Gladioli – Inverleigh – Wednesday 23 March 2016 – Dinner

Potato, eel, wild roquette

Potato, eel, wild roquette

There are only a few rooms available in Inverleigh to stay in at a local bed and breakfast. This charming town is becoming a destination for food lovers due to the rise of Gladioli and there is no doubt in years to come there will be more rooms becoming available to stay.

It is a thirty minute drive from Geelong where we are staying and with the benefit of hindsight on the wine matching, we are glad to have taken a reasonably expensive taxi to and from the restaurant. The charming little town translates into the restaurant. Set in an old house, it has been lovingly transformed into a small fine dining operation.
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Wednesday night before Easter was never going to be busy and three tables are booked, all for anniversary celebrations. This means we have a situation where we have at least one-third of the attention of the lone waitperson. Unsurprisingly he does an excellent job. However, it is his intense interest in fine dining that sets him apart from many others just happening to work in great establishments. It seems the whole Gladioli staff have been to some top Michelin restaurants across the US and Europe.

Radish, and trout skin with daikon

Radish, and trout skin with daikon

We have the choice of a la carte, and five or eight course tasting menus. We go for the latter along with matching wines. While there were plenty of highlights, the standout dish of my night was the ‘potato, eel, wild roquette’. Saying the potatoes were perfect is a dramatic understatement for this versatile and much loved vegetable. Combined with the sauce, and the strong flavour of the eel (akin to using bacon in a potato salad), you have a familiar combination, with outstanding taste and texture, focussing on the sous vide potatoes. Matched with the 2014 Austin’s Chardonnay, there is balance between the earthiness of the dish, and this elegant wine that spends less time in new French Oak (6 months) than many of its peers.

Zucchini, snow peas, ricotta

Zucchini, snow pea, ricotta

While the meatier mains were my next favoured dishes, the completely vegetarian first course showed off some great ingredients. Grilled zucchini is lightly cooked, and when combined with fresh ricotta you have an absolutely gorgeous starter. This had closely followed some amuses that included a beef cracker (the tendon), trout skin with julienne daikon, and best of all, a delicious raw fresh radish. The local olives from down the road were a nice touch to begin with as well.

Duck, blackberries, rose

Duck, blackberries, rose

Back to the favourites, and the final main course could not have been better prepared. Incredibly beautiful duck is combined with a blackberry sauce, and stunningly touched beetroot, and the presentation matches the taste. There is a lot of interest here, but it also fits the brief of providing a more wholesome finish to the savoury courses. Just prior came a delicious disk of pork mainly from the cheek but also including jowl. Put next to bitter greens it is a familiar combination, perfectly seasoned, with an elevated taste.

Strawberries, almond, fig leaf

Strawberries, fig leaf, almond

The desserts are quality. The first was the sweeter of the two with macerated strawberries, alongside almond ice cream. There is a lot of technique here, but most important is the balance of sweetness between both elements. The crumble, which provides sweetness with that crunchy texture, will live in Catherine’s memory for a long time to come. Even more complicated, but far more on the savoury dessert front, is the last course of layered apple, chestnut cream, and rosemary. Here it is all about a terrific and inventive combination of tastes and textures, and it is somewhat addictive, especially when washed down with the dessert style sauvignon blanc by Mitchell Harris. Every bite is brilliant. The previous dessert was with pedro and that can never be bad at dessert time!

Apple, chestnut, rosemary

Apple, chestnut, rosemary

There were no average dishes but two in particular could have been improved. The kingfish itself was immaculate; easily the best seared kingfish I have eaten, but the plum was inconsistent with some firm and some soft. Similarly, the prawns were perfectly cooked, but had their tract intact, which particularly put Catherine off. It was a pity because the dish is beautifully presented.

Prawns, kohlrabi,

Prawns, kohlrabi, seawater

The wine matching is magnificent, balancing between intrigue and familiarity, and leveraging on the locals, which are known Australia wide. As an example, the use of the 2008 Bannockburn Vineyards ‘Gladioli’ Shiraz which is grown close by is intelligent. Bannockburn is a stunning winery, and Gladioli must reduce cost by having a portion grown just for them.

There are a couple of wines that don’t hit those same heights, such as the Best’s House Block Riesling with residual sugar, but they still work well enough, in this case with the kingfish. One slant that I enjoy is the use of some Italian varieties in local wines (vermentino by Bellwether from Heathcote with the zucchini), or even Italian wines produced by Australian nationals (Fletcher Langhe Rosso with the pork). Naturally many of these varieties are good with food. It was the most I’ve enjoyed the wine matching for some time.

Kingfish, plum

Kingfish, beach mustard, plum

Gladioli has real heart. It took me back to past experiences, even reminding me of Poland when the potato and eel was served (which was a lot like their bacon and cubed potatoes, only much better quality!). The service was informed and conversational, and the food and wine glorious. There is not much further to go, but I’m keen to follow the journey, knowing how amazing the last step could be.
Gladioli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Igni – Geelong – Thursday 24 March 2016 – Dinner

Lamb rump, parsnip, radicchio

Lamb rump, parsnip, radicchio

Good fortune is the only way to describe finding out about Igni opening up in Geelong not long ago. With dinner plans for the Thursday night before Easter still not set, this seemed a must visit.

Aaron Turner, head chef and part owner of Igni, closed Loam only a few years ago just as it was getting to the top of my regional list of places to try. Hearing about the new venture propelled it immediately. The street Igni is on is very quiet, and not overly attractive, but as the maitre’d opened the door for us, we enter a world far away. There is a wide dark walled rectangular room with polished concrete, a long wave curtain shutting off the outside, and soft wooden tables on the floor, with a good space to eat on the bar, some right around the chefs. It is beautiful and strongly reminds me of Penfolds Magill Estate.

There is no menu and so the main option is for five or eight courses. After going through eight courses the night before we opt for the five courses and are assured it is a good representation of the talents of the chefs, and a good amount of food too. I try the wine matching and Catherine goes by the glass tonight. As we sip our aperitif gin (from the Adelaide Hills) and tonic we see the restaurant filling up to capacity.

Snacks including chicken skin, salt bush and vinegar, zucchini flowers filled with a mussel, and Hopkins River beef jerky

Snacks including chicken skin, salt bush and vinegar, zucchini flowers filled with a mussel, and Hopkins River beef jerky

Fluffy rolls baked locally on Pakington Street are served from a basket, and we spread hay smoked butter and sprinkle sea salt, finishing it quickly like an addict needing a fix. Five snacks are brought out that give a good indication of the quality to come. As a whole the snacks are outstanding with great flavour in the Hopkins River beef jerky when you have a nice big chewy bite. There is a punch from the salty chicken skin (incidentally Aaron is a founder of Belle’s) softened by the dill cream, and the mussel works perfectly within the zucchini flower. There is also a great take on salt and vinegar chips using the salt bush, which is as addictive as the bread and butter.

Southern calamari, broth, herbs

Southern calamari, broth, herbs

Our first course is the southern calamari which is eaten like pasta or noodles with fork and spoon for a playful and inventive beginning. The broth features deeply reduced seafood (from memory it may have included mussel shells) and together the texture is great, but the serving was enough. In the end the very lightly cooked calamari is firm and a little chewy and is best in this type of quantity.

Marron, pil pil, cucumber

Marron, pil pil, cucumber

Similarly the marron was extremely lightly cooked and mainly seared on the shell side. It is served in a glutinous pil pil sauce that is apparently claimed by both Portugal and Spain and consists of olive oil, garlic and chilli. There is a theme here of deep flavours, and like so many elements through the night this is no exception. The pickled cucumber adds a nice touch. Interestingly when you combine all the ingredients in one mouthful, you eat through the cucumber first, leaving the marron to shine, but adorned with the flavour of the pickle.

Beetroot, whey, mustard leaf

Beetroot, whey, mustard leaf

The next dish of a mustard leaf covered disk of beetroot, sitting in whey, tasted so incredible I couldn’t see it being surpassed. This seemingly vegetarian dish is enhanced by the use of duck fat when cooking the beetroot which is absolutely sublime. The firm texture perfectly contrasts with the soft whey sauce, which again highlights the skill of the chefs with sauces and purees.

It was hard to believe, but the beetroot ensemble was eclipsed by last main. While the dish is lamb rump, parsnip and radicchio, these ingredients could be reordered in terms of importance. The parsnip puree is one of the best things made out of a vegetable I can remember eating in years. The lamb is cooked perfectly, capturing the extra flavour from sparing pockets of fat, and between the lamb and the radicchio there is a honeyed sweetness that works perfectly. As much as I love to try new things I hope on a future visit they offer this dish again.

Revealing the lamb

Revealing the lamb

For dessert, the seasonal berries were great in themselves, but it was time for something sweeter after a near perfect savoury experience. Technique is shown in the various elements, including little frozen balls of goodness, but I would have liked something sweeter.

The wines were obviously chosen looking for points of difference. To explain, the first was an organic red made in the Languedoc by Pierre Rousse called the Dithyrambe, consisting of merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon, which is served cold. It is not unpleasant on its own, but was much better with the calamari dish, making a very interesting and inventive match. There was a semillon by CLO Tink that is fermented with its skin on for seven days to add texture, and is preservative free. It worked well with the marron, but I still was thinking about how a traditional slightly aged semillion would go. The Spinifex Papillon grenache and cinsault was delicious but the beetroot and whey could not be bettered; and the 2014 Josh Cooper Doug’s Vineyard pinot noir was gorgeous, but again, the lamb and parsnip puree was so brilliant that the pinot played a support role.

Seasonal berries

Seasonal berries

The madeleine, and grilled pineapple, for petit fours were up there with the rest of the food from start to finish. Catherine’s peppermint tea was high quality, but my filter coffee left a bit to be desired. I understand Igni is very new, but I hope they get a decent coffee machine for espresso in the future, as a meal like this deserves it.

Throughout this experience service had been excellent, although there are two of the floorstaff who are also part-owners, and it is clear they are more experienced and knowledgable, than a couple of others who were also waiting on our table. The less experienced floorstaff were still friendly and polite but will certainly grow under the tutelage of the owners. In particular, the maitre’d and part-owner was extremely articulate about not just the wines, but the ingredients and techniques the chefs were using, to the point where she mentioned the parsnips were from her parents’ garden!

Reading up on the exploits of Aaron Turner is an intriguing study. He and the chefs he is working with have some extraordinary talents and ideas. I only hope that Igni is here for many years to come because it feels like it could become a special place and give Geelong a destination restaurant to be very proud of.

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

Pillar Of Salt – Richmond – Sunday 14 March 2016 – Breakfast

Chilli scrambled eggs

Chilli scrambled eggs

There is a secret behind some places that I have no idea how to work out. They somehow have an excessively better looking crowd than the rest. Normally there is some exclusion policy for people looking like me, but not here!

While there’s no exclusion policy at Pillar Of Salt, there is a sense sometimes that you have snuck into somewhere you shouldn’t be. Sure, there are tables of normal people, but there is always more than a few tables of really really good looking people too. Maybe that is why after a few tries I haven’t been back in years.

Some plastic surgery and other cosmetic assistance later and I’ve accidentally entered the premises with a mate the morning after a huge night out. I never planned to, but now Pillar Of Salt is just down the road, and we really didn’t have the strength to walk any further than we needed to. Of course, once we are seated, we are right next to two people that are going to a Zoolander premiere after breakfast (though it is now midday).

I need coffee quick, and some good food to follow. The Columbian single origin does the job right to begin with. Next comes the red chilli scrambled eggs with julienne bacon, spring onion, and grana padano. While it is well presented, the most obvious observation is that it is a huge serving. The classic combination is well seasoned and has the right hit from the chilli. According to Guy, his eggs benedict with jamon is a good choice too.

It’s apparent that there are not only large serves, but the prices are extremely reasonable too. Service is relaxed but available, and the food comes out quickly. Pillar Of Salt is now a long standing Richmond cafe and there is good reason why the lines have never eased up.

Pillar of Salt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rustica Canteen – Richmond – Numerous Occasions

Espresso tart

Espresso tart

This is going to sound disrespectful to a bunch of cheap bakeries in Richmond but rejoice because finally there is one really worth venturing to. The Swan Street branch of Rustica Canteen is a shiny beacon in a sea of options that have stood the test of time, but have not overtly improved or raised the bar in recent years.

It is incredible what a clean and slightly fancy fitout can do to a space. Here the designers, whilst sticking closely to the latest script in design101, have done a nice job nonetheless. With the display at the front window and then pushing into the bakery, you quickly get a sense of some of the offerings. These include pastries both savoury and sweet, but flow into serious sandwiches, breakfasts and burgers, all built around the baking.

Brisket sandwich

Brisket sandwich

My first visit was to check out the coffee, and my double espresso was well made on a La Marzocco machine by experienced baristas using Rumble coffee. Another visit was for the hot cross bun, which while tasty, had been squashed by the toasting press, so the takeaway option might be the go.

The peppered brisket sandwich completely blew me away with the quality of the brisket, and the combination was full of flavour, making the relatively pricey $14 seem more than reasonable. From the Gruyere cheese to the house pickles, and the delicious fresh bread (light rye) either side, you have a terrific lunch. That was reason enough to buy a loaf of the house sourdough which was excellent fresh, and just as good for bread and butter pudding the next day.

Rustica coffee

Rustica coffee by Rumble

It seems the presentation of the pastries and sweets is matched by the taste. The espresso tart I’ve tried was beautiful too. Rich espresso ganache housed in a crisp thin pastry with cacao nib crisp and vanilla marscapone, is precisely made and absolutely delicious.

The choice of location for the latest branch would only work if it continues to execute this well. In a small amount of space you have Messina right next door, Grill’d and Hunky Dory immediately opposite, and several other reasonably priced quality options within a stone’s throw. That puts pressure on, but to date, Rustica is standing up to the challenge and Swan Street is richer for it.

Rustica Canteen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Way To San Jose (Allora Cucina) – MacKinnon – Friday 4 March 2016 – Dinner

Fig & prosciutto pizza special

Fig, gorgonzola & prosciutto pizza special

Meeting half way is difficult at times. Group dinners are always an intense negotiation process, and ultimately a compromise. Luckily tonight’s group dinner is with Catherine’s friends and I am coming along for the ride, without being part of the negotiations.

Well, it seems they are upping the ante tonight as we walk up the stairs towards the private dining room at currently “The Way To San Jose” and shortly “Allora Cucina”. Based on the impressive service and sheer enthusiasm of the staff, there is a chance that the new owners have already taken over, but I can’t judge as this is our first try.
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Initially it feels awkward having a private dining room for ten people, but once we are all present, it is a great atmosphere, enhanced by some privacy. In fact, some of the stories told during the course of the evening should not be told in public! The guest of honour was celebrating their birthday and it seems dinner was relatively tame from some of the earlier celebrations.

Normally in a private room you are expected to enjoy the set menu though tonight we have complete flexibility. A few of us start with some calamari for entree including Catherine and I. It is nice, perhaps cooked a touch over, but still tender enough, and the batter is crisp and salty. The serving is substantial for an entree.
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Next we choose mains and we share the traditional lasagna, and the pizza special which is fig, prosciutto, and gorgonzola. The pizza is minimalistic Italian like we love with a thin base and a focus on a few toppings. The prosciutto and gorgonzola are in good proportions, but there could be more fig. Overall it is a quality pizza and the others coming out look their equal.

Lasagna is always a crowd pleaser and having cooked three for a housewarming the week prior I was interested to see if the ragu of these chefs could be more concentrated in flavour. It certainly was! The entire lasagna was beautifully put together, and I appreciate the depth of the ragu now more than ever having spent over three hours on my own without getting the same intensity.
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The dessert menu is not written up and instead the waitperson comes and presents all of the dessert options to the table. While we were up to pussy’s bow, this presentation was enough to get us all interested. We all pretty much tried one of the options. The tiramisu was expertly crafted and had all of the quality you expect from each version you try at the best Italian restaurants. The cannoncini, which are basically custard horns, are equally delicious. While not the best going around, it is hard to not enjoy flavoursome custard in a nicely executed pastry.
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It has been such a nice meal, with a great bunch of people, that it is hard to believe this restaurant is changing in less than a week’s time. If the food and service are up to the same mark for Allora Cucina, there should be no issue maintaining the same crowd that populates this busy restaurant tonight.

