Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Street treats

I think the idea of treats works just as well for pets as it does people. Do something good or work hard, a treat is deserved. Definitely some psychological conditioning there, as happens every time I walk into a Bourke Street Bakery. A feeling of goodness washes over me - whether I've done something good, or soon intend to. The smell of pastries and bread, with the petite tarts smiling teasingly through their glass cases, is enough to turn anyone do-gooder.

The Alexandria outpost of Bourke Street Bakery is downright cavernous compared to the original Surry Hills store, with ample indoor seating - which maintains the look and feel of the original - making it the perfect weekend breakfast/brunch treat destination.

Beef flank and red wine pie from Bourke Street Bakery, Gardeners Road Alexandria

I have a weakness for pies in general, and while I won't have service station or convenience store varieties, I'll happily give almost every other pie a go. There's no going wrong at Bourke Street Bakery - ever. The flakey crisply-shattering of the pastry all over the utilitarian metal tray just feels so right. And when the filling is a hearty combination of the tenderest chunks of beef flank stewed in red wine, tomato sauce doesn't rate a thought.

Pork and fennel sausage roll

Sausage rolls on the other hand rather require a saucey partner - along with frankfurts, they are one of the few foods that absolutely need tomato sauce in my books. The even flakier pastry of the roll delights the aural senses as well as the palate, which is happily concentrated on the complex flavours of the pork mince and fennel seed filling.

Chicken pie

The varying chicken pies are usually hit and bigger hit; rather than any misses. My favourite so far has been a Thai curry version, but this rich and creamy chicken and leek (I think) wasn't too far behind. The cheesiness was a little much for breakfast I think, but nothing a good strong cappuccino or an old fashioned lemonade can't handle.

Lemon curd tart

Despite the fantastic pies, sandwiches and breads at Bourke Street Bakery, I always go with an ulterior motive and leave lots of room for the amazing, stunning array of tarts. Inner debates always arise as to which particular tart to choose, as two seems simply over-indulgent for breakfast (no probs in the afternoon, though). The sour lemon curd tart is a classic favourite - the thick, cool and creamy lemon curd bristles with tartness in the crunchy pastry casing; making it appropriate for slow, relishing consumption, bite by bite.

Chocolate and raspberry tart

Jostling to be my other favourite is the chocolate and raspberry tart. Mousse-y light chocolate filling fills the pastry case, topped with what I'd call a chocolate dirt crumble of sorts, an additional textural delight. But the best part is discovering the raspberry centre; all sticky, sweet, syrupy and contrastingly tart in its chocolate surrounds. Oh, to be the raspberry.

Treated to an inch away from evil, the sugar and carb high alone is enough energy to do good - for the morning at least. And the sooner a good deed is done, the sooner I can have another Bourke Street treat.

Bourke Street Bakery on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Stick it

I normally try to maintain my expectations at reasonable levels, knowing full well that high expectations easily lead to disappointment. But that’s not to say I don’t get very excited about certain things and fill days with childish anticipation.

A trip to Azuma Kushiyaki was certainly one of these excitable moments. Hello chicken skin skewer and of course, the tuna salad as featured on Food Safari. I'd seen the exterior of the restaurant but hadn’t expected the interior to be quite so casual and hence, chattery; although the booths looked nice and cosy.

Our menu request was met quickly with a table-filling laminated main menu, specials menu and drinks menu. Given the style of dining, with lots of shared bits and pieces to start, there’s a lot to choose from and we take our time with careful consideration. The decided must-haves include the chicken skin, grilled pork jowl, a grilled eggplant dish, scallop skewers (or kushiyaki) and the tuna salad – the first three choices of which are disappointingly unavailable this early Friday night. I’m momentarily speechless and order-less: no chicken skin; no pork jowl skewer; no yaki nasu.

Wild scallop with soy and home-made garlic oil from Azuma Kushiyaki, Regent Place, George Street, Sydney

We make alternative menu choices which end up going some way in appeasing prior disappointment. The scallops for starters are a surprise: squarely rectangular in shape, the wild scallops mustn’t conform to circular standards. Their unbridled freshness is managed well with the simple grilling with simple flavours of soy and garlic.

