Saturday, August 30, 2008

August 31, 2008: Noodles with basil


Typical. Last month I passed judgment on the World in Your Kitchen Calendar, saying that the recipes tended to be adequate and nothing more. And this month: bam! A real winner. These noodles are incredibly simple, insanely tasty and generally a damn good time. The only downside to this recipe is its lack of variety - you really need to make something to accompany it, otherwise it'd get a bit dull and veg-free. We threw together a quick tofu and bok choy stir-fry, with a few splashes of sesame oil, ginger oil and hoisin sauce to liven it up.

The key to this whole meal was the bean paste I think - it added an unusual flavour: salty and slightly spicy, with the fermented beans adding something indescribable. It was wonderful. And so easy that we made it again the next night to accompany the leftover tofu mush.

So I've been reconverted to the World Kitchen Calendar - hopefully the next four months will live up to September's standard.


Noodles with basil

225g of flat rice noodles (we bought them dry and soaked them in hot water for a few minutes to soften them up)
4 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (keep a few whole leaves aside to garnish things)
3 birdseye chillis, halved and deseeded
1 teaspoon seseame oil
1-2 teaspoons concentrated yellow bean paste (we were forced to substitute some spicy bean paste)
1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
a splash of water
Some peanut or canola oil for frying

Mix together the soy sauce, sugar, water and bean paste in a small bowl.

Heat the frying oil in a wok and fry the chillis for about a minute.

Add the noodles and fry for a couple of minutes, stirring the whole time.

Add the sesame oil and the chopped basil, still stirring.

Pour in the pre-mixed sauciness, stir fry for another couple of minutes and then you're done.

If you're keen for a nice garnish, remove the noodles from the wok, add a little more oil and, when it's hot, throw the remnants of the basil in for a few seconds - they'll come out crispy straight away and make a perfect garnish.

August 30, 2008: Tokyo treats - green tea chocolate

I've been a bit unsure of the green tea chocolate and consequently it has lurked in the cupboard, half-forgotten, for several months. The first bite was intensely herbal and a little bitter. This was not at all what I wanted from chocolate! Once that subsided I was able to appreciate the subtle sweetness and the perfect buttery texture as I chewed. I surprised myself by reaching for a second piece and tripped from revulsion to compulsion once again.

I still can't work out whether I enjoyed the ride. What I'm certain of is that Matt did brilliantly to include this uniquely Japanese snack in his collection of Tokyo treats.

August 30, 2008: Brunetti XI

To my delight as much as hers, Katy returned to Melbourne for the weekend as a surprise birthday gift from her boyfriend! We hastily made plans to meet at Brunetti for morning tea. I made a point of ordering the barley-based orzo that Julia recommended, and was a little stumped when asked what kind of coffee I wanted with it. I went with a cafe latte, and received a subtly nutty and sweet drink with a light coffee kick. Having now reread the wikipedia page on orzo, I'm confused as to whether there was actually coffee in the beverage or whether it's just prepared in the same range of styles (latte, long black, etc). Could that twitchy leg I developed afterwards "from the caffeine" be psychosomatic?

To accompany my orzo latte, a mini bomboloni with lemon custard. The perfect little package for an early treat!
____________


Want more Brunetti? We have this and ten other visits archived here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August 23, 2008: Leftover makeover - apple pastry with cashew cream

Among other things, our disaster dinner left a few apples and glugs of cashew cream in its wake. What struck me most about the cream was that it wasn't distinctly sweet or savoury and I wondered how I might utilise it for dessert.

Here's the solution. Puff pastry squares, topped with apple slices and sprinklings of agave syrup and Chinese five spice. Baked until golden and then drizzled with cashew cream. At least as good as it sounds.

August 23, 2008: Black Pearl


Cindy and I found ourselves at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon and, rather strangely, her thought turned to cocktails. We used to semi-regularly attend a half-priced Sunday afternoon cocktail extravaganza just down the street from where we lived in West End, but since we moved down to Melbourne cocktails have only occasionally been on the agenda. We were fairly sure that Brunswick Street had more than just Polly to offer us boozy mixed drinks, and this review of Black Pearl, offering not only fancy cocktails but also the world's best chips, gave us a destination for the evening.

It's a cozy and comfortable place - at least in the afternoon. I'm not sure how pleasant it would be if it was jam packed, but when you can nab a couple of couches in the corner for yourself and chat quietly, it's a fine, relaxed venue. First things first: chips - the food menu wasn't substantial, but included a range of promising items (the feta and haloumi cigars were high on my list), but we had to make sure that The Age wasn't lying to us. Exaggerating slightly perhaps - although it's hard to think of better chips that we've sampled around the place (cue Cindy in comments listing all the chips that she's preferred to these). The fries ($7) had some sort of herb seasoning, generous amounts of salt and a scrumptious spicy aioli, and came in great numbers. Enough to put Cindy off dinner!

The cocktail menu is more substantial: around ten 'signature drinks', three seasonal choices and a few blackboard specials (the menu also promises that the bar staff will whip up whatever you fancy, so don't limit yourself). It's always a hard choice, and we spent some time tossing up our options. In the end, Cindy went for one of the seasonal specials: a Pimm's winter cup ($13), Pimm's No. 1, apple juice, fresh ginger juice and cinnamon, warmed up on the coffee steamer and served up as if it was tea. It was warming, fruity and nicely boozed. A good start. I went for a Sunday Best ($17): Martin Miller's gin, rosemary, mandarin, chilli and vanilla syrup, lemon juice and Angostura bitters. This was more citrus and tang than overpowering booziness, which suited me fine - the chilli didn't have quite the kick I expected, and I ended up drinking this more like fruit juice than something that cost the price of a good meal. Whoops.

Next up, Cindy went for something a bit more desserty - a Caribbean Monk ($17): Mount Gay Eclipse, caramel syrup, hazelnut liquer, fresh banana and lime dusted with cinnamon sugar. Something about the drink reminded Cindy of unripe banana, which put her off a little, but once she got a taste for it she quite happily knocked it back.

I decided not to repeat my earlier mistake and went for the most booze-tasting cocktail I could find: the Sazerac ($19): Gentleman Jack, Peychaud's bitters, sugar and absinth. This had about a third of the liquid of my first drink, but took me a lot longer to drink - it mainly tasted of strong. Strong with a bit of sugar. Thankfully Cindy had hit her limit and kept me in check - the main effect of a Sazerac seems to be increased desire for cocktails. Instead we made our way slowly home for leftovers and an early night.

Lazing around in Black Pearl was an expensive but winning way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, the snacks were great, the venue was comfortable and booze was plentiful. Still, it prompted a question: Melbourne's got blogs devoted to coffee, to breakfast, to pies, to wine and to vanilla slice, but none devoted to chips or to cocktails. If it wasn't so expensive I'd be agitating for weekly cocktail and chips outings just to fill the niche.

Address: 304 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9417 0455
Price: Cocktails $13-$19, snacks $5-$16
Most definitely licensed

August 22, 2008: Tofu Shop

This eatery's true identity has eluded us for some time. "Tofu Shop International" registered early interest in Michael and I when we first moved to Melbourne and spotted it in our 2006 Cheap Eats guide. Now I'm not even sure that that's quite its name - the sign more accurately reads "TOFU SHOP international fine foods". Let's just push on with the simpler moniker "Tofu Shop", shall we?

A couple of attempted visits were foiled by the fact that the Tofu Shop is closed on Sundays. As I read about their tofu soft serve ice cream in exotic flavours like rosewater, and coconut-pandan, I became increasingly keen to visit. Then there was Kristy's post about one particular staff member hassling vegans. At an all-vegetarian shop featuring tofu. What the...?

There was no sign of this person, or any other unfriendly folk, when we finally tried the Tofu Shop for dinner. Instead we encountered a bench full of vegetarian dishes and a friendly girl who offered to run us through the drill. Like Soulmama, the main approach is to choose a bowl size (small $8, medium $15, large $17) and then pick which dishes you'd like to eat; there's some plain rice and a few sauces on offer too.

