Thursday, August 29, 2013

Alexandria's own Café Sopra and Fratelli Fresh

Despair not, carb-hungry fans of the now-closed Café Sopra in Danks Street, Waterloo. Neighbouring suburb, Alexandria now has its own Café Sopra, complete with Fratelli Fresh providore, setting up home in what was previously a pub.

Café Sopra and Fratelli Fresh, Mitchell Road, Alexandria
Gone are the pokies and in place, the Fratelli Fresh cool room housing vacuum-sealed packs of salumi and wedges of cheese.

Shelves of pasta in Fratelli Fresh, Mitchell Road, Alexandria
Study the wall of dried pasta or shelves of balsamic vinegar and olive oil as you wait for a table, inevitably at dinnertime on a Thursday night, although it doesn't take too long for our two high seats at the bar.

You can even wander around the produce section with a drink in hand as you wait, although the Fratelli Fresh section closes for purchases at 7pm.

Affettati misti at Café Sopra, Mitchell Road, Alexandria
The old pub feel is barely noticeable, except for the remaining U-shaped bar with beer taps, looking through to the well-staffed kitchen. Italian accents are aplenty with T-shirted waitstaff running the room with efficiency and intention. There's no signature Café Sopra blackboard menu here, but printed paper menus.

We started with affettati misti; a mixed plate of cured meats and cheese. I didn't quite catch it all but I think there was prosciutto, ham, bresaola, coppa, chilli salami and smoked mozzarella cheese.

Affettati misti
There were a few particularly salty items – the ham, for one – with the highlights being the chilli salami with quite the kick, smooth and subtle bresaola, and smoky flavoured, semi-soft mozzarella – all shaved paper thin.

Aperol Spritz
Aside from a few cocktails and classic aperitifs like an Aperol Spritz, the beauty of Café Sopras all over the city is their fantastic, Italian-leaning wine list where the house red and white wines start at $3.50 per glass.

That said, I can rarely go past the Montepulciano or for more celebratory occasions, the full range of Pommery by the glass or bottle.

The pizza chef in action
The Alexandria outpost of Café Sopra is like the Bridge Street, CBD one in that there's a pizza menu to supplement the pasta offerings – with fresh dough stretched and thrown ever so professionally before going into the woodfired pizza oven.

Pickled beetroot salad with soft boiled egg, crisp pancetta, rosemary
and gorgonzola dressing
The salads at Café Sopra are as legendary as their pasta dishes and we forego the classic shaved Brussels sprouts salad for the pickled beetroot one, with large chunks of the sweetly earthy root vegetable beneath large mixed leaves awash with a creamy gorgonzola dressing.

Two halved and soft boiled eggs bulked up the salad, while thins of crisp pancetta added highlight flavours and inimitable texture.

Tagliatelle with salsicce, crushed peas, mascarpone and pecorino 
The medium width ribbons of tagliatelle are one of my favourite long pasta types, here done with nubs of quality Italian sausage and a slightly green-tinted sauce of crushed peas and creamy mascarpone.

Topped with grated pecorino cheese, the tagliatelle was slightly underseasoned; however, that was easy enough to rectify and forgive with salt and pepper brought to the table without asking.

Lamb ragu with chilli, rosemary and gnocchetti
I have trouble going past any ragu or the very good, rich bolognese at Café Sopra, and with the last of winter in our midst I had the lamb ragu with gnocchetti - supposedly like little gnocchi but a bit like shell pasta too.

The pasta seemed to play second fiddle in the dish that was so generous with slow-cooked chunks of falling apart lamb, it was pretty much a lamb dish with a sensationally full-flavoured tomato sauce (and no noticeable chilli).

Inside the dining roomCafé  Sopra
I don't remember the pasta dishes being quite so big at Café Sopra and with a maximum price of $22, they might have the locals' weeknight dinner out covered.

There was a moment's consideration of doggy-bagging some of the pasta (they do offer takeaway), but the plates ended up completely clean and us a little stuffed.

Torta Banoffee
But not so much as to skip dessert. I've known about Café Sopra's banoffee pie for some time now and had never tried it until now – and I've been missing out.

The tart features a thick biscuit base that's a flawless balance of crumble and sweetness with a touch of salt. Then it's a thick caramel that is just heaven in a mouthful, beneath perfectly piped whipped cream and thin slices of fresh banana, all topped with chocolate shavings. A more perfect tart, there could not be.

Shelves of sauce
It's got your groceries covered; it's got drinks and snacks covered; it's got dinner covered; it's got that banoffee tart. Alexandria's own Café Sopra is as good a local as you could have – welcome to the neighbourhood.

Café Sopra at Fratelli Fresh on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Win tickets to the Australian Garden Show Sydney featuring Lindeman’s Open Garden

The Australian Garden Show Sydney is on for the very first time from Thursday, 5 to Sunday, 8 September 2013 at Centennial Park.

Coinciding with the start of spring, this interactive four-day event celebrates Australia’s love of gardens and outdoor spaces from 10am to 5pm with an evening Night Garden event from 6pm to 10pm.

Lindeman's Open Garden - a feature at the Australian Garden Show Sydney,
5-8 September 2013, Centennial Park, Sydney
Curated by landscape designer and author, Myles Baldwin, the Australian Garden Show Sydney features four event pillars: celebrity gardening, flowers, sustainability and design. There are lectures, designer garden features, balcony gardening lessons, floral installations and onsite bars and restaurants.

And for those with less of a green thumb, the international award-winning Lindeman’s Open Garden will be on show every day from 10am to 7pm (for visitors over 18).

The Lindeman’s Open Garden will feature cooking demonstrations by former My Kitchen Rules contestants, Sammy & Bella, as well as gardening activities and tastings of Lindeman’s Early Harvest range (the latter being more my style of gardening).

Lindeman's Open Garden hanging basket display
Visitors to the Lindeman’s Open Garden will be able to sample the popular Lindeman’s Early Harvest wine range of 11 different wines, perfect for spring and summer entertaining, being 25 per cent lighter in alcohol and calories.

A favourite at Lindeman’s Open Gardens is the hanging basket display where visitors can create a customised basket from a huge array of flowers and herbs, leave them to adorn a six-metre hanging basket tree before taking them away to enjoy at home.

Win a double pass to the Australian Garden Show Sydney!

Food, Booze and Shoes is giving away two double passes for the Australian Garden Show Sydney, with thanks to Lindeman’s Open Garden and Purpose Communications.

Simply email your postal address and answer to the question below to by 9.30pm AEST on Sunday, 1 August 2013.

"What would be your one must-have item in an open garden?"

Two winners will be announced on Monday, 2 August 2013 and tickets will be mailed to winners. Tickets are also available for purchase at Ticketek.

Ts&Cs: Postal addresses are only used for mailing tickets to winners. Tickets include entry to the Australian Garden Show Sydney only – valid any day from 5–8 September 2013. Visitors must be over 18 to visit the Lindeman’s Open Garden.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday roast: Murray Valley Pork rolled loin

I’m not the best home cook. I like cooking but hate the cleaning. I have a short list of things I can do well, a longer list of things I do at a very average level, and an unenviable reputation for kitchen disasters that are still somewhat edible.

Murray Valley Pork cranberry and almond rolled loin
(Food, booze and shoes received a complimentary sample, with thanks to Acumen Republic)
So a partly prepared product like the Murray Valley Pork cranberry and almond rolled loin is perfect for me as the end result gives off the impression that I can cook, when in fact it's as easy as unwrapping the product, putting it in the oven with some vegetables and basting every now and then.

Murray Valley Pork cranberry and almond rolled loin
Murray Valley Pork hails from a network of farms in the Riverine region in southern NSW and northern Victoria, produced by Rivalea Australia. They offer over 30 different cuts of pork exclusively through retail butcher shops and select restaurant (not supermarkets).

