Saturday, December 31, 2011

What a year, 2011

This year has been an enormous year, and that's not just in regards to my stomach capacity. There have been more weddings and events than ever, new jobs and seemingly more work, and just a constant flow of activities that are keeping me well away from my bookshelf.

So now it's cheers to a great 2011 and fingers crossed for an even better 2012. Here are some of my standout eats and drinks from the year that was 2011.

Roti pisang in Muar, Malaysia
I got my roti fill when I was in Malaysia in the beginning of the year, ordering it at every chance. The frozen at-home packs unfortunately don't compare to the freshly made in texture nor price. This roti pisang in Penang was breakfast heaven.

Banh cuon in Hanoi, Vietnam
The food highlight in Hanoi, Vietnam was this freshly made banh cuon; straight from the hands of a teenage boy who looked like he'd been making rice noodles for years. I'll cherish the memory of sitting on plastic stools in a laneway, with scooters passing closely behind, eating the freshest banh cuon ever.

Piña colada nitro puff at Zeta Bar, Hilton Sydney, George Street, Sydney
Zeta Bar knows how to party, and head mixologist Grant Collins isn't afraid to experiment with liquid nitrogen - case in point these amazing piña colada nitro puffs at a tiki-themed event where guests were blowing boozey, coconut-y cold air out their noses.

Roasted lamb cutlet crusted with Massaman curry and lime leaf served with
cucumber and mint jelly at LL Wine and Dine, Llankelly Place, Kings Cross
Laneways are starting to take a greater hold on Sydney outings, and LL Wine and Dine impresses with food and drinks offerings. This tender-as lamb cutlet was made spectacular by its curry crumb and explosively-flavoured mint jelly.

Crispy fried Brussels sprouts with lentils and mint at Porteño,
Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
I discovered my love for Brussels sprouts after my first visit to Porteño. Along with the best-ever roast pork - seriously, the best - a side dish of deep fried Brussels sprout, lentils and mint dressed in vin cotto had me swooning. And lucky for us all, the recipe is easier than a Friday or Saturday night wait at the cavernous Surry Hills restaurant.

Spiced dark mousse with honeycomb and strawberry wafers at the Emirates Marquee,
Doncaster Day at Randwick Racecourse
The Spanish-themed Emirates Marquee on Doncaster Day, under cover from the rain, was an excellent day on with more food and celebrities than you could poke a stick at. The chocolate mousse with a chilli kick, honeycomb and dehydrated strawberry wafers was not just a beautiful construction but mind-blowing in flavour too.

Scampi aburi sushi from Kabuki Shoroku, Clarence Street, Sydney
Scampi is amazing at most any level but at Kabuki Shoroku, torched and topped with a line of spicy mayonnaise and tobiko flying fish row, this scampi nigiri was absolutely sensational as was the very traditional setting and service of the restaurant.

Espresso martini at Shirt Bar, Sussex Lane, Sydney
It seems 2011 was the year of the espresso martini and themed bars - and I'm happy both trends rolled around. The coffee cocktail at Shirt Bar is an exemplary version made with FAT Coffee, vanilla vodka and coffee liqueur with a propper steamed milk froth.

Glow On cocktail for Vivid Sydney from Sake Restaurant & Bar, The Rocks, Sydney
Festivals and food go hand in hand and this mulled plum wine and sake cocktail was the perfect partner for a chilly evening out for this year's Vivid Sydney festival. Brown sugar umeshu plum wine, cinnamon syrup, Montenegro liquor warmed and finished off with sake, this was a winter winner at Sake Restaurant & Bar.

Casareccia with roast eggplant, goat’s cheese, portobello mushrooms,
black olives
from Café Sopra, Danks Street, Waterloo
This year casareccia has solidified its place as my favourite pasta variety. From specialty deli purchases to the gorgeous pasta at Cafe Sopra, I can't get enough of the mid-length s-scrolls that always seem perfectly al dente, even at home and especially with eggplant and cheese.

Ravioli of potato, mint and pecorino with burnt butter, sage and black truffle from
Pilu at Freshwater, Moore Road, Freshwater
As for a special occasion pasta dish, I can't go past the stunning potato, mint and pecorino culurzones at the beachside Pilu at Freshwater. The butter and black truffle sauce makes the fresh ravioli something truly luxurious and decadent.

Grilled mackerel with teriyaki sauce at Izakaya Fujiyama, Waterloo Street, Surry Hills
Fabulous drinking food and a good range of sake easily make Izakaya Fujiyama the best izakaya experience in the area (CBD included). This daily special of grilled mackerel is a must-have if it's on the menu - the fish is fresh and firm, and gets all caramelly with teriyaki sauce with amazing grill flavours.

Pan fried olive and parmesan sandwich from Gotham, Oxford Street, Darlinghurst
It was a genius who decided to put olives and cheese together in a sandwich; a pan fried sourdough one at that. Bar food has gone up a few notches at Gotham, where classy interiors and spacious seating arrangements guarantee good time spent with the bar food menu.

Nduja and goat's cheese with pizza wedges at Bruno's, Oxfoed Street, Darlinghurst
I like most salami; I love most nduja - the spicy salami that's more like a paste of cured pork. These footballs at Bruno's were perhaps the spiciest and the best I've had this year, matched with heat pain-reducing goat's cheese.

Chocolate marquise with caramel and salted hazelnuts at Margan Restaurant,
Milbrodale Road, Broke, Hunter Valley
I had a fabulous time racing around Hunter Valley this year, and it all ended with on a high note at Margan Restaurant in Broke. Dinner in the Barrel Room was an experience to remember and the rich chocolate dessert with roasted, salted hazelnut ended the race spectacularly.

Fried green curried prawn mousseline, drizzled with pickled plum sauce
at Chat Thai, Westfield Sydney
It appears as though CBD-folk are pretty satisfied with the new Westfield Sydney outlet of Chat Thai, if the queues are anything to go by. When you do get a table, be sure to grab a cocktail and the todt mun goong gaeng keaw - prawn wrapped in curried prawn mousse and deep fried with basil leaves.

Takoyaki class at Chef's Armoury, Botany Road, Rosebery
Believe it or not, one of the most fun and useful things I've learnt this year is how to make takoyaki octopus balls at Chef's Armoury. While it takes a while and can be a little tedious, I've already taught three other people how to make takoyaki, and I'm sure there will be more. And the cheese version is almost even better than the octopus one.

Otak otak from Chinta Ria... Mood for Love, Westfield Sydney
I had otak otak fish cake in its place of origin, Muar, Malaysia and I had otak otak at the newest Chinta Ria... Mood for Love. I liked both but I think the latter was better for texture and flavour, especially chilli. A price comparison, however, isn't really fair.

Jow's sweet and sour lamb ribs at Ms. G's, Victoria Street, Potts Point
It took me a while to get to Potts Point hot spot, Ms. G's, and I admit, I was a little skeptical. One bite into the sweet and sour lamb ribs and I'd jumped on the modern Asian, fusion, dude food bandwagon. The food was top notch, decent value and pretension free.

Moreton Bay bug sashimi at Sokyo, The Star, Pyrmont
Sokyo at the re-launched casino, The Star, opened to relatively little fanfare compared to some of its neighbours, other than boasting Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire as regulars for a good part of the year. I can see the mouthwatering Moreton Bay bug sashimi dish becoming a signature dish, with its cheeky Vegemite croutons flying the flag for Australia.

Ocean trout terrine with cornichons from Felix, Ash Street, Sydney
While ivy is no longer a regular hangout for me, I'd love to be a regular at Felix in the downstairs laneway. This French bistro excels in seafood: freshly shucked oysters from the seafood bar, the luxe lobster roll at lunch at the bar or this dill-heavy ocean trout terrine with cornichons to graze with cocktails.

Thank you for all your support and kind comments throughout the year - here's to plenty more Food, Booze and Shoes in 2012. I wish you a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Flavour of Moscow comes to InterContinental Sydney

My experience with Russia and all things Russian is pretty much limited to a Moscow Mule. Which is an appropriate introduction to 'A Flavour of Moscow'; a Russian experience at the InterContinental Sydney which is on now until 31 January 2012.

Cortile Lounge, InterContinental Sydney, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Celebrating the opening of InterContinental Moscow Tverskaya, the five-star InterContinental Sydney hotel is adding a taste of Russia to the lobby bar cocktail menu and the Cafe Opera buffet.

At the airy, light-filled Cortile Lounge on the ground floor, Russian-inspired vodka based cocktails feature alongside mojitos; with a two-for-one offer ($25) on cocktails from 5.00-7.00pm every day.

Moscow Mule at the Cortile Lounge
The refreshing Moscow Mule is packed with ice, a 'black' vodka, lime and ginger beer and is the ultimate summer cocktail, which makes the Russian connection a little contradictory.

Russian Mule
A close relative, the Russian Mule, comes from the same line of vodka, lime and ginger beer with the addition of mint leaves, and has a lot more flavour for it.

From Russia With Love cocktail
The third Russian inspired cocktail is more aptly a dessert cocktail, featuring vodka, Chambord, cranberry juice and cream. Not exactly pretty unstirred, this rich and saccharine-sweet drink was an unexpected winning flavour combination.

We headed up to Cafe Opera on Level 1 via the antiquated elevator that was as much fun to operate as the cocktails. The regular buffet option at Cafe Opera has been given 'A Flavour of Moscow' in addition to the seafood and hot roasts, with lunch starting from $55 per person and dinner from $65 per person.

Fresh seafood at the Cafe Opera buffet
Considering the buffet features daily-changing fresh seafood such as Sydney rock oysters, tiger prawns, New Zealand mussels and spanner crab, the price isn't too much to ask.

The Russian inspired buffet additions are inspired by the InterContinental Moscow Tverskaya’s executive chef Olev Chesnokov, and change daily with the buffet.

Cold food options
There's also an exciting, seafood-heavy array of cold salads with more dressings than I probably knew existed, as well as sushi and cured seafoods and meat.

For the 'A Flavour of Moscow' feature, separate to the rest of the buffet and aside the bread served with Pepe Saya cultured butter, there were interesting and uncommon foods spread across a deli set-up

Smoked sprats
The prettily arranged headless smoked sprats were much like sardines with a divine smokiness that added a sweetness to the oily fish.

Russian stuffed egg
The stuffed eggs were irresistably beautiful, with a creamy egg yolk mixture piped in to refill emptied boiled egg white sections. There wasn't really anything interesting taste-wise, but the gorgeous piping made up for that.

Moscow salami
While I've yet to meet a salami that I don't like, I struggle to really tell the difference between, for example, Hungarian or various Italian salami. So, I can say I liked this salami just as much as I like other salamis - which is plenty, and particularly with cornichons.

Russian cheese
We couldn't get an identifying name for this Russian cow's milk cheese, but it was unlike any other I've tried. As salty as a salty feta cheese, but with a texture almost like margarine, this holey cheese was lovely spread on fresh, crusty white bread.

My buffet plate with 'A Flavour of Moscow'
And with the addition of Russian pickles - tomato, gherkin, celery and squash, all wonderfully fragrant with dill - this was 'A Flavour of Moscow'.

There was nothing scarily alien to me about the Russian food experience here, although I was hanging out for some blinis (about the only Russian food item I previously knew).

Seafood salads and cured meats
Of the rest of the Cafe Opera menu, we happily went to and fro to collect the likes of smoked salmon and a scallop salad from the cold salad buffet; the latter consisting of scallops, minimal vegetable and dressing.

Fresh seafood
I may have been seen at the fresh seafood buffet several times in the night, but I can't be blamed. Blame the oysters or me wanting to try fresh spanner crab, which was as much work as normal crab but unfortunately didn't have the sea-sweet flavour of mud crab or even blue swimmer crabs.

Sydney rock oysters
But the oysters, oh the oysters. Pretty much the best I've had all year, these Sydney rocks had it all going on. Impeccably fresh, plump and so very creamy, even the occasional bit of shell didn't deter me from heading back for more.

While I usually like a red wine vinegar dressing on my natural oysters, these needed nothing at all but a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. These oysters and a glass of Kilikanoon Vouvray, and all was right in the world.

Scallop salad (left) and crab salad (right)
The sheer quality of the buffet was impressive as it's obviously quality over quantity. The crab salad, for example, was predominantly picked crab and not much else. The seafood was super fresh and the Pepa Saya butter probably topped it all off.

Roast turkey (back), lamb skewers (back right), baked sweet potato (front)
and baked ham (front left)
In time for the festive season, the carvery featured both roast turkey and baked ham - both of which were done very well, full of flavour and moisture and irresistable a few days before Christmas.

Dessert buffet
By the time dessert was on my mind, I think I'd eaten more than my fair share of oysters and turkey, and couldn't really fathom anything more than a mouthful or four of ice cream from a self-serve section.

The refrigerated dessert section looked like a sweet tooth's fantasy land, but for me it would have to be another visit's sweet ending. I was completely done, in my typical buffet style, and having had 'A Flavour of Moscow', would definitely be up for a visit to Russia to sample more of those pickles, smoked fish and vodka, of course.

Food, booze and shoes dined at the Cortile Lounge and Cafe Opera courtesy of InterContinental Sydney, with thanks to Starr Public Relations. 

Available exclusively to InterContinental Sydney’s exclusive Club lounge guests, a complimentary menu of Russian vodkas and vodka-based cocktails will be served at twilight, accompanied by Russian canapés, such as Ukranian potato pancake, salmon kulebiaka and Crimean mussel pilaf. Guests can also enjoy a selection of Russian a la carte dishes while overlooking the harbour and Botanic Gardens.

Cafe Opera on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Gingerbread house display at Café Opera, InterContinental Sydney,
Macquarie Street, Sydney
So I haven’t had a chance to bake gingerbread this year (planning an elaborate Boxing Day barbeque doesn’t make Christmas easy, in hindsight).

But I’m sure any attempt of mine to make a gingerbread house would be nowhere near this version by students at Le Cordon Bleu, proudly displayed outside Café Opera on Level 1 of the InterContinental Sydney.

Gingerbread house with firewood and lights inside
Check out the detail: from the animated figurines, the windows and lights of the houses, the stacks of ‘firewood’, and my personal favourite, an inebriated guy slumped against the side of his house surrounded by empty bottles.

I spy... a croquembouche on the table in the gingerbread house!
Merry Christmas everyone – I hope your day is filled with loved ones, gorgeous food and plentiful booze (and remember to eat and drink responsibly!). Keep an eye out on my Christmas feasting on my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Sheep and their gingerbread barn and fence

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Right at home at Encasa

After a long stint away, you want to come home to what you know and love. New adventures and relationships can always be found, but for the lucky ones that have it, home is where the heart and soul are.

After a long absence from Encasa, it's amazing how easy it is just to slip comfortably back in to order a jug of sangria and the usuals on an as-always packed Friday night.

Ensalada con queso - salad with cheese from Encasa, Pitt Street, Haymarket
The salad with goat's cheese is the only way to go for a salad fix here. Sweet roasted red capsicum, black olives and mixed lettuce leaves provide a little early respite from what is always a protein- and carb-heavy meal at Encasa.

Patatas bravas - Fried potato with garlic mayonnaise and spicy tomato sauce
I remember in earlier days, the patatas bravas used to be served in the small, round terracotta tapas dishes. It's now grown to a small oval dish and no-one is complaining. It just means more crunchy, golden chunks of potato smothered in aioli and spicy tomato sauce for everyone.

Chorizo a la sidra - Spanish sausage poached in cider
This version of the spicy Spanish sausage is a little more subdued than the normal grilled version as it is cooked in cider, with some of the sweetness penetrating the big, salty slices of chorizo.

Mejillones a la Marinera - Black mussels in fresh tomato sauce with chilli and basil
The prettily arranged dish of mussels is not how I remember the dish from prior visits, but I guess it's been a while. The perfectly cooked molluscs are a silky, soft delight to eat, and are given a bit of a kick with the spicy tomato sauce that's made for mopping up with white bread rolls.

Gambas Sevillanas - King prawns in spicy tomato salsa
Bread rolls also come in very handy for the even spicier king prawns in a chilli spiked tomato sauce - sometimes painful but one of my favourite tapas at Encasa. The large, whole prawns are always cooked to perfection, and on this occasion, burningly hot in temperature too.

Champiñones al ajillo - Garlic mushrooms
There is no shortage of garlic or oil with the mushrooms - whole and chopped button mushrooms that are cooked ever so slightly so as to retain a fresh firmness.

To be honest, I've never even seen the dessert menu at Encasa - we generally stuff ourselves with the tapas. And as always, we were closer to rolling out of Encasa than walking out, but when it's something you know and love rather well, it's easy to feel right at home doing so.

Encasa on Urbanspoon


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