Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Valentine's Day Guide

There was an article describing the perfect place to take a girl on Valentine's Day - a woman responded that if a guy to took her to Bar Lourinha and ordered her oysters she would surely be his.  

With the day fast approaching, I was thinking about where to take my significant other and I thought it would be helpful to list a few suggestions categorised by girl:

1.   For the sultry and sensual girl who wants to sit close to you while you share tapas
Bar Lourinha  (http://www.barlourinha.com.au/)
Alternative: On a warm night, The Aylesbury upstairs (http://theaylesbury.com.au/) or Anada (http://anada.com.au/)

2.  For the laid back, down to earth girl who loves rustic home-style Italian food
Bar Idda (http://www.baridda.com.au/) 
Alternative: Il Solito Posto (http://www.ilsolitoposto.com.au/) or for something more classy Becco (http://www.becco.com.au/)

3.  For the European girl who loves her family's home cooking but still wants to be taken somewhere her mother isn't working the grill
The Crimerian (http://www.thecrimean.com/)
Alternative: Borsch, Vodka & Tears (http://www.borschvodkaandtears.com/)

4.  For the girl who waits outside the house for delivery of The Age on Tuesday mornings so she can read The Epicure, thinks Broadsheet is the new New Testament, and wants to make her friends jealous about where she went for dinner
Attica (http://www.attica.com.au/)
Alternative: Ezard (http://www.ezard.com.au/) or Cumulus Inc. (http://cumulusinc.com.au/)

5. For the girl who you just met on RSVP.com and who you are brazen enough to take out for the first time on Valentine's Day
Maha (http://www.mahabg.com.au/) - dark enough so you look good
Alternative: City Wine Shop (http://www.citywineshop.net.au/) - casual but cool and if things go well, you can always head to Siglo to keep the night going. 

6. For the girl who will strangle both you and the waiter simultaneously if she gets an entree sized main and thinks share plates are for the underpriveleged
The European (http://www.theeuropean.com.au/)
Alternative: PM 24(http://www.pm24.com.au/)

7.  For the fashionable just alternative enough girl who whilst saying she might just want something "low key", would love you to impossibly pick that perfect place that is both understated and mind-blowing. 
Albert Street Food and Wine (http://www.albertst.com.au/)
Alternative: Rumi (http://www.rumirestaurant.com.au/)

8. For the girl who is taking her 2012 New Year's Resolutions 'life-and-death' seriously and accordingly flatly refuses to eat anything other than sashimi 
Kumo Izakaya (http://kumoizakaya.com.au/)
Alternative: Yu-u (google it for details)

9.  For the rich bitch who you're going to unceremoniously break-up with and walk out on after mains
Vue de Monde (http://www.vuedemonde.com.au/)
Alternative: Cutler & Co (http://www.cutlerandco.com.au/)

10. For the girl who simply says: "Fuck dinner, let's get a drink" 
The Everleigh (http://www.theeverleigh.com/)
Alternative: Eu de Vie (http://eaudevie.com.au/Melbourne/)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Yes Summer @ Scorched (17 The Esplanade Torquay)

Full time employment and summer were never friends.  There is nothing worse than sitting in an office breathing in re-filtered 22.3 degree air while staring out the window and seeing a sun soaked city ripe for the picking.  And this particular January may be even more difficult to be cooped up in the sky prisons, with most professionals returning to much quieter economic conditions than previous years.  So what should you do?  Dip into your precious annual leave and make the most of the glorious weather - not only will you be thankful, but your employer will be too.  
That is what I decided to do this week, having just returned from a few glorious days in the Torquay / Jan Juc region.  This is another fond place in my heart because it was where our family used to come for weekends to on the beach.  A lot has changed since then (not least of all I've dispensed with the fluro coloured rashy).  On the development front, some looks passable, others atrocious, note the monolithic Torquay golf club development towering over the course and no doubt obstructing some previously magnificent views.  

But on the plus side, and in addition to the stunning beaches, there is some incredible food available around this region so I strongly recommend a visit.  The lovely mother of our very hospitable 'host family' recommended 2 almost  diametrically opposite culinary items - (i) the deep fried dim sims at Torquay fish & chippery Flippin Fresh (a great hit but definitely not one for the calorie conscious) and (ii) the duck pies at the more up-market Scorched (outstanding - see below).

Scorched is the kind of place you walk into and pray the  signature dish isn't Oyster Kilpatrick.  By this I mean, the aesthetics here don't give anything away - it could be an incredible beachside restaurant sourcing exceptional local produce or it could be a run-of-the-mill gastro-bistro under new management.  Thankfully for us, it was the former.  On a sultry January evening, the extremely well thought-out middle eastern inspired menu made for much selection anguish amongst our team of 7.  

Here is the run-down of some of what we had: 
- Octopus salad, white beans, picked red onion & dill (photo 1)
- Beetroot & pistachio salad with whipped goats fetta (photo 2)
- Bastourma & baby tomato salad, housemade and ricotta & sumac (photo 3)

- Lamb kofta, hummus & tabbouleh (photo 4)
- Little duck pies, sweet cinnamon (photo 5)
- Dessert tasting plate (photo 6)

Although it might sound obvious and simple, we really appreciated that even though we ordered everything together, the dishes came out in 3 waves, the more meze lighter dishes first, the heavier meatier dishes second and the dessert last.  The highlight was by far the duck pies - they were the perfect segue between main and dessert with the light pastry and rich, almost pate like duck filling, covered with sweet cinnamon icing.  The highlight of the dessert was definitely the vanilla fairy floss.  Our group also made special mention of the service which hit the sweet spot of being attentive and friendly without being annoying. 

Overall in terms of middle eastern food, I recently ate at Maha in the city and a while back at Rumi in East Brunswick.  There is no reason at all why Scorched couldn't sit at the same table with these Middle eastern super powers. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Swan lake @ Einstein's 251 (251 Hawthorn Road Caulfield)

One of my co-workers once told me a line I will always remember about working in a law firm: "You should appear to your clients like a swan, gracefully gliding across the water while peddling ferociously underneath the water." Restaurants, cafes and bars are no different.  Service staff gracefully circumnavigate the room stopping only to dip their heads down to the water to take orders, whilst the kitchen-staff are frantically peddling away under the water.  

I always wonder how new venues can do this so well in such a short period of time.  I remember visiting Chin Chin early on and notwithstanding the massive space, huge number of diners and probably 20+ staff, all I saw were the swans gliding around.  Similarly, I was at my local coffeehouse Patricia on its second day of business and everyone was in total control.  

Most recently I visited Hawthorn Road Caulfield newbie Einstein's 251 and found it incredible that a place could deliver such outstanding results so quickly - surely here the fittings have only just been bolted in, the barista is getting familiar with the brand spanking new La Marzocco espresso machine, the staff are still memorising the table numbers and the kitchen crew are working out the nuances of the menu.  But as a paying customer, they could have been operating for a decade. 

Einstein's fit-out hits the mark - it has that modern, minimalist, deconstructed feel which has become ubiquitous throughout Melbourne, but without the contrived-sterile-de ja vu feel you get from the Newmarket Hotel, the Middle Park Hotel, the Royal Saxon, et al.  Whilst most places would unceremoniously rip off all the plasterboard to leave only chic exposed brick walls, Einstein's has left some of the plasterboard - unique - it says that all parts of a place's history are equally important, not just the parts that look good.  I like it. Looking forward to the courtyard too. 

In terms of food, with Hebrew being exchanged in the kitchen, Einstein's offers Israeli staples like shakshuka (pictured) plus many more.  My lovely companion had the most popular dish on the breakfast menu, a combination of poached eggs, grilled haloumi, hash brown, guacomole and others which was exceptional.  I had the Einstein breakfast which was like the breakfast meze option with lots of different bowls of goodies (e.g. olives, feta, tuna dip, tomato relish, etc) to go with perfectly scrambled eggs.  The coffee (Small Batch) as you can see, looked as good as it tasted - spot on.  

The main part I like about Einstein's is that it sits on what has to be one of the most desolate retail strips south of the Yarra, comprising one bottle shop, a milk bar and various other nondescript offices.  Early afternoon on a shining Sunday and with tables basking outside, people were already flocking to Einstein's from nearby residential streets.

So as I have previously noted here, you don't need to waste time trekking between Batch and Los Chicas on Carlisle to see which has the shorter queue, there are plenty of exceptional places you can go for breakfast and for most you won't even need your car to get there.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Country Goodness @ Hepburn Springs

On Friday I got a dressing down from a client at work because I was wearing casual (on casual Friday) because, as he said, casual Fridays were an insult to country-folk.  Why?  Because what you wear on Friday is what you would wear to the country on the way to your weekend retreat, and therefore wearing casual on Friday presumes that you dress down to go to the country.  Therein lies the insult.  Follow the logic? Me neither! 
We were in our casual clothes on our way to the country a few days after new years.  Hepburn Springs has a warm spot in my heart - as I have written previously here.  It's easy to get comfortable when you go up there so this time, we thought we'd try and experience a few new places, which produced some incredible results.  Here is the lowdown of some of the highlights:
1.  Breakfast at Breakfast & Beer
You know on those lazy holidays days when you wake up late, and finally get moving, and then you realise it's early afternoon, like 130pm?  The upside of this is that at Breakfast & Beer you can start the day with a hearty breakfast and wash it down with a cleansing ale.  We both had bacon, avocado, tomato and pickle sandwiches.  And what beer, you might ask, goes well with breakfast?  I was recommended Manly microbrewery 4 Pines Brewing Company's Kolsch - a crisp light citrusy drop perfect for a humid morning and an empty stomach.

2.   Brunch at the Glenlyon General Store
Glenlyon is only a short scenic drive from Daylesford - This is a great local general store that houses a small kitchen that serves up all sorts of goodies.   

3.  Afternoon drinks at Wombat Hill
This place is the one - you drive through the scenic tree-lined road up Wombat Hill to the picturesque Wombat Gardens.  As you walk over the hill, you see Wombat Hill nestled amongst the trees.  Wombat Hill is the recently opened sibling to Alla Wolf-Tasker's well known Daylesford luxury hotel complex the Lakehouse.  

In terms of siblings, the Lakehouse is that older, confident, brash, attractive sister who you see at all the family functions (but you've kind of gotten over her after staring at her for so many years) whilst Wombat Hill is the younger, down-to-earth, understated and hidden beauty that is destined to eclipse her older sibling.   This is the perfect place for a refreshing afternoon beverage and snack in the back garden.  Great for brekkie or lunch - outstanding menu.

4.  Dinner at The Perfect Drop
 If I'd only eaten here a few days earlier it probably would have taken out all the categories in my "11 Awards for 2011".  The Farmers Arms was previously my number 1 in Hepburn until I ate here.  It was just superb, outstanding, flavoursome, quality food all sourced from local country produce.  We started with beef carpaccio topped with dehydrated black olives, grated pecorino and micro-herb, all of which just rocked (sorry John Lethlean, Larissa Dubecki et al, but I can't describe it better than that).  

For main we shared/fought over perfectly cooked duck with roasted apricots and cabbagey salad, pictured below left - OMG (apoligies again professional food critics).  The tender and beautiful texture and flavour of the duck combined with the sweetness and softness of the apricot was incredible.  

And we thought that it couldn't get any better - but then dessert arrived - a winning trifecta of delicious creamy rich panna cotta, crunchy sweet baklava cigar and sumptuous rose water ice cream, served with mint and figs (see below). 

5. Drinks at Horvat's Wine Cellar
Listening to the dulce tones of a jazz pianist, we enjoyed some locally produced shiraz in the relaxed and salubrious atmosphere of Horvat's Wine Cellar.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Hobba? @ Hobba (Vail Chowder House)

Out with the old and in with the new.  2011 was a massive year for the culinary industry with many exciting new openings throughout Melbourne.  For just one example, Asian inspired Melbourne powerhouse Chin Chin opened, where the secondary question to “how was the food” was always “how long was the wait?” (with the answer to both usually being “whatever, it was worth it”).  On the breakfast front 2011 saw countless new additions, see Coin Laundry in Armadale, Friends of Mine in Richmond and Pope Joan in East Brunswick – it seemed like the more new venues opened up, the longer the lines became. 

One of these new places was Hobba in Commercial Road, Malvern.  In typical new opening style, Hobba has been constructed in a generously sized stripped out tyre garage with minimal furnishings. I really liked the different seating areas comprising regular tables, larger share tables and my personal favorite, wooden booths.  I also thought the service here was outstanding and we dealt with multiple staff members and each were friendly, non-pretentious and helpful.  The coffee (5 Senses) was also exceptional.

On the downside, Hobba represents a trend in breakfast eating that I’m not particularly fond of.  Similar to a recent session at St. Edmunds in Prahran, Hobba has gone for the OTT-uber-gastro-gourmet menu e.g. "62.5c egg, asparagus, myrtleford butter poached salmon, goat’s cheese, pickled celery, apple, peas" which will set you back a lazy $21!  I know this is Malvern but this is only $10 less than a very decent main at one of Melbourne's top restaurants.

So my lovely companion ordered the bubble and squeak (fried egg, bubble and squeak, farmhouse slab bacon, roast tomato, brown butter hollandaise at $15.90) – she asked me what it was and I said it was basically something you would make yourself if you came home smashed after a massive night out and saw bacon, potatoes, eggs and onions in the fridge and threw it in the frying pan.  I expected it would look more glamorous here. And it was, I would describe it as precious (pictured left). 

Similarly the Hobba breakfast I ordered was equally precious (eggs, tomato, bacon, mushroom, cumberland sausage, sourdough grain & relish at $16.70 - see pictured below).  So precious it looked like the kitchen had measured each element of the dish so that it would not exceed the pre-ordained weight.  1 roma tomato 38 grams – check, 1 sausage 63 grams – check, tablespoon of relish - check, etc.  The bacon was undercooked, the bread relatively tasteless, the dollop of tomatoey relish scooped out of a Maggie Beer jar.  The upside was the eggs which were cooked at 65 degrees and come out somewhere between poached and soft boiled.

And this takes me to my point – before breakfast was cool it was a necessity.  You needed it to cure a hangover or you needed it because you were about to work a 12 hour shift on a building site.  I hate this trend of precious, delicate breakfasts that sound impressive on the menu but leave you asking “where’s the beef” (or bacon!). 
That leads me to wish a very solemn condolence to one place that knew what a real breakfast was – you would never leave this place hungry. Never.  For less coin than the Hobba breakfast, at Hepburn Springs’ Chowder House you could get freshly home baked sourdough bread (3 slices buttered), 2 poached eggs, shredded salty hash brown, lashings of crispy bacon, generous serving of spinach, multiple perfectly cooked mushrooms and 2 baked tomatoes.  This was a rustic big breakfast.  This would cure a hangover.  This is the sort of breakfast you would order before winning a war! 

Unfortunately after so many great breakfasts here, with exceptional hospitality and service, best non-city coffee, mornings doing the newspaper quiz with the rest of the diners, discussions about football and so many fond memories, Chowder House seems to have closed its doors.  So vail Chowder House and vail the big generous breakfast.  Might have to stick to the Bircher from here on in.