Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013 Food Highlights...

Goodness, what on earth happened to 2013? I've been so overwhelmed post-Christmas with how quickly it's reached the end of the year (and it's been a pretty crazy-busy end of year too) that I kind of gave myself a week off from writing or photo editing to veg out with my PS3 and Ni no Kuni, hence it's been a bit quiet around here! 

Even if you love doing something, every now and again you just need a recharge, y'know?

I did take the opportunity though to look through my past blog entries and also my vast collection of iPhone photos (I can't delete any of them, I'm such a hoarder), to look for my highlights from the year. In doing so, realising exactly how much I've eaten this year, and exciting things I've been able to do, kind of hit me in the face! I'm just flabbergasted!

It's definitely been a year of less fine dining and a whole lot more cafes. I'm still amazed everyday the number of cafes, restaurants, bistros, gastropubs, whatever you call them, that are opening. 

As I stated in my 2012 blog-iversary post, I hoped to do more cooking in the coming year, and I think I definitely have. Maybe not as many recipes on the blog as I was hoping for, but you got to start somewhere. 

So how on earth does one choose their highlights for the year? It's like picking children! 

Therefore in no particular order, here are my favourite dining experiences, dishes and general food moments from 2013…

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Holy crap, I can't believe that was just earlier in 2013. That I discovered amazing melting in your mouth lamb and pork in this Sydney institution. Although I initially questioned why Porteno was the only thing people would recommend when I asked for Sydney recommendations, I have now joined the club and enthusiastically shake people until they promise to go. Enthusiastically. Really.

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For some reason I feel like Hammer and Tong has been around for much longer than it has. It's settled beautifully into it's spot in Fitzroy, and it's definitely one of my favourite brunch spots in Melbourne, and they do a banging dinner as well. 

They also have given me one of my favourite brunch dishes, with this visually spectacular dish. Forest berries and dehydrated fruits, on a generous bed of a smooth yoghurt and custardy base. There were murmurs from the waitstaff on the day that it might become a regular on the menu, crossing fingers it will!

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Although it's not the sexiest looking dish on the menu, it was possibly my favourite thing at the Town Mouse. I just have no words. So much comfort, so much delicious. Sweet, savoury and cheesy. Yes, yes and yes.

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I was saying to friends the other day, that when Brad and I eat out, he'll often just quietly sit and eat, without his expression changing, whereas when I find something I like, I know I definitely pull out a food orgasm face and flail my arms around and make happy indistinguishable sounds at Brad who looks at me and either smiles in amusement or sighs in embarrassment. 

I definitely pulled that out when this came along in my life. Soft and gently charred meringue, coating a soft and fluffy lemon cake, with a heart of cool salted caramel and lemon curd. 

Now that Shuan Quade is with Long Shot, I think I might've seen this little sweetie pop up there...

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Craft - New York

I am the biggest Top Chef junkie you'll find. Top Chef is a US reality show, kind of like Project Runway but for cooking. I have faithfully watched every episode since I discovered the 3rd season (they are currently airing the 11 season, and have also had two dessert-centric seasons in addition to this)! 

So when I was in New York, I had to visit Tom Colicchio's restaurant, Craft. Colicchio is a judge and mentor of the show, and I had always appreciated his honest, firm, but fair feedback to the contestants. 

Craft is easily one of my favourite dining experiences, the food was simple, but sumptuous and I was completely bowled over with how smooth and professional service was. Definitely one of my top dining experiences this year.

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While we're on New York, I miss you Shake Shack, not for your burgers, but for your absolutely amazing milkshakes. Please return to my life. Peanut butter, black and white, all of you flavours, I want you. Love Ashley.

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What an expected gem, when I visited the launch party with Forksake I did not expect to enjoy myself as much as I did! A visit within a week after confirmed that I loved the food, the relaxed vibe and friendly owners. Black pudding, poached eggs, keisler flesh, braised cabbage with apple and pear chutney owns my life.

Also their chocolate gluten free brownies made with cashew butter. Um. Amazeballs?

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Jo and I concocted the 'Sunrise in your Face'. Do I need to say more?

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Not just any potatoes, but the ones in this picture. Oh my god. Melting in my mouth. Butter, why are you just so damn good? It was also so lovely to meet the man behind the name, who was so just so humble and lovely to talk to. 

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As one of the few non-coffee drinkers of Melbourne, I had an absolutely charming time with Mr. Twining learning about the history of tea. I must have easily taken 10 pages of notes, furiously scribbling as he patiently answered all of my questions. 

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Gelato Messina - Sydney - Leaf Leaf Bang Bang

Coconut and mango sorbet with pandan jelly. OH MY GOD. 

