Vertue Coffee – Carlton – Numerous Occasions – Breakfast & Lunch

Tamarind Prawn Toast

It is true. I get very excited about what some people think is a necessity. I’m talking about food. While eating well, and drinking good coffee, isn’t a “necessity”, it is really important!

Pea Smash

Well, like my old mate Big Kev, I am excited! Vertue Coffee was actually on my list for so long I had the old name still noted down. “Vertue of the Coffee Drink” was definitely a little bit long for a cafe name. From what I can tell, that is the only mistake the owners have made here. It is cafe heaven and I’ve put my reputation on the line taking some good friends over the past six months.

Funnily enough, Inward Goods, just off Swan Street in Richmond, is the reason Vertue became a must visit. They stock Vertue roasted coffee, changing the single origin every week or so. It is beautiful coffee, and well made by the team at Inward Goods which is one of the crop of bike/cafe venues.

Carlton is not that far from where I live, but the cross-town traffic can be exactly what Jimi talks about. I’ve put that aside and been here four times in about seven months. First on my lonesome, next with Catherine, then good friends Guy and Laura, and finally with my mate Puch. All of the food I’ve eaten here is top quality cafe fare. Dishes like the “Return of the Mac” and “Tamarind Prawn Toast” are quite unique. As you would expect, the coffee is superb.

Return of the Mac

At the back corner of a petrol station, and down a laneway that is pretty ugly, this is a very unusual location. Once inside you are in perfect comfort with an industrial feel, and very high ceilings, allowing daylight to come through in good measure. Service is good on the whole, with the manager particularly attentive to customer needs.

Chai Latte

Catherine’s tried the fried chicken burger, and the pea smash a couple of times. The burger is huge; a brioche bun filled with delicious buttermilk chicken, house slaw and corn aioli. Again a generous serving, and beautifully presented, the pea smash comes with hummus, toasted pepita, and dukkah. It is flavoursome and fresh.

Fried Chicken Burger

My favourite dish is the Tamarind Prawn Toast because it is such an interesting take on what is more of a western Chinese ‘classic’. That flavour from the fried goodness of sesame toast filled with juicy prawns, the freshness of the young coconut apple salad, peanuts, and the gooey fried egg yolk saucing it up. What did initially get me back was the need to have a big appetite to go after the Return of the Mac. This is serious. Mac and cheese croquettes, slow braised ham hock, beetroot puree, beetroot hollandaise and a poached egg. You don’t need me to tell you it works.

Tamarind Prawn Toast (Mac Croquette side)

Vertue has quickly firmed itself into my list of favourite cafes. Food, coffee, service, and venue, all marry each other in perfect harmony.

Vertue Coffee Roasters Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Red Door Corner Store – Northcote – Breakfast

Brioche French toast

I realise I have been to Northcote several times in my ten years in Melbourne. Never do I feel unwelcome, but equally it feels outside of my comfort zone. That all ended at Red Door Corner Store.

Maybe it is the off-High Street aspect? More likely it is because there is nothing to be uncomfortable about in this area any longer. It has changed. No longer only for the hippest Melburnians, Northcote has slowly diversified, offering more, and suiting a wider range of tastes.

Back to Red Door Corner Store. Catherine found it through some research when we felt like something new to try in an area we hadn’t been to for a while. We encountered a nice, warm cafe, nestled in the suburb, with friendly staff, and happy customers.

On that occasion I tried the brioche French toast and I was instantly taken with the dish. The presentation, the champagne poached strawberries, the orange blossom custard, and everything else thrown in, but in beautiful balance. Grilled peach, toasted almonds, mint and maple creme fraiche top it all off. Catherine’s diet has been restricted by pregnancy, but she was pretty envious to say the least.

Homemade crumpets

Both times we’ve been she has settled for the homemade crumpets, which are very nice all the same. Served with Lescure butter, jam and rooftop honey, the jealousy was eased considerably. On the second time around I gave the breakfast staple of poached eggs and bacon a go and was again impressed, albeit by a simpler dish.

The coffee is great too. Both my usual long black, and the heat soothing cold brew, are terrific. Catherine enjoyed her chai lattes as well.

It is always easier to create atmosphere in cafes that use old houses (or corner stores) with their little nooks, and cute outdoor areas, whether in the front, back, or both. Red Door Corner Store captures this with precision, adding great food and coffee, and friendly service, to provide the complete breakfast package.

Red Door Corner Store Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Noir – Richmond – 24 January 2019 – Lunch

Parmesan gnocchi, green vegetables, black truffle and hazelnut pesto

Noir is a restaurant that I have been to occasionally, and have always had a good experience. Knowing that, and noticing the lunch specials on my regular walks along Swan Street in Richmond, I was intrigued. How can a restaurant of this calibre charge so little for lunch?

