Sunday, May 31, 2009

Yellow chicken curry in potentia

Yup, another posting that's got faff all to do with High Street, except that I made it at home and, ergo elk*, it was made within a five minutes walk from High Street.

Chicken, pumpkin, green beans, yellow curry paste, lime leaves, chili paste (the soya oil kind), fish sauce, palm sugar, coconut milk etc...

* "What is the difference? What indeed is the point? The point is frozen, the beast is late out of Paddington. The point is taken. If La Fontaine's elk would spurn Tom Jones the engine must be our head, the dining car our oesophagus, the guard's van our left lung, the cattle truck our shins, the first-class compartment the piece of skin at the nape of the neck and the level crossing an electric elk called Simon. .... Ecce homo, ergo elk. La Fontaine knew his sister and knew her bloody well. The point is taken, the beast is moulting, the fluff gets up your nose. The illusion is complete; it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth. " (from MPFC, episode 24)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The first rule of Cheese Club is don't talk about Cheese Club (Part Two)

The second part of our fromage a trois. I've been looking forward to this all day.

First, the Barossa Valley Cheese Company's Washington. F sniffed deeply, reeled back in horror and described it as "like nail polish remover... an ancient cats' tray...", and yes, the first impression is of an ammonia factory being dropped on a dead cat. But underneath the violent crust is a creamy, mild ooze that is gentle enough to forgive you for the look of disgust on your face.

I will never really feel comfortable with the term "smear ripened". An old mate played drums for a Melbourne punk band (Depression) in the 1980's, and the band's leader and guitarist's name was Smear, but that's not what puts me off. Smear was a lovely guy, and despite his strident vegetarianism and hatred of tobacco we agreed on the importance of one herb, at least. "Smear ripened" suggests a process best not delved into, especially in food production. Cursed with a visual imagination, I would rather think of mould.

The notes from Richmond Hill describe the cheese as "gentile". Well, so am I, I guess. Which reminds me of one of my work mates, who sent me an email saying how glad she was to be Jewish in this time of swine flu...

I think I'll probably be eating most of this myself.

The little chubster above is a Normandy Camembert, bearing the butch and manly name of that famous cheese terrorist, Will Studd. Ummmm... As you can see from the photo, it's on the firm side. It was a lovely, if mild, Camembert, but to be honest I think we're a week too soon. I might come back when it's excrementally runny. Report to follow in some time.

Last, the extreme, big natured, punch in the face that makes you think, "what the fuck was THAT!?!" and then humiliates you by making you beg for more. The High Alpage Gruyere from Fribourg in Switzerland is a traditional hard(ish) cooked curd cheese with a madly concentrated nutty flavour.

While the Richmond Hill notes describe it as "intense Herbaceous buttery creamy" (sic), this has none of the gentle, relaxed communing-with-nature that "herbaceous" suggests. In fact, at my first taste I thought of Heidi on a Harley. "Ja mein lieber, wir gehen auf meinem motorrad." Peter the goatherd is riding pillion, wearing aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket. Great times; great times...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The first rule of Cheese Club is don't talk about Cheese Club (Part One)

Not a High Street, Northcote reference, but a richly pleasured Bridge Road, Richmond story with added dairy goodness and a joyfully cultured experience. More to follow in coming days.

Woo hoo! Sunday I got a voicemail message from the Richmond Hill cheese folks telling me Cheese Club had my stuff. I'd tell you more, but the first rule of Cheese Club is "don't talk about Cheese Club".

A scant handful of hours more than a day later and I can cheerfully report on three of said lumpettes of milk's leap towards immortality.

The first was Buche Chevre de Poitou (above), a white mould, surface ripened (ie Camembert ripened-style) French goat's milk cheese. Being a chunky slice off a largish piece, you can see the dramatic range of textures in the photo. The inside was crumbly, slightly buttery but balanced with a fruit tartness, while the outside was more liquid and pungent. Lovely, slight outer crusting.
The second was a local Victorian goat milk cheese (above), but this time a blue moulder - Red Hill Dairy Mountain Goat Blue. Tart, earthy but with a clear, honest, goaty flavour. More crumbly than buttery, it's on the vaguely harder side of a blue cheese. Lovely, but definitely a piccolo cheese rather than a lardy-arse basso profundo.

