Sunday, 21 February 2010

The 2010 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival media launch

Heritage Garden

Monday was a non-working day for me, which afforded me the opportunity to accept my invite to the 2010 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival media launch lunch. I'd been doubly excited about attending when I'd read on the invite that the lunch would be prepared by Michael Ryan (Provenance) and Nicolas Poelaert (Embrasse), two chefs whose food I had not yet sampled but I'd been very keen to try for the last year or so. Having already discussed kuzu with Michael and oysters with Nic on Twitter, I was looking forward to meeting them. Unlike some egomaniac chefs I've met in the past, they were both really nice guys.

Heirloom tomatoes

The lunch was held at Abbotsford Convent. In addition to a few familiar faces I already knew from various restaurants, blogs, media outlets etc, I met several others. As somebody not "in the industry" as such, it's always interesting seeing how those who are in the industry interact with each other. One nice touch at the event was the table of heirloom tomatoes, provided by Clive from the Digger's Club. My favourites were definitely the Green Zebras.

Heirloom tomatoes

Monday was quite the foodie marathon, because in the evening I went to the Gastronomica food trivia night (where unfortunately, despite our best efforts to defend our title, the food blogger table came second). At the trivia night I bumped into a certain outspoken restaurateur who, when told I wrote the blog Melbourne Gastronome, told me "I've read your blog... and some of it's quite good!". Using the same faintly surprised tone he'd used, I replied that I'd eaten at his restaurant, and some of his food is quite good! He laughed, and acknowledged that his comment may have sounded somewhat condescending. :)

Heritage Garden

But back to the lunch. Mellie from Tummy Rumbles has already written it up beautifully, so I'll confine myself to a few brief descriptions and some food porn photos. Each chef prepared three dishes, and the first dish was Michael's: raw zucchini, goats curd, zucchini confiture, parmesan gel, olive and tomato sauces and thyme. I loved it, particularly the texture and of the gel cubes and the way the delicate zucchini was accented by the curd and olive.

Raw zucchini, goats curd, zucchini confiture, paremesan gel, olive and tomato sauces, thyme

Next up was another Michael Ryan dish: heirloom tomatoes, chilli, cucumber, gazpacho, sourdough croutons. A sure-fire crowd-pleaser given the sensational flavours of the tomatoes (which had been prepared in a variety of different ways: olive-brined, dried, fresh and slow-roasted). Adding textural spark was what I mistook for a foam, but Michael later clarified it was a whipped jelly.

Heirloom tomatoes, chilli, cucumber, gazpacho, sourdough croutons

Then it was Nic Poelaert's turn and we were served John dory cooked with squid, Daylesford beetroots, burnt carrot puree, rice paddy herb and glory spinach. It was like a beetroot degustation, and I was surprised at how well the beetroots went with the fish. Very dramatic presentation too.

John dory cooked with squid, Daylesford beetroots, burnt carrot puree, rice paddy herb, glory spinach

I'm glad I took a second photo after I'd taken a bite of the dory, so that you can see how lovely the moist flesh was.

John dory cooked with squid, Daylesford beetroots, burnt carrot puree, rice paddy herb, glory spinach

The two main courses came out on big share platters. Michael's was confit chicken wings with dashi-braised eggplant, daikon, spring onion and konbu no tsukudani. Totemo oishikatta desu! As Mellie commented, we suspect the dashi had been thickened with kuzu starch to give it that deliriously silky texture.

Confit chicken wings, dashi-braised eggplant, daikon, spring onion, konbu no tsukudaniMr Donatis pork belly, Warrandyte cherries, QV Market fresh mustard, white carrots, stuffed capsicum

Nic's main dish consisted of melt-in-the-mouth Mr Donatis pork belly laden with all sorts of goodies. To quote from the menu, the dish had Warrandyte cherries, QV Market fresh mustard, Embrasse's own white carrots rolled in very starchy potato, and stuffed capsicums from Albert in Sunbury. I loved the piquant cherries, the stickiness of the sauce and those sweet little carrots.

Mr Donatis pork belly, Warrandyte cherries, QV Market fresh mustard, white carrots, stuffed capsicum

The dish with the biggest visual WOW factor was definitely Nic's dessert platter - the forest floor. Look at it! I love the way the chocolatey crumbs represent soil, the meringues with hazelnut parfait caps represent mushrooms, and the sorrel mint granita provides patches of green. And I'll confess to you that I had not one, but TWO pieces of that gorgeous-looking honeycomb. You may be interested to know that a dessert matching this description is on the current Embrasse menu: I recommend you go there at once and try this dessert, cos it tastes as good as it looks.

Hazelnut parfait, meringue, honey/chocolate, sorrel mint granita

And as if all that wasn't enough, in each goody bag the MFWF gave us to take home after the lunch was an Embrasse pink geranium and poppy macaron, filled with a handmade fig essence jam. DELICIOUS.


So the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is off to a great start for me (even if I did miss out on tickets to You-Know-Who's dinner at Cumulus, sigh). I'm booked in to a small handful of events, but always keen to hear about any others that people recommend... what do you think sounds good?

Monday, 15 February 2010

Mamasita brings awesome Mexican food to the Melbourne CBD

Level 1, 11 Collins Street, Melbourne (map)
9650 3821
Mondays to Wednesdays 12pm to 12am
Thursdays 12pm to 12:30am
Fridays 12pm to 2am
Saturdays 6pm to 2am


When I first went to Southern California and Mexico six years ago I was introduced to proper Mexican food, which made me recognise and acknowledge just how rubbish 99% of all Mexican food in Australia really is. I love love love good Mexican food (very excited, by the way, about the upcoming MFWF Tommi Miers dinner at MoVida Aqui)!

So the recent news that the site formerly known as Recorded Music Salon was becoming an authentic Mexican restaurant/bar cheffed by Jason Jones and run by Matt Lane, ex-Cumulus Inc and former general manager at New York's La Esquina, brought a big sloppy smile to my face. I was lucky enough to visit La Esquina when I went to New York in June last year (review here) and loved it.

I managed an invite to Mamasita's opening night last Friday, and I took the lovely Jess, cupcake maestro and our resident Mexican food expert, as my dining companion.


The back of the menu depicted the Mexico City subway map. Nice.

Mamasita menu

I'd already been at Friday night work drinks around the corner at Bar Lourinhã and Jess was driving, so to drink we each just had a michelada ($6). For the uninitiated, a michelada is a brilliant Mexican drink made with beer, lime juice, spices and tabasco or clamato sauce, often served with a salt-encrusted rim. There are of course a wide range of tequilas available, and it may also interest you to know that the entire menu is gluten free.

Mamasita menuMichelada

To start with, we ordered totopos con salsa ($5, also available with guacamole if it's in season). I am pleased to report that these are REAL tortilla chips, not Doritos-style corn chips. To make real tortilla chips you hand press a thin corn tortilla, cut it into six pieces and then fry them - the thinner the chips, the better. The salsa on the side was a simple pico de gallo.


We then each had a taco. I had a taco de pescado ($6), Jess had a taco de pollo ($5). Goooood tacos! Both of us were impressed at how authentic they were - small and soft (none of that Old El Paso-esque crispy stuff here). My one had grilled fish, lime, achiote paste and red onion salsa. Jess' one had "raised-right" roast chicken, citrus, guacamole and queso fresco. The good news is, the Taqueria portion of the menu is available all day and all night - so when the main dinner menu finishes at 11pm, you can keep ordering tacos and quesadillas until midnight (or 2am on the weekend). Score!

Taco de pescado

Jess was VERY impressed to see a quesadilla de huitlacoche ($10) on the menu. Often euphemistically referred to as "Mexican truffle", huitlacoche is also known by the rather adorable name "corn smut". The internets define it as a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis, which replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms. You can see some wonderfully disgusting photos of huitlacoche growing on cobs here and here. It's considered a pest in some parts of the world, but a delicacy in others.

