Posts Tagged ‘melbourne’

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.

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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.

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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

Back on the blog – CHEERS!

spanishacquisition

OK, so I realise Gosstronomy has been all quiet on the gestation front this past year. And I know, I owe everyone an explanation. A blogger can’t just disappear into the ethernet and go without saying a word. I have seen the folly of my ways, and I am back asking for forgiveness.

Right, ready? The sad truth is this – I got a real job.

“No!” you say. “Mon dieu.” “Bastarde.” “Oy gevalt.” Well, my parents said “About time” as I set about helping Lonely Planet transform its famed travel guidebooks and figure out ways to allow people to access the same great information on their mobile phones. Yes, I was a high-priced geek who shrunk guidebooks, but I missed my freedom, I missed writing about food, and I missed people like you reading about it. Yes, dammit, YOU were missed.

So after 14 well-paid months, I chucked it all in and went back to food writing. In the middle of the global financial crisis. And I couldn’t be happier.

Yesterday was my first day of freedom, and it was a whole couple of hours before I got a whiff of a Spanish and Portuguese wine tasting by the Spanish Acquisition, Australia’s top distributor of Iberian drops. The tip-off was thanks for Ryan Andrijich, the former food expert on the Australian version of ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’, who’s  now doing catering and cooking classes in Melbourne. Thanks Ryan, I owe you one.

So on my first afternoon back, I was at North Fitzroy bowls, sampling from a massive variety of sherry, whites, roses, Cavas and reds. Sausages and lamb cutlets were sizzling on the barbie as small village of sommeliers, bottle shop (liquor store) operators and chefs sampled from the extensive line-up. The Spanish Acquisition crew started us off with a chilled glass of Delgado Zuleto ‘La Goya” Manzanilla sherry, which got the palate going before we net dipped into the classic Spanish sparkling: Cava. Amid a sampling of white and rose sparklings, I was particularly drawn to the 2005 Agusti Torello Mata Brut Reserve, a fruity, yeasty and lively bubbly.

Then it was onto the whites, which were in their element on this hot summer’s day. One of my favourite whites in Albarino, and there was a good selection at hand, but I found myself struggling to find a stunner among the 2006 and 2007 vintages. Instead, I was drawn to a grape I had never heard of, godello. The only way to describe it is as a Spanish alternative to sauvignon blanc, but far more interesting. The 2007 Telmo Rodriguez ‘Gabo do Xil’ , a hand-picked godello from Spain’s Valdeorras region, was fruity, citrusy and had hints of honeydew, and is a great example of an easy-to-quoff wine that still has personality. It’ll ruin that next glass of same-o Marlborough sav blanc forever. On the more seriuos wine front, it was hard to go past the 2006 Remelluri Blanco, a white blend from monastrell, tempranillo and syrah that had subtle oak on the nose with lemon/lime notes, lots of minerality and a tinge of pepperiness on the back palate – and from reading the tasting notes, lots of other things I couldn’t pick up, like pickles. Save this one for your wankiest wine friends; they’ll love it.

I took a time out after downing all of those Cavas and whites in the heat, gorging on the juicy lamb to soak up the alcohol. And since I was having so much fun, time flew (as it does), so I found myself doing a speed tasting session before the Spanish Acquisition folks shut down the free-for-all. What I found were two killer tempranillos among the mix, stating with a 2006 Artadi ‘Vinas de Gain’ that to borrow the words of Mitchell Mcloud (because he said it better) – the owner of Northcote’s new Harvest Wine & Liquor boutique bottlo – was a brilliant mix of morello cherris and cola beans, confected but not sweet. Whatever, it was drinking beautifully. And while Mitchell found the 2002 Traslanzas as good but a bit light-on, I found it to be a beautiful red, with the kind of subtlety I’d be happy to find in more tempranillos. Top stuff.

But just as we thought the fun was over, there was one more highlight in store for us – an impromptu performance from the comedic duo Elbowskin, Enrie and Dave, the stars of “Are We Stupid” in the upcoming Melbourne Comedy Festival. The two sang a quirky, acoutic-guitar pisstake on the humble vine, which started off with “We were gonna write a song for the sommeliers, but it was all wine, wine, wine” and then headed straight to the gutter from there. All I can remember is the use of wine varietals to describe a man who meets a woman, only to discover she’s infected with phylloxera. It was a good laugh, so the Elbowskin boys promised that they’ll send over a link to a video they produced of the song, which I’ll happily share as soon as I get it. “This is only the second time we’ve had a chance to sing it,” said Ernie – guess it’s not every day you get knowing chuckles from wineheads. For now, check out their request to move their MySpace users to Facebook. It’s not G-rated, so if the kids are around, maybe use the headset.

Melbourne’s hottest hot spot

Dainty

OK, first, let’s start with the headline news. I’ve made the move from Sydney to Melbourne. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that I’ve joined the crew at Lonely Planet and have flown south. So Gosstronomy is travelling with me and expanding to Melbourne as well. At the same time, I’m looking for someone to take over all of my dining dates in Sydney. Anyone interesting in a side career of prolific eating and drinking?

As for Melbourne, as any foodie worth their weight in sea salt knows, it’s a food-lover’s smorgasbord. And I’ve been happily wandering its streets, ogling at the insurmountable eating options. It’s so invigorating having a whole new city to digest.

Which brings us to Dainty, and to the fact that I’m an incorrigible spice snob. Everywhere I go, I meet people who curl up like manhandled caterpillars at the slightest whiff of chilli. Wimps, I think, while keeping it to myself so that I don’t sound like a complete dickhead. Instead, I just look annoyingly smug.

I was just meandering around the Melbourne CBD, looking for takeaway near my hotel, when I stumbled across Dainty Sichuan Food at the end a dodgy-looking Chinatown alley. Sichuan is music to the ears of a spice maven like me. Plus the dining room was full of Chinese diners, so my graze-dar gave the thumbs up and I popped in for a feed.

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The waiter spoke broken English, so it took pointing and gesturing to work out what I wanted… or rather didn’t want. No, not the cold pork. No, not that massive chicken platter. No, not the liver and pig’s ear. A little interrogation later, I settled on the shredded hot and spicy beef, but the waiter didn’t seem keen on me having that either. “Spicy,” he warned and pointed to the three-chilli rating on the menu. Upon which I laughed and told him that I liked spicy food. He then scrawled the order like he was signing a legal waiver.

The dish soon arrived, liberally sprinkled with chilli skin and flakes and stir-fried with onion, garlic, bean sprouts, green onion and strips of julienned beef. The flavour was big, bold and oily joyful. And after two minutes, I had to take a moment. Another minute and I was scoffing black tea, despite knowing it wouldn’t help. Worse still, the food was too good not to keep eating. A few more minutes and I urgently requested water. And I kept going. Further embattled, I went to the fridge and bought a bottle of sweet milk tea, just to keep the heat at bay. Halfway through, I raised the white flag.

Note to self: when a Sichuan restaurant has chillis hanging from the ceiling as decoration, do NOT order the menu equivalent of a three-alarm fire. It’s been ages since I had food this a’blazing, but I do love the fact that these guys don’t pull any punches for weak Westerners like me. In fact, I later discovered that these punches were perfectly described in a great write-up by The Age’s Matt Preston. “Dainty is ain’t,” he writes, adding that the food “should come with the type of warning you’d give a friend about to step into the ring with Mike Tyson.” If only I’d known.

For my love of spice, I served a night’s penance of grueling heartburn. Even so I’ll be back, but next time I’ll bring my humility and with it some daintier Dainty aspirations.

Dainty Sichuan Food, 26 Corrs Ln (btw Lonsdale and Little Bourke sts), Melbourne, (03) 9663 8861

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

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