Saturday, December 29, 2007
Last night, I went to my cousin's wedding. I was impressed that her handmade invite (see above) matched the actual wedding cake! Made of layers of sweet little parcels, the wedding cake replicated all the exquisite invite details - down to the twine and cinnamon sticks. Alas the iced flower on my slice got lopped off somewhere on the journey home. I haven't had a chance to eat it yet (being a bloated victim of the usual Wedding Overfeasting Syndrome) but I've been told it's all chocolatey goodness inside. Brilliant.
Monday, December 24, 2007
These are just a few things that were created and sent Santa-ward. Up top are some marbled chocolates that I made by melting lots of chocolates down and then setting them in moulds and causing a hell of a mess in the kitchen.
This jar of goodness was given to me by Tash, a super-foodie work colleague, it's a cherry jam, stewed from about 4,000 kilos from cherries. I can't wait to try it!
Hopefully everyone has a few food goodies in their stocking this year and of course, Xmas lunch and/or dinner (often the killer one-two punch of both meals) often sends everyone into a belly-clutching food coma afterwards.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Otto is one of those places that seems to appear just as much in gossip columns as it does in restaurant reviews. It's a celebrity honeypot - snaring famous faces from all up and down the A-Z list. And even if you're not into food, you'll recognise Otto for its association with presenter John Laws, who was in the news all over again with this mid-dining outburst.
So maybe that's why (pricetag aside) I've always thought of Otto as one of those restaurants other people eat at. Its mythical status sparkled some more for me when Will described his visits there, and how the olive oil and bread alone were so good that his mother was compelled to bounty-hunt the specific brand they use and snare herself (and him) a bottle.
When I learnt that Otto had a vegan menu (a discovery that synched up perfectly with my friend Tabitha's recent vegan-converting status), I thought it was time we try it out for a Christmas treat.
When you look past the celebrity haze, it's worth remembering Otto does sport a chef's hat and a rep for good food - and we were going to try it out (no-listers that we were).
Set on the wharf, with a water view crowded with bobbing boats, it's curious that a ritzy place like Otto even has a vegan menu. (Especially as it's hard enough to get vegetarian dishes, let alone vegan food, at more la-di-da restaurants.)
My guess was perhaps someone in the kitchen had a vegan daughter that had swayed their sympathies to broadening their menu. Tabs thought otherwise, and that it was the presence of Andrew G-type celeb vegans that had resulted in such catering for animal-product-avoiding diners. Either way, we did get a surprised look when we asked for the vegan choices.
Or maybe the vegan menu was on Otto's website as a prank! A ruse to amuse themselves and the truth was they actually didn't expect any vegan-inclined folks to actually turn up and ORDER something from it. Or so we joked.
Well, the menu was not a lame gag at all - it was pretty good. Especially the Asparagi Con Funghi In Tegame ($24), a gorgeous and scraggly bed of sauteed wild and cultivated mushrooms, served with asparagus and a pretty sprinkling of parsley and chervil. Instead of the heavy, overbuttered feel that you often get with fried mushrooms, this dish was laced with a lingering and refreshing savouriness, with hints of truffle flavour.
Tabs pointed out that if this was simply a vego dish, it'd be full of cheese and butter - which is true, that seems to be the only way a lot of chefs can deal with putting together a meatless meal. But with dairy exiled from the ingredients list because it was a vegan no-no, that meant this entree was just so zingy and light instead.
It was the same with the Strozzapreti Pasta With Cherry and Yellow Baby Tomatoes main ($34): a bright serve of spring vegetables and pasta topped off with a colourful zucchini flower. It was flavoursome rather than cloying and rich: you didn't end up feeling like your stomach was knotted into one big cheeseball after you'd finish eating.
Now, one of the big drawcards to Otto was their dessert menu. I'd checked when I'd booked a few weeks back that they had various vegan dessert choices, and there were at least three that you'd want to attack immediately with an oversized spoon. When I looked again the day before we were going, the desserts list had been transformed into a big creamy and dairy fest. As a staff member re-confirmed my booking, I asked whether there were any vegan-friendly sweets. It seemed strange that they could offer entrees and mains that don't contain animal-derived ingredients, but go cold on the best course that there is. The woman on the phone wasn't very sympathetic when I explained Tabs was a vegan. In fact, her response was simply: "Your friend can have fruit." Whoa. 'Cos that's what you go to a one-chef restaurant for! The sliced fruit!
I pushed it a little further and got a tiny concession - "you can ask the chef on the day".
