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Monday, 29 August 2016

Spice Temple

Spice Temple 

Neil Perry's Fine Dining Chinese Restaurant at Crown, Southbank, Melbourne

It's considered an institution in Melbourne, and with a chef to its name like Neil Perry, a location like Southbank, and an existence of six years in the Melbourne restaurant scene (when staying power is notoriously elusive), it's no wonder. Spice Temple's name is a pretty accurate description of the restaurant: food heavy in spices and spiciness; a dim space with a sort of hushed reverence.

A line-filled eating den

The quiet tone of Spice Temple (Shop 7, Crown Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank) could well be due to its design. With lots of dark wood and more traditional red and gold carpet, one might be forgiven for thinking it's a little dated. What keeps it current is the symmetrical and perpendicular fittings, creating neat squared-off eating nooks, and the dark, felt-like soundproofing material spaced out overhead, muffling any white noise.

Overhead soundproofing and visual design effect

Walking into the restaurant's reception area, you immediately notice the cool darkness of the space, brushed with warm gold finishes, arresting portraits of dour-faced Asian women, and the odd rustic lantern. To your left is a staircase that leads to a luxurious bar downstairs, and straight ahead the restaurant opens out into the brighter natural light of its riverfront windows.

Windows drawing in riverside light from Southbank

Service is smooth and warm - frustratingly, mostly provided by attractive young women in Asian-inspired dresses. (C'mon - where are all the attractive male waiters?!) Perhaps this is one aspect which contributes to the restaurant's feel of a 'gentleman's club' - not that Spice Temple is trashy in any way, of course, but it certainly has an exclusive, traditional air about it. In spite of this, I still felt relaxed and well-accommodated whilst there. I'd call it Accessible, Slightly Traditional Fine Dining™. © 

Gentleman's club-style fine dining in Crown

In case you haven't heard (!), Perry boasts an empire of restaurants and variety of cuisines, including meat, seafood, Chinese and Italian food, various incarnations of Rockpool, Spice Temple in Sydney and Melbourne, more recently, Rosetta (also at Crown Melbourne), as well as multiple other ventures. He consults with Qantas on their menus, has presented and made guest appearances on television, and of course, released cookbooks (the current running total is eight). Spice Temple Sydney was opened in January 2009; its Melbourne twin in October 2010.

Chunky crockery, not uncommon in modern Asian venues

So what does this very Caucasian Sydneysider know about Chinese food? As well as cooking in the ever-evolving and strongly varied Australian food market for around 35 years now, he has long held a keen interest in Asian ingredients, and travelled the world to learn them. The food at Spice Temple is apparently influenced by multiple Chinese regions, including Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang, but most heavily Sichuan and and Hunan. Moreover, it is actually delicious. I mean, you would hope so, considering all the hype, but this guy seems to know what he's doing. Spice is obviously key here, and all the dishes we sampled were a lovely melding of pickled, chillied, salted flavours, offset by fresh ingredients and cleansing drinks.

A cleansing glass of Pinot Gris from Alsace

We were a small lunch group of just three, and wanted to cater to our different tastes but still share a light meal. This is what we ate...

From the 'Pickles' selection

Cabbage and radish:

From the 'Raw' selection 

Kingfish with pickled green chilli, black sesame and shallot oil:
(this was melt-in-your-mouth)

Yellowfin tuna tartare 'typhoon shelter style' with chilli and cucumber:
(with a surprising slow build of spiciness)

From the 'Steamed and Poached Dumplings' selection

Pork and prawn siu mai:
(fresh and tasty)

From the 'Small Plates and Salads' selection

Spice fried chicken wings with heaven facing chilli:
(the boys loved this one)

Crispy school prawns, heaven facing chilli, salt and pepper:
(so good, we got them twice! incredibly moreish)

From the 'Large Plates' selection

Tea smoked duck with Mandarin pancakes, cucumbers, spring onion, hoisin sauce:
(the perfect softer-flavoured, fresher and more filling dish to end on)

(And yes, that is my photography getting more shonky by the end of the meal. Typical.)

Spice Temple is regularly spruiked to Melbourne tourists as a good example of what an Australian chef can achieve - and of course its location doesn't hurt. Having known of its existence for years, I was mildly surprised that I enjoyed it so much - frankly, I'd expected more pretentiousness and prepared myself for the food to be a let-down. But I was wrong in both cases - I felt comfortable there, and the food was great. Although I don't necessarily see Spice Temple becoming a regular fixture on my dining calendar, I will gladly return. Most likely with a tourist in tow.

Spice Temple Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, 8 July 2016

Milk the Cow

Everyone likes cheese, right?

OK, except maybe the lactose intolerant, and some people are averse to blue cheese. I love it all. Aside from one bad experience when I ate far too much camembert one Christmas and was subsequently quite ill, I will usually happily eat ALL the cheese, all the time. And yes, I am aware it's not terribly healthy, but pffff, I don't care (much), and yes, I am also aware there is a old wives' tale that cheese gives you crazy dreams... Awesome! Bring it on.

Cheese counter at Milk the Cow St Kilda

In 2012, St Kilda was all abuzz with the opening of Milk the Cow (157 Fitzroy St, St Kilda), a 'licenced fromagerie' - which I take to mean 'cheese shop that sells alcohol'... unless you need some kind of special licence to sell cheese? (Apart from unpasteurised cheese - which I'm pretty sure is illegal - I don't think you do.) Intriguing. A bar that sells cheese? Or a cheese shop that lets you drink? Eat/drink in, or out? I was interested to check it out, but never actually got there until early 2015 (I know... pretty lame), to take part in one of Milk the Cow's special events (a common occurrence). It was a matched cheese and wine night, called (aptly) Perfect Match Monday. For this particular night, the products came from the Mornington Peninsula: the cheeses from Red Hill Cheese, and the wines from Crittenden Estate.

Lights like cow udders (on purpose!)

When you first walk into the St Kilda site, it's set up basically like a restaurant (including table service), only it also has a huge, long cheese deli counter on one side, featuring every cheese imaginable (over 150 from around the world, according to the website). So. Much. Cheese.

Cheese and wine flight for Perfect Match Monday

For the Perfect Match night, they waited til all booked guests had arrived, then served up a flight of wines and individual cheeses per person, along with bread and crackers, of course. Someone from Red Hill Cheese talked about each cheese, followed by someone from Crittenden Estate speaking about the wine matched to each cheese.

I didn't take notes (sorryyyy!) and it was a while ago, so I don't remember which cheeses I liked best and why, but I do remember liking them all! Out of the wines, I remember the Fume Blanc was my favourite (trust me to remember the wine over everything else).

Meanwhile, a second Milk the Cow venue had opened in Carlton (323 Lygon St, Carlton) in late 2014 (Northsiders, rejoice!). More recently, I attended one of its Fondue Nights. The Carlton venue has a different layout: longer, thinner and darker, with the event held in the upstairs function hall. Same deal: once all patrons were seated, the presentation began - this time, by Milk the Cow's public star, Regional Manager and Cheesemonger, Laura Lown. (Founder and Managing Director, Daniel Verheyen takes more of a background role.)

Cheeseboard and Gluhwein

Our first round of cheese was a shared platter featuring four different cheeses, each used in the fondue that followed, apparently. Lown talked us through the flavours, textures and history of each cheese, whilst we devoured them along with a steaming teacup of Glühwein (basically a German name for spiced mulled wine). This time, I paid more attention, but couldn't possibly pick a favourite, because I liked all the cheeses. Yep.

For our second (and main) course, we were each served a mini pot of cheese fondue, kept warm by a tealight candle underneath, and served with chunky bits of bread. Whilst enjoying the novelty of poking a bread bit into the fondue and lifting it high to let the cheese stretch off, then eating many of these over and over, Lown demonstrated how to make fondue. Basically, there's a crapload more to it than you'd expect - not least, multiple cheeses, HEAPS of garlic, and kirsch - plus a whole bunch of technique, of course. Definitely doable, but I am eminently lazy, and much like cooking fish, soufflé, curry, or basically anything involving strong smells, culinary know-how or lots of ingredients/time, I prefer other people to make fondue for me.

This fondue was delicious, but very rich and strong in flavour, and there was no way I would have been able to finish it. (The first course of cheeses obviously contributed to that stance.) My friend and I both suffered that evening, due to all that rich food, in amounts our stomachs were not used to. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and would go again. For $45.00 per person, I thought it was very reasonable. (Not sure my friend could handle that much cheese again though. Anyone else up for the challenge?! There was even a man playing accordian!)

Open as a regular walk-in bar as well, Milk the Cow ensures they change their cheeseboard offerings regularly. A couple of other times, I went to the St Kilda site and tried their Supreme Platter, also shown here for your viewing pleasure:

Supreme Platter


Milk the Cow hosts myriad events (sign up to their mailing list or see the website for more info), and apparently also specialises in cheese towers (eh?!) and hampers. If you are even vaguely interested in eating cheese, I suggest you check out one of their venues.

Milk the Cow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Milk the Cow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Milk the Cow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Milk the Cow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Pierre Roelofs Dessert Evening

A few years ago, when I lived northside and spent a lot of time around Smith Street, I first heard of pastry chef Pierre Roelofs' dessert degustations, then held at Fitzroy's Cafe Rosamond. (I've since heard they were previously at Monsieur Truffe's former Smith Street site.)

The idea was you paid a set price (around $50.00 each, from memory) for a set number of courses of dessert only. Yes, DESSERT ONLY. I remember being impressed by (a) the concept of a degustation comprising solely desserts (if you're a sweet tooth too - admit you're also in love with the idea), and (b) the variety explored within such a constricted genre - sometimes focused around certain ingredients, or catering to certain food requirements (e.g. lactose intolerant, vegan). Possibly, the variety was to make it more interesting for Roelofs, or more inclusive for potential customers ...but it just all sounded really clever. Roelofs is Kiwi-born and trained in Switzerland for some years. He prepares each element of his desserts personally.

Unfortunately, the Rosamond evenings ended before I had a chance to partake. A stint of quiet was followed by several random Roelofs events, including similar degustations for a short time at Adriano Zumbo's Fancy Nance (21 Daly Street, South Yarra) (where you received four courses for $65.00), and a soft-serve pop-up outside Green Park (815 Nicholson Street, Carlton North) (timely: in the middle of summer, January 2016). Having missed all these, I was excited when a good chef friend of mine suggested we do the dessert degustation at Roelofs' new home, as of April 2016: Milkwood (120 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East).

I knew Milkwood as a regular cafe, having eaten brunch there several times. It makes sense to me that a daytime venue be utilised by night for a different purpose. Not only does it bring more attention to each business individually, through buzz about one or the other, but it would split (or at least lighten) the cost of overheads. In Melbourne's competitive cafe/restaurant market, any penny saved to keep an awesome business going is a good thing.

My friend looking forward to desserty goodness

We pre-purchased our tickets online: $55.00 each for what turned out to be three courses of dessert - but I think should actually have been four, according to the website and online reviews. At the time, I felt relieved: I'd expected four or five courses, but after two, wasn't sure I could stomach that many! They weren't overly sweet, for desserts - but of course, the nature of dessert is that it IS sweet. Those three courses taught me the maximum amount of sugar my body can handle!

It was strange rocking up to a closed Milkwood, its front room packed up and lights dimmed. A sign on the window pointed us down the side path to a back entry, and we found ourselves in the light, neutral back rooms of the venue. We were politely greeted by staff who were obviously enjoying the novelty of serving desserts to excited guests, and were led to our table.

An archway and lots of light-coloured wood gave the place a clean, Scandinavian feel. Water was served from pastel country-style pitchers, and a light, country-kitsch theme continued in the crockery, and even the arty bill. We ordered from the non-alcoholic drinks menu (truth be told - slightly disappointing, but probably healthier, since we'd already down a few drinks with our light antipasto dinner up the road) and awaited our first course.

It was an earl grey meringue, atop a rich base of apricot, almond creme and sablée (pastry). The flavours and textures complemented one another surprisingly well, and also went very nicely with my chamomile tea.

Next was a lime coconut ice-cream, with a lime jelly, jasmine and rum raisins. I'm not normally a fan of rum raisin, but the sweet-and-sour lightness of the lime and coconut helped cut through its richness.

Finally, third course was a chickpea sponge (unusual, right? but yummy!) with passionfruit cream and gel, and a chocolate crumb.

I was rather disappointed that one of the courses did not turn out to be Roelofs' signature 'dessert tube' (of various changing flavours) - I'm guessing this is the course that we missed out on. Perhaps they'd run out (the table next to us didn't get them, either). But, as I said - three courses of sugar was plenty for me, and in any case, I enjoyed the courses we did receive.

Dessert Evenings can be booked through the Pierre Roelofs website, and are currently scheduled in once per week, as far as August. Make sure you book ahead - they are very popular - and you will need to pay ahead, too. Approximately one hour and 20 minutes is allocated for each sitting. The set menu is changed frequently, and dietary requirements *may* be able to be catered for, with plenty of notice (but it's best to enquire).

Roelofs' current project is Dessert Studies: basically a collaboration with other creatives to help devise new Dessert Evenings dishes. From time to time, he also runs a Dessert Intensive, a short course designed to share his knowledge, skills and experience with pastry chefs of the future. Details of both projects can be found on his website

This is one chef determined to make the world a sweeter place.

Update: 6 July 2016

In response to this blog post, staff from the Dessert Evenings contacted me and advised that there should indeed have been four courses rather than three, and that the initial course should have been a dessert tube. Apparently there are usually extra tubes on hand, so they are not sure how we were missed. Of course we understand that these things can happen - no biggie! They kindly offered for us to return and sample a dessert tube on another occasion, which we hope to do soon. 

Milkwood Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Mister Jennings

Named for children's author Paul Jennings, this baby in Richmond's on-again off-again hospitality wasteland of Bridge Road is one for the real foodies. It is the solo venture of Head Chef Ryan Flaherty, who has stinted at world-renowned restaurants El Bulli and The Fat Duck, then jointly brought Northcote's The Estelle to foodie fame along with then-business partner, Scott Pickett. Flaherty's passion, creativity and refined skill is evident in his food, and indeed the whole of Mister Jennings (142 Bridge Road, Richmond) is a pretty schmick affair.

It's an unassuming shopfront in amongst the retail section of Bridge Road, near the corner of Lennox Street. Mister Jennings had been on my restaurant hit list for so long that by the time I got there, I'd managed to avoid the 'just opened' crowds, and aside from maybe three other tables, we had the place to ourselves. Then again, it's not a massive restaurant, and it was mid-week in late March -- and to be honest, I was quite happy that it meant we had more of the charming host's attention. *blinks innocently*

Lots of people seem to mention the bareness of the 34-seater restaurant; I found it simple, but warm. Wooden floorboards, chunky Scandinavian-style chairs and tables in blonde wood, navy feature walls, a dark, modern central bar, and low lighting playing on mirrored surfaces... To me, it was all welcoming elegance, clean neutral lines and quiet confidence. Upstairs is a 16-seater function room on the way to which you pass by the kitchen with its separate chef's table (SO want that next time!).

Drinks are a classy affair, the wine list devised by ex-Stokehouse sommelier, Lincoln Riley. I drank a Kiwi Pinot Gris, probably a little too keenly.

It may sound puppy-eyed but I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single thing we ate. We did that "please feed us" thing, and I find that often results in the most exciting food I ever get to try.

To start, we had grown-up Dagwood Dogs, otherwise known as a Boudin Blanc - chicken based, and surprisingly moist. (Yes, that word. You can deal.)

Then, cured scallops with a cold pea soup poured at the table. Light, fresh and creamy, with a generous topping of fluffy herbs. Good lord, I'm getting hungry.

Next up: my favourite dish of the night (and the favourite of many other patrons here, it seems) - frozen kangaroo. ...Wha?!? Any kangaroo I've had before has been in the form of a heavy, chewy, peppery steak - frankly, not that enjoyable. This was the complete opposite: finely sliced, classically prepared carpaccio - that is, frozen to serve, designed to thaw in your mouth - jumbled with a creamy avocado wasabi, julienned nashi pear, freeze-dried raspberries for kick, richness from a sort of congealed beef and wine stock. It was a party in my mouth - cold, fresh, rich and light all at once. It sounds weird, but trust me. You'll love it.

The kangaroo awesomeness was followed by a Tasmanian trumpeter - no, not a musician; a fish! - served with fried curry leaves, squash, caviar and a saffron, onion sauce (soubise). (Sorry, no pic of that one.)

Then we shared a sirloin from the Kangaroo Valley, cooked to perfection and served with simple chunky fries and salad. Thank goodness we shared this one; by this point, I was rather full.

But! Room for dessert... always. We technically had one each, but shared them all.

One was an almond sponge thing (for want of a better description... nope, there's none) served with pear, green tea, and cream.

There was a basil tuile with mascarpone and strawberry.

And finally, a chocolate fondant (yes!) with caramelised banana (noooo... nothing personal - bananas and I are not friends).

See? All kinds of yummy goodness.

Mister Jennings is a self-proclaimed bar and eatery, open for lunch and dinner. Although I'd be more inclined to go here for a good, proper meal, I wouldn't mind trying the perch-at-the-bar thing for a bit of classy wine, banter and nibbles. It's a grown-up affair, which makes me wonder what the real Mr Jennings would make of it.

Mister Jennings Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato