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!