Sunday, 29 November 2009

I LOVE the steamed pork buns at Cutler & Co

Cutler & Co
55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (map)
9419 4888

Cutler & Co

The steamed pork buns at Cutler & Co are filled with suckling pig and ever-so-slightly caramelised shallots. The suckling pig, with skin removed, has been braised for about 12 hours. The buns are served with black bean and Shanghai chilli vinegar. They are utterly delicious: the closest Melbourne equivalent to the justifiably-famous pork buns I had at Momofuku Ssam in New York when I visited in June.

Steamed pork buns

It just so happens that David Chang, the chef from Momofuku Ssam (my favourite New York restaurant!), will be collaborating with Andrew McConnell (my favourite Melbourne chef!) in creating a very special dinner at Cutler's sister restaurant Cumulus Inc during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

I CAN'T TELL YOU how much I want to attend that dinner.

The steamed pork buns are $12 and are served on the bar menu at Cutler. I've extolled the virtues of the more formal Cutler restaurant menu before, but allow me now to sing the praises of some of the other 'small eats' dishes on offer in the front bar. On my most recent visit the crostini of chorizo, octopus and aioli ($6) were a mouth-watering spicy/piquant/fresh starter, and the pressed quail terrine ($16) ensorcelled me almost as much as the pheasant terrine at Cumulus Inc did a few months ago.

Chorizo, octopus and aioliPressed quail terrine

The wagyu bresaola ($15) is a replica from the Cumulus menu - the fresh squiggly shavings of horseradish continue to complement the beef beautifully. We also ordered a dish of smoked tomato, zucchini flowers, fromage blanc and fresh tarragon ($15), which we loved.

Wagyu bresaolaSmoked tomato

Sigh. Remind me when the tickets for the Chang/McConnell dinner go on sale?

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Steak coma, Rockpool

Rockpool Bar & Grill
Crown Casino, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank (map)
8648 1900


As I mentioned in my post about Marque, my Californian friend Sam and her travel companion, Naval Lieutenant ("Yes, ma'am") Levi, came to visit last month. They were only in Melbourne for three days in the middle of the week, so I took a day of annual leave to show them around on the Wednesday. We started with coffee at Outpost (which they LOVED), then we explored Prahran and St Kilda. I then asked them what they'd like to do for lunch.

"Well ma'am," said Lieutenant Levi, "I'm a man who loves his steak. Take us to the best steakhouse in town!"


I'd never been to Rockpool before, so I figured here was a perfect opportunity to check it out (plus being on the Crown Promenade would be nice for my tourists). It took us an age to find a car park, and we didn't arrive at the restaurant until after 2:30pm. We didn't leave til nearly 5pm. Late lunch was followed by a bar crawl, taking in Little Creatures, the Cherry Tree, Match, the Croft Institute and finally finishing up on the rooftop at Madame Brussels at 1am, drinking Pimms and nibbling chicken sandwiches. Fun, but exhausting!

Di Chirico breadKnife

It almost goes without saying that the setting and the service at Rockpool were impeccable. We devoured the D Chirico bread and admired the beautiful Thiers Chambriard knives. Levi was so taken with the watercolour prints of cows on the back of the menu (see top photo) that he took them home, and intends to have a set of four of them framed when he gets back to Indiana. :)

We also oohed and ahhed at the meat being aged in the fridge, and the iron bark logs burning in the kitchen to give the meats that smoky taste.

Rockpool meatRockpool kitchen

Rather than fiddle around with entrees or pastas or somesuch, we decided to cut to the chase and just order an enormous steak each, with a bunch of sides to share. BOOYAH!

Rockpool lunch

One the recommendation of Jackie, I'd ordered the Cape Grim (dry aged 36 month old grass fed) rib-eye on the bone (350g, 66 days, $58). It really was the best steak I can remember eating.

Cape Grim Rib-eye on the Bone

Sammy ordered the David Blackmore full blood wagyu leg steak (240g, 26 days, $49). I had a taste - completely different from mine, full of rich marbled goodness.

David Blackmore Full Blood Wagyu

As well as condiments of mustards, barbecue sauce and harissa, the steaks were served with side sauces of horseradish cream and sauce béarnaise. To share, we ordered the cauliflower and cheese ($9), the baby kipfler potatoes sautéed with wagyu fat and rosemary ($10), the sautéed mushrooms ($15) and the long braised, melting green beans with herbs ($10). They were all excellent, especially the cauliflower and the beans that were so soft they were almost falling apart.

