Thursday, April 28, 2011
To get to Becasse, you now have to zip up the escalators at Westfield Sydney and walk through an Alice-in-Wonderland-style passageway. It's a little magical (like the rabbit hole in the fairytale, but minus the head bumps). You pass through the seasons, each step marked by a spectrum of changing leaf colours. And you end up, a little dazed, in a restaurant that only fits 25 diners, surrounded by plush lounges and intricate chandeliers suspended above you. It does not feel like a shopping mall at all.
But it is, and it's part of Justin and Georgia North's expansion into Westfield Sydney. Joining the new Becasse is Quarter 21, which moonlights as a new cooking school, fine-food grocer and restaurant. I only know this 'cos I somehow got invited to the launch yesterday and also did some extracurricular snooping around today, when both places opened. They join the Becasse Bakery, which has been marking its corner of Westfield's Level 5 with its croissants, bread and sweets for a week now. (And, across the floor, there's Charlie & Co., the Norths' gourmet burger venture and first Westfield outing, which had its debut last year.)
With the relocated Becasse, it'll be interesting to see how people take to fine-dining in a Sydney mall. The cost is no less high-end – three-course a la carte is $120, a five-course tasting menu is $150 and nine-course degustation is $190. I guess the pricing is the premium you pay for eating in a place with such limited seating, like the idea of first-class.
Evocative ingredients seem to get top billing on the menu ("forgotten vegetables, Coorong pipis, cranberry red potatoes, watermelon radish") and featured dishes include Bespoke Autumn Vegetable Garden, Marinated Local Yellowfin Tuna, Abalone Ham, Earl Grey Jelly, Wakame and Celeriac and Silken Lemongrass and Lime Caramel, Passionfruit Crunch with Vanilla Yogurt Sorbet. I'd love to know how it translates in this new, cosier space. (It's a beautiful spot and I imagine it'd be like dining in a really fancy hotel suite.)
Quarter 21 has more elbow room and is less of a special-occasion restaurant – although don't expect food-court prices (an Autumn Vegetale Lasagna with Beurre Noisette and Charred Pumpkin Puree is $32). I guess for the average Westfield shopper, though, a gateway Becasse purchase is more likely to be a small baguette at the bakery or a take-home meal from the Quarter 21 shop.
It's an interesting experiment and you can only wish the best to anyone who takes the instance of dining in a shopping centre – an experience usually freighted with low, grumbly expectations – and tries to inject it with originality and ambition.
Becasse, Level 5, Westfield Sydney, Cnr Pitt St Mall and Market St Sydney NSW (02) 9283 3440, www.becasse.com.au. Quarter 21 is next to Becasse. For details on cooking classes at Quarter 21, visit www.quartertwentyone.com.au And opposite is Becasse Bakery, where you can watch pastry chefs through the window while having a pastry.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Din Tai Fung Dumpling Bar is the express version of the ultra-popular World Square haunt. It certainly was zippy when I was there on Thursday: there was zero queue and I handed over my order form with unexpected speed. So good news, the place has yet to inherit the long lines of its predecessor; let's hope that's 'cause it's ultra-efficient and streamlined and not due to it only being open a few days.
Helping to keep the queues short is the compact menu (and yes, Pork Dumpling Xiao Long Bao diehards should be happy to know their favourite made the cut). I like that you can get Vegetarian Wontons in Spicy Sauce ($6), something I didn't see on the World Square menu when I was last there (and, boy, is it way more exciting than the saintly Vegetarian Jiao Ze on offer). If you feel like you won't regret this decision on laundry day, you can also order the wontons in noodle soup, although as I much as I love the feisty, spicy-sweet sauce with its volatile splashback-levels, I'm sure my T-shirt would not.
Like at World Square, you can order the Dan Dan Noodles ($10.80), the Mango Pudding ($4.50) and the always awesome Lychee Mint Freeze ($5.80).
Oh and you still have spying capacity on the dumpling production process, too.
Like the rest of the overdesigned Westfield Sydney complex, it is tricky to find, but the circumnavigating is worth it. After several laps, you'll discover it tucked near the Stage Two food court options on Level 5. Hopefully without any long queue for easy identification.
Level 5, Westfield Sydney, Cnr Pitt St Mall and Market St Sydney, westfield.com.au/sydney
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
I think this may be my new favourite restaurant.
