Hanoi Hannah – Windsor – Friday 27 January 2017 – Lunch

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Lime ‘n’ pepper squid

Discovering the fresh and clean flavours of great Vietnamese food still feels like a recent experience for me, even though it is now over a decade ago. When memories are that vivid, there is something special about them.

Having enjoyed a good amount of quality pho, and rice paper rolls in the past, my first time at Hanoi Hannah a few years back triggered an even more passionate spark for the modern slant on Vietnamese that is prevalent around the world. There is no denying that an excellent bahn mi, a firm rice paper roll containing a quality protein, or a deeply flavoured pho, are some of the most comforting dishes available.

This is weird, but I would have eaten at Hanoi Hannah only about once for every ten times I think about it! For some reason it is never convenient, often not through distance but the knowledge that it’s popularity means I’m a good chance of making the journey only to be turned away. Today is different because Catherine has a late lunch, meaning that a 1.45pm start is as easy as pie, or the Vietnamese equivalent.

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Porkbelly sliders

There is some added pressure though. With only a short lunch break, I am in charge of getting a table, and ordering everything early. Metaphorically eating pressure for lunch, I order the lime and pepper calamari, yellowfin tuna rice paper rolls, and porkbelly sliders, along with a homemade lemonade, and a can of Bia Hanoi. I would take credit, but in my experience you cannot go wrong with any dish on the menu, so it was a piece of cake.

The calamari is very tender, needing only an extra dash of lime to be perfect. With a hint of wasabi mayo, the yellowfin tuna is wrapped in a firm rice paper, exhibiting all the freshness and quality you would hope for in this less usual offering. The porkbelly sliders are housed in a brioche bun for a some more richness, and are great, but overshadowed by the former dishes.

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Yellowfin tuna rolls with wasabi mayo

There is a vibe at Hanoi Hannah that is hard to duplicate. The staff are energised, even on the day following Australia Day celebrations. They enjoy their time, and must be proud of the product they get to sell.

Any time is a good time to eat at Hanoi Hannah. While there might be a wait on many occasions, it is undoubtably worth it.

Hanoi Hannah Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Frank and Connie’s Kitchen – Hepburn Springs – Sunday 1 January 2017 – Dinner

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Lamb ribs with chimichurri

New Year’s Day started much like many other years when you enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the beginning of a new year. In fact, Catherine had to cancel poached eggs and Istra bacon at Lake House! Somehow I managed to enjoy mine, went for a quick run later in the day, and encouraged her to venture out to try Frank and Connie’s Kitchen in Hepburn Springs.

The night before we had been lucky enough to sit next to owner and head chef, Caliopi, and her other half who works the floor, Abby. Hearing about the newly started venture we wanted to try for ourselves, and having some excellent (and familiar) restaurants on the CV, there was little doubt changing our original plans was a good idea.

A stone’s throw from Daylesford, Hepburn Springs has plenty to offer with quality accommodation and a growing quality of eateries, with Frank and Connie’s a testament to this. The restaurant is homely, with a very open kitchen overlooking a small number of tables inside and out. The comfortable feel translates to the menu, which focusses on good quality ingredients, big on flavour, but not over-embellished.

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Southern fried chicken with coleslaw and relish

Having been recommended the lamb ribs the previous night we had already locked them in, and also ordered the fried southern chicken wings, and sides of roasted potatoes and a leafy salad. The lamb ribs duly arrived first, along with a chimichurri sauce. The punch of flavour in both the slowly cooked ribs, and green sauce, make for a classic combination that is done beautifully.

The wings are simply presented like the ribs, but are also packed with flavour in the crumb and are well cooked. The coleslaw is generous, and between those two aspects and the relish, there is a growing but pleasant heat. The roasted potatoes are delicious and certainly their inclusion on the menu is not as a filler, or an afterthought – they are a great dish in themselves. We were too full for dessert, but took the “Nana’s biscuits” home and were glad we did!

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Roasted potatoes

The fact that Frank and Connie’s is growing a great reputation is not surprising in the least. The food has the depth of flavour that only experience can achieve, served by surprisingly ‘with-it’ staff considering it is New Year’s Day, at very reasonable prices. The wine list is influenced by France, with a good spectrum of locals too, providing interesting drinking.

This is the type of place that must have locals thanking their lucky stars. There is a good chance they’ll be competing with plenty of spa country tourists going forward though. Given the restaurant is almost full early this evening we will be making a booking when we next visit!

Oakridge – Yarra Valley – Thursday 15 December 2016 – Lunch

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A few weeks ago, a group of us visited Rochford Winery for their “A Day On The Green” which involves a casual Saturday on the lawn in the beautiful Yarra Valley watching great bands. As I drove towards Oakridge Winery our main concern from that day was answered – the stage is kept broadly intact between gigs!

That was a momentous day, but today is no less momentous. I have my Mum in town and I’ve finally secured a lunch booking at Oakridge. In recent times, Matt Stone has stamped his class on this heavenly patch on Maroondah Highway near Healesville. The long, glass dominant, streamlined building, with more than a flourish of red making it stand out from the leafy vines, is impressive.

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Like most wine regions, the Yarra Valley is full of excitement. There are some glorious vineyards, the quality of restaurants is continually growing, and the area is bordered by green hilltops and mountains. On days other than today, it takes only a little over an hour to get here, but alas, there are roadworks galore today.

One of the great things about winery restaurants is the ability to make the most of the view. Being outside the city means there is less expense for an incredible fitout, and the abundance of land available means any shape can be used that accommodates the scene. Here the long rectangular building runs lengthwise to one of the vineyard blocks. From my vantage point I can see right down between the trellises down to the irrigation lake. It is gorgeous.

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Another great thing is the incredible wines on offer. Usually back vintages are available, along with the reserve styles, often at no real mark-up. Here is no exception with the 864 (Reserve) Pinot Noir available by the glass, and a 2009 Chardonnay also by the glass. To begin the Chardonnay is surprisingly fresh for a seven year old, made in a high quality fashion, with great subtlety and softness.

It combines well with my entrée of pastry with caraway seeds sitting alongside a medley of ocean trout, thinly sliced vegetables, dill and caviar. The presentation is immaculate, but surprising, with the pastry completely separate. Keeping it separated does assist with the texture, each bite crisp, softened by the fresh trout cream, and complimented by the other fresh ingredients.

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While first course was lovely, I had high hopes for the dry aged duck breast. Here, again, the presentation is simple and inviting. The duck breast is beautifully cooked, adorned by a delicious sauce, and classically matched with beetroot and berries. It is the type of duck dish that you would use to convert a non-believer. Expertly prepared, but not confronting.

The 864 Pinot is ridiculously good, especially when enjoyed alongside the duck. The whole cliché of duck and pinot is one of the best clichés in my book. The pinot noir fruit from nearby higher altitude Yarra vines is exceptionally made into a quality wine, but it is costly as a result.

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Mum also enjoyed the wines and her couple of courses. She began with the Spring vegetable tart, and while it sounded simple, the staff said it is a great dish to try. They were not wrong, with a novel composition of flat (but flakey) pastry topped with fresh cheese, vegetables and leaves. As pretty as it is a nod to the produce available in the valley.

It is always a point of difference when the main courses are even better than the entrees. For a time I was often ordering two entrees because mains were used more to fill an appetite and less to provide interest, and show technique. That has changed at more and more restaurants. Here, Mum’s lamb was not just beautifully roasted, but was presented with flair, the croutons providing texture, and the puree depth.

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The service we received was nice, without being a talking point. Later in the meal we found the sommelier to have excellent knowledge of the wines and the vineyard, as you would hope for, and his explanations to some of our questions provided the cream on top of this fantastic experience.

Driving away from Oakridge was hard. We had enjoyed a fabulous lunch but found some late afternoon traffic back into Melbourne that was pre-Christmas crazy! Luckily the driving had been more than worth the effort. Dining at Oakridge is memorable for many reasons – if only we had time to get out to the Yarra more often.

Oakridge Wines Cellar Door and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lau’s Family Kitchen – St Kilda – Sunday 27 November 2016 – Lunch

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When I first started doing some serious travel to Melbourne for the big events, like the Melbourne Cup, one of the restaurants I had to try was Flower Drum. There is an awe to dining here for the first time; an intangible in the institutional surrounds that gives your experience an entirely different air.

