Dining post COVID-19

Cutler & Co’s Mother’s Day feast with duck pie!

I’ve been writing this blog for many years. I continue not because many people read it. It’s mainly because I enjoy writing, think a lot about restaurants, and like to capture my thoughts. I’ve also realised that the successful bloggers are often form (photo quality) over substance (writing quality). My average photo doesn’t take long and until a couple of months ago I had an iPhone 5. I have a different perspective.

Lately I’ve been thinking deeply about dining post this health crisis, and I’ve been having quite a few conversations about it in my area.

The Cherry Tree’s parma

Due in no small part to the influence of my Mum, I am very conscious of germs, without quite being a germaphobe, and I am clean, without being a clean-freak. I put safety first so I have been known to touch the handrail of a train escalator, but I am conscious that I am doing it. I have cleaned the bathroom exclusively for almost 24 years since I first left home and still do to this day, and I do it very well, but I don’t do it weekly!

Coronavirus hasn’t rocked me as much as I expected it to. While maintaining safe social distancing from the outset, I made sure I got to experience the last of my cafe and restaurant experiences right up to the restrictions starting, only cancelling once when we didn’t get the comfort we were looking for during the restaurant booking and confirmation process. I wondered how I would cope from going to cafes almost every day to nothing; from going to footy matches and horse racing to nothing; from trips to the shops for one or two items being a non-essential risk. What saved me initially was the novelty factor, which I knew would wear off. Then as the novelty wore off, the new business model for cafes and restaurants doing quality takeaway, completely saved me.

Top Paddock’s pancake

I have a little love affair with the Cherry Tree Hotel. I think Catherine and I have ordered pizzas, parmas, beers, and hand sanitiser, about a dozen times. We have become closer to cafe staff at Pillar Of Salt, and Top Paddock, ordering their excellent coffee and quality cafe fare regularly. We’ve had multiple meals from Vaporetto and Matilda159, and supported a range of places like Tivoli, Lume, Penny For Pound, Mayday, Inward Goods, Blackhearts & Sparrows, Tipo 00, and Cutler & Co, with our continued patronage, which is naturally in consideration for an exceptional product they put out. It has kept life interesting, and I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with Catherine and our little boy Sydney. He turned one during the restrictions but it was still a nice immediate family celebration, and we had a terrific Elmo cake from Swan Street Bakery & Patisserie.

Lune delivery!

What I didn’t expect was a mild discomfort with the easing of restrictions. Over the past weeks I’ve noticed a substantial amount of breaking and bending the rules. I don’t expect that to get better going forward and I’m hoping a certain amount of luck sees us all through. It is probably the reason for my hesitation in making instant restaurant bookings as the restrictions ease using a phased approach. I would comfortably say from my observations that there is around 20% of people who are not thinking AT ALL about social distancing when they are out and about. The rest of the population have somewhere between a healthy respect for others, to a proper diligence about what they are doing, and what those around them are doing. It’s like good drivers. Everyone can drive, but good drivers avoid accidents by anticipating what other drivers are doing. In Australia it seems we do not give feedback to others who do the wrong thing. While I have wanted to, I just cannot bring myself to confront a complete stranger and I’m sure most people are naturally that way inclined.

Tipo 00’s casarecce

The business model of allowing 20 people to dine at the venue is quite complicated. It is not just a question of profit. Reputationally you do not want to have a potential issue through outbreak for the sake of 20 diners and a negligible profit? Gearing up staff levels again might be okay if you have workers who have been stood down or have had reduced hours on JobKeeper, or staff who can increase their hours, but is fraught with hardship for new hires, and potentially threatened by a second wave. 20 people means extra areas to sanitise, extra risk from exposure (to all staff), and there is no guarantee the patrons will accept lower levels of service (ie how many staff do you have ready for a maximum of 20 covers is potentially difficult as the area needs to be large given the social distancing requirements of 4 square metres per person). I can understand why all venues are contemplating not doing it or waiting to see how others are going with the easing.

Pillar of Salt

The best candidate is fine dining. You already expect certain spacing at most expensive restaurants and the margin on food is better. The worst candidate, almost counter-intuitively, is small dining spaces. Because of social distancing, a small dining space might not even be able to hold 10 people! A couple of no-shows and you are having a bad evening. Cafes that are well run and have access to appropriate booking technology might be able to do okay, but it is not the right model to have people waiting out the front for extended periods to get a table. You can start to appreciate how difficult this is. No matter the space, you need to have something to eat more substantial than a snack if you are drinking alcohol. Being from Perth I am used to this rule from my twenties, but I’m not sure how Melburnians will take to it.

Matilda 159’s pork belly

For staff, I am worried they will also have higher stress on top of the fact they are serving multiple diners who they are exposed to for lengthy periods. In some circumstances they could become an umpire between strangers who don’t agree with the spirit of the game, or its rules. For example, if people greet each other with large long hugs (like I saw in the park last Sunday – all under the observation of their kids – good example!) do you ask them to leave? Do other diners complain to the staff and put them in a difficult position? Do the authorities get called for not adhering to social distancing? It is a couple of months since restrictions began and there will be a lot of people who are stressed and anxious, with lesser mental health, and that could be a recipe for confrontation.

Vaporetto’s chicken

On the flipside, I think we have seen a good level of maturity with the majority of Australians, and those I’ve observed in my area. As long as the majority continue to show thoughtfulness and respect when out in public, and use the normal polite and friendly mannerisms we are known for around the globe, I can see a real community spirit as locals start gathering in dining spaces. It really is up to all of us to be patient and show cafe and restaurant staff that they are valuable to us. To be tolerant to others, and where it is needed to be diplomatic when discussing the rules with strangers, or to stick up for those in need. I’m sure we can all appreciate as we see the devastation overseas, that we are very lucky to be able to get a takeaway coffee, let alone sit down in a cafe once again from 11.59pm on Sunday 31 May.

