Wednesday 30 January 2008

Bjork review for jfox

Stage before Bjork concert

A Melbourne Gastronome post with zero gastronomic content is most unorthodox, I know, but jfox has asked whether I can write up a review of Björk's concert which I attended last Wednesday night as part of the Sydney Festival. I'm happy to oblige, but seeing as this is the only blog I have I'm afraid the review will have to go here. I also never normally write about music and currently have a mind-crushing hangover which is spilling over into the afternoon, so please be tolerant.

And as to why I have no photos of the actual concert - the zero photos policy was very strictly enforced. I was happy to comply, because I'd read Björk's specific reasons as to why she prefers people not to take photos, and decided fair enough. In a nutshell:
"I don't want to be rude or anything, I understand they come to the show and they want to keep a memory, I appreciate that. But after two or three songs I just have to say "listen, if you want me to be here in the moment with you, then you've got to be too". It sounds weird but I really have to feel that we're doing it together."

I can and will, however, point you in the direction of some great photos taken by less scrupulous audience members... :)

The concert was on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House under a full moon on a perfect warm evening. F and I arrived while there was still plenty of light and decided to perch on the Opera House steps rather than stand up the front (neither of us being particularly tall girls). We ended up bumping into a bunch of her friends, and hung out with them for the rest of the night. I've been in love with Björk since my first boyfriend gave me Debut to remind me of him while he was overseas... I was terribly excited, but also vaguely apprehensive - how could that amazing voice sustain itself for the length of a concert?

Opera House before Bjork concert

Opera House after Bjork concert

The actual performance started with the ten brass band members, wearing brightly coloured costumes with red flags bobbing up and down over their heads, marching onstage playing their instruments (Brennið Þið Vitar). Once they were in position and had finished playing the prelude, the primal stomping, stampeding intro to Earth Intruders boomed across the forecourt and the hairs on the back of every audience member's neck stood up. The feeling of electricity in the crowd - even back up on the steps - was incredible... when Björk pranced out onto the stage, excited butterflies in my stomach turned into crazed pterodactyls! I'm a little off the wall today, but Björk does that to me. It was a spectacular opening, both musically and visually, complete with huge billowing flames erupting on the sides of the stage during the chorus.

Straight after Earth Intruders came Hunter, which somehow was even more amazing for me than the former song. Now that I've seen it live I cannot get Hunter out of my head, and I'm loving it. On the train, in meetings with barristers, drinking my morning coffee... I keep hearing those haunting strings and cooing voices and beats and I get all fluttery inside.

The next songs were Unravel (really pretty), Jóga (during this song, green lasers starting beaming onto the sails of the Opera House), Who Is It (the brass band was also doubling as a choir) and The Pleasure Is All Mine.

As well as the brass and keyboards, the musicians accompanying Björk were using all manner of amazing electronic instruments, the most spectacular of which was the ReacTable. The ReacTable is comprised of a glowing circular surface and a series of blocks. When the blocks are moved they make a sound that reflects both the sonic nature of that particular block and the way in which it was moved. The person "playing" it can change everything from pitch to volume to duration of each sound simply by moving the block. You can watch a demo of how it works here. Created by some guys in Barcelona, there are only 5 of them in the world, and Björk is touring with one of them!

Apart from looking insanely cool, the brilliant thing about the ReacTable is the way is so strongly represents elements of electronic music in a visual way (in contrast to, say, Daft Punk - even though the Daft Punk pyramid was one of the most awesome visual spectacles I've EVER experienced, I couldn't shake the vague suspicion that whoever it was dressed in the robot outfits was simply pressing a 'start' and 'finish' button on a pre-recorded set - but with the ReacTable you can SEE the electronic music being created). Plus, the little blocks being used on the ReacTable looked a little like runes, which added to the whole Björk-primal-goddess thing. :)

The next song, Pagan Poetry, was another highlight - the singing by the (brass) choir was spooky good, and after hitting all of those huge loud notes (when she got to the soft "I love him, I love him" part of the song), Björk held us all in the palm of her tiny hand. This was followed by Desired Constellation and then Army Of Me, which was massive - every time there was one of those metallic 'clangs' just before the chorus, the whole stage would light up like a flash of lightning.

