Thursday, October 29, 2009

Eating 'what I like '

Inspired by a craving and the recent Noodle Markets, one dinner project was to recreate okonomiyaki - the Japanese savoury pancake with almost the heart's desire of ingredients within. From foggy Japanese class memory back at school, I remembered there was cabbage and egg, but the rest of the ingredients happened to be what was fridge-handy. And that's the beauty of okonomiyaki - you can really put whatever you like in it.

Okonomiyaki batter

Aside from the cabbage, we've thrown in corn kernels, enoki mushrooms, spring onions, ginger, chilli, onion, and was that some leftover grilled salmon? In it all went into the batter mix of flour, water and egg and with a quick mix with a fork, we're cooking with gas.

Batter in the frypan

And a well-oiled frypan. And being a pancake, it just inspires attempts at pan flipping which I'm still yet to master. Traditionally, it's flipped with spatulas anyway.

Browned okonomiyaki

This attempt is slightly thicker than what I've had in restaurants and about six times thicker than the version at the Noodle Markets. Nonetheless, it's a pretty good looking dinner and we've got the key condiments to go with and go a little psycho decorating.

Sauces galore on the okonomiyaki

The Bulldog brand tonkatsu or okonomiyaki sauce is a must-have; a sweet, slightly tart brown sauce not too much unlike BBQ sauce. The other necessity is the Kewpie, or QP, mayonnaise; a very creamy mayo that's distinctly different to the one we know from the normal supermarket aisle. The mix of the two sauces makes the okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki - at home

It would be that much better with bonito flakes wafting above the heat of the cooked okonomiyaki, except we didn't quite source them till a few days later. Another fridge review finds coriander sprigs that will do just nicely - no swaying in the steam, but another, fresh flavour addition.

The preparation takes longer than the cooking which takes longer than the plating - which all take infinitely longer than the consumption of the okonomiyaki. The freshly cooked pancake is also infinitely better than some of the pre-cooked versions available in takeawy stores. I really like how easy it is to prepare - it's convenient and quite the comfort food too. There'll be no more leftover cabbage in my fridge, I'll be eating it with what I like.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chop chop

The city seems overrun with cattle these days - you can barely go a block without walking by a steak house. Perhaps the stereotype of the businessmen chowing down on a hunk of cow while talking million dollar deals rings true. Regardless, I wouldn't want to be a nice, grass-fed cow strolling down these city streets.

Chophouse isn't so different from any other steak house, maybe except for the huge bone-like cavern you dine under. You get the feeling that you're inside a cow; ironic considering a cow is soon to be inside you. On a weeknight, the bar is littered with suits and the dining area eventually fills with them too.

Soy linseed bread from Chophouse, Bligh Street, Sydney

The options of sourdough or soy linseed bread are welcome, though I must admit they're not the best examples of either I've had. Much more fun is the menu, which is a rather interesting blend from around the world: think sashimi next to risotto next to gravlax next to gumbo. My head's on a global whirlwind - thank goodness for the specials.

Flash fried school prawns with piri piri mayonnaise and spiced salt

The schoolies have been cooked to a point where the prawn shells are delectably crispy and edible, and look like they could easily be popped into one's mouth. Which they can, they were sensationally good. The flavour hit of the spiced salt on the prawns was like a double whammy after the initial crunch. The spicy mayonnaise added a smooth and creamy dimension, but really the prawns could have been on their lonesome own and still fantastic.

White asparagus and parmesan risotto with zucchini flower,
tallegio, parsley and olive oil

The generous serve of risotto was probably a bit much for an entree - but I suppose one can work up an appetite pushing a big deal or corporate entertaining or whatever it was the suits were doing. Creamy with cheese and soft rice, it was pretty as a picture and somehow convinced the petite diner to finish the dish clean. Cheeses and zucchini flowers tend to have those persuasive powers.

Prawn and scallop gumbo

The gumbo certainly sounded intriguing but there seemed to be something missing - like prawns or scallops. The red hue of the soup belies its spicy tendencies but the seafood hit of the soup is really something else. There didn't look to be a great deal of neither seafood item in its full form in the bowl, but its presence was definitely made known in the soup with its rich prawn-iness and the overall sweetness of a lot - and I mean a lot - of seafood.

Crisp pork belly and scallop salad with cress and soy vinaigrette

For an American-style chopped salad, I've got to say this is pretty Sydney - or Sydney a few years ago at least; at the beginning of its scallop and pork belly love affair. It's a gigantic salad brimming with plump bits of scallop and naughtily luscious slices of pork crispy pork belly. The dressing is appropriately light and tarty to combat some of the richness but overall - very Sydney, and I like it.

Double double lamb chops with mint jelly

With mains arriving, we soon realise that servings lean towards the really big end of the scale. The seriously thick lamb chops are cooked to a medium-rare and are served quite plainly with a dish of mint sauce.

Pasture-fed rib on the bone with chutney and jus

This hunky looker is a feast for the eyes and tastebuds, and subsequently, the stomach. The pasture-fed rib on the bone is a tasty cut that needs little more than the jus and and the sweet chutney that sits by its side.

Dry aged Delmonico with chutney and jus

The Delmonico is an impressive cut; refined and streamlined even. It's another huge serving, alone with the jus and chutney as before.

Baby gem lettuce with Paesanella mozzarella (on the side),
tarragon, confit lemon vinaigrette

The salad side is our shared, token healthy dish. The cute whole heads of baby-crunchy lettuce were wincingly sour with their lemon dressing; the mozzarella cheese providing a lightly creamy diversion.

Cauliflower gratin

The standout star of the night happens to be an innocent old side - the cauliflower gratin. Looking unassuming with its darkened crusty edge, the cauliflower florets are immersed in exceedingly creamy - but exceedingly good - gruyere mixture. The vegetable is baked to a soft sweetness that I never knew existed in cauliflower. It's a beautiful relationship between the cauliflower and the cheese - a very loving one, in my opinion.

And with that, hours have passed and it would seem that some business was still being conducted. Honestly, business was probably the last thing on my mind as after the quite large meal I'd just consumed, I wasn't looking to bed down a deal - I was just looking for a bed to lie down in.

Chophouse on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chai time any time

I think chai is fairly firmly instilled in the beverage culture, along with other teas and coffee, of course. And aren't we glad for it - I know I definitely am, when the caffeine hit of a coffee is too much and traditional teas are a tad unexciting.

And if chai is as easy as two teaspoons in a mug with milk, I know I'd be all smiles.

The lips say it all with Pure Chai by Indulge Your Senses - don't they look happy? Maybe with a touch of seduction thrown in.

The easy-as-pie powder form of Pure Chai means a warming chai latte or icy chilled chai is only few teaspoons away. Think: in the hectic lives we lead, the soothing, warming, caressing, relaxing sense of chai can be about 30 seconds away. Why isn't everything this easy?

The all important taste test? The honey & vanilla flavour is the more traditional and my pick, though I was put off a little by the sound of vanilla. Luckily, the vanilla is barely discernable but there's a hefty spice flavour, perhaps more so than tea - which is how I like my chai. When made with skim milk, this flavour is 99% fat free - virtually sinless!

The luxe chocolate flavour - not a combination I thought would go with chai - is growing on me. A bit chai, a bit hot chocolate, a little bit the best of both worlds, and 98% fat free with skim milk.

Both retail at Woolworths and specialty outlets for around A$9.99. I'm told the 250g cannister makes 25 serves per pack which equates to A40c per single serve. About one-eighth the price of my coffee and I think I'd have this over a soft serve cone anyday.

Thanks to the guys at Polarity Consultants for the samples, and thanks to Pure Chai for making the afternoons - or really any time - just that little bit more bearable.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The lunch collective - Part II

Another collection of lunching in and about the city:

Prawn, coriander and lime salad from Noodle Bar at
David Jones Food Hall, Market Street, Sydney

The David Jones Food Hall is an indisputable haven: from work, shopping or even the routine trip to the supermarket. It's difficult to go left, right or that way and not find something desirable and just that little bit on the side of pricey. Aside from that weird magnetic force that the cheese cabinet has got going, lunch and groceries have never been such fun

Warming pyrotechnics at the Noodle Bar erupt now and then to cook things like the large-sized crustaceans in the prawn, coriander and lime salad. Served on butter lettuce leaves with julienned and pickled radish and cucumber ribbons, the prawns have been flamed with ginger, spring onions and other Asian-inspired ingredients in the fiery wok and served immediately straight up to the counter. A glass of wine doesn't go astray at all.

Chicken laksa from Jimmy's Recipe Malaysia, The Galeries Victoria, Sydney

It's a big call on behalf of Jimmy's: "The best laksa in Sydney". Chances are Jimmy isn't expecting anyone to get overly worked up over a marketing message. The service is stupendously quick; I barely have time to put my change in my wallet before I'm faced with the challenge of balancing a laden tray while looking for seating. Lunch time teems with the corporate types - careful not to splash laksa onto crisp white shirts. The laksa is generous on the chicken and comes with a mix of fine vermicelli and thick, yellow hokkien noodles. The soup is rich and warming, just mildy spicy, and hits the spot on a chilly winter's day.

Salt and pepper squid with chips from Bungalow8,
King Street Wharf, Sydney

Waterside dining is like a siren's call when it's nice and sunny in Sydney town. The outdoor areas of the restaurants along the water teem with smokers and sunlight-seekers alike. The kitchen is busy churning out meals at lunch from a limited menu, infamous for all-you-can-eat mussels on Tuesdays. Not being keen to test my skills and not being a Tuesday I opted for the reliable S&P squid. Unhealthy, and naughtily so, the squid wears a thin, golden salt and pepper crumb over its impossibly tender meat. Served with some undressed mixed greens, lemon and sweet chilli sauce, eating like this near the water just screams: "Bring on summer! And the gym..."

Pho tai from Pho Ha Noi, Hunter Connection Food Court, Sydney

A guaranteed winter warmer at bargain basement prices. Sort of in bargain basement surrounds too, but you'd never know with the amount of suits in the Hunter Connection Food Court. The pho tai is the standard Vietnamese beef noodle soup although there is also a meatball option. The soup is impressively flavoured and plays sound backing for the slippery rice noodles, handful of beansprouts and the thinly sliced meat, which cooks itself in the hot soup. A squeeze of lemon, a bit of that sauce, and a bit of this sauce, then you're ready to hunt down a seat while precariously carrying your tray.

Cheese filled zucchini flower from Fix St James,
Elizabeth Street, Sydney

Broad bean salad with prosciutto and soft cooked quail egg
from Fix St James

Fix St James is very much the epitome of how great the unknown can be. I discovered it a few years ago now, and it's hard to beat as a city lunch venue. It's sort of nowhere in particular, but the food and especially the wine are very particular indeed.

This visit, I find it impossible to go past the zucchini flowers. They're straight out of the fryer in a light, pale gold batter and satisfyingly crispy. A squeeze of lemon cuts through the richness of the creamy ricotta cheese filling. My favourite part of the flower is the nub that is the beginnings of a zucchini - pure sweetness with a bit of baby crunch.

Broad beans seem to be in season and very much in vogue too. This was such a pretty salad with the soft cooked egg on top of a nest of leaves, aged prosciutto and sprightly green broad beans. I recall it went very well with the recommended gewursztraminer and I'm looking forward to my next fix here soon.

David Jones Food Hall on Urbanspoon

Jimmy's Recipe on Urbanspoon

Bungalow 8 on Urbanspoon

Fix St. James on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Noodle up - Part I

There's nothing like stepping out of work into sunshine. Yes, I adore daylight savings. And there's nothing like that first beer after work. Indeed, the beer almost congratulates you on a job well done/getting out on time/not cracking it during that meeting/for just being you. And it only gets better when you're out in a park surrounded by stalls of food. It's Night Noodle Market time!

Night Noodle Markets at Hyde Park North, Sydney

The crowds are ever present and the clouds menacing, but there's plenty of seating, loads of food and a seriously charming Coopers beer garden for which a beeline is made. Getting up an appetite for noodles and all other manner of Asian snacks is my excuse; not that I need one.

Mixed platter from Seafood and Eat It (?)

The natural visual advertising that happens when someone walks past with a plate of seafood is pretty powerful. We're drawn to the piles of calamari, prawns and octopus like those annoying bogong moths to one's face. The calamari rings are tender and light, the tentacles packing a bit more flavour and crunch, and the garlic prawns firmly holding their own. With that platter and a Coopers Pale Ale in hand, that dark grey storm cloud doesn't worry me at all.

I must say that dim sum doesn't do it for me as a dinner item - and there's a lot about. Perhaps I'm too stuck in my ways, but har gao and BBQ pork buns just aren't my idea of dinner. On the positive side, it reduces my food choices, and for the indecisive personality - that's great.

Bacon and potato okonomiyaki from JapanCake

A gorgeous kimono-clad female takes orders at the okonomiyaki stall, which proffers beef and cheese, bacon and potato, or vegetarian options. While the cheese addition sounds a little left of convention, the bacon and potato pancake turns out to be 'what we like' just fine. The pancake is cooked to a moist-inner, crunchy-outer state with the bacon bits scattered throughout and doing their thing. It's scrummy but I wonder: would everything taste this good if it had okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise? Quite possibly.

The tables become noticeably scarcer and the queues longer as the evening goes on to its darker side. The air is undoubtedly festive - the fairy lights, lanterns, lion dances, random beetle on my head - also probably due to the fact it was Hump Day (Wednesday) and that it wasn't raining.

Now, just one guess for the following stall, at which the queue continuously snaked at least 50 keen outdoor diners?

Dumplings made on site

It is the unmistakable, the one and only, Din Tai Fung. And indeed, their xiao long bao which they've taken the liberty of proclaiming as "the world's tastiest dumpling". I've yet to try all the dumplings of the world, but I imagine these are somewhere up around there.

Xiao long bao or pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung

These dumplings are smaller than the offerings at the actual restaurant, but given it's festival fare and the smaller size would cook faster - fair enough. In fact, it seemed they couldn't cook fast enough as it was definitely one of the longer and slower queues at the market. But arguably, a worthwhile wait - with beer for sustenance, of course.

Four of these freshly made and steamed mini dumplings in vinegar sauce and ginger strips disappear pretty quickly after receipt. The only complaint is that the delicate pastry skin has a terrible tendency to stick to surfaces (hence the fabric lining at the restuarant) - in this case, the foam dish. Sticking leads to tearing which leads to leaking of the prized soup which leads to drinking of said prized soup along with vinegar sauce out of the container.

Vegetable dumplings from Din Tai Fung

Not quite as delicate, nor delicious, as the pork dumplings are the vegetable option - strong with greens and a pickled vegetable too. Served with similar condiments, the herbivorous option falls short of the xiao long bao highs. Fittingly, we drift away from the markets to the Sydney Life photo exhibition further down Hyde Park. Definitely recommended if you can pull yourself away from the stalls.

The Night Noodle Markets are on for the rest of this week (Mon-Fri only) and next week too. Get your noodle on!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Out of bed and into the frying pan

There are very few things that will get me up early on a Saturday morning. With early morning weekdays, a few beverages to start the weekend and frustratingly bad weather - it had better be real good.

After missing my intended first Sydney International Food Festival event due to poor weather last Saturday (lame, I know), there was no missing the pre-booked cooking class at Selah. In fact, I'd been looking forward to it for a few weeks now - and not early arising, slight seediness nor threatening weather were going to rain on this parade.

On a bus-crammed CBD street near Circular Quay, Selah is inconspicuous but with an immediately welcoming interior - perhaps it's the warm colours, cosy setting or the open, yet intimate kitchen. And it was this commercial kitchen which I was most excited about getting intimate with. Minds out of the gutter for a moment - but how many opportunities do you get to not only invade a restaurant kitchen, but prep, pan-sear, plate and generally pose as a person who can cook in it?

Introductions, caffeine hit and recipe distribution are swift, and we're herded into the tight kitchen to begin prep work as would be done for a real service under the tutelage of head chef Gavin and apprentice Frankie. On the menu is a three course meal that reads dauntingly for the amateur chef side, but mouthwateringly for the diner side.

It's all ears and eyes as the two professionals ably demonstrate and teach; and it's all hands on within minutes. It's a bit of a whirlwind with prep taking place for desserts first and foremost; followed with bits and pieces of the entree and main.

Baked potatoes for gnocchi in the kitchen at Selah,
Loftus Street, Circular Quay

The entree looks adequately ambitious on paper, with gnocchi among the first items. The baked potatoes - thankfully prepared earlier - are quickly split, skinned and put into a fine ricer and cooled to room temperature for our gnocchi making pleasure. It seems simpler than my previous home attempt some time ago but then again, I didn't have a ricer, apprentice chef, and huge benchtop to work with.

After cooling, and light kneading with flour and egg yolks; we make sausages that become pillows that become bottom-of-the sea lumps that become floaters that become blanched gnocchi ready for pan frying. They say many hands make light work - they said nothing about consistency.

Blanched potato gnocchi

The dish is a sauteed gnocchi dish with king prawns, tomato concasse (fancy French for diced tomato), pine nuts and a burnt butter sauce. I try to look away when the 'generous' blocks of butter are added to the pan but what's a burnt butter sauce without butter?

Gnocchi entree all ready to go

And most excitingly, we get to plate! Warmed plates, lovely restaurant setting and wine to match just wouldn't be right without a bit of affected positioning of ingredients and sauce, and of course, the wiping of plates! Following chef Gavin's lead, I'm pretty happy with my efforts.

Sauteed king prawns with potato gnocchi, tomato concasse,
pine nuts and burnt butter

The gnocchi were not floatingly light, but with a bit of resistence that was ideal paired with the crunchy pan-fry coat. The sauce of such simple ingredients came together harmoniously although there was a hint too much lemon, refreshing as it was with the prawns. The revelation was the addition of brandy-soaked muscatels - their sweetness valiantly combatting the rich butter sauce alongside the meticulously diced tomatoes.

The entree downed with a glass of white, there was no time to rest or relax - mains service was coming up and the diners were sort of waiting. The main was a fairly straighforward sounding lamb dish, but the preparation of the many components was actually quite unexpected - though nothing compared to the dessert.

Roasting capsicums on the naked flame

With the mortar and pestle (and a volunteer's arm) getting a good workout pounding roasted whole spices for marinating lamb backstraps, we others turned our attention to a myriad of vegetables. I was delighted to see Chef throw several bright red capsicums directly onto the stove's flame - I've always wanted to do this but never quite dared at home.

There was also eggplant to be roasted and transformed into a salad; witlof to be julienned by a dangerous new lust in Shun knives; watercress to be picked; chiffonades of herbs to be prepared and a mint yoghurt to be whipped up. We were busy little bees in the kitchen and there was a sense of collective achievement when it came time to slice the seared lamb and plate up.

Plating the lamb

Oh what fun it is to plate with a round mold at one's disposal. I've discovered the joy of putting in a bit of effort with plating as opposed to my often eating from the pan. There's a time a place for both, I think.

Spiced roast lamb with witlof, eggplant, peppers, parsley
and mint yoghurt

After quite a filling entree, this huge main looked almost a challenge. The lamb was seared with a spice crust and finished off in the oven, driving my sudden need to buy a cast iron frying pan. The medium-rare meat was set on top of a salad of julienned roast capsicum and witlof, and hand-picked watercress. I'm beginning to understand why restaurant menus are sometimes listed so extensively as with all the efforts we put in, it would be a shame for any ingredient to not get a billing on the menu.

The roasted eggplant was super easy, as too the mint-spiked yoghurt, and both things I could see myself having at home. The main was rounded off with a "here's one I prepared earlier" veal jus and parsley oil for colour and interest. The various components of the main melded together fantastically, with flavour spikes in the yoghurt and lamb tempered with sweetness in the salad and eggplant.

A necessary pause after the main ensued - we were getting rather full of food and wine, and mostly, we were just a bit tired from all the work. To think we hadn't even gotten through a full service for 10 yet. While there was temptation to let the professionals deliver dessert while we napped, the lure of plating a restaurant dessert was a little more desirable.

Getting ready to plate dessert

Working as a team, we'd made toffee cream pannacotta at the very beginning; baked a ginger and spice cake; segmented oranges for a compote; made a toffee orange sauce; made hazelnut praline and then turned it into round wafers; and made candied orange peel. Somehow, this was all done amid prep and cooking for the other meals, so serious kudos to whoever has to deal with a hectic working order as such.

Working as smoothly as a conveyor belt now, the team all pitched in to recreate the artistic assembly that was to be our third course. Given the amount of work in this dish, I don't think I'll any longer ponder the value of eating a restaurant dessert.

Toffee cream panacotta with spiced gingerbread, praline wafer,
orange compote and orange candy

I think this is one of those gasping desserts although the almost unanimous "Mmm..." around the table upon tasting the pannacotta makes me think it's a "Oooh... Mmm..." kind of dessert.

The pannacotta is more the thick custard type rather than the wobbling jelly type, rich with vanilla and caramel flavour. The toffee sauce is subtle on the orange and partners the chai-like cake like a little devil and angel on each shoulder. The candied peel is delightfully chewy with the tiniest twang of peel bitterness and the compote plays a beautifully sophisticated textural role. My favourite component by far is the praline: freshly roasted hazelnuts set in toffee; blitzed to smithereens in a processer to be reformed as thin wafer rounds of insatiety. More please.

It's a pretty big dessert and following our prior two courses, it's no real surprise that no-one wants to get up or move. We wile away time in a sort of food coma; surrounded by food in its many forms and all its beauty. The afternoon's turned into a pretty, sunny day and I found it hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend it. Many compliments to the Chef and Selah - and just now to install a day bed for that post-main meal nap.

Selah on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What's in a name?

Stench blossoms and scum drops aside, The Meat & Wine Co is up there for straightforward names. It's to the point - if only I can work out what's not quite on the spot.

We're there an early Saturday night with a massive table and within the first few moments of service, I feel we're in for a messy night. Thank goodness for the rib bibs and my patience that increases with alcohol consumption. The wine list isn't as exciting as the wine-stacked spiral staircase would indicate, but it's not all about the wine. It's about the meat too.

Half rack pork ribs with mashed potato from
The Meat & Wine Co, Darling Harbour

After sharing bread platters (note: there's 10 pieces per serve) to start, it really is all about the meat and wine. The ribs imposingly take us back to prehistoric times, with bones waved in the air and basting juices dribbling down bibs. There are struggles with the ribs but man eventually emerges, stained but victorious.

Dry aged rib eye on the bone (pasture fed) with salad

My rib eye is slightly less imposing, especially with the salad on the side - which turns out to be a regrettable decision, as a stolen chip proves to be a pretty amazing, chunky, tasty and fluffy stolen chip. Nevertheless, the thick steak is cooked to a perfect medium and needs nothing more than hot English mustard to accompany the tender beefy goodness.

Pan-fried giant prawns

So it wasn't meat and wine all round; there were also beers and prawns, and what big prawns they were. Split and grilled, these massive crustaceans were served with a dome of white rice and sweet chilli sauce.

Salt and pepper calamari (front) and caesar salad (back)

I love the concept of eatining multiple entrees, which is what one at the table did. The salt and pepper calamari was golden crumbed and ludicrously soft and tender. A little lacking on the spicing it was, but compensated with loads of lemon and again, sweet chilli sauce.

The caesar salad had the all makings of the classic - crunchy cos lettuce; parmesan; croutons; a coddled egg - but for some chewy rather than crispy bacon.

All that meat and wine calls for one thing - dessert. Or in the case of our table of oversized appetites, many desserts.

Cheese and fruit plate

The prettily presented cheese and fruit plate seemed an odd collection with watermelon and rocket amid figs, crackers, and three cheeses - none of which made it to my end of the table. Which wasn't all that much of a concern given the platter before me.

The Grand Finale dessert platter

For once, indecision was not a problem as I dipped and dug my spoon through the quintet of sweets on the huge glass platter. The creme brulee was decent without being spectacular; the chocolate fondant was full of gooey inner goodness, pairing with the scoop of vanilla ice cream perched on its very own stand made of chocolate; the strawberry tart pretty but missing a taste summit; and the mango cheesecake surprisingly light in texture and flavour.

As we all toy dangerously with the need/want to roll over and snooze after the massive meal, it seems the restaurant is yet bustling and buzzing. I still can't quite put my finger on the place - its certainly pricey for what it is but there is the locational offset to that. Perhaps it's the unshakeable feel of a franchise - albeit a nice, upclass one. Whatever it is, I can't quite name it.

Meat & Wine on Urbanspoon


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