Friday, July 31, 2009

Foodie beware

Note: Alice doesn't like pretentious foodies.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Times of indulgence

There's definitely no shortage of sugar quarries in the city: places to mine for sugar hits. With chocolate cafes taking over a la Starbucks of the early noughties, I'm already beginning to see the appeal of something that's just a little bit different. Throw in a wine bar and I think we're on a winner.

Bacco Pasticceria at Chifley Plaza, Chifley Square, Sydney

Walk into Chifley Plaza at lunch and you won't miss the queues for panini at Bacco Pasticceria. With the more formal Bacco Wine Bar set inside the plaza a bit more, one is spoilt for lunch choices amid high end retail temptation. I'm keeping my eyes on the sugar as that's a little more wallet-friendly than some of the other stores, but sweet temptation nonetheless.

Selection of cakes

Pretty pastel macarons

Lemon torte and brownies

While the oversized sandwiches look like a great lunch option, it's all about the ecstatic and intoxicating properties of the cake and pastry case.

Bacco cake box

Ricotta cannoli

I will admit to a soft spot for crunchy cannoli; under some delusional notion that deep fried pasta dough is healthier yet just as tasty as full cream and sugar heavy delicacies. Plus I used to have such fun filling them with vanilla and chocolate custard back in the casual cafe job days. This shell is filled with a sweet ricotta and pistachio mix; not so sweet as to be naughty but creamy enough to be a slightly wicked indulgence.

Bacco (left), brownie (back) and lemon torte (right)

And uncovering the pretty cake box, there's trio of treasures waiting to indulge: the tri-layered Bacco slice, a massive chocolate brownie and the floaty-looking lemon torte. Five forks pause with bated breath as a few quick pics are snapped and then it's all in. The cake attack is fast and fierce, with forks crossing, lots of thoughtful tasting and re-tasting, and immediate reviews and favourites.

Somewhat disturbed by the Bacco slice, we all taste it numerous times as a whole and in its separate layers. It looks a lot like the luxuriously deadly Mortal Sin cake but in the end we conclude that only the bottom dark chocolate layer is worthy.

The brownie is topped with a delightful chocolate frosting and whimsical little balls of chocolate crackle - almost like minuscule Maltesers. We revel in the minature cracling more than the fairly standard chocolate cake studded with walnuts.

The lemon torte is the saving grace of the box: a short pastry case filled with a tart, cheek-pinching lemon curd and topped with fluffy, soft meringue.

This sweet indulgence was, admittedly, administered after a big meal but I think we did as well as we could. There's always a time and place for indulgence of the ecstactic and intoxicating kind.

Aftermath of Bacco session

Bacco Wine Bar Pasticceria on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pasta masters

Like many others, I've been taking more than just a bit of inspiration from the land of television. Luckily I don't watch too many gory crime or medical shows, but cooking shows I'm definitely a fan, and I have them to thank for propelling a few mates to making fresh pasta one night.

I've always wanted to make my own pasta and it didn't seem too difficult, aside from a hectic gnocchi I once made. Armed with a few bottles of wine, nothing's impossible as we work with a few basic ingredients: egg, flour and elbow grease.

Egg yolks and flour in the bowl

The decision is made for a richer pasta dough; hence the concentration of egg yolks. Unsurprisingly this results in an eggy pasta, which we do two ways as seems to be the trend these days.

Mixing eggs and flour

Voila! Pasta dough

The first is a simple fettuccine, fed through the pasta maker to produce beautiful thin ribbons. After a brief initial period of making someone stand holding the fettuccine for drying, two chairs ingeniously take their place as innovative rests for our curtains of pasta.

Drying out fettucine

Although the making of pasta takes infinitely longer than opening a pack of dried pasta, the cooking process is a slight redeemer.

Cooked fettucine

The simple things in life are best - isn't that what they say? Then topping off our freshly made/cooked pasta with a simple tomato and red wine sauce, fresh basil and parmesan is the way to go.

Fettucine served with a tomato sauce, basil and parmigiano

That's the simple out of the way. Now to the more complex home cooking that makes you realise and cherish the value of restaurants. As tough as it is to accept, not everyone is a master of everything in the kitchen.

