Ten Minutes By Tractor – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula – May 2017 – Lunch

Catherine, and her Mum, Sandra, in the garden

Is it possible to feel like a regular when your second visit to a restaurant is eight years apart? Perhaps that is a KPI for Ten Minutes By Tractor. Without any facade, the staff have you feeling completely at ease in an instant.

Looking around the room, the recent renovation has been nicely undertaken, not making a big statement but certainly leaving a very comfortable dining room to spend three hours over lunch. The seats in particular are the perfect choice, both well designed, and like your favourite couch. As you can imagine, there is plenty of emphasis in having a good view of the vines in this beautiful part of the world.

Notwithstanding first class service, and a terrific newly renovated dining room, I want to talk about one dish. Offal has never been the flavour of the month. It has been lauded for reason over a long time, but has never escalated to the heights of true popularity. Perhaps it never will be. When you look at a “balanced” restaurant menu you would ordinarily expect certain main star ingredients, some choice of secondary stars, and then something surprising. I’m afraid while beef, chicken, and fish take that staring role, offal has always been kept to the “surprise” meaning it gets a gig only on occasion.

Veal sweetbreads, mushrooms, charred baby leeks, chestnuts

While livers take the cake, sweetbreads (which actually sound like a cake) must be the second most unsexy ingredient going around. I mean they actually gave them a name that tries to confuse the customer into having a go! Ten Minutes By Tractor are serving veal sweetbreads for entree, and like a kid in a candy shop, I’m excited. To serve offal, you need to honour the flavour, but present it looking delicious (in spite of itself) and with complimentary accompaniments (more than other dishes).

Slow cooked goat, beetroot pasta, pickled beetroots, Main Ridge caprinella goats’ cheese

That is why I’m focussing on this dish. It came out on a black plate, showing off fabulous presentation skills of the chefs, but not hiding the sweetbreads, and actually highlighting them. The visual sear on the sweetbreads translates to the taste. Soft but deep gaminess, cooked in balance, and enhanced with the sauce and complimentary earthy mushrooms. I was not completely sold on the chestnuts in the dish, but this was close to perfection.

Cauliflower and mushroom, mushroom and cauliflower royal, black pearl barley

There are some choices to be made on the menu with a tasting menu, and a prix fixe option of two or three courses. We chose to have three courses ($99). It is best to not have any plans following the meal, with an amuse to begin, and a pre-dessert, making for a long and enjoyable meal. As well as having the sweetbreads, there is good diversity in the menu. Catherine’s Mum Sandra tried the roasted cauliflower to start. With a variety of mushrooms, a flavoursome theme on the menu, black pearl barley, and a “mushroom and cauliflower royal”, this is a nicely executed vegetarian dish. For her entree, Catherine opted for the slow cooked goat with beetroot pasta, pickled beetroot and goat’s cheese. Again, presentation is superb, and backed up by the taste.

Smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck, mushrooms, celeriac, walnut crunch

Not easily put off by rich gamey dishes, next I was trying the smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck. The duck was nicely cooked, and as I got further into the dish, the sweet walnut crunch dulled, starting to combine and balance the richer flavours of the mushrooms and celeriac. Both Catherine, and Sandra, tried the roasted hapuka which is a fish I’ve always loved. Here it is cooked with skill, and combined with both a persillade (mainly parsley) and lovage puree. The cauliflower is thinly sliced on top and it all makes for a delicious dish.

Roasted hapuka, lovage puree, heritage cauliflower, persillade

There is some serious flair here. A meal is more than a simple three courses. When the blood orange sorbet refresher comes out we know we are being spoilt. The flavours are as intense as you would like for a refreshing, but indulgent, interlude between mains and dessert. Then there is dessert itself. The colours, textures, tastes, and look of these dishes shows why it is a good idea to limit options on a menu. Make every dish exceptional and choice is not so important. Probably the only critique is the length of time it took for dessert to come out, meaning my 3.30pm conference call was a bit of a rush.

Poached pear, cashmere ice cream, candied chestnuts, slow roasted grapes

Michel Cluizel chocolate pave, cassis mousse, beetroot and creme fraiche ice cream, chocolate cake

Poached estate quince, candied ginger, sable, verjuice gel

Sandra’s came with the classic acknowledgement of a special day, but the combination was hard to beat. Quince from out the back seems healthy enough, but when combined with the sponge, crisps, gels and sorbets it is something else! My chocolate everything with cassis was its equal on the richer side. I’ve never rated food based on size, but this was a classic dish for sharing. Then there was Catherine’s poached pears which is not as popular as a few decades ago, but is a classic for a reason. Modern desserts have similar balance, texture and composition, but they don’t get much better than these.

Blood orange sorbet

I knew Ten Minutes By Tractor was a great place to dine. Though it had been several years since I’d had the experience first hand. At this stage of the day, albeit running out for a work call, I couldn’t quite believe how good today’s lunch actually was. It is still sinking in.

Ten Minutes by Tractor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Old Kingdom – Fitzroy – Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Dinner

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It looks the same. The atmosphere is the same. The food might actually be better in some areas. And that is the way institutions are supposed to be. To be exactly as they have lived in our memories for years and years.

Luckily, the stories I have are from years ago. When, on those particular nights, the waitperson was charming and funny. The only lacking element tonight is the ability of the waitstaff to interact and add that X factor to the meal.

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Ten years ago (give or take), I was told about the “duck hangover” in detail and still relive that story to this day. Another time I was told to pull up the table cloth all the way up to the neck to protect from duck fat shooting everywhere. If you were at a Heston restaurant you would call it “theatre”. It is almost as if back then Heston named his restaurant accordingly after experiences at Old Kingdom.

Tonight the duck is non-chalantly presented; politely enough, but without energy and enthusiasm. After grabbing a quick photo, our waitperson proceeds to begin cutting without any warning of duck fat splashing, and in close proximity to a vacant chair with one of our guests jacket hanging behind it. It seems there were no accidents, but the risks taken were exceptional!

The duck itself is prepared expertly as you would hope for at a restaurant that specialises in Peking Duck. It is delicious, with a thin pancake, some spring onion, cucumber and hoisin sauce only adding to the experience. Addictive is probably the best description I can think of.

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The duck stirfry (mainly bean shoots though) contains the leftover duck not chopped for the first course, but has some rich juicy pieces of duck meat. The last course, the duck soup, is deep in flavour, far better than my memory of this particular course. It is the first time I can think of trying seconds for this final edition of duck gluttony.

As it stands, we had three ducks for five adults, which is probably over-indulgent. In fact, unlike other reviews, I decided to write this immediately following dinner given the forthcoming duck hangover, and serious duck regret I will probably feel tomorrow. Nothing exceptionally over-indulgent is without some form of come-down.

There are many special things about restaurants that stand the test of time. Think about the changes on Smith Street just in the past ten years. Old Kingdom has been watching all of the great improvements on this eclectic street while keeping its appeal.

Old Kingdom Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gladioli – Inverleigh – Wednesday 23 March 2016 – Dinner

Potato, eel, wild roquette

Potato, eel, wild roquette

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

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

Radish, and trout skin with daikon

Radish, and trout skin with daikon

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

Zucchini, snow peas, ricotta

Zucchini, snow pea, ricotta

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

Duck, blackberries, rose

Duck, blackberries, rose

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

Strawberries, almond, fig leaf

Strawberries, fig leaf, almond

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

Apple, chestnut, rosemary

Apple, chestnut, rosemary

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

Prawns, kohlrabi,

Prawns, kohlrabi, seawater

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

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

Kingfish, plum

Kingfish, beach mustard, plum

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

Noir – Richmond – Saturday 5 September 2015 – Dinner

Caramelised Atlantic scallop, cauliflower veloute, black truffle and pecorino

Caramelised Atlantic scallop, cauliflower veloute, black truffle and pecorino

Neighbourhood restaurant as a tag seems a limiting, not to mention obvious, way to describe a place. Put in a positive light it merely means somewhere that is accessible to regular visits by locals, that has a comfort in belonging. It is rarely used in a negative sense the way “suburban” often can be.

In Richmond, only a couple of kilometres outside the CBD, there is a growing population of diverse restaurant offerings. One staple that felt missing for many years was a bistro the likes of France-Soir, or Thierry’s, but Noir swept in and filled that void. Naturally it is not as traditional, but the feeling here as you walk in is akin to those friendly convivial environments.

In a sense we have missed out in participating in the establishment of Noir’s reputation. For one reason or another, the eight minute walk down Swan Street ended up taking a couple of years to convert into a visit, but now we are here. As you would expect, the original cheap ($15!) entree, and almost equally reasonable ($35) main have been replaced with higher price tags, but the tasting menu listing five enticing courses, is still value at $100, and there is also a very reasonable menu du jour for around $65.

When I go to a bistro and look down on the menu to see duck, lamb, gnocchi and chocolate on a tasting menu you can stop the presses on the rest of the offerings. With one tweak, care of Catherine’s early menu reading habit, we chose the tasting menu without hesitation. That tweak was to replace the kingfish (which sounded excellent too) with a scallop dish that had taken her eye in a big way.

thyme gnochetti with king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto

thyme gnochetti, king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto

That was our first course and what an entry into the meal to come. A beautifully pan fried caremelised Atlantic scallop surrounded by a cauliflower veloute that dreams are made of, black truffle and pecorino providing further elevation. Next came the thyme gnochetti with king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto. A terrific follow up, with a huge amount of gnochetti for a tasting menu, and another banging sauce.

Duck

Crisp breast of duck with licorice, fennel and orange

There is really only a small list of savouries that a bistro needs to do well for me to be back. The biggest test is duck. Noir’s crisp breast of duck with licorice, fennel and orange ticked all the boxes. While the classic flavours pairing with the duck are very important, the way the duck is cooked is by far the most important aspect of this dish. It was cooked perfectly, and the way it looked on the plate, juicy and inviting, was the way it tasted.

Lamb

Roasted rack of lamb with pumpkin, pumpkin seed praline and parmesan

Our last savoury course was the roasted rack of lamb, with pumpkin, pumpkin seed praline and parmesan. Again the chefs showed great touch with the lamb, but in this case the pumpkin took an equally starring role.

Service, while quirky (which we liked), was utterly professional. I had to ask where our waitperson had come from previously and learned he had worked at many fine establishments across Melbourne for a long time. Good signs for Noir if it can attract this calibre of talent. The wine list is good without being unforgettable, and could even be viewed as a little pricey for a bistro, but we found some nice options starting with champagne, into chardonnay and then a pinot noir. When in Noir.

Chocolate marquise, blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus

Chocolate marquise, blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus

For dessert that was where the wine list became limited as I would love to see a Pedro, Muscat or Tokay to match with the chocolate marquise, served with blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus. Dessert was good, but we couldn’t help noticing how much better the soufflés looked, coming out around the same time, so we will be going after one of those next time. When will deconstructed desserts have finished their time?

The biggest surprise for me is that Noir is not covered in Australian Gourmet Traveller’s restaurant guide. While it might be a tiny “neighbourhood” restaurant, it is much more than that, and is hopefully not far off being noticed more broadly. I’m equally hopeful that it keeps doing what it is doing, providing an offering that is right up my alley.

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