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.