Monday, March 28, 2011

McHenry Hohnen Farm Shop, 5962 Caves Road, Margaret River

As the FBT year draws to a close (31 March being the last day), I wake up to another day under the brooding shadow of self-inflicted indentured servitude, also known as a novated lease.  It's ironic that on one hand, the Government trumpets the need to save the world (maybe save the cheerleader first? But a fat lot of good it did for Peter Petrelli) by reducing our carbon emissions, and with the other, it hits taxpayers with a massive fringe benefits tax slug if they fail to drive their car for the requisite distance each FBT year.  This regime also creates a strange phenomenon which you may see if you're extra-viligant during March of any given year - people driving vast distances for no apparent purpose.  Anyway, onto more important things - food and liquor (incidentally also the name of Lupe Fiasco's critically acclaimed, award winning debut album - random I know, but I've been listening to it while serving out my driving sentence).

I was down to my last 800 kilometres, so I decided to drive down to Margaret River and back.

The entrance
The one place I really wanted to visit since it opened last year is the McHenry Hohnen Farm Shop.  And it ticks so many foodie boxes that you simply need to go if you're ever in Margaret River - purveyor of fine, recently butchered meats, so of which roamed free range on the homestead before they ended up in the cryovac pack; a little tasting area with some highly impressive wines on offer; various other food and wine related knick knacks, books, and even Hairy Marron extra virgin (is there any other nowadays? I thought it was only in the Middle Ages when extra virgins were previously in such great demand) olive oil; and a small but impressive range of snacking/sharing meals, which you can eat on the deck outside.

The spoils!!!
You can buy a whole lamb, or half a lamb. Relax, the pack comes fully sliced and diced, so you get a bunch of chops, ribs, shoulder roasts, and even sausages. $94.50 for half a lamb, which is great.  There are also interesting cuts and sausage fillings - I got myself a pack of Y-bone steaks from Burnside grass fed beef, a luscious slab of Jarrahdene free range pork belly, and a boneless Wiltshire lamb shoulder (from Arkady farm), plus beef and bacon sausages as well as mediterranean lamb sausages.  All for very reasonable prices compared to what you'd pay in the supermarket, but the bonus is that these are different breeds from the ones you'd get in a plastic tray (not that there's anything wrong with those - I buy them all the time), and are supposed to be better flavoured.  Yum - I see a pan-braised Y-bone in a pedro ximenez reduction, in my very near future ...

Fellow wine tasters
Now the wines.  Having already enjoyed a tasting session at Woodlands Estate, I had to watch my consumption.  I tried the Tiger Country Red, Rocky Road Zinfandel, and Three Amigos Red and White wines and liked them all. Although David Hohnen is clearly the man when it comes to winemaking, I gather that Ryan Walsh is the guy who puts in all the hard yards on a day-to-day basis. I love the fact that David and his crew are unafraid of forging ahead with different varietals and even different styles.  I guess that being a family-owned business gives you much greater latitude. In this, I liken David to Lupe (see - not so random after all) - presumably in the 3 years after selling Cape Mentelle to LVMH in 2000, his artistic freedom was restricted in the name of profits.  You can't blame LVMH - after all, they are in business for the money.  Just like the big record company wants you to record sugary pop and censors your call-it-as-you-see-it lyrics, replacing it with superficial stuff that the wider public will happily lap up.  I have a bottle of the 1999 and 2000 Cape Mentelle Zinfandels, made by David during this pivotal period.  Now that I know a little more, I must certainly drink them side-by-side with the Rocky Road.

I'm really looking forward to the release of the 2009 Calgardup Brook Chardonnay.  There was none available for tasting, because it's coming out around Easter, but Lisa told me that unlike your standard unctuous, in your face Aussie Chardy, it's made in a Chablis-style, dryer, fine minerally texture, and floral.  Wow.

Being a tad hungry, having been driving for 3 hours, I ordered a pork rillette for $13. This is a simple, yet seriously tasty, meal.  Probably designed to be shared, so I shared it with myself.  The pork was creamy and melted in your mouth.  I washed down this tasty meal with a tasty beverage - the Three Amigos White, and it truly complemented the food, which is apparently what this wine was designed to do, so there.

Working in the shop on a Sunday were Lisa and Ryan's sister Emily, who were both friendly and knowledgeable about the foods and wines.  The service is just excellent - Lisa provided old milk bottles with frozen water to help the meats survive the long drive back to Perth, and Emily helped carry some of it to my car, while lamenting that being in hospitality, her weekend is Monday and Tuesday, when all her friends were partying during the real weekend.  My parting bit of life advice to her was this - if anyone ever offers you a novated lease, say NO.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Governor's Farewell dinner at The Western Australian Club

Now that the Governor is retiring, there is the inevitable barrage of farewell shindigs that get put on.

I was privileged to attend an exclusive black tie and military miniatures farewell dinner at my beloved Western Australian Club for an intimate group of 40 guests. Amongst the plebs like me were scattered an assortment of interesting characters, including a couple of renegade MPs who were wagging a session of Parliament which was sitting at that time. My table was heavy on the military, with the His Excellency's Aide de Camp, and my fellow Club members, a retired major and retired major general, who was incidentally the proud father of the latest winner of the Victoria Cross, and rightly so. We got to check out a replica VC ribbon that he took with him everywhere - that's as close as I get to the real thing, I guess. Also a movie industry veteran, owner of a recruitment business, art dealer and a well known white goods retailer who's recently started up a new venture.

Food as usual was top notch, with Executive Chef David Gallagher and his team consisting of Emma and Tay, once again delivering excellent fare. The highlight for me was the entree of pan fried tiger prawns with chilli infused angel hair pasta and salsa verde. Fresh, firm prawns, with a nice spice to the al dente pasta, if a little bit strong on the lemon. I must admit that I was also highly envious of Simon's duck confit, which looked oh so tender and was literally falling off the bone; and Lesa's creme brûlée desert, which looked to be perfectly made with a beautiful caramlised crust.

I even learned something new - the Governor, like many proud West Australians, is a migrant. He hails from a little Greek island from which originated a whole bunch of other West Aussies who are also fine upstanding and highly successful members of society - big contributors to the professions, charity and the arts. Must be something in the water there ...

Great company and great food - all good!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival roundup

The Araluen Chilli Festival just keeps getting better! Continuous cooking demonstrations in the big tent featured talented local chefs, including Russell Blaikie of Must Wine Bar and Marianne Kemps of Gala, with freelance chef Dale Sniffen presiding over the order of events.

Being somewhat of a Chilli Festival veteran, I sample some of the foods first before heading down purgatory lane for the chilli tastings. There's a great variety of foods to suit all and sundry, from Turkish gozlemes and honey-drenched sweets, to a bratwurst stall, Spanish paella, to various curry places, and even a Mexican tortilla joint. The tortillas are simple, but tasty, with 3 sauces to choose from - spicy, hot and extra hot. You can of course sample the sauces before choosing. Bucking Hot Chilli Con Carne was there again, and doing a roaring trade. I enjoyed that last year (and did sweat a lot as a result), so I decided to save my stomach space for new experiences. I have to say, though, that one of the best food stalls must have been the Indian joint selling pies with curry fillings. Once again, there are huge bowls of fillings for the punters to sample before making a purchase. The butter chicken pie was clearly the standout. After all, who doesn't love butter chicken? Surprisingly, the crust on the pie was not bad - crusty to start with, then a pleasant chewiness.

A little tip for all you food vendors out there: offer free samples, and you're sure to sell more, provided the food is up to scratch, of course. And a little tip for visitors: in the last hour of the Araluen Chilli Festival on Sunday, many of the food stalls will be offering an attractive discount on their offerings. I picked up 2 curry pies for $5, nearly half price; and a box of freshly roasted peanuts for $3 (I probably wouldn't have paid the original $5 asking price).  Despite being there at 4pm on the Sunday, the place was still bustling.

Another tip - do yourself a favour and buy a mango lassi before you start on your tasting journey. The yoghurt in the lassi will help ease the chilli burn when you inevitably sample and injudiciously large sample of taste bud killing chilli paste, as I did many times, since I skipped all the mild stuff and went straight for the 3 or 4 hottest sauces at each stall. Many of the usual suspects were there, including the stall selling Arson Fire (love the clever wordplay), and Armanda's African sauces, made by Armanda herself (I picked up a bottle of the Piri Piri sauce, which is deliciously flavorsome). A couple of newcomers quite impressed me with some of their offering. Scorpion Chilli with their not-so-subtly named Rectal Tears which was hot but not searingly so, and Hot Mama's Celyta's Sauce, slightly heavy on the vinegar but still a tasty sweet and spicy mixture. I also snared a bottle of Heatseeker's Smokey Jolokia 2, a deliciously smokey flavoured sauce made from the bhut jolokia - not for the faint hearted! The highlight of my acquisitions was a little tube of pure bhut jolokia powder. All i can say is beware if you're coming around to my place for a curry ...

Alas, I am embarrassed to admit that I got done in by a swifty - looking for a suitable barbecue marinade for my kangaroo steaks sitting in the fridge at home, I bought a likely looking bottle. But it wasn't until I got home and looked more closely that I discovered it was made by Kraft, and expired in January 2011! You implicitly expect the fare on offer to be handmade artisanal stuff, but I guess that's not always the case. Oh well, let's see how it goes with the kangaroo - for $12 a bottle, you didn't think I was just going to throw it away, did you?

