Farewell, and moving on

This will be my final words here at Capital Gourmand, as I am now situated a long way from the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. I am, instead, in London, hoping to find a home and job shortly.

Thanks for reading over the years, even through the times when I wasn’t posting a lot. I’ve had some great times. The US trip was probably the highlight, but winning the Eat Drink Blog competition is up there too.

If you want to keep reading me, follow my London adventures at the-raw-prawn.com. And enjoy!

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The Perks of Being a Lone Diner

One is the loneliest number, as Three Dog Night once said. When it comes to eating out, far too many people seem to believe them.

But I don’t buy that. As someone who dines alone quite regularly, I can tell you that it is not the miserable, lonely experience that those looking on with pity think it is.

Admittedly, generally I go for a solitary meal because I’m too disorganised to find if any friends want to come, but the point remains. I honestly enjoy eating alone, and once people get over the initial awkwardness, I think most who try it feel the same.

For those of you who haven’t, though, I can understand if you need a little nudging. So here are my four top reasons for going solo. Consider this me pushing.

1. Slipping into the corner

The whole no booking thing has got pretty big. Long lines that snake out doors, or giving your number and hoping the phone will call are just a part of modern dining. And it can sometimes be a pain.

It is a simple fact, though, that one person is smaller than four.

If there is just one little seat tucked in the corner, the solo diner can get in. There’s a gap between parties at the bar? The solo diner can take that stool without issue. That’s not to say that you never have to line up alone, but my lack of a partner has seen me skip the queue on countless occasions. Being alone is better than any secret handshake.

2. Making friends

More and more restaurants are having open kitchens these days, often with a row of high stools facing it. These are, without question, the best seats in the house regardless of how many diners in your party, but even more for the lone wolf. Largely this is because of the fun of watching the dishes getting made, the strange dance of the professional kitchen.

But more than that, you get to chat to the chefs. Not a constant dialogue, of course, because they have things to do, but enough to build a little more of a relationship than you do normally. A few words during service lulls, or maybe a quick explanation of what they are doing when you are watching something intently. It’s not to say they don’t do the same with larger groups who sit at the kitchen, but I’ve always found they have that touch more time for the loners.

It’s the same deal with waiters. There are those few extra words of explanation, or the nudging towards a particular wine. Service staff understand that it’s a special type of person that dines by themselves, and usually one that is actively interested. So you do often get the special attention, the little bonuses. It’s just a matter of making friends.

3. Listening in

Everyone is a sticky beak. The continued success of gossip magazines and reality television show that there are few things we like more than knowing what other people are up to.

Restaurants are one of the prime places to indulge in this pastime live. Where else do you get sit so close to people while they have in depth conversations with family and lovers?

People watching and eavesdropping are core entertainments for the solo diner, from picking out the nervous first date at the next table to the multigenerational group in the back celebrating a major birthday. Without the distraction of dining companions you can give all your attention to these others, working out exactly what is going on as you peer surreptitiously over your glass.

The real prize, though, is the couple arguing, squabbling in whispers over their entrees. There is nothing that fills the gaps between courses like a little schadenfreude.

Some people think being nosy like that as a bit rude, so keep it discreet. But I wouldn’t worry too much, because:

4. No judgement

When dining with a partner or friends, you usually don’t want to disgrace yourself. Appearing as a slob or a glutton is generally looked down upon, and so most of us will self-censor our behaviour to not embarrass our companions.

But when alone, there’s no-one to embarrass but yourself. Sure, there are other people in the restaurant, but they probably aren’t paying attention to you, and even if they do, it’s not like you’re ever going to see them again. So indulge a little.

Loved the sauce? Wipe it up with your finger. Can’t decide between those two desserts? What the hell, have them both! Who’s going to care?

I’m not talking about starting a food fight, or getting horrifically drunk and breaking things (though an extra glass or two is fine, if you’re not driving), but dining alone frees you up for those little, private sins. It allows you to literally suck the marrow out of your dining experience.

 

All of this isn’t to say that dining alone doesn’t have problems. I have had times when I’ve been plonked in the corner of a near empty room and been nearly forgotten about, which countered both points 2 and 3. Any delay between courses can be amplified if you have no-one to talk to. And if, like me, you want to taste as many dishes as possible, solo dining can result in sprawling and expensive multicourse experiences, far beyond what is necessary.

But these are small points compared to the fun that you can have. Ignore the people that think it is strange to not rely on the social crutch of company. Next time you feel like a night on the town do it alone. Skip the queues, sidle up to the bar, and indulge without regret.

It’s (almost) the most fun you can have by yourself.

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A New Way

Despite the title that echoes the past few months, I promise you, this is not about the election.

Instead, it is about my own “New Direction”.

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted a lot recently. Part of this 3 month hiatus has been laziness, but it has equally been that I have been reassessing. After six years here in Canberra, it’s time to work out my next steps.

So I am leaving this capital and moving to another. While I am still young enough to get a visa I am heading to London to work for a year or two, to see what I can find.

Those few dedicated readers out there might be wondering what is going to happen to my blogging. Well, I intend to keep writing, without question, and I intend to write much more often than I have been. But there will be some changes.

I will be retiring the title Capital Gourmand once I get to London, starting a new blog instead. I am going to post a few more times here before I go, but once I get to the UK in November I will be at a whole new place.

As a bigger change, what I am writing is also going to be different. No more reviews. The last thing a giant city like London needs is yet another voice opining on the thousands of dining options, going through dish by dish. I want a different challenge.

Instead, I will be writing more narrative pieces. Stories, going deep into an idea or an experience. I want my readers to feel that experience themselves, rather than just hear my judgement. That’s the sort of food writing that I prefer to read. It is, I think, more difficult to get right, but when people do it can be fantastic.

My post from this week, Remedy, is one of my first attempts at doing this, and my final few posts here will also be more along this line. Think of it as practice. I really hope you enjoy.

There is one last piece of business I need to work out, however. I haven’t yet come up with a name for my London blog, so I am going to throw it open to suggestions. I want something that encapsulates the idea of an expat Aussie in London. My first thought was The Raw Prawn, which I am still considering, but let’s see if we can anything else.

Ideas?

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Remedy

The rasping cough caught at the back of my throat, jolting me awake. My nose dripped on the pillow, my eyes bleary. As I slowly dragged my body to the edge of the bed, it was clear that I wasn’t making it to work.

We are deep inside cold season here in Canberra. There has been a parade of empty chairs in my team at work, with everyone seemingly getting sick. It’s been getting ridiculous.

Once I woke up (sometime past midday) I decided that this has to stop. I needed to find something that would smack down this cold before it got any worse. And for that, there was only one option.

Garlic.

More specifically, roast garlic, cooked as a whole bulb, squeezed out while still hot, the beautiful brown sludge searing my fingers. This is spread on bread, thick enough to hold back the whole clan of Cullens, and sprinkled with a touch of salt and a few drops of lemon.

It’s a glorious remedy.

Not that I’m the first to try it. This holy bulb has been eaten since the Pyramids of Giza were just someone dreaming of big triangles. Through 6000 years of history garlic has been used to treat all manner of ills, from heatstroke to smallpox.

And even more amazingly, some of it might actually have a scientific basis!

Even if it didn’t, though, garlic is still exciting. Even if there were nothing even slightly beneficial to your health about it, I and the rest of the world wouldn’t stop eating it.

I’m not sure if I’ve always been such a garlic fiend. I remember being a fan of garlic bread, but that was probably as much about hot melted butter as anything else.

But then, at 16, there was a trip to France, and a soup that changed everything.

On the outskirts of a tiny walled village in the Dordogne called Monpazier was a hotel, with the only real restaurant in town, a simple little bistro in a beautiful 19th century building. Lunch was a fixed price menu, and pretty classic in style.

For the entrée, a huge tureen is placed on the table, beside bowls of croutons, grated Gruyère, and fresh garlic cloves. Out of this tureen wafted that sweet, heady scent, hitting you straight in the back of the sinuses. It may have just been garlic soup, but it was one of the most memorable dishes of my life.

It’s hard to say what made it stay in my head for so long. Some of it is to do with the interactivity of the dish, having to rub some raw garlic onto croutons, put them in bowl then heap cheese on top before ladling the soup over it all.

There was the mix of textures, with the silken liquid, stringy melted mess of cheese, and crunch from the bread.  But more than anything there was the way the heat of the fresh garlic cut through the richness from the soup in a simple marriage that just made sense. It managed to be both exciting and comforting at the same time.

For years I have tried to recreate this soup. I’ve searched recipes, tried a number of techniques, but I’ve never been able to latch on to quite that magic. Don’t get me wrong, my own garlic soup is a damn fine attempt. I make it all dense and powerful, flecked with the golden caramelised bits from when the bulb is roasted. But there was a silkiness I’ve never replicated, an intensity not reached. My memory has never quite been matched.

Since that fateful soup, garlic has grown even further in my estimations and has become one of my absolute favourites. It works as a star player, such as mixed through spaghetti with chilli and oil, or as just one of many bit players making the base of a great Thai curry. I love it raw, as in the brash heat of skordilla, and adore it roasted like with my sick-day toast.

I don’t know if that thick spread of pungent glory helped with my cold at all that day. The research out there is all pretty inconclusive. Not to mention, I didn’t actually get better. But I don’t care. It gave me that one more reason to throw an allium in the oven.

It’s almost worth getting sick.

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Ottoman Cuisine: Balloons of Empire

We celebrate things in many ways. We throw parties with drinks and music, put on special displays of skill, or create something to commemorate the moment. But through all this, one of the universal symbols of celebration is a balloon.

And to celebrate Canberra’s 100th birthday, they created one hell of a balloon.

Ever since her mysterious visage graced the front page of news websites across the country, debate has raged about the Skywhale. Comments sections have been full of questions about whether she was worth the cost, whether or not she’s beautiful (in the eyes of this beholder, absolutely), and, most prevalently, whether her absurd, magical form has any relation to this city.

The artist, Patricia Piccinini, answers this with ideas about nature, evolution and genetic engineering, and the crosspoint of the natural and manufactured that is reflected in a lot of the way Canberra was designed. Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer leans more to the fact that the artist is connected to the city as being enough. But for many people, none of this is enough to account for a flying whale with multiple pendulous breasts.

I could come up with a lot of reasons to answer this question, linking Skywhale to various metaphors about the city. But instead, I ask bigger questions:

Why does it matter? Why should an artwork have some literal connection to the celebration or the city it commemorates? Isn’t it enough just to be generally joyous?

Think about art or architecture that, in your mind, directly represents a city. Most of the time that link has come not from any clear metaphorical relevance, but rather from the city accepting it as a symbol. They take it as something beautiful or interesting or joyful, and then the connection develops.

Canberra should embrace the glory of the Skywhale, and graciously allow her to represent our city. We should create merchandise, put her on brochures, and get people thinking about her when they think about the city. Because if there is one thing that Skywhale is not, she’s not boring.

But while we should undoubtedly embrace her, truly she deserves so much more. We are the provincial capital of  a distant and desolate nation, and much as I appreciate her service to our city, Skywhale would better fit as the symbol of a great empire!

While Canberra may sadly never become the new Rome, the remnants of one empire can be experienced in the leafy surounds of Barton. For over 20 years Ottoman Cuisine have been cooking the food of the Imperial palaces, gaining accolades all the way. Though would the Sultan have approved?

There is a certain lushness to the place, with its floor to ceiling windows and roof covered with a painted night sky. Roughly dividing the room are drinks stations with towers of Reidel glasses serving as chandeliers, which works well but has been done better elsewhere on a larger scale. Though any sense of an emperor’s feasting room is a little muted by the less than opulent and somewhat outdated chairs.

As is right for a Turkish feast, all the food is for sharing. A few came as self contained units, such as a baby eggplant stuffed with rice, pine-nuts, currants and spices, which was a little lacklustre, though mostly due to the actual eggplant having very little flavour. But that is always a risk when serving baby eggplants out of season.

More successful was a tagine of salami with onion, peppers and tomato, topped with a coddled egg. A spicy, rich stew, this was a comforting dish that would make an excellent breakfast.

The last entree was the most conflicted. Called “icli kofte” it was spiced lamb mince and walnuts, served inside a dense shell of cracked wheat pastry, with a dollop of yogurt and tahini sauce. The lamb itself was excellent, deliciously moist and well spiced. But then around it was this shell, which lacked enough flavour to justify the somewhat unpleasant texture.

This was an unfortunate trend that continued through the mains. The meat was always impeccably cooked, but then at times let down by what was served with it. Take the lamb cutlets, perfectly tender and packed with more flavour than you would expect salt and oregano to be able to deliver. It was a great piece of meat handled with the respect it deserved, but then served with a superfluous fried puck of mashed potato which were soft and under-seasoned.

Moist, lemony pieces of spatchcock were served with a forgettable pilaf. Simple char grilled king prawns, probably the best that I have had in Canberra, came with a simply uninteresting salad of eggplant and parsley. Again and again, phenomenal meat was lessened by its accompaniment.

Desserts were more internally consistent, with the stars being some interesting ice creams and sorbets. A gentle baked custard was matched with a sweet, tart pomegranate ice cream. Semolina and orange cake, drenched with pleasant citrus syrup worked well with a sharp but very light yoghurt sorbet. It’s a good way to end a meal.

An Eden Road 2008 Tumbarumba chardonnay managed to bridge the meal well, chosen from a strong list. Service was a little up and down, with enthusiastic staff sometimes getting confused. More than once multiple servers asked the same questions, telling of a floor without strong management.

In all, it was a pleasant meal, but there is one question that has to be asked with a restaurant like Ottoman Cuisine: Is it significantly better than your suburban Turkish restaurant? At Ottoman, the answer is a qualified maybe. Their quality and cooking of meat is way above what most restaurants in Canberra can manage, but for me the overall experience doesn’t quite match up.

The Ottomans had a sprawling, opulent empire, and this restaurant has lofty goals in trying to echo that legacy. But they aren’t quite there.

Name: Ottoman Cuisine

Address: 9 Broughton Street, Barton, ACT 2600

Ph: 02 6273 6111

Website: ottomancuisine.com.au

Hours: Lunch noon to 2.30 Tuesday to Friday. Dinner 6pm to 10pm Tuesday to Saturday

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Shorty’s: Pub ethnography

The terrace is the prize. This little raised platform a step above the lane, where you can watch the parade that constantly passes, is where everyone really wants to sit. I don’t know if it’s the slight touch of sun, the fresh air, or the chance to see and be seen by the crowds, but so far I’ve never seen it less than full.

It’s the coolest section at Shorty’s, the new bar with food in the old Milk & Honey site, but there are many other options of where to sit. In a multi-sectioned fit out like this, there’s a great opportunity for ethnographical study, just like that scene in every high school film where they explain where everyone sits in the school cafe.

You have the high tables, right as you enter the room. These are for the short visitor, getting their drink on before heading out further. They won’t sit for a full meal, but maybe something off the finger food menu. A few people sharing some moist Middle Eastern spiced quail “pops” over some beers, perching on a stool while they do it. This is the noisy area, the part that is more bar than anywhere else.

For something a bit more relaxed, hidden behind a bookcase full of ferns and bottles is the back alcove. This is for people who want to talk. Maybe they’re on a date, or plotting world domination, but either way they don’t want the rough and tumble of the stools, or the grandstanding of the terrace. With the comfortable feel of a lounge room, it’s the right place to kick back with one of the sandwiches, such as a solid if slightly over-full burger, or perhaps a roll with a rich, fried slab of pig face terrine.

Tucked away in the back are the longer tables, low and wooden. The space for families, or for big groups, and the most pub-like part of the place. Normally these would probably be out in a beer garden rather than tucked away in a corner, which is possibly why it’s often the last area to fill. But either way, it’s a great spot for the updated pub grub that’s available.

Personally, though, I sit at the bar. The refuge of the lone diner, or the serious drinker, both categories in which I dabble. Perched down one end, chatting with the staff and watching drinks go out, you get the best chance to watch everyone else. It’s also a good place to try things from anywhere on the menu, whether finger food, sandwiches or pub grub.

Some dishes are really successful, like sticky lamb ribs where the rich and fatty meat of this often neglected cut were dredged in a thick spicy sauce. A messy dish, but worthy of that cliche about fingers and licking.

Having spent many years in the pubs of Melbourne, I’ve had a parma or two. But rather than the thin slab of chicken of dubious origin covered in dull sauce and cheese, Shorty’s version is a little more exciting. The breast is moist, the cheese is given a touch of smoke and so actually has flavour, and best of all there is a serious piece of ham in the mix. People underestimate the importance of the ham in a parma, but getting that gentle bite of cured pig is what takes it to the next level.

Some of the other options are, while still decent, a little underwhelming. A mini-steamer with 5 shitake dumplings didn’t give that herbaceous hit that a great veggie dumpling should. An Asian salad with fried cubes of crispy pork knuckle had decent flavour, and a good hit of chilli, but was a touch dry.

Most disappointing of all, however, is the most staple of pub staples. How does a place serve excellent lamb ribs, great fun quail pops, and a quality parma, but then mess up the chips? So far I have experienced Shorty’s chips on three different occasions, and each time they have been a bit limp. And it’s sad, as the house seasoning is really very good.

They are trying to have a lot of fun here, with a dessert of a deep fried Golden Gaytime being the prime example. It’s a ridiculous dish, but in the best way, combining two Australian classics. It might not be high gastronomy, but it certainly brings a smile.

The packaged cocktail list is also a nod to fun, with a short selection of decent mixed drinks, mostly twists on classics, being served in bubble-tea style cups, complete with sealed top and fat straw. My Lone Star Margarita, a margarita with watermelon and jalapenos, was certainly a nice drink, if not my usual style. However, I feel they don’t go far enough with the concept. If you’re going with the fat straw, have something in the drink that needs it, as with bubble-teas. Something like small balls of lime jelly would add that extra hit.

There is an awful lot to like about Shorty’s, from the relaxed fit out and solid short wine list to the fact they’re willing to use less popular cuts of meat (though sadly the pigs ear crisps were not unpopular enough, being sold out before I got to try them). Whether you want to eat or drink, you’re sure to be able to find something to satisfy you on the extensive menu.

Regardless of where you sit.

 

Name: Shorty’s

Address: 29 Garema Place, Canberra, ACT

Hours: Open 10am til late, 7 days.

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MFWF – Enrique Olvera dinner: Growing up

When I was a child, I liked Mexican food. Or so I thought.

Tacos were one of my favourite meals. You got a salty, crunchy shell, then got to build it yourself. Seasoned mince meat, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, the mildly spiced salsa, then shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream on top. It’s was a child’s delight, messy and ridiculous. The real trick was to take a bite without everything exploding. Although really, it was just as fun when it did explode.

And it was a wonderful thing. There’s no surprise that it was one of my go to choices when I got to choose what was for dinner. It was interactive, had a great mix of textures, and a little bit of spice, all very likeable things.

But it’s not Mexican.

All of Australia has been growing up in recent years, putting away the crunch of the Old El Paso and starting to learn what this cuisine really is. Lead by restaurants like Mamasita we’ve moved towards soft tacos actually made of corn, mole sauces, Baja style fish tostadas, and lots of chipotle. Exciting flavours, lots of different textures, food made to be eaten alongside a glass of decent tequila.

We’ve been dining on this stuff, and it felt like we’d grown up. We thought we were mature, able to take care of ourselves.

But like so many adolescence, a visit from someone wiser showed that we’re not quite adults yet.

Here this adult influence came from Enrique Olvera, chef of the increasingly celebrated Pujol in Mexico city. As with many of the chefs doing the festival rounds at the moment, this is someone who adores the food of their home, and who aims to both celebrate and rejuvenate it. During the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival he cooked a meal at Pei Modern, and showed us what Mexican food can be.

And what it can be is surprising. When the waiters brought out large gourds with smoke wafting out, it got everybody’s attention. Inside were long, tender baby corn, their husk still attached, spread with ash mayonnaise. Sweet, smokey and fun, it opened the meal with some excitement, especially alongside the powerful Mezcal Buen Viaje from chef Olvera’s personal stash.

Ceviches have been one of the major restaurant trends of recent years in Australia, seen on a ridiculous number of menus. The method of using lime juice to “cook” fish is a useful one, and though results can vary, is often very pleasant. But I’ve never had a ceviche quite like this one.

A sizeable fillet of firm but flakey white fish was just cooked by the acid, making it soft but not falling apart. The real trick, though, was the balance. Sweet fish, sharp lime juice, smokey heat from a Tabasco or similar sauce, and peppery freshness from beautiful slices of watermelon radishes all came together in harmony. Like an operatic quartet, each part remained distinct but played off the others to create something greater than the sum of the parts. To top it off, a crisp disc of a bean tostada, bringing both an earthy bass note and a textural contrast that harked back to those tacos of our youth. A sublime dish.

The following dish came close to the same levels of brilliance. Billed as a green tomato salad, this used both under-ripe tomatoes and tomatillos, a staple of Mexican cuisine, to create a dish both sweet and tart. Coupled with a smooth piece of avocado and some caramelised baby leeks, this was again the picture of balance.

Another of the Pujol savoury courses was a little more muted. A squash blossom tamal  was warm, dense and nutty, flavoured with a Mexican herb called epazote. With it, xikil-pak sauce, a creamy paste made of pumpkin seeds, which added another layer of nuttiness. While a very pleasing and interesting dish, it just wasn’t as memorable as the earlier courses.

Mark Best and his team from Pei Modern and Marque also provided some dishes to the menu. Most notable was a deft steak tartare, with a rich egg jam to bind it, and some impressive long, smoked strips of beetroot. Deep and earthy, it fitted well into the meal.

Finally, for dessert, an absurdly light avocado mousse, given crunch by macadamia crumbs, was paired with coconut ice cream. While the flavours were fairly subtle, it was a light, refreshing way to finish a meal. The final glass of Casa Noble tequila certainly didn’t hurt either.

With flawless service, headed by the always excellent Ainslie Lubbock, and a solid selection of matching wines, the night ran beautifully smoothly. Which was good. This food didn’t deserve distraction.

I still like crunchy, Old El Paso style Mexican. I still love the many great, somewhat traditional soft tacos that are everywhere in Melbourne. But Enrique Olvera’s food was the next step up.

Pujol is now on my list of places that I am dying to visit, because I want to try more of this revitalised Mexican cuisine. Though by judging by the vast number of chefs in the room, there is a good chance that we’ll be seeing hints of it in the restaurants of Melbourne in coming months.

And a little bit more maturity is always a good thing.

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