Monday 31 December 2007

Hunter Valley Gastronome

Halls Rd, Pokolbin
Hunter Valley (map)
02 4998 7330

Hunter Valley

My Sydney-based uncle organised a weekend up on the central NSW coast just before Christmas, which most of the extended Aussie family attended. As well as a chance for interstate rellies to have an early Christmas celebration together, Sydney uncle and his girlfriend announced their engagement! To celebrate, they very naughtily shouted us all lunch at Roberts, a gorgeous restaurant in the Hunter Valley.

Hunter Valley cottage

Nestled between Tower Estate and Pepper Tree Wines, the restaurant is in a converted barn adjoining the National Heritage Pepper Tree Cottage dated 1876 (almost as old as Mum and Dad's place!). The interior of the cottage, as you can see above, is still furnished in 19th century style.

Roberts, Hunter Valley

I tend to get slightly claustrophobic in low-ceilinged rooms like that, so I was relieved that the restaurant was in the airy converted barn. The fit-out and decor was French Provincial, but not offensively so - I rather liked it.

Amuse-bouche at Roberts

To begin, we were brought an amuse-bouche. I believe it was rabbit terrine with onion jam and green apple - it was very flavoursome yet refreshing.

Seared Yellow Fin tuna loin

Aunty J's first course was seared Yellow Fin tuna loin, watercress and fine eschalotte salad, topped with a fried quail egg and truffle oil ($26). She reported back that it was delicious - as you can see, the seared loin was still sashimiesque in the centre and the fresh quail egg was a whimsical yet tasty touch.

Squid ink linguini with Black Mussels and zucchini flowers

Buster and I both ordered a first course of house made squid ink linguini with black mussels, zucchini flowers, chervil and saffron aioli ($26). I was really excited when I ordered this - I love squid ink linguini and I love zucchini flowers. I'd even decided to break my golden rule of avoiding mussels: I used to adore mussels, but a dodgy bowl of moules frites in a Montmartre tourist trap bistro (called, in a twist of bitter irony, La Bohème - !!!) once gave me such a severe bout of food poisoning that even now, years later, the smell of mussels - even the very freshest mussels - can still give my stomach a bit of a twinge.

Whilst these mussels certainly did not make me feel nauseous, I couldn't help but feel that the dish was somehow less than the sum of its parts. The saffron aioli (was it meant to be a dip? Or a viscous pasta sauce?) didn't really work with the delicately-flavoured squid ink linguini , and I didn't think the zucchini flower was a good taste match for the seafood either. I did love the home made linguini and the salmon roe though - as I mentioned in my recent Press Club review, the sensation of salmon roe bursting in the mouth is one of my new favourite sensory pleasures...

Ballotine of wood smoked quail with fig and gorgonzola

For his first course, Cousin W ordered a ballotine of wood smoked local quail, fresh fig, gorgonzola and spicy basil ($25). I tasted some of this dish - it was extremely good. I particularly liked the smokiness of the quail. The original photo I took showed the quail better, but I preferred this angle concentrating on the juicy fresh fig...

Star Anise glazed duck leg

If my first course left me a bit cold, I was rapidly won over again by my main. It was star anise glazed twice roasted duck breast and confit leg, baby bok choy and a piquant black cherry compote ($38). The glazed, roasted duck and piquant black cherry (washed down with a pinot noir, of course) were a match made in heaven!

Beef fillet, prosciutto wrapped asparagus

Cousin H ordered the chargrilled grainage beef fillet with prosciutto wrapped asparagus and wild porcini mushroom cream ($40). Although rather a heavy dish for a hot summer's day, H had a craving for red meat. He gave this tender fillet two thumbs up (note to self - ought to wrap around a bit of prosciutto next time I want to tart up asparagus spears).

Pan-fried Red Emperor

Like my duck, Mum's main was also a real winner: pan-fried Red Emperor, celeriac rosti, mango, eschalotte, watercress and white anchovy ($38). It certainly looked sensational, eh? I would never have thought to marry Red Emperor with mango, but Mum reported back that she really enjoyed the dish.

