The Highs and Lows of Tea

Those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know I’m a bit of a high tea aficionado. I definitely do my fair share of sconning around (he he) at five star hotels and well known bakeries and, as well as this blog, I also write reviews of high teas for highteasociety.com

The best high tea I’ve ever experienced was at The Dorchester, in London (of course!), where the waitstaff wore tails, the tea menu resembled War and Peace and the stawberry jam, I was assured, was made fresh on the premises that morning using locally sourced English strawberries (none of those nasty wastrel Continental strawberries here, thank you very much…) And, happily, Melbourne is also home to some stellar high tea options, from the classic pomp of The Windsor, to the cutesy nostaglia of The Hopetoun Tearooms, to the chocolate extravaganza that is The Langham on weekends and the modern high tea at The Sheraton, Melbourne does it extremely well. 

   

However…and here is where the slightly ranty writer takes over… I think there are some extremely substandard high teas in Melbourne. Teas that do not deserve the prefix of ‘high’ at all. Not mentioning any names (ahem Intercontinental Melbourne) but I recently booked for what was advertised as a Sound of Music themed high tea with a group of my closest girlfriends. Weeks before the high tea, we joyfully compared notes on how we thought The Sound of Music, a much-beloved film by all attending, would be incorporated into the high tea. Would there be crisp apple strudel (probably…)? Would there be gifts for guests in brown paper tied up with string (maybe…)? Would there be schnitzel with noodles (hmmm less likely…)?

I can tell you now that there were precisely zero of these things, with the only weak attempt at ‘theming’ being to play The Sound of Music soundtrack in the restaurant instead of their normal background music. The food was variously bland, blah and bleh, with only the scones and a singular macaron managing good scores from me. At one point we ordered cups of English Breakfast tea (memo to hotel: that is kind of a standard order for guests at a high tea) and were presented with a teapot but no teacups. We waited at least fifteen minutes, trying to flag down service, before I eventually got up from the table and chased down a staff member who seemed thoroughly confused by my request for teacups, milk and teaspoons.

Some important additional memos for this establishment include:

– Just because you have made something in miniature does not mean it is delicious. It needs to be both delicious and miniature to make it on to the high tea stand.

– Train your staff in basic etiquette, like not laughing when a guest enquires as to whether they serve chai lattes.

– Also train your staff to inform guests on what delights have been placed in front of them. A quick run though of what’s on each tier of the stand is generally helpful, but not when items are variously described as ‘a sushi looking cake’ (it was a miniature circluar black forest cake) and ‘um sorbet’ (it was a palate cleanser of raspberry sorbet).

– When you do serve sorbet in tiny shot glasses, try to fill those glasses evenly, so there’s not an unseemly scramble at the table for the ones that are not only half full. 

– Reconsider charging approx. $14 for a glass of second-rate Australian bubbles.

– Miniature apple crumbles should ideally contain apple, not some kind of kindergarten paste. 

Sadly that was not the only somewhat disappointing high tea I’ve had in Melbourne lately. At another five-star establishment (*cough* The Sofitel) I was disappointed to find the entire high tea was served buffet style. Don’t get me wrong, I love a buffet, but no matter how nice it is, it lacks the refinement of having a beautiful tiered stand and a glass of champagne arrive promptly at your table. I believe they serve tiered stands of afternoon tea during the week, so why no tiers on the weekend? Seriously, why? It brings me to tears…okay that was lame, sorry.

And, while the food at The Sofitel was actually of a very good standard, with delicious cakes and a flashy crepe station, the service was again disappointingly disorganised. There were no instructions on how the high tea was organised  or when or where to start on the buffet. My special order of vegetarian sandwiches arrived at the table 45 minutes into the high tea without explanation, long after I’d already eaten what vegetarian options I could find on the savouries table and moved on to sweets. And the tea itself again (what is it with serving tea?) took absolutely ages to make it to our table. Sigh. First world problems, I know.  

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 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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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.

Review: Rosa’s Kitchen

I am embarrassed to say that Tuesday night was my first visit to Rosa’s Kitchen, a gorgeous little Italian restaurant on Punch Lane in the city. For starters, it’s in a hard-to-find laneway location, which always appeals to Melbournians. There were eight or nine of us out for an impromptu dinner. When we arrived to a fairly full restaurant, staff quickly made room for us, dragging in chairs and setting extra places.

The menu is written up on blackboards around the room, which is big and bright and features a few kitsch Italian decorations without it feeling too daggy. The menu is small and authentic. Pastas dominate the selection, with items like pecorino and ricotta ravioli with a fresh tomato sugo, squid-ink spaghetti with calamari or giant meatballs served simply with tasty green beans. The whole feel is family friendly and foodie friendly. Pastas are made fresh daily, bread and green salads are complementary with the main meals and there’s a decent Italian-focused wine list with wines by the glass or bottle.

Rosa's interior

Rosa’s interior

I love Italian food, so Rosa’s started on a strong footing with me, but it did really deliver. The flavours were fresh and simple. Nothing was particularly fancy or ingenious, but everything tasted like it had been made with care. I don’t think there was anything left on anyone’s plates at the end of our dinner. It’s the perfect place for a relaxed mid-week meal.

Rosa’s Kitchen has been well reviewed in professional reviews and Rosa Mitchell is, apparently, something of a legend. Hence the embarrassment of never having heard of the place, let alone eaten there, until Tuesday. I was surprised, however, on reading up on Rosa’s Kitchen, about the number of negative customer reviews. There were many complaining about the rude staff, expensive prices and small size of meals. Normally I tend to respect Melbournian’s reviews and ratings and side with fellow bloggers, but I think, on this occasion, I have to go out on a limb and write some of them off as, well, bogans. It was the last comment, about meal sizes, that really led me to this conclusion. Because the meals at Rosa’s were in no way small. They were average if not generous portion sizes. There was also a comment about there being ‘no cream or anything’ with the desserts that sounded decidedly bogan to me. There’s nothing I hate more than a very average piece of mud cake or something like that dressed up with mountains of fake whipped cream, twizzly bits of fruit and sickly amounts of chocolate syrup. I’m not saying some desserts don’t need cream or ice-cream (I don’t even consider sticky date pudding unless it comes with ice-cream), but quality Italian style cakes do not need fussy plating to be delicious. The desserts at Rosa’s were very simply served, but they needed no accompaniment. I had a pear, pistachio and chocolate cake which was tasty and rich without being sickly. My partner had the lemon and mascarpone tart which was a standout – very tangy and yet the mascarpone ensured it was creamy almost to the point of fluffiness.

I also felt the prices were quite reasonable. We had mains with sides, dessert and three bottles of wine, which ended up being about $60 each. The staff were varied in their approach and I can see how a reviewer who got the wrong staff might think them rude. A few were chatty and warm, others did their job and nothing more. Having said that, a table was procured very quickly for us, meals were a little slow but came out in a co-ordinated fashion and when we asked for one of the broccoli side dishes to come without anchovies (for me, the veggie) this was not a problem.

Simple yet delicious chocolate pear and pistachio cake at Rosa's

Simple yet delicious chocolate pear and pistachio cake at Rosa’s

I left Rosa’s warm, full and smiling – a genuine Italian experience I’d go back for many times.

P.S. – I’m also excited to let you know that I own northmelbournelife.com, so you can now find my blog at this much simpler domain name. Yay!

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