Reflecting on Best Meals and Restaurant in the Year of the Rabbit - Part I

Out of all the meals throughout the lunar year, and there are many around the world, there are four occasions or meals that were the ultimate standouts; consummate in both a culinary sense and sheer dining pleasure.

It is of course highly subjective, even perhaps an egotistical indulgence, arriving at such a defined digest of restaurant meals, when there are literally hundreds of enjoyable and commendable experiences that are indelibly lodged in the hippocampus with aromas and flavours lurking in the entorhinal cortex that contribute to my constant state of culinary dreaming.

To be honest, or transparent, these four restaurants and their chefs are what I consider the best attuned to my taste and expectations of a meal, which is becoming increasingly simplified and primarily focused on wholesomeness with good, organic produce and less fuss on the plate. That is not to say lengthy preparation and exacting technique are absent; to the contrary the skills and talents of chefs are tested most when it comes to capturing the inherent flavours of great produce, at the same time putting a personal stamp on the dish.

Frankly, I am indifferent to overworked food or elaborate dining and gain more pleasure from genuine cooking and habitual cuisine, at the same time avoiding ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ as I very much enjoy contemporary approaches and really what is ‘authentic’? Food is a timeline and stomach of history continuously evolving, thus I see no reason why it should stand still or not be interpreted in a avant-garde way and that might even mean turning back the clock and rediscovering old techniques.

So, here they are - four establishments you should be booking a table at immediately, no matter where you live – get on a plane.

Best Spaghetti Marinara in the World – Bacash, Melbourne, Australia

If there’s an ultimate example of a Chef with an unbending discipline and unrelenting attention to detail with an almost ludicrous obsession for the best and freshest seafood, it would have to be Michael Bacash, Chef Proprietor of Bacash restaurant in leafy, trendy Domain Road, South Yarra, Melbourne.

The man is so in-tune with what comes out of the sea I reckon he’s got gills. I tell you, this guy can spot inferior, insufficiently piping-fresh fish at 20 paces. I remember standing in the kitchen chatting with him one afternoon when a fish supplier turned up and as he was unloading, Bacash interrupting the apprentice who was examining the fish as it was unpacked, launching into a tirade."What the f*** is this... this is not fresh... get this f****** fish out of my kitchen". To which our delivery man took off at pace quicker than a Mako Shark.

I have known Bacash for over 20 years, my wife and I dining at his first restaurant, Toofey's, since it opened in 1989, every Tuesday – religiously. Adding to this culinary piety we ritually ordered the same dishes every time – for years, and years.

Bacash came out of the kitchen once, just after we ordered, with a look of frustrated displeasure and grumbled (with expletives), "Don't you guys think I can cook anything else!"

To which I replied, "Why mess with perfection".

Perfection was a liturgy of the following:

To start, ‘Oyster's Toofey’s’- flash-grill freshly-shucked oysters with a topping of parmesan cheese and spinach; yes I know this sounds rather basic, if not heresy for those who maintain fresh oysters must be served au naturale. However, these are grilled so quickly and intensely, the parmesan is melted crisp yet the oyster only just warmed through, retaining all its seawater juiciness and saltiness. It’s an ambrosial sensation of dual saline sapidity in the parmesan and seawater with the savoury-umami flavours from a combination of spinach and earthy, minerally, oyster flesh. We share a dozen, which never seems enough, the palate absolutely craving more.

Then ‘Garfish and Nori Roll’, so beautifully-perfectly presented, you almost don't want to eat it for destructing a piece of culinary art. And try deboning a Garfish leaving it whole - not easy. If I recall correctly, stuffed with sushi rice, wrapped in Nori, fried and serve chopped into bite-sized portions placed vertically with head and tail positioned horizontally at each end, as in reconstructed to the semi-original fish. Not an easy dish to describe or perhaps visualise in its splendour, yet totally, delicately exquisite.

Then for main course, ‘Spaghetti Marinara’; yes, good old-fashioned simple fruits de mer with spaghetti. But this is no ordinary marinara, resplendent in exceptional shellfish and fish tossed in impossibly al dente pasta. Indeed, this is where Bacash’s deep (pardon the pun) appreciation for seafood comes to the fore; taking such a banal dish and turning it into the most exciting kaleidoscope of flavour and spectacle, that you crave it and just have to order it -- every time.

Pieces of glassy, milky white calamari capture the senses immediately, flame grilled and unfathomably tender; grilled sweet, firm white fleshed fish and colour-contrasting orangey-pink slivers of Tasmanian Ocean Trout, tantalizing plump scallops gleaming with their bright orange-jelly-looking rows, large wild prawns, freshly shucked oysters just warmed through, fleshy mussels, all infused with garlic and lifted by chopped parsley and the perfume of virgin olive oil – such a rudimentary dish that even the abecedarian diner can assimilate, yet a wonderfully replete one-pot of the sea.

And how do I arrive at Bacash having the best spaghetti marinara in the world?

Well, I have been eating his for over 20 years and it has never been less than absolutely perfect, without fail. And I have had a lot of pretty ordinary marinara with substandard seafood and pathetic spaghetti – all over the world.

Putting this in perspective, our two decades ago patronage of Toofey’s and the flavours and whole dining experience remain indelibly within our gastronomic neurons and everything that was good about Michael Bacash in his early days transposed seamlessly when they moved to their new venue in September 2001, 175 Domain Road, South Yarra, rebadged as Bacash.

It’s a more conducive venue, in every sense; a bright and breezy space with floor to ceiling windows that fully open up to the streetscape of old oak trees looking across to the King's Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens, but also the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of South Yarra, Toorak and the increasingly dense inner-city population more appreciative of Bacash’s repertoire than perhaps the Toofey’s location in bohemian Carlton.

There is certainly a cosy, user-friendly, neighbourly civility about the place with a coterie of loyal regular patrons adding to the sense of amenity and assuredness that one is undoubtedly in the right place for a good meal. And let me tell you, Melbournians are a tough dining crowd that are outrageously spoilt for choice with the city ludicrously over populated with restaurants and hyper-competiveness, thus approbation from a contented crowed is conclusive proof of a successful restaurant.

Even though we moved overseas not long after Bacash opened its doors in South Yarra, we have remained ardent regulars dining here at least twice a year when visiting Melbourne. We have even moved out of our menu comfort zone straying to other dishes, perplexing the chef no end.

And it is perhaps now, from a tourist perspective, that I appreciate Bacash even more, or more so than the locals whom in their complacency amongst a gluttonous dining scene, are sometimes distracted and lured to the latest and greatest restaurant that has opened, or a chef that has reinvented themselves in a new establishment; this culinary vogue precipitated by food journalists ravenous for the next scoop and crumbs of a new story.

As a result, I find it ironic that the dining public complain about too many new restaurants not quite having their act together and the service patchy; meanwhile those establishments that have been painstakingly refining their restaurant and maintaining impeccable standards and exemplary energy in everything they do are neglected by the press (I have yet reconcile the Age Good Food Guide with what the Melbourne dining scene is about). Establishments such as Cafe Di Stasio, Jacques Reymond’s, Grossi Florentino, France-Soir, Cicciolina, Flower Drum and of course, Bacash, spring to mind.

When I spoke to Bacash on the conundrum of keeping the story ‘fresh’ (pardon the pun again) in terms of the press and marketing, he replied, “There’s nothing more I can tell them, I just grill fish”.

This highlights Bacash’s other talent, humour. Indeed, he has a wicked sense of humour and constant witticism and razor-sharp satire that he shares with his guests at the table, carefully managed by his wife Fiona Perkins, who thankfully runs the whole place and is of a more perceptive intellect and knows when to wheel him back into the kitchen.

Let’s just say, the place does not lack for personal charisma and something we crave or miss incredibly with the severe lack of owner-operated restaurants and dominance of impersonal, pedestrian commercial restaurant group establishments in Asia, moreover an epidemic of personality triple bypass in service staff.

And that’s something else that is exemplary at Bacash, the level of attentive service and joviality amongst the front of house – there’s nothing like a bit of intelligent lip from a waiter to reassure you they are actually listening, connecting and understand what service is all about - all inclusive of a highly professional and intimate restaurant that exudes the chemistry and devotion of the owners.

