Archive for September, 2007

Churros ‘n’ Cholocolate ‘n’ Glebe

Churros y Chocolate“You can get your chocolate from the Bald Man, or you can get it from the Hot Man,” says Kelly Smith, the founder of Chocolateria San Churro, as she stares up admirably at her long-haired hunk of a mascot who she obviously thinks stands up well to competing chocolatier Max Brenner’s icon. Indeed, from his menu perch, the long-haired, chin-bearded San Churro does have a pretty face, which Kelly admits may have gotten a bit of embellishment and inspiration from a dancer in a J-Lo video. As you do.

I’m not sure if they sex up churros like this in Spain, but in any case it’s a welcome sight to see a fair dinkum Spanish doughnut in Sydney. Until recently, I could only get questionably fresh churros from Cafe Hernandez (a far cry from their excellent coffee), with the worst part being a stubborn lack of dipping chocolate. Then I finally found the real deal at Newtown’s Madame Fling Flong last month, but it’s an aside to the cocktails and funky grooves, whereas there is a full-scale churro assault going on at San Churro.

Chocolateria San ChurroHere they’re putting serious bucks behind their churros, expanding from their four original outlets in Melbourne to open this initial Sydney outpost in Glebe, with Miranda and a forthcoming Chatswood store hot on the heels. I arrive at the Glebe doors at 7pm-ish for the opening night party, held a mere four weeks after the doors first opened. (Isn’t Glebe such the hot foodie hub at the moment?) The place looks so Northern Hemisphere with its wintery black-painted wood exterior. Inside, the wooden floor is packed with journos, locals, staff and distinguished guests and is soon filled with the frenetic strumming of flamenco guitarist Jorge Campano, joined by the stomping and spinning of two flamenco dancers.

The churros are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside – one fellow food journo finds them a bit too dense, but I’m pleasantly happy – and come with any of three thick-chocolate dippings: milk, white or dark. A peak over the counter unveils the churros being fried up in large oil vat in the corner. There are also plenty of other chocolatey diversions to tempt the hardcore ‘holics: eight types of hot chocolate, an abundance of Spanish truffles for couverture chocolate, milkshakes, ice-cream, sundaes and more.

When the speeches start, we get a bit of a history lesson. Apparently, cocoa was absconded from the Aztecs by Cortes in the 1500s, who then brought the beans back to Spain and delivered them to the king. For about 100 years, chocolate was a tightly held secret by Spanish monks until, wouldn’ja know, San Churro let the choc out of the bag.

Chocolateria San ChurroLittle would San the Hot Man have guessed that half a millennia later, someone would roll his unveiled state secret in a ball, cover it in a textured substance and immerse it in a cauldron of bubbling oil. Which is exactly what the Choclateria San Churro does with its deep-friend chocolate truffles (‘trufas fritas’), and they are the crowing achievement here. The crisp exterior gives way to an oozing, hot, gooey chocolate centre, and it is a masterful way of spoiling one’s appetite before dinner.

As for the churros, they do the trick and should give the Bald Man a run for his money… even if I do miss enjoying mine slouched in a cushy vintage couch at Madame Fling Flong.

San Churro Chocolateria, 47 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, NSW, (02) 9692 0119.

Chocolateria San Churro on Urbanspoon

A Tavola with Joanna Savill

A Tavola Setting“So this is the price I pay to dine with you,” says Joanna Savill, as she sits across from me along the 28-odd communal table at A Tavola, the newest eatery along Darlinghurst’s Victoria Street. I’ve just snapped a photo of Joanna, who’s here for a relaxed dinner, while I’m still in full-on work mode. That becomes extra apparent the moment I take out my notebook and begin scribbling in full view, to Joanna’s horror. She notices the kitchen suddenly staring at us through the open-window that peers into the dining room, and the diners next to us get inquisitive about who we’re writing for.

She’s probably used to being a bit less conspicuous, even though I’m sure she gets recognised often in restaurants. It’s hard not to when you’re the co-editor of the SMH Good Food Guide, a contributing writer to the Herald’s Good Living section, the co-author of the SBS Eating Guide to Sydney and the co-host of the SBS Food Lover’s Guide to Australia series. Yes, Joanna is a food diva, but what makes her most impressive is that she rarely acts like one.

Luckily for me, it’s still an enjoyable meal, and Joanna gets a kick out of my mint Vespa GT200 that’s parked out front. She’s married to an Italian, so I’d like to think there’s an extra level of appreciation. Having another food expert on hard with a deep knowledge of Italian culture also makes for a nice angle when reviewing this warm and inviting new Italian food destination, a groovy little room that seems to be a cross between Vini and Il Baretto. It has the warmth and cosiness of the former, and the simplicity and pasta focus of the latter. As always, it’s good to see a restaurant with focus.

Joanna Savill And like Vini, the menu is postcard-sized, with far more specials available on dual chalkboards. The long, narrow room is in the space formerly occupied by another Italian mainstay, Tasso, although the similarities end at the square footage. The interior is highlighted by bulbous copper hanging lamps, a wall of black glass mirrors, and a 28-odd composite table that looks like a hazel marble punctuated with lightning strikes of cream and mocha. At the end of the table are splays of dried pastas, put out for obvious design aesthetic, but looking like they could be gathered up and thrown into a massive stockpot for a family feast (and I later read that they’re freshly made and laid out on the table to dry). The same goes for three horizontally hung wooden poles, strewn with strands of pasta, one on top of the other, and creating an edible veil over the window peering into the kitchen.

A Tavola Blackboard Running the kitchen at A Tavola is Eugenio Maiale, who built up a reputation in Adelaide at restaurants Citrus and Auge. We decide to start off with his stuffed Sicilian olives, filled with veal and deep-fried, and they are a lovely way to pass the time while we wait for our pasta mains to arrive. The meal gets off to a good start even prior to that, where crispy and fresh focaccia immediately arrives with a small bowl of green chilli oil. The oil has a strong kick to it, but I’m a big fan of heat.

The mains are notably absent of protein tonight, even though I later come across mentions of another night featuring blue-eye and osso buco dishes (via my old work haunt, Regardless, the menu looks enticing, and neither Joanna nor I are on the Atkins diet. She orders the stracci, which arrives as an appetising plate of handmade sheets of pasta, paired with luminescent-green broad beans, white asparagus and thinly sliced zucchini in a light tomato sauce. The sheets stick together somewhat, but other than that, the plate is a satisfying dose of hearty food that strikes a balance between skilled kitchen and home cooking.

I get the cigare al ragu, with pasta shaped like anorexic ziti, and which apparently get its name from a similarity to the shape of cigarettes (Google translates it as ‘cigars’, so I’m still clarifying). They’re made from dried pasta imported from Italy, or at least we assume they are, noting all of the boxes of imported pastas that sit on the wall behind Joanna. There’s a little bit of disappointment in the pasta not being handmade like the stracci, but the ragu still manages to lift the dish, coming to life with spice that is highlighted by what I guess is nutmeg, even as Joanna conjures up cinammon. Either way, the flavours add an extra layer of what’s a step above the usual meat sauce. We greedily down each of our dishes, each enjoying a glass of Italian wine from the small but pleasant selection. While the selection is nowhere near as involved as, say, Vini, I secure a pour of a fruity montepulciano that’s just the right fit for the rustic fare and relaxed neighbourhood vibe.

A Tavola dishesHiccups mainly arrive with the service, where there’s no immediate greeting at the door, and, more notably, our bill processing takes ages. It also arrives with a fee for using Amex, and when Joanna asks to switch cards, the waitress says, a bit flippantly, that it’s ‘only a dollar’. We proceed, and then added insult comes when the bill arrives with a $3 Amex surcharge.

It’s a shame to end on a sour note, but such things happen at new restaurants. It’s a hope that things sharpen up as the floor staff settle in, and we do notice on departure a sign in the window looking for a quality front-of-house person. The food’s good enough that I’ll come back for another go, especially as I’m always a fan of small, familiar venues. Next time, I’ll also make sure to save enough room for the variety of desserts, which ranged on the night from an affogato with hazelnut ice-cream, a passionfruit and mandarin tart, tiramisu and an intricate rotolo. The cheese platter also looked promising, especially a variety with shaved truffles. But for tonight, it’s buona notte with a stomach full of pasta that has me ready for a good sleep.

A Tavola on Urbanspoon

No Rock, but Firestick in the Hunter rocks

Firestick Cafe interior
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Hunter Valley, especially when I did a blitz on the area for Delicious magazine two years ago, so I’ve gotten to know the area intimately. And I’ve always enjoyed my time up here, especially once I’ve learned that the best parts are those that get further and further away that hell-hole of white tour buses that stretch from Hunter Valley Gardens across the road to Tempus Two. And when it comes to eating, I’ve had terrific meals at places like Majors Lane, Shakey Tables, Splash, Lazzarini’s and Café Beltree (which I need to try again now that iconic Hunter chef Robert Molines has departed Robert’s and taken over).

Still, any foodie who’s dined in the Hunter Valley has known that the area has lacked a true restaurant destination – an eatery so good, you want to go to the Hunter just to dine there. Orange has Lolli Redini and Selkirks, the Blue Mountains has Vulcans, Northeast Victoria has Simone’s, Byron used to have Fins (so now I can’t wait to go to the new Fins in Kingscliffe!). And now, if the reports are true, the Hunter has Rock restaurant.

My partner Sarah is from Singleton, so this weekend we decided to escape the APEC madness and instead enjoy bumper-to-bumper traffic on our way up to the Hunter. And I decided I had to try Rock, especially now that it’s received a whopping 15.5 points and a hat from the Herald’s spanking new Good Food Guide.

Sadly, everyone else had the same idea, and Rock was booked out all weekend. And, dammit, even my not-so-subtle hints at being a food journo and schmoozing the PR folks didn’t get me in. (Don’t they know who I am?) So we settled on lunch, where Rock turns into the more casual Firestick Café. Which I wasn’t that overjoyed about, but I really wanted to check out the place, so I settled for second-best.

Well, in retrospect, second-best is pretty bloody good.

Firestick Cafe loungeThe café didn’t have my reservation, so we settled for one of the couches in the bar area, which instead an unfortunate mishap, turned into a strong preference. It’s far more comfortable and relaxed (although sadly restricted to just drinks at dinnertime), and Sarah and I sat down and checked out the views of the Poole’s Rock shiraz vines and the fountains forming neat circles with their downpours into a man-made pond. The staff then started us out with a complementary amuse bouche of tiny guinea fowl rillettes, sandwiched between small rounds of puffed choux pastry. If this is a casual café, I can’t wait to see what they do for dinner.

Rock doesn’t look much from the outside, mostly just a large shed, which apparently came out of some 15 different architectural renderings inspired by a working woolshed and mucked around by lots of decision-makers. Once we stepped inside, the décor was far more impressive, with dark-chocolate and vanilla coloured walls, and one whole side of the building consisting of oversized glass sliding doors that frame the outdoor vines, pond and rolling hills, and open up to an outdoor wood deck. It was a bit chilly today, so the deck was empty, with everyone tucked away inside and enjoying the flames from the kitchen’s woodfired oven, but it would be a killer spot for a table on a warming sunny day.

Firestick CafeWe started with entrees of gravlax with watercress, poached egg and brioche; and the gemfish special with braised lentils. The gravlax, cut from whole salmon cured onsite with salt and sugar for 24 hours, was so smoothly flavoured, it almost made me want to give up smoked salmon for life. It did, though, seem to call for something simpler than the thick brioche that lay beneath. As for the gemfish, it was the moistest piece of seafood I’ve had in quite a while, pan-fried to a lovely crispiness on top, and paired with Puy lentils braised in a fish stock with shards of carrot and, I think, shallots. In a word: faultless.

Being on Poole’s Rock’s turf, we naturally decided to pair the meal with one of its wines. While Poole’s Rock has a gold medal-winning chardonnay, I often find award-winning chardies too big on the oak for my tastes, so we opted for the Cockfighter’s Ghost pinot noir. I’m not always a fan of Cockfighter’s, being the lower-level and often less-interesting brand for Poole’s Rock, but the pinot, from Tasmania’s Tamar Valley was nicely light and fruity, and it was just the kind of effortless drinking we wanted for lunch. In fact, it’d be a perfect red for summer days and picnics.

Firestick Cafe chocolate mascarpone tartThe main event was a woodfired chorizo pizza, cooked nice and cripy, though maybe needing a hit of chilli and I did find there to be too much chewy fat in the chorizo. That I still enjoyed it was due to the flavourful base and nicely seasoned cheese. And last up was dessert, a chocolate mascarpone tart, which if it didn’t rock my world, it was certainly pleasing.

There’s a lot to like about the Firestick/Rock, and if I had any complaints, it would be that the dining area seems a little cold, and the pond a little too man-made looking. A little character would be a good infusion. But like another favourite eatery, Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi, the Firestick shows yet again that you can wow people with food simply done well, and with the kind of restraint you only get with experience. Chef Andrew Clarke got that in Sydney at Claude’s, Buon Ricordo and Bathers’ Pavilion, so there’s no mistake that he has a wise output from his kitchen.

It’s good to see the Hunter finally get a simple but beautiful restaurant, and get a chef’s hat in a central spot that doesn’t require you to haul yourself up to the ever-faithful 25-year-old Old George and Dragon in the upper Hunter (but I can’t wait to make it up there too, and soon). It also beats the far-too-common, overpriced roast/confit/braised duck in Pokolbin, which gives me something to celebrate with a world-beating Hunter semillon.

Brisbane Redux

Ok, so if I seemed a bit perturbed in my last post, it was only because I was looking for a great food find in Brisbane, and came up shorthanded, despite shucking out $176 for two at Isis. I’m praying that the accountant can do something with that one.

In my grumbling, I did forget to mention one thing I really did like about Isis: the subterranean bar underneath.

Florence Broadhurst Japan FlowerNo one was there on a Sunday night, including the bartender, but it was such a cool, sneaky space for a bar. I wouldn’t have even realised it was there if I hadn’t gone down the steps in search of the toilets. I’d almost call it a wine bar, since there’s a terrific selection of old and new world wines, but there’s a full array of spirits as well. The chilled music ranged from Astrud Gilberto to jazz and soul, and the dark, moody and cosy decor was fab, although why does every eatery in Australia seem to be using Florence Broadhurst wallpaper? Isis is 10 years old, so I’ll cut them some slack, but I saw the same Japanese Floral pattern at three places in a single day.

And despite my disappointing meal, there’s a lot to like about the Fortitude Valley, especially if you’re looking for interesting clothing. It also adjoins Chinatown, so I headed over for a browse and discovered the sprawling Yuen’s Market Trading Company, where you can get every Chinese and Asian food product your heart desires, from moon cakes to premium Oolong tea and more obscure substances to brew, chocolate Pocky sticks and dirt-cheap teapots and crockery.

Bribane Powerhouse photoThere’s also one big thing Brisbane has over Sydney, and that’s live music. It was everywhere we went. At the Vue cafe in New Farm, there was a young couple singing lovely acoustic covers. At the Brisbane Powerhouse, whose concrete urban warehouse interior is so inspiring and funky, there was a whole day of live acts playing, so I had a listen while also looking through the glass window that peered in to the kitchen of the museum’s snazzy Italian eatery Bar Alto and watched the pastry chef do her thing. And there was music all over the outdoor mall at the end of Brunswick Street. Sigh. Don’t make me do another rant about Sydney’s licensing laws.

Mary Ryan’s Bookshop CafePaddington, located northwest of the city centre, was another great spot, especially for the wealth of cafes and vintage and antique shops. We grabbed some tea and lemon tarts at Mary Ryan’s Bookshop and Cafe on Latrobe Street, which has a relaxing, terraced outdoor deck that actually makes you realise you’re at a tropical latitude. Then we hit the shops, where Sarah nabbed some great summer dresses and a pink ukulele (don’t ask), while I stocked up on vinyl records and milked the local muso-shop dudes about guitars.

Anouk’s aranciniThen we headed to Anouk for a bit of lunch, which was started up some months back by Justine Whelan, the former owner of the well-known Gunshop Cafe. Justine, who’s married to a tattoo shop proprietor, has some amazing tatts, which she proudly showed us. Justine’s edgy urban look is in stark contrast the minimalist and bright decor at Anouk, which has a good rap as a breakfast spot. We got there too late for brekkie, but did sneak in some tapas of fried chats in smoked paprika with aioli, salt-and-pepper squid, corn and artichoke soup and arancini (rice balls). I was expecting small plates, but they actually came out quite large, so we over-ordered quite a bit, which was a bit annoying since we asked the staff for guidance. The food was our best meal in town, but the truth is that it was pleasant, nothing more, nothing less. Like most of the spots we visited, the vibe and surrounds fulfilled us more than the menu. Still, I’d like to go back and see how Justine does breakfast, since she just oozes creativity.

So what’s on my wishlist for my next visit back to Brisbane? Maybe Restaurant Manx, which is known for its owner/chef, or fine-diner Alchemy. Maybe one of the numerous, and surprising, Tibetan restaurants that we spotted. And definitely a visit to E’cco to sample Phillip Johnson’s handiwork.

If you’ve been to Brisbane or from there, it would be great to hear your own thoughts and suggestions in the city’s dining scene. It’ll save me from having to schlep all the way to Noosa’s River House for a decent feed.

“Boring” Brisbane

I know, I know, I’m about to get hatemail from Broncos, Reds and Lions fans everywhere, but the “boring” part is actually a quote… by a Brisbane restaurateur. And take it from me, I’ve been pretty open-minded about my first experience of the Brisvegas dining scene. But after sampling a few of the city’s notable offerings, my ratecard is as follows:

Atmosphere: Very Good
Service: Excellent
Food: Yawn

Isis Brasserie2

And don’t take this as a New Yorker-turned-Sydneysider who only thinks he can get a decent feed in the Big Smoke. I’ve has satisfying meals in Adelaide, Hobart, some podunk town in Tassie, the Blue Mountains, Bellingen, Newcastle, Byron, Noosa, Orange and even Wollongong. But in Brisbane? Nada, and after a whole weekend of trying.

My biggest hope was on Isis Brasserie, the uber-sexy and exy mod-European restaurant in the funky Fortitude Valley. And it started off so well. Locals described the area to me as the Kings Cross of Brisbane, but the Valley was better than that, with funky bars, an impressive arts centre, and fashion boutiques with great style and attitude – one with wacky photos of men’s bits dressed in sunnies with their pubic hair stylishly coiffed. Noice! The Valley was also a bit too low on strip clubs and backpacker hangouts to be like the Cross, although I did spot a crazed junkie or two.

A 10-year veteran of the Brisbane restaurant scene, Isis Brasserie is just down the block from the groovy Judith Wright arts centre, and it looks stunning through its oversized windows and corner locale. There are high tin-engraved ceilings, warming square lightboxes that hang from above, moody wood furnishings and crisp white-linen settings. And the menu, well it sounded astonishingly good, from braised goat to 10-hour cooked Wagyu, rare-cooked venison and a duck breast special with foie gras-stuffed morels flown in specially from France. I’ve never had fresh morels in Australia. In fact, everything sounded so good, I could have happily ordered every main on the menu. And the floor staff were prompt and polished, and quickly served us with complimentary amuse bouche spoonfuls of tomato jellies topped with asparagus cream.

We started by sharing the entrée of kingfish encrusted in spezie (a Sicilian rendition of dukkah, typically made of crushed pistachios, oregano, poppy seeds, thyme, chilli and other spices), and found it to be pleasant-tasting, but the kingfish was chewy and let the whole dish down. We did, however, enjoy the lemon-limey and flowery Sancerre that we ordered off the by-the-glass list.

The entree was followed by a palate cleanser of white balsamic sorbet, which was a fun tongue-tickler between course. Next came the highly anticipated duck special and Wagyu, but sadly the duck was overcooked and incredibly chewy, the morels a bit mushy, and the Wagyu was incredibly tender but way under-seasoned. If there was a saving grace, it was the chai soufflé with honey vanilla ice-cream. You just can’t beat a good soufflé.

I was a little perplexed that such a masterful menu and location was so disappointing, so I took a rough guess and asked one of the waiters if the head chef was out tonight, it being a Sunday and all. “Our prodigy sous chef is in, and he’s been under the head chef for four years,” he said a bit defensively. My hunch is that the student is not yet the master.

One place I would recommend in the Valley is Alhambra, upon which Sarah and I stumbled upon afterwards on a Valley side street and discovered a live salsa band. Not bad for a sleepy Sunday night. The interior is all plush North African, with luxe couches and ample cushions, and I tore up the dance floor with my killer Latino moves. Yes, Sarah is very generous with her compliments.

More Brissie to come, but it’s late and my new, amazingly white bedsheets are calling me.

Isis Brasserie on Urbanspoon