Thursday, 27 December 2007

Festive More-ish Macarons

Duncan of Syrup & Tang has been spreading the gospel on the sugary delights of macarons (light almond meringue biscuits sandwiched with sweet flavoured filling) to the ignorant and enlightened alike within the Melbourne blogosphere, and I had not been immune. In my previous post I touched on the challenge of gifting something small but different as celebratory bonbons in place of the usual cellophane wrapped handful of chocolate and lollies bought from the supermarket. Having recalled vague distant memories of macarons due to recent postings about these delights in the local food blogs, I too was struck with the idea that some homebaked ones would make ideal and unique cellophane fillers. Yeah was I to know that the process would be so fraught with the need for fiddly details, requiring prerequisite degrees in both food chemistry and would you believe, meteorology! Luckily Duncan had most accommodatingly provided step-by-step protocols ( for those who wished to try their hand at making some.

I won't detail Duncan's recipe here as it's readily accessible in all its eloquent glory at his own site. Suffice to say that I followed his Italian meringue recipe pretty much to the letter, deciding on a base vanilla flavour provided from scrapings of a split vanilla bean. I confess that my first attempt at baking the macarons was total and humbling failure, resulting in sticky, soft, ugly pock-marked flat wafers that looked nothing like the gloriously smooth-domed wonders that they're meant to be! Well I put that setback down to my optimisation phase, convinced that I'd overmixed all the air out of the batter. My confidence recovered a day or two later for another attempt, this time deciding to divide the blended dry ingredients into exact halves by weight in order to add different flavourings and/or colourings to each. One half with just red liquid food colouring, and the other half-a-batch with some matcha green tea powder plus some extra green from food colouring (for the festive red and green gift-set). I also took extra care not to overmix the batter once the meringue was folded in! Imagine my excitement when after approximately 5 minutes in the oven my macarons started to rise off their 'feet' and to form perfectly smooth domes. Unfortunately, the second red half produced a drier batter and was not as successful although the resultant macarons still rose but their feet puffed out sideways and their domes were quite lumpy. Not quite as picturesque as their green counterparts. Overall though, I was more than pleased with the results from only two attempts. Think I'll now leave home-baked macarons alone for awhile however. By all accounts, continuing with such fallacious confidence and sense of tantalising achievement would be tempting fate!

Festive macarons in seasonal green and red livery

I sandwiched the macarons with a dark chocolate ganache flavoured with Cointreau and a faint hint of chilli, for that 'secret' buzz of something indiscernibly special (grated orange zest and dried chilli flakes were added to the cream for boiling then sieved before adding to blitzed chocolate and the liqueur added when cooled). The flavours in the matcha macarons in particular were heavenly. Feedback from those that received some of these macarons have yielded comments in the vein of, "These are the best cookies! What are they and where did you buy them?" Thank you Syrup & Tang!

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Festive Crabapple Cupcakes

We just stumbled in through the door from a bountiful but thankfully not overly indulgent Christmas dinner at our friends' place, a fellowship of family-less interstate expatriates. And so Christmas is over for another year but while the spirit still lingers, here's the first of several posts about some of the delectables we'd encountered during the festive period.

My desk at work is strewn with a collection of chocolate bars and other mixed confectionary, the bounty of Season's best wishes from colleagues in the lead up to Christmas. For my part, I figured that most of us wouldn't really need yet another bar of chocolate or ball of candy to add to the hoard but what would serve as a nice alternative? A visit to Prahran Market last weekend offered one solution, delightfully festive themed and decorated cupcakes from The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery.

The Crabapple cupcakes certainly have the ogle factor. While awaiting our turn at the stall, various groups of pre- (and more than some post-) pubescent girls (and boys) ooh-ed and aah-ed at the stacked glass counter with almost as much wide-eyed gusto as if the latest batch of Australian Idol finalists were locked within. The Christmas frosted cupcakes were $4 apiece and build on either a vanilla or light chocolate sponge-like base. Regular non-themed cupcakes offered even more flavour choices. The cake itself was quite nice and the buttercream frosting not sickeningly sweet. I particularly enjoyed a vanilla flavoured one once I got past the hurdle of its pastel cutesiness. From what I read, Crabapple Bakery's founder and owner Jennifer Graham had certainly invested a fair amount of trial and research on the way to perfecting her recipes. Her cupcakes are now well recognised.

Back at the office, a single cupcake sitting atop a Christmas card provided recipients with a sweet and festive surprise for morning tea.

The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery
Shop 6 Prahran Market, 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra, VIC.

Edit: Spot4Nosh believes that The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery at Prahran Market is no longer in business.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Chronicles of Ramen - Ajisen Ramen

Following a previous post about some truly soul rejuvenating and memorable bowls of ramen we'd slurped on while on holiday in Christchurch NZ, Hungry Hamster left a comment enquiring about whether decent puveyors of ramen exist here in Melbourne. Well the short answer was that I really hadn't stumbled across that many to provide any decent recommendations. The best I could come up with was to suggest Ajisen Ramen in the city where at least there was a readily accessible range of ramen choices on offer and global franchise notwithstanding, the bowls of noodles we've had there were not bad if not particularly outstanding. The nihon-authenticity of Ajisen's ramen is probably debated, although the franchise boasts of their Kyushu (Kumamoto city) style tonkotsu (pork bones)-based stock broth. Most of the ramen dishes centre around this tasty milky coloured broth served in voluminous bakelite-like bowls accompanied by matching ladles to sup with.

We visited Ajisen Ramen again recently and had a Chashu (pork) Ramen and the Karaage (deep-fried chicken) Ramen. Ajisen's bowls of ramen offer substantial individual meals, filled generously with soup along with the meat of choice, mix of shredded vegetables, seaweed strips, and halves of hardboiled egg. The ramen noodles were quite satisfyingly to-the-bite and the broth as tasty as I recalled from our last visit, although the soup in the karaage ramen was too oily from the fried chicken pieces for complete guilt-free enjoyment. The chashu ramen went down much better and I would certainly stick to the plainer options on future visits.

Bowls of ramen here are around about the $10 mark and the very extensive laminated-card menu also offers a variety of other a la carte choices, plus donburi and bento set boxes. But of course the ramen is what most come here for. Overall a quick and handy ramen fix but I guess we're still looking for that truly memorable ramen experience here in Melbourne.

Food: 3 spots - If ramen is what you're here for.
Service: 3 spots - Depends on mood of Asian student on the day but generally quick.
Value: 3.5 spots - There are cheaper noodles around but this is good value for the grade of food and dining space.
R-Factor: 3.5 spots - Not our first visit and likely not our last.
Spot Score: 13/20

Ajisen Ramen
130 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Say 'Aarrh' and Show Me Your Tongue! - Blue Tongue Wine Bar and Restaurant

Postings here have been few and far between of late with time spent barely escaping from work, then having to manage the upheaval of moving to a new residence when we do get away. But our fresh and very rich hunting grounds in Brunswick open up great epicurean possibilities. Not that we haven't been out and about in the last couple of months, including first-time visits to both Rockpool and Nobu. Certainly plenty to tell, but more to come on those later.

Yesterday afternoon found us stopping by friends' apartment at the leafy bayside suburb of Elwood. The visit happened to be food related, as we were dropping off their half-share of a crate of mangoes. Plump and luscious Kensington Prides that faintly perfumed the car for the evening. Following our delivery, we stopped to grab dinner and a few drinks at the Blue Tongue wine bar and restaurant. The place stood out despite being nondescriptly signed as it was located near the heart of the village and bustled with a noisy after-work crowd that spilled out off the front al fresco area. We however, scored a table towards the back end atrium space. Blue Tongue is just what you would expect from any such establishment in this it casual chic, or chic casual? Bare floors, paper over linened tables, arranged cutlery and glassware, and a dimly lit interior dominated by an inviting bar. Despite being on a Tuesday night, it was lively.

Quite an extensive menu selection with perhaps half a dozen daily specials was on offer. We had the Mixed Chargrilled Seafood over a Rocket and Tomato Salad ($29.50), and a Prime Ribeye Fillet served with Herbed Potato Mash and Roasted Mushrooms ($33.50). Unusually salty but pleasantly chewy slices of sourdough to go with some rather bland oil and swirl of balsamic vinegar was proffered after orders were taken. I also chilled with a glass of Stella on tap ($6) while waiting for our food. The arrival of the grilled seafood dish brought some excitement as the mount of seafood was impressive and generous, an appetising jumble of prawns, squid portions, large mussels and cutlet of blue eye trevalla straddled by two halves of a whole sand crab (flower crab). Under all that hid the salad greens and cherry tomato halves. The seafood survived the chargrill perfectly cooked and were fresh and delightfully sweet with highlights of garlicky crispiness.

The tender squid pieces sporting charred edges were a revelation.

The eye fillet on the other hand was just okay. A thick medallion of meat was cooked just as ordered to medium-rare but could’ve been better seasoned and wasn’t at all juicy. Normally when cutting into even a well rested steak, one would expect some puddling of meat juices but not a hint of liquid was in sight here. Similarly the mash couldn’t be described in any sense of the word as creamy and the serve of sliced mushrooms verged on rubbery. Surrounded by an almost non-existent dribbling of some dark balsamic jus reduction, the whole plate could be best described as a bit parched. Stealing from the other dish for some impromptu surf and turf helped but good steak should really be expected to hold their own.

Our waiter was cheery and sufficient but let us down towards the end following our dessert order. After 30 minutes waiting on our Chocolate Fondant with King Island Cream ($9.50), he turned up with an apology that he’d got the order wrong and we were up for a further 10-minute wait. By the time it arrived, we were too ready to go to truly appreciate its rich and suitably oozing hot chocolate centre and accompanying garnish of quite more-ish honeycomb crumble. So our meal at Blue Tongue was rather hit and miss, but the place appears to have broad appeal not just for dinner and evening drinks but for all times of the day. Jamie of The Breakfast Blog is a fan of their Eggs Benedict though unfortunately for us, Elwood is too far away from our regular patch to make a pre-lunchtime breakfast there a viable weekend option anytime soon. Perhaps our friends will give their breakfast a try and report back!

Food: 3 spots - Surf a hit but turf a miss.
Service: 4 spots - Attentive nonchalance.
Value: 3 spots - What you'd expect.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3.5 spots - The bar could be a regular after work affair if we lived nearby, but we don't.
Spot Score: 14/20

Blue Tongue Wine Bar
62-64 Ormond Road, Elwood, VIC.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Crayfish at Market Prices!

Regular visitors to Queen Victoria Market will know that Melbourne's famous 'wet' produce market has varied moods and a changing tempo depending on the day and time of visit. On a few of our trips there, even on a weekend, the market can be strangely subdued, with its displays of fruits and vegetables looking disappointingly past their best and the seafood trays uninspiringly stocked with little variety or re-thawed fill-ins. On other visits however, the market is on song. Bustling with the excitement of lively shoppers, of playfully competitive shopkeepers vocally vying for attention, deli stallholders beamingly convincing you to sample tasty wares, rows of verdantly crisp produce, and fish that gleamed like they just flopped straight from the deck of a boat onto the ice on which they were displayed. This was just how we found QVM when we recently took some friends that were visiting us from overseas there, and they were impressed. We were in luck, since our secondary goal was to show off some famed Australian seafood for dinner that evening. We got a couple of dozen freshly shucked Tassie oysters, around a kilo of live black mussels and did a double take when we spied whole cooked crayfish for $20 each! They weren't large crayfish by any means and each one was neatly bundled in a meshed sock that may have indicated that they travelled from afar, but I can't remember when I last saw rock lobsters (or crayfish) for only 20 bucks each locally. Too good to pass up so we got three, which meant we could look forward to half a cray each.

So dinner that evening had oysters for starters, a dozen served naturale with just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of tobasco, and the other dozen briefly grilled with a light ponzu dressing then garnished with a few flaky strips of nori. I made a pot of my popular yet simple chilli mussels; the shellfish tossed in some hot oil flavoured with sweated onions, thinly sliced fresh chilli, ginger, garlic and shallots, then steamed open with white wine and the lid on. Once the shells have opened, a tablespoonful of tomato paste and a similar dollop of buttery roux to help thicken the liquor and it's ready to be served with crispy chunks torn off a grilled baguette. Sides included Kipfler potatoes roasted with rosemary, and a mesclun salad with Packham pear and King Island blue brie.

The crayfish were halved, slathered with homemade basil pesto and dollops of butter and grilled very close to the flame until the butter started to bubble and the edges of shell just slightly charred. Removed from the flame and served with wedges of lemon for immediate squeezing, the crays turned out to be succulent and fresh so we got a good deal indeed. Our guests wished they lived in Australia.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Churches, Mountains, Oceans and Crayfish

Christchurch - Kaikoura. Christchurch is a picturesque and architecturally beautiful city in an 'Adelaide' kind of way. I believe they share a Sister City relationship. But outside of NZ's peak tourist season, Christchurch was all but quiet and vacant. And this was despite some glorious early Spring weather in which we occupied a morning strolling around the centre of town to admire the impressive buildings, the most grandiose of which invariably were the city's churches.

When it came time to grab a bite however, we were lucky to stumble onto an innocuous little sushi and ramen bar known as the Samurai Bowl. After numerous meals of somewhat rich food during our previous days on the road, it was just what we were looking for. We ordered large steamy bowls of Miso Ramen, their broths laden with slices of pork, bamboo shoots, nori flakes, spring onion and other bits of wholesome goodness. Slurpy heartwarming soul food.

We also shared a very delightful plate of Tuna Uramakizushi, which was as good an offering of sushi I'd eaten anywhere...just gaze at their picture below and drool.

Samurai Bowl, 140 Gloucester Street, Christchurch, NZ (Spot Score: 16/20)

We had one last day in NZ before we were due to fly back across the Tasman. Kaikoura is a seaside township about three-hours drive north of Christchurch, its name which roughly translates from Maori as 'to eat or to have a meal of crayfish'. All the excuse we needed to make it the destination of choice on our final day. In addition to the waterfront, the village has a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains that appeared to stretch their roots right down to the ocean shoreline. In the right season, it is the place to go for nature cruises and Sperm Whale watching. But for now we had another priority, to find a venue where we could get our hands on some of its famous local Southern Rock Lobster or Crayfish. Naturally, a bistro named The Craypot caught our attention and it wasn't too long before we were tackling half a lightly grilled Crayfish Mornay each, served with a dressed salad and a small mount of risoni. Those Kaikoura crayfish were not large critters and could've done with less Mornay, but were certainly fresh and a very sweet bookend to our trip through NZ's South Island.

The Craypot Cafe & Bar, 70 West End Road, Kaikoura, NZ (Spot Score: 14/20)

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

North by Nor'West!

Haast - Hokitika. From Wanaka we hit the NZ west coast, travelling north along coastspectacular Highway No.6. Exactly halfway between the southwestern township of Haast and the geographic drawcard of Fox glacier we came across the Salmon Farm Cafe & Shop, a nondescript lunch-stop that appeared suddenly out of the World Heritage listed coastal greenery. The establishment consisted of a number of salmon and trout ponds next to a main building housing a cafe plus a deli and store that sold fresh and smoked salmon products and tourist souvenirs. There was a sign by the ponds suggesting that we could pay to feed the fish but we opted to wander indoors for us to be fed by fish instead! The place would probably be quite a popular stop for tour groups making their way to or from the glaciers during peak season, but we were here definitely out of peak and practically startled the two ladies fronting the cafe awake as we walked through the door. A browse of the cafe's menu board revealed choices that naturally centred around salmon, which was fine by us!

We settled at our table with a hearty bowl of Salmon Chowder which was creamy and tasty enough, and with a requisite amount of fish. Next were Doorstopper Sandwiches generously filled with flaked salmon that had been hot-smoked over Manuka wood. A generous amount of filling was held together with some melted cheese between nicely toasted white bread. With the weather a little wet and chilly outside, our smokily savoury meal together with a cosy open-fire within the cafe definitely more than met with satisfaction. The hospitality from the ladies however, were what you'd expect from two bored people made to spend a long day manning a shop stuck in the middle of nowhere. You felt like they wished you'll get your meal over and done with quickly so they could get back to their mid-day TV program. Sensing this, we deliberately wandered back to the counter to order slow leisurely coffees before moving on!
The Salmon Farm Cafe & Shop, Haast Highway, Paringa River South Westland, NZ (Spot Score 14/20)

We spent a fascinating afternoon at Fox, then Franz Josef glaciers, which were definitely spectacular but also looking a bit weary from a difficult few decades battling the accumulating effects of global warming. Wished there was more time to explore but we still had a long drive ahead if we were to make Hokitika by nightfall. "Hoki" was our last stopover on the west coast before crossing overland back to Christchurch. Following a leisurely morning spent looking around shops displaying the green jadestone and paua shell (NZ abalone) jewellery and artisanwares for which the area is known for, we found Cafe-de-Paris with further aid from Lonely Planet for a late breakfast of Eggs Benedict with Bacon (NZ$15.90) and strong coffees (NZ$3.50-$3.80). Keeping with the Parisian theme, it wasn't the cheapest plate of bacon and eggs (or coffee for that matter!) but the centrepiece eggs were poached pretty well, with rich runny yolks that blended seamlessly into a good hollandaise. A nice traveller's breakfast to send us on our way.

Cafe-de-Paris, 19 Tancred Street, Hokitika, NZ (Spot Score 15/20)

Monday, 1 October 2007

To Milford Sound and Back Again...

Arrowtown - Milford Sound - Wanaka. Wincing satisfactorily from aching seldom-used muscles, KB and I left the fanatics behind on the ski slopes to head off on a scenic tour-de-force of NZ's southwest and back. First stop was a mere half-hour away to the quaintly named, historic gold panning township of Arrowtown. A drizzle-dampened walk around its modern incarnation of re-vamped historical buildings and faux heritage craft shops brought us to lunchtime at The Stables. This inviting restaurant & cafe is housed within a stone building that originally served as stables to a hotel dating back to the 1870's. Rustic equestrian paraphernalia which decorated the dim interior reminded patrons of its heritage.

My choice of lunch was a very good Beef and Dark Ale Pie. The pot pie was topped by an incredibly light and flaky pastry lid which gave way to a flavoursome stew of chunky beef and mushrooms. Served with a side of potato mash infused with cheese, it was traditional English fare at its most appealing. KB's choice had a more continental flavour, an equally satisfying Penne Carbonara rich with a creamy tomato and capsicum sauce. After such a delightful lunch, we were fortified to hit the road again for the long drive onwards.
The Stables Cafe & Restaurant, 28 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown, NZ (Spot Score: 17/20)

The following few days were a blur of unforgetable scenery but forgetable meals taken 'on the road'. We'd hit spectacular Milford Sound just in time for a cold weather change but the rain and snow in no way spoiled our experience, only served to make the wilderness more dramatic and breathtaking. It was all too soon when we ran out of days and regretably had to turn the car back north. We bypassed Queenstown this time round and headed very tired and hungry into Wanaka instead. Because it was late and already dark, we depended only on our copy of the Lonely Planet guide to orientate ourselves. It led us to Thai Toko, a curious restaurant not so much offering inconceivable Thai-Japanese fusion, but more two restaurant-halfs in one. We were only too willing to go with the flow, ordering a bowl of Tom Yum Goong (prawns) (NZ$16.50), a Mixed Sashimi Platter (NZ$16) and the Deluxe Katsu Don (NZ$18.50) for Mains.

The substantial bowl of soup that arrived at our table was not the most photogenic we'd seen but what did catch our attention was that it was full to the brim with all that's good in Tom Yum; plump fresh prawns, tomato slices, champignons, tofu, chilli, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and a sour and spicy kick that had the immediate effect of soothing away our road weariness. The sashimi plate was also not a particularly innovative presentation of four tiles each of a trio of sole, tuna and salmon laid over shredded daikon and served with pickled ginger and wasabi. But importantly, the fish were fresh and clean tasting. The katsudon was also good, with crispy but moist slices of pork (tonkatsu) served with rice and a garnish of salad. I am guessing that 'deluxe' must also have deferred to the unusual inclusion of a panko coated floret each of broccoli and cauliflower? Mention must also be made of the beer we had, a locally brewed award-winning dark ale (NZ$7) with malty caramel tones that was the perfect counterpoint to the Tom Yum spiciness lingering on my tastebuds. Thai Toko was certainly the place we were hoping to find after a long and exhausting day of travel. Recommended when in Wanaka.
Thai Toko Restaurant, 43 Helwick Street, Wanaka, NZ (Spot Score: 14/20)

Sunday, 30 September 2007

South Island Tour Continued...

Queenstown. Like any other hub that sells itself mainly as a tourist mecca, it's not easy for casual blow-ins to stumble across eateries that are reasonably priced while also offering half-decent food. Not for a lack of places where one can change money for a meal of course, but more a scarcity of the subset of these venues where the squirelling of one's hard earned cash into a till isn't the sole objective for their existence. A myriad of retrofitted pubs, trendy cafes, Neon-flashy burger joints and overpriced restaurants jostle for prime positions and the beer-blurred attention of the après ski crowd along the the centre of Queenstown. On our first evening there however, it was too early to be blurred against crass distractions and so we were determined to find a nice place for dinner that wouldn't blow our ski-pass budget for the trip.

Indian restaurants tend to dominate the ethnic food scene in locales where the weather can get miserably cold, and Queenstown was no different. We must have walked past half a dozen subcontinental eateries within two or so blocks, which pretty much biased Indian as the choice for dinner. We chose a little place aspiringly called the Bombay Palace. Menus quickly browsed over tall glasses of Sweet Mango Lassi, we settled on trusty standards including a spicy Saag Gosht (lamb and spinach curry), a creamy Butter Chicken, and a to-die-for Potato and Chickpea Curry Masala, accompanied by steamed rice and two variations of naan. We'd discovered a gem. The curries presented in little quirky copper-coloured pails looked and tasted great! The Plain Naan offered perfect shreds to soak up the heady curry flavours but the Butter Naan we also ordered was delicious all on its own, extra crispy with a rich coating of aromatic butter. Our meal for three, along with a couple of beers totalled NZ$65.85, which was fair value in Queenstown.
Bombay Palace Indian Restaurant & Takeaways, 66 Shotover St, Queenstown, NZ (Spot Score: 17/20)

As contrast, a meal on another evening consisting of an unremarkable steak, two mains of fish of the day (monkfish) and a bowl of kumara (sweet potato) fries that we had at a popular example of an aforementioned retrofitted pub did NZ$102 worth of damage. And that was with a free round of drinks that was used to tempt us in from the street! I was told the monkfish were quite nicely done. Too bad I'd chosen the steak!
Chico's Restaurant & Bar, The Mall, Queenstown, NZ (Spot Score: 15/20)

A fashionably outfitted snowbunny, Queenstown New Zealand style!

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Through the South Island, and the Food We Found There

Christchurch - Queenstown. Hmm New Zealand...beautiful, peaceful and just the place to clear the harried mind if only for a week and a half. We saw out August and welcomed Spring on a road trip through the South Island. First priority was to find some snow and get a little skiing in before the season was well and truly done for the year so despite touching down at Christchurch in the afternoon, we collected a car and made a beeline towards Queenstown. A fair number of hours later and nightfall found us at the small junction township of Kurow in the middle of the Waitaki Valley. Time to find some nosh though choices were limited in what basically was no more than a one street town shutting up for the evening. A small diner, empty but for a local spied ordering takeaway fish and chips offered the most immediate option. Dinner for us however, was a serve of fries (NZ$3.50) and burgers all round (two chicken and one steak). The fries were thick-cut but curiously glowed with the distracting yellow pallor of Marge Simpson. Tastewise they weren't bad, suitably crispy exteriors and crumbly in the middle but not sure why they were a disconcerting canary yellow.

Not bad lighting; not photoshopping; not camera lens filtering, but true technicolor yellow fries...tuck in!

The burgers were by no means the mountainous stacks of Grilled-with-the-Lot goodness you sometimes get from decent country diners but were nonetheless okay for starving travellers. They arrived with lettuce, fried onions and cheese within warmed, soft white buns and that was about it. The steak in mine was a trifle fatty and sinewy with not much hope of biting through it handheld 'burger' style (NZ$8.50). The recalcitrant piece of meat came away from the rest of the burger from the first go and I had to finish the meal deconstructed. Don't you just hate that! The burgers of grilled chicken (NZ$6.50 each) that the others had were better.

Back outside the diner, the night air was sharp and crisp and the pitchblack sky was a stunning gallery with the wondrous swathe of the galaxy on exhibit. We stood and gazed spellbound until the shivering became noticeable. Then it was onwards to Queenstown!

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Winners Don't Gamble, Losers Do - Crown Casino Foodcourt

Busy busy busy! It had been mad workwise lately. Certainly no time to do anything else that hold more personal interests, like posting to blogs! Badly needed a break to get some perspective, which I guess I did achieve in a small way. Just returned from a week's skiing in New Zealand's South Island. The mind and soul are somewhat refreshed although on returning to the coal-face, the workload is continuing unabated. The brief push on the "reset" button helped however. I was in an inundated (read "dark") state of mind when I attempted to write a previous post here, describing an evening stroll at the Crown complex on the week before we headed off for some snow and fun. Couldn't finish it then so for the sake of completeness will put it up here, somewhat retrospective though those thoughts are now...

"...Not having been for awhile, KB and I braved the chill for a pre-dinner stroll along the Southgate and Crown Promenade stretch of the Yarra River early on Sunday evening. It's the time when Melbourne's skyline is at its prettiest, with the amber glow of Flinders Station leading the eye upwards to the multicoloured fluorescent hues of the city just beyond. There was a crowded throng of people with the same idea. I guess many could sense that the depths of winter are behind us and are keen to make the most of the progressively longer days.

On our return pass alongside the Crown casino complex, we ducked indoors for a much needed toilet break (that is really about the only reason we ever set foot in Crown to tell the truth). On this occasion, it was a chance to have my first sticky at those much scribed about and similarly hyped upper-echelon eating houses, Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar & Grill and the more recently 'officially' opened Japanese fusion temple of Nobu. Only gazing from the outside for now regretably. I certainly hope to pay a proper visit to either one or both of those establishments in the future but probably not until our bank accounts stop laughing sarcastically at the mere idea of it. For now we'll have to contend with 'window shopping', much like pressing a greasy nose against the displays at Tiffany & Co. Rockpool was unfortunately surrounded by construction boards so there wasn't much incentive to have a closer look. However the horizontally panelled walls interspersed with see-through glass strips which bunkered both floors of Nobu just invited leaning forwards and having a good peer in. Inside was intriguing indeed, with the main dining area situated on the ground level within a vast, dimly lit minimalist space. The place was surprisingly empty early on this Sunday evening however, to the extend that I wasn't sure whether it was opened for business. I didn't see a single soul in fact, not even evidence of staff. But I can definitely say that I'm still keen to give it a try!

Walking along the rest of Crown's restaurant strip which was filling up with early dinner crowds certainly had the effect of reminding us that we were yet to have ours. We had dinner planned and ready to cook back home but needed some filler to tie us over till then, so our best hope for a small takeaway was the complex's foodcourt. What's more, as part of renovations there was a large declaration of a "New and Improved Foodcourt" plastered on the walls so we explored the possibilities. I must say that a quick glance around didn't convince me that there was anything new nor improved, just usual offerings dominated with pedestrian Australian-Asian deep- or stir-fried goods. Perhaps the foodcourt renovation had not started yet? Not tempting at all but our hunger got the better of us so we gambled on an outlet that purported to offer Chinese/Malaysian/Thai/Vietnamese/Asian-of-your-choice food. That alone should have warned us off but hey, a fried snack was in order. We got a couple of spring rolls ($1.50 each) and a couple of meat curry puffs ($2.20 each) and on eating them can safely say that they were very very wrong on all of their claimed countries of origin. The food was in fact, spectacular Crapanese! The curry puffs were ok but nothing like any Malaysian ones I'd ever eaten. Basically mince of no particular description (or flavour) and mashed vegies mixed with some commercial generic curry paste and encased in lousy pastry. The greasy springrolls however ranked as one of the worse I'd ever eaten with a sodden, stringy and absolutely tasteless cabbagey filling. Frozen industrial food at its worst. What a waste of a buck fifty! I guess the Crown management is consistent, screwing people for every cent inside its dark casino bowels and doing the same outside at the Foodcourt, using the term "food" with "court" loosely. The crazy and perhaps hapless public on the inside deserve all they get (or lose) I guess, but I for one certainly won't be gambling any more money on those foodcourt bains marie again!..."

Told you I had been in a vitriolic state of mind. Anyway the next series of posts are of infinitely brighter Briefs of our whirlwind trip up and down the South Island of the Land of the Long White Cloud, and the meals we encountered along the way. It was great!

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

A1 Pizza! - A1 Bakery and Store

In the middle of yet another patchy grey Melbourne Sunday afternoon, KB and I popped into the Middle Eastern quarter of Sydney Road to hunt for some exotic spices and ingredients (inspired by our recent Lebanese feast). In contrast to Saturdays or the weekdays it was relatively quiet and we had no problems getting a park right at the epicentre of interesting shopfronts, and only a few doors away from our primary destination at A1 bakery and store. We had a look around the grocery aisles at A1 and managed to find what we needed and a few other interesting Middle Eastern tidbits besides, but we couldn't really leave without grabbing something to eat at the bakery counter. Unlike the street outside this was as busy as ever, with a line of hungry customers ordering or waiting for their food. Fellow food bloggers have raved about the quality and great value of the Lebanese breads, pizzas and pies here, so there's nothing much we can add except agree with no reservations whatsoever!

Actually we'd stupidly already eaten before getting here so we settled on simply sharing an A1 Special pizza ($6), which was basically the medium-sized vegetarian option with-the-lot. I'll warrant that you won't see a more mouth-watering pizza anywhere, whether it be Lebanese or of any other origin. As Lebanese pizzas go, A1's delicious bread base was thickly smeared with a truly aromatic za'atar spice paste (oil, thyme, oregano, sumac, roasted sesame seeds and salt) on which was layered tomato slices, spinach leaves, seeded black olives and a deliciously crumbly feta. A loose sprinkling of mozzarella before toasting under the grill and there you have it. One word...yum. We almost went back for a second one and only the queue discouraged us from over indulging. So we contented ourselves with finishing our tall glasses of spiced herbal teas ($2.50) instead.

A1 bakery and store comprises mainly of its Middle Eastern groceries section which divides the bakery and hot food counter located at the back of the shop, from the cafe located out front. This sit-down section has a few tables spread along the glass frontage and was the perfect place to bask in some sporadic sunlight with our pizza and teas. The delightfully friendly service afforded by the busy A1 staff certainly added to its charm. Many customers ordered food for take-away but if eating-in was the choice, you'll be given a number and food brought to your table when ready. As far as ambience goes you're basically eating in a grocery store but with it's busy somewhat domestic atmosphere and fascinating stacks of merchandise, we found it a great stopover for a quick (second) Sunday lunch.

Food: 4 spots - Quick, tasty savoury meals of Lebanese breads and fillings.
Service: 3 spots - Casual and friendly.
Value: 4.5 spots - Great value for both quality and quantity.
R-Factor: 4 spots - Now I just need to quickly use up these spices for an excuse to return.
Spot Score: 16/20

A1 Bakery & Middle Eastern Food Store
643-645 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.

Monday, 13 August 2007

The Hot Chocolate's Italian but are the Crêpes French? - Fraus Crepes and Chocolat

Saturday afternoon found us rushing to Queen Vic Market in a desperate but hopeful attempt to grab some cheap seafood and fresh bread during closing time discounting. Alas we got there just in time to see the last few stalls locking up and the only activity left to be seen were stallholders hosing down and mopping floors in preparation for next morning's opening. We were of course disappointed to miss out but as we strolled out amidst the market folks' final smoko banter and whistle tunes echoing down the emptied stalls, we were reminded of our admiration for these remarkably hardworking people as they completed their chores; only to do it all over again from break of dawn the very next day and the day after and so on, to supply us with fresh market produce. We were also suddenly aware that we had not eaten since breakfast and needed to find somewhere for immediate nourishment. By then the Market area was quiet and held no possibilities but as we walked back towards the car, I remembered a place I'd read about and had been waiting for an opportunity to try.

Fraüs Crêpes and Chocolat is a small cafe that specialises in Italian flavoured hot chocolates, together with its namesake crêpes. The cafe's interior has a homey feel with warm timber flooring and white, roughly painted brick walls. An interesting feature was a large square glass-panel cut into the flooring in front of the pay-counter on which one could stand and peer down at racks of wine stored in an underground cellar. Moving through the cafe, there were also tables located in a courtyard out the back so that meals and drinks can be enjoyed outdoors. A selection of savoury filled galettes made with buckwheat flour or sweet crêpes with dessert-like fillings were the main choice of meals here. So naturally, we chose one galette of grilled mediterranean vegetables ($12) and one sweet crêpe of poached pear with cinnamon ($7) to try. Both orders were generous serves that arrived on distinctive triangular plates. Each serve was definitely enough to share between two people unless one was particularly ravenous or particularly greedy. The savoury galette tasted alright but nothing special, with the medley of vegies (capsicums, mushrooms, black olives, etc.) not really showing much of a mediterranean char-grilled effect or taste, if they were supposed to. The vegetables appeared more 'steamed', trapped as they were within the galette but were nonetheless quite flavoursome, although the addition of some cheese such as a nice feta in the mix would have bound theme and flavours together even better. I thought the price was also a bit steep for a vegie-only pancake. The winner was the sweet crêpe served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, generously filled with poached pear slices (hopefully not simply from a can; I have my suspicions but as we were none the wiser, who cared) and with a very nice buttery and fluffy pancake. We also got a cup of that decadent Fraüs Italian hot chocolate ($3.80) in Gianduia flavour (blend of soft nuts and nougat) served thick, dark, rich and very sweet and just the thing for those requiring either a chocolate, or simply just a sweet, fix. There are 20 flavours to choose from so go wild! It was better than the short espresso which was lukewarm and so so.

The cafe was well staffed with young and friendly types despite us being there at a time that was probably towards the end of some shifts. Fraüs seemed like a popular and well known place with its niche creperie meals. A place more for those with a sweet tooth or a hot liquid chocolate fixation but definitely give it a try at least once! Perhaps following your next excursion to the Market for fresh produce.

Food: 3.5 spots - Something different for breakfast, brunch or later.
Service: 3.5 spots - Casual and friendly.
Value: 3 spots - Some savoury selections fall down on value.
R-Factor: 3.5 spots - Good place to bring out-of-towners after a morning at QVM.
Spot Score: 14/20

Fraüs Crêpes and Chocolat
345 Victoria Street, North Melbourne, VIC. 3051

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Smoky Winter Warmer

We're well onto the final month of winter now. Have to grab every opportunity to indulge in cold weather comfort foods while scarves and coats remain necessary attire for the evening journey home around the city's train platforms and tram stops. For us tonight, it's smoked ham, bean and vegetable soup...and not courtesy of Campbell's.

I wasn't able to resist the purchase of a whole smoked ham hock from our favourite Queen Vic Market deli over the weekend. There was a bunch of them hanging over our heads as we pondered over cheeses, beckoning...beckoning. Anyway, to acompany it in the largest pot in our kitchen were sliced onion and garlic sweated in light olive oil, a shake of paprika, cubed potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celery, sprigs of fresh thyme, a can of diced tomatoes, a couple of fistfuls of legumous soup mix (assorted beans and lentils) soaked and softened overnight, and water enough to submerse the lot. Extract the ham after simmering for a couple of hours, remove the skin (we couldn't help dicing up a little for extra decadence) and slice off the meltingly tender and pink meat from the bone to return to the pot. A final swirl and it was served garnished with a sparing dollop of cream (or perhaps Greek yoghurt if you must), finely chopped spring onion and parsley, and an optional pinch of dried chilli flakes. Hardly any seasoning required, perhaps a pinch of salt and a couple of cracks of black pepper. The hock was enough to impart plenty of robust flavour. In fact before use, I'd pre-rinsed it in plenty of cold water brought to a rolling boil for five or so minutes to temper possible over saltiness and smokiness.

Supped while steaming hot with warm crusty buttered bread. Healthier than a Cuban stogie. Perhaps.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

The True Meaning of Food

On a recent weekend, a group of us had the good fortune to be invited to a friend's family home for a Lebanese and Middle Eastern feast. For me it was gastronomic heaven because not only did I get to sample many dishes that I have not had the opportunity to try before, I also got to interrogate our gracious hostess (I hope under not too much sufferage) on details of their ingredients and methods of preparation. Our friend MS, is one of those amazing women that manages to fit into her life events and responsibilities that appear incomprehensible to the rest of us lesser mortals...a full-time working professional, active community member, social educator, mother of four delightful children, talented artist (she paints wonderful watercolour still-lifes that reminisce on the beauty of nature and the vibrant colours of her family's ethnic heritage) and of course as we have discovered, a fabulous cook of the diverse cuisine originating from that same heritage. Did I mention that there's a PhD in reproductive biology somewhere in the midst of all that as well? We arrived in time to catch MS pulling the final dishes from her oven and knew we were in for some meal. However first to catch my eye was the large serving-bowl of fattoush, a Lebanese salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, radish and lettuce tossed together with torn pieces of pita bread freshly crisped under the grill. A lemon and oil dressing was mixed through just before serving. But the salad was merely a teaser for the parade of dishes that were making their way to the dining table.

Clockwise along the table's periphery from bottom left was pickled khiar (cucumbers) to kickstart our tastebuds and whet the appetite. Then there were several bowls of tasty sides including salset taheeni (a sauce based on tahini or sesame paste), a condiment of dry roasted almonds and pine nuts and my favourite, a smoky dip of batanjane mtabbal (variation of smoked eggplant dip or baba ghannouj blended with tahini). Set me aside with just a bowl of this drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and some warmed pita bread and I'll be more than a happy camper! Moving onto the main dishes, there was a bag-roasted spiced leg of lamb which was served on a platter with corn kernels, steamed broccoli florets and roasted mushrooms. The meat was cooked to well-done but remained tender and succulent. Next was sayyadieht samak (roasted fish stewed with rice and pine nuts), a Lebanese "fisherman's dish" spiced with cumin, pepper and lemon. Following that was a huge platter of rice cooked with lamb mince that was also used as stuffing for the dajjaj mahshi (stuffed chicken). Three impressive roasted spatchcocks were perched on top of rice that was soaking up their roasting juices...delicious! A series of non-meat dishes included a yummy hummus (a garlicky dip of chickpea purée with tahini) which was declared by the one true vegetarian among us, and veteran of many a hummus, to be the best she'd ever had. Then there was libb el kousa, a dish to use up the excavated inner flesh of Lebanese zucchinis by frying them up with onions, garlic and spices. Working towards the centre of the table was a dish of bamieh, an intriguing tomato-based stew that celebrates the okra, those interesting hairy finger-like vegetable pods that break down on cooking to help thicken sauces. And last on MS's heavily stressed dining table that was creaking under the weight of all that food, was a centrepiece platter filled with warak inab bi lahme (stewed vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb) and kousa mahshi, stuffed lebanese zucchinis stewed with tomatoes and roasted lamb.

Phew, truly an Arabic feast! There were more than ten of us there but even when none of us could possibly fit any more food into our bulging bellies, there hadn't seemed to be much of a dent made into the vast array of food that MS had laid out. We could only imagine the hard work she would've gone through in preparing this meal for her guests as we listened to stories on the preparation of warak inab and the other dishes. The stuffed vine leaves are a favourite of MS's family, usually a treat reserved for special occasions because of the tedious preparation involved in stuffing and rolling up the petite cigar-shaped treasures. All of her children's eyes lit up when the rolled vines were first tumbled onto the serving platter. They couldn't get enough of it and who could blame them? All of us could not only taste the delicious spices and flavours of those dishes, but were also able to savour the care, dedication, warmth of family and kind hospitality that went into them. Surely the true meaning of food.

Did any of you think that food was over for the night? Ah but I haven't even got onto the desserts yet, which were another impressive array of traditional Lebanese treats that MS wanted for us to try. Pictured are basma, semolina cakes stuffed with pistachios and soaking with syrup and lemon blossom essence; and mouth-watering awwameh (literally 'that which floats'), yeasty balls of flour and potato dough that had been deep-fried till floating and golden then dipped in syrup. Wow...both sweets were new to me and perfect over strong coffee or tea. Needless to say the mood was light and a pleasant evening was had by all. The night continued with the kids pulling volunteers towards the lounge room for SingStar duels on the Playstation...but that experience is probably better left untold.

Thanks MS for the food, great hospitality and the Middle Eastern food education!

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Fish at New Quay - Fish Bar

We got the chance to give the fish'n'chips from Dockland's Fish Bar a taste test over the weekend. It was a rare sunny couple of days after continuous weeks of miserable wintry weather so not wanting to miss any opportunity to bask somewhere in some sunshine, we got ourselves down to Docklands to have a wander round late-ish Sunday afternoon. We seldom find much cause to visit the Docklands district, Melbourne's waterfront homage to high-density urban living for the wealthy and centre of gravity for graduates from the cold and soulless school of modern architecture. But there are points of interest here for average folks like ourselves, such as the city's much maligned second home (stadium) for Aussie Rules Football. There are also some interesting sculptural installations and more importantly from the current point of view, a quite eclectic collection of restaurants and eateries.

The Docklands area is frequently a howling maze of wind tunnels and last Sunday was no exception. We did manage a brief dalliance with the sun along the boardwalks but once it'd lost its standoff with the lengthening shadows of the surrounding apartment highrises, we were eager to find somewhere sheltered for a bite to eat. Fish Bar is a liquor-licensed fish and chippery (love that term) and sushi bar that occupies an impressive new-age kiosk-like structure seemingly perched over water at the NewQuay precinct. Seafood cooked to order can either be taken away, or eaten on premises on light aluminium furniture set up within a large shaded area outside. By luck or design, the area outside Fish Bar offered a calm enough spot away from the brunt of the rather icy winds while still remaining outdoors so we were persuaded to stop. We ordered the Seafood Pack ($17.50) which consisted of a serving of chips topped with 3 large crumbed calamari rings, 2 each of battered scallops and prawns, and a fillet of generic fish (the ubiquitous blue grenadier). We also got an additional fillet of Flake (gummy shark) ($5.95) to fill in the gaps. The fish could be cooked either battered, crumbed or grilled so we chose to try ours battered.

As far as a civilised meal of Fish and Chips go, what we had at Fish Bar was pretty good. The seafood served casually on open cardboard-containers was not too greasy and had spent just the right amount of time in the fryer...clean tasting cottonseed oil is used. Our fillets of fish were lightly veiled with a crisp, almost tempura-like batter which we thought was excellent, and the fish were obviously fresh with tasty flakes of moist flesh. The rest of the seafood was also quality; firm plump scallops with rich coral still attached, fresh tasting prawns and large but tender rings of real calamari. The traditional square-cut chips didn't let the pack down either, crispy exteriors and soft pedestrian over-fried shoestrings anywhere in sight here!

It was past the meal-time peak and quiet when we visited but the counter-cum-kitchen staff were young, efficient and amiable, one cheerfully helped me bring our meal to the table outside. Fish Bar also offers a choice of salads if you desire something green with your fry-up, and beers and wines are available to accompany your meal. Not exactly fish'n'chips on butcher's paper at the beach with a shimmering ocean as backdrop but not a bad spot for some people watching over fried seafood all the same.

Food: 4.5 spots - Good fish and chips.
Service: 3.5 spots.
Value: 3.5 spots - Not bad for upmarket fry-up.
R-Factor: 4 spots.
Spot Score: 16/20

Fish Bar
25 NewQuay Promenade, Docklands, VIC.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

A Light on the Bay - belleZain

We stumbled upon belleZain Restaurant and Bar in Port Melbourne back on the Queen's Birthday long weekend, now a distant month ago! Feeling guilty for procrastinating indoors the entire day before, KB and myself had decided to spend Sunday with a slow drive down the length of the Mornington Peninsula. We spent a pleasant enough afternoon revisiting those bayside townships of Rye, Sorrento and Portsea although to be honest, with the jostling long weekend crowds they were more evocative in name than experience. However a walk we took around Point Nepean afforded us with some escape from the masses and good views of the Bay near the point of its escape into the Southern Ocean. I remember it being a rather bleak day, with a persistent chill in the air and a grey limpid sea that one learns to expect on a day at the beach in Victoria (slight lament from an expatriated Queenslander). We had been prepared and were appropriately wrapped for the weather but when the weak sun finally gave up for the day it was definitely time to find somewhere warm for a good hearty meal.

BelleZain wasn't initially on our cards for dinner. As we drove back down the coastal highway towards Melbourne we'd somehow missed the turn-off to the first place we'd thought to try and our second choice was inexplicably closed, on Sunday evening of the long weekend no less! In fact, we were all but resigned to heading back to a familiar 'cheap and cheerful' in the city when we spied the neon cursive of belleZain and decided to make a hasty U-turn. The restaurant was tenanted within an apartments development with an enviable location, separated from sand and sea only by Beach Road and with a clear outlook towards Station Pier. One can almost imagine whiling a warm summer's afternoon away on its large patio with beer in hand. Almost...because on that night I had fumbled with stiff fingers at a taut zipper in a hurried attempt to get us in through the clear PVC awning that protected the entrance of the restaurant from the biting evening chill! Inside was a modern chic bistro typical of many such establishments located in Port Melbourne. Basically, a dimly lit palette of chocolate, beige and burgundy interspersed with stained timber slatting and white linened tables. A continuous benchseat with a backing of large cushions ran the length of the floor-to-ceiling glass frontage, demarcated only by the separated table settings.

Lovely bayside views looking towards Station Pier from belleZain's doorstep. Not a bad place to grab last drinks and a decent meal before boarding that ferry for Tasmania!

The menu revealed that belleZain was available for breakfast, lunch, dinner and probably anytime in between. There was a selection of bistro type offerings which showed an attempt at lifting them above the usual standard fare and a section dedicated to semi-gourmet pizzas ($15-$19), suggesting that the place wouldn't be a bad choice for a daytime family stopover. Once the sun has set however, the feel was definitely 'adult' with an alluring bar dominating one end of the room and a large Specials Board at the other offering a more sophisticated selection of Mains and a choice of $14 cocktails. Both our Mains came from the Specials Board, from which I selected the Chargrilled Ribeye Steak with Vegetable Ratatouille and Red Onion Relish ($29) and KB the Spicyed (sic) Pressed Pork Shoulder and Potato Puree and Sauce aigre-doux ($29). We also ordered the Whitebait with Fresh Green Herbs and Preserved Lemon ($8) and the Deep Fried Goats Cheese and Sage Arancini ($9) to start, and a Pear, Rocket and Parmesan Salad ($7) to accompany our meal. Nice thick slices of bread with the requisite saucer of olive oil and swirl of balsamic arrived after orders were taken. Despite the intriguing list of cocktails and a wine list however, I settled for a local beer ($6). The chill had finally started to dissipate from our toes.

Truthfully, we weren't expecting much from the food as the one or two other bar-type restaurants we'd been to in the area, namely at nearby Station Pier, had been pretentiously overpriced while delivering totally unremarkable fare. So we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the dishes at belleZain. The goat's cheese arancini were nice and crispy on the outside and crumbly and soft in the middle, with each golden ball topped with a fried sage leaf. Even better were the whitebait which were crunchily more-ish and served abit differently tossed with a light scattering of dry-roasted chilli flakes and fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley. However the so-called preserved lemon was more like a scatter of not particularly thinly julienned raw lemon rind, and had to be picked aside as they were too hard and bitter to be eaten. On to the Mains, my medium-rare ribeye was chargrilled on the bone and laid over a bed of diced roasted vegetables and was delicious, although a minor misjudgement meant that some of the meat clinging to the bone was a tad on the blue side. But the combination of hard-to-see dim lighting and a very tasty garnish of sweated onion relish made me forget about that and continue to pick at it anyway. KB's dish consisted of a tight, meaty roll of cleverly marinated pork (we guessed at hints of five-spice) that was pan roasted to perfection, with filigrees of golden crispiness encasing the medium-cooked and very succulent meat within. The sauce aigre-doux (sour-sweet) was a faintly sweet balsamic-like vinaigrette which together with the drizzle of pan juices and creamy mashed potato, perfectly rounded out this surprisingly remarkable dish. Our generous bowl of salad was also well constructed, with a nicely subtle dressing binding together the dependable combination of rocket leaves, sweet pear slices and savoury Parmesan shavings. After the fine meal we were contented to linger a little longer for a coffee, so it was an added bonus to find that the restaurant hadn't just invested on a decent chef but also had a good barista on board. KB's flat-white ($3.50) had a strong creamy hit of caffeine and was served at the perfect temperature, hot enough to warrant a little caution at the lips without being scalding. This was remarkable only because so many places, including dedicated coffee dens, frequently can only come up with lukewarm and weak white coffees. As for me I'd splurged on the Affogato ($9), which arrived on a platter balancing a ramekin of vanilla ice cream, a shot of strong espresso and a shotglass of Amaretto (liqueur of choice). I must say I enjoyed these, using the style of a scoop of this followed by a sip of that or the other.

