Saturday, October 13, 2012

That's not a diner, this a diner @ Parlor

I was sitting outside on what feels like the first day of Spring, having just made myself the all-American staple breakfast of Huevos Rancheros.  For the uninitiated, it's two fried eggs, sitting on a bean/tomato/chilli/coriander topped mix served with corn tortillas - and for me it came with guacamole, because everything tastes better with guacamole.  With all the news of the impending US presidential election, and mid-devouring my huevos, it got me thinking about the US and the almost endemic influx of US themed dining into the Melbourne scene.

I visited US style 'Parlor' on the new-bar-a-month Windsor end of Chapel a couple weeks back and loved the set-up and diner style chic. However, lamentably, the food couldn't match the decor.  I had a Dynamite Burger (burger with Chipotle and Asian slaw) and my first bight (and a number after) was a nice crunchy piece of grissel - sorry guys but it don't fly in this town, especially when there are so many solid burger joints flipping around.  Simply put, you gotta fork out the dough for the better quality meat, not the fat loaded 3 star Safeway variety!  The side serve of onion rings came with a side serve litre of oil and the Ruben dog (corned beef, cheese, sauerkraut, pickle) was nothing special.

Anyway, I digress, my point to this is that as much as a hipster or two flipping a burger in a stylised venue is the newfangled Melbourne version of a diner, the real authentic diner, the heart and soul diner, the home away from home, can be found in the US of A.  And I've been to one, and I have extremely fond memories, which I thought I'd share.

The Florida Avenue Grill in Washington DC is a real authentic US diner.  At the Florida Avenue Grill they don't just serve everyday food, they serve "soul food". This place is an institution - it has been around since 1944 and it looks like it. It is located only a short walk from Howard University, a predominantly African-American college, and the area in north-west DC called Colombia Heights which is a mix between gentrifying and down-right dangerous.  The best part about the Grill is the waitresses - they only call you "Sugar" and they refer to each other with a "Miss" before their names, so "Miss Maple can you pass the ketchup?".  The guy on the grill is the guy on the grill - he is there every single day, he owns it, he lives it, he breathes it and if he rides a bike to work, it's not by choice.

But let's talk about the food because this is where it gets interesting - breakfasts are US obesity super-sized. Most breakfasts come with home fries (basically fried potatoes) and you choose between biscuits (basically scones) and toast. I used to get corn beef hash (some sort of meat but really not sure what it was), and there are other things on the menu which I'm still not sure of (halfsmoke? scrapple? grits?).  If you're a sweet tooth, the buttermilk pancakes are incredible and ginormous!  The coffee ain't much to get excited about but the half litre iced teas which you can load up with sugar are perfect for a hangover.

My only regret about the Grill was that I never made it for dinner which was true southern fare (fried chicken, collared greens, catfish, pork chops, ribs, etc). So team, you want a diner, this is a diner, get yourself to the US of A and go to a real one.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Argentinean Dining @ San Telmo, 14 Meyers Place, Melbourne

My last experience with Argentinean food was fortunately in the country itself.  For those unfamiliar with Argentinean cuisine, it is heavily focused on meat (carne).  After travelling from bustling and cosmopolitan Buenos Aries to the home of Malbec wine production in Mendoza, then up through the northern heart of the country from Cordoba to cities like Salta and then further north to the Bolivian border, there was one consistent theme throughout the country and that was expressed in a Mendozan supermarket I went to - the choices at the butcher section was beef, simply different cuts of beef.
Morcilla (Blood Sausage) and Chimichurri 
Menus at restaurants throughout the country would make you feel like you had de ja vu - there was "lomo" (Steak), there was "milanese" (Schnitzel) and then various sausages, for example "Chorizo" (spicy pork sausage) and "Morcilla" (blood sausage).  Sides were usually a small serve of crunchy thin chips or maybe a couple of lettuce leaves, lest to detract from the main event. I remember leaving the country with a severe red meat addiction and after being wary of the carnivorous offerings in Bolivia, I got True-Blood-like withdrawals.  

Vaccio (Flank Steak)
My fondest memory of eating in Argentina was a meal out with friends with their families in Palermo where the steak from the parilla (traditional Argentinean barbecue) was the most succulent and tender I've ever had (see "Pound-for-Pound Winner" at France-soir for some local options).  Less appetising was arriving in Salta after an overnight bus ride and ordering an early lunch/late breakfast parilla comprising Morcilla and various other barbecued treats like heart, liver, tripe, etc.  

Whereas the Morcilla in Salta actually tasted like what it was - coagulated blood - at the Melbourne based Argentinean restaurant San Telmo (named after a beautiful old suburb in central BA), the Morcilla was flavoursome, perfectly cooked and overall excellent.  San Telmo is a perfect venue for late night dining (like they do in Argentina, with most people not eating out till 9/10pm).  With it now impossible to travail Melbourne's streets without reservations between regular eating hours of 7 till 9 pm, the late night Argentinean style of dining is a good option.  
Papas (Crispy Potato Galette)
San Telmo has a great set-up in terms of seating options - there are the Meyers Place facing bar stools (recommended to avoid the heat/people-watch), there is the main dining area, there is a private dining area, there is a long bar at the back and there is the rear garage looking onto Windsor Place (again recommended to avoid the heat, and really nice for a date).  The big downside about San Telmo is the stifling heat - it was South American Summer sweltering hot inside, which may have been due to the sultry Melbourne evening, but probably more likely the huge Argentinean parilla being used to cook the meat.  The biggest disappointment was the chimichurri sauce, a traditional accompaniment, that was way too oily and was far from the pungent and aromatic sauce that I remembered in Argentina.  

We were happy with the Estrella Galicia beer on tap, the Flank Steak (Vaccio) which was tender but I prefer a little more rare, the crispy potato galette (Papas) was a nice accompaniment.  I also really enjoyed the Empanadas which had a crunchy exterior and were loaded with beef, olives and eggs.  The Morcilla was really memorable and I'd like to go back to sample some of the other items on the menu, especially some of the other steaks (striploin, scotch fillet, hanger steak) plus sweetbreads (Mollejas - google it, this is one for the brave!).  This certainly ain't an old-school Palermo parilla house in BA, but it'll do...for now! 

San Telmo
14 Meyers Place, Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9650 5525

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Club Well Fed @ Club Med, Nusa Dua, Bali

Decorative Watermelon Sculpture (+ sauce selection)
You may be wondering how you can have the fun and excitement of cruise ship travel without the risk of being at the mercy of a maniacal Italian captain playing chicken with an island (and losing - see the Costa Concordia tragedy).  Well, I think I've found the answer.  Try Club Med.  You get all the buffet meals, C-grade entertainment, team building sing-a-longs and kid's clubs with the added bonus of being on dry land.  How can you lose?

Braised Chicken Congee
I was in the middle of water aerobics on the third day of our stay at Club Med Bali when I realised how far my travelling experiences had come.  My most vivid memories of travelling are generally the first moment you leave the airport when you arrive overseas - there was the humidity and bustling roadways of Bangkok, the empty streets of the brisque early morning of Vienna, the bullet-ridden slavic style concrete high rise buildings of Sarajevo and the view of South American city Bogotoa nestled in the Andes mountain range. I sensed Club Med would be somewhat different.

Breakfast Pastry Selection
For those uninitiated in the ways of Club Med, the resort is such that you don't need to leave at all.  There are 3 all-you-can-eat buffet meals a day, numerous sporting activities (tennis, squash, archery, beach volleyball, golf, etc), watersports (snorkelling, wind-surfing, kayaking, etc) plus nightly entertainment.  The employees who run most of the activities are called "GO's" (Gracious Organisers) who are like the leaders we used to have on school camps who were idolised by kids, but in any other circumstances (in reality), wouldn't be that cool.  

Indonesian seasonings / sides
Club Med is laden with cult-like undertones - there is a Club Med philosophy which incorporates the concept of "living together - based on a very special concept of tolerance and mutual interest involving people from very different backgrounds, religions, nationalities and walks of life." There are ubiqutious Club Med cheesy pop songs with choreographed dances which are wheeled out multiple times throughout the day.  There are very friendly group welcome, ind[o]uct[rinat]ions and sad hand-waving farewells.  
With 3 meals a day for 8 days served from the buffet, there were plenty of opportunities to sample the food and there were some definite hits, misses and question marks.  Everyday I would tell myself that I would eat just one main and one dessert, but inevitably I would get back from the buffet with 10 different types of food on a loaded Jackson Pollock-eque plate where Indonesian ayam chicken would be sitting precariously close to the Hoisin sauce from the prawn dumplings which would be inadvertently touching the salad greens, all whilst precariously balancing a bowl of steaming soup.

Cheese selection
Some of the hits of the buffet were the steamed prawn dumplings (consistently good and perfect to eat whilst navigating the buffet for other food), soups (best was a rice cake soup and notable was a rich coconut based beef curry soup), Indonesian tempe, mashed carrot, moussaka, pork ribs, congee, roast chicken, breakfast pastries (especially escargot), crepes, waffles and ice cream (especially Green Tea) and homemade marshmallows with chocolate fondue.  

Honourable mentions go to the breakfast potato gems and lunchtime onion rings which I tried so damn hard to avoid but couldn't.  

Century Egg Challenge
Overall, my favourite was a dead heat between the cheese platter (nicely melted blue, gorgonzola, brie, camembert and goats cheese) and the endless tap beer. 

The disappointments were the pizza (looked bad enough for me not to try it), sashimi (just not good enough quality fish, especially with Japanese guests present), salads, fruit (except for tamarillo and coconut) and generally the desserts aside from those mentioned above.  

The absolute lowlight was the Pasta, Goats Cheese & Walnut Fritata (probably a leftover concoction and tasted like it).  A couple of memorable moments as the tour of the kitchen (including meeting the specialist watermelon carver) and Day 3 Breakfast which included the "Century Egg Challenge" being my first tasting of the Chinese delicacy of preserved eggs - they smelt like off eggs and tasted like normal eggs with a hint of off eggs.  

Club Med Bali
Nusa Dua, Bali
+62 361 771 521