It’s the last week of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and if you haven’t already make sure you make a booking for Restaurant Express, where you can partake in a great value lunch with some of Melbourne’s (and regional Victoria’s) top restaurants.

Gourmet Chick and I whittled down our shortlist to the $35 2 course lunch at La Luna Bistro. It’s an informal neighbourhood restaurant serving modern Australian dishes with a Mediterranean/British bent and at its helm is chef/owner Adrian Richardson (from TV fame) who we found watering the kitchen garden built on the nature strip outside the restaurant.

He was very friendly when we asked about the plants there (herbs, tomatoes, lettuces) and invited us to borrow a pair of scissors to snip from the large bay tree after our meal. In fact, he said that anyone was welcome to harvest from the garden from any time since it’s built on community land – though he’d prefer it if you didn’t rip out a whole plant :–)

Adrian’s food philosophy is very much about local, seasonal ingredients and buying from small producers. It is especially famous for its meat (the pig is the restaurant mascot it seems) so if you’re vegetarian then you will be limited in choice.

The restaurant is smallish on the inside so if the weather’s nice I highly recommend spreading out on one of the half dozen outdoor tables on the pavement. The clean, unflashy decor is extended to the functional napery – tea towels! Great idea.

On the Restaurant Express lunch menu there are three entrees, three mains and three desserts (two sweets and one cheese). Gourmet Chick and I decided to share two entrees and mains as the desserts of creme brulee and chocolate pudding, while delicious-sounding, were fairly commonplace.

To start, house-cured Wessex Saddleback House made pancetta with sweet pickled peppers. These rare breed pigs produce the silkiest perfumed cured meats thanks to a large fat seam in their flesh. La Luna  has a menu section devoted to charcuterie so make sure you try some of their cured meats, great with a small helping of pickles to cut through the fattiness.

Lambs tongue croquettes with a pool of artichoke aioli. The balls were more potato than tongue (probably a good thing, I’m a bit squeamish about offal) and lightly fried for a hint of crunch.

Despite the unseasonably balmy weather we ordered two very wintery dishes. Firstly, a rich melting braised beef rib with a tomato and pepper reduction. My favourite element was the crunchy corn salsa for textural contrast and a bit of freshness instead of the usual expected side dish of mash.

More textural contrast in the second main course from the roasted walnuts garnishing house-made bull boar sausages, atop some silky aioli and with a sprinkling of chives.

All in all I was impressed by the quality of the food and the service at La Luna Bistro and it’s heartening to see a true ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy at work with the kitchen popping out to the street to harvest some of their ingredients. The dishes are not particularly challenging but familiar comfort food done well is the perfect formula for this local bistro.

La Luna Bistro, 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North +61 3 9349 4888

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