Sunday, November 29, 2009

Being good for goodness' sake

Being somewhat beyond the age of at anticipating Santa and his reindeer on my rooftop in the next month or so, I've been looking forward to other things and experiences - and trying my darndest to be good for the sake of those other things too.

Certainly, there are a few food experiences in there among the festive boozing, so before complete festive madness takes over, it was a lovely quiet Tuesday in which I was able to squeeze in a highly-anticipated visit to Sake Restaurant and Bar - right next door to The Argyle. In addition to some business tie-in, the windows on the way to the bathroom look out onto The Argyle's cobblestone courtyard, with and exit in the restaurant stepping right into the courtyard, lending a slightly casual and open precinct feel.

There's also an imposing sake cellar and bar, an open kitchen with seats right up at the bar, long and dark private room, little segmented booth boxes and really, seating for any occasion. The interior is wood-abundant but just a little conservative - likely to appease the CBD clientele.

Beef (left) and chicken (right) kushiyaki from Sake Restaurant & Bar,
Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney

The menu looks excitingly traditional with its sections, with modern and local touches throughout. The new trend for izakaya style snacks and grilled skewers, or kushiyaki, isn't looked past, and neither a slight air of fusion. We munch on warmed, salted edamame beans while deciding on the split of starters, mains, sushi, sashimi and indeed, a must-order from the huge sake menu.

The kushiyaki are served in a range of meat, vegetarian or seafood options with the choice of teriyaki or a spicy anticucho sauce. We have big cubes of beef with the teriyaki - unlike any of the super sweet versions I've had before, served with lemon and a citrussy salt mix - and the chicken with the antichucho sauce, which isn't all too spicy at all.

For sake, we go with the Kozaemon House Junmai which is from the Nakashima prefecture and described as an "Earthy aroma of rice, fresh citrus fruits with a medium to full body and well rounded finish". I'm by no means a sake connoisseur, but this chilled carafe was delightful throughout the entire meal without that throat-burning sensation of some past experiences.

Miso cream scallops - Pan-seared scallops, baby corn, asparagus,
shiitake mushrooms and yuzu miso cream

A lot of the mains look appealing, but in the spirit from sampling from across the menu, we have the one that appeals the most. The pan-seared scallop dish is elegeant and harmonoius in flavour and, most importantly, cooked nicely to point of retaining its sea juiciness. The medley of vegetables sings of spring, and the yuzu miso cream sauce simultaneously matches enhancingly and contrasts enticingly. Suffice to say, there wasn't any sauce left in the dish as it departed the table.

Butterfish sashimi new-style - South Australian butterfish, ponzu,
ginger & chives seared with hot oil

The sashimi list is also exciting, and we order as per the waiter's recommendation. I wasn't familiar with butterfish before, but I'm particularly glad that I didn't go with the comfort zone of tuna, salmon, kingfish and the like. Cut thinly, this white fish was dressed in a distinctly Chinese fashion - ginger, chives, sesame and the undeniable aroma of cooked oil. Not always a fusion fan am I, but this particular combination was sensational and stays on the mind.

I often like to use sushi maki rolls as a benchmark for Japanese cuisine, which is difficult sometimes because I like sushi most of the time. Aside from my helpless attraction to soft shell crab, I like sushi combinations that are a few steps from traditional, but not to the point where it's barely like sushi anymore and more like mayonnaise with a bit of rice.

I have the spider maki hand roll, and am encouraged to "Eat this one first," by the chef who places it in front of us. Thus encouraged, so that the nori seaweed doesn't get soggy, I get a little overeager and forget the photo - but I suppose we all know what a delicious tempura fried soft shell crab conical hand roll, with cucumber, mayonnaise, flying fish roe, chives and ponzu looks like - I only got a few seconds look at it anyway.

Nixon maki sushi - grilled eel, cream cheese, cucumber and
tempura crunch with avocado

The Nixon-named hand cut maki sushi snaked its way around the plate on top of zags of tonkatsu sauce, layered with sheets of avocado. The eel was a standout with smoky grilled flavour, combining superbly with the cream cheese. I'm still yet to manage eating futo-maki rolls without dropping bits, making a mess, or looking like an idiotic frog after trying to ingest an entire piece.

Open kitchen view at Sake

Aside from the thoroughly entertaining food, sitting at the sushi bar also meant that we could see all kitchen stations hard at work; from salads, sushi and sashimi, to salads, the grill and plating. I'm especially amused by the trays of salmon skin going under the grill, on their own, retuning in a curled and presumably crunchy, grilled state. How fun, except I don't like fish skin - but each to their own.

With the last drops of the sake drunk and the last crevices in our stomachs filled, we resist the urge to walk straight into The Argyle courtyard. Afterall, it's a school night and we want to make sure we're on the good list for the jolly man in red.

Sake Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Miscellaneous clean up 1

You know those phases in life when you're so busy and it seems that every waking moment is filled with a task or activity of some sort? Well, I'm not quite in one of those phases, but it doesn't feel too far off. And with Christmas breathing down my neck, it's probably not getting any quieter anytime soon.

So I'm taking the opportunity to clean out some of the random foodie experiences just sitting there like a tub of ice cream in the sun. Mmm, melted ice cream.

Fried squid and grilled scallops from
Sydney Fish Markets, Pyrmont

I love meals that are immediately associated with an event, especially when it's just some little, casual, impromptu activity. This was one of many dishes and containers of fresh cooked and raw seafood bought from the Sydney Fish Markets and walked over the road to the nearby park, to be enjoyed in the sunshine with a bottle or few of chilled white wine. This afternoon had it all, and it's one I look to re-enact rather soon.

Dumplings made at home

To me, dumplings at home is simple comfort and synonymous with sitting at the kitchen table, often with another female, wrapping parcel after parcel of seasoned minced meat in thin, floury wrappers. Often, I'd feel like I'd been wrapping dumplings for ages, to then realise that the full tray will only feed two of the household's large appetites, and that there were a few trays to go yet. This particular version we normally parboil then panfry so the skin gets nice and crunchy. I seem to have never-ending stomach capacity for these dumplings - so very dangerous.

70% dark chocolate ice cream from Lindt Cafe,
Cockle Bay, Sydney

One tub, five spoons - dessert sorted. It's an easy, almost rebellious way of having dessert, but such good value fun among friends. The 70% dark chocolate ice cream is irresistably moreish. I'm not good with excess, but this is definitely an ice cream where I could polish off a tub, brain freeze and all.

Takoyaki from Norita Cafe and Board Games,
Liverpool Street, Sydney

Late on a Friday night after a few schooners here, a few jugs of sangria there, alighting a very steep few flights of stairs to play board games seemed a fantastic idea. A lengthy democratic discussion ensued and food, drinks and Pictionary soon follow. It's certainly a novel concept: comfy couches, a hoard of board games to choose from, and a casual, civilised environment to just chill out with good company.

Strawberries with white chocolate sauce from some
sushi train on Swanston Street, Melbourne

After a long day tripping about Melbourne, we had gone for a quick and easy dinner at a sushi train near the hotel. Following the meal, a complimentary dessert plate arrived, looking tropically inviting with paper umbrella and white chocolate stripes on big red strawberries, garnished with... parsley. I didn't realise good old continental parsley was a herb to be used in sweets and honestly, I cannot confirm nor deny whether it is. Looks pretty, and I guess that's what matters here.

Flathead fillets, chips and salad from De Costi Seafoods,
Westfield Bondi Junction

There really is something that feels uniquely Australian summer about sun, the beach, and fish and chips. In fact, on this occasion we weren't even quite at the beach yet, but inspired enough to have a fish and chip lunch. I like my chips thin but not too thin, my fish boneless and thinly battered, lots of juicy lemon wedges, and ideally, all of it wrapped in paper so you can then wipe your oily fingers on it.

Home made fettucine

Since getting my very own pasta maker, whipping up a lot of lasagne sheets or or pappardelle or tagliatelle is just moments away. Saying that, I always think it's faster than I end up taking, but I must admit some selfish pleasure I have in the process. I adore seeing the silky sheets turn out from what starts as a well of flour with a few eggs. I love seeing the machine cut perfect ribbons for me to make curtains or yarn-like balls. And it's pretty good exercise for the fitness-averse too, followed with obligatory carb loading.

More miscellany another time, I assure you, once I sort out the jolly mess that is life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not always black and white

We live in a grey world. Sometimes though, it's rosy while other times, it's just beige. At Sepia, it's unsurprisingly and fittingly brown. All shades of brown, mind you, with a few obscure artworks thrown into the mix that's more corporate than not.

Despite the sunny brightness outside of our 7.00pm reservation, the dark room goes along with it and makes us not feel silly for having dinner at a reasonable, albeit light, time. Service is effusively likeable from the start and they're not bothered by our incessant chatter rather than looking at the menu, which takes a while given the significant deliberating over the degustation menu versus the a la carte.

Bread roll from Sepia, Sussex Street, Sydney

A few visits later from the waiter, and one from the sommelier, and we're happily ordered off the a la carte menu; still chatting; and muching through warm bread rolls with butter and salt flakes.

Amuse bouche - tomato water with basil oil

The amuse bouche came in tiny little glasses that I seriously wanted to pocket - but didn't for I ended up so distracted with the intense tomato flavour of the refreshing, clear liquid. The basil oil was a subtle accompaniment although it was difficult to consume the micro basil leaf without cutlery of any sort.

Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto,
mustard butter and shellfish essence

The entree selection is genuinely exciting, and we agree to share bites from each others' dishes. The buckwheat risotto is obscured by a big serve of foam - appearing not unlike what I play with in the sink when I put in too much detergent. The dish is a blast of seafood flavour, with slight creaminess from the buttery sauce and the buckwheat playing the amusing role of the risotto base.

Confit of ocean trout, mushroom ash, mustard shortbread,
white miso, green apple salad, elderflowers

I'm told that the Sepia's chef's rendition of the confit of ocean trout is similar to that of his previous employer's - but as I haven't experienced that as yet, gladly, I can appreciate this dish without prejudice. The thick, round slice of trout is a beautifu sight, rolled in a dark, powdery ash that's not distinctly mushroom to my palate. The fish is meltingly soft and light, delightful with the green apple slivers. The shortbread and presumably miso blob were a little short on flavour, with the elderflowers more a visual than a taste.

Smoked eel, nori and Dutch cream

The smoked eel rolled in nori seaweed on the other hand has a big impact from the first taste. The savoury smokiness of the eel was like a slap across the face - the good playful type - while the Dutch cream acted to tone down the overall dish - nice and necessary.

We actually anticipate the mains with much excitement too - much more than I normally do given the creativity and imagination that appears to have gone into the dishes by menu description alone. At this time, I note that there isn't much turnover in the restaurant which is good in that there isn't much noise, but not so good in that it lacks atmosphere. All that brown was getting to me, despite the lively conversing at our own table.

250-day grainfed angus beef fillet, watermelon, citrus pepper,
braised lotus root

At first glance, the beef main seems quite unadventurous until the eyes do a double-take at the second listed ingredient - watermelon? Steak with watermelon? And apparently, it's not that strange a combination, according to the dish's owner. The rectangular logs of watermelon supporting the beef slices are impossibly juicy and sweet - but a bit of a puzzler for my tastes when its melon-crunch was paired with the soft chew of the medium-rare beef. In fact, I think I'm still a little confused.

Pan roasted Aylesbury duck breast, caramelised fennel, fennel candy,
pickled walnuts, walnut and orange jus

My duck main is a surprisingly large serve with six not-thin slices of rare-cooked duck breast artfully arranged about the scattered walnuts and fennel. It's only after devouring the first pile of duck that I discover the fennel candy - little rectangular blocks of jelly that taste more just sweet than fennel. They're a cute touch that elevate the dish to impressive, but not quite mind-blowing, levels.

Crispy skin fillet of Murray cod, baby leek, almond, wakame,
shiso and lily buds

The Murray cod has an imposing layer of skin in contrast with the dainty presentation of the other ingredients. My one small mouthful of this dish confirmed its Asian leanings in flavour, with a very gingery aroma coming across in addition to the crunchy sheet of green.

