Monday, 31 March 2014

Top three city venues for ramen in Melbourne

Fukuryu Ramen

It pains me to admit it, but the ramen in Sydney has always been better than the ramen in Melbourne. Until about a year ago, going out for ramen in Melbourne was a regular exercise in disappointment: at Kokoro the broths were too salty, at Ramen Ya the egg was hard-boiled (nooooooo!) and the watery broths were often served lukewarm, and at Ajisen the noodles were soggy. Fast-forward to 2014 and the state of ramen in Melbourne has improved a great deal - these are the three venues in the CBD where I will happily order ramen.


Fukuryu Ramen
22-26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne (map)
9090 7149
Open Monday to Sunday 11:30am - 2:30pm and 5:30pm - 9:30pm
Website


Fukuryu Ramen

Fukuryu ("lucky dragon") Ramen opened just two weeks ago, but I've already dined there multiple times. It's located in Chinatown's Corrs Lane between Brutale and Sichuan House, occupying a large, pristine warehouse space on the second floor with west-facing windows. Jeff and Yenny Tsao have opened the restaurant with partners from Hakata Ikkousha Group Indonesia, a group with ramen restaurants all over Asia. Staff are very polite and enthusiastic.

Fukuryu tonkotsu

The broth, the broth! It was the best tonkotsu I've had in Melbourne, with plenty of depth and pork and garlic. My friend's miso ramen with butter and corn was also excellent, the noodles were not-too-soggy-not-too-bouncy, and the ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg) was gloriously gooey. While the bowls are a bit smaller than at other ramen joints, they're priced accordingly ($8.90-$9.90, and you don't have to pay extra for the ajitama) and are a good size for those of us who have to concentrate at our desks after lunch. Fukuryu is gradually rolling out an expanded izakaya menu, and until 7 April the soft-serve green tea ice cream is free.

Fukuryu miso ramen

Mensousai Mugen
11 Bligh Place, Melbourne (map)
9620 3647 or 9620 9000
Open Monday to Friday 11:30am-2:30pm and 6pm-11pm, Saturday 6pm-11pm, closed Sunday
Website


Mugen

Yoshi Kurosawa, who owns longtime favourite Robot Bar in Bligh Place, opened Mensousai Mugen just across the way in November. While Mugen offers izakaya dishes and regular bowls of ramen, their specialty is tsukemen (dipping ramen): thicker noodles served cold on a plate with chashu pork, nori and pickled bamboo shoots, all of which are dipped in a thickened, strongly-seasoned sauce made from pork, chicken and dried fish to deliver an umami KAPOW. When you've finished dipping, a delicate dashi is added to the sauce to make a hot, sippable broth. It's a terrific variant on ramen.

Mugen tsukemen

The kitchen is at ground level, but the dining area is downstairs in a small, bunker-chic room with kozyndan art prints on one wall and looped Kurosawa movies on the other. There's also a good range of Coedo beers, including the Beniaka brewed from Kintoki sweet potatoes.

Kurosawa at Mugen


Little Ramen Bar
346 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne (map)
9670 5558
Open Monday to Saturday 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30pm-9:30pm, closed Sunday
Website


Little Ramen Bar

Less flashy than the new kids on the block Fukuryu and Mugen, quiet achiever Little Ramen Bar opened a year ago, occupying a tiny shopfront on Little Bourke Street. They dole out consistently good broths and bouncy noodles - my favourite order is the buttery miso ramen with added ajitama and lashings of kimchi. Prices are up there (ramen $9.90-$14.50 plus any extras) but the ramen servings are enormous, the gyoza are top-notch and there's fresh Sapporo Draught on tap.

Little Ramen Bar ramen

Got a favourite CBD ramen joint that isn't listed here? Tell me which one it is.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

NORA charcoal tarts, Melbourne

Coconut caramel and bacon candy tart
Coconut pandan tart
Chocolate ganache tart and ginger lemongrass tart

Expect to see these little black-shelled beauties cropping up soon in a discerning cafe near you. Launched just last week, NORA is the project of young Melbourne couple Tong and Jean, supplying tarts to cafes around town and with plans to open their own cafe in the future.

A former artist and photographer, Tong worked for a couple of years in the coffee industry at St Ali, Seven Seeds and Traveller, and more recently turned his hand to cooking with stints at The Commoner and Mr Nice Guy Thai. Jean is a self-taught baker, honing her skills over years of baking at home for family and friends while working in tax and accountancy. The flavours in the tarts draw on the couple's South East Asian backgrounds and use fancy ingredients (including on-trend favourites caramel, popcorn, bacon and popping candy) to marry sweet with savoury, something that Melbourne diners can't get enough of in their desserts these days.

The five tart varieties are as follows:
- buttered popcorn coconut caramel, topped with candied bacon and butterscotch caramel;
- coconut pandan with toasted puffed rice, coconut flakes and fried shallot crumble;
- lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée;
- Callebaut 70% dark chocolate ganache with popping candy and navel orange puree, topped with freeze-dried mandarin and pistachio; and
- pumpkin egg custard topped with spiced Kent pumpkin, salted pepitas and hazelnut crumb.

NORA's point of difference is their distinctive black pastry shells, an effect achieved by the addition of a small amount of food-grade activated charcoal made from coconut shell. Food-grade activated charcoal is safe to ingest and has reported health benefits as a detoxifier; on my recent trip to Japan I saw bamboo charcoal used in baking. NORA's reasons for using charcoal as their signature ingredient are largely aesthetic, but they see any health benefits as a happy bonus.

You can currently find NORA's tarts at Traveller Coffee in the city and at the newly-opened Place Holder cafe in Fitzroy, with Tong and Jean looking to expand supply operations in the near future. I've been popping in to Traveller each morning this week to try one: so far my favourite is the lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée (a terrific Asian variant on Bourke Street Bakery's most famous pastry). You can follow NORA on Twitter or Instagram.

Pumpkin egg custard tart

Friday, 14 February 2014

Sydney Gastronome: sensational Korean at Moon Park

Moon Park
Level 1, 34b Redfern Street (entry via Elizabeth Street), Redfern, NSW (map)
02 9690 0111
Open Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm, Dinner Tues-Sat 5:30-11pm
facebook, twitter


Breakfast wine and rice crackers

On my most recent trip to Sydney I had dinner at Moon Park, and months later I'm still thinking about that meal.

It's modern Korean, but not modern Korean as you know it. The young trio behind Moon Park have created a restaurant that feels different to every other Korean restaurant in Australia. Formerly at Melbourne's Cutler & Co before his move to Sydney, Ben Sears became head chef at Claude's in Woollahra. He met his girlfriend Eun Hee Ann while they were both working in the Claude's kitchen, and late last year they opened Moon Park as chefs and co-owners with their friend Ned Brooks (ex-MoVida and one half of wine agency Brooks & Amos), who runs front of house. The wine list is supersmart, favouring natural wines from Australia and France without going overboard. My favourite was the Patrick Sullivan 'Breakfast Wine' 2012, a naturalish skin contact Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley (not a wine I would ever have chosen off my own bat) that went brilliantly with the elegant food.

Cucumber kimchiBindaedduk: fried chickpea cake

Ah, the food. While some dishes on the menu are quite traditional ("This recipe is so Korean, my partner won't let me make it - only she is allowed to make it", joked Ben to me at one point), others reinvent Korean dishes quite radically. Yeah there's fried chicken on the menu, but it's shrimp brined; yeah there's bindaedduk, but instead of being a mung bean pancake here it consists of narrow bricks of fried chickpea cake ($5, pictured above next to the cucumber kimchi). The Bibim ($20) blends includes pearl barley, asparagus, corn, crab, cured egg and nori served with gochujang (pictured below - NB in our case the crab was served separately because my dinner date was vegetarian).

Bibim: rice & pearl barley, gochujang, corn, crab, cured egg & nori

In addition to tasting good, the dishes are beautifully plated. The whipped tofu is served with technicolor carrots, buckwheat and shiitake crisps ($15). Carrots also put in an appearance in the imjasutang ($17): traditionally a soup served to royalty, here a salad of delicately poached chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date puree, sesame paste and pickled rose.

Whipped tofu, carrot, shiitake and buckwheat
Imjasutang: royal summer chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date and pickled rose

Ben was Andrew McConnell's pastry chef at Cutler, so we ordered both desserts. The patbingsu ($13) consists of tiny sugared donuts served with strawberry, fig leaf shaved milk, red bean and omija (five-flavour tea). The "moon pie" ($14) is a deconstructed, utterly delicious combination of poached pear, maesil (green plum) marshmallow, ginger jelly and graham cracker crumbs.

Patbingsu: fig leaf shaved milk, strawberry, fresh donuts and omija
Moon pie: pear, maesil marshmallow, ginger jelly, graham cracker

The venue is a little tricky to find: the corner building faces Redfern Park, but entry is via Elizabeth Street and the low-key restaurant space is hidden above a decorative arts showroom. My list of places to visit on my next Sydney trip is long, but DAMN it will be hard to resist revisiting Moon Park.

The other standout meal on my last trip to Sydney? Cafe Paci. I didn't write about it, but judging from his review (which I highly recommend you read), Mr Lethlean and I had a very similar set menu. They only have a 12 month lease, so make a reservation quicksticks.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Sezar introduces Melbourne to Armenian barbecue

Sezar
6 Melbourne Place, Melbourne (map)
9663 9882
Open for dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30-10:30pm, lunch Thursday-Friday 12-3pm
website, facebook, twitter


Sezar

Melbourne doesn't get much exposure to Armenian cuisine. At Sezar, the Armenian restaurant that opened late last year, the front of house staff describe it as a blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine (if you'd like some geographic indicators, Armenia borders Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia). Judging from the menu, the food at Sezar skews more towards the Middle Eastern than the Med, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients rather than going overboard on spices. The menu also features lots of khorovadz - Armenian barbecue - dishes cooked on a custom charcoal pit.

Chef and co-owner Garen Maskal (head chef at The Black Toro in Glen Waverley and former sous at Ezard) has drawn on his Armenian heritage in adapting some of his grandmother's recipes for contemporary Melbourne diners, and he's installed fellow Ezard alum Franc Bakkes in the kitchen. The restaurant site (previously Saint Peter's Trattoria and the Canary Club) is tucked down an alleyway in which a street art mural of Haik Nahapet, warrior-founder of Armenia, points the way.

As is so often the way these days, the menu is split into small, large and side sharing dishes, with a $65 banquet option. My dinner date and I started with the substantial falafel with spanner crab, iceberg tabbouleh and a drizzle of tahini, served on a spongey Armenian flatbread ($17 for two). We highly recommend this dish.

Spanner crab falafel

We ordered a trio of khorovadz dishes to see what this charcoal pit could do: shiitake mushrooms with haloumi and onion on shashlik skewers with grape leaf wraps ($14 for two), lamb kebab with baby gem lettuce and a sour cherry sauce ($19 for two), and eggplant with buttermilk yoghurt, barberries and a fistful of fresh herbs including mint and parsley ($22). We loved the first two (especially with the accompanying grape leaf wraps and the sour cherry sauce) but felt let down by the rather bland eggplant, which needed a salty punch to balance out the buttermilk yoghurt.

BBQ shiitake mushrooms
Lamb kebab
BBQ eggplant

Dessert was a pide (the Armenian version is bread-ier than your usual pide, and pre-baked then warmed rather than cooked to a crisp), covered with a terrific combination of Nutella ganache, hazelnuts, freeze dried berries, white chocolate jelly and fresh basil ($14).

Nutella pide

The licensed restaurant has the advantage of being open on a Monday night, and on the Monday my date and I visited the joint was buzzing. We enjoyed Sezar's fresh take on Middle Eastern dining and I look forward to their upstairs cocktail bar opening in March.

Sezar

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Australian gin, new Melbourne restaurants and food trends for 2014

Four Pillars Gin CARL still 'Wilma'

A few quick updates on what I've been up to this summer:

- I wrote an article about Australian gins and the use of native botanicals for Fairfax's Good Food/Epicure. At last I'm putting my obsession with gin, and with Australian gins in particular, to good use. Research for the article included visiting Wilma (pictured above), the beautiful CARL copper pot still used to make Four Pillars Gin in the Yarra Valley. Expect to see more gin-related content on Melbourne Gastronome soon...

- Although I haven't published any new blog posts lately, I've been continuing to update my new Melbourne venues page and my upcoming Melbourne venues page. By my count there were 11 new openings so far this month and 23 new openings in December (!!!) so check them out (and, as ever, let me know which ones I've missed).

- Three weeks ago I was interviewed on JOY 94.9FM about food trends for 2014 by the host of the food and drink radio show Cravings, the debonair Pete Dillon. Also on the panel that afternoon was Epicure's Hilary McNevin and former Gastronomy Program Manager at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Sharlee Gibb. To find out what trends we talked about - apart from me ranting about fake alcopop "ciders" - download the podcast of the show by clicking on the link above.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The new ACCC guidelines: Australian law and online reviews


Last week the ACCC released its first guidance materials relating to online product reviews for businesses and review platforms. The arrival of the guidelines was warmly welcomed by those of us concerned with disclosures and misleading conduct online - in the absence of specific guidance in the Australian legal context, we'd had to look to equivalent guidelines in the US (see the FTC's 2009 Guidance on Endorsements and Testimonials and the updated-for-2013 Dot Com Disclosures guidance for digital advertising) and the UK (see the ASA's recent publication Blurring advertising and blogs – why it pays to know the ad rules).

In light of the confusion surrounding the ACCC guidelines from some people online ('So if I only post positive reviews of my wines on my site, is that in violation?!' one wine person tweeted to me) I thought I'd write this post setting out the guidelines, as they intersect nicely between my blogging and my professional expertise relating to consumer law.


A couple of initial points:

- Contrary to what you may have heard, these are not 'new laws' that the ACCC is introducing. Misleading or deceptive conduct continues to be prohibited under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (CCA) incorporating the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), punishable by penalties of up to $1.1 million. What the guidelines do is help to identify misleading conduct in the specific context of online reviews.

- The ACCC guidelines relate to 'review platforms', which are defined as 'sites, sections of sites or software tools (eg apps) which publish reviews about a range of goods, services or businesses and whose predominant audience are consumers seeking product or business information to inform a prospective purchase. Review platforms generally publish reviews on their own site. Sometimes review platforms are engaged to collect and publish reviews on another’s site.' The guidelines confirm that the principles equally apply to blogs and discussion threads. It also makes no difference whether the reviews are by experts or 'everyday' consumers (eg Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor).

The quotes below come from the ACCC guidance and the summary for businesses on the ACCC website.

Disclosing commercial arrangements with reviewed businesses
Commercial relationships between review platforms and businesses may influence the overall rating of a business on the site. For example, a review platform may allow businesses that advertise on the site to select a review to appear at the top of the page or prevent negative reviews from being automatically uploaded. This may mislead consumers by creating an impression that the business received more favourable reviews than it actually has. Disclosing commercial relationships between review platforms and businesses helps consumers make better informed decisions about the business and its products or services.

Platforms which allow commercial relationships with reviewed businesses to impact upon the content or presentation of reviews, in particular the inflation of review results, risk breaching the CCA. In circumstances where a commercial relationship does not affect the review results, it is recommended that there is disclosure of this relationship to consumers using the review platform.

For platforms opting to rely on disclosure, suggestions as to how this disclosure may be made include:
- a prominent explanation of the nature and extent of the commercial relationship and its impact, if any, on the review page of the affected business
- distinguishing review results which are in any way promoted or improved because of a commercial relationship with the platform through shading or other means so that their content is not confused with ‘organic’ review results.

If you have a commercial relationship: disclose it.

The guidance goes beyond the obvious point of disclosing advertorials to include the ways in which commercial relationships between the business and the reviewer or review platform may influence in subtler ways, such as the business being able to manipulate review results.

This excellent article on the guidelines in the Fin Review by Cha's Kitchen points to @stickifingers' commendable use of the #myclient hashtag when tweeting about her clients.

‘Consumer reviews’ written by businesses or on behalf of businesses
The writing of reviews by a business about itself as though it were a consumer is misleading; as is writing negative reviews about a competitor when the author has not experienced the product or service. Engaging an individual, a search engine optimisation firm or other public relations firm to deliver reviews by persons who are purporting to be, but who are not in fact, genuine consumers is misleading.

You should not write reviews when you have not experienced the good or service reviewed or reviews which do not reflect a genuinely held opinion. You should not solicit others to write reviews about your business or a competitor’s business if they have not experienced the good or service. The ACCC considers such conduct to be misleading.

You should not encourage family and friends to write reviews about your business without disclosing their personal connection with your business in that review.

Re that last point: undisclosed personal connections can also mislead, even if there's no commercial relationship. When I write about places that are run by mates of mine I always err on the side of disclosing our connection (even if it risks making me sound like a pretentious name-dropper).

Detecting and removing fake consumer reviews
Businesses and review platforms that do not remove reviews that they know to be fake risk breaching the CCA.

Whilst it is not always possible to detect every fake review, review platforms should have appropriate processes and procedures in place to detect and remove fake reviews. A best practice approach is to reactively (relying on complaints information) and proactively (using automated or manual internal systems) seek out fake reviews, including after they have been posted.

There is no precise formula for identifying fake reviews. In relation to the detection of suspected fake material, reviews which may warrant attention include those:
- which are part of a significant ‘spike’ in reviews about a particular business over a limited period of time
- written from the same email or IP address as each other or as the business reviewed
- written about the same business, good or service where the accounts of those who wrote reviews demonstrate abnormal similarities, e.g. similar email addresses, user names, passwords or IP addresses
- which use overly positive or ‘marketing-speak’ writing styles
- which do not make sense
- which use the same exact language as other reviews of the same business or product.

Reviews may mislead consumers if they are presented as impartial, but were written by:
- the reviewed business
- a competitor
- someone paid to write the review who has not used the product
- someone who has used the product but written an inflated review to receive a financial or non-financial benefit.

Tips for businesses:
The ACCC considers conduct such as the following to be misleading. You should not:
- encourage family and friends to write reviews about your business without disclosing their personal connection with your business in that review
- write reviews when you have not experienced the good or service reviewed or which do not reflect a genuinely held opinion
- solicit others to write reviews about your business or a competitor’s business if they have not experienced the good or service.

In their online advice for consumers, the ACCC also warns consumers to 'be wary of reviewers or online contributors whose profile indicates that they have only ever written one review. The profile may have been created to write a fake review.' To their credit, websites like Yelp are going to considerable lengths to try to weed out fake reviews.

Incentivised consumer reviews
Incentives should only be offered in exchange for reviews of your business (its products or services) if:
1) incentives are offered equally to consumers likely to be complimentary and consumers likely to be critical, and positive and negative reviews are treated the same
2) the reviewer is expressly told that the incentive is available whether the review is positive or negative
3) the incentive is prominently disclosed to users who rely on affected reviews.

When an online review platform offers an incentive, it should do so in accordance with the three recommendations set out under the guidance for reviewed businesses relating to incentivised reviews. It is recommended that disclosure of any incentive which the platform offers in exchange for a review be placed by the platform prominently on the review page of the business whose reviews are affected by the incentive.

When provided with an incentive, many people tend to write a positive review: as Phil Lees notes, the Norm of Reciprocity is strong.

The ACCC's use of the term 'incentives' is sufficiently broad to cover perks like free meals, samples for giveaways and other non-financial benefits.

An incentive disclosure case study: when Third Wave Cafe in Prahran opened in October, the owner wrote to just about every food blogger in Melbourne, inviting them to come in and have a free meal. Of the 32 blog posts listed on Urbanspoon reviewing Third Wave Cafe over the last two months, 27 make some form of disclosure about the incentive they received (ranging from the specific - 'sponsored post: our meal was paid for by TWC' - to the vague - 'we were invited to visit TWC'). Five of the blog posts are silent as to whether they received incentives (it is unclear whether or not they received the incentive). Of the 27 that did disclose, a handful did not do so until the end of the post (often in the form of an italicised disclaimer). The US FTC has suggested that disclosures of this nature may not be sufficiently clear and conspicuous.

In its media release announcing the guidelines, the ACCC said it was also concerned about businesses artificially inflating their review results by offering consumers generous incentives in exchange for reviews of their products or services. Promotions of this nature may need to be reviewed in the future to ensure they meet the three recommendations set out above.

The omission of credible consumer reviews, inflated (average) reviews and the ‘big picture’
The removal of review content is a regular feature of consumer review platforms and is warranted where it prevents fake, offensive, defamatory or irrelevant reviews from being published. Deleting or hiding reviews suspected of being fake or reviews which are offensive, defamatory or irrelevant is not misleading as consumer review platform users anticipate limited removals to improve the quality of reviews.

Online review platforms should ensure that the overall impression created by a body of reviews on a review platform is not misleading. Platforms which selectively remove or edit negative reviews because of a commercial relationship with a reviewed business risk creating an overall picture of consumer opinion which is misleading.

If the total body of reviews doesn’t reflect the opinions of consumers who have submitted the reviews consumers may be misled.

Content moderation policies of review platforms ensure users and businesses have a clear understanding of when and why online consumer reviews will be removed. It is recommended that consumer review platforms make their policy for publishing and removing consumer content accessible to platform users.

Note here that the guidelines are referring to reviews on review platforms, rather than reviews of a product on the product's own website.

The guideance confirms that if you're a blogger who only writes positive reviews then that's your prerogative; if however you went back to edit/remove your old blog posts that were critical of a business because you now have a commercial relationship with that business, that's a problem which may be misleading.

*****

One issue that is indirectly touched upon in the guidelines is the question of bloggers who solicit freebies. Provided that disclosure is made, solicitation probably isn't misleading (just tacky as hell, in the eyes of several who think such behaviour gives bloggers a bad name).

RELATED: I'm going to be speaking on a panel at next year's Chef Jam at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. I'll be on a panel with Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying and Fool magazine's Per-Anders Jörgensen, debating 'the rise, and rise, of the food blogger'. Wish me luck!