Sunday, 24 April 2011

A sinister purpose

Inevitably, an article on technology's infiltration of the dining room was going to raise the topic of bloggers and photographers, and, inevitably, that the article was published in the mainstream press suggested to me that it would be hostile to new media in general.

But was this really necessary?
“Going to a restaurant has always been a privilege and a pleasure,” says [David] Coomer, of Pata Negra. “It’d be great for people to realise that.

“Bloggers aren’t really there for a purpose, as they have a more sinister purpose. These days chefs are under a constant review process and, yes, it does shit me.”
 1. These days? Sorry? In a sense, we are always reviewing a restaurant, cafe, chef etc whenever we go out. We may tell friends that the food was ace, or the fish overcooked, or the waiter negligent, that we saw a rat trap near the kitchen door (and worse - says I who had an unspeakable experience in Camberwell many years ago). Blogging just formalises those reviews and makes them available to a wider audience.

2. Sinister purpose? I doubt that many bloggers go to restaurants simply to have some material for rude comments later. Most blog reviews seem to involve the author coughing up their own hard-earned money - unlike restaurant reviewers - and I for one am not going to throw dollars at a meal if I expect or want it to be rubbish.

That's why it's even more irksome if it's not quite up to scratch - and many failings I have seen crop up in reviews (professional and amateur) seem to hinge on simple mistakes, like under/over seasoning or under/over cooking flesh. Professional chefs shouldn't make these errors. That's why they are paid to cook.

3. Mr Coomer's comments do, however, sum up what is wrong with retail and hospitality in general in Australia - the customer is always wrong. Whatever happened to trying to please people, without whom they would be out of a job? If people aren't happy with a meal, rather than childishly throwing insults and whingeing, why not find out whether there is some good reason for the complaint, and use it to improve in the future?

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Most Awful Birthday Cake Ever

Really, I should just write a picture book with this title and at least make some cash out of the experience.

So despite having no cake decorating skills, I promised to make a Very Hungry Caterpillar cake for my twin cousins' fourth birthday.

And naturally, a few more spanners were thrown into the works:

  • One twin has multiple food allergies (nuts, dairy*, etc), which I struggle to keep track of. The poor boy missed out on his official birthday cake because the caterers included forbidden walnuts.
  • Both twins are largely unexposed to artificial colourings and other potential stimulants, and I am not going to be responsible for causing such exposure.
  • The cake had to be kosher and vegetarian, so gelatine was out of the question and I wasn't in the mood to experiment with agar agar or carageenan.
  • The mother is a health nut (and I have some sympathy for this) so anything using half a kilo of sugar wasn't going to go down very well.
I knew I could make red colouring pretty easily with the powdered freeze-dried raspberries, procured from The Essential Ingredient some time ago. If I needed it, purple/blue could easily be done with mashed up blueberries. But green was a bit of a problem.

I remembered seeing amazing lurid green things on Food Safari which involved pandan. However, all the pandan colourings I found in Asian grocers seemed to rely on artificial colours like 102 (tartrazine – which certainly sets me off into a hyperactive state of lunacy). Eventually I found fresh pandan leaf at the Therry Street Minh Phat (along with many other fascinating things).

Googling had assured me that pounding the pandan with a pestle and mortar and/or whizzing it in a food processor would mash the cell walls sufficiently to release some vivid green juice. Both methods failed for me, and I found that the pandan leaves demonstrated the sort of structural resilience worthy of Kevlar.

I managed to extract a wee dribble of green.

Aware that I couldn't waste a drop, I mixed this with some cornflour, milk, and a lot of sugar – the first two ingredients to try to make the icing a little less transparent. I then boiled this in a saucepan to thicken up the mixture and try to get it to a more controllable consistency.

Still rather pale… Argh.

The red was easy. I just mixed the powdered raspberries with sugar and water until I had a dark ruby paste. Thank god something worked.

For the cake itself, I made a simple sponge, beating organic butter with raw, organic vanilla-infused sugar until pale and fluffy. I then added three large eggs, more vanilla, and folded in wholemeal organic spelt flour (well mixed with baking powder).

