Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pabu Japanese Smith Street Collingwood

Kanpai! Pabu Grill and Sake in Smith Street

Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meal, Pabu Grill and Sake hosted a media dinner. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.

Address: 190 Smith Street, Collingwood, VIC 

Phone: (03) 9419 6141

Monday to Thursday, 10am until 10pm 
Friday, 10am until late 
Saturday, 5pm until late 
Sunday, 5pm until 10pm 

Pabu is a sensible Japanese dining option on Smith Street, Fitzroy, if you want to get your sake on and feast on the affordable. I visited a little while back as a guest of the owner, Khoa Nguyen, who gallivanted around Japan eating at the best restaurants before opening his own here in Melbourne. The food is decent, but perhaps not what you’d expect from someone who spent time researching at top eateries in Japan. It is, however, exactly what you’d expect from a Sake Master who has learned the art under Maedaya’s Toshi Maeda. 

Pabu, which means pub in Japanese, draws inspiration from izakayas, although inspiration is where it ends. Pabu is much more contemporary and has been modified to suit Melburnian tastes. After our meal I took that to mean ‘goes down well with booze’. It took nine months to transform what was once an old shop lot into Pabu Grill and Sake. The space was designed by EAT Architects. 

Recycled timber and raw brick contrast against steel finishes and add a touch of Collingwood grunge, while the Japanese mural of cranes against a mountainscape comes from Hiroyasu Tsuri of Two One Elephant. Pabu has its own touch of personality, evident in the floating abacus on the ceiling with orange highlights, framed vintage Japanese posters, vibrant traditional pottery and a collection of designer light fittings. 

When it comes to the food, rather than describe the dishes in order of appearance, let’s nip it in the bud and stat with the duds:

Dud number one: the maguro and sake salad. If anyone thinks glistening salmon sashimi pieces and maguro – deep pink chunks of tuna sashimi – can swim in that amount of sesame soy dressing, they’re forgetting the fish are dead. The rocket was wiry and gritty, and like a few of the dishes at Pabu, it suffered from what I like to call OKMS: overzealous kewpie mayonnaise squirting. Not even the crunchy, deep-fried shards of lotus root could pull it from the depths of disaster. 

Dud number two: buta asparagus. This was unfortunate, as the skewers had plenty of potential. It’s possible that the unevenly cooked pork belly slices wrapped around fibrous asparagus (the kind you have to subtly spit out, they refuse to be chewed) fell victim to the smoky, charcoal grill. 

Aside from the above, things started off tremendously. We snacked on addictive slices of lotus root that had all nutritional value zapped out of them by the deep fryer, with salty edamame to balance the guilt. 

A tasting plate of kaki fry (a deep fried, panko-crumbed oyster), kamo tataki (sliced duck wrapped around a plump orange segment), and a stunner of a deep-fried miso scallop (kaibashira) set the bar high early on. 

Ebi capsicum aye tiger prawns in a light tempura batter were moresome mouthfuls mixed with finely chopped onion, capsicum and, unfortunately, another serious case of OKSM. 

Soft shell crab inside-out sushi rolls with cucumber and avocado arrived sparkling with popping tobiko. The fluorescent orange flying-fish roe alternated with a wasabi-dyed green version. It hit the spot, as sushi often does, but the rice could have been cooked a touch longer. 

Nasu dengaku, one of my favourite Japanese dishes, was baked then grilled and slathered in the sweet, buttery miso sauce I'm so fond of. Eggplant is so underrated. 

You’ve heard of the raw food trend, right? Well Japan has been dining raw since before it was cool. They do it best, as the dishes of the night exemplified. Beef tataki with a seared permitter and zesty citrus and soy sauce was so fresh it could have passed as tuna sashimi, while hamachi kingfish slices with ponzu and white radish turned to Mexico with the addition of sliced jalapeño. 

It ended with a velvety green tea crème brûlée, backed by a row of citrus sorbet, black sesame ice cream and a scoop of vanilla. Throw in a frozen melon mochi rice ball and a few slices of fruit and you’ve got yourself a Japanese dessert platter. The brûlée could have done with a touch more matcha. I’m a strong believe that you can rarely have too matcha, matcha. 

Every dish we sampled was paired with sake in gorgeous bottles. I’m not going to pretend I remember which is which, but rest assured your Sake Master will be able to make recommendations. The menu comes with pairing suggestions, too. 

I’ll admit I’m hard to please when it comes to Japanese. After an incredible trip there last year, my standards skyrocketed when I realised we really don’t have much in the way of authentic Japanese dining here in Melbourne, except for my favourite place North of the river. But Pabu isn’t trying to be authentic; it’s trying to provide a solid, contemporary Japanese dining and drinking den for groups and couples alike. And with the exception of a couple of iffy dishes, it succeeds. 

Pabu Grill & Sake on Urbanspoon

Where is you favourite Japanese joint in Melbourne? Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bowery to Williamsburg to Melbourne

Bagels and Reuben and Pickles, Oh My!

Address: 16 Oliver Lane, Melbourne 

Open: Weekdays, 7.30am until 3.30pm 

Phone: (03) 9077 0162 

Six hours and one minute. That’s how long it takes to get from Bowery to Williamsburg, according to Google Maps. Eleven minutes is how long it takes to get to Bowery to Williamsburg – the café – from my place by car. 

Surely you’ve heard of Bowery to Williamsburg by now? It’s a fancy New York-style sandwich café in Melbourne CBD. It’s run by the owners of Hardware Societe, and damn is it good. Their chewy, boiled bagels are by 5 & Dime, their coffee from Padre and their soft drinks all-American (root beer, anyone?). At the end of the day – or the start of your lunch break – there’s almost nothing you can fault. 

Bowery to Williamsburg boasts the kind of menu that makes you want to pull your hair out – you want to order everything but you can’t. Or can you? Nope, you definitely can’t. The Reuben, which has become the signature sanger here, proves you can’t order everything on the menu due to it’s sheer size. Thick slices of corned beef brisket get jiggy with sauerkraut, Russian dressing and oodles of melted swiss cheese. I took one look at the beast and decided I couldn’t manage it, although the fellow next to me was certainly enjoying his. Next time I'll better prepare my stomach for the challenge. 

Instead I ordered the pickled herring. Salty white fish fillets folded over themselves, supported by a creamy, chopped base of beetroot and egg salad and slices of cucumber balanced on top. The ingredients hugged together between dark pumpernickel bread. It’s a shame the latter was so dry. 

My partner in dine, Little Miss Melbourne, was a sucker for the Schmaltz chicken with apple and celeriac slaw and prune relish, which she ate on gluten-free bread for an extra buck due to her stubborn stomach. 

It’s worth noting that each sandwich and bagel is $12.50, but you’d be insulting Obama if you didn’t spend an extra $4 for the sides of salty pretzels, a supersized dill pickle and your choice of either mac 'n' cheese or a jar of tabbouleh salad. Pretending to be healthy by ordering the tabbouleh is a mistake I won’t make again, not because the salad was a touch lacking, but because the mac ‘n’ cheese on the other table looked incredible. 

Traditionalists will be pleased to see a hot smoked salmon bagel on the menu, along with a pastrami sandwich on rye. There’s also the choice of pork and almond meatballs, and even breaded eggplant and haloumi for the vegos. 

Steering clear of the Rueben was a wise decision seeing as I was after dessert. We were limited to the gluten-free brownie, which turned out to be a fantastic problem to have. Not only did it make deciding between the maple pecan pie, New York cheesecake, s’mores bars, key lime pie and pumpkin pie easy; it was rich, fudgy, and everything you’d expect a gluten-free treat not to be. 

Although everyone raves about the peanut butter hot chocolate, I wasn’t impressed. The only thing peanut-buttery about it was the fact that you stir a peanut butter cup into it. While the gooey, warm candy is a bonus; you don’t taste peanut butter in the actual drink. Stick to coffee, it will give you more room for sweets and they come with a kiss of the Hershey’s variety. 

Earlier in the day you can swing by for brekkie, too. Bagels are available with a range of cream cheeses. Try the sour cherry with coffee cream cheese, or a beetroot and rye with caviar. There’s a strong Jewish influence in the cooked breakfast items. Highlights include lox on latkes, blintzes and fried challah with whipped peanut butter, poached pears and candied popcorn. 

I really did love Bowery to Williamsburg. Any menu that causes that much distress when attempting to order is a winner in my books. I’m looking forward to returning to that concrete café where dreams are made of, there’s nothing I won’t eat.

  Bowery to Williamsburg on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

No. 8 by John Lawson, Crown Casino

The Best Bread in the World: No. 8 by John Lawson

Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meal, No. 8 by John Lawson hosted a free media dinner. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.