Like a drop of perfume, the feeling from Flower Drum wafts lightly through Lau’s Family Kitchen. It is seen with the flourishes of silver service, the multiple greetings and goodbyes, and the positive response to each and every request. It may be an unfair adjective to describe the cooking as “clean” but there is a purity in the flavours, and the fashion by which the kitchen expresses complex technique in simple presentation and fewer components on the plate, is superior to most Cantonese restaurants I’ve eaten in.

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Today, on my first visit for years, and Catherine’s first ever, we had a light lunch but the two dishes we shared highlighted where Lau’s is better than most. The first subtle, but distinct, higher quality feature, was the wrapper on the pork siu mai. Dumplings are great, in that even average dumplings are still normally comforting and satisfying. But like many simple things in life, you can easily detect when something is better. Like stepping up from a nice pinot noir to a Burgundy, the wrapper here (and the filling for that matter) is memorable.

The second clearly higher quality aspect was the care in execution of the stir-fried fillet steak. In Western terms I think of stir-fry as a delicious jumble of several ingredients including at least one protein, in a soy / oyster based sauce, that is almost impossible to present elegantly. Here, you have simply and beautifully cooked fillet steak on the rare side of medium-rare, a deeply flavoured sauce with medium chunks of garlic and ginger dispersed, and some lightly touched baby snow peas. It is an eye opener when you realise that less is a lot more, and it feels like Chinese food suffers more than most with over-complication.

We had decided to see if we could get in to Lau’s at 1.30pm on a Sunday and were pleasantly surprised they could fit us in at 2pm. I expect that we were lucky. While it is by no means cheap, for a light lunch with a couple of drinks it is certainly not expensive despite the fillet steak being $45. Besides, just like trying a fragrance when browsing at a department store, that drop of Flower Drum in our dishes was completely free.

Lau's Family Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Old Kingdom – Fitzroy – Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Dinner

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It looks the same. The atmosphere is the same. The food might actually be better in some areas. And that is the way institutions are supposed to be. To be exactly as they have lived in our memories for years and years.

Luckily, the stories I have are from years ago. When, on those particular nights, the waitperson was charming and funny. The only lacking element tonight is the ability of the waitstaff to interact and add that X factor to the meal.

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Ten years ago (give or take), I was told about the “duck hangover” in detail and still relive that story to this day. Another time I was told to pull up the table cloth all the way up to the neck to protect from duck fat shooting everywhere. If you were at a Heston restaurant you would call it “theatre”. It is almost as if back then Heston named his restaurant accordingly after experiences at Old Kingdom.

Tonight the duck is non-chalantly presented; politely enough, but without energy and enthusiasm. After grabbing a quick photo, our waitperson proceeds to begin cutting without any warning of duck fat splashing, and in close proximity to a vacant chair with one of our guests jacket hanging behind it. It seems there were no accidents, but the risks taken were exceptional!

The duck itself is prepared expertly as you would hope for at a restaurant that specialises in Peking Duck. It is delicious, with a thin pancake, some spring onion, cucumber and hoisin sauce only adding to the experience. Addictive is probably the best description I can think of.

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The duck stirfry (mainly bean shoots though) contains the leftover duck not chopped for the first course, but has some rich juicy pieces of duck meat. The last course, the duck soup, is deep in flavour, far better than my memory of this particular course. It is the first time I can think of trying seconds for this final edition of duck gluttony.

As it stands, we had three ducks for five adults, which is probably over-indulgent. In fact, unlike other reviews, I decided to write this immediately following dinner given the forthcoming duck hangover, and serious duck regret I will probably feel tomorrow. Nothing exceptionally over-indulgent is without some form of come-down.

There are many special things about restaurants that stand the test of time. Think about the changes on Smith Street just in the past ten years. Old Kingdom has been watching all of the great improvements on this eclectic street while keeping its appeal.

Old Kingdom Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Marion – Fitzroy – Saturday 3 December 2016 – Lunch

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Roast chicken and Andrew McConnell. Anyone who belittles the virtues of chicken has not tasted perfect roast chicken. There was a time where chicken was plain Jane. Go to Marion and a half roast chicken is anything but that!

