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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Dandenong Festival of Lights

I am an absolute sucker for pretty lights. So when I saw the Dandenong Festival of Lights advertised, I was pretty keen to go. Basically it looked like a big bunch of colourful, lit-up sculptures with a Chinese twist, in a park. The website more classily described it as celebrating "Chinese culture through a display of hundreds of beautiful and unique silk light displays".

We chose a night to go - Friday, 2 October 2015 - and rocked up to Greaves Reserve (Dandenong Showgrounds) around 7pm. There was ample parking, and it was needed: there was a queue of people lining up for tickets probably 300 metres long. An usher said it would be the busiest night of the event's duration (why, I'm not sure). The queue moved quickly though - we probably reached the gate within ten minutes - but I did make a mental note for next time, to buy tickets online beforehand.

The entrance was promising: a huge, intricate, colourful archway, lit up against the night sky, framed by extra lanterns in the trees around it. At the top of the trees were also some moving lights, kind of like blue-and-white downward shooting stars, or the remnants of a burst of fireworks as the sparkles scatter down at the end.

Once through the archway, you enter a pathway lined on either side with yellow moons. Initially, I thought they were bananas (hey, easy mistake to make!), but I guess bananas don't have faces and moons sometimes do - at least in folklore and kids' picture books. They looked pretty happy, but front-on they seemed more sinister.

At the end of the path was a huge castle that, initially, I wasn't that impressed by. A bit of a cliche, surely; pandering to little girls' fantasies of royalty, perhaps... But, up close, you could see it was constructed of Chinese crockery! That would have taken a lot of work. Impressed face restored.

At the castle, we veered off to the left to a section with live Chinese music being performed on a stage, near a (not literal) sea of bright and beautiful sea animals and plants, land animals like rams, a dragon...

...and my favourite: a little boy statue atop some sea animals, naked, peeing out a stream of water onto the crowd of onlookers. Aptly named "The Naughty Boy", he was definitely a hit with the littlies, and I found him most amusing - cheeky and entertaining!


Passing back behind the castle, we came to a pathway of repeated square arches, almost tribal in design. Up close, the patterns looked kind of Art Deco: bold colours; slightly abstract; thick black lines separating the shapes. I liked them.

Then we followed a bunch of flowers which I thought were waratahs, but as my boyfriend pointed out: why would there be a focus on waratahs in Melbourne? (I forgot they are the state flower of New South Wales, not Victoria. What is the state flower of Victoria? Is there one?!) They were probably some variety of flower more commonly found in China, like the lotus flowers later on. I really should have paid more attention to the accompanying signs. (Which, when I did read them, could have used a proofreader's eye. Then again, the broken Chinglish added a certain kind of magical charm.)

Across the path were a mass of little pandas. Cute! And small enough for kiddies to pose with. (And me. Bending down.) Lots of people were taking photos in and around all the light displays, but most seemed pretty respectful of other peoples' photo space. The only downside was that the lights were so bright, that in the photo, you often couldn't see the person posed in the darkness next to the display. (At least not without some awesome photoshopping.)

Around the bend - dinosaurs! A big T-Rex was more effective with a soundbox buried nearby, voicing Grrrrrs and Raaaahhhhs, or whatever noises dinosaurs make. Other kinds of dinosaurs (littler, more colourful ones) were nearby, presumably to distract any kids who might have been scared by the big Tyrannosaurus.

Along the back path, leaf and flower patterns were propped up against the wall, giving a rather hypnotising effect.

Then were all the signs of the Chinese zodiac. (Yeah, Dogs! Faithful and honest, yuh huh. The pig was cute too, though I am partial to pigs. This one looked jolly and calm at the same time.)

More beautiful flowers, impressively arranged at various heights with colours and different textures for effect - then a massive fan, decorated with more flowers and butterflies.

Some lovely, tall (but in comparison to other displays, nondescript) tulips made me momentarily proud again of my Dutch heritage, and led the way to another pathway lined with angry red totems (or giant sex aids, if you will).

Chilled-out swans and flamingos pre-empted penguins propped upon an iceberg, and an amazing peacock with a beautiful, symmetrical train.

Rows of pinwheels emitted a psychedelic blue light, and a herd of leggy ants and insects conversed quietly under some trees. By then, we were at the other end of the square archways and back near the initial entrance.

I found the entire event surprisingly impressive. There was a huge array of light sculptures, bright and colourful enough to appeal to kids, but produced and arranged artfully enough to appeal to adults. Everything was neatly laid out in logical paths around the grounds, some majority of displays subtly roped off to discourage unwanted climbers. I liked the interactive displays (the boy peeing, the dinosaur roaring) and how some displays were obviously designed for photo ops. I personally could have done without the music, but I guess it did add to the atmosphere. There were a couple of food trucks onsite that we didn't visit, but it was good that amenities like that were provided.

The event was clearly very well organised, but didn't feel over-policed or contrived in any way; it was just easy, and fun. The light displays were so pretty and magical, that I thought they were well worth the $20 entry fee. I would definitely recommend you check it out while you can.

The Dandenong Festival of Lights runs from 11 September to 18 October 2015, from 6pm to 10pm daily.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Stables Of Como

Just gone two years old, The Stables of Como cafe is happily ensconced in its pretty setting. More like a lavishly decorated country barn, the cafe occupies the former stables building of the historic Como House (corner of Williams Rd and Lechlade Avenue, South Yarra), surrounded by the property's bounteous garden. It is an odd location, somewhere between the guts of South Yarra, Toorak Village and the river, and you walk up a random leaf-lined driveway to get there. But once you find it, this cafe becomes your secret: a venue for brunch that you won't really want to share, so relaxing and pretty it is - almost like an unexpected piece of the country within urban Melbourne.

The theme here is farmhouse green and white (I get lots of Anne of Green Gables references, myself). The building itself is shackled in white corrugated iron, with a clear awning over the side strip of astro turf, lined with giant pot plants: an area where patrons can choose to eat 'outdoors', but undercover.

Seriously giant pot plants

Alternatively, you might snag one of the chunky wooden, shabby-chic tables indoors, under the white-painted, wooden board ceiling. The main counter's wooden panels are painted a soft green. Here is where you will find the dark green coffee machine extracting Allpress beans, and further down, a fetching display of country-style treats: cakes, confectionery, pastries, flowers. Ferny pot plants by the door add further splashes of green to the light, airy space. It really is nicest in summer time, but it's still pretty no matter what time of year you visit.

A third option for patrons is to pre-purchase some picnic goodies to be delivered to you at a spot of your choosing in the gardens (rugs provided). This must be booked online and can be postponed due to inclement weather.

Needless to say, this place is popular with families and pet-owners - whether that is an attraction or turn-off, you decide! Patrons tend to be what you'd expect in the inner south-east: ladies in puffer vests and designer leggings with their poodle in tow, well-heeled gents in jeans and open-necked shirts, groups ranging from hungover twenty-somethings, to girly Kitchen Teas, to young families brunching with the grandparents in tow.

View from outdoor table towards Como House

Seasonal events seem to be regularly catered for - for example, currently being advertised are a Father's Day lunch and a Melbourne Cup event. When a special event is taking place, further space outside the cafe is utilised if necessary, with extra outdoor tables and umbrellas. The cafe can also be booked for private events and presumably would be popular for weddings.

Poached eggs, mushrooms, multigrain toast

'Rumbled' eggs

The food is just as pretty and country-style as you would expect. Eggs come from the onsite chickens, and produce from the onsite garden is used as much as possible. There are pastries, chunky sandwiches, quiche... Even breakfast Bellinis, for those inclined! (The cafe is fully licensed.) I have mainly been there for brunch, and my go-to dish is the avocado on toast with thyme mushrooms and a poached egg - sounds simple, but this one is usually laced with tiny slices of chilli and leafy herbs.

Smashed avocado, feta, poached egg, multigrain toast

Rumbled eggs with bacon and mushrooms

Smashed avocado, mushrooms and feta on toast

Allpress latte

Hangover beverages - yes, OJ in a jar

The Stables are another notch in the belt for the Icke and Igby group, also responsible (originally) for such classy breakfast venues as Friends Of Mine (Richmond) and Porgie and Mr Jones (Hawthorn). The Stables of Como are open seven days for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea (picnics and events by arrangement).

Cute crafty bill holder

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Tuesday, 14 July 2015


The shops along Domain Road, South Yarra have a reputation for being a bit posh. It is South Yarra, after all, and the majority are cafes and restaurants that take advantage of their location (opposite Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens) by providing some outdoor seating. Apparently The Real Housewives of Melbourne even frequent one or two venues along the strip.

A little further down the road, on the corner of Millswyn Street, Entrecôte (131-133 Domain Road, South Yarra) is having a party of its own - still refined, but with a little more colour and personality. In operation as a Parisian-style steak bistro since January 2015, the restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week in the former site of the infamous Lynch's Restaurant.

