Sunday, February 24, 2008
You know you're about 1000 years old when it's only 10.30pm on a Saturday night and you're already lusting after a good pillow and some shut-eye. And while it's not even that late, you've already seen a guy with a big bird's head waltz around the place and your first thought is, will he get carded if he enters a nightclub? (This is literally true - and not some Fear and Loathing-style babbling - there was a dude with a bird's head hanging out and drinking near us.) Your voice is being sandpapered into a Tom Waits croak from yelling and re-yelling your words over loud music. But you're with a buzzing bunch of people and you're hanging out at Lounge and you're grateful that you even have a table 'cos it's a damn popular place. And even though you're miffed they no longer do their fantastic roast pumpkin pizza, you're onto your second Raspberry, Peach and Mango Juice ($5) and even sleepy-eyed wimps like yourself can tap off the surrounding energy to stay up until a respectably "late" hour. And maybe you'll come back and try that new vego pizza that's bumped your old fave off the menu.
Lounge, 277 Goulburn Street, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9356 8888
Friday, February 22, 2008
Every year, I wonder how a priest who was clobbered to death ended up being the poster guy for romance. And every year, I never quite get around to finding out. I should probably make a better effort, given that my (cough) birthday falls on Valentine's Day, but hey it also coincides with International Mullet Day (the hairdo, not the fish) and I've never quite bothered sleuthing out that event's origins either.
While there's nothing to bring out a major case of the collective grumps like Valentine's Day, there are actually a few upsides to having your birthday on the day. One, no one (not even people who have dropped out of your life like an FM station in no-transmission zone) forgets your birthday. Two, you can be the biggest Romance Scrooge (or be totally ignored by Cupid) and STILL score good presents. Three, no one forgets your birthday. It's a sweet deal.
That said, one buzz-killing aspect of being born on V-Day is this -
it sure is a bum night to go out for dinner (Matthew Evans in Never Order Chicken On A Monday says not to even bother).
I remember one birthday walking up and down every inch of King St Newtown, innocently thinking it'd be easy to get a table on such a restaurant-crowded strip. Ha! Spontaneity can sure wear out a good pair of shoes.
Since then, I've always lobbed in a booking long before the day.
The other mood-killer with dining out on Feb 14th is having to eat out in a moshpit of smoochy lovers. It IS a bit of an appetite suppressant. So I've always tried to go somewhere that's less of a high-powered magnet for couples. Once we had nice Japanese before going to test out the star-aimed telescopes at the Sydney Observatory. Another time we had a Birthday/Who Cares About Valentine's Day dinner at the eternally bustling Emma's On Liberty, which is always too noisy to scare off any Cupid action. (Ironically, the anti-romance dinner resulted in some people pairing up and becoming the World's Most Unbelievably Well-Suited Couple Ever, now engaged!)
This year, we ended up at A Tavola in Darlinghurst. I wanted to go somewhere a little special with a bunch of friends, except that the Valentine's Day curse hit and (like many other places), the restaurant dropped its usually laidback approach for a set-in-stone menu, at $75 a head. I couldn't really justify asking any friend to pay that much just to have dinner with me (at least with those shonky $1000-a-head dinners where lobbyists get to sweet-talk politicians into bending legislation, no one can whimper about being shortchanged).
Despite the sizing down of choice, the dinner was pretty good. As soon as we got our menus, I was already in dessert negotiation mode with Will. After a terse exchange and a handshake, we agreed that he'd have Limoncello Pannacotta with Fresh Strawberries, Lime Syrup and Poppy Seeds and I'd go for the Mint Sorbet, Passionfruit Jelly and Coconut Foam, broadening our chances of spoon-sharing goodness.
Having already blogged about A Tavola, I won't go into over-detail. Will had ingredient amnesia and ordered the Figs, Prosciutto, Gorgonzola Dolce Latte as an entree, only to remember mid-fig-bite, that he actually didn't like figs.
I was happier with my Buffalo Mozzarella Caponata. The mozzarella was a bit inoffensively bland (like a polite co-worker who never quite gives anything away about themselves) but the tart, sweet caponata grabbed more than its share of attention, thanks to the punchy crunch of the pine nuts. (Another plus point, A Tavola's menu was much more vego-friendly than it was on our last visit.)
We raced through the mains - Grilled Veal with Panzanella for Will and Triangoli of Green Peas, Sage and Fontina for me - to get to the much-anticipated desserts. And boy was our impatience spot on. Will claimed his panna cotta was the best he'd ever had - and he has rated and ranked many an Italian egg custard in his time. The dish was firm yet spoon-yieldingly soft, with a strong seductive lemon bite to it. (Important when panna cottas can be such flavour-wallflowers and have a real timid taste.)