I’ll tread warily, and I may not be one of the first diners on Monday 1 June at any of my favourite places, but I wish anyone reopening all the best. When I step in to your venue I promise to be a thoughtful, respectful and polite diner, and take a moment to look around and appreciate something we once took for granted.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON EASING RESTRICTIONS CLICK HERE

FOR DETAILED GUIDANCE FOR RESTAURANTS AND CAFES CLICK HERE

Why do I feel empty after a nice meal?

Cherry Tree

How many people around the world must have taken to writing to escape the dreary existence many of us now call “life”? My primary issue is the thing I have chosen to write about is temporarily no longer an option. Dining out is not possible.

Lately, I haven’t had much of a chance to write anyway, so at least I’m behind and I can think of some experiences and put fingers to keyboard. Only a couple of weeks ago it was still possible to go out and practice social distancing at restaurants and cafes. Looking back I realise we all had a lot to learn.

Towards the beginning of the closures, Catherine and I had a difficult decision to make. Already a dinner on our anniversary as part of the Food and Wine Festival had been cancelled. We made another booking and in the lead up were excited about the forthcoming experience, but hesitant because the initial difficulties whilst booking had already put us off a little.

Penny For Pound

With about four days to go we were getting nervous with rumours of shutdowns, and every second day there was a new measure being announced by Federal and State Governments. After one last try to contact the restaurant (this time by email) we got a completely unhelpful response that they were open for our booking. They hadn’t answered our questions about the numbers of other guests coming for a weekday lunch, or social distancing practices; and they hadn’t offered anything else to comfort us that they were on top of the changes.

We had to cancel. We knew in our hearts it was the right decision, but it would also be the first anniversary we hadn’t been out for lunch or dinner. When we replied to the restaurant they told us that they hadn’t properly read our email and that they would have responded differently if they had. With the changing dynamic we don’t blame them for being busy just trying to survive, but it does go to show that we can live in our own bubble. A week later and there were thousands of people on Bondi Beach who also hadn’t got the memo.

Matilda 159

The week before I must admit I was going about life carefully, but largely unhindered. I sat in cafes with Catherine and Sydney, and talked about how long we had left before shutdowns, which appeared inevitable. Everyone else was talking about the same things. When the Grand Prix got cancelled and I heard the experts talking about responsibility for others, especially older Australians, it started to hit home, and I started to be pro-active about cancelling catch ups, but even the week after I saw people that I didn’t need to see, and went to places I didn’t need to go.

It is not like I feel terribly guilty about doing so, but it is instinctive for me to follow rules. I am a chartered accountant after all! The blurriness of the rules confused my instinct and so I operated with caution but also within the broad-based boundaries. Take the blurriness out of the rules and I will adapt.

Vaporetto

The first adaption came for our anniversary. Taking away from Vaporetto was an eye-opening experience. Even the most well-adjusted Uber Eats aficionado wouldn’t have imagined the options that would become available literally overnight. All of a sudden we are eating restaurant quality roasted chicken, radicchio salad, and tiramisu. The tiramisu is not your usual. It comes with a scoop of coffee gelato, and bits of honeycomb, all nicely contained so you can have a go at plating yourself in a quasi-restaurant fashion.

Lune Croissants

A week later we have had Cherry Tree pizzas for Friday lunch, and a very fancy pork belly, smashed potatoes, and remoulade from Matilda 159 (on Domain) for Saturday night dinner, and at the same place I’m picking up a bottle of 2014 Voyager Cabernet Sauvignon for half its current value! Lately, we’ve had Pillar Of Salt granola, and their slow cooked brisket, for lunch; and Lune are delivering croissants, cruffins, and kouign-amanns on a Sunday morning! This was never previously possible, especially at the prices being asked, which are more than reasonable.

Pillar Of Salt

I realise a lot of Australians and people around the world are really suffering with their health and the health of their family, or struggling with unemployment and poverty, so I am not trivialising this health and economic crisis, and I feel very sad for the world right now. I enjoy eating, but when I’ve finished my meal I still feel a bit empty because a few weeks ago this meal could have been a celebration of life, and I could have been helping keep a lot more people employed than just a skeleton staff. I also do not want to turn a blind eye to how bad this is around the world. Most of us who haven’t been really sick, or to war, or through natural devastation, just simply cannot understand the pain that is reverberating around the globe right now. So many somber funerals with tiny amounts of mourners (or none at all), so much dismay and confusion, and so much uncertainty.

I do want to help though, and while I’m still employed (not a given to continue), I want to try to support the places that have made me happy over the years. As one person I’ve been served by at Pillar Of Salt tens of times said when I finally asked her name, “It’s not all business now with our customers.” No, this crisis has become very personal, and I think we are all learning more about ourselves. I know I am.

Paringa Estate – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula – Saturday 28 December 2019 – Lunch

Looking across a vineyard. This is my type of view as the backdrop to a wonderful meal. Like the ocean, or any large body of water, rolling greenery will never get tired.

It just isn’t possible to have a meal like this in the city. So while the prices are not cheap by any means, they are not inflated by the beauty of the vines, which came along far earlier. Today the logistics are in our favour because we are staying in an Airbnb close by, which also happens to be close to Nonna’s place for our little boy to be taken care of. It’s time to relax over a five course tasting menu at Paringa Estate.

Paringa has been one of the best wineries in the Mornington Peninsula region for many years, and the restaurant has gone from strength to strength. Catherine dined here with family a few years ago, and I’ve wanted to give it a try for myself ever since. With restaurants like Laura, Port Phillip and Kooyong Estate, Doot Doot Doot and sibling Rare Hare in the area, you need to be very good to figure. There are several others too, not to mention Ten Minutes By Tractor whose return is eagerly awaited.

Vegemite scrolls, and pigs in blanket

The city boy novelty of dining at a winery is only maintained when the food (and wine) are matched or bettered by the view. Delicious snacks act as reminders of not taking dining here too seriously, with a vegemite scroll, a pig in blanket (prosciutto with a fig filling), and “green eggs and ham”, also hinting at the strength of the food to come.

Green eggs and ham

Simon Tarlington’s version of Surf & Turf presents mussels topped with thinly cut corned wagyu. It is unexpectedly subtle, allowing the mussels to share the limelight with the wagyu.

Paringa ‘Surf & Turf’

Next we have a dish presented where the components are bursting from the plate. It could be an Olympic dish for the Australian’s with its green and gold flourishing from the use of asparagus and nasturtiums on the one hand; and lemon and egg on the other. While lemon hollandaise is a classic combination, the sweetness here was a little too much for me by the end, but Catherine was a big fan of the almost lemon curd like sauce.

Local Asparagus, Egg, Lemon, Almonds

By now we were finishing our initial glasses of white, having begun with a lesser known, but gorgeous champagne called ‘Esprit Nature’ by Giraud. Catherine’s flagship Paringa Single Vineyard Chardonnay is an excellent expression of the variety, and of what Mornington can produce. My Viognier is not one of the main Mornington varietals, but does have plenty of polish itself, and works well with its versatility. Next we tried the flagship Paringa Single Vineyard Pinot Noir. With both the lamb and duck courses to come we were enjoying a wine to behold, again a tradition of the region, and one which has been slowly coming closer to the top echelon with each year that passes.

Otway Ranges Lamb, Peas, Beans, Native Leaves

The lamb I’m speaking of is from the Otway Ranges, and is served with peas, beans and native leaves. The broth again shows subtlety, siding with the nicely cooked lamb well, and is added to by the fresh large peas that are a delight. It is delicate. The kind of dish that you want to go hand in hand with a great wine.

Mount Macedon Duck, Tomato, Cherry, Native Pepper

Another step in the flavour profile is added with the duck from Mount Macedon, which has skin to die for with the native pepper put to good effect. I can give or take the acidity in the tomato (which has been peeled!), but the sweetness in the cherry is the right stuff, and the sauce brings it together wonderfully. Again, not overdoing the number of components allows the wine to become an important element. It is impressive.

Meredith Sheep Yoghurt, Verjuice, Honeycomb, Plum

Being a fan of sweeter and/or chocolate desserts, seeing the description of our sweet course didn’t fill me with excitement, but honeycomb is something I love so all was not lost. I am glad I was wrong. At the end of a tasting menu, with a lot of great and complex dishes, having a soft dessert with flavoursome elements was a great way to finish. The verjuice used as a broth a nice touch, bringing grapes back into the picture. The restaurant should, however, consider some petit fours to finish, that could give sweeter-tooths a bit more sugar.

All along service had the usual semi-country charm. It was not perfectly attentive, but it was friendly and professional enough to meet the mark. The sommelier today (Nick) was particularly helpful and fun, enjoying a chat about the wines and the history of Paringa, which always adds something to a winery visit. He works the cellar door tastings too, and would be an excellent host.

While the expense doesn’t make Paringa accessible frequently, it is an exceptional place to spend an afternoon overlooking the vines, and eating and drinking some of the best quality there is on offer on the Peninsula.

Paringa Estate Winery & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Coffee in Cremorne and surrounds – my guide

Fred’s isn’t a normal cafe!

I could count twenty places to get coffee within a ten minute walk of where I live.  An extra ten minute walk and you have many, many more. As I sit here, there are more than ten in Cremorne and that is not counting those on the border (being Church Street and Swan Street).

I predominantly work from home and that gives me the ability to spend inordinate amounts of time at cafes in my area, normally working, sometimes observing. My favourite cafes get to see my family often, and we have introduced tens of people to most of these venues.

Coffee in Cremorne and Surrounds – map link below

Coffee is a love of mine, but I am far from an expert. In my mid-twenties I went from being a milk based coffee person, with at least two sugars, to focussing on black coffee with no sugar. The transition took close to a year. There is nothing wrong with milk in coffee, but it does introduce an imperfection to a complex drink. It is no different to adding tonic to gin, but I do like gin and tonic.

If I can indulge a little further. The proliferation of single origin coffee is especially easy for wine drinkers to understand. You take a fruit and put it in a different location, with different soil, weather conditions, different plant age, and then have different methods of picking, washing and drying. You get a different result, and it can be subtle or obvious. If you add sugar or liquid other than neutral water, you are reducing the impact of the above factors. As a result, most good cafes these days offer a single origin for black coffee drinkers and a blend for coffees with different types of milk. For me, espresso (usually a double) is king, but a long black (not full to the brim, but a little more extracted than espresso with a dash of hot water) is a good coffee to sit on while working, or in a social setting.

In summer, I mix between hot and cold. While I was originally tied to a double espresso over ice as the main option, these days I have changed my preference to cold brews where good ones are available.

So, in my patch of Cremorne/Richmond, what are my favourite cafes for coffee?

Link to the Google Map

Top 6 (in no particular order)

Top Paddock

Laptop parking is rarely a good looking feature of a café customer, but for me it is a necessary evil. Putting aside the terrific, consistently well made, black coffee (normally with a choice of two single origins), Top Paddock is a café dream. For years the food has been at the top of café fare in Melbourne, the staff have good longevity (though there has been a little more turnover lately), and there are heaps of nooks and crannies to keep things interesting. Laptop parking on the coffee bar is gold because I’m not taking up extra space, but it has a comfortable amount of bench space, and hooks under the bar for your jacket. The choice of single origins these days comes from Seven Seeds, and used to come from Square One (both of which have merit), and ninety percent of the time I recognise the barista. The staff have a good balance of being friendly, recognising a familiar face, without making me feel too regular. This is one of the best in Melbourne.

Website

A previous review

 

Pillar Of Salt

There was a time where Pillar Of Salt attracted a decidedly more South Yarra crowd, but things have settled down somewhat. This is one of the few cafes I go to where long ago I forgot about the distributor of the coffee, and the type of machine, and just enjoy consistently well made coffee. Some of the main baristas have been here for years, and that is no different to many of the senior staff. My wife loves their prana chai, and so it has become a key takeaway venue. The food here is top quality; close to the level of Top Paddock. You can get Penny For Pound doughtnuts too. Life is good at Pillar Of Salt.

Website

A previous review

 

Inward Goods

I am curious. Just off Swan Street, Inward Goods opened a few years back and I had to check it out. When my sticky-beak looked around the corner I was comforted by some friendly staff and one particular customer who said this was the best coffee in Richmond. I wasn’t up for a coffee at the time, but I was back soon after and have kept coming back. In those early days I would say there was a little more enunciation of the single origin coffee I was drinking (by Vertue Coffee Roasters in Carlton) but the quality has continued to meet high levels. The only issue is the growing cost. I recognise the quality, but if I’m just taking away I often go closer to home these days. For sitting in the new fitout is good looking and clean, but not as comfortable for laptop parking, so again I pick my moments. The spanakopita jaffle is king for a snack (half) or lunch (whole).

Website

 

Mayday

Years ago when Mayday opened I wrote about an expensive orange juice that had been disguised as freshly squeezed (which it was when it entered the Nudie juice bottle). Since then things have improved to a level where I count Mayday as one of my favourites. Their coffee is superb and I normally recognise the barista. There is heaps of space to laptop park, or have a quick one with Sydney in his pram, and their food is fantastic. Out the back is Penny For Pound which sells their delectable pastries and cakes between Friday and Sunday.

Website

A previous review

 

Hunted + Gathered

It’s time for chocolate. After eating H+G chocolate for the first time at Attica I knew this place is special. When they opened up a café, taking advantage of Assembly coffee (Carlton) roasted by Bureaux, I was over the moon. Catherine has never graduated from their hot (or cold) chocolate and why would you? The brownies and other treats are addictive, and the tiny pieces of chocolate at the counter are impossible to decline. All of the staff are friendly and have gotten to know the whole family. We’ve introduced them to many new customers too. It’s win / win.

Website

 

Fred’s

Somehow the Reymond brothers broke into my sleep, and put an all day café and bar down the end of my street that I was dreaming of. Currently using a Seven Seeds blend (but soon to have a single origin I believe), the main barista, Daniel, does consistently great coffee. Some brioche as a snack and I can laptop park for hours! It is a very good looking space, and it is only a matter of time before I can no longer guarantee a seat.

Website

Soon to be reviewed

 

The others I go to regularly (in no particular order)

Vertue

The sister to Inward Goods opened a few months ago and is a nice space. It similarly has Vertue Coffee Roasters as supplier, with single origins that change frequently, and the same excellent jaffles. The difference here is the coffee bar is not wide enough for comfortable laptop parking, and the sun can be a killer on the tables at the front. Luckily for the team here, most of the time that I come to try to get a seat it is full anyway! There is still some settling down with the consistency of the coffee, which is made by a rotation of baristas to date, but it is usually excellent.

Website

Cheeky Monkey

As a direct flipside to Vertue, Cheeky Monkey is my place for standard coffee. Neighbouring a flower shop (Glasshaus), the new digs (now a few years old) are warm and homely. There is heaps of room on the coffee bar to comfortably sit and occasionally watch the people and traffic go by, and I find I can normally get a spot even though it is usually busy. There are also several different areas, front, back and in between, that keep things interesting. There is a younger staff that seems to stay regular. The coffee is a blend, but is well made and consistent. Don’t worry about the slight film that seems to come with the long black as it makes no difference to the taste, but can deter on presentation.

Website

A previous review

Heresy

I’ve become less regular to Heresy but I’ve always liked their single origin long blacks and their cold brew in warmer months. This is basically a hole-in-the-wall and is best suited to take aways or a quick espresso on the bar. When I used to walk past for work I was a regular, but I still try to stop by every now and then. The sister café is in Equitable Place in the city.

Website

Lumberjack

Irene, barista and owner of Lumberjack, makes excellent coffee and cold brew. While we used to go weekly at my old workplace, I still occasionally go out of my way just for coffee here, or to catch up with the old gang for lunch. My affiliation leads me to write about Lumberjack, but it is definitely over twenty minutes walk away for me!

Website

A previous review

If I’m in the area

I can be pretty hard on cafes, but that doesn’t stop me diversifying where I feel like a change, or I’m close by.

Again, in no particular order, cafes where I occasionally frequent around Richmond and Cremorne include Fifty Acres, Reunion, Touchwood, Jethro, A Thousand Blessings, Penny House, Friends Of Mine, Sloane Ranger, and Denis The Menace.  All of these at one time or another were either regular or close, but things change!

Ides – Collingwood – Sunday 3 November 2019 – Lunch

The annual Derby recovery lunch has always been an event in itself. Usually restricted to the boys from the previous day, those still willing (and able) after a late night and a marathon session, dust themselves off, and gather for a lunch that only has a prerequisite to be rather expensive. As if for no other reason, it is almost essential to have at least broken even the day before at Flemington.

Pumpkin Flowers

This year it was “Chef” who chose the restaurant. There is a rotation policy where I personally ensure I either pick, or have an insider hand in picking the venue, with deft personal messages of applause with good choices, and blatant ribbing for choices that are ill-informed! Chef is a quiet achiever in these Choosy Stakes. You are probably thinking this guy knows his restaurants and works in an up market Bib Gourmand, but he actually is not into that type of thing and specialises in basic cafe fare. So, choosing Ides, a restaurant with Peter Gunn at the helm, known for his experience at places like Attica, is not as great a fit as it sounds.

Fried chicken, cos lettuce, bacon broth, spiced cashew nuts

You don’t need to be a Rhode Scholar to comfortably say that every year we get older. The warm up for elderly men is difficult, but precisely half way through our first beverage of choice (today mainly gin and tonics, and pink vermouth spritzers) we start to acclimatise. On the menu (that we never actually saw) are several snacks to begin, an avocado dish, a broth, a snapper dish, a beef cheek dish, and two desserts with one on the fruitier side and the other chocolate.

Scarlett Prawn

By the time the snacks are being presented we are on to the Hochkirch riesling from Henty in the west of Victoria. It’s a good choice because versatility with the assortment of tastes is the key. There’s a good spicy punch to the cos lettuce, the scallop is gorgeous, the fried chicken is glorious, and the sourdough with peanut butter is a dish of its own. The only miss for me is the prawn which having tried several uncooked prawns I’ve decided they are just better cooked. I can respect the freshness of the produce though.

Burnt Avocado

Sitting at a fine dining restaurant with a real sense of modern Australian cuisine, it should not be a surprise to find a quarter avocado presented as the first course, but it is. How did we start to associate avocado with breakfast? Just as the French will crack an egg on anything from a Lyonnaise salad to beef tartare, why can’t we have an avocado as one of our dishes? If fine dining and nouveau cuisine are supposed to present the utmost flavour profiles and combinations possible, this avocado is close to perfection. It is firm but has the subtle, yet consistent, flavour of an avocado at its peak, and it is enhanced by trout roe that doesn’t overpower, and a spice that also is in beautiful balance. I am intrigued if I came back tomorrow whether it would taste the same, and be just as wonderful.

Snapper

On to a Trutta marsanne from Harcourt North in the Central Victorian region, and the pumpkin flowers in ox tail broth, with chewily addictive ox tail meat presented separately. We all leave our bowls dry so the broth is good, but it is the meat that is king. This is followed by my favourite dish of the day. Snapper is topped with a broccoli crumb, and a snapper butter is poured at the table that surrounds the white fish. That white fish is skilfully cooked, just enough, to demonstrate its best, but it is the butter that steals the show, and the salty crumb that almost makes you feel like you are having the best fried fish shop meal of your life (without the old frying oil!)

Beef Cheek

A delicious shriraz viognier from Yarra Yarra is chosen by Guy and we are on to the beef cheek which comes out looking more like fillet steak. What the chefs have done is freeze dry the slowly cooked cheek to form a disk, rather than present in the usual rustic way. It works, but it does lose some of the magic in my humble opinion. The Congo potato is raved about, which is probably not what the chefs had in mind (when you compare to the cheek), but it is definitely a generous and enjoyable way to end the savoury courses.

Madenii Mousse

The first dessert, on the fruitier side with strawberries and macadamias, comes adorned with a translucent shard separating those elements. By this stage, after what seems like over twenty-four hours of drinking, I cannot be sure of exactly what I was eating, but it was very good. Somewhat simpler looking, but anything but, is “The Black Box” of chocolate and peanut. Break it open and you have plenty of sweet goodness inside. As a final tip of the Akubra to our cuisine we are presented with a peach cheek drizzled with honey.

The Black Box

As we all reflected on this experience later in the day, and in the days to come, it became apparent that everyone enjoyed the experience as a whole, but there wasn’t the same high you can get with some of the other top restaurants in Australia. It might be the familiarity of some of the dishes, even though they are much more sophisticated than the norm, but more likely it was the seriously expensive tasting menu of $180 a person. Normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but this is in the top echelon of tasting menu prices so it is fair game.

Things tend to go a bit sideways!

The focus on Australian produce includes the spirits on offer, which does narrow the options when it comes to things like Campari and Aperol (which were innocently asked for more than once as my group got to the restaurant for an aperitif). What I did find is professional and confident floorstaff who could quickly provide another option, who spoke well through the various courses and what we were eating, and who answered questions without any flicker of snobbery. It does feel as if the whole outfit are sharing the vision of the chefs, and are confident in the product across the board. And that means a lot in any organisation.

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

Kazuki’s – Carlton – Friday 6 September 2019 – Lunch

Dark chocolate, hazelnut, miso

There is no one template for a wonderful dining experience. The beauty of eating out is the variety, especially when it comes to the scene in Melbourne. Restaurants like Kazuki’s are a study in themselves.

Originally located in Daylesford, this nod to Japanese cuisine, has found its way to Lygon Street in Carlton of all places. The room is purpose fitted, and both downstairs and upstairs have that restrained beauty that fits with the cuisine in a sense, though there is a bit more going on than meets the eye in that regard.

Moreton Bay bug, ponzu, sake

When you see “Moreton bay bug, ponzu, sake” on a menu you might think of simply the protein in a sauce given it is one of seven courses. Here that is not even half the story. The generous subtle bug meat is encased in a dumpling skin that you can only make when you are not churning them out by the dozen. It is quite simply stunning. Served with some pizazz in the form of foam, the hidden treasure meets a sauce that has you weighing up how impolite it would be to bring the bowl to your mouth. We opt to mop with some of the delightful brioche style buns being served liberally throughout the meal.

Salmon caviar, cod roe, nori
Chicken liver, Paris-brest
Ama ebi, corn
Octopus teriyaki

Then there is the unusual mix of customers today, all being served by the more than capable restaurant manager, who is terrific to chat to throughout the meal. When someone has a background at Pier in Sydney, Pei Modern, Lee Ho Fook and many others, you don’t need to worry about a thing. It is quiet with only three tables including ours. One other table is a group of six that appear to be family, but their main conversation is with their phone. The other table is having photos taken because one is a writer and the other is from The Age. It is fine.

Coconut, mandarin, Geraldton wax

There are some very generous allowances given to us by the restaurant. Firstly we are allowed to bring a special bottle of champagne to celebrate Catherine’s birthday. Then we are allowed to substitute the cheese course for a second dessert. We are even more grateful when we taste those desserts. The first (originally the main dessert) is a perfectly bouncy panna cotta of coconut looking very pretty with its slithered almonds, rosemary and mandarin adornments. This is a carefully balanced dessert, that has enough sweetness for us, but the savoury elements are equally attractive as a combination.

Naturally far richer, the dark chocolate, hazelnut and miso dessert is just as beautifully presented. The texture of the crisps works well with the softness of the other components; put together it is simply gorgeous to end this wonderful meal. Back to the start, the snacks were equally delicious but on the other side of the spectrum. Here we embraced each bite of the chicken liver parfait in Paris-brest, and delighted in the depth of the cod roe on nori. The amaebi (sweet shrimp) in the corn cone, and teriyaki octopus were right on the mark too.

Tuna, scallop, beetroot

During the various tasting courses we were struck by the wonderful combinations of flavours, often subtle like the beautiful firm beetroot covered tuna and scallop tartare, or deep and gamey like the duck with carrot puree, and some of the most delicious roasted witlof imaginable. The latter was the last savoury course and when you add my favourite bitter leaf in radicchio you have a stunning dish. The former was bound by a mirim based sauce that instantly identifies with this cuisine.

Duck, carrot, witlof

The other savoury dish might be the last I write about, but it is by no means one to bypass. The hapuka is perfectly cooked with abalone thrown in to enhance the subtle flavours, with slithers of serrano to add some saltiness. The winter melon doesn’t win me over, but the char on the spring onions does. Next time I think I’ve cooked fish perfectly I’ll remember how much better this was!

Hapuka, abalone, serrano

It is difficult to judge how busier evenings would translate to our long lunch in a quieter restaurant, but I’m confident the service would be just as good at any time. Everything about Kazuki has a feeling of complete comfort. This is a very well thought out restaurant and one that excites me about Melbourne’s dining scene. What a superb meal.

Kazuki's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Laura – Pt Leo Estate – Mornington Peninsula – Sunday 28 July 2019 – Lunch

Hawkes Farm potato duchess, cauliflower, shiitake

Inventiveness is in the eye of the beholder. As we experience an incredible lunch, I cannot help but think aspects of Pt Leo Estate, and it’s flagship restaurant, Laura, have been done before, but feel completely new.

It might be the combination of the winery, restaurant, and sculpture garden, but it’s not. As I walk in, I have a Port Phillip Estate feeling; the sculpture garden and outlook has a McClelland Gallery and Jackalope vibe; and the winery with its long rectangular shape, featuring floor to ceiling windows, has been done before. The view is magnificent by the way. Whatever it is, this place feels special. It feels different.

 

Nori tart, creme fraiche, bottarga; Rice bun, The Fruit Forest medlar relish

It has the persona of a country restaurant that is run by experienced heads who have seen it all and decided they would rather the countryside ocean views, instead of the cityscape. We got a sense of the journey and ethos of Laura during our several courses of the tasting menu, but it was barely scratching the surface.

Cochranes celery, pear, oyster, Brazilian starfish tabasco

Laura is versatile. With so many sensory delights you have enough going on around you to be comfortable to not have any awkward pauses on a first date; or in our case, parents who’ve left their infant for the first time catching up, and getting caught up in the amazement of it all. You could make a long day of it too, with the cellar door doing extensive wine tasting, the sculpture garden providing plenty of distraction, and a nice long lunch rounding out the adventure.

We make a start on proceedings with some brioche buns that we double up on through the meal. It’s a nice touch and we did notice sourdough being offered to those who don’t subscribe to the beauty that is brioche. Like much of the produce, the olive oil here is local to the region from nearby Cape Schanck.

Starters consist of a spoonful of potato and Main Ridge Daily dumpling with radish, scattered with cheese; a nori tart filled with homemade crème fraiche and sprinkled with bottarga is absolutely gorgeous and salty; and a rice cake with unusual fruit called medlar produced into a relish, again shows off the local small producers.

Roast Great Ocean Road duck, Port Phillip scallop frill, Mossy Willow lenticchie

Western Port Bay Wagyu beef, almonds, polenta

For our first entrée we are presented with a nice combination of thinly sliced pear, oyster, mushrooms, celery stalk and leaves, in a creamy sauce with a touch of tabasco. It is an intriguing combination which I tried with, and without, the pear, and settled on the pear being a key component. Equally a fruit perhaps a touch less sweet would be good too.

Thoughtful sides of sliced pumpkin, and eggplant

Incredibly well thought through Hawkes Farm potato is presented duchess style with beurre blanc sauce surrounding. Salmon roe, and sturgeon caviar (as a supplement option) top the potato, which is filled with shiitake mushrooms and cauliflower.  This is a beautiful combination and appears to be a signature of this menu. It brings back memories of the famous Attica potato dish, but is presented more like Attica would today, as opposed to yesteryear.

As we struggled to decide between four main courses that all had their enticing qualities, we asked for help and got the response we didn’t expect, but hugely appreciated. “Why don’t you choose two and split them between you?” These mains both came out as separate courses, plated for each of us. It was a tremendous way to do it, both with half glasses of wine which they also accommodate.

Custard fondant, last season’s berries, liquorice

The Great Ocean Road duck is roasted and classically presented, with a less classical Mossy Willow “lenticchie” which is described (and tastes) like a minestrone broth. Next door, the Port Philip scallop frill is a Swiss chard leaf filled with lentils and chickpeas. It is beauty on a plate.

The secondary cut of Western Port Bay Wagyu blade is corned and thinly sliced, oozing with flavour and enveloping a perfect polenta. A delightful veal jus is used as the sauce, with slithered almonds scattered on top. Nothing is out of place and the flavours work seamlessly together. Even the sides are thoughtful with some extra depth of flavour and inventiveness.

Following a superb refresher, our beautiful dessert consisting of a custard fondant and foam of liquorice with last season’s berries and some tiny meringues has the sweetness we love, and the technique only great pastry chefs can achieve. That technique is further proven with a superb white opera cake, which is presented as a birthday bonus!

Wines we chose included the 2011 Chardonnay and 2016 Pinot by Pt Leo Estate, as well as a Bordeaux Cabernet blend which were all fantastic. Aperitifs consisted of Four Pillars G&T and the house mocktail which is also beautiful.

As we enjoyed quality dish after quality dish, we had begun to question whether the service was the perfect match to the food. There were some clear misses. While the sommerlier, Andrew, was personable and polite, he did go missing after we had ordered our aperitif. In fact, we didn’t actually get asked whether we wanted the matching wines, or if we needed help selecting glasses for our various courses.

What made up for some of the time trying to catch the floorstaff’s glance on more than a couple of occasions, was the overall professionalism and balanced demeanour shown, which showed a good amount of broad experience. Our best waitperson had a background at Attica, Cutler and Pei Modern, for example.

While there are some improvements that could be made, this is a class act at Laura. Strolling around the sculpture garden following lunch (complimentary for those dining at Laura) is a fabulous way to reflect on a top meal. These are views that you could never tire of and a restaurant that is equally as attractive.

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

Tansy’s – Kyneton – Friday 28 June 2019 – Lunch

A stir has been created by an unassuming restaurant a little over an hour outside of Melbourne. I was not in Melbourne in the last decades of the twentieth century, but I have been aware of the legend that is Tansy Good for a few years. As if fate had dictated, when I arrived as a fresh faced thirty something at GE, little did my colleagues know that a food lover was in their midst, and little did I know they had a big secret hidden out the back of our office building!

It turned out that down the lane at the Burnley Horticultural Campus of Melbourne Uni, a famous chef was making delicious soups and chicken sandwiches in the Campus café. Along with her other half, John Evans, they made an interesting team with an air of confidence about them. Until it was explained to me by my learned colleagues, I had no idea why the food was so far above standard.

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and celeriac soup with seared Abrolhos Island scallops

There are multiple reasons for my excitement about our adventure to Tansy’s in Kyneton. Yes, a long lunch in the countryside awaits; and I have a day off; but my fellow diners are all family – wife, Mum, Aunt and son – which is a first given little Sydney is eight weeks old!

Herb and lemon soused sardines

The warning that things move slowly at Tansy’s is completely tempered by the fact we have an infant in attendance, and we are happy to settle in to this gorgeous cosy restaurant for the rest of the afternoon. It takes time for John to warm to us but we win him over and get to have a good chat as the rest of the tables vacate, with minimal disruption from Sydney (maybe a little). It’s nice to also have a chat to Tansy towards the end of service and compliment her wonderful dishes.

After all, the food is what we are here for. The menu is that perfect balance of variety and brevity. As we taste each others entrees there is the feeling of content that you have when you know you’ll be back to try the dishes you missed, or wanted to have more of. The best example of Tansy’s prowess is Catherine’s soup. Beautifully seared Abrolhos Island scallops, sitting in a roasted Jerusalem artichoke and celeriac soup, is presented with flair that we didn’t necessarily expect, and the depth of flavour is immaculate.

Goats’ cheese and herb tart

My goats’ cheese and herb tart is one of those dishes that once upon a time was new and exciting. Perhaps the over abundance since removed some of that joy, but this tart is seriously good, and I ordered it because I had confidence it would be an excellent example. The pastry is thin and crisp, and Tansy gets the balance right between too fluffy and too dense. The subtle flavours are enhanced with perfect seasoning, next to a simple leafy salad that screams experience with the right flavour and amount of dressing.

Both Sher’s sardines, and my Mum, Libbi’s, rabbit and pork rillette, are classics, which need to be very well executed to meet the next level of cookery – and they are next level.

Fillet of beef with crispy potatoes and red wine sauce

With entrees hitting such heights it was hard for the weightier mains to meet the same realms. While my fillet of beef with crispy potatoes and red wine jus was fantastic, the comfort factor could have been lifted by some extra sauce. Catherine ordered the snapper with braised fennel, mussels, and saffron sauce. My taste of her dish brought back the recent memory of the entrees, where classic flavours combined, and the beauty of executing something difficult, but making it seem simple, was again brought to the fore. Sher and Mum followed suit getting the beef, and snapper, respectively.

Snapper fillet, braised fennel, mussels and saffron sauce

We were all very satisfied at this point. On top of all this great food we had shared a Barbera d’Asti along with a few aperitifs (mine a sour beer by La Sirene; Catherine’s a Tassie sparkling rose). Nothing was going to stop me trying the strawberry and rhubarb tart on the bench near the bar service area. We all shared it, and added some extra scoops of the homemade vanilla ice cream, and strawberry swirl ice cream. Not a crumb was left from a delicious tart that we noticed some locals had stopped in for specifically as afternoon tea.

Rhubarb and strawberry tart with vanilla ice cream

The small personal connection I have with this couple definitely added something to lunch, but there is a feeling in this restaurant that is pure comfort anyway. You are outside of the big smoke and on one of the most beautiful country streets in Victoria dining in a character filled room with a view out to the garden which will be even more stunning in spring. The other waitperson on the floor was terrific and similarly lives close by. Tansy and John moving here to be closer to their family and grandchildren is a big win for Kyneton which has always batted well above average for restaurants. We are already thinking of the next time we can day trip there with Sydney for some more of what Tansy’s cooking.

Tansy’s – 91 Piper Street, Kyneton – Open Thursday to Sunday – Sunday is lunch only – call for bookings on (03) 5422 1392 – no website, or Zomato listing

If this review helped you I would really appreciate a quick comment on my page.  Thanks!

A selection of other regional restaurants covered by BLK’s Food Blog (which has never been paid, or provided any complimentary meals):

Pt Leo Estate – Laura, Mornington Peninsula
Lake House, Daylesford
Brae, Birregurra
Oakridge Estate, Yarra Valley
Stefano’s, Mildura
Igni, Geelong
Gladioli, (Now Port Fairy)
Jackalope’s Doot Doot Doot, Mornington Peninsula
Ten Minutes By Tractor, Mornington Peninsula (soon to reopen we hope)
Soon to be covered: Paringa Estate, Mornington Peninsula

Lupo – Collingwood – Saturday 8 June 2019 – Lunch

hare capelletti, celeriac, chestnut, mustard fruits

There are many reasons we are trying out Lupo in its first week. Chef Scott Pickett, a good experience at Saint Crispin a few years ago, our love of Italian food, and getting out with our five week youngster for a (hopefully) long lunch. Not without flaws, previous experiences at Estelle, Matilda and Saint Crispin are much better than average, and the trust is there to go when things may still be settling down on the restaurant floor.

