Saturday, 13 June 2009

An Evening at The Rocks to Remember

With Sydney being a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, as well as perhaps the most popular international gateway into Australia, surely it should have its share of fine dining restaurants, as I'm sure the two cities don't like to be outdone by each other. Find a restaurant I did; in the midst of the historic neighbourhood of The Rocks was Rockpool, which is actually part of the Rockpool family of restaurants in Sydney (3) and Melbourne (1). (Coincidentally, Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne's Southbank was one of the shortlist choices between me and my friend; I'll admit the AUS$140 20oz abalone "steak" was really tempting me.) Boasting of its sparticular use of fresh seafood in its evidently Mod Oz menu, and with only a day and a morning left before I had to fly back to Canada, I had to give this place a try. Checking the website at my hostel before deciding to go I discovered two menu options:
  • A $120/person, 4-course tasting menu, which allowed for latitude in choice of dishes per course; and
  • A $195/person, luxurious fixed 9-course tasting dinner.
I was tempted by the 9-course feast, but in the end I stuck with the 4-course dinner, as I was in the mood to pick and choose the dishes I wanted to try. Even with four courses, however, there were still other bite-sized teasers that played with my taste buds and reassured me that I chose a good place for dinner.

The first of two canapes (aka amuses-bouche) was pureed zucchini in a crispy phyllo cup topped with Parmesan cream; yes, I was served more than one canape, a situation I'd not encountered beforehand but nonetheless gladly took and enjoyed. The first canape was light, the mild sweetness of the zucchini complemented by the savoury and slightly sour zing of the cream, and the soft mixtures contrasting with the delicately crispy phyllo.

The second canape offered to me was a goat cheese tortellini. This one tasted richer and more savoury than the zucchini phyllo, and though the flavouring was nice, my one criticism would be that it was not al dente, as I believe pasta should be. In this case, cooking it so that it still retains a firm bite should be more possible without any meat filling and the associated risk of undercooking the meat.

At last my first course arrived, an abalone and drunken chicken salad on fine noodles.The Chinese influence was evident in this dish with the drunken chicken and the bed of noodles. The use of fresh abalone, however, is less common in Chinese cuisine, but the Australians have taken advantage of using fresh versions plucked out of their own waters; fresh or dried, abalone is a pricey morsel of seafood. (Remember that $120 abalone "steak" I mentioned earlier?) The salad was light and clean, with the jelly beneath the very thin slice of lotus root countering the salad with a strong bang to it.

For my second course I chose the stir-fried southern calamari with back bacon, a pan-seared scallop and squid ink noodles. I'd heard of squid ink being used for cooking, though this isn't easily found everywhere as ink sacs are often removed when a squid is cleaned before packaging and/or consumption. It also stains very easily, turning the tender strips of calamari black, so a bib was offered by my server as a courteous precaution. Once again this dish had a Chinese flavour to it, and it was well prepared. As for the squid-ink noodles, they themselves had not strong, distinct flavour comparable to the stir-fried calamari, but it was a delicious take to naturally colouring noodles, something the Italians have best been known with its red, "white" and green pasta. The back bacon helped add some salt along with some firm texture to this dish.

The third course I had was crispy skin Murray cod with celeriac and olive purees and three variations of artichoke. The cod, exclusively a freshwater fish found only in Australia, was marinated and then cooked in two stages, the final one being searing the skin for the crispy finish. Two of the three ways in which the artichoke was prepared involved some form of pickling or vinegar-based dressing and included the stem and, of course, the heart. The third method involved frying the leaves to a light, golden crisp. The cod flaked easily but was still moist, a bit tricky to achieve as most seafood items can be ruined easily by overcooking.

As was the case of my course back at Number 8 in Melbourne, a side of vegetables and/or starch/carbohydrates was blatantly absent from my cod dish, and a few minutes after I was presented my main course I was given a small plate of mixed leaf salad. Without a second though I first finished my fish before tackling the salad, thinking that the Australians must've taken to heart a study I heard about years ago that it's actually healthier to eat your salad/vegetables after your main course instead of before it. Well, when I finished both items I got to talking with my server, and I quickly deduced that it's not as common for fine restaurants in Australia to have sides plated on a main course dish. I can appreciate my server's reluctance in possibly exposing my lack of knowledge about how things may be done differently in Australia, but I came to visit this country not only to see the sights but to learns as many aspect of Australian culture as I could in my short two-week visit here. Well, at least now I'll be a little wiser the next time I visit Australia.

For my fourth and final course, I decided to treat myself to a dessert that Rockpool claimed as its creation since 1984, a slice of its date tart. The tart consists of a layer of dates lining the inside bottom of the tart, and soft custard above it to the brim. The surface had a thin brown crispy layer as though it was lightly torched. The custard itself was only mildly sweet, allowing the dates to play the chief role of providing flavour. The texture of the dates also allowed for a play of contrasts with both the tart crust and the custard. I wouldn't say that I found it as exceptionally memorable a dish as, say, the calamari with squid ink noodles, but that shouldn't be construed as my giving this dish a thumbs-down; this dessert was in fact quite enjoyable. I was also presented some petits-fours, of which I enjoyed the singular piece of dark choclate filled with cherry jelly. The passionfruit marshmallows were quite intriguing; totally unlike store-bought versions, these were soft, fluffy and mildly sweet without any synthetic undertones one can sense in store-bought marshmallows.

The Rocks has revealed a venue where one can have one's foodie urges satisfied and one's taste buds and eyes to be entertained. There are no dramatic view of the harbour from Rockpool, but the kitchen is open and best viewed from its Oyster Bar at the front of the restaurant; there's even a TV in the Oyster Bar, which is more of a relaxed bistro setting compared to the rest of Rockpool, that shows all the activity deeper in the kitchen. This place is definitely worth a visit, and the price for the dinner is worth it as well. And to top it all off for a wonderful evening, one can either stroll along Sydney Harbour or, like I did, take the Mosman Bay ferry and back to see the city light and the lit Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Name: Rockpool
Address: 107 George St., The Rocks, NSW, Australia
Cuisine: Fusion (Mod Oz)
Price Range: Dinner AUS$120-AUS$195
Accessible: Yes

Thursday, 11 June 2009

A Solid Return on a Gamble

Before travelling to Australia, I've heard that Melbourne is a foodie haven, and having sensed how cosmopolitan the city is in my travels around town, I could see and therefore hoped to experience a pleasant dinner that helps Melbourne live up to this reputation. Having finished watching a footy (Aussie rules football) game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground east of downtown, my friend and I gravitated ourselves towards Southbank were there were plenty of restaurants and eateries along the Yarra River. After scouting a bit we created a shortlist of three restaurants, and after meeting with my friend's boyfriend and a friend of theirs, we decided to go for the one called Number 8, one of several restaurants found in the Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex. A few presumptions were made to ultimately help us choose this particular place:
  • It had to have fresh oysters available (we were absolutely craving for oysters);
  • It had to showcase some of the finest cuisine and delights that Melbourne (and Australia in general) had to offer; and
  • It had to be a fairly short distance from my friend's boyfriend's conference venue, as he was temporarily on crutches.
Australia grows and harvests a lot of its own food, which can make for fairly expensive groceries and meals, but that means I would more likely get to enjoy Australian treats. Take the dozen fresh oysters we all first ordered to share. These Tasmanian beauties may not be the famed Malpeques, but man alive, they still tasted wonderful. It was especially nice for me as it had been about a year since I last had fresh oysters on a half-shell, and even then a singular one that was slightly dressed.

After that delightful amuse-bouche I had my entree, wagyu beef carpaccio with pecorino and rocket (arugula). Apparently Australia now also produces a good amount of this type of beef, made famous in Japan for its exquisitely marbled meat and, in Japan at least, for the cattle being fed beer (i.e. Kobe beef). Carpaccio, often using red meat (though tuna can also be used as well) is essentially the red meat equivalent to sashimi, so the beef used has to be very fresh and handled carefully. The dish was surprisingly light, and the rocket and pecorino complemented well, providing a good balance of flavours.

For my main course I had something that I've yet to see in Canada and likely never will, Moreton Bay bugs. Found on the northern shores of Australia as well as parts of Southeast Asia, the bug is actually a type of lobster famed for its fleshy tail that's larger than a tiger prawn's but smaller than an homard lobster's. Served simply grilled with a touch of salt, pepper and a garnish of fresh herbs and sprouts, the meat was a wonderful treat with a sweet undertone that's unlike homard lobster. Curiously enough, in Australia vegetables aren't always served on a main course dish unlike in North American restaurants, as I learned for sure when I later dined at another wonderful restaurant in Sydney; sides of vegetables were ordered in our case here to share.

Lastly, for dessert I had a leatherwood honey panacotta, made with honey of a tree found only in Tasmania. It certainly had a subtly different taste than the ones to which I'm accustomed in Canada, but I for the life of me can't lay a finger on terms to describe it. It tastes slightly heavier than spring honey, but definitely lighter than blueberry flowers honey. Nonetheless, served with a rhubarb compote it was light and had the right sweetness, a perfect ending to my dinner outside as the casino's riverside giant torches rang in the second hour we dined there.

My friend and I rolled the dice in choosing a place in a casino for dinner, and in the end it appeared like we picked a winner. If you ever get yourself in Melbourne, be sure to make a stop at Number 8 if you can only try one nice restaurant; your taste buds will agree it'll have been worth the long journey. This place is worth the hit on the wallet, though most of the time dinner shouldn't require more than $100 (excluding drinks); the only case where you'll have to pay more than $100/person is if you share with someone a Seafood Journey for 2 and have an entree and desert as well.

Name: Number 8 Restaurant & Wine Bar
Address: Riverside at Crown Casino, Southbank, VIC, Australia
Cuisine: Fusion (Mod Oz)
Price Range: Lunch AUS$55-AUS$70; Dinner AUS$65-AUS$150
Accessible: Yes (except washrooms)

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

My First Taste of Australia

Now don't bring out those steak knives, I can easily explain my absence from this blog once again! I was travelling in Australia for two weeks in May, so I kept myself low in April as I prepared for that vacation, and ever since my return I'd been tidying things up elsewhere, such as my personal blog, before I could finally update this blog. Fortunately, there have been instances from my Australia trip that require entries on this food blog, and so you'll see two more entries related to this trip. This, therefore, is the first of three entries, all restaurant reviews. If any of these entries attracts Aussie readers, welcome, and thank you for the wonderful Aussie hospitality!

Cairns, Australia is a veritable tourist town, and you may recall how I feel about dining in tourist areas. So, coming to this city I was prepared to make do with some unglamourous meals until I walked past an eatery near my hostel, Ochre Restaurant, which featured Modern Australian, or Mod Oz, cuisine. Mod Oz is basically the Australian way of calling fusion cuisine, and Ochre's menu definitely fit this category. Wanting to try things that are unique and/or special to Australia, I opted to try the Game Platter which when I ordered featured two dishes.

The first course, essentially the appetizer, definitely screamed Oriental influences. Featuring crocodile, it was cooked "salt and pepper" style, not unlike the salt and pepper ribs or prawns found in some Chinese restaurants, and served with Vietnamese-style pickled vegetables and some lemon aspen sambal (the sauce in the spoon). The flavouring was just right, and the crocodile especially was, thankfully, not too heavy on salt, a characteristic I'd experienced too often at some restaurants that do salt and pepper style meat dishes. My impression of crocodile meat is that it's as mild in flavour as chicken, though it has that watery undertone that one would notice when eating perfectly cooked white fish, but it is slightly tougher than chicken in texture. The vegetables provided a nice sour counterweight to the mildly greasy crocodile pieces that was sprinkled with pepper particularly native to Australia. I honestly can't say I could taste any difference between Australian pepper and pepper from other parts in the world, but this dish, from the pepper to the crocodile to the use of lemon aspen fruit, gave me an idea of how strongly this restaurant emphasized on using as many domestic if not local ingredients as possible.

The second (main) course featured two other animals native to Australia: kangaroo and emu. (Later on during this trip I learned that both animals are on the country's coat of arms, and Australia is the only country in the world whose coat of arms features animals eaten by humans.) Now, before some of you rail at me for eating an animal that's been idolized in Bugs Bunny cartoons, as an unofficial ambassador for Australia and even as the logo for Qantas, I must forward some trivia I learned about kangaroos. They to Australians are like what Canada geese are to Canadians. Both are symbols of their respective countries, yet both have become overpopulated, becoming grazing/foraging pests and vermin. If there are no qualms to eating geese (Canada or not), why fuss over a few kangaroos?

The grilled emu (left), cooked no more than medium, was a bit tougher than I thought it would be, but the flavour was nice, enhanced thanks to its reduction with mushrooms and topped with sliver-thin slices of pancetta. The grilled kangaroo, though, really caught my eyes and taste buds. Tender and cooked medium-rare, it was enhanced with a chili quandong glaze (pronounced with a silent "u") with halved (desert or sweet) quandongs, small, wild peaches, scattered about. The two types of meat were accompanied by some steamed bok choy, sweet potato fritter (julienned sweet potato in tempura batter) and, off-side, a sweet-potato and spinach gratin. I wasn't that crazy about the gratin, but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the kangaroo one bit.

Ochre gave me my first glimpse into both Mod Oz cuisine as well as Australian game and some unique ingredients, and did so quite satisfactorily. Though I now definitely expect higher standards when I reach Melbourne and return briefly to Sydney and try some of the fine dining joints there, this visit in Cairns turned out to be a promising start.

Name: Ochre Restaurant
Address: 43 Shields St., Cairns, QLD, Australia
Cuisine: Fusion (Mod Oz)
Price Range: Lunch AUS$20-AUS$50; Dinner AUS$60-AUS$80
Accessible: Yes