Low Key Chow House – Leederville – Thursday 18 September 2014 – Dinner

IMG_2589There are several strong themes running through 2014 in terms of food. In many ways, the strongest theme surrounds Australia’s latest version of modern Asian, combining some of the best aspects of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

They’re still out there – places that combine the most mediocre aspects of several cuisines or cultures. Those places where you can have fish and chips, fried rice, or souvlaki. On the face of it, offering pork buns, sashimi, yakitori, and several other great dishes, could make a restaurant look like it has a personality crisis. Low Key Chow House on the other hand, combines several styles without clashing on your palate.

Citrus cure

Citrus cure

We start with the citrus cure which is described as sashimi but is closer to ceviche. The grapefruit cure is fantastic. As with many ceviches, as delicious as they can be, the type of fish was hard to detect. It may have been kingfish. The mantou buns came out and looked amazing. The pork belly, complete with perfect crackling, lived up to the look. The buns are popular for good reason and it would be hard to dine at Chow without ordering them.

Mantou buns

Mantou buns

I liked the idea of including gizzards in the yakitori skewers, which also included thigh and crispy skin. Mum got the crispy skin one and I got the gizzards. Unfortunately, the gizzard doesn’t work and it would be better to have a couple of the crispy skin ones. The thigh itself was excellent; surprisingly good quality for a restaurant not specialising in yakitori. It was hard choosing main, because there were so many great sounding dishes. Having settled on the spatchcock, we were happy with our decision. The chicken was deboned, marinated, grilled, and beautifully seasoned. The achara salad it came with was nice, but not necessary with each bite of the chicken. The Kimchi salad was superb. Fresh herbs, chilli, Asian leaves and spicy kimchi, makes for an intriguing side.

Spatchcock

Spatchcock and kimchi salad

The servings were generous enough, but we could fit in dessert, and being a huge fan of red bean, I had to try the Azuki bean. The presentation was more interesting than what I expected. The crepes, filled with red bean, had been rolled and cut, and scattered over the plate. As you would expect, strawberry compote, ice cream, and coconut accompanying the crepes all work together. Simple and delicious, with the red bean starring.

Azuki bean

Azuki bean

The service was terrific. Our waitperson showed an excellent understanding of the menu and was attentive throughout. It was really busy in the restaurant, making for a fun and atmospheric place to eat.

Years ago, I used to eat here regularly, in this exact same spot, at cheap and cheerful Hans. Now, Leederville is almost unrecognisable, and there is a lot of burger joints – a lot! It is astounding the way Oxford Street has changed and while I have a soft spot for the old times, the new times are far better.

Low Key Chow House on Urbanspoon

Duchess of Spotswood – Spotswood – Saturday 13 September 2014 – Breakfast

Duchess of Pork

Duchess of Pork

Traditionally, the British have been known to do a great breakfast – maybe the best. The full English is a celebration of fried meats, eggs, and other foods like beans, tomatoes and mushrooms that get to share the plate with the stars. While there is an excitement in having every breakfast food you can think of available to you on one plate, at times it is too much, and at times the quality of the separate ingredients may not be the best.

A British themed breakfast spot is unusual because aren’t all breakfast spots that serve the traditional classics basically British by definition? At the Duchess of Spotswood the theme is more than appropriate. There is a traditional approach to the great British breakfast, using high quality ingredients, merged with some more modern tastes.

There is the “Breakfast of Champignons” which is one of my favourite names for a great dish of delicious mushrooms on toast with Stilton thrown in for good measure. Today I’m eating the “Duchess of Pork”, which is an interesting dish to start the day. Pork jowl broken down and formed into a rectangle, with crispy pork scattered around the plate, shaved truffle, two fried eggs, Madeira sauce and some toast. Pork jowl is an amazing gamey meat – very strong and rich. It combines beautifully with the Madeira sauce (which could be a little more liberal) and the yolk of the eggs. It’s not for every day, but today it is heavenly.

As you would hope, the bacon at the Duchess is a staple, thick sliced and incredibly good, whether combined in a simple bacon and eggs, or the Full English. Gladly, the Full English includes black pudding, and will be my choice next time I’m here with an appetite. The coffee is excellent, the orange juice is sweet and freshly squeezed, and the Spring weather is coming along nicely.

The Duchess has really sparked this little village in Spotswood into life. There is a terrific bakery, called Candied, and I can vouch for the rye, and the brûlée from the last trip. There is a cafe, serving only coffee, including syphon, and few other places in a relatively small space. Travel wise it is relatively easy, being the first exit just over the West Gate.

The Duchess is one of the best cafes in Melbourne. If it was in Brunswick, Fitzroy or the Inner East it would be an impossible wait, but here in Spotswood it fits perfectly.

Duchess of Spotswood on Urbanspoon

The Bridge Hotel – Richmond – Friday 5 September 2014 – Lunch

There is a wow factor the first time you come across the fitout at The Bridge Hotel. Architecturally one of the coolest pubs you can imagine, though impossible to find your friends in one of the several nooks and crannies!

It’s now a few years old and is established and busy, but not quite as crazy as the months after opening. The owners did the right thing. You need to have a point of difference and excitement on this part of Bridge Road that is not geographically endowed. The “Karma Keg” on Friday afternoon is a fun idea, and the drinks on offer are diverse, adding further interest from the tried and tested.

We are here for Friday lunch and get one of the booths in the dining section. I’ve been here a few times and find that the burger is a clear winner if you have a good appetite. It has all the trimmings with bacon and eggs, and is a bit more old school with a “normal” bun and well sized pattie meaning the burger doesn’t fall to pieces after a couple bites. The chips are always pretty tasty here with the obligatory beer batter for serious connoisseurs!

There are other pub favourites on offer with the parma proving hard for several of us to go past. It looks great. The service is good for a pub and it helps we are in a part of the dining area that seems to be naturally well attended. The only unusual aspect of note was the lack of English breakfast tea on offer. Sure we are in a pub, but there is a hotel across the road and a petrol station too. Thinking on your feet is not that hard (especially when they have plenty of green tea going around!)

Once you have seen the transformation of the Bridge Hotel the initial wow factor abates. What is left is a great quality pub to have a drink in any one of seven or eight settings and some nice food.

Bridge Hotel on Urbanspoon

Supermaxi – North Fitzroy – Numerous Occasions – Dinner

When you travel to Italy and dine out there is an overwhelming sense of belonging and understanding. We are very used to the Italian way of dining and the flavours, ambience and service that comes with it.

Luckily, there are many Italian restaurants in Melbourne where you feel like you are back in Italy on holiday enjoying the food, wine and culture that are seamlessly intertwined. On St Georges Road in North Fitzroy, about four years ago, a tiny bit of Italy planted itself in the community and continues to win the custom of locals.

Catherine and I have been to Supermaxi many times over the past four years, albeit we are not all that local. There are several dishes that have been here for the journey that we keep coming back for. It has become one of our favourite restaurants in Melbourne because on every occasion we’ve had warm service and genuine care for our dining experience. These features lead to the place being packed to the brim so the atmosphere is always abuzz.

Recently we shared dinner with Catherine’s family and friends to celebrate her birthday. Obviously, there is a huge difference in the dynamic when you are dining with 16 others as opposed to dining in a small group or as a couple! We had full confidence the restaurant would cope and provide a memorable experience and it lived up to our expectations. While there were some natural delays due to the size of the group, service was prompt and accommodating, and our waitperson Marco even managed to charm Catherine’s Mum (in a platonic way!)

Primi is a must at Supermaxi. The arancini are always packed full of flavour and crispy but not over-fried. The fried cauliflower is a cult hero here and is a great expression of this slightly docile vegetable, topped with onion jam that lifts the taste.

The pizzas are consistently excellent with delicious bases, nice and crisp, and featuring quality ingredients. Our favourite here, and actually our favourite of all time, is the Maxi, which has salty pancetta on a tomato base, with the bitterness in the radiccio adding a contrasting depth of flavour that I keep going back for. The Treccia mozzarella and parmigiano top it off perfectly.

Secondi features pasta, risotto, fish and meat dishes that are all fantastic. I mainly stick to the pasta, with the linguine a favourite, and the fatt’in casa a close second. The fatt’in casa is the house spaghetti with delicious meatballs and tomato sauce. A very generous portion, but not over the top, the spaghetti is beautiful and fresh. The linguine is olive oil based with a classic combination of prawns, garlic and chilli accompanying it, along with the interesting addition of zucchini.

The desserts are now classics here, including the signature fried custard. It’s indulgent and appropriate to share if you’ve already had a few courses. Then there’s the semifreddo which changes but is always well constructed and not too sweet.

There’s a good selection of drinks and a wine list that is balanced between Italian and local wines, and reasonably priced. The service is great with scripted, stiff floor staff, not needing to apply. There are misses as a result, but the charm of Italian restaurants is the authenticity of the staff, not necessarily perfect service in a clinical sense. I find it easy to relax in this type of setting and just enjoy the meal and the company. If you arrive early there are kids at most tables and you can tell they have enjoyed themselves as much as their parents. That’s a good advertisement for the vibe here.

Supermaxi is more than a good neighbourhood Italian. It has some exceptional dishes that you can eat in a setting that feels more like a holiday in Italy than a Saturday night in North Fitzroy.

Supermaxi on Urbanspoon

Crabapple Kitchen – Hawthorn – Friday 29 August 2014 – Lunch

Hawthorn has a rich selection cafes, many of which are Melbourne’s best. This includes Porgie + Mrs Jones, Axil Roasters, Liar Liar, and several others I’ve tried, which all have their own distinctive personality. Yet I find the dynamic between Hawthorn, and its close neighbour Richmond (where I live and work), to be very different.

It could just be me. I’ve been a repeat visitor to many of these cafes but have never become a regular. It could be the fact that my compass leads me towards the city rather than further East, even though I’m happy to travel a long way for a good breakfast. Either way I am often more comfortable in Richmond.

Crabapple Kitchen may be in a similar vein, though there is a dish on this menu that I can’t get out of my mind. The “Crabapple Slider” featuring spanner crab in brioche along with Granny Smith apple, breakfast radish, and mustard cress, is a wonderful dish. The delicate crab works in complete harmony with the buttery richness of the brioche. The julienned Granny Smith apple, mustard cress, and breakfast radish, are excellent accompaniments, with mayonnaise bringing it all together.

The cafe itself, on a busy part of Glenferrie Road near the train station, is playful and charming. The floorstaff wear bluetooth ear pieces which I’m not sure about, as it is a little disconcerting when you realise they are being spoken at, while also speaking to you. Other than when they are interrupted mid-sentence they are polite and friendly.

The great thing about this cafe is the outdoors area out the back. There is plenty of seating and the heaters are on, but it would be even better if it was a warm sunny day. Although a little chilly today, everyone is in good spirits as you would expect at Friday lunch.

Crabapple Kitchen is a fantastic venue with really interesting breakfast and lunch dishes not to mention a great drinks list that is particularly important for Friday lunch!

Crabapple Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Brae – Birregurra, Victoria – Saturday 30 August 2014 – Dinner

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Destination restaurants are special. At times the community creates the restaurant, and vice versa, but the best examples have the two living hand in hand. Birregurra is a town I didn’t know well, but I will be getting to know for years to come thanks to Dan Hunter making it his town.

Dan Hunter didn’t establish Birregurra and he didn’t create the venue where Brae resides. It was previously “Sunnybrae” and I was unfortunate not to eat at this predecessor that had an amazing reputation of its own. However, Dan has, in the space of months, and particularly over the past fortnight, put Birregurra on the map for restaurant lovers both in Victoria, and throughout Australia. I expect he will put it on the world map in the not too distant future.

Radicchio growing in the extensive garden

Radicchio growing in the extensive garden

It is one thing to have a successful destination restaurant in a capital city that requires out-of-towners to fly in for a “must try” experience. It is a further stretch to have a restaurant in a small town, 90 minutes outside of the city. The thing I love about destination dining is the feeling of being away. Even if only for a night you are having a new experience, not only of the restaurant, but of the town the restaurant lives and breathes in. We chose Harvest Birregurra B&B as our accommodation for our Brae experience and Fiona & Steve could not have been more hospitable. We were relaxed well before we ventured to the restaurant in Steve’s “Chariot”.

Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

Dan Hunter knows how to create brilliance to travel for. He was head chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastian which is one of the world’s best restaurants, before creating a destination of his own in Dunkeld at the Royal Mail Hotel. But Brae is special, Brae is his. There is overwhelming expectation created by the CV, and the recent awards Brae has received before it’s first anniversary.

It is easy to forget we are in the country as we step through the doors and into the comforting confines of a fine dining restaurant. For a building looking like a homestead, it is surprisingly sleek and restrained inside. The tables are well spaced, and the kitchen is in the spotlight, many of the tables facing the bright lights like it is the stage in a theatre.

There are many floorstaff and many chefs. On the floor there is a certain hum, it is smooth, and everyone is doing their job in an orderly fashion, but it is not stuffy. In fact, small delays and mistakes are made, but they are not worth noting. There is an assuredness in the service, but it is like the first quarter of a footy game – everyone knows their job, and is doing it well, but the team is not quite perfectly gelling – though it is not far from it.

The degustation consists of eight tastes to begin, five savoury courses, and two dessert courses. There are many influences, so many influences the cuisine can only be described as modern. The one dominant influence is the restaurant garden out the front as you drive in, which is rich in the freshest seasonal produce imaginable; the envy of city chefs. Most ingredients are sourced locally, including many of the wines in the optional matching.

Iced oyster Beef tendon and mountain pepper Globe artichoke Radish and fermented cream

Iced oyster
Beef tendon and mountain pepper
Globe artichoke
Radish and fermented cream

Of the eight tastes, there are several that are outstanding. At the top is the “iced oyster”. There is no oyster at all. It is the essence of the oyster in a delicious sweet and salty ice cream served in the shell. Then the “beef tendon and mountain pepper” looks like a glorified prawn cracker. The gelatinous tendon must be dehydrated, and perhaps stretched, to achieve both an inviting texture, and a decadent richness. The prawn heads are served quite crisp and you are encouraged to eat the entire head, which is both flavoursome and a little disconcerting at the same time. If it wasn’t for friends, who I’ve seen devouring large prawn heads many times, I would have opted out! Other tastes featuring globe artichokes, radishes, and turnips, presumably straight from the garden, are excellent too.

Hapuku just cured with orange, celeriac, pickles

Hapuku just cured with orange, celeriac, pickles

The Hapuku fish is lightly cured with citrus and stands out even though delicate. It is beautiful from a textural perspective, the dressing glossing over the plate, and featuring varied herbs including Vietnamese mint, elk and lemongrass. Tiny pickled vegetables add some crunch into a genre of dish that is becoming a modern classic. In the next dish, warm ricotta again is the focus, covered in ground winter truffle, and incredibly presented with nettles and brassicas (mustardy cabbage) standing through the cheese.

Warm ricotta and nettle, winter truffle and brassicas

Warm ricotta and nettle, winter truffle and brassicas

Another modern classic is any dish featuring egg yolk. There are so many variants on this theme that it needs to be amazing, otherwise it is passé. Dan Hunter’s version is restrained for such a typically rich dish, and the dried jerusalem artichokes, and soft flavoursome potatoes, enhanced by the comte and vin jaune sauce, are definitely amazing together. The raw wallaby, in an array of spices, is covered in radicchio that has been soaked in maple syrup and charred. The charred beetroot it is served with is utterly superb. The two tie each other together in one of the best dishes I’ve eaten. Yes, it is raw wallaby and that is confronting in more than one way, but this is culinary genius. It is building on a foundation of two ingredients that work together, and launching it to out of space.

Raw wallaby, wattle and lemon myrtle, charred beetroot and radicchio

Raw wallaby, wattle and lemon myrtle, charred beetroot and radicchio

After the wallaby, it is hard to impress any more, but the Wessex saddleback pork is strong and flavoursome all the same. The meat is cooked so perfectly there has to be some science involved. There are so many techniques and such inspired cooking throughout the savoury courses that you are left wondering how the food could be topped by dessert. We were soon to find out.

We wouldn’t normally choose the wine matching. In multiple course degustations it is definitely a good idea, but getting the volume right is difficult and we were convinced some time ago that matching a glass to every couple of dishes can work better on occasion. Tonight, we were convinced otherwise and we appreciate the sommelier’s suggestion which he equated to four glasses of wine. The absolute highlight was the 2011 By Farr “Sangreal” Pinot Noir from nearby Geelong which was matched to the saddleback. The depth of the pinot is exceptional, with a great mouthfeel that lingers like the warm sunny day we’d just experienced. I thought the other highlight, amongst many other great matches, was the 2013 The Story “Westgate Vineyard” Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier from the Grampians. The perfect foil for the egg yolk, delivering savoury richness and balance.

Quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk

Quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk

When all you know of a dessert is “quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk” you could be led to believe you are about to eat another savoury course. However, the waitstaff put this impression to bed when they informed us the saddleback was the last of the savoury courses. So what we discovered with mouthwatering bite after bite is an intriguing dish, luckily not tasting of the onions the quince are poached in, but in perfect balance both in taste and texture. The slightly sweetened cultured milk has little pieces of honeycomb below it providing a crunchy burst of sweetness of its own. There are two strips of citrus peel providing a bitter note, with the divine honey bringing the dish together. It is one of those times where you don’t need to combine all five elements, but when you do you are rewarded.

Parsnip and apple

Parsnip and apple

Our next dessert is a signature of Dan Hunter. It has a high visual impact when brought to the table with the largest parsnip crisp you have ever seen protruding from the plate like a dosa in Southern India. On the parsnip is delicious shaved apple that enlivens the palate. Underneath, resembling a log, apple features in a mousse-like texture, and dehydrated apple, with skin on, is scattered over the plate. It is incredibly flavoursome, and incredibly fun. You end up breaking off pieces of the parsnip, scooping up some mousse, adding a bit of apple, and enjoying a taste sensation! It is hard to do any justice to the amount of imagination and technique this dish would require and it wouldn’t be out of place in any of the world’s best restaurants but feels completely at home in Birregurra.

For a destination restaurant to work it has to have something special, and it relies on the community to add a further intangible quality to the experience. Birregurra is used to having a great restaurant to call it’s own, and Brae seems to have captured the imagination of this community and given them another aspect of their town to be very proud about. Dan Hunter has made a good decision to move here, and I’m positive Birregurra is the envy of towns across Victoria and throughout the world.

Brae on Urbanspoon

Harvest Birregurra B&B – Birregurra, Victoria – Sunday 31 August 2014 – Breakfast

IMG_2506Bed & Breakfast conjures up feelings of utter satisfaction. They are informal, comfortable places, with locals showing you their hospitality, not to mention cooking you breakfast in the morning!

Harvest Birregurra is about as comfortable as it gets. With only two rooms available the service from Fiona and Steve is assured to be personal. We stayed in the “Ballroom” which appears to be the superior of the two rooms. More importantly, we opted to have the hot breakfast in the morning for a very cheap additional charge.

With only two couples to cater for, often having been to Brae the evening before, Fiona was happy to serve breakfast after a sleep in. What we didn’t realise was the variety of foods available for breakfast with fresh fruits, yoghurt with almonds, poached pears with walnuts, homemade passionfruit curd, local marmalade, rye bread, cereals and incredibly tasty crepes with creme anglaise and strawberries!
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For our hots, I selected the eggs option (poached, scrambled or fried) which comes with all the trimmings – delicious sausage, bacon, asparagus from the garden, tomatoes, mushrooms, beetroot, and the rye – are all accounted for. It was the quality of a good cafe. Catherine had the omelette with smoked salmon that was huge considering all the other food being served. The smoked salmon was excellent, soaked in strawberry vinegar that “Shannon Bennett monopolises” and with some of the fresh asparagus from the garden. The omelette was filled with goats cheese and was perfectly prepared.

I think it may have been the most I’ve eaten at breakfast for the year! It was served along with good quality espresso. We were in bed & breakfast heaven! If it was open to those not spending the night it would be very popular.

Harvest is a great place to stay and the breakfast is equally as good. Just make sure you select the hot breakfast!