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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MFWF – Langham MasterClasses: Learning

There are many different ways to learn to cook.

For many people those first steps to the stoves came at the side of a parent or grandparent, going from licking the bowl to stirring the pot. You learn the family classics, hard worn recipes handed down over generations, each person adding something extra to it.

Some people don’t have that family tradition of cooking to learn from. Instead they find other teachers. From Julia, Elizabeth and Delia to Jamie, Nigella and Stephanie, these are the people who write books and make television, showing the basic skills to thousands of people. They are patient teachers, if not always forthcoming on the feedback.

Personally, I had a little of both, but more often than not I just tried things and hope they worked out. I tried to remember flavours I’d eaten before and what they went with. Coupled with some reading up on basic techniques, you can pick up a surprising amount. Then you just need to play in the kitchen and practice.

But as much fun as it is to work things out yourself, sometimes you just want to learn from an expert.

We don’t get many opportunities to be in a room with great chefs. Even when eating at their restaurants there is usually a wall between you, with you at the table and them a mysterious force in the kitchen. It’s rare to hear them talk about what they do, to get that insight into their minds.

This is what makes events like the Langham MasterClass at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival so exciting. Every year some of the leaders of the food world, both local and international, come together to talk about and demonstrate what they think, what they do, and why they do it. And we get to hear it. Sure, we have to pay, and we sit in a room with dozens of others, but it’s something.

I get to watch as Magnus Nilsson, the wunderkind from Faviken, a 12 seater temple to local Swedish ingredients, chooses a few vegetables to throw straight on to burning coals. Eggplant, carrot, beetroot. They blacken as he plates up another never before created dish of cheese, cucumber and fresh Riesling grapes. That dish done, he slices the blackened vegetables, and lays them on a plate with some cream whipped with beer and lemon. And all the while, he talks.

Alone of the chefs at MasterClass, Magnus didn’t bring specific recipes with him. As part of a global movement that believes food should reflect the time and place it is made, it would make no sense to recreate dishes of the Scandinavian hinterland. Instead, he finds local ingredients and applies the same ideas to them. So instead of trying to recreate a dish of Norwegian langoustine, he uses marron, spears it with tea tree and grills it with some lemon juice, then serves it with “burnt cream”. That cream was a concept the entire room wanted to try at home.

Sadly, we didn’t get to taste most of these dishes. Instead we had to be nourished on the ideas and the words we were hearing. The one dish we did get to eat, a porridge of 9 local grains served with finger lime segments and a Vegemite-seasoned broth, was balanced and hearty, and served almost as a garnish to the presentation.

Magnus had a very laid back way of running his session, seeming changing his plans as he spoke to us in a very free-flowing way. The other international chef I saw, Sean Brock from the wonderful Husk in South Carolina, had a different approach.

Sean also believes in local ingredients, but he is a little more evangelical about his intentions. With his sleeve of vegetable tattoos and his well loved “Make Cornbread Not War” truckers cap, he is one of the world’s leading advocates of Southern US cuisine. Growing up in a small town in the Appalachians he is a champion of the hunting and farming of the region. Catfish and corn, pork and Carolina rice, these are the hallmarks of his food.

I have been lucky enough to eat at Husk, and I raved about the grits served there, so I was sad to hear that the brilliant Anson Mills grits were held up by customs. Even if the coarse polenta made a worthy replacement in the rich, buttery mouthful of shrimp’n’grits  with crispy pigs ear that we tried, it would have been great to get the real thing. This was the dish he used to explain South Carolina, to demonstrate the revival of Southern food that he is trying to accomplish. It took a classic comfort food and made it something for everyone to get excited about.

He spoke of his childhood out hunting, and of his grandma warning him of the dangers of  a pressure cooker. He talked about the history of the region, the melting pot of cultures that added to it. He showed us a film of him foraging around Charleston. Everything he said, everything he did demonstrated his absolute love of his home. And it was infectious (not to mention delicious).

Matthew Evans’s love for his home down in Tasmania was just as apparent, even if he shows it off with simpler food. The dishes prepared by the Gourmet Farmer were much more home cooking than those of the other chefs. Fish pie, and rhubarb and strawberry crumble aren’t the most exotic plates of food in the world, but when done well they can be incredibly pleasing. I probably didn’t get as many new ideas from his presentation, but it continued to remind how important it is to take inspiration from what is around you.

The other session I attended was about wine and cheese pairings, and it taught me to just try things. The phenomenal cheeses chosen by Will Studd, in particular an extra aged Soumaintrain from Burgandy, and a mystery blue from Oregon that I am not permitted to talk about, were paired with some impressive natural wines chosen by Innocent Bystander winemaker Steve Flamsteed. They didn’t all work together, but it didn’t really matter. If a cheese didn’t work with the wine it was matched with, you just tried it with another. Or, if that didn’t work, you just kept enjoying the amazing cheese.

At the end of the day, despite how fascinating the whole event was, there is a limit to how much you can learn in this sort of format. Yes, I came away with a desire knock up some cornbread, and a few new ideas of things to do with cream, but it’s not really about picking up new techniques. What this sort of day does is reinforce just how much passion comes in to cooking at its highest. How love for ingredients, for tradition, for ideas and techniques and people are so important in taking food to that next level.

I know it sounds like a trite, cliche thing to say. But when you watch and listen these people, feel their enthusiasm about what they’re doing, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

That’s what I learnt.

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Mocan and Green Grout: From behind the door

The kitchen used to have such mystique. It was hidden behind a door, where the chefs would weave their magic in secret, the miraculous final product being all the diner would see.

Then along came the TV cameras, hovering inches above the busy working hands of celebrity chefs, laying bare their skills while peppered with “pukka” and “BAM”.

Along came a thousand cookbooks with in depth details and high definition photos of every move, giving us all the step-by-step playbook to make Michelin-starred food at home (provided you have a some Michelin-starred kitchen gear).

Along, too, came everyone’s favourite chubby trio, replete with bad puns and “plate ups” yelled at former lawyers and teaches, suggesting that all it took to be a world class chef was passion.

All of these brought us into the world behind those swinging doors, if some more accurately than others. But nothing did this more than the open kitchen, something that literally brought the kitchen out from behind the swinging doors.

Suddenly the chefs became entertainment, the organised frenzy of the stoves and the pass giving people something to look at while waiting for their entree. You could see the flames, study the finesse of plating, and listen to the possibly muted swearing.

At Mocan & Green Grout, the new buzz-generating cafe in New Acton, the open kitchen is taken that one step further. Rather than a large open side to a classical kitchen, here the chefs are cooking in the middle of the restaurant.

A deep fryer, an oven, an electric stove, two chefs and an array of filled bowls are at a small bench in the centre of a room that feels more like the common room of a cheap tropical backpackers. Perched at the corner of that marble bench, with the mild chaos of service bustling around you, you get to see just how much culinary mastery can be achieved with so little.

You can see a jumble of roast, spiced organic carrots be piled high with pickled carrot slivers and an almond sauce to create a surprisingly meaty vegetarian dish. Or you can watch the endless shucking of fresh Narooma rock oysters, served with mirin and a sprinkle of furikake to give a salty seaweed hit.

Led by chef Sean McConnell, the third brother in one of the nation’s great families of food, the dishes being put out from this quasi-kitchen are of impressive quality. The weekly changing menu takes cues from across the world, referencing Spain, Japan, Italy and Scandinavian cuisines, while highlighting whatever produce looks good.

Take a dish of line-caught snapper, pan fried and served with a corn puree, corn kernels, paprika and slivers of perfect baby zucchini, just touched with heat. Visually spectacular as an artful arrangement of green, gold and white, this delivered on all levels, with the sugar of the corn and the slight bite of the zucchini lifting the sweet fishiness of the fillets.

Just as impressive for the more adventurous diner are two deep-fried lamb brains, served with the irony smack of black pudding and a gentle, fresh parsley foam. While the foam lost its structure far too quickly, the intensity of the flavours melded too well for it to matter.

The quality of dishes across my two visits was high, from saffron-cured sardines on toast, to dense trout croquettes, to a salad of nuts and grains. Even those that missed weren’t too far off, mostly hitting the mark with flavour but missing on other aspects. A deep-fried soft shell crab had great sweet flesh, but it didn’t have that crispiness it should have. Two different dishes had exceptionally tender braised then fried pork, one with green mango and prawn floss, the other with a mix of bread crumbs and chorizo, but each time they needed a sauce to tie everything together. Little problems, but noticeable when everything else is so good.

As you watch these guys plate up you can see that this is a smart menu. With all the food being sharing plates, a lot of dishes are leaves the pass, and there is a real race to get everything together. That’s why there are a reasonably large number of cold dishes on the menu, such as a fabulous fig, prosciutto, Meredith chevre and vincotto number that was fresh and sweet, holding that line between main and dessert.

It does mean that service is a little hectic. With so little manpower and space tickets are filled by what is the most efficient, rather than what was ordered first.

In lieu of a license they offer corkage-free BYO, and it’s worth bringing something interesting. It fits with the relaxed vibe of the place. Although it is worth finishing with a coffee, their core business during the day and something they really know how to do.

This is not the sort of place where every plate comes out looking identical. Things can be a little haphazard in presentation, but it really doesn’t matter. Flavour is what matters here, using great ingredients to make enjoyable food. Mocan & Green Grout has added something different to the Canberra scene, with Sean and his team doing a hell of a lot with very little.

And even better, you can pull up a chair and watch them do it.

 

Name: Mocan & Green Grout

Address: 19 Marcus Clarke Street, New Acton, ACT, 2601

Ph: 02 6162 2909

Website: mocanandgreengrout.com

Chef: Sean McConnell

Hours: Breakfast and lunch: Monday – Saturday, 7am-6pm; Sunday, 8am-3pm. Dinner: Tuesday – Friday, 6pm-close.

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A tourist in my own city

The Human Brochure weekend was paid for by Australian Capital Tourism.