The express lunch includes dishes for around $18 to $20, and there is an option to add some starters and petit fours, plus a glass of wine for $40! Catherine and I had to eventually try it and we are glad we did. After three nice shared entrees of oysters with lemony champagne granita, gruyere cheese beignets, and puffs filled with pate, we were on to our main.

Gruyere cheese beignets, spinach and black olive; oysters with champagne granita; chicken liver pate profiteroles

Catherine chose the parmesan gnocchi with green vegetables and a black truffle and hazelnut pesto. The gnocchi has a firm but giving texture, combining beautifully with the peas, broadbeans and zucchini; moistened with the black truffle infused sauce. My fish and chips was great too. Homemade tartare with a good lift from extra capers, and nicely cooked snapper, made for an enjoyable lunch.

Port Phillip Bay snapper fish and chips, tartare sauce

Both the Chapoutier grenache blanc, and the Bella Ridge chenin blanc, were wines I hadn’t seen on other restaurant lists, but would happily order again. The chenin blanc from the Swan Valley in particular was surprisingly well made, and I can see why it appears on the list.

Chocolate gateau, creme brûlée tart, cream puffs

The petit fours provided as a light dessert, consisted of a chocolate ganache cake, creme brulee tart, and cream puff with white chocolate. Whilst it was some confusion with the service that led us to the three course option, given the good value and our satisfied appetites, it was a good option. We are assuming that our waitperson misinterpreted our clear instructions, but we do have some doubts so best to be even clearer!

Noir has only ever impressed me. It is almost unassuming; in a location near the corner of Swan and Church that is better known for the local pubs and cheaper eats. What has kept it open and successful for several years in this competitive environment is Noir’s consistent high quality.

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

Lume – South Melbourne – Wednesday 7 November 2018 – Dinner

I’m reading about the Australians who fought for, and defended, Villers-Bretonneux in France, at the end of World War I, as I write on this Day of Remembrance*. These important moments in our early history have an impact on Australian culture today, and there are elements that equally impact the way we dine.

The whole idea of describing something as “modern Australian” is often used for restaurants that don’t fit into a particular genre. It has replaced the concept of “fusion”, which once was a popular term. If combining cuisines and using local ingredients is the backbone of modern Australian dining, there are a handful of restaurants that can make a case for being the trend setters.

Pearl on the ocean floor

My opinion is that Lume is what modern Australian has become, or at least, what the expression should mean. Intelligent use of native and locally produced ingredients, seemingly no cultural restraint (though I would say Japanese was more pronounced in certain dishes), and beautiful presentation, are the themes you see. Sure, there are not many everyday restaurants doing this, but just wait a few years. Cafes are going to have pig face on every dish requiring something green, seasoned macadamias will cover the bar, and salt bush with mountain pepper will be a snack you pick up at the local store. I’m not completely joking.

Olive oil and mandarin peel ice cream, fennel and absinthe

The cultural characteristics I read of those incredible and brave Aussies in WWI still resonate in how we carry ourselves today. Our collective pride in farmer’s battling the conditions to grow quality produce; the quiet confidence of astute waitstaff that can do their job extremely well, but relax and make a joke at the same time; and the willingness to go that extra yard to improve an experience without any notion of it being for a tip. When you think about it, modern Australian dining has as much to do with our inclusive and laid back (but hard working) culture as it does with the food. It is something refreshing when you are not used to it, or comforting when you travel back home.

Darwinian egg

My wife Catherine is pregnant (very exciting!) and naturally careful about what she eats. We had made the usual early warning call, and the chefs had constructed her menu to be very similar to mine, with some changes to ensure the usual suspects were not there. The waitstaff were easily approachable when Catherine wanted some further comfort. More than that, there are some great friendly people working at Lume and the whole experience from that service aspect was almost perfect.

There is an experimental nature to the food. We were doing the Incitation tasting menu of around seven courses, with some extras thrown in. After the seasoned macadamias we had two snack sized courses. The first was “sea corn taco” which had a good amount of crab, but a textural trick with the baby corn being in a custard form. While I enjoyed it, the second snack of “Darwinian egg” was the tastier dish. The egg shell was actually crispy chicken skin, and the filling was another beautiful custard-like concoction, this time of potato puree.

Sea corn taco

One of the signatures of Lume came next with “Pearl on the ocean floor”. This is an immaculately presented collection of raw seafood, with textures, and foams, that you mix together once you’ve enjoyed a good look. I appreciated the dish, but it wasn’t my favourite of the night, with some of the more subtle seafood a little lost for me.

