Friday, August 20, 2010

Carving it up

Piggy in the middle was one of my least favourite games as a child – it’s funny how times change. While I still don’t enjoy chasing after things deliberately being kept away from me, you can give me pork crackling any time of the day and I’ll be very appreciative.

Interior at Chophouse, Bligh Street, Sydney
Invited to indulge in ‘Pig and Pinot’ at CBD steakhouse Chophouse, a group of food bloggers gathered in the foyer to be greeted with champagne and our host for the night, Adam from Chophouse owners, Pacific Restaurant Group. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect for the evening despite having been to Chophouse before, but the bubbles were a good start after and there was generally a buzzy, convivial atmosphere in the restaurant.

Whimsical meets rustic interior decorations
Led to our long table in the mod-rustic interiors of the dining area, there’s a sense of the whimsical added to the general beefiness of the place – a desert/Western dream-like vibe that’s not corporate despite the restaurant’s location and likely clientele. Aptly seated on a leather banquette, we’re also briefly introduced to Executive Chef David Clarke – who we’re told has to go back to tending his pig.

Our hosts - David (left) and Adam
Adam – our jetsetting businessman, passionate foodie and overall charming host – tells us what we’re in for and it’s a tantalising menu. Yes, entrées and wines and dessert, but he had me (and others, I presume) at “whole suckling pig”. In a preview for the soon-to-open new Carvery concept upstairs, we were going to be treated to an entire roast suckling pig, carved at the table. I must have done something good.

We start on bread and, inevitably, given the opportunity, food and restaurant talk. We’re poured glasses of 2008 Ostler Audrey’s Pinot Gris – an undoubtedly beautiful, restrained fruity drop that I’ll be looking out for. It was the perfect accompaniment to our entrées as it was very pleasant on the palate without being overpowering.

Jamon & Italian buffalo mozzarella, roasted fennel, spring onion & almonds
There’s much excitement on my part at the first entrée – just a few of my favourite things, although in hindsight, the entire meal could have been called that. The buffalo mozzarella was air freighted from Pastorano in the Campania region of southern Italy, and I have to admit, tastier than any locally produced versions I’ve had. What the olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar drizzled cheese lacked in texture (a bit crumblier and less silky than I expected), it made up for with a creamy depth of flavour and company.

Thin slices of the king of cured meats, jamon iberico de bellota, sat casually aside the mozzarella, both on top of the sweetly caramelised spring onion and roasted fennel. Considerately cut thicker than paper, presumably for the full flavour impact, the jamon had a big, bold flavour that got me thinking of faraway pastures and oak forests. It was almost meltingly to-the-tooth, unlike some sometimes chewy, even paper-thin slices of prosciutto.

Ceviche of Hervey Bay sea scallops, Mt Lowe truffle, avruga & apple
The wine kept coming as our second entree came along, stopping everyone in their tracks - there was just so much to appreciate. As if scallops weren't already one of my favourites, this entrée is seriously pimped out. Let's start with the ceviche, sliced scallops in a barely noticeable marinade on its gleaming white shell. And then there's a little green apple salad of which the sweet, juicy juliennes contrast with salty Avruga caviar.

Finally, the dish is almost garnished with a delicate shaving of truffle, out of the ground a mere couple of days ago from the Oberon region in NSW. The colour palette of the dish really worked for me, while the scent of the truffle wasn't as heady and hypnotising as expected. In fact, on taste it was exceptionally subtle and delicate - only when I tasted it alone, letting it linger in my mouth, did I get a slight sense of the decadence these fungi are renowned for. Along with caviar and scallops, I was feeling a million bucks.

With our gorgeous starters throroughly enjoyed, the 2006 Ostler Caroline's Pinot Noir signalled that we were moving to the serious part of the meal. The pinot noir was smooth and highly drinkable, although it's taking quite some work to get me away from my shiraz bias.

We could smell the main event coming minutes before it came to the table. It was intoxicating, so much that I couldn't concentrate after that aroma had infiltrated my nostrils. So it was with great anticipation that our guest of honour was wheeled to the table in all its aromatic glory.

Slow roasted organic suckling pig
After a moment or two of an admiring daze, one of my first thoughts was that this little piggy had a very nice backside. An attention seeking one at that, with the paparazzi treatment it was given. Even nearby tables were getting in on the action, but granted, it is quite the sight. And imagine you could get this weekly at the Chophouse's Carvery - be still my cholesterol levels and beating heart.

Chef carves up the suckling pig
David gets to work carving up the suckling pig - quite a task actually. We sit patiently and obediently as his carving knife removes complete sides of the pig, and especially as he crunches through pieces of crackling to bite size pieces. I think I'm again in the state of being unable to concentrate - the sounds and smells make it simply impossible to talk or think. They bring out side dishes as distraction as we wait for the suckling pig.

Cauliflower gratin
The cheesy creaminess of the gratin is apparent from scent alone, and I remember adoring this last time. The cauliflower in a surely naughty, melty sauce is covered with sourdough crumbs grilled to a golden brown. I only have one spoonful of this, knowing that the richness would interfere with my capacity for pork. The cauliflower shined with natural sweetness.

Also in preparation for incoming indulgence, I load up on the beans - an appealing mix of green and yellow lightly covered in a herb butter.

