Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar & Grill, Melbourne I

Rockpool Bar & Grill
Crown Complex
Victoria 3006
+613 8648 1900

Rockpool Website

To fellow Australian gourmandes, Neil Perry is very well-known. For our international friends, let me briefly introduce him. Neil Perry is a Sydney-based superchef, the man behind the very famous restaurant, Rockpool. In addition to these responsibilities, the prolific Perry has penned several cookbooks, is in charge of the Qantas Airlines first-class menu, released a range of dressings and sauces, written a few cookbooks, had a couple of very informative television programs, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Steven Segal. (Who, incidentally, played a cook in his highest-grossing film, Under Siege.)

When I went up to Sydney in 2005, I was lucky enough to visit Rockpool and absolutely loved it. See here). Consequently, I was very excited when, earlier this year, I heard that he was opening a new Rockpool right here in Melbourne! I have since visited it twice, and I came to the sad realisation that my excitement was completely unnecessary. It just wasn't that good. The food, as expected, was lovely, and gave me no reason to complain. (See below for photos). But the service was really below standard.

I am usually very reluctant to give negative reviews of a restaurant, and having done a lot of work in customer service, and some work in hospitality (nothing as difficult as waiting on tables in a fine-dining establishment, but enough to sympathise with those who do), I am undemanding of staff who are serving me, especially during busy periods, and don't see cause for complaint unless the staff are outright rude or neglectful. So let me explain.

The first time I went, was in February with a group of friends for one of their birthdays. Before we'd even gotten to the restaurant, we'd received some dodgy vibes. My friend had made a booking 2 months in advance, and specifically requested a large table on the terrace. A suitable table was free, and the booking was confirmed. However, a week before we were due to go to dinner, my friend received a phone call from Rockpool, saying that we were to be moved to an inside table. The reason? A larger group had asked for a terrace table, "and you can't smoke on the terrace anyway, if that's why you're asking". AHEM! Luckily for us, my (assertive) friend stood her ground, and we managed to keep the table which she'd reserved 7 weeks earlier.

The service at the restaurant didn't improve much either. I arrived with my partner shortly after the rest of the group had already gotten to the table and were perusing their menus. There was a waiter hovering around our table, topping up waters and so on, but we weren't given menus, or offered drinks. In fact, he came over to take our order before the 2 of us had even received menus! (It was at that point that I asked for my own menu, realising that I wouldn't get one unless I asked for it outright).

So, after we all finally had menus and had placed our orders, the waiter brought out the bread. (See the above photo). Delicious bread it was, too. He came around with the bread basket, portioning out one slice per person. About halfway around the table, he dropped a slice of bread on the floor. And no, he didn't pick it up and put it on a plate, so don't worry. He actually didn't pick it up at all. He just continued around the table, doling out the bread. Having dropped a piece, he was one piece short, and left the last person at the table without bread. He then walked away. And didn't come back with an extra piece! Again, we had to ask him to please bring a piece of bread for the poor girl at the end of the table who didn't get her bread. I'm not sure if the waiter didn't notice, or just didn't care. Either option is unsatisfactory. It's not fine-dining ettiquette, it's just common sense. And on a slightly grosser note, that stray piece of bread that fell on the floor? The birthday girl felt it squish under her foot later on in the evening. Lovely.

The entrées came and went without incident, and were extremely tasty. I managed to get photos of some of them, which I will share with you now. (This dinner was some months ago; and the menu changes pretty much daily. Forgive me if my memory of some of the dishes is a little fuzzy).

Tortellini filled with Biodynamic goats cheese, prawns, sultanas, pine nuts.

Duck ragu with pappardelle. (Fabulous. I have spied a similar recipe in Perry's latest book, Good Food, which I am very keen to attempt at home).

The main meals and sides were dealt with very clumsily. They arrived simultaneously, ferried by 3 waitstaff, who had no idea which of us was having which meal. This is not necessarily a problem, you understand, but rather than finding out where each plate was supposed to go, they simply plonked the plates down higgeldy-piggeldy on the table, not explaining what half of them were, and left us to our own devices. The 7 of us had to swap the plates around ourselves, and figure out what each thing was. Furthermore, we'd ordered waay too many sides, and couldn't finish half of them. When we had ordered, our waiter had not recommended that we order less side dishes, or indicated that we had ordered a LOT of food. (The side dishes are unexpectedly large - surely the waiter would have been aware of this). It really was a waste of some lovely food.

I can't quite remember what this fish was. I think it was ocean trout, cooked rare (fabulous!), with an eggplant-based sauce beneath. Ordering seafood at a Neil Perry restaurant, no matter what it is, is generally a good move.

Roasted quail with grape and radicchio, among other things.


Of course, I managed room for dessert. I had a chocolate and ginger brownie, which was very satisfying.

Nick had a mille feuille, which was absoultely divine.

So, as you can see, I was very disappointed with my first trip to Rockpool Melbourne. Substandard service at premium prices. I had read that they had had staffing problems at the beginning, which is unfortunate, but it's not an excuse for such lacklustre service. It is one thing for staff not to be fully-trained, especially when a restaurant has just opened; it is quite another for them to be so obviously neglectful. I'm not sure what the general consensus is, but personally, I don't have a problem with waitstaff not knowing all the intricate details of the menu, or being a bit slow or inexperienced. I'm happy as long as they are friendly, attentive, and make some sort of effort. That night, the waiters did not.

*As I mentioned, I did visit the restaurant once again after that night, but I shall save those photos for another post. I am interested, however, in people's impressions of Rockpool Melbourne. I know that Ed over at Tomatom loves their Wagyu burgers, and would love to hear more opinions; glowing, terrible, or anywhere in between.*

Rockpool Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Check out that plate of deliciousness. Welcome to my first-ever Christmas in July. As I'm sure you're aware, Christmas time in Australia isn't really the time for turkey. It's hot, it's humid, and most sane Aussies are having a barbecue or tucking into big seafood platters. (Not me, of course, but then we all know I'm a food-nut). So, when winter rolls around (and this year has been a doozie!), the idea of 'Christmas in July' becomes quite popular. My Christmas in July was pretty much an exact repeat of Christmas 2005, entirely Nigellan.

The Big Turkey Dinner

Spiced and Super-Juicy Turkey
Lidgate's Chestnut Stuffing
Perfect Roast Potatoes
Maple-Roasted Parsnips
Brussels Sprouts with Chestnut and Pancetta
Bread Sauce
Cranberry Sauce
Hot English Mustard
Fortnum and Mason's Christmas Pudding with
Leftover Custard
and Glühwein

The Glühwein was a new addition, (not Nigella's, but an ancient German family recipe, I'm told) as was the brined turkey. The recipe for the turkey is here, at the BBC website. Basically you soak the turkey overnight in a water-salt-sugar-spice mixture, which flavours the turkey and supposedly prevents the turkey from drying out. My turkey got dry anyway, which I think had more to do with the fan in my oven than the brine. But it all tasted nice anyway. The turkey is basted in a goosefat/maple syrup mixture, which makes the turkey and panjuices turn lovely golden brown colour, and makes the gravy correspondingly dark and syrupy.

Glühwein - serve it warm in little mugs for pure winter perfection.

The condiments.

Mmm... dark gravy.

Maple Roasted Parsnips

Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts and Pancetta

Roast potatoes

Pudding and Custard

Merry Christmas in July!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mecca Bah

A few weeks ago, a spur-of-the-moment special occasion dinner came up, so we headed down to Mecca Bah in the Docklands. I am a big fan of chef Cath Claringbold's previous, swankier offering, Mecca (Southgate), and have been meaning to try out the cheaper, trendier version for ages.

Mecca Bah
55a Newquay Promenade
9642 1300

They don't take bookings, so we just rocked up at around 7 on a Sunday evening and waited in line. Luckily we didn't have to wait too long. I am, in general, soo not a fan of the booking-less establishment - I like to plan ahead, and don't see the point of setting aside a whole evening for a restaurant, and waiting in line, only to be told that there's an extra hour to wait when you finally arrive at the door. *Cough*... Billy Kwong... *Cough!* However, this problem is not insurmountable - just by going on a quieter night.

The service at Mecca Bah, sadly, was quite perfunctory. Despite being a Sunday night, it was still quite busy, and it took about 20 minutes for the person in charge of welcoming patrons to actually acknowledge our presence once we'd reached the start of the queue. (I understand that it must be stressful to have to co-ordinate all the seating by oneself, but there's nothing difficult about a simple, "Good evening, I'll be with you in a minute!")

Anyway... once we were sat down and settled, we had a (lengthy) chance to peruse the interesting-looking menu before our waitress approached us.

We were lucky to get a pretty fabulous view...

The vibe inside the restaurant is Middle Eastern (duh!!), dimly-lit, and somehow busy and intimate at the same time. We really liked the funky ceiling and the lamps.

To start, we had hot Turkish bread, and delicious little crunchy kataifi pastries filled with Middle Eastern cheeses (photo above). They also have a nice wine and cocktail list, but as I was driving, I did not get a chance to try them. Next time!

For my main, I had grilled chicken on a skewer, with a dollop of sumac-flavoured yogurt, a tomato salad and a softly spiced rice and lentil mixture. I absolutely loved it!

The chicken was juicily moist, and the rice was even better - very moist and well-flavoured. It managed to taste like home food, with the sophistication of a restaurant meal. Fabulous.

My dining partner had grilled lamb, which came with similar-yet-different rice and yogurt components. The lamb was charred on the outside, and tender on the inside. Also delicious!

One aspect that I really liked about the meals was that they were a good size - satisfying, but not ridiculously huge. We weren't really in the mood for dessert - Mecca Bah offers the usual suspects: chocolate cake, sticky date pudding and so on - but we couldn't go past their Lebanese pastries, which are attractively piled high on the bar. We were especially keen when we realised that the sweets are outsourced and brought in from one of my favourite Sydney Road pastry shops, Balha's. We had a ladies' finger and a pistachio ma'amoul.

Mmm... sugar.

Overall, we enjoyed Mecca Bah, and despite the initially not-so-great service, ended up having a great night. I loved the food, and will definitely be back to try their famous Turkish pizzas and tagines. It worked out at about $70 for 2 people, which was very fair.

Mecca Bah on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sweet Treats

There is a slight possibility that my family have been eating too many sweets lately. There is more on this theme to come. However, in the meantime, please enjoy these photos of some fabulous sweet treats we have been trying.

761 Sydney Road
(03) 9383 3944

My family's favourite Lebanese pastry shop. It's big, it's plush, and the pastries are A-mazing. My dad sometimes surprises us on his way home from work with a box of Balha's treats. A couple of weeks ago, the whole family went on a little excursion to Brunswick and came back loaded with baklava, ladies' fingers, ma'amoul, almond syrup cakes, and much, much more. (See photo above). The highlight for us was this wonderful pistachio custard cake. It was light, creamy, sweet, and just plain gorgeous.

648 Sydney Road
(03) 9386 6974

On the very same excursion down Sydney Road, we wandered into a much smaller (but no less fabulous) pastry shop, El-Faiha. The aroma upon walking in was just incredible - a hit of rich buttery, spicy goodness. We were only planning to have a browse, but the salesperson was so friendly, and the pastries so beautiful, that I momentarily forgot the half-kilo of Balha's pastries we'd just acquired, and bought 2 of these cute little cashew pastries.

I took a bite of one of the pastries as we walked back to the car - I was in heaven! It was honestly one of the most delicious pastries I can remember eating. Next time I head down there, I will take the advice of the salesperson and get the "7 pieces for $5" deal.

I think El-Faiha may have just overtaken Balha's in the race for "Sarah's favourite pastry shop on Sydney road". But I will probably have to do a few more tastings before I make a definitive decision.

Devine D'lites


On a (slightly) healthier note, I recently ate these super-cute strawberries, from the Devine D'lites stall at the Prahran Market. (Available Tuesday, Friday and Sunday). Val makes chocolate covered strawberries using lovely ripe strawberries and Belgian chocolate. They're delicious, and scarily easy to eat. Perfect for a light dessert, or dinner-party treat.

And next week begins the diet...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pheasant... and a rant about dinner party etiquette

Obvious though it may be, let me inform you officially - I am a bit of a control freak in the kitchen. When I'm cooking, I don't like people stirring my pots or opening my oven. I also have a firm stance against people bringing desserts to dinner parties. I mean, I know it isn't nice to turn up empty-handed when someone is cooking you dinner, but really, unless you have a prior understanding to do so, why would you bring dessert? Flowers or wine, (or at a push, nice chocolates) are almost always a good dinner-party-gift. But bringing an extra dessert? They can ruin a menu, leave people bloated, force the host to quickly find extra plates and serving utensils, and at worst, undermine the abilities of the person providing dinner - like when Patty and Selma bring extra food to Marge's Thanksgiving bash. (Ok, I admit that last point might be stretching it a bit far, but you get my drift).

So, imagine how completely my anti-dessert-stance turned around when I was presented with that lovely cake in the first photo of this post. Even the hardest, most stone-cold bitch of a kitchen tyrant would have to be softened. Isn't it gorgeous? Richard and Lahn brought this mixed berry cheesecake when we had them over for dinner on the weekend. Their thoughtfulness was just amazing. The cheesecake is from Richard's bakery, so you know it has to be good. And boy, it was.

Dinner for a Really Cold Winter, for 8

Pheasant with Gin and IT (How to Eat)
Goosefat Roast Potatoes
Walnut, Watercress, Pear and Parmesan Salad (Vogue Entertaining and Travel)
Pig's Bum and Custard (How to Eat)

Most dishes in this menu can be made in slightly in advance, leading to a less-stressful night. The pheasant, in fact, is better being made in advance, and simply needs to be reheated before eating. The roast potatoes can be parboiled in the morning, and shoved into the oven an hour before you wish to eat. The salad just requires a bit of slicing and tossing, and the dessert, for all that it is a steamed sponge, is very easy to make. It takes 2.5 undisturbed, effort-free hours in a steamer, and the batter itself takes about 5 minutes to make. It goes well with cold custard, so just make the custard once the pudding has started steaming, and leave it in the fridge, covered with gladwrap, until it is time to eat it.

I had made all the dishes before, so I knew they'd turn out ok. I have to admit, however, that the last time I made the pheasant was over a year ago, and whilst I remembered that I liked it, I couldn't actually remember how it tasted - I looked to an old blog post of mine to double check. Here is my blog about the first time I made the pig's bum - a steamed rhubarb pudding. It is so fabulous; definitely one of my favourite recipes from How to Eat.

The stew. Rich, full of savoury depth, and very tender.

The salad. I managed to get my hands on actual watercress this time. I used rocket leaves last time, which weren't quite as peppery.

The roast potatoes, using Nigella's method. Richard's favourite. My favourite. Everyone's favourite, really.


One generous plate. I love the way that salad leaves mop up the sweetly savoury juices of a stew. Thanks to Nigel Slater for alerting me to the fabulousness of salad leaves with hot sauce.

Richard's plate. I guess it's true, you don't make friends with salad...

And now the pudding! Although a close friend of mine joked that one Pig's Bum divided amongst 8 people would be "Nicole Richie's bum!", it worked out well this time - we all managed to have some pudding without feeling bloated or sugar-sedated. It's difficult to make a dinner in which the dessert is satisfying, but not so filling that everyone plans to start a detox the next day. And if, like me, you entertain a lot, it makes sense not to go OTT with desserts every single time. Tonight, luckily, it all balanced well.

And most importantly, the small pudding left us all room for some fabulous Chimmy's cheesecake!

That was some good cheesecake. Thank-you Richard and Lahn!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hot Chocolate Puddings

I have been craving hot chocolate puddings all winter long. I even bought those fab little Pillivuyt pyramidal soufflé dishes-cum-condiment dishes for that express purpose. Before tonight, they had been relegated to the far less glamarous task of housing condiments, and also the bizarrely appealing (yet totally weather-inappropriate) American chocolate pudding. Tonight, finally, I fulfilled the destinies of the Pillivuyt dishes, and made some hot chocolate puddings.

The particular recipe I used was from Bill Granger's Every Day, but almost any recipe book published within the last 10 years should have a similar recipe. Ditto pretty much every food magazine published within the winter months. I'm not kidding. Hot molten chocolate puddings are very, very popular. They usually comprise beaten eggs and sugar, to which you add melted chocolate and butter, and a touch of flour, to stabilise. Easy!

Bill's recipe is made to fill 2 250ml ramekins, and needs 10 minutes in the oven. My little dishes are a bit smaller, so I got 4 out of the mixture. I still baked them for the full 10 minutes, because I am not a fan of the still-liquid centre; photogenically appealling though they may be, they are sometimes just too rich for me and can be distinctly unpleasant when they get stuck in the back of your throat. Tonight, I felt that a firmer-baked spongy centre was definitely the way forward. (Click here for a successful soft-centred chocolate pudding... and here for one that was a touch too rich).

Bill's puddings were just as good as I had hoped, and, with a generous dollop of cream, were just the thing to satisfy my chocolate-pudding craving.

It is significant that the same friend who specifically requested that I make the cold American chocolate pudding wolfed down two of the hot-chocolate puddings before I'd even put my camera down.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Good Morning!

Welcome to a Sunday breakfast, Sarah style. Last Sunday was the first time in ages that the whole family was home, so I made a special breakfast.

We had...

1 large pot of freshly brewed coffee (see large silver pot above)...

1 loaf of the best sourdough bread, from Brioche by Phillip...

6 free-range eggs from the egg stall at the Victoria Market, scrambled the Bill Granger way (i.e. lots of cream)... as you can see, they were slightly dry. But still good!

6 rashers of bacon, also from the Victoria Market, fried in my carbon steel pan for that authentic crispy texture...

1 already-peeled pineapple, which we sliced and artfully arranged with a peeled mandarin, some lovely sweet grapes and a lemon half... I like to call this my hommage to the 80's.

And here is the frypan that made it all happen. Greasy food is good for the seasoning process, I'm told, so it was absolutely necessary that we have fried bacon for breakfast. Yes. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it).

If only every morning could be a Sunday morning...