Friday, February 28, 2014

Bar Express Preview - Bomba, Whisky & Alement, Mesa Verde

Disclosure: I was invited on this Bar Express bar crawl by Little Big Marketing & PR

Since I've started writing the blog, for whatever reason, I always find myself out of town during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Not very well timed considering this past time now is it? 

The lunch and bar express have been some of my favourite things to do in previous years, as it's a really great way to get a taste of a lot of what Melbourne has to offer, without hurting the bank account too severely. 

So I was naturally then, super excited to be invited on a little preview of the Bar Express, with a crawl around a few of the establishments taking part this year. For $15, mixologists all over the city are charged with crafting a water-inspired cocktail, and even in just a few places, it was amazing to see the variety of ideas and directions that were taken!

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Our intimate group started the night at the rooftop of Bomba, a spot I had not visited yet (to my great embarrassment). It was naturally busy, but we managed to squeeze around the bar where we watched the Alice Klar (a play on 'Alles Klar' which in German means 'all is clear') be made in front of us. A bit of gin, blood orange syrup (made with fresh fruit), grapefruit bitters, Massenez Pomme Verte (French green apple schnapps) and a bit of lime combine to make a delightfully well balanced drink. A rather citrusy drink, the nip of acidity is delightful with a subtle hint of apple pushing it's way through as well. It's a very clean and easy drink, although I doubt after a few of these that 'all is clear'…

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We were also treated to a zucchini flower stuffed with goats cheese, that had been rolled in paprika prior, with crushed pistachios and a drizzle of honey. Oh me. Oh my. The honey and the goats cheese were just beautiful, the honey was beautifully sweet, it was almost like tasting it for the first time again. The touch of heat from the paprika was lovely too. 

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From the rooftops, with bright woods and a happy bustle, we then made our way to Whisky & Alement on Russell Street, hidden behind a dark curtain, you might think that you've disappeared into an underground hideaway. Painted mostly black, there's a touch of warmth from wooden stools and bar counters and a gentle kiss of light. 

Here at Whisky & Alement, they're loving the water theme for this year's MFWF, as the word whisky stems from the latin word aqua vitae which means 'water of life'. 

So whilst this could be translated into 'drink all the whisky', the boys have actually put quite a lot of thought into their 'Oog-a-dal' Julep. Oog-a-del is actually the name of a lake behind the Ardbeg distillery in Scotland, and they use their 10 year old Scotch Whisky, with a bit of sugar, and a bit of mint. 

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With the first sip, we all regaled and also puckered our lips as the strength of the alcohol came up to say hello. It's very much a sipping cocktail, as the strength of the whisky is gently mellowed out by the sweetness in the mint, and I could feel it quickly sneaking up to bring the flush to my cheeks.

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We finished our night at Mesa Verde, where naturally, we had to finish with tequila. Mesa Verde takes it's name from a town in the Western flick, A Fistful of Dynamite, and a gentle nod to that Western heritage could be seen, without coming across too tacky. There was a cool saloon feel to the bar, but fortunately no shootouts!

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We nibbled on delicious tortilla chips with guacamole, spicy chickpea and smoked cashew dips. Totally loved that smoked cashew, yahum!

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The cocktail on offer at Mesa Verde was the 'Chief Broken-Drought', loaded with Tromba Blanco, Ocho Curdao (a blanco tequila infusion), Del Maguey Creme de Mexcal, Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitters and a touch of thyme from their rooftop garden. Every time our waiter mentioned the garden he would break out of his hipster cool and smile broadly, it was lovely to see such love! We were also introduced to the cola herb, that smells just like cola when clapped between the hands…which becomes absolutely hilarious when you're a bit drunk. Our table must have looked like a pack of seals…

The Chief Broken-Drought makes for a nice digestif, smooth with a few chocolate notes lingering briefly at the back but a slightly salty palate as well…or so I think, my note taking by this point was not as efficient as earlier on in the night. 

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We also couldn't resist ordering a serve of the Patron XO Cafe creme brulee, which was not shy in it's coffee flavour and absolutely delightful in it's texture, smooth and creamy. 

So in total there are 21 bars offering water inspired cocktails (click here for the list), with everything from Hennessy to vodka. Since I'm not in Melbourne through the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, I'm going to have to leave it all up to you guys to explore and do all the drinking on my behalf…go on…you know you want to!

103 Lonsdale Street

Bomba Rooftop on Urbanspoon

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270 Russell Street

Whisky and Alement on Urbanspoon

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Level 6, 252 Swanston Street

Mesa Verde on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Rockwell and Sons - Fried Chicken

Goodness, things have been a bit quiet around here haven't they? Between my computer going away for repairs and my blog url getting hijacked by some rogue code, which decides to kick in on the day I head off overseas for a few weeks…well it certainly does put one behind a bit. 

For the past week I have been running around Thailand, shopping aplenty, climbing mountains and relaxing in very nice hotels, and later today will be popping off to Vietnam, where I hope to have a little more time to breathe and write, as I have been missing it. 

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So let me now cast your minds back to a month or so ago when we had that awful 40 degree heatwave week. Yes, I know it's a bit hard to think of that when you're sitting in rainy cool weather, but yes, Melbourne did that to you!

Not knowing what the weather held in store for us, I pre-booked a meal for Emily and myself at Rockwell and Sons. Naturally, it was none other than their infamous fried chicken. 

Having tried it previously when incredibly drunk at the Pinot Palooza last year, and then singing praises of it to Emily over other meals, she insisted that our next meal out together, we had to go have chicken.

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How fried chicken night works at Rockwell and Sons, is that you pre-order your chicken for a Wednesday night, $60, which can be shared between a maximum of 4 people, and you not only get chicken, but a little appetiser and a whole bunch of sides. So you basically just rock up, pick a drink and get fed. It's a pretty good deal. 

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So perched on stools in the front window, with a gin spiked lemonade and slightly sticky butts, eager for the whisper of a breeze that was passing through to come in, we awaited for the feast.

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We started with some devilled eggs, golden, creamy and a nice dosage of mustard, liberally sprinkled in bright green finely chopped chives. Whets the palate nicely for what follows. 

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Firm and crunchy pickles, a plate of cool and refreshing coleslaw and a bowl of deliciously cheeky creamed corn, buttery and smooth are delivered to our counter first, quickly filling up the limited space we had, before the behemoth of chicken is placed in front of us. 


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One whole chicken, brined for three days and fried in a buttermilk batter. 

And the result?

Pure deliciousness. Crispy and crunchy around the outside, I particularly love nibbling away at the stray pieces of batter trying to run away from the chicken, and juicy decadent meat on the inside. Nothing to dislike here folks. 

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I'm also absolutely crazy about the biscuits, stars in their own right, which come flaky and crispy, and when partnered with the creamed corn they become some perfect entity that should never ever be separated from each other. I'm amazed at how light they are texturally. 

Our serving of chicken is so impressive, a mountain of battered deliciousness, we have several enquiries from people sitting outside as to what we're eating, as they couldn't find it on the menu. 

Although I normally am happy to boast of my eating prowess, I have to admit, the mountain of chicken for two girls was a little bit too much, and fortunately, the fried chicken is the only thing on their menu that Rockwell and Sons will let you doggy bag home. Although I would recommend you eat as much as you can there, just because it's not quite the same once reheated at home…If I came back, I would most definitely bring at least 3 people, but I feel like the chicken would be most comfortably shared between four people, if everyone gets two pieces each…but I guess you could also be a gut like me and do 3…and then swear off fried food for the next month (although everyone knows that only really happens for a few days)!

288 Smith Street

Rockwell and Sons on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

America - July 4th in New York

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I love Jay-Z and Alicia Key's passionate tribute to New York, with "Empire State of Mind", but despite having been to New York previously, hadn't made the trip up the famous building where a giant monkey is said to have fended off aeroplanes. 

And I honestly can't fathom why I didn't.

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So on July 4th last year, Brad and I woke up and walked two blocks to the Empire State Building. Although we had planned to get there early, we ended up sleeping in and didn't get to the building at around 10:15am…and blessed we be…there was literally no queue!

Within minutes we were zipped up elevators, paying for tickets (a little hefty at around $25 a person), scanned through security and sent up more elevators.

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The observation deck was already pretty packed, but that doesn't take away from the breathtaking views when you're up there. You really appreciate the concrete jungle from so high up, it's layers, the levels, it's texture. 

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My favourite view was easily down south, which finished with the newly constructed Freedom Tower at the end, next to where the twin towers used to stand. 

So don't be a dummy like me and assume it's an overhyped tourist attraction, because it's certainly not, and if you can get in early, or on a public holiday, you're bound to have a pretty pleasant time. 

We then made our way down to Coney Island, for none other than Nathan's Famous hot dog eating competition.

Although the concept of an eating competition is rather grotesque to both Brad and I, it's also one of those things we felt we had to at least see while in America, so why not one of the biggest? 

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Set up right outside the subway station, 45 minutes prior to the event beginning, it was already packed out, and super duper hot. Phew!

It was such a bizarre phenomenon to be a part of. The throng of people cheering, yelling, hollering at their favourite participants, counting down until the start of the bread balling, hot dog munching event. 

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In the 10 minutes of furious eating, score girls flipping cards to keep track of how many hot dogs each person ate, I learnt that the competitive eating of hot dogs is a pretty gnarly and grotesque affair. Competitors generally separate the hot dog from the bun, balling up the bun and dunking it in a glass of water, while scoffing the hot dog down, followed by this soggy mess of bread…which just results in a very not attractive look. 

And although it's all a bit of a hot mess, like a car crash, you just can't help but watch once you're there.

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The winner, Joey Chestnut, beat his own world record this year by hot dog, consuming a total of 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes. 7 hot dogs and buns per minute (roughly). Judge as you will.

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Although you might think you would be put off from eating hot dogs after watching the competitors go at it…for whatever disturbing reason, we weren't, so went to try Nathan's Famous hot dogs, along with everyone else. Although the hot dog itself didn't really impress me, I was kind of all about those cheesy fries. So good yet so bad. 

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Between the two of us we also got the biggest serve of lemonade, just out of curiosity more than anything, and we only managed to get through half of it before admitting defeat. I can't imagine how anyone manages one whole one on their own!

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The rides at Coney Island happened to be closed on this particular day, due to one of the rides having issues with the high winds, so we meandered down the boardwalk, watching the people play on the sand, leaving the little empty shops on the boardwalk completely abandoned. In a way it was quite nice, as I can only imagine how busy it might have been if the fair was actually open!

We spent the latter part of the afternoon recovering, before heading back out to the Hudson River to the public viewing areas for the Fourth of July fireworks. 

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We probably head out a bit too early, getting our spot by about 6:30pm or so, but also heard a bit closer to the fireworks going off at 9pm that they had closed off the entry we had gone into. 

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After a couple of hours of waiting around, the fireworks were nothing but spectacular, lasting far longer than I could have ever imagined. All colours, with bursts bigger than the trees, and a couple of fun novelty ones that popped out rings from them to look like Saturn. 

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It was a great vibe, a lot of fun and I was quite surprised how well behaved everyone was, particularly as everyone walked out together after the fireworks finished, a migration of people in search of sustenance and more fun. We wrapped our night relatively early, with a ginormous slice of pizza, about the size of Brad's face, and a couple of hoppy beers in a sweet little pub nearby our hotel. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Northern Light

Without really knowing anything, who the chef was, the concept behind the food or what to expect, but only a quick glance on the menu online and one or two Instagram pictures of gorgeously crafted dishes, Northern Light still somehow called out to me, a shining beacon pouring fresh light into a previously, very well loved space. 

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Residing where the famous Gigibaba once was, Northern Light keeps the decor simple, a few exposed light bulbs (the same as the one in the logo), brick walls and a long cool bar. The small space means it's filled out pretty quickly, but I'm assured that there are a few people on desserts when we arrive late in the evening, as a cool change rushes in, so it shouldn't be too long. I give my number and we skip over to Mr. Wow's Emporium for a spot of imbibing. 

Sooner than Caryn and I could finish a glass of wine, we get our call and scurry back where we are perched up along the bar. 

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I've come to love a good spot along the bar, especially when you have such accommodating and friendly waitstaff, who you end up joking and gushing over food with and never get their name (oops, I'm so terrible!). 

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Now that I've visited, I still struggle to explain what the menu's like, as it's unfair to call it Japanese, as people immediately envision sushi and rice bowls, or associate it with any particular Asian cuisine, and although these sort of fusion flavours are often referred to as Modern Australian, it's unfair to call it that too.

The chef, Adam Liston, has littered his menu with a variety of small sharing plates, showing heavy Asian accents, no doubt influenced by his two years spent in Shanghai (how fabulous). 

We contemplate pickled squid and charred skewers. Even congee makes an appearance on the one page menu, but fortunately dining with Caryn is usually a pretty exercise since we both tend to gravitate towards the same flavours. And after a few recommendations from over the counter, our menu is set. 

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We're surprised with a couple of oysters. Although small, they were cool, plump and intensely sweet. The addition of rice wine and finely chopped shallots was an elegant but exciting addition, moreish, leaving us licking our lips.

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A golden egg follows, caramelised and blanketed by a flurry of fried shallots, and a shower of furikake. These are served as individual serves, and although the menu is generally designed to share, it's one of those dishes where you need one portion to yourself. The yolk is oozy, and I love the crunch from the shallots, it's surprising, but not at all unwelcome. The furikake adds something familiar, sesame and seaweed giving a nice umami hit. 

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I'm almost reluctant to eat the unagi with squid sauce, salted grapes and mojama (shaved tuna belly), as it's just so beautifully plated. I've always loved the meatiness of unagi, but here it's so delicate, an essence of the ocean and almost refreshing as it's served room temperature. The sweetness of the grapes is just beautiful as well and the aroma of the mojama is completely addictive. 

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One of the specials of the night is fried chicken with tonkatsu (plum) sauce, togarashi (a 7 chilli spice) and fresh cut chillies and spring onion. These made me so sad…that they weren't a regular on the menu! A light and crunchy batter encases moist and juicy chicken, with one hell of a chilli punch, we need to take a break to let it boil on the lips briefly before going back for more. 

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A generous plate of edamame, bean curd, chilli and gai lan is a refreshing reprieve from the spice, clean and light on the palate. I loved the texture of the edamame, firm and springy. 

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We were so enthusiastic to get into chilli crab, with XO onions, celery and coriander, I forgot to take a picture before we started getting into it! So here's a half eaten picture instead, hehe! 

Our waiter tells us of a customer who visited and said her least favourite dish was the chilli crab…simply because it was too much work. This made us all very sad, as the joy is in the work, getting your fingers slathered in the XO goodness, intermingled with a nice bite of acidity and the soft and sweet crab meat. There's a nice chilli kick too (as the description might imply).  

As we think that we just can't eat anymore, the XO still tingling in our mouths, the prospect of dessert floats around and…oh…what a surprise! There's space for more.

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Yuzu curd, covered by a light and short sable and with white chocolate shavings is just beautiful. With each spoon, the three components just melt into one zesty, sweet mouthful, creamy and oh so smooth. 

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I can't tear my eyes from the broken ice cream sandwich, which is deconstructed to look like some post modernist sculpture. Although I've read of a green tea ice-cream sandwich previously, on this particular night we were given a chocolate sable with chocolate mousse, vanilla ice-cream and salted caramel. Oh my. I'm struck and smitten with the richness of the cocoa in the sable, learning that it's made with 98% cacao product and no sugar. It's super intense, but balanced well with the light vanilla and the hit of salty caramel. Yes, yes and yes.

Caryn and I were bowled over with how reasonable the bill was, considering we were both super stuffed and had such a lovely night. Service was flawless, smiles, gentle encouragement (to order everything) and so much warmth. I felt like I was part of the family and just can't wait to get back. Northern Light should definitely be on your list this year, not only to watch, but to eat at as well (duh) and given priority, with it's lively and unique approach to traditional flavours. 

As Rob told me on twitter: You must run, loved it! 

102 Smith Street

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