Little Creatures – Geelong – Saturday 29 November 2014 – Dinner

Spiced lamb, zucchini, goat's cheese

Spiced lamb, zucchini, goat’s cheese

Trust is an incredibly important commodity when it comes to hospitality in general. Patronage is built on experience, reputation and trust. Of the three, the only element that is blind is trust.

I trust in Little Creatures. I am not sure which element appeals the most. But I can tell you that the reason I am here tonight is the knowledge that Little Creatures delivers on food. Each and every experience I have had in Fremantle and Fitzroy have been great. Fuss free, quality ingredients, with unusual precision for what in the end is a restaurant singing an ode to the beer it is marketing. Maybe that is the veil that separates expectation from reality and leads to such an over-delivery.

While I realise I’m gushing about Little Creatures I cannot help it. The brewery and restaurant in Fremantle was an absolute revelation when it opened in what was previously the Crocodile Farm. It was huge, full of people enjoying some of the best new beer to be released in some time (I could say from a WA perspective the beginning of the craft brewery movement), and the instant favourite of most Perthites. I was always impressed that the Fitzroy venue (a German beer hall) kept the same ingredients for success.

The Geelong edition is well signposted, which is good, since without the signs it would have been difficult to find! In a working brewery, the “canteen” is past the car gate security check, down the lane, to the right, past the waiting room looking shipping container, and then to the right again. For a well hidden room, the restaurant is a big space. The red brick building is beautiful and old, but I have no doubt a lot of care and effort was taken to renovate it into the venue it is today. There’s table service for diners and a large bar for those seeking relief from only their thirst.

Prawn, jalapeño, gremolata, mozzarella

Prawn, jalapeño, gremolata, mozzarella

After hearing Alice Waters’ speech about slow food culture, and uniformity not always being the great attribute it often is held out to be (referring to the MacDonald’s lack of creativity and more adverse consequences of uniformity), I am loath to use the words. However, the style of pizza offered at the Geelong brewery is uniform to that offered at the other Little Creatures outposts. Catherine and I share the spiced lamb with zucchini and goat’s cheese pizza, and also the prawn, jalapeño, gremolata and mozzarella version. Both pizza bases are nice and thin, with the right amount of crispiness for my taste. The prawns are generously spread around the base and the jalapeños are hot. The gremolata, which I find is a mix of lemon zest, parsley and garlic, adds a distinct punch, but isn’t quite as generous as the prawns. The spiced, minced lamb on the other pizza is thickly spread, and works well with the zucchini and goat’s cheese. There is some sort of reduction, like a sweet balsamic, drizzled over sparingly which also adds further interest, cutting through some of the richness of the lamb. Both pizzas are terrific.

Needless to say, the beer (and cider) is fresh and true to recipe. The Rogers I am drinking is a darker ale that has less alcohol than most of the other offerings. Given we are driving back to Melbourne tonight after watching Violent Soho at the Barwon Club, there is a need to keep a lid on it (figuratively and literally). But the Rogers is one of the best mid-strength beers I’ve tried anywhere in the world, so I’m happy. The cider has a mild sweetness but is on the drier side – a style which is unfortunately becoming more the minority as more and more sweet ciders seem to be hitting the market.

In and out relatively quickly on this Saturday night I have been reminded again of how important trust is when selecting a venue to dine at. The Little Creatures stable of restaurants have the ingredients to attract a diverse and significant following, and every single time I’m there those ingredients are delicious!

Little Creatures Geelong Brewery on Urbanspoon

Tonka – Melbourne, City – Monday 17 November 2014 – Dinner

Tuna tartare, rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi

Tuna tartare, rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi

Indian food is deep in flavour, rich, complex, and generally, the ugly ducking of culinary history. We all know beauty is only skin deep but presentation makes a difference. A restaurant purporting to be modern Indian poses many questions. These questions were answered in the affirmative by Tonka.

It is Monday night and our first choice of restaurant was not available due to a large function. Not far away down an alley is a space where I’ve had one huge night and many, many, rejections by the door person. I stopped trying to get in to Honkytonks nightclub. Luckily, there is space on the restaurant bar free after only five minutes and we are “in”. The nightmare rejections have come to an end and all it took was for the club to turn into a restaurant!

Pani puri, crispy parcel filled with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney with aromatic water

Pani puri, crispy parcel filled with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney with aromatic water

The menu comes out and it is down to business. As our bar/waitperson begins her definitive affinity to smashing perfectly good Riedel glassware, we read through the smaller single bites, smaller share plates, and bigger dishes. We are out on a school night having heard Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre about slow food culture. Suddenly it hits me that this is not your normal school night out place and it is pretty expensive. Most glasses of wine (and certainly the ones we chose to go with our food) are $17 to $19 a glass. It could possibly be a premium for all the ones being smashed.

I have wanted to try Tonka since it opened so I forget about the prices and start focussing on how to narrow down the menu which is full of terrific looking dishes. To start we try the pani puri. There is a light “aromatic water” that you pour into the open crispy shell. By necessity you are guided to then eat the entire package in a single bite which explodes mainly with soft potato and spice. It’s fun and a nice way to start.

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Next we share the tuna tartare which is beautiful in both its presentation and taste. The serving is quite large, giving you the opportunity to almost cover each pappadum with the tuna. The pappadum itself is infused with spice and like no other I’ve tried – it doesn’t breakdown when bitten, is still crunchy, and adds flavour rather than being merely the vessel. Pomegranate bursts through each bite, there’s chilli and coriander for punch, and the tuna is superb. It is an impressive dish and answers some questions about how to do contemporary Indian.

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds

The lamb curry comes out in standard style though the lamb itself is absolutely perfect. Too many times you find Indian restaurants either not cooking meat for long enough, or not using consistently good cuts (it’s not about the quality cuts – it’s about the right cuts). Here, the lamb is singing and the sauce is divine. Besides the basmati rice, we were encouraged to get a side of fried cauliflower, which we in fact didn’t need, but definitely enjoyed. Again there’s a modern touch and promotion of the main ingredient into a different league.

Ginger beer cake, walnut, pear and buttermilk

Ginger beer cake, walnut, pear and buttermilk

Service had been good despite the unfortunate continued difficulty with carefully getting glasses out of the dishwasher. While we were completely satisfied, having had such good savoury courses we needed to see if the modern touch on dessert works here too. In a word – yes. The ginger beer cake is amazing and the pastry chef’s here know technique well. Each component was well executed and combined together deliciously.

From initial surprise at how busy the restaurant is on a Monday, to being a little taken back by the prices (our original aim was a much cheaper and less indulgent meal), by the end I was thoroughly satisfied and impressed. My questions were answered, and the answers were delicious.

Tonka on Urbanspoon

Demitri’s Feast – Richmond – Saturday 15 November 2014 – Breakfast

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One of the great things about Melbourne cafe life is the ability to frequently have a brilliant breakfast without any associated wait. Sure, there are places like Proud Mary and Chez Dre that are unlikely to ever subside in their popularity. But there are also places like Demitri’s Feast that were once the darling of the cafe scene which now you can get straight in (or close).

Demitri’s Feast has not changed. It is more a function of the dynamic scene that sees new cafes open up on a weekly basis. In Richmond it is a case of being extremely spoilt for choice. It is more which cafe is the best on the block, rather than the entire suburb!

I’m not sure of the history of the proprietors of Demitri’s but what I do know is that they were born to run a cafe. Whether I go in early on a weekday, at lunch on a Wednesday, or for breakfast on the weekend, there is a friendly and comfortable environment guaranteed. You are treated like an important customer whether the cafe is full or you are the only one there enjoying an afternoon coffee and Turkish delight. I’ve made this assessment having been here for different reasons at least 15 times.

Today we arrive late morning and find there is one last table for two inside. Knowing how good the vine tomatoes are here that is always part of my order. The coffee is good without being the centrepiece. The tomatoes on the other hand taste like they are from Italy or Greece. I haven’t asked, so I’m not sure if there is a secret, but as long as the tomatoes taste incredibly fresh and sweet, I’ll continue going back for them.
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I order the scrambled eggs which have feta mixed through adding even more fluffiness. The sourdough toast is delicious, as is the bacon. Catherine goes for the smashed avocado, which comes with bacon, a poached egg, and those gorgeous confit cherry tomatoes. Both dishes are fantastic classic Melbourne breakfasts with that extra touch you expect from the top cafes.

I realise I’m giving Demitri’s Feast a big wrap. It is now part of the Richmond cafe scene, in a nondescript part of Swan Street that has seemingly built up around its success. It has personality. Whether it reminds me of one of those restaurants in Europe where you are treated like family on your first visit, or whether I am just a huge fan of the tomatoes, the equation here makes complete sense to me.

Tao Tao House – Hawthorn – Sunday 16 November 2014 – Yum Cha

Custard tart

Custard tart

Is it just me, or is yum cha the most intimidating form of dining? For a polite diner, it often feels like asking the person on the trolley to repeat themselves is a faux pas. But a few more moments of consideration, or too much reflection, and you might think they don’t actually want you to know. In year’s gone by I have opted, given my ability to eat anything, to just try anything and everything. Lately I am improving in both execution and timing.

I love pork buns. I do not care how novice it might be to continue to love pork buns. Maybe the equivalent of continuing to enjoy fairy bread in your thirties. Through this love I have learned one very important thing. Places doing yum cha keep the pork buns and present them when you can’t possibly eat anything more. When the only reason you are doing this to yourself is because of pure love. Well, I am on to this and I never get “full” until I have tried my pork bun. Note there is always room for dessert.

Mango pudding

Mango pudding

Tao Tao House looks like your classic suburban Chinese restaurant. It is quaint with an inviting themed entrance, clean and organised (important for pushing trolleys through), and very comfortable. Diners are not pushed together like passengers on a plane, and we in fact have two on a table for four! We are hit up to try the prawn dumplings immediately having had our first sip of tea and it is on!

As I have eluded I am not the authority on yum cha (or dim sum as I grew up with in Perth). I feel out of my comfort zone from the time I enter to the time I leave and my common trait of not wanting to say no has got me into trouble on more than one outing. There is something different about Tao Tao House though. The staff are very friendly – not in an off-putting or disarming way – but in a way where you don’t feel terrible saying “no”.

Prawn dumplings

Prawn dumplings

On the journey to the pork bun, rejecting trolley after trolley becomes more and more second nature. On our way we try the prawn dumplings and prawn toast. The dumplings are steamed and keep their form in a glutinous wrapper perfectly. The prawn filling is nice, but the chilli sauce adds the impact they need. The prawn toast are excellent. Crunchy toast, fresh juicy prawn, and toasted sesame seeds is a good way to start the day.

Chicken siu mai

Chicken siu mai

Between rejections we eat the duck pancakes which are the richest dish we try. There is a good amount of duck amongst mushrooms, contained in a wrapping of soft duck skin. Next comes the chicken siu mai which has a delicious chicken mixture tightly wrapped in a harder textured style dumpling. After getting our hopes up with chicken buns finally out come the char siu bao or steamed pork buns! They are light and fluffy with a rich pork filling that is satisfying for two reasons. The first is to my taste buds and the second to my stomach which for once isn’t already completely full.

Pork buns

Pork buns

To end we try the mango pudding. This is one of the more savoury puddings I’ve tried at yum cha with a focus on the mango, rather than the sugar. I can’t be sure whether it is fresh mango but it is still delicious and the syrup does give a little more of a sugar hit without being over the top. We are almost ready to ask for the bill but there is only so far I can go with rejection and turning down the custard tarts, while it had been spoken about, was just not possible. They were one of the highlights of our meal and judging by the other tables, one of the highlights of most!
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Yum cha is always going to feel a bit different to me. Trying new foods and flavours is exciting, but normally you have some sort of guide or description on a menu, rather than someone who has to repeat themselves hundreds of times around a room full of tables with varying degrees of understanding. Either way, the quality of yum cha at Tao Tao House is high, and the staff are polite and reasonably helpful. Our tip was 100% for the waitperson who took it upon themselves to grab the pork buns before they went around on the trolley and deliver them immediately. Thank you very much!

Tao Tao House on Urbanspoon

Saint Crispin – Collingwood – Friday 7 November 2014 – Dinner

Atlantic salmon, parsley risotto, prawn, broadbean and peas

Atlantic salmon, parsley risotto, prawn, broadbean and peas

After five years of occasions, all of which special, and falling between spontaneous and months in the planning, I would like to think I’ve worked it all out. But in reality, romance is a market never cornered, and each occasion and celebration is different and exciting in itself. There is a lot that can go wrong on a first date, a wedding anniversary, or any intimate celebration. We are outrageously lucky in Melbourne though.

There are big night restaurants aplenty, intimate French bistros, tucked away hip newcomers, gastropubs and atmospheric places that feel more like a bar than a restaurant. There are the institutions, the old trusties, and the local spots for comfort; and then there are places you’ve wanted to go to for ages like Saint Crispin that just make sense. I like celebrating with Catherine and I book a couple of months in advance crossing my fingers it lives up to the expectations.

Yellowfin tuna, calamari, mussels, tapioca and fennel

Yellowfin tuna, calamari, mussels, tapioca and fennel

Saint Crispin is on Smith Street in Collingwood and the room is like almost every other along the strip – long and rectangular with very high ceilings. On the left are a series of tables closely spaced, and on the right is a long bar with plenty of space for diners too. It’s a recent renovation and feels familiar and typical but is definitely sleek and warm. Although, we have arrived ten minutes before our booking and the restaurant is oddly quiet. Either the early sitting diners were incredibly polite and left well ahead of time, or most on a Friday night are opting for the 8.15pm or after second sitting. Twenty minutes later the restaurant is full and we feel like we set some sort of trend!

Wagyu tartare and braesola, egg yolk, hay ash and pine nuts

Wagyu tartare and braesola, egg yolk, hay ash and pine nuts

Reviewing the menu we decide for this first time to try three courses of our choosing, rather than put ourselves in the chef’s hands. Given the number of dishes jumping off the page, either choice would probably be equally fulfilling. To start I tried the Wagyu tartare and Catherine tried the yellowfin tuna. I knew this is one of the Melbourne restaurants pushing the boundaries but it didn’t sink in until both dishes landed on our table.

I’m not talking about really unusual flavours or any particular theatre. After a few tastes of the tartare, what I am talking about is very well thought through flavour combinations, treating the ingredients with respect, but using cutting edge technique. The egg yolk in particular on this dish was not your usual; it was somehow thickened and placed at strategic points of the plate to allow a small taste to be included in each bite of the tartare and braesola. Catherine’s seafood was beautifully cooked, and presented with flair. The salsa verde added punch and the cracker some crunch, as well as visual impact.

Western Plains pork, fennel, burnt carrot, orange, and miso

Western Plains pork, fennel, burnt carrot, orange, and miso

The good start was met by some superb mains. Catherine’s Atlantic salmon could not have been more perfectly confit-ed. Absolutely gorgeous green parsley risotto, fresh peas and broadbeans were a great accompaniment. My Western Plains pork was tricky to eat, but with crackling filling each mouthful with salty goodness, I didn’t mind a bit. The roasted (and fresh) fennel, burnt carrot sauce streaked over the plate, all added flavour and balanced the natural fattiness of the pork. A dish I would go back for in a dash.

Peanut butter parfait, spiced pineapple, golden syrup and rum

Peanut butter parfait, spiced pineapple, golden syrup and rum

Dessert hit similar heights. The deep mango taste in the cremeux, balanced by the yoghurt, with bursts from mango jelly and a dusting of something not at all resembling jasmine rice (except for the colour), was a terrific dish. Desserts seem to have a script in modern times, but there is definitely no simplicity in the execution. Similarly playful in its presentation was Catherine’s peanut butter parfait. Not too far away at places like Cutler & Co. peanut butter parfait is a feature but the one here has a tangent with spiced pineapple lining the bottom, and delicate toffee and crumb adding the texture to offset the creamy parfait.

Mango cremeux, jasmine rice, lime and yoghurt

Mango cremeux, jasmine rice, lime and yoghurt

The waitstaff allowed us to control the flow of the meal and were helpful with questions throughout. The sommelier had a night off but we still had good assistance with matching wines by the glass to our dishes. It was the first night the d’Arenburg 2010 Dead Arm Shiraz was offered and it didn’t matter what I ordered for main I was having a glass of that terrific wine.

Saint Crispin is the complete package at a stage in its evolution that is still extremely new and exciting. It must be the best of its type on Smith Street with the closest pushing the boundaries I can think of across the road a little further up at Huxtuble. To be the jewel in the crown of such an amazing collection of restaurants on the one street is a huge achievement.

Saint Crispin on Urbanspoon

Luxembourg – St Kilda – Sunday 2 November 2014 – Lunch

Prawn special

Prawn special

My friends and I have a tradition on the Sunday after Derby Day to go for lunch together to recover from the highs and lows of what is always a great day. Each year there is a good amount of banter on where to go, who gets to choose, and then on the day whether the current lunch is up there with the best.

It is a group lunch, often only with the guys, and normally follows the same script. We get there quite hungover, tough it out through the first drink and first taste of food, and then get back to celebrating one of the great weeks of the year anywhere in the world. Following a successful day the talk is all about the horses who won, who had the most successful bet, and the near misses.

This year we wanted to go to Stokehouse – a restaurant I am very familiar with, but my friends have not tried. However, the temporary city venue was booked for a function so in quick time we decided to try Andrew McConnell’s latest and greatest, Luxembourg. From what I had heard, Luxembourg is a reasonably priced European bistro that has honest classical dishes that are good to share, perfect for a group of close friends.

1kg dry aged O'Connor T-bone, béarnaise, onion rings

1kg dry aged O’Connor T-bone, béarnaise, onion rings

We were seated on the front left window looking in, which is a great spot to watch the world go by, and in a way, a little bit separated from the rest of the restaurant. As the seven of us settled in to our first beverage, talk turned to the meal ahead. I’d heard the roast chicken was amazing so that was locked in, and the waitperson described the roast t-bone as one of the feature dishes which would be our main. Pigs ear scratchings, beef carpaccio, whole prawns, oysters and some salad and chips to go with the steak were all ordered too. We were excited!

Pigs ear scratchings

Pigs ear scratchings

We also ordered a very reasonably priced Soave to go with the seafood, and a 2010 Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley to go with the steak which was opened immediately. The bread was excellent like you expect from a good bistro, especially one overseen by Andrew McConnell. The oysters were all beautiful; Sydney Rock and Pacific oysters are all incredible at the moment. The beef carpaccio was a bit too generously sliced for my taste, but was good nonetheless.

Roast chicken, bay leaf cream, broad beans and gizzards

Roast chicken, bay leaf cream, broad beans and gizzards

Next came the whole prawns which were more the size of langoustines. Really juicy meat still sweet and flavoursome – easily one of the highlights of the meal. On the other hand, the squid salad, whilst cooked perfectly, lacked flavour. The tentacles were nicely chargrilled and had good seasoning, but the main tube of the squid had almost no flavour. The end of the entree was my favourite dish of the day. The half roast chicken is immaculate. You will not taste better roast chicken. Glistening crisp skin giving way for juicy, just-cooked meat, touched by an angel.

To finish the savoury courses, the dry aged O’Connor T-bone is a classic bistro dish. Beautifully cooked steak, smothered in béarnaise (I have a heavy hand when it comes to béarnaise), golden onion rings and frites, some leafy salad on the side. Seven of us shared two of them and were very fulfilled. There is a Tuesday night BYO policy and I have it on my list to bring a good bottle of red and just order the steak and a couple of sides for an indulgent midweek meal!

Chocolate tart with creme Chantilly

Chocolate tart with creme Chantilly

The service had been good throughout, though I think by the end our group was pretty boisterous and were left to our own devices a bit. It is noteworthy that the restaurant was not very busy, which may have been because of the extended long weekend for Melbourne Cup Day. We ordered dessert and most either had the mille-feuille with cultured cream and strawberries, or the chocolate tart baked to order with creme Chantilly.

Mille-feuille, cultured cream and strawberries

Mille-feuille, cultured cream and strawberries

The mille-feuille was delightful. It is a technically challenging dessert that looks simple on the plate, but was nicely executed and packed with freshness. The chocolate tart was delicious, the creme Chantilly really adding some balance to the richness. Oozing chocolate is always a good look and that softness on top of a perfectly baked tart never gets old. Another winner for the weekend!

We’ve had some great lunches to recover. The old Circa comes to mind, Cafe Di Stasio, The Graham, The Grand Hotel have all been terrific, but this was definitely up there challenging the best of them.

Luxembourg on Urbanspoon