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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

unified theory of good bolognese

As a kid my all time and forever favourite was my dad's spaghetti bolognese. He followed no recipe. Just cooked by feel. It was done when it tasted right. When it seemed like it'd been cooking long enough. How many onions did he had? However many--maybe one, maybe two--he felt like taking from the cupboard. How much beef mince? However much was left over after my mum made rissoles (another childhood favourite, so long as they were served with instant gravy). He'd add as much tomato paste and Vegemite (really) and curry powder as seemed appropriate. Great ladles of the sauce would be served with spaghetti and, at the request of my gastronome sister and I, grated tasty cheese. The wonderfully politically incorrect Coon brand.

What is bolognese, really? Well, it's Bologna's take on ragu: a meat sauce served with pasta. And yeah, a meat sauce. Bolognese here is often thought of as a tomato and meat sauce or, in the case of some of the pre-made sauces you can buy in supermarkets, actively promoted as a tomato sauce with animals optional. They don't serve the stuff with spaghetti in Bologna, either. They use egg pasta. Spaghetti is just wheat and water, in case you didn't know.

But, honestly, fuck all that. Hearing about the authentic versions of dishes is very interesting and fascinating and all--I love flipping through Larousse and just geeking out over the history of classic French fare--but you shouldn't be aiming, I think, to make something authentic. You should be aiming to make something that tastes good. If there's some addition you can make that's totally opposite to what they do in Bologna or even Italy in general--whether it's using kangaroo mince as opposed to or in addition to beef or going all Anthony Bourdain and jacking the sauce with a few spoonfuls of homemade demi glace--that's going to take your sauce to the next level, flavour-wise, why not do it? I've no time for the 'I'm from this place and if it's not done the way we do it, it's being done incorrectly' mentality.

This is not a recipe for ragu ala Bologna. I'm going to assume that you've made it before and could, worst case and all, make it again without the aid of Jamie Oliver or I'm looking more at the components of the sauce--the soffrito base, the meat, the liquid(s), etc--and floating out some suggestions as to how you could change them. There are some things which I think just suck--mass produced pre-made sauces, stock cubes--but other than that and maybe even including that, it's up to you. Your idea of good 'bolognese' is probably different to mine and that's frankly just fucking fine. Make what you want to eat. Not what some dweeb with a blog tells you is good.

basic pointers

Pasta: you need not serve with spagetti. Use other long pastas, tubular pasta (like penne) or fusili. Use, even, lasagne. Use homemade stuff or dried stuff. If it's store bought, tho', pay a little extra and buy a decent brand--maybe something from an Italian shop. There's a world of different between home brand stuff and a decent quality (but still, there's no need to spend a stupid amount here, let's be reasonable) durum wheat pasta from Italy. Too, you can use lasagne or gnocchi (having sampled a few store bought gnocchis, I'd argue that unlike pasta, this is something you need to make if you want a decent result--but I'm willing to be pointed in the direction of a good brand). Shit, nothing is stopping you from slopping your ragu on toast or over roast potatoes (cooked, obviously, in duck fat). Maybe even using it as a pie filling. It's your sauce: do whatever the fuck you want with it.

Cooking time: I know that some store bought sauces mention browning an onion and some minced meat and then adding the sauce and simmering the whole horrible lot for maybe 30 minutes, but that's no way to make decent ragu. Ragu isn't something you can cook for a few minutes. It's just not. Whether you use minced beef from a supermarket or a whole leg of a goat, you really need to--really need to--cook it for a good while. With minced meat I'd look at 2 1/2 to 3 hours. With something like lamb neck or veal shank, I'd be looked at around 4 hours. We're talking minimums here. If you have a slow cooker or a good pot with a lid and an oven that will happily hold a low temperature, you can cook this shit all day or overnight.

Cheese: don't buy anything that comes in a fucking salt shaker, don't buy anything pre-grated, don't buy anything that's just flavourless crap. Here, quality counts. Go to a good deli. Try a few things--you don't just have to stick to parmesan--that look alright, taste them and, when you find something you like, buy a small quantity. Grate or shave it as you need it.

Other pairings: if you're up for making it, a simple salad of seasonable vegetables goes well with the rich heavy meatiness of bolognese. And too, drink-wise, you can't beat a bottle of good red (I'm writng this to the tune of Tahbilk's 2006 fuck off good shiraz): even if you're just cooking a weeknight meal, there's probably one already open, so hey ...


It's all about the meat. Unless, of course, you buy into the school of thought that bolognese--whatever the people of Bologna sauce--is as much about tomatoes as it is about meat. The meat(s) you choose impact totally on the outcome of the sauce. The way you cut the meat--oh yes, you can use more than supermarket-grade animal paste--determines a helluva lot. Obviously choosing different meats or cuts will impact hugely on the flavour, but too, the texture will be altered hugely. Even if you're using two kinds of mince.

In terms of mince, I'd recommend two options: getting mince from a butcher you trust or actually mincing something like beef chuck or pork neck. Most butchers will be willing to do this for you. Just be sure that if you go down this road that you use the mince right away.

You can use whatever meat you want or a combination thereof. A lot of people use beef by itself and that's okay, but your sauce--even if you change nothing else in your recipe--will be taken to the next level if you add some pork mince and, perhaps, some veal. Changing the ratio of beef:pork (or beef:pork:veal) will, again, change the flavour and texture of the end product. Kangaroo mince, which is reasonably priced and of reasonable quality--yes, even the supermarket-grade stuff--is very good in bolognese (and chilli con carne and etc). Try, too, lamb. Or even running a boned out rabbit or two through the mincer.

Moving beyond mince, you can throw in whole legs or shoulders of whatever. Cheap cuts, too, like beef short ribs. Anything that will break down and generally become awesome in taste and texture after a good few hours in the pot. Cooking on the bone always always always makes for a tastier end product. Once the meat has finished cooking, you remove it from the bone (and, obviously, discard the bone) and chop or shred it. You need not keep the cuts whole, of course. I sometimes use shanks and other cheap cuts, like lamb necks, to make ragu. I get the butcher to cleave them in a few pieces so I don't have to use a massive amount of liquid.

Furthermore, you can grab all those good cuts--the chuck and whatever else--and simply chop them into small cubes. You'll end up with a different texture again. Experiment: nothing is stopping you from mixing, say, pork mince with diced beef.

Whatever you use, when it comes to browning it, do it properly. I don't agree at all with browning the meat with the onions. Meat should be browned with nothing else in the pan (save your frying medium). It should browned in small batches over a fairly high, but not screaming hot, flame. You want to brown it, too. Not turn it grey. Browning meat might not seal in its juices, but it does add flavour.

cured meat

Worthy of a subheading of its own. The best ragus I've had have contained one or more forms of cured meat--usually pork. You take whatever it is--bacon, pancetta, salami, cured neck or cheek--dice it and fry it until crispy. The resulting grease can be used for browning the mince. Cured pork adds flavour and texture. Understand that these products will add salt. Don't add too much salt--a little is okay--at the start of the cooking process. The sauce will be cooking for a good while and, given the lid will be off for at least some of that, will reduce down a fair way. Some of the things you'll be adding--processed tomato products, cured meat--will add a fair amount of salt. Add extra salt, if you must, towards the end of the cooking process.

I've seen people use 'Italian sausage' (basically pork sausages that have seasonings--fennel and such--that are, in some vague way, worthy of giving a sausage such a name). This, from experience, I would not recommend, but again, I'd be happy to hear someone having success with it. If you go down this road, use the best quality sausages you can find.


Oh. Controversy. According to the folks of Bologna, bolognese--even tho' I've reverted to ragu, altho' the point still applies--is a meat sauce. End of story. It has a little--and I mean a little--tomato paste, but that's it. No canned tomatoes. No passata.

I part from tradition here. I like the combination of meat and tomatoes. I've tried recipes involving just a few spoonfuls of tomato paste, but I've never liked them as much as the versions of heavy on the tomato.

I prefer passata over canned tomatoes here: I use passata by itself, but you can use it with canned tomatoes or used canned tomatoes by themselves. Whatever the case, if you're using one of these products you don't need tomato concentrate.

If you can get someone's homemade passata--or if you have access to quality tomatoes and regularly make your own--you'll be eating very well, but really, even the cheap store bought stuff is okay. Here, and with canned tomatoes too, I find there's little variation in terms of quality at the lower end of the market. Or, to put it another way, everything you'll find in the supermarkets and most delis is pretty much the same: okay, at least so long as you're buying the Italian stuff (the Australian canned tomatoes just don't do it for me). You can buy high end shit at expensive shops (Simon Johnson, etc) and I reckon it'd make for an even better product--Heston Blumenthal made his bolognese with canned tomatoes grown on the slopes of a volcano--but it's probably all a bit unimportant. Spend the money buying better quality meat and pasta.


The vegetable base. Some people just use onions, but the traditional way--and I think the best way--is to at least have carrots and celery, too. Vegetables add sweetness and texture. You could also throw in some fennel or leek if you wanted to. The amount of vegetables in the sauce is, again, a point for potential fisticuffs. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uses a crazy amount of onions in his bologese (and it works) but I've seen people working with the same amount of meat use only one or two onions. Ensure you dice the vegetables fairly small and that you cook them until soft. Whether you go all the way and caramelise the onion is up to you--it'll impact on flavour, of course. Feel free to experiment with the frying medium. The grease from the cured pork works, but you could use olive oil, some other oil (I disagree with the odur of vegetable oil and so never use it for anything), butter or even duck fat, if you're in the mood for being obscene and sexy and hardcore.

Now, garlic. I like garlic a lot. Fresh garlic, to me, doesn't just mean using something from the supermarket's fruit and veg section as opposed to some rancid-smelling shit from a jar. Garlic, like onion, can sit around a whole lot and be edible and everything, but it really shouldn't sit around at all. Edible doesn't mean good. A lot of the garlic that's avaliable in supermarkets is imported from wherever and has been kicking around for days or weeks. It's lost a lot of flavour and aroma making it basically a pointless addition to anything. Garlic is really easy to grow--you can buy it at garden shops or even plant a couple of cloves of something you bought to cook--and it's worth doing, but if you're buying it try and buy local produce. Curiously, I've seen some authentic recipes that include no garlic at all. The 1 part out of 16 or 32 or whatever of me that is French is deeply disturbed by this.

cooking liquids other than passata or the juice from a can of tomatoes

Well, you have to make that liquid content up somehow. Adrian Richardson cooks his bolognese, which is very good, almost entirely in passata. It makes for a very rich sauce that has metric fuckloads of flavour and texture and general goodness. Still, though, there are options.

First up: water. No. Really. Don't.

Second: stock. Ideally you have something home made--a generic brown stock, beef stock, veal stock, even a chicken stock--you can use and maybe even jack with demi-glace but some store bought stocks will do in a pinch. Read the label carefully. Some are just basically tubs of stock cubes dissolved in water: you may as well pay 60 cents for a stick of Maggi's dried crap. Even the better products, tho', like the tetra packs sold in decent butchers and such, aren't as good (either in terms of flavour or texture--homemade stock usually has a higher gelatine content) as the homemade stuff. Perhaps it's something to do with being made to be shelf stable.

Thirdly: wine. A lot of non-Italian recipes use red wine, but a lot of Italian recipes use white wine. I don't know enough about wine to know what's best here. You can either deglaze the pan with wine after browning the meat and let the wine reduce or just add it with the other liquid(s). I'm told not to reduce red wine a crazy amount as you end up with something that's a bit like Vegemite. Whatever you use, I'd argue that you don't need a huge amount of wine and that, too, if you use wine you need to use decent wine. That old rule about not cooking with a wine you wouldn't drink? It's very sensible.

Finally: milk. Yes. Milk. This is something done in Bologna and it's not a totally crazy idea, given people--including the French with their fancy pants-sounding lait--cook great lumps of pork in milk. Milk tends to be used in conjunction with wine and stock. Milk and I aren't the best of friends, so I haven't actually tried using milk in bolognese (altho' I have cooked a shoulder of pork in milk--it was okay).

herbs and spices

Are herbs an essential ingredient? Well, yes and no. If you have access to fresh herbs--rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, parsley, bay--there is no good reason not to use them. Generally and all, woody herbs go in near the start of the cooking process (altho' you can add more at the end) as they'll withstand having the utter shit cooked out of them better than softer herbs like basil and parsley. Basil goes so well with bolognese/ragu, especially if you favour a variant heavy on tomatoes, but it must go in at the last minute. If you're adding herbs you don't particularly want to eat--parsley stalks, rosemary and so on--then a very sensible thing to do would be to either tie them in a neat bundle with kitchen string or, given plant matter tends to fall apart after a few hours in bubbling liquid, a muslin bag.

If you grow herbs or can get them from someone who grows them, you're in business. If you're buying them you're in a bit of trouble: most 'fresh' herbs sold in supermarkets and grocers just aren't. They might smell okay, maybe, but the flavour is long gone. Next time you go to buy herbs, tear off a leave and put it in your mouth. If it tastes like fucking grass clippings, as so many store bought herbs so, don't waste your money.

As for dried herbs, dried bay leaves are maybe okay, but otherwise avoid them. They give a tea-like taste to stuff, which you really don't want, and really aren't so nice. If you can't get the good fresh stuff, it's best to go without.

Small quantities of fresh chilli have a place in ragu. The idea isn't to make a hot sauce but to pep it up a little. Add it, finely diced, with the garlic.

Finally, consider throwing a pod or two of star anise to your muslin bag of fresh herbs. Star anise, as Heston Blumenthal taught me, really brings out the meaty flavour of meat. Such small quantities won't give the dish any noticeable aniseed flavours.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

forbidden animal fruits

Last week at La Luna we got the off-the-menu special: braised horse shanks with orecchiette.

Horse only recently became avaliable for human consumption in Australia. Vince Garreffa, over in Perth, got approval from whatever relevant body a few months ago and started selling it. I called him to order some on D-Day, actually, but the price of air freight made me decide to hold off until someone in Melbourne started selling it took.

Garreffa is a brave man. You see, people have threatened to kill him. He starts selling a particular product and the response of a certain class of individual is to make death threats. Now, I'm sure there are some--vegans, whoever--who wouldn't have liked this guy even before he got in the horse meat trade, given that he's a butcher. But there are others who I have no doubt would be happy buying his (beef) steaks or chicken breasts or lamb shanks who are morally outraged to the point of behaving like psychopathic criminals when he comes out and says he's offering consumers another choice.

Now, fair enough. Maybe you like horses. Maybe you like them so much that you don't think they should get killed for meat. So boycott the guy's business. Organise a petition. Fight the power on Twitter or Blogger. Wave a fucking placard while standing atop a fucking plastic milk crate.

People, of course, ate horse in Australia prior to all this. The meat was avaliable for pets and the truly keen got it that way. Or other people just knew people who knew people. I wasn't going to eat pet meat and I didn't have the right sort of dodgy contacts, so my first horse experience had to wait until last week.

After Garreffa started selling horse, Embrasse in Carlton announced a horse tasting night and, sure enough, the psychopaths and food Nazis gave them a hard time. Going above and beyond any sane person's definition of an acceptable and moral protest, they forced the restaurant's hand. The plug was pulled.

It's odd that for some people, the only meats acceptable for human consumption are beef, chicken, lamb and pork. There are irrational lines drawn. Perhaps due to cultural indoctrination. Perhaps due to fond memories of pets or Mr Ed the talking horse (delicious) or Skippy the bush kangaroo (delicious). I don't buy that it's about saving the animals, as few of the animals in question are anywhere close to endangered. Some, like our local population of camels (delicious) and wild rabbits (also delicious), are fucking pests. There's something gross or sacred or forbidden about other meats. You should see the reaction when I drop that, yeah, I've eaten possum (delicious--a bit like mutton, really). How disgusting. But it was farmed. Free-range and everything. I don't buy that some animals are cute and fluffy and that's why people love them so. A possum is fluffy but it stops being cute once you've gone through the very Australian exeperience of having one invade your roof cavity. A suckling pig or baa lamb is cute as hell and fluffy, too, but that doesn't stop them from being something folks would happily eat spit-roasted with potatoes and gravy.

