After years of dedicated brunching and over zealous food photography, I was recently offered the exciting opportunity to write an actual real-life review piece. I had never intended all my gastronomical adventures to culminate in a food blog, but sometimes the best opportunities are the ones that rock up on your doorstep unexpectedly. I was delighted to be able to contribute to the beautifully curated GRAM Magazine and to be given discretion as to my first subject. I love a good story, so I chose somewhere close to my heart. Enjoy!
Feast of Merit
When whispers started to trickle down the voracious foodie grape vine about a proposed new venue that would combine exquisite dining with social enterprise, my immediate reaction was that these two concepts were mutually exclusive. Being one of the most voracious foodies around town, I was hearing these whispers straight from friends at the source who divulged full details of the heavy hospitality hitters who would be helping get the place off the ground – some examples being head chef Ravi Presser, of former Cumulus and Circa fame and expert restaurateurs Mark Filipelli (Il Fornaio, Brighton Schoolhouse) and Alby Tomassi (The Banff, Jimmi Jamz) – and yet still, I was somewhat sceptical. But my visions of a confused silver service soup kitchen situation were very quickly extinguished when I first visited Feast of Merit just after its opening in early 2014. Over a year later, it is still one of my favourite places for a meal, meeting or matcha latte (shameless plug as I put my Matcha Maiden hat on). Unsurprisingly, most of Melbourne feels the same way and this beautiful Swan Street space never stops buzzing. Of five boxes – flavour, presentation, service, surroundings, story – Feast of Merit ticks them all.
The story behind Feast of Merit is as beautiful as the place itself (which has won multiple design awards for its unique artistic blend of sustainability and style). The name is drawn from a tradition in Nagaland, in northeast India, where a community member who comes into wealth can invite everyone in the village to a festival to enjoy a huge meal and share in the good fortune. The festival lasts until all the person’s assets are shared amongst the community. This altruistic philosophy is echoed in the values of YGAP, the charitable organisation that owns and runs the restaurant (one talented co-founder, Elle Critchley, of whom was in fact the award-winning designer.) All Feast of Merit profits directly support YGAP’s growing movement of impact entrepreneurs around the world. Pursuing its vision of a world without extreme poverty, YGAP finds and supports community leaders who are changing lives – as of mid-2015, YGAP impact entrepreneurs have measurably improved the lives of 91,956 people living in poverty. To allay any concerns about the transparency and accountability of charities, I can personally vouch for this one having been privileged to accompany YGAP to the Ntenyo School in Rwanda where I witnessed the work of YGAP impact entrepreneur, David Mwambari, first hand. In two weeks, we built two classrooms and shared in amazing developments like the school’s first introduction to tablet devices. Yes, that does mean Feast of Merit is close to my heart. No, it does not affect my (un-sponsored, unsolicited) review in any way.
In fact, that’s one of the most unique features of Feast of Merit – whether or not it is a social enterprise makes no difference to the superb dining experience. To some, the fact that eating there can have a positive social impact is merely incidental. You can engage in its beautiful story if it interests you, but you can equally dine there in a state of complete oblivion. Its elaborate story could even lead you to think the food takes a back seat. But, proving my initial scepticism was entirely misplaced, Feast of Merit is at once a social enterprise and an exquisite dining venue. The delicious Middle Eastern inspired menu and attentive service belie the local, ethical and sustainable philosophy behind the operation. Melbournians, more than anyone, demand quality, innovation and flavour in their food and Feast of Merit delivers. Carefully crafted, creative and flavoursome dishes incorporating the finest Victorian seasonal produce are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner with an also locally sourced drinks list. My sole grievance is that the menu changes each season (as it should), and the creature of habit in me reluctantly farewells my favourite go-to dishes only to be appeased by delightful replacements.
While the menu is not overly extensive, breakfast offers a decent range of options including sweet, savoury, lighter or heartier dishes. The “harvest” is my usual – a spread of seasonal vegetables beautifully spiced and roasted to caramelised perfection with avocado and an egg. Lunch and dinner are vegetarian-friendly based on a range of filling salads with optional protein additions. Lunch could be a choice of two or three of six exotic Ottolenghi-style salads. Pictured are the roasted eggplant, smoked labneh, dukkah, harissa oil, coriander, and parsley salad with BBQ Australian Trevally, tahini and herbs on one plate and roasted sweet potato with red onion, pearl barley, garden herbs, baharat and whey dressing on the other (with a Matcha Maiden green tea latte on the side). Dinner is nothing short of game-changing – think organic 12-hour slow cooked lamb shoulder accompanied by fried cauliflower, blackened onions, hung yogurt, and sour cherries. And you can top it all off with a delectable dessert – mine was a beautiful mandarin and pistachio topped crème brûlée. I highly recommend a visit to this gem – 117 Swan Street, Richmond.