Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Black Toro

Although Brad lives out in Glen Waverley, we're often not out that way these days, since the university he's doing his PhD is close to my place, which is close to the city, where generally most of our socialising activity happens. 

However a couple of weekends ago, we were going to spend a weekend out at his, since we had a friend's engagement party to go to around there. Which is wonderful let me say, but it's also kind of weird seeing friends get engaged and married off, especially since I'm so far away from taking that next big life step…or something like that. 

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Anyway, so it completely surprised me when Brad then suggested that we get dinner The Black Toro beforehand, somewhere I had been harping on about for ages, lusting over their famous deconstructed peanut butter cheesecake. I mean…Brad…make a suggestion? What is this?!

So it was with glee that I called them up and made the booking for a rather frosty Saturday night. My toes snap froze walking from the car to the restaurant! 

Thankfully The Black Toro was a cosy little reprieve from the cold, where I sneakily snuck my toes out of my heels so that I could thaw them out (sshh, don't tell them)!

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I loved the colourful mural, it's neat and tidy fit out, dark tables and black napkins (they look so much neater than white ones!) against the white walls…also, finally! A restaurant that's not afraid of their electricity bill, there's light! 

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The Black Toro is a surprising little addition to Kingsway in Glen Waverley, a little bit of Latin America in an ocean of Asian cuisine. 

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From the 'Poco Plates' selection, we started with crispy soft shell crab with buttermilk dressing and sriracha. Whilst the batter was a bit on the soft side and not really 'crispy' there was certainly a little crunch there, which was nice for a bit of texture and on a whole these were quite tasty. Honestly, it's a little hard to go too wrong with soft shell crab or sriarcha (if you ask me anyway!). Mmm, spicy!

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Spicy pulled pork taco's with shredded cabbage and sour cream were a treat on the eye, with bright colours and lively garnishes, which translated to the palate in bright and zesty flavours. Loved the purple cabbage for a bit of crunch too! With the generous mounds of pulled pork, it was a slightly messy, but delicious affair!

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The quesadilla with frijoles, smoked bacon and melted cheese came out lovely piping hot, crowned with a piece of crackling on each slice. The crackling? Mmmhmm. Perfectly crisp, light, like chicharron from the Philippines. And honestly, how can melted cheese go wrong? Really? My only wish is that this was a corn tortilla quesadilla, but my bad for not checking really. 

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For our mains, we went with the spicy video soap seca with roasted zucchini, black beans, salsa fresco and queso fresco. From the summary on the menu, we figured this was essentially a mexican noodle casserole. 

This quite surprised me, with it's big flavours, it was quite spicy and peppery, but light as well. I hadn't really had anything like it (although I guess I haven't really had that much Mexican food either) and loved the great big dollops of queso fresco, which was a very creamy in texture but light on the palate cheese. Between the two of us, after all our little entrees, this was quite a feed!

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I also could not resist ordering the triple cooked chips with paprika salt and garlic aioli, after our stint in the states…I was having potato withdrawals! I was a bit disappointed though that these weren't super duper crispy, as that's what I generally expect when the term triple cooked is thrown about. They did have the skin on them though, which added to the flavour and the garlic aioli was absolutely to die for. 

As the waiter came over to clear our plates, I didn't even need to get the menu back to know what I wanted to order for dessert. This must be a common occurrence, as the waiter smiled knowingly when I asked if I could order dessert already.

It was time.

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Time for a deconstructed peanut butter cheesecake with chocolate ice cream and honeycomb. Oh gym gods, I have sinned. Sinned so bad. 

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The chocolate ice-cream was dense with a lovely and full dark chocolate flavour, it seemed softer and creamier than ice-cream even, I would have said it was like a mousse. Surprisingly, it was lighter than it's peanut butter counterpart which hit you hard. Real hard. But it was good. A thick rich glob of creamy peanut butter that you just had to slowly roll around your mouth, one because that's the best way to enjoy it, and two, because it's so darned dense, good luck to you to get it down any faster! 

The honeycomb gave a nice crunch, and gave a bit of lightness. I really couldn't imagine ordering one dessert each…Brad and I just managed to get it down between the two of us!

