A celebration at MoVida

(Apologies that the photos in this post are so garish – I only had my iPhone on this occasion!)

In celebration of accepting a new job this week (finally, after almost six months of hunting) Mr T and I went to MoVida for dinner. When I rang, on the day, they were fully booked but advised us to pitch up between 5pm and 5.30pm to try for one of the tables they keep for walk-ups. A review I read claimed that in fact they keep half the restaurant unreserved for this purpose. Nevertheless, and in spite of the door-guy’s approval of Mr T’s unmatching Converse sneakers, we were too late for one of said tables when we arrived at 5.30pm. However, there was a spot at the bar with our name on it and we climbed onto high but comfortable chairs, breakfast-bar style, and settled in for the long-haul.

The bar is often the best spot to sit in some places. One great night at Bodega, also in Surry Hills, Mr T and I had the best seats in the house from where we could see all the clashing of pans and careful presentation in action – and even got an extra dish which had been a wrong order for another table. While the cooking at MoVida happens behind closed doors, the bar (two sides of a rectangle near one end of the room) is still a fun place to be, peopled by friendly, knowledgeable staff and decorated with bright patterned Spanish tiles, one of the few design nods to the restaurant’s country of homage. MoVida executive chef and owner Frank Camorra has four hugely popular eateries as well as a bakery and a deli in Melbourne, and the Sydney spin-off opened just last year to the delight of Sydney’s foodies.

While some at the bar are clearly here for just a drink and a nibble, we, on the other hand, mean serious business and order accordingly from most sections of the menu: embutidos (cured meats and sausage), tapas, raciones (share plates) and postres (desserts). We start with the jamon Iberico, a cured ham made from black Iberian pigs. At $50 for 50g it’s an investment, but we’re celebrating after all, and I’ve been wanting to try this ever since watching Rick Stein wax lyrical about it last year in his Spanish TV show. Plus, our lovely bar attendant tells us it’s “life-changing” so there’s no going back. Deep rose-pink with a slightly lacquered appearance and edged in fat, the ham comes in bite-sized slices in a chunky earthenware dish. It tastes sweet, nutty and deeply umami without being overly salty, rounded out by the rich creamy fat; Mr T likens it to Vegemite with butter, which is inspired! The texture has qualities of biltong but it’s moist and tender. It comes with a large square of toasted Turkish bread soggy with tomato and garlic, which cleanses the mouth (or as Mr T puts it, “scrapes the tongue clean”) between bouts of ham worship.

Jamon Iberico, MoVida

Jamon Iberico, MoVida

Next up, artisan Cantabrian anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet on a wafer-thin crispbread, scattered with baby capers. From all that I’ve read about MoVida this is the dish I’ve been most anticipating and it more than fulfills expectations. Mr T says it looks “extraordinarily sexual”, but we won’t go there. The succession of sensations is as follows: cold, crunch, sweet, smoke, salt and, finally, what I can only describe as grunt. If you’re keen on anchovies it’s worth coming here just to sample this one dish.

Artisan Cantabrian anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet, MoVida

Artisan Cantabrian anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet, MoVida

Zucchini hollowed out and filled with crab and a pea and mint gazpacho is fresh, light, cool and cleansing, topped with popping pink pearls of salty fish egg.

Zucchini filled with crab served with pea and mint gazpacho, MoVida

Zucchini filled with crab served with pea and mint gazpacho, MoVida

I slip down a Sydney rock oyster with manzanilla jelly and compressed watermelon. Manzanilla, I later discover, is a Spanish fino sherry. I wish I’d known this before I tasted it so I could have been conscious of the flavour. It could be I drowned it with lemon juice. Nonetheless, it’s a very fine oyster.

Sydney rock oyster with manzanilla jelly and compressed watermelon, MoVida

Sydney rock oyster with manzanilla jelly and compressed watermelon, MoVida

Mr T, not an oyster fan, goes for a grilled chorizo and padron (a small green pepper) sandwich which is, essentially, a slider. He lets me taste a corner for the sake of my blog. The soft white bun gives way to a slab of chorizo that is smokey-verging-on-burnt (in a good way), salty and oily with a hint of peppery bitterness, all enhanced by a good dollop of mayo.

Grilled chorizo and padron sandwich, MoVida

Grilled chorizo and padron sandwich, MoVida

A goat’s curd and quince cigar is a small cylinder of dehydrated sweet-and-sour quince purée filled with musky, tangy goat’s curd, topped with a dusting of chili flakes. The king of fruit roll-ups.

Goat’s curd and quince cigar, MoVida

Goat’s curd and quince cigar, MoVida

Moving on to the ‘raciones’, we sample salt-cod fritters: little soft-crunchy clouds of creamy, salty fish pie, with a light lime mayo, fresh parsley and chili to cut through the richness.

Salt cod fritters with Basque pil pil sauce, MoVida

Salt cod fritters with Basque pil pil sauce, MoVida

From the same section, we choose rabbit leg braised in an Andalucian sweet and sour sauce with pine nuts and raisins. The sweet and sour of the sauce comes from honey (plus the raisins) and sherry vinegar, finished with a squeeze of lemon juice at the end. It’s a deliciously warming and rustic dish but rabbit is a dense, slightly dry meat and it feels a bit heavy-going getting through the generous serving.

Rabbit leg braised in an Andalucian sweet and sour sauce with pinenuts and raisins, MoVida

Rabbit leg braised in an Andalucian sweet and sour sauce with pine nuts and raisins, MoVida

Mr T is quite defeated by this point but I insist on dessert – churros con chocolate and flan. The churros (Spanish doughnuts) are very light and crisp and the bitter, slightly aniseed hot chocolate is beautiful to drink but not quite viscous enough to properly coat the churros.

Churros con chocolate, MoVida

Spanish doughnuts with rich drinking chocolate, MoVida

My flan (crème caramel) is a mound of smooth, sweet, chilled egg custard in a pool of good, not-too-burnt caramel syrup. It comes with pestinos: tiny, sweet, flakey Christmas biscuits flavoured with cinnamon, popular in Andalucia.

