Thursday, March 12, 2009

Taste extravaganza

I think I got a rather nice tan for someone who was afraid of the rain ruining opening night of the Taste of Sydney festival in Centennial Park. Walking towards the venue in the parklands was a little like approaching King Arthur's Camelot - a white tented city that you just knew was filled with battles of good and evil yet to happen. I think evil prevailed but I'm not complaining.

Taste of Sydney entrance, Centennial Park

I expected a bit more fanfare or at least in-your-face branding at the entrance, but it was mostly hygiene white with a civilised queue waiting to enter and devour. The event map was a little daunting with so many stalls listed that it was a little difficult to pick out the restaurants at first. But not to worry, we got straight on to the taste testing trail for new and exciting produce.

Cheese selection in fridge at Paesanella Cheese

Sad to say that I'm still to find a buffalo mozzarella that matches or remotely compares to that I tried in Italy (I know, it's a little unfair to compare) which is a completely different flavour experience. I think it must be in the process. Or is it our buffaloes?

Anyway, plenty, and I say plenty, a cheese and olive oil tasted - my favourite of the lot being a relatively unadventurous Willow Grove brie from the kind people at a cracker stall. There was also a Persian Fetta that put up creamy and not too salty competition and some moreish Australian chilli olives I forgot to go back for.

Crackers at Kurrajong Kitchens
(soon to be stocked at Harris Farm I overheard)

Before long the searing sun and tough task of tasting foods had me scanning the map for an oasis and once found I made a beeline for Longrain, since I knew a few of their loved cocktails were making a menu appearance.

Longrain cocktail bar and Longrain

Such was my concentration at getting to the bar (which had cosy seating and a DJ!) I didn't even notice the neighbouring restaurants. In chuckling hindsight I think the bartenders may well have noticed my eagerness and happily served me a cool refreshment.

Ping Pong cocktail from Longrain

Poor photography aside, the Ping Pong came with its own cutlery for fishing lychee pieces out from the refreshing and fruity shaken blend of passionfruit pulp and seeds, 42 Below Passionfruit Vodka and lime juice. Turns out the Ping Pong is a bit of an attention seeker with basically every stallholder asking me what it was (except for one who asked me straight up: "Is that a Ping Pong?") and where they could get one.

In fact, one even wanted to swap his entire tray of hydroponic tomato samples for my cocktail. I politely declined but sampled some prosciutto and hydroponic rockmelon, and a wedge of his green zebra tomato. Definitely a unique taste in addition to their envious hue.

Tomato samples from Moraitis Hydroponics

Smells of grilled meat drifted from Tender Taste Prime next door, pulling me towards a cabinet of cold meats enhanced by samples of eye fillet and lamb - the latter so juicy that it made me momentarily forget about recent lamb experiences.

And I couldn't help but to be drawn to some impossibly bright, almost flourescent cupcakes at one of many stalls with tempting snacks more appropriate for after dinner but so hard to resist.

Cupcakes from All Things Sweet

But we're ultimately here for the restaurants and while it does take a little discipline and coaxing to step away from the cheese, dips, pate, ice-cream, cakes, crackers and wine, we hungrily turn our attention to the tents that house fine dining.

Buon Ricordo is first up for many reasons; one being that it's the first we chance upon in the line-up. Both dishes are hearty meat options and we choose the veal dish as the unlikely entree.

Braciolette Napoletana - veal rolled with parsley, pinenuts, sultanas
and garlic cooked with fresh tomato from Buon Ricordo

The rolled veal presented itself doused with an "Mmm"-worthy, flavoursome tomato sauce. Now why can't I make sugo di pomodori like that? I must have missed the sultanas in flavour but the tender soft veal encased a filling of parsley, garlic and pinenuts for a pleasing crunch contrast. Definitely more a main than entree, we concurred, but fantastic flavours to excite the palate for more.

I had my eye on an offering from Flying Fish and it seems so did many others as they joined queues when other restaurant stalls were vast and empty.

Yellow fin tuna with ruby grapefruit and sweet crackling pork
from Flying Fish (toppled in transit)

The first mouthful of tuna and grapefruit produced appreciative noises; the second mouthful with some of the unnamed glaze had me in raptures of sorts. The grapefruit was deemed overpoweringly bitter by some, the seared crust of the tuna gave so much flavour and the thin slice of belly pork tasted downright naughty. I thought the crackling was almost superfluous other than its role as a garnish given how well the other ingredients played on each other.

Spicy pork sausage, betel leaves and picked vegetables from Longrain

Longrain had one of the biggest dishes going in their betel leaf offering. Perhaps the DIY aspect cut costs somewhere which went towards quantity. Nevertheless I actually quite enjoyed making my own betel leaf. The vegetables had just the right amount of tartness to combat the spicy, juicy sausage. Word of warning: watch the betel leaves in the breeze. One of ours returned to nature in a gust - I don't suppose that counts as littering?

Moussaka of eggplant, sea scallop and taramosalata from Civic Dining

Civic Dining was empty the moment I approached but my departure with their exquisite moussaka drew a few looks. This could well have been my favourite dish of the night - even in transit-toppled form it was a visually enticing dish. Two rounds of charred eggplant shielded a plump seared scallop, cushioned on a spread of taramosalata. The eggplant was impressively creamy but allowing the scallop to shine all on its simple lonesome. The taramosalata was rich but tamed by the fresh, juicy diced tomato.

The best value we found at the festival (free tastings aside, of course) was surprisingly at one of the wine tasting sessions hosted by providers of dream jobs, Gourmet Traveller Wine. Tickets were a little unorganised but at only 4 crowns ($4), tasting seven wines with Asian food matching tips is pretty darn good value for money.

Asian Flavours wine tasting by Gourmet Traveller Wine

Man of all things wine, Nick Stock, was joined by Sam Christie of Longrain who led us on a journey through a sparkling to start the palate (and I thought it was just a fizzy, make-you-feel-good drink), to a lime accented Clare Valley riesling, a New Zealand pinot gris (loved, loved, loved - apparently the new Kiwi sauv blanc) and a Tasmanian gerwerztraminer. Yes, plenty of smelling, swirling, tasting and ultimately drinking by most of us.

This was followed by the reds which I'm sadly still not huge on. There was a pinot noir, a blend simply called Pronto that was quite smooth, and a shiraz sangiovese. Lucky surprise for us was a taste of Longrain's yellow curry of lamb with rice, just to make sure we were learning something about matching wines with spicy Asian food - thanks Longrain! Their disposable bowls were also very awesome - I wanted to take mine home but thought against the idea of curry in my bag.

Yellow curry of lamb with pumpkin, served with rice
and cucumber, from Longrain

At this point we thought we'd take a little break and go back to sampling from the stalls, especially wine. And I thought it would be good to have a snack while we were doing that so sought out a walking-friendly dish. So much for a break.

Arancini of truffle risotto and buffalo mozzarella, spinach and
fennel sauce from Berowra Waters Inn

I think 10 crowns is a little pricey for one arancini but at least it turned my buffa mozzarella experience around for the night. The melted, stringy cheese in the middle of the ball was rich and savoury, still not the Italian experience but a delightful taste and texture anyway. The risotto leaned towards unspectacular, the vivid green sauce neither adding to nor complementing the dish much.

Weaving in and about the aisles we tasted riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and a rose. I might honestly be getting over the sauv blanc, Kiwi ones anyway. The smell and taste is becoming same old but I guess there's an advantage exactly for that reason of consistency. Came upon a riesling from Mayfield Vineyard in Orange that I agreed with very much though.

I'd reached a point where I needed to refuel on crowns - scary thought but not so bad when you're just handing over booklets of paper. And while there was a massive crowd and wait (for pie) at Bird Cow Fish, I popped over just next door to visit Assiette.

Sydney rock oysters with Vietnamese dressing, crispy shallot
and baby coriander from Assiette

I'm not a lover of natural oysters but can-do with a sprightly dressing. These Sydney rocks were well sized but lacked that sweet, fresh taste. The dressing was subtle and I liked the textural contrast of the fried shallot (but not so much the bit of oyster shell in my mouthful).

The fuss at Bird Cow Fish was over the beef cheek pie. I'd seen a few floating about the venue (on plates, with people) and it was an arresting sight. The puffball also looked quite a filling dish, perhaps related to its popularity? When the server gaily announced: "We have pies!" there was no cheer from the crowd but a happy mass of puffball carriers disseminating from the area.

Braised beef cheek, roasted onion and Jerusalem artichoke pie, red wine
jus, sour cream and Careme puff pastry from Bird Cow Fish

The flaky puff pastry was a delight to break into though I'm still unconvinced with the flavour. I thought it was greasy in taste and mouthfeel although others disagreed. I found the beef tasty and tender but the filling on the whole tending dry. I also missed the Jerusalem artichoke unless it was finely minced or just in the other half of the pie.

By this point we've luckily found a table, seats and numerous requests to share this corner and that corner - to which we happily oblige. Happy as we commence the dessert hunt. We've enough crowns for three desserts and I think this suits our stomachs well too. I have no hesitation in heading straight to Jonah's at Whale Beach for some sweet, innocent fun.

Vanilla panna cotta with lavender honey and fresh
pomegranate from Jonah's at Whale Beach

"It's a nipple," exclaimed one of our table corner squatters. I had my fun in walking back to the table, playfully tipping and turning the plate to my own and a few others' amusement. The guys at Jonah's certainly knew how to play it, walking around with trays of their wobbly beauties for sale - not sample, you silly people.

It took me a couple minutes of play before I was ready to eat my panna cotta but there was no delaying the gratification of that first mouthful. Perfectly smooth, silky, creamy and vanilla-ry - it was bliss. The lavender honey was delectable and the pomegranate adding interest in texture and flavour. Could a dessert be more perfect?

The second dessert from Danks Street Depot didn't reach the point of perfection, looking a little like a tossed salad. It turned out the poached strawberries were excellent and flavour-infused, the chocolate, hazelnut meringue and whipped cream being sweet partners. Photo didn't turn out, nor the one of Sublime Gelato's honey and macadamia, and vanilla bean flavours on a cone for the road.

And thank goodness there was a bit of a walk out of there, for we needed it excessively. The gelato pretty much put me over the edge as I trudged towards the lights of the street thankful for a billowy top and much looking forward to checking off the rest of the restaurants at the second tasting on Sunday.

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