Monday, July 28, 2008
After spending many back-to-back days as a work-imprisoned hermit, Will said, "Let's get dressed up and go somewhere nice for dinner." My response to that was always going to be flag-wavingly obvious. There's nothing I like more than an emergency fancy dinner!
So we went to Glass brasserie at the Hilton Hotel.
Glass lives up to its name: it's full of shiny, reflective surfaces. Even the ceiling is mirrored (probably not a plus if you're paranoid about your bald spot getting beamed all over the room).
There's a huge see-through wine 'cellar' surrounding the kitchen and lots of luxe-looking shimmery finishes and fixtures, with billowy lace curtains to soften the edges. Sure, the interior is schmancy but the visual pay-off is behind the entrance bench, where you can see the chefs blowtorching creme brulees and speedily asssembling cheese plates. Behind them stands a rack of fresh-baked bread - which, of course, brings me to the important part - because these house-made creations are the first thing that land on your plate.
Oven-warm serves of plain sourdough and a herbed fruit loaf shared equal billing on our table - until we played them against each other. Plain is fine ole reliable, but the other slices - the ones flecked through with oregano and red-wine-soaked sultanas - would definitely rank in my Top 5 of Awesome Bread. Biting into it was a four-part harmony of saltiness, near-caramelised sweetness, crust and warmth. All the flavour notes kept repeating in a way you didn't want to end - like a simple, infectious chorus. And the house olive oil added a good low hum to this heady melody.
Will still thinks the foccacia with chilli oil at A Tavola is better (it IS pretty good). Either way, it bolsters my theory that there should be an eatery where the menu is packed only with the amazing bread served in really good restaurants. If the meal ended just at the bread line, I would have been pretty happy.
For entrees, Will had Kurobuta Berkshire Prosciutto, Shaved Pear, Mustard Cress and Grissini ($19.50) while I had the Tart of Mushrooms, Polenta with Truffled Pecorino and Spinach, Poached Hen’s Egg ($26).
Will won that round down flat. His not only tasted much better than mine (which had too many rich touches and instantly made you feel "full" and stomach-clogged from two bites), but his also took out the table eye candy honours. It came out on a wooden block and looked like a Japanese artwork. The pear slices were artfully fanned out like some 2-D mathematical bouquet, with the prosciutto similarly styled into place and two grissini sticks arcing elegantly across the top. The long grissini also doubled as entertainment: Will could re-enact the opening sequence to Flight of the Conchords while eating it (mainly the part where they're tapping to the theme song with head nods and makeshift drumsticks).
And while the Pan fried Gnocchi, Asparagus, Courgette, Mushroom, Corn, Soya Beans, Lemon, Thyme and Parmesan ($21.50 for entree, $35.50 for main) had a cast list of vegetables as long as the roll call of a TV show, it didn't prove nearly as interesting as anything you could watch on the small screen. It was so overpowered by truffle oil that eating it felt like eating a truffle oiled pan.
Will's dinner tally was outscoring mine by a mile: he enjoyed both his entree and his main - a Herb-and-Mustard-crusted 150 day grain fed John Dee steer sirloin with Baby Beans ($42).
Luckily, dessert was excellent and rescued me from any meal-moping I could have been victim to. I'd spent a week mooning over the idea of having the Blood Orange Souffle, Blood Orange Sauce and Cardamom Ice Cream ($19.50), and all that drumroll anticipation probably did probably amp up my response to it. And yes, it definitely was worth all that thought-monopolising energy, especially with the lively burst of cardamom. Will's Pavlova with Rhubarb Cream, Passionfruit Jelly, Passionfruit Ice Cream ($17.50) was unfortified against the cutlery invasions I staged against it and my plundering efforts were much rewarded. I can still taste the fizzy jolt of the passionfruit jelly...
I think we were both smitten with that beautifully-presented dish, but luckily didn't feel too aggressively territorial about it - it was so good it was worth a peace-sharing deal.
So our meal was bookended really nicely, despite the flatter moments in between. I remember talking to someone about it afterwards and they thought I was giving Glass a thumbs down. Which isn't the case - I was left floating by the bread and dessert, and Will was mostly happy with his choices. It's just that the vego dishes veered a little too far into "too much" territory. In the same way that you'd douse a not-so-fabulous dish with tomato sauce as a kid because you couldn't cope with eating it straight, sometimes I think chefs freak out with vegetarian dishes and think tipping lots of truffle oil (or cream or cheese or other overloading touches) is the best way to draw out taste. It'd be nicer if other flavours had cameos too. Like a multi-instrumental pop gem instead of a 20-minute guitar solo.
I would return to Glass because what I liked, I really liked, but I'd probably go in summer, when more lighter and playful dishes are likely to dominate. I'm guessing the current menu has a heavyset feel because winter attracts more gravity-thudding dishes and rich flavours. And sure, we were actually looking forward to some of these indulgences - like the Truffled Mash ($13) - but it was so full-blast buttery, that we literally could only have a spoon each. That side dish was so untouched that I had to mess up the bowl to look like we'd consumed way more than we had, in case the waitress eyed its undereaten state with suspicion. (Something that couldn't be said about our wiped-clean dessert plates.)
And that said, the wait staff were really lovely - attentive and formal enough to make you feel like you were taken care of, but relaxed enough that you could actually trade jokes with them.
Overall, we definitely had fun fancying up for a luxurious dinner and revelling in the extravagance (and pretending this was normal for our non-high-roller incomes). If only the sweet end notes could permanently take the edge off Will's work pain...
Glass Brasserie, Level 2, 488 George St Sydney NSW (02) 9265 6068 www.glassbrasserie.com.au
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Dad grabbed the sugar bowl and turned on the stove. It was electric and fired up immediately. "See this here?" He took a pinch of sugar and held it high above the heat. A flurry fell from his fingers onto the coil, orange now and scalding.
The crystals popped into tight little fireballs.
Henry's eyes popped as well.
"Do it again," he said.
Dad did it again. The room filled with a yummy redolence, sweet like cotton candy or toasted marshmallows. Henry reached for the bowl but Dad said, "Uh-uh." Then he took down the cinnamon, kept in a jar that Mum made - one of the last of her plain-sight relics.
He took a pinch, held it high, and sprinkled. Very different, the cinnamon. Laid out on the coil, the grains glowed soft like spectral dust, then faded slow, the smell more aromatic, spicier than before....
-A snippet from The Every Boy by Dana Adam Shapiro.
Friday, July 18, 2008
When Mark from China Heights gallery claimed Cafe Ish as one of his favourites on my list blog, that's when the place first tripped off my worth-registering-in-brain mechanism.
I did a bit more online sleuthing and discovered it was a cafe that specialised in Australian food with a Japanese twist (!) and it flaunted an average of 9.2/10 on Eatability. The more I read about Cafe Ish, the more it zoomed towards the top of my Must-Visit list.
So with all my mental compass points magnetised in the one direction - I had to find this cafe and try it out.
It's a tiny joint halfway up the hill that is Albion Street in Surry Hills. And in such a snug place, you quickly notice that the staff (Josh and Ai) seem to comfortably know all of their customers, chatting to them like they know their back story and greeting and waving people goodbye by name - something that ain't a bad thing about a cafe.
Sure, when first reading about the menu's "Australian with a dash of Japanese" leanings, I was completely stumped about how it could be done. But it becomes a lot clearer once you flip through the menu (which is stamped with a cute logo resembling a coffee cup stain and filed under "Ish" headings - "Sweet - ish", "Lunch -ish", "Sandw -ish" and so on. You can even have your free range eggs "Hippie-ish" or "Benedict-ish" ). When you see listed offerings such as Tempura Crystal Bay Prawns with Green Salad and Desert Lime Chilli Sauce ($16) and Byron Bay Berkshire Ham, Organic Tasty Cheese, Wasabi Dijonaise and Tomatoes on Damper ($9.50) though, the idea of mashing up Oz and Japanese food doesn't seem so head-scratchingly crazy. In fact, it actually sounds like a good, adventurous pairing of two contrasting cuisine styles.
There is also a colourful sprinkling of local flavours through the menu - think lemon myrtle, wattleseed, bush tomato balsamic, macadamia butter, damper bread, wild rosella and apple relish, Byron Bay Berkshire ham and a hell of a lot of crocodile and kangaroo. It makes me wonder - despite all the backpatting about using more local produce - why it's so rare to see a cafe menu embrace native ingredients so thoroughly. Lemon myrtle and wattleseed are especially inviting and lively additions to any dish, so it is nice to see Cafe Ish reinvent classic food with these Australian flourishes. Under this locally inspired direction, even plain ole Weet Bix sounds exciting! It comes served with steamed organic milk and red gum honey ($8).
I end up swayed by one of the specials scrawled on the window - the Japanese style Omelette with Warrigal Greens, Organic Fetta, Hunter Valley Mushroom and Tiny Tomato Relish ($17.50), which is a little exxy but a fine and intriguing feed. (I especially like the sour burst of relish.) I also like how the meals are served with a palette-pretty quadruple-scoop of salt: grey-black Murray River salt, light-yellow citric salt, red chilli salt and char-black volcanic salt.
Even the drinks have a geographically intriguing twist: there are native takes on traditional teas, with Sydney Breakfast (actual menu description: "Hello?! We are not in England! We are in Sydney now! Let's wake up with Sydney breakfast! Full bodied orthodox leaf tea with hint of bergamot") and Australian Green ("green tea, lemon myrtle, strawberry gum, spearmint and camomile - you'll be surprised that green tea could be this fancy!"), as well as 'remixed' Japanese varieties (Gorgeous Geisha is "green tea with the flavour of strawberry and cream"). All are $4 and come in a cute teapot that rests perfectly on top of a cup. As wildly inventive as the Australian green tea sounded, I have to admit all those extra ingredients felt a little wallflowerish and hard-to-detect. I did, however, love what Will ordered: Turkish Apple ("so apple! Just like apple pie in a cup" says the menu). I can't say it really tastes like baked-pastry goodness, but it does have this low-humming apple-liciousness, that's for sure.
In line with their Aus theme, their signature coffee is the Wattle Maccacino ($3.80/$4.30), which teams up the roasted sweetness of wattleseed with macadamia nuttiness. You can get an iced one too ($4.50).
I couldn't go past their "Sweet - ish" menu and went for the fully-flagging-myself-as-a-pig option, Waffle with Wattle-Macadamia Ice Cream, Stewed Muscatels and Riberries with Lindt chocolate sauce ($15). I confess I bluffed my way through ordering it and was too embarrassed to admit I had no idea what riberries were - but I was won over by their strange clove-like taste. It turns out they're a native ingredient and a curious contrast to the rich load of choc, waffle and wrinkly-sweet muscatels. The ice cream played more of a cameo role to these attention-yanking flavours.
Will went for something less in-your-face, choosing the subtle Vanilla Risotto with Warm Ume Shu Poached Fruits ($13), a cleaner alternative to my napkin-messing choice.
After our monster appetites, we were pretty much done for the rest of the day (despite eating before midday!). I could only manage some fruit toast for dinner. It might seem like what we ate could last us a lifetime, but I'm going back to Cafe Ish for lunch tomorrow. Because it's more-ish. And clever-ish. And must-go-back-ish.*
*Except that I discover the cafe is cruelly closed for the weekend thanks to the road being blocked off with the Pope being in town! I am now officially bah humbug about World Youth Day. (No "ish" about it.)
Cafe Ish, Shop 2, 102 Albion St, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9281 1688
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
The window display is full of multi-colour pasta strands spilling out like uncontrollable ribbons. The colour spectrum runs from chilli-red tagliolini to spinach-green fettucine. And, for the very first time I've walked past it, it's actually open (a fact that says more about my anti-social weekend sleeping patterns than the shop's hours).
Of course, I have to go in.
Inside, the Pasta Factory in Leichhardt looks a bit more utilitaritarian, clean-swept and to-the-point - it's less colourful than the strands a-tangled in the window, but then I should remember this is a place to buy some fresh-made ravioli, not some bright-hued amusement park.
First off, I'm frozen by pasta-buying indecision (because, the temptation is to buy everything and spend the rest of winter over a boiling pan, tipping in flavour-stuffed flour parcels until they dive up and bubble along the heat-bursting waves). Of course, my arms can only hold so many carb variations (and my wallet can only support a fraction of this ravioli-hibernation fantasy).
In the end, I snap up the Chicken and Basil Ravioli and Pumpkin and Walnut Ravioli ($15 for two). The poultry pick is a gift, so I can't report on it, but I did try out the pumpkin tonight, adding a very simple sauce of chopped-up cherry tomato, diced garlic and generous plops of olive oil. It was a lovely late-night dish, doubling as tomorrow's lunch leftovers (I don't know how it will survive the vicious office microwave taste-blanderiser, but we'll see). The pureed pumpkin was nicely sweet, well-paired with the odd crunchy fleck of walnut. I find often when you buy ravioli, the doughy parcel can overwhelm any flavour tucked inside, but the pumpkin really fights through. And $7.50 for 500g is pretty good - it's a similar price to buy some of that tough-bullet supermarket stuff, but this is a far nicer alternative.
So, now I just have to make sure I synch my waking hours with the Pasta Factory's opening times, so I can make a repeat visit.
The Pasta Factory, 413 Parramatta Rd, Leichhardt NSW, (02) 9569 2166
Sunday, July 6, 2008
I really like the idea of food re-sparking your interest in your own city. Especially when it happens by chance.
So, on Friday, by complete accident, I ended up near the night markets in Chinatown. Of course, I followed the spotlights and tarpaulins to where the action was. It was pretty quiet and small to be honest, but still, you can find a strange-yet-very-Chinatown mixture of everything from cartoony accessories and cheap underwear on sale.
More importantly, there are a few food stalls.
The one that caught my eye (and ear) was the Japanese stall that was sizzling batter into gold-crisped balls. There were vego versions (4 for $3) as well as endearingly earnest combinations with badass names: the "Samurai" (basically Octopus and crab balls) and "Ninjya" (Octopus and Prawn).
They also were frying up Japanese pizza too.
I think a big bonus of market food is seeing it all assembled together in front of you (and frankly, you can't ever beat a bit of lively hiss and in-stereo frying as the soundtrack to your meal-coming-to-life). The Japanese vegetarian balls tasted pretty much what you'd expect something battered and molten hot would - it's a tricky mouth-burn-trap (yet, does that ever stop anyone biting straight in?) that's doughy and satisfyingly carb-fried. It also came with a big dollop of that magical Japanese mayo (so bad, yet so tasty) and some baby leaves (so you could pretend what you were eating wasn't entirely tsk-tsk and dubiously unnutritional).
Then afterwards, because Menya was closed, I dropped in for (more!) food at Kura, a small Japanese diner I've always been curious about. It has always looked packed when I've walked past and only when I walked in did I realise how easy it would be to cram up with people: it is TINY. If you're lucky, you could probably fit 20 people in there, max (although if the diners were body-contorting, space-saving clowns, you could squeeze in at least 100). With five people actually working there when I stopped by, I guess they must have a big takeaway crowd to make up for the low dine-in numbers.
I had a surprisingly disappointing Japanese Seaweed Salad (too overdressed, there's only so much mayo tang you can take!), but the Agedashi Tofu ($5.80) was very satisfying. The broth had this nice, subtle pickled ginger note to it.
Really, the whole meal was about getting the fish-shaped dessert - Taiyaki ($3) a little Japanese pancake hiding red bean paste inside.
It was an cute end note for an accidental night out, chancing on some small joys in Sydney's Chinatown.
Chinatown Friday Night Markets, Dixon & Little Hay Streets, Haymarket, NSW 2000
Kura, Shop 3, 76 Ultimo Rd, Haymarket NSW (02) 9212 5661
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
When you first start going out with someone, one of the nicest things is meeting their group of friends. You're introduced to a ready-made group of pretty amazing people, without having to go through the years-in-the-making work of finding them from the unknown crowd, one by one, right from scratch.
If number one spot goes to the actual person and number two is their friends, then the third-nicest thing about going out with someone is becoming familiar with all their cafe and breakfast favourites. It's a sudden and wonderful entry to a well-edited world of good food and new discoveries - without any of the blind testing and bad meals endured to learn what would deserve regular attendance.
