Thursday, October 30, 2008

Greenhouse, Melbourne

Where in Melbourne can you eat a menu written by Shannon Bennett and prepared by Raymond Capaldi and Robin Wickins?
The answer is the luckiest function space in Melbourne; Greenhouse by Joost.
If your not familiar with Joost,... then which designer rock have you been hiding under in Melbourne lately? Joost is the über talented florist/structural artist (in my humble opinion, check out his site for his view) that creates some of Melbourne's most interesting installations.

Tonight, I drank cocktails from thick rimmed jam jars, prepared by the crew at Seamstress and ate canapes from a rickety tins, courtesy of the Vue de Monde associations.
Open for the summer, this interesting space slots tightly into a Flinders St location just before the Swanston St corner. The building looks like it belongs there, but is only open for the sun to shine in for the next few months.
Featuring those newish toilets, were the hand basin water refills the bowl, and a whole lot of milk crates to hold up the stylist cheese displays... (tight budget I guess...;), a sustainably focused building of recycled materials.
I love the open brilliance of the space and the fashionable nature of the design, food and beverage.
Welcoming the warm spring Melbourne weather...

Friday, October 24, 2008

The worlds most decadent, fudgy chocolate mousse

The roles seem a little confused in the local blogging scene; Duncan is cooking and Jack is baking... well kind of.

This recipe is from the inspiring Culinaria series; European Specialties book.
I first made it a few years ago and have even shared the recipe with a close group of friends, but it comes with a condition, I have to know that they are fairly good cooks first. Why you ask? Well this mousse is really tricky, not just a little bit, but really tricky. I have stuffed it up many times and ended up with decadent chocolate truffles, instead of the worlds most decedent, fudgy mousse.

The trick is you need to follow the steps to a tee, in that order, no mucking about, and really trust me in that no chatting is also a requirement. PDC knows there must be absolute silence at the critical moment.

Now that you are adequately intimidated, I need to tell you why you should make this chocolate mousse, the title I have given it doesn't even tell you half of how amazing this mousse is.
You really must try it for yourself.

The Worlds Most Decadent, Fudgy Chocolate Mousse
I usually make half this recipe, as it is plenty of chocolate love to have in a two person house.
I use large eggs, and for a half portion 2 yolks and 3 whites works fine.
Make sure you allow at least an hour in the fridge for it to firm up before eating.

300g bitter chocolate - I get great results with Lindt 70%
4 egg yolks
130g sugar
50ml cream - I use the thick pure cream with a high fat content
250g egg white

Melt the chocolate gently in a bowl over simmering water or a double boiler
At the same time beat egg yolks until frothy, with 2 tbsp of the sugar
Stir in the cream
Sh!!...Now the critical stage...
Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and mix together with the egg yolk and sugar mix
Mix quickly to combine, it should be fairly soft, if not your chocolate was too cool and now you have a nice chocolate truffle mix... :)
If its all going to plan for you, then well done!
Beat the egg whites with the remaining sugar until stiff
Gently fold through the chocolate mix in batches, keeping as much air in the mix as possible
Pour into individual serving bowls or one larger bowl and chill

I love this mousse served with cassis macerated strawberries.
Buy the smallest ripest strawberries available, toss with a couple of teaspoons of pure icing sugar and a generous glug of cassis. Leave to seep for half an hour.

I hope you do try this mousse, it is an absolute hit whenever I serve it to friends. Being rich it's great as a small sweet taster after an extended meal.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How to get a reservation at el Bulli

I’m forever giving advice about how to get a reservation at this place or that; can’t get the time needed or the right day or even a look in at all? Having problems getting the perfect spot, at that perfect restaurant? Any restaurant? Think you have virtually no probability of dining at el Bulli?
The thing is it’s really not that difficult, you just have to follow a few restaurant savvy guidelines.

Want to know more? Please read on…

Restaurants are fickle beasts, with many intricate workings and big personalities at play.
But the one personality that you have the most power over is your own... and this one is the key to getting a reservation, at any restaurant.
Gone are the days were you phone up and tell them your preferred date and time; now there are a whole lot of complications - no reservation polices, limited group reservations, credit card confirmations, email only bookings, months ahead bookings and just plain too-hard-baskets.
Well trust me, if a human nature is at play, as in just about all examples (lets exclude Momofuku Ko and their computer program for now) you can get a booking there by playing the reservation game well.

I saw Ferran Adrià speak in Melbourne on Sunday, he was here to promote his impressive new book A Day at elBulli. One of the things that struck me was his embarrassment at the books touted “2,000,000 requests for 8,000 places every year”. Matt Preston asked, virtually on behalf of the audience, so how do we get a booking? The response was a jumble of comments with an ‘I don’t know how he (the dining room manager Lluis Garcia) does it’ kind of philosophy and then jokes about how he couldn’t even get the interviewers a table.
In short, the reservationist has the power. And in short this happens every where…

So let us get this straight, at what I can only assume is the worlds most sort after restaurant reservations – el Bulli – Mr Lluis Garcia has the power to control the fate of your dining pleasure. I think it’s important to understand who is managing these things day to day; even within the most rigid computer based systems someone is managing the changes and substitutions, yes, a person. And this is where it gets interesting, because from experience being the person on the other end of the line, I know what works, and what doesn’t when it comes to getting that elusive table.

First of all, it’s about being realistic
A lot of Melbourne restaurants have recently opened with no reservation polices. So how do you dine there at 7.30pm on a Saturday night? Essentially, you don’t.
Some of the best advice I can give about no reservation polices is being flexible and empathetic. If you know its going to be busy - I assume it’s good, that’s why everyone is trying to go there – understand this and either arrive early (like 6 or 6.30) and get a good spot or be prepared to wait probably in their bar or close by, until space is free.
If you are part of a group larger than 2 or 3, this is more often than not, going to be the case. It can be like tetrus, mentally shuffling tables around to get the configuration right so as many people can dine as possible. This is good for both you, and the restaurant.
--In the case of el Bulli, find out when reservations open, know when to email, be open to different dates, BUT be realistic, you know the chances… you are likely to need to try a little harder. Keep reading on.

Second of all, it’s about being organised
If they do take bookings and you need that 7.30pm on a Saturday night, then book ahead. Ring weeks/months ahead if it’s a birthday or anniversary (you already know the date!) but don’t try that trick on a Friday afternoon and say it’s desperate because its your wife’s birthday, well sorry…
--In the case of el Bulli, you now know whom you are emailing, take advantage of that, email at the right time, have organised travel dates and leave the el Bulli date flexible. Does it have to be a Friday or Saturday night?

Be nice and ‘memorable’
Saying the right words will make you stand out from the crowd. When you phone that new hot restaurant, it doesn’t have to be grovely but using terms like “any chance you have spot free on Thursday night” or “I’d like to make a reservation, we would love to dine on Friday evening”, “we are flexible with time, when do you have free?” While the reservationist is flicking through pages or searching through the computer reservation system, be friendly tell them that you have heard great things – I can only assume its true and that’s why you want to dine anyway – it doesn’t hurt to be nice. If your lucky the last person to phone was abrupt and condescending (this is common, especially when reservations are hard to come by, people assume they need to fight for their place), and you will be remembered for your politness.
--In the case of el Bulli the memorable part comes into full swing. So you want to dine there, just the meal its self will set you back a few hundred dollars and that without travel costs and accommodation. Think of it like buying a large white good; for a new fridge, you’ll think about what you need, research it, shop around and then buy one. This could take many hours, why wouldn’t you invest the same amount of thought and time into securing a restaurant reservation were you quite likely will spend the same money.
Be creative; state your case about why you need to dine there, write a poem, make a short youtube video and send it to them, draw a picture, send a photo of you and your prospective dining companion. Be cheeky; email regularly, try phoning, get a Spanish speaking friend to help – no doubt it’s a saying for a good reason, the squeaky door does get the oil…

Accept a waitlisted table, but follow-up regularly
Or if one is not offered, ask for it. Better still accept the 9.30pm reservation you are offered when you tried to book the 8pm but ask to be waitlisted for something earlier. And make sure you call back, the day before and the afternoon of – most tables are allocated and shuffled for a dinner service the day of the reservation, lunches are often allocated the night before – make sure you follow the previous rule, be friendly and persistent. Try a “hi, me a again, any chance you’ve had a cancellation on an earlier table, just thought I would check, we would love to come earlier…”
Take a reservation of a different less busy night and be waitlisted for the desired night, they then know that you really want to dine their, your flexible and because they have spoken to you on the phone, they know you’re nice. The odds are in your favour.
--In the case of el Bulli, don’t accept no as an answer, ask when is possible, could you be waitlisted, is there something else either side of your requested dates. Ideally you want to have made an impression before this stage, but if not enough, keep on trying using the memorable techniques.

Things to remember
-don’t lie, you will get caught out and black-listed and then never be able to get in.
-don’t ring when it is likely to be busy, the idea is to have a chat and make a friend, you can’t do that when the dining room is full of guests. Some restaurants have dedicated reservations, but many don’t so don’t risk it. Call between 10am and 12noon or 4pm and 6pm. What about even popping in if you are close by, the perfect chance to make an impression!
-don’t name drop, don’t imply that your more worthy than others, don’t say that your friends with the owner, chef, supplier anyone (of course if you are then get them working for you, you don’t need to be reading this). As A Waiter says, restaurateurs don’t have friends, don’t push your luck, if your really a regular then the maître d' will see your wait listed name and look after you, of course, thank them when your next in.

If all else fails don’t be afraid to ask for advice from the reservationist, “How can I get a booking, when is it best to ring?” Ask them the rules of their game; no doubt they will be flattered you care.

And back to el Bulli. No I haven’t dined there yet, BUT I know that should I be heading to Spain again soon, I will be in a much better position to secure a booking than most of the other 2,000,000 enquires that year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The smell of Spring

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the smell of Spring; namely one of my favourite parts of it, asparagus.
In the hospitality industry we have certain special understandings of human nature, and when nature calls, and Spring is a time of dread.
I LOVE asparagus and could eat them every day when they are in season but in a restaurant when a special features them in abundance, no body wants to do the necessary toilet checks during the night - asparagus makes urine reek - and put that in a small environment, on a busy night with lots of asparagus loving customers... well I'll definitely be very busy when the toilet check needs to be done.

Apparently, this phenomenon happens very quickly, within half an hour of ingestion, so asparagus entrees are the most deadly. Google tells me that only some people can smell these special aromas, unfortunately for me I am one of these people with a talented nose.

So eat up and enjoy, but avoid restaurant toilets in Spring. Perhaps you would like to cook some at home?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dish of the Month - August and September

Well, here we are again...

A hiccup in my blogging world has lead me to combine August and September dishes of the month. This really needs to stop I know, but I'm none the less glad to share this with you, belatedly.

Dish of the Month, and probably dinner of the month, for August belongs to Cumulus Inc.

I had a mammoth 4 hour experience there grazing at the bar, watching the chefs, sipping wine, chatting to friendly faces and just loving the space.

I could include any number of dishes; from the broad selection of interesting charcuterie, to the salt cod soup, the sows ear silk purse or the as-boozy-as-you-can-bear rum baba. But the loving care that the shucked to order oysters received, has to make them extra special.

August Dish of the Month

Oysters at Cumulus Inc
Carefully, a wiggling shucker breaks the seal into the oysters briny home, pops the top off with a slip of the knife and they are ready to go. Plated with a cheek of lemon and perhaps a little swipe from a tiny artists brush to remove any shell remnants, you can watch them twitch as a squeeze of lemon juice dresses them before the plunge of your oyster fork.

The night we dined, I tried all 6 that were on offer, the Moonlight Flat angasi were the stand out. The menu lists that these have been identified as nearly identical to the celebrated French Bélon oyster. Meaty, iodine flavour with firmly textured flesh and a large white adductor muscle.

September Dish of the Month

Gravadlax at Gills Diner
An incredibly generous portion of house cured salmon, cured Scandinavian style with salt and sugar, also known as gravlax. Sliced thinly and served with a salad of picked soft herbs, some sliced cornichons, a lemon cheek and a quenelle of herby crème fraîche.
Clean, bright salmon flavours perfectly seasoned and utterly moreish, just the thing to accompany the fantastic house made breads.

