Matteo’s – North Fitzroy – Saturday 26 July 2014 – Dinner

Lamb shank, rib and sweetbreads in vadouvan curry

Lamb shank, rib and sweetbreads in vadouvan curry

Setting the scene for a great night out, Catherine and I went to Nova in Carlton to finally watch Chef. One of the important early elements in the plot centres around a very popular food blogger temporarily destroying the Chef’s career, more through the Chef’s lack of understanding of Twitter than the review in itself.

The blogger’s review focusses on how the Chef used to challenge his tastes, taking them to new levels, but now produces tried and tired dishes that fail to live up to those earlier expectations. For years I’ve had Matteo’s on my list of occasion restaurants. Often the excitement of knowing you are booked in to a reputable place is half the fun. Often years of anticipation can lead to inflated expectations too. A conversation about my upcoming weekend with friends at work also revealed that as well as excellent food I should be expecting amazing service.

When celebrating with people important to you – it might be your other half, your family and friends or a combination – the main thing is that you’re there together. If things don’t go perfectly and you are being taken out, there can be a bit of tension if you are also intending to write about your experience. That’s a long but necessary introduction to this particular experience.

At the outset I haven’t made my mind up whether I would travel to North Fitzroy to eat at Matteo’s again. It would be a toss of the coin. The food is very good. We had left open whether to try the tasting menu or go a la carte. As is often the case there were some dishes that really stuck out in the a la carte that were not offered on the tasting and our minds were made up for us.

Japanese custard and dashi broth with yabby tails and mussels

Japanese custard and dashi broth with yabby tails and mussels

Starting with an indulgent sounding soupy custard is a little risky, but the “Spring bay mussels, yabby tails, shitake & sake-poached ‘drunken’ chicken set in a steamed ‘chawanmushi’ Japanese savoury custard, soya bean, dashi sauce” was superb and different. Both the description and the dish is a mouthful! All the elements were beautifully cooked and high quality. If I had to choose one aspect, despite being a massive fan of yabbies, the mussels had a flavour that broke through the rich custard, differentiating themselves as quite extraordinary. Catherine’s “Pan-seared spatchcock chicken, grilled baby corn, pumpkin, sugar snap peas, Balinese yellow curry sauce” was as good. The chicken burst with flavour and was just cooked enough; the yellow curry sauce spectacular.

Spatchcock in Balinese yellow curry

Spatchcock in Balinese yellow curry

Mains needed two takes. We had chosen the “Slow cooked lamb shank, grilled lamb short rib, & karaage lamb sweetbreads, chickpeas, baby turnips, heirloom carrots, coriander-mint yoghurt, vadouvan curry sauce” and “Pan-fried baby snapper fillet, miso-taramasalata, pearl barley, finger fennel, pickled red onion, kombu-butter sauce”. Catherine’s snapper was raw in the middle on the skin side. It was still translucent. We asked whether this was the way it is supposed to be cooked and there was basically no answer. While the mistake was rectified, it seemed to take our waitpersons to get instructions from the kitchen and maitre’d around the corner rather than acting on their feet. There was never an explanation or absolute apology so we are still unsure whether the cooking technique is supposed to leave some of the fish undercooked.

Snapper with miso-taramasalata and kombu-butter sauce

Snapper with miso-taramasalata and kombu-butter sauce

Both takes of my lamb were great. I’d had a couple of tastes before the waitstaff came back and asked whether I’d like mine done again so I could eat with my companion. Again seemingly instructed by others. The three different parts of the lamb were good, especially the short rib. Combining with the curry sauce was nice, but it could have done with more as the mint-coriander yoghurt was thick and dominated the plate. It was a nice dish and attractive on the plate. Catherine’s second snapper was properly cooked and all the elements worked together.

Five-spice quince tarte tatin with pistachio frangipane and rhubarb & strawberry gelato

Five-spice quince tarte tatin with pistachio frangipane and rhubarb & strawberry gelato

The serves were generous and having initially had the best intentions to share a couple of desserts we narrowed down to just one. The “Five-spiced quince tarte tatin, pistachio frangipane, rhubarb & strawberry gelato” (with an extra scoop of gelato) is playful and fresh. The quince was beautifully poached in a tarte with some crunch, and a huge amount of pistachio, including a dusting under the gelato which was itself bursting with freshness, but more akin to sorbet in consistency. Personally the only improvement would be a creamier gelato on top of the tarte.

