Friday, June 26, 2009

I Saluti

At last, we're back on High Street proper. We're not somewhere else, we're not having take away, drinking beer or shopping at the market. We're doing what we set out to do, which is to enjoy and record the restaurants of Northcote and Thornbury.

Arriving at I Saluti also means we are getting ever closer to the glorious summit of Rucker's Hill, and will soon have to cross the street, descend and start heading north.

I Saluti celebrates its wood-fired pizza oven by literally raising it on a pedestal. A cheerful space with perky, good-humoured staff, it's a bit more casual than its almost-neighbour, Cafe Bedda, but just as warm and inviting. Racket, but chipper racket; not the sort that makes me realise how old my hearing has become.

Action packed!
In a mix of opportunism and willingness to share, we were joined by Penny, Kent, Elisabeth and Cameron. Cameron and I both Joined Up In Canberra All Those Years Ago at the same time in the early 1990's, and now he was visiting from Oop North; Lis is one of my joyfully madder colleagues; and Penny and Kent are, wonderfully, family.

Cameron and the author, seen here dressed as the white person he is.

Kent, Pen and Al
The greatest challenge of the evening was the calculation of optimal seating. Far more complicated than a garlic-tinted version of the traveling salesman problem, we ended up moving at least once, but still ended up with Al and Em feeling they'd been isolated at the junior end of the table. Both fiddled with phones. Thus is the way of the world.

We all opted for pizza, pasta or risotto, and all were pretty damn happy with what they received. The pizzas all had the right balance of thin/crispy/chewy crust without overdoing the top layer. I'm a bread fiend when it comes to pizza and there's nothing that turns me off pizza more than the "too much ain't enough" approach to cheese and foamy, dull bread. But these were perfect - mine was mostly Mediterranean vegetables with hot salami and a chewy, thin base. This is closest I get to a vegetarian pizza. I take the Bill Bailey, post-modernist approach to vegetarianism: I eat meat, but I do it ironically. And these were worth the irony.

My pizza
Cameron had a Lebanon-inspired lamb kofta pizza. Lamb good, sweet chutney a little out of place, but overall a worthy crack at the pizzorial arts.

F and Al were happy with their seafood risotto and Lis thought the chorizo pasta was pretty fine.

Dessert, alas, was a mixed fare. The bread and butter pudding, if it was bread, was the sort of bread where the use-by date on the packet says, "don't worry - you won't live that long." Although the stodge was interleaved with dried fruit and drizzled with a good custard, it was still stodge.

And when I say "dried fruit", I mean the brand-free boxes of mixed dried fruit you get to make a boiled fruit cake. Sultanas? Check. Currants? Yup. Peel? Oh yes (but never enough). Cherries? Well..... There are at least lumpettes of cheerfully coloured jelly disguised as cherries - that's close enough, surely?

On the other hand, Em and the Wubbleyou shared a chocolate and pistachio pizza that looked pretty fine, and A's panna cotta was perfect - judiciously sweet and the right balance of lightness and girth.

Yes, the food was great, and the atmosphere and staff were warm and friendly. But what really set the night apart; what really made it special was the company. Oh, and the weird hands. Weird stuff.

So if there was a lesson from the night, it was that taking friends makes the food even better. It seems pretty obvious in hindsight, but it's important to remember that, although it might seem like I'm writing about the food, it's the night that's far more important. And this night was fun. Conversation that never waltzed but occasionally pogo'd; company that was friendly but never demanding; and food that didn't demand respect but earned it anyway.

From left: Em, Cam's nose, F, Lis, a glimpse of Kent, gesticulating Pen

Friday, June 12, 2009

Butchers Grill

Butchers Grill (no apostrophe ) is nowhere near High Street, but is in Bourke Street, a few doors down from where I work in the city. We'd gone from High Street, where places were too dark (the Wesley Anne); to Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, where everything was full to the City. The plan leaving Fitzroy had been to go to a Korean BBQ place, but it was being dismantled/brought undone. We'd walked through bitter winds, tried a few other places full of suits and settled on Butchers, which obviously had plenty of tables from the window.

It's a grill room in the style to which I had become accustomed when I worked at the (then anachronistic) Southern Cross in the mid 1980's, but brought up to date, if that's not a contradiction in terms. Dark red timbers, red and gold wallpaper, chandeliers and a wall of wineracks and stained-glassed windows. But it's not quite right.... This is a style that requires a total commitment: the customer can't be allowed to see behind the facade (or even that there IS a facade). But the real world kept poking out: from behind the bar where the post-mix pipes had a cheeky Matrix-like effect; to the veneer of veneer; and to the stained-glass that looked like it had come from a colonial-style home in 1979.

