Entries Tagged 'Eating Out' ↓

Dr Sister Outlaw books a table for one at Becasse

The other night I found myself in Sydney, all alone, at the end of two extremely interesting but tiring weeks of work-related learnings. Something about the blueness of the autumn sky, and the sudden freedom of completing my duties, infected me with hedonism. I decided that I would do something I’d not done for a long, long time and buy myself a scarily expensive meal. After spending most of the day thinking about it, I booked a table for one at Becasse. After a trip to the beach, to catch the last warm waves of the season, and buying myself a new pair of red shoes, I was there. Alone.

Dining alone is a curious experience. I remember being told, by a much older woman I admired 21 years ago, that the measure of a restaurant is how they treat the solo diner. Her name was Lynn and her gold standard was the legendary 1980s restaurant Stephanie’s, whose staff did not sit the solo diner at a table next to the kitchen, but put them in the best seat, so as to shower them with discreet attention. As Lynn pointed out, the food and a good book should substitute for lack of companionship, and being alone should never be a reason not to partake of all the best that chefs have to offer. I’ve never forgotten Lynn’s example and have often eaten alone often and happily. But restaurants as splendid as Becasse are restaurants for romantic encounters, or significant life events, or, if one is truly vulgar, proving your financial muscle to people you want to impress. I’ve never really considered going to such a place alone. My Crush, stuck at home and unable to accompany me asked, won’t you feel awkward being by yourself? I thought I wouldn’t, but I needed to test that.

I’m so glad I did. My booking was last minute, but the lovely bloke who answered the phone explained that he did only have two tables, and I would be near the kitchen, but he hoped I wouldn’t mind and I would find the staff friendly. The only indication he gave that he thought my request for a table for one was odd was asking me if I was in the food industry. No, I assured him, but I did want to eat a really good meal. I knew by his tone that I would, and the night would be good.

It was. The ambience of the restaurant is late 70s, with lots of black and white velvet wallpaper, gold and smoked glass, and frivolous chandeliers. There was almost one staff member per table, and a phalanx of chefs. I had forgotten how spoiling it is to eat silver service, but they did it in a way that was completely unfussy and laid back. The lovely woman in charge of the food had the motherliness you’d expect to find over a bar on the Central Coast, and none of the staff were hipsters. Who’d have thought that?

I love going to a restaurant with someone with a good palate and unpacking the food, but being alone meant I could focus completely, and not feel self-conscious for it, as I might have with a friend or a date. The food deserved the attention. Big kitchens do things you could never do at home – emulsions and gels and foams you would only bother with if you were a bit demented, and they pride themselves on flourishes, such as making little sculptures of marinated baby heirloom vegetables with crumbled olives and purees of beetroot and peas (please excuse the grainy iPhone pictures – it was dark in there and I thought it would have been rude to pull out the flash, or use my proper camera). 
Despite such amusing frippery, it was all underpinned by some very decent cooking – French-based, Asian influenced and rounded out with a deep knowledge of wholefoods and craft. The breads, for instance, were outstanding examples of a skilled baker’s work (the little green block in the bread picture is a fascinating but unnecessary emulsion of olive oil, while the white one was an emulsion of butter and pork fat, which I did not taste as I am a friend of the pig). Apparently Justin North, who owns Becasse, is opening new digs and a bakery across the road – I suggest you go there as soon as it opens. Just ignore the emulsions.

Other highlights were the delicate punch of wagyu and tuna in a beef and tomato consomme, the smokiness of scallops with miso and magically simple things; toasted buckwheat crumbled on top of scallops; the consistency of the chocolate mousse, with its glazed surface; the delight of creamy pannacotta at the bottom of a cup of mandarin granita. Nine of the ten courses were extraordinary, blending seafoods, beef and smoked flavours with lots of variations on potato and light, light dressings. It wasn’t perfect: the eggs with legumes were foamy and it was all too salty, but only the last savoury course was entirely disappointing, because the chicken was tough and the lemon pith overpowering. Still, this was the flaw that kept my feet on the ground and I was wowed by the smoked scallops, the various versions of potato, the wagyu and yellowfin, the savoury biscotti with goats cheese, those pumpkin and rosemary brioches, and that chocolate mousse.