Crème caramel served with pestinos, MoVida

Crème caramel served with pestinos, MoVida

This feast, along with two glasses of delicious Spanish rosé for me (2011 Espelt ‘Lledon’ Garnacha Rosado Emporda), comes to $200 including tip. Considering we have totally pigged out on fabulous food – including some very expensive pig – I think this is entirely reasonable. I’d bet the same again that we’ll be back in the not too distant future.

MoVida
50 Holt Street, Surry Hills
Visited 15 January 2013

Birthday lunch at Sumalee Thai and oysters for dinner

So, I had a rather big birthday last Wednesday. Mr T was working all day but I had decided to take the day off (I really couldn’t spend SUCH a big birthday in the office), so what to do with myself? Obviously the answer was ‘eat!’, so I invited a few girlfriends to join me for lunch at Sumalee Thai at the Bank Hotel in Newtown. My thinking was that it was quite close to home (a bus-ride away from Marrickville), laid-back in atmosphere, outdoors (in a sunken courtyard at the back of the pub) and, plus, it’s Thai food (my favourite) and it’s delicious! I’ve been there numerous times before and it’s one of my fave Thai eateries in Sydney (along with Spice I am and Let’s Eat Thai). The menu features all the usual favourites and a few extras, plus there’s always a specials board with several more options. The prices (which might appear a little high) are deceptive because the portion sizes are huge and one serving is easily enough to fill two people. This makes it a great place for sharing a few dishes amongst a group since you end up with more than a tiny spoonful of each thing.

I arrive first and order a bottle of bubbles to get the party started! Once everyone is present we order food. Chicken satay skewers (which unfortunately I forget to photograph) are tender pieces of breast meat coated generously in a very moreish creamy, nutty, sweet, slightly spicy sauce, with a perfectly dressed cucumber salad on the side. Red curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns (the go-to dish here, as far as I’m concerned) doesn’t disappoint with beautifully cooked pieces of fish in a creamy orange bath of thick, fishy, coconuty sauce, topped with three huge prawns and sprigs of fragrant Thai basil.

Red Thai curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns

Red Thai curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns

We go for another fish dish, fried this time: pan-fried salmon steaks swimming in jammy, garlicy, spicy tamarind sauce – like a fancier version of sweet chili sauce. It’s divine.

Pan-fried salmon with tamarind sauce

Pan-fried salmon with tamarind sauce

Our final dish is a green curry of soft, white tofu cubes and mixed vegetables, milder than the red curry but no less flavoursome. The tofu almost has a dairy quality and the vegetables are perfectly al dente.

Green Thai curry with tofu and mixed vegetables

Green Thai curry with tofu and mixed vegetables

My other favourite dish here (which is usually on the specials board) is their pork spare ribs with sweet curry paste: an enormous bowl of meaty bones slathered in a sweet, spicy paste the consistency of treecle tart filling, topped with deep fried crispy basil leaves. Bowl of those and a couple of beers – job done!

It’s the perfect balance of flavours in the cooking that makes Sumalee more sophisticated than the myriad of Thai restaurants on King Street, no one flavour overshadowing the others but all melding beautifully to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Well, I feel far greater (in size!) than the sum of my parts after all that and we don’t even finish it all. Apart from rice there’s a lonesome fillet of barra left, still in quite a lot of that delectable sauce. I’m tempted to ask for a doggy bag, loathe to let it go to waste, but I refrain.

By evening I’m still full but I’ve bought oysters, smoked salmon and brie for an evening picnic with Mr T. The weather is cool and quite blowy so we camp indoors for our picnic, trying to make Downton Abbey season 3 play on the computer since our DVD player appears to be kaput. Eventually, by about 8.30pm, I feel that I might be able to squeeze in an oyster or three, ably assisted by a couple of glasses more bubbles! I’ve got a dozen and they’re not going to be as good tomorrow so I manage to work my way slowly through them, savouring the smell of the sea and the taste of the plump, creamy bivalves in their briny juices. Or is that the tears wrung out of me by the emotional drama of Downton Abbey? I’m told there’s plenty more of that to come in this season. Can I fashion that into an excuse for more oysters?

Sumalee Thai at the Bank Hotel
324 King Street, Newtown
Visited 2 January 2013

The Owl House, Darlinghurst

It was a greatly appreciated distraction from job hunting (oh, the joys of redundancy!) when I met up with a dear friend last Thursday evening at The Owl House in Darlinghurst. We had both expressed a desire to go there some while ago, but I was concerned that the menu lacked options for a vegetarian; I was proved quite wrong!

Monica is sitting at the bar in the small, candle-lit ground-floor room when I arrive and she is already excited about the venue, saying that it reminds her of bars in her homeland of Spain. I join her in a glass of rosé, a 2010 Coates Pinot Noir Barrel Fermented Robe from South Australia, and we climb the narrow, creaky staircase to the dining room upstairs. At the front of the building there’s an extremely narrow balcony with a shelf to eat off and we perch ourselves on stools there, feeling quite like the eponymous bird-life, peering down from our coop at the quiet end of Crown Street.

We order three very different dishes, all vegetarian, and are genuinely delighted by the originality and fabulous flavours of all of them. A whole grilled baby cos lettuce comes on a wooden board draped with Spanish white anchovies, semi-dried cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, chunky sourdough croutons and parmesan dressing. A robustly flavoured adaptation of a Caesar salad, the char-grilled lettuce is surprisingly moreish and the anchovies fat, shiny and sweetly briny, all drenched in creamy, cheesy dressing.

Grilled baby cos lettuce, spanish white anchovies, semi dried cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives with chunky sourdough bread and parmesan dressing

Grilled baby cos lettuce, Spanish white anchovies, semi-dried cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives with chunky sourdough bread and parmesan dressing, The Owl House

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish is altogether a different story with refined, clean Asian flavours. The fish is of superior quality, like sashimi, beautifully complemented by the umami flavour of the seaweed salad and the papaya which is pleasantly reminiscent of mango chutney.  It’s pretty as a picture, too, with its vivid pinks and greens.

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish, The Owl House

Also very attractive to look at is a warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels and zucchini flowers, served with foamed mussel sauce. The most unusual of our three dishes, the crisp Spring vegetables and softly granular quinoa hide a wealth of large, plump, sweet mussels at the bottom, and the light sauce has a lovely lemon acidity with perhaps a touch of white wine.

Warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels, zuchini flowers, served with foamed mussle sauce

Warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels, zucchini flowers, served with foamed mussel sauce, The Owl House

To finish we share a butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor, served with almond chocolate candy. Monica declares it a proper Spanish ‘flan’, which is better known in Australia and the UK as a crème caramel. The contrast between the cold, very smooth, panna cotta and the crunchy, sticky nuts is inspired, and the butterscotch and caramel flavours are right up my alley.

Butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor served with almond chocolate candy

Butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor served with almond chocolate candy, The Owl House

This is a great little bar with an international wine list, adventurous and delicious food, and warm, friendly service. I expect we’ll be back!

The Owl House
97 Crown Street, Darlinghurst
Visited 8 November 2012

Nom Pizza, Marrickville

I’m going to say it – Nom Pizza is now my favourite pizza in Sydney. Hell, I even like the crusts! Opening in June this year on the corner of Sydenham and Victoria Roads in Marrickville, a handy (and dangerous) five-minute walk from our house, Nom is the real deal. They make ‘la vera pizza Napoletana’, or true pizza from Naples, characterised by a thin, crisp base, sparsely topped with a few simple, fresh ingredients and cooked in a brick, wood-fired oven. At Nom they make the dough once a week and if you’re really lucky you get it a few days old (as we did on Thursday night) when the flavour and texture is fantastic: chewy, slightly salty and… oh, I don’t know what the flavour is, it’s just delicious!

Prior to this week I had tried the pumpkin and feta (roasted pumpkin, feta, pine nuts, rocket, truffle oil), the prawn (buffalo mozzarella, garlic prawns, chili) and the BBQ meatlovers (BBQ sauce, buffalo mozzarella, double smoked leg ham, salami, chorizo, pepperoni). They were all divine, although the BBQ meat lovers is clearly a bit of a concession to Australian tastes and would no doubt be considered an abomination in Naples!

On Thursday night as I’m walking home from the station, two of the guys are standing out the front of Nom with freshly made pizzas on wooden boards, offering slices to passers-by and trying to drum up a bit of custom. I’m drawn in by a cheeky smile from the other side of the junction and I avail myself of a slice of the ‘funghi’ with thinly sliced mushrooms, fior di latte cheese (like mozzarella but drier), a scattering of dried chili flakes and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s so damn good I decide right there on the spot to put the defrosted snags in the fridge for another day and persuade Mr T it’s a Nom Pizza night. It doesn’t take much to twist that rubbery arm so we’re back an hour later for more. We can’t decide what to have so the manager Ryan’s advice is to let the two Neapolitan pizzaiolos (trained artisan pizza makers) ‘go freestyle’ and create something unique for us. Alfredo stays fairly traditional with tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies.

Tomato sauce, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives, anchovies and fior di latte

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

The other guy (whose name I missed, unfortunately) lets his imagination go wild and we watch in amazement as he forms two mini calzone (Ryan calls them ‘mezzaluna’, or half moon) on opposite sides, one filled with feta, the other with assorted meats. Down the middle he puts tomato sauce, fior di latte and rocket which, with a slosh of olive oil on top, wilts in the oven. Once cooked he drapes three generous slices of prosciutto on top and some shavings of parmesan. And another drizzle of olive oil for good measure!

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Following much banter and taking of photographs with our new best friends, we race home as fast as our legs will carry us to engage in an absolute orgy of overeating. The pizzas are both to die for, the first one a perfect example of great quality, proper, simple pizza, the other an extraordinary piece of sheer theatre. Mr T cuts it into thick slices as if it were a loaf of Turkish bread. We could really do with a knife and fork but it’s so much more fun to slurp the wet, oozing, salty goodness into our mouths direct from the plate!

Nom don’t deliver as they don’t want the pizza sitting around deteriorating in cardboards boxes any longer than necessary, so you’ll have to collect it yourself. But they’re such a charming bunch of blokes that you’ll enjoy the interaction – and seeing the amazing wood-fired oven that dominates the shop. They do have a few tables and chairs outside on the pavement (make that old giant cable spools and hessian-covered milk crates) but no alcohol license, not even BYO, as yet. Here’s hoping! In the mean time they do have 1.25L bottles of brightly coloured, old-fashioned Saxby’s fizzy drinks in flavours like creaming soda and toffee apple. I’m not going to say any more except go there, and don’t spare the horses!

    Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Nom Pizza
Shop 2, 205 Victoria Road, Marrickville
Visited 18 October 2012

From spicy Malaysia to sunny Spain

I promise I will cook some Italian food soon (later today, in fact!) but first I want to write about two eateries I went to on Thursday – the hugely popular Malaysian restaurant Mamak in the city, and Spanish bistro El Bulli in Surry Hills.

Unseasonably cold and rainy on Thursday, Mamak is the perfect destination for a warming, comforting lunch. Going there at lunch time affords one the added benefit of avoiding the long queues down the street which are there every evening. That said, there’s plenty to entertain while you wait – the various types of roti are made on a bench looking directly out of the large glass frontage and you can see them being skillfully spun in the air like whirling dervish skirts, becoming increasing large, thin and translucent. It’s fascinating to watch. Once they’ve reached full size (about that of a bicycle wheel) they’re put down on the bench, stretched into a square shape and then carefully folded in on themselves into a mound once more before being oiled and spun again. I suppose the process is something like making puff pastry where the fat is gradually incorporated in many layers.

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

While I’m busy trying to capture the perfect shot of the roti being made, our food has already arrived at our table. We share an original roti (roti canai) which comes with two curry dips and a hot sambal sauce. The roti is golden, crisp and flaky on the outside and soft and doughy inside with a wonderful elasticity. One of the dips is mild with lentils in it, the other hotter, and the sambal sauce is very piquant and tastes strongly of dried shrimp.

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce, Mamak

We share three main dishes between the three of us which is more food than we can possibly eat so we take the leftovers back to the office in a doggy bag. (I’m the lucky one who gets to have Mamak curry for lunch twice in a row!) A slow-cooked lamb curry (kari kambing) has plenty of tender chunks of meat in a rust-coloured, complexly flavoured sauce that includes cloves, cinnamon and chili as well as many other spices I can’t identify.

Kari kambing - lamb curry

Kari kambing – slow-cooked lamb curry, Mamak

The fish curry (kari ikan) has generous pieces of a dense white fish along with tender eggplant chunks, okra, tomatoes and large whole green chilis in a bright caramel, sweet, shrimpy sauce. It’s a bit hotter in chili terms than the other curry.

Kari ikan - fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant

Kari ikan – fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant, Mamak

Our other dish is called ‘rojak’, a Malaysian style salad with prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean* and cucumber topped with thick satay sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s refreshing, crunchy, sweet and coconuty, a great complement to the curries. (* A yam bean is a tuber vegetable with crunchy white flesh, similar in texture to water chestnuts.)

Rojak - prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce

Rojak – prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce, Mamak

As we wait at the front counter to pay, I survey the large, buzzing room packed with Asian students and suited office workers. The bill comes to $25 per head, great value for a huge and very delicious meal.

Having had such an enormous lunch I only need a snack before the theatre that evening so Mr T and I head to El Bulli for tapas, conveniently located a mere two-minute walk from Belvoir St Theatre. Once housed in a small, intimate venue about 50m north of their current location on Elizabeth Street, El Bulli is now in much bigger premises with five dining areas and an impressive long, highly polished wooden bar cut from what appears to be a single tree. Dimly lit, the decor is all dark wood, sumptuous curtains concealing the busy street outside, and tealights twinkling in red glass containers. Outside the ladies bathroom is a richly upholstered chaise longue and more dramatic curtains opposite a mural of a couple locked forever in the passionate embrace of flamenco.

The bar at El Bulli

The bar at El Bulli

Our gorgeous Spanish waitress chats with us about Spain and I ask her if the Iberico ham on the menu is the real deal, as I witnessed on Rick Stein’s Spain the other night. Sadly not, she says, as there are difficulties with importation. (I’m now determined to try to track some down!) So instead we have deep-fried white bait (cornalitos fritos) and some paella balls (albondigas de paella), and I have a glass of rosé, sweet and full of summer berry flavours. The whitebait are crunchy little nuggets of fishy goodness which we dip into aioli, and the paella balls are crumbed on the outside and filled with sweet saffron-colored rice studded with chicken and chorizo, topped with more aioli and flecked with parsley.

white bait

Cornalitos fritos – deep-fried white bait, El Bulli

Albondigas de paella - paella balls

Albondigas de paella – paella balls topped with aioli, El Bulli

It’s a highly pleasurable pre-theatre bite but we’ll definitely have to go back with an appetite and give the extensive menu a good workout, perhaps on one of their regular live music nights. It’d be a great place for a celebration dinner with a big group of people. Now there’s a thought!

Mamak
15 Goulburn Street, Sydney

El Bulli
504 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Both visited 11 October 2012

Bathers’ Pavilion, Balmoral

The ladies who lunch rang the changes this week and breakfasted instead at Bathers’ Pavilion, Balmoral Beach, as a bit of a special treat for Ann’s departure. And it was a slice of pure heaven.

On arrival in the large, light, airy room we’re seated at a rustic wooden table with comfortable wicker chairs and mismatched deckchair-stripe canvas cushions and napkins. Initially overcast, it feels a bit chilly right next to the open floor-to-ceiling windows, but the sun soon comes out, warming our skin and reflecting off the serene, flat water in the bay, full of morning swimmers.

Balmoral Beach

Balmoral Beach

With prices in the low twenties for a ‘main’ breakfast dish, Bathers’ Pavilion is pricier than most places, but there are two star attractions here – one is the beautiful water view which you just can’t take your eyes off, and the other is the beautifully prepared, really delicious food. It’s the breakfast of beautiful people and we’re all accordingly frocked up for the occasion today! Of course I say that with tongue firmly in cheek – there’s actually a very laid back, casual atmosphere here with fresh, colourful, beach-shack decor and relaxed service. The small clientelle this morning (it’s quite early still) is made up of a couple with a small child, two older Mosman ladies (an assumption, I know) and a young man on his own.

Bathers' Pavilion

Bathers’ Pavilion

Very nice coffees to wake us up after the early start are followed by savoury dishes all round. My eggs Benedict are perfectly poached with dark yellow runny yolks, perched on a split English muffin with short bacon and the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever had. Light and aerated, almost but not a foam, it has all of the flavour you want without being too rich and cloying.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict, Bathers’ Pavilion

Amanda has rye toast topped with tea-smoked trout and chive scrambled eggs.

Tea smoked trout with chive scrambled eggs

Tea-smoked trout with chive scrambled eggs, Bathers’ Pavilion

She finds the trout quite subtly flavoured, a bit overpowered by the side of Serge’s oven baked beans with ham hock she simply had to have. And I can see (or rather taste) why – actually made with lentils rather than beans today, it has a fabulous treacly, smokey, barbecue sauce flavour and is generously filled with big chunks of tender pulled ham hock. The bowl is so big, too, that we’re all able to dig in and we still can’t finish it all!

Serge's homemade oven baked beans with ham hock

Serge’s oven baked beans with ham hock, Bathers’ Pavilion

Clare’s and Ann’s poached eggs come with slices of sweet, earthy Bathers’ blood pudding and thyme-roasted plum tomatoes on a bed of mushy green split peas, topped with translucent-thin, curly strips of pancetta. Clare also orders a side of fried whole field mushrooms to share which I find a bit lacking in flavour.

Poached eggs with Bathers' blood pudding and mushy peas

Poached eggs with Bathers’ blood pudding, mushy green peas and pancetta, Bathers’ Pavilion

We could happily sit here all day staring at the view, having more coffees and sampling some of the sweet things on the menu – verrine of winter fruit compote with yoghurt, granola and blueberries, or fresh mango and papaya with black sticky rice and coconut cream – but sadly these ladies who lunch (or breakfast) have to get to work!

Bathers' Pavilion

Bathers’ Pavilion

Bathers’ Pavilion
4 The Esplanade, Balmoral
Visited 27 September 2012

The Baxter Inn and Pendolino, Sydney

We get out of the office, three colleagues and I, and we’re in a taxi to the city on an unseasonally balmy Spring evening, discussing which bar we should go to – one at the Westin Hotel maybe, or perhaps PJ O’Brien’s, the Irish bar at Phil’s hotel, The Grace? Then Phil says, “I know this place we could go to”. So, once we’ve dropped off his bag he leads us through the foyer and out onto Clarence Street, left in a southerly direction for a bit, then left again down a dark alleyway and right past the back of what looks like a trendy bicycle shop/café towards a stairwell guarded by a bouncer. All very curious so far.

Ros, Cici and I follow Phil down the stairs below ground, he opens up a door and we emerge into the most magical, atmospheric bar I’ve been to in a long time. It’s packed with people, they’re playing loud 50s rock ‘n’ roll, the guys behind the bar look way cool (including one with a slicked-back short back and sides and a long waxed, curled-up moustache), and they’re beavering away dishing out drinks to a thirsty crowd. Behind them are bar-to-ceiling shelves groaning with the most impressive whiskey collection you’ve ever seen, enticingly lit by fairy lights and accessed from sliding library-style ladders that whizz from side to side. In between I can see a drinks menu at the top of which it says The Baxter Inn. The room is a reasonably large cellar with lots of small tables, dark-coloured carpet (helpful for absorbing the noise), very dim lighting from wall-mounted lamps, and bare brick walls and archways covered in framed black and whites of boxing champions and prints of race horses.

We get drinks and eventually manage to nab ourselves a table. One of the groovy bar staff works the floor constantly, collecting glasses and handing out little dishes of free pretzels. Those of our group who have been there say this place is very New York; I want to go there even more than I already did. I feel like I’m in some kind of prohibition-era speakeasy transported to the 1950s. Clinton joins us saying that he’s been queuing outside for quite some time to get in. We move on to the restaurant to meet the others, all raving about the bar and thinking Phil is so much cooler than we had ever realised. He lives in Melbourne and yet he’s the one who knows about Sydney’s hip, underground drinking dens!

The restaurant for tonight’s festivities is Pendolino, on the second floor of the elegant Strand Arcade. This place is all about authentic, regionally inspired Italian food featuring some of Australia and Italy’s most prestigious extra virgin olive oils. We’re led through a large, busy room, dark and sleek with white-clothed tables. Our table for eight is already set with baskets of beautiful bread and white dishes of three types of divine olive oil: one plain (fruttato), one infused with blood orange (sanguinella) and one infused with lemon (limone). Jeremy takes charge of the wine list and, following long in-depth conversations with the sommelier, chooses the Fontanafredda Papagena Barbara D’Alba Superiore 2008 for the red drinkers, and for the rest of us the Guerra Albano Pinot Grigio 2010 from Friuli, full of citrus and stone-fruit flavours. He tells me that he likes to take full advantage of the services of a sommelier and try wines that will challenge preconceptions and surprise people.

Once ‘Don’ Gerry has arrived and our party is complete, we’re given small table lamps by which to read the menu and we choose and order our food. To start I eventually settle on creamy freshly shucked oysters with salty salmon pearls that pop between the teeth and a lovely sweet-zingy tomato vinaigrette.

Freshly shucked oysters served with salmon pearls and tomato vinaigrette

Freshly shucked oysters served with salmon pearls and tomato vinaigrette, Pendolino

Jeremy, who I’ve commandeered to share his experience for my blog post, has the carpaccio of raw beef with truffled white walnut purée, Testun di Barolo cheese, rocket cress, wild baby olives and rosemary grissini. What’s it like? “Well, first you get the coldness of the beef, followed by the richness of the beef, and then the flavour of the truffle hits you at the end.”

Alba style free-range raw beef carpaccio with truffled white walnut puree, Testun di Barolo cheese, rocket cress, wild baby olives rosemary grissini

Free-range raw beef carpaccio with truffled white walnut puree, Testun di Barolo cheese, rocket cress, wild baby olives and rosemary grissini, Pendolino

In preparation for our main course, Jeremy calls the sommelier back over to discuss options for a slightly heavier red; he goes for the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Lalo Diubaldo Riserva 2005 which is poured into a decanter. Not usually a red drinker, I do try some of this, given that I’m eating beef, and I find it soft and spicy and very easy to drink. My beef is meltingly tender, slow cooked, oyster blade with sweet parsnip purée, al dente grilled green shallots and a beautiful, rich sour cherry sauce sporting a couple of whole cherries. It’s simply delicious.

Slowc cooked, pasture fed beef oyster blade, parsnip puree, grilled green shallots,  pearl garlic, Amarena sour cherry sauce

Slow cooked, pasture fed beef oyster blade, parsnip purée, grilled green shallots, pearl garlic and Amarena sour cherry sauce, Pendolino

My partner in gastronomic exploration has the roasted free range Corowa pork tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of dried fava bean purée, with fresh fava beans and tomato, globe artichoke and crispy pancetta; he says it’s very tasty, especially the bean-tomato accompaniment.

Roasted free range Corowa pork tenderloin with dried fava bean puree, steamed fresh fava beans,  globe artichoke, tomato and crisp pancetta

Roasted free range Corowa pork tenderloin with dried fava bean purée, steamed fresh fava beans, globe artichoke, tomato and crisp pancetta, Pendolino

I don’t get a photo of David’s dish but you can picture it nonetheless: slow cooked Gippsland lamb with grilled white polenta, Tuscan black cabbage, baby carrots, dragoncello salsa and lamb sauce. I was very close to choosing this myself.

Menus are brought back for dessert and once again I struggle to choose. I’m drawn to the nougat and Ligurian honey semifreddo but settle on the vanilla bean and goats curd bavarese (which tastes a bit like panna cotta) with textured strawberry salad and wild strawberry consommé. The strawberry salad consists of some of the fresh variety (I think) but mainly what I suspect are freeze-dried strawberries which have a wonderful light, crispy texture and a concentrated flavour. The consommé is a clear, ruby-bright pool of perfect strawberry goodness.

Vanilla bean and goats curd bavarese with textured strawberry salad and wild strawberry consomme

Vanilla bean and goats curd bavarese with textured strawberry salad and wild strawberry consommé, Pendolino

Jeremy goes for blood orange olive oil ricotta fritters (which he likens to Nepalese cheese balls) with ‘fior di latte’ vanilla sorbet, a wonderful combination of hot-crunch and icy-smooth with intense marmaladey pieces of orange.

Blood orange olive oil ricotta fritters with “fior di latte' vanilla sorbet

Blood orange olive oil ricotta fritters with “fior di latte’ vanilla sorbet, Pendolino

Cici, our star guest this evening, has the most unusual sounding dessert: the Umbrian Christmas chocolate pasta with candied walnuts and honeycomb semifreddo. It’s really good, she says, but very rich; I think you can taste that just by looking at the photo!

Umbrian Christmas chocolate pasta with candied walnuts and honeycomb semifreddo

Umbrian Christmas chocolate pasta with candied walnuts and honeycomb semifreddo, Pendolino

Phil, on the other hand, keeps it simple and goes for the assorted gelati.

Assorted gelati

Assorted gelati, Pendolino

I wish I could feature every one of the dishes we had, but this would be a very long blog post and I didn’t have the most ideal conditions for photography; as it was I had several people around the table providing lighting from the torches on their phones! Thank you all for your patience and assistance and for a really wonderful night. And thank you for being such a lovely bunch of people to work with over the past two and a half years. I’ve certainly enjoyed the ride!

The Baxter Inn
Basement, 152 – 156 Clarence Street, Sydney

Pendolino
Level 2, Strand Arcade
412 – 414 George Street, Sydney

Visited 5 September 2012

A weekend in Melbourne

With a wedding in Melbourne last weekend, and friends and family to catch up with while there, it was inevitable that we were going to end up eating a lot (what a shame). For some reason I didn’t foresee quite how much, and I definitely hadn’t anticipated the quantity of pig fat…

A beautiful sunny Saturday sees us at Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy to meet up with whoever is able to make it along. But getting there early and unbreakfasted leads us to seek out a suitable café. Marmalade and Soul hoves into view on a corner site at the end of quiet Queens Parade, but with a gaggle of people standing outside we fear the worst – a wait for tables. Fortunately said gaggle have presumably eaten their fill and are on their way out for we get a table straight away. Inside is a large two-roomed space with exposed red brick and quirky little displays of old, hardback books and retro storage jars on wooden shelves.

Marmalade and Soul

Marmalade and Soul

Waitresses are becomingly attired in pale blue striped shirts and sandy-coloured (I’m assuming some sort of raw natural fibre) aprons. I’m giving Marmalade and Soul an award right now for the most adventurous breakfast menu I have ever seen with dishes like ‘potted breakfast trifle’ and ‘spiced five rice porridge with curry and broken eggs’.

Marmalade and Soul

Marmalade and Soul

I go for hearty, sweet-spicy, richly tomatoey house-made baked beans with chorizo and chipolatas served in a small paella pan with crunchy croutons of garlic bread, all sprinkled with Parmesan.

Housemade baked beans with chorizo, chipolatas and garlic bread

House-made baked beans with chorizo, chipolatas and garlic bread, Marmalade and Soul

The portion size is huge and Mr T eats about half of it. That’s on top of his own breakfast, a titillating taste combination of caramelised orange and olive cake with maple bacon, burnt orange custard and raspberry coulis. Mr T especially loves the citrus bitterness of the custard, and the sweet-tartness of the raspberry, but finds the sticky bacon a bit on the tough side (“like trying to chew a Minty”).

Caramelised orange and olive cake with maple bacon and burnt orange custard

Caramelised orange and olive cake with maple bacon and burnt orange custard, Marmalade and Soul

We spend the rest of the day basking in the Melbourne Spring sunshine with friends and picnicking at a VFL match (Fitzroy vs. Hampton at Brunswick Oval, for those, unlike me, who understand these things), followed by a wonderful wedding with very good champagne and fabulous finger and buffet food – oysters and macarons, anyone?

Le Flaneur

Le Flaneur

Next day is Father’s Day, or Godfather’s Day as we rename it, since we are staying with Mr T’s godfather and his wife. We all meet up with their daughter, son-in-law and two gorgeous granddaughters for brunch at Le Flâneur in Hawthorn, a lovely laid back café with a French bent. Really good coffees all round to start, babyccinos for the girls, and a Valrhona hot chocolate for Mr T which promises greatness but sadly doesn’t deliver to his exacting (“I want it the colour of espresso coffee”) standards of strength.

Flat white, Le Flaneur

Flat white, Le Flâneur

To eat I go for the Croque Madame (a Croque Monsieur with a fried egg on top) which has creamy, stringy cheese sauce and good ham, but I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the sweetness of the brioche used here in place of bread.

Croque Madame

Croque Madame, Le Flâneur

Mr T has French toast (again made with brioche) with bacon and honey, topped with sliced strawberry and pear. The bacon is good quality and plentiful, the fruit fresh and beautifully presented, but the honey is not a very present flavour.

French toast, bacon, honey and fresh fruit

French toast, bacon, honey and fresh fruit, Le Flâneur

Everyone else around the table has beautifully made omelettes with various delicious fillings. We could happily, and do, spend quite some time here.

