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.

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Where’s the Beef?

Which is better? Grain-fed or grass-fed beef?

Initially, I guess I didn’t really care; as long as it was a quality piece of beef, cooked in accordance to the cut and to my liking. I could easily give an opinion (informed or otherwise) on what I believe to be the best cut for a steak, whether dry aged is better than wet aged, marbling and how much, when to season your meat, pan or BBQ, etc, etc.

But as for grain versus grass, I have had no opinion; nor frankly do did I care.

Google will, as always, bring up a number of opinions (informed or otherwise) and generally there are three main points of contention. First off, there’s the topic of ethics. In terms of benevolence, when people think about grass-fed moo cows, they think of happy bovines that roam majestically across rich, green pastures without a care in the world. This is opposed to grain-fed cattle, which are fattened on grains and often in feedlots, resulting in a higher than normal growth rate where yield tends to compromise flavour.

But this is not always the case with grain-fed beef. There are ethical, grain fed productions, who focus on a slower growth rate over a longer period of time, resulting in a flavoursome and tender, high quality product.

Verdict: Grass. The greater perception that grass-fed beef is more humane is hard to argue against, regardless of ethically minded grain fed beef. Better still, you should take some time to source your beef from a reputable supplier and understand its origin, feed, rearing, etc and you won’t go wrong.

Secondly, there’s the health debate. Most research is skewed towards grass-fed beef being a much healthier option. Our ideal diet requires a 4:1 balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids and these good fats are meant to reduce the risk at heart disease, reduce inflammation and it makes us smarter by promoting a better balance of fatty acid concentration in the brain, which is believed to be particularly supportive in cognitive and behavioural function.

A US study found that beef from grass-fed cattle contained sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, as well as almost double the quantities of beta-carotene and almost three times the amount of Vitamin E. Are sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio going to prolong my life beyond 75? Probably not. My liver’s bound to fail me first.

Verdict: Grass. But we’re all going to die anyway.

If none of the above matters, then thirdly, the most important (and interesting) points are flavour and texture. Tender beef is nice, but most people are so concerned about a sourcing a steak with the ultimate tenderness that they simply forget that good beef should actually taste beefy.

God it’s hard… Do I trade flavour for tenderness? Am I satisfied with a marbling score of 6? Did the cow on my plate live a happy life?  WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMNED DIFFICULT?

I just want a nice piece of steak [sob].

Fortunately for me, last night the bulk of my pent-up beef frustration dissipated, as I attended one of two experiences that should be compulsory for all Australians (the first is Defensive Driving). As one of a number of excellent events organised through the Fringe Food Festival, last night saw a beef tasting and education night, led by chef Ron O’Bryan at The Vine Hotel in Collingwood.

Ron’s recently taken over The Vine and in keeping with the feel of “a pub that your dad would have gone to”, aesthetically he hasn’t done too much to the place, which is fine by me as it suits the back streets of Collingwood like… well, a good fitting tracksuit. More importantly, the kitchen is the heart and soul of this place and in my opinion there should be more chefs owning pubs – how many times have you been let down by a saggy parma, bad chips or a steak that resembles a pair of Havaianas? You’re not going to get that here. These are pub staples (including a few old school favourites, like crumbed brains and bacon) that are done well.

Anyway, back to the meat. We kicked off proceedings with some mingling over a variety of oysters from Tasmania & South Australia, Red Hill Brewery’s Imperial Stout and an interesting, textural, cloudy white made by Neil Prentice. Neil calls it Reverse Cowgirl, in that it’s crafted using a different technique to your standard (missionary) wine making.

After we were seated, we were presented with a taste of Neil’s other passion: Moondarra Grass-Fed Wagyu, in the form of tartare. A shared charcuterie platter was also placed in the middle of the table, which featured even more of Neil’s passionate handiwork (I was beginning to love this man): wagyu bresola and salami.

Artisan Charcuterie Plate

Several other meats from other producers also featured on the charcuterie board, including a pastrami, chorizo, a pork-based salami and some lovely hand-made pickles. Meat heaven. 

The Wagyu tartare was a pared back version, served only with a cured egg yolk to compliment the richness of the Wagyu, and Pont Neuf (which is a fancy term for a big, fat chip). The usual suspects of shallot, cornichons and so on were not missed, letting the real flavour of the meat speak for itself.

Adam Foster was also on board again, matching his Foster e Rocco Nuovo Sangiovese with the first course. This young red is a versatile drop; its lightness and smooth tannins complimented the meats, with neither dominating the palate.

Next up was our first lesson in attempting to find a difference between grain versus grass. We were each served a generous slice of rump cap from a grain fed bovine and a grass-fed moo cow. Both were prepared and cooked (rare) and rested in the same manner. The grass-fed rump was a far superior, in both taste and texture, whereas the grain fed rump was very tough. Many people around the table left the grain fed rump unfinished, declaring a resounding thumbs up for grass-fed.

Then came the coup de grâce. A selection of grain and grass-fed beef – four different cuts; porterhouse, rump, scotch and another one which escapes me. Our challenge: to enjoy and accurately identify which was which.

The Test

Personally, I struggled to remember which was which, making it very hard when it came to the judging. What made it even more difficult were the ‘pub-appropriate’ sides of battered onion rings, chips, green beans and red wine jus. Deliciously distracting.

For what I thought were the grain fed cuts (porterhouse – bottom of the place, rump – on the left), they were far more tender than the initial grain fed offerings. A little more buttery in flavour too.

However, the grass-fed morsels were again more superior in flavour and texture.

The accompanying Foster e Rocco 2009 Syrahmi (rhymes with salami) Shiraz held its own in an expected steak / red pairing.

We rounded out the night with some locally made Artisan cheeses; a thimble-sized fresh goat’s curd, a washed rind cow’s cheese and a cheddar – all exemplary and washed down with a Foster e Rocco 2010 Syrahmi Mouvedre.

So what did I learn?  I learned that the consensus on the night also leaned towards grass-fed, which although unsurprising, poses an even greater dilemma. The bad news is that the bulk of domestic retail beef sold in Australia is grain fed and unfortunately profit dictates over flavour and quality in a number of ways. 

 To keep up with demand, most beef sold is processed (killed) as yearling beef, which is up to 18 months old. Veal is generally processed at around 10 months. Yearling beef hasn’t lived long enough to develop any flavour. Young Prime Beef is processed at around 36 months. Far superior in flavour, but the math is obvious.

Once your beef has been processed, the next step to give you more flavour on your plate. But there’s wet ageing your meat and then there’s dry aging or hanging your meat, which is vastly different. Your typical supermarket ages its meat for around 14 days via a wet ageing process. Simply, the meat is vacuum packed and refrigerated. Although this process allows for the cells and muscle tissue of the meat to break down, thus naturally tenderising the meat, the ageing process rate of vacuum-packed meat decreases with time, with about 70% of the improvement in tenderness occurring in the first 10 days. It only does so much.

Dry ageing is a process where the entire carcass is hung in an environment with a controlled temperature (2-3 degrees celsius) and humidity (up to 90%) for up to 2 -4 weeks. This process intensifies flavour, however this is also as a result of losing up to 30% of the initial carcass weight due to the loss of moisture. This of course greatly reduces the profits of your average meat seller, who still want to pass on an inferior product at $9.99 / kg.

Basically, we’re stuck with the stuff we get at the local supermarket. They won’t change, but you can. Which is why you need to find a good butcher that knows where his or her meat has come from, how old it was, what it was fed, how long it was aged, how it was aged and so on. Better yet, get along to your local farmers market and buy it (and other goods) straight from the loving source (thanks Alli).

I’m never going to source a 36-month old, grass fed, dry-aged for 30 days piece of beef from Coles. Although such a cut could command a price upward of $50 / kg, quality doesn’t come cheap. And you know what? We’re only meant to eat a moderate amount of red meat, so if you’re willing to buy a little less, spend more on quality and really enjoy your beef, then you won’t need that whopping 450g beast that hangs off your plate. But if you do, then I suggest a colonoscopy every now and again.

Verdict: Buy the best you can afford and enjoy it.

The Burgers are Better…

I love a good burger. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really also love a bad burger in the wee hours when I’ve drunk far too much. Who doesn’t?

For around 40 years, Australians accepted the mediocrity of the Hungry Jacks and McDonald’s duopoly until a bunch of various entrepreneurs decided to challenge the status quo. The mid-2000’s brought us the likes of Grill’d, Urban Burger, Burger Edge, BBNT; all of which seemed to practically pop up over night to rival the competition; each claiming to offer an alternative burger that’s well made (in that it vaguely looks like the picture above the counter) with quality ingredients (that don’t taste like cardboard) and in some instances deliver nourishment that isn’t two times your daily intake of calories in one sitting.

Some tried, some failed. Most though, are still around. Even before the great burger revolution of circa 2005, there are long-standing Melbourne icons like Andrew’s Hamburgers in Port Melbourne, Danny’s Burgers in Fitzroy North and even the Embassy Café in West Melbourne, where all the taxi drivers hang out.

They’ve been a staple on most pub menus, amongst the chicken parmas and beer-battered fish & chips, but some places are kicking it up a notch. And it makes sense, because they’re popular, can cater to most tastes and in most instances, a relatively inexpensive feed.

The Tramway Hotel, an iconic local pub in Fitzroy North recently changed hands. With the change of owners came a much-needed refurbishment and another attempt at opening the kitchen, which in years gone by has failed repeatedly. Although this time around, the canny owners went on the premise to focus on something particular and do it well. With 8 or 9 burgers on offer, some are constants that remain on the menu and others are seasonal. Your omnipresent Fitzroyalty vegans and vegetarians are covered, as are your hungry carnivores, coeliacs, pescetarians, etc. All washed down with a few beers, is there anything better?

But how much is too much for a burger? Many coveted two-hatted establishments also jumped on the burger bandwagon because it was cool, like, if you didn’t know. Rockpool Bar & Grill’s Wagyu Burger is probably the most renowned with its brioche bun, gruyere cheese, bacon, zucchini pickle from the Zuni Café in San Francisco and of course, its namesake, a David Blackmore Full Blood Wagyu burger patty. Some may scoff at paying $24 for a burger, but it’s probably a reasonable price point in the context of the venue and although it’s around four times the cost of a Whopper, it’s only twice the cost of a burger at Grill’d.

Of course, the more you pay for your burger hopefully indicates that you are getting better quality ingredients. Although the ongoing publicity surrounding high fat, high sodium take-away food has meant that the ‘alternative’ burger franchises attempt to win over customers by offering stuff like “97% fat-free beef”, which as far as burgers go, defeats the purpose of what actually makes a good burger. Fat equals flavour and provides the much needed moisture to make your hamburger juicy. As I continually need to explain to my four-year old daughter, a burger (amongst all of the other junk food she likes) is a ‘sometimes’ food and I’d sooner have a juicy, tasty burger occasionally than a ‘guilt-free’ 97% fat-free burger patty, which will give you nothing more than a dry, tough and tasteless puck of meat.

Making a burger at home is a very satisfying undertaking, especially with some care and forethought. Although my home version is naturally better and far more satisfying than that famous  twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun, there are a couple of elements in my burger that pay homage to the evil duopoly, because at the end of the day this is what I grew up knowing a burger to be and let’s be frank, some things just work so there’s no point in trying to reinvent them.

As I’ve also mentioned previously, you can go as far as Heston Blumenthal and make your own ‘processed’ cheese like he did in his In Search of Perfection series. Perhaps even go the whole hog and attempt to make every single element of the burger from scratch, like this guy did.

Personally, I don’t have 30 hours to kill. However there is one non-negotiable that must be obeyed and that is the meat patty. Like I said before, there needs to be a reasonable fat content. There are many lean to fat ratios thrown around as to what is the ultimate and everyone’s get a theory on the best cuts to use. As for fat, the general consensus is around 80:20 (80% lean to 20% fat). Chuck steak seems to be the preferred sub-primal cut, although if you’ve got lots of time on your hands, you can mix it up with ratios of chuck with some brisket, sirloin and even beef short ribs (boned, of course), each cut adds a different dimension in terms of meatier flavour, texture and mouthfeel.

You can buy the meat and grind it yourself, if you have the equipment and enthusiasm or your butcher can grind it for you. If you’re really pressed for time (here’s my first tip that might cause a little unease as to my pedigree as a ‘foodie’, but hey this is my recipe and my thoughts on my favourite burger to make at home. If you disagree or have other thoughts, I would love to hear them), buy regular standard minced beef from any of your garden variety supermarkets. Don’t buy the premium quality 5-star lean, or 4-star for that matter, as both are too lean. The regular 3-star mince has the appropriate lean to fat ratio for this purpose.

The next step is to flavour your meat. Of course, there are lots of options here: garlic, onion (raw or sweated off first), breadcrumbs, herbs, spices, worcestershire, mustard and so on. Personally, I don’t want to add anything to the meat other than some salt and a little white pepper before it hits the grill. Both enhance the flavour of the meat and I do not like to detract from this at all. There’s enough going on in a burger with the other ingredients and condiments, than to have to add more flavour to the meat.

You do not need egg to bind your minced beef, nor do you need to slap or overwork the meat – it just makes it tough. Simply make sure your meat is well chilled and formed into uniform patties. There’s no need to handle the meat more than you have to… unless you’re into that kind of thing. Also, a tip I’ve stuck with is to place your burgers in the freezer until they’re very chilled, but not snap-frozen. An hour or so before cooking on the grill is just about right.

Size is everything. Too big and you’ll end up with most of the burger in your lap as you struggle to get your mouth around it. Too little and you’ll lose the meat flavour amongst the other wonderful things you add to your burger. I’ve already briefly mentioned uniformity. Call me anal, but when I’m making burgers, I’ll grab the scales and weigh out the meat. Not to stop the fights because “her burger’s bigger than mine”, but so I can get the burger size right in respect of the bun I am using, the accompanying ingredients and whom I am cooking for.

According to my maths, McDonalds’ Quarter Pounder is 112.5 grams in the metric system. I find the substance of one patty at that weight just a little underwhelming and two a little too much meat. I’ve found making a burger with a weight of 150g – 170g is a good sized patty for an adult. For kids, no more than 100g will suffice. Just remember, varying sizes will require different cooking times.

Next is the bun. Controversial tip number two is that I don’t mind using your run-of-the-mill, store-bought hamburger buns. As long as they are fresh… and they don’t tend to stay too fresh for long either. Those flat, squished looking buns that supermarkets and bakery chains sell also do a reasonable job. The bun needs to be able to withstand the juicy ingredients, without falling apart and making you angry. You also don’t want a bun that’s too tough, bready or doughy.

I’ve made my own buns on a number of occasions and if I’m making burgers on a weekend and therefore have the time, I would probably do just that. There’s a really good brioche-style bun recipe I’ve used a number of times. They’re light enough to not dominate the other ingredients and sturdy enough to hold up.

Cooking your burger is the same as cooking any piece of meat; it has to be done right. Season your meat just before you cook, that way the salt doesn’t start to leach out all of that much loved moisture and get your BBQ or grill as hot as you can to sear the meat well. You only need to flip the burger once and please try to refrain from squishing your burger when it’s on the grill, as fun as it is. As for cooking your burger on a hotplate or directly over grill, the choice is yours. I am a big fan of the smoky flavour imparted by cooking directly over the grill, however once I’ve flipped the burger and there’s only a minute or so of cooking time to go, I’ll add the cheese so it begins to melt and transfer the burger to the hotplate, so the cheese doesn’t melt through the grill and onto the hot coals. Remember to rest your meat.

As for the remaining ingredients or condiments, it’s all about personal taste. Sometimes, if there’s an excess of onions in the pantry, I might get all fancy and make up some onion jam. However, mainly at our place it’s the usual suspects: lettuce, tomato (for me only), beetroot, egg (again, for me only), bacon, cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Remember, these ingredients are just as integral to compliment the whole burger, so use them judiciously. I’ve searched far and wide for my favourite types of condiments and I’m happy to say that I’ve found my preference for each ingredient, which I’ve listed below in terms of importance:

Pickles. Ah, the polarising little things. My sister hates them. When ever she had a burger, I was the fortunate recipient. Unfortunately I now live in a house with pickle-lovers, so as judicious as they may be served in the burger (three slices only), there are usually a few extra slices served on the side or eaten whilst preparing the other ingredients. The best pickles I’ve found are of course, American. I discovered Vlasic Sea Salt Kosher Dill Pickles at Costco, but they are also available through a number of online American food stores in Australia.

Mayonnaise. Although K loves the Thomy Deli brand, I find that Best Foods or Hellman’s (same thing, just different branding) is better in a burger.

Ketchup. Since I lived in the UK, I’ve been a fan of Heinz Original Ketchup. Not sauce, whether it be Big Red, Rosella or Fountain. The only acceptable sauce I’ve found is made by Three 3’s and it’s packed with flavour through the addition of some extra spices and some horseradish.

Lettuce. Iceberg, sliced into 0.7mm shreds. Don’t ask me why, but it can’t be too thick or too thin. God invented iceberg lettuce for two reasons; Sang Choi Bao and hamburgers. Save your fancy lettuce for another day.

Cheese. If you must, you can go all fancy and buy some mature or tasty cheddar slices. Most people are accustomed to your bog-standard Kraft cheese slices and that’s OK with me.

Mustard. I’ve stopped putting mustard on my burgers as I found it was one condiment too many, but if you’re that way inclined I recommend French’s Classic Yellow Mustard. Yet again, it’s American and it’s as close as you’ll get to the mustard used in McDonald’s.

Order of stacking is also important. Do the salad ingredients appear above or below the meat? Is this important? I don’t know, but everyone seems to have a theory. There’s a school of thought that the lettuce should go on the bottom of the burger to protect the bottom part of the bun from moisture and imminent collapsing. However, if you’re using shredded lettuce, it might not make too much difference. Maybe a slice of cheese is better? My preferred order (bottom to top) is: Bottom bun, meat, cheese (melted onto burger whilst cooking), egg, bacon, ketchup, pickle, beetroot, tomato, lettuce, mayo, top bun.

Finally, if you wish to replicate the experience of a burger that’s been sitting under a heat lamp and / or in that brown paper bag until you get home, I suggest wrapping your burger in baking paper and bunging it in the microwave for 25 seconds before eating. It just adds a little more authenticity to your homemade masterpiece.

So this week, I suggest you dedicate some time to think about burgers and without getting too hungry and heading for your closest drive-thru, wait until the weekend where you can have a go at mastering your own burger.

You won’t be disappointed.