Whilst I have seen reviews that have said service has been a bit slow at the Black Toro, on this particular night, I didn't notice so much of that, but maybe because we were in the 6pm seating and they needed to make sure they got us out by 8:15? Drinks and food were all brought out quite promptly, and staff were efficient, but also quite friendly, it felt naturally speedy rather than rushed. 

Brad and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at The Black Toro and left with comfortably warm bellies, at a price I thought was quite reasonable. For all the food above, plus a drink each, it all came to under $100. Maybe if we had chosen a meaty main it would have been a bit more, but looking at the chicken on the table next to us…well…I was glad we hadn't. It was huge!

The Black Toro is a little, but welcome surprise and I'm sure if I was actually a local I would have popped by much earlier…and returned many more times….after all that frozen nutella parfait dessert with broken tres leches cake is surely calling my name….

79 Kingsway
Glen Waverley

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Sunday, July 28, 2013


Disclosure: I was invited to the launch, but returned and paid for brunch the same weekend :)

"I know you!" one of the boys working at a cafe blurts out to me, on the launch night, as the owner is introducing himself.

I look at him completely befuddled, but also with a searching look in my eye, as something was clicking but I wasn't quite putting it together.

"You've been to my house!" he beams and I proceed to look even more surprised (and wondering if I've unintentionally had any one night stands) until he mentions my friend's name, who happens to be his housemate and it all clicks. Look, he had an afro the last time I saw him and now it's all shaved off. Wasn't gonna click straight away!

We all have a good laugh and Sam and George, the owners of Stovetop Cafe get back to not just meeting me, but getting to know me and telling me about their backgrounds too. 

And just like that, I feel like I'm at home. 

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Stovetop recently opened their doors on Leicester Street, where they are a warm cuddle in the recently frightfully wet and windy weather. 

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I instantly fall in love with the decor, which feels very Scandinavian, with angles, clean lines and soft pastel touches against the light woodgrain. It's just so darned pretty. I particularly liked the 'house' that encloses their kitchen…after all, home is where the food is…right?

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Sam and George Seoud come well equipped, as a brother team, with a resume that includes numerous other cafes and hospitality joints. With Stovetop they wanted to nurture a culture where people can sit and socialise, feel like their part of the family and be accessible to their local market, uni students, with stovetop coffee, designed to be shared. 

And of course serve some banging good food. I attended the launch with Ricky, with the intention of going to get something to eat afterwards (as there's really never enough food at these things) but we both ended up being completely stuffed!

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We were spoilt with venison and speck sausage rolls with house made tomato relish, rolled up in sesame seeds which gave a lovely texture, sweet potato and chia latkes with baba ganoush (it's baba ganoush, do I need to say anything else?) and the most beautiful little mini beef and burgundy pies. Such flaky pastry with a hearty filling.

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What's also great is that just about all the condiments are made in house! The tomato relish with the sausage rolls, the mustard with the wagyu sliders, the onion jam on the quiche. It just translates to a whole lot of yummy. 

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Although we were pretty full by the time savouries were done, Ricky and I were totally eyeballing the dessert boards as they came out with brownies, caramel slices and other goodies. Emboldened by a glass of wine or two I loudly (and rather obnoxiously, sorry guys) gestured for the desserts to be brought over my way. Pronto.

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Ricky and I then pinched four cakey things to share between the two of us. So naughty. The chai spiced caramel slice was a rich treat, whilst the gluten free chocolate cake was surprisingly light, moist and just beautiful. 

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After leaving, I continued to salivate over the menu for the next few days, it was as if someone was constantly in my ear whispering 'cinnamon waffles…duck eggs…black pudding…baba ganoush'. So as the weekend came around, I knew I had to drag Brad along for a revisit, despite it hailing as we left the house, the gutters threatening to flood and my toes freezing over, we braved it all and were greeted with smiles and warmth. 

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Having just missed the brunch crowd, we had no problem grabbing a table and George came over to say hi. It's great when you know the owner is actually running around the restaurant, getting to know their clientele and doing some of the hard yards as well. 

