Friday, December 31, 2010

Link Round-Up: What I'm Reading

Okay, maybe a new section for the blowwwwg. It's a bit of a collection of online things (sometimes good enough to be called 'articles') I've been reading in the past few days that I've reacted to (as opposed to the deadface that normal life inspires). Enjoy.

The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical [SERIOUS EATS]

The foie gras debate is one that has carried on for a long time. We don't see a lot of it in Australia, but I saw it most restaurants in the parts of Europe and the US that I visited this year.

This piece follows the writer's trip to a foie gras "farm" to see exactly how the force feeding required (in most cases) to produce foie gras is performed and what conditions the animals live with. Not surprisingly, there are producers out there that care for their animals.

Umami Australia and UMAMI Information Center

Umami is something that I (like most people) don't know a whole heap about. The two websites above contain some fascinating information on Umami, "the fifth taste". Check out the presentation by Barbara Santich (author of the spectacular 'Looking for Flavour' and an academic I have a huge amount of time for) in the Event section.

Foodie Fatigue [CHICAGO TRIBUNE]

While I do have a food blog and do talk about food constantly, I find the whole "foodie" "movement" tremendously tiring (as you no doubt find my use of inverted commas). Why do people need to take low-qual, camera phone picture of every single thing they eat? Would people give two shits about macarons if Masterchef hadn't talked them up? And do half of these people obsessed with food even know what they're talking about?

If you've asked similar questions then you, like the article, will be wondering when the "foodie" bubble is going to pop.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

RECIPE: Chorizo and Bean Stew

Here's a simple recipe that I like to knock up a big batch of every now and again when I don't have the energy to make anything elaborate. It requires almost no skill to make, tastes spectacular and most of the ingredients can sit in your pantry for ages.

Ingredients (makes around 6 large portions):
- 4 chorizos, diced (the rougher you dice the better)
- 4 tins of various beans, drained and rinsed (I use a mix of butter beans, kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans. But whatever you can find will work)
- 1 tin of diced tomatoes (the ones that have herbs already in them are great in this recipe)
- 1 teaspoon of tomato paste (optional)
- 3 shallots, diced finely
- 3 cloves of garlic, diced finely
- Approx 2.5 litres of vegetable stock (I use stock powder and it tastes fine)
- Pinch of black pepper
- Pinch of smoked paprika
- Pinch of dried chilli flakes
- A splash of neutral oil (canola, grapeseed, etc)

How It's Done:
- Put a large pot over a medium heat. Heat the oil and cook the shallots and garlic for a couple of minutes. You just want to soften them, not get any colour. If you feel that it's cooking too fast, reduce the heat.
- Add the pepper, paprika and chilli. Stir often to prevent anything sticking to the bottom.
- Add the chorizos and mix well. Cook for approx 5 minutes, stirring often.
- Add all of the beans, the tomatoes and the tomato paste. Stir to mix, but be gentle to avoid the beans breaking up.
- Add enough stock so that the contents of the pot are just covered. Stir again, still being careful not to be rough and damage the beans.
- Bring the contents to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and leave it (uncovered) for at least 45 minutes (no more than 3 hours), stirring every now and then.

I like to serve it with some crusty bread, but it's also great over burghul or fregola. Or even just on it's own.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Double Cheese BaconKiloBurger

600g of bacon
Wrapped around 2 bun halves
2 x 200g wagyu beef patties
3 x slices of 18-month-aged gouda cheese
Sliced gherkin
Green tomato relish
Tomato sauce

Sunday, December 05, 2010

ARTICLE: Celebrity Chef Endorsements; Selling Out or Selling In?

I’m watching TV and on comes a Coles ad with superstar celebrity chef Curtis Stone. This time he’s flogging prawns, but it really isn’t important. It could have easily been the ad where he gets a family to cook up some spag bol for $10, or the one where Guy Grossi talks up the Woolworths ham. Or the one where Margaret Fulton talks about cherries in Woolworths. Or the Coles ad with George Calombaris. It’s all just another piece of supermarket advertising ephemera added to the mix.

Stone, cold pimp(in' questionable products)

People have criticised Stone for appearing in the ads, claiming that his $10 meals can’t actually be cooked for $10. Just like they criticised Calombaris—a multi-hatted chef—for appearing in the ads and spruiking the “great” produce to be found in Coles (that he wouldnt be caught dead serving in his restaurant).

I initially sided with many other people and thought that these celebrity chefs were just selling out to the corporate machine for a few bucks. We knew that the produce at the big-name supermarkets was average at best, so where was their integrity? If not for money, then why endorse something that they clearly don't use themselves? For the money... Oh... wait...

But I think I’ve completely missed the point. This isn’t about convincing “foodies” to shop at Coles or Woolworths to take advantage of the plethora of great, reasonably-priced produce. It’s about convincing people that don’t know better to choose Coles over Woolworths, or vice versa.

And it’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing because it will get people into cooking. It doesn’t matter that the “fresh” produce has been kept in cold storage for a year, or that it’s been treated with chemicals to make it last longer. Or even that it's been handled by people that don't give two shits about selling a great leek.

That’s all a battle for another person, for another time. The average person at home doesn’t spend the weekend looking for organic, free-range, environmentally sustainable heirloom carrots. They’ll be happy with a carrot. Just a carrot. If it’s orange and pointy, they’re happy. It doesn't even have to taste like a carrot. Because if it doesn't then they have a great story to tell at the next barbeque they go to with all of their friends. Because, remember how carrots USE to taste?

I fail to see how it can be a bad thing if someone is inspired to cook by Curtis Stone smiling away in a cotton shirt, even if it is based a little on deception (or a lot). Once they start cooking seriously then they can start caring about how their carrot tastes and where it comes from. And they can cynically look at the television and deride the celebrity chef of the moment, selling a product that they don’t completely believe in. But right now, they need a catalyst that will put them in the kitchen and have them frantically stirring a pan filled with a kilo of mince while they scan the recipe card in the hope of finding the answer to the age old question of "how much pepper do I put in?" because the recipe card just says to add pepper.

So who loses here? I can't think of anyone. The supermarkets win because they drum up business (from the other supermarkets). The person mislead into the kitchen has won because they've started cooking. The celebrity chef has maybe lost some integrity in the eyes of the food-conscious viewer. But, really, are you going to avoid the Press Club because George was in a Coles ad? Regardless, they've got the cash from the endorsement to hold them at night.

Some people may make the argument that producers that make good food and shops that sell decent produce have lost out. But, really, were they ever expecting to sell to the average punter at home that doesn't know why there are so many colours of onion? I'd bet anything that the people that are going to Coles to get Stone's recipe card wouldn't be the type to normally buy their produce from a reputable grocer, or at a farmers' market. And if you tried to market to them it would fall on deaf ears.

Recently, I gave a recipe to a kitchen-newbie friend of mine. It's a recipe I only cook when the ingredients are in season because the recipe requires it. I also make sure that I get the best looking and tasting ingredients possible. And I'll give you a hint where I get them from: Not Coles or Woolworths. But my friend went to Coles to get the produce (not in season), made the recipe, loved it. He was stoked that he'd cooked something and to him it tasted great.

If I had have told him to look around for a grocer carrying the best produce, and to only cook it in season then I would again bet anything that he would have felt intimidated or daunted by the very idea of it.

If he keeps cooking and starts wanting to learn more about food then he'll undoubtedly end up buying great produce from great producers. But right now, shouldn't we be happy that the first step has been taken?

In an ideal world, everyone would know why good produce matters and why we should bloody well give a damn. Because it bloody well does matter. But we're nowhere near that now, so can we just accept that a very small step has been taken in getting people more interested in food by (maybe) getting them in the kitchen? And if it took a celebrity chef to do that, then good on them. A white lie never hurt anyone.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

RESTAURANT: Chef's Gallery

For a couple of months, Chef's Gallery, with it's bright lights and vast, clear windows has called to me. So bright. It's rare that a restaurant makes me feel like a moth.

Finally, I went there.

And the food is good enough. We ordered around 10 dishes, and everything we had was solidly good, without there being a real stand-out. It's also a nice, bright dining room with plenty of staff roaming the floor and ample beverages to wash down the goodness.

But it just didn't get me hard.

And, trust me, if there's one thing you want at a Chinese restaurant, it's to be hard.

It struck me that the problem was that it was trying to add a bit of refinement to normal Chinese fair (albeit with some modernish twists in there). And "a bit" of refinement just confused me. When the handmade noodles with pork, dried bean curb and soya bean sauce arrived, I took a look at them, then a bite of them, and realised that I would have preferred to be eating this at a cheap dive of a place nearby in Chinatown.

So they cooked it in a clean wok and there wasn't any cockroaches in the kitchen? Who cares. I kind of want some old lady to slam the plate (that may not be entirely clean) down on the table then walk off. Not these young things roaming the floor.

I've been conditioned to prefer imperfection when it comes to this sort of food. I don't want thin, perfect noodles. I want thick, wildly made noodles with a bit of bite to them. I want huge, random chunks of vegetable and meat in my fried rice, not uniformly-cut pieces of ham.

And even if they are well made, seeing a plate with just four dumplings on it just seems disappointing next to the standard dozen that they throw together elsewhere.

