Friday, October 29, 2010

Rain, clouds and Ash(field)

Last weekend’s Ashfield’s Big Yum Cha, as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, had the unfortunate luck of an almost non-stop rainy day. But there was still cover under shopfront awnings where tabletop stalls were set up similar to Haberfield’s Primavera for the still festive, albeit smaller than expected, crowds.

Stalls set up along Liverpool Raod for Ashfield's Big Yum Cha
We got straight into the eating, and the chilli for that matter, at the first (last?) stall on Liverpool Road, set up rather inconveniently right in front of the restaurant’s own entrance. Here we huddled under the shelter and lapped up what Sky Mountain Hand Made Noodle Restaurant had to offer.

Cold noodles with spicy pork from Sky Mountain Hand Made
Noodle Restaurant, Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Cold noodles on a cold day aren’t the best pairing but add a tasty pork mince mixture, a ladle of a sweet, goopy red chilli sauce and chilli soy sauce and you’ll be warmed soon enough. At first, the slippery, cold noodles were refreshing and sweet in the thick chilli sauce, with subtle flavours of seafood incorporated within, while the pork mixture was beautifully and highly seasoned with spice and more sweetness.

After a couple of mouthfuls, the chilli soy started its burning path across the tongue and down the back of the throat, with the cucumber slivers the only relief among the sauce drenched noodles. It was quite the heart and palate starter, warming and rendering us thirsty for water and more.

Deep fried chicken with dry fried chilli from Sky Mountain
Hand Made Noodle Restaurant
Spotting the dark hued deep fried chicken from afar, the tumble of red chillies was surprisingly not a turn-off. In fact, the large dry fried chillies were part of the appealing aesthetic although I can’t say whether or not they were as spicy as the noodle sauces.

The small pieces of chicken were mostly awkward wing bits, making for some nimble nibbling and finger licking. There was definitely lots of the latter as the darkened (reddish even), crisp outer had a fantastic flavour: salty, mildly spiced and ever so moreish, it’s no wonder the dish is a restaurant specialty. If only it used some slightly meatier bits of chicken – more flesh, less cartilage and bones, please.

More stalls, more dumplings
We made the undercover stroll down Liverpool Road, tasting noodles and Turkish bread with dips, all the while noticing the heavily northern Chinese slant to the cuisine. There’s an abundance of steamed and pan fried dumplings at most the shop stalls, along with noodles and shallot pancakes – making for a slightly different ‘yum cha’ experience to normal.

A seafood shop on Liverpool Road - check out the inky cuttlefish
We decided to get a more substantial feed indoors rather than face the elements for the entire day, and headed past the cumin spiced lamb skewers and dumplings of the Shanghai Night stall and into the crammed restaurant itself, ready for some dumpling feasting.

Beef and scallion steamed dumplings (small) from
Shanghai Night, Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Our initial order of the chicken and shitake mushroom steamed dumplings was out, so changed to the beef and scallion variety, of which 12 dumplings comprise a ‘Small’ serve. Through the smooth pastry, the main flavour was that of scallions, or spring onions, with the minced meat filling much less beefy than I expected.

While the dumplings were nice with a blend of soy sauce and the black vinegar sauce, they were even better with Shanghai Night’s chilli sauce; a thick red paste packed with chilli seeds and skin, subtle in heat and packing a great, enhancing punch of flavour.

[Rant warning]  We’d actually expected our soup to turn up first before any dumplings, so more than 10 minutes after finishing our first dumplings, the warnings bells started to ring. When more minutes elapse and other later-arriving, larger tables got their full orders before we got anything further, we enquired about the whereabouts of the rest of our order and receive no follow-up whatsoever.

The nearby table of six that came after us managed to get in and out before our table of two got our second dish (and I’m not saying that they were quick eaters). I don’t expect friendly service as I understand that they’re working in tough conditions with the packed shop and preparations for the stall outside. But the inefficiency here was nearly beyond belief; leaving me wishing that I’d gone to the cleaner, slightly more spacious New Shanghai next door.

Spicy and sour tofu soup
The soup arrived next without comment. A happy melange of submerged ingredients, it was rich in colour and flavour. While the sour aspect was immediately detectable, the hot didn’t hit me until it reached the back of my throat.

