Demitri’s Feast – Richmond – Saturday 29 April 2017 – Dinner

Feta, honey and figs
Salmon, fennel and celeriac

Transformations don’t always work. There was a famous one in Sydney very recently where Rockpool turned into Eleven Bridge and closed in the same breath. Having been a customer here at Demitri’s Feast for a number of years, I know why this significant transformation will work.

There is more than a couple of reasons, but the two most significant are custom, and experience. Demitri himself has many terrifically loyal customers and I find it impossible to know whether they were friends through the old cafe, or independently. After 20 years of operating cafes, he decided a change was needed and turned Demitri’s Feast from a daytime cafe, to a late morning to late night mezze bar. Ask anyone in hospitality and deciding to go back to working nights is not a decision taken lightly.

Greek salad

The cafe naturally had to be fully renovated to be true to the new formula. The Richmond premiership posters are gone, along with the classic cafe counter, and bright tones. Now there is a tasteful bar, featuring tanned wood. There is more seating inside, using stools to make best use of the smaller space. Outside has been updated too, but keeps the same feel, though I have chosen to sit inside both times I’ve dined here.

Calamari

Over those couple of times, both alone, and with Catherine too, every dish I’ve tried has been good. There are selections of both smaller and larger share plates. Of the smaller plates, the broadbean keftedes stand out as both delicious and surprising. Demitri himself recommended them and he was right. They are full of flavour, the broadbeans obviously enhanced with a variety of spices. A combination of feta, honey and figs, is generous. Initially it looks like a lot of feta, but we seemed to keep coming back for more. More intricate is the salmon, fennel and celeriac offering, which pays attention to the subtlety of the salmon, enhancing it with a scattering of fennel.

Chicken skewers

On our way to the more substantial offerings, there is a Greek salad that is exactly the way it should be. Tradition dictating its make up, and it is particularly pleasing to see no lettuce being used as a filler. The calamari is a good size, plenty of golden, briefly fried pieces. The chicken skewers are given a good dose of spice, and are cooked beautifully over a flame. They are a highlight from the larger plates. So are the lamb cutlets, which find the right level of cooking, and again are oozing in flavour.

Lamb cutlets

Demitri’s is offering a collection of simply cooked meats, done well, and a bunch of smaller dishes that show a bit more subtlety and technique. This formula works, and this mezze bar is not looking to change it. There is a well constructed, reasonably diverse list of wine and beer, including a lager that Demitri’s brews themselves. There is no particular zone for each of the floorstaff so you see them all a number of times. Coordination is not so important as the dishes arrive in a dispersed fashion and you are never long without a drink.

Greek salad

The only pain point, and I use this literally, is for people who are not tall using the stools. There might need to be a rethink on them as shorter types like Catherine and I were in a bit of discomfort after the first 45 minutes. It is an easy fix by dining outside, but I do like the atmosphere of being near the bar.

Broadbean keftedes

It is normally a risk to change up a good formula, and let go of the amazing margins on coffee. In this case I am sure it will be a success. Demitri’s Feast is offering a great range of mezze and drinks, with a warmth of hospitality. It is a place where you can go regularly without breaking your budget too.

Demitri's Feast Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Fratelli Fresh – Sydney – Saturday 1 April 2017 – Dinner

Fratelli Fresh is an enormous Italian restaurant in the heart of the Sydney CBD on Bridge Street close to the tourist mecca of Circular Quay. It has had a long standing reputation of providing quality Italian at a reasonable price and enjoys healthy crowds as a result.

Tonight is no different and the five of us sit at a high table towards the back of the restaurant in relative comfort, except for the lower bar of the table that is at leg height when on a stool. Everyone who serves us is friendly and helpful, but they are clearly under the pump, often having to politely ask to come back, and rarely pro-active.

Tagliatelle meatballs

We ordered some shared entrees to start because the number of options for mains is immense. Those entrees gave a good insight into why Fratelli Fresh is still a popular dining option. Each of the zucchini flowers with five cheeses, margarita pizza, and calamari, were flavoursome and well made.

Unfortunately the same issue I have had in one of three experiences at Melbourne’s newer version of Fratelli Fresh occurred tonight – the pasta was bland. I don’t say that lightly because I like the basis behind the now restaurant chain, but it is hard to forgive a linguine panigrattato that relies on few ingredients for its flavour, to be under seasoned, under oiled, and under lemoned.

Linguine pangrattato with QLD prawns

On the flip side Catherine’s beef and pork meatballs with tagliatelle was why I like Fratelli. It was well executed, fresh pasta, with a nice topping. Nothing like the best Italian, but still better than average, especially at the price point. We were dining with friends from Melbourne and Perth, and Dino, who speaks Italian fluently had a great time with the staff, while Matt was getting ready for the National Championships for his shotput, and pasta was perfect for the next day.

Fratelli signature banoffee torta

We stayed for dessert, even though we were all very satisfied already. The Banoffee pie was a good option to share, with richness from the toffee being softened by the cream, in a dish that is becoming a classic far and wide for good reason. Dino, Matt, and Simon, also shared the tiramisu which comes out in a large coffee cup, which is novel.

We had good fun and there are many aspects I enjoy here, but I don’t think I’ll personally be back in a hurry. With so many great options in Sydney, a miss on a main dish like tonight is hard to take.

Fratelli Fresh Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hanoi Hannah – Windsor – Friday 27 January 2017 – Lunch

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Lime ‘n’ pepper squid

Discovering the fresh and clean flavours of great Vietnamese food still feels like a recent experience for me, even though it is now over a decade ago. When memories are that vivid, there is something special about them.

Having enjoyed a good amount of quality pho, and rice paper rolls in the past, my first time at Hanoi Hannah a few years back triggered an even more passionate spark for the modern slant on Vietnamese that is prevalent around the world. There is no denying that an excellent bahn mi, a firm rice paper roll containing a quality protein, or a deeply flavoured pho, are some of the most comforting dishes available.

This is weird, but I would have eaten at Hanoi Hannah only about once for every ten times I think about it! For some reason it is never convenient, often not through distance but the knowledge that it’s popularity means I’m a good chance of making the journey only to be turned away. Today is different because Catherine has a late lunch, meaning that a 1.45pm start is as easy as pie, or the Vietnamese equivalent.

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Porkbelly sliders

There is some added pressure though. With only a short lunch break, I am in charge of getting a table, and ordering everything early. Metaphorically eating pressure for lunch, I order the lime and pepper calamari, yellowfin tuna rice paper rolls, and porkbelly sliders, along with a homemade lemonade, and a can of Bia Hanoi. I would take credit, but in my experience you cannot go wrong with any dish on the menu, so it was a piece of cake.

The calamari is very tender, needing only an extra dash of lime to be perfect. With a hint of wasabi mayo, the yellowfin tuna is wrapped in a firm rice paper, exhibiting all the freshness and quality you would hope for in this less usual offering. The porkbelly sliders are housed in a brioche bun for a some more richness, and are great, but overshadowed by the former dishes.

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Yellowfin tuna rolls with wasabi mayo

There is a vibe at Hanoi Hannah that is hard to duplicate. The staff are energised, even on the day following Australia Day celebrations. They enjoy their time, and must be proud of the product they get to sell.

Any time is a good time to eat at Hanoi Hannah. While there might be a wait on many occasions, it is undoubtably worth it.

Hanoi Hannah Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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