Lupo is described as “relaxed” Italian, though I thought relaxed might be a redundant word next to Italian because most Italian experiences are “free from tension and anxiety”! I’m a bit simpler in my description, because I would say Lupo is great. The relaxed part is the feeling that you are in a cute Italian restaurant, that would be as easily run by Nonna, as it would be by Scott Pickett. Here the room is almost kitsch with worn photo frames housing beautiful black and white photos of Italian landmarks and monuments. Even the toilet has its charm.

gnocco fritto, garlic, grana padano

The menu follows the classic segments of antipasti, pasta/risotti, secondi, cortoni and dolci. The dishes however have accents of the contemporary, and are anything but relaxed. The theme is flavour, much like the depth of Matilda, with recognisable Italian dishes that have a tangible difference without going overboard.

sardines, lemon olive oil, fennel pollen

Our first extended lunch with our little boy, we found great hospitality from the first call to make the booking, through to the exit from the restaurant. Earlier in the day I had a friend send me a photo of their hotel room view over the Pantheon in Rome, and now I’m looking at photos of iconic places like Pisa. I feel like I’m in Italy and my wife is half Italian to seal the vibe. When we taste the amuse of gnocco fritto with garlic and grana Padano, we have had a great start. Just that little bit of inventiveness, but so delicious we couldn’t come here without getting them again. Garlic bread will never be the same.

The Laurent-Perrier Champagne, and Italian Soave, are sliding down beautifully, and our antipasti of sardines with lemon and fennel pollen is another dish to come back for over a drink. The sardines are delicate, but the accompanying slow cooked fennel meets the brief. I move to a Nero D’avola and Catherine to a refreshing mocktail.

Brussels sprouts, farro, guanciale

The expert service was responsible for guiding me between two dishes I couldn’t choose between. While I’ll be back for the crab lasagne, the hare capelletti won my vote by a short margin. Neither choice could be wrong, but I was very pleased with the four large parcels of rabbit ragu encased in al dente pasta with the mustard fruit asserting itself in the celeriac and chestnut sauce.  Combined with the Italian red, I again transported out of Melbourne once again.

hand rolled garganelli, nettles, pine mushrooms, macadamia

Catherine’s pasta had a penne styling to it, but it was freshly rolled and longer. The hand rolled garganelli was presented with nettles, pine mushrooms and macadamias. The combination feels unique and it works. The side of Brussels sprouts is ridiculously good, with guanciale (cured pork cheek) and farro, providing that easy lift that Brussels sprouts enjoy.

tiramisu

We felt the serves had been reasonable, and went for dessert anyway! Here we had a hit and a miss. The hit is the tiramisu which has some modern flourishes, but stays true to the flavour profile. It is excellent and the wafer provides an enjoyable texture. The “oops I made a vienetta” needs some work. The name is confusing because it is more a chocolate chip semifreddo with poached quince in their own syrup and slightly salted popcorn to provide some texture. I like sweet desserts but the syrup does dominate it, and the vienetta novelty is lost.

“oops I made a vienetta”

As we finished with some espresso (Nespresso machine, unfortunately) and peppermint tea, we were presented with petit fours to finish. Classic panforte, torrone, biscotti and amaretti (that is awesome) is the perfect end to a delightful lunch.

Lupo is already an Italian magnet on Smith Street early in its life. It feels like it has the makings of an institution, but will Scott Pickett’s imagination allow it to play out in that direction? Let’s hope so.

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

Monk Bodhi Dharma – St Kilda – Saturday 20 April 2019 – Breakfast

I’m entering into dangerous territory writing about vegan / vegetarian food, like a meat-eater watching Dominion. Is there an ulterior motive in the friendly greetings, and the attentive morning service? Based on some earlier coffee / pastry only experiences I can conclusively say there is not.

This is a safe place. There is no need to push an agenda; the agenda is superb coffee and excellent food. Looking around Monk Bodhi Dharma (the cafe, not the person who brought Buddhism to China) you can tell this isn’t your normal cafe. For a start it is not all sleek lines and modern Scandinavian influenced minimalism; it has character. Wooden (read sustainable) stools, benches and tables are jam-packed into a small intimate space.

Chai latte

Suggestively, like bringing Buddhism to China, I have entered a vegan cafe and I’m willing to give myself to it for a meal. I am confident I will not be let down. For a start the coffee is delicious as ever, and two long blacks is a minimum requirement.

On the menu there is a variety of the usual breakfast staples. It is one meal where certainly meat is not a pre-requisite, and the inventiveness or initiative taken in the dishes is dashing. If Catherine didn’t order the zucchini hotcakes, there was a very good chance I was going to, especially having seen another couple of diners enjoying them.

Zucchini hotcakes

They are served in a stack of three, along side beetroot relish, and pickled cucumber dressed with chilli oil, with a side of vegan sour cream (made of mainly cashew, along with soy). The beetroot relish is a winner, with the raisins adding this defined sweetness that lifts each taste of the fritters. The only issue for Catherine was the chilli which is medium, but impossible to get around (because it seeps into the fritters too). If you are not into chilli take note.

Umami mushrooms

I took no time in ordering the umami mushrooms instead. A combination of king oyster, shiitake, oyster and Swiss brown mushrooms are served on pumpkin and polenta bread. A sauce of goats cheese, thyme and red chilli oil, surrounds and engulfs the main elements, making it feel like a close cousin to baked eggs. I took a few bites to decide that I like this dish, and had no trouble finishing. The query I often have with vegetarian food is the liberal use of chilli to add flavour. My only suggestion would be a bit more salt and a bit less chilli, but that is personal preference.

It was an added bonus that Catherine’s chai latte was just as good as my couple of coffees. This place is famous for the quality of its coffee, and certainly that introduction gave me confidence that the food would not let it down. There are several other dishes that we would be happy to try on the likely repeat breakfast visit.

I’ll never be a vegan or a vegetarian but I could survive on this type of existence. As much as I love meat, it is often nothing more than a filler to better elements in a dish. Several times a week we eat vegetarian at home without even thinking about it as such. In a world where excesses, combined with reducing quality of food to meet supermarket demands is the norm, I truly believe we all need to change our habits. Breakfast at MBD is a great way to start!

Monk Bodhi Dharma Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato