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.

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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 CafĂ© 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!

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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.