A bit more than a year ago we started "Eat our Way" with the intention of capturing our thoughts about our local restaurants at a point in time before they became too popular, swanky and/or wanky. The deal was simple; I promised to focus on High Street and never use the word "authentic" and you promise not to complain about the humble scope of this blog. I say this really just to confess, in advance, that this time we're a little out of scope. No, that's not quite true; we're well out of scope. We had a couple of days in Darwin last week and had a lovely evening eating great Nonya food at a place called Hanuman, and this is our humble record of that evening. Think of it as "Eat our Way goes Mad in the Tropics".
Hanuman was just around the corner from our hotel and looked pretty fine from the street, and like everywhere wonderful in Darwin, it's open to the elements.
We don't often start a meal with a cocktail, but then we're not often in a different city without children for a couple of days either. I ordered a Hanuman Martini, which was flavoured with a sweet green tea liqueur, while the seahorse had a Cosmopolitan. The martini erred on the sweet sidewith a clean fragrance, but the Cosmo was a damp and diluted squib - a pale, faded pink shadow of the Platonic Cosmopolitan, like 1980's office decor - pale pink and grey like a galah. Afterwards the seahorse did complain her ears had fallen off, so perhaps it wasn't that diluted....
Oysters in sweet little pots
We ordered two entrees - oysters baked with ginger, soy and chili, and "Money Bags" - plump, fried wontons filled with a ginger-garlic chicken mousse. The oysters were intense and at the very limits of what I'm prepared to see happen to an oyster. They come in a beautiful terracotta dish, individually lidded in a sharp, hot sauce. There was still enough room for the oyster to shine through, but only just. Enjoyable, but not essence of oyster which is what I enjoy most in an oyster.
Moneybags of... chicken
The Money Bags were wrapped in a thin, crisp tofu skin and served with a sweet chili glaze. Plump, lovely and sweet, like... I could get into trouble now so I'll shut up.
Main courses were a coconut milk prawn curry that was unctuous, mild and warm and pork belly cooked with star anise and cinnamon. Both were fabulous on their own, although in retrospect they were both rich dishes with little spice, and choosing at least one dish with a bit more spark would have been a better idea. We also ordered roti, which was great, and raita which was a little sweet for my tastes.
Hanuman served up the best meal I've had in the Northern Territory, which to a southerner might sound like a backhanded compliment, but I've had some fantastic south east Asian food in Darwin that had a freshness that would be hard to beat. Green papaya salad and oodles of rice noodles at various markets mean my northern expectations are pretty high and Hanuman met these.
I didn't mention dessert - Black Rice Brulee. It was of the Gods.
I think it's only fair that at this stage in our relationship, dear reader, that I disclose certain editorial and research standards at Eat Our Way. Now, I know those who've been reading this blog for any length of time will find the suggestion that I have standards a little hard to fathom and may even dart off to re-read old posts looking for evidence of such. My general rule is that it takes a certain number of meals to justify an opinion, meaning a single adult journey to a venue generally requires a second validatory expedition before mere words are committed to type.
Because drinking at breakfast is cool yes it is shut up.
In this case, however, I'm going to break that rule, largely because it will be a while before we get a chance to go back, and, albeit based on scant evidence, we will be going back. So, dearest reader, understand the limitations of my opinion but recognize that I'm going to have one regardless of what you think.
I went with the smallest tribe member for a walk to the park (child exercise) followed by some a stroll up Ruckers Hill (adult exercise) to get some late Sunday breakfast. Chowhound is towards the top of the Hill on the western side, a short walk down from the town hall. It's bigger than many of its peers and is a pleasant, relaxed space that's not too high on the Wank Scale (where your lounge room gets a "zero" and sparkle laminex and mixed 1950's vinyl chairs gets an "8").
Beans, eggs, proscuitto
So I ordered the baked eggs with baked beans, proscuitto and toast with a Bloody Mary while Will had Macaroni Cheese from the menu for kidlets.
The beans were not the slow baked, rich, slightly sweetened and well cooked beans that I make at home, but were lighter, with firmer white beans in a fresh tomato sauce. Not what I was looking forward to, but not bad either - they were Kylie Minogue when I was expecting Wagner. The eggs were baked on top of these and were alright, but the yolks were a little harder than perfect and there was a splodge of uncooked white in the center. A quick stir into the beans fixed the white problem but the yolks were well beyond translucent and thus repair. The prosciutto was crisp, salty and thin. A not-at-all bad dish, although potentially improved by breaking the egg yolk into the middle of the dish where it will cook the least.
Macaroni cheese and boy
Will's macaroni cheese was generously cheesed, baconed and onioned. The onions in particular were golden and lusciously sweet, and the whole sticky ensemble was crunchily crumbed.
Everything else was tickety-boo; the staff were helpful, it was quiet and generally relaxing. So in summary, while I can't speak definitively about Chowhound, I can speak positively enough to say we'll go back and try breakfast again.
There's something fantastic about Gold Leaf in Preston and I mean fantastic in the true sense of the word. From the street, Gold Leaf is just a staircase at the end of a pretty grungy walkway that connects High Street with a car park, but once you step over the empty boxes, newspapers and freshly delivered bean shoots and climb those stairs, POW!
Like walking through a wardrobe and discovering a winter wonderland, you step inside out of the gloom. Gold Leaf, however, is no monochrome land of restraint ruled by a White Witch; the decor in the foyer is straight out of Tom Wolfe's Electric Cool Aid Acid Test. As if the Merry Pranksters have driven their bus through Hong Kong on their way to Las Vegas, bold lighting, bright colours and revolving chandeliers mix with lobsters in tanks and an overall sense of chaos. At this point if the maitre d' turns out to be an octopus in a gold lame jacket you'd probably take it in your stride.
Obey the dumplings
Once you're past the entrance, the other surprise is Gold Leaf's sheer size - it's huge and there are far more people scarfing dumplings gathered together in one room than you would expect from the street. And while it's noisy and there are hard surfaces everywhere, it's not too loud.
Although Gold Leaf does yum cha/dim sum every day of the week, Sunday for me is The One True Yum Cha Day.
Tea comes quickly (and is refilled often, as it Was Meant To Be) and within moments you're fighting off the trolleys. There's plenty of the normal fare done really, really well - steamed dumplings; seafood in all sorts of guises; gai lan; prawn wrapped in bean curd wrappers; scallops on tofu; little fried wantons and other crunchy parcels; and sheets of unctuous, pearly-white rice noodles with more seafood.
For me the perfect yum cha experience has a mix of the new and the familiar, and "new" this time was slices of eel, cut like tiny fish steaks and cooked in a dark sauce. This was luscious and fatty with a sweetness to balance the fish.
I can haz eel?
In the "familiar" category, apart from dumplings upon dumplings, I have a soft spot for turnip cake. There's something wintry and comforting about these fried slices of bland daikon, studded with Chinese sausage, ham and spring onions, even if they looked like slices of congealed dishwater that have been shallow fried. Balanced with light, prawn dumplings and scallops on ethereal soft tofu, they make up the important stodge course.
Turnip cake. Mmmmmm....
And that's what yum cha (or dim sum) is all about - balance. It's the balance of chaos and comfort; the familiar and the unfamiliar; the steamed and the fried; the subtle and the spicy; the light and the filling. Of course, yum cha also requires that there are children running around tables, the noise is rambunctious and there's a four-trolley pile up threatening to cover you in steamed dumplings and gai lan. And, perhaps strangely, in the middle of this chaos on a Sunday morning I find a kind of peace and some time to contemplate my lot. There's a joy about yum cha that reminds me of how good life and family can be.
Shanghai City is a small, cheap, noisy Northern Chinese restaurant in the Preston end of High Street that specialises in dumplings and hotpot. Half the walls in the restaurant are given over to bain-marie filled with all sorts of meats, fishes, vegetables, noodles and other stuff and the idea is to help yourself and cook what you will in a simmering pot of soup on the table. I'm not usually a fan of restaurant DIY, particularly when I have no idea of the etiquette, but the staff cheerfully explained the procedure and so we happily gave it a go.
Shanghai City Restaurant
We were given the choice between chicken soup, chili soup or a half-and-half pot that meant we could try both, and this we did.
The chicken soup was flavoured with some floating dried herbs, flowers and seed pods I couldn't identify, but it was comforting and perfect, given the wet, cold wind outside. The chili soup on the other hand was a rich red colour, with more chopped chili in every scoop than I would normally eat in a week. It wasn't as hot as it looked, but it was still very, very hot.
Soup to the left of me and soup to the right; here I am fishing around for some lamb
We cooked fishballs, beancurd, pork, cooked lamb, cabbage, dried mushrooms, bean shoots and glass noodles in the soups and tried a few of the dipping sauces. There's a wide selection, although the waitress wasn't sure what some of them were called in English so I can't tell you what they were. The chili sauce (more chili!) was roughly cut and hot, and I think it might have been the same stuff that went into the soup. There was a peanut sauce, possibly a garlic sauce and other mystery sauces, including a dark green one that Emily described as "salty and fishy and a bit ummmm".
The hotpot also came with some excellent spring onion pancakes which were flaky and crisp and a very generous plate of dumplings. These were glutinous with crisp, brown bottoms and filled with a juicy and rich pork mixture. The filling was unctuous - definitely cold weather food. They also have a range of other cooked dishes that don't require hotpotting and these looked pretty good for stuff in a bain-marie.
Spring Onion Pancakes. Crispy....
Now I'm no slouch when it comes to the old hot stuff, but I have never before eaten so much chopped chili. By the time we finished my bowl was almost half full of the chopped chili I hadn't eaten, and I suspect I ate at least the same amount.
Al cooks it
Shanghai City is a fun place to have a comfortable, if slightly messy, DIY hotpot. The staff are cheerful and helpful and the food is great (hey, it's not like I can fault the cooking...) and generous. It was about half-full of people when we arrived and although it only got busier, it was never too loud, even with the Chinese soap opera playing on the telly. And best of all, it's quite a lot of fun.
Cheese Club returns for its ninth time, and frankly it was touch and go there for a few moments. A number of last minute withdrawals due to illness, morning sickness, hangovers and being in Malaysia (not all the same person) meant Team Cheese was a bit thin on the ground. This was exacerbated when co-host textileseahorse got bogged in the country rains and didn't arrive home until well after kick-off. Luckily, quality counts for much and I was joined by Eat Our Way stalwart essjay and Team Cheese star recruit, Dapper Del. So without a moment or skerrick of cheese to waste, let's hear from the cheese...
Holy Goat Batman! Let's put on our Batsuits and go rolling around in it!
Holy Goat Pandora - Holy liquid cheese, Batman! From the outside it looks like a lot of the other surface ripened, white mould goats cheeses (like this one) but on the inside it's something else all together. In fact, it's little more than a gooey, liquid cheese poured into a white mould tube cunningly disguised as something more solid. When I cut the top off ours, as if for a boiled egg, the texture inside was like a thin pouring cream with a small floating centre that hadn't quite ripened. Cutting the side resulted in a torrent of cheese that required bread to sop it up. Beyond the cream the flavour was slightly sweet with a little mushroom flavour and without any goat tang. A cheese that demands an audience.
Fromage de Meaux. Far, far better than a silk stocking full of shit
Fromage de Meaux - A cows' milk white moulder from Ile-de-France and like all great French cheeses, this Brie has a long and amusing history. Charlemagne praised Brie in the ninth century and it was dubbed "the King of Cheeses" by the diplomat Tallyrand (a man famously described by Napoleaon as "shit in a silk stocking") in the nineteenth. This was a lovely Brie, but not as intense or salty as some of the other French white-moulders we've had (such as the Brie de Nangis). A mild, rich flavour that's easy on the palate and doesn't require a whole lot of thinking. This is an introductory Brie, or perhaps a gateway Brie that leads the first-time taster to a life of crime to fund an obsession with the sterner stuff...
