Touchwood – Richmond – Sunday 28 September 2014 – Breakfast

Avocado #2

Avocado #2

I don’t envy someone opening up their own restaurant. It is a huge risk. In Richmond, there is exceptional competition, especially for cafes.

Given Touchwood is down the road from where I live, it was with anticipation that we first ventured to Bridge Road for breakfast. I’ll put that experience to the side, because it was far less than perfect. First impressions are important, but need to be balanced with the early headaches of opening a restaurant. I gave it several months before going back for lunch and found an improved cafe with a bit more assuredness. This time it was make or break. There are too many other great places around for one more negative experience.

You are never sure how staff and diners alike are going to be the morning after the AFL Grand Final. Bright, sunny and windy outside, inside very pleasant with no signs of the celebrations from yesterday (for Hawks supporters at least). No wait was a nice surprise, and although it took quite a while for someone to come and take our order, it didn’t take too long to then bring out the coffee, and food thereafter.

Poached eggs and bacon

Poached eggs and bacon

Catherine chose the second of two avocado selections featuring feta, mint, house smoked salmon, and pickled onion. The house smoke is strong, giving good depth of flavour to the salmon. The multigrain bread is terrific and there is plenty of fresh avocado mingling with the feta. While experimentation is great, I went plain and simple with poached eggs and crispy bacon on sourdough. It is good quality, as this breakfast staple should be. A slight critique is not buttering the bread. While there are a lot of fitness fanatics here, it is Sunday breakfast!

The coffee here is one of the best on Bridge Road. Both long blacks were consistently well made. Oranges are particularly good at the moment, and the OJ lived up to the season. On the service side, the chaos has definitely settled, and Touchwood has some rhythm. The floorstaff were friendly and were keeping their heads above water, just. It is a big cafe, with plenty of space out the back which will be great for summer. I need to add that the burger for lunch is a winner too!

Every restaurant deserves a second chance. The issue for new places is that if you are going out of your way, and you have a negative experience, you might not do the same again. Judging by the crowds since day one, Touchwood is pleasing many more than it displeases. Now that things have settled, I have been converted.

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Baby – Richmond – Friday 26 September 2014 – Lunch

Capricciosa pizza

Capricciosa pizza

Friday lunch is exciting enough normally but Grand Final eve Friday is one of the most exciting of the year. Richmond has a certain buzz the entire weekend being so close to the MCG. Lunch with a group on the hop could be difficult.

While Baby is normally busy, it is relatively easy to get a table for lunch before 12.30pm. As a result, the atmosphere at lunch builds from quiet contemplation of the menu, to atmospheric and noisy (in a good way).

Baby is part of the Chin Chin and Kong trilogy. It is without any doubt, the most standard of the three. However, there is nothing wrong with offering good Italian food, focussing on pizza, that is reasonably priced, in a convivial setting that is extremely popular.

My take on the pizza is that it is several times better than the chains, better than most standard Italian restaurants and cafes, but not as good as the upper echelon of pizza joints around Melbourne such as D.O.C. as an example. I have eaten pizza here, and have taken it away, around ten times. It has never been doughy or overcooked and has always featured good quality ingredients. Today’s Capricciosa is great with prosciutto, olives, mushrooms and stringy artichoke. I think the fior di latte cheese could be a little more generous, but that is only a tiny criticism.

On previous occasions I’ve had good desserts here, nice breakfasts (along with good coffee), and I’ve never had to wait an obscene amount of time for a table at dinner. The take away pizzas are often ready in less than 20 minutes. I particularly liked the price of coffee in the first few months of opening at $2.20!

For years this address was one of the stars of Melbourne’s restaurant scene. Pearl is gone, but quality persists here without the price tag.

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Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder – Richmond – Sunday 21 September 2014 – Cheese

Cheese!

Cheese!

For some, cheese is a devotion. I’ve heard Will Studd speak about cheese and he puts it up on a pedestal. Others may be less articulate, but they can be even more enthusiastic and energised.

When I was once in Paris I felt an overwhelming desire to grab a baguette and a hunk of cheese and walk down the road eating it. A tourist asked me for directions and I realised that this desire was very likely a huge stereotype, since I’ve never actually seen a Parisian do the same.

It’s not a weekly, or even monthly occurrence. But every now and then I have the same need to get to Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder for a cheese platter. There is nowhere with the history and feeling that RHCL gives to me.

Magic Melbourne days spent on Bridge Road outside at RHCL are some of my most memorable as a tourist, and now as a local. You can buy an incredible selection of cheese in the larder; you can while away the day eating breakfast, drinking coffee, or maybe enjoy a Bloody Mary. But the A-game is a cheese platter and a glass of wine.

Today we choose to have a cheese platter and select the Pont L’eveque, Pyengana cheddar, and Bleu de Basque to combine with the fig and quince preserve, quince paste, white and fruit bread, apple and pear. The Pont L’eveque is soft but still close to firm, with a pungent aroma from the washed rind. Its taste is divine for a true cheese lover; powerful, clingy and salty. The cheddar by Tasmanian producer Pyengana is cloth-bound and strong without being crumbly. It is rich, melting in the mouth, and lingers beautifully. The Bleu de Basque is an accomplished cheese, but is entry level when it comes to the spectrum of blue strength in bacteria riddled cheeses. I would have preferred stronger (if available on the selection) but it is still a charming cheese albeit a little shy of flavour.

Bread!

Bread!

Unlike other places, I never really notice the service one way or another. On reflection it is often of a high standard, and part of the quality is allowing customers to enjoy lengthy spells at the tables without too much fuss. You look around here and it is a revered venue by customers and staff alike. And a heavy personal favourite of mine.

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Low Key Chow House – Leederville – Thursday 18 September 2014 – Dinner

IMG_2589There are several strong themes running through 2014 in terms of food. In many ways, the strongest theme surrounds Australia’s latest version of modern Asian, combining some of the best aspects of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

They’re still out there – places that combine the most mediocre aspects of several cuisines or cultures. Those places where you can have fish and chips, fried rice, or souvlaki. On the face of it, offering pork buns, sashimi, yakitori, and several other great dishes, could make a restaurant look like it has a personality crisis. Low Key Chow House on the other hand, combines several styles without clashing on your palate.

Citrus cure

Citrus cure

We start with the citrus cure which is described as sashimi but is closer to ceviche. The grapefruit cure is fantastic. As with many ceviches, as delicious as they can be, the type of fish was hard to detect. It may have been kingfish. The mantou buns came out and looked amazing. The pork belly, complete with perfect crackling, lived up to the look. The buns are popular for good reason and it would be hard to dine at Chow without ordering them.

Mantou buns

Mantou buns

I liked the idea of including gizzards in the yakitori skewers, which also included thigh and crispy skin. Mum got the crispy skin one and I got the gizzards. Unfortunately, the gizzard doesn’t work and it would be better to have a couple of the crispy skin ones. The thigh itself was excellent; surprisingly good quality for a restaurant not specialising in yakitori. It was hard choosing main, because there were so many great sounding dishes. Having settled on the spatchcock, we were happy with our decision. The chicken was deboned, marinated, grilled, and beautifully seasoned. The achara salad it came with was nice, but not necessary with each bite of the chicken. The Kimchi salad was superb. Fresh herbs, chilli, Asian leaves and spicy kimchi, makes for an intriguing side.

Spatchcock

Spatchcock and kimchi salad

The servings were generous enough, but we could fit in dessert, and being a huge fan of red bean, I had to try the Azuki bean. The presentation was more interesting than what I expected. The crepes, filled with red bean, had been rolled and cut, and scattered over the plate. As you would expect, strawberry compote, ice cream, and coconut accompanying the crepes all work together. Simple and delicious, with the red bean starring.

Azuki bean

Azuki bean

The service was terrific. Our waitperson showed an excellent understanding of the menu and was attentive throughout. It was really busy in the restaurant, making for a fun and atmospheric place to eat.

Years ago, I used to eat here regularly, in this exact same spot, at cheap and cheerful Hans. Now, Leederville is almost unrecognisable, and there is a lot of burger joints – a lot! It is astounding the way Oxford Street has changed and while I have a soft spot for the old times, the new times are far better.

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Duchess of Spotswood – Spotswood – Saturday 13 September 2014 – Breakfast

Duchess of Pork

Duchess of Pork

Traditionally, the British have been known to do a great breakfast – maybe the best. The full English is a celebration of fried meats, eggs, and other foods like beans, tomatoes and mushrooms that get to share the plate with the stars. While there is an excitement in having every breakfast food you can think of available to you on one plate, at times it is too much, and at times the quality of the separate ingredients may not be the best.

A British themed breakfast spot is unusual because aren’t all breakfast spots that serve the traditional classics basically British by definition? At the Duchess of Spotswood the theme is more than appropriate. There is a traditional approach to the great British breakfast, using high quality ingredients, merged with some more modern tastes.

There is the “Breakfast of Champignons” which is one of my favourite names for a great dish of delicious mushrooms on toast with Stilton thrown in for good measure. Today I’m eating the “Duchess of Pork”, which is an interesting dish to start the day. Pork jowl broken down and formed into a rectangle, with crispy pork scattered around the plate, shaved truffle, two fried eggs, Madeira sauce and some toast. Pork jowl is an amazing gamey meat – very strong and rich. It combines beautifully with the Madeira sauce (which could be a little more liberal) and the yolk of the eggs. It’s not for every day, but today it is heavenly.

As you would hope, the bacon at the Duchess is a staple, thick sliced and incredibly good, whether combined in a simple bacon and eggs, or the Full English. Gladly, the Full English includes black pudding, and will be my choice next time I’m here with an appetite. The coffee is excellent, the orange juice is sweet and freshly squeezed, and the Spring weather is coming along nicely.

The Duchess has really sparked this little village in Spotswood into life. There is a terrific bakery, called Candied, and I can vouch for the rye, and the brûlée from the last trip. There is a cafe, serving only coffee, including syphon, and few other places in a relatively small space. Travel wise it is relatively easy, being the first exit just over the West Gate.

The Duchess is one of the best cafes in Melbourne. If it was in Brunswick, Fitzroy or the Inner East it would be an impossible wait, but here in Spotswood it fits perfectly.

Duchess of Spotswood on Urbanspoon

The Bridge Hotel – Richmond – Friday 5 September 2014 – Lunch

There is a wow factor the first time you come across the fitout at The Bridge Hotel. Architecturally one of the coolest pubs you can imagine, though impossible to find your friends in one of the several nooks and crannies!

It’s now a few years old and is established and busy, but not quite as crazy as the months after opening. The owners did the right thing. You need to have a point of difference and excitement on this part of Bridge Road that is not geographically endowed. The “Karma Keg” on Friday afternoon is a fun idea, and the drinks on offer are diverse, adding further interest from the tried and tested.

We are here for Friday lunch and get one of the booths in the dining section. I’ve been here a few times and find that the burger is a clear winner if you have a good appetite. It has all the trimmings with bacon and eggs, and is a bit more old school with a “normal” bun and well sized pattie meaning the burger doesn’t fall to pieces after a couple bites. The chips are always pretty tasty here with the obligatory beer batter for serious connoisseurs!

There are other pub favourites on offer with the parma proving hard for several of us to go past. It looks great. The service is good for a pub and it helps we are in a part of the dining area that seems to be naturally well attended. The only unusual aspect of note was the lack of English breakfast tea on offer. Sure we are in a pub, but there is a hotel across the road and a petrol station too. Thinking on your feet is not that hard (especially when they have plenty of green tea going around!)

Once you have seen the transformation of the Bridge Hotel the initial wow factor abates. What is left is a great quality pub to have a drink in any one of seven or eight settings and some nice food.

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Supermaxi – North Fitzroy – Numerous Occasions – Dinner

Mozzarella, green olives, salumi

Mozzarella, green olives, salumi

When you travel to Italy and dine out there is an overwhelming sense of belonging and understanding. We are very used to the Italian way of dining and the flavours, ambience and service that comes with it.

Luckily, there are many Italian restaurants in Melbourne where you feel like you are back in Italy on holiday enjoying the food, wine and culture that are seamlessly intertwined. On St Georges Road in North Fitzroy, about four years ago, a tiny bit of Italy planted itself in the community and continues to win the custom of locals.

Catherine and I have been to Supermaxi many times over the past four years, albeit we are not all that local. There are several dishes that have been here for the journey that we keep coming back for. It has become one of our favourite restaurants in Melbourne because on every occasion we’ve had warm service and genuine care for our dining experience. These features lead to the place being packed to the brim so the atmosphere is always abuzz.

Recently we shared dinner with Catherine’s family and friends to celebrate her birthday. Obviously, there is a huge difference in the dynamic when you are dining with 16 others as opposed to dining in a small group or as a couple! We had full confidence the restaurant would cope and provide a memorable experience and it lived up to our expectations. While there were some natural delays due to the size of the group, service was prompt and accommodating, and our waitperson Marco even managed to charm Catherine’s Mum (in a platonic way!)

Lupini

Lupini

Primi is a must at Supermaxi. The arancini are always packed full of flavour and crispy but not over-fried. The fried cauliflower is a cult hero here and is a great expression of this slightly docile vegetable, topped with onion jam that lifts the taste.

The pizzas are consistently excellent with delicious bases, nice and crisp, and featuring quality ingredients. Our favourite here, and actually our favourite of all time, is the Maxi, which has salty pancetta on a tomato base, with the bitterness in the radiccio adding a contrasting depth of flavour that I keep going back for. The Treccia mozzarella and parmigiano top it off perfectly.

Maxi pizza

Maxi

Secondi features pasta, risotto, fish and meat dishes that are all fantastic. I mainly stick to the pasta, with the linguine a favourite, and the fatt’in casa a close second. The fatt’in casa is the house spaghetti with delicious meatballs and tomato sauce. A very generous portion, but not over the top, the spaghetti is beautiful and fresh. The linguine is olive oil based with a classic combination of prawns, garlic and chilli accompanying it, along with the interesting addition of zucchini.

The desserts are now classics here, including the signature fried custard. It’s indulgent and appropriate to share if you’ve already had a few courses. Then there’s the semifreddo which changes but is always well constructed and not too sweet.

Fried custard

Fried custard

There’s a good selection of drinks and a wine list that is balanced between Italian and local wines, and reasonably priced. The service is great with scripted, stiff floor staff, not needing to apply. There are misses as a result, but the charm of Italian restaurants is the authenticity of the staff, not necessarily perfect service in a clinical sense. I find it easy to relax in this type of setting and just enjoy the meal and the company. If you arrive early there are kids at most tables and you can tell they have enjoyed themselves as much as their parents. That’s a good advertisement for the vibe here.

Supermaxi is more than a good neighbourhood Italian. It has some exceptional dishes that you can eat in a setting that feels more like a holiday in Italy than a Saturday night in North Fitzroy.

Supermaxi on Urbanspoon

Post script

Catherine and I were back at Supermaxi for Saturday night dinner recently. Sitting on the bar we reminisced about her birthday dinner a month ago and ordered some of our favourites to share over a relaxing evening.

The special antipasti featured beautiful fresh mozzarella as the star and it was exquisite. The Maxi pizza was delicious as ever, the combination of radiccio and pancetta never getting old, especially when on such a perfectly formed base. To finish we had the fried custard which sounds unusual but is a signature and for good reason. The texture of the thick custard is set off with the fried exterior and the ice cream adds some moisture.

As usual, service was accomplished and smart. Supermaxi just seems to deliver with ease, each and every time.

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