Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pillar of Salt cafe, Richmond

***EDIT: I've added some extra thoughts about my subsequent visits to Pillar of Salt at the bottom of this post.***

It's always exciting when a new cafe opens, especially one that looks funky and has a lot of fresh energy from new owners.  I spied Pillar of Salt on Church street earlier this week, and popped in yesterday for a quick juice.  One look at the gorgeous goodies on the counter, and I knew I had to come back for lunch.  Which I did, today!


Pillar of Salt
541 Church Street
Richmond VIC 3121
Ph: (03) 9421-1550

The building used to be a pretty average cafe, run by two lovely Chinese ladies, whose food and coffee were, unfortunately, not as lovely as they were.  It closed down a while ago, due to too much competition in the area.  Since then, the new owners have completely refitted the space, with funky exposed brick walls and a light airy feel, which extends to a bright courtyard out the back.

It was a bit of a struggle waiting till lunchtime for my coffee, but I don't do more than one a day and I really wanted to enjoy a nice dine-in coffee with my lunch so I could get a good picture!  (See the sacrifices I make for my readers?  Hehe.)
Latte, Cappuccino - $3.50 each

The coffee was pretty good, although I think there are nicer ones at cafes that concentrate soley on coffee (Espresso 3121, Brother Baba Budan etc).  It seems that cafes these days concentrate on either coffee or their food, and Pillar of Salt falls into the latter category.  It's hard to find a cafe that excells at both food and coffee.  But if you know of one, I would love to hear about it!

My friend ordered the lamb burger with chips.  It was $18 on the menu, but only came up as $16 on the bill, wahey!  I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I saw it, as the burger was quite small, and the chips didn't look crispy - I think it's one big potato slice, fried on either side and then cut into chip shapes - but by all accounts the lamb burger was fabulous!  It had a soft bun, and generous amounts of sauce, feta and rocket.  It looked small, but was a satisfying lunch.
Lamb Burger and Chips - $16

I had to order the tart of the day, which was the item which caught my eye the day before, cooling on the bench.  Apparently they have a different flavour every day; today's was goats cheese, mushroom and herb.  Incidentally I had the exact same flavour in an omelette at a nearby cafe the day before, but this was so much better!
Tart with goats cheese, mushrooms and herbs - $12
The pastry was very buttery and short, with a warm and creamy (Nigella would say baveuse) filling, studded with whole mushrooms and herbs.  I would have liked the herbs to have been more finely chopped, (a mouthful of whole rosemary leaves is no fun), and perhaps a little more goats cheese, but all in all it was delicious!  The massive pile of rocket was lightly dressed, and was a refreshing counterpoint to the rich tart.  I loved it, and now am determined to make one as the veggo option at my Christmas party this year.

Other options at Pillar of Salt include a range of baguettes, rocky road, toasted sandwiches and freshly baked muffins (rhubarb today) in the cabinet, a cooked breakfast menu and other lunches.  Can't wait to go back and try more!


6/12/2010 - So, as I'd mentioned when I wrote this post, I was very keen to go back to Pillar of Salt and try more food.  I've been back a couple of times now, and here are some thoughts:

  • The Positive: Breakfast savouries in the front cabinet are fabulous!  
    • They have delicious-looking rolls with either bacon or smoked salmon, and they also do extremely cute mini rolls.  These are filled with one slice of tomato, a few spinach leaves, one perfectly poached egg and a spoonful of kassoundi.  I got one for breakfast the other day - only $3.50 and quite tasty, although I found it a bit odd to have a poached egg that was both runny AND cold.
    • Another morning I went in looking for a savoury breakfast, and because none of the rolls had been assembled yet, they made up a toastie for me - actually slicing thick pieces of ham off the bone, and toasting it up with ciabatta bread and cheese.  So nice of them!
  • The Negative: Service was a bit lacking on my subsequent eat-in visit, during a busy weekday lunch.  
    • My friend ordered the same lamb burger as he did on our first visit, and although the chips were better (Matt from Pillar of Salt, by way of Claire, by way of Twitter, has informed me they have a proper deep fryer now), we saw lamb burgers at other tables with more generous servings of chips.  Also, they didn't give us dipping sauce this time, which disappointed my friend because he really liked it the first time we went!
    • As for me, I ordered a chicken baguette... and was given a chicken sandwich!  When I told the waiter it wasn't what I'd ordered, he went to check, then came back and told me they'd run out of chicken baguettes, but had ham baguettes and chicken sandwiches.  Um... ok?  Why wouldn't they have told me this before they made the sandwich?  That way I could have changed my order or accepted the substitution.  And it would have been a total non-issue then.  I was staaarving, so just took the sandwich - and it happened to be delicious - but it just seemed odd the way the whole situation was handled.
 Anyhoo, the food is great, and they're still pretty new so I'm sure these issues will get ironed out.  In the meantime, I'd recommend sticking to takeaway!

Pillar of Salt on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 22, 2010

Carlton Espresso

A little while ago we caught up with my good friends Timmy K and Susu B for a midweek dinner and drinks catch-up. When Su told me: "the DOC pizza guys have a pasta place now", I was totally there!

Carlton Espresso
326 Lygon Street
Carlton 3053
(03) 9347-8482

Some of y'all may remember Carlton Espresso as the little piadini and espresso bar on Lygon street near Melbourne Uni.  Well, now they've expanded to the next door and now do a range of pastas and antipasti.

Mmm... I want this fridge!

But... navigating your way through peak-hour traffic on public transport to Lygon street requires a little liquid refreshment.  I can never go past a spritz, not least of all because my friends don't like the mediciney taste of aperol/campari, and they won't steal my drink! Hehe.

Spritz Aperol - $8.50

I can't remember who ordered the beer, but it was nice and malty.  Mmm.. extra malty.
Tappeto Volante - $7.90

They have a short but well selected pasta menu, each around the $20 mark.  I had a tough time narrowing down my choices, but I'm sure in time I'll sample them all!

I got the kamut fusili (I'm a sucker for ancient grains, like spelt and kamut!) with a deliciously vibrant basil pesto. I loved the pasta, which was both wholesome and satisfying.  I've seen kamut pasta at my local supermarket, but being super-expensive I don't think I'll be making it at home any time soon.
Fusilli (kamut -ancient grain pasta) w/ fresh basil pesto (Liguria) - $20

Timmy's carbonara was leaps and bounds above the standard stodgy cream-soaked carbonara you get at suburban restaurants and takeaways.  With a thin yet rich sauce clinging to the spaghetti, tiny nuggets of guanciale, and loads of coarsley ground black pepper, it was fabulous!
Spaghetti carbonara w/ guanciale, free range egg  & pecorino romano (Lazio) - $18

Su's pappardelle with truffle oil and porcini mushrooms was also a winner, although the woodsy taste might be a bit strong for anyone not accustomed to truffles.  It was also quite dry in that traditionally Italian way, where the pasta itself is the focus of the dish.

Pappardelle w/ porcini mushroom & truffle oil in bianco (Tuscany) - $20

Last up is a lasagne.  The meat sauce had a lovely deep taste, but the edges of the lasagne were slightly overcooked and chewy.  It's always tricky heating up a lasagne to a nice temperature inside without the edges going dry!
Lasagne - traditional w/ meat sauce & bechamel (Emilia Romagna) - $18

And that was it!  A delicious, quick dinner of simple ingredients cooked well.  It seemed a little pricey, but considering the quality of the ingredients I think it's well worth it.  As Timmy said: "you could go to one of the other restaurants around here and have something crap, or pay a bit extra and eat something that's actually good".  Before we went, Su told me she'd googled the restaurant and read some pretty dire reviews of the service, but we were lucky and didn't have any problems at all.  I'll definitely be going back!

Carlton Espresso on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shiraz-braised beef cheek and a fancy apple tart

Tarte fine aux pommes with a boule of vanilla-bean ice-cream

I'm becoming such an old lady.  Despite being gainfully employed for over 2 years now, I hardly ever go to FND's (Friday Night Drinks), and I much prefer staying home and curling up on the couch.  Yay!  However, just because you are having a quiet night in doesn't mean you have drop your standards.  Here's a FFFND (a Fabulously Fancy Friday Night Dinner) I cooked last month, on a night when I couldn't even contemplate leaving the house.

A Fabulously Fancy Friday Night Dinner for 2

Shiraz-braised beef cheek
Individual Tartes fines aux pommes

I'd been hankering for a hearty slow-cooked stew of beef cheeks, but finding my cookbooks bereft of beek cheek recipes, I turned to the internet.  This recipe, from Russell Blaikie, seemed pretty straightforward, so I decided to give it a go.

I went to a local butcher for the beef cheeks - at most places you have to get them ordered in, but luckily they keep a small stash in the freezer.  He let me know that they cut most of the fat and sinew off, but that it is still a fatty cut. No problems!  And here they are...
Beef Cheeks
You can look at the recipe if you want detailed instructions (or try making it yourself!), but in brief: you marinate the cheeks overnight in shiraz and some chopped veggies, then sear the cheeks and vegetables separately til the cheeks are brown and the veggies are soft.  You then chuck it all back in the pot with some stock and the marinading liquor, and cook slowly in the oven.  I used a reasonably-priced cleanskin Heathcote Shiraz.  (I did have a bottle of very nice Moortangi Estate Shiraz at home, but I think I would have gotten in big trouble if I'd used that in a stew!!!)

Process steps
Once that's all done, you strain out the softened veggies and chuck them out, then add some boiled carrot mush to the liquid.  This is meant to give it a sweet flavour and thicken the sauce.  Then you boil the carrotty, beefy liquid until thickened, add the cheeks to warm them through and TA-DAH! Dinner is served.

Well, actually you'll need some accompaniments too - I made some soft, creamy mash and opened up a tin of those French peas I like so much.

You'll see the liquid was a little thin: that is because I forgot to do thicken the sauce (oops), and didn't realise until we'd already started eating.  Oh well!  The flavour was still good, and check out how melty soft the cheeks were!
Soft, soft meat!
Yum, yum, yum.  At this time of year, I'd say it's getting too warm for hearty stews like this, but you never know with Melbourne's volatile weather!

We did have some leftovers, and I boiled up the remaining sauce to see what it would be like thickened.

Thickened sauce
Aah... that's better!

A true FFFND needs a fancy dessert, and I thought a tare fine aux pommes would do the trick.  I've loved these ever since my Dad told me about the fabulous one he had at The Brasserie at Crown.  Incidentally, I've blogged The Brasserie three times now, but never had their apple tart.  I've also heard that their chef Phillipe Mouchel has left The Brasserie, and I'm waiting with bated breath for his new restaurant to open!

But in the meantime I have to make my own apple tarts. And, like Montell says: this is how we do it.

I prepared most of the elements while the stew was cooking, and put everything together and baked the tarts after we'd eaten.  I started by defrosting the last of the puff pastry I made, and doing the final 2 turns...

...cut it into two circles, traced a little border around the edge, and docked the centre with a fork.

To make the tarts a little bit fancier than the standard "apples on pastry"-style tart, I whipped up some frangipane as well.  I happened to have some really nice organic almond meal, which was chunky and still had some skin on.  It made the frangipane pleasingly wholesome and rustic.  (Clearly not the type of almond meal you'd use for macarons!)

So, I spread the frangipane on the centre of the pastry circles, and topped them with thin slices of apple.

They only took about 12 minutes in a hot oven (220C) to cook.  But check earlier so they don't burn!

Tarte fine aux Pommes
Hehe, I was so proud that my homemade pastry rose up in pretty layers!  It was a little uneven though, and if these things bother you, I've been told that the unnevenness can be remedied by using a very sharp knife when cutting out the pastry.  But trust me, if you've got a freshly baked apple tart in front of you, the only thing you'll be thinking is: "MUST EAT NOW!"

Topped with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice-cream, it is dessert perfection. 