To show we are not entirely creatures of habit, on our last visit, and admittedly to cater for our overseas friends who were travelling with us, we almost ran the full gambit of the menu. Notwithstanding the obligatory sizable order of Oysters Bacash (AKA Toofey’s) and several plates of spaghetti marinara to share as a second entrée, we lapped up freshly-shucked oysters, resplendent in their salty minerality (always think an article on the ocean terroir of oysters would be pertinent), char-grilled Port Phillip baby calamari served on a warm salad of du Puy lentils and chorizo - a perfect seafood dish on a chilly Melbourne day - equally so, grilled sea scallops

slow roasted pork belly, jerusalem artichoke hummus and pistachio crumbs.

The children scoffed down their King George whiting deep-fried in a light beer batter with hardly a word spoken, except “Could we have more chips please”, my daughter declaring these are the best pommes frites she has had in the world, “Even better than France-Soir” (sorry Jean-Paul).

Most of us (adults) had fish of the day recommendations, whole John Dory, grilled to perfection, served a la naturale – as the Chef put it, “You just don’t need to dick around with great fish”.

One of our (American) friends does not do fish, to which he was totally impressed with the grilled Cape Grim eye fillet from Tasmania and was in agreement that this is arguably the best grass-fed beef on planet. It’s a curious thing, a specialist seafood chef having the dexterity to zero in on the very best meat but when I come to think of it, people used to travel all the way across town to Toofey’s for a decent steak – the only non-fish/seafood item on the menu.

Bacash is now more than fish and seafood and you will find there are ample carnivorous and vegetarian options on the menu - something for everyone – in tune with the user-friendly, village restaurant that it has evolved into.

The wine list has also evolved from conservative days of Toofey’s that was plagued by puritanical BYO wielding patrons and is now representative of the current savvy Melbourne palate with a snappy, broad and eclectic selection of wines from all over the world although there is actually a focus on local artisan producers with some excellent examples of cool-climate Victorian wines, moreover an emphasis on organic and biodynamic wines, bravo!

As for the Bacash story, I am reminded of a profound chapter in Anthony Bourdain’s most recent book, ‘Medium Raw’, chapter 18 “My Aim is True”, in which he spends a morning “In the chilly white-tiled bowels of Le Bernardin in New York City... probably the best seafood restaurant in America. It’s certainly the most celebrated; three consecutive four-star reviews from the New York Times, two-time winner of three Michelin stars, Zagat’s best-rated restaurant in New York-every honour, award you could imagine--the best by any measure of assessing such things.”

He goes on to say, “Which means they don’t cut fish at Le Bernadin like other restaurants. The standards are—to say the least—different. Expectations for a hunk of protein are... higher”.

Bourdain gives a fascinating account of the daily ritual of Justo Thomas, Le Bernadin’s fish butcher or poissonnier in French chef terminology. It is a captivating read, drilling down on the intricacies of fish and seafood preparation and the exacting, surgical precision that Thomas applies with a staggering meticulousness.

OK, you have to read the chapter to fully grasp it, but if you get the drift, they don’t cut fish at Bacash like other restaurants, and Michael Bacash is not only your equivalent of Justo Thomas, he’s also commensurate to Chris Muller (Bernadin’s chef de cuisine), and I can tell you, the quality of the produce and execution at Bacash is comparable to Bernadin, only at a fraction of the price.

There is no question in my mind that Bacash is the best seafood restaurant in Australia and it is in our top-5 must-dine restaurants when visiting Melbourne.

Accolades and appraisals will always be contentious however, like the politicians and central bankers of our time, those that give out hats, stars or decide who makes it to the top 50 or 100 hundred restaurants in the world need to get in touch with reality of what real food and wholesome dining is about.

On a final note, to Melbournians, you don't know how lucky you are.

Bacash, 175 Domain Road, South Yarra, Melbourne, Australia, Tel: +61 3 9866 3566

Next instalment -Surely the Best Duck in Singapore, if not the World!