30 August, 2008

Seasons broadened by the bean; Gerald's Bar

386 Rathdowne St, Carlton North

It was fitting perhaps that the year's first sighting of 'fresh' broad beans on sale came from a blogger by the name of Fatty McBeanpole. Certainly more fitting than the availability of a spring speciality in the deep of a Melbourne winter.

The broad bean season is tantalisingly short. For just three good months can devotees take them home, to first break the beans out from their implausibly fluffy cocoons, then squeeze the inner bean free after blanching. The end product - a bright green, fat crescent of legume - teams to great effect with lemon, artichoke, paprika, chicken, white wine or stock and in risottos.

On the first evening in months that lacked the bite of southerly air and instead encouraged hope for warmer gusts from the north, the Bean of Wonder showed up atop a hunk of braised pork with apples at the super-groovy Gerald's Bar.

The bar itself is long, curved and supported by a weave of wooden slats. Tables and chairs sit under lace-curtained windows; a meat-slicer is overseen by a huge David Bailey portrait at the far end. Vinyl remixes spin smoothly and quietly. A shelf running the length of the bar stocks a formidable range of spirits; vodka and gin are kept chilled in an ice bucket for expert handling with mixers and in cocktails. The first sparkling and first three reds and whites ordered for the evening become that day's by the glass, a policy that can be a blessing for patrons feeling short on decision-making power. Gerald's has a superb wine list, with potential by-the-glass prices ranging from around $8-$40. There's an international range of beer as well.

The day's menu is scrawled on butcher's paper then clipped to a ladder on wheels that you might expect to see in a library, so that it can be wheeled to customers' vantage points along the bar. While Gerald's is definitely a drinker's bar, this succinct menu offers perfect accompaniments. Half a dozen small plates come at $10 each: maybe Polish sausage, wagyu prosciutto or a welsh rarebit - an appropriately hunky piece of sourdough, with rich cheese, just a touch of English mustard and a good dose of pepper. The pork main meal, at $15, is superb value. A hefty, thick piece of meat has been braised, retaining tenderness and texture, and served in a sauce of its own juices with an understated apple sauce.

It's an incredibly comfortable place, one where you want to settle in for a couple of wines, switch to cocktails and maybe finish with a brandy, having also worked your way through the menu. Sure Carlton is our own little Italy, but this bar mixes the best of Melbourne and Europe as naturally as the seasons change.

'Round Ireland with a Fridge' - Tony Hawks

It's a famous book, made huge by its unlikely premise: hitchhiking around the emerald isle with a bulky kitchen appliance. Author Tony Hawks is a comedian by trade and it is perhaps telling of his demeanour that he came to the journey by way of a bet; as in, somewhere between the ninth and tenth round of beers the gauntlet of 'bet you 100 quid you couldn't do it' was thrown down. Whether or not there's anything further to be derived about his character by the fact that said fridge cost more than the bet is something the reader can make up their own mind about.

The absurdity and perceived impossibility of his journey are assuaged somewhat by, firstly, the size of his fridge (think of the kind squeezed into a hotel cupboard) and, secondly, by his regular phone-ins to a morning radio show, which prompt some drivers to call him up and arrange to collect him from a pre-arranged spot. We've seen the emergence of 'flashpacking'; in the late 90s Hawks pioneered swishhiking (not to be confused with the far more effortful swisshiking - rather more bergs involved in the latter).

The book is certainly funny. In its initial stages, particularly, as Hawks describes preparations for the journey and reactions of his English countrymen, he can prompt snickering, snorting and the odd guffaw (a discussion with HRH Prince Charles is certainly worth a chuckle). His occasional musing about a religion or spiritual cause based on the philosophy of his quest and beliefs is at times both diverting and worth a few moments' cogitation. Further, there are moments of notable lyricism: 'With caution I stood by the boat's siderail and viewed the sea respectfully, a little confused by its jet black, inky colour and its refusal to reflect the blue sky above it.'

It's a fun and original story, told by someone confident in the art of engaging an audience with tales to get them laughing. On occasion, Hawks falls into the comedian's trap of milking a joke for too long, of going for one more laugh when he could have quit when ahead. Some recollections seem only to be in there for him to get a laugh, rather than to help flesh out detail of the trip. Given the genre, that's justified to an extent, but it's more forgiveable when those extra jokes are delivered with a little more panache. This next point isn't necessarily Hawks fault: the book is terribly edited. If a comma between a subject and its verb gets your hackles up do not attempt to read through any chapters of this book. It may be a personal sensitivity, but this reviewer also struggled to countenance Hawks's attitude to women. Too frequently he picks out a 'pretty' girl from a group as the one he 'fancies most'. His repartee after a successful encounter with a woman from New Zealand in Wexford is disrespectful to say the least.

It's important of course to keep in mind the book's genre and market. It falls into the category of travel writing where the idea of writing a book about one's experiences comes well after the crazy idea that led to the adventure in the first place. It's not a market craving travel literature, but instead laughter and enjoyment from another person's idea of fun. And to that end it meets its mark spot on: it is fun and diverting and it was a crazy idea, which begs further investigation from the reader to find out how it was done. Leave your prejudices and higher expectations at the contents page, and you're guaranteed an enjoyable read.

27 August, 2008

Birthday baking

A big birthday means plenty of baking - there are so many groups of people to celebrate with! Over the space of a week, there were cakes for German class, school, work and, of course, The Party. That's a whole lot of flour, butter and sugar, but they each featured fruit as well, and anything made with love and happiness isn't bad for you ;)

Top to bottom:

The apple tea cake has featured on this blog before, and it once again came out looking a treat, although a few minutes longer in the oven and the edges would have gone from 'whoops, they're a bit crisp!' to 'bollocks, the cake's burned'.

The least successful of the four (in my opinon) was the pear and walnut slice. It was an interesting recipe, starting with more of a biscuit mix (butter, caster sugar and flour rubbed together) than a cake mix, which was split in two. The first half was baked to form the base, then to the other half was added milk, egg and vanilla, before it was poured over the baked based and topped with diced pear and walnut pieces. I found it too sweet - there was sugar sprinkled on top as well, which may have been the tipping point. And the pear could have been better integrated.

If that was the possible loser, the definite winner was the pear streusel cake. My workplace has been known to host the odd bake-off, so when catering for morning tea it pays to try something a bit special! Straight out of The Sunday Age, this one didn't look spectacular on the outside, but made up for it on the inside. The pears were laid down first, along with brown sugar and butter, and baked briefly. A standard cake mix was whipped up, but the magic of the cake was in the streusel - a mixture of butter, flour, crushed nuts, sugar and spices mixed together and baked until crunchy. This went in with the cake mix and the whole lot poured onto the baked pears. Gobbled up to the last slice!

The Day of the Party featured grocery shopping, a wine tasting, cooking, bellinis, a life-defining playlist, and much shared frivolity and joviality. Somewhere amongst that (in between preparing the scotch eggs and the baked beans) I whipped up a lemon syrup cake, which, as hoped, came out fluffy and with the right balance of tart and sweet.

Who needs Brunettis? ;)

23 August, 2008

The Press Club

72 Flinders St, Melbourne; 03 9677 9677

Listening to David Sedaris at the Melbourne Writers' Festival recently, I was taken with his statement that sometimes he feels like his life has become a story. At such times he resists the compunction to take out his notebook and notate what's happening, as he doesn't want to do anything to bring the situation to an end before its natural conclusion.

There's a tenuous link between that concept and my recent dining experience at The Press Club. Originally I was going to say that I took my inspiration from a recent post at AOF's Confessions, where she discusses the idea that by constantly thinking as a blogger - analysing and worrying over lighting conditions for photos - we diminish our ability to savour our eating experiences in the moment. I think Sedaris' notion was closer to my reasons for not photographing my food at The Press Club though: troubling myself with that usual aspect of my dining excursions didn't fit in with the way I wanted to experience this rare and treasured treat.

I am, nevertheless, compelled to record it here. I have read much about George Calombaris' skills and the awe in which many hold his treatment of Greek cuisine, and had experienced it in reduced form at The Press Club Bar. I hadn't quite understood what was meant by a lot of the language: Lethlean uses phrases like 'modern, yet reverent' and 'springboard' comes up a lot, but now, having taken on the full dining experience it's quite clear. The ingredients are classic, traditional – lamb, beetroot, honey, cheese, mushrooms – yet their treatment is revolutionary without being unapproachable, without making them unrecognisable.

With the quality on offer the menu is expansive without being so extensive that choice seems impossible. It divides into small and large dishes and while 'kerasma' is available - a chef's choice of dishes, with or without dessert and wine - we decide to control our intake; given our tastes and predilections the four dishes brought to our table almost order themselves.

Seared scallops souvlaki, Santorini caper leaf keftedes (meatballs) and cauliflower vinaigrette arrives skewered on its own sword. A salad of cumin-roasted beetroot, pistachio biscuit, yoghurt cheese and Attiki honey offers so many combinations (there's a picture on the restaurant's homepage): the nuttiness of the cake-like tower of biscuit, soft and spongey when you cut into it; the sour-savoury cheese wrapped in herbs; and the honey, undoubtedly sweet but in such a fundamental way that it doesn't so much taste sweet, as demonstrate sweetness. (You know you're in a good place when the food promotes musing on the metaphysical.)

At Melbourne's best Greek restaurant it would seem requisite to order the lamb: in this case a 'hot off the press' lamb spit with white bean skordalia, lemon potatoes and marouli salad (lettuce dressed with dill and vinaigrette). The lamb, as expected, is superb: tender, moreish, extraordinarily flavoured and textured. It would be hard to imagine a better fine dining experience. Unless, as was my blessed experience, you had ordered the duck.

The duck. Perhaps I should have written the post as just a reflection on this one dish. The menu description reads as: slow-cooked duck in olive oil, mushrooms, garlic, parsley and greek kafe and sokolata soil (a crunchy, crumbly mix of coffee and chocolate). There's a process to its consumption: as the soil is sprinkled onto the duck it begins to melt into it, at the same time breaking down the meat, which was already separating so willingly from the bone, even further. What takes place is so much more than a fusion to produce a new flavour combination. Instead the ingredients alchemise – creating an altogether new entity unlike any flavour made up of the component ingredients.

The Press Club has been hyped, praised and awarded. In this case it's deserved: this is extremely high quality, innovative, thoughtful food. After our experience at The Point, I will say that I find it surprising that restaurants at this level seem to assume diners want to stay the night - both meals lasted 3.5 hours - but the staff at The Press Club were so enthusiastic, genuine and knowledgeable that I almost felt compelled to forgive their interest in re-setting tables rather than bringing us dessert menus.

Alchemy and metaphysics. George Calombaris is an exciting man to have in the kitchen, and the anticipation over Hellenic Republic grows ever greater.

22 August, 2008

The Brunswick East Project

438 Lygon St, Brunswick East

Update: This venue is synonymous with the Padre coffee brand. On a visit for takeaway this morning, I noticed the following stencilled onto their door:

No hawkers
(No bloggers)

At least they're letting you know up front!

See original entry for Artisan Espresso

The Artisan Espresso site that opened in April has, after a short hiatus, re-opened as the Brunswick East Project. The interior feel is very similar, and many of the fittings are the same. The furniture has been slightly re-arranged, however, and with the back room now lit up and housing a coffee roaster there's a more expansive feel to the place.

It's worth popping in during its early days of operation and having the pleasure of observing and talking to the barista, Marinus, while he's at work extracting your caffeinated beverage. The Padre blend is still in the grinder - a sweeter coffee, aiming for a burnt toffee taste, which, with the addition of milk, makes for a caramelly latte.

There's a small range of muffins and mini slices available, but the focus is undoubtedly on the bean and its proper handling to create a drink of distinction.

(In its original incarnation the cafe featured a noticable, yellow-topped, circular table spruiking 'petit dejeuner'. A gold star to anyone who can identify in which local eatery it has ended up!)

21 August, 2008

Cafe Bedda

242 High St, Northcote; 03 9482 9420

It's no secret that Melbourne's inner northern suburbs boast higher-than-average densities of restaurants and Italians. Coincidence? I think not. But with pizza and pasta lording it over noodles and cous cous, what does an Italian restaurateur do to make their trattoria top of the list?

Cafe Bedda's first point of difference is to raise the flag of a particular Italian region: the dishes and wines at this High St eatery are distinctly Sicilian. Secondly, its menu reveals neither a pizzeria with some OK pasta dishes, nor an exhaustive examination of Italian pasta and sauces with some mediocre pizzas on the back page. Bedda offers a reasonable selection of both.

On two trips to Bedda, the seasonal specials have impressed. Tonight liver was on the menu as a main, but, tempting as it sounded, when one goes out for pizza there's an imperative to stick with pizza (rather like not ordering orange juice when you 'go out for coffee'). The carciofi entree special, however, was a suitable preamble: a whole artichoke stuffed with breadcrumbs, parmagiano and herbs, eaten rustic-style by plucking out the leaves and scraping off the nutty flesh with your teeth.
Bedda's renowned pizzas are prepared amidships in a modern-looking, double-decker oven emitting a greenish glow from its halogen elements. While the chicory and lemon pizza features in most Bedda reviews, the pizza of choice tonight was the Otto: tomato, pancetta, caramelised onion, cayenne pepper, garlic, olives and parmagiano. Quite a list! Regardless, the toppings were delicate enough for Bedda's super-thin crust to handle. Bedda's style is not to lay on the stringy cheese: the tomato base is far more crucial for holding the ingredients together and the parmagiano adds more tang than tension. Caramelised onion provided a wonderfully sweet offset to the salty pancetta. A rogue pepper seed cropped up on the last bite, turning what had been a pleasant spark of warmth to an unexpected fire. Time for another glass of nero d'avola to quench the heat!

There's a lovely atmosphere to Cafe Bedda: the checked, tiled floor keeps things feeling busy, even when it's not full; while the dark wood furniture minimises the visual assault. It's big enough that large groups can be sat away from quieter couples, but small enough that several tables can watch the pizzaiolo in action. The density of Italian restaurants may be high in this area, but this one is better than average.

18 August, 2008


717 Rathdowne St, Carlton North; 03 9348 1276

The folks at Where's the Beef posted a good review of North a little while back, on the back of which I'd added it to the 'must try' list. Stories of throngs of like-thinkers over weekends meant I took up a Monday mid-morning opportunity to check it out.

As with so many cafes in this area, North offers a small space. White features strongly, both on the furniture and the walls, offset by black stencilled artwork. The cafe features a great window seat, which is at normal height (rather than a bench with stools), providing an extremely comfy place to sink into a bowled chair and swivel between perusing the blackboard menu and the goings-on of Rathdowne St outside.

On offer for the morning meal is their Champions Breakfast, involving boiled eggs and soldiers. Oh yes, that's a trophy eggcup! I was tickled pink by this arrangement. The eggs and toast come with a fine, sweet tomato relish; the mushrooms are my own addition. There were plenty of soldiers to go around, and to be honest I was a little overwhelmed by two eggs; as a home-cooked dish it would never occur to me to make two. The only downer was that Egg #1 seemed stuck in the eggcup, so I couldn't take the shell out and start over with Egg #2. Happily I had been provided with a little spoon to tap the eggs open in the appropriate manner, so sufficed with doing that on the plate. A big plus about this dish over baked eggs is that the yolk stayed runny, so there was still plenty of dipping action even with Egg #2.

For a good precis of some of the other tempting dishes on offer at North, check Breakfast Out.

17 August, 2008


123 Hardware St, Melbourne; 03 9600 0695 Now closed. The previous owners of Beetroot run Hardware Societe, across the street.

Beetroot have assessed their market and tailored an irresistible lunch option accordingly. During the week, a good range of pre-prepared meals are available for $10 and a tumbler of their house wine for just $1. If that won't get you away from your desk and out of the office, I don't know what you're waiting for!

The pre-preparation is an indicator that your food will not only be cheap but also quick to the table, rather than a suggestion of poor quality. A bowl of chicken pesto pasta is a perfect demonstration: a drizzle of parsley and sundried tomatoes sit atop firm pasta and a sauce that wasn't excessively creamy. The serving size was spot on for lunch, and the addition of a side salad is both commendable for the price and guilt-assuaging after taking the creamy pasta option.

If it's more of a sugar hit you're after to power through the afternoon, indulge in a milk, dark or white hot chocolate with persian candy floss. You could almost consider it a dessert and, at $3.80, it could give you a two-course lunch, with a glass of wine, for less than $15!

12 August, 2008

Brother Baba Budan

359 Little Bourke St, Melbourne

Hot drinks have had their moments in the spotlight on this blog, but they tend to be on the peripheral of reviews, mentioned in addition to the food on offer as an extra indication of a venue's style and worth. On this occasion, however, there's no food stealing the limelight, in part because this particular venue doesn't really serve food (with the exception of the odd pastry): at BBB, it's all about the coffee.

Run by the same bloke who looked after St Ali in South Melbourne, this is a cafe devoted to the service of the best coffee possible. There's not a lot to recommend the place from the outside - an intriguing shingle would probably indicate a boutique rather than a cafe to the uninitiated - yet within that subtley is an immediate allure, and that's before you notice the flock of chairs stuck to the ceiling. Coffee franchises often note their 'blend of the day', which indicates which packet they opened under orders from Head Office that morning. At BBB that blend will be something developed and roasted by the guys making the coffee. It's not a place to stop into for a quick takeaway, either: they take the necessary care with each cup.

So, what was it about my takeaway cup of caffeine that so tickled the tastebuds? Sipped without sugar, the coffee was extremely bitter, but not in an aggravating way. There was no puckering: alongside the bitter taste was an astonishingly smooth mouthfeel. It actually made me think of a whiskey, in the way tart taste and smooth texture combined. By the time I added sugar it became an extraordinary and, given the lateness of the previous evening, life-giving drink.

Update (July 2013): Just imagine it, a venue in Melbourne dedicated to coffee! I had to chuckle, reading this post almost five years after it was originally published. How the industry has progressed in that time. Coffee temples are the business du jour, and to list places in the CBD and inner-north and east suburbs venerating the bean would be no quick task.

08 August, 2008


263 Brunswick St, Fitzroy; 03 9419 1919

The visual impact of this Brunswick Streeter is immediate and effecting. At the same time, however, it seems muted and perfectly suited. That's why architectural firm Six Degrees has the reputation it does for creating memorable and inspired spaces. The restaurant feels undoubtedly Chinese: its namesake adorns the wall in a vivid portrait, tea-sets sit atop partitions between the tables, and the cushioned bench seat is embroidered with Chinese characters - but this is no Chinese takeaway.

The sweet and sour pork and honey lemon chicken familiar to suburban Chinese diners the western world over is Cantonese cuisine. At Mao's, the regional fare on offer is Hunanese. Seafood features strongly on the menu, as do pork and duck. Eggplant seems to be the vegetable of choice for the dishes sans meat.

Our vegetarian selection, however, was limited to spring rolls. The entree consists of two pieces, but they are of a size that makes them worth at least double the smaller variety (compare a recent serve at Thaila Thai). I liked that you could see the pointy end of the (presumably very recently) rolled wrapper. There was no wasted space inside: each roll was dense with Chinese mushrooms, cabbage, sweet potato (noted as 'yam' on the menu) and vegetables, which meant you hit the peppery filling as the flaky pastry dissolved on your tongue. The accompanying soy sauce was gratifyingly thick and clung to the rolls.

Four pieces of spicy calamari arrived atop sliced chillies, onions and mixed lettuce leaves. The calamari meat was wonderfully firm. The batter was quite a thick, crispy one; I prefer calamari in a lighter batter, but on this occasion it filled out the entree very well.

The seafood section of the menu looked very promising, and it supplied my choice of main: claypot king prawns with shallots, garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg. Shallots and garlic are common ingredients in Hunanese cooking, and they were prominent in this dish too: alongside jumbo prawns came quarter and half cloves of garlic. I love the stuff enough to always be happy to be able to see it in a dish! There were at least five king prawns, unshelled and (in at least one instance) unveined; so it was messy-finger time. The menu mentioned 'a touch' of cinnamon and nutmeg, and these sweeter spices certainly didn't imprint on the dish too strongly.

Why go past a dish described on the menu as Chairman Mao's favourite, in a restaurant bearing his name and in which he smiles benificently at diners from the wall? (Dictators were a theme of the night, as I later found myself under Stalin's rather sterner gaze at Bar Open.) Hunan-style pork features a pot of chopped rib pieces with a glistening, thick sauce of dark soy, flavoured with garlic and star anise. Not surprisingly, the pork pieces were quite fatty but the dish fell short of being sickly sweet. There are some vegetables hiding under all that pork, their crispiness a nice counter to the tender meat.

Overall, the flavours were pleasant and present; by which I mean, although my prawns came with spears of spring onion and visible garlic, and the calamari was sitting on big pieces of chopped chilli, none of those accompaniments overpowered anything. Just as the fitout was both familiar and unusual, this outcome was welcome and surprising: I wouldn't have wanted to come out with a numb mouth, carrying too strong a scent of any of the onion family members, but then again one would have expected more flavour bursts from such striking ingredients. That's not a criticism: I thoroughly enjoyed the balance of each dish, perhaps helped by the fact that Hunanese cooking often involves steaming, adding visual colour to dishes; and avoiding the overwhelming, oily glugginess that can make a lesser Chinese takeaway a regrettable choice. No such regrets here!

06 August, 2008

Pinching quince

Quince and I became friends in Spain. I was staying with a friend in Valldolid, and it was brought out for an evening snack. After experiencing its sweetness and dissolving texture (coupled, of course, with a semi-cured cheese) I could but stumble out 'Que es?'. 'Membrillo' was the answer and for the remainder of my stay any hostly query as to whether there was anything I wanted was answered with 'Más membrillo'.

It was sometime after that before I actually saw an example of the fruit, quince. Inspired by its flavour and texture in every form - jam, butter, paste - I resolved to cook some myself this year. Happily the decision to do so coincided with the recent bloggers' meet, at which plenty of attendees could offer advice. Thanks especially to Cindy at where's the beef, for pointing me to KJ's sumptuous photographs and cooking challenges at A Cracking Good Egg. Caroline Velik had also done a spread on quinces in Epicure a few weeks back.

I'm not a meticulous cook, and cut and pasted a process together from these multiple sources. A modest two quinces were quartered and cored, with the pips and cores added (in a muslin bag - I used a crepe bandage!) for the cooking, along with sugar syrup, lemon and vanilla essence. That went, covered, in a casserole dish into the oven, for five hours. To make quince jelly one uses the liquid left after this process, which I did, but sort of ended up with quince toffee (not complaining). In the absence of a food mill I mushed the cut fruit through a sieve (a food processor would probably do the same job more quickly and noisily), then heated it with half its weight in caster sugar, for about 45 minutes over low heat.

According to KJ and Maggie Beer, at this point one should spread the paste on a tray and leave it to dry. What I had tasted right, although it was a little more pink than red, so it went straight to containers:
Perhaps a more inspiring picture from the weekend is this tagine:
Taken from the perennially pertinent Seasonal Produce Diary, it's a dish to warm the room and the soul. Fry onion till soft, add ginger, ground spices, passata, chicken stock and seasoning. Pour over diced blade steak, in a casserole, and bake for 2-2.5 hours. As accompaniment, sliced parsnips were doused with coriander, paprika and cumin, drizzled with olive oil and laid on a tray with some more chicken stock to cook alongside the tagine. Delish.

04 August, 2008

Natalia's Greek Cuisine

437 High St, Northcote; 03 9486 3110

Sitting within Natalia's blue-and-white interior feels a little like being underwater; it certainly doesn't sound like it though, as chatter from the predominantly Greek crowd competes with the live bouzouki music.

This is not a restaurant for vegetarians: the menu is divided in entrees (all seafood), appetisers (some of which are meat free), seafood and mains, all of which are meat based. While the $20+ price tag on most of the mains seemed a little high, it was offset somewhat by complimentary additions to the meal and the size of the portions (though surely it's preferable to have the option to be served less and pay less). A banquet is also available for $39 per head.

First to the table were two huge baskets of bread. It smelled wonderful and while it was a little too loafy to be an ideal meal accompaniment it's impressive to know that it's made on site. The bread came with our first appetiser, melinzanosalata (try getting that out correctly first time!), an earthy-green blend of eggplant, capsicum, garlic and olives. Alongside came a triangle of grilled saganaki, wonderfully firm and salty, with the centre just slightly melted.
A main serve of deep-fried calamari was ordered as a joint entree for four. The calamari had been properly cooked, retaining texture without being rubbery, and had just the right amount of batter. For $22, however, one might expect a few more rings, the bonus to the right of the plate notwithstanding - a scallop a la Natalia, served with worcestershire sauce, spring onion and bacon. Where the calamari had been so simply adorned, however, this dressing rather overwhelmed the mollusc.

And so to the meat. For the men, a meat platter for two; for the ladies, two plates of kleftiko: lamb and chicken cooked over charcoals.
Firstly, to the positives. All the types of meat had been cared for: lamb and chicken were decadently oily and as the diced pieces dissolved in the mouth they released loads of flavour. The potatoes that accompanied the meat were superb: laden with herbs, salt and oil and still soft and fluffy; a plate of potatoes plus the calamari would have made for a satisfying repast. The skewered meat on the meat platter was particularly enjoyable and there was certainly an ample quantity.

There were also some negatives, however. Both plates of kleftiko arrived not cold, but tepid at best. These were willingly replaced. The cutlets on the meat platter were a little dry, though with so much carnivorous material to choose from this was not a big issue. A massive bowl of Greek salad, at $6, represented excellent value for quantity. The quality wasn't quite so impressive, however, as it mainly featured lettuce and an acidic dressing, with a smattering of feta and the occasional olive.

Nevertheless, more positive was to come. Once the main dishes had been cleared, after all best efforts had been made to do justice to the portions, an unbidden, but very welcome, dessert arrived. Watermelon was the perfect antidote to all that carb and protein, but the sweet tooth was also sated, with the provision of gooey cigarillos of baklava.

The restaurant offers the welcome mix of being BYO, with no corkage, and licenced (and they stock Mythos beer, very handy for pretending one has escaped to the Mediterranean). The service was more comfortable amongst the Greek speakers, but it was attentive and friendly. Despite a couple of communication issues the staff strove to accommodate our requests (though the plan for a three-stage meal was scuppered with the concurrent arrival of calamari and meat), and while it was peculiar that spit roast meat could arrive at the table less than piping hot, they were sincere in rectifying the problem.

02 August, 2008

Thaila Thai II

82 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9387 0659

It's on its way to institution status, this Lygon St restaurant known for the size of its portions (let's just say platter is a better description than plate), value for money and the queues of eager patrons waiting for tables or takeaway. When you can snag a table, you'll find yourself seated at and on plastic and in a hubbub of noise, from echoing conversations to the crash and bang of the open kitchen. Not to mention, more often than not, a haze of steam and smoke, pushed into the eating area from the open front door.

It's worth noting that Thaila Thai has now introduced a minimum charge per person. At $11.50 per head, gone are the days of $16 dinner for two, with entree, main and corkage. They're happy to pack up leftovers though, so order up and relive the flavour for lunch the next day.

Thaila Thai invites patrons to build their own stir fries: choose your meat (or tofu or seafood) and sauce and they'll throw in seasonal vegetables. At a warmer time of year these included crisp asparagus; now that the weather has cooled sweet mushy pumpkin features.
The tom yaam and tom kha soups are extraordinary value at $5. Rather than the teacup-sized portion you might expect from other restaurants for that price, here the tom kha is a brimming bowl filled with rich, coconuty, lemony broth. Massive pieces of vegetable - carrot, capsicum, bok choy - sit in the liquid, too big to float, along with chunky strips of firm tofu. The chilli metre is spot on - enough to reach for your serviette, but not too much so as to overpower the herbed broth.
A serve of vegetable spring rolls, ordered to round up the bill to the minimum charge, were less inspiring. Six small rolls came with a particularly uninspiring, watery sauce. The rolls were better embellished when dipped into the tom kha.

Corkage is fifty cents, and the Quarry bottle shop is just across the road. If that's not a value dinner I don't know what is.