Thursday, 31 May 2007

Kill the...(Large Black)...Pig! - de Bortoli Winery Restaurant

Earlier in the month, KB and I spent a leisurely weekend at Victoria's Yarra Valley wine region to celebrate a quiet birthday. It's late autumn here now though you wouldn't know it with the continuing warm weather we've been having. But what a lovely time of year to have a meander through the wineries, catching the vines in the midst of slipping from their greenery into the lemony and amber tones of the season. As an added bonus we even had a rare sprinkling of celebratory rain. Just enough to freshen and polish the thirsty landscape. It's remarkable how we all miss the rain, almost a vague and abstract concept as the country struggles through another year of record breaking drought. Hope we'll have more soon...the weathersayers tentatively tell us the signs are promising.

As part of our little weekend retreat, we had a Saturday dinner booking at the Italian style restaurant of the renowned De Bortoli Yarra Valley Winery. We'd visited this winery for wine and cheese tastings a few times before during our previous sojourns into the region, and had always made a note to ourselves that one day we'll try the restaurant. Well a quick call earlier that week, whilst desk-bound at work and daydreaming of everything else but, had secured us our opportunity! On our evening, it was already well into darkness and cool with gusts of wind and a slight drizzle as we pulled into the long dirt drive of the estate. The glow of lights from the red-bricked villa in which the restaurant is housed was welcomed indeed. Inside was even more cosy, radiating warmth from cream coloured walls and a simple but elegant arrangement of timber furnishings and white linened tables. Large lattice-paned windows throughout suggested that day-time visitors will be rewarded with great views of the surrounding vineyard, but we were happy enough just to be out of the dark as we were shown to our table. Despite De Bortoli's relative isolation from the nearby townships, restaurant staff were already being kept lively with the initial sitting. I guess with dinner bookings only being offered for Saturdays, people have to grab the chance when they can.

The menu was comprehensive enough to encourage a slow second read-through and some self debate over choices. I salivated over most (if not everything) on the list, which offered a selection of provincial Italian inspired fare tweaked to modern fine-dining standards and head-chef Cameron Cansdell's homage to local (Yarra Valley) produce. We decided on contrasting entrées of Pippies and Mussells in White Wine, Saffron and Tomato...($17) and a Salad of Figs, Gorgonzola, Rocket and Hazelnuts with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Red Wine Vinaigrette ($17). I very nearly couldn't go past trying the Pork Terrine with Lentils, Lambs Tongue Lettuce, Capers and Mustard Vinaigrette ($17), lured by the accompanying chef's note of "...a very special technique of cooking the black pigs head in white wine and aromatics for a long time to achieve a clean and complex tasting terrine". Who as a curious foodie, would not find that hard to resist? But pork derived from the imaginatively named breed known as the Large Black Pig (okay I guess the pig IS large...and black) seems to be the star produce in Chef Cansdell's arsenal, and so I'd decided to reserve it for my main event.
Crusty strips of bread (actually it WAS really only the crusts, which was a bit stingy bread-wise) and a saucer of extra virgin olive oil arrived soon after orders. The oil was something else...luminescent, heady, piquant and delicious; quality stuff. We regret not having asked where it was sourced so we can get some more of it, and were still happily sopping it onto our crusts when our salad and bowl of shellfish arrived. The classical salad combination was a well assembled contrast of sweet fresh figs, sharp blue cheese, peppery leaves and a thankfully light drizzle of dressing, and we both couldn't get enough of it...more-ish indeed. The molluscs made their appearance nestled within opened shells in a light tomato-based broth sweet with their briny liquor. Fresh, uncomplicated, unadulterated, and just how we like it. Thankfully a fresh basket of crusts was proffered so we could mop this up to the last drop too! I do however, have my reservations as to whether pippies (small surf clams) have any claim to a place in higher-end, expensive dining. Perhaps the addition of a scampi half or two would have increased the value quotient even though it would've meant detracting from the molluscan theme.

Very Large...and very Black...Pigs!
(Images taken from the
UK Large Black Pigbreeders Club website).

The restaurant unashamedly sold the eating virtues of the Black Pig, in its Menu notes and in case you missed that, it's further spruiked by the wait-staff. Apparently this traditional English breed is in danger of facing extinction due to a modern preference for white porcine breeds that are better suited to intensive high-density meat production. However a small number of specialist producers, one of which is located in the Yarra Valley (Eastwind Rare Breeds Farm) have committed themselves to maintaining the breed and supplying its high-quality meat using organic free-range farming practices. Basically happy pigs are raised which are reflected in the quality of the pork! Well my highly anticipated main of Roast Local Black Suckling Pig with Mostarda d'uva, Roast Fennel, Rosemary and Garlic ($34) certainly did not disappoint. I often find pork rather bland but the carefully roasted meat in this case was tender and succulent with the right amount of fat infusing it with plenty of flavour. Then there was the deliciously thin, smooth and crunchy crackling that could only have come from a very young pig. The rest of the dish also delivered full rustic flavours, from the roast fennel and garlic to the sweetish chutney-like accompaniment. Devouring a rare breed of pig down to the last morsel may not seem like the proper or expected thing to do but apparently the more people like us know about the tasty virtues of non-intensively farmed breeds like the Large Black, the greater the demand and hence returns for niche producers to continue to maintain them. I for one, am happy to contribute my part. Our other main, a duck duo of In-House Duck Sausage and Confit of Duck Leg... ($32) was also full of hearty robust flavours. We found the confit of leg to be melt-in-your-mouth and not at all greasy although just a little on the salty side, but that was probably to be expected from the style of preparation. Surprisingly though, the sausage was perfectly tasty without being too salty. Platings for the mains were quite generous so we only had room enough to share dessert, the Warm Quince & Walnut Upside Down Cake with Vanilla Anglaise and Granny Smith Apple Sorbet ($13). The moist baked tartlet was true comfort food but the scoop of sorbet made it memorable, each spoonful reminiscent of the tartly-sweet crispness of KB's favourite green apples! Haha, she said it was a pity we had to share.

As would be expected the wine list comprised of offerings from the various De Bortoli wineries. I stretched out a glass of young Gulf Station pinot noir over dinner and of course, had to sample a glass of the famed Noble One botrytis semillon to accompany dessert and coffee. Prices by the glass were as expected. Attention to service fluctuated through the evening but was efficient enough. The waiter designated to our table was attentive and chatty up until orders were taken, then lost all interest. However our needs were sufficiently attended to by him or others when called upon. All in all a truly pleasant evening in a cosy fine dining winery restaurant serving unpretentious food prepared with great respect for the quality local Yarra Valley produce. I look forward to my next opportunity to do my part in saving the Large Black Pig from threat of's only responsible.

Food: 4 spots - Unpretentious but thoughtful fare dedicated to quality local produce.
Service: 3.5 spots - Unobtrusive though attention to tables could be better.
Value: 4 spots - Expected prices for this type of restaurant but did not feel bad or guilty after.
R-Factor: 4 spots - There are other Yarra Valley restaurants to try but will not mind returning...and we do have a responsibility!

Spot Score: 16/20 - Recommended.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Winery Restaurant
Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek (Yarra Valley), VIC.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Where are the kangaroos in Austria? - Le Gourmet

On a recent Saturday evening, me and my partner KB were invited to join friends for dinner at Le Gourmet restaurant in East Melbourne. Le Gourmet appears to be some sort of Melbourne institution as far as French inspired fine dining goes having had a presence in the city’s restaurant scene for more than a quarter of a century! So it seems apt that I am christening Spot4Nosh with this review. A restaurant that’s owned and run by the same husband and wife team (Erich and Barbara Mohr) for that length of time certainly impresses me on more than one count, particularly when they still appear to be generating accolades for their efforts. Le Gourmet is housed within one of the many large Victorian homes that line the streets of that suburb. Inside, introduction into its dining space produces a suitable sense of occasion as we wait at the bookings desk located in a short hallway before being guided through glass-paneled white colonial doors into a room radiating heritage style ambience...nice.

Le Gourmet French restaurant directly opposite Melbourne's beautiful Fitzroy Gardens.

The menu was extensive, offering quite a variety of choices themed around what I guess is French cuisine with Austrian (the chef’s heritage) and Australian influences. Yes there are kangaroos here, in the form of Loin of Kangaroo on Cafe de Paris Butter with Onion Tarte-Tatin and Beans! What stood out were the detailed descriptions of each dish in its naming, just so you know exactly what you’ll be enjoying right down to the last squeeze of lemon or flourish of herbs. Basically, the menu was fun to read which is a tick in my book. The wine list was even more impressive, offering a wide selection by the glass, bottle and for social sippers like ourselves, most appreciatively half-bottles. We decided on a local Riesling. A basket of bread, together with quenelles of a paté-like hors d’oeuvre subtly infused with herbs and duck essence with which to spread, arrived as we were perusing what’s on offer. The bread rolls were warm and crusty and very welcomed as we were hungry. Our companions both ordered the Blue Swimmer Crab Bisque with a touch of Calvados ($14.90) to start, which looked rich and perfectly tempting when it arrived. The bisque appears to be currently a popular recommendation by past patrons. KB and I decided to share an entrée of Spice-encrusted quail, boned and served with Mango Relish on a Broccoli Salad ($18.90). Our shared whole quail arrived perfectly halved onto separate plates which were a nice touch one wouldn’t expect from many other similarly classed establishments. For me, it was quite an unusual way to have quail as each half was encased in a rather thick spiced crust not unlike crumbed schnitzel…maybe a subtle waltz towards Vienna by the chef. All the same, the encased meat was moist and tender and the whole, combined with a sweet mango relish on the side was pretty tasty. The broccoli salad however was neither here nor there, being simply a sprig of steamed broccolini.