Nukazuke broccoli and lemon myrtle, calamari gravy and finger lime

Shortly after a favourite dish arrived. The nukazuke (pickled) broccoli and lemon myrtle, calamari gravy and finger lime is a revelation. I’m a broccoli lover, and thought the dish was outstanding with the diversity of techniques, combination with the texture of calamari, and the pop from the finger lime, all making their mark. From here we were presented with the artichoke sourdough, served with smoked eel butter and sour corn honey, that was very enjoyable as we prepared for the main.

The last savoury dish had the impact that often is missing in the main protein. The pork has one of the most gorgeous crispy skins I’ve tasted and is cooked perfectly, with berries (they may have been quandongs), beetroot and an exquisite sauce. Even the radicchio with togarashi pepper and blood lime is sensational!

Radicchio, togarashi pepper and blood lime

Moving on to dessert, the first is more of a refresher. Playfully presented, the ice cold fermented passionfruit atop rhubarb formed into musk sticks, with Geraldton wax, is delightful. More seriously, the second dessert provides some more sweetness, though in balance, with an olive oil and mandarin peel ice cream, fennel and absinthe. I’ve always been a fan of olive oil based ice cream and this one is no exception to the rule.

Throughout, the sommelier had helped match a couple of glasses of wine (and a dessert wine) to adjacent courses in the tasting menu, without doing a full matching. Don’t tell Catherine, but they were all terrific, with the Leirana Albarino my favourite in the early courses. I find this Spanish variety is one of the most versatile wines for subtle seafood dishes, with enough backbone to foil more pronounced flavours, but not necessarily the meatier dishes.

Ice cold fermented passionfruit, rhubarb and Geraldton wax

Lume is going to change markedly in the new year. All trends take time to set, and there is little doubting why there is a serious following of this restaurant, the way Lume has been over the past few years. In an awkward location of South Melbourne it will need to stay special and relevant to keep up, let alone continue to set the agenda. I’m glad we had a chance to dine here as one door closed, and another opened. Good luck in the next chapter.

* Note this was written some time ago! There has been significant change at Lume and in 2019 there will be a new more casual chapter, as the executive chef (Shaun Quade) travels to L.A. to open up a new restaurant. I had such a good meal I had to write about it, even if there will only be themes of the old restaurant in the new format.

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

Shadow Wine Bar – Northbridge – Tuesday 23 October 2018 – Dinner

Yes! We have found a restaurant with waitstaff that can keep up with the humour and wit of my Mum! The restaurant manager mentions “Jesse will be with you shortly” and the first thing Jesse hears is something to do with the song “Jesse’s girl” care of Mum, followed up with my lack of singing ability when trying to explain what she is talking about. In the first few moments we know we have the right place.

Mum is in her element when we add terrific guidance on the geographical and varietal diversity of the wine list, some natural oysters from Smoky Bay in South Australia (that are perfect), and a fun family catch up along with Catherine and my Aunty Sher. As usual we are deep in conversation for the entire meal, but occasionally that conversation is broken by a comprehensive enjoyment of the food and wine.

Roasted beetroot

Shadow Wine Bar has now “been around”, especially for a restaurant and bar in the Perth market that can be as trendy, as it is fickle, and often unapologetically challenging to remain relevant. I had been here for a drink, but never for dinner, but it did remain on my list. Maybe such a delay in dining here meant I had lesser expectations? Those expectations don’t matter, because even if they were loftier, they would have been exceeded tonight.

Meatball

On top of those perfect oysters, across the table we tried the cheese puff, and the meatball, plus the roasted beetroot with barley. They were all good to great. The beetroot was soft and sweet from the roasting, but the barley added strong texture, and the yoghurt was just right to add some creaminess.

Spaghettini with crab

For mains, Sher and I both chose the spaghettini with crab, capers, lemon, and a light dose of chilli. The surprise was homemade spaghettini which is difficult to achieve with the right firmness, but this pasta was excellent without being absolutely perfect. The sauce made good use of all the ingredients in balanced proportions, though you can never have too much crab.

Gnocchi with tomato and eggplant

Catherine loved her gnocchi with a tomato and eggplant sauce. I tried it and thought it to be the equal of my pasta. Mum’s agnolotti lived up to her expectations too.

For dessert we shared the tiramisu and the pear tarte tatin. The latter was the better dessert by far. While the tiramisu was nice enough, it was more cake-y than usual, and missed the high notes. The pear tarte tatin was strongly executed, with crisp pastry.

Pear tarte tatin

Shadow Wine Bar impressed on all levels. While it is equally adept for a casual wine catch up, the dining version is now my favoured scenario. And Mum will definitely be back for some more oysters!

Shadow Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Daniel – Upper East Side – Thursday 14 June 2018 – Dinner

We have come from Brandy’s Piano Bar in the Upper East Side and life is incredible. There are certain times you have a meal and the first thing you think about as you go to bed is how you could ever do justice to describing it to your friends and family. Well tonight I’ll try before bed.

As I drink a sour beer from the craft beer shop down the road I am thinking of how to put the experience at Daniel into words. Firstly, it was not perfect, thank goodness. If there was not one small error made I would have nothing to strive for in dining terms. The imperfections were incidental and minor, so this is an absolutely huge night out.

Carotte – chilled carrot veloute with Peekytoe crab, chemoula cream, confit ginger and lovage oil

I’m thinking about the carrot veloute with Peekytoe crab. A cold carrot soup that is indescribably deep in flavour, showing off reasonably generous portions of crab, and slithers of carrot that are heavenly. Combining with the Premier Cru Beaune chardonnay (we got a half bottle), I am in my own little heaven.

Pigeonneau – roasted squab breast with oats, confit legs, barley risotto, fava bean savoury coulis, “Sauce Forestiere”

There is the second ten out of ten course in a row for me with the squab (pigeon) cooked medium rare, crusted in oats, with the most astonishing barley risotto I have ever tasted. The first thing I tasted was that barley, and then the mushrooms, layer on layer of perfectly seasoned flavour making me metaphorically blush for my own attempts at risotto. Then there are the several types of mushrooms accompanying the pigeon, and the chicken jus that is drizzled by the waitperson in a seemingly frivolous manner, but is as important as any other element. The burgundy chosen by the charismatic sommelier tops off the combination but in reality the wine is a bonus.

Saint Jacques – ceviche of Maine sea scallops, finger lime-wasabi vinaigrette, cilantro, avocado mousseline, white sturgeon caviar

At this stage Catherine is pretty much twenty out of twenty too. Her scallop ceviche melts in her mouth. This is not ordinary seafood. Again the seas have swept something special up, and Daniel Bould has elevated it with avocado, finger lime and white sturgeon caviar. The follow up is a fish that is new to us, Arctic Char, that is covered in avocado, and married with asparagus, fennel and sorrel cream to provide another intriguingly familiar but different experience.

Omble Chevalier – Arctic Char poached in a star anise “Court-Bouillon”, fennel, wild asparagus and sorrel cream

As we enjoy our third course, it is childish for me to say that I had a slight envy for Catherine’s wagyu even though I was enjoying the most beautiful medium rare veal tenderloin enveloped in gorgonzola that I’ve ever had. Along with the fregola and veal jus amongst other elements I was not in a position to be jealous. The Nebbiolo dominant wine from Northern Italy was a perfect match too.

Veau – roasted veal tenderloin with chalkidiki olives, toasted fregola, spinach subric, Gorgonzola emulsion with oregano

Catherine’s wagyu was simply outstanding. Looking at the menu it sounds like beef, potatoes and mushrooms. It is and it isn’t. The mushrooms are provided on thin strips of beautifully crisp potatoes and in the form of a “mushroom quiche” that looks more like a mushroom mille-feuille. They are all quite extraordinary. And she got the Graves’ Bordeaux that is Merlot dominant too. A serious winning combination that could rival the pinot-duck and fish-chardonnay match if it was more prevalent.

Wagyu – Scharbauer Ranch Wagyu strip loin, morels, pomme “Pont-Neuf”, green peppercorn sauce

Like interval at a performance, we were talking about where this particular meal stacked up. It is always difficult to determine at the time. All we can say is that dessert met (or was close) to its savoury counterparts. Catherine’s rhubarb dessert was superb from my one taste.

Rhubarbe – Benedictine poached rhubarb, aloe vera, iyokan confit, and rhubarb ice cream

My dessert was more like a work of chocolate art. The first one I finished, but the last that I tasted, was the peppery chocolate ice cream such was its addictiveness. In between the mousse was gorgeous, and the Equadorian grand cru fondant was my start and end with the cream in the middle, and gold leaf, providing the extra edge. A Hungary tokjii was also beautiful to combine, in my humble opinion.

 

As the petit fours of chocolates (pineapple, bergamot, blueberry and raspberry), and house signature Madeleines came out, we were not daunted. We had gone toe to toe with the bread basket too – the baguette, brioche, three grain, and parmesan, all doing their bid for supremacy and the salted butter showing off the beauty of simplicity.

Arriba – Ecuadorian grand cru fondant, timiz pepper cacao ice cream, sage chocolate mousse

Our waitstaff were superb. To fault them would be nitpicking. There was care and attention; professionalism and attention; delicacy and humour. We simply had a wonderful time. It is crazy to imagine there are people out there who get to enjoy this on regular occasions. Unlike that wagyu dish that I want more of, there is no jealousy. We’ve just had an experience that feels like it is once in a lifetime.

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

Matilda – South Yarra – Monday 30 July 2018 – Dinner

Pink Lady apple tarte tatin, smoked vanilla bean ice cream

The many parts of a restaurant experience that come together in a few short hours are always difficult to capture. Ultimately they translate to an overall whole that dictates your first words to describe the experience, and the likelihood of whether you’ll be back quickly, or ever at all.

What sticks out initially is how we got to Matilda; or rather how we didn’t get to France-Soir. Thinking about an important occasion I had a sudden feeling I’d like to go back to try France-Soir so immediately Catherine called mid-week about 8.45pm to make a booking. The person who answered the phone with no introduction, and asked booking details with no friendliness and a fair bit of rudeness, left us so underwhelmed that we called back the next day to cancel.

Sure, it was during service, but what were we to do when the restaurant only takes phone bookings? You would think they would at least be adept enough to say the name of the restaurant and their own name and then use a couple of please’s and thank you’s. On the flip side a new and trendy restaurant with an online booking service provided a much better introduction to their restaurant!

On the evening of our dinner we were ready well in advance of our booking. We called ahead to the restaurant and the greeting was professional and courteous. The manager welcomed us to arrive early and said we would be seated on the bar and if that was okay to come down early. We love eating on the bar so we came immediately.

Bannockburn 2015 Pinot Noir

Adding to this initial dialogue, the entrance is warm and inviting, and with an equally warm greeting from the staff, plus some unusually endearing service, we were already feeling thoroughly charmed. This is the restaurant of Scott Pickett who has in recent times earned acclaim with Estelle by Scott Pickett in Northcote. Matilda is the culmination of several years of thought and planning, with a focus on cooking with fire, and native Australian ingredients and produce (without being over the top).

Ox tongue, horseradish & sauce gribiche; tartlet of salmon roe, bonito cream

The menu is modern with several dishes that can as easily be enjoyed to yourself, as they can be shared. With the promise of dessert always requiring some planning, we decided to have one starter each, share an entrée, and share one of the larger mains (that are for two). Catherine’s starter was a delicate tartlet of salmon roe with bonito cream, that had a taste that met its immaculate presentation. Equally as delicious, but nothing of the subtlety of the tartlet was my charred ox tongue, which was outstanding.

As we were finishing our glasses of Larrent-Perrier champagne, we enjoyed our entrée of spanner crab. Again, presented with flair, but this time rusticity, the crab was absolutely beautiful, lifted by butter seasoned with dried prawn which is smothered over charred flat bread.

Dressed spanner crab, prawn butter, flat bread

At this point we moved on to a bottle of 2015 Bannockburn Pinot Noir which is a tremendous expression of what Geelong wineries can do with their terroir. Combined with the duck for two, this is a little piece of heaven. The Macedon Ranges duck, presented with two generous strips of breast meat each, a leg, and a “duck taco” on lettuce, plus sides of potatoes and broccolini, is superbly touched by the flames, promoting the gaminess of the meat, but brought into balance with the charred blood orange.

Macedon Ranges duck for two, charred blood orange

We had been chatting to the staff on the bar, and a number of floorstaff who were all doing a great job at somehow providing a consistent experience even when our main waitperson took a break for a good portion of our meal. We always seemed to be in good hands. One of the chefs working the larder behind the bar was preparing the Pink Lady apple tarte tatins and we simply couldn’t resist ordering one.

The tarte is a great dish to share, especially when we ordered an extra scoop of the smoked vanilla bean ice cream to avoid any arguments! The texture of the apples find balance between being too firm and too soft; the tarte is beautifully cooked with not too much sweetness in the pastry; and the ice cream provides the traditional creaminess that you love with this type of classic dessert.

There is so much to love about this restaurant early in its life. The staff are engaged and seem to enjoy being here, motivated by the offerings of the kitchen. The fitout is classy and modern without unnecessary fine dining flourishes. The food is meeting a script that sounds simple, but when put under the microscope shows a high level of thought and knowledge.

In this part of Domain Road, across from the Botanical Gardens, good things can last the test of time. Based on this first taste of Matilda I have little doubt we will be visiting a fair bit in coming years, and hopefully decades. This restaurant has the potential to be hot for a long time and the use of fire is only one of the reasons.

Matilda 159 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato