Sunday, 11 April 2010

Gastronomica Gastropoda - Vietnam Food

The French may have the most obvious, though somewhat elitist bookmark in any current reference on the culinary attributes of snails. But having just returned from another work related (and food exploration) trip to both north and south Vietnam, I can attest that the Indochinese have their very own and certainly more down to earth chapters on serving up the diverse variety of gastropods that slime their way across their local landscape. Snails of all colours and shapes mostly of the aquatic variety, were served in some dish at just about every meal I had there. Some were great, some were definitely forgettable, some had spiral shells piled high as the glistening centrepiece treat, some had them shelled and added to a mix stir-fry merely as dot points of meaty earthiness...and below, are some that captured the attention of my tastebuds and camera.

A local colleague showing me the way to twirl the meaty foot out of the shell of freshwater apple snails at a beer cafe in Hanoi. I suspect that this may be a local variety. Vietnamese farmers are waging an on-going but ultimately lost battle with larger introduced species that are ruthlessly chomping their way through the country's rice and taro crops. Unfortunately and typically, the aliens are not so tasty and not favoured as food.

The apple snails were wok steamed with lime leaves, chilli and lots of lemongrass. It took me but a moment's hesitation before joining my enthusiastic dining companions in digging in, or should that be digging out! Tastewise the somewhat chewy meat had obvious hints of earthy...erm...'algaeness' but this was easily fixed by a vigourous swirl in lime juice mixed in with peppered salt. Not so much a fan of the pulpy 'tail' and innards that trailed out after the foot however. The only culinary descriptive I could come up with on this was..."eww"!

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is such a confounding and clumsy name for this vibrant metropolis of South Vietnam. I, like most of its citizens on the ground much prefer the original of Saigon. In one of the city's many hotpot restaurants I was treated to an entrée of prettily patterned shells poached in a bouillon fragrant with lime leaves. This looked to me to be a marine snail that is certainly popular, seen sold at every local market I wandered through.

In contrast to the first, this variety was tender, clear, and clean tasting. Tasty and moreish indeed.

Food to go with dark beer at a Saigon Bia Hoi (freshly brewed beer bistro). It got a bit lost in translation but I think this may be meat from some sort of large marine whelk or conch flash fried in a wok with basil, chilli and garlic segments. Tasty enough but unpleasantly tough and chewy. A cheap and insufficient substitute for abalone, that infinitely more expensive and much sought after marine gastropod mollusc. However the garlic done this way and common in local stir-fries was delicious eaten whole, not at all sharp or even garlicky. Instead they were somewhat nutty, slightly crunchy and utterly beer friendly!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Noodle Soup Cravings - Pho Chu The, Footscray

Loathed to raise this again, it's horribly cliché but Melbourne's frivolous weather continues to totally baffle me. A mere day ago we were sweltering through the city's hottest November day ever as the mercury hovered around 38°C for most of it, and yet this morning we woke to the wettest day in several years with temperatures cool enough to have to dig our sweaters out of the back of the closet again. If we'd a similar constitution to pet fish in an aquarium, this rapidity of change would've guaranteed to find us all floating belly up on the surface.

Bowl of phở bo mixed with herbage, lemon juice and plenty of bird's eye chilli just the way I like it!

The morning's rain and greyness had us lingering in bed till late but once up and thinking about food, the only brunch craving that insistently crept into mind for a need to be satisfied was a piping hot bowl of soupy noodles. Luckily for us, Footscray is only the next suburb away so it didn't take any deliberating to find ourselves walking into Chu The for large warming bowls of phở. As usual for the two of us, a medium bowl ($8.50) each of phở bo (beef) and phở ga (chicken) were promptly ordered, and I also fulfilled my first caffeine need for the day with a strong hot Vietnamese coffee syrupy with sweetened condensed milk. There's nothing much to share about the venue itself, it's a rack-standard phở joint albeit quite a small one and wholly dedicated to the Vietnamese breakfast staple. Springrolls to whet the appetite are about all you can stray away from the bowls of noodles. Choices are pretty much limited to one's preferred size of bowl, beef or chicken, and to what extend one would like to add associated offal and viscera to accompany the sliced meat (blood cubes, tendon or brisket for beef, and liver or giblets for the chicken). Order the Special for the complete experience. Lingering uncertainly over these selections when the waiter asks for your order will more than likely produce an impatient look to get with the programme.

We have visited the place quite a number of times and it's always full of local suburbanites on their grocery shopping break so there must be something going for it. Chu The produces satisfying enough bowls of phở, not the best and not the worst in Melbourne though I'm now somewhat surprised that I hadn't really been dedicated enough to have kept a phở track record. But here's my breakdown on Phở Chu The.
- Generous amounts of soup and meat, more so than any bowl one is likely to find in Vietnam.
- Beef slices always added to cook through in your bowl and thus served perfectly pink.
- Slices of chicken breast meat also tender and not overcooked nor grainy.
- Okay depth of flavour in the broth though lacks the heady spiciness and pepperiness of some establishments.
- Great rice noodles left with requisite bite.
- Limited variety of herbage with only basil and sprouts and wedge of lemon supplied.
- Chicken can include some pieces with gristle attached (and even non-chicken bits such as tripe!) if one does not expect or care for that; and beef can be untidily sliced and prone to clumping.
- Chicken broth always lacks the punch of the beef, though this is the case everywhere.

Walking outside warmly satiated and full of soup, we looked up and saw a patch of blue sky. Did they or did they not say it was going to keep raining!

Food: 14/20 - Phở or phở.
Service: 14/20 - Efficient, impersonal, inoffensive.
Value: 16/20 - Standard.
R-Factor: 16/20 - Sure, unless I can remember better elsewhere but close by.
Spot Score: 15/20 - See Pluses and Minuses.

Pho Chu The
92 Hopkins Street, Footscray VIC.
[There's another outlet somewhere in Little Saigon, Richmond]

For Footscray local and Food & Travel writer, Phil Lees' take on Chu The, visit his food blog "The Last Appetite".

Friday, 6 November 2009

Seachange Requested - Time and Tide Gallery Cafe

We spent a recent long weekend dodging rain squalls along the southern Australian coastline halfway to Adelaide and back. Once again indisputable evidence that the surest way to break a prolonged drought in any region, would be to get us to plan a getaway there. Not that I’m complaining really. It made for dramatic scenery and it was a terrific time! Grateful to be breathing in lungfuls of bitingly crisp but fabulously clean Australian air after past months of jaunter in, out, and around the soupy atmosphere of SE Asia. Mostly for work, a little of it play and boundless opportunities for exotic degustation!

Enjoying flat whites with a view

Anyway more on those later, for now KB and I were breaking fast at the Time and Tide Gallery Cafe just outside the little seaside township of Port Fairy. This quaint fishing village on Victoria's southwestern coast may be small but its scenic natural attributes have attracted a congregation of trendy cafes and notable restaurants for fortunate locals and passing tourists like ourselves. Because of the plentiful choices on offer right on Port Fairy's main street, getting to Time and Tide Cafe requires a bit of mission mindedness. Head southwest out of town on the Princes Hwy for 5-10 minutes looking out for the signs that indicate the location of the turn-off. After that it's a couple of km of dirt road leading up to the beachhouse in which the cafe is located. In the bad weather it was potholed and rough enough to put a 'look at me' gleam in the eyes of those steering their line of Toorak Tractors along the track, not missing the opportunity to spray bragworthy mud over their virgin wheel arches. Sure, our little city hatch had a good time too!

The designer weatherboard entrance had more of an art gallery feel than cafe but the inside was pretty much divided equally between the two sections. We browsed through the displays of beach themed trinkets before settling into a table next to the large windows that allowed unhindered views out to a small crystal clear covelet and the Southern Ocean beyond. The place was right on a very pretty beach with views enough to incite jealous dreams for ones own seachange, and almost enough to make one not notice that a standard cup of coffee was at the upper end at $4.

Baked egg, mushroom, vege, ham and cheese pie with tomato relish

Time and Tide offers lightish meals for breakfast and lunch, including a variety of gourmet sandwiches and griddled panini as well as ready baked pies, frittata, quiches, pastries and cakes. Most of the menu is scribbled on a blackboard and freshly on display within the glass counter. A mill of visitors checking out the board and food display indicated that orders were taken and paid for immediately at the counter. Drinks and food were cheerfully delivered to tables though. We had a roast vegie and ham/bacon pie and a potato and corn frittata (both around $15) which were served remarkably well reheated from what appeared to be a small galley kitchen, and well accompanied by a dressed spinach salad and piquant tomato relish. Overall pretty tasty with good sized serves. Jars of the relish plus other gourmet preserves are also sold by the cafe's small condiments section.

Time and Tide was certainly a bright and delightful place to spend an hour or so in for some rejuvenating nourishment, either after, or prior to exploring the beach and rockpools that run right up to it. In better weather, one might be enticed to linger even longer at outside tables on the wooden deck. As it was during our visit, as intermittent gusts of rain beating against the windows reminded us how cosy it was inside, I almost thought $4 was a small price to pay for a second cup of coffee, almost.

Food: 15/20 - light meals, nothing elaborate.
Service: 16/20 - Order at counter but otherwise cheery.
Value: 15/20 - Top half of average cafe prices.
R-Factor: 16/20 - It's a great spot!
Spot Score: 16/20 - Worth a visit if staying at Port Fairy or passing through for lunch.

Time and Tide Gallery Cafe and Gallery
21, Thistle Place, Port Fairy VIC.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Under the Bent Rim - Gold Leaf Docklands

Peanut and pork steamed dumplings, braised chicken's feet, and wu gok (pork filled fried taro dumplings)

Recently sampled the dim sum at the relatively new Gold Leaf Chinese restaurant in Waterfront City at Harbour Town Docklands. The venue is located within Melbourne's newest complex for factory outlet shopping, so new in fact that many of the frontages remain vacant or were not quite yet at full operation. This gave the precinct a sparse and somewhat desolate atmosphere, which means it fits in perfectly with the rest of Docklands. The restaurant is on a first floor wing, pretty much directly under the shadow of the city's latest and biggest but embarassingly dysfunctional tourist attraction, the Southern Star Observation Wheel. The structure inspired by the London Eye has since been called many other names, The Melbourne Eye(Sore), a white elephant, a laughing stock but I'll be kind and just call it unlucky. After much delays during its initial construction, it had opened for operation for a mere two months before an infamous heatwave from the summer just passed proved too much and cracked some of its spoked girders. It's now back to the drawing board with repairs reported to take up to 12 months, perhaps in time for a reopening next summer? Here's hoping that those responsible have taken into account that the seasons, unlike the wheel, will be coming around full circle and yes, Melbourne summers can get hot!

The Docklands restaurant is the most recent addition to the
Gold Leaf group of chinese seafood and yum cha restaurants, which have more branches opening around town than your average bank. If they introduced facilities for paying utility bills and cashing deposits, I'm sure it'll be a greatly appreciated social service to the senior population, especially in addition to offering Sunday brunch. Being new the restaurant is bright, helped by floor-to-ceiling glass frontage, generous lighting and an illuminated panel depicting an oriental river scene along the back wall. Service too was bright despite the frenetic pace usually set at yum cha. I nearly choked on my dumpling when we received an "Enjoy your meal" from the trolley servicer after she deposited our steamer of choice on the table, and damn well did choke when the same happened again later from a different girl. A remarkable deviation from the usual surly though admittedly harrassed staff at yum cha service. Foodwise, I'd expect that the dim sum at any of the Gold Leaf restaurants would be pretty dependable though this outlet offered less than expected variety on a visit. Waiting periods between carts were somewhat inconsistent, though portion sizes were noticeably generous. Traditionalists may grumble that they touch more than the heart (ie. lack finesse). We have previously had yum cha at the Gold Leaf Restaurant Sunshine and been more impressed with the quality (especially their roasted suckling pig), though much less so with the crowds and difficulty in finding a park! However no such issues at Docklands with multi-story parking aplenty.

A wooden vat of dau fu fa, silken soy curds served in gingery syrup

Perhaps there had been little reason to venture into Harbour Town with its star attraction currently out of commission and the fashion outlets still finding their feet, thanks to the same issue. However the presence of Golf Leaf is now one reason to stay on that tram from the CBD for a little further, or otherwise venture in to try a clean new yum cha venue. Do so before the queues get longer, the carpets get faded, the tiles get slippery and the service gets jaded. The crowds are already gathering. We had to wait around 30 minutes with no booking on a Sunday lunchtime, so it'll pay to book prior to a visit or as Edmund Blackadder might say as you wait beside the live seafood tanks, "You'll be spending more time staring at fish staring back at you, than Fishy the Fish Starer cares to spend time staring at fish!"

Food: 14/20 - Run of the mill dim sum.
Service: 14/20 - Not bad for yum cha.
Value: 15/20 - Nothing out of the ordinary.
R-Factor: 14/20 - It's now the yum cha place closest to us.
Spot Score: 14/20 - Offers another mid-range choice for Cantonese cuisine.

Gold Leaf Chinese Restaurant
Level 1, 10-11 Star Circus, Waterfront City, Harbour Town, Docklands VIC.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Will there be any Batter? - Tempura Hajime

It was the second time we loitered near its inconspicuous entrance. The first pass we walked straight by wondering if we’d misunderstood the seemingly clear instructions for the rendezvous. Glancing around furtively over my shoulder at the surrounding deserted office district, I pressed thumb on buzzer and the door clicked open in acknowledgment. Why the espionage? Were we about to be handed a stolen manuscript detailing each and every Mystery Box ingredient to be used over the entire series of Masterchef Australia? Or perhaps a draft copy of the Federal Budget leaked three months in advance?

Palate cleansing Sashimi of Ocean Trout, John Dory and Kingfish served with freshly grated wasabi root prior to the tempura courses

No, instead we’d finally got ourselves to Tempura Hajime, that widely lauded yet reclusive den for fine tempura in Melbourne. That is, the real deal. Nothing like those roughly battered and gluggy ebi tempura dunked unceremoniously into foodcourt bowls of udon that we’re more familiar with, or so our expectations assured us. We were led though a darkened bar area that looked like the waiting rooms at either my dentist's or tax accountant's. Neither had ever provided me with fond anticipatory memories so perhaps just as well we weren’t given the option to linger, but directed straight through and out the other side. We may as well have stepped though Alice’s looking glass. The famed tempura bar! In contrast this room was brightly lit, drawing immediate attention to the dominating blondwood-panelled U-shaped bar surrounded by 12 stools. Yes many will know that the restaurant only accepts 12 “clients” per night. For those that hadn’t known, it’s true, and also why a booking for an evening of choice generally needs to be secured at least a month in advance and probably much earlier if on a weekend. Our 7.30 Saturday evening spot for two took just that, though demand may have tempered as the current economic crisis continues to extend its reach. Separate bookings are staggered at 15 minute intervals so as to ensure that equal attention can be paid to everyone. Proprietor and tempura supremo, Daisuke Miyamoto is the one and only chef and master of ceremony. Surprisingly, he does not possess a domineering personality. Quietly efficient, meticulous and softly affable would be more accurate descriptions for both host and hostess. This made for relaxing and comfortable dining despite sitting pretty much face to face opposite the chef for the entire meal.

Okay I couldn't stop Daisuke san, smile

Tempura Hajime must be contender for the most hyped about niche eating venue in 2007/2008 though the noise seems to have died down. For awhile there, the image of Daisuke san over his copper woks was perhaps the most photographed profile-in-action captured by awestruck food bloggers. There is no need to decide over the food, the $72 per head menu is fixed though you'll be asked if there's anything you're allergic to or won't eat. If this includes seafood my suggestion is to forget about the place and save your dining-out splurge for elsewhere. And it’s mainly all about tempura, albeit tempura done with pedantic attention to detail. Plus it’s all delicious though we agree with most who've dined there (and written about it) that it's really about the experience and aesthetics, from its atmosphere of covert exclusivity, to its meticulously presented food, to the delightfully quirky one-of-a-kind Japanese stoneware used in service. Personally, I was fascinated with the whole observable ritual that went into producing each piece of grease-free, airily coated and perfectly crispy tempura. I won’t detail here each and every masterpiece that was proferred for tasting but the famous and sexy tempura scallop stuffed with uni (sea urchin roe) and shiso is shown below. As a caution, I do believe some surprise in this aspect would add to one's own experience but if you must, others have detailed each morsel likely to be offered in all their glory here. Incidentally we weren't too wowed by the scallop as the 'bitey' fresh shiso somewhat overpowered the delicate mollusc, have read that nori is used instead at other times.

Definitive proof that the term 'Food Porn' is by no means inappropriate or overused

So is the experience worth it? For us we certainly walked away happy, but we do pretty much consider it a once-off (or once in a very long while) dining experience. If not exactly one-note then certainly a very focussed specialist Melbourne fine-dining offering. Don’t be fooled by the ‘tempura bar’ misnomer, a cheap meal out won’t/can't be had here. Yes it’s probably the finest tempura to be had in town but at the end of the day, a stick of asparagus is still a stick of asparagus no matter how many superlatives are used to describe it, and same goes for the prawn. It certainly can't be judged on the same food value scale as say The Press Club or Maha, but Tempura Hajime does offer a different, quite unique experience and yet another choice for those of us fortunate enough to eat in Melbourne.

Chilled sake served by Dumbo the earthern despenser

I've read around the blogs that the proprietors of Tempura Hajime may be moving on (back to Japan?), but the restaurant was still around when I checked back in April 2009. If it sounds like it could be your thing, experience it while you can! That is, if you can figure out how and where to get in...

Food: 17/20 - Innovative procession of tempura for Melbourne.
Service: 17/20 - Charming, welcoming and personable as are essential for the small space.
Value: 15/20 - Depends how much you love fine tempura in all its forms.
R-Factor: 13/20 - May be too focussed given Melbourne's choices for fine dining.
Spot Score: 16/20 - Overall interesting with a sense of occasion.

