22 April, 2009

Western Australia

As we've already discovered in South Australia and Tasmania, making travel plans centred on Australia's great wine regions is a sure way to develop a holiday punctuated by exciting tastes and experiences.

Margaret River is a special region, situated so close to some truly stunning coastline features, with crystalline beachs of aqua, turquoise and white, and phenomenal limestone caves with hidden entrances and enchanting, glittering interiors. (Happy to stand corrected on this, but is it also quite a bit flatter than other wine regions?)

The Cape Dutch-style buildings at Voyager Estate proudly display their construction date of 1996. With the food on offer inside, however, here's hoping they are able to one day indicate a rather longer heritage! The menu descriptions leave you well-prepared for the price when you get to the end, but if you've got the funds, it's worth it. It's rare that a meat dish can be presented with such visual appeal that it's a shame to cut into it, but they achieve that with the (world's largest) mustard-rubbed pork cutlet with Persian fetta crumble (yes please!), celeriac mash and roasted apples. That's right, apples, not potatoes (no, the cider from Saturday's festival at Kellybrook hasn't addled my recollection!).
I'd been dreaming of a tasting plate of local produce, picked at while gazing onlawns rolling away to rows of vines dreaming of autumn. Voyager's 'breads and spreads' allowed a close approximation: toasted slices of their own bread with venison chorizo and a range of house condiments, olives, dukkah and oil. Oh, was I happy. While I normally eschew venison, this chorizo was superb. The star of the condiments was eggplant kasundi (can anyone offer more info on kasundi?). It's essentially eggplant pickle, with onion, chilli, lime, ginger, sugar, five spice, vinegar, cardamom and oil. (My taste detectors aren't that good - I read the label on a jar!)
Several breweries have sprung up in the region as well. Bootleg Brewery describes itself as 'an oasis in a desert of wine', but there are more of them around than you might expect. Their tasting tray of six beers is a very reasonable $12, and the setting in which to sample - under awnings or at a generous table by the lake - is entirely congenial. While sipping, one can sup on dips, enormous burgers skewered with a steak knife, fish and chips battered with house Pils (left), or daily specials including a curry, or in our case, Mediterranean vegetable risotto.
Speaking of breweries, Little Creatures is a WA export likely to outlast the commodities boom, and its headquarters in Fremantle are, dare I say, an experience not to be missed. Housed in a couple of mills' worth of port-side real estate, the barnlike Little Creatures Dining Hall serves their signature beers straight from the silo. On busy nights, patrons 'register' for a seat (with a number displayed on a snorkel, flipper, etc) and wait for their number to come up on the 'seating blackboard', heralded by a ship's bell.

The woodfired oven pumps out some classy-sounding pizzas such as chorizo, sweet corn and danish fetta, or zucchini, gorgonzola and semi-dried toms. One of their signature dishes is proscuitto-wrapped tiger prawns (right), which serves up eight satisfyingly plump prawns, each blushed with a paper-thin, swallow-and-miss-it piece of proscuitto. Our second choice, marinated kangaroo and tomato chutney, brought another set of moreish, skewered meat to the table.

Returning to Little Creatures in full sunlight a day or two later, we took advantage of their free bike hire offer (also available at their Melbourne site on Brunswick St) and rode these slightly dubious, but sturdy enough, vehicles up the coast to Cottesloe Beach, about as pleasant a way to spend the afternoon as I can imagine.

Daringly, Mad Monk has set up an ambitious space on Fremantle's South Terrace, where they push their own pale ale in direct competition with Little Creatures' founding product. They've purloined a large property on Fremantle's renowned restaurant strip; one renowned for all the touristy, rather than gastronomic reasons. It's more Lygon St, Carlton than Lygon St, East Brunswick, replete with local institution Ginos, which would undoubtedly serve up a fine bowl of pasta, but you could eat at University Cafe back home instead :)

It would, seem, however, that there's only so long SG and I can go without a pizza, so for our last dinner we headed to Sandrino, just across from Ginos, on Market St. Their pizzas feature the thicker-style bases, but the dough is sweet and fresh and they've taken a little bit of time putting together combinations of pizza toppings. On the left we have roast capsicum, eggplant, ricotta and salciccia; on the right is a pizza special with chicken, bacon, pinenuts and aioli hiding under the spinach. At about $18 each, with local wine available from $6 a class, we were quite satisfied with the arrangement.

Market St, for me, is where it's at in Fremantle. Closer to the station are a clutch of reputable cafes, including Long Macc (great name), and the delightful Hush Espresso (32 Market St). With glass frontage, including a hutch for those stopping by for takeaway coffee, this cafe is small enough that you can read the blackboard menu from your table, but big enough that there's space to pay at the counter without elbowing other diners. There are some fine-looking focaccias and muffins on display, and for breakfast diners are spoilt for sweet choices featuring organic bread and brioche.

Pancakes with berry compote are positively lathered, and could probably have done with a good dose of maple syrup to sweeten up the berry tang and lighten the dough load. French toast, with brioche, raspberry jam and mascarpone, was delightfully presented, the 'soldier' pieces allowing for well-controlled bread-to-condiment allocation.

One thing I learnt on this trip interstate may not concur with the current thinking of some of my blogging brethren, but I do now believe that we are protected in Melbourne from the worst of menu-pricing excess. In Dunsborough, a regional town of around 4000, we had the choice of half a dozen restaurants asking $30+ for the majority of main meals (pastas, maybe $25). One restaurant/wine bar had a $44 steak on the menu. Some of the highest echelon restaurants in Melbourne ask that, and I just couldn't trust that I could walk into an unheralded tourist-town restaurant and feel that I would get over four times worth a $10 steak and pot at the Rathdowne Tavern.

Coffee prices are in a similar state. I paid $3.80-$4 for coffee, including at one cafe where a waitperson (who mercifully handed over the barista reins immediately after!) asked 'What's in a cafe latte?' Some of the coffee was very respectable, but I can get great coffee for $2.50 in Melbourne, superb coffee for $2.70 and astonishing coffee for $3.

What I can't do is swim in the ocean in late April...

'Wanting' - Richard Flanagan

In a magnificent piece of comedy, Stephen Fry postulates that 'there's language, and there's speech. There's chess, and there's a game of chess'. In the case of Richard Flanagan's Wanting, this statement could be revised to say there's an idea, and there's the execution of that idea.

In this novel, the former is well formed, and, in an unusual move for a fiction book, quite explicitly explained by the author in an afterword. The inclusion of the afterword could have been at the direction of Flanagan's publisher, or perhaps he chose to do so, due to inevitable confusion over the veracity of the novel. Flanagan uses real characters and recognisable historical settings, but his story is adamantly fictional. While this writing style is the cause of much modern consternation, Flanagan pointed out in an interview with Ramona Koval that several great literary works (eg Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace) do just that and are valued nonetheless.

Wanting's premise is one of enormous scope, requiring research into two very different and differentiated societies, between which Flanagan draws a valid link. To summarise: the book opens with Mathinna, a seven-year-old Tasmanian Aboriginal, who lives on Flinders Island (to which the Tasmanian Aboriginals were exiled after the Black Wars). She is adopted by Lady and Sir John Franklin. Sir John is a famed Arctic explorer and, at the time of Mathinna's adoption, Governor of Tasmania; his wife is a model of refined society. After being removed from gubernatorial duties, the Franklins return to England and Mathinna is discarded. Years later, Sir John is lost on an Arctic voyage, and Lady Franklin employs the greatest writer of the age, Charles Dickens, to refute claims against Sir John of cannibalism. Dickens, late in his career, sees a mirror of his life in the emptiness of the Arctic wilderness, but finds elation in the production of a play and the attentions of one its actresses.

The key theme is that of savagery versus civilisation. The Franklins and Dickens repeat the maxim that the difference between the two lies in the civilised man's ability to suppress his desires, a truism destroyed over and over again by the Victorians' actions, both personal and social. As he has become known for, Flanagan employs a sparseness of style, offset by moments of beauty and trickeries of description, to create an engaging flow of words. The themes trickle far more continuously through the book than their complexity would suggest.

It's in the execution where I start asking questions. For all the beauty and restraint of style, there is some clumsy language, particularly in similes and metaphors. 'Tears falling like rain' and spider webs like gossamers sound lazy and dilute Flanagan's accomplishment. The metaphor of Sir John as a swan (Zeus) and Mathinna as Leda (as she is called on Flinders Island, upon hearing which Lady Franklin explains the story from Greek mythology of Zeus raping Leda and thus begetting Helen of Troy) is clumsy, a little heavy, and too literally borne out.

My most significant problem with the book lies within the enacting of this metaphor. History does repeat itself between Zeus and Leda, but Flanagan only alludes to the act, three times; he never names it as rape. Mathinna, whose whole life is appallingly interfered with, becomes a prostitute, and at that stage of the story Flanagan wilfully describes what men do to her. I recognise this as a feminist perspective, but I felt it lacked a certain sympathy to treat the two circumstances so differently. If a modern author is going to bring rape into a book, I think we are beyond a hush-hush treatment of it, particularly when its occurence under the guise of prostitution is mentioned, repeatedly, so glibly (Mathinna does not come to that profession by choice, nor is she always reimbursed). In a similar vein, as I read I asked myself whether or not our nation is best served by continued fictionalising of the de-landing and extermination of our indigenous culture.

Despite those reservations, I still regard Richard Flanagan as one of our most commendable writers. When he writes about our small southern island and its original inhabitants he is writing from his own passions. (Which is itself an interesting notion, since so much of the novel is about denying passion and desire.) The greatest accomplishments in the book come from Flanagan daring to occupy the headspace of these huge, historial figures, and present each of their perspectives with such intensity. Each character brings confusion, conflict and yearning to the story; as each endeavours to bend their desires to the quelling force of colonialism, the pressure that shaped our modern country exhales from the page.

Loose similes aside, and looking beyond the issues with meaning and theme, the creation that Flanagan has pursued is testament to his skill and the breadth of his imagination, a writer's most valuable tool.

Also by Richard Flanagan:
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
The Unknown Terrorist

14 April, 2009

Cafeklatsch II: North II, Gingerlee IV, Cavallero

North: 717 Rathdowne St, Carlton North; 03 9348 1276
Gingerlee: 117 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 4430
Cavallero: 300 Smith St, Collingwood; 03 9417 1377

It's not breaking any ground to say that Melbourne has a surfeit of cafes. It's also established that in certain parts of town, a certain style of cafe has become de rigueur. So what do they all do to differentiate themselves from each another?

In most cases, it's down to the menu. Innovative combinations, stand-out ingredients, or a signature dish are to the key to successful trade amidst the inner north's glut of relaxed dining options. In Carlton, the cafe called North has made extra certain by adding a particularly effective feature wall - seemingly drawn on in texta and featuring hundreds of cartoon-style, framed portraits. It would be endlessly arresting if their menu (also wall-mounted) didn't already give patrons enough to ponder.

Many are drawn to North, however, on the promise of a particular menu item. Hence, while they may be distracted by huevos rancheros (pictured right...and let me tell you, you won't eat for the rest of the day if you make it through that plate), or the house (cannelini) beans, they read only as far as: Reuben sandwich - grilled corn beef on an open sandwich with Swiss cheese, dill mayo and sauerkraut.
It doesn't look like much when it comes out, but it does the job. Look at the perfectly grilled cheese, just turning black at the edges; check out the corned beef slices overhanging the edges of the bread. And did someone say sauerkraut? They're as generous with the cabbage here as the bratwurst stand at Queen Vic Markets. I've soft spots for both corned beef and for old-school, open-topped sandwich-type arrangements, and this particular example made for a fine, filling and fulfilling lunch.

Grab a $2.50 gingerbread man on your way out the door.

Gingerlee doesn't seem to have skipped a beat since it opened almost two years ago - it's consistently packed, and its Syrian French toast is frequently written up. The cafe sits squarely in a concentrated eating zone, with Small Block, Poached, Sugardough and La Paloma all nearby, not to mention Rumi immediately across the street. Gingerlee's original menu seems to have held pretty steady, with Middle-Eastern touches on their breakfast and lunch dishes their signature. The French toast (with orange-blossom water and labne) is a case in point, along with their breakfast tagine. There's also the option, for those seriously in need, to order a Bloody Mary with breakfast.

Even their poached eggs come with something a little exotic, in this case one of my all-time favourite indulgences, Persian fetta (last featured on this blog in the creamed spinach from Greg Malouf at Stones). The poached eggs and fetta are accompanied by sourdough toast (of the bring-me-a-steak-knife-to-cut-this-crust variety) and avocado. Half an avocado to be exact - happy for them not to skimp on that! What I loved about this dish was building taste combinations on my fork - eggs, avocado, toast; creamy fetta and buttery bread; toast, avocado and fetta; and, more often than not, everything piled up together and manoeuvred with no small amount effort to my waiting mouth, followed shortly by a little squirm and a smile as all the tastes blended together.

Over Collingwood way, what does a cafe do among the bevy of Smith Street options to let everyone know they're both worthwhile and safe to try? At Cavallero, they start at the front, with elaborate wrought-iron gates across the front of the shop. A stag-head behind the linear, understated bar is incongruous amongst the otherwise bare walls housing booths and communal tables. By day, oodles of light flows in from front and back, but at night, funky light fittings keep the mood low-key.

Cavallero is succeeding at being different things to different crowds, achieving status as both a cafe and a bar. On the eating front, they've done interesting things when divvying up their menu, picking times of day rather than style of dish. One can choose from Early, Middle or Late, roughly equating to breakfast, lunch, dinner/tapas. Only roughly, however. Under Early there are also Extras, that really don't match the expected bacon, mushroom etc, but instead offer more obtuse mixed options, featuring avocado and gremolata, for example. It's a frequently changing menu as well, so a winning dish may have been usurped if you go back for a second try.

A subsection on the menu, under Middle, offers Bread, but goes much further than just a house-style, including filled options such as pide, or a combo of bread and olives. It's the Bread section luring many a customer, either for the Carolina-style pork sandwich (with roasted pork belly and a barbecue sauce fashioned on site) recently featured in the age (melbourne) magazine or their fried chicken and coleslaw sandwich.

The pide on this occasion came with spiced vegetables and a lively labne. It was certainly hearty and offered enough flavour kick to keep things interesting. I'm never so sure about putting potato into a sandwich, however. The eggplant, onion and labne were very welcome, and the potato was pretty tasty on its own, but a less starchy veg would have been preferable.

An honourable mention in the interesting menu stakes to El Mirage in Brunswick East, where a recent visit saw me making a win-win choice between rare beef salad with haloumi and basil, or poached eggs with fig chutney and ricotta, while others at the table went for an accomplished penne ragu, as well as $6 fruit toast with honey. Great with a T2 chai.

02 April, 2009

Pancakes, pikelets: Auction Rooms, Enni

Auction Rooms: 103-107 Errol St, North Melbourne; 03 9326 7749
Enni: 915 High St, Thornbury; 03 9484 8288

The press was abuzz with news of Auction Rooms when it opened in mid-2008. Matt Preston was particularly glowing in Epicure about its interior. Despite its soaring ceilings and double-shopfront width, it is a cosy place to be, and it offers one of the broadest range of seating options Melbourne has to offer. Take a simple table for four by the bright red coffee roaster, or perch on a low stool in the sunken area immediately adjacent to the plate-glass front. There's a courtyard out the back and a darker area behind the bar where those needing a few well-made coffees to buck up from the night before can shield themselves from all that natural light.

It's a venue that promises an interesting menu, and they've certainly shied away from generic breakfast dishes. It's not a menu filled with unusual ingredients as such, but their arrangement speaks of innovation.

Rather than pancakes and maple syrup, Auction Rooms offer coconut pikelets with vanilla pineapple, creme fraiche and orange syrup. Like me, perhaps the second item on that description has given you pause - just what is vanilla pineapple? It's diced pineapple that's been steeped in a vanilla syrup until it's candied and has countered the pineapple's sweetness - which to my palate is always a bit sickly - to offer instead a smoother flavour, with a touch of vanilla, encased in the firm, candied fruit pieces.

Perhaps you've also double-checked the description after looking at the photo to confirm that it did, in fact, say 'pikelets'. It does, but I would concur, that in my world pikelets are flat and share the approximate diameter of a piece of salami! The good news is that these pikelets are quite fluffy, and while the coconut milk is no doubt in part responsible for that, it offers only a hint of flavour. I do have a similar criticism to the that of the buckwheat pancakes at Giorno, that while the dish offers an uplifting combination of flavours and textures, there isn't enough of the wet to go with the generous offering of dry.

Update: It's kind of funny reading that description a couple of years later. Auction Rooms is the darling of the hipster crowd, and while its layout is still one of my favourite aspects of the place, the word cosy is no longer what first comes to mind. It's positively buzzing at any time of the week, and on weekends you can be sure you'll be putting your name down and waiting for a table. The menu remains reliably variable, if that makes sense, running the gamut from pork belly to felafel to creamed peanut butter and everything in between. And, of course, Auction Rooms is also one of Melbourne's coffee temples, with various blends available as well as siphon and pourover.

At the northern end of High St, where Thornbury starts to morph into Preston, Enni is not the kind of cafe to be written up for a Six Degrees-inspired interior kitout. This is a more traditionally laid-out cafe, with tables and booths on one side, and a lengthy display counter on the other. There is much to commend in that counter - a huge range of pies, filled sandwiches, salads and cakes that are a strong distraction from the menu.

The menu shows some thought as well, including dukkah eggs, (much vaunted) homemade baked beans and corn pancakes in addition to the regular pancakes. The latter, though amply smothered in berry compote, were not an exciting dish visually nor gastronomically. The cafe, however, is better known for its savoury offerings, and the corn pancakes didn't disappoint. Served with bacon, fried tomato, a poached egg and a decent chutney, they offered a lot more of interest to look at and to assemble into flavour combinations.
With the sad demise of Devour across the road, Enni offers a well-priced breakfast option on the edge of the inner suburbs. They are also a great option to stop into if you're heading northwards out of town and want some homemade treats - whether savoury or sweet - to take along with you.