Mine was the dreamiest dessert I had in a long time. It came in a martini glass, with the jelly and sorbet layers alternating, as if in a race to get to your tastebuds first. And it came topped with coconut foam. Now I've always been suspect about this airy-fairy trend of adding no-nothing 'foam' to yuppify a meal. But the aerated smoky coconut taste really was a wonderful touch, especially with the extra lime zest on top, and the thick layers of gelatinous sweetness underneath. I don't think a dessert has left me so light-headed since the Deconstructed Tiramisu with Espresso Granita at Otto. That palate-sweetener also was presented in a martini glass, which probably confirms that any dessert served in that suave way is already on its way to memory-burning greatness (especially with the shaken, not stirred James Bond?)
In fact, the Otto comparison kinda works in another way, because the meal reminded me of Otto - except it wasn't as pricey, and there were no diners tussling over whether they could be 'seen' or not. At A Tavola though, we did have the curious joy of being seated next to the World's Most Depressing Couple, who spent most of their meal in suspicious silence, like they'd been spent of any reason to talk to each other. I thought that they were probably at the tail-end of a long relationship and they were holding it together just to get past Valentine's Day. In an over-imaginative fit, I became convinced that their table was haunted and any couple who had dinner there would succumb to Relationship Doom! Of course, I was swiftly proven wrong because the next pair were chatty and bubbly and holding hands and not being shunned by Cupid at all.
And anyway, food this good was bound to patch up even the shakiest relationship ... For a little while, at least.
A Tavola, 348 Victoria Street Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9331 7871, www.atavola.com.au
Monday, February 18, 2008
I recently had some birthday drinks and nibbles at the Opera Bar, which was really a shameless excuse to try their Vegetarian Tasting Plate ($42). Verdict? Mostly fab - except for the orange braised fennel (no vegetable quite hits the 'uh!' button like fennel) and over-lemony veg tartlets. The fried won-tons were incredible though, and the little pureed pocket inside the crispy wrapper had been mashed into this exquisitely unrecognisable harmony of flavours that when someone asked you what exactly was in it, all you could do was shrug and say, "I don't know, but it's damn good!" (For the sleuths out there, the menu says it's tofu and ginger.)
The Mezze Plate ($17) is also decent - and the beetroot dip is especially good (although not dress-friendly as I discovered when it slopped onto what I was wearing.) You can also top up the plate with extra bread ($2 a plate) if you can't quite perfect your dip-to-bread ratio.
Seeing as I've scribbled a lot of gush about the Opera Bar recently, there's no need to cover much more about it - although the ridiculously quick menu change from our only fortnight-old visit is a conspiracy for us to go there and try all the new dishes. (A conspiracy I'm happy to take part in, especially when it involves Mango Sorbet & Vanilla Semifredo with Candied Mango & Lime Syrup.)
One thing to mention though - Nicky had very generously given me an assortment of loveheart-stamped tarts as a present (also a reference to the fact I'm born on schmaltzy Valentine's Day). She had picked them up from Swiss Bakerz on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, and she says despite the dodgy name, she does vouch for them because they do very mean pies. I had the tarts in their box (uneaten) lying next to the Opera Bar food and I guess someone from the Opera Bar Police came by and asked me to put them away (even though we weren't even nibbling on them). Fair enough, as they have a strict Our-Food-Only rule on their premises, but his directive has since steamrolled into the amusing catchcry "Put Your Tarts Away, Woman!", which we like to use whenever the occasion calls (and often when there's no rational reason to use it at all).
Opera Bar, Lower Concourse Level, Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW 2000, (02) 9247 1666, www.operabar.com.au
Swiss Bakerz, 101 Oxford Street Darlinghurst, Sydney NSW 2010,(02) 9361 5643
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
It was a running joke that Keith, Alison, Will and I would one day go on a 50s-style double-date. You know, just like in Archie comics or on Happy Days, with us all sipping milkshakes out of heart-shaped straws and hoeing down burgers and fries between sitcom-style punchlines. With a jukebox blaring the kind of classic old songs used in musical montages for coming-of-age films.
(We're not quite yet noirish and ironic enough for something like the Jack Rabbit Slims diner in Pulp Fiction - an adrenalin shot spiked through the chest ain't really our idea of post-dessert fun.)
We couldn't really think of any place in Sydney that fit our 50s-diner description though, so short of dusting off a time-porting Delorean that happened to be in the garage, we cheated and went for a comic/sitcom-style double-date with a 2008 twist - I guess in the same way fancy chefs will do a "deconstruction" of a classic dish - a tiramisu that's made of choc panna cotta and mascarpone or a bouillabaise cooked in a coffee percolator, etc.
