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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Smoque: BBQ Nations

As the days of January tick along, we again close in on that enjoyable but somewhat meaningless holiday, Australia Day. And, as always, this brings the people who need to fill column inches to start talking about what is the Australian national dish.

It is an interesting question, if essentially unable to be answered. Food can define a culture to an extent, but you have to look at the cuisine as a whole to understand it. There are only very rare examples of a dish that can really be seen as representative of a nation, and they will have special circumstances around them. Take, for example, Pad Thai, which was renamed in the 1940s when it was pushed by the then Prime Minister of Thailand as a way to promote nationalism and reduce rice consumption.

Australia doesn’t have that, a moment in history where any particular food has been pushed. We have a medley of dishes from hundreds of cultures, brought by waves of immigration and then adapted to fit what we have here. When people do list these things, we’re defined by a mishmash of baked goods, seafood, and things you’d eat at the football.

Then there’s the barbeque. From Paul Hogan’s calling to throw another shrimp on one to the local sausage sizzle being the best thing about every election day, the humble barbie is, for many, the essential Aussie experience.

And yet, if you were to look around the world at all the people who do something similar, in many ways we’re really not very good at it. A few cheap sausages, rissoles and some pieces of steak are the extent of most BBQs in backyards around the country. Maybe we’d go so far as some marinated chicken wings, or a few prawns, but not much further. It’s often not that much different from cooking on a stove, except that we do it outside with a beer in hand, then smother it with tomato sauce.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love a snag with onions and sauce on a piece of cheap white bread as much as the next person. But compared to the barbeques of the world, it’s just a little unexciting. Most nations have put real thought into how to cook outside. They think about the wood they’re using, and the spices. Think about the slow fired meat of the Argentinian asado, the fiery spice of Jamaican jerked meat, or the surprising variety that can come from a chicken with Japanese yakitori. Our burnt snags really don’t live up.

Talk to an American and they don’t even consider what we do barbequing. To them, we just grill. BBQ to a Yank means fire, smoke, and big chunks of meat cooked long and slow. And really, there’s just something special about the smokey fat of a chunk of pork that has spent 8 hours over hickory.

Since October last year, hordes of Canberrans seem to have deduced this for themselves, judging by the constant lines snaking out the door of Smoque.

Chef Grant Kells and manager Ash Fanning have seemingly hit the jackpot with this Southern-inspired joint with a badly spelled name, so much so that he was forced to install a second imported smoker to handle the demand. Hundreds of kilos of meat fly out the door each week, and with good reason.

The first visit to Smoque should always be for one of the platters, just to get the lay of the ground. It allows you to get a little taste of a number of things, and as price goes up a few more items from the menu are added.

It starts with some small tubs of pulled meat, one of pork and one of beef brisket. These do a reasonable job at giving an idea what this is about, but they’re far from perfect. The pork is far to sweet when eaten alone, to the point of being cloying. And the beef, a touch dry, lacking the succulence that comes from getting the right balance of lean and fatty ends of the brisket. Both of them are great in the inventive list of sandwiches on the menu, but lack a bit alone.

While those are slight disappointments, they are more than made up for by the other core pillar of BBQ.

Ribs.

On any animal these cuts, full of fat and bone, make up for their lack of meat with an abundance of flavour. Here beef short ribs are cooked to with an inch of structural failure, the connecting tissue melting into a glorious mess of juicy fat. But the real star is the pork ribs, sold by the rack and covered in the charred, sticky sweetness of a Memphis-style sauce. This is a dish where you suck the bones clean, then wish to do the same with your sauce-covered fingers.

Barbequed chicken is a surprise hit, with the slow cooked flesh sucking in the smoke better than the other meats. At times the breast can be a little overdone, but silken dark meat is a pleasure. For those who like extreme heat, the Buffalo wings are worth a try, though the sauce was a little too much for me in both heat and texture.

This is happy making food, the kind that you tear apart with your hands and devour like a joyful jackal. It’s a primal way of eating, and it makes a mess. Though it might not be the place for a first date.

While meat is the main game, there are plenty of other points of interest on the menu. Some different but well constructed salads satisfy lighter tastes, though I hope they change through the year to keep seasonal. And though there are a good selection of sides, it’s hard to go past the crisp fries with house seasonings.

The most difficult decision at Smoque comes at dessert. Do you go for one of the house made sweet pies, or try something from the exciting selection of Mr Frugii ice creams? On one hand, pumpkin pie provides a massive sugar hit, pecan pie a nutty gooeyness, or there’s the smooth richness of New York baked cheesecake, or the warming cliche of apple pie. On the other, ice cream flavours like peanut butter and bacon, chocolate brownie, and panettone make a compelling argument. Whatever you choose, you can’t really go wrong. But if you have the salted butter caramel ice cream with a glass of really good rum on the side, it’ll be a revelation.

It can be hard to find room, especially on a weekend, but the service manages to survive despite the occasional chaos. Depending on when you visit and what you order it can be some of the fastest food in town. More than once I have been in and out in less than 20 minutes.

Smoque begins to show Canberra the potential of barbeque, particularly what it can do to pork ribs. To Americans, barbequing is an art form. For us it is something different.

The Aussie barbie may not be the greatest of cuisines in the world, but it is a great social event, an apt celebration of our weather and a nation that has always longed for the backyard. So on Saturday, when I am in a backyard eating sausages and sauce, I will be loving it. Not because of the food, but because of the context.

And that is worth celebrating.

Name: Smoque

Address: 2, 131 London Circuit, Canberra City, ACT, 2600

Ph: 02 6162 3350

Website: smoque.com.au

Owners: Grant Kells and Ash Fanning

Hours: Monday to Saturday, Lunch from 12, Dinner from 5.

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Cafe Di Stasio: Twenty five and loving it

Too often we are a slave to the now. All that we care about is the next big thing, the new, the exciting.

Those of us who have ever been tagged with the term “foodie” are more guilty of this than most. We are trend fetishists. We look for the just opened new-Nordic restaurant cooking everything over locally foraged hardwood, or trawling twitter for the first night of a truck that sells Peruvian tacos with homemade pickles. Then, three months later, we’ll abandon them as being passe.

Admittedly, this is a negative stereotype that doesn’t apply to as many people as the media might suggest, but it is an exaggeration rather than a total fallacy. While most of us really just want to eat great food, and are happy wherever we get it, the simple fact that is that so many exciting places keep opening that we all want to try them.

And it means that we sometimes forget about the people that have been doing this, and doing it incredibly well, for a long time.

You can see this clearly when it comes to bloggers and where they review. A quick scan of  urbanspoon shows that the admittedly amazing Pei Modern has had 33 blog reviews in just under a year. And yet, despite being one of the leaders of the Melbourne cuisine for 25 years, only seven bloggers have posted about the great Cafe di Stasio.

If there is anyone who cares about food in this country and hasn’t eaten at this St Kilda temple of Italian food, then what on earth are you doing? Because these guys really know how to cook.

This is classic food, served in a traditional three course, a la carte style. In most cases you’re getting one main ingredient, cooked quite basically, with a sauce and maybe a side. But that simplicity is deceiving, hiding an unbelievable depth of flavour in every bite.

Take, for example, a crayfish omelette with a bisque sauce. The omelette itself is thick but light, with clear pieces of sweet cray through it. Draping over this is a pungent sauce, striking in its colour. As soon as it touches your tongue, it punches you in the face. That heady richness of crustaceans flows velvet like with a greater intensity than any seafood dish I’ve come across.

For a lighter seafood option, two fresh scampi, split in half, grilled and served with a touch of garlic butter is hard to pass up. Sweet and toothsome, it’s the picture of great produce treated simply.

Moving on to something a little heavier, half a roast duckling is served simply on a plate with some soft squiggles of spatzli. The rich dark meat of the bird was moist and tender by itself, lifted even further by a salty, powerful gravy. Served alongside in prodigious quantities, this was the sort of gravy that required an extra piece of bread to wipe through it.

Along similar lines was oven roasted pork, the fatty, fall apart meat paired with sweet roast apple and bitter chard. And, yet again, wonderful gravy to pull everything together. Although, if I had to quibble, the roast apple was a touch firm and didn’t work as well as an apple sauce might have, but it’s a minor point.

A side of crisp, starchy chips with a touch of lemon doesn’t hurt the enjoyment of a meal either.

As a slight caveat, the savoury dishes were all quite salty. Of course this is because salt, like fat, draws out and enhances flavours, but there are people who would find it a little too much. Those people might not enjoy it quite as much as I did, so be warned.

Desserts tend, again, to the traditional, which for me means one thing – Tira mi su. Soft and giving, yet still solid enough to stand up, this gives the eponymous pick me up. The coffee is strong but not overpowering, being supported aptly by the slight kick of the Strega, replacing the classic Marsala. It’s the dessert version of a big teddy bear that growls a little when it hugs you. Just as it should be.

The simple but powerful food is matched by the decor, which straddles the line between rustic and arty, the provincial wall paint and face-themed lines balanced by a characteristically eerie Bill Henson photo of a girl floating above the city. The white tablecloth covered tables are a little small for those who, like me, have a greater heft, and they are a touch too close together, although somehow this doesn’t stop the efficiency of the floor staff.

One complaint you sometimes hear about Cafe Di Stasio is about the price, and it is significant. Main courses are all around $40, which is pretty high for a single course in Melbourne. Sadly, that will dissuade some people from coming. For me, food this good is worth whatever you have to pay, and that duck was worth every cent. But for a cheaper option, the $35 lunch special is some of the best value out there.

Ronnie di Stasio has put some serious runs on the board, and he still knows what he is doing. It’s not trendy, and it’s not new, and the Melbourne dining scene has surely changed a lot in that time. But after 25 years, they are still sending out some of the best Italian food in the country night after night.

So Happy Birthday to Ronnie and team, and may you keep it up for 25 years more.

 

Name: Cafe Di Stasio

Address: 31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, VIC, 3182

Ph: 03 9525 3999

Website: distasio.com.au

Owner: Ronnie di Stasio

Hours: Lunch: 12pm-3pm. Dinner: 6pm-11pm.

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The 2012 Gourmie Awards

This has been an interesting year for my little blog. From the highs of my US travels, through to the lows of the crushing laziness that has resulted in the 2012 wrap-up being published more than a week into 2013, I feel that I have brought some interesting posts, but not enough of them.

I have eaten some incredible food in the past twelve months, from the hot dogs and burgers through to some of the most celebrated food in the world. A number of dishes have been good enough to gain a place in the hypothetical “ultimate meal” that oft-times floats around my head.

These dishes were in Melbourne and Sydney, New York, Chicago and Charleston, and they served to show that Canberra is not quite in that top league.

However, there is no reason to despair, my fellow Canberrans. While we don’t lead the world, there is still plenty of excellent food to be found around the waters of Burly-Griffin. And so for the third time I bring you The Gourmie Awards, celebrating the best of restaurants in the ACT.

Of course I must again give the disclaimer that this is simply my opinion, based on the many restaurants I have managed to get to. This year, thanks to three months out of the country, I have not eaten at as many as I would have liked to, but I still feel that I have done the city justice.

And with that, we will begin with:

The 2012 Gourmie for Best Restaurant

For the past two years I have sung like a mighty gospel choir about the glories of Dieci e Mezzo, with modern Italian food that was able to overcome the problems of a fishbowl location. But unfortunate financial issues meant that fine institution was forced to close their doors in what was a blow for the local dining scene. It also means that I have to find a new favorite.

Amongst the more serious “best of” lists of recent years, there has been near total agreement of what restaurant hits the heights in Canberra. It was a restaurant that I visited over two years ago, and while I enjoyed it felt that it fell short of the accolades it was receiving.

But I had to go back, had to try it one more time. And now, I must admit, I have leapt with great enthusiasm on the bandwagon, because there is no question in my mind that Aubergine more than deserves to be called the best.

The food that is coming out of Ben Willis’s kitchen is inventive, exciting and technically impressive, but more importantly it is delicious. My meal was near faultless, with some moments taking it up more than a step. From the confit of ocean trout, through to the layered freshness of a mulberry dessert, Aubergine is making the best food in Canberra.

The highlight was a dish of pork and crab. The pieces of pork belly are braised then deep fried in a crisp sago batter, served with just cooked spanner crab, Pernod infused cubes of fresh watermelon, and a slightly spicy rouille as a sauce. All this was the garnished in sea purslane and land seaweed, a particularly juicy green that I hadn’t seen before. In terms of textures and flavours it was spectacular, just demonstrating the skill of the kitchen.

On top of this, service was impeccable and wines were top class. If you haven’t made it to Aubergine yet, or not for a long time, then I don’t know what you are waiting for.

The 2012 Gourmie for Best Dish

As always, this is a very difficult category. While the pork and crab mentioned above would be a clear contender, I like to spread the love around a bit. 

This year the Best Dish award goes to not necessarily the most impressive dish, but it is the one that captured the hearts of the city the most.

Since it opened in October, Smoque has been packed to overflowing with people wanting hot, smokey meat, and Grant Kellis and his team deliver. But if there is one thing that people are clamouring for, it’s this year’s winners, the Memphis Pork Ribs. Sweet, sticky and fall apart tender, a full rack of these babies is a serious indulgence. You eat it with your fingers, then lick them clean, and you enjoy every sinful minute.

There are plenty of great things on the menu at Smoque (I give special mention to the pies and ice creams – go for the salted butter caramel), and I encourage you to try them all. But I hazard a guess that most will come back to those glorious ribs.

The 2012 Gourmie for Best Wine List

Last year I gave this award almost as a consolation prize, handing it a restaurant that had a very good wine list, but deserved it more as my second place for the Best Restaurant gong. This year, things are very different.

Well, not that different. It’s going to the same restaurant, and they’re still probably my number two choice. The difference this year is that the wine at Sage more than stands on its own as deserving praise. The matching wines that came with the tasting menu did what all good wine matches should and significantly improved the dish.

A 2011 Brumont Gros Manseng – Sauvignon Blanc worked with the mandarine rind in a cured ocean trout dish in a way that lifted both wine and food. A local 2009 chardonnay, made by Wimbaliri, tasted of buttered pineapple, beautiful with some scallops and cauliflower. And the meal finished with some New Zealand ice wine, the 2011 Te Mania Koha, a fresh, clean flavour to cut through the rich chocolate dessert.

Sage are getting better and better, and it’s clear that they know their wine.

The 2012 Gourmie for Best Cheap Restaurant

I really struggled with this one this year. I was thinking through the new places around town where you could get a decent meal for $20, and while a lot were enjoyable, none stood out. But then I realised that one of this city’s culinary landmarks just had a huge year, yet are still turning out the sort of food that people are willing to travel to get.

They may no longer be in a van by the water, but Brodburger still deliver one of the best burgers in the country. Juicy, rich meat patties, a proper bread roll, your choice of three types of cheese and all the requisite extras, it’s hard to get a more satisfying feed for the price.

Personally I go for the Broddelux, its full pound of meat laden with egg and bacon on top of everything else. Sure, you have to stretch your mouth to bite the thing, and it makes a hell of a mess, but a great burger is one of life’s simple pleasures. Brodburger certainly make a great burger.

 

So that’s the awards for another year, if a little later than intended. For 2013 I will be getting back into the swing of writing. I promise at least one post a week, every week, and I want everyone to abuse me if I break that.

I will finally get around to improving the look of my blog, too. I’m an award winning blogger now, so I need to lift my game. But the focus, as always, will stay on the food, and on the writing about the food.

So, my friends, stay tune, and eat well!

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The Artisan: Those Suburban Nights

 Name: The Artisan

Address: 16 Iluka Street, Narrabundah, ACT, 2604

Ph: 02 6232 6482

Website: theartisanrestaurant.com.au

Chefs: David Black and Sam McGeechan

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12.00pm-2.30pm and 6.00pm-10.00pm.

The suburban shopping strip. It has always been the domain of the breakfast cafe, the fish’n’chips shop, and the cheap and cheerful Asian take-away. You could wander a few doors down and get some reasonable food, but wouldn’t consider it a night out.

In recent years, though, something else has sprouted up amongst the tree-lined boulevards. Alongside the IGA and the dry cleaner are smaller, quieter restaurants that begin to approach that idea of fine dining.

They have menus that fit somewhere in the realm of Mod-Oz, maybe with a touch of French. The room are very clean, lots of white walls and dark wood, aiming for classy without being expensive. And they will have waiters who are at least trying to do the right thing, and generally doing a better than average job of it.

These places pop-up because talented young chefs want to open their own places, and the rent is cheaper than in the city. And those who, unlike me, are happy to live away from the bright lights of the city (what there is of it) should be glad for it.

One such restaurant sits in the leafy surrounds of Narrabundah. The Artisan fits this mould exactly, with two young chefs sending beautifully designed plates out to a long, thin room, a sleek bar running down one side. The food is French-tinged, the room is simple and clean. And they’re doing a lot right.

Chefs David Black and Sam McGeechan are delivering a pretty serious menu. A dish of tissue-thin smoked venison was piled high with slices of sweet beetroot and the light bitterness of baby chard, with a surprising sugar hit from grains of candied cocoa. The salad was fresh and light, a spring picnic tossed on a plate, although it somewhat overshadowed the very gentle venison.

Cassoulet is the sort of dish I would struggle to ever pass up. The traditional white bean and meat stew was here lightened up a touch, using pork cheek and sausage but leaving out the confit duck. It had the required depth and richness, the fattiness coating my mouth as expected. Yet it also came with a second, almost completely unrelated plate of soft white slices of pork loin and kale. An interesting idea, but it didn’t connect.

Desserts range from classics, like creme brulee, to something more fun. The trend of turning childhood snacks into restaurant desserts has exploded in recent years, with Philippa Sibley’s Snickers and Christine Mansfield’s Golden Gaytime leading the charge. Here they roll down that road with a Wagon Wheel. Layers of biscuit, marshmallow, tangy raspberry jam and peanut praline came out unassumingly on the plate, before being cascaded with warm, dark chocolate. With enough richness to cut through the sugar, this is a giddily fun way to finish a meal.

Having a proper sommelier to help diners with their wine selections is a great thing, but it’s not always easy for a small restaurant. Artisan do the next best thing, offering a couple of wines by the glass suggestions for each dish. In most cases there is a fairly classic choice, and one a little more surprising. In every case, they matched well. It is certainly an easy way to deal with wine.

The Artisan seems to know what it is doing. The food is good, the place classy but relaxed, and you’re going to have a very pleasant evening here. It isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it particularly memorable, but it doesn’t really need to be, because if you lived around the block from this, you would be ecstatic.

One day I might be back living in the suburbs. If that happens, I hope my suburb has somewhere like this.

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