October 07, 2009

Bistro Ortolan

Bistro Ortolan is one of Sydney's well known "flash" restaurants. A fancy place you go when you want an upscale french dinner. We had heard mixed reviews. One friend whose opinion we respect a lot had completely panned it, but when our favorite server at Tastevin called it "the best degustation in Sydney" we decided we had to try it.

It's a single bus ride for us out to Leichardt, which is best known as one of Sydney's oldest estabished Italian neighborhoods. Leichardt is where we go for ricotta cake, wood fired pizza, and great Italian cheeses. I called early in the afternoon to get a booking, asking "could I get a booking for this evening?" "Certainly, when would you like to come in?" "When do you have open? I'm free all evening." "So are we." "In that case, I'll just wander in. See you in a bit." "Thank you, sir."

So wander in we did. After perusing the wine list, menu, and degustation we settled on a bottle of Shaky Bridge 2006 Pinot Noir from Central Otago NZ, a glass of Gosset Grande Reserve, and the degustation.

We started with an amuse of tomato veloute accompanied by a single Coffin Bay oyster and a horseradish cream filled choux. The oyster was magnificent. I continue to be amazed and appalled by the Australian custom of shucking and rinsing raw oysters before serving them, but Bistro Ortolan served the oyster freshly shucked and included the top of the shell perhaps to indicate that the oyster was freshly opened. Fat and briny, with luscious oyster liquor in the shell I could have eaten a dozen of these. The tomato veloute was rich with tomato flavor and included a number of interesting "bits" in the bottom, I believe I noticed a slice of olive, Debbie thought there were capers, and I also thought there might be some mushroom. The choux filled with horseradish cream was a nice accompaniment, but I thought the choux might have stood too long - it was a trifle soggy. At the time, I didn't remark on the number of things going on in one dish, but as the meal progressed that grew to be a theme.

The next dish, the obligatory raw course, was a ceviche of kingfish, sea urchin, with a "pipe" of caviar cream arrived in a hollowed out sea urchin shell and garnished with flowers and gold leaf - a presentation that made both of us exclaim "wow!" The ceviche itself was excellent, delicate morsels of hiramasa, tossed lightly with creamy uni and lemon in a light piquant dressing. It was accompanied by a buttery tuile filled with a caviar cream and topped with caviar. I'm not generally a fan of gold leaf on my food, it's just flashy and is good for impressing unsophisticated diners, but adds nothing to the food.

This was followed by pasta, a pappardelle on which rested an egg shell in which was nestled a single whole yolk. We were directed to pour the egg yolk onto the pappardelle, which was then finished with a buerre noisette. The dish included wild chantarelles and other french mushrooms. The combination of egg yolk and butter made this dish extremely rich, and there wasn't any acid to lighten the flavor. The mushrooms seemed a bit tired, and the flavor was augmented with truffle oil. I do not expect to find truffle oil used in a putative fine dining restaurant. Truffle oil is used to impress people who may not know better. It's inexpensive and often used to cover up inferior ingredients. The pasta itself was well made (though I remarked "Quince it's not") but I thought was slightly undercooked and barely warm. Having it hot would have helped the yolk and egg, but as it was the dish left my mouth feeling slightly greasy.

Fortunately the Shaky Bridge Pinot was the perfect cure for that. The wine was young but drinkable, full of soft tannins. It had enough acidity for me and enough fruit for Debbie, and turned out to be an excellent pairing for the degustation.

The fish course was a blue-eye trevalla, sauteed with a crispy skin. It was served with what was billed as a "baby squid and pea 'risotto'" which I was curious to see. It turned out to be a lightly cooked brunoise of tender squid shaped into a round. Tasty, but to me the key features of a risotto are the creaminess and the slightly firm texture of each grain. The green beans and broad beans were exellent. The dish was finished tableside by garnishing it with sauce from a small pitcher. I thought this was slightly gratuitous, it could easily have been sauced in the kitchen, but thought no more about it.

This was followed by poultry, a pot-au-feu of chicken with foie gras and girasole. The chicken was meltingly tender and slightly pink, which caused me to ask the server if it had been prepared sous-vide. He wasn't familiar with the term and looked slightly confused. The foie had a fairly strong liver flavor and texture, as a big fan of foie gras I was slightly disappointed. The dish was finished by the addition of the broth tableside. After three dishes in a row being finished at the table, I joked to Debbie that I was tired of it and hoped the game course wouldn't also be finished at the table. She said "there's no way they'd finish venison at the table."

The loin of venison was finished at the table. It was accompanied by a bone marrow gnocchi, asparagus, a piece of marrow, a cafe de paris butter filled croquette, chanterelles, and three garnishes. It was a farrago. Too many things going on all at the same time, with nothing to pull it all together. Venison, plus marrow, plus gnocchi, plus a croquette, none of it stood out.

The cheese course was a good roquefort, with the traditional accompaniments of toasted walnut bread and honeycomb. Creamy, tart, and sharp cheese with toasty rich bready flavors and the complex flavors of honey and wax. This combination is a classic for good reason. I love good cheese and thoroughly enjoyed this course.

Next came a palate cleanser of pink grapefruit and campari sorbet. A solid choice of two great flavors that pair very well, the tart bitterness of the grapefruit complementing the sweet bitterness of the Campari in a sum greater than its parts. The citrus salad complemented the tart/bitter/sweet of the sorbet and added bright freshness to the course. The flowers made a coherent addition to the palette.

The dessert was a cute little soufflé flavored with spiced chai baked in a teacup. It was paired with a rather undistinguished rhubarb and custard tart and rhubarb sorbet.

It seems clear that we agree more with our friend who thought Ortolan was overhyped than our friend who thought it was one of the best degustations in Sydney. If you want the best Sydney has to offer, I suggest Quay. If you want to see what can be done with simplicity and excellent preparation while still maintaining very high standards I recommend Atelier. Bistro Ortolan panders to what popular taste expects in "flash" dining, with overly complicated preparations that result in confusion on the palate, and show at the expense of substance.

Phở Bắc Hải Dương

Phở Bắc Hải DươngPho bac hai duong is a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville serving northern style beef noodle soup, which is obvious from the name - if you speak Vietnamese. "Pho" is Vietnamese beef noodle soup, "bac" means northern, and "Hai Duong" is a province in northern Vietnam. [I realize that by omitting the diacritical marks I'm mangling the Vietnamese, and I apologize for that.]

We'd ridden by this restaurant on the bus to other places, we'd heard it was one of the best pho places in the Sydney area, and we were in the mood for pho - so off we went. There are various theories about the origin of the name, and the origins of the dish. One popular version is that the name and soup come from the French "pot au feu." Others think the soup was of Chinese origin. In any case, there's general agreement that the dish started in the north in the early 1900s, and moved southward in the 1950s. There are definite regional variations, in the flavor of the broth, the style of noodles, and the amount and type of vegetables added.

CondimentsThe decor of Hai Duong is reasonable, glass tops over linen table cloths, but don't come here for the decor. The inside is plain and simple, and each table comes with a little tray of the standard condiments, hoi sin, chili sauce, ground chilis, fish sauce, soy sauce. There's a box of tissues to use as napkins. When you're seated you get a pot of tea that is kept filled the entire time you're there (I drank a pot and some all by myself.)

The menu is minimalist, black and white with page protectors, but a good selection of classic dishes, including the three we'd come especially to try - the eponymous pho, fried egg pancake (banh xeo), and "broken" rice with pork (com tam bi suon cha). We looked over the menu to see if there were treasures we might have missed, and to try to decide which of the multitude of pho we should get. Eventually I settled on the old reliable pho dac biet, or "special" pho, which usually includes tripe, tendon, lean beef (often round), and brisket but can include anything the restaurant feels like.

CondimentsThey quickly brought the condiments for the pho, bean sprouts, fresh basil, a lemon wedge, and fresh chilis. The chilis are the ubiquitious hot red chilis you find here in Sydney, and I used them to spice up all the dishes.

The first dish to arrive was the banh xeo ("sizzling cake"), which they described as Vietnamese Crepe-Style Pancake but is actually made from rice flour and tumeric.
Bánh xèoIt was filled with bean sprouts and plump shrimp and served with a side of nuoc cham (tart diluted fish sauce), fresh mint, and lettuce. The pancake itself can greasy (part of the charm in my opinion) but the mint, lettuce, bean sprouts and sauce cut the greasiness and the whole combination is delightful. The version at hai duong was nicely balanced and the shrimps were big and flavorful. We were off to a good start.

