Spooning Goats, Sydney

It’s a cracker of a name, you’ve got to admit! However, for some reason the liquor license crew don’t like it so the official name of this small, basement-level retro bar is simply The SG. Its secret Moniker was dreamed up by owner Jason to encompass his Nan’s marvellous teaspoon collection which hangs on several wooden display boards behind the bar (yes, one of them is in the shape of Australia), and his love of goats. There is even a trifle bowl full of little ‘I heart goats’ badges on the bar for guests to take home as souvenirs. When I arrive Mirelle is already best buds with an awesome pommie lass who has been handing out the badges to passers-by on the street and is now sitting at the bar enjoying a few drinks. It’s got to be good if the staff drink here, right?

Mirelle and I cosy ourselves into two cream, embossed vinyl recliners with a faux wooden coffee table for a jolly good chin wag and a catch up. It’s a small, dimly lit space filled with mismatched suites of 70s furniture and brown geometric wallpaper to match. It feels like a cross between your Nan’s living room and a student common room. Jason, on one of a couple of occasions that he pops over for a chat, tells us that all of the furniture, in fact everything in the bar, is sourced second-hand, mostly on eBay. We comment that it feels very homely and relaxed and he says that’s exactly the effect he was going for.

We try a few of the cocktails, every one of them delicious and served in wonderful Granny glassware. (Unfortunately there’s no menu on the website and I can’t remember any of the names or ingredients.)

Cocktails, Spooning Goats

Cocktails, Spooning Goats

Getting peckish, we also order a charcuterie and cheese platter which comes served on a fabulous gilt-edged dish with compartments for the various things: salted wagyu beef, smoked salmon, Persian feta, a creamy blue goats cheese (from a choice that also includes triple cream brie and vintage cheddar), and small green olives, along with a generous quantity of crackers and crispbreads.

Charcuterie and cheese platter, Spooning Goats

Charcuterie and cheese platter, Spooning Goats

This keeps us amused for quite a while but an hour of gossip later we’re still a bit hungry so we get a pie to share – a veal and roasted tomato one served in a small white Pyrex bowl with two dainty teaspoons and a dollop of tamarind chutney on top. The richness of the meat filling and the tart chutney go surprisingly well together.

Veal and roasted tomato pie with tamarind chutney, Spooning Goats

Veal and roasted tomato pie with tamarind chutney, Spooning Goats

It’s not until we go to leave that I notice the window above the bar displays, along with some old candy-coloured glass jugs and matching glasses, two Star Wars Snow Walker models and a Hot Wheels plastic toy car track. This now makes greater sense of the lone Space Invaders machine in the corner. We’re also invited to admire Jason’s burgeoning collection of string art. It’s the perfect Gen X den of nostalgia! I’m envisioning (and hoping for) John Hughes movie nights right around the corner.

Spooning Goats (The SG)
32 York Street, Sydney
Visited 21 November

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

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

Arras Too, Sydney

This is going to be a short post after my last mammoth one but I simply have to write something about the delicious lunch I had on Thursday. My colleague Ann and I walked into the city for a spot of shopping on Kent Street, and I remembered there was a place in nearby Clarence Street that I’d been really wanting to go to. Arras Too is a barely more than a hole-in-the-wall with a few tables outside on the street, next door to its big brother Arras restaurant, a fine diner which moved here from Walsh Bay. The Clarence Street address is the same site that used to be occupied by Becasse and its baby version Plan B, before their ill-fated move to Westfield. But, enough of restaurant relocations!

Arras Too has good coffee and a great selection of gourmet sandwiches, salads, pork pies, sausage rolls and a few sweet treats like brownies and custard tarts. But the reason we’ve come here is for the Scotch eggs. Boy howdy, do I love a Scotch egg! When I was back in the Isle of Man visiting family recently I had one for lunch every single day. They’re not readily available in Sydney, as far as I can make out, so I had to get my fill back in Blighty. So, you can imagine my delight on hearing from a friend a while ago that Arras Too (which, as you might have supposed, is run by a British couple) not only had Scotch eggs, but they were homemade, and they were the bomb!

We have a Scotch egg each and split a roasted vegetable, bean and feta salad. I cut my Scotch egg in half with a sense of eager anticipation… it looks magnificent! The egg has a beautiful, moist, dark-yellow yolk, the sausage meat is wonderfully seasoned and oniony, and the crumb on the outside is crisp and crunchy. Homemade Scotch eggs are so superior to shop-bought ones! It’s safe to say I’m very happy at this point and know that Arras Too and I will become firm friends. The salad is really good too and the whole thing comes to under $16 for the two of us – and we’re full for the rest of the afternoon!

Scotch egg and roasted vegetable, bean and feta salad

Scotch egg and roasted vegetable, bean and feta salad, Arras Too

Arras Too
204 Clarence Street, Sydney
Visited 9 August 2012