Tonight's last cheese (below) starts with a totally different epistemology, so it's unfair to compare it to the others. But as cheeses go, WHOA!!!! It's Cambray Sheep Cheese Farmhouse Gold from Nannup (that can't be a real name...) in WA, and is a cooked curd cheese. It's pretty intense and mostly hard cheese with a bit of age, and which your better class of conmen could do a quick thimble-and-pea trick with an older gruyere. It's not obviously a sheep milk cheese but is more obviously a bloody marvelous after dinner keeper. The four year old tried some and his eyes opened wide - it's going to be hard to get him to accept a cheese slice tomorow.

In the next few days, I'll post about the other three cheeses. Oh yeah.... That'll be so hard...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cafe Bedda

Let's start with a couple of confessions. First, F and I went to Cafe Bedda some years ago and I had forgotten all about it. So this isn't a first time, but other than "it was good", I have no real memory of the place. Second, we forgot to take a camera, so the photos are taken with phones and correspondingly look like they we taken by the food stylist from Alcatraz. Nevertheless....

The magical blackboard. Not at all grumpy

Cafe Bedda is high on Rucker's Hill and has quite a few tables crammed into its small space while still having room for a big pizza oven in the front (and centre) of house. When we arrived at 6.30pm it was obviously a first sitting, and before we left most tables had emptied and been refuelled with gleaming new patrons. Despite at least 4o percent of our fellow diners wearing black (ummm.. including me), it was a perky, jumping vibe with much laughter, families, hilarity and somesuch, as well as a Northcote couple of handsome women with strong chins.

We shared a few entree dishes - baccala fritters and a small dish of warm, marinated olives from the a la carte menu; and tripe cooked with tomato, eggplant, onion and anchovy, and an artichoke stuffed with cheese and breadcrumbs from the day's specials.

Artichokes. Funny, when you finish, there seems to be just as much on the plate as when you started.

The tripe was the stand out dish for me, although I scarfed my share of olives (which I love warm) and the baccala was popular all round. The artichoke was cooked perfectly and while its filling was ok, it's not easy to improve on a fresh artichoke and I'm not sure the filling did all that much.

W dipping bread in olive oil for the first time. It's all inner city middle class from this point

The tripe, on the other hand, had been cooked long, slow and was rich and strongly flavoured with anchovies, those perfect pixies of the salted seas. The tripe itself wasn't much more than a lovely soft texture to carry the sauce, which is all it needs to do as far as I'm concerned. Everyone enjoyed it, everyone went back for another taste and everyone was pleased when F committed to cooking it at home. Although perhaps we should wait until I tell the kids what tripe is; that it's the intestines of a young boy band, untimely ripped. Although, to be honest, that's unlikely to make it any less popular. Pass the pepper please.

At the end of the entree we all sat there with the sorts of satisfied smiles that verge on the manic. This was good. Very good.

A rich, plummy Nero d'Avola by these folks was decanted into, well, a decanter, by our waiter, a Sicilian Jeremy Clarkson in looks, but not in attitude. Let's face it, if a waiter is going to be like Jeremy Clarkson, better it's this way than the reverse.

Alex's ricotta gnocchi was like a Neighbours starlet, simultaneously cheesy and impressively lightweight, although with a much more buxom shape than the actresses playing our favourite nasal characters like Kazza, Shazza and Dazza. Impressively light, it was like melting clouds, only without the hassle of opening the window of a 737 at 10,000 metres.

Gnocchi of the gods, albeit the lightweight household gods. Photoshopped into submission

Shut up, I'm eating

Felicity's saltimbocca was obviously from the sort of veal that should make me feel guilty but doesn't. It came with a balanced, intense sauce and two triangles of fluffy polenta as light as the gnocchi. I had thinly sliced and grilled yearling (I think) under a cover of bitter rocket and a light sauce with pink peppercorns. It was almost a warm salad, with the leaves mixing with the meat juices, and the chunks of perfectly roast potato with whole garlic cloves were a perfect match. Of course, the vultures settled on the potatoes pretty quickly, so I say that based on only a couple of mouthfuls.....

Emily had paccheri con ragu maille - a penne-style pasta with a thick sauce of tomato, slowly braised pork and fennel. This was a real winter pasta dish with the tomato and red wine just balancing the richness of the pork. Wow. Oh, and if you don't know what paccheri is, here's a wonderful story...
"The commonly held belief that Paccheri was Italian for 'squid' (the shape reminds most of calamari) is a urban myth, and one that needs to be dispelled once and for all. This myth, part of a much larger plot by the originators of the Paccheri Pasta, served to obfuscate and hide the Paccheri's true place in history.

In fact, Paccheri served as a vehicle to smuggle banned garlic cloves across the alps from Italy into what is today known as Austria.To hear the story is to delve deep into Italian culture. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Prussian garlic (Austria, today) was known to be small and rather weak. In contrast, Southern Italian garlic, with those large robust and pungent cloves, was highly sought after by Prussian and Hungarian Princes. In the early 1600's, in order to protect their own garlic farmers, the Prussian Excellency closed the border between Prussia and Italy to Italian garlic. Trade in Italian garlic ceased.

Southern Italians garlic farmers, whose livelihood depended heavily on the Prussian Garlic Trade were incensed.

Quietly, and now we know, quite successfully, Sicilian pasta barons created Paccheri pasta, perfectly shaped to hide a ducat's worth of Italian garlic (four to five cloves). Concomitantly, the pasta barons disseminated a litany of propaganda about Paccheri pasta designed to obfuscate Paccheri's true role." (source)
I don't care how true that may or may not be, it's a great story.

Photoshop, and the other one, two , three, four, five, senses working overtime

Dessert was a great story in itself. F had a rhubarb and marscapone tart which she raved about; Al a white chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo, which, if he was more talkative, he would have raved about; E a thrice-cooked chocolate souffle, although it was more a moist cake than a souffle; while I had a cannoli with a blintz-like ricotta and lemon filling. None of the desserts were rip-roaringly sweet, and so were exactly the way I like them.

And the coffee was perfect.

(Photo in black and white to hint that the photos are crap because we used clandestine technology, rather than crap phones)

Cafe Bedda is, to date, the highlight of our adventures on High Street. Warm staff, warm environment and beautiful Sicilian food that is both forthright and refined. Oh, and they trust the clientele enough to have little pepper grinders on each table, just as the gods intended.

They've also got a take away menu as well as a pretty impressive pizza list which we will, no doubt, progressively work our way through.
None of us would have any hesitation in going back and recommending it to others, as long as they don't recommend it to further-others and we end up not being able to book a table.
This is a sign above a door on the other (west) side of High Street. I just like it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Something different: a Pale Ale-off

For no good reason at all I thought I'd try a few novel beers, and as pale ales were in plentiful, even bountiful, supply, I've started with those. I'm not writing this for anyone so much as myself, as an aide memoire so that the next time I'm in a big barn bottleshop, I know both what to hunt for and what to hide from.

Alpha Pale Ale

From Matilda Bay in Fremantle. Pours a bright-bronze colour, and has a high-frequency bitterness that's really lovely. Despite the butch name, it's like a TV morning show host - crisp and a bit fruity for my taste. It has a typical ale tropical fruit smell and a nice sparkle, almost like a high quality home brew. Western Australia is a long way to go to get home brew, although I gave up making it long ago.

O'Brien Pale Ale

Boldly says "gluten free" on the label, as if that's something to be proud of. A quick trip to the website says they're from Ballarat, so I should at least be state-proud. A paler gold than the Alpha, but with a head full of ugly big bubbles that disappeared quickly. Not particularly hoppy, it has a modest and largely character-free bitterness and a smell that stays in your nose well after the beer has gone. Definitely a "hide". You can't make a decent pizza without gluten; maybe beer's the same.

Wicked Elf Pale Ale

Honestly, if I didn't know that good things often come both in small packages and with stupid names, I would have given this one a miss. It also has all of the buzzwords on the label too; "hand crafted", "small batch", so I should hate it. A dark copper colour and a gentle fizz, it has a solid bitterness and a slight caramel richness to balance the hops. Biggest taste so far, and the first "hunt". But if they keep it behind the counter, I'll have to point.

Beechworth Pale Ale

Another Victorian one, palish and cloudy. A fine head and an upfront bitterness, but a really weird and not particularly pleasant aftertaste. Won't be finishing this one. There's an asylum in Beechworth. Draw your own conclusions.

Outback Pale Ale

Like most things claiming the "outback" title, this one's from Sydney. It's a straw gold colour, with a lovely full malt roundness although a little on the sweet side. Not enough bitterness to balance the rich sweetness, but not bad.

Continuing the a trend that started with Ms Penguin Poove's Old and Runcible Shampoo Bitter, the beer with the most stupid name has come out on top. I'd cheerfully drink the Elf again, as long as I didn't have to ask for it by name.

I can also imagine drinking an Alpha with Chesty Bond in a Darlinghurst bar, but maybe I'm thinking a bit too much.

The Outback was a bit dull but certainly wasn't offensive, while the O'Brien and the Beechworth won't be missed from my corner of the universe.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bekers Charcoal Grill

In "Eat the Rich", PJ O'Rourke provides one of the few explanations of Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage that doesn't involve matrices. "You ... and society as a whole ... will profit more if you each do what you do best." And that's what Bekers is about: a restaurant doing what it does best and nothing else. No lengthy menus, just a clear and single-minded focus on one thing, and that focus is on mixing heat with meat. Not just any heat or meat, mind you: serious heat and serious meat.

I've seen Bekers from the tram often enough. It's anachronistic architecture and dark, rough brick arches stand out on High Street as a Life on Mars-style throwback to the 1970's, or at least to my memories of the late 70's. Its looks don't over-promise and what you see is what you get.

Inside it's pine tables with white paper with a Valhalla-esque beer hall ceiling. Lots of space around the tables and by 8.00pm the 40-50 odd seats all had bums in them. A table next to us looked like the quiet beginnings of a long bucks night, but otherwise it was a fair reflection of Northcote; all ages, the occasional Bettie Page haircut and just getting on with eating. We were there with the Urbane Parents, who joined us partly to celebrate A's birthday but also to bask in the glory of the meat.

At the back of the room there is the grill and the meat-space: Meat Ground Zero. A Dexter-sized chopping block and a real charcoal grill - the only one I've seen on High Street not to have a rotisserie for either greek lamb or barbeque chicken. (Don't worry, we'll get to the meat-based Greek restaurants soon enough.)

Like the enormous steak knives, the menu is short and to the point. Meat, meat and more glorious meat: aged meat; red meat, marbled meat. Good meat, great meat, best meat.

In fact, the meat is marvelous, and words aren't enough to convey the glory of the meat.

F walked up to the counter at Meat Ground Zero and watched mon host cut slabs of marbled beef from an even larger slab.

So rather than me prattle on, have a look at this. Enjoy. Pour yourself a glass of wine.

I started with the Chevapchichi (seen raw above), which are even harder to pronounce than spell. Small, skinless and very coarse, the texture was beautiful and they had the faint, charcoal bitterness that you only get from serious heat. We all chose steak, surprisingly enough. Rib eye was the most popular choice, because nothing says "steak" quite like a thick chunk of meat with a club of bone running down one side.

And lo, it was wonderful. Cooked perfectly, tender enough to eat with a butter knife and with the seared taste that confirms that "fire + meat = yes please".

F chose to have her rib-eye rare (as opposed to everyone else's medium rare), and yes, it was a sight to cheer the heart and warm the blood.

Also tabled were a basic, iceburg lettuce green salad and a vinaigrette potato salad that came out of a fridge it probably shouldn't have been in. In any event, nothing here competes with the meat, and that's exactly how it should be.

Years ago I worked at the Southern Cross Hotel in Exhibition Street in the Grill Room. For six months I worked a split shift over about 12 hours, and ate almost nothing during my five day working week but blue (to rare) beef. The grill chef, who was on proud display in a booth in the red velveted-restaurant, would cook it perfectly for me and in return I would make sure he got an illicit gin and tonic. (In a bit of small-world coincidence, his daughter was the office manager at the Philosophy Department where I had just finished my BA.) The hotel was demolished a year or so after I left to make way for the building where, more than a decade later, I now work.

The lesson from that time is that it takes a lot of beef before I get sick of beef. I did, towards the end of that six months, but I got over it pretty quickly.

We didn't stay for dessert. The dessert menu was concise (few desserts being meat based) and the smallest of the progeny was becoming rambunctious. We stayed long enough for F to be immortalized in the Bekers Hall of Fame For Women Managing to Eat a Whole Rib Eye.

So, the verdict? Well, there are no surprises here. What you see is what you get, and you get it done very well. Meat, glorious meat, cooked beautifully. Aged beef that tastes like Platonic meat; gently tender with the tang of intense, radiant heat. You won't be going for the vegetarian option (I think that's a glass of red) and you won't be expecting to choose from a large range of neo-bistro-eastern fusion options served with a drizzle of truffle oil and sashimi gooseberries.

This is food that makes you feel like Dennis Lillee should be sitting at the next table, sifting the froth off a can of beer with his mustache. This is AC/DC food; loud, simple and to the point. And as Ackadacka stared down punk and survived doing much as they always have, Bekers has ignored foodie fashion and stuck to what it does best. It's a wonderful time machine to a very Australian 1970's, and like Sam Tyler, I'd choose to go back. I loved it.