Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Here's how it happens.
A few weeks ago, Dan Hong, the award-winning chef of Lotus (and self-confessed sneaker whiz), passed by a new restaurant being set up and sent out this tweet:
Izakaya opening soon in newtown!! Win
As an izakaya-convert, I instantly wanted to know more. I didn't know Dan at all, but I quizzed him for details and he kindly tweeted back the co-ordinates of this new Japanese joint he'd noticed.
So, the lowdown: you can find Iiza near Industrial Strength and the vego Thai place on King Street, where it has been opening its doors for less than a week.
I'm still getting acquainted with the menu (which is served by waitresses swishing to your table in sandals and traditional costume), but so far, my definite favourites are the Goma-ae Beans with Black and White Sesame Dressing (a plate-off between greens dressed in sweet black sesame and its nutty white equivalent – a match I'm happy to call a delicious tie) and the Vegetable Skewers, which are drizzled with a honey-sweet sauce you have to actively stop yourself from dipping your finger into.
I'm looking forward to testing out more of the menu (including the dessert section – which features a curiosity-spiking dish called a Japanese black sugar brûlée).
Who says Twitter isn't useful?
Iiza, 184 King St, Newtown NSW (02) 8095 9260, www.iiza.com.au
Thursday, February 18, 2010
One of my favourite things right now is the Dark Chocolate Caramel from Kakawa in Darlinghurst. Take the paper wrapper, give it a ballerina-like untwist, sink it into your mouth and chew (and chew and chew). Anyone afraid of the bitter bite of dark choc needn't worry, as the caramel sweetens the jolt, making it dangerously easy to transform a pile of sweets into a trail of crinkled paper husks.
If you get to pick some up from Kakawa, make sure to try the Caramelised Raspberry Praline, which is one of the new additions to the cocoa line-up at the chocolatier, and possibly my second-favourite thing right now.
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.
Friday, February 12, 2010
So, Will asked me to keep the weekend before my birthday free and to pack an overnight bag. A weather report was my only clue as to where we were going – "Sunny with a chance of shower".
On the same day we left Sydney, there'd be news reports of flash-floods later that evening. We were happy to have crawled out the escape hatch in time.
Will booked a cab that took us to the airport. He then printed out our boarding passes, and tucked them out of my not-so-X-ray-vision. In fact, he pretty much kept the secret vaulted up until 10 minutes before the plane was to take off. The spoiler alert though, came from the boarding announcements. Thanks to the even-toned flight attendant telling us that Gate 55 was now ready for passengers to MELBOURNE, I finally learnt where we were headed.
Still! I was pretty buzzed about our destination.
Will had managed to surreptitiously organise a great itinerary – it included a few fun food outings and also his impressive address-book-herding of my friends without me being tipped off at all.
Instead of turning this into a mega blog-post though, here's just a little snapshot of what we got up to …
As this trip was a surprise, I couldn't rely on my pre-travel ritual of totally over-researching where to eat. So we fell back on a familar place for lunch, The European on Spring Street, where I enjoyed the bruschetta.
Then, as totally naive tourists who were tricked by how walkable distances looked on a map, we schlepped all the way to North Melbourne to visit Arthur's Circus. It took much, much longer than we thought ("but it's only three fingertips-long on the map, not far at all!"). The plus side though, was we chanced across the Queen Victoria Market branch of Xocolatl at 115-121 Victoria Street.
I was very happy to take home some of the chocolatier's pralines in my carry-on luggage – especially the mango-gorgonzola flavour, which sounds zany and over-the-top, but is totally delish (and not too bizarro, when you consider how fruit and cheese are pretty platter-compatible).
The birthday surprise also included a degustation at Embrasse in Carlton, which was a lot of fun. It reminded me of Restaurant Arras in Sydney, which also has a head chef who worked alongside Michel Bras. (If we're going to keep a tally-sheet though, I think Arras outpaces Embrasse, flavour-wise.) And while aspects of Embrasse's menu were underwhelming, there was plenty to like, though.
Having always wrestled over the cheese-vs-dessert dilemma, I LOVED that the cheese-plate was actually part of the degustation, and that the fruit was conveniently pre-tucked inside the bread.
The highlight though, was the dish that we all dubbed the Super Mario Bros dessert. I half-expected to get power-ups or hear coin-twinkling sound effects as I ate it. My favourite part was the choc-brownie "soil" (eating dirt could never be more appealing), the minty-herb ice grass and the meringue/ice-cream mushroom.
Our reliable Melbourne spy network had singled out Small Block in Brunswick from a longlist of breakfast contenders, so that's where we headed on Sunday. There's always a bit of pressure when you're endorsing a place for brunch, but this cafe was a great call, and after frantic mind-changing and menu-scouring, I was very happy to have ordered the Baked Beans with Meredith Fetta. Beans can be pretty boring, but here it was served with lots of lively herbs and surprising ingredients (strands of ginger!), quickly escalating it to Best Beans Ever and How Could You Ever Doubt Beans? status. The Meredith fetta was lush, creamy and not too salt-heavy. Perfect combo for dividing between the generous stacks of grilled bread.
And, then, another nice thing when your friends know how food-nerdy you are – they point you in the direction of the nearest much-loved patisserie.
I've been told that chocolate donuts at Sugardough are a must-have, but feeling pretty wimpy after a big breakfast, I settled on a take-away raspberry and ricotta muffin. And it tasted divine, even if I had it back in rained-out, soggy Sydney, a handful of hours later.
This trip surely blitzed the history books as the best present I've gotten. Funnily enough though, it's still not even my actually my birthday yet, so I get to string all the fun out for another weekend, like a Hollywood producer wringing out everything out of an over-saturated franchise blockbuster.
Thanks to all the amazing people who made Part 1 of the birthday-candle-blowing extravaganza so much fun. Especially, and always especially, Will.
Monday, February 8, 2010
La Cocotte, Paris
Here's a short how-did-you-meet story that takes place over two years and involves a bookstore in Paris. In early 2008, I wore out my shoe-soles in that famous French city, tracking down the places I'd spent too much time over-researching before my holiday. One such spot was La Cocotte, a cute bookshop that is full of cookbooks and gourmet goodies, including sweets and tea that you can order from the chalkboard menu. That's where I briefly met Rachel Khoo, who turned out to also be a food blogger (although far more professional than this happily amateur operation!), culinary expert and stylist. She'd relocated from England, and I remember enjoying our chat and hearing what it was like working in Paris (the reality was both great and not-so-great).
Rachel Khoo and Francesca (Frankie) Unsworth preparing food. Photo by Kang Leong
Skip to a few weeks ago, and I got an email from Francesca Unsworth, also a blogger and foodie expert from the UK, telling me about 'Edible Tales', a series of Australian-themed pop-up dinners she was doing with her friend – Rachel. They both had met at La Cocotte.
Together, they've had many culinary collaborations and adventures, including a spell where Francesca (Frankie) helped Rachel with the desserts for a Blogothèque pocket-sized party where Beirut performed and a menu highlight was Rachel's Rose Ricotta Clouds with Strawberries.
Setting up at the Beirut show
So here's a little more information about Frankie and Rachel, and their upcoming 'Edible Tales' in Australia, as told in their own words.
You're both Poms but you actually met in Paris. How did you first come across each other, and did it lead to lots of great dining/cooking adventures?
Frankie: Rachel and I met at La Cocotte, a cookery book store in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. Rachel was working there and I had popped along to see one of her cooking demos. We immediately hit it off; she had studied at Le Cordon Bleu and I was about to start out. As freelancers obsessed with food, this lead to lots of fantastic lunches and chef conventions. I worked on lots of Rachel's projects with her as a sidekick – from an internet TV segment to pop-up dinners and parties.
Rachel: That was the beginning of lots of edible adventures: restaurants, markets, shops, picnics in Parisian parks, food festivals … Frankie was always the first on call for helping me out on all my culinary projects (my first event at the Loft, the School of Life Sunday sermon, cooking for the Blogothèque show Beirut.
Rachel preparing food. Photo by Bronia Stewart
I like the sound of this Australian pop-up dinner you are organising and how you plan to play around with some traditional flavours. How did you first get the idea and, without giving away the entire menu, what can people expect?
Rachel: The idea initially came from the fact that we're both new to Australia – it will be my first visit.