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Not having had much experience with Moroccan food before, I was absolutely enchanted by the clever balances of sweet and savoury in this cuisine. Lots of big flavours and bright colours and goodness, can we talk about the rosewater flan with dates and walnut nougatine? No actually, let's just go eat it. Mmhmm.

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Truffle me out

It's kind of amazing when you get together with friends and three of you bring a truffle cheese each. 

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Eschalot - Sydney - Onion Rings

I'm not sure if calling them 'onion rings' is doing them any justice. This mountain of wispy tendrils of onions are so much more than that. And despite being a mountain of onions, it's never, ever enough. My friends loved them so much, they tried to return the following night to get them takeaway to go with our home made dinner. 

They were denied. So sad.

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Photo credit: Ewen Bell

The King Valley

I can't believe how blessed I was to be afforded the opportunity to wine and dine in the King Valley with a handful of other food bloggers. The whole experience was just so amazing I can't single one thing out for this list. I mean, what would you choose from this list? 

- Making gnocchi with the Pizzini's
- Drinking prosecco in a prosecco vineyard
- Realising that geese are actually zombies
- Drinking in the Brown Brother's family cellar
- Drinking tea in the empty bathtub for the sake of a video
- Having an Italian man play the accordion as you eat his wife's homemade sweets
- Brunch in the Lindenwarrah courtyard on the most perfect sunny day
- Dancing with Veda
- Dinner with the Dal Zotto's…….
- ….the list goes on.

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Thank goodness for filipino friends. I have had the honour of being in the presence of a roasted pig that takes up the length of most tables…twice! The best party food ever! Now pass over some of that crackling...

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I don't often do 3 hour lunches. But it's okay when they're with the Town Hall Hotel in Stewart and Harry's company. Beautiful homely flavours executed beautifully, and a whole lot of baccala (Harry loves it, but who's complaining?)

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I miss $1.25 tacos SO much. Not only cheap, but quick and delicious!

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Trashy Tv Night

If you've seen the #ttvn hashtag floating around on my twitter and instagram feed now and again and wondered what it stood for…well wonder no more! Adrian, Wince and I realised we all had a love for trashy reality tv, we're talking 'The Real Housewives' series, 'RuPaul's Drag Race'…and well, so many more.

So we combined our love of trashy tv, with food and every couple of months had a little potluck, and spend a bit of time killing off the brain cells with quality tv. Good times y'all.

That's all folks! 

What a mad mad year huh? What were some of your favourite food memories from this year? And what have I missed out on this list that needs a mention next year?

I wish you all a very very Happy New Year! See you in 2014 :)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cafe Gaia

So how important is service to you when you're at a restaurant? Or even just a cafe, or a fast food place? 

It's a bit of an old age debate, and for me, whilst I don't expect (nor really want) silver spoon service, I do believe service plays a fairly significant role in how much I enjoy my dining experience somewhere.

Having said that though, I don't believe I ask for a lot, a smile, water when I sit down and friendly, observant service. Having done a bit of waitressing for 4 years during high school and university, I totally get it's not always easy to pull up a smile if your customer is a bit of a shit, and sometimes when you're getting slammed with covers that you're not able to clear away empty plates immediately, so I like to think I'm able to observe and see what stresses the staff may be under before I make any judgement on my end.

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When Brad and I visited Cafe Gaia, I'm tempted to say that I might have had some of the best service that I've ever had in a cafe. I know, bit of a big call.

Cafe Gaia is nestled down Avoca Street, just off Toorak Road in South Yarra, and you could quite easily walk right by it, as it's neatly camouflaged itself amongst the other residential houses in the area!

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On a cool Saturday morning, it was quite busy, with all the outside deck seats taken, despite the odd shower or two, but it only took a moment to have a table cleared away inside for us. 

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Inside, Cafe Gaia is light, bright and surprisingly spacious, with tables neatly set apart from each other, so you're not likely to be eavesdropping in on other's conversations (although I do admit to enjoying said activity).

I can imagine the cafe being quite pram friendly for the mothers, and the general clientele does nod a little more to women in their 2XU workout clothes, rather than the typical hipster in them skinny jeans. 

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Coffee for him, soy chai for me, as the rain fell outside, we couldn't be happier to have our hands wrapped around the lovely warm glasses. 

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Brad ordered the Egyptian eggs, poached eggs on a multi-grain toast with smoked ocean trout, avocado, Gaia's beetroot relish and dukkah. Just so pretty isn't it? I loved the colours. I hardly managed a bite in before Brad swiftly munched it all up, I love me a good beetroot relish though! My only tiny gripe might be that it's a little on the small side for an almost $20 dish, but it was certainly enough, at least for breakfast. 

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I went for a special, baked polenta with cauliflower puree, chorizo and a fried egg, and also draped with a few spears of asparagus, maybe a sneaky addition since it was in season at the time? No complaints here! The polenta was absolutely delicious, with herbs that were mixed through providing a nice boost in flavour. I also adored the cauliflower puree, which was so smooth and silky, adding a gentle and subtle sweetness. 

Again, maybe a little on the small side, but definitely enough for one meal! 

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So back to service, I couldn't help but just be immensely impressed with how Cafe Gaia worked. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what it was! I found the staff very friendly, but not overbearing, incredibly efficient, providing a nice pace for the meal (even if it was just brunch), and juggling all the other customers very well, without making us feel rushed, and also just being rather observant, quick to anticipate and pre-empt any needs a customer might have. They were hardly ever still, instead of waiting for something to pop up that they needed to do, they went and looked for things to do, which I think is always admirable. 

I felt comfortable, and looked after, but also given my own space. 

Sure, I've only visited once, but first impressions do make quite an impact, and it seems my thoughts are backed up by the number of regulars who popped by for their takeaway coffees, and similar comments on Urbanspoon. 

3/4 Avoca Street
South Yarra

Cafe Gaia on Urbanspoon

View I'm So Hungree in a larger map

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

America - New York - MoMA + Crack Pie + Pizza

After a couple of days in New York City with my cousins, aunt and uncles, Brad and I found ourselves with a full 5 days for us to explore New York on our own. 

We were dropped off at our hotel in Manhattan, The New York Manhattan Hotel (or NYMA Hotel for short). 

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Accommodation in New York, Manhattan in particular, is a riot. The average room price, for something fairly standard, is $300 a night, and if you're looking for something a little special, be prepared to fling your bank account off the Brooklyn Bridge and cry a million tears (precisely). 

Fortunately for me though, with a bit of detective work (and many many hours on Trip Advisor), I came across the NYMA Hotel, which on top of being relatively affordable in July (we paid about USD 1100 for 5 nights, so roughly $200+ a night), it was in an absolutely amazing location. 

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We found ourselves in Midtown Manhattan, just two streets behind the Empire State Building (our hotel was pretty much in it's shadow), with access to 3 different subway lines within one or two blocks, and also just a short 10 minute walk from Times Square, Madison Square Park and Grand Central. 

Oh and it's smack bang in the middle of Koreatown, so there's loads of food options until the wee hours of the morning (and the odd Asian couple or three stumbling home at 7am in the morning). 

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If it's your first time visiting New York? Highly, highly recommended. More than that, although our rooms were on the cosy side, the air-con worked incredibly well (very important in the heat of summer), the wifi was speedy (although no pirating allowed…oh, me pirate? What on earth are you talking about?), the room was clean and modern, and the bed was the biggest and comfiest thing ever. I honestly, could not have asked for more. 

Sure, in future visits now with Brad, I would definitely opt to stay in Brooklyn and just soak in more of the cool vibes going on down that way, but as most of our checklist of touristy things was in Manhattan, it made much more sense to be on that big little island. 

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After checking in and dumping all our goods on the floor (I've been dubbed a 'hurricane' by friends I've travelled with), we stepped outside to be greeted with a sprinkle of rain and a wave of humidity. 

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Although New York does have a great subway system, I made a stupid decision of not buying the 7 day passes, so we ended up walking just about everywhere and really, you kind of want to walk everywhere in New York as there's just always so much to see. Plus you also work off all those burgers from Shake Shack. 

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From our hotel on 32nd street, we wandered a good 20 blocks or so, past the Rockefeller Centre, to our first touristy stop. 

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MoMa, The Museum of Modern Art.

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Oh MoMa. How I do love thee. Despite visiting last time I was in New York, just three years ago, this was one of the places I was most excited to visit on our trip, and explore with Brad. 

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Despite a slightly hefty price tag (in my opinion anyway) of $25 per person, it's quite easy to spend hours and hours in MoMa, therefore making it worthwhile. Starting from the temporary exhibitions, often a retrospective, all the way through the permanent collections, which are absolutely ginormous. 

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I ooh-ed over the Futurist's work, like this gorgeous Umberto Boccioni piece, full of life and movement, loved this piece from Mondrian, which seems a little more playful than his signature coloured blocks, and swooned for Moet and Van Gogh's mastery with the brush. 

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It's really a beautifully laid out museum, and I adore watching the progression from one movement to the next, something in contrast, that I felt MONA in Hobart was sorely lacking. Although I understand they're both trying to do very different things.

Next on my agenda, was pie. But not just any pie. Crack pie. Momofuku crack pie.

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And oh! Brad! There's a Momofuku Milk Bar just three blocks up! What a coincidence…this wouldn't be planned at all….

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The Momofuku Milk Bar on 56th Street, is a tiny little store, dimly lit even during the day, with a purple sheen from the neon light. I was a little sad that the Milk Bar's no longer did the pork buns, but hey, with cookies, pies and sweet drinks galore, there's not a whole lot you can be sad about for very long. 

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Doggy bag in hand, we wandered up to Central Park, where we wandered past the street vendors into the green and found a nice bench for Brad to drink his coffee, and for me to discover the wonder of Crack Pie. 

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Did it live up to hype? I guess I really, really, really liked it, in all it's caramel, brown sugary goodness, without the sticky texture, but instead balancing perfectly between being dense and smooth. Plus it was still slightly chilled, so in the warm weather, it was a very welcome treat. Honestly, I'm not dreaming of it now (like I do of the shakes from the Shake Shack) but still, if someone was to pop it in my hand, by the time you counted to three it would have disappeared…like magic. 

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Although we are spoilt rotten in Melbourne with parklands everywhere, there's really something about Central Park that just removes you from the city. It's really a little oasis and just kicking back (even if you are with all the other tourists) and resting your feet for half an hour is so restorative. 

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Also there's just something so exciting about seeing squirrels. We really don't get a lot of them in Melbourne hey?

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Having observed Serena and I try on a few rings in Tiffany and Co. the day before, Brad then suggested we go back to pick up a ring I had fallen in love with as a belated anniversary gift. A little Tiffany and Co. from 5th Avenue. It's a little bit special isn't it? Especially as my hair matched the colour of the box then. Clearly meant to be. 

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On the way back to our hotel to rest up and freshen up, we made a small detour to Grand Central Station…somehow I had not popped by to visit when I was last here in 2010. Honestly, I have no idea what I was doing.

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We cleverly went when it was peak hour, and got caught up in the mass crowd of commuters, going to and fro, but I loved it. It gave this decadent, gorgeous old building so much life and energy, and it was such a luxury to be able to stand in the crowd that whizzed by and be able to appreciate all the little details, the little brass chandelier here, the star signs on the ceiling over there. Gorgeous. 

For dinner that night, I had found a pizza place in the West Village that served…wait for it…gluten free pizza. We of course, had to do pizza at some point during our stay, and so made our way down to Keste…but even at 8:30pm, there was a pretty healthy queue going on. 

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Not to worry though, we popped our names on the list and Brad watched me ogle over the sweets at Sugar and Plumm…conveniently located next door. It was like we had stepped into Willy Wonka, purple and all! One side of the store was selling gelato, and although I was very sorely tempted, I opted for a few brightly coloured macarons and a gluten free chocolate chip cookie the size of my face and an inch thick. Glorious. 

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30 minutes later, we were seated inside in a very squeeze, loud and awesome smelling restaurant. You could easily tell who the owners were, with a slight twang of Italian in the accent, and kissing friends on the cheek and gossiping with them loudly over their tables as they ate. The atmosphere didn't feel put on at all, in amongst all the chaos and squeezing past tables, it felt immensely Italian in here. 

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The restaurant was opened by Roberto Caporuscio, who was born and raised just outside of Naples in Italy, before settling in New York City in 2009 and opening Keste, where he serves authentic Neapolitan pizzas. 

Now, I've never had pizza in Naples, so I can't actually comment on it's authenticity, but it's definitely quite a different approach to pizza compared to what Melbourne's into at the moment. 

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Of course, we stupidly we make the mistake of ordering a pizza each, so we're both faced with giant plates, twice the size of our faces, with pizza. And not just any pizza. I'm talking, bit pillowy bases, loaded up with tomato sauce and lots of stretchy stretchy cheese. Despite me complaining about the size, that certainly didn't stop us from mopping up the lot. Oh dear.

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Brad had ordered the margherita (he's a bit of a classic boy) and I got the margherita with salami. Although my gluten free base was lacking the char and colour, and therefore some of the flavour, that the regular base had, I was still very impressed with the texture, and the lightness they were able to bring to the dough. Definitely nothing like cardboard, like you occasionally come across in Melbourne!

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Although service at times could be a little bit indifferent, we had a great time at Keste, and certainly did not leave hungry!  

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As we left, I noted many, many restaurants on the same street that I would have loved to visit, as I skipped over to investigate menus in windows, and check out opening hours, but alas, we would not find ourselves back in West Village again after that trip. Something I can only hope to rectify if I find myself back in NYC soon!

15 w 56th st
New York, 10019

Momofuku Milk Bar on Urbanspoon

257 Bleecker Street
West Village
New York, 10014

The Back Room at Sugar and Plumm on Urbanspoon

271 Bleecker Street
West Village
New York, 10014

Kesté Pizza & Vino on Urbanspoon