I Miss You was fantastic with such a big brass section (fun and boppy), and one of my other very favourite Björk songs, Bachelorette, was also so so special to hear live. By about this time I was just incredulous that her voice was holding out so well - she was singing all of those big long loud notes and tricky musical intervals in Bachelorette just as clearly and perfectly on pitch as she was at the start. As a singer myself whose voice starts to flag after six or so songs, I just don't know how she does it. Clearly, she's not human! (Well, seeing as she ended up cancelling her Sydney BDO appearance due to swollen vocal chords, and in some of the youtube videos of other concerts her poor voice sounds rather scratchy, maybe she is human after all... but either way, she was in magnificent voice at our concert!)

The last four songs before the encore were Cover Me (just her and the guy on the keyboard), Wanderlust, Hyperballad (one of the most popular of the night - at one point she smiled and held the mic up to the singing audience - which built up to a crazy dancing climax), then Pluto.

She wasn't overly chatty during the performance, but each time she'd say "Thunk you verrry much! We arre gretfool to be here" in that adorable Icelandic/North London accent, everyone in the audience would grin from ear to ear. For the first encore, Oceania, the brass choir came down to the front of the stage and formed a semicircle around her. It was an unsual arrangement of the song - almost like an oompah band. Lots of tuba.

But the final song of the night, Declare Independence, was the biggest of all. I'll admit to you that I don't much like listening to this track on cd, but live it was incredible. Everyone was going nuts dancing and jumping around to it, and - hilariously - when they were singing "raise your flag", "higher, higher", the brass choir members pulled off the little red flags that had been bobbing over them all night and started brandishing them furiously as high as they could reach! As the song neared its finish masses of confetti rained down from above the stage and - would you believe it - a whole lot of FIREWORKS started exploding above us, launched from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Afterwards us Melbournians jokingly sniffed that the fireworks, what with the Bridge and the Opera House right next to us, had been "very SYDNEY", but it was all heaps of fun, though we ended up ignoring the fireworks to focus on our last precious moments of Björk before she vanished in a puff of smoke.

In case you haven't been able to tell, I really loved the concert. :)

Swan dress at Bjork

Monday 28 January 2008

Sydney Gastronome: breakfasts in Balmain

SIDENOTE: The next few posts will be about Sydney, as I was up there for four days last week for both a fun occasion (tickets to see Bjork's solo show on the Opera House steps) and then a sad occasion (funeral of I, the dear family friend we visited in December).

Swan dress at Bjork

Above is a girl lining up at the concert wearing a totally awesome replica she'd made of THAT swan dress. Bjork was amazing, well worth the interstate travel. But back to the food...

Adriano Zumbo Pâtissier
296 Darling St, Balmain (map)
(02) 9810 7318

The Little Marionette
1A Booth Street, Balmain (map)
(02) 9810 9728

Adriano Zumbo

In Sydney I was travelling solo and so I stayed with my cousins, both boys in their early twenties. In true bachelor pad tradition, their house had guitars, cricket bats, remote controls etc scattered liberally throughout but there was no food in the kitchen. So on two mornings I ate breakfast out in their local suburb, Balmain.

On the first morning I was wandering along Darling Street when this fabulous-looking little pâtisserie with artfully distressed walls and lots of gorgeous cakes caught my eye. It was called Adriano Zumbo.

Adriano Zumbo cakesAdriano Zumbo cakes

I liked the look of those chocolate ganache tartlets with macarons poking out of them, and my Thai tastebuds were curious as to whether the combination of coconut, kaffir lime and fresh pineapple would work in a sweet tartlet. But then I saw the quiches - supposedly all named after ex-girlfriends of Adriano, according to the friendly shop assistant - and my decision was made.

Quiche Sue

This is the Quiche Sue ($5), containing spinach, goats cheese and blueberries. Yes, blueberries.

Quiche Sue in crossection

Unusual yet delicious - the fact that blueberries aren't overly sweet helped. As you can see in the cross-section, it was a very spinachy quiche - perhaps a little too much so for my liking. Loved the pastry and the other flavour combinations though!

For a thorough analysis of the cakes at Adriano Zumbo, see Not Quite Nigella's post here. Apparently, the Zumbo folk have named one of their desserts after a food blogger who frequents the pâtisserie! Fellow Melbourne food bloggers, we should see if one of us can get the same thing done for us down here... :)

The Little Marionette

After munching on the quiche, I walked down to Gladstone Park and stumbled across The Little Marionette, a "Melbournesque" cafe that was evidently very popular - at 10:30am it was swarming with Yummy Mummies with ankle biters in designer clothing. But I didn't let them put me off... I'd read in both the Good Food Guide and the Foodie's Guide to Sydney that this cafe's banana bread was out of this world, so decided to return the following day to sample it.

The Little Marionette interior

The Little Marionette was less crowded on the Friday morning, but the three tables in the hole-in-the-wall space still filled up quickly. Luckily, the cafe has a nifty gimmick whereby if you order something and there's nowhere to sit, you are handed a picnic rug and invited to dine al fresco on the lawn in the park opposite. If you want to sit indoors, they'll wave you over when a table becomes free.

Breakfast at The Little Marionette>

The coffee was excellent, and only $2.80. Toasted banana bread was $4.50, plus an extra dollar if you wanted a side serve of passionfruit butter. I did.

Banana bread closeup

Yeah, this banana bread was the real deal. Lovely thick toasted slices studded with walnuts; the banana and the slight sweetness of the bread marrying the tangy passionfruit butter perfectly. I breakfasted at my table in bliss, reading the paper and feeling far, far away from my Melbourne office!

Bjork review in paper

Reader recommendation - Gill's Diner

Gill's Diner
Gills Alley (rear 360 Little Collins Street), Melbourne (map)
9670 7214

Gill's Diner kitchen

The lunch I had a week ago at Gill's Diner represented a first for me - the first time a Melbourne Gastronome reader had requested that I review a particular venue. Andrew, I was only too happy to oblige - and thank you so much for recommending Gill's Diner, I was wowed by the lunch I had!

When Andrew suggested it the name Gill's Diner rang distant bells in my head, but it was only once I'd done a quick check on mcity that I realised I had eaten there before - albeit when the space was still just the Commercial Bakery backroom and the menu was limited to bakery/cafe fare.

Gill's Diner

As you can see, now it has become a bustling restaurant! The food has an Italian/Bistro focus, and the rather exxy-for-lunch prices mean I'll need to find a sugar daddy if I wish to make this a regular haunt of mine. As it is, I dined with M and C and paid my own way, thanks very much... :)

Risotto at Gill's Diner

M had the risotto of carrot and prawns with slow cooked leek ($22). As you can see, the carrot was entirely blended within the risotto. We all thought carrot and prawn sounded like a slightly odd combination, but it worked well. I wished the rice had had a touch more bite to it, though.

Quail at Gill's Diner

I'll admit that I felt a teensy stab of Dish Envy when C's plate of dukkah spiced whole quail with sumac, tomato fondue and mint salad ($23) arrived before him. The dukkahed crispy quail meat with minty tomato tasted as good as it looked. Next time at Gill's, I'll find it hard to go past this one if it's still up on the blackboard.

Conchiglioni at Gill's Diner

But when my dish arrived, any flicker of Dish Envy I'd had was extinguished. This, my friends, is the conchiglioni filled with Moreton Bay bugs, squash and lemon zest ($24.50). It was easily the best pasta dish I've had in a restaurant in months, and the memory of it will linger for quite a while.

The conchiglioni (Italian for big seashells - it may look like a small dish, but these suckers were huge) had been boiled, then roasted, THEN lightly pan fried. See the crispy underside of the foremost conchiglione? The taste and texture of the shells was incredible. The thrice-cooked pasta was filled with a delicious creamy puree of the ingredients listed above, with finely chopped tomato and green olive sprinkled over the top with a drizzle of good olive oil. Mmmmmmmmm.

Gill's Diner interior

On my way out, I stopped at the Commercial Bakery counter to pick up some chocolate custard tartlets and mixed nut tartlets, as I was going to a dinner party that night after work and wanted to bring something along. The fellas in the office kept trying to snaffle them all afternoon, but they made it intact to North Melbourne that night and were a great success.

Thanks once again for the recommendation and request, Andrew!

Sunday 20 January 2008

Pre-tennis brunch at Orange

126 Chapel St, Windsor (map)
9529 1644


CJ is back in town! After nearly a year overseas my partner-in-crime and fellow pho/chilli oil dumpling/dirty martini enthusiast has returned to Melbourne! To celebrate I invited her along with me to the tennis - I had been given two free corporate tickets for the Sunday day session - but we started off with brunch. For once I had use of a car so we drove past Replete, but there was a goodly queue (and anyway, I've already blogged about the brunch on offer there)... so after discussion we decided to go down to Orange instead.

Orange interior

Down the good end of Chapel Street, Orange is a nifty venue that works for breakfasts, for nightcaps, and for everything in between. In winter the little room out the back with a roaring fireplace is a great location for sipping brandy, but on a summer's morning the Parisian bistro-style front room is ideal.

Clare's first real coffee in ten months and hot chocolate

The first decent coffee CJ had had in TEN MONTHS (accompanied by my hot chocolate).

Grilled Italian Bread at Orange

CJ ordered the Grilled Italian Bread, which came with avocado, "sun blushed" tomatoes (!!), field mushrooms and chilli jam ($12). CJ broke off half a slice for me to try - it was bloody lovely. The homemade chilli jam was not too spicy - just right for brunch - and the chewy bread was lightly brushed with oil and had grill marks striping its sides.

Crepes with orange and maple syrup

Most unusually for me, I was in the mood for a sweet rather than a savoury brunch. I decided on the Crêpes with orange (appropriate given the restaurant name, eh?) and maple syrup ($9.50). I liked these even more than I liked CJ's dish - the combination of slightly-tart-given-the-season orange with maple syrup (mixed in with a small dollop of melting cream) was inspired, and the crêpes were soft and tasted like real crêpes, as opposed to tasting like wussy thin pancakes (as is so often the case here in Oz).

We felt that given the terrific quality of the food, the breakfast prices at Orange were very modest. We also enjoyed the tennis, especially when Frenchy meilleurs amis and doubles partners, Gasquet and Tsonga, were pitted against each other in a rather exciting singles match. The intermittent rain made the rows opposite us periodically erupt in a colourful sea of umbrellas... :)

Red Laver crowd

Friday 18 January 2008

Seamstress reconaissance mission

113 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (map)
9663 6363

Last week I was trying to decide on a venue for my birthday drinks (which were on Friday but I won't blog about that night as the event did not involve much in the way of food, just many, many gin and tonics plus a bizarre wasabi-spiked Bloody Mary I will never let James buy for me EVER again).

Before Christmas, best-friend-K and I had been planning on visiting Seamstress as one of her colleagues had been raving about it, but what with the Yuletide whirlwind we didn't manage it, and then they were closed for two weeks. But last Tuesday, we visited Seamstress to (a) sample the Cantonese cuisine Agnes reviewed, and (b) check out the upstairs cocktail bar as a potential birthday drinks venue.

Seamstress restaurant

Seamstress is the baby of Jason Chan (Batch, 2005 Barista of the Year) and Anthony Herzog (former sommelier at Pearl). The building is four stories high: basement bar (yet to open), ground floor kitchen, first floor dining room and top floor kitchen. Each floor has tasteful furnishings which subtly evoke the building's rag trade past. I do wish the lighting in the restaurant hadn't been so bloody dim, though! Maybe I really do need to suck it up and invest in a better camera (or even a mini fits-in-the-handbag tripod??)...

Seamstress palate cleanser soup touch-up

Before our entrees arrived we were given little bowls of simple but nourishing broth as an appetiser.

Seamstress dumplings touch-up

Like a fool, I didn't jot down the names of what we had, so I've discussed it this evening with K but forgive me if I get any details wrong. These are the Tailor Dumplings, which had a prawn (and possibly also crab) filling. They were exquisite - the casing was silky and the dipping sauce particularly good.

