Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Good for what ails you @ The Aylesbury

We are onto a good thing in this city - it seems like every couple of days you hear about a new place opening, each more exciting than the next.  What is really interesting is that we are seeing the proliferation of "sister" restaurants - where a big name restaurant leverages off the name of their flagship eatery and uses it to open a sibling.  This has been successfully done by top end players Vue De Monde with Bisto Vue (and others) Movida with Movida Aqui, to name but just a couple.

But now we are moving into the next phase of this era, where some of the less famous (but certainly not less deserving of praise), are taking the plunge and opening up sibling ventures.

One of those recent ventures is The Aylesbury in the theatre district of the CBD - younger sister to Gertrude Street's Anada.  Just like any sequel, I would have thought that there would a risk of failure, but parents Jesse and Vanessa Gerner have done a superb job with this place.

The venue is divided into a downstairs dining room / bar and an upstairs bar with a beautiful view of the CBD skyline. The food here is sophisticated, generous and overall exceptional - I like that the menu offers a great selection and that the waiter was more than keen to talk us through the items on offer. The highlight was the steak tartare served with quail egg (pictured above) - the meat was beautifully spiced and salty.

Almost equally as good was the "Hoggart" (which is lamb between 1 and 2 years old) served with a hearty aubergine puree.  On the sides, the highlight (although not for those looking to loose some pre-summer kg's) was roasted potatoes in duck fat, which was balanced nicely by a light salad with radicchio and green beans.

One of the best parts of this The Aylesbury is that despite not having a "no bookings" policy, we walked straight in and were seated straight away.  For those waiting 2.5 hours outside Chin Chin or balancing on the stairs at Mamasita for 45 minutes, it's time to look beyond to other locales.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Swapping a bear for a donkey @ Paco's Tacos (Vale Movida Terraza)

Like a big black grizzly bear, Movida Terraza used to hibernate during the bleak Winter Melbourne months.  It was mainly our collective sadness when Terraza closed that we knew that unlike the bear, we would have to grind through the long dark miserable season without respite, until Spring.  Until Spring.  You can hear people in Melbourne whispering it in the CBD laneways - October, when you buy your races' suit, when you start to lash on suncream on weekends (or regret that you didn't), when the beautiful people seem to come out of the shadows in Melbourne.  You aren't from Melbourne if you don't look forward to this time.  

At the tail-end of winter, I had a ritual - each Monday morning I would trudge up the 30 steps to Movida Terraza, hoping that the Winter hibernation would end for another year.  Because I knew that when the Terraza re-opened, Spring had truly sprung.  But this year, unfortunately, the bear stayed in its cave (yellow cage) and we were presented with a donkey, Paco's Tacos.
When I went up the stairs this morning, I knew there was trouble when the former pastry chef (previously responsible for beautiful Portugese Tarts, Almond Croissants and spongy fresh bread) was extolling the virtues of the new 'Taqeria"('taco shop') as I clocked Movida head chef Frank Camorra in the background.  My former regular barista and the ever-reliable, friendly Terraza team vanished like victims in a Ciudad Juarez drug cartel abduction.  This was bad news, and even with my limited Spanish, I could tell the worst was yet to come.  
With a crew of co-workers, we went back up the stairs come lunch time on a sunny Spring Melbourne day.  What was previously a beautiful open area spotted with tables and umbrellas had been butchered by a UFC style canary yellow steel cage ("to stop the rain" I was told).  Do people really want to sit in a cage?  Melbourne isn't exactly Seattle when it comes to rain so personally I would have taken the risk and left the place as it was.

More importantly, let's talk about the food.  There is a range of tacos (duck, carne asada/beef, camarones/prawn, pork, pescado/fish, etc) which will each set you back $6 a pop. Corn was $6 and nachos $10.  This puts Paco's on the same pay-scale as Mamasitas.  Let me not mince words - Mamasita rips this place to shredded beef.  In fact, for $10 you can go to MadMex and get more food that will taste better.  Served in cheap red plastic baskets (the same as MadMex or worse), the carne asada taco is passable and the pescado is average at best.  The worst are the tacos themselves - they were not soft enough and tore apart when lifted.

 I've been to the Baja California part in the west of Mexico and for $2 or even less you can get 3 fish tacos which are brimming with flavour, and that is made by an old Mexican lady serving it from a trolley - not by 2 chefs with an industrial kitchen!  In the Mission district of San Fransisco all the way down to Ocean Beach in San Diego, you can do so much better for so much less.

In terms of the other offerings, the Chicharones were pretty much inedible laced with chopped chilli and some indecipherable mince looking sauce (I'm no expert but I've tried these in Colombia and this version was insipid), the Nachos were juvenile and heaving under the weight of sour cream and the corn was like Mamasita's variety but not as good.  I'd be willing to risk Taco Bill in a Collins Street basement before going back. Positives? None, except the company.  If you see Matt Lane in the Paris end this week, he will surely be smiling

So Melbourne, if you think that you can be duped into believing that a bear can be swapped for a donkey right before your eyes, then you will be the one happily spending $18 for lunch on a handful of tasteless tacos.  If not, at 1pm on a weekday in the Melbourne CBD when pondering your next lunch venue, you'll be wishing you can get a fresh Bocadillo from the old Movida Terraza served with a mountain of goodies like olives, proscuitto, grilled eggplant, cheese, tomato and spinach with one of Melbourne's best coffees, all for only $12.