Thursday, June 23, 2011

RESTAURANT: Cumulus Inc [Melbourne]

If I type "cum" into Google, the second match is for Cumulus Inc, a totally kick-arse restaurant that I visited last time I was in Melbourne, run by one of the hottest chefs going around, Andrew McConnell.

Last time I went was for breakfast and I really enjoyed it. They totally smashed it with an egg cooked at 65c for 65 minutes and with a watermelon salad. While I generally don't eat out for breakfast much, this probably remains the best breakfast I've had "out".

After a return to breakfast was thwarted the day before by, well, people, we decided to come back right on opening to ENSURE that our final meal in Melbourne was lunch at Cumulus Inc.

We kick off with some soft shell crab. And it's really nice. Then we have some foie gras parfait and that's really nice too, with some sweet accompaniment to balance it out.

Tuna tartare with a pea salad is simple but probably the highlight of the meal. Chunks of tuna with a perfectly seasoned pea salad.

One of my favourite items of food arrives in the form of boudin noir (black pudding) with a salad of smoked tomato and parsley. It's so rich that the drink we got for our meal (Eric Bordelet's magnificent pear cider, my favourite cider in the world) struggles to cut through it. It's not perfectly in balance but it's bloody good.

Mustard crumbed pigs tail is next and--you guessed it--it's tasty. Crunchy from the crumb and unctuous from the tail. I would have liked more crunch to balance the gelatinous fat, but I'll still take it.

I could say the same for the slow-cooked beef brisket with mushrooms and (if I remember correctly) some sort of white vege puree: excellent, but on the rich side of balanced. And even though there was some dirt on the mushrooms that I got, it was probably the runner up dish to the tuna tartare.

Service was friendly and efficient (given the number of people waiting, probably not surprising). Prices reasonable for the quality. Hugely solid dishes with only minor quibbles.

I need to get to Cutler & Co next time I'm in Melbourne. A return visit to Cumulus Inc also needs to find a spot on the itinerary.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Cumulus Inc. on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

RECIPE: Chocolate Ganache and Mandarin Ricotta Tart

- In a mixing bowl add 1 cup of plain flour and 100g of soft butter. Work the butter and flour with your fingers until they're like fine breadcrumbs, kind of like you're making a crumble.
- To that, add a inch of salt, 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 1 egg and 1 egg yolk. A little mid of mandarin zest too if you can be bothered.
- Using a knife, cut the mixture together (you pretty much keep slicing through the mixture until it starts coming together).
- When it starts feeling similar to a dough, ditch the knife and finish it off with your hands. The pastry should be in between a firm dough and a wet dough. Solid enough to roll out, and not wet so that when you poke it you finger comes out clean. Don't overwork it. If it's too wet, add more flour.
- Wrap in cling film and put it in the fridge for 30 mins or so.
- After 30 mins (or so) preheat the oven to 160c and take your pastry out of the fridge. Roll it out so that it's circular (if you're using a circular tin) and around 5mils thick. Tip: if it's too elastic and hard to work then try putting it in the fridge for longer to cool down. And make sure you don't overwork the pastry.
- Put your rolled out pastry into a buttered tin. You want to have sides that are at least 6cm deep.
- Poke some holes in the base with a fork, cover it with baking paper and weigh down the middle if you having some of those ceramic ball things. Cook the dough until the base looks firm. Ideally you don't want any colour, but the base won't cook any further past this point so that's the focus.
- Take it out and let it cool.

Mandarin Ricotta
- Ideally, you should do this while the tart is resting in the fridge or blind baking. But you can do it the day before if you want to.
- In a bowl, mix together around 600g of ricotta, 2 heaped tablespoons of icing sugar, the zest of 1 mandarin, around 1/4 of a cup of mandarin juice and (optional) a shot of brandy/cognac/grappa/etc. Mix until it's smooth. The smoother the better.
- Taste the mixture. You only want it to be ever so slightly sweet and only have a hint of mandarin. If needed, adjust it. If you want to assault people with sweetness or mandarin then add more. Personal taste plays a big factor here.
- Check the texture. You want it smooth and slightly running. Pourable, basically. If you need it runnier, add more mandarin juice.

