Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Warm, sticky chocolate rugelach

This morning, after a couple of laps around the tan, my tummy was beginning to rumble and fresh bagels where on my shopping list on the way home. I popped in to Glicks on Carlisle St and was excited to see the queue wasn't as long as it can often be, but it was just long enough to watch groups of teenage boys eagerly scrabbling over trays of chocolatey pastries. When I had secured my soy and linseed bagels I pucked up the courage to ask about them, I was told that they were rugelach and that I better get some. So I did, and they were warm! My PDC in the car and I scoffed one down as we drove home. Very happy, but thank goodness for the run prior!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bar Lourinha

Until Bar Lourinha came along a few months ago, if you wanted a smart tapas bar MoVida was the only place. There is now a bit of a divide, the MoVida fans and the Lourinha fans, and the fence sitters.

I have to say I enjoy both, but if I wanted to make the tapas a meal, MoVida is my choice. If I wanted to have a drink and watch the people come and go, Lourinha is my pick. I enjoy the food at both but I get a sense of refinement from MoVida, Lourinha offers what a feel is more of a true Spanish tapas reflection (I will be in Spain later in the year, so I can reflect upon that when I get home), it’s not meant to be tricky, it’s just meant to be tasty.
The staff at both are slick, educated and enthusiastic, yet again MoVida gets my vote for the staff also offering a level of ‘bar theatre’ for lack of a better term. I nearly on occasion, begin to start butting in on the in-house jokes and jibes myself, it reminds me of a big family dinner where there is always some type of long running and excruciatingly hilarious bagging going on. Love it.

What are your thoughts? MoVida vs Bar Lourinha


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Suzuran and Yoshi, South Yarra

Truffle pointed me in the direction of Suzuran, see Truffles review. It’s not far from work so I was particularly interested in not having to eat premade hand rolls any more. I enjoyed the sashimi and sushi platter with the addition of some eel nigiri, as you can see from the photo it was enough for 2 to share.
The eel was sweet and sticky in texture with a fresh quality eel taste.

I’m not sure about the ‘best sushi’ in town tag but it is definitely up there in the local area, I also enjoy going to Yoshi. The lunch deal is unbeatable; a salad with tangy, citrusy, Japanesey, secret (they will not tell me what’s in it) dressing, miso soup, and then a bento box with a range of petite dishes of sashimi, teriyaki chicken or salmon, tempura vegetables etc. Amazing value

Both places are definitely worth a visit

Suzuran 16/210 Toorak Rd South Yarra, 03 9804 7396
Yoshi 315 Toorak Rd South Yarra, 03 9826 5599


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Restaurant Mechanics

I would assume that most of the people that would be even half interested in reading what I have to say about restaurants, already check out what John Lethlean says about restaurants every week in Epicure, The Age on Tuesdays.
It then disappoints and frustrates me to read a review by one of his colleagues that seems uninformed about some restaurant basics, in the spot a Lethlean review usually appears (Johns reviews in contrast show a high level of knowledge). If your not following what I’m getting at, and if you are, I’m sure you are as annoyed as I am, have a look at the Left Bank review from Tuesdays Epicure.
Leanne Tolra introduces her review with a blurb on why diners should revolt, perhaps she is trying to be political and interesting, but to an informed diner she just appears silly.

Let’s talk about some restaurant mechanics; I know about this, as I did it for over ten years and most of my friends are still immersed in this world of restaurant theatre (no-no; not ‘theatre restaurants’ (!!!), I’m talking about the part of a restaurant that the diners of the world don’t need to know about).
Interested?? Read on.

Rule 1 -Restaurant reservations
Telephone conversation
Diner: Hi, could I book a table on Saturday night at 7.30 please?
Waiter: Sorry, we don’t have anything at 7.30, but we could do you a table either early or late, say at 6.30 or 8.30?
Diner: Oh, I really need to come at 7.30 because (…insert anything you can think of, we have heard them all!...), I’ll have to call you back.

Reason behind the rule:
The restaurant is either
1. already fully booked and they are taking a punt that if you accept the 6.30 reservation you will probably be finished before the people who have booked late turn up, or if you take the 8.30 reservation they may have had a ‘no show’ table that is sitting free or that an earlier table finished quickly.
2. already very busy and most of the reservations are at 7.30, which means to offer consistent service, the restaurant limits the number of bookings they accept at any time period and hence can give better service.

