Friday, December 31, 2010

The Frenchman in Namibia - Oryx, Kudu, Springbok ... more game meat than you can poke a stick at!

The great things about Namibia is that game meat is plentiful. Just driving in the countryside will guarantee sightings of plentiful springbok, oryx and kudu, with the odd donkey-drawn cart interspersed along the way.
Oryx & Kudu in pre-supermarket condition

My favourite has got to be the oryx. It is a magnificent animal to watch, but even better to eat. Tender and juicy, it gives steak a run for its money. Unfortunately, there isn't the same degree of differentiation given to the various cuts of meat that can be gotten, so it's sometimes a but of pot luck. If you're lucky enough to get a good fillet, it is truly sublime. You can order it in virtually any restaurant, and even find trays of freshly shot, locally sourced game in your local supermarket, so that you can enjoy your own game braai.  The oryx steaks pictured below (which we cooked up as a Christmas Eve dinner in the bush) were so fresh and so tender that you could use them in a steak tartare.  As a matter of fact, Brandon and I did just that.  We have photographic evidence, but I'll spare you the sight.

Oryx in post-supermarket condition
Namibia itself has lots going for it - apart from the plentiful mining opportunities, including the biggest uranium and flourspar mines in the world, it's a very clean place with good infrastructure and services, and the people are very friendly. But what is amazing about this place is the safari experience. Erindi Private Game Reserve is only a three hour drive out of town, and Etosha Game Reserve is a massive, publicly accessible park where the public can rent chalets. In both places, you can get a chalet that fronts onto a waterhole, and watch the wild animals frolic while having a drink. Apart from the various antelope species, there are lions, jackals catching a turtledove breakfast, herds of elephants, crocodiles, and kaleidoscope of giraffes!

If you get sick of looking at animals, the views are always spectacular.  Speaking of which, here's a typical Dylanesque bush setting.
Mother and baby rare black rhino at dusk

You don't even have to search for the rare and endangered African black rhinoceros, complete with baby rhino. Many South Africans have been known to go on frequent safaris for 20 years, and not even catch a sighting of this rare and wonderful beast.

It is a truly magical experience to watch a mother rhino with its baby just metres away, sipping Amarula on the rocks, while a midnight African thunderstorm pours down on you.

Bush pigs on their knees at the local watering hole

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Russian Connection - самого́н (samogon), блины (blini), cabbage and more ikra!

The advantage of hanging out with a family of Russians is the exotic (at least to me) culinary experiences you get to enjoy.

First and foremost is the самого́н (samogon). Essentially Russian moonshine.  Because all samogon is homemade, they differ vastly in quality and flavour.  This particular one is an old family recipe, perfected after many decades of experimentation (and possibly blindness) over 25 years ago, it is now sublime.  As you can see from the label on the bottle, this is the Super 2010 vintage.  The bottle shows frost from being in the freezer, which is how all good moonshine, vodka or not, should be kept.

Stack of tasty blini
I'm sure it's made from potatoes, with lemon peel added for flavour.  But I'm not sure and I really don't care.  At 53% alcohol, it's a bloody strong drink.  The Russians (and Brandon) like to shoot it.  I personally think that's a waste of a flavoursome, unique drink that deserves to be sipped.  Besides, standing in a circle and shooting more than 7 shots (I lost count after the 7th shot - heck I lost track of time itself) is just asking for trouble.  Doesn't matter whether you're drinking samogon, whisky or even red wine (yes I may have done that too but I'll never admit to it ....)

To help stomach the excess of samogon is a hearty meal of Russian farm fare.  Sauteed cabbage, I think, mixed through with meat (which happens to be the remnants of my kudu knuckle from Joe's Beerhouse), with cucumber and coriander garnish.  And yes, that's a potato.  Useful things, potatoes, with many uses.  You can boil it, you can mash it, you can ferment it.  Ahhh.

The next thing, of course, is authentic Russian блины (blini), cooked by an authentic (if still young and krasivaya) Russian Babushka.  Blini are really just Russian pancakes.  But unlike the pancakes you're used to, these are wafer thin (best to keep them away from Mr Creosote).

Babushka cooking blini
Blini is a very versatile food.  You can have it as an entree; you can have it as a meal; you can even have it as a dessert!  It all comes down to the filling or topping.  It is of course great with caviar.  And even on its own (man I feel like Dr Seuss after writing that last paragraph).

But try wrapping up some cabbagey kudu in a blin (singular for blini) for variety.  And spreading fresh home-made strawberry jam for a sweet option.  Or figjam, for that matter.

Lastly, just because it's no longer legal to get sturgeon caviar doesn't mean we have to make do with only ocean trout caviar.  There's also pike caviar, which is actually nicer than the red stuff.  The eggs are smaller and finer, and the flavour is less robust, but still flavoursome.  And it goes much better with champagne!

The Frenchman in Namibia - traditional Namibian braai

The next day, we visited a mate of Brandon's for a traditional Namibian braai (essentially a barbecue). The only difference is that a pile of fresh wood is first burnt in the preparatory area, and allowed to burn until it's turned into hot charcoal. This coal is then spread across the base of the barbie for cooking. The beauty of this approach is that you only need to spread enough coal to cover as much cooking area as needed. There are a few different versions of braai - the one pictured here is more basic, but still effective. The best thing about this is that all of the meat is firmly secured in the grille thingee, so you can turn everything over in one fell flip.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia - a weaver bird's nest hanging in the pergola housing the braai.  These things are all over the place in Namibia - single trees can be festooned with the nests.  The interesting thing is that most of them are uninhabited.  The male weaver bird runs around collecting material to make a nest, which is then inspected by the female weaver bird.  If it doesn't pass muster, he gets the flick and must build a new nest and try to impress the same bird or a new one.  If the female bird likes it, then they hook up and she moves in.  Kind of like humans, really.

Then there are the sociable weaver bird nests, the biggest of which can weigh over a tonne, and can literally house hundreds, if not a thousand of the little buggers!  Other birds, even small predatory raptors, may also join in the communal fun - of course, they don't eat the guys they live with - that would be too rude.  Who knows what all these birds do in their mega-nest?  Kind of like a big swingers commune ...

The oryx steaks are the ones on top
Anyway, back to the food!  One might think it strange to be enjoying a Namibian braai with a bunch of Russians, former East Germans and even a Czech - no Namibians present at all. But some of these folks have been living here for a while and are experts at the whole braai preparation thing. And you get some fantastically exotic foods thrown in with the already exotic fare - Russian red salmon caviar (sadly, it's apparently illegal to export sturgeon caviar) and East German mustard (which strangely tastes just like any other mustards - apparently the distinctive flavour has been affected by West German interference in the manufacturing process).  Krasnaya ikra, as we found out, is best eaten on a slice of freshly baked french loaf that has first been liberally slathered with soft butter.  The butter and bread serve as a counterbalance to the very salty roe.  I can attest to the fact that this approach enhances the eating experience!

We enjoyed a range of meats, including boerwors, bratwurst, oryx and kudu steaks! The oryx was the highlight - tender and juicy. All washed down with delicious South African sparking - Nederburg Methode Traditionelle. Dry with nice mousse, a tinge of fruit, not too much yeast, with a refreshing crisp finish.

Tastes just like mustard to me ...
Of course, one cannot just drink sparkling wine with a barbie, even in a different country - the mandatory beers had to be consumed as well. Namibia has a great range of these. The most recognisable of these would be Windhoek. There's Lager, Draught and Light. All are tasty beverages.  Even the light beer (as one knows, light beers almost always taste awful).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Frenchman in Namibia - Restaurant Balalaika & Joe's Beerhouse in Windhoek

Are those bullet holes?!!
I managed to fit in a couple of foodie experiences on my first day in Namibia, which is located in South Western Africa and is supposed to be one of the two safest African nations (although I gather that it's all relative).  Its major cities Windhoek and Swakopmund (kind of like the Namibian version of Dunsborough) have pretty good infrastructure - excellent roads, interesting architecture, modern supermarkets.  Kinda like Perth 10 years ago, really.  Even the smaller towns in the country are reminiscent of little Aussie towns, and the geography is similar to what you'd see in the north of Australia.  Given that you can find uranium, iron ore and base metals in both countries, the similarities in geography is unsurprising, I guess.

But there are certainly things which remind you that you're not in Kansas anymore.

The first of these are the local taxi drivers.  Taxis don't have uniform paint-jobs like they do in most parts of the world that we're familiar with.  These cars come in all shapes and sizes.  But you can easily spot a taxi by the large white serial number on the rear windscreen.  And the way they drive.

These nutters will turn right at a 3-lane intersection - from the far-left lane.  When the lights are still red.

They will stop anywhere they like to pick up a fare.  Here's an example of a mass of taxis stopped outside a local market.  In all 3 lanes.  No it's not a traffic jam, because the road is clear after you get past the taxis.  Not so good when you're in a hurry to get somewhere.  You can't see it in the picture, but some of these guys are negotiating taxi fares with would-be passengers.  Others are trying to squeeze more people into an already full vehicle.

The other thing is the prevalence of gambling houses.  Here's one right in the middle of the city.  Check out the name.

The third thing is the road signs.  What do you do when a herd of elephants cross the road in front of you?  Well, you certainly don't use the horn.  Not unless you have a death wish.

WTF?!!  ...
Also, one of the main boulevardes in Windhoek has a dubious name.  Ironically, it connects to Nelson Mandela Avenue.  Even more ironically, there's an international aid/human rights agency located on this street.  Obviously outraged at their prestigious address, they insisted on building a side road with a more acceptable name, plonking their letterbox on it, and putting that down as their official address.

Okay - enough of the virtual tour of weird and wonderful things.  Let's move onto the cuisine!  The first of my culinary experiences in Windhoek is Cafe Balalaika.  The second is Joe's Beerhouse.

Restaurant Balalaika @ the Zoo
Zoo Park in the centre of Windhoek, Namibia

Restaurant Balalaika (named after the 3 stringed traditional Russian instrument), more a cafe, really, is located in a local park/square. Its large balcony area is extremely well shaded with a combination of shade sail and huge, leafy trees, and gives one a nice outlook over the locals relaxing in the park.

Camelthorn Weissbier
Namibia, formerly a German colony, has a number of Germanic influences. One of these is the locally made beer. Boutique brewery Camelthorn (so named not because of any connection to foot appendages, but because they identify themselves with the deep-rooted, drought surviving indigenous Namibian Camelthorn tree, which incidentally also makes great firewood). The weissbier was truly delicious - all the things you'd expect from a weissbier - soft, mouth filling richness, fruity flavours with a hint of sweetness, and no bitterness at all. The recipe for this Bavarian style beer is designed by Bavarian world champion brewmaster Michael Plank, and it's brewed using ingredients from Germany. How does it measure up to the benchmark Weihenstephaner weissbiers? I reckon that it'd hold its own.
Camelthorn Gold & Romeo y Julieta No. 1

The beer also came with the local version of beer snacks: a yellow, crunchy yet juicy broad bean-like bean, and tasty black olives. What's even better, with a number of other patrons smoking cigarettes, I felt no compunction against lighting up a mild but flavoursome Romeo y Julieta No.1 to accompany my second beer, the Camelthorn Liquid Gold, which is a refreshing clear, crisp golden lager.  A cleansing ale indeed. The perfect holiday afternoon!

