Monday, April 28, 2014

Bar Nacional

Quality food. Docklands. 

Not usually uttered together in the same sentence, but with the development of the Collins Square precinct, they're starting to make it happen. I know, hard to believe, but they're showing us it can be done. 

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Case in point, Bar Nacional, bringing a Spanish flavour to the area with a selection of tapas and happy hour Tempranillo (that's something we can all agree on right?)

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I will admit, when I arrived to meet with Ricky for dinner, the space confused me a bit. From the tram strop right outside, it's not entirely clear where the restaurant is and where the entry is. Once found, the slick and modern space, with a mixture of rich textures is all very smart, the floor plan a seemingly sitting between being a bar and a restaurant. Then I see the mounted deer head against the angled wood and black metal at the back of the restaurant and wonder if I am in fact actually in a Swiss chalet somewhere? 

But that's just me being quizzical more than anything, and perhaps I'm missing a reference to the tapas bars of San Sebastian that are the inspiration for Bar Nacional, since I have not been there myself (something to put on the bucket list now I suppose!)

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The menu reads a treat and with such reasonable pricing following everything, it's kind of hard to not just order the whole menu (one of these days I'm going to go somewhere and do that though…!)

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We start with some small, but very plump oysters, doused in a jamon vinaigrette, slightly zingy but incredibly moreish as well. 

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I feel it would almost be a crime to not indulge in a serve of jamon serrano when out in a tapas joint, which followed up nicely after our jamon vinigaigrette-ed oysters. Sliced so finely, it was a treat. Next time I may have to try out the Jamon joselito that has been cured for 4 years to see the difference…

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It's quite refreshing to see a croquette filled with something other than jamon, and with broccoli being my favourite vegetable since childhood, I am swift to order a charred broccoli croquette each. Perfectly golden spheres, with a lovely rich nutty flavour, I quickly wished I had ordered more!

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I can never turn down morcilla, and at Bar Nacional it was served with watermelon chutney and ribbons of fennel on the side. Oh my. The morcilla is crumbed, giving a lovely crisp casing around the spicy black pudding, got a bit of kick there! The sticky chutney to me was an interesting texture contrast, but not unwelcome at all, the sweetness rounding off the richness of the morcilla. 

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Easily my favourite dish of the night though, was the chicken liver parfait, with an adorable mini loaf of brioche and a grapefruit puree. The butteriness of the brioche was apparently immediately, with one slice pre-cut to demand your attention straight away. The richness of the parfait completely floored me, with it's sensually smooth texture, effortlessly gliding from knife over the brioche. The way it swirled with the grapefruit puree absolutely amazed me, the sweetness of the grapefruit puree gorgeously complemented the rich and ballsy flavour of the parfait. 

I was somewhat devastated when I realised we had run out of bread and still had parfait left…but plates are made to be licked...right?

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The smoked flathead on olive wood with eggplant puree makes quite a statement, with a solid slice of wood as a stage, and comes out with just the most delicious aromas. Perfectly cooked, the fish was just delicious, but a bit of a pain to eat as there are about 1 million little bones in there (my count may be off by a lot). The eggplant puree is simply delicious. 

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Just as we think we could burst, we're treated to a serve of the crispy pig head, with carrots and horseradish. I marvel at the colour of the pigs head, that's been rolled up in balls and ever, ever so lightly crumbed and fried. This results in one of the juiciest balls of meat I've ever had, a nice balance of meat and fat. The delicate and sweet carrot puree gently intwines it's flavour in the richness of the meat, adding that extra layer of complexity. 

The greedy in me then decides we need two desserts. Since there are two of us it only makes sense…right? 

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We order the Tocinillo de Ceilo, which translates to Heavens Bacon, out of curiosity since the dish sounds completely amazing after it's explained to us. Apparently a very classic Spanish dish, back in the day they used to use egg white to preserve Sherry, which meant that you were left with a lot of egg yolks afterwards. Nuns would take these leftover egg yolks and with pig fat, combine the two to make this rich and decadent dessert. It's bacon and eggs, made into dessert. What?!

So excited were we that I forgot to take a photo of the full dish! Oops!

Accompanied with slivers of caramelised polenta, popcorn powder and fried corn husks, little did we know what we were getting into. This sucker was rich  and heavy. Sink to the bottom of your stomach heavy. But oh my goodness it was so delicious, it has this very dense texture requiring a bit of force with the spoon but is so incredibly smooth as well. A must try (if it's still around), but don't be silly like us and get another dessert as this will definitely close up the shop!

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Our second dessert was the chocolate liquid cake with lemon marmalade ice-cream, which we definitely struggled through after our first! It is simply everything you want it to be, the cake moist, dense, oozing with rich dark chocolate, and the lemon marmalade ice-cream being a delightful contrast, adding a lightness and balancing out the rich. 

I definitely struggled home that night, my warm and joyful belly just about at bursting point! 

So now I do the unexpected and say that Bar Nacional is bringing quality food to the Docklands, hopefully the first of many. And although I'm not personally totally sold on the space itself, it's still perfectly fine and a parfait like that? I'd happily eat that anywhere. 

727 Collins Street
Docklands, 3008

Bar Nacional on Urbanspoon

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Cecconi's Flinders Lane

Disclosure: I was invited to dine as a guest at Cecconi's launch

I'm not going to lie. I love a good party. Give me a reason to put on a pretty dress, some gorgeous heels (which all the men complimented, which I take as a sign of a successful shoe buy), eat delicious food in great company and I'll be there with the bell and whistles on (and the compulsory slick of eyeliner). 

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When Cecconi's celebrated it's relaunch, with some tweaks to the interior and a fresh new attitude, they ticked all the boxes, and threw one hell of a great dinner. 

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Arriving a touch late (quite out of character for me), after descending the stairs in a bit of a huff and a puff (it gets quite hot stomping around the city in heels on a warm night), I was quickly greeted with a timely aperol spritz and lounged against the cool marble counters, catching my breath. 

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I had previously visited Cecconi's 3 years prior, and although the interior had had a revamp, introducing some warm copper tones, and a contrast in textures throughout the restaurant, it still retained all the charm that I recalled from last time and quite a presence, a surprisingly large space just neatly tucked away underneath Flinders Lane. 

Although contemporary, there's still an immensely warm atmosphere to the place making it so incredibly inviting.

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Or maybe we can say it's also inviting partly due to the friendly waiters coming around with nibbles a plenty to get the appetite in gear. Sweet corn veloute's, perfectly pan seared scallops on fancy spoons and absolutely lush round croquettes, perfectly crisp on the outside and all comfort on the inside. It was just a small preview of what was to come. 

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In an incredibly active and ever evolving dining scene, it's impressive to stop and think about Cecconi's, bringing a touch of classic into a dining scene that continues to push for fast and easy casual dining and seeing it evolve to adapt to that, but not without losing it's character, the importance of feeling looked after and simply beautiful food. It's just simply classic Melbourne. 

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Perhaps because it's still family owned, the Bortolotto's bring their personal touch, with family photos on the wall, cutlery hanging around the kitchen (as if it were their own...which I suppose it is really) and a mad passion for beautiful produce. 

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Our night started with an entree of mushroom risotto with generous, generous shavings of black truffles, with parmesan and truffle oil. Oh my. Talk about spoiling us early on! I had to pick my jaw off of the table when I saw and smelt all that truffle. One can't help but wave their hands about frantically, like an animated Italian man, scooping the aroma up into the nose. Earthy and rich, with a lovely al dente texture to the rice, Cecconi's certainly started the night in a serious way. 

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We followed with a Chatham Island blue cod with confit tomato, fennel, fried zucchini flower and aged balsamic. The zucchini flowers had been sourced from the Bortolotto's own garden, and battered with a restrained hand, resulting in a delightfully light and crisp texture. The fish itself was beautiful as well, perfectly cooked and well seasoned, the fennel pushing through to add a spark of freshness and contrast. 

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I'm always impressed by an open kitchen, having previously worked in an Asian restaurant as a waitress, I've seen a kitchen at it's busiest, with shouting and clanging and all sorts of commotion happening out back at peak hours. Yet at Cecconi's they worked like a well oiled machine, purring away smoothly. 

And it's so, so clean and shiny. Amazing.

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A reprieve from the lovely and ethereal Emma Birdsall, who had been on the first season on the Voice (love that show), who serenaded us with some classic tunes and it was onto course number three. 

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And oh my, what a course. Twice cooked duck, with sweet potato puree and lime. Simple on paper, relatively humble in presentation, but just glorious in execution. The duck was so plump, and so tender, with perfectly crisped skin and that sweet potato puree? Like an orange cloud, so smooth, with not a blemish to be seen. I could have eaten two more servings of just the sweet potato alone…

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I then however, saw that the mushroom risotto serve that the vegetarians were getting as mains, and almost had food envy. Almost. I mean, how can you almost not when it's across the table from you tempting you with it's lovely fragrance? 

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Whilst close to bursting, there's always, always space for dessert and the modest serve of caramel pannacotta, with wild fig cake and macadamia ice-cream did just the job. Layered beautifully in a little glass, the mix of textures, and balance of sweetness was just right, leaving my sweet tooth happily satiated. 

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But then…cheese. Just because you don't say no Mr. Pecorino, Tallegio and Roquefort now do you? 

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I left that night in gloriously good spirits and a determination to make my next visit sooner than my last! With amazingly personable and genuine service, wonderful food and some great wines to match, with the 2010 Bellvale 'Athena's Vineyard' Chardonnay from Gisspland being a surprise favourite with it's restrained character, and flowery notes (Chardonnay is usually far from being my favourite grape), I absolutely can't wait to be back (especially while it's still truffle season)!  

