Monday, January 26, 2009
Every TV show has a perfect hangout - the kind of place where characters linger forever and never get shooed by wait staff; with booths ergonomically built for conversations (and sighs) about complicated relationships or just light, fizzy, punchline-packed joking around. The food is smart and there are frappes you can sip with sass or nurse forever. And the music is under-the-radar and quietly cool - but so well-picked that you have to bring it up into your conversation somehow.
That place has somehow escaped a soundstage and become a real-life destination. And it's called The Falconer.
First off, there are many likeable things about the menu - it's casual, affordable and inventive (without being too clever that you have to sheepishly ask the waiter to translate what it all means). Until they switched over to the summer menu, my must-order meal each time was the Penne with Eggplant, Smoked Mozzarella, Baby Capers, Tomato and Basil. (Extra points for a dish that not only converted me to the cafe, but reversed my anti-caper stance too.) Its replacement is the new Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini and Pumpkin Ragu with Soft Polenta ($18), which I've been told is "supreme". This was relayed by a friend who I bumped into at The Falconer - and that's another nice thing about the place. Even when you go on your own, you always seem to cross paths (or booths) with someone great you know. It's somehow a magnet for people you didn't plan to meet - yet the kind you're always happy to see.
The new menu includes some summer-friendly dishes, such as the Salad of Rocket, Nectarine, Buffalo Mozzarella, Mint and Lemon Oil ($14) and the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Verjus, Mango and Marjoram ($11). Just a glance at the panna cotta was enough to make Will reconsider his Falconer-reluctance. (It's a damn fine dessert, by the way - not bland like overly polite custards, but refreshing, sweet and even a little bracing in the right places. The marjoram is that little wild-card flavour that seems to be the signature touch on all the Falconer's dishes.)
Despite the seasonal menu change - there have been some stayers, such as the Tasting Plate of Entrees and the Shoestring Fries with Aioli ($7); order the latter and watch the bowl get flash-emptied; a flurry of fingers will clear out the chips, even at the most well-behaved or carb-phobic tables.
Not only does the cafe have a good soundtrack, but it has made the "where to eat before a gig at Spectrum/Oxford Art Factory" dilemma so much easier to resolve. Before The Falconer, the pre-gig eating choices were pretty slim and often involved shoulder shrugs as you quizzed your friends on where to go.
And if you're not feeling too much of a musical animal, you can also hit this cafe for breakfast. There are lots of side dishes to choose from (some of them better than others - for instance, Will was not-a-fan of the Honey Baked Kuributa Ham, hence his initially less-enthusiastic feelings about The Falconer). The serving sizes of the sides might seem a bit small; the first time we went, it was $4 for a neat little portion of Potato, Rosemary and Leek Gallette or the Sautéed Silverbeet with Chilli and Pine Nuts, but I figure rent on Oxford Street isn't exactly cheap either.
I like the fact you can order any side on Sourdough Toast (which I did with the Avocado with Lime and Murray River Salt). The Bowl of Freshly Sliced Fruit with Leawood Honeycomb and Roasted Almonds ($9) is a nice match for such a choice.
I have two semi-grumbles, though:
-One, it would be awesome if The Falconer stayed open a little later (considering how night-owlish Oxford Street can be; it would also make for a great post-gig hangout, too).
-Two, I feel a tiny bit worried when I see how empty it is sometimes. It would be a total letdown if a great little joint like this disappeared because people didn't know about it, or worse, couldn't be bothered to support it. Then that would explain why a place like this would only exist on TV.
The Falconer, 31 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9267 8434, www.thefalconer.com.au
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Being a complete Bourke Street Bakery junkie, I've memorised every single vego lunch option they have. So I had a nerdish heart-spasm when I noticed they had something utterly brand new yesterday: Potato Pizza with Rosemary, Spanish Onion and Ricotta. It was a one-off special and lived up to all the good meanings of that word.
And the bad definition of it too - the pizza is just a fleeting menu addition, and not a stayer.
I asked the staff if they'd reconsider and allow it another cameo or two.
"Well, never say never."
So why were they so reluctant to revisit the pizza dish? Apparently because it involves an annoying amount of potato prep.
