Thursday, June 28, 2012

Go the schnitty at Essen Restaurant and Beer Café

Some mornings and nights are getting cold enough for me to declare this Sydney's coldest winter in ages so doing as the Europeans do in winter makes perfect sense to me. Hence, this winter you'll find me next to an open fire, in a long puffy jacket or downing glühwein at Essen Restaurant and Beer Café in Broadway.

Essen, a traditional northern European restaurant, was completely packed on the cool Friday night I visited, with couples and large groups all getting into the European spirit and many a "Prost" toast with German beers in hand.

Glühwein - mulled wine from Essen Restaurant and Beer Café, Broadway, Ultimo
Essen has glühwein on the menu as a winter special and as the price ($6) might indicate, not "mit Schuss" (with a shot). The order by the glass completely surprised me with its adorable presentation in a matching cup and saucer.

Sugar is a necessary addition to the otherwise sour drink, as are particularly cold weather conditions ideally. Not even halfway through the citrus and spice infused red wine, I was already warming up considerably.

'Diesel' (left) and Radeberger Pilsner (right)
My drinking partners opted for 500ml beers: the easy drinking Radeberger Pilsner and a Diesel - a variation on the beer and lemonade mix of Radler with cola in place of lemonade.

The Diesel isn't actually on the menu at Essen but it was no trouble having it arranged. It tastes like a not-so-sweet cola with a beer-bitter finish and might take several more litres of it before I'm convinced of its merits. 

Knobli Brot - Swiss style garlic bread with paprika and gruyere cheese
We started at the entrée menu, which included beer's best friend: the traditional German pretzel. However, contender for favourite dish name of the year goes to the knobli brot on the entrées menu: a kind of garlic bread spread with smoky paprika and topped with a few shreds of melted gruyere.

The bread had a soft texture rather than a crispy one, and the combination of smoky spice, garlic and cheesy flavours is one I'll steal for the home kitchen.

Deep fried camembert with cranberry compote
Cheese in a melting or melted state is one of my weaknesses so the deep fried camembert cheese was a must.

Golden crumbed, crispy and uniformly shaped, the gooey innards and shape-holding rind of the camembert made for a rich, albeit happy, start to dinner, while the sweet touch of the cranberry was a perfect match.

Edelweiss beer
It would appear that Essen has a rotating schedule of beers on its menu as the first one that piqued my interest after the warming properties of the mulled wine (some sort of lager infused with peppercorns) wasn't available. The waitress instead pointed me to Edelweiss; an Austrian beer with flavour tones of alpine herbs.

Quite unlike any other beer I've had, the Edelweiss certainly had herbaceous notes that rendered the beer mildly sweet in floral rather than fruity notes. It was also probably not the best food-matching beer, compared to a clean, refreshing pilsner.

Schweinshaxen - slow roasted pork knuckle with gravy, bread dumpling and sauerkraut
If pork knuckle is on the menu, someone usually orders it. That's been my experience of the very Bavarian and often large dish, common in the touristy beer halls of Munich and German restaurants outside of Germany.

This version of the hefty pork knuckle lacked skin and crackling and probably as a result, the large amount of meat was on the dry side. Luckily there was gravy served alongside to save it as well as a couple of decent deep fried bread dumplings and sauerkraut.

Ente - oven roasted duck with red wine poached pear and roesti potato
The huge portion sizes of the food hit home when I realised that in my rather cute cast iron pan there was indeed half a roasted duck. The artfully arranged breast and maryland portions, with a whole, crimson poached pear and roesti potato, were hiding the fact this was the largest serving of poultry I've ever eaten.

The duck was well cooked: moist with crispy skin in places; however, just a tad under in overall flavour which made the sweetness of the soft poached pear a very necessary component in every mouthful.

Meanwhile, the roesti potato was all sorts of carbohydrate and fatty awesomeness: the outside browned and crispy all over while the inside starred fall-about shreds of properly seasoned, fluffy potato.

