New Zealand Life and Leisure Magazine
Words and Photographs by Chris van Ryn
A long weekend in Melbourne.
From our cafe in Centre Place we watch a drizzling Friday begin. Cafes with wide open fronts line both sides of the alley. On this chilly morning, the espresso machines are puffing like geysers.
Mike, Carlos and I have arrived for a long weekend, having wedged open a crack in our corporate schedules. Our agenda is simple: sensory leisure.
After a few coffees to quench our jet lag, we head off, snaking our way between the clusters of hip breakfast locals spilling out onto the pavers.
Twenty minutes later I am in a lounge chair with my head tilted back. Brown syrupy liquid oozes onto my tongue. It’s creamy and rich and sweet and it has an earthy fragrance. I swirl it around my mouth and feel the tingle of chilli. Mere drinking does not do it justice. I want to bathe in it. This is the ultimate hot chocolate.
In the corner of an unassuming arcade we have stumbled upon a small shop called Chokolait. Here you can drink cocoa from Uganda, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Peru and Venezuela.
“There has been a growing interest in chocolate,” the grizzly man behind the counter says. “The market has gone like this.” His hand spears through the air on a sharp incline.
“This is the first hot chocolate I’ve ever had,” Mike reveals.
Carlos breaks the silence. “You know what? Let’s call this a Chocolate Moment.”
We are staying in a historic building that resonates with memories of early Melbourne. Our two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment features high ceilings, wooden floors, thick stone walls, large windows overlooking Flinders Lane - and a kitchen.
Carlos has been planning for weeks to cook us his favourite dish - a Portuguese cod dinner.
We head to Victoria Markets. The cod needs 24 hours to desalinate, so to schedule the meal into our long weekend we need to get in early.
The meat and deli section is a bustling racetrack with stalls clustered in the centre and lining the perimeter. The stall holders squeeze their faces between the swinging meats and the condiments piled onto the counters, shouting mock insults at each other as they compete for buyers’ dollars. Kangaroo and vecchiet salami vie for attention with South African biltong, smoked poultry, smoked fish, delicate tenderloin cuts, rump steak and pickled octopus. Scampi crawl over each other and crayfish flail about, bound by string.
Carlos buys two bags of cod.
From vegetable stalls crowded with colour we buy smooth pale potatoes and green beans, the kind of green that inspires you to eat healthily for the rest of your life.
Back at the apartment Carlos carefully places the cod in a bowl of fresh water in the fridge.
Mike is looking at a map. He has discovered a place called Ofuro Ya, a bath house where you can wash, soak and steam Japanese style, and then indulge in a Shiatsu massage.
“It’s a ten-minute walk,” he announces.
Forty minutes later, we still have two blocks to go.
Carlos is apprehensive. It’s his first massage. He’s worried that his neck will end up like a corkscrew. We tell him that Shiatsu is delivered by trained Japanese masseuses who are experts in the art of applying thumb pressure to energy points on the body.
We arrive to find a slightly tarnished little place that could do with a bath itself. A banner fixed to the wall announces ‘Ofuro Ya 13 ANNIVERSARY 2012’.
Our host instructs us how to wash Japanese style. Sitting on low plastic stools surrounded by a gentle mist we soap ourselves, an abrasive pore-cleansing hand towel in one hand and a shower head in the other. Then, our skin somewhat pinker, we sink up to our necks in a prickly hot spa. It feels luxurious.
Other men move about the spa area. One carries a strategically placed water bottle while another takes the opportunity to place himself on display. Still others relax, unconcerned about their nudity.
Dressed in Japanese bathrobes we climb to the top floor in anticipation of our massages. We are greeted by our three masseuses - who are definitely not Japanese.
In the half light I am guided to a mattress. I close my eyes. Expert thumbs press keenly into my shoulders and neck. My muscles are still tingling from the spa. A long breath escapes me.
The next thing I know, I am alone. In a slightly awkward moment, I’m not sure if my massage is complete. After about five minutes I head downstairs.
Carlos is getting changed. “Very satisfying,” he grins. “You?”
“Fantastic. What I remember. I must have fallen asleep.”
The following day we queue at Flinders Station for tickets to St Kilda.
Stations around the world serve as catchments for people from all walks of life. An old man in a corner leans on a walking stick. A bent over Chinese couple walk linked together for support. High heels clicketty-clack on the terrazzo. The Indian flower seller stares absently into the crowd rushing by.
On St Kilda’s main shopping strip we are pulled to a stop outside Café 95. In the window is what appears to be a series of glass containers from a laboratory, heating water over a small bright orange flame.
“It’s siphon coffee,” the barista informs us.
Siphon coffee is a particularly sensorial experience. Grind the coffee. Add to the top vessel. Breathe in the aroma. Fill with water. Apply the heat source. Wait for a happy gurgling sound. Disable the heat. Watch gravity pull water through the grind.
Taste. More mmm.
The barista informs us that this particular brew has a long extraction process. It has, we are told, more flavonoids than wine. I’m not sure what flavonoids are, but it sounds impressive.
On the way back to the city centre our tram rumbles over the Yarra River. Carlos and I decide to hire bikes to ride along the south bank.
The wide boulevard is pulsating with life. People commune at cafes and restaurants, congregate in front of street performers, study the street art and gape at huge balls of orange flame escaping from a large granite plinth into the air with a gushing sound.
Melbourne is a people centric city whose heartbeat pulses in the spaces between the buildings. I am reminded of the quote, ‘We create our cities, then our cities create us’.
Pedalling under one of the bridges, my eye is caught by movement above. Climbing upwards is a huddle of teenage boys. They scramble onto large concrete beams. Then, one by one, they swing around to cling precariously to the outside supports of the bridge. Then begins a tentative shuffle to the other side above the brown fast flowing river.
“Did you do that sort of thing?” I ask Carlos. He just grins, watching.
I do a couple of shaky figures of eight and then speed off in front of him.
Mike is keen to see if we can score a table at MoVida for dinner. We’ve heard this is the place for tapas.
Despite the three-month waiting list we are lucky to be able to squeeze in at the wooden bar. Thomas, our waiter, guides us with confidence through the list of pretentiously Spanish sounding names, such as ‘Sestas Asadas con Jurez’.
When our first tapa arrives, Thomas leans towards us. “This, gentlemen, is hand filleted anchovy on a crouton base, topped with smoked tomato sorbet and dotted with capers.”
We nod appreciatively.
I take my first bite. There is a rush of sensations. The cooling sorbet, the rich oily anchovy and the sprightly capers. It is finished all too quickly.
Then there is the Caballa Ahumado: a smoky mackerel covered in a melting Gazpacho Sorbet and sprinkled with pine nuts.
And the ice cream, a delicious creamy mixture with olive oil and a pinch of edgy sea salt.
On the back of our receipt, Thomas scribbles Melbourne’s must-eat places, which I tuck into my journal for future reference.
The next morning we taxi out of the city towards the airport. I chat to the driver. He tells me he came to Melbourne when he was 18, looking for a better life. That was thirty years ago.
“Was it a good choice?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah. Great city, great city,” he says, slapping the steering wheel. He starts humming a Bollywood tune. He is delighted when I join in.
From the back seat a voice interrupts our performance.
“Oh, shit! We forgot the cod!”
Chokolait – Shop 8, Hub Arcade, 318 Little Collins St. Visit the web site at www.chololait.com.au Try a hot chocolate with a 65% Peru cocoa and a pinch of chilli.
There are chocolate walking tours around Melbourne where you can spend all weekend in a chocoholic haze. www.chocolictours.com.au
It’s about a 40 minute walk from the city (nice if you want a stroll through the park). A tram will get you there in 10. Established 13 years ago and purportedly the only one of its kind in Australia. A massage and spa will cost you around $100.00.
For those looking to linger over a luxurious spa experience you can book a room at “The Japanese Bath House Guest House” located in Healsville. The rooms each have their own Japanese bath and the view is over the beautiful Healsville sanctuary. Room rates are around $270.00 a night. Contact Ofuro Ya for details.
MoVida Bar De Tapas – 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne. www.movida.com.au The undisputed champion for Spanish Tapas. This place has a three month waiting list, so if you don’t want to be disappointed, book in advance. Otherwise, if you are prepared to wait a couple of hours, you might get lucky and score a place at the bar. There is a snazzy little drink spot just up the alleyway from MoVida where you can pass the time, and when a space comes free, a MoVida waiter will come and get you. As well as the tapas, indulge in MoVida’s great selection of sherries. You can also buy a nicely presented MoVida cook book if you are an aspiring chef.
San Telmo Restaurant – 14 Meyers Place, Melbourne. www.santelmo.com.au If you miss out on MoVida, don’t be too disheartened. Try San Telmo. You should have no problem squeezing in here. Not quite the innovative tapas of MoVida but a great atmosphere and a very fine eating experience.
Thomas’s List - recommendations from our MoVida waiter: “Hu-Tuong” (for their chilli dumplings), “The Waiters Club”, “Cumulus Inc” (go there for breakfast and try the 65/65 egg which is cooked for 65 minutes at 65 deg and is sensational, or the Shakshouka, a delicious African cheese dish in a roasted pepper sauce. A good place to sit is at the bar surrounding the chefs where you can take in the cooking entertainment) “The European” “City Wine Shop”, Izakaya Den (a basement restaurant which is notoriously hard to find. Don’t be put off though. Persist! It’s got a brilliant sake collection, not to mention innovative Japanese meals) “The Builders Arms” and “Gross Florentino”
Café 95 – St Kilda, Melbourne. This is a great place to linger over a siphon coffee. It’s a boutique café, but these guys are passionate about making coffee. It’s worth going just to watch them in action. Don’t arrive expecting the taste of an espresso. What comes to you in a cup is a completely different coffee experience.
Flinders Lane Apartments – 302/238 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. www.acmtours.com.au
A great central location in a nicely presented, self contained apartment. There is no reception area – the keys are posted to you and left in the apartment on departure. The internet is incredibly slow, so don’t rely on it. Better to buy yourself a local prepay SIM card and use your mobile. Rates $250.00 per night.