If someone's willing to be a potato slave, maybe we'll see this 'special' again. I hope so, because it is awesome. (And just when you thought Bourke Street Bakery couldn't out-awesome itself anymore.)
Bourke Street Bakery, 474 Gardeners Road, Alexandria NSW (02) 8339 1001
Thursday, January 22, 2009
OK, I already have many chocolate-box-sized reasons to go to Boon Chocolate, which is one of my fave places in Sydney. Just before Christmas, they even added a new passionfruit/caramel flavour, which had me re-ranking my most-loved chocs there.
But now they've really upped the ante, with this gorgeous Flores de Mayo Chocolate Bag. It's named after a popular Filippino festival (Flowers of May is the literal translation - and the bag's raining pattern of petals spells out the connection quite sweetly).
How Fanny, Boon's chocolatier, manages to hand-make all these intricate creations astounds my lazy-brained self. I'm sure any new ideas she comes up with for choc-dipped events such as Valentine's Day and Easter will be similarly mind-stunning.
Boon, 251 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9356 8876, www.boonchocolates.com.au
Thursday, January 15, 2009
If the name isn't already a red (white-and-blue) flag, then the Brie and Tomato Croissants and Savoury Crepe Rolls will clue you in. St Germain Patisserie may be on a Redfern street corner, but its picnic-ready display will whisk you to a small patch in Paris' Sixth Arrondissement.
The Riviera Raspberry and Lemon Mousse Cake, with its pink-yellow pastel layers, is a dream. If you want to downsize, you can always get a miniature, more portable version. It will only last about five steps out the door, 'cos it is gloriously good.
St Germain Patisserie, 88 Rosehill Street, corner Gibbons Street, Redfern, 9319 7161
A glance at the shop display of Croissant D'Or patisserie explains how the French came up with the term, "window-licking" (faire du lèche vitrine). With Marzipan Strawberries and Artisan Chocolates, it's hard not to linger out front (and then progress to lingering inside). Whether you literally want to act out that French phrase depends on how bold you are in public (and how much health insurance you have).
My last accidental visit was squished between two sit-down meals and a bag-full of treats from Black Star Pastry, so I couldn't walk out of the store with very much. A Lemon Macaroon ($1.50) seemed the perfect moment-melter, without infringing too much into the other meals left in the day.
Croissant D'Or, 117 Macleay St, Potts Point, NSW (02) 9358 6014
If you've ever dined out with with a chronic restaurant-grumbler, you'll know the hi-rotation complaints that'll be aired as the meal progresses. Everything is "too expensive" or "not nice" or "could be made at home, but better". Trying to placate someone like this is like trying to win against the house in a casino. Good luck if it ever happens!
So, that said, there has to be a major culinary award for any restaurant that is immune to my mum's griping. Somehow Manmaruya in Campsie blazed right through these difficult hoops and had my mum a) trying to weasel a recipe out of the wait staff and b) wanting to come back again. Amazing. This was a history-making moment to me.
It's funny because Manmaruya isn't the best Japanese noodle bar in the world (or in Sydney), but it's affordable, fresh-tasting, staffed by nice, polite folks and somehow, miraculously, that makes it a parent-pleaser. It's a standout alternative in a neighbourhood that doesn't feature huge variety. And in an area where plastic tablecloths and tattered menus are the accepted norm, it offers a relatively "chic" fit-out, in that minimal Japanese way that's hard not to like. ("Chic" by Campsie standards, that is - interioristas won't be exactly camping outside to gawp at the wall furnishings and layout.)
Oh and they let you order mini-ramens, like at Ramen Kan, which is another deal-sealer.
The only off-key thing about Manmaruya is the blue side-lighting that resembles the anti-heroin-injecting neon used in public bathrooms to dissuade people from shooting up. Maybe the subliminal "say no to drugs" message is part of the parental approval.
Manmaruya, 193 Beamish St, Campsie NSW (02) 9789 5759
I was walking up and down Liverpool Road in Ashfield, deciding to what to have for dinner, when I came across Xin Jiang. There was something eerily familiar about the menu - Fried Eggplant with Special Sauce, Spring Pancake, Hand-made Noodles - and it hit me. The food was exactly like what you can get at Sea Bay in the city. In fact, you can also order the actual Sea Bay Vegetable Salad here. And yet, the restaurant isn't actually called Sea Bay and doesn't seem to explain its link (or identical-twin menu) in any way.
