Wednesday, September 30, 2009

For posterity

a) Major FAIL;
b) Publicity stunt;

c) Hoax;

d) Doesn't matter - not going to eat it anyway?

Not everything needs to be new and Gen-i-ed. Nostalgia and childhood memories go a long way. Thanks to Kraft for the blip we all get to look back on in years to come: "Remember when they tried, and failed, to change Vegemite? Memories..."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Things you'll miss from home

I've been coming to Encasa for years and have only now realised that there's a deluxe version of the sangria that's significantly heftier on the alcohol component. I can actually taste the liqueur in addition to red wine and fruit - I've been missing out for so long.

I love the mish-mash, jumbled feel of Encasa sometimes. Not so when I don't have a bookiing, but there's just a feel of slight chaos brewing beneath the floorboards of the hectically busy restaurant, especially this particular Friday night.

We have a fair sized table of good eaters, and we order generously but sensibly. Which is why I'm a little perplexed that the waiter was bug-eyed and head-shaking at the amount of food we ordered. We showed him - mostly.

Special salad of rocket, artichoke, tomato and manchego
cheese from Encasa, Pitt Street, Haymarket

I'm so comfortable with the menu at Encasa that I often forget there are specials. This special salad is a first for me and a pleasant alternative to the goat cheese and roasted capsicum salad - which we also order. It's a simple assembly of rocket, artichokes, cherry tomatoes and shavings of a divine manchego cheese that just works effortlessly.

Champinones al ajillo - sizzling garlic mushrooms

Before long, a procession of tapas start heading towards us - mostly in multiples for sharing among our group. The garlic mushrooms are vegies made fun - not that they're norrmally not - but these just pop with a firm juiciness in a celebration of garlic.

Patatas bravas - fried potato with aioli and spicy tomato salsa

As much as a sad stereotype as it may be, it's not really a tapas experience for me without patatas bravas and Encasa's version rivals that I had in a Barcelona laneway. With lashings of a spicy tomato salsa and creamy garlic mayonnaise, it's comfort food that behaves well with the sangria.

Chorizo a la plancha - grilled Spanish sausage

From my sangria-soaked memory, the chorizo isn't the best I've tried, although that accolade is still waiting to be awarded, I think. This sausage tends a little dry and salty, and lacking on the spice kick just a little.

Mejillones a la Marinera

The huge bowl of tender-as mussels also comes topped with a spicy tomato salsa, of which none goes to waste with our handy bread roll mops. The mussel meat is superbly tender and not at all fishy - it looks so easy, yet not always so in the home kitchen.

Gambas Sevillanas - king prawns in spicy tomato salsa

Undoubtedly a crowd favourite, the prawns in spicy tomato salsa are extremely crunchily firm. A lot of restaurants could learn from this. One would think that the 'spicy tomato salsa' is getting a bit repetitive at this point - but it's not. There are varying degrees of spiciness and consistency that just keep everyone dipping and sopping up all that tomato-ey goodness.

Pinchos Morunos - prime lamb fillet skewers in Morrocan spices

The lamb skewers are mostly tender and less flavour-intensive than most the other tapas dishes. They're sort of cooked to a well-done point, which is acceptable but makes for a bit more chewing and a bit less juiciness.

Supreme pizza

At this point, I start to think that maybe we should have heeded the waiter's apprehension. Just after I have that thought, I find myself reaching for one of the last slices of the freshly cooked pizza. Elected from the traditional rather than gourmet menu, this has a bit of everything going for it - vegies, meat and just enough cheese on a crusty woodfired base.

Paella Valenciana

A collective "Oooh..!" greets the paella - a serving for four that looks more like a serving for ten. The huge king prawns have their meeting of minds amid roast capsicum and pipis, surrounded by an audience of mussels and lemon wedges. After a light shower of lemon juice, the meeting is broken up into servings of the fluffy saffron rice and crunchy browned bottom crust. Full as we are, we appreciate the super fresh seafood so much that we take half of it home to appreciate even more the next day.

Dessert doesn't rate a moment's thought although we're easily convinced that we need more of that deluxe sangria. By this point, the restaurant is seriously hopping with no sign of slowing. It's a bit chaotic, it's very festive, and it's just the sort of almost homely atmosphere that one would miss being away from.

Encasa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elementary, my dear

If you're heading to Avenue Q via King Street, it's only logical to pay a little visit to a nearby restaurant pre-theatre. And if the restaurant happens to be a darling place across the road who will happily cater for theatre-goers, then it's only elementary.

Element Bistro is a little hidey-hole restaurant below footpath-level that oozes with warmth and charm, as if almost to compensate for the tiny space. All the more endearing, I think.

Baguette from Element Bistro, King Street, Sydney

Bread is served generously as we wait for a table member, with creamy butter and salt flakes. While debate rages about butter versus olive oil with bread to start, I'm still undecided. A good butter is fair match for a good olive oil, and despite my leanings for Italian cuisine - I'm torn.

In order to get to Avenue Q without delay, we decide on a single course each and leave the option open for dessert or cheese. The staff and kitchen are most accommodating and it isn't long before scrumptious smells waft towards us, followed quickly by our meals.

French onion soup

One has opted for an entree for the meal - the most amazing ever French onion soup, I'm told. And through one buriningly hot mouthful, I'm sort of convinced and less a few taste buds. In an adorable mini tureen, the top layer of melting cheese conceals a hoarde of caramelised brown onions in the aforementioned boiling hot soup. Other than the heat, the cheese is a most welcome savoury touch to the surpringly sweet and full-bodied soup.

Pan roasted ocean trout

The ocean trout came with a myriad of ingredients, and a sumptuously creamy sauce like hollandaise. The skin was grilled to a shattering golden hue and the flesh was perfectly cooked through and moist. Simply cooked vegetables, including potato, asparagus and cherry tomatoes, joined the frisee lettuce to make a warm sald or sorts - the dish embodying the philosophy of simplicity and quality.

Steak frites, Cafe de Paris butter

The steak is a gigantic serve and I worry that it won't be finished off before the show starts. Unfortunately there's a great deal of fat and gristle in the meat, albeit cooked to a perfectly juicy medium-rare. The Cafe de Paris butter is mopped up eagerly with the chips and bread, so I presume it was pretty tasty stuff.

Slow braised lamb shoulder pappardelle with celeriac, cavolo nero and gremolata

In a distinctly Italian vein, the pappardelle is surprising in its presence on the menu of a French bistro, and for its lightness. The thick cut pasta noodles are piled up in a dark, hearty broth almost; the tender lamb starring with some very Italian vegetable accompaniments.

We're comfortably within time for the show and not stuffed so as to fall asleep during it. We even manage to squeeze in a cheese plate - and forget the photo for it - before dashing across the road to join the buzzy crowd ready for some learnings in the form of (some) very outspoken, liberal, free-spirited puppets. The detour via Element Bistro to Avenue Q is highly recommended, and really, quite elementary.

Element Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In the diary

Finishing up Melbourne, the final chilly morning before both the Dali exhibition and the Taste festival finds us attempting to go for light breakfasts - 'attempting' being the key word here. Again, I'd passed Journal many a time before and even seen it in a telco advertisement - and finally, I was going to have a meal there, albeit breakfast where it's a little more difficult to go wrong.

And with a seriously serious espresso machine and barista at work, there was no going wrong with the macchiato. I've noticed that in Melbourne they'll ask whether you want a short or long macchiato, whereas in Sydney the short is the default.

Breakfast at Journal, Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Looking around, there's an undeniable CBD feel to the ambience, yet it's filled with creatives rather than suits given the Sunday morning. Even so, the smart feel of the interiors seems to encourage serious reading and work on notebooks amid the synth-electro pop in the background. We fill our tiny table by the window with food and drinks, seeing multiples of little milk jugs.

Porridge with stewed rhubarb and honey

The porridge arrives in a laughably huge bowl; a liberal drizzle of honey with the kilo or so of oats. It was just the comforting meal that was sought, except probably three serves of it.

Mueseli with yoghurt and fruit compote

My mueseli was less humourous but just as, if not more, deliciously comforting. With my own little jug of milk, the oats with fruit and memorable hazelnuts alternated - not mixed - with the fruit and yoghurt were the perfect fuel for the morning (I'm not a mixer). It too was a touch on the large serve size, but suitably light enough. Admittedly, it's hard to fail on cereal breakfasts, but Journal goes down with a tick and note to return next time I'm in Melbourne.

And this being the last of the Melbourne posts, I must confess to a currently ludicrous level of excitement about next month's Sydney International Food Festival. Perhaps I've spent a few too many hours poring over the events and restaurants on the website and corresponding pages in my diary, but I don't think I'm going to be left hungry for a moment in October.

Journal on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Taste of Melbourne

Taste of Melbourne, Royal Exhibition Building 27-30 August

I'm running a bit behind on posts, but I'm still sort of digesting from my recent Melbourne weekend and none more so than from the Taste Festival held at the Royal Exhibition Building.

On the Sunday - the last day of the event - while the presence and aromas of food and booze was immediately distracting, I took a quick moment to look around at the beautiful building in which we were feeding.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

It's definitely not Sydney's Centennial Park, but a pretty sight all the same. Being the chilly Melbourne day it was, we were all glad for the elegant yet oddly modern roof over our heads. It was moderately busy, but not quite as the Sydney Taste Festival earlier this year, and less buzzy. It was pleasing to see a lot of local produce and producers, although there were quite a few stalls from Queensland and Tasmania too.

In hindsight, I've realised that we went the wrong way about the building, coming across a lot of wine firstly, only to stumble upon most of the produce later.

Chandon bar

That's my excuse, anyway, for the first Crowns spent on a bubbly rose from the Chandon bar. Besides, I needed something to wash down yummy samples and distract me from the sweets and chocolates straight up.

Cheeses from That's Amore Cheese

Cupcakes from babycakes

Macarons from Babycakes

Chocolate brownie gift boxes from Dello Mano

I thought this was a fantastic idea - but maybe a little skewed in opinion as a brownie addict. Luxury brownies, as gifts. Moving well beyond cupcakes, perhaps the not-so-humble, rich fudgey brownie could be the next big thing in food gifting. Individually foil-wrapped portions that keep longer and travel much better than cupcakes. And the packaging is just all style.

Chocolate sculpture from Sisko Chocolate

Seating was a little more abundant than at the Sydney event, but with one of us darting off to restaurants for food every few minutes, it didn't matter a great deal. My first dish was a quick and easy decision - made so much easier having been right across from the Nobu restaurant stall, checking out and sampling spice mixes.

Black cod with miso from Nobu

Much anticipation comes with the most expensive dish of the menu - Nobu's signature black cod with miso relieves me of sixteen Crowns. Saying that, the plating of the dish is pretty impressive and till even now I'm not quite sure what the red ball thing is - a pickled something with a seed, so plum or berry of sorts, perhaps. The cod itself was infused with miso and a fresh, sweetness; the flesh flaked away with ease and, as is often the case, the charred bits were the best.

Baked crab shell served with Portuguese sauce (left) and pan grilled beef eye
fillet marinated in mustard, served with Szechuan sauce from Silks

The baked crab shell from Silks (another restaurant at the Crown complex) is a drawcard as the promise of fresh crab is just too good to pass up. But this particular rendition is dominated by a floury, curry-like sauce, and very little crab to show for it. I guess it's not all about looks and image.

The pan grilled beef eye fillet looks very promising, and generous too, with its bundle of sugarsnap peas on the side. Overall, the dish was a little bland, seemingly lacking both mustard and Szechuan flavours. The meat itself ranged from medium-well to medium-rare, the latter much more pleasant and digestible.

Slow cooked cuttlefish with chorizo and chickpeas from MoVida

The rollercoaster start stabilises a little with two dishes from MoVida. I guess one can expect a little consistency from one of the best restuarants for tapas in Australia. The cuttlefish stew was perfect for the chilly day; the seafood itself almost as tender as the chickpeas. The tomato-based sauce was undeniably flavoured of the sea, and the rare piece of really good chorizo brought delight to whoever could find a piece. If only we had a bit of crusty bread and loads more of that chorizo, we'd be very happy campers.

Braised beef with Spanish paprika, saffron and potatoes from MoVida

The similarly, but deeper, hued beef dish from MoVida was heartiness food-ified. A generous serving with creamy mashed potatoes, the huge hunks of meat were spice heavy but perfect on the flavouring. The meat itself probably could have done with a bit more braising as they didn't quite break up with a fork. Polishing off this dish, shared as it was, called for a rest.

Which meant getting up and sampling more food and booze around the building, including full sized scoops of Maggie Beer's quince and bitter almond ice cream; biltong from Jim's Jerky; pretzels from and the gorgeous St-Germain elderflower liquer.

And not so much because we were getting remotely hungry again, but more so for the jolly-looking Jacques Reymond cheerily chatting to his front of house staff that we just had to go visit the Jacques Reymond restaurant stall.

Seared Hervey Bay scallops, Thai style Sher wagyu beef, crispy
Asian salad from Jacques Reymond

It looks good. It looks really good. So much that I contemplate scoffing the two scallops alone, although I'm spotted carrying the goods so it's just the one mouthful. The wagyu pairs ever so nicely with the salad, evoking distinctly Asian flavours but not so distinctly Thai. But the scallop is peerless - cooked to a stupendous perfection that makes nothing in the world matter for a few seconds of chewing. Now that's value for Crowns.

