Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Foveaux: Understated in Surry Hills

There are plenty of brash, brazen personalities out there and there are also the shrinking violets. While I wouldn’t necessarily place myself in either camp, something has to be said for the understated – the ones that surprise and impress without hype or fanfare. Like Foveaux in Surry Hills.

With a chef’s hat attained in last year's awards, Foveaux is that quiet achiever down the back of the class. My second visit to Foveaux was via voucher deal, with two courses each and to which we added wines by the glass like the bold, berry-bursting Tellurian Shiraz, sides and dessert.

Chestnut soup with ciabatta breadcrumbs and sage oil from Foveaux,
Foveaux Street, Surry Hills
We started with bread accompanied by plenty of butter and a complimentary amuse bouche featuring one of my favourite nuts – the chestnut. Amid the warming soup were extraordinarily crunchy ciabatta breadcrumbs and a barely noticeable sage oil.

Caramelised venison tongue, nham pla prawns, crispy pork skin, cauliflower cream, cashew, shiso and mint
With an ingredient as uncommon as venison tongue, it was a must-order of the entrées. The flavours of the nham pla prawns outshone the venison tongue however, but the latter had a sweetened and meaty chew that was surprising and impressive with the fresh torn herb leaves.

Seared bonito, black sesame, mushroom milk, puffed rice with pickled vegetables and elk
The barely seared bonito entrée was served cold; pink in sashimi-style in the centre with a black sesame crust on its skin side.

There was a lot going on around it but all of it harmonious: the thin rounds of pickled carrot and radish cutting through the aerated, meringue-like mushroom cream, which rounded off the soft, yielding fish.

Roasted veal sirloin, caper and veal chip, white anchovy puree and Brussels sprouts
With the onset of chilly winter weather, it was impossible to ignore the heavier proteins of the mains menu. Not the hugest fan of anchovy but club leader for Brussels sprouts and veal, it had to be the roasted veal sirloin for me.

Done medium-rare, the slices of veal were tenderly juicy though needed the generous splodges of anchovy puree which were distinctive but not overly salty.

The ‘chip’ was a crunchily crumbed specimen of pulled veal and capers; a bit like a Chicken Chippee but infinitely better – an ingenious and utterly divine emphasis of veal in the dish.

Roasted venison leg, mushroom puree, juniper oil, spaetzle, pickled red cabbage
with apple and Spanish onion
The venison leg didn’t look too different to the veal, and had no gamey flavour whatsoever in its medium-cooked state.

The earthy-hued mushroom puree added interest but couldn’t compete with the German influenced pickled red cabbage with spaetzle: sweet with apple and so fragrant with juniper oil that my one taste had me in a gin and tonic mindframe.

Green beans with confit garlic, oregano and lemon
We also indulged in sides of a luxe, thick and creamy potato puree and shiny green beans, tossed with confit garlic slices and lifted with lemon and oregano.

Thyme parfait, lemon curd, blueberry sorbet, pistachio and dried lemon sponge
With the decision made for a dessert to share, I was immediately intrigued by the thyme parfait although the resulting dessert was less herbaceous than I expected.

Nonetheless, the varied combination of the creamy blocks of parfait, tart lemon curd, and dramatic blueberry sorbet accompanied by fresh berries and crumbled nuts worked a treat. Especially with the phenomenal dried lemon sponge which had taken on biscuit-like characteristics with a subtle citrus note.

It was warming to see the cosily full dining room and indeed, the joy on the faces of diners when interestingly-presented dishes arrived to the table. Foveaux doesn’t subscribe to hype or fall head over heels into new trends, but its understated class and reliability make it a shining star of its food-centric postcode.

Foveaux on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 27, 2012

A winning pub meal at The Commodore Hotel

There are fewer and fewer traditional pubs around these days given the rise of the family, hipster and food-oriented drinking holes. If that means fewer pokies I suppose it’s not all that bad, but I fear we may get to a day when the older male has nowhere to comfortably, and affordably, down his daily schooners.

Dining room at The Commodore Hotel, 
While The Commodore in McMahons Point retains a pub feel, its expansive outdoor terrace beer garden and rather upscale dining area position it towards the working professional; aided by its awarded casual dining menu.

The Commodore’s Warm Winter Curry Wednesdays tempted me over the bridge and into the stylish, cosy bistro where it’s drinks from the bar and grab a number for your food.

Beef massaman curry with jasmine rice
I couldn’t go past the day’s curry: a beef massaman served with jasmine rice. The serving of curry, large and quick out of the kitchen, was covered in crushed peanuts and was delivered with a smallish serve of rice and a warmed piece of thin pita/wrap bread.

Beef massaman curry with jasmine rice
The curry was on the sweeter side of things, and comprised halved chat potatoes and gigantic slices of beef cooked soft. While it wasn’t particularly authentic, there was no complaining about the generosity and warmth of the dish.

Braised lamb pappardelle
Pasta isn’t so much a typical pub dish but the hearty braised lamb pappardelle shone with its gorgeous ribbons of pasta and a wealth of soft lamb pulled from the bone. The rich braise was completely winter appropriate though I yearned for the lightening acidity of tomato.

Rocket, fennel and parmesan salad
I love a generous side dish and don’t mind the 1990s rocket association one bit. The less abundant fennel was quite the decent addition to the regular suspects of rocket and parmesan cheese.

While it’s beer (or cider) all the way in a pub during summer, a pinot noir was fitting for a winter curry night although I’m not sure what a pinot noir doesn’t go with. Red wine in a pub like The Commodore is just fine – as long as there’s space at the bar for schooner sessions too.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of the Commodore Hotel.

Commodore Hotel on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 24, 2012

Japan times - part 5: Ginza cocktail bars, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the fifth of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Street sign in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan
Ginza. It's a place you learn about in high school Japanese classes, renowned for high end shopping.

The wide, clean streets didn't seem too busy on an early weekday afternoon but there were a fair few Japanese housewives out shopping: the modern ones with designer shopping bags dangling from their perfectly manicured hands, but also the traditional, kimono-clad ladies walking slowly but with purpose.

Side street at Ginza
While I'd love to drop a house deposit's worth of savings on the latest designer shoes and bags, there was more attainable luxuries in the streets just behind the main road of Ginza.

Lined with short and tall buildings, it was the extensive and small signage in front of the street's buildings that was most interesting. Some required binoculars to read, but within the countless signs hide bars and other liveliness that had to be discovered and found, before being seen and believed.

Hai-booru - whisky highball
Somewhere that I'll probably never find again, we started simply. Young Japanese guys and girls alike seem fond of the hai-booru, which is apparently a recent drinking phenomenon.

Basically just a whisky and soda served in a highball glass, it took marketing geniuses at one of the Japanese whisky producers to brand the simple mixed drink a hai-booru before the local Scotch-style whisky market really took off with the younger generation of drinkers.

Main road in Ginza by night
There is some very serious cocktail talent in Japan, with a number of bars run by internationally-renowned bartenders right in Ginza, usually in a building complex with a bunch of other booze and entertainment venues.

We had a plan of attack with a list of about five bars to visit in an evening, all mapped out after some much-needed hotel concierge and street directory assistance. Good eyesight and some basic reading of Japanese hiragana/katakana also came in handy for reading the small signs outside the buildings.

Perhaps needless to say, we forgot about dinner and only made it to two bars.

Signature City Coral cocktail at Tender Bar, Ginza
We almost crept into the quiet doorway of Tender Bar from the lift, to be greeted by a white-jacketed young fellow who spoke a little English. We sat at the bar, taking heed of the cover charge for non-regulars, and ordered cocktails, which is when Kazuo Ueda emerged from a curtained back room almost ceremoniously.

