French Saloon – Melbourne, City – Monday 10 April 2017 – Lunch

It is not every day a collection of restaurants has such an impact on a diverse range of dining and drinking experiences. The European, City Wine Shop, and most importantly The Supper Club (and Siglo), are three places that captured my imagination many years ago, and have held it to this day. It seems without even knowing it, the people behind these stunning establishments, have grabbed me in the opposite end of town.

Kirk’s Wine Bar is not a place that grabs your immediate attention. In fact, it looks like a lot of wine bars I’ve been to overseas. It is the feeling here that is special. Somehow many of those I’ve been with there, feel the same way too. The fascinating part is why I feel drawn to it whenever I’m in that part of town, whether shopping, after lunch, for pre-dinner drinks, or pretty much any other time.

Naturally, upstairs was always going to end up capturing my attention. It’s not the same, but the walk up the stairs is a bit like going up to the Supper Club. What is upstairs though is a tribute to the casual dining of France. Not that the French do anything that is actually that casual. The French Saloon is put together in this manner.

There is not a prestigious fitout, and the tables are not overdone, but there is a sense of bistro luxury and a feeling of belonging, even if it is just any other Monday in Autumn. From the greeting to the goodbye, there is an ease about this place. If only the menu were as easy. There was no debate, but after a fair bit of catching up, we really needed to order something.

Chris had his eye on the kingfish which I was happy to share. I like the sound of the spanner crab toast and we ordered one each. It was a great start.

The kingfish is served with delicate presentation, surrounded by thinly sliced cucumber. However, the staff direct you to mix it all up, allowing the sauce to combine with the oil and creating a smart combination. The spanner crab is curiously presented half adorned with avocado, and the other half with salmon roe. The toast works well initially, holding together, until it all falls apart in the last few bites. As you can imagine, using a knife and fork does not inhibit the delicate flavour.

For mains, we had decided to share the Cote de Boeuf, along with a side of fries and of the gem lettuce with anchovy sauce. Having ordered medium rare, the steak seems on the medium side, but was still beautifully tender and well seasoned. The strong jus was absolutely superb, lifting the steak to greater heights. The chips were excellent, while the gem lettuce could have been a touch too powerful with its anchovy dressing, to refresh and dull the impact of the steak and jus.

The Pinot Noir we were drinking from Gippsland was at the suggestion of our waitperson, as the bottle Chris selected was off the list. It was an excellent choice, not necessarily matching our choices perfectly, but versatile enough to enjoy with, or without food. In fact, the service on a reasonably busy Monday lunch was great.

As we finished lunch, I asked Chris about his phone call into 3AW, where he had shared with the breakfast presenters his insights from his experiences at Eleven Madison Park, which had very recently won the title of “world’s best restaurant”. When we walked downstairs Chris saw one of his friends at Kirk’s and he too got asked about the same conversation! Like so many meals, ending it with conversations about other meals seems fitting.

The French Saloon is different to the other offerings of this group, but it has the same hospitable feel and warmth. I’m sold on everything they do, though I almost wish I didn’t know they were all connected.

French Saloon Bar & Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Monster Kitchen and Bar – Canberra – Thursday 30 March 2017 – Dinner

“Striking” is a good way to describe more than one aspect of Monster Kitchen and Bar. In a way, it is aptly named because it is an absolute beast. It is not unlike stepping off the Millennium Falcon into a combination of the woods of Endor and one of the modern space cities.

It is impossible not to think of Jenga looking at the jumble of wood that is a theme throughout this new precinct that includes Hotel Hotel and its lobby restaurant, Monster. The reference to fun and youth continues, with our rhombus shaped table, which is surprisingly functional.

Heirloom tomatoes, peach, spiced feta, cumin oil, rose

It is at this stage as we are seated that the enormity of the space hits me. It is not the sole blame for slightly distracted service, but it must be a root cause. Floorstaff are not gliding as you often see in a restaurant of this calibre, but are almost trying to not loiter in any of the vast spaces. There were certainly some nice touches, but there were instances of amateur mistakes that you wouldn’t expect. Those mistakes had little impact on the meal as a whole.

We were eating as a group of four and eager to try a good number of dishes. Alice is a proper vegetarian, so it was important to select wisely, and she had done her research. One nice pick-up by our waitperson was the fact that one of the dishes with tofu actually contained a bonito (fish) based sauce, which was elegantly swapped with mirim.

38 hour pork neck bao, cucumber kimchi

Having ordered a serious selection of the menu, we were presented with our first taste, which was memorable. Michael, Catherine and I tried the 38 hour pork neck bao with cucumber kimchi, and it was seriously good. Then came a flurry of dishes containing a list of ingredients any farmer’s market would be satisfied with.

Honey roasted carrots, moghrabieh, harissa, almonds

Of the vegetarian dishes (tofu included), my easy favourite, and one of the better dishes I’ve tried this year, was the honey roasted carrots with moghrabieh, harissa, and almonds. The large cous cous style moghrabieh was so delightfully flavoured with harissa, and textured with almonds, that the carrots took a back seat. As often is the case with a lot of shared dishes, there are some left at the table never to be seen to again, but with this dish I went back for more until there was nothing left!

Fried tofu, pickled shitake, mirim soy, spring onion oil, sesame

The tofu dish was well constructed and pleasant; the heirloom tomatoes adequate; and the eggplant very good. The fact we had been discussing eggplant earlier at our friend’s house prior to dinner, and how difficult it could be, gave even more merit to this wonderful dish, accompanied by smoked goat’s cheese, katsuobushi, and sesame. It was about at this point where we had finished off a bottle of local Canberra chardonnay made by Mount Madura which was beautifully made, and paired well with the earlier dishes.

WA octopus, chorizo, corn, black garlic

Going on to a bottle of local Sangiovese from Lark Hill we began our journey of the non-vegetarian dishes, deciding after a lot of friendly debate on the octopus and duck. While the octopus was uninspiring, taking a back seat to the chorizo and blackened corn; the duck was very nicely cooked, bonding with the guanciale, fresh fig, and caremalised onion, to make for a terrific final savoury dish.

Pear, olive oil, lemon, thyme

It was at this point that a cleansing ale was needed, and the Moo Brew dark ale did a great job at that task, and worked fine with dessert too. We really didn’t need dessert, but after such a nice meal, we wanted to try! Michael and Alice shared the ”chocolate, sea salt, peanut, burnt butter ice cream” and we shared the “pear, olive oil, lemon, thyme”.

Chocolate, sea salt, peanut, burnt butter ice cream

The first thing that showed was the technique of the pastry chefs was clearly of a high quality. While I felt a bit of menu envy at the chocolate dish that had won praise, especially for the peanut caramel, I enjoyed the lighter tones of the pear and lemon.

Monster really hits you in a good way. Even the trip to the toilet is an adventure in design. It wasn’t until we left through a different entrance that we even realized we were eating in an open hotel lobby. There is nothing hotel-y in the feel at all and it is a quality package that is being offered in this unusual restaurant.

Monster Kitchen and Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tulip – Geelong – Saturday 28 January 2017 – Lunch

Grilled octopus with charred cucumber

Have you ever gone to a restaurant in a bad mood? I’m sure you are not surprised that it happens a lot. I have known a lot of waitpersons over the years and try as they might, the customer’s mood is difficult to change. Unfortunately they often get the brunt of it through lack of appreciation, or worse, straight up rudeness.

Well, today started well. We had a nice drive to the beach but the wind had changed and a gale was blowing by mid-morning. So we decided to go to lunch instead of coping mouthfuls of sand. We didn’t realise it was the Cadel Evans ride and found ourselves in traffic for an hour to get from Ocean Grove to Geelong, which is hard to take.

Kingfish

It didn’t help that I missed a turn and ended up in insurmountable traffic on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Not moving, we pulled over and started walking to the restaurant in the heat. We were not upset with anyone, but were clearly upset with the situation. The floorstaff at Tulip were understanding for our late arrival, which was not surprising with a quite empty restaurant.

I don’t like being the patron in a bad mood, which makes me self-conscious! It was hard to hide. After a few deep breaths, and having perused the enticing menu we were on our way to turning it all around. It felt like our waitperson read the situation and let us take our time. They were either attentive or lucky!

