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.