Sunday, January 23, 2011

My very own Thomas Handy Sazerac - sublime Kentucky rye whiskey!

This is MY bottle, sitting on my Glen Holst table as proof.
Christmas has come early.  My mate Elliott has come through with the goods - in a big way!  He has managed to procure a few bottles of the Thomas Handy Sazerac.  After having drunk this Kentucky straight rye on two occasions (Helvetica and the Malt Supper Club), I am truly a convert.

At 64.5% alcohol by volume, or 129 proof (ie barrell proof), a little whiskey goes a long way.  I am sipping appreciatively on a glass as I type (yes I know it's breakfast time, but you're allowed to drink a little on Christmas morning! And besides, it's a only small glass ...).

I know I've taken a lot of pictures, but I can't begin to tell you how much this drink has completely revolutionalised the way I look at whisky/ey.  I used to be an exclusively Scottish single-malt snob, but no more.  Don't get me wrong - I still love single malts, and will keep drinking them, but my horizons have now been conclusively expanded to include other expressions.  It also helps that Jim Murray has rated this the 2nd best whisky/ey in the world in his 2011 Whisky Bible.

Elliott runs a bottleshop at 237 Great Eastern Highway called Mane Liquor.  Don't be fooled by its location.  There are some really special wines on the shelves.  And they have an insanely huge range of beers, quite possibly the largest range in Western Australia, if not the entire country.  Go check it out for yourself - you'll be astounded.  If you like your beers, it feels a bit like being a kid in a candy shop.  There's still one bottle of Sazerac left on the shelf, if you're quick enough.
Note the Shulman in the background

I also picked up a bottle of hell and damnation.  No kidding - that's what it's called, in Dutch anyway.  At 10.2% alcohol by volume, that's how you might feel the next day if you polish off an entire 750ml bottle on your own.

Hel & Verdoemenis, brewed by Browerij De Molen in the Netherlands, is a dark rich stout that is made with cognac.  Goes well with a cigar.  The label proudly trumpets that " This beer will be good for 25 years if kept Cool and dark"  Not sure why they capitalised the "Cool".  But hey, it's the Dutch.  And they make good beer!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Helvetica Bar, Howard Lane. Perth City (Ardberg Supernova, Bruchladdich Octomore and more Sazerac!!)

After a tough day in the office, I decided that a nip of whisky was necessary before going home (and to the gym).

Conveniently, Helvetica was just down the road. Or the lane way, I should say. Howard Lane is a tiny little lane that runs parallel to Howard Street, and is just behind Andaluz, another funky little bar. What did I choose Helvetica? Well, my mate Elliott was going on about how it is a fantastic whisky bar, with a massive range of rare and interesting whiskies. By Perth standards anyway.

Guess what I discover when I get there? A bottle of Thomas Handy Sazerac sitting on one of the shelves behind the bar, and at $21 a serve, it's way cheaper than Malt Supper Club's $35 price point. 'Nuff said. This time, without the influence of other drinks under my belt, I was hoping to better savour the flavour. And savour I did. It was just as good as I remembered it. That elusive, ethereal overlay in the bouquet and taste was still there, and I still couldn't pick it. It's almost a toasty, yet fruity, thing. Oh well. More drinking research is in order, I expect.

The bar staff were very friendly and trendy, chatty young types, in their gingham shirts and jeans. Jav is barely 20, but knows more about whiskies than most people twice her age. Spencer is the mixologist (thanks for testing out the basil tequila cocktail on me mate - I still think that a big basil nose with subtle flavour is a more complex and interesting drink than a uniformly big basil nose and flavour). And Tina just looks good.

Since I was having a good chat with all of them, I decided that it would be remiss of me to stop at just one. I resist the Coopers Ale king browns lurking in the bottom of the bar fridge (impressive nonetheless) and instead go to my old favourite - the single malt. There's no point going to a place like Helveticas to try good whisky and merely ordering something you can easily find in a bottle shop. Since Jav was raving about the 2010 expression of the Ardbeg Supernova, I had to try it. Besides, i had just finished my bottle of Bruchladdich Octomore (which lays dubious claim to the title of peatiest whisky in the world) with my mate Con a couple of weekends ago, and was suddenly craving a big peat hit. Now this is a big whisky, and not just because it's cask strength at 60% alcohol by volume. The standard Islay big peat whisky is around 50 parts per million of peat. The Ardbeg Supernova has twice that. It's not as extreme as the Octomore which has 170ppm, but still, the Supernova is not for the whisky novice.