61 Flinders Lane
Melbourne 3000

Cecconi's Flinders Lane Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 21, 2014

Belated Sydney Recap

This year's been pretty crazy so far. I've started a new job, which I'm enjoying heaps, been running around like crazy trying to keep up with the blog, and have had a few other little projects on the side to continue work on. I honestly feel like I'm so luckily at the moment that I come home exhausted, and still find myself with more to do, that my life is so bountiful with activity that I'm almost on that precipice of exploding. All in a good way though. 

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But who could have anticipated this last year at all? I remember towards the end of last year, I was getting anxious. I enjoyed helping my dad at work, but was worried I was not getting as much growth as I should be, and that I would never really find what it was I wanted to do (as we all do sometime in our 20's right?)

But sometimes you just need a moment in life that ends up being a catalyst, a doorway to many more things, when the brain switches on and figures out an action plan that's executed and that ends up being much more than you may ever anticipate. 

Last year in November, I spent about 5 days in Sydney, as the group of friends, my forum, who I see a few times a year, was going to all congregate in Australia for the first time in 3 years. We normally meet in Asia. 

I got in early and crashed with my friend in Potts Point, which was a much cuter area than I had ever anticipated (I mean, it does border Kings Cross…), and was also amazed about how short a drive it was to the airport…why is Melbourne's airport so far out?!

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After settling in for the afternoon and getting some admin sorted out, I ducked out to Ms G's with my friend Ben for a dinner catch up. Ms G's had been one of those places where I had been drooling over the online menu endlessly, and may have even considered making a trip up just to visit.

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I was not disappointed, with delightful cocktails and those lamb ribs, where the meat just slipped cleanly off the bone. Those lamb ribs that are sticky, sweet and all things nice. Heaven.

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I also finally got to have that dessert, the 'Stoner's Delight 2.0', which I somehow managed to eat all myself. Considering it consists of a doughnut ice-cream, peanut butter, raspberry jam, candied bacon, potato chips, mars bars slice and banana fritter…it all comes out rather elegantly plated and looking a lot fancier than the name might imply (won't lie, was kind of expecting a mountain of danger to be popped down in front of me). 

Not to be missed, is all I can say!

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The next morning, I picked up my Thai friend Andrew from the airport, and we made our way down to the Bird and Bear Boathouse for a little morning coffee and treat. It was so cute, even on an overcast morning, just looking out over the water brought a sense of peace. I don't know where they get their almond croissants from, but they are delicious!

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Although I offered beaches to my friend, I was most intrigued when he said he wanted to walk through the gardens, as in Thailand, they're a bit of a scarce, whilst beaches are found a plenty. So our afternoon was spent getting lost in the botanical gardens, and doing the touristy rounds of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Even in a place one knows, there's such a nice freedom to allowing yourself to be surprised and amazed, and look around through the eyes of a tourist. 

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Lunch that day was at the Fish Shop (original name much?) where the fish serves were a little on the light side, but fully delicious. Sydney oysters did not disappoint either. 

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I might have also loved the chalk for the tables that you could draw all over on, kind of go a bit crazy with that kind of stuff!

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The next day we were blessed with sunny weather, so after picking up another friend from the airport (this one was from Vietnam), we made our way to Bondi to breathe in the ocean and wiggle our toes into the sand. I'm always amazed at how beautiful Bondi actually is every time I see it, as if I expect it to be less beautiful now that I have seen it before, but the white sand and deepest of ceruleans always melts my heart. 

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That night, after being verbally abused about my driving skills, we had dinner at Cafe Sydney, which I had been very much looking forward to, with many raving reviews of the view and the food. Although the views were definitely outstanding and breathtaking with the lights twinkling away on the bridge, I couldn't help but feel I had a rather sub-par experience at Cafe Sydney. 

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Food was alright, but not great, with nothing that really wowed us, or left a statement, on the table. So much so, that we didn't bother to stay for dessert, which is most unusual of our group. Not only that, but I felt such a coldness in the service, no smile, no welcome, and a rather curt tone. And if you needed to flag someone down for water or to order more food? Good luck with that. 

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As most night's do in Sydney, instead of dessert at Cafe Sydney, we found ourselves at Gelato Messina where happiness quotients were once again met with 'Elvis the Fat Years' which had brioche, peanut butter and bananas or something else whimsically fantastic. Messina you do it so well. You keep doing you.

The following day, we attended a workshop called 'Inside 80' which looks into what your lifestyle pace is and whether that's in line with what you need to do in your day to day, and how you can make that work for you so that you're smarter and more efficient with your time. It was a great workshop, as it looked into balancing not just work, but tying in nutrition, wellbeing and external work factors as well and started turning the cogs of what I needed to do with myself to get myself into a different space in my life. Highly recommended for personal, or career development. 