Paradise prawn with salt

The prawns are stunning specimens – headless, grilled with salt adhered to their bright orange shells, and as such, so tasty that it’s impossible to resist a few chews and crunches of the shell. The skewers are so simple and fresh, and leave one wanting more – but there’s much else on the menu that beckon the palate and stomach.

Soft shell crab tempura

The soft shell crab order is admittedly pedestrian, but the perfect comparative tool between restaurants – of all cuisines, it appears. While the actual crab here is quite large, it’s also smothered in an atypically thick coating of batter – somewhat unlike tempura traditionally. The sweet dipping sauce and lemon help to cut through the batter and sweeten the crab's already sweet flavour.

Seared tuna salad with ponzu vinaigrette

Those expecting anything remotely like the gigantic serve of seared tuna in the salad as seen on Food Safari will be left a little wanting with the harsh slap of reality. No, you dont get an entire rectangular block of a fillet, but rather a few slices beneath grated daikon, fried garlic slices, and raw Spanish and green onions. I find the garlic a little overpowering and think I would have preferred the sprightly ponzu vinaigrette and daikon garlic-free. Nonetheless, the tuna is firm and full of flavour, soaking in the dressing and the dish is cleaned up momentarily.

Karaage pork jowl

The pork jowl grilled on a skewer wasn't available, yet in karaage style it was. Odd, but we dig in anyway into the crisp coated bits of pork flesh from about the pig's cheeks. Perhaps the very different style to guanciale as I'm familiar with, the jowl itself is rather crunchy with tendons, cartilage and other meat-and-bone-joining bits. What it lacks it flavour, it makes up for double in texture.

Free range spatchcock platter

The spatchcock platter takes awhile, but its arrival is well worth the wait. Served on a stone plate four ways, it was difficult to know where to start. My nose wanted the deep fried karaage mini drumstick; my mouth lusted the seriously caramelised grilled thigh skewer; my fingers wanted to pick and nibble at the tiny grilled wings; and the brain recommended the grilled breast fillet skewer to start.

Ultimately, the brain conquers all with its logical reasoning that the breast would have the most subtle flavour and hence, should be eaten first. It was surprisingly soft and delicate - in taste and texture, and subtle indeed - it definitely needed its mayonnaise partnering.

Yakitori grilled spatchcock thigh

The thigh, on the other leg, needed nothing. The sweet and sticky marinade made the juicy and lucious meat even better, to the point that the few morsels on the skewer left us wanting more. A gastronomical lesson in contrast, I think.

Grilled spatchcock wing

The tiny wings were a little tricky to eat elegantly, especially trying to get the flesh between the mid-wing. But the charred flavour and crunchy skin made for just rewards for all the hard work.

Nasu miso - stir-fried eggplant and minced chicken in miso

There wasn't yaki nasu - grilled eggplant - but there was the miso eggplant dish. Probably better served with rice, this dish was unexpectedly and richly sweet. A range of green and yellow beans and my favourite sugar snaps were crunchy and bathing in the quite powerful white miso sauce. Eggplant and tofu provided the soft and silky textures for a dish that may well have been a vegetarian's delight - but a little slope for the end of our omnivorous appetites.

Desserts didn't even register with me - a combination of satiety and my gradual leaning away from my sweet tooth. The night hadn't exactly been as expected but it was solidly good. Now they've probably got me for a return visit so I can try that chicken skin skewer - I'm still excited.

Azuma Kushiyaki on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Taste, two ways

Going for seconds is usually a good sign – going back for more food, seeing a movie a second time, returning to a restaurant, a second date. The first time was obviously good enough to warrant a return, and there’s the knowledge that the second time round will be just as good or have enough variety to not be boring.

It happens that I’m back for seconds at the Taste of Sydney festival at Centennial Park. The organisers must have been ecstatic that the temperamental Sydney weather held up for most of the festival – with only a bit of a shower on the Saturday night and a few light sprinkles on Sunday. Second time round, I have strategically marked targets throughout the festival and intentions to systematically review the stalls. And to taste as many samples as socially acceptable.

Grilled pesto salmon samples from Huon Aquaculture

I was right the first time - there were a lot fewer stalls giving out tasters. But that doesn't mean that I didn't score a beautifully cooked hunk of salmon, drizzled with lemon juice and lightly tossed through pesto. I took one piece, and moved on - not what a lot of people milling about the City Tattersalls Club stall could say.

