September 23, 2010

Otsumami I, II, III

Date visited: May 5th 2009, February 18th 2010, March 3rd 2010

257 High Street
Northcote, VIC 3070
(03) 9489 6132
Food: Japanese

Otsumami is one of my favourite places to dine at for high quality, well-prepared Japanese food. It can be hard to locate at first, neatly tucked in between the shops along bohemian High Street, but once you've found it you are guaranted to return, clearly spotting the white sign at the front with a very small "otsumami" printed across it.

Inside, the decor is minimalist and dainty with moody lighting created from large, funky woven ball-shaped lamps dangling from the roof. The space is cosy, occupied by modern furniture in the front of the restaurant, and tradtional low tables at the rear. The dinner crowd here is a mix of couples out on a romantic date, girlfriends catching up over a chic meal and young families happily seated at the low tables, enjoying a night out with their children.

Although the menu is divided into small, medium and large dishes, there is no clear line that distinguishes entrees from mains. Food is whisked out in no particular order, it just depends on what the chefs finish preparing first. I guess the concept is much like tapas-style dining, with dish sizes sitting on a much larger scale.

I am guilty of indulging myself here 3 times in the past 2 months, so have decided to bind them all into one post. Brace yourself for a plethora of mouth-watering dishes.

First visit:

Kingfish Tataki - Slices of lightly seared Kingfish, served on an onion salad with an uplifting soy and citrus dressing. Tasting so divine with vibrant flavours, the restaurant usually sells out of this dish on busy nights.

Soft Shell Crab - Crisply fried on the outside and seeping with juices inside, the density of the crab is cut through by the zesty aioli.

Tori Niku Gyoza - Chicken, coriander, shiitake mushrooms and five spice dumplings, with a soy and chilli dipping sauce. Quite a pedestrian dish, I would have prefered the dumplings to be more caramelised at the base.

Tsuke Sashimi Don - Mixed sashimi marinated in soy, garlic and sesame oil, served on sushi rice with shiso, nori and pickled ginger. I love meals like this where different textures and sensations are combined in one bowl and you simply just need to use a spoon to appreciate all the wonderful flavours (the laziness in me coming out). Each cube of tuna or salmon that you devour is so savoury and fragrant, you really do need the rice to balance out the flavours, and finish with a sliver of the piquant ginger.

Kinokodon - An enriching dish of meaty textures from the field, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, which have been sauteed in a butter and garlic-based sauce, and served over a bed of rice.

Second visit:

Tofu Shumai - Delicately steamed dumplings, filled with tofu, carrot, shiitake and bamboo; served with a sweet soy dipping sauce and intriguingly, a knob of wholegrain mustard.

Tori Niku Gyoza - Chicken, coriander, shiitake mushrooms and five spice dumplings served with a soy and chilli dipping sauce. Much more crisp and golden brown at the base than at our earlier visit.

 Nasu Dengaku - Gorgeous, chunky cubes of eggplant cooked in a sweet miso and sake sauce. It was cleverly served on a nest of baby spinach, which beautifully soaked up all the excess sauce.

Okonomiyaki - Pancake topped with a thick Japanese mayonnaise sauce, nori and bonito fish flakes. The sauce overwhelmed the poor little cabbage pancake underneath, so it was hard to taste anything but the mayo.

Soba Salad - It was such a delight to feast on this; the green tea soba noodles, cherry tomatoes, spinach, onion and avocado were tossed in a refreshing, sweet sesame dressing.

Kingfish Tataki - This time, it was garnished with shards of dried red chilli and looked a little haphazardly plated up. Nonetheless, the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness of the fish, lathered in a fragrant soy and citrus dressing was still all there :-)

Niku Don - Comforting, thick slices of beef, "BBQ-style" seared and served on a bok choy salad with daikon, chilled ponzu dressing and a side of rice. It was a relief to bite into the beef and find it perfectly cooked, with a slightly nutty tang.

Third visit:

Kaki Sashimi - Natural oysters, served with a zingy Japanese citrus dressing and fresh daikon

Maguro Sumisoae - Chunks of chopped fresh Tuna and avocado, marinated in a tart miso and vinegar dressing, finished with a sprinkle of earthy toasted sesame seeds

Ika Salad - The squid was marinated in soy, coriander and lemon, then deep fried and tossed with a scrumptious salad of spinach leaves, cucumber, mint and a sesame dressing

Kingfish Tataki - A consistent winner for us.

Sake Carpaccio - Salmon sashimi marinated in a garlic oil and served with an apple, soy and citrus sauce. For me, the garlic oil was too strong of an addition to the soft flavours of the salmon, so I let Damian tackle this one on his own - which he all too happily obliged to, almost licking the plate clean!

Rockpool Bar & Grill - Bar

Date visited: June 19th 2009

Riverside at Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex
8 Whiteman Street
Southbank, VIC 3006
(03) 8648 1900
Food: Modern Australian, Seafood and Steak

The infamous $22 David Blackmore Wagyu burger on the bar menu at Rockpool Bar & Grill has consistently been on the high end of reviews, with many even going so far as to declaring it to be the most delicious and best valued burger in Melbourne.

So, fuelled on a quest to try out said dish to form our own judgment, Damian and I found ourselves seated in Rockpool's bar, interestingly ordering everything BUT the burger. As tempting as it sounded, served with bacon, gruyere cheese and zuni pickle, our eyes drifted to other parts of the day's menu to the alluring Swordfish with fennel and potato puree, and the corned Wagyu silverside with slow cooked carrot and mustard sauce. I think that while our minds were set on ordering the burger, our tummies were screaming out in protest, craving a more substantial meal.

Damian opted for the corned Wagyu silverside, which was meltingly tender and full of the flavour absorbed from the aromats in its poaching liquid.  It was paired with a single hunk of carrot, which despite its dull appearance was deliciously sweet and buttery. A punchy mustard sauce was also served on the side to meld the dish together.

On the other hand, I favoured the charcoal grilled Swordfish, which was quite dense and meaty, soaking up the herby juices from the salsa verde-like sauce. Its faithful friend, the fennel, mellowed out with a wonderful caramelisation around the edges, accentuating the sweetness of the fish with its subtle aniseed flavour.

We chose the Potato and Cabbage Gratin to accompany our dishes. Its crisp coating of golden breadcrumbs and Parmesan, and oozy centre of gruyere cheese, creamy potato slices and savoy cabbage somehow lifted our overall enjoyment of the meal.

Although we revelled in such a lovely dinner, we weren't blown away or captivated by any particular aspect. Perhaps the Wagyu burger is what gives the menu its wow factor? Will definately need to return to continue our Rockpool quest.

 Back: Corned Wagyu Silverside with Slow Cooked Carrot and Mustard Sauce
Front: Swordfish Steak with Fennel and Potato Puree
Left: Potato and Cabbage Gratin

September 22, 2010

Watercress, Fennel and Pinenut Salad

At this time of year in early Spring, watercress is at its optimum with a delicate aroma and slight peppery flavour. It tastes brilliant in stirfries and soups, but even better when simply served, fresh, in salads and sandwiches. I think that by keeping the watercress raw, the crispness of the stems and the tanginess of the leaves really shine through.

In this salad, I've teamed watercress with fennel, which adds a light, anise-flavoured crunch.  I have also used toasted pinenuts, for their buttery earthiness, but hazelnuts and walnuts also work well. The addition of fresh orange and lemon juice to the dressing compliments the slight bitterness of the greens, altogether giving the salad a delightful, refreshing zing.

- 3 tbs olive oil
- Juice of 1 small orange
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 1 bunch watercress
- ⅓ cup pinenuts, toasted

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, orange and lemon juice to form the dressing. Season well, and adjust the flavours (if necessary), to your taste. Halve the fennel, then slice thinly (alternatively, use a mandolin to shave the bulb) and add to the dressing, leaving it to marinate for 10 minutes.

Just before serving, trim the watercress into thirds, and toss with the pinenuts into the bowl with the fennel. Devour immediately!

    Watercress, Fennel and Pinenut Salad

    Grossi Florentino - The Cellar Bar

    80 Bourke Street
    Melbourne, VIC 3000
    (03) 9662 1811
    Food: Italian

    In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city centre sits the ever so grand Grossi Florentino. This iconic Italian establishment has aged gracefully, withstanding over 50 years of generations in the food industry, and serves up some of Melbourne's finest Italian dishes. Grossi is divided into three dining areas, offering a different mood, experience and style of food in each.

