Monday, 28 September 2009

Embrasse – 27 September 2009

Although my birthday was a couple of months ago, it has taken until now for me to feel like doing anything to mark it. I am not one for celebrating my own birthday anyway – the main question is why? – but it is a socially typical excuse for going to a nice restaurant, and I needed some normal justification.

My original plan had been to do the Dali exhibition and Cutler and Co for lunch/dinner on a Friday, but when I sent my mother the link to C&C’s website she replied with “gloomy” and “expensive” (having only noticed the meaty sharing dishes). I still think that we could have had a fabulous dinner at C&C, but the initial lack of enthusiasm dulled my interest. It is, however, still on my list of places to visit.

As PDC, Mamma needed to be happy to go to a particular restaurant, otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy myself at all. (This ruled out Shira Nui, as though she likes Japanese food she’s not as fanatical as I am. It also ruled out Attica, because it’s too avant garde.)

However, I remembered that a few months ago I had read The Age’s review of Embrasse, and then Ed’s review, and had mentally flagged it as somewhere that might actually interest my easily bored palate. I was also impressed that Nicolas Poelaert had worked at Michel Bras, which is on my “If I won the lottery” wishlist.

I pointed out to Mamma that they were offering venison, which sealed the deal.

The Dali exhibition was mentally stimulating, irritating crowds notwithstanding (“I really need to get back into painting with oils. I could paint like that, with practice and if people stopped interrupting me.”). After a walk around the city and Carlton in the extraordinarily cold weather that struck Melbourne over the weekend, we were happy to skip across to Embrasse.

At 7 o’clock, there were only two other diners, which was a welcome relief after the shrieks of bored NGV-attending children.

We were brought an aperitif menu, and water, and I had to make the usually difficult decision of what to eat.

My general rule when eating out is to have, and only have, what I cannot replicate at home. This usually hinges on produce and/or technique and/or specialised equipment. This also means I don’t eat out often because, with the exception of hatted restaurants, most run of the mill places don’t offer anything I can’t do (better) myself.

On that basis, and having been intrigued before, I went for the selection of root vegetables, mushroom/ink crumbs, 62C egg, wood sorrel, because I doubt I could slow cook an egg like that.

I was also interested in the smoked ocean trout, and the king prawns, and the meli melo, and the John Dory (even though I don’t really like white-fleshed fish or avocado), and the carrots and nettles with oat/golden syrup, and the cheeses. Another time…

Mamma, of course, had already made up her mind and went straight for the roasted venison, cauliflower, barberry, milk/shallot, wild water cress.

We also decided, since I was effectively having only a wee starter, and it was a cold night, that the famous aligot should be tested.

Very impressively, we were brought three types of house made bread – miniature wholemeal soda bread loaves, white rolls and slices of rosemary and oat bread. Mamma will no doubt go down in the annals of Melburnian dining as the woman who has got to the bottom of the bread basket at the finest restaurants, and tried all three (some twice…). I went for the rosemary and the soda bread, and enjoyed the butter with them.

The rosemary and oat bread was, by the by, unbelievably delicious.

We were also brought out two types of amuse bouche. One I didn’t pay much attention to because it had pancetta and therefore I would have to forego it. The other involved Roquefort and a single, beautiful fresh shiso leaf on the top. The Roquefort was divine – a tiny amount, but so flavourful.

After a relatively short wait, we were brought our dishes. I was far too inhibited to whip my camera out at that stage, but I wish I had.

The venison – slow cooked, then roasted – was brought out in two geometrical chunks, deliciously ruby-pink red inside. Though not a meat eater for 12 years, I could almost change my mind after seeing the plate. There was a beautiful floral floret of cauliflower, a splash of barberry sauce, the overall vision one of ruby and pearl.

The aligot was served in a copper saucepan with two forks for twiddling the stretchy mash into a more manageable dollop.

My root vegetables involved a trail of finely wrought and lightly cooked potato, carrot, shallot, possibly beetroot and I’ve no idea what else (swede? Turnip? It was all delicious, anyway), with crunchy black umami-rich chunks of crumbs and a white-veiled soft egg. The vegetables were intensely flavourful, as you only get with good ingredients that have been respected and highlighted by the chef. The crumbs provided a lovely flavour and textural nuance and the egg was not only extraordinary in its perfect, jellyish texture, but one of the best tasting eggs I’ve ever had.

