FORTY dollars doesn't get you far these days – a couple of album downloads on iTunes, half a tank of petrol or take-away pizza for two. Despair no longer! Thanks to those enterprising folk at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, $40 is enough to cover a two-course lunch, a glass of Victorian wine and a tea or coffee at one of the city's top eateries over the next couple of weeks.
Melbourne Food & Wine Festival's annual Restaurant Express Lunch is back, with more than 70 celebrated restaurants showcasing special menus at affordable prices. Whether you try just one or print off a list to tick them off as you go (hey, don't judge!), the festival is a fantastic opportunity to try unfamiliar cuisines, experience new menus and revisit favourite haunts.
THE RESTAURANT: Grossi Florentino Grill
THE DISHES: Coffee cured kingfish (with cider dressing, orange and chilli); free-range chicken cacciatore (with wine, mushrooms, tomato)
THE VERDICT: Guy Grossi's iconic Bourke Street eatery has always been one of Melbourne's best Italian restaurants – little wonder, with its irresistibly simple, home-style cooking made with the freshest of ingredients. Grossi's Express Lunch menu showcases fish, veal and chicken dishes, as well as desserts such as the divine chocolate and pear tart (which might just change your life).
Grossi Florentino Grill | 80 Bourke Street in Melbourne
THE RESTAURANT: Gingerboy
THE DISHES: Chicken and Chinese cabbage dumplings with spiced black vinegar dressing; coconut grilled ocean trout with lemongrass and ginger curry, Thai basil and crisp shallots
THE VERDICT: Ever travelled to South East Asia and fallen in love with the hawker-style street food? Gingerboy refines those flavours and traditions, giving them a modern Australian twist. There are three starters and three mains on the Express Lunch menu, including vegetarian choices.
Gingerboy | 27-29 Crossley Street in Melbourne
THE RESTAURANT: Koko
THE DISHES: Grilled Wagyu with Japanese onion sauce; grilled ocean trout with sea salt flakes
THE VERDICT: Crown's signature Japanese restaurant, Koko, is famous for its incredible sushi and sashimi – arguably Melbourne's best. The award-winning restaurant is plating up hundreds of traditional Shokado-style lunch boxes for Restaurant Express customers. A choice of three dishes will arrive beautifully presented alongside mixed tempura, steamed rice, miso soup and pickles.
Koko | Level 3 at Crown Towers in Southbank
THE RESTAURANT: Gazi
THE DISHES: Marinated olives; meat from the rotisserie; Gazi chips
THE VERDICT: George Calombaris is a man of multiple talents – but the one thing he gets right every single time is Greek street food. His city eatery Gazi is a stylish, contemporary space with industrial steel benches and ink-splattered walls. Drop by during the festival to enjoy a 'Bend Over Box' – George's cheeky take on a Bento Box. Inside, you'll find pita bread and dip, olives, succulent meat and fish, plus salad, chips and dessert. Next stop, food coma.
Gazi | 2 Exhibition Street in Melbourne
THE RESTAURANT: The Point
THE DISHES: Tempura zucchini flower with goat's curd and tomato fondue; Cone Bay barramundi with squid ink gnocchi, nave and tempura mussels
THE VERDICT: Ask anybody who knows their steak and they'll tell you that Albert Park's The Point is not only Victoria's best steak restaurant – it may not be bettered anywhere in the country. The award-winning restaurant, with beautiful views over Port Phillip Bay, offers two and three-course Restaurant Express lunch options – an oyster blade steak one of the handful of dishes to choose from.
The Point | Aquatic Drive, Albert Park Lake in Albert Park
THE RESTAURANT: Albert Park Hotel
THE DISHES: Pancetta wrapped bass groper with crushed peas, marjoram and lobster vinaigrette; passionfruit tart with alphonso mango and citrus sorbet
THE VERDICT: With a menu inspired by Mediterranean and South American 'food of the sun,' the Albert Park Hotel has quietly positioned itself as one of the area's best restaurants. Refurbished by Six Degrees Architects in 2007, the stylish two-level venue will showcase its creative dishes – like a slow roasted tomato stuffed with Queensland spanner crab salad – for Express Lunch customers.
