12 November, 2006

Thaila Thai

82 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9387 0659

Busy, cheap, and very good, that’s Thaila Thai. A table here on a Friday night, even with outdoor seating, is no guarantee. We snagged the one by the kitchen, which meant probably about 400 people checked out our meals as they waited for takeaway or a coveted seat.

Why so popular? If you’re eating in, the Thaila Thai menu reads more like a sandwich deli. All main courses are available with any meat, each at a set price. You then pick the kind of seasoning for a stir fry (eg basil leaves and chilli, or oyster sauce), a type of curry (red, green, yellow, peanut), or noodles. Extras, rather than avocado or mayonnaise, include cashew nuts for 0.50, or prawns for 3.00. And the value spreads to both sides of the menu. Rice is $2.00 a serve, corkage 0.50c a person, and an entree of six satay skewers only $5.50.

We went for the mixed (chicken and beef) skewers. The peanut sauce was creamy, with a breath of heat, which unfortunately was more than could be said for our meat. We’d also waited about 15 minutes, and had to request a couple of times, for our BYO wine to be brought back to the table corked. All forgotten when the mains arrived. The green curry was incredible (as attested to by multiple people in the endless line waiting for tables!) The vegies reflected the colour of the curry - zucchini, green capsicum, bay leaves and, surprisingly, asparagus. The curry sauce hit with coconut creaminess first, with all the spice in your throat. In between was a mix of mint, sweet, and a definite lingering taste of the bay leaves. A lot of flavour for under $11.50, including the rice. In the spirit of make-your-own, SG went for pork with wide ribbon rice noodles with veg and blackbean sauce. The thinly sliced pork was tender, contrasting with crispy vegetables.

Starter, two mains bigger than we could finish off and corkage came to $29. It did take us almost 15 minutes of queuing just to be able to pay, given one person was handling take away orders and diners settling their bill (one per table, cash only). An upside was it gave us ample time to watch what must be one of the hottest kitchens in Melbourne, with every hob on the go boiling rice, flash frying veg and flaming sauces. The food is excellent, the price unbelievable, but go during the week, and hold out for a seat at the back.

07 November, 2006

Singhs

55-57 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9387 0066

Singhs is not an intimate eatery. It’s an expansive, tavern-style restaurant, brightly lit, with a large kitchen and bar in the middle. The menu is similarly extensive, covering all the Indian staple curries and side dishes. Their wine selection is of the bottle-shop variety, which means good prices by the glass, and some bottles for just $16.

SG is not a spice lover, and despite the option on the menu to tailor their dishes to your own level of spice, he neglected to ask and hence struggled a bit through his chicken masala (with onions, tomato and capsicum). My more accustomed tastebuds weren’t too assaulted, and found the spice lingered rather than attacked. My dish of choice was the eggplant pashwari - eggplant pieces in cashew nut paste and yoghurt sauce with garlic, ginger and spices. The yoghurt and cashew sauce was well balanced between acidity and nuttiness. The eggplant pieces were disappointing, adding little of their own flavour to the dish - perhaps over-salted or overripe?

Singhs has been around for 20 years, so their black clad waiters and fake flower arrangements make up parts of a tested formula. They deliver the quality of food that their pricing suggests - decent, spicy indian, without breaking any flavour boundaries.

29 October, 2006

Spaghetti all' amatriciana, La Bussola

319 Lygon St, Brunswick


I once travelled seven hours by train and bus to Amatrice, to satisfy my travelling companion’s desire to try her favourite dish, bucanti alla amatriciana in its hometown. The journey, the food and the view of the glowing Appenine mountains were a highlight of that Italian sojourn. These days, I just have to jump onto a Number 8 tram to La Bussola and order the same dish to experience the subtle heat and bacon infused napoli sauce, in authentic trattoria surrounds. La Bussola’s menu covers all the traditional Italian staples of pizzas, pasta and sauces, meat and seafood. It’s all made fresh and simply, letting the flavour do the talking.

19 October, 2006

Grossi Florentino

80 Bourke St, Melbourne; 03 9662 1811

From all reports, one hasn’t dined in Melbourne until they’ve dined at Grossi Florentino. This notion is helped by the fact that the Florentino provides three levels of dining experience - the Restaurant ($155 food and coffee), the Grill (mains $28-$35) and the Cellar Bar (under $20).

The best value is reserved for the pre-theatre menu at the Grill, if you don’t mind eating between 6-7:30pm: 2 courses, plus a glass of wine and coffee, for $30. The great price still seats you at a table with linen tablecloth and napkins and quality glassware. The early time also means a ratio of serving staff to customers of almost 1:1. Service was at times too efficient, with a couple of conversations interrupted by offers to refill wine glasses (though at only $5 for truly good Willowglen 2005 Semillon Chardonnay or Shiraz Cabernet one shouldn’t say no).

The good thing about this theatre menu is that it doesn’t skimp on the extras. Diners are greeted with warmed black olives and a hefty sourdough. The set menu comprises three entrees, mains and dessert. Serving sizes are generous. The spaghetti with swordfish in tomato ragu has the complexity of a marinara, without being ’seafoody’. A hunk of pork and chicken terrine is another entree option. The Pollo al Forno featured pieces of dense chicken, on a bed of polenta swimming in a winey stock. This dish was also a great match with the white wine on offer. Steak or floured trevally with cold potatoes make up the other mains on offer.
Even if you’ve left yourself without dessert as an option, the coffee included in the price is so good it makes up for lack of a sweet plate.

www.grossiflorentino.com

11 October, 2006

Decoy

308 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; 03 9620 7122

Flinders Lane is a competitive place, and a restaurant with only five tables occupied at 7pm on a Friday is perhaps not a great advertisement. But the menu options and prices from Decoy were right, so we were happy to take the punt. It’s an appealing room, with chocolate brown furnishings and exposed steel beams on the high ceilings. The walls feature long mirrors and elongated artworks.

The menu is succinct, with six pizzas, priced between $15.50 and $18.50 and a selection of mains ranging from Thai fish cakes or shredded chicken for $16.90, to steak of the day (eye fillet with rice and blackbean sauce) for $24.50. The wine list is similarly concise, and nearly all are offered by the glass from $6.50 to $8.50. If you’re celebrating they offer a 200ml bottle of sparkling for $8.00.

We didn’t have a lot of time to peruse our surroundings between ordering and the food arriving. As I had ordered the risotto (pumpkin and spinach with marcarpone and pinenuts) I would have been quite happy to wait longer. The mascarpone was generously dolloped on top for stirring in. The rice was tender and the dish neither too creamy or oily. The flavour of the diced pumpkin really stood out, but overall the dish had no depth or subtlety of herbs. My dining partner had the spicy salami, roasted capsicum and fior di latte pizza. The salami had some heat, and the fior di latte was a noticeable flavour change from the standard mozzarella, but again the dish overall felt one dimensional.

We enquired as to dessert options, which were limited to what was still in the display cabinets - eg sticky date pudding or mudcake (the dessert menu outside advertised various other options). Rather than being restrictive, this perhaps reflected the fact that this is predominantly a lunchtime laneway eatery with decent coffee, which has only recently extended into opening evenings.

09 October, 2006

The Deanery

13 Bligh Pl (off Flinders Lane); 03 9629 5599

Some different fare for us on this dining occasion. A generous relative, and his even more generous financial employer (trust me, I have no qualms taking a good meal off one of those evils!) made us happy to settle into the Deanery restaurant, rather than settle for bar snacks and a couple of beers (mind you, the bar food looked none too shabby either). The Deanery restaurant is more cellary than Deanery - low ceilings, ruby-brown and beige walls, and a room-length window separating diners from the rent-a-space wine cellar.

The mainly Moroccan-style menu is extremely approachable - one page, of around ten each of entrees and mains. And they all look fabulous. The food menu is contrasted with the wine ‘book’, with a full page of wines by the glass, and those by the bottle priced from $25-$1000. We settled on a 2005 Brokenwood Semillon for $35. Were we having entrees as well as mains, I couldn’t have gone past the slow roast lamb with dukkah crust, green olive tapenade and parsnip whip.

My main of king prawns in chickpea batter, with lentil tabouleh and feta looked a little insignificant on arrival, in comparison with the pork belly with cannellini beans and mustard labne; and the Porterhouse steak with parmesan polenta and porcini relish. However, the very fleshy prawns and legume accompaniment proved equally filling. The light batter was almost fizzy on the tongue, and the feta was a great complement - lending both saltiness and creaminess to the prawn flesh.

With the exception of the chocolate petit pots, all the desserts feature fruit. We shared a pear and apple crumble, with wonderul nutty ice cream, and indulged in some dessert wines, conveniently offered by the glass alongside the desserts.

Our empty plates testified to the quality of the food, but what also impressed me was that I came away with lots of cooking ideas - they weren’t off-puttingly complicated choices, instead just tempting combinations of tastes and ingredients.

http://www.thedeanery.com.au/

04 October, 2006

Poached

169 Lygon St, Brunswick East

Upper Lygon St - the part north of Brunswick Road - already has a range of quality cafes and restaurants , covering most of the international food spectrum, with il Carusi and Kake di Hatti as notable highlights. In recent weeks at least three new places have opened up - Poached (at #169), Rumi (at #132 replacing a wood-fired pizza restaurant) and El Mirage (#329).

For breakfast on the divine Saturday morning preceding the Big Game (hard luck Swans fans) I tried the first of the three. Poached, as its name suggests, has a sizeable breakfast menu, covering the basics of build-it-yourself eggs, bacon, sausage, mush etc. I was excited to see that they had grilled potatoes as one of their optional extras. I went for the chorizo omelette, with haloumi and roast tomatoes. It came served with some very tasty, thick-cut sourdough, and a pad of butter. It was more crepe than omelette, with chunky chorizo pieces that were a little chewy but very flavoursome. The haloumi wasn’t too salty, and lent an almost calamari texture when mixed with the thin, folded egg. The table next to me was served a very impressive looking plate of pancakes with masses of strawberry and ice cream.

My latte was a on the milky side, with a high crema. There’s no chai tea on the menu, but a good range of other herbals. Most impressive about the menu was pricing, with none of the breakfast options over $12.50 (they also have a fine looking range of sandwiches for lunch). They serve a range of breads with meals, including gluten free. Home-made muffins and slices are available to take away if you think you’ll need a mid-morning (or afternoon snack). There’s outdoor seating front and back. The interior is light and basic, with a slate floor.

The food is well-priced, the service friendly (with regular water top-ups). The menu is perhaps a little predictable and would be helped by the addition of a signature breakfast dish.

24 September, 2006

Smokehouse

182 Ocean Beach Rd, Sorrento; 03 5984 1246

The array of stickers on the front window of the Smokehouse, Sorrento, indicates it’s a staple of food critics’ recommendations. Situated at the southern end of Ocean Beach Road, the Smokehouse is open for dinners only. The interior is cosy, with wooden floorboards and tables, but a decent size (seating about 80). On this Saturday night, it’s rammed and a booking would have been a good idea. We get a table right by the front door, which allows us to witness not only the pizza preparation area but also the steady stream of customers collecting take away orders: this is definitely a local favourite.

One corner of the Smokehouse kitchen features a large, stone pizza oven and we’ve come to sample its wares. The menu features eight pizza options, all priced between $11 - $19. Pizzas are available on gluten- and yeast-free bases. There are other mains, including seafood risotto and pasta, Moorish barramundi, lamb shanks and salads.

SG goes for the Barbecue Chicken - when it arrives it seems to have at least a full chicken breast sliced on top, and a sizable spread of bacon, topped with caramelised onion. I’m informed it tastes as good as it looks. I’ve gone for the Boursin, a garlic and cheese overload. And to be honest it is a little overloaded - given it features garlic boursin cheese as a topping, perhaps they could have gone easier on the mozzarella. I find it a bit filling, though very satisfying, with the ‘hot salami’ more tasty than hot, though the oil residue on my plate (perhaps from the pesto base) is a little disconcerting.

I want to leave room to sample their dessert menu and am thirlled with their sensible approach to doggy bagging - the food is foil-wrapped, with a sticker detailing heating and storage instructions and the current date and time to indicate the food’s use-by. Dessert is happily shared - chocolate, strawberry and vanilla Norgan Vaas ice cream, with mars bar sauce and shaved almonds. Sounds like something you’d dream up at home to go with a mushy DVD, and between two it’s a nice, sweet end to the meal.

05 September, 2006

Grace Darling

114 Smith St, Collingwood; 03 9416 0055

The Grace Darling is a winner on a Tuesday night - a full-sized, quality pub grub menu with almost everything under $15. We first ventured there weeks ago for the $12 steak: with creamy garlic mash and a decent jus it is extremely good value. After a few too many heavy meals of late I had a craving this time for something Thai, which the Grace also offers from its Thai This menu. I went for the prawn stir fry with spring onion, garlic, chilli and cabbage. SG stuck to the pub mood and went with the steak sandwich.

Since the start of August the Grace has introduced trivia on a Tuesday night as well, and I did wonder how the kitchen would cope - that's a lot of $11 parma to carry upstairs. With a 20 minute or so wait the smells of heartier pub fare - fries, breads and pie pastry - left me a trifle disappointed when my stir fry arrived. I'd been hoping for a Thai taste explosion, but the first few mouthfuls were closer to (well) dressed coleslaw. The rice though was well cooked - not at all dry, and the kernels nicely separating. Despite a visual presence of red chilli I didn't detect any heat in the dish. It was saved, however, by the presence of four, fat king prawns. They had been lightly fried and I perhaps would have preferred them having some more time getting to know the marinade. The use of more delicate spring onion rather than its crunchier cousin saved the dish being over-powered, which made up somewhat for the runny, not-so-flavourful sauce.

Definitely on the plus side though, it filled me up, without a heavy feeling, which left room to polish off the remaining crispy fries on SG's plate.

27 August, 2006

Devour Cafe

806 High St, Thornbury; 03 9484 8496

I came to Devour for a dish so loved by those in the know that a chalk-written sign in the window was enough to have me salivating for breakfast the next day - 'Baked Eggs are Back!' Devour is a small High Street cafe, with a menu that is definitely different from your average cafe, but not off-puttingly or unnecessarily fancy. Their breakfasts are legendary and memorable, for example the corn flake encrusted French Toast with berries. Patrons can observe busy High Street from the front of the cafe or retreat with their paper to the slightly raised back area, both of which feature colourful wooden furniture and interesting artworks.

But back to the Baked Eggs. The menu advises of a 25 minute wait, reconfirmed by the waiter. There's no need for apology - the extraordinary Devour Beef Burger that SG ordered comes with similar advice, and it points only to the quality of method and produce being used. In the case of the burger, the wait is necessary to cook the hugely thick pattie adequately. The Baked Eggs are so much more than just eggs - homemade baked beans line a ramekin, top by two eggs with spinach leaves in between. Around the sides, clam style, are chunks of chorizo with just the right amount of spice. The dish comes with plenty of toasted sourdough 'soldiers' for dunking (be warned, if you like to dunk runny eggs, do it straight away as the yolks continue to cook and harden in the steaming hot ramekin). The homemade beans are vastly superior to anything out of a tin, and scooping the mix onto great bread brings breakfast possibilities to a whole new level.

19 April, 2006

Dinner at Katharina's

On Monday we had a German ‘lesson’ (actually dinner) at my German teacher’s house. We all had to bring a plate of food. We excelled ourselves! The highlights were the pies that Esther brought, filled with pumpkin, pine nuts and feta cheese. Up at the crack of dawn, she spent the whole day in the kitchen to prepare these delicious pieces. The effort was worth it!
Eva brought marinated chicken; Jackie contributed bread with salmon or meat. Thanks to Les we had quiche. I took zucchini fritters that I had cooked that morning. They didn’t seem like much, so I also prepared homemade pesto mayonnaise. From Anthony came crackers and dips. We also had salad and, therefore, a balanced meal.

Who have I forgotten? It doesn’t matter, because everything that was truly tasty. Here is my filled plate: (am I in Heidelberg, Baden-W├╝rrtemberg, or Heidelberg, Victoria?)
The men provided wine (very important!) and Katharina (our teacher and host) the effort of making warm everything that was cold. She also made sure a trivet sat between the table and each hot plate. The soon-to-marry Robin chose Miles Davis for music. Unfortunately Kris couldn’t be there but, as always, she sent her representatives along.
For dessert Katharina was super. Raspberry clafoutis, freshly baked.
Or, more interesting, quickly spun: Together, we spent a genuinely enjoyable, civilised evening.