What is an experience worth?

There is an incredible amount of talk at the moment, and a reasonable buzz, regarding a restaurant picking up from Bray in the United Kingdom, and putting down at Crown.

Like most visitors to Crown, there is a chance The Fat Duck will overplay its hand and go broke, or have the experience of a lifetime, riding lady luck for all she is worth. More than likely the migration will be successful, creating a ripple on take-off, a splash on landing, and glide through six months of calm waters before taking off again.

Heston Blumenthal is a business. Much like Greg Norman took an amazing golf swing and turned it into a multinational brand icon, Heston has done the same with his trade. Like it or not, business is business, and for his latest venture, possibly one of his most elaborate, the romance is deafened by the dollar signs.

Ordinarily, taking any business and moving it across borders is extremely difficult, requiring careful management and detailed organisation. No doubt Heston’s business advisers are responsible for a good portion of what you are paying for lunch or dinner between February and July 2015 at Crown. The staggering price tag per person for the tasting menu is $525. If you enjoy having a couple (or more) with your meal, and you tip, I find it hard to see a couple having dinner for less than $1,300 (and I am being rather conservative).

Why then are many of my friends in Melbourne putting their names down in the ballot? Because Heston and his advisers are geniuses. The marketing says that you are going to have an experience like no other, that you only have a short time to have that experience without travelling over a day on a plane, that if you don’t you may be left out of dinner conversations forever more, and that if you get a result in the ballot it is like winning lotto.

It is my belief that, in fact, the ballot will be undersubscribed (and potentially filled by high rollers). There is a remarkable difference between having an interest in dining somewhere, and forking out average weekly earnings to experience it. There is an even more exceptional difference in those who have previously dined at extremely expensive restaurants, and those who have watched a television show that is full of theatre and fun. I know this point can be taken the wrong way, but there is a certain skill (or delusion) in separating the dining experience and the cost.

Experiences I’ve had at restaurants like Per Se, Eleven Madison, Le Maurice, Arzak, Attica and Momofuku, have been easily talked down by the same people who are potentially going to pay a lot more for The Fat Duck. The arguments of being able to have ten meals that are almost as good for the same price, that the restaurant is full of snobs, and you just end up feeling intimidated, are all fair arguments at times. What it comes down to is the state of mind you are in when entering the restaurant, how the floorstaff shape your experience, and whether you can separate the price tag from each mouthful.

I have put us down in the ballot. I think not being able to pick a date is strange and I think the price is too high. One thing I suggest is not reading one review, one blog, speaking to one person who has been there before you. If I get a table I am going to try to go with as reasonable expectations as possible and not compare each aspect with the other restaurants I’ve been to. Hopefully I can do that, and hopefully it is one of the best dining experiences I’ve had.

At $525 I expect it will be a great experience, but there is a very good chance it will not be the best. I can live with that.

The Stables of Como – South Yarra – Sunday 12 October 2014 – Lunch

IMG_2662Another weekend of incredible spring weather greeted us as we headed towards water to find a spot for lunch. We had been thinking of anywhere near the beach, outside, with fresh and light dishes available. As we turned off Grange Road a bright idea entered my head!

The Stables of Como appeared and the choice was clear on such a perfect day. Strolling around the grounds of Como House while waiting for a table, along with several other groups, was more than pleasant. Eventually the sun swayed us to sit down close by and wait. It was only about half an hour at the height of lunch service, and gave us a nice chance to wander around.

The Stables is a sibling of Friends of Mine and Porgie + Mrs Jones. It has its own personality and the vibe is similar to the surrounds of Como House with quite a well dressed and well-to-do crowd. As beautiful as the day was, direct sunlight was quite hot so a table inside was offered and we gladly accepted.

Roasted cauliflower salad

Roasted cauliflower salad

The menu is broad with good choices for both breakfast and lunch. Catching my eye immediately was the Lyonnaise Salad. My memories of salads in Lyon when travelling are still vivid ten years on and I was hoping for something traditional with a twist. I probably should have read the menu better because the twists were quite accentuated; not so much like a roller-coaster, more like a winding road in the Dandenongs.

It was still nice to eat and the smoked duck pancetta was one good reason to try it. Along with the duck were white anchovies, several leaves, broad beans, lardons, potato crisps for texture, and of course a poached egg as is required for a salade Lyonnaise. I would love for it to be served with the egg at the bottom of a bowl, rather than at the top of a plate, so the yolk could instantly mingle with the dressing, and for more lettuce to be used.