Making veal ravioli

We're attempting to make the second course of ravioli filled with a veal mince. To be honest, ravioli seems easy enough - little square parcels of meat, not unlike a Chinese wonton. The process is, however, a little more labour intensive than initially thought. At one point, we had a conveyor belt of three people making balls of mince, cutting the pasta and enclosing the edges while the others cooked the ravioli in batches.

Ravioli ready for cooking

They end up looking pretty decent, but the difficulty of eliminating air bubbles in the filling makes me think Latina isn't so bad afterall.

Veal ravioli with a burnt butter sauce and caramelised balsamic

We 'plate up' eventually and it doesn't look too bad. Topped off with an attempt at a burnt butter sauce, caramelised balsamic vinegar and a couple of fried basil leaves, we contentedly eat our combined efforts in conjunction with more wine, store-bought desserts, random trivia and DVDs. We may not quite have mastered the art of pasta making, but we certainly know how to enjoy ourselves in the process and a lot of national flags that contain the colour green.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Local refreshment

Does your local pub look like this? Unless one lives in Double Bay or at the ivy, I'm going to guess not.

Back courtyard at The Lakes Hotel, Gardeners Road, Rosebery

Oh, and unless one lives in Rosebery - home of the (slightly infamous) Lakes Hotel. Pre-refurbishment days, one would have to be very brave to walk into this local suburban watering hole. Not to offend, but if you weren't one of the regulars with a schooner fixed to your hand (and probably with one or more of: beard, stubbies, trackies, beer belly, obsession with the TAB, missing front teeth), you probably wouldn't feel comforted at the Lakes.

But things change, and for the better (well, mostly) in this case. It's incredible what a couple million dollars can do. Sunday nights are now filled with families and locals who, shockingly, don't want to put a bet on every time they step through the doors.

This particular Saturday afternoon is fairly quiet in the back courtyard that's swankily decked out designer garden style, complete with outdoor entertaining areas. The sunshine-filled corner is popular, as too, I imagine, the cushion-plentiful, 10+ seater square booths by one side. If not for the Britney Spears track on the flatscreen, I could be at any high priced bar in the city.

The bistro presents a neat and tidy menu of modern pub meals at rather expense-recuperating prices.

Steak sandwich with rocket, tomato and aioli served with chips

My steak sandwich is a huge portion served on grilled Turkish bread with a hefty helping of chips. The steak is hammered thin - almost too thin beneath the waterfall of aioli - but aids ease of consumption. Mayonnaise wouldn't be my top choice as a condiment on a steak sandwich but the chips happily dip in.

Grilled lamb salad with spinach, onion, pumpkin, capsicum and fetta cheese

The salad is a lighter, healthier pub option with a liberal helping of stunningly tender, rare-centred lamb slices among the forest of baby spinach leaves. It's not the most innovative salad ever, but considering what the pub used to be, this salad worlds away.

The Lakes Hotel joins my list of pubs with a fireplace, not to mention the sort-of indoor tree. One thing's for sure - this refurbished local will be refreshing this local through the chilly and sunny months alike.

Lakes Hotel on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 20, 2009

Smells like festival spirit

A stunning winter's day on the harbour is the backdrop for The Rocks Aroma Festival this year - a traipse through coffee, tea, chai, chocolate and spices of the world. The smells lure today's traveller through South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East on an olfactory journey; ending, unsurprisingly, on a really full belly.

George Street (north view), The Rocks, Sydney

On what I like to call a perfect Sydney's winter day, I found myself mixing among coffee connoisseurs and tourists alike - people in every inch of walking space milling about and tasting the goods on offer. And what goodies!

Strawberries for chocolate dunking at Charlie's Chocolate Fountains

A shelf filled with cups of lovely red, sweetly ripe strawberries awaiting their drenching in liquid milk chocolate. Alas the chocolate-drowned strawberries were less photogenic but one of the taste sensations of the day. A definite pick-up from the pleasant but weak cappuccino from the Sacred Grounds Organic and Fairtrade stall. Strangely, the overall festival didn't seem to have much of a focus on sustainability or the like - a little surprising for this day and age, I thought.

BuzzMe energy drink (what a great name!) from Clayridge Honey

Biscuits galore from Delicious Hand Made Biscuits and Pastries

More biscuits from Whisk & Pin

Ever-replinished fridge at Traditional Pavlova

Passionfruit pavlova

Fruit and cream dressed pavlovas were in constant motion at the Traditional Pavlova stall - into the fridge, then into a pair of eager hands within moments. The stunningly smooth meringue was oddly without its crust; creamy even without the cream and almost painfully sweet. We were reaching a point of sugar hyperactivity, and we'd only been through one section - 'The Continent'.

George Street (south view), The Rocks, Sydney

Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney

Heading to 'The Orient' it was apparent that while coffee and sweets go hand-in-hand, the "real food" stalls were getting their fair share of attention, with the queues for Turkish gozleme - food of festivals - stretching for more than 20 metres down Argyle Street and corn cob eaters popping up all over.

Campbells Cove, The Rocks, Sydney

Campbell's Cove was home to 'The Orient' and hundreds of smart cookies who found seating in the glorious sunshine. Sunshine, and not to mention the plethora of tea outlets (just the one coffee stall, however) and even more sweetness.

Chocolatey cupcakes from Cakes Online Australia

Organic teas from Toby's Estate

Chocolate-covered strawberries from Flower Fruits

Bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries

Giant cupcake from The Cupcake Bakery

Spice mixes from Chai

Goods from Italian Gingerbread and Sweets

Gingerbread man

Off with his head!

It would seem the gingerbread world is not immune to the obesity epidemic, presenting the fattest gingerbread men I've ever seen. The gingerbread was unlike any other I've tried: chewy and honeyed with only a subtle hint of ginger.

Campbells Cove, The Rocks, Sydney

The final unchartered territory of the festival was 'The Oasis', reaching down the far end of The Rocks precinct. We're not quite in a desert environment but the vibe is there.

Camel on the harbour

Cupcakes from Ghermez Cupcakes

Baklava from The Baklava Stall

It was impossible for me not to pick up a plate full of baklava. The crispy pastry and nuts cast a spell much like the musical entertainment in the background that just added to the chilled and open spirit of the festival.

I was yet to have "real food", despite filling up on sweets and chocolates. We follow our senses away from the (to put politely) stench of the surprisingly large and comical-looking camels and head back towards 'The Continent' section where we're momentarily distracted by a rectangular formation of coffee cups. Following the drift and instructions we head upwards to get the bird's eye view.

Mona Lisa coffee installation by Grinders Coffee

In a stunning collection of long blacks, flat whites, lattes and straight milk, Da Vinci's masterpiece stares out and up into the blue skies. I, and the many others who trekked up the stairs for a better view, am suitably impressed.

North view at Circular Quay west

It's time to follow our noses and stomachs, and crowds for that matter, migrating towards the smoke and its charred promises. It brings us to the Pony stall where an army of chefs, including celebrity chef Damian Heads and his doppelganger (younger brother, perhaps?), grill up a smoke signal for yet another 20+ metre queue.

Chefs at the Pony Lounge and Dining stall

Pony menu

Woodfire grilled 50-day grain-fed sirloin with chips from Pony Lounge and Dining

The smells emanating from Pony has the queue salivating and eyeing off departing customers. And it's worth the wait. A perfectly medium-rare, sliced-by-Damian-Heads-for-my-eating-convenience sirloin steak sits atop some soggy, some crispy French fries with a dollop of Dijon mustard. We scramble to find seating - any seating - so we can dig into the meal.

Perched rather precariously on the edge of the water must be the strangest place I've ever eaten a steak. The steak is meltingly juicy and packed with charred, meaty flavour that's so easy and fulfilling to eat that we're barely worried about falling backwards into the harbour.

Lunch view

And with that, the slightly backward menu of eating concludes. There's still plenty of entertainment and coffee to be had in the afternoon rays of sunshine, which we certainly take into our advantage. Having journeyed through and through The Rocks, and consequently a few regions around the globe, the nose has had a great day out, knowing a good festival day when it smells one.


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