I'm happy brave people like Garreffa exist. To the nay sayers, I suggest not buying his horse meat and, if you must whinge irrationally, do so legally and morally. Boycott and etc. Me, tho', I've enjoyed beef and veal and chicken and pork and lamb and mutton and goat and quail and duck and turkey and pigeon and pheasant and silkie and guniea fowl and mutton bird and rabbit and hare and possum and horse and camel and wild boar and venison and emu and ostrich and crocodile and wallaby and buffalo and alpaca and some others I've probably forgotten.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

recent times and places


Highlights: white chocolate dumplings
Physical: 4 Cecil Pl, Prahran, VIC (just off Chapel St) 

Hit David's for a cheap and cheerful lunch. The Age has loved this place since forever (well, 2002 or something), so I figured they were worth a shot. Their prices are sensible. Their priciest banquet, even, is reasonably priced considering that David's is good. For $14 I received a substantial serving of shredded duck meat, vegetables and steamed rice. Amazing? No. But the sort of loving comfort and warmth I needed after a couple of days of too much wine. But good, yes. Good. Where David's shone, though, was with the dessert--and really, it was this one little dish on the menu that compelled me to hike down Chapel Street from South Yarra station, passing a million other places that were probably okay. The dessert was a ($6) serving of steamed white chocolate dumplings. Casings of just the right thickness loaded up with a white ganache of lava consistency, served just warm with some coconut crumble. On the basis of this dish alone I'll have to go back for the banquet. Or maybe $60 worth of the ganache dumplings. Either way.

la luna

Highlights: cured pork, horse, steak, wine (but not the moscato)
Physical: 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North, VIC

Hit La Luna Bistro last week. Went all out: tasting menu, matching wine, off-the-menu special. And this place, I liked it right away. Even before I went in, the menu and book won me over. I liked the sound of the dishes on the menu. I've enjoyed every single thing I've cooked from the book. I like Adrian Richardson's approach when it comes to educating people about meat. Really, I was seduced before I even had a sip of wine.

This place, tho', it's not what I'd call intimate. I mean, not unless you're dating someone who really, really, really likes their meat. It's kind of loud. Cramped. The dining room is small. But man, when I walked in and right away saw a bar full of good beer (White Rabbit, etc) and wine and a huge picture of a steer, all divided into common Australian cuts and everything, I was further seduced. Legs spread and eyes begging for love.

And I got it. I got it good. The first course was easily one of my best pork experiences ever. Richardson, see, cures his own smallgoods. We got a selection of the month's finest--salami, pancetta, cured cheek, lardo (basically slivers of cured fat) with crispy bread and olives, pickled onions and chillies--presented nicely on a wooden board. A divine offering. The meat all salty fatty porky delicious. An essential experience for anyone unlucky enough to have only experienced cured pork in its mass produced form. I know, I know, I know everyone goes on about small producers and everything, saying how expensive, difficult-to-find, free-range, organic, hand-made products kick the non-organic shit out of the factory-made stuff, but in this case, at least, everyone is right. This stuff is good. Really fucking good. I know that for the rest of my final semester at uni, I'll have trouble focusing in class because I'll be knowing this piggy goodness is a few minutes away. I could walk there, load up on salted and air-dried animal, and be back in the space of a hour. Easy.

The secondi course wasn't my favourite thing in the world. Not bad, no, but really, I'm just not a cheese souffle kind of guy. Love the French. Truly. Love cheese and eggs, too, but the package doesn't work for me. Not in the deeply offensive way of chocolate and mint, but not something I'd cook or order a la carte.

The pasta course, tho', wow. We were told by our lovely waitress--I say lovely because, when we gushed about the pork, she snuck us some lardo on toast--that normal times, we'd get orecchiette with clams and etc, but if we really wanted, given we clearly liked meat and all, given we 'got it', we could have something special: orecchiette with braised horse shanks. The braise, of course, being finished off with bitter chocolate (always an excellent idea--I suggest you try it with braised boar or venison or roo or, really, even chilli con carne). Horse is a wonderful meat. It's, well, meaty. Mr Ed is nowhere near as intense as, say, Possum Magic (seriously) or Skippy, but he's got more oomph than Daisy. More on this forbidden treat later.

The sausage course and steak course were good good good. Crispy and charred, but not carbonised to shit, on the outside, pink on the inside, which sounds v wrong. Richardson ages beef on site and, supposedly, will let you have whatever cut you want--not just the standard porterhouse, rib eye, rump--if you're buying his steak a la carte. I like this idea.

For dessert we were offered creme brulee or whatever, really, but the default was an orange granita paired with moscato (loved every wine offering up to this point, figured I'd dig moscato, too--how fucking wrong I was). After all that meat and starch--the orecchiette, the mashed potato that came with both the sausage and the steak--I was in no state for baked custard or mousse or anything of the sort. Nothing involving dairy fat or eggs. Granita sounded perfect. And it was nice, really. Altho' scarily, it seemed savoury--yes, this thing loaded up with frozen orange and fuck off sized sugar crystals--when consumed after a sip of the wine. Just say no to moscato, kids.


Highlights: leaving
URL: n/a
Physical:  330 Clayton Rd, Clayton, VIC

I feel betrayed. Used. Abused. Violated, even. Ping's, you see, used to be good. Most places local to me are shit. Most. The one decent Indian place, Sarawan, was recently gobbled up by (the shitty) Anshumann Da Dhaba. The place that's in the Cheap Eats book, Wah Kee, leaves me cold. The place that's in the Good Food book, River Kwai, gave me food poisoning and generally just sucked. But Ping's was different. You could go in any time of the day, any day of the week, and it'd be packed. The pork dumplings were bang on. The other stuff, too, as inoffensive as it was (no big plates of steaming pig guts here), was pretty good. Perfect? No. But the comforting sort of deliciousness you feel happy paying ~$10 for.

I wasn't alone in digging the Ping. This place opened up and right away got sort of a cult following. Everyone came and saw and conquered and got good dumplings from the cold waitstaff and loved it. And maybe, or perhaps probably, management realised everyone liked Ping's and figured they could cut costs and trade off their popularity. The past two times I've been it's been bad. The dumplings, which were once salty porky MSG-laden delicious, best enjoyed with the natural goodness of chilli grease, were just sad. Not as bad as Chinatown's Shanghai Dumpling. Not yet, anyway, but well on their way down to that level.


Highlights: everything
Physical: 312 Drummond St, Carlton, VIC

This place I like. The whole place, really. Service. Atmosphere. The plates, even. But fuck all that. The food is excellent. It's fine and fancy while being rustic and comforting. It's posh stuff that gives you flashbacks to your childhood and nods to classic pairs--those smoked sweetbreads that taste a little bit like bacon, of course they're paired with an egg. This is a place I'd go back to several times quite happily. And that's a real Something: I want to knock over as many of The Age's hatted restaurants as I can, so I don't have much time for second or third visits.

Everything was just, truly, right on target. The appetiser, a steamed sort of bread loaded up with a sardine, was refreshing and wonderful in a way that's kind of surprising, given we're talking about those things that are mostly sold canned and half laid, half smeared on to toast. The entree, the sweetbreads with the sous vide egg, was wonderful. My only complaint: not enough sweetbread goodness. Granted, given I could eat those things like popcorn, no restaurant could sate me no matter how generous its portions. A serious complaint about the entree menu is that, really, it's nigh impossible to decide between them. A friend ordered the smoked kingfish and it looked so good.

The main impressed me even more. I came away feeling that, really, I'd never truly understood the potential of baby cow until I had theirs, which they'd smartly paired with fennel and lemon confit, cabbage and pumpkin and celeriac. The simple sauce that accompanied the perfectly cooked veal kicked me back in time to the family dining table: the packet gravy that my mum used to put with her beef schnitzels, which she used to basically stew in oil and their own fat (I guess that's confit, really) until the meat went all chewy and the breadcrumbs all soggy. Do not misunderstand the comparison. The dish was superb. The sauce was a world away from packet gravy. But there was just something there that took me back.

People on the table ordered aligot, which is a typically French invention: mashed potato loaded up with cheese that melts all stringy-like and, according to Larousse, rendered bacon fat. Proof the French truly have excellent heads on their shoulders. If you go to Embrasse you must order this. Must.

The dessert was simple but nice. Like everything else, it was presented like a work of art. Sensually delicious art. A fitting end to a meal that was just plain fucking awesome the whole way through. A soft meringe snowball coated in crusty sugary sugar and some passionately fruity cream and blood orange segments.

I came away very happy with a muchlighter wallet. You want to go here.


Highlights: smoked kingfish, cute baby octopus, roast venison, mashed potato loaded up with horseradish sauce, chicken skin and seafood
Physical: Level 1, Crown Metropol (coming in from the main Crown complex, you'd go past the cinema and through the shopping centre, tuning away from the food court when you see it and down a dim kind of passage way)

This was an interesting place. I've heard a lot of bad, that it's not creative or anything else, but really, fuck that. There's a place for creative, but there's also a place--a large place that I like--for food that tastes nice. I don't care if other people have used your idea, made it their own, maybe made it even better. I don't care if someone else came up with an idea and everyone is doing it. I don't. If you do it well, I want it.

And, mostly, maze Melbourne does it well. The place has an ambience I'm not totally sold on. I can't decide if it's intimate or sterile. It's dark inside and maybe that's why the tables seem really far apart. You can't hear what anyone is saying on other tables which is both a good thing and a bad thing: you can chat to your partner and it's lovely and intimate on one level, but the near complete silence takes away that essential restaurant feeling. Lots of noise can be a bad thing, especially when you're having some romantic experience or attempting to impress a potential shag, but no noise just feels odd and cold.

Again, though, it's all about the food. I can forgive a lot of things if the food is good. And it is. The menu you see on the website is generic. Possibly it applies to all of the maze restaurants in the world. Expect to few of those items on the menu in the actual restaurant.

All of the savoury dishes we ordered were varying degrees of nice. The smoked kingfish, which arrived first, gave off a strong aniseed smell. The 'candy floss' and the slightly firm, smoky flesh were the perfect way to start the evening.The next dish, a serving of slow-cooked baby octopus paired with crispy chorizo and other nice things, was equally nice.

If you're ordering a la carte, like we were, the menu is a smartly designed document. Going down the page, and working left to right, the dishes get more substantial, helping you organise your order in a way that'll work.

The wonderfully rich braised ox tongue was good on its own, but the moment you mixed it with a lump of the creamy, horseradish-y mashed potato you were eating very well. The pork belly was nice, but nowhere near as good as Bistro Guillaume's. The rare roast venison with bitter chocolate was wonderful. The sort of thing I wish I could have as a main. The sort of thing I wish I could make so perfectly myself.

And then there was perhaps one of the more confrontational dishes I'd had recently: a fillet of cod wrapped in chicken skin and then pan fried in what I imagine to be the culinary world's second best frying medium--butter (which trails somewhat behind duck fat). The way it's sliced and everything, it looks just like a perfectly cooked chicken breast--you know, done sous vide and then browned in a pan and sliced thickly--and it smells like a perfectly cooked chicken breast and the skin, man, the skin tastes like that of a freshly cooked chicken breast. And then you run, smack bang, into the robust flavour of a white fleshed fish. I wasn't sure if I liked it, so I ate more, willing it to work. And it did.

Dessert was somewhat of a letdown. Not bad, no. The fondant was, well, fondat. The violet sauce was nice, but yeah. Fondant. Partner's choice, tho'. And there's the rub: the choice was very limited. Nothing on the dessert menu was particularly interesting. A mousse. A fondant. Something else not especially memorable. A selection of cheeses that wasn't really a selection at all. I'm sure everything would've been okay--good, even, for what it was--but after the contrast of tastes and textures and everything else of the savouries, it would've been swell if something better and more interesting was on offer for dessert.