Friday, November 19, 2010

MoVida Aqui

Physical: 500 Bourke Street (enter on Little Bourke), Melbourne CBD

The MoVida team have done it again. Another (well, another one and a half, if you consider Terraza as being distinct from Aqui) wonderful MoVida restaurant. Better, I'd argue, than the original and the first child. MoVida Aqui is more spacious than the other restaurants. This space has been taken advantage of: they now cook a lot of dishes, including the Spanish classic paella, over coals. The menu is larger. The daily specials, even, is a long list. The focus is less on tapas, more on grilled stuff. The lighting is fairly bright--more akin to Next Door than the mothership. The bar seating area, too, is further away from the regular dining area than it was MoVida or MoVida Next Door.

I liked the two dishes I had. A grilled piece of pork loin was large, juicy, attractive and tasty. The accompanying tomato and coriander sauces were light and, when the pork was gone, worked equally well with the beautiful house-made bread--good bread, of course, has always been one of MoVida's strengths.

The crispy school prawns were lovely, too. Small prawns--head on, still in the shell and everything--crumbed lightly in semolina and served with a very rich aioli, intended to be eaten whole. A messy but lovely dish.

Must go back sooner rather than later.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Physical: 11 Collins Street, Melbourne CBD

Mamasita is pretty much impossible to get into at night. They won't take bookings unless you're in a group of a certain size and then, of course, then you're obligated to go for some set menu. For everyone else it's a case of having to line up on the narrow staircase, giving your number to someone and waiting for a call some time in the next, oh, two or three hours.

Getting in at lunchtime is a lot easier assuming you go early. When you get in, it's easy to see why there is such a long wait at night: the dining room is fairly small. Thankfully, though, it's not cramped.

Mamasita is everything a reasonable person would expect and want it to be. The menu provides a much fairer representation of what Mexican food is about than, say, Taco Bill or any of its equally nasty competitors. The service is friendly and speedy. You order whatever and, before you know it, it's sitting on your table. The food looks nice and tastes nice. The braised pork dishes--the both of them, the tacos and the sandwich-like things, with shredded, seasoned pork sitting between a thin corn chip and a thick slice of jalapeno--are both very nice. There's reasonable cider on tap (Coldstream Brewery) that goes for five bucks a pot. The housemade corn chips, which I bought for the kids at work, are nice and plentiful. Overall, Mamasita is excellent for what it is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

vue de monde

Physical: 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

I finished my last assignment (ever, probably) yesterday. My last assignment after seven years of university. This called for something nice. Something nice came in the form of a lunch at Vue de Monde.

At lunch, Vue de Monde offers numerous options. The standard tasting menu, at $100 per head. The 'chef's menu', more expensive still ($250 at nighttime--not sure about during the day). And, too, the lunch special: $55 for 2 courses and $70 for 3. Both specials are inclusive of a glass of wine, appetisers, a palate cleanser and two sides. $70 is a lot to pay for lunch but, let's face it, you're getting plenty of food (I came out full) at Melbourne's only three hat restaurant. They throw in a glass of okay wine. The service is fucking amazing.
Pretentious, yes. Everything is 'excellent, sir' and 'wonderful choice, sir' and your glass of water is never allowed to be less than 3/4 full. But yes, it's amazing. The deal is pretty good.

The appetisers were simple but nice: house-made potato chips with sour cream that'd been laced with caviar and, too, some olives.

The entree involved four of my favourite things: baby squid, duck tongues (actually, I'd never had duck tongues before, but I love duck), leek and bone marrow. Everything was beautifully cooked and presented. I was sitting near the kitchen and was in awe seeing how long it took the kitchen team to present even a single dish. Every little detail mattered. Was fussed over. I've eaten in nice restaurants and had nicely presented plates of food before--Embrasse's medley of vegetables, for example--but this, man, this was something else. The duck tongues, now, the duck tongues were my favourite element of the dish. They confit them and then, I believe, roast them. They come out crunchy. I could eat massive quantities of them while drinking beer and be very, very, very happy.

The palate cleanser was a nice touch: a celery sorbet. I liked it.

The main was truly special. I'd never had marrons before--another first--but I liked these. The pairing with the richest braised beef cheek I've ever had--which was so tender you could eat it with a spoon--was clever. A nod to the classic surf and turf paring of steak and lobster or prawns. The accompanying wild flowers added attractive flashes of colour to what would've otherwise been a two tone plate.

Included with the lunch special are two sides: a very simple salad with a mixture of sweet and bitter (radicchio) leaves and a--as in singular--rather impressive chip of a size you could use, if you really wanted, to construct houses. The chip was lovely. Very crisp on the outside, due to double frying, and fluffy and awesome on the inside. The recipe is, I think, in one or maybe both of Shannon Bennett's recipe books and would easily, even with your standard $2/kilo suprmarket potatoes, be worth reproducing at home.

The dessert was light and refreshing and, really, everything I like in dessert: some pieces of fresh pineapple, a quenelle of mango puree and a fluffy coconut souffle.

For $70, Vue de Monde offered an amazing experience. It got everything right, from the big things--the entree, main, dessert and service--to the little things like providing somewhere you can spit your olive pits (always an awkward moment, when nothing appropriate is provided, which is far too common). Just really, truly, totally fucking flawless. I can't wait to come back here for the degustation at some point.

Too, on a side note, the French butter--and yeah, I've had French butter before, but this was epic--made me understand, on some level, why Escoffier and Larousse put butter in everything at least twice.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Physical: 109 Elgin Street, Carlton

Abla's Lebanese restaurant is just over 30 years old. Abla, the owner, still works in the kitchen and makes the time to float around the place and say hi to customers. She's a nice lady in what is, essentially, an especially long-lived and popular variant of the surburban family-run ethnic restaurant. The menu is a list of traditional classics. The place is loud and cramped but I don't consider that a problem. If you want quiet and romantic, go somewhere else. All those mezze platters and everything, the whole idea is about sharing good food with friends and such.

Abla's has, for a few years now, earned the praise and etc of the people behind The Age Good Food Guide. It's one of three Middle Eastern places--Momo and Rumi being the other two--that's on the list of places I have to get to before Food Guide 12 hits the newsagents.

How is Abla's, actually, though? We ordered a banquet so we had the chance to sample a helluva lot of the menu.

The good:

  • Hummous: made on site, light and refreshing
  • Baba Ghannooj: a smoky, slightly hot eggplant dip--this stuff I could eat all day
  • Chicken wings: chicken wings, I'll have you know, are one of my very favourite things. Abla's chicken wings presumably come from a decent butcher as they have a nice chickeny flavour. Not overseasoned, either.
  • Makaneek: tiny tiny tiny lamb and beef sausages. Would be awesome with beer.
  • Silverbeet rolls: look a lot like dolmades, loaded up with spices, rice, chickpeas and tomatoes. Could eat a lot of these.
  • Green beans: cooked until soft and floppy, which is normally a Bad Thing, but these weren't bad at all. In fact they were really good. The dressing had some real guts.'
  • Baklava: sweet but not too sweet. The best I've had.

The okay:

  • Labnee: yoghurt dip served with the other two dips--it was okay but served as a nice counterpoint to the heavily seasoned chickpea and eggplant dips
  • Ladyfingers: like a lot of the lamb dishes, the ladyfingers were a bit dry
  • Tabbouleh: dressed with a little more olive oil and served, perhaps, after or alongside the lamb skewers, this would've maybe crept into the 'good'
  • Turkish delight: less icing sugar and we'd be in business. Can get better from the local Greek deli tho'

The bad:

  • Felafel: dry
  • Kibbee: sadly, the lamb dishes were all dry. The crispy coating on the kibbee should have contained wonderful juicy meat--I wanted it to--and instantly, instantly gone straight up to one of my all time and forever favourites, but inside it was just like an overcooked rissole
  • Lamb skewers: lamb, again, overcooked and dry. Would've been elevated to okay with some sort of dipping sauce. 
  • Chicken and rice: slivers of almond provided a nice flavour and, again, the chicken tasted nice, but the chicken was dry--really dry--and that just didn't work for me at all
The interesting:

  • Coffee loaded up with fucking mint
Overall I think Abla's was okay and, at the price point, offered nothing worthy of complaint. Honestly, though, Dandenong's Afghan Pamir Kebab place, if you're prepared to travel that far out of town, offers an all-round superior banquet for less money.

