Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've been watching Denn out of the corner of my eye for quite a few months now. It's exactly at that part of the tram journey in the evening between work and home when I look up from a novel (or from ^%$#ing emails) and think, "sigh.... almost home". I'm a committed snacker, so anywhere advertising tapas will always get a second look.

Denn is in* the Westgarth end of High Street between the organic vegie shop and the weird second-hand shop full of antique clothes and bric-brac-knick-knacks. I know that sounds like a Northcote inevitability (or parody), but I'm not kidding.

It's a sign

We had such high hopes for Denn that we were prepared to share the night with some wonderful friends who'd flown down from Canberra that morning, food untasted. I should explain we spent almost ten years in the national capital through no fault of our own, and I still get flashbacks whenever I see a roundabout, frost or rubbish 1980's architecture.

Julia was one of the first friends we made in Canberra and she did much to help us adjust quickly to the strange customs of the capital. She had already made the transition to Canberra from earlier years in Malaysia and London, so helping a couple of arts graduates from Melbourne acclimatise was a doddle for her. A decade later, after we left for Melbourne, she met Graham, her wonderful husband and obvious soul mate. Indeed, in proof that serendipity abounds, Julia was visiting us in Melbourne when Graham first called her to ask her out. We were recovering after a weekend at Earthcore (2003?) when the call came, and I still remember her smile.

Alex, Graham and his dignity Julia

Anyway, the point that they are good friends of ours is made. And like most of our High Street jaunts, although the restaurants have sometimes been great, it's the good friends that make the nights wonderful.

The food wasn't that bad...

Denn's menu looks simple but is bistro impressive with quite a few tapas dishes that look perky, interesting and modest, as well as a few simple pizzas and mains. The service was charming and prompt.

We ordered a platter of vegetarian tapas and some wedges of crisped pita. They were ok. Olives good; dolmades ok; haloumi great; pita pretty good too. Nothing great, but to quote Stephen Fry, not too mild neither. The mushrooms had a wonderful flavour, but about half of them were tough - halfway between crisp and chewy. This was not good.

Tough mushrooms and other stuff

In a fit of seafood enthusiasm, almost all the over 6's ordered paella, except Em, who with a wisdom beyond her tender years ordered the porcini risotto.

We were given a "it takes 20 minutes" warning, but it certainly didn't keep us waiting. Alas, it was not spectacular. The paella had been cooked vigorously in the pan and was quite dry. Although the flavour had the bold, caramel courage that paella needs around the edges, it was pretty uninspiring and didn't offer much of a variety of texture. And apart from the rice, there wasn't a whole lot else. The chorizo was thinly sliced and crisped (and bereft of juicy flavour); the fish was sparse; and the prawn was dry.

Emily's porcini risotto was wonderful. Like a perfect system of government, it balanced the rights of the individual (grains of rice) with the rights of the collective (the starchy, conjoined wetness) into a perfect mass of texture and democracy. The porcinis offered the correct amount of passive resistance while still yielding to a higher authority.

Emily's risotto art (with poor spelling - it was meant to be "rhombus")

We ordered dessert. The caramelized fig ice cream was spectacular, and the chocolate ice cream that went with it was as appealing and bitter as an overpaid Hollywood starlet, but with a much more luscious fullness of figure.

Saint Felicity (and child)

In summary, Denn would be a lovely place to drink a bottle of wine and eat some small bits and pieces while talking rubbish with a group of pals. The food was ok, but not particularly inspiring (except for the wonderful caramelized fig ice cream); the wine list was good and the staff were friendly and elite and crack and wonderful (and they looked good in black). The room is gorgeous without being pretentious and we could talk without having to shout, which counts for a lot.

I'd love to go to Denn with a large group - the sort of evening where I was more focused on the company than the food. Although the setting and service are among the best on High Street, the food was lackluster. Go there; have fun, but don't expect to reinvent your taste buds.

*pronounced "denizen". Ha!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Estelle

What's new, Pussycat? For us it was a trip back to High Street where there's always something there to remind me. Whenever I have to cancel a High Street jaunt I just don't know what to do with myself.

Not knowing what to do with myself

If it wasn't obvious already, last night we went through
Hal and Bacharach, but I would still do it all again.

The Estelle (their definite article; not mine) was a recommendation (thanks
Niels) which might have otherwise skipped our attention, except that it was reviewed kindly by friend Essjay. While its spatial location is clearly high on High Street, its temporal location skips between the late 1950's and early 60's and the present.

The first thing you notice are the windows and door and decor. (The) Estelle has beautiful windows with a lovely view of High Street and its glorious wandering haircuts and horizontally-framed glasses. Inside, it's tiled walls, almost-kitsch decor and steel-framed vinyl chairs with studs on the back. In a word; swellegant. There's also a meat theme, with what could be a knitted leg of lamb hanging from one wall and a "Madonna and Lamb Leg" icon on the other. Felicity described it as polyester erratic with a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach, for Burt did indeed meet our musical requirements for the evening and then some.

The evening started quietly (we booked for 6.30pm) but later it was not an empty place. It was also strangely dim and I really struggled to read the menu, seemingly printed on apricot paper under apricot lighting. We ordered a jug of "Eldorado Gold" to start with. Now, I have to admit I'm a big fan of the jugged punch (such as the ones from Madame Brussels) and this jug of golden rum, dry ginger, strips of ginger and orange peel and possibly star anise was gloriously scented and fresh.

We ordered some warm olives, "Thornbury smoked meat" and a duck parfait to share. The olives were a mix of enormous meaty green ones and some almost spherical (ok, oblate spheroid) black ones. The "Thornbury smoked meat" (ordered out of suburban patriotism) was a thinly sliced dry(ish) salami with slices of a fresh pickle of cucumber. The salami was nice enough, as was the pickle on its own, but together the pickle had way too much upfrontage and the salami was left peering around the curtains in the background, mugging like crazy but largely being ignored.

The duck parfait, however, was perfectly light and creamy with just the right balance of fat and cloud-like fluffiness. Promises, promises, but in this case, well fulfilled.

Felicity ordered ox tongue which was melting and creamy, and perfectly undercut by a beetroot confit and soothed by a delicate celeriac puree. I thought the texture was a little slack, but tongue's never really been my cup of tea.

Emily's duck was a caramelly rich roasted duck leg on a settee of red cabbage that was lush with lardon flotsam. Just like Emily, we were ready to sing of our longing* for the duck.

Al and I shared a standing rib roast of pork which combined the best of old-school pork (crisped-fat flavour) and new-school (juicy and without an excess of fat). It came on a bed of gently but warmly spiced carrot puree , some chickpeas and with a thinly shredded fennel salad. The carrots were lovely and just sweet enough to balance the pork while the fennel salad was soft and paper thin (and so not very aniseedy, which wouldn't have been a bad thing).

The main dishes came with some braised mushrooms were beautiful and would be a perfect winter vegetable dish, especially if Melbourne ever has another winter, and although the small roasted chats in duck fat were nice enough, if I am roasting potatoes in duck fat I whip the skins off first.

We all ordered the Lemon Posset with Rhubarb as a dessert. Cheerfully good and just tart enough to wear a miniskirt in public without being vulgar.

The Estelle is an unexpected oasis of good modern food with a cheerful and self-effacing style where there is an awful lot of wank about. The food is damn good, the staff are cheerful and just attentive enough (one having a very fetching floral pocket on his apron) and the decor is both cheerful and interesting without being silly. The Estelle is a modern stand-out on High Street for us, and although it's not perfect, it has the courage to try something new. I'm prepared to say a little prayer and wish and hope that others on High Street will be as bold.

In short, Estel
le is exactly what the world needs now, and Estelle? If it wasn't obvious already, this guy's in love with you.

But although the night was almost perfect, there was one question left unanswered; "Do you know the way to San Jose?"

*The irony of a link to Karen Carpenter in a restaurant review is not lost on the authors.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil before Chicken Soup for the Soul

"A Chicken Soup for the Soul story is an inspirational, true story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It is a story that opens the heart and rekindles the spirit."
This is not a "Chicken Soup for the Soul" story. It's far, far better than that. It's a chicken soup story. I'll resist the temptation to tell you to duck yourself, but only just.

Chicken (not in soup)

I woke up yesterday with a cold and a throat infection, which made swallowing painful and me grumpy. Not surprisingly, I've had a craving for chicken soup as something both nourishing and easy to imbibe, and so went looking for a simple recipe. Early in my search, I found Chicken Soup for the Soul, from whence the above quote derives.

I know it's easy to be dismissive of self-help books and websites, but there's a reason for that - they're shit. Wide-eyed, sing-song nonsense spouted by the gormless to a mouth-breathing audience of the unfulfilled does not, in my eyes, justify the extra distance I have to walk in my favourite bookshop to get to the proper books, you know, the ones about food, war, ethics and architecture. I've never quite understood the sheer arrogance of writing down a bunch of homilies and expecting people to be grateful, or in the case of a book of this rubbish, pay. Worse are the ones that go beyond the simple "I changed my life by not being sad and adopting a sunny disposish," and suggest that we can wish the universe to be a better place, often making reference to quantum physics, as though talking about science is the same as understanding it (spoiler alert: it's not).

