Friday 21 December 2012

Fortnightly round-up (21 December)

As we all wind down for the year, I thought I'd share some recent food and drink highlights.

My #1 drink for the summer is Summer Cup by Sipsmith. Over the last year I've been an avid fan of the clean, elegant London Dry Gin put out by Sipsmith, the micro-distillery that was granted its distilling licence in 2009 (the first distillery granted a licence in London since Beefeater got theirs in 1853, and one of only four distilleries currently opering within London's city limits). The new product, the Summer Cup, is Sipsmith's answer to Pimm's: a concoction of gin, orange curaçao, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherry liqueur, lemon verbena distillate, Earl Grey tea, cardamom and cucumber. It is *delicious*. Mix it with fresh fruit and three parts good quality lemonade or ginger ale, or add it to Champagne to make a Summer Royale, or sub it in for vermouth in a Negroni, or just sip it over ice.

Note: I was invited to an industry tasting, and this bottle was a freebie, but I've already bought myself an additional bottle cos it's so damn good. Sipsmith spirits are imported by Hippocampus in Australia and if you want to get your mitts on a retail bottle in Melbourne, visit King & Godfree or order online from Nick's.

Sipsmith Summer Cup

We may all lament the closure of Nic Poelaert's Embrasse in Carlton, but the good news is that Nic has teamed up with Gerald and Mario from Gerald's Bar to bring us Brooks of Melbourne, in the slick city basement (formerly the old MoMo, then Fifteen, then The Kitchen Cat) underneath the Hermes boutique on Collins Street. The space is warm, the service gets that balance between old-school professional and personable warmth just right, and Nic's food gets a chance to shine.

Some of the menu items are more snacky and informal than his previous offerings, like the 'cheeky bun' (I opted for the vegetarian version over the meat burger, and loved it), but some of the favourites from Embrasse have survived the move, including the exquisite méli-mélo of 25 vegetables (Nic's souvenir of his time at Michel Bras' eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, France), the cheesy potato mash aligot and the 'forest floor' dessert. Of the newer dishes I've tried, the broad bean soup with black olive and olive oil is superb. Afraid I haven't listed prices because I couldn't track them down online, but know that their five couse chef's menu is excellent value at $80 a head - get on it, people.

Nic's Souvenir of Bras: Meli of Vegetables
Brook's broad bean soupBrook's burger

As much as I've enjoyed the restaurant menu at Pei Modern (the entree of Dutch cream potatoes, bone marrow, coffee and mojama and the dessert of caramelised tomato stuffed with 12 spices are must-order items, in my book), I keep coming back to the smart bar menu. Highlights on the Pei bar menu include the O'Connor steak tartare ($18.50) and the Ortiz anchovy shortbread with Parmesan custard ($4.50 each).

Steak tartareOrtiz anchovy

David's, the Shanghai mainstay of Melbourne's southside, has had a stunning refurb after 15 years in Prahran. Rebadged as David’s Country Shanghai, the restaurant's interior has been transformed into an airy, sunlit space and its menu has been revamped to include some contemporary as well as traditional dishes, skewed to the more casual end of the dining spectrum. My picks are the steamed bao (two for $10 and a selection to choose from) and the Gong Bo chicken pictured below ($19), stir-fried with radish, cucumber, chilli, garlic and a whole lotta Sichuan peppercorns.

David's chickenDavid's

After years of listening to Sydneysiders waxing rhapsodic about how great the roti was at Sydney's Mamak restaurants, Melbourne got a Mamak of its own on Lonsdale Street. The roti canai ($5.50) really is very good - fluffy and crispy without being oily, and with just enough chew. While I was underwhelmed by the kari ikan (fish curry), I rated the chicken satay sticks ($9). And if you want to double down on the roti, make sure you also order the sweet version filled with kaya (pandan and coconut).

Mamak rotiMamak satay

This was the second year I attended the Christmas Cookoff held annually by 310Fitzroy and some other lovely friends of mine. My entries this year: Beetroot Gravlax (adapting an excellent recipe in issue 16 of the SBS Feast Magazine) and the Iced Horchata recipe recently featured on Trotski & Ash. I was equally pleased by how both recipes turned out!

Beetroot gravlax preparationBeetroot gravlax
Horchata preparationHorchata

Links of Note:

- Sad to read on George Biron's blog that he and his wife are putting their restaurant Sunnybrae on the market in 2013. Hoping that some brilliant chef looking for a change snaps up the opportunity: it's one helluva setup they've got down there at Birregurra (I wrote glowing words about my visit here).

- An inspiring post on Talor Browne's blog about how her quest for excellence in specialty coffee, dating from when St Ali was sold in 2006, has taken her from Melbourne to Paris to Oslo.

- The Melbourne Coffee Review has a bit of a rant about the Melbourne specialty coffee scene and rival coffee publications/apps.

- Ms Stickifingers wrote an excellent primer post on social media for food and beverage businesses on her blog Deep Dish Dreams. Essential reading for anyone in the hospo industry who doesn't understand how social media works.

- "The notion of 'sustainable seafood' is arguably the most misunderstood, misguided, poorly managed and hypocritical debate in food." A contentious article by John Susman in this month's foodService.

- Cocktail enthusiasts should check out Only Bitters, a new Australian online store that retails over 100 varieties of cocktail bitters and will soon also sell commercial batches of 'perfect' cocktail cherries that the Melbourne owners of the site have made themselves.

- Reviews of Melbourne's best pubs can be found on the PubStars website.

- I've been enjoying reading Alex's writing on tsp. (The Sad Pig), whether it's lamenting the lost days of good menu writing or slipping in a reference to Paul Simon lyrics in a macaroon vs macaron treatise.

- On the Anatomy of Thrift: Pork Provendor in the Home Kitchen video posts. How to love pigs, and living.

- A jukeboxed American-style diner in a decommissioned Melbourne train carriage in Cabramatta? Grab Your Fork dishes the dirt.

Merry Christmas everyone! xx Claire

Tuesday 18 December 2012

New Dainty Sichuan opens in Melbourne CBD

Dainty Sichan Food
Level 2, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne (map)
9650 2188


Dainty Sichuan Food sign

I can think of no better reason to end my blogging sabbatical than the news that the new Dainty Sichuan restaurant has finally opened its doors in Chinatown, in the top floor of the shiny arcade that also houses Dragon Boat. I've written before about my deep and abiding love for Dainty's South Yarra restaurant, which opened in 2009 after years in their earlier Corrs Lane location. Now they're back in the city with Dainty 2: Electric Boogaloo (uh, actually it's called Dainty Sichuan Food), and I was delighted to scamper down the hill today to check it out on opening day.

Dainty Sichuan Food sign

It's Dainty, but not as we know it. While the South Yarra fitout was a definite step up from the scruffy interior at Corrs Lane, DSF takes it up several more steps with a gleaming and polished top-floor 54-table fitout, more akin to Din Tai Fung, Crystal Jade or one of the other posh restaurant chains you see in Hong Kong's upmarket shopping centres. The chefs all hail from Sichuan province and have been working in the South Yarra kitchen, developing some new dishes to bring to town.

Dainty Sichuan Food
Dainty Sichuan Food

The menu on opening day is a first draft, testing out a combination of old and new dishes. In addition to favourites like bang bang chicken and Chongqing chilli barbeques with pork or barramundi, there are pork chitterlings, spicy duck wings 'n feet, hot pots with lamb-you-name-it (slices, heart, tripe, liver, assorted other offal) and a dish that may require a little Dutch courage before ordering: hot blood curd combination pot.

What they DIDN'T have on the menu which almost caused me to table-flip were my two favourite dishes from South Yarra, the fish-flavoured eggplant and the cumin lamb slices. My waiter, however, duly noted my dismay and promised they'll be adding more dishes to the menu as the kitchen settles in, as well as adding lunch specials (at the moment you can only order full dinner serves).

I decided to keep it simple today and order the Sichuan free range chicken wok ($28.80), and was rewarded with plenty of hallucinatory Sichuan peppercorns. I look forward to returning to test out the menu properly, once they've settled in.

Sichuan chicken wok

And the good news for those of you in the Eastern suburbs? A third (hot-pot-centric) Dainty Sichuan will be opening shortly in Box Hill!

Dainty Sichuan Food

Friday 5 October 2012

One night in Singapore: hawker food and the best cocktail bars

Jalan Makanan Chinatown

So, you're travelling solo and you've got a 17 hour layover in Singapore: what do you do? If you're like me, you check into a cute hotel, smash some hawker food and go on a one-woman gin crawl of some of the city's finest cocktail bars.

New Majestic Hotel

I suggest staying at the New Majestic Hotel, a gem which I found while trawling the more affordable end of Mr & Mrs Smith's Singapore selection. Each room in the hotel is decorated by a different local designer/artist; I was ridiculously enamoured with my room's lurid feature wall (by Andre Tan) and the outdoor tub.

Flower child-cat room, New Majestic Hotel
Flower child-cat room, New Majestic Hotel

Time for HAWKER FOOD. Get thee to a hawker centre (Newton Circus, Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Maxwell Food Centre, Lau Pa Sat, Makansutra Gluttons Bay, Zion Riverside Food Centre... or really just about any other) or a street lined with food stalls. This time I went to Jalan Makanan Chinatown, Chinatown food street, because it was just a short stroll from my hotel.

Jalan Makanan Chinatown

Bah kut teh ("meat bone tea"): pork ribs simmered in a fragrant, magical broth. It will give you superpowers.

Bah kut teh

And my favourite hawker dish: ikan pari bakar (aka BBQ stingray sambal). YESSS.

BBQ stingray

The first cocktail bar I went to was the speakeasy-ish 28 HongKong Street, opened last year by head bartender and general manager Michael Callahan straight outta San Francisco. There's no visible signage: open the metal door on the left, under the yellow lamp, and the hostess in the entrance vestibule will ask whether you have a reservation (they're recommended, but I chanced it solo and was fine). Inside the bar you can barely make out the menu given the dim lighting but the cocktails on offer are impressive (a taste of the drinks menu can be seen here), specifying that the house uses an "honest pour" single shot of 45ml, as opposed to Singapore's standard 30ml. Expect to see hand-chipped ice, house-made ingredients and several of the more recent cocktail fashions, including barrel aging. The bar food is on-trend American and wouldn't look remotely out of place in Melbourne's Hipzroy: think fried chicken and waffles with maple syrup, patty melt sliders with fried pickle, ceviche mojado, and truffled mac n cheese balls.

28 HongKong Street
28 Hong Kong Street, Singapore (map)
+65 8318 0328, reservations recommended
Open nights Monday-Saturday
Deliberately spartan website

28 HongKong Street

In marked contrast to 28 Hongkong Street's a darkened speakeasy fitout, Bar Stories is airy and light, with high ceilings, white walls and an intricate octopus mural drawn with a pen. It's located on Haji Lane (in Singapore's Arab Street district, favoured by fashionistas and hipsters) on the floor above a Scandanavian mid-century furniture store, and stylish pieces are featured throughout the bar itself. There's no printed menu: just tell one of the savvy bartenders the sort of thing you're after and they'll take care of the rest (I had a first rate South Side and had a very nerdy conversation with the bartender about gin).

Bar Stories
55-57 Haji Lane, +65 6298 0838, Singapore (map)
+65 6298 0838
Open Mon–Sat til 1am, Sun til 8pm

Bar Stories
Bar Stories

On the recommendation of two of Melbourne's finest barmen, the third and final cocktail bar I visited was Chinatown's The Cufflink Club, which opened a few months ago headed by owner/bartender Joel Fraser (formerly at Tippling Club* and before that at Melbourne's own Der Raum). Joel runs a fun and friendly ship where the banter is sparkling, the music tends toward old-school-fun-times (vintage MJ on my visit) and the cocktails are expertly crafted without taking themselves too seriously - as evidenced by some of the names on the signature drinks half of the menu such as Fifty Shades of Grey (yes it has house Earl Grey gin in it), the very appley iDrink, and Rumbo: First Blood. The menu also has a "digitally remastered" section of fresh takes on old drinks - I can recommend the Philadelphia Inquirer 1910 - and foodwise, the Club serves European charcuterie, imported cheeses and marinated nibbles. An excellent way to round off the night.

The Cufflink Club
6 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore (map)
No phone
Open til late Tuesday-Sunday

The Cufflink Club

* If it hadn't taken 45 goddamn minutes to find a taxi (they were changing shifts), I'd have visited Tippling Club too. Lots of Melburnians suggested I visit, not only for the molecular-leaning cocktails but also for (ex head chef at Vue de Monde) Ryan Clift's food. Next time!

Friday 28 September 2012

Fortnightly round-up (28 September)

Pukeko eggs, Attica

It's been a while since the last installment of these Fortnightly(-in-name-only) Round-up posts, so I'm going to ease my way back into it by posting some happy snaps of food highlights that I've had about town since my return from Singapore and Hong Kong (related posts coming soon, honest).

On my morning coffee run about a month ago, I noticed that the Japanese restaurant at 17 Liverpool Street formerly known as Aka Tombo had re-opened as Shimbashi Soba & Sake Bar, and the chef was standing in the front window making soba by hand - kneading, rolling and chopping. Chef Taka-san makes their soba fresh from organic ingredients every morning, and again in the afternoon if supplies are running low. Read Lauren's blog post on Footscray Food Blog for a more detailed description of the process.

My favourite way to eat Shimbashi's soba is as soba seiro, served chilled on a mat alongside spring onions, wasabi and a dipping sauce known as tsuyu. At the end of the meal be sure to ask for the soba-yu (the liquid the soba have been cooked in): add it to the leftover tsuyu and drink it like a soup.

Shimbashi workbench
Seiro soba

While we're talking Japanese food: I've written before about my love of the tsuke sashimi salad at Purple Peanuts on Collins Street. What I discovered recently is that I like it even better with brown rice ($1 surcharge) instead of white. Their house-made matcha chocolate is also very very good, the green tea tannins nicely balancing out the white chocolate sweetness.

Tsuke sashimi saladMatcha chocolate

A sensational salad of burrata, broad beans, olives and mint that I was lucky enough to enjoy at my aunt Paola's house a few weeks ago (recipe on her blog Italy on my Mind).

Paola's salad

One of the new dishes on the Dainty Sichuan menu is the cumin chilli rabbit, a variant on the cumin lamb slices (my favourite Dainty dish, narrowly beating the fish flavoured eggplant). As delicious as the rabbit was, the fiddliness with bunny bones means I'll be back on the lamb slices next time. We also braved the dish entitled "boiling fish in golden basin" for the first time: while it arrived looking completely TERRIFYING, bubbling like magma from Mount Doom, the slices of fish that were sieved out turned out to have a surprisingly mild and delicate - well, relatively speaking - flavour. Recommended!

Cumin rabbitBoiling fish in golden basin

Walk, don't run, to Chin Chin to try their newest dessert: coconut sago with sweetcorn ice cream, praline and puffed wild rice.

Coconut sago dessert

The menu at Neapoli, Con Christopoulos' latest venture, is a mash-up that veers wildly from continent to continent: brown rice nori rolls sit alongside spanakopita, curries, chilli con carne, ceviche, tempura and rabbit stifado. I can however vouch for their epic Reuben, and am glad to see it featured in Epicure's recent list of Melbourne venues serving the increasingly popular sandwich.


The dumplings at I Love Dumplings on Bridge Road are good. Really good. Their Urbanspoon entry has the predictable whinges about vague waitresses and long waits for orders so I went there on Sunday night expecting lousy service, but was pleasantly surprised. Thanks to our American visitors Dan and Claire for finding this place and telling me about it!

I Love Dumplings

And thanks also to Dan and Claire for sharing with me their favourite way to cook Brussels sprouts: think bacon, lime and sriracha. Here's a recipe on The Paupered Chef for this method, which is in turn based on a David Chang recipe in GQ. I made the sprouts pictured below last night, and while they may not be pretty let me assure you that they're ridiculously tasty.

Chang-style Brussels sprouts

Links of Note:

- "Reviewing restaurants is a bit like being put out to stud: the basic activity involved may be pleasurable, but when you have to do it, and with whom you're told, it loses a lot of its appeal." Andrew Colman on whether restaurant critics are an endangered species.

- Two cute cakes: a Tetris cake with macarons on Raspberri Cupcakes (love the animated gif), and a polka dot cake on Once Upon a Pedestal.

- Essjay sends depressing dispatches from the Royal Melbourne Show Baking Competition, where judges advocate using custard powder and a past winner advises others to use supermarket eggs instead of free range eggs, because "some judges don't like yellow sponges".

- Stickifingers on supermarket vs free range eggs.

- "It’s like a miniaturization of all my favorite cities: Tokyo and Seoul and New York and Los Angeles, all in one." Roy Choi on why he loves Melbourne.

- Craft beer gaining traction in Paris: love the look of this beautiful shop in Montmartre.

- My favourite Sydney food blog The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry now has its own podcasts! Check them out, people...

- Has Tasmania reached a [culinary] tipping point? Steve Cumper offers a chef's perspective.

- Cook Republic on 10 social and community websites to drive traffic to your food blog. I've never used any of them, apart from tinkering with Pinterest for personal, non-Melbourne Gastronome purposes, but they may be of interest for other food bloggers (especially those with recipe blogs).

- Baristas vs customers: how we can all get along.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

'The Changing Menu' panel and visiting 'Gusto! A Culinary History of Victoria'

Hihou. *swoon*

A quick bit of self-promotion: next Thursday I'm speaking on a panel that Hilary McNevin has convened and will be chairing, entitled The Changing Menu, discussing Victoria's diverse dining scene. The other panellists will be The Age senior food writer Richard Cornish and restaurateurs Simon Denton (Izakaya Den, Nama Nama and my new favourite bar in Melbourne, Hihou) and Dan Wilson (Huxtable, Huxtaburger - and Huxtaburger II opening soon in the CBD!).

The Changing Menu panel is on Thursday 27 September, 6:00-7:15pm at the State Library of Victoria (see SLV page for full details). The panel is FREE, but booking is strongly advised, as seats are filling fast.

Alain Chapel, Jacques Reymond, Mietta O'Donnell (Rennie Ellis, gelatin silver photograph, 1987)

The panel has been organised as a side event by the State Library of Victoria in honour of their exhibition Gusto! A Culinary History of Victoria. Exhibition blurb:
Savour the rich culinary history of Victoria in this free exhibition, featuring gastronomic treasures from our collections – from the first Australian cookbook, published in 1864, to an actual World War I army biscuit.
Gusto! explores Victoria's historic and contemporary culinary landscape, covering subjects such as the history of viticulture, Indigenous foods, sustainable food practices, fine dining and food rationing, and also features the fascinating stories of significant Victorian culinary figures including Jacques Reymond, Rita Erlich, Guy Grossi and Stephanie Alexander.

I went on a tour of the exhibition last week with curator Tracey Judd Iva and Melbourne food legend Rita Erlich, and absolutely loved it (yes it includes an actual army biscuit from 1914!). I particularly loved seeing the 70s and 80s menus of Melbourne fine dining restaurants, donated from Rita Erlich's own collection - the version of the Florentino menu without prices (ie, the menu "for ladies") was a particular eye-opener. I also loved that the exhibition includes both the Peter Wegner portrait of Jacques Reymond (a finalist in the 2004 Archibald Prize) and the knife bag that belonged to Jacques' grandfather and which features prominently in the portrait.

The exhibition is also FREE and on until April 2013, so go see it!

Booze: the shadow over our land (Melbourne, Victorian Prohibition League, c 1930)

Inspired by the exhibition, I went to the Hill of Content and bought a copy of Rita's new book Melbourne by Menu: A memoir of Melbourne's restaurant revolution through the 1980s, which I am currently working my way through. Loving it so far.

Victoria Market, Melbourne (Ruth Maddison, gelatin silver photograph, 1984)

Friday 24 August 2012

The Brix, revisited

The Brix
Rear 412 Brunswick Street (cnr Westgarth St), Fitzroy (map)
9417 6114 (phone bookings taken)
Open lunch Friday & Saturday, dinner Tuesday to Saturday

Chocolate, grapefruit, meringue

I'm moving house on Monday, so since my trip to Hong Kong and an intense week of movie-going at MIFF (11 films in 8 days!) my life is a blur of packing boxes, utilities disconnections and mail redirection.

But I'm coming up for air to publish a post about The Brix, the Fitzroy restaurant modelled loosely on Le Chateaubriand in Paris. I wrote about The Brix shortly after it first opened a year ago, and I was saddened to read in this week's Espresso column in Epicure that the restaurant is now on the market. It's been a difficult journey for co-owners Emma O'Mara and Keir Vaughan: they lost their head chef, sous chef and pastry chef in February and were forced to close for a week or two, but then reopened with new head chef Ashly Hicks (who came down from Brisbane's Buffalo Club). I dined at The Brix last month with a friend and had a sublime meal - I'm afraid I've only got time to post the photos with brief descriptions, but I urge you to get down there while you've still got the chance and enjoy the set menu.

The Brix

There's an à la carte bistrot menu, but the best option is definitely the five course set menu ($90, or $70 for vegetarian if you give them notice). The five course set menu comes with an amuse and a cleanser, and there's also an optional additional cheese course (when my friend and I dined there, the cheese course was comped). The dishes were certainly intricate as you can see below, but they never felt fussy or overworked.

The Brix

The amuse-bouche was a miniature sandwich of pain d’épices (similar to gingerbread) filled with duck parfait and topped with dabs of rhubarb juice gel and espresso gel and a few mache and baby coriander leaves.

Pain d'epice

The first course was a riot of purple, featuring venison that had been cured for 24 hours, dried for seven days and then dehydrated. There was also a thin slice of raw venison, beetroots cooked in juniper salt, oven roasted and raw, juiced red cabbage foam, candied chilli, Ossau-Iratty, chickpeas and red cabbage leaf.

Venison, beetroot, red cabbage

The second course consisted of South Australian squid shaved and confit in hazelnut oil, together with fried squid tentacles, variations of cauliflower (juice, a charcoaled floret, slow roasted, dehydrated then thinly sliced), lardo, pig's ears, roasted squid powder and parsley oil.

Squid, cauliflower, hazelnut

The third course was Bundarra Berkshires pork shoulder with celeriac cooked in a salt crush and coated in ash (from a vine branch), thin sheets of roasted celeriac, pickled celeriac, a celeriac ribbon boiled in chicken stock, burnt onion juice, slow roasted onion petals, caramelised onion paper and onion flowers.

Pork, onion, celeriac

The fourth course was Aylesbury duck breast (cooked sous vide at 58 degrees for 45 minutes) with rendered fat, roasted parsnip, a parsnip and vanilla puree, a celery juice gel, buttered celery, crisped chestnuts and duck sauce.

Duck, parsnip, celery

Then out came a "cucumber ice" palate cleanser: a gin and tonic foam made from Tanqueray and tonic water. The garnish was compressed cucumber dusted with dill pollen and juniper salt.

Gin and tonic

The cheese course that was comped: Langres rolled in dried mushroom powder, fresh walnuts, fried and raw enoki mushrooms, raw pine mushrooms and crisped leek roots. It came with a mushroom consommé, which was poured at the table.

Langres, mushroom, leek

The dessert course was a chocolate mousse made from 66% Valrhona chocolate, served with grapefruit gel and the most beautiful candied grapefruit wheel. There was also a house-made buttermilk and vanilla purée, toasted meringues, lychee and a sprinkling of chocolate cookie crumbs.

Chocolate, grapefruit, meringue

And just when we thought it was all over red rover, out came an additional sweet snack: sensational pumpkin doughnuts in a bag! They were made from a sweet pumpkin and beurre noisette purée, rolled in candied seeds and nuts and sprinkled with cumin. Wee bottles of vanilla and malt milkshake with red and white stripey straws were an additional playful touch.

Pumpkin donuts and malt milkshakes