Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Table at Huxtable


Huxtable


Address: 131 Smith St Fitzroy, Vic, 3065

Phone: (03) 9419 5101

Open: 
Tuesday to Friday, 12pm until late
Saturday to Sunday, 9am until late

Seating times for dinner: early (6pm until 8.15) or late (8.30 until late)


Smith Street is hardly short of places to please the belly. Josie Bones, Easy Tiger, Panama Dining Room, Provence Food and Wine, Boire and Café Rosamond are just a stone’s throw away from each other. It makes little sense to own a restaurant in the area, unless you can really stand out. Thankfully, Huxtable does. Dubbed one of the top ten hot new restaurants by The Age Good Food Guide, Huxtable has been attracting media attention, bloggers, foodies and those who have been more than happily dragged along since it opened last year.


From the name to the interior, Huxtable references The Cosby Show. The American series was popular from the mid ‘80s through to the early ‘90s and starred none other than the Huxtable family. In any other place, the black and brown leather bucket chairs and red brick bar would look dated, but alongside the contemporary plywood ceiling and open kitchen area, Huxtable pulls it off. With all the big fashion names sporting bright colours this season, it would seem that Huxtable predicted the ‘80s revival. 


We booked ahead for a work lunch on a Friday, but were the only people in the restaurant by the time we had finished our meal. Most of the tables accommodate four, but the wooden stools overlooking the chefs at work are a great solo dining option. Tables are also available outside, a must if you have never people watched on Smith Street. Groups of six or more must order the set menu, a selection of 10 courses at $50pp. Bookings are recommended. 


The staff are the happy-go-lucky kind: casual in their approach but still founts of knowledge. Although Huxtable has an extensive list of imported and local wine, we started with lemongrass pale ale from Alchemy Brewing Co. in Healesville. With “a stalk of lemongrass in every bottle,” the novelty value matched the light and fruity flavour. 


Then there was the food, which is divided into bites and share plates. The bites work on a per person basis, except for the tom yum school prawns, which we shared. A bowl of lightly fried prawns arrived with a wedge of lime. They were small enough that you could eat them whole. These tasty little morsels were more-ish to say the least. 


Along with the prawns, we ordered a bite each. I had the special of the day, a pulled pork po’boy with XO sauce and a sliced pickle on a soft white bun. 

 

It was a different take on another more permanent option, a po’boy with oysters encrusted with rice flour beside iceberg lettuce and sriracha mayonnaise.


I noticed women dominated the female-to-male gender ratio of the Huxtable team, with only one fella in the kitchen (you go girls). Maybe that’s why they call it a po’boy? Boom boom.

 

Also ordered was the steamed crab and corn rice noodle with XO chilli. The bulging, homemade noodle rested on a banana leaf with a small blob of the chunky sauce. Inside the bite-sized package was a generous amount of crabmeat nestled amongst some crunchy corn kernels.

 

The favourite bite was the crisp filo log of lamb puttanesca and lemon yoghurt. Placed on a bed of lemon yoghurt, fine angel hair pastry encased the meat, while the spices, nuts and currants added familiar Moroccan flavours.


The only vegetarian item enjoyed was a perfect cube of steamed tofu, decorated with a chilli, ginger and black bean dressing and a leafy crown. Our bites came out as they were ready and we were encouraged not to wait for the others. There was less of an ‘every-man-for-himself’ philosophy surrounding the share plates. 


First up was the ceviche of scallops, octopus and snapper. The pile of fresh, raw seafood was mixed with sliced chilli and onion and was flavoursome without being too fishy. 


The king salmon was presented to the table next. The fish was cooked to a crisp on the outside and the bright pink flesh was just barely cooked through. A mound of salad perched on top, consisting of juicy pomelo, chopped peanuts, coriander and chilli. 


But the uncontested favourite was the Korean barbeque pork ribs. A layer of crispy crackling hugged the sticky pork meat and appealed to everything but our arteries. The salty, almost bitter, chilli-marinated gherkins balanced the fatty ribs. Perfectly cooked with a side of ‘spicy’ slaw (food bloggers, including myself, have pointed out the lack of spice), they went down a treat. 


The char-grilled quail was different again. It came hidden amongst an interesting green mango and cashew salad with a roasted chilli dressing. The tender quail was hardly detectable until we plundered through the attractive pile of ingredients. The green mango more closely resembled rice-noodles than fruit, and had red flecks of chilli throughout. Topped with a fine chilli lattice, it tasted as good as it looked. 


Our final dish was the five-spice duck breast. The fat slices had been marinated in mandarin caramel soy and lay on braised wombok (Chinese cabbage). Sweet, sour and juicy, the harmony of flavours was music to our mouths.

Unfortunately, we were too full to order from the sweet section. Although tempted by the rhubarb jam doughnuts with orange blossom custard and yoghurt sorbet; the dark chocolate delice with jaffa, raspberry sorbet and pistachio; and the mandarin creme brulee with a cardamom biscuit, we decided to hold back. 


When you step into Huxtable, you step back in time. It’s not just the furniture, it’s the way the menu is unfussy like menus used to be. Thai, Japanese, Italian and Middle Eastern influences sit side by side and staff won’t turn their noses up at you if you don’t know what ‘ceviche’ is. Their mantra is simple: “all the things that work and none of the things that don’t.” On this particularly sunny Friday, we found it hard to disagree.




Huxtable on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wellington pops up in Melbourne


WLG Pop Up Restaurant


Cost: dinner $35 / wine $7 per glass or $30 a bottle

When: Tuesday 15th until Sunday 27th November, 2011

Address: 153 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Website: Click HERE
 


You’ve heard of pop-up shops and pop-up bars, but from tonight until the 27th, Wellington has crossed the Tasman Sea and has arrived in Melbourne as a pop-up restaurant. Named WLG after Wellington’s airport code, the best chefs and sommeliers of the region have set up their Kiwi camp in Rue de Fleurus*, a new restaurant and bar that opened only a few months ago on Gertrude Street. One thing is for certain; those New Zealanders sure are passionate about their produce, ay?


Last night I attended the soft opening of the WLG pop-up restaurant in Fitzroy. As far as I could tell, everything ran smoothly. Those who attended were the luckiest guinea pigs in town. We arrived at 7pm to see the building plastered in distinct ‘WLG’ signage, but if all else fails, search for the bright red, orange, blue and yellow chairs out the front. 


Inside, the space had been decked out with tasty products from the north island and all things New Zealand. A table of produce including Mojo coffee, Whittaker’s chocolate and Lot Eight extra virgin olive oil, was interspersed with travel brochures, information pamphlets and the Good Wine Guide 2012.  

 

Upon our arrival, a friendly front of house staff member introduced himself. Haydn looked after us for the rest of the evening. The waiters are the cream of the crop back home and have been flown over especially for the pop-up event. They know their product, they know their menu, and they sure know how to tempt you over to Wellington. 


The evening began with a Capital Collins cocktail made from 42 Below Vodka, Lavender’s Green lime cordial and Antipodes sparkling water. Citrusy and refreshing, it whet our appetites for what was to follow. Shortly after we were shown to our table. Overlooking the action in the kitchen, we were very much in the hot seat. The pristine white tablecloths featured centrepieces made from Wellington postcards and a stylish bottle of sparkling Antipodes water arrived without delay. Not far behind his water was Mr Antipodes himself, Simon Woolley, who was as bubbly as his product.



The menu was matched with wines from Martinborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay, some of the most beautiful regions around Wellington. We sampled Giesen “The Brothers” Sauvignon Blanc 2010 and Forrest Wines Pinot Noir 2008, both from Marlaborough. The former contained hints of tropical fruit with passionfruit shining through. Bright and zesty, it was combined with interesting flavours cited as “cut grass, snow peas and crushed nettle.” The Pinot Noir was smooth and fruity. Traces of cherries and a floral edge were apparent, while an almost peppery taste followed the sweeter notes.