It was my first visit to the Hunter Valley. Beautiful scenery, but then I suppose all wine country is beautiful country! :)

Roberts, Hunter Valley

Sunday 30 December 2007

Yuletide Laksa / Jimmy Stewart night plus Christmas wrap-up

Chinta Blues
6 Acland St, St Kilda (map)
9534 9233

Every year for as long as I can remember, St Kilda's venerable art deco Astor Cinema has screened It's a Wonderful Life on the 23rd of December. When I was about 14 I was crazy about old movies (especially Hitchcock movies) and had a crush on Michael, one of the Astor ushers, so I used to drag my schoolfriends along to the Astor ALL the time.

Although my Astor visits nowadays are regrettably less frequent, in recent years I've started a Yuletide tradition with family and friends of going along to the Astor to see It's a Wonderful Life, the classic Christmas film which balances sentimentality and humour with darker moments of despair and ultimately a powerful and uplifting anti-Capitalist message. And yes, I'm not much of a crier but I always tear up at the end! Jimmy Stewart's performance in the film is just fantastic (fans of the film may be amused by this animated 30 second synopsis of the film, re-enacted by bunnies).

Chinta Curry Laksa

And every 23rd of December before the film we meet up for a laksa at Chinta Blues, because what with all the traditional Western food (turkey, ham, mince pies etc) during the Christmas period, I find myself jonesing for something Asian and really, what could be more festive than a big bowl of curry laksa?! :)

I've loved the Chinta Ria restaurants ever since I was a little girl and my Aussie grandparents would take me down to the one opposite the Prahran market for mee goreng. We chose Chinta Blues for its relative proximity to the Astor - this year K, M and T came along. The laksa was nourishing and delicious, as per!

Chinta Mee Goreng

K chose to get the 'Indian' Mee Goreng instead of the Curry Laksa. These are probably my two favourite Chinta Ria dishes (love mixing that fresh lettuce into the noodles), but I also really like the Ayam Ria (diced chicken fillets wok-tossed in a blend of spices, fresh ginger root, dry red chilli and finished off with crisp carrot slices and peanuts) and the Belacan Spinach.

Other food-related Christmas highlights of mine this year were as follows:

Pearl's shortbread recipe

I made shortbread for the first time! I borrowed Mum's battered old handwritten recipe book and used "Pearl's shortbread" recipe (still written in ounces, not grams!). I learned that the trick is to use a bit of rice flour as well as plain flour, and keep the kneading to an absolute minimum to ensure the best consistency.

Making Xmas shortbread

Also for the first time, I used this gorgeous wooden baking mold we bought in Alsace. Although I pressed down damn hard to make deep indentations in the shortbread (and ran the rolling pin over it a few times for good measure), the fact that the shortbread rose ever so slightly meant that the raised patterns were not as clear as I would have liked, but hey.

Xmas shortbread

My first Xmas shortbread - a success!

Christmas gravlax

For Christmas lunch with the Italian relatives, Mum had prepared the most sensational gravlax, using Stephanie Alexander's recipe (after rejecting Nigella's recipe because Nigella uses gin rather than vodka).

Slicing the gravlax

Dad slicing the gravlax ultra-thin with the special knife we usually use to slice prosciutto.

Mum's prawn pâté

My brother Buster's favourite, Mum's garlicky prawn pâté. I will edit this post to include the recipe next time I'm over at their place, because it's so damn tasty!

***UPDATED: Prawn pâté recipe***
1/2 kg prawns (cooked)
1 1/2 oz butter
4 oz Philly cream cheese
1 tbsp mayo
few drops tabasco
good pinch nutmeg
1 clove crushed garlic
2 tsp lemon juice
Shell and devein prawns. Chop roughly. Blend everything except prawns. Throw in prawns and blend for a few second (prawns should be slightly in pieces - not mushy). Garnish with a whole prawn, and serve with mini toasts.

Christmas ham

The Christmas ham. Mum DID go with Nigella on this one. :)

Phillippa's mince tarts and Mum's miniature Christmas puddings

Phillippa's mince tarts and Mum's miniature Christmas puddings with white chocolate icing.

