Matilda – South Yarra – Monday 30 July 2018 – Dinner

Pink Lady apple tarte tatin, smoked vanilla bean ice cream

The many parts of a restaurant experience that come together in a few short hours are always difficult to capture. Ultimately they translate to an overall whole that dictates your first words to describe the experience, and the likelihood of whether you’ll be back quickly, or ever at all.

What sticks out initially is how we got to Matilda; or rather how we didn’t get to France-Soir. Thinking about an important occasion I had a sudden feeling I’d like to go back to try France-Soir so immediately Catherine called mid-week about 8.45pm to make a booking. The person who answered the phone with no introduction, and asked booking details with no friendliness and a fair bit of rudeness, left us so underwhelmed that we called back the next day to cancel.

Sure, it was during service, but what were we to do when the restaurant only takes phone bookings? You would think they would at least be adept enough to say the name of the restaurant and their own name and then use a couple of please’s and thank you’s. On the flip side a new and trendy restaurant with an online booking service provided a much better introduction to their restaurant!

On the evening of our dinner we were ready well in advance of our booking. We called ahead to the restaurant and the greeting was professional and courteous. The manager welcomed us to arrive early and said we would be seated on the bar and if that was okay to come down early. We love eating on the bar so we came immediately.

Bannockburn 2015 Pinot Noir

Adding to this initial dialogue, the entrance is warm and inviting, and with an equally warm greeting from the staff, plus some unusually endearing service, we were already feeling thoroughly charmed. This is the restaurant of Scott Pickett who has in recent times earned acclaim with Estelle by Scott Pickett in Northcote. Matilda is the culmination of several years of thought and planning, with a focus on cooking with fire, and native Australian ingredients and produce (without being over the top).

Ox tongue, horseradish & sauce gribiche; tartlet of salmon roe, bonito cream

The menu is modern with several dishes that can as easily be enjoyed to yourself, as they can be shared. With the promise of dessert always requiring some planning, we decided to have one starter each, share an entrée, and share one of the larger mains (that are for two). Catherine’s starter was a delicate tartlet of salmon roe with bonito cream, that had a taste that met its immaculate presentation. Equally as delicious, but nothing of the subtlety of the tartlet was my charred ox tongue, which was outstanding.

As we were finishing our glasses of Larrent-Perrier champagne, we enjoyed our entrée of spanner crab. Again, presented with flair, but this time rusticity, the crab was absolutely beautiful, lifted by butter seasoned with dried prawn which is smothered over charred flat bread.

Dressed spanner crab, prawn butter, flat bread

At this point we moved on to a bottle of 2015 Bannockburn Pinot Noir which is a tremendous expression of what Geelong wineries can do with their terroir. Combined with the duck for two, this is a little piece of heaven. The Macedon Ranges duck, presented with two generous strips of breast meat each, a leg, and a “duck taco” on lettuce, plus sides of potatoes and broccolini, is superbly touched by the flames, promoting the gaminess of the meat, but brought into balance with the charred blood orange.

Macedon Ranges duck for two, charred blood orange

We had been chatting to the staff on the bar, and a number of floorstaff who were all doing a great job at somehow providing a consistent experience even when our main waitperson took a break for a good portion of our meal. We always seemed to be in good hands. One of the chefs working the larder behind the bar was preparing the Pink Lady apple tarte tatins and we simply couldn’t resist ordering one.

The tarte is a great dish to share, especially when we ordered an extra scoop of the smoked vanilla bean ice cream to avoid any arguments! The texture of the apples find balance between being too firm and too soft; the tarte is beautifully cooked with not too much sweetness in the pastry; and the ice cream provides the traditional creaminess that you love with this type of classic dessert.

There is so much to love about this restaurant early in its life. The staff are engaged and seem to enjoy being here, motivated by the offerings of the kitchen. The fitout is classy and modern without unnecessary fine dining flourishes. The food is meeting a script that sounds simple, but when put under the microscope shows a high level of thought and knowledge.

In this part of Domain Road, across from the Botanical Gardens, good things can last the test of time. Based on this first taste of Matilda I have little doubt we will be visiting a fair bit in coming years, and hopefully decades. This restaurant has the potential to be hot for a long time and the use of fire is only one of the reasons.

Matilda 159 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Billie H – Claremont – Tuesday 20 February 2018 – Dinner

Roasted grapes, labneh, radicchio, chive oil

If I walk into a restaurant, and Dan Goodsell is there, I am immediately comforted that the food and wine options are going to be top notch, and the service naturally great too.

Over Christmas I did just that with my Mum at Billie H. We were here for a quick wine, but I had heard good reports about the food too. When I saw Dan, and later the enthusiasm of John Lethlean of The Australian, I had it at the top of my Perth list to try. Mum was keen too, the slightly chilled Sagrantino winning her over at first try. This is a little known grape variety from Umbria in Italy that is being made by Jamsheed in Victoria, and it is luscious.

Braised octopus, paprika, almonds, orange, chilli

The next time I was in Perth I was true to my list. I made a booking at Billie H for my aunty Sher, Mum and I. This wine focussed restaurant and bar has the modern Australian share plates theme nailed.

Rainbow carrots, farro, puffed grains, honey & mustard

It did take us some time to narrow down our choices. We ended up starting with the braised octopus, which was lifted with the crunch of almonds and the orange segments worked nicely for some citrus. I had heard the roasted grapes with labneh and my favourite bitter leaf, radicchio, is excellent and it didn’t let us down. I love how a dish that would cost the kitchen next to nothing is so flavoursome. This is eating.

Braised pork jowl, apricot, fennel

Next was my choice go-to share dish in the carrots, which are combined with farro and puffed grains. I am finding this style of dish on a lot of menus, including cafes, and it is equally as good whether on its own, or as a side. The natural sweetness of roasted carrots make them so easy to combine with offsetting herbs, adding the texture of grains or nuts makes sense too.

At this stage we were finishing our bottle of Sang De Pigeon Pinot Noir, from the Adelaide Hills, and moving on to the Rayos Uva Rioja, a blend of tempranillo and graciano. The beauty about wine bars that really focus on their list is the diversity you can find. Sure, it is good knowing the old trusties, but having the confidence to explore a list is comforting in its own way. We were in good hands and the wines were both terrific.

To finish the savouries we tried the pork jowl. Again this is one of those dishes that are win win for the kitchen and customer alike. It is a cheaper, but glorious, cut of meat, and one that you feel much better about indulging when not in your own kitchen.

Panna cotta, red wine figs, roasted white chocolate

The dishes are a good size and we together are not huge eaters. We probably didn’t need it but I insisted on dessert so we shared the panna cotta with red wine figs and this brilliant roasted white chocolate crumb. Everything was well executed, but the crumb was something else.

The restaurant business is one of the most fickle. With such a strong history of giving diners what they want, Dan is on to another winner here. Claremont is the richer for it.

Billie H. Supper Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hanoi Hannah – New Quarter – Richmond – Numerous Occasions

Fish wings

At times service is a factor only when it is exceptional or terrible. It is not absurd for it just not to be noticed, like children in the 50s. Service should be seen and not heard!

There are times where it can blow your mind. Times where you want to return because that compliment you received had to be genuine, or the charm of the maître’d was irresistible. Then there are the stories that you must tell even if it is focussing a touch too much on the negative, like when you witness a terrible car accident.

Lemongrass beef salad

I’ll tell you about the car accident soon but first let’s look at the positives. Hanoi Hannah’s New Quarter in Richmond is irresistible like the figurative maitre’d I mentioned just moments ago. It is literally the old and the new for both HH and this building which retains its character, but is completely redeveloped on the corner of Lennox and Swan. The positioning is a real estate agent’s dream. Location, Location, Location!

There are staff who have spent an hour getting ready to try to make it look like they didn’t try. The artistic maps sprawled across the wall of Richmond are a delight to behold while slurping your noodles. The windows look out to the restrained Richmond grunge turned fashionable, with more than a splattering of footy colours to add to the atmosphere. I love it.

Poached chicken pho

I’ve been multiple times; for lunch and for dinner; quiet weekdays and busy after-footy weekends. When I first tried the beef shortrib pho I thought it was indulgent, but difficult to navigate. The latter won out and it was taken off the menu but it lives in my memory. Catherine’s smoked chicken pho was not quite as decadent but definitely made for a repeat offender.

Beef short rib pho

The lemongrass beef salad is terrific too. All the learnings from Windsor, which again is a restaurant I’ve frequented, are clearly transported to Richmond. Elements you take for granted are expertly combined. Somehow every time I enjoy a salad with the multitude of herbs, vinegary sauce, and vegetables, that Vietnam and surrounds are famous for, I forget how well you feel after lunch (and how much you enjoy the flavours).

Peking duck rice paper rolls

Dining with a few friends and sharing is a great idea too. Because on this other occasion I got to try the caramelised pork hock in rice paper. And it was a good moment. So were the duck rice paper rolls; the chock-full-of-prawns spring rolls; and the spicy lamb curry. In fact, there hasn’t been a dish that has come out of the kitchen (which includes an offshoot that does takeaway lunch that we’ve also taken advantage of – pork belly bahn mi with crackling for $10!) that has not been good to very good.

Caramelised pork hock with rice paper

The service is fine on the whole, but definitely has that touch of “we work in a really popular place so aren’t we great” vibe. So when we were basically asked to order dessert on the spot or leave I took some serious exception to it.

Chicken and pork belly bahn mi

It is not a long story. We ordered a second bottle of wine and had finished half of it (ie, we were going to be here for at least 20 minutes longer). We got asked whether we wanted dessert and said “we would take a look”. The menu was provided immediately and the waitperson said “would you like dessert”. I said “we have a half bottle of wine so we can look at dessert and decide while we finish it”. She said “there are two desserts so you can choose now, or I can bring you the bill”.

I know the staff are under pressure to turn tables over. It is a busy night. But there are ways you do not treat anyone. Either my directness at the last comment was noticed, or sense prevailed, and our waitperson apologised reasonably sincerely (and quite profusely) but the damage was done. I said straight up to her that “I have never been asked to leave a restaurant like this before”.

There is never any excuse for making someone feel threatened and bullied. We spent $249 over a period of about 90 minutes including 2 bottles of wine. Anyone who reads my reviews knows that we ordered dessert (and the doughnuts were pretty good). We were not given a sitting time to begin with and we were walk-ins as Catherine expertly got us a table before the footy finished. I really can’t stand the way we were treated at a restaurant I supported 4 times in its first 6 weeks. Not again. Well maybe a bahn mi at the takeaway bit or a cheeky pho!

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

Kisume – Melbourne, City – Saturday 10 March 2018 – Dinner

Kingfish sashimi, truffle soy, black truffle

I will admit it. I just don’t know enough about Japanese food to feel entirely comfortable critiquing it. I do know about restaurants and I do know what is good though.

There is no aspect of Japanese food that I do not like. Tempura, nigiri sushi, sashimi, yakitori, ramen, you name it; I love them all. When they are done at the highest level of quality it sticks out. There may only be a sparse number of ingredients, making it less obvious to differentiate, but when the component parts are superb, it is something of beauty.

Take that tradition of few ingredients and incredible fastidiousness, and add some modern flourishes and you have “modern Japanese”. Like other modern takes on traditional cuisine, it is not a complete transformation, but does make a statement. The other ingredients here at Kisume is a rockstar sibling restaurant in Chin Chin that is still attracting lines of people many years on, a glamourous space over a couple of levels, and that intangible cool that is a magic of its own.

We had the tasting menu with the deluxe sushi upgrade. The food is by no means flawless, or even close. The service is chaotic at times, but generally okay. No one seems to care that much because this is one of the hottest tickets in town. The experience feels similar to when you see your favourite band – even if they are not the best they could be, you are so excited you don’t care that much.

Tonight I’m dining with three friends and we all have different views on Japanese cuisine. “Chef” as we know him, is not a devotee and, unsurprisingly, this is not his best experience. Jarrod loves Japan and Japanese food, but was unmoved by several dishes. Trav has been to Japan multiple times too but had a more positive response.

Chargrilled edamame

The tasting menu started with edamame. We had already been suggested to try some as we decided what we would order, and whether we would try the tasting menu. They were very nice, chargrilled with salt and garlic oil. After opting for the tasting menu we were told that was the first course anyway. Then we received a further two bowls. Three bowls of edamame for four people? We felt bad leaving one completely untouched but the staff didn’t admit it was a mistake, and either way that is a lot of edamame to eat.

Crispy pork kimchi gyoza

Next were some delicious pork gyoza that some at the table were saying are equaled at several other venues in Chinatown, but I thought were terrific. Kingfish sashimi that is first class comes next. Truffle soy and black truffle elevate the flavours, but the kingfish is top of the range. When kingfish is this good it reminds you why variations are so popular on restaurant menus. It was my favourite dish of the evening.

Sushi course with deluxe upgrade

The sushi boxes have some serious diversity. There is sashimi, nigiri sushi, and several other tastes and textures including the uramaki (inside-out roll). The issue here is the varying degrees of enjoyment from the food. At the bottom end some of the sashimi is chewy in an unpleasant way, and the combination of uni, pastes and roe in the middle is difficult to understand (and not explained by our waitperson). The large pieces of cucumber are a distraction. On the plus side, the nigiri is excellent (wish there was a lot more) and some of the sashimi was beautiful too.

Miso soup with chrysanthemum tofu

I appreciate the skill involved in the chrysanthemum tofu, and I like the silken texture, but the miso is plain. Anything but plain, the grass fed beef tenderloin from O’Connor’s is almost completely covered in foie gras. As an ingredient, foie gras is the epitome of richness, but there is an issue with the beef. Experience of beef in Japanese restaurants has always involved an awe about how it can be so tender and juicy. The richness of the foie gras simply doesn’t mask the fact that the beef is not up to the quality we would expect.

Foie gras and beef

The hapuka fish with a puffed black rice crust is easily the superior of the two mains. The crust works really well against the firm and juicy fillet. Add the spicy miso and chive oil and you have a very nice dish. The side salad of cucumber, cucumber and more cucumber was pleasant enough with its vinaigrette dressing and good measure of coriander. However, did we really need three of them for four people. Generousity is one thing, but wasting so much cucumber felt wrong, especially after our three serves of edamame.

Spicy miso hapuka with puffed black rice, spicy miso, and chive oil; cucumber salad in the background

The dessert to finish lacked impact. Three puffs of cream with some additions for texture. It was sweet, and we ate it (in under 2 minutes), but it felt like an afterthought.

On this one experience I wouldn’t go back to Kisume, but I’ve heard enough good things about the Chef’s Table (exclusive to 12 people) and there were some serious highlights. There’s little doubt that with a restaurant this spoken about it will get another chance, but I hope it is better the second time around.

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

Flower Drum – Melbourne, City – Friday 23 March 2018 – Dinner


Most people have a Flower Drum story, and a view on its merits as a big night out. Back when I first ventured there in my mid-twenties it was a three star restaurant still at the height of reverence from most dining circles.

It was described to me at the time as a destination restaurant even for people living in China. Naturally, I took that statement with a degree of skepticism, but when your waitperson has been at the same restaurant for 25 years, there is an instant knowing that something is going particularly well, in a world where a year is a milestone in hospitality.

Fast forward almost one and a half decades and the knowing is of a different kind. These days I know that you should expect flawless service, and that the tasting menu will include Peking Duck and beautifully cooked beef. In the lead up, the reception when I mentioned Flower Drum was anywhere between excitement and a feeling the place is now passé.

It’s almost as if, in this dynamic world of constant change, that doing something well, over and over again, might be overrated. In a sense I can be guilty of this too, but an understanding of why focus and precision is beautiful in cooking terms was strengthened from my trip to Tokyo last year, and a few other instances here and there (often in relation to Asian food).

To my surprise, there was one change to the “four course” tasting menu tonight, which was no san choi bao, replaced by a crayfish omelette. This was the first course and a delicious introduction into the meal to come. The dish is perfectly seasoned (salt and pepper is provided, but not needed), with large chunks of juicy crayfish smothered by a fluffed egg white omelette. For a long and generous tasting menu, the richness of this first course is felt later in the meal, but I wouldn’t be offering a spoonful of that crayfish back.

Skipping over the service at Flower Drum would be like going to the Taj Mahal, taking a photo, and walking back out. It is intrinsic to the atmosphere in the room, almost prompting a sense of Zen. Like many things of beauty, it is hard to put your finger on exactly why the service here is spoken about like it won an Olympic gold medal. While tonight there is little chance our waitperson, Vincent, has been working at Flower Drum for 25 years like one of my first experiences, he is thoroughly trained.

Saute crayfish omelette

The dedication and commitment to excellence here is astounding, but it doesn’t lead to a loss of personality. A good example is towards the end of the evening when we complimented Vincent on how well he handled our AGT Vouchers (I get a discount through work which is great, but the paper voucher has caused some issues!) Rather than accept the compliment with the same humility he had shown throughout the evening, he humorously said “thank my Manager” with a grin that he would have had no idea what to do.

Wok fried wild barramundi fillet

The next course we enjoyed was the barramundi, with a glutinous shiitake mushroom sauce, and asparagus. I could see Catherine looking at the whole fillet of fish, and back at her chopsticks, and I was instantly brought back to the first time I ate fish here. “Don’t worry, it falls apart easily” I assured her, and sure enough, the fish parts in bite sized pieces perfectly held together for less sophisticated chopstick enthusiasts like myself. Besides the perfect fillet of lightly battered barra, the sauce shares the limelight with a huge lift that doesn’t mask the fish, but does add some punch.

At this stage we were finishing our Moorooduc Estate Chardonnay, displaying a good level of oak and some old school malolactic fermentation that we quite like. Next we switched to a half bottle of the Paringa Estate Pinot Noir from 2013. The Pinot is glorious, especially with the upcoming dish.

That dish is the famous Peking duck which these days is presented with some hoisin art. It’s a bit gimmicky, but delightful at the same time. Once you taste the Peking duck your mind shifts to how succulent the duck is, and how perfect the pancake packaging is. One day I would like to be able to be a regular here just to have the Peking duck. For now my two tastes, matched with the Pinot, are just gorgeous, leaving me to hunger for the next time I’m here, which will be sooner than 13 years.

Peking duck

Next comes the beef, and I really don’t remember it being this large? You are basically presented with a small steak, Asian greens, and a side of unforgettable fried rice. I like this fried rice better than both Lung King Heen and RyuGin, both owning three Michelin stars in Asia. There is a choice to upgrade the beef from local Black Angus to Wagyu which at $40 per head we didn’t do this time, and we were not regretting our choice because it is hard to imagine how the beef could be that much better. Using chopsticks, each piece melts in your mouth, the technique better than most steakhouses, and practiced for a considerable period of time with this 43 year old restaurant.

Grain-fed eye fillet with black pepper sauce, and fried rice

For dessert we are given a choice, which is never a great idea because the negotiation is intense. From the beginning I wanted to have the mango crepes and something a bit more on the edge. Serious contemplation followed as we tried to let our savoury courses digest. Vincent became involved in the conversation and incredibly swayed us to try the fried ice cream! According to wiki the origin of this dessert is America, but to my mind it has become something of a suburban Chinese restaurant cringe dessert.

Vincent was right. Not only did he realise we were going to share dessert (so organised for it to be split between our plates) but he was spot on that fried ice cream can be elevated to an adult dessert. This one is surrounded by sponge cake that has been compressed and then surrounded by breadcrumbs. It is complimented by a berry sauce and I will never say anything bad about fried ice cream again! The crepes are very nice, just as I remember them. Plenty of sweet mango filling, even though the season in Queensland has apparently come to an end.

Mango crepe; and fried ice cream

The hours had passed and all of a sudden the buzz in the restaurant had dissipated as one-by-one the guests had made their way back on to Market Lane. As I finished my Grandfather Port (yes, a traditional meal needs a traditional port!) and Catherine her Jasmine tea, we knew we’d had a night to remember. There is something comforting about Flower Drum, and there’s no need to feel guilty about it.

Flower Drum Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Napier Quarter (and Bar Liberty) – Fitzroy – Saturday 16 December 2017 – Dinner

Charcuterie and heirloom tomatoes

Fitzroy continues to be one of the most exciting areas in the country. The impossible-to-keep-up-with openings have softened a touch, but the mainstays of recent years are going from strength to strength. If you add the places in Collingwood, many across the road along Smith Street, you have a vibrancy that is difficult to equal.

2010 Domaine de Roqueforte Petit Salle Clairette from Provence, France and 2015 Alice & Olivier de Moor Chitry Chardonnay from Burgundy, France

Early this evening we start on Johnston Street at Bar Liberty. This wine obsessed bar and restaurant has the versatility we have come to love in modern times. The wine list introduces you to wines that are not common, whether due to the variety, the maker, or the region. Throw in a delicious, but slightly over-peppered cacio e pepe bucatini pasta as a snack to graze on and we are very comfortable indeed.

Bucatini cacio e pepe

I was back at Bar Liberty in early February trying some new wines, and tried out Drinkwell, the new aptly named outdoor bar behind, which is a bit more casual. Tonight however there was more wine drinking to be done over at Napier Quarter.

On a beautiful warm early summer evening, Napier Quarter’s tiny outdoor tables are worth the compromise. A more traditional, but still creative, wine list allowed us to go back to our favoured varieties. We had whiled away the early evening and were approaching sundown, so it was time to order more substantially.

We chose the heirloom tomatoes, the Cuca Spanish anchovies and the charcuterie board. The latter was good value considering its reasonable price, displaying three meats that were a combination of local and overseas cured. The heirloom tomatoes showed off several varieties, textured by chorizo pangrattato. The quality of tomatoes around Australia just continues to grow, and these, drizzled with plenty of quality olive oil, are no exception. I would have been as happy with them on their own.

Cuca Spanish anchovy

The anchovies were the biggest hit though. Simply served on bread with plenty of parsley, a chopped boiled egg, and a mayonnaise style sauce, this is a classic wine bar offering. It’s the kind of dish that you are eating and thinking “we need to make this at home” but we never seem to getting around to it! If only Napier Quarter was around the corner.

Napier Quarter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Canteen Pizza – Cottesloe – Sunday 24 December 2017 – Dinner

Idyllic sums up the scene at Canteen Pizza. Across the road from my favourite beach in the world, this addition to the Cottesloe strip is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Salame

Tonight is Christmas Eve and the Freo Doctor is only lightly wafting through the expansive open windows of this corner block. Transformed into a vibrant restaurant in an enviable position, the lessons learned from Il Lido down the road are everywhere.

There is the excellent translation of beachside casual comfort, a natural link between the feel across the road into the restaurant. You can be quite comfortable in boardies and thongs, but won’t feel out of place in jeans and a shirt too. There is the focus on the product offered, and plenty of well trained staff enjoying being part of something new and a little bit different.

Bufala

Before sunset it can be very bright in the restaurant, meaning there are lots of people in sunglasses looking like they might just as well be poolside in Italy. Not many meals offer sunset as a complimentary side and we are pleased to accept, along with a couple of pizzas, a baby cos salad, and a few choice summer beverages.

Both the Bufala and Salame pizzas are excellent. That traditional Italian thin crust that wasn’t heard of during my childhood, provides a crisp base that has been pulled from the oven just at the right time, before crispiness turns into charcoal. The San Marzano tomato base is fresh and properly seasoned, and all the various ingredients on both pizzas are classically combined. The only improvement would be a bit more topping near the crust.

Baby cos salad

The baby cos salad is simply served in collections of full leaves, dressed with vino cotto (sweet and balsamic like) with parmesan scattered in between. To wash it all down I try both the WA brewed Gage Roads Single Fin, and the Victorian craft Stomping Ground Pale Ale from Collingwood, with the latter my preference. Really I should have done the Italian thing with an Aperol Spritz like Catherine did!

As we walk out of Canteen Pizza packing a couple of delicious Sicilian cannoli for later, the night sky is taking over. This is a fabulous addition to the dining scene in Cottesloe, with reasonable prices making it a regular proposition for locals, and large gatherings.

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