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

Advertisements

Wildflower – Perth – Thursday 28 December 2017 – Lunch

Whipped Bahen & Co chocolate, river mint, wattle seed cream

It was the best of food, it was the worst of service. Sitting four floors above St Georges Terrace, the main question I have is how does this happen? That, and “can we please leave now?”

Normally in situations like this I would describe how brilliant each dish tasted, and looked, to begin. This is one time where the level of uninspiring service cannot be tolerated when you are in one of the best restaurants in the country, Wildflower. The reason we want to leave isn’t because of the food, which was outstanding.

The reason is our friendly, but inexperienced, and ill-hired, waitperson, has taken all of ten minutes to correct the bill. It must have been a big problem; now he has then brought it back and I’ve found another mistake. He has disappeared for another ten minutes in a restaurant with two tables left. When he comes back he comps our tea and coffee due to the second mistake, which is a nice touch so I still leave a small tip hoping it gets split amongst the staff (including the kitchen) evenly. We say thank you and begin to leave.

Artisanal Western Australian cheeses with pink lady gelee, oat cakes & lavosh

However, the restaurant manager cannot work out how to use our Australian Gourmet Traveller vouchers (not the plastic card, but paper vouchers that we paid hard currency for through my work benefits program), so she asks a bar person to make us complimentary kir royales while we wait. At this stage of proceedings this was not an off-moment; it was a theme.

Wood grilled Arkady lamb, Jerusalem artichoke, salt bush, dripping emulsion, peppermint tree leaf dressing

Mistakes happen. It was the demeanor of the restaurant manager that was the issue, not her ability to try to smooth the matter by providing a drink while we waited, or the fact Mum saw her visit most other tables during our three hour sitting (but not ours or any of the other tables further to the west of the restaurant). And once she rectified the problem and used the vouchers to pay the remaining $550 of our bill, she didn’t come over and apologise and say “it worked now, thank you”. No, I had to come to her fifteen minutes later to see how it was going.

Strawberry gum cheesecake, candied outback lime, raspberry, coconut charcoal & bottle brush

This sounds like a rant, but anyone who has read my reviews more than a few times would realise I value food far more than service, and rarely have significant critiques. There were so many mistakes at this beautiful, expensive restaurant, that it really needs to be discussed. So many that only a list can be used without going to another page.

1. Sher’s water glass had lipstick on it. The sommelier didn’t apologise, left the water glass on the waitstaff table for most of the meal, and didn’t offer a new bottle of sparkling water (since the first glass of the Cape Grim bottle had to be removed).

2. Our waitperson was new to the restaurant (and we think to hospitality, which is not his fault, but is a mistake of the restaurant’s hiring policies). He was very nice and friendly, but just not up to scratch. Simple things that you take for granted in fine dining restaurants (like grabbing the menus as people ordered for example) were not done. Harder aspects were mismanaged as a result.

3. When my Mum asked him what jelly came with our first dish he had to be asked again an hour later, and still didn’t come back immediately to reveal it, but did eventually come back. It was the only ingredient we asked about the entire meal (we were not asking constantly in other words about everything, or being annoying customers in any way).

4. I asked for a 2015 Cape Mentelle Chardonnay and got presented with a Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, which was a fine error. But then the sommelier came back with the chardonnary and explained that only 2016 was available (fine again). Then we were charged $10 more for the Curly Flat 2014 Pinot Noir on the bill and it was blamed on the wine list changing (so check your bill). It took ten minutes for the wine list to be checked to confirm it was an error, in an empty restaurant at 4.30pm.

5. Three courses was $88. Because you order dessert after mains, the first two courses were correctly shown as $68 on the bill. However, underneath this item showed “4 @ $20” for dessert, but then had below it “$30… $120”. We were the last to leave the restaurant so it is quite possible that everyone who had the three courses got charged $10 extra per head because the error was automatic.

6. Catherine’s tea cup had pronounced coffee stains on it, which were blamed on “the finely made cups are difficult to clean” which would be fine at a dinner party, but seemed odd at a fine diner.

7. The sommelier seemingly refused to fill our wine glasses after the initial pour. This meant we had to ask our waitperson (the bottle is not on the table), which meant he was a bit torn (knowing he shouldn’t be pouring, but realising it had been forever since sommelier even batted an eyelid at our table).

8. It wasn’t until the end of our meal that we realised the restaurant manager was not the person who greeted us. The restaurant manager was not the person who led us to the table, and the person who greeted us walked to the opposite end of the restaurant at a brisk walk, leaving my aunty Sher and Mum literally 15 metres behind. It didn’t dawn on me until later that it was not the best way to open proceedings, but the issues across the board brought it out.

There’s no justification for these issues in totality. It has simply not happened at a Gourmet Traveller top 100 restaurant that I’ve ever visited. So, besides company, what saved our experience?

Shark Bay Blue Swimmer Crab, avocado, kohlrabi, sea blight (blite), native basil dashi, finger lime

The food was inventive, beautifully presented, exquisitely executed, and absolutely delicious. Shark Bay blue swimmer crab is generously served under thinly sliced kohlrabi, in a gazpacho style of native basil dashi, and given zing with finger lime, and mild sweetness with a limey tomato jelly. Sea blite adds bite, and the avocado pairs with the gorgeous texture of the crab, which shows off as the star of the dish against the backdrop of competing, but balanced elements. It is absolutely superb.

Berkshire pork is incredibly tender considering the perfectly executed crackling, that somehow balances its salt content. While a little more jus could have been warranted, the soft sweet white onion, scattering of quandongs, and sides of bitter greens, and Paris style mashed potato, were all excellent.

Berkshire pork, sweet white onion, sour quandong and mustard

As if the savoury courses being perfect was not enough, the kitchen’s take on an after-dinner mint includes the best mint gelato imaginable. Sitting next to whipped Bahen & Co chocolate, and atop wattle seed cream, the combination is unashamedly classic, but still innovative, without breaking the modern movement in plating desserts.

Once we eventually received the right bottle of chardonnay, the 2016 Cape Mentelle was outstanding with restrained use of new French oak, and a refined palate. Just as spectacular was the 2014 Curly Flat Pinot Noir; an expression of this variety that seems to find the right part of the spectrum between fruit and game.

Food first. It is the reason I go to restaurants instead of staying at home. But there are natural elements you expect when paying $610 for lunch. I wouldn’t normally mention the amount, but it brings into view the importance of providing service that is fit for the food. I haven’t read other reviews (I rarely do before going to a restaurant to keep my own perspective) but if there are any themes here they need to be rectified quickly at this flagship of Perth restaurants that is thankfully not at the all-too-dominant Crown. Go for the food and all the best with the service. Did I mention the view?

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

RyuGin – Tokyo – Tuesday 13 June 2017 – Dinner

Normally I write about a three star meal in the few days that follow the experience. There is a degree of excitement and anticipation that keeps alive when you get to deeply think about the meal that was. Occasionally, especially on holidays, it is just too hard to find the time. That is not to say a serious delay is a negative measure.

After a great meal you have a glow. You can still almost taste some of the most exquisite dishes and smell the scents. Over time you lose many aspects, and those that last are often with you for life. Add in the travel element, and you are much more likely to remember some dining experiences with even more fondness. They are connected to holidays; less stress; more indulgence.

The weight of evidence suggests tonight is going to be an experience to behold. Good friends have been here and recommended it, but it wasn’t just them. In Tokyo, many restaurants do not accept foreign bookings, so our hotel was responsible for organising our visit to RyuGin. Walking up to the door there is nothing that suggests this is one of the best restaurants in this huge city.

As in all Japanese establishments, the welcome is warm and respectful. We are early to make sure there are no hiccups travelling to the quiet part of Roppongi, so we are shown upstairs to wait for our sitting. Funnily enough, with some nice green tea and a splendid room (more on this later) we suggest getting here early is a good idea.

Once led into the dining room we realise that the restraint of the entrance is no different here. It is very nice, and there are some dominant features, but it is certainly not elaborate. Given we are in a non-English speaking country we don’t expect to understand everything, but generally the staff deal well with our lack of Japanese.

Sea urchin, broadbean, green soybeans

Our first course is sea urchin packaged in crispy batter and seaweed, with broadbean and edamame soup. It is quite sensational. The sea urchin is unrecognisable and brings out softness and that subtle flavour, while the broadbean is beautifully seasoned. The soup is simply stunning. Salt is around the edge of the cup and I can’t stop until it’s gone, continuing to run my finger around the edge for more of that salty hit! The abalone in the second dish is the best I have ever tasted, in a deep cloudy broth with a white paste we’ve seen elsewhere but have no idea what it is.

Abalone, lettuce, yam, water chestnuts

Earlier we had been sitting in the waiting room admiring firstly the gigantic owls and then the video of the head chef’s exploits with cooking amazing produce. The dish we were presented with showed fabulous technique in the form of divine knife skills allowing eel to blossom like a flower. The flavours, especially the broth of Mt Fuji water, and glutinous vegetable scattered throughout, were probably too different to fully appreciate, but it was still a tremendous dish to eat.

Pike eel, eggplant, water shield, green yuzu

Our sashimi course has challenge, beauty and intrigue. The challenge is the crab which is chewy and not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it all the same. The Benito is absolutely gorgeous with not one flaw. It is the equal of the ootoro tuna sushi I earlier tried near the fish market as my best fish for the visit. The intrigue is the flat fish which is again a different texture to what you associate with sashimi, but is delightful and beautifully matched to the accompaniments, this one being salsa like.

Ocean delicacies

The frightening looking fish, called Ayu is served next in the theatrical style some love and others despise! I love it, the challenge in presentation, and the impact it brings. The instructions given are three bites – one over the head to the wing, the next over the wing, and the last over the tail. Wow, the first bite is scary. Then you taste the impact of the char, reminiscent of great squid or sardines over charcoal in say Portugal. Then you calm and the next bite is delicious and all of a sudden you are dipping into the watermelon based sauce like a pro and absolutely loving it, trying to work out the next time you will eat Ayu again!

Specialty swimming ayu fish

As Catherine would describe, the first half of our meal is different and confronting. But the second half is basically just awesome.

Noodles and broth

We are almost onto our beef course and we’ve already gone through about $160 on 4 glasses of premier cru Montrachet so spending another $130 on two glasses of red was a stretch but you only live once. If I had a critique it would be that the wine, as sublime as the limited options are, is nevertheless very limited and all very expensive. Finding some glasses to offer that are nice for $30 would really help our wallet! We only had the choice of two reds and both were very expensive by the glass.

One of the incredible owls in the waiting area

Prior to the beef we had a surprise in the form of noodles and broth, a dense egg yolk sitting atop the noodles, looking very proud, and eating wonderfully. The terrific floor staff directing us to dip the noodles into the broth, which is consistent with the way connoisseurs would eat their noodles here in Japan.

Sanuki olive beef, onion, white asparagus

The beef course was something to behold. Presented over a steaming contraption, it was completely rare and slowly being cooked above an onion, with a semi-glutinous broth and asparagus. It was so delicious it was gone in a flash, even with trying to have a sip of red between each taste. Left behind, the onion was about as great an onion I’ve eaten. And I never ever finish an entire onion portion.

Chicken rice

We were really getting into a groove. This is thoughtful modern Japanese food and maybe a bit above our abilities, but intriguing and indulgent at the same time. The next course was chicken rice with a miso soup. The miso has an ode to the chrysanthemum flower which is a Japanese icon, and you could not believe it is tofu! Not only that, the miso is wonderful. The chicken rice has intricate knife skills being shone on the dish, but the flavour, whilst very nice, is not one of the better profiles of the evening. The chicken is fabulous though.

Chrysanthemum soup

This took us to dessert. Absolutely no offence to Asia, but desserts here are different, and often more savoury than many other cuisines. So imagine our surprise when a deliciously balanced but sweet mango ice dessert with sweet mango concentrate comes to our table. It is hard to describe how good this was, but knowing this combination well, I can honestly say it was the best I’ve ever had, including several goes in Hong Kong.

Shaved ice with mango

Then to follow up and smack it out of the park comes a double take on sake, leading to me having a double take on how good these desserts were! A soufflé of sake and a sake ice cream hit the high notes. The soufflé is perfectly constructed and deep in the vessel, with a textured top, and soft bottom, with just the right balance of egginess. The ice cream keeps its form and actually tastes of the key ingredient. Knowing how difficult it is to achieve this I take my hat off to the chef and his team.

Sake souffle and ice cream

We finished with a matcha green tea as the night was ending, reflecting on a second half that was definitely more settling. It goes to show that in both Western and Eastern fine dining, being brought to the edge of your tastes by the chef is part of the experience. Sure, it should still be comfortable on the whole, but a few dishes outside your comfort zone brings the meal to an entirely different level. Several months later I look back at our time at RyuGin with fondness and respect.

 

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

Sepia – Sydney – Friday 31 March 2017 – Dinner

Autumn Chocolate Forest – soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond, rose petal cream, blackberry sorbet, Black Genoa fig jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, crystallised bronze fennel, native voilets

The full circle. One thing is constant though, I have always wanted to dine here. Originally when it opened it was above the Sydney office of the accounting firm I was working for, and I wasn’t sure the feeling I would have dining below work. Last year I heard rumours it was to close, and I wasn’t sure it would be on its A game.

Green tea, tarragon, yuzu “chiffon”

This year I was more than enticed and booked early, as you need to do. We were staying a block away, and it just made sense. Earlier in the day of the encounter I heard that it was to open in Melbourne, and not long after we finished our meal, I realised that the restaurant was actually closing in December and moving to Melbourne!

Snacks from left – Tempura Oba Leaf; Hiramasa Kingfish; Saikou (best) Salmon; Bonito and purple yam

I’m ecstatic for two reasons. I live in Melbourne, and there is something special about this experience that is bigger than the city it resides in. Sepia is a big night out, a special occasion, a celebration, and an event in itself. It has built an envied reputation for a very good reason.

Somehow, on a non-descript, almost ugly corner of the Sydney CBD, the inside of the restaurant and wine bar, is a world away. It is dark and sexy, open yet intimate, with some fine dining features, and bistro style flourishes. The banquettes are comfortable, and the dark wooded tables nice and large, giving an air of luxury.

Service, especially from our sommelier, is exceptional – equal parts professional, comfortable and approachable. There is one draw back though of a very dedicated and diverse floorstaff. Some of the descriptions of the food are difficult to decipher whether by accent, noise or a combination of the two. This means that without a menu you have only a partial understanding of what you are eating. Purposely I have written this review without looking at the menu as I think that is a better way of describing my personal take on the incredible dishes we ate during the evening. However, the captions on the photos are the chef’s descriptions you receive later as you leave (unless you request earlier).

The other potential drawback with not having a menu is you are either at the mercy of the matched tastings (which we rarely do) or the sommelier. Luckily we all worked together, Catherine and I suggesting what we would like to drink, and our sommelier confirming which styles would suit multiple courses during the evening. She was spot on.

Tuna, egg yolk, fromage blanc, unpasteurised soy sauce, wasabi

After our Melbourne Gin Company and tonic aperitif, we started with a glass of the Thalassitis Assyrtiko from Santorini by Gaia. It was indeed versatile with light fruit and great balance, something which was needed with our four snacks to begin. Those snacks included some delightful minced kingfish surrounded by a crispy seaweed (which turned out to be tatami iwashi – a dried flat sheet of sardine), that was a strong accompaniment. There was a leaf above a prawn cracker like wafer with a version of seafood sauce atop. It was a nice beginning.

Next we had a glorious folded piece of tuna, with some dollops of egg yolk and a puree that tasted like creamy artichoke. When you cut into the tuna out splashed some soy sauce, not unlike what happened to my wallet a little later at the end of a great meal.

Spanner crab, heirloom tomato, brown butter emulsion, sake vinegar jelly, pea and horseradish

Our next course was a more substantial parcel of generously portioned spanner crab, which was probably the highlight of my savoury courses, but not by any great margin given the excellence shown by the kitchen. The presentation included some dusting at the table which struck the thin vegetable layer topping the crab with a cool punch, providing contrast and interest between hot and cold, soft gorgeous crab, and the slightly firmer vegetable (which was actually heirloom tomato).

Butter poached black cod, pink and white turnips, finger lime, ice plant, smoked soy dashi

We had what looked like a small piece of fish served with a broth in a little bowl, but turned out to be densely packed and huge on flavour, the portion just right given the richness. The dashi was addictive and I almost finished the last drop. The fish was firm, but delicate, with a pronounced flavour, reminiscent of cod. Some of the vegetable additions in the broth didn’t add to the flavour, but did create some textural balance. By now we were on to a superb chardonnay by Benjamin Laroux from Bourgogne and it delivered an exceptional match, but was expensive.

Chargrilled lamb breast, roasted garlic emulsion, Mexican sour cucumbers, sweet bamboo, daikon

One of the dishes I found a little weaker, but still of a high standard anywhere else, was the torn lamb. One of my pieces was a little chewy, and while the flavour was actually quite intense, the accompaniments just didn’t work for me as well as the other dishes. The second meat dish however ticked all the boxes. Wagyu needs skilled cooking and it received it. The pine mushroom and cream also intensely flavoured, but pairing perfectly. With these courses I tried a wine called Meandro from the Douro in Portugal that had a good lick of alcohol, leading to some slightly jammy fruit on the palate. Catherine went with the Nero d’Avola and I was a little jealous, the savouriness exhibited perfect for finely tuned wagyu.

David Blackmore wagyu sirloin, pine mushroom, kombu, mushroom cream, grilled baby kale leaf

We love dessert, and it appears the team behind Sepia do too. You could hardly call either of our two pre-desserts inferior to the main dessert, in fact, we both were left wondering how it could get any better. The first was a version of strawberries and cream, using alpine strawberries. Just amazing. Then Catherine’s favourite of Sepia’s version of chiffon cake arrived, and as well as being beautifully presented, it was divine.

Alpine strawberries, salted white chocolate chantilly, frozen strawberry and yoghurt

For the main dessert we had a choice and we both chose differently to get a taste of each offering. Catherine had the “apple”, and I had the “chocolate”. It was a bit of trickery, with the apple coming out in a half shell of chocolate, with apple ice cream topped by a medley of tastes and textures. Mine came out looking like a pear in the woods, but was actually a quenelle of chocolate, on a bed of dried fruits, crumbs, and more chocolate. It is a signature dish, and for obvious reason. There is a confidence exuded from the presentation, and the incredible technique used to execute the flavours and textures cannot be easily expressed in words.

Chocolate, caramelised apple cream, artichoke, blackcurrant, cocoa nib, pecan brittle

As I sipped the last few drops from my ten year old Madeira by Henriques and Henriques it became quite apparent that this was one of the top meals I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime. While the memory is obviously vivid, I expect on further reflection in coming months and years that this should easily make my top 10 experiences. Not to mention it is moving to Melbourne, just like I did almost ten years ago. While loving where it has come from, I’m sure it too, will never look back.

