The Fat Duck (Bray, UK)

The Fat Duck High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
Michelin stars: 3
Position on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list: No. 47

It may no longer technically be the world’s best restaurant, but, for many a gourmand, The Fat Duck remains the holy grail of fine dining. Those who make the pilgrimage to Bray (a small village west of London that has more Michelin stars than residents) are rewarded with a level of gastronomic wizardry that’s generally reserved for the pages of a novel.

The novel that springs foremost to mind is, of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Securing a booking at this small 42-seat restaurant is akin to finding the last golden ticket, and it’s no stretch to imagine Willy Wonka as Heston Blumenthal’s fictional alter ego; particularly not while I chew on an Apple Pie Caramel complete with Edible Wrapper.

Blumenthal’s modus operandi is that eating’s pleasure depends on more than just taste: all the senses, including memory, should be stimulated. While the Black Forest Gateau isn’t something I’ve grown up with, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party definitely delivers a healthy whack of nostalgia, at the very least for my childhood reading habits. The Whisk(e)y Wine Gums trigger it too, for I recall being convinced as a child that wine gums, true to their name, were alcoholic.

Even without the memory element, dining at The Fat Duck is a personal experience. Although Blumenthal wants to push the theatrical and fantastical, it’s important to him that diners around you aren’t disturbed by what’s happening at your table. The infamous “Sound of the Sea” dish was served without headphones until he found a way to deliver them subtly and inoffensively to the table. A good thing he worked it out, I muse as I slip the crashing waves into my ears, the iPod hidden deftly inside a conch shell. Why just eat the beach when you can listen to it too?

Like Blumenthal’s other restaurants, British ingredients reign supreme. Yet the technical complexity and flawless execution evident in each dish demonstrate how The Fat Duck has managed to hold onto three coveted Michelin stars for the last ten years. There may not be a chocolate river nor a chocolate factory to be won, but the chef’s just as creative, and the meal is just as rewarding.

Appetiser: AERATED BEETROOT WITH HORSERADISH CREAM

First up is a beautiful, delicate, beetroot-red sphere, the size of a Malteaser but with the bubbled surface of a golf ball, severed and smeared with peppery horseradish cream. It’s light, quick and earthy.

Dish #1: NITRO POACHED APERITIFS: CHOICE OF VODKA & LIME SOUR, CAMPARI & SODA OR TEQUILA & GRAPEFRUIT

Like a regular aperitif, this dish is designed to stimulate the appetite and cleanse the palate. Unlike a regular aperitif, this dish is mixed with egg whites and shot from a whipping-cream canister into a flask of liquid nitrogen. A fragile, frozen meringue-shaped puff slips onto my plate seconds later; unlike a regular aperitif, I pick it up with my fingers and eat it in one bite. It’s clean and cold, and the bitter, spicy flavours of Campari refresh my mouth more effectively than Colgate ever could.

 

Dish #2. RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO, POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM

An oval scoop of sharp, peppery mustard ice cream floats in cold cabbage soup thickened with red wine mayonnaise and dotted with cucumber brunoise. It’s not a standout dish, but nor is it the “fart of nothingness” infamously described by German critic Wolfram Siebeck.

 

Dish #3. JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM, CHICKEN LIVER PARFAIT

A slab of oak moss and pieces of oak resin film are placed in the middle of the table. Before us are bowls layered with delicate, concentrated quail jelly, perfumed crayfish cream and a scoop of chicken liver parfait, along with a side of black Périgord truffle toast topped with tiny radishes.

I melt the oaky, tannic film on my tongue as our waiter pours a mix of oak moss essential oil, alcohol and hot water onto the moss slab. A cold vapour reeking of damp wood billows wildly out, engulfing me as I bite into the earthy, oaky truffle toast and chase it with a spoonful of jelly and cream.

It’s magnificent; the aroma of oak moss lifts the dish to dizzying new heights.

  

Dish #4. SNAIL PORRIDGE

Porridge oats cooked in chicken bouillon and parsley butter, topped with shaved fennel dressed in walnut vinaigrette, Iberico Bellota ham, and braised Helix pomatia snails.

This dish is one of Blumenthal’s signatures; nevertheless, I admit to slight reservations. I love snails (and these ones are particularly good – clean, delicate and succulent, perfectly balanced with the aniseed from the fennel) and I normally have no issues with eating cereal for dinner, but porridge at a three Michelin starred restaurant? Even the word sounds gruelling.

Fortunately, it’s far from. Closer in texture to risotto than your standard morning oats; it’s also surprisingly light. It conjures up images of spring: fresh, vibrant and vivid green.

Dish #5. ROAST FOIE GRAS

A generous hunk of foie gras is cooked sous-vide, seared with a blowtorch, stabbed with a splinter of crispy crab biscuit and served on a salty piece of confit kombu splashed with tart barberry jus. A variation of this dish was Blumenthal’s first ever signature, back in about 1998. Although it has undergone refurbishments over the years, it’s plain to see why this indulgent dish is still hanging around.