Cơm Tấm Bì Sườn ChảNext came the com tam ("broken rice.") The version we ordered included shredded pork, pork skin, egg, and sparerib. Each ingredient should be distinct, and there should be a hint of smokiness, especially in the sparerib. Unfortunately I thought they had overcooked everything especially the egg, and used way too much oil. Debbie liked it though. Also served with a slightly spicy nuoc cham.

Almost simultaneously came the pho dac biet. The heart of a good pho is the broth. It should be very fragrant but well balanced, no single spice or strong flavor should dominate and not too greasy.
Phở đặc biệt
It should be redolent of beef and fragrant spices. This broth was tasty and fragrant with star anise, though perhaps a bit sweet - though that's a matter of taste. It was topped with rare beef and brisket, though I searched in vain for tripe and tendon. I hope they didn't leave it out fearing that the white guy wouldn't like it! The noodles were the thicker northern style noodles more like fettucini width, rather than the thin southern style noodles. It was all garnished with cilantro and green onions. I doctored it with the fresh basil, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilis, hoisin sauce, and some chili sauce. It was great! It'd been a long time since I'd had a bowl of pho this satisfying. Any dissatisfaction with the com tam dissolved in the warm glow of the pho.

DebbieI'd come back, but there are other Vietnamese places nearby on Illawarra Road that we'll be trying first.

October 05, 2009

Egg & Soldier

The other new place that's opened recently on Glebe Point Rd is a "milk bar" called "The Egg and Soldier." I had been under the impression that a milk bar was a kind of local store for picking up milk and eggs and newspapers. Reading up a bit more, milk bars are that but they also used to be a place where people especially young people could come and socialize, drink coffee or soft drinks and generally socialize with their friends.

The Egg and Soldier is definitely more a place to socialize than a place to pick up a newspaper. It's a cafe where you can also get coffee, desserts, or light meals. The name (and logo) refers to the childhood dish of boiled egg with toast "soldiers" and "The Egg and Soldier" recreates some of that feeling of happy nostalgia.

We visited the first day they were open and things were still a little chaotic, but the staff is very friendly and obviously anxious to make a good impression. The place was warm and full of friendly people. Warned that the kitchen was still getting up to speed, we opted for some of the treats we saw in the case, a lemon meringue pie, and the banana bread. Being a coffee fanatic I also tried their macchiato.

Let me start by saying that the macchiato could use some improvement. The coffee was not as strong and thick as it should have been, but I passed on the feedback and it was well received. They're trying hard and I'm sure they will improve quickly, but this is no Espresso Vivace. Nevertheless they are starting from a good base, using Single Origin beans.

On the other hand both the banana bread and the lemon meringue pie were excellent. The banana bread was moist and flavorful with small distinct bits of banana in it. It was served with good butter and presented with nice fresh strawberry and mulberry.

The lemon meringue pie had great flavor, with intense lemon filling well balanced between sweet and tart. The crust was crisp and the meringue had good loft without going to ridiculous extremes I've seen on some other commercial lemon meringues.

After the two sweets, we were treated to a sort of dessert amuse, two macaroons. I'm not usually a fan of macaroons, not particularly liking dried flaked coconut, but these were great. Slightly crispy and toasty and very sweet, they'd be a great accompaniment to coffee.

We had other errands to run that morning so had to hurry off, which is a shame because Egg and Soldier is a comfortable place to linger and chat, to sit and relax. The space is still new, and the staff is still working things out, but I look forward to seeing what they do with it and how they grow into it. I can easily imagine sitting here for an hour or two.

[Edit to add, October 12, 2009]
We revisited The Egg and Soldier a few days ago, and let me start by saying the espresso is much improved. They've got a new barista who understands what a macciato is, what a picolo latte is, and how to make them. It now matters that the beans are from Single Origin, you can taste the difference in the cup. In fact I'd be happy to go back to The Egg and Soldier for a nice macchiato - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we visited this time, we decided we had to try their signature "Egg and Soldiers." This is a traditional UK "comfort food" of toast fingers and soft boiled eggs in egg cups. You dip your toast soldiers into the egg and eat the eggs this way. I thought the eggs were done well, with slightly runny whites and runny yolks, but Debbie would have preferred the whites to be set a little more. In order to do this they would have to cook the eggs longer over a lower heat, and the kitchen is already having trouble keeping up with the pace of the orders.

Along with the eggs and soldiers came some bacon wrapped asparagus, that I thought was a nice touch but maybe a little fancy for comfort food. Regardless, it was delicious.

I should say at this point that I am not a big fan of traditional breakfast foods. I don't much care for eggs on their own, and sweet starchy foods like pancakes, waffles, and french toast are not my first choice. So I tend to struggle at most "breakfast" places, and Egg and Soldier is really a breakfast place. Nevertheless they do have a nice selection of sandwiches and salads on the menu, and I am a big fan of Croque Monsieur, so I decided to try it.

I have some definite ideas about what constitutes a "proper" Croque, the first and formost being that it should be crisp. That's what "croque" means. It should also contain good ham and good cheese - classically a swiss. The croque here is a version I've run into before, a relative of the Monte Cristo from the USA, a soft white bread in egg batter, grilled with ham, cheese, and in this case hollandaise. It's warm and tasty, but it's not crispy, and it's not what I'm thinking of when I think "Croque Monsieur." Ah well.

The coffee on the other hand was excellent. I would be happy to come down here, sit with a cup of coffee and a book, and watch life go by on Glebe Point Road. Egg and Soldier still has a few rough spots - they need to at least double the speed of the kitchen for example - but it's still a warm, charming, friendly spot.

Glebe Noodle House

There are two new restaurants on Glebe Point Road that just opened in the past few days. Glebe Noodle House is down at the Broadway end of Glebe Point Road, and serves western Chinese style hand pulled noodles.

I'm a huge fan of hand pulled noodles, and Chinese noodle dishes in general. Hand pulled noodles are thick and chunky wheat noodles that are either fried or put into stews or soups. They're hearty, filling and delicious.

The process of making hand pulled noodles is both time consuming and labor intensive, requiring making dough, cutting it, rolling it into fat cigar shapes, letting it rest, rolling it again into long thumb width snakes, coiling it and letting it rest, pulling it into pencil thick lengths, piling them and letting it rest, and finally making skeins of noodles between your hands and stretching them into their final shape and size then boiling them.

The same dough can be rolled out into thin rounds as wrappers for the ubiquitous dumplings, that are filled with spiced meat, either beef or lamb here, and then boiled or fried. We opted for beef filling (by Hobson's choice - this being the first day they didn't actually have lamb dumplings yet) and asked for them to be fried. As you can tell from the photo the dumplings were cooked just a little too hot, with some of the dumplings getting over brown and the filling a little underdone. I put this down to teething pains, and expect things to improve as they get more experience.

We also had to try the noodles, of course, so we got their "Country Style" noodles, which consist of hand pulled noodles, and a stir fry of lamb, greens, onions, capsicum, and tomato in a savory sauce. Very nice flavors, and of course we loved the noodles.

We sat downstairs near the front in order to watch the open kitchen, but there's a larger seating area upstairs including an open balcony. The kitchen was a lot of fun to watch, with the noodle specialist constantly making noodles, rolling out dumpling skins and assembling dumplings. It was clear from her economy of motion and deftness that she has done this a lot. It was a joy to watch her work.

The kitchen on the other hand is a bit small, and cramped with three people trying to maneuver around. The mise en place needs a little work, with some of the sauces being hand poured from bottle into a ladle rather than just scooped out of ready to hand containers. As a result, timeliness suffered but I'm sure they'll work out these issues. Noodle houses are traditionally inexpensive and filling and this was both - we will be back.

September 28, 2009

Palace Chinese Restaurant

Based on recommendations from other local food bloggers, Debbie and I decided to try the Yum Cha (dim sum) at Palace Chinese Restaurant. We arrived just before closing on a weekday so the selection was a bit anemic - but that was our own fault.

We tried a selection of traditional dim sums, including har gao, glutinous rice with pork, custard buns, and BBQ duck. All of them were tasty, the duck in particular was the best prepared of any chinese BBQ duck we've had in the city - they boned it!

From our preview we were favorably impressed with the quality - we'll be back to check out the selection soon. My one concern is that the prices seemed a bit high, even by Sydney standards, but if the quality is good enough it will be worth it.

September 27, 2009

Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley wine region is only about two hours north of Sydney. We'd never been there and various of our friends had been telling us how pretty it was, so last Thursday and Friday we headed up to see what it was like. Debbie and I had recently gotten YHA memberships and booked the tour through them. They provided transportation to and from the Hunter Valley, a half-day wine tour, dinner, and a private
room with bath at the Hunter Valley YHA all for a total of AU$368. We ended up seeing four pretty ordinary wineries and some typical tourist attractions the first day, but an interesting brewpub and some great brick kilns on the second day.

We were told to meet the bus at the corner of Pitt St and Campbell St at 7:15am. We arrived a few minutes late and had a momentary concern that maybe this time they really meant "we will leave at 7:15 sharp" rather than the more traditionally Australian "you show up sometime around 7:15, we'll show up anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour after that." We needn't have worried, the bus didn't arrive for another 45 minutes. Not only that, it was only a shuttle to take us to the Star City Casino where we would meet our actual bus!

Finally everything was ready and we set off. The bus was a Chinese manufactured "midi" bus, quite modern and comfortable. We wound through Sydney morning traffic for a bit then headed north. After crossing the Hawkesbury River we headed inland off the main road through towns with names like Kulnura, Bucketty, and Yallambie before making our first stop of the day in Wollombi. During the gold rush Wollombi was a town of a couple thousand people, but now has a only few hundred people and a certain bucolic charm.

We rendezvoused with our wine tour at the Rosemount/Lindeman's winery. Rosemount is best known for quantity - it's one of the largest selling Australian wine brands in the US. I did not have particularly high expectations, and they were adequately met. I'm not really complaining, we were on a discount wine tour arranged by a youth hostel after all. If I had wanted an oenophile tour of the best Hunter Valley wineries I would not have arranged it through the YHA. We were here to have a fun time and see the Hunter Valley. Still, I couldn't bring myself to get enthusiastic about tasting wine at Rosemount.

Our next stop was Drayton's Family Wines one of the oldest wineries in the Hunter, and still family owned. They go way back in the Hunter, and have a lot of history, not all of it happy. In 2008 an explosion at this winery killed two people including one of the best known of the Drayton family.

Besides the standard Hunter Valley Semillons they make some fortified wines, including some flavored ports, and a botrytis Semillon dessert wine. Debbie, our resident fan of "stickies" picked up a chocolate port, and a botrytis Semillon from them.

Next stop was lunch at Hunter Valley Gardens, a huge touristy development containing the aforementioned gardens, a kitschy shopping area, and a large resort hotel. One of those expensive integrated tourist destinations that resort owners like to build. For our purposes it had three attractions. A place to get lunch (including a 20% discount from tour operator), a fancy chocolate store, and a cafe. I ended up explaining the differences between an espresso machine, a moka pot, and a press pot to a cafe customer when the clerk couldn't, and suggested they should grind their beans a little finer for the espresso. Just call me "helpy helper."

After lunch we visited two smaller wineries. I had been spitting rather than swallowing at our first two stops, hoping to be able to appreciate the wine in the afternoon, and I'm glad I did. The next two wineries were smaller, and the wines a little more interesting. The first winery was Oakvale Wines. It's a fine smaller winery making a pretty standard range of Semillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho, and Shiraz, with a few dessert and fortified wines - some muscat, some sherry and tawny. The woman behind the counter was great fun, making outrageous comments and flirting shamelessly, sadly I didn't really find anything I wanted to take home with me.

After that we made a quick stop at the Smelly Cheese Shop where Debbie and I ducked out of the "tasting" portion of the stop - they were passing around fresh farmer cheeses that had been marinated in various things, and as fans of really smelly cheeses we knew there was no way they'd be passing anything challenging around. We went directly to the counter where I asked about any local washed rind bacterially ripened cheeses and about local blue cheeses, while Debbie asked about local goat cheeses. They had one reasonably nice washed rind, but it wasn't really ripe, and they had a nice chevre style that Debbie picked up. Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication, I later found that I'd ended up with a triple brie instead of the washed rind. I was a little sad.

Next we visited a "boutique" winery called Savannah Estate Wines. A small friendly place, they buy grape lots from growers and produce their own wines from them. They had a somewhat more interesting range, including a 2005 Mudgee Shiraz that I bought to have with dinner, and a more traditionally thick botrytis semillon that Debbie liked. After that we headed to the YHA.

At the YHA we checked in and checked out our room. We had paid $25 extra each in order to get a "twin share, ensuite" which is to say a private room for two with a private bath. It was cozy but nice! The bathroom was nearly microscopic, but it was "en suite" (as opposed to the hostel we stayed at in Darwin, where "en suite" meant "there's no one else on your floor, so you have the bathroom down the hall to yourselves.") I could touch both walls of the shower with my elbows, looking through the drain in the floor of the bathroom I could see the grass under the house, and the sink was barely bigger than my two cupped hands with not even space to set a toothbrush - but it was ours!

We sat out on the deck eating our cheese and crackers, drinking our Mudgee Shiraz, and reading our books while waiting for the dinner that was included. It turned out to be grilled lamb chops, grilled sausages, grilled onions, and a green salad. Quite tasty, all prepared by two Chinese women staying at the hostel. One from Guangzhou, the other from Taiwan. We chatted a bit them and the other folks staying at the hostel about riding motorcycles in Ontario, four wheeling on Frazier Island, selling used Volvos, and how to get visas - typical hostel conversation.

The next morning we got up at the crack of 9am, packed up our stuff and wandered over to a nearby brewpub hoping to get breakfast. Unfortunately breakfast service ended at 10am (!?) and lunch service would not start until noon. I would just have to sit and drink beer for two hours. Poor me.

The brewery is called The Hunter Beer Company and I decided to start out with their six beer sampler. It consists of the Hunter Kolsch, Hunter Witbier, European Style Lager, a Hefe Weizen, a Dunkles, and a ginger beer. Nothing here for an ale drinker, and nothing with very much hop bite. Ah well at least it's fresh! The european style lager had the most body and depth, while the Kolsch, one of their signature beers, was a light pilsner of the style I have come to roundly hate. A beer that tries so hard to not offend anyone that there's nothing in it to like. The ginger beer was quite nice, light with a distinct ginger bite but not overpowering. A good summer beer.

Finally it was noon and we could order lunch! The brewpub is part of a resort that obviously does a lot of corporate business. As such the decor is airy and friendly, the menu is well written, the presentation is beautiful, but the food itself is rather bland and inoffensive. They don't take any risks, and as a result the food has little character and is usually boring.

Debbie ordered a swordfish with mango salsa, and I tried an Australian beef pie with mash and mushy peas. I wanted to compare it to the "Tiger" from Harry's Cafe de Wheels. The swordfish was as you might imagine - which is to say there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it.
The beef pie was better than average, cooked in a cast iron ramekin with a flaky pastry cover, then topped with mashed potatoes, (not too) mushy peas, and brown gravy. We decided to try a couple of the desserts.
Debbie's become a big fan of sticky date pudding, and I'm always willing to try a lemon tart. The sticky date pudding was quite tasty, dark and sticky as advertised.
The lemon tart was unremarkable, a creamy lemon filling in a generic tart shell. I'm glad we visited, I'd eat here again if I were in the neighborhood, but I wouldn't make a special trip.

On the other hand, the reason this place is called "Potter's" is that it used to be a brickworks and commercial pottery kiln, producing (at various times) terracotta roof tiles, garden pots, bricks, and salt glazed sewer pipes. Four of the old kilns are still standing, and are amazing looking structures. You can still see the sheen from where salt has attacked the bricks of the kiln. I could have spent hours looking at them.

Lunch over we wandered back to the YHA, picked up our stuff and got ferried to meet the big bus back at Hunter Valley Gardens. The trip back was unremarkable except for being subjected to two hours of bad '70s pop. We're talking "Captain and Tennille" level bad. I now have "Love Will Keep Us Together" stuck in my head because of our driver's choice of music.

