Outside the comfort zone

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Sri Lankan feasts and a fancy burger restaurant are not my usual weekly dining experiences or blog topics. It has been a long while since my last post, so my apologies if you were hanging out for a review of something sweet and pink! At the moment I’m all about expanding horizons (and planning a move to London!), with surprisingly delicious results.

On Friday night I had a great girls’ night out with cocktails and Sri Lankan food at Araliya in St Kilda. The restaurant was quiet but had a really nice feel to it, with friendly staff and delicious slightly spiced smells wafting occasionally from the kitchen. We shared a stack of lentil based pancakes layered with fragrant vegetables to start. After that we ordered a whole range of dishes to share – red rice, lentil and spinach dahl, green beans in a warm and creamy coconut sauce, crusted fish with tamarind and cucumber, kipfler potatoes cooked with a tonne of spices and spring onions and vegetarian kothu roti. We also had an absolutely delicious shredded brussels sprouts dish which was extra impressive because I don’t normally like brussels sprouts. The only dish I didn’t love was a twice cooked eggplant and date dish which was actually far too sweet for me (again a surprise for this sweet-tooth). My tastebuds haven’t gone completely crazy though – we did of course order a dessert to share, mostly because they sounded so interesting and we wanted to try one even though at that stage we were pretty full. We had the baked coconut custard with banana sorbet. I was expecting something quite traditional, but what we got was a very modern looking plate with three slices of rich sweet coconut custard. The custard had obviously been cooked low and slow for a very long time until it turned a great dark caramelly-colour. These slices were separated on the plate by two quenelles of banana sorbet which tasted really fresh and clean and worked beautifully with the rich coconut custard. Including drinks the whole meal was about $60 each. I am normally a total sook when it comes to spicy food, but all the dishes were a manageable level of spiciness and the mains were served with cooling yoghurt which I made use of. In all, it was a lovely and new experience for someone who knows next to nothing about Sri Lankan food (but is now keen to find out more…)

On the Saturday night, I had dinner with a couple of friends at Rockwell & Sons in hipster-central Smith street, Fitzroy. Now this is not my normal vegetarian-friendly hang-out. I mean, the place has a cut up kind of pig as its logo and their signature dishes are burgers. Big, over-the-top, old-school burgers. But, even as a vegetarian, I could appreciate that the double pattie smash with bacon and special sauce that my partner ordered (don’t tell his PT) was epic. Yes, that, I believe, is the correct language to use for this kind of ‘dude food’.

Anyway, despite it being meat-central in there, I actually had a really great meal. It started off with a 70s classic – devilled eggs! They were smooth and creamy and really tangy and just a great way to start a meal. Then I had hand-cut french fries with home-made mayo, crispy broccoli (kind of like tempura broccoli) with a jalapeño sauce and parmesan cheese (such a good combination!) and a beetroot and savoury granola salad. The savoury granola was definitely a winner – it was like eating grown-up spicy cereal for dinner. Nom.

Of course, being on Smith street mere metres from Messina did necessitate a stop there on the way home. It was so cold that night that, I think for the first time ever, there was no line outside Messina. We waltzed right in and ordered a tub of gelato to takeaway. Messina has put their prices up a little since last time I was there (now $22.80 for a litre) but it was still completely worth it. We ordered half Uber Bueno (hazelnut gelato with white chocolate fudge, chocolate chips and cream-filled crispy wafers) and Agentasian (dulche de leche gelato with pear and ginger sauce and chunky coconut biscuit crumbs). Double nom.

Melbourne has such incredible diversity in its food offerings. It’s part of what makes it so special and so much fun. I stepped outside my usual brunch/cupcakes/veggie/yuppie comfort zone and it paid off! And now…I’m moving to London with my partner in 2 weeks (eeeek)! Another adventure (or twenty) awaits my tastebuds. I will be blogging about English restaurants, travel in Europe and London’s terrible rental market from my new personal site: hannahbfoster.com. It also has links to a whole lot of articles I’ve written in the last year or so (somewhat explaining my neglect of this blog), so check it out!

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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: A European Sandwich

Last weekend was a European sandwich, in dining terms that is, with my weekend sandwiched between two awesome Euro-dining experiences. 

First up, on Friday night, was dinner at Epocha. This is an intimately lit on-trend restaurant tucked away on the edge of the city opposite Carlton Gardens. The back of the menu features a reproduction of a historic map of Melbourne, including Carlton Gardens and Epocha’s location, but it was what was on the front of the menu that really captured my attention. It’s a lovely mix of classic French techniques, hearty German inspired dishes and a few summery Italian style salads and sides. That sounds like a confused menu, but actually it all works well together. 

We started off with a few lighter dishes that I’d class as Italian: polenta chips and a fig and buffalo mozzerella salad. The salad was really special – sweet and creamy and tangy, with just a little crunch. I probably could have just had a big plate of that for dinnner and been more than happy! Then we went a little bit French with duck-fat roasted  potatoes (minus the duck fat for me) and an heirloom carrot salad. Finally, my friend and I shared a big plate of spaetzle, which is sort of like a mini German dumpling-cross-gnocchi. That was served with a summery topping of roasted and creamed corn, tomatoes and zucchini. Being vegetarian, I opted for a lot of vegetable based dishes, but non-veggies are well catered for in traditional European style – you can start with three different varieties of oysters and back it up with anything from quail to crispy pigs’ ears to beef ribs or confit duck. 



We were too full for dessert that night, but I have experienced their extremely tempting dessert trolley in the past – it won’t disappoint, the Europeans know what they are doing when it comes to cake! You can also opt for a sharing menu, which includes dessert and will leave you feeling about the size of Europe, but very satisfied. With a bar upstairs (not always open), the wine list is extensive and on the expensive side of things and the cocktails are excellent, if not a bit limited in range. 

This dinner was followed, on Sunday afternoon, by a trip to Paris. Not an actual trip (I wish), just a short visit for my tastebuds in the form of ‘High Tea in Paris’ at The Waiting Room at Crown Towers. The high tea is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival calendar and is offered until mid March. I hadn’t been to The Waiting Room before and I have to say the ambience wasn’t really 5-star in that you do sort of feel that you’re half sitting in Crown’s lobby, with a lot of people passing through. The food and service though were excellent and definitely made the high tea worthwhile. The menu starts with champagne and finger sandwiches, which is pretty much the most delightful way a menu can start! The finger sandwhiches, served on individual wooden boards, included smoked salmon, a mini toasted croque monsieur (ham and cheese) and rock lobster and caviar. For vegetarians the selection included more classic cucumber and cream cheese, egg salad and brie with fig and quince paste. The brie/quince one was not a winner at my table, as it was weirdly sweet and kind of dry, but the cucumber sandwiches were a standout. 



Following sandwiches, you get to choose three showcase cakes each from a beautiful selection in glass cabinets at the front of the restaurant. I went with a hazelnut chocolate mousse cake, a raspberry creme brulee slice and a macaron and amaretto sponge cake. The cakes are glossy, multi-coloured and many layered creations which look almost too good to eat. Somehow we managed though! They were all very nice, though probably too large and rich considering they were part of a high tea and I did see a few guests take away elements of their high tea in boxes provided by the staff. In addition to these cakes, you are also served a small square of nougat, mini madelines, chocolate fudge and a mini fruit gel. Finally, you get a choice of three chocolates each, again selected from a glass cabinet at the front of the restaurant. For the chocolates, which I ended up taking home with me, I selected a rocher au lait, a cassis violet and chocolate rose praline. Yuuuuum. Seriously yum. We were both in a sugar coma by the end, but a happy one. Considering the high tea includes hot drinks and a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne, I think it is good value for $65. 





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.

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

Review: B’Stilla

Like many a good Melbourne restaurant, B’Stilla is tucked away in a small semi residential street behind Chapel St. It’s unlikely to stay an in-the-know secret for long though, with it winning this year’s Best Restaurant in the Good Food Guide under $30 awards. The award was my motivation for wanting to try it out, though the prospect of Moroccan food done by the person who bought trendy Mexican (Mamasita) to Melbourne was also appealing! It’s also not technically north of the river, but I feel a little adventuring over to the dark side is allowed…

With two gorgeous girlfriends, Miss Pony and Dr S (as we decided they should be called in my blog after a cocktail or so) we worked our way through the $65 banquet. For $65 you get a really good sample of what B’Stilla has to offer. It was distinctly North African flavours, but very approachable, with slick plating, lots of colour and a friendly level of spiciness for sooks (not souks…sorry that was lame!) like me. As a vegetarian, I was well catered for with no fuss from the friendly staff.

The menu says $65 will get you 4 a course banquet including dessert, but those 4 courses are made up of several dishes, meaning the option did live up to its ‘banquet’ name. The very first dish was a winner – a little pile of artichoke and pumpkin covered in some sort of delicious sweet/spicy sauce. This also came with grilled ‘batbout’ bread and a spicy (but not too spicy) tomato jam. The batbout, which I later googled, was like a chewy rich pita bread with gorgeous chargrilled iron marks on it.

The first dish - a little pile of tasty goodness

The first dish – a little pile of tasty goodness

These first small dishes were followed by a second round of slightly larger small dishes. The lentil filled semolina crepe (very much like a fine flat bread) which I received in lieu of lamb ribs was very tasty, with something (not sure what, possibly zucchini?) which was pickled and zingy on the top of a creamy lentil mix and fresh flatleaf parsley. The ribs were well received by Miss Pony and Dr S, who were able to literally nudge the super soft meat off the bone with the pack of their forks. They also had the signature ‘B’Stilla’ dish, which was a parcel of duck and chicken meat dusted in spices, whereas I had super delicious cauliflower with pine nuts and spices. I’m not sure what they do to the cauliflower, possibly deep fry it, but I’ve had it this way once or twice when eating out before, including at both Anada and Coda. It takes on a whole different texture from your standard steamed cauliflower, it’s a little bit crispy, like a big hot chip, while still retaining its juiciness.

My kind of coleslaw: Moroccan style!

My kind of coleslaw: Moroccan style!

The main course was a large shared vegetable tagine, which looked fab piled high with fresh herbs and figs. There was also a duck sausage on the side for non-vegetarians to add, as well as a cabbage salad and couscous. The couscous was really nice and fluffy, but filled with large pieces of orange rind which were very overpowering I thought.

Dessert was a highlight for me, of course! It was an ice-cream cone each, topped with Persian (or Moroccan perhaps?) style fairy floss. The ice-cream was, wait for it, tahini flavour! It has to be tasted to be believed. It was sweet, not savoury. The balancing act to make it delicious and not disgusting is an impressive one. It was so unusual but really creamy and had just the right level of sweetness. Plus, hiding right at the bottom of the cone was a big dollop of dulche de leche – yuuuuum!

Tahini ice-cream cones

Tahini ice-cream cones

B'Stilla on Urbanspoon

My top ten restaurant dislikes

Ok, so I’m going to sound snobby when I list all these, but well, I’m going to do it anyway. On the strength of the popularity of my post about the top ten baked goods I just don’t understand, here’s the top ten things restaurants and cafes do which drive me crazy!

1. Fake or overly ambitious menu descriptions. For example, when ‘a medley of seasonal vegetables’ is peas, corn and carrot clearly ‘freshly picked’ from a frozen bag. Or, as happened recently at The Lab Nitrogen Gelato, ice-cream claimed to be topped with brownie pieces (note the plural) and what I received was ice-cream with one single brownie piece approximately one centimetre by one centimetre in size. Fake or dubious location descriptions also annoy me – for instance Po River Calamari? I’m pretty sure that’s a freshwater river in Europe, meaning any calamari in it are very very lost!

2. Risotto arriving in under 10 minutes. You can’t make a risotto that quickly unless it’s precooked and you’re just heating it up. In which case it’s going to be claggy and/or full of cream and I could make something better at home, for half the cost.

3. When the dessert menu is separate from the main menu so you can’t strategise. I’ve written on this one before – see last week’s post on this very issue.

4. Staff who discriminate because you look young and/or casually dressed. I like to eat at some fancy places. I’m willing to spend a fair bit of money on a special meal. And my money is exactly as good as anyone else’s, however, there’s been a few posh places I’ve walked into with other young(ish) people and gotten cold or neglectful service because we look young and like we don’t know any better. There’s also been cases where waiters have reacted with surprise and/or changed their attitude very quickly when we’ve ordered a bottle or two of nice (expensive) wine.

A like rather than a dislike: tomato, asparagus and ricotta brioche at Dolcetti, with super friendly service as well.

A like rather than a dislike: tomato, asparagus and ricotta brioche at Dolcetti, with super friendly service as well.

5. Staff not telling you when items on the menu are unavailable until after you go to order them. It’s just disappointing and it requires you to make a snap decision about what you’ll have instead.

6. A lack of signals on the menu indicating what’s vegetarian (or gf for the glutards out there). Yes, I can just check with the staff, but it feels a little annoying on my part. I’d much rather just know what my options are. In this same category is putting a ‘V’ next to things that are clearly not vegetarian. What does this mean? Is there a veggie version available? Or do they just think anchovies are vegetarian?

7. Beautiful restaurant fit outs with dingy/dirty/outside/cold bathrooms. There’s a lot of culprits here. Twenty&Six Espresso is light and bright and hip, but they have a shed-like outdoor toilet. Similarly The Estelle in Northcote is great, but their toilets are below par. Ditto several places on Lygon Street with great pasta and poor plumbing.

8. Being told you have to be off the table by a certain time, but then getting slow service so that you don’t have time for dessert. By contrast, if there’s no time limit and not a whole lot of people waiting for tables, I hate being rushed off my table. Sometimes I just want to sit, digest and talk for half an hour after the meal, thank you very much.

Very mainstream muesli cleverly disguised by (admittedly delicious) fruit on Hastings Street, Noosa

Very mainstream muesli cleverly disguised by (admittedly delicious) fruit on Hastings Street, Noosa

9. No split bills and/or cash only places. Group dining is hard enough to organise sometimes, splitting the bill and/or allowing people to pay on cards doesn’t take that much extra effort on the restaurant’s part. Unless they are an absolutely tiny operation with a clearly signed policy on cash, they should have card facilities.

10. Places avoiding providing tap water and then upselling/charging for bottled water. The water in Melbourne is perfectly drinkable. I don’t even like mineral water. I know there’s no mark-up on free tap water, but restaurants should just suck it up and provide it automatically.