Friday, June 25, 2010
Amy Richardson – who started her wonderful Pretty Pretty Yum Yum blog while living in Osaka – is one of the most Japanese-savvy people I know. So when she tipped Teriyaki Boy in Balmain as her fave place to get her tempura/agedashi/sashimi fix, I knew I had to try it out.
And yes, this cosy eatery pretty much does your standard menu – Agedashi Tofu ($10), Nasi Dengaku ($10), various dinner box sets, etc – but what makes it note-worthy are the small-scale, endearing touches, such as the cute paper table settings and the sweetly eccentric way the restaurant publicises its complementary starter: on the blackboard, it simply says: Fresh Cabbage with Sesame Oil $0. (Deep-fried Soba also recently flaunted such a price-tag.)
I have a soft spot, too, for the smart spins on certain dishes, such as the Wasabi Caesar Salad ($10), which comes with a generous zig-zag of peppery mayo and the crunch of deep-fried tempura crisps. Or when staff members remember you're vegetarian, even though you only mentioned it once, weeks ago when you booked, and, unprompted, they go to fine lengths to make sure your agedashi tofu isn't snowed under bonito flakes or bathed in some fishy dashi. And, when you ask for the bill, the waiter actually draws a big anime-style grinning cat that says 'Thank you!' on the back of the total!
Sure, the Nasi Dengaku is oversauced, and Teriyaki Boy doesn't stand out on every single count, but it makes a warm and likeable impression. If there was a restaurant exchange program, I'd gladly trade it for one of my locals.
Teriyaki Boy, 481 Darling Street, Balmain NSW (02) 9555 6510.
Monday, June 14, 2010
If you're a fan of Vini, the wonderful (and squeezy) Italian wine bar in Surry Hills, then you should be excited about Berta. This new joint is also run by Andrew Cibej (who, aside from starting Vini and masterminding Berta, also has a bar-plus-wine-shop scribbled down on his 2010 to-do list).
Berta is located on Alberta Street, a no-name laneway that is definitely going to inspire some "are we in the right place?" doubt as you walk up, in search for the right door. After passing all the anonymous office exits, there's a nice sense of discovery as you find the low-key entranceway – you feel like you've been let in on a great secret – and walk through to the restaurant's edgy-but-intimate interior.
For a place that's only been open since Wednesday and is on an uneventful street with zero traffic, Berta is a-buzz with people. It takes little brainpower to work out why – it's an excellent Italian joint right in the city, one that you'll want to keep revisiting – and it makes you wonder how much elbow room will be left when it eventually gets the bigger profile it deserves.
Unlike Vini, which is centred around course-sized servings, Berta focuses on food for sharing, and the blackboard cryptically lists just the key ingredients of each dish and leaves it at that. For instance: Cuttlefish Zucchini Preserved Lemon, Fennel Jerusalem Artichoke Parmesan, Prawns Capers Chilli, and so on. I like the mystery this inspires, like being played a few chords of a song and being made to guess how the rest of the track might turn out.
So the Cauliflower Chickpeas and Carraway ($12) is, despite sounding like a well-behaved combination of veg and spice, a very inviting and fun dish. The deep-fried puffs have a playful resemblence to popcorn, the cauliflower has a caramelised sweetness, but my favourite part is the inspired sprinkling of salted, deep-fried flecks of rosemary – crunchy, savoury and more-ish, to the point I'm clean-sweeping the plate to make sure I've eaten up every last crisp sprig.
The Lentils Leek Chicory ($12) is far from the legumey mush that can give lentils a bad name – in fact, it's a comforting, flavoursome dish, with a hint of sweet leeks and a surprising aniseedy note. It makes you grateful for winter.
Another dish that evokes that feeling is the Polenta Mushrooms Taleggio ($18). Stirred through the pot are specks of sage and sprigs of thyme, a rectangle of cheese that has been melted into the white polenta and, crucially, a lovely tangle of sauteed pine mushrooms – extra-brown from the pan and correspondingly rich in flavour.
The Lamb Rump White Beans Salsa ($29) is played out like this: the lamb slices are fanned over a sweet puree of beans, and topped with a lemony herb salsa. Will is pretty happy with it, to the point of reconsidering the need for dessert.
Of course though, the idea of skipping this course is outright rejected by me and my pro-sweet-tooth agenda, and we end up splitting three scoops of Buffalo Milk with Bay Leaf Gelato, an excellent dessert that's bracing yet understated (contradictory as that sounds). I like its have-it-both-ways effect; the bay leaf gives the clean creaminess an unlikely punch, and the garnish of charred rosemary sprigs adds a touch of salt and texture.
The great menu is the handiwork of Berta's head chef O Tama Carey, who previously ran a series of pop-up dinners at Vini and also made her name at Billy Kwong. There's also a fine-tuned list of wines, all sourced from Italy. And, despite the fancy bar and industrial/contemporary fittings, my favourite part of the room is the massive window that looks onto the uneventful alleyway, with nothing more than a blank brick wall just to stare at. There's something about it that just sparks your imagination – just like Berta.
Berta, 17-19 Alberta Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9264 6133
Monday, June 7, 2010
Last month, I went to a great talk given by Christopher The, who runs the wonderful Black Star Pastry in Newtown. (I've been meaning to scribble something on it much sooner, but life has had a funny, dodgem-car-like way of throwing plans off-course.)
His talk was part of the Food&Company show on at Gaffa Gallery, and Chris began it by describing the patisserie's Raspberry Galette ($6), and "the perfect moment". Each galette is crafted by hand and the best time to have it is 15 minutes after it comes out of the oven. Right away is too soon – you need to allow the sugar to crystallise and for the fruit to start tasting like fruit again. (He compared it to jam, which tastes like nothing but sugar if you eat it straight away. Time is an important ingredient.)
Chris said he wanted to master "the perfect moment" and give it to other people – it's the ultimate wish when baking and running a patisserie. (Unfortunately, the reality is that it's impossible to finish everything exactly 15 minutes before it's ordered.)
Other things he talked about:
-The Toffee Apple Rolled in Crystallised Lilac Flowers that everyone comments on when they enter Black Star Pastry. Even though it's such a big talking point, they only sell one every two weeks.
-The history of the Strawberry/Watermelon/Mascarpone Cake, which has had previous lives at Rockpool, Victoire and Yellow Bistro. Chris has added some original flourishes to make it his own, including the surprise hints of "little leaves of tarragon".
-"People in kitchens dream about the office job they'll have," Chris said. One where they're "not covered in flour" or needing to get up at 3am every day. His is designing stools.
-An Argentinean TV crew recently rang him up say they wanted Black Star Pastry to make a "reworked pavlova". "We're coming in two weeks!" they told him. So his remixing of the classic involved white nectarines, figs, marshmallow and a surprise band of passionfruit jelly.
-Chris says he doesn't like colouring (so his macarons aren't bright pink or green, but lighter, dustier tones that resemble the natural ingredients that go into making the meringue and ganache). The one time he skipped that rule was for his daughter's birthday cake (that's understandable – everything edible at a kids party seems colour-coded in rainbow-intense brightness). This made me think that having a dad who is a pastry chef is probably the coolest thing you could wish for as a child (toyshop owner would be number one, though).
-One of the things you ask yourself when you run a shop is whether you close on Anzac Day. So instead of just treating it as another public holiday, this year, Black Star Pastry put up the open sign and created a special package of Anzac biscuits. Each one came in a fabric parcel, wrapped with a sprig of rosemary (to signify peace) and a postcard to send home. Chris researched and thought about the picture to include and he decided on an image of children – because, after being on the field, how amazing would it be to see the kids you haven't for the last two years? After the Anzac biscuits were sold, the patisserie gave the money to Legacy, the charity that cares for families of war veterans. $400 was raised.
It's not often chefs get to reveal the ideas that lead to what comes out of the oven, which is why I really enjoyed this particular talk. It also gave me more good reasons to visit Black Star Pastry (even though the justifications are endless). If you haven't been recently, try the Mandarin & Coconut Panna Cotta ($6), which will only be around as long as the season lasts. It's the best cold-weather dessert around right now.
Thanks to Christopher The for the iPhone images of his pavlova. Will took the pictures of the raspberry galette. There is no photo of the panna cotta, because I ate it before a camera could turn up.
Black Star Pastry, 277 Australia St, Newtown NSW, 2042, (02) 9557 8656