Archive for October, 2007

Sydney Chefs Get Their Kicks

“The Italians are fucking cheats – you can quote me on that. They can’t cook and they can’t play football,” Irishman Stephen Russell boasts to me. Like many of the chefs here participating in Foodball, he’s being serious about his soccer… seriously cheeky, that is.


I’m here in Moore Park for what has to be one of the year’s biggest gathering of Sydney chefs in a purely social setting. The excuse is a friendly game of soccer, grouping dozens of chefs in the primary countries of the participants: England, Australia, Ireland, Italy, France and New Zealand. Friendly doesn’t mean that there’s no passion here – these are chefs after all – so there’s bumping, trash-talking and plenty of teasing.

The list of team captains is like a who’s who from the Good Food Guide: Balzac’s Matthew Kemp represents England, Assiette’s Warren Turnbull does the same for New Zealand, and so does Marque’s Mark Best for Australia, Bilson’s Manu Feildel for France, the Four in Hand’s Colin Fassnidge for Ireland, and Pilu at Freshwater’s Giovanni Pilu for Italy.

FoodballIconic Aussie chef and French restaurateur Tony Bilson stands at the sideline, chatting to his crew who make up much of the French team, and Italian chef John Lanzafame is also hanging out as a spectator, so we chat about the ex-Hugo chef’s massive new restaurant venture at the Le Sands Pavilion in Brighton, slated to open later this year. Even with plenty of veterans on hand, the real stars here are the next generation of younger chefs, who are supplying the primary firepower on the field, and probably also in their respective kitchens.

The Italians arrive with the largest roster and what looks like the greatest talent, so most people here look upon as the boys in blue as the team to beat. The Italians win their first match, then pull up with a nil-nil tie with France in the next game, which still keeps them on top of the rankings. “You get a point for that? For doing fuck all?” heckles Balzac’s Matthew Kemp, pacing the grounds while England waits for its next match. The Italians take the razzing with a smile.


The day is roasting 30-plus degrees, and I’m having enough trouble spectating from the comforts of a shady tree. No doubt the heat is downright oppressive on the field, and players come to the sidelines drenched in sweat. It makes the James Squire beer and Buller wine on offer a hard sell, as most everyone opts for water. Except for the Irish, who are treated to bottles of brew thanks to Stephen Russell’s parlour trick of yanking off bottlecaps with his teeth.

Regardless of the swelter, the chefs – some joined by their partners and offspring – all seem to be enjoying the rare chance to escape their stoves and catch up. It’s a Monday, but for the hospitality trade, for all intents and purposes, it’s a Sunday.

Foodball is the brainchild of Mel Nathan, editor of trade magazine Food Companion International and also a co-owner of Glebe Point Diner. She regularly gets chefs together for informal gatherings, but says she was astounded by the extra-large response to her inaugural soccer event. “It’s bigger than Ben Hur,” she says, with a glint of irony. “It’s unusual to get 50 of the world’s best chefs on one field.” The goal (no pun intended), she says, was to put the spotlight onto chefs and their countries, and to support the trade. She describes how it all started with a simple conversation with the Four in Hand’s Colin Fassenridge, and then steamrolled once other restaurants found out about it. “I thought it would be another chef event, but it just caught on.”

Amid the feisty competitiveness, there’s some silliness on the field. One player falls, so another chef extends a friendly hand, then mischiefly spins his fallen opponent around in the grass like he’s forming crop circles.

The Italians meet the Irish in the finals, and the favourites seem to have slowed in the afternoon heat. The game ends up finishing 0-0, so it goes to the requisite shootout. Grand National chef Russ Johnson scores the winning goal for the Irish, giving the underdogs the title. They celebrate with their trophy, a frypan donned with a soccer ball in the centre, into which they pour the sponsoring James Squire beer and share amongst their teammates for a drink. They spray other beer bottles like celebratory Champagne and then smile “Potatoes!” for the cameras.


Following the game is an evening awards ceremony, where Bilson’s Manu wins the award for “Most Flamboyant” player for his acrobatic goalie play (apparently inspired by parents who worked in the circus), Assiette’s Turnbull wins for “Best and Fairest”, and an imported London chef on holiday, ‘Stormin’ Norman, graciously receives his “Two Left Feet” award. As for the Australians, they get the Wooden Spoon for last place, so it’s hoped that the Cheferoos don’t foretell any similar performances for the Socceroos come World Cup time. Even those who don’t win awards walk away with something – impressive sunburns to wear to work the next day.


For Real Roti, Mamak’s Your Uncle

I can’t say I’ve been excited about anything new in Chinatown in, well, probably since the dawn of the new millennium. In fact, I still only visit for the good ole mainstays like Golden Century, the Chinese noodle shop, or yum cha at Marigold, Dragon Star and the other usual suspects. But now there’s something new that I’m excited about. A place called Mamak.
Mamak roti

And the thing is, I’m not nearly half as ebullient as Eunice and her friend: two Malaysian gals who are worryingly excited about the food here. Yes, the best new restaurant in Chinatown isn’t even Chinese. It’s Indian food, cooked for Malaysians. And it’s barely been open for more than a week now.

Mamak started three years ago, when Aussie-Malay young exec Julian Lee visited an authentic Malaysian restaurant, Bismi, in Melbourne’s CBD, and wondered why there wasn’t an equally good Malay experience in Sydney. “A lot of Malaysian restaurants have a watered down flavour,” he tells me. In time, he and two friends, Alan Au and Clement Lee, decided to open up their own restaurant in Sydney. But when attempts to recruit a trained chef from Kuala Lumpur proved too difficult, the three decided to quit their executive jobs – Julian was an account manager for Pfizer, Alan a risk manager for Macquarie Bank and Clement a software engineer for Optus – and move to Kuala Lumpur to work in restaurants and learn to cook real-deal Malaysian food.

Mamak roti maker“We’re offering a menu that has gone largely unseen in Sydney. in Australia,” says Julian. “Our recipes are exactly the same as what you get in Malaysia. Most restaurants [in Sydney] offer Malaysian staples like laksa and chicken rice. And you can find rotis, but they’re not made fresh. There’s a fair amount of skill in making the rotis.”

And it’s the rotis that are the stars here at Mamak. They’re the first thing you see as you enter this slim eating space, with a glassed-in counter enclosing the roti maestro, who pounds down the dough, flips and stretches it into paper-thin flatbread, folds it crepe-like, and cooks it on a stainless electric griddle. The rotis range from savoury to sweet to stuffed.

I’m also joined by George Karabelas, the IT whiz who I worked with when we launched the yourRestaurants and yourBars websites and mobile guides a couple of years ago. George is one of the biggest foodies I know, and it’s he who first alerted me to Mamak. In fact, he had already gorged himself here the night before, and warns we against ordering the tea, which kept him up for much of the night before. But that only makes me more curious, so I get a mug of the ‘the tarik’, a blend of strong Malaysian tea, condensed milk and spices. I’m not sure if it was the caffeine or the hefty sugar hit that gripped George, but I’m loving it; it’s dessert in a teacup, and great for sucking up the heat from the hotter dishes.

Mamak satayWe’ve settled into one of the small tables, backdropped by a full-bodied red wall that would make Fidel Castro proud. My pick of the rotis is the ever-faithful roti canai, served with two small curries for dipping. The texture is a slightly crisped and stretchy dough, and the lightness fools you about its level of richness. (Later, my bloated belly will tell me the truth.) We also get a sweet roti, rolled and standing tall like a pyramid, as well as a murtabak that’s filled with spicy minced lamb.

It isn’t all rotis here, however. The satay is another standout, and is made with smaller meat portions that most Aussies will be accustomed to (Sydney satays are “like a souvlaki,” Julian gripes), and the flavour is more delicate and sweeter. And unlike many other satay, these aren’t baked or fried, but are instead cooked over charcoal to gain a slightly smokey taste, and flavoured with lemongrass and a “secret” infused oil. Additionally, the peanut taste isn’t slathered on, but comes via a dip that is more red than the yellowy satays I usually experience locally. The depth of flavour immediate separates it from the standard satay sauce.

Mamak means “uncle” in Tamil, but it’s become better known in Malaysia for the Indian-Muslim eateries that serve rotis and other comfort fare via cheap-and-cheerful 24/7 outposts. These are often roadside food stalls, and packed at midnight and into the wee hours. Or as Julian explains, “It’s typically what you have after a night out, while watching the soccer. The customers are often students. It’s casual, not pretentious and affordable, so it pulls in the young crowds.” That’s equally the case in Sydney’s Mamak, who certainly appreciate rotis starting at $5.

We also try to order a nasi goreng and nasi lemak with sambal prawns, but the kitchen has run out of them, so we opt for the Maggi goreng, a variation on mee goreng that substitutes hokkien noodles with Maggi soup noodles. It’s a daggy food in concept, but a nicely spicy noodle dish in practice, with crunchy fish cake slices offering a nicely contrasting texture.

Mamak chendolWhile the sweet ‘roti pisang’ catches my eye for dessert – namely because this pancake with sliced bananas remind me of the late-night street stalls in Bangkok – my Malaysian dining companions talk me into sharing some cendol. It’s a mound of brown and pink shaved ice, dotted with soft dabs of pandan-leaf ‘noodle’ and sweetened with gula-melaka (palm sugar) syrup and enriched with coconut milk. It’s decadent, to say the least. In a good way.

We stagger out of Mamak more than sated, and I swear I’m going to have a simple salad for dinner the next night. Luckily, the meal turns out to be light on one part of me: my wallet. And that kindness at the cash register will likely lead me to revisit Mamak time and again, whose late-night hours now give a good alternative to BBQ King and Golden Century. And I don’t know about how other folks will be affected by that tea, but my full belly soon lures me into a food coma, so when I hit that pillow, I’m out for the count.

Mamak, 15 Goulburn St, Haymarket, Sydney, (02) 9211 1668,

Mamak on Urbanspoon

Politics, If You Can Stomach It

I’ve just finished watch three episodes of The West Wing, so I’m primed and ready to fight the good fight. And I’m hoping I can bring a few of my food, plonk and media friends with me. There are some burning issues out there at the moment that warrant our attention: you may be aware of these already, but if not, here’s a round-up, and, if so, maybe I can help make you feel a bit more agitated. Besides, I don’t get a vote, so this is how I do my part.

Save Our Bars (Yes, Still)
There’s been lots of hoopla about Sydney mayor Clover Moore’s battle to revise liquor licensing laws so that they will make financial sense to small bars and restaurants. In fact, I started this blog on a post about Facebook groups lending their support. Well, since then, both the Liberal and Labour parties have come out against the changes, clearly demonstrating that the large donations they receive from the Australian Hotels Association and Clubs NSW are more important than the wishes of their constituents. Suffice it to say, round one has gone to the pokie barons.

PokiesBut this is what will hopefully be a longer struggle, and the only way we can bring about change for us to warn our politicians that they’ll lose our votes if they continue to ignore us. It’s a big call, but it can work. In fact, there continues to be a growing groundswell of support for Clover’s initiative, and I’d like to highlight an important new one. Raise The Bar held its launch party at Surry Hill’s Café Lounge last week, and is setting out to remind our leaders that many of us would like the increased diversity and cosier surrounds that would result from a relaxation of the arcane 25-year-old licensing laws that favour large, loud, big-moneyed and gambling-funded bars. I strongly urge you to check it out, spread the word and get involved in any way that time permits.’

Here’s a snippet from an email by Raise The Bar that was forwarded to me by Pat Nourse at Gourmet Traveller: “[Raise The Bar] aims to facilitate support for the proposed changes by sending local MPs ‘a drink’. Each drink then generates a letter (handy if you’re not feeling incredibly articulate) to your local member… It’s a way we can easily get behind the changes without waving a sign or mooning the premier.”

So step up to the bar send your MP a bevvie at

Save The Tamar
The second major issue is the new pulp mill that Malcolm Turnbull has just approved, which will have a disastrous effect on one of Australia’s great food and wine regions: the Tamar Valley. From water pollution to air pollution, and a choice of financial logging gains over the equally profitable and vastly more eco-friendly tourism market, the choice is as bad an environmental idea as you can make. Again, the big parties have failed us, so it’s been left to groups like The Greens to wage the fight, and it’s instantly made me a fan of Senator Christine Milne. And yes, if I had a vote, it would be Green. Check out what she has to say.

Save Your Money
Lastly, there’s an issue that has nothing to do about food, but may in fact be the worst of all. The Howard Government has managed to spend $2 billion of our hard-earned tax money on convincing us about policies that we don’t agree on. And forget about partisan politics – I don’t care if it’s Labor, the Libs, the Greens or the Dems in power, no one should be able to waste such staggering amounts of taxpayer money. Just image what $2 billion could do for our education system, or help put Australia back in the lead with alternative energy research, fund the arts, buy more beds in homeless shelters, boost our faltering train systems, put up enough street signs in Sydney so you actually know where you are, or turn Canberra into an interesting capital city.

Normally relegated to yabbering about government excess at my local café, it has been a huge beacon of hope this week to see that someone is actually doing something about it. That’s the grassroots Get Up crew, who are asking ordinary Australians to sign a petition to ban self-interested government advertising, to which they will attach a $2 billion invoice to the Howard camp. They’ll be demanding a refund of our money that they’re using for their sole political benefit. You can add your name here, although don’t plan on buying that new sailboat just yet.

It’ll be back to the edible wonders of Australia for the next post, but for today, I’ve kinda lost my appetite.

Ninja dining in Manhattan

I never realised that we are so deprived in the Australian dining scene until I discovered that New York has taken the culinary world to a new level with the first Ninja Restaurant in the US. (What kind of ‘level’ is up to you.) Can Samurai sushi trains be far behind?

Yes, once again reality is wackier than fiction. Whatever you think, the production quality is impressive. Oh, and they don’t exactly adhere to the Australian practice of freezing crustaceans before preparation:

Fins: Buh-Bye Byron, Hello Kingscliff

Fins tagineI’ve previously visited Bryon on three occasions, and each time I’ve managed to miss out on dining at Fins and chef Steve Snow’s highly touted cooking, either because it was booked solid or I was too busy surfing, Blues Festing or boozing. And this year, everyone else has had the same problem – namely because Fins closed shop after a run-in with the Beach Hotel’s new owners, the Van Haandels, best known for their St Kilda dining hotspot, Circa, The Prince. I don’t know the full politics of it all, but apparently Snow had free rent and the new owners didn’t like that very much. Funny that.

Luckily for lovers of the perennial two-hatter and SMH Good Food Guide best regional NSW restaurant, Fins has resurfaced, this time up at Salt Village in Kingscliff, a booming upmarket development that’s a 30-minute drive north of Bryon and 20 minutes south of the Gold Coast. And as luck would have it, the lovely Sarah was singing at the Peppers Salt Resort over the long weekend, the very same weekend that Fins was holding its opening night. Naturally, we turned it into an extended getaway and took the opportunity to check out Snow’s latest restaurant incarnation.

Fortunate for us, we booked on Saturday night, as the scheduled Friday opener was scratched after kitchen equipment was delivered too late to meet the restaurant’s minimum 24 hours of prep and, as he’d tell me later, Snow’s required level of excellence. So we landed right on opening night, and merely had to shuffle across the strip from Peppers to arrive almost on time for our booking. And as usual for an opening night, there were the normal hiccups: menu typos, a blown fuse, and staff running around frenetically due to the fact the tills and reservation system had yet to arrive. The brief moments of madness proved to merely be entertaining, thanks to the commendable composure of the kitchen and floor staff.

Salt village

Fins is the latest addition to the village food strip, which includes the stylish Asian eatery Mahsuri, the Saltbean Expresso Bar, a daggy IGA mini-supermarket, and the Saltbar Beachbar and Bistro at the end, the latter taking advantage of the sole position facing the surf. In its entirety, Salt Village is a planned luxury development, and is perfectly nice, bright and neat. And at any minute I expected to see a Stepford Wife.

Fins manages to fit in at the schmick Salt, and at the same time evokes a bit more personality. The majority of the dining is held on an outdoor (but covered) wooden deck, while the indoor bar and kitchen is backdropped by a gleaming, wavy wall sculpture. Picture an illuminated white topography map, looking like the mountainous peaks inhabited by the abominable snowman – or in this case, the admirable Snow-man. Luxe, high-backed miscrosuede vanilla chairs add to the pleasure of leisurely dining.

We start off with a crispy soft-shell mud crab, served with a cross-swizzle of yuzu (Japanese citrus) and parsley oil, and it’s nicely fried to a crunch and fresher-tasting than most soft-shell crabs I encounter. We also get a tasting plate of three seafood dishes: fried baccalao balls, a yellowfin tuna sashimi and marinated prawns. The small-but-decadent baccalao balls, aided by what we guess are potatoes and cream, is our favourite. We enjoy the entrees to the tune of, for me, a lively Italian pinot grigio and, for Sarah, a balanced sem-sav, each served in tall, delicate white wine glasses.

For the mains, we split two dishes. A Mauritian sambal arrives served in a flared Royal Porcelain bowl from Thailand, its spicy red sauce coddling one halved Moreton Bay Bug, a couple of mussels, dual prawns, fish chunks and calamari pieces. The calamari is a bit chewy for me, but the rest of the seafood is moist and tender. The sauce is wonderfully delicate and balanced in its flavours and builds up its chilli hit after several bites, even if I would have liked it to have been thicker. Sarah disagrees and thinks the consistency is great. To each his/her own chromosomes.

In opposition to the spicy sambal, we get the simpler, more European ‘Snowy’s Fish’, a thicker slab of Jewfish than I’m used to seeing, but I’m not complaining. It’s tenderly cooked in a smoothened white wine, lemon and parsley sauce, and turns out to be the evening’s real star, demonstrating yet again how simplicity can often be the best approach of all. Its main contender is a bowl of crunchy, golden, handcut chips, which we know we don’t need, we know we won’t finish, but we’re compelled to order anyway. Blissfully cripsy and salty, they are some of the best chips I’ve seen all year. Finally it’s time for dessert, and we do both a safe-but-satisfying trio of chocolates and an intriguing dessert ‘tagine’, whose presentation in a mini tagine seems to be solely for visual effect, but it works, as does the juxtaposition of smooth saffron ice cream against the texture of a lighter-than-expected flourless orange cake.

We’re the last to leave, so we don’t hit the bar, although as the restaurant settles into its new haunt, the mixology station is expected to keep hopping until midnight every evening except Sunday, with tapas running until 11.30pm. Oh, and for the daytime crowd, there’s now a takeaway section at the new Fins, which is a helluva better option than the usual fisho. Just make sure to get in a good swim to make some caloric room for those requisite chips.

Fins Restaurant and Bar, 5/6 Bells Blvd, Salt Village, S. Kingscliff, (02) 6674 4833,