Sunday, July 18, 2010

RESTAURANT: This Isn't Tetsuya's

It's a cold July night and 6 people are gathered in an Eastern Suburbs flat. The reason for this synchronised gathering? Food. Of course. Or, more specifically, a celebration of winter food.

We've all responded to a menu posted online. The rules were clear: no changes will be made to the menu for allergies, first in best dressed, strictly 6 seats up for grabs and cancellations resulting in a ban for a number of future events. In short, it's a pop-up restaurant cum seasonal feast cum social experiment. A small number of people, brought together by food, placed in a small, contained environment for a few hours. With a suggested donation being a nominal amount for the amount and quality of food on offer, the event is an ultimate social equaliser. Truly anyone can participate (provided you have the right connections, of course).

This Isn't Tetsuya's was created by the inventor/chef as way of sharing the goodness of the season with people he mixes with. Couple this with some curious beverage matches for the food, season-themed music and numerous courses and you have an almost paganistic tribute to the season at hand. The creator aims to hold a This Isn't Tetsuya's event every season, using the same rules that we played by this time.

And what of the food? When we arrive we're given appetisers of olives; grilled artichoke and persian fetta bruschetta; and wagyu and mashed pea tarts. This is washed down with the TIT1 (the name of the event) official cocktail of fernet branca (an Italian bitters) and ginger beer. Also on offer is some sparkling wine and a selection of curious beers.

Seats are taken for the first course: a take on pea and ham soup. Pea and porcini broth with mashed peas, a poached egg, oven dried prosciutto and truffle oil. This is matched with a blanc de blanc sparkling wine from Tasmania. It's a clear picture of winter that empties our minds and prepares us for the meal.

Next up is a dish named "Marco Pollo", the chefs take on the misconception that Marco Polo stole pasta from the Chinese for the Italians. Smoked chicken (pollo being chicken in Italian), roasted chestnuts, cabbage and broccolini sit with a piece of gnocchi in a bold, Chinese-style sauce. Probably my dish of the night. A harmonious union of east and west. This was matched with a Petis Chablis.

Also popular was the main course, Greek-style, slow-roasted lamb shoulder served with roasted seasonal vegetables, a tzatziki made from cheese, mache and a reduction of the cooking juices. The lamb was mercilessly soft, falling apart at the touch. The Paringa Estate Pinot Noir which accompanied it was a fantastic wine.

Before dessert we were given a palate cleanser that took the form of a warm sangria, filled with seasonal fruits. Almost like a mulled wine, it was comforting and refreshing at the same time.

Finally, we were given a dessert called "hot chocolate for breakfast". A dark chocolate tart sat with cereal milk mousse, roasted marshmallows, cornflake praline and hot chocolate jelly. An interesting dish which conjured up the memories of eating bad things at the wrong time of the day when you should know better. Matching this was a beer. The chocolate stout from American craft brewer Rogue.

We all finished digesting the meal over a few more beers and glasses of wine and then disappeared into the cold winter's night, in different directions, possibly never to meet again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


It was one sentence in the SMH's Good Living liftout that sent my heart racing. Sujet Saenkham, one of the founding chefs of the legendary Spice I Am, was opening a new street food style Thai restaurant in Surry Hills. I emailed all of my friends, instantly receiving responses along the lines of "when are we going?" At the same time I was scouring the internet for any tidbit of information I could find, re-reading the only review I could find a good dozen times.

But my friends would have to wait. I was arranging a dinner with other people and we were wondering where to go. I mentioned House, and it was immediately agreed.

To say expectations were high on that first visit was an understatement. I was expecting it to be as good as Spice I Am, one of Sydney's best and most loved cheap eats.

But it didn't disappoint. There was a salted crab salad. Similar to a green papaya salad but with pieces of what appear to be uncooked soft shell crab, with the shell on. With a crunch, the taste of the sea explodes into your mouth. It's like being dumped by a wave at the beach; unexpected, salty, somewhat thrilling. This is followed up by the tangy, spicy, salty/sweet salad that returns balance before the next bite.

There was jaew bong, a pungent, extremely spicy paste made from fermented anchovies, shallots, garlic, chilli and a few other things. It's a taste I can't remember ever experiencing. It comes with some green beans, cucumbers, apple eggplant and bamboo shoots to alleviate the burn.

There were the chicken skewers. Similar to satay, but richer, a little more piquant.

There was the dried and then fried pork with the dipping sauce. Like eating the crunchy bits on your roast beef. And there was the soup, hiding huge chunks of galangal, ginger, chicken and other flavourings. While it was impossible to eat the chunks of roots, the flavour of the soup was outstanding.

There was the grilled chicken with a similar dipping sauce to the fried pork. Succulent and perfectly grilled. I'll never look at a Portuguese chicken the same way.

And then there was the BTS. It's not on the dessert menu, so they come over and explain it, almost too embarrassed to mention that it stands for Better Than Sex. The claim requires some investigation, but it certainly comes close. Pandang ice cream sits atop a huge cube of fried brioche and hides small slices of coconut flesh. Over the top is poured a palm sugar syrup and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. I don't know if this is authentic Thai, like the rest of the menu, but good lord it's a fantastic dessert. After the relentless heat of the chilli, the pandang ice cream soothes, while the toasted brioche, smothered in the palm sugar syrup, is one of those "so good I don't care how bad for me it is" things.

On the non-food side of things, at the moment House isn't as crowded as Spice I Am. It's less cramped in parts (as the restaurant is far bigger), and there are alcoholic drinks available, courtesy of the adjoining bar.

Not to let my friends miss the opportunity, we scheduled a visit a week later. Of course, I was only going because further research was required...

There were a couple of repeats from the last time--the grilled chicken, the jaew bong--but this time instead of the dried/fried pork, there was the dried/fried beef. A bit chewier, but still very moreish.

There was the mackerel paste that was similar to the jaew bong (but fishier, not as pleasingly pungent). Also missing the mark a little was the banana leaf curry. With so many intense dishes, the milder flavoured dishes just don't stack up as much. The duck larb suffers a similar fate.

But there's the discovery of the fermented sausage. There is also the deep fried fish with shallots, nuts and other things.

The normal green papaya salad is a little dull compared with the salted crab version, but the crispy anchovy version comes pretty close with the texture adding an element to the dish. The version with fermented noodles is also excellent.

Once again, the BTS follows. No one really has the room for dessert, but there are two of us that have had the BTS before, and we insist on it. We all have it, we all love it.

We leave stuffed, but pleased, endorphins surging through our body from the spice.

A few days later and an impromptu dinner. House is suggested and I don't argue. With around 50 items on the menu, there is still more to try.

There's the pork roll salad. Similar to the green papaya salad but with a processed pork meat similar to devon. Nice enough.

The fried/dried beef and pork has been done, but the grilled pork neck and marinated beef strips haven't. They're promptly ordered, along with the chicken skewers.

Again, the jaew bong is present. But this time it's so fiery it's almost unpalatable.

Again, we have no room. But, again, the BTS is to conclude the menu.

I'm loving House.

I'm loving that there are dishes here that I've never had before, and that I can't find anywhere else. Is it authentic? Is it a good interpretation of the classic dish? I don't know and I don't care.

I can't wait for summer when the courtyard calls my name with the promise of excellent Thai food and cold beers.

I avoided Spice I Am on occasions because if you didn't turn up at 6 you had to wait for a table, and even once you got in you were cramped and forced out as soon as you were finished.

House won't always be at such a comfortable level of patronage, but with food that won't please a lot of people (with conservative palates), I hold out hope that it will be there for a long time to come.

There's another jewel in the crown of Sydney Thai food.

RATING: Will constantly return to [?]

House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 11, 2010


After much anticipation, the new creation from the team that brought us Vini has arrived. Berta is a somewhat hard-to-find, smallish winebar in the Surry Hills end of the city. Wines (Italian origin) are served by the bottle, glass and tasting glass, allowing you to drink in any which way you want. The menu appears to change regularly and is a little bit better than just your average bar snacks (bit a little bit, I mean a lot).

We get in fairly early to beat the rush and, being so spoilt for choice that we have no idea what wine or food to order, we opt for the banquet menu with matching wines. It's a great idea and takes us through 6 or 7 of the dishes on the menu, each matched with a tasting glass of wine. For around $60, the food is simple, great value, packed with flavour and accompanies the wine well.

The wines that were matched to the food were on the cheaper side of things and weren't that great, but that was to be expected for 6/7 glasses that cost around the $40 in total. So I think next time I'll instead opt for a bottle of something decent to accompany the food, and there wasn't a shortage of that on the wine list.

Service is warm and the room, while a tad noisy when full, is well designed. My one gripe is that the tables were too close together. I think there was 10cm between our table at the next, meaning it was only possible to get past to leave or go to the bathroom by making them shift their table over and brush past.

Next time I'm in the mood for some Italian wine and hearty food in a casual setting I'll be sure to head to Berta.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Berta on Urbanspoon


There are plenty of Thai restaurants in Parramatta, but this is one of the better for a simple meal. Select yout type of noodles, toppings and style of dish (Thai, Malay, etc) and they'll cook it up for you.

Quick, simple, tasty and well-priced. A good lunchtime destination.

RATING: Okay, will probably return to [?]