Seamstress duck touch-up

The other entree was rare duck with pickled chillies wrapped in crispy chicken skin ($16). Our waiter had nodded sagely as we ordered it, saying he thought it was the best thing on the menu. Boy, was it good. I've always loved rare duck, but mixed in with the enoki mushrooms and tangy/spicy pickled chillies? Under a sheet of naughty naughty crispy chicken skin? Sensational. I will definitely order this one again next time I'm there.

Seamstress eggplant and greens touch-up

We decided we wanted one of our mains to be chock-full of veggies - this is the Yu Xiang eggplant with grilled vegetables ($20). Less showy than the duck and the fish, but it had great, clean flavours, and there was plenty of sauce underneath that we could mop up with our rice.

Seamstress snapper touch-up

The previous dishes were all well and good, but this fish was definitely the show-stopper. Crispy fried whole snapper with tangy green mango salad ($32, I think). Although it was superficially similar to a crispy barra I had a few months ago at Longrain, the Seamstress version was better - the flesh was moister, the batter was lighter, the presentation was more spectacular. The green mango salad was really moreish - wish they'd also offer it as a side salad!

Seamstress snapper (pieces missing) touch-up

The fish with a few of the pieces missing, so you can see the salad and the fish spine better. There was still good flesh to be had on the spine (and the cheeks, of course).

Our one complaint relates to the wine list. The list we were presented with was slightly different to the one you see on their (understated, yet stylish) website in that there wasn't a single pinot noir for under $50 a bottle (unless you count the $28 "cheeky half", which of course turned out to be a measly little 375mL half bottle). The week before my first post-Xmas payday (damn you, monthly salary!) money was rather limited, and it was frustrating that all the wines were so pricey relative to the food prices. Maybe I'm a philistine (or maybe I'm a a snob), but I just don't like to drink complex wines when eating highly spiced Asian food - I save those wines for French or Italian (or Japanese) meals. Of course I can understand that co-owning your first restaurant and having total freedom over the wine list must be an exciting prospect, but I feel there ought to be a few wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum, eh?

Seamstress bar

And yes, the top floor cocktail bar is indeed really nice - my new favourite city bar. My photo REALLY doesn't do it justice, so look at these pics here and here. C'est cool, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday 13 January 2008

Brunch at Butterfly Cafe

Butterfly Cafe
25 Cookson St, Camberwell (map)
9882 1649

It has been brought to my unhappy attention by P, a reliable source, that in the months since the new owners took over Butterfly Cafe, both the atmosphere and quality of food/coffee have gone drastically downhill, such that this review is no longer a good indication of what you can expect. If anyone cares to report with an update, please let me know!***

Butterfly Cafe

We went out one recent Saturday morning to Camberwell and met A and P for a catch-up brunch at Butterfly Cafe, a pint-sized cafe opposite Camberwell station. A and P are regulars at Butterfly - when they walk in the guy at the coffee machine brings them coffee the way they like it without them having to place an order, and asks them how their kids are doing.

Butterfly Cafe interiorButterfly Cafe serving area

I grew up for a few years in Camberwell, and I never would have thought daggy old Cambers would ever contain such a funky little cafe! It must be something about the proximity of the train station: it's just a stone's throw from one of my very favourite bars in Melbourne, Bar None.

Butterfly Cafe cupcakes

Wish I'd had one of these cupcakes that were in the display cabinet. According to M's Nemesis, the cupcake flowers are made by the owner's son at the former's bequest! I'll have to ask A and P whether they know if there's any truth to this rumour...

Scrambled eggs at Butterfly Cafe
Mushies on toast with feta and thyme

P laconically recommended the scrambled eggs, which he had, but I had my eye on the field mushrooms with feta and thyme on toast. They were bloody brilliant! Such a good idea to add feta and thyme. I liked them so much I recreated my own version of the recipe last week.

