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“There’s a couple of specials on this evening as well,” explained Pelican’s Kiwi waiter, before launching into lengthy and detailed descriptions.

One was a salad containing quince, roquefort cheese, walnuts and leaves, the second a rather fancy fish platter featuring lightly battered oysters with a rich aioli, scallops and a couple of slices of sashimi topped with roe. Both sounded the equal or better of the dishes on the menu – and would compliment Fran’s favourite Pelican dish: the Moreton Bay bugs with hot chilli and garlic oil dressing.

Soon afterwards, the Kiwi returned to take our order.

“We’ll have the Fisherman’s Basket,” said our companion.

Everyone stopped. The waiter looked at him in mock horror.

“Did you just ask for ‘the Fisherman’s Basket’?,” he asked incredulous, as the table conjured images of rubbery, deep-fried, heavily battered and breadcrumbed, unidentifiable fish pieces on a mound of chips.

“Er…” replied the companion, chuckling with embarrassment. “I ust heard ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ liked the sound of both.”

As he cleared away the last of our plates (by this stage emptied of meatballs, saganaki, bugs, quince, oysters, baba ganoush and the rest, all of which went down a treat), the waiter was still shaking his head.

“Fisherman’s Basket indeed.”

Still, by this time three bottles of wine had been polished off (the Sauvignon Blanc proving superior to the Reisling, much to Bruce’s surprise) so Mr Pub Grub enjoyed the ribbing. What’s more, he and his partner were extremely grateful to have been introduced to the Pelican, in Fitzroy Street, something of a St Kilda institution with its scattergun approach to tapas, wide selection of wines and great location close to the promenade – one of the few places Bruce and Fran miss since moving north (Banff pizzas, Mart 130 and the Taphouse pub in Carlisle Street the other major notables). And, come 2.45am, he wasn’t the one dropping his trousers on the Big Mouth dancefloor like a grinning 16-year-old leaving Fran to explain to the very friendly, but thoroughly bemused bouncer that, yes, unfortunately this man was indeed her husband.

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prince-albert

Quite how one goes about raising two children aged three and under while renovating an old pub then turning it into the hottest property in the area within weeks of opening is beyond Bruce. And indeed Fran.

Bruce struggles to maintain any semblance of order on his desk, let alone in the rest of his life (hence the phone call this morning asking if he was close to arriving for his 9am meeting – no, he was still wearing his dressing gown on the phone to the UK) while Fran, were she to be a character in a computer game a la Tekken or Soul Blade, would reward gamers who unlock her special move by pressing X-A-A-UP-L2-B-B-DOWN-LEFT-CIRCLE CLOCKWISE-A-B-hold L1-X by taking both sets of house keys with her to work and leaving said gamer locked in their house for the day.

Still, Jessie and Ash Bettenay have managed it with some style, turning a manky old man’s pub into the glorious bar / restaurant it always deserved to be and they’re lovely people to boot.

They deserve their spot in Epicure today. Anyone heading to Willy for the day (and why wouldn’t you) should pop in. And, while you’re there, don’t forget to pop in to Blunt’s Boatbuilers on Nelson Place to say hi to Greg – another lovely person doing wonders with a rare piece of Williamstown history.

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Bruce's first oyster

Bruce's first oyster

Bruce recalls his first oyster clearly. Having dismissed them as a repulsive novelty for show-offs and the rich for 24 years, he finally gave in while bobbing up and down in a tin boat several miles off the north Arnhem Land coast.

In comparison to the saltwater crocs he’d recently spotted and the stingrays he’d chased fruitlessly with a spear an hour earlier, eating an oyster seemed a mere bagatelle. That it had just been hacked off a rock by a grizzled man bearing a knife and measured several inches in length was of only minor concern. The problems started when it proved far too big to swallow and Bruce was forced to chew into its slimy, salty mingingness…

The oysters on special at Smith Street’s Panama Dining Room seven years later were a quite different proposition. Served with a vodka and herb jelly – and rather dainty – they went down without any problem, a mouthful of Emerson’s splendidly crisp pilsner following moments later. In fact, the whole meal was lovely.

Fran and friend had decided that too much of their socialising was male-dominated and demanded they dress up for a proper spot of dining; if you’d taken the best bits of Bruce and Tom you could almost have made a smartly dressed man. Bruce enjoyed a fragrant, crisply seared, yet rare and juicy-on-the-inside pigeon breast (culled, one assumes, from the street outside) served with an absolutely exquisite confit of pork (although is it possible to go wrong with sweet, slow-cooked fat?) and an intriguing thing (he’s no gourmet) that was cooked meat and stuff (see previous parentheses) inside a vegetable parcel.

Fran tucked into some asparagus spears served with a bizarre parmesan brulee followed by a particularly succulent slab of baby barramundi, while elsewhere at the table Spanish jamon-filled clam chowders, rolled veal and all manner of once-living things were devoured. A couple of bottles of Magpie Shiraz were quaffed in a nod to the other side of the road, as was a selection of cheeses and a fortified Reisling. How refined! It was so tasty that, combined with the views through the adjacent arched window of the twinkling CBD, it was possible to ignore the bustle of the bar just a few yards away.

But clearly Fran had lost her mind. After the trouble caused by her exploding interior in Sydney she’d vowed never to touch oysters again, yet here ate not just one (of the four kindly provided for free by the Panama staff for no discernable reason – thanks!), but two of the horny slimeballs.

And what happened?

Twelve hours later:

“I’m going to have to go to a chemist. My throat is killing.”

“OK,” said Bruce, wondering how a rogue snow pea swallowed the wrong way (the origin of the pain) could lead to such drama.

At the chemist:

“I need to go to the doctor.”

“OK,” said Bruce, watching his night of burlesque disappear over the horizon never to be caught.

Leaving the doctor with some high-powered antibiotics and permission to tuck into her remaining panadeine:

“If I’m not better in four hours, I’m going to have to go to the hospital.”

“OK,” said Bruce, fearing they wouldn’t even be home for the internet stream of Man Utd v Stoke.

Hospital never happened. Neither did burlesque. Man Utd won 5-0 and Bruce was watching as 17-year-old Danny Welbeck score a screamer on his debut.

As for Fran, well, she knocked herself out and dreamed, one imagines, of a world without oysters. Just tasty pigeons and fatty, slow-cooked fat. Mmmmm

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While Fran’s appendix was rupturing in Sydney to an accompaniment of oysters, scallops, mussels, wine, beer and vodka, Bruce was enjoying a first taste of St Kilda institution Claypots.

That he was throwing down $5 glasses of cabernet sauvignon and wittering away to a cast of misfits rather than rushing to be by his stricken wife’s side was a situation entirely of Fran’s own making. After all, if you’re in terrible pain, don’t attempt to convey the message by quoting lines from popular music. Send texts saying: “I’m in excruciating agony and think I may die” rather than:

“I’ve got a bowling ball in my stomach”

because as anyone who is familiar with Tori Amos’ debut album and career highpoint Little Earthquakes will know, that’s a line from Crucify and therefore could never expect a response other than:

“I’ve got a desert in my mouth”

which, funnily enough, Bruce awoke to when learning the following morning of Fran’s panicked dash to hospital…

Still, back in Claypots and aided by the wine (and a glass of the lovely German pilsner on offer), Bruce was delighted to have found somewhere in the Acland Street area with genuine charm.

The rough hewn wooden bar with animatronic cat and dangling rubber man, French music, greasy spiced nuts, promise of $5 seafood paella and Sunday swap shops (with oysters) transported him somewhere far away – a nebulous place somewhere near the Mediterranean, perhaps.

Something very fishy

Fran would love the outdoor area with its stone fountain bath and fairy lights; Bruce enjoyed it for its inhabitants: in particular an elderly chap called Tony in feathered hat and scarf who would later be seen losing at chess to a young dandy in a three-piece tweed suit who turned out to be a playwright with a dark comedy starting at the Trades Hall in the coming weeks. Geoffrey would even pop up there on a later visit to continue an earlier conversation from Cacao.

Certainly, there was more than enough of interest for Bruce to resist his companion’s increasingly pained pleas to head to the dour horrors of the Doulton Bar across the road. And that was before the pianist-in-suit turned up to croon (admittedly somewhat atonally) on the piano for an hour or so.

Subsequent visits to the adjoining fish restaurant (the bar is a fairly recent addition) have produced some of the finest meals Bruce and Fran have enjoyed since moving to Australia. The Cajun flathead is the tastiest bit of fish the former can recall in recent memory, while the latter’s friends fell wholeheartedly for the whopping $120 Red Emperor they destroyed some weeks later, their happy memory of the night enriched by the female Eastern European accordion and fiddle duo who chased them from the bar and down Barkly Street afterwards.

There appears to be a sister venture – Gilgamesh, in Gertrude Street – that will hopefully atone for the fact they can no longer walk to Claypots in ten minutes since relocating to the north. And, fingers crossed, this venue will attract rather less of the peroxide blonde, Botox-ed to the hilt old-enough-to-know-betters and their smarmy other halves than the St Kilda establishment.

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Hmmmm

Hmmmm

The text came moments too late:

“This is your big Aussie moment. GO BUY YOUR ACRE OF STEEL. God speed.”

Ha! The bbq was already loaded into the back of the Hoonmobile. A four-burner special, it epitomised some of the differences between life in Oz and the UK: not least that it was twice the size of the one Bruce and Fran had been given for their wedding – and half the price.

Now the pressure was on: could they pass the acid test  – hosting a barbie for 16 Aussie guests?

It started well – Bruce only put two of the legs on incorrectly and the guest of honour completed the Melbourne half marathon far quicker than anyone expected. Fran kept the wine and beer flowing appropriately. Bruce was given an apron depicting some obscure Australian footy team to keep him free of fat.

The last guests turned up while there were still plenty of snags (no, still not sure why they’re called that) and roo kebabs left and switched the TV on to watch Bathurst.

“It’s the most bogan race of the year,” they declared, cracking open cans of pre-mixed Jim Beam to prove the point.

An impromptu game of bottle top tennis started up; the marinated ribs drew hearty congratulations; some folks originating from the communes of northern NSW sparked up a couple of joints; the recycling bin couldn’t cope with the number of empties; a round of applause went up from the guests for their hosts. Other than running out of beer – twice – it seemed the test was passed.

Judgement came the following day. That the guest of honour was still passed on the sofa at 11am with Fran’s dressing gown over his head was a good sign. The message that came through claiming: “You are now officially one of us.” sealed the deal.

“I think we did OK,” said Fran.

“Looks like it,” said Bruce. “Now who’s going to clean up the mess?”

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The sleazy side

The sleazy side of 'Town

“They’re sleazy, aren’t they?” said our cheerfully lunatic waitress in response to our admiration for the Toff in Town booths. “People do things in them, you know.”

Given that we had just ordered a second round of food to share, it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear. But, reassessing our surrounds, it made perfect sense: not only can you close the doors on the train carriage style booths that sit in the centre of one half of the Swanston Street bar, you can pull down the blinds on the walls connecting you to neighbouring booths to ensure complete privacy.

Whether fluids of the non-alcoholic variety had been shared or indeed spilled in our booth, who was to say, but despite (or perhaps because of) the cries of “We know what you’re doing” when our blinds did come down, the comfort – and novelty of being able to hit a buzzer for waiter service – made deciding to leave tricky.

In fact, despite promising our guests a tour of Melbourne’s finest and, in some cases, hidden bars (something we’d tried and failed to do before), we never made it beyond our first port of call even though I had remembered to bring addresses and directions this time.

No St Jerome’s. No Croft Institute. No Supper Club. Just six hours in a booth being entertained by the waitress, with her habit of opening the booth doors ever-so-slightly to peek in like a timid cartoon mouse checking if the coast to the fridge is clear, and Tara, the floor manager, who is doing a far better job of hosting the Toff’s guests than giving up smoking. Oh, and consuming so much alcohol that Fran and her schoolfriend from England were incapacitated throughout Saturday.

So, that’s two lessons we’ve learnt about bar hopping in Melbourne:

  1. Take a map
  2. Expect to fail

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Considering the number 96 tram has been diverted from its normal route along the southern edge of Albert Park while the track is relaid, a lot of people have been gathering at Middle Park station on Sunday mornings.

And, while the sight of a bright yellow steamroller in action is a pretty wondrous thing capable of turning people of all ages into admiring, slackjawed toddlers (“Wow, it really makes everything flat,” said Fran in a moment of blinding genius) it was surely not the only reason for the congregation.

No, Middle Park’s white wooden tram stop is home to MART (TRAM mirrored, geddit?) 130, which as foodie fan readers of The Age will know was winner of 2008’s Cheap Eats Best Breakfast for its corn fritters.

Bruce and Fran, being fans of both cheap and eats, were happy to join the queue of six other couples waiting for a table at 11am.

"Ooooh! Wow!"

All together now:"Oooooh! Wow!"

Ninety minutes later, they were equally happy to be rolled out of the front door for a long stroll around the lake to walk off the pain of their respective mammoth brekkies, by now pushing against the membranes of their ill-prepared stomachs. Bruce’s Eggs #3 must have contained two whole chorizos, Fran’s scrambled version of Eggs #4 took some beating (ba-dum-tssssh).

Quite how the brokenhearted and apologetic surfer dudes next to us on the bench managed to add extras to theirs without developing a chronic case of the food sweats was beyond our intrepid duo; perhaps practice was in order.

So practice they did, returning with visitors the following week. They, like their hosts, were impressed: by the waiter offering a blanket to Fran as she waited for a table; by the eminently nickable teapots (hint: don’t tell the waiter “You’ll never see that again” if you are planning to nick one); by the highly mangoey mango juice; by the giggly waiting staff; by the fantastic curried relish.

“What do you reckon then?” asked Bruce of one of their guests after his smoked salmon and poached eggs has disappeared in a blur.

“Well,” said the man who, through employment with one of the world’s largest banks, has access to an obscenely healthy expenses account, “I was at the Ritz with a client for breakfast a few weeks ago… and this was far better.”

So there you go: sod the Age‘s Cheap Eats awards…

MART 130: better than the Ritz.

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