Sunday, February 25, 2007

Yeah Maan

There is only one Caribbean restaurant in Melbourne (well there is a cafe called Babble On Babylon but it is only open in the daytime). It happens to be that our local bus takes us straight there, through the city centre and out the other side, right to the nearest corner. Some friends had warned us that the food was good but the portions were tiny, but we needed to see for ourselves.

And so it was that we took five mates along there one Saturday night to see if it was anything worth talking about.

Yeah Maan is a tiny terraced building, converted from a house, with enough seating for about forty downstairs and another small dining room upstairs. Instead of the expected reggae blasting out, we were delighted to hear some classic soca tunes. We had a reservation but they didn't seem to know anything about that. We were shown to the upstairs room, and although we had explained that it was a reservation for seven people, we were asked to sit at a smaller table until we insisted we needed more room.

Once everybody had arrived we were pretty desperate for a drink - or at least some glasses for our BYO wine. In the end Orlando obliged by going downstairs himself. We thought that might shake up the waitresses, but we waited quite a long time for anybody to come and see if we were OK. It was the girl's first night so she didn't know much, but she was sweet.

Apart from myself and Orlando, we had three people who had only eaten Caribbean food in our house (Mena, Eileen and Kelvin), and two people who had no idea what they were in for (Australian Ida and Italian Viviana). The Trinidadian doubles served up were generous and talked about for days; Mena's Stamp 'n' Go was a huge portion and absolutely divine. Orlando and I both had the Pick Up Salt Fish, which was saltfish mixed with onions, tomato and peppers served on a dumpling. It reminded both of us how much we love saltfish, and I promised to go get some and start cooking it again. Pity we can't get ackee anywhere though...

The chilly janga roti (chilli prawns) were not too hot and spicy, which was probably just as well for the virgins. You could probably ask for them to be made a bit hotter. Kelvin chose the aloo pies, a huge portion of spicy potato balls which were tasty enough but nothing exciting.

The mains were even better. Eileen was served an enormous portion of jerk chicken and cassava fries, which she struggled manfully to consume, but ended up pleading with everybody to finish for her. She said it was lovely, but not as nice as Orlando's (well, you can't get Walkerswood here either).

The curried goat was really lovely, but I forgot to ask for mine to be made hot, so although it was tasty there was no kick to it. Orlando had asked for his hot, but it wasn't much better than mine. The rice and peas were made with small kidney beans (guess what? No gunga peas in Aus...) but it worked fine. Mena scored again with the ginger tamarind chicken which was beautifully seasoned, a good strong kick. The calypso chicken looked good, but even for the virgins it seemed very mildly-flavoured.

The service didn't get any better. We helped ourselves to more napkins, water and fresh glasses from behind our personal minibar in the corner, and raided the other tables for new candles for the table. Even when we wanted the bill, it warranted another trip downstairs. Maybe if we had been seated down with everybody else it might have been better.

Nonetheless, we were not in any hurry and the relaxed vibe certainly didn't ruin the evening. We put the world to rights without fear of annoying other diners with our noise, we finished a few bottles of wine and enjoyed some fine West Indian food. The rumours of small portions were well and truly scotched, and we will definitely come back again for more.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander Winery

A summer's evening in Healesville brought me to the new Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander pizzeria-bistro-artisan bakery on the outskirts of town. It is a modern new complex where you can tour the winemaking facility, try any of their wines, have lunch on the terrace or dinner in the airy restaurant.

I sat at the bar and tried a glass of their chilled rose. The wines are stored in temperature-controlled fridges and the beer casks are in full sight behind glass, rather than hidden in the cellar.

The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, and the restaurant was fully booked for their regular Curry Night that evening.

I am looking forward to coming back to try their Harry's Monster, a huge cabernet/shiraz/merlot/ petit verdot blend retailing at $49 a bottle.

BYO white wine only

Take a look at the conditions applied by this Chinatown restaurant on their BYO policy. I wonder if they are trying to save on laundry bills?

China Bar

It was Chinese New Year and an acquaintance's thirtieth birthday: what better opportunity to try another cheap and cheerful Chinatown eatery. China Bar came recommended by a few people. There are three branches, two in the city and one in Box Hill. We met up with the others at the Russell Street branch, right beside the entertainment stage where Chinese dancers, gymnasts, singers and performers entertained the hundreds of Melburnians who had braved the forty-degree heat to celebrate New Year in style.

China Bar is pretty small. It probably holds about fifty diners when full. Full roasted chickens and ducks are displayed proudly in the window, and above the counter a selection of dishes are displayed in full photographic glory.

We sat down the back with six others at the formica table, and helped ourselves to extra glasses for our BYO wine. Hunger, and the sheer beewilderment of the number of dishes on offer, made choosing an impossibility. Others picked my first choices - Mongolian beef, belly pork, choice of two roasts - and I was reluctant to order the same dish twice for the table. For the first time in my life, I sent the waitress away with no order from me after everybody else had chosen. Finally, somebody suggested that I limit my choice to the Specialities section, and I finally opted for satay beef.

We shared rice, noodles and stir-fried vegetables along with our own personally-chosen dishes. Everything was enormous and delicious.

We thought nothing could have detracted from our evening, until one creepy-crawly was detected on the wall near our table. In the course of the evening four baby cockroaches were seen emerging from the air-conditioning vent on the opposite wall, and making their way over to our table. They were dispatched with the aid of roll-up newspapers, but not before one almost made it into my hair, and one onto the table itself.

Now, a week later, the memory of the delicious food is fading as quickly as the memory of the cockroaches is growing. Despite the amazing food, I'm not sure if I will eat there again.


French chef Jacques Reymond has lived and worked in Melbourne for almost 25 years. His eponymous restaurant in Windsor is one of the top restaurants in the city. A few years ago he opened a new, more casual restaurant in the city's Federation Square, Arintji.

We ate there on a weeknight, and the place was full of after-work functions, birthday dinners, couples and small groups of friends. I arrived first and ordered a glass of Jacques Reymond Selection shiraz, from the Victorian Pyrenees.

The decor is modern and low-key, and you can see clearly into the open-plan kitchen. The menu is described as pan-national or modern Australian in the reviews I have read, but there is a distinct Asian slant to most dishes. Orlando started with croquettes of chorizo, spanish hard cheese and potato aioli and my starter was a warm salad of green beans, olives and feta (alright, these dishes are more Mediterranean but keep reading). Both dishes were very small but perfectly balanced in terms of taste and texture. So far, so good.

The main courses were a mixture of delight and disappointment. My stir fry of pork, shiitake mushrooms, kim chi, water chestnuts and rice drops was divine: a generous bowlful of dark and delicious goodness. Orlando's roast duck noodle salad with ginger, sesame and soy was so small he called the waiter back to enquire whether he had been given a starter portion by mistake. The waiter explained to Orlando that the dish he had ordered as a main was actually from the starters list, and that the noodle salad was the correct size. It was gone in a few delicious mouthfuls - and I had to give him some of my stir fry to keep him from wasting away.
Later we checked the menu online and Orlando's tiny dish was actually listed in the "Mains" section. Admittedly it was one of the cheaper dishes, but at $15 it was neither value for money nor a genuine attempt to satisfy a normal human's hunger pangs.
Lee's scotch fillet was perfectly cooked and amply proportioned, as was Daniel's pork cutlet with piquillo pepper and grape couscous.

The evening ended with three of us satisfied by both the quality and quantity of what we had been served, and one slightly hungry individual who was left wanting more.

Monday, February 12, 2007


A hand-written notice in the window of our local Indian restaurant (I won't embarrass them by naming it) proudly advertised a new takeaway offer:


I wasn't sure if I was reading it incorrectly, in that they would come to your house and serve it to you on a tray, or whether they were in fact offering entrees free (which is what starters are called here).

I also surmised whether they were doing what my friend Denis in Goa did: when choosing a name for his new beach shack, he came up with Stringfellos, spelt incorrectly with no "w" at the end. His rationale was that arrogant British tourists would delight in coming up to him and pointing out his mistake, at which point he would thank them and invite them to sit down for a drink/lunch/whatever. His gift of the gab would take over at this point, and they would be persuaded to stay at his shack for the rest of their holiday and spend all their beach money there.

You would be amazed at the number of people this worked on...

Anyhoo, the day I stopped my car to take a photo of the aforementioned offending notice, they had discreetly changed the word to "entree".

Now you will never believe me.

Cafe Barcelona

It was the St. Kilda Festival this weekend. We popped in to BarCelona on Fitzroy Street early on Sunday evening to excape the crowds, the heat and the hurricane-force wind that had caught us in a dried-grass-storm... and got ripped off.

We should have known when we asked for a jug of water as soon as we sat down, and were told we couldn't have one. Large bottles of still or sparking water only today. We opted for the sangria, and were charged $28 compared to the standard menu price of $24.

Strangely, as soon as our two companions had ordered their food, the waitress disappeared so quickly that our calls for her to return went unnoticed. I wonder what she thought we two were going to eat?

Our companions ordered a platter of antipasto-type food for two at $20, and it was measly. The calamari, mussels, chicken wings, beef skewers and leak and parmesan croquetas were perfectly fine in fairness, but the food came out in dribs and drabs, and even our attempts to be given cutlery and napkins went unheard.

At $96 for four people, it was not value for money. And I'm sure it's illegal to refuse to serve tap water, regardless of whether you charge for it or not?

I've eaten at BarCelona before, and enjoyed it, but I won't be returning.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mairead's vegetable curry

POINTS® Value: 2
Servings: 4

A tasty filling dinner - serve with boiled rice (rown is best).

Use whatever vegetables you like, but the chickpea/spinach combination is particularly good. The instant coffee is used to cancel out some of the sweetness of the vegetables, especially the tinned tomatoes. Add cooked potato and/or chicken if you wish, but don't forget to count the extra points.

1 medium onion
400 g canned chickpeas
200 g mushroom
400 g canned tomatoes
1 medium carrot, chopped
1/2 medium head of cauliflower
3 cloves garlic
1 whole fresh red chilli
1 tsp chilli powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
150 g frozen spinach
2 tsp instant coffee

Fry onion and garlic and chilli
Add rest of vegetables and cook for 3-4 minutes
Add rest of ingredients
Simmer for an hour

(tastes better made the day before!)

Gourmet City

We have a date tonight with Lee and her boyfriend. Easy - two serious food-lovers in a city full to bursting with amazing places to eat.

So why did it take us over two days to finalise the venue?

Melbourne is a foodies' paradise. Both Lee and I started obsessively looking for places in the central business district we'd like to visit. We traded possible lists, avoiding seafood (they ate last night) or Italian (my WeightWatchers meeting is tomorrow). We couldn't come to a landing.

After the first day, we both started making phone calls to get tables at some places we fancied. Lee called Melbourne Supper Club: full. Then she tried Movida: also full. What's going on in Melbourne on a Tuesday evening?

By mid-afternoon today we were four hours from meeting up, and miles from agreeing where. We were browsing Miettas and the Age Epicure sites for inspiration. It was a bit like being brought to the best shoe shop in the world with no notice, and told to pick one pair of shoes: impossible without serious soul-searching.

In the end I called it. I booked a table for four at Arintji, Jacques Reymond's place at Federation Square. Lee phoned expressing relief that somebody had decided on something.

Kid in a candy store...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

WBW#30 - the verdict

WBW this month was right up my alley. Living in Victoria, Australia, I am surrounded by more shiraz wineries than I know what to do with. Luckily, I had just stocked up on two of my favourites just before WBW#30 was announced.

A girls’ night in at Glenda’s house was just the venue for our tasting. We had three bottles to hand:

Paulett’s Polish Valley Shiraz 2001 (Clare Valley, South Australia) – one of Noela’s favourite drops
Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2003 (Grampians, Victoria)
Candlebark Hill Shiraz 2005 (Macedon Ranges, Victoria) – my favourite

We started with the Mount Langi. This is the affordable shiraz in the winery’s range, and it is a classic shiraz, all berries and pepper (other tasting notes refer to coffee flavours but I didn’t get that). The grapes for the Cliff Edge wines are selected from local small producers with younger vines, who do things by hand. While 2003 was a late vintage in that region, Mount Langi Ghiran was one of the last to harvest, and it shows.

The result is a smooth, classic Shiraz with the signature spiciness/pepperiness so often found in Grampians wines.

Our second bottle was the Paulett’s Polish Valley Shiraz 2001. It followed on well from the Mount Langi, and the few extra years in bottle were apparent: a really smooth red. Lots of fruit flavours, less spicy than the Mount Langi but more loaded with tannins. I liked it.

Our final bottle was my local hero, the Candlebark Hill Shiraz 2005. I love this little winery in the Macedon Ranges – it is one of the closest wineries to our house, and I buy direct from the winery owner, David, at Victoria Market. They say that the Macedon Ranges is at the “sharp end” of cool-climate viticulture, but it turns out the soils of the northern Macedon Ranges is perfect for cool-climate shiraz. And Candlebark Hill is a classic example.

I brought some of this wine home to Ireland last year. My brother opened his two bottles on Christmas Day, and subsequently told me it was the best wine he had ever tasted (and he has drunk his share of shiraz). This wine is rich, full-bodied, and almost assaults your taste buds from the first mouthful. After the highly-regarded 2001 Paulett’s one might have expected to miss the nuances, but Noela’s first sip stopped her in her tracks. The Candlebark Hill shiraz may not be long past bottle-shock, but it displays an unexpected maturity and roundness of flavour that is hard to beat. It’s what brings me back to this boutique winery again and again: they have not let me down for six or seven years now.

They make pretty delicious muscats and tokays too, but that’s for another WBW…

Next evening we continued our WBW weekend (as it was turning out to be) at our local Thai restaurant with our mates Sam and Amanda. Sam had brought along another favourite of mine, Pepperjack Shiraz. Pepperjack is a stalwart of the Barossa Valley area in South Australia, taking its grapes from fairly old vines in the Barossa and Eden valleys. It is another firm favourite of mine. It is a beautiful ruby red in colour and never fails to impress. Another classic shiraz with plenty of plummy fruits and spices, and maybe a touch of liquorice. Pepperjack is consistent and elegant and will always have a place on my wine rack.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

WBW#30 kicks off

Winecast is hosting this month's WBW, which is on the wonderful topic of New World Shiraz. Now, this is a topic I can really run with.

I already have a girls' night out lined up for Friday night, and I happen to two have to fantastic local Shirazes to hand, so it is looking good.

The first is my old favourite Candlebark Hill from the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne. We will be trying the 2005 vintage which has already been drinking quite well. I stocked up at the Queen Vic night market the other night, served by the owner himself, David.

The second is a new favourite of mine, the affordable shiraz label from Mount Langi Ghiran in the Grampians region north-west of Melbourne (we also love their main label shiraz but at $55 a bottle it's certainly a special occasion drink). We passed the winery on the way home from a trip to the mountains last weekend and I picked up a few bottles of their 2003 Cliff Edge shiraz. Arlene and I had a bottle of this at Stokehouse the other night and it's gorgeous.

Read the official tasting notes here next week! If you want to participate, simply head over to Winecast and read the rules, then either send your tasting notes to him directly, or I'll be happy to post your opinions here on FUOB.