The Independent – Gembrook – Sunday 8 October 2017 – Lunch

The Independent

We’ve just finished lunch and I have the rare ability to write a review during the hour long drive home. Today is the perfect day for a Sunday drive, and the main feature is an even better reason for a drive.

The Independent in Gembrook is a place I’ve been keen to try for a couple of years. Our friends organised a group lunch a bit over two years ago but Catherine and I only got to join for a drink, following a huge morning with a win at auction after six long months of failure. The reviews that day were overwhelmingly positive, putting The Independent high on our list of day trip possibilities.

Cordero – Slow roasted Gippsland lamb shoulder, carrots, chilli, coriander + peanuts

Two year’s later we’ve made it for lunch and on this particular Sunday the large, good looking restaurant, is seemingly less popular (but still quite busy). The drive is very close to an hour from the city meaning a nice lazy morning before the midday drive.

It is a strikingly well thought out restaurant space. Lots of tables but not crammed in; open kitchen on one side and bar on the other; and a great use of light both from the opening in the roof, to the windows overlooking the garden (and playground) out back, and to the street out front. There is no hesitation from the staff to seat us at a table for four, giving us plenty of room to stretch out.

Pork croquettes

We are ready to eat. The pork croquette special is impossible to resist as a starter, and we are choosing between the chicken, lamb and short rib beef for mains. Whilst warned by the learned waitstaff that the lamb would be too big for two, the opportunity to take any leftovers home meant a guilt-free decision. The maple carrots accompanying the dish were the sealer.

The pork croquettes were delicious, filled with heaps of juicy pork and nothing added merely to fill out the mixture. The serve of five is extremely generous too. Next came the shoulder of lamb which was impressively presented for a sharing style dish.

Lechuga – Lettuce, mustard dressing + cheddar

The lamb was everything we hoped for. Falling off the bone, beautifully cooked, and paying tribute to the Argentinian roots of the restaurant. When combined with the maple, chilli and peanut roasted carrots we really felt indulgent. To soften some of the richness we opted for the lettuce salad, topped with a large helping of cheese, and finished off with a well made vinaigrette.

As usual it was too much food for Catherine and my relatively small appetites. The takeaway option won the day, but we had already had two servings, suggesting that equally small appetites could have an outrageously good lunch between four people for about $25 a head! Even though we were overly satisfied, we did have to try the dulce de leche ice cream dessert.

Helado – House made dulce de leche ice cream + cookie crumb

Even sharing, this is a very rich and decadent dessert, complete with caramel sauce and a harder almost fudge-like caramel. With the help of some peppermint tea (made with fresh mint), and a double espresso, we did make it through and I’m not one bit upset that we did.

During lunch I tried a white from Argentina and a 2015 pinot noir by Rob Dolan from the Yarra Valley. As striking as the fitout, the exteremely reasonable prices for wine add even more merit to doing a weekend in Gembrook and really indulging in a few nice bottles.

The Independent has now been around for a few years and from what we experienced, the reviews are true. It is definitely worth a nice Sunday drive whether in the cooler months of winter, or during the warmth of Spring and Summer that we are all looking forward to.

The Independent Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

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Osteria Ilaria – Melbourne, City – Thursday 10 August 2017 – Lunch

Pistachio semifreddo

Have you ever been reluctant to try the sister of one of your favourite restaurants? It can potentially tarnish the feelings you have of the original when you meet the family. Will the new be the focus to the detriment of the old?

The first thing to do is make sure the two are located close to each other. The second is to not copy the original but keep enough similarity that the two can be seen as complementing each other; that they have a reason to exist side by side. I believe the crew behind Tipo 00 have done this to the letter when it comes to Osteria Ilaria.

Spaghettini with clams and squid

Located right next door, the new kid on the block to the gastrotemple that is Tipo, does not look to provide more space just for the same menu. It takes some of the building blocks, in a much larger setting, and adds some modern pizzazz. If you consider Tipo the modern tick to great Italian classics, Osteria goes that one step further, appealing to an even more diverse audience.

Today is a stealth mission, with limited time to dine, and no booking, we have no idea what to expect. Gladly we get a place on the bar and we are ready to eat. What we didn’t realise is that we would not just try a main, but indulge in dessert too.

After we order our main we have some time to look around. There is a lot of bar space, and many areas for sitting comfortably in groups through the large rectangular space. The waitstaff have that authenticity you see at Tipo, but they are a bit busier with all the diners.

Goat with fregola

My spaghettini, a special on today’s menu, arrives beautifully presented, with lashings of clams and squid. It is a clear demonstration that the quality of the chefs here is the equal of next door, and I do believe they work between the kitchens. An instruction on rusticity, the goat and fregola is also one of the specials today. The slow cooked goat is delicious, and the fregola is the perfect carb, capturing the sauce and providing some texture. Unbelievably I have a little bit of menu envy for Catherine’s choice in a bit of a role reversal for the two of us.

For dessert we were back in our usual position. Me ordering the chocolate, and Catherine ordering something a little less rich. The olive oil chocolate mousse reminded me a touch of our favourite Tipomisu from next door in presentation, but it was a dessert all of its own. The biscuit was crisp, offering texture and restraint to the deep chocolate richness of the mousse, crumb, and sauce. By the end it was a bit too much, so maybe one for sharing. The pistachio semifreddo on the other hand could be finished off in a matter of a couple minutes. Distinct pistachio creaminess was elevated with the use of a generous scattering of chopped pistachios, the whole dish another winner.

Olive oil chocolate mousse

By now our casual lunch had escalated quickly. It is difficult to think of how to split future visits to this patch of Little Bourke Street that has two sibling restaurants side by side, absolutely smashing it. My take is that sitting on the bar at Tipo 00 as a couple is still my perfect place for a classic Italian three course; Osteria Ilaria is still great on the bar, but seems to be suited to a small group too, with lots of dishes designed to share, in a much larger (and perhaps more comfortable) setting. Either way I’m impressed by this restaurant on its own merits.

Osteria Ilaria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cheeky Monkey – Richmond – Sunday 2 July 2017 – Breakfast

Peking pork pancake – spring onion + ginger pancake, crispy hock, cucumber, herbs, fried egg


It must fill the owners and staff with a sense of pride to see a cafe develop to the point it can move down the block into a much larger, and nicer space, due to its popularity. From humble beginnings, one Swan Street cafe has stood the test of time.

I have not been to Cheeky Monkey since New Year’s Day in 2010. The talk that day was about a huge New Year’s Eve and about one particular bucket that was used for more difficult duties than it was built for, by a guest at my place. Given the hangover from the night before, it was all about bacon and eggs to soothe us, but I do remember it being a good experience.

There wasn’t however anything notable to make a revisit necessary. There were many locals in Richmond equal to Cheeky Monkey, and they were closer to home in the northeast of the suburb. Somewhere along the way the quality increased to an extent necessary to grab big crowds. Today we are eating one hundred metres further up the road in a modern designed and furnished room, adjoined to a florist, making the scene even more attractive.

Peking pork pancake

As I thought might be the case, the menu is enticing, and the coffee makes an instantly good impression as we choose. The Peking pork pancake stands out and I’m glad I followed through and ordered it. The pancake itself is well made and holds the crispy pork hock, along with its classic Asian counterparts in spring onion, cucumber, and an array of herbs, topped by a fried egg. It feels like a brunch classic, although I don’t know how long it has been on the menu.

Corn fritters and crispy bacon, tomato + avocado salsa, coriander yoghurt

Catherine goes for the corn fritters, served generously, accompanied by bacon, and plenty of tomato and avocado, sitting in a coriander yoghurt. It’s a good dish, perhaps a bit large, but that isn’t a criticism. In fact, it is probably a sign of why Cheeky Monkey is bustling most days of the week.

While we haven’t yet been back, there is no doubt it will not be seven years again between visits! The coffee is particularly good, so I’ve had a few here since, and have even used the florist multiple times. It seems the combination of these businesses appeals in more ways than purely providing a good looking (and free) fitout for the cafe.

Cheeky Monkey Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Union House – Richmond – Wednesday 16 August 2017 – Dinner and Lunch at the Bar

Veal Schnitzel

New places often spring up without an obvious explanation. I am often fascinated by the amount of due diligence owners conduct before opening a new cafe, restaurant, bar or other casual eatery. There are some inexplicable openings. Naturally they lead to closing in quick time.

For example there is a burger joint that opened on Swan Street that took longer to renovate, than the time it was actually trading for. Whether the reviews were accurate or not, it was empty every time I walked by. They opened across the road from a flashy, large branch of Grill’d, that was popular and cheap. To open across the road you need to be confident your product is better, and resilient enough to see it through.

Further down Swan Street, in the old Union Dining, a new bar has sprung up. I see eye to eye with whoever opened the now named, Union House. Only months before, Catherine mentioned how the food at most pubs in Richmond is too similar on the menu, and not differentiated enough in terms of quality. It seems to me that Union House identified this gap and acted on it.

Add a clean lined, spacious renovation, both upstairs, downstairs, and in the terrace, and you have the ingredients for a lengthy member of Richmond’s dining scene. There are the obligatory selection of beers on tap, and a balanced focus on eating and/or drinking.

Chicken and leek pot pie

Union House differentiates itself on food though. While I’ve eaten from the bar menu twice downstairs, the broader offering (as well as the bar menu) is available both upstairs and downstairs. It is not a “gastropub”. It is more a few focussed pub classics at a price reasonable enough to eat here multiple times over the space of a month or less.

I’ve tried the veal schnitzel and the “pub steak” and they are both simple meals that are well executed. Catherine has tried the chicken and leek pot pie, which comes out looking a bit bereft of greenery, but is again tasty and well made. In fact, don’t expect any greens or leaves with the pub steak either (not that I took any issue as it came with a good mash, and nice pepper sauce). A little bit more resting could have aided presentation, but it didn’t impact the taste.

Pub steak

At lunch, my work colleagues enjoyed the rockling burger, though Natalie thought the colour palate used during the renovation was unattractive. Lastly, Julie was a touch concerned with the chicken in her burger, still enjoying it as a whole, with the jury out on whether it was actually very slightly under-cooked. Horses for courses I think in this case, but something to be weary of nonetheless.

With counter service downstairs, it is certainly more your typical bar. On the couple of occasions I’ve eaten here I have found the staff to be fine, one of the managers taking time to offer Catherine and I a quick tour upstairs, such was the enthusiasm in the opening week.

While a bit further down Swan Street, Union House is a great option for more discerning diners off to the MCG or AAMI Stadium, though it will naturally stay quieter than places like the Corner Hotel, The London, Richmond Club and the Precinct on game days. The real test will be if locals come in regularly, and I think they will. Both the food and the price point are compelling.

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

Sloane Ranger – Richmond – Sunday 23 July 2017 – Breakfast

Smashed Peas – Broccolini, Meredith feta, smoked almonds, poached eggs, toast


It is staggering the number of above average cafes now open in Melbourne. Once, you could look through anyone’s list of the top 20 cafes in Melbourne, and it was easy to have tried half of them. These days, that is simply not the case.

In fact, there are more good to excellent cafes opening each year then is possible to try. Giving up is strong language, but really the odds of getting around to each and every great Melbourne cafe, from Pascoe Vale to Elsternwick and Beaconsfield to Northcote, is impossible. Why am I talking about this very obvious situation?

It’s because Sloane Ranger opened up several weeks ago, literally a kilometre down the road, and this is the first time Catherine and I have been for breakfast. I did pop-in for coffee once, but that was all. It struck me at the time that staff (including the one looking like an owner) were extra enthusiastic. Not in an annoying way; just genuinely excited about Melbourne cafe life.

Cheesy roast cauliflower fritters, smoked tomato chutney, chorizo and poached egg

This time for breakfast, it is hard to think of more accommodating people. Again, going out of their way to be helpful, but certainly not in an over the top way.

Looking down at the menu, there are around a dozen dishes, but there is nothing that is shouting out at me. Sometimes this is a good sign because I often try something a bit left-field in these situations. Today I go with the cheesy cauliflower fritters and chorizo.

Topped with a poached egg, and accompanied by a smoked tomato chutney, the fritters are excellent. It is not something I’ve tried before, but the combination does work, the chorizo bringing some nice spice, as well as saltiness. Catherine’s smashed peas is great too. Nicely presented, this well known combination of greens, feta, and runny poached eggs, is well executed.

The fitout here is pretty standard. It’s comfortable, with plenty of communal seating, and a curious bar type space out front that will be far better utilised in summer. Coffee is well made.

I’ve noticed a sudden rise in the quality of cafes across Melbourne with very little room for mediocrity these days. Sloane Ranger is another quality player that is hopefully here to stay. With all the action on Swan Street, there is a lot of pressure, but the sheer enthusiasm goes a long way when backed up with quality food and coffee.

Sloane Ranger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Neighbourhood Wine – Fitzroy North – Friday 7 July 2017 – Lunch

Neighbourhood Wine

I love eating on the bar. There is a propensity for diners to automatically expect to be offered a table when dining at a restaurant. This means a lot of us are missing out on the experience of eating at the bar.

When I was 25 years old, I went around the world on my own for 10 weeks. Luckily, I was already a fan of eating alone, so meal time was not as confronting as it could have been. Back in Perth, it was almost as if the waitstaff serving me would be more uncomfortable about my dining habit than I was, often almost forcefully trying to provide reading material (which I declined).

When I got to New York City, I found an almost endless supply of restaurants featuring (on purpose) a bar for overflows and loners. I was in heaven. My most memorable experience was at Union Square Cafe. As well as the magnificent bar staff, I remember taking a photo half way through a three course meal, and my part of the bar was adorned with bread, wine, and cognac. Many times whilst dining at a bar back in Melbourne I think about those experiences. As you would know, the bar concept is now a feature of Melbourne dining.

Red wine and gnocchi

Tucked away just off Nicholson Road is Neighbourhood Wine. We don’t have a booking which is dangerous on a Friday, but we have the choice of two tables, or the long stretch of empty bar space. In sync, Catherine and I choose to sit at the bar, although we were questioning the look of the actual bar stools.

It turns out, the bar stools are very comfy, and beautifully coordinate with the look and feel of this unusual space. Every nook and cranny is filled with bottles of wine, and where not dedicated to wine there is something kitsch in its place. Even the space just outside the toilet has a few dozen bottles of wine.

Wine by the glass is generally natural, with organic featuring heavily. Both of the reds that we try are excellent. The first is a Nebbiolo that has accentuated classic flavours and body that you associate with this variety. Second is a medium bodied Cinsault from the Barossa that takes a little time to open up, eventually showing good length.

The bar person pouring our wines and generally serving us knows his wines. However, he is more bartender than my New York experiences of bar servers. He is quietly spoken and lacks energy, slightly impacting our time here.

Beef ragu croquette, mustard aioli

On the flip side, the food we order is outstanding. We begin with beef ragu croquettes and they are as good as they sound. Next we share the duck and brandy parfait. It comes out as two generous scoops on grilled sourdough. While the serve of this indulgent food could be smaller, I wasn’t complaining! We easily managed to finish it all off.

Duck and brandy parfait, pickled pine mushrooms, grilled sourdough

For our final dish we shared the pan-fried potato and ricotta gnocchi with butternut pumpkin, leeks and pine nuts. It was another good dish, and generous too. It is all too obvious when a kitchen puts out amateur gnocchi and this was certainly not the case. There is confidence in the combination with the pumpkin and pine nuts, and I would be quite happy to have this dish and a nice glass of red any day of the week.

Pan-fried potato & ricotta gnocchi, butternut pumpkin, leeks and pine nuts

We seriously enjoyed our first taste of what Neighbourhood Wine has to offer. With a thought provoking wine list, and plenty of great food options to match, there is more here than just a strong local. With some work on the rapport side with customers on the bar it would be a complete experience.

Neighbourhood Wine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Impressions from the AGT Restaurant Guide for 2018

Orana – Crab & yoghurt sorbet, codium & sea purslane

My favourite restaurant guide has been released for yet another year. When you narrow down the thousands of restaurants in Australia to a top 100, there are naturally some surprises, but in the end, every single one of those restaurants is a terrific place to have a day or night out.

Getting down to the pointy end is exciting. There are only eight restaurants in the whole of Australia that get three stars. They set themselves apart by doing the basics perfectly, and innovating in a way that is remarkable. They are not always the obvious, but equally, they are certainly not places you stumble over by accident.

Attica – Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Take Orana in Adelaide. If you were to turn up unannounced one evening and somehow get a table, you would initially be skeptical of the price tag, and then be wondering whether you are on “candid camera” as you open your mouth to allow a spoon of green ants to greet your tastebuds. What about Brae in Birregurra, near Geelong. If you were dropped off outside this homestead and farm, you might be searching for the nearest uber to take you back to civilization.

Cutler & Co – Roast chicken, house ground polenta, baby corn & miso

These are not ordinary, everyday experiences. There is a touch of discomfort. It might be the cost, the reverence, the soft gasps, or the sheer oddity of three star dining. But like most experiences, when you are out of your comfort zone, or at least on the edge of it, the memories are bigger than the moment.

Vue De Monde

When Shannon Bennett says that he wants his customers to have a comforting experience, he doesn’t mean eating meat and three veg in your tracksuit in front of the television. He means he wants the experience to be memorable for different reasons, and for his staff to do everything to make such a potentially awkward meal something to aspire to do again, and to relive in stories for the meantime.

Momofuku – beef, radish, fermented black bean

There are the unassuming places. Momofuku Seiobo looks a bit oddly placed in The Star casino and entertainment complex. The Bridge Room is almost quaint. Attica is in the suburbs. Cutler & Co sounds like a ye olde medicinal shop, placed in one of the quieter parts of Fitzroy. They were not dining destinations before the owners set up shop and created something special.

The Bridge Room – Aerated passionfruit, roasted nougatine, passionfruit ice cream, passionfruit seed powder, glass biscuit

Then there’s Quay. That is the one that stands out because it is entirely appropriate. A restaurant overlooking the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House serving food with Ferrari price tags. The achievement of Peter Gilmore keeping this restaurant at the top of its game is surely not lost when you eat at some of its neighbours.

Brae – Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

It is the first time I’ve been to all eight of the three star restaurants. I believe they all deserve a spot for what they have achieved, and what they are currently doing. I love the fact that really none of the top five have a view (sorry Brae, the farm is actually very serene), and I love the fact that with all of these restaurants while the basics are done very, very well; it is the food that is the reason they are so brilliant.

Well done to Australian Gourmet Traveller on a sensational list. A real statement has been made by putting Orana as number one whether the Sydney and Melbourne dominant audience likes it or not. I have never had a meal like it, and that is what separating yourself is all about.