“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 ancestory.com. 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.

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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
http://bramblevine.com.au/

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