North by Northwest: Cutler & Co’s Seaonal and Regional Produce Dinner

Getting to visit Cutler & Co has been a task. It’s not like I haven’t wanted to go there either. Firstly, there’s the gift voucher I received for my birthday last October that I still haven’t used (even though I have been assured it will still be honoured… and I will use it in the next couple of months. Promise).

Then there was my recent week’s stay in hospital, where from my window at St Vincent’s, I was compelled to gaze upon Cutler & Co’s facade whilst miserably consuming hospital food. There was a glimmer of hope when, after a few opportunistic tweets, I was to receive a ‘care package’ of tasty appetisers. But then I was discharged and my hopes were duly shattered.

Third time lucky came in the form of a phone call late last week from Essjay, asking if I would like to join her and Ed for dinner at Cutler & Co to celebrate Autumnal fare:

Me: When is it?
Essjay: Monday
Me: F*ckit! It’s my daughter’s fifth birthday. I can’t go [sobs hysterically]

Well that’s how I remembered the conversation. Crestfallen, I told Kate when I got home and surprisingly, she said I’d be mad not to go. She was sure that our daughter wouldn’t be too scarred for life. I wasn’t too sure, but who am I to argue with one’s better half? So I called Essjay back and it was game on.

I was extremely interested in celebrating seasonal and local produce from a particular region. I guess if we all lived on farms or had more time in our lives… or at least the inclination, I am sure we’d all be eating fresh, seasonal produce and enjoying things when they should be enjoyed – in their prime. Thanks to microchip technology and the like, we get stuff all year round these days, regardless of whether it’s any good or not. Gone are the days where you only could get asparagus when there was an ‘r’ in the month… or is that yabbies? I can’t remember. The point is most of us do not care enough to do too much about it.

Fortunately, Andrew McConnell and the team at Cutler & Co do care and last night was the first of a series of seasonal feasts that showcase the food and wine of regional Victoria. Their plan, as Mother Nature moves us into each new season, is to focus on a different part of Victoria and create a menu that highlights the freshest produce available for that region.

Last night’s ‘North by Northwest’ dinner focussed on the produce available in Autumn from Northern Victoria in the form of a five-course degustation, matched with local wines.

Proceedings opened with an amuse bouche of some simple, house-cured Manzanilla olives paired with a 2011 Galli Estate ‘Artigiano’ Pinot Grigio from Sunbury. The flavoursome and meaty olives were a great accompaniment to the clean, crisp and fruity wine.

Our first course combined cured and lightly smoked rainbow trout (from Wilhelmina, near god-forsaken Murrindindi, where I hate camping) with the mild, fresh herb of chickweed, a sharper citrus hit from some sorrel, texture and crunch from the smoky, almost bacon-like rye seeds, tangy crunch from pickled onion and cucumber and a fine quenelle of mustard cream. The 2010 Williams Crossing (by Curly Flat) Chardonnay from the Macedon Ranges complimented the citrus from the sorrel and still allowed the mild smokiness of the trout to come through.

Next up was a densely pressed pheasant terrine; three blocks garnished with bitter leaves, a sweet reduction, spiced almond crumb and topped with Cutler & Co’s signature foie gras cigar. As much as I tried to save my cigar to the very end to be enjoyed on its own, in a corner, by myself, I did the right thing and tried it with the terrine. With the exception of the most awesomely light and crunchy cigar filled with creamy, rich foie gras, the terrine was probably my least favourite dish of the night. By all means it was pleasant pheasant, but nothing remarkable to truly distinguish it as pheasant. It was just lost. Maybe it was just lost on me.

As for the wine, the 2010 Vinero ‘South Gisborne’ Pinot Noir, made by Cutler & Co’s Sommelier, Liam O’Brien, was an absolute cracker. Smooth, fruity with lots of cherry flavour. It was a perfect match.

My favourite dish of the night was the Sher Wagyu scotch, served with hay-baked carrots, watercress puree and char grilled garlic shoots. This was some of the most meltingly tender beef I have ever, ever eaten. Someone made the comment that it absolutely trounced Blackmore Wagyu and I tend to agree. The meat was perfectly cooked to a blushing rare to medium rare and lightly anointed with a delicious jus.

The char grilled garlic shoots and watercress puree provided different levels of freshness to counteract the richness of the Wagyu. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet roasted hay-baked carrot, but I would honestly need a non-hay baked carrot to determine the difference the hay made as I failed to detect and flavours imparted by the hay. No surprises in the well matched limited release 2008 Heathcote Estate ‘Block A’ Shiraz. Ballsy, but not overly tannic… it was on the fruitier side, which is my preference.

The penultimate dish was the Holy Goat ‘La Luna’, served with poached quince and flaxseed lavosh. We were fortunate to be drinking a ‘project wine’; a 2009 Chalmers Passisto Malvasia/Picolit from the Murray Darling region. There was mild concern at the table as to how this sweet, but not too sweet wine would pair with the creamy, almost nutty and tangy goat’s chevre. It worked a treat and more so that the quince flavours were picked up in the wine. My favourite wine of the night (slightly pipping Liam’s Pinot).

Our last dish was a warming, rich pear and suet pudding with chestnut ice cream. The quenelle of ice cream could have been bigger, but that’s just me being greedy (it was adequately proportioned to the pudding). The pudding was light, not overly sweet, nutty from the chestnuts and a sign that winter will soon be on its way. The accompanying Harcourt Valley’s Bress ‘Bon Bon’ Cider aptly accentuated the pear in the dessert and was well balanced between the acidity cutting through the richness of the dessert, and its sweetness with neither the cider nor dessert dominating the other.

The night was a great celebration of produce at its prime, presented in the best possible way by one of Australia’s best chefs. If last night was anything to go by, I will look forward to seeing what the following seasons and regions bring to Cutler & Co’s table.

[farfromfamished dined as a guest of Cutler & Co]

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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