Over The Moon

There are a lot of good dining experiences to be had in Melbourne, but it’s pretty rare for me to have one that, for the occasion/price/company/hunger level and every other variable, I could honestly say was a perfect experience. Last Saturday night my partner and I went out with his parents for dinner at Moon Under Water (Gertrude Street, Fitzroy). And I have to say, it was pretty damn near perfect. 

Moon Under Water is the higher-end dining section of Builders Arms Hotel, a lovely white-on-white dining room tucked away at the back of the building. The decor is a little bit French, a little bit Melbourne and very me, with crisp white tablecloths paired with edgy arrangements of gin bottles and autumn leaves on the dining room’s buffet table and side boards. The service was professional, yet still warm – happy to get us extra bread (which came in a very cute enamel lunchbox) with a smile and recommend anything from a Belgian or British beer to a great Pinot from the Mornington Peninsula. 

  

I knew I was really on to a good thing at this restaurant though when, on letting the waitress know I was a vegetarian, she took away my menu and returned with a dedicated vegetarian menu. At Moon Under Water you can opt for 3, 4 or 6 courses, with non-vegetarians having a choice of two different items for each course. We all opted for four courses, with my partner and his dad choosing to have the matched wines. You can also add in a cheese course, which, of course, we had to do!

For the first course three of us had a tomato salad with a sheep’s curd yoghurt. It was really zingy and fresh. The tomatoes and curd were quite sweet and the taragon and tiny crumbs of black olive balanced it out with savouriness and saltiness. My partner braved it with a cured bonito dish which was really well done and not overpowering. For the second course I had a fennel dish with crispy quinoa. I’m normally not a huge fan of either of these ingredients, but the fennel was super soft and creamy, served with a tasty vegetable broth, and the quinoa was just a nice garnish that added crunch. There were a lot of nods and happy faces from the non-vegetarians too, who were tucking into a pretty little duck and lentil dish for their second course which was matched with a very popular pinot. 

   

 

For the third course I had pan fried gnocchi with heirloom carrots. Good gnocchi always makes me happy and this was no exception. My dining companions’ pork with lovage and anchovy was not my thing obviously, but was reported to be very well cooked and a highlight of the meal. Finally, dessert arrived and happily, even after a multi-course dinner we still had room for these little treasures. My partner and I had the chocolate parfait with spiced oats and milk sorbet and his parents had the almond cake with a lemon verbena custard and fresh raspberries. The chocolate parfait was, well, perfect. It was basically like a fancy icecream sandwich with dark rich parfait squeezed between two thin chocolate oat cookies, topped with a dollop of salted caramel and a quenelle of smooth milk sorbet which just tased like a nice chilled cream. 

  

Each course was relatively small, but very satisfying, plus there’s complimentary starters, bread and butter served throughout and the course before dessert (the ‘main’ I guess) is served with green salad and absolutely delicious whole roasted baby potatoes. For $75 a head (plus drinks) for four courses, we were very happy customers. We left feeling quite full (and maybe a little tipsy) but not stuffed, appreciating the meal for its balance, great ingredients and thoughtful presentation. 

  

Moon Under Water on Urbanspoon

The Commonwealth Games and Sushi Pandas

Sport. It’s a topic you’ll rarely read about on my blog. People who knew me at school would know I have about as much sporting talent as a sloth…in a straightjacket. And if you’ve stumbled on this blog via some search engine algorithm that looks at the first word in a blog, well, turn back now. Seriously, I don’t know my League from my Union. I don’t know who is at the top of the AFL ladder or the top seed in tennis. I’d only watch the Tour de France for the landscapes and men’s diving for the…ahem, pool vistas?

However, I do love the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. I’m really not sure why. I’m not particularly patriotic. I haven’t even heard of most of the Aussies representing us. But I absolutely love watching the Games. When the Olympics was on I made my partner and me subscribe to Foxtel so I could have nine simultaneous channels of Olympics coverage. At the moment, with the Commonwealth Games on, I find myself up at midnight on a work night, watching something stupid like clay pigeon shooting and literally bawling when an Aussie wins, or even just does well. What the? My only explanation is that I do tend to have a bit of an obsessive personality.

