Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Getting off the Streets - Vietnam Food

Investigation of restaurant opportunities in Hanoi led us to Nam Phuong, which offered 'traditional' Vietnamese cuisine within the fine dining confines of a revamped French villa, located within strolling distance from Hoan Kiem Lake. There was hardly time to wipe the sweaty post-walk sheen off our faces nor be dazzled by its fairylight cobwebbed facade before we were set upon by beaming doormen to escort us up the front steps. Inside was a franco-colonial alternate reality to real world Hanoi, air chilled to perfect ambience, muted jazz tunes and decor carefully chosen to provide only a romanticised hint of the foreign life on the other side of the pastel olive-yellow walls. Pretty waitresses in elegant silk ao dai sealed the bubble. The maître d', a tall slightly portly but blatantly effeminate fellow in his own brightly coloured traditional dress provided a cheerful and not unwelcomed relief to the stately mood. An expatriated Thai, Mr Arkracha energetically greeted and farewelled guests and marshalled his troops in feigned brusqueness through the evening. Witnessing him delicately donning surgical gloves to deftly shell crab legs for hapless neighbouring Japanese guests was a chuckle. And that, is my general take on Nam Phuong. A dining destination dedicated to tourists, businessmen on accounts, consular staff and the like who don't mind laying out the cash to eat 'as the natives do' in a venue where the local masses never will.

Food was presented beautifully. Our centrepiece dish was Ca Mu Chien, a whole fish (large freshwater goby) deepfried and served with an oyster sauce of ginger, mushrooms, fresh and dried scallops, and sharkfin strands. Impressive on the plate but despite being garnished with just about every Asian treasure from the sea, lacked a certain 'oomph' thus failing to totally mask the slight taint of pondage in the fish. Perhaps I'd been spoiled with similar and infinitely cheaper dishes had at the suburban bia hoi cafes over the previous week, including a remarkable fish-kettle braise of carp with no muddy or weedy taste whatsoever! Our dinner at Nam Phuong with a sweet-sour soup, starter of two crispy soft shell crabs stuffed with a rich crab-roe mayo, a couple of mains and a few drinks came to 1.4 million VND or just over A$100, a somewhat expensive feat in Vietnam. I would reconsider this place for its ambience, for the pleasant service, for the clever female trio of folk musicians and even for Mr Arkracha (as long as he keeps his hands away from my large, err...goby), but can't wholeheartedly rave about the food.
Nam Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant, 19 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi.

Food that I can, and will wholeheartedly rave about though, was found at restaurant Quan An Ngon. What can I say about this place that hasn't already been said by many. Not so much a fancified foodcourt but a food courtyard. A convenient gathering of individual cooking stations operated by streetfood traders whisked away from the streets, screened for the quality of their respective specialities, and all brought into one compound consisting of both roofed and greenery filled open-air dining areas. Again the atmosphere was not of a foodcourt but that of a relaxed restaurant, with menus organising everything on offer and service provided by uniformed waitstaff. And on the evening we visited it seemed that half of Hanoi was there, the warm air was thick with mouthwatering smoky smells and the unmistakeable hubbub of folks feasting around laden tables...surrounded with proper chairs no less. Add to that clean cutlery and hardfloors that won't require the skills of Katarina Witt to negotiate and it's a near perfect Hanoian food experience. Blessed are the little luxuries.

A starter of battered prawn and sweet potato fritters (Banh Tom) with perfectly vinegared and sugared dipping fish sauce (nuoc mam cham). Crunched with gusto and surely the best way to go for one's calcium supplementation. Calorific but utterly delicious.

How can we sit down for a mixed meal in Hanoi without smacking into some Chao Tom (barbequed shrimp paste moulded around sticks of sugarcane)? We can't! These were served as a dish with thin rice vermicelli squares, assorted herbage, thin rice paper for wrapping and nuoc cham for dipping, but the sequence in the process was a puzzle until a waiter standing by took it upon himself to be my personal food coach for the evening. He was watchful too! One wrong move such as a care less jumble of everything together to shove greedily into my mouth would illicit a tut-tutting tap on the hand, a shake of his head, and a mimed demonstration on how it should be done; savage uncouth foreigner! Yes all without uttering a word. I didn't mind, it added to the experience. What a laugh!

Two noodle soup dishes followed, first was bun cha (sizzling, flame barbequed balls of minced pork to add with vermicelli noodles into a room temperature bowl of nuoc cham). The charred pork balls smelled so good that we dunked them into the liquid broth (actually my helpful friend above did) and tucked in before even thinking of a photograph! This dish must surely be one of my more memorable tastes of Hanoi, having not encountered it anywhere else before. It's supposed to be primarily a lunchtime dish but I guess the benefit of eating off the streets is that such limitations go out the window. The second bowl was Mien Luon (chargrilled eel in noodle soup, pictured), also superb. Fatty chunks of eel with crispy charred edges in a savoury soup stock, herbage and soft noodles.

In case you hadn't noticed I loved this place, but a parting note of caution. The fabulous savouriness of the dishes here is helped along by a supercharging with sodium glutamate (like most if not all local dishes in Vietnam). The price is a quenchless thirst to remember the experience by.
Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hanoi.

[Local names of dishes transcribed with help from great blogs Noodlepie and Stickyrice, invaluable resources for discovering the breath of Vietnamese cuisine and streetfoods]

Monday, 29 December 2008

Images from Hanoi - Vietnam Food

This latest trip to Hanoi was over two months ago. Everytime I travel for work, I envision that there'll be plenty of downtime to blog whilst on the trip. Well of course that's never the case. If I'd spent the evening back in the hotel room, I would either be stuck with my usual desperate rush to complete preparations for meetings the following day, or have returned so weary that all I would manage is to lie prostrate over the gluttony of pillows and listlessly cycle over 20 plus channels of nothing...in a foreign language.

Any-hour traffic in Hanoi's streets. Australians beware before stepping foot to cross. They come at you from the other way! Don't bother waiting for a break, it won't happen. Local's tip to me, just make sure you've eyeballed who/whatever is bearing down on you and you won't get hit. It works, for the most part.

Pho (pronounced 'fur' as far as I can approximate) for breakfast at a streetside stall across from the hotel, just one of many pho stalls dotting Hanoi's streets. I'll have to admit that the novelty wore off after the first few times of slurping noodles with my knees around my ears (note kiddie stools) accompanied by traffic fumes and whiffs of gutter drainage that had been percolating in the tropical heat.

A hearty bowl of bun bo (Beef Rice Noodle Soup) from the same stall. For approximately one extra Australian dollar when ordered via the hotel's small dining room, the concierge dashes across the street with a dishwasher-cleaned bowl and returns in 5 minutes to serve it up with accompanying greens. This order consisted of brisket beef with softened tendons, tripe, miscellaneous vessels, steamed cubes of congealed blood, some sort of spammy pork sausage and a knuckle of pork hock. All good things.

There was an option of buying a shot of steeped snake and reptile wine at a somewhat tourist orientated cafe at Halong, on a short side trip to its World Heritage listed coastline. Alledged to cure all ails from the common cold to flagging libido and more, though I was dubious that such an elixir would help in any way with the only ailment bothering me at the time. Mild diarrhoea from suspect seafood. So I passed.

Somewhat sunbaked fruits hawked by dexterous rowboat traders at Halong Bay.

Aside from the few pics shown here, I had some amazing meals during my couple of weeks in North Vietnam. Experiences at some of the restaurants I'd visited in Hanoi city will follow in the next post, but some of the more interesing dishes I sampled were found in the bia (beer) cafe I was taken to daily, to lunch with colleagues I was visiting. Stirfried vegetables of countless exotic variety, whole fish (carp and snakehead) hotpot braised with tamarind and mint, super crispy fresh baguettes served with mounds of soft butter and white sugar, obligatory plates of deep fried crinkle-cut fries, rather gamey salads with cold sliced goat meat, delicious claypot braised eel, stirfried frog ribs and legs, and on and on. Not to mention toasts after toasts with Hanoi bia hoi, the local fresh beer. No wonder the locals require a post-lunch siesta to break up their workdays!

