Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vapiano: Globalised Italian cuisine reaches Sydney

Sydney hasn't really seen anything like Vapiano, with its cook-to-order Italian food stations and smart-card billing and payment system.

Originating from Germany, Vapiano is a global franchise chain of "fresh casual" Italian restaurants that has some impressive reach around the world: more than 120 outlets in 26 countries on four continents.

Vapiano Sydney, Grace Hotel, corner York and King Streets, Sydney
In Australia since 2009, having opened initially in Brisbane, Gold Coast and then Melbourne, the Vapiano Sydney restaurant opened in December 2013 in the gorgeous art deco styled Grace Hotel in the CBD; a good 11 years since the first-ever Vapiano opened in Hamburg, Germany.

Enter from the corner of York and King Streets, and be greeted by signature pale wood furnishings and pots of fresh basil throughout the venue, and the Vapianisti – as employees of the restaurant are called – who provide smart-cards and seat diners.

Pasta kitchen stations
The Vapiano smart-card is essentially an electronic bill that totals up orders as diners move, order and collect food from a number of kitchen stations in the centre of the restaurant: for antipasti and salads, pizza, pasta, drinks and desserts.

Swipe your card as you order and pay a collective bill at the end. It's almost like the casual dining version of Asian hawker stalls, with no waiters or runners, and cooked-to-order Italian offerings instead.

The ground floor is an amazing space with lots of natural light, high ceilings and art deco features from its Grace Hotel corner home. There’s plenty of seating: an entire upstairs dining area, low tables and high stools surrounding the kitchens, and even basil pot-laden tables outside on the sectioned-off footpath.

Inside, the tall table with stools was a little awkward with mushroom lamps and pots of basil down the middle of the table obscuring views of your fellow diner across (perhaps designed for that specific reason).

Downstairs dining space
Meanwhile the table space was not friendly to the numerous, long-handled, wooden boards that various antipasti are served upon.

The Vapiano food concept is the same the world over: fresh Italian cuisine, made onsite and in most instances, prepared or cooked to order – fast and in front of you.

Pasta and desserts are made fresh daily in the restaurant while pizza dough, sauces and dressings are all prepared in-house. Produce is sourced locally, and wherever possible, within 150 kilometres from each restaurant.

Antipasti plate (small)
We started with a small antipasti board; a generous platter featuring a rounded offering of cured meats, vegetables, cheese and bread. Both the prosciutto and fat-studded salami were winners, while there were no complaints about the buffalo mozzarella and parmesan – which are not often seen together.

The tomato and basil bruschetta, green olives, sun-dried tomatoes and extra bread rounded out the platter which is ideal for sharing among at least three people.

Insalata Caprese
We also had the Caprese salad of the same buffalo mozzarella (never quite as good as when in Italy), not the ripest tomato slices and basil with more thick-sliced bread on the side.

Bruschetta pizza
A hearing/ordering mistake saw us with the simple bruschetta pizza (instead of prosciutto pizza). It featured classic bruschetta toppings and rocket on a traditional tomato base with melted mozzarella cheese.

The pizza had a decent crust and base, but I would recommend much more exciting toppings than simply diced tomato, garlic, rocket and parmesan cheese.

Pasta menu
There's a great range of in-house made pasta on offer, with two spelt varieties too. All pasta dishes also come with a slice of bread for that carb-on-carb action.

A good Bolognese sauce is the hallmark of any quality Italian eatery (or home cook) and so I ordered Vapiano's rendition with my selection of linguine.

Pasta cooked to order
You can actually stay and watch as your chosen sauce gets heated on wok-like pans on the stove, with the Vapiano chefs adding ingredients, seasonings of choice and finally, pasta which is firstly cooked alongside.

Linguine bolognaise
Garnished with a line of parmesan cheese and a basil leaf, the Bolognese was surprisingly lacking in depth, as if it was made only minutes ago. It also seemed to feature diced carrot and cherry tomatoes over anything else in the sweet ragu.

It was a little bit sad, especially as the just over al dente linguine cooled and started to stick together in large clumps.

Ravioli con carne
Much better was the ravioli with a Bolognese meat filling. There was better seasoning and flavour to both the pasta parcels and the sauce which had cream in addition to classic tomato-based sauce ingredients.

Innocent Bystander moscato 
It was pleasing to see Australian drops like the cult-favourite Innocent Bystander moscato on offer by the glass (in two sizes, too), while the cocktail menu probably needs a bit of help to compete with any nearby bars.

From the dessert bar we opted for the jar-contained cheesecake with mango jelly on top; a generously sized sweet treat with minimal biscuit crumb base.

Strawberry pannacotta
The vanilla bean speckled pannacotta was more a creamy than wobbly version, with a lightness that was quite appropriate after a fair bit of cheese and carbohydrates.

Vapiano pasta station
Vapiano undeniably has a fast food feeling, albeit a fresh one, but one which I would have thought is a little at odds with the Grace Hotel offering (back in 2012, the guys behind the acclaimed Bentley Restaurant were slated to take over the space).

I couldn't shake the feeling of being at a Sizzler or a back-in-the-day Pizza Hut style restaurant, where you grab food from different stations (though not all-you-can-eat in this instance). The panels promoting the menu and ingredients above the cooking stations add to the franchise feel, although the many, many pots of basil help greatly with the general feeling of freshness and greenness.

As we left a tourist couple walked in, sharing that they were familiar with the concept from their home of Sweden; comfortably grabbing their smart-card in preparation for an almost self-serve lunch.

Vapiano's European roots obviously run deeper than their Australian offshoots so far, but in an increasingly globalised world there seems to be a place for franchised, fast and fresh food – for global customers at the very least.

Food, booze and shoes dined at Vapiano as a guest, with thanks to Open Haus.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ceci: A late night saviour (sort of)

It's 11pm, you're in the inner west suburbs and you've been drinking - beer, wine and sake. You're hungry and the fridge is empty. The pizza you tried to order online is in Burwood, Victoria.

This situation found us walking into Ceci in Strathfield minutes before the staff turned over the hanging sign to say 'closed'. There were a couple of other tables eating studiously - Korean students, a young family, some older Korean gentlemen - with the stone hot pots proving popular.

Banchan starter dishes at Ceci, The Boulevard, Strathfield
The menu features both barbeque and hot pot items quite extensively, but it was post drinking food and carbohydrates we were after.

The banchan starter dishes couldn't come out fast enough for us, with a quintet of mostly vegetables and a dipping sauce, presumably for one of our later orders.

Two pieces of pale potato didn't go between four people but there was nothing too interesting or seconds-inspiring among the bean sprouts, zucchini or mung bean jelly, other than the excellently chilli-spiced cabbage kimchi.

Seafood and shallot pancake
Korean seafood pancakes, or haemul jeon, are one of my absolute favourite foods so it was with some disappointment that we received a pale, soggy one.

Filled with shallots, squid and prawns, neither the soy dipping sauce or chilli bean sauce could really save the barely cooked batter.

Seafood noodles
Better were the seafood noodles, with a similar showing of seafood among the thick white rice noodles. Cooked with carrot, bean sprouts, zucchini and shallots in a plain, homely flavouring; the noodles were on the mark after a few drinks.

Fried chicken wings
Last to arrive were burning hot chicken mid-wings and drumettes. Battered and straight out of the deep fryer, the chicken wings suffered from a major lack of seasoning, salt even, and it was probably one of the few times I haven't enjoyed fried chicken of any sort.

Perhaps the restaurant's specialty is in Korean hot pots or barbeque, which are promoted on staff T-shirts. But for "where's-my-pizza"-style post-drinking eats, Ceci was a late night saviour.

Ceci on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 20, 2014

The hills are alive: Reuben Hills

The hype about Surry Hills café, coffee roastery and all-round hipster haunt, Reuben Hills, is alive and well more than one year into the business.

The 20-minute Saturday morning wait for a table for two is not nearly as bad as the wait for larger tables, but gave us the opportunity to walk around this less commercial and infinitely more interesting and character-filled area of Surry Hills.

Salted caramel milkshake (top) and piccolo latte (bottom)
from Reuben Hills, Albion Street, Surry Hills
On return from our walkabout, we were seated in the middle of the long space, right near the kitchen and espresso machine where baristas knock out dine-in and takeaway coffees with as much care as a master artist. From the way they pour hot, frothed milk to the way they place a teacup on a saucer just so, you can tell that they care about their coffee – and so should you.

That said, their salted caramel milkshake absolutely blows their piccolo latte out of the water. It's sweet but not too sweet with deep, almost burnt caramel notes, and the salt level is just right. I don't care if salted caramel is the latest, greatest, overused ingredient – it was milkshake perfection.

Back lane entrance
As we waited for food (which doesn't take long at all), we sat admiring Reuben Hills' patrons, staff and impressive fitout, while enjoying the old school RnB songs that dominate the play list.

The space is way-too-cool-for-school chic, with industrial touches like the back laneway roller door contrasting with a huge bunch of fresh flowers on the end communal table.

The upstairs, visible through all the exposed brickwork and wooden ceiling beams, is home to the roastery, Friday morning cupping classes and other coffee nerd-ery that's beyond me.

Really  fxxxxxg great fried chicken with chilli in a basket
The all-day menu allowed us the luxury, and guilt, of fried chicken for breakfast; served atop a plain tortilla with pale green guindilla-style pickled chillies and dipping sauces of salsa and flavoured mayonnaise.