Rockpool lunch

By the time we'd finished off our plates all three of us were pretty much in a steak coma, but when dessert menus were placed before us, Sammy gave an excited yelp. "Oh my god! They have pavlova!" Pavlova is Sammy's favourite dessert - a legacy from her monther's years living in Australia - but she'd never had it in a restaurant before. We ordered a serve of the delicious passionfruit pavlova ($18) and shared it between the three of us. Loved the tartness of the passionfruit.

Passionfruit pavlova

So, what did the 'mericans think of Rockpool? Well, when Levi took a bite of his steak, he closed his eyes for a moment and put down his cutlery. "Uh, Claire, I don't often do this, but this is worth it." I looked on uncomprehendingly as he waved over our waiter. Levi gave him an appraising look, and then said in a deadly serious, authoritative tone: "My compliments to the chef, please". :)


Oh and here's the "stunningly anal" (tm Jess) map I drew for the Americans so that they could explore Fitzroy, Carlton and the city the following day. Not a bad effort, in my opinion - seeing as I drew it while drunk at 2am!

Claire's "stunningly anal" map

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Market Lane: excellent specialty coffee at Prahran Market

Market Lane Coffee
Shop 13, Prahran Market
163 Commercial Road, entrance on Elizabeth St (map)
9804 7434
Open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays,
Saturdays 7-5, Sundays 10-2

Market Lane

My, isn't Melbourne getting a lot of specialty coffee houses? Melbourne fans of the so-called third-wave coffee movement (first wave = post-WWII, second wave = Lavazza/Vittoria) really are spoiled for choice, with excellent specialty coffee available at Auction Rooms, Outpost, Brother Baba Budan, Seven Seeds, Crue, St Ali, Dukes, Liar Liar and Proud Mary (note: it's only been open less than three weeks, but I think I'm the only food blogger in Melbourne that HASN'T visited Proud Mary yet!).

Well, you should definitely add Market Lane at the Prahran Market to that list. I went there this morning and loved it.

Market Lane

Open a week and a half ago, Market Lane is Fleur Studd's latest coffee venture. It's tucked in the back corner of the Prahran Market (with an entrance on Elizabeth Street), in the site that used to house an organic fruit and veg store.

Market Lane

I just love this coffee flowchart they have up on the wall. What sort of coffee do you feel like?

Market Lane coffee flowchart

The coffee menu. Provides plenty of choice, but gives enough clear, helpful information for non-afficionados to work out what they want.

Market Lane coffee menu

My coffee companion was the delightful Jess of Sugadeaux cupcake fame (she brought me THE most wicked little salted caramel mini bundt, whoo hoo!). She ordered a flat white ($3.80).

Market Lane coffee

I ordered a Clover coffee ($5) from Jason and Trent, the charming SITSMs - rest assured it's a term of endearment, fellas :) - behind the bar. They kindly brought over an extra little espresso cup so that Jess could have a taste - pretty crockery, eh? The coffee was La Pira (Cup of Excellence #11) from Costa Rica. It was beautifully clean, and made me bounce around for the rest of the day.

The main focus at Market Lane is on the coffee, but it also has a few croissants, pastries and sweets on offer. I couldn't resist also ordering a passionfruit and chocolate macaron ($3). It had a nice zing and was mercifully free of crunch, but a little on the small side.

Market Lane coffee

Gorgeous fit-out. To the right of this table is a little back room where a guy was setting up a cupping session. He invited us to join in, but alas my feeble caffeine tolerance wouldn't have allowed for it on top of the coffee I'd already consumed.

Market Lane

I liked the photos of the cows above the fridge where the organic, unhomogenised milk is stored.

Market Lane fridge

Trent invited me to come around the side so that he could talk me through how the Clover machine works. That's the roaster behind it: Jason roasts the coffee every Wednesday when the market is closed.

Market Lane clover and roaster

Oh, and of course you can buy coffee beans to take home too.

Given that I do my market shopping most Saturday mornings at Prahran, I envisage I'll be visiting quite often!

Market Lane

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Degustation at the Royal Mail Hotel: my favourite meal this year

Royal Mail Hotel
Parker Street, Dunkeld (map)
(03) 5577 2241

Mount Sturgeon overlooking Royal Mail Hotel

There, I've said it!!

View of Mount Sturgeon

The degustation at the Royal Mail Hotel was the most interesting, most delicious, most fun meal I've had all year - and that's saying something. Not only was the food and wine brilliant (much, much more about that below), but the setting and the service were both exceptional.

Road trippin' with Miss B and Miss T to a wedding in Robe, South Australia, we'd cunningly engineered our weekend so that we'd spend the Friday night at the Royal Mail. Our simple, stylish room had a lovely view of Mount Sturgeon and we all enjoyed our pre-prandial stroll through the bush skirting the grounds of the Hotel.