Baked Mandarin Ricotta Tart
- So your tart base has been blind-baked and has cooled. You've made the mandarin ricotta filling.
- Poor the ricotta filling into the tart base so it leaves a gap of around a centimetre to the top of the sides.
- Put this into the oven and cook until the sides of the tart start to get a bit golden. Probably around 40 mins.
- Once cooked, take out of the oven to cool.

Chocolate Ganache
- Set up a double-boiler (a mixing bowl above a pot filled with simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water level).
- Into the bowl add 200g of cooking milk chocolate. Let that melt down, stirring often. Take this slowly. If it's going too fast, take the bowl off the heat for 20 seconds or so and let it cool.
- When the chocolate has completely melted, slowly add 150ml of room temperature cream. Mix it through. Again, don't rush this step; control the temperature.
- Add 25g of softened butter. Mix through.
- Optional: add a small amount of vanilla beans or vanilla paste. NOT essence or extract.
- Set aside to cool slightly.

Chocolate Ganache and Mandarin Ricotta Tart
- Pour the ganache over the cooled tart so the level of chocolate reaches the top of the sides (but doesn't overflow).
- Put into the fridge to cool completely. At least 2 hours.

There you have it. Looks complicated, but, trust me, it's really easy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

RESTAURANTS: Cafe Excello / HuTong / Crazy Wings [Melbourne]

I was looking forward to breakfast today because we were hoping to go to Cumulus Inc, where I'd had a brilliant breakfast the last time I was in town (oh, 65/65 egg how I adore). Unfortunately, we got there and it was packed. So we went to the European. Unfortunately, that too was packed so we went to the first cafe we saw: Cafe Excello.

It's nothing special and it doesn't try to be (at least, I hope). Decent breakfast, decent coffee. Okay.

Lunch was going to be great. A return to HuTong, where last time I popped in for some quick dumplings.

I took charge of the ordering and went hard on the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and other dumpling related things, with some mapo tofu thrown in to fill us up. The mapo tofu order also partly motivated to exercise the demons from the subpar version at Wonton House the night before.

HuTong didn't disappoint, bringing out some excellent dumplings and a very solid mapo tofu (although the rice was delivered something like 15 mins after said mapo tofu, which was stupid). Wontons in spicy sauce were a nice surprise. Instead of your favourite fried dumpling place, the flavours here are clear, sharp and perfectly-balance.

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

We'd originally hoped to check out Izakaya Den for dinner, but arrived to find it shut. Oh. So across the road and into Crazy Wings where we'd missed out the other night. I couldn't wait to compare it to the Sydney version.

A bit of a different setup. We write down our order on a printout of a menu and they go off to cook it. It's quickly obvious that the service blows. The plates and cups we're given for our water are wet. The water is tepid. We aren't given any napkins or chopsticks until we ask. The wait for our food is extremely long. The bathrooms are the most evil places I have seen on this earth. Other people are getting food but we're not. I know they ordered before us, but surely you can bring us a few skewers during the time you bring them around 8 lots?

I have a very high tolerance for slow and poor service, but this was very nearly my breaking point. So I imagine some people will find it unacceptable.

But when the food finally arrives it's great. Exceptional. The xin jiang spices are back on all of the skewers and it's brilliant. But there are some surprises in store. Chicken skin skewers? OH MY GOD. I would happily eat these until I died. Happily.

The cooking is a little better here than in Sydney. Whenever fat is present it melts in the mouth, and the spices penetrate deeper than in Sydney.

We learn from our mistakes in Sydney and get some carbs in the form of the fried rice, which is surprisingly nice.

The pork skin skewer arrives and it isn't the pork crackling I'd hoped it would be, but can't win em all. Note to self/Crazy Wings: pork crackling skewers.

If you can get over the bad service and dirty restaurant then sink a couple of Tsingtaos and enjoy some good skewer action. The lamb and the chicken skin are essential.