The fried chicken is really quite good, but I'm not sure it reaches the levels of "fxxxxxg great". The juicy, boneless chicken thigh comes in a lightly spiced batter, not unlike a certain fast food joint though more crisp, and while I loved the pickled chillies, the salsa sauce lacked any kick.

Short rib burger with garlic ranch dressing and potato salad
The sandwich offerings are particularly tempting but I was sold on the prospect of a short rib burger, although it no longer appears on the menu now.

I’m a bit over seeing brioche burger buns, but here it was with fatty, grilled strips of beef short rib with a shredded potato salad and creamy, garlic-spiked ranch dressing. Flavour-wise it was a pretty good combination of fat, carbs and protein, though a heavy one for breakfast.

Doggs breakfast - ice cream sandwich with salted caramel
We went the whole way with the guilt-laden breakfast, finishing with the Doggs breakfast dessert of an ice cream sandwich, featuring vanilla ice cream bookended with a rather dry, unexciting chocolate brownie/cake.

On lovable enamel plates with matching chipped enamel cutlery, the dessert relied completely on the generous quenelle of gooey salted caramel, which becomes pleasurably too much about half way through, but you just keep going anyway.

Reuben Hills is undoubtedly livening up a quieter end of Surry Hills, with its coffee and decent eats coming in just under the hype, queues and fitout.

Reuben Hills on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jonesing for Jones the Grocer, Westfield Sydney

The breadth of the Level 5 food offerings at Westfield Sydney means that there's always something I haven't yet tried.

Jones the Grocer took over the prime restaurant spot on Level 5 about a year ago with a luxury grocery offering, bakery and restaurant – and I've been jonesing to get there to see how the space has changed.

Restaurant dining area at Jones the Grocer, Level 5, Westfield Sydney
I visited for a pre-Christmas dinner last year when the shopping centre was filled with retail frenzy and the dining space at Jones the Grocer was a haven from most of it; a frazzled staff member aside.

The well-spaced restaurant area behind the food "emporium" is a particularly warm and inviting setting with the feeling of a posh home highlighted by a long open kitchen and dark timber furniture.

Seats by the window have the added benefit, or distraction, of looking across into a gym where classes take place while you eat and drink.

Shiraz and Pipsqueak apple cider
Maybe it's just all in my head but I think wine always looks and tastes better out of Plumm wine glasses, especially when it’s a bold Aussie shiraz.

There are, rightfully, a lot of Australian options on the drinks list and the food menu follows with a modern Australian bent (read: a bit of Asian, a bit of Mediterranean, a bit of this and that – all tempting and delicious-sounding).

Angel hair pasta with blue swimmer crab, chilli, rocket, garlic and grana padano
A popular starter is surprisingly a pasta entrée, with its promise of picked blue swimmer crab in a classic and fresh combination of rocket, garlic, chilli and parmesan cheese.

The thin angel hair pasta noodles, almost resembling vermicelli, were a good, light carrier for the quintessentially Australian yet Italian flavours.

Salt and pepper squid, yuzu mayonnaise, Thai herb salad dressed
with tamarind, chilli and lime sauce
I went for Sydney’s ubiquitous salt and pepper squid with south-east Asian influences. Crumbed curls of a dark, deep fried squid were plentiful among a Thai-inspired salad with plenty of green herbs, bean sprouts and a light dressing of sweet tamarind, chilli and lime.

Both entrées were very generous in size and at the height of freshness; embracing a modern Australian ethos with flavours from around the world.

Duck leg confit with French lentils, apple and spinach salad with grape seed dressing
To France for my main with the most perfect confit duck Maryland, hidden beneath a pile of spinach and apple salad.

The duck was probably one of the best renditions of confit I've had: crisp skin, perfectly rendered, and soft, yielding flesh that was not too salty, paired classically with braised lentils.

The leafy, dressed salad with apple matchsticks – admittedly, presented all over the top of the duck – added a required sweet and tart lightness to the overall dish.

Free-range slow roasted pork cutlet with carrot puree, poached prune and shaved cabbage pangrattato salad
An impressively-sized pork cutlet was our other main, served with a creamy carrot puree, a few plumply poached prunes and a salad of shaved cabbage, fresh herbs and toasted breadcrumbs. Presentation seemed to follow a somewhat haphazard philosophy, with the salad again all over the top.

There was a sad lack of crackling, with a rubbery, fatty rind of skin attached to the thick pork cutlet instead although the pork was at least juicy and tender.

Stir fried broccolini
While the main dishes are quite complete with vegetable additions, we upped the green count with broccolini stems, stir fried with simply with oil.

Glazed lemon tart with confit citrus and creme fraiche
Dessert was probably not necessary following the big meals but we were tempted enough to try the glazed lemon tart. With burnished lemon curd top in a short pastry crust, the tart wedge was served with a variety of citrus segments and a quenelle of crème fraiche.

We also had a trio of sorbets as another dessert with refreshing renditions of each passionfruit, raspberry and mango sorbets.

I'm not sure if it is intended, but there's an air of 'something for everyone' at Jones the Grocer. Even the kids menu was impressive and clearly not an afterthought; hence, quite a few tables of families with young children.

And then there's food for take-home purchase, the bakery offerings and an impressive cheese cabinet that has me jonesing to get back for more.

Food, booze and shoes dined at Jones the Grocer as a guest, with thanks to Cav Con.

Jones the Grocer on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sydney Festival 2014: Sacrilege and Festival Village

If you were at The Domain on Saturday night, you'd be well aware that Sydney Festival is in full swing for 2014.

Thousands of people, all up and dancing to Hot Dub Time Machine and then soul queen Chaka Khan was a spectacular sight, but if you missed that, there's plenty of other free and ticketed options around town.

Sacrilege at Hyde Park for Sydney Festival 2014, 9-26 January
One very popular, free feature is the unmissable Sacrilege in Hyde Park north, in front of St Mary's Cathedral. It's a life-size replica of historic Stonehenge in bouncy, jumping castle style.

Sacrilege at Hyde Park
That's right, jump and bounce on Stonehenge, right in the middle of Sydney. Up to 100 people can bounce in each timed session, which are proving popular with all ages, especially on the weekend.

Sacrilege at Hyde Park

Sacrilege at Hyde Park

Sacrilege at Hyde Park

Lawn Library at Festival Village, Hyde Park
There's plenty more entertainment in Hyde Park's Festival Village, with food offerings from 12pm daily and bars opening from 4.30pm.

The City of Sydney has set up the Lawn Library, giving bookworms a unique outdoor, open-air library - no musty smells here.

Folk in a Box at Festival Village, Hyde Park
There's the "world's smallest music venue", Folk in a Box, where audiences of maximum two people enter a dark box to be serenaded by a live musician.

It's a bit strange but the box is covered in notes of thank you and praise for the musicians, and everyone comes out smiling.

Food trucks at Festival Village, Hyde Park
As for food and drink options, there's plenty on offer, though not without queues. There are a range of dedicated stalls and a few food trucks; Jafe Jaffles and Let's Do Yum Cha on Friday night.

Festival Village, Hyde Park
Food Society has the biggest food offerings with burgers and other bits, while the booze sponsors each have dedicated bars.

Woofys sausage sizzle cart
We thought we'd give gourmet sausage sizzle a whirl as I've not come across the Woofys cart before.

With four varieties on offer, each featuring a prime cut beef sausage, it was several steps up from the fundraising sausages and priced at $8 a serve.

The Corker (front) and Nacho Dog (back left) from Woofys
For starters, they were good quality beef sausages, cooked from raw, served on a soft white bun.

The Corker featured creamy cabbage slaw and crispy fried onions and tomato sauce, while the Nacho Dog had guacamole, sour cream, crushed cheesy corn chips and chilli sauce.

The Boss Dog from Woofys
While I couldn't quite pick a favourite, the Boss Dog was a definite winner with slices of tart pickles, sauerkraut, American mustard, tomato sauce and crisp fried onions.

Gelato Messina stall
For post-show dessert we couldn't go past Gelato Messina's fun, carnival-inspired sweet treats. There's actually quite an extensive menu including hot dogs with a chocolate ice cream sausage, Pluto Pups with ice cream centres and ice cream sundaes in fantastic Messina style.

Fairy floss at Gelato Messina

Samurai Fairy Ball from Gelato Messina
The child in me insisted on having the fairy floss dessert, called the Samurai Fairy Ball. The pink floss covers a chocolate-covered pop of light green yuzu sorbet in a sugar frenzy that's just out of this world.

Gelatoffee Apple from Gelato Messina
The Gelatoffee Apple also features an ice cream centre: a super fresh strawberry flavour on this occasion in a red toffee shell, gorgeously fun and slightly messy to eat.

The Spiegeltent entrance
We saw the amazing Amanda Palmer in the Spiegeltent on Friday night, who absolutely killed it with her solo cabaret show.

The Spiegeltent is one of my all-time favourite venues and I'm looking forward to seeing LIMBO there this week and then All That Fall, Othello: The Remix and Ockham's Razor after, and the whimsical Merchant's Store installation in Darling Harbour. I've got my Sydney Festival on!

See more Sydney Festival photos on my Facebook page.


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