Post mains, we're well and truly on the way to being satiated, but having seen and heard about the desserts on offer, it was a fairly straightforward decision to study the menu and a sensible decision to get two desserts to share.

Pre-dessert - spiced creme with crumble, pineapple
sorbet and coriander

But of course, we'd forgotten the pre-dessert; a minute glass of custard topped with a spiced biscuit-y crumble and a tiny scoop of supremely refreshing pineapple sorbet wearing a micro coriander fascinator. Considering the diverse flavours and ingredients, it was a delightful few mouthfuls to ready us for the serious desserts.

Roasted buckwheat ice cream and sponge cake, strawberry
gel and passionfruit custard

Contemporary art pops into mind at the first arrival, though still none of us are certain about what the crunchy, squiggly thing was. The cherry flavoured stroke across the bottom was impactful, but in terms of taste the passionfruit custard was head and shoulders above the rest - demanding attention and affection with its sweet, slighty tart king-hit. The strawberries were an unspectacular and distant second with the buckwheat ice cream very much understated - somewhat expected - as too the sponge.

Elements of chocolate, prune, cocoa bubbles

But really, this is what I've been looking forward to most the night: chocolate on chocolate on chocolate on chocolate on chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. The bubbles on top are the thick, swampy type and completely appeals to the child (or frog) within. It's tastes rather sophisticated of prunes and air, and is an ingenius addition of flavour without the heaviness and boldness. The squares of snappy Valrhona are pleasure enough in themselves, but with a nutty hazelnut ganache, milk chocolate cream, layer of rice crispy-likeness and chocolate sponge on the bottom - it's chocolate nirvana. I know I'm full, but the spoon in my hand is unstoppable.

When the plates are cleared, we're glad for the comfortable seating in its soothing brown tones, as I'm not the only one who feels in need of a lie-down. Not even doing the degustation, we've spent about three hours on dinner; journeying through the menu, traversing through weeks of catch up, trekking to the bathroom, and in the end, content with Sepia-toned loving.

Sepia on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pizza, beer and a whole lot of appeal

There's pizza and there's beer. But this isn't just any night on the couch with takeaway and a six-pack. Indeed, no - this is a whole lot more. The appeal hits me as soon as I step through the entrance of Pizza e Birra - it's dead sexy.

Not specifically the "ciao" from the waiter; not necessarily the dark, square bar; maybe just a little bit from the clientele - but the place just exudes sex appeal. Granted it's in the glam part of Crown Street so rather than the beer, we wait with an Italian pinot grigio at the bar and just soak up the buzzy, sexy vibe which, in hindsight, is much like any city bar - if not better.

It isn't excessively long before we're seated, and I note that in addition to the intimate ambience, seating can be quite intimate too, with tables closely packed in the tight space.

Beef carpaccio with truffle oil from Pizza e Birra,
Crown Street, Surry Hills

Although it's a little dim in the restaurant, we light up at the sight of food, and to be honest, the smell of truffle oil. The beef carpaccio is a nice, big serve with the paper thin pieces of beef hiding beneath a forest of micro- and not-so-micro herbs. It's soft, though not to the point of melting; however, I felt the cow was absolutely pummelled by the truffle oil - its heavy scent and taste completely dominating the dish. Pen mightier than the sword? Fungus mightier than the bovine, I say.

Bianco pizza with prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, basil and truffle oil

Given the tables are quite small, I appreciate the metal stand for the pizza - perhaps the thinking is that pizza this good should be elevated. Not sure if the pizza had a name (menu recall blank) but it was one of the white pizzas with prosciutto and basil, and again, the truffle oil which this time didn't overpower. The base is one of the thicker thin ones with a burnished bottom and a bit of chew, which I like. From sight and taste we could tell the toppings were quality and fresh; miles of pizza boxes away from soggy, processed home delivery toppings.

Caprese salad - mozzarella, tomato and basil

For a mandatory vegetable fix, I'm powerless against a caprese salad - and to my delight, this one is done very well. The mozzarella is beautiful, with both taste and texture to make me smile in satisfaction. Add a vivid, ripe tomato and leaves of basil and it's happy days indeed.

We tarry a while, although with the waiting diners, it's not really ideal for lingering over drinks despite the atmosphere that makes one want to. With pizza e vino both done and dusted, it's time to leave all the appeal and sexiness behind, while making sure to call again soon.

Pizza E Birra on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 5, 2009

All's fair in lovin' food

Blue sky? Check. Sunshine? Check. Healthy appetite? Double check. Looked like everything was set for the annual Sydney Food & Wine Fair for the Aids Trust in Hyde Park as the finale of the SIFF. All that was needed now was a few - okay, several - sheets of vouchers; endurance from the searing sun, whirling winds and cheery crowds; and a drink would be nice too.

As ever, there was no shortage of wine stalls and not-so-subtle references to the Sydney gay community. However, unlike other years (unless I've just been ignorant and remiss previously) there were an impressive amount of freebies from the get go: whole loaves of Abbott's Village Bakery bread; full sized scoops of Ben & Jerry's ice cream; Ferrero Rondnoir samples galore; Mt Franklin carbonated water; and something to do with mushrooms, I think.

Seared scallops with morcilla and chorizo from Four in Hand

They say 'sex sells' but really, I think that for the foodie this could be revised to 'scallops sell'. Within seconds of spotting scallops on the menu, coupons are being handed over and we can see scallops immediately sent into a hot frypan for the sear treatment. It's then prettily plated with slices of morcilla and the smaller chorizo and drizzled with olive oil.

It takes great strength and willpower to not pick up the scallop in one big, happy mouthful, but then again, these are close to the biggest scallops I've ever seen. As such, they didn't quite have a silky texture but they certainly had the "Mmmm" sea-sweet flavour. I'm still no fan of eating blood and its related products - I struggle with the feel of it in the mouth - so the morcilla is not for me. Chorizo, on the other fork, is just the thing to completely contrast the scallop in texture, intensity and flavour.

Fagottini di carne - homemade sausages bound with parmesan and
truffle egg from Buon Ricordo

Moments and steps away from the first stall visit was another instant sales word: truffle. It was advertised playfully and loudly by the boys at the Buon Ricordo stall, along with an unmistakable aroma of truffle. This compact block of meat was almost overpoweringly truffled; its crispy savoury meatiness coming a distant second in the flavour stakes.

It's at this point a drink is deemed absolutely necessary, and in seeking one, we take a detour and pause in the Ben & Jerry's queue. I'm not usually one to spoil my appetite with sweets before the end, but free chocolate fudge brownie and strawberry cheesecake ice creams don't take "no, thanks" as an answer.

Poached chicken and crab salad from Jimmy Liks

I always find that I'm drawn to the northern end of the park/fair as there tends to be a concentration of seriously drool-worthy stalls there; this year including Jonah's, Quay, Longrain and friendly competition with Sugarcane, and Jimmy Liks with a healthy-looking salad and the deadliest Bloody Mary I've seen, smelt or tasted. Let's just say that namh jim is insane and that the fresh chilli in the salad was relieving in comparison. The salad was liberal with Thai basil, other fresh herbs and chicken breast, but a little lacking in the crab.

It's almost not the Food Fair without a touch of breeze that blows sprays from the Archibald Fountain onto anyone nearby in the right/wrong direction. Chlorinated mist shower with your oysters? At this point, the stomach is given the opportunity to rest as a peach cocktail from Steel Bar & Grill accompanies me on the stroll through the rest of the fair; passing familiar and new stalls, enticing looks and smells, and many a hungry Sydney-sider or their pet dogs.

The fair feels smaller this year - just as packed with patrons but shorter queues and perhaps not as many restaurant stalls or less variety. Is this another thing we can blame on the highly disliked GFC?

Salt and pepper prawns from Wildfire

The cause for the eating pause ceases at the Wildfire stall, where live prawn cooking and wok tossing action is magnetically attractive. Green prawns are flashed in hot oil and then meet loads of chilli, coriander and lemon in the wok for a measured toss session. There were quite a few prawns in this serving with explosive and impossible to fault seasoning. We were even eating the stray bits of batter without prawn, it was so tasty.

Pork ribs with seasoned rice and Caesar salad from Outback Steakhouse

It's hard to walk past ribs on the grill without inhaling deeply; as if a deep enough breath might get a taste of smokey ribs. Now this was definitely a dish that required seats and a table, which we luckily found and claimed awhile. The salad was fairly standard, although a nice, generous touch on behalf of Outback Steakhouse.

Pork ribs with seasoned rice from Outback Steakhouse

The ribs were appropriately mini-portioned and break-apart tender - oddly a very good outdoor, festival dish. Sucking meat clean off the bones, licking the sweet barbeque sauce from one's fingers, all outdoors under trees and sun has some primal, cave-dwelling feel to it. Thankfully the rice, salad and expanding stomach remind me of some humanity and civility.

The green green grass of Hyde Park beckons the mentioned expanding stomach - a lie down in the sun is ideal as a palate cleanser, although perhaps not in regards to digestion. But it seems like the trend, as most every patch of shaded grass is inhabited by people, picnic blankets and plates of food.

Coconut pannacotta with strawberries from Ravesi's

With coupons still to spend, it turns to discounting and some slightly unorthodox sales techniques by the flamboyant 'girls' at the Pink Salt stall. I score a discounted dessert from Ravesi's, which is a stunning coconut infused pannacotta with equally impressive strawberries in syrup. One mere mouthful was instant happiness, cheerfully right down to the final drop of syrup.

Ricotta and chocolate cannoli from Sweet Infinity

The piles of cannoli at the Sweet Infinity stand are fast moving but unfortunately a little softened, due to either half a day spent outdoors or that fountain spray. Nevertheless, the ricotta was the attention hog, stealing the limelight with its citrus peel and and creamy taste compared to the chocolate custard.

Entrees, mains, desserts and drinks had been had - and a few times over even. With everything spent - coupons, energy, stomach capacity - it was time to roll over and contemplate another year's Food Fair gone by. Which means it's getting towards the pointy, scary, intense end of the year when reason and calmness start edging towards the window, and love and war have it out with each other.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Last drinks (and lunches)

I'm a little baffled that there's tinsel and Christmas lights about and that the SIFF is over already. But I guess time flies when you're having fun being a glutton. It was almost with a little sadness that I indulged in my last Cocktail of the Month and Let's Do Lunch of the festival. So sad that I might have to go out and console myself with lunch and a cocktail, or something like that.

Rockmelon and pistachio martini from Zeta Bar, Hilton, Sydney

Zeta Bar's cocktail was frothy delight with what I considered an unusual pairing of rockmelon and pistachio. The sweet cocktail of Belvedere vodka and rockmelon (plus other ingredients that the cocktail made me forget) was headed by a distinguished pistachio foam - one I could happily drink/inhale for long periods of time.

Turns out the subdued sweetness of the rockmelon contrasts and matches remarkably well with the noble nut. Zeta's swish bar-people served this up with a super frozen pistachio sorbet, a tiny dish of salted and roasted pistachios and thin pieces of pistacio biscotti - most of which went awkwardly with the cocktail. I certainly see the theme, but it wasn't working for the tastebuds.

Kinkawooka shellfish risotto with vegetables and herbs
from Etch Restaurant, Bridge Street Sydney

I adore the Let's Do Lunch concept, but find it mostly very difficult to work it into the weekday schedule. Long lunches should be part of the normal work day. While I'm at it, I'd also advocate the four-day week; that is, the three-day weekend. I did manage to escape to Etch for lunch on the very last weekday of the festival to have the Let's Do Lunch special of risotto.

Hidden beneath the sea-infused foam (ahh, food trends) was a gathering of the softest, silkiest, smoothest molluscs I've seriously ever tasted - almost like pillows sitting on a sea bed of full-bodied, but not creamy, risotto. The al dente rice was dotted with diced spring vegies, including snow peas and carrot, under the shade of fresh herb sprigs. If the season spring were a carbohydrate dish, this would be it.

And so it's last drinks and a lunch - the stomach says: "Bring on the finale!"

Zeta Bar on Urbanspoon

Etch on Urbanspoon


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