This Easter: The Non Choc Shop

So I don’t want to stir anyone into a panic and/or food and gift buying frenzy, but it is officially ONE SLEEP until Easter! Last year I wrote a little wrap up of some of the nicest Easter chocolate gifts available in Melbourne at places like Koko Black and Haigh’s (check it out here: http://northmelbournelife.com/2014/04/07/eatster-i-mean-easter/

 But I have a dark and terrible secret in my family, which plagues us each Easter, and it is this: a certain unnamed member of my family (ahem little sister), who normally has impeccable foodie taste, does not like chocolate! Yes, you heard right, someone closely related to me eschews all things gloriously cocoa. I have checked, she’s not adopted. 

 The list below is for you, baby sis, and all the people out there who are not as addicted to the brown stuff as me. It’s a list of my top 10 non-chocolate gifts in Melbourne this Easter.

 1. Marshmallows: Yes they are great in hot chocolates, but they can also be a gourmet treat on their own and a fun addition to baking. Mork (Errol Street, North Melbourne) makes packs of 12 perfectly cubed vanilla bean infused ‘mallows for $10 a pack. 

2. Honey: For the chocolate-hating hipster or conservationist in your life, Rooftop Honey brings bees back into cities and produces small batch honey from different suburbs, so it’s possible to buy a jar of South Yarra honey or a jar of Degraves Street (CBD) honey. The Melbourne chapter sells online or at a whole bunch of fine food outlets across the city. 

 3. Macarons: Aparently these are ‘so over’ and have ‘reached saturation point’ in Melbourne, but I obviously didn’t get that memo. They’re brightly coloured, light and delicious, perfect for Easter. I’d recommend a box from La Belle Miette who are doing special gold, yellow and cream Easter pacakging and, wait for it, a limited edition hot cross bun flavour macaron! Boxes of 6 start at $15.90. 

4. Oxfam Unwrapped: Give someone who really needs it a chicken ($10) or a bunch of carrots ($52 for a whole veggie garden) this Easter. Cards can be purchased and downloaded online as e-cards, or you can buy them in store (Carlton, Chadstone and the CBD). 

 5. Hot cross buns: A total classic. They don’t really last more than a day or two fresh, but then, you’ll probably eat them all by then anyway! Vegans will appreciate the buns at Crumbs Organic Bakeouse in North Melbourne and Ascot Vale and gluten intolerant peeps might like the gluten free (also vegan) ones at Fatto a Mano (Fitzroy). 

 6. Jelly beans: Not the most sophisticated treat, but super fun, colourful and nostalgic. I still love Jelly Belly beans, available at David Jones and candy stores like The Original Lolly Store. Just avoid those cherry flavoured ones…gross! 

7. Caramelized coconut truffle: Koko Black does a super delicious white chocolate truffle filled with a caramelised coconut cream. They are about $2.10 each. Since it’s white chocolate and not technically ‘chocolate’ I think it qualifies for this list. My prediction is there will be zero elbow room in any Koko Black store this afternoon, but it might be worth the crowds for this delicious treat!

 8. Salted caramel spread: Pure decadence…possibly to be eaten with a spoon from the jar. Really good options for this are Lux Bite’s salted caramel spread ($10 for 190g jar), Burch & Purchese’s Famous Salted Caramel Spread ($14 for 300g jar) and Bonne Maman’s caramel spread, available at various supermarkets (approx. $8 for 380g jar). And don’t ask me why I know so much about jars of salted caramel…you know why (*hides empty jar behind back*). 

 9. Caramel kisses: More caramel, in biscuit form this time. These crazy good little biscuits are basically two small shortbread biscuits sandwiched together with caramel and cream icing. Available at David Jones’ Food Hall’s cookie counter. Yes, they have a cookie counter. Yes, I do go there a lot. 