I leave readers with a thit cho (dog meat) restaurant snapped on my way to the airport. Such establishments are found in certain sections of the Old Quarter and around the city outskirts, including along the highway to Noi Bai. Traditional ones are distinctively double story Tay buildings raised on stilts, with seating on the upper level. I declined several invitations, not being able to get past my western sensibilities. My blogging 'pen'-name "Towser" is in reverence to my pet pooch after all.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Like Wine for Chocolate – Cocoa Farm Wine Chocolate Barrels

Previously unbeknownst to me, there are gourmet missionaries out there who challenge themselves to find the most compatible wines to partner with fine chocolate. And why not, a double whammy of euphoric neurostimulation if it works I suppose. My own experiences had been limited to spontaneous and regrettable occasions when mouth puckered at unpleasant tartness as vin du jour clashed with tastebuds sweetened with the preceding chocolaty morsel. I’d been trying it all wrong and haphazard it seems, just should’ve made sure my wine of choice was sweeter to the palate than the chocolate. A syrupy fortified perhaps, or a luscious Aussie botrytis semillon. But fresh reds like merlot, pinot noir or shiraz? Well, home-grown chocolate brand Cocoa Farm of Melbourne-based company Farm by Nature believes so and has taken out the guesswork with their Wine Chocolate products.

Farm by Nature Marketing asked Spot4Nosh whether we would like to review their new Shiraz Wine Chocolate Barrel gift box product and after absolutely no arm twisting by them whatsoever, we promptly agreed to a complimentary box in the mail to sample. A nicely evocative box containing individually wrapped mini ‘wine-barrels’ of a blend of milk and dark chocolate (38% cocoa solids) which in turn encased raisins that had been thoroughly soaked in wine, Australian shiraz in this case. Nothing too different from your standard raisin studded choc bar perhaps but the angle is in the infusion of ‘real’ wine into the fruit. The wine flavour is subtle, nothing like the harsh liquid bitterness of liqueur chocolates. It leaves a faintly tart but not at all unpleasant aftertaste, which actually became quite moreish. I am not usually one who’ll go weak at the knees when presented with chocolate, but the wine chocolate barrels were quite good. I guess the mouthfeel could have been smoother, not quite up there with the really good boutique or European products. And I’m not quite convinced one will be able to tell the difference between the three wine ‘flavours’ in the range. All the same, Cocoa Farm chocolate beats many of the mass products found on the supermarket shelves. That the wine chocolate range was developed by Australian food technologists is a plus. The company has also invested in Australia’s first commercial cocoa plantation in North Queensland which will make for even more of a home grown product. I certainly wouldn’t mind another gift box or three to savour over after-dinner coffee or further glass of shiraz. It’s the season to be jolly after all! To the gifters, you may have to hunt around a little for them!

Lets Start With Something Sweet - Balha's Pastry

A selection of buttery filo, pistachio, semolina and syrupy goodness at Balha's Pastry

Yes I have been absent and neglectful for some time. I do admit to reaching a point where Blogger’s more annoying idiosyncrasies such as its unpredictable interpretation of command lines and tendency to spontaneously evaporate uploaded pictures into the ether, irritated me more than was rational. That and the grudging realisation that experiences were becoming more about the photo and blogability than food and companionship. So perhaps it had been timely hiatus. But the main excuse is really that life had been crazy busy including the purchase of our first home, then having to spend weeks overseas on my day job away from that same lovely, and equally neglected house! But in that time we have certainly not stopped eating and there had been quite a few interesting not to mention exotic food experiences. And I’m excited to tell again…

For those of us who love exotic sweet treats it’s hard to go past Balha’s Pastry in Brunswick, a palatial temple to Middle Eastern desserts complete with twin grand staircases that lead up to an upper floor for seat-in indulgence. What’s more, they remain open to 10 pm all week to cater for those occasional late evening cravings with strong, drink-this-and-forget-about-sleep coffees. The challenge at Balha's comes in attempting to choose from the endless arrays on display and waiting for ones turn to nominate that choice amongst the eager weekend crowds hungry for their buttery syrup fix. Our usual strategy is to grab a counter ticket before dodging in for a reccy of the displays. We’ll then hopefully be ready to point to our selections when our number is called! My current favourite is a generous ‘slice’ containing a soft labneh-like filling that is sandwiched between crispy vermicellied kataifi wafers topped with pistachio crumbs and drizzled liberally with orange blossom or rosewater syrup…whimper.

Spot Score: 15/20

Balha’s Pastry
761 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.

Friday, 8 August 2008

What is Unctuous? - Hako Japanese Restaurant

The dining room of Hako Japanese restaurant is a pretty sexy place in the evening. And by that I don't mean brash bordello sexy as in red lace and black leathers (too bad if that's your thing), but rather a classy jazzy sexiness exuded by its monochromatic base colours and dimly lit aesthetic. Politely demure wait staff dressed in black, flickering tea-lights on tables and sparse moody rows of bare tungsten globes add to the romantic feel. Though I'm not sure whether noise reverberating off all those bare wood surfaces when the room is full would spoil it for romancing couples, since we ducked in unannounced just on start of Saturday evening service and the place was quite empty. But that meant we could nab a table provided we promised that we'll be done in an hour and a half. Fully booked out for anytime later.

Tea by tea-light at Hako, or could it be matcha with matches :)

We began with a Main serve of Sashimi ($27.80), which could've been more generously plated for its price. The usual suspects salmon and tuna, and two different white fish (swordfish and possibly snapper) were appealingly presented with specklings of tobiko (flying fish roe), some grated daikon and a little wasabi (though where's the pickled ginger?), and served with dashi and soy dipping sauce. Nothing too adventurous but at least two different cuts of flesh were offered for each fish, tastier and more sought after fatty slices from the belly region or equivalent were contrasted with the firmer almost springy muscle. And all sparklingly fresh as one would expect. Next was Nasu Dengaku ($9.80), a whole eggplant scored deeply at intervals and deepfried, following which a thick sweet miso glaze is slathered into the gashes before a brief charring under the griller. The slippery and savoury pulp that was punctuated by points of nuttiness from toasted sesame seeds was simple and delightful, as was the communal sparring of chopsticks required to compete for one's fair share!
(A recipe version of nasu dengaku using just the griller can be found here, though if large eggplant halves are used I'll be inclined to brush them with oil and pre-grill them wrapped in foil until a little soft before continuing. This should avoid over burning the skin while leaving the insides still insufficiently cooked).

Unagidon is a favourite and Hako's in-house version ($22.80) was quite satisfactory. A sweetly gelatinous length of Kabayaki eel fillet over a generous box of rice sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. More sparring! It came with a bowl of surprisingly standard miso broth. The serve of rice with the unagi was appreciated and timely, since nothing else came with rice. A request for more was provided in a miserly amount in an already small porcelain bowl ($2); unecessarily stingy. Matcha (green tea) at $3.80 per person was more subtle larceny despite refills of hot water (which by the way doesn't quite work as successfully with powder as with tea leaves).

Sublime flesh offered by Hako's Chargrilled Kingfish Kama

Despite these glitches, the highlight of our evening came in the guise of the poster Special of Chargrilled Kingfish Kama (yellowtail kingfish collar) ($19.80), a great value-adding offering of the pectoral 'wing' and 'collar' behind the head of the fish. Based on other reviews of Hako, it seems to make quite a regular Specials appearance and now we understand why. To date, I have tried to avoid use of the word 'unctuous', a somewhat clichéd descriptive for what I guess applies to a slippery and deliciously oily (in a very good way) mouthfeel in certain foods. But the heck with it, I now have to get it out of my system! Hako's dengaku eggplant was certainly unctuous, the unagi was most definitely unctuous and brother, was the rich and flavoursome scalloped flesh that fell from that chargilled piece of kingfish ever bloody unctuous! I have no idea how they achieved the sublime effect of smokily charred skin yet leaving the generous amount of flesh within so devinely moist and um, unctuous! A light marination with oiled sake or mirin and white miso may also have contributed to the flavour but otherwise it was seasoned simply with salt and a squeeze of lemon. I'll go as far as declaring it as one of the more memorable dishes we've had out in the past 6 months. That it is a simple, carefully prepared street-style portion of chargrilled fish offcut makes this seem rather absurd and more than a little ironic given some of the establishments we'd been to in that time.