And, as it turned out, being near the open kitchen was quite entertaining. I could hear the machinery of the restaurant and the calm, well-drilled voices of the head chefs as they pulled together the tiny elements of dishes they’d prepped all day. I had my back to them, but a piece of smoked glass in front of me provided a perfect reflection of what they were doing, and this meant I had a kind of chef TV, as well as a great view of the restaurant. And they could not see me watching them …

Dining alone was a wonderful experience. After two hours, when I was getting a bit restless but had eaten through only eight of the 10 courses, I fell into the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, and floated away. Then it was time to go. When the bill came I signed the credit card without a flourish, then poured myself out into the night, full of happiness and pride for spoiling myself so thoroughly.

So I’m sending thanks my old friend Lynn, wherever she is, for giving me the courage to eat alone in a fancy restaurant. I loved it Lynn. You knew I would.

[I have been wrestling with the alignment of the text with these photos but they will have to wait until Ms Zoe gets back from her holiday shenanigans to fix the blessed things. My bad.]

Late Winter Vineyard lunching action

My dear friend Katie recently had the decency to move from Dangar Island to the same suburb I live in. We loved visiting them on Dangar, which is in the Hawkesbury river near Sydney and very beautiful, but it really is much more convenient to live around the corner and see each other several times a week.

It was her birthday recently, and she wanted a nice lunch out. Well, actually she wanted dinner but what with her and partner Aneal’s three year old, our children, two sets of babysitting arrangements and a desire to drink wine we ended up at lunch at Shaw vineyard’s Flint in the Vines in Murrumbateman, about a half hour drive out of Canberra. It’s being run by Grant Kells, one of the guys behind the swanky but by some reports over-promising and under-delivering Flint Dining Room and Bar in Canberra, and front of house is run by former Longrain sommelier Jai Dawson.

And don’t worry, I am not missing the irony of my first post in forever being a restaurant review, which I never do.

Aneal eats fish occasionally, but not meat or gluten, and Flint’s menu seemed pretty flexible. There’s a very decent kid’s menu and there were well behaved and charming children of all ages enjoying lunch in big family groups.

The wine list is very, very reasonable, particularly if you stick to the Shaw wines. We had some shampoo to start, the Shaw sparkling semillon for $26. I was enjoying the slightly sweet lemon-y and biscuit-y flavours until Owen said “lemon cheesecake!” We had the Isabella Riesling, $33, with mains and it had the same lemon myrtle kind of flavours – must be the house style, hunh?

It’s a comfortable but unponcy joint, a dining room with an open fire adjoining the vineyard’s cellar door tasting area.
We were planning to take our time, so all had entrees and mains and shared a couple of desserts.

Katie had “Pork Belly and Toasted Hazelnut Terrine, Red onion jam, toasted brioche”

The terrine was just past nicely crumbly and heading towards dry, but as you see it was tasty.

Aneal had Seared Yellow Fin Tuna Green asparagus, baby herb mix, white truffle dressing

I Do Not Approve of white truffle dressing in Canberra in August. For quite a few reasons. Or asparagus, really, but the tuna separated softly to the tooth and was quite delicious.

I had a special, tempura prawns with a something sauce and nori

I don’t know what’s happened to me, but I’m losing my tolerance for sweetness. I can remember thinking as I tasted it that I should have known from the menu description it would be too sweet; cloying. Lovely bouncy prawns, though.

The final entree was Owy’s Quick Fried Spiced Calamari, Blue cheese aioli, lemon.

This is one of those “Masterchef Aaron YumYuk” things. Horrible and wonderful at the same time, although I’m not sure it’s on purpose.

For mains, Katie and Owy had the Wood Fired Weekend Roast

It’s pretty cheap at $26, but even for that you don’t want the beef cooked beyond medium. The yorkshire puddings, on the other hand, were perfect.

Aneal had beautiful Wild Barramundi Meuniere , brown lemon butter, steamed Kipfler potatoes

and I had “Master Stock Braised Pork Belly, Sautéed king scallops, Ginger soy mirin glazed wild mushrooms

again, too sweet, and again, beautifully cooked lovely fresh seafood.

I’m over sweets, but I was really looking forward to some cheese – but they were out. Sniff. The desserts we shared aren’t on the current menu, so I’m struggling to remember how they were described. We had a pannacotta with a chocolate and hazlenut gelato

The other, much less successful, dish was a trio of chocolate desserts:

On the left was a chilli-chocolate mousse, which was fine. In the middle was a chocolate and banana brulee. There is no reason, however, to put banana in a chocolate brulee. Or any other kind of brulee. If I’m going to have a hot banana, I want it flaming in rum, goddamit. The final element was a large, crumbly dry cakey type arrangement that seemed liked it should have been served up by someone wearing a nosering and birkenstocks.

The service was brisk enough, and the waiter responded very well when I replied to his question about how our mains were by holding up a long, curly blonde hair. We’d all thought it was unfortunate but no big deal, but as expected the cost of the dish was removed from the bill. If I was the owner, I would ask that in future he not carry it suspended from his hand, face aghast, all the way back to the passe and shout out “Chef! A hair!” quite so loudly. The other staff were an endearing mix of country girls with painstakingly dishevilled updos.

For a long enjoyable lunch and plenty of wine, the bill came to under $100 a head. If you’re going, I’d stick to the seafood and pick up a bottle of the sticky on the way home. It was a very nice lunch, and we all had a lovely time.

Emica’s metropolis – a culinary tour of New York

My oh my. Ole Blue Eyes had it right about New York when he said if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. London is a global city, but New York is a metropolis. They say you can tell a tourist from a New Yorker because the visitor spends half their time craning their necks upwards at the enormously tall buildings, while the locals are blase about living in a modernist architect’s model come to life. I am definitely in the provincial gawker category. New York is so tall! And wide. And busy. Looking at old photos in the wonderful, compact Museum of New York City, you can see that the skyline hasn’t changed a huge deal since the late 30s (with two notable exceptions of course), which must have made the scale of the city all the more impressive to country rubes when the Empire State, Chrysler, Rockefeller etc were first built.

It’s a topic that’s been exhaustively explored in books and film, but it remains true that New York is the great immigrant city. I was surprised by how Hispanic culture has a very strong presence in the city, naively thinking that because of the Mexico-American West connection, there wouldn’t be much of a Hispanic population in New York. But it was the brilliant and fascinating Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side that really brought home to me just how integral immigration and the immigrant experience is to the life and character of New York.

Visits to the museum are based on a number of themed tours where the immigrant past of the area is explored. As our guide explained (herself of Italian background), the area had previously been known as Kleine Deutschland and was almost wholly German speaking prior to 1880; the decades after this, into the early 20th century, saw huge numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe. After that the area became home to the Sicilians, the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese in the 1970. At one point, a quarter of New York’s population was Irish and very large numbers of African Americans moved from the South, settling in Harlem. Describing how these waves of new Americans managed to deal with the sweatshop conditions where large families lived and worked in three or four rooms in these tenement slums, our museum guide made the point that they had nothing to go back to; working out how to survive and thrive in the new country was the only option. The caricature of New York as a hustler city seemed at least partly true, with a very active, pushy street life and people by turns aggressively rude and exceptionally kind and friendly. Without going overboard on the basis of one week’s holiday, it struck me that this character is perhaps a cultural by-product of New York’s eternally arriving population and their determined drive to make it.

And of course, one of the great things about immigration is the food traditions that come with the new residents. From the Jewish side of NYC’s population, Katz’s Delicatessan almost doesn’t need an introduction, so well know is it from When Harry Met Sally. Internet debate rages about whether Katz’s is the real thing or over hyped or whether other delis are more authentic and/or better. I dunno, but the pastrami and pickle sandwich I had was amazingly, meltingly delicious. I’d never had proper pastrami and it doesn’t even begin to compare to that wafer thin prepacked sliced stuff from supermarkets. They’re also famous for own-brand soda. I think that should be infamous because The Man had Cel-Ray, a celery flavour soft drink which tasted like mineral salts crossed with Lucozade; I had a root beer that tasted like cough syrup filtered through the collective footy socks of both grand final teams. Disgusting.

London doesn’t have much of a Hispanic population and American friends moan about lack of proper Mexican food. We had an amazing lunch at a tacqueria (taco joint) in the back of a Mexican grocery in the Hell’s Kitchen area. It had a dozen stools at a counter which offered 5 kinds of hot sauce and, like so many restaurants of the newly arrived, ordering in English was hit and miss, it was cheap and damn delicious. I particularly liked my taco of corn fungus but the slow cooked goat quesadilla was awesome.

Chinatown and Little Italy are next to each other and we were a bit dubious about eating in either, figuring there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of marketing guff giving an area an “identity” and the quality of the cooking. A good review sent us to Chinatown and the New Yeah Shangai Deluxe. With a name like that, how could anyone say no?! Unfortunately, it had disappeared since the review, so we crossed the road to another place where the scallion (spring onion) pancake was raved about. Not sure why it was such a feature as was a bit dull, but The Man’s slow cooked beef with greens and noodles was beautiful. He complained that it was a bit too real, with gristly bits and bony bits but I think that’s picking holes; the beef was melting and the broth beautifully spiced with star anise. I had fine noodles in chicken broth with a pork stuffed poached spring roll and stuffed deep fried tofu, which was good – chickeny in the right way – but not a patch on the beef broth.