 10. Baklava: Bring a little Greek Easter to your gift giving – head to a local Greek or Turkish bakery for a container of this gorgeous little slice of honey-nut-pastry heaven. And then attempt to refrain from eating it all before you manage to give it to your loved ones.

Have a happy and safe Easter everyone! Whatever you’re doing or however you’re celebrating, I hope it’s with great people and delicious food. 

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

Review: The Grain Store

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So it’s that quiet time of year (apparently) when cafes close for a few weeks of resting and menu revamping, which is perfectly fine, except that it does rather disrupt my brunching habits. Auction Rooms and Di Bella, my two brunch spot stalwarts, were closed for well over a week for Christmas. What is a girl to do? Certainly not poach her own eggs! Oh no!

Instead the great north melbourne brunch drought of 2015 (as I’m now naming it) motivated my partner and I to walk into the city for brunch on Sunday morning. Being a beautiful sunny morning we happily trotted down to The Grain Store on Flinders Lane. With a buzzy vibe, almost no wait and a truly excellent brunch, I was reminded how much I like The Grain Store. The service is professional, the coffee is excellent and their chefs accommodate my annoying request for very well poached eggs, since an oozy yellow yolk kind of makes me want to vomit, which, incidentally, is not a good look at a nice cafe like The Grain Store.

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I say cafe but really it’s more of a restaurant. I’m not sure how you delineate the difference exactly, but I think it’s something to do with them serving dinner and wine in the evening and having nice cutlery and glassware for all three meals of the day. Plus the staff there are professional waiters, not sleepy eyed party girls wearing onesies and under their aprons. Ouch – apparently 2015 has prematurely turned me into a grumpy old lady type! But you know what I mean, there’s a slick-but-friendly feel at The Grain Store that makes you confident your order will be correct and the coffee will arrive promptly.

The decor at The Grain Store is lovely and light – kinda Scandi and kinda French provincial style, with lots of pale wood and funky lighting. Tables are mostly designed to seat four, plus there’s a large communal table along one edge of the room, right next to the big buffet where they have chunky cookies, small cakes and savoury quiches, plus the odd baguette, on display.

The menu has just been reviewed and includes some really nice light summer options. I had a great polenta fritter with smashed greens, avocado, gazpacho dressing, hazelnut dukkah and a poached egg. The polenta was beautifully creamy and the smashed greens were delicious and comfortingly healthy looking (considering my cake-centric diet these last few weeks over Christmas…) There’s still plenty of classics on the menu though and The Grain Store does ensure its classics are really good – the toast is crisp and buttery, the eggs are cooked to order and salads taste fresh and well seasoned. Plus they still have on their new menu their crispy haloumi, which goes really well with eggs and avocado. I’m not sure what they do to the haloumi (I suspect a deep frier is involved), but it tastes a-maz-ing!

Plus if you’re still hungry after brunch, you can order cookies and milk, baked to order. I indulged in this treat a few weeks ago with a very good friend of mine. Four big warm buttery chocolate chip cookies arrive at your table on a wooden board, accompanied by a glass of cold milk. If you have room, do it. You will feel like a child again, in a good way.

So, while my Errol Street favourites are back in business this week, I dare say that I’ll still occasionally be making the longer but highly rewarding trip into the city for my brunching requirements this year.

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Ten baked goods I just don’t understand…

I love baked goods. When I travel, it basically ends up being a tour of all the best bakeries and cake stores in that country. I read guides and blogs on pastries. I make lists of cake shops to visit. I also love making baked goods myself. I bake pretty wicked double chocolate chip cookies (even if I do say so myself) and a growing repertoire of cupcake flavours on a regular basis. I’m also the keeper of the family’s secret passionfruit sponge recipe. However, there are some baked goods I just don’t get. I don’t like them. Never have and probably never will. Yet, they are very popular. Why? I don’t know, but here’s my top (or rather bottom) ten. Feel free to object – perhaps something you love is on my dis-list…

Mince pies – it’s less than 12 weeks until Christmas. Myer has their Christmas trim shop set up already. But there’s one part of the festive season I won’t be looking forward to, and that’s mince pies. I think it’s the mixed peel and dried fruit in them that I don’t like, because I also don’t like Christmas cake or pudding. My sister always disliked them too, until she went to the UK. Over there they eat mince pies (in the freezing cold weather) piping hot with thick cream. I’m unconvinced but she swears that the hot UK version completely turned her on mince pies.

Coconut ice – logically I should like this slice. It’s pink and white. It’s super sweet. I love coconut. But there’s something about the extreme sweetness I just don’t like. Plus it’s all so same-y. There’s just one texture, just one flavour, no levels or layers of interest. In addition, I think I feel misled by this slice. Half is pink and half is white, suggesting there’s two flavours there, but it all tastes the same!

Jaffa cake – chocolate and orange is a combination I really dislike. I don’t like my beautiful chocolate despoiled by orange’s bitter oily intenseness. Also in this category is any kind of chocolate/mint cake combination. Really, who likes toothpaste flavour with their chocolate cake?

Mega muffins – I love muffins, but I often find that the giant ones are really disappointing. Unless made somewhere reliably good, I won’t buy them. What tends to happen is that the baker puts three blueberries at the top of a huge muffin. Based on the appearance of the top of the muffin, you (rightfully) assume the muffin is choc full of juicy moist blueberries. In fact, there’s only those few on the top and the rest of the muffin is just stodgy plain cake flavour. It’s like somewhere in the past there was an official allocated number of berries/chocolate chips etc per muffin and that allocation has not been adjusted upwards to take into account the new jumbo sized trend in muffins.

Jelly slice – I know this is an Aussie favourite, but I don’t get why people go for this one. It’s wibbly, but not in a good way. It’s a weird texture combination. Plus, being a jelly top it’s typically not vegetarian friendly. I know, I know, you can kick me out of the country now…

A baked good I do get: melting moments!

A baked good I do get: melting moments!

Lemon slice – while we’re on slices, lemon slice is another popular item I have no love or time for. There are so many delicious slices out there people! Caramel slice, hedgehog slice, brownie slices, even those oatmeal Anzac type slices. Why go for the plain as plain lemon slice option? Plus they’re often quite dry on the bottom with sickly sweet icing on the top; an uninviting prospect.

Pumpkin scones – does anyone actually eat these? Besides your great aunt? What is the point in putting pumpkin in a scone, besides making the scone the colour of radioactive American cheese?

Pumpkin pie – I have nothing against pumpkins, but pumpkin pie is another item I can’t get into. I spent a Halloween and a Thanksgiving in Louisiana a few years ago, so believe me, I gave this American treat a go. I tried homemade ones, I tried slices from bakeries and I also tried two flavours of pumpkin pie made by Wholefoods. Nothing. It’s a pie crust with weird goopy (or in some cases jelly-like) custard the colour of baby spew.

Carrot cake – carrot is a vegetable. Don’t put it in a perfectly good cake. And don’t try to make the crappy vegetable cake better by wasting delicious cream-cheese icing on it. Plus, carrot cake sounds sort of healthy, but with the amount of sugar put in it to make it taste good, and all that cream cheese icing, it’s a really deceptive choice. Go home carrots, go back to where you belong!

Sticky buns or coffee scrolls – I’m talking about those big doughy wheels covered in icing, sometimes featuring sultanas. I don’t really understand why anyone likes these. It’s just bread that tastes mildly of cinnamon, covered in extremely average icing of the plain or instant coffee flavour variety. Lame.

Choco-ma-holic

I love Melbourne (quite obviously). I love lists. I also LOVE chocolate. So it was quite clear to me that today’s post was long overdue for my blog. Below are my top ten chocolate experiences in Melbourne, in no particular order. And yes, I am eating chocolate while I write this, it’s the only way.

1. Chocolate soufflé at Bistro Vue (see pic below). They bring this baby out on its own little purpose made dish. The waiter picks up a pot of melted dark chocolate, cuts a cross in the top of your soufflé and pours the molten chocolate into your soufflé. It’s just so light in texture, yet that sauce is so deeply dark.

2. Iced chocolate donut at Crumbs Bakery. This one is dangerously close to me, on Errol Street. The donut is super crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, with tonnes of sweet sticky chocolate icing on top. And, as an added bonus, it’s vegan and organic. Nice!

3. Pear and chocolate tart at Dolcetti. I could eat everything at Dolcetti. The baked caramel cheesecake is crazy-good. But this chocolate pear tart is something really special, a great combination made with love by beautiful Italian women.

4. Handmade chocolates at Koko Black. I’m sorry, I can’t choose just one flavour as my favourite (and neither should you).

5. Giant chocolate chip marshmallow cookie at Patricia. The coffee is a bit too cool for school (though apparently very good), but this giant cookie is chewy, gooey goodness with very large milk chocolate chips.

6. Chocolate passionfruit brownie at Le Petit Gateau. There’s brownie, there’s some sort of hazelnut crispy layer, there’s passionfruit mousse, there’s chocolate mousse, there’s dark chocolate ganache and there’s passionfruit gel. Not for the faint hearted. Definitely for me.

7. Cherry ripe bar at Haigh’s. Not very sophisticated, but so delicious and nostalgic.

8. Death by TimTam cocktail at The Carlton Yacht Club. I don’t even know if they make these any more. But they were amazing. Think of an alcoholic chocolate milkshake with a whole TimTam floating on the top, all served in a martini glass to make it feel a little bit classy. I was certainty not very classy after a couple of these!

9. Chocolate coated almonds at the Lindt Café. Personally I don’t like the ambience or the service much at the Lindt Café, but you can eat these delicious little morsels on the go.

10. Ferrero Rocher ice-cream at Seven Apples. Sweltering 40 degree days are totally worth it for this St Kilda gem. The ice-cream is thick and creamy and full of crunchy Ferrero pieces. I’d also recommend their Turkish Delight flavoured ice-cream, which won a silver medal at the 2011 Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Show. Wouldn’t you just love to be a judge at that show…

Bistro Vue's chocolate souffle

Bistro Vue’s chocolate souffle

Turtle cookies in California

While this is normally a blog on North Melbourne, this week I’ve jetted off to California for a week’s holiday. San Francisco and North Melbourne actually have a fair few parallels. For starters, they are both overflowing with hipsters and really great places to eat. It’s a much more international city than many others in the USA. Of course there is amazing Mexican food (we ate at a fab vegan Mexican place in the Mission on my first night here called Gracias Madre), but there’s also authentic Thai, super cheap and delicious Indian, all you can eat brunch from the Deep South and just about everything in between. They also have trams (or ‘cable cars’) here, though the system is much more limited than in Melbourne. The weather is currently sunny and gorgeous, but normally it’s pretty changeable here, like Melbourne. Plus the politics in San Fran are probably the closest to the inner city small ‘L’ liberalism you find in North Melbourne. Sadly though, the coffee isn’t really on par, with only a few places offering coffee which meets the strict standards of my coffee-snob partner.

Yesterday though I headed out of San Fran to Palo Alto. It’s a cute little town based around Stanford University. It’s sunny around 80 percent of the time there apparently and there’s definitely a clean affluent feel to it, with the student population from the University giving it just enough edge to make it a pretty cool little place.

We got the Caltrain to Palo Alto, which, by the way, seems to be pronounced something like ‘Paul-o All-toe’ by the locals, a pronunciation I still can’t get right. We hit the main drag, which is called, rather unimaginatively, University Ave.

My partner, having been here a few times before, suggested Orens Hummus for lunch. Being a life-long vegetarian basically guarantees you’re a hummus fan I think. And that’s what they do, hummus. Hummus with just about everything. Technically they call themselves Israeli cuisine, but it’s a sort of middle eastern mix of options on the menu, plus a few Americanised items.

I ordered The Hummus Triangle, which was a serve of their classic hummus, plus spicy garbanzo  beans (chickpeas), fava beans and tahini. My partner had the Hummus Beef, which is what it sounds like – a whole lotta hummus and a whole lotta spicy beef.

Pita bread from Orens Hummus

Pita bread from Orens Hummus

Hummus Triangle at Orens Hummus

Hummus Triangle at Orens Hummus

Both dishes come with a never ending supply of homemade white and wholemeal pita bread. That’s one very American thing I think, everything either comes in a giant portion or with free refills. Drinks are free to refill, bread is free to refill and at the movies, popcorn is free to refill.  The meals are so huge, I don’t think I’ve actually finished one yet. On the first night, at the end of the meal the waitress looked at our half eaten plates and said ‘Can I get you a box?’. I looked at her a little strangely before remembering that, unlike in Melbourne, it’s perfectly ok to take-away your meal from a restaurant and eat it the next day. I think a lot of people do, making dinner their lunch at work the next day and saving a few dollars in the process.  That’s the other thing – menu items appear quite cheap compared to Australia, but once you add in the taxes and a decent tip, I think San Fran dining is about on par with prices in Melbourne.Anyway, back to the hummus. The hummus itself was pretty good – it was rich, creamy and there was a lot of it! It didn’t have as much flavour as I would like, but the pita bread that went with it was so fluffy and delicious that that made up for it. My only disappointment really is that I thought fava beans were what Americans called broad beans. Subsequent googling (because I’m pedantic like that) suggests I’m right. What I got on top of my hummus, however, was kidney beans. They were ok, but you know, not those big fat lemon-y  baby broad beans I was hoping for. Overall though, Orens Hummus was a hit for me. I actually think there is a market for that kind of place in Melbourne.  I actually think I’d like to open one myself…

Following hummus, it being me, dessert was required. For this we headed straight to Cream. It was recommended to me by my sister, who lived and studied in Berkeley for a semester. Cream has an outlet there and recently opened up one in Palo Alto. They do one thing. Ice-cream sandwiches. Very big ones!

The line for Cream was about 40 people deep, out the store and along the footpath past two other stores. I’m not sure if it is always like that, since it was a warm day, but I can understand why it’s so popular. For just $2.99 ($2.50 if you pay cash) you can choose two cookies (two different flavours if you like) and a scoop of icecream and have them sandwiched together in front of your very eyes. Like dessert magic!

The cookie flavours included classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal as well as more unusual ones like ‘Turtle’ which was chocolate, caramel and peanuts, Snickerdoodle (cinnamon) and Cappuccino. The icecream flavours were similarly variable, including decadent sounding things like banana walnut fudge, chocolate chip cookie dough (in case you didn’t have enough cookie in your sandwich!?), royal caramel swirl and strawberry cheesecake. It being California they also had vegan options such as vegan chocolate cookies with soy mint chocolate chip icecream.

I opted for one chocolate chip cookie and one Turtle cookie with salted caramel icecream. The cookies are still a little warm and soft in the middle, which makes them extra good. The sandwich is created in a wedge shape, to make it easier to hold and then squeezed into a small paper bag to make it easier to eat in bites. The cookies were excellent, especially the chocolate chip one which had lots of milk chocolate chunks that were still warm and gooey. The salted caramel icecream was a little disappointing, in that it wasn’t very salty or caramelly and just tasted like sweet creaminess. Wedged between two delicious cookies though, it was more than acceptable and I polished off that thing in record time.

Cream's icecream sandwich

Cream’s icecream sandwich

Cream on Urbanspoon

Oren's Hummus Shop on Urbanspoon