29 April, 2013

How enticing

Recently in Te Anau, New Zealand, I came across a restaurant with an irrestible promotion:

Exactly what I've been looking for. Frankly, you just don't get enough sass on menus these days.

Now, I'm sure I've piqued your curiousity. You want to know more. What's on this sassy new menu? Well, I think this sandwich board, proudly displayed outside the same restaurant, tells you what you need to know:

But perhaps you can't see all the detail. The small print, underneath the unbelievable price of 'Only $10.00', states: Picture shown indicative only

11 April, 2013


74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea; 03 9530 0111

A certain Big Event last year has seen us take advantage of various reasons to celebrate. Cumulus Inc has served us well on two visits - one with a family group of 14 that was every bit the Special Occasion, and the second time just the two of us, no reservation, at the bar, enjoying the rapport with the waitstaff as much as the characuterie selection we demolished down to the last pickle.

Rockpool delivered the goods in terms of venue and atmosphere (and celebrity spotting, with Kylie Minogue there taking her parents out to dinner, Spanish underwear-model boyfriend in tow), but also a less-than-perfect service story that's still doing the rounds.

The apotheosis of the food side of our celebratory journey came this week with a long-awaited visit to Attica, the little restaurant that could.

Attica is Melbourne's only representative on the San Pellegrino World's 100 Best Restaurants, coming in at number 53. (Sydney has three restaurants, which seems a crazy representation of the Australian dining scene. Then again, one article mentions that the setting for Attica 'is no match for most of the other restaurants on the list', which tells you something about the prerequisites for inclusion). The fact that a suburban restaurant, tucked in a shopping strip just down the road from Ripponlea station, is punching it with the big guys from Paris, New York and Tokyo, says so much about the quality of food coming out of Ben Shewry's kitchen. The restaurant is also current holder of The Age's Restaurant of the Year gong, and last year Shewry took out Chef of the Year.

Shewry is disturbingly young for what he's achieved. Growing up in country New Zealand, he developed a taste for both cooking and foraging as a kid. He's famous for gathering wild-grown ingredients on a daily basis then incorporating them with remarkable success into the dishes at his restaurant. In interviews, he frequently refers to wanting to recreate the emotion and nostalgia of his childhood on the plates of his diners.

Tuesday night is budget night at Attica, as much as a five-course degustation for $95 represents a cheap night out. It's the night that Shewry and his team try out new creations, which are often riffs on dishes already settled on their regular tasting menus. An extra $70 gets you matching wines - not a bad choice when few of the by-the-glass options come in under $20.

In the high-dining stakes, bread and butter has become a restaurant's, well, bread and butter. At Attica, we received a rye sourdough, with a curl of butter churned from creme fraiche, and cold-smoked olive oil that's whipped at high speed then dusted with black salt. The result is a moussey confection that retains a strong olive flavour without the acidity that can come with the oil in its (more normal) liquid form.

The meal proper started with Snow Crab, Sorrel and Buckwheat:

The dish was finished at the table with a dram of chicken stock. Snow crab is a deepwater crustacean whose pale shell is responsible for its name. The crabmeat was slivered into pieces that resembled vermicelli noodles in texture. The crunch from the toasted buckwheat provided a remarkable textural contrast.

The matching wine was in fact a sake - Uehara 'Soma No Tengu' Junmai Ginjo. Our sommelier was good enough to explain the relevance of each of those words, information I won't pretend to have fully understood or to now recall!

Course #2 featured cauliflower two ways: Cauliflower Cheese with 11 Basils and Smoked Eel

11 basils?? I hear you mock. Well, count 'em - there are in fact 11 basil leaves on the plate and every one of them tasted different. The soup is a rich combination of cauliflower and goats cheese, and lurking beneath are chunks of smoked eel and crumbles of roasted cauli.

Moving even further away from the wine list, the matching beverage for this course was a beer - a Belgian Chimay Grande Reserve.

The third course again featured seafood, this time Marron and Quinoa with a Sauce of Cured Pork Fat and Onion.
A note here about the tableware. Some plates are made for Attica and some are sourced from Made in Japan in South Melbourne. Their dark mottled surfaces meant that often the dishes seemed to leap forth from the plate in a trompe l'oeil effect.

The marron (or crayfish) is strewn with rosemary flowers, and the 'sauce' is a mere glaze on the flesh.

The matching wine was a 2012 Bobar Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley, quite the strangest smelling wine I've tried - it made me think of sour milk - but it worked wonderfully with the dish.

The last savoury course was Wallaby, Dried Mushrooms and Sea Wormwood.
There is so much going on with this plate. The sea wormwood is a herb from Attica's garden, and tastes, wait for it, exactly like cola. The large leaves are mushroom leaves, not from the fungi, but from the confusingly named mushroom plant. The piece of wallaby is seared only and completely rare in the middle. It was superb. The jumble next to it features a smear of pureed wallaby black pudding underneath - looking remarkably like melted chocolate - with a mix of cooked and dried mushrooms topped by red currants. The delicious wallaby aside, of the five courses this one didn't quite reach the same level of surprising and successful marriage of textures and flavours.

The matching wine, however, was my favourite. A 2009 nebbiolo from Ar Pe Pe in Lombardy, Italy.

Thence to dessert: Banana, Caramel, Kaffir and Native Lime.
Buried on the plate is a roast banana, sitting on a caramel sauce. Atop are a banana ice cream along with powdered kaffir lime, and a few slices of native lime. The plate arrived steamingly cold, and as different temperatures and textures intermingled the whole dish fogged intriguingly. Eaten bit by bit, the dish didn't seem all that promising. As all the flavours meshed, however, it became a dessert wonderfully balanced between cleansing and sweet.

Alongside was a 22-year-old Auslese from Moselle. Decidedly unsweet, it fairly zinged when sipped after eating some powdered lime.

Thus we came to the end of the printed menu. But one more dish was to come. We'd been eyeing these off as they came out to each table throughout the evening.
These were preceded with a whimsical story, printed on the back of a drawing of the Kiwi pukeko bird by the chef's father. I wasn't quite sure how the analogy of the pukeko - a 'confident, inquisitive and vociferous' bird - to the life of a chef worked, but dear lord, these were exceptional. Once the white chocolate shell was pierced it revealed a filling of that most wondrous of creations - salted caramel.

The eggs were a delectable end to a meal wherein contrasts of textures were as notable as strong and surprising flavours. It wasn't the most sustainable meal, with at least one ingredient from most if not every course hailing from interstate, but it was perfectly satisfying.

A final word on the service. The same article mentioned above also referenced the service at Attica as one of the elements not at a high standard. Allowing that any restaurant can have its good and bad nights, at Attica we received some of the best floor service I've experienced. The team ran like a well-oiled machine, working in unison to bring and clear wine and plates of food in a seamless fashion. Courses were timed with sufficient pauses to allow for digestion, without dragging out into an overnight stay. The dishes were explained patiently and clearly, and any questions were answered enthusiastically.

03 January, 2013

Cool-o-Cream Bermagui

When the reward is worth it, I'm not averse to some serious travel to get to good food. Seven hours on bus and train for a bucatini alla amatriciana in its hometown is one of my most memorable efforts. But an eight-hour drive for what is probably Australia's best gelato may just top that.

Bermagui is a small town on NSW's idyllic South Coast. Less well known than southern neighbours Eden and Merimbula, it is regardless a delightful, perfectly sized town boasting a compact, curving beach of gentle, aquamarine waves.

Even more impressive is the Blue Pool, which combines the safety of swimming in a pool with the views of swimming in the ocean.

All that swimming inevitably leads to craving for two things: fish and chips, and ice cream.

The fried stuff is taken care of by Saltwater Cafe, with its pleasing view over the very harbour where the battered fish most likely arrived that morning.

Any fish missed by the fisherman might be taken care of by these big-beaked chaps.

As for the ice cream craving, there's no better place in Australia to indulge it. Officially called Cool-o-Cream, Bermagui's hidden culinary treasure is better known as the Gelati Clinic: having taken over the spot previously occupied by Bermi's veterinary clinic they simply painted over the only word on the sign that no longer fitted and replaced and with that which they do best - gelati.

And do they what. Flavours rotate often enough that my promised three visits a day always threw up different choices. The range is divided into half creamy - which tended to have the more interesting combinations - and half icy - normally featuring fruit. Without exception, all the fruit flavours tasted intensely of their ingredients. Local growers bring down produce in exchange for vouchers, so the range matches local availability.

Even without repetition between the two of us over six visits, we only scratched the surface of their full range, judging by the box of labels (all in both English and Italian) we saw them ferreting through each morning. Burnt milk, sadly, did not make an appearance while we were there, but, happily, neither did curry! Over three days, this is what we managed to cover:

Liquirizia (Licorice): most of us are firmly pro- or anti-licorice. If you're in the former camp, get in the car now and drive to Bermi. I only had a taste of this (being more in the latter camp), but it's strong, super salty, and with an astonishing aniseed after-hit

Ciccolata piccante (Chilli chocolate): Richly chocolate, undeniably hot

Miele e zenzero (Honey and ginger): One of those great combos where both flavours are strongly identifiable but go together perfectly

Fragola (Strawberry): Creamier and more strawberry than a bowl at Wimbledon

Ananas (Banana): All it needed was a touch of honeycomb to be the perfect ice cream treat

Pesca (Peach): Peachier than the peachiest peach

Campari e pompelmo (Campari and grapefruit): Every bit as bitter as the aperitif

Mandarino cinese (Kumquat): So sour my mouth went slightly numb

Tangelo: The surprise favourite. Imagine the freshest fruit you can, add ice (and the smell of the sea) and you've got the taste

Rabarbaro (Rhubarb): An amazing complement to the tangelo. Where one was all icy tang, this was incredibly smooth and creamy

Cardamom, saffron and nut: (tasted only)

Chocolate sorbet: Judged by some to be the ultimate in iced desserts. This was rich yet bitter, and best taken in small portions

Uvetta, ciccolata e grappa (Chocolate, grappa and raisin): an Italian take on rum and raisin. Two scoops of this and you'd probably be tipsy

Pecan e cannella (Pecan and cinnamon): Delicious. Exactly what you're looking for in gelato

Stracciatela (Chocolate cuts): a gelato classic, immensely satisfying

Arancia, limone e carota (Orange, lemon and carrot): I thought this was mango from its colour. Instead it was unbelievably refreshing, fruity flavour, balanced by what was definitely carrot, but which mixed in so well I wouldn't have picked it if I hadn't known

Drawn Wisdom I

07 November, 2012

What's on the menu?

Or, more to the point, what isn't?

Menus can start to read like shopping lists, or a particularly deconstructionist piece of fiction, if they get too particular about listing every morsel involved in each plate of food.

Then again, it can be surprising when elements of a dish don't make it onto the menu at all. So there's a balance to be struck between being informative, allowing the diner to reasonably picture what they're ordering, and not presenting too much wank in an effort to show you know your produce.

At the moment, I'm loving Monsieur Truffe on Lygon St (a chilli hot chocolate will resolve any problem you choose to take there). I had a lunch special the other day of cornbeef hash salad, and was surprised - though not disappointed - to discover a fried egg atop the plate. It worked fine in the dish, but it's a particularly significant element to have overlooked in its description.

Sometimes it goes the other way: the menu is right, but the dish - or the chef - is new, and things get missed. Or, in the case of Little Henri, the whole place is new and everyone is still getting the hang of things. At a weekend brunch there, the table next to us received baked eggs with ham, gruyere and garlic crumble sans the meat. I'd ordered the lunch bruschetta: smashed broad beans and ricotta with a soft egg. When the dish arrived I was surprised (again!) to find roasted tomatoes plopped on top of each piece of toast, which had been blistered to a point of dominating smokiness. As I pondered the oddity of not including the strongest taste element in the dish, I realised that the promised soft egg was AWOL. Full credit to the staff: after I checked with the waiter, a perfectly poached egg was added post-haste, while my (exceptional) coffee was just as efficiently removed from the bill.

And what about the elaborately explained dishes that don't make it on to the menu - the specials delivered with breathless, rehearsed haste? I always find them a bit of a challenge - if the waiter explains them before you've looked at the menu, you don't know how they fit in with what else is on offer. If you've agonised over the menu already, adding more choice can be a disaster for the indecisive. Listening to a range of specials that takes a couple of minutes to deliver feels like an educative psychology experiment, testing your memory on verbal versus written memory.

Despite specials often being delivered with a boggling amount of detail, the price point isn't always there at the end. My thinking is that a special shouldn't take any longer to explain than a menu item would to read aloud. Particularly if it's something you're definitely not going to order - for example when a waiter launches into the life and times of tonight's oyster special, I'd love to interrupt, but you can tell they're in full flight and cutting them off would only cause a restart so they could find their place in the recital again. I understand why restaurants don't type them up daily, but printed specials really are easier, unless you're a world champion at that 'I went to the shops and bought a comb, a coffee, a newspaper, a tin of paint etc etc etc' game. I'd be all for waiters saying, 'On the specials tonight are a vegetarian entree, a duck main and a pizza. Would you like me to tell you more about any of those?'

It's a science, producing a menu - and an underrated one at that.

03 September, 2012

A Boy Named Sue

 87 Burns Rd, St Andrews; 03 9710 1023

What better way to top off a sunny afternoon in the country than with some exceptional pizza? First incarnated as simply the St Andrews Pizza Shop, A Boy Named Sue has been generating quite the buzz from its humble home perched high above - but not so far from - the big city.

Rocking up as the last of the day's warmth flew moonward and the icy night air descended, St Andrews took on the aspect of a ski town as locals hovered around a brazier while awaiting takeaways, and travellers like us gradually divested of woollens as we settled into Sue's welcoming space and took in the smells of woodsmoke, dough and garlic.

There's plenty of the latter on their white-based pizzas, such as the Peter Broccoli - with tallegio and walnut pesto. And chilli - quite an ample smattering of chopped fire, seeds and all. The Italian Job, with salami and olives, featured an exceptional tomato base, which was surely not tinned but merely blistered toms smeared liberally on the base.

And the base's are something else. They're thicker than us Brunswickers might be used to or prefer, but they have all the lightness of the thinnest, crispiest based pizza you can get. A lot of the thickness is air, as the bases puff up in craters worthy of the full moon that overlooked our evening.

Head north and check it out.

26 August, 2012

Look. Stop. Taste @ Little Press

Pomegranate seeds turn dishes - whether simple or already extravagant - into beautiful arrays. Here is Little Press's (the bar at The Press Club) individual Yarra Valley lamb cutlet, served with quinoa and sheep's milk yoghurt.

Perhaps not as tasty as the hapuka ceviche with avocado on toast, but far prettier.

Check out Look. Stop. Taste. as part of the State Library's Gusto exhibit.

15 August, 2012

Cutler & Co

Special occasions require special meals. And all the better if they incorporate special drinks too.

The latter was more than adequately taken of by The Everleigh, the kind of place that needs the excuse of a blow-out evening to get me through the door (and up the stairs). It's a gorgeous cocktail bar, taking the trade of bartending super seriously. I've chosen my words carefully there - the menu includes a quote from the 1930s deriding the term 'mixologist' and the notion that being a barman is a professional's job. Instead, it's a trade: that is, an area of craftsmanship.

And the Everleigh staff certainly mix an artful cocktail. All drinkers have the option of Bartender's Choice: you can talk to the staff about your drink preferences - much as you would discuss food at a chef's table dinner - and they'll suggest a suitable mix for your taste.

Taking advantage of this led me to a Detroit Daisy - a tart and hefty cocktail, made with Havana Reserva Jamaican rum, pomegranate juice, lime and mint - and a New York Sour - bourbon with lemon, sugar, egg white and a drizzle of red wine, lending it quite a curious flavour.

Suitably chipper, we headed across the road and up a bit to Cutler & Co, to see what wonders Andrew McConnell's crew could deliver to our evening.

By day, C&C is a warm space, with a dramatic black metal shelter bending over the central bar; muted greys; whitewashed brick wall and a fern garden along the back wall lending colour contrast. By night, while still effective and suitably swish, the lights are a little low, the volume a little high and some of the contrasting effect gets lost in the shadows. What doesn't get lost are the flouncy tulle light covers creating some of that muted effect. They've taken advantage of the building's depth to give each table a bit of space, so you can easily hear your dining partner - and not your neighbours - over the hubbub, although the same couldn't always be said of the waiters.

The first item to arrive at our table was a snack of something something tapioca with something something black sesame. It was brought in a hurry, placed in a hurry and explained in a hurry and the odd ingredient was all we managed to pick up between us.

I've always had great respect for waitstaff who can explain the same specials to dozens of customers with enthusiasm throughout the night. At the other end of the scale, waitstaff can seem almost embarrassed about lengthy dish descriptions, and deliver them in the way you give your name and DOB over the phone - quickly to get it out of the way and hoping no-one else is listening - while already scurrying back to the kitchen.

The snacks were lovely, but nothing on the sourdough bread that came next. Small individual loaves shaped like creme caramels are studded with salt and accompanied by the most wonderful salted butter. They've quite a crust to crack open, but when you do...wow.

C&C keep the menu blessedly simple: six appetisers (three types of oyster); five entrees or a sample of each; five mains; or a kilo of rib-eye to share for $160. Chef's menu is available for $150.

My entree was reminiscent of a recent, comparable dining experience at Heston Blumenthal's Dinner restaurant in London: roasted breast and confit leg of pigeon, morcilla, carrot and gingerbread.

I couldn't go past it - McConnell's morcilla has drawn the crowds to Cumulus Inc for breakfast, and I was terribly eager to try it. It was suitably wonderful, and the pigeon breast - as in London - was commendably tender.

It did provoke one awkward moment, however. I'd remembered from the menu that the dish featured breast and leg, and thought that the miniscule piece of meat on the bone represented both - a bit rich for a $34 entree, I thought! In the low, reddish light, the two pieces of breast looked decidedly orange and I mistook them for carrot. Upon enquiry (and after a bit of confusion!) we determined that 'carrot and gingerbread' meant puree - the smear under the meat. A useful word to include :)

It's another reason that I do appreciate, in this dining environment, when waitstaff don't simply recite the menu description, but actually indicate how it relates to what has appeared in front of you on the plate!

SG's entree was the hand-picked mud crab, buttermilk potato, almond & brown butter.

This was the prettiest of the dishes, with edible flowers dotted among the daubs of smooth-as-cream potato and shredded crab meat.

Our worship at the meat temple continued with the mains. For SG, the slow roast chicken breast, pancetta,
braised turnips and onion.

A reduction was poured over the dish after it came to the table. It was divine, and when mopped up with the aforementioned sourdough was worth the price of admission on its own.

(More brownie points to C&C for specifying onion on the menu - for those like me who can't tolerate it, it's frustrating how often it arrives unannounced.)

I went for braised beef cheek, smoked tongue, roasted kohlrabi, sans the onion soubise on the menu. (The least pretty, but made up for looks in flavour!)

Soubise is a bechamel-style sauce - ie with flour and butter - but cooked down with a hefty wodge of onions. The beef cheek was superb - one of the best pieces of meat I've eaten anywhere or anywhen. The dish did suffer a bit though without its sauce - all that gelatinous meat without a break in texture.

About halfway through the beef cheek I started dreaming about a salted caramel crepe from La Petite Creperie. Happily the menu could make part of that wish come true, and we ordered a chocolate ice cream sandwich, vanilla parfait and salted caramel for dessert to share. Our trio of waitstaff miscommunications was completed when two separate dishes arrived, and the ice cream was just starting to drip before we could hail our man and remind him we'd wanted to share. It was a shared serve, he'd explained, that they'd plated up separately, meaning we scored an extra splodge of ice cream. A much-appreciated gesture, but again, take the time to explain these things!

In another throwback to our Heston experience, dessert was anteceded by another rich morsel - a peanut butter cup.

Delicious, but excessive after already eating our fill of very similar flavours (as the picture, below, shows). Is the amuse bouche being overtaken by the apr├Ęs met?

It was a decadent night out, with price tag to match, and happily the food and wine were up to the task of making it a special one.