Ueda is the big name behind Tender Bar, and renowned in serious bartending circles for his signature 'hard shake' - a cocktail shaking method that is meant to result in cocktails with a softer, milder alcohol taste. In the presence of bartending royalty, I had to order one of his signature cocktails that featured the hard shake, and unknowingly, a couple of brightly coloured liqueurs too.

Aside from the dramatic Blue Curacao tinted salt rim and crust on the outside of the flute, the City Coral had gin, grapefruit juice and Midori. In a way the salt crust made sense as an alternative flavour to the very Midori-sweet cocktail; although the fried pea snacks were helpful too.

Old Fashioned cocktail
Even a classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned, got a new look and treatment, with a nearly over the top garnish of orange, lemon and lime slices. Served with a spoon to stir the ice, the departure from a traditional recipe was interesting and brave.

By now we'd been joined at the bar by pairs of locals: an older Japanese couple, regulars, drinking whisky and a Campari soda; the guy lighting up a cigar in the small, neat room. There were a couple of young businessmen with ties over their shoulders and further down, two young females taking photos of their Tender Bar experience.

Gin Martini
After the intriguing City Coral, I retreated to the safety of classics - a dry gin martini, with Ueda almost warning me that it's a "strong" drink. Stirred quickly on ice with a touch of vermouth, it was Beefeater Gin that sent the icily good kick in the very dainty, small glass.

We were replenished with new snacks on our second round of drinks; a tasty mix of nuts and crackers, making me wonder if the snacks kept upgrading to the point of a steak or something.

While the noise in the bar had picked up a little from the stiff, empty start, there was still a quiet reverence about the small crowd which almost watched Ueda's every move. He was also the only one making cocktails, with his associates fetching bottles, garnishes and utensils in anticipation for him.

One can definitely understand and feel the nobility in which Ueda goes about his work; his pride adding an inimitable flavour to his cocktails.

Whiskey options at Doulton Bar, Ginza
The second bar on the hit list, Doulton Bar, was a reputable and industry-recognised whiskey bar in a pretty obscure looking building; one where a little katakana reading was handy in finding the outdoor building sign.

It was an insightful experience: firstly, entering the building at an incorrect level and peering into one of the rooms/venues where a formally dressed lady sang and danced for the entertainment of a few business men. It was all clean, but enlightening nonetheless.

Inside Doulton Bar
At the right building level, we headed to a closed wooden door, with some signage representing Doulton Bar. Pushing open the heavy door, we revealed a small bottle-lined space, and a single person sitting at the bar sipping a short drink.

He shuffled into his place behind the bar, his bar, and asked us to take two of the probably six or eight seats at the bar, and mind you, the only seats in the entire venue. The bar was small, probably 7 x 4 metres, and had more bottles of whiskey than a whiskey drinker could poke a stick at.

Minoru Kokuzawa, owner of Doulton Bar
Minoru Kokuzawa, a life bartender we later learnt, had owned and worked in Doulton Bar for the last 40 years. One of two of his bars, the place had a capacity of about 16 people and was completely empty on the early weekday we visited.

He doesn't speak any English other than the essential: martini, Manhattan, whiskey, bitters. My high school Japanese went some way, but not nearly enough to capture the 40 years of life and experiences behind a Ginza bar.

We veered towards classics, and because it really wasn't the environment for a Cosmopolitan. Indeed, Kokuzawa-san and I even had a basic level chat about mojitos and lychees flavours in cocktails; the latter which he didn't seem to abhor but also didn't seem to understand its popularity.

He makes a martini without ice, his signature if you will. Made a little dirty with a bar spoon of olive brine, the chilled gin is stirred with a smidgen of vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, which is not the norm but perhaps the unusual is what it takes to stand out in Tokyo.

Canapes at Doulton Bar
As we sat enjoying, essentially, our very own bar and bartender, we could see Kokuzawa working on something behind the bar. Several minutes later, he presented us with a delightfully refined and retro plate of canapes.

Egg and anchovy, and pate and olive have never looked or tasted so sophisticated as in the Doutlon Bar setting. Essentially our dinner for the night, we made a quick meal of it over martinis, Manhattans and laugh-filled bi-lingual conversations.

According to a hazy memory and some photos, there were a couple more martinis at Doulton Bar, and plenty of blank faces and "wakarimasen's" in the night, of which half of it didn't quite make it to my personal memory bank.

However, the parts I do remember at Doulton Bar - Kokuzawa's friendly, smiling face; his passion and generosity; the first sip of his martini - will stay with me forever.

Plenty more Japan posts to come; in the meantime, see more photos on my Facebook page.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Up in Paddington Arms

It's the right weather for bottles of red wine, cuddling up in front of an open fire and hoeing into rich, hearty food - these are just about the only things that keep me relatively sane in winter.

And it's all on at the Paddington Arms: a refurbished Oxford Street pub offering an English take on pub grub. Colin Fassnidge consults as executive chef at this upmarket, stylish but still casual pub, which was toasty warm on the Sunday night we visited.

Roast bone marrow with celeriac remoulade and grilled bread from Paddington Arms
Kitchen, Oxford Street, Paddington
The entire back section of the pub is dedicated to the Paddington Arms Kitchen which feels like a proper restaurant rather than a pub bistro.

With the 2010 Michel Torino ‘Award’ Malbec Calchaqui Valley from Argentina warming us from the insides, it was all eyes on the grazing menu which is peppered with offal and modern English influences.

The roast bone marrow has to be the most irresistable thing on the grazing menu. It arrived on a wooden board with fat dripping off both sides, which gives a good indication of what marrow actually consists of.

This abundance of marrow is a dining rarity (usually you get a small blob) and spread on the grilled bread, it was an entirely rich and luxurious experience. We were most thankful for the celeriac remoulade, which went some way in saving us from the rich and fatty overload.

Black pudding and crumbed pork with apple salad
I didn't actually try the pretty salad featuring bloody chunks of black pudding and a nugget of crumbed pork. I'm told it was also a rich dish despite the fresh salad accompaniments.

Be warned, though, that the size of the main meals means for many an entrée from the grazing menu and even side dishes aren't necessary.

Sunday roast pork with apple sauce and all the trimmings
Sundays mean roasts at the Paddington Arms, with a weekly changing roast meat and all the comforting bits and pieces you'd expect from a Sunday roast.

We had hit roast pork Sunday so that meant roast potatoes, onions, peas and pumpkin alongside a significant helping of crackling-topped roast pork belly with apple sauce.

It was a generous serving that should sate any hungry winter appetite, with a good ratio of vegetables into the fold too.

Veal cutlet special with red cabbage and potato wedges
There was a bit of German influence with the night's special of veal cutlet: crumbed almost schnitzel style and served with spiced red cabbage and potato on the side. The veal cutlet was tender as expected with its juiciness retained within the dark crumb coating.

While I adored the flavours in the red cabbage, it was the size of some of the crunchy potato wedges that dominated interest - one of the 'wedges' I picked out of the cute cast iron pot was about half a potato.

It was nice to see the generously sized mains with all the necessary sides, ensuring that the pub retains value-for-money while visiting a standard beyond pies and chicken parmigianas.

Chocolate truffles with coffee
However, there was no room for desserts, even to share. So it was lovely to receive chocolate truffles with coffees, looking more like cocoa powder-coated brownies than the soft, melt-on-the-fingers dark chocolate truffle squares they were.

After the huge meal and wine, it was particularly difficult to leave the very warm restaurant on a wintry night. Given the opportunity and stomach capacity, I wouldn't mind spending every winter's night up in Paddington Arms.

Paddington Arms Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sunny Spain via Extra Virgin Fine Foods paella class

Tapas and Paella class at Extra Virgin Fine Foods, Alexander Street, Crows Nest
Spanish food is synonymous with tapas, paella and sangria, and as a result, good times and deliciously moreish meals.

While flying off to Spain is a very appealing option, cooking classes in the commercial kitchen at Extra Virgin Fine Foods offers the opportunity to learn to make paella and tapas, as well as tasting your own handiwork.

Ingredients available for purchase
The Mediterranean restaurant, just off the buzzy Crows Nest main road, runs 2-hour weekend classes on making paella, which is one of their most popular restaurant menu items.

Owner Mauricio Moreno talks us through the Valencian origins of paella, although all regions of Spain claim it and have their own spin on, arguably, the country's national dish. The first paella was likely a rabbit and snail version from Valencia.

Chef Vincent Giardin runs us through the recipe, which is rather complex but thankfully, a lot of the preparation has been done for the class, with key components, like the veal stock and sofrito paste, available for purchase from the restaurant or online.

Cooking chorizo
Huddled around the kitchen's island stove, we get started in duos by heating our thin paella pans with olive oil, ready to par-cook the ingredients that will form our paella toppings.

The first is chorizo, that spicy cured pork sausage that Sydney loves as much as pork belly and salt and pepper squid these days.

Extra Virgin Fine Foods uses, and sells, a clever by-product of all their chorizo tapas dishes: oil in which chorizo has been cooked, imparting spicing and pork fat that adds a depth of flavour to a range of dishes, including the paella.

Cooking prawns
Prawns, ready peeled for us with the tails left on, are cooked in the same oil until they just lose their surface opaqueness, given all the toppings go back on the heat at the end.

Cooking squid
The prepared squid, scored fancily, gets mere moments in the pan, just to pick up some colour.

Cooking mussels
Lastly, the mussels which are cooked with a little dry white wine, and covered so they steam until their shells just start to open.

Semi cooked seafood for paella topping
The half-cooked toppings are then put aside for later - I don't know how but I managed to not steal a piece or two of chorizo to snack, which would never happen in my home kitchen.

Extra Virgin Fine Foods' own house-made sofrito paste
A Spanish sofrito is not nearly the same as an Italian soffrito; at least this version isn't. With piquillo peppers, tomato, paprika, saffron and plenty more, this cooked down then blitzed paste forms the fragrant flavour base of the paella but various other dishes too.

Cooking sofrito in the pan
Cooking it in the paella pan with all the juices left from cooking the toppings, it smelt gloriously garlicky and full of spices - and you just knew that the sofrito would be the beginning of something beautiful.

Mixing the sofrito into the rice
Bomba or calasparra are the rices of choice for paella; both short-grained varieties that have different liquid absorption characteristics - but both more absorbent than your standard long grain rice varieties.

Choice of rice is important as it contributes much to the end texture of the paella: fluffy, separate grains are the goal, rather than stodgy or hard.

Adding stock
The bomba rice the restaurant uses takes a ratio of 700 millilitres of stock to 250 grams of rice, and while it can be tempting to stray from that, chef Giardin advises otherwise.

Paella rice is meant to have some bite to it and is ultimately a dry dish, unlike wet and creamy Italian risotto. Indeed, if you're to get the much desired soccarat crust of crunchy rice on the bottom of the pan, all the liquid needs to be absorbed into the rice.

Adding paprika
We used a combination of veal stock and a saffron-infused vegetable stock, although this can vary according to your choice of toppings; for example, fish stock with seafood toppings or chicken stock with chicken and pork.

The spicy, smoked variety of paprika is used for seasoning although you need a fair few pinches to get a spice kick of any sort. We tasted and seasoned with salt and paprika at several points in the cooking process.

Cooking rice and stock
The cooking method is vaguely similar to that of risotto, in that you add stock, simmer and let the rice absorb it.

A differing point, or two, is that you can add all the stock in one go (if it fits) and instead of constantly stirring the rice, you leave it be and just push and nudge it every now and then, to ensure the stock is spread around evenly.

This action contributes to the different textures of risotto and paella: the former is creamy as the starches in the rice break down with all the stirring; the latter remains as separate grains that hold themselves as they're not overly disturbed in the cooking process.

Paella rice and stock going in the oven
An even heat source is quite important for paella, so a few sessions in a hot oven help with the even cooking process. In our class, the paella goes in the oven twice, returning to the stove after both times.

Balls of goat's cheese
As we waited for the rice and stock to do its thing, chef Giardin demonstrated a simple (and popular in the restaurant) tapas that features perfectly rolled balls of soft goat's cheese, caramelised Spanish onion jam (cooked for hours) and serrano ham that's been crisped in the oven.

Demonstration of a tapas
With all the above topping a crisp, toasted bit of bread, the tapas forms quite the tall, artful bite that definitely needs more than one mouthful to conquer.

Everyone in the class gets to make their own with the components that are prepared by the kitchen with so much care.

Putting toppings on the paella
When all the stock is added to the pan and the rice is visible above the depths of stock, we're getting close to topping time.

There's a bit of an art to garnishing with the toppings, although there's nothing wrong with just tipping the entire bowl of pre-cooked toppings, and all their juices, on top of the pan of rice.

Toppings on the paella

Chef Vincent Giardin
Chef Giardin says that you can tell by sound when a paella is ready. That's the point when there is no liquid left in the pan and the heat begins to crisp up the bottom layer of rice for a soccarat. 

Do not stir or push the rice at this point, lest you break the crust, but you can check on it and that it's not burning by lifting the edges with a spatula.

Garnished with piquillo peppers
In addition to the chorizo, prawns, squid and mussels, our paellas are garnished with diced piquillo peppers and a touch of chopped fresh parsley.

Grilling lemons for garnish
The final flourish is half a lemon, grilled for appearances and juicer, sweeter lemon juice, to be positioned in the centre of the paella. It's a must-have addition for a seafood paella, I think, and adds great colour.

Goat's cheese, onion jam and serrano ham tapas
Everyone in the class looks pretty proud of themselves when our paellas are carried out to the dining tables. Sure, there was a lot of help and preparation by the kitchen, but we all had a hand in making our own late lunches and/or early dinners.

The goat's cheese tapas was excellent, with the sweet onion jam partnering well with the very good goat's cheese and crunchy bread and ham components. It's easy to see why its a restaurant favourite.

Chorizo served with a chimichurri style sauce
As we relinquished the kitchen back to its rightful masters, Giardin and his sous chef quickly grilled up some chorizo slices for a second tapas dish, served with a red sauce that uses the same base ingredients as a chimuchurri.

Paella - ready to eat
And then it was time to dig into the paella, which bordered on 'too pretty to eat'. The 250 grams of raw rice we used should feed two as a main course alone, while 80 grams of rice per person is recommended if the paella is part of a bigger feast.

Seafood and chorizo paella
In the all-important taste test, I'm not just saying it but it was about the best paella I've ever tasted, including all the tourist trap places I sampled in Barcelona.

I have a feeling the chorizo oil and complex sofrito paste might have had a lot to do with the end result, but also the perfectly cooked squid and mussels, and just cooked grains of rice.

Our paella had a bit of soccarat in the centre of the dish, which probably means it could have taken a minute or two more on the stove; but nonetheless, two of us almost polished off the entire pan taking seconds, thirds and fourth servings.

House sangria
With Extra Virgin Fine Foods' own sangria mix joining the meal, it was pretty much the next best thing to being in sunny Spain - but with the added bonuses of paella to take home and new skills for the kitchen and next dinner party.

Book your class online at Extra Virgin Fine Foods and see more photos on my Facebook page.

Food, booze and shoes attended the Tapas and Paella class as a guest of Extra Virgin Fine Foods, with thanks to Helen Lear.

Extra Virgin fine foods - Tapas on Urbanspoon


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