Thursday, February 28, 2008

Smiling Thais

When I first visited Thailand, I loved the cute cheeky smiles that all the locals shined my way.

At Spice I am in Surry Hills, Sydney, both the owners and the diners are smiling; the owners because this is how busy it was at 6.10pm on a Sunday evening,

and at 7pm when we left,

and I hear you ask, why are the diners smiling?
Well the fabulous and truly spice balanced food. Yes, it is hot, as hot as I believe a Thai family would cook for itself, no mucking about, no fake flavour 'balances'; just fresh fast and cheap Thai food.
I am a lover of Thai food and have eaten widely across Thailand, yet always had the trouble of trying to convince the Thais that we really did want the food as they would eat it, they were mostly too accommodating, yet, though they are incredibly hospitable at Spice I am there is no 'accommodating' when it comes to the menu.
A young couple next to us, sipping BYO crouchen riesling, were warned that the jungle curry they ordered was hot, sure no problems was their response, yet when it was delivered and they were crying with chilli pain and laughing at each other, they realised that Spice I am is no usual Australian Thai restaurant. It is the real thing.
We ordered a selection of dishes; the Thai vermicelli salad with prawns, cuttlefish and pork was glossy with a dressing of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours. The noodles were nicely textural and it was all freshened up on the palate with loads of green herbs, particularly holy and common mint, Thai basil and coriander.
These types of salads are best eaten without hesitation, no wine, no water or conversation, time is your enemy. If you stop and let the dressing ponder on the palate you will be sorry, the chilli will creep up on you and it will be difficult to start again. I made the mistake. Forgetting my 'Thai salad technique' and I needed a moment or two to recover. The only expression possible is a smile and a teary eye, I loved it, but it was not the dish of the night, or my dish of the month, that accolade goes to a special that evening.

February Dish of the month

Crispy baby snapper with green papaya salad and cashews

The flesh had been scored and slightly loosened from the bone, well seasoned and fried. The kitchen had done a great job before cooking so it was very easy to remove the meat from the bones. It was topped with the shredded salad and served with a shot of nam jim dressing to pour over the top.
The remarkable thing was that the skin and scored flesh remained crispy even under the weight of the salad, yet cooked well with softly flaky meat and a crispy tail to nibble.

I found Spice I am to be an absolute winner on most fronts, its only let down was that it is so popular that the waits can be inhibiting to people wanting to dine at usual times (not Nanna time like me that evening!) and that the tiny shop front dining room was far less glamourous than I had imaged and totally BYO so we were at the mercy of a dodgy pub bottle-o for our selection with dinner.
But to quote PDC "I can't name the last time I spent $60 bucks in a restaurant and enjoyed it so much".
Enough said. Smiles all round.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wellington, New Zealand

I've been regularly travelling to New Zealand for ten years, as long as I have known PDC - a kiwi. Over that time I've been excited to see its culinary horizons develop from clumsy paprika dusting to a smart level of refinement, I know this sounds like a generalisation, yet I have been genuinely impressed the last few visits. The weekend before last was Wellington, and it was no different.

So Wellington in a round up:
-LOVED Moore Wilsons food store, they stocked a selection of fresh fruit and vegetables that I have never seen in a Melbourne market, packs of baby leeks and fennel, trimmed punnets of micro herbs, edible flowers to garnish like in Spain or toss in a very pretty salad. How often do you see wild venison and wild goat fillets at your local store? Or what about mountains of tomatillos?

-city destination bistro Pravda was brilliant for a smart light lunch of manuka smoked Akaroa salmon on nicoise salad, a glass of luscious Nevis Bluff pinot gris from Central Otago and the obligatory Antipodes mineral water in its designy, yet medicinal bottle

-Maria Pia's Trattoria, Wellingtons representation in the famous Italian cookbook Silver Spoon. This homely little dining room would fit right in on Melbournes Lygon St, memorabilia lined walls, simple menu and a strange private dining room that reminded me of sitting in a sauna, no, it was not hot and steamy but lined in timber and a little separate building in the the backyard. Our waiter was easily flusted and going through the motions, even some of the classic Italian dishes were off the mark, yet restaurants are not always about the food, service or even ambience, the company was more important this night so hence if you can gather a table like I did that night Marias was remarkable...

