Saturday, April 30, 2011

BEER: Beers of the Week

A new segment. Maybe.

3rd place - Murray's Craft Brewing Co "Angry Man" Brown Ale.

From what I understand this beer is relatively new to the market, despite having come out earlier, I think only on tap. If that makes sense (it doesn't; it's probably wrong).

It opens with a big, big hit of bitterness and hops. It makes you're thinking one of those weak, bitter brown ales that don't really play to their colour. But then malt appears on the midpalate and balances things off a little, until a really nice waft of milk chocolate comes through on the finish.

While this isn't a great or complicated beer, you can easily enjoy 3 or 4 bottles until the bitterness becomes a little too much.


2nd place - Mikkeller/Three Floyds "Oatgoop" Barley Wine.

I don't know if I've mentioned it on the blog before, but up until around 18 months ago I was a wine man. I definitely enjoyed a good beer (my favourites were the Belgians I'd had at the Belgian Beer Cafe), but it was so hard to find quality beer in a retail setting that I gave up. That all changed around nine months after I moved to Bellevue Hill in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. Sitting on the main road of the suburb's small collection of neighbourhood shops is the local bottle-o, Platinum Liquor. I'd written it off as a mere neighbourhood bottle-o. But then I went inside... Little did I know that this shop has one of the best selections of beer in Sydney. Since that first visit, when I loaded up on a whole bunch of exceptional beers (picked out with the help of the amazingly knowledgeable staff) I've been hooked on beer, visiting regularly to top up supplies. And if the amazing beer wasn't enough, the staff often throw an interesting bottle of something I haven't tried before my way (in a non-threatening way). Today I got a bottle of this Mikkeller/Three Floyds barley wine collabo that had been sitting on the shelf for a while and has apparently escaped my attention.

The shelf time has helped this beer hugely. It's stunningly mellow for a barley wine. It starts slightly sweet but the sweetness and barleyness (what?) just keeps growing. By the end it's like a sweet porridge.

Carbonation is also mellow, making this beer stupidly easy to drink, which is stupidly dangerous considering it's 10.4% abv.


1st place - Coopers Best Extra Stout.

I'm a stout man. I won't deny it. The malty sweetness in dark beers hits my tastebuds in the best spots, meaning that if I find a decent enough stout I can drink far, far too many, unlike a lighter beer that tends to wear the palate our too quickly by only hitting the savoury senses.

Coopers Best Extra Stout is, in my opinion, easily Australia's best stout, in terms of consistency and ease of availability. There are some smaller producers that I think edge it out, but they don't have the reach or the consistency.

The taste doesn't really evolve much. It starts bitter, with a bit of cocoa. And that's how it ends. But the carbonation is at the perfect spot between lively and sessionable. And you get hints of greatness along the way. A bit of malt here, some nutmeg there.

It all adds up to make a delicious beer that is consistently good, well circulated, great value, on par with some of the best mass-produced stouts around and, for some reason, very Australian. And that's why it's my beer of the week.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

RESTAURANT: Gumshara Ramen

Today I was craving noodles something fierce. This is hardly surprising. On the list of things that I often crave, noodles are up there with things like "booze", "human attention" and "for the tears to stop". Also not surprising was that when I felt the craving humming in my stomach, my attention switched to a familiar tiny ramen stall in Chinatown.

Gumshara is an astonishing place, if only for the fact that I think everyone on the planet agrees that the tonkatsu ramen there is the best in the CBD, if not the country. Yes, it's that.fucking.good.

It has a bit of a soup nazi feel to it. It's hidden in a food court that you'd find hard to stumble upon (despite it being so close to Dixon St). You walk up to the counter, usually after queueing for a couple of minutes (during which time you watch the one or two guys in the kitchen going about their business), you ask the lady for the tonkatsu ramen and you ask her for the soft boiled egg. You wait for a few minutes, they call your number (even though you KNOW that bowl is yours), you lurch forward and collect the tray, and then you find a seat, weaving between other people carrying ramen or stir fries or Hainan chicken rice.

Not since I dabbled in catholicism as a child have I had that feeling of being surrounded by people that follow the same rituals; the same movements. The people there for the first time stick out, until they (quickly) learn the motions.

All of a sudden you aren't aware of anything around you. Your eyes are wide but you see nothing but what's in front of you.

Tunnel vision.

You can taste it all separately. The noodles. The sheet of seaweed. The soft boiled egg. The mushrooms. The spring onions. And... the broth... A pork broth so thick and heady that it leaves your lips sticky, your head light, your stomach heated through and your tastes buds sate like they've never been sate before. You just got flavourfucked.

Sure you could have gone for something else like the garlic tonkatsu or the shoyu ramen. But nothing comes to the tonkatsu. Nothing except for the next time you head to Gumshara. Thankfully, that will happen more often that you think is reasonable. Because it's that craving. It's such a specific craving; a craving that can't be killed off by any other bowl of tonkatsu ramen.

RATING: Will constantly return to [?]

Gumshara Ramen on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 23, 2011


My last (and first (and only)) visit to Flying Fish in Pyrmont was around two years ago. While this sounds a little odd considering how much I enjoyed that meal, it does show how many fine dining options there are in Sydney. If you enjoy trying different restaurants, but can’t afford to go every week, then it’s going to be quite a while before you return to some of these places if you like them. To dine here I was forgoing the chance to try some of the other fine-diners that I am still yet to enjoy.

Being two years since my last visit, I was a little nervous about how it was going to pan out, as it was roughly the same time gap since I last visited Bilson’s. And we all know how that turned out. With so many great dining experiences since the last visit, had my palate or standards changed? Had I become (gasp) more discerning?

Walking to the restaurant, I realised I certainly hadn’t become any better at navigating. Last time we came here we wandered around the Pyrmont waterside for ages looking for the restaurant. I joked that this time that wouldn’t happen. Minutes later, it did. Take note, children. Look at a map first. (AND WEAR A SWEATER WHILE YOU'RE AT IT!!!)

Two things made me enjoy Flying Fish the last time I was there. Firstly, and not surprisingly for a restaurant with a piscatorial name, the seafood was spectacular. Fresh, well selected and well handled. The other reason was the service. I still have fond memories of the sommelier we had that night. Knowledgeable of what he was serving, but also friendly and, most importantly, fun. While the view is spectacular, I think the memories of that night are the reason why we requested an upstairs table for the return visit, on the off chance that we might get the same table and have the same sommelier serve us.

While I don’t consider it an official “Thing That Made Me Enjoy Flying Fish Last Time I Was There” (TM), the fact that it serves up refined Sri Lankan food is also a bit of an appeal to me, a huge fan of the flavours that country’s cuisine puts out.

Finally we see the pier we have to walk up, making sure we avoid the delivery/parking lane that we walked up last time.

While we don’t get an upstairs table, we do get a table right by the window, overlooking the harbour. A pretty fair compromise.

After a tasty amuse bouche of a crab, caviar and cream tart, the first dish arrives. And it is a total stunner. Seared yellow fin tuna with grapefruit, pork belly, pork crackling and black pepper caramel. A great piece of fish, perfectly cooked. The caramel is too sweet on its own, but plays an important part when everything on the dish is combined. It has that sweet/savoury thing happening and it definitely wakes the taste buds up. There’s also a few layers of texture which work well together. Although there is maybe a little too much caramel on the plate. The sourness of the grapefruit adding another dimension to the flavour and transporting it to a sweet/sour Sri Lankan dish, as if a fair whack of tamarind was added. The grapefruit also cuts the sweetness of the caramel and leaves a neutral taste in the mouth. The dish is paired with a borderline tasteless rose (I hate roses normally so don’t take my word for anything here) which feels oddly appropriate.

I feel guilty for leaving some caramel on the plate, but the dish would be too sweet if I ate it all. Then again, it’s caramel. Does it really matter if I leave some on the plate? Hmm, a deep metaphysical debate to be considered when my dining companion leaves the table for a toilet break.

Looks like Bilson’s last week just wasn’t.that.good. Two years ago Flying Fish was great. Two years later it is great.

Ocean trout cooked sous vide is next and it’s delicious. Regardless of how many restaurants have a confit/sous vide/slow-cooked ocean trout dish, it never gets dull. Here it sits with quinoa and a pea mousse and is topped with (if I remember correctly) caviar. The fish is incredibly soft and pairs well with the flavours and textures of the other ingredients. The puffed quinoa adds that textural element that was attempted in multiple dishes at Bilson’s last week but wasn’t achieved.

Soft shell crab with black pepper curry leaf sauce and coconut salad is amazing. Each element is separate. And excellent. I seem to remember there also being some grapefruit there, again playing with the sweet/sour of Sri Lankan food (if the black pepper curry sauce wasn’t enough of a nod to the sub-continent).

The dinner takes a severe turn. Roasted hapuka (similar to groper) with hazelnut, balsamic potato, grape, capers and buerre noisette. From dishes that played straight to Sri Lankan taste, we’re now playing to French/Italian. The punchy, curry flavours are turned down and the flavour of the ingredients are turned up. Well-paired ingredients and an excellent bit of fish add up to an excellent dish.

After a palate cleanser of berry jelly with cucumber, pomegranate and fruit (a spoon would have been nice to eat this with), we stay subdued and hit up a piece of wagyu with shredded, braised short rib, mushroom, beetroot puree, smoked leek and horseradish sauce. On the side is a leaf salad, perfectly crisp and perfectly dressed. The beef—in both forms—is delicious. As is the mushroom. As is... you get the idea. A great dish. Part of me thinks that Flying Fish should concentrate on fish for every course and set itself apart as a “fish restaurant”, but it was a great dish so I won’t complain.

Cheese course next with some gorgonzola, figs and other things I don’t recall. A good cheese course. I don’t normally like blue cheese, finding the aftertaste too confronting, but the fig pairs well.

“Tastes and textures of apple” is next and it’s probably the first dish that feels like it’s trying to appeal to diner’s more accustomed to other (read: French) fine diners around Sydney. Apple is presented various ways. It’s delicious. I love apple. I would have liked a wine pairing with this too, though, as it isn’t an insubstantial dish. A good wine pairing would have made this a very solid dish.

Finally, a banana plate. Banana tart, a piece of banana and a banana and popcorn semi-freddo. Banana and I have had out differences over the years, but this is delicious. It’s banana.

Service was a little mixed on the night, with some staff being excellent--friendly and informed—but others seemingly going through the motions.

Wine matches to the food were generally good, but the wines weren’t that great for some of the courses. I’d like to see some more excellent local wines used and less of a reliance on the international wines that often have less bang for the buck.

The chair I was in was terrible. While comfortable to sit on, the backs sloped back slightly at the top, meaning that whenever I sat back against the chair, I was leaning back slightly and felt off balance. An unnerving feeling. But that could have been because of me, no one else seemed to be having that problem.

After my first visit of Flying Fish I knew it was good, but I didn’t think it was in the top echelon of restaurants in Sydney. I still believe that. While there are some tremendous flavours on the plate and a great selection of seafood to be had, the food just doesn’t have that perfect balance that the top restaurants do. Still, for the uniqueness of a Sri Lankan fine-diner and for excellent seafood (and everything else) it’s WELL worth a visit.

While I hope that I get to return before two more years, I doubt that it’s going to happen. With the new set of (amazing) restaurants due to open later in the year at nearby Star City, I imagine that I’ll be spending a lot of time there. Being out of the way, I hope that Flying Fish can stay open and competitive and continue to serve up great food for many more years to come.

RATING: Will return to [?]

Flying Fish on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 14, 2011


When the 2011 Good Food Guide was announced, the local culinary scene went pretty apeshit over Tetsuya’s dropping down from three to two hats. But in the background, an equally apeshit demotion was taking place: Bilson’s also dropped from three to two. This I felt was unjust. My visit to Bilson’s had been spectacular. I’d rated the restaurant up with Quay and Marque as the best in Sydney.

But in the food business, a lot can change in two years.

Enter a new chef at Bilson’s with an ambitious plan, and enter a new appreciation for fine dining at This Blog. It almost went hand in hand: Bilson’s brought out a 15 course degustation that they claimed was amongst the best in the world, just after a year in which I’d had some of the best degustations of the world.

But 15 courses? Fuck me, that’s a lot of goddamn courses.

A lot of press has been made of the $280 price tag that accompanies said 15 courses, and excludes and drinks that accompany said 15 courses. But, really, if it turned out to be great food then it’s hardly a rip off: It takes a lot of staff to make fifteen courses of well-presented food that includes excellent ingredients.

And so I headed in, having been warned that it will take around four hours to see the entirety of the “epiphanie” menu.

What ensued was five hours and fifteen courses of... food.

Part of me doesn’t want to take anything away from a restaurant ambitious enough to challenge themselves with an audacious goal of a fifteen course meal and a desire to be held among the world’s best.

Another part of me looks for excuses as to why I wasn’t in raptures about the food. Had too much dining spoilt me? No, it would have given me even more appreciation. Was there something about the mood that impacted the dining experience? No, we were in good spirits. Was there something wrong with my palate? I doubt it.

But it’s the largest part that is saying that it was just a lacklustre meal. It certainly wasn’t poor; and there certainly wasn’t any “bad” dishes. The whole thing was just completely uninspiring.

Because of balance.

Balance was lacking.

I don’t see why some people oppose the use of modern techniques in cooking. I partly understand why they object, but still don’t fully understand why they can’t just change their mind once they realise how nice it can often be.

But here... Here modern techniques are to blame.

Modern techniques work purely because they delivery tastes in a different and sometimes entirely unexpected way. There is no point in using modern techniques for the sake of using modern techniques, which it felt like in my dinner at Bilson’s. You can compress the shit out of apple, but it’s pointless if the texture and flavour don’t gel with the rest of dish.

A great dish—in a fine dining setting—works in the mouth. You feel like every ingredient and texture was placed there for a reason. And it was, because that’s fine dining. But I got that feeling maybe twice during the fifteen opportunities that they had to deliver it. A world standard restaurant will deliver nearly fifteen.

The frustrating thing is that nearly every dish had an element to it that was thoroughly enjoyable. There was the green apple cous cous. The dried chicken skin. The meaty cod. The calamari. But something would spoil it every. Single. Time. The cod and the chicken skin were great on that plate, but then a furious punch of citrus was introduced and would destroy any lingering flavours. Where was the balance? Citrus may have worked, but in the right proportion; delivered in the right way.

The best dishes were when it was kept simple. Seasonal vegetables with some cheese and a little coffee to provide a bitter balance, expertly placed to provide a clear distinction from the earlier, more cloying dishes. Some seasonal mushrooms with an acidic hum of vinegar.

But just as there were hints that things were looking good—very good—something came along and ruined it. Beef short ribs were as tender as you can get, but they came with too much potato and watercress, which ruined the balance and made the dish far too light to carry the red wine it was matched too. And then lamb with an eggplant and miso puree, which is a puree that has been used dozens of times and felt dull in the face of a seemingly ambitious menu. Or a raspberry encased in a gold leaf covered square of jelly, for no reason whatsoever.

And I have to feel sorry for the people that opt for one of the other degustations and pay the supplement for the chocolate box, which is nothing more than chocolates in the place of petit fours.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the food that has changed since my last meal at Bilson’s. The borderline empty dining room was devoid of any enjoyment, which was served in abundance last time. And while the sommelier was knowledgeable, he lacked the presence of the last head sommelier.

While Bilson’s is still serving up good food, I felt it was a long way off serving food at the top of world standard. And there was a severe lack of epiphanies. For the money, every serious Sydney restaurant is doing markedly better food. I wish Bilson’s was doing better food and I could recommend it to people, because my first time there was amazing. But now... I’m going to be pointing people—and myself—elsewhere.

RATING: Okay, may go back [?]

Bilson's on Urbanspoon