Monday, November 8, 2010

last night -- pork, again, this time with feeling

Pad kra pao is just the sort of thing I like to cook when it's hot outside and I'm tired and I'm lucky enough to have beer or cider or both just sitting there in the fridge. This is simple food. Comfort food for the warmer months. You fry up some meat. You season the shit out of it. Done.

Heat some oil in a wok. When the oil is hot (doesn't need to be smoking--smoking is bad bad bad) add 500 grams of pork mince, some minced garlic and grated ginger. Stir and fry--stir fry--for two or three minutes before adding 100 g chopped snake beans (in a pinch, I guess, there's nothing stopping you from using green beans), some diced shallots (3-4 should do), as much sambal oelek (if you can get the roasted version, use this in preference) as you like and cook for another couple of minutes. Now add 50 mL each soy sauce and fish sauce (or more or less, depending on your taste for this sort of product) and a good sprinkling of brown sugar. Cook for another three or four minutes or until the pork is cooked through. Stir through a handful of Thai basil leaves. Serve with rice and, because it's always a good idea for this sort of thing, a fried egg (fried in a little bit of butter, as eggs fried in butter taste and look much better than eggs fried in copious amounts of vegetable and etc oils).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

kao gaeng hot pot & shabu

Place: Kao Gaeng
Physical: Shop 13/14, 22-38 Queen's Avenue, Springvale (next to Walrus)

Kao Gaeng offers everything I could ever want from a cheap and cheerful restaurant in Springvale: it's clean, it's not too cramped, the staff don't rush you through your meal, the food is good and, most of all, there's a lot of pork on the menu. From slow-braised leg meat (which, sadly, had run out when I went) to stir fries to curry. There is pork in many forms. I partook in a plate of grilled pork neck, which was served with rice and a salty and sour sauce.

Was it the best pork I'd had in my life? No. But I like this place. I want to go back. To me, it checks all the boxes for a restaurant at this price point.

Friday, November 5, 2010

walrus, springvale

Place: Walrus
Physical: 20/28 Queens Avenue, Springvale (across the road from the railway line)

Walrus has an awesome name and is, despite its shitty location, very popular. What you see from the train, going past, looks kind of grotty, but inside it's not too bad: a bit dated but clean. The service is polite and efficient. A bonus at this price point.

Walrus has, at least at lunchtime, its price factor as a major plus. Most dishes on the menu--and obviously we're not talking about the live seafood or barbecued suckling pig or whatever here--come in at less than ten bucks a pop, at least at lunchtime. And, too, they throw in some compilimentary soup (assorted vegetables and stock bones in a salty broth). The soup is medicore but, really, fuck, it's free.

I was promised that Walrus' pork was among the best in Melbourne. The person who promised me that is not to be trusted again. It's just not that good. It's not bad. For the eight dollar asking price, again, yes--eight dollars--I was happy with my salty, juicy, but not too greasy, barbecued pork. It was okay. But, and maybe this is because I had such a good experience yesterday with pork, it just didn't taste like pig. Maybe it's the cooking method and maybe it's, too, the marinade and all the salt, but it didn't taste piggy enough to qualify, in my books, as pork. Pork tastes like pork, always. But good pork is pork that tastes piggy. Piggy taste is beautiful. Piggy taste doesn't necessarily require expensive-as-all-fuck black pig--it can be attained, by a skilled cook, from decent quality standard stuff. But no, Walrus' barbecue pork didn't rate, in my books.

At the same time, though, there's that little thing about the eight dollar price tag. Let's face it, what can you get for eight dollars? A meal at KFC or McDonald's and that's about all. You can't buy even a burger at Grill'd. A lot of places in Springvale, even, will give you a mediocre 'rice meal' or some mediocre dumplings floating in, depending on your wont, either salty, starch-laden water or grease or, if you're especially lucky, both. So. Yeah. If you have eight bucks in your pocket and you're in Springvale and you're hungry and it's lunchtime, you could do worse. Too, Walrus has a fucking cool name.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

steak notes: butter, my friend

The Health Nazis and the vegan terrorists and etc will tell you that butter is bad bad bad and, maybe, if you're eating it all day, every day, it is. Butter, however, is an essential ingredient. Sometimes you can't do without butter. Sometimes you can but the substitutes are inferior. Sometimes you just have to live a little. I mean, how often, really, do you eat scrambled eggs? Or steak? Or proper mashed potato?

Anyway, Anthony Bourdain, I think it was, introduced me to this simple technique and I've been using it frequently. He (or whoever) says that the what a lot of steak houses do is, when they carve their steaks (after cooking and the critical resting), brush them with a little bit of melted butter. Note this bit: little bit. You're not buttering a fucking dinner roll. You're taking melted butter and using a pastry brush or basting brush to give a chunk of meat a sheen. I've never tried it, but there's nothing at all stopping you from trying this with other meats or cuts, such as roasting joints.

You could obviously use flavoured butter in place of regular butter. By all means experiment with garlic butter, herb butter, red wine butter or whatever you have kicking about the place. Peanut butter, probably, wouldn't be so nice.

embrasse 2: vegetables, porky pork

Place: Embrasse Restaurant
Physical: 312 Drummond Street, Carlton

Back to Embrasse. This time for lunch.

Now, important point. As a general rule, I don't go to restaurants twice. I come. I see. I eat. I go somewhere else. There are a lot of places I want to try so there's not much time to for return visits. Embrasse, like MoVida, is worthy enough for me to make an exception.

Embrasse's lunch menu is, relative to their dinner menu, reasonably priced. $38 gets you two courses and a glass of the house wine (red or white). $45 gets you three courses and a glass of wine. You have three entrees, three mains and three desserts (including a selection of cheeses) to choose from. The website mentions petit fours thrown in with both lunch menus but, no, you don't get those.

First up, the entree: asparagus lightly coated in crispy crumbs, served with an 'egg yolk emulsion' (Embrasse, I suppose, is too flash to serve its customers mayonnaise) and a wee piece of slow-cooked pork belly. I stopped reading the entree menu right there, I must admit. I like--really, I do--ocean trout and everything else, but I can't go past pork belly. Can't. The pork belly was among the piggiest I've ever tasted. You know how a lot of pork you buy is just bland? Generic protein? This pork belly, slow-cooked and, at some point, steamed (the waiter was a little unclear about the cooking method), tasted like pig. Childhood flashbacks to grandma's roast pork and etc. The asparagus, too, was really nice. Made me wish I didn't have utility Riesling (which was okay, I guess) and instead had a beer. Really, I'd have taken Carlton or anything they'd been willing to pour me. This food, as delicate as it looked, was, to me, an utter savage in such matters, more beer food than cheap Riesling food.

The second dish was beautiful. The medley of vegetables, available as both an entree and main on their dinner menu, is an ode to the wonderful flavours, textures and colours of seasonal vegetables. Everything is perfectly cooked and tastes really good. There are vegetables cut this way and that. Whole infant turnips. Brightly coloured purees. As a child I fucking hated vegetables but this, if I'd had this, would've, even as a snotty-nosed little shit, understood the potential of stuff pulled from trees.

All in all, I'd say lunch was worth it. A little treat to myself for finishing seven years of study that I wasn't able to finish last week, when I actually finished seven years of study. Embrasse's service is polite and efficient whether you're in a large group, ordering lots of food and lots of alcohol, or on your own partaking in the lunch special. The wine was mediocre but I expected as much--a nice glass of wine, here, at dinner time, costs a pretty penny, so anything thrown in with lunch, all complimentary like, was bound to be mundane. I'd have preferred a steadying glass of beer, but hey, my fault for not asking if that was possible.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

scrambled eggs

Today I had the urge to cook scrambled eggs. Now, here's the thing. Normal times, I just boil or fry eggs. I've never actually prepared scrambled eggs. I've stewed a fucking possum in tomato and capsicum sauce. I've roasted a very fine duck. I've never cooked scrambled eggs, though.

Gordon Ramsay says you should beat the eggs in a saucepan as opposed to a bowl. It's unclear why. My theory is that his dishwashing lackey had taken the day off when he was filming that episode of ... whatever show that YouTube clip was from. So I did. I beat 6 eggs (for two people) with a sizable knob of butter, some minced garlic, a grind of black pepper (but not salt) and a splash of milk (you could use cream but if you do, you'll want to cut back the number of eggs as it'll be disgustingly rich) in a small, non-stick saucepan and cooked it over a low heat, stirring gently but constantly, until the mixture began to cook. You don't want to be eating rubbery eggs. Rubbery eggs are sad, sad, tragically sad things. What you want to do is cook until the egg whites have just set. When it's almost there, even, you can turn the heat off. The residual heat in the pan and the eggs will carry it the rest of the way. The end result should be very rich. Season it with salt and pepper and, if you feel it right, a few drips of Tabasco.

