Monday, December 31, 2007

The customer is sometimes very right

Restaurant Rules;
If you are right, make sure the waiter doesn’t treat you like an idiot.

Out for a casual dinner on Boxing Day evening, I ate at Pizza e Birra in St Kilda. Having dined there also a few months back I was looking forward to an alternate to my usual i Carusi pizza joint.
Every thing was going fine, apart from my warm Campari soda on arrival, (not enough ice combined with warm mixers, don’t make a very refreshing aperitif), but I coped.
After some usual Italian inspired entrees, bresaola, prosciutto and crumbed mozzarella, our pizza and salad were delivered. The pizza was as ordered, and served with a crisp base and generous toppings, yet the salad, something along the lines of Insalata Verde; baby spinach, beans, asparagus, peas and goats cheese, just didn’t look right.
First impressions were that it was overdressed and wilted, so I dug into the pizza until I felt the need for some greens.
Upon picking up the bowl, it was really warm, I stuck in the service cutlery and it wilted further in front of me. After a glance at PDC for reassurance, I gave the eye to our waiter.
“I don’t think our salad looks right and …”, as he took it out of my hand he finished “and the bowls warm”. He took it back to the kitchen.
The thing about this is I am a pretty easy going customer, I rarely return food or complain, unless it is a serious oversight (like a small metal nail in a scallop sashimi dish at Tetsuyas a few years back!), so I was seriously surprised when the waiter came back to our table a few minutes later with the same salad and a story that he was new and didn’t know that it was a warm salad and that’s how it was meant to be…
Well, my restaurant experience flared in me now, “okay sure, but the menu said, spinach and this is rocket (pointing at the leaves), it also said, asparagus which is missing and we have zucchini and no peas”, “So I’ll bring a new salad them?” he asked, I nodded with a polite smile. A good waiter could have saved this situation, yet ours didn’t stand a chance, with one of the lamest stories in the book, I’m new. I really just didn’t care; I just wanted a salad that didn’t look like it had been under the salamander.
As we finished our pizza, our new salad was delivered, to my silent amusement, the chef had stood his/her ground and the vegetables were all warm, the rocket was now spinach and all the right bits were there.

It’s a shame because as PDC summed up, it sounded such a promising combination, yet it was so wrong. Overdressed salad leaves, in a hot bowl with hot vegetables and soft goats curd dolloped over the top, inviting it was not.
And an idiot I am not, especially when I have to tell the waiter that he forgot to put our wine on the bill, along side the $11 they charged us for the salad. (Of which I don’t mind as we did technically eat it, but again a good waiter would not charge for something that they even noticed was not ‘right’.)

Restaurant Rules; if it is wrong make sure you let them know why, sometimes it’s a mistake, sometimes it’s just a wrong chef.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Insalata Caprese instead of coffee?

Shopping in the city with all the other crazys, just before Christmas, I was washed out by a sideways thrusting tropical style storm. The car was at least a kilometre away and definitely too far away to be bothered about the possible parking ticket in the torrential down fall. So I slipped into the side of the GPO and to a table at the Federal Coffee Palace.
I know they have great coffee here and that was my intention until I remembered seeing a gorgeous Caprese style salad in someone elses bowl a few months back. I had food envy at the time and decided that today, despite the very coffee friendly weather, I wanted to eat the FCP version of the Italian flag for myself.

Insalata Caprese is all about produce, the best fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and basil with generous seasoning and grassy extra virgin olive oil.
This version at FCP was true to the tradition, it had all the characteristics and was so pretty I just had to share with you. I don't think they had a chef in the kitchen that day, they had a food stylist, I just could not pick a thing in the elegant presentation of this dish. I've recently seen less care put into the presentation of three hat restaurant food (sorry, yes, and I will post on it!)

So December Dish of the Month
Caprese salad - Federal Coffee Palace

I did also have a coffee, quickly as the rain had finished and I was sure the intuitive parking inspectors were on their way to my car, and I was glad I did, the perfect Melbourne experience.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas with Jack

I had a quiet Christmas at home this year, PDC had been working like crazy, so I decided to prepare a modern Aussie style Christmas lunch for the two of us.

One of the difficult things about working out what to serve is that a lot of otherwise beautiful produce is usually so over demanded at this time of the year, that what is available is generally of poor quality. Take seafood for example, there are only so many fish/prawns/oysters etc to be caught and sold over that period so the chances of getting good produce over the other thousands at the market (no matter what you are prepared to pay) is slim, as the retailers will stretch themselves (and their prices - why were raspberries $6.50 a punnet last weekend, yet $4.00 the one prior, when the season is actually getting better?) to supply as much as they can sell.

Therefore my mission was to create a special, 'Christmas feeling' lunch without using the produce that everyone else wanted and would be easy to 'finish' on Christmas day and partially prepare the day before.

Therefore, the menu...

San Daniele prosciutto and seared scallops with saffron and manzanilla braised leek, peas and their tendrils

Rare venison fillet and quince sauce with anchovy and asparagus stuffed zucchini flowers and taleggio polenta chips

Chaource with pecans and bread to dip (actually on the menu but postponed until dinner...)

Black cherry and almond clafoutis with eggnog crush

So the entree (scallops, fitted my requirements as some of the best ones comes frozen from Canada or Japan) - served on a glass plate that you can't see here!

The San Daniele ham is my new favourite thing, I can't believe I have been getting by eating the plastic Australian stuff for years. After eating in Spain earlier this year and my new palate for Spanish jamon, I can confidently tell you this is truly up there!
The entree was matched beautifully by PDC with a fancy white burgundy, 1996 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne.

You can tell its summer when the zucchini flowers are at the market.

I (or PDC actually) stuffed the flowers with a very quick combination of a finely sliced asparagus spear, a couple of chopped anchovies, a blob of goats curd, lemon and S+P. The flowers were panfried and then finished in the oven, the stuffing leaked a little when i turned them but still offered a powerful flavour punch that you could not miss.

Pre cooked and set buckwheat polenta, cut into 'chips' to be seasoned and panfried.

The cherries before the batter... (and during PDC's nap - hence time for a few extra photos)

They were large cherries, but not plum sized as they look here... And then...

Baked... yes trust me it tasted as delicious as it looks here (I was very proud!)

We ate this with what I ended up calling eggnog crush, essentially my recipe for eggnog that I froze some of this year, in the hope of turning into a rough ice cream, yet as I discovered my taste for booze in the eggnog also stops it freezing hard, so we ended up with s slushy consistency for the 'crush', but the flavour combination was outrageously good.
The incredibly interesting thing about the clafoutis was that if I had not cooked it myself, I would have argued about the fact that I could DEFINITELY tell that the cherries had been soaked in Amaretto. But since you can tell from the first photo there was no soaking just beautifully plump, fresh, fat cherries, the flavour had come from the seeds, the exact reason why they are traditionally left in this dish. I love it, and love the way the best understanding of something comes from doing it yourself.

I hope you also had a very merry christmas

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Noodle soup tour of Melbourne

It's one of those things that you don't even realise that your craving, but in the matter of a week and a bit, I deliberately drove out of my way to get a delicious bowl of noodle soup.

Each bowl had their own attractions, at Laksa King, it was the deep aromatic spices of the coconut curry, rich and satisfying, at Pho Dzung Tan Dinh it was the clean and healthy feeling of chilli and chicken broth.

Sliced chicken and rare beef pho

Seafood laksa noodle soup

The beautiful advantages of living in Melbourne, driving from the boring lunch den of South Yarra (I should except Suzuran as it is still a favourite) to the diverse opportunities of Victoria St (Pho Dzung Tan Dinh, #208) or Racecourse Rd (Laksa King, #320).
Both places have an obvious following, a lengthy queue can develop for the foolish late comers, yet a quick table for one never seems a problem.
Having been to Vietnam and Malaysia, the home of these dishes in the past few years, it reminds me of the complexity of flavours that you miss if you dine at the usual 'modern' offerings. No where else in Melbourne have I been able to identify the sweet mix of spice, coconut and chilli that I crave at Laksa King. Even the accessible Laksa Me doesn't live up to the true flavours and generosity of crunchy textural prawns, mussels, calamari, fish and fried tofu in a broth that leaves my tummy giggling as I just can't leave it behind.

My chicken and beef pho is reminiscent of the first bowl I ate at in Hanoi. A few years back, late at night, delirious from a flight we went wandering for food. Until a funny little place appeared on the corner, kiddy stools and tables, and remarkable soup that we pointed and ordered. The regulars giggled politely at us as we sign-languaged our way through a beer order as well. I could eat if for breakfast, lunch and dinner even in the Hanoi summer of 40C and 90% humidity, perhaps in between strong condensed milk iced coffees!

While on Victoria St. I find it impossible to by-pass Ming Tan II. They are the only place I know of in Melbourne where I can get 'snow balls' or glutenous rice balls. In Sydney, I would eat them with a coconut, sugar and sesame crumble centre, at Ming Tan II, it's usually egg custard, yet last week it was mango!

Chunks of ripe mango in sticky rice paste balls with sweetened coconut, a new favourite (190 Victoria St.) get in before the mangos are finished!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bookings at Tempura Hajime

Just a quick post to gloat about some upcoming reservations at Tempura Hajime.
I haven't tried to make a reservation at Tempura Hajime since the huge number of comments on multiple blogs, that they are booked out months ahead. So when I made a random phone call in early November and was told that they were booked out until the new year I was determined to make a booking for January. So on advise from the voice on the phone I called on the first of the month to book for the month following... with success. I am now the proud holder of not one but two 4pax reservations for different days in January.
The funny thing is I don't even know who PDC and I will be dining with yet, but can't wait to compare it with my experiences in March and April.
The funnier thing is, that I am pretty confident it will be just as good, if not better, as after I gave my contact details for the bookings and was asked if I had dined before Noriko asked "Is that the Jackie that dined with Simon?" I can't believe it, she remembered talking with us 9 months ago and remembered my name to identify me this time on the phone.
As I said in my older post, old fashioned quality service is alive and well in South Melbourne.
NB Do you think there is dollar value to be said for a confirmed 4pax on a Saturday night at Tempura Hajime? Could it be a Menu for Hope contender?

Monday, December 3, 2007

St. Ali

Saint Ali may well be the guardian of coffee, yet St. Ali in South Melbourne is the guardian of food stories.

Having breakfast last weekend I was pleased at my good cafe selection, to see John Lethlean and his family arrive for coffee. Not really interesting enough for a post, except possibly if we had shared the larger table and loudly continued our conversation about why Jacques Reymond did not ring our bells despite its 3 hats, (that did not happen, and even if we HAD shared the table and a wall not been between us, would I've?? Probably not...)

It's a bit of a sport of sorts, for PDC and I to spot food reviewers and see who else in the dining room notices, unless they were particularly cool at St.Ali, I have to say no one blinked an eye.

We had just gotten back to our eggs when in walks another familiar face, Bob Harts wife (sorry, I only know her face, not her name).

Hang on a minute, a possible double food reviewer sighting and from rival papers, this was getting interesting until they choose to sit outside, with Bob arriving less than 5 minutes later.

With our noses back in our respective eggs, nothing more was to be seen until the coincidental toilet dash saw both John and Bob standing side by side. No, paper fights, no harsh words just friendly smiles and hand shakes.

I guess communal good taste, accounts for the witnessing of the similarities, of different food readerships.


Dish of the month ...and a whinge

I've held out making this post until what has ended up being late. Not because of lack of dining experiences but because of wanting to hold out for what should have been my best opportunity for a fabulous dish of the month, dinner at Jacques Reymond.
I dined there very late last month and was disappointed to find that I could not list any one of the 9 dishes I saw that night as one worthy of the title... perhaps more needs to be said in other post, but it wasn't bad just not, I guess, me. Gosh sounds like a bad breakup excuse!!

So I therefore I get to nominate a traditional yet inspiring, 'Dish of the month' from dinner at Comme kitchen a couple of weeks ago.
I've raved about this intimate dining room before, about their Frenchy-Spainsh food, that has me bubbling with dining excitement as I read the menu (very rich coming from someone who writes menu descriptors for a living...!, or perhaps chef Simon Arkless has gotten into my brain??)
Comme truly offers, and supplies some of the best food in Melbourne.
The dish actually was ordered by PDC, but I used some of my best negotiation skills, to secure as many tastes as reasonable possible. Essentially it was a pot of brandade served with some pretty little farga olives and some impossibly thin and crispy croutons. On the palate it was a combo of warm and fluffy textured salt cod mixed with a rich potato, garlic and olive oil combo. The finished product was a sophisticated dish, perhaps best for sharing (lucky that, and yes that was one of the excuses I used!) that looked somewhat unexciting but was a marvel of the lightness of touch and considered balance.

November dish of the month
Brandade of salt cod, Spanish farga olives, croutons - Comme, Melbourne