The funny thing is there is some actual, factual, real-life science that suggests that chicken soup may be good for you when you're poorly, although to be completely honest it's only in dribs and drabs. There aren't any major studies or meta-analysis and nothing at the Cochrane Collaboration, which for those unfamiliar with it, or who think it's an R&B band, is pretty much the bee's knees when it comes to medical evidence.

Chicken (about to be soup)

So I made some chicken soup. I stuffed some carcasses (politely called "chicken frames") into a pot with a couple of sliced carrots, a leek, a handful of parsley and some celery and a few dried mushrooms, before simmering for three hours to make stock.

Chicken (becoming soup)

Half the stock was frozen for later use (risotto, probably) and the rest had some chicken thighs (and their bones) added, along with some more carrots, leeks, potato and parsley. After some lengthy period the bones were removed and the meat shredded. Some modest noodles added and cooked and the soup was completed and perfected. Sticky with natural gelatin and calming with organic... ummm.. organisms.

This is a "Beggars Banquet" kind of soup. Like 1968 for the Rolling Stones, it was a turning point in my illness; a pivot around which my fortunes revolved. There was "before soup", differentiating the early formulaic blues soup from the "after soup", which was up-beat, more focussed and without Brian Jones, although to be fair, Brian wasn't there for "before soup" either. Like Beggar's Banquet, this was also a little bit country 'n' western, but not in an insulting way.

Most importantly, although I wasn't enlightened after eating the soup, I did feel better. Not in an uplifting, spiritual, optimistic kind of way; but more in a "at-least-my-throat-doesn't-hurt-as-much" kind of way. And that's what matters.

Because there is no Answer; there is no Secret and there is barely any Fucking Point*, other than the one we make for ourselves, and that, dear readers, is the only one that matters. Except for soup.

Oh crap, now I'm spouting off unfalsifiable rubbish... Maybe that's why they do it - it's so easy.

*My book based on this title out soon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Reminiscing - Bamboo House

Another episode in this increasingly inaccurately named blog. Once again this post is not about High Street, but it is set in the same city (broadly).

A few years ago we saw Lano and Woodley on their farewell tour, which was funny, poignant and touching, but I hadn't realised what made them such a great act. Both of their characters are wonderfully naive and childish, but while Frank is innocent and wide-eyed, Colin was the nasty and vindictive child... I'm resisting the temptation to make an easy comparison to John Lennon and Paul McCarthy, except that I just have, so I won't develop it any further.

So this Friday night, Good Friday, we saw Frank Woodley at his show (Bewilderbeest) at the Forum in this year's Comedy Festival.

By himself, Frank was very funny but perhaps a little narrow. He told a wonderful story about using a rare opportunity to tell a joke about an ocelot; a joke that which I remember from the joke page on one of the few Playboy magazines* (no, really) I've seen. The joke goes:

Q: How do you titillate an ocelot?
A: You oscillate its tit a lot

I won't spoil the story, but it does involve his increasingly frustrating attempts to tell this joke to a zookeeper.

Before the show, though, we had dinner at Bamboo House in Little Bourke Street.

Hmmm.... Glossy....

Bamboo House does a mix of Northern and Szechuan dishes (up front, at the proud part of the menu) and Cantonese dishes (at the back of the bus). Here I must confess that one of the reasons to go to Bamboo House was that my favoutite Szechuan restaurant in Little Bourke Street, Post Deng, hadn't answered their phone in the afternoon, and I assumed they were closed, what with it being Good Friday. Bamboo House, on the other hand, had a telephone that worked.

Pork Hock, Drunken Chicken - cold, but perfect for winter

We ordered some cold Szechuan entrees - sliced pork hock and Drunken Chicken. Both were sliced beautifully - the pork thin and softly spiced, while the chicken was firm and moist with red tinges at the bone but lush with fat. Fat was important to both without being the dominant flavour.

I'm removing a chicken bone, not my teeth

As it was Good Friday, Felicity eschewed meat and had Ginger Scallops as an entree. These looked beautiful and were described as fresh and fabulous.

Ginger scallops

Being respectful of Felicity's attitude towards food on Good Friday (and a day without meat never hurt anyone, or so it is alleged), we ordered a seafood bird's nest and a whole steamed barramundi. The bird's nest was excellent - the seafood was generous and cooked perfectly, but the barramundi was the hero of the hour. It was amazingly moist and still firm, and the soy and ginger sauce was strong enough to add something to the fish without threatening it. Some stir fried gai lan to go with it and it was fantastic.

Barramundi is good. That's all I have to say

The only restaurants I was taken to as a teenager (at least, that I can remember) were Cantonese. The Panda in Hawthorn and the Fairy Stork in Acland Street in St Kilda were the ultimate destinations (the latter having the benefit of glorious cake shops as neighbours) in the early 1980's. Indeed, while I was at university in the late '80's, I worked as a cocktail barman and the two best tips I got were (a) from Andre the Giant (another story altogether); and (b) from some blokes I'd recommended the Panda to.

Cantonese food is not particularly fashionable at present, which means the stalwarts like Bamboo House have to work a bit harder to keep up with the pack, and they do. The service is great and the food is wonderful. The room... well, it's not particularly fashionable and it's a bit bright, but it wasn't too noisy for a Friday.

Southern Chinese food is not on my shortlist of favourites, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it and have a place for it. Great Cantonese food always looks beautiful and the contrast of textures is something I have grown to love. Familiarity will never breed contempt, but perhaps it has created a smidgen of indifference. It's something I'd hate to see relegated to just a memory.

*I must me one of the few men of my age who remembers the jokes in Playboy, because the only other thing from the Playboys I saw as a lad and remember was a limerick:
"Whilst Titian was mixing Rose Madder
His model was perched on a ladder
Her position to Titian
Suggested fruition
So he went up the ladder and 'ad 'er."
Brilliant, eh?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Physics of Dumplings

The research team

Up until recently, high energy dumpling research in this country has languished, the victim of budget cuts and a research community focussed on turning tricks for the private sector. However, with the recent opening of the Hu Tong Dumpling Research Facility in Market Lane, primary dumpling research has started the long march into the 21st century. With the failure of the Large Hadron Collider, allegedly as a result of being sabotaged by a future God in order to save the world, the Hu Tong facility may be mankind's last greatest hope of understanding the dumpling, and the fundamental particles that theory suggests it consists of: the dumpleton and the souptrino.

Evidence of Garlic Field Theory

Professor Helen, Director of the Transport Dumpling Institute, leads the multinational research team at the Hu Tong facility, and she is joined by researchers Miranda, Kathryn, Stephen, Nicola, Dominica and, of course, Dr Phil and his research assistant. Today, the team was focussed on one of the major questions left in the field of dumpling research: the mystery of the Shao-long Bao dumpling. If the team could explain this strange phenomena, they would then have the basis for a truly Grand Unified Theory of Lunch.

Testing begins

Ever since Schrodinger put a cat in a box (maybe), scientists have longed to understand the drive to put things into other things, and never is this more manifest than the study of food. If cheese can be put into a sausage; if a sausage can be put into a pancake; then putting soup into a dumpling must be possible. And that is the grand claim of the Shao-long Bao dumpling - that these Schrodinger's dumplings exist in a state of quantum indeterminacy, where probability wavicles collapse into a flood of glorious soup once bitten.

The sauce substrate

So this was the purpose of today's experiment - to understand what was in the core of these four-dimensional quantum dumplings, and whether the dream of soup-within-a-dumpling is just a dream and nothing more. Previous attempts, involving the acceleration of souptrinos to near light-speed, had ended tragically with a dry cleaning bill of almost $16.

This time, however, the experiment started well. First a pork dumpling, flavoured with ginger and spicy with chili oil was used to fine tune the equipment. Lacking soup, or even the theory of soup, made it the perfect control subject.

Control dumplings. Perfect, and free from soup

Once the testing apparatus had been confirmed, two further rounds of dumplings, one a plain pork, the other vegetarian, and some braised leafy vegetables were assayed. The greens displayed high levels of garlic, which was consistent with predictions made using Dirac's little known Garlic Field Equation.

The test subjects

It was time. The Shao-long Bao dumplings were brought into the laboratory as a hush descended over the table. Was there actually soup inside these dumplings, or was current dumpling theory wrong?

The first result was disappointing. I lifted a dumpling too quickly from the bamboo petrie dish and tore the skin. While there was visual evidence of soup, none was tasted. On the second and all subsequent tests, however, evidence of soup was clearly identified. Celebration! Success! The soup/dumpling relationship, previously only theorized, was true! We arranged a hasty media conference and announce our results to the world. The rest, of course, is history. And lunch.

Pausing to celebrate