Spice, Spice, Baby!!!

Red Spice Road (RSR) is one of my all-time favourites ever since I visited a few years ago. The restaurant serves Thai food with an Australian interpretation and is often compared to the likes of Gingerboy and Longrain. Traditional Thai food has a special emphasis on the use of different spices and herbs to enhance flavours without one overpowering the other. It is this balance that is tricky and hard to capture, but RSR does just that. Here, spice thankfully doesn’t translate to tongue-numbing sensations. Rather, you find yourself unable to resist a third and fourth (if anyone on the table hasn’t rapped your knuckles yet) serving of the delicious and beautifully presented food. RSR is a foodies dream and a dieter’s nightmare. There is a quagmire of temptations and you have to wonder if it is even worth resisting your urges. Afterall, why would your body lie to you? :)

For those who enjoy contemporary dining, RSR is aesthetically pleasing. As you enter, your gaze drifts immediately to the large orbs suspended from the ceiling. Delicately spun, they resemble orbs of moon. RSR also has a huge wall-space dedicated to one of David Bromley’s painting that can be an eye-opener for elderly. Don’t bring Nana here if she is the more conservative kind. I don’t think my parents batted an eye-lid when they came here for dinner one night, although Dad was a bit wistful that he couldn’t really see his food. The lighting is fairly dimmed at nighttime to impart a romantic mood, but the trade-off is that it is hard to take photos of the food. So arrive during the day to capture those Kodak moments. RSR is also home to one of the most gigantic red lanterns I have ever come across. I think it lights up at night to create a festive atmosphere and it floats above an equally impressive horse-shoe shape wooden table. I know a few diners dislike sitting in close proximity with their neighbors but I find this aspect of communal dining reflective of South-East Asia. There is enough space that you won’t find yourself knocking elbows with each other. Another plus is that you get to see the different dishes being ordered and you can even strike up a conversation with fellow diners. For those who crave personal space or wish to host functions, there is the option of booking a private room for your enjoyment.

If you need another reason to come and try RSR, here it is: they offer fantastic value for food. Really! Their lunch banquet is very popular and you can’t really argue with paying $25 for an appetizer and three mains of your choice with rice. The dishes are all generously portioned and I haven’t dined with anyone who is able to polish off all the food. For those who fancy themselves big-eaters, there is the $50 lunch banquet or you can order a la Carte. If you are spending a night out with friends in town, be sure to invite them to try the Earlybird special or dinner banquets at RSR as a rollicking good time is almost guaranteed.

During the week, I caught up with a few friends over lunch at RSR to try out their latest offerings. The lunch banquet changes once every two weeks so you won’t get bored – variety is the spice of life eh? To kick things off, we enjoyed the appetizer which was Tom Kha (spicy coconut broth with prawn and chicken) tremendously. Instead of bowls, the soup was served in a tea-cup on a long green leaf. Deliciously creamy with a slight fiery heat to the back of the throat, the medley of spices in this soup would be perfect for a cold Winter’s day. There was a whole prawn and shredded chicken at the base of the cup which we picked up with the chopsticks. We all agreed that it was a great start. For mains, we ordered: (1) Pork Belly with Chilli Caramel, Black Vinegar and Apple Slaw; (2) Beef Red Curry with Potato; and (3) Yum Talay – Prawn, Squid and Barramundi Salad with Chilli, Herbs and Lemongrass. Another dish that sounded interesting was the Chicken with Soup Cart Broth, Water Spinach, Basil, Peanuts and Beanshoots. We hesitated with ordering this dish because we were not sure what soup cart broth meant. Our friendly waitress zoomed off with our orders and left us to trade stories with each other. Service is unobtrusive at RSR as we were for the most part unaware of our glasses being refilled and plates cleared throughout lunch.

I mentioned that the lunch menu changes every fortnight. But the one item that is never taken off is the pork belly. It is one of the signature dishes of RSR and enjoys a God-like status amongst food served at this place. Almost everyone I know who has been to RSR cannot stop raving about the pork belly. They mightn’t remember what else they had, but they always reminisce about this one. As ridiculous as it sounds, squabbles have arisen as to who gets the last piece. It is seriously that good and memorable. Generous squares of the softest, most tender meat sit lazily in a pool of dark honey-coloured caramel. Like hidden treasures, they are covered by crisp green apple slaw which elicit contented sighs when eaten together with the sticky pork belly. A little jug of black vinegar is provided and we drizzle it over the scrumptious meat – elevating it to another level of sweet and sour. I can’t quite taste the chilli caramel but who cares?! We absolutely love the visual appeal and how the skin crackles, and the melt-in-your-mouth fat that surrounds parcels of pork. The fragrance of the entire dish served on piping hot rice is so enjoyable that we now understand the pork belly’s cult-like following. And no, we didn’t fight over the last piece because my friends were nice enough to let me have it. Or perhaps they caught sight of the slight maniacal gleam in my eye, whatever it is, I scored the last piece. Hooray for me!

By comparison, the red beef curry with potato was a little bit of a let down. We didn’t feel that there was anything very special with this dish. The meaty chunks of beef were tender but didn’t carry much of the flavour of the red curry that it was immersed in. We spooned the curry on to our rice and tried our best to finish the dish but we were defeated in the end. It was a heavy dish and so the next one was a very welcome change of scenery for our stomachs.

Initially, we were surprised by the generous mix of prawns, calamari and barrumundi included in the Yum Talay. I thought that there would be small gold nuggets of barrumundi but instead, white barrumundi flesh was stripped and tossed throughout the herbacious salad. My fears of it being fishy soon dissipated when I tried a tiny piece of it – fresh! I think all the seafood was marinated in a tangy vinaigrette which meant that all elements were really tasty. The translucent orange-striped prawns were fairly big, lovely and crunchy. Our waitress even brought over a small bowl for us to discard the tails in – something that we appreciated. We loved the texture of the calamari – it had a soft chewiness that is so different from eating calamari the consistency of rubber-bands at other eateries. There was plenty of cooling cucumber salad to go around and despite us not being fans of coriander – we ate it all even after finishing the apple slaw served with the pork belly! That was how much we liked it.

I would happily recommend RSR to anyone. It is an incredibly versatile place where you can bring friends, family and fellow colleagues. The lunchtime crowd is dotted with plenty of businessmen and women in suits as well as those who want a casual get-together or celebration; so be sure to make a reservation. Currently, RSR is holding a Father’s Day banquet, so bring Dad and the whole family along for an enjoyable meal. Just be prepared that they will talk your ears off about the pork belly for months to come ;).

Red Spice Road on Urbanspoon

65 Degrees Café – Converting hot chocolate lovers

Lately, something peculiar has been happening. Instead of craving hot chocolates, I’ve been more interested in trying out coffees. I blame it on the blustery and Wintery days, and perhaps, more pertinently the fact that EVERYONE around me is drinking at least two cups a day. I smell coffee in the morning and usually around 3 pm – someone would buy another round of it.

65 Degrees Café has been circulating in the news for awhile – even my Dad knows about it! It is located at 309 Exhibiton Street which is close enough to where we are during the weekdays. A few weeks ago, I read on twitter that 65 Degrees was promoting their hot chocolates and boy did the picture of it look good. Scrolling through their website – I found that they sold brioche for breakfast. Wow! My two favourite foods – how could I not go now? So, I sold the idea to my friend and off we went two days later. The weather was incredibly and unusually sunny that day. In fact, it was so good that my friend suggested we walk there – unheard off!

Upon entering the café, we were pleasantly surprised by how fragrant the aroma of the coffee beans were. The outfit is small but cosy and they sell a selection of cakes/pastries/baguettes behind a glass cabinet. We ordered a medium sized mocha as well as the hot chocolate. One of my guy friends say that people who order mocha or cuppucinnos are girly, but since I am one, I didn’t have a problem with that. Also, I figured that going with mocha was a safe bet because I wasn’t quite ready to take the coffee plunge just yet. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, mocha falls nicely in-between coffee and hot chocolate. Perfect for me!

We sat on high stools as we waited and watched whilst people busied themselves with their iPads and work folders. What caught my eye was a picture of people lining up to get their gridlock coffee. One of them even had pouffy hair. It reminded me of the picture which shows evolution from ape to man. You can even buy their T-shirt with the logo on it, as the website has clevely noted: all the cool kids are wearing ‘em. Soon enough, a friendly waitress brought over our drinks.

I made a cardinal mistake of drinking the mocha before the hot chocolate. The mocha was incredibly robust and creamy. I loved that the froth doesn’t just disappear in one sip. With its punchy flavours and just enough sweetness – how did they know my sugar level? – both of us were mocha converts. There was a slight bitterness at the end of each sip and gradually I grew to appreciate why people could be addicted to caffiene. This was the first coffee that I drank and really enjoyed. Ice coffee doesn’t count! The only downside to the mocha was that it kind of stole the hot chocolate’s thunder. My friend drank the hot chocolate before the mocha and she found that she quite enjoyed it. For me, I prefer hot chocolates that are dark and decandantly creamy – such as the ones served by Gânache Chocolate. The hot chocolate at 65 Degrees Café was silky light without being watery thin. Again, the sugar level was just spot on. We found ourselves enjoying the mocha a lot more perhaps because the hot chocolate didn’t share the same intensity. Due to us arriving a little later in the afternoon, we sadly missed out on trying the brioche.

65 Degrees Café derives its name (I think) from serving coffee at this temperature – great to warm hands in the cold Wintery months. Coincidentally, this is also the optimal temperature for sharing smiles and laughter with friends any day of the week – Mondays especially. We are delighted to have found this gem of a place and can’t wait to return to satisfy our next caffiene hit!

65 Degrees Café on Urbanspoon

Gyoza Douraku – Something Beautiful

I like most things Japanese because they are either cute, tasty, or a combination of both. When we holidayed in Japan, we saw first-hand how creative the Japanese people were with food. Their presentation of food is both impressive and unrivalled. There is a fresh vibrancy of colours splashed across the plate and a certain symmetry in the way that each morsel is placed. They produce desserts that are jaw-dropping beautiful, each one striking a balance between sweetness and fluffiness. I don’t think a day went by where we didn’t indulge in cakes, crepes, or ice-creams. Funnily enough, we didn’t gain an ounce because we hot-footed to just about every place we visited. We loved visiting their depachikas and markets. I remember how unbelievably polished the apples looked. Nestled between crinkly brown paper, they were the darkest shade of red and looked almost as though they had been plucked from a fairytale forest. You could smell their fragrance without even touching them. How was that even possible? But that’s the way things are in Japan, they constantly surprise you in the most pleasant of ways.

Anyhow, returning to the Japanese food scene in Melbourne was somewhat of a plummet. For awhile, my friend and I steered clear of them. Then, one day, we noticed how a new eatery was in the works along Bourke Street. Not yet open for business, the shop hung out a sign that read: Gyoza Douraku. Given the number of Japanese restaurants near the vicinity (Shoya Nouvelle Wafu Cuisine, Heirloom, Izakaya Hachibeh, just to name a few), I thought this shop was rather brave to set up there. However, Gyoza Douraku has a competitive edge. They focus on being a Japanese Gyoza Bar – something that sets them apart from the standard sushi, sashimi, bento and ramen fare. My friend and I were thrilled to bits, our interest in Japanese food reignited. We held high hopes that this shop would be our new go-to place for lip-smacking gyozas. Each time we caught the tram, our gazes would inevitably fall longingly on that one spot. I have forgotten how long the shop gestation was, but we waited weeks with growing excitement as we saw lights being fitted and then windows polished. Finally, Gyoza Douraku was opened this week!

We visited Gyoza Douraku on Wednesday as a midweek celebration. Barely did we finish flipping through the menu outside before we were warmly greeted and ushered into the restaurant. On sight, we love the contemporary feel to the place. Their tables are a Jenga mix of blue and turquoise which funnily enough reminded me of playing tetris. There was a square tray at the centre of the table that held a variety of condiments in impossibly cute containers (one of them a racoon) that you can jazz up your food with. A small mountain of minced garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil was present. Mix the chilli oil, garlic and soy sauce together to dip the gyozas into – it’s great, trust me!  The stools are wooden but comfortable. We found ourselves sitting straighter – not that we are slothful normally….We knew we were off to a good start when one of the waitresses kindly brought over another stool for us to place our bags on.

Choosing dishes was rather difficult because they have quite a large variety that sounded really good. The restaurant serves the standard pork and vegetable gyozas, pork and minced garlic gyozas, and prawn gyozas. They also offered premium options such as chicken and lemongrass, and wagyu beef gyozas. For the adventurous, you can even order cheese gyozas which I was really tempted to try.In the end, we ordered two different lunch sets and opted to try the prawn gyozas as well as the pork and vegetable ones. Both sets are accompanied by wafu salad, pickles, fried rice, and miso soup. We even had tori karaage in one of the sets. Our waitress suggested that we tried their coffee beans – freshly roasted on site – so we settled for a latte and a mocha.

Our drinks were the first to arrive and they both came with some lemon shortbread on the side. The thoughtful inclusion of the buttery pastry – which I am given to understand is baked in-house – went well with the drinks. My friend commented that her latte was light yet robust and I concur as the mocha was the same case. It wasn’t creamy but it didn’t lack flavour, and more importantly, it had a nice aroma to it. In this instance, Gyoza Douraku allows you to add any amount of sugar to suit your preference. The next dish to arrive was the Wafu salad and pickles. The salad was served crisp with a generous dollop of Japanese mayo. Both of us adore Jap mayo and my normally carnivorous friend even polished off her vegies. A rare event to witness! Ever since I visited Nishiki market in Kyoto, I have been hooked on those crunchy pickles. I found myself enjoying the different pickles – which were very colourful – adding to the pleasure of eating them. The miso soup was served piping hot – so plus points for that as we dislike luke-warm soup – with tiny tofu cubes and wakame. I didn’t feel that the soup was too different from any other Japanese place I had eaten at, but it was nice all the same.

It was the tori karaage which produced an O-M-G moment for us. I cannot begin to explain how much I adore this dish. Having had the authentic karaage back in Japan, I couldn’t find one restaurant in Melbourne that even came close to replicating the magic. But now I have!!! The tender morsels of chicken were coated with the thinnest golden batter – super crunchy and perfectly seasoned. Finely shredded vegetables of green and purple lay casually on the side – no pressure to eat more veggies – but you can if you want to be healthy. Again, a dollop of creamy yellow mayo was present. Biting into the chicken, you can taste the garlic and ginger, but they are not overpowering. It is a small slice of heaven on a plate that I will very happily eat ANY day of the week. I didn’t want to share after the first bite – but I did – because I wanted someone else to share in the simple genius of this dish. I don’t think we can ever go back to KFC or any other Korean popcorn chicken. You must give this dish a go when you visit!

When we spotted the waitress carrying out the gyozas, we rubbed our hands with glee. Five dainty parcels of goodness were plated up. Their skins were delicate and bottoms slightly charred – just the way we like it. Unanimous in our decisions, we declared the pork and vegetable gyozas the winner over the prawn gyozas. Both types of gyozas were juicy but we felt that the pork ones were more flavoursome. There was a balanced ratio of pork and veggies or prawn and veggies, and we told ourselves that we were definitely going to try the chicken and lemongrass or cheese gyozas next time. Having had the above courses, our bellies were pretty much full by this stage. To think that we had wanted to try their desserts! The last course served was the teppanyaki fried rice. My pet peeve with Japanese restaurants is that some of them serve Jasmine rice instead of using Japonica or sushi rice. Thankfully, Gyoza Douraku cooks with Japonica – and we loved the taste of slightly sticky rice that carried a strong flame-like taste. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t burnt, just that you could feel the element of fire coursing throughout the entire dish. One of the best teppanyaki fried rice we have had to date and dare I say it, better than the ones served at Shoya. We salute those who can fit in desserts after such a pleasurable meal. A brief glance at their dessert menu tells us that they have at least six options to choose from. If you like your green tea ice cream and tiramisu – they serve it here!

In summary, I really don’t think anyone can walk out of Gyoza Douraku without feeling happy. The prices are very reasonable for a Japanese restaurant, and the variety of options will suit even the fussiest of eaters. Packed with warmth and authentic hospitality of the Japanese, Gyoza Douraku deftly delivers flavoursome and quality food. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and this place is set to become our new stomping ground for tasty Japanese food in the city. And if you ever find yourself unsure of what to order – get the tori karaage!!!

Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon

Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon

Dumplings and Designer Bags – One Degree of Separation

I like dumplings and not just because the word actually sounds cute when you say it a little faster than normal. It has a nice round sound to it, or maybe it’s just me who thinks so. Anyway, most people enjoy eating those plump little things and there are plenty of places in the city that sell them like hotcakes. I just didn’t know how much Melbournians love their dumplings until I went bag shopping with friends. We had spotted a rather curvy looking Louis Vuitton bag behind the counter and wanted to have a closer look at it. After pointing rather enthusiastically at it, the salesgirl reached for it and nonchalantly said, “Oh, you mean the dumpling.” We burst into incredulous laughter. Who compares designer bags to dumplings?! NO ONE! It’s almost akin to describing a clutch bag as having the shape of a chicken McNugget. Quick grins were exchanged with the salesgirl who clearly had a playful sense of humour…or was simply overly hungry. That is how wide the reach of the humble dumpling is. And when it comes to dumplings, there is one place that always generates a lot of waves, and that is HuTong Dumpling Bar.

Stroll down the cobbled path of Market Lane in the CBD and you’ll find HuTong Dumpling Bar easily. This place is hugely popular with the work crowd every day of the week, and it is advisable to make a reservation in advance to guarantee yourself a spot. Alternatively, you can rock up early and try your luck. Arrive during lunchtime and you will immediately notice how noisy it actually is. The sharp clings and clangs of chopsticks against bowls compete with the incessant chatter in the air. This is exactly the same kind of atmosphere I would expect if I walked down the real Hutongs in China. This is the essence of Chinese dining. It is a noisy, happy affair, and you have to raise your voice one octave higher if you want to be heard. The wait staff are armed and linked with each other through their walkie talkies to announce your arrival as you walk up the stairs to the next level. From memory, there are two levels above the ground floor I think, and the highest level is supposedly ideal for quieter and more private functions. I managed to haul my unfit self up there once, and found that it was only a smidgen quieter than the levels below it. Not worth the climb.

Perhaps more so than other dumpling joints, HuTong has carved out a reputation for itself as Melbourne’s premier provider of the tasty parcels. You either love it or hate it. It is also common to change your mind at a later date because consistency is not HuTong’s middle name. Service is another point that is often called to question. HuTong runs like a well-oiled machine and their staff focus only on their specific role. The lady who refills your teapot might not want to take your orders. They communicate with each other through rapid volleys of Mandarin which is reflective of their fast-paced service. There is an unspoken expectation that the customer would have made up their mind on what to order by the time they approach the table. Woe to those who are indecisive because patience can run thin pretty fast. Some visitors still have nightmares about receiving icy glares and being spoken to in rather a abrupt fashion. It’s nothing personal, just good (or bad) business. From their point of view, the staff want to serve you as quickly as possible so that they may then focus their attention on the next customer. They need to clear tables fast because turnover is at an all-time high during peak periods – which is inevitably all of lunch. You will begin to appreciate their love of speed when your stomach is growling and you don’t have to wait too long for your dumplings to be delivered.

I find that I neither love nor hate HuTong. It is one of those peculiar places where I won’t mind visiting if a friend asks me along but won’t crave for it exceptionally. Again, this may be because of varying degrees of consistency each time that I have visited. Just as there are high and low ebbs in life, HuTong’s dumplings are a bit of hit and miss. On their good day, the standouts of the crowd are their shao-long Bao and wantons with Hot Chilli sauce. Purists would say that Shao-long Baos are not dumplings. I don’t particularly care as long as they taste good. High end restaurants in Hong Kong serve Shao-long Baos with the exact same number of pleats. I haven’t counted how many pleats there are for HuTong’s version. Excellent Shao-long Bao has skin that is translucent, smooth and thin, but this skin is still strong enough to hold a tongue-scalding tasty broth created when the aspic melts. You are encouraged to dip HuTong’s Shao-long Baos into vinegar and eat it with slivers of ginger. HuTong’s version doesn’t always hit the target and that can be rather disappointing. Sometimes the broth can be tepid, and other times there mightn’t be enough of it. We enjoy their wantons with hot chilli sauce which provide a satisfying slight heat burn to the lips. The slippery silkiness of the wantons goes well with scallions and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It might be our imagination, but we thought that the size of the wantons have shrunk since we first tasted them.

Their pan-fried dumplings are a novelty because all eight pieces of them are held together by a crisp base. However, our excitement pretty much fizzled after our first taste. The exterior of the fried dumplings were thick and soggy, they did not taste too different from those sold at the run-of-the-mill dumpling shops. For fried dumplings, we’d rather go with the fried chicken and prawn dumplings from Shanghai Village – a stone’s throw from HuTong. The interior of Shanghai Village is a far cry from that of HuTong, and it looks as if it could be the ideal setting for a fight scene out of a Kill Bill movie. If you can get past their crusty exterior, their fried dumplings are not half-bad. As far as steamed dumplings are concerned, HuTong’s prawn or scallop dumplings are safe bets. We find them crunchier and tastier than those served at the Shark Fin Inn on Little Bourke St.

A big fan of desserts, I had to order the deep fried souffle ball with red bean paste and bananas with ice cream on the side as soon as I spotted it in the menu. Unfortunately, it was completely different from what I had anticipated and it was a huge let-down. I had eaten this dish in other Asian countries before and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t love HuTong’s interpretation. I cannot fault HuTong on this point because even KFC taste different in different countries. However, I will not order this dish again. My friends capped their meal with the red bean paste pancake and mostly enjoyed it with the Chinese tea. The exterior is a crisp brown and a little oily, but the red bean paste is sweet enough to please kids. Some found the paste velvety smooth, and others detected a faint grittiness. I suppose it is a case of lucky pick.

HuTong Dumpling Bar should be visited with an open mind and for the experience if not anything else. Within Melbourne, it is ranked as one of the better dumpling joints especially amongst those who favour quality over quantity. Service is efficient although it may border on scary at times. The trick lies in picking the right dishes and also hoping that the kitchen staff are having a good day.

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Crêperie Le Triskel – Arrogantly French and Rightly So

There are quite a few places in Melbourne that sells crêpes, but none can make them better than the one located at 32 Hardware Lane. The beautiful shop goes by the name of Crêperie Le Triskel and it is unabashedly French. I know this because the little black sign that hangs on the outside of the shop proclaims its origin loudly and proudly. I’m tickled by this place whose front window showcases volumes of books so convincingly that I initially mistook it for a quaint bookshop café. I adore the wafts of fresh crêpes and the friendly “bonjours” that their staff call out when they see you pass on by. But most of all, I love their bold confidence. Any shop that dares to strut that they are arrogantly French is a good sign that they have the goods to deliver.

My friend and I love crêpes and see them as comfort food especially during the Winter months. I know a lot of people swear by hearty stews, but when you want to eat something light that still keeps you warm, there is really only one answer: crêpes. Melbourne city has the good fortune of being home to several well known crêperies such as Aix Cafe Crêperie Salon, Breizoz French Crêperie, Choix Creperie Cafe, and Roule Galette. In Melbourne Central itself, there is Harajuku crêpes – Japanese-styled with most varieties immortalised on a wall for easy visualisation. If you venture a little further into South Yarra/Toorak, there is cute little place called Le Petit Français Crêperie & Café whose range is easily comparable to the others in the city. So far, our absolute favourite has been Le Triskel because of its consistency in producing mouth-watering deliciousness in a convivial Parisian atmosphere. There is a map of France, a rack supporting several French magazines and the shop also plays nice French songs – none of which I understand. These songs are either classically dramatic or enthusiastically upbeat in their chorus which is very French.

We have visited Le Triskel quite a few times to try their sweet and savory offerings. Le Triskel even has a blackboard on which they teach you how to place your order in French. Based on my very limited understanding of French, I think the words loosely translate to “I will like an a chocolate crêpe and an Oragina please”. This is great, but unfortunately all the crêpes that I am keen on are not purely chocolate, and I don’t want an Orangina. For example, I desperately wanted to order a sweet crêpe by the name of La Carabistouille (Salted Caramel, Braised Apple, Vanilla Ice-Cream and Walnuts) or La Mongolfiere (Vanilla Ice-Cream, Whipped Cream, Mixed Berrys and Chocolate). My friend on the other hand smartly decided to order our old favourite – the raspberry puree, melted chocolate and vanilla ice cream crêpe. There’s no art to saying that because the words were already in English.

Oh God! Why did the crêpes that I want have to have such long difficult French names?  So I practiced saying those four little French words over and over and over again in my head. It always sounds better in my head. I had it spot on at “La”, and then it kind of crumbles…like a cookie. When I felt relatively confident enough, I put up my hand to attract the attention of one of the staff members. A nice girl came along and she spoke in a heavy French accent, “Ready to order?” In that precise moment, my voice went into hiding and I lost my nerve. I just pointed rather hopelessly to the menu and the kind girl pronounced it (La Carabistouille) easily for me and walked away. My friend has a smug smile on her face because she knew I chickened out, so I rewarded her with a swift kick under the table. I wanted to kick my vocal cords too (but that is physiologically impossible) – all that five minute of practicing for nothing! However, I feared massacring the French language even more especially since the shop front clearly stated “arrogantly french”. They mightn’t give me the right crêpe, or worse, they mightn’t give me a crêpe at all which will be a monumental tragedy. MONUMENTAL because it was close to 2 p.m. in the afternoon and I hadn’t had a bite to eat all day.

We watched on giddily from our table as the staff prepared our crêpes. It’s mesmerising to watch as a pale gloopy batter gets thinned out to a lovely light golden blanket with one swift flick of the wrist. They always make a perfect circle without any breakages in the middle. Making crêpes is an art which is why I leave it to the experts at Le Triskel. I can make pancakes at home. When I feel creative I try to make animal-shaped pancakes without a mold, which ultimately may or may not bear any resemblance to the real animal. “Is that a funny shaped cloud?” A family member would ask, and I would say with a bright smile, “Why, of course it is!” There’s no point telling them that it was meant to be a koala or a humpback whale. I should invest in animal-shaped molds, shouldn’t I?

Anyway, back to the crêpes. We love Le Triskel’s crêpes because of its warm doughy aroma and it’s slightly stretchy nature. It has just the right amount of soft chewiness and there’s always plenty of filling to colour the crêpe with. Salted caramel appears to be this season’s flavour and we can’t get enough of it. We love salted caramel ice cream, salted caramel macarons and Le Triskel’s salted caramel crêpes. We won’t mind at all if the caramel was saltier. Salted caramel is also incredibly versatile because it goes well with almost anything. Le Triskel has paired braised apples and vanilla ice cream with their salted caramel crêpe and it has got to be one of their genius moments yet. The warm juicy sweetness of cinnamon apples is coated by the smooth coldness of vanilla ice-cream. The gentle saltiness of the caramel adds a slick finishing touch and the crêpe itself enrobes the flavour explosion. My friend’s folded crêpe held a gorgeous raspberry tartness and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Flamboyantly decorated with lashings of dark chocolate, it remains a perennial favourite which we never tire of.

If sweet is not your thing, there are plenty of savory galettes to tickle your fancy. On another occassion, my friend thoroughly enjoyed the La Triskel (Egg, Swiss Gruyere Cheese and Mushrooms with a choice of one of: Spinach or Tomatoes or Ham or Prosciutto or Turkey) and craved their ham for the next few days. I didn’t enjoy it as much mostly because it was crispy and I do not like buckwheat flour. Give me floppy sweet crêpes any day of the week.

Chances are, you will want something to quench your thirst too. There is a nice selection of beverages ranging from ciders to coffees to hot chocolates. Order their hot chocolate if you like them a bit lighter and thinner. There is a bowl of coffee that you can also enjoy if milky coffees are your thing. Once, we ordered the bowl of coffee just for the sheer fun and novelty. Boy was it a huge bowl! It was rather funny too, because the both of us are not coffee drinkers (unless you count ice coffees) and we found it, after the first spoonful, to be horribly bitter. So we did what every other good science student would have done, we improvised it. By this, I meant that we dissolved at least 30g of sugar into the bowl of coffee and stirred furiously. We did all this while trying valiantly to hold back our laughter at the absurdness of the situation. Surely we were ruining good coffee, but it certainly was a lot more palatable after the sugar hit and the both of us left Le Triskel buzzing with energy. Till this day, it remains one of our fondest memories of Le Triskel.

Crêperie Le Triskel is a lot like a good book. You know how the story ends (happily-ever-after) but it is still a favourite to pick up and read again whenever you have a spare moment. No matter how many crêperies we have been to, there is something about Le Triskel that always draws us back. Perhaps a little Parisian magic and flair is mixed through the crêpe batter to make it taste so good, so “arrogantly french”.

Creperie le Triskel on Urbanspoon

Mr Mason – Death by Chocolate Never Tasted so Sweet

Late Friday afternoon rolled around and the weather was pretty awesome, so my friend and I decided to pay Mr Mason a visit. Mr Mason is a French inspired restaurant located at 530 Collins Street which is quite a bit of travel distance for us.

Although it is not at the glitzy end of Collins Street, we had heard promising things about their desserts and were keen to try them. More accurately, I have a fiendish sweet-tooth and my friend was nice enough to indulge my whims. It’s all semantics here. We were going into uncharted territory so the first thing we hit up was Google maps. To our delight, we discovered that a few trams could deliver us to our afternoon of sweetness. Awesome!

Upon arriving at Mr Mason’s, we observed to our slight embarrassment that we were not as well-dressed as the rest of the diners. These were businessmen and women in their ties, suits or formal skirts and blouses. We looked like two kids in causal attire. They were deep in conversation, their fingers swiping furiously across iPad screens or flipping proposals in thick white files. Our hands held well, practically nothing. The place was packed for a Friday afternoon and we had not made reservations. For a brief moment, I had this horrible feeling that they would turn us away. But they didn’t. They had spotted an empty table in front of the bar and ushered us to our high stools. After settling us, one waitress brought over the lunch and express lunch menus for us. The lunch menu is conveniently divided into small, medium and large categories, so you can order as much or as little as you like. When we explained that we had come specifically for the desserts, she smiled graciously and brought us the dessert menu. Her eyes twinkled when almost immediately we were ready to order the Chocolate soufflé, honeycomb, vanilla bean ice cream and some warm honey madeleines. We didn’t see it on the menu, but took a punt and asked if we could order hot chocolate. “But of course!” She agreed and took off with our orders.

Whilst waiting, we soaked up the sights of Mr Mason. The entire place is decked in warm chocolatey overtones. I spotted classy noir leather sofas at one end in front of a stone-walled fireplace. Imagine sitting there, glass in hand and hearing the roar of bright orange flames as you while away the bitter cold Winter afternoons. Imagine writing a novel, the crime and suspense kind in a place like this. There are Zen-like raw wooden pillars that sprout from the ceiling near the bar, and there’s a large blackboard resting atop it. Beautiful writing etch in white let patrons know the range of beverages available to order. In fine weather, you can even take your drinks outside to the terrace which overlooks a part of the city that is not always classed as beautiful.

Our table was separated from the next row by black grids still wide enough to sneak a peek at what the others are supping on. We looked on as the suits next door make quick meals of scallops and lamb shoulders with swift glides of their knives and forks. Their enjoyment and content clearly evident on broad smiling faces. We could hardly wait till our desserts arrived.  Our anxiousness must have showed because the same waitress who took our orders came by and reassured us that she was going to check on our desserts. We observed as service staff made their way around the place to collect finished dishes, top up glasses and shared a small chat with the customers. Their initiative in ensuring the comfort of their diners is both refreshing and commendable.

Within five minutes, our waitress brought over our hot chocolate, soufflé and madeleines. There is a magic in desserts that has the ability to change a person’s day; and Mr Mason readily confirms this hypothesis. We are quiet for a moment as we gaze at the two desserts. The shell-shaped madeleines are golden hued and sat snugly on top of a linen draped basket. Their heady fragrance of egg and honey is unmistakable, and they make our mouths water. The soufflé is served on a wood-grained board with vanilla bean ice cream in a small round dish. Shiny jagged pieces of honeycomb that look like small gold nuggets decorate the side. Fine powdered sugar is dusted over the top of the chocolate soufflé creating a snowy look. This is perhaps a little ironic because the ramekin is white-hot to the touch. Both desserts are front page news picture-worthy, and it is a pity that I didn’t have a camera on me. The hot chocolate is served in a glass and not a cup. We are both surprised and thrilled when we see three distinct bands of chocolate, ranging from dark to light, capped with bubbly froth thick enough to last beyond the first few mouthfuls. We stir the hot chocolate and take a tentative sip. It is awesome! Silky smooth, it bathes the back of our throats with a desirable amount of sweetness that rivals that of Ganache’s hot chocolate.

My friend who cannot refuse anything with egg and honey has fallen for the pillowy soft madeleines. However, she is still generous enough to half the basket’s offerings with me.

Honey, honey, honey!!!

The warm insides of the madeleines are fluffy and not overly dense. Perfumed with whiffs of sweetness, they are incredibly addictive and we find ourselves asking if we may take a serve home with us. Our waitress is not sure but goes to find out and later on is happy to accommodate our request. We fall in love with Mr Mason’s a little more. But it is the chocolate soufflé that steals the show and very nearly our hearts. Unlike the ones served at Madame Sousou in Fitzroy, you do not eat chocolate air. The spoon cracks through the crispy dark exterior and plunges into molten richness a notch lower than scalding hot. The moist gooey chocolate is capable of inducing one of the seven deadly sins so consider yourselves forewarned. We pour the real vanilla, vanilla bean ice cream into the chocolate fountain and spike the concoction with shards of honeycomb. It is death by chocolate, and quite possibly, the most delicious death ever. The combination of hot and cold in our mouths at the exact same moment is absolutely potent; and we can almost hear Katy Perry singing the MasterChef song. Not fans of honeycomb, we are again surprised to find that the honeycomb at Mr Mason’s does not stick to the roof of our mouths. They are deliciously crunchy sweet – and we become honeycomb converts.

Mr Mason is the kind of place where you see lawyers, businessmen and bankers walk in – which sounds like a joke, but it’s true. We walked away in awe of their desserts and very impressed with the professionalism of the service staff who take obvious pride in their work. Our experience with Mr Mason has been very positive and we look forward to the next time where we can try new desserts and enjoy old favourites.

Mr Mason on Urbanspoon

The Hardware Sociéte – Melbourne’s Soul Food

Melbourne is dotted with more cafés than you can possibly visit in one trip, so we had a slight dilemma when a friend from overseas came to visit. The trip was a short one and we wanted to take her to a place which best captured the character of Melbourne city. In the end, we settled on The Hardware Sociéte (THS) – a nifty little place tucked away at the end of Hardware Street. As far as cafés go, this one has street cred. Open for breakfast and lunch, THS is almost always packed to the rafters. It is a mixed crowd. Hugely popular with the dapper young hippies, this place is also well known amongst more mature professionals in suits. It is quite evident why THS has garnered a loyal following from their fans. They serve good honest food at ridiculously affordable prices. Importantly, their service staff are friendly and always at hand to offer recommendations to the undecided customers.

It seems to me that all the best places in Melbourne are hidden in lane ways, and so our friend had to do a little bit of treasure hunting before arriving at this gem. But that’s alright, because everyone knows that treasure hunting helps to work up an appetite. It was a little cold that day, so the three of us opted to sit inside. As we walked past the front glass cabinet, we tried our hardest to ignore the various pastries like almond croissants, canelés, tea cakes and bread-and-butter puddings on offer. The interior of THS exudes a warmth and cosiness reminiscent of visiting your best friend’s house. It is homely and the coat hanger rack looks like a splash of yellow paint dripping down, which is kind of cute and funky all rolled into one. Our waiter beamed and presented us with the lunch menu which starts from 12pm. As he poured us glasses of water, he explained the special of the day before leaving us to make our decision. A couple of dishes caught our eyes and we quickly negotiated to share three different ones. We were keen to try the special of the day which was roasted duck breast served with pomme frites, carrots and celeric purée, and we also ordered the sirloin steak and pork belly. The aroma of fresh cups of coffee was too hard to resist, and so we ordered the mocha as well as two 54% callebaut hot chocolates.

We were delighted to see our drinks served in round yellow, green and pink cups on wide saucers.  The hot chocolates came served in cute little milk jugs so that you can alter the strength or intensity of the drink to your liking. For our friend who ordered the mocha, there was a puddle of coffee with a chocolatey brown hue at the bottom, and she happily spooned brown sugar into it before stirring in the hot chocolate. In contrast, there was a little ball of dark chocolate ganache found at the bottom of our cups. We heaped in two teaspoons of brown sugar before pouring in the hot chocolate and downed the creamy mixture. Instant smiles flashed all around the table. Decadently rich, both drinks were a perfect start to our meal as we slowly sipped in the sugary goodness, swapped stories and giggled. Time passes quite fast when you are in good company, and before long, three beautiful plates of food were presented in front of us.

The roasted duck breast was the special of the day and quite frankly, we would not mind one bit if it became a permanent fixture on the lunch menu. Pink, juicy flesh under a layer of tanned skin, the meat was succulent and just the slightest bit gamey. THS provided house made pomme frites so thin that I initially mistook them for thin strips of deep fried onions. The biggest meat eater of our group also surprised herself and found a love for the celeriac mash which absorbed up the meaty juices of the duck and surrounding rich droplets of gravy. However, she remained unconvinced on the carrots. Rabbit food, she called it. I think those would be incredibly lucky bunnies is they get to snack on THS carrots.

I was the lucky girl who ordered the pork belly which came buried like treasure under a small mountain of vibrant green baby rocket and diced red squares (I think they were capsicum). I’m not fond of rocket because of its bitterness but my friend loves its peppery taste. So we swapped her carrots for my rocket. Thin peels of crunchy poached prawn was thrown into the salad mix which added a delicious seafood sweetness to the healthy greens. There was also a serve of whole baked apple on the side with spiced crumbles decorating the top. But the star of the show is undoubtedly the rectangular piece of pork belly. I did not find the skin to be as crackling as I would have preferred, it was slightly chewy perhaps due to the greens were sitting on top of it. Still, it tasted wonderful and I think they rubbed some spice on the skin to set it apart from other kinds of pork bellies. The moist layers of fat and meat meant that the pork was pull apart tender with smokey flavours that permeate your taste buds. THS has created a playful twist to the traditional pork and apple sauce combination. The juicy saltiness of the pork went down incredibly well with a sweet cube of apple. I would definitely order this again.

The sirloin steak turned out to be a little disappointing. It’s deliciousness was most likely eclipsed by the excellence of both the duck breast and pork belly. I’m not saying that it was a terrible dish, just that it wasn’t as memorable as the first two. The beef was cooked somewhere between medium rare and well done and it came served with a rotund of mashed potato which had a crispy coating. There were a few small white pieces of either marrow or tallow which we found quite fishy and thought that it didn’t go well with the dish.

By the end of our meal, the allure of the hazelnut and raspberry bread and butter pudding became near impossible to resist, so we ordered one serve to share. This is pure comfort food which is best eaten on Winter’s day. Warm, fluffy, and just plain awesome, it capped off a wonderful meal amongst friends who don’t get to meet often. THS is a brilliant place to bring friends to and show them the soul food of Melbourne. A quick glance at their breakfast menu and our minds were set on returning. After all, how can you say no to fried brioche?

The Hardware Sociéte on Urbanspoon