Well, it turns out that there is an official dessert for vegans on the menu - Selection of Sorbets and Fruits ($18). It's quite a slug for four scoops of overly sweet strawberry and redcurrant ice (with no fruit, after all that!), but it is presented in a very cute selection of teacups.
Non-vegans do score better on the sweet-tooth front, it's true. I was seam-bursting stuffed, but I'm glad Tabs swayed me into getting the "Tiramisu", an inventive and truly dreamy deconstruction of the traditional liqueur-and-coffee-soaked sponge. The Tiramisu comes in a martini glass, with layers of chocolate panna cotta and mascarpone sabayon. At the bottom is a snug serving of amaretto jelly, just big enough to hide an almond. It's a cute surprise to scoop up the nut when you've crossed the finishing line. Oh, and I mustn't forget that this all comes with a spry l'il caramel spring on top, and a cup of espresso granita that is so tingly and flavoursome that I'm almost compelled to up my not-so-daily coffee intake.
This swoony dessert is quite possibly the best "tiramisu" I've had (in fact, it's such a convincing reinvention that it makes me think the traditional version should be entirely trashed in favour of this high improvement). It's a rich and ridiculously filling note to end our lunch on.
In fact, I'm so full that I can feel my stomach rekink itself and realign in shape in trying to fit all this expensive food in. I don't need to eat again for another 24 hours because I've had such an excessive feed - something I've never experienced, given that I'm "three square meals a day" girl.
As for whether we've scored on the celeb-spotting front, that's debatable. Tabs thinks she sees a Peter Cundall doppelganger (he of "Gardening Australia" fame), but that's about it. I do feel like a bit of income bracket tourist though, and there's no doubting that I am out of my paypacket league just sitting in this waterside restaurant.
There was one cheeky thing that happened at Otto that day. Shortly after I arrived, I heard one group of diners complain that they'd asked for a table outside on the wharf, yet were being tucked on a table inside the restaurant. The waitress explained that they were fully booked and had been for ages, so unfortunately it couldn't be helped. Over the next three hours though, only half the tables on the wharf remained filled. Unless there was a high level of last-minute bookings that were cancelled, it seemed like the favourable wharf-positioned tables were being saved for more "important" folks.
Or maybe they figured this group of diners were really messy eaters, and didn't want any passersby to witness the food splatter and stainage.
Let's hope that these people ended up so food-sated that it didn't matter where they were sitting. Leave the location-consciousness to the strategically-seated celeb hoping to land a mention in a gossip column.
Otto, Shop 8, 6 Cowper Wharf Rd, Woolloomooloo NSW, (02) 9368 7488, www.otto.net.au.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
You know how you can infer from just one look whether you're going to be good friends with someone you've just met? I had a similar feeling from my first menu-glance at Two Good Eggs.
The name alone trumpets that breakfast is its game, and one that it aces like a star athlete. It covers all the dependable, set-in-stone standards that no one wants to give up - eggs, toast, and sides aplenty. But more importantly, if you like the unexpected and new, the cafe has clever, breakfast-redefining dishes too: from Chilled Banana Coconut and Buttermilk Porridge ($12) to Pear and Raisin Toast Breakfast Pudding Served With European Yogurt ($13.50) to Home-made Veal Sausage With Caramelised Onion, Rocket and Rosemary Oil. There's a bit of zing in the drinks menu too, with a range of breakfast mocktails, such as the Summer Spice, an exotic blitz of blood orange, lemon, bitters, nutmeg and cinnamon ($6). Overall, the menu is both old-school and totally daring - so it's bound to suit any breakfast mood you wake up with.
Another reason I felt pro-Two Good Eggs before I'd even actually ordered was because its mix of dishes was so good to read that it totally encouraged extreme menu-swinging. You know, when you're split between three equally delicious-sounding choices, and every time you come in favour of one, you're seduced again by the other two? Your meal-allegiances keep swivelling between the options, like an indecisive voter being waved lots of glamourous incentives by a politician. It seemed wrong to forego the signature Two Good Eggs Breakfast with Toast ($15), and stack up on towering sides. Especially when our dining neighbours had ordered exactly that, with the eggs and toast serving as "base camp" and tomatoes and mushrooms and other mountains of extra flourishes building up like the peak of Mount Fuji.
