Gua Bao – Part 1

I missed the beginning of the Bao phenomenon. I must have been looking the other way or sick that day. I guess they were probably made famous throughout the western world by David Chang’s momofuku Pork Buns. Here in Melbourne, Wonderbao and Bao Now turned up around 18 months ago and have been belting out these Chinese / Taiwanese / Vietnamese steamed treats. Wonderbao sticks to the more traditional fillings, whereas Bao Now opts for an ‘international’ twist, stuffing buns with buffalo chicken, bacon cheeseburger, cheesecake and so on.

I’ve had steamed buns before. Lots of times. But I have simply known them as ‘steamed pork buns’ and didn’t think anything else of it or really care. Several weeks ago I attended the launch of lil nomnoms; Melbourne’s newest food truck, dolling out Vietnamese-inspired food. At the launch, I tried my very first Gua Bao and I loved it! I liked the beer in one hand, food in the other convenience and I liked the contrast of warm, soft, sweet dough stuffed with cold, crisp, fresh ingredients. Then of course, I noticed them everywhere.

Bao means bun or bread in Chinese (and I think Vietnamese). The universal characteristic is the whiter than white, soft, steamed sweet dough. The aforementioned Chinese Bao (also known as bāozi, bau, humbow, nunu, bausak, pow or pau) is the ubiquitous steamed bun, traditionally stuffed with char sui pork. The Vietnamese Bánh Bao (meaning enveloping cake) is also a steamed bun, but traditionally filled with minced pork or chicken meat, Chinese sausage, onion, boiled egg, mushroom and other vegetables. The Japanese also have a version called Nikuman. The Filipinos have Siopao and the Thais have Salapao. I could go on. Basically one can deduce that every Asian country has their own version.

Gua Bao originates from Taiwan and the dough is rolled and steamed to form a taco / slider hybrid. It’s traditionally filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar. Tradition aside, it’s a no brainer that it also makes the perfect base for other combinations, but why you’d want to deviate from pork belly is a mystery… unless it’s duck, but more on that in Part 2.

Being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, I decided to have a go at making these for a friend’s up-and-coming dinner party. Given that there was dough involved and the more regular readers would already understand that dough and me have a strained history, I decided that there had to be several experiments to get my head around achieving perfection, or at the very least something that wouldn’t make me look inept.

Let’s start with the dough. In most recipes, it’s pretty simple; flour, water, sugar, some kind of fat, a raising agent of some description and salt. Then come all of the variants which seem countless; even when it comes to flour. High protein (12%-15%) bread flour will give a better result as it produces a light, springy dough that also stays moist and softer for longer because the protein continues to absorb moisture.

Contrary to this, there are some recipes that use cake flour, which contains less protein (7%-9%). This is what tends to happen when you do too much research. If it’s all too hard, stick to plain flour or another option is to buy ready-prepared flour from most Asian grocery stores, which already contains the required raising agents. But I guess if you want to steer clear of phosphates and sulphates, then avoid the ready-prepared stuff, which looks like this…

Bao Mix

The quantities of sugar vary from recipe to recipe and I guess it’s up to personal choice and to an extent, your filling of choice. Most recipes call for around 25-30g (2 tablespoons) per 125g (1 cup) of flour.

You didn’t think I’d need to mention water, did you? It warrants a mention; only because most Taiwanese and Chinese recipes call for water and the Vietnamese recipes tend to use milk. My preferred recipe usues water, but it also contains milk powder.

As far as raising agents go, some recipes call for dry (instant) yeast, baking powder or both. However, I’d stear clear of baking (bi-carb) soda. In an attempt to produce a lighter, fluffier Gua Bao, I decided to modify a dough recipe to incorporate yeast, baking powder and baking soda. My Gua Bao turned an unappealing shade of light brown and after some research, I later discovered that when baking soda produces an alkaline solution in water, the alkalinity accelerates the browning reaction. Apparently this is the reason that baking soda (or lye) and a water wash is recommended for pretzels to achieve that deep brown, pretzely colour.

Some recipes call for (melted) solidified fats, like lard or some simply state to use canola oil. Whatever neutral tasting oil you have at home is probably fine. I used duck fat.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I had succeeded and failed with a number of Gua Bao dough recipes. The first version I tried was from Gourmet Traveller; purportedly adapted from a David Chang recipe, however the recipe is very different from the original. The outcome was OK; they kinda looked the part, but they just weren’t fluffy enough and a little on the heavy side.

The second attempt was from some random blog. This is where I went a bit freestyle in the desperate pursuit of lightness and fluffiness, used baking soda and failed. Whilst they tasted OK and were a little bit lighter, the colour was a little off-putting.

Two bags of the ready-prepared flour from an Asian Grocery store ($2.20 for 445g) remain unused in my pantry, so I never got around to trialling them. Although the instructions give an indication that it required far less time to prepare the dough, the recipe didn’t contain yeast.

I doubt I’ll even get around to using the ready-prepared flour because when D-Day came along, another google search found me the original momofuku book recipe and the results were brilliant:

1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups water, at room temperature
4 ¼ cups bread flour
6 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons non-fat dry milk powder (mine was full-fat)
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda (I omitted this)
1/3 cup rendered fat or vegetable shortening, melted in the microwave (I used duck fat)

The first thing I noticed was the quantity of this recipe. It yields 50 (smaller) buns. The second thing I noticed was that it was an easier recipe; the yeast and water were added straight into the bowl of a stand mixer, with a dough hook attached. The flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder (I omitted the baking soda) and duck fat were all dumped into the bowl and then mixed on the lowest speed possible for 8 to 10 minutes… No waiting for the yeast to activate in the water. It was practically fool-proof.

After the required time, the dough had gathered into a smooth, not-too-tacky ball on the hook; very similar to a brioche dough. I then placed it into a lightly oiled pyrex bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and placed it into my oven, set at 50 degrees (fan on), with the door open. The recipe suggests leaving it to prove for at least an hour and 15 minutes. I had other stuff to do, so mine was left for about twice that amount of time.

After punching the dough down, I digressed a little. Whilst the recipe called for dividing the dough to make 50 x 25g balls, I only needed 12 and upped the size to 50g, as I was serving two per person. I wrapped the rest of the dough in cling wrap and chucked it in the freezer. The balls were then left covered with cling wrap for a further 30 minutes to rest and rise. I had more stuff to do, so they again had a little more resting time (around two hours).


Before the next stage, I cut out a dozen 10cm squares of baking paper; one for each bao. Each ball was the flattened lightly by hand, before lightly rolling to make a 15-20cm oval. From previous experience, I then sprayed the dough with a little rice bran spray oil before folding over very lightly to form the bun shape and placing each bun onto its baking paper base. The third and final rise took place under some more cling wrap for another 30 to 45 minutes.

When it was time to steam (placing about ½ a cup of white vinegar into the boiling water, which apparently makes them whiter), I placed three buns into the steamer. The baking paper made it easier to transfer the buns without touching the dough and flattening them. After about 10 minutes, they were ready and I almost shed a tear; they were perfect; light, billowy, soft and more importantly, looked exactly like the ones in the Momofuku book. From there you can use them straight away, pop them in the fridge for later or freeze them for up to a week.

Gua Bao

Stay tuned for Part 2… dinner party Gua Bao.

Epocha – 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton

My overly-elaborate definition of regret is not blogging for four months, then dining at Epocha in Carlton. With absolutely no desire beforehand to post a review, then realising too late into the night, it was a misjudgement. This place is worth reviewing.

However, my secondary overly-elaborate definition of (slight) regret is placing our unbridled palates into the hands of Sommelier, Angie Giannakodakis (there was nothing wrong with that part), to match wines and not talk cost. Being slugged $220 for a 1970′s vintage Eiswein (which was delicious) that at the time was declared “not expensive” was an important lesson learned that there are different perceptions of ‘expensive’, especially when it comes to Sommeliers. It wasn’t expensive compared to, say the $980 1981 Chateau d’Yquem that was also on the wine list. Or maybe in respect of other Eiswines, which can command up to $400-$700, but you see my point.

This got me thinking about the tactics that restaurants use to potentially discombobulate diners and extract more revenue on already paper-thin margins. Hey, the capitalist in me doesn’t blame them; most of them need it. Look at how the industry is suffering at the moment and every extra dollar makes a difference. On this night, we simply went with the flow as to what was offered to us.

For example, we ordered two espresso martinis and two espressos at the end of the night. Clearly on a roll with the wanton disregard possibly coming from our table, one of the staff came forward and suggested we “may as well ditch the coffees and make that four espresso martinis”. What are you going to say, no?

By placing ourselves into the good hands of the staff, the bill reflected that. If treated well, you become comfortable, you don’t want it to end and you can easily succumb to the upsell… like the Eiswine, the martinis… hey, it was our choice and they did their job extremely well and we had an excellent night. It’s merely a heads up to the cost-conscious (and reminder to me) to be more wary. Actually, excluding the cost of the Eiswein and it was pretty good value, around $175 for food matched with wine.

Epocha opened in September last year and it sits comfortably amongst the Victorian terraces on the top end of Rathdowne Street, across from Carlton Gardens. Inside, you immediately feel that it won’t be a difficult task at all to stay as long as you can, in an inviting room of dark timber, candles, crystal decanters, marble fireplaces and low light. It’s romantic, but it’s also a place where you’d feel very comfortable with a group of your nearest and dearest. The website states that they look forward to welcoming you to their home and they are spot on.

The menu is very much pan-European; it’s a little bit of everything from across the continent and some Rule Britannia thrown in for good measure (well, they are part of the EU). There is also a great emphasis on sharing. The $68 sharing menu is good value and probably more or less the same in cost if you were to order the same dishes a’la carte. Value went from good to great by taking the option to add the 550g Côte de Boeuf (on the menu for $64) for an additional $12 per person (for a table of four); a self-proclaimed feast and they weren’t wrong. The offerings were more than generous; rustic but very much refined.

House-baked bread arrived in a calico bag. Still warm, the bread was dark and sweet, like it had been made using a stout or a porter. It was flecked with caraway and a wonderful house-churned sea salt butter sealed the deal. Mixed olives ($6), with their own little silver tray for pits (the little things that made a difference) were full of flavour. The chicken liver pate ($9) was smooth and rich, but not rich enough to want to go back for more. The toasted bread-to-pate ratio was spot on.

I had a lot of favoured dishes throughout the night but the crispy pigs ears ($6) were outstanding and yet, probably the most simplistic. Finely shaved pigs ear, deep fried and seasoned. It was just missing a cold beer. Mushroom arancini ($8) were small, delicate and packed with flavour.

That was the end of the first wave of food. The second wave delivered venison carpaccio, with pickled mushrooms, hazelnuts and some spherified PX sherry ($16). Definitely the classiest dish of the night and one that I’d go back and selfishly have all to myself… with some pigs ears and the Kefalograviera saganaki ($14). Perfectly pan fried, salty, some punch and texture from currants and pickled apricots, a little acidity from some verjuice and a touch of honey for sweetness.

The quinoa salad with apricots and yoghurt ($14) was the healthy option of the night. Probably much needed in hindsight. Another belter was the Blue grenadier (with perfectly crispy skin) with a creamy pearl barley and celery risotto and shards of cavolo nero ($34).

Wave three saw us tucking into slow-roasted lamb leg, served in a rich pan gravy and stuffing ($38), a dish called simply ‘Bird’, which was the breast, thigh, leg and wing of a bird, presumably chicken ($32). All of the protein dishes had their own respective jus and they were all sublime, including the bone marrow jus that accompanied the 550g Côte de Boeuf, which was cooked perfectly to medium rare. This was protein overload. Fortunately two serves of duck fat roast potatoes ($9) and the obligatory green vegetable in the form of green beans with toasted almonds ($9) eased the pain.

Just when you think you can do no more, the final wave arrived… although nothing like the preceding tsunami-sized waves of protein; this was more akin to gently caressing the shore as it broke (it’s diners) and receded. Small, simple, decadent desserts. A couple of slices of (what might have been) a frangipane tart, some of the best choux pastry profiteroles I’ve ever had, filled with a light vanilla pastry cream and covered in salted caramel, a couple of slices of (again, what might have been) chocolate delice and a trifle-like thing in a glass that no one really touched because we were all too full. Things always get a little sketchy at the end. Desserts ($12 a piece) are rolled out on an old-school dessert trolley. A nice touch.

The wine list is extensive and if you’re one of those people that tends not to stray from stra’ya when in comes to wine, then perhaps this is the place for you to get out of your comfort zone. You won’t find any Australian wines on the list, nor anything Australian for that matter. Not unless you’re dyslexic and misread Austria. There’s a price point to suit all and like us, if you’re unsure about what’s what when it comes to wines of the Old World, you can always place your night into the hands of Angie, but unlike us, be a little more upfront about your preferred spend.

Epocha is a must-try. You won’t be disappointed.

Epocha on Urbanspoon

49 Rathdowne St, Carlton VIC
(03) 9036 4949

Good For: Guaranteed, rib sticking, interesting, honest, wonderful food and wine. Impeccable service. It’s a gem.

Not Good For: Vinoxenophobes… I’m copyrighting that.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

It’s a day late, but better late than never.

Most people are familiar with the background of the ANZAC biscuit; it probably formed part of what we learned in school, but for the sake of padding out this post, it’s claimed that the biscuits were sent by wives to soldiers abroad because the simple ingredients (rolled oats, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, butter, golden syrup, baking soda and water) did not spoil easily. The omission of eggs was also thought to be because of the scarcity of eggs during the First World War, after most poultry farmers had joined the war effort. Then there is also the typical Trans-Tasman rivalry and conjecture around whether it was the Kiwis or the Aussies that invented the biscuit first, like the pavlova, lamington or claiming Neil and Tim Finn as our own. Alas, still no one is willing to claim Russell Crowe (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming).

Personally, I am not a massive fan of the ANZAC biscuit. Whilst we grew up on Nan’s homemade ones, like most Australian and New Zealand kids would have, I find them too sweet. However, like Nan’s, they have to be crunchy. The soft ones just don’t seem right. But, each to their own. We are lucky we have the freedom of choice, as trivial as it is to muse over a biscuit preference. I think that falls into the category of first world problems.

Yesterday morning’s last minute decision to make ANZAC biscuits was my 6 year old’s idea. She enjoys the helping part, but I knew that she wouldn’t be a fan of the end result… mainly because it’s not a mass-produced Tiny Teddy or a packet of the recently-discovered Uglies. I had all of the ingredients on hand with the exception of rolled oats, so a quick run up to the local Foodworks ensured we could knock up a batch to take to the park later on.

At this point, the traditional recipe started to take a turn. I ended up having to settle for quick oats (the smaller cut version of whole rolled oats) because that’s all they had, which in hindsight is what I will continue to use in the future. But more on that later. As I mentioned earlier, the sweetness is what puts me off ANZAC biscuits, so I began to think about what I could do to offset the sweetness… Maybe in a number of ways. Then slowly, I began to feel a tiny pang of guilt. I was messing with such a sacrosanct recipe! It usually pisses me off when people mess around with things that shouldn’t be messed with. Now I was one of those people. However, I was prepared to overlook it when I finally tried the end result.

Firstly, I decided to back off on the sugar in the recipe, using about ¾ of a cup as opposed to a full cup. Whilst this was a bit of a risk in achieving my preferred crunchy version, I did it anyway. A higher sugar content relative to the amount of golden syrup results in a crisper biscuit, whereas a greater percentage of golden syrup gives you a softer and chewier result. I kept the golden syrup to the one tablespoon, as listed in the recipe.

The second change was the  spontaneous addition of something controversial, mainly because I saw them in Foodworks, and hardly Antipodean – Hershey Reece’s Pieces. I guess you could dedicate it to our alliance with the US. Whilst they’re still relatively sweet, I decided that they might add some of that slightly salty, peanut buttery richness in bursts.

Thirdly, hot out of the oven, I gave each biscuit a tiny pinch of Murray Pink Salt to give that slight contrast to the sweetness and finally, a drizzle of bitter, 85% dark chocolate.

The rest of the ingredients were (practically) straight up and taken from Margaret Fulton’s ANZAC Biscuit recipe… that is with the exception of the oats. Using the smaller cut, quick oats resulted in a denser biscuit. Oh, and I used dried coconut instead of desiccated. And biscuit flour instead of plain flour… Actually, in hindsight, my version a little removed from the recipe developed by our ancestors to keep our troops fuelled and motivated. But they were delicious.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

125g unsalted butter
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp boiling water
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 cup quick oats (smaller cut ‘quick’ oats)
¾ cup dried coconut (not desiccated)
1 cup flour (I used biscuit flour, with a lower protein content)
¾ cup brown sugar
2 x 43g packets Reese’s Pieces
Murray Pink Salt
150g 85% good quality dark chocolate (I used Lindt)

Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Melt butter, golden syrup and sugar over a low heat in a small heavy based pan until melted. Add the baking soda to the boiling water, then mix into the melted syrup mixture. When well combined and frothy, pour the mixture into the combined oats, flour and coconut dry ingredients and mix well. When the mixture has cooled a little, gently mix in the Reese’s Pieces until they are well distributed throughout the mixture.

Roll mixture into small (2cm) balls onto greased baking trays, leaving room for spreading. I found that using the smaller cut oats resulted in not as much spreading as you’d typically expect from an ANZAC biscuit.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. If you want to achieve a crispier biscuit, drop the temperature a little and extend the cooking time.

Upon removing the hot biscuits from the oven, flatten slightly and sprinkle each with a tiny amount of Murray Pink Salt. Cool on the tray for a few minutes, then remove onto wire racks.

When completely cooled, drizzle with dark chocolate and leave to set.

I’m not much of a baker, but I was extremely proud the end result. Overall, it was crispy on the outside softer on the inside and to be perfectly honest they were awesome – even if they weren’t technically a true ANZAC Biscuit.

Lest we forget.

Feelings & Memories

Food and feelings go together like… vegemite and cheese. How could you not cheer on your team at the footy without a lukewarm pie and sauce? How could you not mend a broken heart without ice cream? You get the picture. It conjures up memories, good and bad and it can effectively use all of your senses (unless you also see dead people) or at the very least, enhance them. It makes you remember.

As a lover of food, some of my happier moments in life have been closely related to it; a meal out with people that are special to me or cooking for them. Or even better, cooking with them.

It took some years to get better at cooking with people. I was told that I was too bossy in the kitchen… too much of a perfectionist, which I guess is a toughie when you lack the desired skill. And if things went a little pear-shaped, I cracked the shits. I’ve improved immensely over the years. I don’t know why… Maybe my knowledge and technique have improved with practise. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I’ve learned not to sweat the little things. I think I’ve said before that pastry and me are slowly learning to get along.

Whilst there are fond memories of great meals with friends, things I’ve eaten by myself in amazing places in the world or meals I’ve made for others that I believe I truly nailed, I have two very vivid memories of cooking with people dear to me.

One dates back to around thirteen years ago when I was living my carefree, backpacker life. I was staying in a town called Jelsa, on the island of Hvar in Croatia. My travelling partner and I scored this ridiculously cheap apartment and we ended up staying there for two weeks. I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Most days we’d head to the markets. We’d buy whatever fish they’d have on offer… usually a small snapper, and we’d stuff it with ham, mushrooms (one day we endured a 16km round trip walk to another town because the market at Jelsa had no mushrooms) and leeks and make a flavoured butter out of some paprika-based seasoning we’d found that was a little bit sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. We’d bake it and serve it with what we christened ‘Jelsa Salad’, which was pretty much roughly chopped up red onion, red capsicum, carrot and cucumber, tossed in lemon juice. None of it was fancy or even regional for that matter, but every now and again, if I want to take myself back to those days, I’ll make Jelsa Salad and I am there.

Whilst my other standout food memory didn’t involve an exotic setting, it’s arguably to date, my best food memory. Why? Put simply, it epitomises why I love to cook; the challenge, the fun, being able to share and of course the end result. All combined it evokes happiness and isn’t that something everyone wants to be able to remember?

Over the years, I have attempted to cook Thai cuisine; it’s never really been something  that I’ve put my love and soul into in order to deliver something that is better than OK. It’s probably also a little out of my comfort zone. However, a friend of mine who had spent a number of years living in Thailand changed that. Having someone that knew Thai food beyond the probable farang holiday-maker stuff most travellers would sample helped a lot.

Raw protein polarises people. Most will try fish in the form of sashimi or beef as carpaccio or tartare. I love stuff raw, but I’d never tried raw prawns; accidentally or as a dish.

Gung Chae Nam Pla is something I have not seen in Australian Thai restaurants, quite possibly because it might not be popular. If you have a sense of adventure and can get beyond eating a raw prawn, then give it a go. It’s amazing. One of the most extraordinary, yet simplest dishes I’ve ever made or tasted, consisting of essentially fresh (the fresher, the better) raw green prawns that have been butterflied and just prior to being served, anointed with a paste that features the usual Thai suspects and some fresh mint.

Raw Prawns with Thai Chillies (Gung Chae Nam Pla)

10-12 medium sized, raw fresh green prawns with the tail shell on
6 chillies
coriander leaves
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh mint leaves

Now the method was no brain surgery; processing the chillies, garlic, shallot, coriander, fish sauce and lemon juice into a rough paste, then artfully added it to the prawns (tails up!). Grab a couple of mint leaves to top each prawn and eat the prawn in one go, picking it up by the tail shell. We paired it with a few glasses of Mumm, which you probably wouldn’t do in Thailand, but it worked.

Gung Chae Nam Pla

One of the quintessential Thai recipes is Green Curry. Made from scratch, it’s a true labour of love and the one we made was pretty close to perfection. David Thompson may disagree.

The recipe we used was a bit of a jumble from a number of recipes, plus a bit of our own doctoring along the way. What I’ve listed below will get you pretty close.

Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)

Curry paste, made from:
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh green chillies
12-15 small green chillies
4 -5 shallots, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
Coriander stems and roots from a bunch of coriander
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
Shrimp paste, to taste (start at 1 tsp and go from there)
1 tsp salt
Zest of one or two limes

The rest…

3 chicken thighs, bone in
6 Thai eggplants
10-12 Green beans
1 can of coconut cream
Fish sauce, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Palm sugar, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Lime juice, to taste (start at 1 lime)

Whilst it would be very much authentic to use a mortar and pestle to make your paste, the one we had was a bit small. So we cheated and used one of those small food processors, like you might get as an attachment to a bamix.

First, we toasted the coriander and cumin in a dry pan until fragrant, then ground the toasted spices in the mortar and pestle (at least it got used for something) with the white pepper corns. The ground spices were added to the rest of the paste ingredients (we forgot the ginger) in the processor and blitzed until they resembled a fine paste. Try not to add water to advance the process; it only dilutes your paste.

Some of the ingredients were amped up a bit, to taste. We added more shrimp paste (maybe another half a tablespoon… maybe more). As for the chillies, the long green ones didn’t provide the heat, as much as they added to the colour (although our paste was quite a brown colour, then end result looked like the proper green curry colour). The chillies we used for heat were purchased at the Footscray markets. I will have to go there again and find out what they were; they were tiny, no more than 2cm in length, quite thin, a bit nobbly and pale green in colour. They packed a good heat that built up on you.

After we were happy with the paste, we fried of at least half a cup over a slow heat in a heavy based casserole dish. Once the paste was fragrant, we added the chopped chicken thighs, to cook in the paste for a few minutes, then the halved eggplants, more kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar and a can of coconut cream. Then we left it for about 20 minutes, continuing on a very slow heat.

About 10 minutes before serving, we checked the flavours, added a little more sugar and some lime juice. The sauce, in my opinion, had reduced a little bit too much, but there was a little bit of coconut cream left in the tin, which I added and it seemed to correct this. We added the beans and popped the lid on the let the residual heat cook the beans, but leave some crunch.

Served with the some rice, this was the end result:

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Whilst factors beyond just the cooking attributed to this being my best food memory (like the company, lots of wine, the fun and so on), I have never been so pleased with the end results of the dishes we created. Sharing the toils and fruits of your labour can conjure up some great memories. Just worry about the dirty dishes later.

Little Hunter – 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with diabetes. He’s 40. In fact, his birthday last year was the first of an imminent wave of 40th birthday celebrations that will transpire over the course of the next few years. It’s a pretty significant milestone; although 50 is apparently the new 40, so perhaps I won’t notice it too much in a few years time when it’s my turn. Regardless, these kinds of ailments remind that we’re not getting any younger. Our metabolism becomes slower. We need to have more regular check ups with our GP. We need to make sure we’re getting an adequate amount of exercise and we need to heed the caution of avoiding artery-clogging, saturated animal fats.

If you wholly agree with the above as the strict rules for a happy, healthy life that may well exceed the paltry amount of superannuation you’ve accumulated, then please do not read on. Or for that matter, dine at Little Hunter.

You see, Little Hunter is not for the feint-hearted. Literally. Most steaks typically come with a condiment. Little Hunter’s Robbin’s Island Ribeye ($60) comes with an unfeasibly large baton of roasted bone marrow and just when you thought that was going to push your cholesterol into double digits, beef fat butter. I’m not kidding. It may or may not be the first time I have uttered “thank fuck we ordered some vegetables” and it’s also ironic that Pete “Activated Almonds” Evans is a co-owner. They would definitely not feature on this menu… unless they were crumbed, deep fried and served with a lard jus.

Anyway, more on the food later. Little Hunter is set in the basement of the George’s building in Little Collins St. It’s a kind of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ façade, with only a small plaque that acknowledges you’re in the right place. Walking down the industrial staircase, you head into a polished, comfortably lit warehouse-chic space that consists of a myriad of booths, tables and walls adorned with pictures of the likely ancestors of the bovines that you’ll be tucking into later on.

The menu is, to a great relief, very straight forward and easy to navigate. No confusion about shared plates that may or may not be entrees. Or mains. There are small dishes, sides, large dishes, steaks and sweets.

OK. Let’s get what is possibly is already the legend of this place; the bread and it’s evil partner in crime. The bread itself is delicious – a cheesey pull-apart style loaf that is so good, you will order another. But the real hero and star of the show is the chicken fat butter. Yes, you heard me correctly; the blend of 50% butter and 50% rendered chicken fat, flecked with chicken skin crackling is never ever going to get a Heart Foundation tick of approval, but we gave it five big ticks.

Cheesey Bread & Chicken Fat Butter

A number of my fellow diners were a little saddened to discover that one of the small dishes that featured on the website; Pork Cracklings – paprika, white cheddar, apple sauce ($6) were not on the menu. The alternative of corn fritters did not disappoint. Small balls of deep-fried corn were reminiscent of “pogos” according to a Canadian friend of mine. Apparently, they’re like corn dogs.

The stand-out dish of the night, winning by a bee’s whisker was “Beef on Toast” ($15). Atop a wafer-thin crisp of bread sat very thinly sliced, quality raw beef fillet, a creamy, rich chicken liver parfait and as a counterpoint, a chivey-capery concoction that brought the whole dish together. It was outstanding.

Beef on Toast

The Country Pate with pickled walnuts, guanciale (pig’s jowl) and pea shoots ($14) in comparison was like a poorer cousin. There was definitely nothing wrong with it, but amongst the bread, the butter, the corn fritters and the beef on toast – it was quite possibly one dish too many. Although using some of the witlof on the dish as a vehicle for consuming more chicken fat butter was great and yet writing about it today, it just sounds so wrong.

Country Pate - pickled walnuts, guanciale, pea shoots

I’ve already talked about the Robbin’s Island Ribeye. It was the best steak I have had in a long time. Mind you at $60 for a 280 gram steak, the expectation was high. The steak was cooked to the kitchen’s recommended doneness (medium rare) and as previously mentioned, came with a generously-sized piece of bone marrow that could have acted as a weapon and an extremely rich butter made with beef fat that anointed the tender cut of meat. If I had to be picky, I would have preferred one or the other, but not both condiments as it became a little sickly towards the end. Too much of a good thing.

Robbin's Island Ribeye - bone marrow, beef fat butter

The Cape Grim Filet Mignon ($38), marinated in coffee grounds and Worcestershire sauce, cooked via sous vide and then smoked was unavailable. However this was substituted with a wagyu fillet, cooked in the same manner, for $55. Three rounds (approximately 225 grams in total) were served simply with a big slice of king brown mushroom and an accompanying  sauce (which I don’t know what it was).

Wagyu Fillet - coffee and wood smoke

You will need sides as the dishes are fairly scarce without them. We tried the lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette (it is exactly just that) for $9, Little Hunter’s Fries, dusted with dehydrated onion powder and served with a ‘fry’ cocktail sauce ($6 or approximately $1 per chip to be more accurate), roasted yams with chimmichurri ($7) and some much-needed vegetables (baby carrots, zucchini, shitake mushrooms) with only a little bit of butter added – hey that’s what kitchens do ($9).

Little Hunter Fries

Some of us had thrown in the towel at this point, but others pushed on. Desserts are restrained, quite attractive, full of flavour and hit the right notes after the preceding calorie-laden offerings. The frangipane with meringue, passionfruit curd and peach sorbet ($15) was light, not to mention delicious. As was the licorice ice cream with milk crumbs, bee pollen and candied citrus ($12).

Frangipane - meringue, passionfruit curd, peach sorbet

The well balanced wine list is reasonably priced, lots of choice between local and international wines. You’ll probably pay around $60-$70. We drank the 2011 Tscharke Montepulciano from the Barossa ($67) and moved to a heavier, 2012 The Story ‘Writer’s Block’ Shiraz from the Grampians ($60, also available by the glass for $12). There is also an extensive list of beers and ciders.

Service was extremely attentive. Our server, Sarah, had to put up with the attempted wit of five gregarious dudes. This is a place for gregarious dudes… or lunching men in suits… or carnivorous better halves. Just no vegos.

Oh and please don’t ask as to why there is a duck on the wine glass. You have been warned.

Little Hunter
Basement, 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne VIC
(03) 9654 0090

Good For: Meat. Grrrr.

Not Good For: Vegetarians, people that get excited about 99% fat free products and people whose cholesterol might be already exceeding 5.5

Little Hunter on Urbanspoon

“Doesn’t like it”

Recently, I spent a bit of down time reading through the countless reviews for Melbourne restaurants on urbanspoon. There are presently 7,666 pages of them. I think I got up to page 46 (only three days worth!) before my eyes gave up and I needed to go for a walk.

When I got back to my computer, I did some rough calculations and discovered that an alarming (approximate) 25% of diners rated their experience as ‘Doesn’t like it’. Granted some reviews consisted of nothing more than “Don’t go, it’s shit”, but then there were others that went to the trouble of writing a review the equivalent of War & Peace, let alone going to the effort to set up an account to review a venue.

That’s 1 in 4 people critiquing poor service and food that does not meet expectation; waiters that are too friendly, not friendly enough, getting stuff out in a reasonable time, missing things, incompetent staff, ‘bitchy vibes’ from staff, forgetting things, too much avocado, salt in bowls on the table being unhygienic, then having to use the said salt because the risotto was bland, mind-blowingly pretentious, meat that you’d give to your dog and so on.

In this day and age, where our biggest rating TV shows are My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef, we obsess over all things food related. Are our expectations becoming too inflated and bordering on unreasonable? Do people simply enjoy being acerbic? Are we too gun-toting and trigger-happy to fire up the urbanspoon app the minute someone looks at us the wrong way, if the beer is flat or the butter’s too cold? Or is it a case of the industry needing to lift its game to meet ever-growing expectation?

Knowledge is power. We’ve dug ourselves a big fat hole in our keen intent to know what came from where and when and what it ate and how it lived and how it died and how it got to the kitchen, let alone how it was cooked.

Ten years ago, ordering a coffee was as simple as… ordering for a coffee. Now? Well after you select the origin of bean, the monkey’s arse it came out of, how it’s been roasted, whether you want siphon, cold drip, espresso, the type of sugar… I just want a good coffee! As for your steak, it can now trace its bloodline back through the 1860’s on Probably.

We are spending more on food; the groceries we buy and dining out. In September 2012, CommSec released figures that showed average household spending is growing at a long-term average of 4 per cent and in particular, households had lifted their spending on cafes, restaurants and takeaway foods by $8.78 a week, largely driven by people eating and drinking out more often as opposed to increasing prices.

Households are now spending, on average, $107 a week on dining out. That’s on top of the $200 a week average spent on household groceries.

So, we know more and we are spending more money on dining out, which means we’re trying new places all of the time. Naturally, the next step with all of the whizz-bang technology available to us is to tell everyone about it via social media. Annnd duh! I’m writing reviews! But I’d like to think that the effort that goes into my reviews – at least 6-8 hours to produce a 1,000 word post – provides a result that is more balanced, detailed and hopefully influences someone to try somewhere they’ve never been before. Granted not all of the places I’ve been to, after summing up the food, service, value and overall experience, I have liked, but I’m not writing reviews to give people the heads up on where not to go. If that was the case, why would we want to go out at all if 1 in 4 places are shithouse?

The internet is free speech (for now) and sites like urbanspoon have seemed to survive the challenge of one review, mobile reviewers (which I must admit are some the more entertaining reading), such as:

Hate the food and the customer service is so shocking no one there looks happy and the place look really dirty there is no room to eat with out bumping into the people next to us or with out here there life story nd the music is always the same nd never seams to change don’t like it when people have to reach over us to give us the food and to take our plates Im never going back there if things don’t change and the deal things is such a rip off or should I say a joke.

The sibling of a well-known place opened up nearby recently and it was shocking to see the unceremonious panning it copped by its patrons, with comments going as far to describe it had no soul. I heard nothing but James Brown being played in there the other day, but whatever. Another reviewer was most articulate:

The place itself feels cold; too clean, too new…too something

Too ‘something’? Mmmrrright. I can hardly wait for the diner’s review on an overheated, old, rat-infested joint.

Lastly, my all-time favourite was:

Hipster Joint doesn’t belong in Fitzroy North

Well if you want to get all picky, it’s actually in Carlton North. As for hipsters not belonging in Fitzroy North, have you not been to Edinburgh Gardens on a warm Sunday afternoon? I can feel my hair follicles getting quiff envy and Movember ending on 1 December meant nothing in North Fitzroy, let me tell you.

Sorry, I digressed.

I guess we need to accept the facts; we go out more, we spend more, we share more information far more quickly and to more people than we may realise. We are more discerning due to our influences, environment and ability to access knowledge, even through some of us (still) aren’t any smarter as a result.

For the punters using urbanspoon to seek out a place to eat, I’d suggest taking any diner reviews where they have only recently signed up, one-off reviewers and / or mobile reviews with a tiny grain of salt. Use bloggers reviews; they are hopefully doing it for their love and passion of food and of course, there are always the bona-fide professional food critic reviews.

For the rest of us ‘critics’; if your eggs aren’t poached right – tell the cafe. If your steak is well done and you ordered medium rare – tell the restaurant. If your beer is flat – tell the pub. Unfortunate things can and will happen in most places, even the good ones. It’s a numbers game. Any half-decent chef, wait staff, manager or owner will and should do their best to rectify the situation. And if you do feel compelled to write about it, try and be objective, check your spelling, grammar and perhaps do it the next day.

I’m no expert and I have never claimed to be. Although I’d prefer you spend your $107 on something good, new and different. And if it’s a place I can recommend to you, then that’s even better. Although here’s a list of places you should avoid at all costs:

Just kidding.

Bramble & Vine – 749 Nicholson St, Carlton North

I hold in high regard people that demonstrate an unbridled passion for something. It’s not that I’m not passionate about stuff. But this is passion at another level; turning it up to eleven in a Spinal Tap-esque kind of way. Where a person’s eyes glaze over when they’re talking to you and every word is spoken from the heart and you become so engaged listening to what they have to say and you’re envious because you want to be where they are.

This is Leila Donnan in a nutshell. Co-owner and Maître d of Carlton North’s Bramble & Vine. She’s passionate about her menu; locally sourced ingredients and almost everything made from scratch. She’s passionate about her simple, but sound and ultra inexpensive wine list – all selected by Leila. She’s even passionate about the Tasmanian bottled rain water we drank and the Australian-designed handmade Plumm water and wine glasses we drank from. Her passion and her gregariousness were infectious. It made you want to be there. And the food just made it better.

This place has existed for around 18 months now and I’ve only recently dined there. Very foolish of me as it was excellent and a relatively high 93% of people on urbanspoon tend to agree, but for some reason it’s just not as busy as it should be and I don’t know why. The building that houses Bramble & Vine is the fourth incarnation as I have known it over the last seven or so years. Previously it was home to pizza joint Bande à Part and prior to that it was Caffe Qui and before that a Lebanese restaurant.

Granted, this part of Nicholson St can be a bit hit and miss. Excluding the cafes and the most obvious places leading the way (like the brand spanking new St. Ali North and Pope Joan), you’ve got Bistro Flor a kilometre or so back towards the city, but that’s about it.

As for the food… look, it’s not three hat, or one or two for that matter. But it’s honest, tasty and satisfying bistro cooking by chef (and the other co-owner) Sarah-Jane Mahoney, who is equally as passionate (just not as outward in showing it) and that was reflected in practically every dish that graced our table.

Like the wine list, the menu is simple and has strong leanings towards Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. You can choose from three light bites (all $14), four entrees (all $18), four mains (all $33), four sides ($8), four desserts ($14) and (the self-proclaimed) Australia’s best cheese platter with one, two or three cheeses for $19, $24 or $29 respectively – served with lots of lovely house made accompaniments; lavosh, honey truffled walnuts, baked bread, pear mash and a strawberry, fig, pine nut salad. It sounded very promising but I didn’t get that far. Maybe next time.

We decided to share dishes and started with a Sardinian gorgonzola garlic pizza, complete with half a confit garlic bulb. This was a true garlic-lovers delight, with a bit of fun thrown in by having the pleasure of squeezing out perfectly sweet and soft garlic paste onto a thin, crispy pizza base with good hit of creaminess and sharpness from the gorgonzola and the zing of fresh thyme and rosemary.

Sardinian gorgonzola garlic pizza & confit garlic

Next up was a light, whipped beetroot puree, studded with bits of blue goats cheese, hazelnuts, za’atar yoghurt and just enough horseradish; providing a subtle presence that reminds you of how well horseradish and beetroot work together.

Whipped beetroot puree, goats cheese crumble, hazelnuts & za’atar yoghurt and mountain bread

I have my doubts that the mountain bread was housemade. Not that it’s an issue, but there is already housemade pizza, bread and lavosh on offer with other dishes and perhaps an opportunity lost to reinforce Bramble & Vine’s philosophy.

For mains, neither of us could go past the red wine braised pork belly with toasted coriander and ginger relish, chard and parsnip in both creamy (pureed, but more like a skordalia) and crispy crunchy forms.

Red wine braised pork belly

The pork was meltingly tender and its richness was met with sweetness from the puree, some punch from the relish and freshness from the perfectly cooked chard. Put simply, it was a well balanced, well thought out dish in both flavour and texture.

Kipfler potatoes with thyme, rosemary and bush lime aioli

For the sides, we sampled the Kipfler potato ‘chips’ with thyme, rosemary and bush lime aioli and the wilted chard with lemon garlic tahini and pine nuts.

Whilst I’m not a massive fan of the waxy Kipfler, the generous bowl of spuds provided a variety of some crunchy, some sweet, some soft potatoes to the point where we found ourselves vying for the title of finding the ‘best’ chip.

Wilted chard, lemon garlic tahini and crushed pine nuts

We probably could have done without the wilted chard, as there was already chard served in the pork dish. My only criticism was the colour of the tahini, most likely made with black sesame seeds which resulted in a fairly unappealing grey blu-tack coloured blob.

We ended proceedings with an ode to the hot weather we’ve recently endured; a perfectly poached peach, lightly spiced with cinnamon, was filled with a rich marscapone flecked with vanilla, the nutty crunch from crushed bits of almond flavoured meringue – all sitting proudly on a subtle champagne granita. Again, another example of a dish that was well thought out in flavour, texture and this time around, temperature.

Cinnamon poached peaches, champagne granita, vanilla bean mascarpone and meringue

To drink, we polished off a couple of bottles of (slightly chilled) 2011 Calulu Park Pinot Noir ($36) from the Yarra Valley. The rest of the wine list is just as affordable and whilst it’s a relatively straight forward, with 12 wines on offer, BYO is also welcomed.

Bramble & Vine is a great local that would be welcomed in any of Melbourne’s inner-suburban main drags. Quality ingredients are being treated with great love and respect, resulting in some top dishes that are extremely affordable. More importanly, it’s being run by some very passionate people that are doing what they love. If I can, at the very least, try to be as equally passionate for my love of local food and do my part to get a few more locals (or even those not so local) in the door and possibly become regulars, then it’s a win / win for everyone.

Bramble & Vine
749 Nicholson St, Carlton North VIC
(03) 9388 1558

Good For: Great local people making and serving great local food and wine to great local people, at very affordable prices

Bramble and Vine on Urbanspoon