One thing to keep in mind is that though many restaurants may have two sittings on a busy night, they would be crazy to strictly take bookings at 6.30 or 8.30 and make guests leave for the second sitting. It is too hard to manage the whole diningroom arriving, eating and then leaving at once (and impossible to get your guests to be happy to book this way). It is much more convenient to allocate a certain number of tables or guests that can be booked at each half hour bracket, which also loosely allows two sittings as there are few people who will sit at a table for longer than 2-3 hours and some that want to be in and out in 1 hour.

How to get around the rule and get a 7.30 reservation:
Book ahead. Perhaps weeks/months and get a table in the 7.30 bracket.
Be smart. Ask to be waitlisted for that time, just in case something comes up, believe it or not, most people that work at a professional level in a respectable diningroom really do want to help you.
Be nice. If you are waitlisted or have an early/late booking, try some charm, often people are annoyed and a bit gruff when they can’t get a booking when they want, so if you’re nice and reasonable, perhaps you will be remembered and get the wait listed booking ahead of the rude person. Human nature.
Therefore, ‘Rule 1 -Restaurant reservations’, explains how restaurateurs are not trying to “dictate patronage to their patrons”, but actually be equipped to offer more consistent service during the busy service.

The rash and righteous comments expressed by Leanne Tolra, only confuse the diner as to what hospitality professionals are all about, trust me, when I say that most of the people working in these dining rooms really do want to help you, they generally enjoy people and want to invite them into their dining rooms.

I think there is an opening here for a few more rules, keep an eye out for more restaurant mechanics to come.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sharks Fin Inn

My permanent dining companion (PDC) and I enjoyed yum cha at Sharks Fin Inn today. We use to live in Sydney and are still somewhat lost as to where to go in Melbourne for Yum Cha. In Sydney once a week, we would go to the huge yum cha restaurant above Paddys market (I hear it has changed remarkably). There we were served prawn dumplings with the crunchies prawns, or cooked as you wait turnip cake. Though if we select carefully we can be satisfied with Sharks Fin Inn, where in Melbourne can I get great authentic yum cha?? All the usual media recommended places I have been to… does anybody out there have a secret place in the CBD (preferably, as a 40 min drive to the ‘burbs is not desirable on Sunday mornings!) that they consistently get fantastic dumplings, steamed buns etc at?? Help!


Vin Cellar

The last time I ‘dined’ at Vin, I decided not to eat… We arrived to our reservation, ordered a drink and whilst chatting glanced over the menu, it featured strange fusion dishes; dishes that I can’t even remember to describe here but I knew it was ‘wrong’ and we would be disappointed. We fibbed, paid for our drinks and left.
Cut forward to recently, I had read that a chef that I know, Damian Jones was now head chef at Vin, hope was revived.
Vin is a ten minute walk from my house, therefore I have a vested interest in Vin being good. It is a moody bistro space with bottle lined walls, leather couches and candle light. It has an erratic wine list that is an editors nightmare (read: full of strange bolding, typos and weird formatting), yet is full of the kind of things I want to drink. Interesting wine, at great bottle shop prices, plus $5 if you want to ‘dine in’ as opposed to ‘takeaway’. The service staff the night I dined this week where fantastic, old school skills, well executed and the menu, well it’s kind of hard to explain, but reading it filled me with confidence, not fear.

Damien’s food reflects his background, modern Australian food and technique with a very heavy influence of the type of Thai food you would eat in the fanciest Thai restaurant you could find in Bangkok (he worked with Sydneys modern Thai guru, David Thompson, at his London restaurant Nahm). The menu reads confidence; ‘clear broth of chicken, crab, young coconut and thai basil’; an elegant Thai scented chicken consommé, poured at the table over a centred salad of flaked chicken and crab meat. The broth is tonic like, slightly sweet from the young coconut, herbal and delicate. A gorgeous dish.
We loved the ‘chicken liver parfait with figs, salted biscuit and sweet wine jelly’, a crumbly broken salty biscuit, smeared with a generous dollop of rich chicken liver parfait, a little pile of sweet, winey jelly and fig quarters. I would have liked some more biscuit, but maybe I was just being greedy.

Oysters are one of my key indicators of restaurant quality. A restaurant that shucks to order (and not ‘just before service’ and then squirt on some oyster liquor to serve; but as they are ordered, to the hell if the customer waits an extra few minutes), perhaps leaves the foot attached and doesn’t rinse the oyster under water, is the place I want to eat at.
I usually prefer Sydney Rock Oysters as they are smaller than the usual Pacific oyster and the unusual Angassi or native oyster. Knowing from nasty experience, not to order oysters in the hot summer months (the best places will take them off the menu), I was still mildly cautious since it is still quite warm, but was tempted by Damien’s Thai dressing. I was particularly interested in being told that they were ‘triploid’ pacific oysters. When I inquired what this means I was, told that they were breed not to spawn! I later made the necessary googles to discover that they have 3 chromosomes and are sterile (a seedless watermelon is also a triploid), the advantages are many, but the main benefit to the eater is that they do not get all creamy and unpalatable at Christmas just when you want to eat them. Enough with the biology lesion, the oysters served were as I would hope, in perfect condition (the foot had been cut from the shell though), and the dressing was the strategic balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty with crisp shallots and spicy coriander shoots on top.

Another marvel of the food this evening was my permanent dining companions caramelised salmon dish. For a mere $23.50 a generous serve of salmon was topped with a combination of shaved ‘sour fruits’, essentially an amazingly fresh salad of Asian leaves, apple eggplants, so many ingredients I’m not entirely sure. The salmon had crust of salty sweet caramel around the edges. There is some very sophisticated technique in this dish, it was outstanding.

Vins bottle shop priced cellar/winelist is available to ‘drink in’ at an additional $5 a bottle, it makes it hard not to get carried away when you feel like you are getting such a bargain. The bottles of tap water are cute feature of Vin. They use empty champagne bottles, of which I’m sure the waiters get more than a good run of jokes with, as they pour it out to the initially flabbergasted guests tumblers.

My fear of dining at Vin has obviously evaporated, it’s encouraging the difference a great chef can make to an experience, the level of trust has been restored and a good night can be enjoyed. No fibs required….

Vin Cellar
212 High St Prahran, Victoria
Ph: 9529 8299


Friday, April 6, 2007

Mirka at Tolarno

There has been quite a bit to read about Mirka at Tolarno, perhaps a bit too much. I always try and wait a couple of months before I visit a new restaurant, to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on (the chefs and front of house), the creases are ironed out of the dining room and usually the standard first reviews are around. Well I guess my review follows all of these, yet I had a substantially different experience than what I read I should expect.

I dined at Mirka on Wednesday evening. I was expecting a solid experience; one that reflected the pedigree of the chef/restaurateur, what I got was just fine, uninspiring and unfortunately not worth the excitement I had when I first walked in the door.

Firstly, what I loved.
An amazing welcome; we had three separate waiters all say hi and smile as we walked in. I felt like Eddie McGuire at Stokehouse. I was being looked after.

The fit-out; it looked like quite a bit of money had been spent. It was very tasteful and respectful of the soul of the dining room, the Mirka Mora paintings. Yet it was modern and fresh and thankfully they scraped off the dated paintings on the windows.

The glass wall looking into the kitchen; food voyeurs welcome, the chefs just smile and keep on working.

The nostalgic menu features; I loved the classics such as steak tartare, chateaubriand, charcutiere, antipasto, calves liver etc

What annoyed me.
The maitre‘d; who asked coldly what our reservation name was twice within five minutes and then preceded to cause strife in the each of the waiters sections as he moved around the room, ego alert!

The branding EVERYWHERE; not just on the menus and the pour mark on the glassware, but on every plate, a burgundy rim, an emblem and ‘Grossi’. Also on the bone handle knives. It was just too much and did not fit with what I felt was a sophisticated bistro. It became tacky.

Disappointing entrée and main; bland, undersalted food. My rabbit cacciatore must have been ‘stretched’ (read: chef talk for “I’m running out so I will water all the components down to make it work so I don’t have to tell the maitre’d”) in comparison to John Lethleans portion as it was lacking, all the bits he raved about, ‘the best wet polenta in Melbourne’? , mine was dull and watery. The rabbit through well cooked was mostly bones, I got the neck, a fore leg and some rib cage. There was quite a lot of mushroom, yet considering its mushroom season they were all large field mushrooms, nothing of special interest. Not what I’d expect for $34.

Mean side dish portions; I think side dishes are a good test of the kitchen’s generosity. Our cauliflower gratin for $8 was two and a half florets of cauliflower with chessey sauce and browned crumbs. Food cost of about 50c no doubt.