Wheezing a little, I really enjoyed the silky cubes of tofu, textures contrasting with the softened bamboo shoots and black fungus (or seaweed), and the firm strips of pork. With egg white mixed into the thick soup, it was really quite a pretty soup.

Sheng jian bao - pan fried pork buns
Our order of pan fried pork buns eventually emerge, greasy and piled up. Biting into the bun cautiously, I was shocked to find the bun of medium heat and without any soupy inners. The next and next buns prove that the first wasn’t a one-off: none of the buns had soup in them, making the extended wait for them completely un-worthwhile.

Not enough to save the letdown of the absent soup, but the dough was nice and fluffy with golden brown bottoms and the pork filling was acceptably tasty, making for safer and neater eating without the soup, but just not as good.

Xiao long bao - Steamed pork dumplings
I had higher hopes for the xiao long bao, which were again unexpectedly dashed. At least four of the dumplings were deflated and completely bereft of soup before even a pair of our chopsticks went near them. Some were also adorned with a pink-brown foam oozing from the dumplings which was probably discharged from the pork filling during cooking – presumably normal but nonetheless, really not appetising.

The dumpling skins were probably double the thickness of the delicate ones of Din Tai Fung’s – the thicker ones great for holding in the soup in if there was any. The pork filling was again nice, but unspectacular without the soup. The ones that had soup were better, although I felt that the flavours were still diluted by the thick pastry skins.

More food stalls on Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Probably over an hour later, we emerge from the stuffy interior of Shanghai Night into the now rather welcome rain outside although some stalls were starting to pack up, especially all those on Hercules Street which we missed visiting.

We pick up a few final takeaway boxes of cold noodles and cold sliced beef for dinner, in addition to our leftover soup-less pan fried pork buns, and a quick visit to BreadTop and made the dash in the rain back to where we started. Rain, clouds, wet feet, bad service, great noodles – it was a day in Ashfield that had it all.

Shanghai Night on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hot in the city

There’s always something going on the CBD’s Martin Place these days – from charity fundraisers to seemingly random religious congregations to high end fashion shows. And then other days it’s just a wide, open, grey space for city workers to get their Vitamin D intake for a few precious minutes of the day. It’s not all that often it becomes an Italian trattoria.

Barilla Open-air Trattoria in Martin Place, Sydney
As part of the Sydney Italian Festival, pasta masters Barilla erected an open air trattoria – all blue and white – in the middle of Martin Place for two days (this Wednesday and Thursday just passed), offering a $10 meal deal to celebrate a not-so-well-publicised World Pasta Day.

Barilla lunch plate
The lunch menu included two variations of Barilla pasta, a San Pellegrino soft drink or water, a scoop of Pure Gelato, biscotti and a Lavazza coffee – not too bad for a mid-week lunch. Then there were also bonus grissini, or breadsticks, on the tables for all. It was as if Mamma was afraid we wouldn’t have enough to eat.

Fusilli with salmon and Pesto Genovese
The first pasta was listed as being “Barilla Lasagne” which it clearly wasn’t. Fusilli rather, I think, with tiny bits of cooked salmon through it as well as Barilla’s quite rich and salty Pesto Genovese. The pasta was al dente in a way that was extremely to the tooth – cooked through but could have used another minute, I think.

Casarrecce with egplant tomato, ricotta and grated salted ricotta
The other pasta was much more pleasant – a short scrolled pasta called casarecce. This was cooked nicely with a scrumptious sauce of eggplant, tomato and ricotta, topped off with more grated salted ricotta.

Salami, granda padano and provolone
At the front where cooking demonstrations were taking place, there were also samples of cheeses and salami from the Lombardy region. The salami was deliciously chewy and a lot more moist and chunky than your average supermarket variety. The crumbly grana padano was crumbly and intensely flavoured (I would have taken the entire wheel if I could), while I though the provolone was a little starchy, weirdly enough.

Pure Gelato hazelnut gelato
It turned out to be a decadent lunch ending with dessert of gelato. I'll always have a soft, melty spot in my heart for Pure Gelato, having spent a few years myself scooping the stuff. My favourite was always hazelnut: sweet and nutty, a classic Italian flavour (I also adored Boysenberry Cheesecake which is rather less classic).

