Thursday, October 28, 2010
The last place you expect to see a two-hatted head chef is working the grill of a fast-food outlet in a shopping mall, but there was Becasse's Justin North tonight, in the glassed-off kitchen at Charlie & Co., his latest venture at Pitt Street Mall's revamped (and crazily overdesigned) Westfield.
Admittedly, this gourmet burger joint wasn't operating at hyperspeed when we were there – it took us half an hour to get to the front of the queue and then another 45 minutes for our food to appear on a tray – but this is forgiveable when it's the first day of opening and the offerings are really, really good. (Also, our wait was "short" compared to others, as overstretched demand meant order-taking had to be temporarily halted.)
When it comes to food courts, we all round down our expectations – cheap choices and lunch-hour convenience are what send us to these takeway meccas – but Charlie & Co. pitches the quality level deliciously higher.
For instance, The Producers’ Burger ($12/$14) fixes well-marinated mushrooms with grilled haloumi, baby spinach, a cluster of sun dried tomatoes and a good drizzling of aioli. Everything is flavour-packed and juicy, bypassing the common failure of veggie burgers being overdry and empty of taste. It's great.
Amy had the The Laden Malayan Chicken Burger($13/$15) which contained our first ever sighting of bok choy in a burger. There's a sprinkling of Asian flavours throughout – chilli, galangal and shrimp paste – and although it was impressive, it could've done with a greater slathering of the satay sauce to give the bun more spice and punch.
There are lots of other regional spins on the the menu – The Maiden Marrakesh Burger with lamb, harissa, tzatziki and preserved lemon ($13/$15), The Macho Mexican ($12/$14) with beef, chilli beans, guacamole and sour cream, and yes, even a locally inspired Federation Burger ($14/$16) (what else says Federation like a fried egg?) – but let's not skip over the crucial ordering of chips.
Probably the most tabloid-scandalous food this year has to be truffle fries, thanks to the infamous role it played in the Lynn Hirschberg/MIA smackdown in the New York Times (The Observer even called the incident "Truffle-gate"). On that topic, I side with the Village Voice food critic who said it didn't matter who appeared to be an elitist/manipulative schmuck for ordering it, as "No one who has the slightest amount of taste would ever eat anything called a truffle-flavored french fry. They're uniformly awful."
So I was pretty suspicious about the Parmesan & Truffle Fries ($8) at Charlie & Co. They were bound to be over-the-top and sickening. I was totally wrong – they're surprisingly subtle, with a sprinkle of cheese and a light coating of truffle flavour, and actually "can this be possible?" delicious.
Another good side dish is the Asian Coleslaw ($12), which is more like a Vietnamese vermicelli salad, dosed with zesty dressing, bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage shreds, and the roasted crunch of peanuts. That's on my re-order list. (And nutritionally questionable as it is, next time I'd also like to try the Onion Rings.)
If burgers aren't your thing, there are also toasties and the Charlie Chilli Hot Dog ($12/$14) as other meal-sating possibilities.
I'm curious to see whether the first-day lines at Charlie & Co. are a one-off or a permanent fixture. The fact that it's located in Pitt St Mall, where the culinary alternatives aren't really battling for greatness, already makes it a standout. Also, I have a feeling that a place that's right in the city, with an affordable, convenient menu that has impressive pedigree and is reliably tasty with lots of revisit potential – yep, that's likely to attract endless crowds. Charlie should expect a lot of company.
Charlie & Co. Burgers, Level 5, Westfield Sydney, Pitt Street Mall, corner Market & Castlereagh Streets, Sydney NSW (02) 8072 7777, www.charlieandco.com.au
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Imagine Sydney remapped as bright, intersecting blocks of reds, blues and yellows – Crown, Foveaux and Riley streets splicing into each other like in a Mondrian painting. This is what you see on entering District Dining in Surry Hills, and it's a sign of the spectacle that will appear on your table.
Like the bird's-eye city perspective at the bistro's entrance, you'll need an aerial view to take in each dish that arrives – sculptural scoops of yogurt, an installation of olive bread slices propped against stick-thin haloumi and heirloom tomato quarters.
Unlike the featured mural, the food doesn't stick to Mondrian's minimal three-colour spectrum – instead, it bursts through with bright and blushing shades – a swoop of harissa green here, or a burnt-sunset wedge of pumpkin there.
District Dining is a new venture for Warren Turnbull, head chef and owner of two-hatted Assiette. It's meant to be a touch more casual, and it manages to feel more relaxed (without being overfriendly or sloppy) while staying sophisticated. It's really likeable.
I'm going to admit, the first fine-dining restaurant I ever went to was Assiette in 2005, and I revisited it again in 2007. The food, in both cases, was exceptional – I wanted to snap-freeze the memory of every thing I ate on both occasions, especially the Mille Feuille of Passionfruit Cream and Tropical Fruit Salad and the Lime Panna Cotta with Orange Sherbert and Orange Caviar. The only cold note was the service, which was noticeably frosty on both occasions, and in fact, it left me assuming all waiters had a default-snooty attitude to young diners – until I went to places like Bentley and Oscillate Wildly, where the service is so inviting and un-judgmental about your bank balance. As much as I liked the food at Assiette, the wait staff left me feeling like we weren't quite as welcome as, say, investment bankers. So I'm happy to note that District Dining hasn't inherited this attitude – the service is much warmer and friendlier.
And the food, too, is high-grade - each dish has a touch of magic (without the buzz-killing pricetag that can accompany this quality of dining). There are mains – such as the Hopkins River Sirloin, teamed with a lively smear of green harissa and a small copperpot of kipfler potatoes, all fat-glossed and cooked through with caramelised onions ($24) – and plates to share. There's a dish of gold and purple-bright Beetroot, served with sumac-sprinkled clouds of salted yogurt and gorgeously roasted nuts ($14). There's also Spiced Pumpkin with marinated feta ($14), and, because there aren't many vegetarian options*, I have the Heirloom Tomato Salad without the mojama ($16), which is fine, as the the gold-crunch haloumi, toasted thin slices of olive bread and full-flavoured heirloom tomatoes are enough to keep me happy. Besides, from the first menu glance, I was really staking out for dessert.
Will claimed the Coffee Brulee with Chocolate Madeleine ($12), and after much sizing up of the remaining options – the equally dreamy sounding Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Blood Orange and Granita ($12), Meringue with Strawberries, Raspberries and Cream ($12) and Efi's Rice Pudding with Cinnamon Ice Cream ($12) – I went with the meringue thanks to the advice of our good waiter, Lindsay (who also multi-tasks as restaurant manager, sommelier and inhouse Twitter expert – by the end of our lunch, chef/owner Warren Turnbull was ready to dispense 140-word updates on District Dining.)
The meringue is completely endorsement-worthy – Lindsay is right. It's a wonderful take on Eton mess; a gorgeous scoop of raspberry sorbet crowns strawberries, cream, sweet ripples of fruit and surprise chunks of meringue. A new favourite dessert.
The design of District Dining is also an achievement – only six weeks ago, it was a gaming lounge (designed by Burley Katon Halliday!); its high-speed transformation into a welcoming, wood-panelled space is something of a wonder.
When Will and I had lunch there today, we really had the entire place to ourselves. It's a temporary luxury, we know, because District Dining only opened earlier this week and, for now, has stayed a scaled-down secret. The place will undoubtedly crowd up quickly, because a bistro with a likeable menu, good prices, breezy atmosphere and a location only footsteps away from Central Station (or, more dangerously, a well-known karaoke joint) is not going to stay unknown for long in Sydney.
*If you ask, the chef may be able to offer other off-menu vegetarian options
17 Randle Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW (02) 9211 7798, www.districtdining.com.au
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
So I've been pretty late to the Crave Sydney Food Festival game. But thanks to the diary-synching powers and ultra organisation of Amy from Pretty Pretty Yum Yum, I got to enjoy the Sugar Hit dessert special on offer at Azuma Kushiyaki. It's two bento boxes of awesome, and its crowdpulling power has led to diners overflowing the restaurant and having to take seats at the Azuma Patisserie next door, just to fit.