Unfortunately I have to write about the service. It was very polite and friendly but on a professional level it was like dining at a family restaurant. If I sound bitter I most definitely am. Little things like not being offered more sparkling water when the first bottle had run out, to more disappointing things like leaving me to eat a couple bites of my main after Catherine’s snapper had been taken away and never receiving an explanation of whether the dish was properly cooked or not. Lack of attention to really, really overflowing paper towels in the bathroom, and constantly delivering plates incorrectly (noticeable on other tables in front of us too). There was lack of attentiveness. At no stage did they come and scrape the table of bread crumbs and food. I think it is perhaps lack of experience and confidence, but that was not what I expected at all. The room is nicely furnished and has an ambiance you expect in fine dining places, but was noticeably cold for the first hour before the room filled up.

While there was inconsistency in delivery, there is still a lot to like about Matteo’s. It feels like we experienced a comedy of errors. Luckily there were some real highlights on the plate that made it all worth it.

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Top Paddock – Richmond – Sunday 20 July 2014 – Breakfast

Crowds continue to gather for lunch

Crowds continue to gather for lunch

Another cafe where you need to do extensive planning and preparation before even contemplating breakfast on a Sunday morning is Top Paddock. Catherine and I were meeting my aunty and uncle so we got here twenty minutes early to put our names down.

Giving ourselves plenty of time meant we were happy to wait the extra ten minutes for a table inside while we chatted out the front with about 25 other people eagerly awaiting the sound of their name to be called. At 9.40am Catherine was the first person out front waiting while I parked. Not long after there was a constant throng of people who could fill another medium sized cafe. This had built to a crowd at 11.30am that looked like it was waiting to get in to Rod Laver arena.

Is it all worth it? I’d say about three-quarters of the time it actually is. Let’s get Catherine’s baked beans out of the way – in my experience it is a rarity, but not only were they watery and lacking in flavour, they were cold. They were quickly replaced by a toasted muesli that did the job well. Everything else was fantastic, and usually is.

Chilli scrambled eggs with local seasonal mushrooms and feta on toast

Chilli scrambled eggs with local seasonal mushrooms and feta on toast

I hadn’t tried the chilli scrambled eggs before and good first impressions lingered through to the last bite. Tasty sourdough topped with bright rich scram, delicious mushrooms, and plenty of chilli (but not too hot). The feta was not as generous as some similar dishes at cafes close by, but for my taste it was just enough to have a taste with each bite. I thought adding a side of Istra bacon was a good idea.

It might be a big call but Top Paddock has my favourite breakfast dishes in Richmond. Not one in itself, more as an overall menu. The coffee is the equal of the food. Excellent offerings on the single origin list keep it dynamic and the barista did a terrific job with both the Sumatran and Rwandan today. If you want a quintessential Melbourne coffee experience in Richmond without the frills (cold drip, syphon etc), this is it.

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Three Amazing New York Burgers – New York City – June 2014

This is part of a collection of short reviews from my travels around the USA in June.

Diversity is very important to me. That includes my choice in restaurants, and the dishes I choose to eat. So what happened?

In New York for less than 96 hours (or 4 days) either side of a quick trip to Salvador in Brazil for the World Cup, on reflection, I realised that I tried three burgers in that time. Three burgers that are worth talking about!

USC Burger

USC Burger

Union Square Cafe – Lunch

My personal discovery of USC was back in 2004. I dined alone on the bar and have a photo that brings me back there regularly in my mind, but this is the first time in a little over 10 years that I’ve actually come back. It was one of those meals you dream about.

I’m back but this time my wife and I are meeting up with my cousin, Lisa, and food is secondary to catching up. We chatted for ages over three Moscow Mules. Once we came to order, hunger had taken over. I’d heard about the burger. I’d had one for supper the night before but I just couldn’t go past it.

Incredible! Cooked medium rare the burger is juicy goodness. Everything else is just as beautiful, immaculate actually. There’s the light brioche bun that holds the burger together rather well; thin crispy bacon to add a punch of saltiness; pickles; and indulgent cheddar cheese in good measure. The fries are as good as you would expect given the quality of the burger.

Now I have a different fond memory to add to my memories of a decade ago. There is something magical about USC.

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Hamburger

Hamburger

Corner Bistro – After Midnight

People say going to New York can be comforting given the familiarity we have with one of the great cities of the world. I agree, and the consistency of my first few hours in New York for my last three trips also has something to do with it on a personal level.

Whether it is unfortunate planning, or subconscious leanings, I have arrived in NYC really late each time. It might look as though the city doesn’t sleep, but trust me that the chefs eventually need to (via a bar or two). So looking for an awe inspiring meal after midnight can be a challenge if you don’t know about the institutional Corner Bistro in West Village.

