Monday 31 May 2010

Attica: the whole shebang

74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea (map)
9530 0111


Last Wednesday I had a hot date at Attica with the gorgeous O, who had never been to the Ripponlea restaurant before. We'd been meaning to head down there together ever since we'd heard that O's friend Ainslie Lubbock (previously giving exemplary service down at the Royal Mail Hotel) was the new Attica FOH manager. We were spurred into finally making a reservation the day San Pellegrino announced Attica was ranked 73rd best restaurant in the world (one of only four in Australia and the only one in Melbourne), as we figured it would rapidly become nigh-on impossible to get a table for at least a few months.

I'd been to Attica only once before: on that occasion, Dad & I had struck a Faustian bargain with Mum whereby we were allowed to go there but only if we promised to order modestly from the a la carte menu. As it turns out there isn't an a la carte menu any more: on Wednesday and Thursday nights the choice is between a $95 five course degustation and a $140 eight course degustation (only the latter is available on Friday and Saturday nights). O looked at the menus, then at me, then smiled. "Well... it's gotta be the eight course, eh? To celebrate Melbourne Gastronome's three year blog anniversary?"

Perfectly perfect.


Okay, first of all: the Baker D.Chirico bread selection came with an insanely moreish smoked olive oil emulsion and whipped cultured butter. What made this meal so special for us was not just the combination of flavours, but also all the playful contrasts in texture. I love that Ben Shewry is such a texture junkie.

We were also brought out an amuse-gueule (not mentioned on the menu) of heirloom carrots served with a red, white and yellow carrot juice syrup. The syrup is made using the shiniest of Ben Shewry's shiny kitchen laboratory gadgets, the rotary evaporator: the vacuuum system lowers the pressure and the boiling point of the liquid over several hours (read more about the rotovap's use as a distillation device in the kitchen here), which makes the syrup amazingly intense. The dish was garnished with Meredith sheep's milk cheese, shavings of chestnut and tiny carrot-top leaves.

Olive oil emulsion and smoked butterHeirloom carrots

The first of the courses listed on the menu was the Snow Crab. I tasted this dish of crab, salmon roe, puffed rice and freeze dried coconut last time I visited, but was very glad to have it again. I just love the alternating mouthfuls of hot and cold, and the textural contrast between the snow-like powder (made from horseradish oil), the moist flesh of the crab, the pop of the roe and the puffed rice.

Snow crab

The next dish was an osmanthus and chrysanthemum broth with abalone and cuttlefish. The tea leaves floating in the chicken broth were strongly aromatic and the abalone was wonderfully rich.

Osmanthus and chrysanthemum broth, abalone, cuttlefish

Next up was the course described in the menu as "a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown" (the grammar fascist in me successfully suppressed the urge to add the words "in which" after the word "earth"). I'd heard so many good things about this dish, so my expectations were sky high. Wow.

The waxy potato is prepared using the Maori hangi method, wrapped and buried in an oven tray filled with dirt and then steamed/roasted for 13 hours on a low heat so that the weight of the dirt transforms the texture of the potato until it's something akin to that of a creamy scallop. Simply AMAZING. The potato, shining like a polished gemstone, is served on a dollop of sour cream, speckles of cured trout, tiny particles of charred coconut husk and crispy dried saltbush leaves. As with the Snow Crab, the dish was as much a play on textures as it was a play on flavours. BEST POTATO EVER!

A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown

I'd thought we were being extravagant enough by going for the eight course degustation over the five course, but when we were told about the additional special on offer that night, O cocked a mischievous eyebrow in my direction and said we'd have it too (!). The special was poached Western Australia marron (sent over still alive and freshly killed to customer order - gulp), done sous-vide then draped with wagyu bresaola and sea succulents. A tiny purple pile of pansy powder and dehydrated rose swirled to life when a beaker of kombu broth was added to the shallow bowl. The marron was sublime matched with the fattiness of the bresaola.

Poached Western Australian marron, wagyu bresaola

Next we had a fillet of bass groper, served with rosemary, chopped almonds, a good whack of roasted garlic chips and a viscous sauce made from chorizo-infused water and thickened with xanthan gum. Another outstanding dish.

