Sunday, October 25, 2009
A brilliant breakfast menu is like a knockout second album by a band you love: different and original enough to leave the critics a little dizzy, but familiar enough to ensure everything that drew you in the first place hasn't been reprogrammed out of existence.
So, you want eggs, sides, toast and the comfort of ordering all day (to maintain the fantasy that you haven't really slept in so extravagantly), but, like a fast-bored kid, you want the "surprise me" factor, too. This is an epic ask, but it is also what makes you single out a cafe for extra attention, endless return visits and much deserved "new favourite" status.
And so it is with Baffi & Mo in Redfern, which is now that place we try to brainwash people into visiting 'cos we love it so. (It seems to be working as we keep bumping into familiar faces there.)
Like a lot of people, we first heard about this cafe through Time Out magazine endorsing its breakfast, especially the potato hash. And the publication's ode to this starchy dish has to be seconded, because it is truly awesome. You can get the hash as a stand-alone meal (topped with tomato, asparagus, avocado, ham and egg) or as a side; either way, you'll enjoy its spectrum of flavour – from the crisp, crusty cross-hatched 'shell' on the outer edges to the the soft-cooked potato in the middle. Amaze. It fast rocketed up our list of favourite things, ever.
If you like reliable tradition of ordering eggs and building up your meal, DIY-style, with sides, you can get Eggs (Poached or Scrambled) with Country White Sourdough ($9) and include cameos of Boston Beans, Mushrooms, Feta, Roasted Tomato, etc, for just $3 each. Or you can try Baffi & Mo's various spins on breakfast standards, such as Roast Mushroom with Basil and Ricotta on Wholemeal Spelt ($8.50) or Homemade Bircher with Poached Pear ($11).
Will and I are fans of the French Toast with Passionfruit Curd, Lime, Ricotta, Strawberry ($12), and even though we were overstuffed by our savoury choices, we pressed on with having it as a 'Bressert'. Like everything else, it refocuses a recognisable dish in clever ways: the strawberries seem to be soaked in a kaffir lime leaf syrup, giving them a two-flavoured edge, while the passionfruit curd is sweet and punchy, cutting through the wallflowerish taste of ricotta. Really really good.
And similarly, Pea, Corn and Haloumi Fritters with Fresh Avocado and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes ($12), although technically part of the lunch menu, again gives an obvious meal a superhero phone-booth transformation. The vegetables lighten up the punchy haloumi chunks, a many-flavoured alternative to the usual one-note fritter.
Also, there are fun frappes on the menu, such as the Mixed Berry and Pineapple Mint.
As for the "Mo" in the cafe's name, I'd expected more facial hair in the decor but the moustaches are sparing, with a few Mario-and-Luigi-style graphic touches here and there. (Although I noticed a very cool moustache necklace on one of the employees today, sourced via a lovely friend in London.) Will and I were actually more taken with the dramatic black-and-white wallpaper that spans across one side of the cafe. (I think Will would snap almost anything in front of that backdrop; judging from his camera-work, he has a bit of a crush on it.)
Another nice thing about Baffi & Mo, it is quite easy to get to, without being in such a high-traffic area that you have to wait forever for a table.
It's our current favourite and we have a feeling that its sway over us will last quite a (moustache-growing) while.
Baffi and Mo, 94 Redfern Street, Redfern NSW (02) 8065 3294, http://twitter.com/baffiandmo.
P.S. You can see all these awesome pictures in their XL-sized glory on Will's photo blog.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I easily fall into a spell looking into counters lined with exquisite pralines, and the new Kakawa chocolatier in Darlinghurst is the latest place to continue this hold on me. The boutique is a nice front-display break from the endless car showrooms and rental vehicle outlets that keep William Street so drab, and what's in store is even more appealing.
Run by head chocolatier Jin Sun Kim and co-owner/partner David Tobias Ralph, Kakawa is filled with many ways to stun your sweet tooth: chocolate slabs and lollipops, bags of fudge (choose from White Chocolate & Vanilla or Milk Chocolate & Sea Salt) and wrappers sealed in with caramels.
As beautiful and understated as everything looks though, I can't help but instantly crane over the counter – inspecting the rows of pralines, as my brain settles an internal ballot on which ones to take home.
