Monday, 30 August 2010

The 2010 Taste of Melbourne festival that was

Taste of Melbourne

Taste of Melbourne has come and gone. I'd never been in previous years but this time I attended Taste not once but twice: on opening night as a guest of HotHouse Media and then on Saturday because I was covering the event for SBS Food.

Taste of Melbourne

Although it's an opportunity to try dishes from several top Melbourne restaurants under the one domed roof, you have to remember going in that the dishes being served are unlikely to be truly representative of what you'd get in the restaurants themselves, given the lack of proper cooking facilities on site at the Exhibition Building for one thing.

My friend Hannah's pet theory is that in a lot of cases, people think that eating at fine-dining restaurants is way too expensive, so they go to events like Taste instead because they seem more accessible – and sadly, end up spending just as much money for an inferior experience (and are then even less likely to actually go to any of the restaurants because they think it’s not worth it).

Hmmm. I think that provided you acknowledge that it's a commercial event, avoid the stalls where crowds are greedily gobbling up free samples, and you are a bit strategic about your menu choices and only go for dishes that suit the preparation facilities (dishes like braises are perfect), it's a fun way to try a range of great food. I'll confess I arrived as a first-timer with a degree of scepticism about the event, but was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. All of the dishes I purchased (or other people purchased and I tried) over the course of my two visits are detailed below.

Taste of Melbourne

One of the chefs I was glad to meet at Taste was Damien Styles, head chef at Charcoal Lane. I've heard nothing but good things about Charcoal Lane, and was interested to hear about its nuanced use of native ingredients and the program it runs in conjunction with Mission Australia to provide hospitality training programs for Aboriginal and disadvantaged youth. Damien was a lovely bloke too.

Damien Styles

The Charcoal Lane dish that I tried was the wallaby tataki with ginger, soy and horseradish (10 crowns, the annoying fake currency used at Taste, equivalent to $10). The freshness of the ginger and horseradish cut through the richness of the wallaby beautifully. I want to get down to Charcoal Lane soon to try their menu properly.

Wallaby tataki

One of the Mezzo Bar & Grill dishes was organic slow braised pork cheek with white polenta, raisins and marsala sauce (a bargain at 8 crowns). This was one of my favourite dishes - one poke of the plastic fork made the meat fall apart, and the tangy pickled relish was a great contrast to the marsala sauce.

Pork cheek

Stokehouse did wagyu beef cigars with artichoke and horseradish (12 crowns). These were very popular and while I concede that - in the words of one food blogger on Saturday - making a tasty dish out of deep fried meat and pastry isn't exactly rocket science, I thought they were very well executed.

Wagyu cigars

The longest queues BY FAR were for The-Palace-by-Luke-Mangan wagyu burger (apparently, the same thing happened with queues for the chip souvlaki The Press Club put on at Taste in 2008 - ah, the timeless allure of fast food!!). I purchased one of the mini burgers (10 crowns) and was disappointed by the cheap-tasting bread and dry patty, but Iron Chef Shellie spoke highly of one of the other dishes The Palace had on offer, the eye fillet with sauce Bordelaise.

Wagyu burger

Forget burgers, give me a sausage roll instead. Particularly if it's a wild rabbit sausage roll with a dollop of tomato kassundi (10 crowns), as served up by The European. The fennel-accented filling encased in beautifully buttery pastry was a definite winner.

Rabbit roll

And yes, I'm getting a little carried away with the macro on my new camera.

It was naughty of me to order it, seeing as I've already had it several times before in their restaurant and I should have only been trying NEW stuff, but I couldn't go past getting a serve of Izakaya Den's spicy tuna tataki with wasabi and garlic mayo (12 crowns). BECAUSE IT IS SO DELICIOUS.

Tuna Tataki

In addition to the 11 restaurants with stands at Taste for the full four days, this year the Powers That Be included a pop-up stand that hosted a different Melbourne restaurant on each day. This allowed smaller outfits like Embrasse and Raúl Moreno Yagüe's new Comida Bebe venture to be part of the big event. Each day the pop-up stand was kitted out differently: here's how it looked on Saturday for Izakaya Den.

Taste of Melbourne Izakaya Den

Interestingly, Izakaya Den's sweet corn kaki-age with green tea salt and Comida Bebe's patatas bravas (in the pop-up restaurant on Saturday and Friday respectively) were the ONLY savoury vegetarian dishes on offer from any of the 15 restaurants at Taste. Vegetarian visitors (like Johanna) were understandably pissed off about having so little savoury choice. Maybe the organisers for next year's event could try to entreat few more chefs to include a vegetarian dish on their menus? I also couldn't help but notice that, with the exception of Charcoal Lane and Longrain (and Izakaya Den on the Saturday), the cuisine was almost uniformly Euro-centric. Has the line-up been more culinarily diverse in previous years?

Nicky Riemer from Melbourne Wine Room did sliced poached veal loin with confit tuna caper mayonnaise (10 crowns) aka vitello tonnato, one of my favourite Italian dishes. The toppings were unorthodox but the veal was moist and the sauce was nicely creamy.

Vitello tonnato

I had a taste of the generously-portioned Longrain yellow curry of wagyu beef with cucumber relish (12 crowns). I wish it had had a bit more of a kick to it, but I suspect they toned down the spice for the festival. Longrain were definitely the cool kids on the block - not only did they have their own cocktail bar, they had their own DJ.

Wagyu curry
Taste of Melbourne Longrain

Another crowdpleaser from Stokehouse was The Bombe (10 crowns), consisting of a heart of strawberry sorbet, a middle layer of white chocolate parfait and an outer layer of meringue that was being toasted on site by a blowtorch-brandishing chef. Topped with fresh strawberries (the Bombe, that is, not the chef).

The Bombe

My favourite Sarti waiter was sadly nowhere to be seen by the time I visited for dessert, but I nevertheless loved their excellent pistachio panna cotta accompanied by a miniature asteroid of fused-together caramel salted popcorn (8 crowns).

Taste of Melbourne Sarti
Pistachio pannacotta

The last dish I tried was the exotic fruit vacherin with passionfruit curd (8 crowns) from maze. I loved it. The vacherin was more a sort of deconstructed pavlova, with a glob of cream in the centre, smaller dabs of passionfruit curd around it, pieces of fruit and small discs of meringue that had a curiously crystalline texture, an unexpected hint of salt and an acidity that I couldn't identify. I looked over and could see chef de cuisine Josh Emett behind the maze stand, so I went up to him, introduced myself and politely interrogated him about the dessert.

He revealed that the mystery acidity in the meringue was freeze dried passion fruit powder which he sources from a New Zealand company that goes by the (hilarious) Kiwi name Fresh As. I note from their website that their powders are also used in Attica's Terroir!


A few other things I saw at Taste:

On opening night, in addition to being given a tour and a well-stocked goodies bag, the other invited bloggers and I did a cocktail making class in the well-stocked Sensology arena. The jovial host demonstrated how to make a Grand Margarita, then we all copied him and made our own. Even with a laughably simple cocktail recipe that lists only four ingredients, you'll be glad to know that I still managed to completely screw it up. I am one lousy mixologist!


The prize for most ridiculous thing I saw at Taste goes to the new Smirnoff vodka with blood orange juice, which comes PREMIXED IN A GOON CASK. FFS.

Smirnoff and blood orange

On the other hand, I think almost everyone who saw it (myself included) wanted to make sweet, sweet love to the stripy retro Smeg refrigerator.

Stripey SmegStripey Smeg

Thanks to HotHouse Media and SBS Food for providing me with press passes, drinks cards for the VIP Lounge and a bunch of crowns to try out the food.

Did you visit Taste? Which dishes did you like/dislike?

A link to the SBS Food page on Taste of Melbourne is here. Check it out!

Taste of Melbourne

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Thailand (and KL) Gastronome


As I mentioned on the blog in July, Melbourne Gastronome flew the coop in early August for a short holiday in the tropical climes of Thailand and Kuala Lumpur! My travel companion was the gorgeous KT, and we had a whale of a time.

We flew in to Krabi and started out in Railay. We stayed at Railay East, a beach lined with mangroves and dotted with funky little rasta-style bars, but it was only a five minute walk to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Railay West beach. Behold:

Railay West

I thought I'd put up a post here on the blog showing some food/travel highlights. After a morning of swimming at Railay West beach and into limestone caves, a lunch back at our resort of gai yang (BBQ chicken) served with sticky rice, sweet chilli sauce and delicious som tam (papaya salad) went down a treat.

Sticky roast chicken with sticky rice and som tam

Thailand was my first opportunity to try out my new camera! A Canon G11, made possible by a voucher some friends gave me for my birthday and by advertising revenue from Melbourne Gastronome (a big thank you to those of you who've clicked on the ad, on the odd occasion I've had one in the right-hand column). :)

Railay football

This soup was our favourite thing that we ate in Thailand. It was on our last night in Railay, at a restaurant called The Rock. The name of the dish is kang som goong (hot and sour curry soup with prawns), and it came served in a fresh coconut. It was SO sour and SO salty and SO spicy that each mouthful made us cry, but at the same time it was so addictive we couldn't stop consuming it. BEST SOUP EVER.

Hot and sour shrimp soup served in a coconut

Gratuitous Som Tam/Pad Thai food porn.

Som tamPad Thai

After Railay, we headed down to Ko Lanta. The beaches there weren't as pretty, but the island was much more interesting than Railay because not everything there was geared towards supporting the tourism industry...

Tsunami hazard zone

At the eco-friendly resort we stayed at on Lanta, the treehouse villas were set right into the jungle. I really liked the black tiles in the swimming pool.


We bought longanberries, mangosteens and rambutans from a stall just up the road. Love, love, love.