Homemade mushies

What d'you think of the homemade version? I know it's just sliced soy and linseed bread, but using some of the tub of Persian Feta I have in the fridge plus fresh lemon thyme from my fledgling herb garden (that's my Vietnamese mint just visible in the corner of the photo), it tasted pretty fabulous if I do say so myself. Of course, I almost always use my secret weapon when frying up mushrooms. And my not-so-secret-any-more weapon is...

Funghi porcini stockcubes

These porcini mushroom stock cubes are the cat's pyjamas! A quarter of a cube (ground-up and added once the mushrooms start to sweat) is a brilliant way to butch up fried mushies and give them that woodsey porcini flavour. They're also great in risotti. Imported from Italy, the Star brand porcini cubes can be tricky to hunt down (not many places stock them) - but they're worth your while, if only for the slightly demonic-looking fifties housewife on the cover!

Lunch special at Red Spice Road

Red Spice Road
27 McKillop St, Melbourne (map)
9603 1601

Red Spice Road bar

Trying to find somewhere to have a nice lunch with M in the CBD legal district during that first sun-drenched, ghost-town week of January was always going to be a challenge. For M and I, fans of good pasta and vino, Benito's is usually "our place" - but it and practically every other restaurant I know in that part of town was closed for summer. A bit of hunting on Your Restaurants (I'm not an especial fan of the website but I LOVE the map function which shows where all Melbourne restaurants are located in relation to each other) turned up a nearby name I wasn't familiar with: Red Spice Road.

Red Spice Road interior
Red Spice Road garden

RSR opened in late November, financed by the Hong Kong group Apples and Pears, which recently also poured money into Interlude. Speaking of Interlude, I went there in December for a very special celebratory dinner. Their 11 course degustation was AMAZING but the dim lighting meant my photos are horribly blurry, so I decided not to write it up (must get a better camera, stat!!) - anyway, Cindy from the blog Where's the Beef recently wrote a brilliant review of the vegetarian-but-still-very-similar version of the Interlude 11 Courser which I suggest you read.

BUT I DIGRESS. Red Spice Road is divided into four distinct areas, all of them very generously proportioned: the bar (top photo) with cocktail lounge ("opium bed") seating just out of shot, the "long room" (second photo - as Epicure pointed out, borrowing heavily from the Longrain school of design), the courtyard (third photo) and finally the "round room" (pictured below), which is where we elected to sit.

Red Spice Road circular table

The round room is very impressive, with sunlight flooding in through a huge domed skylight on to a round wooden table that can seat 56 people around its inner and outer rims.

Also like Longrain, the RSR menu has a strong Thai accent, but with a few more pan-Asian dishes thrown in. I had been delighted to read about the lunch special on their website - a $40 total for two people gets you an appetiser each, plus three share dishes and a bit of rice. Sold!

Betel Leaf with Spanner Crab, Chicken, Salmon Roe, Peanuts

Yeah, I know. MORE salmon roe for Claire! This is the appetiser, eaten leaf and all: betel leaf with spanner crab, chicken, salmon roe, shallots and peanuts. I really loved this scrumptious little morsel - it was the perfect way to start the meal.

Shredded Chicken, Mint, Bean Noodle, Lemongrass and Coconut Salad

The first of the share dishes was the shredded chicken, mint, bean noodle, lemongrass and coconut salad. This was also excellent - the dressing on the salad was quite delicate, allowing all the other flavours to balance out nicely.

Lamb Shank Massaman Curry with Eggplant, Potato and Peanuts

The second share dish was the lamb shank Massaman curry with eggplant, potato and peanuts. It was probably my least favourite of the dishes we tried, not that there was anything wrong with it - it was a nice Massaman curry - it's probably because the hearty, heavy nature of the dish didn't suit my appetite on a stinking hot January day.

Crispy Pork Belly with Chilli Caramel, Apple Salad and Black Vinegar

The final share dish was crispy pork belly with chilli caramel, apple salad and black vinegar. I really wish I'd taken a better photo of this one so you could see the lovely dark sticky sauce - this one was deliciously sinful, with slivers of apple providing an ideal foil to the strong flavours of the crispy meat and the sweet/sour/spicy sauce.

Definitely worth a visit. I'm hoping to head back there soon!