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? ūüôā

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

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

Cr√™perie Le Triskel – Arrogantly French and Rightly So

There are quite a few places in Melbourne that sells cr√™pes, but none can make them better than the one located at 32 Hardware Lane. The beautiful shop goes by the name of Cr√™perie 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 caf√©. I adore the wafts of fresh cr√™pes 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 РJapanese-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 Рnone 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 cr√™pe and an Oragina please”. This is great, but unfortunately all the cr√™pes 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¬†cr√™pe 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¬†cr√™pe. There’s no art to saying that because the words were already in English.

Oh God! Why did the cr√™pes 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 cr√™pe, or worse, they mightn’t give me a cr√™pe 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 cr√™pes. 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 cr√™pes 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 cr√™pes. We love Le Triskel’s cr√™pes 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 cr√™pe 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 cr√™pes. 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 cr√™pe 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 cr√™pe itself enrobes the flavour explosion. My friend’s folded cr√™pe 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 cr√™pes 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.

Cr√™perie¬†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 cr√™peries 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 cr√™pe 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 souffl√©, 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, souffl√© 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 souffl√© 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¬†souffl√© 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 souffl√© 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 Soci√©te – 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) Рa 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, canel√©s, 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 pur√©e, 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?

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The Burgers are Sexier at Merrywell

I recently announced my intentions to become an Olympian in the 2016 games in my previous post. So it is important that I start training by eating healthily. I expect that my friends would support my dream, perhaps even cheer me on to a medal. However, one of them seems hell-bent on distracting me from my goal. It’s literally gut-wrenching when your friend is trying to derail your plan, and it’s pretty evil too. She told me of a place called The Merrywell which is located at the corner of Clarendon Street and Crown Riverside. She also told me that The Merrywell is an American outfit headed by two legendary chefs, Sammy De Marco and Grant Macpherson, and that their food had received good reviews. She repeatedly told me that for over a week and eventually my bad eyes prompted me to google pictures of heavenly looking burgers. So I did what every good, focused athlete would not have done. I gave into temptation, shelved my Olympic plans and dragged my friend to lunch at The Merrywell. Any guilt I felt, any regret I had have since vanished. The Merrywell is bringing sexy back with their burgers and fries.

Funky vibes from The Merrywell make it difficult to resist.

We walked into the glass house that is The Merrywell which comprises two levels: downstairs and upstairs. There are also two different menus for downstairs and upstairs. Seeing as how we visited in the afternoon, we ordered from the downstairs burger bar menu which also features daily specials. If you visit after 5pm, you get to order cute nosh from the upstairs menu such as piggies in blanket and lollipop buffalo wings. Sunlight streams in from the outside to illuminate the tall ceilings, bright decorative pop-art paintings and high tables with classic wooden finishes that are immediately noticeable and attractive. There is a comfortable spaciousness so you do not feel cramped but nor do you feel that the service staff are so faraway that they are out of reach. We were invited to sit anywhere we wished to, so we hopped onto the high chairs at the tables in front of a TV. It also gave us a great view of their extensive range of alcoholic beverages available to order at the bar. It is easy to see why The Merrywell may be an ideal choice for afternoon drinks. Far from being a grungy pub, The Merrywell is a clean-cut classy venue that offers $15 burger and pint deals from 4pm – 6pm everyday. This has to be one of Melbourne CBD’s unbeatable value combinations and not just for well-heeled businessmen. The causal vibe at The Merrywell is a big draw card for Melbourne’s young trendy crowd eager to unwind and catchup with friends.

Everyone knows that it is not enough to impress with the surroundings, the real bacon so as to speak is in the quality of the food offered. After glancing through the menu which featured friendly salt and peppers shakers against a red background, we decided to share two different burgers: the Bistro Burger (slide in fries, au poivre sauce) and the classic burger called The Merrywell (lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, tomato, special sauce, bacon and fries). I was keen to try The Merrywell Spider or the Cherry Coke Float, but then I remembered that whipped cream would really sink the boot in my Olympic preparations. Instead, I settled for the lemon, lime and bitters whilst my friend stuck true with Adam’s ale. The pink hue of the lemon, lime and bitters came served with a wedge of green lime – kind of cute but I didn’t squeeze the lime into my drink because it was sour enough.

Whilst waiting for our burgers, we talked about the latest experiments and some interesting findings of the week. We didn’t have to wait long for our burgers, and our stomachs fluttered in excitement every time we saw the serving staff nearing our table. We were third time lucky. With a friendly smile, our waiter placed the temptations in front of us. Both burgers came served with knives and forks. But everyone knows that the proper way to eat burgers is with your bare hands to get all the finger-licking goodness. Don’t worry about making a mess because there are tissues packed into a cute red holder that looks a little like a jukebox on the side of every table. You can mop up later, just dig in first!

The Bistro burger sat on a white-beige plate reminiscent of ones you get when you fly in the air; whereas the classic Merrywell was served in a red basket giving it a fun carnival feel. Fries were slid into the bistro burger allowing them to soak up the juices of the beef patty as well as the au poivre sauce. I suppose Merrywell might have gotten the inspiration from watching generations of kids do that at McD’s. In contrast, perfect golden, crispy shoestring fries were served in a slightly crumpled brown bag alongside the classic burger. I imagine that little potatoes in farms across Australia grow up dreaming of become fries in The Merrywell kitchen, because then they would have been sacrificed to a noble cause. They make the fries at McD’s look shabby and they are so well seasoned that you do not feel as though you are licking a salt pillar. You have to take our word for it on how good The Merrywell fries are. Both of us normally do not like fries all that much, but we inhaled these ones greedily. Even when we were so full, our hands could not help reaching out to those delicious shoestrings. Clearly, it’s mind over gut.

The classic Merrywell burger looks like the van Gogh of burgers. It is beautiful in a way that will tease a smile out of the most carnivorous of us. It’s magnificence is clasped between two toasted buns that incredibly retain a soft crunch. The buns do not taste sweet like the ones at other burger joints, however, they do taste like a cross between a brioche and the traditional white buns. Sweet rings of onions coupled with tomatos and tangy pickles enhanced the overall taste. I’m not sure what the special sauce is, but it works well with the beef patty. I think it tasted slightly spicy. Where to start with the beef patty? The cheese has melted over the top such that it looks almost translucent yellow. It made all the other patties I had eaten to date look like wimps both in terms of size and flavour. The pink beef is minced to a fine point where it still provides a “bite” so that you can enjoy the feel of sinking your teeth into its juiciness. A burger cannot reach the heights of perfection unless it has bacon, and the guys at Merrywell are well aware of this universal truth. Bacon makes everything taste better, and it makes my world go round. Whenever I have to finish something yucky, I drown it in bacon bits. Crisp where it is not in contact with the rest of the elements, the bacon retained its succulency and fried oil-fragrance. There is an art to eating this burger, and it cannot be rushed. If you find it a little difficult to eat it all in one go, simply deconstruct it and sample the thrill of each component.

Having had the best burger of my life so far, it seems a little unfair to rate the Bistro burger. It contained a lot less components that made me love the classic burger and so it just couldn’t measure up. In hindsight, I should have eaten this one before the classic. I wasn’t fond of the sauce and the flavours were muted compared to that of the first burger. However, my friend really liked the au poivre sauce and mixed in a little Tabasco sauce with her half of the burger to add a slight kick to it. There are condiments such as mustard, ketchup, and HP sauce on the side of all tables, so you can essentially flavour your burger to taste as you like it.

We were so full by the end of the two burgers and fries that we could not contemplate ordering dessert – something that we regret. At only $5, you could have your pick of chocolate mousse, mango pudding or lamington trifle. As painful as missing out on dessert is, it gave us the opportunity of returning to The Merrywell to sample more of their creativity. The burgers and fries at The Merrywell are not for the fainthearted. They are good-size manly feeds. There is a give and take to everything. The burgers served at The Merrywell may battle your arteries, but your tastebuds will thank you for every morsel. If you dare to try them, I wager that they will make the top three burgers in your favourites list. If burgers are not your thing, The Merrywell offers an interesting selection of sam-wiches as well as homely feeds including onion rings, cup o’chili, chicken tortilla soup, and chicken fingers.

Going for Gold with the onion rings at The Merrywell – a more achievable dream for mere mortals such as myself!

Come hang out with the friendly guys at The Merrywell, the outside view is awesome and food is all-American goodness. Oh, and all the cool kids come here ;)!

The Merrywell on Urbanspoon

Burch and Purchese – Heroes of Food Science

I have a confession to make. English food doesn’t inspire much confidence in me. This is cruel irony for me because of my love for five little letters spelled SWEET. Most people are well aware that English desserts can trigger sugar highs. Most people are also aware that the English have a unique sense of humour and can get quite creative when it comes to naming. Just think of banoffee pie, Eton mess, knickerbocker glory, jam roly poly and happy faces to name a few. I have no idea what happy faces are, I always thought it was just used to describe one’s expression. Disturbingly, I also chanced upon a English dessert called “Flies Graveyard” – I’m positive that this one is just an expression too.

When I first heard that Burch and Purchese Sweet Studio (B&P) had opened in South Yarra and that it was helmed by two UK pastry chefs, Mr. Ian Burch and Mr. Darren Purchese, I had mixed feelings. I was two parts excited, one part nervous and one part scared of what they might come up with. I don’t know a lot of famous English chefs. I do know of one – Heston Blumenthal – and he is pretty radical. I have watched and liked many episodes of Heston’s Feast and the one scene that is forever etched in my mind is the one where he placed four and twenty blackbirds in a gigantic pie. Thousands of miles away from the actual event, across huge bodies of water, and safely behind the TV screen, I STILL DUCKED when the birds flew out. There was a muffled scream which could have come from me. It was certainly very theatrical and a little like watching a horror scene where an idiot opens a musty old coffin and vampire bats screech and fly out to attack. I figured B&P will be a lot milder.

When I say milder, I don’t mean boring. The sweet studio is as far from boring as you can possibly get. I don’t know if it was meant to be intentional, but the three characteristic colours that B&P have incorporated into their shop design are the same as that in Neapolitan ice cream. The fun-filled atmosphere in the studio is infectious and I’m not just saying that because they play catchy songs such as “Lollipop” by the Chordettes – which incidentally got stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Serving staff buzzed around in their English maid costume of black and pink, enthusiastically eager to offer customers a small taste of sweetness. Everyone in the shop was offered chocolate chip cookies, a bit of a meringue and some chocolate mousse cake. The nice lady who offered me the chocolate chip cookie was particularly persistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Cookie Monster would have loved her.

Unlikely as it sounds, it was the meringue that trumped the chocolate chip cookie in my books. Prior to that day, I thought meringues were hard, plasticy, and probably tasted chalky – three properties I’m certain no one likes in their food (except those who like musk sticks). I had seen lots of them in window displays along Acland Street in St Kilda and never once was I tempted to buy them home. However, B&P’s meringues are in a different class. They aren’t meringues on steroids, they look like a small puffy cloud. Eye-catchingly pretty, they come in friendly pastel shades of yellow, pink and purple which is in sharp contrast to others that looked as though they may be slightly radioactive. But best of all, they taste like a wonderful combination of sticky soft, slightly chewy and fragrant fruitiness (passionfruit, strawberry and blueberry). In a blindfold test, you will be able to tell which fruit you are munching on. I regretted not buying one, and for that I blame the cake display which had snagged my attention.

B&P don’t give fancy names to their cakes. A glance at their cake list and you’ll find that they list down every bit of deliciousness that goes into their masterpieces. I think that this is an awesome idea because it bypasses the need for one to ask, “What’s in the cake?”. Also, B&P won’t have to give the same long answer for the umpteenth time. There is only so many times you can read out all the ingredients enthusiastically before keeling over or planting the person’s face into the cake itself.¬† What is even better is that B&P sometimes provide a cross-sectional view of their cakes so you can see how all the individual elements stack up. Which science student doesn’t love that? There is a good looking selection of cakes behind the glass that are all begging to be taken home, and I did adopt some of them. I also notice a good deal of chocolate pops and chocolates that have molded to look like flowers with each petal is painted. I think these are meant to cater to little kids or people who are allergic to real flowers but like the idea of eating them.

When I’m in a chocolatey mood, I go for the Chocolate, Mandarin and Salted Caramel which is a darkly delicious treat composed of ‚ÄėKendari‚Äô 60% chocolate mousse / Murray River salted caramel / burnt mandarin cream / St Clements marmalade / aerated chocolate shortbread / chocolate mirror glaze. This is NOT a chocolate jaffa cake. I don’t even like chocolate jaffa, mind you. This is not just a pretty face kind of cake either. If you can look beyond the chocolate mirror glaze and taste it, you’ll understand why Darren Purchese has been invited on MasterChef more than once. There is a gift for marrying so many strong flavours without one drowning the other out, and B&P has it in spades. If you love salted caramel, boy do they have a treat for you in the form of dark chocolate gold bullion bars. The studio stocks a number of these so there’s no need to recreate scenes from the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s-60s.

For those who don’t want to plunge headfirst into a hedonistic chocolate feast, there are always lighter options such as the Raspberry, White Chocolate, Honey, Lychee which is now served in a funky clear acrylic tube. Specifically it has White chocolate & raspberry mousse / raspberry & lychee jelly / muesli & honey nut sponge / raspberry & hibiscus jam / raspberry compote / lychees /exaggerated raspberry cream / white chocolate velvet spray. I ate the cake version of this and remembered feeling pleased as punch because of how healthy the dessert sounded. What? Why are you incredulous? I’m not joking, there’s heaps of fruit, honey and even muesli in there! Even my Mum liked it – I also threw away the descriptor, lied and told her that the cake contained no chocolate because she wouldn’t try anything if there is chocolate involved.

Having trouble deciding what to buy Dad for his birthday? Here’s a hint, don’t get him socks, ties, handkerchiefs or power tools. I don’t think that Dads really like those things as much as the hardware store advertisements make it out to seem. He might prefer something to eat, guys are almost always hungry, right? If your Dad likes coffee, you should check out this one: Coffee, Smoked White Chocolate, Aniseed, Lemon. With so many different layers that it resembles an Opera cake, this baby has smoked white chocolate cream / crunchy almond meringue / coffee buttercream / coffee sponge / aniseed syrup / brownie sponge / lemon curd / dehydrated choc rock built into it. The cake was a hit all around. I even got Mum to eat a slice of it minus the brownie part. Even when she clued in and asked if the white bits were white chocolate, I nonchalantly lied again and said it was the almond. She continued eating – enough said about the quality of the cake.

You don’t need a special occasion to go visit B&P, but B&P does special occasions extremely well. Jump on their website to marvel at the fantastic creations that have been served at birthdays and weddings. You can book a consultation with them for that special day. Visit the Langham and enjoy the high tea that B&P has just created. I promise you that it will be infinitely more exciting than cucumber ribbon sandwiches. Most importantly, visit the pastry maestros in action at their genius lair and try to walk out of their shop without buying a single thing. It is no mean feat to steel yourself against temptations that are leaping out from almost every corner; and hence I have never bothered to try. It doesn’t matter if you or your loved ones are allergic to nuts, gluten, or dairy, B&P has thoughtfully catered products for them as well. If you are unsure, I’m sure one of their friendly staff would be happy to give you a hand.

Mr Ian Burch and Mr Darren Purchese, I am insanely jealous of the equipment in your science lab (especially your chocolate spraying device which my fingers are itching to try) and its breathtaking creations. If I were to have as much fun with liquid nitrogen in my lab, I would be in hot soup with OH&S. Oh, and I am also very glad that you now call Australia home :).

Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio on Urbanspoon

Persimmon – Art on a Plate

As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) brings to life the exhibition – Napoleon: Revolution to Empire. NGV promises it will be a mesmerising event that showcases the finery of French art, culture and life. It sounds like a lot of fun, so I jumped on the website to find out more about it. The first image that I saw is cropped from the painting, Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis David.