I kinda had high-level suspicions that Orto Trading Co. in Surry Hills would be good – it's by the people who started Baffi & Mo in Redfern (Anne Cooper, Louise Hunt, Chris Low), a cafe that near-instantly became one of Sydney's best breakfast joints after it first opened. Their new operation is so great, though, it may even outblitz their previous project.
Since moving on from Baffi & Mo, the Orto Trading Co. crew has outgrown the moustache fixation, and focused on a modern bistro with lots of likeable flourishes and inventive, upcycled decor. Outside, they've created DIY kitchen gardens by taking stacked pallets and lining them with small buckets of parsley, oregano and basil. One large table is constructed from an industrial sign. Meals are illuminated by candle-holders made out of jam jars. Old bottles are tucked with flowers and suspended above the bar as height-defying vases.
The likeable wit also extends to the food. While you wait for your order, you are served a small bucket of popcorn as an appetite-containing snack. It's a fun twist on the usual bread you get as a meal-starter at restaurants. The popcorn is laced with a little truffle oil and, even as a truffle-oil naysayer, I have to admit that little dash of flavour gives that cinema staple a nice bite. This trademark touch of popcorn seems to be a deal-breaker for some people – a few folks I've mentioned this to say that they'd be happy to eat at Orto Trading Co. just for this fact alone.
Here's for an embarrassing admission – we actually ate three small buckets of popcorn before we got to our meal. But, you can't pin that entirely on our greed; there was also an unusually long wait for the food.
We'd ended up at Orto Trading Co. on the first night it opened and – surprisingly, on a cold Tuesday with little advance notice of the opening sign going up – the restaurant was utterly crowded. From the start, we were told there'd be at least an hour-long delay for our meals. Under such hunger-haunting circumstances, the staff was extremely kind and lovely (how could you not like waiters who kept plying you with popcorn to reward your patience? Or their knack for describing the wine list as having reds, whites and "some cheeky rosés"?). They were accommodating and continued to be sweetly apologetic, even though they'd clearly told us how much time it'd take before any dishes would hit our table, and we were fine with accepting that long-wait bargain. It was the bistro's first night, after all, and we just had the bad luck to be seated just after a massive party had put in its orders.
The thoughtful, ultra-attentive service sweetened the wait, and the food was such a pay-off. Spunta Potato Batons ($9), golden-brown and delicious, were sprinkled with chilli salt, and quickly disappeared under stealth attack from forks and etiquette-shunning fingers. Will enjoyed his Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder ($28), its slices served with paint-like strokes of carrot puree and brussel sprouts so tasty (charred, sweet, crunchy) that they could reboot the poor reputation the maligned vegetable has with kids. The dish was very rewarding on the eye – almost painting-perfect, and in fact, the pear it was served with looked like something taken from a classic still-life.
Now, a Cabbage Roll ($24) may not sound so attractive (I think sad uni bain-maries are to blame for our queasy apprehension), but at Orto Trading Co., this dish is laced with such well-measured flavour – a light tangle of wild mushrooms, gritty-toasty walnut crunch, salty linger of goat's cheese, simple pearl barley stuffing and rich sweetness of house-made tomato sauce. It's a lovely mix.
A fine side dish is the Autumn Vegetable Salad, a pretty pile of baby zucchini, squash and brussel sprouts – lightly cooked and still colour-bright, garnished with French tarragon and placed on smears of carrot puree ($12). It's a much-appreciated upgrade on the usual steamed vegies or joyless leaf salad option. In fact, all the offerings here play nicely against the stock standard ideas. There's a lot of originality at work – a lovely relief from the case of menu deja vu you can get, when the same dishes keep reappearing at most restaurants.
I'd watched the desserts travel the room all night, and it was a great shame that we had no time/stomach-space left for a Gingerbread Crumble, Rhubarb and Pomegranate Trifle or Chocolate and Chestnut Mousse. I also would love to come back to try the cheeses, which sound like intriguing stand-alone courses instead of the item that tries to bring life to the tired cracker + dried fruit equation. For instance, Touree de L'Aubier is served with autumn fruits baked in parchment ($12), La Luna Holy Goat is accompanied by celeriac remoulade ($12), and Pyrengana cheddar gets hooked up with pear piccalilli and home-made pickles ($12). Sounds like great bait for the cheese-curious.
Oh, and Orto Trading Co. also will be open for lunch for part of the week – so I'm keen to see what the options are like then, too.
Not that I have to search hard to find reasons to return to this new favourite.
Orto Trading Co., 38 Waterloo St, Surry Hills NSW 0431 212 453, www.ortotradingco.com.au
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Named after the sound of sake as it's poured into glass, Toku Toku is a new izakaya in Glebe. As you'd expect, a shortage of Japanese alcohol is not one of its problems. It's an inviting spot on Glebe Point Road – an airy space with big windows, black-stained timber and high-patterned cushions; the courtyard even has a goldfish pond and small footbridge.
The menu is as fun as the name of this sake/wine bar, despite a few dishes being a tad off-key. Tomato, Tomato, Tomato ($14) is a cute take on your Caprese salad, although the Italians probably never used mozzarrella as target practice for tall noodle strands. Will liked the thick pool of balsamic vinegar that the salad was slicked with; I found it too intense; for me, the pesto was better at adding zip to the cherry tomatoes and creamy cheese.
The Mixed Mushrooms ($16) were also a debate-starter; Will dismissed them as too rich, but I liked the buttery-miso sauce that the clusters of enoki and shiitake had been sauteed in. The Wagyu Steak ($23), with delicious yuzu-zingy dipping sauce, Crispy Pork Belly with mustard and chilli-bean sauce and Soyu Warm Cabbage ($14) all passed the clean-plate test with no argument. All of them were great, especially the cabbage salad, which I was initially skeptical about (anything cooked in truffle oil – that highly synthetic, tastebud-strangling flavour that's the yuppie equivalent of MSG – is unquestionably gross), but it was surprisingly subtle, with hints of many flavours – rather than the mono-taste of truffle oil. The tangle of chilli-spiked strands and deep-fried onions were good bonus company.
Will and I were on the same side about the Spicy Edamame; I'd ordered it thinking it'd be like the brilliant chilli-soy edamame at Cafe Ish, but it was just shichimi heavily sprinkled over bean pods. People with less wussy temperaments might enjoy this dish more, but after eating enough spice-flecked edamame to advance to uncomfortable stages of lip-burning, we'd be happy to order the plain version next time.
We also agreed that the Tempura Mars Bar was lots of fun: equal parts delicious and high-calorie shamelessness. Let's face it, it's pretty much guaranteed that battered and fried chocolate (hiding a bonus seam of caramel) is going to be awesome. Toku Toku smartly serves it in three snack-sized bars with sliced strawberry. This is the perfect amount between two people; this well-rationed caramel-sticky dosage is all you want.
This izakaya has only been open for three weeks and perhaps that's why it hasn't hit smooth-running mode yet. After several checks to make sure the staff hadn't forgotten about it, our edamame arrived long after we'd finished all our other dishes. It's especially odd as it's usually a starter and is not a labour-intensive snack at all. And the tempura Mars Bar took an incredibly long time to appear.
The wait staff were quite nice and apologetic about it, and I imagine things will be seamless given some time. (Also, there was a pretty big party the night we went; that probably slowed the kitchen down.) Despite the odd imperfections, Toku Toku is a nice addition to Glebe. We stuck to unadventurous drinks for the night, but we'd like to come back and hear the sound of sake hitting glass for ourselves.
Toku Toku, 36 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW (02) 9660 9636
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
There are parts of Botany Road in Redfern that are like a shopfront cemetery – filled with empty display windows or long-shut doors. So you instantly notice when a once-vacant space starts showing vital signs and encouraging proof of a new existence.
I came across Wild Cockatoo Bakery on the weekend, when it had been open for only "three and a half days". It is run by a lovely gent by the name of Ray, who has been mostly based overseas; he likes baking so much that he even has a commercial oven in his garden, to make loaves for his friends.
The bread and treats at Wild Cockatoo are baked in a more conventionally located space. And its shelves feature pies, quite a few sourdough varieties, croissants studded with Belgian chocolate (all gone by the time I turned up, sadly) and a few fruit tarts (pear poached in shiraz and lemon-cured plum were the ones on offer that day). I especially liked the fragrant and sweet Apple Galette ($3.50).
Ray was surprised by the keen demand and explained that more savouries and sourdough loaves will be added to the line-up. Judging from the many people who crowded into the bakery in the short time I was there – including the older couple who cutely identified themselves as "breadies" – there will be just as many visitors keen on walking away with a bag of shelf-liberated goods.
Wild Cockatoo Bakery, 30 Botany Road, Redfern