I was determined to retain room for ice cream, so limited myself to the small bowl - this still proved to be a solid meal for my small appetite. Michael, meanwhile, was getting a medium bowl piled with a taste of every dish on offer: beetroot and adzuki beans, pumpkin and fresh herbs, fennel, miso ginger tofu, shitake tofu, pickled Chinese cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. There wasn't a dud among them! Most notable of all is their feature ingredient, exceedingly fresh and delicate tofu. It was when I returned to the counter later that I noticed a few other foods available as set plates (not part of the pick'n'mix set up) - 'soyvlaki', soy falafel, vege balls, pastry triangles, salads and dips. It'll be this part of the menu I sample on my next visit.

Though the Tofu Shop was without any customers when we arrived, it rapidly filled with takeaway and eat-in customers as we enjoyed our own meals. It seems that on a Friday night (and presumably any other night), the staff are equipped with the finite amount of food on display and once that's gone, dinner's over. Though the official closing time is 9pm, supplies were running low by 8:15.

Thankfully the ice cream machine was still running! Flavour of the day was cafe latte, and Michael surprised me by wanting a serve of his own ($4). We should have shared, 'cause $4 gets you a lot of icecream! It didn't taste at all beany, and had a distinctive but difficult-to-describe texture - creamy but firm, perhaps like a frozen custard. The first mouthful was perfect sweetened coffee, though my taste buds dulled as I progressed through dessert.

This small cafe is not a place for lingering long over meals and soaking up the ambiance - while it's light and clean, the fit-out is only a half-step up from your local takeaway. But it boasts a huge variety of vegetarian dishes and reasonable prices; it's an ideal stop for a nourishing snack, reliable meal or even a soy-based sweet treat.

Address: 78 Bridge Rd, Richmond
Ph: 9429 6204
Unlicenced
Price: veg mains $8-17

August 21, 2008: Potato and leek soup

Cindy and I had cooked up some vague dinner plan, but when I caught the scent of the potato and leek soup in Radio (which, by the way, has added more options to its lunch menu and is now the clear lunch winner on my end of Gertrude), I cancelled whatever other notions we had and decided that it was time for another soup. After a bit of poking around the internet, we came up with this recipe, from Reynard's Feast, which Danika sadly appears to have stopped updating.

We weren't organised enough to have faux-milk in the house, so our version ended up being non-vegan. Similarly, we were forced to resort to dried sage through general lack of planning. Regardless, this worked out excellently - the mashing of the spuds (rather than blending) makes for a more interesting consistency. So much so that I decided just to mash the cooked leek as well, which meant it retained a slight chunkiness. The mustard gave the milder flavours a bit of an edge, and Cindy topped it all off with some impromptu croutons - not a bad dinner for about half an hour's work.

August 19, 2008: Bulghur burgers

I recently spotted this vege burger recipe on melbedggood.com and tagged it 'cause it utilises two foods that have been languishing in our pantry for a while: bulghur and peanuts. With its nutritious ingredients list and oven baking, I was curious to see how these patties would measure up in taste and texture to other recipes we've tried. They have a pleasant nutty flavour and the bulghur doesn't make them too heavy, as I feared it might. However, the patties didn't hold together quite as well as I'd hoped they would. I wonder if a bit of extra oil on the baking tray would help?

I also took Mel's advice in making some barbeque sauce to plonk on top - gold! The recipe requires only a quarter of an onion, so I slow cooked the remaining three quarters in rings as an additional topping. It was a thoroughly enjoyable meal, though not a serious threat to the household reigning burger champion, the chickpea cutlet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

August 16, 2008: Disaster dinner

Lest you think that it's all virtuous breakfasts, golden vegetables and effortless treats in our kitchen, let me tell you about our latest cooking failure. For some time I've been wanting to try making my own gnocchi. Keen to enjoy it while the weather's still cool, Michael and I used a spare Saturday to pick out a recipe, buy a cheap potato ricer and some groceries on Sydney Rd and set to work. Along the way we decided to invite my aunt Carol to share dinner with us - it's been a while since we last had a meal with her.

This was a team task, and Michael and I worked together well enough. We got started long before Carol was due to arrive but the hour-long baking that the potatoes required set us back. We'd chatted and prepped and drank for a good hour with Carol before we had the little pillows pictured above, ready for cooking. Sadly, cooking transformed them into this:

We called for pizza.

Pathetic as out not-cchi were, Michael and I weren't too embarrassed. Carol takes great pleasure in food but doesn't bother herself much with cooking at all. Our efforts were impressive enough, and the pizza we eventually ate was happily washed down with a glass of red.

Dessert was my chance to make amends - I'd chosen another hearty dish that I wanted to try before winter ended. The Amish apple dumpling (as interpreted by Kurma Dasa): a whole apple wrapped in homemade pastry and baked with a caramel sauce. With the pastry prepared in the early afternoon, they didn't require too much extra effort and looked rather cute. Here they are, about to go into the oven:

As they baked, I wondered aloud whether I was supposed to have peeled the apples. Yes, actually, confirmed the cookbook. This is probably why:

Scandalously disrobed as they were, these apple dumplings proved to be entirely edible. The fruit (including the skin!) was warm and tender, the pastry golden with scrumptious caramel edges. Phew! A night for humility but not despair.


Though our gnocchi were terrible, the thyme vinaigrette and lemon cashew cream we'd prepared to eat with them were sensational spooned over tagliatelle the following night. We'll be back for more!

August 16, 2008: Robbies Stein

31/12/2012: Robbies Stein has closed down.

After a delicious but modestly portioned breakfast at Minimo, Michael and I spent a couple of hours running errands along Sydney Rd. Before hopping on the tram back home, it was too tempting to stop at Robbies Stein for a small, late lunch. This turned out to be a cracking idea - unbeknownst to us, Robbies (I wish they'd use an apostrophe) offers a range of 'grazing plates'. Even better, there are plenty of vegetarian ones. How to choose between polenta, gyoza, dukkah-spiced eggplant chips, haloumi, crumbed olives, dips?

Well, part of the choice was made for us because twistedbrick particularly recommended the hand cut chips ($6.50). (Because otherwise, me ordering chips? Never happens. *cough*) They were fine specimens indeed. You could serve these without a dipping sauce and they'd still impress. As it was, I was happy to give them their dose of aioli.

But would you, could you, believe that those fabulous chips were upstaged by the mushrooms?! No ordinary white buttons, an assortment of mushrooms were crumbed, deep-fried and served with aioli ($8.50). They were exquisite. Juicy but never soggy, and so flavoursome. I couldn't bear to sully them with the (really rather good) aioli.

The lemon, lime and bitters also deserves a shout-out; made with mouth-puckering fresh lemon juice, it's the perfect antidote to all that fried food. Robbies Stein also offers a few meal-sized dishes and I hear they do a mean lemon tart, but I can personally and very enthusiastically recommend them for your mid-afternoon grazing needs.

Address: 99 Sydney Rd, Brunswick
Ph: 9388 9817
Licensed
Price: veg grazing plates $6-10.50

August 16, 2008: Minimo

Cindy and I invented some excuse for a Saturday breakfast on the town - I can't even remember what it was, maybe we were out of milk. Anyway, I did some quick internet research and convinced Cindy that we should go somewhere new. And that somewhere was Minimo.

Minimo isn't quite part of the whole Sydney Road scene in Brunswick, it's just a little bit north of the trendy bits. And Minimo's not entirely trendy - it's low key and relaxed, with lots of big windows and a fairly large open kitchen plonked in the corner.

The menu is basically divided in two: eggs and French toast (there are some beans and things tacked on to the end, but the eggs and toast are the real focus). I spent a while pondering, before settling on the tapenade: two poached eggs, mushroom and capsicum tapenade with sour dough. Of course as soon as I'd made my choice, the waitress came over and reeled off two stunning sounding specials: some sort of purple roesti with poached eggs and the eventual winner: two poached eggs with grilled field mushrooms, blue cheese and a chilli jam served up on sourdough toast ($14). Hard to resist.

