Pata Negra – Nedlands – Wednesday 15 July 2015 – Dinner

Real conservas mackerel, garlic sauce, hot vinegar sauce

Real conservas mackerel, garlic sauce, hot vinegar sauce

Special occasion doesn’t get much bigger than my Mum’s birthday. Tonight my Aunty, Sher, has told Mum she has a surprise for her, but unbeknownst to Mum it is not just the restaurant. I am sitting waiting, having travelled from over the other side of the country, at Pata Negra.

Mum is in a little bit of shock when she walks in to see me waiting, but a few sips of the Rioja later and shock has turned to excitement as we get to catch up for all our July birthdays. Surprises are nerve wracking, especially the “keeping the secret” part, which Sher did beautifully.

Duck liver, madeira and black truffle pate, sourdough

Duck liver, madeira and black truffle pate, sourdough

Pata Negra is a restaurant I haven’t been to for years since it first opened, but from that experience, and several times at Star Anise, I know David Coomer’s food is first class. It is a special occasion and that calls for something a little bit fancy. The BYO policy on a Wednesday night helps a fair bit too.

The restaurant is full with a good mixed crowd in small groups appreciating the intimate space. The separation of the rooms in what must have been originally a house helps create the intimacy, but there is also a lot of thought in the furnishings, and use of levels. I especially like the feel that is created with the different table shapes, motley of dining chairs, banquettes and benches. It is a neighbourhood restaurant in Nedlands that has a European feel.

Half shell scallop, black truffle, sweet corn, brown butter

Half shell scallop, black truffle, sweet corn, brown butter

Our waitperson has been called into work at short notice but lives nearby and is in good spirits. Although admittedly a little inexperienced having only been working here for a month, she does a nice job. The main suggestion would be for her to get more familiar with the food being served, and how to articulate its flavour, even if it is food that she doesn’t necessarily have at the top of her list. This all comes with experience.

We order the duck liver pate, scallops in a half shell, Portobello mushrooms, and harissa lamb as our savoury courses. I had been told by a good friend that the mackerel was a must try, and while our waitperson doesn’t have an affinity with this type of fish, I took the advice of my mate and ordered it anyway.

Wood roasted portobello mushrooms, ortiz anchovy, pecorino, chilli

Wood roasted portobello mushrooms, ortiz anchovy, pecorino, chilli

The duck liver pate came out first and was one of our favourite dishes. The pate, with Madiera jelly was incredibly deep in flavour, and the sliced baguette it is served with is fresh and crusty – the perfect vessel. It was gone in a flash and we were on to the mackerel.

Served in the usual presentation utilising the can, the mackerel are subtle with a texture that is softened by the oil. Served with thicker charred garlic bread, the softness of the mackerel are balanced with the char, and the chilli vinegar adds a medium level of spice that works well.

Harissa lamb, pumpkin puree, turnips

Harissa lamb, pumpkin puree, turnips

The scallops in their half shell, with a thin but generous crisp of Manjimup truffle on top, and delicious puree of sweet corn are my favourite smaller dish for the night. The scallops are incredible, and remind me of the ma hor that David used to serve at Star Anise. There is a lot going on in this dish, but with only two bites, you are left wanting to come back instantly.

The Portobello mushrooms are well cooked, with pecorino cheese topping, herbs, anchovies and chilli. They are great on their own, but I keep some for our main of harissa lamb. The lamb is served on bones a size I haven’t ever seen in a restaurant. Served nice and pink, my first bite is actually my chewiest and I realise that I’m going to have to be careful in the cutting, taking off as much fat as possible. While it is a carnivores delight, we needed some warning about the large lamb rack cut, which isn’t described on the specials board. In the end I really enjoyed most of the lamb, Sher loved it, and Mum disliked it having got probably the fattiest of the cuts.

Vanilla malt ice cream, bitter chocolate ganache, whiskey caramel, hazelnuts

Vanilla malt ice cream, bitter chocolate ganache, whiskey caramel, hazelnuts

Having enquired later with the restaurant I find out the lamb rack has been spiced with Moruno (a marinade made up of cumin, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and Spanish paprika, among other things). The harissa spiced pumpkin puree served with the lamb is amazing, and I liked the roasted parsnips too. It was one of those dishes that had us talking and debating. All the while Sher was demolishing the bones!

We still had some of the second wine I brought, a Brokenwood 2011 Shiraz, so we decided to look over dessert while enjoying the La Peral cow’s milk blue cheese. I like a simple cheese board. All you really need is some good quality bread, great cheese, and perhaps an accompaniment. That is what we got and the accompanying nuts and dried fruit were presented nicely.
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For dessert, having ummed and ahhed for a while, we decided to share two between the three of us. The first was vanilla malt ice cream, bitter chocolate ganache, whisky caramel and hazelnuts. The second was cinnamon doughnuts with pedro ximenez ice cream and raisins. Both were fantastic. The doughnuts themselves the best I’ve recently eaten with that perfect balance between outer crunch and inside softness (but not doughiness). Both ice creams on these dishes were expertly churned, the bitter chocolate ganache just rich enough without dominating all other flavours.

Cinnamon doughnuts, pedro ximenez ice cream, raisins

Cinnamon doughnuts, pedro ximenez ice cream, raisins

This was a great meal. We had plenty of time to catch up and celebrate, finishing up when the restaurant was empty besides our table. While it is not a cheap place to eat, by quality standards I think the expense is worth it, and the space is especially appealing. It is a place that would be difficult to replicate, with a neighbourhood feel that makes you jealous of the locals.

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The Standard – Northbridge – Monday 13 July 2015 – Dinner

Beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez

Beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez

Every business trip to Perth is exciting for several reasons. Having lived in Perth most of my life there are opportunities to catch up with family and friends. It might be Monday tonight, but some of my closest friends have made the effort to get into Northbridge after work for a quick feed and a couple of beers.

The number of new restaurants and bars popping up in Perth is incredible. I like to walk for many reasons whether at home or away, and one of those reasons is you can come across great places to eat or drink that you may have not noticed driving by. Our visit to The Standard has resulted from previous walks down Roe Street which has changed remarkably since I first started going to Northbridge.

The guys are already in the restaurant when I arrive and embarrassingly, they have asked our waitperson to hold off doing the spiel until their blogging friend arrives. If nothing else, my embarrassment has led to a good rapport, which continues for the night and translates to good service.

The spiel is the usual for these types of modern sharing restaurants. There are tiny plates, small plates, and large plates, that are all designed to share. With five blokes the all important guide is how much to order. We follow the suggestion to order four of the small dishes and three of the large.

First comes the “beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez” which is pretty. Presented differently to the tradition, the beef is tender and subtle, combining well with the other ingredients and providing a promising start. Next comes the “broccolini, hazelnut, shallot, cranberry” which is a good fresh dish, but we probably should have asked for it to come towards the end with the larger dishes.

Glazed pork cheek, crisp jowl, broad bean, brussel sprout

Glazed pork cheek, crisp jowl, broad bean, brussel sprout

The mushroom doughnuts provide the most conjecture for the night. Some are a bit turned off by the sweetness, and inconsistency in the amount of mushrooms offered. Personally, I think it is an interesting take, the doughnuts well constructed with the mushroom filling, the paprika sugar sweet, but not overly sweet, and the lemon and chive curd enhancing the taste and texture. However, while I enjoyed one try, I wouldn’t order the dish again. I think on this one experience it was three for, two against.

Our last small dish, the free range BBQ chicken wings, again have sweetness from the marinade. They are nice, but nothing special, and I find the Granny Smith apple component is a bit lost. After a short break we are on to our three larger dishes. To begin, the chicken grill with rice noodle, peanuts, herbs, and nuoc cham, is an excellent combination. Jason particularly liked the Vietnamese flavours and for most it was one of the better dishes. I thought the rice noodle was expertly prepared for a restaurant that doesn’t specialise in any one type of cuisine.

Beef brisket, brioche, pickle, russian dressing, buttered cabbage

Beef brisket, brioche, pickle, russian dressing, buttered cabbage

The two meatier dishes were hit and miss. The beef brisket was tender and had a good amount of meaty richness. The toasted brioche was a bit hard and plain, but the other accompaniments such as the buttered cabbage, were perfect to break through some of the richness. On the other hand, the glazed pork cheek and crisp jowl with a salad of broad beans and brussel sprouts, could be improved. A few more brussel sprouts (whole as the leaves provided little) would be good, and the pork cheek probably needed the injection of more flavour and cooking.

The amount of food was generous and most of us didn’t even think twice about dessert. With a good beer selection there was a better alternative to finish with. Around the table most of the group would definitely come back, and the personable service helped on that score.

While it is important to carefully order at The Standard, it is a comfortable place to eat. I can imagine the outdoor area in the back is pumping in summer, and the option to have a nibble while drinking, or enjoy a more substantial meal, seems to be equally attractive.

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Gordon St Garage – West Perth – Tuesday 14 July 2015 – Dinner

Lamb shank, polenta, broccolini, gremolata

Lamb shank, polenta, broccolini, gremolata

Dining alone takes practice. Even though I travel for work a bit, I find I am out of practice. For a good amount of my life, especially on one particularly long holiday, I had a lot of experience dining alone and I enjoy it at varying levels.

I understand that from a superficial perspective, the economics of serving someone dining alone is worse than groups or even a couple. For the same service effort you only have one cover. For this reason many restaurants use the bar as an extension of the restaurant which relieves some service effort, and often enhances the dining experience for the customer with more interaction.

With the invention of smart phones, being offered a book seems to happen less often, but I still like what it represents. Even more care is sometimes shown by the waitperson having a bit more chatter than usual, or even suggesting whether they can speed up the kitchen if it is possible. Economically, if this is done well, like all other diners there will be recommendations as a result. This might be multiplied because someone dining alone might talk about their experience more because they didn’t have the opportunity at dinner.

Unfortunately, the reverse can apply. Less than satisfactory service, such as lack of attention, can cause more discomfort than normal. The lone diner might be ignored because they are not part of a larger group. This might be unintentional, or it might be a view that the tip is likely to be less, which in turn is probably self-fulfilling.

Tonight I am dining on my own at Gordon St Garage. I’ve previously been here for breakfast and had a good experience. The warehouse converted room maintains its industrial feel, but is cleverly appointed, and tonight on a Tuesday the dining room is tightened to a specific part of the restaurant which aids intimacy and comfort. There are around eight to ten tables eating at any one time.

White chocolate truffle, and Mano a Mano espresso blend

White chocolate truffle, and Mano a Mano espresso blend


Scanning the menu I decide that it makes best sense for me to order one of the larger dishes, but there are plenty of great sounding smaller dishes that would be good to share on another occasion. I order the lamb shank, with polenta, broccolini, and gremolata. It comes out with the polenta brightening up the plate, and the lamb looking substantial, but already off the bone. The lamb itself is tender, but is not as deep and rich in flavour that I would normally associate with this cut and how it is slow cooked. The polenta is actually the star. Perfectly seasoned, and with that balanced creamy texture that is so often missed.

The food is a tick but the service is a huge cross. I’ll give a few examples without trying to dwell on it. I ordered a glass of the Mazza Tempranillo and was really enjoying the abundant fruit on the nose, and deep flavour on the palate that is reasonably complex. The waitperson came up and asked “what do you think of the wine”. I told her I actually really like it. Before she asked why she told me that she and one of the bar staff didn’t and that the finish was “too acidic” as they had just tried some tonight. Before I could ask her whether the preparer of the wine list agreed with her (knowing they would not) she was off. Quite arrogant given this is a restaurant associated with Balthazar which has one of the best wine lists in Perth and I know at least one of the owners loves their wine and wouldn’t appreciate their waitperson disagreeing with a customer in this type of manner.

Having finished my glass of acidic wine, it took me quite some time to get some attention to order dessert and a coffee. I asked for the dessert menu and it is pretty weak on imagination for reasonably expensive desserts. Instead I asked whether there were any smaller sweets to try. My waitperson (a different one this time) indicated that I could go and check the cabinet for cakes and the like. I asked if she could just give me a run down (as the cabinet was at the other end of the restaurant) and she said “I don’t know; it changes regularly” so I insisted asking “can you just let me know what is generally in there; is there biscotti?” In the end after this unpleasant exchange I ordered the chocolate truffle which was quite nice, covered in white chocolate. But I really couldn’t understand how the waitperson on a quiet Tuesday night offered this lack of service.

My espresso, by “Mano a Mano” was superb, and is one of the better after dinner espressos I’ve had recently. Waiting for the bill I looked around several times and at one stage no one from the floor entered the main dining area for at least 5 minutes. One was filling up water jugs at the bar, the bar staff seemed tied to their area, and the other waitperson was out the back. Being alone I had nothing better to do than see if they ever put their head up to see if anyone was trying to get attention. Not once. Eventually I had waited so long my water glass was empty for another five minutes and I was waving my hands but they didn’t see as they were not interested in looking. This is Perth, but this is some of the poorer service I’ve experienced here (a local for 30 years, plus several years travelling here for work or family). Dining alone accentuates it.

You come to expect less than average service in Perth but that is a blight on the many professional waitstaff that are fantastic and trying to increase the levels of their vocation. The floor staff tonight at Gordon St Garage were not impolite or unfriendly, in some ways quite the contrary. But just walking around with a smile and chatting to the larger tables from time to time does not mean you can leave plates uncleared, not fill up the small water glasses, or swan around spending more time in the bar than doing your job. What is it going to take for the average standard to improve?

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Wombat Hill – Daylesford – Saturday June 27 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3846Regulars to Daylesford, we hadn’t been up to Wombat Hill House which is connected to the Lake House – one of our all-time favourites.

It was incredibly cold on the Hill today so the stroll from the car to the café was both beautiful and brisk. To our surprise the café was almost full and we struggled to get a table for two, eventually moving from some inside bench seats to a table. Even more surprising was the number of people braving the plastic enclosed alfresco area that only had a few heaters.

We were excited for our high tea later on in some historic buidlings in Hepburn Springs so today was all about a snack for sustenance in the meantime. We shared a croque monsieur. Amazingly, even in Paris there are disappointing versions of this French classic, so we are always hesitant.
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This time it was not warranted, as the croque was excellent. Beautiful bread, smothered in Gruyere cheese and ham, and a side salad that was not just a garnish, but actually broke through the richness of the sandwich.

With a good selection of dishes to choose between, and fairly good coffee, we’ll definitely come back to Wombat Hill for a more substantial meal.

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Rockwell and Sons – Collingwood – Saturday 11 July 2015 – Lunch

Fried Chicken Sandwich, Buttermilk Dressing, Iceberg, Hot Sauce

Fried Chicken Sandwich, Buttermilk Dressing, Iceberg, Hot Sauce

A hankering for fried chicken comes around more times than is probably healthy. With nothing but a freezing weekend to look forward to, today this hankering simply must be met.

Having heard yet another Smith Street eatery is serving up great food, Catherine and I headed to Rockwell and Sons. It is in a familiar spot on the same block that includes the impeccable St Crispin.

It feels like there are plenty of this genre of restaurant but it is because many of them have popped up in the last couple of years. When you think about it a bit more you realise that there are many more Italian, French, Spanish, and modern Australian restaurants than Southern US places.

The success of these restaurants is all about affordability and comfort. When you think of slow cooked meats, fried chicken, fried potatoes, coleslaw and sweet pies, not much can beat these offerings. At Rockwell and Sons that script is followed, in a space that is restrained and modern.

We came for the chicken and it is offered in a brioche bun with coleslaw and hot sauce. For $13 I wasn’t expecting a full sized burger but that is what you get! The chicken is soft and juicy, just cooked through having most likely been soaked in buttermilk, and the crust is perfectly golden and crispy. The brioche bun adds to the richness, in a good way. Only the lettuce and buttermilk mayo helps soften the flavour punch. The hot sauce is my type of hot – just enough to know it is there in every bite, without absolutely numbing your palate for the next bite.

Tater Tots, Togarashi, Kombu Mayo

Tater Tots, Togarashi, Kombu Mayo

We grabbed the tater tots with the burgers in a difficult decision over the fries. It pays dividends as the tater tots with the kombu mayo are addictive. Like mini hashbrowns you get a good combination between the potato and outside crunch.

Unfortunately our waitperson advised that we couldn’t takeaway the lemon curd pie which was a pity because the burger and tater tots were so filling we couldn’t eat another thing immediately. We didn’t love the way she told us it was not allowed, but it was in line with her demeanour when we ordered initially which was abrupt at best, and unfriendly at worst.

The food and venue were excellent at Rockwell and I definitely recommend it in itself. However, there are a lot of Southern US places popping up, all generally good value too. The next time we are driving to Collingwood for this cuisine we’ll think twice before heading to Rockwell when Le Bon Ton and Belle’s are close by.

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Gertrude Street Enoteca – Fitzroy – Saturday 4 July 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3878Reminders of Italy are not difficult to find in Melbourne. In many ways, Melbourne could lay claim to being one of the most Italian places outside of Italy. Gertude Street Enoteca is not classically reminiscent though of an Italian wine shop and bar.

Not that it is trying to be Italian. This is a place that features the ingredients, the techniques, but is quintessential modern Melbourne. This local take has been around for years but the only time I’ve tried Brigitte Hafner’s food is at a winery in Red Hill over summer.

It is cold, bitterly cold today, and winter has come. Sitting next to Catherine on the banquette at Gertrude Street is warming and comfortable. There before us are many wine friendly lunch dishes on offer, and more importantly, several expertly chosen wines by the glass. There is no rushing around by the staff, not to say that service is slow, just assured. Not long after ordering we have our carefully selected glasses of wine, and shortly after that we have a couple of dishes to share.

Gravlax at Gertrude Street Enoteca

Gravlax

Today we are drinking from the riches of Burgundy. Catherine with a chardonnay; me with a pinot noir. As you would expect from a revolving list of twenty wines, you really cannot put a foot wrong when it comes to wine. We share the gravlax, and a salumi platter. Both very reasonably priced, the salumi selection features sausage, a softer salumi like mortadella, and mild salami. Served with pickles, and giving fresh bread, the thin slices of meat are simplicity at its best.

The gravlax is still reasonably simple bistro food, but again is perfect. The salmon is bright and enticing, but shares centre stage with fluffy dill cream cheese, both enhanced by the classic additions of capers and extra thin pickles.

Pear and frangipane tart

Pear and frangipane tart

Relaxing here with a great glass of wine and sharing delicious ultra wine friendly dishes is something we could get used to doing. With no immediate plans for a trip to Europe, we may have to come back sooner rather than later.

Rather than cutting today short we decide to stay for dessert. There are several options with some tarts, cakes, and pastries. We choose the pear and frangipane tart and we chose well! It is perfectly executed, the quality of the pastry, slightly sweeter than usual, particularly good. Impressively there is a mini Synesso machine and the espresso is a good quality.

As we step out the door we wonder why we have left the comforting indoors on this terribly cold day. While there would ordinarily be an opportunity to browse at the diverse offering of retail along Gertrude Street, today we hardly make it past Belle’s Hot Chicken before we scurry to the car. Maybe we’ll have another wine next time around.

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San Telmo – Melbourne, City – Numerous Occasions

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In some ways, San Telmo is iconic. Having not been to Argentina, when I think of Argentinian grill, I think of San Telmo.

The owners must be numerous, and / or very popular people, because every third person I know in Melbourne knows one of the owners! Whoever they are, there were some intelligent decisions made from day one about the location, focus/theme, and fit out. The lane way location in the East of the city, guarded at one end by Bar Lorinha, and at the other by Pellegrini’s, is a food lover’s hotspot.
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Inside you have the epitome of a large bar and restaurant that has managed to maintain intimacy. Not the usual rectangular room, the L shape with a variety of seating arrangements including luxurious booths, lead to a focus on the fire of the grill and the chefs literally at the coal face. You are salivating the moment you walk past the grill into the restaurant.

Empanada from previous occasion

Empanada from previous occasion

I’ve been here several times with groups small and large, and every meal has been excellent. The advantage of a larger group is the amount of dishes you can try but the serves are such that even with two or three people you can still try several dishes.

The last experience was with two friends and we put ourselves in the hands of our waitperson. Knowing everything is generally fantastic helps as I would not normally take this chance. We started with empanadas which are a nice introduction. I’ve tried several over time, but these with silverbeet, leek and béchamel, were well and truly up to scratch. Great pastry in particular makes them a must try.
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Next we tried the “Mejilla de Cerdo” which is braised Berkshire pork jowl with crackling. It isn’t everyone’s thing, but I love pork jowl. Incredibly rich and fatty, it is lucky it is not readily available outside of a few favourite restaurants. We also had the chorizo at the same time, served plainly, and just plain delicious.

Above all, the star of the San Telmo show is the meats; lovingly touched with the grill after being beautifully seasoned. My experience is that you cannot go wrong. Recent occasions I’ve tried the O’Connor flank and hanger steaks, and even more luscious is the rib eye. They are generally cooked on the rare side of medium rare, depending on their fat content, sliced generously by the chefs, and served up alongside chimichurri, as well as some hotter sauces. Also alongside the meats today were beautifully roasted champiñones with smoked kale, crumbed proscuitto, parsnip puree and Jerusalem artichoke chips. A great side but outshone by the simply cooked meats.
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Normally desserts in a meat lover’s restaurant are a lesser light, better to not order. Here, we are in an Argentine venue that is true to its roots. The desserts, many based on dulce de leche (sweet milk), are actually worth ordering. That isn’t to say I’ve tried dessert each time, but when I have, dishes like the crepes and today, the dulce de leche crème caramel with salted peanut praline, are excellent from both a flavour and technical perspective.

With a better than standard list of cocktails, reasonably priced and diverse beer and wine options (including many from Argentina/South America), and even a great semi-private room for groups, it seems all the boxes are ticked. Service is not a case of just box ticking though, it is genuine and knowledgable, and the nature of the dining room makes it seemingly easy to get attention, but it also is obvious that the waitstaff are eager to engage with their tables.

San Telmo is one of the restaurants in the CBD that stands out because of its difference. On top of this, all facets of the restaurant make it accessible to a broad audience, and a comforting place to dine.

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