I like how everyone's twin boxes ends up a visual scorecard of the six treats on offer. At our table, every cup of Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberry Coulis and Belgian Chocolate Mousse Cake, sweetly streaked through with raspberry coulis and rained with freeze-dried raspberry flakes, was spoon-scraped clean. The Petit Almond Financier underwent a quick disappearing act, as did the multi-coloured Macarons. Half-eaten were the Green Tea and Wasabi ganache tarts. Not that the unfinished pastry states were some brutal judgment – just proof that desserts with strong shocks of flavour need only minimal bites to make their point.
I also love the cartoony expressions on all the different macarons – and the fact that the pastry chef went to the trouble of individually shaping their faces. We lined ours together so you can see their Oscar-winning emotional range. For me, the Passionfruit Macaron, with its crushed-fruit ganache, was a goal-kicking way to end the night.
The Sugar Hit is $20, with a glass of Brown Brothers muscat, Hennessy cognac or Azuma's special-blend green tea; available after 9pm and bookings are pretty much essential. On offer as part of the Crave Sydney Food Festival. Azuma Kushiyaki Bar & Grill, Regent Place, 501 George Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9267 7775, www.azuma.com.au
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
I think this brings new (arm-stretching) meaning to the term "pop-up bar". At The Doghouse in Darlinghurst, the tables literally spring out from the walls (see below). And the beer bottles are hoisted about by a rope-and-pulley system.
I asked the bar's interior architect, Adele Winteridge of Foolscap, whether this was tricky to do. Turns out it's all based on "old-fashioned technology". That would be fitting, as the space is meant to evoke the past. It's a speak-easy bar – a living (and drinking) reminder of the 1920s – that was put together in 24 days. The Doghouse is the brainspark of Melbournites Rob Dumaresq and Hugh Gurney – winners of Drambuie's design-your-dream-bar competition, The Premise.
I've yet to see this in person but seeing as The Doghouse will be only open for one last weekend before it's flatpacked away, I thought I should put up a visual reminder (and visual encouragement) to check out the space.
Photos courtesy of Foolscap
The Doghouse, Rooftop, The Village, 287A Liverpool St, Darlinghurst. Open Thurs-Sunday, 6pm-12am, for one final weekend.
Monday, October 11, 2010
First up, the sad news: the Blueberry and Yogurt praline has been phased out at Kakawa in Darlinghurst.
The good news: the store's display case is filled with many great consolation prizes.
One new addition is the Wild Lemon, which twists the tang and sweetness of lemon into a lovely showdown with milk chocolate. I like it even more knowing that it's made from fruit that co-owner David picked from his family's farm.
My new favourite, though, is the Chai Latte Cup, which is a cloudburst of exquisite flavour, spiced through with clove, cinnamon and cardamom.
It's the sort of experience that makes you want to hit the pause button, so you can enjoy it even longer. Or the replay button, so you can greedily relive it a few times more.
There are also other new flavours in-store (Smoked Truffle!, Raspberry Jelly!), but these two are centre-of-attention for me right now.
By the way, as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, Kakawa is running "Bean to Bar" single-origin chocolate tastings, every Saturday through October at 4.30pm. To book you can call on the number below or email through firstname.lastname@example.org, which is probably the cutest email address I've come across - it stands for David Tobias Ralph 4 Jin Sun Kim (the lovely couple who run the chocolatier).
Also, happy birthday to Kakawa. It's the only one-year-old I know whose chocolate habit should be encouraged.
Shop 5, 147 William St (a few blocks from the Darlinghurst Rd end), Darlinghurst, (02) 9331 8818, www.kakawachocolates.com.au.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
My first introduction to Room 10 in Potts Point was via Twitpic. Last week, Good Living contributor Carli Ratcliff snapped an image, pitched it onto Twitter and talked up the new cafe's "cracking brekky" and "sensational brews".
Only three weeks old, this XS-sized joint is a new venture for Daniel Jackson, who you may recognise from the Clipper and Clover cafes.
Room 10 is a much tinier operation – the small-scale means that stools double as tables, with the menu just as compact. You can order toast with sides – I had Quinoa, Soy & Linseed Sourdough ($4), with ready-to-slather portions of Avocado ($3) and Tomato ($2). (You can also tip on some Prosciutto and Ricotta if that's how you like to play the toast game.) To crowd the table/stool even more, I had Fresh-squeezed Blood Orange Juice and the Breakfast Rice ($10.50) – a nice pile-up of banana, stewed rhubarb and honey. (Confession: my not-so-sharp eyesight originally thought the menu said "Breakfast Pide", something I would love to see on a table soon.)
You can find the cafe down the quiet end of Llankelly Place – look out for the small (what other size would it be?) Art Nouveau sign that simply says "10".
Room 10, 10 Llankelly Place, Potts Point (no phone yet, but open every day)
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I found out about Avido, Paddington, through Six Degrees of Restaurant Separation. The interior here is partly the work of Matt Woods, the Newtown-based designer behind Bloodwood, known for its attention-snatching use of vivid colours, reclaimed textures and a love of sticking doors in unexpected places.
At Avido, the look is more subdued, with soft black chains by Sarah Parkes dangling among industrial lights and giant-sized buttons protruding from the wall. Like much of the restaurant, which just opened on Friday, it's still a work-in-progress, but it still marks an intriguing starting point.
Avido translates as "greedy" in Italian, and the menu promises much you'd want to hoard for yourself. You can start with share plates – from garlicky hot Bagna Cauda with Spring Vegetables ($18) to Wagyu Bresaola with Truffled Celeriac Remoulade ($22) – but for vegetarians, the choice begins and ends with the Old Telegraph Road Cheese Board with Crackers, Pear Chutney & Guava Paste ($24).
There's a bit more of a selection with the risottos, though, and while that rice-based dish is often oversalted glug – and an afterthought menu concession to vegos – the Prima Vera Risotto with Fine Herb Mascarpone ($15/$23) is a nice, simple-flavoured surprise, with the fennel adding bite to the medley of peas, carrots and other vegies in this light, creamy course. It's exactly what you feel like in spring, even if the downpour outside scrambles the mood a little. The Parmesan tragic in me does wish that I'd had the Risi e Bisi with Reggiano ($15/$23) though – I guess that takes care of next-visit-ordering, though.
The Button Mushroom & Dandelion Salad ($18) comes out fighting in ways you don't expect – there's the lemony punch of the dressing, the semi-bitter leaves, the savoury snap of the Parmesan and a feistiness that brings it all together.
Will likes it almost as much as his Braised Shoulder of Spring Lamb ($28), which is interlaced with black cabbage and comes on a pebbly base of fregula.
My favourite thing of the night, though, is the Chocolate Parfait ($15), made of Italian Amedei, served with a bright-red dollop of raspberry, blood orange slices and an anthill of honeycomb. The raspberry has a tangy jolt that really spars well with the rich frozen chocolate. It's a lovely curtain call for the night – and I bet it's easily greater than anything at Max Brenner across the road.
Avido does have a few forgivable "just opened" imperfections (a tea order will come with advance warning of strainer-absence – but I don't mind the odd leaf spelling out my fortune at the bottom of a cup, anyway). Still, it's a nice addition to a strip of Oxford St that really is a black hole when it comes to dining. The food is pitched just right – simple, a little adventurous, but never pretentious – and surprisingly affordable for a part of town overrun with designer boutiques.
In summer, the 'wine garden' out the back will be ready, giving you more reasons (and standing room) to be greedy.
Avido, 438 Oxford Street Paddington NSW (02) 8084 5465, www.avido.com.au