Thursday, April 29, 2010

Meat with more meat, Churrasco (Sydney part 2)

Taronga Zoo

After a good few days with my young cousins and my family in the hills of Sydney, I thought it was time I braved the big city. After a rather delightful afternoon wandering around probably my favourite place in the world (I am one big kid), I went to meet the first person I ever worked with in an office. His name is Justin X.

I have known Justin for nearly 10 years, and in those 10 years, only two of those were based in England. Having worked together for a mere 2 weeks, we have been MSN messenger buddies for a long time and I was rather excited that we would finally be able to catch up face to face. So after a few beers and chats about how our lives really weren't where we were hoping right now, we headed off for dinner.

Sydney - Churrasco

The options in Sydney are pretty endless. It is definitely one of the most multi-cultural cities I have ever been to, with strong representation from many different ethnicity's. Justin himself is from Italian stock but he knew where to take me. He had read the blog, we were going to eat meat, we were going to a Brazilian churrascaria. Our first choice was disappointingly closing early. Disappointing as it was meant to be excellent with a huge variety (check out Braza if you are ever in Sydney) but settled for Churrasco instead.

Sydney - Churrasco

So, what can I say. Shortly after our arrival, the meat onslaught began. First, we were presented with the traffic light system, green for go and red for "I've had enough and am on the verge of making an embarrassment of myself if I eat any more". With that established, they started to ease us into it. First came chorizo and mini chicken sausages, and served alongside we were brought some creamy warm potato salad and some added stodge of rice and beans. Served with a smile, these were delicious and got me salivating.

Sydney - Churrasco

From that point onwards saw a steady stream of meat in various guises. From memory we were given various porky delights in the form of sausages and gammon. Next came beef in various cuts. I was most impressed, the sirloin was tender and beautifully pink with a lovely smoky char. The food just kept on coming, and almost exclusively meat. I was informed that prawns and other seafood is served at Braza, but this didn't worry me too much, he wasn't to know that fishy stuff isn't my thing.

Sydney - Churrasco

It wasn't too long before I was patting my stomach in defeat and turning over my personal traffic light to the red position. This didn't really stop the waitresses from trying to ply me with more meat, but I just couldn't fit any more in. Justin, on the other hand, had other ideas. I mean, the guy is half my size but he just kept putting it away. Impressive.

Sydney - Churrasco

We sat back, sipped the remnants of our caipirinhas and soon enough, it was time to leave. It had been great to catch up and Churrasco was a great setting. Informal but pleasant, the room is open and spacious, and best of all, the food was delicious. I walked past the giant grill on the way out and stared in wonder. When I buy my place, I am installing one of those.

Churrasco - 3/60-70 William St, Woolloomooloo, Sydney

Churrasco Sydney on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's the big one, The Fat Duck (Bray)

Outside the Fat Duck

It's a beautiful day. It's warm, the sun is flying high and the clouds are lightly sprinkled across the sky. I am, however, in Maidenhead. Now, this may anger a few people, but Maidenhead is hardly a cultural mecca. I am not here to visit one of its many huge warehouse stores, or to drive around on it's seemingly endless system of roundabouts and roads. No, for me, Maidenhead is a means to an ends. It is the doorway to fulfillment and trust me, I am not hanging around for long. I am in a taxi and I am going to the Fat Duck.

Now, for those of you who may not have heard of the Fat Duck, you definitely will have heard of Heston Blumenthal. You know the one, the bald guy off the telly who last week created a giant edible iceberg which burst into flames. The same guy who is smirking over London Bridge next to Delia. Yeah, that's the guy. And when he isn't being a TV celebrity, he is the brains behind a rather well respected restaurant, the aforementioned Fat Duck.

Now, for the uninitiated, this restaurant is what is known in the industry as "a bit good". It has held three coveted Michelin stars since 2004 and has even reached the pinnacle of its trade by being crowned the best restaurant in the world in 2005. It is the mecca for all discernible food lovers, and best of all, it's in England. I have been wanting to come here for a very long time, and now I can happily say I have.

Outside the Fat Duck

So Maidenhead isn't great, but the Fat Duck can be found about 10 minutes away in an idyllic little village called Bray. Home to not one, but two three Michelin star restaurants (Michel Roux's Waterside Inn is also located here). The entrance to the restaurant is very discreet, a simple wooden door on the high street. Inside is pretty small, with only 42 covers in the restaurant, but we were immediately made to feel welcome by the excellent staff.