Albert Park Hotel | 83 Dundas Place in Albert Park
THE RESTAURANT: Lord Cardigan
THE DISHES: House made gnocchi with cheese sauce and apple and walnut salad; lamb pastry with spinach and pine nut
THE VERDICT: Husband and wife team, John Singer and Dominique Bolger, are the pair behind the charming Lord Cardigan. Adjacent to Albert Park Village and with a cosy, inviting interior, the restaurant features a contemporary Australian menu with European and Asian influences. These are on show in the Restaurant Express lunch menu, with highlights including fish of the day in chickpea batter and Cotechino sausage.
Lord Cardigan | 59 Cardigan Place in Albert Park
THE RESTAURANT: Sapore
THE DISHES: Bruschetta with smoked salmon, avocado and rocket; minute steak with shoestring fries and red wine sauce
THE VERDICT: Modern Italian restaurant, Sapore, occupies a prime piece of Fitzroy Street land. With its striking curved architecture and panoramic views of St Kilda beach and the bay, it's the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon. Owner and head chef, Simon Moss, has created a menu of Italian classics with cheeky twists, with the Express Lunch menu highlighting seafood and pasta. Leave room for the seasonal cheese dessert, which is served with to-die-for burnt fig jam.
Sapore | 3-5 Fitzroy Street in St Kilda
THE RESTAURANT: Bistro Thierry
THE DISHES: Freshly shucked oysters with sauce mignonette; grilled minced eye fillet with garlic and parsley butter, fries and salad
THE VERDICT: For the ambience, warmth and hospitality of a French bistro without leaving Melbourne, it's impossible to go past Bistro Thierry. Think charismatic French waiters, flavoursome, authentic dishes (yes, including snails) and the best selection of French cheese in town. Restaurant Express customers are spoilt for choice, with a wide variety of entrees, mains ('principaux') and 'les desserts' to select from. Bon appétit.
Bistro Thierry | 511 Malvern Road in Toorak
THE RESTAURANT: Charcoal Lane
THE DISHES: Pan seared ocean trout and scallops; lemon myrtle infused panna cotta
THE VERDICT: It's not every day that you can eat a restaurant lunch while simultaneously supporting crucial social enterprise training, but Fitzroy's Charcoal Lane bucks the trend. As well as being an acclaimed modern Australian restaurant with a menu that spotlights seasonal produce, it provides on-the-job hospitality training for indigenous youth. The Express Lunch menu includes steak and seafood mains.
Charcoal Lane | 136 Gertrude Street in Fitzroy
THE RESTAURANT: The Town Mouse
THE DISHES: Poached chicken with king oyster mushrooms, ricotta, avruga and salad burnet; heirloom tomatoes with tofu curd, fermented gazpacho, basil and sesame
THE VERDICT: One of the newer additions to Carlton's dining scene, The Town Mouse opened its doors early last year and has already earnt a loyal following. It is easy to see why: there's a sharp Art Deco-style interior, fantastic service and a casually sophisticated fine dining menu. Part restaurant, part bar, The Town Mouse's Express Lunch menu is rich on marrying flavours.
The Town Mouse | 312 Drummond Street in Carlton
THE RESTAURANT: FOG Bar & Restaurant
THE DISHES: Southern fried chicken ribs with Tabasco aioli, pan seared salmon with roasted potatoes and salsa verde
THE VERDICT: Prahran's FOG is a venue for all seasons, if we've ever seen one. By day, it's a cosy cafe with a spacious courtyard, and by night it's a cocktail lounge and acclaimed restaurant. The dining room, all blue carpet, backlit mirrors and black lacquered columns, is effortlessly elegant. There are three entrees, three mains and two desserts on offer to Express Lunch customers.
FOG Bar & Restaurant | 142 Greville Street in Prahran
The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival runs until 16th March
Visit the website for more information
Want more of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival? Check out our guide here, and make sure you make it along to The Immersery.
Main Image Credit: A House in the Hills