Friday, November 30, 2007
This is a little appetiser before I attack (forks and all) my food blog backlog. In the last week or so, I've hit the tables of Two Good Eggs, Astral and A Tavola. On the weekend, I'll be eating up every exquisite crumb from the Le Notre afternoon tea offered at the Sofitel Wentworth (scene of Coalition death last Saturday) and maybe revisiting the lovely breakfast menu at Strangers With Candy. And I'm hoping to properly savour North Bondi Italian after our first visit was preceded by a shaky medical episode. Nothing to do with the restaurant, everything to do with a severe reaction to some medication. The potatoes (above) were a good self-prescribed antidote though.
Conclusion? My wallet has shrivelled to near-nothing but my tastebuds are hitting a cruising altitude.
In the meantime, dip into Maud Newton's Recipes With Writers updates.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Everyone has a place like The Bogey Hole in their lives. The cafe reminds me of someone you're forced to hang out with - a distant work colleague, a friend-of-a-friend, a relative you see once in a while - they're nice enough, there's nothing technically wrong with them, but everytime you try to make a go of it, you eventually hit your conversational limits. There are no surprises left - which is maybe my way of saying I've been to the Bogey way too many times.
Will, on the other hand, loves the Bogey. It's his favourite cafe on Bronte Beach: he thinks they do the best poached eggs - the yolks are always poke-open-with-a-fork runny. When he's feeling a bit adventurous, he'll order Poached Eggs on Toast with Train Smash, which is a sweet-savoury pile-up of tomato and onion (no rail sleepers or carriage debris in sight though). For him, the Bogey is reliable and comforting. For me, it's just a tad overfamiliar.
It's true, the service is fine and it's in a nice spot and despite the big beachgoer-to-breakfast-table ratio, you never have to wait too long for a table. I did enjoy the Bogey the first maybe 10 times I went, but it started to feel a bit old-hat the 15,000 visits after. The menu is to-the-point, and if you're a vegetarian hankering for a hot first-meal-o'-the-day, you're pretty much on rotation between the Eggs & Toast plus Sides option and the Mushrooms and Goats Cheese On Spelt. Things get better at lunchtime though, because the Bogey Hole does very mean and tasty pastas, if the Pasta of the Day gods are smiling on you (should they chalk Penne With Roasted Tomato and Pesto on the board, rather than a meaty dollop of Spaghetti Bolognaise).
Still, if you're going to have breakfast on Bronte Beach, there's no better place. (And it's a lot less pricier than the appropriately-titled Swell. ) I guess the excess police are right - everything in moderation and there are no (breakfast) regrets.
The Bogey Hole, 473 Bronte Rd, Bronte NSW (02) 9389 8829
Monday, November 26, 2007
Being a tragic multi-tasker, I'm watching The Apartment while I'm blogging. And I couldn't let this food-related exchange between Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran (the very spunky Shirley Maclaine) pass by.
FRAN: What's a tennis racquet doing in the kitchen?
BAXTER: Tennis racquet? Oh, I remember! I was cooking myself an Italian dinner.
FRAN looks confused.
BAXTER: I used it to strain the spaghetti.
FRAN (thinks about it and then concedes): Why not?
BAXTER: As a matter of a fact, I'm a pretty good cook. Only I'm a lousy housekeeper.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
I've had friends guiltily admit that they've been to Ramen Kan without me, and it's true, it does feel like a social no-no to go there without asking every single Japanese-loving pal you have for a cheap and cheery night out. The first time we went was to the super-popular Ramen Kan in Haymarket, which involved waiting in a mosh-like queue in a passageway the size of a straw. It was worth it though, when we tucked into the Yakisoba with Vegetables and Green Tea Ice Cream afterwards. The massive and uncomfortable wait did put me off going there again for a while, so when we zipped by Bondi Junction recently and the joint was empty (it was 3pm), I was happy to give its eastside equivalent a try.
