Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sydney Surry Hills Restaurants

One girl, 30 dishes and 24 hours in Sydney – Part 4/4 

We gathered our bags from reception where Matt insisted we catch a cab to dinner. “It’s only a kilometer away,” I lied. I was met with groans as we descended the stairs back out into the bustle of Sydney CBD. The groans continued for the slightly uphill, 20ish minute walk and I was suddenly privy to what it felt like to have a toddler. At one stage, a piggyback was offered. “It’s the next street on the right,” I said three times. And just as I promised that if it wasn’t in fact the next street on the right we would hail a cab, the Meagher Street sign came into view. A little further down was Ester, brought to Chippendale by the same crew behind Berta and 121BC, and we couldn’t have finished our Sydney stopover on a higher note. 

It felt good the moment we stepped inside: marble, metal, concrete, an impressive dark timber bar and open arches highlighting the kitchen – mimicking Ester’s prized, wood-fire oven. The staff were on the ball. They’re the kind of people who appreciate you have a plane to catch and don’t charge you for a barely noticeable, undersized glass of wine. The menu is divided into snacks, small plates, woodfired, sides and dessert. I got my meat fix from the blood sausage sanga, the ultimate bar snack of a mini morcilla, dense and earthy, on a steamed cloud of white bread with a splodge of aioli and caramalised onion. I couldn’t help thinking how fantastic the pillowy bread would be slathered in butter and liberally sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. 

Simple menu descriptions such as “squid / ink / corn” brought so much more to the table – lemony ribbons of supple squid with buttered corn kernels – with sauces and reductions balancing and enhancing all at once. A rather dull-sounding cauliflower, almond and mint dish was anything but; leaves intact, smoky-charred edges, supersized mint leaves and a creamy almond sauce dotted with olive oil. Broccolini with crisp, fried garlic slices and fermented chilli continued to make me question why I never experienced vegetables like this growing up, while a moat of salt and pepper sauce surrounding a whole blue swimmer crab (pictured at top) instantly became my drug of choice. 

Dessert kept up: a plain but pleasant tropical take on the eton mess described merely as mango, passionfruit and meringue had fresh slices, tangy seeds and sweet, soft chunks of all of the above. But it was the only dish that didn’t spell out the ingredients – “Three Milks” – that won us over. It was a trio of delightful dairy from each animal: sheep’s milk yoghurt foam, cow’s milk panna cotta too silky to hold its shape, and tooth-stickingly sweet dulce de leche made from goat’s milk. I made a completely inappropriate scraping action with my spoon, desperate to ingest the last streaks of dulce de leche. I put down the spoon, looked left and right, and with a quick swoop of my index finger conquered the dregs of dessert. Olive oil biscuit crumbs and rosemary took it from ‘here’ to ‘there’, the latter being that place that separates superb restaurants from great restaurants. You won’t find edible soil and seductive smears at Ester, but you will uncover a kitchen that makes playing with fire awfully desirable. 

We’d come a long way from potentially maggot-infested airport Sushi Sushi. Our food frenzy was nothing less than welcomed gluttony. But looking down at my iPhone, I pointed out to my other half that I had barely scratched the surface of my Sydney to-eat list. “You’ve foie gras’d yourself over the last 24 hours,” he said as we got up to leave. I raised a ‘please explain’ eyebrow in his direction. “You’ve eaten the same way they force-feed those ducks,” he said. “Except no one forced me, and I’m not a duck,” I quipped. I suppose that’s what you get for dating a pescatarian.

Ester on Urbanspoon

The end.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ruyi Restaurant Melbourne

Ruyi Restaurant Serves Up Refined Chinese Food

THREE-WORD SUMMARY quality, designer Chinese 

Must-order chicken wings Better off without: dessert 
Top tip ‘As You Wished’ menu available (5 courses $45, 8 courses $65) 
The crowd suits, celebrating groups, young couples with old money 
The damage around $50-60pp excluding drinks 

Those used to paying $8 for a plate of 15 dumplings should stop reading now. Ruyi is about quality, not quantity, which is apparent as soon as you step inside. The restaurant looks more Scandinavian furniture store than Chinese restaurant with its Hecker Gutherie-designed interior: white tiles, muted green finishes, blond wood chairs imported from Italy, handmade lights from France and custom ceramic crockery made by a local artist. 

When we visited for lunch mid-week there was no one else around to appreciate the décor. Given the empty tables it was surprising food took so long to arrive. The genuine and chatty husband-wife owners pushed service scores back up, while a silky roast duck and tofu soup, slippery wontons and perfect, pan-fried pork dumplings had us spluttering, “Wait? What wait?” between mouthfuls.   

Four flaming king prawns and fluffy bao were fine but not extraordinary, especially compared with exquisite fried chicken wings and soft shell crab, the latter battered beautifully and served with thick and zesty lemon dipping sauce.

Crisp Szechuan eggplant strips made the most addictive of french fries seem dull and should be ordered in place of any veggie sides. There’s sweet and sticky kong bao chicken chock-full of peanuts, but if you’re short on stomach space make a beeline for the wagyu (market price from $40+). The imported Kobe beef with a marble score of nine came seasoned with black truffle paste and presented on a field of fungi (abalone and shiitake ‘shrooms) and asparagus. We should have finished on a high note, as opposed to ordering lacklustre desserts such as undercooked, lukewarm 'sticky' rice pudding. 

In the wine department the one-pager list is heavy on Australian and New Zealand varieties, with stunners from Italy, France and Spain thrown in for good measure. Keep an eye out for seasonal cocktails, too. The $35 set lunch includes a glass of French sparkling and will have you rolling out the door. Opt for the $18 set lunch (a small soup, one bao and two each of dumplings of Ruyi's choice and fried chicken wings) and you risk snacking before dinner. While most people are used to paying for Chinese with spare change, Ruyi – which is more affordable than many restaurants in Melbourne CBD – is the ultimate proof that you get what you pay for. 

16 Liverpool Street Melbourne, Australia 
(03) 9090 7778 
Open weekdays 11.30am-3pm & 5.30pm-10pm; Sat 5:30pm-late 
Bookings accepted 

RuYi Modern Chinese on Urbanspoon

  Thank you to the kind folk at Ruyi and Veda Gilbert for their generosity and assistance with this blog post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sydney Surry Hills Restaurants

One girl, 30 dishes and 24 hours in Sydney – Part 3/4 

Fast-forward through a restless sleep – the kind where you can’t lie on your belly for fear of exploding – to the next morning. We had stretched our stomachs so much the previous night that we actually woke up hungry. Paramount Coffee Project was first on the agenda; all polished concrete floors, high ceilings and pale timbers. The café is a collaborative effort by Sydney’s Russell Beard (Reuben Hills) and Melbourne’s Mark Dundon (Seven Seeds). Here, single origin beans have residencies, mimicking the yet-to-be-discovered bands that chat across communal tables and visit the Golden Age Cinema downstairs when the sun sets. 

Paramount Hipster Project.

The Paramount Coffee Project on Urbanspoon

I resisted the sweet waffle with peanut butter ice cream, dulche de leche and hazelnut, instead opting for the arrollado. What arrived was less arrollado (a pork roll made with the rejected parts of the pig, bacon, and spices rolled in pork skin, tied with string, and then brushed with chilli sauce) and more brekkie burrito wrapped in foil and served in a plastic red basket. It was a messy affair that required my favourite kind of utensil: hands. Egg yolk ejected from all directions and thick, smoky bacon rubbed shoulders with avocado, house-made ketchup and kale, the in-vogue veggie. We also ate perfectly poached salmon resting on a fennel futon scattered with radish and dill, huddled beside chunky beetroot jam.  

Paramount Salmon Project, a light choice before a day of eating.

As it was a Saturday morning and I had long ago decided I was going to eat until it was physically impossible to continue, we caught a train to Everleigh Markets. You’ll find it in the old Everleigh Rail Yards with the kind of exposed beams and dappled brick walls that the trendiest cafés could only dream of achieving. I let my stomach lead the way, from cheese sample to chutney tasters and back again. I stopped at the Billy Kwong stall to buy a steamed sticky rice parcel hugged by vine leaves, loaded with chilli and speckled with equally crunchy macadamias and roasted crickets. Kylie Kwong was serving as she often does on a Saturday morning. Matt, the pescatarian boyfriend, politely declined the crickets, picking his way around them to get to the sticky rice. I had a moment in the sunshine, clucking over children too young to walk but somehow managing to bop to buskers. I wondered if I would have eaten the crickets if Pinocchio was still my favourite movie; I probably would have let my conscience be my guide. 

The Billy Kwong stall at Everleigh Markets

Billy Kwong on Urbanspoon

Post-market we parted ways: him to a meeting, me to Moon Park, the Redfern restaurant reinventing Korean. I walked there, figuring my body would appreciate the gesture, only to discover a closed door. My attempt to schedule in as many eateries as possible over the weekend had failed me – I had confused the availability of lunch to be on Saturday instead of Sunday. I had to keep moving. It hurt, but as I strolled to Surry Hills past two men, one passed out and pantless, the other in high heels and a miniskirt, I realised worse things had happened. Anyway, my lunch at Bishop Sessa squared the situation. 

Paul Cooper's cucumber and scallop ceviche dish at Bishop Sessa.

Bishop Sessa on Urbanspoon

Chef Paul Cooper – who Melbourne lost to Sydney a couple of years ago now – launched Bishop Sessa with Erez Gordon. Like many establishments, they drill home the use of local and sustainable produce, but Cooper has practiced what he preaches for years. They take it seriously: sides of pig, beef and lamb are aged and butchered out the back. After explaining I wasn’t overly hungry, I was served the incredibly good value six-course degustation ($69). It started with a steamed quail bun – or ‘bao’ – the pinkish meat all crispy-skinned and sweet with hoisen sauce. Technically not part of the menu, Cooper won’t refuse customers who order it for fear of an uprising. 

Each dish was as exciting and as balanced as the last, gradually getting heavier until it climaxed in a snake of bittersweet chocolate mousse tart, surrounded by mounds of chocolate soil, honeycomb boulders, a chunk of grilled banana and punchy salted caramel ice cream. The middle leg of the meal consisted of a delicate dish with curls of cucumber, avocado mousse and ginger beer sorbet prettily arranged atop slivers of scallop ceviche; roast pork covered in lemon verbena crackling served with tender calamari; and confit duck lasagne layered with thick homemade pasta, sweetened with miso consommé and scattered with oats and beetroot chutney. 

A dessert for for a sweet tooth at Bishop Sessa.

After I finished I sat for a while eavesdropping on other diners. Their "oohs" and "ahhs" flanked by "isn’t this lovely". I had about an hour – and many more calories – to burn, so I left the narrow space with it’s high bar and low banquettes and slowly strolled to Central Station. I took my time traversing Crown Street, stopping to gawk at a fabulous hairdresser with a mini picket fence in the doorway to prevent two poodles – one dyed pink, the other purple – from escaping. I brought a ring and a card, contemplated ice cream, and finally met Matt at the station. He was starving. 

Doggs Breakfast at Reuben Hills.

We walked back up to Rueben Hills, feeling like Paramount Coffee Project et al. groupies. He ate a fresh and zesty combination of ceviche, salsa and pink grapefruit segments on rustic corn chips, but I still had ice cream on the brain. I couldn’t have asked for a better result than the doggs breakfast ice cream sandwich, a mutant Monaco bar, more brownie than biscuit, presented on an enamel plate with a giant blue spoon to match. They had heaped so much salted caramel on the plate I actually left some. Rueben Hills spreads itself between a block and two storeys. It’s got the refined ‘we’ve gutted the shit out of this place’ look. There’s ubiquitous exposed brickwork, LED tubes fastened to the wall for art’s sake, copper pipes and a blue tiled table that adds a pinch of colour. The upper floor, where the roasting happens, has been shaped in a crescent so people can see both up and down. 

Reuben Hills on Urbanspoon

More eating meant more walking, the kind that starts in chatter and ends in comfortable silence, exploring the CBD purposelessly until we could feel blisters forming on our heels. We passed enough time to fit in another meal before dinner, but it had to be close to the hotel so we could get our bags. Revising Chat Thai with more space in our bellies seemed like the best option. It was that awkward time slightly nearer to dinner than lunch, where all sense and reason gives way to insatiable snacking. Our snacking involved an overflowing plate of pad Thai, all slimy flat rice noodles swimming in tamarind and palm sugar, juicy bean sprouts, peanuts and fat prawns. I washed my half, the bigger half, down with sweetened coconut milk infested with green pandan jelly worms. “You’re weird,” said Matt, although secretly I have a recurring dream where my affection for textural oriental beverages (a la bubble tea) causes nearby Asian customers to silently nod approval in my direction.

Pad Thai and traditional pandan drink at Chat Thai.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TRAVEL: Langhe e Roero, Italy

I left my heart in Langhe

I know what you're thinking, "A month between blog posts, how could she?" I have a pretty damn good excuse. I've just come back from my new favourite place on Earth, Langhe e Roero in Piedmont, Italy, and you can see the photos and read all about it here.

At the start of the year I submitted a recipe and a story to World Nomad's for their Passport & Plate program. I found out a few months later that I had been selected to go on one of my most memorable travel experiences to date. 

I spent 12 days in Italy, nine of which I was hosted in Langhe e Roero. I have created a separate page (you'll find it under 'pages' in the column to the right of this blog) where I have written about every, single detail. It starts with a poem I wrote which will be put over a video created by Carl Pendle, who filmed the whole trip; then an introduction to the area followed by a 'thank you' to the people who made it possible; and finally a day-by-day account of my travels. You can read it in one big chunk on Poppet's here, or you can head to my World Nomads journal and tackle it one day at a time. 

Never before have I felt so at home in a foreign place. Langhe e Roero confirmed for me the things that truly make me happy: beautiful food and wine made by inspiring people who live in a UNESCO-listed landscape of undulating hills and understand that the best things in life are always better shared. 

I hope it inspires you to visit this stunning corner of the world.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Town Mouse Carlton

As Loud as a Mouse

Address: 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, Victoria 

Phone: (03) 9347 3312

Open: daily from 5pm + lunch Friday to Saturday from 12pm

I have a confession: sometimes when you ask me for a restaurant recommendation I’m so underwhelmed by sameness that I turn to Urbanspoon to jog my memory. Asian fusion this, ‘American’ barbeque that, poached eggs here, salted caramel there – the problem with eating out more than you eat in is that you become immune to good food. By the same logic, it takes a superb restaurant to reignite the excitement; to spark the feeling epicureans experience when they taste something that makes their chest swell and – on the odd occasion – turns them teary. The Town Mouse is one such place, and if you’ve asked me for a recommendation in the past six months, chances are I’ve pointed you in their direction. 

It’s difficult to refuse the “come in for good times” invitation transferred onto the concrete outside the entrance. There are plenty of good times to be had, with an impressive Australian-European wine list covering red, white, pink and orange; alongside craft brews from around the globe and a brief selection of cocktails and aperitifs. If you don’t Instagram the custom stemware with its adorable mouse print, you’re a minority.

I dove in head first with the Vice & Stormy, coffee-spiked rum in a martini glass with an initial zing of yuzu and bitters and the smoky aftertaste of cigarettes. It was enough to turn a teetotaller, but that stool seating might pose a challenge to the easily excitable. The stools might not be practical for nanna, but they certainly suit the high timber tables and curved metal and oak bar. Glossy black tiles line the walls, creating a contrast sandwich with the off-white ceiling and speckled, pale stone floor.

The food here is just as stylish. GQ critic Alan Richman recently coined a new term: ‘Egotarian Cuisine’. It’s a wave of food that’s emerged because chefs want to put it on the plate, not because diners demand it. The problem with Egotarian Cuisinie is that is swings between brilliantly creative and downright awful. This is not the case at The Town Mouse, where chef Dave Verheul (who co-owns the restaurant with Chritian McCabe) bravely matches ingredients with the technique to back it up, and without drowning diner with descriptives like ‘soil’, ‘foam’ and ‘dust’. Melbourne could learn a thing or two from these New Zealanders.

You’ll start with bread. Pray it’s still sourdough with salty seaweed butter when you visit. The menu, designed for sharing, is divided into raw, to start, vegetables and meat & fish. There are single bites that appear before the menu categories, such as puffy goat’s cheese profiteroles fastened to the plate with honey (from The Town Mouse’s own Rooftop Honey hive, no less) and laced with caraway and thyme. These morsels set the bar high from the first mouthful, especially if you order smoked duck liver parfait piped onto paper-thin potato crisps with semi-transparent slices of pickled cucumber at their peaks.

We skipped oysters from the raw section in favour of something a little more unique. Originality is part of every plate at The Town Mouse and the shaved calamari – the texture of young coconut, the shape of millimetre-thin fettuccini and the taste of sea spray – was no exception. The ocean was more obvious in the globules of oyster cream, surrounded by a rock pool emulsion of fermented apple juice and dill-infused oil. It disappeared quickly and a collective sigh escaped from our table. Not that anyone would have heard it above the clamour reverberating off the hard surfaces of the room.

Although we had well and truly started eating, we had only just arrived at the ‘to start’ section of the menu. The marvel continued. Fatty, caramalised pork jowl paired with charred chunks of octopus, bound by a liquid lattice of ink, delicate disks of turnip an elongated shaving of kohlrabi and some chickweed for greenery. Smoked brook trout could have slotted under the ‘meat & fish’ subtitle, it’s deep, carroty-pink colour reminded me of a trip to the Sahara Desert while in Morocco.

If the calamari was a rock pool, the trout was a canvas. Pink radish circles were almost opaque, standing out against the black plate beneath a three-dimensional doodle of wild onion. Verbena appeared both as a pureed smear and purple buds. “What’s with the sheet?” we asked our faultless waitress. Apparently it was dried milk skin, noticeably flavoured with garlic.

Preconceptions of meat dishes exceeding their vegetable counterparts were thwarted when the heirloom kale arrived. Fried to a crisp, it rested on bubbly foam made with comte cow’s milk cheese and mustard. An oozy, slow cooked egg lurked beneath. Presentation at The Town Mouse is intricate, but the food remains balanced, even grounded.

Pink slices of duck breast arranged in a log were flanked by caramalised yoghurt, tender pine mushrooms, elk leaves and sprouted wheat (more recently referred to by wholefood nuts as ‘activated’ wheat). Perhaps the least attractive but most surprising dish was the slow roasted red cabbage, a whole quarter of the stuff with bursts of sweetness from red apple and prunes, blanketed in grated Parmesan melting slightly from the heat.

Desserts were almost on par with dinner. The halo of ricotta doughnuts crowning fennel and mandarin custard were let down only by the addition of a lengthy hair, but the incident was soon forgotten in favour of a feminine arrangement of cherry sorbet, dried milk, berries (both fresh and freeze-dried), Verjuice jelly and tiny white flowers. The standout sweet was the buttermilk-poached pear with refreshing pear sorbet and a snaking squiggle of caramel. It rested on a gravelly mound of roast chocolate and crumbed walnuts, interspersed with juicy, green apple.

Since we visited for dinner, there have been slight seasonal variations in the menu which can be seen on The Town Mouse website. There has been plenty of chatter around this Carlton restaurant-cum-bar since it opened, and it lives up to the expectations. For some ludicrous reason, it missed out on scoring a hat in The Good Food Guide 2014. I would bet some serious dollars that we will see it in the next edition.

Next time you go to ask me where to take that special someone for dinner, celebrate a birthday or score a superb feed in Melbourne, try The Town Mouse first. Praise the lord; they’re even open Monday nights. And they take bookings.

The Town Mouse on Urbanspoon