Tuesday, January 26, 2010
There's always going to be buzz and build-up when you discover one of your favourite eateries has opened a new joint. Long-time breakfast favourite Cafe Ish in Surry Hills now has a (not-so-identical) twin. The name's the same, yes, and the location's only a few blocks away, but this kid has a later curfew, is allowed to drink, and once the clock strikes 5pm, changes costume into an izakaya.
The original Cafe Ish has always stood out, given its one-of-a-kind pairing of Japanese/Australian flavours, and this continues with the izakaya menu and its courses for sharing, whether "Chotto" (small) or "Oohii" (tall/large). So there's pink Murray River salt sprinkled over edamame, kangaroo teriyaki served as skewers, katsu don with lemon myrtle rice and fries to be dipped into wasabi mayo or tomato relish.
If it sounds a little loopy, the daring partnering of ingredients actually works. Yaki Onigiri ($7), with its rice-charred, crunch-perfect 'crust', is nicely dusted with bush spice and bettered when dunked in sweet-sour glops of tiny tomato relish. The Ploughman's Plate with Emu Prosciutto, Damper, Dengaku Eggplant Puree and Tomato Relish ($10) is a test of bread-adorning skill, and the most interesting part is the eggplant dip, which blitzes nasi dengaku and essentially turns it into "Japanese babaghanoush". And if your tastebuds are after a zingy jolt, you can add a bowl of Cucumber Pickled with Wasabi and Lemon Myrtle ($7) to your table.
One of my favourite flavour mash-ups, though, has to be the Cabbage with Pink Salt and Wattleseed Miso Mayonnaise ($6). Now, dipping raw cabbage into mayo sounds like the most ungainly thing you could do at a restaurant – but it is ridiculously addictive and delicious and instantly makes you want to banish sticks of celery and carrots from every party you throw from now on. The clean-cut taste of the cabbage is perfect for conveying the salty-sweet mayo, and has you wondering if there has ever been a better system of food dispatching.
Even head chef/co-owner Josh Nicholls was first suspicious of the cabbage/mayo combo when he first witnessed it at a restaurant overseas – but after a taste-test, learnt the endless orders for the dish were soundly justified instead of a mass-lapse of restaurant-wide judgement. (Amy of Pretty Pretty Yum Yum tells me that, in Japan, people also dip cabbage leaves into vinegar.)
Aside from the native ingredients used, the drinks list has a strong local accent, whether it's mineral water sourced from the Snowy Mountains or beers with lemon myrtle and wattleseed. Crafted brews get preference and they don't get more artisan than the Happy Goblin range from Mt Kuringai, where the labels are actually hand-numbered and hand-dated (Will's beer was bottled only six days ago).
Just to complete the Australian feel, Cafe Ish serves the beer in stubby-holders, an idea that Jeremy the barista came up with. The collection is pretty classy (my favourite is the one flaunting a dude's cartoony six-pack chest) and well-sourced: basically, Josh went into a bargain store and only bought any beer-holders that cost less than $2.
The Japanese influence, of course, sees a growing list of sake on the menu (currently there are six, and Josh would love to see this expand to 20). Will's prior experience of sake has been less than cause-converting, but what he tried at Ish really impressed him. It was served in the traditional way – the staff even instructed us on how to carry out the ritual, with me (the lady) pouring out the sake for Will and reciting particular Japanese words to complete the experience. I'm sure we flubbed the actual authenticity of it, but it was fun to do.
The highlight of the night, though, was the Green Tea & Lemon Myrtle Panna Cotta ($9), which is part of the dessert section (cutely labelled under the title "Fin Ish" in the menu). Usually, a custard is a mild-mannered way to end proceedings, but the punchiness of the lemon myrtle and green tea was brain-blitzingly good. Back out of the deal if you don't like strong flavours, but we were both immediate fans of this dessert – especially when it's lined up with bunya bunya tuile and the sweet blast of native berry compote. It was a bold "Fin Ish".
So how does the spin-off compare to the original? Well, I thought the first Cafe Ish had a good batting average but this one, with its izakaya mode, is even better. Here's to a new favourite.
Cafe Ish, 82 Campbell St, Surry Hills, (02) 9281 1688. Open seven days: cafe-mode by day, izakaya-style Wed-Sat nights. The original Cafe Ish has scaled back its menu and opening hours as a result.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The Pond in Darlinghurst has reinvented itself as The Commons. The beer sponsorship is past tense and now the team is running the show entirely on its own whims.
I like the look of the (almost-ready) downstairs Even Books library – venue manager Bob says you'll need to contribute two books to join, and then you'll be free to take out a volume at a time. He also mentioned there are a few more changes taking place, and forecasts that things will be more or less shipshape in the next handful of days.
I'm also a fan of the name change and what it means. There are multiple reasons for the switch in signage, but the undercurrent behind "The Commons" is that it belongs to everyone – especially as so many people pitched in to make it a reality.
The Commons, 32 Burton St, Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9358 1487, www.thecommons.com.au
Monday, January 18, 2010
When she's not busy fitting XS-sized wonders into matchboxes and leaving them city-wide for people to find, ultra-talented Sonya Gee is juggling a million creative projects. The latest one will benefit Cafe Giulia's caffeine devotees (and draw out their inner art-collectors).
Sonya has hand-decorated six sets of cups with everything from baby buntings to fake moustaches and mystery initials. The furry-"lipped" cups actually even have names (I only know two of them, Steve and Lenny).
They should be available soon-ish at Cafe Guilia. Keep updated via Sonya's Twitter to find out the exact time of release. And, if you're impatient, well, any excuse to drop by this Chippendale institution is a good one.
Cafe Giulia, 92 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW (02) 9698 4424, www.cafegiulia.com
Monday, January 11, 2010
Sometimes you can't reduce why you like something down to one particular reason. Often, you end up overcrowding your explanation with lots of adjectives – the same way you do when justifying a crush to friends (where you talk someone up as "funny, smart, cute, talented, thoughtful" etc etc, piling on the praise until your friends understandably roll their eyes or laugh).
And so, that's kind of the case with our latest cafe preoccupation – Clover in Annandale. Our list of pro-Clover points is a little long, so here's a trimmer version of why we like this place so much …
First, there's the decor, which is an eccentric and cute jumble of fixtures and furniture. There are kid-friendly teapots filled with crayons and enough mobiles to distract a child from any grand plans of havoc-wreaking. Planter boxes line the entrance; inside, benches and tables sport the pastel palette of '60s girl-pop vinyl covers. The wall cabinet – with multiple die for handles – is full of oddities while cleverly hiding the electricity box behind.
Of course, a cafe can't do much spell-casting if the menu isn't very entrancing, and the food at Clover rightly mixes the comforting and familiar with fresh twists.Baked Beans and Chilli Labne ($10) adds a yogurty tang and spice hit to the breakfast staple while Goat's Cheese and Pesto Omelette with Baked Mushrooms ($10) is a smart rewrite of the classic egg-pan dish. There's also Haloumi, Roast Eggplant and Watermelon Salad ($10), and Open Melt with Prosciutto, Mozarella, Organic Eggs and Tomato Relish ($8), the latter quickly becoming a multiple-order favourite with Will, who declares it a "fancy" version of bacon and eggs. The vego choices are substantial, too. It's enough to make Clover our new breakfast/brunch-going favourite.
The Arabian-Style Bircher Muesli probably will tip you off to the fact that this new cafe is a venture involving two familiar faces from Clipper in Glebe. And like that ever-popular joint, the menu is surprisingly budget-reasonable. Most dishes are $10 or under, fresh juices are $4.50 and while the conventional post-bill experience involves the shock of forking out too much – at Clover, you often feel like you've underpaid, 'cos it is rather decently-priced.
My only (tiny) gripe about Clover is its reliance on disposable cups – all beverage-sipping unavoidably involves plastic being sent to landfill, although at least the juices come in biodegradable containers, I suppose.
That said, can I swing back and give more credit to the clever furniture? The cool wall cabinet was custom-built locally by Three of A Kind (motto: "butt ugly blokes building handsome furniture for beautiful people", phone number: 0409 555 173). Run by Karl and Geoff, who handmake everything, this small company's inventive use of recycled timber can also be seen in the angular-shaped "table/seats" that are dotted near the cafe's entrance. Clover co-owner Adriano demonstrated for us how this cheeky all-purpose piece of furniture works – you can sit on it, use it as a table, link it up with a twin unit and create an extended bench, and so on. Maybe use it for slightly violent means, too, but I don't think that was in the original grand plan.
For a place that's only been open for a few weeks, Clover has been packed on each visit we've made. All the reasons above second this cafe's appeal – the attraction of this joint comes in multiples.
Clover, 78 Booth Street, Annandale (no phone number at last check, but opening hours are Tues-Sun, 6am-4pm).