Thursday, 20 February 2014

NORA charcoal tarts, Melbourne

Coconut caramel and bacon candy tart
Coconut pandan tart
Chocolate ganache tart and ginger lemongrass tart

Expect to see these little black-shelled beauties cropping up soon in a discerning cafe near you. Launched just last week, NORA is the project of young Melbourne couple Tong and Jean, supplying tarts to cafes around town and with plans to open their own cafe in the future.

A former artist and photographer, Tong worked for a couple of years in the coffee industry at St Ali, Seven Seeds and Traveller, and more recently turned his hand to cooking with stints at The Commoner and Mr Nice Guy Thai. Jean is a self-taught baker, honing her skills over years of baking at home for family and friends while working in tax and accountancy. The flavours in the tarts draw on the couple's South East Asian backgrounds and use fancy ingredients (including on-trend favourites caramel, popcorn, bacon and popping candy) to marry sweet with savoury, something that Melbourne diners can't get enough of in their desserts these days.

The five tart varieties are as follows:
- buttered popcorn coconut caramel, topped with candied bacon and butterscotch caramel;
- coconut pandan with toasted puffed rice, coconut flakes and fried shallot crumble;
- lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée;
- Callebaut 70% dark chocolate ganache with popping candy and navel orange puree, topped with freeze-dried mandarin and pistachio; and
- pumpkin egg custard topped with spiced Kent pumpkin, salted pepitas and hazelnut crumb.

NORA's point of difference is their distinctive black pastry shells, an effect achieved by the addition of a small amount of food-grade activated charcoal made from coconut shell. Food-grade activated charcoal is safe to ingest and has reported health benefits as a detoxifier; on my recent trip to Japan I saw bamboo charcoal used in baking. NORA's reasons for using charcoal as their signature ingredient are largely aesthetic, but they see any health benefits as a happy bonus.

You can currently find NORA's tarts at Traveller Coffee in the city and at the newly-opened Place Holder cafe in Fitzroy, with Tong and Jean looking to expand supply operations in the near future. I've been popping in to Traveller each morning this week to try one: so far my favourite is the lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée (a terrific Asian variant on Bourke Street Bakery's most famous pastry). You can follow NORA on Twitter or Instagram.

Pumpkin egg custard tart

Friday, 14 February 2014

Sydney Gastronome: sensational Korean at Moon Park

Moon Park
Level 1, 34b Redfern Street (entry via Elizabeth Street), Redfern, NSW (map)
02 9690 0111
Open Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm, Dinner Tues-Sat 5:30-11pm
facebook, twitter

Breakfast wine and rice crackers

On my most recent trip to Sydney I had dinner at Moon Park, and months later I'm still thinking about that meal.

It's modern Korean, but not modern Korean as you know it. The young trio behind Moon Park have created a restaurant that feels different to every other Korean restaurant in Australia. Formerly at Melbourne's Cutler & Co before his move to Sydney, Ben Sears became head chef at Claude's in Woollahra. He met his girlfriend Eun Hee Ann while they were both working in the Claude's kitchen, and late last year they opened Moon Park as chefs and co-owners with their friend Ned Brooks (ex-MoVida and one half of wine agency Brooks & Amos), who runs front of house. The wine list is supersmart, favouring natural wines from Australia and France without going overboard. My favourite was the Patrick Sullivan 'Breakfast Wine' 2012, a naturalish skin contact Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley (not a wine I would ever have chosen off my own bat) that went brilliantly with the elegant food.

Cucumber kimchiBindaedduk: fried chickpea cake

Ah, the food. While some dishes on the menu are quite traditional ("This recipe is so Korean, my partner won't let me make it - only she is allowed to make it", joked Ben to me at one point), others reinvent Korean dishes quite radically. Yeah there's fried chicken on the menu, but it's shrimp brined; yeah there's bindaedduk, but instead of being a mung bean pancake here it consists of narrow bricks of fried chickpea cake ($5, pictured above next to the cucumber kimchi). The Bibim ($20) blends includes pearl barley, asparagus, corn, crab, cured egg and nori served with gochujang (pictured below - NB in our case the crab was served separately because my dinner date was vegetarian).

Bibim: rice & pearl barley, gochujang, corn, crab, cured egg & nori

In addition to tasting good, the dishes are beautifully plated. The whipped tofu is served with technicolor carrots, buckwheat and shiitake crisps ($15). Carrots also put in an appearance in the imjasutang ($17): traditionally a soup served to royalty, here a salad of delicately poached chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date puree, sesame paste and pickled rose.

Whipped tofu, carrot, shiitake and buckwheat
Imjasutang: royal summer chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date and pickled rose

Ben was Andrew McConnell's pastry chef at Cutler, so we ordered both desserts. The patbingsu ($13) consists of tiny sugared donuts served with strawberry, fig leaf shaved milk, red bean and omija (five-flavour tea). The "moon pie" ($14) is a deconstructed, utterly delicious combination of poached pear, maesil (green plum) marshmallow, ginger jelly and graham cracker crumbs.

Patbingsu: fig leaf shaved milk, strawberry, fresh donuts and omija
Moon pie: pear, maesil marshmallow, ginger jelly, graham cracker

The venue is a little tricky to find: the corner building faces Redfern Park, but entry is via Elizabeth Street and the low-key restaurant space is hidden above a decorative arts showroom. My list of places to visit on my next Sydney trip is long, but DAMN it will be hard to resist revisiting Moon Park.

The other standout meal on my last trip to Sydney? Cafe Paci. I didn't write about it, but judging from his review (which I highly recommend you read), Mr Lethlean and I had a very similar set menu. They only have a 12 month lease, so make a reservation quicksticks.