Sunday, November 09, 2008

Il Bacaro

168 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

Our friend Ida recommended this place to us, and Ida is serious about her Italian heritage and her Italian food.

Tucked away down Little Collins Street, it is easy to wander past this unprepossessing restaurant with noticing it. No outside tables (the pathway is far too narrow), no bright lights, just a serious-looking 1920s-style window frontage with discreet blinds hiding the joys within.

Inside, the place is all dark wood panelling, crisp white linen and flattering lighting. The high bar dominates the centre of the tiny space, but only a few bar stools hold some waiting diners. This is a place to sit side by side in corners, whispering, gossiping, perhaps having an affair...

It is also a place to impress. The waiters are polished professionals, almost always Italian or of Italian extraction, describing each dish on and off the menu with love and care and never needing to refer to notes. They will recommend a wine to go with your food, by the glass or bottle. They will hover discreetly waiting for your hand to reach for a half-empty water glass or bread basket, then swoop in with more. They can tell somehow if it is a special occasion or if there is simply somebody special at the table. Orlando's 15-year-old god-daughter was fussed over charmingly when we took her there.

The food is good. Classic Italian standards vie with regional specials, often involving game. Last time I visited, my dining companion chose a pasta dish with a rabbit ragu which was sensational. My starter - a carpaccio of wagyu beef - was sublime. There is usually plenty of seafood too.

For a special occasion for two, or for a Tuesday evening gossip session with a small group of friends, this is one of my first choices in Melbourne.

Sosta Cucina

Errol Street, North Melbourne

This new North Melbourne place has become a serious regular haunt for me and my workmates. A friendly North Italian joint, they take their regional cooking very seriously here.

The menu is not encyclopaedic, but it is augmented by a slew of specials every night. I have two favourite dishes which I struggle to escape from ordering time and time again. The first is spaghetti with blue swimmer crab meat, olive oil, garlic, parsley, golden breadcrumbs and freshly grated bottarga. It never looks much on the plate, but the flavours are so rich I always struggle to finish it. The waiter tells me that the breadcrumbs (salty, garlicky goodness) are a south Italian way of adding flavour to a dish when money is tight and cheese is expensive.

The second dish I love is a fairly simple pappardelle dish with slow-cooked lamb ragu and pecorino. Perfect for a chilly winter's night, it goes well with a nice big glass of chianti.

The wine list is pretty good - plenty of Italians by the glass as well as the bottle.

The owner told me the other night when we went in seeking a quiet table for two, that he couldn't accommodate us as they were having one of their new regional feasts. Every month they will have a bookings-only evening celebrating the food of a particular region of Italy with a special menu. Sounds like a good way to fill a restaurant on a Wednesday night, but I guarantee those heading down to Sosta will add this great place to their list of favourites.

Baba House

Errol Street, North Melbourne

This little Malaysian place is a bit of a Cheap Eats regular. Local to my office, I have walked and rode past it almost every day for a year and a half, and finally ate there with friends on our way to a comedy night in the Comic's Lounge next door.

The furnishings are simple but welcoming, service is friendly and quick, and the food is wonderful. Serving sizes seem big - it is not often I struggle to finish my dinner, especially such a good beef rendang. Peter's fried fish was a hit, although as a starter too small to taste more than a morsel. I will return just to have this all to myself.


66 Flinders Lane Melbourne

Ericka's birthday took us to Tazio, a quirky new pizzeria. Split-level and windowless except for the large front door, it shouldn't work but it does.

And the pizza is exceptional. Only the very best ingredients are used. They come in one size. And I could have eaten three.

My particular favourite (we chose and shared about four) was the Treviso - crushed oven-dried tomatoes, fetta cheese, caramelised onion and basil. The flavours were over-the-top strong and fused wonderfully.

Nonna's pork and veal meatballs were a small dish, but sensational. The spice semolina calamari was perfectly cooked and served with a rocket and endive salad. And even the eggplant lasagne (not my favourite vegetable) was edible (others thought more highly of this).

With plenty of wines - local and Italian - by the glass, it is sure to become one of my favourites.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

WBW #50 - The Great Outdoors

Russ Beebe from Winehiker Witiculture asked:

Imagine you and your significant wineau walking in the cool woods of Autumn. An
amber glow lights your path, golden leaves fall around you, and as you walk,
you’re working up a sizable hunger for that post-hike picnic you’ve got planned.
Not to mention that sizable thirst! Which wine will you pour in the Great

So what are my thoughts on this wine blogging question?

