Sunday, 28 November 2010

Double hotcakes at The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar
656 Smith St, Clifton Hill (map)
9482 7980

One of the benefits of having an awesome best friend like best-friend-K and taking her out to brunch: when you muse upon reviewing the menu that you can't choose between the savoury corn hotcakes or the sweet ricotta hotcakes, she immediately suggests ordering both and each going half-half.

I don't deserve that woman.

I am the walrus

Both types of hotcakes at The Bell Jar are changing specials. When we went, the corn hotcakes were spiced and served with chipotle, crispy bacon, poached eggs, crème fraiche cut with coriander and a bit of rocket ($16). The cakes were fluffy and not at all stodgy.

Like salted caramel, chipotle is one of those ingredients I keep seeing cropping up on Melbourne menus with increasing frequency. And as with salted caramel, I for one am happy to see chipotle becoming so-hot-right-now-because I *love* the smoky stuff - I'm addicted to chipotle tabasco and I heartily recommend getting some for your kitchen.


Our obliging waitress arranged for delivery of the two dishes to be staggered so that we could enjoy savoury before sweet. The ricotta hotcakes of the day were stuffed with pineapple and served with butterscotch ($15). What the chalkboard didn't tell us was that the pineapple-stuffed hotcakes were also topped with fresh banana, chopped medjool dates and fresh mint. All of which added up to one HUGE dish that we couldn't finish.

As impressive as it looked, we both agreed that this was the less successful of the hotcake dishes: the hotcakes were still rather doughy, and the butterscotch sauce was so thick it stuck to the dish like sticky icing, rather than lubricating the other ingredients. Loved the flavours though, especially the lashings of mint.

Ricotta hotcakes

They're using Five Senses blends and they know how to make a good coffee.

Bell JarCoffees

Oh, and the cafe itself? Small, cute, spin 'n span, located up the sleepy northern end of Smith Street in Clifton Hill. The open kitchen is TINY but they manage somehow. The staff were lovely on our visit. Worth a visit if you're in that neck of the woods!

Bell Jar

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


One upcoming event on the Melbourne food calendar that I'm looking forward to is the [TOYS] Collective dinner on 7 December, when six young chefs will be putting on an experimental six course degustation at Embrasse with the slightly mysterious, nebulous theme of "Water". The chefs are Nic Poelaert (Embrasse), John Paul Twomey (head chef at Cutler & Co), Aaron Turner (Loam) and Daniel Wilson (Huxtable), with Morgan McGlone (Flinders Inn) and Darren Robertson (The Table Sessions, ex-Tetsuya's) flying down from Sydney. There may still be some tickets left if you're quick.

Of the Victorian chefs, the only one whose food I had not yet tried was Daniel Wilson's - so the other week I went to check out Huxtable, the newish Smith Street outfit he runs with Dante Ruaime and Jeff Wong.

131 Smith Street, Fitzroy (map)
9419 5101


I went to Huxtable with best-friend-K, that Friday night when torrential rain started bucketing down. Luckily, by the time the rain started we were safely ensconced within the restaurant drinking Arneis and Grüner Veltliner, enjoying the casual vibe and the late 60s soul music.


For the diners not sitting in retro brown and black bucket seats at tables, a row of high stools gives those up at the bench a front row view of the open kitchen, à la Cumulus but on a much more intimate scale. Our bubbly, vivacious waitress seated us directly in front of where Dan was plating up, and we had an affable chat to him about TOYS.

Huxtable kitchen

The menu starts with a dozen 'bites', then moves on to shared dishes when are divided up by 'sea', 'land' and 'earth'. It doesn't stick to any one cuisine, instead borrowing from several including Japanese, Thai, Euro bistro, Korean and Middle Eastern. Check out the menu on Huxtable's website, which I commend for being one of the best Melbourne restaurant websites I've seen in ages (hint: it's cleanly and simply designed, with no flash intro, no PDF menus and NO freaking background music).

I was under strict instructions from friends that in addition to ordering the pork ribs I *had* to try a jalapeño and cheddar croquette ($3.50). I was pleased to discover that rather than being a mere ball of crumbed fried cheese, the croquette had a hell of a jalapeño kick that made it all worthwhile.

Jalapeno and cheddar croquetteJalapeno and cheddar croquette

There are PO'BOYS on the menu! I can't remember the last time I saw po'boys on a Melbourne menu... quite possibly their presence on the menu is a legacy from Dan's formative cheffing years in the US of A, but that's just a wild supposition on my part. Anyway, the $6.50 po'boy is a must-order in my book (up there with the MoVida Aqui bocadillo de calamares). The bread roll contains rice flour crusted fried oysters, iceberg lettuce and Sriracha mayo. O Sriracha, king of chilli sauces.

Oyster po'boys

B-f-K selected the crisp filo logs of lamb puttanesca with lemon yoghurt ($5.50 each). I loved these babies - the lamb had been slow-cooked overnight so it was absolutely falling apart, and the little crunches of filo pastry wisps and the tartness of the yoghurt made the dish just delightful.

Lamb puttanesca filo logs

Moving on to the shared dishes, we had a serve of the kingfish sashimi served with pear kimchi ($19). PEAR KIMCHI. As crazy as it sounds on paper I liked it in execution: the sweet, juicy pear diffused the heat of the kimchi in a rather novel way. I also liked the edamame crumb atop the sashimi.

Kingfish sashimi

Hot on the heels of the kimchi dish came another with a Korean influence: BBQ pork ribs with spicy slaw and chilli gherkin ($19). Several pork-loving food nuts on Twitter had raved to me about this dish, and with good reason: the spicy pickle cut through the richness of the sticky ribs beautifully, and I could have ordered an entire bowl of that slaw.

Korean BBQ pork ribs

We also enjoyed a serve of Lebanese cauliflower with harissa yoghurt and dukkah ($14). Our waitress tried to tempt us with desserts but by that stage we didn't feel we could manage it - though we oohed and aahed at a passing plate of chocolate mousse sprinkled with vivid magenta granules (freeze dried raspberry from those Kiwi boys at Fresh As, as it turns out).

As we were paying our bill, Dan brought us a pair of young coconut marshmallows compliments of the kitchen. I took a bite of one and exclaimed to him (because I am a complete dork), "Tastes like Thailand!" He grinned. "That's the idea!"

Lebanese cauliflowerCoconut marshmallows

A week later I returned, spending Saturday afternoon kicking back with Jess over drinks and snacks. Forgive the dodgy camera phone photo below, I was too distracted by the jalapeño juice in my Bloody Mary to remember to take a proper photo of the Tassie oysters we shared.

Bloody Mary and oysters

Jess recommended I try the olive crumbed anchovy mozzarella with smoked tomato ($4.50) and the steamed crab and corn rice noodle with XO chilli ($5.50). I *loved* the flavours of smoked tomato and olive crumb, but felt they masked the anchovy a bit. The noodle was brilliant, especially topped with the handmade XO chilli.

Olive crumbed anchovy mozzarellaRice noodle

But my favourite dish on my second visit would definitely have to be the veal tartare with a soft boiled egg and soldiers ($21). A dish that would make a vegetarian weep, no doubt, but luckily Jess loves tartare as much as I do. And this tartare is CHOICE. The ball of meat is properly seasoned and the soft boiled egg is embedded within, yielding up its golden yolky treasure after some provocation from the soldiers. Phwoar.

Veal tartareVeal tartare

As well as being open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday, Huxtable also does breakfast/brunch over the weekend. After reading a review on Pepper Salt Sugar Spice, I'm keen to try the French toast with poached rhubarb, Istra bacon and maple syrup. For too long have rhubarb and bacon been kept apart!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Lake House in springtime

Lake House
4 King Street, Daylesford (map)
(03) 5348 3329


I've been meaning to post on the blog these photos from a lunch I had at Lake House several weeks ago. Unfortunately the lunch was right in the middle of that period when I was furiously writing my masters essay, so I was somewhat distracted (and consequently I'm afraid I can't provide you with the level of detail the food deserves). But I still really enjoyed our day trip up to Daylesford - it was the perfect temporary escape from my study cocoon - and I was mightily impressed by the food, wines and service at Lake House.

For my birthday, I'd been given a voucher from a gentleman friend for a three course lunch for two at Lake House. As an indicative guide for you, the lunch menu is $68 for two courses or $85 for three (or the degustation is $130 for an eight course menu ($115 for vegetarians) with an additional $70 if you want matching wines). There is also an express lunch ($50 for two courses and a glass of wine) from a pared-down menu.

I chose to take best-friend-K along with me, and after a strong coffee at Proud Mary one Saturday morning we hit the road and fanged it up to Daylesford. The restaurant was nearly full and we were led down to a lovely corner table near the window.


We were each given a scallop amuse-bouche to begin with. As we ate them, a pair of kookaburras stopped by on the balcony to pay us a visit (and to gobble up gourmet offcuts from the kitchen).


When I'd mentioned I was going up to Lake House, a Melbourne chef had recommended I try the entree of white asparagus with a ragout of locally foraged morels, soft polenta and a poached duck egg. HOO BOY am I glad I was given that recommendation, as this entree was sublime. Incredibly rich, of course, and exploding with flavour - those morels! The asparagus! That egg! A really memorable dish.

White asparagus

B-f-K's entree was spectacularly presented: smoked Skipton eel wrapped in pancetta, served with a shallot confit, beetroot remoulade, mustard crème fraiche, seasonal shoots and flowers.

Eel in pancetta

I'd asked restaurant manager Martin Fairhurst a couple of nerdy food questions about the chawanmushi and the tempura in the quail entree as we were placing our order, and so he naughtily brought us a serve of it to taste, compliments of the kitchen. The chawanmushi was topped with shiitake mushrooms, and the tempura-ed tower of juicy quail was topped with a julienned salad and a serve of wasabi mayonnaise.

Quail tempura

The pretty view of the lake from the restaurant. The geese on the lake can be summoned by the restaurant staff: Martin stood on the balcony and called "GOOSEGOOSEGOOSEGOOSEGOOSE!" in a loud, high-pitched voice and geese immediately swam across the lake, clambered out of the water and started waddling up the hill towards us, looking like velociraptors. They were most obliging.


B-f-K's main course was described in the menu as "free roaming chicken - roast leg, breast, ballotine, spring vegetables, foie gras croquettes, morel sauce". Again, the morels gave the dish a wonderful richness, as did the crumbed foie gras.


Mine was the pork dish: brined loin, crisped rolled belly, trotter croquette, finished with a light smoke. The bell jar filled with smoke that was whipped off the plate with a flourish after it was placed before me gave a pleasing sense of drama to the proceedings. The pork also came with a side dish, a spring braise of savoy cabbage and peas (in the tureen to the right).


Martin also insisted on bringing us a side of spiced roast pumpkin that was the BEST PUMPKIN EVER. I'm racking my brains to remember what the secret ingredients were that made it taste so extraordinarily delicious - can anyone help me out?


After all that food we were pretty damn full, so we adjourned for a walk around the lake, in the hope of working up sufficient appetite for the dessert that was yet to come. It was a spectacular spring day.


Cygnets! Such a treat for city kids like us.


My dessert was described on the menu as "a multitude of chocolate textures - with spring violets" and what a good looking dish it was too, what with the different shades of chocolate (from the white chocolate jelly to the dark chocolate and hazelnut cake) and the violet granita. The best looking dessert I've had in ages, and the violet flavour cut through the different chocolates beautifully.

Chocolate textures with spring violets

B-f-K's dish was described simply as "strawberries, rhubarb, pistachio", and she loved it. Afterwards we were brought a few sweets, all of which were hand-made at Lake House: spiced popcorn, melting marshmallows, brownies, salted caramel fudge and Austrian shortbread. Unfortunately by this stage we were SO full we could barely make a dent in this dish, but the salted caramel addict in me made a special effort with the fudge. Divine. B-f-K was also a big fan of the strongly spiced popcorn.

Strawberries, rhubarb, pistachioSweets

Not only was the food at Lake House excellent, but the service was top-notch. Sommelier Tom Hogan was also lovely to us, helping me choose a suitable wine by the glass (as I was driving back and unable to order a bottle, *sob*) and chatting affably about Italian wines. I'd never been to Alla Wolf-Tasker's restaurant before, but I can't wait to get back there again now that I've been.


Friday, 19 November 2010

Sonido! Gertrude Street goes Colombian

69 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (map)
9495 6636
Tues-Fri 8:30am-4pm, Sat-Sun 9am-4pm


About a month ago I was happily meandering along Gertrude Street in the sunshine, having just bought some Día de los Muertos knick-knacks at the wonderful Amor y Locura. When I realised the cafe I was walking past was Sonido, I decided to continue my day's Latin American theme and pop in for an arepa.


Sonido is a cute-as-a-button daytime cafe located a few doors down from Cutler in one of those shopfronts with the big Play School arched windows. It's been open for about four months. Santiago and Carolina, the young Colombian couple that run it, are both gorgeous and friendly, and I'm completely enamoured with Sonido's casual fitout bedecked with South American posters and trinkets.

I've visited THREE times in the last month, taking best-friend-K, The American and Em along for arepa fixes.


The good news for the gluten-intolerant is that arepas (flat bread made with corn meal, popular in Colombia and Venezuela) are gluten-free. At Sonido they're served with guacamole and a picadillo salsa, with an optional side salad. These ones ($11.50) were topped with frijoles and slightly sharp feta.

Frijoles con feta

The ropa vieja ("old clothes") arepas are prepared according to a "secret Cuban recipe" ($11.50). Loved these - the shredded beef was nicely seasoned, and the sauce made the lightly crisp arepas go soggy in all the right places.

Ropa vieja

When I went back with Em, she ordered the ropa vieja with side salad (additional $2.50). The arepa di choclo ($6, pictured on the right) is the only one that ISN'T gluten-free. It's a sweet corn arepa (made with "gringo" corn), topped with grilled queso fresco. Little bottles of Amazon habanero chile hot sauce were on standby if you wanted to give your arepa a kick like a mule.

Ropa ViejaArepa de choclo

I've also tried the arepas de queso ($8.50). Unlike the others, these one have the queso fresco INSIDE them as a filling. The menu suggests that you "approach these bad boys with a buttered knife in one hand and a salt shaker in the other". Aye aye, sir!

Simple but oh so tasty. I attempted a mid-meal photo for you, to show the cheese in cross-section, but I'm afraid it's a little hard to see.

Arepas de quesoArepas de queso

As well as the arepas, the small menu offers three kinds of empanadas and a few gluten-free sweets. They serve Coffee Supreme's fair trade organic coffee, and a changing South American COE single origin for black coffee orders.


Given that Sonido means "sound" in Spanish, it's no surprise that the turntable has a special place in the cafe. When he's not serving up arepas, Santiago is DJ El Patron. Look out for him and his extensive vintage vinyl collection that he brought from Bogota - he spun records at a great Day of the Dead gig at The Gem that I went to the other week.

Sonido records

On my most recent visit to Sonido last Sunday, I wanted to try the Chocolate Corona, a traditional Colombian hot chocolate that you can order with cheese. Unfortunately they were out of stock - just another excuse for me to head back there again soon!