The complication (besides salmonella) when cooking chicken is the fact that it is so often overcooked that we all believe it shouldn’t be soft and moist. We overcook it, bringing out extra salt in the skin, that compensates for some of the flavour lost as the chicken dries out. Then we cover it with any sauce to compensate, and have each mouthful with potatoes of some description.
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What is difficult to explain is why every time I eat chicken at one of McConnell’s restaurants, whether it be Cutler, or Luxembourg, or here at Marion, it is far better than the rest. Chicken, if nothing else, is certainly not new. It has been around. Why does it seem so complicated normally?

I’m not a chef, and I haven’t done food science in a Heston type manner, so I won’t be answering any of my own questions here. All I know is that you can come to a wine bar on Gertrude Street that serves beautiful quality food, along with interesting wine, and a damn fine roast chicken.

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The space is comfortable in the way a crowded, people filled space can be when everyone is having a good time. Service keeps to that script with good ability and reasonable attentiveness. Even our starter of peas, broadbeans, scamorza cheese and pistachios is amazing, almost impossible to set aside to wait to eat with our chicken and chips. Unable to help ourselves, we also tucked into dessert in the form of lemon tart with strawberries and basil. The pastry was slightly sweetened to counteract the savoury quality of the basil with a balanced curd that had us reaching for more.
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Almost genius is the fact that we are sitting in a restaurant that is literally next door to Andrew’s flagship, Cutler and Co, which continues to thrive, but could be miles away for all we know. The two are as separate as if they were in different suburbs. That naturally makes dining in them completely different experiences, making dining in one today, and the other tomorrow, absolutely no issue whatsoever. It goes without saying that this is far more lucrative than merely creating another branch.

While I think Marion might be close to genius, I am positive McConnell is pretty much there. Try the chicken.

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

D.O.C. Pizza & Mozzarella Bar – Carlton – Sunday 13 November 2016 – Dinner

San Daniele

San Daniele

I’ll keep this short since I recently wrote about D.O.C. Mornington, which is the sister of the original in Carlton.

D.O.C. Carlton is special to me for many reasons. Mainly because it is the venue of my third date, with my now wife, when she took me to Nova for the first time, and pizza afterwards.

It is actually hard to think of better places for a date. You turn up when the restaurant is already full (hopefully not too full) and wait your turn while having a chat on a nice evening outside, or huddled on the tiny bar, dodging the waitstaff as you sip on your aperitif. An aperol spritz, a prosecco, or even a glass of chianti perhaps? Then you get to enjoy great food in an atmospheric restaurant with the fantastic service you associate with Italian restaurants.

Radicchio salad

Radicchio salad

Tonight we’ve arrived early; very early actually. A movie out at Rivoli in Camberwell was sold out so instead of late afternoon popcorn we changed up to late afternoon pizza. We ordered the San Daniele pizza that is full of its namesake prosciutto, and DOP Mozzarella cheese on a tomato base. It is outstanding in its simplicity, its execution, and more importantly, its flavour.

The Salsiccia pizza has D.O.C. Deli made pork sausage on a base of creamed broccoli, and we ordered extra DOP Mozzarella too. It is also a nice pizza, but the broccoli cream is a bit too healthy, and to be honest we didn’t realise it would be the main ingredient. Like last time we were in Mornington, we ordered the radicchio salad which includes orange segments, walnuts, gorgonzola and fennel, with a balsamic dressing. It is an excellent combination, perfect to break up the heaviness of the pizza, but certainly not lacking in punch.

Salsiccia

Salsiccia

I’m driving but my Peroni Leggera (3.5% alcohol or 0.9 standard drinks) is fine, and Catherine’s Aperol Spritz is excellent. We are surprised how many people are here eating dinner before 6pm. It is certainly a healthy business and that shows the product being provided over many years is high quality.

Whether it is a date, or several years of marriage, kids, or otherwise, D.O.C. Carlton fits the bill for a quality traditional Italian pizza restaurant.

DOC Pizza & Mozzarella Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato