O.MY – Beaconsfield – Sunday 12 June 2016 – Dinner

Pumpkin gnocchi

Pumpkin gnocchi

Exceptional meals are inspirational occasions where your imagination stays transported long after you’ve put your knife and fork in the position of your choosing. That blissful feeling of complete satisfaction is not achieved at many restaurants and usually there is an X factor that is responsible for the elation.

Travel, and celebration, are two extraneous circumstances that add to many dining experiences to make them memorable. Closer to home, on a chilly evening with no particular celebration (except for the Queen’s Birthday!), in the outskirts of this great city, is a shining epicurean example of how the ordinary can become extraordinary.

O.MY was not my idea. In fact, for some reason I thought it was out near the airport? Catherine had been keeping an eye on the growing enthusiasm for the offerings of three brothers out in the sticks. Having travelled home from Brisbane this morning on less than four hours of sleep, I still maintained a good level of excitement knowing that this place was at the top of her list.

Contrasting the seasons with fresh leaves and pickled vegetables, emulsion and pork broth

Contrasting the seasons with fresh leaves and pickled vegetables, emulsion and pork broth

By the time we were in the foothills it could have only been five or six degrees, making the walk across the road from the car seem like going from a heated spa to a cold swimming pool. The saving grace of this small restaurant was that it holds few tables, meaning the door would be permanently closed for a few hours, allowing the room to grow warm quickly. Tables are quite close together meaning our initial conversation was hushed, but this changed quickly as one of the brothers, and Sommelier extraordinaire, Chayse, liquored up several enthusiastic guests.

There is no menu so you choose between four, six and eight courses. The prices for this type of restaurant are very reasonable, so we felt compelled to try the eight courses ($110), and on reflection we would not liked to have missed the two extra dishes. Though on our next visit we would consider having four, given you have a complimentary starter, and dessert (counted as one course) is more like three smaller courses.

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut

We found the menu gathers momentum as time passes by. The starter is playful with a contrast of the current season (fresh leaves from the farm) and earlier seasons (pickled vegetables). You grab a pickle with your leaf and dip in the emulsion, taste, and then refresh with a delicious and deep flavoured pork broth. Next comes the first official course of pumpkin gnocchi with a rich barbecue style sauce. When you hear the other aspects of the pumpkin (including the “drippings”) are themes in other dishes, you realise the care, effort, and interest that the other brothers, Blayne and Tyson (both chefs), put in their produce. All three of them working much of their “free” hours in the farm.

At this stage Catherine and I are still on our first glass of chardonnay, which has a great mouthfeel and elegance, made by Payten & Jones in the Yarra Valley. Our first glass because Catherine is driving and I am still recovering. The next dish is the weakest of the evening, with lettuce leaves covering sauerkraut, with a chicken sauce bringing the dish together. I could see some of the idea behind it, but the combination didn’t work for me with the three components not mingling. The next dish left the prior in its wake, with a beautifully presented ode to Jerusalem artichokes.

Jerusalem artichoke

Jerusalem artichoke

We hadn’t finished our chardonnay, but our Sommelier insisted on a splash of another wine (on the house) to better match the potentially clashing chemicals in the artichoke. Such an intricate dish is difficult to describe, but there were several cooking methods employed to combine different tastes and textures of the artichoke including roasting, pureeing, and simply slicing raw. At this stage some of the themes, plating, crockery, and later on some of the seemingly stripped back (but extremely detailed) desserts, had me thinking back to an amazing meal at Momofuku Seiobo. The intricacy and complexity continued throughout the night, this time with a thick wedge of perfectly cooked mackerel, sitting in a squid sauce full of flavour.

Kangaroo

Kangaroo

The two extra dishes we received as part of the eight courses came next, and both were unforgettable. First, kangaroo loin with beetroot, and honey, was stunning. Using a well known combination, but putting their mark on the dish, the chefs show their ability. Next was my favourite dish of the night, with a centrepiece of smoked lamb. Every taste was incredible; perfect lamb in a divine sauce, with simple accompaniments. The Farr Rising Gamay, from the son of one of my favourite winemakers of all time, is a terrific expression of this variety made famous by Beaujolais, and a tremendous match for both dishes.

Smoked lamb

Smoked lamb

We finish our savoury dishes on a high with beef that has been dry aged for 40 days, which comes with a restrained amount of fermented potato scattered with young carrots, and a powerful beef ragu that is best to have in small doses. This dish acts as a filler, without lacking any of the presentation or flavour of the previous dishes. Again I had our sommelier come to my aid with a thoughtful half glass to match.

Lemon tarts, orange cake, and beignets

Lemon tarts, orange cake, and beignets

We had realised by now on adjacent tables that dessert held more than the usual excitement as several courses were being served instead of the promised single course. To start we tried a petit four style collection of lemon tarts, orange cakes, and beignets. They were all good ways to begin, but the lemon tart with its terrifically balanced acidity from a natural yoghurt, won the day.

Smoked pumpkin ice cream, chestnut puree and toasted buckwheat

Smoked pumpkin ice cream, chestnut puree and toasted buckwheat

Next was a revelation in the form of smoked pumpkin ice cream, chestnut purée, and toasted buckwheat. While the attractiveness of the colour could be questioned, this was one of the most memorable, full flavoured, sweet but savoury, desserts that I’ve encountered. The thought needed to get all of the elements perfect, both separate and combined, is an art. But really, as impossible as it seems, the next dessert was just as brilliant. Enter a combination of chocolate (of brownie texture, and sauce), kaffir lime sorbet, and a determined chilli gel, and you have another dessert that broke some of the rules without being found out. The chilli gel in particular was knock your head back hot if you just have a touch at the end of your spoon, but combined into each bite it softened in itself, and extended the taste profile.

Kaffir lime sorbet, chocolate

Kaffir lime sorbet, chocolate

As we shared a peppermint tea, and our final taste of salted caramel, we spoke in awe of some of the dishes, struggling to rank some of them against each other. All the way through all the waitstaff had been fantastic. No doubt they are aided by a smaller room and a close to one for five floor to customer ratio, but there was never a time we needed anything. So much so that I hadn’t turned my head to look at the room until it had started clearing out as other tables finished. My Negro vermouth during dessert, and the mocktail made for Catherine of plum, ginger and pepper, were again expressions of the attention to detail, and careful experimentation that is part and parcel of the experience.

It’s an unusual name, in an unusual area, but O.MY exudes a tremendously bright light that is enough to get the attention of the big city and beyond. A visit out here and there’s no doubt you’ll be sold on the execution of some cutting edge ideas, and the enthusiasm with which they are presented.

O.My Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Union Dining – Richmond – Saturday 28 May 2016 – Dinner

Oven baked snapper fillet, soused red cabbage, harissa spiced chickpeas, yoghurt sauce

Oven baked snapper fillet, soused red cabbage, harissa spiced chickpeas, yoghurt sauce

Positive review after positive review; some describing Union Dining as their favourite, or at least their favourite in a category. It feels like this restaurant has been around for a long time, and continues to be a feature of Richmond dining.

The first time we dined here it was newly open and nice, but just nice. With the number of restaurants we like to try, repeat visits are treasured like an old family heirloom. However, another visit for work at a function upstairs was quite impressive, especially thinking back to slow cooked casserole style lamb, but that was now over three years ago.

Gnocchi, taleggio & white wine, King Valley walnuts, leaves, shoots

Gnocchi, taleggio & white wine, King Valley walnuts, leaves, shoots

I have wanted to come back for a while, but there are just too many restaurants to choose from around Richmond. This was our chance! Knowing this weekend was going to be particularly chilly, and with entertainment gold card in hand, we decided to go local and perhaps give Union Dining another go. Finding that there is a 6.30pm Saturday night booking available only 24 hours in advance, we are on our way with only a day’s notice.

A little further up from the current epicentre of Swan Street, the restaurant is set on a corner, with a good looking fitout that attracts more than a glance as people walk by. There is a warmth here with the medium lighting showing off the wooden furnishings, that are better spaced than a bistro, but by no means detracting from the atmosphere of a busy room.

Braised Three Rivers Saltbush lamb, white bean ragu, roast golden beetroots, salsa verde

Braised Three Rivers Saltbush lamb, white bean ragu, roast golden beetroots, salsa verde

As we assess the menu I realise that the mains are not jumping out at me, but I settle on the lamb. Knowing from past experience that meals can be in healthy proportions we decide to share an entree and see how we go for dessert. That entree is the gnocchi, with a taleggio and white wine sauce, scattered with an assortment of leaves and walnuts for some texture. It is a particularly nice touch that we are served separate plates even though we had elected to share, and the presentation of both is inviting. The dish as a whole is enjoyable, but the sauce is not as rich as you would expect given the inclusion of taleggio as a star ingredient.

Moving on to the braised Three Rivers saltbush lamb, and I was right to move carefully into mains. The portion is very generous, especially with the extra comfort of a white bean ragu. Coming together with roast golden beetroots and salsa verde on top of the sauce, the dish is flavoursome and perfect for the cooler months. By the end I was drinking a lot of sparkling water as the level of salt had not been curbed to balance the saltbush used in the lamb. Some tweaking there and it becomes a great dish. Catherine’s oven baked snapper fillet was certainly not as heavily seasoned, and I was going across the table to snatch more than my fair share of tastes. The bright colours of the soused red cabbage and harissa spiced chickpeas worked for the presentation, and became the flavour focus of the dish along with the gorgeous fish.

Earl Grey pannacotta, rhubarb, pistachios

Earl Grey pannacotta, rhubarb, pistachios

There was no way we were leaving prior to dessert, but equally there was no way we could fit in one each, so we settled on the Earl Grey pannacotta with rhubarb and pistachios. The Earl Grey flavour burst through each taste, and the rhubarb was beautifully poached. It was a good finish to a rich meal.

With attentive and friendly service throughout, and good food at reasonable prices, I can see why so many friends and colleagues have enjoyed Union Dining over the years.

Union Dining Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Industry Beans – Fitzroy – Saturday 28 May 2016 – Breakfast

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Indonesian Black Panther, served with hot water for a longer (or shorter) long black

Fitzroy has an astounding collection of cafes. I wouldn’t be surprised to meet someone and for them to detail their life’s ambition is to try every cafe in Fitzroy, and Fitzroy alone. Good luck to them because I’ve decided unless you live smack bang in the suburb, and don’t become a repeat visitor to any of them, you are going to struggle!

There are only so many Saturday and Sunday mornings you can dedicate to Fitzroy cafes, but those adventures, skipping traffic through the backstreets, and then spending twenty minutes trying to find a free parking spot, are worth the trouble. There was a time that you could accurately predict the likely crowd, the offerings on the menu, that the coffee would be well above standard, and that the fitout would look like many of the clientele – quite fashionable and good looking, without the ordinarily associated high expense.

These days there is no hymn book all of the cafes are singing from. There are all sorts of influences, many modern touches, and a far more diverse crowd from both local and further away. As more restaurants and serious bars have infiltrated the scene, the cafes have equally had to keep stepping up. Now the one up-person-ship has been taken to a new level that would be the equal or better of the best brunch spots I’ve eaten at in great cities like L.A. and NYC. Certainly the coffee is far superior, but the food is now as good.

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Crispy beans and quinoa

The reason I am reflecting on Fitzroy cafes is getting to try yet another impressive option in the form of Industry Beans. Housed towards the back of the Rose Street markets, this new age industrial slash minimalist fitout with a variety of tables flowing through the cafe like waves, doubles as a roastery.

Catherine and I have a thing (because I can be a bit tight) that I drop her off to begin the waiting process, while I look for a free parking spot. This is normally a five minute adventure, except in Fitzroy. Today it requires several blocks in the rain, and I almost give up on my second time along Johnston Street, before – viola! – there is a spot three blocks away, twenty minutes later. Of course, by now Catherine is being seated and I do my other usual – run to the cafe!

I’m thirsty but not alert, ordering a single origin from one of my favourite countries (Ethiopia), but not realising it is decaf. Thankfully, our waitperson comes back thirty seconds later to check that I want decaf and I certainly don’t, changing up to the Indonesian Black Panther, which is fantastic. Catherine’s pear, rhubarb, lemon and mint juice is terrific too.

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Smashed avocado

For breakfast I go with the crispy beans and quinoa. It is accompanied by chilli pickle, avocado, heirloom tomatoes, spanish onion, a poached egg, and I get a side of wood smoked bacon (even though it should be the smoked salmon they recommend!) This is quite an unusual dish for me to order, and the adventurous option has paid off. The combination works well, the chilli is the right heat for me, and there is enough crunch to make each mouthful pleasant.

Less adventurous, but just as nice, is Catherine’s avocado smash and chèvre, with a poached egg and charred lemon. The plate is covered with green tea sea salt, which adds some spark to the presentation. This is a simple dish that relies on its ingredients and these are high quality and full of flavour. Both dishes are comparatively expensive for breakfast, but given the quality it is still reasonable.

With service on top of the game too, this is yet another Melbourne cafe that is extremely impressive. There are a few handfuls of well known cafes that have exceptional food and very good coffee (or vice versa). It is far harder to have both at an exceptional standard, and while we’ve only had one visit to Industry Beans, the house roasted coffee, and very high quality food, suggest that this is an exceptional offering, even with Melbourne’s wonderland of cafes.

Industry Beans Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vaporetto – Hawthorn – Friday 3 June 2016 – Dinner

IMG_5275There is a pocket in Hawthorn near Glenferrie Station that is getting a huge amount of love in recent years. From the opening of the new Lido Cinema, to branches of Huxtaburger and Fonda, plus classic cafes like Crabapple Kitchen.

We didn’t realise until one of the owners of Crabapple Kitchen walked by, that the new Venetian Italian joint next to Lido is a sister establishment. Vaporetto to the uninitiated is the most popular mode of Venetian transport along the Grand Canal. While this restaurant might take the name of those famous ferries, there is no doubt that restaurant goers in Melbourne’s East are going to think of this restaurant in year’s to come before their thoughts turn to holidays of the past.

As you open up the drinks menu you see the usual salute to Harry’s Bar, one of the institutions in Venice, most notable for serving greats such as Hemingway, and for inventing the Bellini. That atmospheric buzz of a great venue translates here tonight, with a full house already and a bar that is heaving. By complete chance we are able to secure a bar table for two on the window after a short wait. Several others behind us are not so lucky.

We were not really supposed to be having a big night out tonight. Having cooked several meals at home during the week we have been eventually worn down and came to this area to see what the menu looked like here, knowing we had plenty of other options if it didn’t grab us. As we sip on our Aperol spritz we decide to have a main and dessert rather than try some of the starters or entrees, which are quite enticing.

Gnocchi - rabbit ragu 'sacchetti Venetti', salt bush, porcini and black truffle, salted ewe's cheese

Gnocchi – rabbit ragu ‘sacchetti Venetti’, salt bush, porcini and black truffle, salted ewe’s cheese

It’s a difficult choice but eventually Catherine decides on the gnocchi with rabbit ragu, and I choose the spaghetti vongole. Catherine’s gnocchi is the perfectly pillowy but firm, and the ragu is deep and rich as you expect, with the mushrooms adding to the flavour. The saltbush is not overpowering, adding a little texture, and the salted ewe’s cheese balances out some of the richness. It is a great dish and I go back across the table for several tastes.

Spaghetti vongole - Goolwa cockles, Soave, chilli, parsley, extra virgin

Spaghetti vongole – Goolwa cockles, Soave, chilli, parsley, extra virgin

Not to say that my spaghetti vongole is not delightful. The house made pasta is properly al dente, sitting in a sauce restrained in quantity, but certainly not quality. The Italian white wine (Soave) that is the base of the sauce is one of my favourite varieties, and the cockles have good flavour. It is the closest feeling you can have to eating in Northern Italy without being there.

There are only three desserts available, plus a cheese course, but we are completely torn and on the verge of ordering all three. We wait to make our decision while we finish our sangiovese that comes from a tap. It is a novel concept but next time I will probably order something from the bottle. If we weren’t driving, $26 for a carafe would have been a good deal though.

'Fritole Veneziane' Carnivale doughnuts with cinnamon, rosewater & orange, vanilla custard, hazelnut gelati

‘Fritole Veneziane’ Carnivale doughnuts with cinnamon, rosewater & orange, vanilla custard, hazelnut gelati

The two main waitpersons we’ve had serving have both been fantastic. One of them appears to be one of the managers, but the other is equally experienced. They are the epitome of attentive, seemingly there every time we need something, but never hovering. In fact, they are run off their feet.

We take a rain check on the tiramisu and order the doughnuts, and the roasted quince dish (mainly for the fig and mascarpone ice cream). The presentation of the latter is fine dining quality, and the taste amazingly matches. The quince is perfectly roasted along with fresh figs, the chocolate is rich and soft, and the ice cream is absolutely delicious. Extra texture comes from the chunky chocolate soil, that tastes like a brownie. It is a classic combination served with flair and instantly on the list to go back for.

Roasted quinces, chocolate, plums and chestnuts, fig & mascarpone ice cream, fig leaf

Roasted quinces, chocolate, plums and chestnuts, fig & mascarpone ice cream, fig leaf

The doughnuts are rave-worthy too, but we are still mesmerised by the quince dish. Sitting in a shallow pool of sweet vanilla custard, the doughnuts taste full of cinnamon and orange zest, with that flavour from rose water that we love (but some don’t!) The hazelnut gelati is the primary reason this dish jumped out and it is terrific too.

Vaporetto is a revelation. Looking out to a carpark bordered by the swimming pool, Coles and Glenferrie Oval, you would not expect to feel like you are in the back streets of Venice (especially given the lack of cars) but somehow the team here provide that exceptional type of experience.

Vaporetto Bar & Eatery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

No Mafia – Northbridge – Thursday 19 May 2016 – Dinner

IMG_5217 People eat early in Perth. This means that if you are able to defy the norm, you can easily get into popular restaurants simply by arriving after 8.30pm.

Earlier tonight a couple of mates and I had a few beers and wines at Shadow Wine Bar. The Austrian Veltliner I tried was impeccable, but the initial greeting left much to be desired. That alone left me very open to moving to another venue for dinner, though I must say for the rest of the evening the staff were actually quite good.

No Mafia is only a short walk further down William Street towards the Perth CBD. Having heard great reports about this place I had no hesitation in being guided by Haaron’s suggestion. When we got there it dawned on me that a lot of tables must have finished a good time before we had ordered our last drinks at Shadow.

Continuing on a wine sandwiched with beer theme we began with a terrific bottle of Montepulciano (which incidentally ruined the poor waitperson’s corkscrew), before finishing with a delicious cleansing Bassendean Stout by Nail Brewery. We needed a wine with some versatility and this worked well with a number of the chef’s selected dishes.

The service here is certainly suited to informal dining. We had a waitperson with the right amount of attentiveness and humour, without going too far. She even allowed us to have the $35 chef’s selection even though it is supposed to be for four or more.IMG_5218

We started with some fried baccalau that was excellent and some zucchini fritters that were passable, but I wouldn’t order them again. Then things started to get serious with some Napoli squid, capers, fried leeks, and lemon, which for the most part stayed tender, and had a good flavour profile.

The heavy hitters were my favourite dishes though with the comforting triple cooked potatoes bathed in garlic, chilli & aioli, something to go back for, and the Black-pig prosciutto, red-wine poached pear, ricotta, and almonds, being a dish that was delicate and glorious, even if styled on some classic combinations.

In between the pan-fried gnocchi was well executed with the semi-dried tomato pesto and rocket an aside on how good the gnocchi really was. Finally, the braised lamb leg with baked ricotta, peperonata, and green olives worked classic ingredients in another dish that is spot on.

I know my review sounds like everything was good to very good, but I will say I wasn’t sure about the ordering of the dishes, and also the overall decision on the menu. It felt a little disjointed put together and next time I would order a la carte. In isolation however, almost everything worked, and the menu is more than reasonable being this close to the city. No Mafia provides an interesting modern take on Italian near the arts precinct of Northbridge that is getting better and better.

No Mafia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lawson Grove – South Yarra – Numerous Occasions – Breakfast and Lunch

French toast, with figs and maple

French toast, with figs and maple

Some cafes have a unique quality; a feeling; that is a reflection of many aspects of their fabric contrasted with your own broader personal experience. At Lawson Grove there is a warmth that is rare.

It could be the tucked away, leafy location, at the bottom of an art deco apartment building. It could be the friendliness of the staff and owners, or even the customers. It could be the quasi deli and milk bar type offerings. As that great Australian film summarised, perhaps it is “the vibe”.

One thing is for sure, all of these facets do not matter unless the food and coffee are up to the same level. At Lawson Grove they always are, and often exceed, what is needed to be talking about coming back before you leave.

Omelette with confit tomatoes and goat's cheese

Omelette with confit tomatoes and goat’s cheese

On the last occasion I was there, Catherine and I had breakfast. My French toast with figs and maple was absolutely delicious, and the perfect serve with balance to the sweetness. Catherine’s folded omelette was well executed and equally tasty.

The food on offer is diverse. I’ve had a version of Heston Blumenthal’s burger on a couple of occasions and it is memorable. There are often pulled pork tacos that seem to disappear as if the chef doubles as a magician. The menu keeps vibrant and varied, meaning that a regular visitor will often not be able to get what they came for, but leave with a new favourite.

The coffee is a good enough standard to simply go and enjoy it alone, whether on one of the cute outside tables, the curb on the quiet side street, or inside in the warmth. Every time I’m there the staff are saying hi to regular customers who may or may not be good friends. Not being able to tell is the secret to why Lawson Grove is such an enjoyable place to go.

Lawson Grove Shop Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nhan Ngai – Richmond – 25 May and 1 June 2016 – Lunch

BBQ pork bahn mi

BBQ pork bahn mi

Out of all the incredible snacks in bread available around the globe, one of my favourites is the original fusion of cultures delivered by the “bahn mi”. Somewhere in the last decade they popped up in Australia, with the occasional sighting here and there, and all of a sudden they are readily available across the board.

Across the board, with the exception of Richmond! My cravings for bahn mi at lunch since leaving the city three years ago became extreme. Now that extreme craving has been satisfied on a strip in Swan Street that beggars belief.

Prawn rice paper roll

Prawn rice paper roll

Just down from Messina, Rustica, and not far from Belle’s (all taking up residence in the last year) is Nhan Ngai. NN is housed in the old Torch cafe which had a slowly eroded reputation before changing names and eventually ceasing to exist. Now, the main interior is a reasonably well formatted dine in or takeaway casual Vietnamese street food eatery. Although a little cramped and without heating, it is a good effort to fit in seating for around 20 people, and the refurb fits the script.

More importantly, the bahn mi is excellent, and at $8 is a steal. That classic combination of BBQ pork, pickled carrot, spring onion, coriander, and mayo in a crispy bun is executed with skill, and the BBQ pork is flavoursome, well seasoned, and tender. I’ve had two and both have been consistent.

Went back yesterday (4 June) to try the NN Chicken bahn mi - it was very good too!

Went back yesterday (4 June) to try the NN Chicken bahn mi – it was very good too!

My judgement is out on the rice paper roll I tried because unlike the bahn mi, the meat (in this case prawn) is not as generous or flavoursome, and the wrapper is a little too firm. It is hard to judge after one, so I will try some more, but definitely will turn to the NN chicken or the BBQ pork next time. On the plus side, Julie tried the chicken pho and it was given a resounding thumbs up, so that too is on the must try list.

I was excited prior to NN opening, and I’m even more excited now. Having a good Vietnamese street food cafe close to home is a big deal, and Nhan Ngai ticks the boxes.

Nhan Ngai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato