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.