Salad Lyonnaise

Salad Lyonnaise

Catherine tried the “roasted cauliflower, chickpea, organic quinoa + feta, with nuts, seeds, and spices”. It was utterly delicious and when she failed to finish I took over! Both salads were very good servings. This one was really quite inspired and a dish I’ll be going back for again. Everything worked together and was in balance.

I’ve been to The Stables a few times and the classics for breakfast like smashed avocado are great. One dish that caught our eye was the tart with an heirloom tomato salad that was very popular and bursting with brightness on the plate. Definitely a go-to dish.

It’s a comfortable place to relax over a coffee or a wine, and the service is good. The Stables of Como is a fantastic cafe to check out, especially over the remainder of our spring and summer.

The Stables of Como on Urbanspoon

Innocent Bystander – Healesville – Sunday 5 October 2014 – Lunch

Roast lamb rump

Roast lamb rump

On a glorious spring day in Melbourne, one of the best things to do is get out of the city. Yarra Valley is so close to Melbourne you can almost smell the vines. Being so close, there is a multitude of food and wine options in the towns of the Yarra Valley, such as Healesville.

We called De Bortoli and they were full for lunch. We called Oakridge Estate, and they were full, but told us that tables would open up outside depending on the weather. Or at least I thought it was the weather. Given the temperature and sunshine was fantastic, it seems the operative word was “whether” as used in the sentence “whether they could be bothered setting them and making them available”. We drove close to an hour to find that they decided no a la carte would be happening on the outdoor tables.

We set out for the town of Healesville, knowing there are some great options, and Innocent Bystander was first on the list. When we got to the door and the sign said no tables to 2.30pm we knew we were behind the eight ball. Thankfully a quick thinking waitperson saw us starting to leave to stroll down the street and said we could have a table outside, which was great. The sun was being kind and it was glorious even in direct light. That standard of service was kept throughout the meal.

The combination of the weather and this dynamic space that is always busy and atmospheric, makes for an exciting meal. We are told that if we haven’t been here for a while the menu and the style has changed. It is still modern, and while several dishes have Mediterranean flavours, it is not classic tapas.

Salt cod and potato fritters

Salt cod and potato fritters

We choose the salt cod and potato fritters with roast garlic aioli to begin. The fritters are generous on the salted cod, which means the flavour is outstanding, the potato providing the softness inside the beautifully fried exterior. The roasted garlic aioli is thick and there’s enough of it to coat the fritters without overpowering them.

Next we try the pan fried market fish (Dory) with baby fennel, tomato and olive braise. The fennel is one of the stars in this divine dish. It seems to be slowly roasted and is tender without any loss of flavour. The tomato and olive braise provides some classic flavours to compliment the perfectly pan fried fillet of Dory. This dish purports to be a shared dish, but it is equally fine as a main in itself.

Panfried Dory and baby fennel

Panfried Dory and baby fennel

Last we have the roast lamb rump with baby carrots, onions, raisins and pine nuts. The lamb is nicely cooked with most pieces still close to perfectly pink. The spice rub used for the lamb is amazing. The baby carrots are so good they could be a dish in themselves. The raisins and pine nuts are good accompaniments too.

The aspect that stands out in the food is everything having its place, and classic flavour combinations with some pizzazz. It is inspired food. On the wine side, Giants Steps and Innocent Bystander are at home in their cellar door here and the Giant Steps 2013 Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay is a beauty. Unlike other cellar doors, other producer’s wines are available, but past experience leads us to stick with the home team.

When it first opened, the risk in design and location right down the end of the Healesville strip, made this restaurant and cellar door a trend setter. It seems there has been no resting on its laurels though. Not only that, the design continues to be a feature of the area, and somehow belongs in a broader sense as so many buildings close by mimic it. One way or another, the attention to detail shown in all aspects provides a model for all other cellar door restaurants.

Innocent Bystander Winery on Urbanspoon

Friends of Mine – Richmond – Numerous Occasions – Breakfast and Lunch

Baguette - ham, brie and tomato

Baguette – ham, brie and tomato

Friends of Mine was the first sibling of Hawthorn’s Porgie + Mrs Jones. The formula at Porgie was so successful they needed to expand next door. And so it seemed the formula had been tested enough to expand to a reasonably quiet part of South-East Richmond.

At one stage, Catherine had been to Friends for both breakfast and lunch on the same day in the week we moved close by. It seems I had forgotten to organise the electricity in our new place, and equally the landlord had disconnected it the day prior to our moving in! Like all good locals we’ve seen the best and the worst of what Friends of Mine dishes up.

The best is excellent, and the worst is infrequent enough to overlook. Helpfully, it has been years since our group has been left to contemplate food for an hour while waiting. That may be because we don’t organise group visits on the weekend here anymore. Luckily we don’t have to because it is easy to have breakfast around the corner during the week and it also happens to be walking distance from my work.

The longer term staff are very good. They know the café inside out and seem to get to know the customers over time too. The simple stuff like not being left without water, explaining likely timing on busy days, and having tables cleared quickly, are all followed to the letter.

In the beginning, even following the formula of Porgie, Friends’ food had a contemporary edge and set the scene. These days the experimentation has stalled but the formula still works. Breakfast classics are all done well and often with some pizzazz. The mushrooms in particular are memorable, and the avocados seem to be fresh and high quality through the year. The ham and cheese croissant is delicious and a breakfast I keep going back for.
Lunch consists of piadinas, baguettes, po boys, salads and some more hearty options. Everything is good or better. The po boys (you need two) is probably the tastiest, but most indulgent option. The salads are sizeable and use quality ingredients. Keeping with the theme, the baguettes are large and use more interesting fillings than the usual, but as a result are more expensive than many in the area.

One particular advantage over other cafes, especially on the weekend and for Friday lunch is the ability to order from a good selection of wines by the glass, or have a beer. Non-alcoholic options include freshly squeezed juices and good coffee. My only personal critique of the coffee is my long black is often too full and therefore too hot. I normally ask for only the extraction and not too much hot water.

Finally, the sweet pastry options, and macarons by Josephine, are forever tempting after lunch or for afternoon tea. I haven’t been yet, but high tea is offered on Sunday afternoons.

Friends of Mine has been a popular café from day one. It pulls in a crowd from well beyond the local area and uses a tried and tested formula. In an area that is only becoming busier, its success is assured for a long time to come.

Friends of Mine on Urbanspoon

Billy Lee’s – Northbridge – Thursday 2 October 2014 – Dinner

Prawns and Vegetable

Prawns and Vegetable

Tradition is often as important as finding the next big thing. There is a lot more to Billy Lee’s than merely tradition, but it is the kind of restaurant that you cannot help get caught up in the past when you sit down and start flicking through the menu.

I know why I love Billy Lee’s. It is because I have been with large groups, small groups, with family, with friends, and every time it has been in equal parts about catching up to enjoy each other’s company, and the sizzling beef. Yes, the sizzling beef.

There is nothing cliqued about a boiling hot plate topped with onions, and then throwing three quarter cooked thin slices of beef and sauce over the plate. It is probably frowned upon but I like to push the beef to the edges of the hot plate to get even sizzling. The taste is good but this is the highlight!

The incredibly long menu can be difficult. I often look at it and wonder how I ever worked out how to order a dish or two when choosing from literally a couple hundred. It is like an Italian pasta place that has ten types of pasta and ten types of sauce – that is one hundred dishes just there! Though if you don’t know what you are doing, it can be very difficult.

Mum said she felt like prawns so I rattled off the options (just on the specials there were nine prawn dishes!) We settled on prawns with vegetable. At first I thought it was a typo, but it was actually correct as it was just prawns with chopped Chinese leaf (I think it was choi sum). The prawns themselves are excellent quality. Large, cooked properly, deveined and fresh. The sauce has heavy hits of ginger and is quite glutinous. It is an excellent dish and I personally cannot fault it.

Sizzling Beef

Sizzling Beef

The sizzling beef is, as always, superb. The beef is always tender with minimal (or no) chewy bits and the onion needs no further cooking having been subjected to the outrageously hot plate. The sauce is indulgent and rich. We also have the special fried rice which is filled with prawns (not quite as amazing as the actual prawn dish), chicken and squid. The rice is the hero here, though the addition of some vegetables would ease some of the guilt about such a large amount of food.

While the Chinese tea is great, Mum and I were dying for a wine so we left promptly without enjoying the watermelon (or other seasonal fruit) that traditionally comes out once you have sat with your leftovers for 30-45 minutes. Sure, the service norms can be interesting at Chinese restaurants, but that seems to be the culture. In the USA you often get the bill before you ask, and perhaps in China you get to reflect on the food you can’t fit in while it sits in front of you.

