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

Reuben Hills, Surry Hills

The Italian cooking theme has slightly fallen off the radar of late with my intense focus on job hunting, but a girl’s gotta eat! And so it was that I finally found an excuse to try out Reuben Hills a couple of weeks ago for lunch with a fellow redundancy victim. One may as well do a bit of ‘ladies who lunch’-ing while one can!

A long, narrow industrial space, Reuben Hills plays its music quite loud and has an air of hipness which I find slightly intimidating on arrival. However, the friendly girl who greets me and guides me to a table quickly dispels any fears. The lovely Renée arrives soon after and we fall into catch-up mode over a coffee before checking out the food. They roast their own coffee on site – we could see a dark, bearded man checking the machines upstairs – which they sell wholesale and they also hold public cuppings every Friday at 10am. I wish I could tell you what the coffee was like but I can’t remember. I certainly didn’t have any complaints.

When we finally stop talking long enough to look at the menu, we discover that it features lots of Mexican and Spanish ingredients: jamon, ranchero sauce, Manchega (a cheese made from the milk of sheep that roam the plains of La Mancha), queso fresco (a Mexican fresh cheese), chimol (a radish salsa from El Salvador), jalapeños, chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeños) and pico de gallo (a Mexican fresh salsa made from tomato, onion and chilis). There’s a mixture of breakfast and lunch items which, pleasingly, are all available all day. I do hate going to a café feeling like eggs at lunch time only to find I’m too late.

But today I don’t feel like eggs and I go for the cafe’s ‘signature dish’, the NOT Reuben, so-called because it’s a bit of a variation on the famous sandwich. According to Wikipedia the Reuben is a hot sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut with Russian or Thousand Island dressing, on rye bread. The Reuben Hills’ NOT Reuben comes in a plastic lattice basket, topped with radishes, and has wagyu salt brisket, pickled slaw, Manchega and horseradish cream on rye. Jolly tasty it is too, especially the thick slab of salty beef. However, at $16 a pop I feel it’s a bit on the small side.

NOT Reuben (wagyu salt brisket, pickled slaw, Manchega and horseradish cream on rye), Reuben Hills

NOT Reuben (wagyu salt brisket, pickled slaw, Manchega and horseradish cream on rye), Reuben Hills

Renee’s corn tortillas with fried chicken, salsa verde and pico de gallo are again very small for the price (also $16). She finds that the flavours are well balanced with no stand-out flavour, ingredient or texture. The fried chicken is not greasy, thankfully.

Corn tortillas with fried chicken, salsa verde and pico de gallo

Corn tortillas with fried chicken, salsa verde and pico de gallo, Reuben Hills

An amiable woman, who I presume is one of the managers or owners, offers us (and persuaded us to have) dessert. I’m up for sharing but Renee’s attitude is ‘no way, Jose!’ to that, so we order two of their Doggs Breakfast – an ice cream sandwich with salted caramel. Who could resist? If I’m entirely honest it’s the principal reason I wanted to come here! The quenelle of solid caramel is divine – rich, full-bodied and slightly grainy. The Maxibon-style processed chocolate biscuits that encase the ice cream, though, are soft and pappy and let the dish down; it could have done with some crunch to add textural variety. But I do love the blue enamel spoon!

Doggs Breakfast (ice cream sandwich with salted caramel)

Doggs Breakfast (ice cream sandwich with salted caramel), Reuben Hills

Reuben Hills
61 Albion Street, Surry Hills
Visited 7 November 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

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

The Carrington, Surry Hills

Having been out for a three-course lunch at The Apprentice I need somewhere we can get something small for an early dinner in Surry Hills before going to a show at Belvoir St Theatre. Some internet research leads me to The Carrington which does $3 pintxos on a Tuesday! Pintxos, we discover, are the Basque equivalent of tapas, and The Carrington is a former seedy pub that’s been done up by the same guys who performed the trendy-treatment on The Norfolk in Redfern which serves tricked-up and rather tasty tacos. I arrive early and get a high table by one of the shuttered windows, which is just as well – not long after Mr T arrives the place is heaving. With bare brick walls and wooden floors, The Carrington still has the laid-back appeal of a pub but it’s been given a mini Spanish make-over with red and black lace lamp shades over the bar, cocktails with names like ‘gringo’s surprise’ and ‘el presidente’, and Spanish tiles in the cosy adjoining restaurant.

