Saturday, September 26, 2009

The inaugural Newtown Farmers Market

Newtown Farmer's Market
Cnr Shannon Ave & West Fyans St
(Mel 451 F7)

Today was the first ever Newtown Farmer's Market and at 8.30 this morning, my family and I went to check it out. Sitting at the bottom of a grassy valley, the market had a good number of stallholders and patrons, despite the freezing morning wind.

The stallholders were selling products ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables to olive oil, cheese, smallgoods, fresh pasta and condiments, as well as ready to go food at the sausage sizzle and dumplings stall. Many of the products were award winners, such as this marinated goat's cheese from Meredith Dairy, winner of the Consistently Excellent Product award in the Vogue produce awards.

Screaming Seeds Spice Company, a regular at markets and a family favourite for their Dukkah.

One of the best things about farmers markets is the people. Its fantastic to be able to talk to the people who produce your food and see the genuine passion they have for their products. One stallholder, from Jean's Famous Relish, claimed his wife's tomato relish was the best pizza base you'd ever try. The pride these people have for what they've created makes for a great atmosphere, as your purchases support someone's passion.

There's also the people who don't actually make the products, but genuinely enjoy selling them because they know they're selling quality. If you're ever at a market and you see the banner for Wun Hung Lo, be sure to stop by and say hello to the friendly sales guys with great senses of humour. We sampled their dim sims and chicken dumplings and bought two frozen Chinese containers full of dumplings at $5 a box - they were beautifully fresh with not a trace of gristly meat as you sometimes find.

Trampy Tomato Relish, from Olive Branch Preserves - so called because "It goes with everything".

Our purchases, Clockwise from left: La Madre seeded sourdough, $5.50; Wildings Pantry Essentials spiced Indian relish, $9; Bagdad Foods Kashmir chutney, $8; Lemon curd (from the Meredith dairy stall), $4; Jean's Famous Relish in chilli, $7; Boosey Creek camembert, $7; Meredith Dairy Chevre Dill, $7.

The market had a great first day, with a family atmosphere and friendly stallholders and, with the large amount of space it has to expand, it can only get better.

The Newtown Farmer's Market will be held on the 4th Saturday of the month, from 8am to 1pm. The next market will be held on the 24th of October.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Set your own table at this family friendly pub

Inlet Hotel
45 Great Ocean Rd
Aireys Inlet
Ph: 5289 6270

In 2004, Melinda Houston wrote in The Age that the Inlet Hotel provided value that "is hard to go past". Perhaps there has been a price rise because, when my family and I visited on the third night of our holiday in Aireys Inlet, we agreed this local pub was not the kind of place you'd describe as value for money.

Yearling rump steak with chips and salad - choice of mushroom, pepper, garlic or gravy sauces - shown here with garlic sauce ($25.90)

As above, with pepper sauce.

I love when there is a seafood platter on offer and used to jump at the chance to order one, but it was my dad who taught me that buying a "fisherman's basket" at your local pub is probably not a good idea if you want to avoid grease and chewy calamari. We discussed The Inlet Seafood Platter, however, and agreed that if you're going to get a platter from a pub, one right on the coastline such as this would probably be a safe bet.

The Inlet Seafood Platter - a selection of prawns, oysters, smoked salmon, fried fish and calamari ($36.90)

The salmon was fresh and delicious, sitting on salad of lettuce, tomato, carrot and red onion, and the combination of the onion and salmon was great. The oysters were very nice, but definitely not the freshest I've had. Those two items were the highlights of the platter, and the rest of the seafood was quite average.

The first piece of calamari that I took a bite out of was tender and easy to chew, but I must have just been lucky because the majority of the pieces after that were so stringy that I couldn't bite them in half. The menu proudly states that the calamari is "house crumbed" - we discussed that perhaps this simply means the seafood arrives processed and frozen, and dunked in some bread crumbs before serving.

The prawns were a good size, but instead of tasting fresh and having a firm texture, they were bland and almost mushy. The fish itself was fine but the batter wasn't cooked all the way through, leaving a doughy covering around the fish.

Chicken Parmigiana, breast of chicken with ham, napoli sauce and mozzarella cheese with chips and salad ($23.90).

The parma was good: a thick piece of juicy chicken breast, and a fresh salad that was very welcome to cut through the grease of the average tasting chips.

Premium rib eye steak, with horseradish mash, roast vegetables and red wine jus ($34.90)

This was a very nice dish; the creamy mash and rich sauce were great accompaniments for the tender steak.

Roasted chicken Maryland with a chickpea, preserved lemon and apricot tagine ($21.50).

There is definitely a place for the Inlet Hotel. It's very much a family friendly establishment; most tables had children, and two little boys ran noisily around the restaurant uninterrupted. The pub is attempting to keep up with its city counterparts, offering plenty of gluten free options, but expect to set your own table and get your own condiments. With an average-tasting seafood platter sitting close to $40, and the cheapest main - risotto of roasted tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and goats cheese - at $19.90, the Inlet Hotel has the kind of prices you'd expect in major cities, without the freshness and quality.

Famous, authentic and "palate tingling" food

Gurkha's Cafe
Bridge Road
Richmond 3121
Ph: 03 9425 9007

At 8pm on a Monday night, J and I walked into the Bridge Road outlet of the Gurkha's chain to find it buzzing with conversation and laughter from tables full of young diners. On a cold, rainy evening when many of the other restaurants along Bridge Road were packing up for the night, the food and atmosphere at Gurkha's was the perfect refuge.

We were greeted with a smile and a bowl of crunchy pappadums and relish. A bottle of water sat on our table, but glasses weren't delivered until after our meals had been brought out. Service here is friendly and helpful, but staff are young and their focus is getting the food out to the tables, rather than taking note of what else is happening on the floor - you might have to literally grab them to get their attention.

Dal Bhat Masu - Nepali style platter, rice or bread with your choice of meat curry ($16.90).

I chose to have bread with my meal, and as I was struggling to choose which meat I wanted the waitress informed me I was also allowed to have fish. She couldn't tell me the name of the sauce my fish was coming in, but described it as a spicy, creamy, almost sweet sauce. This was pretty spot on, the sauce was deliciously rich and tomatoey. The taste of the fish was good but the skin was left on, and I didn't really enjoy chewing the bumpy, flaky scales.

Dal Bhat - Nepali style platter, rice or bread with lentil and vegetable curry ($15.90).

J had the vegetarian version - the same dish as the one I had with a variation on the curry. The other dishes accompanying the curries were dhal and a stir fry of Asian greens in a salty clear sauce. We both felt that the platter was a good way to sample Nepalese cuisine, allowing us to try a little of everything. Each dish was delicious, the serving of bread was generous, and the meal was great value for money. In fact everything on the menu is reasonably priced, with most mains around $13.

Prince Champagne: Vodka, strawberry liqueur and chilled champagne ($6.90)

The champagne cocktail was nice enough but I could barely taste the liqueur or vodka; it really just tasted like champagne. Still, I look forward to visiting again to sample their good list of cocktails, a bargain at $7.90 each.

Gurkha's Bridge Road is open for dinner from 5pm-11pm, 7 nights a week. The Gurkha's chain can also be found in Prahran, Carlton, Brunswick, North Fitzroy and Melbourne city.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Come for the eggs, don't stay for the service

New York Tomato
2-6 York St (Corner New & York)
Ph: 9429 0505

It was a beautiful Sunday morning today. 10am and sunny. We were in the inner East of the city but tucked away from noise and traffic at a cafe with a cute name. Perfect brunch conditions, and New York Tomato was packed.

Sitting on the corner of New and York streets, the cafe had a few tables free besides the one I had booked for Synonym and myself when I arrived this morning, and I asked if we could sit outside rather than at the table we had been allocated opposite the kitchen. About ten minutes later, after asking a number of times and being forgotten, we were told that we'd have to stay inside. That's ok. They were busy, and for one of the waitresses it was her first day.

Waiting for S to arrive, I ordered a coffee and grabbed the paper. About ten minutes later, paper read and S sitting across from me, my lukewarm coffee arrived. We ordered our food and another coffee, and about twenty minutes later both arrived.

S's meal: Open BLT with poached egg and avocado ($15.00)

Scrambled eggs on toasted sourdough with panchetta, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, basil, pinenuts and Parmesan cheese ($16.50).

I have a weird thing about scrambled eggs. I love them, but I never order them. My dad makes delicious breakfasts on the weekends including beautiful, creamy scrambled eggs that he has become famous for amongst friends and family. Too many times I have seen watery, rubbery scrambles being served in restaurants and it's put me off ordering them, when I know I can get better ones at home. Today I decided to take a chance and the eggs were beautiful. The dish was a wonderful combination of flavours and textures: soft tomato, eggs and panchetta; crispy crunchy pinenuts and asparagus.

The food helped to make up for some of the earlier shortcomings; it was delicious. Eggs are something that are done very well here, and its great that NYT do them in unconventional ways. Rather than the typical eggs benedict, you'll find baked eggs in napoli sauce with goats cheese, basil and pinenuts; or check the specials board for dishes such as poached eggs on turkish bread with smoked salmon, spanish onion, harissa and grainy mustard hollandaise.

At times, service was a little slow and unsure. At least it was never unpleasant, as I've read in other reviews - none of the staff were actually rude. Still, a little more attentiveness would be great; we spent a while waiting to pay at the register, surrounded by staff, before anyone noticed us. Don't get me wrong, NYT. I'll be back to give you a second chance. Despite it's shortcomings, the location, atmosphere, and food at this tiny cafe are enough to convince me to spend a leisurely day in the outdoor courtyard and give the service another go.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The legal precinct's tiny gem

Demi Tasse
550 Lonsdale St
Ph: 9642 3571

When I first walked into Demi Tasse, I was a little disappointed. I was in the mood for a substantial meal and when I saw the assortment of baguettes sitting in the display cabinet, and saw how tiny the cafe was, I figured it was the kind of place where busy lawyers from the neighbouring courts and chambers came to quickly grab a roll to take back to the office. Thankfully, I was wrong. While the majority of dishes are bread-based, there are plenty of specials to choose from, ranging from a 3 cheese risotto, zucchini timbale, or a chestnut and cauliflower soup; or the veal meatballs which I've heard are worth keeping an eye out for.

Bruschetta with avocado ($7.50)

Toasted rye sandwich with house roasted capsicum, eggplant and goats cheese ($7.50)

The bruschetta and the antipasto platter were presented beautifully, quite a contrast to the appearance of J's meal. Even the chef noticed this; he delivered the sandwich to our table, observing that "I may have gone overboard with the goat's cheese" as he handed the plate over. After tasting it J agreed, and told me she couldn't really taste anything but the cheese.

Antipasto platter ($11.50)

Featured on this platter, clockwise from bread: roast beef with wholegrain mustard; cornichons; grilled eggplant with pesto; roast capsicum, pumpkin and goats cheese; smoked salmon with horseradish cream and capers; and mushroom terrine with relish.

The platter was fantastic for the taste, value and variety; the only problem I had was with the eggplant as it was quite oily and rich and I could only eat a little of it.

The name of the cafe - meaning "half cup" - hints to customers that coffee is a very important part of the business, and this year's Cheap Eats guide informed me that the owners of Demi Tasse, brothers Stuart and Michael, "blind-tested Peruvian Fairtrade beans to choose the right brew; it's excellent". My latte was strong and hot, and at around 2pm on a Thursday we found Demi Tasse to be a great place to grab a coffee or a quick bite - landing a table in the middle of breakfast or lunch, however, could be a challenge.

Demi Tasse serves breakfast and lunch Monday - Saturday, with dishes ranging from $4-$14.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Food, Culture and Community at Lentil as Anything

Lentil As Anything
Abbotsford Convent
1 St. Heliers St
Ph: (03) 9419 6444

I read a review the other day that described the food at Lentil as Anything as "hearty and filling but not quite delicious". I'm happy to report that I, and my fellow diners, completely disagreed with this statement when we visited for the lunch buffet a few days ago.

The restaurant serves up vegetarian dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes from an all-you-can-eat buffet, more often from an a la carte menu, and runs on the policy that diners pay whatever they feel for their food and drink. The convent restaurant is the largest out of the three Lentil restaurants that operate in Melbourne, and is used not only to serve hungry customers but also as a place where volunteer staff can learn valuable hospitality skills, aspiring musicians are given opportunities to perform, and " provide an alternative for hopelessness and desperation in society" (Hernan Palacio, Community and Cultural Development Coordinator).

A few of the dishes on offer: stuffed peppers, spinach puffs, Japanese pancakes, broccoli, creamy pasta, Sri Lankan rice.

I got a little excited by the colourful, fragrant buffet of food and piled my plate high so it's a bit hard to see each individual dish, but also featured here is apple casserole, dhal, garden salad and crusty bread.

There were many favourites: I went back for second helpings of the crunchy, sweet stuffed peppers; the fragrant rice and dhal; and the interesting textures of the Japanese pancake and spinach puffs.

I love it when the people who produce the dishes are able to interact with their customers and watch them enjoying the food, rather than being stuck out the back the whole time. The chefs wandered around the room as we ate, encouraging us to try everything in the buffet and to go back for seconds.

The tables and chairs are mismatched and look like they came from an old classroom; decorations come in the form of community noticeboards and hand painted canvases swinging from the walls. African beats that you can't help but move to play over the sound system - as I waited in the line for the buffet the chef, Shamagam, saw my toes tapping and asked me if I had "happy feet". I also saw Shamagam flexing his muscles and dancing and laughing with other customers; there's certainly no lack of entertainment here. J visited for dinner a few days after our visit and said that they were screening Charlie Chaplin movies with a projector, and diners ate by candlelight. Its little touches at Lentil that add to the casual, relaxed, yet under-control atmosphere.

I ordered a chai latte with my meal, which came out quite watery and weak, but everyone else enjoyed their coffees. Despite the lack of set prices, none of the dishes tasted like old or poor quality ingredients been used - they don't sacrifice the taste of the dishes just to keep costs down. It's fantastic that a place that operates on a "pay what you like" policy has managed to thrive and grow so much, but once you taste the quality of the dishes and see the positive attitude of the staff you understand why people come back and continue to give. I'm looking forward to going back soon to check out whats on offer for breakfast.

Lentil as Anything restaurants are also located in St Kilda and Brunswick, and the organisation runs the canteen at Collingwood College. Lentil As Anything at the Abbotsford Convent is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 9am-9pm (no breakfast Mondays).

Friday, September 4, 2009

A novel Dumpling experience

Shanghai Dumpling Restaurant
23-25 Tattersalls Lane
Chinatown, City
Ph: 9663 8555

I'm not the kind of person who is afraid of complaining if I'm not happy with something at a restaurant. If I ask for my steak rare and it comes out well done, I won't hesitate to send it back. I have close friends who would never do this - I'm looking at you Synonym - for fear of upsetting the chef and wait staff. There is one place, however, where everything changes - I take what I get and do what I'm told - and that's at Shanghai Dumpling.

I know there's already a million reviews of this place online but tonight was just such an experience that I need to document it. For those who haven't been, this is a cheap, no nonsense restaurant that has rules and a very set way of doing things. You get your own tea, you eat quickly, you get out quickly so the long line of customers can file in from outside in the street. J had never been so I knew she'd be in for a treat when she witnessed the staff in action!

After waiting in line at the door for about ten minutes we were shown to a communal table; we hadn't been looking at the menu for long when a waitress approached us and asked, "Hi order?" Sorry, we told her, we still need a moment; she walked off and we were asked the same question about 5 times in the next few minutes. Finally we ordered, starting with soup and a "snack". As we were waiting for our food the two guys sitting next to us were asked, midway through eating their meals, "Finished?" The waitress was already reaching for their plates before the guys responded with "Uhhhh... No."

Please excuse these terrible pictures! I felt the staff watching me like hawks when I whipped out the camera.

Hot and Sour soup - $3.50

I love the combination of hot and sour flavours and was pretty excited about this soup. The clear broth itself was great, the spice got me first and then that sour, tangy flavour came. However the rest of the stuff floating around in the soup wasn't so great. I'm not really sure what it was and maybe I don't want to know - there was beancurd and something else in there.

Steamed mushroom and vegetable dumplings - $6.50 for a serve of 20
These dumplings are addictive and the serving size is fantastic for the price.

J had already gotten into her meal when I realised I hadn't taken a picture yet...

Pumpkin cakes - $3.50 for a serve of six

Delicious, light, sort of a mix of sweet and savoury, although not a lot of pumpkin flavour.

There's no delicate placing of the dish on the table, no checking to see if we needed anything else; the waiter delivered J's food to the table, yelling "PUMPKIN CAKE!" before plonking it down in front of her.

We thought that we might want to order more food later, so we kept a menu after our order was taken. On his way past a staff member grabbed the menu; I grabbed it back and asked if we could keep it for later. That was a mistake. He glared at me like I was a child at school who had broken the rules. Oops.

