Wednesday, May 22, 2013
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read one of those ‘advice to my 21 year old self’ letters I’d take all my readers to Vue de Monde for kicks. People constantly say, “if only I could go back and do it differently”, but given the chance, would you leap forward to check where you ended up? I’m in bed with tonsillitis today, and my sick brain has my emotional and creative reigns. Accordingly, I (my sick brain) decided to do something a bit different: write a letter from my 23 year old self to my 41 year old self.
Dear 41 year old self,
Remember the iPhone 5? Didn’t think so.
Eighteen years ago you were still stuck on an iPhone 4S and loyal to your laptop. I can’t begin to imagine what gadgets are available now, but I hope at least some of them aren’t commodities and actually change the world for the better.
Congratulations on living for over four decades.
As you look back you will remember your youth, perhaps as the best time of your life. You will have conquered challenges you never would have expected to face when you were a 23 year old with newly found independence, embracing her passion with a supportive family and someone she loved by her side. I, your past self, want to remind you of what’s really important so that when your head is spinning off your shoulders and you find yourself having to explaining to a daughter what a tampon is, you will remember your amazing life and the people who put you there.
Just in case you want some advice from someone with practically no life experience—but without the shackles of responsibility and nothing to contaminate her views of what’s expected or important—make time for fun. The kind of 'reckless abandon' fun you could afford to risk in your youth. Life is nothing without uncertainty, and risks build character. They’ve made you who you are today and irrespective of any commitments, the person you are most accountable to is yourself.
Do you remember how it felt to be 23, to be able to take risks because you had your whole life ahead of you? Why should it be any different now? Why shouldn’t you have that second piece of cake or go on that holiday? Yes, be responsible, but do what makes you smile. You managed to skip a lot of crap as a high-achieving generation Y-er. Never forget how important the crap can be in teaching you something. There’s no such thing as a mistake if you can learn from it and fulfilment, in all parts of your life, has always been the ultimate goal.
You never wanted to be like everyone else, so don’t be. Never stop learning. Do a course, attend a lecture, take a dancing class, find a mentor. If there are toxic people around you, get rid of them. You should have done it years ago. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it. If you don’t have it all figured out, don’t worry. As long as you’re happy, there’s nothing to be ‘figured out’; just life to be lived.
Laugh at yourself. Laugh often. Make time to read (paper, not electronic) and if you’re in a relationship, make a date night and stick to it. Stick to natural food, too. Don’t buy anything fat free (lord knows what they put in that kind of thing now) and support local produce stores, if they still exist. Make time to volunteer and help someone who needs you. Oh, and thank your mum for always making you wear sunscreen.
By the way, I give you permission to get work done. Only a little bit though, and only if it will make you feel better in the long run. Just make sure you do it for you, never for him. Remember that with imperfection comes perspective. On that note, how is your relationship? In my mind it’s been nearly 20 years since you met and you still get butterflies. Maybe that’s all a little naive.
Does he make you feel special, smart, beautiful, appreciated? If not, fix it, or get out. You deserve better. And so do your children. Maybe you’re a single mum? Anything can happen. Just remember, it’s never too late too be as happy as you were when you were 23.
Surround yourself with the same people you did 20 years ago; the friends who made you laugh, told you their secrets and always made time to see you. Not all of them will be happy. Try and change that or at the very least, support them as best you can.
Did you ever write that book? There are no more excuses now, seeing as you’re haunting yourself from the past. If my plans for you have come to fruition, there’s no reason why you can’t take a year off tomorrow and do it. Are you still fit? A healthy heart is a healthy mind, and if you’ve maintained my eating habits you better bloody well be taking care of my body. If you look even half as good as your mother did when she was your age, I approve.
Are you successful? Did you give the finger to the glass ceiling and set an example for those around you? Forget fear. Fear of finances, fear of sickness, fear of failure. It poisons people on the inside—especially when they feel responsibility for others—until it starts to eat away at the outside, too. And trust me, the people you are responsible for will notice.
Write a letter to your family, but don’t wait to give it to them. Remember when you read that letter your dad wrote ‘just in case something happened’? The one you ended up reading ‘early’, when the family was emotional after the cat died? Never make anyone wait to find out how you truly feel. It can change their lives.