This was so, so fabulous.  A vast improvement on my previous attempt!  I loved the crispy, flaky base, the creamy almond filling, and the soft apples.  I think it was the frangipane that really made the difference, helping the apples and pastry meld together harmoniously.  It was actually really easy to make (even easier if you buy the puff pastry), and looks super-impressive, so it's definitely one to keep in mind for dinner parties.

The ice-cream was "Coles finest" brand, which seems to be their in-house premium line, and I was really impressed with it.  You can see how creamy and yummy it looks in the picture.  I bought it - after lengthy consideration standing in front of the freezer at Coles - mainly because it was the only vanilla-bean ice-cream that came in a 500ml container! (My freezer is tiny.)  It was a bit more expensive than the more well-known Connoisseur ice-cream, but I don't like that brand.  Even though they're a premium (i.e. expensive) supermarket brand, their vanilla ice-cream is starkly white, and has kind of a fake taste to it, with no vanilla bean-flecks.  I just don't get why you'd pay extra for it.  Just quietly, I'd rather have a standard el-cheapo aerated and xanthan-gummed vanilla ice-cream than Connoisseur, haha!  (Don't judge me!)

The individual tarts were quite a generous serving, so I couldn't finish my whole one.  But leftovers did make a fabulous sneaky weekend breakfast!

Meltingly tender beef cheeks braised in Shiraz, and a flaky, buttery, almondy apple tart.  That, my friends, is how you do a Friday night in style.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Belinda Jeffrey's most fabulous banana cake and David Lebovitz' crunchy nuts

A little while ago I bought some bananas from someone in the office raising money for their kid's school.  However, I happened to be away on a conference when the bananas arrived, so by the time I came back, they were overripe and not nice to eat any more. D'oh!

Bananas! Excuse the dodgy picture on the box, hehe.
But, all keen bakers know what overripe bananas mean - banana cake!  I wanted a good, old-fashioned banana cake, topped with cream cheese icing - yum! - and after searching through my cookbooks, I settled on Belinda Jeffrey's "Most Fabulous Banana Cake", from her Mix and Bake book.  (This particular recipe only used 3 bananas, so I peeled and froze the rest.  More baking to come!)

The recipe calls for a large round tin, but I made it in an oblong, as I thought this might make it easier to share at work.  I used this fabulous extendable baking tray thingo that I bought on my most recent trip to Germany - love it!

Raw dough, cooked cake.

So, once cooked, I sliced the rectangle in half lengthways...

One layer

... and layered on the icing!  I totally, totally love cream cheese icing!

Layering the icing

Layered up!

To fancify things a little, I topped the cake with some salted candied macadamias (recipe from David Lebovitz' Ready for Dessert, and available here on his blog!).  They were easy to make, even though I always find hot sugar a bit daunting.  All you gotta do for these is to put some sugar, nuts and water into a pan, whack it on high heat, and stir, stir stir until the sugar melts, gets crystally, and then re-melts again into a medium brown caramel.  Then you add cinnamon and some salt.

Cooking the caramel nuts

These were incredibly addictive.  Crunchy and sweet and salty and faaabulous!  Word of warning: Wait for them to cool before you try picking one up!  Hot sugar BURNS.  (Don't learn this the hard way).

Salted candied macadamias

I only needed a small amount to top the cake, so popped them into a snap-lock bag, and whacked them with a rolling pin the crush them a bit.  The remainder got eaten, very quickly.
Crush those nuts!
And here we have the finished cake...

Finished cake

And from the top...  As you can see, I had to slice some off so it would fit in the container.  (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!)
Cake in container

I quite liked the cake, but I don't think I'd describe it as the "most fabulous".  Texturally it was good, but I found it to be very sweet.  I know this is partly my fault, what with the crazy-thick icing and the candied nuts, but the cake itself was really sweet too.  And this was after I reduced the quantity of sugar quite significantly from the recipe.  You can't really reduce sugar in the icing, as this would affect the texture.  Perhaps the cake would work best in a single flat slab, with just a thin layer of icing on the top.

I think for the remainder of the bananas I'll stick to some tried-and-tested recipes, like Nigella Lawson's banana bread (my dad loves it!), or my favourite, Bill Granger's choc-chip banana bread.  Although having said that, Nigella does have some tempting banana recipes in Kitchen: banoffee cheesecake, coconut and cherry banana bread, and banana chocolate muffins!  And I remember drooling over the insanely decadent banana, chocolate and peanut butter muffins that Panda & Cakes made.  Too many options!  Hehe, maybe I should just use them in smoothies and stop obsessing over all these recipes!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Spice Temple, Melbourne

On my trip to Sydney earlier this year, one of the culinary highlights was a visit to Neil Perry's Spice Temple.  We loved the ambience, the fantastic service, and the delicious food. I was super-excited when I heard that Neil Perry was opening a Spice Temple in Melbourne!

I was really keen to go, but was a bit nervous about going so soon after it had opened.  If you've been following my blog for longer, you may remember I had a similar experience with Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurant.  I went to Sydney's Rockpool in '05, absolutely loved it, and was so happy when they announced they were opening a Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne.  Once they'd opened, I went to Rockpool Melbourne for a friend's birthday, and had an absolutely horrendous experience there.  Not just underwhelming or average, but actually bad.  Apparently they were having staffing issues when they first opened, and through subsequent visits I've seen that this poor service is, thankfully, no longer a problem.  But I'm sure you can understand my trepidation about the newly-opened Spice Temple.

But, in the knowledge that Spice Temple is not as expensive as Rockpool, and with the memory of their deeply fabulous hot, sweet, sour and numbing pork, we thought we'd give it a go.  And I'm so glad we did!

Spice Temple
Crown Complex
8 Whiteman Street
Southbank 3006
Ph: (03) 8679-1888

My dad was keen to try as well, so we joined forces and the four of us went last Sunday for dinner.  We arrived a little early, and even though our table was ready, we decided to go downstairs to the bar for a few drinks first.  (We were told we could go to our table whenever we wanted).  I really, really wanted to try some of their cocktails.  It's very dark in the restaurant, so it may be a little tricky going down the stairs, especially for anyone with mobility issues.

Bar downstairs

We were handed menus, and told about their wine list and different cocktails - Spice Temple famously does a cocktail for each animal of the Chinese Zodiac.  My own animal cocktail, the Rat, had lavender in it, and I'm not a fan, so I skipped it.  Instead, I shared a "Pig" cocktail with my dad.  This delicious combo of lychees, gin and sparkling wine (could that *be* more of a Sarah drink?) only comes by the carafe, so - damn - we just had to drink more.  They're designed for 2, but can be stretched to 4 people.

PIG - fresh lychees with gin and sparkling wine (carafe only) - $28

I can sometimes find the flavour of gin too strong, but I loved this cocktail! It was sweet and refreshing, but had a unique savoury taste to it that I couldn't quite identify.  I thought it actually might be oregano, but when I asked the waitress, she said the savoury taste came through from the sparkling wine.  Aah! And come to think of it, dried oregano bits rehydrated in alcohol would probably taste pretty rank, haha.

Sandra went for a rum-based Horse cocktail. In contrast to the Pig, it wasn't sweet, and quite a bit stronger.
HORSE - fresh pomegranate with molasses, fresh citrus and 4 year old rum - $17

I just have to say, I thought the waitress at the bar was pure awesome!  She was friendly, and totally knew her stuff - apart from answering all our questions about the cocktails, she was able to inform us about the range of drinks on offer, without making us feel like we were being upsold.

Anyhoo, we then moved back upstairs to our table, and got down to the business of ordering.  The decor is quite similar to the Sydney restaurant: extremely dark lighting (my Dad joked it felt just like Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons!), funky lamps, and Chinese-inspired wooden decorations.  Thankfully, the "naked sexy Asian ladies" motif doesn't seem to have been brought down to Melbourne from Sydney!

The menu is quite similar to the Sydney one, with the addition of a few "24-hour notice" dishes.  I'd had a look at the menu online the week before our dinner, but none of them took my fancy, so we stuck with the standard menu.

We did two starters, two mains and a small vegetable side, which was a good amount for four people.  (Our waitress here was also very helpful in guiding us through the menu and recommending an appropriate amount of food for us).

We were seated at a small square table, so each of the dishes were brought one at a time.  Even though it was really dark, there happened to be a light right in the centre of our table, so we could see our food!  Phew.

Aromatic duck salad with tea eggs and coriander - $18
The duck salad had a very salty dressing, covering generous amounts of hardboiled eggs and tender duck meat.  My mum loves eggs so this was a good dish for us!

And for something a little different, we ordered the lamb and cumin pancakes.  These were two circles of thin dough, enclosing a spicy minced lamb mixture, and deep fried to crispy deliciousness.
Lamb and cumin pancakes - $14
It came with a little pot of chilli sauce, that looked like sambal, but was lacking in any serious heat.
Chilli sauce

The first of the mains to arrive was the Kung Pao chicken.  Oooh... pretty, right?  The big piles of dried chillis and Sichuan peppercorns look so impressive.  It was listed on the menu in red, indicating that it is a hotter dish, but we didn't find it hot at all.  Even when - gasp! - we tried to be adventurous and ate a few whole dried chillies.  There just didn't seem to be any of that typical chilli heat in them; I think they were mainly there for looks. 
Kung Pao chicken - Sichuan pepper corns, heaven facing chillies and cashews - $35
The chicken itself was delicious, but there just wasn't enough of it!  Buried in and amongst all those chillis were a very small amount of chicken and cashews. Only about a quarter of that plate was actually chicken. As we ate our way through the dish, we found ourselves searching through the chillis to make sure we didn't miss any of the good bits.  My dad described it as "too much Kung Pao, not enough chicken".

Well, if the Kung pao was quite light, the next dish was very substantial.  The hot, sweet, sour and numbing pork is my favourite dish (so far) from Spice Temple, and I'm glad that my parents liked it too! 
Hot, sweet, sour and numbing pork - Chilli, sugar, black vinegar and Sichuan peppercorn - $35
Small pieces of boneless pork are deep fried and tossed in a sauce that is both sharp and sweet, and dusted in numbing Sichuan peppercorns.  Fabulous!

We also ordered a small vegetable side of stir-fried spinach.

Stir fried spinach Sichuan style - $12
This was a red dish, but again it wasn't very hot at all.  It was very plain, not something I'd order by itself, but a nice refreshing counterpoint to the heavier meat dishes.  One problem though - there was a hair in it!  (Definitely not one of ours, I checked).  And because it was so dark, I didn't realise the hair was there until - gross - it was in my mouth and I was chewing on it. Ewwww.  Having said that, when I pointed it out to our waitress, she apologised, removed the dish and replaced it with a fresh one, and even removed it from the bill!  No harm, no foul.

We were pretty full by this point, but there's always room for dessert.  We shared a peanut and salted caramel parfait.  It was a bit different from the peanut butter parfait we had at Spice Temple Sydney, and I must say, I like the new version even more!  It is a generous disc, with a crunchy sesame-flavoured base and a smooth peanut parfait filling, topped with a soft salted caramel and chopped peanuts.  A slick of milk chocolate completes the dessert.

Peanut and salted caramel parfait with milk chocolate - $18
It was incredible!  I loved the combination of flavours and textures - fabulous.  It is a very rich and decadent dessert, and can easily be shared amongst two or three.  Salted caramel peanut desserts are all the rage at the moment - I wonder if one day they'll go the way of fondue, tiramisu and chocolate mousse?

And finally, a few little complimentary almond biscuits to finish up.
Almond Biscuits

The whole meal cost $180 all up, which I thought was really well priced.  It worked out to be $45 each, or $33.75 if you don't count the cocktails!  (As I mentioned, they didn't charge us for the spinach, but if they had it would have only been an extra $3 per person).  In Melbourne, you could easily spend $45 a head on a dinner and drinks at standard restaurants, with food that's not nearly as nice as Spice Temple.

It was reasonably quiet throughout the night, and not as buzzy as the Sydney one.  However, we did go early on a Sunday evening, and I'm sure the crowds will build up over time.  I look forward to coming back again and trying some of their other dishes!

Spice Temple on Urbanspoon