Friday, December 27, 2013

A fond farewell to 2013

Another year, another 12 months of great food-ing and boozing around town. While sadly, there was no overseas trip this year, 2013 has been a period of steady progress, major birthdays, my fair share of weddings and events, and a general feeling of calmness before what I expect to be a hectic 2014.

No doubt there will be changes next year - some, not really that big a deal; others, massive and life-changing. There will also be some changes to Food, Booze and Shoes following its half-decade milestone earlier this month, so keep an eye out.

But before I get ahead of myself, here are my food, booze and events highlights from 2013.


Bocata de buey – air baguette, Rost Biff wagyu, Tocino de Cielo, pickled and black garlic from MoVida Sydney, Surry Hills
This was finally the year of MoVida for me. My first and third tastes of Frank Camorra's growing restaurant empire came thanks to their move north from Melbourne to Sydney's Surry Hills.

The fitout, the vibe and the menu at MoVida Sydney are all incredibly spot on, but particularly the memorable air baguette crisp, draped with stunning wagyu beef and topped with garlic - easily one of the best tapas I've ever had the pleasure of encountering.

Deconstructed cassoulet from The Owl House, Darlinghurst
One of my favourite discoveries of the year has been small bar and restaurant, The Owl House. It's been around for a couple of years already but I came across the wonder that is its matching cocktail degustation.

I may have rolled out of there but I certainly remember the very delectable, homely but fancy deconstructed cassoulet of a white bean stew, confit duck, braised pork shoulder and sausage. Matched with one of several cocktails, it's a guaranteed winner of a night out.

Trout jerky from Biota Dining, Bowral
I made the trip south to Bowral earlier this year and stayed at Biota Rooms; a new accommodation offering right next to Biota Dining, which received two hats in this year's Good Food Guide.

Destination dining at its best, Biota's seven course degustation was impressive yet fun, and started with an absolutely banging amuse bouche: air dried, jerky style ocean trout that was dreamily smoky, chewy and salty.

Pan fried fish dumplings from ShanDong Mama, Melbourne
Many a dumpling was consumed this year, as in most years, with a standout being the pan fried, open ended fish dumplings in Melbourne's ShanDong Mama.

A simple eatery in a Chinatown arcade, the north-east Chinese offerings include these home-made dumplings with an airy fish, coriander and ginger filling, wrapped in thin, chewy skins pan fried for hot, crisp bottoms.

Ash grilled duck, Jerusalem artichoke, prunes in Banyuls, potato horns, truffle from The Bridge Room, Sydney
As part of a product launch collaboration, I dined at two-hatted The Bridge Room and left a fan of chef Ross Lusted's restaurant and cooking philosophy.

My favourite was his ash grilled duck dish, cooked then grilled over binchotan white charcoal and served most artistically with a jerusalem artichoke puree, prunes, potato skins and black truffle shavings. So special and utterly mouthwatering.

Roasted oysters from Ester, Chippendale
From someone who didn't eat raw oysters several years to now, a bit of a Sydney rock oyster fiend, I've had some great oyster experiences this year - none more so than the roasted oysters from Chippendale newcomer Ester.

Plump and shell free, these lightly warmed oysters served with diced eschallots and vinaigrette were oyster eating heaven.

Crispy pata from La Mesa, Haymarket
The crunchy pork skin of the crispy pata at La Mesa was part of my introduction to Filipino cuisine and unsurprisingly, I want more. Audibly shattering skin with still juicy pork underneath, there's plenty to like about the meat-centric cuisine of the Philippines.

Salade Niçoise from Cafe Nice, Circular Quay
It's a big call, saying the Niçoise salad at Cafe Nice is one of the best salads ever. But it was definitely one of the freshest, tastiest and most exquisitely filling salads I've ever had featuring hunks of poached tuna and salty anchovies with a refreshing vinaigrette dressing over loads of delicately sliced vegetables.

Chilli fries from Beach Burrito, Newtown
This year chilli fries rose to the ranks of my favourite hangover food. The combination of fried potato, spicy mince, handfuls of (cheap) melted cheese and Tex-Mex style sour cream and guacamole on the side at Newtown's Beach Burrito soothed and fixed at least several seedy mornings-after over the last 12 months.

Spiced school prawns & smoked chilli mayo from Anatoli, Bondi Junction
Whole fried school prawns are definitely a 'thing' in Sydney now and the best I've come across are the spiced ones at modern Greek restaurant, Anatoli, in The Eastern adjoining Westfield Bondi Junction.

Crunchy without too many sharp prawn head bits, the spice was just right on the fresh little crustaceans which were served with a chilli mayonnaise - possibly also Sydney's new favourite condiment.

Banoffee tart from Cafe Sopra, Alexandria
I've been a long time fan of the Cafe Sopra restaurants around town but it was only this year at the new Alexandria outpost that I tried their banoffee tart, which is firmly fixed on the Cafe Sopra dessert menu.

It's a glorious construction of biscuit base, gooey caramel, whipped cream and thin slices of fresh banana. With a bit of everything in each mouthful, it's an orgasmic tart with a perfect balance of sweetness and textures.

Booze and events

Plan-ting cocktail from The Lobo Plantation, Sydney
It was another great year for small bars, especially in the Sydney CBD. My favourite of the new lot, and CBD bars generally now, is The Lobo Plantation with its atmospheric, themed underground space and broad-ranging rum offerings.

With complimentary plaintain chips and an excellent bar menu, I love perching at the bar while working through the cocktail list and watching the fun, friendly bartenders doing their thing.

Dita von Teese for Cointreau at The Victoria Room, Darlinghurst
It's not every year you meet the world's most famous burlesque star. Dita von Teese was behind the bar at The Victoria Room earlier this year, mixing Cointreau drinks and cocktails in her role as global brand ambassador for the liqueur.

Opera on Sydney Harbour's Carmen, Sydney Harbour
(Photo by James Morgan, courtesy of Opera Australia)
I still get chills thinking back to this year's Opera on Sydney Harbour. The passionate love story of Carmen played out in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House is spectacle enough, but complemented with a wide-ranging array of Spanish-themed food options by Fresh Catering made it a night at the opera like no other.

Mike McEnearney of Kitchen by Mike at Taste of Sydney, Centennial Park
I think I say it every year, but Taste of Sydney just keeps getting bigger and better. Having attended at least once every year since the restaurant festival commenced, it's with a sense of pride that I get to attend, eat and drink from some of Sydney's finest restaurants in the (mostly) glorious Centennial Park outdoors.

This year we said farewell to:
Albion Street Kitchen (which turned into the wildly-popular Chur Burger), Alio, Aseana Food VillageCara & Co, Claude's, Concrete BlondeDanks Street Depot, Duke Bistro, Guerilla Bar and Restaurant, North Bondi Italian Food, the monorail, Restaurant Atelier, Roxanne, Selah, Spiedo, The Alibi, The Falconer, and soon, Guillaume at Bennelong.

On the other hand, there have been plenty of new openings that have made 2013 an exciting year in Sydney food and drinking.

I know I'll look back on 2013 fondly in years to come. Thank you to all my readers and followers for all your support and kind comments throughout the year here, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Here's to another great year - 
I'm looking forward to sharing exciting news, and amazing Food, Booze and Shoes with you in 2014.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas to all and to all a happy pavlova

It's most certainly that wonderful time of the year: Christmas is almost here and even closer for the lucky ones who don't have to be at work these next two days.

Christmas in Sydney is synonymous with summer, cold prawns, mango and pavlova for me, and I'm planning to have all this on the lunch table in two days' time for Christmas.

Pavlova, made with ingredients courtesy of Aldi Australia
I've had all sorts of pavlovas: completely store bought and dressed; store-bought bases and self-dressed; ones made from those little plastic egg things; and this year, one made from scratch by yours truly.

Aldi ingredients (eggs excluded) mise en place
Earlier this month I was sent a package of Christmas goodies from Aldi Australia supermarkets, with thanks to PPR.

Aside from a huge range of Aldi's Christmas products like fruit cake, panettone, fruit mince pies and German specialties like marzipan stollen, glazed lebkuchen (so addictive) and pfeffernüsse, I also received most of the ingredients to make a pavlova - that iconic Australasian fluffy meringue cake, topped with cream and fresh fruit.

Whipped meringue
Having had some disastrous experiences previously with various types of meringues, there was trepidation and fairly exact measuring of caster sugar, corn flour and white vinegar into the stiffly beaten egg whites.

In the end, I think I beat the egg whites on higher speed and for longer than the Aldi recipe suggested, but I felt safer for it.

Meringue tower
The very stiff, glossy peaks meant that I could pile the meringue high without it foaming and collapsing on me - and for me, that's an achievement.

Shaped meringue in oven
In any case it needed to be shaped as a round cake to fit into a new cake carrier I have, and so it was flattened and gingerly rounded before entering a low heat oven for an hour and a half.

I seem to have issues following recipes but despite a slight hiccup in the cooking timing, upon removing the meringue after overnight cooling in the turned-off oven, it looked like a proper pavlova with a crisp outer shell, and soft, marshmallow-y insides.

Finished pavlova
However, it would need to be decorated and served up at a gathering before I could really know what the insides would be like - much more nerve-racking than normal cakes where you can just stick in a skewer.

I was supplied with thickened cream for whipping, and punnets of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and white peaches for decorating my pavlova - that skill of which needs a little work yet.

And to the all-important fluffy centre and taste test?

Pavlova innards (all that was left at the picnic!)
Success. It was perfectly soft and fluffy within, and even a little densely so which is how I like my pav. There was a decent thickness to the crisp outside shell, which had gained just a little colour in the oven.

The soft meringue itself was sweet, but not overly so while some commented that there was no minerally flavour that sometimes comes from the eggs.

In all, a win - a great, simple recipe that with a bit of refining on my behalf will be perfect for Christmas Day.

I'd like to wish everyone a very happy, merry and stress-free Christmas - I hope it's filled with great food and booze, presents, laughter and the love of family, friends and the jolly man in red.

Food, booze and shoes received pavlova ingredients and Christmas products from Aldi Australia, with thanks to PPR.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Harajuku Gyoza: Happy face dumplings

I love the way the Harajuku Gyoza menu gets diners in the mood: "You are like a hungry salaryman in a Japanese izakaya. You are thirsty and your appetite is big like Godzilla." All Japanese quirk and just a little bit of sense.

Harajuku Gyoza logo, Bayswater Road, Kings Cross
From Brisbane's Fortitude Valley comes this cute-as-a- button dumpling and beer joint, specialising in all manner of Japanese gyoza dumplings in the heart of Kings Cross, a couple of doors down from Hugos Bar Pizza.

While more a cutesy, recognisable name than anything representative of the Harajuku area in Tokyo, the Sydney outpost of Harajuku Gyoza has a fittingly fun fitout that’s all wooden furniture and colourful plates and service that hint at the sometimes crazy Japanese pop culture.

Sake being served
One unnamed type of sake is served chilled, with great ceremony and noise, traditionally into a glass sitting in a masu box to catch the overflow.

There's also Kirin beer on tap, beers by the bottle (including the pricey but one of my favourites – Hitachino Nest White Ale), Kirin's new Fuji apple cider and a few select wines.

Cucumber and miso salad
Food arrived pretty quickly after ordering, and you get the feeling it's really not a place to sit and linger over drinks.

We started, healthily, with a small salad of peeled, raw cucumber dressed liberally in a sweet, strong yellow miso soybean paste, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Gyoza condiments
Seated at the counter, we had a direct view to the gyoza cooking stations – both poached and grilled versions.

Made daily and then frozen to avoid sogginess, the meat and vegetable fillings wrapped in dough were either dropped into a boiling pot or lined up into a custom gyoza grill press with a fair bit of oil for crisp bottoms.

Grilled lobster tail gyoza 
We sampled the special of lobster tail grilled gyoza: thin, chewy and crisp wrappers with a coarsely chopped filling that somewhat resembled lobster in texture though less so in taste. From the condiments selection, I added vinegar sauce and chilli oil.

Poached duck gyoza 
From the regular menu we went with poached duck gyoza and traditional grilled pork ones – both versions unexpectedly meaty.

The duck gyoza were ideal poached, with a slight gaminess to the filling differentiating it from usual styles and quite tasty with the condiments.

Grilled pork gyoza 
Pork gyoza are about one of my favourite things in the world and it was probably high expectations that let me down.

As odd as it may sound, I found Harajuku Gyoza's pork variety too meaty, with insufficient cabbage and other seasonings – minced pork overload, if you will. The dough wrappers though, I adored and could eat on their crisp lonesome.

Tenpura eggplant
To more substantial but still izakaya style dishes, we started with "tenpura" eggplant: lightly battered, pre cut into wedges for easy eating. Soft and squishy within, the oily fried eggplant was served in a pool of a vinegary sauce.

Pork belly kakuni
An impressively-sized serve, the pork belly kakuni comprised four blocks of rich, braised pork belly in layers of fat and meat, the latter unfortunately dry.

It was heavy eating, even with steamed rice on the side, while an acidic condiment, mustard even, would have helped cut through the fattiness.

Harajuku Gyoza exterior 
We ended up having to take leftovers of the pork belly home, and it turned out a little better the next day. There wasn't room for dessert gyoza on this occasion, but that joins the basket I'd rarely touch anyway, along with dessert pizza.

They make no apologies for being an eat-and-run venue, and I can see a fair few spontaneous meals and dumpling cravings getting sorted at Harajuku Gyoza, despite there being better dumplings around town.

"It must be perfect or we get your sad face. We want your happy face," says the menu. It's gyoza and it's pretty darn adorable – you get the happy face.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Harajuku Gyoza.

Harajuku Gyoza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas lunch, David Jones style

I've always wanted to do the full Christmas table decorations and theming, but large family, outdoor Christmas lunches aren't really conducive to such festive pomp and finery.

Nonetheless, I got to admire a few fabulous examples last night at the preview of David Jones' Christmas Lunch in The Lacquer Room; a fantastic event space on Level 7 of the Elizabeth Street, Sydney store that overlooks lush Hyde Park and onto St Mary's Cathedral.

Christmas table settings on display in The Lacquer Room, Level 7, David Jones, Elizabeth Street, Sydney
For the very first time, the David Jones Sydney store is putting on a Christmas Lunch from 18-23 December 2013.

The Lacquer Room will be open to the public with lunch, morning tea and high tea offerings by Pearl Catering. The bright, airy space will be set for a maximum of 60 diners, serviced by a concealed pop-up kitchen.

The Lacquer Room
With Champagne Pommery on pour for the preview evening (normally $18 per glass; David Jones American Express Platinum Card members receive a complimentary glass on arrival), it was a fantastic opportunity to not only admire the Christmas table settings but also the Hyde Park tree-top views and classic herringbone parquetry floor.

From the lunch menu there are four mains options - vegetarian pumpkin and ricotta tortellini, pan fried snapper, roast turkey breast and a grilled pork cutlet - and three dessert options.

Crisp skin snapper with fennel puree, asparagus, sugar snap peas and sauce vierge
The meaty snapper looked an absolute delight, fragrant with fresh dill and micro herbs. The skin pan fried crisply and the fish gorgeously moist, it was served with an interesting puree of fennel and green vegetables on the side.

Roast turkey breast brushed with herb butter, potato puree and a terrine of macadamia and brioche with Cumberland sauce
The roast turkey was served as two slices of tender breast, juicy even without the fruity Cumberland sauce and melting pat of fresh herb butter.

Rather than traditional stuffing, the turkey was served with a clever bread-y terrine of macadamia nuts and brioche, with potato puree filling up the festive plate. A dressed green salad to share among the table was served on the side.

Summer berries and mascarpone trifle
We got to sample all three desserts on the menu, starting with the very light and subtle trifle of summer berries. Topped with chocolate shavings, I think the light mascarpone cheese made it an airier dessert than traditional custard would be, while there was also minimal cake in the stemless glass.

Dark chocolate tart with Cointreau strawberries and chantilly
On the other end of the dessert scale was the exceedingly rich dark chocolate ganache tart served as a thin wedge with a crumbly, short pastry.

The Cointreau-steeped strawberry segments were a revelatory delight of fruit and booze, while the vanilla bean chantilly cream added even more luxe richness to the silky ganache tart.

Steamed Christmas pudding with brandy anglaise
Just right was the steamed Christmas pudding, packed full with sweet dried fruit. The warm cake itself was light and airy perfection, particularly when drizzled with the thick and creamy crème anglaise with just the tiniest hint of brandy.

Christmas table setting display in The Lacquer Room
The table service was exemplary, but you wouldn't expect any less from David Jones. Combined with the unbeatable view, thoroughly charming surrounds and a live string quartet playing Christmas carols (and oddly, songs from "The Sound of Music"), I feel like I've already had my traditional Christmas dinner for the year.

See more photos on my Facebook page. For full details and tickets for the David Jones Christmas Lunch, see the website.

Food, booze and shoes attended a preview of the David Jones Christmas Lunch in The Lacquer Room as a guest.

The Lacquer Room on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 16, 2013

Popolo: Bringing southern Italian to the people

The emergence of regional cuisine in recent years - from Italian to Chinese to Thai - signals a maturation of the Sydney dining scene.

Being less common and familiar to us Sydney-siders, it was with excitement and intrigue that I visited Popolo in Rushcutters Bay, which opened to rave reviews earlier this year with its southern Italian offerings.

Bellini at Popolo, McLachlan Avenue, Rushcutters Bay
Popolo's two co-owners, formerly of Fratelli Paradiso, have taken on a space beneath a block of apartments in the pricey inner city suburb, introducing produce and wines from emerging regions in southern Italy to the people.

Bright and airy during a Sunday lunch, it was entirely appropriate to start with a bellini, made with peach puree and topped with prosecco and an orange zest garnish that tried to poke the drinker's eyes out.

Bread and olive oil
A bowl of bread was brought to the table, foccacia and a hole-riddled white bread, with salt and an adorably small cast iron frypan filled with olive oil.

Principessa pizza
Continuing on the carbohydrate path, we chose a pizza to share given Naples in the south of Italy is regarded as the home of the modern pizza.

Despite the base and crust of the pizza being a little thicker than I was expecting, the pizza still went a little soggy with the load of fresh and tasty tomato sauce and so was best eaten with cutlery or folded over.

The stretchy, melted buffalo mozzarella cheese was an absolute highlight, of the day even, with the pretty but impractical whole basil leaf garnish.

Carpaccio di gamberi - prawn carpaccio with housemade sour cream, capers, freeze dried mandarin
The entrée special of the day was an irresistible carpaccio of prawns. Served raw and flattened, the prawns had a wonderful creaminess, enhanced with dabs of Popolo's house-made sour cream and and salty capers.

Oil and a hint of vinegar lightly dressed the prawn carpaccio with segments of freeze-dried mandarin adding the finishing citrusy touch to an unusual but spectacular daily special.

Fregola with blue swimmer crab and tomato
From the pasta menu, offered in the one mains size, the fregola was the popular pick for its promise of crustacean goodness.

Featuring picked blue swimmer crab flesh and a crab leg, the hearty and firm fregola pasta basked in a fresh tomato sauce with delectable hints of the sea and soft, squishy cherry tomatoes.

Squid ink tagliatelle with heirloom tomatoes, poached tuna belly and bottarga
I didn't taste the inky black tagliatelle which was a striking dish of wide, squid ink noodles in sauce of yellow-orange heirloom tomatoes with poached tuna belly hidden beneath and sprinkled atop with bottarga cured and dried mullet roe.

Pesce - market fish of Spanish mackerel with cauliflower and white bean puree
I chose the day's market fish of Spanish mackerel, which I was looking forward to as my only prior tasting of the fish has been in its raw nigiri sushi form. The Spanish mackerel was served simply pan-fried on a creamy white bean puree, circled by cauliflower florets.

The thick fillets of Spanish mackerel were very well cooked with crisp, golden skin and its meaty flesh retaining moisture. While a beautiful fillet of fish, the mackerel dish could have used some bigger flavours and even a cheek of lemon wouldn't have gone to waste.

Rocket and grana padano salad
A medium sized bowl of oil-dressed rocket and grana padano cheese shavings completed the meal as our shared side dish.

N & C - coffee-scented white chocolate, hazelnut mousse, hazelnut crumble
Popolo's exotic list of Italian cheeses tempted me more than any cheese list I've come across in Sydney, but being a little too keen on the pizza earlier, I just couldn't do it.

I could barely manage one mouthful of the deceptively petite dessert of chocolate cream, hazelnut mousse and nutty praline. It was both one of the smallest and richest desserts I've tasted, felling the rest of the table with its intense sweetness and creaminess.

We could have sat and lingered with the chilled Sunday lunch crowd, drinking the afternoon away people watching, although there isn't too much of a view other than the well-heeled locals. While it's not a trip to Naples or the Amalfi Coast, Popolo's bringing a part of southern Italy to the people of Sydney.

Popolo on Urbanspoon


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