This is how I first came across Vargabar in Newtown - on introduction from Will. It became my de facto cafe and I even adopted it, recommending it to other friends like it was my own personally-researched discovery.
It's funny, before Will clued me in to Vargabar, I never ever considered going there. Even though I'd been going to Newtown for years - and walked past the cafe countless times - I had some silly bias against it. I just didn't know anyone who went there, so I (dopishly) assumed that it wasn't really that good.
So, thanks to Cupid for expanding one's cafegoing horizons. Because I really like Vargabar, I like it a lot. (And: "You don't just talk about it, man, you talk about it a lot.")
It's one of my favourite places to have breakfast in Sydney, for the following reasons.
1. Because Vargabar's Potatoes ($3) are just crispy, carb-hogging bliss. Every meal I order is architecturally built around the side of potatoes I am going to have at this cafe. The potatoes are just cubed goodness - the perfect-sized medium between the thin, golden badness (regrettableness) of deepfryer-shocked chips and the Sunday roast saintliness of roasted spuds. Any smaller and it'd be all brittle from heat and oil, any bigger and you feel like you're eating parent-pleasing vegies.
2. The awesome, inspired drinks. If your friend orders the Raspberry & Coconut Smoothie ($5) and offers you a sip, you will (on first thought) brand them as your instant hero. The smoothie is that good. The coconutty-shreds, the berry smoothness, the disbelief that no one has (seemingly) thought of this combo before. Then you'll kinda resent your pal for having such a fabulous drink - giveth and taketh-ing away so easily. The only remedy is making sure you remember to order it yourself, forever onwards.
The other beverage combinations are bound to get your table talking - I haven't tried the Tim Tam and Strawberry or Peach, Maple and Macadamia smoothie, but they sound like a lot of fun.
I do like the Blueberries, Raspberries, Orange Zest and Thyme ($5) drink though - a jolt of slight weirdness, but after a few tastebud-realigning gulps, it is totally refreshing.
If you are a health nut, you can get your drink spiked with LSA (50c), but most people will probably use the appearance of linseed, sunflower and almond mix on the menu as a cue to make tenuous jokes about having LSD with your breakfast.
3. Lots of good, eclectic breakfast options - from Sweet Potato and Sesame Pancakes with Avocado, Spinach and Sweet Chilli ($13.50) to Vargabar Baked Borlotti Beans with Tomato, Leek and Thyme on Toasted Baguette ($9.90) and other side-stacking brekky combinations; from the health-freak choices (hello muesli!) to the sweet-tooth tempters (one day, I WILL have the Blueberry Pancakes with Orange Passion Butter). The only problem is finding enough table room for your elbows after your multiple dishes arrive.
4. Really nice staff. In general, they are pretty sweet, but one time, Will had a hangover and one of the waitresses offered him her own personal stash of Panadol. (Even though the menu caters for the weary-feeling - the Vargabar Massive! ($18.50) includes all your fried and stomach-filling cravings plus juice and a Berocca.) In fact, she was one of the nicest waitresses we'd encountered.
5. The amusing semi-disco in the toilet. It's semi-lit in a nightclub-flattering (or stuck-in-a-red-lens filter) kind of way. There's chalk and a blackboard for you to leave philosophical musings on the door. There's even an oversized pot plant to keep you company.
6. It's highly friend-converting. OK, so we haven't recruited stadium-loads of people to the Vargabar cause, but there were definitely doubters who have completely swayed. Some friends have wondered if it's changed owners or management in the last while, because it's exponentially much much better than when they last went (ages ago). To the point that they're now out-frequenting us when it comes to Vargabar visits.
The only drawbacks to Vargabar are 1) it is rather small (but it's never been hopelessly hard to get a table I've found - knock wood) and 2) it is cruelly not open on Sundays, which is prime breakfast-gallivanting time.
I guess it can't all be rosy-eyed perfection (like relationships at the start!). Still, it makes my heart hum.
Vargabar, 10 Wilson St, Newtown NSW 2042 (02) 9517 1932