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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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.