Thursday, August 28, 2008
I have a theory that it only takes one dish to make you want to visit a new place. Menu-bait, to be precise.
At Bonsai in Bronte, the must-try temptation that reeled me in was their Mandarin Creme Brulee ($12). I didn't really have to see what else they had to offer, that was enough to make any table attendance worthwhile.
Of course, like a movie that has to work its way through necessary subplots, we had to try a few other things en route to dessert. The Agedashi Tofu ($12) was lovely - sweet, crumbly and a silken-landslide when you spoon into it. Bonsai's Stir-Fried Udon Noodles with Tofu, Mushroom and Snowpeas ($17) had some nice bracing flourishes - the tart pickled ginger shreds, the fact the dish wasn't pinned down by glugginess but a light-handed touch (and the unruly tumbleweed of bonito flakes on top allowed for some visual amusement). Steamed Green Beans with Goma Miso ($8) were a subtle side dish - adding a little snap and freshness to our plates, and some low-key miso sweetness too.
Sure, the prices aren't bargain-basement (miso soup for $4 and edamame for $6 will seem steep compared to the price spectrum of a ramen joint), but the beachside site of Bonsai will mostly explain that away. Also, the service seemed to be variable depending on the waiter lottery - one forgot our drinks order and despite some reminders, never brought out the water we asked for. Another had an eccentric sense of humour, but at least was friendly and remembered to keep us hydrated and fed.
So - mandarin creme brulee! Despite tunneling through all my dishes so I could get to this point, I was nearly appetite-spent by the time the dessert menu was handed out again. I did have enough energy to be pesky and high-maintenance to indulge in ingredient substitution. I know, I know, it makes chefs totally grumpy and I can understand why. So I heaped on the grovelling and tried to justify it - plus it only involved switching the Chestnut Ice Cream that comes with the creme brulee and replacing it with the more alluring-sounding White Sesame Ice Cream (which forms part of the Apple & Sultana Strudel and Butterscotch Sauce package deal). Luckily, the waiter was nice and accommodating about swapping the scoops.
The rule-twisting was worth it because the white sesame ice cream was an understated surprise - its hints of sweetness reminding me of childhood Chinese New Years spent eating sesame snaps. A little toasty, and highly dessert-compatible, I think it steamrolls over its black sesame counterpart (a staple on many Asian menus, but sadly it can often taste like frozen coal).
The mandarin added a citric kick to the custard, making the brulee deserved of its menu-bait status. Tragically, I only got so far before needing to be forklifted out of the restaurant for overeating. All this accelerated stomach expansion, of course, seems ironic behaviour for a diner in a restaurant named after beautifully clipped and refined miniature trees that barely interfere with the space around them.
Bonsai, 467 Bronte Road Bronte (02) 9386 5666, www.restaurantbonsai.com.au
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
If you had to graph our reaction to Sparkle Cupcakery in Surry Hills, our initial response was all off-the-chart spikes. On a less mathematical note, I might even admit to some jumping and down and perhaps the odd (totally undignified) yelp.
After all, the display was crammed with colour-coded cupcakes and vivid ingredients listings to match: Pistachio and Cardamom, Lavender & Honey, Oriental Flower, Coconut Ice and more.
Once you'd slimmed down your choices, the staff placed your treats in lavish bags - the type you associate with luxury goods and dream-on shopping sprees.
And if you were served by a particularly nice member of staff, you got to pick your bag-sealing sticker from the "wheels of colour" - handy if you had a clutch of purchases and needed an efficient (and pretty) tag to jog your memory as to which bag to hoe into and which one you were saving for your friend.
Then you walked out all keyed up with cupcake anticipation. It just HAD to be amazing to eat. After all, how could a Green Tea & Bubbles cupcake "filled with tapioca bubbles and lime frosting" be disappointing? Surely, this "cupcakery" had to be great if they churned out sweets like "lychee and rose cake with sweet rose petal topping"?
Well, our expectations thudded down to ass-bruising earth.
We thought we'd be in swoony cupcake heaven and the reality just wasn't so rose-petal-coloured.
I wanted to like Sparkle's cupcakes so much, but as the girls in Advertising in our office said the other day, "I can't believe I spent $4.50 on this cupcake and it's so dry!".
The slightly Sahara-esque texture and moisture content wasn't the only letdown. The cupcake flavours seem extremely low-key (sometimes even quite hard to sleuth out). The green tea was one such example and instead of making me want more, it only reminded me of much I love the Green Tea, Lemon Myrtle and White Chocolate muffins at Cafe Ish.
