Monster Kitchen and Bar – Canberra – Thursday 30 March 2017 – Dinner

“Striking” is a good way to describe more than one aspect of Monster Kitchen and Bar. In a way, it is aptly named because it is an absolute beast. It is not unlike stepping off the Millennium Falcon into a combination of the woods of Endor and one of the modern space cities.

It is impossible not to think of Jenga looking at the jumble of wood that is a theme throughout this new precinct that includes Hotel Hotel and its lobby restaurant, Monster. The reference to fun and youth continues, with our rhombus shaped table, which is surprisingly functional.

Heirloom tomatoes, peach, spiced feta, cumin oil, rose

It is at this stage as we are seated that the enormity of the space hits me. It is not the sole blame for slightly distracted service, but it must be a root cause. Floorstaff are not gliding as you often see in a restaurant of this calibre, but are almost trying to not loiter in any of the vast spaces. There were certainly some nice touches, but there were instances of amateur mistakes that you wouldn’t expect. Those mistakes had little impact on the meal as a whole.

We were eating as a group of four and eager to try a good number of dishes. Alice is a proper vegetarian, so it was important to select wisely, and she had done her research. One nice pick-up by our waitperson was the fact that one of the dishes with tofu actually contained a bonito (fish) based sauce, which was elegantly swapped with mirim.

38 hour pork neck bao, cucumber kimchi

Having ordered a serious selection of the menu, we were presented with our first taste, which was memorable. Michael, Catherine and I tried the 38 hour pork neck bao with cucumber kimchi, and it was seriously good. Then came a flurry of dishes containing a list of ingredients any farmer’s market would be satisfied with.

Honey roasted carrots, moghrabieh, harissa, almonds

Of the vegetarian dishes (tofu included), my easy favourite, and one of the better dishes I’ve tried this year, was the honey roasted carrots with moghrabieh, harissa, and almonds. The large cous cous style moghrabieh was so delightfully flavoured with harissa, and textured with almonds, that the carrots took a back seat. As often is the case with a lot of shared dishes, there are some left at the table never to be seen to again, but with this dish I went back for more until there was nothing left!

Fried tofu, pickled shitake, mirim soy, spring onion oil, sesame

The tofu dish was well constructed and pleasant; the heirloom tomatoes adequate; and the eggplant very good. The fact we had been discussing eggplant earlier at our friend’s house prior to dinner, and how difficult it could be, gave even more merit to this wonderful dish, accompanied by smoked goat’s cheese, katsuobushi, and sesame. It was about at this point where we had finished off a bottle of local Canberra chardonnay made by Mount Madura which was beautifully made, and paired well with the earlier dishes.

WA octopus, chorizo, corn, black garlic

Going on to a bottle of local Sangiovese from Lark Hill we began our journey of the non-vegetarian dishes, deciding after a lot of friendly debate on the octopus and duck. While the octopus was uninspiring, taking a back seat to the chorizo and blackened corn; the duck was very nicely cooked, bonding with the guanciale, fresh fig, and caremalised onion, to make for a terrific final savoury dish.

Pear, olive oil, lemon, thyme

It was at this point that a cleansing ale was needed, and the Moo Brew dark ale did a great job at that task, and worked fine with dessert too. We really didn’t need dessert, but after such a nice meal, we wanted to try! Michael and Alice shared the ”chocolate, sea salt, peanut, burnt butter ice cream” and we shared the “pear, olive oil, lemon, thyme”.

Chocolate, sea salt, peanut, burnt butter ice cream

The first thing that showed was the technique of the pastry chefs was clearly of a high quality. While I felt a bit of menu envy at the chocolate dish that had won praise, especially for the peanut caramel, I enjoyed the lighter tones of the pear and lemon.

Monster really hits you in a good way. Even the trip to the toilet is an adventure in design. It wasn’t until we left through a different entrance that we even realized we were eating in an open hotel lobby. There is nothing hotel-y in the feel at all and it is a quality package that is being offered in this unusual restaurant.

Monster Kitchen and Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bills – Surry Hills – Saturday 1 April 2017 – Breakfast

A big change is needed for tourists enjoying holidays in the Sydney CBD. There are very few worthwhile breakfast options in the city that have great coffee and diverse food choices. Not loving the thought of eating at a hotel buffet, we had no choice but to go out to the inner suburbs.

It is surprising, but there are not a huge amount of must try cafes near the city, and several good options are shut on the weekend. In the end we took the easy option and chose to meet friends at Bills in Surry Hills.

Bills is an institution. It has all the ingredients that you need for a successful café. Fame, quality food, decent coffee, good waitstaff, and a nice good looking fitout. It is a script that Bill Granger has used around Sydney and as far as London. I can tell you right now that you could not do exactly the same in Melbourne and expect as much success.

We were here for a good time but not a long time, which factored in the obligatory 20 minute wait. Ordering quickly, most of us had scrambled eggs and bacon, which was good quality. Catherine changed up to avocado toast, and again it was a nicely executed classic. The orange juice was fresh and sweet, and the coffee was nice enough, albeit plain.

There are little things here that you need to deal with though. For a start, our friend Simon (a chef himself) couldn’t believe there was no option for eggs on toast other than scrambled. Putting two and two together it would appear that the chefs don’t want to do poached, or the kitchen is too small to do regularly, or a bit of both. There are poached eggs offered as part of some dishes, and fried too, but not simply with toast and a side or two.

I came here knowing these things, and still decided to come. The reason is simple. There are not a lot of good options on the way to Randwick and I know you can depend on Bills. There is a good chance I’ll be back again next time, or the time after.

Bills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fratelli Fresh – Sydney – Saturday 1 April 2017 – Dinner

Fratelli Fresh is an enormous Italian restaurant in the heart of the Sydney CBD on Bridge Street close to the tourist mecca of Circular Quay. It has had a long standing reputation of providing quality Italian at a reasonable price and enjoys healthy crowds as a result.

Tonight is no different and the five of us sit at a high table towards the back of the restaurant in relative comfort, except for the lower bar of the table that is at leg height when on a stool. Everyone who serves us is friendly and helpful, but they are clearly under the pump, often having to politely ask to come back, and rarely pro-active.

Tagliatelle meatballs

We ordered some shared entrees to start because the number of options for mains is immense. Those entrees gave a good insight into why Fratelli Fresh is still a popular dining option. Each of the zucchini flowers with five cheeses, margarita pizza, and calamari, were flavoursome and well made.

Unfortunately the same issue I have had in one of three experiences at Melbourne’s newer version of Fratelli Fresh occurred tonight – the pasta was bland. I don’t say that lightly because I like the basis behind the now restaurant chain, but it is hard to forgive a linguine panigrattato that relies on few ingredients for its flavour, to be under seasoned, under oiled, and under lemoned.

Linguine pangrattato with QLD prawns

On the flip side Catherine’s beef and pork meatballs with tagliatelle was why I like Fratelli. It was well executed, fresh pasta, with a nice topping. Nothing like the best Italian, but still better than average, especially at the price point. We were dining with friends from Melbourne and Perth, and Dino, who speaks Italian fluently had a great time with the staff, while Matt was getting ready for the National Championships for his shotput, and pasta was perfect for the next day.

Fratelli signature banoffee torta

We stayed for dessert, even though we were all very satisfied already. The Banoffee pie was a good option to share, with richness from the toffee being softened by the cream, in a dish that is becoming a classic far and wide for good reason. Dino, Matt, and Simon, also shared the tiramisu which comes out in a large coffee cup, which is novel.

We had good fun and there are many aspects I enjoy here, but I don’t think I’ll personally be back in a hurry. With so many great options in Sydney, a miss on a main dish like tonight is hard to take.

Fratelli Fresh Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

L’Hotel Gitan – Windsor – Wednesday 22 March 2017 – Lunch

The difference of opinions when it comes to restaurants, and each particular experience, can be incredible. It dawned on me that my first experience at L’Hotel Gitan was not characteristic of this good looking venue. So, a couple of years ago I didn’t share my thoughts, but I am now.

Whereas my first experience was in a large group, upstairs in the private room, this time was downstairs where it’s at. I often discount group experiences because the most usual setting is a table of two to four people. While today we have seven for a group leaving lunch, the restaurant is not even half full, so there’s no pressure on the chefs or floorstaff.

The first thing noticed by the table was that the L’Hotel version of Gitan is a bit fancier than the Bistro version. It is a stylish room, that feels adequately French. The banquettes are comfortable, and the semi-private booth looks very cool indeed.

We are here to relax and see off a good friend and colleague. Three courses are a must. Personally I find the menu a bit finicky with a lot of choices, and a touch of confusion between sharing or not. In the end a few of us decide to share some entrees, but we all have our own main.

My shared entrees are the crispy duck, lamb skewer, and king prawn. The latter is perfectly cooked, with a crisp quick fried tempura style batter. The lamb skewer is tiny, and definitely not packed with enough flavour or richness, to compensate. The crispy duck is a curious dish too, not because you expect more for the spend, but there is a questionable amount of duck.

For my main I selected a scotch fillet steak, and I was happy with the product. It was medium-rare, and most mouthfuls were good. Across from me, B2 had ordered exactly the same steak, cooked the same way, but it was not as good. Seems I was the lucky one today! The bearnaise was well prepared, and the chips great too. For around $40 though you might expect a bit more impact.

The chocolate millefeuille was a big way to finish. Presented in style by the pastry chefs, this take on a millefeuille is generous and rich, exactly what you want at the end of a French meal. The use of a biscuit base, over the traditional lighter pastry, is probably the only fault, because the pastry is normally there to provide some balance.

I can see reasons why locals would like the comfortable and warm setting, but there was little to rave about. Some tweaks are needed to take L’Hotel Gitan to the next level. On the whole, this was a pleasant lunch, with nice food, and good service.

L'Hotel Gitan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tomahawks – Bright – Wednesday 29 March 2017 – Dinner

Cauliflower + mozzarella fritters, Moroccan ketchup

Bright is a very nice town. There is an obvious pride that the community has put into many aspects, and the scenery surrounding is beautiful. Walking around and checking out some of the restaurant menus for tonight, we noticed a sophistication above the usual associated with a town over three hours from Melbourne.

Having worked out where dinner would be, we enjoyed a drink at the Bright Brewery. I wanted to try several beers but still be fit to drive, so the tasting paddle of six beers was the perfect option. All of them are nice beers, but my favourites were the porter style (Staircase), and the Belgian style wheat (Razor) was quality too. Catherine had the drier style of cider (Alpine) from locally grown apples, and was pleased with the choice.

After a nice relax, we made it to Tomahawks for dinner and sat on the bar. One of the staff recognised us from earlier in the day immediately building rapport, and luckily he was right that we didn’t need to book. The small restaurant is set in a long rectangle that has a bar as the main feature. We noticed that while it was relatively busy, the turnover meant that no one was waiting for a table, but during the evening most tables had two sittings. It’s a sign of a strong business, especially given it opened late last year.

Slow roasted lamb shoulder bruschetta, hummus, pickled red cabbage, zucchini, salted ricotta

We were urged towards the twelve hour lamb shoulder bruschetta and given I was already more than halfway there, it became one of our mains, along with a cheeseburger to share. I thought we better have some vegetables, so we started with the cauliflower and mozzarella fritters with Moroccan ketchup. They were not quite the refreshing vegetable dish we were looking for, but they were delicious and indulgent, which is better in our book.

Sevens Creek Wagyu Cheeseburger, habanero mustard, pickles, maple bacon

The chefs helped us out by halving both the lamb shoulder bruschetta and the cheeseburger, and it didn’t impact the presentation. The lamb shoulder is beautifully slow cooked on a grilled piece of light bread. It had us reaching for more, even with the burger in our midst. The burger too was great, but Catherine found the patty to be a bit fatty for her taste. Personally I liked the fattiness, and the fact the bacon was dispersed through the patty, but I can agree that the occasional chewy bit was less pleasant.

We were very satisfied from the savories and decided to forgo the ice cream sundae which looked pretty good. Besides, Catherine’s cocktail to begin was a bit desserty with the sherbet surrounding the glass on the Tiki Sour.

Tiki Sour

Tomahawks did a terrific job, making it more than clear why it is so popular in a town adorned with good places to eat. If we were in town a few more days a repeat visit would have been likely, but we’ll have to wait until next time.

Boston Sub – Windsor – Thursday 9 February 2017 – Dinner

The Nelson

If you go to New York, chances are someone will recommend you trying a place with a secret door. There’s the snobbery of PDT (Please Don’t Tell) where you enter through a phone booth if you can bypass the uptight front of house, or the more down-to-earth Beauty & Essex where you enter through a pawn shop. A novel entry seems to have you in a good eager mood for lots of drinking!

Boston is not far down the road from New York in a relative sense. Boston Sub on the other hand is in Windsor, far closer for the average Melburnian. A quite stark white takeaway joint has a refrigerator door on the right that opens into a cocktail bar. Even knowing this is the case, the first time you hesitate before opening as if you might enter the joint’s cool room. The second time you are a pro and go straight through.

Classic poutine

It is hard to work out whether this is a cocktail bar with food, or a takeout joint with cocktails, but I’ll go with the former since the cocktails are skilfully made, and the surrounds are much more comfortable than your average Subway. Having tried a couple of them, I can say the subs are pretty good. Full of the main protein (I’ve tried The Nelson (pork) and The Ali (beef)), with the choice to add crackling (yes!), in light hotdog style buns for generally $7.50! They also have several poutines that seem to be chips with plenty of gravy and cheese, and other odds and ends smothered over them. The deluxe is entering instant heart-attack territory unless you are sharing with a few.

The Ali

The cocktails are well made, and diverse. There is a bit of a kooky element to some of them with the added 80s frills like fruit and umbrellas. It’s fun. The only drawback last time was one of the bar staff had a constant cough, meaning the attractiveness of ordering a second was reduced to zero.

It is not a large place, but there are both undercover, and outdoors tables, with a combination of comfy couches, bar stools, and mini stools. There is very little not to like with the exception of the *cough*.

Boston Sub is entered in a novel way with cheap (but good) eats and quality cocktails on offer. It is a combination that has caught on, and is sure to only get more popular.

Boston Sub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tulip – Geelong – Saturday 28 January 2017 – Lunch

Grilled octopus with charred cucumber

Have you ever gone to a restaurant in a bad mood? I’m sure you are not surprised that it happens a lot. I have known a lot of waitpersons over the years and try as they might, the customer’s mood is difficult to change. Unfortunately they often get the brunt of it through lack of appreciation, or worse, straight up rudeness.

Well, today started well. We had a nice drive to the beach but the wind had changed and a gale was blowing by mid-morning. So we decided to go to lunch instead of coping mouthfuls of sand. We didn’t realise it was the Cadel Evans ride and found ourselves in traffic for an hour to get from Ocean Grove to Geelong, which is hard to take.

Kingfish

It didn’t help that I missed a turn and ended up in insurmountable traffic on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Not moving, we pulled over and started walking to the restaurant in the heat. We were not upset with anyone, but were clearly upset with the situation. The floorstaff at Tulip were understanding for our late arrival, which was not surprising with a quite empty restaurant.

I don’t like being the patron in a bad mood, which makes me self-conscious! It was hard to hide. After a few deep breaths, and having perused the enticing menu we were on our way to turning it all around. It felt like our waitperson read the situation and let us take our time. They were either attentive or lucky!

Beef short rib

Kingfish, octopus, beef short rib, a grain salad were ordered, and we were happy we came, our mood improving considerably. This is a sister restaurant to Gladioli which we tried last year, and we have been eagerly anticipating a visit. The food lived up to our expectations; maybe it surpassed them.

The kingfish dish was beautifully presented, and the roe and avocado worked fine with this fantastic white fish, but I wasn’t sure what the pig face succulent brought to the flavour. The flair of presentation was equally shown in the octopus, with charred cucumber a nice addition, along with texture and colour from the blackened light cracker.

Next was the big surprise. The grain salad was absolutely delicious, more than just a side, it is a great dish on its own. The cauliflower, and almonds, along with several other additions, all playing well together, creating a terrific flavour profile in each bite. Not to be outshone, the beef short rib with eggplant puree and spring onion, is a well executed meat dish, big on flavour as you would expect from short rib, and a satisfying main to finish.

Grain salad

It could have been the Cadel ride, an unusual Saturday lunch, or just an odd day, but the restaurant was very quiet. We were sure it must be generally popular and it should be. The food is great, the waitstaff are professional and accommodating, it is a nice looking venue, and it’s on the main strip.

Geelong is tricky but there are more than enough quality options these days to keep day trippers and weekenders more than happy. Tulip is one of the top picks. They can even positively swing your mood.

Tulip Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato