Archive for March, 2009

No Forkin’ Ethiopian at Cafe Lalibela

Lalibela's lamb tibs

I’m moving from Melbourne to New York City for the next six months, so I dropped by my newly former-place-of-employment, Lonely Planet, to pick up packing boxes. Sadly, I forgot how small book boxes can be, but I did get enough to take care of all my cookbooks and fiddly kitchen items.

Lonely Planet’s global headquarters is in Footscray, and for anyone who hasn’t been to Footscray, it is an amazing melting pot just a short drive west of the city centre yet a world away. Here, Melbourne’s Anglo and European population is outnumbered by Vietnamese and African residents. Footscray is poor, ramshackle, just sketchy enough to feel exciting, has my favourite (and cheapest) food market in all of Melbourne, and is the best place in the city to get a great feed for astonishingly little cash.

I rarely had time to escape the desk at Lonely Planet, so now that I’m back to full-time freelance writing, I finally had a chance to check out Cafe Lalibela, a neighbourhood Ethiopian restaurant that’s got strong street cred. I always get turned around in Footscray, so I drive aimlessly as usual until I finally stumble upon Irving Street, catch Lalibela in my rear-view mirror and U-turn into an easy park… in front of some dudes who may or may not be in a gang. With minimal eye contact I slink into the restaurant, and find myself welcomed by friendly staff who advise me to sit wherever I please.

The menu at Lalibela is short, completely unfamiliar and printed on well-worn menus covered with tiring plastic – but who cares when most items are $12 or less? Nor it is a problem that the staff move as quickly as ambulance drivers on a coffee break. I have been transported to Africa, and I now feel like expecting things to move any faster would be, well, a poor response to its chilled-out authenticity. Speaking of which, the crowd seems authentic as well, with women showing up for lunch in bright yellow headdresses and, save two noticeable Aussies, everyone else appears to be African. I love it.

When the waiter (possibly the owner) does arrive, he is friendly and encouraging, and guides my dining partner and I to order lamb ‘tibs’ and a chicken dish stew called doro wat. Both arrive on a large round dish covered with injera, Ethiopian bread with a citrusy tinge to it and comprised of so many holes it looks like the baker’s version of tripe. Atop it are the tibs – chunks of lamb mixed with onion and green chilli and covered with a spicy tomato sauce – and the chicken ‘wat’, a smoky and spicy stew made with berbere, garlic and onion, highlighted with a fall-apart drumstick and topped with a hard-boiled egg. I later Wikipedia ‘berbere’ to find out that it is spice mixture usually comprised of chilli, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain. I can’t be bothered to Wikipedia ‘ajwain’.

Lalibela doro wat

The best part of Ethiopian food is the pleasure of eating without a single implement. You simply break off a piece of injera and use it to grab hold of the meats or veggies placed atop the bread. The is not date food, unless you think sucking berbere-stained fingers feels like foreplay. But it’s fun, and to novices to Ethiopian food, messy, messy fun.

The lamb tibs have a satisfying light tomato sauce, even if the cubed meat is a bit chewier than I’d like. I eat the lot, but get too full to finish the doro wat, whose chicken mince is so dark I first mistake it for meat, and its deep, rich flavour is inspiring in its uniqueness but too powerful for my palate to enjoy in large doses.

Ethiopia is also known for its coffee, so after I’ve had my fill, I head to the bar. I’m told by the proprietor that the coffee is somewhere between espresso and Turkish coffee, which sounds good to me. But as I’m about to order, I’m told that, unfortunately, there’s no coffee today. Oh well, I’ll have to get a latte at North cafe in Carlton North later.

Lalibela isn’t perfect, but it gives me a meal and an atmosphere unlike any other. The bill comes to $24 for two people, and we could have easily shared a single $12 dish if we weren’t greedy for variety. So while the meal may not have been a seamless run, the bill certainly ensures a perfect ending.

Cafe Lalibela, 91 Irving St, Footscray, Vic, (03) 9687 0300

Cafe Lalibela on Urbanspoon

HuTong Dumpling Bar – Xiao Long Suckers!

hutong_xlbspoon

Sarah had her big “Farewell to Melbourne” blowout at The Paris Cat last night, and we kicked off the evening with a pre-show meal with friends at the new HuTong Dumpling Bar on Market Street in Chinatown, directly across the laneway from Flower Drum. The self-proclaimed “orthodox Chinese” restaurant opened up just three months ago and I got a tipoff about it by former Age Good Food Guide editor (and new co-editor of The Australian’s forthcoming food section) Necia Wilden, so I set off right away to give it a whirl.

The space is anything but orthodox, but instead has a stylish cross-pollination of modern furnishings, earthtones and brick along with traditional Chinese tables, dark wood and reds. It spans three narrow floors, buzzing with activity but with modest spaces that ensure a sense of intimacy. As we had a table of 11, we were ushered up to a reserved round-table on the third level, whose stairwell is discreetly hidden behind a curtained entrance on the first floor.

hutong_interior

We bee-lined for the pan-fried dumplings, but our waiter assured us that we also wanted to get the xiao long bao dumplings, which were the restaurant’s signature dish. “They come, eat xiao long dumpling, then go home,” he told us. Well, then, who were we to argue with that? In fact, the dumplings were such a specialty they even came with an instruction manual, directing one to first use chopsticks to lift the dumpling out of its bamboo steamer basket, then place it on a Chinese spoon, pour over with dumpling sauce, nibble the side of the dumpling, suck out the broth inside, and then finally consume the rest of the pork and prawn dumpling.

When they arrived steamed in a double-decker basket, we mostly followed the instructions, except that instead of nibbling the side, we found ourselves popping whole dumplings into our mouths. The result was a flavour explosion of complex broth, perfectly cooked juicy meat and tender (but not soggy) dumpling skin. Truly these are some of the best dumplings I have ever had, simple in flavour but hitting all the right buttons, and the result had all of us debating exactly how the soup got stored inside each dumpling. My friend Gia said she thought they froze the broth into cubes and put them into the skins before steaming. I mused that maybe they cooked them in the broth, which leeched into the skin and then they placed them on a rack for the outside to dry.

hutong_xlb

They were so delicious, I just had to Google them today to find out more. Turns out these are Shanghai delicacies (also called xiao long bao or simply XLB) that are not only driving me into a frenzy, but are inspiring a dumpling fascination worldwide, particularly, it seems, in the US. Bon Appetite did a story on them and I discovered the corresponding xiao long bao recipe on Epicurious.

The recipe shed light on exactly how these are prepared, and while we were all wrong, Gia had a very close guess. But no, the broth, made with chicken and Chinese ham, isn’t frozen but is instead reduced and combined with gelatine and thrown into the fridge overnight to form an aspic, which is essentially a jellied (or to my American friends, jello’d) meat stock. The next day, the aspic is cut into small cubes and two to three are placed with the meat filling in each dumpling wrapper just before it’s sealed and twisted at the top. Like all good simple tastes, there’s a good amount of work that goes into producing the broth and meat for the end result. Also, a bit more research on Wikipedia revealed that these technically aren’t even dumplings, but buns made of unleavened flower.

These were the stars, but all of our other food was nearly as enjoyable, and put to shame a top-ranked Chinese eatery I had to review the very day before (and which will go unnamed because of that very reason). Shredded turnip pastries came topped with sesame and filled with a surprisingly smooth mashed turnip, pan-fried pork dumplings were done to role-model execution, green beans integrated with a crunchy pork mince that can make even to most jaded meat-lover covet veggies, and a Sichuan chilli claypot with scallops and eggplant was a luscious, thick and spicy marriage of flavours.

hutong_dishes

I also wanted to go for the beef in chilli oil, but my waiter winced and said that it was even too hot for him, and attempted to divert me to the dry chilli chicken. I love super-spicy food, but I begrudgingly compromised for the varied tastes of mixed company and went with the waiter’s suggestion. Being a typical dry Sichuan dish, it wound up looking more like a dried chilli salad garnished with pieces of chicken. Even so, we picked between the chillis to grab lovely fried chicken meat tasting of white pepper amid modest assaults of the hot stuff.

HuTong, like any good Chinese restaurant, has a long, nine-page food menu, so the reality is that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Which means that I need to go back. Which will be a tough order considering we only have nine more days before we pack up house and head to Sydney en route to New York. But I’m certainly tempted, even if it’s to pop in, order some XLB and go home.

HuTong Dumpling Bar, 14-16 Market Ln, Melbourne, (03) 9650 8128

Hutong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Spice Market and Gigibaba – hot, or not?

spicemarket_statue

“I’m not sure Middle Eastern food should do the fine dining route,” is my paraphrasing of what a notable food journalist was saying to me recently over lunch in St Kilda. “It’s a peasant food and I think it tastes much better that way.”

I was sceptical, saying that I was a big fan of the food at Brunswick East’s funky and always-buzzing Rumi, not to mention the pan-Turkish delights at Sydney’s Ottoman. (Whether Turkish food qualifies as Middle Eastern is up for debate, but as it’s generally lumped into the current mod-Mid wave rampaging through Melbourne, I’m taking liberties.)

But after disappointing experiences at two of Melbourne’s hottest hospitality spots – Greg Malouf’s CBD Spice Market and Collingwood’s Gigibaba, I’m wondering whether I’d be better off sticking to the more traditional and always-pleasing establishments on Melbourne’s Sydney Road or Sydney’s Western Suburbs.

We had friends in from New York, who were looking for a special Melbourne experience, so I chose Spice Market having read so much about its luxe décor and ultra-expensive fit-out, not to mention it being the first part of triumphant return of Middle Eastern cooking great, Greg Malouf (the other is his new, adjoining Momo restaurant). And upon entering via its Beaney Lane entryway, Spice Market is indeed a fantastic space, with an army of Thai statues, decadent lounges, Moorish-curved passageway and more mood lighting than a Satanic ritual. The extravagance is more New York Meatpacking District supper club than bespoke Melbourne bar.

spicemarket_cocktail

The room was busy but not busting, but even so all of the coveted couch outposts were taken or reserved. Fair enough, so I roamed the room until we finally found an intimate table in clear sight of the bar. We looked around for a waitress, and kept trying to catch the eye of one of the tall young blondes that languidly strolled around the room. All of them failed to look in our general direction, and there seemed to be more people welcoming guests at the entrance than there were on the floor, so I finally got up and hailed one of them with the desperation one gets while trying to find a CBD taxi at 3am on a Saturday.

We ordered our drinks and a host of mezze plates. The cocktails were interesting enough, mine nicely infused with star anise syrup, and all we needed was some food to soak up the alcohol. So we waited for our food, and waited, and waited, finally said something to the waitress, and then waited some more. We nearly decided to cancel our order, but we were starving, so we wait until it took a whopping hour and fifteen minutes to get our food. And it was cold. And we ate it because we were starving.

spicemarket_candles

These things happen, but the obvious lack of training of the floor staff made it worse. They were unattentive, unkowledgeable about the food or drink, and walked the floor with the urgency of a surf lifesaver during ski season. We got a weak apology about crowds due to the Coldplay concert that night, but the bar was only at modest capacity. And when we finally complained to the manager, he merely asked us to point out the waitress at fault. But the kitchen was surely equally to blame, as was the person training the staff, and a decent host would have thrown in something to make up for the poor form – a complimentary drink, a couple of items off the bill, some incentive to return. And lastly, the food was simply good enough with little to thrill. So to make sure we ended the evening on a positive note, we left Spice Market and diverted to the always-rewarding Bar Lourinha for a token tapas, dessert and the terrific selection of wines by the glass.

I had a somewhat better food experience the week before at Gigibaba, the super-hyped mod-Turkish restaurant on Smith Street, but again the service was painful and the food merely good. The dishes certainly weren’t mind-blowing and a bit lacking in value. Our waiter acted like we were street beggars pleading for a bit of bread, which we did beg for and received in the form a two miserly thin slices with no thought of bringing more. And when one of us asked for water, we were given one glass, even though the other one clearly had nothing to drink. Our waiter seemed more interested in being discovered in his starring role by a casting agent, even going so far so as to do a little jiggy dance behind the bar as he shook some kind of concoction.

gigibaba_interior

I didn’t take notes that night, so I can’t detail everything we had, but after all the buzz and even an apparent visit by Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, I expected more. We left thoroughly impressed by the cool, quirky (and what seemed to be as inexpensive as it is impactful) design: from the thundershower of chord-hanging lightbulbs to the kitchen entryway cut out from a Turkish rug. But the food was just interesting, in the same way Chinese Opera is interesting – I can appreciate it, but I’m not sure how much I really dig it. The most memorable dish was a claypot of deconstructed moussaka, but the crunchy dryness of the dish had me pining for reconstruction.

Maybe I’m sounding a bit harsh here, and I’m admittedly intrigued enough by Gigibaba to try it again and check out other dishes. Spice Market I’ve got less time for. Why spend all that cold-hearted cash on the space and skimp out on service with rank amateurs is beyond me. These guys have to get their act together before I think about giving them any more of my hard-earned money. In the midst of a Global Financial Crisis, I’m going to put my personal stimulus package into the venues that deserve it the most.

Gigibaba, 102 Smith St, Collingwood, Melbourne, (03) 9486 0345
Gigi Baba on Urbanspoon

Spice Market, Beaney Ln (near Russell St), Melbourne, (03) 9660 3777, http://www.spicemarket.net.au
Spice Market on Urbanspoon

Tasmania – The Agrarian Kitchen

agrariankitchen_dough1

Is The Agrarian Kitchen the best damned cooking school in Australia? I need to try a few more to make an ultimate call, but Rodney Dunn’s new-ish Agrarian Kitchen – about a 40-minute drive out of Hobart in the quaint Derwent Valley town of Lachlan – is certainly a top contender. I used to work with Rodney when he was the food editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine (and I a mercenary freelance editor), and he’s always been a great bloke and a terrific cook. As he should be, considering he learned his trade in the kitchen of Sydney’s world-renowned Tetsuya’s.

So when I heard Rodney had left the mag to open a cooking school, I couldn’t wait to check it out.

Sarah and I recently did a whirlwind trip to Tassie, including a gruelling climb up much of the fantastically beautiful Cradle Mountain and a picture-perfect dinner at Launceston’s Asian-infused Stillwater River Cafe, and I made sure to make a stop at The Agrarian Kitchen. Classes weren’t in session the day I was passing through, but Rodney invited me over anyway for a tour of the converted schoolyard and the surrounding grounds. Besides, Luke Burgess, a former top food photographer and much-missed owner/chef of the defunct Pecora café in Birches Bay, was coming over to cook pizza in the wood-fired oven.

agrariankitchen_pizza1

So what makes The Agrarian such an amazing place? Rodney’s incredible knowledge and skill would have been enough, but he has upped the ante by creating his own small farm, growing and raising all of his own produce. Not only does he grow a dizzying array of herbs, vegetables and fruit, he’s cultivating just about every different type of seed he can get his grubby hands on. I spotted a couple dozen types of tomatoes, from black Russian to heirloom varietals, some 14 types of raspberry, zucchini flowers, umpteen potatoes including a dazzling pink spud, and more fresh produce than I could explain without boring the hell out of Gosstronomy readers. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also raising two Jersey cows for milking, a few pigs for soil tilling and pork, geese for natural lawn-moving, and chooks for eggs and poultry.

agrariankitchen_proscuitto1

What this means for the fortunate eight people who get to sit at the kitchen’s huge stainless-steel benchtop is that they not only get to learn to cook an elaborate meal with a top chef and food personality, but they get to choose the freshest possible produce from the farm and take it from the paddock all the way to the plate. To give a sense of what we’re talking about, here’s a sample menu from their website: Warning – reading this when famished can cause severe hunger pains:

  • Prosciutto, ricotta and silverbeet rotolo: Hand-made pasta, hand-made ricotta and silverbeet from our garden, rolled into the pasta and slowly poached, then sliced and served with rosemary and garlic infused butter
  • Wessex saddleback pork neck braised in milk
  • Chickpea soffrito: sauteed garden vegetables and Macarena chickpeas
  • Forager’s salad: collection of ten different lettuces and chive flowers from our garden)
  • Blackcurrant leaf ice-cream: freshly gathered blackcurrant leaves infused into cream and churned ice-cream
  • Meyer lemon and wild elderflower cordial

Even though our day wasn’t a typical one, we still rummaged around the farm, and gathered fresh zucchini, potatoes, basil and other ingredients. We were also treated to housemade cheeses for toppings, and proscuitto cut from an artisan-smoked and one-year-aged leg, although I can’t remember whether it was Luke or Rodney’s creating, since both are experimenting at the moment. Either way, it was stellar. Wine was provided by yours truly: stellar bottles of Stefano Lubiana pinot grigio and estate pinot, one of Tasmania’s best, which we were able to conveniently pick up at their cellar door on the way. Noice.

The high-ceilinged, 35-square-metre kitchen, with its infinite toys, retro baby-blue Smeg fridge and sunny view of the farm, is painful to see – it is a foodie’s dream workspace. And add to that a wood-fired oven, built inside the kitchen and designed by Alan Scott, the legendary masonry-oven builder who recently passed away, and completed by his son.

agrariankitchen_kiddo1

The pizzas, of course, were picture-perfect, including passatta made from fresh summer tomatoes and lots of skill and a bit of sweat from a coal-faced Luke, who pull the pies from the red-hot oven. In the end, we sat down with Rodney, his wife Séverine and their young son, toasted Rodney to his success and tucked into some of the freshest pizzas you’ll find anywhere in Australia.

The Agrarian Kitchen, 650 Lachlan Road, Lachlan, Tasmania, +61 (0)3 6261 1099. For details, email info@theagrariankitchen.com or visit www.theagrariankitchen.com

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