Harlem is an iconic area and, apparently, more white people have moved in but it didn’t seem that way to us on a mid week lunch time. Sitting at the counter of Fishers of Men, the only white girl in this Southern style fry-house, I definitely felt I stood out but was made to feel very welcome. Fishers of Men is a hole in the wall hotdog and fried fish outfit.

Established by a deeply religious family, the Ten Commandments are printed on the wall and evangelical FM radio plays the Word of the Lord over the PA. It’s not just a hokey cliche though, because the fried catfish is damn good. Four generous fillets in a light, seasoned batter were sandwiched between white sliced, with mayonnaise and some kind of house made chilli sauce. We added collard greens, a Southern speciality which we discovered were something like silver beet with shredded ham hock, and was both smokey and pleasantly bitter. Unfortunately my coleslaw was made with that sweet industrial mayonnaise but was commendably crunchy and obviously freshly made.

Every holiday I have a food Mecca that I have to visit. For NYC it was Momofuku Ssam Bar. It sort of crept into my consciousness, although the post by Melbourne Gastronome prompted me into action. David Chang opened the first of the Momofuku family, the noodle bar in the East Village, in 2003 and the ssam bar opened in 2006. I believe ssam means wrapped food in Korean and the original intention of the ssam bar was an Asian burrito cafeteria style place. As this profile from a few years ago outlines, that idea didn’t really work out and a more structured approach was introduced to the restaurant when it failed to take off. Certainly, the only remnant of the burrito bar idea we could see when we went for Friday dinner – and again for lunch on Saturday – was the pared back utilitarian decor and the pork belly buns.

Whatever teething troubles that may have beset Ssam, they’re certainly long vanquished. We got there around 8.30 on a Friday and had a lengthy, but not unpleasant wait with gaggles of would be diners in the adjoining Milk Bar, which serves cake, cookies, beer, ice cream and pork buns. To their credit, the restaurant staff keep an eye on you, offer you drinks and remember you’re waiting to eat. Our pork buns were truly delicious. A flat pita shaped bread of the same fluffy consistency as steamed pork buns at yum cha is served open, wrapped around two generous slabs of soft pork belly, smeared with hoisin and topped with spring onion and coriander. We came back the next day for more of these little guys. Yum.

It makes sense to describe Momofuku as fusion, but actually it’s almost beyond categorisation because, although its influences draw from around the world, it’s not pretentious, cheffy or up itself. I say this now because alongside the pork buns we had a plate of Arkensas ham with butter and crusty bread and a plate of the most zingily interesting pickles – included were kimchi, carrot, cauliflower, mushroom and, best of all, rhubarb.

The food wasn’t without a few bum notes. My air dried beef with various accoutrements and hot stock poured over was incredibly salty and for afters we had one of the compost cookies. These are something of a trademark and they’re OK; I may sound a bit pernickity, but they suffer from the wrong proportion of butter and sugar to dry ingredients, which Dr SO so accurately identified in this post. However, all was forgiven because of the cereal milk soft serve – it really does taste like the milk after you’ve eaten all the nutri grain and The Man asked for it to be rolled in salted corn flakes. This is what good, modern, interesting and thoughtful food looks like.

So far in this epic post most of the eating has been a global tour of NYC’s various populations, but we ate a lot of ‘American’ food as well. A juicy burger with American cheese (basically plastic cheese slices) at Williamsburger in, you guessed it, Williamsburg Brooklyn overlooking the impressive derelict sugar refinery. A stack of pancakes with a jug of syrup and sausage at Big Daddy’s Diner; I was on a sugar high after that! And the most amazing donuts at The Donut Plant in the Lower East Side.

A combination of nosiness (me) and friendliness (the nice New Yorker) meant we got chatting with a fella sitting next to us at the Hester Street artisan market, where for breakfast we ate Vietnamese baguettes filled with lemongrass, coriander and pork meatballs and fruity Mexican style icy poles from La Newyorkina. He recommended the Donut Plant, round the corner – a fine piece of synchronicity because we were just about to head across the river to Brooklyn in search of donut excellence. I didn’t know this at the time, but the Donut Plant was the first in a wave of donut visionaries reimagining the donut and recreating it as a viable pastry, not some kind of aerated styrofoam police officers’ snack. For our first round The Man had a square blackberry jam donut and I had a hole-less creme brulee version, which had sweet eggy custard in the middle and a crackly glaze on top. It is one of the yummiest things I’ve ever eaten. For the second round I had chocolate – chocolate glaze, chocolate cake and chocolate ganache inside; The Man had the healthy carrot cake option. And, exemplifying New York’s tension between bad-ass attitude and helpful friendliness, the previously surly super cool server unexpectedly gave me a fifth donut, their famous tres leches flavour with some kind of creamy deliciousness inside.

Two takes on Molecular Gastronomy

I am in love with a blog I’ve just found called resistance is fertile, and am working my way through the archives, finding joys like this take on “101 quick meals”and this, which involves chocolate and poetry, and is beautiful.

Lagusta is an anarchist chef living in upstate New York who runs businesses delivering home cooked vegan meals and making chocolates, including one called a Furious Vulva. And she thinks that all vegans should go to Alinea, the famed Chicago restaurant of Grant Achatz recently ranked the best restaurant in North America, and the seventh best restaurant in the world:

vegans should be embracing this molecular gastronomy business. It’s so vegan friendly. It uses tools we’ve been using forever (agar, kuzu, flax seeds, various powders and elixirs), but it uses them unapologetically, not as “replacements,” but as interesting elements of a dish on their own merit.

Several world aways is Oliver Peyton, an Irish-born art lover and restauranteur. He seems much more straight-laced than Lagusta, but is apparently known for running off at the gob sometimes.

I was looking for Luke Ngyuen videos on the SBS food site, when I stumbled across Peyton’s “Eating Art“, an examination of the antecedents of molecular gastronomy in modernist art.

The show has some painful sequences of Peyton striding around in picturesque international locations, but starts to fly when he asks fancy New York chef Sam Mason to interpret Cezanne’s still life Apples and Oranges (1899). Mason (re)constructs sharp-edged boxes of intense appley-ness, that nod at both Cezanne’s determination to see and capture structure and his urge to move his craft forward

Wylie Dufresne of wd-50, gets the altogether more grim Juan Gris’ Bottle of Rum and a Newspaper and constructs an octopus terrine eaten with a toasted saffron cake, pickled ginger and pine nuts that have had very, very, very elaborate things done to them. It looks amazing.

And finally, at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Northern Italy, a three course Futurist fancy including a fake roast ham (cooked sous vide, blow-torched for colour and complete with atomised aromas); then a thin square of freshly hand minced raw beef, laid with a path of salty flavour.

It concludes with a triumph of nostalgia. Foie gras is infused with milk and cherrywood smoke and cooked sous vide. A stick is inserted, then it’s injected with the local Modena balsamic and rolled in roasted almond and hazlenut. I couldn’t manage a screenshot even as shabby as the two above, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they totally made a Golden Gaytime. In proper Marinetti-fashion, it is served accompanied by a large Italian man booming avant-garde poetry.

Anthony: Everyone’s a critic.

That was the slogan of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It got me thinking about food critics, and what they do. We tend to only reflect on the role of food critics when they’re in extremis: Leo Schofield getting sued for defamation; the French chef Bernard Loiseau and the loss of a Michelin star; or – horror of horrors – the Australian’s John Lethlean laying into Cheong Liew.

But what is restaurant reviewing all about? Nowadays, for most of us, if we want an opinion on a new restaurant in our neighbourhood, we’d probably go to some online site where diners rate the reasturant and offer their opinions. There’s a lot of debate about whether we’ve yet reached the age of the citizen journalist, but surely we’ve reached the age of the citizen critic? When it comes to something as quotidian as dining out, or a film, or a brand of whitegood or hi-fi, surely everyone is a critic. Do we really expect a food critic to add to this? Do we expect a restaurant critic to approach the task in the same way as a music critic will approach a recital, or a drama critic a play? Did they ever? Do we need a ‘specialist’ to interpret the dining experience to us in the same way as, for example, an art critic interprets art? What does it mean to a ‘specialist’ when it comes to consuming food in a restaurant?

I lived in Toronto in the first half of last year, in a neighbourhood at the west end of Queen Street West (that is, west Queen Street West). Queens St West runs from downtown, but the wester it goes the more it becomes like an extended version of Gertrude St Melbourne: a motley mix of convenience stores, pawn shops, second hand dealers, ethnic eateries, independent avant-garde art galleries, trendy cafes, social service providers and boutique hotels.

Gentrification Street West

The area, like Gertrude St, is bordered by public housing – or what they call ‘project housing’ – and a local performance artist, Darren O’Donnell (no relation), worked with kids from the local Parkdale High School on a project called ‘Eat the Street’, glossed as Parkdale Public School versus Queen Street West (Darren likes working with kids: one of his earlier projects was to offer passing adults ‘haircuts by kids’ – under the supervision of a stylist of course).

O’Donnell took a group of students from Parkdale to review eleven restaurants in the Queen Street West area, over a month and a half, culminating in an awards ceremony. Here are examples of what some of the schoolkids-turned-restaurant reviewers had to say about some of the restaurants on the project’s blog:

‘The washroom is too small, smells bad and it dirty. Atmosphere is good. Pretty room colours. Good outfit. I like the music’ – Tenzin Paldon

‘Very good chicken curry with rice. Okay service’ – Tenzin Chokden

‘Service was pretty fast for a big group. There was a hair in my food’- Anh

‘It was very good and spicy’ – Tenzin Choesang

‘Bathroom = 8/10. Small, but feels good, isn’t dirty. Although small, feels nice and comfy. Sorta loud. Deer Burger: I feel really disturbed and disgusted. Wonder how it’ll end up like… Burger good and all but the sauce and ingredients on top are too overwhelming and strong. Doesn’t quite fit in well’ – Ann

‘Talihun threw up some food in a toilet because it tasted like his hair’ – Monlan

(You may have noted the apparent surfeit of kids named Tenzin: the area is home to one of the largest expat Tibetan communities outside of Asia)

Badging this as Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West 2: Eat The Street is explicitly oppositional. But it highlights what is at stake here. When a street like Queen St West or Gertrude St starts to change and gets a reputation as a hip or cool or edgy place — whether for its food or its art or its clothing boutiques or whatever — it is because a group of people has interpreted it this way and sold that interpretation to the world. Sharon Zukin, an American scholar of gentrification, calls these people the ‘critical infrastructure’: they range from the museum curators to the art gallery staff; from the restaurant waiters through to the restaurant reviewers — and, we would now have to add, online reviewers and ‘subcultural guides’ and blogs and so on. As she says, they ‘establish and unify a new perspective for viewing and consuming the values of place’. And in this way, of course, they also establish market values. And for Zukin, what goes for the built landscape goes for the menu as well: that shift from place-defining to market-defining.

Yet although the group that is able to communicate information about new consumption opportunities is expanding thanks to the internet, the critical infrastructure is not a job for everyone: it requires people with the requisite cultural capital, if not financial capital. Those kids from Parkdale Public School do just what critics do: they visit restaurants and write up their reactions. But what they’re doing, in the context of the gentrification of west Queen St West, is also something totally different from what restaurant reviewers do.

Update: there has been an Australian version of Eat the Street in Launceston (with a photo blog and (pdf) awards), inspired and supported by the Toronto collective Mammalian Diving Reflex. There’s a lot to say about this phenomenon as performance art: the place of children in public dining; their empowerment and voice; being made to remember what was important to us as kids when dining out; and so on. In my post I’ve focused on a fairly narrow aspect of the Toronto example – the seeming opposition between Parkdale School and Queen St West – to make a point about gentrification and cuisine and the role of restaurant critics however broadly defined. I don’t know enough about the demographics of Mowbray Heights Primary School to say whether any of this is relevant to the experience in Launceston. Anyone? Anyone?

Emica goes in pursuit of lunch in Paris and Berlin

How glamorous. What air of intrigue. How totally European: to take the 20:15 night train from Paris to Berlin; alone. I feel like a character from a Tolstoy novel or perhaps a fugitive agitator, en route to foment revolution and bring about the downfall of the owning classes, delivering the means of production into the hands of the workers. Ahem. Apologies. Having had a starring role in books and films, as well as actual history, European train travel is so evocative that I get a bit carried away with the romance of the tracks. (If you’re doubtful, check this site out; I get a sudden urge to book long journeys to exotic destinations).

Air travel has become a tedious cattle market experience, so recently I took the overnight train from Paris to Berlin. While both cities have earnt a place at the table of world history, it can be tricky to get a bite to eat in either.

I’ve been to Paris a few times now and have done the major sights, so with just an afternoon in the city before my connecting train, I figured it would be best spent over a leisurely lunch. Unfortunately, I arrived in Paris at 2.30 and so missed my place at a bistro, as the dining hours are observed very strictly. Having reconciled myself to an afternoon without a creme caramel, the tricky thing about having over shot the lunch hour is that, in Feb it’s not as inviting to grab a baguette, some cheese and a slice of apricot tart and find a park bench. It’s a little chilly. But, the weather was mild and sunny- and hunger wins over cold- so a picnique was my best bet to eat.

You know those cheese and bacon slices that Brumby’s does? From memory, inch thick rubber cheese pocked with pellets of salted animal byproduct on pizza dough. Well, the cheese and bacon slice I got from the swank Parisian bakery was about as far from Brumby’s in a culinary sense as it is in geographic distance. Stinky gruyere with nuggets of speck on flaky butter pastry. One euro fifty slice of cheesey goodness. I also got an olive ficelle, which was almost 50/50 squashy kalamatas to chewy sourdough. And thank goodness I did because I didn’t really eat for nearly the next 24 hours, except to nibble a bit more of the unending ficelle.

Part of the reason I don’t manage to eat is I was too busy drinking, which won’t come as much of a surprise to many. A joy of travel is chance encounters and a party of two English couples celebrating a joint birthday take me under their wing in the bar carriage. We planned to test the urban myth that a train barman stays as long as his customers and I stumbled (well, it is a moving train!) into my couchette rather later than I’d planned, having not eaten the snacks I brought along as dinner. I’m not usually too pernickity, but in the morning I decide that it’s probably best not to breakfast on yesterday’s quiche, still wrapped in its greaseproof; eggs in a warm couchette for 12 hours doesn’t sound like a good idea. The ficelle tides me over.

Berlin is big. Compared to London, with its dense, higgledy, narrow streets and people under foot at every turn, Berlin is huge and wide and straight and empty and I feel a bit disoriented by the space. An interesting fact a colleague in economic development told me is that, when major cities across the western world were gaining population in the past 20 years, Berlin lost people.

An olive ficelle is not much to keep a girl going for a whole morning of sight seeing and so I headed towards a place recommended in my guide book that seemed to be only three blocks away. Except, three blocks in spacious Berlin seems to be about a kilometre and a half in distance and, in empty Berlin, didn’t offer many alternative eating options along the way either. I never found the well recommended restaurant due possibly to my confusion with street numbering or the great Saturday shut down, but instead found Lutter & Wegner, an entirely charming piece of European civilisation, with wine lined walls, floorboards and scrubbed wooden tables.

The menu tended towards proper main courses and the tables around me had plates of serious looking food, but the terrine I ordered was exactly what I felt like eating. They were very generous with the bread basket of very good bread (caraway!) so with that and a glass of reisling, I was very pleased with myself. I was even more pleased when my dessert arrived – curd cheese cake with sour cherries and nougat icecream with a huge twirl of wafer. Alright!

The lovely English people from the train had invited me to join them for dinner and so I had a second thoroughly enjoyable night drinking too much with strangers – which sounds a lot more salacious than it was. It struck me that this was the kind of European food I almost never eat – ordinarily I cook more in the mediterranean-middle eastern palette and, post Friday work pints, continue the theme with a kebab on the way home. Chic, refined European cooking isn’t something I often do, but I may make it more of a habit because my lobster soup was delicious: smooth, velvety and fishy, and the pork with leek risotto to follow was excellent. I’m a little hazy on what my new found friends had because of the reisling – I think the fellas may have had lobster at some point, tuna carpaccio was mentioned and due to the heavy meat element in the menu the waiter was at pains to help the one vegetarian get a full meal.

Prenzlauer Berg, an inner north area of former East Berlin, is now a very hip quarter, with lots of cafes, bars, hipsters on bikes and, oddly, babies. I’ve never seen so many Bugaboos! After the last couple of days wearing out my shoe leather in pursuit of food, I’d started feeling cursed to wander, seeking sustenance but forever denied. In Prenzlauer Berg however, the fault was all mine. It wasn’t for lack of choice – the main street is dominated by various cafes, including a bar on the ground floor of a squat – but my pickiness about the kinds of signifiers I look for in somewhere to eat. And my choosiness can mean very long walks to see what’s round the next corner. So after some legwork on Kastanienallee, I lucked upon a super cool cafe on Oderberger Strase. So cool that I can’t remember it’s name written in German in neon on the front. This cafe served only crepes (which should be due a comeback in the English speaking world I think) and, riffing on a retro theme, was entirely decorated with raids from some stylish nanna’s living room.

In a country that invented the last word in cake related indulgence – schwarzwelderkirschtorte [black forest cake]- my last food adventure was kafee und kuchen at Anna Blume, a cafe and florist rolled into one with a very sexy painting of a Demeter-type figure in Art Noveau style on one wall and a glass cabinet of cakes. Mmmm sachertorter…

And just one final thought – train stations featured quite prominently during the weekend and this chain of croissant and pretzel shops was always found somewhere near the platforms. It just sounds vaguely rude, doesn’t it?!

Emica has a disappointment at Nahm

I mentioned to Zoe that a couple of weekends ago The Man decided it was about time he took me out- gosh! – and we went to Nahm, and she forwarded me a Terry Durack article praising Nahm in a recent piece on Sydney Thai food. Terry’s right about London having few great Thai options, but I am sorry to report that I’m not as convinced as him that Nahm is one of them. For us, it was a 50/50 experience, which, given we had such high expectations, was disappointing.

I was initially surprised that, located in the lobby of a posh hotel, Nahm looks like any restaurant located in the lobby of a posh hotel. I’ve no idea what traditional Thai decor is, although I’m pretty sure the kitschy knick knacks festooning my local Thai up the road aren’t, but the rather hootchy-kootchy bland light gold hotel chic room felt at odds with a cuisine that is so punchy, sweet/ sour, salty/ hot and fragrant. Not exactly something to complain about, but not what I imagined a Michelin starred temple of Thai food would look like.

After a bit of confusion on our part following complicated instructions about how to order from the five separate menu sections to ensure a balanced meal (soups, stir fries, salads etc), we ordered the tasting menu that had one thing from each section. An early disappointment for me was the entree, which was a beautifully presented crispy noodle net with prawn and herb salad. It was nice, and the crispy noodles were very cool, but it didn’t sing with the Thai flavours. It tasted a bit beige.

Apparently the kitchen was saving all the seasoning for just two dishes. The main fault with our meal was two dishes that were so salty we could only manage a couple of mouthfuls of each. There was an eel & pork stir fry and a mallard salad which were Dead Sea salty. It was such a shame because the duck in individual pieces was lovely but the overall effect was overwhelmingly salty and really killed any other flavour. The eel thing was scorched earth on a plate. I got the impression they’d salted it to get a crispy skin, which it had, but went overboard. I don’t know if that’s how they’re meant to taste and I’m just a soft westerner who can’t take a bit of enthusiastic seasoning, but after those two bad boys, the inside of my lips felt like when I’d been swimming too long at the beach – sort of pickled and wrinkled. However, the hot and sour soup with clams could raise the dead! It was poetry in a bowl – no, actually more like old skool motown (y’know- get up, get on up etc). And the grilled kingfish was beautifully marinated.

We had been told that the tasting menu is served in the Thai style, with everything served at the same time. But the tricky bit about that, especially when there are just the two of you, is that everything gets cold while you eat other things, which kinda made me feel rushed to get through each thing before it got stone cold – even the rice ended up cold! I can now see the point of those slightly daggy rice buckets they have in Chinese restaurants. I’m not quite as hung up as my mum on scalding hot food, but I am the kind of girl who always heats my plates, so food that’s the cold side of lukewarm isn’t great.

The desserts were interesting. I just had a plate of exotic tropical fruit, only two I could name but delicious. The Man had something called ‘ash pudding’ which was a rice pudding – yummy salty-sweet in the same way as salted caramel- and a sort of quenelle of black sticky stuff. It really did taste like vaguely aniseed flavoured dirt.

It was a shame we weren’t blown away because we’d been so looking forward to it. The Man and I agreed that, actually, our local Thai outclassed this meal in many ways and at a fraction of the price.

What are your Thai eating experiences? Dr Sista Outlaw, I would be interested to know about your experiences of ‘real’ Thai food versus restaurant Thai.

When you’re the tool of the day…

Why would the fifteen-year-old Tom opine such a comment from the back seat of his Dad’s car as we wend our way out of Cooma on Sunday night? Being one of four tired, sore, happy boys on their way back from the snow? Research data has its price.

tool

Since 1977 there has been a Greek milk bar/café/restaurant just north of the main roundabout in the main street of Cooma. My research data tells me so. We visited this restaurant, the Tourist Cafe Restaurant & BYO, three times on this trip. The first time, at 7.30 on Thursday night, was to discover that they only do takeaways between 7.30 and eight, as they try to clear the dining room of guests. On Thursday there were two more-elderly-than-any-of-us grey-haired gents busy writing at tables at either end of the dining room as we waited for our takeaways, and they weren’t budging. But a nice touch, which added to the ambience, we thought.

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