Luscious cherries

Luscious plump cherries bought and brought by Zia P.

One of the MCC bars, Boxing Day Test

On Boxing Day I went with my housemate to friend J's Boxing Day Champagne Breakfast and then to the MCG to watch the Test. Somehow I got horrendously drunk (hmmm, it might have had something to do with drinking lots of champagne with croissants and pancakes before 9am, then matching the lads beer for beer in the Members!), so I knocked off the drinking at about 2:30pm. When the cricket was over for the day I left the 'G to totter down the hill to the tram stop and it was back to Mum and Dad's for a BBQ with the Aussie relatives.

Bowl of lettuce
Janine's lettuce

My cousin J's wife gave her mother-in-law the most gorgeous terracotta pot of lettuces that she'd grown herself!

Christmas trout

Aunty M's smoked salmon trout. In my still-tipsy state I kept getting confused when people called it that - it sure didn't look like smoked salmon... was it smoked salmon, or was it smoked trout? Finally, someone explained to me that there is a fish called a 'salmon trout'...

Francisca's gingerbread men

Last but not least, my dear friend F gave me the most delicious Christmas present - four gingerbread men she made, just the way she used to do 'em in Berlin! My family and I munched on them on Christmas Eve as we played a few rounds of 500.

I had a lovely Christmas this year, hope you did too!

Monday 24 December 2007

December Cocktail Night at Cafe Vue

Cafe Vue
430 Little Collins St, Melbourne (map)
9691 3899

Cafe Vue reflection (photo courtesy of Michael)
Photo courtesy of Michael, one of my dining companions

My friend T invited me along to the December Cocktail Night at Cafe Vue on Friday. Shame on me for never having heard of it previously, but here's the deal: on Friday nights, Cafe Vue stays open and hosts evenings which match five themed cocktails with five small dishes, costing $75 per head. Bookings advisable. Each month has a different theme (from memory, T said that November was "Vodka") and December was "Christmas".

As a rule I'm not a fan of spirits with food - I prefer to drink wine or beer when I'm eating. But I'm happy to make an exception in this case - we had a very fun night, loved the food and cocktails and quite frankly... $75 for the five cocktails alone would have been a pretty good price, but once you factor in the nummy little dishes we were served from the VDM kitchen, the price is a real bargain!

Food with zest

The first dish was a consommé of Spanish jamon with blue swimmer crab and a little ball of melon. The consommé was barely tepid when it arrived at our table - not sure if this was by design or because they had many to prepare, but I would have liked it a little warmer. Great flavour combination though...

Spanish jamon, melon and blue swimmer crab

The accompanying cocktail was called "Honey, the Collins' are here" and was a variant on a Tom Collins. Vodka, honey vodka and white crème de cacao mixed with a splash of vodka and topped with a bit of egg white froth and a sprinkle of honeycomb. According to our waitress, the honeycomb represents the golden star at the top of the Christmas tree (aw!).

Honey, the Collins' are here

The second dish was "scallop baked in bread dough". Funny little calzone parcels arrived on our plates. A quick spot of open heart surgery revealed that there was a scallop shell baked INSIDE the pizza dough, and nestled in the shell were three Nova Scotian scallops (no orange roe) in a bouillabaisse reduction. I was extremely skeptical about this rather bizarre dish, but it turned out to be pretty tasty.

Scallop baked in bread dough
Scallop baked in bread dough - cross-section

Even better was the matching cocktail - "Brandy blazer with cherry air" - my kinda cocktail, and my favourite of the night. It's a variant on a blue blazer, steeped in spices like cinnamon, star anise and cloves then served warm. The cherry air was made using soy lecithin as an emulsifier. It was delicious!

Brandy blazer with cherry air

The third dish was my favourite. Turkey crackers, blueberry chutney and foie gras. The turkey crackers were crisp and sinful, lodged in a nugget of mash and looking like an exotic butterfly about to take flight. My only complaint would be that the flat plate made the foie gras and blueberry hard to scoop up.

