Friday, December 31, 2010

Island Bar hopping

If you’re not lucky enough to be lying on some sun soaked island beach at this very moment, there’s an alternative in Sydney that still involves water and boozy drinks. Hop on a ferry to Cockatoo Island for The Island Bar – a temporary bar set up on the heritage listed island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.

Harbour views of a slightly different sort
Photo courtesy of The Cru
The custom-designed bar space is located on recycled shipping containers so as to retain the island's shipbuilding history, and has harbour views of a slightly different sort.

The Island Bar offers light food options and signature cocktails by Bacco barman Marco Faraone under extensive covered areas with two levels and deck chairs for sunning - it's like you really are on a leisurely island. It is actually Faraone's own concept and promises fun, relaxation and the best quality drinks and food.

Cocktails by Bacco barman Marco Faraone at The Island Bar,
Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

Photo courtesy of The Cru

Signature cocktails will feature Campari, Sauza tequila, Russian Standard Vodka, Hendrick’s Gin, Maker’s Mark and Mount Gay rum. Peroni and Grolsch beers will be on tap with Jacob’s Creek and Brancott Estate wines featured.

The Island Bar will be open every day with entry to the island free, not including whatever Sydney Ferries charges for your approximately 12 minute trip to get there from Circular Quay. Sure, it's a bit of novelty, but sipping cocktails on an island is the right kind of novelty for me.

There's also a schedule of events such as Sunday Bloody Mary sessions, croquet and bocce, live acoustic acts and public events for New Years Eve and Australia Day.

See the website for event details and more information - and perhaps I'll see you while I'm island hopping in Sydney.

The Island Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 27, 2010

Me, Cutler & Co

Expectation can really impact an overall experience of any kind. Too high and disappointment often ensues. Too low and the experience can shock and awe, and make for rave reviews when maybe that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Keep that in mind this New Year's Eve, partygoers.

Cutler & Co frontage, Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Waiting at the front bar of Cutler & Co in Melbourne for a table booked for 30 minutes ago, I realise that despite the restaurant’s moniker as the best in Australia I haven’t come along with an overly expectant attitude. Perhaps I left it with the grumpy cab driver who brought us to the restaurant, or maybe it was in the gutter of the grungy, dark industrial street.

Campari and blood orange juice
Either way, I was not unhappy to wait in the front bar as groups around us were seated; helped in part by the Campari and blood orange aperitif – possibly of fresh blood orange, if the fruit bowl at the bar was anything to go by. Both bitter and sour at once, it really is a great palate starter.

Cutler & Co back room
Eventually seated in the back room, I couldn’t help but look up in wonderment at the mesh light fittings, so cloud-like yet futuristically industrial, and utterly entrancing. In fact, I was rather entranced with the entire place; the lighting soft on the roughly painted brick walls and exposed cement, and a convivial yet intimate level of chatter swimming through the room.

It’s not a huge menu to choose from, with the biggest choice being between the degustation and al la carte. We opt for the latter given plenty of flexibility to add on appetisers, share desserts and so on.

Bread and butter
Bread was a quartered brown sourdough roll, quite soft and served with creamy butter and pink salt flakes. We had been talked through the menu of oysters, which is quite the experience in itself, and were ready and waiting for a little oyster tasting session.

With a name inciting thoughts of tetanus and other disease, we had to have the Rusty Nail oyster and also the En Surface, which was said to grow near the top of the water; hence the name.

Quality was showcased with the molluscs served alone with a cheek of lemon for squeezing. The En Surface oyster was particularly briney while the Rusty Nail was tastier with a stronger mineral flavour as well as creaminess.

Anchovy pastries
I'd heard much about the anchovy pastries at Cutler & Co, which are available as an appetiser or part of the bar menu. Four grissini lookalikes turn up, lightly golden and blistery all over, served plain.

The first bite through the slightly chewy dough is a king hit of salt and fish, but not overly fishy. I preferred a bit of lemon squeezed into the pastries to balance the saltiness. There was a wonderful sense of the whimsical brought by four fishy bread sticks - it was unusual, unexpected and rather exciting.

Cured kingfish, smoked onion, pickled cucumber, beetroot, avruga
I was a little swoony over the Japanese inspired presentation of my entree, and even more impressed once I'd tasted the many components. Starting with the firm blocks of cured kingfish, I worked myself around the plate for combinations of ingredients: kingfish and pickled cucumber was refreshing, kingfish with smoked onion puree was rich, kingfish with beetroot jelly was sweet and sour.

A bit too much fun even, I used the matchstick pastry straws to scoop up the avruga caviar and creme fraiche. And garnished with nasturtium petals and leaves (or is that mallow?), it was like a stroll through a Japanese zen garden that left me much, much more than content.

Mandarin duck - crisp leg, smoked fillet, boudin noir and lentils
The duck entree was definitely a heavier one, with a pink centred fillet and squares of confit leg meat. There seemed to be hints of five spice in the crisply battered squares, while the pig jelly boudin noir meant I felt little need to share in this dish. Caramelised onion and green lentils rounded off the dish which could almost be considered a main meal given its substantiality.

King George whiting, prawn vinaigrette, broccolini and guinciale
Sold on the presence of guanciale, I was only a tad disappointed to find its light addition to my main dish. The tissue thin, opaque slice had been fried to a crisp, but maintained its salty depth of flavour well with the milder tasting grilled whiting fillets.

It was a well sized dish, joyfully scattered with a green medley of broccolini tips, other leaves and rocket flowers; steamed potato slices; very firm peeled prawns dressed with a mayonnaise; all doused with a healthy amount of olive oil. It was definitely one of my favourite main meals of the year, despite my not even being a fish lover, with an ingenious air of controlled madness.

Roast suckling pig, xo spring onion, garlic and parsley root
The pork main was an interesting one, featuring a small, crackling-topped block of belly and several slices of pale pink loin. Honestly, the loin looked like it could have done with some sauce other than the unidentified white puree alongside. The spring onion/garlic/parsley mix had a definite Asian twist with the flavour of belacan picked out among others.

I couldn't help but feel that the pork dish was rather bare, and even pedestrian, compared to my exciting whiting main, but I suppose variety is the spice of life and one way to try to please all.

Cutler & Co front room
By this late dining hour, the restaurant was no longer packed with the noise dying down somewhat - not that it was particularly noisy when full. Regardless of the prices, it's definitely a casual restaurant, just with top notch service and cooking - and I think the combination works ridiculously well.

Chocolate ice cream sandwich, vanilla parfait, salted caramel
We'd decided to share a dessert but did not expect the kitchen to plate up one dessert on two plates. In this case, it totally killed the sandwich concept and presented something more like an hors d'oeuvre or bruschetta even.

A crumbed block of frozen custardy, vanilla concoction sat in a pool of sumptuous salted caramel (of which every last bit was scraped off the plate), which was topped with a quenelle of uber chocolate-y ice cream. The ice cream tasted more of chocolate than some chocolate bars do, though was on the very sweet, throat stinging side when combined with the caramel.

Petit fours - chocolate fudge
It was nearing midnight and belly capacity when the petit fours arrived in an enviable silver dish, to end a night of enviable dishes. The small brick of chocolate fudge was another exercise in sweetness, topped off with nubs of sweet and tangy dehydrated passionfruit and the subdued saltiness of black salt flakes.

After many hours sitting within the casual-but-so-cool interiors of Cutler & Co, after my expectations had been blown to bits all over the restaurant; it was time to return to the expectedly chilly Melbourne weather to find an expectedly grumpy cab driver to take us home.

Cutler & Co on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 24, 2010

May your Christmas be Merry

The Christmas tree in Martin Place, Sydney
Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas - hopefully nice and sunny for those in Sydney and indeed Australia, and hopefully not too cold for those in the northern hemisphere.

I hope everyone's Christmas Day is filled with food, booze and the occasional pair of shoes; or whatever else it may be that makes you happy, laugh and smile.

Being Christmas Eve, I'll be getting my bake on at some point - do you think Santa and his reindeer would like a berry cheesecake? I hope he's not lactose intolerant (it always used to be beers, not cookies and milk). I'm sure I'll find some willing takers for the leftovers in any case. Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone - may it be filled with food, booze and shoes (if that's
what you were hoping for under the tree)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mappen out a path

Following a foodie movie for this year’s Japanese Film Festival late last month (not quite as good as last year’s foodie movie), we were headed towards a path to food, ideally with a Shanghainese or Japanese slant.

It’s now options galore around the cinema area on George Street, and as tempting as the KFC smells, we head the other direction to the few blocks that almost seem transported straight out of Asia.

Mappen, George Street, Sydney
Mappen is the relative newcomer around here, from the people at Menya Noodle Bar. This little restaurant, inside the Skyview Plaza, looks like a little piece straight out of Japan. It’s all communal tables with customers slurping noodles next to each other amid old school movie posters and decorations that take me right back to the earlier Japanese movie.

The concept is self-serve udon, soba and tempura as well as a couple of rice options. The cafeteria style, shifting along with a tray, is pure novelty to me, but when faced with a full queue, it’s not a particularly speedy way of getting to the register to pay. The line is also held up when tempura sauce or miso soup spillages happen.

Cooking noodles to order
Menu options are straightforward: pick a noodle or rice base, along with soup and a size from the first service area; then move along to the tempura station. Imagine, rows and piles of perfectly golden tempura items: vegetable bales, prawns, fish cakes, sausages and more – all self-serve to your heart’s and tummy’s content.

While the base prices for noodles and such are very reasonable, I can see how one can get quickly carried away at the tempura station: one of these, a couple of those and one more of that, and you could be looking at a $15+ bowl of noodles – which still isn’t too bad.

There’s also a cold cabinet of vegetable sides such as seaweed, grated radish, pickled vegetables and even natto, the fermented soybeans of acquired taste. Following that, there are soft boiled eggs on offer, miso soup dispensed from the push of a button and tempura sauce at self service too.

At the end of the line are condiments of tempura flakes and sliced shallots (one spoonful per person) and the register where someone tallies up the items on your tray. In a matter of minutes, I have helped myself to an appetising, fresh noodle meal for less than $10.

Order and get your noodles before taking a seat
There is limited seating in Mappen, with signs explicitly saying get your noodles first, then your seats. I don’t know what happens at peak hour if there are hoards of people standing about with trays of noodles waiting for a seat, but we have no problems this late weeknight dinner.

Bukkake udon
I’ve gone for the egg-less bukkake udon noodles, the warm rather than cold option in a small size. It’s served with the tsukedashi soup which is made of fish stock and dried kelp; supposedly thicker, richer and more sauce-like than the kakedashi soup of the kake noodles.

The soup/sauce is indeed rich with an impressive depth of flavour capped off with sweetly tart notes, an ideal partner to the thick, slippery, somewhat al dente udon noodles. I don’t know what magical powers tempura flakes possess (oil or crunch perhaps), but they make the noodles and soup sensational as does the lemon wedge served with the bukkake.

Ontama bukkake udon
A companion’s ontama bukkake is the same as mine with the addition of a lightly boiled egg, which is cracked from the shell when the noodles are ordered, looking like a barely poached egg. Mixed through the soup/sauce and noodles, it adds flavour as well as body to the bowl.

Kake soba
The soba buckwheat noodles are a great alternative for anyone who finds udon a bit too heavy and gluggy. These thin, brown noodles are perfectly soft and delicate in the less flavour-intense kakedashi soup which boasts premium soy sauce mixed with a stock of fish and dried kelp.

Beef udon
On the other end of the scale, for something heavy and quite substantial, there's also lots of options. Like this large beef udon with a extra egg. The thin sliced beef adds seasoning to the dish as well as a hearty hit of protein for those thatcan't do without it.

Tempura selection: prawn, sweet potato and vegetable kakiage
The self-served tempura bar is a childish delight, though restraint is best exercised by the hungry. Struggling to keep up with demand a little, we snapped up the one and only vegetable stack, fresh out of the oil - a combination of carrot, onion and other julienned vegetables, fried into a cylindrical bale of oily goodness (vegetables are good, yes?).

The prawn is also exceptionally fresh, hot and crisp on the outside and inside, as nice, fresh prawns should be. The sweet potato is a touch on the soggy and seeping oil side, but perfectly cooked for sweetly creamy, starchy insides.

Chikuwa - fish cake
I found the chikuwa, fish cake tempura way too similar to crab stick, or seafood extender as I think it’s officially called; a floury, bouncy, flat stick of white that was more sweet than fish.

Sansai vegetable side
My vegetable side choice is better: the sansai is an array of rather unfamiliar vegetables, brined or pickled to salty softness. There was one vegetable that looked like thin snake beans, or garlic shootsm and another I think I recognise from packet miso soups.

Wakame seaweed
This side of wakame seaweed is the standard variety seen in most sushi places. There’s a chilli spice mix on all the tables to share and help yourself to, and the constantly refilled tempura station provides me with endless entertainment. There’s also a slot direct to the kitchen sink for self-returning trays too – which ends up being quite efficient.

We were in, got noodles, ate and had returned trays within 30 minutes. Being such a rare quick and easy meal that could be had everyday, I’m much looking forward to when my path again veers towards Mappen.

Menya Mappen on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lunchtime holiday at Cloudy Bay Fish Co.

At this time of the year it hard to get away from thoughts of holidays (especially when an overseas jaunt is involved), but even if it’s just summery (fingers crossed) and you’ve got a few days off in the summer months. Summer means relaxation, beach and seafood, among other things – imagine you could have that during a weekday lunch.

Cloudy Bay Fish Co. at Level 5, Westfield Sydney
Or at least the essence of that. And that’s truly what lunch at John Susman’s Cloudy Bay Fish Co. at Westfield Sydney was – summer holidays in my lunch break.

I reminisce to childhood weekends where post beach or other summery outdoors adventure with the family, we would return home with a kilo of cooked prawns; fresh, crusty bread rolls, an avocado and a couple of lemons for DIY prawn rolls.

Prawn cocktail baguette with potato crisps on the side
And while I can’t really do that during the week, Cloudy Bay Fish Co.’s prawn cocktail roll takes me right back. Well, aside from the swish Westfield Sydney food court interiors.

A fresh baked baguette (by Justin North as reported here) is more soft and chewy rather than crunchy as expected, which made cutting it a little difficult. The roll has a few salad leaves and dressed Spencer Gulf wild king prawns – eight at count – in a sauce more like mayonnaise than pink-ish cocktail sauce.

Spencer Gulf wild king prawn cocktail
The prawns are cooked to the point of just, retaining a fresh softness and opaque flesh that’s delightful to bite into. They’re well seasoned, just slightly creamy in the dressing, tarted up with a squeeze of lemon.

The roll is served with a handful of house-made potato crisps, which are not quite as crunchy as Kettle but at least obviously potato (as opposed to some packet crisps). They add a great contrasting crispness to the overall meal, although they’re just a bit too oily in flavour. To complete the meal, there was also half a soft-ish dill pickle which was just as sweet as it was sour.

Poached kingfish baguette with potato crisps (left) and pickle (right)
We also had the poached kingfish on a roll, with the same salad and sides. The hiramasa kingfish, also from the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, was as expected, less bold in flavour but topped with chopped parsley and a mayonnaise squiggle.

Poached kingfish with mayonnaise
The white flesh was quite firm and mostly subtle and almost a little meaty, nice with an extra squeeze of lemon juice and so many miles away from the idea of a tinned tuna sandwich.

I’m keen to try out the tuna salad or roasted salmon next, and the fish cakes from the hot section – but only if I can get over my current obsession for the prawn roll. Now, thanks to Cloudy Bay Fish Co., we can all go on a summer holiday.

Cloudy Bay Fish Co. - Westfield Sydney on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hiding Izakaya Den

The grumpy cab driver drops us off and we traipse down Russell Street in the Melbourne CBD. Why don’t these buildings have numbers? We overshoot by a mile on the wrong side of the road and hike back up the other way. I’m glad we don’t have a booking. We oscillate at the corner of Little Collins Street, but it’s not here. We see stairs going down to a clothing retailer – that couldn’t be it, could it?

Izakaya Den, Russell Street, Melbourne
There’s much to like about Izakaya Den – when you find it. Pass the door and billowing noren and again descend industrial concrete stairs to a buzzing, welcoming downstairs – your reward, if you will, for finding it.

The first thing I noticed was the incredibly long room – but it was wishful thinking. The illusion is created by a mirror at the end of the room which appears to double the length of the room – what a fabulous space that would be, not to say that it isn’t currently.

There’s seating all along the bar as well as low seats and tables near the entrance for waiting diners, although we see people eating here later in the night too. Tables for larger groups are further down through the restaurant.

The soft lighting is perfect: not so dim that you can’t see your date or menu, but neither bright enough to really read a book.

Warm towels
We were seated at the bar within minutes one late evening, given a numbered pebble in exchange for my coat and presented with warm towels. As we wipe our hands, looking the bar up and down, we feel that we’re in for an experience.

Water glass
Water is served in a range of adorable glasses decorated with animated characters – all very Japanese. The menus (food, drinks, sake) come rolled up – a small food menu, smaller than the drinks menu actually, with nightly food specials projected onto the wall behind us.

Izakaya Den menu
The sake menu is substantial to say the least, but we elect from the cocktail menu – most featuring a Japanese liquor – umeshu plum wine, shochu distilled spirit or a sake.

Buchi Mojito (left) and Amai Mitsu (right)
My selection of  the Buchi Mojito is made with Hinoryu shochu, which is surprisingly not strong in the mix; likely helped along with the addition of sugar, lemon, orange and a flutter of crushed mint and shiso leaves. It's not particularly sweet with sour notes rather stimulating the appetite.

The Amai Mitsu is a stronger drink of sake, Aperol and 42 Below honey vodka, eased with fresh orange and honey syrup. Both drinks are made promptly by the barman directly in front of us, and presented somewhat ceremoniously before us.

Spicy tuna special
Food arrives just as promptly in no particular order, most of it cooked within sight in the long, narrow, completely open kitchen. We’re started on the spicy tuna special, which comes as a self-serve plate of mayonnaise dressed tuna, nori seaweed strips, thin squares of daikon and crunchy-thin taro chips.

The circle of tuna showcases raw diced tuna and avocado amid a wasabi-spiced mayonnaise dressing. My favourite side item was the seaweed, rolling with tuna to form tuna-seaweed cigarettes, which were then crunched through to the perfectly hot, creamy and so-fresh mixture inside.

The daikon was also great, adding a touch of freshness although the pink peppercorns seemed to have more bite than the spicy tuna. The taro chips were not as exciting, but another texture for us to play with nonetheless.

Sakata-coated prawns with citrus mayonnaise
It was impossible to pass on the whimsical Sakata prawns on the menu, and we were justly rewarded upon its presentation. They really are coated with crushed Sakata rice crackers – the plain variety, I think. Three huge, tail-on, curled-up prawns are plated simply; their lightly-coloured batter reminiscent of tempura.

Served with a very subtle citrus mayonnaise, these crustaceans are cooked to a crisp perfection, putting smiles on our faces and a crunch in our mouths.

Ox tongue, spring onion
I’m not entirely sure why I ordered the ox tongue, not being a fan of offal. But the dish looked so good that I jumped right in; first trying to bite a slice of tongue in half, then deciding it’d be easier to put the whole tongue (stay with me) in my mouth because of its chewiness. It wasn't chewy like a tough steak as such, but chewy like, well, like you’d imagine a cooked tongue would be.

It was hard not to think about an ox’s face as I was eating this, especially with someone egging me on. I liked the char flavours on the surface of the slices, but think it could have either done with more time on the grill or come in thinner slices for greater ease of eating. It could also come with more spring onion topping or other garnishes as a further distraction from the ox-tonguing and for the offal-averse.

Beetroot with mushroom
The beetroot dish was unexpectedly homely - an entire half of a braised beetroot sat in the earthenware bowl, covered in a soy based sauce and a heap of enoki and other mushrooms. The natural sweet, earthiness of the purpley-red vegetable was allowed to shine in its whole form, with us using a spoon to break it into bite-sized pieces.

Grilled white asparagus, miso crumb
The last dish, which I thought was going to come first, was the simply grilled white asparagus – an artful arrangement of grill-marked, thick white asparagus spears, served with mayonnaise and a salty, sweet miso crumb. The mayonnaise seemed almost an afterthought; nice but almost unnecessary with the flavours of the fresh asparagus doing the job nicely.

White sesame mousse with tapioca
With the light eating style, there was room for a shared dessert. We chose the mousse of white sesame; an ingredient of which I only now realise is so overshadowed in popularity by the more dramatic black sesame.

It came with the tapioca balls that one gets in Asian pearl milk teas and had a smushy, sweetened red bean centre. There was also a drizzle of honey for added sweetness to the rather refreshing dessert, if not the prettiest, served in a stunning glass dish.

Given the late hour of our dining, there were no longer waiting diners after dessert and just a general convivial air. Everyone there looked to be enjoying themselves; amongst themselves but contributing to the overall laidback atmosphere that encouraged us to hide down in Izakaya Den just a little longer.

Izakaya Den on Urbanspoon


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