Napoleon’s very own pretty pony

It depicts Napoleon fashionably dressed in his military finest sitting astride a horse. It is a dead giveaway that he is Napoleon because of his gold-trimmed bicorne hat which looks rather fancy. The second thing you notice is the startled wide-eye expression of the horse. Maybe, someone was clutching the reins a little too tightly with his gloved left hand. The horse also has a nicely combed mane of which some people will be jealous. Some websites let on that the secret of achieving a nice, glossy mane is to use oil, water and vinegar; one even suggested mayonnaise. Who knew that? Given that Napoleon is French, he would probably have used butter instead.

Speaking of butter, NGV is offering different packages where you can dine with the legend on selected dates. You can breakfast with Napoleon, lunch with Napoleon, high-tea with Napoleon or go for broke and enjoy a six-course degustation menu with Napoleon. Napoleon sounds a lot more sociable (and heavier) than history has lead us to believe. Imagine fitting all those meals in and still winning battles. What a guy!

A friend and I had heard of a restaurant called Persimmon¬†at NGV which serves Modern Australian fare. Since both of us had never tried Modern Australian food, we were pretty keen to find out what it was about. Persimmon is located on the ground floor of NGV international. After you enter the building, walk straight ahead and just before you reach the end, turn right and meander down a dimly lit passage way. Turn left and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the restaurant. In stark contrast to the passage way, Persimmon is illuminated by natural daylight which shines through panels of glass windows and softer lighting on the ceilings. The windows frame the well-maintained greenery of the Grollo Equiset Gardens; and on occasion, the view is enhanced by a few water fowl swimming in the clear waters of the nearby water fountain. The interior of the restaurant has an avant-garde theme about it with bold splashes of black and orange-red furniture that are texturally firm or soft – just like the persimmon fruit itself. The restaurant is itself spacious which means that you will not be cramped or knocking elbows with fellow diners – a bonus given that some popular CBD eateries are often overcrowded.

Our friendly waitress ushered us to our seats before handing out the menus and talking us through the specials of the day. She mentioned that the restaurant’s menu is often reflective of what exhibitions they had on. The NGV is currently showcasing Napoleon, hence the menu adopts a French influence. We agreed that we would share the Diver scallops, toasted panko, wakame seaweed, smoked bell pepper aioli, Coq au vin, buttered mash potato, pine mushrooms, onions & bacon, and finish with the Dark chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks for dessert. Don’t you love friends with similar tastes in food? It makes ordering so much easier and quicker. After approximately ten minutes, our waitress came back to take our orders. In exchange, she left us a small selection of bread and butter presented on a wooden plate. We liked the warm, yeasty smell of the bread as well as the audible crunch just before biting into softness. You could also sprinkle some salt and ground pepper is you like, but the butter purist opposite me won’t have it any other way. There is no substitute for butter, she would say, and I would have to agree.

The arrival of plump golden hue scallops heralded the start of something beautiful. Crusted with a mixture of panko and fine wakame, the scallops captured both the sand and sea elements. A droplet of pink ginger gel was delicately piped on top of each morsel, creating a visually stunning artwork. Usually not fans of ginger, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised by how its mild tang went well with the sweetness of the translucent scallops. I added a smidgen of smoked bell pepper aioli but apart from creaminess I couldn’t really taste the bell peppers. Were they perfectly cooked and succulent? Hell to the yes!!! From memory, we had halting conversations punctuated with expressions such as “Wow” and “really good” whilst eating the scallops. Yes, that is how eloquent we are ;). As our waitress came to change our plates, we asked if the scallops were going to be on the menu for the next two months. At first, I panicked because she said there might be variations to the menu. Quelle horreur! No more scallops?! She must have seen the slightly stricken look on my face, because she hastily clarified with “small changes”. For example, instead of Diver scallops, they could be serving up Hokkaido scallops. Oh, I think we can live with that :)!

There was a decent wait between the arrival of the scallops and that of the main, but then you can’t rush good things. If the scallops were anything to go by, we had high hopes for the main. The Coq au vin did not disappoint. It was carefully plated with small mounds of golden buttered mash potato and garnished with mushrooms, a small bulb of onion and a cube of bacon. There was a generous portion of well seasoned, juicy chicken, so tender that it fell off the bone easily with a slight nudge of the knife and fork. It is important to stress that the texture of the chicken was not mushy. We are willing to bet that no one likes to eat mushy chicken, which is wrong on so many levels of hygiene and decency.

I think I have used the word “butter” a fair bit in this post, and so here it is again: buttered mash potato. The three words that send my friend’s heart racing in excitement and possibly leaping for joy. In her words, the mash was “velvety smooth and flavoursome without being overpowered by butter”. She also said a lot of other wonderful things about the deceptively light mash, and perhaps in her highest praise yet, “you could almost imagine you were in France”. That is a hypothetical statement since we have never been to France. However, I suppose that the French are pretty adept at making mash potatoes given that “Paris mash” originates from them.

The sliced mushrooms had soaked up the richness of the jus such that it tasted the slightest bit sharp. The jus which by now had formed a small pool at the base of the dish rather made us wish that there was more to go around. As we polished off the chicken, mash and mushrooms, we eyed the bacon. The bacon turns out to be lardon, a cute rectangular marvel with layers of melt-in-your-mouth fat evenly spaced in between succulent pink meat. The fat has rendered the meat tender, and the meat has imparted a hint of smokiness to the fat. A symbiotic relationship at its best. Individually, each component on the plate was faultless; but put together and the sum of them was outstanding.

By this stage, we felt pretty impressed with our experience at Persimmon. Our plates were changed after every course and our glasses never empty. I think it is fair to say that Persimmon provides excellent service in a way that is unobtrusive of your personal space, something that is rare to find these days. The only dish left was dessert. I love desserts and will often return to the furthest places just to eat them again. We had ordered chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks. I was sold on the fondant and my friend on the croissant ice-cream. Dark chocolatey goodness spilled and puddled into a gooey mess as I halved the soft fondant which we immediately tried to scoop up to taste. Thankfully for us, the fondant did not burn our tongues. The chocolate fondant contained just the right amount of sweetness without being saccharine. The portion size was just right and the dessert did not overwhelm with its richness. And after a mouthful of the croissant ice-cream, the both of us agreed that this was not a dessert to be shared :). You could definitely taste the croissant from the silkiness of the ice cream which my friend adored. For a playful twist to their dessert, Persimmon scatters some pop rocks along the plate. Eating these and hearing them crackle as they explode brought back fond memories of me sneakily eating pop rocks in grade school.

In summary, Persimmon restaurant is a hidden treasure that turns classic dishes into incredibly delicious artworks – befitting of an establishment located at the heart of culture. Go there to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the city, and enjoy quality service from impeccably polite staff. If this is what Modern Australian is about, then I think Napoleon himself would have been jealous of what Persimmon has to offer.

Persimmon on Urbanspoon

Snag Stand – it is frankly a wiener!

Who doesn’t like sausages? I love them! If someone causally told me that they didn’t like sausages, I would very seriously reconsider our friendship compatibility. That is how much I like sausages – it is on my friendship check-list. “Must love sausages” is pretty high up there with normality. You know the saying, “man cannot live by bread alone”? The genius was clearly a sausage lover who probably didn’t mind some ketchup or mustard to go along with it.

Imagine my delight then, when I found out about Snag Stand – the home of heavenly “haute dogs”. Times that by three when I discovered that it was at Melbourne Central and opposite the State Library. Score one for easy access! This meant that I could jump on the tram, grab the deliciousness and head back within 20 minutes give or take. Perfect. Know what is even more perfect? Their marketing skills –¬† which is cleverly littered with puns. I love puns (can you tell from the title?) and I love sausages – clearly this was a match made in hot dog heaven.

The first thing that I noticed about Snag Stand was how prime the location was. Traffic was heavy and almost everyone had noticed the stand. And even if you somehow MISSED seeing the stand, you could not possibly miss/resist smelling the aroma of sausages sizzling on the grill (unless you are down with the cold/flu and have a block nose). The striking yellow colour of Snag Stand makes a play for the New York atmosphere. They are 2 (I think) high tables and chairs which you could sit on and munch the hot dog while people watching – if that is your thing. The term people watching is kind of creepy, I know. Another way of saying it is “watch the world go by” – which sounds comparatively less stalkerish… Anyway, you walk up to the counter to place your order and in return, you get a buzzer which sounds and vibrates when your hot dog is ready for collection. Easy peasy. The times that I was there, I saw students, construction workers, and people attired in suits lining up to place their order. The humble sausage brings together people from all walks of life.

Snag Stand menu caters for a range of tastebuds – even if you are vegetarian (potato, smoked apple and sage). I suppose it is the equivalent of tofu burgers although I never got use to their appeal. Each item on the menu is displayed on a square black¬† cardboard with fancy writing and their description. They include, wagyu beef, pork and fennel (italian), weisswurst (veal, parsley and onion), chicken and rocket, beef and horseradish, spicy spanish chorizo, greek (lamb, rosemary and oregano), chillidog, backyarder, toulouse, australian fare, american classic, german bratwurst, and my all-time favourite: spicy cheese kransky. On top of that, they pair their artisan sausages with fancy accompaniments such as sauteed onions, house-made sauerkraut, creamy coleslaw, coopers ale BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, and different kinds of mustards (ranging between meh and so hot it’ll make you cry). Did I also mention that most hot dogs come served with a toasted brioche roll? Brioche always gets me. If you are a fussypot who don’t fancy the above options, you can design your own hot dog¬† – how awesome is that?

Between the two of us and three visits, we sampled the (1) chicken and rocket, (2) spicy spanish chorizo, (3) chillidog, (4) american classic, and (5) spicy cheese kransky and (6) toulouse. To top off our greediness, we couldn’t resist ordering their chips with house-gravy dipping sauce. Across the board, all sausages were top quality, packed with flavour and the right amount of juiciness. They are well seasoned and tasty without being overly salty for the health conscious – but then you do not eat hot dogs if you are worried about health. The only sausage that I found to be a bit “meh” was the american classic. If you prefer milder flavours, go with the chicken and rocket or the toulouse. On the other hand, you should totally order the chillidog or spicy spanish chorizo if you like your lunch to pack a punch. The chilli on the chillidog seriously high-fived my tastebuds. For me, I would be forever faithful to the spicy cheese kransky (even if it wasn’t spicy) because I absolutely love the combination of cheese and sausage. The only advice I would give is to eat the hot dog carefully because Snag Stand is generous with their toppings (not that I am complaining). You do not want the juices to dribble down your chin, sriracha/chipotle mayo or truffle/wasabi aioli to smudge your expensive suit – especially if there is going to be a board meeting afterward.

In summary, Snag Stand sets a pretty high bar for quality sausages in Melbourne. Yes, it is pricey but then again, it is not your average sausage sizzle. I foresee a long relationship with Snag Stand as long as it continues to stock my spicy cheese kransky!

Snag Stand on Urbanspoon

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La Belle Miette – move over cupcakes

A few years ago, there was a cupcake frenzy¬†rampaging throughout¬†Melbourne. No one seemed to be able to get enough of a little cake¬†that is covered with¬†swirls of frosting and¬†decorated with¬†little red heart candies/sprinkles/other sugary goodness. This¬†observation is¬†evidently well-supported¬†if you were to google “melbourne cupcake stores” – which I did do; since googling is a favourite, frivolous pastime of mine. 639,000 results appeared in an instant, or¬†0.48 seconds to be exact. There were the usual suspects such as the Cupcake Bakery, Little Cupcakes, the Cupcake Queens, Cupcake Central, and The Cupcake Family. Outside of Melbourne, someone¬†by the name of Paolo (or who¬†likes the name of Paolo)¬†had opened his very own cupcake store, affectionately called¬†Cupcakes by Paolo.

With so many stores located just within the Melbourne Central radius, I started to view¬†cupcakes as sneaky little things. It did not help when someone in my lab stuck up a funny Weight Watchers poster¬†that showed¬†a pink cupcake¬†holding up¬†a¬†white¬†flag¬†with the words: “I come in peace”. Whilst it amused me, the poster¬†didn’t quite convince me of¬†the cupcake’s¬†innocence. To¬†paraphrase from Shakespeare, that cupcake doth protest too much. Whilst I did try a few cupcakes from different stores, I didn’t understand the fascination surrounding them. Suffice to say, I wasn’t a cupcake kind of person, and I didn’t¬†score well¬†in the¬†“what cupcake flavour are you?” quiz in my honours lab either.

So, imagine my panic when macarons started to¬†gain popularity¬†in Melbourne, boosted possibly due to its guest appearance in MasterChef. I termed it the macaron movement. Oh no! I thought,¬†soon there will be macaron stores sprouting the streets just like those cupcakes. It turns out that I was¬†half right. There wasn’t an overwhelming increase in the number of stores that specialised in macarons. Rather, there was an increase in the number of existing stores that started to¬†sell their own macarons. For a period of time, there was heated debate between friends as to what¬†constituted a macaron, and what size it should be. This was largely based on confusion between macarons and macaroons – and how to pronounce each one correctly. For a small little round biscuit, it sure courted quite a bit of controversy.

The first macaron that I bought was the black and white macaron from the chocolate store, Shocolate, which had apparently won an award. It looked good in a zen kind of way, and it tasted very good. Long story short, I was hooked on macarons. That’s when I created the macaron expedition which involved creative logistics such as how-long-can-I-disappear-to-cover-all-these-shops-without-anyone-missing-me? In reality, the macaron expedition took place over several weeks as experiments and reports joustled successfully for my attention. Slowly,¬†my friend and I¬†ate our way from Shocolate to Cacao to Ganache Chocolate to LuxBite and macarons by someone else called Duncan. Apart from one very disappointing experience which sent me on a macaron hiatus, I enjoyed the sugary¬†expedition.

It was by chance that¬†I came across La Belle Miette. Some would even say it’s fate. One day,¬†a friend and I had trooped off to Hardware Lane to eat the crepes at Le Triskel as we were in our francophile mood. That’s when we notice a cute little shop that sold macarons. Naturally, we detoured and popped in to have a closer look. Round little perfections sitting atop a marbled table gleamed happily behind a glass barrier. They were all pastel shades ranging from a light lemony yellow to intense raspberry red. I was sold, and when I looked at the pretty boxes, I was smitten. The design of those boxes tell a beautiful story which you can read on La Belle Miette’s website. This is very similar to a thesis, which is meant to¬†relay a story too, albeit a less tasty one.

How many should we get? 2 or 3? In the end, we got 6……….That is to say, 6 utterly scrumptious macarons that should individually win macaron the year award. We devoured in no particular order:

  1. 72% Cocoa Single Origin Chocolate (Venezuela)
  2. Caramel a la Fleur de Sel
  3. Hazelnut Belle Miette
  4. Pimm’s & Pomegranate
  5. Strawberry & Vanilla
  6. Lemon

I loved them all, no matter what flavour they were, all had a wonderful egg-shell crunch when you first bit into them. Then your teeth sinks into the the sweet moistness¬†of an impeccably rich ganache that can only leave you in an exuberant sugar-high mood. The single origin chocolate macaron is sin in a box, and the delightful chewiness of the salted caramel macaron has caused my mind to wander many a time during lab meetings. I noticed that La Belle Miette also dabbles in¬†cheeky flavours such as Pimm‚Äôs & Pomegranate. Although I have not tasted Pimm’s before,¬†I can assure you that people who prefer tart flavours would very much enjoy it. Although some might consider lemon or strawberry and vanilla fairly boring , their¬†lightness¬†provides a welcome contrast¬†after eating¬†the heavier flavours. Sometimes, the best things are the simplest.

With the spectrum of flavours like theirs, La Belle Miette captures a range of clientele Рthose who like to play it safe and conventional, as well as who are adventurous enough to try exotic combinations. What La Belle Miette does even better is her ability to strike the right balance between textures and sweetness. One does not overwhelm but complements the other. Within the patisserie circle, it is safe to declare that Pierre Hermé and Ladurée are giants in the field of macaron creation. Melbourne may not have either of these outlets, but we have our own giant in the making РLa Belle Miette.
La Belle Miette on Urbanspoon