I'd never had it before, and I'm so glad we ordered it: a wonderful earthy, mushroomy flavour. The quesadilla also contained mushrooms, roasted corn, epazote and queso fresco. Definitely a "must order" at Mamasita.

Quesadilla de huitlacoche

We had a nice chat with Matt, who is clearly wildly passionate about bringing good Mexican food to Melbourne. Some tostaditas de maiz arrived compliments of the kitchen (priced on the menu as $10 for four), made with sweet corn, blackbeans, epazote, jalapeño salsa and topped with queso fresco. Matt mentioned to us that one of his major hurdles has been getting the right sorts of cheeses here in Australia. We also ordered a very nice red mole poblano de pollo ($18) and an ensalada verde ($9), which included shredded iceberg lettuce, shredded cucumber and dill.

Tostaditas de maizMole poblano and ensalada verde

The crowd was eclectic and the late opening hours mean that after about 10:30 the place becomes less restauranty, more clubby, so bear in mind that it can get rather noisy later on. The dinner we had at Mamasita was definitely the best and most interesting Mexican I've ever had in Australia. I envisage I will be a very frequent visitor!

El Yucateco

Friday, 12 February 2010

O Cutler! My Cutler!

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

(with apologies to Walt Whitman)

Best-friend-K and I had dinner at Cutler and Co on Saturday night: partly as a consolation prize for missing out on tickets to the MFWF David Chang dinner (it's still a very painful topic for me to talk about. Maintain the #MOMOFUKURAGE, twitterfolk!), and partly because on Saturday night we were going to see The Road at the Nova beforehand, so we'd figured we'd need some cheering up after sitting though the grim, post-apocalyptic bleakness of the film. Uh, we weren't wrong.

A few weeks ago, Melbourne Gastronome reader @Barbarella1978 asked on Twitter: "Is it bad that in meditation terms my 'happy place' is cicciolina back bar?"

I'm pretty sure I feel the same way about both the front bar and back restaurant of Cutler and Co.

Cutler and Co

We started, as has become customary for us at Cutler, with a flawless, damn stiff negroni.

We then had a trio of Moonlight Flat oysters ($3.50-$4 each, clockwise from bottom left): a Petit Clair, a Clair de Lune Bouton and a Rusty Wire. I learned all about these oysters at the Oyster Masterclass held by Cumulus Inc and Moonlight Flat Oysterage at last year's MFWF (they're holding it again this year - if there are still tickets available, it's an event I highly recommend to you). Oddly enough, despite my fondness for it last time, I really didn't like the Petit Clair... but I loved the other two.

NegroniTrio of Moonlight Flat oysters

We were having difficulty making up our minds about which entrees to order, and considered ordering the Entree Selection ($39 per person). Our decision to order it was made once we learned that a dish from the degustation-y Menu Selection (that is not on the regular entree menu) was also included in the Entree Selection: tuna sashimi with buttermilk snow and fresh wasabi. BUTTERMILK SNOW, you say?

Andrew McConnell, you cheeky devil. It was so so so good. The sashimi was crazy fresh, the buttermilk snow was wonderfully cold and sour creamy, and the fresh wasabi was contrasted with pickled cucumber and thinly sliced cuttlefish. Definitely recommended.

Tuna sashimi, buttermilk snow, fresh wasabi

Included next in the trio of entrees was the pressed quail terrine, fois gras cigar, orange and pistachio. The terrine also features on the bar menu, and I'd loved it when I ate at the front bar in November. It's a great terrine, and it tastes so lovely with the piquant sour cherry and the pistachio crumbs. A wonderful addition to the dish is the cigarillo of Tunisian brik pastry filled with parfait de fois gras that had so delighted b-f-K and me, in a different dish, on our first visit to Cutler almost a year ago.

Pressed quail terrine, fois gras cigar, orange and pistachio

The last of the Entree Selection dishes was an heirloom tomato salad with marinated vegetables, fromage blanc, tarragon and almond aillade. Again, very similar to a delicately flavoured dish I ordered in November from the bar menu. Only this time it contained marinated zucchini and eggplant, and the freshest, loveliest zucchini flowers. As well as a few varieties of tomato, the salad also contained different kinds of basil.

Heirloom tomato salad, marinated vegetables, fromage blanc, tarragon, almond aillade

While we were waiting for our shared main course to arrive, a few extra nibbles arrived compliments of the kitchen (one of the benefits of Adam, who was running the restaurant floor, recognising me!). We were given a few of the mouth-watering crostini with chorizo, octopus and aioli, which I've also previously enjoyed on the bar menu. But we were also brought out a few cheese crackers, which I'd never tasted before from the bar menu - they had the texture of prawn crackers, but the taste of parmesan. Delicious and moreish.

Parmesan crackers, crostini of chorizo, octopus and aioli

Given that we'd had oysters and several entrees and intended to order desserts, we'd wisely decided to share just one main course. We'd been intrigued by the sound of the vegetarian one, fatayar pastry filled with globe artichoke, fetta and almonds ($32). The pastry was exceptional - crispy but slightly chewy, and not at all soggy on the underside - and we also really liked the salad on top of shaved fennel and dill.

Fatayar pastry filled with globe artichoke, fetta and almonds

We eyed the dessert menu. Alas, gone are the ginger granita and the toffee apple dessert that I previously loved, but I was very relieved to see that the ice cream sandwich with vanilla parfait and salted caramel remains. It'll be a sad, sad day if the ice cream sandwich is ever removed from the menu. We couldn't decide between two of the desserts (all of which are $17 or $18), so our eminently capable waiter offered to organise a half serve of two different desserts for us to try. Charming suggestion.

And then they went and sneakily brought out an additional dessert for us to try, compliments of the kitchen!

The additional dessert is described on the menu as "blackberries, banana sorbet, brown sugar and coffee cake". All of which were lovely. What the menu doesn't mention is the amazing "milk jam" that tied the whole dish together. Such a great texture, and that soft cake and banana sorbet were stunning.

Blackberries, banana sorbet, brown sugar and coffee cake

The first of the desserts we actually ordered was the one with sheep's milk frozen yoghurt, coconut, poached with peach and black olive nougatine. Don't let the olive thing throw you - I promise you, it WORKS.

Sheep's milk yoghurt, coconut, poached white peach and black olive nougatine

The other dessert we'd ordered was the violet ice cream with chocolate ganache and sour cherry. Our waiter had had to persuade me to order it - after a sub-par lavender ice cream experience a few months ago, I wanted to steer clear of "floral" ice cream. But wow am I glad he talked me into it - you MUST try this violet ice cream, the flavour is just magical. I also really loved the elegant ganache and the little pieces of meringue that looked like chips of plasterboard. WIN.

Violet ice cream, chocolate ganache and sour cherry

To enjoy with our dessert(s) I'd ordered a glass of Les Larmes Célestes 2004 (Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh), because I'd loved it so much when I had it in December up at Guillaume at Bennelong. Our waiter also took the liberty of bringing us each out a tasting glass of sweet sweet Madeira, to go with the banana sorbet dessert.

Such a memorable meal. Such a great restaurant.

Cutler and Co

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Mamma's Boy and guess who's popping up again in the city

Mamma's Boy
13 Little Collins Street, Melbourne (map)
9662 2166

Mamma's Boy

For the last two months I've been working on secondment up towards the Paris end of the CBD. After 3+ years working down the Beirut end (or as I prefer to think of it, the Delaware end) of town, I'm loving my sudden proximity to places like Chinatown and Cumulus Inc, and lunching with friends who work up thataway. Today I had lunch with Miss M, who took me to a little cafe around the corner from Liaison called Mamma's Boy. How cute is this back blackboard listing some of the cafe's recipes, eh?

Mamma's Boy

Mamma's Boy serves baguettes, toasties and quesadillas but if you visit you simply MUST order this Vietnamese chicken salad ($9.50), containing poached chicken, wombok, carrot, fresh chilli, fresh ginger, coriander, Vietnamese mint and crispy shallots. It's fabulously fresh and delicious and the serving is HUGE (as I mumbled on twitter, I think I ate an entire head of wombok).

Vietnamese chicken salad

Miss M ordered the Thai red duck curry with coconut rice ($14.90), which she loved. I mean to come back one morning for breakfast - I want to order the Afghani eggs served with fresh chilli and lime.

Red duck curryMamma's Boy

Oh, and GUESS who's popping up again in the city for another few months (a mere 90 second walk from my current building)?

Baker D Chirico pop up

Baker D. Chirico pop-up store
24 Crossley Street, Melbourne (map)
Open Tuesday to Friday, 8am-6pm, from Tuesday 9 February 2010 to Thursday 1 April 2010

Last year, for the month leading up to Christmas, St Kilda baker par excellence Baker D. Chirico set up a pop-up shop in Crossley Street in the city (opposite Gingerboy), selling the insane array of sweet treats you see before you in the above photo.

Thanks to Joyce from the blog MEL HOT OR NOT breaking the news on twitter this afternoon, the word on the street is that the pop-up shop is BACK, starting on Tuesday and open four days a week up until Easter. Read Joyce's comprehensive review of the pop-up shop here.

D Chirico pop up

I love love love their pistachio nougat, and I think their macarons are the best commercially-available macarons Melbourne currently has on offer. OUTRAGEOUSLY close to my office building!

Baker D Chirico nougatBaker D Chirico macarons

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Single origin coffee and tasty toasties in Cremorne

Espresso 3121
Rear 96 Balmain St, Richmond (map)
(aka just down the lane from cnr Balmain St & Walnut St, Cremorne)
9025 7620
Open Mon-Fri 7am-4pm
Closed weekends :(

Espresso 3121

I've whinged about it before, but one of the few downsides of living in Cremorne is that many of the great little cafes dotting the light industrial suburb are only open from Monday to Friday, which means that Monday to Friday city workers like me never get to visit them.

I wrote about one such cafe, Volley, about 18 months ago (back in those dark days when my beloved local, the nearby Cherry Tree, was closed on Sundays and didn't stock Coldstream Cider). At the time I thought Volley was nice but not particularly memorable. One name change, menu revamp and substantial renovation later, this cafe is looking a whole lot more interesting.

Espresso 3121Espresso 3121

Volley is now called Espresso 3121 (a name my housemate dislikes but I like). I love the redesign of the counter and seating area, with the front section raised a few steps to make the most of the east facing window and the morning sun. The venue can also be hired for private functions.

Espresso 3121

The shiny concrete floors, hanging lights, exposed brickwork and mounted bike racks reminded me a bit of Seven Seeds, but Espresso 3121 is decidedly more gritty and rough around the edges, less polished and SWPL.

Espresso 3121

The coffee machine is a La Marzocco and the beans are Veneziano, with a changing single origin on offer (when I went, it was from El Salvador). As well as selling beans, Espresso 3121 also offers a barista training and consultation service. I liked the lengthy coffee menu on the blackboard below.

Espresso 3121 coffees

There is a simple lunch menu (which sadly I may never have the opportunity to sample). Breakfast-wise, there is bircher muesli, Dench croissants and a variety of Dench organic breads for toast (jams, avocado and Vegemite, Nutella etc) and open grilled toasties.

Espresso 3121 toasted sandwich

The morning I visited en route to work, I ordered the grilled toastie with Otway leg ham, seeded mustard, tomato, tasty cheese, sea salt and cracked pepper ($7) and was most impressed. Quality ingredients.

Espresso 3121 toasted sandwich

C'mon, Espresso 3121, please open for breakfasts on Saturdays! Pretty pretty please?

Espresso 3121