Bass groper, almonds, rosemary

Then it was time to move on to the meats. The rack of lamb had been roasted on the bone to tender perfection. It was served with mushrooms which had been roasted over wood, Jerusalem artichoke and delicious little balls of shanklish rolled in red quinoa. The dab of green sauce was made from forbs, a flowering plant that the lamb would have grazed upon. Although all of the ingredients were delicious, this was the one dish where O and I thought the flavours went into awesome overkill to the point where they were overpowering each other (particularly the smoky mushrooms).

Lamb, mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs

The other meat dish was Angus beef which had been roasted as part of a large fillet to maintain texture, served with a toasted black sesame puree. The sides there are raw hearts of white cabbage, seagrass and amaaaazing black chips of potato, dyed with squid ink and soy and then cooked three ways (roasted, dehydrated and fried) to spectacular effect. The sprinkles on the sides are - if you can believe it! - Crystal Bay prawns that were deep fried then blended into a floss.

Beef, seagrass, white cabbage

We were nearing the end, but I couldn't help but clap my hands together with glee when the Terroir arrived at the table. Vivid beetroot and almond cake crumbs, dehydrated raspberries, clover cress, sorrel ice, avocado oil jelly, kiwi fruit, brewing malt and white pepper with a fromage frais sorbet at the centre. I'd already had this dish before, but I'd been hoping like hell it would be on the menu because I so wanted O to try it. It did not disappoint! O started emitting little moans of wonder and pleasure with each mouthful, then wouldn't stop talking about the dish: the earthiness of the beetroot, the way the sticky chewiness of the dehydrated raspberries contrasted with the crumbs and the sorbet, the way the dish played with temperatures as a thematic echo of the Snow Crab.

I don't mind that The Age's 2009 Dish of the Year (the smoked trout broth with crackling, basil seeds and fresh smoke) is no longer on the Attica menu... but it'll be a sad, sad day if the Terroir is no longer available.


The final dish was described as "apple, olive, warm shredded wheat" on the menu, and turned out to be a sort of delicious deconstructed apple crumble. Ben Shewry came out from the kitchen to sprinkle the warm biscuity wheat crumble over the apple and to say hello. The apple component of the dish (pink lady and granny smith) had been partially dehydrated and looked like a translucent green igloo. The olive component was in the base of custard and molasses.

Apple, olive, warm shredded wheatApple, olive, warm shredded wheat

Finally, we were brought a couple of cubes of dark chocolate fudge - we liked the way that sprinkles of black Cypriot volcanic sea salt effectively bookended our meal, as they were also on the olive oil emulsion.

Fudge with black salt

All in all an outstanding meal. On the wine front, after some bubbly on arrival, O selected an excellent Chablis (whose name escapes me) for us to drink as we worked out way through the earlier dishes. For our meat courses, Ainslie recommended we order the Giacomo Mori Chianti 2006, and we were given a glass each of Braida Brachetto 2008 to go with the Terroir. Many thanks to Ainslie and her team for top-notch service.

By the way, vegetarians: the vegetarian degustation looked AMAZING. I've written up the menu descriptions for you to salivate over in the comments section of this post.

O and I are very tempted to head back again soon for Tuesday Night Chef's Table: $80 for a five course degustation trialling new recipes Ben is experimenting with and considering adding to the menu. Or, better yet, we'd love to go along over two or three SUCCESSIVE Tuesday nights, so that we could chart the evolution of certain new dishes. Soon, my pretty, soon!


Sunday 23 May 2010

Melbourne Gastronome is three years old

Piano cake with Rock Lobster sheet music

Today is the three year anniversary of the start of Melbourne Gastronome, and I wanted to mark the occasion by thanking all of you for reading. I'd especially like to thank those of you who leave thoughtful comments and/or send emails giving recommendations and feedback - it means a lot to me when I hear that people are getting something out of this little hobby of mine.

I had a surreal pseudo-virtual-celebrity moment on Thursday when a guy came up to me as I was sitting having lunch with a friend, and asked if I was "Claire from the Melbourne gastronomy blog". It turned out that he recognised me because I was wearing my signature earrings from my profile photo (!). Though I should point out that he recognised me in EARL Canteen, a place I've been frequenting incessantly over the last fortnight. :)

I celebrated the blog's birthday with an exceptional dinner during the week at Attica (to be written up soon). Oh, and there was another milestone this week: I've been keeping track of blog stats since November 2007 using Statcounter, and on Monday the site surpassed 500,000 hits. Again, thanks everybody for reading!


And here's a list of my favourite terms or phrases that people have entered over the last few months into Google, with a search result that brings them to Melbourne Gastronome:

-'where to eat if having an affair, melbourne' (if I were to write a post on this topic, I'd definitely title it 'Clandesdining', har har)
-'Places to eat in Melbourne city, not greasy crap'
-'ok to wear jeans at cookie melbourne'
-'restaurants in hardcore lane melbourne' (Hardware Lane is pretty hardcore, I guess)
-'cute bouncer in russell st bottle shop melbourne'
-'what is the name of the street where visitors can delight in sweet treats melbourne kilda'
-'buy gentleman's relish in melbourne'
-'where to find non drunk girls having a good time melbourne'
-'good questions to ask a gastronome'
-'melbourne gastronomique blog'
-'clair gastronom' (missing an e or two)
-'two fathers two sons go into a restaurant and all order the main meal riddle'
-'how does mugaritz get there peas to stick together'
-'zumbo macarons vs lindt macarons' (Zumbo, easily)
-'coffee syphon coma'
-'pizza heroin'
-'green and sleezy cocktail'
-'cheapast brothel in melbourne'
-'flinders peninsula prostitutes mums' (You stay classy, internet!)


Wednesday 19 May 2010

Because life's too short for vegetarians to eat just mushroom risotto

Egg yolk

In my post about EARL Canteen last week I mentioned the two vegetarian sandwiches on their menu: one with ratatouille and fiore di burrata in a baguette, and the other a gluten-free wrap filled with autumnal mushrooms, wilted spinach, truffle paste and a soft cooked egg (and I mean SOFT cooked... we're talking a 65/65 egg, people!!). In response to what I said about preferring to shell out a few extra bucks for a really good quality sandwich, Ruth commented:

Wow, mind-meld: I was just thinking this EXACT thing this morning when walking past EARL -- I generally think sandwiches are shit (let alone PAYING for them) and am constantly annoying my workmates with rants about how frustrating it is that it's about all that is available in this corner of the city.

To make matters worse, I'm a vego, and all ANYONE makes for us is effing roasted vegetable foccacias (dear sandwich hands of Melbourne: WE EAT OTHER THINGS APART FROM BABY SPINACH AND EGGPLANT. MUSTARD! AVOCADO! CHUTNEY! ANYTHING ELSE!).

But I happily forked over $10 for the truffle mushroom and egg wrap at EARL without a second thought -- and how keen I was to do it again. An interesting and unique filling and seriously, seriously delicious.

A few comments further down, reader becberri chimed in:

Just had to write in support of Ruth's comment ... I'm also a frustrated vego who will kill someone if I see another roasted veggie foccacia! Pu-leez!

They got me thinking about vegetarian food - or more specifically, vegetarian options in non-vegetarian restaurants.

Kafalograviera saganaki

Even a cursory glance through this blog will tell you that I'm a girl who loves her meat and seafood, and who won't be subscribing to the vegetarian lifestyle over the omnivore lifestyle any time soon. So I can only begin to imagine how mind-meltingly frustrating it must be at times for dedicated vegetarians who are also adventurous foodies that like to eat out a lot. There's only so many plates of mushroom risotto drizzled with truffle oil (or roasted vegetable focacce) that such a person can bear, surely.

A vegetarian friend of mine is moving back to Melbourne soon. In addition to planning a revisit to the Moroccan Soup Bar with me (and avoiding Vegie Bar and Soul Food like the plague), he's emphasised that he wants to try lots of non-vegetarian restaurants "where chefs are doing really interesting, exciting things with food". So I'm trying to come up with a list of great restaurants whose menus also include meat and seafood, but who definitely go beyond the Token Vegetarian Dish to showcase some great vegetarian ingredients in dishes that are more than a salad or side serve of vegetables, but don't end up being a swamp of pulses or béchamely carbs.

Fatayar pastry filled with globe artichoke, fetta and almonds

One of the most memorable vegetarian dishes I've had recently that fits into this category was the fatayar pastry filled with globe artichoke, fetta and almonds at Cutler (see photo above). I also LOVED the dish of egg yolk, toasted rye, asparagus and yeast (top photo) at the Royal Mail Hotel.

I'm looking forward to introducing my friend to my two favourite dishes at Mamasita, the elotes callejeros and the quesadilla de huitlacoche. I'm also thinking of taking him to Bar Idda, where just the other week CD and I ate an almost entirely vegetarian meal without even noticing. Oh, and we'll have to drop in to Hellenic Republic for some of that wonderful kafalograviera saganaki. Mmmmm, peppered figs.

Which restaurants do you enjoy that go beyond the Token Vegetarian Dish?

Elotes callejerosQuesadilla de huitlacoche

Friday 14 May 2010

EARL Canteen, or: how I learned to stop whining and love sandwiches

EARL Canteen
Ground level, 500 Bourke St (Lt Bourke St courtyard), Melbourne (map)
9600 1995
Monday - Friday, 7:30am-5pm

I've got a confession to make to you: I've never really liked sandwiches much.

EARL Canteen, the new cafe directly under MoVida Aqui, is changing that and rapidly making me a sandwich convert. Rather than charge $8 or $9 for crappy sandwiches using crappy ingredients, as is so often the case in CBD cafes, EARL's philosophy is to charge you slightly more (think $10-$15) but in exchange they'll make you one hell of a sandwich using restaurant-quality ingredients in combinations that make you go mmmmmmmm.

Let me add the disclaimer at this point that Simon O’Regan and Jackie Middleton, the couple behind EARL (as in, the Earl of Sandwich, geddit?), are friends of mine met through food blogging circles (Jackie's blog Eating with Jack was one of the food blogs that first inspired me to start Melbourne Gastronome three years ago). Both have impeccable industry credentials: in addition to food blogging, Jackie has years of experience as a food stylist and restaurant manager, and Simon was a sommelier and manager at Rockpool. For months we've been charting EARL's progress on Twitter, and we're all very excited for them now that it's finally open.

EARL Canteen

So, the food on offer. For $13.50 you can get the EARL lunchbox of the day, containing a sandwich, a salad and something sweet. The day I ordered the lunchbox, the sandwich was a two pork bánh mì (with both bacon AND pork belly, crunchy vegetables and a dressing of lime, fish sauce and chilli), plus a marinated vegetable salad and a rhubarb friand. That's... a pretty damn impressive lunch.


I've been back several times before writing this up because I wanted to try a few more sandwiches from the regular menu. This is the (admittedly similar to the bánh mì special) lime and palm sugar poached Glenloth chicken, crunchy salad, coriander, fresh sliced chilli and nuoc nam on baguette ($12). At EARL they don't shy away from putting a fair whack of fresh chilli into their food. Respect.

Lime poached chicken

The "REAL Steak Sandwich" is made with juicy grilled skirt steak, caramelised onion, provolone, beetroot, tomato, cos and mustard on focaccia ($13.50). Don't let the proportions in this photo fool you: it's actually a very generously sized sandwich, it's just that the steak knife they give you to cut it up is like a goddamn machete.

Steak sandwich

I had the steak sandwich on Wednesday when I was lunching there with the lovely Kate from Eating Melbourne. On that occasion she ordered the sandwich that has been causing the most commotion on the Twittersphere, the pork belly sandwich. I took a bite of hers and realised I simply MUST return to EARL the following day to get one for myself.

Everything you've heard about the awesomeness of the EARL pork belly sandwich is true. It's an insanely decadent combination of crisp skin Otway pork belly (with crackling!), apple, cabbage and fennel coleslaw and wilted silverbeet in a baguette ($13.50). As Mat rather hilariously wrote on Cooking with Goths, "It reminds me of the Sunday roast I wish my parents had the ability to cook." GET TO EARL TO TRY THIS SANDWICH, FOLKS.

Pork belly

Oh, and those potatoes in the photo above? Roasted with duck fat. A side serve costs you $4.50. Anyone who has read Jackie's blog or followed her on Twitter will know what a self-professed food nerd she is: luckily for us, this translates into her stocking EARL with only the very best ingredients. They're using Dench for baguette and focaccia, and La Madre for ciabatta and fruit bread.

There are plenty of other sandwiches on offer. Some of the vegetarian options include one with autumnal mushrooms and truffle paste, another with ratatouille and soft soft fiore di burrata (my current cheese obsession).

There's also one with duck confit and caramelised figs, one with kimchi and bacon (named Bacon Rage as a cheeky wink to all of us who suffered from #momofukurage during the food and wine festival) and one with Moondarra wagyu meatballs in sugo with deliciously tangy pickled zucchini (I sampled that last one at the EARL launch party).

Salad serves cost $6.50/$9.50 and they come with bread on the side. Of the salads, I've got my eye on that one with cabbage, pomegranate and parmesan.

SweetsEARL salads

For a brief time, EARL was stocking macarons by Duncan (as regular blog readers know, I'm craaaaazy for macarons, so I'll write about them in a separate post). Other sweet morsels that are on offer at EARL are friands ($3 each) baked fresh every morning: passionfruit & pear and roasted grape are the ones I like.

Passionfruit and pear friand

I sneaked in there one morning with housemate DJ and friends for one of our fortnightly CBD Bourgeois Breakfasts, where we had cinnamon crumpets that had been made fresh before our eyes. They were served with a degustation of condiments: butter, chai and plum jam, lemon curd and apple butter. Highly recommended.

Cinnamon crumpet

The coffee at EARL is Coffee Supreme. It lives up to its name.

Caffe latte

The best part for me? Now that my work secondment stint up at the Paris end of the CBD is coming to an end, I'll be working only a block away from EARL!

EARL Canteen

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Sicilian in East Brunswick at Bar Idda

Bar Idda
132 Lygon Street, Brunswick East (map)
9380 5339

Bar Idda

Saturday night was an East Brunswick sort of a night. Before Miss B's birthday drinks at Mr Wilkinson, CD and I had dinner together at Bar Idda. Love their business cards that look like Italian playing cards, and the ultra-gaudy plastic covers on the outside tables.

Bar Idda

I'd never been to Bar Idda before: last time I'd visited 132 Lygon Street was in 2007 when it was Rumi, before Rumi moved a few doors down the road. The red and green stained glass windows remain, but the restaurant is now Sicilian.

Bar Idda

Given my Friuli-Venezia Giulian heritage (and Nonna's cooking), I'm much more familiar with northern Italian food, but I've become increasingly fond of southern Italian food and its Moorish, moreish flavours in the last few years. After all, what's not to love about saffron, cinnamon, mint and chilli, eh? CD and I perched up at the bar and decided to share a series of rustic dishes. The red we drank was the 2007 Donnafugata 'Sedara' Nero d'Avola ($9/$43), made from an indigenous Sicilian grape varietal, served in a simple glass tumbler.

Vino rosso

We started with the suppli (a saffron rice croquette stuffed with three Sicilian style cheeses, $6.50) and the impanati di Messina (little pastries filled with roast chicken and Bar Idda's pork sausage, $10.50). The pastry on the impanati was a little on the thick and chewy side for my liking but the filling was good, as were the cheeses oozing out of the middle of the suppli.

Suppli and impanati di Messina

We were impressed with the plate of gnocchi we shared: fat, fluffy pillows made with ricotta and a hint of lemon, fried with sage butter and served with caciocavallo ($15).

Gnocchi of ricotta and lemon

We also had the saffron cauliflower with fried currants, pinenuts, onion and anchovies ($9.50) and the cucuzza (preserved pumpkin with cinnamon and mint, $8.50). The cauliflower was a little light on the saffron (and very similar, come to think of it, to the cauliflower I had last time at Rumi) but the anchovies were a great touch. And we really loved the generous serve of cucuzza (which we ended up sharing with the charming Jason who was dining with a lady friend at the other end of the bench).

Saffron cauliflowerCucuzza

To finish we ordered poached quinces, washed down with a sip of Jason's grappa di zibbibo. As those who put up with my yammering on Twitter are aware, I am ALL about the poached quinces at the moment: conveniently, last week's Good Weekend featured an Andrew McConnell poached quince recipe, which I slavishly recreated last Saturday to pleasing effect. The poached quinces at Bar Idda didn't have the same gorgeous dusky red tinge that mine and A.Mac's had, but they were nicely delicate in flavour.

Poached quinces

As was the case when the restaurant was Rumi, if there isn't a spare seat then you can go for drinks next door at The Alderman and order items from Bar Idda to eat in there. Win!