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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cecconi's Restaurant + The Trip to Italy

Calling all Italophiles! 
Indulge in Italian at Cecconi's Restaurant + see The Trip to Italy

Scroll to bottom to WIN one of 5 double movie passes to see 
The Trip to Italy, in cinemas May 29.

Cecconi's Flinders Lane Restaurant & Cellar Bar

Address: 61 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Phone: (03) 8663 0500

Open: Lunch on weekdays from noon 
Dinner Monday to Saturday from 5.30pm
Cellar Bar open from 7.30am weekdays

Poppet’s Window attended the Cecconi’s Flinders Lane Restaurant & Cellar Bar relaunch as a guest. The Trip to Italy tickets have been provided by Madmen Entertainment. PoppetsWindow.com maintains complete editorial control of all published content. 

Never write about food when you’re hungry, especially Italian food – it makes you go a little strange. The physical symptoms include stomach pains, tummy rumbling and general nausea. Mental side effects can be much worse, ranging from unwarranted anger and – occasionally – uncontrollable crying. This was the situation I found myself in when I sat down to write about iconic Italian restaurant Cecconi’s earlier.

I drank a substantial smoothie for breakfast but was holding out on lunch for fear my dental hygienist would judge me for storing small meals in my molars. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant dental appointment; at one stage three staff members were asking for restaurant recommendations while I had a gnarly piece of metal scraping six months’ worth of plaque from my teeth. At the end they filled my mouth with sickly-sweet fluoride foam (“Critique this,” said the assistant a little too proudly) and instructed me not to eat for a further 30 minutes.

I timed the half hour down to the second, raided the fridge of leftover pasta, and sat down to write. Much better. To continue the Italian theme, allow me to reintroduce you to Cecconi’s Restaurant & Cellar Bar. You might already be familiar with the family-owned restaurant from your birthday/engagement/anniversary dinner (the Bortolotto family has been heavily involved in Melbourne’s restaurant scene for decades). Located just below Flinders Street, it is always a pleasure ‘stooping down’ to Cecconi’s level.

I say 'reintroduce' Cecconi’s because Mollard Interiors revamped the space earlier this year. Copper finishes, plush black chairs and decorative light pendants have been added, but the notion of family has been kept alive, a la famiglia photo wall. The food section of The Age, Good Food, dubbed Cecconi’s as one of Melbourne’s Top 10 Italian Restaurants in March, mentioning that it was “once the workplace of chain-smoking radio journos” (fondly remembered by some at my table). Today the moody colour palate remains, but Mollard has taken full advantage of texture and tone to add contemporary character to the space.

Cecconi’s is divided into two areas, the main restaurant dinning room and the cellar bar, which remains open during the day from breakfast through to dinner. Personally, I was most impressed by the colossal open kitchen separating the two dining sections; framed by original marble, strung with pots, and strewn with produce. I was invited to the ‘intimate’ relaunch (along with over 100 other guests) to enjoy a sit down dinner, courtesy of head chef Daniel Kranjcic. It was my first taste of autumn 2014, and countless times more enjoyable than my encounter at the dentist.

Dinner peaked early. The mushroom risotto with black truffle more accurately represent black truffle with mushroom risotto. You could smell the heady perfume before it arrived at the table. I received the same satisfaction from each mouthful as I do from jamming my icy-cold feet onto warm, unsuspecting loved ones. Cynical, I asked the waiter if non-media receive the same truffle treatment. Apparently they do.

Next came Chatham Island blue cod, flanked by fried zucchini flowers from the Bortolotto family farm, no less. I managed to consume the confit tomato in a single bite, avoiding my usual habit of squirting it at the person sitting opposite me. The aged balsamic brought some punch to the party while thin ribbons of fennel would have turned the most stubborn licorice opponents.

Sighs of satisfaction were served alongside twice cooked duck with sweet potato puree and lime. For once it wasn’t the crisp skin hugging the moist meat that demanded my attention, but the fluffy, almost dessert-like potato. It was the perfect segue into one of Cecconi’s signature desserts.

A tiny jar containing caramel panna cotta interspersed with fig cake and macadamia ice cream sounded more impressive than it was. Although enjoyable, it wasn’t traditional panna cotta in terms of texture (i.e. the usual, ‘firm bosom’ feel). A selection of cheese with dried fruit and quince paste brought the evening to a pleasant close.

There is no denying that Cecconi’s is a classic, regardless of how smooth the restaurant appears in front of a media and VIP crowd. As fiveofthebest.com founder and journalist Wendy Hargreaves pointed out on the night, “they’re preaching to the converted”.


If you fancy a film after your Cecconi’s experience, I have five double passes to give away to see The Trip to Italy, in cinemas May 29. To go into the draw to win, simply tell me why you love Italian food by commenting below or on my Instagram (@fi_bird) by midnight June 5 (Australian residents only). Plot summary and trailer below.

Rob Brydon has been commissioned by a newspaper to go on a driving tour of Italy from Liguria to Capri, partly following in the footsteps of the great Romantic poets. He asks his old friend Steve Coogan to go with him. As they journey through the beautiful Italian countryside they talk about life, relationships and their careers whilst stopping at wonderful restaurants and hotels along the way.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mother's Day 2014

"When I Open My Mouth, My Mother Comes Out"

For my best friend, editor and role model. 

I do not wear the sapphire birthstone necklace she gave me on my 21st birthday. She tells me never to save anything for a special occasion, but I’m terrified I’ll lose it. Besides, I don’t need a tangible reminder of how she has taught me to live – every morning it looks back at me from the mirror. When nobody is watching it pulls a face, just like I catch her doing now and then. 