Business partners Jason McLaren Jones and Adam North developed the idea when they bumped into each other in Paris in late 2014. They took a meal together at the institutional Le Relais de L'Entrecôte: a no-bookings bistro that serves only steak with only one sauce. Although they had not been looking to open a French restaurant in Melbourne, they loved the concept, and it so happened that owners of the site, Di and Peter Pausewangs (friends of Jones'), were seeking a tenant. Jones also operates The Stables of ComoMoor Please and Friends of Mine, plus formerly Prix Fixe, which has since closed and will soon house a second Melbourne Entrecôte venue. North, of beef producer Hopkins River Beef, was the ideal partner for a steak restaurant.

Taking a leaf from Lynch's book, Entrecôte is obviously also French-focused, but design-wise, it has retained some of the more frivolous aspects of Lynch's interiors. (Happily, it waived the 'no kids' policy that Lynch's had maintained for its 30-plus years of existence.) The building is basically a two-storey historic house converted for commercial use. Rather than one big dining space, it comprises several rooms, each with its own design scheme. Interiors for the restaurant were collaborated on by Jones and designers Brahman Perera and David Flack of Flack Studio.

The black-and-white front room feels like a conservatory: all window panes, hard surfaces and cushioned bench seating. Two adjoining dining rooms to the right of the corridor are salmon pink - not the most attractive choice of colour, in my opinion. It's a hue that sits somewhere in between tongue-in-cheek tacky and warmly classy. Upstairs is a mint green dining room for private functions. Fireplaces, antique mirrors and leafy pot plants are dotted around the joint. It's all very European-shabby-chic meets 1980s-Country-Club.

The outdoor patio at the front is clean, sharp and very French. Black and white reigns supreme, with tiled flooring and small tables (plus a retractable awning and heaters in winter, should that be a concern). It's a lovely spot to sit in summertime, with a glance over the road to the bit of green that marks the southern edge of the Botanic Gardens.

Champagne is the go-to drink here, but the wine list is extensive and, in keeping with the area, rather on the pricey side. Happy hour (4pm to 6pm) lightens the deal somewhat, offering $12 Mumm and $2 oysters. Coffee is available all day via the takeaway window on the Millswyn side, and European breakfast fare is on offer between 7am and 3pm daily.

The steak (a flat - and I think, reasonable - $39.90 per person) is the main reason why people dine at Entrecôte. The idea is to do one thing consistently, and therefore do it well. (Not the steak 'well done', mind - that would be a travesty in the restaurant world!) In a cute quirk, your waiter will ask how you'd like your steak done, and then scribble it on the paper table run in front of you.

However you like your steak, the Hopkins River porterhouse is grilled to perfection by Executive Chef Jason Rodwell (ex Albert St Food and Wine) and his team. Only one sauce is available: a secret, herby, eggy, buttery concoction, containing mustard and anchovies, that original head chef Simon Moss was sent to France to knuckle down, and that was perfected over eight months. Although I like the sauce, and it does go well with steak, I would prefer to determine the amount of sauce on my steak by pouring it myself. So -- on the side, please!

As per the tradition of French steak bistros, the steak comes accompanied by fries and salad, both of which can be topped up upon request. The fries are fine - relatively standard, thin and salty - but the salad is one of my favourite parts about a visit to Entrecôte. Its butter lettuce is soft and fresh, scattered with walnut pieces and finely sliced radish, and it is dressed to perfection by a light Dijon vinaigrette. The chunky baguette delivered before your steak is also excellent, but served with annoying, individually wrapped butter portions.

Alternatives to steak are available for vegetarians and pescetarians upon request. Small accompaniments such as a gougere or French onion soup are probably unnecessary with your steak, but look delicious. We had an entree of oysters, which were good quality, not unnecessarily laden with extras, and hit the spot.

A bar menu is offered on the patio with other smaller bites (including terrine, gravlax and a house cheeseburger) and of course, there is an array of rich sounding, mostly cream-based desserts to choose from.

The penguin-suited waitstaff are generally attractive and European, while their service is polished and a little snooty - not offensively so, but just enough to make you feel like you're in France. All part of the experience, I suppose!

Lunch and dinner are served from midday to midnight, making Entrecôte excellent for a late lunch or dinner - with a better chance of a table. Six months into trading, it's still quite popular, so be aware that its 'no bookings' policy might work against you at peak times. If you're a steak kinda person, Entrecôte should be a must-try on your list (...or you could always try one of these). Just make sure you have the South Yarra attitude down before you go.

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