-Taste Breakfast, great friendly service and an excellent breakfast dish of a chunky cut ham and tomato panfried sandwich, topped with two soft poached eggs and the most artery clogging cheddar sauce that was to die for- potentially!

-Talking coffee, the coffee culture in NZ in has just become addictive, with fair trade and boutique roasters the norm the 'translation' issues of the past, where latte meant being served in a bowl French style, where strong meant bitter and less than 65C was too cold. The times have changed.

-Cheap boutique beers, you've got to love them, Monteiths and Macs, even fancy apple cider and alcoholic ginger ale. And the government is not making a mint in alcohol tax, like in Australia, so $12 a 6pack is the norm.

-Martin Bosleys. I'm seeing him cook this weekend at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festivals Masterclasses but I couldn't tell you what it tastes like yet as I was not organised enough to make a reservation, cockily thinking I'd be fine, but as I should have expected from the Cuisine Restaurant of the Year - full on Monday lunch.

-So I dined out a few times, but what about in?
Fried whitebait and steamed wild caught salmon one night; the raw salmon smelt like salty butter, and cooked it still looked raw it was so red. I also could not get enough of baby kumaras, roasted one night and simply boiled and served with PDC's garlic ailoi, it was so garlic 'hot' it came with a warning (and a recipe you if ask nicely) but the perfect counterbalance to the sweet starch of the purple kumara.

-New funky wine varietals were abound for the eclectic wine snob in me, chenin blanc, arneis and merlot that I would not be embarrassed to ask for, (think Sideways here!) are all now available from kiwi producers and from what I saw very smartly done as well.

After all that in 4 days I am thankful that Wellington is a VERY hilly city, the next weekend was Sydney and are just as many stories to tell, coming soon!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pretty purple kale

Perhaps a bit early in the year, yet I couldn't resist these pretty purple kale leaves from South Melbourne markets. I love it just sauteed with some garlic and chilli, incredibly healthy -high in iron, vitamin C and calcium.
A beautiful bouquet in the corner of the kitchen is also a remarkable tribute to food and produce.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The highs and the lows of a week

I've had a bit of a tough week.
Until yesterday I was still sulking.

I took this picture of that fig tree I have had my eye on.

Planning that the next day I would very discretely aquire my bounty, BUT I the next day I found this. (sorry it was windy and the my images look like a drunk person took them)
The possums had struck!

So I have been sulking, until the others started to ripen and I had renewed hope...

I decided not to risk the fruit over night again and picked it, though it was not totally that dark bruised purple colour I would want from this type of ripe fig. But I just could not risk being that picky.

And then my boundy was realised, and I remembered why I was desperately stalking these poor figs. This truely is the most amazing tree, the fruit has a intense level of sweetness, yet it has a high level of acid and a fleshy firm textured seed crunch. The fig was heavy and full of tiny blooms, not somewhat hollow as some can be.

These really are the most intense fruit. I am uncertain if they are so remarkable because they are so fresh or whether it is the specific type of fig, but it was started a new stake out in my mind... one for a tree trimming.
(And I'd probably ask this time, I'm a terrible thief. I've been paranoid that my neighbour is on to me for days.)
I wonder if I could sprout a small trimming and then plant my own amazing fig tree, I'm not sure if it works this way.
Any hints?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Gills Diner, Melbourne

I finally had the pleasure of a visit to Gills Diner this week. I've been wanting to check it out since it opened but just haven't made it, but Tuesday was our night.

Gills Diner is part of the Con Christopoulos group, you can tell. It screams smart Melbourne hospitality; the room is simple plank wood tables, blackboard menu, thick churchlike candles. I had a good feeling immediately, it just seemed right.

My 'palate' for dining venues has developed and changed in the last few years. I have become more food and service smart but the thing that can linger the most in my mind is the ambience. I've been pondering this far too much (to PDC's torture!) since dining fancy at Jacques Reymond late last year. I never intended to blog that experience but it surprised me; I didn’t take notes or photos but my memory is one of…blah… it just wasn’t for me. The ambience was aimed at my parents or grandparents looking for a special night out, the food was ‘worked’ as they say in the business and in my opinion too worked. The service was fine, I had no reason to love or hate them, I guess I just was looking for something to be excited about, and I found nothing apart from a quaint experience that seemed captured in time – 10 years ago.

Moving forward Gills is a dining room of the future. A level of casualness (as I also found at Mugaritz), that did not reflect through to the quality of the experience; this is hard for me to explain but it was more like how I would invite someone to my home to eat, casual yet with the utmost care.
The food was generous in size yet was refined in its quality. I only got to try three dishes, we thought we had ordered entrees to start, yet they were so substantial we did not get past them. The Gills nicoise for $26 was represented as an entrĂ©e, so I thought, yet was more generous than a main course at many places. It consisted of rosy seared, fillet of tuna, a salad of all the usual suspects, the potatoes are waxy and thinly cut, the eggs soft boiled, the anchovies white, you couldn’t go wrong.
The antipasto was again large. It was compiled from what looked like yesterdays menu; the thing is I have no problem with this, I guess it is the true nature of antipasto. Some components were obviously made especially for the plate such as pickled cauliflower, and liver parfait on long toasts, yet arancini was filled with the carrot risotto on the menu and a moreish slice of roast rabbit stuffed leg was also there. I would have been happy to eat these as their main course incarnation, so I was more than happy to nibble them on the tasting plate.
My favourite dish was a salad of Februarys Pick, figs. Combined with classical flavours of duck confit, gorgonzola, walnuts and witlof, it was a heavy salad that I could happily eat on it own as a meal and be satisfied. The type of dish I would make for myself at home, if I had all the bits on hand.

A unforgettable component of Gills that I can’t respect enough is the service. PDC and I are known to Laszlo the manager from his time at Carlisle –our ultimate local. We were given a welcome that befits the Gills Diner as a whole, it was special, and the staff generally were enthusiastic about were they worked and what they served. The wine list reflected early Carlisle Wine Bar; eclectic to the point of being bad for business, unless you had dynamic guidance through it. Pennyweight Lane fino from Beechworth was my aperitif, a Hendricks gin martini for PDC, garnished thoughtfully with cucumber. Again we were reassured, we were in good hands.

I’ll definitely be back to Gills, all the components of a successful experience were fulfilled for me. I understand what they are about and I think they ‘get’ me as a diner, as well. Dining is more and more about personalities or in some cases lack-there-of and I know that Gill’s Diner and mine are aligned.

Gills Diner
Gills Alley, Melbourne
03 9670 7214

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Figs - My Pick for February

My love of whatever is 'good' at the market, has lead me to start this series of posts; 'My Pick'.
I find that when a favourite produce is newly available at the market with the change of a season I can't get enough, I can end up eating the same component over and over. The seasonal produce is always, fresh and in good condition, inexpensive and readily available.
So what I'd like to do is over the month create a few dishes from the same feature ingredient, if you have one to share, I'd welcome you to get involved as well.

So for February, My Pick is Figs

Figs are one of those flexible ingredients that when they are in season I become torn, I can think of the perfect entree, main course and dessert to incorporate them into yet, I can't have them for every course -or could I?
Figs are actually a tiny cluster of flowers inside a soft pod, techically not a fruit, they are in season late summer and early autumn in Melbourne.
The two types of figs above are the main ones I see at the markets, they go by a variety of names but roughly something like black fig or genoa for the larger purple-y ones and honey or white fig for the smaller lime green ones. I also love the little bite size 'wild figs' that you can buy semi dried, in the dry goods section. These are often imported but you can also get some fantastic quality ones from South Australia.

Baked black figs with gorgonzola dolce and Parma prosciutto
I served three of these figs with a small salad of tangelo segments, shaved baby fennel and some wild rocket as a main course.
Cut the figs into quarters and stuff with a generous wedge of gorgonzola, gently form into the fig shape again and roll in a little blanket of prosciutto. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and a grind of white pepper. I find you don't need to salt these as the cheese and ham gives plenty of seasoning to the fig.
Bake in a slow to moderate oven until the prosciutto is crispy and the cheese is hot and molten.Rest the figs for a few minutes after the oven, so as to not burn your tongue as soon as you taste how good they are.

NB Don't worry, I have not forgotten about the fig stake out, its sooo still on, just nothing seems to be happening at the moment, immediately upon the first signs of ripening, you'll know.