Friday, June 30, 2006

North Bondi Italian Food

There’s no dispute that Italian food has made a deep and lasting mark on Australian culinary traditions. Cappuccino is statistically Australia’s national drink and pasta is one of the most common meals eaten at our home tables. You can get blasé about Italian food in most capital cities in this country. There’s everything from cheap and cheerful to full-on silver service with prices to match. However NBIF injects a rarely seen magic into the Sydney Italian food scene that made me weep nostalgically for my many trips to Italy.

I’m a hardened diner – not easily impressed – but NBIF took my breath away on every level. The standout is, of course, the view before you even get to your table. On the ground floor of the North Bondi RSL (the site where Luke Mangan’s former Moorish camped out for a while), a road width away from the sands of Bondi, with sweeping views of the beach and the southern headland, where sister restaurant Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, winks back. Whether you’ve lived here all your life, or are a world-weary traveller who’s dined atop multiple coastlines, this is a seriously impressive vista to munch by.

Next is the room – a casual and friendly wood, paper and denim concept, with cutlery and condiments nestled in recessed nooks in the table. Bottled battalions of Campari, Averna and Montenegro buttress the bar, opposing the decorative red, white and green posts of the facing wall. We are in Italy.

Then the menu. Printed in red on your paper tablemat, it conjures quintessential Italian meal choices in various formats and sizes, adaptable for solitary jealous guarding, or for picking and sharing. It’s the rustic food you’d find in many hill towns or cities in trattoria and osteria. Have a look at the very funky website, shared with Icebergs, and see if you aren’t drooling by the end of the first column. There’s something to tempt every whim and appetite size if you’re up for homey Italian food. In addition to the everyday offerings, there’s also a roast of the day at dinner, which changes through the week from chicken, to duck, lamb, pork, quail and beef. The wine list is in green (get it? red, white and green?) and has a mercifully brief, but representative, selction of Oz and Italian favourites.

We three are veteran Italophiles. In devouring the printed choices we oooo and aah the sighs of countless long lunches staged throughout the length of the boot, and found it an exacting task to decide a small selection. We do, with an eye out for the Dolci, which beckon irresistibly from the bottom right hand corner. I notice that the choices for vegetarians are handsome, so readers of VeggieFriendly would do well to check it out. There are at least 17 choices to mix and match on the menu (plus the desserts). Add to that another eight choices if you eat fish and seafood. The rest is for carnivores.
Then there’s the service. Now, keep in mind this restaurant is in one of THE most tourist infested reaches of Sydney, they’d get business coming out their ears for the view alone and the good food, but these people smile. And they’re pleasant. And they’re knowledgeable and attentive without being in your face. It’s like they’re actually having a good time. This is not a coincidence. Maurice Terzini, who has a legendary history of faultless restaurant floor management, co-owns this establishment. I can’t help but think he has handpicked all the staff. I’ve sacrificed my view of Bondi to look inwards. The chefs in the kitchen are laughing – they’re having a good time too. I'm a firm believer that the temperament of the cook transfers to the food you eat.

And my instincts are borne out. This is terrific food. I’m not saying it’s worked over to the n-th degree, and presented as an architecturally designed skyscraper on the plate, but it is what it says it is – and the strong, simple flavours are really what quotidian Italian food is all about. We start with the fried calamari with mint and zucchini (first picture, above), a generous main course size and great for a shared entrée for three. We accompany this with the rocket and fennel salad (second picture, above). It’s obvious that the calamari is from a large example of the species, but nevertheless it is meltingly tender with a crisp flour-dusted coating, offset by the crispy fried mint leaves and tiny batons of zucchini. The fennel in the salad is blanched and the rocket peppery, dressed with oil and balsamic.

The plate-sized veal dishes come out next. Milk fed veal cutlets, to airy thinness beat, as both a crusty cotoletta (crumbed in homemade breadcrumbs and parmesan, above left) and chargrilled with basil and balsamic (left) . Both tender as … well ... milk fed veal. The pappardelle with slow braised wild boar ragu (picture above the veal cololetta) completes our choices and is every bit the complex-flavoured, warming winter dish it sounds. Its gamey richness so comforting on a cold day.

In addition to picking at our salad, we've ordered the enticing-sounding crispy Italian style potatoes with garlic and rosemary (below left). This, my friends, is roast potato heaven. Cubes of crunchy spudettes, perfectly salted, infused with rosemary and papery garlic. We can't stop gobbling just one more.

