Saturday, December 31, 2011

Craft Victoria - little curios and treasures at 31 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

One of the things I love about Melbourne is the fact that you can have a wander down all these laneways in the city and stumble upon something that even locals haven't heard about.

During one of my ramblings, I came across the Craft Victoria store at 31 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (at the east end of the CBD, in between Spring and Exhibition Streets).

This is one of those collective retail stores, who sell goods produced by a whole bunch of Victorian craft workers and artists.  The little retail store contains a cornucopia of little trinkets and treasures; while most items are clearly "chick things" like earrings and jewellery, there are sculptures, the occasional cufflinks, and more importantly for me, unique handmade pieces of tableware.

I fell in love immediately with the Gelato range of little cups, bowls and saucers handmade by Jill Symes, which had literally just arrived in-store earlier that week.  Now Jill isn't some backyard artist who is just doing this to earn some pocket money - she has completed commissions for the likes of Crown Towers Hotel in Melbourne and the Pinnacle Apartments in Sydney, she has designed and made tableware for restaurants and cafes, and has been in the trade for over 30 years.  Just google "Jill Symes Pottery" and you'll get an entire page of relevant hits.  Imagine having the creations of a master artist in your house, not just for display, but to serve up stuff to my guests as well!

Here is my little collection of pieces from Jill Symes (each signed at the bottom), which I have earmarked to go with my coffee (I must confess that the espresso cup and saucer are Ikea) - a little milk jug, a biscotti from Phillipa's and walnuts from Coles.  The coffee was a single estate Kenyan from St Ali.  Not cheap at $10-26 per piece, but worth every cent.  What struck me at first sight were the soft pastel colours glazed on the inside of each piece - eye candy indeed.

Next time you're in Melbourne, spoil yourself and buy some art for your kitchen!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lapa, Brazilian Restaurant in Subiaco (Perth, Western Australia)

20 December 2011

Chicken medallions wrapped
in deliciously crisp bacon!
I happened to chance upon Lapa with one of my besties, Simon, one evening when we had been smoking too many cigars and imbibing too much single malt, and suddenly realised that we had missed dinner and were starving. I had also inadvertently got another mate Frank in trouble with the missus in the process (something about getting home later than expected - why don't wives understand that sometimes we need to make sacrifices when talking business? "Baby I do this for you, not for me" should be all that needs to be said).

It was only the second day since Lapa officially opened, and they were extremely obliging about letting us in, given the fact that it was already past 10pm when we turned up.  Wow, a Perth restaurant that keeps its kitchen open after 10pm.  Sad to say, that is truly something special and rare - rarer indeed than the limited edition cigars and vintage single malt that we were consuming beforehand.

This is certainly a place that has been designed to impress and entertain.  As soon as you are seated, you can't help noticing the sleek stainless steel designer kitchen through the massive viewing window.  For those patrons sitting farther away, there's a TV screen to ensure that you don't miss the in-kitchen action.  When you sit down, you notice the Lapa-branded meat knive that tells you that you're in a serious meat restaurant.  And you have to wonder what the little tongs are for ...

Click on the picture for a higher res pic
The dinner menu is a $49 a head fixed price affair, but we enjoyed a special opening price of $32.50. There is a mind-boggling and stomach bursting range of dishes to choose from.  All the meats have been barbecued on huge steel skewers, and the chef brings them around to your table for your perusal.  If you want some of it, he slices a chunk off for you. And that is when you use your tong, to grab the loose end of the meat so that it doesn't fall off onto the table when it's separated completely from the motherlode on the skewer.   Every once in a while, someone else brings around a trolley laden with a monstrous slab of beef ribs and obligingly offers to slice off choice morsels for you.

With 16 different varieties of meat, including Argentinian scotch fillet, lamb rump, southern Brazilian kebab (yes you can eat this), pork sausages, pork belly ribs, lamb chop loin and chicken parmesan,  this is truly a carnivore's nirvana.  All perfectly cooked, ranging from medium rare to rare, depending on the particular meat and cut - overall, still pink and juicy, but certainly not spurting like an arena scene from a Spartacus episode when you cut into it.  Simon also made the observation that you would always get a piece of meat which was seared on one side, so you could enjoy the slightly crisp barbecue goodness.

The stand out meat dish would have to be the chicken medallions.  Beautifully cooked tender and juicy boneless medallions of chicken wrapped in bacon which has been perfectly barbecued to deliver a crisp and crunchy, yet still moist, textural and flavoural counterpoint.

For those who are less enthusiastic about walking away from the dinner table with a gutful of red meat, the side dishes on their own represent a complete vegetarian meal that will leave your hunger happily sated.  Potato salad, garden salad, Brazilian salad, black beans Brazilian style in a thick rich sauce, white rice which is traditionally eaten with the black beans, steamed vegetables, two types of lasagna (the cheese lasagna is unbelievably delicious in the way that only a truly unhealthy dish can be).  And the highlight - a whole barbecued pineapple on a skewer from which the chef would carve generous slivers for you at the table.

And did I mention the more-ish cheesy bread that is invitingly warm and soft inside?

As if all of this wasn't enough, the staff generously offered to bring all the dishes around again for another round.  I had to decline, although Simon did go for more chicken medallions and scotch fillet.  And that reminds me: don't you hate it when you go to a buffet or all-you-can-eat restaurant and there's a sign that you'll be charged for uneaten food?  Well, dining should be a joyous experience, and these types of fun-police ideas have no place in a decent establishment.  That's one of the things I love about Lapa: not only do they encourage you to eat more, they even give you a "graveyard plate" where you can jettison those meats that you so ambitiously took, but suddenly realise that it's going to end in tears if you forced yourself to finish it.  As you can see, after an initial (but brief) moment of embarrassment at wasting food, we shamelessly utilised the graveyard plate.
The Graveyard Plate

Dessert isn't included in the fixed price deal, but there's no way you could fit it in after sampling most of the dishes, unless you wanted to risk a Mr Creosote moment.  On my next visit, I shall resolve to exercise a modicum of restraint so as to leave some room ...

Towards the end of the meal, we finally tweaked to the advice that our waiters were kindly dispensing, that the idea wasn't to try to eat everything put in front of you, but just to go for a handful of choices, and leave the rest for the next visit.  Wise advice, but I felt obliged to put my body on the line so that I could provide a more complete report.

Click on the picture for a higher res pic
The wine selection was small and simple with all wines coming in under $70 a bottle, but there is some really good quality there, both from Australian (including the likes of Elderton and Pirathon) and South American producers.  We opted for the $65 bottle of Tikal Jubila from Argentina.  Described as "the ultimate expression of joy", how could we resist?  We were served the 2007 vintage, and it was indeed a silky smooth affair with rich, sweet, dark berry and currant flavours which were perfect for the heavy, full-flavoured meats we were eating.

You must also be wondering about the quality of the service, since all-you-can-eat restaurants generally don't seem to boast staff with a high level of training and experience.  Well, these guys were great.  It's not silver service, but the staff all took the time to present and explain the various dishes that came around, ask us how our meal was going, encourage us to ask questions about the food, and made us feel great about our brief foray into gluttony.  You couldn't ask for more!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Coffee report - La Providencia, Atitlan, Guatamela

Yet another fine single estate coffee sourced from my favourite coffee joint on Howard Street.  The funny thing is, I still haven't figured out what their name really is.  Ristretto on Howard Street?  Howard Street Cafe?  Who knows.  What's in a name anyway?  You just need to know that this is the font of good coffee in Perth.  Freshly roasted on the premises in small batches.

The farmer is one Juan Francisco Pira.  His farm is La Providencia, located in the mountainous region of Atitlan, Santiago Atitlan, Solola, which is some 40-50km due west of Guatemala's eponymous capital and some1,500 metres above sea level.  Interestingly, when you google-map it, the first thing you notice is the Mystical Yoga Farm across the bay of the Lago de Atitlan (lake, in case you were wondering).  Almost makes you want to travel there just to find out how mystical it might be.

Well, there's certainly something mystical about my bag o' beans.  Roasted less than 2 weeks ago on 9 December 2011, it's certainly in the sweet zone, but I'm still trying to find the right grind and pack (no not a technical term, just made up by me) for it.  This time around, I fill my 14g double basket to the rim and tamp it gently but firmly, being a bit worried that if I pack it too hard, it'll unduly inhibit the water flow.  The beans in the bag have an aroma of savoury nuttiness and crushed Oreos, and when ground, the Oreos become more dominant, but do I detect the fragrance of durian as well?  Yeah I know it sounds crazy, but it's there.

The guys from the Cafe at Howard Street
making the most of a CHOGM
barricade in October 2011 ...
When I flick the water switch on my faithful Miss Silvia, the coffee literally bursts out in frothing, pulsing gouts of light brown coloured liquor.  Wow.  This continues for a while and I don't want to stop, because the good stuff just keeps coming out, but stop I must, and do so at 15 seconds.  Even then my espresso cup is nearly half full.

The coffee has a thick, smooth and creamy texture, and doesn't disappoint in the mouth.  Not a strong flavour, and no bitterness, just a sweet, smooth taste with a citrus backbone.  Nice dry finish.  You'd think I was talking about wine.  Hey, it's 10am in the morning and even that would be pushing it for me to have a glass of wine.  So I make do with coffee.  Good coffee.  Like wine.  Mmm.  I might go make another cup, this time with a firmer pack.  Or then again, what have I got in the cellar? ...

Post note (22 Dec 2011): I popped into the Cafe yesterday to try this coffee on-premise, and interestingly, it came out in a more condensed format with oily rich dark crema, and a slightly more intense flavour (but still tending to the smooth, sweet and lighter side).  Interesting how all of the little factors, from the fineness of the grind, how hard you tamp the puck, how hot the water is, how long since the beans were roasted, all make a difference.  Scott, one of the baristas at the Cafe, commented that everytime they change the beans for a grinder, it would take quite a few goes to get it just right.  To put it in perspective, I would estimate this to be 50-100g worth of beans - that's a big chunk out of your standard 250g retail bag!  And we just turn up and down it in one gulp ... I hope that this gives you a little bit more appreciation of the effort and skill that goes into this art next time you shell out the $3-3.50 for your cup of coffee.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dry River Pinot Noir 2001 & 2002 vertical tasting + foie gras from La Parisienne Pate, Melbourne

Sorry, it's been a long while since I've had the time to catch up on my mountainous backlog of articles, but here's one to tide you over.

I've had these two bottles of Dry River Pinot Noir sitting in my cellar for many years.  You know how it is?  You have a prize bottle(s) of wine, and want to drink it, but want to wait for that special occasion that befits the quality of the wine, but it never seems to be the right time.  And it's even worse when those bottles happen to be rare like the proverbial hen's teeth, and even worse when you have a vertical collection that really needs to be drunk at the same time, to appreciate the nuances between the vintages.  But then, you can't drink it alone, or even with another person, because there's more wine than can be sensibly drunk and still appreciated.

Thus it was with my 2001 and 2002 vintages of the Dry River Pinot Noir, hailed by some as the best New Zealand pinot, and one of the best in the world.

Well, I got tired of waiting in vain, so I dropped my standards and quietly resolved to crack them open at the first remotely appropriate opportunity, since the perfect opportunity might not come by before the wines went downhill, not because they're not made to last (because they are), but because I may not have looked after them properly (speaking of which, I drank a 1985 Moss Wood Pinot Noir with good mate Ben (aka Harry Potter to some) the other day, and it was still superb, but that's another story).

So when my best mate Brandon and Ben, both of whom are red wine aficionados, popped over last week for a bit of a catch-up, I pounced on the opportunity.

In my fridge, I discovered the perfect accompaniment to pinot - a chunk of foie gras, which I had purchased from La Parisienne Pates (290 Lygon Street, Carlton, Victoria) when I was in Melbourne the week before.  An aside: La Parisienne Pates has the most delightful array of pates and terrines.  But even better, it sells foie gras in all shapes and sizes.  You can buy it in a tin, but why bother when it's also available as an entire lobe?  In my case, I opted for a slightly more sensible $26 vacuum wrapped chunk about the size of my fist, which was enough for 3 generous, thick servings.  I gave them a quick fry on each side on high heat, just enough to develop a thin layer of toasty crust; and served them up accompanied by fresh crusty bread from Lawley's Bakery at (where else?) 562 Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley, Western Australia.  Yes I know I am supposed to feel bad about how the foie gras was made, but it tastes sooo good - the light crispy texture of the fried surface giving way to an unbelievably thick, creamy and rich mouthful, whose taste can only be described as "foie gras".

Anyway, back to the wines.  Both bottles were in fantastic condition, and with my two pronged butler's friend, I didn't need to roll the dice with the structural integrity of the corks - I managed to extract them with the wax seal intact!

We decided to drink both at the same time in order to have the best opportunity to compare them.  Amazingly, it was a case of apples and oranges!

The 2001 was like your traditional powerful antipodean pinot noir - a nose of leathery, earthy forest floor; a first taste of woody, leathery, mushroomy and savoury flavours with hints of blackcurrant slipping through the forest like a wil' o' wisp; heavy velvet in the mouth.  Harry reckons there was tobacco as well, and I think he's right.  Despite its age, it still had a strong tannic structure which ended with a dry finish that lingered long after the wine had been swallowed, leaving behind a gift of ephemeral vanilla.  We all agreed that it was a little bit challenging at the start (we forgot to decant ...) but  as the wine breathed in our glasses, it gradually loosened up and became a lot more approachable.

The 2002, on the other hand, was a completely different kettle of fish. A light, fragrant pinot noir perfume greeted the nose, faintly reminiscent of a Vosne Romanee I enjoyed years ago.  So delightful that I could have just kept sniffing away for another good 10 minutes, but I got thirsty.  My sip was followed by fresh, citrus flavours of redcurrants with blueberry sweetness, with a zippy yet full mouthfeel.  It too finished dry, but in a different way, with a fresh tartness that wasn't present in the 2001.

Both wines still felt like they could have developed in the bottle for many more years, with strong, lively but not overpowering tannins, nicely balanced against the cornucopia of flavours that delighted, and at times challenged, the nose and palate.

So there you have it.  Both wines were delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, but so different.  Like a sultry brunette and a vivacious blonde.  Apples and oranges, but you'd happily eat both, separately or at the same time ...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Revisited: Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB)

The worst things about commercial air travel through Africa happen when you have connecting flights.  And the thing that can make or break your experience with connecting flights is the transit airport.

I am quite confident in saying that Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa is the best airport to be waiting in transit for your connecting flight.

In my previous review on O.R. Tambo International Airport, or JNB as it's known in airline speak, I wrote about how much better it is to be landside, because there's a huge variety of cafes and restaurants to while away your time.

This supplementary article offers a few more tips for your trip if you happen to be transiting through O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa:

Tip #1: Allow at least 2 hours between your scheduled arrival time and the departure time of your connecting flight.  You never know when they might refuse to check your baggage all the way through to your final destination, in which case you need to clear customs, collect your bag, go landside, and dodge the porters and taxi drivers waiting inside the terminal, just outside the big glass sliding doors that separate airside from landside.  Just shake your head and say no, and walk straight ahead to the far wall where the big lifts are waiting to take you upstairs to the check-in counters).  It's very easy if you stay calm and don't talk to anyone trying to carry your bags.

Tip #2: If they refuse to check your baggage through to your final destination, look on the bright side.  There is a duty free shop just next to the baggage carousels with fairly cheap liquor.  Buy something nice to enjoy on the other side, and stick it into your checked baggage when you get it off the carousel.  Then you can check it in again complete with liquor!

The only catch is that unless your connecting flight is South African Airways, check-in will only open 2-3 hours before the flight's scheduled departure time.  If you have a few hours to kill before the check-in counter opens, go to Tip #4.

Oh, and if you have less than 2-3 hours before your next flight, check your bags in first before you go looking for a restaurant.  Might as well get the semi-traumatic stuff out of the way (did I mention that they'll weigh both your checked-in baggage as well as your carry-on bag, before they'll even let you through to the counter?  South African Airways imposes a 7kg limit on carry-ons.  Heck - a rollaboard bag itself is around 3kg when empty ...)

Tip #3: Even if you manage to check your bags through to your final destination, if you have at least 2 hours to kill, it might be worthwhile clearing customs just to enjoy a bit of a stroll and a sit in the sun.  When the immigration officer asks you what you're doing, just say that you're transiting.  Thousands of people do that everyday in this airport.  They'll happily give you a transit visa.  In Africa, less is more.  Don't go developing verbal diarrhoea all of a sudden and elaborate on why you want to go airside, unless you want to be embarrassingly turned away or be stuck at the booth for half an hour while they grill you.

Tip #4: If you need something decent to eat, go landside (see Tip #3), if you don't already need to do so because you had to collect your checked luggage to re-check them back in.  The airside "restaurant" (more like a tarted up cafeteria), specialising in overpriced greasy food, is only something you would inflict upon yourself if you had less than 2 hours to kill before your connecting flight and you absolutely had to eat something.  The food is much more reasonably priced in the landside restaurants.

Once you are landside, go to the level in between the arrival and departure levels and find a comfortable place to plonk yourself down in.  I recommend Mugg & Bean.  They make a very nice Red Coffee, which is a mix of rooibos and coffee.  Worth a try!

On the other hand, if you need some fresh-ish air, or need a smoke after a semi-traumatic check-in experience, go to Tip #5.

Mandie's Place, Johannesburg Airport - alfresco area
Tip #5: If you do get to go landside and are after some sunlight, turn right when you get out, and walk towards the Terminal A end of the airport.  At the very far end, you will find Mandie's Place, a restaurant/bar/cafe which sports a huge alfresco area overlooking the on ramp for departure drop-offs.  Of course, any outdoor dining area in Africa has to be shared with smokers (you need to face up to that reality), and my response is to light up a big fat stogie and produce great amounts of fragrant Cuban smoke to counteract the acrid smell of cigarettes.

Mandie's Place also does a decent breakfast, and even has a really nice coffee (although consistency of coffee quality is an issue you have to live with when travelling through Africa).

Tip #6: Allow at least 30 minutes to get back through security and immigration to airside.  And don't dawdle around outside the security queue, otherwise the guard will try to weight your carry on bag again (it's not heavier than 7kg is it?).

Tip #7: If you want to get internet access or find somewhere nice to sit down and chill, go to the Shongolongo or Mashonzo lounges.  You can pay USD20-30 for entry, and the wifi is free and relatively fast.  They also have a computer terminal with internet access, but you may have to queue.  These lounges are usually at less than half-capacity, so there is plenty of space.  What's even better, all drinks are free, including beers, spirits and juices.  They even have an automatic coffee machine which makes decent coffee by automatic machine standards.  Better than the inconsistent crap you will get if you buy a coffee from the cafeteria (see tip #4).  The food is not flash, but is individually prepared and wrapped, so it's as hygienic as it gets, especially after you nuke it in the microwave.  Or wash it down with Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum like I do.  Choose your own adventure, I say!

Mashonzo Lounge smoking area - plush!
Tip #8: If you're not squeamish about sharing indoors with smokers, the Mashonzo lounge has an amazingly plush indoor smoking area, complete with extractor fans (I think) and a sliding glass door that separates it from the rest of the lounge.  The good thing is that you have a heck of a lot more privacy in the smoking area, and there is hardly anyone in there.

Tip #9: Did anyone mention that they don't announce it over the PA when a flight is boarding?  Also, don't take the risk of waiting until you see your flight announced as boarding on the screen.  That usually means that by the time you get to the gate (and it could be a good 10 minutes away), you're too late and they've closed the flight and are unloading your checked baggage.  Get to the boarding gate by the boarding time stated on your boarding pass.  Even if you have to wait a little bit longer, it's better than missing your plan.  Trust me, I've been there, and you don't want to do it if you can help it!

I know that this article hasn't contained much content on culinary delights, but it is an airport after all.  Very few airports offer true culinary delights (like Hong Kong International Airport), so think of this article as minimising the culinary (as well as other assorted) trauma that you will experience while air-transiting through Africa.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coffee from the shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda

When I was recently in Rwanda, I paid a visit to the Simba Supermarket in Kigali city centre (just north of the main Kigali roundabout) that purveyor of fine local foods and produce, to pick up my usual stash of Rwandan leaf tea and, of course, a large supply of Akabanga chilli oil for friends and family.  Many expats prefer 24 hour Kenyan supermarket chain Nakumatt just down the road, because of its "Western" style bright lighting, shiny floors and displays, but I can't go past Simba, which is more down to earth and keeps it real.

As I wandered through the aisles, I spotted this extremely rare thing by African supermarket standards - a bag of whole coffee beans!  Almost all bags of coffee I've seen in African supermarkets are pre-ground, which is great if you have a plunger or percolator, but disappointing if you have your own grinder and quality coffee machine, be it a manual or automatic model.  So I decided to take a chance, for the princely sum of around RWF 3,000 (around AUD 5), even though the packet didn't tell you when it had been roasted - just a use-by date of Aug 2012.

What also got me was that this coffee was harvested, roasted and packaged by COOPAC, a Rwandan collective of over 2,000 individual small farms in the mountainous regions overlooking the shores of Lake Kivu (which also happens to be near where the famous silverback gorillas live, in the Volcanoes National Park)!

Are you lookin' at me?!!
Well, I'm finally back home and have had the chance to check it out.  Put simply, this coffee is amazing.  It was probably roasted as early as 3 months ago in August, but might as well have been roasted the week before I picked it up off the supermarket shelf.

The liquor that poured out of the group handle's twin fonts was thick, incredibly dark, and slow running.  Because I use a 14g double basket, it took me 3 tries to get it right.  The first two times, I either put in too much coffee or tamped it too hard, and only got a slow drip, albeit after the requisite 5-6 seconds.  On the third try, I stopped the coffee level just a smidge below the lip, and only tamped it gently, relying mostly on the weight of my solid steel Rancilio tamper to tamp it down.  I only pulled it for 20 seconds instead of the more conventional 25 seconds, because I like a fresher taste.

As you can see, it still looks fresh and bubbly in the cup, with a rich, thick, dark crema.  Here's what I got:

  • First sniff - hints of licorice in the nose.
  • First sip - a complex blend of layers.  Big citrus notes, dark chocolate (but not bitter), with a hint of something that was really hard to pick - probably closer to cardamon than licorice?
  • With the rest of the drink, more fresh citrus, backed up by a deep choco-coffee flavour and nose.
  • And wow - this flavour has some length.  I'm still tasting choc-coffee as I write this review, 5-6 minutes after I've finished the cup.

And there you have it - next time you're in a supermarket in Rwanda, and see a bag of coffee beans on the shelf, buy it!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More coffee musings – Valentin Choquehuanca Bolivia and 5 senses Colombian Blend

A couple of months ago, I ran out of coffee on Friday and didn’t get a chance to head into the city to purchase a special care package from Ristretto in Howard Street.

So in desperation, I took a chance and went to the local deli to try to find something.  And find something I did.  While I am naturally suspicious of the coffee found on supermarket or deli shelves (because you never know how long they've spent there), the 5 Sense Colombian Roast caught my eye, described on the vacuum sealed pack as “Smooth, Sweet & Complex”.  This on its own wouldn’t impress me, but what did is that the back of the bag had a date stamp – not of the “expiry date” (which is a misnomer for coffee lovers, since it’s usually a year longer than the 4-6 weeks maximum before all the good flavours start to fall flat), but the date of roasting, which was less than two weeks ago.  Now that did impress me!

At $12 a pack, it wasn’t cheap, but I decided to take a chance (and had no choice anyway if I was to drink home-made coffee that weekend).

After ...
5 Senses Colombian
Wow, this is a nice coffee!  It was indeed smooth and sweet, and perhaps not as complex as the single estate stuff I’ve been spoiling myself with (for example, no bright, citrusy undertones), but still sporting creamy cocoa flavours with hints of caramel.  I drank it over the course of two and a half weeks, and the flavours did develop, which is what I love about good coffee.  In this case, the cocoa became more pronounced and the flavours more robust as time passed.

Now this doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying special beans from far flung parts of the world, but it’s certainly no poor cousin.  5 Senses is good stuff indeed.

Speaking of exotic beans, just the other day, as I was running out of my bag of 5 Senses, I did manage to make a run into Ristretto in Howard Street and procured myself a bag of freshly roasted stuff from the farm of Valentin Choquehuanca in Bolivia – a 3-time Cup of Excellence finalist.
Bolivian single estate

This particular bag o’ beans didn’t make the Cup of Excellence cut-off, but it was still amazing.  Straight out the gates in a thick, bubbly froth, and it was thick crema in the cup all the way to the bottom  Ahhhh.  Bright, bold citrus notes, dark chocolate and sweet caramel.  And caramel on the nose even at the finish.  Wow.  Check out the thickness in the picture, complete with rough bubbles showing the freshness of the roast.  If you can bag one of these babies at Ristretto, make sure you do!  They might already all be gone, but you never know if you never try.  And even if it’s sold out, they are sure to have some equally delightful, freshly roasted, single estate treasure to sell you.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hobba Coffee and Kitchen, Prahran, Victoria

No trip to Melbourne is complete without catching up with my best chick mate Jacqui and her bloke Marc, who are also fellow foodies (that's why they chose to live in Melbourne, after all).

The other reason I love catching up with them (other than the scintillating conversation and great company) is that they're always on the lookout for a great new restaurant to savour.

So it was that we came to Hobba Coffee and Kitchen at 428 Malvern Road, Prahran on a Saturday morning, each of us nursing hangovers from different festivities the night before, and each of us really needing that first coffee hit of the day.  You guessed it, no scintillating conversations, at least not until coffees arrived and were gulped down.

The minimalist, almost spartan warehouse setting is home to the most culinarily exquisite breakfast selection I've ever come across!  Normally when you think of a cooked breakfast, you think of a down to earth selection of hearty fried stuff.  But not this place.  The eggs are baked for 2 hours at 60 degrees celsius, still wobbly and glistening when it's put in front of you.  So perfect that poaching doesn't even come close (and I love poached eggs).  The smoked ocean trout, creamy fetta and beautifully prepared and presented selection of greens that accompanied my baked egg are sublime.

When I cut into the egg, expecting it to rapidly expel liquid runny yolk, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the yolk firm, yet still soft and wet.  Apparently, the 60 degree 2-hour baked egg, which you might find on a lunch or dinner menu at a serious restaurant like the Rockpool, is their breakfast specialty.  Check out the video!

This is truly haute cuisine at breakfast.  And the portion, recommended to me by our savvy Kiwi waitress (or are they all called "waiter" now regardless of gender?) who wisely noted our fragile state, was perfect.  Enough to fill me up and make me feel human again, but not so much that my then-delicate tummy would reject the offering given to it.

We were lucky - despite its clear quality, it obviously was so new that it still hadn't caught on with the greater Melburnian breakfast demographic.  So we got a table as soon as we walked in.  But I suspect that like every other great Melbourne breakfast joint, this will change very soon.

So get in there before it becomes so popular that you have to queue for a breakfast table - not a good thing if you're nursing a hangover.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Liaison Cafe - a new hole in the wall Melbourne coffee place

Yes, new cafes pop up everyday in Melbourne, but this little hole in the wall establishment is a little treasure located at 22 Ridgeway Place in the Melbourne CBD.  It's off Little Collins Street, between Spring and Exhibition Street.

Liaison Cafe has no pretensions about being any more than just a damn good coffee place, although you can get a nice ham and cheese croissant for a light brekkie - the freshly sliced tomato was a healthy bonus.

What can I say, other than that the coffee is damn good.  I enjoyed a tasty, flavoursome espresso, sporting thick, rich crema all the way to the bottom of the cup.

If you are ever in the east end of the Melbourne CBD and need a coffee fix, treat yourself to one at Liaison Cafe.  You'll have to deal with the sight of grown men clad in lycra (who seemed to be out in force at Liaison Cafe the morning I was there), but hey, nothing in life is perfect.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Golden Fields, Fitzroy Street, St Kilda

No wonder the Melbourne Age’s Good Food Guide gave Golden Fields the gong for best new restaurant of 2011.

I caught up with fellow foodie Samantha for dinner in Melbourne, and having been given the tip-off on this great new place by Perry during lunch at Coda the day before, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to give it a try.  Golden fields indeed - it's like I died and went to a foodie version of the Elysian fields.

Golden Fields is another one of those modern Aussie tapas places, and on account of its massive popularity and casual but classy dining ethos, you couldn’t book a table.  So we just rocked up and got in the queue.  Fortunately, being a school night, it wasn’t a big queue (but the place was packed nonetheless), with only 2 other couples in front of us.  We got to perch on a couple of low stools at the front and ordered cocktails to while the short time away – I hadn’t even drunk half of my martini when we were ushered to the long, wide bar and invited to perch on tall stools instead.

This place is apparently famous for its lobster buns – slices of lobster meat generously stuffed in a small glazed bun.  Many are the accolades you will find on the internet if you were to google "Golden Fields lobster".  The bun looks like it came straight out of a dim sum restaurant, and indeed, it is apparently made by a nearby Chinese bakery.  The bun itself is a tasty thing, sugar clearly one of its ingredients, the bread soft and fluffy inside.  There is also a tasty creamy sauce in the bun which nicely complements the lobster within.  I really enjoyed it, but I can’t say that I stay awake at night dreaming about it like many people apparently do, and we were quite happy with the one (Perry, on the other hand, readily confesses that he could quite happily eat a whole pile of them …)

Other  highlights included the sea urchin, duck broth and an unbelievably decadent yet utterly compelling dessert.

The sea urchin dish is truly a work of art – I can’t do it justice with a description, so you’ll just have to enjoy the picture.  The morsels of urchin were nicely complemented with slivers of fried pork fat (seriously it is good) and the crunchy wafer boat it came on (seemingly akin to deep fried wonton wrapping), together with minimalist garnishing.  You couldn’t taste the strong fishiness of the urchin that you would face with a less accomplished chef – it was just a delightful balance of flavours and textures.  Even Sam ate some of it, despite her initial squeamishness.

The duck broth was recommended by a mate of Sam’s and what a recommendation.  Beautifully rich-flavoured with baby corn and exotic mushrooms, and served in a teapot with oversized porcelain tea cups.  You could just keep drinking that stuff, but it is deceptively filling.

Now I am not a dessert person by any stretch – I’d rather go savoury if given the choice.  But Sam wanted one, and this thing was way too good to pass up, so I shared it with her under the guise of wanting to help her avoid overdosing on sugar.  It was just a thick, rich confection of chocolate mouse perched on a chunk of caramel fudgey thing and swimming in a thick peanut-caramel sauce, replete with chunks of peanut.  Good thing neither of us is allergic to peanuts.

Wow what a place.  Once again, great service, with some cheeky and feisty waiters for entertainment factor, although I think I might have put one of them on the back foot with my overly witty repartees (I assure you it doesn’t happen much, since I'm not really that witty) – sorry about that, I was just having a great time and got carried away!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Coda, Basement 141 Flinders Lane (access from Oliver Lane), Melbourne

I caught up with an old colleague when I was recently in Melbourne, and both being foodies, we booked a table at Coda, which never fails to delight.  Coda is one of these quintessentially Melbourne laneway treasures.  Yes it’s in a back alley, but the food and service is top notch.  It's got a Flinders Lane address, which is impressive enough as it is, but wait for it - you have to go down another cobblestoned laneway (Oliver Lane) to actually get into the restaurant, which is in the basement of a building, so that when you're sitting down and dining, you're looking up at pedestrians' legs walking past.  Things that make you go hmmm ... then again, the dining experience is so good that you shouldn't really be that bored that you'd be looking up from your meal at all.

Dining at Coda is all about shared dishes.  You could kinda call it a modern Australian version of tapas.  But flash.  With Asian influences – I see that modern Melbourne cuisine continues its fascination with Asian cooking styles and ingredients.

First up was a tuna sashimi in a salad of beans and shoots, topped with wasabi infused flying fish roe.  A very nice experience of clean flavours highlighted by different textural contrasts – from the perfect sashimi texture (how else do you describe it?), crunchiness of the veges, and the popping of the roe as you bit down.

Then came the quail done in a sang choy bau style, diced with mushrooms, spring onions and other delectable bits, and served in a lettuce leaf. And of course we had to eat it by hand.  A clever twist on an Asian favourite.

Fresh buffalo mozzarella was just sublime.  It came out two ways – deep fried and virgin fresh, on a bed of sliced baby zucchini and peas and garnished with mint leaves.  Always nice to get a combo.  An uncomplicated but thoroughly enjoyable dish.

It must have been white asparagus season, because that seemed to be all the rage at that point in time, both in Melbourne and back home in Perth.  Well, this asparagus dish was another one-two combo of white and green, and was decadently doused in a rich, creamy thick white sauce.  We didn’t complain about the food or service before getting that course (why would we, with impeccable, professional service?), so I was quite comfortable about eating it, sauce and all ...

Perry’s favourite was the kung pow chicken, which was nice with big rich flavours, but I have to admit that I’m not a big fan.  Maybe it was because I was thoroughly stuffed by the time we got to it.

Of course, what dining experience is complete without a bit of fun and intrigue?  Halfway through our meal, a bunch of firemen, complete with helmets and overalls (and I’m sure I saw at least one axe, or maybe I had too much of the white burgundy by then), troop in one by one through the back door.  Apparently someone ordered a sizzling hot plate dish (I swear I didn’t see that on the menu), and they happened to be sitting right under a smoke detector … Fortunately, the sprinklers didn’t come on and the firemen just had a laugh, so we got to finish a most enjoyable lunch.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

La Chaîne des Rotisseurs All Chefs Dinner in Fremantle, Western Australia

On Monday 26 September 2011, I had the privilege of being able to attend a very special dinner put together by that most august of international institutions for the appreciation of haute cuisine, La Chaîne Des Rotisseurs. On this particular Monday, La Chaîne brought together an unprecedented 8 Chefs for its legendary All Chefs Dinner at the Challenger Institute in Fremantle (perhaps better known by its original moniker Challenger TAFE).  These chefs and their staff most generously spent their entire Monday (which is the hospitality industry's equivalent to Sunday) without pay for this endeavour; not to mention the requisite preparatory work in the lead-up to the day itself.

In order of appearance were Marco Bijl (Burswood), Phil Westwood (Challenger Institute), Graeme Shapiro (Wild Poppy), Doug Kerr (Bouchard; and Sebastian Bouchard himself also put in an appearance in the kitchen), Luke Wakefield (Sentinel), Soren Koberstein (George Street Bistro), Matthew Ladkin (Friends) and David Mopin (Challenger Institute), who gave up their precious day-off and worked seamlessly together to collectively create this once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience.

Fresh off the line!!
Each Chef created one spectacular course and also chose a matching wine (or French beer, in one case!). Students of the Fremantle Challenger Institute had the unique opportunity to work with all of these masters of cuisine and experience being part of a fast-paced commercial kitchen.  Although guests started arriving at 6.30pm, the action commenced well before then – the capacious commercial training kitchen was a hive of buzzing activity throughout the day, with the Chefs their crew and Challenger Institute cooking students working feverishly.  And of course, before you and I woke up that morning, freshly caught fish, destined for this kitchen, were already being taken off the line.
La Chaîne members and their guests who made the pilgrimage to this special evening were individually greeted at the door and shown their seats before being ushered back to the foyer for canapés and champagne; and came from all walks of life, from chefs and restaurateurs, to lawyers, accountants and business owners. Among those present was Herb Faust, the only challenger to win in last year’s Iron Chef Australia television series.

Now, the good thing about La Chaîne is that it's not merely about eating and drinking.  No, that would be Mr Creosote-like (and no, there were no wafer thin mints served at dinner).  One of the things I like about La Chaîne is that even though we don't shy away from enjoying the good things in life, it's enjoyment with a conscience. Part proceeds from the dinner (and indeed most, if not all, other La Chaîne functions) will go to the Association Caritative de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs (ACCR), La Chaîne's charitable foundation. The ACCR's aim is to provide nourishment and improving the living conditions of those in need, especially children.

The proceeds from this particular evening were boosted by the generosity of Challenger Institute and Burswood Resort, which bore the cost of ingredients for their courses.

The evening began with a delectable selection of tasty treats by Marco Bijl of Burswood Resort’s award winning Atrium Restaurant, incorporating duck, prawn, salmon and beef, washed down by refreshing Pol Roger champagne.  I don't think Pitt thought about this when he spoke about washing down the tasty burger with the refreshing beverage, but just imagine the sheer enjoyment that you saw on his face and heard in his tone ... ay that's right, that's what I'm talking 'bout!

Guests then sat down in the beautifully appointed dining room which transported them to an oasis of degustatory bliss for the night, upon which they were treated to the spectacle of (Challenger Institute) Phil Westwood’s quail being cooked in a burst of flame by each chef at their table. The meat was delightfully tender and juicy, and extravagantly complemented by a gold leaf-wrapped quail egg and the tart, rich flavour of the d’Arenberg sparkling red.

When the chefs returned to the kitchen, diners were able to remain part of the action, courtesy of live video feeds direct from the Kitchen to the Dining Room, one static and another roving.

Wild Poppy’s Graeme Shapiro channeled his trademark Asian-influenced style into his luxuriously indulgent soft-skinned pork belly served on a banana leaf, highlighted with a sweet and sour pork and crab relish, with textural contrast from the crispy fried crab, and highlighted the caramelised sugar and pork and crab relish.  The accompanying French Trois Mont Beer, with its fizz and soft mouthfeel, added yet another textural and flavour counterpoint.

Bouchard’s Douglas Kerr delivered that most elusive of restaurant dishes, a perfectly cooked cut of red emperor freshly line caught in the morning, with the flesh firm yet sweet, juicy and tender; served on a bed of Kerr’s take on petit pois a la francaise, green peas and lettuce gently cooked in a creamy buttery sauce and surrounded by clams in a deliciously light, yet smooth and creamy, veloute.  The tight mineral and fresh acid combination of the equally delicious Picardy Sauvignon Blanc held its own against the richness of the sauce.

2010 Australian Jeune Commis winner and Sentinel rising star Luke Wakefield’s chicken galantine was so perfectly shaped into a drumstick with the skin meticulously re-applied, that some guests expressed astonishment when they discovered it was not an actual chicken drumstick!  The textural contrast was provided by the crunchy sweet corn croquette, which released a flow of warm sauce from within when cut.  Joy.

Soren Koberstein of George Street Bistro showcased his slow cooking approach with a richly flavoured serve of beef cheeks which was so tender the knife glided through it like soft butter, accompanied by a healthy serve of ... wait for it ... brussel sprouts and apple crisps.  I have to say that these sprouts were so good they inspired me to get some from the supermarket later that week (although I somehow failed to replicate the flavours in my kitchen).  The big fruit driven and vanilla flavours of the Kalleske Pirathon shiraz provided a strong counterpoint.

Young Matthew Ladkin from Friends (the restaurant, not the television series - he would have been a kid back then ... hmmm I'm getting old) showed off his dessert prowess, delivering art on a plate and a palate of contrasting flavours, from the richly sweet raspberry square counterbalanced by the tartness of the raspberry puree and the acid crispness of the pineapple, to the subtle flavours of the coconut panacotta, and topped off with delightfully crunchy and light coconut wafers.
French chef and resident Challenger Institute lecturer David Mopin finished off the evening with a delightful assortment of handmade confections, including mushroom-shaped meringues and chocolate truffles.  Guests also received a special souvenir: an assortment of these morsels to take home in a little box bearing the La Chaîne logo and tied up with a ribbon in the trois couleurs of the French flag.

Challenger Institute hospitality students and their lecturers also delivered a polished, excellent front-of-house service in their white gloves and smart uniforms, which ensured that the evening was an all-round success.

Western Australian Bailli Regional Wayne Teo aptly remarked that "when front and back of house both work well, you can be anywhere and still enjoy a superb dining experience."  This sentiment was certainly echoed by La Chaîne members and their guests who were vocal in their praise of this superb evening of fine dining and warm, comfortable camaraderie.

Note: The Frenchman writes articles for La Chaîne from time to time, but always pays his own way.