Service at belleZain was casual and efficient, despite there being only a limited number of wait-staff (two) servicing an evening that progressively got quite busy. But here is its main downside...the restaurant has the potential of being quite an intimate evening treat with its handsome look and decent food, so it's really a shame that it tries to cramp too many tables into its layout and so separate table settings are way too close to each other. Such is the proximity of neighbouring tables that one really does feel that personal space has been invaded, not exactly a relaxing way to dine. Just to press the point, to one side of us a group of elderly regulars that had arrived later struck up a conversation among themselves, and then with us, on the merits of our menu choices. "We should get some of the whitebait too, it's always delicious here...Isn't it?" Just as well we could agree wholeheartedly!

Food: 4 spots - Honest attempt at creativity and quality not typical of bar-restaurants.
Service: 3.5 spots.
Value: 3.5 spots - Cheaper meals can be found in pubs around the area but not bad value for more formal dining and a chic place for drinks with a view in Port Melbourne.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3.5 spots - Could well do.
Spot Score: 15/20

belleZain Restaurant and Bar
1 Beach Road, Port Melbourne, VIC.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

DigiCamera Lucida

Being new to the blogging universe, my posts so far have been rather mono-medium. There are several reasons for this but initially, I'd only wanted to treat the moments I get to spend with Spot4Nosh as a kind of memo or diary of our dining experiences and an outlet to get prose out of my system. But I've decided that when writing about food, you really can't argue with that old adage that a picture really is worth a thousand words! After all, the first sections I look through in any cookbook or recipe card are the pictures. And some of the beautiful and mouth watering photos presented by other Food Blogs out there are truly inspirational. So I present here the first picture for Spot4Nosh, although taken of what we'd cooked at home for dinner tonight rather than at a restaurant. But one has to get in some practice first right?

Slow braised belly pork and shiitake mushrooms in red braising stock with chilli and palm sugar caramelised red onions.

The dish wasn't prepared to any particular rigid instructions which is the way I prefer to cook, but inspiration came from a Kylie Kwong recipe. After an hour or so of braising in the oven, the lengths of belly pork and the reconstituted mushrooms were beautifully tender and infused with the warmth of star anise and cinnamon quills used in the braising liquid. A light garnish with thinly sliced birdseye chilli (and chopped curly parsley in this case) added refreshing but not overpowering points of heat and zest to cut through the richness. The use of palm sugar for caramelisation added a mellow rich sweetness to the sauce. Absolutely went down very well with piping hot plain steamed rice and a side of barely blanched snowpeas.

Hopefully I will get into the habit of carrying a camera around at opportune moments from now on. Meanwhile some older posts may yet score an accompanying retrospective photo, if possible. But I don't think I'll go crazy with the pictures though, since I don't go eating out for the purpose of blogging and I started this for the love the writing....oh and eating.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Thursday a Go Go (Part Deux) - Paris Go

Forgive the cheesy Frenched sequel of the title but the excuse is that it's quite apt since the final restaurant in our series on Thursday dining ventures happens to be a French bistro known enlighteningly, as Paris Go. Paris Go is one of those places that we'd been meaning to try for awhile as whenever we'd gone past it in the evenings, the restaurant always seemed to emanate a bright and cheery light in an otherwise relatively dark and quiet section of Rathdowne Street (it's a couple of doors from La Contadina). It has the vibe of an inviting and cosy refuge, almost always packed with chatting or otherwise engrossed diners cocooned within its large glass frontage. Actually not unlike a celebratory scene from a Renoir Impressionist canvas, with participants within seemingly oblivious to the world outside. It wasn't surprising then that when we finally chanced to give the place a try, I had some preconceived expectations.

We didn't get a good start. Any early anticipation on our part was all too quickly lowered a notch as we followed the waiter to our table. Despite having rung earlier (albeit only an hour before) and assured a reservation, we found ourselves allocated to that restaurant patron's most dreaded of table locations...yes you guessed it, that little afterthought-for-two situated at the fartherest nook of the room right next to the toilets! Aww heck, guess we had only ourselves to blame for not having provided sufficient forewarning of our visit. As expected the place was pretty busy, though there were a few larger tables still empty when we were seated. However, these were promptly occupied by subsequent groups of more than two so there was little chance of an upgrade. Before I move on though, okay we could handle the cold draught that rushes in whenever someone opens the door to enter or exit the hallway leading to the restrooms but if the Management insists on locating tables so close to the doorway, they really should do something about the tendency for that same door to slam with a bang whenever someone lets it go! We longingly gazed out at the rest of the room, confirming a casual bistro brimming with full tables and surrounded by cheerful walls sparsely decorated with Parisian themed prints and posters. Wait-staff were all male on the night and two of them circulated the floor wooing customers with their stilted French accents and the restaurant Menu. Our non-existent grasp of French was incapable of revealing whether their Gallic roots were truly genuine or part of the show but they did look the part with maitre d'-style white aprons tied around waists.

The Menu was quite extensive although held no surprises, offering a range of fare one would reliably expect from a French bistro. Fancy a taste of the ubiquitous snails in garlic butter? There was Escargots a 'la forestiere ($13.50), their version over roasted mushrooms. Feel like a winter warming onion soup, or a cassoulet, or roasted duck? It's all there. Their Plat du Jour (Dish of the Day) on the Specials board was even Coq au Vin! The wine list offered an intriguing variety of French labels of which we were largely ignorant about, but we were abstaining anyway due to it being a weeknight. A basket of nicely chewy baguette slices arrived together with a small dish of butter molded into cute rosettes. However this little attention to detail was juxtaposed with the butter being hard and unspreadable and likely straight from the fridge. It didn't take long for us to decide on the Soupe du Jour of Crab Bisque (of course) and a half-dozen of Huitres Paris Go ($13) (oysters served three ways, with garlic and herbs; topped with a cheesy sauce Mornay; and natural) for our starters. The bisque which arrived with a dollop of cream was thick and savoury though nothing mind blowing, but we especially enjoyed the oysters. The six on half-shells were plump and fresh, as evidenced by the sweetly salty natural duo. The grilled offerings were pretty perfectly done with their meat heated through enough to be aromatic but not overdone, and the herbed and savoury toppings complimented without overpowering the natural juices. The half dozen were gone in a flash and shells were definitely slurped clean!

For mains we had the Canard a la Montmorency ($28) a roasted duck dish in a port, red currant jus with wild baby figs, and the grilled Poisson du Jour (Fish of the Day) which was fillet of barramundi. We had to wait a long while before our dishes arrived, but the duck consisted of tender, medium-rare slices of breast and roasted leg over a flavoursome red wine/port reduction. The little wild figs were a curious addition, no larger than cloves of garlic and slightly tartish but served as interesting points of contrast to the sweet roasted meat juices. The grilled barra fillet was laid over ratatouille of roasted vegetables and surrounded by a bevy of small scallops (no coral). The fish was moist and tender with nicely charred skin and quite tasty. However although the fish was fresh enough, we didn't think that the barra lived its life in the wild by any means. There was just that slight weedy tint that gives farmed fish away. All in all though, both main dishes were cooked well and suitably enjoyed.

Service was not all that intuitive and we were left alone for much of the time but we concede it was quite busy. The food was good but the whole experience wasn't quite up to my romanticised expectations. Paris Go's desserts selection was actually quite tempting but we were not prepared for another potentially long wait and so decided to seek our sweet fix elsewhere. Not a problem, as a quick and simple relocation only a few blocks away found us ogling at the always eye-popping array of treats displayed at Brunetti pasticceria. But that's exactly why we all love Melbourne for food!

Food: 3.5 spots - Nothing mind-boggling but everything nicely done.
Service: 3.5 spots - Serviceable but minimalist and maybe even a touch haughty.
Value: 3 spots - Some prices leaving casual bistro behind and approaching fine restaurant.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3.5 spots - We'll have to do the rounds of French bistros about town first.
Spot Score: 14/20

Paris Go Bistro
116 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, VIC.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Thursday a Go Go (Part I) - La Contadina, Cafe Zum Zum

Thursday's an odd day of the week in my opinion. Most of us would have just barely struggled over the summit of yet another hectic week, and now hoping to ease off the pedals to coast down towards the weekend. For KB and I it's usually when we start getting a bit lazy in our daily routine, including the process of pondering and preparing our nightly meal. Despite this, we rarely dine out in the middle of a working week...(though we do succumb to that 'home-late-from-work' take-out more often than we care to admit). However on occasions where for one reason or another we'd visited a restaurant mid-week, it would more often than not happen on a Thursday. After all the vegie crisper would be looking a bit barren by then and the thought of re-heating the remnants of that curry that was eagerly enjoyed on Monday and again on Tuesday, would now be decidedly unappealing to say the least. The big plus of Thursday dining is that pre-planning is hardly ever required. We seldom have problems getting ourselves a table despite having not made a booking. The following set of posts reflects on our experiences at three different local restaurants that we'd chanced upon during lazy Thursdays in the past couple of months or so. It so happened that somehow they were all located on the same street, which was also quite odd...

There are no lack of eateries scattered along Rathdowne Street as it stretches through the suburb of Carlton, although it does lack the dense concentration of places and late evening buzz of neighbouring Lygon Street...kind of like the latter's more introverted cousin. Anyway one of the places we walked by and decided to stop in for a meal was the La Contadina Italian restaurant. The feel of La Contadina is every bit the typical Italian trattoria, with rustic exposed bricks breaking up timber panelling that is everywhere else. Counters and walls were cluttered with Italian-feel memorabilia ranging from statuettes and vases, to Renaissance prints and photos. More than one section of wall catered to the Head-of-House's (one Giovanni Mico) narcissistic tendency for pining up trophy photos of himself with a parade of local and international personalities but despite that, the overall atmosphere was warm and homey. The restaurant is fully licensed and allows BYO wine but we did not choose to imbibe that night. We were however persuaded to start with the usual serve of garlic bread, which was fine if a little heavy on butter. KB not unusually, had a hankering for seafood so she ordered the Risotto with Lobster, Local Prawns and Moreton Bay Bug in Chilli Garlic Sauce, while I was craving something heartier and chose the blackboard special of Osso Bucco with Grilled Polenta. Both mains had substantial servings but both also turned out to be a bit of a let down, mine much more so. KB's risotto was a little too overdone for her liking and somehow lacked the richness one would expect if made with a crustacean rich stock base. The prawns may have been 'local' and were okay but the grilled lobster was anything but, with its flesh having that bland and mushy consistency of having been frozen (probably because it was imported). The amount of seafood was generous though. My veal shank was an imposing meaty chunk and tasted suitably rich as I started on it but working inwards, a disconcerting feeling crept in that the meat was getting colder. Then I had a taste of meat next to the bone and it immediately killed my was cold, not in the way of talking too much and eating too slowly cold, but more like just taken out of the fridge cold. So much for looking forwards to sucking out the marrow...yes I do that, but doesn't everyone? I did let the waitress know about it and although I thought she could've been more apologetic, she did offer to get what was left re-heated for me. Bleah! I politely declined mainly because I've had enough Osso Bucco for the night and secondly, if I'd wanted to dine on microwaved left-overs I would've stayed at home in my PJs. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for pre-cooking a decent casserole and re-heating it the next day with the knowledge that flavours would even have improved. But I think that the initial half-hearted attempt at re-heating a dish for serving in a restaurant smacks of a definite level of jadedness in the kitchen in question and a lack of respect for paying customers, considering it wasn't even busy on the night. It definitely did not leave a good impression but we put it down to hopefully, an isolated oversight. We even stayed for after-dinner coffees and shared a Tira Misu, which must have been alright but not that memorable, because I don't remember it.

Food: 3 spots - Difficult to score because of my cold shank treatment, and so decided to be on the generous side.
Service: 3.5 spots - Our waitress was efficient and friendly enough without being warm.
Value: 3 spots - Prices were okay (Mains under $30) but again, value affected by food on the night.
Returnability(R) Factor: 2.5 spots - In an area renowned for its multitude of Italian bistros, not likely.
Spot Score: 12/20

La Contadina Ristorante Italiano
168-170 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, VIC.

I'm usually no fan of that occasional Thursday evening wander at the local suburban shopping complex. That's because it inevitably interferes with dinner time and sheer hunger usually coerces us into doling out not insubstantial sums of cash on the generally God-awful fare that lurks within foodcourt bains-marie. But on this particular occasion I was happy because I'd walked away from the Sales with a sparkling new Espresso machine, relatively content that I'd managed a great deal. Well that may or may not be so as I'm usually quite the skeptic of so called bargains at departmental 'Sales'. Anyone else notice that retailers seem to be having 'Sales of a Lifetime' just about every other week these days? As for our new coffee machine, it's great! The only drawback is that I haven't managed very much sleep since, as I stare wide-eyed at the bedroom ceiling fully buzzed from umpteenth shots of perfectly textured crema. But back to the night of its purchase, the need to mark the occasion with a proper meal helped us resist the lure of the foodcourt. Instead we decided it was as good a time as any to give Cafe Zum Zum in North Carlton a try.

This small quaintly named Lebanese & Middle Eastern orientated cafe/restaurant is located amidst residental suburbia at the the opposite end of Rathdowne Street to La Contadina. Although it was nearly 9 pm by the time we walked in seeking a feed, the place was lively with diners and we were lucky to be offered the only empty table left. The atmosphere was casual and friendly and a quick survey of occupants at the other tables hinted that this was a popular meeting place for locals in the know, regardless of which day of the week (we did find out the hard way on a previous unresearched and subsequently fruitless visit, that Zum Zum is closed on Mondays). The place was decorated with Middle Eastern and Asiatic trinklets and although small, tables were thoughtfully well spaced. There were also several tables located on the footpath outside the shopfront but even a month ago, al fresco dining appealed to no one. The two of us were hungry and quickly perused the relatively focused Menu to order Falafel Balls drizzled with yoghurt to start, and shared main plates of Harissa Spiced Chicken with Chickpeas and Grilled Snapper Fillet on Almond Rice. A surprisingly diverse drinks selection offering wines by bottle or glass and even boutique beers, rates a mention. We were impressed with the quality of the food. The falafels were flavourful well-spiced balls of crispy and crumbly goodness. The chicken dish was tasty especially the chickpeas, although the harissa lacked adequate kick and we would have preferred portions of chicken cooked on the bone, as I'm sure the spirit of the dish was meant to be. What's the deal with this pervading modern western preference for skinless and boneless but comparatively bland chicken breasts! The fish was a simply but superbly grilled fillet with skin on (yay!), which rested over a bed of almond rice consisting of steamed long grains infused with warm spices and toasted whole-almonds. At last a kitchen that knew how to handle fish with respect, no hint of overcooking or heavy-handed seasoning but instead letting the freshness of the moist white flesh shine through with just a tinge of lemony zing. The aromatic crispy edges of grilled skin accentuated the effect. Needless to say, we sparred forks over the last flakes! Overall, the food at Zum Zum was reminiscent of careful understated home-style cooking highlighted by its ethnic influences. It was invigorating to know of a place where we can go for simple tasty food prepared by folks who obviously care about what they offer from their kitchen! Alas my thoughts about their coffee and sweet offerings are a little more restrained. I thought I'll try the Arabic coffee since I witnessed them being served in intriguing individual-sized (they also have larger ones for more people to share) rakweh, long-handled metal pots in which Lebanese coffee is meant to be brewed. However while I was expecting a strongish caffeine hit with maybe hints of spice, the coffee was rather weak, nothing special and tasted slightly burnt to boot. In fact I doubt it was actually brewed over a stove in the rakweh since I could actually witness my order being prepared behind a large commercial espresso machine located at the bar! Anyway, I was convinced that I could've produced a much more satisfying cup at home, especially with our then new counter-top gadget waiting in the boot of the car! We also shared a bite each of a delightful enough cube of Turkish Delight...we had to woefully share one because at $4 a piece, it was already a rather cheeky ask. But don't let this minor whinging influence you. We recommend giving Cafe Zum Zum a try!

Food: 4 spots - Do yourselves a favour, gather a group, and share some great food!
Service: 3.5 spots - Friendly despite being busy.
Value: 3.5 spots - Can't argue with Mains round about $20.
Returnability(R) Factor: 4 spots - We're not local but we'll be back.
Spot Score: 15/20 - Recommended.

Cafe Zum Zum
645 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, VIC.