Well, I have lived in Australia for the past three years. Having lived in Ireland and the UK most of my life, the novelty of living slap-bang in the centre of a major wine-growing region has not worn off yet.

To my west I have Shadowfax winery not 30km away, my sister’s local wintery and one of my favourites. Further west into the Grampians we have amazing full-bodied reds. East to the Yarra Valley gives us plenty of pinot noir and excellent sparkling wines – Domaine Chandon has a winery there. Up in the King Valley and Rutherglen the reds are wonderful but the tokays and muscats are breathtaking. North-west of home brings me to Heathcote, one of my favourite areas for picking up reds of great quality.

Closer to home, about an hour’s drive away are the Macedon Ranges. A beautiful ridge of mountain overlooks the city. Walking trails criss-cross the landscape, or you can head a little further over to Daylesford, the heart of spa country, for a more lazy sort of weekend.

Hanging Rock is an extinct volcanic outcrop made famous by the movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” back in the eighties. It’s a good place for a Sunday afternoon yomp in summer or winter. You’ll see plenty of wallabies hopping around, and the cockatoos are cheeky but entertaining.

Nearby, Hanging Rock winery is small and welcoming. John Ellis and his wife run a tight ship, with their grown-up son and daughter also playing key roles in the business. A good day out would be to park at Hanging Rock, climb to the top and take in the views, then stroll down the Lancefield-Woodend Road to the Hanging Rock winery on Jim Road. It’s only about forty-five minutes at a comfortable pace.

There, the wines to be tasted abound, but reserve a place for their 2005 Heathcote Shiraz. I have a magnum of the stuff which I could use for my wine hike, which I won at Hanging Rock Winery’s 2008 winter luncheon.

It is coming into spring here in Australia, so our picnic would be a more hopeful springtime event. Our wine would be accompanied by plenty of local produce – olives, salamis, fresh local bread, and eaten under a flawless blue sky with plenty of sunscreen to protect against our hole in the ozone layer.

We could use the barbecues at Hanging Rock to cook a few Bullboar sausages, a rare recipe handed down from Swiss-Italian immigrants who live nearby. They don’t make them on the Swiss-Italian border anymore, so Australia is the keeping place for this ancient tradition.

However, they recommend not to open this huge wine for at least five if not more years… what to do?

The Cambrian Rise 2005 Heathcote Shiraz is not a bad second choice. Drinking well now, and about a third of the price of the Heathcote Shiraz, it is worth opening two or more and sharing with friends. And that is what I shall do.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday #49

Dhonig of 2 Days Per Bottle hosted Wine Blogging Wednesday #49. He chose a politically-themed topic for September’s tasting: A toast to the end of the Bush Era:

"What will you drink to toast the end of the Bush era? Will it be something to honor the 43rd President, or are you just looking forward to 44? Will it be something from Texas, which Bush calls home, or Connecticut, where he was really raised? Maybe a nice French champagne, a bit of a poke in his eye? Or do you prefer Italian prosecco, since they supported the “War on Terror”? Whatever it is, get ready to lift a glass and toast the end of an era that America will never forget."

I missed the deadline for posting, but here were some of the suggestions from Melbourne and further afield:

Sam wrote:
What shall I toast the demise of dubbya with? That’s easy. The same wine I toasted the downfall of John Winston Howard with. A wine of commensurable quality for these scumbags: Cat’s Piss Reserve, matured for a couple of days in Footscray rotted fence wood and left to decant for a couple of weeks in a VB tinny! Anyone thirsty?
But what if McCain gets in?...
On a serious note I would toast it with a lovely Pinot Noir of Mornington or Tassie persuasion. Nothing takes my mind off politics like a good wine….

Mena wrote:
I would love to be able to celebrate Obama’s success with a bottle of pinot NOIR from African-American winemakers Esterlina Vineyards in California.

John wrote:
Something French and vinegary for the downfall of the 43rd.
Something sweet and cosmopolitan for the Obama victory, perhaps a late harvest job.
Arsenic for a McPalin victory.

Eileen wrote:
I think we have to go for an Australian wine and it has to be Shiraz for the middle eastern link.
How about Bush Bike Shiraz from WA? We could rename it 'Bush, on your Bike' Shiraz for the day!

Annette wrote (the only serious response!):
Craggy Range single vineyard from Gimblett Gravels vineyard in Hawkes Bay NZ. It is called Te Kahu and is from 2005 - what a wine - 78.8% merlot and 21.2% cabernet sauvignon - mmmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!!

I am still thinking about my final response: my shortlist for the Demise of the 43rd includes:
  • Regardless of who wins, to bid farewell to Dubya, perhaps Touch O' Coffin Chardonnay or Supreme Afterlife Shiraz from Little Morgue Winery on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Australia's quirkiest winery has a sense of humour: this one-time morgue has been transformed into one of the most unique cellar doors in the country, with its original Gothic chapel serving as a wine tasting room and art gallery. You can even dine at the Cadavery Cafe!
  • Anything from Giant Steps winery in Healesville, if the USA takes the giant step we want them to and elects Obama... their sister winery is called Innocent Bystander (motto: "It wasn't me" which is probably what Bush will insist for years to come)
  • If we are waiting on a knife-edge for the Supreme Court to give us a result (again), we can say a prayer and sip on a Last Ditch viognier from d'Arenberg in McLaren Vale.
  • And if the worst happens and McCain-Palin get in, it has to be Wirra Wirra's The Angelus cabernet sauvignon (because God help us) .

Sunday, September 28, 2008

chicken chilli fry

It is over ten years since I travelled to India. My very first meal in Goa was in a little outdoor restaurant called Tropicana, and it was chicken chilli fry, a local speciality. Nothing fancy, just well-seasoned chicken cooked with chillies in a strong flavoursome gravy.

For ten years now I have been trying to replicate that taste. Everybody's recipe is different and yet the same. They may use their own family masala; some are drier than others; some are bulked up with vegetables and some give the meat pride of place. But all have that particular base flavour which always eluded me.

The best variation of it was Bobby's calamari chilli fry. I used to joke that it had drugs in it - the stuff was addictive. Bobby used to always send me home with a big bag of his own special masala, freshly roasted and ground that morning. Still I could not deliver the goods like a true Goan.

So this week I had a deep craving for chicken chilli fry. I was determined not to go to our local Indian restaurant: their version has that elusive flavour but it is a bit too oily for me. I googled and searched and googled again. I downloaded a dozen recipes to see if I could find a common element. Then something caught my eye and I thought: I'll try that.

I fried the chilli. The hint is in the name I guess. I took four large green chillis, deseeded them (the seeds can be a little bitter), cut them into strips and fried them alone in a little oil. No garlic, no sweating, just fried like onions. Within moments the aroma from the pan confirmed that I had found that elusive element.

I had always used the chillies as seasoning rather than a vegetable ingredient, and this was clearly the mistake. Frying the chillies released an amazing aroma and taste which was the complexity I had been missing all this time.

In another pot I cooked my chicken, marinated beforehand in finely chopped onion and garlic, Worcestershire sauce, a drop of fish sauce, garam masala and my own local meat masala. It simmered away for twenty minutes or so until the chicken was cooked. I then added the chicken bit by bit into the pan with the fried chillies, browning all the chicken as I went. Once that was done, I added the rest of the broth from the chicken pot and reduced it down to a thicker gravy. A teaspoonful of brown sugar and a dash of balsamic vinegar added to the sharpness.

I ate slowly and with relish. For all the chillies I used, it could have been a bit hotter for my taste, so in future I would use 6 large chillies to a half-kilo of meat. My toughest customer, Orlando, ate the left-overs for dinner the following night and declared that it was sensational.

Finally, a ten-year culinary conundrum is put to rest.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Melba at the Langham

Langham Hotel, Southbank, Melbourne

It was Mena's birthday. Lee organised a family lunch to celebrate. The Langham on Southbank is a favourite Sunday lunch destination for lots of families, and we were one of a number of family celebrations.

Dressed in our Sunday best, we met at one o'clock. Some of us had been reading the menu for weeks - some of us (well, me) were afraid of becoming too obsessed, so made do with a turn of the buffet counters to get prepared. I didn't know where to start.

Seafood seemed the right place to start, washed down with a glass of bubbly. The king prawns were plump and juicy, but the cocktail sauce could have been a little spicier. Then Lee found Peking Duck pancakes, so there was a run on them. Orlando tucked into the sushi as well.

The Indian buffet counter looked good, so I got the chef to make me a keema naan while I watched, and filled my plate with lamb korma, potato and pea curry and mixed pickle. It was delicious. I ate slowly, relishing every mouthful, and washing everything down with more sparkling wine.

The thing I didn't know was that it all finished at 3pm. I was sitting back, tasting a morsel of this and a sample of that. Then somebody said it was last orders. I'd not realised we were on the clock. Whilst I would like to say that the focus was firmly on my sister and her birthday, the reality was that we pretty much only talked about food. It's what we do. We love it.