I love the burger. It is simple, cheap, great. Fresh ingredients along with a thick pattie cooked medium and a good helping of decent fries. Wash it down with some cheap mugs of beer in a room that has seen countless people having a great time all hours of the day for years.

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Minetta Burger

Minetta Burger

Minetta Tavern – dinner

There are few places where so much contemporary cool gels with old-school speakeasy glamour. Minetta didn’t spring up yesterday and it has got it completely right.

Straight after walking through the curtain you are met by the maitre’d which is a little intimidating, especially if you just feel like a drink in the bar. Rest assured, the entire floor staff are excellent hosts. Personally, my favourite place to sit for dinner is the bar, the vantage point for people watching too good to trade for the slightly quieter dining room. Tonight we are in the dining room and the action is still steady.

I’m afraid to say that I’ve only ever had the burger here. My friend has ordered a pasta which looks fabulous but as I grab my burger there is not a hint of envy. I threw in the tomato and lettuce on the side and was ready to go. The brioche bun holds the burger well with great medium rare cooked juicy beef smothered in cheddar cheese and a pickle to the side. The fries are excellent too.

Like Corner Bistro, only in a different sense, the vibe of Minetta is the intangible ingredient that adds extra flavour. Not only are the floor staff smooth and professional, they are also a little wicked. A polite warning early in the evening about the chocolate soufflé taking twenty minutes put paid to any attempt to forgo dessert on the way to the Comedy Cellar. It was great, and one of the biggest I’ve ever seen! Easily enough for the four of us and the first part of a great evening was complete.

Chocolate souffle

Chocolate souffle

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Everyday Coffee – Collingwood – Sunday 29 June 2014 – Breakfast

20140710-132334-48214453.jpgEvery time we drive past Everyday Coffee on Johnston Street in Collingwood it is busy. I take that as a good sign, especially when it has been the case for an extended period of time.

To explain, our drive from Richmond to our all-time favourite (Pope Joan), takes us past great cafes like The Fair, Three Bags Full, Proud Mary, Hammer and Tong, and several others. You get a good impression over time as to whether one of the ones on the way is worth stopping for!

What we didn’t realise on our drive was how limited the breakfast menu is at Everyday Coffee. It is literally two choices of muesli and a couple of bagels, along with some pastries on offer. Luckily we are both big fans of muesli and ordered the cranberry and hazelnut option. A similar concept is used with the croissants at Brunswick East Project.

While we waited I tried the coffee. With such a focus on coffee you would expect something to write home about and Everyday Coffee provides inspiration for the script. I’m not sure if it had something to do with the fact I’d just got back from a generally lower level of coffee appreciation in the USA, but my long black was well made, flavoursome and had good strength, but in balance.

Some of my friends think going to a cafe for muesli is a bit unusual. If I was going to take them to one place to try to convert them it would be Everyday Coffee. The serve isn’t over the top (which is good). The natural yoghurt is beautifully sweetened with maple syrup, topping a delicious muesli mix filled with hazelnuts and dried cranberries, along with some fresh strawberries. Simple but delicious with every ingredient used shining.

There are many cafes in Melbourne that have a great following and this is no exception. It goes to show that offering a small selection of excellent quality food is not a hindrance, as long as it is backed by equally excellent coffee (and tea).

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AOC – Los Angeles – Sunday 22 June 2014 – Breakfast

Hanger Steak and Eggs

Hanger Steak and Eggs

This is part of a collection of short reviews from my travels around the USA in June.

To a tourist, AOC feels like the quintessential LA brunch experience. Looking around, it is hard to see how a local would dispute this statement.

The reason we are here is we have been brought. Sascha is my cousin, but cousin or not, there must be a level of trust bringing a tourist into the fold. I have no idea where we are, but I like it; and I like the option of cheap valet parking too!

Brunch in LA at AOC is quite different to what we are used to in Melbourne. For a start, you can actually book! I forgot the novelty of not waiting 10-15 minutes for a table. Next, thankfully, there is no lycra or exercise gear. Everyone looks like eating (and drinking) is the objective and not a bonus.

Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary

It might be a weekly occurrence for some here though there is still a sense of occasion. When the food comes out you can see why. It’s huge and comes with way too many perfectly roasted potatoes, but the hanger steak and eggs is delicious! The steak itself is nicely seasoned, really flavoursome, and cooked properly, escaping any chewy texture. Not something I would ordinarily order for breakfast but I would eat again. The Bloody Mary is terrific too!

We finish with an incredible dessert, too difficult to describe but the flavours work beautifully – the creme fraiche softening the hit from the cumquats and the blood orange and pistachios balancing the flavour and texture. The main thing I miss from Melbourne, with only a little over a day left of our trip, is the immaculate coffee. AOC delivers a nice cup of joe but nothing more.

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There is a great deal to like about AOC, and other great brunch places in the States. To add to that, the differences are refreshing. Melbourne does the best breakfast in the world, but it could do with some refined brunch restaurants to add even more breadth to the portfolio.

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The General Food Store – Emerald, Victoria – Sunday 6 July 2014 – Breakfast

Waffles, coffee mascarpone, poached pear

Waffles, coffee mascarpone, poached pear

Our waitperson confidently and politely added “I hope the drive was worth it” as we pulled up a bench at this cute Emerald jewel. We did too. It was a wet and cold Sunday morning and the main reason we were up was the World Cup match between Netherlands and Costa Rica which went through to a riveting penalty shoot out; won by the former.

To be fair, the drive is not really that far, and we had been wanting to try The General Food Store for more than a few months. Knowing it is tiny, seating about twenty inside and less than that out front and back, we left early and were straight in about 9.30am, but no one after us was! Offering a pork belly special, and the pork belly on its own as a side (for $4.50!) was a good sign.

The next tick was the coffee. Supplied by Coffee Supreme and beautifully made, my long black was of a quality you normally expect at speciality roasters or coffee focussed cafes. Catherine had done her research and was straight on to the waffles with coffee mascarpone and poached pear. I had a taste and the mascarpone in particular was superb with a pear that had that perfect texture – cooked through and tender but not too soft. When combined with the waffles it made for a delicious and indulgent breakfast.

Boston beans, ham hock, poached eggs, corn bread, onion rings

Boston beans, ham hock, poached eggs, corn bread, onion rings

My “Hells Yes!” Boston baked beans with ham hock, poached eggs, spinach and corn bread were equally indulgent on the savoury side of the spectrum. I couldn’t get through all the corn bread, but it was terrific, providing something unique to a dish I tend to try regularly. Everything else on the plate was quality, especially the generous amount of ham through the beans. On top was a further nice touch with thin onion rings adding some texture to the softness of the other ingredients. Both the presentation and taste of the overall dish was one of my breakfast highlights for the year.

It’s tiny so you expect the staff to get around and be handy when you need another coffee, a take away baguette, and/or a couple of takeaway lemon tarts and slices – and they were – so we ordered up! They were also quick to serve and the customers around us were being served their breakfast incredibly quickly for such a small kitchen.

The Emerald General Food Store is doing everything right. And the drive is pretty nice too!
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Jimmy Grants – Fitzroy – Thursday 3 July 2014 – Dinner

The Bonegilla and Hellenic Slaw

The Bonegilla and Hellenic Slaw

What a business! In one of the most competitive dining areas in Australia, Jimmy Grants has a line out the door on a frosty Thursday night! The formula for success seems so obvious and it often is when it is so overwhelming.

There is something comforting about a souva. For years it was the equivalent of any other fast food aiding and abetting a drinker. Now it is the start of the night, taking me back to Santorini and a great souva bar called Obelisk. It is like I woke up one day and all of a sudden someone had revealed that traditional Greek is actually possible in Melbourne!

It is impossible not to compare to Gazi. In brief, Gazi is better. Hence the price point is lower and there is a more casual, in an out, vibe. However, I would not describe Jimmy Grants as a poorer cousin.

My “the Bonegilla” souva was eagerly anticipated and literally gobbled up in minutes. It is a good size, filled with a combination of chicken and melt-in-the-mouth lamb with mustard aioli, onions and parsley, but the stars after the lamb are the pita which is perfect and the golden seasoned chips. Catherine’s Nonna Maria is the same but just with chicken. I found the Hellenic slaw great for a few mouthfuls, but the chefs were too heavy handed with the mayo which made the next few mouthfuls more than enough.

For a bit more of a group there is slow roasted lamb and chicken from the spit at reasonable prices. Seating, due to the popularity of this place, is at a premium but it is actually quite a reasonable space. You order from the bar, but only once you have a table (unless taking away), and there are a good selection of Greek beers to wash down the souva.

For dessert, we moved around the corner for ice cream at Messina Gelato which is a must try!

Jimmy Grants is also in the CBD and there is a pop up at 80 Collins Street along with Kong and St Ali. It feels much more akin to sister restaurants than your classic chain and is producing souva that I am addicted to!

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