Thursday, January 31, 2008
There's nothing more rock 'n' roll than some ego-fuelled tiff between rival bands. But there's something slightly surreal (and we are talking melting-clocks territory here) when ex musical arch-enemies start to bond over... cheese?
This is supposedly how the rift between Britpop territory-stakers, Blur and Oasis, could be mended, according to a syndicated piece in the Sydney Morning Herald recently.
Apparently Blur members Damon Albarn and Alex James have always been swoony about cheese. "It was the glue that held Blur together for so long".
"But it wasn't until recently that Alex discovered Liam and Noel [from Oasis] shared their obsession. So he had the masterplan of creating something constructive through the medium of cheese, which would mark their maturity." The idea being: the Britpop rivals would make a special cheese together, to be unveiled as a possible dessert option at the Brit awards in March.
Well, I suppose Alex James would know what he's talking about, now that he's become a seasoned farmer.
"It's amazing, the friends you can make, just through cheese. People get very emotional about it," he says.
Still, this whole thing sounds so wild, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a hoax that's gone out of control! If it is true though, I say forget the fancy gowns and bad-boy antics, I'm more interested in what kinda cheese (dairy, not metaphorical) gets the spotlight at awards shows.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
I love the Opera Bar. Like its architectural namesake, it keens
with lots of high notes and hums rather nicely all up and down
the treble clef. A few of the meals I've had there have been as memorable as the plays, concerts and acts I've seen at the nearby Sydney Opera House. And even when I'm not in the area for an art fix, I still have tickets on eating at the Opera Bar - it's the nicest, most unpretentious, buzziest place to dine when you're within busking distance of tourist-centric Circular Quay.
Sure, it can be loud and a tad overcrowded and sometimes finding an available seat is like an extreme version of musical chairs. But it's the one beacon in a characterless patch of mostly overpriced, bland eateries. Here, the emphasis is on what actually occupies the dinner plates, as opposed to letting the harbour view to do all the talking, with food as an afterthought: literal scenery chewing.
(That said, the view can be stunning and it's one of few harbourside places where you can have a meal and not be slugged with a premium because there's such scenic eye candy around you. I remember having a lovely breezy birthday drinks session there once and thinking it'd be the first place I'd take anyone visiting from out-of-town.)
Will is obsessed with Opera Bar's Chicken Risotto (rating it as the best he's ever eaten) and I can't tell you how many of their Vegetarian Tasting Plates I've cleared through in the past. (In fact, the only time I ever felt slightly bummed at Opera Bar was when the vego tasting plate was sidelined from their menu because I'd turned up during their pre-theatre dinner rush.) And I can instantly recall the last meal I had there - the Orecchiette with Walnut Pesto and Witlof, which came with generous shards of parmesan. Simple, yet pitch-perfect, I had it twice.
So after seeing the Sydney now: new Australian photojournalism exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, we swung by the Opera Bar. Will's thoughts were rather one-track - or one-dish, to be precise. I jokingly asked, "What if they don't have the chicken risotto you love so much?!" I didn't realise I had jinxed his menu fantasy. As it turned out, the chicken risotto had been erased from the list of food you could order.
So he opted for the best chicken risotto consolation prize he could find: Pappardelle with Braised Chicken, Tomato & Baby Spinach ($22). I had the Ricotta Ravioli with Pine Nuts, Cauliflower & Truffle Dressing ($20). We spent the entire meal with a foodie version of Tourette's, where we kept involuntarily bursting out with the same exclamation: "this is sooo good!" Even though we obviously made our point the first 4000 times we said it, we couldn't help repeating ourselves over and over. The food compelled us to convey such hi-rotation gush. Will obviously had gotten over his chicken risotto grief, and the ravioli (so often served as tasteless lumps at average eateries) were lemony pillows of flavoursome ricotta. The raw crunch and caramelised sweetness of the cauliflower paired with it perfectly.
So, of course, we had to have dessert. Wanting something with a light touch, rather than a dizzying sugar load, we had the
Summer Fruit salad with Creme Fraiche Sorbet ($12). Will loved it because it was melon-free (he has a vendetta against melon fruits): it was a good scattering of strawberries, blueberries, peaches, mangoes and pineapples, in a pool of liqueury syrup. The creme fraiche sorbet was tucked under a crispy tuile disc, and between the both of us, it was scooped up pretty quickly. It was refreshing and pretty awesome.
Pre-meal, I was like some sickly mute waif from a Dickens novel, after we finished eating, I was buzzing happily like a distorted guitar hook. I love it when a good meal can reverse your mood so entirely.
A while back, Dan Boud actually photographed the head chef at Opera Bar - Brian Martinez - for Time Out magazine. It was a cool shoot because it featured all the chef's tatts, which show the patron saints of the kitchen.
To riff off that, I reckon Martinez is one of the patron saints of good food - of meals that are clever but unpretentious, simple yet full of harmony.
I am plotting to go back, because I need to have my 435th vego tasting plate. It's another dish that has gone through a seasonal menu change - now the platter is studded with crispy ricotta ravioli with chilli gremolata; apple walnut & gorgonzola tartlets; breaded eggplant with basil pesto; honey & coriander glazed baby carrots; roman bean salad; parmesan & gruyere cheese twists; celeriac & mushroom terrine.
I just hope I can find a seat when I return.
Opera Bar, Lower Concourse Level, Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW 2000, (02) 9247 1666, www.operabar.com.au
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I used to spend a crazy amount of time cooking on the weekends.
If I wanted to create my own time warp, I just had to flick through to an untried recipe in a book. Hours would vaporise - from the prep to the cooking to the mouthfuls eaten to the always-dreary washing up. I'd slave for ages over farinata or tomato risotto with eggplant caviar or some sauce that needed at least three hours of cooking. It was during this recipe-crazed period that I first went to The Essential Ingredient - back when it was in Camperdown.
I remember being amazed by what they had stashed on their shelves - from hard-to-get morels (which were also hard-to-afford: a container of the wild mushrooms could cost hundreds of dollars) to '00' flour to many other ingredients that only food addicts could get excited about. There were also kitchen items and cookbooks aplenty.
The store moved to Crow's Nest ages ago, and I stopped letting my weekend be monopolised by just one recipe. Which probably explains why it's taken this long for me to actually revisit it.
It's still a foodie haven - there's everything from beetroot fettucine to rose petals to adorn your sweets with. There are even iced brides and grooms that you can add to cakes. The store also stocks wine with the cutest label I'd ever seen ("Rolling"), many exquisitely packaged chocolates, and more treats than your sweet tooth could chomp through.
Maybe this is me trying to read some twee geopolitical "We Are The World-ish" hope from mere shop shelves, but there are very few places where Uncle Joe's Mint Balls can sit next to Malouf's Mezza Orange Blossom Delight.
The problem with The Essential Ingredient is not blowing your entire monthly earnings on every item that dazzles your eye (and your tastebuds). I only ended up buying some caramelised balsamic vinegar, some porcini pasta and a tea towel, which is about as restrained as I get when it comes to making moony-eyed food purchases. In a way, it's a relief that the store now is so far away from where I live.
The Essential Ingredient, 477 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest NSW 2065, (02) 9439 9881, www.essentialingredient.com.au
While at uni I’d worked casually in a restaurant where we’d take tinned snails, put them into shells and bury them under butter flavoured with garlic granules. Then we’d freeze the snails and, when needed, thaw them in the microwave, grill them, send them out and then wash the shells in the dishwasher when they came back.
-Never Order Chicken On A Monday, Matthew Evans
-Never Order Chicken On A Monday, Matthew Evans
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Sometimes a meal out can be so good you want to laser it into your memory so you can remember it forever. In fact, my first visit to Bentley Restaurant and Bar made my brain light up so much that it inspired me to start a food blog, ensuring that I'd have some digital keepsake of how great the night was. (Alas I didn't have any photos to illustrate it - or rather, I didn't have Will with his fancy army of photo lenses dining with me - which is why it's taken this long to cover.)
So, a bunch of friends decided to tee up to do the degustation at Bentley. I'd never tried a tasting menu before, so I was very excited, especially as vegetarians are often confined to some joyless non-option when ordering at a restaurant ("I'll have the salad... or, the uh, salad"), so being treated to a multi-course ritzy dinner seemed worth getting jitters over.
I won't cover every single dish in forensic detail (otherwise this blog entry would run the length of all Harry Potter books combined), but will drop in some highlights. The vego degustation ($95) begins with Bentley's signature Gazpacho 3 Ways, a trio of such pure colour. It looked so pristine, yet a sip from each glass was a head-buzz of unbelievable flavour. The green tomato and herb gazpacho was a rush of leafy, lush refreshment, the almond milk gazpacho was creamy and lusty, while the tomato and capsicum gazpacho had a zingy salsa-like hit.
The night we were there, the pre-dessert was a Gratte Paille with Raisin, which might have been small, but had the highest fun-to-size ratio of anything I'd eaten before. It came in a tiny dish with a triple-cream soft cheese from Normandy, currant paste and gritty bread crumbs. Matt said it was like a deconstructed pie - a smart observation I'd be too dunderheaded to make myself and he was right - it was all the basic parts of a pie distilled to its most simplest elements. I enjoyed the texture contrasts between the creamy cheese and the sweet raisin and the brittle crumbs. It felt a bit like eating an abstract painting.
The dish that capped it off exquisitely that night was the White Chocolate With Mandarin Ice Cream and Fizz, a plate topped with a tower of sweet chocolate, gritty choc-biscuit-like grounds and citrus fireworks: the ice cream and fizz unleashing these mini-detonations in your mouth. It was the funnest thing I'd ever eaten (until I later had those zingy mandarin clouds at Rockpool).
The only note of disappointment was the Celeriac, Mushroom and Almond ‘Cannelloni’ with Saffron Braised Eschallots, which was a bit too homey and understated for my liking. I guess I prefer the whizz-bang adventurousness of the other dishes.
My friends had the matching wines with their degustation, and even though I don't drink, I really loved being a spectator to that whole experience. Bentley is renowned for its wine selection (Nick Hildebrandt scored the The Good Food Guide Sommelier Award last year), and the restaurant's list of plonk runs up to more than 300. Every time the waiter came out to describe the next wine my friends were going to taste, he would give us a lovely geographic rundown from where it was from (the Rhone region in France, or a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills) and then explain the sensation it would forge on the palate (complex, dry, sweet). I liked how well-travelled the wine list was, and the accompanying stories/taste-prologues. It was like being party to 'Around The World in Nine Wines'.
The bubbly feel of the bar and restaurant are also other pluses you can add to its glowing tally sheet. It's one of the few places where you can have high-end, exciting food and feel like you can enjoy yourself, rather than being stuck in a starched and snooty atmosphere where you stress about being sin-binned forever if you fold your napkin the wrong way. (Also important: the wait staff are really great and definitely don't look down on you simply because you don't have the income of an investment banker.)
On our more recent visit, we didn't have as much time to spend (that degustation night spilled from 8:30pm-1am), so we went a la carte. All the dishes I had were pretty much old-timers from the vego dego menu, but I was pretty happy to revisit them (the gazpacho especially!).
Will had the Lamb Rump with Coffee Bread Sauce and Fig and I couldn't help swiping some of the coffee sauce to taste (it was sweet and swipe-worthy). He suggested I try some of the "magic rice" accompanying his dish, which were strange and crackly grains unlike any I'd tasted before - and also fun to remove from his plate. Will and Dan shared a few meaty tapas picks beforehand too - including the "Popcorn" Chicken with Aioli, which they quickly scooped clean from its serving platter.
We also were treated to a mysterious dish of garlicky peppers, a special kind at the beginning of their season. We were told that only one in ten of the peppers was actually hot, so if you scored the fiery one, it was a sign of good luck. No matter how many Dan and I scoffed, we were convinced Will would win the hot pepper lottery (even though he only ate about two), and funnily enough he did. Not that our greedy stomachs had much to grieve about.
I'd read in Time Out magazine that Bentley was going to hire a food scientist (brilliant!) and asked a waitress if she knew anything about it. She seemed mystified by this revelation but said that the chef - Brent Savage - approaches the kitchen like someone experimenting in a laboratory, perhaps that's what they meant in the mag? I liked her comparison, because eating at Bentley is like being wowed by all the different possibilities that science is capable of.
Dessert felt adventurous too - even if I had the latest variation on the White Chocolate/Ice Cream/Fizz dish I'd had before. This time it was with Apricot Ice Cream, a nice seasonal note. Dan was more of a culinary thrillseeker, opting for the Carrot Cake With Black Olive Sorbet and Coffee Crunch. We were all super-curious about the olive sorbet, because it seemed unlikely dessert material. Yet when I tried it, it was surprisingly sweet and lingering and not as weird and hard-to-stomach as I thought it could be. I returned for a few more strategic swipes from Dan's plate. The coffee crunch was also gritty goodness, worth making away with too. (No one can really fortify their dessert dishes securely enough when I've got my attack-mode cutlery at the ready.)
Because I wasn't quite finished being a greedy guts, I also ordered the Passionfruit Marshmallows . I'd presumptuously assumed that they'd be like the petits fours served at Rockpool, but of course, they weren't at all. I bullied everyone into ordering one each (they were only $2, so not much wallet-risk there), and it was (like everything else on the menu) a startling yet rewarding experience. The marshmallows came on a long serving plate and were still warm and freshly-toasted. If anything, they were more like a generous bite-sized passionfruit souffle, and just as dreamy. And the serve was perfect, because it was the right amount of rich airy passionfruit sweetness, without any of that stomach-clutching "had too much" regret.
I love eating at Bentley because it's got enough edge and thrill to lift your heart beat a little. Yet it's not so inwardly experimental as to lose its sense of imagination and fun. The food is bold, bright and beautiful, like the petite, perfect forms of an Alexander Calder mobile. I always want to go back.
Bentley Restaurant and Bar, 320 Crown Street, Surry Hills, (02) 9332 2344, www.thebentley.com.au
Sunday, January 13, 2008
"People cook to bring something to the table; people write to
keep something that was said there. I enjoy the company of
cooks, I realised, because I love the occasions they create for conversation."
-Adam Gopnik, Through The Children's Gate
(as illustrated by a picture Will took at Pizza E Birra in Surry Hills, where the conversation ran from freaky creationists to the karaoke-suitability of Men At Work songs.)
Friday, January 11, 2008
With a set dish and bit of booze for $25, Sydney Festival Feasts
is a brilliant way to score a table at restaurants that might otherwise be over your budget. Yesterday, Michael and I had the vego option at Wildfire at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in Circular Quay - it was a simple pasta, nothing world-jolting. So I wasn't planning to blog about it (given my big backlog) but I HAVE to mention it for two reasons.
Even though you can get a similar view for nada just walking around Circular Quay, the vista of the Sydney Opera House is pretty awesome. I did wonder though, whether this view-centric restaurant has a massive bottoming out of diners when a megaship like the Queen Mary docks in the harbour - 'cos it would probably blot out all the beautiful window scenery.
The other thing was - we got greedy and ordered the Wildfire Dessert Assiette ($17 per person, minimum two mouths ready for six intense miniature desserts). I'm annoyed I didn't bring my camera, because it was a pretty eye-stunning platter of sweets. There was a cherry-studded creme brulee, which was served in the world's tiniest (and cutest) one-handle ceramic pot. Tiramisu made a cameo, as did an orange-flavoured cannoli (its appearance was much misused by me, who kept boring Michael with that famous line from The Godfather: "Leave the gun, take the cannoli"). The BEST part of it though, was the box of cinnamon donuts which came with a strange plastic syringe full of gorgeous purple-pink fluid. "What do you think you do with it?" I asked Michael. He suggested injecting the syringe into the donut, so that it oozed with as much jam filling as you liked.
And he was right!
The filling was a gorgeous berry sauce, and the donut piece would have burst with a volcanic eruption of it if I had my way. It was one of the most clever desserts I've had in a long time.
Although that wasn't part of the set menu, I'm definitely going to try a few more Sydney Fest Feasts. Especially at view-centric places where you're looking at $45 at least just for a main. (I admit, as a vego, you do get a little shortchanged with what lands on your plate, but it's nice to chance to visit some "dream-on" restaurants.)
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
For a lot of people, the best thing about work is the lunch hour. And you can tell a lot by how someone spends it - whether they're eating heated-up leftovers "al desko", mentally finetuning the perfect sandwich combination to order at the local cafe, or really splashing out and going beyond their allocated $8 takeaway budget.
Right now I'm on a long and boring "making couscous to save money" lunching regime, but I was very excited to meet up with Will for lunch at Vini. A tiny wine bar with a limited but brilliant Italian menu, Vini is often insanely packed at lunch - even though it recently doubled in size after a renovation. Nature abhors a vacuum - so do hungry folk with an appetite for Vini.
Even though it's hectic, loud, and a bit of a stress-out simply landing a table, I really love the place. Everytime I've been there, it's been because I've needed a cheer-me-up to handle the rest of the working day, and it has always re-shifted my mood. Lots of people rave about the nearby Il Baretto, but I find it's bland and deflating for vegetarians, watching all your carnivore friends get excited about their food while you struggle through a taste-monotonous pasta. Vini is the opposite. The vego options are few, but with the menu changing daily, it's always a surprise and delight (especially the flavour-packed rotolo, when it makes a cameo on the blackboard). In fact, given Will's pro-Il Baretto stance, he got quite annoyed by my regular catch-cries of "take that, Il Baretto!" (often punctuated by me making a cartoon villain-style fist-shake) whenever I felt the enoteca had scored a point against its (in my mind) vego-unfriendly rival.
Even though Will turned up early to grab a table, he still had to wait 45 minutes for one. (Lucky he was on holidays and didn't have to keep his eye on the clock to make sure his lunch hour wasn't leaking away.) It was pretty crazy-busy when we finally got to sit down, and it was so frantic and crowded that by the time our food arrived, I had ten minutes left before I had to be yanked back to the office. (I'd forgotten that the best time to go was 2pm or later, when the midday rush had cleared out.) Still, I was pretty happy, 'cos the food justified all of those hiccups. (Although I wonder if I am making excuses for everything in the same way someone does when they're in a moony daze over their newly-acquired boyfriend/girlfriend and are happy to glaze over any shortfalls.)
Will had the Lasagne with Braised Beef, Olive and Artichoke ($17), which looked so good I had to I steal a non-meaty sample of it (contraband, but yum). Even though it featured one of his Least Favourite Ingredients of All Time, he was impressed - it must have ranked well to have won over his anti-olive tastebuds. I had a Spaghetti with Zucchini, Capers, Chilli and Cherry Tomatoes. The chilli was pretty muted, but it was a nice, homey dish. (Take that, Il Baretto!) I think we mis-ordered by stacking up on bread and salad, when we really should have left some room for the dreamy-sounding Panna Cotta with Espresso Caramel.
Well, it's good to have something to come back to try - especially for the times I need a prison break from couscous lunch-making chores, and Will has a free hour up his American Apparel sleeve to wait for a table....
Vini, Shop 3, 118 Devonshire Street (restaurant is actually on Holt Street), Surry Hills, NSW 2010, (02) 9698 5131