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

Stokehouse – St Kilda – Thursday 23 March 2017 – Dinner

There are a host of reasons we love to go out to eat. In a relative sense, there are not many restaurants that create more than the experience itself. Every now and then though, something more comes out of a visit. For Catherine and I, our first date at Stokehouse continued through to marriage!

Yellowfin tuna ceviche

I remember our lunch far better than I normally would. It was an incredibly hot November day. So hot that I brought a backpack with a towel so I could have a swim afterwards. St Kilda was pumping, and my taxi took at least 20 minutes just to get down Fitzroy Street. Catherine looked beautiful and had gone to a heap of effort.

We started off with oysters and I had no idea it was the first time for my guest. The things you do on first dates! The restaurant had a celebratory feel the day after Stakes Day at Flemington. Every aspect was wonderful and it goes without saying that it was the best first date (and the last) I’ll ever have.

Poached marron salad

When we found it had been razed by fire there was a sudden sadness. We knew with such an iconic place, rebuilding was likely, and that is why we are here tonight, a few months after the reopening. It is modern. These days, recreating the original would probably be as difficult and expensive as making a bold new statement. The design is stylish, making great use of the beach view, with enough detail inside to keep interest in both.

Our greeting, through to the goodbye, were warm and friendly. It seems the floor has found its feet. We took up the offering for a drink on the terrace to begin. Watching the sun go down is one of those added extras that is difficult to value. As long as the view doesn’t outshine the food, or give the restaurant something to hide behind, it is extremely valuable to the way you are feeling as you begin your meal.

Heirloom tomato salad

Once seated and reading through the menu, I realised that Stokehouse wasn’t primarily about seafood anymore. In fact, only two of the six mains are fish. I was in the mood for seafood and ordered both the special ceviche of yellowfin tuna, and a couple of Sydney Rock oysters to begin, plus the fish and chips for my main. Catherine ordered the marron salad which would have been my choice, and also the market fish of Barramundi. We were undoubtedly going to try dessert too.

Fish and chips

Our sommelier was particularly helpful at providing alternatives to the bottle I was thinking of, but in the end we stayed on course with the Louis Michel Premier Cru Chablis. He was right that the wine is quite light for a chardonnay, but it is exquisitely made, and was a pleasure to drink, especially with our entrees. The yellowfin tuna ceviche showed off the star ingredient. It had a pleasant amount of citrus, and was superbly presented. Interestingly the dusting on top was bayleaf, and that worked too. The Sydney Rock oysters were exactly what you want to eat on the beach and would be a great entree alone this evening. Catherine’s poached marron salad with a motley of fresh vegetables, was a brilliant way to start. The marron beautifully cooked and working nicely with the finger lime cream and rhubarb vinaigrette.

Barramundi with smoked almond puree, beurre noisette and carrot reduction

The fish and chips are not my usual order at a restaurant like Stokehouse but tonight I really felt like fish, and I wanted to try something different to Catherine. Her Barramundi was a perfect serve with a good fillet of fish, perfectly cooked, in a smoked almond puree, with a beurre noisette (brown butter) sauce, and carrot reduction. Each bite I tried was delicious, though I was very happy with my own choice. The lightly battered whiting, on top of a picket fence of thick chips in a pool of tartare sauce, was exactly how fish and chips should be, but rarely are. Our waitperson had suggested the heirloom tomato salad to cut through the oil, and that was a good idea, with several kinds of tomatoes all exhibiting good flavour. A simple enhancement would be some more basil throughout.

‘The Bombe’

We definitely had room for dessert, and we needed it! Catherine’s ‘The Bombe’ was a terrific take on the classic dish. The white chocolate parfait in the centre, next to the strawberry sorbet, all housed in a well executed meringue, were all delicious and beyond. We like desserts that don’t hide the fact that they are sweet and this was a prime example, without being sickly (though it is a large serving). On the flip side, my dried lime cheesecake, was more restrained on the sweetness, but still delivered in spades. This version wasn’t your classic, but it wasn’t so much deconstructed as just not having a base. The mango and coconut curd are friends with the creamy cheesy lime, and while again it was a good serving, I could have kept going.

Dried lime cheesecake

The original Stokehouse felt a bit more sleek at times, but the new version is still finding its feet. One thing is for sure, all the floorstaff were eager to make our night memorable, and they succeeded. The food we ate was up to scratch for what you expect of a place with the reputation Stokehouse must carry. That reputation creates expectation so we were careful, but it is impossible to not be excited by the potential embodied by this restaurant. Thinking about the experience brings a smile to my face.

Stokehouse St Kilda Beach Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Attica – Ripponlea – Thursday 28 July 2016 – Dinner

Emu's Egg

Emu’s Egg

Expectations are one of the most important ingredients in any restaurant experience. Try as we might to lower them to a reasonable level, the more hype, and the longer the wait between booking and dining, the more difficult it is to not over inflate. For me, tonight’s dinner at Attica is the most prone to setting expectations to unreasonable levels, so I jotted them down in the hope of being objective.

Cook's Leaves

Cook’s Leaves

There are many obvious, and a few less obvious reasons, why I expect to have one of the best restaurant experiences of my life here. Of course, Attica is Melbourne’s highest ranked restaurant on any number of guides, over a number of years. The less obvious reason is that I already rank Ben Shewry’s temple as one of the top experiences I’ve had in Australia, and around the world. But that was five years ago. Now that it is mentioned in the same breath as some of the world’s greatest restaurants, you hope for the small (but important) improvements you’ve read a little about to take it to the next level.

Chicken Carrot

Chicken Carrot

As we walk out the back to the restaurant garden, to be greeted by one of the pastry chefs, and are offered tea and a home made mint slice biscuit (that is delicious), we get a chance to reflect on one of our great meals in the cold winter air. So far, in the lead up to dessert, we have tried twelve snacks, and four courses of savoury dishes. There are highlights; but there are no lowlights. It is hard to imagine being happier with a meal. Attica is putting an emphasis on native Australian ingredients, in a completely approachable manner, with hardly an ounce of pomp.

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Personally I like challenging food that makes you think and take notice, and there are different ways to achieve wonder and awe. At Orana, which also has an Australiana focus, you are presented with ingredients like green ants that do taste great, but are challenging to approach. I think Attica is making you take notice in a different way, with more subtlety, and some familiarity in the flavour combinations.

Gazza's Vegemite Pie

Gazza’s Vegemite Pie

An example that has stuck in my mind for this past week is the saltbush fed lamb pie. Classical Australian presentation (resting on a brown paper bag), the pie has some manchego grated over it, and there is vegemite in the filling with the saltbush lamb. It is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and I can’t stop thinking about it. There is some challenge in a few ingredients though.

Aged Santa Claus Melon

Aged Santa Claus Melon

To preface, I haven’t mentioned service yet, but our waitpersons use the perfect balance of professionalism and friendliness, along with genuine care. Towards the beginning we have a conversation about the meal ahead. It is the type of discussion that puts you at ease because you realise that your waitpersons are there to guide and improve your experience, and there doesn’t seem to be this overarching will of the chefs being pushed upon you, like some other fine dining establishments.

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Our waitperson explains that one thing they need to confirm we are comfortable eating is the kangaroo tartare. Here we are talking about raw meat, and a particular meat that isn’t eaten often by most people. We are happy to try it as we trust the ability of the chefs and the quality of the ingredients. Catherine did hesitate though. As it turns out, our first savoury course is one that you really do not want to miss. Cleverly the raw roo is hidden under a beautifully presented collage of thinly sliced red carrots. Not only does the carrot work for presentation, it adds texture to the dish. The roo is beautifully seasoned and it seems this is a terrific way to eat this meat, which is always a difficult one to cook.