And it comfortably lived up to my expectations - two neat little eggs, plopped on a couple of mushrooms all piled up on the toast with the chilli and cheese drizzled across the top and a smattering of greens and cherry tomatoes for colour as much as anything else. It all dissolved pretty quickly into a liquidy, eggy mess and became much less photogenic. Still, the cheese and chilli combined brilliantly with the perfectly poached eggs and even the tomatoes were little bursts of flavour. Great, great stuff.

Cindy couldn't resist the lure of French toast, unfortunately rejecting my two preferred options: mixed wild berries or stewed apple and pear, instead intentionally picking out something she knew I wouldn't steal: caramalised banana, served up with maple syrup and ricotta ($12). The toast was smothered in eggs (maybe more than Cindy would have liked), but the banana was caramelly and delicious (at least as much as bananas can be).

Throw in some great coffee for me, and a ginger and lemongrass tea for Cindy and you've got a very satisfying breakfast. The portions Minimo serves up aren't gigantic, but they're perfectly formed - neat little plates filled with flavour and imagination. The staff are all ridiculously pleasant and friendly and the whole vibe of the place (at least by midday or whenever we turned up) is laid back. So ride the tram a few extra stops next time you're heading to Savers or the Meditteranean Wholesalers and stop in at Minimo for a bite.

Address: 822 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Ph: 9383 2083
Price: veg breakfasts $4.50 - $14

Saturday, August 16, 2008

August 9, 2008: Bistro Vue

Despite being stranded in the US South, Cindy kept her finger on the Melbourne food pulse and sent around an email reminding me of The Age's Winter Restaurant Express - a week-long promotion where some of Melbourne's fanciest restaurants offer two-course lunches with a glass of wine for just $30. We'd visited Oyster the last time this kind of promotion was on, and been just slightly underwhelmed by the vego dish on offer. We were wowed by Cafe Vue's vego work at their cocktail night, so we had high hopes that Bistro Vue would come through for us this time around.

We turned up a little late, and were worried that we were going to be hurried through the meal so we weren't in the way of the second lunch sitting. The restaurant didn't seem too busy, but we still felt a little pressure from the staff to get ourselves in and out fairly quickly. It took some of the fun out of the whole meal, but it was at least half our fault so it's hard to be too upset.

The menu at these $30 special events usually includes an entree, a couple of mains and a dessert, and each diner gets to pick either the dessert or entree to go with their choice of main. Unfortunately, there was no vegetarian entree option, meaning that both Cindy and I were forced to go with the main and the dessert (well, me anyway - Cindy wouldn't have had it any other way). The vego main was a butternut risoni - not quite another risotto, but not that far away, and not quite as imaginative as I'd hoped for.

Still, it was richly flavoured, dotted with scrumptious goat's cheese and was warm and filling - not bad for a typical Melbourne August day.

The dessert for the day was a pistachio crème brûlée, served up with a little blob of grapefruit ice cream plopped on a slightly cardboardy wafer. The crème brûlée was perfectly made, with a brittle, caramelised top just waiting to be cracked open. The stunning green was presumably meant to highlight the pistachio content, but the flavour was overpoweringly amaretto-based. Again - quite good without being as stunning as I'd imagined. Perhaps my expectations for the whole meal were just a little too high.

Still, we left with a good feeling - the restaurant serving up some weird little muffin treats to go along with our coffees. They weren't outstanding (the muffins - the coffees were great), but any kind of bonus treat like this leaves you with a smile on your face.

So, again, Cindy and I were a bit let down by the $30 fancy lunch special. Perhaps we just have unreasonably high expectations, or perhaps these are the kind of situations where restaurants don't give a lot of thought to the vegetarian options - both here and at Oyster they felt a little tacked on. Maybe we're better off booking in for the super-expensive degustation-type events, where the vego stuff tends to be a little more imaginative.

Address: 430 Little Collins Street (entrance on New Chancery Lane)
Phone: 9691 3838
Licensed
Price: Lunch
Website: http://www.vuedemonde.com.au/bistro-vue.aspx

August 6, 2008: Strawberry chocolate clusters

While I spent a month away from my workplace, Elise kindly volunteered to organise the seminar schedule in my absence. As I checked my email on holiday and at distant conferences, it was always reassuring to spot one of her friendly messages to the group and know that all was running smoothly.

It's said that one good turn deserves another, and in my workplace good turns are usually edible. So as a small gift of thanks, I whipped up a batch of crunchy chewy chocolate clusters for Elise. This time I used dried strawberries, almonds, coconut and a sprinkle of orange blossom water. The orange blossom water didn't contribute much at all, but the strawberries were lovely. It's lucky that I had only a limited supply of chocolate, or there wouldn't have been any strawberries left for my porridge!

Bling'n'Zing Biscuits or: How I learned to stop worrying and love vegan baking

In the almost-four years that Michael and I have been vegetarian we've not come up against much resistance. Yet I've been surprised at the number of otherwise broad-minded people I meet who screw their noses up at vegan food. "I had a vegan biscuit once and it was revolting!" proclaimed one inner-city Melbournite a couple of months ago, dismissing the entire lifestyle on this fragile basis.

It irks me. Though there's a sizable portion of non-vegan foods in my diet, I've eaten (and cooked) countless wonderful vegan meals and treats without any sense of deprivation. This is probably why I was so interested in the Vegan Bake-Off organised to launch Leigh Drew's new cookbook, Vegan Indulgence. I wasn't particularly set on winning - I just wanted to check out the variety of vegan sweets made in ordinary kitchens and contribute something modest to the spread. Because really, how difficult could it be to make a good vegan biscuit?

I set to work on a Martha Stewart recipe for chocolate and ginger biscuits. The original recipe, which I've baked multiple times to great acclaim, isn't vegan but substitutions are a doddle - I used Nuttelex in place of butter and Lindt 70% chocolate for the chips. Since Nuttelex is not as firm as butter, I found it easiest to freeze rather than refrigerate the mixture before rolling it into balls. (As an aside, the dough remains pliable even after a week in the freezer - perfect for sneaking spoonfuls of any leftovers!)

In parallel I baked a half-batch of the buttery Nestle-choc-chipped version and took them all to work in separate boxes, one labelled 'Biscuit X', the other 'Biscuit Y'. Though my willing taste-testers enjoyed both formulations, there was a general preference for the non-vegan version. Based on the comments I received, it seemed to be the bittersweet chocolate letting biscuit Y down. I fired off an email to Kristy, who promptly recommended Tropical Source Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips as a sweeter alternative. These were perfect! By 11:15 on Saturday morning I had plenty of sweet, chocolatey biscuits ready for the bake-off. They were flat and not overly pretty, but what the heck. As I filled out the entry form, I boldly named them Bling'n'Zing biscuits, after their glittery sugar crust and ginger bite.

The Bling'n'Zingers pose coyly beneath more chocolate

As it turned out, I missed the bake-off entirely. The pleasant lunch we attended lingered on (Michael's review is coming soon!) and I couldn't get them in by the submission deadline. Instead I shared the biscuits around later that night, at a party of omnivores, known and unknown. Naturally few people were going to refuse the offer of a chocolate biscuit, but would they be able to tell? In this new light they seemed flat and dowdy and maybe a bit burnt. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what I'd named them.

"Oh wow, they're glittery!"

"What is that? I know there's chocolate, but there's a secret ingredient!"

"It's probably love."

"No, it's ginger! Yum!"

Relief. I waited a few minutes more before telling the girl next to me that they were vegan. This information followed the biscuits round - there were a couple of nods and one pair of eyebrows raised in surprise.

"... so can I have another one?"

Though I missed the mother lode of sweet vegan delights, I'd like to think that those biscuits made the world a slightly more vegan-friendly place.
__________

Curious about vegan sweets?
Check out BitterSweet, the Conscious Kitchen, Vegan Yum Yum and ZB's Vegan Recipes and try not to drool on your keyboard.
__________

Do you have a favourite vegan dessert?
Does it use crafty ingredient substitutions or is it naturally free of animal products? Please tell us about it!

August 2, 2008: Jaipur Curry Bar

08/01/2014: Jaipur Curry Bar has now closed its doors and neighbour Red Pepper has expanded into its space.

