Bills – Surry Hills – Saturday 1 April 2017 – Breakfast

A big change is needed for tourists enjoying holidays in the Sydney CBD. There are very few worthwhile breakfast options in the city that have great coffee and diverse food choices. Not loving the thought of eating at a hotel buffet, we had no choice but to go out to the inner suburbs.

It is surprising, but there are not a huge amount of must try cafes near the city, and several good options are shut on the weekend. In the end we took the easy option and chose to meet friends at Bills in Surry Hills.

Bills is an institution. It has all the ingredients that you need for a successful café. Fame, quality food, decent coffee, good waitstaff, and a nice good looking fitout. It is a script that Bill Granger has used around Sydney and as far as London. I can tell you right now that you could not do exactly the same in Melbourne and expect as much success.

We were here for a good time but not a long time, which factored in the obligatory 20 minute wait. Ordering quickly, most of us had scrambled eggs and bacon, which was good quality. Catherine changed up to avocado toast, and again it was a nicely executed classic. The orange juice was fresh and sweet, and the coffee was nice enough, albeit plain.

There are little things here that you need to deal with though. For a start, our friend Simon (a chef himself) couldn’t believe there was no option for eggs on toast other than scrambled. Putting two and two together it would appear that the chefs don’t want to do poached, or the kitchen is too small to do regularly, or a bit of both. There are poached eggs offered as part of some dishes, and fried too, but not simply with toast and a side or two.

I came here knowing these things, and still decided to come. The reason is simple. There are not a lot of good options on the way to Randwick and I know you can depend on Bills. There is a good chance I’ll be back again next time, or the time after.

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

Old Kingdom – Fitzroy – Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Dinner

img_6323

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.

img_6329

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.

img_6330

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

Chez Panisse – Berkeley, California – Saturday 7 June 2014 – Lunch

20140610-092545-33945772.jpgGastrotemple is the first word I heard to describe Alice Waters gift to dining, Chez Panisse. I had always wanted to go (for over a decade in fact), but it wasn’t until my third trip to San Francisco that I made the trek across the Bay to find out what all the fuss was about.

There were some small dramas in getting there, but once we were walking in downtown Berkeley it was pleasant. The streets are clean and bright; the area quaint; and the college brings a certain ambience in itself.

Inside, following the stairs up to the cafe, you are no longer in college but have graduated to the big leagues. The patrons are nicely dressed, and Alice greets you on arrival. Dark wood, sleek designs and the warmth of the sun fills the room which is rectangular with pockets at the front overlooking the street and the back a little more intimate.

20140610-093142-34302368.jpg

The service is all rounded and reflective of experienced staff who are comfortable in their surrounds. I guess it is the epitome of gliding around a room.

For lunch, you have a choice of around 6-7 starters and the same of entrees (mains in this part of the world). There are also several desserts. What initially strikes you is the pricing; extremely divergent from what you would expect. It seems being 30 minutes out of town has its perks after all.

Catherine chose the avocado, heirloom beets and purslane (a watercress looking leaf) for starters and the king salmon for entree. I decided on the smoked duck breast and the rabbit.

20140610-093140-34300620.jpg

The genius of Chez Panisse is its inventiveness across several decades. It led (and in a sense continues to define) the movement to seasonal and regional. The menu changes constantly and what I expected was very fresh and vibrant food with shining ingredients being beautifully represented in their best light.

We got what I expected. Catherine’s starter was divine. The avocado delicious, but the star was the roasted beets in varying colours, shapes and sizes, which were all amazing. My smoked duck breast was finely sliced but had a powerful flavour that allowed it to shine alongside “Bob’s rocket” dressed in a mustard seed vinaigrette and tarragon that added serious flavour. The pickled cauliflower and carrot was a great accompaniment too.

20140610-093141-34301485.jpg

The Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit was fantastic. Served on a bed of sweet corn and beans, with a rich giblet gravy that lifted the dish. The more succulent pieces of the rabbit were the best I’ve had. Catherine’s Californian king salmon was served quite rare; again capturing the flavour perfectly as if it had jumped out of the Bay. The herb sauce alongside fennel, ginger, cress and radishes was a great match but the salmon was king.

Dessert showed huge promise by this stage and we eagerly anticipated the bittersweet chocolate bave with caramel ice cream, and the Frog Hollow apricot galette with chantilly cream. Again, central ingredients shone and the quite technical desserts were excellent, but not the stars of the three courses. The highlight of dessert had to be the apricots and the pastry of the galette was perfect.

20140610-093143-34303256.jpg

The wine selection is nice and easy with a single page dedicated to wines by the glass or bottle. We enjoyed the wines but the Madeira to finish was the only one to write home about.

Finishing off with an espresso may have been my only misfortune (not terrible but should be better) but on the flip side, Catherine’s peppermint tea was incredible – filled with more mint than several mojitos!

20140610-093144-34304113.jpg

Looking around the room at the diverse, but certainly older than college age, patrons, you could tell there was a good mix of tourists and regulars. Though, the enormous enjoyment of the dining experience here was the most consistent theme.

It is one thing to start something incredible but another to maintain its relevance over decades and decades. I love this restaurant because I have wanted to go there for a long time and the build up in expectation wasn’t just matched, it was eclipsed. I was close to shedding a tear at one stage and I have now shed it writing this review.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Becco – Melbourne City – Friday 14 March 2014 – Dinner

It has been a month of non-stop Italian. Having come from the grand prix, missing all Italian influence other than an Aussie they are calling their own Crowe style (Ricciardo is an adopted “son”) and the Ferraris (who aren’t driven by Italian drivers), I guess it was a fair call to again go Italian.

The four of us managed to get a last minute booking at this close to institutional restaurant on a block that is as Italian as many squares in Rome. Boasting Bottega, several kinds of Grossi, and Pellegrini’s, this must be one of the best eating destinations over a couple hundred metres in Australia (did I mention Gingerboy?!)

Becco holds its own. It is an intimate space with lots of nooks for small groups and couples. I like the undulations, though it must make it a dangerous place for floorstaff! I feel like it was not supposed to be a restaurant. A space for creativity down a laneway that eventually found its place with food and wine its meaning.

I won’t focus in detail on the food. It was all really good though. The starters, including the lightly dusted calamari that is apparently a must try, were high points. We were hungry yes, but there was style and flavour in the opening. My linguine, which I ordered mainly because I felt like a simple homemade pasta, to match my soave white wine, was delicate and the kind of dish that you don’t want to end. I must say the sides were, for sides, pretty amazing too.

By this time I’d been out a long while and opted for an espresso and some shared petit fours (biscotti selection) rather than dessert, but the classical apple pie being gobbled up next to me looked good enough for a hint of menu envy to creep in. The nougat on the selection and the panforte made up for it – just.

I need to try to dine at places like Becco more. It almost defines what I love about Melbourne restaurants.

Becco on Urbanspoon

Grossi Florentino – Melbourne City – Saturday 8 March 2014 – Dinner

I have known about Grossi Florentino for many years. At different stages it has been on my short list. I just had not made it there and now I’ve been in Melbourne for over five years and we finally have a booking. It is finally happening, but my enthusiasm is tempered with so much press, feedback, expectation (and/or lack thereof), and history.

In the lead-up, every time I start to get excited someone remarks “I’ve seen he is bad to staff”, “I’m sure it’s still good, but it was best in the 90s”, “It’s very expensive, for Italian” and other qualifying comments. It doesn’t help that unfortunately my previous experiences downstairs on the pavement for dinner and breakfast have been nothing close to writing home about. But enough of the lead-up.

My disclaimer on my review stems entirely from an abundance of beer at Flemington Racecourse for the March long-weekend’s Super Saturday event, featuring the Group 1 Australian Cup and Newmarket Handicap. If I am patchy on detail I apologise!

It wasn’t a good start on our behalf being seated at a table of 6 that we had booked, but there only being five of us. However, the ill-health (not beer related) of our friend, did mean that once one of the settings was removed we had a really good amount of table space. Upstairs has a lot of the qualities you expect from a “fine dining” establishment – a reasonable amount of space between tables, hushed noise levels, low lighting, and good quality settings – silverware, glass/stemware and linen.

With a good selection available from the a la carte menu and a prix fixe option of four courses for $120, our appetite demanded we go all out. My food and that of my friends was on a whole top class. The tension was between how much better “fine dining” Italian can actually be, and how can you improve on rustic dishes like a homemade pasta with ragu? It is this battle that was not won with authority. Undressing this tension and just reflecting on the meal is why I believe the food was still top class. Whether the price tag associated with the food was reasonable is a completely separate story.

The antipasti (from memory) consisted of olives, bread, crustini, and arancini, before an amuse of lentils. The antipasti was fine, but the lentils were pretty boring. I’ve had beans at breakfast that were vastly more exciting. The smoked ox tongue on the other hand was a magnificent entree. All of the flavours are well tried and worked beautifully.

Ox tongue smoked

Ox tongue smoked

Duck tortellini

Lamb parpadelle

It goes without saying that an Italian restaurant lives and dies by the quality of its pasta and the lamb parpadelle was delicious. It was high class and personally I couldn’t find a fault. The duck tortellini was also fantastic.  Grossi was starting to come alive! Another hit was the main of veal cheek which was just as you would hope and expect – amazingly tender and full of flavour. Ending the meal with the Tartufo, which came in a chocolate ball filled with chocolate and hazelnut mouse with ricotta ice-cream, was my personal highlight and “wow” moment. I must go and try it again (a little more sober).

Veal cheek

Veal cheek

Tartufo

Tartufo

My friends had varying experiences but everyone enjoyed the meal. Their tuna crudo entree looked fresh, but it was too large a serving of raw tuna for the amount of accompaniments. I could see why they felt they were just eating an enormous piece of sashimi. Other than that nothing stuck in my mind other than good quality dishes, but mainly without the wow factor.

I need to mention the service. We were all very split on how we thought the night was from a service point of view. From my perspective everyone was professional and attentive. The sommelier was fine, the advice from the waitstaff was fine, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point. However, for some reason they put our meals down in the wrong order every single course! I would have thought that after one occasion that it would be corrected but the whole theatre of fine dining was actually ruined by us having to correct the poor waitstaff who in majority were not responsible for taking our order. One of my friends doesn’t eat chilli too, and that request was honoured by the waitstaff, but somehow a miscommunication ended with that same friend being given chilli! Besides these instances, the floor staff were generally smooth and professional.

It’s funny because I still feel the same about Grossi as before I had been there. It is listed as #10 on the Australian Gourmet Traveller list for Melbourne and I can see why – it is great, but I can’t see how it will ever be up the top with innovators like McConnell, Ezard and Perry. One thing I will say is that it is a far better Italian experience than Rosetta (not that I disliked Perry’s place). It might be the changes that have been made (to try to be more innovative) but I also couldn’t feel the history of Grossi, one of Melbourne’s longest dining establishments.

All said, I had a terrific experience at Grossi Florentino. And I’ll be back again reasonably soon… for the Tartufo! Hold the espresso martini (this time!)

Grossi Florentino on Urbanspoon