The mixture went into a well-greased and floured balmoral tin and baked at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes.

The next problem was that the cake was nicely browned on the outside, and the lack of marzipan (nuts!) or very opaque fondant-type icing meant that the cake colour would show through. One solution was to cut off some of the crust, revealing the rather eggy-yellow crumb.
So you'd think I would have done that, right?


After waiting for it to cool, I glazed the cake with some homemade apricot jam. I then started to apply the green and red icing. It became apparent that the colours were not remotely intense nor opaque enough to make a significant difference to the cake's overall appearance.

Aware that time was running out, and I had no other options, I painted the cake with green and red icing, moulded some excess green icing into button-like eyes and split a segment of spent vanilla pod into thin strips to act as antennae. A trick a shamelessly stole from Heston Blumenthal, who did this for his BFG's cherry stalk.

The cake was, however, graciously received by the twins, who were delighted to have something that was iced (even ineptly) and that they were permitted to eat.

I promise myself that I will refine my natural food colouring technique (or indeed cultivate one) before the twins’ fifth birthday (with this in mind). Because by the standards of kids’ birthday cakes, this really wasn’t up to scratch.

Any tips out there in ye blogosphere for getting decent, naturally-coloured icing? Other than buying really expensive stuff from overseas…?

*My other flub was to use butter in the cake, completely unaware at the time that dairy was a no-no. However, no effects (ill or otherwise) were apparently noted. I wouldn't recommend this laxity for people with serious food allergies.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

16 April 2011 - Vue de Monde

After the Lake House in 2008, Jacques Reymond in 2009, and The Fat Duck in 2010, the list of remaining knockout restaurants for celebrating my mother’s birthday was starting to look very short indeed. Essentially, only one three hat restaurant was left in Melbourne (although I note that AGT has awarded Cutler & Co that status - watch this space… it was on my list anyway): Vue de Monde.

My mother has already been to Cafe Vue and Bistro Vue, and I have merely pored over Shannon Bennett’s Vue de Monde book (though still rather daunted by many of the recipes. I think I’ve only made one thing out of it. Oops. Watch this space too).

There was much media excitement about VdM’s planned move to the Rialto, which was discussed as though it would be complete by April 2011, but I since discovered that the timeline has extended somewhat, and the official move is not until 20th June. It did at least mean that I have had the chance to see what will soon be the “old” VdM.

Since it was a birthday, my mother had breakfast in bed with some of her Herend china: fresh espresso, organic milk, a croissant from La Tropezienne, Tiptree Loganberry jam, home-made peach and vanilla jam, poached egg & fleur de sel. And, not quite as tone-lowering as you might think, Whittaker’s chocolate.

Lunch was Latvian rye bread, homemade quince and grape relish and pyrenero cheese, with nuts and a green salad.

After seeing Potiche at Como and only just managing to get on a train in time, we made our way to VdM in Little Collins Street, and were warmly greeted. We were seated right next to the kitchen, and although I’m not sure my  mother was overly thrilled about this, I am very nosy and spent most of the night watching chefs placing microherbs on plates, and swigging huge quantities of water in between slaving.

The table was set with Nachtmann glasses, Laguiole cutlery, salt, pepper and Echire butter. I’ve had the unsalted Echire in England (available from the supermarket. God I miss English supermarkets), but not the demi-sel. So I was looking forward to that.

Not being big drinkers (or in my case, not drinking at all - I was planning to drive home), we politely refused aperitifs and champagne, although I’m sure that for those of sterner livers something delicious would have been produced.

Andreas (really András, as it turned out) guided us through the menu options - menu gourmand, of five savoury courses and add-on dessert and cheese courses, or the chef’s menu/menu gastronome of around ten courses including truffles. Which I am sure is amazing, but I predicted I would be more than satisfied with the former option. I did encourage my mother to have whatever interested her (chef’s menu included), but she went for the menu gastronome (plus dessert) in the end.
Sensibly, András gauged dietary restrictions and preferences very early on, and immediately understood my pescetarian leanings without my having to explain. This meant that there were no unexpected, unpleasant chickeny surprises. The sommelier, whose name I have forgotten but who was excellent, also had a chat with us about wine, and my mother indicated that she would like a glass of red with her red meat course. More on that later.

The first stage, though not a course, comprised the amuse bouches. The first was smoked eel, with a crispy slightly sweet shell, some white chocolate, and caviar on top. I love eel, and haven’t had enough of it, so I enjoyed this. The slight sweetness with the crunch and saltiness was weirdly delicious. Other amuses were spoons of something I can’t remember but which I think were sashimi-style bluefin tuna (ethical reservations aside), tuna marrow served in a vertebra on top of tapioca sand (nutty, delicious, Fat Duck-ish), very pretty little transparent ravioli with (I think) buttermilk, and tiny pencil-like carrots with (possibly) microherb accents.

House-made rolls were offered - sourdough, and multigrain. I had a sourdough, my mother had multiples of each, and both were very good. The demi-sel butter was excellent, and I think that in this case the demi-sel Echire was better than  the unsalted I’d had a year ago. I normally prefer unsalted, but this was really fantastic.

The first proper course then came out - heirloom organic tomatoes, grown in the Macedon area, with smoking tomato consomme poured from a jug. What I liked about this was its lightness and freshness, and though there was a bit of chemistry with the dry iced consomme, there was very little messing around with the ingredients. I think some goats’ cheese was involved, which always makes me happy. I am gaga about caprine products. Oh, and salmon roe. And finger limes.

Next was the egg course. I had recently read Oliver Thring’s Consider the Egg, and my head was already full of “one egg is un oeuf” lines, so this seemed quite appropriate.

The chef - whose name I have forgotten, despite it being embroidered on his whites (I am so sorry, Monsieur) - explained this to us. A slow cooked duck egg yolk, atop celeriac puree (the egg white), with onions, crouton bits, pig fat sauce for the omnis and onion sauce for the peskys.

This was so, so much better than it sounds. I’ve never tasted such fabulously sweet and yet tart onions before, the onion sauce was rich in flavour but not heavy on the palate, and the slow cooked yolk was the most fabulously silky texture I’ve ever experienced. Presumably this is the duck factor, as I have had slow cooked eggs before. In any case, it was amazing. The bread was definitely needed to soak up all of the yolk and sauce.

To be honest, I could’ve licked the plate. I would’ve done at home. It’s right up there as one of the night’s top tastes.

The third course was marron. I’ve been dying to try marron for ages now, and never had the opportunity to do so or the means of procuring one. This was served on a black stone, with a crab-filled biscuit and (I think) beurre noisette sauce. Butter anyway.

We were encouraged to eat this with fingers, which was more than fine by me. After the first bite of marron and butter sauce, I commented that it should be made illegal. The marron was great, too. Like the best prawn, on steroids. Now I just need to have fresh lobster and my shellfish yearnings will be sated.

The fish course was next - bluefin tuna toro (i.e. The fatty belly bit) with wasabi foam and (I think - memory hazy already) some pretty mandolin-shaved baby vegetables. Obviously I have qualms about tuna because of the overfishing, and I normally don’t have it at all. It’s nice to have an exception once in a while, though.

Assuming I haven’t mis-remembered the order, the palate cleanser was next. This was the sorbet and granita with lime, with the most pea-ish pea ever on the top. The elderflower took me back to childhood summers in England and really brought this to another level. The granita was divine, the sorbet wonderfully smooth (as good as the ones at The Fat Duck). I could’ve happy eaten a bucketload of this. Really. One of my favourite things all night.

Then the final savoury course - slow (10-12 hours) wagyu beef cheeks with mashed potato for Maman, rockling with fondant potatoes and radishes for me. My mother said the mashed potato was amazing - I smirked, aware of how much butter would have gone in. My rockling was perfectly cooked, with a crispy bread wafer on top, the overall effect not dissimilar to breadcrumbed fish but obviously rather more gourmet. The fondant potatoes were cute little spheres, and the radish tops added a welcome bitter edge.

I’m somewhat immune to the charms of white-fleshed fish, so this wasn’t a standout, but it was well executed. The beef cheeks were highly regarded. The sommelier also had consulted Maman about wine for this course, and having ascertained her pinot preference, brought out a Paradigm Hills pinot noir. This was one of the best smelling wines I’ve ever caught a whiff of, and I had to keep sticking my nose into the glass to breathe in the scent. Very good aroma, and apparently an excellent flavour, especially with the beef. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was only $19 for a glass, which by pro-rata prohibitive per-glass pricing seems extremely reasonable. Not to mention sensible on the sommelier’s part, that he didn’t go for Hill of Grace or similar.

Our thoughts regarding dessert were sought - I declined, Mama expressed a need for something with chocolate and berries, but nothing more specific. I had ogled the cheese board, but was flagging by that stage - I am sure it would be excellent.

But first - a surprise dessert. Two spherical, exploding lollipops, and “lemonade” (in a lab-style brown glass jar with a straw). The lemonade was fuming dry-ice mist, and was tangy, fizzy raspberry. The lollipops sat on biscuit-coloured rubble. They were coated in white chocolate (my secret, shameful pleasure), deliciously cool frozen innards, with popping candy (and more comprising the rubble). I missed out on popping candy as a child - it wasn’t around, as far as I experienced, in 1980s/90s England, so this was great fun. And a total surprise - I had thought that the non-desserters wouldn’t get anything like that.

Then came “pre-dessert”, for Maman - rather amusingly served in a yogurt pot (like the organic ones with the green lids you at the supermarket). This had yogurt mousse/creme, granola and strawberries. My mother graciously let me have a taste - the yogurt component was superb, and I would love a breakfast like that. She also commented that everyone must surely like the idea of a PRE-dessert.

Proper dessert came out - strawberries, coffeeish chocolatey soil, sorbet, meringues, italian meringue. Again, I was permitted to taste and got a lovely mouthful of the sorbet and italian meringue. Bit pavlova ish. In a good way.

Nearing the end, came petit-fours and coffee. I didn’t want a huge coffee hit, so András suggested Clever Coffee Dripper ethiopian coffee. I should’ve taken pictures of this as it was brilliantly presented. (And yes, 5 Senses seem to have been the go-to people for coffee at VdM. Apparently, post-Rialto-VdM will have a zillion fancy coffee options, so that should be worth examining.) This ended up being a very unusual, light, almost tea-like coffee, with very definite citrusy flavours. A nice change from the arse-kicking espressos I have in the morning.

Petit-fours came out: a lemony jube, covered in sugar; a lamington (saved until last, for when my coffee was ready to drink); a rose and rosemary marshmallow (really good), and; an ashtray, in a cigar box, complete with sherbety ash and some “fag ends” (ha!).

The lamington turned out to be a sort of moussey thing, and astonishingly light. Most excellent, and a very generous selection.

We chatted with András, and the exacting French head chef (who said he loves Bistro Vue and goes there whenever he can, even though it reminds him of work), and were invited to take a tour of the kitchen which I think is utterly, utterly fantastic. Ordinarily I would’ve been raring to go but I was worried about missing trains (it was much later than I’d thought), and had to decline - next time. In any case, I think it’s brilliant that diners get the chance to see a) what’s going on all night and b) have a proper neb at the kitchen and talk to the chefs. Really unusual, in my experience (direct and vicarious) and a good way of humanising the experience.

Perhaps the best bit of all was that as we left, happily nattering away, we were met at the door by Garrett who gave us brown paper carrier bags, subtly printed with Vue de Monde, with “tomorrow’s breakfast”.

Inside, we discover brioche, jam, granola, ingredients for a tisane, and biscuits. Thereby securing VdM’s position in the Fat Duck-echelon of delightful surprises - only, if anything, better because more practical.

So. Vue de Monde. Happily surprising, entertaining, generous, well-staffed, friendly, well-executed and - all in all - a very worthy experience.