An unexpected highlight was a Chinese tea stall, selling high end stuff. I spoke to the unlikely looking blonde proprietor, Simon, who operates out of a Chinese medicine shop in Fremantle. An earnest chap who had lived in China for many years, Simon buys his teas directly from the farmers in China, and most of them are organic. I bought a few things, including a Tie Guanyin (or Iron Goddess), picked in Autumn 2009 and partially fermented. I'm no tea expert, but this was a delightful tea, aromatic with a delicate flavour, and a pale gold-green rather than a dark brown or black you would get from your tea-bagged stuff. High Mountain Tea Co.. Check it out for yourself!

This year's Chilli Festival attracted 17,000 people, not as big as last year's event, but still pretty impressive, given that you had 3 mega cruise ships (including the Queen Mary on its maiden voyage) and an AFL Derby match, all in Fremantle that weekend!

Another great Chilli Festival, with some old favourites, new favourites, and unexpected delights!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eat Drink Perth 2011

Eat Drink Perth, our fair city's fledgling food festival, is on for the entire month of March. Sadly, I only found out about it when I returned from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Hopefully, as the years go by, there'll be more money for greater publicity. These things take time, I guess. Nevertheless, there are some fantastic events like Project Amuse, a special dinner at top Perth eatery Restaurant Amuse; and a coffee competition amongst Perth's coffee joints like Howard Street Coffee (Ristretto's baby sibling), Tartine, Mini Espresso and Tiger Tiger, where you get to vote for your favourite coffee place and even go into the draw to win a year's supply of free coffees.

One of the highlights has to be the Friday night food bazaar at Forrest Chase, sporting such exotic delights as Transylvanian cuisine, Mexican, Indian and even satay! If you have a spare hour, do yourself a favour and pop down there this Friday night.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Araluen Chilli Festival in Fremantle - Saturday and Sunday 19-20 March 2011

Yes I know I owe you posts on my meals last week in Melbourne, and am furiously working on them. But in the meantime, don't forget to take some time off to visit Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival, located in the park just across the road from the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle. This iconic chilli-fest promises to be an extremely hot, sweaty, even painful, endorphin pumped affair with hundreds of free tastings of chilli products. Chilli jam, chilli chutney, chilli dukkah, chilli paste, chilli curry, chilli beer, chilli everything!  You can even buy chilli plants - I have 2 in my garden that I purchased a few years ago, and despite my green-thumb of death, they are still thriving today.

I also believe that the hottest chilli in the world (which even gets the super hot habanero mewling like a kitten), the bhut jolokia, will be making a reappearance.  There will be plenty of chilli-related foods for purchase too, and cooking demonstrations by a host of local chefs, live entertainment, and a licensed area offering, amongst other delights, Matso's Beer on tap.

The Araluen Chilli Festival is the brainchild of Araluen Botanic Park Foundation Inc, a not for profit community organisation which runs the beautifully picturesque Araluen Botanic Park, nestled in a valley up in the Roleystone hills to the east of Perth. Originally staged in the Park itself, its popularity exploded to the point where it became the single biggest event in Roleystone every year, with around 5,000 visitors. Sadly, short sightedness resulted in a lack of local government support for this wildly successful event which also resulted in positive flow-on effects to local businesses.  But this blog isn't about politics, so let's move on. Happily, the City of Fremantle stepped in and offered the Araluen Chilli Festival a new home. Last year's inaugural Fremantle-based event attracted a massive 20,000 people across two days!

Entry is an affordable $15 per person and $40 per family.  Members of the Foundation get free entry.  Pass-outs are allowed, so you can visit the stalls, pop across the road to quench the fire at Little Creatures Brewery, and pop back in.

There's a 16-page liftout in the Thursday (17 March 2011) edition of The West Australian with all the details, but you really don't need to know any of it to head down to Fremantle this weekend and enjoy a lip-scorching, tongue-roasting, ring-burning (at least during the day after), experience.

Update: a family pass allows entry to 2 adults and up to 6 children!

Tina's Kitchen revisited

I don't know what it is, but I just can't go past Tina's kitchen for well-priced, good quality authentic Singaporean-Malay cuisine.

I have now tried most of the dishes, and it is difficult to fault any of them. The fried kuay teow is delicious and attractive with its simplicity and clean, fresh ingredients. The mee rebus is as authentic as I remember it from my sojourn in Singapore. The laksa is something else altogether. It is sublimely delicate, fragrant and flavorsome. If you wanted to compare it to the Newton Circle laksa (from the top floor food court in Carillon City), my favourite laksa in all of Perth, it is like comparing apples and oranges. Newton Circle is rich, smokey, thick and massively flavoured, testament to the days (possibly weeks even!) of stewing that the gravy has undergone in the pot. Tina's on the other hand is made fresh, and just as delicious, albeit in a different way.

Tina herself is a friendly and cheerful person, an ethnic Malay woman from Singapore cooking age-old family recipes. You'll find her in the shop most days. She is epitomises what the Western press and media don't want you to know about the majority of Muslim people in the world. They are just normal, warm, hospitable people, trying to raise their families and make their way peacefully in the world. Don't get me wrong - I am no left leaning socialist apologist, but the most dangerous and misguided thing in the world is to judge a people by the actions of a vocal and radical minority group. Anyway, enough about politics or religion (although they are admittedly one of the most popular dinner party topics all across the world). Just visit Tina's kitchen, chat to the lady, and eat her food. Then judge for yourself.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Redux. Or rather, reflux & breakfast at Cumulus Inc.

The only thing i've experienced which is more grueling than the last 3 days and nights of rich foods and copious varied alcoholic beverages was the last Diggers and Dealers conference I attended some years back. But the environs, and the company i enjoyed, at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has been infinitely more pleasurable than the questionable delights of the Palace Hotel with its temporary Queensland-sourced contractors.

My breakfast - love the perfectly baked egg!

I have to say, though, that there can in fact be too much of a good thing; all that rich food has almost been too much for my ageing constitution. I enjoyed a pleasant late breakfast with Samantha this morning at Cumulus Inc. (serving brekkie on Saturday until 11.30am), and despite the delicious food, cheerful service and bustling atmosphere, I needed a glass of Calvados to settle the tummy - the tamarind flavours of Atul Kochhar's magnificent creations the night before finally stopped wafting back up. No antacid for me. I prefer to self-medicate with natural alcohols.

It's been a great trip, and I love Melbourne, but the feeling of knowing that you are heading home is indescribably good. I promise I will find the time to recount the last 3 dinners before the week is out. Stay tuned.

And in the meantime, I'm looking forward to implementing my tips on airline cuisine ...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday arvo at the South Melbourne markets - fresh oysters, great coffee and artisanal biscotti

So what does one do when trying to recover from a dinner which involved drinking around 8 different types of sake, all in copious quantities?

A chilled out Friday at the South Melbourne markets, of course.

First order of business, I visit Pickadeli, which I always do when I come down to the markets, and buy a bag of Phillipa's cranberry and orange biscotti. It's not cheap at $12.95, but is great quality and made from all natural ingredients. I also discover a new product line that they've started carrying - Lebanese delights from Abla's Patisserie! I can't help but get a box of Tamara.

Next, I stroll a few metres to the South Melbourne Seafood counter, and grab half a dozen freshly shucker oysters, for the low price of $5.50! There are even the essential condiments of fresh lemon wedges and Tabasco sauce at the counter. Delicious. The zinc should help with brain cell recovery I hope.

To cap it all off, I wander across the aisles to Padre, and enjoy a well made espresso of single origin Ethiopian Sidamo. Tasty. Good strength, but with underlying citrus and cocoa flavours.

All is well with the world again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival update - Cheong Liew at The Botanical! And Grosset Off-Dry Riesling!

Yes I know that I still owe you reviews of last night's Zak Pellacio dinner at Longrain and today's Japanese art and cuisine lunch at Kazari Collector, but in the meantime, here's a quick update.

I decided to take a long after-lunch stroll from Kazari to The Botanical (newly refurbished), where I was to catch up with a few people. This is the first time I've been back since the refurbishment, and the place is schmick. I have to say, however, that I preferred the way it used to be - the long rustic tables and benches in the bottle shop/wine bar area was warm and welcoming. However, the booths are a nice touch.

They've also retained that fantastic concept, where you buy something from the bottleshop, and pay only a $15 corkage fee to drink it on-premise. We should have more of that I say!

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of treats - Grosset has a new riesling I haven't come across before - the 2010 Off-Dry Riesling, from Watervale in the Clare Valley. Yum. Sharp, dry palate with loads of lemon-lime citrus, and a crisp, lemony finish that just lasts and lasts.

The second treat is meeting one of my culinary heroes in the flesh - Cheong Liew himself, formerly of The Grange at the Adelaide Hilton. It was a sad day when he announced his retirement, but it seems like he's been lured back into business at The Botanical. He's now living in Melbourne, so it looks like we'll need to schedule a lunch or dinner visit to The Botanical sometime soon.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival

Ah yes, Melbourne, culinary capital of Australia, serves up another year of degustatory delights through the form of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It's only been two days and I've already had fantastic meals, wines and coffee, with mor yet to come!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts of my experiences with the cooking of Zak Pellacio from New York, 3 Michelin-starred Jun Yukimura from Tokyo and 2 Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar from London.

Gingerboy, Crossley Street, Melbourne - Melbourne Food & Wine Festival express lunch

It's been a while since I've been to Gingerboy, the little sister to Ezard, which is one of the restaurants to which I attribute my appreciation of fine dining.

This time, I am in Melbourne for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and availing myself of the special Express Lunch set menu. At $35 for two courses plus a glass of wine, it's great value. Over 80 restaurants in Melbourne are participating in this fantastic initiative.

I had the express lunch at Grossi last year and was very disappointed by the brusque service and tables squeezed too tightly together. So this year, I decided to go with a place which I knew wouldn't cut any corners just because they're doing a special fixed price menu.

The amazing thing about the Gingerboy express lunch menu is the fact that you have three choices for each of the entree and main courses, and two choices of dessert. They certainly don't do things by halves!

I sit next to this bogan family - the parents and their two 20-something daughters - who seem quite normal until one of the daughters declares that she's not going to eat anything with coriander in it. WTF?! Do these guys know what style of cuisine this restaurant serves when they booked a table?! They have a big carry on with the waiter about coriander, and eir subsequent conversation is interspersed with "no coriander!" whenever a new dish is brought to them.

For starters, I pick the wagyu and bamboo dumplings with black vinegar, liberally laced with fine shreds of ginger. Tasty. The wagyu mince is perfectly cooked, showing just a hint of pink inside, and the bamboo bits provide some textural difference. The pair of dumplings are good sized, if a tiny bit on the dry side. The dipping sauce is quite salty, so I needed to go light on it. All in, a simple, elegant and tasty entree. Other entree choices also looked quite appetising, including a vegetarian option (Prawn and ginger dumplings with chilli sesame dressing; or chilli salted silken tofu with lemon).

My main is a Green curry of kingfish with sugar snaps, garlic shoots and baby corn. Strong on the sourness, as good Thai curry should be, but it's got a nice counterbalance of sweetness and rich curry flavour; and a sneaky, underlying chilli heat that creeps up on you. I didn't even notice it until I realized I was perspiring! The other main choices were the spiced chicken and potato rending curry with cherry tomato Thai basil and red onion salad, or the
vegetarian green curry. I order a bowl of rice to soak up the curry, and decide to go the unconventional route by dumping the entire bowl into the platter of curry. Now I don't care what anyone says about etiquette, but that is a much more effective way of eating your curry with rice!

Right about now, the bogan family is having a slightly heated discussion about the other daughter's love life. They don't approve of her on again, off again boyfriend, because he's not committing and it's causing her no end of angst. Mum goes "you've only tried one fruit - how are you going to know whether he's really the right one for you?" Wise words. Presumably "fruit" means serious relationship, rather than conjugal relations, at which the daughter claims (at the meal table?!) to have been well experienced. Nonetheless, dad is looking slightly unsettled by all this talk, and starts tapping on the table with his chopsticks. Oh well, back to my meal.

As I'm not a big sweets person, I decided to skip the desserts of steamed lemongrass pudding with toasted coconut sorbet or a raspberry and lime splice with pandan jelly.

The tasty beverage that I washed down my tasty meal with was a Dalwhinnie 2010 The Hut Chardonnay: Pleasant subtle lemony nose, zesty, citrusy palate - no sign of oak present. A nice accompaniment to the meal, especially the curry. David Jones (the winemaker, not the department store), you've done it again! I like the fact that it was served slightly chilled, but not cold, hence allowing the flavours to express themselves naturally. The other wine choice was a 2008 Artazuri Garnacha. I'll have to check that out another day.

At this point, the bog an family leaves, and mum and the second daughter have made peace for the time being, both declaring that the meal was "forgettable" and that they were after something with more of a wow factor like a progressive meal. Seriously? Pearls in a swine's nose, I say.

I finish it all off with an espresso. That's what I love about Melbourne - even in the restaurants, you get decent coffee - it's not just an afterthought.

St Ali revisited

My first pilgrimage of the year to the shrine of good Melbourne coffee is chilled out and relaxed. What a different place St Ali is late Wednesday morning, without the weekend hordes spilling out of its doors.

I marvel at the new super expanded menu, which also includes some cheeky selections in the "I'm still out" section, such as a bloody mary and a "dentist recommended toothbrush with Winnie the Pooh toothpaste". Perfect for when you've just finished partying at 7am in the morning and need some hair of the dog, and also a brush to get rid of that dog breath.

It's even got main dishes. Which is a good thing, since I am in need of a good feed after a big night out. So I order the Lizatron, a Black Angus steak sandwich served with gruyere, rocket, caramelised onions, tomato slices and the special house chipotle sauce. As you can see from the photo, it's two big triangular sandwiches served skewered together on massively thick slices of warm brown bread. It is just what the doctor ordered. The steak itself is perfectly cooked - medium rare. You so often get indifferent chefs who overcook sandwich steak to buggery; just because it's going into a sandwich doesn't mean you shouldn't take the same amount of care in cooking it.

I also get a syphon coffee to accompany my meal. It's supposed to bring out the true flavours of a single origin coffee, but I must admit that my untrained palate is not really getting a lot of enjoyment out of this. It just feels like normal drip filtered coffee to me (apologies to those syphon coffee fans out there - I will gratefully take lessons in how to appreciate this stuff if anyone is offering).

And of course, what is a place without the atmosphere? I sit outside in the terrace overlooking Yarra Lane and indulge in some people watching. There's a family at one of the big tables happily entertaining their little girl; next to them, there are two women having a serious looking chat over a notepad full of handwriting; and there's a dad at the other big table trying to eat his meal, while his 4 year old hyper-inquisitive boy keeps pestering him with questions; and there's this young couple next to me who appear to be in the music industry - they're talking about a friend who might be doing some mixes with Mark Ronson, another friend doing gigs, and getting industry backstage passes to music festivals. She's from Auckland but loves Melbourne (who can blame her?), and he's from Melbourne, but they appear to be just friends, both having recently split up with their partners and tentatively seeing other people now. Well what do you expect me to do when you're talking so loudly?

Another pleasant visit to St Ali. And the special bonus is that I can pick up a couple of new single origin coffees to replenish my depleted stocks at home! There's a Honduras Cup of Excellence #3 which is looking very enticing indeed ...

By the way, St Ali is now open from 5pm till late Wednesday to Saturday nights - one of these days, we'll have to come down for cocktails and a taste of Asia for St Ali Nights!

Again, photos to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Frenchman's guide to enjoying (and not merely surviving) your inflight economy class culinary experience

It's that topic that everyone loves to have a whinge about. But really, let's be realistic. One of the key principles of life in a developed capitalist economy is that you get what you pay for.  So if you're flying cattle class, guess what - that money is going towards the cost of flying, refueling, maintaining and staffing the plane; the food is really just an add-on.  That said, things have got significantly better in recent years, as airlines ramp up their celebrity chef and sommelier offerings in a bid to attract custom in a game that just keeps getting more competitive.

I write this as I am eating an airline meal (my favourite airline, due to loyalty on a number of levels, although many people like to bag it), flying east across the Nullabor towards the delights of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Think I'm trying to flog a dead horse? I have had over a hundred airline meals (yes feel sorry for me - except for the rare occasions I got to enjoy first or business class), so trust me, I know what I'm saying.

So I'd like to share 5 important tips with you. If you stick with these tips, you'll notice a significant difference, I promise.

Tip #1: if you have a choice, order the cous cous or rice dish.  Always avoid the pasta!  Rice, and to a lesser extent cous cous, are foods which have the resilience to remain edible even after being stored in the fridge for a couple of days (just go check your fridge). The pasta in your average airline meal, on the other hand, has an extraordinarily high chance of being stuck together in clumps and either dry or way too mushy.

Post note 12 Mar 2011: the key principle here is to avoid a dish with stringy or noodle-like pasta (eg spaghetti, linguini or even penne). I've found that most grain-like pasta is ok.

Tip #2: DO NOT eat the bread. Even for the most undiscerning diner, surely it must taste like slightly chilled cardboard. It is not bread, and is not to be confused with the stuff they serve in business class, which is nicely warmed up with a delightfully soft centre.

Tip #3: Stir your butter through your cous cous or rice.  The benefit of chucking the bread is that you can now deploy your butter in your rice or cous cous dish. Butter is often used in restaurants with cous cous, and sometimes rice, and gives it a richer, almost exotic flavour.  There, you've already transformed your meal into something better than what the poor mug next to you is trying to force down.

Tip #4: Order the red wine.  I'm not sure why, but airline food seems to be almost universally suited to red wine. Even the lighter foods, like creamy or chicken dishes, still have a slightly robust flavour (case in point, the cumin and coriander chicken I'm eating right now, which has a tomatoey base) which pairs nicely with red wine - more than it does with white wine anyway.  And here's the bonus - the ubiqitous slice of cheddar cheese lurking on your tray takes on a new lease of life when washed down with red wine - it brings out pleasant vanilla flavours in the wine! The same goes for the piece of chocolate. Don't ask me how. It just is. Even crackers taste good with red wine.

For benchmarking purposes, I try a white wine with these little morsels ... Nope. Nada. Niente. Nunca. Nyet.

Tip #5: DO NOT order the fish, under any circumstances!!! How many tmes have you ordered fish at a restaurant and found it tough and overcooked? Cooking fish, as we all know, is a fine balancing act between leaving enough moisture and tenderness in the flesh, and getting it cooked sufficiently to be edible (and obviously, different kinds of fish have different points of balance). Well, have a think about what the caterers are concerned about first and foremost. Not your culinary enjoyment, but the minimisation of food poisoning lawsuits. Enter the poor piece of fish. Which will be nuked to hell and back to destroy every last microbe and salmonella bacteria.  Have you ever seen salmon mousse served on a plane? I think I've made my point. Of course, if you particularly enjoy chewing on a fishy tasting piece of leather, perhaps to strengthen your jaws, then go ahead and order the fish.

You can always just not eat the meal, but that would be tantamount to spitting out the dummy and holding your breath until you get your way. No one wins. And besides, you've got to eat sometime don't you? Of course, if you only had a choice between eggs cooked to the point of plasticity or pasta that's all stuck together into a single clump, discretion might well be the better part of valour ....

Of course, these tips only apply to us economy class punters. The upper classes have a whole host of wonderful and magical contraptions which make dining there far more enjoyable without the need to know special tips and tricks. There's even a microwave up the front, I believe!

There are of course many other tidbits of air travel wisdom I could share with you (like avoid checking in any baggage if you can help it, or sit as far forward in the plane as you can), but if you stick to these 5 handy culinary tips, I am certain that you will notice a marked enhancement in your enjoyment of your inflight meal.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The cheapest edible Chinese food in Perth!

There's this uni student hangout in the recently renovated Village Green shopping centre in Karawara, at the corner of Manning Road and Kent Street, just across the road from Curtin University.

It's called O'Mama.  Not sure how the Irish influence got into the naming of the restaurant.

I ordered a beef rendang with nasi lemak (which really just means coconut rice).  I had to wait at the counter for a good 5 or 6 minutes while the boss lady chatted on the phone to someone who was apparently trying to sell her something.

The sign at the counter set the tone that this was well and truly a discount uni student joint - it warned that if you wanted extra servings of condiments, like sambal, ikan bilis (dried and fried anchovies - really yummy) or peanuts, you had to be prepared to pay for it, as refusal can be unpleasant!

All the food comes from trays sitting in a bain marie. But it's a nice touch to get it in a rustic looking basket lined with waxed paper.

The lady serving me asked me whether I wanted extra vegies.  This appeared to cost $2 more.  As you can see, it's a paltry serve.

The coconut rice was nicely cooked - fluffy but not sticky or gluggy, and not dry or crunchy either.  The only catch - there was only a hint of coconut flavour.

Oh well, when you're paying $4.80 for a meal, you can't really complain.  However, when you get slugged with an extra $2 or so for less vegies than you can hold in the palm of a child's hand, well that's a different story.

I ordered a teh tarik as well.  The entire meal came to $10.80. I would ordinarily be the first to say you get what you pay for, but in this case, if you're not too careful, you'll find yourself paying over the odds...

If you want a cheap but tasty $4.80 meal, go for one of the advertised specials on the list, but be warned that if you want more, it will add up quickly.  Compare this to lunch I had during the same week at Tina's Kitchen, which came to around $13 a person.  This included a cooked to order fried kuay teow with seafood and extra egg, a 600ml bottle of water and a teh tarik.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eric Frechon of Hotel Le Bristol Paris - with Guilliaume Brahimi at Bennelong, at the Sydney Opera House

World class food and wine, great company, set in one of the modern wonders of the world, and only 60 people to experience it. And I was privileged to experience it last weekend.

One of France's most celebrated chefs, 3 Michelin starred Eric Frechon came to Sydney last weekend to share Guilliaume Brahimi's kitchen at Bennelong, in the picturesque surrounds of the Sydney Opera House. Eric, who is the Executive Chef of the iconic Parisian lodging, The Hotel Le Bristol Paris, has not only been awarded the highest honour in the culinary world, but also the highest civilian award in France, the Legion D'honneur.  His fans include French president Nicholas Sarkozy, for him he cooks at State dinners.

The occasion was the flagship (in my humble view) La Chaine Des Rotisseurs Australie dinner of 2011. The 7 course dinner was exquisite, made more so by the highly professional front of house team at Bennelong. This was driven home to me at the start, when, after I decided to take a stroll up the Opera House stairs instead of taking the lift from the drop-off bay like more sensible people, I discover that the doors to the dining area are locked and cordoned off. But when Veronique sees me standing haplessly outside, she comes straight out, unhooks the velvet rope, and welcomes me like I was being expected.

The dining room was set off to the side of the main arches of the Opera House, and completely ensconced in a cupola of glass panels, to allow a perfect view of the surrounds, replete with hordes of sticky-beaking tourists.

Not only did he turn up with wife and publicist Clarisse in tow, but also the head sommelier, pastry chef and commis, in order to bring some haute cuisine to Australia. According to Caroline Roux, the Le Bristol Director of Sales, they stayed on until Wednesday to make the most out of having journeyed halfway across the globe.

Now, onto the food and wine! The tone was set during the pre-dinner drinks with a seemingly endless supply of Pierre Laforest Cuvee champagne, a very rare single vineyard boutique offering from Epernay, comprising a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuniere. This champagne has a lovely soft mouthfeel, very fine mousse, muted citrus flavours and a smart crisp, lingering, lemony finish. Unlike some mass produced NVs which get harder to drink after the first couple of glasses, this is eminently drinkable. So much so that I must have sipped away on at least 3 glasses before we sat down at the table. So be warned - my champagne-addled recollection is somewhat patchy.

Eric's signature approach is apparently to combine sea and earth in every dish, and this night was no different.  While all of the dishes were exquisite in their taste and presentation, the highlights for me were one of the canapés and the entree.

Firstly, the crayfish canapé with a touch of celery and yuzu cream. The cream had been applied over the crayfish so perfectly that it looked like a round, glistening chocolate truffle (albeit with a green tinge from the celery), nestled in a Chinese soup spoon. The magic happens when you bite into it - the ephemeral "shell" around this morsel puts up no resistance, until your teeth reach the half-cooked crayfish, which is a delightful textural combination of chewy and squishy.

Secondly, the osetra caviar served layered in a little tin over a bed of haddock infused potato mousse puree. The rich, fishy, salty flavour of the caviar is perfectly counterbalanced against the smooth, buttery and superbly light mash, although I couldn't really taste the haddock, probably because I had already downed about 5 glasses of champagne by then. This caviar is sustainably farmed from Californian sturgeon, so it was a guilt-free feed.

Special mention must also be made of the chicken cooked in a bladder (I hear you say "WTF?!", but it's not actually crayfish bladder, silly - you'd be hard pressed to find a giant crayfish with a large enough bladder) of sautéed crayfish and the chicken broth with truffles and leeks, served at the same time.  The latter chicken was not dry, but not juicy either. Just a very tender "just nice", as Goldilocks would have said. The former is a deliciously rich and fortifying mixture, just the thing for a poor bloke who would have consumed about 9 glasses of wine by that time.

Gold leaf dessert!
The rest of the courses are described below, as well as the wines, which were all shades of delicious, refreshing and sublime.  I was unexpectedly pleased by the Rochas white port from Portugal. Unlike the sickly sweet, unctuous stuff you normally have to make do with, this had a dry, sherry-like flavour and finish.  I swear I don't remember drinking the Chateauneuf du pape, and for that I feel a sense of great loss. Surely it's not because I drank way too much? Oh well, what can I do when the wines have been selected by a world class sommelier?

The table gifts were a nice little touch. A Romeo y Julieta No. 3 (Cuban cigar for those of you who don't know) for the gents and an Hermés perfume sampler for the ladies. The choice of cigar was a nice touch - as the focus of the evening was on the food, there would be little time for smoking, so a smaller, but still flavorsome cigar is in order. I would have preferred the more robust but citrusy flavours of the El Rey Del Mundo Lunch Club, but the RyJ is a more universal cigar, suited to a wider range of palates and cigar-proficiency.  As it was, we were having so much fun that I don't think anybody wanted to go outside for the half hour you needed to smoke the RyJ.

So, we have food, wine, and location. The final element of an excellent dining experience is the company. And I certainly had good company and great conversation at my table, with and interesting and diverse range of people including an airline pilot, security guy, former rock band vocalist, and even a mining company spruiker!

Eric himself is a congenial, down to earth man. Despite his limited English and the fact that he is very busy and in great demand by the kitchen and fellow diners, he makes an effort to chat to a humble faux-Frenchman about the food and the weather.

While Eric may have been the hero of the evening, the heroine of the evening is most certainly Jannece Tapsall, La Chaine's national Chancelier in Australia. Jannece has spent more than a year trying to organise this dinner, which was originally to be held at the Palazzo Versace's ritzy fine diner Veritas in Queensland last year, until a last minute demand for Eric to cook at a state dinner for Nicholas Sarkozy scuttled those plans. Talk about getting your lunch (or dinner in this case) cut. Jannece has subsequently spent an enormous amount of time, energy and effort to make sure that the dinner at Bennelong went ahead, even personally selecting the decorations in the dining room, table place settings and flower arrangements. There was even a replica of the Eiffel Tower! Thank you Jannece for bringing some Parisian culinary savoir faire to Australia!

The team from Paris - chilling after the event
In keeping with the French theme, I opted to stay at the Sofitel Wentworth. This establishment with French origins offers a service that is well and truly a cut above the efficient, friendly but ultimately functional business accommodation that I usually experience - people smile at you but getting them to do something for you is often a stressful exercise.  Not the Sofitel. Nice little touches include L'Occitane toiletries in the bathroom and staff greeting you with "bonjour" when they pick up the phone.  The Club Sofitel is also one of the better hotel club lounges I've experienced, with friendly staff and large, spacious areas with comfortable furniture offering seclusion and privacy if desired. It's not the cheapest, but isn't the most expensive either, and well worth the price.

By some strange twist of coincidence, the guy who drove me to the airport was the same one who collected Eric and Clarisse on their arrival in Sydney.

What a fantastic weekend indeed. C'est jamais assez!