Do you remember when 40 seemed old? It's been a while since your parents were 40, and when 50 claimed them you wished 60 would never come. You thanked something greater that they were healthy every day when you were in your early 20s. Hopefully you still do. You never took them for granted then. Don’t let your life get in the way of that now. Your family is your greatest blessing. Call regularly, visit frequently and tell them you love them until you drive them crazy. Make sure you experienced a life full of overseas adventures and Sunday morning breakfast with your family, the same way your parents did with you.
Stop for a moment and think about your grandparents, all four of them. Go back to when you were in your teens, before life’s inevitable path tainted any memories of them. Remember their old world beauty and nimble fingers that crafted dolls from scraps of cloth; their love for watches and quirky horror masks and allegiance to the Collingwood Football Club; their agility and singing voice and three course breakfasts; their cheeky sense of humour and that time you swear you saw a flying white horse.
Call your youngest brother and apologise for the distance you used to share, attributed to the 11 year age gap that left you with little in common, not even your gender to bring you closer together. Make sure he knows you loved him back then, but that you hadn’t fully learned patience. With children of your own, you will understand tolerance better than you did then. Take him out for dinner, along with your other younger brother.
Congratulate the other brother on his success, even though you knew 20 years ago that he’d do something remarkable in one field or another. Make the ‘sibling dinner’ a monthly event. It’s no secret that keeping a bond alive takes effort, and as the eldest, you should accept that responsibility. Remember your parents’ legacy: nothing is more important than family.
Finally, restart that notebook you had in 2013, the one where you wrote down everything for which you were grateful (I know you've since stopped!). That way, you can thank yourself for being an insightful, witty 23 year old who gave you an excuse to go to Italy for a few months like you’ve always wanted to, and do nothing but shop at local markets, cook and drink wine.
And when you’re there, looking down from a shuttered window at a cobblestone laneway lined with dresses hung out to dry, reply to my letter. Think back over the years at how blessed you have been, how blessed you are now and all the treasured memories that makes you smile. Perhaps 41 is too young to find a higher peace, but I hope you are well on your way.
You still have half a lifetime to fulfil your dreams.
You, 18 years ago.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Town Hall Hotel
Address: 166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Phone: (03) 9419 5055
Tuesday to Saturday, midday until 3pm and 6pm until late
Sunday, 11.30am until 3pm
“Everything you see, I owe to pasta,” said my favourite Italian bellezza, Sophia Loren. If she were to visit Melbourne, specifically Fitzroy, she might rework her phrase in a blissful exhale, “everything you see, I owe to Town Hall Hotel.” It doesn’t sound quite as romantic, but when you’re snapping salt-encrusted grissini in half and popping olives dripping with oil into your mouth, you’re hardly going to care about anything else.
Recently I was invited to a media lunch at Town Hall Hotel to celebrate esteemed owner-chef Harry Lilai. After eating there, I didn’t want to celebrate Harry, I wanted to hug him senseless (If Mrs. Lilai, Michelle, is reading this, I assure you any hugging would be purely based on admiration). You probably know Harry from his ten year stint at Cecconi’s, or more recently, Orange. Either way, he has a quarter of a century of cooking under his hats. That makes me minus two years old the day Harry first picked up a wooden spoon.
The pub itself has a history of characterless venues. Before it reverted to its original name, it was Griffs Wine Pub with stained carpet and walls you avoided at all costs, like an escalator rail. Prior to that it was the Purple Turtle. The décor in the dining room of Town Hall Hotel isn’t anything to write home about—the furniture is bland, some walls are gaudy red, others are white and all of it is dated. It gives the room a comfortable, relaxed vibe that doesn't try too hard with hanging terrariums and designer chairs (instead, there's a vase and other bits and pieces from Mr. and Mrs. Lilai's house). Make sure you check out the handsome basement wine cellar, which I’d book for a special occasion in a heartbeat. Upstairs is plain but smart, filled with light and ideal for functions. Not that any of it matters once you try the food.
We started with cichetti (snacks) of hot, fresh dates stuffed with oozy taleggio and suffocated by crisp pancetta. I couldn’t help but scald the roof of my mouth, they were too good to let cool down. After a tour of the space and much anticipation, we sat down at an oversized white tablecloth decorated with white blossoms and leafy green sprigs in jars. The dates were merely a sign of things to come.
Chickpea battered oysters were a textural explosion, creamy and crunchy all at once with a fragrant hit of pickled fennel. Sticking to the sea theme were slithers of yellow fin tuna crudo (it’s Italian for raw). The shaved horseradish, paper-thin shallots and capers sprinkled on top looked like a delicate garden, while the sweet saffron dressing bound the components together.
Next, a bed of bresaola rested beneath a roasted fig overflowing with creamy goat’s curd and drizzled with honey mustard dressing; a tribute to the power of simple, quality ingredients. Thin slices of seared beef carpaccio, a ball of truffled beef tartare and shavings of reggiano forced me to close my eyes and sit back in my chair. The amalgamation of the silky tartare and earthy notes of truffle was truly blissful.
I managed to get my fork on the last baccala (salted cod) arancini, a golden ball adorned with shards of parma ham, red onion and witlof. Then I had a moment with the next dish: a thin tart crust resembling a cracker barely supporting sliced duck breast, and finished with a generous quenelle of duck liver parfait that made us suppress vocal foodgasms.
Larger dishes followed. Appetizing yellow pumpkin and leek tortelloni perfectly cooked in a puddle of lemon butter and scattered with salty prosciutto and fresh ricotta. Al dente risotto richly flavoured with porcini, confit garlic and truffled pecorino. Creamed baccala prepared simply with curls of white onion and parsley on a pile of soft polenta, no butter spared.
The osso bucco Milanese on saffron-spiked rice with gremolata was an example of how Harry Lilai does it better than anyone else. You only had to look at the meat for it to fall off the bone, after which the table full of food writers picked up the remains and sucked with all their might—can’t let that marrow go to waste.
At this point, Harry kneeled next to us and asked with puppy dog eyes, “do you have time for dessert?” I didn’t. But I made time. And I’m glad I did.
A tiramisu made with marscapone and soaked in strega, kahlua and coffee converted me from a tiramisu-skeptic into a tiramisu-devotee. The hot chocolate pudding exuded fudgy goodness and contrasted superbly with cold malt ice cream and zesty blood orange compote.
Coconut panna cotta with pineapple and lime salsa was firm and fun to eat, like a solidified piña colada. Bombolone surprised us with an orange blossom custard centre and honey ice cream that left the same heated sensation at the back of the throat that follows a spoonful of honey from the jar.
It’s easy to miss Town Hall Hotel. I’m based around the corner and drive past it almost every day. I didn’t think to visit until I was invited. Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you won’t make the same mistake as I did and drive on by. I acknowledge that I ate on the house at Town Hall Hotel, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the best meals I’ve had this year. The dishes are simple and skillfully flavoured, the produce is heavenly and Harry’s experience and the passion of his team shine through every mouthful. As the Italians say, tutto è bene che riesce bene: all is well that ends well.
Posted by Sofia Poppet Levin at 11:35 PM
Labels: best restaurant melbourne, Harry Lilai, Harry Lilai Chef, italian food melboune, Town Hall Hotel, Town Hall Hotel Fitzroy, Town Hall Hotel Melbourne, where to eat in fitzroy, where to eat in melbourne
Monday, May 13, 2013
Pinocchio’s: the dinner that made me turn down dessert
Address: 152 Toorak Road, South Yarra
Phone: (03) 9867 2772
Lunch: 7 days, 12pm until 3pm
Dinner: 7 days, 5pm until late
Pizza & bar menu: 7 days, 12pm until late
Pinocchio’s will from this day forth be known as ‘the restaurant that made Poppet’s Window turn down dessert’. I was utterly over-satiated by the time I commanded dinner to stop that I had to say ‘no thank you’ to dessert—despite my sweet tooth’s best ‘Occupy Mouth’ protest efforts.
Only Italian restaurants can feed diners like we were fed on that fateful night. It all started with uncertainty: unsure of what to order, we asked the chef to bring us some dishes that best reflected the whole menu. The result? We were served enough food for six people.
I could tell you that Pinocchio’s is the worst thing to ever happen to the suburb of South Yarra, but my nose would grow like the restaurant's namesake, and that’s hardly something I need. Pinocchio’s is in fact a charming restaurant with a long history. Founded by three brothers 42 years ago, the restaurant received a revamp from its current owners last year.
The space still has a romantic feel, with dim lighting, a long marble bar and butchers’ paper tablecloths, but it’s been reborn to reflect its sister restaurant in Hampton, which opened in 2011. Both venues cook their pizza on rotating Italian wood fire ovens and the smell sneaks into your nostrils, down the back of your throat and onto your tongue as you walk in off Toorak Road.