And of course you need bacon. I suggest roasting it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

a take on ragu using assorted chicken components

On Iron Chef, once, they had a suckling pig battle and someone made a ragu with pig hearts, liver and whatever else. They threw in a bit of minced up shoulder, too. This struck me, at the time and no less now, as an excellent idea. Sadly, I never got around to it. Acquiring fresh pig offal means a trip to the magical wonderland that is Springvale. There are a lot of butcher shops that sell pig offal (and offal in general). A couple of them even manage not to smell really bad.

I'm not working with pig offal, though. Not today. Today I'm working with chicken offal, which is easier to acquire.

The ragu shall, aside from the choice of meat, be, mostly, made Adrian Richardson's way.

First off, you want to fry some (well, 100g-ish) diced bacon and (50g-ish) hot salami (a combination, I guess, that's a bit like the poor student's pancetta) until crispy. In the fat, quickly brown the following: 200 g chicken leg fillets (diced or minced, could use the more expensive thighs instead), 350 g chicken hearts (diced) and 350 g chicken giblets (diced). Remove the meat from the pan. Add some more grease, if you need to, and throw in a couple of onions (diced), a carrot (diced) and a lengthy length of celery (also diced). Fry until soft and then add as much minced garlic as seems appropriate. Give that a couple of minutes and then add some tomato passata and the reserved meat. Simmer for a hour or so until the tomato sauce has reduced and thickened and shifted from a mass produced product into something awesome. At this point, you coul quickly fry up a couple of hundred grams of chicken livers, roughly chop them and stir them into the sauce. Serve atop a suitable pasta.

Too, a thought, if you have some assorted chicken bits kicking around--necks, wing tips, whatever--you could brown them, heavily, in the pan (or roast them for a while) and then add them to the sauce. Remove them before serving the sauce, of course, but sitting in that tomatoey goodness for a hour, they'll contribute a bit of flavour.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

a roast: boneless pork rib eye (free range and etc) with a tangy spice rub

Was conspiring, today, to enjoy an evening of braised pork of some description. Trotters or belly or hock or neck, even. Possibly shoulder. Braised and spicy and served with steaming steamed rice. It was a plan that just fell apart, kind of like braised pork, when I wandered through the meat section at Coles' Chadstone outlet and just kind of spotted reasonable priced free range pork. Not the Otway stuff--that had that too--but their own free range pork, ceritified by some standards the RSPCA came up with, fed on stuff the RSCPA likes to feed good pigs. Worth a shot, I thought.

And so a kilo of the stuff--$12 worth--has just entered the oven. When I roast meat, I typically follow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's guidelines: a 20-30 minute 'sizzle' at, say, 220-230*C followed by a slow, gentle cooking through at 160*C. In the case of boneless cuts of pork, he recommends 25 minutes for every 500 grams of meat. This, of course, assumes the meat has been sitting at room temperature for at least a half hour before going into the oven.

I tend not to season roast meats too heavily but I made a little but of an exception today. To cut through the richness of the meat--and it's a lovely piece, darker and considerably more marbled than the Otway stuff I usually buy--I rubbed it all over, sensual-like, with olive oil and a mixture of spices. Didn't measure anything, but the spice mix is roughly 40% sumac, 40% smoked sweet paprika. The remaining 20% is a mixture of chilli powder, salt, fennel seeds, cinnamon, black pepper and star anise (I now use one or two pods in pretty much everything due to Heston Blumenthal's very interesting and educational In Search of Perfection). Raw, at least, the mix is pretty good. You get a hit of tanginess followed by a smokiness and subtle hotness.

The pig shall be paired with roast potatoes--themselves nestled between a dozen whole cloves of garlic and, for some reason, a sprinkling of saffron--and some sauteed baby carrots, which I'll jack with a little bit of ground cumin and maybe coriander seeds.

Stay piggy.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

a journey from good to mediocre: david's and van mai to yourthai and springvale teapot

Place: yourthai
Physical: 255 Swanston Street, Melbourne

yourthai follows a philosophy I dislike: lots and lots and lots of food for next to nothing. I've got nothing against cheap meals. Nothing. Few things are finer than paying $15 and getting a beer and a reasonable curry or platter of dumplings or whatever. Meals, I guess, are a choice of two out of three attributes: good, cheap and plentiful. yourthai gives you the latter two. A bad bad bad combination.

yourthai's Thai is the McDonald's of Thai. Or perhaps that's an exaggeration. It's not that bad. It's just ... bland. I didn't like the two mains I've tried but I didn't like them, either. It's greatest crime is that it's bland. There's just nothing exciting going on. Thai food, even Westernised Thai, is interesting. This is fucking biege.

The service is fast and efficient. You eat with a stern man watching you, mentally willing to eat fast and fuck off so he can herd in the next lot of cattle. This is not a unique or necessarily bad thing. You can't expect a restaurant that charges $10 for a plate of food to be too warm towards diners that like to sit and chat when the place is packed cheek to fucking jowl.

I'm not going to be a cunt about this because, you know, we're talking about $10 meals served speedily by ladies wearing funny BreadTop-style hats. One must always keep the price tag in mind when judging an experience. Still, there's just so much stuff that's better--perhaps not amazing, but reasonable--at that price range that there's no real reason I can think of to eat at yourthai.

Place: Teapot Restaurant
Physical: Level 1, 17 Balmoral Ave, Springvale

I spent much of this afternoon craving pork. I wasn't sure what I wanted but I knew I needed some form of pig. I work in Springvale on Saturdays so really, I didn't have far to go to get my mix.

I felt like going somewhere new so I wandered around. A couple of places caught my eye but turned out not to have pork on the menu. I ended up, somehow, at this Teapot place. Teapot is a place you could imagine being hired out for weddings. A large, bland dining room. A team of waiters floating about, even through a grand total of three--out of about two billion--tables were occupied.

I only wanted takeaway but still, the service, at first, seemed to be okay. The waiter opened the menu to 'the food Aussies like' and asked if maybe I'd like something like sweet and sour--racial profiling is always helpful--and was keen to be helpful. There wasn't a huge selection of pork dishes but something crispy and salty sounded sensible, so the ribs it was.

The food arrived quickly, although I was a little surprised at the reaction to my request for chopsticks or a spoon or somerthing--any form of disposable utensil--so I could eat the rice. There was a ridicolous but apologetic 'no' followed by shouting to someone else and three people wrestling with a sealed packet of plastic spoons and lengthy discussion and apologies and, eventually, two plastic spoons slipped silently into the plastic bag. If I'd known it was going to take five minutes of theatre to get a fucking spoon I'd have  pinched chopsticks from the fucking table.

The ribs were okay. In fact, by themselves they would've made decent beer food ... after a six pack. Salty and crispy as advertised but otherwise fairly bland. Cut small and mostly boned out. The problem was the fucking fried onion flakes. I like onion in many of its forms--it's one of my favourite vegetables--but what I don't like are mass produced fried onion flakes of the sort you, as a kid, mixed into bowls of two minute noodles. Maybe Teapot's onion flakes aren't mass produced. Maybe one of their cooks tried really fucking hard and got the right taste and everything down pat. But either way, they--and there were lots of them, strewn upon the ribs like some horrible snow--didn't work at all.

The shame of it is, as I walked towards the train station, I wandered past a little out of the way cafe. On the photographic menu was a great bowl of pork that'd been braised until it was fall-apart-tender served with noodles and broth. The photo was a work of art. And it's a real fucking shame I didn't see that place before going upstairs to Teapot. Still, there's always next week.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

budget viet: van mai

Place: Van Mai
Physical:  373 Victoria Street, Richmond

There is a lot of cheap Vietnamese food floating around the place. And--this is the Springvale local talking--a lot of it's mediocre. Sometimes even really quite terribly shit. That said, there are gems to be found. It's a process of trial and error. I don't think the annual cheap eats booklet is much help. A place that was lauded for years by those people was one of the filthiest restaurants I've ever been into and their food was just okay.

Van Mai is a better example of bargain basement Vietnamese food. The prices are standard: just below $15 for 90% of dishes (all of which are generously served). The menu is standard: a huge selection of popular Chinese and Vietnamese dishes with a smaller section where the real fun is located. The first, I don't know, page and a half of the menu is dedicated to dishes with Vietnamese names. These are dishes based around sound, inspired ideas like boning out chicken wings (one of my favourite things in the world) and stuffing them with minced pork, minced prawns and mushrooms (three of my favourite things in the world). Sadly, there aren't any dishes that include steaming pig guts or grilled chicken hearts on a stick. I was in the mood for that kind of thing after spying Hao's Oriental Grill, a Northern Chinese BBQ joint, next door. Hao's seems very popular and seems like the sort of place I'd take people I trust with my life. The menu has the standards--beef on a stick, grilled popular cut of popular animal--but has so many things that I must eat at some point in the near future.

Back to Van Mai. The restaurant plays it safe but gets away with it because the dishes are varying degrees of good, especially if you opt to enjoy them with beer (I liked the Saigon 333 recommended by the waiter). The entree--large balls of pork and prawn served with the obligatory lettuce leaves and chilli sauce--was a fine example of beer food. Salty. Crispy. Delicious. A product of two noble animals. Are these the best meatballs you'll have in your life? No. Are they among the best meatballs you'll have for, I don't know, six bucks? Surely.

The mains were a mixed bag. The calamari was, I think, just okay. It wasn't tough or anything horrible like that but for what was supposedly a heavily marinated dish it was lacking something. The braised eggplant was good. The sauce was sticky, spicy and, of course, salty. Too rich to eat by yourself, I'd argue, even if you really like eggplant, but worth a space on the table if you and your friends were sharing a lot of meaty dishes and wanted some plant matter.

My favourite was the pork ribs special. I expected either a great rack of ribs that had been broken down into sections, two or three ribs a piece, or perhaps the pork spare ribs of my childhood, but instead received the popcorn chicken of pork ribs. Boneless, bite-sized chunks of tender pork encased in a crispy, salty batter. Now these--these--were well thought out beer food. Mess free morsels of salinated meatasticness.

Service was, for this end of the market, damn good. Food arrived prompty. The waiter was keen to recommend a few dishes and was happy to point out the better of the two Vietnamese beers on offer. We weren't given the sense that we should, you know, just eat quickly and fuck off, which is so common in cheap restaurants (for sound business reasons).

Overall, Van Mai's offerings are well worth the travel and admission price.

Friday, October 22, 2010

book: coco

Ten 'world-leading masters' (Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, Alice Waters, Rene Redzepi, Jacky Yu, Yoshihiro Murata, Fergus Henderson, Shannon Bennett, Mario Batali) choose one hundred contemporary chefs. The subtitle says it all.

Coco is yet another book that tries to provide an overview of the work of a lot of international chefs in a few hundred pages. Typically, these books don't work. Coco does, though, at least on a couple of levels.

I like that while some of the 100 are known--some really well known--that there aren't any glowing reports on Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller or the lovely Elena Arzak. I like all those guys and girls. I do. Really. But we know all about them. There are the books. The television shows, in some cases. The appearances on top 50 and top 100 lists. Most of the names in the list aren't household names (although there are exceptions like David Chang and Skye Gyngell), but you'll be familiar with more than you think if you've watched Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations--he's visited a lot of their restaurants (I remember seeing Alvin Leung, the demon chef, on an old episode). A couple, from memory, have appeared on the American version of Iron Chef.

Coco tries to capture as many modern trends as it can. The 100 chefs--and a couple aren't chefs at all, so maybe we should say 98 chefs and a guy who makes coffee and a lass who makes icecream--aren't just molecular-types. Each of the 'world-leading masters' focuses on a specific trend or movement. Henderson, unsurprisingly, lists in his 'top ten' chefs who focus on rustic, meaty fare such as Chris Cosentino.

Given the book's broad focus, it's nice to see a few Australian chefs and restaurants--Attica and Cutler & Co among others--make the cut.

For each of the 100 chefs there is a brief profile, a spiel from one of the 'masters' on why this person made the cut, a couple of recipes and a few photos. I've only borrowed this book, but there are a few recipes I'll be copying down to try at a later date.

The broad focus and the recipes are the book's strongest selling points. If you're after a detailed biography of each of the 100 then you probably won't like the book. If you're after the real big names, you won't like the book--some of those big names have contributed the book and, as such, aren't profiled at all (although each contributes a signature recipe) and others are mentioned only in passing (i.e. this hot new chef passed through Heston Blumenthal or Marco Pierre White or whoever's kitchen to gain experience).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

chicken: barossa, saskia beer

Got to get around to attempting Heston Blumenthal's method for slow roasting (or, I suppose, sous vide) a chicken (60*, four hours after a day of being brined and another day of sitting uncovered in the fridge). I want to use a good quality chicken as, really, there's no point going to all that effort for a $6 mass produced bird. You can only improve a dodgy chicken so much. Rubbish in. Rubbish out.

Enter the chook of the Barossa Valley, bred and marketed by one Saskia Beer. I bought mine at Thomas Dux in Armadale but I've seen them elsewhere, too--David Jones Food Hall, from memory. It's a weeknight and I worked today so I wasn't up for four hours of roasting at a low temperature or fucking around. Flash bird but my standard roasting method: herb (in this case, parsley) butter, salt, pepper, a 180*C oven.

The price I was, I'd say, comparable to any free range bird. For roughly $20 you get a bird that'll feed four people if you serve it with veg and other stuff or two people if you're too lazy to prepare much in the way of sides and hungry. I was lucky and got mine for $15. The best before was today and they'd marked it down.

Plain and simple: this is good chicken. It's better than any chicken I've bought (and I've sampled most of the free range and organic varieties I've come across). The chickens are expensive because they live to roughly twice the age of regular chickens. They're fed all good stuff. The end result is a bit that's little tougher than what you're used of, probably, but juicier and more flavoursome. I wouldn't go to that expense if I was making a chicken curry or some elaborate sauce--a Lilydale free ranger from Coles would do the job there--but for simple roasts and braises (like that excellent saffron and egg yolk one in the original MoVida cookbook) it's worth the extra money.

book: the entire beast

Fergus Henderson says it's only polite to eat the whole beast once you've knocked it on the head. It'd be insulting to just eat the fillet.

A large part of why I watched MasterChef last year was because there was one contestant, Chris Badenoch, who took that philosophy and ran with it every chance he got. Sometimes it didn't work, but other times it did. The roasted pig head remains one of the best things I've seen done on a cooking show. Artistic in its simplicity and potential to confront and offend.

I was skeptical of the man's book. I mean, it's a natural thing. The guy isn't a trained chef. He's read a few books. He's probably roasted a few pig heads. He becomes famous through a game show and then, a year later, releases a cookbook that will sit in the same section as Borders as the excellent works of Fergus Henderson himself.

Visually, I hate to say it, the book didn't alleviate my concerns. Some of the photos are nice--the crumbed assorted pig bits accompanied by beer looked great--but the look and feel of the book didn't work for me at all. And that's a shame. I wanted the book to be good.

And, thankfully, it is. It's really good. Yes, he's a guy from a television show.  And no, he's not yet a professional chef--the Smith St venture, Josie Bones, is yet to open. But fuck all that. The recipes are gold. They're rustic. He doesn't fuck around. Anyone that slow cooks, crumbs and deep fries pig ears in three different recipes and recommends some matching beers is kind at heart and sensible upstairs.

The book isn't for everyone but, again, neither was Fergus Henderson's. The very title (much like Nose to Tail) is unapologetic. You know what you're in for. At the same time, I think it's an accessible book. I don't personally have a problem with books that have no or few images but I do think they lack accessibility to newcomers. If people can see just how good those crumbed bits of pig or slow-cooked lamb obscurities look then they'll be more inclined to try them.

There are all kinds of sound ideas  in this book. I was glad to see my favourite cut of lamb--the neck--get a look in and I liked his heart of half-roasting, half-steaming ducks in beer. I was confronted by his recipe for lamb heart tartare. Indeed, I'd say it was the most interesting recipe I'd read in months. I couldn't stop thinking about it until I had the chance to Google it. I was concerned that the heart, full of connective tissue, would make for tough tartare unless you trimmed the shit out of it. Turns out some guy in the US makes it in his restaurant in Austin or Dallas or wherever and it's actually--if all those reviews I read are accurate--pretty good.

Most of these recipes are refined versions of something somewhere else has done. If you own either of Fergus Henderson's books you'll see plenty of winks and nods to his classic dishes. And this is okay. They're not so much clones as they are children of the originals. Children who really like beer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

chocolate: monsieur truffe

Physical: 90 Smith Street, Collingwood

Heard about this place for since its 2008 opening but never got around to actually going there. Smith Street is sorta kinda out of the way for me. Still, today I got out of class early and decided, out of nowhere, that it was time to visit Monsier Truffe. A nice day meant the walk down Elgin Street after a morning of being inside--I'm like a caged animal if I have to sit still too long--was, well, nice.

Monsier Truffe is a visually pleasing shop. I never thought I'd say something like that, but really, it's nice. It's clean. It's all about the chocolate. The focus is on single origin that contain varying levels of cocoa but they also sell, among other things, filled chocolate truffles, high quality cocoa powder and cooking chocolate. Most of the chocolate is their own but they also sell some a limited selection of well known brands like the excellent Valrhona.

The chocolate is expensive but not unreasonable. If you've ever paid $16 for 90 grams of Valrhona or chocolate of similar quality, $11 for a decent-sized bar shouldn't scare you too much. For $25 you can get sample packs that let you check out the spectrum of milk chocolates and dark chocolates or to appreciate the contrasts between different countries of origin. If you're not wanting to throw down that much on chocolate, you can get small bars for $3.50 apiece. The range isn't as great as their $11 bars but you can still move along the spectrum in small increments from white 'chocolate' to very dark chocolate.

Having spend too much money on expensive imported ham earlier in the day, I only bought two sample-sized bars: a 38% sourced from Costa Rica and a 65% from Venezuela. The 65% is nice but the 38% is brilliant. The combination of coffee and tea, present in both bars, is a nice addition.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

utility wine (a definition) and, too, a reasonable example (jacob's creek chardonnay pinot noir brut cuvee)

'Utility wine' is a term that is, I guess, self-explantory.  It refers to cheap wine--a price tag below $15--that's okay. Perhaps even good. Wine at this price point is probably not going to be the best you've had in your life (although there is some stellar budget plonk to be had) but it's not toxic. It's not fermented urine mixed with vinegar in the way of, I don't know, Dan Murphy's now thankfully defunct range of $2 clean skins. It's not something you'd rather clean drains with than drink. It's not something your drunken friends would pay you $20 to finish.

In the glass tonight is some Jacob's Creek Chardonnay Pinot Noir Brut Cuvee. A sparkling wine from the Barossa Valley, a wonderful place where Maggie Beer and other Beers breed chickens and make quince paste and reasonable pheasant pate.

If you're after a cheap sparkling wine, this stuff is okay. I'm no wine critic--I'm still getting my head around the idea of flavour and aroma notes--but to me this tastes and smells more of chardonnay than, you know, pinot noir. Worth the price tag? Given how much crap sparkling wine (or wine in general) is sold at this price point, sure. Overall, this stuff is drinkable but not great, but hey, that's utility wine for you.

book: on food & cooking, mcgee

Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen has been kicking around a good few years now. It's lasted as long as it has and is as well respected as it is because it's a really good book. McGee makes accessible the history and science of so many things taken for granted: eggs, milk, meat, fish, pastry and others. He tears apart a lot of bullshit like the idea that browning chunks of meat in a pan before braising somehow seals in the juices. Indeed, his chapter on meat makes me more excited than I was before--which was very very very fucking excited--to mess around with cooking goat legs and whole chickens and such in the guerilla sous vide setup a friend is helping me set up. His simple breakdown of the perfect cooking temperatures for different cuts of meat was enlightening and exactly the sort of information I was looking for.

If you're after something that gets very technical about something very specific, perhaps this book isn't for you. If you're after a molecular gastronomy book, again, this probably isn't for you. McGee provides more than enough information on each of the topics for any serious home cook and probavbly 90% professionals, but yeah, if you're wanting to do some truly 'modernist' stuff you might want to find a specialised textbook like, say, the upcoming multi-volume epic Modernist Cuisine.

McGee's Food & Cooking is accessible and interesting. It will, hopefully, make you think and want to fuck around.

something like actual tacos: an old recipe

Never been to Mexico so not sure how close these are to the real deal, but whatever, I like them. It's barbecue season so I'll be making them often.

First you need to forget the mince. Buy rump or skirt steak. Season it with salt, freshly ground pepper (white, ideally), ground cumin seeds and oregano (good quality dried oregano will suffice). Set aside for a half hour to come up to room temprature and then drizzle with a little olive oil.

Pre-heat a barbecue or fry pan. Cook the steak to rare--2 or 3 minutes per side depending on the thickness--and then let it rest somewhere warm for 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Combine diced tomatoes, diced red onion, diced cucumber, minced garlic (you could roast it beforehand if you're offended by even trace amounts of raw garlic), coriander leaves and sliced jalapeno (or habanero if you're not in the mood for fucking around). Dress with extra virgin olive oil and lime juice (lemon juice will suffice in a pinch or when the bastards want to sting you two bucks for a single fucking lime).

Heat some soft tortillas according to packet instructions (assuming you've bought them pre-prepared--I do).

Slice the meat into thick but manageable strips. Place a few of these, along with a portion of the vegetable mix, into a tortilla. Don't overfill.

There's nothing stopping you from modifying the recipe. You could replace the beef strips with other meats or seafood. Prawns would be nice, I suppose.

Note: requires beer.

from the braai: peri peri chicken

I love cooking outdoors when the weather allows. I'm limited to a wee Weber kettle at the moment but I'd like to upgrade once I move--I'm thinking of trying to find an old 44 gallon drum and getting it cut in half, just like we used to have in scouts, or maybe just making a decent pit. A larger fire would allow me to cook larger animals. It'd be cool to have an outdoor oven, too: wood-fired pizza, bread, roasts.

Still. The kettle works fine, just fine, for the sort of cooking I do now. On tonight's menu is peri peri chicken. I took a chicken--went for a 1.4 kilo bird, but you could use whatever--and butterflied it. Removed the wing tips (they scorch), the spine and the small bones. Kept the leg, thigh and wing bones because I'm feeling lazy, but if you really wanted to go all out you could bone the whole thing out without too much trouble. Use a small, sharp knife--you can buy boning knives for fuck all, but a decent paring knife will do, even--to follow the length the leg bones and then use your fingers, gently now, to tease the flesh away from the bones. Trim away the excess skin and fat around the neck. Score the really fleshy parts of the bird.

You have a couple options with marinade. The stuff put out by Nando's is pretty good. A bottle of it will set you back all of $2.50 and will marinade a couple of whole chickens or a lot of individual portions, so you may question the value of fucking around. If you do insist on fucking around, you can make an okay marinade in a food processor using fresh chillies, chilli powder, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. I think Nando's put some sort of tomato concentrate or semi-dried tomatoes in their sauces, so I guess you could add that too. Yet to bother doing that.

The key to cooking anything on the fire, but especially something as prone to drying out as chicken, is to be gentle. Set the fire a good hour before you want to cook. You shouldn't be flame grilling anything. A lot of marinades--including this one--burn easily and can lead to sudden flare ups if placed over a fire too soon, so be sure to keep an eye on the chicken and turn it frequently.

You can, of course, marinate the chicken in whatever you want. Lemon, garlic and thyme are a nice combination. Variations on the classic of Australian barbecues--honey-soy--are nice if done right, but be super careful when cooking as honey burns like a motherfucker.

Monday, October 18, 2010

book: alinea

Grant Achatz's book alinea, which takes its name from his restaurant, is another molecular gastronomy cookbook. Don't think you can grab some shit from the supermarket on the way home from work, drop a pan on the stove and start cooking Achatz's recipes. Achatz likes to fuck around: artful presentations, gelling and thickening agents, tiny quantities of products like citric acid. There are no 'cups' and 'tablespoons' here. Everything is in grams and centimetres and their US equivalents.

That's not to say this book is an album of stuff that's nice to look at but impossible to achieve in the home kitchen. Some ingredients are going to be near impossible to find--especially if you're in Australia--but some (i.e. the afore-mentioned citric acid, xantham gum) can be found in suburban supermakets. Those that can't may be found through specialist outlets such as The Melbourne Food Ingredient Depot. The fish can probably be substituted for local species if you know your seafood or are prepared to experiment. Many of the recipes use equipment you'd have at home. Achatz's recipes are by no means 'dumbed down' but are far less intimidating to the semi-comptent home cook than Heston Blumenthal's. There are beautiful photos of everything. The recipes are very detailed. With time, money and patience, you should be able to cook your way through most of this book.

I've yet to digest this book fully. I think I'll spend some of my Christmas break trying the recipes.

Something I really like is that Achatz and his team have a support service for people interested in actually using the book. The Mosaic website has extra recipes and a forum frequented by the restaurant's staff.

Some favourites

Places: MoVida and MoVida Next Door
Physical: 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne; Cnr Flinders Street and Hosier Lane

Highlights: morcilla, roast mushrooms, battered quail, skewered lamb, stuffed baby squid, steak tartare

I know, I know. How unoriginal. But MoVida. Wow. My first 'expensive' meal was at MoVida. I tried many things for the first time there--rabbit, quail, scallops. A handful of the dishes are unimpressive, but most are bang on. So many of the favourite things I've put in my mouth have come from here. The prices, I'd say, are reasonable. You and a friend can eat very well for less than a hundred bucks. The selection of grog is good: there's a lot of sherry, of course (I like the dryness of La Goya), plonk and good Spanish beer (perfect for all those salty, deep fried tapas). The first book I use all the time. The second I need to acquire at some time as it looks equally good.

The mothership and its first child have different feels, different menus. The service is pretty good. The general feel of the place--both of them--is nice. Next Door is probably better for meals with large groups; the original for small groups and one-on-one outings. Whether you're going for a full meal or intending to drop in, have a beer and a couple of tapas mid-afternoon, both MoVida and MoVida Next Door are just plain loveable.

Place: Pamir Kebab (or Kabab or Kabob) House
Physical: 150 Thomas Street, Dandenong

Highlights: dumplings, lamb kebabs

I remember first visiting this place when they were situated in a garish-coloured place across the road from their current location. Even then, when Pamir had a tiny dining room and a TV playing Indian music videos, it was doing the edible things just right. The lamb kebabs--served atop Afghan naan, which soaked up all the lamb grease--were delightful. The maantu dumplings--loaded up with meat and vegetables, sitting in a rich gravy--were perfect for cold nights. When I used to work nights in Dandenong, I'd visit Pamir all the time for takeaway.

The food dropped in quality at one point, but since the move it's back to where it used to be and worth trekking out to Dandenong for. The new dining room is larger and not as noisy or colourful as the original. It may not look like the original any more, but the service and food is still classic Pamir.

For those unfamiliar with Afghan cuisine--there aren't too many Afghan restaurants or cookbooks--it's very hearty fare. Lots of lamb. Lots of rice. Lots of spices (cumin and cardamom are frequently used). Pamir's menu has a few items you've probably seen on the menus of Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants--yoghurt-based dipping sauces, curries, raw onion with everything (an Indian friend told me this is because, heh, raw onion prevents cancer >_>).

Go all out and order one of the banquets, although be aware you'll have to bring your own grog.

Place: Bergerac Restaurant
Physical: 131 King Street, Melbourne

Highlights: Unadulterated Frenchness

One of my favourite things in the world--possibly my favourite--is classic French cuisine. The real deal. Butter. The old-fashioned sauces of Escoffier and Larousse Gastronomique. Menus full of terms like 'steak frites' and 'confit de canard' and 'coq au vin'. I love--love--some of the work people have done playing around with French technique and French ideas and French dishes. Embrasse is currently my favourite restaurant. Really. I appreciate that sort of thing. And yet there are times when I want nothing more than a classic dish in its unadultered form.

I've been told Bistro Thierry in Toorak is good for that sort of thing and I intend to go there soon, but for now there's Bergerac. It doesn't look like much from the outside--it's on a street that quietens down after 5 on weekdays, the sign is kind of hideous--but inside it's the real deal. The waitstaff won't look at you strangely or feed you bullshit when you ask what the best cognac is. The specials menu includes things like homemade terrine. The food is, yeah, classic, comforting, wonderful stuff. This isn't about innovation. This is the sort of food I like to cook at home but here they do it really well.

Place: Bistro Guillaume
Physical: the ether

On that note, there's Bistro Guillaume. Guillaume's Melbourne operation took classic French dishes to the next level by serving them in Crown and making them expensive. I'd be offended by this if they sucked, but no, they don't. They're really good. The tartare is mediocre--when I went, at least, they'd used too much of some sort of tomato-flavoured dressing--but everything else is lovely. The charcuterie platter is like slow sex in front of a fireplace. Can it ever--and I mean ever--get better than a plateful of salty and fatty pork and duck products accompanied by crispy bread? No. Of course not.

Until the main course, at least. The roast pork belly was the best--by far--I've ever had. Top quality kurobuta pig cooked perfectly. The flesh tender and white and juicy. The skin brown and wafer-thin and crisp. The accompaniments delightful but subtle: puy lentils, mashed potato, a salad including apple and fennel. All this beautifully presented. A work of art.

The dessert was, again, simple and lovely. The theme of the night, seemingly. I ooh and ahh over fancy desserts, but if you serve me something as basic as a ganache made with quality chocolate that's sitting atop a wedge of chocolate shortbread and paired with an earl grey creme anglaise, I'll be a happy man.

Bistro Guillaume is closed at the moment. They're relocating to somewhere else in the Crown complex. Be sure to visit them when they're open for business in 2011.

Place: Dainty Sichuan
URL: nowhere
Physical: 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra

I've mentioned Dainty before and I figure I'll mention it again. Dainty moved to South Yarra from Chinatown some time ago and I'd argue it was a change for the better: better location, better dining room. Dainty's menu is a fucking ode. A sweeping epic of a poem dedicated to all that is good about Sichuan cuisine. Everything is as it should be. The gong bao chicken is an all time and forever favourite. The slow-cooked pig ears are a close second. Then again, maybe my second favourite is the crispy pork belly with assorted mushrooms. The lamb with cumin--which is the sort of thing I thought would be more at home in an Uyghur place--is comforting and, while spicy (in the spicy as opposed to hot sense of the word), is probably less confronting to the weak than some of Dainty's other offerings (which don't fuck about with chilli or numbing Sichuan peppercorns). The service could be a little better and the range of beers could be larger, but fuck, the food is good, good, good.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

book: gourmet traveller 2010 annual cookbook

Picked this up for, I don't know, $11-12 the other day. A steal given it has very few ads, lots of pages and maybe 437 recipes--out of 437--worth cooking at some point. A few desserts and a good mix of heavy and light savoury dishes.

Highlights: lots of recipes with cured pork cheek, some neat trout recipes, flash meatballs, sexy photos

an easy meal: braised lamb shoulder

Took this from Gourmet Traveller's 2010 annual. Made a couple of modifications: got to have garlic.

Cut a kilo of boneless lamb shoulder into 3 x 3 x 3 cm chunks. Season with salt and pepper. Brown in a pan. Set aside. Add to the pan--no need for oil, the rendered lamb fat will serve as a good frying medium--two diced onions. Fry until soft and then add 3 diced tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, the lamb, a whole bulb of garlic and a bottle's worth of dry white wine. Bring to boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stick a lid on the pan and cook until the lamb is tender. This should take 60-90 minutes. Add 300 g green beans (top and tailed) to the pan and cook for 12-15 minutes. Add chopped dill and parsley and simmer for a good 30 minuttes, with the lid off, until the sauce has reduced. Scatter with extra herbs and jack with a little lemon juice.

Too, of course this would work with other secondary cuts: neck or shanks or whatever. Some diced up forequarter on the bone. Whatever you had on hand. Could even use goat, really. Maybe mutton. Only then you'd probably be cooking at 90-120 minutes instead of 60. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

book: est est est, marriages

estestest was, this book tells me, was a Melbourne restaurant. Now, I've heard of Donovan Cooke and Philippa Sibley. What the book tells me--not directly, but through its recipes--and what old reviews, too, tell me is that estestest was very good at what it did. This is a book that is so beautiful it makes me a bit sad. I wish I could eat at this place. The roast hare, the Muscovy duck breast, all that kind of gear ... they're my idea of a good time. Treading the line between fine dining and rustic. 'Wholesome,' said my housemate. Meaning these two, Cooke and Sibley, they didn't fuck about.

Cooke is doing something new in Melbourne early next year--a seafood place called Atlantic in the Crown complex, apparently--so that's alright. But yes. This book. Now 11 years old. Out of print and, according to Amazon and BiblioOz, now worth hundreds of fucking dollars. And there it was, just sitting in the library the other day.

If you can get hold of it, Marriages is the loveliest of books. It's a serious cookbook but has photos of basically everything. It's one of those seasonal books: rather than being arranged in the format of 'entrees', 'mains', 'desserts' or whatever, it's set out as four books, almost, in one. Four distinct, seasonal menus, each more beautiful and epic than the last.

While not fucking around hugely, the book is accessible to the home punter. If you sprung for the ingredients--and only a handful of them are truly expensive--you could make them at home if you were prepared to invest enough time and effort and love. What's really cool is some of the recipes have a step-by-step breakdown, with photos and detailed instructions explaining each key point in the process.

Worth the $600+ I saw it going for on BiblioOz? Probably not. But if you stumble on it in a second hand bookshop somewhere, you simply must have it.

cider: henry of harcourt

Product: Henry of Harcourt, Duck & Bull premium draught cider
Details: 500 mL, 9%

Some guy called Henry, maybe, resides in Harcourt (near Castlemaine, Victoria). He makes cider and perry and some other apple and pear-themed products.

At Swords' QV Market outlet today, I was pushed in the direction of Henry's Duck & Bull cider. Reasonably priced--six bucks, if I recall correctly, for half a litre of good quality, small batch grog--given that it's very good. Dry. A bit yeasty. And, most important of all, it actually tastes of apples. This point may sound daft to the uninitiated--cider tasting like apples? fuck me--but a lot of ciders just ... don't. It looks like real apple juice, too: pale and cloudy. Nothing at all like the mass produced ciders pooped out by Strongbow, Bulmer's and Mercury. Very easy drinking. I struggle to drink beer quickly--it's too heavy--and I prefer to sip at whisky and cognac and wine. This is dangerously good shit.

URL (incs. list of places you can buy it):

tonight's menu: soup of tomato, lentils, chorizo, blood sausage

Recipe adapted from MoVida: Spanish Culinary Adventures by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish.

A conversation last night led me to want blood sausage. Blood sausage, cooked well, is one of the greatest of great things. I like MoVida's blood sausage when I had it, even though it was served in a very different way to this, so I figured Frank Camorra's book would have a decent recipe.

Fry a diced onion and diced red capsicum in a wee bit of olive until until v. soft. Throw in 9-10 peeled tomatoes that've been roughly chopped. Cook for a few minutes then add some stock, a well-made fresh chorizo sausage, a bulb of garlic (unpeeled) and 400 g brown lentils. Simmer for the best part of a hour (say, 50 minutes) and then load up with one or two blood sausage--morcilla, if you can get your hands on it--and cook for another 10 minutes. Discard the garlic. To serve, slice the sausages up and put them in bowls. Ladle over some of the lentils and etc. Add salt and vinegar (ideally sherry) as you see fit.


Should've waited until I visited the Spanish and South American shop in Fitzroy. The blood sausage from QV Market's Polish shop isn't very nice at all. This has the potential to be a cracker meal--particularly, I reckon, if you briefly crisped up the blood sausages before serving--but you need good sausages. These aren't it.

good pig

Places that I think offer good pig products

pork belly

Once you go black you never go back, right? Bistro Guillaume, now temporarily closed (they're moving somewhere else in the Crown complex that has outdoor seating facilities), has the loveliest pork belly I've ever tried. The meat is juicy piggy wonderful. The skin is wafer skin and crackly as anything you could ever want. It's served very simply: you get some puy lentils (always a good friend of meat), apple, fennel and pureed potato. This is everything I could ever want in roast pork.

Physical: the ether

blood sausage

I'm going to come right out and be a bit of a snob and say that unless you dig the 'extras', you shouldn't claim to be a fan of pork. Pork is about far more than chops and roast leg and bacon. It's about more than good roast belly, even. My favourite kind of blood sausage, that I've had so far anyway, is morcilla. El Gaucho does a very nice version--crispy charred on the outside from the grill, soft and moist like mudcake on the inside--but my favourite has to be, has to be, MoVida's housemade version. When I had it it was in the middle of winter and they served it with assorted white vegetables: potatoes, parsnip, Jereuselem artichokes. A death row meal.

Physical: 454 Nicholson St, Fitzroy North

Physical (for the mothership, but too, I'd imagine you could get morcilla at Aqui too): 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne (just off Flinders St, heading up towards Forum)

other offal

You can get pork liver products--slices of terrine, little tubs of pate loaded up with cognac and other good things--in a bunch of places and usually it's pretty good. Bistro Guillaume had, as an entree, a platter of three kinds of rillette (duck, pork and rabbit) and a terrine, as well as some salted and dried meats.

If you're after a more gutsy offal experience, though, look no further than Dainty Sichuan. Dainty, oh sweet Dainty, used to be in a laneway off Lt Bourke in Chinatown--just up near the Supper Club, if I recall correctly. It offered large serves of nice Sichuan food at a reasonable price with shitty service and a small (by comparison) dining room full of Tsing Tao boxes.

Now, with a larger restaurant a couple of minutes walk from South Yarra train station, it offers nice Sichuan food at a reasonable price with shitty service and a large dining room with a few Tsing Tao boxes stacked in the corner for old time's sake.

I say service is shitty, but it's not as bad as the truly awful Shanghai dumpling place on Tattersal's Lane. Here they place the opened bottle of beer in front of you. In the dumpling shit hole, they slam it down on the table, sometimes unopened, and throw a bottle opener in your direction. Class.

Dainty has an extensive menu that covers all kinds of good things. The Gong Bao chicken is classic Sichuan stuff and if you're in a group you must must must order it. But in terms of pork products, Dainty really hits its stride. The crispy pork belly with assorted mushrooms is lovely. And, yes, the offal--what I've had of it--is really good. I like the pig ears. The slippery, salty pig ears, soft and crunchy at the same time, loaded up with lots of chilli and Sichuan pepper, are everything you could want on a cool evening. Best washed down with beer.

Physical: 176 Toorak Rd, South Yarr

salted and dried

Hands down the winner has to be La Luna Bistro with its selection of hand-cured pork products. The cured fat, cheek, belly were all a spiritual experience. Paired with crispy bread and fresh herbs and good olives and pickled chillies and onions, this is what gods would eat.

Physical: 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North

to market to market

Not a restaurant, no. Not sure if it has a URL. I'm told their supplier is some outfit in Carlton or wherever and that this place has a shop front, so maybe they have a website. But the French shop in Queen Victoria Market, right near another favourite of mine: the Swords wine, beer and cider shop. The French shop, whatever their actual name is--I'm too caught up in their display window of cheese and cured pig and white anchovies and everything else that's holy to pay attention to things like signs--sell very good terrines.

Just around the corner from there, the Melbourne Bratwurst people sell very good bratwursts. Get the classic: a bratwurst (I like the hot ones) loaded up with pre-grated cheese, mass produced sauerkraut, onions and your favourite kind of mustard. Laugh not. This is good stuff.

Heading further around, you'll find a couple of the poultry shops selling Daylesford bull-boars sometimes. A bull-boar is a classic Italian-Australian invention: a holy mix of spices and pig intestine and pig meat and steer meat.

Physical: 513 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne VIC

sausages and butchers elsewhere

Two places spring to mind. Firstly, out in my old 'hood, Rob's British Butchery. Fergus Henderson is stuck all the way over in the UK so this place stands alone, so far as I know, in convincing the good masses that the British know a thing or two about cooking. Rob is the sort of fine chap that will only start making stuff if he can get a serious traditional recipe. He sells all kinds of gear: gammon, white pudding, black pudding (sorry, Rob, I prefer the Spanish version) and pork pies (yes).

Sausages are his specialty, tho'. He has many many many kinds of sausages, most of them pork-themed. Everything I've had--and, back when I was in the SAIL Program and took kids down here every few weeks, I had pretty much all of them--there was really good. His boerwors are better than anything you'd buy anywhere else outside of, I'd guess and hope, South Africa itself. Chorizo? Only good chorizo you'll get anywhere outside of a specialist Spanish or South American place.

Peter Bouchier has outlets in a bunch of places--the David Jones Food Halls at Chadstone and in the CBD and the mothership in Toorak (just down the road from well-regarded Bistro Thierry, which is on my list of places to try (the menu covers so many of my favourite things). He's won some award--the cup of whatever, the judges' choice of whatever--for his sausages and whatever that award was, he deserved it. His sausages are very good. He has a mixture of traditionals (say, toulouse and merguez) and stuff I presume he's made up, like a chicken sausage that included asparagus (sadly, when I asked the sales assistant how that worked, ifit was fresh or pickled or something, she got a bit standoffish, maybe thinking I was rubbishing her product [or maybe she just didn't know]). The service, aside from that little incident, which I attribute to a misunderstanding, is really good. Go into the Toorak store and they don't care if they've never seen you before: you ask for what you want and if it's not out the front, they'll produce it from out the back. An unusual cut? Sure. Give me five minutes. Marrow, freshly scooped from the bone? Sure.

Bouchier is more expensive than your regular butcher, yes, but his products are very good.

It's very easy to get rubbish pork. Too easy. Some places have a good range of cuts--Springvale has a few butchers that focus heavily on pork--but the quality isn't particularly high. Too, some of those Springvale places smell bad. Not encouraging.

You can order black pig or whatever you want through most butchers, but if you just want to walk in and get something to cook that day you're limited. I don't mind Howard's Fine Foods, which is up near Glen Iris railway station. Howard, if that is his real name, sells Otway pork. And I like Otway pork. It's very good and, while it's maybe not the best--black pig, hands down, so far--it's accessible and reasonably priced. Howard is a good man. He might not have the biggest range on display, but he'll get stuff in, produce things (like great slabs of pork belly before MasterChef made it cool) from out the back or order things in. He'll cut meat to whatever size you want. His sausages aren't bad, either.

Otway pork, wherever you get it, is good. I like that it's sold in supermarkets. I mean, I do prefer a good butcher, but if it's not practical for me to get to one--it's night, it's a Sunday, I don't have the time before work to tram it up to bloody Glen Iris--I know I can get some nice cutlets or whatever. 

The Wursthutte, just up near the Coles in Malvern, is good. His specialty is sausages, obviously--he has a fair few varieties of bratwurst and they're all good.

I want to find a butcher that sells good quality pork in a variety of cuts. It's easy enough, perhaps, to get good quality chops and maybe leg roasts. A lot of expensive high street butchers will sell you free range or organic whatever. What I want, tho', is a holistic place: I want to be able to buy meat of noble birth in cuts such as neck and cheek and tail and trotter. 

Physical: 117 Lonsdale St, Dandenong


Physical (Howard's): 1614 High St, Glen Iris VIC 3146

Physical: 187 Glenferrie Rd, Malvern VIC 3144

Otway pork: (despite what the site says about it being lean--I guess it is--it's nowhere near as lean as most stuff you get in supermarkets and butchers. lean, when it comes to pork, is a bad thing).

a philosophy: expectations and pearl restaurant and bar

Highlights: garfish stuffed with pork
Physical: 631–633 Church Street Richmond, Victoria (near Church St Bridge)

I really like websites like eatability. I like amateur reviews. I like it when people pan La Luna because, you know, it turns out that it takes maybe 40 minutes to cook a 1 kilo steak, rest it and serve it. I fucking love it when I hear that Jacques Reymond or whoever's venison carpaccio is 'a bit rare' for someone's liking.

People, I feel, tend to expect too much. An award--a hat or two--and a high price tag and a nice reputation and such doesn't mean, realistically, that everything is going to be perfect. If you're in a group of 10, there's always going to be one or two dishes that just aren't as nice as the rest. Maybe they'll make some mistake and send your table the wrong thing or they'll forget something. Cooks and waiters are people too.

So. My philosophy. If I go out, whether I pay $10 or $100, I expect it to be a good experience, yes. I expect the food to taste alright and the servers to, pretty much, ask me for what I want. I like it when the food is really nice. I like it when the service is like some invisible helping hand, appearing at just the right moments to ask if everything is okay or to top up your drinks, not bringing out the next course until you're ready, generally being informative and funny and nice and sociable even to social retards like me. I love all that.

I go out to have a nice time. Again, whether I pay $10 or $100, I want to enjoy myself. I don't want to whinge. If 10% of a meal isn't that good--the cheese souffle, the tartare, the waiter who got a bit offended when I said I didn't want wine--it's not the end of the world. I focus on the 90% that was good. I don't go out to complain. I don't go out and take notes on all the shitty things so I can have a little tantrum on eatability.

And this brings me to Pearl. Pearl is not a bad place. Obviously. Pearl has been well regarded for a good ten years now. Shit, the fact that it's been open for ten years is in itself a pretty good sign. It's won hats and other awards. I'll tell you right up that Pearl isn't bad. And there's the rub. It's not bad. But I'm not sure if I like it.

Tonight I went to Pearl with 7 friends. I loved, right away, the feel of the place. It was clean. Classy. Cool. Perfect, I think, for a get together. Service was a little slow but this was not a bad thing in any way, shape or form. If you go out and you're paying a lot, you don't want--at least, I don't--to be rushed through or to have restaurant staff in your face all the time. I'm there to talk to my friends. You don't pay $30-50 just for the steak or trout or duck: you pay for the ingredients and labour and all that, yes, but you also pay to sit somewhere nice in what is hopefully nice company.

The problem was the food. I was happy with everything I ordered, but I was one of two people on the table who felt that way: and only one of us, I'd say, is the sort who'd complain.

The garfish stuffed with pork was a really nice dish. It was well presented--a whole fish, mostly boned out, stuffed with pork mince served atop a fruity sauce. A simple dish presented simply. The fish was sliced into cross sections and the head--meaning you got the most delicious meat--and tail were intact. An all time and forever favourite? Perhaps not. But an altogether pleasant dish.

Next up was a whole rainbow trout with, again, a sauce reduced to sticky richness and a salad of Asian herbs. The trout was pretty good--amazing, no, but I liked it--and there was a lot of it. Almost to the point of being too much. If I bought this dish in the market, I'd share between myself and my girlfriend at home. that said, it wasn't some ugly arse dinosaur serving: it was presented really well. It was visually and aromatically striking. Some nice coconut rice appeared for me but not for a friend who ordered the same dish.

I was debating choosing the pork ribs instead of the trout and I'm glad I didn't. They were apparently dry. The lamb, too, came out cold. The witlof that came with the quail apparently wasn't nice at all. Again, I put this out there, I think it's downright stupid to expect perfection from any place, but this level of quality--or lack thereof--wasn't encouraging. That said, the Pearl team tried to put things right. The cold lamb, which was the only dish complained about, was taken off the bill and, when desserts came, we were presented with two complimentary plates of petit fours. Credit where credit is due: fuck ups are acknowledged and handled well.

The side I shared with someone else, the chips with mushroom salt, wasn't my idea of a good time. In fact, it was the only thing I personally disliked. The chips just seemed a bit ... sad. Like maybe they'd been sitting under a heat lamp for a long time. Chips only stay crisp for a very short amount of time, no matter how good the recipe is, whether they're handcut or frozen mass-produced potato products. You really need to prepare them and get them out to the table straight away.

Dessert, finally, was ... okay. I ordered the passionfruit and chocolate mousse and, yeah, it was alright. Pretty much what you'd expect: a light chocolate mousse, a passionfruit mousse that wasn't really acidic like fresh passionfruit (which I like), but fairly mild. It wasn't too heavy or rich after a very substantial main course, which I guess was the idea.

A friend of mine ordered nothing but desserts, going through all but one of them (the banana fritter), and only really got into the gingerbread and rubarb pudding.

Overall I'm not sure how to conclude this. I really wanted to like Pearl. I wanted to go in, spend what my budget allowed and have a good time. I figured some things wouldn't be amazing--again, the kitchen and front of house teams are just people--but that I'd be able to say hey, 80 or 90% of the experience was good, that I had reasonable (at least) food in reasonable company and that was that. Anything else being a bonus.

My food, at least, was reasonable. I'm not going to get hung up on the chips. Fuck the chips. The garfish was simple and nifty and did basically everything right. I like that this place let me get a whole fish and to dig the meat out of the head. I liked that whoever was in charge of portion control made it basically impossible to argue that you didn't get enough good: every main on the table but especially the trout was avaliable in abundance. The general consensus was that the food was okay.

Do I feel ripped off? No. I had a nice night, a couple of nice dishes, a couple of glasses of a nice wine from what seemed like a pretty good list.

Would I go back to this place? Well, no