I still have not gotten past the entrees at Gills, the portions are just too generous and we love the selection of sharable dishes.

I can't wait to get back to both of these Melbourne dining institutions in the making. No doubt with the current economic woes, casual dining spots like this - were you can feel comfortable having as much or as little to eat as you like - will become even more popular to the detriment of the formal experiences.
I for one, will not stop dining out but will probably be a little more tempted towards the accessible end of the market then the fancy end. I think dining out has become cultural for many Australians and giving up a key social part of the week will not happen, it will just become a little more informal, laid back and in line with the dining experiences of Cumulus Inc and Gills Diner.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lucky Melbourne

Who says you need to travel to be inspired by the worlds best cuisine...

In the next six months, right here in little old Melbourne, I am seeing four chefs from the world's ten best restaurants, as voted by World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Next week it is Ferran Adrià from the #1 restaurant, El Bulli.
He is here to flog his new book, A Day at elBulli, of which I am also buying as part of my ticket price.

Then in March, at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Masterclasses, I am seeing Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck, rated #2, Thomas Keller from The French Laundry and Per Se, rated #5 and #6 respectively, and also René Redzepi from Noma, #10.

Now that's a pretty impressive list of powerful chefs to be visiting Melbourne. No doubt our local chefs will be on their toes should one of these guys turn up for a quick bite between engagements...

I wonder where Ferran will eat while in Melbourne? If you hear before I do, I'd love to know!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A question I didn't have the balls for...

During my European holiday last year I visited markets all over France, Spain and the UK.

Market images make up a huge component of my holiday flicks (luckily there were a few of PDC and I together - probably at a market...).
Some of these images made it to Eating with Jack, some didn't because they were boring, and some others didn't because I couldn't torture you with them; they were a bit gory on reflection.

But one in particular, I have always wanted to post, as I didn't know what it was and I hoped you may be able to help. The thing is, I now know the answer and it actually quite funny so look away if you need to...

Some time after my holiday, I labeled this image "what is it", the answer I have just discovered is... wait for it... testicles.
The Guardians blog had a funny piece and identifying image of them a couple of days ago.

If only I knew the answer at the time it would have set the pace all day for ball-sy jokes!

Now that I have shared a rather grisly image from my files and I'm sure the vegetarians have already clicked over to Michael and Cindy, here is my favourite holiday market image.

Also fabulously entitled, "toothy smiles".

Poor little buggers I know, but I bet they make great Greek lamb soup or something like that.

The thing about these images, that is not funny, is how removed we are from the raw ingredients in Australia. Rarely would you see such large displays of offal and obvious bits - such as heads - that remind us of the real source of our food. Perhaps if it was more common, we would be more discriminating, respectful and mindful of our decision to eat it.

Don't get me wrong, I couldn't give up meat, but I am becoming more and more aware of the sources of my food and the effects of what I put in my body.
What about the idea that if you were to increase your fruit and vegetable intake by 20% you are likely to lose weight... I can't remember the source, but I know its true for me.
After my holiday this year and a strict diet of 3 meals a day, stuffed to the gills just enough to go and lay back on the beach, I actually lost weight I believe, because of all the vegetables, fruit and seafood. Not breads, meats and dairy, I consumed.
I'm not a nutritionist, but I know that if I am stuffed full of fresh, fantastic veggies and fruit then I don't even think of the other stuff that weights me down and requires more hours at the gym.

It's a good thing that I like my veggies and like the idea of eating more of them, as there are some pretty dramatic lifestyle changes, likely to force themselves upon us with increasing food costs in the future. Some of the ideas are old fashioned yet very embraceable - I planted my little vegetable patch today, rocket again, tomatoes, cavolo nero, and silver beet - others ideas perhaps will take a little getting use to.

Take a moment and read this piece by David Chang (the chef owner, of that impossible to get a reservation at 12 seater in NY, Momofuku Ko) found it incredibly inspiring.