If only I was as super-hungry enough to have taken more advantage of the menu. I like that they offer smaller versions of some of their noodle dishes (which maximises your multi-dish-downing potential, as well as catering for those not-as-famished spells we go through). Japanese food can be notoriously vegetarian-unfriendly but there were quite a few options on offer. I swayed between loading up on Teriyaki Tofu with Miso Soup ($8.50) and Tofu Salad with Sesame Dressing ($4.90) but in the end I opted for the Stirfried Vegies and Tofu with Rice ($8.90). It's not the most dramatic of choices, but the peppery flash of the hot crisp vegies did the job.
I read a few reviews on Eatability bagging the place for its toilets and apparently dodgy plates and crockery. My visit was pretty much problem-free but I can't definitively say that those aforementioned things aren't issues, being not that regular of a visitor. (Someone also claimed it was a cheaper version of Wagamama, which is perhaps quite an insult, given how blandsville that overpriced Japanese chain is.) I'd definitely like to go back to Ramen Kan to see how the other menu items rate and whether it is truly not-so-flash as some diners have suggested. I'm always a doormat for budget-friendly, good Japanese, and so far, it's a place I've got on my "return to" list.
Ramen Kan, Shop 3, Bronte Rd (cnr Bronte & Ebley Sts), Bondi Junction NSW, (02) 9387 5691
Monday, November 19, 2007
Travel always triggers a tripwire of startling experiences. When you're not lucky enough to be away, it's still great to be treated to the animated anecdotes of a passport-wielding friend. Recently, my friend Tabitha came back from a North American trek with presents and many a good food memory in tow. I was presented with choc-covered blueberries from Montreal and maple syrup (of course!) from Vancouver and a metaphorical taste of New York's idiosyncratic eateries.
My favourite Tabitha-NY anecdote was about Rice To Riches, a rice pudding point-of-call that sways customers with its blunt motto, Eat All You Want... You're Already Fat. They have wryly-named flavours such as "Sex Drugs and Rocky Road", "Fluent in French Toast", and "With Cherries 'Category 5' Caramel".
One food memory from my last overseas trip was dining in the complete dark at a Parisian restaurant called Dans Le Noir. You order in the lit bar area (you can opt for the 'surprise' menu if you're feeling real adventurous) and then a blind waiter leads you past two heavy curtains to your table in the blacked out restaurant. Even though I was guided by someone who totally knew their way around, I remember being jolted by not being able to see - my footsteps were really unsure and searching of the ground the entire time; I kept thinking that I was always one mis-step away from tumbling down a flight of stairs. (Ridiculous, I know.)
Eating something you can not see at all is - unsurprisingly - a disconcerting experience. It doesn't work so well when you have a salad entree (it's hard to toss the dressing through your plate) but you do learn some tricks - such as how to pour yourself a cup of water when you have no visual cue for when to stop the flow (you stick a finger over the top of your glass so you'll know when the glass is full). Sure, it's fun too - it's a licence to embrace your inner-kid and I admit to dabbing my fingers through my ice cream cone dessert to taste it (you can go the full slob when your neighbour diners can't even see you, or involuntarily become a mess without helpful lighting cues to rely on - but I didn't look too much of a disaster zone when I walked out, I swear).
When one sense is (temporarily) cut off, of course, the remaining ones sharpen - your taste has an extra edge (after all, it's your last defence in sleuthing out what you're eating) and that's part of the point of the restaurant. (The Dans Le Noir concept was also partly-meant to address the low employment figures for blind people as well, by giving visually impaired people jobs.)
Now being blind-for-a-dinner is also odd when you start chatting to your table neighbours - I struck up a conversation with some locals who later "thanked" me for AC/DC upon learning I was from Australia (it feels a l'il odd to be "personally responsible" for a band who raged and reigned long before I was born). Throughout our entire chat, I had this imagined idea of what these people sitting near me looked like - and all my mental appearance-casting turned out to be totally wrong when I saw them in proper light outside. Your senses can certainly play tricks on you.
Another Paris memory was eating a bright-coloured macaron in Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre, thanks to my travel-mate Eileen. I was thinking about that again recently when I came across an article in The Chicago Sun-Times about macarons. The story focused on Ladurée, a French macaron-mecca where you can get orange saffron, java pepper, grenadine, salty butter caramel, apricot ginger, champagne, glacial mint and Lily-of-the-Valley varieties.
"At Charlie Trotter's spectacular 20th anniversary dinner last month, uber-Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé contributed golden-hued macarons made from aged balsamic vinegar alongside dark ones made from black truffles."