The nose, while predictably nose-hair singeing, was actually quite nice. The ubiquitous medicinal notes don't overpower, but instead complement the earthy undertones. This is a tasty whisky, and tastes even better when cut with a bit of water. That brings me to the other impressive thing about Helvetica. They know what good whisky often needs to be cut with water, and give you a little beaker to accompany your drink.

Jav & Spencer didn't like the Octomore, instead preferring the Supernova.  I say that it's apples and oranges.  The Bruchladdich Octomore is a different kind of whisky and quite obviously frequently misunderstood.  It's brash, in your face and over the top when it first hits your mouth, and most people fail to exercise the patience and effort to delve deep below the massive peaty overtone, to discover the elusive but fine, complex, exquisite flavour that lies hidden beneath, rose water, nougat and honey - you'd better believe it!!  It helps to be smoking a big-flavoured Cuban cigar (like a Bolivar or Hoyo Epicure), because the big flavours cancel out and makes it easier for you to discover the silken pleasures that lie beneath.  Kind of like eating a mouthful of sugar, then drinking Coca Cola - you won't be able to taste the sugar in the Coke, even though you know it's still there in all its tooth-eroding glory.

My only criticism (albeit minor) of the place is that it is quite echo-y. It was busy (all tables were filled), but wasn't packed, and I could hear the echoed voices of my fellow patrons from my perch at the bar.  The noise will probably be a bit too much (especially for a half-deaf codger like me) on cranking night with there are lots of people imbibing whisky and trying to be heard above the cacophony. Then again, looking on the bright side, at least the music wasn't loud - in fact, I didn't even notice any music. Which is what I like in a place where you can go to have a conversation over a drink.

Will I go back? Hell yeah. I might just decide to try to work my way through their entire whisky collection ....

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sentinel Bar & Grill, Corner St George's Terrace & William Street - close to perfect!

Given the traditional slow week in the first week of the new year when many of the Perth office horde are still away on leave, I jumped at the opportunity to spontaneously lunch at Steve Scaffidi's new restaurant, Sentinel Bar & Grill, without the need for a booking.  It's located next to the AXA building at the corner of St George's Terrace & William Street.  I never thought I would say it of any restaurant, but this is close to perfect!

In the fashion of Steve's other venture Bar One, Sentinel is divided into two - a bar area with high bench tables, and a more intimate section comprising rows of booths.  The style of dining is kind of bistro with a more adventurous, sophisticated food selection than you would expect from the average bistro.

There were a smattering of patrons, most of whom were having beers or coffees: a bunch of toecutters in one corner discussing repossessions of corporate jets and luxury yachts, a couple in the other corner who still appeared to be on holidays, and two girls who could have been outside clerks having a cheeky drink in between jobs.

The service was top notch - both Angus and Alex were unobtrusively attentive and polite - no snooty service here (not that there's anything wrong with that, but this isn't the place for it), and I never had to wait or risk whiplash to try to get somebody's attention.

But it's the food and its presentation that really impressed me.

There was a tapas menu that not only had the usual suspects like french fries, a Waldorf salad, and an omelette, but also black pudding!  Woot!  Hey - I hear you gagging.  But don't knock it till you've tried it. Remember my post on The European in Melbourne?

The freshly cut bread was crusty but not hard, with a warm, soft inside.  The butter was perfect - cold enough to hold its shape, but soft enough that you didn't need to apply pressure to cut through it.  It spread beautifully and thickly on the bread.  Don't you just hate it when a restaurant serves you butter straight out of the fridge and you have to virtually maul the poor slice of bread with the knife to spread the rock hard butter on?  Well I do.

Anyway, onto the food.  I ordered the $50 two course lunch special - you get 2 choices for each course.

Entree was the duck liver parfait with calvados jelly, and it comes with a stack of lightly toasted mini blini-like, slightly crusty things. Yeah not my best prose, but they go well with the liver and jelly.  There's a very generous serve of duck liver - it's almost a light meal in itself - which has a delightfully smooth texture, with a thickness halfway between mousse and pate.  Tasty.

My main was the poached spiced lamb rump with baby leeks, broad beans and broth.  The broth made this dish reminiscent of my meal at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's some years ago, and it was light and flavoursome.  Broad beans provided a nice crunchy textural accompaniment, and the baby leeks were intriguingly delicious, looking like fat spring onions.  Their piquant flavour nicely cut through the stronger flavours of the lamb and broth.  And then we come to the medallions of lamb, still joined together and fanned out atop the bed of the other stuff.  When I cut through it, I was surprised to see only the slightest hint of pink.  Being used to eating lamb medium rare, this left me a bit bemused.  The next surprise, though was the tenderness of the meat.  Truly the poaching had done its job!  But the real highlight was the flavour.  A backbone of lamb-y (what?! that's the easiest way to describe a lamb flavour isn't it?) overlaid with exotic spices that you could almost smell from within your mouth.  Now this is TASTY.

Washed it all down with a nice red Rhone (Plan de Pegau), which had a surprisingly rich and robust cherry-like flavour, which suited both the duck and lamb perfectly.

This meal left me full, with a slightly tight belt, which in my book is just right - generous serving sizes, but not to the point of making you feel like Mr Creosote.  I could certainly have fitted in a chocolate mint, wafer-thin or otherwise, without any explosive consequences.

Nothing is ever perfect, but this has got to be pretty close.  Excellent service, nice wines by the glass, good presentation (check out the pics), great food, and of course, soft butter.  Do yourself a favour - check it out for yourself.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Perth's late night weekday scene - Malt Supper Club, and an encounter with Thomas Handy & the Bird

People love to rant on about how Perth is Dullsville, because there's nothing to do at night during the week.  My response is that you're not looking hard enough!  These places do exist.  While I agree that we could certainly do with a heck of a lot more late night amenities, the realist in me questions whether there is sufficient demand for these establishments to survive.

So I pop around to the recently opened Malt Supper Club at 10.30pm.  On Beaufort Street in Mount Lawley, just up the road from Cantina (north of Walcott Street).  Apparently it's owned by some well-known retired footy player, but I would have no idea who it was if I met him.  Nor would I care, other than to congratulate him on good taste and hiring some really good staff.

This place is lush.  Like Jay-Z said in Run This Town, all-black everything.  Two bars, one of them in a large back section where the live band plays on Friday nights and weekends.  For thursday night, we get a DJ.  But this guy spins chilled out remixes of some cool old-school tunes.  While the music is a bit loud for a half-deaf chap like me, it's still at a reasonable level, so you can have conversations without shouting.  There were however only 2 patrons there, and about 4 or 5 others came in while we were there.  This is what I worry about - that patronage of these establishments will not be enough to sustain the top shelf drinks collection and top quality staffing that they need to maintain standards.

We had a good chat to Dmitry behind the bar, since my mate Elliott is "industry", so to speak, and ended up drinking ... yes I can't believe it myself ... Kentucky rye whiskey.  But this was an epiphany for me.  This is not some cheap anti-freeze that the good ol' boys would be swigging while shooting up road signs at the levee.  This is unbelievably sublime.  Uncut, unfiltered, cask strength (at around 67% alc, or 127.5 proof).  Aged in new white oak for around 6.5 years, it's double distilled and only made in small batches each year.

This stuff is good - the nose was an amazingly beguiling mixture of honey on top, with an ephemeral yet persistent aroma of flowers, similar to the perfume my friend Anna was wearing earlier in the evening - Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia.  The flavour was awesome.  Rich, almost unctuous mouthfeel set-off by the dryness of the high alcohol content.  More rich flavours, reminiscent of fruitcake, honey and something else so transcendent I can't describe it.  It gets even better when you cut it with some water - the transcendence takes over.  Or maybe it was the 2 glasses of wine I had earlier, or the bourbon with a dash of soda that Elliott made me drink ...  Anyway, this is really good stuff.  Apparently Jim Murray, world renowned whisky/whiskey expert, ranked this No.2 in the world, ahead of the finest Scottish single malts.

I used to be a single malt snob.  But not anymore.  Head down to the Malt Supper Club.  Make sure you check this out.  At $30 a shot, it's not cheap.  But you get what you pay for.

Afterwards, we head to the Bird in Northbridge.  It's on William Street, near the corner of Roe Street (just a few steps from Ezra Pound).  Now I know what you're thinking - it's not safe at night yadda yadda.  It's now 11.30pm, and there're still enough people walking around - that it's not crowded nor dead.  And a handful of cops strolling around too.  I never felt safer.

The Bird could not be more different to the Malt.  When you walk in, it's slightly grungy, with an eclectic handful of people milling around - punks with mohawks and studded leather, ageing ravers, hipsters, Gen Y-ers ... the whole range.  Heavy drum and bass beats are belted out by the DJ on the relatively empty dancefloor, and I think - that's sad, this place is not busy either.  But then we walk out the back, into a completely different world.  A large, rustic courtyard set with couches and benches is completely packed out with people just chilling, drinking and chatting.  No rowdy boisterous drunken behaviour.  Just people have a good time!  We find some arse space on a ledge and settle in.  Elliott starts chatting to a group next to us, and I have a chat with Tania, who's just returned from living in Luxembourg and has a Masters in Luxury Services & Management from Monaco.  It is so refreshing to talk to someone who knows what I mean when I crap on about experiential luxury.  There were a couple of land developers from Karratha - Jacinta and Ben - sitting next to us that we had a good chat to.  Jacinta even bought me a drink! These are the kind of people who come to the Bird.  Jacinta - I owe you a drink.  Remind me if we bump into each other again.

Now this is the kind of place I can hang in.  Sadly, due to liquor licensing laws, the place had to shut at midnight.  Judging from the vibe, everyone would have been happy carrying on for at least another hour, and at least half would have stayed till 2am.  There was no element of dodgy or antisocial behaviour evident - quite the opposite, in fact.  So there is absolutely no justification to make this place close late.

If we want Perth, and indeed Northbridge, to become more vibrant, and accommodate more late-night options, forcing everything to close early is not the answer.  That is an act of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. We need to make it easier for fantastic establishments like the Bird and the Malt Supper Club to thrive, and to allow them to give their customers what they want.  Of course, we also need to counterbalance this against the need to maintain public safety - I certainly don't have all the answers, but if we put our heads together, I'm sure we can come up with something that's not necessarily perfect (don't fool yourself - perfection is a pipe dream), but rather something that strikes a good balance and works.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tina's Kitchen, Mends Street, South Perth

There's a little hole-in-the-wall place off Mends Street in South Perth called Tina's Kitchen. Nothing flash. It's overlooking the public carpark behind The Windsor Hotel.

I popped around there for lunch one day with my mate Norman, and discovered it to be quite intriguing indeed. It specialises in traditional Singaporean style Malay hawker food, and there's quite a range, including Nasi Lemak, Mee Siam and Nasi Goreng (Malay fried rice). We both decided to order the Mee Rebus, which is a bowl of thick egg noodles in a mildly spicy curry gravy, accompanied by cut green chillier and sliced boiled egg. Not something you'd easily find in Australia. Very tasty indeed, although I suspect a fair bit of sugar was used in making the gravy.
Like I said,it's not flash, but the food is tasty and cheap, and I'm planning to go back there to work my way through the rest of the menu.

Post Note: So I went back again with my mate Benji, and this time ordered the Mee Siam, with Benji going for some special fried rice dish.  They tasted as good as they look in the photo.  And all for under $10 a dish!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More new posts to read!

Having recently returned from Namibia, it's taken a bit of time to write about my culinary and cultural experiences there and to upload the relevant pictures.

Well, it's all done!  If you've already read some of my Namibian posts, it's worth reading them again.  Pictures have now been added, new posts included, and existing posts have been updated and expanded.  Highlights include The Russian Connection, an insanely huge Kudu knuckle (the local version of Eisbein) and the usual ill-informed social commentary.

For those in the know, there's even a Dylanesque photo found somewhere in these posts (sorry - in joke).

More to come in the next week: look out for:

  1. My review of Steve Scaffidi's new restaurant Sentinel (close to perfect I say!)
  2. A gratuitous holiday post of many wild animals (due to popular demand)
  3. A new lunch-club which my mate Glenn and I have formed, with the motto "Pessime Edoctus Melior Quam Non Edoctus": it is better to be ill-informed than uninformed (if you're taking this seriously, this club is not for you). 
  4. A couple of new reviews of cheap and good Asian places.

Happy reading!

The things we take for granted - Good Coffee - Part 2

Shortly after my last rant on the scarcity of good coffee, my good shit from St Ali ran out.  No more La Bendicion from Nicaragua.  No more Herbazu from Costa Rica.

Not to worry, I told myself - I'll survive without coffee over the weekend, and buy a bag in the city the next week when Tartine re-opens.

Before the weekend arrives, my sister (bless her heart - love you sis, and appreciate the thought) gives me a belated Christmas present, which includes a bag of espresso beans from Gloria Jean's.  So I say to myself - well, it's not single estate, but let's not be a coffee wanker about it.  Besides, how bad can it really be?  Famous last words.

I have endured the entire weekend trying to drink the damn thing.  The warning signs were there - on opening the bag, I get a overly strong, pungent earthy kick in the nose.  Now I'm a guy who loves my dirty earthy leathery pinot noirs, so rest assured that I have a fairly robust tolerance to extreme foods.  But this was almost too much.  The 100% arabica beans looked altogether too ominously dark and oily for my comfort.  Dark and oily may be good if you're checking out a cigar, but coffee?  Not so sure.

Okay - the acid test.  I grind a double-espresso portion into the filter, and run Miss Silvia through her paces.  This initially looked promising - twin thin streams of coffee liquor pour out, but then it became apparent that there wasn't a lot of crema there.  I sip it.  Oh god (and not in a good way either).  This thing is so one-dimensionally bitter it gives instant coffee a run for its money.  Don't get me wrong - I enjoy bitter flavours - 99% Lindt chocolate?  Love it.  Bitter gourd?  I'll eat it.  But this stuff was just painful.  In my desperation (it was either that or instant coffee), I drank it.  Hey I'm not precious.

Over the course of the weekend, I mull over this and try different things.  Maybe it's over-extracted? I use a coarser grind to reduce the extraction.  I run the water short (I even went down to 7 seconds) to further reduce extraction.  Still no good.  Defamation you say?  The truth is a defence, as any good lawyer (ironically) will tell you.

In a moment of self-doubt, I wonder whether it's because I haven't drunk good coffee in nearly 2 weeks while in Africa, and I've forgotten what it should taste like

So I pop into Tartine today, and Kyle recommends a special blend, called the Dark Horse, just roasted last week on 6 Jan 2011.  I virtually drink in the aroma of the beans - soft perfume of subtle caramel, cocoa and mushrooms.  I pull it through Miss Silvia, and get a cup of bliss.  Creamy, thick crema, a warm and soft aroma, and sheer silken caramelly cocoa flavours run down my throat, with that longed for crisp apple finish.

All is good with the world again.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Things we take for granted - Good Coffee!

While the Frenchman has been waxing lyrical about exotic foods in Namibia (and no he did not contract any afflications involving liquefaction of the contents of the digestive tract, thanks to the massive cocktail of vaccinations taken before the trip, including a vein bruising 5 injections), the one thing that was sorely missed is good coffee.

Living in Perth, it is very easy to take for granted the seriously good quality coffee that is so readily available all around the place - whether it's Tartine, Mini, Rosso, Atomic, or any one of the many other fine practitioners of the barista's art.

Sadly, in other parts of the world, this is what you get.  And the scariest thing is that the suspicious looking powdery substance in the tin had almost been completely used up!

The best you could hope for is that the restaurant or cafe has a fully automatic espresso machine (like the one you have in your home), and the beans aren't too old.

While in Namibia, I strongly recommend drinking Rooibos tea instead.  It's aromatic, flavoursome, healthy, and is a damn sight better than torturing yourself with substandard coffee.

I was certainly grateful to be reunited with my beloved Miss Silvia, and even with beans that had been roasted more than a month ago, the 2010 La Bendicion Cup of Excellence #13 tasted absolutely divine.