Joe's Beerhouse
160 Nelson Mandela Avenue, Windhoek, Namibia

Joe's Beerhouse is basically your local themed restaurant, specialising in dishes involving local produce, many of them having spent their previous lives pronking around the Namibian bush.  Just take a look at the menu - 'nuff said.

This establishment is a massive place, with multiple rooms stuffed with tables and people feasting on meat, meat and more meat!  We got a  big trestle table for the large contingent of people who'd arrived for my best mate Brandon's wedding - a whole bunch of Russians, a couple of East Germans, and the ubiquitous Aussies.

Anyway, I wasn't allowed to get away with any half-measures.  Brandon insisted that I have the Kudu Knuckle for the "Strong Man" (according to the menu).  I did say that Namibian cuisine has a Germanic influence, didn't I?  Well, this is their local version of Eisbein (or pork knuckle).  You don't need to be a strong man to finish this.  You only need seriously strong abdominal muscles, so that your stomach doesn't rupture if you're foolish enough to force the entire serve of this mammoth piece of meat down.  This was a monster.  It must have weighed 2-3kg.  It certainly felt like that in my gut.  And I have to admit that I only finished two-thirds of it before calling time.  It was either that or risk having my fellow dinner guests wear my pre-chewed meal ...

Of course, a good meal is incomplete without all the accoutrements. Yes, yes, the decor, lighting, service and all that are important (and all of these scored high marks at Joe's).  What I'm talking about is the company.  A great bunch of eclectic people from all around the world, some of whom spoke very little English (fortunately I had been brushing up on my very rusty Russian).  I also made an important discovery - peoples' foreign language skills appear to magically improve dramatically in direct correlation to the amount of alcohol imbibed.  Vladimir (Volva to his friends) and I had a halting start to our conversation, with many repeats of очень хорошо and Вкусно in relation to our food, beer, wine and company.  By the end of the evening, we were earnestly discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the Макаров (Makarov) over the Western 1911 design.

When you add all these things together, this was truly a memorable and enjoyable evening - it was truly Вкусно и красиво!

The Frenchman in Hong Kong - things to do when on a 5 hour stopover

Last night, the Frenchman caught up with old school mate Wu Xi while transiting through Hong Kong on his way to the African continent.

Got at least 4 hours to spare while you're transiting through Hong Kong? Well, don't waste the opportunity under the artificial lighting of the airport (although it must be said that Hong Kong airport is huge and modern, with more than enough things to keep you busy the entire time - it's so large that you need to take trains to get to some piers of the airport!!).

Anyway, be a bit more adventurous and take yourself out throughout customs. It is a breeze and the prospect of a full body cavity search by a rubber gloved customs officer is extremely low, unless you are a sweaty, nervous looking fella with shifty eyes and who looks fat but has a skinny face). 15-20 minutes tops will see you from the door of the plane to the Arrivals Hall.

Before you go out into the Arrivals Hall, there is a little ante-area containing a money changer and a ticket counter for the Hong Kong Express. The Hong Kong Express is a fantastic service which takes you from the airport to Hong Kong Central Station on the north shore of Hong Kong Island in 24 minutes.  And back again. And this train runs every 12 minutes each way.  Now this may be counter-intuitive, but you need to buy the train tickets first before you go to change your money, because the immigration officials won't let you walk back against the flow. Don't worry if you miss this chance to buy tickets - there's another ticket counter in the Arrivals Hall.

Once in Hong Kong Central station, you're in the thick of the action. There's a massive shopping centre / office complex above the station (International Finance Centre, or IFC as the locals call it), and numerous other shopping options are jam-packed within walking distance. It's also a couple minutes walk from Lan Kwai Fong, famous for its streets, lane ways and alleys full of bars and nightclubs. There are also plenty of eating places in this area, ranging for really expensive restaurants with overcapitalised fit-outs, to cheap, cheerful, and (as an added option) even dodgy places.  Put simply, there are more things to do here than the amount of time you have - make sure you allow for at least an hour to get back to the airport, to account for waiting time, train time, customs and security clearance, and a bit of duty free shopping. Oh and did I mention that it might take you as much as 20 minutes to make your way to your boarding gate? Underestimate this time at your peril! Especially since the flights start boarding 15-20 minutes before their scheduled departure.

Minor technicality - I was dressed for an African summer, and only found out when we landed that the temperature in Hong Kong was 10 degrees celsius!!! Fortunately, I was saved by the proliferation of shops - a quick trip to Zara netted me a cheap woollen sweater.
Okay so it doesn't look that busy, but the action starts later, after 10pm

Anyway, Wu Xi and I head to the Lan Kwai Fong area, which is famous for its laneways and streets full of bars.  We grab a pre-dinner drink at Dragon-I, which is located on the first floor of the building next to Centrum on Wyndham Road, and directly across the road from Hotel LKF, a fancy boutique hotel. It is, to my pleasant surprise, a cigar friendly restaurant. The sweet aroma of hand-rolled Cubans wafts through the air as we turned up. This places even turns into a cranking bar later at night that is a favoured haunt of visiting international models.

Note century eggs in the bottom left corner
For dinner, we went to the renowned Wong Chi Kei restaurant. Funny name, seriously good food, at a seriously cheap price.  In the great tacky tradition of Chinese restaurants all over the world, they also had a portion of wall dedicated to photos of minor celebrities who had previously visited (in this instance, I only recognised the former British Governor of Hong Kong). I ordered a Loh Mee (thin egg noodles braised in soy sauce) with braised beef brisket and wontons.  I love the combination of the flavour and texture of Loh Mee, as well as the beef brisket, which was suitably tender and slightly gummy. The wontons were also good - firmly packed minced pork and prawn, which crunched when you bit into them.  Wu Xi, who was a bit crook from the Hong Kong winter, ordered a porridge with shredded chicken and slices of century egg. Which made me decide to get a side dish of century egg, or "pei dan" in the local lingo. Despite its moniker, it's not a hundred years old, but the faint of stomach will swear that it might as well be.  This delicately flavoured egg has been kept in mud for a number of weeks (although the urban myth is that it used to be ripened in horse piss). I for one am glad that this is no longer the prevailing technique. As you can see from the picture, the egg "white" is anything but, and instead approximates a slightly translucent, tasteless, black-grey jelly-like substance.  The yolk is also black, but is more pastey in look and in texture.  It's served with slices of pickled ginger, bits of shredded fresh ginger, and spring onion.  Utterly delicious. If you love it, thank you, and if you hate it, well, what Lady Sovereign said in Love Me or Hate Me.  The fried rice and side dish of fat, juicy mushrooms were also nice, but pale in comparison to the eggs.

The chilli is an interesting study.  Unlike the reasonably spicy chilli oil that we're used to finding in many Perth Chinese restaurants (ground, dried, hot chilli in oil), this one was more savoury/salty than spicy.  This is probably due to the introduction of black beans (and maybe dried fish?) to the mixture.  Still tasty and interesting, but I'd prefer something spicier anyday.

The damage for this feast came up to a measly HK$200 (around AUD30) - the average price of a standard dish at this place ranges from HK$40-60 (or AUD6-9). The additional bonus is the fit-out of the place. It's modern looking (with faux antique Chinese furniture etc), and reverse cycle airconditioning for your culinary comfort! Great value indeed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The new Lamont's Bishops See Restaurant, 235 St George's Terrace, Perth

Tonight, I enjoyed a rare treat indeed.  One of those infrequent combinations of great food, good wine and utterly fantastic and intriguing company that I yearn for in a sublime dining experience.  All at Kate Lamont's newly opened (for a week only!) restaurant at Bishop's See on 235 St George's Terrace.  The funny thing about this place is that it really fronts onto Mounts Bay Road, despite its St George's Terrace address.  So don't be alarmed when you come in off the Terrace looking for it - you'll need to walk all the way to the back of the block.

This is a fantastic example of a heritage restoration.  A grand old house with a new lease of life as a fine dining restaurant.  Despite the overall size, the dining areas fit around the available space in smaller, more intimate settings.  You can even sit on the back patio or on the front balcony.  The room we sat in seemed a bit sparse, though - too many mirrors hanging on the walls (unless, of course, you like to watch yourself).  Probably needs some large artwork, particularly above the beautiful set fireplace - the flower arrangement sitting on the mantlepiece just wasn't big enough to command the size of the room.

Amongst my dining companions were my good friend and mentor Dario, and the ever effervescent and vivacious Lisa.

Most people around the table (as did I) ordered the tempura oysters.  While I am a believer in the eating of freshly shucked, brine-tinged ostriche au naturel, this looked too good to ignore.  And what a good choice indeed (if I may pat my own self-serving back) - soft, plump, juiicy morsels filled with hot juices, skilfully fried in a delicately light tempura batter, then put back in the shell for presentation on the plate.

Lisa ordered the slices of wagyu for her starters.  It is oft said that wagyu can stand being cooked longer than normal beef (and indeed should sometimes be cooked longer), because the extra-high fat contents prevents the meat from drying out too quickly.  Sadly, these cows must have vigorously jogged quite a few laps around the paddock before their innings were called, because the meat was chewy and there was no taste of the juicy, tasty fat with the trademark wagyu richness that one would expect.  I have to say that my griddled Margaret River wagyu slivers which I served at home during the 2008 Festival of Melvo (accompanied by a 1974 Chateau Margaux, I might add) tasted much more like what you'd expect from this dish.

But my main well and truly redeemed.  My duck leg (clearly a slow-cooked confit) was unbelievably tasty.  Subtle hints of spices, succulent, yielding meat falling off the bone, topped with a fresh red cabbage and diced tomato topping (hey I was enjoying the conversation so much I didn't get a chance to read the menu too closely!)

We drank the Lamont's Family Reserve 2007, a red wine made from grapes sourced from a mutliple regions.  It was delicious.  Soft, sweet and slightly spicy - perfect with my duck, surprisingly good with my tempura oysters, and even with the chewy wagyu slices!

Having filched the wine-by-the-glass list to help me with this blog entry (yes I know I should have taken the menu too, given my vague descriptions of the dishes), I can say that it is very impressive, no doubt due to the involvement of Kate Lamont's husband, wine merchant John Jens.  Wines by the glass include Pommery champagne at $19, Picardy Pinot Noir (one of my favourites) at $16, and even a 2001 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz at $22.50 (that would have been a treat, having mellowed out over a few years in the bottle).  Unsurprisingly, the Lamont wines also feature throughout the list.  As I can testify, these are great drinking.

The beer list is short but equally impressive.  Everything from the local Little Creatures offerings, to Weihenstephaner (the oldest brewery in the world), and even some mouth-watering Belgian works of craftsmanship - Blanche de Namur (at 4.5%) and Triple Moine (at 7.3%).

The service was perfect and seamless - someone would always be on hand to fill an empty glass, be it wine or water, and you never had to wait to place your order or to get the bill.

The highlight of dinner, of course, was the camaraderie and relaxed, open and lighthearted conversation that we shared.  Dario and Lisa generously and liberally plied me with sage advice on life, career and love (not necessarily in that order), none of which I will ever publish, of course, but you may see me applying it from time to time.  But mostly we just talked about life, friends, acquaintances, love, philosophy, and even pescatorial events. Lisa told us about one of her favourite books - The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra.  Some of what she was saying really resonated with me - live in the moment, for example.  Time flew by and before we knew it, it was time to go, Monday being well and truly a school night and all.

This was truly one of the best dinners I have enjoyed this year - no pomp, no wank, just friends who enjoy each others' company, speaking freely and honestly in a convival atmosphere, in the setting of a good restaurant with excellent, well-oiled service.  Lean cows and too many mirrors aside, this is a good restaurant that is well worth visiting on multiple occasions (sorry - no photos, as my crapberry's camera is useless in low light conditions).  I'll certainly be back, although it won't necessarily be in a rush.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Emu Pie place, Old Coast Road, Myalup (and Cypress Hill)

There's this place on your left as you drive down South, that you have no doubt noticed on many an occasion.  It's on the Old Coast Road, about a couple of kilometres south of the Settlers Roadhouse (Old Coast Road), and around 140km south of Perth.

It says "Emu Pies", but you can also buy fruit and veg, there's a little picnic area to sit down and chill, and there are even a couple of emus lounging in the paddock.  It's run by a nice old couple.

Well, I had to take a long drive down south to rack up the mileage for my stupid novated lease (otherwise I pay a few grand extra in FBT).  This was after a very big day at Paspaley Polo in the City the day before - try continuously drinking champagne from 11am to 9pm, and tell me how you feel.  When on a long drive feeling slightly hungover, I thoroughly recommend the original Latino rap crew Cypress Hill.  With their long looping slow drum and base rhythms and irreverent lyrics interspersed with clever unexpected synonyms like pork choppers and ultraviolet dream, it really does helps your brain chillax in neutral.  Just don't listen too closely to the lyrics, because they can be slightly disturbing.

Anyway, I got hungry when Be-Real starting rapping about tossing the ham in the frying pan like spam, so I decided to stop at this place instead of driving by, to check out one of their emu pies (you know what they say - a pie is one of the great all-time hangover foods).  It's an interesting thing.  The crust is more akin to a baked bun than your bog-standard pie.  It's not crusty at all - just bready.  Different but but unexpected texture is still enjoyable.

And the meat is minced (like any pie, really) with bits of vege like potato and carrot (of course there has to be carrot, even if you didn't eat any! oh sorry- different topic ...).  But it's got a nice amount of spice, so there is a bit of flavour.  At $6 a pie, I think that it's certainly worth trying once for the novelty, and it's a nice (if early) break for your long drive down to Margaret River or Bridgetown.  Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the pie, but it just doesn't make me go wow.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clarence's, 566 Beaufort Street, Mt Lawley

I popped into Clarence's last week for a pre-Christmas drink with my mate Paige, and will certainly recommend that you check it out.

Not only does it have a great tapas menu of reasonably filling and very tasty morsels, at a reasonable price, it also has a top shelf liquor selection to make any old liquor aficionado shed a tear of joy, and enough tasty chick-drinks (ie cocktails) to keep the girls happy!

We ordered the deep fried school prawns, which came with a generous smear of light, creamy dipping sauce and a wedge of lemon.  I will grant this the Samuel L. Jackson seal of approval - it's not a Big Kahuna Burger, but it's definitely TASTY.  Speaking of which, there were plenty of tasty beverages to wash down the meal.

We also ordered the meat platter, which has a selection of four cured meats and 3 pickled vegie thingees.  There was the thinly sliced rounds of salami-type things - probably coppa.  Nice.  And the slices of jamon.  Also nice.  Then there's the sliced blood sausage - very nice (although Paige would only try a tiny mouthful and refused to eat anymore - more for me I say).  The lightly grilled chorizo was probably the one that we both agreed upon as the tastiest selection.  As for the pickles - the wine-poached pears (at least I think they're pears - it's hard to tell when it doesn't look like a pear.  Maybe apples? How do you like 'em apples?).

Paige grabbing a handful of tasty school prawns
The dishes also came with a generous serve of thick-sliced brown bread.  A great idea is buttering up a bite-sized slice, then heaping a lump of jamon on it, balancing a blood sausage (or chorizo, as the case may be), then popping the whole thing in your mouth and enjoying the flavour combination.

All it took was two dishes and a side of bread to fill our tummies for dinner.  Maybe the drinks helped too ...

Now onto the tasty beverages.  Paige of course went for the chick drinks.  I can't remember too much of it - berries and suchlike, but she loved them.  So if you're a chick, you'll dig it.  I did remember the Aperol Sour, simply because it way my turn to buy - aperol, lemon juice and bitters.  Very refreshing, and an interesting lurid orange colour to boot.  Paige also had a good chat to the bartender chick, who was really into her art, and was chuffed that someone was keen to know more.

For the blokes - interesting range of beers, included a draft cider, and also a draft Kirin Malt. Different indeed.  But the real highlight is the top shelf liquor selection, which makes you feel like a kid in the candy shop (not the 50 Cent type, sadly).  There was a selection of obscure looking rums, so I randomly picked the St James.  It's a delicious sipping rum.  Characteristic toasted caramel, slightly diluted molasses texture and a tart, alcoholic backbone.  So good I made Paige get me another when it was her turn to buy.

Of course, a meal is never the same without good company and conversation.  Paige-o and I enjoy talking animatedly about everything and nothing in general (otherwise known as crap-talking, of which my best mate Brandon and I are trying to elevate to a truly sublime multi-faceted art-form).  I highly recommend that you try it for fun one day soon.  An easy one is to engage in people-watching and comment outrageously on the people around you.  Hey - don't feel bad, they're probably making fun of you too!  Another method is to bring up random incidents which happened to you recently.  As long as you don't take it too seriously, and you keep the commentary interesting, it's usually a winner.  A different level altogether, which I don't recommend for novice crap-talkers, is just to make something up and see how far you can run with it, and how much you can twist the conversation around to resemble nothing like what it started out.  This advanced form of crap-talking can be very satisfying and enjoyable if you are proficient enough to keep it going for a good length of time - kinda like Venus and Serena Williams trading continuous volleys on the tennis court - it is a satisfying achievement regardless of who wins.

As I said, definitely worth trying!  I am certainly planning on going back to sample more of those obscure looking bottles on the top shelf, with or without crap-talking.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Margaret River Venison Farm, 5103 Caves Road

Located on Caves Road just 12km north of the Margaret River is the Margaret River Venison Farm (on the left side if you're driving south). This place ofFers a cornucopia of carnivorous delights. Not just various fresh cuts of Bambi's mum, but also an impressive range of small goods, including venison prosciutto, venison bratwurst, venison boerwors, venison chorizo (this one is spicy), the coat of arms chorizo (cheekily named because of its kangaroo & emu contents), and even emu ham!

Not to worry if you can't make up your mind - free tastings are available for virtually all of the smallgoods on offer.  You can pretty much try before you buy, which I highly recommend, since everything is tasty!  Now if only there was a tasty beverage to wash it down ...

There was also a good variety of delectable cuts of fresh meat to rival your local city bar on a Friday night.   Out of the possible choices which included venison mince, fillets, and even a 1.5kg boneless shoulder, I went for the steaks.  The helpful lad behind the counter offered some useful advice - cook it very hot and fast, because the very low fat content in the venison means that the meat will dry out quickly and become tough and chewy if you overcook it.

Venison steak is a beatiful meat, but needs to be eaten medium rare (or less cooked if you prefer more sanguine steak).  I did my steak on a pre-heated skillet on high heat with a good dollop of olive oil to reduce the risk of the meat sticking to the pan.  Around 30-45 seconds on each side, and then using a tong, I also seared all the edges for around 15 seconds per surface, then leave it on a plate to rest for a minute.  As you can see, it's turned out beautful.  You can pretty much eat the thing on its own, although I opted for a reduced balsamic glaze to accompany it - very easy to make.  After taking the meat out of your pan, take the pan off the heat and pour in around 1-2 tablespoons of good aged balsamic vinegar, depending on how much you'd like.  The residual heat of the pan will cause it to bubble up and reduce.  As it's cooking, scrape up the caramelised bits at the bottom of the pan to mix up the goodness of the venison flavours with the balsamic, and stir it all around.  For an added touch, your can even pour in the juices that have pooled around the steak on the plate.  When it looks reasonably reduced, pour the stuff over your steak, and if you're feeling artistic, you can even drizzle it in a pattern on the plate!  Just don't over-reduce it in the pan, because it will keep thickening for a little while after you pour it out.

A normal table knife cuts through a perfectly cooked steak with ease, and the still juicy morsel just melts in your mouth.  If you need to eat your meat well done, just don't bother.

Friday, November 26, 2010

St Ali, Yarra Place, South Melbourne: expanded food menu

Everytime I visit Melbourne, I try to make an extra special effort to visit my favourite coffee place, St Ali in South Melbourne; not only to savour the coffee and (if time allows) the delicious dishes, but also to stock up on more freshly roasted single estate coffee from around the world.

Right - down to business.  The coffee of the day was a Costa Rican Herbazu (the name of the family farm where it is grown).  According to the board - "sweet, bright and creamy ... juicy with mild apple tartness".  Quite right!  I grabbed a bag of it on the way out, as well as a bag of the Nicaraguan La Bendicion, No. 13 recipient of the Cup of Excellence award.  Both recently roasted a week earlier.

I also noticed that they've seriously expanded their food menu, to include what appeared to be some fairly substantial dishes.

It being breakfast and all, I opted for something less heavy, and scoffed down a light and delicious breakfast of truffled poached eggs (you can see the truffle oil drizzled around the plate as well) on top of serrano ham and asparagus.  A great start to the day indeed.

Mamasita revisited - upstairs 11 Collins Street, Melbourne

I finally had to chance to enjoy some of the fare offered by my favourite Mamasita (not to be confused with my favourite mamacita, of whom there have been several over the years).

Arriving late in Melbourne for another quick visit, my stomach was demanding to be fed, since it was dinner time in Perth, although it was nearly bedtime in Melbourne.  Even in Melbourne, most restaurant kitchens close by 9pm, especially on a school night.  Fortunately, Mamasita stays open until midnight (2am on Fridays and Saturdays).

I perched myself on a barstool at the floating benchtop lining the front wall overlooking Collins Street,  Great for watching the late-night denizens of Melbourne wander past on the street below.

In my previous post, I mentioned the extensive tequila menu.  Well, this time around, I was impressed by the extensive cerveza menu.  No watery Corona or Sol here. I had a Cerveza del Pacifico.  Not cheap at $9, but comparable in price to other imported beers, and a refreshing, flavoursome drink that was most welcome after a long flight.

As for food, I went for a $14 Quesadilla de Res, a medium-sized dish of two soft tortilla pancakes (is that what you call it?) with melted cheese and chilli braised beef in between, and freshly grated cheese liberally piled on top, with lashings of some dark chilli-spiced sauce.  Delicious!  Still feeling slightly hungry, I took the waiter's (I don't think they use the word "waitress" anymore) advice and got a Tacos de Camarones - marinated prawns with habanero chillies and chipotle almond salsa.  Three fat, firm and juicy prawns in a soft taco, topped with a lime wedge.  Good value at $7.  Or you could get three of them for $18.

The other fantastic thing for chilliphiles like me is the selection of two MExican habanero sauces - a red and green.  Interestingly, the green one (with a slightly alarming flourescent green hue) is hotter.  They're both nicely textured, thick enough to be easy to mop up with your forkful of quesadilla, but not so watery that it spreads all around the plate.  And the familiar habanero burn creeps up on you, with the heat hitting you in the back of the mouth instead of on your lips and the front palate like other chillies.  I was soon sweating liberally despite the cool Melburnian weather.

The service was fantastic - friendly, chatty staff who were always around whenever you wanted to order something or get the bill.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Good One Chinese Restaurant - reader feedback!

Cath C, one of my loyal readers, decided to eat at The Good One in East Victoria Park, and told me just yesterday that the roast duck there is quite possibly the best that she's had!  Being prepared so that there was no fat left between the skin and the meat, allows the skin to crisp up beautifully during roasting.  And being a native French speaker, but of course she knows all about good food.

Thank you Cath for giving it a try and telling me about it.  Knowing that I have helped in some minute way to enhance the lives of my fellow budding or full-blown gourmandises (as the case may be) lets me know that I am not wasting my efforts with this blog.

To the rest of you readers out there - please do give me feedback whenever you try one of the restaurants (or other things) which I've reviewed, and let me know what you think - feel free to post comments!

Clarke's of North Beach - a seriously fine dining BYO restaurant!

This is an unbelievable find, I must say.  So good that I'm happy to make the long drive to 97a Flora Terrace in North Beach, Western Australia (okay so it's a 20 minute drive, but that's long by my standards!) again tomorrow night for a dinner put on by Stephen Clarke (who was once the personal chef to the Earl & Countess of Leicester, and also cooked for the Queen and Prince Phillip).  If you want a serious culinary experience delivered by a seriously good, multiple award-winning chef, Clarke's of North Beach is the place to go.

On my first visit last week, I caught up with my best mate Brandon who's back in town for a few weeks.  Angela was kind enough to drive us there and drop us off, and to come back to pick us up!

Okay, I'll let the pictures do most of the talking, since I remembered to take a few shots.

So what did we have?

I remarked to Brandon that everything on the menu looked so good - only if the food sold on Czech pricing, we'd do what we did at Spindleruv Mlyn and order 2 entrees and 2 mains each, and then worry about how to finish it all off (in case you're curious - our Czech meal cost less than AUD100 altogether, including wines, despite our wanton gluttony).

An amuse bouche of strawberry ice-cream served in a minature waffle cone and topped with crispy caramelised balsamic vinegar crystals.

For entree: a little display of marron, celery sorbet, celery-salted popcorn and marron panacotta (which looked like a bit of a light pate).  Strange bedfellows at first glance, but the flavours truly work together!  There was even a little marron claw in the line up.

For my main: Sous vide of salmon - he's clearly had far greater success than my feeble attempt at this delicate art of vacuum cooking.  The fish is cooked evenly all the way through, yet it is unbelievably moist, pink and juicy, with absolutely no dry bits at all!
A mini creme brulee for pre-dessert (now this course is certainly a concept that a hobbit would appreciate, along with second breakfast and elevenses).

Clarkes even does a good after-dinner
coffee, which is amazingly hard to
find even in fine-dining restaurants!
A tasty selection of cheeses for dessert - but the remarkable thing is the stuff that accompanies the cheese - not your usual bunch of muscatels and wafer crackers, no sirree!  Try red wine poached pear, fennell and apple salad; and the Bouche D'affinois is gently heated in a little copper pot to get it soft and thickly runny, and served with homemade rye bread.

The service was excellent, as you would expect from a top notch restaurant, and is courteous, professional and unobtrusive without being snooty. They're young but well-trained, friendly people.

$4 a head corkage is unbelievable value for the quality of glassware and service you get - the waitstaff will pour your wines for you when it's time for another glass.  Many lesser restaurants will have the cheek to hit you with a $10 charge, give you what looks suspiciously like Ikea glassware (or worse a goblet), and allow you the privilege of pouring your own wine.  If you want your wine decanted, it's an extra $10, but probably a good idea if you've got a fresh young shiraz that's exploding with tannins; or if you have that well aged treasure from your cellar, which needs some air for the build up of sulphur to blow off.

As for me, I brought my precious original Super Tuscan - the Tignanello.  This was a most drinkable bottle of wine - savoury plummy earthy flavours, silky soft mouthfeel, finished off with persistent fine and long lasting tannins.  It was so well made that we didn't really notice the tannins until towards the end of the bottle (which came rather fast because it was so easy to drink!), when the cumulative tannic build-up on the palate finally because noticeable.  It certainly had a few more years (at least) left in it, alhough it was already drinking beautifully at 7 years.

I can't wait to eat at Clarke's again tomorrow, when Stephen will be working his team hard to churn out an even more memorable and delicious dining experience!

Tak Kee: Cheap, Cheerful & Delicious Chinese food at Dog Swamp, WA

CB, one-time county cricketer and all-round good sportsman, gave me a hard time the other day because I hadn't recently reviewed any restaurants at the cheap end of the price range. It is therefore fortuitous that my best mate's old man told him of this cheap and cheerful Chinese takeaway joint that served what he claimed to be the best Char Kuay Teow (a kind of wok fried noodle dish) in Perth. A bold claim indeed! I had no choice but to make the long trek North of the river (ok so it's only 15 minutes' drive away, but I'm sure that my fellow Southerners would understand ...)  So anyway - CB, this one's for you mate.

Tak Kee is located in the suburban Flinders Square shopping centre, which is next to the Dog Swamp Shopping Centre, on Wiluna Street off Charles Street (just before it merges into Wanneroo Road). Why they call it Dog Swamp is a mystery to me. Sure there may even have been a swamp ages ago, but how many dogs needed to have been roaming around for it to earn that moniker?  I'm sure Dylan would have something to say about that, since there are apparently large packs of dogs roaming the streets where he works, but maybe that's merely a Dylanesque claim.

This is certainly no fine dining venue, but you don't need to be waited upon hand and foot to enjoy a fantastic dining experience. There is space in this little joint for a handful of tables, in case you wanted to enjoy the atmosphere. Ubiquitous plastic tables and chairs abound, and there is a perennial queue of people waiting to order food, or pick up their takeaway orders.

Because Brandon and I crapped on while Angela looked upon us with infinite patience, it took us a while to realise that table service meant that they only deliver the food to your table - food hall rules apply.

So we got up to order at the counter.  Alas - during our 10 minute discourse, there would have been no more than 1 or 2 people waiting at the counter, but as Murphy's Law would have it, we were suddenly smack bang in the middle of rush hour, and finally got to order 10 minutes later.  We took solace from the fact that there were a serious number of people patiently milling around the counter in a jostle-free manner, waiting to order or to pick up their orders - the food must be good.

And here's a tip: if you've brought a bottle of wine (like any self-respecting Chinese restaurant, this place is BYO), be sure to bring your own glasses, because they keep their handful of wine glasses in the storeroom.

Now for the good part!  The food came out within a fraction of the time it took us to order, and was freshly cooked.  The char kuay teow was mandatory, given the claim made to us, and being laksa aficionados, we also went with the laksa. The last dish was the Singapore Rochore mee (egg noodles cooked in prawn stock).  All were superb indeed, in their own particular style.

The char kuay teow was different from your run-of-the-mill version.  The broad, flat rice noodles were actually plump and moist, not quite what you'd expect from a stir fry.  But it did have the authentic smoky aroma and flavour of something freshly scooped out of a super-hot wok.  I'm not sure I'd call it the best in Perth, but it's certainly pretty damn good!

The curry laksa was quite delicious.  It came in a much thicker soup that I expected - virtually gravy like in its rich, thick consistency.  But delightfully flavoursome.  I don't think that it displaces the Newton Circle (Sidewalk foodhall, Carillon City) from its pole position, but there's nothing wrong with this dish.  I'd happily order this again.

And finally, the rochore mee was the best I'd tasted in many years - better even than those I'd eaten in Singapore during my last couple of visits.  In my eternal quest for the ultimate rochore mee, this is as close as I've gotten so far!  The moist, juicy noodles are swimming in a shallow pool of delicious prawn broth, which has a ... well, prawny, but slightly sweet, flavour.  The lone calamari was slightly suspect, reeking like a hairy guy who's just played frantic outdoor basketball for an hour in the Perth summer sun, but I gamely downed it, and am happy to report that no gastro-intestinal tracts were harmed in the process (nor, for that matter, were any said tracts irritated to the point of liquefying their contents).  Maybe avoid the calamari if you have a weak constitution.

The thing to note about this place is that they shut at 8pm, so you need to make sure you get there early if you want to dine-in.  However, the people who run this place are friendly, hospitable folk from Hong Kong and Malaysia.  Because of our failure to comprehend the ordering rules, it was 8pm when we got our food.  And rather than make us feel like we needed to scoff it down, they put up the closed sign but encouraged us to take our time in savouring the food.  I guess you could say that we experienced the Chinese restaurant equivalent of a lock-in!  And once the shop was closed, they put on their choice of Chinese music - some fast-paced Chinese opera-style singing with synthesisers or the like ...  We were even given a complimentary treat at the end of our meal - deep fried flour balls rolled in sesame seeds (and cooked in peanut oil).  So fresh that steam puffed out when we bit into these delicious morsels.

And to top it all off, the chef even turned up to ask us about our food, like you'd expect in a fine dining restaurant.

This is truly a fantastic place to visit if you feel like a bit of Asian food, and want something that tastes great, but on a reasonable budget.  At an average price of $12.50 per dish, you're not going to need your credit card.  I'm planning on going back on a Saturday to try their Saturday specials, which includes a Penang Assam Laksa and a Lor Bak (5 spice pork belly) - stay tuned for further culinary adventures at Tak Kee!