Tuesday, March 22, 2011
It started with a spoonful of bubblegum-flavoured bubbles. Served to me by someone who looked like an Oompa Loompa returning from ballet school.
This was my introduction to Sweet Architextural, the night that Bompas & Parr and Burch & Purchese recently staged for Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
The event was like a dream-sequence directed by Willy Wonka, set in the unlikely surrounds of The Espy pub. The UK jellymongers (who once created glow-in-the-dark jelly for Mark Ronson's birthday and recently set up a 200-flavour chewing gum factory in a shopping mall) were teaming up with the renowned Melbourne-based pastry chefs, for a night of wobbly, confectionery-powered fun.
The first part of the event unfolded with their sweets being trafficked through the crowd. Costumed wait-staff carrying giant bouquets of chocolate flowers were tailgated by the room's hordes and, bloom by bloom, these floral treats were plucked away by guests. (The lemon and raspberry flowers were especially delightful.) Trays of celery-cucumber jelly, Vegemite-and-cheese popcorn, checkerboard marzipan and alcoholic marshmallows all had a high-clearance rate from roving punters. One of my favourites was the "petrified" cauliflower, a dessert where the vegetable had been pureed into a petri dish and sprinkled with sweet crumbs and plonked with a slice of pear. I passed on the foie-gras pastry swans, though, for obvious reasons.
It was also fun to see people pop gin-and-tonic marshmallows (or mojito equivalents) in their mouth, chew, and then watch their faces go "!!!!" as the alcohol hit sudden and intensely. Down one end of the bar, Sam Bompas was unmoulding plum riesling jellies to hand out (apparently the booze makes it easier to loosen); at the other, part of the Burch & Purchese crew was serving scoops of Violet Crumble and bubblegum ice cream.
I'd gone to this gig by myself – I bought the ticket ages ago, and the el cheapo plane fare to go with it – and was worried I'd end up in that horror loop of endlessly checking your phone to (shabbily) hide how you really have no company (a well-worn move often followed by the "earliest I can leave without shame" brain calculations). Sweet Architextural was non-stop fun, though, and the atmosphere jolting with buzz and curiosity. You could easily ask a stranger what flavour their oddball sweet was or which hidden corner of the room they had chanced across it. And there was a lot of visual dazzle to be wonderfully distracted by.
This portion of the night took place in near-darkness (or "snog lighting", as some Cupid-struck opportunists might call it), so there are zero pics featured here, unfortunately. Luckily, there wasn't such a dim haze for the final part of Sweet Architextural. Matt Preston came to the front of the room to deliver a speech and then welcomed Bompas & Parr and Burch & Purchese to the raised platform, with the former duo explaining their inclination for bowties (more hygenic than ties, when you're working with jellies) and the latter explaining how they'll be "pimping up your pud" when the Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio opens soon in Melbourne. Then, the curtain was raised, and you could see what the four of them had been secretly plotting on, during their previous "72 hours of back-breaking labour".
As Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy played, a flurry of "ballet dancers" swirled around a woman in period costume – it was hard not to notice her dress, which fanned out to become a massive table displaying Bompas & Parr's "erotic" nipple-shaped jellies.
Behind her were some displays of architectural gelatin-set wonders – including jellies in the shape of iconic Melbourne buildings (pictured at the top of this post).
And on the raised stage at the back was a sugar-laced wonderland: generous tables set with staggering, eye-blitzing confections, all fronted by the name "Burch & Purchese" in huge edible letters. There were petal-topped pastries, honeycomb covered in "bees", domino-shaped sweets, tiers and tiers of jellies, beehive-shaped meringues with (yes) more "bees", more gigantic chocolate flowers, and the logical extension of choc soil – confectionery "worms" mid-wriggle amongst the dirt.
There were plates and spoons aplenty and everyone pushed forward to get their unlimited fill of spectacularly rendered sugar. This once-in-a-lifetime pass to all-you-can-eat sweets was sending my inner-kid crazy, but unfortunately I had already overgorged on the previous array of marshmallows, ice cream, jellies and confections, and could not consume one creamy/frosted/choc-topped/honeycombed bite more.
Other people were more appetite-hardy than I was and I was jealous of their ability to max out on what was available. The one-woman-table of jellies had already been restocked – gone were the "erotic" shapes, replaced by more G-rated treats.
It was a night of extreme fun, rewarding both for my sweet tooth and field of vision. And while Sweet Architextural is over, it's nice to know that its adventurous, sugar-fuelled spirit lives on with the future opening of Burch & Purchese's shopfront in South Yarra. (For a taster, you can visit the pop-up version in Melbourne's Flinders Lane, but hurry, its expiration date is Friday.)
For more on Bompas & Parr, visit the website; for info on Burch & Purchese, head here.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Surry Hills has long been the natural habitat of the upcoming cafe, but, according to last week's Good Living, Redfern may be (slowly) taking over. I'm always a little dubious when a suburb is pronounced as 'hot' – maybe because it sounds like slimey real-estate speak – but there's definitely case-supporting evidence for this claim. I guess the groundwork for Redfern's resurgence was laid by Baffi and Mo, Moose General Store (RIP) and Eathouse Diner.
And now there's The Fern, down the part of Pitt Street that starts to edge onto Cleveland.
It's only about two weeks old, and despite the odd case of just-opened-itis, it feels like there is a lot to like about this cafe. The Fern is located in a breezy terrace, with an eccentric jumble of furniture (I'm pretty sure we sat on kindergarten chairs). Even from the courtyard, the truck-rumbling score of Cleveland Street is nicely out of earshot, and that leafy space is a nice spot to be coolly sipping the Hibiscus, Rosehip, Cinnamon and Mint Iced Tea. It's refreshing to see a drink that departs from the usual banana-smoothie-and-juice line-up at most cafes. (And, yes, I've already thought about my next beverage at The Fern, and it's going to be the Chocolate, Orange and Cardamom Milkshake).
The interior, meanwhile, is like a case of wallpaper hip hop – random samples of visual genres are candystriped throughout: from giant old ads for Pimms and Johnny Walker to newspaper comics and travel photography. This bent for switching things up also extends to the menu, which is presented on vinyl records.
And the food itself is worth some high-rotation attention. The consulting chef is Massimo Bianchi (Uccello, Buon Ricordo), which explains the Italian-inflected lunch offerings – like the rather ace Eggplant with Tomato, Provola and Parmesan ($14.50), which sounds like a boring sandwich filling from how it's presented on the menu, but is actually a brilliant eggplant parmigiana, with the smoky-rich provola giving the dish a good jumpstart.
Will enjoyed The Fern Club Sandwich ($17), which banked in a good amount of flavour (roast chicken, bacon, iceberg lettuce, aged cheddar, Roma tomato) without being an overly big, impossible-to-bite-into stockpile of fillings. Instead of hand-cut chips, there was a serve of hash browns instead (the kitchen had run out of potatoes), which is part of the quirk of a new cafe, I suppose. (This lack of spuds also meant we couldn't try the Crushed Potatoes with Pesto, alas. Next time.)
Speaking of things that were off-limits, unfortunately for an unreformed sleepyhead like myself, The Fern ends its breakfast menu at 11.30am. I guess the lazy policy of all-day weekend breakfasts at most cafes has spoilt me and I need to learn that midday is not always a respectable time to have your first meal of the day.
We will return, then, to try the Eggs Rancheros ($17.50), Sourdough Bruschetta ($13.50), 'Fernivore' Breakfast ($17) and Corn Fritters with Avocado Salsa and Goat's Cheese ($17.50).
And we'll also revisit when the crew behind The Fern (Julian Serna and Mark Wiley, ex-Merivale staff) get a licence and start running services at night. The main upshot is that we'll be back.
The Fern, 4 Pitt Street, Redfern, www.thefern.com.au
Thursday, March 3, 2011
One of the upsides of turning older: getting to pin birthday candles into something fun. I am not sure if this cake endured any instance of lighting or wax-melting but it sure was a party highlight. I think it even earned a round of applause!
Someone who deserves many claps and cheers: Will, who secretly organised this one-of-a-kind cake, hatching the plot with Chris The, of the awesome Black Star Pastry. Originally, Chris was going to make a "hug" cake, where the vanilla half meets the chocolate half in a "hug". I think plans for street art projections were even discussed! This alternative was pretty spectacular though: underneath the white "petals" were chocolate, raspberry and a genius layer of gingerbread.
Applause also needs to go to Levins, who brought over his deep-fryer (!) to cook a generous batch of his reputation-making battered pickles and ranch dressing. So awesome.
I tried to ply everyone with fun eats (blueberry, half-choc & strawberry Pocky; mini Makmak macarons; Miss Chu rice paper rolls; Sally's slices of pumpkin delicious) in the hopes it would fuel them for rounds of Singstar. Later, I handed out lolly bags (this is the sole point of turning 30) and the last ones standing enjoyed well-rationed amounts of yuzu sake that Will had employed astounding amounts of detective work to track down. (That's what friends are for – to share the toast-worthy spoils with.) It was a mega-dose of fun, as ageing-not-so-gracefully should be.
Black Star Pastry, 277 Australia St, Newtown NSW, 2042, (02) 9557 8656
Have you ever had pizza so good that it wipes out your memory?
Vacanza in Charing Cross had this effect on me. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a slice so much. It's much easier to recall all the bad pizzas – the greasetraps with a crust; the dough overkill; the pile-up of unending toppings, which only lead to oven-baked blandness – like an overproduced teen pop record.
I made a note to check out Vacanza after a great write-up it got in a recent Time Out. It's definitely worth singling out. This pizzeria avoids the all-of-the-above approach to slinging on ingredients and instead refines the toppings so that what's there actually counts. I like how the kitchen can uncap so much flavour out of a handful of things – a roasted tomato is still bracing, sweet and generously (and rather shirt-unfriendly) juicy and not a shrivelled, overbaked puck. A slice of eggplant is grilled to that lovely, yielding point before caramelisation. Even a simple scattering of basil (against all that cheese) is nicely deployed.
I've spent all week working out when I can have another one. It'll probably be worth any amnesia it causes.
Vacanza, 261 Bronte Road Charing Cross NSW (02) 9090 2089, www.vacanzapizzeria.com.au
There's a new food guide out. Called Everyday Eats, it features 450 wallet-friendly feeds from across Sydney. Edited by the wonderful Angie Schiavone (former regional editor of the Good Food Guide and eternal titleholder of best person to ask about dumplings in Ashfield), it lets you know where you can get a good hunger-sating return on a $30 bill. My favourite part is Angie's section on handy categories such as "Biggest Bargain", "Favourite Big Group Venue" and "Favourite Rainy-Day Dish"; there's also a nice breakdown of the best breakfasts, late night feeds, banh mi and "lolly bag legends". Good takeaway and vegetarian options are also noted.
I should admit, the contributors' list for Everyday Eats features Joanna Savill, Helen Greenwood, Fouad Kassab and, um, me. It was fun to go undercover dining for the book, but I think I will enjoy using it as a where-to-eat aid even more.
Everyday Eats can be found in bookstores and iPhone addicts may be happy to know that an app version is now available.