ESP – 245 High St, Northcote

Well, hello there! It’s been a while since my last post. In fact, I’d dare say that my vain attempts at even considering myself as a part-time food blogger would be stretching the truth. But in an effort to possibly be the first person to publish a review of Scott Pickett’s newest incarnation, Estelle by Scott Pickett (aka ESP), I’ve decided to come out of food blogging hibernation.

Scott features heavily in my blog. There are a couple of reviews of the Estelle… maybe three, plus a couple of truffle dinner posts hosted at The Estelle. Some might also call it a man crush. For the record, he’s just a really top bloke who just happens to cook awesome food that I dig in a big way. Also, I am slightly biased towards fellow South Australians.

It felt as though ESP was a bit of an enigma, through lots of local council bureaucracy that delayed inevitable deliciousness; what was meant to be an April opening finally took place on Friday, but it was well worth the wait.

The Menu

The fit out is incredible. It’s dark and moody, but in a good way. All the focus is on the open-plan kitchen, with ample bar seating around the perimeter for diners to watch in awe during and between courses. Why you’d want to sit at a boring table is beyond me.

Hard at work at the Pass

So, what’s the difference between ESP and the ‘old’ Estelle, before it was reinvented as a bistro? Basically, things have gone up several notches. In a sporting parlance, it’s the ‘one percenters’ that should take ESP to that higher level and happily reside with Saint Crispin as a solid two-hatted establishment.

Some of the aforementioned one percenters are the dark linen napkins and the Laguiole knives, both fashioned with the well-recognised ‘E’ emblem, the house-made butter perched on its own little wooden log plate, which accompanied the warmed miniature bacon and onion scroll or (actually, in my case AND) pretzel roll and of course, there’s the theater in the dexterous and attractive presentation.

Bacon Scroll or Pretzel Roll? Have both!

But thank God we do not just eat with our eyes; the flavour combinations were outstanding! My new favourite dish – Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan (for the uninitiated… like me, before I googled it, is a sweet, mild, aromatic Indian spice blend, said to be developed by the French colonists in India). The aromatic curry flavours were incorporated into the cauliflower puree and highlighted the sweetness of the mud crab.

Dish of the night... Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan

A serendipitous July opening meant that there was sure to be truffles featured on the menu and there were, featuring in a truffle-infused custard and onions executed with different techniques, burnt, pickled and as a consommé… with a generous shaving of truffle as a garnish.

Black Truffle & Onion

Scott’s homage to mentor Philip Howard was delivered in the form of hand-rolled macaroni, a delicately tender sweetbread and the equally tender loin of White Rocks Veal and Mustard Leaf.

White Rocks Veal, Mustard Leaf & Hand Rolled Macaroni

Tasting menus are funny things, you get to course two or three and you’re happy, you’re smiling. You have a large chunk of the night still ahead of you and you’re so, so thankful that there are still a good number of courses to go. Time passes, courses come out, wines are poured and you begin to lose count… is this the sixth course or the fifth? Before you know it, dessert is being placed in front of you.

Then you know it’s really all done when the Lemon Aspen Doughnut and Raspberry Vinegar Ganache ball arrives. It’s over. You fondly look over at the people across from you. They’re newbies, only just tucking into their Cod Roe & Potato Soufflé amuse bouche. They have so much to look forward to (sigh). You want to be those people.

When these arrive, you know it's over...

Still, all good things do come to an end and ESP’s eight-course tasting menu will set you back $130. There are two wine matches apparently available, Premier ($90) or Grand ($120), although on the night, I wasn’t given the option. Service was relatively slick and will get even better with every service they chalk up.

Man crush aside, this is a real winner. Standing outside waiting for my Uber at the end of the night, I stood on the footpath, looking into a very full Estelle Bistro and an equally full ESP next door and felt proud for Scott, Josh and his team; they’ve worked long and hard to build up the Estelle brand and we deserve places like these. As for ESP, book now or you probably won’t be able to get in for a while.

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The Estelle + Truffles = Love

A refresh of The Estelle is, so far, paying dividends.

It sounds a bit weird given it only opened three years ago, but things appear to move pretty fast in Scott Pickett’s world.

In a little over the last twelve months he’s opened Saint Crispin with Joe Grbac. Then last October, chef and business partner, Ryan Flaherty, left the business to start his own restaurant, Mr Jennings (Bridge Rd, Richmond), which coincidentally opens today… I can’t wait to check it out.

More recently, there has been an impressive renovation of the courtyard (previously home to a fire pit and suckling pig on a spit) which delivers full overhead cover and comfortable heating to increase patronage by around 30 seats and an excellent refurbishment of the amenities.

This is all topped off with the addition of Josh Pelham as Head Chef in the kitchen. Like Scott, Josh is an alumnus of Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred London restaurant, The Square, where Josh was Head Chef.

See? Whirlwind.

I dined here several weeks ago and noticed that there have also been a few alterations to the menu. What once was a choice of 5, 7 or 9 courses has become 6, 8 or 10. And gone is the ‘adventurous’ beverage pairing, which offered some more left-of-field alternatives to the more basic wine matches; like maybe a sake or a simple cocktail. Alas, making a cocktail (to order) is a far more laborious task within a very busy restaurant and relying on the next beverage match to be ready for its accompanying course is paramount. It makes sense.

As for the food, it was better. The pork jowl, apple and turnip has become my all-time favourite dish, closely followed by the Phil Howard-esque hand rolled macaroni, featuring pine mushrooms, parmesan and (in addition to a $15 supplement) a generous shaving of black truffle.

And to my not-so-subtle segue.

Last night, was the Fringe Food Festival’s fourth annual Truffle Dinner hosted by The Estelle (with the exception of last year, which was held at Saint Crispin), with truffles lovingly supplied by Madame Truffles.

The Menu

Winter staples are a perfect vehicle for the unbridled addition of truffle; rich pasta dishes, creamy sauces, under chicken skin and many other delights where buttery and cheesey goodness go hand in hand with nature’s black gold… I had a crack at a few recipes myself a few years back. And yes, we all know that high amounts of this stuff is not good for you in the long term, but The Estelle does moderation quite well and to be frank, the truffle season is very short indeed.

Truffles (Braidwood, NSW)

Last night’s menu kicked off with salty and warm – fresh from the oven – foccacia with truffled olive oil. This is opposed to the various incarnations of ‘truffle infused’ olive oils which are in most cases inferior. The olive oil was grassy and rich with the perfume from the very visible shaved truffle from Daylesford (VIC). Bagel and Pretzel mogul, Dan Taranto and I took turns seeing who could capture the most bits of shaved truffle onto our focaccia. It was a draw.

A delicious scrumpy-style cider from WA’s Custard & Co accompanied a most delicious Isle of Mull Cheddar and Truffle cheese soldier to whet our appetites. I’m not a big cider fan; my foray into fermented apple drinks was largely killed off thanks to the likes of Strongbow as a teenager. I will be heading to Wine Republic later this week to pick up a flagon (such a great choice of receptacle) or two as I am now a convert.

Cheese Soldier

The warming and satisfying Jerusalem artichoke veloute with pine mushrooms and a 63 degree egg (for 40 minutes) was topped with the nutty crunch of toasted rice and truffle from Pemberton in WA.

Jerusalem Artichoke and 63C egg

For the next course, we stayed in WA for a little longer. Western Australian marron was teamed with the most famous hand-rolled macaroni, basil and pan fried Brussels Sprout leaves. The sauce that embalmed the pasta was heavenly; rich with flavour from what I assume was the shells of the marron.

WA Marron

A quick trip from the west coast to the east coast was taken for our next course. Truffles from Braidwood (NSW) were paired with meltingly tender, slow-cooked beef shin, oyster mushrooms, miso and oyster mushroom puree, jus and a small nugget of deep-fried bone marrow.

Wagyu and all the trimmings

We closed the night closer to home, with truffle from the Yarra Valley (VIC) featuring in the (truffle infused) sponge cake and the ice cream, as well as honeycomb crumb and charred pear. I was a little apprehensive about the ice cream. I’ve had great truffle-flavoured ice cream in the past, but some former versions have been far too dominant in flavour, overpowering the other elements of the dessert and the wine. This version was quite redeeming.

Dessert

Another memorable night at The Estelle and if you’re quick, you may be able to snag a ticket to next Monday’s Truffle Dinner (details are here), which coincides with Bastille Day.

You wouldn’t think it could get any busier for Scott, but it does. There’s also a book coming out in November. Teaming up with renowned Australian food writer, Rita Erlich, Scott’s next foray delves into stories and recipes that have shaped and pay homage to his so-far 25-year journey in cooking.

I know what will be on the top of my Christmas list.

Trufflepalooza 2!

I sorted out a few of the world’s problems the other night. Well, one at least. My friend that owns a pub was telling me that he went through something like 120kgs of chicken fillets for parmas last week. That’s a lot of chicken – something like over 400 parmas. Over a quiet beer, we mused over the work involved by his kitchen to turn all of that chicken into schnitzels and he casually mentioned the skin that gets thrown away.

Hello? Haven’t you seen what Josie Bones does to chicken skin? I think I managed to convince Rick that he was not only throwing away pure profit, but also a tasty bar snack to go with the thousands of litres of beer that he sells on a weekly basis. So if you see chicken skin crackling on offer at an established High St, Northcote pub, you’ve got me to thank (with partial credit to Josie Bones).

I’m not sure as to what that had to do with this post, other than the fact that chicken skin crackling is lovely,  but the conversation occurred on Monday night and a Monday night is normally not a night I’d choose to be out, especially this one. I had a cold; I felt a little miserable and quite frankly, a little out of place by not being rugged up at home so early on in the week. But [sigh], there was work to be done in the form of trying some of this year’s truffles at the Fringe Food Festival’s Truffle Extravaganza – in its second year at The Estelle.

I wasn’t going to blog about it. For some strange reason, I was certain that there would be nothing new to discover. By around September last year, I was a little over truffles. Primarily due to my experiments involving my own 50 gram nugget of black gold I’d purchased through Friend & Burrell. However, September through to July is a long time between drinks (or truffles in this case) and I guess that’s the point of enjoying something seasonal; consume it until you get sick of it, wait nearly a year and you can fall in love with it all over again.

So here we all were, back at the Estelle, with a bespoke menu that had been designed for the night. We were first  welcomed with an aperitif of (I might get it wrong here) prosecco, featuring some shaved truffle and a bitter, sticky and sweet candied cumquat, submerged at the bottom of the glass.

With my palate refreshed after one or two aperitifs, we were presented with the first of five tastes; Potage Parmentier, Smoked Trout & Quark.

For the uninitiated… like me at the time, a parmentier is more or less a potato soup. As Scott Pickett (Head Chef and owner of  The Estelle) pointed out, it was essentially a vichyssoise (normally served cold), but served hot; which made it a parmentier. Get it? I did eventually.

A glass featuring a colourful micro garden of smoky flaked trout, the salty pop of salmon roe, a hint of herb contained in small, creamy dots of quark, bitterness and colour from some petite flowers and a generous grating of Manjimup truffle (WA) from the Wine & Truffle Company, was placed in front of each guest before this artful landscape disappeared under a lake of potage parmentier. It was sad to see something so delicate drowned in soup, but it was more than worth it. A great start to the night.

The accompanying Carlo Pellegrino Marsala Vergine Riserva DOCG 1962 (Sicilia, Italy) was on the drier side of sweet (not too sweet); a daring and interesting pairing, as were the majority of the wines for the night.

Next up was a Blue Swimmer Crab, Risoni & Basil. As Scott pointed out when walking through the dish, it would have been too obvious to make a risotto. The use of risoni resulted in a much lighter dish and the flavour of the crab was prominent. The use of basil was subtle, but still quite evident. Again, a generous dose of truffle, this time Terra Preta Truffles from The Marshall Family in Braidwood, NSW, complimented the richness of the dish – the ideal vehicle for truffle.

The 2011 Rockburn Pinot Gris (Central Otago, NZ) displayed a little sweetness, but was crisp and dry enough to cut through some of the richness of the risoni.

I’ve been deliberating as to what my favourite dish was on the night. I chose the next dish for a couple of reasons. Although the Macaroni, Carbonara & Girolles was probably the least complex dish of the night, it delivered on the elements as to what is a quintessential truffle dish.

The hand-rolled pasta evoked a story from Scott on how he used to roll 400 of these in the early hours of the morning when he was working as a Junior Sous Chef at the two Michelin starred restaurant, The Square, in London. The al dente macaroni was combined with smoky lardons of bacon and anointed with a light carbonara sauce of the traditional eggs, cheese and black pepper. Girolles, arriving fresh from France that day, gave the dish that extra touch of luxury, athough the dish was already luxurious enough with truffle from Great Western Tiers in Deloraine, Tasmania; the home of Australia’s first black truffle. The simplicity, the luxury, the story and of course the flavours, made it my dish of the night. But only by a fraction against the dish that followed.

I mistakenly said to someone on the night that it was the first time I was to try Croatian wine, forgetting about the $1/litre stuff we drank to excess in Jelsa, on the island of Hvar back in 2000. Backpackers… enough said. I assume a lot has changed since then because the 2010 Matosevic Malvazija ‘Alba’ (Istra, Croatia) was a belter. Some great acidity and a little minerally; a perfect pairing. I was also told that Croatian wine will be the next best thing in Australia over the next 12 months, so keep your eyes peeled folks.

I sincerely regret not taking a photo of the penultimate dish; vanilla, honey & burnt orange. The description of the dish on the menu was a tad understated. The was actually vanilla, honey, burnt orange AND truffle sponge AND truffle ice cream.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about truffle ice cream. It’s kinda greyish looking and not all that asthetically appealing  (the same went for the sponge), but it was probably the tastiest ice cream ever. You’d think that much of the pungent flavour of the truffle (from Tamar Valley Truffles in Launceston, Tasmania) and vanilla would be lost in its frozen form, but this was not the case. Given the alledged $12 per scoop price tag, Scott declared this as pretty much a one-off. It didn’t matter. I got to eat it. The burnt orange gel was used wisely as the sparing smear packed a punch. Floral notes and crunch were provided by honey-crusted macadamias and it lived up to the wonderful standard of Ryan Flaherty desserts at the The Estelle.

Some of the sweetness driving the not overly sweet dessert came from the Chambers, Muscadelle ‘Rosewood’ NV (Rutherglen, VIC), which really picked up on the burnt orange.

We managed to share the Baked Clarines, fig & beetroot between the three of us, which in hindsight was a little ridiculous. It was warm and gloopy. It was creamy and rich. It was studded with truffle.

The accompanying beetroot and fig preserves are standard fare at The Estelle, forming some of the condiments offered on their charcuterie board. Exemplary. The Chateau de Vaux “Les Hautes Bassieres” Pinot Noir (Moselle, France) was very aromatic and close to being too tannic for my palate. Still, I managed to drink a second glass.

Since last year and as expected, the market for truffles continues to grow exponentially. There are (probably) more growers and there is definitely better access to truffles for you and me. South Melbourne’s Madame Truffles has positioned itself to make it more affordable for the consumer. A little truffle goes a long way and Madame Truffles offers a choice of WA, NSW or Tasmanian truffles (and Victorian ones later in the season) at around $3.00-$3.40 per gram, with only a minimum purchase of 15 grams, increasing at 5 gram increments, depending on your truffle needs. I know I’d be much happier and less reluctant to part with a $50 to finesse my dinner party dish or simply keep it all for myself eat the best scrambled eggs known to man.

If you haven’t tried truffles, you should. If you want to try truffles, then get along to the remaining Fringe Food Festival dinners over the next couple of weeks. There’s one at St Ali this Thursday, 5 July (details here) or there is another on 15 July at Eleonore’s at Chateau Yering in the Yarra Valley (details here).

Failing that, go and grab yourself a small chunk of truffle this weekend and at the very least, make some of the most simplest egg or pasta dishes into the most fantastic dishes you have ever tried. You won’t regret it.

Trufflepalooza!

Most places you go to where there’s truffle listed on the menu can leave you quite underwhelmed; it’s either a little on the miserly side, attracts an unreasonable ‘supplement’ or, God forbid, some kind of laboratory-developed synthetic truffle flavour is used… like some establishments that offer truffled mash, only it tastes nothing like truffle. Or mash for that matter.
 

Monday night’s Olifactory extravaganza redux: end of season truffle tasting dinner, largely organised by SJ from Essjay Eats and Tomatom’s Ed Charles, was my first ‘foodie event’… and what an event to kick things off – a carefree and unabashed microplaned showering of Australia’s best truffles; nuggets of pungent, musty and intense flavour. Nothing compares.

Otway Truffles

Friend & Burrell were on board to generously provide half a kilo of black truffles at wholesale cost from Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. And as a last minute surprise, thanks to a couple of ‘gatecrashers’, two very handsome truffles were also donated by Otway Harvest Truffles and Sunnybrae Restaurant’s George Biron, which were transformed into a ‘surprise’ course.

Wines for the night were provided by winemaker Adam Foster and slaving away in the kitchen were Scott Pickett and Ryan Flaherty… which kinda gives away that this extravaganza was being held at what is becoming my second home, The Estelle.

The kitchen delivered a menu that encapsulated Scott and Ryan’s style, including many of the familiar signature elements and flavours that keep me coming back to this wonderful place. We opened with The Estelle’s amuse bouche; chickpea chips and sardine fossils. They’re still good. Unfortunately the fossils didn’t make it to our table. 

Wagyu bresaola and quail egg truffle

First up was the Jerusalem artichoke veloute, Wagyu bresaola and quail egg with Tasmanian truffle.

This was the first sign that the truffles were definitely not going to be served up with any restraint.

The combination of salty bresaola, rich and unctuous quail egg and the heady perfume of the truffle made this two-mouthful treat disappear far more quickly than I would have liked.

The accompanying Jerusalem artichoke veloute was as  rich, creamy and velvety as I’d imagined it would be and it complimented the bresaola like a vegemite and cheese; albeit several hundred points up the scale in terms of deliciousness and execution.

The dish was matched with the 2011 Foster e Rocco Rose from Heathcote. A great match, with some acidity to counter the richness of the dish.

"old school egg"

Next up was a favourite; “old school egg”. One of Scott’s signature dishes, a perfectly poached egg atop the most creamy, rich polenta you will ever encounter and a generous shaving of Western Australian truffle.

This dish, like the first, confirmed that the flavour of the truffle is driven hard by the not only the richer elements of the dish (fat being a carrier of flavour), but also enhanced by the seasoning of the dish.

Thank God for salt and fat, I guess.

A relatively young and fresh 2011 Foster e Rocco Nuovo Sangiovese was paired with this dish and again, the wine truly complimented the dish through its lightness, standing up to the dish, but in no way overpowering. It also reminded me that the warmer months are also just around the corner.

We were at the halfway point with the next dish; hand made farfalle with king brown mushrooms and pan-fried cauliflower, teamed up with the New South Wales Black truffle.

Handmade farfalle, king brown mushrooms & cauliflower

Needless to say this dish was again packed with flavour, with the caramelised cauliflower adding a little sweetness amongst the earthiness of the king brown and truffles.

The accompanying 2010 Foster e Rocco Sangiovese was again light, but a tad more robust and still a little fruity, with a little acidity kick at the end.

I have been a big fan of the two desserts I have tried at The Estelle thus far. Unfortunately, the Rice pudding, puffed rice and beetroot just didn’t hit the mark with me. Rice pudding is one of those polarising dishes where you either had it as a kid growing up and in your later years you’re repulsed by it (mainly thanks to growing up with poor, stodgy versions) or it’s a comforting ‘nursery food’… a pick-me-up when you’re feeling down.

For mine,  I can take it or leave it. The Estelle’s Rice pudding was light and not overly sweet, but the beetroot jam / coulis didn’t taste of anything and the puffed rice made me feel like I was eating a some breakfast concoction in the Qantas Club.

Rice pudding, puffed rice & beetroot

As for the addition of truffle, it didn’t work for me. As much as I believed the Western Australian truffles were the best of the night, their flavour in this dish was lost. Perhaps it was because the dish was cold. Perhaps the absence of salt or seasoning failed to enhance the flavour of the truffle, as was the case in the former dishes.

The grand finale of the night and probably the most anticipated dish (at least from K’s perspective) was the bonus dish made with the Otway Truffles; Baked Jean Perrin Fromager des Clarines, with lashings of truffle.

Unfortunately for us, as we were seated along the bench at the front of the restaurant and we were asked by the waiter to join in with the table closest to us. By the time we’d waited for the table to share the Fromager des Clarines around, we’d missed out as the waiter hadn’t passed on that we were joining them. A little bit of an uncomfortable situation, which was a bit of a downer at the end of what was a memorable night.

A big thanks to the aforementioned Ed, SJ and the other wonderful people involved for pulling this together. It’s people like these that inspire people like me, who are only just starting out in food blogging, to want to enjoy and experience more of what this fantatic city, state and country has to offer and to hopefully contribute for the better to educate others in the appreciation of good food.

For more information, check out: http://www.fringefoodfestival.com.au