Thursday, October 27, 2011
Prior to being the restaurant manager and head sommelier at Arras, you were at Quay. What were some standout memories from your time there?
Choosing wine for U2; chasing Russian President Putin’s minders for an outstanding account of $17000 (which they paid in cash); having to justify the decor to guests – in one instance, a couple was so offended by the carpet that they refused to walk in. However, the highlight would have to be innocently turning a corner backstage at a Myer fashion show that was being held in the function room and being confronted with Jennifer Hawkins wearing only a smile.
The Arras menu leaves much to the imagination: past examples include “A Day At The Seaside”, “Ta, Jean”, “Life Gave Us Lemons And Limes And ...” and “A Cinematic Souffle”. How hard is it to convey each mysteriously named dish to diners?
After many years, I feel I have a handle on taking complicated and extensive tasting notes and communicating the key elements in one or two sentences. What we do is take two-dimensional words on paper and build colour, taste and smell. Some guests get frustrated with our menu because we take control away from them – traditionally you receive a menu and you choose based on a list of items that sound appetising, however [chef] Adam [Humphrey]’s food is so layered and often conceptual that it requires verbal communication. The key is not to overload your descriptions and leave elements of surprise!
Have you had any memorable diner reactions?
You’re never going to please everyone every time! I remember one guest (who comes regularly now) pulling me aside at the end of his meal and telling me he had come on a recommendation from a friend who was a real foodie and that he was almost ready to walk out after being handed the menus because of the names of the dishes – he thought it was all a joke. I think we offer a different experience and even after three years most people are not fully prepared for the ride; most importantly, we have a lot of people smiling at the end and thanking us for the experience.
You maintain the wine list at Arras. How do you track down hard-to-source wines and how hard is it to keep “in the loop” and “well-researched” without taxing your liver too much?
My liver and I get along quite well nowadays, there have been times in the past where we weren’t on speaking terms. I am passionate about wine. You don’t need to drink a bottle to get a sense of what a wine is, just a mouthful will do which you generally spit out (not at the dinner table, of course). Tasting, reading and listening is the best way to find out what’s about, fortunately winemakers and wine reps usually come to me. It’s no different to any other profession, you have to stay on top of the subject – responsibly!
At the 2011 Good Food Awards, you were (deservedly!) honoured with the Silver Service Award. I think in your speech you mentioned that you’d recently had a baby. Was it a surprise to have won, and how tricky is to juggle restaurant life with everything else?
The award was a huge surprise. There is almost no avenue for recognition for front of house, so to receive this award is very humbling. There is only a very small amount of people who have received this honour, so it makes me think I’m doing something right. I have two beautiful boys Kai and Jethro, I do my best to balance work and home life as many fathers do; when I’m with my boys I’m with them 100 per cent, but it still bothers me that I’m only home two nights a week to put them to bed.
When you go out to dine, are you hyper-aware of service or do you like to “switch off”?
I am pretty relaxed when I dine out. I think initially when I sit down, I quickly take in the environment, meaning I look at how many staff members are on, are they in jeans or pants, the condition of the menus presented, small things that give me a picture of the level of service I should expect, then I just enjoy myself. My wife, on the other hand, has never worked in or near a restaurant in her entire life, but she loves analysing all the little things – she becomes the hyper-aware one!
And what is service like at home?
I only have two nights a week to eat with my wife and kids, so meal times are very important to me. I enjoy making dinner and exposing new foods and flavours to my boys.
Arras is one of my favourite restaurants in Sydney – it turns a simple mealtime into picturebook magic. Your table ends up filled with dishes that are hugely fun and stunning; the all-you-can-eat petits fours plate feels like a cash-in of all your childhood wishes and the service, headed by Alon, is brilliant. After relocating from Walsh Bay to the city, the latest incarnation of the restaurant opens today. I personally can not wait to try the new menu and see what the redesigned space is like.
Arras, 204 Clarence Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9283 1922, www.restaurant-arras.com.au
This interview originally appeared in my food zine, sadly now sold out. Photos courtesy of the restaurant
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The name is a giveaway – coffee is the lifeblood of Wedge Espresso. This new Glebe cafe also does a fine sideline in other sip-worthy drinks: there's the Ice Milo ($5), with its crunchy landmass of malt grains afloat milk and ice-cream. At the bottom is a genius ground-level layer of Milo – so there's a chocolatey jackpot of flakes that greet you once you've tipped everything else down your throat. There's also an elegant ice tea, which is as blush-pink as the rose petals in it, and is a subtle mix of Ceylon orange pekoe, hibiscus and silver jasmine. And in the experimental stages is a cold-drip coffee mixed with a Coke slushie – yes. Even though it sounds like a total caffeine bomb, I happily said yes to a sample I was kindly given. Cafe owner Toby described it as tasting like Chinotto. And even though I am not an Italian old man (they were the only ones who bought the drink when I used to work in a Haberfield corner shop), this comparison appealed to me. After some "brave" sips, it turned out the coffee/slushie combo was not so madcap. I dug the cool, bitter flavour.
You can also trust Wedge Espresso to do good things with a slice of bread, as its Shaved Dried Fig, Pistachio and Ricotta with Rosewater Honey on Fig Sourdough ($9) proves. It's a gorgeous breakfast item – light and sunny-day compatible. The Brekky Bruschetta special, with its jumble of strawberries, pistachios, dates and ricotta on top of banana bread sounds like something worth slicing up, but sadly was unavailable when I was there - it's gonna be drafted back onto the menu soon, though.
I admit, I was guilty of judging on first sandwich appearances, as the vego option didn't seem as exciting as the meaty ones (Pulled Pork with Plum Sauce, Spring Onion, Mint and Coriander; Lemon and Sage Poached Chicken with Avocado, Rocket and Mayo), but the pared-back combination of tomato, basil and airy ricotta dressed with olive oil and lemon, toasted, turned out to be really lovely.
I'm glad that Wedge Espresso ended up in Glebe instead of the initial location of Surry Hills, a suburb that is unlikely to ever suffer a cafe drought. This place is, as the name suggests, as narrow as a doorstop, but has lots of diner-charming appeal: the large, open windows that allow you to stretch out your elbows and bank up on generous doses of sunshine; the cute pots of thyme decorating the tables; the industrial fit-out with bright-red pipes and corrugated walls (the rustic stools, incidentally, are Ikea staples slicked up with a coat of leftover paint from the pipes). And this cafe has good cred, the owner used to be at Le Monde in Surry Hills and one of the (much-recognised) baristas is from Luxe Espresso in Newtown. It's another worthy place to spend breakfast – and other meal/snack/drink-sipping times.
Wedge Espresso, 53-55 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe (enter on Cowper Street). Follow Wedge Espresso on Twitter.
Monday, October 17, 2011
The thrill of a kid hopped up on sweets – that's the feeling Adriano Zumbo wants to evoke in his new patisserie.
This outlet, located at The Star, lives up to his sugar-powered hopes: the interior is one long headbuzz of fun. Step into this wonderland and you'd be convinced you could troubleshoot the world's problems by simply eating macarons.
The "in case of emergency, break glass" displays only reinforce this. To get to the rows of Cola, Blood Peach and Lime & Mint Mojito flavours though, crazy Thor-style hammer action isn't necessary – just a non-violent unlatching of the door will do.
The playful interior also includes a dessert train, which zips cakes and confections through the room on a conveyor belt – the only time traffic flow would inspire your sweet tooth.
Printed across the walls, like lines of edible code, are confetti-bursts of macarons. This graphic reproduction of Zumbo's flavours is inspired by the lickable wallpaper in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.
Other Wonka-style magic includes the whimsically sloped roof and the bubbles decorating the wash area. Licorice-allstripe colours wind along the edge of the dessert train table like ribbons being unspooled.
Adding to the child-like fun is a 'Ferris Wheel' of boots and the shoe-wearing bathtub filled with chocolate – both references to the board game Mousetrap.
These imaginative flourishes were all carried out by Luchetti Krelle, the award-winning Sydney interiors firm that also created the look of the David Chang restaurant across the hallway (from the limited glimpse available, it seems to be Zumbo's very design opposite: sleek, minimal and dark).
The patisserie's picturebook-like appearance means it'll probably be the most-photographed eatery in Sydney – but this element alone isn't what drives the Zumbo pilgrims. It's the outlandish and inventive sweets that compel the crowds and the offerings available here only underscore this.
There's the Lemon Carpet Crush, a citrus tastebud-jumpstarter of lemon crush "liquid", jelly, cake and lime marshmallow and the Water My Melons which eerily reproduces watermelon with fruit, yogurt and chocolate. Lychee gel, coconut crunch and bubble tea custard are a few of the intriguing ingredients making cameos throughout the menu. The Berry Handbag, sadly, is for display only.
In terms of macarons, the "emergency"-saving flavours that left me buzzing most were the Thai-flavoured Coconut, Green Chilli & Lavender, Cola and Watermelon & Orange. The Caramelised Pumpkin Seed might be nicer reincarnated in a bread loaf, though.
With an adventure-driven menu, the odd misfire isn't surprising – but that kind of wildcard gamble still appeals to me more than a safer, one-size-fits-all approach to pleasing crowds. With this new location, Adriano Zumbo still casts spells through sugar. I'm pretty sure the "glass-breaking" macaron displays will end up collecting a few noseprints from overeager kids. And there are worse things in life than watching a series of Zumbo desserts tailgate each other on a conveyor belt, each yours for the choosing.
Adriano Zumbo, Level G, Café Court, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont NSW adrianozumbo.com
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Balla is a restaurant that could drive your eyeline crazy.
With concrete "bridges" evoking Milan's canals, pixellated floral columns, a ceiling that splinters into endless shapes and colours, tiled lettering and giant typography, pendant lamps that look like spinning tops in mid-twirl and futuristic racks of wine – every detail feels like a conspiracy to divert your vision away from your table.
All this optical distraction makes sense, as this osteria is named after the statement-making Italian artist, Giacomo Balla, who was interested in the fast-paced, the machine-like and the industrial promise of the future. His ideas are there in the DNA of the restaurant's design (by Luigi Roselli Architects), from the ceiling that pays tribute to one of Balla's paintings to the "anti-neutral" uniforms of the wait staff.
Hi-tech look (and iPad wine lists) aside, your attention span deserves to be directed at your plate. Balla, after all, is the latest Sydney venture for the renowned Stefano Manfredi, and his team includes head chef Gabriele Taddeucci (Uccello, The Beresford). Unlike the interiors, the food has a simplicity that's exquisite – a pared-back harmony rather than jolting cacophony. Sweet leek, tomato and eggplant colludes nicely with the milder ricotta in the Cannelloni Alle Melanzane, as does the small cast of ingredients in Will's choice of Pappardelle with Kid Goat Ragu, Chilli and Pecorino. In a simple side dish – asparagus spears are charred to a rich, near-'husk', each bite like a smoky shadow.
Dessert is my favourite round at Balla. A nostalgia-struck Will orders the Pistachio and Caramel Cassata, as a fallback to days when his mother would make a version of this frozen sweet. Like many overenthusiastic diners, my near-full state isn't a roadblock to ordering an extra course, but I didn't want to pick anything regrettably rich and heavy duty either. So I choose the Espresso and Hazelnut Torta, which is a lovely and light creation by pastry chef Shady Wasef; each spoonful a silken scoop of nutty and sweetly bitter rewards. The alternating layers of cappucino cream add a hint of coffee-spiked lushness.
Balla has one of those long menus which baits you into returning, because there's no way you could order all that intrigues you in one go. What still has to win me over, though, is the hurdle of getting to The Star (formerly Star City) – it's not the easiest location in the city (as I've discovered from the times I've foolishly walked from the nearest train station). We decided to drive in to Balla: this simply resulted in many loops of shame as we circled the venue without getting any closer to scoring a parking spot (each unsuccessful lap a guilt-enforcing reminder that maybe we shouldn't have taken the car).
There'll be more chances for me to time-trial better ways to get here, though, given that The Star will soon be open to Adriano Zumbo's newest outlet and David Chang's first restaurant outside the US. And while there's an understandable reluctance by some people to visit what is essentially a casino complex – on the culinary front, at least, Balla, makes a strong case on the "For" side.
Balla, The Star, Ground level, Retail Arcade, 80 Pyrmont Street (entrance off Pirrama Road), Pyrmont NSW 1800 700 700, www.star.com.au/dine/signature-dining/balla.html
Friday, October 7, 2011
"Dinner parties do combine two of our favourite things: dinner and parties. It's like if you could have an Xbox pancake.” Andy, Parks and Recreation.
I had an "Xbox pancake" moment when we walked by My Sweet Memory in the city yesterday.
Amy and I had finished a great, slightly zany dinner at Chefs Gallery (surprisingly, even this Taiwanese mainstay has gone "dude food" and added tacos and mini burgers to the menu; we stuck to mid-level eccentric choices – the cheese-and-mushroom roti, fried buns with condensed milk, etc, instead.) We then detoured to see some of the hide-and-seek installations tucked in laneways for Art & About and were looping back to do the Sugar Hit at Azuma Kushiyaki when we saw the shopfront for this week-old eatery.
The sign described My Sweet Memory as a cafe specialising in desserts and stationery.
Wow, it was like someone had worked out two of my most favourite things in the world with safe-cracking accuracy and then conveniently merged the two under one roof. Xbox pancake, indeed.
This place not only comes across as a bad influence regarding sweet tooth and card-and-notebook-buying habits, it also sells socks (!), which given my ability to hopelessly drop way too much money on knee-highs and ankle-lengths, is freakishly on-mark that I wonder if I've accidentally incepted someone's brain into making this business happen.
So, the reality is not as dramatic as anything Christopher Nolan would come up with – as I found out when I revisited the cafe properly. Its menu is small and simple (sandwiches, quiches and standard-issue sweets like macarons, friands, etc); what stands out is the fact My Sweet Memory is one of the few places to sell pralines from Kakawa, the best chocolate shop in Sydney. In fact, there's a museum-like display reserved for the Raspberry and Mint Crisp, Roasted Banana, Yuzu, Sea Salt Caramel, Peanut Butter Triangles and other handmade creations.
The beverages are vintage Chinatown (think green tea lattes, loopy fruit-drink combinations, gelato shakes, etc) and all the notebooks, decorative masking tapes, rustic boxes of rubber stamps, Polaroid cards and post-its have Asian origins, too. I think they're all from Korea – which is in a title fight with Japan at the moment for "most awesome stationery on the planet" status. The cafe also sells shoes, which is a bit harder to explain – but that's part of the kooky charm of My Sweet Memory. It's quite fun and will probably tide me over until someone works out how to merge Ito-ya (Tokyo's famous nine-level card/journal/stamp-buying heaven) with Black Star Pastry – that's a desserts and stationery cafe I'd kill/incept for.
My Sweet Memory, 95 Bathurst St, Sydney NSW (02) 8971 7465, www.mysweetmemory.com.au There's already a branch at 12 Churchill Ave, Strathfield and one opening soon in Chatswood.