The cranberry and almond rolled loin - ready to go into the oven
The stuffed cranberry and almond rolled pork loin is a new product offering from Murray Valley Pork available from select butchers. Each rolled loin varies from 1.0-1.5 kilograms each and is sold in vacuum-sealed packs (RRP $19.50/kg).

Rolled loin side view
Tightly rolled and tied, the loin holds a bread-like stuffing featuring dried cranberries and almond, while the loin is coated in a sprinkle of cranberry seeds.

Murray Valley Pork brand manager, Paul da Saliva said, "We've been listening to our customers and have developed a value added product that takes the stress out of cooking." And hence, my first pork roast.

Rolled loin with first baste
Along with the sample I was given came a recipe to pimp my rolled loin up a little with a honey and balsamic vinegar glaze for basting (600mL balsamic vinegar mixed with 60mL of honey).

Roma tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, to be roastec
To accompany the roast was a recipe for balsamic roasted tomatoes, while I added a few other roast-friendly vegetables to my oven.

Rolled loin at second baste
Basting regularly through the 1.5 hour cooking time, the kitchen was filled with the sweet aromas of honey and cooking pork.

Rolled loin at fourth baste
At some point when the pork was starting to cook through, the stuffing started to ooze from both ends, while a sauce of cooking juices and excess glaze pooled deliciously at the bottom.

The cooked rolled loin 
Once cooked, the rolled loin had 15 minutes' resting out of the oven and it was all but impossible to resist cutting a bit off the caramelised end to taste.

Side view of the cooked rolled loin 
The meat itself was quite lean and tender, complemented beautifully by the honey and balsamic glaze. The stuffing was light and joyfully studded with cranberries, while the almond was somewhat less noticeable.

Murray Valley Pork cranberry and almond rolled loin with roast vegies
The more than 1 kilogram rolled loin I had would have been enough to feed four or five people with a bunch of vegetable sides, although the leftovers were pretty good too.

Great with reheated roast vegetables the leftovers even made for a gourmet sandwich filling two days after (with wholegrain mustard, rocket, caramelised onions, brie cheese and pickles).

Stuffing of the cooked rolled loin
For a quick and easy Sunday roast, the Murray Valley Pork cranberry and almond rolled loin is a great, no-fuss, low-hassle option that will still impress your home diners, and helping me grow my short list of things I can do reasonably well.

Murray Valley Pork works closely with chef and television host Manu Feildel who is the brand ambassador. It is also the exclusive pork supplier to Channel Ten’s 'Everyday Gourmet' with former MasterChef contestant, Justine Schofield. See recipes, hints and stockists at the Murray Valley Pork website.

Food, booze and shoes received a sample of the Murray Valley pork with thanks to Acumen Republic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On theme at Uncle Ming's Bar

When Uncle Ming's first opened about a year ago, I felt it was one of Sydney's only truly themed small bars - almost of a Melbourne ilk. With its evocative Chinese fitout from yesteryear and fantastic underground space on York Street, it's now joined by the likes of The Lobo Plantation on Clarence Street as some of the city's great themed bars.

Hiding inconspicuously next to a brightly-lit shirt store down a short flight of stairs, Uncle Ming's reminds me of sub ground level eateries in Japanese subways, but it's decked out in a kitsch, not tacky, old-world Chinese style.

The back bar at Uncle Ming's, York Street, Sydney
Drinkers are welcomed into the dark space by the smell of incense, fittings evoking the 'Oriental' and black and white framed photographs from another era. There's seating for all group sizes and period Chinese music playing lightly through the noise of the crowd.

At the back bar, sitting watch, are porcelain statues of various imperials and even a jolly, fat-bellied Buddha, converted into lamps. Chinese teapots line a ledge above the bar, for pots of cocktails that were made popular at World Bar so very many years ago.