Crazy Wings on Urbanspoon

RESTAURANTS: Perk Up / MoVida / Becco / Mrs Parma's [Melbourne]

We woke from the late night before, brushing the sleep from our eyes to reveal a dilemma. We had a lunch booking at 12, which didn't leave enough time for a big breakfast.

We left the hotel and hit up the first place that appeared to contain coffee and light food: Perkup, a pretty no-nonsense cafe/food thing near Southern Cross station.

The food was okay. The coffees okay. The spot was hit.

Perkup Expresso Bar on Urbanspoon

The lunch booking in question was the ubiquitous tourist journey to Movida. I've heard that if you're a tourist in Melbourne and you have a blog and you don't go to Movida then YOU PROBABLY WILL DEFINITELY DIE.

I went here last time I was here and a return was a no-brainer. This time I enjoyed the hell out of the Pyrenees wet roast (braised?) lamb breast, the duck liver parfait with pedro xim foam, pork neck in prunes, wagyu tartare and the legendary beef cheek in pedro xim with cauliflower puree.

Disappointed that some of my favourites from last time (namely the air dried wagyu with egg and the morcilla) were missing. But onwards and upwards I guess.

Service was friendly, though they did get one of the dishes wrong. I won't think less of you if you write my order down. Seriously.

For mine, I still think that Sydney's Bodega has the edge over it as the best modern tapas I've had, however slight that edge may be.

MoVida Bar de Tapas on Urbanspoon

Our dinner was going to be an interesting one. One of my travel companions work colleagues recommended Becco as the best meal she'd ever had in Melbourne, despite it being something like five years ago. Despite me mentioning that I'd heard nothing but "okay but not great" from people that have been there recently and trying to compromise by suggesting a quick lunch or a plate before moving on to somewhere else so we don't "burn a meal" there, I got overruled and Becco was the destination.

What can I say? It was okay, but definitely not great. It wasn't current. The selection of antipasto as an entree gave me a selection of 3 bites, all more boring than the last. Someone opted for the stuffed olives and for nearly $20 only got a few stuffed olives in a tired cup. They weren't blown away by the flavour. It was a similar reaction from the one that ordered the 2 small pieces of lambs brain.

Mains weren't much better. I enjoyed the abundance of quail in my casarecche with quail ragu but the superfluity of olives put the ragu off balance. Eggplant tortellini looked fresh on the plate and ate okay but didn't blow anyone away. And for over $40 the spaghetti marinara was fairly par for the course. Desserts didn't look like anything special.

Becco looks like a nice and promising restaurant, but the food--while pleasant--is a total snoozefest. We all agreed that the co-worker dropped the ball on this one.

RATING: Will probably not return to [?]

Becco on Urbanspoon

The night finished with a walk around the corner to Mrs Parma's for some drinks.

While it seemed like a fairly unassuming schnitzelhaus, this place single-handed gives the middle finger to Sydney's appreciation for craft brewing. We've got nowhere like this where a normal sort of restaurant is dedicated to having local craft brews on trap, as well as a very solid local craft list in the fridge. Kudos.

Mrs Parma's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

RESTAURANTS: St Ali / Flora / Naked For Satan / Le Petit Gateau / Koko Black / Wonton House / Der Raum / Siglo [Melbourne]

Don't blink. This was one day. When I go, I go hard.

For such a long day, it's important to get an early start. So at the crack of dawn (around 9/930) we woke up and got ready to head to South Melbourne for one of the best regarded cafes/coffee practitioners around: St Ali.

It's hit. Far too hip. Like every single inch of air has been designed for you to glance it and go "huh, that's cool!"

Thankfully, the coffee is exceptional. In addition to making a great version of your normal coffees they do the oh so fancy cold press and syphon methods. It was my first experience with both and I was blown away, particularly with the syphon coffee which produced an outstanding cup.

The food was a great backup for the coffee, with the dutch oven a bowl full of delicious goodness like beans, feta, poached egg and sourdough.

It was all really great, but I still think it's stupid to line up for a cafe in the morning, when I usually need a coffee and dose of relaxation before I die. And I get the idea that this place PACKS.OUT.

Still, brilliant coffee.

RATING: Will return to [?]