Turkey crackers, blueberry chutney and foie gras - no flash
Turkey crackers, blueberry chutney and foie gras - flash

The cocktail accompanying the third dish was called a Floral Fizz, and mixed milk with vanilla parfait amour, mango jelly and a dash of soda. We were told the flower crowning the glass was a violet, but one of my dining companions insisted it was a rhododendron. Hmmm. Google Image research into both varieties does not yield a conclusive answer... can any botanists out there assist?

Floral fizz

The Cafe Vue interior, with the behatted barman mixing up the next round of cocktails.

Cafe Vue interior

The fourth dish was rabbit and buttermilk pancake with green apple purée. Going from left to right is a smear of green apple purée, then the rabbit (I believe this was a cube of rabbit terrine wedged inside more mash, but I could be wrong - we were on our fourth cocktail by this stage, and we'd prefaced the meal with a bottle of Champagne), then a little buttermilk pancake, with dehydrated apple peel snaked over the top. The pancake was a little dry for my liking, almost crumbly. But the rabbit was excellent.

Rabbit and buttermilk pancake with green apple puree

The fourth cocktail, the "Toffee Apple", was really delicious. Apple liqueur, butterscotch liqueur, cloudy apple juice and lime juice, thickened with a bit of xanthan gum and topped with a fabulous disc of strawberry toffee.

Toffee apple

The final dish came a close second to the turkey in my estimation. It was a plum pudding ice cream "Alaska". Each miniature baked Alaska contained a scoop of tasty plum pudding ice cream and was finished off with a blowtorch, so that it looked like a sun-burnt Sydney Opera House... :)

Plum pudding ice cream Alaska
Plum pudding ice cream Alaska - cross-section

Our last cocktail was a Lychee Highball, containing little alginate pearls of fresh ginger juice. Call me a molecular gastronomy ignoramus, but the little alginate pearls were pretty unnecessary, in my view. But the lychee flavour was a terrific way to round off the meal.

Lychee highball

I apologise if my comments today aren't particularly insightful, but I really wanted to blog about this Christmas meal before the 25th! Merry Christmas to all, and let me know if you're keen on joining what will be our monthly Cafe Vue Cocktail Night posse in 2008!

xx claire
Cafe Vue bar

Sunday 23 December 2007

Kerasma at The Press Club

The Press Club
72 Flinders St, Melbourne (map)
9677 9677

Bar at The Press Club

On a Tuesday night a little while back (yes, a while back... my dining companions and Jon have been badgering me for some time to put this review up - sorry for the delay!), I went to dinner at The Press Club with the girls (K1, K2, A, M and B).

Now, I'm going to be completely honest with you and say that whilst I have been lucky enough to have some delicious home-cooked Greek food in my time, I had always found the food served in Greek restaurants here in Melbourne to be either uninspiring or - in the case of a meal years ago at a certain Greek restaurant in Abbotsford - overpriced and downright terrible. So much so that Greek had become my least favourite cuisine to eat out. But on this November Tuesday night, my childish prejudice against Greek restaurant food was overturned and my faith restored. We had a wonderful meal!!

Before moving in to the restaurant, we started with a drink in the adjacent Press Club bar (see above photo) which, I have it on good authority, does equally delicious food at slightly cheaper prices.

The Press Club kitchen

George Calombaris' well-disciplined kitchen, visible to the diners, hard at work. The Press Club gets its name because it occupies the old Herald-Sun building on the corner of Flinders and Exhibition Streets. The fit-out is really lovely.

We decided to go the whole hog and choose the five course Kerasma (degustation) menu. I'm glad we got the five course Kerasma rather than the four course one because it meant we got to try the sensational desserts, but be warned that five courses at the Press Club is a LOT OF FOOD. It was partly my fault, because I made the schoolboy error of having lots of bread - but the three types of homemade bread they brought out were so delicious I couldn't help myself, even though I'm not generally much of a bread fan...

Atherina, dolmades, pickled cabbage, olives, spiced baby octopus and saganaki martinis

The first course to arrive was the Mezedes (tasting) platter. Starting on the far left and working clockwise we have: atherina (whitebait), dolmades, pickled cabbage, marinated olives, spiced baby octopus and three saganaki "martinis". Each of these tastes was delicious, but the stand-outs for me were the lemony oily atherina, the dolmades (which were slightly sweet - touch of honey methinks) and the gin-based saganaki martinis, a recipe for which can be found here.

Scallop-filled loukoumades with taramasalata and salmon roe

Next course was Orektika (appetisers). We were brought two dishes. The first was scallop-filled loukoumades (Greek doughnuts) with taramosalata and salmon roe. Leave any skepticism you may have about fishy doughnuts at the door - these are exquisite. And feeling those juicy balls of salmon roe burst in your mouth is one of life's small pleasures, like dipping your hand into a sack of grain or cracking your crème brûlée with a teaspoon, to quote Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain... :)

Lamb-filled lady finger filo pastries with labna and grapes

The other appetiser was lamb-filled lady finger filo pastries with labna and grapes. These were nice but didn't leave as strong an impression as the other dishes, though I did like the squishy labna oozing along the side of the crispy filo pastry.

Grilled asparagus with fetta and onion and hollandaise-type sauce

Course number three was Salates & Lathera (salads and vegetables). I loved this grilled asparagus with feta, onion and some sort of hollandaisey sauce. If anyone could correct me on what the sauce is, I'd appreciate it!

Cumin-roasted beetroot salad with pistachio biscuit, yoghurt cheese balls and Attiki honey

This salad was exceptional. Cumin-roasted beetroot salad with pistachio "biscuit", yoghurt cheese balls and Attiki honey. The roasted beetroot was a wonderful rich flavour that contrasted beautifully with the sweet honey. The so-called biscuit was actually more like an Aussie teacake in terms of consistency. Its pronounced phallic shape made at least one of us snigger like a Year 8 boy in Jonah Takalua's gang.

Seared tuna with carrot salad, babaghanoush and cous cous

By course four, Kyrio (main course), the six of us were rapidly running out of room. It's a shame because both mains were also excellent. Hopefully you're not getting too bored of my saying each dish was excellent! The first main was seared tuna with carrot salad, babaghanoush and cous cous. The pieces of tuna were still ever so slightly rare in the centre, just the way I like 'em.

Lamb from with spit roast with white bean skordalia, beans, fetta, Greek salad and potatoes

The other main was lamb from the spit roast with green beans, feta, Greek salad and slightly lemony potatoes.As you would expect, the meat was falling off the bone. I also really liked the dressing on the Greek salad.

Dessert platter #1

The final course was Glyka (sweets). The lovely waitress who had been looking after us all evening brought us two huge dessert platters! On platter #1 we had (clockwise from top left): mastic panna cotta with strawberries, Ouzo crème caramel, chocolate marquise with pistachio ice cream and loukoumades with honey and walnuts.

Dessert platter #2

On platter #2 we had (clockwise from left): baklava with cinnamon coffee ice cream, more loukoumades, more panna cotta, and feta mousse with green apple gelato and watermelon. I will happily put my hand on my heart and swear that this is the best baklava I have ever tasted! The marquise was very rich, and although I didn't really like the Ouzo crème caramel because I don't like the taste of aniseed, both it and the panna cotta had wonderfully smooth gelatinous consistencies.

Fetta mousse with green apple gelato

This feta mousse was the most unusual of the desserts. It reminded me of the goats cheese tiramisu I had a few months ago at D.O.C. in that it matched a fairly sharp cheese with dessert. K1 was wary, but I rather liked it. The green apple gelato it came with was superb - wish I could buy a tub of it to take home!

So there you have it. The five course Kerasma costs $75 per head - a bargain considering the quantity and quality of food involved, in my opinion. I'm really keen to visit the Press Club again in the new year - perhaps trying the bar menu, or other items on the restaurant menu I'm yet to sample. And who knows, perhaps now I'll even try a few other Greek restaurants - any suggestions? :)

The Press Club