Smashed Avo on Toast

Smashed Avo on Toast

An ode to our breakfast culture comes in the form of “smashed avo on toast” with minced avocado, tiny mint, finger lime, and apple, on a crisp cracker. It evokes memories of the first time you tried this now staple café dish, and the intricacy pushes the boundaries of what is already a wonderful classic combination.

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Alongside the playful, and the intriguing, is the classical. Glorious marron from my home state of Western Australia, is perfectly cooked, and comes with a lemon myrtle sauce, which is a feature ingredient of several dishes, including the equally sublime scallop snack. We were having wine by the glass off a reasonably priced and diverse list, and with this dish the elegant Domenica Roussanne Marsanne 2013 from Beechworth, worked beautifully.

Hand Dived Scallop

Hand Dived Scallop

There were some other wine highlights, starting with the 2008 Lark Hill Sparkling from Canberra, which had the versatility you need with several courses of snacks. The Pinot Meunier Pinot Noir 2011 from Iron Bay Pot in Tasmania was also particularly good with the kangaroo tartare.

Stemware by Zalto

Stemware by Zalto

The famous potato cooked in its own soil has been replaced by an equally gorgeous “all parts of the pumpkin” dish that is a familiar concept having seen a similar focus at O.My recently. Texture from the seeds; richness from the flesh; and complexity from the sour beer cream infused with juice from the skin. It comes together in a dish that makes you feel like Shewry could turn his restaurant vegetarian tomorrow, and it would still be just as good.

All Part of the Pumpkin

All Parts of the Pumpkin

There is little theatrics, but a lot of novelty done in an intelligent way. The wallaby blood pikelet sits atop a playful recipe that is not so much a recipe, but a larrikin’s tale. The crumbed mussels have some extra crunch from the pig face succulent topping, but are not as intriguing as the painted mussel shell. The carrot, which curls when put in freezing water, is presented in a hollow rooster dish, but the flavour of the chicken minced with sorrel, kale and tarragon, is impeccable, far outshadowing any of the fun presentation.

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

The other dish that stands out from earlier is the plainly presented pork neck. This is meat that sings. Astounded by the flavour I have to ask how it is done and learn that there is a combination of different cooking techniques over a 24 hour period, including smoking and grilling, to get to the depth of flavour that you only get a small but memorable taste of. We finish our chat outside, cut a tulip for our first dessert course, hand it to the chef, and resume our seats.

Smoked Pork

Smoked Pork

We are at the back of the restaurant in a smaller slightly separated room, laden with black curtains that do a good job to reduce noise levels. You feel a world away from Glen Eira Road outside, and it is a good looking restaurant, without that aspect being a particularly topical feature. It is more about minimising distraction from the food, and the good lighting is an example of the focus.

Tulips DIY

Tulips DIY

Our Tulips DIY comes out as our first dessert. We have just been told that there are only five edible tulip varieties in the world and the rest are very poisonous! Luckily these are edible and the fruit and cream cheese inside is delicious. If we thought that was a pretty dish, the next was almost as pretty, and definitely intricate.

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Three thimbles of apple, sitting in coconut cream, make for a more savoury dessert, but one that is still very nice. Crying out for something a bit sweeter, our prayers were answered with a decadent chocolate sponge, soaked in chocolate sauce with a yoghurt ice cream to soften the richness.

Cheftales

Cheftales

Finishing with another playful, and delicious taste, our “cheftales” are another ode to an Aussie classic, but again the take by Attica is better than the original, and comes with a “Who am I?” related to one of Australia’s numerous great chefs. There really has been absolutely nothing that didn’t work tonight. Quality through and through.

Lance Wiffin's Mussel

Lance Wiffin’s Mussel

We go to restaurants for many reasons and we bring our expectations with us. All of my lofty expectations were realised, or even exceeded tonight, and that is no mean feat when you are off to one of the world’s great restaurants. With some good measuring sticks to compare some of the native Australian ingredients and their use (namely Orana and Igni) I can see the subtle reasons why Attica is rated at the top of the pile.
Attica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato