Friday, November 29, 2013

Café Nice: A slice of the French Riviera

The French Riviera can be found in Sydney’s CBD – believe it. It may look out onto our iconic Harbour Bridge, but Café Nice is a slice of the Côte d'Azur hidden in a dated building in Circular Quay.

Café Nice, Phillip Street, Sydney
(Image courtesy of Maria Farmer PR)
Part of the Fratelli Fresh empire and the group's first foray out of Italy and into France, Café Nice (as in the southern French city) can be likened to a French take on Café Sopra: a casual venue where freshness and lightness come first, supplemented with a friendly wine list and sometimes raucous atmosphere.

Café Nice's upstairs entry is actually on Albert Street, near the corner of Phillip Street. Ignore the dull building it's housed in because the fitout inside is stunning.

Café Nice interiors
(Image courtesy of Maria Farmer PR)
Mosaic floor tiles lead to the U-shaped bar where champagne flows and diners can eat at the bar. The smell of fresh flowers entices diners further into the bright restaurant where the dining space is split into three areas with varying views of the Harbour Bridge and quay (if a monstrous cruise boat isn't in Circular Quay).

The view (sometimes)

Dining room
With more effort in the fitout than Café Sopras generally, Café Nice has a slightly less casual feel and perhaps a little less of the Café Sopra mayhem, although there’s a similar air of casual-ness to the table settings.

Pommery Brut Royal NV Champagne
No doubt, the room becomes loud with a cacophony of diner conversations bouncing off all the hard surfaces, but pleasingly, the Thursday night noise had a convivial, away-from-home feel to it (if you ignore the very Sydney City Rail trains that pass by, eye-level, every several minutes).

The $10 tulip glasses of Pommery champagne, as also available at Café Sopra, help.

Omelette de crabe with foie gras butter
I struggled a little with the French-lilting menu – not for my limited French but because I wanted something from every section of the appetisers, entrées, pastas, seafood, meat and poultry, and sides.

We settled on the luxurious-sounding entrée of crab omelette with foie gras butter. The soft and pillowy omelette, served quite wet, was topped with plenty of crab flesh and a rich brown emulsion of butter and foie gras, though it could have done with a touch more seasoning.

Salade Niçoise
A surprising winner of an entrée was the Niçoise salad; appropriately, a salad in the style of Nice. I'm sure we've all endured some form of Niçoise but this was hands-down one of the best salads I've had in a restaurant.

Tuna in the Salade Niçoise
Served generously in a glass bowl and ideal for sharing, it comprised julienned yellow and red capsicums, sliced green beans, cored tomatoes, black olives, perfectly salty anchovies and a googy-centred boiled egg, all arranged over two chunky pieces of cooked tuna with a vinaigrette dressing.

The harmony of flavours and the salad ingredients was delicious and the tuna was utterly impeccable as it broke apart with the salad servers, while both the olives and anchovies added just the right amounts of saltiness to the overall salad.

Casarecce with calamari, tomatoes and basil
I found it hard to go past a pasta offering so we shared one as a course between entrée and main. One of my favourite pasta varieties, casarecce, arrived redolent with garlic in an olive oil-tossed combination with ridiculously sweet grape tomatoes and squid pieces.

With the pasta cooked just past al dente, tomatoes bursting with sweetness and wilted basil leaves among loads of diced garlic, I almost could have done without the firm squid, tentacles and all.

Sirloin grillé with pommes frites and roast garlic & crème fraiche
From the mains meat and poultry menu, the sirloin steak option was served medium-rare as requested with a scattering of potato fries and elected sauce of garlicky crème fraiche.

The petite and very tender cut of beef had great flavour from the grill while the crème fraiche tasted just like the sour cream and chive flavour typical in packaged potato crisps.

Mulloway filet with celeriac puree & tapenade
I was torn between all the seafood options but opted for the fillet of mulloway as something different from the Sydney standard of salmon (though the whole snapper for two was very tempting).

Pan fried for a crisp skin, the large, firm fillet of mulloway sitting on smooth celeriac puree had enough flavour  and moistness to not be overpowered by the black olive tapenade.

Asparagus with salsa verde
Vegetable sides are recommended as the mains can be a little sparse of greenery. The thick stalks of asparagus, peeled at the bottoms, were served with a chunky salsa verde herb sauce and more whole leaves, making it green on green on green.

Meringue with berries and crème anglaise
We finished with dessert as a matter of experience more than hunger, opting for the lightest-sounding option – but what a stunner it was.

The perfect rectangle of sweet meringue – marshmallowy soft and sticky within and topped with an impossibly thin crust layer – held afloat blueberries and ripe strawberry portions; all of it swimming in a citrus-scented crème anglaise. It was altogether heavenly and the perfect, floaty dessert on which to finish our meal.

Café Nice entrance and bar
For a slice of southern France in Sydney, Café Nice ticks most boxes. So the beach is a busy harbour instead and it's a bit loud and probably not ideal for romantic dinners, but the fresh, vibrant food leaves you wanting more; wines and champagne are reasonably priced; and the bright fitout and jovial atmosphere is sure to put a smile on your face – and that sure is nice.

Food, booze and shoes dined at Café Nice as a guest, with thanks to Maria Farmer PR.

Cafe Nice on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A quick Vietnamese bite at Madame Nhu

The proliferation of small, casual eateries throughout inner city suburbs can only be a good thing. An alternative to full-blown meals (and matching bills), a quick and light dinner at Madame Nhu was just the thing after several drinks in Surry Hills recently.

Grilled lemongrass Vietnamese pork sausages at Madame Nhu, Campbell Street, Surry Hills
From the same people behind Xage restaurant on Crown Street, Madame Nhu occupies a small, tiered space on the corner of Campbell and Foster Streets, directly opposite Bar H.

Despite an extensive pho noodle soup offering, of which I'll have to try next time, we elected a few lighter options like the Vietnamese pork sausages from the snacks menu.

The skewered portions of the sweet, porky sausage highlighted with fragrant lemongrass flavours would make for a great bar snack, wrapped in leaves of butter lettuce and dipped into the sweet nuoc mam style sauce with chilli.

Fruit soda (left) and young coconut juice (right)
With a decent range of non-alcoholic beverages, we got on to two winners in the house made, super sweet passionfruit soda, served with ice in a jar and garnished with a mint sprig, and the young coconut juice with coconut flesh.

The latter was a sweetened drink but so delightfully true to coconut flavour otherwise, unlike most commercial brands of coconut water.

Silken tofu with Sichuan pepper salt and chilli
A main dish, the salt and pepper tofu featured cubes of the soy bean curd in a crisp, crumbed coating that didn't quite have enough seasoning to justify its name. The chilli and coriander garnishes were entirely necessary help, as too a dunk in the dipping sauce.

Grilled Hội An-style squid papaya salad, five-spice soy dressing
We had a salad as another main, featuring lightly grilled rings of squid atop a shredded green papaya salad. There were plenty of peanuts, bean sprouts and little dried shrimp tossed through the salad as well as a generous and tender addition of five-spice and soy dressed squid.

Madame Nhu doesn't mess about for a quick Vietnamese bite. There's a modern, if not Westernised, touch to the food and menu, but it is Surry Hills after all, and I think the more quick, easy and reliable places around here, the better.

Madame Nhu Surry Hills on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Polo in the City featuring Kirin Lounge and a zebra

A 'zebra' at Paspaley Polo in the City, 16 November 2013, Centennial Park, Sydney
I had to look three times. There was a zebra prancing around the middle of a polo field in Sydney's Centennial Park.

It seemed about the same size as the polo horses and galloped about the same way, but those black and white stripes were strikingly unmissable (it was actually a pony painted in stripes by The Classic Safari Company).

