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?