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.