Awful dessert and not getting the chance to say so; we ordered the savarin to share. The lemony syrup was fine yet the doughnut itself was tasteless, even though it was drenched in the syrup. I would hate to think what it would (or would not have) tasted like without it. The ‘swiss-style custard’ was gluggy and uninteresting. My dining companion and I split the doughnut on to our supplied smaller plates, I tasted mine and decided that it was dull and started picking, until I decided not to be bothered eating it, and wondered what would happen when it came to clearing… Well, my dining companions plate was cleared when coffee was delivered and then my plate sat there alone on the table, uneaten until we asked for the bill. The bill was delivered and the waiter snatched the plate away and didn’t say a word. I would have had to scream across the dining room to have given my feedback, that it was disappointing. I was frustrated that the dessert was so badly average, and that the service staff didn’t stop to enquire as to why the dessert was uneaten. Perhaps they knew and didn’t want to hear it again. I can only assume that I was not the only diner that night that found the food dull.

The restaurant was very busy and resat quite a few tables the night that we dined. I noticed around the diningroom, quite a number of weird service encounters, it just did not feel right. Did everyone else also feel disappointed and ripped off in regards to value for money? Or was the dining room full of readers of The Age and Herald Sun that wanted to believe that they were living the bistro dream, great food and service at a reasonable price… well unfortunately knowledge can be a burden and I definitely was burdened by knowing that I was not living the dream.

I should reiterate that this was an acceptable dining experience, but it did not live up to my expectations, some areas were way off the mark, some were so homogeneously bland and unexciting, I think I may even need to go back and check that it really happened that way.
Yet…locally, I’d rather dine at these similar restaurants:
The Carlisle Wine Bar, Carlisle St, St Kilda East
Cicciolina, Acland St, St Kilda
Melbourne Wine Room, Fitzroy St, St Kilda


Out for breakfast

It can be frustrating, in a good kind of way, queuing for breakfast. At least you know you are in the right place (queuing at McDonalds doesn’t count; it’s not food (have you read ‘Fast Food Nation’??)), but if you are like me, when you need to eat, especially breakfast, you really need to eat!
When I use to live in Sydney, I remember queuing forever to have breakfast at Bills 2, I would hate struggling out of bed, just to stand in the queue, but my reward was chunky corn fritters with curls of bacon, slow roast tomato and baby spinach. My first cult breakfast.

Now I have a series of breakfast places that I refer to as ‘the usual’ or ‘favourite place’ etc in a language all of my own. First it was Las Chicas, in St Kilda East. When I use to work evenings, the owner would joke that I was there more often than she was. It was usually a late breakfast (hospitality hours breakfast, about 11am) of a caffe latte and a brekky burrito. Softly scrambled eggs, bacon and rocket wrapped in a tortilla, dolloped with house made tomato salsa and guacamole. Occasionally it would be porridge, if I was trying to be healthy or the BBB – bikini blow out benedict, (if I could justify it) of poached eggs on toasted bagel with avocado, bacon and smothered in hollandaise.

Then disaster struck… Las Chicas was reviewed in The Ages ‘Cheap eats’ book as having the best breakfast dish, their french toast, oh the queues!
So it was on to Batch a cute little kiwi-ana place just down the road. Great coffee, friendly genuine staff and breakfast all day, BUT white toast served with the eggs. Now I’m sure that they had other types of bread, but I’m not the type to ask when the menu clearly says, no menu variations. So un-fibre-d white bread it was, until St Ali in South Melbourne came to my attention.

St Ali for quite a while was one of those places that a friend would tell a friend about; the amazing coffee, the grungy space, the interesting food. It was a trip in the car away, instead of a walk, but it was refreshingly different and not packed with strollers and groups having the ‘fancy breakfast out’. The house roasted coffee was perfect, fresh orange juice, and some poached eggs on sourdough with ricotta spinach, roast tomato and salty prosciutto.
I really like this place, and would come here regularly, until again The Age brings me back to great café reality- if it’s good they will tell the (Melbourne) world about it. St Ali was reviewed as having the best coffee in the latest Cheap Eats. Again the queues, but to be honest they don’t seem as bad as when I got kicked out of Las Chicas. Perhaps it’s the alley way access or perhaps the strollers crowd prefer french toast. Although my last St Ali experience did end a little more quickly then I wanted, because the naughty three-year-old at the next table kept screaming. But I did have some rich, house made baked beans with ham hock and fresh spinach with sourdough toasties on the side. Delicious.