On Saturday night we were after a quick meal in the city before heading to MIFF. I took the opportunity to complete the Bourke St trio of Indian restaurants by visiting Jaipur Curry Bar. Nestled between Green Pepper and Red Pepper, the setting straddles the two - tables are very much cafeteria style but some effort's been made to colour and decorate the walls. Interestingly the menu includes beef, though goat is more dominant.

Jaipur initially scored points for actually having the mango lassi that was advertised on the menu. Entirely for the sake of comparison, I ordered the malai kofta with two naans again ($9). The naan was pretty good but the curry was the least of the three - an average dumpling in a one-dimensional but rather hot gravy. Michael was faced with the difficult decision of choosing between five vegetarian paneer dishes; his kahari paneer ($8, with rice) was a good one, milder and sweeter than mine.

Jaipur seems to distinguish itself from its rivals in a few ways: an upstairs area available for private functions, a lunch time bain marie, and charging a couple of dollars less per meal. However, the service seems to be even more indifferent than its no-frills neighbours. I've just read a couple of other people's stories and our experience had its own incident. A very drunk and disruptive patron (who ordered no food that I could see) actually caused multiple customers to either move tables or leave the restaurant before ordering. The obvious solution would be to simply refuse to serve this 'gentleman' any more alcohol; he'd most likely leave, increasing the likelihood that other customers would hang around and spend money; what's more it's the business' legal responsibility. Yet several staff members continued to serve him beers throughout our time at the restaurant. Would Red or Green Pepper's staff have reacted differently? I've no idea, but I'll now be visiting them in preference to Jaipur Curry Bar.

Address: 16 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9663 3848
BYO and licensed
Price: veg mains $7-9

August 2, 2008: Birdman Eating

When we first moved to Melbourne and I started working on Gertrude Street I remember being very disappointed that Organic Gertrude, given high praise in our Cheap Eats 2006 guide, had left Fitzroy before I'd arrived, for more remote digs out at Fairfield. Still, it didn't take me long to discover the Vegetable Connection on Brunswick Street for my fresh fruit and veg needs. And then my disappointment was completely washed away when Birdman Eating appeared in Organic Gertrude's vacant premises. I got to work agitating for a visit straight away, but for some reason (the 20 minute walk and lack of direct tram featuring highly I'm guessing) I could never convince Cindy to head in for a weekend breakfast. Luckily, Cindy pays a lot more attention to Melbourne foodbloggers than she does to me, and when Mary raved about it (although she was hardly the first), Birdman suddenly appeared on Cindy's list of places we should visit.

All bitterness aside, I was looking forward to the visit. We were surprisingly fortunate with seating - arriving at 10:30ish on a Saturday and being ushered straight to a table. It's not an overly cluttered place, but there's enough decoration amongst the clean lines to give it a bit of character. The coffee here is top notch, and Cindy's chai hit the spot as well - a little weak, but neither too bitter or too sweet.

The menu is a little unusual - kippers and black pudding for the meat-eaters, Welsh rarebit for the cheese-heads and enough sweet options to satisfy the sweetest of tooths. Which made it even more surprising that Cindy ordered toast: toasted banana bread with honey and cinnamon labne to be precise ($9).

It was probably a little small for $9, but it filled her up and was reasonably tasty. I can't say much more than that - my banana phobia prevented me from even stealing a bite.

As well as the regular menu, Birdman has a rotating cast of baked egg treats on the specials board and, once I'd ascertained that shanklish was a kind of cheese, my heart was set on #3 - baked eggs with shanklish and sweet potato ($14). The eggs came out perfectly cooked, which meant that by the time they'd cooled enough for me to eat the yolks were a little too firm for my tastes. I guess you're just supposed to pounce and eat it while it's still bubbling (note: don't do what I did and touch the pan - not smart). Still, the shanklish was outstanding - lightly spiced and kind of yoghurty, and was enough to win me over. Particularly in combination with the soft and steaming sweet potato.

I think my memories of the Min Lokal baked eggs are becoming ludicrously positive (I guess we should go back to check), so these didn't quite measure up, but they rate pretty damn highly regardless. Despite the weekend crowds, the service was friendly and efficient (and trendy - I'm sure some of these places hire people based at least partly on how cool they look). Sure the bill was a little more than normal, but that's the price you pay for hobnobbing at the hip end of Gertrude Street these days.

Address: 238 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9416 4747
Price: Vegie breakfasts - $6-$14.50

August 1, 2008: Brussels sprouts

For most of my life, the Brussels sprout has been more a myth than a vegetable. Children and former children seem almost to rejoice in their hatred of it. I suspect that my mum was one of their number and thus never cooked them for me - I probably reached adulthood without even knowing precisely what a Brussels sprout looked like.

I suppose their green leafy layers and relation to the cabbage are not great selling points to the corn-and-carrots crowd, but I think these compact little bundles are actually quite cute. I count myself lucky that I'm only just getting to know them now, after a solid decade of developing a real appreciation for vegetables. This way I can say easily and without prejudice that I like Brussels sprouts just fine!

I'm not on any one-person crusade to raise awareness of the Brussels sprout. Plenty of other keen cooks have been enjoying it for years. It was actually a collaborator at work who first extolled to me the virtues of lightly steamed sprouts, fried in butter. Others eat them with bacon, chestnuts or cheese, and naturally they played their part in the Great Big Vegetable Challenge (even making the list of vegetables Freddie unequivocally likes!). In many recipes, caramelisation seems to be the key. So I started by frying them with sugar - even healthy Heidi Swanson recommends this approach! Served with tofu and nuts, the sprouts still maintain some fresh crispness and character of their own.

Having determined that Brussels sprouts are really quite alright, I was actually willing to play along when Isa Moskowitz made her bold claim that Brussels sprouts are the vegan French fry. In any case, her recipe corresponded quite closely with my favoured method for trying out many unfamiliar vegetables - just bake 'em with olive oil, salt and pepper until golden. The sprouts yielded spectacularly to this treatment. The insides were tender but not mushy; the caramelised edges delightfully flavourful; and those outer leaves! They were so delicately crunchy. Like the ones we ate at Attica.

Is the Brussels sprout my new French fry? Not by a long shot, but there's plenty of room for the sprout to do its own unique thing in my kitchen.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All August long: rhubarb and porridge

I'm currently harbouring a crush on rhubarb. It's like the best bits of red cordial and jube lollies without that chemical edge and soapy aftertaste. I assumed it couldn't get better than the rhubarb and ginger pudding I baked last year, but I was mistaken. Not only does rhubarb get better, it gets easier!

With the few stalks remaining after the muffins, I tried my hand at a compote. A quick scan of the internet had it looking simple enough - I didn't rely on a particular source, though I did imitate Lucy's sprinkle of rosewater once the cooking was over. Wow. That extra fragrance, that extra complexity, lifts rhubarb to a new plane! I spooned it generously over porridge, carefully rationing it out for each mouthful, savouring every last drop of the sweet-sour syrup.

And now that I've mentioned porridge, it deserves a few words of its own. Though I could probably make my own mix more cheaply, I bought a packet of multi-grains (oats, wheat, triticale, rye, barley and rice) as an incentive to make porridge at home. This habit has outlasted the sublime rhubarb compote, and it has proved an enjoyable and nourishing way to finish stray packets of dried fruits and nuts languishing in the pantry. Dried strawberries and maple syrup made a lovely pair, though the accompanying raw cashews failed to make an impact. I thought that using pomegranate syrup and pistachios was inspiration from heaven but the syrup was actually too sour - golden syrup fared better.

There's been a lot of trials and a little error. One thing's for sure - porridge need never be beige or bland again.


Rhubarb compote


Chop your rhubarb into 4-5 cm segments. Deposit them in a saucepan with a scant tablespoon of raw sugar for each stalk. Add a splash of water to help the sugar dissolve. Stir the mixture regularly over medium heat until the sugar melts, and the rhubarb softens and starts to break down. (This took me 10-15 minutes for 3 stalks.) Allow the compote to cool slightly before sprinkling over some rosewater.