Natural oysters with romesco sauce and lemon from Oyster Little Bourke

On a bit of a seafood run now, we seat ourselves in a noticeably quieter setting towards the front end of the show and continue to taste. The natural oysters from Oyster (cheeky) are fresh and briney - the romesco sauce proving a little obselete. In fact, I'm not even sure if the capsicum-strong sauce really matches with the oyster.

Seafood 'hotdog', corn relish, avocado from Oyster Little Bourke

Curiosity gets the better of us all in the case of the seafood hotdog. It certainly resembles its namesake, but the seafood sausage is a bit of a puzzler. To be sure, there's white fish pieces and other seafood bits in it but overall, it tastes a little too fishy in that even the corn relish can't hide the flavour. I can't say that I'd go for seconds.

Cured kingfish and scallop salad, served with tamarind, lime, ocean trout pearls
and micro leaves from The Court House

After spying a nearby diner's scallop dish, I go out in search and return with a different scallop dish - oops. But there's not really any complaint after tasting the cured kingfish and scallop. The garnishes play a nice supporting role, but the summit of each mouthful is actually the poppingly fresh ocean trout pearl, followed closely by a fiery chilli kick.

Tempura of quail breast, tajine flavours, whipped Persian fetta
from Jacques Reymond

Another sumptuously pretty dish from Jacques Reymond, the quite-meaty quail is as tender as anything but - don't hurt me - tastes a lot like chicken. Understandably, it's all poultry but I just felt that something this pretty and delicate and expensive shouldn't remind me of KFC. The whipped fetta doesn't add a great deal but the black rice sitting beneath the quail breast had an enticing texture and flavour.

Mixed berry and passionfruit cocktails from Sagatiba

At some point someone mentions dessert and it's like we've just remembered that we need to save a bit of room for sweets. Nothing like a rum-spiked cocktail or two to cleanse the palate - the passionfruit is my pick of these sweetly, coldly numbing, mildly attention-seeking drinkies.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

We kick back momentarily, hoping that the appetite for sweets will kick in. It's a lovely building although the layout for the festival is a little tight and not as free flowing as hungry foodies would really prefer. The atmosphere is a touch lacking, but definitely not due to the hoardes of chefs and staff running about bartering food and booze with each other. It looks like a party for these guys.

Vanilla panna cotta served with slow cooked quince from Fifteen

The silky smooth panna cotta is an easy entrance to desserts. I wasn't a big fan of the stewed quince, but the vanilla is subtley omnipresent in the lightly creamy pudding.

Milk chocolate delice, coconut and basil, salted caramel
popcorn from Verge

Admittedly, I was hanging out for a chocolate fix and I landed a stunner. I was immediately sold on the "salted caramel popcorn" but this gorgeous array was seriously stunning in its parts. I'm not so sure about the mixture though; in theory, coconut, basil and chocolate sounds good but I much preferred eating the foamy coconut cream on its own; and then the basil jelly and micro leaves; and then a mouthful of the lush chocolate slice. And, saving the best till last, the crunchy, sweet and salty popcorn - I can definitely imagine a large sized box of this stuff for the movies.

And with that, it signalled the end of the festival and the Melbourne trip, really. We'd had a taste, or several, of restaurants and produce of the city and now all we wanted was a day bed. And scallops. And some more of that popcorn. And faster metabolism. And more time to check out more of the great restaurants in Melbourne. Till next time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Another point of Vue

I must admit that sometimes I play devil's advocate for sheer entertainment pleasure: whether it's to watch the speaker squirm uneasily with their poorly thought-out idea; feel their genuine passion and interest in a topic; or just to watch them reassess their position as they mentally think over the argument. Another point of view rarely hurts and provides insight into human nature and others' thought processes.

Saturday night dinner was the summit of my recent Melbourne trip - or at least it was supposed to be. With a weekend crammed full of eating experiences, there was only one proper dinner session and the choice was measured and careful. On a chilling night, the warmth and shabby chic of Bistro Vue was ever so welcoming, as too the service. There's a distinct grandmotherly feel - or maybe great aunt - to the decor, and I'm still deciding whether I like it.

Butter, salt and pepper at Bistro Vue,
Little Collins Street, Melbourne

The service at Bistro Vue is impeccable - from the first second in the restaurant, it feels like I've done something very special and that I'm being rewarded for it. Too bad there was little to be done about the huge, slightly rowdy group that subsequently joined the room.