Las Chicas is not as ridiculously busy any more, partly I think because it has been a year since the amazing press and partly due to their renovated extensions. So now for breakfast I have two places I am equally happy to go to. I’ll let you know if somewhere else pops up, but until then I’m happy with that.
Now if only I could combine the lot to make the perfect place. Coffee from Wall Two 80 (the favourite non-breakfast time, coffee place – more in another post) with the bench in the sun, the staff from Batch, the brekky burrito from Las Chicas, and the grungy space and changing menu from St Ali. Then we would have the new perfect café and I bet there would be no way I could get a table!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Tempura Hajime

In the interest of offering a balanced review, last night I revisited a little restaurant I dined at a couple of weeks ago. This place got me thinking, I'd 'discovered' it from reading a food blog site and was so enchanted by the entire package I just wanted to shout it from the roof tops. As you read more of my reviews you will understand that this doesn't happen that often... Anyway I was tempted, very tempted to send off emails to the food media and try and help this place get a widely read review, of which I knew would be fantastic. Give them a bit of a pat on the back. But the more I thought about it, I realised that even if I could write a convincing email and get the local press reviewers in there, "would they publish a positive review and then limit my chance of being able to get a reservation?"
I should explain, Tempura Hajime only seats 12, yes I know, how do they make money? I don't think from speaking with the owners that it is the main priority, they want to cook the best food they can and enjoy their work. How perfectly simple yet noble, it sounds like good old fashioned hospitality.
I was intrigued by the initial blog I had read,!22CF7299170DC347!449.entry it mentions the owners and that they had set up Yu-u. I haven't been to Yu-u, whenever I have called for a reservation it has been 'fully booked, sorry'. So printing the blog review and proudly showing my discovery to my permanent dining companion, he asked "so have you already booked?".

Hajime is a tempura bar not dissimilar to what you would find in a Japanese city (I know, my part-time dining companion last night, who also loves food, has lived in Japan). It is a tiny, hard to find, hole in the wall kind of place, (quite like any cool Melbourne bar that if you have been to after a few drinks there is no chance you could find it again sober!) it nearly feels like a secret club. The owners where some of the original owners of Kenzan and then Yu-u, of which they decided where too big, therefore Hajime was born.

The menu is set at $66 per person, it's offered at the beginning of the meal, so any substitutions can be made for dietary issues. On both visits the dining sequence followed was, some sashimi and a little pickled salad then more than 12 tempura courses, a broth style main course with rice and then a dessert. Loving Japanese flavours it's great to put your taste buds in the hands of Daisuke and Noriko. With recommended shōchū and sake to share and taste, and the food just rolling out at a comfortable speed, it's a very easy dining experience.

The sashmi, I've seen included some perfect yellow fin tuna, john dory, gurnard and the most deliciously rich salmon belly. Next the tempura courses, a favourite was a sea urchin stuffed scallop, cooked with the highest attention to detail and sliced in half to expose the mustard yellow urchin. There are the usual oyster, asparagus, baby corn and a textural okra finger, but also more composed offerings such as chicken stuffed eggplant and a roll of garfish topped with 'plum paste' that tasted suspiciously like what I'd call tamarind.

The attention to detail doesn't stop with the food and service. We ate and drank from the most beautiful collection of eclectic pottery, all hand crafted and showing their new-ness. Being a seasoned restaurant eater I rarely get anxious in a dining room, but this is one where you want to sit up straight and eagerly await the next item, in the next beautiful vessel. I felt like a kid being taken out for suburban chinese again (but no ham and chicken rolls)!
The selection of sake cups that we were offered to select from, my permanent dining companion referred to as a 'some strange kind of personality test', of which I'm not sure if you could say I failed or passed. We were sharing two small bottles of sake and had to select two sake glasses each from a collection of about ten different shapes. I picked the two prettiest, delicate ones, he the two biggest and then laughed as I drank out of my 'thimble' and had to refill after a half sip.

Tempura Hajime has left me with the most amazing reassurance that old school hospitality is still alive and well. It's already on the mental list of places to take visiting family or food loving friends. I couldn't recommended it higher than the little contented smile I had on my face as I left after the first visit, and the second, and ... perhaps I'll see you there next time.

Tempura Hajime
60 Park St (look for the wooden door)
South Melbourne
Ph: 9696 0051
Open 6 nights, closed Sunday