If they refined it to the levels of somewhere like Spice Temple (or in that ballpark) then maybe it would be a different story, but I left with the feeling that my heart will always point me towards the gems of Chinatown instead of Chef's Gallery. Even if the food is good, the prices reasonable, the service efficient and the restaurant comfortable.

RATING: Okay, may go back [?]

Chefs Gallery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Already a huge fan/advocate (fanvocate?) of Bodega, I was pretty psyched when they opened Porteno, an Argentinean grillhouse/meat temple with a menu that looked pretty much awesome.

It’s the sort of thing that couldn’t go wrong.

But then... it kind of did.

We rocked up around 6.30 midweek to find the place nearly full, which was to be expected. A lot of the people that have given the place a negative review just haven’t understood how a no-bookings place works if it’s popular. PEOPLE TEND TO GO THERE. But, success, there was a table free.

After putting in our order we waited for the food to come. And waited. We got the bread pretty quick and that was fine, with a nice pate to go with. The smoked mackerel with palm hearts and avocado was also fantastic. As was the wine, which came of a wine list that was similarly excellent to that at Bodega.

But then, where was everything else? Were they cooking the 8 hour pork to order?

The wine was diminishing quickly and the water was barely getting ever getting topped up. The table next to us, who got their first dish around the same time as we did, finished their entire meal (with dessert) while we waited. We asked the waitress what was going on and only got “yeah, it’s coming” as a response. Oh, phew, because for a second there I was worried that it wasn’t.

So while we waited for an eternity for the rest of the food, we tried to ignore the fact that we were being ignored and do as most people do: talk. But this too was difficult with the noise in the place. I think it was just where our table was positioned, but fuck me it was hard to talk. It’s noisy at Bodega too, but I don’t really mind. Maybe it’s because it’s a small place (and I usually have food in front of me)? Like, maybe the smallness makes the diner think that they’re in the middle of an intimate party or something stupid like that? But at Porteno, it’s more like being part of a huge migration of cattle?

The food finally came (all at once) (after another group had been seated next to us and received their first course) and it was damn good, as expected. Veal sweetbreads melted in the mouth; the morcilla was packed with flavour, beautifully soft and paired well with roasted capsicum; and the suckling pig was salty, sweet, crunchy and tender all at once. It managed to go nicely with the half of glass of wine I’d rationed off.

I think I ordered the polenta too, but that never arrived. Forgot to check the bill at the end to see if we’d been charged.

Still a little hungry, we went for dessert. The Argentinean pavlova was a nice mix of texture and flavour. The burnt milk custard or whatever it was definitely tasted good, but struck me as the poor-man’s version of the banana split at Bodega. The custard was collapsing slightly, and the pieces of popcorn added the right flavour, but the texture was a bit strange. Still, a top dessert though.

I left, wondering what happened.

That “dining experience” (TM) was heavily influenced by the average service and the ridiculous wait between courses. But what caused it?

I wanted an excuse I could use to forgive everything.

Opening jitters? Not really, it’s been open a while and thousands of people have poured through the door already so they should be with it by now. Maybe that waitress was new, or she just wasn’t getting it?

Maybe the kitchen had an off day? By arrive at 6.30 we would have been among the last tables to put in our orders from the first sitting. Did they hit the wall? Was it just a once off?

Maybe it was only our table that copped all of the noise in the place?

But try as I might, I just couldn’t find an excuse for them. My meal at Porteno was average. The service was either forgettable or in line with a place that seats around 3 million people; the acoustics of the place meant that the noise was too much; the wait between the mackerel and the rest was just ridiculous; and I’m almost certain I ordered the polenta, yet it never arrived.

While the food was undeniably great, I’m hesitant to go back. Maybe I’ll go back again, once, if only to try the lamb. But if the service is average and there’s another huge wait for the food then I don’t see any point in returning. And I think the pretty young things in their “dresses” and “shoes” will agree with me. Right now it’s buzzing on hype, but that only lasts for so long. Surely it can't always be like this? I want this place to be so good. So much.

RATING: Pending.

Porteno on Urbanspoon

RECIPE: Polenta with parmigiano reggiano and olive oil

Good flavours; Simplicity; Comfort.

Make the polenta as per the packet directions.
Towards the end stir in a knob of good butter and handful or so (depends how much you make) of grated parmigiano reggiano.

Serve with some shavings of parmigiano reggiano, a bit of freshly ground black pepper and a generous drizzle of olive oil.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

RECIPE: Better Than Spain: Chocolate ice cream, dark chocolate smear, fried brioche, olive oil, coffee and sugar roasted peanuts

Inspired first by the BTS dessert at Sydney restaurant House. And secondly by the traditional Spanish dessert of chocolate on bread with olive oil.

Dark chocolate smear:
Over a double-boiler, melt 100g of the highest percentage cocoa chocolate you can find. I used 85%.
Add a heaped tablespoon of thickened cream.
Stir through and cool. Refrigerate.
Take it out of the fridge well before serving so it liquefies.

Cut some brioche in to chunks and pan fry over a low-medium heat with a stack of butter. Try to avoid getting too much colour (the above picture shows what to avoid).

Roughly ground some peanuts with some coffee beans and some brown sugar. Roast in an oven until the nuts are cooked.
Once cool, ground further.

Either make your own chocolate ice cream (look for a recipe online) or buy some.

To assemble, smear some of the dark chocolate on a plate. Scatter some brioche. Add a generous scoop of the ice cream. Spoon over a teaspoon of the peanut mix. Drizzle over some good olive oil.

Serve it with a good imperial Russian stout or some pedro ximenez.

Friday, November 26, 2010

RECIPE: Cider braised pork shoulder, pan juice reduction, peanut smear

Apple and pork. A classic combination that I never tire of.

Especially when faced with a roasted shoulder, crackling reaching towards the sky, reaching for my bra strap (I have serious manboobs).


Preheat the oven as high as Wu-Tang Gets it goes. For my gas powered oven, it is MYSTERY SETTING!
Patdry the skin of the pork. Score it if your butcher hasn't. Rub salt into the wound.
Rub the rest of the best in salt, pepper, fennel, olive oil, mustard seeds.
Submerge the beast (leaving the skin unsubmerged, pointing up) in a mix of 75% apple cider (alcoholic, French type), 25% vegetable stock.
Put it in the searing oven until the cracking is sufficient.
Drop the temp to around 120c, cover with foil, leave for around 12 hours (check after 9/10) until the bone slides out easy.
I like to jack the oven right up at the end to invigorate the crackling.

Drain the fat from the juices and pour them into a saucepan.
Reduce over a high heat until gravy consistency. Cheat with some cornstarch if you like.

For the peanut smear, grind up 3 tablespoons of peanuts until they're dust. Add a generous pinch of salt and a pinch of brown sugar.
Into a saucepan with 2 cups of apple cider (as above).
Reduce until it's a thick syrup.

On the side, maybe baked apple and potato. Maybe some cabbage braised in cider. Your choice. But it's all secondary to the pork.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Google Fail

Um.... No?

RECIPE: Oyster Tartare with Pancetta, Potato and Mango

Oysters. Chopped.
Pancetta and Potato. Diced. Fried over a low heat (the pancetta should go soft, not crisp).
Mango. Fine dice.

Layer it so the sea is on the bottom (oyster), then the ground (pancetta and potato), then the tree (mango).

Serve in something which encourages the eater to get a bit of everything on the spoon at once. Salty/sweet is one contrast. But the unctuousness of the fat and the oyster being cut by the mango is another. The potato is really just to bulk the dish out.

Serving suggestion is the Chandon ZD. Ultra crisp sparkling wine that doesn't influence the very clear flavours of the dish. A clean Blanc de Blanc would also work, but anything else could distort the taste.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ARTICLE: On The Transformational Properties of Eating Food in Europe

After eating my way across some of Europe’s most culinary countries, I began to reflect on my time spent at tables. Had anything actually changed? Or had I just spent a lot of time and money to just eat more food; food that I pretty much could get back home? The answer was, most definitely, things changed.

It was actually subtle things which changed. But they were subtle things which can add up and completely change a dining experience.


The birth of the aperitif/aperitivo. To be honest, I previously used ‘aperitif’ as a wanky term to describe a style of drink. But in Italy and France I was completely won over by the aperitif. Maybe it was because I was relaxed and I was on holiday (and I didn’t have much of a budget), but I hit the aperitifs. I hit them hard. A cool glass of champagne and something to nibble on is an absolutely spectacular way to start a meal (or prepare for an impending one) when you’re sitting down for a leisurely eating session. If you’re in a rush, obviously there is little point (apart from the normal thrill of champagne).

Oddly, the changing perception of the aperitif also totally changed my perception of .est, one of only three Sydney restaurants to hold three hats in the Good Food Guide (along with Quay and Marque). When I visited it, I really disliked it. One of the main reasons for the dislike was the champagne cart offering when you arrived. Get fucked, I don’t want you to rape me with a glass of Krug. Europe told me that, yes, I do want to be fucked by your glass of Krug. I’m in a good restaurant, why not go nuts. If I’m paying $300 for a dinner with wine, then what’s another $30? I should be treating it as a special occasion, not a regular dinner. That said, the food still isn’t that great for that level of fine dining.

Cheese. Cheese how I loved thee. And how I love thee. Still, with a love of cheese already, Europe totally transformed my view of cheese and, more specifically, the cheese course. What could be better than a few perfectly ripened pieces of cheese before dessert? Nothing, really (ed: plenty of things). But the cheese in Europe was actually ripe. It was incredible. Utter perfection. If only everyone in Sydney wanted a cheese course, then restaurants would actually be able to perfectly ripen cheese. At the moment, I think it has to be impossible to serve perfectly ripe cheese and make money from it, with so few people actually opting for a cheese course. But they fucking well should. A good glass of red and a selection of cheeses at their absolute peak is a thing of beauty. And Australia makes good damn cheese, so let’s do this shit. Australians: get the cheese course.

Mushrooms. I used to hate mushrooms as a child. In the last few years I tried more and I realised that I wasn’t sure. Before hitting Europe I realised that I only hated badly cooked mushrooms. After hitting Europe—in the middle of mushroom season—I realised that I LOVED mushrooms. They are now my wife and husband. A perfectly cooked mushroom is a thing of utter beauty. Like the refreshing sweetness of a watermelon tastes like summer, a dish of well-cooked mushrooms tastes like Autumn. I want more.

Sparkling water. This got me bad. So freakin’ bad. Because of their hideous tap water, it appeared that the Europeans didn’t drink a lot of the stuff at restaurants. In fact, it was so horrible I struggled to drink it anywhere. It became one of the first words I’d memorise when we entered a new country. Yes, no, please, thank you, sparkling water. The bare essentials. Arriving home, I got the horn for it. The itch. I can’t get enough of it. San Pellegrino was the best, but I can take nearly anything just to satisfy the craving. Before coming home I realised that I was addicted. But I was worried. I spent a good 30 minutes in the hotel room in (I think) Zaragoza, researching if there were any negative health impacts of drinking sparkling water. I couldn’t find any, so when I got home I hit up Norton St Grocers for a shitload of the stuff. Since then, it hasn’t left the fridge (or cooler—backup).

Sadness over produce. This made me feel pretty bad, really. The cheeses over there are in another world to here. The retailers actually know how to mature a cheese. Even the cheap supermarket cheeses could compare with the best things we have here. Salumi/cured meats? Forget about it. Italy was a mindfuck of great salumi. Good lardo. Where is that around here? The fruit in Italy and France? Wow! Ripe, seasonal and packed with flavour. And you can actually get decent stuff in a normal supermarket. Incredible.

So, yes, things have changed. Not only have my dining habits changed, but my attitudes towards produce have changed (that sounds so damn wanky) as a result of this trip. It was edutainment at it’s finest!

RECIPE: Appetiser/Palate Cleanser. Melon Gazpacho, Crispy Jamon, Cream

Melon Gazpacho:
Stale bread (no crusts)
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil
Ice (lots)


Sour Cream
Add a little water
A little olive oil
Salt and Pepper


Crispy Jamon:
Slices of jamon/prosciutto

Bake on a medium heat in the oven until dry and crisp. Crumble.


Monday, November 22, 2010

RECIPE: Appetiser. The Foie Gras Croissant


Chunks of croissant.
Chunks of pan-fried foie gras.
Muscat jelly to reduce the buttery/livery sweetness.
Chervil for a little freshness.

Friday, November 19, 2010

RECIPE: Appetiser. Orange and Sardine Toasts

Sliced baguette, rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled
2 orange segments
1 half of a marinated sardine fillet
A few pieces of finely shaved fennel
Garnished with some fennel fronds

The important thing is to nail to orange to sardine ratio. Test it first. Your oranges/sardines may be (will be) different to mine.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RECIPE: Appetiser. Buffalo Mozzarella

On tomato-rubbed bread.
With basil.
Olive oil.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

RECIPE: Pietro Ximenez's Suitcase

This cocktail was inspired by my recent trip around Europe.

The journey started in Rome, where I was given a bottle of delicious, aged grappa for my birthday. Because grappa is such a strong drink and because I wasn't doing a lot of drinking in the hotel room, I found myself carting this with me as we went from city to city. In Barcelona, we purchased a really nice bottle of pedro ximenez which, again, didn't get finished and joined the convoy.

In Zaragoza I was getting tired of having a liquor cabinet slowly growing in my luggage. So I got to drinking. One idea was to mix the pedro ximenez with the grappa to both cut the sweetness of the pedro xim with the aniseedy flavour of the grappa, and to cut the strength and burn of the grappa. It was nice enough (and, more importantly, got rid of the booze on hand) but I knew it had more potential.

- 2 parts iced tea (I made this myself because you don't want it sweet)
- 1 part grappa
- 1 part pedro ximenez
- 1 thick piece of orange zest (squeeze it a little before adding it)
- Tiny splash of brandy

Mix it over a shitload of ice in a lowball, stir, charge with a little sparkling water.

A damn fine drink to sip on. Sweet, viscous, refreshing.

Blogging and Microblogging United

Hi blog fans (ed: there are none, I checked the stats),

I got the Twitter (might want to get yourself tested). Follow me around if you want to get updates on my blog posts, other food related things, rap with swearing in it and/or hate towards macarons.

I've had it for a week or so, which is around 60 years in internet life, so I'm pretty sure it'll be here forever.

Or don't. I don't really care. I'm pretty self absorbed.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

ARTICLE: The Future/Death of Food Writing; A hastily written piece of rant-trash

For anyone that actually follows this blog with any interest (ed: there is no one, I checked the stats) you may have noticed an increased focus on the blog in the last couple of months. See... I care. I care about food. And I like to write. Which means that I can about food writing. So I do it. Right?

But I don’t do things by half measures. When I do something, I want to do it well. So I was sitting around, thinking on how to approach food writing—how to do it brilliantly. What I came to realise is that food writing is pretty much doomed.

People have changed since newspapers started adding food reviews to their papers. Social media has completely changed the face of non-news media. If we want to find out about a new restaurant or bar that opened recently, do we wait for a publication to publish a review? Hell naw. We hit up blogs, Twitter, Google, whatever. We have a veritable dossier of information on every new place that opens before even having taking a bite or a sip.

And this media doesn’t just have the tired old 500 word column. No. It has hi definition photos taken on a 10 megapixel digital SLR camera. And, fuck it, I’m viewing it on a 20 inch LCD screen over a band that can only be described as BROAD.

All within the first week of a new place opening, if it’s in the right location (or reaches out to enough people willing to give it a write-up).

How does traditional food writing survive? Through bloody good food writing? Get the Pulizter ready. Maybe not. (hold the Pulitzer)

Because blogging appears to have killed the linguistic star. Such is the proliferation of food writing (namely restaurant reviews) that entire phrases can be killed in a week. How many times have we heard phrases like “meltingly tender” or “sinfully rich”? Back in the days of print media we could at least wait a week before the next restaurant review appeared and the reviewer pulled out their tired old formula. But now...

Now, in the age of instant gratification, you can sign up to so many avenues of social media that you can get a dozen people describing the very same dish in the space of just a week. How many ways are there to describe the same thing? The accountants inside us say that there is only one way to describe something: the right way. The artist inside us says that there are many ways to describe it. The public ready the description of the item says that there is but a few ways of describing something in a way that keeps them coming back.

A post happened on the internet a few days ago, on The Food Blog. The question was asked: how would you describe a steak?

The answer from every proper, published, food writer? The same way as each other.

The answer from nearly every food blogger? The same way as the food writer, but not as good, but with more pictures so it’s cool, right?

Proper food writers, when they’re really firing, are poetic. They’re moving. They DRIVE you to the food with language so evocative you can almost taste it. But that’s only when they’re firing. And how evocative can you be when language is set in stone? There are only so many terms and phrases that can be used. So the question remains: how do you describe a steak, having to be poetic, moving, descriptive and critical, yet moving?

But proper food writers... they’re following a formula, aren’t they? The Modern Day Food Writing Formula (TM) of beginning with a non-restaurant related phrase (I had to do a review, but my cat was asking for food), writing your review about the food, throwing in some facts, ending with a callback to the non-restaurant related phrase (this place left me purring for more). It’s just as predictable as the blog next door that posts photos of every course and describes every course as good.

Hypothetical. You—a proper food writer—describe it well. You describe a steak so perfectly (and originally) that people can identify with it and, most importantly, they can identify with it. They can taste it. They feel the heady combination of oil and fat and blood run down the side of their mouth reading your review. Something deep inside them aches to bring that feeling to reality by actually visiting that place.

Food bloggers read your review. They love it. They process the way you wrote that review. Elements of it permeate that horrible beast known to some as the “Blogosphere”.

When was the last time you heard the phrase "gossimer-thin" in real life? Never. When was the last time you saw it in a restaurant review? Last week? A proper writer used that term once. Then it proliferated.

Your description has lost all punch. Over time it’s lost all meaning, as the phrase is pulled in hundreds of directions. And the food bloggers aren’t doing too well either. Their readers are getting a sort of phrase fatigue from reading the same descriptor over and over; from a myriad of sources. But the pictures keep them happy.

But can pictures keep people happy for long enough?

