Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bistro Avoca: Randwick gets a little fresh

While I was more familiar with the suburb of Randwick a decade ago, it’s nice to see it from fresh eyes today – though not a great deal seems to have changed. Good old Ritz is still there with all manner of restaurants lining The Spot crossroads, while the balls still roll at the ten pin bowling alley on the main road.

Bistro Avoca, Avoca Street, Randwick
Bistro Avoca is a relatively new addition to the strip of small restaurants on Avoca Street just past Randwick Junction. Moving into the suburban location in June this year, husband and wife team Barry Baker and Erin Fitzgerald are bringing fresh, modern Australian cuisine to the strip dominated by cheerful ethnic eats.

Inside Bistro Avoca
The cosy, intimate dining room oozes understated class; the wood on white look matches well with the seemingly posh, mature locals – families, groups and ladies who look like they socialise a lot.

It's more sophisticated than your average suburban restaurant, which is an intriguing niche that Randwick appears to have been dying for (I’m told Friday and Saturday nights get completely booked out).

The clever food menu begins with starters to share followed by entrées and mains, but it’s the wine menu that astonishes me. Wines by the glass are all under $8 while no bottle of wine exceeds $40 – prices quite unheard of. Plus the restaurant allows BYO wine from Tuesdays through to Thursdays.

Thai oyster shots with, fresh herbs and ginger, garlic, chilli, lemongrass & lime nam jim
Impressed with drinks – I have a flute of Barossa Valley Carrington Vintage Brut ($6.50) – we move straight on to oyster shots to start. In a shot glass with a tomato liquid, the plump oysters are topped with mint, coriander, fried shallots and the tops of celery sticks.

It wasn't a one throwback shooter, but the melee of flavours in the mildly spiced, Thai inspired shot reached a peak with the release of briney juices from the oyster. It wasn’t easy stopping at just one, especially those deliciously fresh oysters.

Salt & pepper squid with spring onions, chilli and lime
The salt and pepper squid is a crowd pleaser and could easily be shared among five as a starter. Gorgeously tender squid strips are coated in a golden, subtly spiced batter with fresh mild chilli and lime adding pizazz.

A heavier hand in seasoning could have made this the best S&P squid ever, but it still stands as the best value squid dish I’ve seen in a while ($8.50).

Blinis served warm with sliced smoked salmon, pickled Spanish onion and dill sour cream
I started to get more of an inkling of the very generous portions at Bistro Avoca when the first entrée of smoked salmon blinis arrived.

The long, rectangular plate was virtually covered in the bright orange smoked salmon, twisted over pikelet-sized blinis with cucumber slices, pickled Spanish onion in a fine dice and dill-spiked sour cream splodges.

Crisp fried pork belly, sweet chilli glaze, shoestring potatoes, watercress salad
And the size trend continued with the deep fried pork belly dish with perky watercress piled high over golden chunks of meat. The pork belly was crazy crunchy but also deliciously flavoured beneath the texture.

The raw vegetables alleviated some of the guilt in such a decadent entrée; though not so much the deep fried potato straws.

Twice cooked crisp duck leg with apple, radish and celery salad, candied walnuts
The duck entrée easily could have passed as a well-sized main meal. The golden brown whole leg had a delectable layer of crisp skin; presumably from a deep fry after an initial cooking.

The rich, moist flesh matched insanely well with the salad nest of Waldorf-esque sweet and tart green apple, radish, thinly cut celery and candied walnuts. Just all round lovely washed down with a most affordable glass of 2008 Vasse Felix Shiraz Cabernet ($7.50).

Seared sea scallops, cauliflower puree, bacon crumble and pesto oil
With the scallop entrée, it wasn’t so much a gigantic serving but monster-sized scallops with smears of cauliflower puree dabbed with bright green pesto oil.

The bacon crumble was a great textural addition atop each huge, bouncy mollusc and added flavour to the scallops which, while impressive in size, seemed to lack their usual natural sea-sweetness.

Medallions of beef, roast potato, sweet pumpkin puree, asparagus and
cracked pepper hollandaise
My main meal featured two rounds of beef sitting atop two same sized rounds of roast potato, further topped with rather breakfast-y asparagus and hollandaise sauce, ringed with jus and nubbins of asparagus stalks.

The pumpkin puree added sweetness to the overall dish while the tenderness of the beef was a real highlight, even though the stomach seemed to be reaching a capacity of sorts after just one of the medallions.