Pearl River beer (left) and Ocean Kujukuri Pale Ale (right)
Uncle Ming's has an impressive beer selection that traverses most of northern Asia. The Chinese Pearl River beer is light in flavour, like a lot of beers from the mainland, making for very easy drinking. The Japanese Ocean Kujukuri Pale Ale is more to my taste with fruit notes and a subtle hops flavour.

Meanwhile, the cans of Japanese imported Kirin beer seemed to be the most popular with the beer-swilling suits on a Friday night.

The kitchen at Uncle Ming's
A small list of steamed dumplings and buns comprises the bar menu, steamed to order in a little kitchen at the end of the venue where steam puffs up through a round window.

Steamed scallop dumplings
The steamed translucent skins of the scallop dumplings were a little soggy but decent overall while the fluffy steamed bun filled with roast duck was an uncommon variation with a lot more dough than filling.

The bar
But you're not at Uncle Ming's for the food. It's an atmospheric space with nostalgically fun drinking experiences, and which doesn't take itself or its theme too seriously. On themes, we could all learn a thing from Uncle Ming.

Uncle Ming's on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 16, 2013

Yebisu Izakaya: Looks the part

The transformation of Regent Place near the cinemas on George Street, Sydney has been pretty impressive following the departure of three Azuma eateries last year.

In addition to filling all the empty spaces on the George Street level, maintaining a Japanese theme; two vibrant eateries have joined previously lonesome Assembly Bar downstairs.

Neon signs outside Yebisu Izakaya, Regent Place, George Street, Sydney
Upstairs, replacing the somewhat high-end Azuma Kushiyaki now is Yebisu Izakaya; a modern izakaya drinking-style restaurant, presumably named after Japan’s Yebisu beer or the Japanese god of fish and merchants.

Beneath the streetscape of colourful neon signs and paper lanterns, a long queue often forms outside the restaurant, waiting for tables.

Yebisu Izakaya is not an eat-and-run kind of eatery like the nearby Tenkomori ramen bar, so the fact that so many are prepared to wait, standing outside for up to an hour with naught to do and no call-back option, is intriguing.

Counter seating at the open kitchen
While there is counter seating overlooking the open kitchen, seating for a group of more than two is ideally within the wood-toned restaurant.

Once you've waited it out (or well-organised and cleverly made a reservation) you can get down to ordering immediately via their iPad menu, which includes photos and pricing across the extensive food options.

While this makes it super easy to get carried away with tapping and ordering food and drink, you also get to see a running bill which can see many small items add up pretty quickly.

We started with beers and pickles as seemed right for the izakaya style. The carrot, yellow-tinted daikon and squishy cucumber salt pickles were decent enough; however, there was a heavy bitterness to the white daikon that made it inedible.

Sake served in a masu
The custom sake trolley cart, manned by a cheery young Japanese waitress, features a number of the 1.8 litre sake bottles.

She was able to recommend me a dry sake (something with the kanji character for 'daughter' in it) which once ordered, would elicit bell ringing and celebrations (or congratulations, I'm not sure) from the kitchen and other staff, leaving the sake drinker feeling like quite the winner.

The waitress would then proceed to fill the sake glass, allowing it to overflow into the square masu container as a traditional gesture of generosity, and then input the drink into the table’s iPad ordering system.

Grilled skewers of chicken giblets (left) and chicken skin (right)
Food arrived in no particular order, especially as it’s so easy to order in a completely random fashion. We first received some yakitori grilled, skewered chicken items of giblets and chicken skin; the former cooked to a hard and challengingly tough state.

I know in Japan torikawa chicken skin is served folded onto the skewer as is done here, with the smooth, rubbery and fatty texture relished, but it’s just not my cup of tea so I just nibbled the blackened crisp bits where possible.

Karage chicken
Fried chicken was safer territory with a pretty decent rendition of golden battered karage chicken thigh fillets, served with a salad side and mayonnaise.

Nasu dengaku
The sweet miso sauce-topped nasu dengaku eggplant was served as a quartered wedge of the vegetable, with pre-cut pieces. The miso sauce resembled melted cheese but gave the softened eggplant flesh plenty of flavour.

Takoyaki served in crackers
I was intrigued by a new presentation of takoyaki octopus balls, even if it was just the frozen and deep fried ones. Sandwiched between two thin, round crackers with takoyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and katsuobushi dried bonito shavings, we were advised to squash and flatten the top cracker and takoyaki for eating.

This was practical advice although the action unfortunately demonstrated the oiliness of the takoyaki, with copious amounts of oil oozing from the deep fried ball. In the end, it was really just an oily takoyaki and crackers.

Grilled chicken wings
The highlight of the meal was the grilled chicken wings; steaming hot straight off the grill. Seasoned simply with salt on the grill, most of the skin had the opportunity to render its fat and crisp up, revealing the juicy, just-cooked flesh of one of my favourite cuts of the chicken.

Grilled skewers of pork belly and chicken tsukune meatballs
The meal ended as it started with grilled skewers of meat. The pork belly certainly looked promising with its golden char and fat layers, although it was a very chewy few bites to negotiate. Meanwhile, the tsukune minced chicken was a little bland and unexciting, even with the semi-poached, soft-yolk egg as a dip.

In atmosphere and fitout, and even on first glance of the menu, Yebisu Izakaya looks the part of a fun izakaya. But without the drinking crowd or the tasty, booze-soaking food to back it up, it’s a bit of a letdown with looks prevailing over substance.

Yebisu on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pachamama House: A taste of Peru in Surry Hills

It doesn’t get much more exotic than Peruvian cuisine in Sydney, especially when my knowledge of the South American cuisine extends only to pisco sours and everyone's favourite super-grain, quinoa.

Inside Pachamama House, Goulburn Street, Surry Hills
Pachamama House is a relative newcomer to the Surry Hills area, filling the space below an apartment block on the corner of Goulburn and Riley Streets.

Spaces under apartments like this are often a design challenge but restaurant owner Tony Maia has done an amazing job injecting warmth and a genuine atmosphere into the just-above-street-level venue.

Exterior of Pachamama House
Pachamama House is not exclusively Peruvian, which itself is a fusion of cuisines. Executive chef Danny Parreno (ex La Bodeguita del Medio, as is Maia) is of Peruvian heritage and weaves his magic in the kitchen with modern Australian sensibility and hints of Japanese.

He's almost like an alter-universe Nobu Matsuhisa who, alternatively, incorporates Peruvian influences into his high-end, global chain of Nobu Japanese restaurants.

Adega de Monaco wine
While pisco sours feature on the drinks menu, I skipped the cocktails as I couldn't resist a category of wine labelled "green".

Listing a single Portuguese wine, Adega de Monaco, the wine is made of young grapes and has a slight, pleasant effervescence and a greenness to its white wine colouring. It's meant to be served ice cold, done so at Pachamama House with the addition of an ice cube.

Classic cebiche: Snapper, lime, green chilli, coriander and sweet potato chips
On the food Maia recommended that we start with the classic cebiche (ceviche with a different spelling) of snapper.

A great palate starter, the snapper cebiche was extremely zingy with loads of lime just 'cooking' the surface of the white fish flesh while the green chilli had a fair bit of bite. The garnish of sweet potato chips was a great twist on tradition as well as a textural contrast, and we would have loved more.

Tiradito cebiche: Scallops, sesame, spring onions and aji Amarillo dressing
The tiradito cebiche of scallops featured creamy, thin slices of the mollusc and spring onions, both just touched with hot peanut oil in a style typical in Cantonese cuisine. It was perhaps just a little heavy on the oil while the bright yellow-orange, mild aji Amarillo chilli dressing could have with some tartness.

Salchipapas: Smoked frankfurt, roasted potatoes & Huacatay mayonnaise
Next we had a taste of Peruvian street food; thick-cut hunks of a smoky grilled pork frankfurt, served with kipfler potatoes to soak up the flavours and eaten with toothpicks. The sausage was so full of flavour that the Huacatay mayonnaise on the side was barely needed.

Empanadas: Braised pork cheek & Chilean condiment
I have yet to meet an empananda that I don’t like, and the pork cheek filled one at Pachamama House was no different.

Thinly layered, shortcrust-like pastry enveloped soft pulled pork cheek, an array of saucy spices and a segment of hard-boiled egg. The little parcels were served with a Chilean salsa condiment of fresh tomato, coriander and lime – a highlight of the dish.

Pescado Frito: Pan fried sardines, green tomato and jalapeno salsa
Onto the larger, mains type dishes, we started with butterflied sardines coated in a crunchy mix of corn, Spanish oregano and two chilli spices: Chilean merkén and Japanese togarashi.

The small, oily sardine isn’t my fish of choice but I couldn’t help but use them and the sweet tomato segments to mop up all the green jalapeño salsa which was deliciously mild and creamy with a hint of smokiness.

Sticky Duck: Coconut braised duck, crispy rice & chilli jam
The duck dish was probably the fusion frontier at Pachamama House: the combination of betel leaves, rice, coconut cream and chilli jam meant that I could not tear my mind away from the concept of Thai cuisine.

The softly braised duck was a delight atop the crisp-surfaced rice brick, matching well with the chilli jam and only just a little overpowered by the strong flavour of the coconut cream.

Wagyu: Seared wagyu rump, roasted okra & Peruvian bbq sauce
Probably my favourite larger dish of the night was the sliced medium-rare pieces of wagyu beef rump which were laid over softly roasted okra – that polarising green vegetable with sticky, seed-filled innards.

The trick is, as I learnt at Pachamama House, is to roast them with a bit of oil till they’re soft, not quite as sticky anymore and just deliciously earthy.

The house-made Peruvian barbeque sauce with the beef had an awakening chilli kick, elevating the perfectly cooked wagyu rump to something very special.

Zapallito: Zucchini, mint, red radish & lemon dressing
The refreshing, raw salad of zucchini ribbons was a stunner too, including thin rounds of radish, fresh mint leaves and lashings of lemon juice that cut through any fattiness on the menu.

Eschabeche: Chicken, fennel, kipflers & green olives
We were told the Spanish influenced eschabeche sauce can be used as a base for almost any protein; and here it was served with chicken thigh.

Chunks of raw meat are marinated overnight in the acidic vinegar and chilli sauce, then cooked with fennel, kipfler potatoes, green olives and other vegetables as an epic, almost stir fry-like, dish.

Seats at the bar
I was looking forward to dessert, and even more so when Maia matched it with a glass of the 2010 Petaringa Late Harvest Riesling.

Picarones: Sweet potato doughnuts with spiced syrup
The free-formed rings of picarones doughnuts were surprisingly light given they are made of sweet potato. Lightly fried with fluffy innards, they had just the right sweetness from the accompanying spiced syrup and dusting of icing sugar.

Tequila Sorbet, orange cream, baked meringues, cinnamon & caramel popcorn
But they were no match for the tequila sorbet dessert, which triumphed in flavours, textures and appearances. The quenelle of icy tequila sorbet was more citrus than alcoholic while the cinnamon and caramel popcorn was a fun and scrumptious addition to the just-perfect orange cream.

I wouldn't have expected all these components, plus crunchy white meringue, would work so well together but they sure did – and exceptionally so.

The specials board at Pachamama House
Tummies filled and eyes opened to various aspects of Peruvian cuisine, Pachamama House is one of those satisfying places where you're happy to linger a while. Bringing a unique taste of Peru to Surry Hills, it's a great fusion offering to broaden the Sydney (and Surry Hills) palate.

Food, booze and shoes dined at Pachamama House as a guest.

Pachamama House on Urbanspoon


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