23 April, 2007

Promontory Gate Hotel (Fishy Pub)

Old Waratah Road, Fish Creek; 03 5683 2404

Our anniversary took us to a favourite B&B in South East Gippsland, Bayview House (left). On our last trip we’d tried places in the two nearest towns, Foster and Fish Creek. Since then, the Fishy Pub had been re-done, so we thought it would be worth checking out what it had to offer.

This is a great example of a locals’ pub. The night we were there coincided with the Seachange Festival in Foster and the dining room was rammed with big family groups and noisy with cross-table conversations and exuberant chases among the kids. With no idea of the menu I had been a little worried we’d find a $30-a-main gastropub. But no, the priciest thing on this menu was the Shallow Inlet Sizzling Seafood Salad, with squid, prawns and scallops, for $32.90, which sounds worth every cent.

I was really impressed with the menu. It featured lots of fish, being so close to Western Bay, and promised that all steaks were prime cuts, grain fed and aged. The pastas and risottos showed thought too, for example the Waratah Bay Risotto – sautéed scallops, king prawns, pink peppercorns, garlic, dill, seaweed in creamy white wine sauce ($21.90). Typing that out is making me wish I’d opted for that!

Instead I went the butterfish special, cooked in a white wine napoli sauce, and SG chose the T-bone steak with mushroom sauce (both about $22). We showed our city bias by reading the sides – ‘served with chips and salad or vegetables’- as meaning chips guaranteed, salad or vegetables the options. Choosing the last option, we missed out on further feeding SG’s current obsession with deep fried potato. Instead we had garlic butter chaps, al dente broccoli and beans, and a field of very buttery corn each.

The butterfish made me think of the white cliffs of Dover, so thick-cut and pure white was the flesh. Did I mention the portion sizes? This is a pub feeding hordes of footballers after all, and they were HUGE. Although well-textured, and with a complementing rather than dominating sauce, there was way more fish than I could do justice to. The T-bone was succulent and cooked to order. Again, the accompanying sauce added balanced flavour, indicating someone was out there stirring from scratch, not packet. Similarly, the freshness of flavour of the vegetables impressed.

A range of home-cooked desserts was on offer for $7.50. The trip was worth it for the beer prices alone - $2.80 a pot – and the pub rotates a selection of local wines. Tonight was Stockyard Creek, and I went for a fine riesling. The floor staff were openly friendly and attentive, and didn’t look the least harassed by the bursting dining room, which shows they’re well-trained and that this pub is deservedly popular.


12 April, 2007

Madame Sousou

231 Brunswick St, Fitzroy; 03 9417 0400

When I first walked into Madame Sousou, I was surprised at how small it was. It came with such recommendation, and hence expectation, that I’d built it up to a dimly lit, cavernous, gourmet restaurant filled with whispered conversation. Instead, the restaurant space is very French bistro – all the wall space is covered, either with decoupaged old-style advertising prints, or matted sketches. The striking iron chandeliers throw out a yellow light, giving a smoky, mysterious, expectant atmosphere. This was helped by the steady, but manageable flow of custom – from a group of six, to couples taking their time, to lone diners sufficing with an entrée and glass of wine – which encouraged everyone to just stick to their own pace. The black awnings outside, with a white relief of Madame herself, the soft yellow light inside and the comfortable bench seats make this an approachable restaurant, despite its higher-end menu.

There was a lot of tempting food to choose from on said menu. Undeniably French, with lighter starters showing a bias towards seafood, and heavily flavoured meat-based mains. Starters included an exceptional plate of calamari – very tender, smallish pieces deep fried in a light crispy batter, served with garlic aioli - quail with raisin sauce, or bouillabaisse. Most ranged from $16-20. For main I went with the Cassoulet de Canard – twice roasted duck served with haricot beans and pork sausage ($30). The duck meat was tender and covered by a wonderfully crispy filament of skin. The beans had taken on a lot of flavour from the pork, which itself was fairly mild. However the dish was let down a little by oversaltiness – whether from the beans or over-marinating the duck I wasn’t sure. The gnocchi with roasted pumpkin, pinenuts, sage and buffalo mozza ($25) sounded promising, but was a little disappointing with fairly bland, square-cut gnocchi, and a mere smattering of sage, where a bit more herbage could have really lifted the flavour. Overall the mains sounded quite heavy on paper, and while well cooked, the flavours hadn’t been handled as delicately as they could have been to make wonderful dishes.

There is an extensive bottled wine list, the majority coming from France, and with only around half a dozen in total by the glass. We enquired after one of the wine specials – a Craigs Hut 2004 Sangiovese ($36) and while our first waitress couldn’t assist, the ‘second barperson’ was able to give us some more information on origin, and importantly, a taste. The wine had a very clean nose, was slightly drier than some Sangioveses, but a wonderfully full mouth taste that allowed it to match different dishes.

The flow of diners show Madame Sousou is a popular place, and it perhaps provides a useful option in Brunswick St of an accessible European class restaurant. Its menu reads well, in terms of the flavour complements it describes for each dish (though it does help if you like meat and seafood). Some that we sampled, such as the calamari, really were standouts, whereas others could do with just slightly more attention to make this an exceptional dining experience.

11 April, 2007

Mrs Parmas

25 Little Bourke St; 03 9639 2269

I’d seen mention of Mrs Parmas in Dishlicious in the A2 – as a pub in Little Collins St specialising in parmigianas - and was reminded of it at Wicked Sunday (that delectable new feature of the Melb Food and Wine Festival), where they had a stand as part of the Microbrewery gallery.

Why did a parma restaurant have a stand amongst Victoria’s microbreweries? Because in addition to serving up Melbourne’s most gourmet version of the traditional pub treat, it is also an all-Victorian bar, selling a range of locally brewed beers on tap and by the bottle – a very commendable policy indeed.

Firstly to the food. Any couples dining on a small appetite should definitely order one to share – these parmas are HUGE. And not huge in that ‘oh my god, there is so much saturated fat and questionable meat product on my plate I’d best drink more so it becomes more appealing’ kind of way. All their parmas are made fresh, the sauces are homemade, and you know you’re consuming quality produce.

Our topping selections were the Original (ham, cheese, napoli sauce) and Matriciana (olives, chilli (undetectable), cheese, napoli sauce). While beaten thin to schnitzel thickness, the chicken was still substantial, and the ratio of meat to crumb was much better than some more questionable schnitzels I’ve eaten. The sauce had a real tomato kick, not over oiled, and the olives added a great saltiness. There are about 10 toppings to choose from, all available with either chicken ($18.50), veal ($22.50) or eggplant ($16.50). Being quality conscious as they are, Mrs Parma also offers gluten and egg free pastas. There are also a small range of steak and seafood dining options.

And now to the beers. We first sampled Gippsland Gold and Grand Ridge Pilsener, and couldn’t go past them for the second round. Both were delicious. The Gippsland Gold was an almost bright yellow, with a citrus crispness. Very refreshing to drink, but still with a full flavour. The Pilsener was darker, with a malty taste that almost made it caramelly. Both are now on our list to have in the house. The bar also serves beers from CBD breweries such as Three Ravens, plus Holgate in Woodend and others from around the state. There are half a dozen each well-priced red and white wines available, though I was surprised they didn’t go all-Victorian on those as well.

07 April, 2007

New Zealand - Dux de Lux

Cnr Hereford and Montreal Sts, Christchurch

Dux de Lux comes highly recommended – it’s the ‘author’s choice’ of places to go in the NZ Lonely Planet. It’s a big operation, comprising multiple bars and indoor and outdoor seating areas. It reminded me of the Breakfast Creek Hotel in Brisbane, with one rather significant difference – there’s no red meat on the menu! Dux de Lux serves a large range of vegetarian and seafood dishes, as well as pizzas. They also have a brewery on site and sell a range of half a dozen or so of their own beers. If you like the taste of their drop, check this out as a convenient way to avoid having to queue at the bar: The main meals come with salad and a daily vegetable selection. We both had pan-fried fish of the day cooked in garlic and lemon, with honey soy veg and basil potatoes (about $NZ20 each, and the cheapest seafood option). The food was quite bland all round – there wasn’t any hint of honey or soy on the vegetables and the fish, while perfectly edible, was let down by the absence of fresh herbs. Fortunately we’d ordered a half plate of buffalo wedges to go with it, which at $NZ6 were definitely the best value on the table.

On a sunny Saturday in early March, it seemed most of Christcurch passed through the joint. For the atmosphere and the beer, I can see why, but the budget end of the menu was a bit disappointing.

New Zealand - Cafe Neve and Cock Saddle Cafe

Both on Main Street, Fox Glacier

Fox is a very manageable town, with the vast majority of eateries situated along a couple-of-hundred-metre stretch of Main Street. With our penchant for pizza, the choice for our first night was Café Neve. They do pizzas in three sizes, and the large size can be half and half for an extra two dollars. That made the large $NZ31, and since the mediums were $NZ19 each, we decided to split a large into half chicken satay and half lamb.

The pizza was huge (though one chap at the adjoining table managed to work his way through a large on his own – he’d obviously done the full-day glacier trek, rather than the half-day like us!) We were fortunately divided on preference – mine was for the lamb, with thyme and kumara. SG went for the chicken satay, which wasn’t very peanuty, but couldn’t work for me as it had pineapple on it, an ingredient choice I found rather odd.

The waitstaff at Café Neve seemed fairly new – our guy didn’t know much about the drinks selection, and although we specifically asked for half glasses of beer we got ‘handles’ (fortunately only a dollar more). Our dessert order was also forgotten, and a group who had made a reservation for five people couldn’t be accommodated at one table when they arrived at about 8:30pm.

The restaurant also did various specials and mains, with an average price in the high $NZ20’s.

The Cock Saddle was a bit more laidback, with some quality C&W pumping out (bit of Billy Ray, plenty of Shania, you know the stuff!) It has more of a Texas steakhouse type menu, with huge fish, beef or chicken burgers for $NZ18.50, a couple of Mexican selections and BBQ sauce ribs for $NZ23.00. Its lengthy drinks menu featured a range of bottled and draught New Zealand beers, as well as listing out all the liquors and spirits on offer.

The waitstaff here were very friendly and attentive – introducing themselves before taking your order, and they were happy for me to hold on to the menu after not ordering when SG did, since the leftover Café Neve pizza from last night was still adequately filling me up! A good option for families staying in Fox.

New Zealand - Craypot

70 West End, Kaikoura; (NZ) 03 319 6027

When in Kaikoura, it’s all about the crayfish (the town’s name actually means ‘to eat crayfish’ in Maori). Every guidebook mentions it and nearly all the restaurants have their crayfish options, normally half or full serve, prominently displayed on the menu. So how to be sure you’re getting a good one and not just paying for the tourist gimmick?

Well first, there’s the price issue. Without knowing much about crayfish, it’s hard to settle on paying $NZ50 or more for half a crustacean before even sitting down in the restaurant. The accompaniments might help – some come as part of a seafood platter, others with roasted potatoes. We settled on the Craypot, which wasn’t the cheapest crayfish option in town at $NZ40 per half serve, but then again I was happy in this instance not to settle for cheapest!

Definitely a venue for seafood lovers, the Craypot menu featured both fish and chips and fish of the day, as well as salmon, crayfish, and a seafood platter for two, as mains. Non-seafood options were more abundant in the starters, with three salads and Moroccan Kofta on offer.

As pre-determined before we even left the hostel, I went for the Half Crayfish Thermidor, served with orzetto and green salad. SG went the fish and chips. And what a meal his was. Four huge battered pieces of fish on a mound of thick cut, beer battered crispy chips. The fish batter was almost like crusty bread, and the fish pieces themselves were very flavoursome. I was glad his serving was so enormous, as my half crayfish did little to satisfy a traveller’s appetite. The crayfish meat was like calamari in texture, but had a very mild taste – nothing that you’d be naming a town after! The orzetto (rice like pasta) was too bland an accompaniment to such a delicate dish – I would much have preferred some herbed potatoes as so many other restaurants were offering.

After a slightly disappointing main I was happy to go with a dessert, and we ordered the passionfruit cheesecake from our rather dispirited waitress. That provided an amusing aside – we waited sometime for our dessert to arrive, and then enquired of the manager, who promptly returned to ask if that was the ‘two passionfruit cheesecakes’ – which we interpreted as a sneaky way of confirming an otherwise missing order!

New Zealand - Poppy Thai

31 Scott St, Blenheim; (NZ) 03 579 4496

This was a dining highlight. After wandering the few main streets of Blenheim, looking at two or three recommended places that had dispiritingly similar menus (in price - $NZ20-30 mains - and content), we made one last turn down Scott Street and espied Poppy Thai from afar. After plenty of mod-Australasian and Mediterranean dishes thus far on the trip some Asian sounded just the go.

The décor was entirely suitable – fake flowers, over-the-top tablecloths and placemats, elephants everywhere. One touch I did like were the info sheets on each table about the medicinal benefits of the most common Thai herbs, produced by the Thailand Tourism Board. Our waiter was about 14, and didn’t talk much, but did all the right things.

My meal was the Pad Bai Krapraow: stir fired basil, babycorn, peppers, chillies and veg with chicken ($NZ15 and note, we found in NZ Asian restaurants often included rice in the price of the meal). The dish was fantastic – all the ingredients were fresh as, and the sauce too held the just-picked basil taste, the mintiness of which balanced wonderfully against the chilli heat. SG went with his standard of stir-fry with oyster sauce ($NZ14.50 with pork, inc rice), which delivered a similar taste hit.

New Zealand - Figaro

8 Scott St, Blenheim

Figaro was noted in the Lonely Planet for its ‘superb coffee’. It was superb, not only in taste, but strength too. Served in the traditional Kiwi latte ‘bowl’, I later discovered it had three full shots – no wonder I went on a small head trip afterwards.

Figaro is a light-filled place, with cream walls and dark wood furniture, and its fully glassed frontage lets in plenty of sun – a perfect breakfast setting. I always find it hard to go past French toast, so ordered theirs with bacon, banana and maple syrup (berry compote and yoghurt is the other option, both $NZ13). Two thick cut, eggy pieces of sourdough were accompanied by a generous bacon serve and, banana that had been halved and grilled in its peel.

Not a big breakfast eater, SG picked up one of the muffins from the counter – fruit and muesli. It was light enough to not sit too heavily on the belly so early in the day, and the muesli gave it great texture, some roughage that made it seem more like a meal and an oaty taste.

The brief breakfast menu works around the egg and bacon staples, with muesli (with fruit and yoghurt, $NZ10) the only non-cooked option.