We go for the $15 plate of all five $3 special Tuesday night pintxos and a great deal of fun it proves to be, especially washed down with a Spanish beer, Estrella, which is on tap and served in stemmed, branded glasses. The pintxos arrive looking extremely festive on a wooden board and speared with long cocktail sticks. They sound equally festive: a pork belly slider with white cabbage slaw; a potato, chili and smoked cheddar tortilla; a chicken, pork and pine nut sausage role with Basque ketchup; a mini chorizo dog with chipotle mayo and red onion jam; and a deep-fried paella ball with fried calamari.

Pintxos

Pintxos, The Carrington

The slider has a decent thick hunk of pork in it and some extremely good, crispy crackling. The sausage roll is clearly of the lovingly handmade variety (as opposed to the ubiquitous frozen party-fare kind) and the accompanying ketchup tastes of sweet roasted capsicum and smoked paprika – we ask for a second bowl. The tortilla is, as you would imagine, the blandest of the five pintxos but it’s comforting with tender potato slices glued together with subtly smokey cheese. A very cute little fried baby octopus crowns the paella ball which inside has a sticky, black, seafood risotto-type concoction – a delicious Spanish twist on the aranchini ball – and sits in a puddle of paprika-coloured mayo. The mini spicy chorizo (too mini for our liking) is encased in soft white bun which oozes chipotle mayo and onion jam as you eat. Salty, spicy, tangy and creamy all in one go, we could happily eat several full-size versions of this. Our other favourites are the sausage roll and the pork belly slider so we order another of each of these three. What is it about pig products that makes them taste so good?!

The Carrington
565 Bourke Street, Surry Hills
Visited 8 May 2012

Porteno, Surry Hills

Three visits to Porteño over the last couple of years have earned it a place in my top favourites list in Sydney. I constantly rave about it to anyone with an interest in food and demand that those who haven’t experienced it must go! But I always follow up my recommendation with specific instructions: thou shalt arrive at 6pm when it opens (don’t be intimated by the long queues outside), speak to the sparklingly efficient 50s-coiffed gal in the black-and-white-tiled entrance hall to put your name on the list for a table, sashay up the narrow stair case to another prettily 50s-clad young lady who will also take your name and seat you in the fabulous Gardels Bar for a drink and possibly a little morsel to whet the appetite. This is my preferred ritual, anyway. I love to soak up the luxurious dark-wooded, bovine-skinned atmosphere of Gardels with a tequila-based cocktail and some delicious ceviche croquettes or pulled pork sliders. Alternatively sit at the fabulous studded leather bar and watch your cocktail being made – here are masters at work. Feel transported to another era with rockabilly tunes and glimpses of the Elvis-quiffed, tattoo-armed chefs dashing through.

When your table is ready (which can take a while on busier nights) you’ll be escorted downstairs into a cavernous room with a central atrium and cozier spaces to the sides. The service here is impeccable and I love calling the sommelier over to impart his wisdom on the largely Argentinean wine list. The uninitiated are given an explanation of the style of dining – wood-fired meat dishes feed 2-3 people so order according to the size of your party, and accompany with some sides. We have tried both the 8 hour lamb which falls off the bone, and the pork which comes with copious quantities of the best crackling I think I’ve ever had. Favourite sides include shaved fennel, apricot and olive salad, and the brussel sprouts which are crisp-fried with lentils and mint, a very far cry from my childhood memories of this vegetable. All the sides have a zingy acidity which perfectly balances the richness of the meats. If you’re not squeamish you must also try the morcilla, or blood sausage, which comes with tender roasted capsicum. On our most recent visit I just about had room to squeeze in the South American style pavlova for dessert. Topped with jagged peaks of honeycomb meringue, this is an impressively large stack of sponge layers sandwiched with generous amounts of dulce de leche, custard and roasted peanuts. Dainty it ain’t but it sure is yummy.

South Americal style pavlova

South Americal style pavlova, Porteno

At around $70 per head all in, this is not a cheap night out but neither is it outrageously expensive. For me it works because it’s the full package – delicious food prepared with passion, service that runs like a well-oiled machine, and an atmosphere equally beguiling for a romantic dinner ‘a deux’ or a larger celebration with friends. Ariba Porteno!

(More photos to come).

Porteño
358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
Last visited 30 March 2012