St Ali on Urbanspoon

We left breakfast a bit late so had to head to lunch to meet a friend without any break. The idea was the check out the popular North East China Family, but it proved too popular, so Flora Indian Restaurant was the new location.

There was one thing I was here for: paper dosa. Those HUGE pastry/pancake sorta thingys that come with some curry and other goods. And they had it.

It was all solid, but not spectacular. Decent flavours in the curry but a bit bland. Still, a good, cheap option and paper dosas (!!!!!).

RATING: Okay, may go back [?]

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Infused vodkas, 80c bar snacks, good booze list. I don't need more than that to get me going.

And going we did. To Fitzroy (clumsy turn of phrase).

Something weird happened. At the start I really liked it because I like all of those things I mentioned. But then I noticed what cheap pintxos does to people. It attracts families (what?), parents with their babies, people killing time. It feels wrong that a place trying so hard to please people is... attracting the wrong clientele?

I don't know. Part of the place says I should be doing serious eating and drinking. But the other half tells me that this is a halfway house for people with nothing better to do (or eat).

But they need to be praised/attended for bringing a great booze list and cheap bar snacks which finally show overpriced tapas places how it should be done.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Naked For Satan on Urbanspoon

After a couple of infused vodkas and savoury pintxos I was craving some sweetness. Where else but Le Petit Gateaux, a place with some very solid sweets. And probably a guy buying too many of said sweets.

The coffee and chocolate tart is ridiculously smooth and balanced. The napolitana is a bit dull, but that's only because it's compared with some of the other great options. Well worth checking out.

Le Petit Gateau on Urbanspoon

I was also obliged to go to Koko Black and get some sweet, sweet candy for my family, who are fairly addicted to the excellent chocolates coming out of this store.

Good selection of flavours and superbly smooth chocolate. Winning combination. I ate a box and felt sick.

Koko Black on Urbanspoon

Dinner time (already?) and we were hoping to check out Crazy Wings, but that was full. So we walked for a bit and stumbled into Wonton House because... well... I guess because wontons are nice.

But this place was average.

Congee was nice but a little plain. Dumplings were okay but overfilled. The mapo tofu appeared to have sweet chilli sauce in it and was the main misstep of the night. Fried wontons were okay. Xiao long bao were good.

It hit the spot, but nothing else.

RATING: Will probably not return to [?]

Wonton House on Urbanspoon

Off to Richmond where I was pretty excited to finally be heading to what has been lauded as one of the best cocktail bars in the country. Would it live up to the hype?


Best cocktails I have had anywhere in the world, without question. Tremendous flavours, amazing bartending skill, electric-blanket-warm service, unrivalled presentation skills.

Der Raum had it all. We stayed for around 3 hours and drank every cocktail on their list (as well as a couple others) and I kept wanting more.

I can't even begin to describe how great the cocktails were. One that looked and smelled like a dark beer but tasted incredible? Yes. One served in a wine bottle and wine glass that had the characteristics of red wine? Definitely.

Every single thing was excellent. I will come here every single time I come to Melbourne.

Der Raum on Urbanspoon

But the night wasn't over.

We decided to head the Melbourne's late-night institution, Siglo, for some late-night, roof-top cognac and cigars.

I dislike Siglo because it's always busy and it can get expensive, but I love Siglo because you can get some brilliant stuff on their booze list and it has a pretty good vibe.

I just want the whole place to myself.

Siglo on Urbanspoon

It was a long day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RESTAURANTS: Mamasita / MoMo / Cookie [Melbourne]

Is it wrong (or weird) to plan a trip around meals? Sure as fuck hope not. What started as a long weekend trip turned into a 5-day feast, with arrival and departure times set around meals.

We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to the eastern end of Collins St, stomachs growling a few steps back. I'd heard Mamasita did alright with it's modern/fresh Mexican food. It would be a refreshing break from the stodgy fecal matter that most Mexican restaurants in Sydney serve.

I'd timed it so we would arrive after the lunch rush and would have the place to ourself. And so it was. We walked up the stairs and faced a rapidly emptying restaurant and put an order in for everything that looked good. Tosatads are things on toasts, essentially. Pulled pork is good, crab is brilliant with it's zingy, punchy flavours that somehow don't overshadow the crab. Tacos (soft shell) are also good with the pulled pork and blacks bean options totally killing it. Ceviche is solid. Quesadilla with corn fungus is also good. Sangria hits the spot but is lacking a little punch (no pun intended).

Service is efficient and friendly, but that could be because of the time we arrived. Prices reasonable.

After a lifetime of terrible Mexican restaurant food, Mamasita is a breath of fresh air. The flavours are fresh and zingy. Execution was ever so slightly off in some places, but on the whole it's a very solid dining experience.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

The first dinner was also to be the best. Well, we hoped. Only one deg was booked for the trip and the honours went to MoMo for reasons that had little to do with food AND THEY'RE MY PERSONAL PRIVATE REASONS.

After finding the mythical elevator we head up and find a pretty stunning restaurant. It's like being surrounded by carpet. All around you. Hugging you.

We go for the moorish tasting menu which I think translates as "don't eat lunch 2 hours before coming here or you will die from overeating" (literal) and involves every course in the universe.

Warm salad of roasted Barra with a salad of fennel, tarragon and buffalo feta is a killer dish. Sweet, juicy fish paired with the subtle flavours of everything else I just mentioned. The buffalo feta is amazing: sweet, salty, subtle, creamy all in one.

The beef tartare, with brick pastry and some creamy stuffy exploding out of it is delicious with the garlic Turkish bread.

Turkish fish doctors stew? Forget about it. A brilliant plate of perfectly cooked and flavoured seafood. The pork rib eye with spinach gozleme and freekeh is decent enough but with slightly tough pork and slightly dull flavours is the dish that falls short on the night, despite the delicious potatoes with pine nuts on the side.

Dessert is ridiculous. One of the best fondants, passionfruit tarts and mini-trifles I've ever had. Perfection. It sounded rich and it was. Until the fruit and sorbet with dried grapefruit was tasted and calmed everything. Stunning end to the meal.

Service was good, wine matching was good. Baring the pork course, the 14 plates were brilliant. Not life-changing, but brilliant flavours, served well. And generously.

RATING: Will return to [?]

MoMo Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Drinks were also had at Cookie. Extremely busy bar/restaurant and for good reason. Spectacular beverage list for whatever your poison is. I only wish that I was the only person there so I could enjoy it without the crowds.

Cookie on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 04, 2011

RESTAURANT: Crazy Wings (Chinatown)

Things taste better when they’re skewered and grilled. It’s a fact. And it applies to everything, not just meat. I once had a grilled fur coat and it was way tastier than a fur coat cooked any other way.

So expectations were high for Crazy Wings, where the philosophy is to get something, cover it in the same spice mixture used for xin jiang lamb skewers (chilli, ginger, garlic, cumin, etc) and grill it over coals. That “something” comes from all of the major food groups; lamb, chicken, beef, quail, mushroom, fish.

Gimmicks of everything being prefaced with “crazy” (like everything at McDonalds being “Mc”) aside, it’s top food. The xin jiang lamb skewers are cooked perfectly, with the fat melting in the mouth. And that’s basically the story for everything else we tried. The chicken fillet was succulent, the chicken hearts tender. The only way to describe the grilled vegetable skewers is “addictive” (parents, this is how to get kids to eat vege).

While very enjoyable, the skewers aren’t perfect, with the spice mix feeling slightly out of harmony on some of the choices. Thankfully it doesn’t detract too much from the overall enjoyment.

Service is fine, although it was a bit weird seeing a waitress with huge cuts all up her arm. That said, seeing that much exposed flesh sure puts you in the mood for meat. Prices are decent considering how much meat you’re eating.

The only downside is that it’s pretty much all skewers. We had dozens of skewers piled high and still felt like there was room left. The rice sides on the menu didn’t overly appeal, so we lacked some filling carbs--something that needs to be fixed when we next return. Considering how good the skewers were, that will be fairly soon.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Crazy Wings on Urbanspoon