The three-course meal began with a ‘Tastes of Wellington Share Plate.’ It was the kind of ‘share plate’ you really don’t feel like sharing. Alongside the square dish arrived Lot Eight spiced black olives. Arranged next to crusty white bread were five flavourful ‘tastes.’ My favourite was the incredibly delectable Manuka salt cured lamb with a contemporary ‘salsa’ of tiny beetroot cubes interspersed with walnuts and doused in balsamic. The pig’s cheek schnitzel – called a schnitzel only because it’s the simplest definition of the 12-hour cooked, spiced and crumbed meat – was served with a roast lemon chutney, cornichons and cress. 



The other spherical bite was the fried goat’s cheese balls with Manuka honey and kiwi chutney. The crispy outer layer housed the warm, oozing cheese, which was complemented by the sweet and fruity chutney. From the sea, there were grilled Marlborough scallops and maple syrup smoked Regal King Salmon. A celeriac pure and pancetta crumbs accompanied the plump scallops, while the sweet fish was paired with an edgy horseradish crème fraîche and tiny capers. 

We struggled to choose from the mains. Prepared by the top Kiwi chefs, anything we chose would have been brilliant. The kitchen line up (as taken from the WLG website) included:
  • Rex Morgan: head chef at Boulcott Street Bistro, and one of the select few chefs to have won all of New Zealand’s culinary awards.
  • Shaun Clouston: head chef at Cuisine Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year 2009, Logan Brown, one of the signature venues on Wellington’s eclectic Cuba Street. Shaun also spent five years in Sydney in the early 2000s, cooking at La Grillade and Wildfire.
  • Jacob Brown: owner of one of the hottest new restaurants on the Wellington menu, The Larder, located in the heart of the city’s film studios in Miramar. Jacob previously worked at Sydney restaurants Tabou, Hyde Park Café and Fuel Bistro.
  • Tom Hutchison: head chef and owner of Capitol, one of the Wellington’s most successful restaurants.
  • Terry Lowe: head chef at Black Barn Restaurant and Vineyard, Hawke’s Bay voted by Cuisine Magazine as New Zealand’s best winery restaurant in 2011.

The two dishes we didn’t try were the beetroot gnocchi with green asparagus, Parmesan cream and truffle Pecorino, and the horopito-seasoned beef with slow roasted tomato, potato fondant and green beans. I ordered Cook Strait groper. The boneless fillet had a gorgeous crisp finish and flaked away with the slightest touch of the fork. It rested on a bed of potato puree that was enhanced by Lavender Green’s preserved lemons and was given a splash of colour by a green and purple baby herb salad. Sprinkled with crispy fried white bait, it was far superior to your average NZ  ‘fesh ‘n cheps.’


Also ordered was the slow cooked venison in Tunisian brik pasty with veal sweetbreads, broad beans, peas and pancetta. The tasty venison was rolled up in fried pastry and was spruced up by the mixed vegetables and some delicate and crispy fried sage leaves on the side.   

  

Thanks to Simon, we were able to taste a third dish: the braised lamb shoulder timbale with dukkah crusted lamb rack. The timbale, a pastry shell made with batter and hot fat, was filled with seasoned, shredded lamb meat. The juicy lamb rack was perfectly cooked and the wilted mixed greens on the side were braised with an interesting thyme and garlic liquor. 


High on good food and wine, dessert only widened our smiles. The Whittaker’s dark chocolate pavé with fresh raspberries, Manuka honey cream and damson plum coulis was an easy choice for a chocolate lover. The layered log of creamy chocolate was very rich, and when combined with the almost burnt saccharine flavour of the Manuka honey cream, the sweet drizzle of plum coulis and the luscious raspberries, the combination was heavenly. The addition of the thin crisp on top covered in powdered chocolate only added to the mix of textures.


But it was the Licoricello panna cotta with vodka lime parfait and a pistachio wafer that was the dark horse of the dishes. The flavours of the creamy panna cotta combined to form hints of toffee, dispersing to leave a subtle liquorice taste long after the mouthful was swallowed. The 42 Below Vodka was evident in the light and airy lime parfait, while the pistachio wafer was a caramelised crisp – a modern interpretation of a homemade brandy snap. 


To finish the meal, we enjoyed a smooth Mojo coffee and a couple of squares of velvety Whittaker’s dark chocolate. We had indulged in Wellington’s finest fare in good company. We learned that ‘puckeroo’ is Maori for broken, that Antipodes water references the view of Australia and New Zealand from the opposite axis of Europe, and we are still debating why north island New Zealanders refer to their holiday homes as ‘baches’. (So far we think it originally referred to Bachelor escapes!)


While WLG is a brilliant showcase of all things delicious from Wellington, the most notable theme of the evening was that Australia and New Zealand are neighbours, not rivals, when it comes to food and wine. So while you can throw in a sheep joke and ask them to count from one to ‘sex,’ there is much to be envious about. As Simon says, “It’s truly a ‘blissing’ to come from this part of the country.”



NOTE: The first two waves of tickets have sold out, but walk-ins are available each night and it’s first in first served for the outdoor seating.


The Wilde on Urbanspoon 


*Please note this spot has changed names. It is no longer Rue de Fleurus but The Wilde.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Poppet Does Dumplings

HuTongDumplingBar

Address: 161 Commercial Road Prahran, Victoria, 3141

Phone: (03) 9098 1188

Open:
Open seven days, 11am until 3pmand 5.30pm until 10.30pm 
(until 11.30 pm on Friday and Saturday)


Most people in Melbourne have heard of or eaten at HuTong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane in the CBD. But this famous dumpling destination also has a restaurant in Prahran, underneath the arty Cullen Hotel


We visited on account of my little brother, who turned 11 that day. When asked where he would like to go for lunch, the sophisticated little sucker requested yum cha at HuTong. There is something inherently appealing about piles of steaming food being constantly wheeled out to you.


The restaurant seats about 150 people and features two private dining rooms, ideal for larger groups or corporate lunches. There’s a modern spin on traditional Chinese décor, with large concrete grey bricks, dark wooden furnishings and glowing gold lantern ceiling lights. 


Decorative china pots and vases brighten up the dark wooden screens, which contain stacks of wine bottles waiting to be opened. Diners can watch the chefs folding, stuffing and assembling their dumplings from scratch, courtesy of a glass-fronted kitchen.


The service was gracious and responsive, even if there was a language barrier at times. The staff were all smiles and quickly took our drink orders once we were seated. We pre-emptively ordered Chinese tea in an attempt to aid digestion.


One of the standout dishes was the wontons with chilli sauce. Steamed wontons arrived swimming in a sweet and spicy sauce of soy and rice wine vinegar. Chilli seeds floated in the liquid, which cushioned the moreish dumplings. Sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds and zesty spring onions, they are a must try at HuTong. 


The sugar cane prawn was a deep fried ball of diced prawn meat, complete with a stick of sugar cane protruding from the crumbed shell. The condensed texture of the meat was somewhat processed, but it was satisfying chewing on the sugar cane stick that released a warm, sweet juice.


The meat of the prawn balls’ also tasted processed, and the celery stick failed to refresh the deep-fried exterior. At the core of each ball was cooked egg, which did little to endear me further to this selection.


Always a favourite, the steamed BBQ pork buns housed sticky pork meat encased in a fluffy bun. The sugary buns had a cloud-like consistency and as usual, they were the dim sum of choice for those under 12.


The ginger chicken and prawn dumplings arrived beneath a blanket of julienned spring onion. The thin wonton skin was velvety and the filling was light and full of flavour. These dumplings were one of my favourites and are highly recommended. 


The fine translucent skin of the prawn and garlic chive dumplings was an alluring window to what awaited us inside. Stuffed with bright green chives and plump prawn meet, these steamed beauties were a definite winner.


Despite their garish green colouring, the vegetarian spinach dumplings were delicious. Alongside the spinach were a variety of meaty mushrooms, which were complemented by crunchy cashew nuts.


The spring rolls were ordered to please the birthday boy and were accompanied by a sweet plum sauce. They were like any other spring roll: oily with fillings that burn the roof of your mouth (why do we never learn?).


The seasoning on both the salt and pepper chicken wings and squid was simply scrumptious. Both had a crispy batter sprinkled with sliced spring onions. The batter overpowered the sparse meat on the chicken wings, but it was well suited to the tender squid. We all licked our fingers clean of the salt and pepper coating, too involved with the distinctive taste to mind our manners.