If she could only leave me with a single piece of advice, I know what it would be: always put on sunscreen. She’s a fine example to follow with her smooth skin and figure envied by 20-year-old women and admired by men of all ages. It never bothered me when my high school friends made cheeky comments – if I look half as good as her when I hit 50, I’ll be laughing. 

Like many mothers she has instilled in me to always offer guests something to drink – regardless of whether it’s the Prime Minister or the plumber – and that having a ‘present box’ is one of life’s essentials. Birthday cards and presents should be bought when you see them, even if it means you’re holding on to three years’ worth of gifts. 

She has taught me to worship eucalyptus oil, to make strong English breakfast tea and to never settle for the tomatoes on display at the market. My mother always requests an upgrade at the airport check-in (“you’ll never get one if you don’t ask”) and a discount on everything from mangoes to electricity. Although I know to always, always fork out on boots, bags and jackets.

Once in a while she calls me over to the kitchen bench, mid-frenzy, explaining that if she were to drop dead the following day I should know that baking soda, vinegar and boiling water will get the burnt crust off the bottom of the pan. Everyday there is a new lesson to be learned, especially in the kitchen: bring out the nice china saucers whenever you can, always have a supply of chopped and frozen parsley in the freezer, stock up on tinned tomatoes and canned beans, if you have a butternut squash in the pantry you will always have a meal, and god forbid you should ever throw out a half-broken piece of Tupperware.

Through example she has taught me to eat with abandon and enjoy with intention, passing on guilt for a second helping. That everything is healthy in moderation if it puts a smile on your face, that food nourishes so much more than your body, and that there is nothing wrong with alternating between smelly blue cheese and shiraz until the entire wedge and bottle have disappeared (she’s never been drunk, mind you; she just “gets a little giggly and then falls asleep”). 

I have learned to wear what you want regardless of age, to never waste a trip, that a good enough letter can get you out of any fine, and that the most cost-effective temperature for the heating system is 19 degrees Celsius (even if the family is freezing). She has taught me, perhaps to my detriment, to never miss an opportunity to have the last word or say I told you so; to sing loudly – and badly – because those who truly love you will put up with it; and to never let the secret stash of dark chocolate in the cupboard run dry. I have also witnessed the importance of slowing down despite your hasty genetic makeup, and that operating on nervous tension can wear even the strongest women down. Like her, I obsess over detail to the point of insanity and sit back smugly when everything works out in the face of adversity. 

If nothing else, my mother is active. More than that, she’s unstoppable. She has jogged, forced my father into dance classes, swam through pregnancy, rollerbladed behind three different prams, ridden her bike once a week for decades, walked 10 kilometres five mornings a week since she was told her back couldn’t handle the running, and more recently graduated from sailing lessons. 

For an expat she knows more about Melbourne than most Melburnians, finding the best the city has to offer every weekend and letting her grateful Airbnb guests in on the secret. The best restaurants and hotels cannot rival her reviews: “She has thought of everything to make her guests feel at home…” says one, “…a wonderful and thoughtful host and nothing was too much trouble for her,” says another. 

My mother has these indescribable nuances. We call them mumisms. She blames her vocabulary of mispronounced words on her English background, but we catch her out when we visit her parents (no one in London says ‘moo-sli’ instead of ‘muesli’). Little things annoy her; she is only human, after all. She complains when she goes to a ‘vintage’ sale and is met with garish ‘80s and ‘90s outfits. Dad drives her mental when overdue fines arrive in the mail. Phones at the table are a bother, dog hair around the house is a nuisance, and not making eye contact when you are introduced to someone is just plain rude. 

She puts her foot in it enough to have her own reality television show, but in times of frustration mum bites her tongue. She’s been known to mistakenly ask women when the baby is due out of pure and selfless excitement. She’ll tell you it hasn’t happened for a while, but it has happened more than once. Last week she entered a Mother’s Day competition to win a Lululemon bag, pretending to be me and describing herself in three words as required. “You can have it if I win,” she said, “it’s purple”. 

My father quietly adores her, even through she has been complaining about his underwear on the bathroom floor for 25 years. He still hasn’t picked it up. Two opposites have never been so incredibly alike. They still call each other ‘babe’ and I can’t bring myself to tell them that despite what they may think, they didn’t invent the term of endearment. I used to envy their relationship when I had boyfriends as a teenager. My mother and father taught me to pick a man who loves you not only exactly for who you are, but one who you can drive crazy and he still wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“You can read me better than you’re father,” she says regularly. There’s something about her eyes – my grandfather’s and brother’s eyes – when I walk into the kitchen. It is as if she needs to break some news but doesn’t want to interrupt a happier story. Her mouth is always poised, ready to express. Mostly it’s a simple tragedy, like forgetting to sprinkle coriander over dinner despite the boys requesting otherwise. But I can always tell when it’s something more important. 

These days when I open my mouth, my mother comes out. It happens in unison when we’re together; not a finishing of each other’s sentences but coexistence in its purest form. With every day that passes I’m proud to be more like her, and I still can’t apologise enough for being a selfish little bitch the year I was 16. 

My mum lives with urgency and efficiency, refusing to waste a moment sitting down – just as her mother does and as I do increasingly every year. In the last 12 months I have realised it takes a delicate balance of instinct and balls to carry the weight of the family on your shoulders and not collapse. She will tell you she just does what needs to be done, but we all know she is the rock that holds our family together. 

Mum, between Friday market visits and calling – not on Viber – for advice (how do I relight the gas heater, what’s a better word for X?) I don’t tell you often enough how much you mean to me. You know better than anyone that I express myself better in writing. Hopefully it shows whenever I see you, but just in case, now you can read this as well. 

Why wait until Mother’s Day to tell you what you ought to know every day: 

I love you, mum.