Lamb rump with colcannon, deep fried zucchini flowers and sugar snap peas
The lamb main almost looked like an entrée and main together on one plate, with a side too. The three stuffed and battered zucchini flowers could well have been an entrée at many other establishments, but here they garnished three thick slices of medium rare lamb.

And beneath, colcannon – mashed potato with bacon, cabbage and other bits – added more sustenance for the man-sized meal. I’m glad we decided to forgo orders of sides but we had to make room for dessert.

Dessert special: Lemon meringue with ice cream
The 'crazy prices' wine list returned to bring two ridiculously reasonably priced dessert wine options by the glass. It was getting way too easy to eat too much and drink too much, but with a dessert special of classic lemon meringue pie looking so good, it didn’t feel quite as bad.

Bistro Avoca tasting plate: coconut pannacotta, raspberry jelly and
dark chocolate mousse
Dessert tasting plates are generally good for hedging bets as there’s usually enough variety among the choices to please anyone. So I was a little surprised at the almost traffic light set of glasses that was the dessert tasting plate.

The chocolate mousse was by far the best: a big chocolate hit, airy as a cloud texture and a bit of crunch with the praline crumbs on top. The raspberry jelly was pleasant with the mousse, with real bits of raspberry heightening the experience.

(Clockwise from left) Coconut panna cotta, dessert wine and raspberry jelly
The coconut panna cotta, whichI had considered ordering singularly, was most decent except for the eye-wateringly sour layer of lime jelly across the top while the coconut biscotti was also a little confusing.

Vanilla and raspberry Bombe Alaska with rhubarb confit and praline
The winner of the dessert round had to be the Bombe Alaska. Glistening with torched peaks of shiny meringue similar to the lemon meringue, inside there was a thin base of cake and a duo of ice cream, including a pink raspberry one that tasted like happiness and jam.

The cooked rhubarb and praline bits added colour and interest to the overall plating, but ultimately were unneccessary. Just more of that raspberry ice cream would have kept me happy for days.

The restaurant was surprisingly not empty at a fairly late weeknight hour, with plenty of happy faces still dining on the, let's admit it, large servings of modern Australian food. And with such good value and interesting dishes to be had, Bistro Avoca is a welcome breath of freshness for Randwick.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Bistro Avoca with thanks to Charlotte Foot Public Relations.

Bistro Avoca on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bill & Toni's just fine

The death knell for fine dining has been sounding for quite some time. From unexpected three-hat restaurant closures to refreshed approaches to existing restaurant styles, fine diners are generally not the ones creating the most excitement among the masses.

On a well known street in Darlinghurst, restaurants come and go like the fashions turn. There are also some stayers on the 'Little Italy' of Stanley Street that baffle and then there are others, like Bill & Toni's, that are still going after more than 40 years of trade.

Orange cordial at Bill & Toni's Restaurant, Stanley Street, Darlinghurst
The upstairs restaurant of Bill & Toni's is shabby to say the least, but taking me right back to suburban Italian family restaurants where laminated picture menus feature alongside walls covered in postcards from Italy.

The outdoor balcony looks pretty as a picture, but we're distracted by the arrival of both water and orange cordial at the table. Complimentary orange cordial would have been an absolute treat for me some 20-odd years ago. Now, it's quaint and perhaps a tad unsophisticated, but we're not complaining on a balmy late evening.

There's even less complaint looking at the menu, where prices probably haven't changed in the last decade. A limited selection of pasta as a first dish starts at $10 (lasagna and marinara $12). Mains are all $16. Mains with a pasta side are $18, while a full main with a full pasta are $22. Enough said.

Penne bolognaise
The premise is fairly straightforward: a limited and simple menu; obviously contributing to keeping prices down. The penne bolognaise reminds me of high school lunches: a generous dollop of rich tomato sauce full of minced meat and just slightly over al dente pasta, and of course, parmesan cheese.

Lettuce salad on the side
With the mains comes a rather large stainless steel bowl of torn iceberg lettuce leaves, dressed in what seems like white vinegar. It does the job as a vegetable addition and not much more (even less than my local steakhouse).

Calves liver with onions
There's quite the selection of mains; and everything one would expect too. Calves liver with onion are just that; both grilled and served with a wedge of lemon and home style boiled carrot sticks and green beans. What the dish lacks in flavour it makes up for in quantity.

