Archive for the ‘bars’ Category

Spice Market and Gigibaba – hot, or not?


“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.


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.


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.


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,
Spice Market on Urbanspoon

“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

Save our Sydney Bar Scene – Get Involved

Madame Fling FlongWhat better way to start a food blog than to write about… well, bars. I’m sitting here at my desk listening to some classic Bill Withers soul and thinking about how good it would be to sit back in a moody-lit, alleyway pub where I can actually chill and relax while enjoying a good bit of tipple, some well-crafted bar snacks and great, ecclectic music. Well, they’re a rarity here, but there is one place I’m crazy about at the moment, and that’s Madame Fling Flong in Newtown. It’s got cool retro couches, a relaxed local vibe, great cocktails, classic movies on Tuesday nights and the best churros and chocolate in town (as far as I’ve seen). And you don’t even know it’s on King Street until you enter the questionable restaurant and head upstairs towards what looks like a one-way trip to the loo.

Now don’t tell all your friends or we’ll all be crammed into a single joint, breathing each other’s armpits. Instead. we need more places like it, so make sure to tell your local politician that you’re gonna be extremely peeved if Labor and the Liberals kill Clover Moore’s plans to loosen the licensing laws – only because the big hotel pubs can bribe them with wheelbarrow-loads of revenue from the pokies and bribes from the the liquor lords to stock their mediocre, mass-produced swill.

Of course, if you’re more of an armchair activist, you can get on Facebook and join the We want funky little pubs in Sydney group or the Sydney Hole in the Wall (Bar) Appreciation Society. That’ll at least give us a common place to gripe.

And I have to admit that I’ve thought of more extreme measures, especially the idea of boycotting all hotels that have pokies in them and are members of the new Dark Side, aka the Australian Hotels Association. But of course, that could be the end of my social life in Sydney, and there’s only so many times you can go to Tatler.

With that in mind, I’m going to finally leave the office, at a very wrong 9.30pm, and go to the one place I know I can always get a great wine by the glass, hear good eclectic (if sometimes questionable) music and be able to chill in an old couch and have a decent conversation, without a pokie in sight. I’m going home.