Royal Mail Hotel

Upon arrival at the restaurant we were seated at a table for three offering great views of the mountain and the kitchen. We chose the Menu Omnivore ($150 per head) and Miss B and I ordered the matching wines ("Village" wines, $115 per head). Miss T has a lower alcohol threshold, so she asked the sommelier to design a mini matching wine menu for her - one sparkling, one white, one red and one dessert, to be spread out over the eleven courses. He happily did so.

A word on the service. Restaurant manager Clinton, assistant restaurant manager Ainslie, sommelier Jeremy and the rest of their team were amazing. They were professional, friendly, knowledgeable and practically telepathic when it came to knowing what their guests wanted. From our vantage point, we saw them co-ordinate the evening with smooth aplomb. As finishing touches were being made to our dishes in the kitchen, three staff members would materialise, collect the dishes and then peel off - like planes in formation - so that our three dishes were placed before us in unison. All this and more was done without a hint of spectacle or haughtiness. It was a real pleasure to watch them work!

Bread and vineleaf ash butterKitchen through white wine glass

Okay, so, to begin with: the housemade bread was accompanied by some exquisite smoked vine leaf butter.

The first course was artichoke (some of which was encrusted with potato starch crumbs) served with aloe vera, compressed sugar syrupy grapefruit and a "marine essence" consisting of a mussels-based broth flavoured with lemongrass and galangal. Very delicate flavours - the perfect way to start the meal. It was served with a light NV Philipponnat Reserve Rosé (Champagne).


On the heels of the artichoke came the "sardines on toast": marinated sardine fillets topped with teeny tiny radish flowers, slices of radish and translucent panes of tuna broth jelly. So cute! The sardines went beautifully with a small glass of NV Sanchez Romate Palo Cortado (from Jerez) sherry.

Sardines on toast

The next dish was described on the menu as "Sugar snap pea, soured milk, spearmint, sashimi". Our jaws dropped as the plates were placed before us. Wow. All three of us were impressed with the presentation of the dish. The sugar snap peas were flawlessly arranged (bound together by some sort of ginger-based translucent goo - if anyone knows what it is, please tell me* - that made it look like some sort of spawned alien pod, but in a good way!) and topped with minuscule chive flowers and spearmint and baby coriander leaves. They were the best-tasting peas I've had in years.

[* Edited to add: Clint, the restaurant manager, has very kindly emailed me to identify the pea goo! "In reply to your question, the pea goo was made from a light mint and ginger stock that was slightly thickened with Kuzu. Kuzu is a Japanese root vegetable, the starch of the vegetable is used to provide a silky texture to the stock. As Kuzu itself has a mild-to-no-flavour it is perfect for this." Brilliant. Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Clint!]

Sugar snap pea

As for the other half of the dish: "Let me know what you think of the sashimi", said Ainslie as she placed my plate in front of me. We bit into it. "Hey.... wait a sec... this sashimi ain't sashimi!" The cellular structure of the "sashimi" was all wrong for fish. Definitely vegetable rather than animal, we agreed. Of course, a food nerd like me just looooved playing food detective. :)


When Ainslie checked back with us to see what we'd made of it, Miss B ventured a correct guess: watermelon! It had been dehydrated and compressed, so that it draped over the scrape of soured milk just like a piece of tuna, and it was sprinkled with flakes of what I believe was bonito/spring onion. Crazy stuff!

Oh, and I should point out at this stage that this "crazy stuff" also tasted amazing. This was intelligent cuisine, but it wasn't intellectual to the point of being clinical: it was still all about the ingredients. In my opinion, the fancy molecular techniques (and stunning visuals, and playful textures) bring used at the RMH didn't distance us from the ingredients, but rather served to highlight and enhance their fantastic quality. Most of them come from the restaurant's three gigantic kitchen gardens, which produce more than 150 varieties of organic and heirloom vegetables, leaves and herbs.

Accompanying the sugar snap peas and the "sashimi" was a 2009 Grosset Semillon/Sav Blanc (my two least favourite wine varieties, sorry!) from the Clare.

Royal Mail Hotel kitchen

Moving along to dish number 4: behold the stunning stunning presentation of the course of egg yolk, toasted rye, asparagus and yeast. Those little leaves on either side of the glorious yolk are miners lettuce. Completely buried under the toasted goodness were delicate little asparagus spears and a scrape of what at first glance looked like avocado but was a cream of asparagus and horseradish. It was toe-curlingly tasty. The strong yeasty, golden eggy flavours were supported by a big old 1997 Best's Chardonnay (Great Western Vic).

Egg yolk

"Mung bean tartare?" quipped a friend of mine upon seeing the photo. Ha!

Broken egg yolk

The prawn and pork was a sort of surf n barnyard turf, served with the 2003 Crawford River Riesling (Henty, Vic). The pork was from the piggy tail, cooked sous vide for about ten hours and then crisped on just one side to provide a fabulous textural (and flavour) contrast. The prawn contribution to the dish was the broth, the nuggets of flesh and the two heads perched on each side of the dish like a family crest, with crispy curlicues reaching for the sky. Add to that fennel, wild and cultivated rocket and tiny rocket flowers, and you have one hell of a dish.

Prawn and pork

The Crawford River Riesling remained our chosen wine for the next course too. The yellowfin tuna had been cooked sous vide at 60 degrees for only ten mintues, so most of it was still wonderfully raw. Reminds me of my favourite way to cook tuna (ie sear big thick tuna steaks on the BBQ for mere seconds so that they're still sashimi-raw on the inside). It was accompanied by super-viscous broth, garlic, nori and onion (tiny wild onion flowers).

Yellowfin tuna

Next came a course of eel with beef tendon, discs of kohl rabi and potato spheres. As with the earlier pork, the beef tendon had been cooked sous vide for 10 hours. Its texture was sticky and mouth-filling and unique and oh-my-god-words-fail-me. Matched with the 2006 Acústic Cellar Grenache/Carignan (Montsant, Spain).


The pigeon was another dish that just slayed me. Crispy roasted breast of pigeon on a liberal sprinkling of white chocolate crumbs (made with kaolin, which gave the crumbs a fascinating clay-like texture) and a side serve of the most perfect roasted baby beetroot (three varieties: bulls blood, golden and rare heirloom Chioggia). What really tipped me over the edge were the little runways of fine powder running along the pink flesh of the pigeon: the powder turned out to be a mixture of rose, lime and salt. It was like nothing I'd ever tasted before. Impossible to choose a favourite dish of the night, but DAYUM this'd be close! It was served with the 2005 Best's Pinot Meunier (Great Western Vic) - I haven't drunk much pinot meunier on its own rather than in a sparkling, but it was delicious.


Why yes, that nice-looking young man in the kitchen IS using fancy tweezers to arrange the finishing touches on a dish.

Using tweezers

The first of the three desserts was apple (a small golden delicious, cooked sous vide for a couple of hours) served with chamomile, caramel left over from the sous vide cooking process, and insanely rich triple cream cheese stock and a couple of skinny walnut flour grissini. Again, I find I'm running out of superlatives. Look - just go there, okay?

The dessert wine from Alicante (NV Primitive Quiles Moscatel) was nectar from the gods.


The second dessert was rhubarb, served with almond, citrus and a licorice gel. My dislike for licorice was tempered by my delight at the tiny edible borage flowers. No wine was served with this course, as it was meant to be a palate-cleanser (which my wearying palate was grateful for).


The final dish was the pistachio (paste and spongy cake), with hazelnut gelato, pieces of honeycomb, crumbs of chocolate and pistachio and little curls of chocolate. On the wine front we'd come full circle back to Sanchez Romate sherry (only this time it was a cream sherry).


Miss T, my favourite Melbourne Gastronome hand model, displaying the bill and the packets of nutty chocs we were given to take with us.

Bill and chocs (Miss T as hand model)Continental breakfast

On the Saturday morning (included as part of our hotel room stay) we went back to the restaurant, to our same table as the night before, for a continental breakfast. I particularly liked the local Grampians sheep milk yoghurt - mine was coconut flavoured.

Mount Sturgeon

On the Sunday, having attended a lovely wedding the afternoon before, I was being driven back to Melbourne by my friends C and CC. I was waxing rhapsodic about the amaaaazing meal I'd had with the girls on the Friday at the Royal Mail Hotel. C exchanged glances with his wife. "Well... we will be passing through Dunkeld at about lunchtime, and we're keen to check it out... what would you say to lunch at the Royal Mail Bistro?"

So yes, not only did I have Friday dinner and Saturday breakfast there, I went back for Sunday lunch! As we entered, Ainslie flashed me a grin. "Claire, hello again! Your usual table?" :)

Marinated olives, spiced almonds, butter

We were brought a serve of marinated olives and spiced almonds. CC ordered the gorgeous-looking cured ocean trout with orange, saffron and trout 'crackling' ($18).

Cured ocean trout

C enjoyed the house smoked pork belly, which came with with back radish, pear and spiced red wine ($19). I had the risotto of fennel, radicchio and gorgonzola ($16). Gorgeously bitter and sweet and rich.

House smoked pork bellyRisotto of fennel, radicchio and gorgonzola

To finish, the three of us shared the Crema Catalan ($12), with neither C nor CC had tasted before. Also excellent.

Crema CatalanCrema Catalan

Anyone fancy coming on a Dunkeld road trip with me this summer? I'm serious!