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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Eating dessert first

First, important news on the North Melbourne café front: Di Bella has a new summer menu. This is partly the reason for my delay in blogging, I’ve been too busy enjoying the intermittent sunshine and eating my way through the new menu. Favourite newbies include the omelette with beetroot, goat’s chees, heirloom tomatoes and awesome super thin crouton-crips. Another standout is the peach toast. It’s basically like eating an elaborate peach cake for breakfast. And it’s very very pretty on the plate. It looks and tastes like the essence of summer.

Di Bella's peach toast

Di Bella’s peach toast

Eating dessert-like substances for breakfast brings me to the subject of today’s blog, which is ‘eating dessert first’. It’s one of those slogans you see printed on tea-towels and fridge magnets, you know, ‘Life is short: eat dessert first’ and then a silly cartoon of a glamorous woman from the fifties holding a huge cake. There’s many blogs and foodie newsletters based around this phrase, even T-shirts and other cutesy-giftware. But do people actually do it? On a regular basis I mean, like, as a way of life?

Being a massive sweet tooth, this concept does have some appeal for me. But being a cautious ex-lawyer type, I in fact normally eat my veggies first, safe in the knowledge that my second ‘dessert’ stomach (because there is such a thing I assure you) will find room for that chocolate éclair or blackberry crumble with vanilla bean ice-cream.

There’s even some nutritionists who’ve argued it’s not a bad idea to eat (a small amount of) dessert first, before your veggies. Apparently the fat in the dessert will help you absorb more nutrients out of the veggies and also help you feel fuller for longer. Not sure about that theory (wishful thinking?) but it’s an interesting thought…

So I don’t eat dessert first, but I do read dessert first. When I look at a menu, my eyes can’t help but to just slide across and down, towards the dessert section. If I know/think it’s likely that we’re having dessert, I’ll usually spend those first few minutes perusing the dessert list and making a selection, before going over to the savoury section. Once I’m safe in the knowledge that I’m having the cheesecake for dessert, I can exclude the four cheese pizza from my potential list of main meals (too much creaminess). If I’m going for the lemon tart, then I won’t have the lemon and asparagus angel hair pasta, because that would just be a bit samey, wouldn’t it? You get the idea. I prioritise the dessert choice. My partner and I also play a little game where, when looking at a menu in a new restaurant we haven’t been to before, we try to guess which dessert the other person is going to go for. It’s normally pretty easy though – since we’ve shared rather a lot of meals and we both have a kind of dessert kryptonite which gets us every time (me: anything chocolate, him: salted caramel or lemon tart).

Things get trickier for my selecting dessert first method when the dessert menu is separate to the rest of the menu. Quite a few places do this. I love The European on Spring Street, but they are an offender in this category. Some places use it like a ‘reveal’ at the end, hoping you’ll be so excited by the blood orange trifle on the suddenly proffered menu that you’ll overcome the food coma you’re slowly sinking into. Others keep them separate because their dessert menu is more like a specials list, with a small number of desserts that change regularly. I guess they are the experts and know their business. But for a dessert strategist like myself, it’s rather offputting to have no idea if it will be a brulee or baklava at the end of the meal. First world problem, I know!

We’re programmed to like the sweet stuff because it contains a whole lot of energy. Back when we were cave people, running around all day with a honey-filled bees nest or handful of ripe berries a rare occurrence, it made sense to eat dessert first. Now it’s customary to eat dessert last and sit down for most of the day. If we eat dessert first, are we undoing evolution? Or just giving into our natural tendencies?

Perhaps, with Christmas feasting coming up, it’s possible I might just start eating dessert first and last…

Omelette at Di Bella

Omelette at Di Bella

Di Bella Coffee Roasting Warehouse 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

(H)anna(h) Pavlova

First, apologies for the delay in posts. As some of you may know, my partner and I have just moved apartments. Don’t worry, while we officially live in West Melbourne rather than North Melbourne now, in reality we are literally three minutes’ walk from Errol Street. Di Bella is now in a direct line between me and my work, meaning I’m in there so often that several of the staff greet me by name. This is rather nice, but occasionally embarrassing.

My mango passionfruit pavlova ( a cheeky slice the day after...)

My mango passionfruit pavlova ( a cheeky slice the day after…)

Anyway, back to far more important things, namely pavlova. Pavlova is a crowd pleasing dessert. It’s nostalgic. It’s colourful and eye catching (depending on what it’s topped with). The flavours are familiar and popular. It involves copious amounts of whipped cream. It is named after a beautiful and talented Russian ballerina (Anna Pavlova). It’s even gluten free and vegetarian. Plus it seem light, meaning everyone feels able to fit in at least a little slither after dinner. To top it all off, I get to use my beloved Mixmaster to make it. My grandma makes a cracker of a pavlova, as do many other grannies nation-wide.

A few of you may have read one of my past blogs which mentioned my ‘pav-gate’ pavlova baking fail. The resulting light brown soggy mess was frankly devastating, particularly since I had previously considered pavlova a basic that was pretty foolproof. It took me a little while to regain my pav confidence. I convinced myself it had been the early morning bake time, but doubt still crept into my mind…

Happily, I can now say that I’m 100% back to my former levels of pav snobbishness. I can once again blithely whip these babies up for dinner party desserts and bring-a-plate BBQs. This weekend mangoes were down to $2 each at the Queen Vic Markets, so I snaffled up a couple and made a very nice little passionfruit and mango pavlova, even mixing a some passionfruit pulp into the whipped cream and decorating with a few well placed mint leaves. All the important elements for a super pav were there – crispy shell, marshmallow-like goodness in the middle, white glossy appearance, height, robust enough to hold lots of freshly whipped cream and topped with sexy looking seasonal fruit.

Below is my pav recipe. I certainly don’t think it’s the only good one out there, I highly doubt it’s the best one, but it’s simple, it works and it always wins me requests for seconds. It’s based on a combination of Donna Hay’s recipe, my grandma’s recipe and my own tinkering. Enjoy (preferably several slices)!

Ingredients
4 large eggwhites
250g pure icing sugar (or castor sugar)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 normal/dessert spoons cornflour
2 teaspoons white vinegar

Equipment
Large flat oven tray
Baking parchment or greaseproof paper
Mixmaster or electric hand beater

Method
– Beat the eggwhites until they start to look white rather than clear (soft peaks starting).
Add in vanilla essence. Don’t freak out if the mixture goes slightly brown, as you keep beating it will return to white.
– Beat in icing sugar until eggwhites look very white, thick and glossy and hold their shape. I’d recommend turning off the Mixmaster to tip in the sugar, otherwise the powdered sugar flies everywhere!
Beat in the vinegar and cornflour. Note that I often use white wine vinegar if I have no normal white vinegar, it doesn’t seem to matter.
– Place a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray. If you have baking parchment, this is probably fine as is, if you have normal greaseproof paper, best to oil it slightly with a flavourless oil (e.g. vegetable or canola).
– Tip the thick eggwhite mixture onto the paper and, using a spatula or knife, shape the mixture into a circle. You could draw a circle on the paper if you wanted, but personally, I’m happy with an approximate circle.
– Shape the mixture so that rather than having a flat top there is a very slight depression in the middle of it (meaning extra room for cream and fruit!).
– Place in the oven for between an hour and an hour and 30 minutes. This will depend a bit on how thick/high you formed your pav and a bit on the oven, humidity etc. Just check it regularly after an hour. You’re looking for a shiny appearance without it turning brown. If you tap the side of it, it should feel hard and crispy and sound kind of hollow.
– Once cooked, turn off the oven and leave in the oven to cool, preferably for several hours.
– Whip thick cream with a little sugar and (optional) vanilla essence. Top the pav with cream.
– Then top with fruit of your choice. For summer I like mango and passionfruit or a mix of berries. For a more classic pav, go with kiwifruit, strawberries and passionfruit.