    First there is The Cellar Bar, which acts as the restaurant's "shopfront". This is where you will find a short menu of rustic, classic Italian fare, like a dish of freshly cut pasta lathered in a rich, hearty sauce and some light nibbles of salted cod croquettes. Then, situated directly next door is The Grill, where the service is just that little bit more polished, the menu more extensive and the food a touch more sophisticated. Finally, the substance and  "gastronomical heart" of Grossi Florentino is upstairs, at The Restaurant. The food here is incredibly inspiring and an art form of fresh flavours, created from seasonal local and imported ingredients. The service is subtle, yet accomplished and you are guaranteed a memorable dining experience.

    After yet another lengthy day of (window)shopping in the city, Damian and I found ourselves at Grossi Florentino for the first time. It was a spur of the moment decision, and we had not made a reservation, so we tried our luck at The Cellar Bar, where they act upon a first come first serve basis with a no bookings policy.

    After just a couple minute's wait, a tabled freed up and we were briskly seated. The dim lighting and cosily spaced tables made for a romantic ambience, but was ruffled up by the slight pompous manner of the male waiters. Despite that, they provided efficient service, cleverly manouvering themselves back and forth from the kitchen, behind bar and on the floor. Our dishes arrived promptly, and were a true epitome of traditional Italian food with clean flavours and a twist of refinement.

    Prosciutto, Mozzarella and Pear Salad - Superb tastes from the use of the simplest of fresh ingredients. The prosciutto was delicate and salty, perfectly offsetting the crisp sweetness from the pear and the moist, creamy mozzarella.

    Minestrone Alla Genovese - A nourishing vegetable soup with house-made pesto and Parmesan that is grated with flair for you at the table.

    Calamari In Padella - Sautéed, tender calamari with refreshing rocket leaves and lemon.

    Spaghetti Alla Bolognese - Nothing like a dish of mellow, bitey pasta to soak up all the robust flavours from a rich meat ragu, topped off with freshly grated Parmesan.

    Tortellini Di Zucca Della Lunigiana - Expertly made tortellini, encasing a soft centre of sweet pumpkin, served with a nutty, buttery sauce and fried sage leaves.

    September 15, 2010

    Mushroom Cappuccino

    On a recent trip, Mushroom Hunting at Moorooduc, we were given a recipe for the luxurious mushroom cappuccino that was served up to us at the end of the tour. The 'cappuccino' component does not imply the use of coffee beans in the soup, but rather describes the way it is served in coffee cups, taking on the appearance of a frothy cappuccino.

    When reproducing the soup at home, I served it in bowls, and chose not to froth up the mixture as much in the blender, so the result was quite a dense and luscious soup. However, I think I actually prefer the frothed up version, playfully served in a coffee cup. I've provided the recipe for it here, with a few tweaks to the original version, for a more flavoursome and foamy soup. I have also found that adding the cream to the soup, before blending it produces more froth, because the fatty components in the cream encourage aeration in the mixture.

    Serves 5-6 bowls, 10-12 coffee cups:
    - 500g button mushrooms, finely sliced
    - 50g dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 100ml warm water for 40min
    - 60g unsalted butter
    - 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    - 2 tbs parsley, finely chopped
    - Sea salt and cracked white pepper
    - 1L chicken stock
    - 1 cup 45% fat cream (or your desired amount)
    - 2 tbs truffle oil

    Sliced Porcini mushrooms

    Black Truffle Oil

    Heat a large saucepan with the butter. Once the butter stars to foam, sauté the mushrooms until softened. Drain and squeeze dry the porcini mushrooms, reserving the liquid, and chop roughly (if they aren't already pre-sliced). Add to the button mushrooms, along with the parsley, garlic, pepper and salt and cook for a further 5 minutes.

    Add the chicken stock and the reserved porcini liquid, bring to a gentle simmer and cook over a low heat for 45 minutes. (The dish can be prepared to this point ahead of time and reheated when required)

    To finish the cappuccino, add the cream to the soup and bring back to the simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer the soup to a liquidiser and blend, in batches, until the mushrooms are amalgamated into a very smooth and frothy liquid.

    For extra cappuccino foaminess, return the soup to a deep saucepan and heat until it is hot, just before boiling point. Then use a stick blender or a ba-mix to aerate the soup further.

    Finish with the truffle oil. Serve the frothy soup immediately in a cappuccino cup, with crusty bread.

    Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil

    September 14, 2010

    Ishiya Stonegrill

    152 Little Bourke Street
    Melbourne, VIC 3000
    (03) 9650 9510
    Food: Japanese, Stonegrilled Meat and Seafood

    On many occasions, when looking for street parking in the city, we have driven past Ishiya Stonegrill and tried to catch a glimpse through the restaurant's windows for any clue of what the 'stonegrill' concept may be about. So, I finally got around to making the call to book ourselves in for what we discovered to be an innovative, interactive dining experience.

    Ishiya occupies an intimate space among some of Melbourne's hottest eateries in Chinatown. Its interior of elegant dark chocolate wooden furnishings, classic touches of oriental flowers and abstract paintings hanging against the deep rosey plum-coloured walls, all make for a warm and inviting atmosphere. On the Sunday night that we were there, hopeful guests were given the thumbs down for a table because the place was fully booked.

    Upon arrival, Damian and I were briskly seated and the waitress gave us newbies a rundown of the menu and how the stone grilled dishes are served. From the monotonous tone and rapid manner in which her explanation was delivered, it was evident the same words are repeated to every table of diners that come in.

    Basically, the idea of 'stone grilling' promotes a healthy meal, where food is served fresh at the table, sizzling on a 400°C heated, natural volcanic stone. This ancient method of cooking seals in all the natural juices and nutrients by rapidly searing the food at a high temperature, without burning it. There are also no added fats or oils, so you are encouraged to enjoy the pure flavours and tenderness of the food you order.

    Each stonegrill set at Ishiya comes with a starter of sashimi, followed by your choice of main, served with a selection of five sauces:
    - Ponzu
    - Sesame, Tofu and Crab Roe
    - Garlic Butter and Miso
    - Wasabi and Black Pepper
    - Teriyaki

    Thinking that it wasn't enough, we also ordered an additional couple of  sensational tasting starters to kick off our meal.

    Salmon Nigiri; Sashimi of Kingfish and Salmon. The raw fish was not as fresh as we had hoped. It was dull in appearance and the texture of the sashimi was quite sinewy and harsh.

    Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab wrapped with Peking Duck-style Pastry

    Creamy Baked Scallop with Mushrooms

    Come main time, a waitress elaborately wheeled out a trolley, holding our stonegrills and chosen ingredients. She placed a piping hot stone in front of each of us, protected by a ceramic serving tray, and whacked on our slabs of meat, seafood and vegetables, which all sizzled and smoked upon hitting the volcanic surface. 

    Due to the absence of oil, I found myself constantly lifting each item up as it was cooking to try and prevent it from sticking to the stone. Our food cooked a lot faster than expected, so we felt rushed to eat before everything became tough and overcooked. So much for being able to cook and enjoy the meat to our 'personal taste and liking'!

    Nonetheless, we had a joyful time being semi chefs for the evening, happily dipping our grilled food into the complementing sauces, which we found enhanced the clean, sweet, refined flavours of our steaks, lobster and prawn.

    Porterhouse Steak and Half Lobster Tail

    Porterhouse Steak and Prawn

    September 10, 2010

    Green Tea Cupcakes with Red Bean Frosting

    I love family parties. Not only do they allow me to spend quality time with loved ones that I hardly see due to hectic lifestyles, but they also give me the opportunity to practice my baking skills and try out new recipes. From when I was a young girl, mum has taught me that whenever invited over to somebody's house, it is always courteous to bring along a gift, or something small as a sign of respect and consideration.

    So, for a recent gathering, I partnered up with a recipe by Murdoch Books to create a batch of delicious green tea cupcakes. I was pleased with the end result, but only because everybody seemed to enjoy devouring them, and I even managed to convert a few that used to cringe at the mention of the words 'green tea' or 'red bean'.

    For me, the green tea flavour that I expected just did not shine through in the cupcake. To achieve a more dense green tea fragrance, I recommend that you add a couple of teaspoons of green tea leaves to the scolded milk, along with the Matcha (fine green tea powder). Then strain the mixture, allow to cool and proceed with the rest of the recipe.

    Makes 24 standard cupcakes (approx 48 mini):
    - 125ml milk
    - 3 tsp Matcha (fine green tea powder)
    - 2 tsp green tea leaves (if using)
    - 185g unsalted butter
    - ¾ cup (170g) caster sugar
    - 1 tsp natural vanilla extract
    - 3 eggs
    - 1 cup (125g) self-raising four
    - ¼ cup (30g) plain flour
    - 45g Japanese sweet red beans, to decorate (Whole beans, tinned are best. The Asian grocery store I visited didn't have any, so I just used the Korean 'smashed' variety)

    For the Cream Frosting:
    - 1 cup (250ml) whipping cream
    - 2 tbs icing sugar, sifted

    These ingredients can be found in most Asian groceries

    Matcha - fine green tea powder

    Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line 24 standard (or 48 mini) muffin holes with paper cases. Place the milk in a saucepan and bring just to the boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the matcha (and green tea leaves if using, then strain). Allow to cool.

    Beat the butter, sugar and vanilla together with electric beaters until light and creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

    Sift the flours together, and fold into the egg mixture alternately with the milk mixture, until a smooth green batter is formed.

    Add a little flour...

    Then a little milk...

    Keep repeating this...

    Until it becomes a smooth consistency

    Divide the mixture evenly among the cases. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until a skewer/toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the centre of a cake. Transfer onto a wire rack to cool.

    For the cream frosting, beat the whipping cream and icing sugar together until stiff peaks form.  Transfer it into a piping bag, fitted with a large star nozzle, then decorate each cake with the cream and sweet red beans.

    Green Tea Cupcakes with Red Bean Frosting

    September 9, 2010

    Gold Coast - Seafood Empire; Yamagen

    Seafood Empire
    Shop 21/17 Cavill Avenue,
    Cavill Mall,
    Surfers Paradise, QLD 4217
    (07) 5527 5250
    (also at Hampton (VIC))
    Food: Cafe, Seafood, Steak, Pasta, Fish and Chips

    On a day trip to Gold Coast, from Brisbane, we found ourselves facing the usual question of where to go for lunch. After much deliberation, we finally settled on our original choice, Seafood Empire, mostly because it has a spacious outdoor dining area right in the heart of one of Surfer's Paradise's busiest shopping strips.

    We ordered our meals up the front at the counter, paid, then brought our table number to an unoccupied table outside. It was a great moment, relaxing back in our chairs under the balmy sun, watching as parades of people passed by, happily shopping and chatting away - the vibe was just buzzing.

    When our food finally arrived, we dug right in, only to be somewhat disheartened by what was served. Perhaps we ordered the wrong dishes, or the cooks were having a bad day, but the oysters were still gritty, the prawn cutlets bland and doughy (with hardly any trace of prawn inside) and the calamari was rubbery and tough to chew through.

    Don't get me wrong, the food here was not bad, but it wasn't good or great either. It was just a plain and simple Okay. Not exactly a foodie's destination, but with such a convenient location, family-friendly atmosphere and modestly priced menu, I can see how the cafe easily fills up during lunchtime.

    Seafood Empire is the cafe on the right with the red umbrellas

    Natural Oysters with Lemon - they were fresh and tasted briny, but had an undesirable bitter lettuce after-taste

    Crumbed Prawn Cutlets with Chips and Salad

    Salt and Pepper Calamari with a Mediterranean Salad

    After lunch, we headed straight for the beach to soak up some rays and jump a few waves, followed by a  couple of competitive rounds of mini golf at the amusing, novelty King Tutt's Putt Putt. Before we knew it, the sun was setting and our insides were growling out to us, a sure sign that it was dinnertime!

    Gold Coast International Hotel,
    7 Staghorn Avenue
    Surfers Paradise, QLD
    (07) 5584 1200
    Food: Japanese

    We actually spotted Yamagen on the walk to King Tutt's, which is about 200 metres away. By this stage of the evening, we were so hungry we didn't think our bodies had the energy to go all the way back into the town's centre for a meal, so we settled for a Japanese fix instead.

    Yamagen is one of three restaurants offered by The Gold Coast International Hotel. It serves a slew of straightforward, classic Japanese dishes in what we found to be a tranquil and professional environment. We  may have been a tad out of place in our shorts, singlets and thongs, but we weren't bothered and  happily grazed through our nourishing meals. 

    With content bellies, we lazily walked back to Surfer's Paradise's Cavill Mall for a refreshing dessert of gelati to enjoy on the beach, toes wriggling in the cool, soothing sand, watching the seagulls soar high above us in the starry sky.

    Agedashi Tofu - fried tofu in a rich dashi, mirin and soya broth

    Beef Kushisashi - char-grilled beef, basted in a special yakitori sauce

    Tempura Udon - thick white noodles in a dashi broth, with a selection of tempura prawn and vegetables