In the end, Will ticked off the Sensible Breakfast Option once more, picking the Natural Hand-Mixed Muesli With Spiced Fruit ($10) and Toast With Organic Peanut Paste ($4.50) (which you can also get with Home-Made Preserves or Vegemite, if you want a rosy cheek fix). Dan had the Chilled Banana Coconut and Buttermilk Porridge, while I skipped ahead and jumped right into the lunch menu, and asked for the Open Ravioli With Wild Mushrooms, Pine Nuts and Roast Tomatoes and Burnt Sage Butter and a side of Herb-roasted Potatoes, 'cos I'm a tragic when it comes to 'taters. (I was, I admit, very curious about the Goat's Cheese, Onion and Red Wine Pie, Served With Herb and Watercress Salad and an Eggplant Chutney, $13.50, but I guess it was a dish that had to settle for being honoured just to be nominated.)
The food definitely lived up to my initial menu-glance expectations, especially the 'taters, which I kept cramming in even when it looked pretty unwise to keep doing so. As the waitress pointed out when clearing our plates - even when you claim you're dangerously full, you still can keep eating a limitless number of roasted potatoes (especially if they come in crispy wedges, which is the golden mean of mouthful-friendly sizes).
Around the table, everyone was pretty happy with what they had (although Will did think the muesli a bit "Sahara-dry" and ranked the peanut butter'n' toast at Deus as better - he's still a Two Good Eggs convert, despite that).
I liked the cafe's emphasis on home-made and natural, fresh ingredients, and how they do it in a way that's inviting rather than uppity and sanctimonious. The atmosphere is breezy and friendly. For a popular and edgy Surry Hills cafe, there's a refreshing lack of pretension: the staff were more likely to crack warm jokes than serve you a major dose of attitude.
So I'm glad my menu intuition was right - this place really did click with me. And like someone you sense you'll be good friends with, the only problem is working out when to visit again. The enthusiasm's definitely there.
Two Good Eggs, 2/148 Goulburn St, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9283 9694
Monday, December 10, 2007
I've always wondered who actually makes Facebook applications and now I know. My super-talented friend Jeff has custom-fitted and rolled out quite a few, including the I Made This app, which is a cute and inspiring programme which lets you share what you've made with other people - whether it's meals or zines or music. You can leave instructions for folks who want to follow in your creative footsteps and replicate your invention or let people know how they can buy what you've whipped up (if it is a CD or zine or piece of art). No one's put a pricetag on anything yet, most things are edible eye-candy-only items or for trade.
I might put up some zines or mix tapes eventually but in the meantime, I've uploaded two meals I've made in the last week - both inspired by everyone's favourite food blog, Chocolate and Zucchini. The first was an adaptation of her Cha Soba salad (which is a great post-work meal to dish up - with convenient leftover value if you live on your lonesome). I just added pine nuts instead of sesame seeds, skipped the tofu-cooking step (and threw in some pre-marinated tofu instead) and added some asparagus spears that I blanched with the green tea noodles.
Pictured up top is my "What's In My Grocery Basket" remix version of her Oeuf Cocotte. I used ricotta cheese as the base (sadly cos it was the least exxy soft cheese I could find), threw in diced shiitake mushrooms, tomato and asparagus, cracked an egg over it and carefully steered it into the oven in the mini-bainmarie as Clotilde instructs you to set up. Then, after it was cooked, I added shaved parmesan, with bits of fresh mint, oregano and basil (also known as the "What's Still Growing On My Balcony" herbal sampler). My adaptation was OK - but next time, I think I'll use a more savoury cheese (I really wanted to splash out on a goat's cheese fetta, but the wallet only stretches so far until payday...)
I'm enjoying the list of other people's edible creations on What I Made: which currently includes everything from Breakfast Burritos to Green Tea Cupcakes to a Post-Election Celebratory 8-spread Bagel.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
This lives up to the phrase "window-licker". I never would have noticed this if these girls passing by hadn't loudly gasped about it and I'm glad they did. We were walking to the Verona to catch Hunting And Gathering (Ensemble, C'est Tout) - and to kill two foodie observationss with one stone - my favourite scene in the film is two seconds long, when Audrey Tautou adds a decorative flourish to an empty plate by drawing an edible duck on it.
Back to the wedding cake though - as you may have worked out, the lavish design features the characters from the Tim Burton film, Corpse Bride. I especially like that they're posing on layers of skulls and bones. Perfect for a gothic wedding. This clever creation was in the window display of a store called Sweet Art in Paddington. They also had cakes in the shape of designer handbags, Mater from the film Cars, a bathtub of characters from The Simpsons and also The Incredibles. I notice on their website that they do a cake in the form of a jade Buddha. As Homer would say, sacrilicious.
Sweet Art, 96 Oxford Street, Paddington NSW (02) 9361 6617. www.sweetart.com.au
Friday, December 7, 2007
We were involved in a eat-and-run incident last week at A Tavola. We had less than an hour to zip in, eat up and dash off to see Tiger Country, a play at The Stables Theatre which Will had taken some cast photos of. And of course I had to be greedy and complicate things by thinking I could sneak in a dessert as well as a main.
Will has attempted to have dinner twice before at A Tavola but had to be turned pavement-ward because it was packed out. Not a surprise, given that it recently scored an enthusiastic review in the Sydney Morning Herald. I'm glad he had more table-snaring luck this time. With this bustling popularity in mind, I was expecting a night in which I'd have to play Elbow Twister with fellow diners. But no, we were seated in the courtyard, which was empty bar the extremely chatty Eastern Suburbs schoolgirls scribbling away on the paper tablecloths.
Given their burbly loudness, it would have been really easy to get cranky at them, but they were quite funny and unexpectedly polite. They'd make hilarious over-dramatic exclamations like, "Oh Isabelle, you know that's so not true!" and then run into your table. This was balanced out by the requisite super-polite girl who policed everything (there's always one in every schoolgirl group!) and made sure the rowdies apologised. Even one of their mothers said sorry for the volume, which was nice given the noise was just perky atmosphere rather than a teeth-grinding soundtrack.
Dignity-wise, I'm glad our time-is-ticking deadline gave us licence to scoff down the house bread in Speedy Gonzales-style. It's made on-site by chef Eugene Maiale and is ridiculously good. We dunked the focaccia into the bowl of olive oil, and every soft-crumbed bite was a lightning hit of chilli, salt and aniseedy herb tastiness.
With a name like "A Tavola" (Italian for "to the table"), the menu accordingly includes house-made and dry pastas of all sorts and shapes. After the waitress ran through the encyclopedia of ones on offer, I was intrigued, even though I couldn't try any because they came with meat-heavy sauces. The waitress said the chef could tinker with certain menu options to make them vego-friendly, but I end up opting for the Swiss Brown Mushrooms with Green Peas, Mint and Ricotta Salata ($15) (which sounded like it could be a dreaded Salad Main Course, but the pan-fried mushrooms thankfully elevated it from such dullsville). Will had a satisfying serve of the Fettucine with Baby Spinach, Artichoke and Prosciutto, on special.
By the time our desserts came out, we had about 5 minutes to spoon everything down, pay the bill and run to the Stables. Still, I'm glad we chose to be totally impractical because good sweets are worth it. I had a Crostata with Grapes, Pine Nuts and Goats Curd, which was on their Dessert Specials menu. It features a different Crostada (baked tart) every night. I'd been leaning my dessert fork towards picking the Panna Cotta but when I found out the Crostata came with a scoop of Organic Honey Ice Cream, that sealed the deal. Will had the Zuppa Ingelese, a creamy trifle with layers of amaretti biscuits, mascarpone, peaches steeped in moscato, blueberries and crocante, a crumble made from toffee and almonds. I made many strategic spoon assaults on Will's dessert, it was worth going to table war over.
It's a shame we had to Dine and Dash, because A Tavola felt like a breezy place where you'd want to stay a while. We also had The World's Nicest Waitress, who let us break with menu protocol and get a headstart on dessert so we wouldn't be late, among other thoughtful things. I'd heard that the service can be variable, depending on who you get, but our experience would earn ticks aplenty in the hospitality column.
I'm looking forward to going back and having rich amounts of time to spend lingering over the dishes. (Plus, the thought of that untried panna cotta is just toying with me!) To the table, and not soon enough.
A Tavola, 348 Victoria Street Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9331 7871, www.atavola.com.au
Monday, December 3, 2007
It's not a coincidence that the Cones Au Chocolats above look slightly like devil's horns. The Lenotre High Tea is sin on a multi-tiered stand. It's hilarious that high teas are meant to be dainty, lady-like affairs given that they really are just a classy way to be a pig. And how great is it to be a cake-hog in the name of etiquette?
The reason for our elevated pastry-scoffing was to say cheers (or Tally Ho, I suppose?) to the year's end. It was our Writers Group Christmas do, and we even had a High Tea expert in our midst - Adeline makes it a point to do a high tea in every country she visits (Raffles in Singapore was her favourite high tea hit).
I'm not as fixated with nibbling on cucumber-sandwiches and mini-gateaux, but I do find the Lenotre experience a lot of fun. It's tiers above the so-so quiches and tartlets you get at other places, and the sugary delights are so exquisitely crafted you feel guilty for vandalising them with fork assaults and mouth bites. It only costs a fraction more than the tea at the The Victoria Room in Darlinghurst but is much grander in scope. You feel your Nan could pull off the cakes and nibbles at the V-Room, whereas the Sofitel Wentworth offerings definitely seem like they were made by a pastry chef who had to train in Paris before being granted Lenotre baking honours (it's compulsory critera before they're allowed to drop the brand on their cakes).
They take their confections really seriously at Lenotre - if you look at their current website, the first thing you'll see is fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (sporting a collar so stiff and high it looks like a neck brace) posing with their top patisserie chef, Guy Krenzer; Lagerfeld has just signed off on a Christmas log dessert for Lenotre; it's got flourishes of orange, ginger and cinnamon topped with chocolate and will come in packaging the designer has created. If you're super-ritzy, you can order one for a mere 170 euros.
The problem with such good-looking confections is the What-To-Eat-first indecision. Everyone else worked their way up the cake stand: the smart and methodical way which concluded with the prize catch - the Cone Au Chocolat, a dark choc cone topped with cream swirls and strawberry devil horns (OK, so I'm over-interpreting here), and a surprise stash of syrupy, lush berries that ooze out once you crack the choc with your knife.
I went in eyes-ruling-stomach order instead. Being a rosy-eyed kind of girl, I opted first for the Raspberry Macaroon (or, as Will would call them, Raspberry Burger) and the Ambiance slice. Macaroons always look better than they taste (if anything, they seem to have a crumbly non-taste), but the Ambiance was layers of wobbly goodness: Vanilla Bavarin cream sitting on top of fruit of the forest jelly and caramelised hazelnuts. The jelly was a slab of swoony berry gel, perfectly sandwiched by the crunch and cream. It tasted like a super-gourmet version of an Iced Vo-Vo. (C'mon, you know you loved them as a kid.)
I also loved the coffee butter cream hit of the Opera cakelet - this rich choc pastry concoction was as lavish as a major production, with lots of soprano-high sugar notes. And of course, you know it's opulent because it's got gold leaf making a fancy cameo on the choc topping. The Camaieu was just as choc-heavy, with chocolate sponge laced with milk and dark chocolate mousse, Chantilly cream and marzipan. I tried to balance out the cloying choc-centric taste of everything with strategic bites of the finger sandwiches, but given how unrelentingly sweet high tea is, it's a pointless battle. The Tarte Au Citron added a citrus cream contrast, but that was also intense too. This is where the long gulps of Mariage Freres peppermint tea come in.
Speaking of the drinks menu, there was an odd tea drought at our end of the table, with staff taking a strangely long time to refill cups for Wendy and Nicky. They had to ask for tea updates, just to make sure they weren't forgotten by the keepers of the brew. It took such an unfathomable time for them to get served (weird, as dunking tea into hot water isn't the world's most slowcoach activity) that we speculated that they must have run out of teapots. This idea seemed so amusing to me, especially for a place serving high tea (next, pizzerias run out of dough!), that I had to dismiss it out of outright silliness. But the moment I tipped the final drop out of my pot, it was swooped upon by a waitress who took it away to re-use for someone else's tea fix - which suggested perhaps our conspiracy theory wasn't so grassy-knoll-crazy after all.
When Wendy and Nicky got their long-awaited tea, they were served the wrong one. Oops. Now I've had the high tea at the Sofitel before and the service was much better then - probably because we'd gone at a much less busier period. There certainly was no teapot shortage that day. (It IS odd that a high tea joint wouldn't have an emergency supply of these ceramic spouts on standby.) I guess the beautifully-designed cakes gives them some bargaining power - these pastries transcend any service that is slightly out of tune. And though you get sandwiches and (over-dry) scones, the menu staggers heavily into the rich zone. It's delicious and though you don't want to stop the gorging on all these creamy sponges and tarts, it can be a bit much if you don't have a mega-sweet-tooth. The Queen Victoria Building Tea Room has a better balanced mix, rounding the confections with more savoury nibbles. But Lenotre does provide the biggest wow factor when it comes to high tea.
If you can't stomach bolting down so much sugar, you can have lunch at the Sofitel and order Lenotre cake as dessert - the Venus Framboisier is a gorgeous rasperry sponge with that comes crowned with a halo of raspberry caramel, while the Concerto is a dark choc extravaganza which comes topped with a carefully-made chocolate violin. It's true, Lenotre is too good to eat.
Lenotre Afternoon Tea ($38 per person) at the Sofitel Wentworth, 61-101 Phillip Street, Sydney (02) 9230 0700 www.sofitelsydney.com.au