Friday, January 30, 2009

Reaching summits and expectations

Expectations are an odd creature from my perspective. Have them and be disappointed; don't have them and lack ambition; meet them and then what? I think it's because expectation leads to framing of thought so that whatever is then judged against expectation. And sometimes judgement just isn't necessary. However having expectations blown away (which, I might add, rarely happens) completely from left field - now that's good fun.

After a busy weekday that was a notch below scorching, I had a busy night lined up with dinner, drinks and a highly-anticipated performance as part of Sydney Festival. I found it hard to pass up the opportunity to dine finely for a bargain price as part of the Fast Festival Feast, so a fellow Festival-ite and I navigated our way through the jungle of suits at Ryan's Bar to the building elevators at Australia Square. We were climbing up to the Summit.

The night was still young, so much that blue skies and sunshine allowed for perfect city views. We were seated and initially facing the south with the sunset due to hit us mid-meal given the revolving nature of the restaurant. The revolving restaurant concept always seemed a bit of a gimmick to me: all cartoon, space station-like. I'm not sure where I got that impression from. It's also likely that the revolving may act as a distraction to the food, possibly even become the highlight over the food.

As a Summit first-timer I'll have to admit that the views and novelty won me over more than the food. And I don't think I was the only one, for when the Harbour Bridge appears in sight there's a noticeable lull in patron activity and conversation. And I also liked that the bathroom came to me perfectly timed as did the elevators when we were leaving.

But to food. The Fast Festival Feast consists of a set main, glass of wine and a little chocolate to finish. We ordered an additional side and started into the sourdough roll with butter and pink salt flakes. With news to catch up on and views to catch all round, it wasn't long before our meals made their way to our window facing table.

Fennel salt crusted Hiramasa kingfish with crisp white polenta and
basque piperade dressing from Summit, Sydney

The main meal wasn't my top pick from the lot of restaurants but the venue settled it for me. It was reasonable nonetheless and a pretty sight before I got my cutlery to it. The small fillet of roasted kingfish was topped with sweet, diced red and yellow capsicums. The fish was cooked well but not dry and went well with the olive tapenade which is hidden in the picture.

Below the fish was a pile of green beans split in half and a bit overcooked for my liking - definitely closer to tough than crisp. They sat on top of a cake of white polenta - crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside - that went well with the smear of the pureed tomato sauce. For the side I'm as predictable and addicted as ever.

Young rocket, cherry tomato and parmesan salad

A bowl full of the freshest rocket leaves in a cabernet vinegar dressing was lodgings for grilled and halved cherry tomatoes and shavings of parmesan cheese. I got a distinct taste of honey from some ingredient in the salad, probably the tomatoes, though I'm skeptical to think that it was a natural occurence.

Not being tempted by the dessert menu after the meal is further evidence that my days as a sweet tooth are over. I have such good childhood memories of Milky Way chocolates. By the end of the whole dinner we've come full circle and we once again look southward with a hazy, tri-coloured sky of sunset to the right. Perhaps this won't be a regular dining venue, but potentially a (relatively) more cost-friendly drinking venue?

Such an obedient line of Grey Geese at the bar

But the feature of the night is still to come. A hop, skip and good 15 minute walk away to Hyde Park for the one, the only, La Clique. On approach to the Festival Garden, it is indeed festive and enticing; a sophisticated 'run away with the circus' vibe almost. I've only heard good things about this performance and was trying desperately to keep expectations in check. A strong start with onsite bars and that unmissable drinking-out-of-doors atmosphere.

There's an air of excitedly relaxed anticipation about as we queue our way into the Famous Spiegeltent, wine and tickets in hand. There's a buzz inside with loud, circus music blaring over chatter and movement. We manage to squeeze into a booth, noting a bar or pub feel, and almost immediately spot Barry Humphries in the front row.

The seats fill up, the standing section seems to overflow, and we're all then transported into another world. It's definitely an eclectic gathering of talent, ranging from the localised comedy of Queen Elizabeth; 1920's styled tricks and antics to shock and awe; amazingly progressive puppetry and dance; a cheeky blue bunny; sisters that made me wish I had one (well, the trapeze act, not so much the other); and two extremely different men vying for my vote as favourite.

I can't stop giggling at the thought of the hilariously funny Carl-Einar Hackner, magician and musician extraordinaire. For me, he has created a few of those positive moments in life that you recall and involuntarily react to - whether it be a laugh, smile or something a little more mischievous.

He makes his entrance in a dowdy white suit, carrying a weathered plastic bag of tricks and illusions he pleasingly performs for the audience. This IKEA-residing Swede is awkwardly endearing - he is unjaded, very willing to please and talented beneath his guffawing facade. He made several appearances through the night (on the second or third time saying "Hi, I'm Carl-Einar Hackner. Still.") and I would have been happy to see even more of him, his Stevie Wonder impersonation, his 'bandana' trick and jaw-dropping harmonica melodies. The mere thought of him or one of his gags and I break into a grin whether I like it or not.

Saying that, the closing act of David O'Mer also provokes involuntary emotions. His bathtub acrobatics were easily the most impressive, sensual act and I think he held the full, undistracted attention of everyone in the Spiegeltent. Aside from those in the front row trying to shield themselves from his water sprays, that is. The pure strength and exquisite movement. The rubber duckie and scrub brush. Oh yeah, and that chiselled topless body and smouldering confident looks.

It's a tough competition but I think being doubled over in tears of laughter, Carl-Einar wins this one by a slim margin. Magic! La Clique wasn't quite what I had expected but boy, those expectations were blown well away.

Scotty the blue bunny outside the Spiegeltent, Hyde Park

Summit on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Doubting the late lunch

Why is it that freedom feels like such a luxury? In some cases it is, but in the modern, civilised world that we know I suppose we just get used to it and completely take it for granted. In which case I'm not sure whether that feeling of luxury is a good or bad thing. Good in that we appreciate it; bad in that we would normally apply the notion of freedom to something trivial like work or obligations.

Another late lunch in Glebe and a bit more doubt over the concept of a meal between lunch and dinner. Sure, it serves me as lunch but then dinner inevitably turns into something like a bucket of salt and a rather tall cup of artificial sweetener. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm a fan of Badde Manors in Glebe for several reasons: they open till late; they have an above-decent selection of gelati, sorbets, cakes and pastries; I love the 'olde worlde' feeling of the interior furnishings; they do tasty vegetarian meals that even a carnivore can appreciate; and did I mention the desserts? And they also do a proper chai tea latte - none of that syrup business.

Seated in the ample courtyard and checking out the postered wall for gigs, plays and festivals to fill up my 'free' time, we decide on a light shared meal and start with drinks. My companion dares to attempt a macchiato for the first time, and finds it initially "strong" - I can but chuckle. I, however, am on a non-caffeine phase yet still having difficulty sleeping at appropriate hours.

I have a weakness for odd and quirky sounding menu items, especially of the sweet variety. My eyes light up at the sound of pumpkin cupcakes, chocolate shortbread with a salt crust and today it's the apple, mint and yoghurt whip that gets me.

Apple and yoghurt is an uncommon pairing but not really all that odd. It's brought together by the mutual friend that is mint, which in this smoothie rather dominates the flavour and appearance. It's a thin, whipped drink speckled with blended mint leaves and seemingly devoid of apple presence. I'm sure it's in there somewhere though, hiding behind the slight sourness of the yoghurt.

To munch we order a Mediterranean platter with its promise of a bazaar of headily spiced flavours and delights. Okay, perhaps that wasn't promised as such but it's what the platter evoked in my mind, and it wasn't too far off.

Mediterranean platter from Badde Manors, Glebe

It doesn't look huge but I'm fairly certain that I couldn't attempt this alone. The first thing that jumps out at me are the radiant tomato slices. Boldly red and easily hogging the spotlight - even away from the falafels on rocket. Rocket! The platter comes with a generous basket of fresh, warmed Turkish bread and we need no invitation to dip in.

Aside the glorious tomatoes - which, by the way, are perfectly ripe and firmly juicy - are some crisp cucumber slices next to a pot of tzatziki, which I think is home-made. The yoghurt is of a thin consistency and looks to have been recently mixed (air bubbles and all) with thin strips of cucumber and a slightly heavy-handed application of garlic.

Next to that is a presentation of three hot falafels on a bed of rocket and a halved pickle. The rocket is undressed, which is more than fine, but the falafels are a standout. They're crunchy and spiced, though I scoff them so quickly that I fail to pick up specific flavours. Next to them is hummus, exceedingly fresh and creamy in texture, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. In the middle a huge slice of surprisingly mild fetta cheese obscures a hidden mine of grilled eggplant and olives, the former of which is most definitely fresh and not out of a bottle.

We cross forks and arms many a time as we dip, cut and spear platter items and generally make merry of the dish in no order or time whatsoever. I'm grateful to have had this (late) lunch that has clearly been made lovingly with quality ingredients. It makes me feel ever so much less guilty when dinner is a movie (Doubt, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep - which I'm still attempting to digest) with the aforementioned bucket of salt with some popped corn and a really quite tall cup of a small Diet Coke. With a dinner like that, there's more than a little doubt cast over the benefits of the late lunch.

Badde Manors on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lazy long weekend imagery

Lazy in so many ways. I didn't get up to much on the long weekend, nor did I get out of the house much. I ate but neglected to take pictures. I had a fantastic schedule of events to potentially go to, which ended up being a fantasy schedule as none of it was destined to happen. So here's some random images to make up for it, plus the first siting of a shoe on this blog.

Pumpkin and watermelon carvings

Salmon heads

Bunch of festive-looking longan

Gorgeous patent black Guess heels - bargain purchase from Hawaii

P.S. Going shoe hunting on the weekend to replace the recent passing of gold flat sandals - they served me well. R.I.P.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Perfect picnics and imperfect events

Spontaneity can produce the most surprisingly perfect results whereas intricate planning can end up a bit of a farce - that says a lot for planning, doesn't it? But I guess if everyone and everything went spontaneously there may be a severe lack of order and predictability that makes most people comfortable.

I'll take spontaneity as it comes, one night in the form of an impromptu picnic and Shakespeare in the park on a balmy summer evening. Outdoor theatre by the water down in Bicentennial Park in Glebe as the sun's going down is ridiculously idyllic. Add to that the perfect little picnic and a most enjoyable version of a Comedy of Errors, and it's a pretty perfect night overall.

Hastily packed picnic

We dine on fresh Turkish bread and baba ghanoush as we view dragon boat race teams training on the water. We also have a mild Gouda and deliciously creamy blue cheese with wafer crackers washed down with a fruity chilled riesling. The setting and the views make me wonder why I ever do anything else. Being by the water a cool breeze delivers a refreshing welcome to the players and audience alike.

We enjoy the play (without once complaining of numb bottoms), the actors (especially the curly Dromeos), the wine, the food (as does a baba ghanoush-appreciating Lassie lookalike), the company, atmosphere and the spontaneity of life.

The next night I'm at an event for the launch of the Chinese New Year festival at the end of another sweltering day. I love a good festival, even more if it's outdoors. And if there's markets with food - well, I'm sold. As it's opening night for the festival there's fanfare to be seen and heard so instead of stuffing myself with tasty morsels on sticks and plates, I attend the formalities and cultural side of festivities first.

Chinese New Year Markets at Belmore Park, Sydney

The utter vibrancy and excitement of Chinese New Year makes for a contrasting second celebration for 2009. It's not about the booze (well, not entirely) and the cool parties. To me it's about family and hope so it seems so much more meaningful than fireworks displays over the harbour. Saying that, firecrackers give fireworks a good run for their money.

Following the launch ceremony in Belmore Park with the usual dose of politicians and pomp, I head to a reception generously sponsored by a spirits brand and horrendously catered in-house by a hotel. There is really no excuse for serving poor food if that's your business. I have an excuse. And to top it off, I think that the Chinese community are probably one of the most discerning when it comes to food. To serve sub-standard food to a crowd of the banquet loving population was a little embarassing.

A myriad of Asian 'inspired' tidbits made their way out from the kitchen, including Thai style salads, satay sticks, dumplings with highly questionable fillings, something that was supposed to be a crunchy noodle salad, mussels in a creamy or tartare sauce, duck pancakes, and filo pastries with grey coloured mushroom and potato filling.

Perhaps there was no room to budge on the hotel's catering menu so organisers picked anything remotely Asian. Perhaps revellers were supposed to be so 'distracted' with the sponsor's offerings that they wouldn't notice. At least there were plenty of cocktails available. And pre-food glasses of cognac on offer.

Pre-dinner drink?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Something a little different

I'm finding it amusing how parts of life influence each other. I'm a firm believer in the whole 'when a door closes a window opens' theory but also view it all as a zero sum game; that is, add to one area of life at the expense of another - there are limited resources afterall. But the interesting thing is how a mood or attitude in one area can influence or alter a completely separate part. In this, I guess it has to come down to frame of mind. For example, I'm currently on the hunt for something new and possibly completely different in one area of life and I found that this translated into (or influenced) restaurant choice for a night.

I think it's healthy to get out of one's comfort zone every now and then, and new experiences usually lead to new knowledge or skills or people or something - and that's generally a good thing. Back on track, tonight we steer away from our favourite Spanish restaurant in the city and try one in 'the Spanish quarter' that I haven't been to before. Honestly, none of the ones I have tried match our fave but I'm willing to give Miro Tapas Bar a try for the trophy.

I do love an underground vibe, as if it's a secret meeting place. We're seated in a booth in the rather dim side room and left to ponder the vibrantly curly red painted walls and menu. To me sangria is a given when in a Spanish restaurant and I quite like Miro's version that lists vermouth as its spirit addition. There's chopped nectarine floating about and just the right amount of kick for my liking, a little too much for another drinker's preference. I much dislike a watery sangria - probably more than I dislike the carton version that I experienced in Barcelona.

Ordering tapas is a fast and frenzied process that I decide to sit out. I'm open to most anything on the menu but morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) so I leave the heavy decision making to the others, requesting only a salad to share. It's not long before the order is in and the first tapa arrives. (Apologies in advance for the fuzzy photos as it was rather dark in the restaurant.)

Albondigas en Salsa (meatballs in sauce) from
Miro Tapas Bar (Liverpool St, Sydney)

Spanish meatballs are notoriously filling in my experience and these oversized golf balls of meat are no exception. A little on the spongey, floury side, they're moderately tasty in a tomato sauce that's made for dipping our crusty bread rolls. Comfort food indeed.

Gambas al Ajillo (garlic prawns)

I would love to comment on the taste of the prawns except that I didn't actually taste the prawns (ahem, girls?). They looked great and came to the table sizzling in hot oil. The oil was heavily populated with slivers of garlic and took on lots of the sweet flavour, making for another ideal bread dipper.

Ensalada Mixta (garden salad)

The salad is big and bold, with lots of curly lettuce and other mixed leaves, savoury green olives, tomato, Spanish onion, carrot and capsicum. I'm positive there was a dressing on it, the flavour of which I don't recall at all; subtle to say the least.

Other Spanish-restaurant-staples on our order were patatas bravas and champinones al ajillo: the former being crispy deep-fried cubes of potato topped with an unusually, but delightfully warming, spicy tomato paste-like salsa and aioli; and the latter being button mushrooms in more garlic and oil. Making a late grand entrance to the fiesta was the tapa of the night.

Pollo a la Plancha (BBQ chicken with paprika salsa)

With its freshly grilled aroma, el pollo was always going to be popular anyway. Two large and quite thick chicken thigh fillets sat charred beneath a zig zag of paprika salsa. The meat was succulent and sweet, and the salsa mild to a point of near non-existance, but appreciated nonetheless.

At this point satiation is upon us all and it's a good several minutes and glasses of water before we request to see dessert options. This year I'm trying this 'not overeating' thing (I'm told it's a much healthier way of life) but can not pass on the opportunity to have churros. In my defence I play the 'sharing' card and some hot drinks to wash it down.

Churros with dulce de leche and chocolate

They come as two long 'lady fingers', which I halve for the aforementioned sharing, and snowed with icing sugar. The dulce de leche (caramel) is a new serving condiment for me and doesn't so much dip as requires spreading on the churros. Thrown in the 'too hard' basket for me at this stage of the meal, I dip my crunchy-nearing-hard churros in chocolatey goodness, taking care not to drip said goodness on myself.

I think a shared dessert is always good way to end a meal less guiltily and so we leave Miro - a valiant attempt but no place at the podium, unfortunately.

Miro Tapas Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Summer days indeed

Sydney sure knows how to do summer. Think 30-something degree day followed by rain and storms to cool it all down and provide some relief for the wiltering garden. Some of us lucky ones headed down to Coogee Beach early in the day and tried in as many ways imaginable to not get ourselves fried or roasted. It was hard work. The crisply cool water provided momentary relief for those who dared to take on the waves.

I've always seen Barzura up on the hill when I'm in the water and it just looks the perfect stylish, little beachside cafe restaurant. And on a day like this, any excuse will do to get indoors after a few hours in the sun, sand and surf, and it turns out that Barzura is quite a bit more than just 'any excuse'.

It's an ideal beach-goers respite. Think of the things that you want after a beach session and it's more than likely they have it at Barzura. It's a late lunch for us this day but we're not the only ones, with quite a few big tables with bottles of champagne and wine abounds. It feels a touch too early to be drinking and we're after a bit of healthy nutrition - fruit smoothies fit the bill.

Mango smoothie and mixed berry smoothie from Barzura (Carr St, Coogee)

The smoothies look summer fresh in their bright colours and yoghurt-y flavour, though I'm not sure fresh mango is used. The smoothies are thick but I wished they were a little colder. The pasta section of the menu entices us with its promise of carbohydrates and Italian charisma, and it's not long before two massive, carb-loaded plates are deposited before us.

Risotto with artichokes, olives, semi dried tomatoes,
baby spinach and ricotta

The risotto, as initially spied from the table next to us, is a huge serving with mouthwatering looks to match. In a tomato base it's dotted with olives, pieces of artichoke and sun dried tomatoes and topped with ricotta cheese. The rice is soft, but firmly so and tastes a little on the creamy side. The dish is heavily seasoned with herbs, which is ideal for a leaf lover like me but could be a little strong for others not so inlcined.

Rigatoni putanesca with olives, capers, anchovies, tomato, chilli and basil

My pasta dish is similarly huge. To start with my pile of pasta tubes look just the thing, but half way in I begin to realise that the eyes are often more greedy than the stomach and struggle my way to the end. I take the option of parmesan cheese, which is freshly grated by the waitress at the table, and I dig in. The first flavour hit is undoubtedly that of anchovies. By no means subtle, these little fishies pretty much play the lead role in the dish, opposite the sodium-rich capers and ably supported by olives and mild chilli.

Garden salad

We also share what is close to the perfect garden salad: fresh mixed leaves in a light vinaigrette with a few pieces of halved tomato and cucumber slices. Easily divine. The total bills turns out to be very, very reasonable and I may well have found a new favourite regular haunt. With a perfect view of the beach, delightful staff and spades of great ambience, Barzura itself is a reason to visit Coogee Beach.

As the clouds begin to head further east we count ourselves lucky, and full-bellied, to have had our earlier time in the sun. I'm looking forward to hitting the beach later in the week or maybe next week, but looking forward to visiting Barzura again even more.

Barzura on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sydney night out with a bit of Germany

It has only just occurred to me that I've had an unknowingly German night out recently. We headed for a meal at the Bavarian Bier Cafe on York St before seeing the Sydney Festival outdoor screening of Run Lola Run to a live score in Darling Harbour - it being a fantastic and surprising German film made all the better by the atmosphere and soundtrack we experienced. In hindsight the meal was a perfect precursor to the movie, which was so popular that people watched it from the highway bridge above Darling Harbour.

But I digress. I hadn't been to a Bavarian Bier Cafe for a meal for quite some time, and had forgotten how pricey it can be. For some reason, price doesn't enter the equation when it's just beers and drinks. Anyway, we haven't got huge appetites tonight anyway so we're happy to steer away from the heavy mains. I start with my favourite beer from the cafe, the Austrian Stiegl in the small 300ml size as I'm aware that I'm going to an outdoor movie just later.

Stiegl from the Bavarian Bier Cafe, York St

We select two dishes from the starters menu and while service is a bit on the slow side this night, we happily kill time by drinking and chatting into the loud open space. The atmosphere is decidedly post-work, with large dinner groups at tables and duos and trios at the bar with steins. After a bit of grumbling about work, family, boys, life in general and the wait for our meals, food arrives looking resplendently scrummy.

Bavarian antipasto plate

Fusion at its best? Having never thought to seeing the words 'Bavarian' and 'antipasto' together in the same title, my choice of starter arrives on a long rectangular plate with a basket of 'European bread' and butter. It's a plate of cold meats and vegetables, and as close to healthy I'm going to get eating Bavarian, I think. On the bottom of the meat side sits a thinly sliced salami-style meat and a pastrami-style one - I've no clue of the Bavarian terms for these. Folded on top are devon-style meats and the two on the edge are ham-like and bresaola-like, respectively. I guess if it's a antipasto plate I'm entitled to use some Italian terms.

Some pickled vegetables sit on top of the leafy greens: cauliflouwer, onion, baby corn and capsicum and there's a little dish of potatoes in a sweet dressing. Hidden somewhere underneath the greens is also a lump of rich, creamy pate, although we run out of bread to make the most of it. Our other dish is not quite so Bavarian but probably more ubiquitously Sydney.

Chilli salted squid with passionfruit sauce

While the squid dish looks pretty, I'm skeptical about the pairing of the cephalopod with the seedy fruit. As it turns out, it's not half bad. The squid is perfectly, if not unbelievably, tender beneath the thin and crispy golden fried batter. The batter itself is a revelation, seasoned with plenty of chilli flavour that doesn't so much hit the tastebuds as caresses them.

With food and beer in our bellies we're ready to brave the crowds and whatever weather conditions the skies decides to throw out tonight as we rush down to Darling Harbour for a quintessential Sydney night out.

Bavarian Bier Cafe York on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tasteless food?

"One who really knows how to eat, will eat the tasteless food."

This I saw as part of a Dharma teaching or mantra at a recent visit to the Nan Tian Temple in Wollongong. There were other parts to it referring to all sorts of other aspects, but this one stood out for obvious reasons. I think it's something about transcending beyond what we can sense here in this world - but that's all a little bit too deep for me.

Instead, I'm there for a little bit of clarity and hope. And a vegetarian lunch. And maybe general sightseeing as I feel like I still have the tourist bug in me: happy snapping and looking at everything as if it were unique and utterly intriguing. It's quite an open way to live life actually, and afterall, aren't we all tourists of this world? I have my philosophising moments.

After a round of the gardens and shrines we head to the lunch room, half of which is packed with youngsters on a camp of some sort. We later see them all on a 'meditative walk' after lunch. The room is light and airy and set with square tables and stools in a clever imitation stone. They're plastic - fantastic!

Dining room at Nan Tian Temple, Wollongong

The meal is served, after paying, from an open hot bar. It's a little unusual but you tell servers which choices you'd like and they serve it to you. It's almost as if it was previously an open buffet. Anyway, I get a bit of everything with my plate ending up looking as below:

Vegetarian lunch at Nan Tian Temple, Wollongong

A mixed bag indeed. I receive both steamed rice and Hokkien noodles while a fellow lunch pilgrim had to choose one or the other. Most intriguing was the, what I call, vegetarian sweet and sour pork, which is seen in the fore of the picture. Standard flavour with pineapple and red capsicum, but the 'pork' (which sort of looks like intestines in the picture) was an interesting vegetarian style meat type. It had the texture of really firm bean curd sticks, or tripe almost. I must have had the oddest look on my face as I chewed it because I was trying to determine the taste and texture and origins and many other things from this bit of flour concoction.

There were two other vegetable dishes: one with crisp celery and carrot, the other with overcooked cauliflower and what another diner insisted was duck meat. It would have been amazingly good imitation vegetarian duck meat, we reassure him. And on top a few items of crispy tempura vegetables. Two pieces I received were jap pumpkin and the other two were somewhat indiscernible. They were green leaves. From what plant I'm not sure but I ate them nonetheless. Waste not, want not.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Aimless big brekkies

It wasn't the brekky that was aimless - it was some of those consuming it. If there was one word to describe eating out for breakfast or brunch, it would have to be 'leisurely'. Nothing beats waking up and heading to a cool, little brekky venue while everyone else is trudging off to work or chores or what have you.

This muggy morning we trundle off to the cafe mecca of Newtown to leisurely break the fast and get parking right in front of Urban Bites. I do enjoy my outdoor seating, as long as it's not in searing hot sun nor overpopulated with smokers. This day it is not the former but unavoidably the latter.

It's a big breakfast menu at Urban Bites with even lamb cutlets as a breakfast option - the first time I've ever seen that. Indecision normally doesn't plague me at breakfast. I guess many a time I'm half asleep and will eat whatever is served to me. But given the choice, it's difficult to go past a good bit of bacon.

(Clockwise from top) Corn fritters, toast, grilled tomatoes with
spinach and bacon from Urban Bites (King St, Newtown)

Another important lesson for breakfast dining is knowing your serving sizes. The corn fritters plate is listed on the menu as a vegetarian meal, with me opting to add on extra bacon. Overzealous? I think so. The packaged butter, conveniently sitting on top of my fritters and bacon, is liquid upon opening so I pour my butter onto my standard white toast. On that, with so many amazing bread varieties I'm a little surpised to get pretty average, albeit thick, white bread. Perhaps I'm just accustomed to brown or grain but a bit of exotica would be welcomed, I think.

I dig into my hefty serve of bacon, which in hindsight I should have requested crispy. It's decent anyway, and not dripping in oil or fat which is pleasing. The grilled tomato wedges look festive with the spinach leaves and I taste the corn fritters last. Expectation has done funny things to my palate. I want tonnes of sweet, juicy, crunchy corn kernels in a light, egg-y batter; maybe a bit of spice or other seasoning. I get a mouthful of mostly floury batter interspersed with corn and random bits of capsicum. Expectation deflates and I go back to the bacon for comfort. Maybe the second taste will be better, I silently hope, but to no avail.

Fellow breakfasters, in the meantime, are energetically getting through their noticeably smaller meals. Will I ever learn?

(Clockwise from top) Toast, bacon, scrambled eggs
and grilled tomato

(Clockwise from top) Toast, scrambled egg, smoked salmon
on rocket and grilled tomato

Urban Bites on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 16, 2009

Eating up a sweat

I like to think that I'm fairly open-minded when it comes to food. I'm generally open to giving things a try, even if it sounds a little quirky (offal aside). I love trying new cuisines and restaurants which might explain why I sometimes struggle to find restaurants to go to with my family. Mum is a little sensitive in her eating habits, for reasons of health and preference. Dad is a creature of habit, a stubborn one at that. My favourite places to go to with friends are mostly not to parents' liking so picking a restaurant is normally a very drawn out process, often ending with takeaway from local Asian eateries.

On this particular outing (after a night of procrastination) I took the bold step of telling the family where we would be going - within a certain mandate of " no steak or seafood restaurants". We headed to Glebe for Darbar which I had been meaning to try after walking and/or driving past many a time. Early-ish on a Thursday night the restaurant had two tables of two, but hosted a constant stream throughout the evening.

The menu is extensive with banquet options, veg and non veg entrees, three mains sections, rice, sides, breads and desserts - and for someone with decision-making deficiencies and limited experience with Indian cuisine, it can be quite daunting. Starting with the easy stuff, I have a mango lassi which I know will come in handy when the spice gets a little too much for the tastebuds.

Mango lassi

The lassi is divine - sweet with the distinct taste of thick, creamy yoghurt sprinkled with some pistachio and with little bits of ginger throughout. It's also a generous serve that gets me all the way through to dessert and in fact becomes my dessert. Papadums with a minty yoghurt sauce also arrive at the table for our nibbling.


After a few minutes of independent contemplation, ordering becomes a group task. We throw around poorly pronounced Indian words, speculate about the size of dishes and our appetites, ooh-and-aah over new exotic dishes and reminisce about dishes at that restaurant up the coast that we all went to 12 years ago. My last experience at an Indian eatery with friends reminded me that mains can be deceptively large; that is, they look small but after entrees and copious amounts of carbohydrates (breads and rice) and water, can be filling. As such we share the non-veg mix platter as an entree, promising tasty bits of meat to satisfy any steak fiend.

Non-veg mix platter: lamb cutlets, khass sheek kebab and chicken malai tikka

The platter comes out surprisingly monotone: it all looks like tandoori. The rocket salad on the side is another surprise but a welcome one for this rocket addict. The lamb cutlets are tender and juicy - their French-trimmed bones wrapped in a foil 'handle'. The kebabs are a delightful mince of lamb with coriander accents, the texture firmer than an average sausage and oh-so flavoursome, finished in the tandoor oven explaining its colour appearance. And the chicken, with a squeeze of lemon, is as good as expected.

With many Western cuisine restaurants I tend to favour entree dishes over mains. They seem more exciting, more intricate and detailed with flavours. This isn't the case tonight as I'm looking forward to the curries and sauces, which themselves will be a myriad of flavours and ingredients. On the sidelines and ready to go we have saffron basmati rice, garlic naan and tandoori roti.

Tandoori roti (left) and garlic naan (right)

The roti is crispier than the naan, totally different to the Malaysian style roti that's even thinner and fluffy and chewy. The naan is fresh and soft with a liberal sprinkling of chopped garlic - not sure mints or gum will cover this, but I'm with the family so that's fine by all of us. For mains we've elected a lamb dish, a chicken, a fish and a vegie. We tried to go for variety and I think we achieved that, with a range of spicy, sweet, nutty and sour flavours coming through in each of the dishes.

Lamb vindaloo

Starting with Dad's request: the lamb vindaloo. The menu tells me that the word vindaloo comes from Portugese, meaning vinegar and garlic. I can taste the garlic, not so much the vinegar, and an excess of salt. The taste is mild to start, with the spice kick coming in subsequent tastes. There are variously-sized chunks of lamb (or is it beef?) that are not chewy, but not a soft tender texture either. Not my favourite dish, which Dad doesn't have a problem with.

Nellore fish curry

My pick is the fish curry, as it's not something I'd commonly have at home or even contemplate making. Darbar's version comes with "seasonal fish" though we're not told what it is. It's white, boneless and the fillets were quite thick, so your guess is as good as mine. This sauce is sweet with a sour twinge, most likely from the tamarind. Great to dip roti and naan, and packing just the right amount of heat, although Mum found this dish to be the spiciest.

Chicken chukka

Next main is brother's pick of the chicken chukka which is served dry, well, relatively dry. At this point the coriander/tomato garnish is looking a bit unoriginal but it's not all about that, I guess. The chicken pieces are moist and the sauce tasty - too many spice flavours to even mention but a definite winner on the table.

Gutti vankai (stuffed eggplant)

Last but not least is the vegetarian dish, holding its own up against bird, mammal and fish. Yes, more greenery and tomato garnish but a totally different look and taste to the other dishes. The colour initially gives an indication of the taste - it's nutty. The menu tells me cashew, peanut, sesame and coconut. It's almost a little overpoweringly nutty, with the eggplant unable to break through at all. I personally love the natural subtle flavour of eggplant so am a little overwhelmed by the nuttiness, although my brother calls it an "interesting" sauce.

I absolutely love the first tastes of each dish. After about the fifth or sixth mouthful the tongue starts to signal for help. It tingles a little, cheeks are going a bit pink and little droplets of sweat are forming on noses all round. Roti and naan are dipped into sauces in the hope that carbs can lessen the heat. Water glasses are refilled and I even sip the lassi for limited relief. Breaks from eating are being taken for heads and tongues to cool, though this doesn't really work.

Towards the end some on the table look like they've been outdoors in the light rain - a head somewhat drenched in water. My uncontrollable laughter at this point is not helping either. We look like we've just had a workout, what with the huffing and puffing, fanning and sweaty looks. It's all good fun, and mostly satisfactory food as well. Nothing a quick visit to the restroom won't fix.

Darbar Fine Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Nothing says home like a stint at Opera Bar - which is where we headed for a post-Hawaii catch-up. There's nothing like that beautiful backdrop while we're exchanging stories about events and people during the time away, handing out sympathy and souvenirs, and generally being the fun, food and drink loving friends we are.

Despite the cloudy weather, it's a warm day out and following my trip of (over)eating in Hawaii, I'm keen to go easy on the food and beverages these days. They say there's fewer carbs in Pure Blonde! Food wise I go for a salad, which turns out delighfully and perfectly scrumptious.

Fig, pecorino, rocket and asparagus salad

I hate a salad that's stingy on an item. If you say there's going to be asparagus in it, please make sure there is more than two spear heads in the salad. Here, everything is plentiful and very pleasing to the eye too. A huge pile of my favourite rocket leaves, a bounty of asparagus spears, loads of ripe and super-sweet figs, pecorino shavings and a few thin slices of crisp bread. The dressing is sweet - perhaps a smidgen too sweet given the ripe sweetness of the figs - lightly touched with balsamic and oil. The pecorino is perfect with the soft, juicy figs and the greens play sound supporting roles. This salad is heavenly and I could easily eat this for the rest of my days.

A companion is in a more carnivorous mood and makes me look like a bit of a lightweight with my salad and low carb beer. I manage to steal a few bites of the steak anyway.

Chargrilled sirloin with spinach and mushrooms in a red
wine sauce ( with potato hash browns on the side)

Cooked to a juicy medium rare, the sirloin is an impressive dish. Loads of button and field mushrooms plopped on top of the steak which sits on a pile of spinach. The potato hash browns provide the carbohydrates and help mop up the juices. They're a refreshing change from the pedestrian mashed potato served with steak dishes. The sauce is well seasoned and none too heavy, and the little grilled onions provide a surprising burst of natural sweetness. The carnivore looks calm and sated long after the meat has disappeared.

The sun has well and truly gone into hiding and the afternoon wind has picked up, but I guess that's the norm now here in Sydney. It's nice to be home.

Opera Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

All good things must come to an end

Towards the end of our Hawaiian holiday we actually got a bit more active, which isn't the way I had planned it, but perhaps there was just some inherent, unspoken knowledge that the holiday was nearing its end and we tried to cram as much in as possible, including a second visit to the beach.

A quick funny pic addition too. I love browsing supermarkets when overseas. I like my own local supermarket plenty enough already, but I always feel like I'm getting an intimate insiders view of the local lifestyle when I'm in a foreign supermarket. There always seems to be the weird, wacky and wonderful in any given aisle.

Spam a lot? Check out the variations

Real cheese? You've got to be kidding!

Supermarket and other adventures aside, we visited a little izakaya (Japanese sake and food place) one night for another attempt at eating light. We walked up a staircase lined with Polaroid photos on the walls. I don't recognise anyone but then again, my knowledge of Japanese celebrities is somewhat limited.

We're seated at the bar and order drinks from the server. I'm not sure if he actually speaks English (there's a lot of pointing, smiling and nodding action happening as we order) but he's friendly and the drinks arrive swiftly.

Kirin from Tako-no-ki Izakaya (Royal Hawaiian Ave, Waikiki)

The idea behind izakaya dining is that you snack while drinking your sake or beer or whatever it is that you're consuming. Like peanuts and beer taken one culinary step further. There are a few tables of Japanese tourists about enjoying their sake and snacks, and even a family at the table seating. We're seated at the bar right near the grill, so the sounds and smells of what's to come are prominently parading themselves in front of my face.

My sometimes-more-adventurous eating companion has found a menu item that gives me the beginnings of a chill down my spine, but tako wasabi on the menu doesn't sound as bad as it looks.

Tako wasabi

When this tiny bowl arrives, I'm not sure how adventurous I want to be. Little pieces of chopped raw octopus swim in a sweet wasabi dressing with a few shallots. The dark skin in particular puts me off a little, so I delve for a small, skinless piece. I like the dressing - it has a proper wasabi hit and a sweet dimension that sort of enhances the octopus. But the octopus itself is of the strangest texture and doesn't quite conform to the notion of chewing and masceration. I chew and chew, then give up and swallow and look forward to the next dish.

Ahi poke

Another restaurant and another version of this Hawaiian specialty. Again this version is strong on sesame flavour and I'm a little disappointed to have to dig for my tuna under the masses of raw onion. Next the cooked dishes make their way to us.

Edamame and grilled Kurobuta sausages

Edamame is fast entering my list of comfort foods - I like them warm with salt sprinkled on them post-boiling and this is how they are served here. The sausages have come straight from the grill with a scrape of hot English mustard and a wedge of lemon. They taste a little of packaged frankfurts I'd get at home - obviously without the red skin and a little firmer in texture.

Lastly we're served our okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) which is pretty much the biggest version I've ever had.

Modernyaki (top) and close up of noodle filling (bottom)

It comes smothered in okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise with a few bonito shavings and ground nori, and comes with a spatula for self serving. This is the so-called modernyaki - a version with soba noodles encased in the pancake along with more traditional fillings such as cabbage and pork. It is huge, hot off the grill and smells amazing. Digging in to civilised wedges, the inner is cooked to a moist degree with the seasoned noodles being a standout in the overall concoction. It's really a meal that has it all: carbs, vegies, protein and mouthwateringly delicious to boot. It is, however, quite filling as we again fail our task of eating light.

The next afternoon following a brief stint in the water and sands of Waikiki Beach, it's almost a must to hit one of the beach bars. Most of these sit within a hotel right on the beach but are open to the public, and most welcoming to beach-goers straight off the sand. Most of them are also quite busy, especially as sunset commences, so it can be difficult to get a table or even a seat at the bar. They're not so much of the standing around and drinking type places.

We end up in one of the swish hotel bars where there's live music (Hawaiian, of course) and hula. It also doubles as a restaurant where there are many a dressed-up American tourist. I feel underdressed, what with my bikini peeking out of my mini dress, clutching a towel, sunscreen and book at the reception but we're seated by smiling staff nonetheless.

We're in the outdoor section of House Without A Key and the atmosphere is incredibly laidback. There's a touch of posh to it, but we disregard price tags as this is one of our last night's in Waikiki. As such, we can't go past the cocktails.

Planter's punch (left) and mai tai (right)

Big points on presentation and alcohol content, but I admit I'm still a novice when it comes to rum. Despite the fruity additions, I find it a little difficult to appreciate the taste of rum - of which the mai tai includes two shots, I think. The Planter's punch is a sweeter drink, the juices blending to a fairy floss flavour in my mind. Suffice to say, by the second cocktails I don't mind the rum taste so much. We also get a huge basket of complimentary kettle cooked potato crisps.

We order a cold pupu platter to further snack on, again visually stunning and with tastes to match.

Jumbo shrimp (left) and ahi poke (right)

The shrimp look gorgeous, probably king prawn sized, and are served with a spicy Thai sambal dressing that doubles as a dip for our crisps when the crustaceans are gone. The ahi poke is served almost tartare style with the only addition being shallots. The tuna is firm with a stronger fishy taste than most others we've tried, with a subtle sesame and soy dressing.

We kick back and take in the scene: the sun setting on to the beach horizon, palm trees swaying with musicians in the courtyard, accents from around the world surrounding us (even a few other Aussies) and cocktails in hand. This is our Hawaiian holiday.

Takonoki on Urbanspoon

House Without a Key on Urbanspoon


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