It was time to get out of the city. We piled into two cars, with fresh flaky hot beef rolls from Bourke Street Bakery, and drove around 2 hours out into the Southern Highlands for a getaway, where my friend had booked a house for all of us to share while we were there.

Woah. Talk about soul restoring.

Off the main road, we had to take a short dirt road to the house, surrounded by trees and with hardly any phone reception anywhere (a big thing these days right?)

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The Seidler House greeted us in all it's glory, with it's soft curved lines, that extended over the hillside and rock formation it was built into and into the valley with an absolutely breath taking view. The Seidler House was the private home of Harry Seidler, one of Australia's architectural masters and one of the last houses he designed and built. A slice of modern and comfort in amongst the wilderness. Just how I like it personally. 

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It's the perfect getaway for a group of friends (we were a group of 6), with all the creature comforts of a modern kitchen and barbecue, generous swimming pool and very plush and comfortable beds. 

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And those sunsets. Oh my soul. 

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Dinner the first night in the Southern Highlands was at the nearby Eschalot, which was possibly the best meal we had that trip. Tucked away in a cute little house, there's a simple and relaxed charm to the place, despite the more formal indicators of the white tablecloth and smartly dressed waiters. 

I wish I could tell you everything we had, but as this visit was over 6 months ago, I'm a little lacking on information, but I can tell you the food was immaculately presented, rich in colours and flavours and on a whole, just divine. 

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A cucumber sorbet with a crisp of basil on sweetcorn was the perfect amuse bouche to whet the palate and kick the tastebuds into gear. 

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I was enamoured with the gorgeous vegetable medley, but the clear favourite was the scallops, which were so popular that a second serve was ordered, and the boys drove out the following night to try and get it take away (and were rejected). 

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Meat was exquisitely blushing, and those onion rings, those onion rings drove me mad. So much amazing. 

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Back at the house, the family sitting area comes with a fire place, in which I made amazing roaring fires (MacGyver over here), and we had intense, intense games of taboo that were fuelled with Clonakilla Shiraz's and whisky. Much yelling and verbal abuse was had, but all in all, a lot of fun. 

Our last full day was spent entirely at the house, where I woke up at 6am to sunlight squeezing in through the cracks between the blinds. 

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Creeping out of the bed and to the front of the house, I was then treated to the valley still sleeping, with it's foggy blanket drawn up over it. There's absolutely nothing like sitting on the edge of the balcony (if you can call it that), breathing in the cool crisp air and centring yourself, with the gentle sound of cows mooing in the background as the layers of fog slowly peel off and the green foliage stretches it's way up. 

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I could definitely have gotten used to this breakfast set up a lot more. 

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This group of friends that I travel to meet 4 times a year for our forum, are well dressed jet setters, with occasionally expensive tastes, but bring us all together in a house for a few nights and put together a few meals, with our own hands, and you lose all of that completely. It's amazing how bonding an experience cooking is, and also incredibly funny how many of the boys who professed to not being much good in the kitchen at all, so were all put on dishwasher duty instead. It's a grounding experience, and one that we all can't wait to repeat again and again. 

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In an environment like this, a playfulness is unleashed, an abandonment to what society thinks you should be like and an acceptance of being just you. Paper aeroplanes, Fred Astaire by San Cisco blaring at 9am as an alarm and new found nicknames for everyone (almost). 

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It was with much sadness that I left the next day, reluctant to leave this space that allowed for a brief disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the world. 

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But how sad can you be when you turn down the wide and leafy entrance to Milton Park, with it's lush gardens and quaint English countryside feel. 

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You could have been transported. Who knows? 

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The Orangarie with it's high ceilings and pared back chateau atmosphere is a charming spot for lunch, serving up a concise but beautifully crafted menu. I drooled over my friend's onion soup, and swooned over buttery scallops with black pudding and a perfect serve of duck that was surprisingly light and almost refreshing. 

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After this trip, with my head reconnected with my being, I felt restored. It was just marvellous. And with my confidence restored that I could do what I needed to, opportunities started falling into place, the way it does in the movies. 

Who says good food and good company can't be life changing? 

155 Victoria Street
Potts Point, NSW

Ms.G's on Urbanspoon

1 Ithaca Road
Port Jackson, NSW 

Bird and Bear Boathouse on Urbanspoon

22 Challis Avenue
Potts Point, NSW

The Fish Shop on Urbanspoon

31 Alfred Street
Sydney, NSW

Cafe Sydney on Urbanspoon

24 Old Hume Highway
Berrima, NSW 2577

Eschalot on Urbanspoon

1 Horderns Road
Bowral, NSW, 2576

Hordern's on Urbanspoon