Tempura Hajime
60 Park Street, South Melbourne VIC.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Salak and Jambu - Indonesian Food

If it feels like a snake, and it looks like a snake, then it must be a ... fruit!?

In my last post I put up a couple of cropped pictures of some exotic fruits I'd encountered in Indonesia. Well, picture No.1 is of the salak also known as the snake fruit or snakeskin fruit. These grow in clusters at the base of the imposingly prickly salak palm that is native to Indonesia, with each individual fruit about the size of a large fig. They look pretty "wicked" don't they, with their scaly peel. At the very least, they give the impression that something serpentine might just pop out of them! The unusual snake-like skin is surprisingly thin and somewhat papery, easily peeled away by hand to reveal three waxy lobes or segments of edible off-white flesh. Each of these fleshy lobes hides a hard inedible seed. The fruit has quite a distinctive, slightly sourish (acidic) aroma but the flesh has a pleasant crunchy texture (like a cling peach or unripe nectarine) and quite sweet. Both the appearance and odour of the fruit have proven a little too confronting for some people encountering it for the first time to enjoy. As for me, I don't mind it at all though it wouldn't be at the top of my list of favourite tropical fruits. It really needs to be eaten when very fresh, as bruised or older fruits emanate an overpowering smell and unpleasant taste of fermentation.

As Phyllis and Thanh were both able to reveal, Fruit No.2 is the jambu or wax apple, a very common and popular fruit in south Asia and again native to Indonesia. When I'd been out for a stroll around the suburbs of Jakarta, I'd often come across the bell-shaped fruits strewn over some patch of ground even beside a busy roadway or a carpark; a cue to look up to see a jambu laden tree. The common variety has an attractive greenish-to-white colour tinged with a faint blush of pink and is known as jambu air (or water jambu) due to its light crunchy and juicy texture consisting mostly of water. The ones pictured here are a slightly larger variety or cultivar known as jambu merah (red jambu), or jambu susu (milk jambu) on account of its milky white inner flesh. Tastewise the varieties are similarly subtle, slightly tart and faintly perfumed. It is an easy fruit to eat and can be crunched skin and all, although the heart hiding the seed is a little cobwebby or cottonwoolly in texture. Otherwise it is a refreshing bite! Because of its subtle taste, jambu is usually eaten with a condiment. Thanh says they are enjoyed with sugar syrup in Vietnam. In Indonesia however, locals really only eat them dipped in the ubiquitous kecap manis (a sweet soy sauce) laced with very spicy chilli sambal! It is also a common ingredient in rujak, a raw fruit salad tossed with crushed peanuts and a hotly spicy shrimp-paste and tamarind dressing. Sounds odd but tastes devine!

Monday, 9 March 2009

Lady and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden - Indonesian Food

As Melbourne Food Bloggers were living it up at the rescheduled version of their latest get together, I was stuck in a 5-hour layover at the main terminal building of KL International enroute home from Jakarta with only the bowl of curry noodles pictured above and the How to Pay Off Your Mortgage in 5 Years paperback to break up the boredom. As terminal purchases go, the noodle curry was way better than the book, which was merely yet another not-that-insightful version telling folks like me and you what we should really already know. On the other hand while not exactly brimming with treasures, the noodle curry had a requisite rich and deeply flavourful stockbase expected from a bowl of the stuff almost everywhere in SE Asia but still not an easy find back here, yes even in Melbourne. The soup was pretty spicy and not just with chilli, although it also had more chilli kick than I really needed for spending a further eight hours trapped in an aircraft. It made me sweat. In the broth were fried tofu (taupok), fishcake, mungbean shoots, baby corn and miscellaneous vege condiments, spinach, a couple of smallish prawns, fried shallots, dark dots of small canned blood cockles and an egg. Slurpable indeed. Has anybody out there recently refreshed their directory of Melbourne spots for decent curry noodles, more commonly known as curry laksa?

Folks reading the official Australian travel advisory for Indonesia nowadays would be put off travelling there for a good while. And that would be a shame because politics aside, large parts of the country remain a verdant paradise (yes it may really have been the model for Eden) and filled with a friendly easy-going people that would make any laidback Aussie feel inadequate. What's more, greetings accompanied by those lovely Javanese smiles are something else to remember. And Indonesian food! Oh my. I'll leave ranting more about that, accumulated over several recent trips there, for later posts.

For now I'll finish with a couple of crops for a "Do you know what this is?" game. I'm sure anyone who has ever spent time in the archipelago or stayed at a Balinese resort would recognise at least one of the below, though the best are apparently from Java. Care to share your knowledge or take a guess in the Comments section?

Hint: Yes of course they are for eating.

Crackling scales (left) and blushing red (right)