Dish #6. MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, `Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

`No,’ said Alice. `I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

`It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

This dish pays homage to both the whimsical ludicrousness of Alice in Wonderland and historical British gastronomy. Mock turtle soup is a real thing; it was created in England in the mid-18th century as a cheaper alternative to green turtle soup, with various bits of offal and heads and hooves of calves and such as a substitute for the costly turtle meat.

The Fat Duck’s version is a bit more posh, and there’s a bit of assembly required. Four elements come to the table: a glass teacup holds small pieces of ox tongue and a few vegetables; a glass teapot, full of boiling water; a pocket watch made from freeze-dried beef stock covered with gold leaf; and a Mad Hatter’s hat platter topped with tiny toasted sandwiches stuffed with shaved black truffle, cucumber, homemade ketchup and a sherry reduction.

I dangle the pocket watch in the boiling water and watch as it turns into a rich, deep brown consommé, then pour the lot over the vegetables in the teacup. Voila! Mock Turtle Soup.

   

Dish #7. “SOUND OF THE SEA”

Hearing is probably the most overlooked of our senses when it comes to eating, but it actually plays almost as big a role as the others do. Just like Pavlov’s dog, when we hear that toaster pop, a bag of chips crinkle, or a steak sizzle – even when we hear the microwave ping – we salivate and anticipate taste. Although a seascape has nothing really to do with food preparation, the principle is the same: the effect of sound on the perception of flavour.

On sand made from tapioca flour, shirasu, panko breadcrumbs and miso oil is a flotsam of sea urchins, oysters, razor clams, samphire, seaweed and ponzu, and a foam made from salty seaweed juices, abalone, cockles and clams. It’s plated on a glass box filled with real sand from the shores of Venezuela, and comes with an iPod and a set of headphones tucked neatly into a conch shell.

It’s a bit gimmicky, yet it’s hard not to feel swept away by the sound of screeching gulls and crashing waves. Whether the soundtrack enhances the flavour of the dish or not is hard to say; nonetheless, it’s an interesting experiment.

Dish #8. SALMON POACHED IN A LICORICE GEL

Salmon fillets are dipped in a licorice gel, allowed to cool and set, then poached sous-vide and served with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. It sounds like an odd combination but it works: the rich, oily salmon cuts through the intense sweetness of the licorice, which is further offset by the slightly bitter artichokes. Nevertheless, it’s a perilous balance.

Dish #9. THE DUCK

Duck is always a good test of a kitchen’s skills. Although there is no doubt as to the skill level of this kitchen, there are certain expectations that need to be met when a dish so boldly bears the name of its creator.

The Duck is a comparatively simple dish: roasted duck breast, bay and black pudding with a side of the softest, silkiest pommes puree I will ever, ever eat and a cigar made from umbles (a.k.a. animal entrails). Knowing Blumenthal, I’m sure there is much more to the construction of this eponymous dish than meets the eye, but for now I’m happy to enjoy it for what it is: the perfect roast.

 

Dish #10. HOT AND ICED TEA

Blumenthal, for the most part, is pretty straightforward when it comes to naming dishes. Roast Foie Gras, Snail Porridge. Even “Sound of the Sea” lives up almost exactly to its name. But Hot and Iced Tea? How is this possible, I hear you cry!

As per the others, Hot and Iced Tea is exactly what it sounds like. Sweetened Earl Gray tea served in a small glass cup, one half scalding hot and the other freezing cold. Yet there is no trick glass, nor are the different temperatures layered carefully on top of one another, for in order to feel the full impact of hot and iced simultaneously the temperatures must be divided vertically.

The answer is two fluid gels (one hot, one cold), which, at the right consistency, pass for liquid. A vertical divider between the two is removed just before serving, so you feel the full, totally bizarre impact of the different temperatures.

Dish #11. BOTRYTIS CINEREA

A man who was fond of wine was offered some grapes at dessert after dinner. ‘Much obliged,’ said he, pushing the dish away from him, ‘but I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills’.
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Who could have guessed that a dish named after a nectrotrophic fungus could be so delightful? Botrytis cinerea, a mould that infects grapevines, is both feared and revered among viticulturists for its ability to either wipe out entire crops or produce beautiful dessert wines. Blumenthal’s Botrytis Cinerea represents the deconstructed flavours of Château d’Yquem Sauternes – a Premier Cru Supérieur wine made from grapes grown on a site particularly susceptible to this noble rot – and is particularly pleasing to those of us who, like the protagonist in Brillat-Savarin’s little anecdote, prefer our grapes in wine form.

Each ‘grape’ in this dish is different in taste and texture, made from everything from milk chocolate, caramel and popping candy to transparent balls of blown sugar. Underneath is an edible soil made from chocolate, vanilla and Château d’Yquem-soaked raisins, and, on top, a dusting of Roquefort snow.

 

Dish #12. THE “BFG”

As well as alluding to Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, this dish nods to another classic in British cuisine. Although originally German, the Black Forest Gateau was a hugely popular dessert in 1970s Britain.

Bluementhal’s version is an almond base topped with kirsch ganache, aerated chocolate and griottine cherry-studded chocolate sponge, covered first in white chocolate mousse and then in dark chocolate mousse. The whole lot is then sprayed with flocage, which adds crust and crunch to the cake (it also looks like a bit like boulder moss) and topped with an amarena cherry complete with dried vanilla cherry stem. Served with shaved chocolate bark and kirsch and sour cream ice cream.

Eating it is like taking a metaphorical stroll through the black forest. Intense, rich dark chocolate, sweet plums and apricots, syrupy wild cherries, aromas of pipe tobacco and the kick of full-flavoured kirsch. It’s sublime.

Dish #13. WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS

Five whisky wine gums, served on a wooden frame, separated by flavour profiles and map coordinates. The (e) in Whisk(e)y alludes to the American spelling, as Jack Daniel’s was a last minute inclusion to the all-star Scottish lineup of Glenlivet, Oban, Highland Park and Laphroaig.

 Dish #14. “LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”

About a week or so before I was due to dine at The Fat Duck, I was emailed a seven-minute video or “sensory journey,” as they call it, designed to prepare my mind and palate and stir my senses to that “delightful state of heightened excitement and anticipation experienced as a kid in a sweetshop”. With this last dish, Blumenthal ensures I hit that state, just in case I’ve somehow missed the sensory and nostalgic triggers prominent in the last thirteen dishes.

I’m presented with a candy-striped goodie bag stuffed full of different sweets: An apple pie flavoured chewy butter caramel that comes in an edible wrapper made from a mixture of glycerine, powdered gelatine and water; a crunchy, bubbly aerated chocolate filled with soft, gooey mandarin jelly; a packet of Coconut Baccy – coconut flakes infused with Black Cavendish tobacco, which tastes like vanilla, prunes and caramel, and smells like a just-filled pipe; and a Queen of Hearts white chocolate tart with raspberry filling.

 

After four-and-a-half hours and more pounds (physical and financial) than I care to think about, we are done. As our jackets are brought and a cab is called, I think about how best to sum up the experience. There really is no other restaurant like The Fat Duck, and although it’s not the sort of place one dines at regularly, I’m really glad to have ticked it off my gastronomic bucket list.

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Dinner by Heston (London, UK)

Heston, Heston, Heston. His name was on every Melburnian’s lips even before he announced plans to bring The Fat Duck and Dinner to Crown. Now that the opening is mere months away, I thought I’d add to the hype by finally posting my review of the original Dinner by Heston.

Dinner By Heston Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London
Michelin stars: 2
Position on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list: No. 5

Inside the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel in affluent Knightsbridge, Dinner by Heston is Blumenthal’s latest restaurant, and his first outside of Bray. Like his others, the menu is inspired by historic British gastronomy, and if the thought of historic British food makes your toes curl then you just haven’t had good, proper, British food.

We sit at a table by the window that in daylight would have spectacular sweeping views of Hyde Park. As it’s dark, we settle instead for the spectacular views we have of the kitchen: a busy, bustling hive of activity enclosed behind a glass wall, chefs in their whites and waiters in their grays, blades and pans flashing silver. I could be watching a silent film were it not for the absence of popcorn and Charlie Chaplin.

A glass of house champagne to start which, in this house, is the 2004 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage: a subtle, elegant drink, pale in colour with hints of brioche, citrus and nuts, plus some excellent freshly-baked sourdough served with salt-flecked uncultured British butter – a brilliant combination. We follow with a bottle of 2003 Mauro Molino Barolo Vigna Conca: full-bodied, rich, plenty of red fruit with hints of coffee and chocolate. Delicious.

There’s no tasting option at Dinner, just a la carte, nor are there dainty, delicate flavour combinations or foams, or even table theatrics. A fillet of Aberdeen Angus is served with mushroom ketchup and triple-cooked chips – simple yet gutsy. The gimmick, if there is one, is the historical foundation of each dish. The Rice & Flesh starter (saffron, calf tail and red wine) was discovered in a cookbook dating back to c. 1390, titled The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II. The infamous Meat Fruit, on the other hand, is apparently inspired by an old British tradition (13th – 15th century) of making one food look like another. And this wonderful, rich, creamy ball of chicken liver and fois gras parfait really does look like a mandarin, the bright orange gel ‘peel’ perfectly and realistically dimpled. Smeared on smoky, grilled bread, it’s not hard to see why this dish has already become a culinary icon.

 

I choose the (very) Slow-Cooked Pork Belly for main, and it arrives meltingly tender, with a vigorous wipe of Robert sauce and a solid smattering of shaved white truffle. A pillow of puffed spelt adds crunch and texture, although the truffle is noticeably (and devastatingly) deficient in flavour. It’s delicious, but slightly lacking. Same with the Chicken Cooked with Lettuces – the tender, fragrant breast is technically perfect, yet the dish falls short of spectacular.

 

Dessert, however, transcends spectacular. Rarely doth this final course maketh my meal, but the Tipsy Cake with Spit Roast Pineapple is the definition of smooth, sweet satisfaction. Like the Meat Fruit, this dish is one of Dinner’s signatures. Their zenith. Rum-soaked brioche is baked in a miniature cast-iron cocotte and served with a side of caramelised pineapple that’s been cooked and basted for hours over a custom-made pineapple rotisserie. It’s like a soft, warm, zesty hug. It needs to be preordered, so I beg you to have the foresight to do so.

 

We finish our meal with one final dessert – Heston’s famous liquid nitrogen ice cream. I lied before when I said there are no table theatrics – there is this, although it’s tame for Blumenthal. Fresh crème anglaise is brought to our table, combined with liquid nitrogen and then turbo-churned, scooped into a mini house-made sugar cone filled with crushed clementines and finished with a choice of four toppings: sugared fennel seeds and apple popping candy on mine. It’s good – a superb blend of sweet, citrus and aniseed – and fills the void left in the absence of petit fours.

  

Dinner by Heston is wonderful – I truly hope his Melbourne version is as good.

The Ledbury (London, UK)

The Ledbury 127 Ledbury Rd, Notting Hill, London
Michelin stars: 2
Position on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list: No. 10

Affluent, quaint Notting Hill: home not only to Hugh Grant in the eponymous movie (look for the blue door) and the famous Portobello Road antique markets, but to a glut of fashionable restaurants and eateries as well.

Why, on the crossroads of Westbourne Grove and Ledbury Road alone sits Granger & Co (yep, that’s Sydney’s Bill Granger for those of you playing at home), an Ottolenghi outpost (absolutely the best croissants in London), and, the topic of this review, The Ledbury.

Headed up by Aussie chef Brett Graham, this unassuming neighbourhood restaurant blends in seamlessly with the surrounding townhouses on Ledbury Road, and once inside, if not for the excess of dining tables, you could be in a wealthy west Londoner’s home. The staff only further this illusion – friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, yet almost absent, unnoticeable: like the room of requirement, they present themselves when needed then fade into the background. It’s a positive. It’s relaxed. There’s pomp but it’s not stuffy. The Ledbury is the sort of place that one feels comfortable dining alone, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense.

We are disrobed, seated and presented with menus. It is Sunday lunch; three courses for £50.00, and while everything sounds magnificent, the Comté and Buffalo Milk Curd with Wild Mushrooms, Truffle Toast and a Broth of Grilled Onions speaks to me on a deeply personal level. For main, the Roast Breast and Confit Leg of Pintail with Quince, Red Vegetables and Leaves is also an obvious choice. My companion opts for the Breast of Quail with Chestnut Cream, Chanterelles and Muscat Grapes to start and for main the Fillet of Sea Bass with a Grilled Leek, Truffle Puree and Crab.

An amuse bouche is promptly served: a crisp, delicate chestnut biscuit topped with rich, creamy fois gras and prune puree. It’s perfect. So too the bread, of which three types are tendered, still warm from the oven. I can’t decide between them so I choose them all on the pretence of comparison, rather than greed. Verdict? The crystallised malt secures a slight victory over the caramelised onion and the sourdough, yet it is almost too close to call.

 

My first course is as brilliant as promised – small, elegant piles of wild mushrooms and shaved comté perch on a bed of buffalo milk curd, which combines perfectly with the intense onion broth it’s doused in. A chunk of tree bark served alongside graciously bears the truffle toast. The dish is earthy, rich and wonderful.

 

The pintail arrives, breast meat lightly roasted, confit legs meltingly soft, assembled artfully over a layer of radicchio, beetroot, red onion and quince. The whole effect is rather violent, but the taste makes me squeal with delight rather than terror – the duck, radicchio and quince are the perfect balance of fat, bitterness and sweetness. It’s also a top match for my 2006 Barbaresco, Rabajà, Cascina Luisin. A truly sublime course. The sea bass is also excellent – the truffle puree and grilled leek a highlight – although overall a little too salty.

For dessert, we decide to share the Passionfruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream and the cheese supplement (an additional £10.00), which is possibly the highlight of the whole meal. A mixture of British, French and Australian cheeses, brought tableside and served as per our tastes and appetites, plated beautifully alongside crackers and grapes. If I were on death row, this would be my last meal, no question.

 

Finally, we finished with fresh mint tea and two rounds of petit fours: clementine jellies, buckwheat chocolate, and juniper biscuits with caramel ganache. A perfectly satisfying conclusion to a wonderful meal.

Graham has done a stellar job, really nailing the combination of French technique, proper British ingredients and a contemporary Australian flair to create an exceptional dining experience. I really recommend it if you’re in London, and if you’re not in London, maybe this is the encouragement you need to get yourself there.

November: Good Food Month

Wow, what a month! I’ve always thought it cruel that our Christmas season coincides with bikini season, and now it seems we have November to contend with too. There was the inaugural Melbourne Good Food Month, Taste of Melbourne, the annual Spanish/Johnston Street Festival and the French Festival at Como House, plus a spate of openings: the QVM Night Markets began, Huxtaburger opened southside, Mr Burger opened a second store, Gelato Messina opened in Fitzroy.

There was too much happening to cover everything, so I’ve just written about the events I went to as part of Good Food Month. I’m sorry the post is so long!

RENE REDZEPI – The Wheeler Centre, October 30

I jumped the gun a little early by going to see Rene Redzepi speak at the Wheeler Centre on October 30… technically just outside of the Good Food Month of November, but what can I say, I’m nothing if not eager! I’ve been to plenty of book launches, keynote speeches and other such talks delivered by writers, journalists or political figures; even actors. But I’ve never been to a straight “talk” (let alone a journal reading!) dished up by a chef – there’s generally some sort of demonstration involved.

But it feels somewhat disrespectful to call this a simple talk or reading. Redzepi’s newest book is called A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots and is actually a collection of three: one of recipes, a small book of images or ‘snapshots’ from the Noma kitchen and, perhaps most importantly, Redzepi’s personal journal. He began the journal shortly after Noma was first awarded the number one spot on the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – rather than feeling elated, he was exhausted and burnt out, and he slipped into a period of depression. By keeping the journal, he was able to pull himself out of the darkness, and it helped him rediscover what it was he loved about his work.

At first it was hard to imagine the bearded, charismatic, exuberant Redzepi being anything but. The stories he told and videos he showed us of life in the Noma kitchens depicted a true artist who loved his work, and encouraged and brought out the best in those around him. An example of this are the Saturday Night Projects he instigated in the kitchen – at the end of service, each chef has to prepare something to share with the rest of the team. It can be a complete dish, or it can be a better way to peel carrots, as long as it encourages them to think creatively and intuitively. One night, a young chef presented a small mussel shell made from a thin dough of flour, squid ink and intense clam juice; Redzepi loved it and together they worked to perfect it, eventually serving it with a raw mussel inside.

The recipe book is beautiful, but like the last, impossible to cook from. His journal, on the other hand, makes for a very interesting read. It follows a year in the life of Noma: the oppressive Copenhagen winters, the difficulties in foraging for new ingredients and produce, the highs of discovering new recipes and techniques, and the lows of failed ones. The chefs’ symposium he started in Copenhagen (called MAD, which means ‘food’ in Danish, but I think the English translation is probably more fitting!) where Alex Atala inspired him to put live ants on his menu, bringing Redzepi worldwide criticism and ridicule and eventual acclaim. The difficulties of juggling the demands of the kitchen with those at home. The successes that come with being the World’s Best. It’s a compelling and insightful read, appealing to foodies like me, but also general readers for Redzepi’s lessons on creativity, determination and team work. It also makes me really, really want to go to Noma!

HAMISH BLAKE & SHANNON BENNETT – A STORY OF LIFE THROUGH FOOD – Vue de Monde, November 7 

The next stop on my G.F.M. adventure was an event co-hosted by the hilariously charming Hamish Blake and culinary genius Shannon Bennett, held at the infinitely impressive Vue de Monde. Together, they used food to tell the story of fictional character Henry Reginald Wilkins – Blake oratorically, and Bennett gastronomically.

It went something like this:

Hamish: “Henry Wilkins was born in 1942.”

Shannon: *serves appetisers of oysters, salmon roe and wallaby rolls – meant to represent foreplay, and subsequent conception and birth, of young Henry*

Hamish: “When Henry was 5, he started school”

Shannon: *serves this course in a plastic school lunchbox, complete with a drink bottle and handwritten note from mum (a.k.a. Hamish) – luckily for us, Henry’s palate was well-developed at a young age, and inside the lunchbox was a marron sandwich, in the drink bottle an apple martini*

We ate our way through Henry’s life from conception all the way through school, first love, university, marriage, kids, getting fat, retirement, reflection, penance, death and, lastly, his legacy – twelve life stages in total. With each life stage represented by a number of courses, I was pretty damn full by the end. And drunk. Not only had I had a few cheekies in the Lui Bar beforehand, we were given a large glass of French when we first sat down and then it was help-yourself to the never-ending bottles of 2012 Frankland Estate Netley Road Vineyard Riesling or the Farr Rising Shiraz that were on each table (you could also request beer or sparkling), plus those life-stages that included alcohol – nothing says retirement quite like a piña colada served in a coconut, with an umbrella straw.

One of my favourite dishes was ‘Uni Life’, not only for the taste but for the theatre. Bennett and his team brought out special ‘Pappa Vue Pizza’ boxes for each person, and placed toasters on each table, full of sliced brioche. Inside the pizza boxes were two tins of “sardines” (gherkins in one, and duck terrine in the other) plus a small pot of apple sauce. A piece of toasted brioche, a smear of sauce, a big dollop of terrine and a sprinkle of gherkins – bellissimo!

The era of Henry’s life was also taken into account. For example, having children was represented by a dish of lamb, peas and carrots. But as this happened when Henry was about 40, it fell into the 1980s. Cue old TV Weeks from the 80s and gaudy plastic placemats. His marriage was represented with a crab cocktail – an incredibly popular wedding dish (and hors d’oeuvre in general) between the 1960s and 80s.

Fittingly, retirement and reflection were where the sweet courses kicked in. The beach arrived via crushed biscuits (sand), mini pink musk umbrellas and icy-poles served in mini foam eskies. A tray of chocolate and caramel clams. The aforementioned piña colada.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It was SUCH a fun evening, and very Heston-esque in its execution. The food was not only entertaining, it was also excellent, and as I think Hamish is one of the funniest men on the planet I was pretty much laughing the entire time. Laughing, eating and drinking – is there a better combination?

Shannon Bennett serving 'Foreplay, birth, conception': Oyster, salmon pearls, wallaby roll

Shannon Bennett serving ‘Foreplay, birth, conception’: Oyster, salmon pearls, wallaby roll

Conception: salmon roe

Conception: salmon roe

Henry's first day of school

Henry’s first day of school

Uni Life: Duck terrine, gherkins, brioche

Uni Life: Duck terrine, gherkins, brioche

Having Children: Lamb, peas, carrots

Having Children: Lamb, peas, carrots

GELATO MESSINA – Talk & Taste Session – Fitzroy store, 9 – 11.30am, November 16 

Anyone who has been within earshot in the last few months knows how excited I’ve been about the opening of Gelato Messina in Melbourne. I was, ashamedly, a long-time instagram follower, but no-time taster of Messina, and although their instapics had me constantly wiping drool from the corners of my mouth (cream cheese gelato with red velvet cake? COME ON!), I didn’t truly understand what I was missing out on.

They opened their doors for the first time on November 14, to the expected yet still overwhelming gelato-crazed crowds, but I managed to restrain myself for two whole days as my man friend and I had booked ourselves in for a ‘Talk & Taste’ session and I wanted my first experience to be the best it could be.

There was a bit of talking and a lot of tasting. The team at Messina Fitzroy, headed up by Simone Panetta and Nick Palumbo, began by handing out coffees while Panetta told us about his time at the Gelato University in Italy (it exists) and a bit about the history of gelato (it used to be made by flavouring snow, and only royalty were wealthy enough to afford it). We then had a gelato demonstration, watching as Panetta made vanilla gelato and raspberry sorbet, and explained in depth and detail each ingredient used, including the quality and origins.

I don’t know if there is socially acceptable hour in which to begin eating gelato, but if there is I’d hazard a guess it’s later than 9am. But the early hour didn’t stop the Messina Fitzroy team from bringing out an array of desserts for us to eat (I would say taste, but if you eat the whole thing is it still a taste?). First up was a peach Bellini granita, light and refreshing with a strong hit of prosecco. The second dessert was not so light and refreshing… in fact, had it been served on a plate rather than a stick, it could have worked as an entrée! Fois-gras gelato, wrapped around a cherry sorbet centre and dusted with powdered beetroot. It was actually really good, the tartness of the cherry sorbet balanced the fat from the foie-gras, and the powdered beetroot gave it an earthy overtone. Next up was a light, lip-smacking tropical pandan and coconut custard with lychee sorbet and freeze dried pineapple, followed by another more dubious dessert – apple and black pepper sorbet, on a bed of pork floss (kind of like Persian fairy floss but pork flavoured) with a malt pop rock feuilletine “terrine” on the side. The sorbet was refreshing and the feuilletine was a sweet, crunchy explosion, contrasting well with the meaty, salty pork floss. Again, probably a dessert I’d prefer with dinner rather than first thing in the morning, but it definitely worked.

After a cake demonstration (and a thick slice of Bombe Alaska each) we were given free rein to taste any gelato we liked from the cabinet. Even though I’d just had five desserts plus countless other tastings, I couldn’t resist a good sample – it is Messina after all. I can see why Salted Caramel & White Chocolate is their number one seller, but special mentions must go to their Italian Nougat (honey based gelato with roasted nuts, egg whites and Italian nougat) and of course, Choc Mint – gelato made with real fresh mint leaves and chocolate chips. It’s true what they say; Messina really does ruin all other ice cream for you. Luckily it’s here to stay!

Vanilla gelato, pre churn

Vanilla gelato, pre churn

Freshly churned vanilla gelato

Freshly churned vanilla gelato

Fois gras gelato, cherry sorbet centre, dusted with powdered beetroot

Fois gras gelato, cherry sorbet centre, dusted with powdered beetroot

Apple & black pepper sorbet, pork floss, malt pop rock feuilletine

Apple & black pepper sorbet, pork floss, malt pop rock feuilletine

Bombe Alaska

Bombe Alaska

17 different tastings!

17 different tastings!

NIGHT NOODLE MARKETS – 18-30th November

For a few weeks in November, Melburnians didn’t need their passports to experience Asia. Colourful lanterns bobbed and swayed in the soft breeze that carried the intoxicating scents of smoke and spice from Alexandra Gardens towards the CBD, causing the hordes to up their pace from saunter to dash. Those who arrived early enough to nab a table clutched impossibly long skewers of crispy, grilled calamari, plastic bowls of fragrant yellow curry and plates of soupy xiao long bao; those who arrived a little later forlornly joined the growing queues extending from one of the 30 open-air stalls or food trucks.

The inaugural Melbourne Good Food Month naturally brought the inaugural Melbourne Night Noodle Markets. They’ve been operating in Sydney since the late 1990s, so it’s a wonder they took so long to venture south, but no matter – after their success, it’s safe to assume they’ll become a permanent annual fixture. They were so successful in fact that they shut the doors at 6.30pm on opening night because the stalls couldn’t cope with the crowds. They’ve also reportedly been responsible for a state-wide chicken shortage.

I went a couple of times, trying Indian dosa from West Footscray’s Aangan restaurant, which was a crispy, crunchy but light pancake stuffed with spiced potatoes. I had pork and ginger steamed xiao long bao from Mr Huang Jin, which I slurped greedily while in the queue for a juicy grilled chicken and rice noodle stir-fry from Longrain, piled high with crispy fried shallots and fresh coriander. I also had roti chanai and mee goreng from Mamak; the roti was a particular stand out, not just for the thrill of watching the chefs roll and stretch the dough (there’s a reason it’s sometimes referred to as “flying bread”), but for the flaky, fluffy, buttery result, served with a spicy curry dip and sambal sauce. I also hit up Gelato Messina – just because I felt I hadn’t eaten enough of it this month – trying both the En-Thai-Sing sundae (pandan coconut sorbet, sticky rice, fresh mango and salted coconut cream) and the Halo Halo sundae (coconut sorbet, jackfruit crème patisserie, leche flan, rambutan jellies, fresh mango and condensed milk). They tasted fairly similar really, mango and coconut being the hero ingredients in both, but the warm sticky rice in the En-Thai-Sing jacked it up to the next level for me – ridiculously good.

All the stalls were busy (Chin Chin stupidly, but predictably, so) but the vibe was great and it was easy to get a drink. Tips for next year: Withdraw cash beforehand and arrive early, preferably with a group of friends. One friend commandeers a table, another grabs drinks, the rest hit up different stalls and regroup with a veritable feast!

Lanterns at the Night Noodle Markets

Lanterns at the Night Noodle Markets

Lines building at the Night Noodle Markets

Lines building at the Night Noodle Markets

Indian dosa from Aangan

Indian dosa from Aangan

Chicken stir fry from Longrain

Chicken stir fry from Longrain

Roti from Mamak

Roti from Mamak

Attica

Disclaimer: I went to Attica back in July (the 19th, to be exact) and although I wrote this review almost immediately afterwards, I never got around to posting it. Since then, I’ve been back to Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond (the former for a Good Food Month event, the latter because of my next point), Jacques Reymond has announced his retirement and subsequent closure of his eponymous restaurant, and Ben Shewry has decided to pull his infamous “potato cooked in the earth it was grown” dish from the Attica menu, not to mention abolishing the five-course Tuesday night Chef’s Table option. So although aspects of the following review may not apply completely, I figured it was still time for it to see the e-light of day. I hope you enjoy it!

Attica was long on my ‘to-do’ list, but I hadn’t made a booking until the day the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list was released. Attica came in at #21, making it the highest ranking restaurant in Australasia – obviously I had to go immediately, or as immediately as the long wait list allowed.

I can’t help but compare Attica to Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond, as not only are they Melbourne’s, and arguably Australia’s, three finest restaurants, they all come in at a similar price point and calibre. There are key differences, though. Vue de Monde is all about theatre; from the dazzling view, to the kangaroo-hide thrones and gold cutlery, to the way the food is plated and served. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment Shannon Bennett enthusiastically and liberally shaved a pure white truffle, worth $12,000 a kilo, over my plate. Jacques Reymond is a bit grander, a bit more old-world. Housed in a swish Prahran mansion, the setting and impeccable service make you feel like royalty, but there isn’t quite the same level of showmanship as at VDM.

Attica falls somewhere in between. The staff want to give you an experience outside of the meal that you can take away with you, but it’s more simplified. The room itself I’d describe as business-luxury – think large tables (and not many of them) with white tablecloths, dark grey carpet, bright lighting. The food ranges in complexity – dishes like the crab with land and sea lettuces or the potato, cooked for twelve hours in a hāngi in the earth it was grown, and served peeled on a bed of smoked goats curd with crispy fried saltbush leaves are simple (despite the potato’s preparation), each with clean and distinctive flavours. More complex is the final dish, the Plight of the Bees – layers of wild-thyme, cream, lemon, honey, meringue and fennel, topped with a thin layer of dehydrated pumpkin and dusted with freeze-dried apple. Sweet, tangy and delicious.

As with all degustations, a few extra courses sneak in along the way. There were about four appetisers prior to our first “proper” dish (house-made bread with house-churned cultured butter and smoked and whipped olive oil, giant sorrel leaves with native-herbed crème fraiche, walnut puree served in the shell and crumbed mussels served with sea vegetables) and a lovely surprise after the meal – a chocolate replica of a Pukeko hen’s egg, complete with a salted caramel yolk, was served tucked into a grassy nest. But the highlight was the house-made marshmallow, given during a tour of the restaurant’s kitchen garden in between the savoury and sweet courses, roasted over an outdoor fire, and washed down with a warm cup of apple and feijoa cider.

I can see why it’s ranked number #21 in the world. Four months later and I’m still dreaming of it!

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The Humble Tumbler

Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” 
 Paulo Coelho

I’m not a religious person, but if anything is going to convince me that there’s a higher power, it’s a deliciously scrumptious glass of red wine. Or white. Or champagne. Whatever.

And while I don’t often meet a wine I don’t like, a desire to turn mere interest into genuine knowledge (or at least a bit of educated wine snobbery), plus a friendly push from my sommelier friend Tom, had me signing up for The Humble Tumbler four-week introductory wine appreciation course.

Over four roughly two-hour sessions, Clare Burder, the bubbly brains behind this boozy enterprise, took our small class all the way from sauvignon blanc to sangiovese and then onwards to champagne, with a quick pit-stop at rosé, teaching us not only about winemaking, but about wine tasting, too.

Tasting wine is different to drinking wine, as we quickly learned. Where drinking wine requires you to, well, drink the wine, tasting requires you to first assess for colour and clarity, then swirl and smell, sip and swish and, lastly, discuss.

Believe me when I say the discussion part becomes much easier once you’re a few glasses down. Winey words like “grassy” and “dusty” were soon rolling easily off our lubricated tongues; we’d find hints of licorice or stewed red fruit; even vegemite toast. One group member grew comfortable enough to hilariously declare that a certain wine was reminiscent of a sexy farmer.

But it’s not all laughter and raucous drinking. Eating cheese – and plenty of it – is also a course module masquerading as a lesson; this time in wine and food matching. I’d suggest eating before you arrive, as a post-work empty stomach means it’s nigh impossible to resist eating ALL OF THE CHEESE.

But even with a full stomach, you won’t be able to resist the platters piled high with olives, chips, homemade salami and pork terrine, plus the most sensational manchego, beautifully soft chevre, creamy d’affinois, rich camembert, bitey cheddar, stinky blue, sweet gruyere and lastly, but definitely not leastly, the king of cheese: Occelli Testun al Barolo. This hard yet creamy, sweet yet bitey, buttery yet winey cheese comes pressed with Nebbiolo grapes, making it the perfect match for wines made from this grape variety, and really the perfect match for everything as far as I’m concerned.

After four weeks, my inner wine-wanker is sated, yet thirsty for more. If you spend money on wine, or if you find bottle-shops or wine lists overwhelming, or even if you just enjoy a drink and a bit of cheese, this course is for you.

What you need to know:

  • Each course runs one night per week for four weeks, starting at 6 pm and finishing between 8 and 8.30 pm
  • The venue changes depending on what’s available, but will undoubtedly be held at a hip inner city venue (such as the Kodiak Club in Fitzroy, Gertrude Street Enoteca or Public House in Richmond)
  • Classes are capped at 14 people
  • The cost for the four weeks is $300, which includes all your wine and cheese plus a text book
  • For more information on this course, or on other courses Clare runs, visit www.thehumbletumbler.com.au

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Saint Crispin

Housed in what used to be Cavallero, Saint Crispin is Smith Street’s hippest new resident. It’s fairly small (seats about 50), with well-spaced tables, an open kitchen, and enough noise that it feels happening without being deafening. It has the dual chef-owner pedigree – Scott Pickett from Northcote’s The Estelle, and ex-Press Club head chef Joe Grbac – and the fusion of classic techniques with on-trend tastes (served on the obligatory Glenn Tebble stoneware) that all but ensures success these days.

I went with three friends last Friday night, after a few sneaky pre-dinner proseccos at Panama Dining Room & Bar (also worth a visit). We were seated quickly, given the wine list, and a deliciously interesting appetiser of olive macarons and hibiscus marshmallow. But then the service kind of… vanished. The staff were friendly and the sommelier was great (spectacular wine list), but we had to ask for food menus, bread was brought out mid-meal (perhaps intentionally, and the accompanying caramelised onion butter more than made up for its tardiness, but it seemed a bit out of place) and our desserts were almost forgotten.

But the food was so freaking amazing that I can overlook these minor hiccups (providing they’re not the norm). We started with the eel croquettes and the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ (which turned out to be next-level pork crackling) from the Little Bites section of the menu, and then went for the $60 three-course option for the remainder. It pops up in every restaurant review I’ve read, and with good reason, so I ordered the ‘pullet egg, mushrooms, parmesan, goats curd and black rice’ dish for entrée, which turned out to be an ugly but ridiculously tasty jumble of mushroomy, cheesy goodness; puffed rice providing the right amount of crunch. Then, the ‘Flinders Island lamb, wild garlic, gnocchi and broad beans’ for main – perfectly tender lamb cooked a few different ways and presented beautifully – and for dessert the devilishly rich ‘pumpkin, pecan, maple and cream cheese’. For the table, potato chips came with a salty, seaweed mayonnaise, and an iceberg salad was drenched in a dill and buttermilk dressing.

We had a great night – the food was spectacular and the wine even more so, if possible. The service slights were a bit disappointing, but nothing that wouldn’t stop me returning. In fact, I’d return just for the sour apple jellies that came served alongside the bill, tucked neatly inside a medieval book.

Olive macaron and hibiscus marshmallow Pullet egg Flinders Island lamb Pumpkin, pecan, maple and cream cheese’ Potato crisps