Freebies on offer from City Tattersalls Club

Congrats firstly to City Tatts for having the generosity and bravery to give away free food all day long - all four days long, I should say. Personally, I'd be scared. As for marketing, it was a winner; as far as accounting goes, I'm not so sure.

I was quite impressed with the quality and understated sophistication of their freebie offerings, especially the lab-whimsical apple, cranberry and cinnamon doughnuts which were, for starters, fresh and scrummy on their own. But with a self-administered injection of white chocolate or sour cherry filling, it was a new level of playing with your food, if not just a little over the top - no complaints though.

Tempura soft shell crab with lime and ginger aioli from City Tattersalls Club

Small bits of soft shell crab were served and stalked in little paper cones, piping hot and just a little oily for it. This was washed down with complimentary mini cocktails: a sweetly innocent pink bramble cocktail and a killer white chocolate martini. Let me tell you, I've never had a free, or even happy hour, cocktail as strong as that white chocolate martini - if I were wearing socks, they would have been blown off over that way.

Paella a la Maestre cooking at El Toro Loco

Our first dish of the day was the seafood paella from El Toro Loco, where I'm not sure how chef Miguel Maestre managed to cook anything for all the photos and girls simply fawning over him. The serving we got lacked seafood, unfortunately; just the one mussel in shell for the entire paper bowl. I was, however, a big fan of the zingy rice - not mushy nor hard, but surprisingly a great palate awakener. And stomach liner for that matter.

James Squire Brewery

Nothing beats that first beer on a sunny afternoon - it's just the fourth and fifth beers that are problematic. Meandering through and around people is that much less stressful when one has a chilled James Squire Golden Ale in hand - if there's a queue of jam in front; just stop, sip, pause and let that stress dissolve away. But really, a hot day plus beer in moderation is a heavenly match - made only better with cured meat.

Victor Churchill stand display

It's pure class at the Victor Churchill stand; delicious without even knowing what's on offer. It is after all a butcher, so there are a few cuts of not-inexpensive meat along with a few clubs of biltong. Further along the case are mountains of prettily packed charcuterie and within seconds, I have a posh plastic container in my hands.

Cured meat plate from Victor Churchill

Prosciutto, capicola, salame and olives; gherkin and sourdough bread in my hands - these are a few of my favourite things. Short of dancing around in curtains, we dig into the platter propped up against one of those astroturf blocks, ripping into the lovely chewy yet soft bread. The prosciutto is wonderously/scarily (you choose) fatty with flavour that strokes and fondles the tongue. The capicola is distinctly drier and less fat, but almost with a stronger flavour. But my favourite has to be the salame, red with capsicum I think, and hitting all the right fatty, chewy, meaty spots.

Victor Churchill dessert offerings

And who would think a butcher could put on such classy desserts. Victor Churchill is cleary not your average butcher. Every single chocolate mousse, creme caramel, strawberry trifle and creme brulee (freshly torched) looked perfect - though I admit the strawberry jelly is a little too pig's blood for me after prior witnessings.

Original lemonade from Lemon Bar

The non-alcoholic break proves to be unwise - for it is expensive and crunchy with sugar crystals, which I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be. No point being a sour lemon, but lessons to be learned.

Planet Cake workshop cupcakes as previously mentioned

That's serious whiskey if it's in a cage - at Think Spirits

Cured ocean trout with coleslaw, lemon and dill jelly from Marque

The ticking of the hit list begins. Marque were definitely dishing up stylish yet generously-sized serves I notes, as I scamper off happily with my ocean trout. 'Astroturfing' next to a stranger with the tuna from Flying Fish, I could only pity their inability to cut the tuna with a knife (it seemed stringy...) while my ocean trout melted in my mouth with the pop-py roe. The jelly is not how I remember it, but rather a gel that miraculously seems creamy beneath the harmonious tones of lemon and dill. The fish is firmly perfect, making the coleslaw redundant other than as a comfy seat.

Suckling pig panino with apple, mustard and rocket served on Sonoma sourdough from Pilu at Freshwater

Tick. Giovanni Pilu smilingly hands over the panino himself in exchange for Crowns, appearing quite content without the celebrity. Maybe it's the suckling pig. The piggy bun is a wonderfully crisp square stuffed full of tender white flesh. The wholegrain mustard and rocket make themselves known although the apple seems to have gone hiding with the salt and seasoning.

Fries with eyes - crisp school prawns with a spicy Cajun remoulade from Jonah's at Whale Beach

Tick, tick, tick - I can't tick this dish enough. While in hindsight I should have gone back for seconds and thirds, Jonah's fries with eyes are right up there as potential festival favourite. Quirky name, deep fry, mayo sauce - what doesn't this dish have? Chef George Francisco notes the variable size of the prawns in my serving, saying the uppermost one looked like it ate schoolies as opposed to being one. Alternatively, there were ones the size of Chinese dried shrimp - the small sized ones.

Doused in lemon and the tasty remoulade, these crunchy critters were looking to please with their cholesterol-filled heads and to-be-carefully-eaten shells. These minor barriers to enjoyment are genuinely part of the enjoyment; and there's no peeling required and no wastage created. Very green indeed.

Tapioca pudding with poached jackfruit and lychees from Longrain

I'm looking for one of the final ticks at the Longrain stall but they've run out of fish cakes. Not placated with the replacement smoked trout salad, I console myself in the tropical tapioca pudding. The in-season rambutan is sweet; the wafer stick sweeter and the coconut tapioca mix sweeter yet. The jackfruit slivers provide momentary and welcome tartness while the lychees seem overwhelmed.

It's a monster; it's a sea creature; it's a...
rambutan with sago pearls stuck to it

And so it's the dessert run. Well, sort of - broken up with one of the very last servings of Flying Fish's grilled king prawns with black pepper and curry leaf sauce, steamed rice and curry leaf malum. I genuinely like to alternate my sweet and savoury intakes, and don't even mind them together (hello salted caramels and ham on hot cross buns - don't knock it till you try it!)

The 4's dark chocolate Cherry Ripe from Four in Hand

A passing decision to drop in at the Four in Hand proves extremely wise. I love fresh cherries. I don't like anything cherry-related that isn't fresh. Liquer, maraschino, chocolate, lollies - no thanks. But I adore this sorbet. It's freezing cold, mild on the sweetness with a hint of darkness in a lingering bitterness - I've found a Cherry Ripe I like. The moistly fudgey dark chocolate cake crumbs certainly assist, but I find my spork ineffective in getting those last two crums of cake. I surely can not stick my face/tongue all the way into the bowl.

Raspberry sorbet from Movenpick

The Cherry Ripe has us in a fevered search for more. Of course, a second helping at Four in Hand would have been the easy option, but where's the challenge in that? After several samples of ice cream from the New Zealand tourism tent (and maybe some mussels, cockles, cheese and salmon), we settle on one of the numerous ice cream and gelato stalls. Movenpick's raspberry sorbet is not quite as mature as the cherry - sweeter and lighter - but the squinty-sour lemon is very satisfying.

The crowd tastes - the Taste crowds

And with a final visit to the Chef's Table to see a very passionate Jared Ingersoll of Danks Street Depot, Taste of Sydney is over for year two. What fun it's been to go back and back and back for seconds - and I get the feeling thirds will be even better. Second that?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tempting the Taste-buds

He looks so serene...

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.

Beautiful breads from the Grumpy Baker

Brightly coloured capsicums from Moraitis Hydroponics

Cocktail garnishes at the Sagatiba stall

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.

Beef ribs smoked in watermelon with a watermlon and avocado salad
from Danks Street Depot

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)

Gigantic paella pans at El Toro Loco

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.

Mini sandwich with blue swimmer crab meat and coriander mayonnaise
from Guillaume at Bennelong

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.

Wagyu beef daube with paris mash
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.

Crispy wagyu beef with wild mushroom and truffle foam
from Restaurant Balzac

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.

Matt Preston chats about and plays with Jonah's panna cotta

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.

Vanilla panna cotta with lavender honey and fresh pomegranate
from Jonah's at Whale Beach

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.

Longrain Restaurant offerings

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.

Victoria Tourism tent

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.


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