I have seen the sprawling lights of Manhattan at night from the top of the Empire State Building. I have stared at the organic, winding towers of la Sagrada Familia. I have climbed Uluru, walked the length of the Champs-Elysees, and seen the warped version of myself in the sliver surface of the Bean.

I have been a tourist in many places. Not as many as I would like to, but still a fair few. And yet, like most of us, I often forget to be a tourist in my own backyard.

Here in Canberra we may not have the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, but like any city, there are great experiences to have here. This was something that I and my fellow Humans got find out.

Of course, we are all humans. But only a select 500 of us got the chance to be Humans. Chosen from many thousands of applicants for our social media acumen, we got to be part of the Human Brochure. Through a free weekend on the tab of Australian Capital Tourism we were given a guided tour of the cream of Canberra, in the hope that we would tell everyone in the wider internet land all about it, particularly hoping that we’d say good things.

For those of us in the “Foodies” group, our hosts understood the secret to making us happy.

Wine. And lots of it.

From toasting the new Arboretum with a glass of local sparkling at 10:30 am, to the bottle of Lark Hill Sangiovese found in our rooms as a gift, we were kept on a steady buzz for most of the weekend.

Their is no doubt that many people went away from the capital with a greater appreciation of the remarkable winemakers that surround this territory, many of whom we had the chance to meet. Clonakilla shiraz, Gallagher sparklings, and of course the spectacular rieslings of Ken Helm particularly impressed, but the whole region showed itself worth exploration.

Excellent and copious though the wine was, drinking was not the only activity we took part in. We visited some of the city’s major attractions, such as the War Memorial and Old Parliament House. Both were great venues, and full of exhibitions that we only got a a glimpse of, but which deserve a revisit.

Though for me, this weekend was meant to be about the food, and much of what was served at these two places were not worth much mention. The finger food served under classic planes in ANZAC Hall were serviceable but unexceptional catering fare, and brunch at OPH was equally uninspiring.

The meals that were specially for us ‘Foodies’, however, were a little more exciting. For Saturday lunch we headed out to Poacher’s Pantry, that home of smoked meats surrounded by vineyards. We started under the sun with yet more Canberra sparkling and a few canapes, including some silken pastrami with a touch of sharp yellow pickle that particularly impressed.

Moving inside for the meal, and more wine, we started with a platter of their smoked meats. Smoked hams, beef and chicken showed why Poachers have the reputation they did, although it was sad that they didn’t include the kangaroo pastrami.

Mains were rather hefty, meaty affairs. Panfried pieces of Blue Eye Cod were served on some avocado and corn. Sticky beef ribs were sweet and rich, but a little dry for my tastes. Smoked chicken was made into saltimbocca, balancing the smoke and salt well, but cooking the already smoked meat made it decidedly dense. This was an unfortunate trend across the three dishes, with great flavours but textures slightly off. The vegetable portions were also a touch small.

A fennel blossom pannacotta for dessert split opinions. For me, the gentle and slightly odd flavour of the fennel blossom worked beautifully with a tart lime syrup, but a number of half-finished plates showed that not everyone was as happy with this unusual combination.

With a sleepy bus ride and a three hour break before dinner, I took advantage of my very lush Hotel Realm room to relax. There’s something exciting about a hotel room. Even if it’s only a short distance from where you live, there’s the feeling of a holiday that comes from staying in such well looked after digs. With a big soft bed, and very deep bath, I made sure to make the best of it.

Dragging myself away from that luxury was tough, but it was time for a short wander across the road for dinner at Malamay (and more wine). The latest restaurant from the mighty Chairman Group, this is meant to be Sichuan-inspired food, and it’s really quite good. I was my second visit (I paid for the first one), and both times a lot of Malamay impressed.

Seated towards the back of the bluestone, black and red restaurant, we fell into the sort of expansive conversations that comes from like minded food lovers with lots of wine, where the only lulls where as the food was being served. When the waiters started dishing out cold, meaty noodles with chilli-topped prawns from a deep birds-nest like bowl, the guests stopped and watched the performance.

As with any meal there were ups and downs. The definite high point was slab of eggplant, which was cooked slowly sous vide before being put under a salamander and covered with sesame, served with a kombu and chilli oil dressing and rice. While strangely Japanese for a Sichuan inspired restaurant, this was delightfully nutty with a hit of umami.

Even the less exciting dishes had good aspects, such as a dish of char grilled beef fillet s and abalone congee, where the beef seemed to distract from the pungency of the congee.

Service was knowledgable and, again, the local wines were spectacular. Which is why we kept drinking them well into the evening.

Back when they were deciding the location of the Australian capital, King O’Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs and head of the search, spoke of creating a city with “the population of London, the beauty of Paris, the culture of Athens, and the industry of Chicago”. Canberra may never have quite reached those heights, but it is not a city to be discounted.

As I and my fellow Humans found, there is more to Canberra than many people think. So come and visit, and to those here in Canberra, take some time to rediscover the place.

Or, at the very least, drink some of our wine.

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