To drink, there are local and Italian wines, as well as boutique beers from Italy. Logically, I went for an espresso martini. It was a spectacular decision. I took along an old school friend who I hadn’t seen in much too long and we had a wonderful time. If he had bored me (he didn’t) I could have sat back and enjoyed the illustrations on the walls, reminiscent of my old Pinocchio storybook from the days when I was called ‘Poppet’. But I had better things to do, such as stuffing my face.
The edible marathon began with an antipasto plate. Crusty bread dipped in oil, young green olives, classic Italian salami and buffalo mozzarella were presented on a wooden board. If you closed your eyes, it was easy to imagine yourself slouching in a café you’d stumbled across in the backstreets of Roma, a glass of red in hand. I was so lost in my daydream I nearly missed the Pinocchio illustration on my enamel plate.
Panino di Agnello, scrumptious mini floured ciabatta rolls overflowing with sticky pulled lamb shoulder, baby cress, punchy garlic aioli and a touch of sliced chilli were a highlight, as were the arancini of the day (golden spheres of pea and saffron when we visited).
Two squares of perfectly poached Atlantic salmon with spiced yoghurt made our eyes widen, accompanied by crunchy green beans, broccoli, baby roma tomatoes and beetroot chip slithers.
The standard dropped with the Risotto Al Nero, a squid ink dish that usually makes my stomach sing. This particular risotto—blackened with squid ink, served with calamari tentacles and crowned with prawn—was indelibly salty.
Thankfully things picked up when the braised veal shin and pancetta ravioli was served. Stunningly rich and swimming in creamy sage butter, the ravioli was deliciously naughty—I can’t imagine eating an entire bowl.
After slurping rustic lamb ragout pappardelle with lemon gremolata and pangrattato (toasted breadcrumbs), it became clear that Pinocchio had perfected pasta. We came to the same conclusion when we bit into the thin crust of their prosciutto pizza, a simple combination of tomato, mozzarella, San Daniele prosciutto, parmigiano, balsamic and wild roquette.
At this point, I was so full that I can’t tell you what the supple white fish was that brought our meal to an end. I took a single bite, felt the round beans on my tongue and tasted the tang of tomato and lemon, swallowed, and then held my breath in case my eyes decided to pop out of my head.
I can’t remember the last time I felt as full as I did when we finished our dinner at Pinocchio’s. The funny thing is that technically we weren’t even finished; I had to repeatedly tell the waitstaff to stop bringing food (I had to go and check on my little brother on the way home as my parents were out that night). “One more,” they insisted, more than once. By the end, I was so stuffed that I turned down dessert. Yep, that’s right: I, Sofia Levin, said “no” to dessert. I said no to chocolate cannoli. I even said no to wood-fired lemon tart. What on earth was I thinking?
Posted by Sofia Poppet Levin at 12:41 AM
Labels: italian food melboune, italian restaurant south yarra, italian restaurant toorak road, pinocchio hampton, pinocchio south yarra, pinocchios hampton, pinocchios italian restaurant, pinocchios south yarra
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Hammer & Tong in Fitzroy: A Video Blog
So this is a bit new and scary. That's because it's me. On YouTube. Who would have thought?
I've wandered into the world of video reviews and first up is Hammer & Tong, a gorgeous little cafe-cum-restaurant in Fitzroy that will win you over with popping candy pancakes. Watch the video (it's less than 2 minutes) and get the low down without having to READ... although if you've come this far, you've already been reading.
I've also created a scoring system based on the acronym E.A.T. Hammer & Tong scored 22/30.
‘E.A.T’ CRITIQUING METHOD
Every place I video blog is rated out of 30 using the ‘E.A.T’ method (10 points for each category).
E is for Edibles.
This includes food and drink, but is weighted more heavily towards food. Brilliant beans, creative cocktails and wonderful wine lists will always score points.
A is for Ambience.
An eatery’s personality, individuality and charisma. Tunes and comfort fit in here. Think of it as the ‘vibe’ of a place.
T is for Team.
Team refers to the staff as a whole. It’s not just about your friendly waiter or that arrogant bartender; it’s about the way staff cooperate and interact to make you feel at ease.
25-30: Why are you still here and not there?
19-24: Worth a special trip
13-18: If you’re nearby
0-6: I practically took a bullet for you
Posted by Sofia Poppet Levin at 1:15 AM
Labels: Fitzroy, Fitzroy cafe, fitzroy restaurant, food video blog, hammer and tong, hammer and tong fitzroy, hammer and tong melbourne, melbourne cafe, poppets window video blog, popping candy, popping candy pancakes
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Lifestyle, fashion, homewares and dining. That’s Brand Smart shopping centre in a nutshell, or more accurately, in Nunawading. It’s been years since I’ve been out to Brand Smart. The complex recently underwent major, multimillion-dollar renovations thanks to Cox Architecture, glamming up the entrance with wooden beams and throwing a collection of eateries to feed hungry shoppers and locals.
To me, Brand Smart has always been about premium products—mainly fashion—without the price tag. But as a food blogger, I was unsure how Brand Smart related to my mouth. By the time I left the media luncheon, I understood Brand Smart’s new focus: eating out is about the entire experience; from the people you dine with, to the food you eat, to the china you want to lick clean.
Our luncheon was nothing less than luxurious. A driver in a shiny, new Fiat picked me up from East Melbourne and we drove to Brand Smart, which only took 20 minutes (the timing was perfect, I’m in the market for a car to replace my hand-me-down-mini-truck that guaranteed my safety from a premature death when I turned 18). As we glided along the road, he was thrilled to discover volume controls behind the steering wheel, a sixth speed and other gadgets that transformed this fully-grown man into a five-year-old with a new toy.
I entered Brand Smart next to Sushi Sushi, tore myself away from Sass & Bide, and found a white-walled space with a concrete floor, set up with two wooden tables. Each was styled with blue and white cushions, candles, sparkling white plates, silver cutlery and an assortment of flowers. There was a modern, French Provincial feel about the room, but before I could think about it too much, a platter of nigiri and maki from Sushi Sushi found me.
To start, we munched on flaky roti that left a lovely layer of oil on the lips, paired with peanut satay chicken skewers from PappaRich. Angus beef short ribs with thick gravy from Squires Loft Grill followed. PappaRich is an old favourite: I’ve lined up for a seat at their Doncaster store behind Malaysian families craving an affordable taste of home.
It will be interesting to see how Squires Loft fares in the area irrespective of Brand Smart, as it brings Nunawading a much needed restaurant.
Between starters and mains (everyone ordered the tender, pan-tossed calamari served on a bed of rocket salad from Degani—a simple, light dish that hit the spot) I learned about the mysterious world of Mummy Bloggers. Alli from Motivating Mum and Jolie from Hey Bambini explained that when women are pregnant, they often discover a need for products and services that don’t exist, and that pregnancy gives them an opportunity to create what it is they’re after. A lot of these ideas start as blogs and evolve into business models and highly regarded websites. It’s enough to make you put your hand over your heart and swear an oath to girl power. The opportunities that arise from the Internet never cease to amaze me.
After lunch we had a walk around the centre, checking out EMU Ugg Boots and beautiful basics from Cylk. I resisted entering the only discount Priceline in Victoria for fear of never coming out and instead having a peek at Space Café, a coffee pit stop perfect for breaking up a shopping frenzy.
The best thing about Space is the kiddie play area, beautifully designed with cardboard walls, scribbling encouraged. I won’t lie, I was tempted.
By the time we’d looked in a few stores, a selection of sweets from Space Café beat us back to the table. And oh! What treats they were! Gorgeous little lemon tarts and mini cakes topped with chocolate and passionfruit curd perched prettily on tiered cake stands. Even the teacups, teapots and crockery were beautiful, with an Alice-in-Wonderlandness about them.
We were treated to a ‘fashion moment’, a display of three looks put together by Chelsea from I Heart Bargains. My favourite outfit was also the most affordable, and happened to be worn by the lovely Ashleigh Smith, who I went to school with. The smart dress (pictured) was only $25 from Globalize in Brand Smart. If only I didn’t eat so many of those Space Café treats…
Everything from the food we enjoyed, to the plates off which we ate, to the cushions on which we sat, to the clothes we craved were from Brand Smart. But for me, food is where the heart is, and although it was lovely to experience a day in the life of fashion and mummy bloggers, I just can’t get that mouthful of passionfruit curd off my mind.
Brand Smart officially relaunches this Thursday May 2nd, with lots of activities and special events over the weekend. Head to brandsmart.com.au for more details.
Please note this is a sponsored post.
Posted by Sofia Poppet Levin at 1:32 AM
Labels: 288 whitehorse road nunawading, brand smart australia, brand smart nunawading, fashion bloggers, mummy blogger, nunawading food, nunawading restaurant, PappaRich, squires loft, sushi sushi melbourne