Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Taking on the Establishment

I feel we're living in a state of greyness these days with increasingly flexible standards and ethics as compared to 'traditional values'. The 'changing times' excuse is valid and it is all a matter of perspective, but how is it that the gap of a generation or two can change things so substantially that what is wrong is no longer really the case and what is right - well, who knows?

It's been a while since I've been to Establishment; the lure of the ivy somewhat cannibalising custom. I'm surprised at the door with vouchers for a free glass of sparkling - apparently Thursdays are 'ladies nights', although you be wouldn't able to tell by just looking at the large, firmly packed crowd.

It is, as ever, a bazaar of human forms, and we're lucky to scrounge up a couple of seats amid the end of week winding down (close enough) and loosening ties of the mostly business clientele. I'm luckily able to escape the marketplace for the far more conservative yet elegant surrounds of the floor above; booked in for a Merivale Winter Feast at est.

A la carte menu at est, George Street, Sydney

There's a quiet hush at est. in contrast to the frivolity downstairs. I feel like I should be carrying a portfolio of budgets and important documents; however, the staff don't seem to mind. In fact, the service is a bit of a highlight of the evening: from the offering of a glass of Dom to start, to the bread service, to the concurrent serving of dishes at every table.

Sourdough bread

The sourdough bread is airy and soft with a thin, crunchy crust; the alternate option of soy and linseed bread also deemed worthy of the polite round pat of butter. We're handed both the a la carte menu and the winter feast menu, and after a brief aspirational glance at the former, we knuckle down our decisions on the latter menu.

Pork cheek, hare, pistachio terrine, pear and date relish, cress

I'm normally scared away from pates and terrines, for fear of that smushy liver texture and cold, blubbery aspic. The lack of mention of any organs in this terrine entree is a good start, and its appearance settles any qualms about my decision. Looking like a hybrid salami in its reddy pinkness, it's much like a cold, pressed sausage dotted with vibrantly flavoursome and crunchy pistachios. The perfect savoury earthiness of the meat is wonderfully contrasted with the sweet pear and date relish - overall a dish of brash flavours reserved by toasted sourdough bread.

Linguine, white scallops, fennel, snow peas, and chives

The alternate entree is a typical 'me' order, if not for my companion choosing to order it before me. The linguine is more like a fine spaghetti and generously sized for an entree. It's in a light cream sauce dotted with small, firm scallops and crunch-filled snow peas cut on a diagonal. The fennel was so subtle I couldn't tell you what form it came in, but the flavours in the overall dish were quietly-spoken next to the terrine.

The wait for mains is filled with people and deal watching, staff service commentary, financial system and economic forecasting, and weekend plans. One guess as to which we were eavesdropping on. One thing I noticed at est. was their considered, if not contrived, delivery of plates to a table. A table of five would all receive their entrees/mains at the exact same time courtesy of five waiters. I've only ever seen this at weddings in the past, and I'm undecided as to its neccessity. I suppose you can chow down as it hits the table, eliminating the need to wait for others' dishes to arrive.

Slow cooked lamb rump, tuscan white beans, tomato and rosmary

I don't know where to look when our mains arrive. The lamb acros the table looks divine in a tickled pink rare state, but I can smell the mouthwatering aroma of my confit. In a display of impeccable cooking, the lamb rump is without an inkling of gaminess and impossibly tender. Paired with al dente white beans and sweet cherry tomatoes, it's a classy take on simple winter favourites.

Duck leg confit, roast kipfler, friseé and hazelnut salad

The duck leg confit sits imposingly on the plate, as if supremely confident in its own abilities to impress. Well, fair enough. The skin crackles ever so slightly to reveal a flavour-infused, melt-in-mouth experience that is truly poultry gone luxe. The frisee salad, with evocative roasted hazelnuts, is welcome lightness to the rich duck leg, as too the well-hidden half of a roasted kipfler potato.

Petit fours

The mere thought of desserts is a struggle, and luckily so given the arrival of petit fours before we leave for the night. Petite they are, but a huge impact they make. Starting from the left of the dark picture there's a miniscule toffee caramel tart with decorated with a speckle of gold leaf. Then there's a dark chocolate rectangle with an indiscernable dark chocolate ganache inner. The third item was the eye-opener: not a lime jelly jube as it may appear but an olive oil gel covered in sweet and sour crystal flakes. I'm still not sure if I liked it, but I certainly still remember it.

