Entries Tagged 'Reviews' ↓

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.

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?

Pammy Faye finds over 120 varieties of home-made bliss

There is a man called Keith who lives in Huskisson on the NSW south coast. Keith loves jam and relish. In fact, he loves jam and relish so much that he has dedicated that last 17 years of his retired life to the business of making and selling over 120 varieties of the stuff.

It’s a rough and ready operation, a back yard job turned semi-professional but nevertheless one that appears to be carefully observant of food safety and handling regulations (all his bottles are labelled with a ‘best before’ date but I didn’t ask how he sterilises the jars). He uses recycled jars and his niece makes the labels for him on her home computer. On his business card Keith describes himself as a “Maker of Quality & Fancy Jams & Pickles for Australian & Continental Tastes”, and I would not disagree. They are indeed quality, and many are really rather fancy.

I discovered Keith’s jams during a three-week writing retreat I organised for myself late last year. Every day after my early morning ocean swim in Jervis Bay, I’d make myself a strong cup of coffee and a plate of toast with lashings of jam, and sit quietly in contemplation of the words ahead. Under conditions of self-imposed social isolation, this ritual of morning toast and jam was incredibly comforting, so much so that it quickly became habit. And Keith, god bless him, was my dealer.

Hundreds of jars of jams and pickles line the walls of Keith’s modest weatherboard home. He’s got your tried and tested traditional sorts: plum, strawberry, raspberry, apricot, and smooth and creamy lemon butter with just the right amount of zest. He’s also runs a line of offbeat moderns and fusions: tomato and pineapple jam, chilli jam, mango jelly, rhubarb and apple jam, onion jam, and banana jam. He makes over fourteen varieties of marmalade including cumquat, ruby grapefruit, melon and lemon, bush lemon and tangelo.

Then there are his relishes and chutneys, many of which give expression to his love of all things spicy: mexican tomato chutney, choko chilli garlic chutney, plum and chilli bbq sauce, and cauli chilli relish. For the curious, a chutney is a form of relish, specifically indian relish, derived from Hindu word chatni. A relish is a form of pickle served as a condiment. and we all know a pickle is something that is difficult to get out of. And for those of you are aware of my passion for all things beetroot, you can only imagine how excited I was when I discovered both beetroot chutney and spiced baby pickled beetroot.

One could spend a lifetime tasting them all. What a pity I’ve only got a few days over Christmas and limited luggage space in the Troopy .

Keith grew up on a farm in the nearby district of Tomerong. The farm had over twenty different fruit trees, all of which were at various times in glut and therefore preserved and shelved in his mother’s walk-in pantry. Keith didn’t lay eyes on a commercially produced tin of jam or relish until he was married; in fact he reckons he didn’t even know they existed. Keith went on to spend his professional life working in kitchens, and when he retired just kept on cooking, preserving whatever local produce he could get his hands on. He makes his LillyPilly jam, a delicate little jewel which might be compared to a good sparkling from the fruit of the LillyPilly trees [insert link to LillyPilly info page on net] he planted in his front yard.

Keith and I both agree that his fig and ginger jam constitutes his masterwork. I didn’t ask him which was his favourite pickle, but his recommendation of green tomato and chilli mustard relish to accompany our Christmas day ham this year was genius and did not disappoint. As you can see, it hasn’t taken us long to put a rather large dent in it. Home made bliss indeed.

Dame Mint Pattie’s Canberra wineries A2Z winds up the year and the letter “D” at Doonkuna Estate

There are many words to describe Canberra district wines: ‘boutique’, ‘cool-climate’ and ‘intimate scale’ are popular in tourist brochures, while the phrase ‘that’s bloody big’ less so*. Thus my first impression on driving up to Doonkuna was a slightly industrial feel compared to other Canberra wineries.

The cellar door is a little barn-like, with ample space for large parties. It wouldn’t do for a cosy meal but looks like a great place for an old-fashioned knees up or getting quietly stonkered on a warm afternoon, safe in the knowlege the tour bus will take you back to your hotel.

Meanwhile, at the business end of the winemaker’s bulb, Doonkuna produces a couple of notable wines and some good value quaff, if you time your buy right. Like many wineries targeting a broad market, Doonkuna offers a fruit salad range, the aim being to bottle something for most imbibers.

As usual there are two price lists – by the bottle and by the dozen. Doonkuna’s price per dozen is great value, and a good way to stock up on some tasty/versatile summer quaffers. Mind you, the latest summer price of a 25% discount by the dozen (see website to download price list) isn’t quite as good as the 1/2 price bargain we snaffled up in September**.

Leaving aside beardy pro wine writers, I made copious notes on Doonkuna and its wines for you lot but it comes down to this, the standout wine was the 2008 Cian Sparking. Lovely straw colour, yeast/bread on the nose, fine persistent bead giving it great texture with delicious fruit/pear flavours. It’s not hard to find around town and we’ve spotted it on the wine list at Grazing.

Although one or two of the reds were a bit jammy for my palate, some others made for enjoyable, easy drinking. We liked the dry finish and liquorice flavours of the 05 Cabernet Merlot so much we bought three bottles – lots of spice on the nose. We didn’t buy the 07 reserve shiraz, which we thought was a bit pricey at $40 a bottle*** but my notes recall dark cherry jam and vanilla, sweet pepper but with a good, dry finish. The latest price list pegs it at $30 per bottle in any mixed dozen. Now we’re talking.

The still whites were also competently put together and included a riesling, crisp with hints of apple, and two styles of chardonnay. We nabbed two bottles each of the 2005 chardy and the 2008 Rising Ground unwooded. I liked the second tier (Rising Ground) better than the first tier offering. At the time we got it for $7 a bottle but even at the current price of $10.50 it’s good value compared to big brother 05 chardonnay – full price $25 – which to my mind tasted disappointingly like…. well, like chardonnay… big fruit, butter-rich and almost diabetically plush from the Australian sun****.

The Doonkuna label is easy to spot and features the Striped Legless Lizard. A native of the Canberra region, it resembles a small snake but apparently has remnant hind legs. I found this cheerily reminiscent of certain politicians who regularly migrate to Canberra and seem to have only remnant spines.

*To squeeze any slight comedic effect from this opener, it should be read in the style of Stephen Fry (and apologies for this being in no way as amusing as Stevo’s stuff – must steal more try harder)

**Yes DMP has been a slack correspondent but if you prefer dependable (and somewhat pudgy) then Max Allen is still writing for Gourmet Traveller Wine.

***At the time of our visit there was no by the dozen discount available on this one.

**** If I mentioned our man in Canberra’s contribution was: ‘what did you expect it to taste like’ would you be surprised?

Doonkuna Estate

3182 Barton Highway, Murrumbateman, NSW, 2582

10 am to 4 pm seven days
(02) 6227 5811

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.

Julie and Julia and Nigel and Pammy Faye

meryl

Oh the joys of going to the cinema – especially when driven by our loyalty to PDP! We thought we were attending a foodlover’s premier of a promising-looking film about cooking and cookbooks. The good reviews of the filmic biography of Julia Child, starring Meryl Streep, sucked us in.

What we ended up experiencing was a special foodies night for a sweetly entertaining flick that was indeed about Mrs Child, the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but also – its contemporary theme – about food blogging! Co-starring the very perky Amy Adams: Julie and Julia, the film by Nora Ephron pressed more buttons than we had anticipated…

Apparently the Dendy assumes foodies are easily stimulated. It wasn’t a premiere, so what did we get for our extra ten bucks?

cocktails

There were “free” tiny tipple cocktails (Bernini’d champagne) and on each seat a show bag of three samples including ten sea salted half macadamias, a teaspoon of lime and white pepper gianduja chocolate, half a teaspoon of vanilla salt, some Canberra Centre propaganda, and then three quarters of an hour of slightly naff food and cocktail demos. Naff though it was, it did feature Emmanuel the slowest “cocktail barista” ever to grace the stage, plus a non-committal but cliché-ridden master-sommelier-in-training. Nevertheless they did treat us to a very yummy soup-son the size of a twenty cent piece made from the vanilla salt cured salmon on a bed of mascapone cheese with horseradish. Soup-son? All the sophisticated French words were anglicized or malapropped by the Executive Chef, Neil Abrahams (vinegar-ette, acicity) throughout the event.

opening

The film starts with a lot of 1940s car sex. We were transfixed by the art director’s perfect reconstruction of late 1940s Paris, as the bored but larger-than-life (and seemingly always inebriated) Julia Child squeezed her way through narrow streets in a monstrous Buick Woody Wagon, and through classic French street markets with her engaging and endlessly diplomatic husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). Then we were fast-forwarded to a flat in Queens in 2002, to meet an equally bored 29-year-old Julie Powell, a frustrated would-be novelist stuck in a dead-end job taking sympathy calls post 9/11. While she’s much sharper than her yuppy friends, she doesn’t know what to do with her itchy mind.

The one thing they both love is food. Julie remembers her mother’s first Julia Child boeuf bourguignon, while Julia overcomes the barriers of gender and gaucherie to become a Cordon Bleu chef. The French, she discovers, “eat French food everyday: Heaven!” As we follow Julia passionately demystifying French recipes, we watch Julie discovering her own foodie passions via a self-imposed blog challenge (“I could write a blog. I have thoughts!”). She sets out to blog her way through every recipe in Julia’s book in a year, 536 recipes in 365 days. Time and space are nicely compressed as Julie becomes Julia. Almost.

Between postings in Paris and Marseilles, then somewhere in Germany, and then somewhere in Norway, and ultimately back “home” in the USA, there were lots of “yum” food pix and sequences. Julia discovered a correspondence between “hot cock” and cannelloni, while Julia (stuck in Queens) discovered that the poached egg was “like melted cheese”. Hmmm. Both husbands survived the “you can’t have too much butter” mantra.

But it was cute. Julie found the courage to boil live lobsters; discovered she had fans who actually read her daily purge; finally mastered the art of deboning a chook; saved her marriage from her own obsessive egotism; got an interview in the NYT and subsequently got flooded with publishing offers. All of this inspired by the spirit of Julia. Apart from a slightly sooky offering-in-homage of a half-pound of butter in a Julia Childs memorial in the Smithsonian at the end of the film, this is a delightful tale of food and love and blogging. A combination made in heaven.

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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St John and the velvet centred liver

We had a Big Day in our house recently when The Man turned 30. As he’s a Proper Man who likes Proper Food I obeyed his wish for unusual animal parts and we had a beautiful birthday dinner at Fergus Henderson’s St John Restaurant, in Clerkenwell.

In the revival movement of the last fifteen or so years to give Britain back its culinary history, Fergus Henderson has played a special role. His philosophy of nose to tail eating and, especially, his focus on long forgotten gems of English cookery and use of British produce have been absorbed into the wider gourmet scene to the point that ‘seasonal British’ has become a mantra in every cooking column and the supermarkets actively promote Kent strawberries or Gloucester mushrooms with Union Jack labels.

But even though he’s been part of the London restaurant scene for so many years and so many have borrowed so heavily, Henderson’s approach remains distinctive, challenging and pure. Both St John restaurants, the original in Clerkenwell and the slightly more casual in Spitalfields, are minimalist to the point of harsh. A long row of school style pegs circumnavigates the blank white walls and the only decoration is the black industrial lampshades. Even The Man, who would happily live in a white cube with nowt but a widescreen TV, commented that it wasn’t the cosiest of spaces. I remark on the decor because it makes sense when you get to the food. The food is unadorned and stays true to the founding principles; what it lists on the menu, you get on the plate.

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