The servings are weighty, so we feel compelled to merely share a dessert. An ill-timed visit to the loo means I miss the picture of its untouched glory and all you have is a still life of half devoured mocha zabaglione with espresso (below). My companions are unapologetic. We conclude our North Bondi Italian food-fuelled reminiscence of vecchia Italia with an ode to the elastic-waisted trouser, surely a diner’s best friend in such circumstances, and we would have set out for passagiatta (the very sensible habit of a gentle post prandial walk to see and be seen) had the parking inspector not lurked so malevolently in the distance.

Quite frankly, we had the best time and you will too. Cool clear days lend themselves to lunch with a sea view, and I can’t think of a nicer venue with fantastic Italian food to spend your hard earned, while gazing at a killer view with delightful service. Do it.

120 Ramsgate Ave, North Bondi
Phone: (02) 9300 4400

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chicken cooked to buggery.

Some name!, you might be thinking, but read on. This is a lesser known recipe from the Australian gastro supremo Tetsuya Wakuda, he of the slow cooked confit of ocean trout and sublime degustation.

But first some translation notes for the Australian idiom. Rather than necessarily referring to sexual mores, this word in the Aussie vernacular has a few other meanings. It can mean ‘considerably’ (as in: it hurts like buggery); ‘go away, leave me alone’ (as in: go to buggery); and ‘greatly off course, in error, astray’ (as in: off to buggery).

This is one of Tets’s personal ‘at home’ recipes, published many years ago in the SMH’s Good Weekend Magazine. The story goes that he forgot the dish was cooking in the oven, but despite the well-browned result, it was still delicious, moist and tender. Hence the name, conferred on it by his dinner guests. It’s become one of my favourite recipes and I’ve cooked it many times with many flavour variations. It is also incredibly simple to whip up.

So for the non-Aus reader, armed with your translation notes, I’m sure you get the picture. As long as there’s liquid remaining in the dish and you are prepared to baste it a bit, you’ll always get a luscious result. So contrary to some suggestions of the name, no …um, chickens were …er, ‘harmed’ in the preparation of this recipe.

2 small chickens/ spatchcock/ poussin split in half
1 bottle (700/750 mls) of dry white wine
2 tbsp salted capers, rinsed and drained
20 black olives, pitted (cut in half if you prefer)
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
A few tablespoons of fresh herb (the recipe calls for oregano, but I’ve also used marjoram, French Tarragon, sage and rosemary to great effect. Not mixed, one or the other)
100 mls olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp chopped parsley.

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the chicken halves into a baking dish skin side up. Pour over wine until the liquid reaches half way up the side of the birds. Add water if you don’t have enough wine to get up to this level. Scatter over the capers, olives, garlic and herbs, season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the oil. Cook for 60 – 80 minutes and baste a few times with the liquid, until the skin is dark golden brown. Serve with some of the olives, capers and herbs scattered over and garnish with parsley and some of the juices.

For a delectable leftover, reserve and reheat the pan juices (there should be quite a lot remaining) and any leftover chicken. Add 1-2 tbsp of crème fraîche and stir through hot pasta, adding extra olives, capers and herbs if needed.

The Australian Youth Hotel

“I hope you’re proud of yourself”, came the voice over the phone.

It was Miss L.

I grunted.

“I swear! NEVER on a school night!” she moaned.

“Console yourself with the fact that you are sitting within the womb-like confines of a quiet workstation and I have The Wiggles at 60,000 decibels in the background”, I said.

“Ok, you get the sympathy this time”, she agreed.

You see, our longtime school buddy R and her 5 year old son A, who live in Montreal, are in town and staying with me. In what seemed a sensible celebration at the time, we had downed many bottles of bubbles and other mysterious beverages in the spirit of fun. From the look of it I will win the ‘most recycled glass’ award this month.

Score: Recycling – 10, Brain Cells – zero. Headache ranking: Aspirin is having no impact; I may as well put a band aid on my forehead. Simultaneously I’m receiving an unsolicited tutorial about the intricacies of Pokemon from an excited and well rested child. The cat is now officially irked at having matchbox cars parked under her tummy. You have the complete picture.

Personally, I think there’s nothing better than lunch in the fresh air when you’re feeling a little seedy, with a generous helping of stodge and a wee hair of the dog. So while maman et l’enfant head off for adventures in Manly, this is just what I do.

This cute little corner pub has undergone extensive renovation in the last few years, giving it a warm colour scheme and cosy wooden-lined bar feeling. There are some images to look at on their website, as well as sample menus to peruse. The restaurant out the back has a rustic-paved beer garden, which at this time of year doesn’t get much sun (a plus in my current condition, but the sunglasses aren’t moving from my nose anyway) but rains yellow autumn leaves as the cool breeze blows. Perfect. The pub fare comes in an à la carte menu as well as a bar menu, and contains the satisfying bangers, steak, burger and pie pub staples you’d expect.

We share an entrée of salt and pepper squid salad with black sesame seeds and basil oil (second pic, above) which, while not as crunchy as you might expect, is tender, warm and tasty. Burgerman goes for the slow cooked lamb shanks (above) which are meltingly tender and rich, G goes for the prawn and salmon pizza (left), but for me there’s no going past the James Squire beer battered fish and chips (below), elegantly meeting my stodge and fat requirements du jour.

The food is all very reasonably priced, reliably decent, and the menu extensive enough to meet most needs.

The desserts look pretty tempting, but while it’s not on the menu, I know they do a mean affogato – morphed into more of a dessert than a coffee – and served in a martini glass with your shots of liqueur and espresso on the side (below). Today we choose Frangelico. Divine.

I feel well equipped to get to know the Wiggles on a first name basis when I return home.

The Australian Youth Hotel
63 Bay Street, Glebe
(02) 9692 0414
Lunch and Dinner 7 days.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Me me neeme meemee - five confessions x 5

‘Taco tagged me. Rising to the challenge

5 items in the freezer

1. Master stock.
2. Vodka.
3. Nameless things in perma-frost. Labelling isn’t my forte. My archaeologist mother wants to carbon date them.
4. Home made sausages. It takes an afternoon to make them, may as well freeze them.
5. Mini Magnums (classic flavour). Excellent for emergency hysterical child situations. I know nothing about kids, and this is the safest thing I’ve been told to keep on hand. If Qantas can mollify a plane load of economy travellers with them, it can’t be wrong. And before you start giving me advice and suggestions, none of my food has child allergies, so it will be ok.

5 items in my closet.
1. 36 pairs of shoes – sorry 35, one’s in the boot, see below.
2. As many things from Howard’s Storage World as I can fit in to organise the mess.
3. A pizza oven.
4. A pasta maker.
5. My cat on top of the black suede boots. Bugger to clean the fur off, but she likes them and it’s a good hiding place.

5 items in my car.

1. Empty boxes which once contained bourdeaux. It’s easier to carry them up in a bag.
2. An emergency pair of black high heels. You just never know when you’ll need to be formal.
3. Paper napkins from assorted rushed take aways. Very good for cleaning windscreens when you need to.
4. A phone charger jack from about 3 mobile phones ago. Well at least I don’t talk while I’m driving.
5. Jumper leads (practical, eh?)

5 items in my wallet – I’m extending this to handbag. I don’t have a wallet.
1. American express
2. Lipstick.
3. Listerine pocket packs (excellent after a garlicky lunch)
4. HP Pocket PC
5. Digital camera

5 people to tag (come on, you know you want to!)

Kestypes, Noodelbowl, chocolatesuze, Kate, Emily

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Is too much Brûlée ever enough?

Or, Why do I buy so many cookbooks?

Ok, so these are rhetorical questions, but I’ll give you the answers anyway. No; and because they’re there (and it’s safer than climbing Mt Everest). Actually answer number 2 could almost do for both really.

My new cookbook is Off Duty (Harper Collins, rrp AUD$49.95). It has a dual purpose: firstly it has buckets of gorge-isimous recipes penned by super chefs and is billed as what they cook on their down time. Not all the super chefs, mind, but a fair swatch of them, and even Aussies Neil Perry and Matt Moran get a guernsey. Which also makes me wonder what a collective noun might be for chefs (you know, like a flock of sheep, or a murder of crows, or a sulk of Goths). It can’t be a soupçon, not big enough. An enmity of chefs? A volatility of chefs? An invective of chefs? A bouillon of chefs? Maybe you can help me out here in the comments section and give me your ideas.

Secondly, the profits go to a good cause. The editing chef’s son sustained a paralysing spinal injury diving into the surf at Bondi, here in Sydney, while he was on his gap year between school and Uni. So David Nicholls from the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London (blimey, nice looking pub to stay at) set up a foundation to fund spinal research and injury rehabilitation. That’s where the profits go. You can eat well, feel good about it, enthral your friends, and help someone all at the same time. Not often you get a chance like that! Also, it’s probably as close as you’re going to get to Gordon Ramsay making you breakfast on Sunday. Unless you’re Mrs Ramsay or a little Ramsay.

But back to my musings. When you see a recipe for Honey, Drambuie and Whisky Crème Brûlée, you have automatically answered that original perplexing question. No contest. You must have it.

110g clear acacia honey
9 egg yolks
75g caster sugar
2 tablespoons of Irish Whisky
6 tablespoons of Drambuie
600 mls pouring or thickened cream (35% milk fat)

Extra sugar for the caramel top

As you would know from other posts about this wonderful dessert genre, I prefer a stove cooked custard, as you would do for a classic Anglaise, rather than a baked job, so I have (of course) altered the method from what’s in the book. Which brings me back to question number 2 – Why, if I don’t bother to follow the instructions, do I etc… ). Whatever.

Mix together the sugar, honey, egg yolks, whisky, and drambuie and combine (if it’s a really cold day you might need to warm the honey a little). Scald the cream and pour, whisking constantly into the egg mixture. Pour through a sieve and return to the stove and whisk until thickened. Cool, whisking occasionally so it doesn’t split or form a skin. Pour into cups or ramekins and refrigerate over night, brûlée the tops and hey presto. This produces an amazingly rich dessert full of warm honey and aromatic alcohol – I actually used it as a pre-dessert and served it in little espresso cups. Went down a treat. But I promise - no more brûlée recipes for a while - honest - unless I find somehting even MORE tempting :)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bento Boxes @ Tomodachi

This isn’t so much a complete restaurant review as a rave about the great value lunch boxes and bento boxes at this cute little spot in the Broadway Shopping Centre at Ultimo.

The first good thing is that it’s at a food court but isn’t IN the food court. If it was a suburb, it would be called Food Court Heights. But that’s not to say it’s snooty. In Japanese ‘tomodachi’ means ‘friend’ and you can expect a warm welcome when you arrive and sit on neat little wooden benches or banquettes away from the plastic tablehood of Food Court Flats. From the brightly lit and red-decorated interior the staff hail you in loud unison with ‘Irrashaimase!’ or welcome, transporting you instantly to a Tokyo sushi bar.

There’s an active and frequently replenished sushi train and if you’re seated in the main restaurant rather than round the bar, you can still fetch little morsels to your table to keep you busy while you wait for your order. Not that you need to wait long, as the service is quick and snappy.

There are lots of options on the menu but if you’re up for a quick meal at low cost and want a selection of yummy things, go for the boxes – a smaller lunchbox of tempura, chicken or eel ($12), or a slightly larger Bento box ($18 - tempura bento top picture, chicken bento above) for a bigger appetite. All are served with rice and miso soup.

As we were unanimously hungry, Bento boxes seemed the most appropriate, plus a little extra treat of gyoza (picture left, serving of six) to share. The tempura box has prawns, fish and calamari with mixed vegetables, the teriyaki chicken a seasoned and grilled portion of sticky sweet and salty thigh meat. They both come with an array of jewel-box sections containing treasure troves of two sushi slices, three slices of salmon sashimi, a piquant dressed salad, agedashi tofu with its diaphanous bonito flakes adrift like clouds touching the top of a mountain (below), and a cleansing subdivision of mixed fruit, including pineapple, orange, and a variety of colourful melon. Apart from the main attraction, the accompanying dishes change a little depending on the season, but they're always plentiful and tasty.

Everything you need all delicately compartmentalised and ready to enjoy as you pick through the hierarchy of a Japanese meal. Or just go at it like a kamikaze if your famished brain prevents you from observing the rigors of correct flavour and texture progression.


Pea and Pancetta Tart

Despite best planning for entertaining, we often overestimate the mountains of food people will eat. Well it’s better than underestimating, I reckon. So it was that I was left with a grassy knoll of peas after a recent bacchanal. I could have just eaten them as a side dish to something, but I considered transforming them into an interesting lunch. I had some slices of pancetta lounging about the fridge, and pork and peas do unite mighty well, so that was an admirable start. The rest of my inspiration came from The Silver Spoon’s Pea section.

Line a pie dish or tart tin with pastry. I used a pre-made butter puff sheet from the freezer in the spirit of laissez faire leftovers gastronomy. Throw in the peas, some crisp fried pancetta and a big handful of grated cheese. I used Jarlsberg, but Gruyere or anything blue would probably work too. Mix an egg with 125 mls of cream, add some snipped chives and seasoning (not too much salt coz of the pancetta) and pour over the filling. Bake at 200°C for 20-30 mins or until the filling puffs up and bronzes on top.

This tart is more about the peas (or ‘pea driven’ if I were to emulate a tosser food writer) and not really quiche-y. The egg and cream mix sort of sets the peas in place rather than creating an eggy filling, which was the effect I was after. Given it was a pretty shallow tart with a dry-ish filling the pastry crisped up marvellously well and provided the requisite crunch factor in the finished product. I had a bit cold for breaky the next day and that was good too. Leftovers of my leftovers.