I tried my friend's Coconut Ice, but the only discernible taste was of the coconut shreds on top - none of the cake actually registered. Her Oriental Flower variety exhibited some flavour, but sadly it just tasted like essential oils to me. Biting into the Pistachio and Cardamom offering, I got a little over-excited because an actual ingredient came to the fore - but cardamom has such a strong taste that it could break through even the blandest recipe. Being able to play spot-the-ingredient isn't quite the same as enjoying the harmonious flavours at play in something well-baked.
All the PR about the cupcakes sounds good - the company claim to use high-grade ingredients, cracking free range eggs and mixing creamy butter and melting Belgian chocolate into their batches. Everything is fresh-baked. But from what we tried, this impressive claim didn't live up to what we tasted. We wanted to really like their treats so much that my friend even wrote a really supportive email to Sparkle, telling them how much she liked the display and packaging and staff and store, but that the cupcakes she tried were unfortunately somewhat dry.
It's so easy to just dismiss a place if you're disappointed with what you try, but she thought this feedback might help them meet the grand potential they'd set up for themselves.
Sparkle wrote back with a slightly strange reply, asking her if she had bought the cakes on the day she sent them feedback about it tasting too dry. (Are people being too hasty by ONLY waiting three weeks to eat their cupcakes and then wondering why they don't taste so flash?) Of course, my friend had bought them only hours beforehand. It was nice of them to reply, but the tone was slightly dismissive. They didn't even trouble themselves with a blandly polite "we'll take on your feedback to make improvements" comment.
Still, I thought I should give them another try before making up my mind outright. Just to be fair.
So I trekked again only a few days ago. I ordered the Espresso and Milk Chocolate varieties. Yes, the bag looked very luxe, but I noticed the sticker kept coming off, so it had a swish appearance but didn't even seal properly. I took the cakes to work and sliced them up, conducting some office research. The coffee icing on the Espresso has a recognisable flavour but the actual cake disappears into barely-there territory once you bite into it. It still tastes dry - not just according to me, but the other guinea pigs who were part of my sample survey, which included the ex-editor of a monthly food magazine!
The milk chocolate (described as having "moist Belgian chocolate" on Sparkle's flavour card) didn't suffer from such a parched taste - and of the 10 flavours knocked off between all of us (and $50 later!), it's the one that fares the best. But that's not a particularly heady scale to be measuring from. As I passed samples around the office, the verdict seemed to be the chocolate was OK, but not amazing. The glitter was wearing off from our initial pro-Sparkle feelings.
If I had to graph how we were feeling now about the place, the X-Y co-ordinates would be sloping downhill, that's for sure. It's a shame, because on paper, this new cupcakery seemed to add up to something exciting. Maybe once the dry spell breaks, a later revisit will justify our original cheerleading for Sparkle.
Sparkle Cupcakery, 132 Foveaux Street Surry Hills (02) 9361 0690, www.sparklecupcakery.com.au
Thursday, August 21, 2008
"Can you write on your blog about 'bressert'?" asked Chris. "You know, 'breakfast dessert'?"
I admit, the phrase sounds eerily similar to a form of ladies underwear often seen in frat-boy comedies, but I am pro-bressert. I like the idea of the breakfast food pyramid being dismantled, gutted and rebuilt with a few secret hideaway slots for things less saintly than bran or eggs. After all, who wouldn't like a sweet outro to round out their first meal o' the day?
So when Chris mentioned his stomach-directed attempt to get into the Macquarie Dictionary with the coining of this term, of course we had to respond with some sugar-dusted support. We went thirds on a serving of the Coconut Hotcakes with Bananas, Cinnamon Ricotta and Maple Syrup at A Little On The Side in Darlington.
The trick with bressert though, is forward planning. We asked for so much food that the waiter (who surely has seen his share of table-overwhelmed orders) asked if all of it was just for us. And then the hotcakes arrived before anything else anyway - like some kind of annoyingly fable-like test of patience. We just eyed it and exerted no-fun restraint until our savoury dishes arrived and were speedily eaten up. Bressert was worth it though.
Last week, Will and I thought about getting bressert at Vargabar (which IS open on Sundays, hurrah). The Blueberry Pancakes with Orange Passion Butter was on the cards. Except, having made a case for eating breakfast dessert, we actually forgot to make room for it. We'd hogged out on eggs, toast and the lot that nothing else was going to make the cut - sweet as it was. Maybe there needs to be a new word coined for that. Or maybe there already is - greedy-guts.
A Little On The Side, Corner of Boundary and Ivy Lane, Darlington, (02) 9698 2342. www.ontheside.com.au
Vargabar, 10 Wilson St, Newtown NSW 2042 (02) 9517 1932
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Caketown in Newtown is probably a little wrongly named - Cakecloset might be more accurate in conveying how much measuring tape you'd use in sizing it up.
Despite its XS dimensions and industrial feel, this bakery is packed with such a high eye-candy-to-space ratio that the lack of roominess isn't such a downfall. Just make sure you're good at semi-acrobatic huddling and contorting while scanning the shelves for what you want because this little joint is always jammed with people ready to stock up on pies, tarts, sweets and bread.
I'd always been curious about this place since someone from work brought an incredibly tangy and more-ish cheesecake for an office birthday singalong and slice-up.
Sadly I didn't get to try anything this visit - I was confined to tastebud exile thanks to a boring cold I had - but Will got a few Throwdowns ($1 each) for tea, a mutant superhero mix of mini-cake and friand. I mentally noted the cute Baby Hedgehogs (which are a cartoony sculpture made of choc spines and curls) and the Cherry and Sour Cream ($4) mini cheesecakes for future purchase excursions.
If you want a little cheat's note about the history of the place, there is a really sweet one on this blog.
Caketown, 569 King St Newtown (02) 9557 6766
Friday, August 8, 2008
Eating out near home is always double-edged. Your cooking conscience guilts you about how you should've saved money by making something in your own kitchen. The lazy-ass part of you, meanwhile, is happy not to be scrubbing plates and de-clogging the sink strainer (ew).
I live behind a "dumpling belt" of restaurants - great if you have an unending love for steamed Chinese pastry bundles, but there's a limit to how much one can live on such a mono-diet. So I don't eat out in my neighbourhood a lot.
I do have a love-hate relationship with one nearby eatery though - Shanghai Dumpling.
The first time I went, they "ran out" of vegie dumplings (at 3pm on a Saturday) and only had four left. (There's usually eight in a serve.) When I asked if I could have more noodles to fill up the bowl, they said nup and still charged the same amount for half the dish.
Usually, this kind of lame treatment leads you to doing an over-the-top "taking my business elsewhere" huff and puff.
The peskiest thing though, was how much I liked their vegie dumplings! It reminded me of being in primary school, where you can find someone fumingly annoying while having some weirdly big crush on them at the same time. So, here I was, with a dumpling crush on this envelope of diced shiitake and enoki mushrooms (nicely perked up by the sharp bite of herbs). And soon I was scheming about our next full-serve encounter.
This turned out to be a failure - when next at Shanghai Dumpling, they had no vegie dumplings, full stop. I wondered if they should change their sign to "Occasional Shanghai Dumpling" or "Shanghai Dumpling Lottery". Now, when eateries run out of something you want to order, they try to menu-placate you by suggesting something else but they just smiled and waited for me to vacate the shop, still hungry.
So, now the place was firmly in my bad books but I still couldn't shake my crush on their dumplings!
Yesterday, I rang ahead just to check their vegie dumpling stockpile. Status: not completely diminished! Also, I learned you could get them fresh and uncooked for a discounted price. This meant I could shake off the money-saving guilt of getting takeaway while still getting to feel all kitchen-uprighteous about cooking something at home.And overload the bowl with noodles aplenty (with no noodle scrooge to stop me from getting my fill!). All pluses - although let's conveniently avoid mention of the sink strainer.
Shanghai Dumpling, Shop 1, 337 Liverpool Rd, Ashfield NSW 02) 9797 6999
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
The other day I received a mysterious package in the mail (much better than those non-mysterious bills with their clear windows of horror). It was a hen handcrafted out of felt. There was no message in the envelope and no return address either. Just a cute hen.
The next day, I looked at it a little more forensically and found, tucked inside, a paper "egg". Printed on it was invitation details to a hen's night.
Pretty classy and highly creative! I was so impressed that I had to bring it into work to let other people see it (there were gasps and much awe expressed - the office is the adult version of show-and-tell.)
It got me thinking - sure, weddings can leach people of sanity and patience, turning normal folk into this hyper-competitive self-focused version of themselves. At the same time, it can also draw out some cool ideas.
I especially like the wedding menu above, complete with bow-tie and details of the white chocolate mousse being served for dessert. It was created by Natasha who I used to work with.
This also reminds me of the time my cousin got married and her wedding invite matched the actual wedding cake.
Nice to know that it's not all Bridezilla craziness and that there are inspired moments in the lead up to people saying "I do".