Not that I'm going to complain, this Sea Bay doppelganger means I can tuck into great Fried Pumpkin Dumplings without having to hop on a train to the city.
Also, the Xin Jiang menu has this awesomely cheesy picture of a woman in an awesomely-cheesy hat - it's so over-the-top that you doubt it could be real, only to realise the hat is actually on display in the restaurant. Brilliant.
Xin Jiang, 205 Liverpool Road Ashfield NSW (02) 9799 9989.
Cafe Mint will jumpstart your day with a livewire, Middle Eastern way. There's Breakfast Couscous, Rosewater Lassi and a Turkish Brekky that includes olives, grilled haloumi and za’atar toast.
Tabitha created a DIY vegan-friendly menu by going for the simple (though slightly expensive) option of ordering lots of sides and calling it breakfast.
All the food is inventive, zingy and flavour-loaded and Cafe Mint is a good place to hang out when you're sick of the traditional eggs-on-toast routine.
It's often packed out and you can't book, so don't go there if you're critically malnourished and need food on arrival. But the (not-tragically-long) wait is often worth it.
Cafe Mint, 579 Crown Street, Surry Hills, NSW (02) 9319 0848, www.cafemint.com.au
Apparently you can't take photos at Cafe Sopra in Fratelli Fresh (according to the Herald) and I didn't want to get in the bad books, so there is no visual replica of what I've eaten there.
That said, if you haven't been to Cafe Sopra already, you must abandon your keyboard immediately and go. And if you have been - well, you're probably already back in the queue to get a table, right now.
I still remember my very first meal there, even though it was three years ago. It was that much of a knockout. (It's still on the menu, by the way - Fried Polenta with Blue Cheese and Oyster Mushrooms. Yes, there are some incredibly punchy flavours at play, but I still love it. You might need a salad so you don't get wiped down flat by the dish, though.)
The place is always stupidly busy, there's a no-booking policy and it's impossible to get a seat without waiting in line - in fact, getting into Sopra is like trying to catch up with a friend who is hugely popular and ever-committed to other things and has an impossible diary to work around. But once you find a way to make it happen, all the high-maintenance effort gets rewarded as you sit down and the plates glide onto your table. The vibrant Italian menu is so well-priced for the fine-dining quality of your meal (about $17 for a main). In fact, the food is better than some of the fancy restaurants I've been to (where they charge double for a similar dish).
So, despite the hasssle, it's one of my favourite places to eat in Sydney. (There are two Cafe Sopra locations, which hopefully makes the grabbing-a-table process less painful.)
Cafe Sopra, upstairs at Fratelli Fresh, 7 Danks St, Waterloo NSW (02) 9699 3174.
Also at 81 Macleay Street, Potts Point NSW (02) 9368 6666.
On Ramen is a convenient pit stop near Capitol Square. It's somewhere to drop into if you haven't got the legs to get yourself to Chinatown (or if you like to give up easily). It's not over-the-top fantastic and in fact, I'm not a huge fan of their Vegetarian Ramen, but the vego set is decent, the location is in a good spot and the service is really nice. (My friend Grace's enthusiasm for her unagi dish balanced out my ramen disappointment.) This is also a huge student haunt - which is often a promising barometer of whether a place is affordable and tasty.
On Ramen always has origami scattered around their counter and one time, when I took way too long trying to take a photo of it all, the wait staff generously asked if I actually wanted to keep the intricate paper sculptures. Sometimes the attraction to a place isn't always about the food.
On Ramen, Shop 4, 181-187 Hay St, Haymarket NSW (02) 9211 6663
If I was a proper food blogger, I would have wiped down the sauce that looks so unprofessionally splattered along the side of the bowl. But, here's complete visual proof that I'm not!
I've included Sakura here because I think it's a good spot to grab something to eat on your own in the city. There aren't many worthwhile, dependable sit-down places in that category.
