Birdman Eating – 238 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy 3065

Being a parent of two young kids, one of the things I miss the most is doing stuff on the fly. Spontaneity doesn’t get much of a gig, particularly when it comes to having an impromptu bite to eat on a night out… both of which are rare treats these days. On a most recent Saturday night, I found myself lucky enough to gain a leave pass for some drinks with a couple of good friends and I almost forgot that at some point, we may need to consider some form of sustenance other than a most delicious and cloudy Coopers Pale Ale.

It was only six or seven years ago that Smith Street and Gertrude Streets were still a bit dodgy and there wasn’t all that much on offer other than a kebab. These days, the gentrification of this part of Collingwood / Fitzroy leaves you quite spoilt for culinary choice, with places like Añada, Charcoal Lane, Cutler & Co, Ladro, Panama Dining Room, Josie Bones, Huxtable, Gigbaba and so on and so on.  Mind you, most of the people eating in these places on a Saturday night aren’t being spontaneous – they’ve had the good sense to plan and book.

So with the sky looking quite ominous, we traipsed from one side of the street to another, seeking a venue that would take pity on six forlorn, hungry and slightly merry patrons. We almost thought all of our Christmases had come at once as there, right out the front of Huxtable was a shiny, vacant table with more than enough space to accommodate all of us.

Alas, after a frank and sensible conversation with the lovely waitress at the door, who cautioned us that if we chose to stay at the table, we did so at our own peril as the table was not undercover and if the heavens did open up on us, we’d have no choice but to stay and suffer. She really wanted us to stay but vowed it could end in disaster. I really wanted to stay too – I mean, what’s a little rain? I was willing to deliciously suffer. However my vote sadly did not warrant consensus, so we moved on. And then it started raining. Heavily

Some Turkish restaurant across the road nonchalantly took us in and although requesting us to wait at some tables on the footpath (until a table was cleared), they’d come and take a drink order. However, after about 10 minutes, we were under the impression we’d been forgotten about. It was at this point, I remembered it was 2011 and duly pulled out my phone and decided to do what we should have bloody done in the first place – find a few nearby places on Urbanspoon and call ahead to find somewhere that could accommodate us. Fortunately for us the first phone call was a success. We were about to give Birdman Eating a go.

Birdman Eating’s been part of Gertrude Street for around four years, which probably makes it a pioneer of the much improved food movement in this part of the world. Known more for its edgy and immensely popular brunch menu, Birdman Eating has this year branched out to a Dinner menu from midday. So in hindsight it makes good sense to have lunch here because you then have the luxury of selecting from both Dinner and Brunch menus. I would have gladly polished off some grilled kippers with fried potato and horseradish butter or black pudding with bubble and squeak, poached eggs, toast and a pear & date chutney over a couple of cleansing ales… breakfast, lunch or dinner.

But dinner it was, with the emphasis on plates to share… which was no real surprise because it’s practically the norm these days. There are four or five smaller dishes, like olives, hummus and bread and a rather interesting confit kipfler potatoes with chilli salt and vanilla aioli in the $7.50-$12 price range, with the remainder of the dozen or so dishes that fell into the $15-$20 bracket, plus a further half dozen dishes on the specials board.

A small assortment of bottled beers are on offer; local handcrafted ales, a couple of internationals and Melbourne Bitter thrown in for good measure.

We started proceedings with a selection of smaller dishes to whet our appetites, which didn’t really need too much whetting. Zucchini and fetta fritters ($10.50), haloumi with red rice ($15) and hummus with bread ($9) were the first dishes to grace our table. The fritters were delicious; piping hot, soft in the middle and a crunchy textural crust from the fryer and a piquant, cooling fetta cream to contrast. The hummus on the other hand was a little on the dry, chalky side and very, very bland… nothing to write home about, other than if you were writing home to tell someone that you’d just eaten really bad hummus. The haloumi was still tender, tangy from a squeeze of lemon and a little squeaky – just how I like it. The accompanying red rice salad was OK from a flavour perspective, punctuated with dried sour cherries and pistachios, but the rice was a little undercooked and as an accompaniment to the haloumi, it was a strange choice.

With a token vegetarian (sorry, Jase) as part of our group, we were very mindful to ensure we ordered some dishes to duly comply with a vegetarian’s needs. Fortunately Birdman Eating’s menu carries a good balance of dishes to appease omnivores and vegos alike. In fact, out of all of the dishes we selected in our second round of ordering, a couple of the vegetarian dishes were indeed the highlights of the evening. The ricotta gnocchi with roasted pear and gorgonzola ($17.50) was probably the dish of the night. Meltingly soft, light pillows of gnocchi were served in a hot, cast iron dish with wedges of roasted pear that still had a little resistance for some texture. The gorgonzola was just the right amount, not too much to dominate the dish. The Roasted Pumpkin ($15.50) was a close second featuring some of the sweetest, most intensely flavoured pumpkin I’ve ever come across. Yum! I hate it when vegetarians gloat.

That’s not to say that the other dishes, featuring meat or seafood, were not good. In fact they were largely commendable. The prawns with taramasalata ($18) were self explanatory, pan fried prawns sitting on a generous smear of cod roe dip, which although tasty was most likely a shop-bought number. The Rich River Berkshire Kurobuta pork belly ($17.50) was meltingly unctuous and the pickled blood plum sauce was a perfect foil to cut through the rich meat. The house made terrine ($16.50) was made from duck and pig (I believe) and it was OK, although it was a little on the cold side and as a result it didn’t really taste of anything… pig or duck. The accompanying condiment of onion jam was a nice balance of savoury and sweet with some acidity.

The last dish we sampled was slow roasted lamb shoulder with celery heart leaves, fetta and lemon ($18.50). Chunks of meat, pulled straight from the bone were served in its own juices. A small bowl of bread was also served as an addition to thoughtfully allow us to mop up the remaining juices and retort with some gloating of our own.

The waiting staff were fine; present when needed for top ups and the timing of the food from the kitchen was spot on.

To drink, we selected a couple of bottles of local Pinot Noir which were at the cheaper end of the extensive wine list; a 2008 Brokenwood Pinot at $48 was not shockingly expensive at a 200% mark up. There are generally 4-6 wines in each varietal under the $50 threshold, the same again in the under $100 category and the same again in the under $200 category, so there’s something to cater for all budgets, although I was surprised to see so many wines over the $100 mark for a place renown for peddling eggs. I don’t know – perhaps the brunch-going Fitzroyalty and Collingwood Glitterati like to quaff a $180 Piedmont Barolo with their baked eggs.

In any case, we experienced some reasonable value (only setting us back $50 each), some good food and more than adequate shelter to avoid the elements for a bit, before moseying on down Gertrude Street for a few more quiet drinks.

Birdman Eating
238 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy 3065
(03) 9416 4747
http://www.birdmaneating.com.au

Good For: Taking in some sodden, hungry folk, lunch… when you can’t decide on breakfast, lunch or dinner
Not Good For: Hummus

Birdman Eating on Urbanspoon

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The Smith – 213 High St, Prahran 3181

I don’t know if a restaurant should exhibit such a waft of self-assurance when it’s only 6 weeks old. Maybe the pedigree and reputation of ex-Taxi duo Michael Lambie (Executive Chef) and Scott Borg (Operations Manager & Front of House) is meant to precede expectation. But unfortunately I walked away from my recent lunch at The Smith feeling rather overwhelmed at the dollars we’d dropped for such an underwhelming experience, but more on that later.

The fit out, post ET’s, is all very familiar; akin to many of the newer places being opened in Melbourne – exposed ceilings, brick work, kitchen service in full view of the restaurant. Very industrial but very well thought out and executed, although I don’t know how the noise levels of a bustling bar on a Friday or Saturday night would compete with the dining room. Then there are the ‘little’ things that are not only a bit OTT, but also provide some justification as to how much lighter your wallet is at the end of your dining experience… I guess someone’s got to pay for the automatic sliding door that leads you to the bathrooms.

The menu is extensive and features a gamut of dishes ranging from zingy, fresh Asian ingredients and styles, some dishes punctuated with flavours of the Americas; namely, Cuban, Mexican (corn, chipotle, avocado) and your more typical European tastes and techniques (charcuterie, minute steak with pomme fondant).

Going in the direction of many current restaurant menus, The Smith has taken the liberty to capitalise on what it slowly becoming the preceding course before your ‘traditional’ entrée or starter – in their case it’s known as A Mouthful. Why bother offering complimentary and filling bread when you can extract another ten or twenty dollars per customer? Of course, we were more than willing to play along, sampling the freshly shucked oyster with blue swimmer crab salad and green jalapeño hit ($4.50 each), crisp pork ribs with chilli teriyaki sauce ($15) and betel leaves with crispy fish salad, chilli and salmon pearls ($6 each)… A little more than a mouthful, thanks to our injudicious ordering.

The oysters were most definitely fresh, as was the accompanying topping of crab salad laced with coriander. I’m being picky here, but the jalapeño hit would have been much better presented as a brunoise to justify the $4.50 investment, rather than plonking a straight-out-of-the-jar sliced jalapeño on top of each oyster. The betel leaves were a smack-in-the-mouth treat of mealy fried fish, spiked with fresh herbs, a decent amount of chilli and a soft, contrasting pop-in-the-mouth texture of salmon pearls. Wonderful morsels. Contrary to the first two tastes, the crisp pork ribs were a serious let down. Dry, with only a scant amount of meat, they were hardly worth the effort.

Rather than tackle one of the 10 entrée dishes on offer ($16-$20), listed as Tastes, we opted for the charcuterie Kitchen Selection ($26); a small assortment of the broader range of meats and pates that can be ordered individually ($15-$21). Several slices of San Daniele prosciutto, capicola and salami were folded in amongst a very fine quenelle of foie gras parfait, rabbit rillette and a duck terrine. Condiments included a couple of cornichons, caperberries, baby pickled onions and a small scoop of house made pear and ginger chutney. A nice, house made brown bread (Shock! It did exist!) completed the selection.

To drink (after a few obligatory cleansing glasses of Kirin, on tap), we started with a fresh 2009 Torbreck ‘The Steading Blanc’ ($85), which worked well with the cured meats and seafood. Most of the wines attract around a 250% mark up, which is still quite steep, but I’ve seen worse.

For mains, a.k.a. Fish & Meat, I couldn’t go past the 400g dry aged rib eye ($38). I’ve made a conscious effort of late to (try to) keep my red meat intake to a minimum. What better way than to make up for the absence of delicious protein than tucking into some serious beef. Alas, it was a bit of a let down. My order of medium rare was gravitating more towards the medium of medium rare. The accompanying celeriac and parsley remoulade was adequate and the quenelle of hot mustard horseradish was probably the best thing on the plate. A sauce would have been nice. My dining partner opted for the roast breast of duck with rice noodle sesame salad and 5 spices ($34), served with a crispy duck-filled spring roll. The duck itself was reported as fairly unremarkable and a little on the dry, overcooked side.  The biggest let down were the noodles; tough, dry, springy – awful. The spring roll was nice, though.

Our mains were accompanied with a 2008 Greenstone Heathcote Shiraz ($80). Although we didn’t order sides, which I would recommend with the steak, at $9 a pop, there are five choices on offer, ranging from smashed chat potatoes with usual suspects of garlic and rosemary to carrots with harissa and almonds.

As with any of our long lunches, the cheese board is a must and light-heartedly seen as the yardstick of any establishment we visit. The Smith’s Local & European Calendar cheese selection ($23) was a fairly predictable arrangement of  blue cheese, soft cheese and cheddar, fanned bits of apple, dried muscatels, some clumps of nuts and some fairly good fruit bread… all a bit pedestrian, really. Maybe my recent visits to Four in Hand in Sydney and Merricote have demonstrated that because we have access to so many brilliant local and imported handmade cheeses today, perhaps restaurants need to raise the bar and become a little more adventurous. Rather than trying to squeeze in another bottle of wine, we ordered a couple of glasses of the Mitolo ‘Jester’ Shiraz ($9).

We rounded out proceedings with a couple of desserts from the To End list, in particular a couple of sweet treats we’d be eyeing off on other tables earlier. My dining partner was set on the Orange & Grand Marnier soufflé with white chocolate centre and jaffa ice cream ($17) and happily, it was good. A light as a feather, perfectly cooked and well-risen soufflé had a good balance of tang from the citrus and creaminess from the white chocolate. I’d like to report on the jaffa ice cream but I didn’t get to try it. It must’ve been good. My ‘knickerbocker glory’ with green apple sorbet ($15) was tasty enough, with the crisp, clean sorbet being the highlight.

Granted, we tend not to hold back on these lunches that occur every three or so months, but in terms of value for money The Smith has either got to drop its prices by a few bucks (which it won’t) or lift it’s standard to meet it’s pricing. The execution of what appeared to be some pretty uncomplicated dishes just wasn’t good enough. Combine this with the somewhat over-confident and seemingly too-cool-for-school service we received; I’d rather go and spend my dining dollars elsewhere.

The Smith
213 High St, Prahran 3181
(03) 9939 4762
www.thesmithprahran.com.au

Good For: Prahran / South Yarra old money, tables of lunching ladies
Not Good For: Apparent value for money

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Merricote – 81 High St, Northcote 3070

I love my birthday. Not as much as I used to when back in the day, I’d exploit it to the hilt, spreading it across nine days (two weekends and five weekdays). Nowadays I’m lucky to milk it for no more than the day itself and the closest weekend to it.

This means that invariably, quality reigns over quantity and so my choice of restaurant for my Friday night celebration was to be a good one. But I also wanted to go somewhere that I’d been yearning to try, rather than heading back to familiar digs. Merricote was high up on the list of ‘my next place to go’, so the choice was easy.

The recent winner of the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide’s Best Short Wine List, Merricote has come on to the scene in a big way over the last seven or so months, yet when you walk in your first thoughts are… well, it’s quite unassuming. A simply decorated dining room features some large prints on the walls of the ‘staple’ animals we like to devour: pig, cow, chicken… and some quirky figurine farm animals feature here and there. To add to the simplicity, there is no bar or counter, allowing for more space between tables of this 30-seater, making the room feel totally devoid of that claustrophobic feeling you can experience at some places. It works very well in this relaxing, laid-back, lounge-room setting. Ideal for dinner with good friends. 

Bronwyn, co-owner (with other half, Rob, slaving away in the kitchen), sommelier and front-of-house made us feel very welcome from the moment we stepped in the front door, ushering us to our table promptly and offering us a choice of Northcote’s finest tap water (as featured in the drinks menu) or Antipodes sparkling mineral water.

Over a couple of glasses of pleasant French bubbles ($19) we perused the menu which featured four dishes each under the categories of charcuterie, small bites, starters, mains, sides, desserts and a highly anticipated cheese trolley. A degustation menu was also available at $65 for six courses.

Some exceptional house made bread rolls were offered; a choice of a seeded brown, dark beer-based roll or a floury white roll with fennel. Being ever so health conscious, I stuck to the brown roll which was outstandingly fluffy and even better with a generous spread of softened butter, which if I was a betting man looked and tasted like Naomi’s butter from Myrtleford.

Settling on the a’la carte menu, our first choice was a clearly obvious; a selection of charcuterie ($22). We were promptly presented with a board laden with thinly sliced handmade salami, capicola and some other tasty cured meat, served with some house made piccalilli and cornichons. I found the piccalilli a little too salty, K disagreed. Each to their own, I guess. We popped the top of a jar of the most delicious duck rillettes – the best rillettes I’ve eaten to date! A well judged ratio of duck fat to the slowly cooked and well-seasoned duck meat, which was chunkier than what you’d expect. It was more like pieces of confit duck than the finer shred of meat you’d expect from rillettes. Not that I was complaining.

A slice of pigs’ head terrine was paired with an excellent, chunky sauce grebiche. I also decided that I wasn’t a big fan of pigs’ head, which is absolutely of no disrespect to the kitchen. I’ve tried a number of times now; as brawn / head cheese, plus a number of variations. I don’t know… maybe it’s a texture thing. Anyway, that was my problem. Some (again) house made lavosh was on hand to scoop, spread and devour what was a great start to our night. In hindsight, the charcuterie selection was probably a little ambitious for just the two of us and probably better suited for 3 or 4 like-minded carnivores.

We also ordered the beetroot, walnut and goats cheese salad ($14) to share, providing an extra foil to the rich proteins. We were both unanimous in declaring this as a most perfectly balanced salad. Pickled baby turnips and baby beetroots featured with some very fresh pieces of walnut, twice shelled broad beans and various micro herbs – all atop goats cheese foam, which had all of the full flavour of the cheese combined with the lighter-than-air texture of a whipped mascarpone. Delicious.

Our choices for main dishes ($29-$32), as well as they were executed, seemed a little out of place as they would be much more suited to a Winter menu, as opposed to it being half way though Spring.

K chose the ‘nose to tail’ lamb; a couple of perfectly cooked and seasoned cutlets, some braised meat combined with mushroom and shaped into a cylinder, then pan fried, a crumbed and fried nugget of brain (which immediately found its way to yours truly) and, served separately en papillote, was a rich and robust braise with white beans. 

I opted for the rump of  beef, cooked to medium rare and served on a ragu (of sorts) of chickpeas, mushrooms and braised ox tail. The cooking of the rump was to order, although one piece was a little on the chewy side. By and large, the execution was bang on, but it just seemed a little too hearty for October.

We selected a refreshing shaved cabbage, mint and barrel-aged fetta salad, which was lightly dressed with tangy vinaigrette. An excellent counterpoint to our mains. We drank a 2008 Whistling Eagle Sangiovese. As a choice between the aforementioned and a Tuscan Sangiovese, we asked the advice of Bronwyn, whose recommendation did not let us down.

As much as we were already close to satiation, we had to see the famed cheese trolley. An awesome selection of 15 cheeses were wheeled over to us: soft, semi-soft, hard, goat, cow, sheep, washed rind, ashed, blue mould, wrapped in stuff… take your pick! There were too many to mention (or remember for that matter). If only we knew, we wouldn’t have made pigs of ourselves earlier. Still, we settled on the Holy Goat Veloute. Bronwyn took our selection from the trolley and deftly proceeded to slice the top off like a skilled surgeon. We selected a few dried figs and some more of the house made lavosh. The figs were a perfect accompaniment to dip into the ripe, creamy, sweet and slightly nutty gooey goodness.

Maybe the cheese gave me a second wind. Maybe it was birthday magic. Maybe it was just plain greed and the hope K was paying. I was determined to push on through to dessert. And I’m glad I did.

The aptly titled Dutch messhomage to all things orange lived up to its name. It was probably also the most carnival-esque and fun desserts I’ve had. A well thought out combination of bitter blood orange segments and jelly surrounded a disc of creamy vanilla ice cream. Delicate orange and yellow flower petals were visually stunning but added nothing to the flavour (perhaps some peppery nasturtiums instead?) and were a little feathery at the back of my throat. On top of  the largely bitter ingredients, a contrasting layer of light and airy orange blossom-flavoured Persian fairly floss and a precise scoop of orange sorbet featured. No one ingredient dominated another and alas, my life was a little less bright once it had disappeared.

A well made espresso rounded out the night and my birthday feast.

Questionable seasonality of the main dishes aside, Merricote is an absolute gem of a place and we’re quite spoilt to have it at the bottom of Ruckers Hill and The Estelle at the top. High Street, Northcote continues to the up the ante and the best thing is that us locals get to reap the rewards with good, honest and unpretentious food that’s combined with an extensive, well sourced wine list – all of which is excellent value and all of which Merricote delivers with aplomb.

Thanks for making my birthday special.

Merricote
81 High St, Northcote 3070
(03) 9939 4762
http://www.merricote.com.au/ (website coming soon)

Good For: Sticking it up the people on the other side of the river; we’ve got it better than them
Not Good For: Seasonal confusion

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