Food: 16/20 - Clean simple Japanese with some rustic surprises
Service: 15/20 - Polite and unobtrusive
Value: 14/20 - Cost over compensating with standard staples unecessarily spoils perception
R-Factor: 16/20 - Atmosphere and Specials will make us return
Spot Score: 15/20

Hako Japanese Restaurant
310 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC.

There seems to be a growing disenchantment in bloggers' accounts of meals had at restaurants of late, especially when judged in context with the size of the bill. But that doesn't change the fact that we all enjoy eating out in anticipation of a great meal or an eye opening dish. In the spirit of this enjoyment, will anyone else share and describe one surprisingly memorable dish that they've had eating out in the past 6 months or so, and where?

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Forget In-Flight Food, and Detour to - Spicy Corner

Looking forward to that cold and limp herbed chicken sandwich for your in-flight lunch shortly after take-off? Or worst if flying budget, anticipate forking out $7 or more for noodles-in-a-cup and a drink that will leave you feeling even more ravenous? Well here's an alternative if you happen to be on the highway to Tullamarine from late morning (11 am) to about 2 pm, or in the evening (5:30 - 8:30 pm), and have 40 minutes or so to grab a meal before really having to be at the airport.

The exotic tastes of Sri Lanka at Spicy Corner

Just a short 5-min detour off the Mickleham Road exit but somewhat hidden within suburban Tullamarine is an inconsequential but surprising little Sri Lankan cafe and Takeaway named, 'Spicy Corner'. The eatery is located in a small quiet residential street and the corner tenant of one of those typical outer-suburban shop-rows that last saw heyday back in the 70's. From memory there's also a languishing fish & chippery there, a video store and the ubiquitous milkbar among a few other businesses. One certainly wouldn't just find yourself there unless you lived locally, or were told about or taken to Spicy Corner! So how did I come to know of this little Sri Lankan gem? Well I used to work close-by in a previous job and we visited it frequently for lunchtime take-aways and a regular Friday lunch eat-in. That was then, but even now KB and I will occasionally make a special visit out that way whenever we're hit with a craving for great tasting and terrific value Sri Lankan curry and rice.

The friendly 'ammaa' of Spicy Corner dishing out your curry of choice

The cafe itself is nothing much to look at of course. There are a few tables set for eating in and a large bain marie adjoining the counter to one side. But don't be discouraged by the bain marie (it's a curry place after all) or if there happens to be no one else dining there at the time, the majority of its trade is from takeaways to locals and workers from the numerous factories and warehouses located in the area. Having been somewhat of a regular there in the past, I can confidently assure that the food is fresh and prepared in-house daily. In fact, visit around noon on Fridays and be prepared to wait patiently in queue. Word of this place has definitely made its rounds among the local businesses. The food is genuine Ceylonese/Sinhalese home-style cookery (confirmed by a Sri Lankan friend missing his mother's cooking) with the 'small-plate' of the Daily Chef's Choice of curry (choice of chicken, lamb, beef or veg) served over rice together with an assortment of vegetable sides and condiments like mango chutney, pappadum, mallung, and coconut (pol) and chilli sambols, being the most popular. My fav is the chicken (skinless but on-the-bone thigh/leg meat) but the lamb or beef (cubes of meat) are probably most popular. And all for $7 for a great lunch! This is a genuine value for money 'Cheap Eat'. One can't even get a lousy regular burger meal at any of the multi-national burger joint-of-your-choice for that, and I certainly know which meal I'd prefer. Don't let the recommended choice of 'small' fool you either, it's a generous serving whether heaped on a plate or squeezed into a takeway container! And the curries, whatever your choice, are redolent with fresh aromatics like curry leaf, mustard seed, cardamon, cinnamon, green chillies and dry roasted coconut to name but a few I'd recognised. Vegetarians certainly don't miss out here either, their plates are heaped just as high as anybody else's. For the uninitiated, Sri Lankan dishes are unlike most Indian curries we in Australia may be more familiar with. Often spicier with chilli, more aromatic with coconut milk and lighter in taste and texture. In a word, delicious!

The 'small' beef curry and rice served with delicious sides and condiments!

Aside from the curries of the day, Spicy Corner also offers moreish finger foods including Vadai (fried spicy dhal 'cookies'), crumbed capsicum chillies with a spicy fish filling, Godumba and Pan rolls (spiced meat-filled rottis and pancakes) and Samosas, though at times these could be past being at their best (gone cold and soft) if you get there late. And for folks booking their visit on Saturday evenings, there is a Hopper Meal Special which includes a selection of curries and all-you-can-eat hoppers (fermented rice flour crepes shaped into a bowl with a crispy exterior to accompany the savouries). We are yet to try this, but certainly plan to do so soon!

Food: 16/20 - Fresh tasting spicy food just like home, if it was Sri Lanka.
Service: 13/20 - Family-business-friendly though can get confused and befuddled when busy.
Value: 17/20 - Difficult to name somewhere else better value for money.
Returnability (R) Factor: 15/20 - Though out of the way, we have, many times.
Spot Score: 15/20
(Note: I have decided to alter the sub-scoring criteria from this post onwards to allow more scope, though it likely remains just as subjectively meaningless)

Spicy Corner
49 Dawson Street, Tullamarine (Melway Ref. 15H1).
Tel. 93355650
(Closed on Mondays)

Note: I am happy to 'promote' this place more than usual as Spot4Nosh admires examples of genuine and unassuming small businesses such as Spicy Corner that offer great value for money 'real' food while seemingly resisting the easy temptations of lazy short- and cost-cutting. These places deserve to be customised and succeed to survive for us to return time and again.

This article has been cross-posted in Very Cheap Eats.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Flash of Sunshine, Fade to Black.

Sunday morning. Awake, but why? Winter. Cold, shivering, dim. Hungry.

Kitchen. Espresso machine, strong long-black. Better...slightly.

Courtyard. Colder still, biting breeze. Pot of herbs, struggling, sparse. But thyme, flat-leaf parsley.

Stove. Ignite. Free-range eggs, dollop of milk, whisk, square of butter. Wooden spoon. Gentle yellow curds. Tasmanian smoke-cured salmon, hand shred. Add off heat.

Polenta left-overs, set but un-formed. Tumble in pan, crispy highlights.

Whole-grain toast. Crack of pepper. Scatter of herbs.

Twin suns orbiting the plate. Gone, in a flash. Burp.

Yawn. Bed, duvet, warm, soft. Dozing, sleep.

Good morning.

Scrambled eggs with Smoked Atlantic Salmon on Toast, Refried Polenta.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

By Word of Blog - Cafe Plum

Cafe Plum's simple mushrooms on toasted sourdough

Agnes in her Melbourne food blog Off The Spork has repeatedly been positively enthusiastic about the breakfast virtues (and lunch, and dinner) of Cafe Plum, which was how we first found out about this otherwise very introverted diner located in isolation on Flemington Road opposite the Royal Children's Hospital. We were not the first from the local food blogging community to have been influenced by Agnes's recommendations either, others had been similarly tempted to visit. So when on our way to Queen Victoria Market for our weekly fresh groceries last Saturday, Cafe Plum came up as a most covenient detour for a pre-shopping brunch.