The aligot was divinely cheesy and though slightly coronary-inducing, was welcome on a cold night.

I’m embarrassed to say I ogled the venison so much I almost feel as if I have eaten it.

Finally, the dessert option arose. I had an inkling that Embrasse would proffer desserts the like of which I would never manage at home and therefore had to be enjoyed as the opportunity arose.

Mamma made the choice of chocolate parfait, meringue, chocolate crumb, sorrel granita.

The name is very subtle, because what came out was far more extraordinary. And at this point, I overcame my camera shyness. I also overcame my dessert-antipathy.

Mushrooms! Growing out of the soil!

The base of the mushroom was the meringue, the caps were the parfait (which tasted a bit hazelnutty), the crumbs made up the soil, the sorrel granita the moss. The leaf skeleton was a sort of langue du chat type biscuit.

Parfait was parfait! I could have eaten bowls of it. The meringue was delightfully crunchy, the leaf melted in the mouth, the crumb soil moist, dense, dark and intense. The sorrel granita provided a lovely fresh, zingy counterpart to the chocolate.

It was the best dessert I have ever seen, or eaten.

For me, Embrasse was as much a feast for the eyes as the palate; quite appropriate after an afternoon of brain-stimulating art.

I can highly recommend it – the food was superb, the service prompt, friendly and accommodating.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Exciting food finds

Though I absolutely hate Prahran, with its messiness and peculiar mix of cashed-up narcissistic wannabe-hipsters and barking mad drug addicts, it is one of the crucial gastronomic destinations in Melbourne.

Firstly, there is the obvious Prahran Market. Though I know there are lots and lots of interesting stalls – and thank god I don’t live nearby enough to go often, or I’d be bankrupt – the organic shop that fronts onto Elizabeth Street is a must-visit, as I have found it to be extremely competitive price-wise. They sell Zeally Bay sourdough for the extremely reasonable price of around $5.50 (only a dollar more than the now mass-produced and very disappointing Pane di Casa from boring old Baker’s Delight – which does not delight), whilst other places often put a dollar or two on top of that. They also always have some very cheap organic fruit and vegetables. We got watermelon for 90 cents a kilo, grapes for 2.95 a kilo, an enormous half of red cabbage for $3 and bananas for 1.99 a kilo. This is less than conventionally farmed produce, on special, at the supermarket. On a good day.

Hilariously, and weirdly, the organic apples (including the biggest Granny Smiths I’ve ever seen – amazing, given that organic produce can be on the small side) and many other items were a lot cheaper than the conventional produce at other stalls. Very strange…

They also sell more interesting items like red quinoa, which I must go back for when I run out of my white quinoa, and several varieties of organic/biodynamic milk. Nom nom nom. (I am very partial to unhomogenised organic milk, though I am not extreme enough to go for the full cream. That said, the Aphrodite “bathing” milk intrigues...)

Along with the fresh items, we bought some organic black bean spaghetti which, as a semi vegetarian, piqued my interest for its amazing protein levels. 41%! Can’t wait to try it, and it was an exciting thrill for $4.50.

Secondly, there is The Essential Ingredient. My mother was a bit mystified a couple of years ago when I went there and came home raving about it. When she visited on Friday, she understood – and then said, “Why didn’t you rave about it more?!”

We will be returning for the Australian black peppercorns, the interesting bulk packs of Lindt chocolate, and (oh gorgeous) the muffin-sized mini guglehopf tins (WANT)…

Thirdly, there is Fuji Mart.

As a devotee of Asian grocers, Fuji Mart ranks pretty damn high up because of the fascinating $2.50 kitchenware/homeware section, where you can get cute Engrish notebooks, pens, damp-absorbing containers, face masks, daikon graters, chopsticks, bottle brushes and bento boxes for less than the price of a really crap coffee. More amazingly, once Mama had pillaged the bargain section, and got some incredibly reasonable sencha matcha, we also got a stamped loyalty card and a free packet of I’m-not-quite-sure-what. I think it’s an okonomyaki packet mix… Further investigations will be required, but free stuff is always a winner.

Jacques Reymond, 17 April 2009

After a few questions enquiring where she would like to go for her birthday, my mother’s only response was “somewhere French”. As she did not want to be anywhere near the city centre, this ruled out Vue de Monde, Bistro Guillaume and The Brasserie, but left a number of possibilities. After I pointed out the exceedingly high ranking of Restaurant Jacques Reymond by both Gourmet – second in Melbourne, only after Vue de Monde, and The Age – the only three-hatted restauant – not to mention the pretty Victorian mansion setting, my mother agreed that this would be suitable.

On Friday afternoon, then, we arrived at the restaurant – after nearly missing it, so discreetly signed on Williams Road, and having an interesting time getting the car through the slightly narrow gate posts.

The house itself is tastefully decorated, with walls in a very Parisian shade of grey and aubergine, tangerine and leaf green upholstery and accents. On a side table in the hallway, next to the current volume of the Relais and Chateaux guide, was a bowl of enormous wild pine mushrooms.

We were greeted by an extremely charming member of staff, who looked after us throughout the meal and managed the astounding job of making easy, polite conversation with us and the other diners, whilst attending to all gastronomic needs. I have read reviews commenting on the excellent service at Jacques Reymond and, unlike so many other places, this is entirely true.

Seated by the window, we had views out onto the courtyard which featured outdoor dining tables (surely lovely on a summer evening) and olive trees which were thriving enough to bear lots of fruit.

The tables were laid with crisp white tablecloths, Swiss (I think) glassware, Christofle cutlery and Bernaudaud porcelain. We were brought menus and the wine list which dazzled (not for the credit crunched, but extraordinary in its length and breadth). Freshly baked rolls and house-churned butter (something which had helped convince my mother that this would be a tolerable venue for lunch), and chilled water were brought while we attempted to choose our dishes.

The lunch menu allows diners to choose two, three or four courses, with perhaps a dozen or more savoury entrée-sized options and around five desserts.

We decided to go for two savoury courses each, which admittedly did not make the decisions any easier. I was unusually lucky given the number of possibilities. I am a fish (but not meat) eater who hates the vegetarian food typically available (all vegetarians know the sort – let’s compensate for the lack of meat by killing the diner with oil, cream, butter and cheese), and this is coupled by an intense hatred of rich and excessively portioned food (a pet hate is thoughtless dishes with too many rich ingredients together, e.g. salmon and cream, when there should be more contrast).

(I am particularly irritated, as well, by the way almost all restaurants in Melbourne seem to offer vegetarians either a pumpkin, soft cheese and pine nut dish or a beetroot and goat’s cheese dish. There are other things we like to eat too! And as these are fairly cheap and easily replicated dishes, I refuse to pay proper money for them. and I despise a “chef” for whom this is the zenith of their originality in vegetarian cuisine.)

Exceptionally, Jacques Reymond features French-ish Asian-ish dishes, which are thoughtfully composed and sensibly sized.

I was spoilt for choice. In such instances, one tends to go for dishes which would be difficult to make at home, either owing to a lack of special ingredients or equipment or patience.

The waiter brought out the bowl of wild mushrooms I had admired in the hallway, explaining that they had been brought in from country Victoria after conditions had been suitable for their growth, and enquired whether either of us would be interested in the chef preparing something with them. I have never wittingly had wild mushrooms, and I still feel cheated that when we went to The Lake House last year there weren’t any on the menu. This interested me immensely.

Having established that the filling would not be fatty, like the unfortunate pork belly she had had at another inferior establishment, Mama went for pork cheek dumplings in dashi, and veal with spaezele.

Though enticed by the thought of kingfish, buckwheat and miso, I deemed this too similar to things I cook anyway. A similar rationale ruled out the house-smoked trout and horseradish.

I therefore went for the Tasmanian oysters and sashimi tuna with truffled sour cream, and the off-menu suggestion of a wild pine mushroom risotto.

The oysters and dumplings were brought out first. Mama’s comment on the dumplings was that they were fluffy like Yorkshire puddings, which seemed like an odd comparison but she pointed out that this was no bad thing, given how much she likes Yorkshire pudding. The pork cheek was, she reported, lean and very flavoursome – presumably, given the cut of meat, it had been braised for a long time. The dashi stock was apparently delicious, and was mopped up with bread, leaving nary a trace.

My dish was brought out on a rectangular glass plate. Four large oysters were set on little piles of salt. The oyster flesh was topped with the most finely sliced, and intensely sweetly oniony shallots/spring onions and salmon (?) roe. Underneath the flesh was micro-diced tuna, which melted in the mouth. I have only ever had one oyster before in my life, out of curiosity, at South Melbourne Market where you can get oyster shots for the ludicrously reasonable price of $1. My experience at Jacques Reymond was, however, several orders of magnitude better.

After an appropriate interlude, and more bread, the second dishes came out. The veal was topped by around four, eight inch long giant (grissini-sized) spaezele, which were apparently crunchy on the outside and pleasantly chewy on the inside. The veal looked very tender, rosy pink on the inside, and was accompanied by fennel, peas, (I think) grapefruit segments and microherbs.

My risotto was generously portioned, and the quantity of mushrooms used (fried until slightly crisp in butter) was extraordinarily luxurious. The mushrooms were magnificent – flavoursome and incredibly meaty in texture. I know, as a semi-vegetarian, that mushrooms are often touted as a good substantial meat substitute, but (with the exception of vast field or portabello mushrooms – and even then, something is lacking) this sometimes seems like wishful thinking.

Not in the case of the pine mushrooms. They were stunning. The risotto was delicately flavoured, with just enough bite for each grain, and garnished with shaved parmesan.

The meal ended with coffee and petit fours. Mama’s cappuccino was large, with a good dense foam and did not appear to be excessively weak. My macchiato was possibly the best I’ve ever had, the coffee being very smooth, sweet and nutty. I don’t know what beans they use, but it exceeded the (very good) Genovese macchiato I had at Healesville Harvest last year, which itself had eclipsed all the others I’ve had around Melbourne.

The petit fours were very petite, but this was only appropriate. Furthermore, as I discovered, they were also so divine and intensely flavoured, that one simply did not need more. A crisp base, they seemed to be tiny lemon curd filled cakelets, about three centimetres in diameter and topped by a large fresh (and, in turn, delicious) blueberry. The combination of the crunchy exterior and lusciously smooth tart interior was perfect, but, I suspect, far too fiddly for me to feel inclined to replicate at home.

In short, it was a fabulous lunch, and at $48 a head ludicrously good value, and one neither felt underfed nor dangerously dyspeptic. My only quibble was that there were no vegetarian options on the actual menu, though I’m sure that the chefs would be more than happy to rustle something up on request, as my mushroom risotto demonstrated.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Double the wine, double the fun?

Alright, that’s overstating it.

Pears are clearly in season right now, and the incredibly low prices reflect this. Being a seasonal sort of shopper, I can’t resist picking up a kilo or so, but this then leaves me wondering what to do.

Having bought some beurre boscs, I had to think about how I would cook them. I thought about a tart, but the previous week I had made apple and pear almondy tarts, and I thought it would be overkill to have pastry two weeks running. So I settled on a cake – but a prettier one than I would usually manage.

Inspired by this recipe, I decided to poach the pears in wine: half in red, and half in white. I then made an almondy cake batter, poured it into a tin and arranged the alternating pear slices on top. For once I managed to make something that actually looked good!

Recipe: Two-Wine Pear Almond Cake

3 beurre bosc pears
100g sugar
3 cardamom pods
½ cup each of white and red wine

80g soft butter
50g sugar
3 eggs
150g plain flour
50g almond meal
20g chestnut flour
Vanilla essence

Peel the pears, slice in half and core. Put the wine in two separate saucepans with 50g sugar and about half of the bashed cardamom in each. Medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Add three pear halves to each pan. Cook until the pears are softened (this took about 45 minutes). Remove pears, turn up the heat and reduce the poaching liquid until thick and syrupy.

Slice the pears thinly.

Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees.

Put the softened butter into the bowl of a mixer along with the sugar and beat until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well. Add the vanilla – as much as you like. I like a lot. Sift the flour into the mixer, along with the almond meal, and mix to combine. Add the white wine poaching liquor.

Pour into a greased and floured 9” springform tin. Arrange the pear slices, alternating red with white. Pour over the red wine poaching syrup.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin, then remove. Serve with icing sugar and sour cream.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Putting the "oooh" into frugal

Yet another article on food waste and how to avoid or take advantage of leftovers – I would like to think that the growing plethora of such articles indicates that people are more conscious that what they are currently doing is completely unsustainable.

For example, whilst Kylie Kwong rather irritates me on TV, she makes a very powerful point when she says, "if I throw out a kilo of white rice, I'm also wasting the 2385 litres of water that it took to grow that rice".

I have particular sympathy for the ethos espoused by Detmar Haupt, who attributes his minimised waste to control freaky precision. Since I took over as the Knight of the Kitchen Realm a couple of years ago, kitchen waste has been eliminated.

Firstly, we buy very little that comes in a packet. The only packety food we typically buy consists of milk, cheese, tinned tomatoes, tinned sardines, pasta, rice and lentils. Most of this is recyclable. As for kitchen waste, there's very little of that. Offcuts are either eaten by me, or the guinea pig (with the exception of large amounts of melon rind, or potato peelings, the latter being toxic). Consequently, the kitchen bin (25L) is emptied once a week and is often only half-full. It's a small thing, but I have also discovered that one does not die if one eats an apple in its entirety. Contrary to what my stepmother says, if you eat the seeds, a plant won't grow in your intestines…

I've also learnt that unless there's a really enormous amount of mould (and a little bit of forward planning – i.e., if you know something is perishable, use it FIRST), most leftover stuff is probably okay to eat. Obviously not if it's raw chicken/pork/seafood, but judicious refrigeration and reheating can easily keep food for a few days after its initial cook.

Whilst we buy an enormous amount of fresh food, which doesn’t come in lots of packaging – and I am increasingly avoiding plastic bags when buying loose fruit and vegetables – we never buy more than we intend to eat. Come Saturday morning, the crisper is inevitably empty. This also makes regular fridge cleans an easy task.

It's probably just as well we don't try to compost, because I doubt there'd be enough to feed a heap.

The additional benefit to all of this is that we spend far less at the supermarket in dollar terms (this is amplified when you take into account inflation) than we did ten years ago, and we eat far better too.

It is also worthwhile accurately portioning out food before it is cooked. I have got used to using measuring cups and my electronic scales so that I know how much pasta/rice/quinoa/lentils is right for one or two portions. It's not hard. By all means cook an excessive amount, but have a plan for how that will be used for another meal. If you're not prepared to do meal plans, don't shop and cook to excess. Easy.

In other news, a scan of the pantry shelves this morning revealed that in the last four or so months, I have made over 30 jars of jam/marmelade/chutney, many of which cost virtually nothing to make because the fruit (figs, blackberries - yes, they have a use, and since we don't use sprays they were organic) came from the garden. And the fruit that I did buy, at super-cheap South Melbourne market, was invariably less than $2 a kilo.

If you have never eaten blackberry and lime jam, I urge you to try making it. Ditto fig and lime.

Indeed, to ensure that nothing was wasted, I made eight jars of jam yesterday afternoon (fig, blood plum).

Between this and the spoils of Coles getting rid of Bonne Maman for 99¢ a few months ago, we are jammed up for the next year.

I would say that the most useful culinary skill I have acquired in the last year is preserving (or at least equal first with sourdough-making). Given that we would otherwise be looking at paying around $4 for a smallish jar of jam (if not more), knowing how to do it oneself could be very cost effective.

My other super secret tip for jam is to go to places like the A1 bakery and middle eastern grocers, because we have scoffed some unbelievably good Syrian apricot jam, which was very reasonably priced.

On a slightly different note, the Guardian's food blog Word of Mouth continues to be worth a read - this post is no exception. Read the comments. Laugh.