Every blog is in competition with the other. The internet is not aware of the term “brand loyalty”. If you slip up for long enough, you lose your readership. At the moment they like you because you review a lot of places, you make stuff they want to make and (most importantly) you take a lot of pictures (3D, right?). But you slack off and you’re gone.

So where does food writing go? Good writers struggle to win because they aren’t writing as frequently as bloggers. Bloggers can’t win because they’re nothing but vessels for pictures and information. And they’re just as susceptible to “cliché fatigue” as a published food author.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

Writers write for the masses—for mass adulation. Our culture of instant gratification has told us to seek that. And maybe writing at a tolerable level and having lots of pictures is enough for that.

But with food writing gaining an increasing presence amongst “traditional” writing can we settle for that? Sure, the cream will rise to the top, but should we settle for cream rising above mediocrity?

So maybe it does matter.

But the challenge now, as I see it, is for someone to capture the future of food writing. That person will have the ability of being able to review places en masse without growing stale. Most importantly, they’ll be able to describe a great steak in a way that won’t bore us.

The challenge is to use the current media landscape to tap into the zeitgeist of people reading about food and deliver both a truly exceptional media experience, and truly exceptional writing. About that topic which so many of us love: food.

Friday, November 05, 2010

RESTAURANT: District Dining

There are too many new restaurants opening up in Sydney.

Seriously, it's ridiculous. Can't these people foresee the trouble they're in? How is anyone going to become a regular at your restaurant when there are approximately 62 new restaurants opened every day (Surry Hills figures only at this stage--waiting for more info from the Aus Bureau of Statistics)?

I've watched them, and the reaction is either laughter (you are so destined to go out of business it is not funny--but it is) or nervousness (I don't want you to fail, but there is a lot working against you, dude. District Dining falls into the latter category.

It's run by Warren Turnbull, you see. The same guy that does great work over at Assiette. But instead of fine dining, it's more of an upmarket bistro, with the focus on various meats and various offcuts.

Sounds good right? Right!

Looking at the menu, I want it all. I reckon I could probably eat it all before dying, too. If I eat fast enough.

We kick things off with the charcuterie plate and it's good, but the memory of Italian meat is still too fresh in my mind to say it's anything more than good.

They charge for bread here, which is odd, particularly because the charcuterie doesn't come with bread for free.

Next up the quail with chutney, brioche and pomegranate. Great dish. The quail is perfectly cooked. It reminds me of the other quails I've eaten, that are now poorly cooked in comparison. The rest of the ingredients only add more levels of excellent to the dish.

I ordered the lamb shoulder with cumin/honey/baby carrots because it's a bit of a yardstick. I've had some good lamb shoulders and if I'm being arrogant I can make a good lamb shoulder. A mean one, even. Turns out... Warren Turnbull makes a pretty good one too. Heavy on the fat, so, coupled with the honey, it's an oddly sweet dish. But nice.

Pork belly with kim chee? Very good. Smoked eel pate? Very good. Wine list? Good, if a bit pricey.

For an upmarket pub bistro, District Dining is nearly impossible to fault. I'll be back, because there is still so much goodness in that menu still to be found (pork head!).

RATING: Will return to [?]

District Dining on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 04, 2010

RESTAURANT: Charlie & Co Burgers (Charlie & Co 2: Charlie & Co Harder)

After the teething problems of the opening day last week, I was keen to head back to Westfield Sydney and back to, more specifically, Justin North's Charlie & Co Burgers.

Just to be safe, I waited for a day where I had enough time to spend 45 minutes waiting for a burger during my lunchbreak. Ironically, that day was the day I went to Charlie & Co Burgers again.

I arrived just after 12 and there was already a queue about 10 deep with people. Looks like this place is catching on.

But the line moved pretty quickly, and within a few minutes I was sitting with one of those buzzer things, waiting for my federation burger with onion rings (oh, hi, healthy food pyramid).

Expecting to wait for around half an hour, I was caught of guard when it started buzzing after only 10-15 minutes. Success!

I got my items and consumed.

The federation burger, packed with eggs and bacon and Australian things was good. Not as good as the glorious wagyu burger, but still a good burger. It was made a little sweeter when I discovered how to eat these burgers without having to either break your jaw to get your mouth around or biting off corners and wearing the burger on your face: just eat it upsidedown.

The onion rings were also pretty ace. Lightly crumbled on the outside, soft onion on the inside, rock salt swimming around. My body didn't care for the saturated fat associated with an entire box of the things, but my tastebuds enjoyed them thoroughly.

So what's the verdict?

Well, they've done it. If the wait is kept down to these sort of levels then this is a fantastic burger eating destination if you don't mind spending 10-16$ on a burger or toasted sandwich. We need little indulgences in life every now and then, so I've already made plans to go again next week.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Charlie & Co Burgers on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Michelin-stargasm: A Wrap-Up

So I accumulated 37 Michelin stars in 35 days, covering a range of restaurants and countries in the process.

Now that it has concluded, it's time to compose the thoughts; compare and contrast; reflect. This... is the Michelin star wrap-up (in chronological order).

il Convivio. Rome. 1 star. One of the worst Michelin-starred meals of the trip, if not the worst. While the restaurant is lovely and the service good, the food was lacking for me. Nearly every dish had a flaw.

Cracco. Milan. 2 stars. Spectacular meal. In the top 5 of the trip, but only just. Excellent food and service, but lacking just a little something to make it as enjoy as the best of the trip.

Trussardi alla Scala. Milan. 2 stars. Kick-arse cooking. While it wasn't as intricate as some places, or as experimental as others, it made up for it by just tasting brilliantly. Coupled with good service, comfortable seats and an excellent vibe. I'd rate this around 5th or 6th of the trip.

Paul Bocuse. Lyon. 3 stars. Stars given for respect, not for anything else. Everything was dated. Sure, the food was good (great even), but it was from another era/decade/century/time. Go there if you want to worship Bocuse, not if you want to have a meal on par with the best in the world.

l'Assiette Champenoise. Reims/Tinqueux. 2 stars. Dessert destruction. Some very, very solid food in an excellent looking restaurant. Truly devestating quantity of food (my fault). Out of the top 5, but not by much.

Le Pressoir d'Argent. Bordeaux. 1 star. Some of the worst service of the trip, coupled with excellent food. Unfortunately, excellent food that isn't good enough to make up for the service. But I think we got them on an off night so I don't want to give an overly negative impression of the place, because with good service it could be a great place.

Senderens. Paris. 2 stars. All very solid, but not as good as the top places in either food, experience or service. I'd like to return again to eat more dishes before making up my mind on this place.

Le Celadon. Paris. 1 star. An excellent weekend lunch menu. Extraordinary value for the food on offer.

l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Paris. 2 stars. The second best meal of the trip behind Guy Savoy. The experience of eating at the counter was such a welcomed break from everywhere else and the food was great (the marrow on toast: Jesus died for that). Although this place got help because we went so nuts and gorged like crazy.

Le Cinq. Paris. 2 stars. I wasn't expecting the food to be that great but it was actually quite good. Coupled with a stunning dining room and some of the best service of the trip, this was a good one.

Guy Savoy. Paris. 3 stars. Without a doubt the best purely fine dining experience I have ever had. Breathtaking food, utterly flawless service and, incredibly, buckloads of fun! Also incredibly expensive ($800AUD). Was it worth it? Yes, yes, yes.

Taillevent. Paris. 2 stars. One of the big disappointments of the trip. A legendary place in terms of history, but the food did nothing. The service was also only average.

Michel Rostang. Paris. 2 stars. While I didn't get the truffle sandwich I'd heard so much about, I did get a fantastic meal. That quenelle in seafood sauce was stunning. Everything else was also excellent. Some of the best "pure" cooking of the trip, with none of that new-world/molecular stuff getting in the way. I'd love to go back and try more.

Lasserre. Paris. 2 stars. Come for the excellent food, but stay for the ambiance. When that roof opens the place feels magical.

Lasarte. Barcelona. 2 stars. I really wanted to try more of this place. While there were a few minor flaws, the food was original and fantastic. That pig trotter dish was a killer.

Cinc Sentis. Barcelona. 1 star. Good food, good flavour combinations, good techniques and good value. Everything about this place was solid.

Comcerc 24. Barcelona. 1 star. It tried a little too hard for no reason. Some dishes were average, some dishes were killers. But in the end it was a good dining experience. If it relaxed it could be even better.

La Terrazza del Casino Madrid. Madrid. 2 stars. One of the top 5 meals of the trip. Great experimental food (Ferran Adria consulted on it) alongside a good wine list and top service.

Ramon Freixa. Madrid. 1 star. A tremendous quantity of good food. It kept coming and I kept eating. The best of the 1-starred places I ate at.

La Broche. Madrid. 1 star. A huge amount of dishes (again), but not all of them good this time. It tried hard, but the execution was missing in parts. Still, there were some good parts.

Restaurant Tavares. Lisbon. 1 star. So much gold and mirror in a dining room. So much. Good food. It didn't blow me away but it kept me happy enough the whole time.

Lion d'Or. Geneva. 1 star. Breathtaking, panoramic view of Lake Geneva, even if it was slightly overcast. Coupled with good food, service and wine and you have an enjoyable meal.