The joint is tiny, there's not much ambience, but it is surprisingly affordable for a place right in the thick of the city. (I often stop in if I'm near Town Hall or Pitt St Mall.) Sakura is open late every day and I always get the same damn thing 'cos it's such a good deal. The Tofu & Vegie Don will get you change from $10, and yet, it also comes on a tray with a miso soup and mini-salad. This sweet vegie jumble with rice is one of my favourite simple things to eat out. Even if the sauce is assymetrically splattered on the side, every now and then.
Sakura, 325 Pitt St, Sydney NSW (02) 9261 0711
Friday, January 9, 2009
In one big broom-sweep, I've found all these blog-dust-bunnies that have been lurking in my "Draft" folder over the last year. So I decided to wipe them clean and give them an airing.
In the same way stores go crazy around Dec/January - purging their storerooms and piling their shopfronts high with price-slashed items - I thought I'd adopt an "everything must go" approach too. Blog posts with a discounted word rate.
If this seems a little cheeky, I gotta admit - like most people, I'm still getting over the chronic case of lazies that came with the holiday season. (How hard is it to say 'no' to non-stop R&R?) I've since sent out a Search-and-Rescue party to see if they can recover any of the motivation that went missing around that time the Christmas lights went up. They're still looking....
High tea is full of weird contradictions for me. It's so prissy and totally gross-out messy at the same time. (You think you're dainty, but your cutlery's all jam-smeared and you've got a sugar-frosted mouth and feel like you're 8 years old again.) It's refined and yet it's one big sweetener solo that makes you feel kinda sick once it's all over. (Again with the 8 year old deja vu). The cucumber sandwiches aren't much defence against the military offensive of scones, sticky fruit tarts, macaroons, puddings, cake and other baked treats.
Also, you end up throwing down a few dollars (usually up to $40) without feeling full or properly fed - craving a proper meal that doesn't borrow so heavily from the sticky side of the food pyramid. It can seem like a rort.
Despite my high tea grumbles, I kinda am smitten with the whole ordeal at the same time. Maybe it's 'cos everything comes in miniature. Or because the food gets served on staggered tiers (multi-level food is weirdly appealing and classy). Or because it's a fun way to socialise and sedate your raging sweet tooth at the same time.
Having sipped my way through a few high teas in Sydney, I'm still hard-pressed to pin a "favourite" ribbon on any that I've tried. I did like the elegant & artisan-like Lenotre pig-fest that Sofitel used to do, although it was full-blast sweet. (they offer a Gluten-free afternoon tea instead now). The Tea Room in Queen Victoria Building offers a good even offering of savoury and sugary, so your tastebuds aren't so severely twisted in one direction. All in a sophisticated-looking space, too. It's probably the highest on my list, so far. The Victoria Room was ho-hum, so is not so well-ranked.
And the Gallery Tea Lounge at the Sheraton on the Park offers high tea with a nice, liberating angle: you get to choose what goes on your multi-tiered stand. And the sweet vs savoury bitchfight can be resolved more easily, because there are options for both. We went there back in June and I mostly liked it - the Contemporary Create Your Own Stand was more adventurous than your tired scone-and-sandwiches affair, although there were some flat notes (the Fig Crouton with Ricotta and Endive was dry-tasting, and impossible to sandwich together, so none of the flavours really fused - each ingredient just had a lonely, separatist, unfulfilling taste). I did love the Lemongrass Tea & Lychee Jelly with Coconut Sorbet and Berry Pudding with Greek Yogurt and Honey and Rich Chocolate Milkshake with Choc Chip Cookie though. You could take away the stand, and they'd still feel lofty.
Gallery Tea Lounge, Sheraton on the Park, 161 Elizabeth Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9286 6650, www.sheraton.com/sydney
When at work, there are three kinds of places you can go for lunch.
1. The kind where your tastebuds get over-ruled by your budget and anything will pass as long as it comes under $7.50. Often a paper bag and sitting at your desk is involved. You use the word "grab" when talking about it.
2. Then there's category 2, where you loosen a few more dollars, and perhaps you get to use an actual plate and sit at a table. The food is nice - not best-lifetime-meal-ever, but good - and the likeable wait staff already have your usual order encoded into their brain.
3. This is the fanciest level, where you venture when totally bummed about work and think a $17 lunch could extinguish that feeling, or really so self-justifyingly great that no flimsy reason is needed to explain the lunch budget "blowout" (namely, the wonderful Vini).
The Gallery Cafe near Central Station is Category 2. They do a pretty decent Grilled Haloumi melt (with sweet potato, salad and citrus dressing) and I like that they top their Chilli Bean Nachos with a salsa made of fresh-cut tomato, sprinkled herbs and a dash of sweet vinegar. The menu is healthy - but not saintly tasteless - and just-what-you-need.
One really remarkable thing about the cafe is the fact it seems to be run by ex-circus performers. Once there, I saw one of the staff members (at the request of a large, slightly rowdy table) elegantly flip another worker onto his head. (She was his partner, I think.) It was impressive and probably the most eventful thing I've witnessed at a weekday lunch.
And when I asked how they managed to get a mass of playing cards to adhere to the cafe ceiling, the same guy demonstrated with a gravity-defying magic trick that really flashed before my eyes. If you have superhero-like eyesight - you might find a card with my name on it stuck high above you, as you eat.
Gallery Cafe, 74 Devonshire St, Surry Hills, NSW (02) 9281 5931
Malibu is tiny, there's often a queue huddling out the door, and the service can sometimes be hard to describe if you're cursed by a polite streak. My plan has always been to go very early (ie a three-hour headstart on the lunchtime rush can be handy, but maybe that's just me being ludicrously crowd-cautious).
It's the ginormous, tasty sandwiches make this place a drawcard. I always get the Seasonal Vegetables on Brown Vienna Bread, which sounds unexciting, but is crammed with creme fraiche potato salad, some tasty sweet potato mash, eggplant spread, crunchy fresh vegies drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and layers of salad leaves. It is crazy-big and would probably cause lock-jaw. Such an over-stuffed mega-sandwich is impossible to eat without your dignity landsliding away like the mash and salad slipping straight out of your sambo as you struggle to clutch it.
I always find it poncy to eat a sandwich with a knife and fork - but this is the only time I ever do. Otherwise, I'd have to wear a bib and an easy-to-maneouvre bag on my head, to save myself from social embarrassment.
Sometimes this sambo can double as two actual meals for me. Not bad for something that will still get you change from a $10 note.
Malibu Sandwiches, The Giorgio, Basement, Shop 1, 62-64 Foster St, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9280 2233
Hikaru has always suffered from Walk-Straight-Past-itis for me. All those years, I've worn my (sensible) shoes out on King St, Newtown, I've never ventured into this Japanese joint. It's tucked around an easy-to-miss corner, and even though I've stopped in briefly twice, it's definitely still in my Investigate-Further list. The first time, I had this awesome spinach salad which had some mysteriously good and unrecognisable ingredient that kept taunting me. Hence the need to investigate further.
Hikaru, 134 King St, Newtown 2042 NSW, (02) 9516 5959
Single Origin is so often prized with the "Sydney's Best Coffee" tag, that hearing it get another caffeinated accolade is like finding out Meryl Streep is up for another Oscar.
This popular, buzzy cafe also has a few other things on its laminated menu too. The Four Cheese Toastie is melt-a-licious, but highly dangerous too. You may need multiple salads to defend yourself against the full-grade dairy assault. After learning that lesson, I opted for the fruit and ricotta toast the next time I had breakfast there.
Single Origin also has a decent selection of pies. The Mexican Bean, which hides a surprise burst of (less dangerous) cheese under the crust is my favourite. The spinach and fetta one, although slightly weird on the eye, is pretty decent too.
The last time I was there, my friends went halves on a pie. They asked for tomato sauce and the staff served it in Chinese noodle soup spoons - a classy touch.
Sadly, Single Origin isn't open on the weekend. So you can only go there if you have the good cafe luck of working close by (or being able to teleport/or not having to work Monday-to-Friday). I guess all the buzzed-up office employees who use the place as a caffeine lifeline during the week keep it in health enough business as it is.