Earlier in the night, everyone wanted to take our order. Now, when we wanted to order more food, it was hard to track someone down. We asked two different waiters for another dish, and were simply told "No, not me" before they walked away without giving us some direction as to who we were allowed to ask. Eventually we found a waitress who was taking orders, and we asked for a plate of Chinese broccoli after seeing it on the table next to us.

As I write this post I realise that I forgot to take a picture of our final dish which is a shame, because the colour was so vibrant and it looked so fresh. The dish came with oyster sauce and cost $9.90.

This is a place that makes you want to come back for more, and to bring people who have never experienced it before. The food is dirt cheap but the quality is great, there's free tea, and every dish I've had has been delicious. The confusing, impatient wait staff can get a little annoying after they've tried to take away your unfinished meal for the seventh time, but the service just adds to the novel experience of this dumpling house.

Ten Dollar Meals: Lounge

243 Swanston Street
Ph: 9663 2916

I love it when I only have to part with a tenner to get a delicious meal. Even better is when a free drink is thrown in. I've had many nights out at Lounge, but in my slightly intoxicated state I'd climbed the stairs and failed to notice that there was a restaurant downstairs. Since I realised this, my friend Kate and I have made lunch at Lounge a weekly ritual.

I chose the $10 lunch special: Tandoori chicken pizza with salad and a drink of your choice.

What an absolute bargain. The tandoori chicken was quite intense and rich and the salad of peppery rocket, tomato and red onion balanced out those heavy flavours. The pizza base was thick and fluffy on the inside and very crunchy at the crust, just how I like it.

A salad of salt and pepper calamari with apple, celery, walnuts and a lemon herb aioli ($10)

Kate said her meal was delicious although she was left still feeling slightly hungry. I, however, was completley full and very satisfied. Kate and I both had lemon, lime and bitters with our meals but the great thing about the ten dollar lunch deal is you can choose absolutely any drink you want, be it coffee, tea, wine, juice, beer...

As well as the $10 lunch special which changes daily, Lounge offers a "lunch club" (buy lunch monday-thursday and get your fifth lunch free), and Monday night is "Pay the Time", where from 6pm-10pm your meal will cost the time (e.g if you have dinner at 7pm, your meal will cost $7).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mexican Cheap Eats

464 Bridge Road
Ph: 9429 7133

There are so many ways to enjoy an incredibly cheap meal at Montezuma's. On this particular occasion, dining with mum and SM, we used my "buy one get one free" voucher from the Entertainment Book; but every time I go to the supermarket the shop-a-docket offers me the same voucher. Montezuma's provide vouchers for half price nachos on their website, and different specials five nights a week.

Mum and I started the night off with margaritas, apparently the second best in Australia; they were so tangy and salty and for $9 it's an excellent value cocktail (even more so if you come on one of the nights when they're half price!)

Mum and I had the same dish (#6 Burrito - wheat tortilla with sour cream and your choice of filling, baked in the oven); we both chose the vegetarian option which was filled with beans, rice and cheese and served with rice, beans and olives.

This is a favourite of mine; I've ordered it a couple of times here. The sweet black olives on top are a nice touch; I like to take them off and save them till last. Perhaps some more sour cream would be nice, as the first time I ordered this I discovered when they say "with sour cream" on the menu it means within the actual torilla, blended in with everything else, so you don't really get that lovely cool cream cutting through all the other flavours. As you can see from the photo the sides of the burrito were a bit burnt too.

Chilli Con Carne, $9.95

I also had takeaway from Montezuma's last week and the dish actually held up suprisingly well. I chose the Montezuma's Delight (A corn tostada smothered with frijoles, cheddar, heaped with a diced vegetable salad, ranchero sauce, sour cream, topped with sweet black olives; $13.95 for the vegetarian option) and thought that with all that sour cream and mushy frijoles it might turn into a soggy mess, but the corn tostada still had a bit of crunch when I finally got to the bottom of the massive aluminium takeaway container.

Montezuma's Richmond offers a different special over five nights of the week:

Monday: $3 tacos

Wednesday: Half price margaritas

Friday: Half price margaritas from 6pm-7pm

Saturday: Half price margaritas from 5.30pm-6.30pm

Sunday: Kids eat free