Address: Riverwalk, Crown Casino, Southbank, VIC 

Open: Lunch daily, 12pm until 3pm 
Dinner Sunday to Thursday from 6pm until 10pm 
Dinner Friday to Saturday from 5.30pm until 10.30pm 

Phone: (03) 9292 5777 

Yep, it’s happened: I’ve found the best bread in Melbourne. A potato, rosemary and honey sourdough, to be precise. I suggest heading to No. 8 by John Lawson (formally known as No. 8, go figure) at Crown Casino if you want to taste it. Adjectives like ‘soft’ and ‘fluffy’ don’t cut it. Each bite was dense but not heavy and boasted attributes usually reserved for unicorns and rainbows. And just when I thought it couldn’t possibly taste any better, a thick smear of salty seaweed butter joined the party. 

It’s not that Chef John Lawson’s dishes aren’t impressive – he’s one of the few who can still blab on about sourcing seasonal produce from Victorian farmers and get away with it – it’s just that the bread is THAT good. EDS Breads, an artisan bakery specialising in sourdough, makes it exclusively for him. But enough about the bread – of which I may or may not have devoured an entire loaf – let’s talk about the restaurant, perched on the Yarra River beneath the famous Crown fireballs that ignite every hour.

After a decade, No. 8 underwent minor refurbishment and major refinement. The fit with Lawson himself is evident – muted colours and licks of green reference nature and Lawson’s respect for produce. Even the earthenware is a little bit spesh, crafted by a local potter to complement the dishes. We pinched Lawson from London, when he arrived in Melbourne a few years ago to open Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant. After that failed, Lawson went on to run Crown’s Mr. Hive. His obsession with locally harvested food has stuck to him like a shadow since his stint at La Rapiere in Bayeux, France, where he cooked with produce from local farms. 

Nothing exemplified this obsession more than the Flowerdale Farm spring salad, with its freshly foraged appearance, chewy wheat berries (best described as ‘al dente barley’), blobs of baby carrot purée, thin zucchini slices and their flowers, sunflower shoots and almond mushrooms (another ingredient grown exclusively for Lawson, although I failed to pick up the marzipan aftertaste and truffle tones). 

The highlight was the Portland black and blue tuna steak, sashimi-style in the centre and seared on one side. It arrived tangled with ribbons of daikon, beside baby radishes, and laced with sharp black garlic, yuzu jam and fermented aged soy. I ordered the Barwon River lamb shoulder, a serious hunk of tender meat cooked over 12 hours, speckled with bush spice quinoa and complemented with an unfortunately minute dollop of sheep’s yoghurt. 

Again, this little lamb is bred just for Johnny boy. The other option was the Milawa duck breast, a cross of five different species available to everyone. Just kidding! It too is marked ‘Lawson only’. I attacked my fellow diners’ dishes and admittedly fell victim to food envy as I bit through the crispy skin into the juicy pink flesh. The sweet shallot purée and oh-so-seasonal asparagus and peas didn’t go astray, either.  

When it came to dessert, I was thrilled with Lawson’s contemporary take on banana split. Banana coated in rum caramel and scattered with toasted hazelnuts rested on a thin slice of banana bread. A piping of banana cream here, a quenelle of banana ice cream there, and it’s difficult to ever eat the version with chocolate sauce and hundreds and thousands again. 

Those who missed out on the split were treated to a pretty spring garden of yoghurt and honey mousse interspersed with lychee, blueberries, mango, freeze-dried raspberries and edible flowers. If it were a dress, I’d have bought it. 

We finished up with petit four – thin white chocolate spheres coated in toasted coconut and filled with sticky strawberry jam. 

While the PR campaign can tout Lawson’s prior experience, exclusively raised meat, superbreeds of poultry and mushrooms posing as nuts, only one thing really matters: No. 8 by John Lawson offers a stunning menu that almost competes with its bread. Almost. 

No. 8 by John Lawson (number 8) on Urbanspoon

As part of Good Food Month, No. 8 by John Lawson has a few special events up its sleeve: 

- A five course meal paired with Coldstream Hills wine, with special guest James Halliday (Thursday 14 November 2013) 

- $55 three course or $45 two course lunch indulgence, available daily until 24 November 2013 

For more information click here, or to book please call (03) 9292 5777. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Theic Tea Bar in Collingwood

Specialty Tea + Vegan Treats at Theic 

Disclaimer: Since visiting Theic, I have taken on Somage Fine Foods as a client. I paid for my meal. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.