64 Reservoir St, Surry Hills, NSW(02) 9211 0665, www.singleorigin.com.au
Yes, Dinky Di Pies is a slightly dopey name for a bakery - and there are near-zero vego lunch options on display (unless you opt for one sticky-sweet meal to pad out your day) - but it is great for finding affordable petits fours to take to a dinner party. Each one is only $2.50 and I'd always fill a box with mini Opera slices - a triple treat of coffee-buttercream-chocolate - to bring over. It's a good impress-your-friends secret!
Also, I was once on birthday-cake-buying duty and - wanting not to fall into the sad cliched trap of turning up to the office with a Michel's Patisserie box - I opted for a half-chocolate/half-hazelnut concoction from here. It was surprisingly awesome and even snared a few cake compliments. Not so dinky then.
Dinky Di Pies 420 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9699 6736
Wagaya is a very popular Japanese restaurant where you can order via touch screen. It's a lot of fun, even if the food can be variable. And although you're tapping away at a computer most of the time, it turns out to be a super-social activity, because the novelty of the experience gets everyone buzzing around the table. (Especially when you get to see how over-the-top some of dishes are. Also, you get to order suspiciously-bright coloured drinks named after your birthstone. And conscript yourself for the sushi roulette, which involves near-death-via-wasabi.)
I think it'd be a really nice, casual place to go on a first date - all the interactivity would take the awkwardness factor away. (Or at least disguise it successfully until you walked out the restaurant door.)
Also, the touch-screen ordering takes away the stress of having to align your menu decisions with the exact point the waiter turns up. Or having to do that awkward
summoning of the waiter, complete with over-obvious head and hand "I'm ready to order" movements that make you look like a mime school reject. (So often ineffectual as waiters whizz past or stare blankly ahead of you.)
It also clears away the need to wait for everyone else to choose before logging in what you want. And you can flip through the screen to see a dish and its description and not have to overconfidently fake the fact you really don't know what the majority of the menu actually is.
And, unlike many places, when you tap in an order for a glass of water, it actually turns up. (Miracle!)
If you want to amp up the social-bonding factor, you can also book in a room with karaoke facilities. Sadly, you can't touch-screen-delete any unflattering song choices or note-busting faux pas. If only.
Wagaya, Level 1, 78-86 Harbour St, Haymarket, NSW (02) 9212 6068; SMS reservations can be made on 0416 200 223
Takeru is run by the same folks responsible for the excellent Ramen Kan and it's also gotten a good write-up in Time Out magazine, so I sought it out.
It isn't really my thing, I have to say. Like Wagaya, Takeru strays into this weird culinary zone - think pasta, pizza and bakes on an Eastern menu. It's not so much fusion as Japanese cover versions of Western food. And like really unadvisable karaoke, I don't think it works.
It's strange as I don't think your average Western restaurant even serves such daggy traditional fare as vegetable gratin anymore (except for truck stops or bainmarie joints??), so it's weird to see it on an Oriental menu. And it tastes sort of the same, except with some addition of soy sauce, perhaps. I'm not entirely sure what the point of it is.
There are straight Japanese dishes on the menu, but really, I prefer the comfort zone of Ramen Kan - where the oddball menu-mash-ups are minimal.
Takeru Japanese Cuisine, Shop 10, 339 Sussex Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9283 3522
I think there's a rule somewhere (probably spelt out in sugar and cream and praline) that you can't run a Sydney food blog without covering Adriano Zumbo, the much-mentioned patisserie in Balmain. One of the on-show creations is even named after a well-loved food blogger.
Everything on display at Adriano Zumbo looks like a haute couture piece - embroidered with lavish touches that look more at home in a luxury goods store than a box ready to be assaulted with a spoon.
The one problem I find with Adriano Zumbo is that you need to forensically gaze over each millimetre of the display case to even manage a longlist of what you want. It's such a popular, narrow space that such investigative work is impossible (and nuisance-causing), so instead you just have to join the line and gamble that you've figured it out by the time you're rushed to the front.
To make the indecision worse, there's a twin store dedicated to chocolate very close by. You'll just have to undergo your research one artisan-pastry-bite at a time.
Adriano Zumbo, 296 Darling St, Balmain, Sydney, NSW (02) 9810 7318, www.adrianozumbo.com
Part 2 (end of stocktake sale) coming soon....