Le Flaneur

Le Flaneur

We decide to spend the afternoon, before our flight back to Sydney, hanging out in the trendy Gertrude/Smith/Brunswick Street area of Fitzroy/Collingwood where we’ve enjoyed much mooching time in the past. What actually happens is that we park on Smith Street and walk straight into Josie Bones, a bar/restaurant we’d both been keen to go to for a while.

Josie Bones

Josie Bones

Run by Chris Badenoch and Julia Jenkins who were contestants on the first series of Masterchef, Josie Bones is a fabulous place seriously dedicated to beer and nose-to-tail eating. A long chunky wooden bar runs the full length of the large room (below an enormous and confrontingly visceral mural of a skinned rabbit), purveying some 250 local and international craft beers, plus eight rotating beers on tap. We sit up at the bar and leaf through the exceedingly thick beer list, grouped according to type and origin. The friendly barman’s knowledge and description of beer knows no bounds and he helps me to choose a Croucher Pilsner from Rotorua in New Zealand which is deliciously fruity and hoppy.

Croucher Pilsner - Rotorua, New Zealand

Croucher Pilsner – Rotorua, New Zealand, Josie Bones

Despite having eaten only a couple of hours prior, we can’t possibly not sample some of their meaty offerings. We decide we’ll risk scurvy and skip the vegetable matter, cutting straight to the chase with pork crackling, lambs tongue sliders, pigs trotter and rolled pigs head. Enough pig, do you think? The crackling is fabulously crunchy and the lambs tongue sliders soft, sweet and slightly smokey with toasted brioche buns, tomato relish and creamy mayo.

Lambs tongue sliders

Lambs tongue sliders, Josie Bones

The pigs trotter is stuffed with black pudding on a bed of earthy braised Puy lentils. I’m used to black pudding being much richer and bloodier than this paler, lighter version which has a touch of fruitiness from the calvados-flambéd apple that they include. The salty, crumbed crispy pigs ears on top are a wonderful textural marriage of crunch and chew.

Trotter stuffed with black pudding with braised lentils and crispy pigs ear

Trotter stuffed with black pudding with braised lentils and crispy pigs ear, Josie Bones

The dish of the day is the pigs head which they braise in beer before pulling the meat off, rolling it up with the tongue down the middle along with herbs and lemon zest, and steaming it before it’s sliced and pan-fried golden brown to order. Decadence in a dish, it’s full of large chunks of unctuous, melting fat and falling-apart meat, topped with another shard of the fabulous crackling. It rests on a bed of jewel-green sauce gribiche; performing the same role as a salsa verde or a chimichurri, it’s the perfect foil to the fattiness of the meat with its inclusion of zingy, acidic capers and cornichons as well as fresh herbs.

Rolled pigs head with sauce gribiche and crackling

Rolled pigs head with sauce gribiche and crackling, Josie Bones

We waddle off to the airport sated and very happy but swearing off pig products for… well, as it happens, only two days! On Tuesday we have lovely thick pork chops with a syrupy balsamic glaze; can’t get enough of that pork on ya fork.

Marmelade and Soul
162 Queens Parade, Fitzroy North, Melbourne
Visited 1 September 2012

Le Flâneur
5 Church Street, Hawthorn, Melbourne

Josie Bones
98 Smith Street, Collingwood

Both visited 2 September 2012

Spice I Am, Surry Hills

I have eaten at this favourite Thai restaurant so many times I thought it was about time I blogged about it. It’s become our default option every time we go to Belvoir St Theatre which is a brisk 10 minute walk further up Elizabeth Street. Everything we have eaten here is so fantastically full of flavour – and we try to sample new things every time – that we never tire of it.

Small, low-key, bustling and spilling out of its open frontage onto the street, this place at 90 Wentworth Avenue is the original of what is now a stable of four Thai eateries watched over by co-owner and Head Chef Sujet Saenkham. There’s also House (literally around the corner) which specialises in cuisine from Isaan in North Eastern Thailand, packing quite a punch with predominantly salty, sour and chili flavours; a much larger and fancier Spice I Am in Darlinghurst; and the newest member of the family, Spice I Am Balmain.

As is usual on approach to the Surry Hills joint, there’s a queue of people waiting for a table. The friendly, efficient, T-shirt-clad Thai girls who staff the restaurant will add your name to the list and take a phone number in case you want to go and have a drink nearby. While you’re at it, pick up a bottle of wine or some beers (there’s a bottlo at Triple Ace Bar on the opposite corner) as the restaurant is BYO only. Fortunately we’re early enough (6.15pm!) that we don’t need to wait too long.

This time we go for yum woon saen, a mung bean vermicelli salad with minced pork, cuttlefish, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts. The key flavours are lime juice, fish sauce and lots of chilli (as could be said of many Thai dishes!) but it’s so much more than that, and the textures of slippery noodles, nuggets of meat and seafood, and crunchy peanuts are just fabulous.

Mung bean vermicelli salad with pork, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts

Mung bean vermicelli salad with pork, cuttlefish, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts, Spice I Am

We also get the deep-fried whole fish topped with tamarind sauce which is so yummy that we pick the bones clean and scoop up every morsel of the sweet-sour, fruity, jammy sauce.

Whole deep fried fish with tamarind sauce

Whole deep fried fish with tamarind sauce, Spice I Am

On previous trips here we’ve eaten the red duck curry with lychees and pineapple; pad prik king with crispy pork belly; crispy pork belly stir fried with Chinese brocoli, chilli and oyster sauce (yes, we really like pork belly!); green papaya salad with dried shrimp, peanuts and chilli; and the chu chee curry which is the most decadent combination of deep-fried protein in a rich, creamy sauce infused with kaffir lime leaves.

There are very few places we’ve tasted Thai as good as this, even in Thailand. And you’ll likely come away with change from $50 for two. According to their website, even Thai travellers to Sydney say you can’t get Thai food as authentic as this even in Bangkok anymore. So, if you love Thai food and you haven’t yet been to Spice I Am… well, what the heck are you waiting for?!

Spice I Am
90 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills
Visited 28 August 2012

Guillaume at Bennelong

With Mr T’s 40th birthday and our second wedding anniversary in the last week, something special was called for. We studied the menus of a few of Sydney’s top restaurants and chose Guillaume at Bennelong, Mr T’s reasoning being that the degustation features two desserts. Not only that, they involve both dark chocolate and raspberries!

In summary, the whole experience is exquisite: a masterclass in simplicity, refinement and balance, from the service to every morsel set before us. The only thing not understated is the magnificent setting inside the ribcage of the smallest Opera House shell with views of the city skyline and Harbour Bridge, which we are lucky enough to enjoy from the best table in the house at the ‘prow of the ship’. It pays to let them know beforehand if you’re celebrating a big occasion.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin! First the ‘amuse bouche’ which is a chilled, creamy oyster served in its shell, set in a soft, green jelly tasting of cucumber and briny oyster juices. The first course is a piece of raw sashimi -grade yellowfin tuna, wrapped in basil leaves and very subtly dressed with soy and mustard seed vinaigrette. It’s all about showcasing the clean, mildly rich flavour of the tuna.

Basil infused Yellowfin tuna, soy and mustard seed vinaigrette

Basil infused yellowfin tuna, soy and mustard seed vinaigrette, Guillaume at Bennelong

Next is a royale of globe artichoke, a light-as-air artichoke mousse which hovers above your tongue, beautifully complemented in its creaminess by a small pile of mud crab, both of which are cut through by the acidity of a barigoule vinaigrette floating on top with the crunchy texture of very finely diced carrots, celery and chives.

Royale of globe artichoke, mud crab, barigoule vinaigrette

Royale of globe artichoke, mud crab, barigoule vinaigrette, Guillaume at Bennelong

After that comes scallops, pan-fried with a golden crust, sitting on a watercress sauce and lemon foam (in which the flavours of watercress and lemon are strangely illusive). Perched above is the finest potato crisp with the texture of wafer, topped with little bubbles of salty caviar that pop in the mouth, and for a little drama there are dark purple edible petals.

Scallops, lemon emulsion, watercress veloute, Sterling caviar

Scallops, lemon emulsion, watercress velouté, Sterling caviar, Guillaume at Bennelong

This is followed by a fillet of John Dory, again beautifully crispy on the outside, surrounded by a puddle of carrot and ginger purée with coriander, accompanied by a delightful tumbleweed of crispy, angel-hair potato allumettes (matchsticks). Talk about fancy fish and chips! The flavour of the purée is fantastic and instantly makes me feel like making soup, and there are beautiful sweet, buttered heirloom carrots too.

John Dory, carrot and ginger puree, coriander, pommes allumettes

John Dory, carrot and ginger purée, coriander, pomme allumettes, Guillaume at Bennelong

Next up is a cube of Grimaud duck, rich, fatty and dark pink, served with little mounds of divine sweet potato and foie gras purée and a wedge of fresh fig, rounded out by the bitter, slightly burnt flavour of char-grilled radicchio and fine swirls of balsamic jus.

Grimaud duck, sweet potato and foie gras puree, figs, radicchio, radish, balsamic jus

Grimaud duck, sweet potato and foie gras purée, figs, radicchio, radish, balsamic jus, Guillaume at Bennelong

The final savoury course is deboned rib of Tajima Wagyu, tender, very rare and streaked with fat, accompanied by tiny, herby mushrooms and a generous couple of spoonfuls of Paris Mash which is velvety and sticky and melt-in-the-mouth buttery. Seeping out from underneath the beef is a pool of thick Merlot reduction (20 bottles of wine to one or two litres of sauce!), a viscous, blackcurranty syrup of heady deliciousness.

Debonded rib eye of Tajima Wagyu beef, shimeji mushrooms, baby spinach, shallot, merlot sauce

Debonded rib eye of Tajima Wagyu beef, shimeji mushrooms, baby spinach, shallot, Merlot sauce, Guillaume at Bennelong

It’s Mr T’s lucky night because instead of two desserts we actually get three, on account, I think, of his birthday. The first is fresh, plump raspberries on a smear of vanilla cream with a little almondy pistachio cake, a perfect miniature crème brûlee and a quinelle of raspberry sorbet which tastes exactly of fresh raspberries.

Fresh rapberries, pistachio gateaux, vanilla cream creme brulee, raspberry sorbet

Fresh raspberries, pistachio gateaux, vanilla cream crème brûlée, raspberry sorbet, Guillaume at Bennelong

Next is a Valrhona dark chocolate soufflé served in a tiny copper saucepan with a scoop of vanilla bean and cherry ripple ice cream inserted, at the table, into the top. Mr T’s verdict is that it’s not chocolatey enough but I thoroughly enjoy its feather-light consistency with slightly chewy bits round the edges, although I don’t detect any cherry flavour in the ice cream.

Valrhona chocolate souffle, vanilla bean and cherry ripple ice cream

Valrhona chocolate soufflé, vanilla bean and cherry ripple ice cream, Guillaume at Bennelong

Our bonus dessert is the Valrhona ‘Guanaja’ globe: dark chocolate ice cream rolled in caramelised chopped hazelnuts and topped with gold leaf, sitting inside a hollow chocolate globe with Swiss-cheese holes, on an expanse of vanilla bean crème anglaise that spells out the words ‘Happy Birthday’. Mr T finds this dish “intensely chocolatey” which in his world is a very good thing!

Valrhona chocolate globe, vanilla creme anglaise

Valrhona ‘Guanaja’ globe, caramelised hazelnuts, vanilla bean crème anglaise, Guillaume at Bennelong

I go for the matching wines as it’s such a fabulous opportunity to try some drops that I’d never normally have the imagination (or the budget!) to sample, given my propensity to stick to what I know and love. They’re all delicious and I’ll certainly be looking out for some of them at the local bottlo.

Although we have a truly wonderful night, we’re not sure if it’s worth the $500 plus that it costs. But then you don’t go to a place like this for value for money; you go for the experience which, as I said at the beginning, is exquisite. And if you can’t do it to mark a 40th birthday, then when the bloody hell can you?!

Guillaume at Bennelong
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Visited 3 August 2012