Belle’s Hot Chicken – Fitzroy – Sunday 1 March 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3500Chefs say all the time that “less is more”. It is obviously a figurative phrase that is probably better said as “focus is the most important ingredient”. To add a diner’s perspective, there are not many pared back menus that have focus and intelligence that I don’t love.

I can be easily confused. But walking into some restaurants and reading the menu I can be sure that the owners have not first determined the strengths of the chefs and based the food and accompanying aspects around it. More and more focus is becoming a feature. Small, carefully crafted menus, that everything else about the restaurant is derivative of. In years it will not be the exception but the rule, resembling the same way seasonal produce became the norm.

It started with blackboard menus that by their very nature are temporary. It has now developed into restaurants, not just surviving but thriving, doing hundreds of covers a night, where before you couldn’t guarantee a crowd so you had to make do with the corner take away joint. Think of souvlaki stands. Now the equivalent is a Jimmy Grants or the slightly fancier Gazi. Think what places like Hunky Dory have done to the corner fish shop; or Fonda and what it has done to our version of “basic Mexican”; not to mention the number of burger joints serving up greatness making the chains unnecessary from most angles. This is all over a small amount of time.

Well, the best example in recent times of brilliant focus is Belle’s Hot Chicken. It is difficult to compare the Southern fried chicken here but if you are comparing to one we all know, and some love (KFC) it is like last year’s AFL Grand Final between Hawthorn and Sydney. To explain, BHC makes KFC look worse than second rate.

The menu is short and sweet, meaning everything on it needs to be exceptional. It is a choice of different cuts of chicken (along with a fish, and a mushroom option), in a sauce ranging from mild to extremely hot, with several classic sides on offer, and a few specials too. The other theme is the natural wines on offer, which is intriguing, and will be highlighted in a new bar next door (coming soon).

IMG_3499We ordered according to our preference. There is no way to make this sound right so I’ll just say that Catherine is a breast girl and I am a leg guy! Catherine’s “tenders” done Southern (ie no heat) were still beautifully cooked and definitely true to their name. My “dark meat” cooked medium had just a steady kick but definitely added good flavour and I recommend having at minimum medium heat for this reason. Personally, I like chilli, and although I have a medium heat threshold, next time I’ll be opting for the “hot” which is the mid-point on the heat spectrum. The “Old Bay fries” on the side are as delicious as chips come, and the coleslaw was nice too, although a touch heavy on the mayo as is often encountered in American cooking.

Catherine had a glass of the palate-refreshing slightly sweetened ice tea. I had a glass of the Arneis, which was viscous and acidic enough to provide a nice balance to the fried chicken, with a good amount of forward fruit. As we finished our baskets of chicken it hit me how well thought out this relatively little restaurant is, with attention to detail and striking features (namely the “diner” sign) all adding to the experience. Nothing tacky whatsoever, and definitely sleek for a fried chicken joint. Our waitperson was polished too, making light work of the many tables in her section.

It is hard not to be impressed by everything Belle’s is dishing out. It might seem simple at first glance, but this is a fried chicken restaurant done exceptionally well.

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First anniversary – a retrospective on our home cooking!

Chocolate tart!

Getting ready for a dinner party – chocolate tart in foreground!

I have never indulged myself and downloaded a few photos of some of the meals we cook at home. So to celebrate my blogging anniversary I thought I’d look through some photos from the last year that came out of our kitchen.

Dinner is an important ritual wherever we are. For home, usually we buy enough for at least three dinners and then play it by ear during the week. Toscano’s is the epicentre of our grocery shopping. Not only does it have a terrific variety of fruit and veg, but it has great quality essentials from parmigiano reggiano to free range eggs to Istra bacon. Nearby there are high quality butchers, fish mongers and bakeries. For weekend emergencies it is loaves from Friends of Mine and when more organised it is Tivoli.

My signature - mushroom risotto

My signature – mushroom risotto

Our kitchen is tiny, making organisation, and in particular, cleaning as we go, essential. During the week it is normally about staples, or at least recipes that we’ve done enough that we don’t need a book. When the opportunity presents, taking a recipe from one of our books, or Australian Gourmet Traveller is much more interesting.

Calamari and salad

Calamari and salad

We cook lots of relatively boring dishes, but always with a bit of love. I worked as a kitchen-hand for almost five years going through uni and my curiosity for how dishes are put together ensured that I learned more than how to peel potatoes! In fact, in the mid 90s I worked at a place that was a break-out cafe, and the care shown with ingredients, and preparation of dishes from scratch, that epitomised that cafe, is now a theme in restaurants rather than the exception.

Carbonara with leftover Christmas ham

Carbonara with leftover Christmas ham

My signature dish, which my friends joke about, but took me many tries to get close to perfect, is my mushroom risotto. A lover of all things Italian, Catherine (incidentally half Italian) and I have worked hard to make pasta that is good quality. We’ve got there, but it is the kind of thing that you need to do regularly. On the other hand, with pizza dough, we are still learning. Not that we don’t love making pizza from scratch.
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Steak / fish / chicken, mash and veg is definitely a staple. Again, for many years I’ve worked on making a mash that is relatively healthy (no cream except for special occasions, and parmigiano on occasion too) but still delicious. The secret is pushing the potatoes through a sieve which allows the butter (essential!), sea salt, cracked black pepper, and milk, to work its way through evenly. If you have properly cooked protein, beautiful mash, and crisp, just cooked vegetables that are bursting with colour, that is a good result in my book.

Catherine's nicoise salad

Catherine’s nicoise salad

For balance there is nothing wrong with frying up some calamari one night, and enjoying a healthier nicoise salad the next. To change it up we’ll have lamb and cous cous (throwing saltanas, roasted butternut pumpkin and zucchini through, along with some lightly roasted pine nuts). Equally, breakfast is boring weetbix during the week or some toast, but if we are not going out to breakfast on the weekend it is left over Istra bacon and fried or scrambled eggs on Tivoli bread, or simple blueberry pancakes with maple syrup.

Blueberry pancakes

Blueberry pancakes

Lamb backstrap with cous cous

Lamb backstrap with cous cous

It’s been one year. I’m staggered that I’ve written over 115 posts, and I’m privileged to have people who read, and appear to enjoy this blog. This is my opportunity to give you some insight into how much I love eating, thinking about, reading about, and cooking food. Thanks.

Addict – Fitzroy – Saturday 21 February 2015 – Breakfast

Breakfast bun

Breakfast bun

It is late morning. The weather is already quite hot and humid and in front of Melburnians is a kaleidoscope of event riches. Personally I’m off to Flemington for the Black Caviar Lightning Stakes, and then to the city to brave the White Night crowds to catch up with friends. Others have Soundwave, and then there are several other crowd pulling events across Victoria. There’s a great vibe.

Over ten years ago I was here, but at night, and I was eating good quality Indian on holiday. Today, Catherine and I are enjoying a short wait on the pavement, and the old Indian restaurant is now a bustling Fitzroy cafe. This is a good introduction to the crowds we expect later on, but in no time we are seated on the front window.

We probably wait longer to order food and drinks whilst sitting than actually waiting for a table but other than that the service is a fine standard. Our waitperson didn’t know the single origin which gave me the impression that the name Addict doesn’t mean it is a total focus on coffee. Not to say the coffee wasn’t very good as it was. As good was the watermelon juice – then came the food.

Single origin from Ethiopia

Single origin from Ethiopia

The breakfast bun was amazing. Every bite rich and delicious. With a beautifully formed brioche bun, plenty of flavoursome bacon, fried egg, and field mushrooms covered in gorgeous scamorza cheese. Hard to say that above all that the homemade brown sauce starred, but it was close and brought everything together perfectly. A breakfast winner.

Catherine’s poached eggs with a side of bacon and confit tomatoes, did not live up to that level. The confit tomatoes in particular were soggy and lacked punch. The waitperson apologised for the juices from the tomatoes spreading over the plate, but there was nothing she could have done to avoid that. The eggs were nicely cooked and the yolk runny, but as a breakfast staple, this is a dish that has to be close to perfect at the best cafes.
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If there is one thing that acts as a factor in getting me back to a cafe, it is an exceptional dish. You need the backbone of a pleasant place, with good (read great by world standards) coffee, and quality food. But an exceptional dish (or hopefully several) is what makes the cafe popular to people living outside of the suburb. The breakfast bun met that standard, and to add to that, I have the nostalgia of that Indian restaurant.

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Mrs S – Maylands – Saturday 31 January 2015 – Breakfast

Croque Madame

Croque Madame

You are elusive Mrs S. I’ve tried to meet you several times and several times for some reason or another your doors have been closed to me.

There have been times where I would say I would not come back. If it wasn’t during Christmas/New Year break, it was lack of staff, or maybe just picking the wrong day. But today is the day.

The reason we have always wanted to try Mrs S is not unusual. The reason is because every second mention of a good cafe in Perth seems to include this place.

After a very short wait we are seated, handed the playful story menus, and explained that once ready you order at the counter. Luckily, ordering at the counter doesn’t take a long time but I disagree with this becoming a trend in many Perth eateries. My issue is there are plenty of staff to take food out so why can’t they take orders for breakfast. Comparatively, having to go and order at the counter for coffees, and then again for food, and then again finally for another coffee, not to mention again to get takeaway cakes, becomes cumbersome and unnecessary.
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That being said, the staff here are very friendly and even though they only take orders at the counter and bring out food, they seem to have a good rapport with customers both regular and not. My first long black is over-extracted but still good, while my second ordered half full is much better.
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As breakfast arrived, I impulsively grabbed my fork and plucked some of Sher’s scrambled eggs from her plate. Not just zoolander good looking, they were also incredibly tasty, instantly giving overtones of envy and overwhelming want to come back! While Mum and Catherine had poached eggs, all of them agreed that the slow cooked tomatoes and bacon were excellent, but the bread was a little too thickly cut.
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Even though I wish I ordered the scrambled eggs,my Croque Madame was still good. Nice ingredients are used, but the bread again was slightly too thick and crusty, making it difficult to eat and adding too much crunch. In fact, often a Croque comes with the crusts cut off for that very reason. The chutney was nice, but not traditional, and the side salad was redundant. If I’m having a Croque, anything healthy is not needed.

The Maylands vibe here helps make Mrs S what it is. There’s a good collection of people for watching and lots of other cafes, bakeries and boutiques close by. While not everything was amazing, the food was delicious or close, and the coffee and juices excellent too. Our tastes of Mrs S’s treats as dessert later that evening turned out to be great too, putting it on the list for afternoon tea in future months.

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Little Pantry – Subiaco – Saturday 31 January 2015 – Lunch

Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, chorizo and feta

Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, bacon and feta

Having had a really good experience at Little Pantry some months ago for breakfast brought me back today for lunch. On that occasion I was surprised at the finesse of some of the Italian offerings ordered by others on the table.

Today Catherine and I launch straight into lunch, sitting out the back undercover on a beautiful sunny day despite the humidity. Catherine ordered the ravioli. The dishes are all on a small clip board at the front counter where you order so we didn’t catch the full description, but the ravioli had what we believe was ricotta and silverbeet, in a rich tomato sauce. Freshly made, but not in-house, the pasta has that special texture and flavour that you only get when traditionally made. In fact it wasn’t expressed on the board so we asked following the meal to confirm and our suspicion was right.

Ravioli with tomato sauce and parmesan

Ravioli with tomato sauce and parmesan

My spaghetti dish (which was closer to linguine) with cherry tomatoes, bacon and feta, was exceptional at the price-point. For less than $20 this dish had everything you could ask for – good texture from the al dente pasta, and fresh, good quality ingredients, that combine well.  The bacon in particular was more akin to pork belly, cut thicker, with a good proportion of fatty flavour.

We were in and out quickly to get to our next appointment, but there is no doubt we’ll be back for what is a tremendous offering at breakfast or lunch.

Little Pantry on Urbanspoon

Pleased To Meet You – Northbridge – Sunday 1 February 2015 – Dinner

Peach salad

Peach salad

As I approach my first anniversary on this blog there is no doubt that American barbeque is the hottest trend in the past year. It is not simple cuisine, but certainly isn’t the most difficult to execute, and has the favourable aspects of being easy to share, and completely delicious in both a high flavour and high guilt fashion.

Having been past for a drink a few months ago, I have had Pleased To Meet You on the short list for Perth ever since. Tonight is the night Catherine and I get to try some of the offerings of the chefs here.

Luckily we are here relatively early and get a seat at the bar. Unusually you order your food at the counter, so the bar is actually the only place you get service without going up. I say unusually because it gives the instant impression at busy times that this is akin to a take away or dine in style restaurant. To me, that impression is not commensurate with reasonably expensive food.

Pork slider

Pork slider

Looking down the menu I am expecting high quality and great execution given the price for one slider is $9. To my pleasure, I can say that my expectation was generally met. Interestingly my first impression that this is American barbeque is tempered by some of the dishes on offer that have their origin in Vietnam, China and other Asian countries. American fusion perhaps?

Besides a slider each, we order the squid bahn mi, beef tongue ruben bao, chicken taco, and peach salad. The first dish we received was the peach, fennel and palm heart salad. Peaches are amazing at the moment, and they are amazing in this salad which is inspired. The combination is beautiful, and the dressing only adds to the flavour with dill, almonds and rocket thrown in too. It was initially questionable that the salad came first given the rich food we were going to be eating, but we kept half of it to refresh ourselves through the meal.

Squid bahn mi

Squid bahn mi

Next came the chicken taco which is tiny. It packs a good punch of flavour from the chicken which has been on the rotisserie (you can have a plate of the chicken if hungry or in a bigger group for only $30) along with a gorgeous sweet corn salsa. It’s a nice dish but hardly there and the pickled cabbage addition (a theme in a few dishes) is not needed. The bahn mi on the other hand is more substantial. The make or break in this roll is the squid, which is beautifully cooked with a smoky grill flavour. The roll is fresh and after one bite I couldn’t stop until it was gone!

Chicken taco, corn salsa

Chicken taco, corn salsa

Next came the pulled pork sliders which are a better size. The pulled pork is tasty, but no more or less than most good cafes, but the brioche bun stars along with a good helping of chipotle tasting sauce. Last I tried the beef tongue ruben bao. The execution here of the bao makes it easy to tell that steamed buns are not the focus of the chefs. The beef tongue is excellent, but the bao needs improvement.

Tongue bao

Beef tongue ruben bao

We had enjoyed our meal, getting to try some terrific snacks and an amazing salad. Instead of trying one or two more dishes we decided to share the chic sundae. There is gimmick in the presentation, but the whole dessert does not work. It is one of the most disappointing desserts we’ve eaten in some time. Soft serve lacking in flavour, a few peanuts and some chocolate sauce that is plain. I completely understand it is only $6, but my suggestion would be do it properly or take it off the menu.

Choc sundae

Choc sundae

With a nice selection of beer and wine, the bar is a worthy place to just have a drink. While it is counter service, the staff on the bar were good at answering questions and offering suggestions, and the food came out in good time. The space works with several communal tables, some more intimate spots towards the front, and plenty of bar space. It is refined, playful, and attractive.

Pleased To Meet You provided a different experience and one we enjoyed. Next time we’ll come with a few others and try some of the heavier meat dishes that look fantastic.
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Threecoins Italian Trattoria – Mt Lawley – Tuesday 3 February 2015 – Dinner

Mille fogile

Mille fogile

With Da Vinci’s unfortunately closed, Mum and I had no choice as we sat in the carpark on a Tuesday evening. We had to find good Italian that is reasonably priced fast. Urbanspoon to the rescue.

Not far away in the Avenues of Mt Lawley, Threecoins Italian Trattoria seemed a good option and what’s more they had a spare table for two. My figurative take away tonight was, if you hesitate, like I do, at eating in a small shopping complex, you may miss something special every now and again.

It was busy! A slightly illegal park, a friendly greeting, and in no time we were seated just outside in the undercover but alfresco front area. The restaurant is styled in minimalistic Italian trattoria fashion. Given it is located on a main street in a small shopping complex, it is surprisingly ambient. On top of that it is nice and warm; a comfortable night to be eating outside.

The menu is your usual informal Italian with an asterix being the completely homemade pasta options on offer. The growth in homemade pasta being offered across Perth is fantastic. Here they are served in clay bowls that add some interest, and keep the dish warm. At first the serving looks on the small side, but given the dishes are rich and good quality, not to mention reasonably priced, we are happy.

Pasta

Fettuccine with lamb ragu

My pasta is a fettuccine with a lamb ragu. The pasta is nice and firm and holds together. I’m curious on the lamb ragu at first because there are quite a few defined chunks rather than being almost dissolved through the sauce. Luckily, it is very tender and has good depth of flavour making for a nice dish.

Mum’s ravioli of pumpkin and taleggio is even richer, with a white truffle oil, and a burnt butter, sage and parmesan sauce. Again it comes in a clay bowl, and there is a good serving given the richness. Out of the two dishes, the ravioli is the star. Both dishes were mopped up with bread from the selection, which includes grissini and flatbread amongst others.

For dessert we share the mille fogile of strawberry and Chantilly cream with other berries scattered through and white chocolate too. For a simple dish it is well executed and the puff pastry is nicely cooked. The slightly sweet cream and strawberries are a classic combination, providing a light end to the meal.

One plus for Threecoins is the ability to bring wine to the restaurant for only a small corkage per head. The service at times seemed a little inexperienced, but this was made up by the politeness and friendliness of the couple of waitpersons who served us, and some nice touches like holding dessert until we were ready. The restaurant is popular and should look at better stemware, but other than that our craving for good and reasonably priced Italian was well and truly catered for.
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