07 November, 2012

What's on the menu?

Or, more to the point, what isn't?

Menus can start to read like shopping lists, or a particularly deconstructionist piece of fiction, if they get too particular about listing every morsel involved in each plate of food.

Then again, it can be surprising when elements of a dish don't make it onto the menu at all. So there's a balance to be struck between being informative, allowing the diner to reasonably picture what they're ordering, and not presenting too much wank in an effort to show you know your produce.

At the moment, I'm loving Monsieur Truffe on Lygon St (a chilli hot chocolate will resolve any problem you choose to take there). I had a lunch special the other day of cornbeef hash salad, and was surprised - though not disappointed - to discover a fried egg atop the plate. It worked fine in the dish, but it's a particularly significant element to have overlooked in its description.

Sometimes it goes the other way: the menu is right, but the dish - or the chef - is new, and things get missed. Or, in the case of Little Henri, the whole place is new and everyone is still getting the hang of things. At a weekend brunch there, the table next to us received baked eggs with ham, gruyere and garlic crumble sans the meat. I'd ordered the lunch bruschetta: smashed broad beans and ricotta with a soft egg. When the dish arrived I was surprised (again!) to find roasted tomatoes plopped on top of each piece of toast, which had been blistered to a point of dominating smokiness. As I pondered the oddity of not including the strongest taste element in the dish, I realised that the promised soft egg was AWOL. Full credit to the staff: after I checked with the waiter, a perfectly poached egg was added post-haste, while my (exceptional) coffee was just as efficiently removed from the bill.

And what about the elaborately explained dishes that don't make it on to the menu - the specials delivered with breathless, rehearsed haste? I always find them a bit of a challenge - if the waiter explains them before you've looked at the menu, you don't know how they fit in with what else is on offer. If you've agonised over the menu already, adding more choice can be a disaster for the indecisive. Listening to a range of specials that takes a couple of minutes to deliver feels like an educative psychology experiment, testing your memory on verbal versus written memory.

Despite specials often being delivered with a boggling amount of detail, the price point isn't always there at the end. My thinking is that a special shouldn't take any longer to explain than a menu item would to read aloud. Particularly if it's something you're definitely not going to order - for example when a waiter launches into the life and times of tonight's oyster special, I'd love to interrupt, but you can tell they're in full flight and cutting them off would only cause a restart so they could find their place in the recital again. I understand why restaurants don't type them up daily, but printed specials really are easier, unless you're a world champion at that 'I went to the shops and bought a comb, a coffee, a newspaper, a tin of paint etc etc etc' game. I'd be all for waiters saying, 'On the specials tonight are a vegetarian entree, a duck main and a pizza. Would you like me to tell you more about any of those?'

It's a science, producing a menu - and an underrated one at that.

03 September, 2012

A Boy Named Sue

 87 Burns Rd, St Andrews; 03 9710 1023

What better way to top off a sunny afternoon in the country than with some exceptional pizza? First incarnated as simply the St Andrews Pizza Shop, A Boy Named Sue has been generating quite the buzz from its humble home perched high above - but not so far from - the big city.

Rocking up as the last of the day's warmth flew moonward and the icy night air descended, St Andrews took on the aspect of a ski town as locals hovered around a brazier while awaiting takeaways, and travellers like us gradually divested of woollens as we settled into Sue's welcoming space and took in the smells of woodsmoke, dough and garlic.

There's plenty of the latter on their white-based pizzas, such as the Peter Broccoli - with tallegio and walnut pesto. And chilli - quite an ample smattering of chopped fire, seeds and all. The Italian Job, with salami and olives, featured an exceptional tomato base, which was surely not tinned but merely blistered toms smeared liberally on the base.

And the base's are something else. They're thicker than us Brunswickers might be used to or prefer, but they have all the lightness of the thinnest, crispiest based pizza you can get. A lot of the thickness is air, as the bases puff up in craters worthy of the full moon that overlooked our evening.

Head north and check it out.

26 August, 2012

Look. Stop. Taste @ Little Press

Pomegranate seeds turn dishes - whether simple or already extravagant - into beautiful arrays. Here is Little Press's (the bar at The Press Club) individual Yarra Valley lamb cutlet, served with quinoa and sheep's milk yoghurt.

Perhaps not as tasty as the hapuka ceviche with avocado on toast, but far prettier.

Check out Look. Stop. Taste. as part of the State Library's Gusto exhibit.

15 August, 2012

Cutler & Co

Special occasions require special meals. And all the better if they incorporate special drinks too.

The latter was more than adequately taken of by The Everleigh, the kind of place that needs the excuse of a blow-out evening to get me through the door (and up the stairs). It's a gorgeous cocktail bar, taking the trade of bartending super seriously. I've chosen my words carefully there - the menu includes a quote from the 1930s deriding the term 'mixologist' and the notion that being a barman is a professional's job. Instead, it's a trade: that is, an area of craftsmanship.

And the Everleigh staff certainly mix an artful cocktail. All drinkers have the option of Bartender's Choice: you can talk to the staff about your drink preferences - much as you would discuss food at a chef's table dinner - and they'll suggest a suitable mix for your taste.

Taking advantage of this led me to a Detroit Daisy - a tart and hefty cocktail, made with Havana Reserva Jamaican rum, pomegranate juice, lime and mint - and a New York Sour - bourbon with lemon, sugar, egg white and a drizzle of red wine, lending it quite a curious flavour.

Suitably chipper, we headed across the road and up a bit to Cutler & Co, to see what wonders Andrew McConnell's crew could deliver to our evening.

By day, C&C is a warm space, with a dramatic black metal shelter bending over the central bar; muted greys; whitewashed brick wall and a fern garden along the back wall lending colour contrast. By night, while still effective and suitably swish, the lights are a little low, the volume a little high and some of the contrasting effect gets lost in the shadows. What doesn't get lost are the flouncy tulle light covers creating some of that muted effect. They've taken advantage of the building's depth to give each table a bit of space, so you can easily hear your dining partner - and not your neighbours - over the hubbub, although the same couldn't always be said of the waiters.

The first item to arrive at our table was a snack of something something tapioca with something something black sesame. It was brought in a hurry, placed in a hurry and explained in a hurry and the odd ingredient was all we managed to pick up between us.

I've always had great respect for waitstaff who can explain the same specials to dozens of customers with enthusiasm throughout the night. At the other end of the scale, waitstaff can seem almost embarrassed about lengthy dish descriptions, and deliver them in the way you give your name and DOB over the phone - quickly to get it out of the way and hoping no-one else is listening - while already scurrying back to the kitchen.

The snacks were lovely, but nothing on the sourdough bread that came next. Small individual loaves shaped like creme caramels are studded with salt and accompanied by the most wonderful salted butter. They've quite a crust to crack open, but when you do...wow.

C&C keep the menu blessedly simple: six appetisers (three types of oyster); five entrees or a sample of each; five mains; or a kilo of rib-eye to share for $160. Chef's menu is available for $150.

My entree was reminiscent of a recent, comparable dining experience at Heston Blumenthal's Dinner restaurant in London: roasted breast and confit leg of pigeon, morcilla, carrot and gingerbread.

I couldn't go past it - McConnell's morcilla has drawn the crowds to Cumulus Inc for breakfast, and I was terribly eager to try it. It was suitably wonderful, and the pigeon breast - as in London - was commendably tender.

It did provoke one awkward moment, however. I'd remembered from the menu that the dish featured breast and leg, and thought that the miniscule piece of meat on the bone represented both - a bit rich for a $34 entree, I thought! In the low, reddish light, the two pieces of breast looked decidedly orange and I mistook them for carrot. Upon enquiry (and after a bit of confusion!) we determined that 'carrot and gingerbread' meant puree - the smear under the meat. A useful word to include :)

It's another reason that I do appreciate, in this dining environment, when waitstaff don't simply recite the menu description, but actually indicate how it relates to what has appeared in front of you on the plate!

SG's entree was the hand-picked mud crab, buttermilk potato, almond & brown butter.

This was the prettiest of the dishes, with edible flowers dotted among the daubs of smooth-as-cream potato and shredded crab meat.

Our worship at the meat temple continued with the mains. For SG, the slow roast chicken breast, pancetta,
braised turnips and onion.

A reduction was poured over the dish after it came to the table. It was divine, and when mopped up with the aforementioned sourdough was worth the price of admission on its own.

(More brownie points to C&C for specifying onion on the menu - for those like me who can't tolerate it, it's frustrating how often it arrives unannounced.)

I went for braised beef cheek, smoked tongue, roasted kohlrabi, sans the onion soubise on the menu. (The least pretty, but made up for looks in flavour!)

Soubise is a bechamel-style sauce - ie with flour and butter - but cooked down with a hefty wodge of onions. The beef cheek was superb - one of the best pieces of meat I've eaten anywhere or anywhen. The dish did suffer a bit though without its sauce - all that gelatinous meat without a break in texture.

About halfway through the beef cheek I started dreaming about a salted caramel crepe from La Petite Creperie. Happily the menu could make part of that wish come true, and we ordered a chocolate ice cream sandwich, vanilla parfait and salted caramel for dessert to share. Our trio of waitstaff miscommunications was completed when two separate dishes arrived, and the ice cream was just starting to drip before we could hail our man and remind him we'd wanted to share. It was a shared serve, he'd explained, that they'd plated up separately, meaning we scored an extra splodge of ice cream. A much-appreciated gesture, but again, take the time to explain these things!

In another throwback to our Heston experience, dessert was anteceded by another rich morsel - a peanut butter cup.

Delicious, but excessive after already eating our fill of very similar flavours (as the picture, below, shows). Is the amuse bouche being overtaken by the apr├Ęs met?

It was a decadent night out, with price tag to match, and happily the food and wine were up to the task of making it a special one.

26 March, 2012

Referencing the self

I've come across a lot of self-referential fiction of late - lots of writers writing about writers. John Irving's Widow for One Year manages to feature, and sample, for novelists in the one book, and spends many of its several hundred pages ruminating on whether writers should be able to imagine their stories and characters or whether they routinely fictionalise their own experiences as a form of catharsis.

Now I'm reading Nick Earls' latest novel, The Fix. Anyone who's read Earls knows how much of himself lands in his novels: his universally male protagonists, with some form of legal or medical training, living in Brisbane and developing awkward crushes on witty, self-assured women. In The Fix, his main man Josh is in PR, making a freelance living writing a blog about such inanities as how they get the stripes into toothpaste. His crush on law-student-by-day/stripper-by-night Hayley has given him writers' block.

"Two hundred and seventy-three words, and the toothbrushes had gone. Was there five hundred words in stupid crushes? No, there were novels in that, for too many of us."

Career crisis Nick?

09 January, 2012

The old divide: 'Melbourne' by Sophie Cunningham and 'Sydney' by Delia Falconer

Publishers New South are producing a series of books, penned as memoirs or love-letters to the author's hometown. Having read Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne late last year, I was intrigued to contrast and compare her highly personal journey through the city, and its mix of anecdote and history, with Delia Falconer's homage to my former hometown, Sydney.

I read many reviews of Cunningham's book before I dived in myself. They uniformly fell into one of two camps: Melbourne reviewers loved it, Sydney reviewers felt excluded by it and commented on its narrowness.

The inside cover of the book features a hand-drawn map of Melbourne. It extends from Footscray in the west, with an arrow pointing to Geelon;, to Hawthorn in the east, this time with Camberwell represented on an arrow; and to Brunswick in the north. You can see then where some of the criticism around its blinkered perspective came from.

I didn't find it narrow. True, my six years in Melbourne have geographically coincided with Cunningham's experience of the city. It seemed clear that New South's brief to the author was to write her Melbourne. The book was a synedoche of the city: Cunningham's experience of Melbourne, seen through the prism of a select number of suburbs and interests, stands in for the wider, general experience of other suburbs and occupations.

I did find it strangely jumbled, however. Cunningham frequently jumped between personal anecdotes to issues of national history and culture via some spurious tangents. References to Meanjin articles were frequent; fair enough, given the author is a former editor of the journal, but it pushed the personal touch a little too far. It was fine for Cunningham to focus on her experience, but to mainly bring in support from within that personal experience was a little too inward.

Her account of Melbourne is reverent, loving and at times admonishing. More so than Falconer, she uses Melbourne as a springboard - or testing ground - for national issues. In a discussion on comedy, for example, she rightly points out Melbourne's strong comedy scene as host of the International Comedy Festival. She quotes Rod Quantock, who says he would 'never be a regular guest on Hey Hey It's Saturday', which provides a link for Cunningham to discuss - in a single paragraph - the show's re-emergence, the fact that the majority of its audience came from Melbourne, memories of her and her brother watching the original, and the psyche of homegrown humour inculcated under John Howard. The links are valid, but the execution is necessarily jumbled as she moves between the personal and the public without so much as a hard return.

Delia Falconer takes longer to warm her audience to Sydney. In the opening pages she says Sydney's 'fundamental temperament is melancholy'. In fact, while 'Sydney may look golden' its bright notes 'cast themselves out across a great abyss'. Her Sydney is more ephemeral than Cunningham's Melbourne. Perhaps this is where Cunningham's narrow-gauge storytelling has its strength. It is possible to make valid sweeping generalisations about Fitzroy; harder to make them stick to a full metropolis, which Falconer attempts. Her Sydney is a city with its own light, a city haunted by an erased indigenous history, a unique city in Australia with it origins in the conflict between prisoners and middle-class law enforcers.

Falconer's childhood memories seem to come from a further-off place. I was surprised when I checked to discover she is actually three years younger than Cunningham. Perhaps therein lies a truth about the two cities, and their eternal divide - maybe Sydney stayed in the past for longer, and the city's 'brashness', which Falconer both highlights and criticises, is in fact symptomatic of its desire to grow up quickly.

07 January, 2012

Butchering realism

I think Jamie Oliver should be knighted. Sure, he's long since lost the affability of The Naked Chef days, and his insistence on calling every woman he meets darlin', regardless of age or race, is annoying to say the least. But he gets food. And he gets that Britain has a wonderful food culture, both indigenous and imported, and has devoted his career to convincing people of that fact. I believe that's worth acknowledging.

For all that, I don't spend a lot of time watching him on the tele. I couldn't resist tuning in for Jamie's Great Britain last night, however, when I read this description of the episode in The Age:

This week's instalment...includes an unusually graphic and lengthy butchering scene...Jamie carts off a dead pig and hacks it to pieces with a saw. Only the most hardened carnivores will be able to sit through the bone-slicing scene.
Here's a link to a portion of the episode containing the scene:

The scene starts with an inspection of the breed of pigs in question, at about the 2 min mark, and the 'graphic and lengthy' scene is over about a minute later, most of which has been taken up with chatter.

It seems a particularly overwrought description for something you could see if you looked past the counter of my local butchers on any Saturday.

The journalist did go on to point out:

There are some who would say that it's about time we saw such realism in our cooking shows, that if we're going to eat meat, we should face up to where it comes from. Those viewers are probably right. But I challenge you to daydream about Oliver's crackling after you've watched a pig get sawn in half.

I agree with the notion of the first clause, and wholeheartedly with the second clause. I don't see how you can call for realism though and then be shocked by this scene. To do so seems the mindset of someone who thinks meat is manufactured, rather than grown, into steak-sized portions, shrink-wrapped and sold.

I do eat meat, and I do think about where the food came from and what the animal went through, and I can tell you it went through much more gruesome stuff than what this clip shows. In it we see Jamie meeting the pigs, talking to the farmer, bringing out a dead pig and then about 10-15sec of cutting it up, while he chats to the butchers. There's no blood, there's no noise, there's no skinning.

I absolutely agree we have to know more about where out meat comes from, but it seems to be disingenuous to be squeamish about this. We should be far more shocked by footage of a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) than by the posthumous fate of these hand-reared animals.

I acknowledge that for those against the consumption of animal products it would be upsetting regardless, but if a scene like this upsets any carnivores, I suggest they give up on crackling altogether.

02 January, 2012

'The True Story of Butterfish' - Nick Earls

Nick Earls writes what he knows. He's obviously learnt a few new things in recent years. The True Story of Butterfish introduces a new protagonist: rather than a member of the medical fraternity, Curtis Holland is a former rockstar. He's producing albums now and divides his time - and technical descriptions - between music software and cooking.

All familiarity is not lost, however. He lives in Brisbane. He has a persistent internal monologue. He's nervous around women, finds himself in unexpected and awkward situations, but has pop-culture funny lines at the ready.

I enjoy Nick Earls' novels. He writes genuinely amusing scenes, and underpins them every now and then with worthwhile bigger-picture musings. He's whimsical, sure, but there's a philosophy to his writing as well. And plenty of authors use their hometown as a touchstone or motif, so why can't Brisbane play that role?

And you really have to hand it to Earls for the aspirational quality of his work. In an earlier novel, his protagonist - in his thirties - admits that he'd only very recently given up serious hopes of playing cricket for Australia. His male characters (eventually) always ending up liking the girls who like them back, and who can give as good as they get when it comes to those pop-culture-laden one-liners. The protagonist in Butterfish played keyboards in a hugely successful rockband, and while the lead-singer has stayed true to the party-hard stereotype, Curtis remains the deep thinker, enigmatic, moody, lonely. All that fame has led him back to the Brisbane suburbs, and the happy fortune of moving in next door to a woman he comes to fancy (the aspiration works for her too - a highly recognisable rockstar moves in next door and they hit it off).

Some of the early scenes focus step-by-step on the process of making music, namedropping software and techniques. Then Curtis starts to cook, and it happens all over again in the kitchen. But once he really gets to know the family next door - and develops surprising relationships with mother, daughter and son - and the lead-singer returns to face family issues, the book gets stronger. Earls isn't scared to give us an overweight, almost-forty protagonist who is hard on himself and full of regret. True to form, however, his character finds redemption in new beginnings, new relationships and new choices.

Butterfish is more thematic than many of Earls' earlier novels. Its resolution doesn't come from neatly tied-up plot points, but rather from Curtis accepting his past, his choices, and how his actions affected others' choices.

Bimbo poster

I bloody love this poster, used at Bimbo Deluxe for their special needs pizza: