Papa Goose – 91-93 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

OK. I’ll be frank, I cannot (as much as I like to) find anything to bag Papa Goose in any way. Quite simply, it was just bloody great food; quality ingredients that are kept simple.

The website says “we use cooking techniques that allow the true flavours of that produce to remain the central focus of each dish” and I couldn’t agree with them more. I’m not going to find my dish of the year here, but I am already thinking about going back because I trust this place will again deliver a repeat outcome of me rolling out full and, umm… merry.

Our brief was to have a long, lazy afternoon consisting of good food, good wine and good company. We were not due to be anywhere later in the day, so there was no need to rush, nor did we want to be rushed. And we weren’t; that’s a big tick in my book. As for the service, I am going to borrow the words of another reviewer (thanks Glyn) who wrote: “Friendly and unfussy service from staff who know what they’re talking about, helping create an unpretentious atmosphere where the focus is on good food & wine”. I cannot sum it up any better than that. This is Papa Goose in a nutshell!

For starters, the oysters (on the day, Coffin Bay) were shucked to order and served natural… Four bucks a pop. Pure and simple. The char grilled baby squid with cauliflower, chickpea, lemon, yoghurt cheese and hazelnuts was fresh, vibrant and bursting with flavour. My choice of confit Huon ocean trout with king prawn, pea, tomato, dill was perfectly seasoned. Like the oysters, another great example of letting the produce speak for themselves.

A very good quality, fresh sourdough, was served in generously thick slices with with a wonderfully peppery olive oil.

Unfortunately (for us), no one at our table pushed the boundaries and went beyond steak for all our main course choices, so I can’t really report on any of the other dishes on offer. Hey, it was cold, wet and miserable outside and I believe we were all of the same mindset that a cure to the ominous weather was a big hunk of char grilled meat teamed with lashings of shiraz. Three of our table of went for the O’Connor pasture fed scotch fillet (300g, $44), served with a zesty watercress, red onion, parsley and tomato salad and a choice of either peppercorn, red wine or bordelaise sauce. It was bordelaise all the way for my fellow diners.

Me and another diner went for the grilled eye fillet ($44), served with caramelised shallots, spinach puree and ‘a’ sauce (I’m embarrassed to declare I cannot remember what it was, although it was delicious), only to be told that eye fillet was not available. However the chef could offer us a wagyu fillet (7 marble score) as an alternative, served with the same accompaniments for $55. I don’t know if our wonderful waiter could detect “suckers with a corporate account” that easily, or it was genuine. I didn’t care. You could have punched out all of my teeth and I still would have been able to enjoy this meltingly tender piece of meat, served exactly to order (rare). The icing on the cake was the offer of freshly grated horseradish. If you’ve only had the stuff in the jar before, I urge you to hunt some down at a decent greengrocer and try the difference. You won’t regret it and it makes me wonder why it’s not offered as a condiment in its raw state in many other places in Melbourne.

Sides dishes are definitely required and as a rule of thumb, one side was good for two-and-a-half people, so we ordered two servings each of the King Island sour cream mash potato ($7), cauliflower cheese ($8) and a salad of baby gem, iceberg, grapes and more of that wonderful grated horseradish ($7). The mash was the missing piece to our cure of battling though the miserable weather with meat and wine. The other side dishes largely hit the mark.

Chicks dig dessert. Chicks dig chocolate. Papa Goose knows this and has created what can be best described as the ‘leg opener’ of all desserts. Now you may think that this in poor taste, but I had to sit through watching two middle-aged women more or less recreate their own version of Meg Ryan’s scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, whilst they devoured PG’s Eskimo’s pie, ‘hot chocolate’ ($17). It was sickening to watch. I was furious I didn’t order one for myself; vanilla ice cream with a hazelnut praline layer in between, sandwiched between two chocolate biscuits and topped with a crisp caramel tuille and for a bit of theatrics, a stream of hot chocolate sauce is drizzled at the table… Barry White, anyone?

The rest of us went of a less sexual option and shared a selection of cheeses ($22); a washed rind with fig relish, cheddar with pear & ginger chutney and a good old Irish Cashel Blue with leatherwood honey. Some house made flatbread accompanied the cheeses, as did some of those cardboardy shop-bought wafer crackers. Perhaps that’s what I’ll pick on. Maybe they were running low on house made flat bread.

To drink, Peroni is the only beer that features on tap, which was more than fine by me. A small selection of Australian and imported bottled beers and a couple of ciders are also available. As for wine, we stuck with the 2006 Westlake ‘Albert’s Block’ Shiraz from the Barossa ($65), which was around mid-price on an extensive wine list, although there are many reds and whites under the $50 mark. With desserts and cheese, I convinced the “I hate fortified wine” people on the table to trust me and we all happily polished off a 2004 Tscharke Lumberjack Touriga Nacional ($54). Converted.

So, back to our brief. Did we achieve a long, lazy afternoon consisting of good food, good wine and good company? Yes on all fronts. Go there… Now!

Papa Goose
91-93 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9663 2800
www.papagoose.com.au

Good For: Long, boozy lunches by day, romantic setting by night, great facilities upstairs for post-work drinks and nibbles
Not Good For: Anorgasmia due to desserts

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Red Spice Road – 27 McKillop St, Melbourne

A good friend and work colleague of mine and me were well overdue for a catch up, so we wanted to find a nearby CBD location that offered a little more than a sandwich, without going overboard on cost.

Red Spice Road delivered exactly what we were after. For $25 per person, you receive an appetiser and a choice of three of five listed dishes plus rice. Me, cynical as ever, was waiting for a catch. Are the portions going to be tiny? Is it going to represent what might be served up from an ‘all-you-can-eat’ style bain marie? No and no.

The appetiser was a betel leaf with prawn, coconut, chilli and mint. The prawn was ever so slightly opaque, so biting through it there was still some ‘give’ in the texture. Perfectly cooked and no one flavour dominated it all worked harmoniously, albeit two bites and it was gone. A plateful of these babies over a few icy cold beers or a chilled Marsanne or Roussane and all you’d be missing was the beach and a sunset.

Of the five mains to choose from, we selected the pork belly with chilli, caramel, black vinegar with an apple, cabbage, mint salad; Lap Khmer – a Cambodian beef salad with basil, mint, snake beans, roasted rice powder and chilli. For our third dish, we were a little stuck. Would we go for the squid with green papaya and peanut salad, the chicken with snow peas, chilli, ginger and green onion or the barramundi sour orange curry with silk melon and potato? Our server helped us with our decision and we opted for the barramundi.

In the blink of any eye, three large bowls of our selections arrived with a mountainous bowl of well cooked rice. This was more than enough for three people!

Two of the three dishes were a little… not underwhelming, but just missing the mark. The Lap Khmer was pretty close though; beautifully thin slices of rare, marbled beef amongst crisp snake beans… fresh, clean and a great foil to the rich pork belly, albeit there could have been some more defined punch… perhaps some more chilli, basil and mint?

The barramundi sour orange curry was a little bland. Upon recommendation from our server, on two occasions, she made a point of highlighting that it had some “punch”, us assuming it was a little on the spicy side. Unfortunately, it was not. There was a subtle sour note from the orange, but there was nothing else to carry the dish. The barramundi was a good choice because of its meatiness, but it was a little on the dry side.

Then there was the pork belly.

The pig is the best animal in the whole world. Bacon and ham are delicious. A world without crackling would be joyless and then there’s a part of the pig that I truly believe is God’s subtle hint that if prepared and cooked right, there is a heaven and it comes in the form of unctuous and tender meat and small layer of fat and a skin that is somewhere in between tacky and crunchy. Yeah, I liked the pork belly. I LOVED the pork belly. My friend and I both made sure that there were an even amount of belly pieces in the bowl to avoid an embarrassing confrontation over an odd piece. The sweetness of the caramel was wonderfully off-set by the accompanying small jug of black vinegar. Alas, I think my only recently discovered dish of 2011 had been knocked off its pedestal in only five days.

Red Spice road offer a comprehensive list of cocktails, mocktails as well as several decent beers on tap and the usual suspects on the bottled beer list. The wine list is also extensive, with many choices under $50, but expect to pay around $60 as a mid point.

Service was brisk but without being rude. However, I believe the underlying expectation is to not linger if you’re not ordering anything after you’ve finished your mains. There are plenty of other people waiting to take your place. And be prepared to share a large table with your fellow diners.

It’s hard to find somewhere good in Melbourne’s CBD that offers a variety of dishes, made with quality ingredients and in most cases punches above its weight in flavour country, leaving you more than satisfied for $25 in a restaurant ambience. Actually, if I looked hard enough, I’d probably find heaps of places that come close… this is Melbourne we’re talking about, but for the sake of this review let’s pretend there aren’t too many. Red Spice Road ticks these boxes and I’ll be sure to go back.

Red Spice Road
27 McKillop St, Melbourne 3000
(03) 9603 1601
http://www.redspiceroad.com/

Good for: eating pig, quick work lunches, large groups, small groups (provided you don’t mind sharing a table, nor are you about to discuss your plans to take over the world)
Not good for: long lunches… unless otherwise arranged (I guess), fostering a healthy, long-term relationship with your waitress

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Town Hall Hotel – 166 Johnson Street, Fitzroy

It was no surprise to read that most of the Town Hall Hotel’s reviews by urbanspoon contributors confirmed that service was an issue. This was my biggest grievance too. Although our party of five were promptly seated, food and wine menus were quickly delivered and pre-dinner drinks orders were taken. Almost comically, immediately after our first server had left the table, a second server appeared and launched into the same process, not even noticing that we had already received our food and wine menus.

Service continued to become a little more problematic when three or four different staff became engaged with servicing our table throughout the evening. We asked one staff member, whom I believe was an owner, for more bread and a couple of drinks. Neither made it to our table. On two other occasions we unsuccessfully ordered drinks that only arrived after further prompting. I’m not too sure if the THH have a game plan per se as to who does what – it definitely did not appear so and the four staff members that were ‘literally’ running around were indeed quite inefficient for the modest-sized dining room. However, what the ‘actual’ waiting staff lacked in efficiency, they gained big ticks for friendliness, courtesy and knowledge. This did not apply to the gentleman whom I believe was an owner; he came across as a little surly and unaccommodating.

OK… Enough bitching about the service. We were there for the food. The dishes are Italian classics that have been refined and restrained. The menu is divided into ‘Cicchetti’ or small snacks to share, cheese, small plates, medium plates, large plates, steaks, sides and desserts.

Upon reading the menu, one may become a little confused about the differences between say, Cicchetti, small plates and medium plates, however in our case, this was well elucidated by the server and of course, the price per dish does go a long way to determine what will satiate your immediate hunger without ruining it before receiving your main course.
 
The winners on the Cicchetti menu were the moreish tallegio and pancetta-filled dates and the generous slabs of chorizo, pan fried with grapes. The crab kataifi with chive butter was also declared a winner. My partner was a little under whelmed with her choice from the small plates menu; Buffalo mozzarella over an Italian slaw with a cabernet vinegar reduction. The slaw was reported as a little dry and under-dressed.
 
I opted for a special on the night; Vitello Tonnato. Slivers of poached veal were alternated with slices of precisely seared tuna and anointed with a perfect Tonnato dressing with lots of tuna-y punch. If I can be a little picky, which I can because it’s my review, the veal was a tad on the tough side. It wasn’t as much as tough as it was surprisingly unyielding as poached veal should be. The plate also lacked some freshness and some dressed peppery rocket leaves would have been ideal.
 
Pieces of good quality, presumably house made ciabatta with olive oil were served, albeit a meagre serve and hence our request for some more… which as already mentioned, was not forthcoming.
 
For mains, the roasted baby snapper fillet over a seafood paella and lemon was declared a hit, as was the roasted pepper duck breast with confit leg, sweet potato mash and lime jus. Osso Buco was a featured special on the night and was also declared a rib-sticking success, with the exception of an disappointing Osso Buco to potato mash ratio (i.e. not enough mash)… but that might have been borne out of my fellow diner’s love of and pure greed for mash as opposed to a scant portion.
 
My partner was clearly having a crap night, based on her menu choices. She opted for the 250g grain fed eye fillet, cooked to medium. The meat varied in doneness (medium to medium-rare) throughout the piece of beef, which was a little strange given it was of an even size and a relatively small cut. One inexcusable flaw however was the absence of seasoning, for which I can attest after tasting the beef. The accompanying potato gratin, macerated onion and red wine jus were adequate.
 
There’s an Italian saying, “Brutti ma Buoni”, which means “Ugly but good”. This to me is how my off-menu choice of bollito misto can be summed up in a nutshell; a big fat Italian meat orgy. I was a little unsure as to how this would be presented, given that the menu was so far very consistent in its approach to presenting classic Italian dishes in a modern, refined and restrained way. Everything bollito misto traditionally contradicts.
 
Fortunately, Chef Harry Lilai has succeeded on every level with this dish. It remains refined and restrained, but not to the detriment of the protein-driven heartiness of this classic. The dish was presented with some slices of cotechino, a very dainty chicken leg and some pieces of veal rump and beef, all of which had been treated with love and respect. A couple of well turned carrots and onion also featured and several ladles of the fragrant and meaty, yet clean and clear cooking broth topped this very satisfying dish. The traditional condiments of a very good salsa verde, some finely chopped mustard fruits, Dijon mustard and some toasted croutons for some desired crunch and texture completed and complimented this, my favourite dish of 2011, so far.
 
We rounded out the night with a selection of biscotti and several of the cheeses on offer; a Taleggio, Pecorino and Gorgonzola, all served with fruit bread, quince paste, lavoche and muscatels.
 
The wine list is reasonably priced and extensive and there are also several decent beers on tap, including Asahi and Peroni. We drank the NV Stefano Lubiana Brut from Tasmania ($70), the 2007 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz ($65) and we washed down our cheeses and biscotti with a 2008 d’Arenberg The Noble Mud Pie ($50 for 375ml).
 
In all, we were only lighter $125 per head (including tip) and in the majority of cases, duly content for it.
 
Service issues aside, the Town Hall Hotel is a great local that based on the more prominent media reviews (Gourmet Traveller, The Age) has been well received, is respected and damn! It’s also given me my favourite dish of the year to date… but it could be so much better than it is with a few refinements, in particular sorting out the service, which most urbanspoon contributors attest is the THH’s biggest liability.
 
Town Hall Hotel
166 Johnson Street, Fitzroy 3065
(03) 9416 5055
 
Good for: rustic Italian cuisine disguised as fine dining… or vice versa, a drink and ‘chichetti’ in the warming and comfortable bar
Not good for: primarily, its service
 

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