Baiocchi biscuits
And if that wasn't a sweet enough ending, we also received packs of Italian biscuits of the Barilla owned Mulino Bianco brand, which was the same brand as the grissini. I actually remember this brand from when I was staying in a home in Italy: they had chocolate chip cookies which were deemed breakfast fare - I didn't argue with them.

These Baiocchi are wonderously crunchy yet short biscuits sandwiched with a hazelnut and chocolate cream filling, cute as a button and about the size of a large one.

Westfield Sydney from Pitt Street Mall
In other city news, the new Westfield Sydney opened its first phase today, with over new 100 stores for city dwellers to spend their dollars. While half the development still resembles a construction site and is not due to be completed until the second quarter of 2011, the first phase is here and now to cash in on the pre Christmas splurge (which mind you, is less than two months away).

Westfield Sydney - bottom up

Westfield Sydney - Level 3

Westfield Sydney - top down
It's seriously glam, a little too posh even with marble tiles, shiny silver and glass surfaces - and not too much of the maze like confusion that can be Westfield Bondi Junction. And there are a lot of shops already, many not yet open (such as the two storey Zara) - but just imagine when the whole complex is finished. It's going to be a serious retail behemoth that will probably incite unruly credit card behaviour.

Stores of interest on the retail front are the sprawling Gap store (with Gap Kids) and flagship Guess and Esprit stores, as well as Melbourne’s Tilkah accessories. If we’re a bit more posh, we’re excited about the petite Mulberry store and the classy Diane von Furstenberg and on the shoe front, Peep Toe Shoes is an exciting CBD addition (with some serious bling too).

Eat Deli & Kitchen, Level 5, Westfield Sydney

Charlie & Co Burgers, Level 5, Westfield Sydney

Cow hide seats at Charlie & Co Burgers -
you eat it, why not sit on it too?
Food options are definitely exciting too; notably Justin North’s (of Becasse, Etch and Plan B) burger venture Charlie & Co and Summit chef Michael Moore’s Eat, Deli & Kitchen for New York style sandwiches and hot roast rolls (anyone who watches The Travel Channel’s Man v Food will understand).

Top Juice - a good looking fruit/juice bar
There’s also the first retail setting for Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar, yet another city-based Guzman Y Gomez for awesome burritos, Le Pain Quotidien, yet another city-based Cupcake Bakery, fresh made gozleme at Dergah Grill, Taste Baguette, and the re-opening of Sky Phoenix for your CBD yum cha fix.

It's quite the other end of the spectrum from any Maccas involved food court, and it shows in the pricing. I tried not to have heart palpitations at the sight of $6 scones and $8 banana "macaroons" at, I think, Via del Corso - pretty but pretty pricey.

Westfield Sydney Castlereagh Street entrance
At first quick glance, I think congratulations are due to Westfield (and the millions of dollars they spent) on bringing the CBD back as a shopping destination. It seems the period of enduring construction dust through Pitt Street Mall was worth it in some way.

Looking forward to checking it out more thoroughly on Saturday, after the Sydney Food & Wine Fair in Hyde Park. Fingers are crossed for some nice weather.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let’s do a last Lunch

Is it possible that a month of food obsession has nearly passed? Are there really just a few days left to experience what the Crave Sydney International Food Festival has to offer for 2010? My tummy feels sad and empty at the thought. A Let’s Do Lunch event should cheer it up.

Window seats at Selah, Loftus Street, Sydney
Rather less involved than my last visit to Selah, Let’s Do Lunch here was a Friday lunch affair – a rather lovely sunny Friday at that. The dining room was bustling, as was the small and familiar open kitchen. With a table by the window, it was a nice way to start the end of the week, although a view of buses is nothing too exciting.

Organic sourdough bread with herb and parmesan oil
We have complimentary bread to start; soft, brown slices of sourdough with a flavoured oil for dipping. At first taste, I thought there was something truffle-oil-ish about it, but it turned out to be parmesan oil. Seems the tastebuds are off, unless it was a particularly earthy, mushroom-y parmesan cheese.