We potter about the menu for what seems like forever - it's not even that big a menu. We're thankful for the minute baguette while we're deliberating, served on fancifully kitsch plates - just like what you'd get your jam and scones on at aunt's.


The Chateau Sainte Barbe merlot is decanted and served with such elegance that we eagerly drink so that we can be served some more. We're not without water at the table either, with our petite glasses refilled with an almost scary level of attention. Timing is an art they have down pat at Bistro Vue.

Cepe omelette

My omelette entree comes with a simple cress garnish, but resembles more a crepe than omelette in my opinion. The aroma is immediately dizzying; a heady combination of richness, garlic and luxe porcini mushrooms. I've forgone the truffle supplement, but am suitably overimpressed with my entree anyway. The omelette is pillowy soft and contrasts nicely with the texture of the mushrooms. And the flavour - oh the flavour - is worthy of death or similar sacrafice; it's rich but not overly so and almost on par with truffle that it brings big smiles all round and fond memories already.

Soft shell crab with ginger sauce

The crab looked more than a little inspired by Asian flavours, served deep fried atop some greenery with a thick ginger sauce. The subtlety of the sauce meant that the flavour of the crab wasn't concealed - a surprisingly meaty specimen in this case.

Quail and foie gras ballotine

The prettily and delicately plated ballotine came with an orderly line of Sauternes jelly and a few spice piles that I'm not sure were tasted - pepper, perhaps. The perfectly round discs of tasty quail encased rich squares of foie gras. Despite the cost and luxury of it, I'm still not a big fan of liver, but was quite impressed with the flavoursome quail meat.

Sher Wagyu x Holstein rump cap

Plagued with complete indecision for my main, I opted for the seemingly safe haven of steak. Sher wagyu being the fashion these days, the rump cap looked mouthwatering next to the Jenga pile of potato - more logs than chips, I think. Accompanied by half a roasted onion, cress and a teaspoon of Bistro Vue's own truffle mustard, I was looking forward to demolishing the pretty sight.

If only my medium-rare request wasn't closer to blue. And if only I could chew the bites that I did put into my mouth. And if only the dry, overcooked potato wasn't the equivalent of two whole medium sized tubers. It was a rare occasion that the waiter cleared a half empty plate from me. The mustard was good though - a dijon style with a strong truffle after-kick.

Gratin of pork with three cheese crust and vichy carrots

The small but deadly square of pork gratin was likened to lasagne, especially with its rich three cheese sauce. The serving size proved appropriate as I'm sure the fat and salt content of that meat and cheese cube was close to recommended dailies. Think rich baked cheese interspersed with fatty layers of pork - be still my arteries. Nonetheless, with carrots as foil, this dish was licked spotless.

Sher Wagyu x Holstein sirloin

The Sher wagyu sirloin was a much more tender cut than the rump cap, but inferior in the flavour department. This was served with the Jenga chips again, and a delightful little jar of bearnaise sauce.

Caneles as petit fours

Having had a good attempt at both the pommes pont neuf and my steak, dessert wasn't a consideration at all. I did make room for a bite of the canele though - which had a chewy, caramelly exterior but seemed a little dry inside. And I admit to a mouthful of the rather large dessert ordered by one.

Serving the tarte tatin

The pear tarte tatin was brought to the table in its pan, and served before us. The smell of caramel provoked some involuntary response, for its sweet butteriness engulfed not only our table but those nearby too. The tarte tatin was flipped out of the pan - somewhat awkwardly - and served with pouring cream and the vanilla beans used in the cooking process.

Tarte tatin aux poires

Eyes rolled backwards at the taste of the caramel, yet the overall feeling was of sogginess. The juicy pears were abundant and the caramel almost a little too liquid, meaning that the pastry was limp and soggy within minutes. Although, I suppose it's intended to be shared and eaten quickly but after Jenga, the game was over for me.

We lolled in our shabby chic chairs, digesting and still enjoying the decanted wine service amid the probably uncharacteristically noisy restaurant. Cheese was unfortunately out of the question - unfortunate in that I had spotted the cheese trolley earlier with its arresting range but now couldn't attempt any.

From the sheer view of my disappointing main meal, it could be deemed a poor experience. However, taking another point of view; a broader look accounting for the overall service, ambience, company and that cepe omelette, maybe - just maybe - I could be of another perspective.

Bistro Vue on Urbanspoon


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