Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sometimes, it's all Smoke & Mirrors

After a quirky, smile-provoking, slightly sweat-raising hour or so in The Famous Spiegeltent at Hyde Park for Sydney Festival's Smoke & Mirrors, I'm involuntarily underwhelmed as I fight the comparison with last year's La Clique. I know it wasn't intended as a replacement, but for a show of the same genre in the same venue at the same festival - comparisons are going to happen. I did enjoy the show, but felt it lacked the finesse and magnetism of La Clique - despite having bunnies in common.

Ringmaster iOTA was unparalleled in his shape-shifting story-telling with a voice like an angel or demon - depending on who or what the occasion required. Todd McKenney's stripping (strapping?) tap dancer was totally on the ball; Queenie van de Zandt's bearded lady was captivating; the ThisSideUp acrobatic posers in retro moustaches were a crowd favourite; Chelsea McGuffin was elegant whether on the trapeze or being thrown around like a rag doll; and Timothy Woon impressed by turning white doves into big white ducks.

On that note, the dinner decision was directed out of vicinity, and Stanley Street seemed a close yet seldom visited strip. The walk from Hyde Park was filled with commentary and recollection - of Ira and stories that maybe needn't be repeated, of wandering and jumping bunnies. The dining destination decision was made quickly, for normal dinner time and well and truly gone.

On one of the corners of Stanley Street is Giardinetto Restaurant, appearing reasonably cute, well-priced and Italian. Unfortunately, the key word there is 'appearing' as it certainly looks the part and is reasonably filled with mid-sized groups.

Chicken pate from Giardinetto Restaurant,
Stanley Street, Darlinghurst

I've never been a big pate person - the texture of liver just gets me the wrong way. I've been told, however, that chicken pate would be considered the beginner's one and I admit that this one is fairly subtle and not bad. It comes with a jelly on top, a mixed leaf salad, two thin slices of gherkin, and what appears as a slice of lightly toasted sandwich bread (is it Helga's? I think so!) plus two extra batons of the bread. As Rove would have said: What the?!

Mussels special

The mussels looked a generous serve of the black shelled molluscs in a soup-y tomato-based sauce, and were quite pleasant by all accounts - the sauce soaked up by some more bread.

Salmon fillet

To mains, my salmon fillet was a colourful addition to the table with the array of vegetables quite appealing, if not awkwardly arranged. The sauce of oil and probably balsamic vinegar certainly wasn't visually appealing, but aided somewhat with the plainly steamed stems of cauliflower and broccoli, and single snow pea. Bones aside, the fish was cooked nicely if not a tad over and doing quite well with the dill and chat potato.

Penne bolognaise

The penne was certainly not one of the most attractive pasta dishes I've ever seen, including those from my very own kitchen. I always like to hide my mess with a bunch of rocket too. Although the penne diner had no complaints, it was also deemed as nothing special - though it did come from the specials menu.

Fillet steak Giardinetto

The fillet steak looked an absolute treat on arrival - thick and extremely well caramelised on the outside, balanced precariously on the familiar steamed cauliflower, snow pea and chat potato - despite the request for no potato. The jus looked rich and inviting, but when the steak turned out to be well done as opposed to a medium-rare, it was an utter disappointment that went back to whence it came.

Veal scallopini

Another main from the specials menu, the veal scallopini arrived with - surprise, surprise - steamed broccoli, cauliflower, snow pea and chat potatoes. I'm beginning to feel like I'm in a club bistro where you're lucky if the requisite side isn't out of a can, let alone different from dish to dish. The veal was declared tender and there were no complaints about the caper-dotted white sauce.

The disappointment on expectation killed the mood on desserts, not helped much by seeing a waitress procure Peter's vanilla ice-cream from the nearby convenience store. I have nothing against Peter's but have no inclination to pay restaurant prices for it.

A few requests and a few more minutes later, the bill came and was paid with haste. The homeward discussion (not before spying Luke Nguyen heading in the general direction of The Spiegeltent) was about the plethora of average, if not below, Italian restaurants compared to other cuisines, such as French. Perhaps Italian is just a bit easier to masquerade, while there seem to be many more in quantity as well. Either way, a restaurant that is more smoke and mirrors than good food does not a happy bunny make.

Giardinetto Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 17, 2010

In the festival mood

With Sydney Festival in full swing, I feel bit festive and a bit excited, especially since I'd gotten my desired tickets earlier on in the game and needn't play with the early morning Martin Place queues for Tix for Nix. And then there's all the free events in The Domain - which are always much fun and did I mention free? I've already seen a large majority of the cast of Packed to the Rafters partying along to Al Green at First Night and I'm simply busting with anticipation for Paul McDermott's operatic debut in Candide - much fun, indeed.

Following an inspiring and uplifting performance by the Manganiyar Seduction, the barbeque out the front of the Seymour Theatre, while still fragrant of charcoal and chorizos, was not going to suffice. I mean, after the theatrics of the lights and curtains, the touching expressions of hands and eyes, and the feeling of being treated like kings and queens somewhere else in the world; a sausage on a roll wasn't going to cut it - gourmet or not.