And here’s where I get back to food (and those errant sports readers should click away now). Because my short lived but obsessive love for the Commonwealth Games is well and truly surpassed by my many brief but intense foodie fads. There are plenty of foods that are perennial favourites which I love to eat, always have loved and could eat every day if I allowed myself to, things like: chocolate brownies, gnocchi Napoli, almond croissants, cheese and bikkies, stewed rhubarb, pad thai, fresh mangoes, buttery mashed potato, slow cooked eggplants or apple pie. And then there are the short lived foodie infatuations, some of which I’m a little embarrassed to admit. The stupid, the silly, the over-the-top and the too trendy. They are the late night Pinterest finds, the Masterchef finale dessert challenges, the Kmart kitchen demonstrators’ dreams.

Not a passing fad: I love slow cooked eggplant, especially these heirloom ones grown by my mum.

Not a passing fad: I love slow cooked eggplant, especially these heirloom ones grown by my mum.

My top ten food obsessions which lasted about as long as a Commonwealth Games tournament are:

Truffle oil – I went nuts for this for a while and it’s an expensive habit. I still think truffle oil is great. But on a pizza or mashed potato only, maybe a soup. Not on every single savoury dish. Otherwise everything just ends up tasting the same, and oily.

Square plates – A few years ago I bought two sets of 8 square plates – 8 mains and 8 side plates. At the time, again, I thought they were the sexiest thing ever. Now they just look so 2005. On the upside they do stack very neatly in the dishwasher.

Sushi Pandas – for the uninitiated, this is a ball of sushi rice decorated with black seaweed so that the balls look like baby pandas. No, I’m not kidding. Google ‘panda sushi’ and see for yourself, seriously. I’m not sure I’m entirely over this one, they are just so ridiculously cute!

Making my own fettuccini – it’s super silky but there’s way too much kneading involved, not to mention the rolling through the machine. They never show quite how painstaking it is on Masterchef, especially when it’s for a big group of people. I’m not quite sure why I bothered when I live so close to fresh pasta on Lygon Street and at the Queen Vic markets.

Tempeh – vegetarian restaurant Shakahari does it really well, I do not. I kept buying it and trying to do it well because I’m a vegetarian, which means I should be good at tempeh right? Right? *Cricket sounds and tumbleweed*

Miniature…everything! – It started with miniature cupcakes. Then I decided all desserts should be miniature. That was stupid. No self respecting sugar addict like me should want to downsize her dessert.

Stacking food – I blame earlier series of Masterchef for this. I bought a quite extensive and heavy set of metal food stacking rings a few years ago which I carted home with me from the UK. Now it’s all about the sauce smear and plates that look like gardens and my food stacking rings sit gathering dust in my parent’s kitchen.

Savoury scones – Scones are just better with jam and cream. I got into herb scones. Miniature herb scones with beetroot jam, probably served on a square plate.

Food in jars – I may not quite be over this obessession either, but the love of hipster style food in jars is fading. I’ve done trifle in jars, cheesecake in jars, chocolate mousse in jars, breakfast in a jar…you get the idea.

Rose flavouring – There are limited things that should be flavoured like a rose. I found some beautiful French natural rose flavouring in a fairly big bottle and I purchased it. It got to the point where all my dessert started tasting like grandma deodorant. I think this obsession died when I attempted to make my own Turkish delight (which actually should be rose flavoured) and my mum said it reminded her of playdough.

The gouda, the bad and the ugly: food puns

I love puns and I love food (obviously), so I rate food related puns pretty highly. The wine shop on Errol street often has cute puns on its blackboard outside the store. They had one up a few weeks ago that I’ve heard before but always love: ‘Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to dis-a-brie?’ It’s both funny and true, since many of my sweetest food dreams are made of cheese (baked cheesecake, five cheese pizza and Vue de Monde’s famous cheese cart, I’m looking at you…) Cheese puns are actually my favourite sub-category of food puns. I mean, puns just tend to sound fetta when cheese is involved. People think I’m a bit of a quark anyway, so why not just go totally emmental with the cheese puns? But I should stop milking these terrible cheese puns and move on…

There’s also a roaring trade in Melbourne for restaurants with puns in their names. A couple of my favourite include the successful ‘Lord of the Fries’ chain and veggie heaven ‘Lentil As Anything’, plus there’s the new ‘Jimmy Grant’s’ which apparently is rhyming slang (not technically a pun) for ‘immigrants’. There’s a fairly new cafe at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne called ‘Hunger Game’, which is not a bad little use of the film title and no doubt gets a few smiles out of commuters in the morning, even if their pre-packages sandwiches and soggy croissants look about as appealing as eating spicy food during a severe bout of Bali Belly.

Jimmy Grant's menu board

Jimmy Grant’s menu board

Speaking of Bali…that’s where I’ve been for the past week! Indonesia is technically north of Melbourne, so I feel that a little bragging about my lovely resort holiday on this blog is allowed. And there is a legitimate tie-in to my blog about puns (or should I say Thai-in? No, that just sounds a bit racist and geographically challenged doesn’t it?). Anyway, while on holiday in Bail I spotted a takeaway chicken shop called ‘Chicken Run’, replete with intellectual-property-infringing giant models of the two main characters in the film Chicken Run, Ginger and Rocky. Now maybe the owners of the restaurant simply had not seen the movie. Maybe they didn’t understand it, or were rooting for the cold hearted villain Mrs Tweedy. But to me, it’s a very odd and unfortunate choice of name for a chicken shop. I mean, the film is about chickens escaping from a horrible chicken farm. The heroes are chickens, who narrowly avoid being turned into chicken pies. It is kind of like opening a cafe that served pork belly and calling it ‘Babe’. Or opening a Japanese restaurant that served whale burgers and calling it ‘Free Willy’. Or a dodgy dim sim place and calling it ‘101 Dalmations’ or ‘Aristocats’. Ok, ok you get the point. Maybe it’s just the overly sensitive vegetarian in me, but it just seems very wrong.

Anyway, back to cheesy puns and other names that stink. Deliberately pun-y restaurant names are clearly not limited to Melbourne. There’s been many articles and even books written which record and collect these silly foodie names. A couple of my international favourites which I dug up while googling include: ‘YacDonalds’ (fast food in Nepal), ‘Maquis de Salade’ (salads and more in Budapest), ‘New Cod on the Block’ (fish and chips in the UK), ‘Brew’d Awakening’ (coffee shop in the USA), ‘Amy’s Winehouse’ (a poor taste winery in the UK) and ‘ThaiRiffic’ (several Thai restaurants, including one I’ve eaten at in Sydney). And I can see why restaurants opt for funny names. Perhaps they don’t scream ‘fine dining’ but they’re memorable and worth mentioning, if only for the silly name, to friends. Plus, if the name was actually very funny or clever, I might be more inclined to go in and check out the restaurant. I love restaurants that don’t take themselves too seriously, that have a sense of fun about them or reflect the quirkiness of their owners and I’d probably be much more likely to go into a fish and chip shop called ‘A Salt & Battery’ (in New York) than one called ‘New York Fish and Chips’.

I guess, like in anything you do, you just have to be careful when you’re picking a restaurant name, whether you’re trying to be funny or not. Otherwise you might end up owning a place called ‘Phat Phuc Noodle Bar’ (to be fair it apparently means ‘Happy Buddha’ in Vietnamese) or the ‘KKK’ (chain, or should I say klan, of restaurants in the Philippines), ‘Jee’s Pot’ (in San Fransisco – you know it’s a good spot right?), ‘Butt Sweet House’ (sweet treats in Abu Dhabi) or Melbourne’s own ‘Kum Den’. Yes, I know, I am a child, but seriously, google these things people, or say them aloud a few times before buying a sign!

Fruit and vegetables: they really lettuce make a whole bunch of fruitful puns

Fruit and vegetables: they really lettuce make a whole bunch of fruitful puns

Ten hot Italians…

I LOVE Italian food. I love Italy itself too. You can’t go wrong with the home of pasta, parmesan cheese and gelato. Melbourne has a fabulous history of Italian residents and an abundance of Italian restaurants due to past waves of migration to Australia. In this blog I wanted to share my top 10 Italian dishes in Melbourne. So, in no particular order, here they are:

1. Eggplant parma at Neil Perry’s Rosetta. Gorgeous restaurant that makes you feel like a 50s movie star, with service and food to match. This eggplant parma is beautifully soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and topped with buffalo mozzarella and crispy basil leaves. Yum!

Rosetta's eggplant parma

Rosetta’s eggplant parma

2. Pizza at Oskar’s Pizza. This is my local pizza place and, conveniently, I happen to think that they do the best pizza in Melbourne. Big call, I know.

3. Mess Hall’s polenta chips. These are big fat wedges of crispy polenta, served hot and covered in cheese. So delicious!

4. Dolcetti’s dulce de leche cheesecake. Super creamy and just the right level of sweetness – these babies are a steal at under $4 too!

5. Gnocchi Napoli at Café Corretto on Lygon Street. I know it’s cheesy (both literally and figuratively), I know it’s a little tacky with the car suspended on the roof and the red plastic tablecloths, but I still love a big plate of old school gnocchi at this place. Student living for the win.

6. Rosetta’s zucchini, mint and pecorino risotto. I recently ate here, so my views may be slightly skewed, but this was definitely one of the best risottos I’ve ever had. Super creamy yet not gluggy, cheesy while still tasting fresh and summery. Big snaps also for the risotto at Mess Hall in the city and Sosta Cucina in North Melbourne.

Rosetta's zucchini risotto

Rosetta’s zucchini risotto

7. Cellar Bar’s Melanzane Alla Parmigiana, so many soft soft layers of eggplant with the sweetest tomato sauce ever. The service is kind of patchy, sometimes rude, but the eggplant is worth it.

8. Potato, cabbage, sage and tallegio pasta at Sosta Cucina. I don’t think it’s currently on the menu but it does appear quite frequently. It’s two types of carbs plus a very delicious kind of cheese, plus criminal levels of butter – need I say more?

9. The French custard tart at Brunetti. Amazing silky custard tart studded with big juicy sour cherries. Also can’t go past the Panzerotti (shortcrust patstry parcels, filled with vanilla pastry cream).

10. It sounds cute but my final favourite Italian dish is…my sister’s pan-finished roast pumpkin gnocchi with homemade Napoli sauce. It’s not readily available, but it is fabulous!

Rosetta on Urbanspoon

Christmas, golden retrievers and stuffed olives

This morning on Errol street I noticed that Christmas banners had been put up all along the street. Myer’s Christmas windows open this weekend. Chadstone shopping centre is already well and truly baubled. It is November 10 people! I know I sound like the Grinch, but I do actually love Christmas. There will be many Christmas related posts forthcoming on this blog. There will be instagrams of my beloved Christmas tree and pics with #plumpudding and #tofurkey all over Facebook (not that I actually eat tofurkey – very weird concept I think). Importantly, however, these will appear IN DECEMBER. I will put up my tree on December 1st and no sooner. I will not be induced into Christmas shopping /cooking/cleaning/packing/wrapping hysteria any sooner than necessary.

This, I have realised, is a sign I am getting old. Or, at the very least, I’ve somehow strayed into that ‘being and adult’ territory where the phrase ‘Christmas is coming’ is kind of like ‘Winter is coming’ in the Game of Thrones. It’s not just your attitude towards singing Santas and aggressive television commercials with dodgy looking elves that changes with age. Your tastebuds and food preferences change with age too. You can, and do, learn to like foods over time. My first solid food was pureed bananas. Then it was mashed potato. Then, oddly enough, I think it was small boxes of sultanas. I’ve come rather a long way from there and my tastebuds are still developing. About ten years ago I came round to pumpkin and beetroot. Up until maybe five years ago I completely avoided goats’ cheese, now I think I eat about a kilo of Milawa chevre a week. Mushrooms are also a relatively new found love, and a handy one, since I’m a vegetarian.

Lately I’ve become aware that my tastebuds are becoming seriously grown up. Like, my tastebuds have a mortgage and a golden retriever and three kids. I think some of them are even dyeing their greys and considering buying a beach house in Rye.

For example, you know your tastebuds are getting older when you opt for dark chocolate over milk. This has started happening to me. I still love Lindt milk squares, caramello koalas and Cadbury hazelnut chocolate. But my favourite chocolate is getting darker by the years. I’m now really into dark milk chocolate (around the 60% mark) and can happily eat several dark chocolate Koko Black truffles in one go. My mum, who is…well, let’s just say she’s a fair bit older than me, all she eats is dark chocolate, 75% or above, the darker and more bitter the better.

I’ve also started enjoying olives, something which I’d meticulously pick off pizza when I was young. Now I love sampling olives with different stuffings or oils and those sexy little Ligurian ones at the Queen Vic’s delis. Blue cheese is another very ‘adult’ taste. I did recently try blue cheese ice-cream (see my blog on N2 here) and didn’t mind it, whereas normally, when I taste blue cheese, I feel like I’ve eaten an overgrown petri dish mixed with boys’ gym socks. Finally, I’ve started agreeing with those crazy celebrity chef statements about brussel sprouts or broad beans actually being delicious if cooked well with loads of butter.

Besides growing up, apparently your hormones can also affect your taste preferences. I mean, I get massive chocolate cravings each month (to be honest it’s really all month…) but you can also crave certain foods based on deficiencies you have and your hormonal cycle. Also, did you know that you not only have tastebuds on your tongue, apparently there are buds on the roof of your mouth and your throat? Freaky!

Anyway, because this is a food and lifestyle blog and not a science one I’ll get back to food and away from anatomy and hormonal cycles. Below is a photo of a meal that me and my somewhat aging tastebuds enjoyed a week or two ago – super soft pan fried gnocchi with zucchini, buffalo mozzarella and peas. Nom nom nom.

Gnocchi at The European on Spring Street

Gnocchi at The European on Spring Street

Beautiful ingredients

I think there is only one secret to delicious cooking. It’s not, as the French might have you believe, butter. It’s beautiful ingredients. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of cooking shows and cookbooks are missing that important step in making a fantastic meal.

You do not need an ice-cream maker or a sous-vide water bath to create something spectacular. You need fresh, vibrant vegetables, decent olive oil and perhaps some quality cheese or protein. Don’t get me wrong, I love kitchen gadgets and I also love eating at fancy restaurants full of foam, gel and freeze-dried-who-knows-what. But it just occurred to me the other day how little attention we give to selecting and appreciating the basic ingredients.

So today is ‘ingredients appreciation day’ on my blog. Here’s a picture I took of rhubarb. Just rhubarb. Isn’t it beautiful? Those gorgeous pink stems on my bright green plastic chopping board. It’s sexy! It’s inspiring. (And no, I’m not high, just take a second and look…)

rhubarb pic

A place where you can really appreciate the beauty of ingredients is farmers markets. Regular readers will know that I LOVE markets. I’m also lucky enough to live fairly close to the Queen Victoria Markets. I adore going and looking at (and buying) the displays at markets. Everything is a little imperfect, plentiful and displayed in a happy-organic sort of way. You can pick things up, see them in natural light rather than under fluorescents and, of course, smell them! Markets also give you an appreciation of what’s in season. You know it’s mango season when they’re going for under $10 a box. You know mushrooms are at their best when the mushroom man has eleven types on display. And you know it’s summer when berries’ prices halve. I personally don’t haggle at food markets, but that is also a fun element to shopping at markets if you’re into that kind of thing.

At the Queen Vic markets, it is easy to get overwhelmed, since the markets themselves are huge and, especially on weekends, completely packed. You could spend ( and I have spent) a fair amount of time wading through cheap handbags and dodgy looking kids’ toys before you find the fresh produce and even then, quality varies between stalls. I’ve been hitting up the markets for fresh produce since 2007 and have spent way too many hours dawdling round the stalls, sniffing oranges and squeezing avocados. Below are a few of my recommendations for beautiful produce at the Queen Vic:

Curds and Whey
This is a great cheese and dairy shop in the deli section. I particularly like it for its extensive and well labelled range of vegetarian cheese, including an organic Italian parmesan. They also sell butter (salted or unsalted) from huge blocks on their counter, quark, yoghurt, vanilla beans, saffron and other little gourmet delights. Most importantly, they’re always happy to offer you a taste before you commit to that wedge of cheddar or block of gruyere.

The Queen Vic Deli
I love this place for one reason: hummus. Their homemade hummus is the best I’ve ever had. I think they mix in a fair bit of tahini, making it really creamy and yet still tangy and tasty. The selection of olives at this deli is also worth a stop, though I think some of the other offerings are a bit overpriced.

Garden Organics and VicMarket Organics
These are my two favourite fruit and veg stalls. Both stock almost entirely organic produce. They also indicate if the produce is locally grown, which is helpful if you’re considering food miles. The staff are friendly (if not a bit cool) and really care about their produce. Plus Garden Organics has precious tiny little perfect pink lady apples (when in season) which I’m kind of obsessed with…

Also worth a mention not so much for gorgeous ingredients but for great snacks and prepared food, are the Borek shop in the deli section (and their sister shop further down on Elizabeth Street which has THE BEST gozleme), the Traditional Pasta Shop for fresh pasta and really good bake at home garlic bread and market juice for yummy (but super sweet) smoothies and my favourite Evia brand of yoghurt.