Frankie: We've been brainstorming what Australian cuisine is. So many of the flavours here pay homage to the waves of people that have migrated here, which led us to consider the historic origin of the food culture over here. You can expect some whimsical references to historic events in Australia as well as visual tributes to the local grub.
Frankie preparing food. Photo by Kang Leong
What kind of experimenting have you done? Did you hit any old cookbooks for research and, in organising this, have you been surprised by what Australians will eat?
Frankie: I headed to the Book Kitchen in Surry Hills and picked up some second hand books. A Look at Yesteryear: Early Australian Cooking by Valerie McKenzie & Joyce Allen and Australian Colonial Cooking by Richard Daunton-Fear & Penelope Vigar have been really interesting reads. I am always surprised by the success of meat pies in such a hot climate.
Rachel: My research started off with reading up on the general history of Australia and Aboriginal folklore. I then read One Continuous Picnic, which is on Australia's culinary evolution. I then looked into the individual cuisines that have influenced Australia's culinary scene.
What's drawn both of you to Australia? Do you think there's much that distinguishes our local food scene from what's happening in London or Paris?
Rachel: Well, to be honest the main reason I booked this trip was to see Frankie and soak up some heat and sun – although I can't wait to have an authentic Australian barbecue. I'll be interested to discover the differences during my stay.
Frankie: I was drawn to the sun, sea and the seafood – all of which has entirely lived up to my expectations. I am surprised by how many meals the Australians eat out, whether it is a piece of toast with avocado on the way to work, or a slap-up meal in the evening – the restaurants and cafes are busy at any hour!
Rachel's brownies for the Beirut show
Can you tell me about pop-up dinner experiences you've had? Best? Worst? Strangest?
Rachel: Hmmm, I don't think I have one single best moment but what I enjoy the most is the end when all the dishes have gone as planned and people (who were strangers at the beginning) swap phone numbers or make plans to see each other again. The worst is when the guests don't appreciate or see all the little details that have gone into putting a dinner together.
Frankie: This summer, I wanted to write a little less and cook a lot more, so I went and worked with Nuno Mendes, a chef in London with a super successful pop-up called The Loft. We would spend about 12 hours a day cooking in a home kitchen to produce his 12-course tasting menu, playing with the dehydrator and circulator bath in a home kitchen. It was so much fun.
Desserts at the Beirut show
How about your cooking highlights/lowlights – what's been the greatest meal you've ever pulled off? Most unusual? And the biggest cooking disaster?
Rachel: It may not be my greatest culinary achievement, but last year my first pop-up dinner at The Loft in London was definitely a highlight. I did everything, from creating the concept, the marketing/PR, the invitations and the cooking. It was not only nerve-wracking to cook for a whole bunch of strangers but cooking for a really talented chef such as Nuno Mendes and having him say he enjoyed the meal was a very BIG compliment.
Lowest – cooking for 20 with a waitress who was more interested in socialising then serving. I ended up running back and forth from the kitchen, as well as cooking.
Unusual – making edible black tapenade bugs and frozen pandan mousse frogs.
Disaster – stuffing bursting out of a meat roulade just before serving. I then stuffed it back into each slice. Luckily, nobody noticed!
Frankie: I'd probably say my my most stressful pop-up experience was at Nuno's, preparing slow-cooked eggs in a circulator bath. We cooked them at 70 for 11 mins and they would fall apart in my hands when I opened them and there was no margin for error. I sometimes thought I could feel my heart about to jump out my chest – it was beating so fast.
Midsummer snacks by Frankie
Beyond this pop-up dinner, will there be more events planned? What do you both have coming up?
Rachel: I'm in the process of writing a second cookery book (French Classics revisited) and a third one is in the works, too. I'm also hoping to collaborate with a new Parisian gallery this year to do some culinary events …
Frankie: So far, we have received heaps of interest for attending the dinners, so a second one is in the works. I am also putting together an expression of interest for a creative food project for the Design for Everyone program at Victoria's State of Design in July.
For details on the current Edible Tales dinners in March, have a look here. To keep up with upcoming events, bookmark Frankie's blog and Rachel's site (which is currently being redone and will soon include a new blog).