I end up trying ten of the flavours and am impressed by the collection. It's probably a zero-suspense giveaway that the Basil praline is one of my favourites, because I go home with three of them. I like how Kakawa uses the more fragrant Thai version of the herb, and the basil's sweet-savoury edge works exquisitely well when enveloped in bitter dark choc.
The Citrus comes topped with a thin, candied-peel sliver and tastes like an artisan Jaffa – levels better than the original and far too nice to ever roll down any cinema aisle.
Green Tea is dusted with maccha powder and, as you bite through, the praline reveals a smoky, creamy and sweet triple-hit of flavour. It's like eating green tea ice cream in choc form. (Instant fan status, guaranteed.)
Strawberry Pox, despite its medically unattractive name, is very easy on the eye (its red speckles more like a benign constellation of brightness, rather than the skin-pocked condition the title implants in your head). The white chocolate hides a burst of strawberry puree, as gooey as it is insanely delicious – not too sweet, just intensely berry-strong. This is the only pox I'd wish on anyone.
Kakawa's motto is "edible jewels for you" and Port Dome definitely looks like a beautifully cut gemstone, with washes of red and white over its cocoa surface. The flavour (sweet port and bitter choc) is a bit too "old man" for my personal taste, although I like how it is rolled in ginger sugar. And I rate it a lot more than the usual alcohol-centric pralines that are drowned in liqueurs.
My utter favourite though is the Raspberry and Mint Crisp – even though it didn't make it home in the most perfect of states (it flattened and burst in my bag after my dunce-like self pushed some magazines on top), but even in its destroyed form, it still ended up blowing me away. I always love the fruity-sweet intensity of raspberry, but lined up with white chocolate and crackles of mint, this praline makes the shortlist of best I've ever tried. (Even if I have to eat it with a spoon.)
My only semi-criticism of this lovely chocolatier is that the labels of the pralines don't always match up with rows – so it's easy to get a little mixed up with what exactly is what. I was all keyed up about ordering the Mango & Passionfruit, only to discover it was sold out (the line of chocs in its place were actually a hazelnut variety). That praline's quick disappearance though, only forms a perfect excuse to hurry back.
Kakawa has only been open since last week and consequently has had some crazy operating times (7am to 7pm last Friday)! Now though, you can walk into the store 9am to 6.30pm on weekdays and the employees put up the closing sign slightly earlier on weekends: at 4pm. If you waltz by earlier though, you'll see them in the kitchen from 7.30am, readying the small hand-made treats for anyone in need of an early morning sugar rush.
Kakawa Chocolates, Shop 5, 147 William St (a few blocks from the Darlinghurst Rd end), Darlinghurst, (02) 9331 8818, www.kakawachocolates.com.au. You can also find more information on the store's Facebook page.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Here's a little blog candy for you. This was one of the Wasabi Macarons that were given out at the Adriano Zumbo session at Sydney International Food Festival, where the pastry chef blew the secret on Margaret Fulton's birthday cake (it's going to be several shades of vanilla) and delivered his ever-sweet take on Japanese desserts (katsudon sauce was used). Post to come later in the week …
Din Tai Fung dumplings being prepared outside the World Chef Showcase at Star City
The lifespark of this blog has to be the very first dinner I had at Bentley Restaurant and Bar in Surry Hills. That one meal led to a full-blaze curiosity about this city's food districts, as well as immense awe for Bentley's co-owner/head chef Brent Savage, whose playful, inventive and insanely clever dishes are a mix of art gallery and sci-fi playground on a plate.
So I was excited to see he was on the World Chef Showcase bill, with his "idol", the award-winning Spanish chef Sergi Arola, whose former rock star days explain his current ownership of 17 guitars (slightly dwarfing his tally of Michelin stars). On the day, Savage told the crowd he was "a little nervous" about sharing the stage with one of Ferran Adria's most well-known disciples, and now a cutting-edge name in his own right.
Most of the showcase spotlight fell on Sergi Arola, who is not your average chef. Not just because of his highly contemporary, experimental way of of cooking, but because he has a seemingly equal love for music. He used to be in a band called Los Canguros (yes, 'kangaroos' in Spanish) and, as it would turn out, the Australian link didn't stop resonating there. Sydney group The Church were a big influence on him; when he first heard Almost With You in 1983, he listened to it three days solid.
Spanish chef Sergi Arola projected on the screen
When Arola addressed the crowd, he apologised for his command of English. He only learnt the language through listening to songs, and "you know what happens when you do this". Besides a few quirks (he had a cute way of pronouncing 'recipe' so it sounded like 'receipt'), he was highly understandable and (like a lot of Europeans who downgrade their English skills, when they're actually quite good) didn't really didn't need to apologise.
Music and cuisine are similar, he explained, they were just ways for him to translate emotion. A meal could be like a Clash protest song, for example.
To introduce us to his work, the chef sent us on a tour-via-slides of his current main restaurant, "very close to here, in the centre of Madrid", he Dad-joked. Called Sergi Arola Gastro, it not only is the first non-French resto to land two Michelin stars in the year it opened, it is also a reaction to his time at La Broche, a celebrated fine diner that was slightly over-the-top. His wife, Sara Fort, told him, "I'm tired, I want to feel at home", and so Arola's current Gastro is "very normal" in comparison. The menu and decor are driven by the idea that "less is better" and he shuns designer cutlery for old-school Christofle knives and spoons that are "100 per cent '80s, like me" (he comes across a lot cooler than that daggy decade though).
Image of a traditional Ajo Blanco
In the last 10-15 years, he says, chefs have become a little like "dictators": "Ego makes us forget we're a team". Waiters, often overlooked, are actually the lifeline of any establishment because even the best food with bad service is a "disaster"; service is the "difference between a good restaurant and an exceptional restaurant". His wife, who is also Gastro's manager, "makes me remember [that] every morning."
Another revelation for Arola was a simple one: when he read about all the legendary French chefs, he realised they all baked their own bread. And, after 12 years, it's a "dream" – humble as it is – for him to make his own loaves on-site.
This turn-around hadn't led to Arola becoming more solemn or less adventurous about food (in fact, I loved how his slideshow was spiked with good-humoured commentary –
"my sommelier is going to kill me!" he exclaimed about the photograph showing hams drying in the cellar).
The main topic of the chef's demonstration was tapas. He started by slicing sashimi and fanning it quickly on a tiny dish. This was not tapas, he declared, even though it is often hastily rebranded as such. So often you ask for tapas and what you're really served is a small plate. "Tapas is a way of life," he explained. It's what happens when you're with friends, it comes in little portions and is very inviting. It's placed at the centre of table and the most "important" part of it is actually the company and what you're drinking.
Image of Sergi Arola's version of Ajo Blanco
That's not to say he was shy about remixing this Spanish tradition. His take on Ajo Blanco, a white version of gazpacho, with grapes, sardines and bread often added, is Ajo Blanco with Cherry Caviar and Asparagus. With Arola's approach, he opts for a sophisticated texture instead – foam – which he creates with what journos and colleagues call the "devil machine".
It's funny, I can't quite reconcile his high-maintenance way of cooking with his remark that "Life is so complicated, I prefer cuisine to be simple". I think a Michelin-starred chef's idea of simple is more ambitious than the average cook, who has half an hour to get something onto the dinner table after work, before tested appetites become full-tilt monstrous.
For instance, when he makes his pizza-like Coca with Foie Gras and Capsicum, one step involves caramelising onions for 24 hours, which would undoubtedly taste awesome – Arola says onions are 10% sugar, so once all water is reduced, the slices are dizzyingly sweet. But it's not the most practical instruction to follow, and that doesn't even involve use of blowtorches or Thermomixes (which come later). Once you accept this is the kitchen equivalent of a dream montage (rather than a practical cooking class), then it's easier to swallow.
Sergi Arola preparing his Patatas Bravas
That said, Arola is so thoroughly likeable and good-guy-ish about everything. When he's explaining which seafood ingredients he will not use for sustainability reasons (tuna, shark are on menu exile), he does it without at all sounding preachy or smug but as someone who's just trying to be decent and respectful of how things are sourced. That he works with several NGOs on this issue seems less a CV-boast and more his commitment to making sure what lands on your plate wasn't a bit-player in ecological devastation.
Also, it's not hard to be won over by his imagination and liveliness. Arola's reinvention of Patatas Bravas is my favourite of the day – he turns the overfamiliar dish into a bonbon. Yes, a bonbon. Using a "heartbreaker" (his name for an apple corer), he drills cylinders out of the potatoes – making cute sound effects as he does (p'chang! P'chang!). He tunnels in another hole in each starchy tube, bakes it on low heat before deep-frying, then pipes in chilli sauce and adds puffs of aioli on top. It's his elegant and fantastical response to a very simple problem – how to get the right amount of sauce with Patatas Bravas (the dish's downfall, in his mind). The result is not so much a bonbon as a little show of magic.
Brent Savage piping the Parmesan Custard
Matt Preston was the moderator for this session and admitted, "it's a bit mean, isn't it?", making Brent Savage follow such an act. The chef agreed. "I haven't got 17 guitars to talk about."
The focus of his demonstration was Parmesan Custard Truffled Asparagus with Semolina Cracker, a "sophisticated cheese stick" for adults that is served at Bentley Restaurant and Bar. He said it was a good vegetarian option (one of Bentley's high points is that is vego-friendly rather than vego-forgetful, as some high-end restaurants can be), and although it appears under the tapas menu in his establishment, "I'm a bit scared to use that word after what we've just gone through. So let's just call it a small plate."
The recipe involved a bit of tech-wizardry and at one point, Brent Savage suggested people buy a Thermomix for their kitchen.
Matt Preston asked if they're affordable. Yes, said Savage, they're about $2000. "That's what chefs call cheap," Preston joked.
Savage adding ingredients to the Parmesan Custard
One of the steps with the custard involved removing air from it, which the chef achieved by placing the wet parmesan mix in a vacuum machine, without a bag (the gadget is usually used for sealing food). It sucked out all the air in a one droney whoosh.
"How much is a vacuum machine? $5000? $10,000?" interjected Preston. The chef responded by agreeing with these supposedly accurate estimates of the tool. As an alternative, you can just pass the custard through a (much more cheaper) Tamis sieve, to knock out all the air.
Din Tai Fung dumplings being prepared outside the World Chef Showcase at Star City
After this demo, Sergi Arola returned to the stage to take a few questions. As a highly experimental chef, he mounted a good defence of molecular gastronomy, a trend that lots of food critics like to use as a bulls-eye. The chef pointed out that using science has always been a part of cooking – "when you add salt to meat, it's a chemical process" and when you place food in an oven or barbecue, physical transformations take place. The debate between molecular gastronomy and classic cooking is a silly one.
"It's stupid to think, is the right one sophisticated or simple? If the guest enjoys the food, it doesn't matter ... if it comes from your mother, grandmother or a duck. Respect the guest," Arola said. "Ego makes us forget that the only reason for opening the restaurant every morning is you."
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I was lucky enough to lurk around the World Chef Showcase that was just on as part of Sydney International Food Festival. Now I'm home and very, very tired. Hopefully I'll get to blog about the sessions I attended soon …
In the meantime, here is a little pic of the showbag from the session headed by super-popular pastry chef/patisserie owner Adriano Zumbo. Each pack contained a wasabi macaron and katsu don jelly studded with Japanese bread crumbs (now past tense as it was swiftly eaten!). You can easily guess which national cuisine influenced those creations. And thanks to that sugary trip, my sweet tooth now feels more well-travelled than my actual passport.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
If there are songs that you play over and over again, there are also recipes that can possess you like an unstoppably catchy number. This year, my high-rotation favourite has to be a certain noodle dish, courtesy of cookbook writer Kanou Kumiko (also, known as Yumiko Kano/Yumiko Kanoh), but I never would've discovered it if the amazing Bree of ii-ne-kore hadn't diligently and thoughtfully translated the recipe from Japanese and posted it on her wonderful blog.
Bree described it as the Vegetarian Ramen Holy Grail and I have to second that epic call.
I love ramen but there are very few places that offer a strictly vego version of it – most restaurants pride themselves on serving stock made from long-simmered pork bones (and 15 hours is a long time). And, on the rare chance you can get a bowl of noodles that isn't soup-slick with animal fat, it's often an underflavoured or oversalted affair.
This is why I love this recipe so much. The stock is cleverly made from leek and ginger, gently fried in sesame oil and chilli. It's definitely not insipid or wimpy, like a lot of vegetable stock can be. If you ladle your spoon through noodle broth, and start tasting it, each mouthful brings full-volumed flavour. It's from the multiple hits of sweetened leek, punchy ginger, spiky chilli and subtle richness of the sesame oil.
Bree very generously allowed me to use her translation here (thank you, Bree!). If you are Japanese-savvy, you can find more details about the book the original recipe is from – Kanou Kumiko's vegetarian-friendly Saizai Lunch: Quick Bento and Homecooking Recipes – by clicking here. In exciting news, Bree is working on a small vego Japanese recipe book – so stay tuned to her brilliant blog for details!
Soy Bean and Miso Ramen
(published in Japanese in Saizai Lunch by Kanou Kumiko,
ISBN 978-4-388-06040-5, translated by Bree from ii-ne-kore )
10 cm leek, sliced thinly
1 tbsp fresh ginger, sliced thinly
1 tbsp sesame oil
½ red chilli, seeds removed, chopped finely
100g cooked soy beans
2 cups combu dashi
1 packet fresh or 1 round dried organic ramen
baby greens, for garnish
2-3 tbsp miso (whichever type you prefer)
2 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds, crushed lightly in mortar and pestle*
a little salt and pepper
Heat the sesame oil in a frypan and add leek and ginger. Cook over medium-high heat. When this mixture gives off a nice smell, add the chilli and fry a little longer. Add the cooked soy beans to the frypan an cook, then add the combu dashi and the ingredients from a).
If using fresh ramen, reheat in boiling water and drain. If using dried ramen, cook in unsalted boiling water for 3-4 minutes until al dente and drain. place in serving bowl. Pour soybean and miso mix over the top of the ramen and garnish with fresh baby salad leaves. Sprinkle over some shichimi** and serve.
This recipe makes one bowl of ramen, double quantities for a two-person lunch.***
*When Bree originally posted it, this is what she wrote, but on reflection, she thinks she might have mistranslated and that you should use tahini instead. Because I am lazy, and seem to only use my mortar and pestle as decoration (or a potential burglar-thwarting weapon), I always just used toasted sesame seeds for this step.
**You can get this at Asian grocers. I also add fried garlic, although I am not sure how strictly Japanese that is!
***As you can see from my pictures, this is a recipe where you can tailor it to your vegie-favourites or whatever is in your fridge. In my photos, you can spot evidence of enoki and ramen-friendly corn.
Thank you so much to Bree for letting me share this recipe. Please check out her excellent ii-ne-kore blog, especially if you love Japanese things!
Saturday, October 3, 2009
This afternoon I was on Anna Burns' great Weekend Lunch show on FBI 94.5FM talking about the unplating of Sydney International Food Festival. It's easy to look at what's on and get program overwhelm, so I singled out a few of the many, many things that are on. If you scooped your hand through the festival line-up, you'll end up with a lucky dip of things to do: pop-up dinners, a food zine launch, Ashfield's Big Yum Cha, the Olive Festival, Cherrybrook Lantern Night, the Beer Festival, and loads more.
As an unreformed sweet tooth, I'm most excited about the Sugar Hit program of desserts throughout October, from the Black And White Tasting Plate at Kings Cross Hotel to the Chocolate Assiette at Glass Brasserie (the latter has a very enticing cast list that includes white chocolate and pandan parfait, chocolate fondant, raspberry marshmallow, bitter chocolate fondue ans Earl Grey tea ice cream rolled in cookies and cream biscuit). Only $20 for a sweet course with Brown Brothers dessert wine or Hennessy cognac from 9pm-11pm. My.
I've also been lucky enough to have scored a few tickets to the World Chef Showcase, which has been flagged as a big event drawcard.
And even though the rain today seems like a long-weekend killjoy, it is very program-browsing-friendly. I'll be spending a little while circling dates and synching up my diary.
See you at some foodie event during this October-long festival.
For loads more info and detail, head to the Sydney International Food Festival website.