The chocolate and cocoa covered almond brittle stuck to the tooth a little whereas the dense caramel (and date?) mini cake was resplendent with caramelly decadence in every crumb. Finally there was a soft chocolate truffle with golden 'est.' prints atop, as if we didn't already know this was a glittering dining experience.

The evening ends on this sweet, sweet note and as the faultless service extends to the lift, we descend and quickly exit the still-packed Establishment of newer generation priorities and standards, knowing that all was happy and right for at least another dining moment.

Establishment Hotel on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Home winter feasting

We're about a third into winter and I'm already at wit's end trying to find ways to keep my fingers from freezing and snapping off. Sitting on them has been most effective, yet not so very efficient for a majority of other daily and necessary activity.

So it's hooray for steamboat at home. In the absence of a fireplace at home, the next best thing is huddling around a steaming pot of soup, dunking in various raw ingredients and fishing them out for immediate consumption with soy and chilli sauce.

Plate setting for home steamboating

I think we're a little unconventional with the plates and forks but it works for us - peeling prawns and chopsticks don't really go. We never seem to learn that a little of this and a little of that always ends up being way too much all together - the whole is definitely greater than the sum of all parts. So here's a quick run through of our steamboat items:

Silken tofu

This tofu comes packaged as a plastic tube; hence the perfectly round shapes. It's nice and firm so as to withstand poking, swishing, other ingredients and our 'fishing' baskets.

Thinly shaved chicken breast and beef

These packets of chicken and beef were bought pre-sliced and frozen from grocers in Ashfield. They're great for convenience and ease of cooking but they lack fresh texture and flavour. The cut of the beef is also highly fatty and suspiciously chewy.

Raw school prawns

My favourite steamboat item has to be prawns. Nothing beats a just-cooked prawn dipped in soy. It's a sweet crunchy reward after burning your fingers trying to peel the thing seconds out of the boiling stock. But someone's got to do it.

Shanghai wonton wrappers filled with fish cake

There isn't really a set technique in our household for wrapping wonton. There's always a debate about speed versus presentation; however the latter seems to matter little once the dumpling is boiled. This time we've filled the white Shanghai wonton wrappers with a store-bought fresh fish cake mixture and shallots.

Button mushrooms and vermicelli

There's always a significant vegetable proportion to our steamboating - here some button mushrooms (they don't have enoki at our local grocer) and soaked vermicelli, but not seen is blanched snow peas and a whole head of lettuce.

Steamboating: normal broth and a spicy version (right)

And so we begin, patiently waiting for the stock to come to the boil so that we may plunge our ingredients of choice into a normal or spicy stock, conveniently divided in the steamboat vessel. This was the last photo of the night - I had some boiling hot prawns to peel and a stomach to stuff.

P.S. Much excitement for tomorrow night's premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno at the State Theatre in Sydney! I wonder if he'll confront Sydney winter in that spanking yellow lederhosen?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The early bird gets the worm

Ah, the beauty of marketing. Not merely hours before I was professing its value in today's world then I see it in action on myself. I'd missed the the launch party for the Merivale Winter Feasts but sought to rectify that by immediately taking advantage of their winter specials. With Italian on my mind it was to Uccello to go, however the only possible booking being 8pm - falling just outside of the two hour specials time bracket. Inner "grr".

But the ways to my forgiveness are plentiful and rather easy. Did you know that there's a live jazz band at the ivy every Wednesday? Exorbitant drink prices aside, that's brilliant for a quiet hump-day evening. After a drink at the lawn bar, it's a round trip back to the ground floor elevators near the sparse Sushi Choo up to Uccello and the virtually empty pool bar. Granted it is sprinkling rain on a Wednesday night.

Uccello is partly filled, however, with many a business suit and seaside-suburb types. Staff are all about, dressed casually but extremely efficient and friendly. The vibe is fun but classy and I wouldn't feel out of place in (designer) jeans and (bejewelled) thongs, but again, it's a winter Wednesday. And sorry, I didn't flash.

Focaccia and grissini from Uccello at the ivy, George Street, Sydney

We're started on a bread selection as we scan the A3 sized menus on bright yellow clipboards. The grissini have a home made, rustic feel to their crunch and make for fun playthings/pointers while we work on the menu of antipasti, pasta primi, contorni (sides) and secondi piatti (mains).

Norcineria - selection of Italian style cured meats

I had no reservations about ordering a selection of cured meats to share as antipasti (well, a quick toss up between the prosciutto with stracchino and this). I'm absolutely stoked when it arrives, quite the platter, with a quick explanation of its components. Now I can't quite remember them all but there's definitely a few drool/noteworthy ones.

One salami came as a firey red blob, resembling a dip more than anything else. This was pointed out as a spicy, sometimes too spicy for people, one which I adored with a bit of the rosemary and sea salt focaccia. It was unashamedly chilli-dominated, the texture oddly like smushy uncooked sausage meat. I'd happily sit in front of the television and eat a tub of it until my tongue becomes chilli numb. And then have a bit more.

Then there was thickly-cut small rounds of salami; something like a pale pink prosciutto that was almost milky in flavour; a subtle truffle flavoured salami; some cured part of the pork neck; a fennel flavoured salami that was an intriguing twist; and prosciutto that was cut a bit thicker than I would have liked. This all delightfully accompanied with an Italian pinot grigio that was amiable for the rest of the night too.

Capellini alla polpa di granchio - angel hair pasta with
crab meat, garlic, chilli, and olive oil

Following the surprisingly generous antipasti I'm glad to only have one course to follow. The pasta dishes win us over with their promise of hearty, traditional sauces and ingredients. The capellini was heavily dotted with pieces of crab meat and was deemed a simple and faultless dish where all the ingredients had their moment in the candlelight.

Lasagne special - with beef, pork and porcini mushrooms

Maybe something to do with the cold weather but I was taken by the waitress's description of a special of lasagne made with beef, pork and porcini mushrooms. The emerging dish didn't look all too different from a bistro lasagne offering, but the rich meat sauce puts it squarely in the upper echelons of Garfield's favourite meal. It strings along a hefty addition of cheese on top and the only downfall is the overly soft sheets of pasta.

Rughetta e Parmigiano - baby rocket and parmesan

Vegetables are an important part of every meal, and none more important than rocket in my obsessive opinion. The salad comprises baby leaves with shavings of parmesan cheese, dressed simply in olive oil and a bit too much salt. Perhaps it's just personal taste but I seriously think I might have to start requesting sides and salads without salt.

My sweet tooth either went into hiding or was with the early worm as desserts were skipped, but probably also a function of the ruggedly rich lasagne. Among the last to leave the restaurant, I must admit the Uccello experience is what you'd expect of the ivy's flagship offering, and for the right designer wallet, it's everything you'd ever want.

Uccello on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Steak-ing out a path

Life's unexpected paths often lead to interesting travels. Going with the flow is one way of doing things, though I've found it to be less fulfilling than if one were to throw oneself fully into a situation. But nothing wrong with a bit of life meandering while making the big decisions, right?

I'm on an impromptu path to Coogee one evening for some unexpectedness followed by a quick decision to head to Randwick Rugby Club's newly refurbished restaurant, Brook Street Kitchen and Bar, of which I've heard good reviews so far.

We find the restaurant empty of both patrons and staff, only to be informed at the bar that the restaurant doesn't open on Tuesdays. The bistro/bar area, however, is abuzz with a jovial crowd and the occasional footballer post-training. There's consolation in the Tuesday special of steak (with sauces and sides) and a drink for $11. This is the go, with almost everyone brandishing a schooner and buzzer waiting for their steak fix.

Contender for new favourite beer is Matilda Bay's Fat Yak Pale Ale. Aside from the hilarity of saying "I'll have a Fat Yak, please," this brew seriously packs a fruity punch. I thought I could taste lychee but maybe that was just the hunger delusions and fear that our buzzer had run out of batteries.

Angus rump with chips, salad and pepper sauce from
Randwick Rugby Club bistro, Brook Street, Coogee

Food, cutlery and sauce collection happens in quick succession following the eventual buzzing. One is ordered with thick, could-be-crunchier chips and a mixed greens side of salad, the steak drizzled with a head-nodding pepper sauce.

Angus rump with mash, salad and herb butter

Another sits on a bed of mash aside the same salad, topped with a disc of herb butter (that's melted and slid off the top a little. And that's a brain squiggle of dijon and tomato sauce on the side). All the steaks are considerably thick but a little on the chewy side. My medium-rare produces a chewy half and a soft half, which makes me wonder about the actual cut of meat.

But really, it's a cheap feed and we're more focused on celebrating life's paths as it is anyway. Unexpected, chosen, whatever - Fat Yak to it all (hope that doesn't sound obscene).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Celebrating the cold

Sydney Winter Festival at Cook + Phillip Park, College Street, Sydney

Is it ironic that a winter festival gets rained out? In Sydney it's probably just inevitable. Our mild winter gives us rain instead of snow but nothing a machine spitting out foamy bubbles can't remedy.

'Snow' outside St. Mary's Cathedral

It's the inaugural Winter Festival in Sydney with organisers taking quite the punt on an outdoor festival with Sydney's temperamental winter weather. With the crowd of Friday night, I think it's a case of 'build an outdoor event and Sydney will come'. And then watch them flee when it starts to rain.

Free promo mug and 'snowflakes'

Having pre-ordered my 'snowflakes' - the casino chip-like currency of the festival - online, I pick up my free mug and blue and white chips, ready to spend and warm up in the winter wonderland.

Careful, little one! The ice rink by daylight

It's a mixture of envy and ridicule watching the ice skaters - I'm jealous that I've missed out on getting pre-sold tickets, but the size of the ice rink and the (in)ability of some is laughable. It's downright scary watching some people trip, stumble and stack their way towards the hard ice, especially with quite an audience.

The ice rink after a session

The ice rink resembles a snow field after a session, with the mass skating creating a layer of shaved ice, surely inhibiting a smooth, gliding skate and encouraging snowballs. We see one kid make a snowball about the size of his own head.

Figure skating display

The boys clearing the shaved ice off the surface are figure skaters in training, showing off their impressive sit spins and double axels between sessions.

It's been snowing!

An ample session of people watching really works up an appetite, so it's time to do the rounds before deciding on some warming winter fare. I spy Justin North of Becasse, Plan B and Etch about doing his thing, as too Matthew Kemp of Restaurant Balzac - both of whom must have gotten a Taste for festival stalls (the Plan B wagyu beef burger makes a reappearance).

Chocolate dipped strawberries by Lush Berries

These massive strawberries are works of art in their fashionable coats of chocolate and other garnishes.

Har gow and siu mai from East Ocean

The East Ocean stall has steam action happening with their har gow prawn dumplings and siu mai pork dumplings in huge bamboo steamers.

Pretzels from La Boheme

These massive pretzel twists are just chilling and hanging out on their special holder at the La Boheme stall, which is buzzing and packed with beer, gingerbread and all other manner of Eastern European treats.

Preparing brie for baking at Del Forno

Little whole individual brie cheeses are inserted with rosemary and other herbs in preparation for baking. We're told it becomes similar to a cheese fondue and I make a mental note to come back, or even to try this at home.

Bread to go with the brie

Churros being freshly fried at La Chiva

We watched a little as churros were pressed out from a contraption and plonked into a wok (?) of hot oil. They bubbled away frying as the mental list increased with dessert items.

Swiss raclette at the Swissotel stand

The browsing ceased at the Swissotel stall where the chef kindly explained the Swiss raclette. Huge half rounds of raclette cheese are put into a specialised raclette grill, the top surface browning and bubbling to a melted goo. The melted layer is then scraped off onto a plate of waiting vegetables and seasoned with cracked black pepper and paprika. The look I exchanged with my fellow festival-er said "Yes!"

Swiss raclette from Swissotel

Served over chat potatoes, gherkins and tiny pickled onions, the cheese is sumptuously creamy and crunchy at the more browned bits. It's simply indulgent with the potatoes, but the pickled onions and gherkin are able to cut through the richness. If this is typical Swiss fare, count me a fan.

Beef ghoulash with rye bread from La Boheme

We waste no time one getting the next dish after demolishing the raclette. I hadn't had ghoulash since my brief time in Budapest and Prague, so I was keen to go back to those lovely memories with a hearty beef stew. The dish attracted many a pair of hungry, envious eyes as I returned with it to our seats.

The paper plate serve of ghoulash didn't look all that appealing but the first mouthful of beef changed everything. The meat didn't quite fall apart to the fork but was still exceptionally tender and flavour-infused. The softly dense rye bread was used to soak up the rich, meaty gravy and this dish alone is reason enough for me to want to check out the actual restaurant in Balmain.

Paella sofrito at El Bulli

The El Bulli stall has a cocktail bar set up, although I found it easier and cheaper to get my favourite James Squire Golden Ale from the Etch stall (and a sample of their cassoulet). Three paellera have a mixed paella going in different stages, fragrantly tempting anyone nearby.

Paella from El Bulli

A generous serve of the yellow rice relieves us of some snowflakes and then a few more, and seduces with its crispened bottom crust, squid, chicken and flavoursome rice goodness. The rice is a little overcooked for my preference but there's strong aroma of seafood that's quite lovely.