For mains, our table decided on Seared Scallops Fettuccini tossed with Basil, Lemon and Mascarpone ($32.90), the Roulade of King George Whiting filled with Crab Mousse on Creamed Spinach ($32.90), and the day’s special of roasted aged beef ($34.90). The beef consisted of generous slices of presumably fillet steak surrounding a rib-eye medallion which rested on a creamy potato mash. My preference for medium-rare meat was done just right and the beef was delightfully juicy and tender. Light roasting juices garnished with slivers of porcini-like mushroom, whole chestnuts and buttery Brussels sprouts completed this simply done but flavoursome dish. A separate boat of gravy was also thoughtfully presented. The scallop fettuccini was also judged to be very nice although the scattering of smallish scallops came minus their orange purses of coral, which would’ve been a major disappointment if I’d ordered that dish...from any restaurant not least one with European sensibilities. Regrettably, the roulade of whiting was a let-down. KB deemed the fish overcooked and the delicately flavoured flesh of whiting was unfortunately masked by the crab mousse which worse, left an unpleasant egg white-gy aftertaste. The creamed spinach appeared to have been piped too early and presented on the plate as a dull unappetizing dark-green paste that also didn’t complement the fish. Crispy croutons of diced potato were tasty because they were fried but also seemed out of place and cheapened the presentation of the dish. In fact someone did quip fish’n’chips on first impression, not a reaction one would be after for any dish at a posh restaurant. Sorry, but we are fussy with our seafood and in particular with fish.

Everything on the desserts list sounded great, and I’m not even usually one that hangs out for the last course. But none of us could go past the Salzburger Nockerl, a hot Austrian Soufflé with Hazelnuts and Chocolate Chips served with Ice Cream ($15.90), surely the house special and tribute to a distant culinary homeland. In less time than the obligatory 20-minutes, two impressive caramel coloured mounds bulging from oval flan dishes arrived looking for all the world like freshly baked loafs of bread! Definitely a recommended dessert…the soufflé was light and creamily soft in the middle and rich with the taste of hazelnuts and chocolate flecks as the description promised. A dark chocolate sauce and ice cream with fruit dices were served on separate ramekins to contribute to the bliss as we wished. We finished on a high.

Service throughout was efficient if a little confused. Wait-staff were a mix of the experienced and the less so…the waitress who took our order appeared to have aimed to memorise the menu descriptions to the last page (a huge challenge!) but crashed and burned once the curtain raised and the spotlight was on. We didn’t care but she seemed quite flustered. More noticeable was that there seemed to be more wait-staff than was really needed. Every time someone came to our table it was a different person! To the extend that they confused themselves, one coming to offer bread to start as we were already licking off the last crumbs from an earlier delivery; another bringing a stack of fresh plates only to find us already re-plated. A bit Keystone Cop-ish, not that we minded a bit as every new face was a smiling one and we quite enjoyed the show. But more refined diners may expect better tuning on the floor. And I really do need to mention something about the trip up to the restrooms, which involves exiting the charming dining area back into the hallway and climbing a flight of carpeted stairs to the floor above. I was quite aghast with the state of the carpets from about halfway up as they were truly grey and grimy and worse of all had the permeating smell of a cheap greasy noodle joint. Unfortunately, an unexpected and shocking jolt out of the fine dining ambience created through the night. To sum up Le Gourmet, we had a wonderful evening as we don’t get to do silver-ish service all that often, but had slightly higher aspirations for the food. Pity about King George but hurrah for that soufflé from Salzburg...and I'm not referring to Mozart!

Food: 3.5 spots - Had high expectations that were not quite met.
Service: 4 spots - Doubly efficient.
Value: 3.5 spots - Higher prices mean higher expectations.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3 spots - Too many other places yet to try to be truly convinced.
Spot Score: 14/20

Le Gourmet
366 Albert Street, East Melbourne, VIC.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Live to Eat or Eat to Live...

Without a doubt I see myself as belonging to the former category, although I'll definitely be in on the latter as well...if it comes to that. So I've putting into text for all who care to read my thoughts and opinions on our dining (fine or otherwise) and food experiences, as my better half and I attempt to gastronomise our way around the broad spectrum of eating establishments that grace our home city of Melbourne. Of course further afield too if and whenever we get the chance. But we've barely scratched the surface on the pleasures on offer in the city and its map-defying sprawl of suburbia, having only moved here a couple of years ago. Judging by the plethora of food and restaurant blogs out there, and the popularity of celebrity cooking theatre in mass media, eating just to keep alive certainly seems to be a passionate and evocative exercise for many. Which category do you fall into? Is there even a question.