Jaeger schnitzel - pork schnitzel with a creamy mushroom sauce
Of the mains, the humble schnitzel ended up being the winner. There are a lot of schnitzel varieties on the menu at Essen - indeed, a whole separate menu page - with the Jaeger Schnitzel available in chicken or pork.

The impressive size of the schnitzel - two pieces, actually - was matched with its admirable golden coat. The Jaeger arrived smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce alongside roesti potato with cabbage salad as a side dish.

Surprisingly, this iconic German dish makes for quite a balanced meal with the tender pork (protein), scrumptious roesti (carb and vegetable) and cabbage on the side (vegetable). And a few more carbs on the side in beer, of course.

Apfel und birne strudel - apple and pear strudel with vanilla sauce and ice cream
Regardless of how completely stuffed one might have been after a protein-heavy main meal, is a German meal complete without strudel? My answer leans towards "no", and the apple and pear strudel we ordered to share was just reward.

Smelling heavenly of cinnamon and spices, the shatter of the thin, crunchy layers of pastry confirmed that there was indeed space in my stomach for dessert on this occasion. The soft, just sweet-enough filling was comforting and improved with a touch of the very good vanilla bean ice cream though I left the cool vanilla sauce.

As we concluded the meal, we were witnesses to the 'Schnitzilla' challenge that Essen has, Man vs Food style on the table over. Except I'm not sure this challenge is achievable. 'Schnitzilla' consists of schnitzel, roesti potato and cabbage salad to a total of 3.5 kilograms. The platter with golden schnitzel piled high looked like it could serve at least six hungry people.

No-one has completed the challenge to date with the closest competitor leaving with about 1 kilo of take-home leftovers. Good luck to those deranged and hungry enough to attempt the 'Schnitzilla'. Find more details of the challenge on Essen's Facebook page.

Food, booze and shoes and a guest dined courtsey of Essen Restaurant and Beer Café, with thanks to Wasamedia (some items were paid for separately).

Essen Restaurant & Beer Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Etch: A portrayal of tough times

It’s sad to see yet another restaurateur impacted by what seems like tough times in the hospitality industry. With small and large falling amid continuing new openings, it feels like the changing undercurrent towards casual eating is finding its unfortunate victims.

One of these victims is Justin North’s Etch, which was nestled into the Bridge Street side of the Intercontinental Hotel. A recent voucher meal I had there was superb but was perhaps a bad omen of the times. Here are the memories.

Etch dining room, Bridge Street, Sydney
The Etch dining room had always perplexed me a little: its atypically narrow restaurant space, plush with carpets and banquettes, almost feels like an extension of the Intercontinental Hotel, but the food definitely stands/stood on its own.

The voucher entitled us to a six-course tasting menu, and an option for discounted matching wines, although being a bit early in the week we instead elected from a brief selection of wines by the glass.

Amuse bouche: Sweet corn veloute
Without delay, and even before I’d decided on a glass of pinot noir, the waitress brought over a complimentary amuse bouche – as they do for all diners. The piping hot and creamy sweet corn veloute was just the thing to warm us from the cold evening outside.

Local figs, Woodside goat curd
The first picturesque course featured airy blobs of goat’s curd, paired with adorable fresh figs and drops of lightly scented lavender honey.

The sesame crackers were a dream to munch through with a smidgen of everything in the mouthful. It wasn’t a big-impact dish to start, easing in rather, I thought, and could just have easily have served as dessert.

Crispy Spencer Gulf prawns, avocado, wasabi
A single crumbed and deep fried prawn, split into three sections, comprised the next dish; its presentation somewhat highlighting the lone crustacean.

The mild wasabi dots and avocado could easily be confused on appearance but not in taste in this delicately and slowly eaten dish.

Field mushroom risotto
The cooler seasons were well represented by the field mushroom risotto where chestnut and enoki mushrooms met amid a supremely buttery risotto with rice just on the under-side of done.

The deep fried lotus slice was a beautifying touch to the utterly satisfying risotto, of which I could have easily had another two serves.

Caramelised pork belly, beetroot, pear puree
The more substantial protein dishes started with everybody’s favourite cut – pork belly – in a unique fashion.

The well-coloured and stickily caramelised slice of pork was thin but hit the palate with sweetness and seasoning that was enhanced with the pear puree and a white wine gel of some sort.

The lack of crackling was consoled with the cracker garnish and a well matched beetroot puree.

Aromatic slow braised lamb shoulder, pumpkin, garlic spinach, mint, balsamic
The round of soft lamb could barely hold itself up it was so thoroughly cooked with a cavalcade of spices.

The rather classic accompaniments of mint, pumpkin (in puree form) and spinach were appropriate given the big flavours of the lamb, with the balsamic vinegar sauce penetrating the richness of the fatty meat.

Pre dessert: Chantilly cream, pear jelly with sherbet and poached pears
An unexpected pre dessert tasting plate arrived looking almost too pretty to destroy. It would appear that it was the season for pears – not one of my favourite fruits due to the sometimes grainy textures – but the poached specimen was nothing short of spectacular in texture and flavour.

The triangular jellies of pear covered in sherbet brought momentary childlike fizzy joy, followed by the sophisticated taste of real pear. But despite all the seasonality, my favourite component was the cloud-like Chantilly cream: just sweet and light enough to be a primer to dessert proper.

Lemon parfait, pineapple, coconut salad, coriander
The pretty sight of yellows and whites signalled the lemon parfait, with what has to be the crunchiest-ever mini meringue topper as a garnish. The pastel yellow block of parfait itself was citrusy perfection while the tropical additions of pineapple and fresh coconut shreds erased all memories of the cool weather.

Not that we weren’t satisfied with the six course offering – indeed, with an amuse bouche and pre dessert, it was more like eight gorgeous and very well- choreographed courses – the delivery of a cheese plate to a nearby table was enough to put in an extra order.

The Old Telegraph Road Sapphire Blue cheese was served on slate with tea-smoked pears and more than enough lavosh crackers, which is a sad rarity. The intense smokiness of the pears played interestingly with the fruit’s sweetness, the latter of which is a personal should-have component with blue cheeses.

At the end of the meal I sat thinking that there was really nothing more that I could have wanted: the beautiful, seasonally-focused dishes were presented well and tasted even better than they looked and the service was efficient across the well-timed meal.

It's such a shame to see Etch go but I've got my fingers crossed that North can get through the current tough times.

Etch on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Japan times - part 1: Shinjuku, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the first of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Streets of Shinjuku by night, Tokyo, Japan
Airfare sale tickets brought us to Tokyo's Narita International Airport before a luggage-laden train - with station changeover - to Shinjuku where we were based for the majority of our time spent in Japan's capital city.

I was priveleged to all the stereotypes straightaway, within hours of arriving: face masks on the train; drinks vending machines everywhere; a drunken salaryman swaying/dancing against a street pole. There was no doubt that I was in Japan.

Streets of Shinjuku by day, Tokyo, Japan
Japan’s capital city boasts more “city centres” than you can poke a chopstick at – you could think of the ‘wards’ as suburbs within the great, heaving mass that is Tokyo. More than 13 million people call Tokyo home – more than half the total Australian population – spread across the various wards of Tokyo.

Shinjuku is home to the world’s busiest train station and quite the shopping and entertainment centre too. We spent many an hour walking the streets of Shinjuku; discovering little back streets and eateries, chain stores and boutiques, and most fun – department stores and their food-filled basements called depa-chika.

Sashimi selection from Isetan department store, Shinjuku
I could, and did, spend hours in a depa-chika, especially that of department store Isetan in Shinjuku; just wandering slowly between the offerings, admiring, sampling and wondering which and how much of the gorgeously presented food could actually make the trip home. (Unfortunately, photography isn't allowed in the depa-chika.

Eating depa-chika sashimi on the streets of Shinjuku
A purchase from any of the branded ‘stalls’ (for lack of better word) in the department store entails serious and exacting packaging; even if you were going to eat it straightaway. Which wouldn’t be the case though, as for locals the extravagant fare sold at a depa-chika is usually intended as an omiyage gift.

A fruit stall near Shinjuku station (not depa-chika and a lot cheaper)
In the fresh produce section lively displays of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables look almost artificial in their perfection, but it’s the gift fruit section that astounds.

It wasn't just the picture-perfect musk melons – with evenly patterned skins and harmoniously angled stalks
more so the eye-watering price tags that could be 10,000 yen for a single melon. 

There were also cherries and mangoes sold in this fashion and I had to wonder about Japanese society and who was really buying these painfully overpriced fruits.

Children involved in a Shinto festival
Even in a buzzing, modern city, the signs of faith and tradition are abounds with many a Shinto shrine to be found in the back streets of a city centre. 

While in Shinjuku we came across various parades for a Shinto festival of some sort with lots of children and their parents actively involved.

Schoolgirls pray at the  Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku
The Hanazono Jinja Shrine was surprisingly close to where we were staying but also proximal to Kabukicho - Shinjuku's red light district.

One particular weekend saw a festival full of stalls and people, young and old, making offerings and prayers at the Shinto shrine.

Ayu no shio-yaki - salt grilled sweetfish at Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku
There was a great variety of food among the stalls: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yaki soba and this pictured above - a most impressive display of ayu sweetfish, slowly roasting whilst retaining a look of a swimming fish.

We also splashed out on an irresistable choco-banana; a chocolate and sprinkle covered banana on a skewer that's a sure-fire way to get kids to eat fruit.

Side streets in Shinjuku Ni-chome
I'm not even going to attempt to explain the complex address system of Japan. While many streets appear to have street names and all, these aren't taken into account for addresses, which is perplexing to say the least. 

Tsukemen restaurant in Shinjuku
On one of our walks around some of the quieter streets near our hotel, we struck gold when hungry for lunch we were game enough to enter an eatery that was empty, not even sure if they were open for business.

Their enthusiastic welcome and immediate service of iced water and English menus quickly affirmed that we would be having our very first tsukemen dipping ramen experience.

Spicy tsukemen
It's essentially ramen with the two main components ramen noodles and soup served separately. 

The briefly cooked noodles are served cool, maintaining the all-important texture of the noodles while the soup – available in a range of flavours is noticeably more intense in thick flavour than normal ramen and maintains a high heat throughout most of the meal.

Tsukemen eaters grab some noodles with their chopsticks and dip them into the soup, both heating and flavouring the mouthful of noodles, and then with a requisite slurp (of which I am yet to master) bring them up into the mouth.

Mild-flavoured tsukeme
At the end when there are no noodles left and a big bowl of soup remains, we eventually worked out that you top up the hearty bowl of soup with what looks like plain broth, thinning out the strong flavours and reheating the soup ready for consumption of a by-product second course.

As we dried our bowls of soup, a large group of students filled the restaurant chairs for a late lunch. I'm told tsukemen is becoming increasingly popular in Tokyo and in warmer weather, I can certainly see the appeal over a steaming bowl of ramen.

That's the other thing I've noticed about lunching in Japan - there doesn't seem to be a set time like the 12–2pm rush I imagine most Sydney lunch venues contend with. During several late lunches, we were joined with various ones or twos having their late lunches, without concern about the time or dining alone.

Back streets of Shinjuku 
Our first drinking venue was a British styled alehouse with a shelf full of whisky and a number of beers on tap - what can I say, we were desperately thirsty after an entire day of walking.

Whisky and soda highball (hai-booru) and snacks at 82 Alehouse, Shinjuku
Japanese females all seem to drink beer and/or whisky highballs. I suppose there isn't yet a very developed wine culture but it's still a refreshing change from girly white-spirit concoctions.

After a UK craft beer on tap (!), Brew Dog Punk India Pale Ale, we treated ourselves to a fried pasta snack seasoned with the childhood flavours of Mamee Noodles. Drinking snack heaven.

Appetiser at Pukunotori, Shinjuku Go-chome
Speaking of drinking and snacks, we probably didn't go to as many izakaya style restaurants as I anticipated. There just ended up being too many places that specialised in something delicious that attracted our attention rather.

One venue we did have izakaya style eats also provided one of my favourite appetisers of the whole trip. Served complimentarily before a meal, this very Japanese appetiser of cold tofu, chopped pickled greens and tiny pink prawns dressed in soy sauce was a study in Japanese subtlety and simple ingredients.

Grilled salted squid
On the other end of the scale was one of the grilled items we chose: a salted, semi-dry squid filled with something else salty in its body and served in slices with mayonnaise. 

This was on the same level of saltiness as Vegemite, though infinitely chewier than a piece of toast. I can definitely understand why it's a drinking snack and was thankful for the draft beer.

Ginger-infused vodka and Hibiki 17-year-old whisky at J-Bar, Shinjuku
Another stumbled-upon place near the hotel, J-Bar was a very modern styled underground bar, with a slick stainless steel kitchen producing a rather delicate bar food menu. 

It was the first place where I was reminded that people are still permitted to smoke indoors in restaurants and bars in Japan, though not outdoors on main streets.

We went straight for the drinks and I couldn't resist the ginger infused vodka sitting on the counter. I like my ginger and the Smirnoff bottle filled up to one-third with thin slices of ginger was promising.

Moscow Mule
The resulting Moscow Mule had that much of a ginger kick that it was spicy. Served classically in a copper mug, I loved the addition of the young ginger shoot acting as a stirrer and an edible garnish.

Bloody Mary
My view is that it's safest to go with classic cocktails in Japan, which tend to be executed very well. Japanese cocktails tend to go the other direction in terms of flavours and styles (you'll see what I mean in upcoming posts).

The classic Bloody Mary was a safe bet, presented with a caddy full of DIY condiments like Tabasco and worcestershire sauces. Classic cocktails in a smoky room ended up being the perfect end to a busy day in Shinjuku - plenty more Japan posts to come.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Offers on the table: Table for 20

With about two years' offer and deal buying experience under my belt now (predominantly restaurant offers), I think I'm a confirmed fan even though I know some restaurateurs wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole.

I've mostly had good experiences, save for a few refund problems with certain sites I now no longer use, and found there to be generally more issues with deals outside of restaurant ones.

Flexibility appears to be the one pressure point for all involved, and it's this factor that generally decides whether the voucher experience is pleasant or otherwise.

Table setting at Table for 20, Campbell Street, Surry Hills
I was at Table for 20 courtesy of a Lime&Tonic voucher recently and really only there because the restaurant was, thankfully, flexible with certain booking details.

Not being my first time experiencing the unique, communal-style "neighbourhood dining", I knew the drill and was looking forward to some excellent Italian fare - food which is said to remind owner Michael Fantuz of his childhood dinners.

Tables set  for 20
The concept is the brainchild of Fantuz, who has recently also opened Buffalo Dining Club in Darlinghurst.

The idea behind Table for 20 is to bring people back to eating as a social and festive event; sharing space, platters, conversation and maybe even your BYO wine and a few laughs. Some of the proceeds from each night also go towards charitable organisation, Hope Street.

So while groups can book out a section, table or indeed, all 40 seats; most people turn up in couples or small groups and seated next to strangers, are encouraged to talk and serve each other food over three shared courses, which is really a most intimate action.

Orecchiette with lentils, pine nuts and mascapone
We started a bit after 8pm with some seriously good bread rolls with olive oil and salt, and moved on to a long share platter of orecchiette pasta as the first course.

In a word, the pasta was sublime. Everything was just right: the textures, flavours and seasoning. The orecchiette (Italian for little ears) had the most delectable chewiness, tossed through with firm lentils, toasted pine nuts, creamy mascarpone cheese and plenty of fresh parsley.

It was the second time I've had a pasta dish with legumes (both times at Table for 20) and I've been bowled over both times.

Roasted beef fillet with peperonata sauce
After a few helpings of the pasta entreé, the generosity of the main was a bit intimidating, even with an appropriate pause between courses.

Another long platter brought out thick hunks of mostly tender, roasted beef fillet that were still pink and juicy in the middle, topped with a chunky peperonata sauce featuring squares of capsicum.

Salad of butter beans, fennel, tomato, mixed leaves, sesame
The main course was served with roasted potatoes and a fresh salad featuring butter beans and raw fennel, which was all together unique, healthy and delicious. There was also something pretty special in the dressing they use on the salad which made eating vegetables and legumes particularly joyous.

Amaretto Disaronno cheesecake
While the two savoury courses are more than sufficient to satisfy a hearty appetite, my experience reminded me not to go overboard before dessert.

Some of the most amazing sweets come out of the Table for 20 kitchen in whole cake form, which makes dishing it out at the table as festive as a birthday celebration.

Amaretto Disaronno cheesecake slices
The amaretto cheesecake did not disappoint. Baked with a biscuit base, the lightly creamy cheesecake was completely swoon-worthy with vanilla tones, and deserving of second and third helpings - if only I didn't have second and third helpings of the pasta earlier.

At this point a doggie bag would have come in handy, but I resisted putting unwrapped cheesecake in my handbag. Table for 20 has definitely been one of the better deal offers I've experienced and I wouldn't hesitate to return for either the pasta or dessert alone - and it appears the offer still stands.

Food, booze and shoes received $50 credit from Lime&Tonic, and used it towards the Table for 20 offer.

Table For 20 on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 15, 2012

Give The Little Guy a go

The enthusiam for small bars in Sydney has pushed out from the city and Darlinghurst into Glebe where a few recent openings are attracting a local crowd. The vibe in Glebe is still a little rough around the edges, and the small bars on the main road have that same likeable characteristic.

With a street facade painted dramatic black, The Little Guy features a huge window that opens out to Glebe Point Road where elevated drinkers sip wine and cocktails. Walk into the cosy front area to see the bar with handwritten drinks menus on clipboards, with some seats at the bar and plenty of space down the back of the converted house and even upstairs.

Bloody Mary and popcorn at The Little Guy, Glebe Point Road, Glebe
If it's a Sunday, you'll need to order the $10 special on their Bloody Mary. With the greatest use of garnishes I've seen in a Bloody Mary, this vodka, tomato juice and worcestershire sauce cocktail is rolled rather than shaken, with your choice of Tabasco sauce levels.

It's one of the best variations I've tasted, helped along with the pretty tri-coloured skewer of a green olive, a pickled onion and a cherry tomato, and a gherkin on the side. If that's not two serves already of your daily fruit and vegetable intake, I don't know what is.

Freshly popped popcorn from the old-school popcorn maker is complimentary and with a little more seasoning, would be the perfect afternoon drinking partner.

Pisco sour
From the changing cocktail list, the day's pisco sour is a passionfruit variant of the South American liquor cocktail. With a great egg white head dotted with bitters, the pisco is full of fruitiness and a good kick of booze, although I'm undecided as to whether I like passionfruit seeds in my cocktails.

The Little Guy
There are limited grazing plates on offer, I think, but The Little Guy isn't trying for too much and that's where it succeeds. Keeping it simple and casual suits the neighbourhood bar and Glebe locals perfectly while live music on Sunday evenings is a total bonus. Go on then, give The Little Guy a go.

The Little Guy on Urbanspoon


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