The passionate voices, beating drums and whine of instruments unknown were still lolling about my mind during the short journey to Newtown. It's perhaps no wonder that we eagerly agreed on Kammadhenu - undeterred by their proclaimation of "Sydney's best curries" on the front door and remembering recommendations about their roti.

Beef kothu roti from Kammadhenu,
King Street, Newtown

It's too bad we hungrily ordered without in depth-analysis of the menu, but in hindsight, it worked out. The first sight of roti on the menu and we were ordered - but rather the Sri Lankan kothu roti, which in no way resembles roti canai I've sampled in the past. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though - and as my dining partner pointed out, it was like a deconstructed super-roti featuring beef, shredded roti pieces, onion, coriander, chilli and numerous other vegetables; stir -fried and reconstructed into a mound of rather large proportion.

The 'medium' level of spicing was about the limits of chilli heat for me, but subdued rather nicely by the pieces of roti in the mix. In the end, the dish was a meal in itself and really looked like a chopped gathering of leftovers, but there's some irony in the way it all pulled together intriguingly and spicily.

Deep fried fish with chilli

I don't remember the name of the dish (fish p-something unpronounceable) but its golden fried facade evoked thoughts of fish fingers. Whether that's good or bad, it wasn't far off with the nearing dry fish fillet a little lacking in its chilli promise but nicely seasoned nonetheless.

Saag chicken

Sharing dishes in Asian cuisine is a given, although I sometimes feel some competition in ordering the better dish of the table. Not so much a case of dish envy, given everything is shared, but perhaps dish rivalry.

I ordered the saag chicken curry, expecting a distinctly green sauce of blended spinach. It arrives, instead, mostly an orangey brown with specks of green - which is unexpected let alone the heavy taste of cardamom. It's not too hot, but the hot temperature of the dish, combined with the chilli heat from the roti before tortures the tongue into ordering a few more bottles of water.

Rendang beef

The other main ordered was the rendang beef; a more expected fiery red hue. While the dish may look plain and unexcitable, this was a wow-dish from the first mouthful of sauce. Zingy and sweet with yielding cubes of beef and a flavour that speaks of hours and hours cooking and preparation, this was a magnetic dish where you go back for thirds and fourths, even when you're not sure your tongue is still attached/working or you're about to explode from satiety.

Garlic naan and butter naan

Along with basmati rice copious amounts of water, the chilli fight is well fought with puffy, fresh naan bread - in the garlic and butter versions here. Perfect for sopping up tasty sauces, but certainly scrummy enough on their own too. I like to think I'm reading into the personality of the naan or its chef when I see its blistery and burnt tandoor oven marks on the underside.

During the meal, we note that there's a decided lack of atmosphere in the restaurant; although admittedly, we'd just seen one of the most vibrant and exciting Rajasthani musical performances around, and its experience and memory were still playing in the mind. In fact, I think it still was days later when I'm still in the mood for all things spice, and even random Indian soft drinks I come across. Play on, Sydney Festival.

Kammadhenu on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

Changing places

I'm fairly familiar with the suburb of Waterloo and neighbouring Zetland, and it continues to shock and surprise me how the place is changing. Take for example, the emergence of a Ferrari Maserati dealership amongst the residential area of ageing semis and brand spanking new terraces where ageing semis used to stand. Block after block of modern, stylish apartments where I fondly remember Saturday morning markets behind Waterloo Oval. And an industrial area eagerly being taken over to be made-over as the uber stylish Green Square town centre.

In particular, Danks Street has become so trendy it's almost painful; from the mature and well-furnished minds perusing fruit and veg at Fratelli Fresh, to the longing, lounging beauty of the verandah at The French House. Oh, how places change.

It's a cruisey holiday weekday lunch (or brekky as it may be) that finds me at Danks Street Depot. The wait for a table forces us up the street and into Fratelli Fresh; just for a perve at the produce really. Wandering back down to our intended destination, the constant stream of waiting customers is intriguing: young, old, infants and the painfully casual-styled.

Slow cooked broccoli and eggs from Danks Street Depot,
Danks Street, Waterloo

I do adore a venue that doesn't have set rules on meal types and times. If I want bacon and eggs at 3pm, I shouldn't be denied. Breakfast-y options at this lunch time include the ever versatile menu of eggs from Cornucopia Farms.

This selection feature the biodynamic eggs scrambled atop a thick slice of sourdough toast. The star of the show is undoubtedly the tree of broccoli; slow cooked with chilli, garlic and white wine, though it tasted just like normal broccoli to me - which is fine as it's one of my favourite vegetables. The goat's feta, with parsley garnish, was a revelation though, or rather an elevation of the entire dish. I think there's also some novelty and humour in devouring part of a head of broccoli in such pure a form.

Saucisson sec with cornichons

The more typical lunch item we ordered was the saucisson sec, literally 'dry sausage' in French. Of cured Australian pork, these dry sausages fulfilled my hankering for salami and indulged a fantasy of having just salami for lunch. The rustic presentation set an expectation that was not disappointed. Along with the tart, crunchy cornichons, the sausage was surprisingly lean with a chewy texture that packed a hell of a lot of satisfying porkiness.

Hand cut chips (front) and rocket, pear and
parmesan salad (back)

I had my carbs in the naughty form of hand cut chips; piping hot chunks of skin-on potato that crunched but were so fluffy inside that they couldn't have been sinful. The rocket salad of pear and parmesan was perfectly accompanied by an exquisite dressing that leant more towards sweet than sour and was worthy of dish-licking had there not been so many people around. I'm sure the kids wouldn't have minded.

In fact, I think the kids and babies enjoyed the space as much as the adults. It was kind of cute watching a young girl carefully dip her sourdough into the dish of olive oil and eat. As laidback as the place feels, there's an air of everything being very carefully crafted - everything is there for a reason and positioned just so. It's certainly not the Waterloo I used to know, but then, some changes are for the better, aren't they?

Danks Street Depot on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A New Year holiday end

A happy belated new year's to all - we've made it to 2010. There's an air of optimism as the end of a decade comes and goes, and the 'ones' begin. It's just too bad that the festive holidays are over for some of us unlucky ones and it's back to work come Monday morning. Although, it is perhaps about time for the feasting and gorging to cease for the sake of the wardrobe.

On holidays, I like nothing more than to really feel like I'm on holidays. This includes sleeping in (and conversely, staying up late for no apparent reason); not knowing what day it is; getting good wear out of a plethora of singlets, shorts and Havvies; and eatings meals and snacks whenever, however and wherever I want.

So it's a real holiday feel going to yum cha for a weekday brunch and catch-up with the girls. At the relatively early hour of 11am, there's no wait for a table at Marigold - although the restaurant does fill up in an hour or so.

Wu gok - taro dumpling from Marigold, George Street, Haymarket

However wrong it may seem, many of the yum cha-ing population have come to expect, if not accept, the sometimes surly attitude of service at yum cha establishments. We grudgingly get the same at Marigold; from non-eventuating drinks orders to trolley aversion to a response of "Try it and you'll know," to a question about ingredients. Sigh.

The other thing I've noticed in common about yum cha restaurants is the very similar offerings; almost to a point where there is nothing but location differentiating various eateries.

The fried taro dumplings - their light and crunchy outers which continue to mystify me - are not too greasy with a beautifully fluffy layer of taro and minced pork inners.

Wor tip - pan-fried pork dumpling

The pan-fried pork dumplings are a favourite of mine since childhood; likely something to do with the crunchy, golden side and the vinegar dipping sauce. This version is passable but the inner child is unimpressed with the thick, slightly gluggy pastry.

Gai lan - steamed Chinese broccoli

Like loads and loads of hot tea, the other necessity for me at yum cha is a hefty quota of vegetables. And there's nothing fresher or healthier than the simply steamed Chinese broccoli doused with soy and oyster sauces. This bunch was lovely and tender, and just the dish away from meats and pastries.

Xiao long bao - steamed pork soup dumplings

Speaking of meats and pastries, the now wildly popular xioa long bao look oddly sparse in their bamboo steamer - surely there's space for a fourth. They don't compare to the expertise of others - in flavour and the dumpling skins - but as much could be expected really, particularly after a few attempts at chasing up its accompanying vinegar sauce.

Lor mai gai - sticky rice chicken parcels

Another long time favourite is the parcel of sticky rice, chicken, pork, egg yolk and other goodies, steamed in dried lotus leaves. It's hard to go wrong with this, although some find the glutinous rice too filling.

Har cheung - prawn rice noodle rolls

The best part about the rice noodle rolls - perhaps just ahead of the prawn filling - is the thick and sweet dark soy sauce that's drizzled all over. These are best when they're hot as the rice noodle isn't as soft and silky when cooled.

Siu mai - steamed pork dumplings

These pork dumpling pack a seriously meaty punch - it's kind of amazing how much springy mince pork can fit into a wonton wrapper. Chilli sauce has become a necessity for me on these.

Har gow - steamed prawn dumplings

Is it yum cha without har gow? I think I could do without, with scallop or seafood dumplings in place - although they seem a bit scarce this day. The prawn dumplings follow the same-old, expected path, and again, need chilli sauce to liven them up.

Tofu fa - silken tofu dessert

Pehaps egged on by the usual offerings, I go past my usual dessert of coconut jelly in favour of tofu fa; a dessert of silken tofu carefully scooped out of a wooden bucket and served with a ginger infused sugar syrup. It's an extremely delicate dessert, and rather sensual too, for the texture of the tofu makes it essentially drinkable. And aside from the sugar-heavy syrup, it's pretty healthy - or so I tell myself.

Bloatedly full of food and tea, it's that joyous holiday feeling that lets us sit about without hassle from time nor people. It's not yet time to be lamenting the end of the holidays, leaving plenty of time to celebrate and look forward to the year to come. Happy New Year everyone.

Marigold Citymark on Urbanspoon


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