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Good coffee (which I let sit for a little too long before taking a picture) and a beautifully brewed soy chai to start our day. I believe they use Prana Chai and I just loved how creamy the milk was, it gave a really nice full feel in the mouth and was quite rich in flavour as well. Definitely a contender for one of my favourite chai's in Melbourne if they keep this up!

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I knew I had to have the Melbourne Pantry black pudding with poached eggs, keisler fleish, braised cabbage with apple, pear chutney and toast (they've got a nice gluten free bread).  Ah. This is a gorgeously wintery brunch. Hearty but not heavy, the black pudding wasn't too intense in flavour (although I don't usually mind if it is) and the eggs were cooked perfectly. They were generous with the braised cabbage which was lovely with the hint of sweetness and helped not make the meal feel too heavy. Although there's no 'big breakfast' on the menu, this is probably as close as it gets to it…no complaints here! It's definitely a good protein hit!

Also totally crazy for that pear chutney. Yum!

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Brad surprised me with his choice of the sweet potato and chia latkes (which I had tried on the launch night), this time served with poached eggs, baba ganoush and a spot of rocket. I was quietly hoping he'd order the baked duck egg…but y'know…next visit right?

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The bite I had of Brad's plate was lovely. Gorgeous smokey baba ganoush, and a whole lot of texture going on with the latkes. There's a bit of crunch going on with the chia seeds and a gorgeously comforting sweetness, from the sweet potato obviously. Also knowing that chia seedsare a superfood, quietly made me feel like I should be out saving the world or something. Cause you know. That's what superfoods do. Right?

Although full by the end of our dishes, I was intrigued by Stovetop's 'Zuppa' and convinced myself that I could squeeze it in-between the cracks of everything I had eaten in my stomach already. 

So what is a 'Zuppa'? 

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Well take a mini toasted loaf, caramelised with brown sugar and make it all cute and what not, and pop it in a coffee cup.

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Give your customers a Moka pot filled with lovely, lovely gently fragrant coffee and a little bit of cold milk. Get them to pour both over the loaf.


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Although I don't drink coffee, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. I found the coffee with the milk so sweet, without a hint of bitterness which took me completely by surprise. George described it as a very light brunch-y take on a tiramisu, and really it is a great brunch 'dessert' option as it's not too sweet and not too heavy. I was surprised to see Brad really dig into it while I was taking a breather to digest. He will often just have one bite of something sweet and leave the rest to me…not in this situation!

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By 1pm or so, as we were heading to leave, Stovetop filled up with the lunch crowd. I expect that Stovetop will see busy days now university starting up again and students and teachers alike needing their coffee fixes. Although I was tempted by more sweets on their countertop, after the Zuppa, I was bursting, so will just have to pop by again another time I guess.

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So if you can't tell already, I really like what Stovetop are doing and I love that in just two visits I feel like I already feel like part of the family. Don't be put off by the rather hipster and slick looking website, there's a lot more soul waiting to be found here. 

100 Leicester Street

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Friday, July 26, 2013

America - Los Angeles - Accommodation and Tacos

How does one even start to write about Los Angeles? 

Whilst it's not my favourite city in the USA, it is still a very interesting one, with many layers, lots of different people and a bit of a glamorous facade which can be a bit hard to see through sometimes. It's one of those places where if you've been once, you don't really need to go back again. Whilst I pine for New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles doesn't really have a spot in my heart. However, I still liked getting to know the place again and whilst I may not want to revisit in the very near future, there's always a lot to say about it…!

Brad and I fortunately had a really great flight getting in, so we both arrived feeling fairly fresh and excited, after our 12 hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles. 

When we arrived, we had opted not to get a car, despite a lot of people suggesting that we do. This stressed me out enormously, as I of course wanted us to have the best experience that we could have, but by the time we added it all up, having a car for even just a couple of days was actually not that cheap, by the time you included a GPS. But as I mentioned previously, it all seemed to work out pretty okay since we factored enough time to walk almost everywhere (great way to work off all those cupcake calories…!)

So we took the LAX Flyaway bus, you have to wait under the green bus sign and wait for the right one (some go to Van Nuys) to Union Station ($7 each, you pay when you get to Union Station) and from there, rode the red metro line ($2.50 each) to the Vermont/Beverly station. From there, we had a solid 20 minute walk (in a straight line at least) to our hostel, Stay On Beverly. 

We walked by many Mexican groceries, Salvadorian restaurants (99c pupusas!) and mechanics on our way to the hostel. As we strolled through, since it was around 6pm, you could hear small mass's congregating and singing their hymns in Spanish. 

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It was kind of weird while walking down a rather wide, but empty sidewalk. Plenty of cars driving by, the odd kid on a skateboard, a cyclist or two and a couple of women doing their groceries, but for the most part, it was quite spread out and quiet. 

I loved the Stay On Beverly Hostel. A little bit obviously named perhaps (as it is located on Beverly Boulevard), but just perfect for our needs. This isn't your typical hostel, as there is no check in procedure, and we almost saw nobody during our stay in the hostel. You book in advance (obviously), and it's around $75 to $90 a night, depending on how many people are in the room. A few days before arriving, Bo, the owner, emails you two sets of pin numbers. One for the main door and one for your room. 

When you arrive at the property, which does a good job of keeping itself understated and not too obvious (if you are walking down the road looking for it, it's right next door to the Mobil gas station), you simply punch in the first set of codes into the keypad at the door and then the second lot for the room of your door and voila, you are in!

Bo is supposed to knock on your door to see your ID and credit card at some point in your trip, but because Brad and I were out pretty much everyday from about 8am until late afternoon, we never ended up doing this, which didn't seem to be a problem (I was half worried we would be kicked out). 

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Our room was very comfortable and very clean, with enough room for a double bed, some storage units, a desk and a little mini fridge. Bo provides complimentary bottles of water (which were replaced everyday) and towels. There are three bathrooms in the hostel, I was expecting a stall or communal type shower, but each bathroom was actually a full individual bathroom with a shower, sink and toilet, which was quite nice. We almost never had to wait to use these. 

What's also lovely, is that there's a 10pm 'quiet time' rule. If you're looking for a party hostel, this is not going to be your spot, but if you want somewhere quiet to get over the jetlag, here's your place! 

Stay On Beverly was situated in Wilshire, sort of wedged between Koreatown and a very Latin American part of town, and on a whole, a lower social economic demographic. Not that it was unsafe or anything, the area was great and I loved being fairly close (5 to 10 minute walk) to a variety of foods, supermarkets and convenience stores. 

What I did find interesting though, was that in the matter of a couple of blocks (although they are pretty big ones) you could see the landscape change completely from one that was a little grittier, a little unpolished, to one where the lawns are manicured, the cars a bit shinier and the sidewalk doesn't have a stain to be seen anywhere. This seemed to happen everywhere in Los Angeles, with the touristy areas coming across as somewhat plastic and unreal, and a little more character and grit, slipped in-between all the glitz. 

Which is why I was quite pleased we stayed in the area we were in and that we walked everywhere. You could observe these changes so much more and get a taste of both sides of Los Angeles, see a little more of that personality. Although we didn't quite make it into downtown, so I can't say I've really seen all of Los Angeles just yet. 

But anyway, back to more delicious tidings. 

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Taco trucks.

Goodness. When I punched in our address in Yelp, the options for taco trucks were endless! It was really interesting to see people comparing the trucks too, some were incredibly faithful to their favourites, but some people were far more open in trying out and endorsing as many as they could. It was a little overwhelming. I think I picked Chiqui's Tacos though because it was the closest, with the best rating. It was 'only' a block away, although it still took a good 10 to 15 minutes to walk to. Block's are freaking huge in LA!

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Chiqui's Tacos sets up shop everyday, quite faithfully, at the Melrose carwash on Melrose Avenue (obviously). What I love is that even though it's a truck, since they have a spot they show up at everyday, they actually set up a little awning with tables and chairs, so that you can effectively 'dine in' with them. Brilliant!

Walking up to the truck, I was so kind of nervous, how does one order from a truck? What does one order? Will I sound stupid if I ask what asada or pastor is? 

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So I kind of uh, just winged it. I knew I wanted tacos. I knew what chorizo was and I knew what lengua was and within a matter of minutes (maybe even just a minute) the guy inside the truck was calling me over to grab the tacos from him and head over to the table with buckets, BUCKETS of condiments. You want salsa? You can have ALL the salsa. Onions? Tomatoes? You can have it all. 

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I was a little shy to ask what everything was, so again, I just winged it, threw some stuff on to my tacos and sat down to experience my first $1.25 tacos in Los Angeles. 

Oh. My. God. 

How was I ever paying $6 in Melbourne? Maybe I was just slightly ravenous since we hadn't eaten for around 6 hours, or maybe I was just loopy since my body clock was a bit out of whack. Whilst both may have been true, I don't think either contributed really to the fact that these were just plain delicious. The chorizo with a gorgeous little bit of kick and the lengua not being overly chewy. I really enjoyed just how clean these both tasted as well, no cheese to be seen here. Just beautiful corn tortillas, a generous serving of protein and loads of beautifully fresh condiments at the ready. 

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Brad's a bit of a burrito man (Burrito Brad? Could be a new superhero), and loved that his burrito was piping hot, packed with beans and just overall really tasty. Again, clean but hearty. 

After realising we had only spend $7.25 on these things, we figured we had to try more.

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So an al pastor quesadilla it was! Al pastor meat is similar to a turkish donna kebab or greek gyros, where it's cooked on a vertical rotisserie and the meat is shaved off as required, usually it's pork, and man, is it delicious! Arriving enveloped in tortillas, you can just tell the marinade's been seeping into this for hours with all that colour and it comes through in flavour and texture, so tender and so juicy! Whilst the tacos sported no cheese, they certainly made up for it in the quesadilla which was just wrapped up in the stretchy, gooey stuff, but without going completely overboard. 

This generous serve (and believe me, it was generous) was a mere $6. Sigh. Sigh. SIGH. HAPPY SIGHS.

I also tucked into some homemade horchata, which I had been first exposed to at the Immigration Museum MELT festival preview. For $1.50 I got a huge cup that I filled up with the giant vat of horchata next to the truck. It was heavenly, heavily cinnamon infused deliciousness. Much spicier than I had had in Melbourne and rather filling, I struggled to get through all of it after all our food!

By the time we left, the other tables around us were filling with hispanic families, the young, the old, who were all laughing and eating away happily. I quietly eavesdropped on the Spanish banter and couldn't help smile at how beautiful the language sounded (wish I was good with languages!). It was a lovely atmosphere and a great way to start our trip. Actually, we liked Chiqui's Tacos so much, we even had dinner here before we left LA too! 

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After our scrumptious Mexican feast, we strolled over to the Biergarten, which wasn't far from our hostel either, where Brad and I discovered that American jugs are one litre and that American beers are…well very hoppy. I also discovered that I don't really like beer that hoppy. Which meant Brad got through about 700mLs of beer on his own. I got a glass down at least. 

We didn't eat at Biergarten, but the menu has a curious combination of Korean and pub food. Have some Kalbi in your quesadilla. Or a German fried rice (with german sausages and sauerkraut). I do kind of regret not tucking into some poutine…maybe for next time...

You know guys, I really wanted to give you a thorough but quick write up of Los Angeles. I don't think that's going to happen though. 

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So in the meantime, until the next post America post, where In-N-Out and Universal Studios will hang out, dream of this Reese's Peanut Butter ice-cream cup I found at the Mobil gas station next door to our hostel. Dream of it's sweetness, it's smoothness, of cold peanut butter and the crunch of the chocolate shell.  

If I could have I would have brought the lot home for you guys. Really!

4619 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles 90004

5080 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles 90004

206 N Western Ave
Los Angeles 90004

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mushroom Mania - Woodfire Cafe Pizzeria

Disclosure: This post has been sponsored by Australian Mushroom Growers for their 2013 Mushroom Mania campaign. Venue was of my choosing, meals paid for and as always, my opinions my own :)

My family rarely eats out as a unit. It's really only for special occasions, such as birthdays. There are several reasons for this. My dad travels a lot, which means he eats out a lot when he's away, so when he's home, he loves to cook and pop open a bottle of wine without the worry of needing to drive somewhere later. My parents generally both think eating out in Australia is too expensive (which it is really, but what else is one to do?) and my brother…well he's a bit of a homebody sometimes and is quite content to spend his evenings sewing away in his room.

However there are always two things I can guarantee my brother will leave the house for, with no special occasion attached. Anywhere that serves Japanese food, or gluten free pizza. 

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So when I told my dad that one night I was going to check out a pizza place in Ivanhoe with my brother, that did gluten free pizzas, I was quite surprised when he decided we should all go together! Well, that basically just means more pizzas to eat then, so no complaints there right?

We bundled into the car, crossed fingers that the traffic would have died down already and made our way to the Woodfire Cafe Pizzeria on Upper Heidelberg Road. 

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I was quite surprised how busy the little space was on a Monday night, with several large tables, which meant making a booking had been a decent move. 

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The restaurant was basic, but quite cute, with a couple of pictures and photos to liven up the white walls and exposed light bulbs. My dad liked the edges around the restaurant, where the menus are propped up, which he used for his glasses and iPhone, to keep them away from the mess that was going to be pizza later!

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We started our evening with a couple of mini arancini specials, one plate with bolognese aracini and the other with a pesto combination. We found these needed a touch of salt, and were a little on the dry side, but a good size as a nibble. 

But then it was on to the main event…pizza time!

We decided to get two gluten free pizzas and one with a regular base, as my dad was curious to see what the difference was like. 

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I naturally had to get the mushroom pizza, since it's Mushroom Mania month, with truffle oil, field mushroom, porcini mushroom, gorgonzola and fior di latte. Honestly, when I'm out for pizza, I almost always gravitate to a mushroom variety as my first choice. I just love the combination of cheese and mushrooms, it's so naughty, but since the mushies are so good for you, I don't feel as guilty munching away. The mushrooms were so sweet, especially with the generous dollops of fior di latte and were surprisingly not too oily. I also loved that the gorgonzola gave a nice savoury hit in small doses.  

My only complaint in general might be that I found the gluten free base a little bit wet, and had to resort to a knife and fork to at least get the middle of the pizza, but on the plus side, it wasn't too stiff or dry. It's a tricky balance with gluten free bases…

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My brother ordered the meat lovers pizza with napoli sauce, mozzarella, shredded ham, chicken, hot salami, Italian sausage, bacon and barbecue sauce. Goodness, it was an absolute meat extravaganza! Loads of toppings, although a bit on the sweet side, probably from the barbecue sauce. Loved the thinly sliced ham on this though..mmhmm. 

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Dad decided for the regular base he would order a Porco Porcini 2 pizza (I don't know what happened to number 1), with truffle oil, fior de latte, provolone cheese, Italian pork sausage, pancetta, porcini mushrooms and parsley. It wasn't quite as lavish with the toppings as the other two, but it was still well balanced. It looked much prettier than the other two! 

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Dad commented that the regular base had much more texture and flavour to it, that the gluten free base was missing. I had a nibble, and honestly, I didn't think it was that different, but he deemed the regular base superior (which it probably is, I'm just in denial). 

I thought Woodfire Cafe and Pizzeria made for a perfectly pleasant local, with people popping in for takeaways, but having a glass of wine before departing. The pizza bases as mentioned were a tiny bit on the wet side, but the toppings didn't feel too oily or too heavy at all. 

All in, it was a rather jovial impromptu dinner for my family, and we had a great time poking fun at each other, and brainstorming stuff for work (hey, when you work in the family, it happens all the time. Sigh). We ended our night with a quick visit to the supermarket to restock on important supplies (chocolate ice-cream and milo, of course) before bundling home and putting on the documentary about Bill Cunningham.

And just a little reminder for you guys, there's a great little (or big) giveaway going on as part of Mushroom Mania month! Make sure to check it out! Maybe you could use your restaurant voucher on a mushroom pizza too...hmmm?

91 Upper Heidelberg 

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