Address: 77 Cromwell Street, Collingwood, Vic

Phone: 0433 214 938

Open: Weekends, 10am until 4pm
Cuppings Wednesday to Thursday, 6pm until 8pm
Wednesday to Friday, trade by appointment only

Theic is a much kinder word than alcoholic, although they essentially mean the same thing. The only difference is the former refers to an addiction to tea, the latter an addiction to booze. Given this information, it’s fair to say I should be a member of TA (Theics Anonymous). The word ‘Theic’ was introduced into my vocabulary following the opening of Theic Tea Bar, hidden away in INSITU Furniture in the back streets of Collingwood. 

Nathan Wakeford is the tisane-obsessed man behind the specialty café. You may remember him from such brands as Somage Fine Foods, specifically the Chamellia tea range. Nathan is the real deal. He doesn’t do things by halves, as evident from his strict vegan diet and weekly two hour drives up to Donna Buang where he collects the purest spring water for his perfectionist brews. 

This is the kind of place you can sit for hours, chatting to the knowledgeable and friendly staff without feeling rushed. You sigh deeply to yourself, without realising. I imagine a cigarette has a similar effect on a smoker. The only stressor here is choosing a cuppa from the tea bible before you. Green, white, black, oolong, blooming, fruit, iced – it’s no easy feat. Thankfully you can tell your waiter what you like or what you fancy and they’ll do all the hard work for you.

I visited with Daisy from Never Too Sweet. She ordered the green tea latte with soy milk, commenting – as her blog name would suggest – that it wasn’t too sweet. This allowed the matcha flavour to shine, while the hints of saccharine were attributed to panela sugar, carrying caramel undertones. 

After much debate, I opted for the persimmon leaf tisane from Korea. Despite its light, fruity aroma, there was a deeper essence to this tea that reminded me of a baked winter dessert. It’s worth noting that the $8.50 price tag won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re a sucker for the finer things in life, it’s a small price to pay. You’ll also score a couple of infusions, which means you’re really only paying $4.25 for the privilege anyway. 

We were also treated to a sample of the chai latte; the waitress had made some for herself and decided to share the love. One sip revealed the disparity between your average café chai and this one, infused with cinnamon, clove and cardamom. 

Food here is 100 per cent vegan and comes curtsey of Chinita Desserts, Loafer Bakery, Proud Mary and Botanical Cuisine. The Loafer toast crisps on the sharing plate would have seriously upset anyone with expensive dentures, but the vegan dips – creamy dill ‘cheese’, vibrant carrot and fennel pate, and an earthy mushroom and truffle pate – were divine. 

Our ordering knows no boundaries, which is why we split a serving of granola once we’d licked the dip dishes clean. It arrived divided into two glasses without us having to ask. Hits of honey somersaulted with the crunch of roasted almonds and sugary bursts from dried fruit, all fused together with the nutty sweetness of soy milk. 

Of course we ordered dessert. At Theic, desserts are raw, vegan and just about as ethical as food comes. I couldn’t go past the Snickers Ball: a health nut, gym junkie vitality ball rolled with caocao (not cocoa), peanuts, coconut and dates. 

The only coffee you’ll find at Theic comes in the form of a mocha fudge brownie bite, made using Proud Mary beans. I actually preferred the coconut-laced treat to the popular Snickers Ball, with its lovely pliable texture that took a perfect mould of our teeth, in start contrast to the share plate toast. The coconut chai porridge also caught our eye, but we’ll have to save it until next time. 

Theic isn’t the kind of place you go to stuff yourself stupid. Visit if you’re craving a meditative atmosphere, a refined beverage crafted with the utmost care and dessert that’s entirely guilt-free. Besides, specialty coffee is SO 2012. 

Theic Tea Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Taste of Taste of Melbourne 2013

Taste of Melbourne ft. Huxtable and Rekorderlig 

Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meal, Huxtable hosted a free media dinner to promote their stall at Taste of Melbourne. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.

Address: 131 Smith Street, Fitzroy, VIC

Phone: (03) 9419 5101

Open: Tuesday to Sunday, midday until late

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to one of my favourite restaurants, Huxtable, to experience ‘a taste of Taste’. Taste of Melbourne is a four-day food festival featuring Melbourne’s best restaurants and top chefs, as well as a pile of produce stores, all lined up on Pelican Lawn at Albert Park Lake. It kicks of next Thursday November 14. 

These days Huxtable is overshadowed by the ever-growing popularity of it’s burger joint across the road, Huxtaburger, of which another store is due to open any second now in Prahran, just up from The Smith and across the road from Hanoi Hannah. Prahran is Huxtaburger’s third shop, following on from Collingwood and the CBD. Plans are also underway for a fourth. 

had spent the day in Coburg sampling and shooting the new menu for Oriental Teahouse. We started eating at 10am and didn't finish until approximately 5.30pm. By then I had to drive straight to Huxtable, stomach crying out for mercy. I was worried that for the first time in my life, my appetite would fail me. To my astonishment I managed to eat almost everything. I put it down to the consistently fantastic food at Huxtable. 

Each dish was matched with Rekorderlig cider, which is one of the main Taste of Melbourne sponsors. By the end of the dinner we counted 42 glasses between seven people. I was driving, but I didn’t mind – I've never been a fan of the drink. The orange and ginger Rekorderlig is the only exception. Best enjoyed during summer on a rooftop in the sun overlooking our wonderful city. 

Huxtable Chef and Owner Daniel Wilson was kind enough to sit down with us while we ate, despite the busy restaurant bustling around him. For once, the conversation was less about food and more about the colourful characters one encounters on Smith Street, from your friendly neighbourhood smackie to that homeless guy you thought seemed like a nice enough bloke but has you fooled. Unfortunately I can’t share the other stories in case my blog is shut down, but it's probably nothing locals don't see every day and mutter to themselves, “only in Fitzroy”. 

Dinner featured favourites from the restaurant, as well as dishes that Huxtable will be offering at Taste of Melbourne. We started with jalapeno cheddar croquettes, golden-fried spheres with and an elasticy cheese filling, toned down with spice from the spice. 

Next came the famous XO buns with spanner crab and Thai basil mayo. Each mouthful was a pleasure and Dan’s partiality for fresh produce and attention to detail was as clear as legitimate apple cider. As for the mango and raspberry Rekorderlig, well, let's just say I spent a whole lot less on lolly water that tasted exactly the same during my teenage drinking days. 

The Kataifi-wrapped lamb puttanesca was a highlight. The wispy, crunchy pastry hairs were wrapped around succulent lamb, rich with spices and packed into a delectable cigar. 

Mini Huxtaburgers followed: one beef, one Wallaby, and both living up to their reputation. The wallaby was only mildly gamier than the beef due to the mix of wallaby and wagyu meat. I have no doubt the Huxtaburgers will sell like hotcakes at Taste of Melbourne – although it’s about time we changed the expression to “sell like Huxtaburgers” – especially with the douche burger special making an appearance (wagyu with foie gras). 

As we finished our burgers, the kitchen delivered some Korean barbecue pork ribs, tender and sticky and served with creamy coleslaw and punchy pickles to cut through the fattiness. Fingers were licked, bones were sucked and serviettes were massacred. How I managed to get this far after a day of non-stop eating was beyond me. You should all be extremely impressed. 

The final dish was a welcomed refresher: Mount Zero grain and broccoli salad with quinoa, chickpeas and sweet bursts of cranberry. 

I would highly recommend eating at Huxtable on any given day, but the problem with Melbourne is that there are so many restaurants to try and so little time to try them all. Taste of Melbourne is a great solution to this problem, featuring dining hotspots such as Tonka, B’stilla, St. Crispin, MoVida, Chin Chin, Albert Street Food and Wine, Burch & Purchese, and many more. I attended last year and made comment about paying for the privilege of seeing so many incredible chefs in one spot. That being said, if you're willing to pay for entry, and then for food and drink, you'll leave with a full belly, some fantastic culinary knowledge and a big smile. Fingers crossed the weather holds up; it makes a huge difference on the day. 

Huxtable on Urbanspoon

Taste of Melbourne details: 

Pelican Lawn at Albert Park Lake (off Aughtie Drive) 

Thursday 14 November: 5.30-9.30pm 
Friday 15 November: 12-4pm & 5.30-10pm 
Saturday 16 November: 12-4pm & 5.30-10pm 
Sunday 17 November: 12-5pm