But suddenly it was all hands on deck. I could have eaten more if I'd had time to digest a little - why does a buffet bring out the avarice in everyone? Amy and Orlando hit the chocolate bar whilst Mena sensibly rescued a cheese plate for us all to share. I felt a bit like I was back in Butlins and we had to vacate the dining room for the second sitting. But I ordered a nice glass of Galway Pipe tokay, tucked into the cheese and ignored everything.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon. Easy company, great views, anything you wanted to eat, all freshly cooked. But next time I would arrive at twelve or twelve-thirty: by the time we get the chat out of the way and order the wine, it would be just time enough to eat. Then there would be no hurry!


Busselton Highway, Margaret River, WA

Saturday night in one of the best wine-producing regions in Australia. We had a reservation in Waves, a well-known seafood restaurant on the main strip in the town. We'd been out all day marvelling at the amazing scenery of the Southern and Indian Oceans, and vainly looking for whales. I was ready for dinner and more than ready for a glass of wine.

The restaurant was almost full when we arrived: we were glad we'd booked. The restaurant appeared to be run by a husband and wife team, the husband cooking and the wife running front of house. We got a table away from the windswept door and settled in to read the menu.

The first thing that I noticed was that the menu had no alcoholic drinks on it, and no other wine list was offered. To my horror I realised that when the man had said earlier on that they were BYO, he meant BYO only. Shit. I would never drink a bottle of wine on my own, Orlando doesn't drink red and we were leaving the next morning on a plane to Melbourne. There was no point in heading to the off-licence for a bottle now.

I was sitting in the middle of a wine region with only sparkling water to drink.

Orlando sensibly tried to take my mind off things while we read the menu. It was late by Australian small-town standards: 8.30pm meant a few things were off the menu. Spookily we both chose the same things - seafood chowder to start, followed by swordfish.

We are both huge fans of chowder. I have never been able to find a decent recipe to make at home, so we always order it when we see it. It is difficult to better some decent Boston chowder or the legendary Moran's of the Weir chowder served with real Irish brown bread.

This was not half bad. Laden with white fish, king prawns, mussels and crayfish, it had no cream in the base but it was full of flavour. We made it last by dunking our bread into the broth, and savouring every mouthful. It was sensational.

I go on and off swordfish, so I haven't had it for a long time. This was beautiful: served with roasted tomatoes, green beans and creamy mash, everything was drizzled with basil oil and the fish was perfectly cooked. Again, we ate slowly to make it last.

Around us the tables slowly emptied. A local couple, well-known to the owners, came in late and were treated like royalty. I could hear the chef talking to the sous-chef, telling him quietly that these were very special customers and he should take special care preparing their food.

There was no chance of dessert: we were stuffed. Despite the disastrous no-wine situation (and those of you who know me understand) it was a great meal. I would have no hesitation recommending Waves as a good place to dine in Margaret River - but don't forget to pick up a bottle of the local stuff before heading in.


85 Bussell Highway, Margeret River, WA

Our first Friday night in the town of Margaret River, the centre of the eponymous wine region, and I was ready to go. My appetite whetted by a bottle of Clairault cabernet sauvignon in my hotel room, and numerous other local wines by the glass, I was looking forward to a couple of evenings with good food and good local wine to enjoy. Wino's did not disappoint.

A casual bar and restaurant, Wino's boasts an excellent wine list and a good choice of wines by the glass, which is what I am always looking for. We arrived early for our table and settled into the bar with glass of Juniper Estate cabernet for me - served in my very own baby carafe. The bar food listing itself was tempting - fresh Coffin Bay oysters, raw or Kilpatrick; chorizo; duck pate and goose rillette. The clientele seemed to be a mix of locals and visitors, with plenty of people around us being welcomed back again or engaging in a bit of local gossip with the wait staff.

In the restaurant, the menu was not the longest, but there were plenty of specials on order and we struggled to choose. I went for a fresh ravioli with pumpkin which was divine: plump and bursting with flavour. Orlando's calamari and chorizo was similarly appetising: it should have been served with mussels but he negotiated larger portions of the other two ingredients instead. I am not sure it would have worked with the giant mussells invariably served here in Aus.

Given we were not in a Chinese restaurant, it was no surprise that Orlando ordered pork belly for his main course. Beautifully presented on a rectangular platter, the portion size was not large but the flavours were good and the pork properly crispy.

My fillet of snapper was served on a bed of comfort-food mash and drizzled with the essence of the Mediterranean itself.

I can see why this place gets booked up for weekend dinners long in advance. I availed myself of a few postcards at the counter on the way out. I would not have been unhappy eating there two nights in a row.

Shun Fung on the River

Barrack Street Jetty, Perth, WA

After flying all the way to Perth to keep me company for the week - a four-hour flight - the least I could do was take Orlando out to dinner to thank him. Naturally, Chinese was the only option. I had seen a place down at the river which I was told was good for seafood. On a Thursday night in early spring it was almost empty when we arrived, but the interior looked far posher than the exterior hinted at.

I ordered a glass of local Margaret River cabernet shiraz and settle down to inspect the menu. It was a fancy, shiny, carefully worded tome with plenty of pictures. This was a place to reckon with.

We shared crispy pork ribs and salt and chilli squid to start. Both were divine, with plenty of bite and perfectly lightly fried. Our main courses were also excellent. My black pepper steak (yes, I know it was a seafood restaurant) was spicy, delicious and a huge portion. Orlando's more modestly-sized stir-fried squid was similarly tempting.

Genuine Chinese food it was not. But this place will be a place to return to on our nest trip west.

Brisbane Hotel

292 Beaufort Street, Northbridge, Perth WA

A night out with old colleague Johnno, his partner Chrissie and Orlando in Perth was a welcome change from eating alone. Johnno recommended the Brisbane Hotel, having heard good things about it.

As is fitting for a Perth bar, much of the Brisbane's footprint is outdoor seating. I guess that is a selling point on those balmy Mediterranean nights. In August, however, although the day had been warm and sunny, the nights are still cold, so we chose an outdoor table close to a heater for our drinks, ready to wander indoors when we ordered food.

At the bar the wines by the glass were decent enough. The three rather large cockroaches scuttling along high on the wall above the bar were a little off-putting though.

We drank and chatted and ordered food. Three of us went for the fish and chips, reputed to be the best in town. Orlando ordered a salmon Caesar salad. We were not disappointed. The fish was impossibly fresh and perfectly cooked in the lightest of tempura batter. The chips were fresh and hot. Orlando's Caesar salad certainly looked the part, with a huge lump of char grilled salmon atop a tower of salad (which in itself was impressive).

The inside area was certainly not as atmospheric as the outside: we sat at a high table on bar stools like most others, and the layout implied a focus on large groups drinking rather than a more intimate gathering. Nonetheless, not a bad place to spend the evening when the importance was firmly on catching up, chatting and putting the world to rights.

Maya Masala

Corner of Lake & Francis Streets, Northbridge, Perth, WA

Wandering the streets of Northbridge on a quiet Monday night, I was looking for somewhere with at least a few more diners in it: being the sole person in a restaurant never appeals. Maya Masala was bustling. Most of its front-room tables were already full, with a small family gathering in one of the back rooms too. A good sign.

I settle in at a table near the counter and was served by a hesitant but friendly guy assisted by another more experienced girl: maybe it was his first night. The girl assured me that the Amritsari fish was not too big an order for one person, so I ordered it with a non-veg thali to follow. I love Amritsari fish and this is the first time I have seen it on a menu in Australia.

It was delicious but enormous. Five or six pretty large lumps of red fish arrive on a bed of lettuce leaves, with a small dish of raita. I devoured it. The thali looked a bit small when it came out, although I know that was more my enormous appetite talking than the reality of the situation. It had the usual two non-veg curries, two veg curries, yoghurt, rice, roti and rice pudding for dessert. The only thing I can criticise is that it was not piping hot, and as a result everything was stone cold by the time I finished eating the last morsel. I can tell you that thali was not small. I was stuffed.

At another table I saw a dad and his daughter having supper together - his masala dosa was the biggest I have seen outside India and looked divine. Despite my food-laden table I was struck with a bit of order envy. Perhaps next time.

The flavours were great, the portions more than generous, the wait staff friendly and helpful if a bit unsure of themselves, and the vibe for a woman eating alone was perfect.

Sorrento Restaurant

158 James Street, Northbridge, Perth WA

A week of work in Perth had me checking out the Northbridge area, recommended to me as the place to eat in central Perth. A craving for Thai food going unsatisfied, I wandered into Sorrento, a pleasant-looking and busy Italian place on the main drag. Decorated in the style of a stereotypical Italian trattoria (all burnished walls and wrought iron), it was a cosy place to dine alone.

The menu was Lygon Street typical: pizzas and standard pasta dishes, with a decent selection of primi piatti in the usual style. I ordered a glass of local cabernet sauvignon, a bowl of minestrone and a lasagne.

The minestrone was delicious, although without the cannelini beans and pasta absent it would have been more correctly described as a vegetable soup. Nonetheless I enjoyed it with plenty of parmesan cheese (freshly shaved for me) and a basket of strangely light bread.

Moments after my soup was served a second waiter arrived at my table with my lasagne. I'd hardly tasted my soup, and he didn't seem to want to take it away, but I convinced him in the end. My original waitress wandered past a few minutes later to see how I was, and I mentioned my lasagne. I asked her to make sure that it wasn't left in the kitchen sitting around, then reheated and tarted up again for me later: she assured me this would not happen.

After a decent interval, sure enough out came the lasagne again. It was the original one, left sitting the kitchen since its original appearance, then reheated and tarted up again. I could see the original parmesan shavings which had been melted and topped up with fresh; I could see the edges of the lasagne slightly curled up at the edges. Disappointing.

I couldn't be bothered complaining again. It was tasty enough anyway, and piping hot, so I got on with my dinner and called for the bill. Just as I thought the disappointment could not get any worse, the lightweight bread which had been served with my soup was listed on the bill as a $4 item. How very 1980s, charging for bread. What decent Italian place does that anymore?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Dundrum Town Centre
Dublin 16

A night out with old friends Joe and Elva is always a highlight of my year. We only get to see each other once or twice a year when I visit Ireland. After 25 years our evenings revolve around good food (often served in their own hectic kitchen), good wine and plenty of conversation.

A beautiful Irish summer evening saw Elva and I looking fabulous in summer fashion, and Joe looking buff and suntanned. Going out with Joe and Elva can be dangerous as they are both incredibly good-looking, and blessed with deep suntans after (it seems) five minutes in the sun. They both look more Mediterranean than Irish, and indeed Joe was once almost stopped from leaving Turkey as they suspected him of being a local trying to leave on a fake Irish passport...

Given the summer warmth and the fabulous outfits we opted for eating out: Italian seemed a perfect choice. Dublin's Dunn and Crescenzi mini-empire now includes l'Officina, in the new Dundrum shopping centre within a stone's throw of Harvey Nick's. Dunn and Crescenzi are known for their excellent ingredients, slow food philosophy and wonderful atmosphere, and l'Officina in Dundrum was no exception.

The wine list was impressive but we didn't linger over it. The house wine flowed as we shared three starters: some delicious bresaola served with rocket and olive oil on sourdough bread, divine bruschetta made from proper sun-ripened tomatoes, and a decent plate of antipasto with plenty of choice. We lingered over every mouthful and the last morsels of each went to the highest bidder.

Elva and I both chose the special for our main: pasta twists cut to the same length as the calamari it was served with, lightly tossed in olive oil, herbs and a hint of chilli. Joe chose a wagyu steak served alone with just a garnish: he actually forgot to order a side, but then decided it would have taken away from his experience.

For a Tuesday night the place was pretty busy which indicated its popularity. People sat outside by the fountain as well as inside in the modern but welcoming restaurant. Italian deli items and packets of coffee beans were stocked on shelves: the restaurant also sells what it serves.

The wait staff were, it seemed, all Italian, and the post-rush dinners they ate as we sat over our coffees looked as sensational as the food we had just been served. Can't remember the name of the brand of coffee they were serving, but it was really great. Smooth and rich, even the decaf had a kick to it. Happily the waiter didn't flinch when I asked for a macchiato: the mark (in Ireland) of a genuine Italian eatery.

I look forward to trying the rest of Dunn and Crescenzi's restaurants next time I am in town.

Spago Portlaoise

On our way home from Dingle we stopped late in the evening in Portlaoise looking for some good home-cooked Italian food. Some might say we were being a tad ambitious, but this is 21st century Ireland and I was hopeful. We stumbled upon Spago, a new-ish Italian housed in the Portlaoise Heritage Hotel right in town.

A friendly maitre d' with a broad Dublin accent seated us in a rustic-looking (but not as far as checked table-cloths) restaurant and immediately served us warm marinated olives, virgin olive oil and sourdough bread. A good start.

We opted for main courses only at that late hour. The two pizzas were freshly made with only the best and freshest toppings. Not too big and perfectly cooked (the Doyles like our pizzas done well). Connor's chicken and mushroom pasta could have been ordinary but it tasted delicious. Not too creamy and the chicken flavours dominated. I ordered linguine vongole, one of my favourite comfort foods. Tomatoey and with a hint of chilli, I devoured it.

We could not be tempted by the desserts. Mum favours traditional fare such as her favourite, Knickerbocker Glory, and doesn't go in for the usual Italian treats such as tiramisu. Ashling was sorely tempted but it was getting late. The last-minute coffee I downed was again freshly made and ended a very enjoyable but brief meal. Pity it doesn't open Sundays or Ashling and Connor's dad my brother Bernard) would make this a weekend hangout.

Nat's baked beans recipe from Bill Granger

We met some friends at a Sunday lunch a few weeks ago, at Ann's house where everybody brought a dish. Nat kindly gave me her recipe for home-made baked beans, this one from Bill Granger.

2 tbs olive oil
2 x 400g (14oz) cans cannellini beans
1 garlic clove, sliced
½ tsp chilli flakes
1 small red onion, sliced into thin wedges
250 g (1 punnet) cherry tomatoes

To Serve
1 tsp olive oil
8 slices prosciutto
1 Tbs fresh oregano leaves

Preheat the oven to 200◦C (400◦F/Gas 6).
Place the olive oil, beans, garlic, chilli flakes, onion and tomatoes in a small baking dish and stir to combine.
Loosely cover with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the onion is tender and the tomatoes slightly shrivelled.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp of olive oil in large frying pan over a medium to high heat and cook the prosciutto until lightly crisp.
Remove and place on paper towels.
Serve the baked beans sprinkled with fresh oregano leaves and the crisp prosciutto.
Serves 4.

Nat used bacon instead of prosciutto and just sliced it and threw it in with the beans to all cook together and it worked well, too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bis Cucina

Foster Street, Sale, Victoria

There are two restaurants in Sale listed int he Good Food Guide - no, make it one. Marlay's closed down recently.

We are left with Bis Cucina, in the modern Arts Centre building. From the outside it looks more like a casual cafe, but in the evening the ambience is inviting as you drive past the floor-to-ceiling windows.

I have eaten there twice, once alone and once with a colleague. On both occasions the service was outstanding: friendly, attentive, knowledgeable and discreet. Their home-made ravioli with a carrot, corn and parmesan sauce is to die for, but I bet you'll never finish a full portion. No matter: the maitre d' will happily package your leftovers for you to take home.

A lovely wine list full of local options too.

Almost worth a trip to Sale just to visit!

Walter's Wine Bar

Southgate, Southbank, Melbourne

A reunion with old friends back from Blighty saw us convene at Walter's, the venerable old reliable on Southbank. A bottle of red on the balcony bathed in the heat of the heat lamps was a great start to the evening, as was the gossip and reminiscing with Robyn and Chris.

Dinner was warm and comforting - starting with a big bowl of onion soup. A beetroot prawn and chorizo risotto was divine, as was Orlando's seafood pie. An amusing mistake was the jug of pepper sauce (as in what you put on your steak) that Orlando got when he looked for pepper (chilli) sauce. It didn't stop him using it on the seafood pie...

Service unobtrusive and excellent. Food about the same. What a lovely night.

Cafe Barcelona

Another rainy night, another stupid decision. We were looking for somewhere cosy out of the chilly night air. Despite my previous assertion that I would not eat there again, we found ourselves back at Cafe Barcelona.

Sadly it was pretty empty (well it was a Monday night); despite this the waiter tried to place three of us at a table which was patently designed for two, and appeared a little put out when we asked to move. The front door would not close properly so we spent the evening shivering with our coats around us. They couldn't get the door to stay shut for more than a few minutes.

The food was mostly good, I'll grant you that. The tortilla was a bit ordinary, but the garlic mushrooms, meatballs, chilli prawns and everything else was lovely. Service (as before) was hit and miss. It took a few tries before we successfully scored more bread to mop up the delicious juices, and we had to defend the dishes stoutly in the meantime. I felt we were in the way to be honest.

The Spanish tempranillo (Vina Albali, one of my favourites) went down well, but we had to spike Shanna's sangria with a slug from the bottle. It was mostly fruit juice.

Again, a disappointing evening all told. This time I will tattoo it on my forehead: don't go back. The thing that annoys me is that Lola's Tapas is only down the road. Why can I never remember to go there?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club, 176 Cuba Street, Wellington

We were enticed by the dark wood frontage of this new bar on Cuba Street. At five o'clock on a cool Wellington evening, one for the road seemed like a good idea. We had the place to ourselves. From a narrow entrance the venue runs back a long way with an almost-black wooden bar running the length of the room. The mirrored shelves of bottles reached the high ceiling. The lights were dimmed. It reminded me of our favourite bar in Havana, Los Tres Hermanos, or indeed the actual Havana Club Bar.

In memory of our Cuba trip I ordered a Havana Club 7 anos, and Orlando (naturally) a Mount Gay Extra Old. We sat and sipped in the quiet. I imagine this is a much livelier place at night. The barman showed us the downstairs bar where they play live music or host DJs. Apparently the place is getting a good reputation for the music, although his recommendation of that evening's offering (German reggae) didn't entice us. Maybe they shouuld stick to their Musica Cubana nights...

With the most extensive selection of rums we saw in Wellington, I would suspect this would be a favourite haunt of ours on any future trip to Wellington.

Southern Cross Bar & Restaurant

Southern Cross Bar & Restaurant, 35 Abel Smith Street, Wellington

The Southern Cross has been around for years I am told. We went there for a low-key dinner on our second evening in NZ. The place has a huge outdoor section which would be great in the hot weather - we sat out there to accommodate the two smokers amongst us but it wasn't too chilly.

The meat pie had been recommended to us, so three of us chose it. But they had sold out. The fish and chips was excellent - perfectly cooked fish and lots of it. Helen's vegie risotto was fabulous, so much so that Claire and I helped her finish it. Orlando's sausage and mash was pretty good - nice meaty sausages, tasty gravy and excellent creamy mash.

The bar staff were a bit vague - I was sent from one small outdoor bar to the indoor bar in search of Claire's pink bubbly, and then the guy still didn't know what I was asking for. He insisted they didn't serve it until I explained we had just had one glass already.

The wait for the food was a bit long too, although I believe after they took our orders they started to tell people of the long wait when they were ordering.

The atmosphere was a bit low-key as the place was less than half-full. I expect it's a lot more lively at other times. In fact I'm not sure how comfortable a place it would be to eat once the drinking crowd kick in. I suspect it turns into a bit of a meat market some nights.


Roxy's, 203 Cuba Street, Wellington

Well this must be about the only place to eat in Cuba Street that doesn't have a Cuba name. Roxy's is the unofficial cafe of our hotel next door, where you can charge your bill back to your room. Serving breakfasts, and Eurpoean and Asian foos the rest of the day, it was quiet when we arrived mid-morning on New Year's Eve.

My porridge was served with full-fat milk on the side and plenty of chopped fruit on top. It was well cooked and a generous serving. Orlando's standard holiday breakfast of eggs, smoked salmon and bacon was done well. Nothing spectacular in either case, just good value tasty fare.


Floridita's, 161 Cuba Street, Wellington

Continuing the Hemingway theme (El Floridita was the name of Hemingway's favourite bar) we ate breakfast here on our second morning in NZ. It is a bright and airy place with high ceilings and tiled walls. The menu is short and simple, focusing on fresh ingredients served well.

My home-made toasted muesli with fresh yoghurt was sensational. Just the right mix of fruit and seeds and nuts, perfectly toasted. Endless pots of tea accompanied our meal. Orlando was a little disappointed in his breakfast as the eggs were a bit too runny for him, and the bacon rind wasn't cooked enough.

The staff were unobstrusive and efficient, and the lunches being served at adjacent tables looked good.


Ernesto's, 132 Cuba Street, Wellington

Our first breakfast in Wellington was a great introduction to the bohemian Cuba Street. Everything on this street is an homage to Cuba and all things Havana (including its famous ex-pat son Ernest Hemingway) and this is no exception. The venue has seen a number of incarnations in the past few years, and our local expert Claire reckoned this was the best so far.

Light and airy, with big looky-out windows and friendly staff, Ernesto's had interesting little touches like flavouring their jugs of water with mint, cucumber and strawberries so it tasted a little like an alcohol-free Pimms.

The eggs were excellent (Orlando tells me) and my breakfast burrito was sensational (scrambled eggs and chilli beans wrapped in a tortilla). A glass of chilled bubbly went down well and the coffee and tea was good quality and properly served.

Definitely a great place to return to.

Monsoon Poon

Monsoon Poon, 12 Blair Street, off Courtenay Place, Wellington

Our first dinner out in Wellington was a bit of a disappointment. Whilst Monsoon Poon is a lively, sociable place to eat, with friendly staff and colourful decor (including signed plates on the wall from its celebrity diners), the food was a disappointment.

The shared start platter wasn't half bad, with chicken wings, vegetable pakoras, spicy calamari and spicy minced chicken, but the main courses underwhelmed us. Helen's pumpkin korma was so rich she could not finish more than a few mouthfuls, Orlando's "two types of chicken tikka" was one type and a very small portion at that, and my South Indian fish curry was fine but not at all flavourful enough. Claire's mushu chicken was OK, but Garry's nasi goerng was pitiful. He soldiered on but left most of it.

Not a place to return to.