Fruit on Lanta

We met a lovely Kiwi/Californian couple, P&L, and joined them for dinner the following night at a little street stall they'd found in Klong Khong called Lay Sod. Turn out Lay Sod already has a write-up online:
At the polar extreme other end of the market, a typically Thai street stall. It has until recently had no name, just "Food and Drink" and is on the main road right in the centre of Klong Kong, almost opposite Palm Beach Tours. Now it has a sign called LAY SOD. The nice man who cooks has been here for the last two seasons as well as in the off season. He (Kuhn Chairote) doesn't speak a lot of English, but he tries hard and is so friendly. He always hails passers-by with “Hello! Thai food!” Lots of locals get their takeaways from him, so that should tell you something. The menu isn't extensive, but it is written in English and his cooking is quite possibly some of the best roadside stuff you will taste anywhere. He's thorough and professional (he even wears his chef's hat and apron) and honest. Don't try and be clever, ask for discounts or give him a hard time. Just go there and try the food. Delicious and cheap. But take insect repellent if it has been raining.

Lay Sod

He wasn't wearing his chef's hat when we visited, but his yum nuer (beef salad) and tom yum with fresh king prawns, served in a Chinese hotpot, were exceptionally good.

Yam nuerTom yam

We swam in the ocean every day we were in Thailand. I also slept about 8-9 hours per night, went 100% internet-free and read four novels in a week (a rarity these days, given that food blogging has largely replaced reading fiction for me!).

Beach sentinels

One morning we went up to Ban Saladan, the busiest part of the island, to check out the marketplace.

Ban Saladan market

By the time we walked around the marketplace, these fish had been grilled and were smelling sensational.

Ban Saladan market fish

Skewers! We should've tried one of these, but KT was determined to try durian.

Marketplace at Ban Saladan

Don't you just *love* looking around fresh markets when you're travelling overseas? I sure as hell do.

Ban Saladan marketBan Saladan market dragonfruit
Ban Saladan market rambutanBan Saladan market
ButcherBan Saladan market

We bought some durian. I don't find the smell that bad, but I hate that overripe creamy taste.


The population of Ko Lanta is ninety percent Muslim, which gives it a different feel to the rest of Thailand. At the Muslim market in Lanta Old Town, we munched on gai yang skewers that were prepared Muslim-style - the sauce was thicker and tangier. Om nom nom.

Gkai Gkaw Lae YahngGkai Gkaw Lae Yahng

Another great snack at the Muslim market was this parcel of rice wrapped in banana leaves, but I can't for the life of me remember what the pickled red vegetable was. Anyone care to venture an educated guess?


We both lost our hearts to Mayani, the daughter of our tuk tuk driver and our new best friend. What a cutie pie!


On our way home we had just under 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur. We were supposed to rendezvous with an American friend of mine who knows KL well (so I'd booked KT and me a room at the swank-o-rama Mandarin Oriental because that's where he was staying), but we'd got our wires crossed and it turned out he was leaving for the airport just as we were arriving.

View from the Mandarin Oriental

Lucky that several blog readers had given me KL suggestions! In the end it was getting late and we improvised: I figured we may as well just jump into a cab and go to grab some hawker food at Jalan Alor.

Jalan Alor

I was transfixed by this stall. What were these delicious-looking char siu squares?? Many thanks to the twitterfolk who identified these for me as bakkwa, a Chinese salty-sweet dried meat product similar to jerky.


WHY can we not get this in Melbourne?! [edited to add: I should clarify, where can we get this FRESH in Melbourne?] It's brilliant! KT and I each munched on a square.


More skewers than you can shake a stick at. We had one fish (steamed) and one pork belly (fried), with a choice of sauces.


I'd never had bak kut teh ("meat bone tea") before and fell in love with the spiced, rich, slightly sweet broth punctuated with different bits of pork.

Bak kut teh

BBQ stingray! I'd had BBQ stingray during my last visit to KL in 2006, and was determined to try it again. To me it tastes like a cross between white-fleshed fish and chicken. In sambal with a squeeze of fresh lime, it's fabulous.

BBQ stingray

After our meal, we went for a stroll then caught a cab to Traders Hotel for cocktails at Sky Bar on the 33rd floor. And damn good cocktails they were too.

Sky Bar

The window seats had stunning views of the Petronas Twin Towers. I was shameless in playing the "we're only in KL for one night!" card in order to get us a window seat. The lovely, professional staff took great care of us.

Petronas twin towers

We didn't have much time the next day before we needed to head out to the airport, so after an early morning swim in the hotel pool, we asked the concierge to direct us to the nearest mamak stall so we could have a proper mamak breakfast, KL style. Egg thosai and roti canai, awwww yeah.

Nasi Kandar PelitaMamak breakfast

One last watermelon juice! Thanks KT for a wonderful holiday. xox

"Gillard races ahead in Aussie polls"