All things considered an enjoyable two days, in a beautiful part of NSW. Lovely weather, friendly people, wine, beer, tasty food.

September 22, 2009

Crocodile Senior Thai

If you ride the bus up or down George St in the Sydney CBD, you've almost certainly seen a restaurant with the odd name of "Crocodile Senior Thai" along with its bright orange sign and silly reclining yellow crocodile. It would never have occurred to us to try it, except that a number of the local food blogs recommended it very highly. So we tried it.

At least one blog warned that the menu was in thai, and we were worried we'd be reduced to pointing and pantomime, but in fact there is plenty of english on the menu. Crocodile Senior Thai specializes in "Issan" cuisine - Thai food from the northern provinces along the Mekong River near the border with Laos. Issan food is sufficiently different from the rest of Thai food that it's considered a distinct cuisine.

Kuy JubDebbie ordered "Kuy Jub" which is sometimes spelled "Kuay Jub" and is basically a pig intestine soup with broad rice noodles. This one had the traditional jellied pig blood, pig intestine, spare ribs, and fried tofu, but also a boiled egg. The soup was dark and slightly sweet, and the entire dish was wonderful. I was a little concerned about the jellied blood, but it turned out to be delicious with a firm texture and a mild savory flavor.

Som Tum Thai PuBeing a som tum fan, I ordered som tum. This iconic Thai dish is actually Issan in origin, and is possibly the most popular dish in the north. I got Som Tum Thai Pu (also spelled Som Tam Thai Bpoo) which is green papaya salad with dried shrimp and salty crab (bpoo). The salad was fine, and the flavor of the shrimp and crab was a nice salty savory contrast to the tartness of the rest of the salad, but the chewiness of the crab shells was hard for me.

Anyway, we were very happy with this funny named restaurant!

September 12, 2009

Under Ice

Debbie and I went to see "Under Ice" at the Griffin Theater tonight. What a pretentious piece of self-indugent sophmoric crap. The good news is that it was the last night so you don't have to worry about seeing it. The bad news goes on and on.

First, let me say that the acting was great. Technically brilliant, the play is practically 90 minutes of long monologue after long monologue, intercut with intricately choreographed rapid fire dialog. I would say that it was a triumph of form over substance, except that there wasn't enough substance to triumph over.

The point of the play is that corporate culture is shallow and meaningless, values youth and energy over age and experience, and will suck your soul and throw you aside. The points are made with all the subtlety of schoolyard sarcasm, and repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseum. In case we didn't get the point by having a forty something office guy contrasted with two twenty something go getters, we are later treated to a grade schooler dressed up in a business suit who joins their team. Oh yes, we also get sports analogies and a heavy handed example of how business will use anything - including "art" - as grist for the corporate mill.

I think the only reason I didn't walk out 15 minutes into an excruciating and seemingly interminable 90 minute show was that I'd have had to walk across the stage in the middle of the performance in order to escape.

This play comes across as someone who wants to show off their mastery of technique but has only high school level playwriting skills with which to demonstrate them. The Griffin's 2009 logo is "2009" traced out in pyrotechnic sparkler, and this play was ultimately about as flashy and satisfying as free fireworks. I've been somewhat disappointed with the rest of this season's offerings from the Griffin, but this was by far the worst of the lot.

June 12, 2009

Shanghai Tang

As part of my never ending quest for the perfect Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai style "soup dumplings"), tonight we visited Shanghai Tang at 653 George St. We had heard about it from a few friends, and when it got reviewed in TimeOut we decided we better not wait any longer.

It's a small place, at the intersection of Campbell and George up a small flight of stairs. There are black wood tables spread around a somewhat disorganized space, but it feels light and airy and clean. We sat down and quickly looked over the menus, excited by the prospect of good, inexpensive, authentic shanghai style food. We settled on some old favorites in order to judge the place. We got Xiao long bao, of course, and some dan dan mein (tan tan mian) with hot tea. Given that this is a place that bills itself as shanghai style, and that it's in Chinatown, we had high hopes.

