Sunday, 30 January 2011

The best phố on Victoria Street: Pho Chu The

Pho Chu The
270 Victoria Street, Richmond (map)
9427 7749

Pho Chu The

Ten days ago I caught up with my ladies K and J for some midweek phố, and instead of going to one of our regular haunts Thanh Nga Nine or Co Do, I suggested we give Pho Chu The a try. I hadn't been there for a few years, but I remembered it being pretty good. J looked up the address online and joked to us that it was the half empty restaurant that she takes guys to when she doesn't want to be seen with them, like the Chinese restaurant in an old episode of Sex and the City.

Whether or not Pho Chu The was the venue where J was clandesdining, it certainly wasn't half empty: on a Wednesday night there was a queue of about ten people out the door. The decor is strictly no frills and the service is brusque and swift, with food coming out within about two minutes of ordering. My kind of fast food!

Pho Chu The

Mystifyingly, the restaurant was overrun by the skinny jeans brigade... I guess they're all here because the phố is so damn good.

Pho Ga

$8.50 a bowl, and the restaurant serves nothing but beef, chicken and vegetable phố and spring rolls. One bowl of the phở bò with rare beef was enough for me to declare Pho Chu The my new favourite phở joint on Victoria Street. The magic is in the broth.

Pho Bo

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Melbourne Gastronome Visitor's Guide to Melbourne

3berry Pie 2: Electric Boogaloo
Totally gratuitous photo (courtesy hannahbabble) of the 3berry pie I baked yesterday for the Australia Day BBQ I attended.
Fabulous pastry recipe courtesy of Chez Pim's The One Pie Dough to Rule Them All

One of the consequences that come with the territory of writing a food blog such as this is frequent emails from readers asking for particular Melbourne restaurant recommendations. Where I can I try to respond to these emails, particularly when the question being asked is asked politely and has a clear scope and realistic expectations. At other times, well... let me show you a sample.

Hi Claire
I am coming to Melbourne in January and was hoping you could make my life easier by recomending a great place to eat. I am trying to arrange a ladies night out on the town and want to go some where realy special, not as in a pricey place but something a bit out the orindary were they will go wow. I am thinking a trendy place in a lane were we can have pre drinks and then dinner, bit of good music. We are happy to venture anywhere by tram etc.
I look forward to receiving some suggestions

Hi Claire,
do you have any suggestions for a family Xmas lunch on Boxing Day venue in Melbourne CBD? I have made a reservation at The European for 9, but am a little concerned that they will not accommodate the dietary requirements of a gluten intolerant vegetarian guest as well as a vegan with special dietary needs

I have come across your website and found it illuminating. So, I thought, you are the right one to ask me help me solve my problem. It is this. I am looking for a restaurant/pub that has either a separate room or is prepared to hire itself out for birthday bash. The requirements are this: sit down dinner for 50-60 people at tables of 6 or 8, room to bring in a band so it needs dance space.
I would prefer eastern, inner suburbs or city locations.
Can you help? Hopefully this is a challenge you want to take on. [my emphasis]
I will be away from 14 Dec until mid January so if you respond during that time and don't get an answer from me, it is b/c I will not be near a computer.
Thanks in advance

Oh and for the record, that last email? It was NOT a challenge I wanted to take on, amazingly enough! *cough*

But in light of the increasing number of emails from out-of-towners wanting Melbourne tips, I've put together a Gastronomic Visitor's Guide to Melbourne. If you have strong views about places that should absolutely positively be recommended to visitors to our fair city, please let me know!

Friday, 21 January 2011

Have you tried Der Raum's Summer 2011 cocktails yet?

I ask because they're really rather special.

Der Raum
438 Church Street, Richmond (map)
9428 0055

Der Raum
Pictured from left to right: Ben Shewry (an instant classic!), Death in the Afternoon and, from the new menu, PB & J.

Every three months those clever alcohol alchemists at Der Raum create a new cocktail menu (though classics such as the Pharmacy, the Latin Threesome and the El Moroccan Blazer are still available). One hot Saturday a few weeks ago b-f-K and I had a dinner reservation that wasn't until 9pm, so we decided we'd meet up a few hours earlier and work our way through the five new Der Raum cocktails while we waited.

Der Raum

I've written before about how much I love my local cocktail bar and their fancy, inventive but perfectly balanced liquid creations. Der Raum is the first bar in Australia to use a rotary evaporator, an elaborate distillation device whose vacuum system lowers the pressure and the boiling point of liquid over several hours (as used to great effect with food at Attica). The rotovap is a recently acquired toy that Matt and others have been using to distill various elements for the new cocktails.

The palate-cleansing drink served on arrival was the 'Chamomile Chroming', a sous vide infusion of French vermouth and chamomile emitting wisps of dry ice vapour. When I popped in for a drink two nights ago with the lovely H, the drink on arrival came in a ridiculously skinny glass and was infused with rooibos tea.

Der Raum

The first of the Summer 2011 cocktails is the 'Gomashio Kanpai' ($22), made with sesame spirit, lime, cucumber juice, bittersweet orange oil and a hint of ginger, salt and pepper to fill out the palate. It's served with a stick of cucumber pressed with gomashio (a Japanese condiment made from sesame seeds and black salt). It is refreshing and salty and ENTIRELY delicious - probably my favourite on the menu.

Gomashio Kanpai

The second cocktail (with a price of $20) has one of the longer cocktail names I've heard in recent memory:
'No blossoms and no moon,
and he is drinking sake
all alone'


For simplicity's sake, it gets shortened to No Blossoms. Perhaps it's best if I just let Der Raum explain the origins of this one: "While the name may be the work of Haiku master, Matsuo Bashō, the most famous poet of the Edo period, the drink itself is the work of our friend and former Der Raum alumni, Joel Fraser, a self proclaimed Bashō of the bar."

It's made with sake, French vermouth, pressed citrus and orange blossom, and a lemon verbena distillate is sprayed over the top just prior to serving. I was less enamored of this one due to my dislike of lemon verbena, even in trace amounts (to me it always tastes like an aromatherapy candle).

No blossoms and no moon, and he is drinking sake all alonePB&J

We both loved the 'PB & J' ($25) though. It's made with Makers Mark, crème de framboise, strawberry vermouth and sparkling rosé. Into the jam jar containing the liquid is poured the pinenut fog (made with liquid nitrogen). The lid of the jar is then closed to allow the flavoured fog to infuse the drink for a while. I love the flavour fog cocktails at Der Raum - last summer's Mel Tormé-inspired 'Velvet Fog' was my all-time favourite.


The penultimate cocktail was the 'Life on Mars?' ($25). I love that the cocktail named after my favourite Bowie song is written properly (with a question mark), and that the menu exhorts guests to raise a glass to "my mother, my dog, and clowns"!

I completely geeked out over this cocktail - the contrasting textures (neither of which are liquids) and temperatures reminded me strongly of the Snow Crab at Attica. The base is an icy, crunchy liquid nitrogen granita made with Matusalem Platino white rum, capsicum, lime and agave. The crunchy texture is quite extraordinary. On top of that is a luscious, gooey cocoa butter and soy emulsion, heated sous vide and served warm (similar to the '+/- Piña Colada' they were doing last year) . It's finished off with a sprinkling of minuscule flowers and Sichuan pepper.

Life on Mars?

And last of all, the 'Tzatziki Sour' ($22): "a summer tribute to Richmond's Greek heritage". It's made with muddled cucumber, mint, lemon, a spoon of yoghurt, Martin Miller's and absinthe. I approached this drink frankly dubious about the yoghurt factor, but it turned out to be much lighter and less viscous than I'd anticipated (and I loved the oodles of mint). Miller's and cucumber go so well together.

Tsatziki Sour

I've booked my ticket to go along to Reinterpreting Dessert, the dessert and cocktail degustation Der Raum will be doing with Burch and Purchese at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. During MFWF, Der Raum are also hosting a Bar Food, Not As You Know It evening with Ryan Flaherty, the chef recently returned from stints at Fat Duck and El Bulli. If you're quick you may still be able to book tickets!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

St Kilda's Newmarket ditches the schnitz and tits and goes SoCal

Newmarket Hotel
34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda (map)
9534 2385

It wasn't so long ago that the Newmarket Hotel was a dive pub specialising in Schnitz and Tits and Spag and Drag nights. Times have changed! It has been taken over, resurrected and revamped by the Middle Park Hotel/Albert Park Hotel mob, with Paul Wilson creating its Californian-inspired Hispanic grill menu.

Newmarket facade

The second you step behind that red brick facade, the design of the place practically screams Six Degrees. The outside seating areas look like the lovechild of Royal Saxon and Public House, the light fittings in the front room are pure Auction Rooms, and the the circular holes in wooden slats are very Pelican.

Newmarket front
Newmarket bar

The dramatic concrete arches down the eastern wall of the venue are enlivened by the vivid blue ceiling and clever use of skylights.


Down the back near the kitchen is a 16 seater chef's table. I like the way in which the brightly coloured tiles are used sparingly below the benchtop.

Newmarket chefs table

A few days into the new year I tottered down to St Kilda to check it out, accompanied by M and E. We ordered a cocktail pitcher ($35, possibly the tequila-based Jalisco Falls but my memory may be deceitful) and pored over the huge menu.

Cocktail pitcher

The menu veers all over the place: seafood starters, Hispanic cured meats, Latin street food, pastas, big salads, ancient grains, cocoas (Catalan pizzas), wood oven rotisseria and low, slow cooked wood BBQ meats. I managed to cajole my dining companions into ordering just about everything from the Latin street food section of the menu.

The guacamole with native lime salsa fresca, plantain, jicama and tortilla chips ($14) was excellent, but I was disappointed by the surprisingly lacklustre BBQ corn on the cob with chilli and queso fresco ($4 each). Not a patch on Mamasita's elotes callejeros, I'm afraid.


However all was forgiven when the soft tacos showed up. Our favourites were the ones with baby gem lettuce, spicy pineapple salsa, pork carnitas and hot adobo sauce ($14 for two). A brilliant combination of flavours.

Pork carnitas tacos

We didn't order the tacos with wood roasted bone marrow, chimichurri and ranchero style brisket (next time, my pretties!), but we did get two with prawns, green mango and jicama ($15, thanks for the tip Ben) and two with spicy calamari, guacamole and tomatillo salsa ($14).

Prawn tacosCalamari tacos

After that we shared several more dishes: triple cooked patatas bravas ($7, pictured below), a very good thin crust pizzetta with the slightly oddball combo of spiced lamb, grapes, purple basil and pomegranate molasses ($20), St Louis cut pork ribs for $35 with apple slaw and Mr Wilson's BBQ sauce (which E found to be rather sour for her tastes), a miniature coffee and tequila Mexican flan ($14) and a sensational peach, raspberry and amaretti pie ($14). Sorry that I don't have decent photos of the latter dishes (insufficient light, dammit), but the pizza and pie can be seen on Cherrie's blog.

Triple cooked bravas

I'm looking forward to heading back for a repeat visit: I enjoyed almost all of the SoCal dishes and the cocktails were bloody good, particularly the cachaça-based Brazilnut. A welcome addition to the bayside!

Newmarket arches

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Sydney Gastronome: Ms G's is rocking Potts Point

Ms G's
155 Victoria Street, Potts Point (map)
(02) 9240 3000
Open 7 nights, plus lunch on Fridays and Sundays

Ms G's facade

The weekend before Christmas, I was lucky enough to be taken by my gorgeous friends J and Miss C to dinner at Sydney's hottest, newest restaurant. Ms G's (a monosodium glutamate play on words) is the new Merivale restaurant in Sydney and the second for Lotus star chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu. Hong and Yu have created a CRACKERJACK fusion menu influenced in part by research trips to New York (Dan Hong was responsible for the David Chang dinner at Lotus when the Momofuku bad boy visited Australia last year).

Ms G's front barMs G's split levels

Every aspect of the venue has been designed to within an inch of its life, but I couldn't help but love the way the ropes, glass walls and greenery outside gave the upper dining space a touch of the jungle. Having opened only a few days before, the place was packed for a Sunday night and the speakers were blasting tunes from the DJ upstairs (later on the music mellowed considerably and we were treated to some damn fine Al Green love and happiness and Little River Band reminiscing).

Ms G's dining space

The top bar is all exposed beams, ropes, buckets and pulleys. Many of the mixed drinks come in plastic cups which the bar staff then seal with cellophane using a machine, and serve with a huge straw (like bubble tea).

Ms G's top bar

We started with stiff negronis.


With two bars and two dining areas, Ms G's is split over four levels (well, six if you count the kitchen in the sub-basement and the toilets in the sub-sub-basement).

Ms G's split levels

Look carefully at the centre of the photo below and you'll see Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Ms G's with a view of the Bridge

Unless you're vegetarian, you'd be crazy to NOT start your meal at Ms G's with one of the sensational mini bánh mì ($6 each), sexed up with pork belly and chicken liver parfait. AND it would be a crime to skip the grilled corn on the cob ($3.50 each), according to our waitress directly inspired by the ones at Cafe Habana (which I saw on my last trip to New York). At Ms G's the corn is slathered with parmesan and lime, plus cumin and smoked paprika to provide the heat. Sydney's answer to Melbourne's Mamasita elotes callejeros!

Mini bahn miMs G's grilled corn

I was also a huge fan of the ceviche ($15) of Aoraki king salmon, jalapeño purée and tiger's milk ($15). Tiger's milk, known as leche de tigre in Peru, is the fishy lime marinade from the ceviche regarded by Peruvians as both an excellent hangover cure (taken in a shot glass) and an aphrodisiac.

Oh, and the Vietnamese steak tartare with fried shallots and prawn crackers ($18)? RIGHTEOUS.

CevicheVietnamese steak tartare

J ordered us the grilled beef tongue with lemongrass and tomato salsa ($14) and Miss C put in a vote for the grilled calamari with black pudding and coriander salsa verde ($14). The tongue was marvellously tender but the same could not be said for the calamari - probably my least favourite dish.

Grilled beef tongueGrilled calamari, black pudding

But we all loved the mains we shared: the $28 grilled king prawns with sambal matah (a Balinese raw eschalot, lime and lemongrass sambal) and a half serve of Korean fried baby chicken with kimchi mayonnaise ($15, or it's $25 for a whole baby chicken). The chicken pieces were perfectly crispy but lusciously juicy on the inside, and addictive with the kimchi mayo.

Grilled king prawns with sambal matahFried baby chicken, kimchi mayo

Given the New York connection, it'll be interesting to compare Ms G's to David Chang's Sydney restaurant once the latter opens. Irrespective of when that happens, I'm just hankering for another trip up north to Sin City ASAP so that I can try a few more dishes on Ms G's menu, like the egg noodles with XO sauce, braised duck and soft poached egg, or the "Stoner's Delight" dessert of banana ice cream, chocolate, rice bubble, pretzel, peanut brittle and marshmallow. Oh, and kaffir lime shochu and gin served in paddle shots. Can I get a HELLS YEAH?!

Ms G's top bar

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Spontaneous Dainty

Dainty Sichuan
176 Toorak Road, South Yarra (map)
9078 1686
Closed Tuesdays

So not to boast or anything, but last night Matt and I *may* have hit upon the perfect combination of Dainty dishes.

Dainty Sichuan

Dainty Sichuan, home to the best authentic Sichuan food in Melbourne, moved from its former scuzzy Chinatown laneway location to posh South Yarra in 2009. Its current digs have fancy pictures on the walls and bigger rooms, but the atmosphere remains chaotic and bustling with students grouped around hotpots. I introduced Matt and S to Dainty a few months and they've gone back repeatedly. We decided late in the afternoon yesterday to catch up for a spontaneous dinner, and Matt and S brought along their friend J. Our mission: to order the perfect combination of Dainty dishes.

Dainty Sichuan

Four dishes is the perfect amount for four people. No entrees or extras, other than steamed rice and a few Tsingtaos which we sent Matt to get from the fetch-it-yourself fridge by the stairs.

We tried the cumin lamb slices ($24.80) on Matt's first Dainty visit, and he and S have ordered them on each of their subsequent visits. The heat in the dish is a triple threat (chilli, sichuan pepper and cumin) blended together masterfully. The cumin is brilliant. Don't be scared off by the fact that it has a 3 chilli rating (the maximum) in the menu - we reckon it's more like a 2 chilli dish.

Cumin lamb slices

The Kong Pao prawns ($25.80, 2 chilli rating) were juicy and sticky and sweet and sour, everything a good Kong Pao/Gong Bao dish should be. Because I am wussier than Matt and S, I left some of my chillies on my plate.

Kong Pao prawns

For the first time we ordered the pork threads with garlic shoots ($20.80) and were well pleased with the result. Described in the menu as "Sichuan home style", the dish was spiked with lots of ginger and slightly milder Sichuan pepper (though it still had a 2 chilli rating).

Pork threads with garlic shoots

And last but certainly not least, the legendary fish flavoured eggplant. New York culinary enfant terrible David Chang (who recently announced the planned expansion of his empire to Sydney, thus ensuring renewed #momofukurage in Melbourne) declared Dainty's eggplant to be the best thing he's eaten in Australia, enthusing to Gourmet Traveller: "They fry it, I think they roll it in sugar and fry it again, and then they toss it in chilli madness."

This would have to be one of my top 10 favourite dishes in Melbourne. The 2-chilli-rating chilli is pickled, and the use of sugar and corn flour help give the eggplant the most sensational sticky texture: lightly crisp on the outside and meltingly soft on the inside. $17.80 for a small mountain of the stuff, and worth every last cent.

Fish flavoured eggplant

The bill came to just over $40 each and we floated down the stairs in a happy post-Dainty haze. MUST RETURN SOON.