Once ensconced within Cafe Plum's rather small and cosy space, we were greeted by a relatively standard regular breakfast menu but a fairly extensive Lunch Specials board, which was great! Except that we were in one of those moods where we craved nothing in particular and found it unusually difficult to decide on what to have! The very hospitable young waiter who returned every few minutes or so to check if we were ready to order only added to the pressure! On his fifth return with our coffees he even joked that perhaps the caffeine was what we needed to jolt us out of our indecision, which I guess was what happened because shortly after we settled on the Mushroom Bruschetta ($9.50) from the regular menu and the Housebaked Duck and Chorizo Pie from the Specials board. Alas he returned almost immediately to inform that there were no more pies! Isn't that just the worst when you finally set your mind on something and they run out! And even worst than that, we got to witness the last pie being brought to the neighbouring table looking deliciously large and flaky and smelling bloody good!

Lunch Special of duck tortellini with cream sauce

Aside from the fact that it was rather surprising that the kitchen would have run out of a lunch special just past noon (early for lunch I would have thought) it wasn't too big a deal. Earlier umming and ahring meant that we had a quick second choice of the Roasted Duck Tortellini ($15.50) with a cream sauce. The mushies on toast was a simple version with button mushrooms sauteed with fresh herbs laid over toast with a herbed and creamed feta spread, then lightly drizzled with good balsamic vinegar. Tasty enough but not overly exciting. A mix of mushroom varieties would amp it up. The plump duck tortellinis were very good however, with the accompanying cream (and wine?) sauce flavoursome and not too rich. Quite moreish in fact. Certainly a knowledgeable hand in the kitchen and not a bad fall-back choice at all!

We'll like to return to try further board Specials (by arriving earlier!), and the Roast Dinner Specials on the last Sunday of every month do sound intriguing.

Food: 3.5 Spots - Tasty uncomplicated fare done with some care.
Service: 3.5 Spots - Attentive, though in small space and quiet at the time.
Value: 3.5 - Standard cafe.
R-Factor: 3.5 - Located conveneniently around our usual routes.
Spot Score: 14/20

Cafe Plum
193 Flemington Road, North Melbourne, VIC.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Resistance is Futile - Pearl Restaurant Richmond

We sauntered into the bar and mess lounge of recreation deck at last. It was welcomed relief after a hard day down at Engineering, recalibration of the antimatter injectors had been, well, downright anti-matter-of-fact! And Chief La Forge breathing down my neck didn’t add to the fun either, that man’s VISOR misses nothing! A quick scan of the room had the effect of calming familiarity plus Guinan wasn’t at the bar, some unrecognised staffer instead. Good, I could do without her well intentioned but often overly baffling philosophising this evening. We were escorted to our banquette edged table for two but couldn’t get comfortable. Surely they could space these tables apart a little further, this was a big goddamn ship after all! Aren’t these supposed to be the intimate seatings? Hmph, only if I’d wanted to sneak a hand across to the neighbour’s and steal a swig of that Aldebaran whiskey that I've never been able to justify the credits on. Maybe I should have, it was a smooth talking Ferengi trying his repertoire of moves on his yet unwary dining companion. Our less than ideal placement was not a big problem however, a simple request was all it took for a change to a larger table towards the middle of the room. No complains from the ever efficient crew here, just a quick flurry of rearranged silverware performed with smart and beaming 24th century efficiency and we were settling back into the comfortable white leather upholstery. This was better, room to stretch and relax. From force of habit I strained my ears for pitch changes that may hint at plasma imbalances in the Warp Core. I should have known better. The room was too well fitted with sound proofing, softly padded wall panels and rubber gridded flooring. Not a distant mechanical hum to be heard, only the murmur of muted conversations in relaxation mode. “Enough!” I chided myself, time to peruse tonight’s menu. We agreed that we deserved something more than usual fare tonight, something decidedly old-school with uncommon heritage ingredients, something genuinely Earthly in origin to bring back memories of less challenging days at the Academy so many light years away. Let’s give the replicators a real challenge!

Well past the risk of revealing myself as a complete nerd, but with its stylised steel-sculptured lights, muted cream colours that contrasted against glistening wall features and ultracool retro-modern fit-out, the imagery that first struck me as I entered
Pearl Restaurant Richmond was that of a set out of Star Trek. Aside from a few dark timber trimmings which spoilt the illusion a little, I probably wouldn’t have blinked twice if its fabulously efficient wait staff had wandered about in body-hugging bi-coloured spandex. Thankfully however, they were simply and more conventionally attired in smart blacks and whites. And yes, at a time when many of us commonly complain about the lack of appropriate service even at fine dining establishments, the staff at Pearl needs to be credited for being great! The team on our visit still worked to the adage of nothing is too much trouble, let’s see if we can help you out with your requests, and all with a smile. These days seemingly rare as a pure seam of crystalline dilithium!

Bread rolls with lemon infused olive oil were a good appetite starter, as were oriental spoonfuls of a tangy shaved cucumber and sesame pickle. Ordered entrée was half a dozen large Smoky Bay Pacific Oysters ($24) shucked to order and served with a limey dressing of Mint and Green Chilli Nam Jim. These were glisteningly plump and fresh enough to convince us that they could have been plucked from the distant ocean, thrown into a transporter and beamed straight into the kitchen. If it doesn’t spoil your meal and you looked closely, you could probably still see their muscles twitching. But you can get two dozen of the same from the markets at that price and they’ll be just as fresh and lively, though I guess that really isn’t the point. We couldn’t really go past Pearl’s famous signatures on a first visit, so it was the Roast Red Duck Curry, Crispy Fried Egg, Shallots, Mint, Sweet Fish Sauce and Coconut Rice ($42). A dish inspired from Thai home cooking roots but now evolved into an impressively stylish fine dining offering. It’s not hard to imagine that if I’d hankered for nostalgia and voiced “Duck Curry” into the speech recognition module of some food replicator of the future, Pearl’s interpretation would be exactly what would have materialised. A somewhat redundant five minute tutorial to instruct us on how we should tackle the dish basically summed up into ‘mix everything together and enjoy’. The curry was certainly decadent. Meaty, sticky and rich but somehow lacked the effortless subtleties of genuine sauces from SE Asia that may have been its inspiration; it lacked chilli zing and the combination of a heavy-handed rendering of palm sugar, accompanying coconut rice, and fried runny egg eventually proved slightly challenging in its richness factor. It also got overly salty. Though we did share between us, perhaps it was yet another example of Asian inspired dishes that are meant to be passed around a shared table not translating well into one dish per person dining.

Now, request “Fish” from that replicator and you’re likely to get something looking like One Side Only Seared Yellowfin Tuna, Sweet Smoked Fish Salad with Galangal and Kaffir Lime ($38). This was more to our tastes, the rare ruby-coloured tuna fillet was perfect and inclusion of faintly sweet young coconut flesh into the combination of flavours was inspired. A simple Caprese style salad of Tomato, Mint and Buffalo Milk Mozzarella with Aged Balsamic Vinegar Dressing ($12) rounded up the meal and a White Peach Souffle with Vanilla Ice Cream and Vanilla Crumble, Caramel Lace ($22) was a delightfully airy bookend. Plaudits to chef Adam D’Sylva (and his team) who according to Pearl’s new (but less evocative and inviting) website is currently in New York furthering his career.

An architecturally perfect and subtly delicious White Peach Souffle to complete the evening

Whichever way you look at it, dining at Pearl is not cheap. Let me reiterate that, eating here is expensive! Fortunately for us, we visited with a $150 voucher courtesy of KB’s friends and ex-colleagues as a generous parting gift from her previous place of work. An unexpected benefit from folks around us knowing of our love for good food!

The barman smiled and nodded in acknowledgement as we made our way to the exit, then reached for a switch under his counter. The heavy opalescent glass door slid silently open by itself to let us out. Very cool...but oh so 21st century!

Food: 4 Spots - Innovative Pan-Asian inspired cuisine.
Service: 4.5 Spots - Exactly what I had been expecting.
Value: 3.5 Spots - Pushing the envelope too far, but for a special night out..?
R-Factor: 3.5 Spots - Perhaps we’ll wait for an opportunity for Pearl on the Peak.
Spot Score: 16/20

Pearl Restaurant and Bar
631-633 Church Street, Richmond, VIC.

I am not a Trekkie.

Apologies to Trekkies; all quotes and references used here are likely to be inaccurate, implausible and totally out of context so please keep your phasers in your holsters, or at least set only on stun. Blame and flame my main source of reference instead at
Memory Alpha.
Apologies to all others; once I started, I found it hard to stop.

Monday, 19 May 2008

And the "E"-mie Goes To...!

The gracious Agnes, fellow Melbourne-based food blogger of the always very readable Off the Spork has passed onto Spot4Nosh the E for Excellent Blog award. Thanks Agnes! It is most gratifying to know that there are folks out there who enjoy the blog. I certainly enjoy adding to it since that means we've had yet another memorable (good or bad, no matter) food experience!


I would like to pass the E for Excellent Blog accolade on to Lucy and her blog Nourish Me, also from Melbourne. I'll have to be honest and say that I'd only recently truly discovered her blog, but have since remained charmed. Most of the meals we enjoy and write about in Spot4Nosh wouldn't exactly be classified as healthy or particularly nourishing (if that's all we ate!) so Lucy's poetic and meditative reflections on much more wholesome foods, and her lovely photographs, are all the more appreciated. I feel purged and refreshed everytime I visit!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Pies Ain't Pies - Joe's Garage

Weeks continue to merge at a rapid rate. It appears we're still on Brunswick Street though it's another weekend, but which one already? Today is more than grey. Windy, shiveringly cold, frozen ears, heavy drizzle and fog on breath. Weather that Melbourne used to be known for, though we haven't seen it for quite awhile. But isn't this just what we Melbournians live for, and hadn't we all missed it? Glorious...(?)

We're at Joe's Garage for lunch, a large cafe bistro marked by red and blue neon signage and very Fitzroy. The large wood dominated dining space is decorated by quirky art and Gen Y band posters. We especially like the Mamboesque works featuring the cafe's namesake. First priority was coffees which were quite passable, and reasonable ($2.90), Grinders 'European Blend'. An extra 50 cents will get you an extra tall glass's worth, enough caffeine to ensure insomnia for the next few nights. We don't often order pizza unless it was the specific purpose of the eat-out but decided to try the Joe's Special with hot salami, roasted peppers, olives, artichokes, chilli and mozzarella ($12.90). We shouldn't have strayed from our regular no-pizza habit really. The toppings were okay but Joe's pizza base was pretty terrible. Droopy and lacking of fresh oven-heat like it had been left at the pass for too long before being brought to our table. Perhaps our pizza was the reason for the series of angry "Tings!" coming from the kitchen's pass bell about 10 minutes before? The Soup of the Day of Smoked Chorizo and Capsicum ($7.90) was much better, a hearty blend of smoky and garlicky chilli flavours served with a couple of slices of toasted sourdough. Very filling.

Joe's Special in fact turned out to be rather ordinary, let down by its base

The place was buzzing with a Saturday lunchtime crowd escaping from the weather but the 'Garage's' young waitstaff were just as buzzy and up to the task, rushing quite efficiently around their tables with cheery smiles on faces. Perhaps they were happily anticipating the morning's wages spent on drinking along with one of those bands posted on the walls? We don't blame the pizza on them.

Food: 3 Spots - Go more for the crowds, buzz, and perhaps breakfast.
Service: 3.5 Spots - Designer jeans, cargos, Tee's, bandanas.
Value: 3 Spots - Typical bistro, better can be found elsewhere.
R-Factor: 3.5 Spots - For breakfast? For dinner?
Spot Score: 13/20

Joe's Garage
366 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, VIC.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Fine Blue Sunday - Scarpetta Ristorante

We woke late to rather bleak daylight, a weak almost noon sun struggling to break through the grey and with no hope of warming up the apartment. "What a delightful blue Sunday", commented KB half mockingly. But she was right, delightful enough motivation for us to attempt an escape from the chill with a leisurely walk somewhere out-of-doors. We ended up doing the entire stretch of nearby eclectic Brunswick Street (check out the link for a very cool virtual stroll along both sides of Brunswick Street), once known for its bohemian mix of locals and layabouts but nowadays somewhat redefined by the weekend jostling of late model European sedans as their very plebeian, nouveau rich middle-class owners explore the many restaurants on offer. As it was then almost 2, we were rather keen on somewhere for a late lunch as well.

Attracted by the menu on its window we walked through the dark doorway of Scarpetta, a cute little Italian bar bistro. Inside we hesitated, we were the only customers! But it was too late, the Manager who was interupted at the bar with his ledgers looked up, grinned broadly and motioned for us to grab seats, "For two this afternoon?" Further in was a see-through pass to the kitchen where the chef and one other were looking out questioningly at us. No way we were backing out now, so we took the proferred menus and tried to relax. And we were glad we did. The Manager had time on his hands to be chatty and charming, and quickly made us feel at ease despite our lonesome visit during the late afternoon doldrums. KB's Orechiette with prawns, calamari, scallops, fish and spinach ($26) was brimming with fresh seafood and a fine clean olive oil version of marinara pasta, sufficiently garlicky and with plenty of just warmed-through fresh tasting diced tomato and basil. My Fish of the Day ($29) was rather surprisingly, Coral Trout, lightly flour-dusted fillets competently sauteed and served over wilted spinach, creamed mash and a very tasty ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini, red peppers and onion. A recommended glass ($8) of local Diamond Valley 'Blue Label' Pinot Noir complemented the oiled tomatoey flavours of the meal perfectly, and the long black coffee ($3.50) to finish was decent as well. We would be keen to return at a more regular and busier time to explore Scarpetta's pizza menu and test out its less 'personalised' service.

A tasty dish of simply pan fried Coral Trout fillets

Food: 3.5 spots - Simple Italian fare done competently; good list of wines by the glass.
Service: 3.5 spots - [Only the Manager was there on our visit].
Value: 3.5 spots - Quite regular bistro prices with fair sized dishes.
R-Factor: 3.5 spots - Place to consider if feeling like Mediterranean/pizza/pasta in an area not so known for Italian eateries.
Spot Score: 14/20

Scarpetta Ristorante
257 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, VIC.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A Peek at Pearl on the Peak - Hong Kong Food

I did manage some free days in Hong Kong to play tourist and fortuitously, the last happened to fall on the first bright and sunny day following two dreary windless weeks of grey smog and misty drizzle. Of course one of my first destinations on the day was to catch the funicular tram up Victoria Peak to take in the famous views of Hong Kong Island and its city skyscrapers and across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon and beyond. Not being in my conciousness at the time, I was taken by surprise when I bumped into a familiar logo whilst wandering around the dominating anvil-shaped architecture of the Peak Tower terminus at the summit (has been described as wok-shaped). Among the expected tourist trap gift shops, themed attractions, cafes, and takeaway-food fronts, were several restaurants including the very upmarket Pearl on the Peak, chef Geoff Lindsay's collaborative project in Hong Kong.

Dramatic Peak Tower that is home to iconic Pearl (on the Peak) in Hong Kong

The look and feel of the restaurant projected the same cool sophistication as Lindsay's flagship Pearl Restaurant in Richmond Melbourne. A quick browse of the menu also sparked much recognition with only minor differences reflecting alternative sources of produce and perhaps catering to regional expectations of a Western fine dining restaurant. The menu of centrepiece offerings however, screams out at a substantive accumulation of food miles. Signatures like the wok-seared pearl meat was there, as was the one-side only seared yellowfin tuna. But what stands Pearl on the Peak apart would be the breathtaking views out its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. In the absence of a low level cloud cover or a high smog alert, I can only imagine the awesome glittering spectacle that a twilight or evening booking would offer to accompany your dinner and wine. Certainly leaves the dark vista across to the apartment carpark at the corner of Chapel and Howard Streets well and truly for dead!
Pearl on the Peak, 1/F Peak Tower, 128 Peak Road, The Peak, Hong Kong.

Views you'd expect to enjoy when dining at Pearl on the Peak may be worth the price of admission alone

With some regret I had neither the time, company, nor willingness of pocket to dine at Pearl that morning. Instead with stomach growling, I ducked into one of the tourist trap cafes and resigned myself to a comparatively humble breakfast of Tonkatsu Ramen, unremarkable reconstituted instant noodles in a salty dishwater broth though with passable panko crusted pork. Meanwhile, will be hoping that there'll be an opportunity to revisit Pearl on the Peak in a proper manner in the not too distant future.

Alas no dining in style for me on this occasion - very ordinary cafe-shop ramen instead

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Birds of the Orient - Hong Kong Food

Stone tablet motif of Shui Hu Ju's menu

The line-up of drafts that call for my attention here reminds me of the somewhat unsettling queue of floating planes I witnessed out my seat window only just recently, each held up in their allocated pocket of airspace as they await their turn to land at one of the busiest of airports. Which is a convenient segue onto my short stay in Hong Kong for work last month, though tight schedules and a lack of local knowledge meant that I barely touched the surface on the broad and exotic culinary opportunities on offer there. Despite this however, I did manage to grab a few interesting meals which on reflection appeared to be dominated by an avian theme. Poultry in its many forms is certainly the most popular meat consumed in the Far East, occasional outbreaks of bird flu notwithstanding.

My first meal of note was a work related function, a full dinner banquet at the Cantonese restaurant of the Royal Park Hotel located deep in the New Territories. An all expenses paid procession of courses so I certainly had no complains! Regrettably each dish was only presented to the table briefly then whisked away to be portioned out for each diner, and I had to be on my best behaviour, so there was little opportunity with the camera. But we had shark fin soup, scallops in XO sauce, salt and pepper fried prawns, whole steamed grouper, beef stir-fried with vegetables, BBQ duck, wok-tossed noodles and something I’d never tried before, claypot braised duck feet and sea-cucumber (beche-de-mer). The sea-cucumber was ho-hum, it was the not unpleasantly gelatinous webbed duck feet that was a new textural experience.
Royal Park Chinese Restaurant, The Royal Park Hotel, 8 Pak Hok Ting Street, Shatin, Hong Kong.

Here’s hoping Donald scrubbed between his toes

Another evening I caught up with some folks for pre-dinner drinks in Central district, Hong Kong’s tourist and business inner-city heart. The maze of upmarket pubs and clubs gave the area away as the premier hangout for the professional expatriate population. Allow me to confirm that any typical ‘Suit’ in a bar there can be just as pretentiously obnoxious as ones you’re likely to brush pelvises against in downtown Little Collins Street, a universal breed to be sure. Dinner post-drinks was at a rather upmarket establishment famous for its specialty Northern Chinese cuisine.

Meaty treasures found in Stewed Beef Rib Wrapped with Lotus Leaf

The restaurant Shui Hu Ju is part of the Aqua Group, a conglomerate of hip restaurants and bars located around the city. SHJ is quite a stylish replica of a traditional Chinese teahouse, discreet entrance marked by period red lanterns and upon entry, dark moody corners with period timber screens and antique furnishings and artefacts to match. We sampled signature dishes such as the Stewed Beef Rib Wrapped with Lotus Leaf, a huge green parcel opened at the table by our waitress to reveal headily spiced meat shredded off the bone to be picked at with our chopsticks at leisure and dipped into a soy vinaigrette with fresh bird’s eye chilli. Then there was a show stopping dish of Deep Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilli, crispy fried pieces of exotic black skinned Silkie chicken poking through a sea of fiery peppers. Biting through the deliciously light crispy coating on the meat, a faint pleasant tone of Chinese medicinal herbs could be detected. For about 10 seconds...then the chilli kicks in and nostrils flare to the sharp fumes while tastebuds are cauterised by the lethal coating of powdered Szechuan pepper and chilli. The trick here was to attempt to recover quickly from the shock and ignore the burning pain. Then when our tastebuds surrendered to a dull throbbing numbness, the buried rich flavours would start registering in the brain receptors once again. Phew, and what a trip it was. We finished to the last piece in nose sniffing and lip trembling satisfaction.
Shui Hu Ju, 68 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong.

A volcanic plate of Deep Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilli

On my last evening in Honkers, I gathered with a bunch of like-minded colleagues back at Central for a booking at Yung Kee Restaurant, world renowned for its Cantonese-style roasted goose. How famous? Just google the words “roast goose Hong Kong” and you’ll be led directly to Yung Kee, and the exultations of the multitudes that have made pilgrimage there and been touched by ‘the goose’. Our waitress knowingly confirmed that we’ll want to book a whole goose for our meal even before we were properly seated to be handed menus, such was the confidence that the signature dish was what all customers come to the restaurant for…as highlighted by this excerpt from travel writer and expatriated New York native, Daisann McLane in her Hong Kong Blog “Learning Cantonese”.

“...I remember that bird flu period. It was a sad time in Hong Kong. You’d enter Yung Kee, and before the grey-haired bespectacled waiter even handed you a menu, he’d be apologizing: "Sorry, no goose today". And then he would nod, understandingly, so that his customer would not feel any embarrassment or qualms about walking out of the restaurant on the spot. Such honor and candor is rare among restauranteurs.”

Yung Kee's roasted goose, has been listed as one of the 'must-try-before-you-die' food experiences

Anyway the roasted goose at Yung Kee was an impressive bird indeed, succulent and meaty with sweet crispy skin to savour with each mouthful. Compared to the more familiar roast duck, the goose was sweeter, less gamey and much richer. It’s definitely a meal to be shared, as its richness could easily become too much of a good thing. We also sampled Yung Kee’s equally famous preserved century duck eggs that were served as a sulphurously pungent amuse bouche eaten with loads of pickled ginger, followed by Chinese five-spice roasted pigeon, prawns with XO sauce, and several other Cantonese dishes. But the waitress was right, we were there mainly for the goose and did not leave disappointed.
Yung Kee Restaurant, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong.

Succulent and meaty roasted pigeons - solution for tackling the 'rats of the skies' problem?

Sunday, 20 April 2008

A New Patch on the River - Seagrass Restaurant

Regrettably this post had been languishing forgotten in draft for quite some time so hopefully our experience hadn’t become too redundant. But the restaurant is still quite new so it’s worth posting about. It is obvious that we at Spot4Nosh have a fondness for seafood. So it didn’t take much time for us to hear about a new seafood-centric fine diner that opened in the city during the latter part of 2007 and it didn’t take much longer after that to find an excuse to visit, given that decent restaurants with such a focus are rather scarce in Melbourne. That the occasion was to celebrate a new job offer with anticipated salary increase made the pleasure all the more guilt free. Seagrass Restaurant had opened for about 7 weeks when we visited a few days before Christmas, which might be just enough time for it to get over any teething problems and settle into some sort of rhythm. The new restaurant is actually a spin-off of ‘Pure South’, a pre-existing Southgate resident located immediately downstairs that spouts an admirable dedication to cuisine prepared from Bass Strait and Tasmanian sourced produce. Both restaurants apparently share the same owner-managers but are operated as independent entities with respective dedicated head chefs.

Classy interior with heavy comfortable white leather-bound chairs

Seagrass can be entered from either the ground level or the floor above (the mid-level) from within the Southgate complex at Southbank. We walked in from the river promenade at ground level and were led moth-like up the stairs by the mesmerising feature column illuminated by thematic multihued panels of aquamarine blues and yellows. The dining room itself however was in calmer relief, clean modern lines of glass, timber and concrete, dominated on the river side by large tilt-windows that provided a bright airy feel and good views out to the Yarra River below. We were led to a window-side table and with the big frame tilted open to let in the early evening breeze, it was almost as good as dining on an outside veranda. A handsome shimmering chandelier called attention to a separate function area dressed in opposing colour scheme and cordoned off by a glass wall. The overall feel however, was more corporate ‘clinching-a-deal’ diner than an intimate ‘special meal-for-two’ venue although the cosiness factor improved as daylight faded into the glittering night-time atmosphere of Southbank promenade and the city across the river.

The menu naturally concentrated on modern preparations of fish and other seafood dishes, although a couple of amusing entrée choices labelled as “refined classics” offered re-interpretations of the now out-of-fashion prawn cocktail and Oysters Kilpatrick. I suspect that as a consequence of the fresh seafood focus the menu could alter quite suddenly in response to the availability and quality of the provenance, which is not really a bad thing. On our visit even at an early sitting, we were apologetically informed that coral trout on the menu will have to be substituted for an alternative as the quality of remaining supplies no longer met chef’s expectations, and later on in the evening we overheard other tables being told that the John Dory (which I had) was also out. In those early days though, this could have been due to the kitchen still refining their supply and demand requirements. Following orders, really good sourdough baguette slices with a truly delicious crust were offered. An accompanying ramekin of good soft butter was also notable as it made a pleasant change from the ubiquitous pour of so-so vinegared olive oils that have pervaded everywhere else these days. There was also a complimentary taste-starter of a faintly smoky and very moreish salmon-based spread or rillette which called for more bread, happily supplied. I was sufficiently inspired by this to have attempted to recreate it for dinner guests at home!

Delicious slivers of 16-hour cured Petuna ocean trout

Our proper entrées consisted of the special of Slow Cured Petuna Ocean Trout served with Horseradish Cream ($16.90) which was pleasantly oily, ruby coloured slivers of premium ocean trout cured gravlax style to impart a delicious mix of rich, sweet and tart flavours highlighted by bitter points of dill. A good value and impressive starter considering the very generous serving. We also tried the Roast Quail, Boudin of Chicken, Herb Salad, Shallot and Sherry Dressing ($17.50) to detour slightly from the fish courses. Another successful call with crispy skinned quarters of roasted bird contrasting well with cute little creamy chicken sausages, roast potatoes and fresh salad dressed with a faintly sweet and tangy salsa. Of the Mains, there was Pave of Atlantic Salmon, Moreton Bay Bug Tails, Crushed Kipfler Potato, Crustacean Oil ($34.90), a perfectly pink tile of salmon saddled over a textured mix of waxy potato and diced crustacean meat. On a similar fish over spuds and crustacean theme was my Crispy Sautéed John Dory, Yabbies, Silky Potato Puree, Zucchini Flower, Saffron Jus ($37.90). For a fish with a quick tendency for tough dryness if not done with care, the couple of dory fillets had been cleverly pan-roasted to produce a nice crispy golden skin yet retaining flaky tenderness and moisture in the flesh. Accompanying the fillets were a good piping of creamy mash potato, a nicely tempura’d zucchini flower stuffed with what was possibly goat’s cheese, and shelled yabby tails that may have been briefly roasted, the lot arranged over a saffron jus which had the deep rich flavour reminiscent of a reduction over roasted crustacean shells. We also shared a refreshing herbed salad ($8.50) of sliced cucumber, baby cos, radish and extremely flavourful cherry tomatoes, testimony to the attention paid to the sourcing of quality produce.

An outstanding and hearty entrée of roasted quail

Service was unobtrusively friendly and helpful and mostly provided by the same waiter dedicated to our corner of the restaurant. The wait staff at seagrass were smartly uniformed but could look just as comfortable re-glueing soles back on your shoes as they did waiting on tables, their grey-brown striped three-quarter length aprons reminded us of a team of old-school cobblers. Our overall impression of the food at Seagrass however, was a determined attempt by the kitchen to ensure that quality seafood can be showcased if unadulterated by careless preparation. Dishes were uncomplicated with the main focus certainly being the fish on offer. No precariously balanced Jenga-like stacks of bits and bobs on plates here although that being said, at this fine-dining end of the price range perhaps a little more imagination is needed in plating than the same final fingerful of mixed salad leaves on every dish?

Perfectly crisped skins on John Dory fillets over saffron jus

Back to that evening though quite full and content, we were nonetheless persuaded to try the dessert special ($16.50), a pot of luscious dark chocolate ganache served with a refreshingly bitey pineapple granita and a lightly scorched (blowtorched?) toffee-topped banana half. Like the dishes that preceded it, this was eye-openingly delightful in its simplicity.

Food: 4 spots – Finely done seafood with good choices of fish.
Service: 4 spots – Professional and amiable.
Value: 3.5 spots – Good value entrées, Mains definitely at fine dining territory.
R-Factor: 4 spots – Worth a return visit to see how it has settled.
Spot Score: 16/20

Seagrass Restaurant
MR6 Mid-level Southgate, Southbank Melbourne, VIC.

Edit: Spot4Nosh regretfully believes that the Seagrass Restaurant at Southbank is no longer in business.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Happy Valentine's...and How to Wow Your Loved One - Singapore Chilli Crab

As Valentine's Day is but tomorrow and because I'm in a generous holiday mood, let me tell you how to thoroughly impress and fully satiate your respective loved ones. And it'll work on those whom you're trying to make an impression on for the first time as well. Intrigued?

If you live anywhere around the tropical top end of Australia, slap on your trusty Akubra (the one studded with crocodile teeth), hop into you beat up tinnie (aluminium dinghy), avoid the angry and hungry cousins of those crocs you'd extracted teeth from, and go catch yourself a good sized muddie (mud crab)...
Failing the above, simply mortgage your house so to be able to afford to get down to your similarly trusty fishmonger or seafood purveyor and secure yourself a large live mud crab of around 1.2-1.5 kg. This morning, lively and extremely vicious looking specimens were an eye-popping $36.90 per kg at the popular Charis Seafoods on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Whether slightly cheaper or dearer, a good sized individual would probably cost you around the $50 mark, but your Valentine is worth it right?

Once back in your kitchen (of course it's all about food!), either dunk the crab into a generous slurry of ice (water chilled thoroughly with loads of ice cubes) or into the freezer for 20-30 minutes to put the crab well and truly to sleep so as to avoid cruelty, and any chance of losing parts of your extremities to its crushing claws. The next steps are not for the weak or squeamish but you'll have to properly rinse the crab under running water, then remove its carapace (give this a quick rinse and retain for cooking) and discard all of the grey gill section (known colloquially as the dead man's fingers). Remove the two large claws from the rest of the body then using a sturdy knife, divide each claw into half at the joint and chop the body of the crab into four quarters. Next, crack all of the crab's heavily shelled joints and claw sections with confident sharp blows using a heavy steel kitchen mallet or hammer (but avoid over shattering the shells). Set all crab pieces aside ready for cooking and follow the simple recipe below for the rest of the ingredients needed to prepare the world renown Singapore Chilli Crab!

1.2-1.5 kg cleaned mud crab pieces
2 eggs (beaten)
1 Tbs fresh ginger (finely julienned)
2 stalks spring onion (roughly chopped)
8 Tbs oil

Sauce (mix together):
1 Tbs sugar
1-2 tsp salt (to taste)
4-5 Tbs tomato ketchup (Heinz)

Rempah or chilli paste (blended or pounded together): (edited)
2 large slices ginger
2 large cloves garlic
6-8 large fresh red chillies (depending on heat and to taste, but dish should have some heat)

8-10 red shallots
6 candlenuts
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves (finely slivered)
1 lemongrass stalk (use the tender inner leaves and bulb, roughly chopped)
1 thumb-sized knob galangal (outer skin scraped away)
1 thumbnail sized piece fermented shrimp paste or belacan (dry roasted)

Heat large wok until very hot, add in 6 Tbs oil and stir-fry crab pieces for several minutes until coated in oil and shells turned just slightly orange, then remove. Add further 2 Tbs oil to wok and fry ginger and the rempah until fragrant. Return crab to wok and quickly toss, then add the sauce mixture and stir. Add 2 capfuls of Xiao Tsing wine (chinese cooking rice wine) or sherry and a dash of water to deglaze, return to the boil and cover wok to cook for 5 minutes. Lower the heat and stir in eggs to thicken the sauce and nicely coat the crab pieces. Dish onto a large platter and serve immediately!
(Recipe modified slightly from Mrs Lee's Cookbook by Mrs Lee Chin Koon, Eurasia Press. This is an invaluable reference for authetic and unadulterated Singaporean Nonya recipes authored by the mother of Singapore's most illustrious statesman and former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew).