The dan dan mein arrived first, and while Shanghai Tang apparently offers hand pulled noodles, these were not. It also seemed more like a soup than I was expecting, but it had some nicely unidentifiable bits of brown meat on top, and lots of sesame, bean sprouts, and scallions. Just as we were considering starting on this however, the xiao long bao arrived and we decided to try them first.

The reigning champion for xiao long bao in Sydney is the venerable Din Tai Fung, a well known Taiwanese chain. They make good xiao long bao, consistently serving hundreds of them a day. But Din Tai Fung is often very crowded, especially at dinner time, and we were hoping for something with great xiao long bao and no wait.

Auspiciously these looked plump and juicy and were served piping hot. The traditional fresh ginger accompaniment was provided, although the amount of ginger was somewhat ... parsimonious. We added black vinegar and tried them out. They were great! Succulent and flavorful, rich meaty broth, tender pork, skins that were thin yet elastic. At last another source for great Xiao Long Bao. We quickly ate all eight.

That settled we moved on to the dan dan mein. Strictly speaking this is a Sichuan dish, not really Shanghainese, but Shanghai Tang also bills itself as a noodle place, and dan dan mein is universal street food. This was good, nicely spicy with flavorful beef and pork (purists would insist on pork only) there were some odd additions - mung bean sprouts and coriander leaves - though I thought they were tasty. I did notice some preserved vegetables but not as much as I would like, and this was a version with sesame paste (again, purists would cavil.) It was a tasty dish, and certainly spicier and more "interesting" flavors than you'd find in a typical westernized chinese place. Another winner, though not as spectacular as the xiao long bao.

Finally we tried something new. Shanghai Tang has two "dessert" xiao long bao on the menu. One filled with sweetened black sesame paste, the other billed as "egg and milk." We decided to try the black sesame and were delighted with the result. Piping hot, sweet nutty liquid inside a thin elastic skin. Perfect with the tea.

We visited again yesterday and tried a few more things, the Crab Meat Xiao Long bao, braised pork spare ribs in sweet and sour sauce, drunken pig knuckle, scallion cakes, and the other "dessert" xiao long bao called "milk and egg."

We started with the braised pork spare ribs in sweet and sour sauce. I found it disappointing. The meat was dry, chewy, and almost flavorless while the sauce was thin and two dimensional, mostly sweet and a little sour but none of the richness or depth I had hoped for.

Next we had the "Shanghai Xiao Long Bao with Crab Meat" - the specialty of the house. We'd seen other diners ordering it the last time we'd gone, and while we were there this time another two tables ordered it as well. So It's obviously popular, and now I know why. The filling is still mostly pork, but the meat and broth are flavored with crab meat. I suspect it's local mud crab which, despite the name, are quite delicious. Again the skins were nice and thin but still elastic. Not too thick and neither gummy or soggy.

We were still hungry and didn't think that dessert was going to be enough, so we ordered a couple of other dishes we had wanted to try. I had seen them preparing the scallion cakes on the previous visit, and wanted good scallion cakes to erase the memory of the ones we'd had at Shanghai Night in Ashfield. I also wanted to try the drunken pig knuckle since it was pork and held out the promise of being a little challenging.

The scallion cakes were everything I could have hoped for. Crispy, flaky rounds not too oily and with enough scallion flavor to earn the name. Exactly what we wanted. The drunken pig knuckles were also excellent, but in a different way. Cooked in rice wine and served cold, they had lovely textures. Silken smooth gelatinous skin, slightly crunchy, firm and chewy cartilage all with lovely meaty pork flavors. A nice contrast with all the hot liquidy smooth textures of the other foods.

Finally we had the "milk and egg xiao long bao." It was indeed sweet, milky, and eggy with strands of coconut as well. Hot sweet milky custard fills your mouth as you bite into them, then you have sweet coconut with supple dumpling skin after. Nicely satisfying and just what we expected, but personally I liked the black sesame more.

The first time the total came to $30 for the two of us, the second time was $40 both of which are quite reasonable. They are licensed for alcohol though we only had tea or milk. We will be back, there are a lot more things on the menu we want to try. I, for one, will be ordering the xiao long bao every time I visit.

Shanghai Tang
653 George St
Sydney, NSW
02 9281 0088