Glass of Traminer
Or perhaps it was the taste of wine in my mouth. Offered Brown Brothers Merlot, a Coopers Original Pale Ale or San Pellegrino sparkling water with the Let’s Do Lunch at Selah, my questioning of a white wine was easily accommodated by proprietor Sam Pask who provided me with a Traminer for a tasting.

Going by the wine list, it may have been the 2007 Blackets Gerwurztraminer from Adelaide Hills, which was light and crisp, and simply perfect for the nice spring day outside.

Roast lamb back strap with pea puree, broad bean and mint salad,
goat's cheese stuffed zucchini flower, confit tomato
Our Let’s Do Lunch order arrived with haste, which was rather appreciated given it was a workday lunch. And it was an impressively heft serve, with seemingly endless slices of the lamb backstrap dominoed across what looked like cous cous but rather was cracked wheat.

There was a lot happening on the busy plate, starting with the roast lamb backstrap – mine closer to medium than my neighbour’s medium-rare. Nonetheless, it was almost completely tender and helped along with an abundance of jus.

The jus was also soaking and flavouring the cracked wheat, which seemed to have a touch of vanilla about it (although maybe off tastebuds again). The cracked wheat was very similar to cous cous, though probably distinguishable by shape of the small grains.

View from the other side - see the pea puree?
The vegies on the side in the form of the pea puree and a broad bean, pea and mint salad contrasted vibrantly with the confit grape tomatoes, fantastically, if not dangerously, juicy.

However, the highlight (vegetable and probably overall) was the zucchini flower, filled with a herbed, soft, white goat’s cheese, battered and deep fried to a golden crisp. The goat’s cheese smacked with flavour while the crunchy coating was a pleasant textural diversion from the tender lamb.

Inside Selah
While we ate, it certainly seemed that the lunch crowd was lapping it up too, with barely an empty table in the small-ish venue. It was a little on the noisy side, but to expected with all the hard surfaces and of course, the chattery CBD mob. Selah’s got a really warm and intimate feel to it, and it was really a nice way to spend an hour away from the office, and indeed, a final Let’s Do Lunch.

Selah on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grape expectations

"The best noodles," I'm told rather vaguely by an ex local. I don't cross the Harbour Bridge all that often, so I have to take their word for it and give it a whirl.

Located at the bottom level food court of the oddly sparse Lemon Grove Shopping Centre off that main strip of Chatswood, Grape Garden is a bit of a tough place to find unless you have a guide or happen to pass by on your way to the New Shanghai restaurant, strangely one of two in Chatswood.

Chef 'pulling' noodles at Grape Garden Beijing Cuisine, Lemon Grove
Centre, Chatswood
As soon as we get there, the chef gets up from his late lunch at the table out front and asks what we would like. Noodles, is the simple answer and instead of waiting for us to decipher the menu board he asks what protein we would each like and how much chilli. If only ordering could alway be this easy and aided.

Grape Garden Beijing Cuisine, Lemon Grove Shopping Centre, Chatswood
Aside from the famed noodles, Grape Garden also does dumplings and has an array of traditional small cold dishes eaten like tapas of sorts. The selection includes vegetarian seaweed dishes alongside the likes of pig's ears; none of which I have tried yet.

Noodle dough ready for stretching
The highlight really are the noodles as each bowl gets a handful of freshly stretched noodles, or pulled to translate to lai mien. It's the real deal with bags of noodle dough on the tables, and this wheel of already 'noodled' dough, at the ready for a noodle order.

Pulling the noodles
When ordered, the chef gathers an amount of the dough strips in his hands, keeping them separated lest they stick together. And in a few lightning-speed motions, he stretches the dough, banging it on the steel surface, stretches again and heads to the stove with pots of boiling water. It's a quick show, but one worth catching.

Chicken noodles
Shortly after, he reappears with a bowl - my order of chicken with not too much chilli. This turns out to have no chilli in the soup base but is roasted chilli oil added on top of my serving - fine by me as I adore that chilli stuff as it's not too hot with all the flavour.

The chicken noodles come with choy sum, shallots and also some kind of nori like seaweed, which reconstitutes to briney, sloppy, green-black pieces. There's also an abundance of shredded skinless chicken - breast and thigh - submerged in the stock, also chicken, I think.

My hand pulled noodles
But to the noodles. Flat, wide and varied as a true sign of hand made noodles. The noodles have a good chew about them but in the initially boiling hot soup, they gradually soak in a lot and for the slow eaters (hello), they end up a little soggy and sorry. Thus, the recommendation is to eat as fast as you can without creating indigestion or looks of disgust from people surrounding.

Spicy pork noodles
Those in the know order the spicy beef or pork noodles, the latter of which is almost world's away from the chicken noodles I had. Same noodles, different world. The broth itself is tinted a deep red - fair indication of the heat level. But from a few sips of the soup, I noted an entirely different flavour profile; one that was heavy in spices and meaty so I don't even think it was the same stock base.

The pork mince is dotted with chilli and makes a nice textural contrast to the noodles and choy sum. It has bags of flavour in every mouthful, and makes up in taste every drop of sweat it draws from your brow. Next time, I'm ordering this, although hopefully they do a slightly less spicy version. Best noodles? Pretty darn good.

Grape Garden Beijing Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spring in Haberfield

Primavera, meaning spring in many Romance languages (thanks Wiki), has certainly sprung and what glorious timing than to coincide with the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. In Haberfield's 'Little Italy' on the weekend, the Primavera Festival saw stalls sprouting in front of restaurants and shopfronts down Ramsay and Dalhousie Streets - who knew postcode 2045 was such a foodie haven?

Ramsay Street, Haberfield for Primavera
Armed with tasting tickets that could also conveniently be used for three other local food festivals but many stall holders also taking cash, it was a lovely, albeit windy, walking eating tour of some of Haberfield's best.

The la Disfida stall, Ramsay Street, Haberfield
La Disfada was the first we saw along Ramsay Street which we invariably spent the day criss-crossing up and down the road. The restaurant kitchen sent out small sized pizzas to the stall out the front, which also had panforte and coffee on offer, but we were keen for some smaller tastes to start.

Paesanella Cheese, Ramsay Street, Haberfield
The Paesanella Cheese stall
Across the road is the famed Paesanella cheese store, also with a stall out the front, but many goodies inside too. It was hard to choose from the cheese offerings at the stall as they all looked delectably gourmet and made of fresh Paesanella cheeses.

Bocconcini lollipop from Paesanella Cheese
The bocconcini lollipop was cute; a fork speared ball of bocconcini wrapped with a strip of prosciutto - what kid wouldn't be happy holding one of those?

Grilled Fresco with rocket from Paesanella Cheese
The pan grilled Fresco (a cow's milk pecorino) was completely drool-worthy; a browned and softened slice of cheese atop bread and covered with dressed rocket leaves.

Mascarpone reale with fig salsa from Paesanella Cheese
But we'd decided to be a little more adventurous and had the mascarpone reale - Paesanella's creamy mascarpone mixed with a blue cheese - spread over bread and topped with a fig salsa and slices of fig. It was explosively flavoursome: salty, sweet, pungent and quite rich, but a sensational starter for any dinner party, I would think.

Cabinet of cheeses from Paesanella Cheese
Inside the store we could see the mascarpone reale in its full form, a round cake of layered mascarpone and blue cheese. There was also an entire cabinet of imported cheeses in addition to fresh Paesanella products and antipasti.

Here we scored a packet of some awesomely spicy, sliced sopressa - the plastic packet which was requested to be opened for immediate consumption. It was salami perfection - perfectly thin, savoury in its fatty goodness, with slow burning heat that eventually kicked so hard that we needed respite of any sort.

Frank's Fruit Market, Ramsay Street, Haberfield
Our saviour was found a few doors down, at a fruit shop. It was good to see the local fruit shop, and further down the butcher, participate in the street festival, although the location of stores and the stalls meant there was fair distance between each, not quite forming a consistent and festive atmosphere.

Caprese salad from Frank's Fruit Market
Bocconcini in the caprese salad
Nonetheless, Frank’s Fruit Market provided necessary vitamins and nutrients with a range of salads: Greek to fruit to my favourite Italian caprese. Sliced bocconcini, ripe red tomatoes and slivers of basil formed salad perfection; especially with the sopressa on the side.

Calamari from il Locale, Ramsay Street, Haberfield
Continuing up Ramsay Street to the Dalhousie Street corner, the snazzy il Locale had it all covered with a setup of pizza, pasta, a range of antipasti and desserts. The calamari looked particularly enticing, so we grabbed a serve and were delighted with its tenderness and freshness. In a pale crumb, the rings of squid burst with well seasoned flavour – garlic, salt, pepper, spice, parsley – enhanced with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Napoli in Bocca, Dalhousie Street, Haberfield
The only thing that stopped me from a second serve of calamari was the sight, and sounds, of Napoli in Bocca just around the corner. Blaring operatic Italian arias drew the crowds in to watch Ben Riccio make Nutella crepes out the front and wait for pizzettes inside.

Making fresh crepes
Ben Riccio making nutella crepes
Pizzettes being made at Napoli in Bocca
Entertainment was abounds as we waited; from the bustling lunchtime crowd in the restaurant to the Italian speaking staff to the pizza chefs whipping up pizzas and calzones with practised efficiency. In particular, I was taken with their method of flattening out the dough (no rolling device, no flipping in the air), which looked very soft and pliable.

Pizzette going in the oven
Napoli in Bocca pizzas
Pizzas were flying in and out of the wood fired oven within minutes; perfectly round specimens with mostly simple toppings, slightly charred crusts and bubbling cheesy tops. Just standing around the pizza section waiting was enough to get up a roaring appetite for pizza.

The dough for the pizzettes
Mushroom and chilli pizzette from Napoli in Bocca
Our mushroom plus chilli pizzette came out of the oven, was sliced into quarters and in our hot little hands in a couple of smooth motions; with boiling hot, sliding toppings and crunchy crusts. With cheese everywhere, we agreed that the base was not the thinnest ever, but had a great crispness outside of fluffy innards and was just the thing for a lunch snack.

Wood-fired oven
After ample tasting and trying, the rest of the touring was to be take-home produce. The superb range of pasta at Peppe’s Pasta tempted with the gourmet crab with mascarpone and smoked garlic, but we went home with the roasted butternut pumpkin and fresh sage variety – which was delightfully al dente and sweet with pumpkin, though the sage was rather subtle.

At David Gojak Meat and Small Goods, a barbeque was firing out the front with sausages and steak sandos on offer. Here we left with a sausage of black pudding for those weekend breakfast fry-ups.

Pasticceria Papa, corner of Ramsay and Dalhousie Streets, Haberfield
The cake cabinet (and queues) at Pasticceria Papa
We backtracked to Pasticceria Papa, where the queue out the door had finally shortened a little. I’d been hanging out for ricotta cannoli all day, but with the cabinet running the length of the store, I couldn’t help but add a few other bits and pieces.

Biscotti and crostata
Pistachio biscotti
Almond horseshoe biscotti (mandorli?)
I used to adore the horseshoe shaped almond biscuits back in the day when I worked in a cafe, and it seems nothing has changed. Pasticceria Papa’s version is less sweet and nutty than I remember, but a nice, light treat had alongside cannoli.

Ricotta and chocolate (centre) cannoli
The chocolate custard cannoli were, unfortunately, a waste of time compared to the ricotta. While the chocolate filling was creamy and nicely semi sweet, it had nothing on the multi-dimensional flavour of the ricotta filling – sweet, rich with an end note of tartness and quite sensational with its chopped almond tips. It was cannoli that defined the weekend.

Cocoa dusted mascarpone ridges of the tiramisu cake
The other happy dessert moment was the tiramisu, a slice cut from an entire cake. Despite the leaking of probably liqueur syrup from the box, being quite the moist cake, the tiramisu was gorgeous in every facet: light, smooth mascarpone covered in slightly bitter cocoa powder over fluffy, coffee spiked cake, and just the right serving size too.

Tiramisu cake
It was certainly a big eating day and overall, a great introductory foodie day out in Haberfield. La Primavera is indeed a beautiful time to be out and in love – with cannoli.


Napoli in Bocca on Urbanspoon

Pasticceria Papa on Urbanspoon


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