Let me add that you simply cannot get the same enjoyment from Singapore chilli crab at a fine dining restaurant compared to tucking in at home (or at a hawker or street corner stall when in Singapore), although some such establishments do offer it (see Pearl Restaurant Richmond's ode to the full moon). If dining on mud crabs at Pearl, I dare say that you'll discover that I'm really not joking about pawning the house! But back to tackling chilli crab at home, you'll be able to forget about any table niceties, arm yourselves simply with a nutcracker and get down and dirty with your fingers! In Singapore, the dish is usually served with mantou (or chinese steamed buns) to mop up the wonderful crabby and eggy chilli sauce with once you're done with the crab but crispy grilled baguettes can be a worthy substitute.

As for Valentine's night following your mud crab meal, you'll look across the table at your partner and see a goofy and fully contented grin with chilli crab sauce thoroughly smeared over both hands and on their face, and know that there'll be enough euphoria left over that they'll be putty in your hands for the rest of the evening!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Non-Fish Lovers Beware, Gratuitous Head Shot! - Brisbane Food

Currently back at my childhood haunts and family hometown of the Gold Coast and Brisbane for the week. The Gold Coast is ever busier but essentially remains the same familiar concentration of vulgar urbanity. And as far as I can tell, the place is still largely a cultural and gastronomic desert. Brisbane I concede, is continuing to gain maturity. More surprising however, is that the source for this post comes from deep within that speedily malignant spread of urban development between the coast and the capital city. Our clan had gathered to celebrate the 96-th birthday of the family's most senior patriarch, descending on a relatively nondescript but hilariously named suburban Chinese (& Malaysian) restaurant close-by to the home of some family members.

Those in the know had organised a full 8-course banquet but out of the
procession of dishes some of which were more successful than others, one stood out above. There's a bountiful of fresh fish that can be bought at the various markets and fishmongers back in Melbourne but for sheer variety, the addition of tropical varieties found in the states further north can't be beat. And there's no finer or more delicious example of tropical piscine flesh than a whole perfectly steamed, ruby-coloured Queensland Coral Trout; served simply with the fish's own steaming liquor sauced lightly with soy, generous slivers of spring onion and coriander sprigs, a little dash of sesame oil, plus a final slippery drizzle of hot plain oil that was used to lightly crisp garnishings of ginger and garlic to infuse the aromatics. Who will be able to get enough of the tender pearlescent white flesh spooned over with some of that sauce onto plain steamed rice? And finally, whose manners would be the first to give out and dive for those heavenly pockets of flesh cradled in both cheeks of the head! Salute!

Ya Hoo Seafood Restaurant
Shop 10-11, 22 Loganlea Road, Waterford, QLD
(Spot Score: 14/20; Fish Score: 19/20)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Spicing up a Sultry Evening - Bismi Restaurant

Cravings for a meal of curry led us on a lengthy stroll up Sydney Road one recent warm and sultry Friday evening. The first aim of the walk was to shake out the work-week cobwebs from our heads by soaking in the free urban sensory rush dealt out by this cosmopolitan stretch of Melbourne suburbia, but our end-goal for trekking towards the Coburg end was to get to Bismi Restaurant to satisfy those curry needs.

Respective bowls of Bismi's chilli chicken, prawn masala and vegetable curry enjoyed with roti paratta

The Sydney Road (and original) branch of Bismi serves up tantalising varieties of South Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean influenced spicy dishes and curries. On entry you'll be greeted by some of the staff that hold fort over the large curry bain marie which leads into a smallish front dining space. This room basically consists of a jumble of small tables and wobbly seating cubes that would give any typical dilapidated student sharehouse a run for their money, but no one seems to mind. We're all here for only one purpose, and that's to indulge in the cheap and tastily spiced food. If there are no free tables left in the front room, which is quite typical, you may be led further into the building where more dining space is available. Once we'd achieved a comfortable balance on our stools during this visit, we chose a Mixed Vegetable Curry ($5), the Prawn Masala ($8), and a Chilli Chicken dish ($6). More than enough for a filling meal for two. The two wet curries were heady with cumin, cardamon, mustard seed, and curry leaves, the vegetables in a mild and creamy green-style sauce while the chilli red prawn masala had a hint of vinegary tang. The winner for me however was the chilli chicken, dangerously red chicken pieces that had been marinated with tamarind and a richly spiced chilli coating. Hot stuff in every sense! A plate of plain basmati rice and several of Bismi's flaky and justifiably famous Roti Paratta (Prata/Paratha) ($2 each) were the perfect accompaniment to the curries. A glass of Mango Lassi ($3) helped temper the inevitable sweating and chilli induced lip numbness. Service from the mix of hired help and Indian students was of the untrained variety and easily distracted but all requests could be sufficiently met despite the restaurant's constantly hectic environment. Again, at these prices as long as food was brought to the table nobody seemed to be bothered in the least!

Food: 3.5 spots - For tasty spicy SE Asian and South Indian style curries.
Service: 2.5 spots - Orders are taken, food arrives, leave it at that.
Value: 4.5 spots - True cheap and tasty.
R-value: 5 spots - Definitely returnable.
Spot Score: 16/20

Bismi Restaurant
848 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Ringing in the New Year

Spot4Nosh mostly documents our dining-out experiences. But we have been good lately. Plus it had been a month for entertaining so we have been eating rather well at home, which is perfectly fine for heralding in yet another year. So here's a quick photo-blog of some of the dishes we'd cooked up in the past month...

We're by no means 'morning-people', so rarely get to enjoy a decent breakfast during the working week. So at least one morning of the weekend, we'll jangle pots and pans in the kitchen to prepare an indulgent brunch over one or more cups of good brewed coffee, such as coddled egg steamed with anchovy butter, slivers of spicy salami, semi-dried and fresh cherry tomatoes, and mixed fresh herbage. Tipped over toasted slices of ciabatta.

One quiet Saturday evening in, KB roasted a tender rack of pork with perfect crackling, accompanied with roasted white peaches, pumpkin and dollops from a jar of homemade mango chutney that was a gift we received over Christmas. Enjoyed with a bitter-leaf salad over a couple of glasses of chardy...in front of the box watching "Iron Chef" of course!

Friends over for a dinner party was the perfect excuse to heat some oil up for a couple of dozen tempura Coffin Bay Pacific oysters served back in their shells with a light shoyu and lemon vinaigrette and topped with smoked nori shards. Had to be quick with the camera as they didn't last long.

The day after another dinner with friends over provided us with enough leftovers to produce hearty salads for lunch. Reheated halves of five-spice roasted quail with warmed Kipfler potatoes, baby cos lettuce and rocket, fennel heart, cherry tomatoes and freshly shaved parmesan.

What happens when we'd set our minds and dinner preparations on risotto and a desperate rummage through the larder revealed that we were out of Arborio rice? Well we substituted with pearl barley mixed with one-third of long grain red rice and turned out a winning meal of 'risotto' with chargrilled scallops, calamari and fennel. The pearl barley grains were starchy sponges for both wine and stock which resulted in a creamy dish full of flavour, while the red rice provided al dente highlights.