So we were going to have cheap and greasy Chinese food and then go out for ice cream sundaes after. Except we were photo-swayed by the Japanese restaurant next door to our pre-ordained noodle-and-dumpling joint (those cheesy food pics plastered on windows do work!). So that's how we ended up dining in Menya in Chinatown instead.
The place was pretty busy and the waitress at the counter said there would be a bit of a delay, suggesting we might not be prepared for how long and toe-tapping the wait would be. "Five or ten minutes," she warned us, giving us leeway to totally back the hell out of that big dining hold-up. I love how ridiculously polite the whole exchange was. Being pretty hardy people, we were ready to sit out a whole handful of minutes without food. (Especially as Will once waited two hours for a table at Longrain.)
In one of those sickly moments of couple-synchronicity, Will and I both opted for the Vegetable Japanese Curry Set ($11), which came with a satisfying bowl of ramen on the side. (Perfect - because everyone always wants a little noodle fix, but can't always commit to a mega-bowl stacked with wheat curls.) I've never had Japanese curry before, so I enjoyed its sweet and light riff on the usually savoury-rich template. And the perky and tart shreds of pickled vegs on the side also gave it a nice kick. It was a good dish but I totally admit to having Meal Wandering Eye and was jealous of other diners who had these multi-compartmentalised dishes, with extra niches and hollows for sauces and salads and rice. There's nothing better than a meal that has all its components herded up and neatly filed away into cubicle-like order - so hyper-civilised! I guess it's also precautionary too, in case some agedashi tofu puff or mound of teriyaki gets way out of control, and wants to hurl over the plastic borders of its tray in a crazed prison break.
After dinner, we walked to Passionflower for dessert. It reminded me a little of the hotfooting that takes place between the stages of a Progressive Dinner Party (a phenomenon that I'm a big fan of, though it is sadly out-of-fashion). You do need to set aside a bit of belly room for a visit to Passionflower, because the desserts can be as stomach-filling as mains. So we made sure we "under-ate" at Menya, in order to heighten our greedy-guts possibilities when it came to sweets. Alison went for the most goth dessert I'd seen - a big glass of black sesame ice cream and agar and condensed milk. It was a rather classically Asian dessert dish - which seems to be geographic tone of the menu. (Incidentally, talk of condensed milk also brought up everyone's childhood addiction to sucking tubes of that cloying goodness dry. Lordy.)
I went for a Geisha San ($14): made of scoops of green tea and lychee ice creams, with lychee pieces and orange compote. It was plain refreshing fun.
As we spooned through our desserts, we watched a family of six share a huge bowl of scoop-scattered ice creams. It made you think that all family matters should be convened through gelato consumption. (And maybe all UN conferences should be moderated through mounds of cookies & cream, vanilla, choc and passionfruit ice? Imagine how relations could improve between countries real tetchy with each other.) It was like something out of a sitcom - except there was no cheesy laugh track and they really didn't seem to be really talking to each other. Sometimes the quiet rush of sugar says just enough.
Menya, Shop TG8, 8 Quay Street, Haymarket, (02) 9212 1020
Passionflower, Atrium Street Level, Capitol Square, 730-742 George Street, Sydney (02) 9281 8322
Friday, February 8, 2008
One of the ace things about blogging is being glove-tapped on the shoulder and being surprised with a silver platter of first-rate links. So I was lucky to have Gemma recently email me about a (literal) head-in-the-clouds foodie experience.
Dinner In The Sky is exactly what its name conjures up - your meal takes place up to 50 metres in the air. The table is hoisted up by a crane and you're snapped into place by a seat belt (good news for anyone who gets a little too tipsy and has a reputation for falling over after an alcohol-centric meal). You can also squeeze in another 21 breakfast/lunch/dinner mates and have a chef, server or muso on site too. Oh and the location can be a lot more scenic than the one I've pitched up here - the Amiens cathedral in northern France and a beach in South Africa are some of the more photogenic backdrops that Dinner In The Sky has set out cutlery to.
The site lists some technical specs but the Brussels-based company doesn't quite explain delicate details such as: how to avoid dropping a fork and concussing some ground-level passerby by accident or what happens if a lot of free-flowing wine is on tap and certain matters need to be tended to? I doubt much yanking up and down of the restaurant is tolerated, just to service diners with fragile bladders.
I guess the menu has to be pretty gust-friendly too (to lessen the likelihood of wobbly souffles bursting into someone's face, thanks to a stiff breeze).
For all the logistics though, it definitely looks like lofty fun. But if you don't live in Brussels or have the budget for such high-minded extravagance, I guess you could do the next best thing and sneak in some decent takeaway on a Ferris Wheel.