No, not "little monster"; Petit Munster. Same origin as "monastery"
Petit Munster - Not, as one might have been led to expect, a small monster, but instead a modest washed rind cheese from the Alsace. Although Munster is considered one of France's more smellier cheeses, this was the pocket-size model that don't have quite the same terrifying reputation as its large-wheel bigger brother. This is not an overwhelming washed-rind biological weapon, but is a beautiful cheese with a luscious, smooth texture and a balance of washed-rind stink and sweet cream. It doesn't have the yeast/Vegemite smell that some of its friends-and-relations do, but would be the perfect follow-on from the Brie on the path towards cheese dependancy.
Roy des Vallees, or we as like to call it, Master
Roy des Vallees - On the surface this appears to be a modest semi-hard cheese ball, about as big as a cantaloupe, made from sheep and goats milk in the Basque-Pyrenees. But its modest looks hide the fact that this cheese is a supervillain in a cardigan; one which DEMANDS TO BE DESCRIBED IN ALL-CAPS!! THIS IS A BLOODY MARVELOUS, RICH, NUTTY, CARAMEL FLAVOUR THAT LASTS ABOUT SIX MONTHS IN YOUR MOUTH! BOW BEFORE THE CHEESE, YOU COWERING, INSIGNIFICANT MORTALS FOR YOUR TIME HAS EXPIRED! THE TIME OF THE BIG CHEESE HAS ARRIVED AND YOU PUNY WALKING HUMAN SAUSAGES WILL BE RENDERED DOWN FOR TALLOW TO SERVE YOUR LACTIC OVERLORDS! BOW!
Sorry Cantal, you were nice but I was thinking about Roy...
Cantal - Cantal is semi-hard cow's milk cheese from Auvergne. It's texture was somewhere between a not-too-old Cheddar and a Gruyere - tight and smooth but with a dense flavour that has just a little sourness to balance the nuttiness. This suffered a little by following the Roy de Vallees, but stood proud when taken on its own the next day. At the time we all nodded and spoke highly of the Cantal, but secretly we are all thinking about the Roy...
Carles Roquefort - The Lord knows I'm not a religious man, but every time when we finish Cheese Club with a soft, buttery blue cheese I can't help think that is How God Meant It To Be. All good things should end with blue cheese, and this would be a fine Roquefort to finish many things; a meal for example, or perhaps a long evening of wine, or even a life. Without getting onto the morbid subject of deathbed cheeses, this would have to be on the shortlist (although, to be fair, my shortlist has about 20 cheeses on it). Creamy yet tart with both a sheep's milk tang and a powerful blue punch, this is a noble and powerful cheese; the sort that looks imperiously down on you from the back of a horse. You don't argue with a cheese like this; you just don't.
So last night was a lot of fun but I did wake up feeling a just a trifle worse for wear. Even though I lounged around the house for most of the morning, rest was not enough and to properly shake this morning-after malaise only pho would suffice. So off we trotted to Preston.
Pho Dzung is in the Preston end of High Street and is a cheap, unassuming Vietnamese restaurant with a healthy buzz and fast turnover. Like all the best pho shops, this one has a picture of a smiling cow and chicken in the window (which always reminds of me of this).
Pho with rare beef and beef brisket
Not that buzz matters all that much - it's really all about the soup, and their pho ba is wonderful and restorative. The broth is rich, warm and fragrant with cinnamon and star anise; both the braised brisket and the rare beef slices were perfect; the noodles were as they should be; and the herbs and bean shoots were perfect to spark up the soup with both scent and crunch.
As long as the basics are right, the strength of a good pho is in the broth, and the broth here is just what the doctor ordered, or would have if he'd had any sense. He doesn't, of course. But if he did....