Cloudy with a chance of great food

The problem with work trips is that one has very little time for personal entertainment.

But this year I made sure to ditch the convention district in Melbourne and go farther in search of a nice place to dine. My colleague and I ended up on Flinders Lane and discovered Cumulus, Inc, a little restaurant with a busy vibe that I so love.

I also love the way the restaurant deftly combines black, white, wood and steel to create a clean, timeless space.

Cumulus, Inc was packed when we got there at 6.45pm and only the bar was free. That was absolutely fine, as the seating location gave us clear views of the kitchen staff at work and the myriad dishes that were being prepared.

We started the evening with some Prosecco and took our time to study the menu which offered a decent selection of local oysters, warm appetisers, salads, meats, fish, cheese and desserts. The friendly staff told us that most of the dishes are for sharing. Brilliant! That meant we could order a wide selection of items and not be too stuffed at the end of the night.

“Everything is beautiful here,” the same friendly staff chirped as she brought out our flutes of Prosecco. “You can order a few dishes first and then add more should you still have space.”

That was a great idea.

So we began our culinary adventure with an assortment of oysters.

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They were all so gooooood.

Next came the baked chilli mussels.

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I’m no master chef and I have no idea how the brilliant peeps of Cumulus, Inc managed to turn these common little creatures into such an enjoyable treat.

Just as we slurped our last mussel, we saw dishes of broccoli salad being brought out and remembered that we ought to have some greens in our meal. So we added that to our order.

Next, the highly recommended tuna tartare with crushed green pea salad.

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It was very pleasing to the eye, that vivid red shade and beautiful jade green. But I did not think it tasted especially memorable.

The cold chopped broccoli salad with green harissa, black garlic and Espelette instead proved to be quite the star. It looked simple, but the sweetness of the broccoli worked so well with the other ingredients, making this dish very enjoyable. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of it when it came, thinking that it looked too plain to be spectacular. Ahh, must always remember to never judge a book by its cover.

Our final dish was foie gras parfait with toast. Pretty to look at and tasty, but nothing out of this world.

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I like how dishes are served one after the other at Cumulus, Inc, which encourages diners to enjoy their food slowly and partake in conversation with their mates. It also gave us time to study the variety of desserts that came out of the kitchen. Oh, temptations abound!

We definitely had room for dessert, and ordered the strawberries, fromage blanc ice cream & flaky pastry, and chocolate mousse, sour cherry & salted walnuts. The former won the beauty contest, but the latter was so good I died and went to chocolate heaven.

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We were just glad to have come upon Cumulus, Inc. Turns out this place has been mesmerising diners since 2008. Dang. What have I been missing out on the past four years of work trips to Melbourne! :(

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I’ll be sure to be back on my next visit to the city.

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Have wine will travel

One doesn’t go to Yarra Valley and not have a sip of nectar.

So we paid Balgownie Estate a visit and had an enjoyable and very educational wine tasting session at Rae’s Restaurant, which draws the beautiful surroundings and daylight inside with the help of full panel glass windows.

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Gordon, a very amiable gentleman, took us through an extensive range of wines and I learned – finally – that NV means non vintage and that sparkling shiraz is so very enjoyable to drink!

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I also found time on my own to visit the charming Yering Station – Victoria’s first vineyard, so says its website – to check out its collection of wines and produce.

Yering Station is an exquisite piece of architecture, built in 1859 using handmade bricks.

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The afternoon’s overcast skies and chilly winds made sitting outdoors with wine for company a somewhat romantic experience.

The inside is wonderland for food lovers, selling all sorts of goodies from homemade nougat and assorted chocolate bars to lovely jams and spiced salt. I was so tempted to buy them all!

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The wine tasting area was unusual too, doubling up as an art gallery.

But instead of wines, I loaded up on homemade nougat, jams and chocolate fudge bars. They looked far more lovely that bottles of wine, I guess! Moreover, imagine the amount of duty I would have to pay when I return to Singapore if I had purchased wines here.

It took me a while to tear myself from the lovely Yering Station, and then I headed back to my hotel which was mere steps away – the stunning Chateau Yering.

The property, with a history as old as Yering Station, was a grand homestead which got converted into a hotel in 1997. It now has 32 suites, all individually designed. I love it for its grand Victorian era interior decor which is put together using old European art, rich fabrics and oversized furniture.

The Drawing Room, especially, took my breath away.

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My suite, which came with a generous sized verandah that looked out to rolling hills in the distance, was a real delight too. Largely because it was in shades of my favourite colour – pink!

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I thought it was most adorable that the ‘Do not disturb’ sign was a fluffy stuffed toy cat that guests would leave at the door should they desire privacy.

The bed was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. In fact, it felt so much like my own bed back home. And my own bed is truly the best place to rest my weary body at the end of every day. :)

And with that, I bid you good night.

First taste of Yarra

Does this view of Yarra Valley, the renowned wine and gourmet region in Victoria, Australia, look desolate to you?

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Well, perhaps. The region is coming out of a dry spell after all. But it is also a view of such freedom. Freedom of space, to be exact. Sweet, glorious, wide open space.

Space that is lacking in tiny Singapore.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy visiting the sub-urban regions of any country to take in the slower, more scenic sights that are lacking in key commercial cities.

Anyway, even if it does look desolate, I quite enjoy this vision. I have a thing for bare trees and dry fields. Perhaps I find it fascinating that soon, in the next season, life will thrive again and all will be lush and green.

My trip to Melbourne this year gave me a chance to explore Yarra Valley, and my first stop to this area was Healesville Sanctuary, one of the best places in Australia – as I was told by many locals – to see the local wildlife in captivity.

Healesville Sanctuary is such a sprawling place and the animal compounds so spacious and hardly enclosed, that I did not feel like I was in a zoo.

Say hello to this ‘roo which is a vision of absolute bliss, as he lay so serenely in his open compound, enjoying the early morning sun. Somehow, he reminded me of a Sports Illustrated model striking a sexy pose on the beach.

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The koala compound had just a simple fence, allowing visitors to enjoy clear views of these gentle creatures going about lazily on their tree. Our guide told us that koalas do two things all day – eat and sleep. “Just like teenagers,” he quipped, drawing chuckles from knowing parents in our group.

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As we roamed around, we came upon a lovely girl with a dingo on a leash. What a handsome animal!

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There are several featured shows and opportunities for visitors to get up close and personal with some of the resident wildlife. We did not stay long enough to do everything, but we did catch Tales from Platypus Creek (I finally realised that platypus are so tiny!) and Spirits of the Sky, a showcase of regal birds of prey and playful parrots. Fun stuff, although the heat made me quite sleepy half-way through Tales from Platypus Creek.

Alright. Bye for now. But first, I’ll leave you with a lusher view of Yarra Valley, taken from the beautiful RACV Healesville Country Club.

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Yarra Valley is so beautiful, eh?

Wonderful Wangaratta

“I’m going to Wangaratta,” I said to a friend, several days prior to my trip to Australia’s Victoria state.

“Wa-what?” came my friend’s confused reply.

“It is a wine-producing region, close to Melbourne,” I said.

“Oh! You mean Yarra Valley! It’s lovely and you’ll get to drink a lot of wine there!” he joined.

I’m sure Yarra Valley is lovely, but I wasn’t going there. I wanted to explore Wangaratta, another region in Victoria that produces wine and fine foods.The more non-Australian friends appeared clueless at the sound of the region’s name, the more motivated I became to make a beeline there.

So on February 24, I departed Melbourne’s city centre and made my way to Wangaratta by car. The three-hour ride took me down long empty roads that divided wide open fields, baked yellow by the unforgiving sun. A bush fire had consumed some of these fields the weeks before.

Although I did not mind continuous car rides, my guide proposed that we stop for coffee and a rest room break. Malaysia’s simple highway stops (read toilets with wet floors and an ammonia stench, and coffeeshops swamped by houseflies) immediately came to mind and I cringed. Surely Australia would never have such highway stops!

So when the building below loomed into view, my heart did a celebratory dance.

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Our break was had in beautiful Fowles Wine Cellar Door Café, a spot of indulgence in the middle of nowhere. Guests could sample its wines and feast on a menu of European dishes.

After a cup of lovely cappuccino, we proceeded onwards to Dal Zotto Cellar Door Trattoria in King Valley, on the outskirts of Wangaratta.

Let’s pause a moment here to give you a clearer idea of where Wangaratta is. The city centre of Wangaratta is about three hours from Melbourne city centre by car, and it is the gateway to several fine foods towns such as King Valley and Milawa. All these delicious destinations are located very close to one another, making it easy for travellers to combine them all for an indulgent gourmet vacation.

It was probably 1.5 hours from Fowles to Dal Zotto (image below). I love the cellar door and restaurant’s simple exterior, which gives you such a pleasant surprise when you step through its doors.

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But before we had lunch, we took time to taste a few of Dal Zotto’s creations, and I fell in love right away with its Pucino Prosecco. It was light, fresh and so easy to drink! So much so, I bought two bottles. The girls are coming over to my place on March 2, and I’m sure they will enjoy it too.

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The lunch menu was written on the wall and the mains are paired with one of Dal Zotto’s wines. There were limited choices but every option was most seductive! I eventually chose a seafood risotto and it was paired with a Riesling. Yummy!

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After lunch, we drove on some more, passing more yellow fields. We soon arrived at another vineyard and cellar door.

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This time it was Pizzini Wines. I love the lawns and pretty little flowers surrounding it. It is always lovely to see so much open spaces when everything in Singapore is packed shoulder to shoulder. And we were not there just to sample more wine. A cooking class was awaiting at the A Tavola! Cooking School. Hurrah! I love such activities. Over the next half-hour or so, we learned how to make an apple strudel from the vivacious wife of the vineyard owner.

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I was so proud of my creation, but was not able to taste it because we could not possibly sit around and wait for our strudel to bake. Instead, we were served a strudel baked ahead of our arrival by our teacher. It was perfect with a pot of Earl Grey!

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We arrived in Wangaratta city centre around 3pm and checked into our hotel. There was time for a relaxing shower and a chat with the husband on Skype, before moving on to dinner (I sure ate a lot in one day!) at Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina. Owner and chef of Rinaldo’s is Adam Pizzini. No points for guessing who he is related to. :)

The restaurant was buzzing with activity that evening – someone was celebrating his/her birthday and the whole world was invited to party. It was lovely!

We had some bubblies in the backyard of the restaurant first, and even played a game of lawn bowl. Hardly a surprise that I suck at it. I was just thankful my ball did not hit anyone in the head.

Dinner was most indulgent. Besides having my own main, I had a table full of starters to pick on, from liver pâté to handmade gnocchi and deep-fried calamari. Oh, and we had loads of wine!

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The next day was also filled with activity, but the kind that burns calories. We were going to explore the Milawa Gourmet Region on bicycles!

We started off at Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard (hands up those of you who love love LOVE Brown Brothers’ moscato!) where we each picked up a complimentary set of wheels.

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There’s this tour called Pedal to Produce, which invites visitors to the Milawa Gourmet Region to cycle from one food producer to the next on bicycles. You can sample the various food products at these producers, and if you liked what you had, you could buy home something.

We swung into a cheese factory where free tastings are offered. The lovely cheese factory has a cosy cafe within, and families were enjoying cheese platters and sandwiches there.

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I’m not quite a cheese person, but it was still fun to see the variety of cheese boards and knives, and dried fruits and nuts that go well with cheeses sold there.

We also stopped by a mustard factory. There, I found something that I must keep away from Joshua. Hehe!

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It was easy to cycle around Milawa because the roads are flat and there are amazingly few cars around. And drivers are very mindful of cyclists. I noticed how they would slow down when passing by cyclists. If only Singaporeans would learn to be this considerate!

My eyes caught sight of a row of letterboxes on a quiet strip opposite a cellar door, and I just had to jog over for a shot. I would love to have a letterbox like that!

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Besides tasting cheese, mustard and more wine, I also had a chance at sampling local boutique beers.

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As we approached noon, we made our way back to Brown Brothers for a quick tour of the facility.

Now for the highlight of my visit to Wangaratta:

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A helicopter ride over the vineyards! Oh, the life! :)

The flight lasted mere minutes, but it was exhilarating. We landed atop a hill, some 400m above sea level. There, chilled Brown Brothers Prosecco and canapés awaited. :)

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A wine educator from the vineyard joined us and talked to us about the wine business, the variety of grapes grown in the region and how they are harvested (the machinery is impressive!).

On the flight back, I got to sit in front with the pilot, a dashing young man who would look more at home on the cover of a fashion magazine. He offered his knee for me to squeeze should I freak out mid-air. Awww.

My tour of Wangaratta and its lovely surroundings culminated at Brown Brother’s Epicurean Centre, a handsome and spacious restaurant with strong wood elements. It specialises in food made with local produce and paired with Brown Brother’s wines, of course!

There I had the best meal of my entire week in Melbourne and Wangaratta. My salad of locally-grown tomatoes and mozzarella was so fresh and appetising, and the colours were an instant pick-me-up. My main course of pan-fried Barramundi set on a bed of smoked trout and some kind of grain was also immensely satisfying.

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These days, with work piling on heavily and more than I can bear sometimes, I realised that fine food and wine, and the loving company of Joshua and very close friends, are the only things that make me happy.

And with that, I round off my post on Wangaratta. If you have not heard of this destination, I hope you will do yourself a favour and go on a gastronomic adventure there. :)