The last leg of my Australian vacation took me to the Victorian city of Melbourne, which has just as vibrant of a dining scene as the San Francisco Bay Area.
I arrived late on a Friday night, so I knew the first place I would try was Cumulus Up, a wine bar with a reputation for serving late-night bar snacks. I knew going in at 10 p.m., I could likely find an open seat (especially since they don’t take reservations). And I was right as I sat facing the open kitchen on a busy Friday night.
Cumulus Up is a follow-up by Melbourne Chef Andrew McConnell to his popular Cumulus Inc., opened in 2008. (Cumulus Up is upstairs from the main Cumulus dining room.) This review looks at both location because I enjoyed my Cumulus Up experience so much that I did a full circle by dining at Cumulus Inc. for lunch on my last full day in the city.
Cumulus Up was bustling with activity, both among the diners and the large kitchen crew. The wine bar focuses on bar snacks, which is why the first six items on the menu are sold per piece.
The signature item has got to be the duck waffle with foie gras and prune (AUS $9 each or $8.45). Coming from California, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen foie gras on the menu since its ban, but it’s widely available around the rest of the world. At Cumulus, a crispy waffle is topped with a creamy foie gras mousse that had a wonderful savory taste that worked with the waffle.
Other items that I enjoyed was a kingfish crudo dish (AUS$18 or $16.90), where the fish was cut into cubes and then camouflaged under sheets of seaweed, or nori, and offset with dabs of avocado cream. Despite hiding the fish, the nori was a perfect match to the fish (and I wished more raw fish was served this way, which admittedly is like eating sushi without the rice).
A snack of octopus was sophisticated although I wished the semolina cracker had more crunch, and spiced lamb ribs had flavor but the meat tasted like it was salted too early, giving it a texture of cured meat.
Lunch in the main Cumulus Inc. was just as bustling, although a more sophisticated and refined vibe. The restaurant has a long marble bar, where I gained a seat without a reservation and watched the downstairs kitchen do its magic.
The menu is a little longer than Cumulus Up but share some items. Only Chef McConnell would dare to serve only a tin can of Ortiz anchovies as a snack, emphasizing his philosophy of simple dishes in a creative eating house where people gather to enjoy the food.
I skipped ordering the tin of anchovies and instead ordered the baked chilli mussels (AUS$10 or $9.40) to start, which looked lovely but didn’t have as much kick as I expected.
At Cumulus Inc., the food is meant to be shared, but being a solo diner, I was offered the option of ordering half-orders (except the entrees), which I appreciated. I ended up getting half orders of the house-made pastrami and tuna tartare, both providing contrasting textures from the thinly sliced pastrami served with pickled cucumbers to the chunky raw tuna on a bed of English-inspired crushed green pea salad.
For my main, I ordered the chicken breast (AUS$36 or $33.80), which was a huge plate of chicken with pearl barley and sorrel. I wished the chicken skin was more crispy, but I got the crunch in the form of the puffed rice that was worked into the pearl barley.
While this was a lot for lunch, I did want to try the desserts and ordered the salted caramel tart (AUS$16 or $15), which had a great salty-sweet flavor in a light mousse texture.
The Last Bite
Cumulus Inc. and its sibling Cumulus Up live up to their roles as eating houses because the food and wine list provide flavor and imagination that makes dining an enjoyable event. This hot spot in Melbourne is both engaging and entertaining.
Cumulus Inc. and Cumulus Up, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Australia. PH: +61(3)9650-1445. Open weekdays, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and weekends, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations only for large parties. Major credit cards accepted. cumulusinc.com.au
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