Beef short rib

Kingfish, octopus, beef short rib, a grain salad were ordered, and we were happy we came, our mood improving considerably. This is a sister restaurant to Gladioli which we tried last year, and we have been eagerly anticipating a visit. The food lived up to our expectations; maybe it surpassed them.

The kingfish dish was beautifully presented, and the roe and avocado worked fine with this fantastic white fish, but I wasn’t sure what the pig face succulent brought to the flavour. The flair of presentation was equally shown in the octopus, with charred cucumber a nice addition, along with texture and colour from the blackened light cracker.

Next was the big surprise. The grain salad was absolutely delicious, more than just a side, it is a great dish on its own. The cauliflower, and almonds, along with several other additions, all playing well together, creating a terrific flavour profile in each bite. Not to be outshone, the beef short rib with eggplant puree and spring onion, is a well executed meat dish, big on flavour as you would expect from short rib, and a satisfying main to finish.

Grain salad

It could have been the Cadel ride, an unusual Saturday lunch, or just an odd day, but the restaurant was very quiet. We were sure it must be generally popular and it should be. The food is great, the waitstaff are professional and accommodating, it is a nice looking venue, and it’s on the main strip.

Geelong is tricky but there are more than enough quality options these days to keep day trippers and weekenders more than happy. Tulip is one of the top picks. They can even positively swing your mood.

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

Varnish on King – Perth City – Wednesday 27 January 2016 – Dinner

Roasted jalapeños with black pudding & goats curd

Roasted jalapeños with black pudding & goats curd

It is overwhelming walking through the Perth CBD and noticing all the changes in the seven years since I left. Places that had stories I attach to them – some special, some weird, some quite intoxicated. Many of these places have changed in huge ways.

Perth has definitely improved as a city and continues to. Some of the boom might have faded, but the underlying base is enhanced in its wake. There are too many changes to mention, and while it had started before I left, even just walking down King Street there is no longer its namesake cafe, Hudson’s is gone and has been remarkably changed, and there is now a beautiful basement room across the road at 75 that is Varnish on King.

Pan fried brussel sprouts with maple & blue cheese

Pan fried brussel sprouts with maple & blue cheese

I was told about Varnish a while ago and tonight I get to half cross it off the list. Half because I am dining alone, precluding me from ordering several good looking larger dishes.

First cab off the rank is the Brussel sprouts. They are nicely presented and the combination is great, especially with the maple not dominating and just giving a hint of sweetness. It’s naturally a large serve as this is food to share, but I don’t mind coming back to it while I enjoy the two other dishes I order.

Next comes the cholesterol – a large serve of bone marrow. It is awesomely fatty and luckily there is a bit of balance from the crumb. I’m glad I ordered it, but my next check up will be interesting! Ask me whether I ate all three pieces and I’d have to plead the fifth.

Bone marrow with grated venison heart & lemon

Bone marrow with grated venison heart & lemon

Last I try the jalepinos with black pudding. Each element is excellent and put together this is a fantastic dish. Topped off by the sauce (which can be added to with three different chilli sauces), this is another fun dish that is surprisingly not too hot, though I was warned not to go too close to the stem.

There is a great deal of risk putting out some of these combinations. Each one needs to hit the mark. There would be many punters having a snack with their whiskey, or other beverage of choice, and the likelihood of returning could depend on one dish. Here the skill of the chefs and their technique averts that risk. Each dish was excellent and these are not your usual suspects.

The enthusiasm, and obvious knowledge of my waitperson almost convinces me to order a whiskey, but having walked here on a warm day I go for the tried and tested. A glass of the Vasse Felix Chardonnay followed by the Delinquente Vermentino from the South Australia Riverland shows equal care in the selection of wines. It is nice to have such skilled service. Across the floor and behind the bar the staff are genuinely enjoying themselves and are doing a terrific job.

Walking though the intimidating door, down into the intimate basement was the only time I felt self-aware here. After that, even though I was dining alone, this was a very enjoyable experience from all angles. I’ll be back with a crowd.

Varnish on King Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Standard – Northbridge – Monday 13 July 2015 – Dinner

Beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez

Beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez

Every business trip to Perth is exciting for several reasons. Having lived in Perth most of my life there are opportunities to catch up with family and friends. It might be Monday tonight, but some of my closest friends have made the effort to get into Northbridge after work for a quick feed and a couple of beers.

The number of new restaurants and bars popping up in Perth is incredible. I like to walk for many reasons whether at home or away, and one of those reasons is you can come across great places to eat or drink that you may have not noticed driving by. Our visit to The Standard has resulted from previous walks down Roe Street which has changed remarkably since I first started going to Northbridge.

The guys are already in the restaurant when I arrive and embarrassingly, they have asked our waitperson to hold off doing the spiel until their blogging friend arrives. If nothing else, my embarrassment has led to a good rapport, which continues for the night and translates to good service.

The spiel is the usual for these types of modern sharing restaurants. There are tiny plates, small plates, and large plates, that are all designed to share. With five blokes the all important guide is how much to order. We follow the suggestion to order four of the small dishes and three of the large.

First comes the “beef carpaccio, harissa, pedro ximenez” which is pretty. Presented differently to the tradition, the beef is tender and subtle, combining well with the other ingredients and providing a promising start. Next comes the “broccolini, hazelnut, shallot, cranberry” which is a good fresh dish, but we probably should have asked for it to come towards the end with the larger dishes.

Glazed pork cheek, crisp jowl, broad bean, brussel sprout

Glazed pork cheek, crisp jowl, broad bean, brussel sprout

The mushroom doughnuts provide the most conjecture for the night. Some are a bit turned off by the sweetness, and inconsistency in the amount of mushrooms offered. Personally, I think it is an interesting take, the doughnuts well constructed with the mushroom filling, the paprika sugar sweet, but not overly sweet, and the lemon and chive curd enhancing the taste and texture. However, while I enjoyed one try, I wouldn’t order the dish again. I think on this one experience it was three for, two against.

Our last small dish, the free range BBQ chicken wings, again have sweetness from the marinade. They are nice, but nothing special, and I find the Granny Smith apple component is a bit lost. After a short break we are on to our three larger dishes. To begin, the chicken grill with rice noodle, peanuts, herbs, and nuoc cham, is an excellent combination. Jason particularly liked the Vietnamese flavours and for most it was one of the better dishes. I thought the rice noodle was expertly prepared for a restaurant that doesn’t specialise in any one type of cuisine.

Beef brisket, brioche, pickle, russian dressing, buttered cabbage

Beef brisket, brioche, pickle, russian dressing, buttered cabbage

The two meatier dishes were hit and miss. The beef brisket was tender and had a good amount of meaty richness. The toasted brioche was a bit hard and plain, but the other accompaniments such as the buttered cabbage, were perfect to break through some of the richness. On the other hand, the glazed pork cheek and crisp jowl with a salad of broad beans and brussel sprouts, could be improved. A few more brussel sprouts (whole as the leaves provided little) would be good, and the pork cheek probably needed the injection of more flavour and cooking.

The amount of food was generous and most of us didn’t even think twice about dessert. With a good beer selection there was a better alternative to finish with. Around the table most of the group would definitely come back, and the personable service helped on that score.

While it is important to carefully order at The Standard, it is a comfortable place to eat. I can imagine the outdoor area in the back is pumping in summer, and the option to have a nibble while drinking, or enjoy a more substantial meal, seems to be equally attractive.

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Botherambo – Richmond – Saturday 6 June 2015 – Dinner

Penaeng 16 hour shin beef with snake bean, young bamboo, coriander, salted prawn, krachai, peanut

Penaeng 16 hour shin beef with snake bean, young bamboo, coriander, salted prawn, krachai, peanut

The renaissance of Swan Street continues in a strength not seen since Smith Street became an epicentre of Australian culinary greatness. Seven years ago when I first moved to Melbourne, Swan Street was an abyss only worthwhile of frequenting for a few specific bars and pubs.

One of the latest to grace the strip is Botherambo which brings modern Thai and Asian flavours to the array of options. It is housed in a good looking corner block that is a mix between alfresco spaces and a more intimate interior. The kind which you try your best to peek into as you go by, but really have to stop to properly take the space in.

Pork and prawn dumplings with lemongrass broth, dried scallop nam prik, coriander, garlic chips

Pork and prawn dumplings with lemongrass broth, dried scallop nam prik, coriander, garlic chips

Tonight Catherine and I have just seen the early evening session of “Mad Max” so we are rocking up at 9pm. The restaurant is in full swing, packed inside on this cold night, but luckily there are a couple of spaces for two available. One of the waitstaff who greets us continues to serve us through the night and she does a terrific job.

There are a few different types of betel leaves on offer on the menu so we decide to try one each. It was a mistake to try the crispy duck. While there are some nice flavour accents, the combination of the firm leaf which is difficult to bite through, with quite stringy duck that is more tough than crispy, doesn’t work well.

After a tough start, our food went from good to excellent. We shared the pork and prawn dumplings which were skillfully wrapped and packed full of flavour. It is a little awkward to share but the broth is delicious and really adds to the overall dish, the firm wrapper providing an excellent contrasting texture to the liquid.

Betel leaf of crsipy duck, young coconut, kaffir lime, coriander, chilli, crispy shallot

Betel leaf of crispy duck, young coconut, kaffir lime, coriander, chilli, crispy shallot

Next comes the best dish of the night. The Penaeng 16 hour shin beef is beautiful. Meat that falls apart in tenderness with deep flavour, along with accompaniments such as snake beans, young bamboo shoots, plenty of coriander, and several salted prawns. One ingredient used that I had not heard of was krachai which is a relative of ginger. There is some imagination and purposeful points of difference in this menu.

As we near the end of dinner, satisfied with the generous amount of food, we notice that the dining room is still quite full. This is a restaurant that has quickly found a following and looks to have the qualities that will see it prosper in a strip that has become incredibly competitive for reasonably priced options.

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Saxon + Parole – Bowery, New York – Saturday 25 October 2014 – Dinner

40oz ribeye with bone marrow béarnaise

40oz ribeye with bone marrow béarnaise

Early reservations is something I do so regularly that there is a good proposition I’m going to have a smooth transition into my older years. Normally it is to secure a booking or have time to go out later. This time I’m second guessing myself as we walk through a pumping bar area and front dining room to an almost completely empty room at the back.

The four of us sit down and by the time we’ve ordered some drinks and are having a chat reading the menu, the back dining room at Saxon + Parole is pretty much full and the second guessing is gone. It seems the airconditioning is either on (freezing) or off (okay) rather than temperature controlled, but that will be my one and only criticism of the entire evening. Food, wine, service, and company, could not have been better for our catch up and celebration with friends.

Oysters

Oysters

The menu is focussed on meat options for entrée and several modern starters that can be easily shared, including an impressive list of oysters. That is what takes my fancy and I try two sets of three from different places on the East Coast that produce smaller, more flavoursome, and less creamy varieties. They are so good I forget to even once try the vinegar, lemon or chilli accompaniments. The others try tuna tartare and grilled octopus which is definitely enjoyed.

Grilled octopus & calamari, potatoes, celery, lemon, chili spice, capers

Grilled octopus & calamari, potatoes, celery, lemon, chili spice, capers

There is an option for a 40 ounce rib eye that we all immediately want to try, so entrée is sorted. While the rib eye is $140, it comes with several sides of potatoes, salad, mushrooms and a rich bone marrow béarnaise. The rib eye, cooked medium rare, and chargrilled perfectly, just tasted incredible. Add some of the béarnaise and the flavour was turned up a further notch. It was serious steak heaven. Even greater a match was a ripper of a Chianti by Pacina, which had the earthy nose I love, leading to savoury, tobacco notes and a fine but rich berry, lingering on the palate.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake is something I’ve rarely had for dessert outside of family get togethers at relatives houses as a child. Just like me, the carrot cake at S+P is all grown up! Absolutely divine is the best way I can think to describe it. Even Alana who doesn’t really eat dessert, thought it was amazing. Georg ordered the deconstructed cheese cake, which was tasty, but we expected something completely different.

Eggnog cheesecake

Eggnog cheesecake

It was one of those meals that had highlights that you do not forget quickly. When I hear ribeye and carrot cake I’m sure I’ll think of Saxon + Parole in years to come.

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