In a recent article in the New York Times, a journo went in search of a fun Melbourne weekend for $100.

The author noted that while I am privileged to live the most livable city in the world, Melbourne is also one of the world’s most expensive cities  (Japan, Switzerland, then Australia rank highly. Gulp.).

Which is why it’s always good to be able to spot a bargain in this town. And in the article the writer noted that we have some great bargains when it comes to food.

While there’s always the option of cheap Vietnamese and eating sandwiches perched on a milk crate from a laneway cafe, you can also dine at high-end restaurants for a more wallet-friendly price if you know where to look.

For instance, at Maurice Esposito’s eponymous seafood restaurant you can enjoy two lunch courses for $30 when main courses are easily pushing $30+. So one weekday afternoon Gourmet Chick and I set off past the grungy end of Johnston Street towards leafy Carlton and pushed open the door to the elegant, white linen-ed restaurant for a lunch date.

Unlike many lunch set menus, the ‘Loaves and Fishes’ lunch deal allows you to choose two dishes from the full menu, though serving sizes are smaller than the normal a la carte plates. Also while Esposito is predominantly a (sustainable) seafood restaurant, there are non-seafood dishes for those not tempted by the fruits of the sea. But when in Rome…

To start, a red wine poached duck egg, house-made brioche, pancetta, crushed white beans and peas (normally $23). It was artfully presented and the molten egg yolk provided a silken contrast to the crispy pancetta.

The mud crab fritter was a bit of a throwback to early noughties dining, with a foamy almond soup and a swirl of sweet corn custard surrounding large scoops of juicy crab meat and garnished with baby shizo leaves  ($26). While the crab was fresh and delicately flavoured it was marred by my prejudice against the foam – in this case a lukewarm, sudsy froth tasting faintly of nothing.

From the mains, the seared rock flathead received an involuntary ‘wow’ when it arrived and the flavours were just as impressive, with sweet flakes of fish paired with chunks of braised octopus and a garnish of broccoli puree and creamed potato ($38).

We also tried the spaghettini of the sea, a flavoursome pasta marinara (with prawns only as part of the Loaves & Fishes offer). However, given the other dishes’ painstaking presentation we were somewhat taken aback by the careless toss of pasta and the prawns slopped onto the plate.

All in all, I was happy to sit in lovely surroundings and enjoy a fine-dining experience for $30. But over four dishes I found the food to be variable, with taste and presentation veering in the scale from ok to excellent – this doesn’t encourage me to return to Esposito for a meal at non-bargain prices.

On a final note, the one aspect that was consistent was the welcoming attitude of the maitre d’ for whom nothing was too much trouble – rearranging furniture, making menu suggestions, making sure he wasn’t disturbing us mid-conversation and working promptly and efficiently. A consummate service professional.

To enjoy a cheap lunch at other fine-dining restaurants, try ShoyaNo. 35 or Taxi Dining Room or

Esposito, 162 Elgin St, Carlton +61 3 9347 9838

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