Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Balls, balls, octopus balls: Takoyaki class at Chef's Armoury

Takoyaki classes at Chef's Armoury, Botany Road, Rosebery
Has there ever been a more perfect sighting of balls? This glorious golden orb is takoyaki, or grilled octopus balls; popular street food from Japan and most notably, Osaka.

We're familiar with takoyaki in Sydney often in its frozen form, which is widely available at sushi trains and casual Japanese restaurants. But the real-deal, freshly cooked stuff is a little harder to procure, save from the occasional markets stalls.

Necessary ingredients for takoyaki
But what if you could make your own at home? Other than a scary thought regarding how many takoyaki I could actually eat in one sitting, it was game on at a Chef’s Armoury cooking class one Saturday morning.

Chef’s Armoury sits inconspicuously on a commercial strip of Botany Road in Rosebery. Those who venture within are rewarded with a trove of Japanese knives and accessories, Japanese foodstuffs as well as a collection of goodies for those inclined towards molecular gastronomy (yes, you can buy a water bath here).

Takoyaki mise en place
They also offer classes in store: knife sharpening and knife skills, sashimi filleting and cooking classes in the stainless steel kitchen, including tofu from scratch. The classes usually run on weekends, and they’re also hosting some for Crave Sydney International Food Festival, which starts this weekend.

Sifting flour, Leigh Hudson of Chef's Armoury
I only have eyes for octopus balls so the takoyaki class, which includes a cast iron takoyaki pan to take home and tastings in the price, sees me up early on a Saturday morning and sitting diligently in front of Chef’s Armoury owner, and everything Japanese guy, Leigh Hudson.

We get straight into the batter for the takoyaki: a simple mixture of plain flour, eggs, kuzu or potato starch and soy sauce (more starch means crunchier takoyaki). Dashi stock is then added, easiest made up from a non-MSG dashi powder, and whisked till a thin cream consistency.

The fillings of diced cabbage and shallots are added for a base to the more feature fillings later, like octopus and in more modern fashion, cheese and what the Japanese call ‘wiener’ sausage. The batter then rests a while in the fridge, although this is not a completely necessary step for those super hungry for takoyaki.

Half filling the takoyaki pan with batter
The hardest part is, surprisingly, preparing the pan. Aside from the initial seasoning of the cast iron pan (involving heating the pan with oil numerous times), the pan needs to be heated and liberally oiled well before cooking so that an audible sizzle comes from the pan when the batter is poured into the hot pan.

Adding chopped octopus
The mould holes are filled half way with the batter before the addition of chopped, blanched octopus legs, or bits of cheese or sausage.

Flooding the takoyaki pan
The pan is then completely flooded with more batter, beyond the holes and up onto the flat parts of the pan; being careful not to overflow the entire pan and make a complete mess of the stove.

Separating the batter
Here the batter cooks and starts to set, at which point the really fun part starts. Using nothing more than a couple of wooden skewers, you separate the batter into its respective hole sections and try to push the excess batter ‘flaps’ into the holes.

Flipping the first couple of takoyaki
Then, if properly oiled, you should be able to easily flip or spin the ball over with the skewers so that the uncooked side faces down, and a hopefully golden browned, round bottom is staring up at you.

The beauty is that is you stuff one up and break it or something similar, you can leave it for a minute or so and then retry, as the batter fixes most errors itself.

They start to take shape...
I believe the experts in Japan spin the balls with a single skewer, but until I reach that level of proficiency through years and years of practice, I’m happy to use two skewers to almost lift the balls out of the holes and quickly flip them.

... the perfectly round takoyaki
It doesn’t take very long to cook the balls as it’s just a matter of cooking the thin batter mostly through. It’s also sometimes necessary to move the takoyaki to different holes to make sure they get cooked evenly (the corner holes will obviously be somewhat less hot than the centre ones).

Liberally applying takoyaki sauce
Getting them out is a slightly tricky matter of trying not to break the takoyaki, although ones that are wet and not quite ready will probably resist removal more so than the cooked ones.

Liberally applying Japanese mayonnaise
Plop them out onto a plate and garnish with the completely necessary sauces: a takoyaki one that’s quite similar to the fruit and vegetable sauces in okonomiyaki or even tonkatsu, plus lots of Japanese mayonnaise.

Liberally adding katsuobushi
The finishing touch and one of my most favourite things in Japanese food is the addition of kerzuribushi dried bonito shavings that do their little wave dance in the steaming heat of the freshly cooked takoyaki.

The finished product - takoyaki
They’re supposed to be eaten hot, fresh and whole, ideally with a cold beer, but it’s a bit early in the day for the latter and my tongue can’t really handle piping hot food. They get a little sloppy when eaten by halves, but all the better to mop up the sauce, I think.

Takoyaki with cheese and weiner sausage
With an entire batch of batter, the class can make about three batches of the stuff and Leigh is more than happy to let the students have a go – yours truly even had a mostly successful attempt.

Surprisingly easy to flip and turn
The cheese ones are a winner with dangerously hot, oozing cheese being the end result, while the ‘wiener’ sausage/frankfurt ones, I imagine, would be awesome at 2am after a big night out.

I would highly recommend the takoyaki class for anyone who’s a fan of the octopus balls – it’s fun and yum, completely do-able at home and hard to balls-up.

Perfect takoyaki balls (almost) every time
Check out the class schedule at Chef’s Armoury as well as the Crave Sydney International Food Festival classes. And check out how my at home takoyaki (with chopped prawns) fared here on my Facebook page.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s Flying Fish and Chips

The opening of The Star, formerly known as Star City, has been flying a little low on some radars. Despite colourful banners throughout the CBD (perhaps somewhat overshadowed by Art & About’s ‘What If’ banners), a few people were on the lookout for a new tabloid newspaper rather than the multi-million dollar renovated Sydney casino.

Curiosity gets the better on me on a Friday night after a cocktail or two. The cab ride from the city is a possible deterrent for rat racers, but if the weather was nicer – but not too hot either – the walk over Pyrmont Bridge could be quite pleasant.

The new casino layout is decidedly different – it’s best to go in as if it’s a completely new place, otherwise there could be confusion. The main entrance, now facing the water, is glitzier and shows off new restaurants Balla by Stefano Manifredi and Black by Teage Ezard, as well as a line of designer store fronts.

Natural oysters from Flying Fish and Chips, The Star, Pyrmont
Turning a corner past Balla leads to the food court section; and now that Westfield Sydney has essentially redefined food court eating, expect nothing lesser. There’s still work going on and some empty shopfronts, but on the whole – no-one seems to know about the place on this empty Friday night.

Which means placing an order at Flying Fish and Chips requires no waiting beyond our making selections from the pretty good looking menu. Cold and hot seafood options are available, as well as wines by the glass and bottle.

Post some minor technology teething problems, we grab a dozen natural oysters to share. The Sydney rock oysters are served on a bed of rock salt with lemon wedges and seafood sauce. They’re passable, though by no means the freshest in the suburb.

Classic fish and chips
It’s hard to go past good ol’ fish and chips here. It’s the first on the hot menu, and should probably be the signature and/or best seller given the store’s name. The white fish fillet is unidentified and we forget to ask, and is served with thick cut chips and a side salad – the latter quite a pleasant, balsamic-dressed surprise.

The batter on the fish is top notch, if not a smidgen thick and oil retentive, but well-seasoned and audibly crunchy. The fish is a good-sized fillet, still moist within while the uniquely seasoned chips are mostly good, with just a few looking in need of a solarium or further cooking.

Seared Petuna ocean trout with jasmine rice and curry sauce
An intriguing main-like dish, and one possibly familiar to Flying Fish diners, is a seared fillet of ocean trout, served with seasoned rice and oddly enough, a side salad as well. It’s also a generous serve and looks beautifully cooked, with just a hint of golden brown on the flesh.

Though sadly, looks can be deceiving as the fish was desperately underseasoned, even with extra curry sauce (which comes from a squeeze bottle), while the rice had a gluggy feel which one might also put down to kitchen teething issues.

Prawn cutlets with chips
I came out victor of the night with my choice of prawn cutlets from the hot menu. When I ordered, I already had heightened expectations for something far superior to the frozen, crumbed ones you can get at many a takeaway food store that are more bread than prawn. My expectations, and rather unhealthy choice, were justly rewarded.

The little bowl could barely contain the huge battered specimens of my prawns, beside my well-coloured thick chips and side salad. The prawns, instead of being butterflied, were completely split down the centre and remained joint at the tail – a nice structural divergence from their frozen cousins.

As such, there was probably more batter per prawn, which wasn’t an issue given the incredibly tasty (potentially beer) batter, which still held more oil than I would have liked. A touch of tartare sauce completed my winning meal, as too the very crunchy and filling chips, washed down with a glass of Italian pinot grigio.

Sadly, I think the chips took away my opportunity to have dessert at Messina Gelato, though we still managed to detour by the gaming floor – which is the whole point. If The Star can just get every diner to drop just a few dollars on the tables or at the pokies, they’ll probably soon be recouping renovation costs and flying high.

Flying Fish and Chips on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A race through Hunter Valley - part 3

It had already been a massive day in the Hunter Valley - we'd been through vineyards and cellar doors; into wineries and into the air; and ate and drank until we could no more. It was finally time to determine the winners of the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race'.

I think we were all winners at this point, especially anyone who managed a nap before the final official event of the weekend. A bumpy ride to Broke (from Pokolbin) brought us out to a chilly night and into a stunning setting for dinner.

The Barrel Hall at Margan Restaurant, Milbrodale Road, Broke, Hunter Valley
Past the restaurant reception area and normal dining room, doors open to the breathtaking Barrel Room at highly rated Margan Restaurant. With soft lighting illuminating the wine barrel-lined room; two long, white clothed tables created a celebratory ambience for the excited race teams.

The Barrel Hall at Margan Restaurant
The room is cool in temparature as I suppose the barrels aren't just there for display. The length of the room, and the ingenuity of turning it into events and dining space, makes it ideal for large private dinners, weddings and celebration in general.

Barrels in the Barrel Hall at Margan Restaurant
We mull the day over with Margan wines - a Shiraz Rose and a lightly bubbly Semillon Frizzante - and canapes, including unforgettable natural oysters with a blackberry vinaigrette and prawns with a sparky harissa sauce.
Crusty ciabatta with fresh pressed olive oil and aged balsamic,
and local marinated olives
Not long after we take our seats, pillows come out. Pillows of ciabatta, that is. The most plump looking loaves of ciabatta bread are served with olive oil and sweet aged balsamic vinegar, alongside somewhat shrivelled, marinated black olives.

It keeps us quiet as we hear from Andrew Margan, winemaker and founder of Margan Wines, who talks about the Margan winery and restaurant. Most of the vegetables we'll dine on at dinner come from their very own one-acre fruit and vegie garden, whilst other produce is selected from local producers in most cases.

Jerusalem artichoke soup, seared scallop, apple salad, lobster oil
The three courses was an alternate drop, but we all knew there'd be swapsies in between. I was happy to land the jerusalem artichoke soup entree, as it was definitely soup weather outside.

Amid the creamy and nourishing soup, the sweet diced apple salad was a surprise in the bottom centre of the bowl. The three scallops were still nice and juicy while the Manjimup truffle shavings were just the luxurious icing on the cake.

Venison carpaccio with fried goat's cheese ravioli and spicy beetroot
There was a lot happening on the other entree, in terms of ingredients and colours. Thin rounds of venison circled the centre of the plate where a puffy, golden fried ravioli sat, all encircled with a herb oil, shavings of parmesan cheese and crunchy croutons.

The venison was surprisingly delicate and almost too thin to even pick up from the plate. The combination with goat's cheese was definitely a winner, however, for quite the innovative dish.

There was plenty of wine at the table, and I mean plenty. There would have been four different whites down one end of our table alone (I vaguely remember a Scarborough Semillon), which were changed out for several bottles of red wine as we got to mains (having too good a time to remember them all, sorry).

Slow braised lamb shoulder, parmesan cavalo nero, eggplant and oregano
We were well and truly on the winter menu with two braised meats featuring on the mains. In front of me was a generous serving of braised lamb shoulder atop a dark pile of cavalo nero and spiced eggplant.

The vegetable component seemed to have some Middle Eastern flavours, including cumin, that was near overpowering the more delicately flavoured lamb. The meat was, as expected, able to be eaten by spoon; so tender and fall-apart soft it was.

Braised wagyu shin with baby veg from the garden, horseradish and cauliflower cream
The prettier braised wagyu dish featured carrots, peas and leaves from the Margan vegetable garden, and the taste proves they're worth the effort. The cauliflower cream is the perfect foil for the rich, buttery beef, which seems to have been pulled and reformed into shin-like cylinders, while the jus was exquisite.

No meal is complete without dessert, some say (and indeed, it seems no meal is complete without three courses in the Hunter Valley). At this point, the Margan Botrytis Semillon comes out of hiding, along with the Scarborough Late Harvest Semillon (and possibly other sticky wines too).

It's hard not to fall in love with anything late harvest, but especially so the Scarborough sticky which tastes of many tropical fruits having a late harvest party on my palate.

Poached rhubarb, toasted almond cream, and mint
The toasted almond cream resembled a panna cotta, with similar textures and flavours. The feature was definitely the soft cooked pieces of rhubarb, which along with the biscuit crumble, made for a comforting, homely dessert.

Chocolate marquise with caramel and salted hazelnuts
I had my full attention on the chocolate dessert - a narrow helping of gooey, creamy, pure chocolate decadence. Despite the richness, I couldn't say no to the halo of caramel nor the extra lines of chocolate.

Surprisingly, the big star of this dessert was actually the hazelnuts: perfect crunch, perfect roast flavour and without doubt, the best hazelnuts I've ever had.

Lights and ceiling in the Barrel Room
Food aside, I should mention that our team didn't perform so well in the race, landing in a not-so valiant third place. Nonetheless, we all had a fantastic time and were even rewarded for the bronze placing.

We all probably would have stayed in the charming Barrel Room all night (and probably would have drank all the wine too) if not for our homeward bound transport awaiting us, returning us all to our accommodation with warm thoughts of food, wine and the adventure-filled day in Hunter Valley.

So sad to leave Margan Restaurant
With the end of the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race', some of us still had the next day to revel in more of the Hunter Valley, and in my case, particularly wineries in the Polkolbin region and a necessary stop in at the Smelly Cheese Shop. See photos here on my Facebook page (and Like me while you're there!).

The Hunter Valley is easily a favourite weekend getaway for me: the proximity to Sydney and the quality focus of the food and wine make compelling enough arguments. But add a dash of bike riding, a dusting of helicopter rides, perhaps even a middy of boutique beer - and I think the race is on to get back as soon as permitted and possible.

Food, booze and shoes and guest attended the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race' famil courtesy of Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism and the fabulous girls at Agent99 PR.

Margan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cheers at Chat Thai, Westfield Sydney

My regular clinking of glasses tends to be a drinking gesture rather than a celebratory motion. Cheers are regularly made to Tuesdays, Thursdays and relief-toned Fridays, as well as to not hating jobs, to new shoes, to being indoors from cold weather and indeed, to drinking itself.

There was definitely some clinking, then, at the newest Chat Thai restaurant in the CBD's Westfield Sydney. It was probably cheers to now having some decent and well-priced Thai dinner options in the city, and the availability of alcoholic beverages on this Chat Thai's menu.

Mai Thai cocktail at Chat Thai, Westfield Sydney
Cocktails featuring Thai ingredients, wines and beer have made it to the upscaled Westfield-ed restaurant, next to Xanthi, Spiedo further down and Chinta Ria: Mood for Love to open opposite soon.

The Mai Thai is a popular choice that incites other nearby orders and inner pyromaniacs. The dark rum in the lime half cup packs the expected mai thai punch along with shaken white rum, triple sec, pineapple and lime.

BS 101 cocktail
I can't help but order the basil seed dotted BS 101, just because I'm a bit of a child. I adore eating the slippery membranes of the black seeds - even more than tapioca pearls and flying fish roe. Thai basil, lime, vodka and vanilla liqueur round out the fun in this glass.

Sour monkey cocktail
One for whiskey lovers, and even quite drinkable for a non whiskey lover. The Sour Monkey is a play on a whiskey sour, featuring Monkey Shoulder whiskey in the egg white foam topped drink. The lime and sugar make it a lot easier to drink; perhaps a covert way to sneak whiskey into my drinking repertoire.

Longan Island Iced Tea cocktail
A little more familiar is the longan cocktail with four different liquors, but familiar in a better way than my memories of Long Islands. This is highly drinkable, and simultaneously sweet and lethal - and to think I'd left those days behind me.

Aside from cocktails, there's the difficult task of electing dishes to share from the extensive menu. A beautifully photographed book, the menu is daunting and tempting with full page photos. I find it incredibly difficult not to just order the few photographed dishes.

Todt mun goong gaeng keaw -
Fried green curried prawn mousseline, drizzled with pickled plum sauce
I cannot get enough of this starter. Though I haven't nearly tried all the starters on the Chat Thai menu, this is undoubtedly a star; leagues away from same-old, machine-manufactured Thai fish cakes, moneybags or spring rolls that are passed off as starters elsewhere.

Go past the golden crumbs into the bouncy-textured prawn mousseline with subtle curry flavours, to find large prawns cooked within. The plum sauce is just the icing on the cake, while the crisp, deep fried basil leaves are endlessly delightful.

Khor mhu yaang -
Char grilled pork neck with smoked chilli and tamarind relish
There's an entire page dedicated to grilled meats, and after trying the pork neck, I'm not sure I will be tempted away from ordering it again and again.

The small pieces of pork neck have an addictive char flavour and are surprisingly tender whilst being fairly lean. The dipping sauce of chilli and tamarind adds a nice, balanced sour and sweet component.

Beak gai nahm prik pao -
Fried de-boned chicken wings sauteed in smoked chilli jam sauce
The idea is spot on - I think I'd like all my chicken wings de-boned from here on, thanks. There can be some pleasure from picking every bit of meat off the thin chicken bones, but in a restaurant setting, the de-boned option is a winner.

Here, the battered and deep fried wings soak up a smokey, sweet sauce of chilli jam; and while it would be nice if the wings stayed nice and juicy inside, this Thai play on buffalo wings is just too much fun.

Ship & Shore -
Chicken, pork, prawn and fried egg salad dressed in smoked chilli jam
Another playful dish is the Ship & Shore "salad" - more a surf 'n' turf meat salad than one of vegetables. A melange of marinated chicken and pork prop up gorgeous prawns atop a golden fried egg, with Spanish onions and chilli jam thrown in for good, salad-like measure.

Yum ma kruea -
Char roasted eggplant salad with ground chicken and prawns
Yet another pictured item in the menu is a modern styled salad of roasted eggplant, prawn and chicken mince. The eggplant stack with prawns looks like something from a Mod Oz menu while the sawtooth herb seems to be signalling to someone or something.

The silky cooked eggplant is actually quite subtle, and with onion, herbs and a light saucy dressing, the clean flavours of this salad make it a standout.

Gaeng daeng gai -
Red curry of chicken with apple eggplants, kaffir lime leaves and basil
At this point I think I should mention that dining with a group is the best way to try a lot of dishes, though a hungry couple could easily have a two starters and two bigger dishes, I think (with potential takeaways for tomorrow's even tastier lunch).

The red curry of chicken is a people pleaser - not too hot, not too creamy, a little sweet, and with loads of chicken pieces, cute and slightly bitter apple eggplants, and lots of herbaceous goodness.

Mhu grob padt prik khing -
Stir fried crisp pork belly and wild ginger in red curry paste
Pork belly is an automatic order with a lot of people I dine out with. When it's stir fried with beans and ginger in a red curry paste, I can totally understand. The warning here, though, is that it's pretty hot on the chilli meter (not sure if you can request a milder version) and that it's not always as crispy as it could be.

Bpla choo chee
Crisp whole snapper in red curry
The whole fish on the seafood menu is pretty decent value for a large and impressive dish. There's a choice of five different sauces and we again veer towards red curry. It's just easy and predictably good.

There's quite a bit of flesh on the well cooked fish, although you need to be a little careful with fish bones. Ideally, eat with caution and while not too un-sober.

I seem to stuff myself to the gills everytime I eat at Chat Thai, and while I'm happy to pass on dessert more often than not, others aren't. There is an entire front kitchen dedicated to Thai desserts at the Westfield Sydney Chat Thai (much bigger than the one at Haymarket), and the creations are nothing short of spectacular.

Khanom buaing - 
Sweet thin wafers filled with meringue, candied dried shrimp and herbs
I've watched in wonder the creation of the truly unique wafer and meringue desserts many a time in that front kitchen. A thick batter forms the crispy, thin, round wafer - the whole process reminding me of fortune cookies.

A dollop of glossy white meringue is topped with diced candied dried shrimp and coriander. That's right - dried shrimp in a dessert.

I don't like dried shrimp generally, but I find it a little less challenging when candied and served with sweet meringue; taking the salty-sweet combination to another level.

Steamed layer cake (back) and young coconut jelly
The young coconut jelly is more my thing. I can't resist having it at yum cha but this version blows the others out of the water. Not too sweet and filled with pieces of soft, young coconut, the firm jelly is just the thing after a filling meal.

The green and white steamed layer cakes are small but heavier nonetheless. They're almost cloyingly sweet, and flavoured with coconut and pandan for those attractive footy team stripes.

Fresh mango with sticky rice
And for those with a bit more room in the stomach (or really, those who haven't over-gorged on the savouries), there are the reliable Thai sticky rice desserts. I was pretty impressed to be having gorgeously ripe mangoes in winter (sourced from Queensland) and could easily wolf down the fruit part of this dessert.

The sticky rices were expectedly sweet and filling, with a touch of coconut milk for added richness. The purple-hued rice had an unusal floral taste; the colour and flavour of which I think comes from a particular blue flower used in Southeast Asian cooking.

In the end, absolutely stuffed with a fair few cocktails under the belt, it's three cheers to Chat Thai opening in the CBD.

Disclosure: Food, booze and shoes is acquainted with staff at Chat Thai Westfield Sydney and has previously dined complimentarily.

Chat Thai Westfield Sydney on Urbanspoon


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