It was getting late by the time we sat down, and the full meat event was a bit more than we'd planned on, so we skipped entree and straight to the serious business: grilled meat all round. Lamb cutlets were cooked rare and perfectly. The chevapchichi were ok, but not particularly special (especially with the memory of these so recent). They were reasonably finely ground and evenly cooked - no high temperature flavour but still retained enough fat to keep them juicy.

Chunks of pork and chicken came on long, long skewers with token squares of red onion and green capsicum. The pork was wonderful and had really taken on the grill flavour. Despite being happy to eat every part of the pig except the squeal, I like to imagine I'm discerning when it comes to our four-legged, pink skinned friends. The chicken, on the other hand, was a bit less inspiring. Insert gently damning faint praise here.

The green salad tasted like it had been dressed with a commercial dressing. F's garlic mash was very good, generous with butter.

The food highlight for me was a smoked sausage, which was coarser than the chevapchichi, but which had the rosy inner glow of a snaggle that's been slightly cured, and a deep, smoky flavour. Everything came with a mild, fresh paprika relish.

Butchers promises much and delivers in part. When you dress up like Miss Havisham, expectations are created; great expectations in fact, and these weren't met. The food was good (and not particularly expensive) and we did have a lovely bottle of wine. But the food wasn't great, the service didn't quite meet the surrounds and the people at the next table were laughing like drunk toads mating with hyenas. Not that it's fair to hold Butchers responsible for that.

So in summary, while Butchers looks like a stately club, John Howard's green tracksuit was poking out from under Miss Havisham's wedding dress. She also sang "Happy Birthday" at the top of her voice and flirted with the camp waiting staff.

A Volvo P1800 on the walk back to the car. No reason.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

curry masala

i suppose anything after the superlative cafe bedda was bound to be a bit of a disappointment but curry masala was more than that - it was a complete disappointment.

to be fair we did get takeaway because m and i had headaches, it's a cold and rainy night in melbourne and going out seemed like too much of an effort. but when you have competitors like sigiri, kake di hatti and curryzma who all do brilliant and different curries, well you expect something a bit better than this.

the food was ok - we ordered mixed tandoori entree, chicken makahni, prawn masala, paneer, naan, rice and raita. all adequate but nothing outstanding and certainly nothing we would return for.
and everything seemed to have a very low lump to gravy ratio
thank goodness we had some koko black chocs for dessert...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Preston Market, Saturday afternoon

Backyard Beer! A 3 Ravens or two

Stopping at the bottle-o at the Terminus on the way home, I "uuuummed" and "aaahhhed", dithered and thithered, and ended up with some 3 Ravens Smoke Beer. The young gentleman in the bottle shop, a gaunt love child of Nick Cave & Bruce Spence, said, "that's a local; it's from Thornbury". Living in Thornbury, my heart filled with a strange pride. Beer! Brewed in my own backyard, as it were.

I'd like to think that I apply the same critical eye to this beer as I would for any other. I can't guarantee anything, mind you.

According to their website (and the fridge at the Terminus), they brew a few beers. Tonight, however, the verdict is on the Smoke Beer. It's a fullsome ale with the caramels of well-roasted malt, but soft, and although it's not particularly bitter, it's not in the slightest cloying. And yes, it does have a slightly smoky finish.

The 3 Ravens folk describe it as having a "bright ruby hue". It doesn't; it's more of a lovely pale chocolate colour - beautiful, by all means, but by no means ruby. It's also described as a having an "aromatic beechwood nose". I have a rather pointed and largish nose, but it isn't made of beechwood. I can smell with it, but I'm not sure that makes it aromatic.

OK, so the brewery turns out to be withing walking distance of the front door, but I'm not one to judge a beer by convenience, unless I'm thirsty. It's a really lovely and surprisingly refreshing beer for a dark ale. It's not particularly rich and it doesn't have (or need) the heavy-handed hops often needed to balance a rich, dark beer. This is a beautiful beer, one that I will enjoy again. I can't imagine drinking many dark ales on a hot day, but this'll be great. It's also bottle conditioned, so it's got some modest sludge-meets-Vegemite in the bottom, but it all blends in to the rich whole.

I'm not a fan of wheat beers or blond beers, but they do make some others that I'll give a go. I'll let you know what I think...