Monday, November 28, 2005

Coasting at Coast

A dry cleaners, definitely. Steve Manfredi’s re-vamped Coast at Cockle Bay is where you’d go to pick up a suit. Except us. Academics, newspaper editors, the perks of the job include the non-compulsory nature of our work wear. And the flexibility of our work schedules, which is why there are martinis on the table quicker than a dropping share price. Baggy shirts and comfy jeans are far more sensible for a late lunch with all the trimmings, start of the silly season and all that. We are a much needed casualising influence in this room and our drinks waiter whispers that all are envious of our throw-caution-to-the-wind louche daytime martini-ordering behaviour.

The interior of Coast is drop-dead fashionable. Funky black and white patterned chairs, a two toned teal wall that melds into the open kitchen, and a single-piece light fitting that ripples and snakes like a yellow sand dune across the ceiling. Very coast-y as we gaze out on Darling Harbour on this rainy Sydney Spring day. The menu bears some contemplation and is conveniently available at if you need a preview. The wine list is bigger than the last novel I read and has a slightly better plot, packed with thrills and spills from around the globe and finishing with a happy sticky ending.

While we’re waiting for Keef, Al & I pass the time gobbling yummy sourdough dipped in a grassy, astringent olive oil from near Lake Como. Rather than the degustazionewhich looks like it could be too complete a commitment for Friday afternoon, we go for a mixed oyster selection ($23 per half dozen) and the gnocchi ($24) to start. The menu boasts that as well as shucking to order (I know a few people would do admirably well if they adopted that policy) the little darlings are left on the muscle complete with their juices. This sounds and looks commendable, but it ain’t practical. A is left wrestling with recalcitrant oysters that don’t much feel like being liberated from their briny den and it’s hard to hack into a strong muscle with a tiny blunt spoon without the risk of your $4 oyster landing in someone’s handbag at the next table. A charnel house of shredded oyster bits are left clinging wanly to the shell and some of those precious juices end up on the salt bed. Maybe just a little flick of a sharp knife might help the struggling punter.

Skipping past the antipasto of salumi, the zuppa and the primi, the spinach, crab and ricotta gnocchi with burnt butter and parmesan are rewarding. Rich and dense torpedo shaped dumplings cosseted in a nutty butter with a light dusting of sweet shredded crab provide a substantial but not too heavy starter. Mains are hard. The choices all look tantalizing but eventually A opts for the grilled barramundi with vegetables and salsa verde ($32) and K and I go the barbecued duck with balsamic vinegar ($35), carnivores to the last breath. A rucola and parmesan salad, amply lavished with balsamic dressing, is our contorni. The barramundi is scrummy from reports, but the duck is lacklustre. The breast is pleasant enough and pinkly succulent, but the legs are virtually inedible: undercooked, tough and stringy. This is possibly a product of the cooking method as it’s near impossible to get both breast and legs rare and tender with the one technique. So half the dish is pushed aside.

The dessert menu is enticing but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth today so order some gorgonzola piccante for A and me to share. Despite its creamy magnificence it is oddly partnered with a desiccated fruit bread, where I think plain would have been better for this cheese, leaving the sweeter fruit as a side option. The coffee is as fabulous as it should be in a top tier Italian eatery, as is the De Lamaestre Armagnac that we choose as its buddy – an interesting character in the aforementioned blockbuster wine list that’s sure to already have the film rights sold with Peter Jackson lined up as Director.

The weather has cheered up now, which is just as well because someone has pinched my umbrella from the holder at the door of the restaurant. Hurrumpf. Honestly, those business types stealing fold-up brollies from underpaid academics! It is suggested that the fabric of the universe would not be rent assunder if I were to repatriate a remaining umbrella from said receptacle, but my stringent ethics won’t allow me to perform such a base act and we depart with me feeling slighted but a better person for it.

Coast is probably worth a repeat run. The duck may have been disappointing this time however the menu is full of promise. But don't take your good brolly or some marketer from IBM will make off with it.

Coast Restaurant. Roof Terrace Cockle Bay Wharf. 201 Sussex St., Sydney. 9267 6711.

*picture credit deGroots restaurant guide

Thursday, November 24, 2005

La Sala

With more openings than a bar fridge on New Year’s Eve, the Sydney restaurant cosmos is at warp speed this season. To keep pace, we visited the new ‘it’staurant La Sala, brain child of Sydney food luminaries Darren Simpson and Andrea Mellas. Tucked away in a quiet Surry Hills lane, ‘The Room’ is impressive. The entry at cocktail bar level drops away down stairs to an open vault room bordered by the glassed kitchen and a back wall of signature burnt orange. Banquettes hug the contained atrium which is topped by hovering black iron chandeliers. A back section near the wall with lower ceilings and dimmer lights invites seduction. There’s a pleasant mood-lit hum throughout as we take our 8.30 booked table at 9 pm with deferent apologies and a complimentary glass of champagne (Duval-Leroy) for the wait. Mellas has the floor staff tuned to perfect pitch. An ever excellent and rarely found mix of attentiveness and distance, they seem to be there when you want them and not when you don’t. Clad in brown (would someone please tell the world that brown is not the new black and the only things that look good in it are thoroughbreds and old-growth forests) they do little to disturb the neutral palette of the surrounds. Not so the kitchen.

In contrast to the muted glow of the dining room, it could be a scene from Fritz Lange’s Metropolis. A goldfish bowl of flood lit steel and hushed industrial precision with Simpson pacing the pass like a zoo-caged lion checking every order as it departs. Directly above, continuing the glass panes, is what looks like a prep room. I’m unsure whether this is a functional part of the kitchen or a prop. It’s lit but totally devoid of life and houses a big pasta machine, ice cream churn, a few oddly draped strands of drying pasta and jars of stuff, packed next to an ostentatious stack of five enormous rounds of what is either parmesan or tractor wheels painted yellow.

The menu is solid Italian – fresh food prepared well and simply and not overwrought with superfluous ingredients. The fritto misto ($21) comes with a yamba prawn, whiting, and zucchini flower accompanied by a robust tartare with a hint of zing. The edge of crispness on the batter is not quite there, but the flavours work well and each item of produce is defined. The grilled calamari with chilli is disappointingly al dente, the chilli pleasantly unobtrusive in the background rather than dominant. Creamily soft buffala arrives perched on sourdough – a classic starter, uncomplicated and proudly showcasing this glorious cheese. I have the main special, grilled scampi ($39), which is flawlessly executed needing nothing but butter and lemon. Roast baby spring lamb is well flavoured but not as moist as it could be, but we crown the blue eye with cavolo nero the hit of the night. Faultlessly presented, the fish is sweet and aromatic, lusciously juicy and contrasted to maximum benefit with the slightly wilted black cabbage, a sea-salty brace of baby clams, a hint of chilli and olive oil. We share a pretty red witlof salad whose tangy, slightly sour notes prove that bitterness isn’t always best left to relationships but has a place on the table too. It’s an excellent foil for the sweet seafood.

As Brillat-Savarin said, ‘a dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye’. He obviously had some odd looking dining companions, but we decide share a cheese plate between two anyway. With fresh seedless grapes and a crispy carta di musica, the gorgonzola dolce is the star. The lemon tart is also well received. Being near 11 by now I pass on coffee, preferring sleep over caffeine, so I’ll return at an earlier slot to test drive the espresso.

On exit, Mellas again conveys his regrets that our table wasn’t ready on time. Nice attention to detail showing he has a memory for customers beyond the credit card signature, and a real desire to look after them. I demur and offer that it’s understandable as they’ve just opened and they must be very busy – indeed they were packed this Wednesday night for two sittings. ‘That’s no excuse!’ he tells me. I really like these guys’ diligence – Mellas with the people, Simpson with the food. Sydney has come to expect this combination from its good restaurants, but nevertheless it’s a rewarding experience when encountered.

La Sala, 23 Foster Street Surry Hills.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Swimming with the dolphins

Like Surry Hills itself, the newly renovated Dolphin Hotel is a clutch of contradictions. In a suburb where you can go from favella to fabulous in less than a block, at the Dolphin you can go from the Bauhaus lines of an open dining room, to a sunny umbrella-laden balcony, or cozy, upholstered banquette nooks in a few steps. The crowd too is eclectic. Everything from concrete booted construction workers, to the thongs (I’m talking footwear) and t-shirt brigade, to the Eastern suburbs retire-ati having a break from Woollahra cafes.

It’s easy going too. Progeny of King Colin Holt’s growing pub bistro empire (the Bourbon, the Commodore and Woolwich Pier Hotel) you can eat wherever in the Hotel you like. That’s because there’s no waiters who'd have to try and find you to give you your food. You order, pay, and depart with your beeper then like a homing pigeon return to base when you’re called. Where you sit really depends on how far you’re prepared to carry your food and cutlery. But the further away the better for all you aspiring waiters. Good practice, especially up the stairs. I know (from friends with greater property aspirations than my own) that this system raised the eyebrows of the good burghers of Hunters Hill at the Woolwich Pier who were a little miffed about the absence of attentive staff to ferry their prawns through the dappled courtyard. But the white linen Armani’s fit a little better with the extra walking, don’tcha know! But here in Surry Hills no one seems to mind the trip back to the pass to get the nosh, and this contribution to low overheads must be why they can keep the food prices so reasonable.

Like the crowd and the suburb, the menu doesn’t disappoint in novelty either. My erstwhile lunching companion Giovanni (hard job but someone has to do it) arrives just after me and we’re both hot as. Temperature-wise it’s nudging 30-ish and I’ve walked from Ultimo. Mostly to check out the menu at the not-open-on-the-weekend-for-lunch La Sala (see a later post), but also for the exercise. As I slip out of runners and into heels and ask really nicely if they do martinis, the very obliging person behind the bar checks she has what she needs – I spy with my little eye … Noilly Pratt and Bombay gin so I know she’ll be ok. After a brief inquiry to the manager about price (“charge for 2 nips it’s cheaper than a cocktail” – bargain!) she sets off to find a martini glass and promises to deliver it to me at the table. How civilized! Not a bad martini either, and by the time it comes I’ve cooled down nicely and G is now woofing down a thirst quenching Bombay and tonic.

We order a little starter to go with drinks – the fried crumbed green olives with lemon wedges ($13) cradled in a swish-o long white tray just wide enough for one olive. They’re stuffed with veal, breadcrumbs and parmesan and are tartly salty with a couple of different levels of flavour and texture – the crunchy crumbs outside and the dense olive bitterness inside with the smoother pungent stuffing to finish. A little squeeze of lemon and grind of pepper finishes them off nicely. Seriously good with drinks, and such a substantial snack (16 olives) it admirably serves as an entrée for us both. We fight over the last one (no you have it, no you have it, no you…) and study up for main course. While we contemplate, we start in on a nice Two Rivers Marlborough Savignon Blanc from the very solid wine list. Ultra reasonable prices and much the journeyman’s list as anything else – 8 sparkling (3 French, 3 by the glass) 22 whites, 3 rose’s, 18 reds, and 2 stickys. The upper price for the whites is the $55 Cloudy Bay Savie and a $60 Yarraburn “Bastard Hill” Pinot for the reds.

There’s a bar food menu as well as a regular E, MC & D list, plus share plates of prawns, oysters and mussels. The bar food musters the usual suspects – nachos, pie with mash, steak sarnie ($15-16) plus a few innovative additions like steamed soy beans or squid with green papaya and chilli. The salads are a cut above the pub meridian – roast beetroot & baby spinach with roast walnuts & walnut vinaigrette ($16), shaved fennel with pink grapefruit, asparagus & olive oil ($17), as well as tomato, buffala, olive, basil & balsamic ($15). A nice retro addition of prawn cocktail ($16) is cute, and the traditional Caesar is sure to scurry off the pass in vast numbers ($17).

The mains comprise pasta (linguini with clams, $17), mushroom risotto (the only vego choice I can detect apart from the salads) plus battered whiting, pan fried snapper with coriander & lime salad, and roasted kingfish with mushroom asparagus & veal reduction as the fish choices. Poached chicken with cannellini beans & rocket, and lamb & rosemary sausages with mash & onion jus make up the other options apart from steak. I choose the grilled sirloin with Café de Paris butter over the T-bone with red wine and shallot butter (both $22), and G has the pie of the day which is Moroccan lamb.

The steak is a very nice bit of meat – well flavoured as one would expect from the cut – but for a moment I panic when I cut into it thinking it’s way over the rare I ordered. The other half is ok, so the actual piece of meat was not uniform thickness, leading to one end being perfectly rare and the other just past medium. Oh well. Bit stingy with the CdP butter too, but it’s nicely oozing and gives the steak a lift. Good crunchy frites, but they don’t taste entirely hand done. G’s pie looks every bit the pub classic, plonked on a pillow of mash with peas on top and a rich dense gravy moat protecting it from the plate. We can’t help but think that maybe chef hasn’t been to Morocco lately as we can’t taste much in the way of ras el hanout or the like in the very mildy flavoured innards. The lamb, though, is meltingly tender and very edible and as the plate is pristine within 20 minutes it must be ok whatever its ethnic origin. He confides in hushed tones that he believes the peas are frozen (scandalous!) and there is a lingering suspicion over the handmade or otherwise nature of the pastry, but I guess this IS a pub after all.

With such generous servings and a hot afternoon all we can manage is a coffee rather than assault the dessert menu, and I must say the coffee is way decent for a pub. We muse how once upon a time if you asked for a coffee in a pub that once your masculinity had been impugned you’d get a milky Nescafe. Not so these chest-hair cultivating double espressos with rich crema and not a hint of over-extracted bitterness.

I’ll be back to frolic with the Dolphins – I really want to try those salads.

The Dolphin Hotel, Crown Street, Surry Hills.

Mrs Beeton never though of this ....

This is adapted from someone who was talking on ABC radio who my friend Jannet heard, who then copied the recipe from ABC Online and passed in on to me and I made it last Xmas and it was just great. So I can't really properly attribute the source, but after you've had it you won't care either :)

Plum Pudding Vodka

700 mls vodka (keep the bottle)
250g dark brown sugar
100g mixed peel
250g sultanas
150g raisins
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
1 tsp almond essence
6 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp mixed spice

Place everything in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a cool place for one week, stirring daily. It’s ok – no, really, you don’t have to taste it. Strain through a fine sieve and pour the flavoured vodka back into the bottle. Store in the freezer.

Remove the cloves, cinnamon and vanilla beans. Stir the fruit through softened vanilla ice cream and re-freeze in one pudding bowl or individual servings.

To serve, turn out the ice cream and accompany with a shot of the vodka. This sounds a little naf, but that chocolate ice magic stuff that hardens on contact with cold ice cream is actually really nice over the top and makes it look like a Christmas pudding in reverse with dark on light.

It’s an indicator of great personal discipline if all the vodka is still in the bottle when you come to serve the pudding ice cream at Xmas.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

SJ's #1

By a pure fluke, today I became the very first customer to stride through the doors of Simon Johnson’s brand spanking, lip-smackingly new Providores Market in Alexandria. Being a denizen of the Pyrmont store, which is a little walk away from me, I thought I’d arm myself with my UBD and beat through the industrial jungle of South Sydney to check out this newest of SJ spots, which has been promoted for a while in the food media. Little did I know that 10 am November 1 was kick-off time. As I drove up, despite the pouring rain, a few guys struggled successfully to mount aloft the “now open” sign at the entrance. Once inside I noticed it was a little desolate but the lovely Virginnia welcomed me as their first customer. Wow – I felt kind of special! The thing you can always say about SJ staff is that they are the most pleasant, helpful and knowledgeable on the food planet.

The new Alexandria market is a true food Cathedral. It feels quite a bit bigger than the other SJ stores I’ve visited and has a warehouse feel, cool concrete floor interior with nose-bleed high ceilings. You’ll find all the usual goodies – the SJ brands we’ve come to love for their taste and quality, Chris Manfield’s ready-to-eat line, Duchy Originals from HRH (PoW), Italian pasta and a range of cupboard staples, culinary equipment and gadgets. But the big plus is the expanded fresh food section. A large range of Vic’s meats, several rows of plump and vibrant greengrocery from Matt Brown, prioritising seasonal produce, and a soon to be fully-stocked fresh seafood section from Joto’s wholesale. I spoke with Jonathan who explained they would stock a range of farmed aquaculture varieties as well as a few wild (but of course more pricy) items. Whole fish and fillets, molluscs and crustaceans will be available as they come into season. Of course there is also the legendary SJ Fromagerie beckoning from behind the glass of its glisteningly dewy climate controlled space.

Greg Doyle of Pier fame will run the café, which at the moment is an empty-ish shell waiting for a few more fittings and fixtures. But don’t let that deter you – it’s still well worth a visit before it shifts up a gear into full swing.

To find it, head for O’Riordan Street and hang a left (if you’re coming from the city end) at Doody Street just where the huge megaplex housing The Good Guys sits. Keep going to the corner of Ralph Street and it’s on the right hand side.