The lightly fried rice paper rolls were a refreshing take on traditional rice paper rolls. They weren’t too oily, which meant that health conscious rice paper roll aficionados could still sample them guilt free. These ones contained prawn meat and vegetables and were delightful when dipped in the plum sauce from the spring rolls. 


The prawn, pork and scallop dumplings were too busy. The pork meat was topped by a juicy scallop and wrapped in a sheet of soggy seaweed. Crowned with a prawn, they looked better than they tasted. 


Similar to the above dumplings, the scallop dumplings were below average. The presentation was unimpressive with a slimy yellow skin enveloping diced pork meat and a scallop. The sweet scallop was the best component in both of these dishes.


Now onto a favourite: the duck dumpling. The clear, gluey skin was filled with tasty meat, fresh spring onions and a hint of carrot and mushroom. All the dumplings with this thin, translucent covering were superior to the others.


The fried prawn moneybags were similar to shark fin dumplings. The fried dumplings were not as enjoyable as the steamed dumplings, resembling greasy fast food rather than fresh, handmade dishes.


There is something about Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce that ’s always appealing. Perhaps the abundance of greens on a plate convinces me that I’m balancing the fried food I’ve just consumed with a healthy serve of vegetables. Maybe it’s the idiosyncratic salty taste of the sauce, or the satisfaction that comes from chomping down on the crunchy greens. Then again, maybe it’s just damn delicious. HuTong’s, was no exception.


Finally, we enjoyed the shao-long bao, or soup dumplings. These were the only dumplings we ordered straight away, knowing we would be pleased with the result. These conical morsels feature a slightly thicker, silky dumpling skin containing pork meat. Surrounding the meat is a broth, which spurts out with the first bite. As usual, they were delicious.


The conversation while consuming these flavour bombs usually relates to the best way to eat them. One big mouthful? Puncture the top and slurp out the soup? Bite the side and let it dribble down your chin? (It’s fun). Pierce it with a chopstick and suck out the insides? Regardless of how you do it, one always forgets just how scalding the soup inside is.

After such a selection of dumplings, dessert was out of the question for most of us, although the birthday boy wanted a mango pudding. “It’s my birthday!” he reminded us, and he received. Half of it was gone before I had a chance to take a picture, but I managed to snap some of the desserts displayed in a cabinet near the kitchen.



If you plan on visiting HuTong, my advice is to stick to the dishes you know you will enjoy, such as the soup dumplings. It seems that if you decide to be adventurous, you risk disappointment. Also, head there with a group of people. Yum cha is designed for sharing, as are many Chinese dishes, and you can sample a larger selection this way. My final words of wisdom: don’t over order. It’s easy to say ‘yes’ to everything that comes past, but eating too much makes you bloated and can turn a good value meal into an expensive outing. As Confucius says: do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.

 

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Or for the city restaurant:

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon



With wontons on the brain, I’d like to leave you with this quirky recipe, adapted from Jo Cooks

(Beautiful photos also courtesy of above link)


Nutella and Strawberry Wontons

A sweet alternative to pork and prawn that takes half an hour, including cooking. This recipe for these sweet morsels makes about 28 wontons. While strawberries and Nutella are used here, you could also try other berries, marshmallows, dulce du leche, white chocolate buttons, or cut up pieces of your favourite chocolate bar.

You will need:

❤ 28 wonton wrappers
❤ 28 teaspoon Nutella
❤ 1 cup of chopped strawberries
❤ Oil for frying
❤ Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Now what?

1. Place the wonton wrappers carefully on a bench top. In the middle of each, drop a teaspoon of your chosen ingredients.


2. Dip your finger in water and run it across the edge of the wonton wrapper, then carefully pull one half over the other to make a triangle. Firmly but carefully press the edges together, ensuring the sides are sealed properly. Take the other two sides and bring them up and wrap them over each other, using more water if necessary.

3. Heat the oil on medium until it is hot.

4. Fry the wontons a few at a time for about 2 to 3 minutes each.

5. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and if desired, stuff face.