So what was my best Michelin-starred meal? Guy Savoy.

What was my worst? il Convivio.

What's my opinion of the Michelin star rankings? Like any restaurant rating system, it isn't perfect, there are restaurants that could go up or down one. But the main problem with the Michelin rankings is the stars given to restaurants purely because they used to be good. Food is all about now, not decades ago. Tastes change and restaurants need to keep up to date with them.

This Isn't Tetsuya's 2: Spring

Spring is such a great season to cook in. As the days progress (and the number of layers of clothing reduce) the landscape of seasonal food shifts so dramatically from the root vegetables and hardy fruits towards the tropical bonanza that is sitting around the corner in summer. If you time it right you can ride these two opposing seasons and create some incredible dishes that use the best of both late winter and early summer produce, with some of the foods that thrive in the temperate spring weather for good measure.

For me, spring is also about moving away from those hearty winter stews towards light summer dishes. I always try to straddle those opposing forces and create lighter food that still keeps some of that comfort left over from winter. How much comfort is entirely dictated by the day.

And so for this season's This Isn't Tetsuya's dinner I'm trying to capture that conflict between winter and summer and make dishes that could be enjoyed in either season, but also in neither season. I've also incorporated a lot of my recent European travels in the food, with every dish being influenced by something consumed or experienced in one of the greatest culinary regions of the world.

Will it come together? What changes will I find myself making at the last minute? Will the guests enjoy it?

Keep reading to see an experimental dinner party come together.

Notes from the first round of testing, experimenting and questioning:
- The cocktail is perfect in terms of ingredients, just need to work on quantities. At the moment it looks like the balance is equal parts grappa, pedro xim and iced tea; plus a splash of brandy and a big slice of orange zest. All over ice.
- What tea do I want to use?
- The perfect ratio of sardines to orange is 2 orange segments to 1 fillet of sardine (1 side). Top with thinly sliced fennel, olive oil, a few drops of red wine vinegar (not too much) and a pinch of salt flakes. All on top of a toasted baguette.
- The starters need to be one-bite-sized. Bite-sized is more enjoyable. Two bites or more creates the awkwardness of eating with your hands.
- The pancetta for the carbonara needs to be watched. Don't let it crisp or fry. Cook it on a low heat until the fat softens and becomes edible.
- The mix of cheese for the carbonara: equal parts reggiano, pecorino and triple cream. 3 eggs. Need to test this. The triple cream cheese is adding luxury and cream but not the flavour I want. The pecorino might bring this out.
- It works with the pickle flavour, which cuts the richness. You can have your cake and eat it too.
- Given the inability of my freezer to make ice cream, what do I do for the dessert? Bought ice cream, homemade chocolate mousse or homemade chocolate ganache? Would a mixed mousse or ganache of dark chocolate and milk chocolate add to the dish?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Charlie & Co. Burgers

So Westfield Sydney opened today. I didn't know it was going to open today, and quite frankly I didn't care. That was, of course, until someone behind me started yelling while I was waiting to cross the road on the way to lunch.

"Justin North," he said. Getting my attention. Oh yes, I am aware of that man. Than man of Becasse/Etch/Plan B/etc fame.

"Wagyu burgers," he continued. Yes, I am aware of those creatures.

"At Charlie & Co." Wait. What? What the fuck is a Charlie & Co?

"Open today."

Come on, man. Out with it. Where?

"Westfield Sydney, Level 5."

I spun around and saw an old man dressed in old fashioned newsboy attire. In his hand was leaflets. Leaflets that would lead me to a wagyu burger. Nearby.

The little man in the light went green.


I snatched a flyer from his hand and walked as fast as I could to Pitt St. It was only 12 and I felt confident of beating the rush to getting a succulent burger. I've had Justin North's wagyu burger before and, oh, how I enjoyed it.

I found the store and noticed no queue to order and only a small queue picking up food. Yes, today would be my day. I placed my order and drooled.

Flash forward 45 minutes and I'm still 10 tickets away from getting my wagyu burger ($16) with fries ($6 for normal, $7 for herb, $8 for parmesan and truffle). The kitchen is so far behind that the staff have stopped taking orders.

Shit has hit the fan.

Problems have teethed.

In 45 minutes, I've counted only 10 people getting their takeaway order (you can "dine in" or takeaway).

I get my burger and it's exceptional, as expected. The bun looks tremendous, the patty thick and inviting, the beetroot relish striking the perfect sweet/sour balance.

The chips are just as good. Pillowy inside, ultra crisp on the outside. Tossed in a little parmesan cheese and truffle oil for flavour.

Can any burger be worth a wait of over 45 minutes? I doubt it. In the time I ate this I could have almost gone to Becasse, had lunch and come back. But I'm willing to put all of this down to teething problems.

BUT PLEASE NO ONE ELSE EVER GO THERE. Because if they get the wait below 10 minutes then this has to be THE ULTIMATE quick/luxurious lunch destination in the middle of the city.

More info here:

Saturday, October 23, 2010


After breakfast in a castle in Porto (some pretzels, really) and lunch in Geneva, we're in Amsterdam, eating some sort of unidentifiable fritter... thing. It's not bad considering how dodgy everything looks around here.

Not that we're after a gourmet experience. We're just lining our stomachs before heading to our next stop: Vesper, a cocktail bar that has gotten a lot of buzz for serving up top notch cocktails in a cool, relaxed setting.

We get there and it's almost surprising to see that it is indeed cool and relaxed. I'd been getting used to hugely deceptive online reviews from ignorant Americans.

The barman tells us that it's last call, which is disappointing, but less disappointing than being told to go away.

With only one drink I want it to be a good one. I ask him what he would recommend. He extracts from me that I want something rum based and I find myself drinking a rum manhattan or something like that. Two types of rum, some red vermouth, a few drops of something secret and a twist of orange zest and it's there. It's awesome. Really, really awesome.

It's a quiet night so he chats with us about where we've been, what we do, Amsterdam, things like that. Risking the friendship, the drinking companion asks if we could possibly, maybe, have one more drink. He says okay and life is good.

This time something gin based is what we're after and he recommends the Vesper martini. It's freakin' good. A perfect balance of flavours. He tells us the history of the drink and it's origins in James Bond.

We drink that and talk more about things like the economy, super-yachts, smoking laws.

It’s so good that we decide to come back the next night.

We decide to go for the luxury cocktails, since you only live once. The Goldfinger—Remy Martin XO, Billecart-Salmon Brut NV and gold leaf—is good (and just under 40 euros), but it’s the old-fashioned that is the real winner.

We also have to have the Zombie, which is normally a godawful rendition of a tiki drink packed with so much terrible rum that you get sick more from the taste than the 4 types of rum that the recipe calls for.

But here, it’s excellent. Good rum helps, but so do the small touches that are added in like fresh passionfruit and a little (I think) cayenne pepper. It’s so strong that they make you sign a contract saying that you’ll only have two of them. Which is cruel, because it’s tremendously addictive.

And even though our friend from the night before isn’t behind the bar this night, the rest of the staff are still very much cut from the friendly/cool/unpretentious mould.

An excellent place to visit if you like cocktails in a cool/relaxed setting.

Things that Sydney needs #42098: This.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lion d'Or. One Star.

We needed to get from Porto to Amsterdam. Not a hard task; plenty of options. But why not fit in one more Michelin starred restaurant before we run out of places?

And just like that we were flying to Geneva. Just for lunch. My final Michelin-starred meal.

Similarly to Portucale, we're in another “panoramic restaurant”, this time it's one-starred Lion d'Or and we're overlooking pretty much all of Lake Geneva. It's an overcast day, but it's an amazing view.

And some amazing looking food to match the view.

For the starters I have some langoustines seasoned with curry powder that are cooked perfectly. The dining companion has lobster that also looks pretty good.

In the glass is another of Jacques Selosse's champagnes. The “Substance” we had at La Broche was so good we've gone for another of his. And, again, it's damn, damn good. It’s a shame this guy doesn’t produce a lot of wine every year because not a lot of it makes it down to Australia (that I’ve seen at least).

For mains I'm having the lobster with puff pastry and Chinese vegetables. Dining companion lucked out and is having the duckling, again in a Chinese style. His duckling is exceptional—gamey, tender, sweet. On the side is a spring roll filled with duck meat. My lobster is very good, but lacking anything truly special about it. Maybe slightly (slightly) overcooked.

Cheese cart time and a selection of Swiss and French cheeses. All excellent, but the 24-month aged gruyere steals the show.

And to desserts. A plate of different styles of chocolate (oh, that's right, we're in Switzerland) is very nice. The mysterious “pastry chefs favourite” which is a sort of floating island sitting in caramel and filled with tropical fruits and custard is apparently excellent, according to the dining companion, who suddenly doesn't want to share.

We finish up and it has been a pretty successful (albeit expensive, those Genevans don't mess around with their prices) detour. Good food, great wine, great service, top-notch sommelier. ALL OF SWITZERLAND IS THEREFORE GREAT, RIGHT?!?!

Michelin star tally: 37

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Portucale was going to be an interesting meal, in a fearing for the worst sort of way. It was a dining room described as a “panoramic restaurant” (*gag*), it had been designed around the 70s and not updated since, and the word of the street (internet street) was that the food and service was also trapped in that magical decade.

And it was all pretty much spot on.

But you know what, it wasn't that bad. I dare say it was actually a good night. Albeit with a bit of outside help. But let me backtrack.

The dining room was nearly empty when we arrived and were presented with the menus. Yep, totally stuck in the 70s. More traditional Portuguese dishes sat alongside “international cuisine” staples of that decade. We decided to play it safe(r) and opt for the Portuguese sounding things that couldn't be messed up.

And it pretty much worked. Clams in garlic butter was a good, simple starter.

The mains were equally good. Wild boar with chestnuts was good, and the kid stewed in red wine was simple but comforting and delicious.

To accompany the mains I opted for a wine that had no chance of succeeding. A cheap Portuguese red from 1985, when I'm pretty sure it costed around 10 cents.

They retrieved it from the cellar/time machine (or wherever they keep their wines) and it was utterly caked in dust. You could barely see the label. And to decant it they opted for the old school method of using a candle to avoid decanting sediment, which, at this stage of maturity, probably represented around 20% of the wines total volume.

They offered a taste and I was all ready to drink vinegar. They called it a special wine, and I thought that was a joke. But the funny thing was that it was actually really good. Delicious. Matured and well structured.

And it was about that time that the fireworks started. Not in the restaurant or in the food or the wine. Outside in the city. An endless barrage of fireworks began and lit up the entire city, for which we had a perfect and complete view. Turns out there was some international fireworks symposium on in Porto and they were putting on a demonstration. A demonstration which went for something insane like an hour.

The main courses were utterly huge so we avoided the dessert cart (which looked alright) and opted for some cheese from the cheese cart (which looked a bit sadder).

We had that and, fireworks still going, we had a coffee before leaving.

Was it stuck in the 70s? Totally. But the 70s had some good things about them. Maybe it was a little overpriced compared to other places in Porto, but it's a pretty cheap city so that isn't saying much. If an international fireworks symposium is on, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lisbon. Restaurant Tavares. One star.

We arrived in Lisbon and I quickly learned that Portugal was going to be a conflicting country for me. While the thought of port wine was going to be comforting and potentially provide much enjoyment, it was also a country where the culinary landscape was essentially carved into the side of a salted cod.

Yes, salt cod, or bacalhau, one of the most important dishes in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and a number of other countries that really should know better.

The non-culinary landscape was also very shaped. Lisbon was a pretty fucking hilly city. Want to go somewhere? No problem, it's only 200 metres on the map. Oh, wait, it's 200 metres up a sheer cliff face. For someone that spent the greater portion of the last three weeks self-medicating with foie gras, this was not an enticing prospect.

There aren't a whole lot of Michelin starred restaurants in the main cities of Portugal, but there was on in Lisbon that looked like it was worth a visit. It was originally opened something like 200 years ago as a cafe, but has evolved into a room where the only things allowed into it are gold things, mirrors to accentuate gold things, and chefs.

It goes by the name of Tavares. It has one Michelin star.

I think the appetiser pretty much sums up this restaurant: two spoons arrive on a block of wood. One is a spherification of olive; the other a fried olive that may or may not have contained salt cod. In other words, new techniques and old flavours mixing together, sharing the same stage.

And so we found ourselves again in the midst of a degustation. And Tavares wasn't half bad at the act off delivering one. The first proper dish arrives at the table with a cloud of smoke emanating from underneath a glass rectangle that contains a bunch of sea animals, and some white swirls. The sea animals (prawns, clams, etc) are well cooked and it's a damn refreshing dish.

I forget the details of most of the other dishes, but I remember the pigs trotters that are spectacular. Diced up pieces of fat sitting with other excellent flavours, hiding, waiting to stick to your sides. It makes me want to start raising pigs, just so I can chop their feet off and eat them.

While the details aren't sticking out, I do remember it being an enjoyable meal. Maybe the dishes weren't perfect, but there was a lot to like in this room filled with gold and mirrors.

Michelin star tally: 36

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I Call This One "This Time We Killed Once"

Our final day in Madrid and we have to kill a lot of time. There is time between checking out of the hotel at 12 and getting the overnight train at 1030, and it has to be killed.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I had stuff planned. Mister Social, right?

First I had a booking at two-starred Sergi Arola, which looked totally awesome. But then that fell through. No worries, I made a booking at Zaranda. But then that fell through too, so I had a lot of time to kill in Madrid.

The day started with sandwiches. We'd found a store near the Puerta del Sol which had heaps of jamon, cheese and, for today's purposes, sandwiches. They were thin and sold by the half sandwich for 80 cents. They were good. The simplicity of bread and topping is forgotten sometimes in favour of as many toppings as possible, in some sort of bizarre, twisted concept of getting more value. But these were just right.

A few more hours were spent wondering how to kill the time. First we went to a park, and that killed some time. Then I looked at the map and saw something that looked like a market, so we headed there. It turned out to be nothing more than a small shopping centre.

Then I did something bad.

I don't like Starbucks. I don't like the way they're everywhere, and I generally don't like the people that go there.

I went to Starbucks. It was mostly motivated by a desire for both coffee of any guise and bathrooms, but none the less I went there. And I ordered one of their abortions of a coffee. And I liked it. Good lord, where has the Starbucks frappucino been my life? So much sugar, it's fantastic, in a sort of “did I really just spend $5 on this just to get a caffeine hit/I definitely have diabetes” sort of way. I quickly planned when my next one would be.

We then went to the museum of contemporary art, which appeared to be demolished, so that was another waste of time. So we went to see the palace (or maybe one of the palaces; every European city seems to have multiple). Then we went to Starbucks again. A different one.

Then we killed more time and it was looking like dinner time. So we stopped killing time and went in search of food.

The other day we'd noticed a bar sort of thing that had a lot of excellent beers in the window. We went in search of that because, even if they didn't have food, they'd have beer.

But they had food. Oh my how they had food.

They had a tapas on toast section in the menu where there were 7 choices of things on toast. Things like jamon, anchovies, smoked salmon and cod. We got one of each. And they were sensational. Coupled with sensational beers, this was a very good time indeed, friends.

But we were still hungry (and thirsty) so I noticed they had another tapas section in the menu. Six of those, please. And more outstanding beers.

And those tapas were just as good as the first ones. More outstanding things on toast. This time there was cheese too, atop those noble loaves.

We contemplated why Sydney doesn't have a place like this—a place that serves outstanding beers and has simple, cheap, but more-ish snacks.

And with enough time killed, we asked for the bill. How much were we going to have to pay for the privilege of have 13 different tapas, olives, nuts, a handful of beers that retail for around $10 each in Sydney? Sixty euros. Combined. We were stuffed, satisfied, well fed, well watered, for only $30 each. Dare I say a MERE $30 euros?

Things that need to happen in Sydney #82: This.

Monday, October 11, 2010

La Broche. 1 star. 35 stars reached.

Like Lasserre back in Paris, this booking was a total knee-jerk reaction. I was supposed to be going to Sergi Arola the next day for lunch, but for whatever reason they decided not to open that day. Fearing that I wouldn't make my goal of accumulating 35 Michelin stars, I booked the first restaurant I could find that would be easy to book. Enter La Broche. Ironically, Sergi Arola's old restaurant/kitchen.

I didn't really have any preconceptions going into this one. My main motivation was just to hit the star target. When I booked it I had no idea that it would be THE restaurant that would have me hitting the target.

Located in a fancy hotel north of the city, La Broche appears to be attempting to fuse modern Spanish food with French flavours and techniques. What this entails, it appears, is having the waiters add the sauce to your dish, for every dish. It also follows the Spanish trend of assaulting you with a neverending barrage of dishes.

I'm delighted to see that the wine list has Jacques Selosse champagne, a wine I've been wanting to try for ages but have never seen around. It's an interesting one. A non vintage that includes grapes made across something like 14 years, and is made like a sherry wine, not a champagne. It's awesome. Salty, honeyed, rich but mineral.

It starts interestingly enough with a plastic sachet of foie gras and a dish of consomme. You dip the foie gras in the liquid and the plastic dissolves as you place it in your mouth. Then you drink the soup.

There are a few attempts at creativity throughout the meal, like when we get the fish with cuttlefish sauce and they bring burning sticks to the table. Why, I'm not too sure.

The food is good, but there aren't many wow moments happening. Food wise, it's not really up to the standard of a lot of other starred places and sits towards the bottom of the scale, near Il Convivio. But the chef has some great ideas and there are interesting things on the plate, so my attention is kept for the entire time.

And just like that, the star tally is hit. And with ten days to go as well. 35 stars in 25 days. Not bad.

Not bad. But not over.

Michelin star tally: 35

Ramon Freixa. 1 Star.

After another late night dining, I wake up late in the hotel room and only have a small amount of free time before I have to get ready for lunch. This seemingly endless cycle—wake up late, groggily shake off the last night's dinner, get ready for lunch, head to lunch, eat for three or so hours, either kill a couple of hours nearby or come back to the room and change, feel sleepy, afternoon snack, feel sleepier, get ready for dinner, head to dinner, eat for three or so hours, collapse into bed around one or two AM—has dominated my time in a few cities. I'm fuelled by the thought that there isn't that much longer to go before I'm back in Sydney and I can eat and function like a normal human being again. I can't wait to wake up, have some cereal and yoghurt for breakfast, do normal, boring things, have something small and healthy for lunch, then do more normal, boring things.

Part of me feels sorry for food writers an restaurant reviewers. It's not easy eating like this for a long period of time. Am I starting to ache?

I ponder this as I walk around what appears to be a rich area of Madrid. I'm not sure of the socioeconomic breakdown of this city—and it isn't marked on the tourist map the hotel front desk gave me—but having each corner of an intersection taken up by a high-fashion boutique (which relegates the likes of Burberry and Hugo Boss to mere observers) is a pretty good indication.

I'm on my way to Ramon Freixa, a one-starred place at the bottom of a fancy looking hotel. I arrive around ten minutes late for the 1:30 booking, trying to do the fancy European thing of being late, but I arrive to an empty dining room that's still having it's finishing touches applied before service. They seem somewhat surprised to see me there that early.

I sit on a glass of cava and nervously wait for other any diners to arrive so I don't feel so weird, with six waitstaff hovering around for... me.

The chef comes out to take orders here, which just makes sense. Why aren't more places doing this? He can answer questions around the food and begin the dialogue with the diner. It's a connection between the kitchen and diner. I like it. I order the largest of the degustations, which seems to include at least 20 dishes. Surely not.

Finally some other diners arrive. It's nearly 2PM and the dining room is still nearly empty. It will be another hour before it looks closer to full.

A stream of appetisers come out. A plate with 6 or 7 different “bites” on it. They're all really good. That wasn't part of the degustation. Oh...

There are so many different appetisers that the line is blurred between what is a welcome gift and what is actually the meal.

But the point where it gets serious is definitely the mushroom and ham soup. Some mushrooms sit on top of a bowl with holes at the bottom. The waiter pours over some ham soup and it disappears. He tells me to eat the mushrooms and he'll come back. I eat the mushrooms and my god they are so good. I have fallen for mushrooms in a BIG way on this trip. When they're done right, they are nothing short of incredible. I sigh, contentedly, and the waiter removes the part of the bowl that contained said mushrooms. Below is, surely enough, the ham consomme. And, damn, that's really good as well.

I polish that off and start on the side dishes. Yeah, that's right, side dishes for entrees. Each dish that comes out has more dishes on the side, making it impossible to keep track of how many things you've eaten.

It also makes it really hard to remember what you ate.

I remember only flashes, like the perfect razor clam served with a bean puree. And the excellent Bollinger RD I got to go with the food. That cheese course (three separate dishes) that was utter perfection in terms of flavour and texture. And the “final” dessert, that was actually six large bowls on the table all at once. And after everything, after enough dishes to feed an African village for a day, the waiter coming over and offering chocolates.

There was so much more to it than that though. So many excellent dishes. All of a fantastic standard.

Of all the other one-starred places I've been to so far, this one has to take the cake. And that cake is actually served, deconstructed, in twelve separate bowls on table at once.

Michelin star tally: 34

Sunday, October 10, 2010

La Terraza del Casino Madrid. 2 stars.

After leaving Zaragoza we headed west to Madrid to find the first triangle shaped lift of our journey (success! It was a right-angled one). I'd had some difficulties with restaurant reservations, but I was still looking forward to eating in this place. After the excellent food in Barcelona, I was keen to get another fill of innovative Spanish dining. First stop: La Terraza del Casino Madrid.

Recipient of it's second Michelin star in the most recent guide, La Terraza is (as the name suggests) situated in Madrid Casino, an old gentlemens' club near the middle of the city and is somewhat known because El Bulli's Ferran Adria consulted on the restaurant when it opened and has been known to check on things from time to time. So it should be good, right?

Yep, it's good.

We get to the table and they whip up the opening cocktail of a whisky sour, using liquid nitrogen at the tableside to make a smooth sorbet. It is certainly sour.

On to the proper food! Olive oil butter comes served in a tube that you have to open and squeeze into a pastry pod of sorts. It would be nice if it was nice, but olive oil butter isn't doing much for me. It tastes like, well, olive oil butter.

On to really proper stuff. Snacks. Some bites on a plate like black olive muffin and tomato and pesto cake. Then a truffle made with yuzu that is damn good-texture and balance. Then trout roe tempura, which is so satisfying it's like trout roe was born to be in tempura, not trouts. Take that, nature.

Into the “tapiplatos”, the proper dishes. The first “wow” moment comes with oyster tartar. Uncomplicated but rich. A rare dish that actually improves on a natural oysters. Then an awesome hachi parmentier with lobster. Then two amazing dishes (seriously amazing dishes): the carbonara egg nest—where the “pasta” is actually a ham consumme that melts in the mouth and an egg where the white is a parmesan cream, the yolk still a yolk-- and the royal of pigeon with truffle and foie gras, made spectacular by sitting pieces of truffle and pigeon in a foie gras cream sort of thing and a rich sauce.

The tuna belly with lettuce marrow that follows is okay—and a good idea for a dish with the tuna resembling steak—but it doesn't quite work as well as other dishes. Then the final main dish of slow-roasted wagyu beef with pork raviolis that melts in the mouth.

The liquid nitro cart comes back for a palate cleanser and it's into desserts. Excellent balance of flavours in all.

We finish up and are presented with a printout of the menu. Not uncommon, but here they give you a copy that includes the date and the wines that you ordered. For someone that struggles to remember dishes and, in particular, wines ordered, this is an awesome touch.

Couple the excellent food with the good service, the room and the other touches and this was an excellent dining experience. While it didn't top the experience at l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, or the everything at Guy Savoy, it's definitely towards the front of the pack of restaurants chasing third place for this trip.

And, maybe even more importantly, it was a sign that I was going to enjoy my time eating in Madrid.

Michelin star tally: 33

Saturday, October 09, 2010

On Zaragoza, Baby Eels

So, in terms of food, Barcelona was awesome. Amazing even. Everything I ate was incredible. It was like everything was turned up a notch. So good I couldn't imagine going back to living in Sydney and eating just “good” food.

But all good things come to an end. And they did this time too. Ironic.

From Barcelona we headed to Zaragoza, which I think is Spanish for “nothing is ever open but, hey, we sure have a lot of useless fountains around the place, did you see the fountain?”. Granted, we were there on a Sunday and Monday. But still... so many things were closed.

One day I finally found some stores selling cheese and meat. But when I went back around lunch time to purchase some to eat, THEY WERE ALL CLOSED. They close for around two hours for lunch, and then only open up for an hour or two afterwards WHEN YOU ARE NO LONGER HUNGRY BECAUSE YOU ATE AN ARTICLE OF YOUR CLOTHING OUT OF DESPERATION LIKE A LAME MAN VS WILD EPISODE.

So Zaragoza was pretty much two days of finding tapas bars, wondering where to go when the tapas bar you wanted to go to was closed, eating decent tapas, waiting for things to open and sitting in the hotel room drinking the pedro ximenez left over from Barcelona, and the grappa left over from Rome.

One place did stand out. I forget the name of it, but we hit it up for dinner on the second night. It looked pretty unassuming, but when we got the starter of a selection of eight tapas, we knew we were in store for something... assuming?

Each tapas was an interesting creation or had a twist on a classic/traditional dish. One that stood out was stuffed calamari on toast. The reason it stood out was because on top was fried baby eels. I'd heard about these but had never seen them before. They're so tiny, about the size of a matchstick, and have an interesting texture that's a little like spaghetti and a subtle fishy/eely tasty.

My main was interesting. A fillet of beef topped with shaved, frozen foie gras and potato chips. It reminded me of the sort of thing you'd see at a super-innovative restaurant elsewhere. But here it was being served in a small bar in a city like Zaragoza.

It was a nice dish, but the execution didn't match the concept. Eating steak with potato chips just felt... wrong. And that was the story with the tapas too. Great ideas, but a little bit short of perfect.

Still. A good impromptu meal and pretty decent value. It was innovative cuisine without the prices.

And that's all I'm going to say about Zaragoza.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Comerc 24. 1 star.

The final dinner in Barcelona and I've booked us into Comerc24, a one-starred place named after its address. Very original. It's fairly well known by association: the chef worked at El Bulli for a many years. So people pretty much come here expecting to see shades of that style of food. I guess I was no exception.

Were given menus but strongly (basically guilted) into avoiding the a la carte options and going for a tasting menu. For fear of being bludgeoned with blunt instruments we opt for a tasting menu. THE GRANDEST FESTIVALEST MENU OF ALL. Or something. It sounds elaborate.

It is. Over the course of nearly 4 hours we consume around 300 courses. Or maybe it was 24 courses and that's the real reason behind the name?

The aim of the game is both flavour combos and techniques. For example, the spherified parmesan, truffle and basil in a broth. Sometimes it works well—really well--but other times it doesn't. I suppose you get that sometimes when you try 300 new flavour combinations.

Like the tuna tartare with caviar and egg yolk. That was great. But then there was the sardine and orange with a crunchy thing (a crunchy thing that appeared in a few dishes). The balance was way off; nowhere near enough orange to counter the saltiness of the sardine.

I suppose that was pretty much how the evening went. There were dishes that worked, others that didn't, but a lot of them didn't work (or weren't as good as they could be) because they weren't executed perfectly. If you're trying interesting flavour combinations then it is paramount that you get the balance right. You can dazzle us with technique but at the end of the day it has to taste good.

So did I like Comerc 24? Yeah, it was good. It wasn't great, but it was interesting. I like interesting. And for 300 courses or whatever it was, you could probably go elsewhere and pay a lot more for the privilege.

Michelin star tally: 31

Cinc Sentis. 1 star.

A beautiful Saturday in Barcelona, and what better way to get started (after a long sleep-in as a result of last night's activities) than at Cinc Sentis (five senses), which received it's first Michelin star some time in the last couple of years (ed: great research there...).

Forget about a la carte, they just have two tasting menus. Short and long. Easy. So we go for the longer one and opt for matching wines, which is pretty much default setting.

The dishes that follow (there are a lot) pair a few different flavours/ingredients together and play a little with texture and incorporate newish techniques like foams, ices, gels and all of that business. And there's a heavy reliance on seafood (especially cod) throughout the meal. It's nothing too crazy, just good flavour combinations on a plate. Simple, interesting, delicious.

Service is friendly and the sommelier matches the wines well.

We want to conclude the lunch with a couple of glasses of pedro ximenez, but we're told that as a result of the strikes, they're waiting on a delivery of wine and only have one glass of one type left. Finally. I was wondering when the strikes were going to affect us.

Afterwards, we swing back past the market, get some more juices, pick up a cheese, some incredible jamon (for 170euros a kilo you'd want it to be), a bottle of pedro ximenez and head back to the hotel room for a rest (ed: how do you rest with cheese?). Thankfully, no strikes got in the way of that pedro xim.

Michelin star tally: 30

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Espai Sucre

What a thing. Not only is it a restaurant that specialises in desserts, but it's a dessert restaurant that only does degustations (with matching dessert wine, of course). And it's a little fancy. I'd heard about Espai Sucre a couple of years back and knew that I had to go there one day.

A day like today.

The problem with this restaurant was that I wasn't sure if it was recommended to eat before going there, or if you were expected to only have dessert items for dinner that night. I'm a cautious guy. So, stomachs full after the earlier (just then) dinner at Lasarte, we walked into the restaurant.

We were presented with the menus and, oh, they do have some savoury dishes in the degustations, as well as dessert only ones. Wanting to compare the savoury dishes as well, I opt for a five-course tasting menu with two savoury and three sweet dishes. The dining companion opts for a more reasonable three-course, dessert-only degustation.

First the savoury. A scallop and mussel dish that's pretty good. Simple, good flavours. Then a piece of beef, slow roasted so you can eat it with a fork and spoon, with a grain and sweet nut sauce. The sauce is quite sweet and definitely gets you in the mood for dessert.

Dessert time and I'm ever so excited/full. The dining companion is in pain and is telling me what he wants done with his body when if something happens to him. I made a mental note of it and dig into my dessert.

I can't remember a lot about the dishes themselves--it had been a really long day--but I remember the expert way they controlled flavour, sweetness and texture. These were serious desserts, and they tasted seriously good. The use of sourness kept the whole meal somewhat refreshing, and even though I'd eaten dozens of things already today, I felt like I could still eat more.

While the savoury courses were okay, the desserts here are definitely top notch. A great restaurant concept, talented pastry chefs and great food.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Lasarte. 2 stars.

With the sugar rush from all the earlier juices, I got ready for what was going to be a very challenging evening.

See... there's this place I'd wanted to go to ever since I heard of it a year or two a go. It's a place that was opened by a pastry chef and does dessert degustations. More on that later, but it troubled me somewhat. Firstly, if the place only does dessert, surely I have to have some savoury food first?

So I made a booking at Lasarte, which just received its second Michelin star in this year's guide. It's also the only restaurant in the city to have multiple stars.

Ah, but another problem. Lasarte's earliest booking is 8:30, and the late sitting at the dessert place is 11. And it's across town. Not a lot of time to change over.

So in the interests of time (and diabetes) we walked into Lasarte with the intention of not only ignoring the tasting menu, but also ignoring the dessert menu.


By some lucky twist of fate, Lasarte also offer “small” entrees. Entrees designed to be eaten in a couple of bites. You don't say...

And so, with some careful ordering, we had a DIY degustation. We would each order a different mini-entree, entree and main, and eat half the dish each. Brilliant!

Lasarte came to the party by bringing out some tasty appetisers and bread.

So we kicked off with a mille-fuille of eel, foie gras and apple. Kind of like a mini lasagne really. Great flavour combinations and fantastic texture. I took 55% of that dish.

A swap and dish of langoustine with a sea urchin mousse with some other things I forget. It's also good, but not as good as the mille-fuille.

Entree time and I kick off with one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, sea cucumber rice with, if I remember correctly, apple and black pudding. It's good. Very good. Like a paella, but with sea cucumber instead of normal toppings. Salty and luxurious.

A swap and I have a some jamon as well as some toast, lightly brushed with tomato. The jamon is damn good and the bread doesn't taste superfluous like I feared; it works well.

Main course time and I stuck with the old “fat is flavour” saying and went for pigs trotters stuffed with black pudding and some other stuff. What comes out is monumentally unctuous. The fat has been taken from the trotter, stuffed with a rich filling and then cooked. It's soft, gooey, sticky, rich and so, so good. When the suggestion is made to only swap 1/3 of this course, I pose absolutely no resistance. I finish and the dining companion is still eating his course. I'd flown through the trotters.

But the time comes and I sadly part with the trotters. In exchange I get the rack of lamb. Frankly, it's boring. Small pieces of lamb and a few adornments. It's excellently made, but unsatisfying. I want my trotter back.

We still have a little time up our sleeves (or so I think), so we go for some coffee. The coffee is excellent and the petit fours well thought out, unlike some of the merciless onslaughts I got in France.

We leave, and my only regret is not having enough time to return for the degustation. Well, that and giving away the trotter. Concerningly, we're both full and the dessert degustation starts in half an hour.

Michelin star tally: 29

Monday, October 04, 2010

La Boqueria. Quimet y Quimet. Juice.

Our first full day in Barcelona began like it does for most tourists, with a walk down the famous as Ramblas, a collection of shops that run down a pedestrian street that slices right through the city. While it basically resembled any shopping street in a major western city, it does have one thing which not a lot of other cities can boast: a huge food/produce market right in the heart of the city.

I'm sure that La Boqueria has a lot of history (people were taking photos: a sure sign) but I didn't really care for any of that. What I cared about was the jamon hanging in stalls, the Spanish cheeses that are so different to their French relatives, ripe fruits and vegetables and, unexpectedly, a hell of a lot of juice. Probably a dozen stalls selling fruit juices, in fact. Juices of combinations and colours that just isn't seen in Sydney.

After walking through the market and picking up some salt cod fritters to munch on, I headed for the juice stalls. But what flavour to try? Hell, how about all of them. So I pretty much did. Combinations like blackberry and coconut, dragonfruit, pineapple and orange, kiwi and coconut, coconut on it's own, coconut and strawberry. For a dude that gets off on sweet beverages (not literally) this was dangerously good. I say dangerously good because I don't think a dozen juices can possibly be good for you.

After the onslaught of juice, we were in the mood for some tapas. I'd read about a place that was well known for montaditos, which is pretty much tapas that comes on toast. So, after walking along a sidestreet that had a lot of dodgy phone shops and even dodgier looking prostitutes, we arrived at Quimet y Quimet and planted ourselves at the bar.

Beer to start, which was easy because this place had a good selection, particularly some interesting boutique American drops. But then it got a little perplexing. In front of us was a cabinet filled with ingredients. Things like prawns, razor clams, dried beef. How does that work? Do we order a prawn? I don't think I want to eat just a prawn. Or a tinned mussel. Is that supposed to be good?

Someone Spanishy steps to the bar and says “langoustine”. The guy behind the bar grabs a piece of toast, spoons on some tomato, adds a dollop of cream, a prawn, some caviar and drizzles over some oil and vinegar. He hands over an amazing looking morsel of food. The sort of thing that would probably cost 5-10$ at a tapas place in Sydney.

I throw caution to the wind. Dos langoustine, per favore.

He retrieves two pieces of toast and methodically creates two more of the morsels. We stand at the bar, sip the beer, and dive in. It's good. It's so freaking good. The vinegar has been caramelised so it adds a sweetness to the bite. The whole thing is simple, but so, so good. Just like most Spanish food I'd experienced.

So having cracked the code on how to order, we dig in. The dried beef comes with roasted capsicum and capers. Incredible. Razor clams are served with nothing but a light chilli sauce. We keep ordering and it keeps knocking it out of the park. We finish with a fantastic cheese plate and ask for the bill, worrying a little about how much it could have been for all of that food and beer. Fifty euros... Fifty euros for two big guys to stuff themselves on deliciousness and wash it down with beer.

We leave content, and end up swinging by the market for some more juice, because that's what you do when you're in Barcelona and you're in a good mood. You drink juice.