickled ginger root. All elegantly presented on the most beautiful assorted stoneware in Melbourne.
Impress friends, colleagues and even your accountant with a bargain set menu at one of Melbourne's sexiest Italian dining establishments, Bottega, nestled in Little Italy at the top of Bourke Street. Ten years young and it's still an incredibly romantic venue – must be the chocolate coloured carpet and the dim lights. We suggest you bring a hot date to match the hot decor. Newly appointed (and genuinely Italian) head-chef Gabriele Olivieri's lunch menu runs 20 dishes long, but you'll have to pick from a smaller selection for a bargain – think seared tuna swimming in beans and black olives or a hand made strozzapreti (small pieces of pasta in an unusual twisted shape, its name meaning ‘choke the priest’ so we are told) bathing in a pork and beef ragu. With top-notch service, well starched tablecloths and highly buffed wine glasses, it's a steal at $35 for two courses (and a glass of vino). We won't tell the boss if you indulge in a little lunchtime boozing either.
Located smack in the middle of some serious road works, the municipal council offices and a police station, it’s no surprise you'll find a mixed crowd at Footscray's classy Station Hotel. If you're looking to save a few pennies steer away from the menu, what you're looking for isn't on it. Every lunchtime at the Station Hotel, two of the world's greatest foodstuffs come together – a piping hot bowl of soup and a sandwich. They’re yours for a measly $12.50 and all you’ve gotta do is ask. Apparently the soup does vary, however we have it on good authority that most of the time you're getting pumpkin and pancetta buddied up with an open faced steak sandwich – a single slice of thick white toast spread with mayonnaise, chopped chuck and a good healthy dose of greenery. Absolutely not for vegetarians, but good enough for us.
Oh Maha, you sweet seductress, with your slinky Maltese blown-glass vases and your pretty Persian carpets. How we love you. Schedule an extended lunch hour and head to this Middle Eastern paradise for the 'soufra' menu – a chef's selection where all dietary requirements and fussy eaters are catered for. Two ($35), three ($40) or four ($45) courses will have you rolling plumply out the door. You'll probably start off with a mezze plate of oily olives coated in a spicy paste called 'fulful', some dips, salads and charred eggplant floating in sticky pomegranate molasses. If you’re lucky it will be followed by the12-hour slow roast lamb shoulder with served alongside fattoush - a salad of cucumber, tomato, parsley and sumac-coated fried pita bread to add tart crunch to the proceedings. Dessert is a generous mixed plate, perhaps with a panacotta so thick, it could pass as a cheesecake, with baklava crumbled on top – we give bonus points for using one desert to garnish another.
Owner Ronnie Di Stasio has recently taken over the shopfront next door to this Italian gem, meaning that the grand old dame is in for a little nip and tuck. Times might be a ‘changing but $35 will still buy you two courses from noon-3pm any day of the week, as well as a glass of Yarra Valley vino and a coffee. That’s almost the same price as a single main dish from the a la carte menu. Di Stasio offers a weekly rotating homage to slow food and seasonality. Select from three entrees (perhaps a light salad of poached calamari, fresh and balanced with lemon, parsley and oil) and three mains (a perfectly proportioned escalope of yearling beef with grilled rocket in white wine is a good choice). For sweet tooths the dolce del giorno (dessert of the day) is always an elegant classic such as a rich chocolate mousse, or poached pears when in season. We recommend a long lunch.