We were ten minutes early but were made to wait a tortuously long time for any sort of food. It was over 40 minutes before our first course in earnest turned up, with a small bowl of olives presented to keep us going, but once the food starting hitting the table, the meal moved forward like clockwork.

LIME GROVE
Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse

limegrove

The first course was a simple palate cleanser but was all about the theatre. Where some restaurants would wheel out a shot glass of some sort of granita, here the ice is replaced with a bucket of liquid nitrogen. Small balls of mousse are squeezed out of a canister and then dunked into the freezing nitrogen to form a shell. These are then popped into your mouth for the mousse to slowly melt in your mouth, whilst desperately trying to ignore the waiter who is spritzing lime essence around you. Odd, but nice and a mere taster for what was to follow.

Lime Grove - Nitro poached green tea and lime mousse


RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream

Soon after the nitro man had vacated his position at my shoulder, he was replaced by one offering me bread. And rather nice bread it was too, although I believe that this is bought and not actually made on site. Served with slightly salted unpasteurised butter from Jersey, I had to restrain myself from devouring it all. Soon enough, the next course arrived.

Red cabbage gazpacho and pommery grain mustard ice cream

It was a small quenelle of ice cream for such a large bowl, and looked rather lonely as it was carefully placed in front of me. However, it was soon joined by a sprinkling of red cabbage gazpacho. The mustard certainly started the taste buds tingling and the combination of mustard, cabbage and the little cubes cucumber at the bottom of the bowl was a most refreshing dish. I was just getting started. I wanted more.

Red cabbage gazpacho and pommery grain mustard ice cream


JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM
Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast

Oak Moss

If there was any dish that was designed to assault all your senses at once, this would be it. A few moments after our dishes were whisked away (where I was caught desperately scraping the remnants of the gazpacho out of the massive bowl), a slab of turf was placed before us, with 4 small plastic containers symmetrically placed on top. We were instructed to place the small strip concealed within the containers on our tongues. After I wrestled my strip out, almost losing it completely in the process, I placed it on my tongue and the flavours of the forest burst out. Oak, sap, moss, mist, it was all there.

Oak Moss

As this was going on, a liquid was poured onto the bed of turf and a "forest mist" rolled off, flowing off the table, intertwining itself around our glasses and cutlery. Instructed to eat our truffle toasts, the deep earthy flavour of the truffle and the slight bitterness of the radish rolled all over my tongue as the mist continued to roll off the table.

Truffle toast

After that bit of theatre, came the more substantial part of the course, a highly savoury combination of a green puree (broad bean?) topped with a salty quail jelly and a crayfish cream. A small quenelle of sweet chicken liver parfait on top helped to balance the dish, with all the flavours being highly savoury (I hate using the word umami). A fair dish, but one that divided opinion. I enjoyed it but there was better to come...

Jelly of quail, crayfish cream and chicken liver parfait


SNAIL PORRIDGE
Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel

Snail Porridge

One of Mr Blumenthals signature dishes and I can see why. This was one dish which really had the wow factor. It wasn't really the snails that were the focus of the dish, but the risotto/porridge that it sat on. Herby and smooth, we all had fun trying to identify what it was made of but I don't think there were any winners. The smooth risotto was punctuated with intense slivers of air dried ham which just flooded your mouth with porky saltiness. The soft snails and pickled fennel sat on top, finishing a supreme dish. This is what coming to the Fat Duck is all about.


ROAST FOIE GRAS
Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit

Roast foie gras and rhubarb

From pure crazy invention to simple good ingredients cooked well. The foie gras was well cooked and combined with an intense rhubarb jam. Deceivingly simple, but highly flavoured and satisfying.


MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)
"Mad Hatter Tea"

Mock Turtle soup and Mad Hatters tea

Taken straight from his last TV series, this dish combines both the story of Alice in Wonderland and a dish which was consumed over a century ago. Without going into too great a detail about the history of a dish, we were presented with a scene from the Lewis Carroll classic.

Mock Turtle soup and Mad Hatters tea

A "watch" was then presented to us, as we were slowly regaled the story of how the watch was dropped into a teacup in the story by our keen waiter. The watch is then "dropped" into the tea cup, where we were instructed to stir and the watch soon materialised into a gold specked broth, heady with the aroma of beef stock and Madeira.

Mock Turtle soup and Mad Hatters tea

The finished article didn't really live up to the show in it's construction, although I did still enjoy the soup as a whole. I think one of my fellow diners described it as "spam and tofu in a broth", which wasn't actually too far off the truth. Who says you need to be all fancy with words, eh?

"SOUND OF THE SEA"

Sounds of the sea

Another old Fat Duck favourite, although I believe that it has been refined over the years, and after talking with other people, uses the fish which is freshest on the day. Now, I am pretty scared of fish, and raw fish, well, that's a whole different challenge. But the minute I put the earphones in, all those issues went away. Because all I could think was "I hope those bloody seagulls don't crap on my head".

Sounds of the sea

Once I got over that little "issue", I tried to tackle the dish in front of me. Raw slices of yellowtail, halibut and mackerel atop a bed of "sand" (made from tapioca and ground eels) and assorted sea vegetables. I took a mouthful of foam (made from dashi) and it did, strangely, taste of the sea. Not a good memory, as all I could think of being hit full force in the face by a wave as a child and emerging with a mouthful of saltwater for my troubles. This may be where my deep issues with the taste of the sea and all that resides within it comes from.

I think testament to it's execution, I polished it all off. The "sand" was delicious, and I actually enjoyed the yellowtail and mackerel slices, whilst the halibut was one fish too far for me. Fish haters, do not be afraid.


SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE
Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil

Salmon poached in licorice gel served with an artichokes vanilla mayonnaise.

For me, this dish was my favourite of the day. Having conquered my fear of fish in the last dish, the combinations in this just blew me away. The salmon was subtly poached in the licorice, forming a delicate coating. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the subtle flavours of licorice and vanilla were delicately balanced. The trout roe added little salty explosions on your tongue, where the pink grapefruit was beautifully sweet and tangy.

No gimmicks, just excellent cooking, flavour combinations and produce.


POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720)
Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles

Anjou Pigeon, blood and umbles

The only dud in the whole meal for me. Offal is something I am coming to terms with but a sauce made from blood was just too much for me. I did try it, but couldn't manage more than a taste. Instead, I ate the quavers (they were quavers, right?) and the pigeon (don't mean to sound like a broken record, but perfectly cooked, once again), but left the rest.

HOT AND ICED TEA

Hot and cold tea

A palate cleanser and a seemingly innocuous glass of tea. Inside was something quite mind boggling, one half, warm lemon tea, whilst the other was ice cold. Literally split straight down the middle. We all had a bit of fun with this, none more so than holding it in your mouth with one half warm, and the other cold. A strange but lovely experience.


TAFFETY TART (c.1660)
Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon

Tafferty Tart

We were now into the desserts and the most beautiful plate of food was placed in front of me. I really didn't want to eat it and admired it for a little while (whilst also papping the hell out of it). Hard to describe all the flavours going on here, but it had all the flavours of a great apple pie. Again, lots of contrasting flavours and textures.

The "BFG"
Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest

The BFG - Black Forest Gateau

The final proper course and probably the best for me. Kang had enthusiastically brought his copy of "In Search of Perfection", hoping to be signed by the big man himself. The highlight of the book was the BFG. Meticulous planning, various processes, layer upon layer of things which were very bad for you. This was the business. A dessert like no other, with such careful attention to every single detail. Not only was there a whiff of kirsch sprayed into the air as we consumed this heavenly dessert, but the stalk is an edible fine dried vanilla pod. Perfection indeed.


WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums

So now we hit the wind-down. A pleasant if whimsical course finds us peeling whisky gums off a map of Scotland, with the home of Jack Daniels thrown in for good measure. Each slightly different, packed with the unique flavours of each individual whisky.

"LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP"

Like a kid in a sweet shop

The petit fours were presented in a paper bag, with a menu card instructing me to smell it. So I did. It was scented with licorice, pear drops, gumballs, all the smells of a sweet shop. I closed my eyes and took in another breath, bringing back memories of cycling down to the sweet shop with my sisters and sneaking away with a bag of kola cubes. I ate the chocolate playing card and the delicious aerated mandarin chocolate and took home the apple caramel (with edible wrapper) and the coconut baccy to share just a smidgen of the experience with someone else.

Like a kid in a sweet shop

So there you go. The magical mystery tour was over, and I loved it. It is true, it did not "blow me away", but being blown away is over rated. What I experienced was an extremely well thought out menu, with some crazy touches which elevated the whole experience over your average meal. Great produce, intense flavours and flawless execution.


Fat Duck

And the service was immaculate. Although it took a while for the whole show to kick off, from the minute we were given our first dish, the team worked together seamlessly like cogs in a well oiled machine. Led by Daniel, the gracious Maitre'D, he made sure that the show kept moving forward. Little touches like folding the napkins, pushing the chair in when you sit down, cutlery mysteriously appearing as if it were set by an invisible dwarf hiding under the table. This is what 3 Michelin star service is and I want it everywhere I eat from now on.

There were a few issues. I really didn't like the fact that there was only one male toilet. I realise that there are only 42 covers but in the four and a half hours I was there, I went to the toilet twice, only to find one person already in the toilet and to my annoyance, another waiting already. We also shared a bottle of wine for the table and our first bottle we requested was unavailable. When we requested an alternative, we were pushed towards a much more expensive alternative. A pushy sommelier is definitely another black mark. Finally, the cost. At £185 all in, it wasn't the eye wateringly high cost it could have been had we taken the accompanying wine flight, but was still far and away the most expensive meal I have ever had.

So there it is. An amazing experience and even taking into account a few minor black marks, I would highly recommend this experience to anyone. There is good reason why this restaurant has been firmly lodged in the top three restaurants in the world for such a long time, and I heartily suggest you find out for yourself.

The Fat Duck - High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ

The Fat Duck on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Asians abroad - Eating with my uncle (Sydney part 1)

Scenic Sydney

As you may have noticed, I haven't been too productive on the blog front recently. Unfortunately, quitting my job and escaping to the other side of the world for three weeks has taken precedence, although I am now blessed with a wealth of new experiences from down under that I will be sharing with you over the next few blog posts.

So, after my brief stopover in Bangkok where all sorts of crazy things happened that could only possibly happen in Bangkok, I made my way to Sydney where I prepared myself to over indulge and catch up with friends and family. I thought long and hard how to do this, but I think a suitable barrage of mini posts will be appropriate.

One of the benefits of being Malaysian is that *controversial statement alert* not many Malaysians seem to want to stay in Malaysia. I have family spread far and wide, including a cousin in New York, auntie in Seattle, cousins in Melbourne and Singapore, and last but not least, my uncle in Sydney. I remember my last trip in 2001 where he was still a bachelor and zooming around in his convertible Z3. Ten years on, he is now married with two young kids, and I can honestly say that this trip was no less enjoyable, meeting my two young cousins for the first time. Gone has the bachelor pad in Pyrmont, now replaced by a rather beautiful residence in the hills of Kellyville, deep in the suburbs.

Dim Sum at Hilltop Pheonix, Castle Towers
Dim Sum at Hilltop Pheonix, Castle Towers

Being located so close to Asia, Australia seems to have a high percentage of Chinese migrants and this is reflected in the quality of Chinese food available on the streets. Instead of the small Chinatowns you find in many of the larger cities across the world, you find whole Chinese neighbourhoods where most of the shop signs are in Chinese and the wealth of South East Asian food available is quite overwhelming. Hilltop Pheonix in Castle Towers is a perfect example. A small suburb, a fair distance away from downtown Sydney, and you can find a high quality dim sum restaurant located on the top floor of a shopping center. A strange location for a restaurant, but it is buzzing and the turnover of tables is something to behold.

Dim Sum at Hilltop Pheonix, Castle Towers
Dim Sum at Hilltop Pheonix, Castle Towers

Within 4 hours of landing, I was feasting on seaweed and roast pork. The seaweed was so green that I suspected some chemical trickery was involved but the roast pork (siu yoke) had a great crunch and an (un)healthy band of tasty fat.

Dim Sum at Hilltop Pheonix, Castle Towers

Most dishes are of a decent standard, and the trolleys are a welcome novelty. Trolleys seem to have slowly been phased out in London but makes ordering far easier and I for one, am quite sad to see their demise. Having said that, although I enjoyed the food here, I can't help thinking that there is something lacking. I enjoyed the dumpling selection, with roasted meats and veggies freely available, but there was no prawn cheung fun (a staple dim sum dish) and the yam croquettes (normally my favourite dish) were cold and bland. A nice place, and mostly good but not great.

Sydney

In my short stay with my uncle, we also managed to visit one of these Chinese neighbourhoods. I forget which one but I do remember that nearly every single shop had Chinese on their hoardings, with pictures as visual aids for those not able to understand Mandarin or Cantonese. There were a variety of Asian delights on offer (of the gastronomic variety), but I was there for one thing and one thing only. Roasted meat. The Chinese really know how to cook the pig and with hunks of char siu (bbq) and siu yoke (crispy belly) hanging in the windows, how could I resist? As you can see in my rather reflective picture, there are a multitude of other roasted meats, ranging from duck to chicken and even squid, although the Chinese were pioneers of the "nose to tail" eating philosophy, with no part of the animal discarded. Intestines, liver, kidneys are all on offer.

So there starts my Sydney adventure. Stay tuned for more shortly...

Hilltop Pheonix - Shop U7, Castle Towers, Castle Hill NSW 2154

Hilltop on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 19, 2010

A tale of three cafes (Camberwell)

The Camberwell Shield

I often get a lot of stick for living in South London. I know this may come as quite a surprise, but there are a lot of haters out there (crazy, I know!). No variety, nowhere decent to go eat and drink, too many muggings, too ethnic, the criticisms continue unabated. I, however, am proud of living in South London and am here to champion it's cause.

My particular neighbourhood is Camberwell. Most of my regular readers already know this, I bang on about how great it is often enough and today, I am going to bang on about it a little more. You see, in the last week, whilst I have been...erm...freelancing from home, I have found the need to look for more local establishments to satisfy my lunchtime hunger pangs as well as providing me with my daily caffeine fix. Thankfully, I have discovered that I am rather spoilt for choice.


Love Walk Cafe

Love Walk Cafe
Love Walk Cafe

Located on the site of the unfortunate O Galo (a Portuguese restaurant which was only remarkable for the fact that it was always empty), Love Walk cafe was absolutely bustling when I walked in. I know it was lunch time, and that there are precious other alternatives in the area for the staff from the local hospital to get sustenance, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a nice change to see this place busy.

Love Walk Cafe

Inside is adorned with global trinkets and feels warm and cosy. As for the food, expect your standard cafe fare, sandwiches with coffee, smoothies and a limited range of hot foods. I fancied a heartier meal so opted for their full breakfast, which was average at best, but filled me up. So there you go, better than what was there before, but not stellar.

Love Walk Cafe - 81 Denmark Hill, Camberwell SE5 8RS

Love Walk Cafe and Deli on Urbanspoon


Cafe Bay

Cafe Bay

Located a few doors down from Love Walk cafe is Cafe Bay. It appears that the banh mi revolution has even reached Camberwell as these Vietnamese baguettes make up most of the menu here. Of course there are Western fillings, but seriously, why would you order a ham and cheese sandwich when you can get one filled with pate, caramelised pork, pickled vegetables and herbs.

Cafe Bay

I went for the Bay special with a Vietnamese iced coffee alongside. Filled with two types of pork, as well as that essential smattering of pate, I really enjoyed my banh mi. I am still seeking that elusive soft rice flour baguette (apparently banh mi 11 in Broadway market is where to go) but this was as good an example as I have tried. The iced coffee was thick and sweet, and the coffee sat on top of the condensed milk ready to be mixed together.

Cafe Bay

Cafe Bay does things simply but does them well. Their banh mi is delicious and the cafe is functional as opposed to beautiful. A nice place to have lunch and a benefit to the area.

Cafe Bay - 75 Denmark Hill, SE5 8RS

Cafe Bay on Urbanspoon


House Gallery and Cafe

House Cafe

The last of my happy trio of Camberwell cafes is House. So what makes this any different from the other two? Well, a few things actually. Firstly, it has a small gallery downstairs, something that the other two definitely don't have. If my memory serves me right, it was always a gallery and then they converted the downstairs space, whilst turning upstairs into a cafe.

House Cafe

The second point, and definitely the more pertinent for me, is that it has free wifi. Well, only before 12 and after 2, which is sensible as it dissuades the campers from taking up prime real estate during their lunch period. As there is no "kitchen" bar a sandwich toaster, the offerings are fairly limited but the sandwiches are all freshly prepared and actually look pretty stunning. Personally, I go there for a cup of coffee, somewhere to chill out and it has been one of my impromptu offices during the last week. It's a very welcoming place and perfect to wile away a few afternoon hours. Definitely check out their orange juice, freshly squeezed and delicious.

House - 70 Camberwell Church Street, London, SE5 8QZ

House Gallery and Cafe on Urbanspoon

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