Kirin Lounge at Polo in the City
I was at the Paspaley Polo in the City event in Sydney - my very first polo match - thanks to the Kirin Lounge.

As part of this year's annual event, the cloud-threatened day in Sydney featured the Kirin Lounge - an area for the general public - in addition to corporate and VIP sponsor marquees; another step in making the sport of media tycoons more accessible and approachable.

While the day's weather forecast wreaked havoc with planned wardrobes, the dress style was a leisurely, understated, ultra-classy smart-casual with footwear appropriate for grass, and soggy grass at that.

Polo match in play
Admittedly, the game of polo takes a bit of getting one's head around, with horses thundering towards a small ball flying up and down the field, with mallets whacking it into the air - hopefully between two posts.

And like the races, there were inordinate amounts of time spent drinking, socialising and posing for photos, and somewhat less time spent on watching the game of men on horseback with white pants, helmets and long mallets.

Kirin Lounge
In its first year of event sponsorship, Kirin hosted the largest space, open to public admission with a popular cash bar and food by Fresh Catering.

A little classier than General Admission at the races, there were plenty of tables and chairs beneath large umbrellas, with the front row, prime viewing seats gone in a hurry and the umbrellas proving useful for both sun exposure and varying levels of rain.

Kirin Cider
The recently-launched range of Kirin Ciders was made available at the Kirin Lounge. The range of ciders is made under licence in Australia and exclusively available in Australia, going some way to demonstrate our market for cider.

Based on Fuji apples - one of my favourite varieties due to their crispness and tartness - there are four flavours of Kirin Cider: Fuji apple, Fuji apple and mikan mandarin, Fuji apple and ume Japanese apricot/ plum, and Fuji apple and ginger.

Kirin Cider range
(Image courtesy of Lion)
What I like most about the Kirin Cider range, aside from the gorgeous hand-illustrated label imagery, is that they are not overly sweet. The Fuji apple has a nice dry finish with a tart kick; while the Fuji apple and mikan has a citrus bitterness - in a good, not too artificial way.

The Fuji apple and ginger has quite a strong flavour of the spicy rhizome so it's closer to an alcoholic ginger beer than a fruity cider, while the Fuji apple and ume was my favourite with a well-rounded sweetness.

Quinoa salad by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
Food in the Kirin Lounge was done by specialty event caterers Fresh Catering, with great cold options like a hearty quinoa salad, brimming with colourful tomatoes, cucumber, beetroot, chickpeas and sauces of pesto and perhaps Greek yoghurt.

Antipasto platter by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
I was all over the antipasti plate before remembering to take a photo (cured meats have that effect on me).

With crackers and breadsticks packed separately, this generous and varied platter featured salami and prosciutto alongside roasted capsicum strips, marinated artichoke, mixed olives, cornichons, roasted almonds, a little tub of hummus and a handful of rocket leaves - perfect daytime grazing food, if you ask me.

Beef burger sliders by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
The pack of sliders was perfect for sharing, being four cute little buns sandwiching a particularly chunky beef pattie. The super coarse mince was a nice testural surprise within the slider, with melted cheese and pickles making it a very satisfying few mouthfuls.

Chroizo roll by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
The chorizo roll was undoubtedly my favourite of the lot, served on a white bread roll with rocket and aioli of sorts. The red-hued sausage was perfection; perhaps not the most graceful for eating but so tasty with spices and a great coarse texture but no kick of heat.

The first divot stomp
I'm sure all the ladies had Pretty Woman in mind when the first divot stomp was announced; a polo tradition where the audience are asked to help return clumps of the torn up turf to its rightful position.

There's a graceful art to it, especially in damp weather conditions, stilettos, and differentiating between what is turf and what isn't.

Women's dash 
With two polo matches on for the day, there was plenty of time for activities in between, including of course, a divot stomp or two.

Most amusing would have been the dash for prizes, on the polo field for both ladies and gentlemen. Best achieved bare foot, the dash was essentially a sprint on the grass field with sponsor prizes up for grabs for the speediest.

Women's dash  - go!
There was no mercy in the dash, and perhaps just the tiniest lack of grace, all building a case for bringing polo to the people - or at least the ladies who weren't wearing pantyhose.

Men's dash  - ready, set, go!
The men's dash was just as entertaining, with a few pairs of light-coloured pants ruined for the afternoon.

Men's dash

Guests at Paspaley Polo in the City
The day's intermittent rain didn't spoil too much: with my first day at the polo under my belt, being thoroughly introduced to the Kirin Cider range and a near zebra sighting, I'd call that a pretty decent chukka.

See more photos of Paspaley Polo in the City, Sydney, on 16 November 2013 on my Facebook page.

Food, booze and shoes attended Polo in the City as a guest of Kirin Cider and Lion.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Arras takes Days Off for Good Food Month

I haven't had a day off in a while - sick or otherwise - and I think I'd like one. While I wait for that not holding my breath, it was a treat to experience the 'Days Off' degustation menu designed by the chefs of Restaurant Arras for a couple of special dinners as part of Good Food Month last month.

The menu, with matched wines, was about showing diners what chefs like to eat on their days off from the kitchen and unsurprisingly, it featured a lot of my lazy favourites too - just in fancy, fine dining style.

"Pizza - no half and half, no pineapple!" from the Good Food Month 'Days Off ' menu at Arras, Clarence Street, Sydney 
Pizza was offered as an appetiser in a deconstructed manner featuring crackers of pizza base bits, cheese foam, tomato paste, basil oil and powdered versions of both black olives and capers.

The idea was to get a bit of every topping onto the cracker like a DIY pizza, although on the crackers that were very much like days-old leftover pizza crust to me, the whole thing tasted a little like Pizza Shapes - another of my lazy favourites.

Soy and quinoa bread roll with butter and salt
It was still fine dining so we were offered a selection of bread which are baked in-house daily and sold in the neighbouring Arras Too café by day.

"All Day Breakfast"
Our first course was named "All Day Breakfast" and I was expecting a rendition of a typical Aussie big breakfast which are available in many cafés as an all-day option.

Instead, we got an intriguing Seinfeld-esque take on all-day food with a creative and probably pretty healthy cereal mix of puffed wild rices, flavoured with spices and cubes of apple, and dairy in the way of goat's milk crème fraîche.

Eaten delicately with a teaspoon, this was an intriguing and light, sweet-savoury start to the 11-course meal.

"Sushi Train"
The fine dining re-imagination of a sushi train dish was my highlight of the degustation, featuring a thick but petite fillet of cured and torched kingfish, just a little raw within.

Topped with puffed grains of wild black rice, the fish was accompanied by daikon white radish threads, a sheet of soy sauce jelly and the most fantastic puree of sushi rice, gari pickled ginger and a touch of wasabi.

While demonstrating a lot of technique in their separate components, all together it was a deliciously, delightfully and cleverly constructed dish that was much more fine dining than conveyor belt sushi.

Soup going into the "2-Minute Noodles"
Instant and 2-minute noodles are definitely one of my guilty pleasures, especially when I'm sick. However, my mi goreng and Nissan "doll" noodles are nothing like these house-made Hokkien-style noodles, served with a complex, flavoursome consomme poured at the table.

"2-Minute Noodles" with Arras seasoning
Adding to the authenticity of the 2-minute noodle experience was the plastic packet of Arras-branded noodle seasoning that came with the course; an array of spices that were best not added at height and thus inhaled.

The seasoning added a kick to the fatty, flaking salmon which was crisp on the surface while bean sprouts and sliced shallots brought freshness to the dish that usually comes out of a packet.

"Prawn Tandoori"
We moved on to Indian takeaway with a lobster-like king prawn cooked to perfection in tandoori spices, leaving it fragrantly red and full of well-rounded spiciness.

The prawn was served skewered with a deep fried potato flatbread and a vibrant trio of sauces - cucumber, yoghurt and mint - in a deconstructed raita, with powdered coriander to finish it all off.

"The Henry"
The next course was inspired by a sandwich at Glebe café The Wedge. "The Henry" comprised bread crumbs, pesto, avocado, a googy egg yolk, holladaise sauce and pork cured and cooked to resemble the most amazing and soft ham; all topped off with a mysterious consomme of gruyere cheese.

Eating the parts and eating the whole, it was a completely whimsical experience and most surprisingly, it was so true to the flavours of a sandwich it had me in happy awe.

"Parma and a Pot"
I'll admit that schnitzels (and close cousin, chicken nuggets) are one of my absolute favourite naughty comfort foods and I'm sure I'm not alone as the American-Italian chicken parmigiana is one of our nation's most popular - or at least common - pub meals.

So it was "parma" and a pot of beer; not quite a Melbourne pot but a delicate sampler of Happy Goblin Pale Ale - a fruity brew from northern Sydney.

The poussin schnitzel arrived heart shaped - just like a certain brand of processed chicken schnitzels.

Served with the thin, pan-fried and crumbed schnitzel was a rather oily potato roesti and a puddle of intense tomato sauce covered with a non-descript circle of bacon jelly, all showered in grated cheese and herbs - by far the fanciest parmy I'll ever have.

"Steak and CHIP"
They weren't kidding when the menu listed a singular "CHIP"; perhaps the largest potato chip I've ever eaten. The impressive chip featured alongside a roasted mushroom, rump steak portion, onion rings and a crumbed cube of - wait for it - gravy.

Cracking the thin shell of golden crumb was some of the most fun I've had at dinner in a while, with brown gravy oozing out, perfect for dipping both the chip and medium-rare cooked steak.

"Beer Nuts"
Getting pretty full by this point, the palate cleansing pre dessert was welcome reprieve. It played on the pub staple of beer and nuts: an accurately beer flavoured sorbet, topped with lime jelly and sugar, with a side of sweet glazed almonds and peanuts.

"Burger with the lot"
Dessert was essentially the piece de resistance of the meal. My younger days are very familiar with burgers with the lot; a uniquely Australian creation usually including egg, cheese, bacon, pineapple and beetroot in addition to a meat pattie and token salad offerings. I'm just not that familiar with the dessert version.

Served on a miniature brioche bun, Arras' "burger with the lot" comprised a lot of fun and sugar, starting with a berry jam "tomato sauce" spread on the bun and dripping on the plate.

A dehydrated pineapple thin and passionfruit sorbet "egg yolk" provided the refreshing flavours among a panna cotta "egg white", creme caramel "cheese slice", chocolate praline ganache "meat pattie" and berry jelly "beetroot slice".

It was all too much for this non-sweet tooth after 10 courses, but the sheer fun and creativity made this "burger with the lot" a contender for Sydney's best burger.

Arras petit fours
And then to finish, the stuff of legends and dreams. For the sweet tooth, the Arras petit fours tray is heaven: a custom-made perspex tray covered in sweets, chocolates, biscuits, jellies, miniature ice cream cones and so much more.

Indeed, so legendary are these petit four offerings that Arras offers them in takeaway boxes; popular with tourists and office secretaries, we're told.

Arras petit fours
Like a kid in a candy store, I dived in to grab an ice cream cone, a marshmallow, a Jammie Dodger, a piece of honeycomb and an earl grey tea chocolate. And all this for a non-sweet tooth.

Arras interiors
Completely and utterly sated, Arras' "Days Off" menu was a triumph in fun and creativity, for both the diner and the kitchen I'm sure.

And with another year's Good Food Month over, we are now racing towards Christmas where, for me at least, a few days off are well overdue.

Food, booze and shoes dined at Arras as a guest of Citibank Dining Program.

Restaurant Arras on Urbanspoon


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