Dish it up

Cooked caramel cream - Trocadero

Frank van Haandel adds to his successful little empire (Stokehouse, Comme, et al) with this assured iteration of the bar and brasserie at the revamped Hamer Hall. Head chef Nick Bennett's menu sings in a major key: there's nothing too outre, but plenty of solid cooking focused on classics with a twist, from the fancied-up kingfish tartare to a modernised onion risotto with toasted buckwheat and a finely shaved blizzard of peppered pecorino. One of the stars of the show comes at dessert with the already-signature caramel cooked cream ($17) - a sticky layer of honeyed cooked pear and chocolate ganache tops the light creme and it's then topped with a salty, fluffy cloud of blitzed popcorn. It sets Melbourne's new standard for the salted caramel dessert.

Cooked caramel cream at Trocadero.
Cooked caramel cream at Trocadero. Photo: John Laurie

Trocadero, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, 8698 8888

Creamed baccala - Town Hall Hotel

Creamed baccala at Town Hall Hotel.
Creamed baccala at Town Hall Hotel. 

This is one from the archives - a dish that chef Harry Lilai has been doing since his days at Cecconi's (and very possibly before that) and one he has every right to do for the rest of his cheffing days. It's made up of fat white pieces of reconstituted salt cod with a firm, meaty bite and shreds of white onion that hug a creamy blanket soft polenta ($19) - a classic bit of southern Italian comfort that has the same metaphorical effect as a nonna's hug. It's the prototype dish for what Lilai is doing at his honest Fitzroy gastropub, where the food is simple and rustically Italian as in the way of all good Italian things but mysteriously impossible to replicate at home.

Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 9416 5055

Goat's cheese souffle - Os

The perfect lunch means different things to different people: for me, it means no pressing deadlines, good company, a relaxed setting and a menu and wine list that's smart without trying too hard. Os ("mouth" in Latin) fits the bill - not too fancy and not too casual, it's a little bit of special in its suburban shopping-strip landscape. Former Church Street Enoteca general manager Alastair Dobbs is a genial host, the wine list is a gem and chef Rachael Ginty nails the dictates of the Mediterranean-leaning menu. There's no better lunch than her light-as-a-feather goat's cheese souffle ($19) with a sweetly acidic tomato sugo and parmesan wafer. Or her chocolate pudding with butterscotch parfait - but that's another story.

Goat's cheese souffle from Os.
Goat's cheese souffle from Os. 

Os, 531 Hampton Street, Hampton, 9533 1922

Leeks, curds and smoked anchovy - Moon Under Water

Leek, curd and smoked anchovy at Moon Under Water.
Leek, curd and smoked anchovy at Moon Under Water. 

This will be, I solemnly swear, the last time a dish from any Andrew McConnell restaurant appears on this page this year. Trouble is they're so darn compelling. At Moon Under Water, the restaurant hidden within Builders Arms Hotel, for example, diners sign up for a four-course set menu ($75) that's worth the gamble. It's hard to pick a favourite from an outstanding, constantly changing repertoire of dishes, but twist my arm and I'd probably nominate this assembly of fat house-smoked Ortiz anchovies draped over the steamed sweetness of baby leeks and a creamy base of cow's curd, and decorated with red sorrel leaves and lemon oil. Totally swoon-worthy.

Moon Under Water, 211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9417 7700

Our pick of the month's best spots for …

balls of meat Flinders Lane newcomer Meatball & Wine Bar, 135 Flinders Lane, city, 9654 7545

a coffee stop East Brunsiwck's Padre Coffee, at the Peel Street end of Queen Victoria's M shed.

fresh tortillas Elcielo in Port Melbourne, 9646 1457