I love how high-end a simple sweet can become, and how there's this momentum of excitement and suspense about which new macaon flavours will be unveiled, on par with the curiosity and must-know wonder about coming catwalk trends.
The flavour-du-jour apparently is "Ruby Kiss" a chocolate, berry and spice-flecked macaron.
Another semi-food-related travel memory - visiting one of the biggest and fanciest vegetable gardens ever at the Château de Villandry, which boasts 1500 lime trees and 250,000 flowers and vegies. Everything is weeded by hand (hopefully not just one poor overtaxed hand), and the vegies are sold at markets.
It does make your humble vegie patch look a tad undersized in comparison.
The gardens have a touch of royal history about them but their current incarnation is thanks to Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor who made Villandry his home in 1906 (his family squirreled every single of their pennies into it). The military doctor transformed part of the estate to house patients during World War II, using his vegetable garden to feed them and the herb garden for medicinal treatments. The grounds are still run today by his grandson, Henri Carvallo (who apparently is quite a mean chess player too). Any garden that can make an ordinary cabbage look kinda wistful and romantic has to be impressive.
Friday, November 9, 2007
I love it when you find some little curiosity in your own city that you'd never known about. It's hard not to be a grumpy know-all when you've lived somewhere forever, but these chance moments make you realise there are thousands of wonderful things you could discover, if you just wriggle out of your set-shell routine for a while. And that's how I felt when I chanced upon The Tea Centre the other day.
I was on a tea mission - the plan was to buy a zippy, tastebud-tingling tea as a gift for someone. I looked up the newspaper archive at work and the first entry that floated to the top was The Tea Centre. With over 185 kinds of brews to spoon into your pot, it makes you want to start a national recall of the dishwater teabags that plague meetings everywhere.
I must admit, before I ventured into The Tea Centre, I didn't know what to expect. The store is located in 'The Glasshouse', a part of Pitt St Mall that I can say I have never stepped into. (This makes me sound like a real bumpkin, but the area truly isn't a drawcard part of the mall. And like most people, my mall-haunting days spiked in my teens and rapidly bottomed out after that.) Luckily, it turns out the shop isn't one of those bland carbon-copy shopfronts that are the same the world over. In fact, the boutique window display alone is filled with bowls of tea leaves and cute teapots aplenty.
Its instant charm reminds me of the wonderful stores you find - not by map, but by pure surprise - when you're on holiday. Inside, there are rows of Japanese-style tins and boxes with Art Noveau-style prints. The store has lots of character and there is much whimsical tea paraphernalia on display (including a strainer shaped like a house - it has the word 'tea' imprinted on its roof). Should you feel like sipping a steaming brew, you can sit down with a cuppa in the cafe and nibble on blueberry cheesecakes and carrot and almond cake. The menu also includes soup every day.
I couldn't decide which tea to get - I was brew-overwhelmed. The list of strainable choices vary from smoky Russian Caravan to Japanese Cherry to Amaretto to Earl Grey Blue Flowers. The store also sells the super-hard-to-find maccha green tea powder, which is the crucial ingredient for making green tea ice cream.
Geographically, these tea leaves spell out the drinking habits of everyone from Sweden to Kenya, England to Indonesia. From a more local cup, you can select from an Australian Daintree black tea and the Sydney Special Blend (a black and green tea with mango, jasmine flowers, rose flowers and sunflower blossoms that my friend Tabitha is super-acquainted with - it's a popular dinner party pick, it seems).
I was after a herbal tea that was a little zingy and adventurous, but not wild and weird (this is tea after all). This ruled out the Country Lavender (a black tea with lavender blossoms and Cat's paw that only brings to mind my friend Chris' observation that anything with lavender has an unpalatable "grandma" taste - leave it for fairytale wolves, I suppose). To help me out, the assistant suggested the Rooibos Fireside - a Rooibos tea with orange peel, cinnamon and cloves. She held the box up to my nose and the fragrant hit (homey cinnamon with a citrus twist) won me over straight away. After it was scooped into a stylish tin, I felt well-accomplished. Mission completed - and without a wired-up Tom Cruise character in sight.
The Tea Centre, 146 Pitt Street Mall, Sydney NSW, (02) 9223 9909, www.theteacentre.com.au. Open Monday to Saturday.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
There's nothing like feeling ten kinds of giddy about getting to go to a stupendously-well-reviewed restaurant. And there's nothing like being smacked down to earth with the actual experience.
Glebe Point Diner has gotten a mountain-load of good reviews: in the Herald review, critic Simon Thomsen says, "My wife is groaning and pulling faces I haven't seen since our honeymoon" and gives it a whopping 15/20 (which makes it on par with the highly impressive Oscillate Wildly) and, in The Sydney Magazine, pronounced it one of the best new restaurants of 2007. Glebe Point Diner also scored one chef's hat at this year's Good Food Awards and it also nabbed Sydney Eats' Bent Fork award. It scored a 4-star review in The Sunday Telegraph which opens with the lines, "There is a lot to love about this restaurant". The writer also describes it as a "bistro with a touch of magic".
Reading all that, how could you not expect some memory-burning experience? And after the time we had there, those reviews felt like a rosy-eyed version of reality, like the concept of Santa.
It's true, the entrees were good, particularly the Stuffed Zucchini Flowers ($16), setting a tone for the night that it couldn't quite match later on. Perhaps we should have guessed how things would turn out was when one friend innocently asked what the Spanner Crab Omelette ($26) was like, and the waiter unhelpfully said, "well, it's an omelette... with spanner crab in it". (This supposedly "witty" response resonates with a colleague's visit to Glebe Point Diner, where the waiter "hilariously" pointed out how my friend's date had only been at the restaurant for 20 minutes but had already spilt the wine.)
Now a lot of reviews had made a big congratulatory deal about (ex-Sean's Panaroma) chef Alex Kearns' focus on local produce - with chooks from Camden and a vegie garden at the back of the restaurant. So with that pat-on-back attitude, you'd think they would have at least one vegetarian main on the menu (particularly given its location on Glebe Point Road, which also sports a massive wholefoods joint and vegetarian/vegan eateries such as Badde Manors and Iku).
The waiter makes out that it's no sweat, in fact I'll get some great vegetarian meal - which turns out to be a plate full of the side vegetables scraped off all the meat mains: rainbow chard, peas, and (this is about as lucky as I get) a baked potato. Eating this mountain of supporting-cast greens makes me feel like I'm some kid in a yesteryear sitcom who's going to be sent to their room if I don't eat all my vegies. It is my cursed menu foe: the Salad Main In Disguise.
The organic chicken that supposedly will get you all Meg Ryan-esque doesn't quite get anyone at our table re-enacting that famous When Harry Met Sally scene. In fact, in the post-dinner drive home, it gets an underwhelming ranking when I asked how it rated. Tamara said it was like a Red Rooster meal. Ouch.
One of the big drawcards to Glebe Point Diner for me was the panna cotta - I'd read about how it was supposedly the best in Sydney - Simon Thomsen called it the "star" of the menu in his first Herald review and later anointed it as one of his favourite dishes of the month in the Food issue of The Sydney Magazine.
"In a city where pannacotta is almost compulsory on menus, this creamy honey and rosemary-infused dome, which trembles with beautiful fragility beside poached fruit and a honey biscuit, is the bee's knees." Four of us ordered it, and it didn't score very high on our impromptu panna cotta panel. It was a clever take on an overdone dish, that's for sure, but the very subtle flavour was so faint it seemed to disappear after about four spoonfuls, and especially once you crunched down the honey biscuit it came with.
And instead of the usual cup-sized panna cotta, Glebe Point Diner serves an overgenerous blob that sprawls unattractively on your plate. It's a big struggle to finish (and I say that as someone who can usually wipe clean my dessert plate).
The clincher to the night though, is when it comes to paying. There are seven of us, and I'm one of the few in the group who pays with cash. The rest choose to split the bill with credit cards. Now, of the many many restaurants we've been to, we've never had a problem with doing this. Neither is it signposted that the restaurant won't do this. But not only does the waiter refuse to do it, he almost threw back the cards, and chastised us all on the grounds that such a request would be "such a waste of paper". (An excuse we would have bought, if the size of several credit card receipts wasn't so obviously dwarfed by the number of paper sheets covering the restaurant's share of tables.) So one person had to put it all on his card and bear the $500 slug. A grand note to end things with!
The dinner was our 5th "Appetite for Degustation" outing and it definitely was the most lacklustre. We'd previously been to Assiette, Bodega, Forbes & Burton and Rockpool, and none of these places had both scored crosses in the food and service columns. Glebe Point Diner definitely doesn't feel hat-worthy and it's interesting how many reviews on Eatability remark how over-rated it is. One thumbs-down review says, "Catching a cab home the cabbie asked what I thought of the place. After I'd told him, he said he'd 'heard it all before.'" He seems to know something the food critics don't.
Glebe Point Diner, 407 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, NSW 2037, (02) 9660 2646
So I read in this week's Good Living that Ross Godfrey, owner of Oscillate Wildly and The Codfather has also now taken over The Carlisle Castle in Newtown. I'm intrigued as to how it now rates, given that Oscillate Wildly is amazing and The Codfather is not so loftily-placed - its record is a bit spotty, as indicated by the review in the Sydney Morning Herald and the time we had breakfast there: there were so many servicing hiccups, it was semi-amusing (particularly when my friend ordered tea, only to be served a steaming pot with nothing to drink with, and then was vaguely dismissed when she actually had the smarts to ask for a cup!).
I'm hoping it leans more to the O. W. end of the scale (where the service and the food are special), especially as I have good memories of the peak-Carlisle-Castle-frequenting-period that happened around our uni days (I'm not sure why we stopped going, maybe we subconsciously equated getting a degree with graduating from the Carlisle Castle. Which is daft because it always was a nice pub to hang out in where you didn't have to worry about toxic levels of inebriated goons or fashionista obnoxiousness and the menu was plenty decent).
One to add to the must-try-soon list.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Deus Cafe is like a slick boy's bedroom: there are guitars on display and lots of cycle gear and geeky paintings that would make a bike junkie weak in their leathers. It's got an industrial yet clean-cut feel with large communal tables aplenty. I liked that they had The Conversation running in the background, muted but with subtitles so you could follow Gene Hackman's sneaky conversation-tapping ways.
The breakfast menu at Deus is snappy and straight to-the-point, with your breakfast standards such as Eggs Benedict, Florentine, etc (but without the option to load up on sides) and Granola with Fresh Fruit and Yogurt ($7.50). Will, being the Responsible Breakfast Type, picked the granola (which came with vanilla and honey-hinted yogurt and a good crunchy serving of almonds, macadamias and other classy nuts). He rounded it off with some thick toasty slices with peanut butter and plenty of coffee and juice. Even though his choices were pretty virtuous (though the peanut butter has a touch of the cheeky inner-kid about it), they definitely weren't boring and Will rated them well.
I felt a bit more menu-adventurous, so I had the Cinnamon Roti Pancakes ($8.50), which turned out to be a simple idea executed very well: roti bread grilled to a thin crisp, sprinkled generously with cinnamon. A good sweet kick to the day, without any of the cloying regret you get from venturing into the breakfast menu sugar zone.
Deus sticks mostly to basic, low-maintenance dishes, but it does it with unpretentious style. I'm glad I went there and strayed out of our usual breakfast comfort zone, it was definitely a refreshing change from simply spinning in our wheels.
Deus Cafe, 98 Parramatta Road, Camperdown, (02) 9557 6866
Saturday, November 3, 2007
File under foodie things to try: My friend Chris came up with the great idea of doing a sushi train version of a pub crawl. Sushi train-hopping perhaps?
The one obstacle is the right place to do it - you'd need to find a suburb that is a total Sushi Train Belt (literally) with track-rolling nori rolls and gyoza dumplings being conveyed within walking distances from each other. For the moment, we just have to keep researching.
Friday, November 2, 2007
I really hate being sent to Salad Purgatory. It's one of the pitfalls of being a vegetarian, being told that the only menu-compatible dish is a wimpy-ass salad. Now, I've got pretty militant salad beliefs -- one being that unless it's a salad with some substantial stomach-filling goodies (ie a hefty serving of lemon-spritzed haloumi), it's not really a legitimate main course, in fact it's really A Side Dish Masquerading As A Main, the conman of the main course menu, if you will. No one would ever smilingly try to sell you a A Really Big Serving of Bread as a main course, so I'm not sure why eateries think they can pass off a slightly larger serving of lettuce leaves in the same way.
So that was the state of play when we had a work lunch at The Book Kitchen in Surry Hills the other day. I actually had been pretty excited to make a return visit, because I'd previously had an awesome dinner there - on a cosy winter night, I'd eaten bread so good it was conversation-stopping (rosemary and olive, if my creaky memory can be trusted?), a parmesan gnocci and a gorgeous passionfruit assiette for dessert (a scoop of passionfruit sorbet with a passionfruit sponge smothered in hot passionfruit sauce - it was bliss for such a passionfruit tragic as myself). But I guess things are literally quite different in the light of day.
As I squizzed through the lunch menu - which had lunch staples such as the Pumpkin Pancake with Morrocan Spiced Lamb and Mixed Leaf Salad ($16) and Sirloin Steak Sandwich With Melted Blue Cheese and Beer Battered Onion Rings ($16) - I was miffed to see vegos punished with the very humourless Primavera - Goat's Curd, Garlic Croutons and Garden Green Vegetables ($15). Hooray, a virtuous salad for lunch! It's not just the supersized failure of imagination that is disappointing - but the stereotype that vegetarians supposedly have had some kind of tastebudectomy as a result of forgoing meat and should just hoover up what they can get. When you've got eight lunch mains on offer, just one thing without meat strewn in it (that isn't a killjoy salad!) really isn't an epic thing to ask for. (I'm not sure why making vegetables the main star of a dish is so hard to swallow for some - as Michelin-starred French chef Alain Passard says, ‘Vegetables, with their colours, pictures, forms, smell and aromas are much more creative.")
Of course, The Book Kitchen isn't the only joint guilty of this (it's especially weird that their menu really falls down on this point, given they do have better vego dinner options), but I thought I'd try to wriggle out of Salad Purgatory if I could.
The waitress suggested maybe I could have the Shredded Chicken Soba Salad , just with the chicken bits taken out, which didn't entirely win me over (would it just be big plate of soba noodles with two sliced shallots? I've had that happen before and didn't want to repeat that being-menu-shortchanged experience).
She checked the potential vego options with the chef, then came back to say I could just basically have the salad (but she said it in a way that made it sound really exciting, like "how great is this! You can have the salad! It's not really an option, but isn't great that you can have it? Yay!". It reminded me of when you have to feed a kid something they really don't want to eat and the only way to sell it to them is with lots of over-bubbly PR spin.) So I was being sentenced to the salad now, I couldn't really avoid it.
So the salad stand-off was over. I'd lost, but I at least asked them to amp up the vegetable content ('cos the curse of salad main is that you're starving about two hours after you shovel it down - Reason #439,593 why they are eternally dud choices!) I then felt bad 'cos I didn't want to be "the tricky diner with the pesky dietary issues", cramping everyone's kitchen style, but now I was the "special case" that needed to be asked "if everything was alright".
In the end, it didn't really matter because it turned out a lot of the other dishes were just middling too - I've never seen people re-season their dish as much as my friends who had ordered the Shredded Chicken Soba Salad. It barely had any dressing and they felt lucky if they chanced across a peanut on their plate, because that was the only ingredient that burst through the wheaty noodle blandness. Another friend ordered Poached Salmon, Baby Tatso, Kipfler Potato, Black Olives, Poached Egg, Herbs & Olive Oil and thought it tasted "fresh", but flavour-dull. The only interest that the dish sparked was the table-wide curiosity about what the hell "tatsoi" was. I thought it sounded like a cool karate move, then someone suggested it was a mushroom - but like the Book Kitchen experience, the final revelation was underwhelming. It was just Chinese baby leaves.
I'm not eager for a Salad Purgatory lunch experience again soon, but it wasn't so horrific that it cancelled out my pleasant dinner memory preceding this The Book Kitchen visit. For the time being, I think I'll keep this cafe on my probation list, perhaps.
The Book Kitchen, 255 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills www.thebookkitchen.com.au