The ice rink by night

We conduct some more people watching after eating, mostly to allow for digestion before moving on to desserts and partly because of some serious eye candy on the ice. There's the occasional speed demon skating in quick circles, dangerous-looking backwards skaters and some who look like they've had a few mulled wines before hitting the ice.

As the bubble/snow machine cranks up, it's like a scene from the movies. All smiles and laughter, everyone's rugged up and happily skating, eating or drinking under the lights and floaty snow. It's not enough for me to want snow cold winters but it is very pretty.

A little ice hockey display

During another break between sessions, a few ice hockey kids come out and do their thing with a safe plastic or rubber puck. They seem to struggle on the snow-like surface of the rink. At some point something calls to me - it's wintery desserts calling out to my stomach.

Swiss apple fritters

Having sampled some of the apple fritters earlier, we headed straight to the friendly and busy Swiss fritters stall. An option of apple, pineapple or mixed plate is available and we're handed a plate of freshly hot, golden crumbed fruit within moments.

Swiss apple and pineapple fritters with vanilla cream

Doused in a thick vanilla cream, we're warned these are hot and we're not disappointed. Probably needing a knife, we battle on with forks and take slow, cautious mouthfuls. The texture is crunchy on the outside, soggy fruitiness on the inside. The flavours of cinnamon and the vanilla cream swirl about on the palate to create a happy, hazy sugar hit. And to think it qualifies as one of my serves of fruit in a day - doubly good.

Sated on the food and people watching front, we take time out with a beer or two on the wooden, stair-like platform with view of the big screen. Strangely, Christmas carols have been playing most the night with some now unable to help humming Jingle Bells and the like. A couple of speculative drops fall before a sudden shower clears the decks of eaters and drinkers. Without much in the way of rain shelter, I think a good proportion of the crowd probably called it quits.

The fact that there were crowds reminiscent of the showbag hall at the Easter Show in Moore Park days (think slow moving, in all directions, prams, no concept of personal space) is testament to a pretty succesful, if not squishy, outdoor event. I'm looking forward to a bigger (and drier) event of this ilk next year. Anything that can bring a smile and some fun to the middle of winter on a non-ski trip budget is most welcome.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Purple people eaters

I've dreamed of throwing a dinner party where all the food on the plate would be purple. Admittedly there was a very limited list of ingredients: red cabbage, Spanish onion, taro, purple sweet potatoes, that mutant-like cauliflower they developed a while back, boysenberry. A bit more thought and I realised a dinner party needs something more than just a salad.

It's probably my attraction to purple overall that led me to buying a pack of powdered purple yam, or ube. It sat undisturbed in the pantry for months, not knowing its purpose in life. I have a similar affliction, until one day I decide that I can procrastinate no longer and it's going to be cupcakes.

Now I shan't bore with basic cupcakery, only to say that I rarely experiment successfully. The purple yam packet instructs me to add loads of water and to simmer the powder to reconstitute it and then add to cake mixtures. A short internal debate takes place: I would have thought to just add the powder into the cake batter.

Purple yam powder

The yam powder spirits my thoughts to the planet Mars and all things astronautical. A reddish purple, it has no sugar additions nor any particular aroma. Going against my own judgment I reconstitute and simmer away to a bubbling witch's brew of thick purple goo - my theatrical idea of what quicksand would look like.

Reconstituted purple yam powder

I'll have to admit to trepidatious spoonful additions of the yam mixture to my lovely fluffy batter. The purple goo looks uncomfortably out of place, but I've never been too afraid of the other-worldly.

Yam mixture added with flour to batter

I mix and fold until my additions are combined to a stretchily sticky red-dotted mixture. Whether this is the starchiness of the purple yam or the effect of adding warm/hot ingredients to batter, I'm still none too sure.

Batter mixed with yam mixture

It's defiantly and definitely red. Ish. This shatters my dreams of fluffy and soft purple cakes. It's a hue that even royalty can't help, and eventually I settle on what I see as purple-grey but others see as "Er... it's... eww... Grey."

Batter in cases in tray in the oven

I'm fairly sure I don't want to keep the leftover yam mixture for another use or batch, so I top and swirl the yam into the batter in muffin cases; its vivid red-purple hue now reminding me of graffiti; vandalism of the plainly perfect cupcake mixture.

Baked swirled cupcakes

The swirls actually look deceptively chocolate-y brown; a misconception no-one is happy to find the truth in. The purple yam powder has contributed nothing flavour-wise and made the texture something like a Chinese fighting muffin. They're met with looks of concern and eaten with a grimace. I don't think these will make the purple dinner party menu.

Purple yam cupcakes - fail


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