Welcome to Taste of Sydney 2010. My body-less friend here and I did the Friday evening session; a chilly night thankfully free of showers. The organisers had certainly expanded this year, with plenty of walking space between stalls and much more seating and eating areas. The post work crowd had come out in force, and with drinks flowing and live music, there was every reason for a celebratory Friday night.
The plan was to peruse the stalls, grab a drink and then eat our way around. Initial intentions go somewhat awry when we pass the first lot of restaurants and food becomes an immediate necessity. However, it also seems there are significantly fewer producer stalls compared to last year, especially of the food sampling variety but not quite so bad for wine and liquor lovers. It may be that tough economic times have hit the little guys a bit hard - unfortunate but hopefully things will pick up in the next 12 months.
As always, the Crown currency is purchased from banks and wandering sellers - I like to call them Taste ATMs, especially since they also take credit and debit cards. Cashed up/out with wads, we follow our noses and end up embarrassingly quickly at the Danks Street Depot stall.
Organic chicken liver parfait with sweet vinegar raisins and dressed baby herbs from Danks Street Depot
The chicken liver parfait looks uncannily like a scoop of milk chocolate gelato amid baby herbs and some breathtakingly good, crusty white bread. Lighter and creamier than a pate, the parfait is lively with liver and enhanced by the contrasting flavours in the sweet and sour raisins, and the sometimes bitter herbs.
The imposingly dark beef rib makes for a strange bedfellow with the summery watermelon and avocado salad. The meat almost melts on the plate, let alone in the mouth, so tender it is and simultaneously sweet and smokey. Although a little lukewarm, I was a huge fan of the flavour in the meat but I definitely couldn't discern a specific watermelon element in the meat. The match between the sweet watermelon and avocado was on the money, but I couldn't quite enjoy the matching of the light salad with the rather heavy beef ribs.
We're able to snag a spot at one of the stand-up astroturf-ed blocks, which ingeniously encourage a not-leisurely pace of eating and then moving straight on. Blocks aren't really made for loitering or deep-and-meaningfuls. We zip in and about the place, seeing several interesting stalls - especially the very clever Planet Cake workshop stall where people were able to decorate cupcakes with colourful fondant icing.
I spy... George Calombaris of Masterchef, The Press Club and Hellenic Republic (with Matt Preston behind and Matt Moran even further behind)
There's no time to stop, gawk and stalk at the myriad of celebrity chefs and alike, but really, all the chefs are essentially celebrities in this arena. Matt Preston appears constantly hounded for photograph requests and he doesn't seem to mind a bit. I make a concerted effort to draw away from the magnetism of TV faces to seek out one of my top 'have to try' items on the Taste menu.
White bread sandwiches sure aren't the most exciting looking dish. In fact, we even debate whether or not Tip Top white bread is used (unlikely, I hope). The bread is soft and fluffy like a Sunblest loaf and takes me back to my school days - but it is what's inside that counts. The thin smear of the crab and mayonnaise mix is a little overwhelmed by the bread, but in one sandwich where I score a bit more of the filling, it's quietly and delicately sublime.
from Guillaume at Bennelong
The wagyu daube could not be any starker a contrast in Guillaume's dishes. Rich, bold, flavourful - it's like a wake up call for the tastebuds and tummy. The wagyu flesh is so tender as to not need a knife, with a moment of just melting in the mouth. A few mouthfuls tasted oversalted to me, perhaps along with the hearty jus. But almost on equal standing with the flesh was the paris mash, which was impossibly smooth and silky for simple potato but downright rich as well. We later find out in the Gourmet Traveller Taste Kitchen that Guillaume's ratio for potatoes to butter in his mash is 2:1. Be still my clogged arteries.
And in what inadvertantly becomes meat-fest, I head to Restaurant Balzac for my final savoury dish of the night. The golden-fried spring roll wrapper is absolutely packed with more wagyu beef, which in this instance is more tender than the crunchy and chewy-in-places pastry. The creamy foam rounds off the dish, making it a rather rich dish as well, but I'd be happy with more of the foam anytime.
Stuffed with meat, the immediate need is for sweets and/or cocktails at the Longrain bar. We detour by Jonah's to see Matt Preston chat with front of house about the infamous panna cotta (gelatine, height etc) and playfully take one away.
As sexy as ever, this year's vanilla panna cotta has a slight modification in a cakey base - perhaps to support or steady the wobbling cone. I'm all for improvements, but not when they detract from the taste and texture - which this unfortunately did. The sweet, milky panna cotta was stunning as ever, and fresh pomegranates gave each mouthful a little pop of acidity.
We end the night with a Longrain cocktail or two (Rose Porteous - I love you) and a final wander towards the exit when we realise a session is about to start at the Taste Kitchen. Seeing the billing with Victor Churchill, I look forward to a meat-oriented demonstation - apt really, in hindsight. What I may have overlooked was that Romeo Baudouin was the charcutier - but even then, I wouldn't have minded a bit of cured or preserved meats.
Anthea Loucas, Editor of Gourmet Traveller and Romeo Baudouin, Charcutier of Victor Churchill at the Taste Kitchen
Alas, this is where I met my porcine, body-less friend - a demonstration on the making of blood sausage. I think most the room is a bit excited on hearing this while some of the room may have gagged. I'm a bit column A, a bit column B as I'm no fan of blood in food. But with the pig's head looking out serenely over the crowd, I endure well. Until Romeo pours pig's blood into the saucepan of chopped up, 5-6 hour broiled, picked and compressed pig's head flesh and fat and skin; leaving red red red remnants in the measuring cup and people squirming in their seats.
Some light relief comes as Romeo prepares the pig intestine for the sausage casing but it's back to squirms-ville as he fills the haemoglobin sausage. Deftly and artfully, he ties it up and creates smaller portions of the entire length and dunks it into water to cook. An interesting session, no doubt; I'm just very glad to have finished eating for the night beforehand.
With last calls for alcohol service announced, it feels like time to head off, despite all the milling about the bars and stalls still. At least for now.
The final day for Taste of Sydney is Sunday, 14 March - tickets are still available at the gates.