Scaloppine pizzaiola
Same goes for my main of the veal scaloppine, which would serve four in some restaurants. The tomato sauce had taken on a lot of the flavour from the black olives, while the veal was tender without being overly exciting. It was happy days mopping up the sauce with the basket full of complimentary white bread; fresh and perfectly fluffy for the job.

Indeed, the veal was even good the next day as the huge serving portions meant takeaway boxes were needed. Cheap, cheerful, and hearty servings; true to what it is and has been for the last 40 years, I think Bill & Toni's is just fine the way it is.

Bill & Toni's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Well watered and educated on Cocktail Island

Cockatoo Island was an absolute riot of activity this weekend just passed. With the one-weekend-only booze-fest Cocktail Island, the street art festival Outpost and the balmy weather for just hanging out at The Island Bar, there was every reason to join the masses waiting for a ferry at Wharf 4, Circular Quay.

Crowds enjoying Cocktail Island on Cockatoo Island, 20 November 2011

Part of the Outpost Project on Cockatoo Island
The Cocktail Island event was an uphill walk to the Upper Island part of Cockatoo Island, with masterclasses, tastings and exhibition stands housed in a couple of buildings in the Convict Precinct (apt, really).

Sufficiently warmed after the walk to the Upper Island, we headed straight to the exhibition hall where cocktails could be bought for anything from 3 to 10 Island Dollars (which equated to normal Aussie dollars) from a range of spirited stands and associated fun-loving bar hands.

Cocktail with St Germain, sparkling wine and lemon zest

Cocktails with Hendricks Gin

The West Winds Gin - Australian gin!

666 Vodka served with young coconut juice in a young coconut

Tasting Theatre: History and Future of the Margarita
Upstairs in the Tasting Theatre, we'd caught the start of the Patrón tequila session hosted by Gee David. With decent sized tastes of Patrón Silver and then margarita samples on offer, it was quite interesting to see the mixed views across the room. A few sniffs yielded woody and citrus flavours, as well as gasoline and "a party".

Sample of Patrón Silver (it's a shot sized, 30ml cup)
Sipping the Patrón Silver, we were instructed to hold it if the mouth a while to really suss out the flavours. Admittedly, I never did this in my youth though I guess I wasn't drinking Patrón either. There were flashes of familiarity but on the whole, it wasn't too negative an experience.

The shaken margarita was decidedly better, made with Patrón Citronge; the citrus flavoured tequila in place of Cointreau as per a traditional margarita.

Patrón tequila in the Tasting Theatre
It was an educational session where we learnt that the correct service of a margarita entails two questions: "On the rocks?" and "Salt rim?".

While these are standard for a Tommy's Margarita (more further down), apparently it's not for a traditional margarita which is most commonly served straight up with a half or full salt rim.

I also learnt that National Margarita Day occurs on 22 February every year - so chuck that one in next year's diary (note: buy 2012 diary).

Picnic area on Cocktail Island
Back outside, the wind had picked up but not so much as to disturb the happy pinickers making the most of the free Mount Franklin sparkling water and a place to sit. After the quick start to the day's drinking and with plenty more to go, food was on the mind somewhat with one stall offering burgers, pies and other fine drinking fare.

Free popcorn at Cocktail Island
I don't know who worked out that popcorn and cocktails are great friends, but they sure are. The balancing act of sweet drinks and salty snacks works a dream, and we scoffed the bag full of buttery popcorn in moments, just ahead of a provocatively named tour led by Jason Crawley, Creative Director of Mixxit.

Seven Drinks to Try Before You Die at Cocktail Island
Seven tastes of classic cocktails is fair enough; all within 30 minutes through dark passages into themed bar areas was a different matter. The first cocktail took the tour group back to the Prohibition years with The Greyhound made of Russian vodka and golden grapefruit juice on ice.

A little too easy to drink, the bitterness of the juice makes this an ideal pre eating drink. With a salt rim, and sometimes gin instead of vodka, the drink becomes a Salty Dog.

The Official Mixer's Manual - first published circa 1934
The Last Word cocktail is made with gin, maraschino liqueur, lime juice and green chartreuse, and it's from here that things got a little hazy. I recall thumbing through a rare cocktail book and then heading into the next tiki themed bar area and even Crawley mentioning that Australia's best tiki bar was in Perth.

I remember a Mai Tai creamy in flavour (Cruzer rum, lime juice, orgeat, triple sec and vanillar) before being lumped a with a full serve of The Blinker, consisting of Jim Beam Rye Whisky, golden grapefruit juice and grenadine.

Final themed bar of the Seven Drinks to Try Before You Die tour
All through the tour, Crawley was an endless fountain of knowledge, with so much infomation spurting out that my not-so-sober self still managed to retain a few.

In this last themed room, we sampled a Mint Julep which for me was sweet enough to hide the Maker's Mark bourbon, and a Blood & Sand with Scotch cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth and orange juice.

Jason Crawley, Creative Director at Mixxit
I'm pretty sure it had something to do with all the mixing of drinks and moving about different rooms/venues/eras but I was pretty happy all the cocktails despite being triple parked at the end when (keeping count?) there was still one drink to collect.

Cognac Punch - 1920s style
All cocktails we currently drink are essentially a form of punch with something added or removed. Called the "founding father" of all mixed drinks, it makes sense as punch dates as far back at 1576.

Cognac Punch (right) and Blood & Sand (left) cocktails
Our final drink of the tour was the Cognac Punch, ladled out from a boat by a 1920s styled server. I'm sure everyone who left the tour had at least two cups in hand and may have had a little trouble walking a straight line (or was it just me?). The moment seriously called for food and a pie later, we were ready for more.

ABSOLUT Flavour Akademi Master Class with Ben Davidson
The Master Class room was filled for the Absolut session and with a couple of bottles of vodka on each table, it looked like it was going to be a corker session. Kind of needing to sit, we instead headed back upstairs to the Tasting Theatre and found comfy seating and the Chivas Regal tasting.

Age Matters tasting session by Chivas Regal, Royal Salute and The Glenlivet
Five samples of Scotch whisky including one clear (unaged?) one that tasted of burning. It was a learning curve for me, but tasting older whiskies as we went along the burning eventually subsided and there were actual flavours to appreciate.

The Chivas Regal 18- and 21-year-old whiskies were getting pretty fine indeed, and rather warming as a light sprinkle of rain started outside.

"Slàinte mhòr" - a Gaelic toast to health
Most fun was probably learning a new toast, in Scottish Gaelic at that, especially as most in the room probably weren't entirely sober. With glasses raised, we shouted "Slàinte mhòr" (sounds like "slohn ja vor") as host James Buntin's father did before a tipple.

The day was getting long but there was no missing the final session in the Piazza Tasting room; a pretty old sandstone building yet an entirely appropriate room for tequila tasting.

Julio Bermejo - creator of Tommy's Margarita
Here, we were educated by two of the industries finest tequila minds: Julio Bermejo of Tommy's Mexican Restaurant and the World's Best Tequila Bar in San Francisco and Phil Bayly of Cafe Pacifico in Surry Hills.

Phil Bayly of Cafe Pacifico
There was plenty of talk about agave plants and its honey-like nectar, and getting what you pay for when it comes to tequila.

Bermejo is the Ambassador of Tequila to the US for the Mexican Government and, wait for it, the creator of Tommy's Margarita. He started serving this version of the margarita - with 100% agave tequila, agave nectar and lime juice sans an orange liqueur - at his father's restaurant Tommy's in the 1980s. Just don't forget to serve it on the rocks with a thick salt rim.

Julio Bermejo
Through the talk we sampled cakes baked with tequila; both quite dense cakes and the flourless chocolate one completely memorable; fudgey yet with flavours of tequila - in a good way. That was in between tasting 100% agave blanco tequila and then shaking up a Tommy's Margarita with Bayly and Bermejo as assistants. Too much fun is an understatement - but then again, it is tequila.

I honestly don't think I've had this much tequila since my teens and I must admit, my behaviour has improved vastly since those days. I didn't try to crash the after party at Island Bar, but rather sensibly joined the other Cocktail Islanders straggling onto the last ferry off Cockatoo Island.

The trip back to Circular Quay was definitely vocal, but I think showed that everyone, water bottles in hand, had a great day of drinking and learning about the cocktails on the island. See more photos of the day at my Facebook page.

Food, booze and shoes received media admission and Island Dollars for Cocktail Island courtesy of The Cru Media - thanks for keeping us well watered and educated.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Little northern Chinatown in Chatswood

I had no idea that Chatswood had become a little mini northern Chinatown. Almost any Chinese outlet one would find in the city's Chinatown are in Chatswood, plus more with somewhat of a northern bent too - fitting really.

Indeed, there are two New Shanghai Chinese Restaurants in Chatswood in fairly close proximity, which in itself seems a little odd. The fact that they are located in two polar opposites of shopping centres - the luxe Chatswood Chase and not-so-swish Lemon Grove Shopping Centre - is even more strange.

Crab xiao long bao from New Shanghai, Lemon Grove Shopping Centre,
Victoria Street, Chatswood
We find ourselves at the somewhat 'lesser' of the two outlets one hot afternoon for a late lunch. Seated right beside the glass windows to the dumpling kitchen, we have prime view of xiao long bao soup dumplings being filled and pleated, as well as shallot pancake dough being weighed fastidiously and then rollled flat, encasing chopped green shallots.

Service is brusque, even for a Chinese restaurant, but it's not long before food fills the table. The crab xiao long bao have a detectable seafood taste but aren't really so different to the standard pork ones. The dumpling skins hold well and are hard to fault, while the soup is still the best part of the experience.

Pan fried pork dumplings
While an open kitchen encourages clean work areas, which I'm all for, it also means little restaurant tricks that are perhaps best left out of diners' view are, unfortunately, in full view.

I had my fingers tightly crossed that the plate of pan fried dumplings that emerged from the microwave were not headed towards my table. No such luck, and I tried as best I could to eat them without prejudice.

It may well have been all in my head but I struggled with the tough outer skins while taste- and heat-wise they were acceptable. A healthy dousing with both vinegar sauce and chilli oil helped but the overall enjoyment of the dumplings had been marred from the start.

Sichuan style sauce stir fried with pork mince and served with dry noodle
I often find myself deferring to the usual orders at northern Chinese restaurants - it's so hard to resist certain dumplings and for others, Sichuan style noodles with a spicy bean sauce and minced pork. This serving was not too spicy despite its imposing hue, assisted by the refreshing juliennes of cucumber.

Sichuan spicy pork noodles mixed
It's not such a pretty sight when mixed through and messy to eat too, as most good things are. The sauce-coated, just-cooked noodles become extremely slippery and dangerous for any white tops. Indeed, after the meal we even found sauce splatters on the glass of the kitchen window beside us.

Stir fried spinach with garlic
I'm always a little baffled with the price of straight vegetable dishes at casual Chinese eateries. I understand that a plate of spinach could well be three bunches worth, but at about double the price of a plate of dumplings, something doesn't quite add up.

In this instance, there definitely could have been many dollars worth of garlic in the dish as it was absolutely loaded with diced garlic amongst the tender spinach leaves and stems. A good dish for colds and vampire repelling.

Post lunch, walking around probably with a garlic cloud above, it looked like northern Chinatown has integrated seamlessly with Chatswood. The crowds at Asian dessert house Zen Q were proof, nestled into the Westfield at street level and doing brisk trade on the hot afternoon.

Mango shaved ice with  fresh mango, mango jelly and mango ice cream from Zen Q,
Westfield Chatswood
The lengthy menu is abundant in options: ices, puddings, toppings, bread-oriented desserts and even something with tuna salad. The heat called for something cooling and the bowl of mango variations seemed to fit the bill.

The squishy eat-in seating, designed to fit as many bodies into the small space as possible, meant I was basically sitting on top of someone next to me as my mango dessert arrived. The sprinkles took me back to times of frozen party pies and sausage rolls, but at least the mango ice did its job in refreshing.

It wasn't overly sweet either while the mango ice cream was the most subtle of the lot. The small helping of fresh mango cubes was the best component while the slightly chewy mango jellies were fun but few and far between.

Fruit soup with ice cream
I have no idea what this is, let alone a name, but put nicely it looks like a mixed fruit soup. I have other, more graphic descriptions for what I think it looks like, but I've learnt that they're best left out. Fruit salad mixed with ice cream doesn't do it for me at the best of times, let alone in soup form.

We scoff and dash at Zen Q, but not before peering quzzically at couples and groups attacking loaves of bread dressed in everything from fruit to cream to more of those sprinkles. Bread with dessert is a fairly alien concept to me but being the the Chinatown of the north, perhaps next time I cross the Bridge I'll have to do as the Romans do.

New Shanghai Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Zen Q on Urbanspoon


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