With that we were gone. Around the corner, Pleased To Meet You, a new Northbridge restaurant that is well and truly on the trend of Southern American cuisine, rum and share food. The “Head Nouveau” TMG wine is great and not taking advantage of Billy Lee’s BYO policy makes sense now.

Back to Billy Lee’s. I can only say start the tradition as soon as possible because it is a fantastic place to share food with family and friends. No fuss whatsoever.

Billy Lees Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Jean Claude Patisserie – Subiaco –Numerous Occasions – Weekdays Only!

IMG_2576Thinking of Jean Claude Patisserie brings a smile to my face. It is hard to remember a better patisserie in Perth before it opened, and all patisseries since hope to match the popularity (and quality) that has been present at Jean Claude for decades.

I started marveling at what Jean Claude produces almost twenty years ago and realised back then that I was far from alone. Those were the days it was open for all, and then some, of the weekend. The only longer line outside a bakery door was in Rottnest and maybe Dunsborough. Most back then would remember the disappointment of missing out on the last [you name it!]

Sure, I feel a little aged writing this, but it is incredible the baguettes now are exactly the same as they were back then! It leaves you in awe thinking about how maybe in another 50 years I’ll be still coming here for the same smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers baguette that I did 68 years prior! The crunch of the outside revealing the soft bread and divine smoked salmon filling.

Smoked Salmon Baguette

Smoked Salmon Baguette

The doughnuts are first class. In this age of the doughnut, it has not changed, and doesn’t need to. The breads are first rate; the pies and sausage rolls are special. My main memory though is some of the technically challenging sweet pastries and tarts which are some of the most delicious I’ve had in Perth, and much further abroad. I had my first strawberry flan at Jean Claude, and still think of the Jean Claude touch when I eat them anywhere. The almond, and the chocolate, croissants are heavenly.

There are times where in the search for the next big thing we get bored of the last big thing. Jean Claude produces patisserie fare that is an outstanding exception, and impossible to see being passé at any time.

Chez Jean-Claude Patisserie Subiaco on Urbanspoon

The Club Sandwich

The Club Sandwich at the Hyatt

The Club Sandwich at the Hyatt

While I have travelled regularly for work and play over the years, I have not eaten very regularly at hotels. There is something I find defeatist about room service, and disconcerting about hotel restaurants.

That is certainly not to say that I don’t understand the reasons for both. Room service is important if you are working almost non-stop and on a tight schedule. It can also be convenient when you’ve been out and about touring all day and just need a quiet night in. There are some incredible hotel restaurants around the world, but in Australia, I find they are some of the most overpriced and bland places to eat going around.

When I think about hotel restaurant experiences in Australia I cringe. I struggle to think of one that is on my list to try, and I have tried very few. Est in Sydney is probably the best example of an exceptional larger city hotel restaurant I can think of, but is in a very boutique hotel. It does what the best examples overseas do – completely separate the restaurant from the hotel and as a result, it has many more outside patrons dining than hotel guests.

Overseas it is different. Many of the most cutting edge restaurants, and greatest chefs, have come from hotels. Hotel dining rooms are revered in many cities. Dinner at Le Maurice in Paris is one of the most incredible nights I’ve spent eating and drinking. It was so good the next time we were in Paris we stayed there – that is a distinct reversal of roles when the restaurant actually attracts the guest to stay there on the next visit!

There are cities where most of the best restaurants are in hotels. We are going back to Hong Kong later this year and it seems the most authoritative restaurant guides favour hotel dining. Other cities in Asia are similar in this perspective.

We could also learn a great deal from the lobby bars from The States. Places like the Ace Hotel in New York, or the Roosevelt in Hollywood, have the same charm and charisma of the best cocktail bars. Again, I struggle to think of a hotel that I’ve met up with friends for a cocktail, in Australia.

I was eating this club sandwich in my room at the Hyatt in Perth thinking about these experiences. Here is a sandwich, that while varied to some degree, owes much to hotels for its existence in culinary folklore. It is simple, effective, and delicious most times you order it whether here, in Bali, in Brazil, or Boston.

Same with the Waldorf Salad. All those years ago when a chef came up with apple, celery and walnuts in a salad, it transferred into popular culture without the internet. Travellers coming through the hotel picked it up, took it home, and made it their own. It makes you think how quickly food trends are, and will continue, to move globally. If it seems to you, like it does to me, that there have been several food trends in recent months and years, the question is whether there will be more or less classic dishes in ten years time.