Wedge salad
Our third side dish was a salad called the wedge, presumably because of its wedges of iceberg lettuce doused in a creamy, tangy dressing. It resembled a caesar salad with its white anchovies, parmesan, speck and gooey-yolked slow cooked egg.

Pieces of pork crackling and meat from the slow roasted organic suckling pig
And then the moment, and plate, dawns on us. The suckling pig is split across the table on three large oval plates, each piled up with crackling and meat to share between four while David continued his labour-intensive carving. There was little hesitation in starting, aside from the obligatory photos which required some restraint from me as my first instinct was to dive into that glistening brown crackling.

I'm having crackling withdrawals now still as I remember plucking the particularly blistered pieces and putting them in my mouth, pausing a few microseconds to savour the moment, and then making my loud, crunching way through.

Whether it was the ear-filling crunch of the crackling or whether the crackling takes me away to another world momentarily - all I know is that there's nothing else around or relevant when there's salty, crunchy pork crackling. While the blistery pieces were fabulous, even the smooth pieces were impressively crunchy and thin.

Apple sauce, jus and harissa to go with the suckling pig
The apple sauce and jus were probably the more traditional sauces to go with the pork, and lovely as they were, my favourite was the harissa - a bit of an eye-opener that was not at all hot but a mild, thick, red, almost tart sauce that was surprisingly light and complementary with the pork.

The pork meat itself was also an adventure, as with the entire beast offered, there were varying cuts of pork spread across the table. I can't honestly say which pieces I got, although I think there was definitely some belly (attached fatty section) along with other cuts that seemed to have been tastily and juicily infused by the fat rendered out of the outer layers

The second plate of suckling pig
And as if there wasn't enough gluttony, our share plates were refilled with round two. There was more impossibly crunchy crackling and more juicy, tender, fall apart meat. This was completely unlike the suckling pig that you get from Chinese barbeque shops, where the meat can be really firm and bordering on dry. Whether it's the slow cooking or the oven of choice, I'm converted.

Pleasingly, we finished our second plate clean, as I think we all did. In fact, we probably finished the whole pig clean as there were trotters, tails, cheeks and the snout even being dished out by David.

One would think that that would be enough feasting to last a week. One would be quite wrong. To many, a meal isn't complete without a sweet ending - and in fact, we had several.

Caramelised banana cheesecake, butterscoth and peanut brittle
The first is dessert proper - a cheesecake that gives my all-time favourite lemon a good run for its money. The flavour combination is ingenious - and who'd have thought caramel, banana and peanut could look so classy. I had to skip the quenelle of cream but picked off every bit of brittle off the plate; the crunch and slight savouriness being crucial to the dish. There were also slices of actual banana between the base and the cheese filling, which I could have gone without, but a star dessert - never mind the calories.

In another interesting point, this dessert retails for $8. Seriously. Given the sometimes tough market they have to deal with, David and Chophouse have opted for a rather low price for all desserts to encourage the inner boy/sweet tooth to go the whole hog and do dessert. As for the rest of us, it's win-win. But wait, there's more.

Chophouse chocolate block
David uses a  blend of milk and dark Lindt chocolate, tempered and molded himself to form the chocolate block; which is served on a rustic, worn wooden board with a mini cleaver. Ours is filled with almonds, I think, as we pull on all our strength to chop through the block. After polishing off the cheesecake, I can only manage a small piece of chocolate. It's got all the sweetness and creaminess of milk chocolate with just the slightest hint of dark acidity. I prefer dark (sorry David).

We had the chocolate and dessert with truly generous, help ourselves Hennessy XO cognac and an unusual Berta grappa - the latter of which, after burning my nostrils with its fumes, had a sweet fruity aroma somewhere beneath the burning alcohol. The seriously hard liquors are probably not really my thing.

Dry-aged Delmonico in the goody bag
In the final sweet gesture in a night that was, in an analogy, pure saccharine, we were gifted with goody bags containing a vaccuum sealed dry-aged Delmonico (one of the signature with-bone cuts of Chophouse), a block of Chophouse chocolate, a couple of Lindt macarons and importantly, David's instructions for cooking the perfect steak. I'm so excited, I can't wait to pull out the frypan this weekend.

From the chocolate and grappa, I somehow managed to waddle (stumble?) out the door, thankful and rather full. I think the Carvery is going to be a really interesting concept, with a set roast each weekday evening. I think the likes of the goat and pheasant will garner a cult following, while I'll be blocking out suckling pig nights in my diary - perhaps Wednesday nights so it's piggy in the middle (of the week).

Many thanks to Adam, David, Michelle, Sarah and Chophouse for the fabulous evening - it's one I'll remember and drool over for a while to come.

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Simon Food Favourites said...

i can't wait to cook up my steak. i hope it comes out well so i do justice to the steak. was great meeting you :-)

chocolatesuze said...

best night ever! the crackling was freaking awesome

Yas @ said...

Hmm piggy night!
And nice meeting you! :)

Betty said...

ggreat photos :O)

Tina said...

Hi Simon - I cooked mine! Was delish!

Hi Suze - Every now and then, I think about that crackling - all that crackling!

Hi Yas - You too!

Hi Betty - Thanks :)


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