The Way to San Jose Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hakata Gensuke – Hawthorn – Thursday 3 March 2016 – Dinner

Signature Tonkotsu

Signature Tonkotsu

Ever since the first time I tried Hakata Gensuke’s city branch’s ramen I have been yearning to go to the Hawthorn branch to compare, and hopefully escape the need to line up.

Extract from my city blog:

“The staff, the chefs in particular, shout their Japanese greeting at you as you walk in, which is traditional. Throughout the meal you find that the energy of the floorstaff and the chefs from their greeting sparks the atmosphere in the restaurant. You are presented with a piece of paper, and a pencil, and have a number of choices to make on the type of ramen, the noodle texture, its strength, and additions you can make.

Being our first time, we both chose the signature tonkotsu ramen, normal textured noodles, normal strength, spring onions, and I had an additional flavoured egg. Tonkotsu is made from pork bones and this makes for a rich broth, that in this case, is completely divine. Throw in some noodles, that from my experience, are very high quality in taste and texture; some thinly sliced pork (cha-shu), black mushrooms, spring onions, and a deeply flavoured egg; and you have one of the best Japanese noodle soups that you could hope for.”

Well, besides not selecting the flavoured egg this time, everything at the Hawthorn branch was just as great. The city buzz is softened by a mixed suburban crowd, but the staff are just as friendly. The broth continues to shine as the star of the tonkotsu, alongside noodles that are absolutely superb.

Our first visit was enlightening and our next has left me wanting more. With Hawthorn a much easier proposition on a weeknight I expect it won’t be long until we are back.

Hakata Gensuke Ramen Professionals Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

St Ali – South Melbourne – Sunday 14 February 2016 – Breakfast

My Mexican Cousin

My Mexican Cousin

What could be more romantic on Valentine’s Day than Elvis serenading you whilst waiting for a table at St Ali? Actually, the walk on the way through the Botanical Gardens was probably just as romantic, but not quite as unusual. Just like Elvis, this is a cafe with a strong record of producing classics.

It feels like the wave of what we call modern Melbourne cafes was started by St Ali. When I think of this genre I think of exceptional focus on coffee, accompanied by food that is presented akin to a quality restaurant, but based around breakfast staples with some contemporary technique that escalates the usual to the next level. The next wave, that has started with places like Hammer and Tong, and Operator25, is about bringing a new take on what is a breakfast staple, by transporting us to other Asian countries.

North African Fry Up

North African Fry Up

When you look at the menu at St Ali these days the impact of this cafe becomes more obvious, with the “Hall Of Fame” showing off creations by alumnus including Dead Man Espresso, and Ora Speciality Coffee. One dish, “My Mexican Cousin” was even responsible for an offshoot restaurant at one stage, but still holds centre stage here. It consists of corn fritters, grilled halloumi, corn, cucumber salsa, spicy tomato puree and green salad. Catherine is happy with this dish, and it is the first time she has tried it, but something that has been on a menu for many years is tough to go wrong with.

One of the two single origins for today

One of the two single origins for today

For me I am in new territory with the “North African Fry Up” which I’ve mainly ordered for the “merguez” which is spicy lamb sausage. Accompanying this delicious sausage is a healthy serving of scrambled eggs, avocado, chickpeas, coriander, and plenty of fresh chilli and flakes. The spice level is perfect for me, but I don’t add a huge amount of the fresh chilli to each bite. The scram is nicely seasoned and everything comes together beautifully.

Along with some great food, I am here for the coffee and the two single origins on offer don’t disappoint. The Konga Yiragacheffe from Ethiopia is the more robust style (that I would normally go for), and the Narino from Columbia has a bit more softness and complexity. Catherine started with the “Refresher” consisting of watermelon, apple and mint. However, the peppermint tea she ordered never made it to the table. While we could tell we had an experienced waitperson on our communal table, we could also tell it was not his best day in the office. He saw that my knife was dirty when he put it down, but never brought another one back, had to recheck our order, and didn’t bring us water until the second time we asked.

St Ali has always been a favourite cafe but others have come in the last five years that have caused us to detour from this quiet street in South Melbourne. This visit shows that little has changed about the great food and coffee on offer, and I’d hope service is normally much better.

St Ali Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato