31 May, 2009

Provincial Hotel: $10 pie and pot

299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy; 03 9810 0042

I love a mid-week deal. We headed to the Provincial Hotel for the inaugural run of their $10 pie and pot. The pie options cater to the red-, white- and non-meaters: there's steak, chicken and mushroom, or pumpkin (and feta?). The pot of choice is Boags Draught (beats Carlton at least).

The Provincial is one of those shabby-chic places - all distressed concrete outside, and a brooding, quirky interior of dark wood, with a sloping crimson bar fronted by wrought-iron stools. The sign advertising the pie and pot also spruiked an open fire, which coupled well with visions of splitting open a pastry case to reveal a steaming interior of meat and veg in thick gravy.

Well, not quite. Here's the steak pie:
The casing is in fact puff pastry rather than shortcrust. They've missed a trick there: it seems so obvious me to match a pot with a pot pie. The sign didn't say puff pastry parcel and pot (though, with that much alliteration, it might have got me in regardless). The steak filling was a little wanting, but the chicken and mushroom filling was lovely, though not lovely enough to make up for the lack of shortcrust.

You may notice two things about the piccie above: a) the chips on the plate and b) it's not the sexiest plate of food ever presented. The chips come via the pot and pie upgrade: for $3 you get mashed potatoes, chips or salad on the side. I'm always a bit put off by the mid-week deal that then offers you a bit more for a bit more, because I immediately feel like I'm getting less. See, if I go for a $10 deal that's all I'm going to spend, there's no upgrading. But the optional, paid extra just highlights that you and the restaurant are doing something a bit on the cheap. And when it comes out on the plate looking that ordinary, it doesn't help.

I understand the establishment is offering a special deal, but their purpose presumably is to increase bums on seats on the quiet nights. If I got a great plate of food - pie plus chips or a simple salad, I'd have a fuzzy feeling indeed about the pub, and make a mental note for the next Wednesday night I was looking for somewhere to go. If the side orders aren't doable for a tenner, why not make it an $11 or $12 pie and pot, meet your margins and get people back in for a second go?

The evening ended, however, with inspiration. I'd heard gushing reports of the Provincial's tiramisu, which is only available from the cafe area, rather than the bar. Turns out, they do their desserts to takeaway, and with 'Spicks and Specks' time looming, we decided to make a dash for home with dessert stashed for some decent couch time.

'Huge' doesn't come close to telling the story of this tiramisu. And even in foil rather than ceramic, it tastes a treat.

25 May, 2009

Koliba Czech and Slovak Restaurant

Update: Koliba is now the Heart of Europe Restaurant and Bar

11 Johnston St, Collingwood; 03 9417 3797

It's the simple things that can make you happy. For me, one of those is when you call to book an ethnic restaurant, and your booking is taken by someone who is clearly from that region.

Such was the case when we arranged to go to Koliba one chilly Friday evening. I'd been waiting for the weather to cool sufficiently so that I could make good on Sarah's enthusiastic recommendation. All that talk of goulash and dumplings and the promise of Krusovice on tap had me very enthused.

Situated just down from Smith St, the restaurant is warm and welcoming. Tables and chairs are all dark, solid wood, but plenty of lighting keeps the restaurant from feeling gloomy. High ceilings further ensure that the light offsetting the richly coloured walls and furnishings doesn't cause too much glare.

The menu is easy to take in (and it's available on their website). I was expecting to be more than nourished by their main offerings, so had to forego any entree. But how good does 'Devil toasts with minced beef and cheese' sound? The menu describes it as traditional style; I love a cuisine that builds meat and cheese into its traditional toast. Similarly, their 'traditional' garlic bread is fried and served with cream cheese and marinated capsicum. Now you're talking! (Check out Sarah's post - linked above - for her experience of a couple of entrees.)

When it comes to main course, the options equate to choosing which carb you'd like with your meat. This is not, unfortunately, a restaurant to take a vegetarian to. They'd be very restricted in what they could order, and would want to be a cheese fan, as crumbed Edam with tartare sauce, potatoes and salad is the only vego option on the list of mains.

I did toy with ordering the roast pork with braised cabbage and dumplings - the Czech national dish - but we'd had a quite extraordinary homemade roast pork dinner the night before. I was keen for something saucy too, in which respect I would have been fine with the roast pork as the cabbage is appropriately smothering.

It was a fait accompli though, really: it had to be traditional beef goulash with bread dumplings. The goulash glowed with paprika and was packed with chunked meat. The odd piece was a bit sinewy, but that's OK. It's not a premium cut dish - it's meant to be made with the lesser cuts, made wonderfully rich and gelatinous by slow cooking. The potato dumplings were reminiscent of Ethiopian injera, though without the sourness. They were marvellous for soaking up the sauce, and so pliant you could lay them on your pillow. It would have been drastically improved by even a garnish's worth of vegetable.

SG didn't have any pork overload problems, and went the crumbed pork schnitzel, with boiled spuds. Again, the portion size rewarded our entree ban, and the meat cut was suitable to the dish. While patchy meat was understandable, some of the potatoes were also a little underdone. Thank god, however, that there were some vegetables to nibble on.

There's something about strudel that makes it hard to knock back, particularly when you're in a Czech restaurant with a group nearby ordering in the language of the cuisine. Koliba's apple strudel with walnuts and cream was wonderful: moist, cinnamony and light enough for us to finish the lot.It would be improved by some ice cream melting against the warm pastry, rather than plain old whipped cream.

Koliba offers four fruit brandies as well - plum, apricot, juniper or cherry - perfect for that final warming hit before the ride home.

24 May, 2009

'Food Investigators' - SBS TV

7.30 pm Wednesday, SBS

SBS earned themselves an appreciative following with their luscious series Food Safari. Maeve O'Maera has so far presented three series in one of television's most coveted roles, scouring Melbourne and Sydney for the best purveyors of a giddying range of national cuisines.

The series spawned its own website and mailing list. The website in particular showed that the producers of the program understood their audience: each featured recipe was available to download as a video or in written form, and contacts for each of the shops and venues Maeve visited were listed. This was a show about discovering the best of cuisine, and one that enabled its viewers to pursue opportunities to sample more, whether at restaurants or in their own kitchen.

Food Safari is now in hiatus, and in its stead SBS has been spruiking a new food-related show for the 7.30 Wednesday timeslot, Food Investigators. The show promises to 'investigate the food on our plates, revealing the facts behind the food we eat that will surprise you, shock you, and definitely affect your appetite'.

The first episode featured an exposé on salt. Australians eat, on average, twice the recommended daily intake of salt (ie 8-10g per day, rather than 4g). Co-presenter Joe Avati, the show's 'average Joe', opens his pantry to Dr Renee Lim's scrutiny, and agreed to a salt-free day.

The Investigators tell us that salt is prevalent in processed food (no!). Joe approaches breakfast. He can't have any ham; it's got salt in it. Turns out fresh fruit is his best bet. Did you know that a family-sized supreme pizza has twice the recommended daily intake of salt? That's one replete with sauce, cheese, salami, ham, bacon and olives. Average Joe heads to his Italian mum's for dinner. Darn! He forgot to tell her to get gluten-free pasta, so as he tucks into her spag bol he's ruined his salt-free day. It's tougher than he thought!

Now, I've hardly taken a neutral tone in reporting on the show. But that's because I was so stunned by their sensationalism. I assumed the show would be building on the existing Food Safari audience. I certainly didn't learn a lot about food, or supermarkets, or diet that I didn't already know. Instead, they seem to have taken an approach of shock and misrepresentation.

Let's look more closely at their claims. It's hugely significant that processed food contains a large amount of salt, and it really shouldn't be a surprise. It's an indictment on our relationship with food that that's not common knowledge. So why not present a positive message of all the fresh food - and there's plenty of it - that we could be eating that's lower in salt than most things out of a packet? (Especially since nearly every one of Coles' Meals for Under $10 features packaged/frozen food.)

Ham full of salt? Who would have thought? It's a cured meat, for heaven's sake - you couldn't sell it if it wasn't full of salt (if you want to talk sodium nitrate though, that's another matter). And his mother's pasta? A bit of salt in pasta is not the bane of our healthy existence, and homemade spag bol would probably be better than the majority of options Average Joe considered for lunch. And as for the pizza...well, why would anyone be surprised to learn that a supreme pizza is full of salt? An artisan, vegetarian pizza probably wouldn't be, but according to the show, pizza = supreme = salt.

An article in The Sunday Age looked at the fact that our obsession with food information - which foods have more antioxidants, folates etc - has swamped the simplest, most important messages about food. The article references Food Investigators as a show that is trying to cut through misinformation and educate people about food. I applaud that as an aim, but I don't think mentioning ham and breakfast cereals in the same tone in terms of salt content is going to achieve it.

I wondered afterwards why this show made me so angry. There's plenty of crap on television - why had this particular example got me so riled? It's because it seemed to be blaming something I hold very dear - food. Somehow it's the pizza's fault it's so salty, rather than our choice of a large, meat-laden one. Ham is 'full of salt' - I'd counter that to say it's the process of curing pig thigh that requires.

Similarly, going salt-free for a day is not the answer to cutting back on salt. Our shopping choices could easily allow us to do that. Why not focus on the production of food, rather than the food products, to reveal where all this salt comes from? Or, in order to actually be helpful, why not show what is comprised in a typical day's diet that equates to about 4g of fat, rather than just the extremes of way too much or none at all?

In an ongoing segment, the show gets a couple to try the paleolithic diet, which eschews all processed food, including caffeine, cheese, alcohol etc in favour of lean meats and nuts. The program asks, 'Could it be possible that our ancestors were eating more healthily than we are today?' Could it possible that SBS has underestimated the intelligence of their audience? Two days into their new diet the couple are looking pretty grumpy. Caffeine withdrawal anyone?

Why not, and this is a serious suggestion, make a food program about diets relating to food intolerance? Show us what someone with kidney failure, who can't process salt, is eating. Show us what a coeliac eats when they're craving bread. People who suffer from food intolerances limit their diet every meal of every day - so let's make a positive program about alternatives, rather than presenting the conclusion that cutting out something we eat too much of is all too hard.

Another segment, 'Trolleyology', revealed that supermarkets deliberately separate essential items such as milk and bread, to force shoppers to cover more aisle distance and increase the opportunities to tempt them to purchase. I'm as anti-supermarket as they come, but this kind of reporting obviates the shoppers' responsibility for their over-purchasing: we can assuage our guilt knowing it's actually the fault of the supermarket layout that we go in for bread and come out with $40 worth of salt-laden, processed product.

It wouldn't make for much of a TV series, but almost all of what Food Investigators are trying to encourage us to do can be summed up in the words of John Portelli, co-owner of Enoteca Sileno in Carlton, whose founder introduced Australia to coffee machines and ravioli: 'In Italy they cook with the least amount of manipulation for the greatest amount of satisfaction'.

16 May, 2009

'Gould's Book of Fish' - Richard Flanagan

After an ambivalent response to Flanagan's latest book, Wanting - in which I highly respected the writing, but struggled with some conceptual realisations - I prioritised reading one of his earlier works, choosing the intriguing Gould's Book of Fish.

This earlier is as audacious in its execution as Wanting was in its breadth of characters. In modern Hobart, a man finds an antique tome - the Book of Fish - that takes an almost magical hold on him. After the book dissolves into water, he determines to rewrite it, to recreate its preternatural story. That recreated story is the memoir of William Buelow Gould, a Tasmanian convict who describes his experiences on Sarah Island - one of the most brutal prisons in the colonial world - with anthropological exactness, as he recounts not only torture and labour, but the true ambitions of the prison's Commandant to turn the isolated, terrible island into a New Europe.

While imprisoned on Sarah Island, Gould gained many periphery benefits by exaggerating his artistic capabilities and thus being recruited to produce the definitive record of Van Diemonian aquaculture. His project overwhelms him; he begins to see people as fish, and eventually cannot tell whether his life is contained within that manuscript - the Book of Fish - or the book in fact contains his life.

Hence, Gould's is not without elements of the supernatural, borrowing some style from the school of magic realism. Flanagan also presents us with an unusual choice of narrative voice, that of the omniscient first person. I spent the majority of the book wondering if this was lazy or canny and how he argued with his editor to retain it. In some of the last chapters even Flanagan can no longer deny its incredulity, as Gould berates the reader who wants to question how he can know what someone else thought, even when he wasn't in the room with them. Conversely, when it comes to seeing the future, Gould often surrenders to his own limitations, often using lines such as 'How was I to know where this would lead?'.

It was insightful to read Gould's after Wanting. They deal with very similar material and, in the main, have the same setting (some characters even appear in both). But their delivery and preoccupations are clearly distinct. Gould's is the kind of literary experiment that becomes a surprise success - something in the way of The Raw Shark Texts, with which it bears a surprising resemblance in the early chapters. Wanting is the experiment of a writer who has gained the respect of his audience and peers, and thereby some comfort and cushioning to produce work that is more intellectually controversial.

Gould's shows us again that Flanagan's strength is in concepts. There are some visual aids to its execution - changing ink colour to represent the rudimentary resources Gould scavenges in his cell in order to write (ignoring that no amount of blood or squid ink could have allowed him to quill several hundred pages of such detailed reminiscence); using ampersands throughout; throwing in the occasional Victorian construction such as verbs before subject (eg 'thought he' as an attribution). While overall it sustains an effect, some sentences taken in isolation are too convoluted to reveal any immediate meaning.

Had Gould's been my first experience of Flanagan, I wonder if I would have been intrigued to see what invention he would try next, or have been happy with the sample, without pursuing any further. Certainly, Gould's prepares us for many of Flanagan's ongoing preoccupations: with history, with its truth and lies, with its ongoing effect on the living, as well as with love - a theme that is often buried within, but vital to, his novels.

I will say again, however, something I perhaps didn't iterate strongly enough in the Wanting review: Flanagan, regardless of style, flaws, content and reader response, is a significant contributor to the Australian canon. His voice is an important part of our national literature.

11 May, 2009

De Los Santos

175 Brunswick St, Fitzroy; 03 9417 1567

I could sum up my visit to De Los Santos in the words of a close, food-loving friend: 'I guess everywhere can't be fabulous'. As I was considering how to write the restaurant up, I was struggling to come up with the words that indicated disappointment, but didn't engender a completely negative impression of the place. And 'not fabulous' is an indirect, but accurate, choice of words, since it wasn't wholly bad either. Indeed, its online presence features some wholly glowing reviews. Dining out is nearly always a balance of positives and negatives; on this occasion negatives seemed to come in twos and thereby outweigh the positives.

I was extremely enthusiastic about dinner. Their menu is available online, and I wondered how I'd limit my tapas selection sufficiently in order to leave room for paella and dessert, all of which I considered must-haves.

We started well with the tapas: we chose a special (not photographed), featuring chorizo, beans and morcilla (otherwise known as blood sausage), in a tomatoey sauce. This was just delicious; the chorizo was quite spicy, the beans were cooked to spot-on firmness, and the morcilla provided a balanced saltiness.

Our second tapas - bola da patata - was also wonderful. Potato dumplings - firmer than gnocchi but not as crispy as baked spuds - sopped up a porcini sauce and fat mushrooms were wonderfully garlicky.
We chose the seafood paella - with mussels, calamari, prawns and fish - over the mixed meat version - which comes with chicken, lamb and chorizo. Paella's a filling dish and I thought we'd be better served with the lighter seafood. Understandably, the minimum paella order is for two (it's served at the table in its paellera), and at $26 a head that kind of makes it a $52 main. The traditional pan crisps a layer of rice as it sticks to the bottom. This rice, while very tasty, was a little mushier than crisp (perhaps too much broth, although it wasn't over moist).The disappointment was the seafood. The prawns, although massive, were sinewy rather than succulent, and the calamari tasted emphatically of nothing. The clams shared the attribute of size with the prawns, but one tasted purely of seawater. I surmise that the rice is cooked en masse, and the relevant extras added according to each order.

Potentially, the paella con pollo y cordero would have been a better choice on the night, but then again, you can't get much more signature dish than paella marinera at a Spanish restaurant, so I'd expect it to be more reliable.

Eager to reclaim the authentic dining experience I'd been dreaming of, I ordered the crema catalana for dessert. It's a dish that when done well is unmissable, but when less than skilfully is at best forgettable. The key to great crema catalana is delicacy of flavour, an impossibly smooth custard releasing hints of vanilla, cinnamon or zest. The caramelised top cracked open enticingly, but the custard was bland, flavoured mainly by the raspberries layering the bottom, and exhibited worringly inconsistent temperature.
Upon request, our bill was brought to the table without comment or eye contact; when we left, we passed five wait staff, none of whom offered any kind of farewell. One of those incidents, after a meal of complete food, wouldn't rate a mention. Similarly, a lack of farewell from one staff member already occupied I can forgive, but from all five indicates a certain lack of awareness of the proper relationship between diner and waiter.

I think my big disappointment was less with the quality of food - as we've established, it can't always be fabulous - but that this was so far away from an authentic Spanish cuisine experience. Where is that to be had in Melbourne?