Thursday, 26 March 2015

Pastuso

19 ACDC Lane 
Melbourne, VIC 
http://pastuso.com.au/

When I think I’ve just about seen eaten it all, Melbourne finds another way to surprise me, and this time it’s with Pastuso. Led by head chef Alejandro, who has done his hard yards around the globe, including at Heston’s The Fat Duck, Pastuso is a re-imagining of classic Peruvian cuisine.  I find the clash of cultures in this cuisine to be fascinating – European meets Asian, plus a healthy dash of indigenous South African. Tonight however, I’m here to experience the influence of Chinese cuisine on Peruvian food at Pastuso’s Chifa Dinner ($85pp; +$40pp for matching wines), as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. 




Pastuso is located at the bottom of the hill, down ACDC (yes, ACϞDC) lane. Though the signage is in lush, gold script, you don’t get a good feel for the restaurant until you actually walk inside. And I have to admit I was surprised – Pastuso was exceedingly lovely, consisting of lots of dark wood and intimate corners, juxtaposed with lurid posters and banquet tables. Tonight however, it’s been given a dose of the oriental with a spate of paper lanterns, and I love it. 


Alejandro is the strong, silent bloke with curly hair and glasses

Iris Vermouth Blanco

To kick off the evening, Alejandro gave a short introduction on Peruvian food, whilst the people who opted in for matching wines enjoyed a tumbler of Iris Vermouth Blanco, clinking and glistening with ice cubes. Though initially sweet and light, it quickly released a burst of warm spices and festive notes of citrus. If this is what all vermouth tastes like, then consider me a fan.  


Empanada Achifada

Our first course was the Empanada Achifada. Cutting through the fancy name though, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is no more (or less) than a good fried wonton. Whilst the skin was blistered and crispy, the filling of pork and crab was juicy and succulent. 


Empanada Achifada

What I liked the most though was the accompanying ginger and lemon dipping sauce – it gave the simple starter a sharp and memorable kick.


Chifa Barbeque Platter

Much more substantial was the Chifa Barbeque Platter, presented to diners with many oohs and ahhs. 


Barbeque Pork

The barbeque pork was my first taste of Peru. Not only was it slightly pink and very tender like any good roast pork should be, this one also carried with it a smokiness that was laced with exotic spices. Served on the side were paper-thin slices of house-pickled daikon, its vinegary zest the ideal accompaniment to the rich meat. 


Peking Duck

On the other side of the board was a serve of traditional Peking duck. Once again, the execution was flawless; the breast showcased the cut’s silken smoothness, whilst the shredded thigh was sweeter and fattier, and topping it off were sinfully crispy shards of duck skin. We ate it the traditional way, wrapped in the soft pancakes with a piece of cucumber. I found the result to be rather dry and wondered why there wasn’t any sauce to go with it. Now that I read over the menu again, I realised that it was supposed to have been served with a pisco, honey and aji panca sauce, so that was a little disappointing. But hey, I got to have some great duck and barbeque pork. 


Sudado de Bonito

Sandwiched by the more indulgent dishes was the more subtle dish of Sudado de Bonito, which consisted of a slow-cooked bonito fillet, served with rolled up rice noodles and Chinese greens in a subtle broth.


Sudado de Bonito

This was the only dish of the night that I didn’t enjoy. Whilst the fish was cooked to pearly, opalescent perfection, everything else was bland. I had expected a stronger stock to impart more flavour to the delicate fish, and although it had a beautiful hint of umami from the seafood and shiitake mushrooms, the lack of salt did it no favours. 


Lomo Saltado 

So it was just as well that the Lomo Saltado was fantastic. Though it looked very much like a traditional roast dinner, what made all the difference was the spicy soy-based gravy, flavoured with caramelised onions and spices. It was a bold and unique mix of flavours that had me soaking up the dregs with the fluffy potatoes. 


Lomo Saltado 

And let’s take a moment to appreciate the perfect medium-rare-ness of the juicy, flavoursome wagyu beef. 


Fried Rice

And to go with the beef was a side of fried rice. Though it went back to being very much Chinese, the ample use of dried shrimp gave it an extra element of briny flavour and chewy texture.


Ensalada de Fruta

I usually spend my Christmases with Chris’ family, and one of his aunties always makes the most amazing trifle. And although our dessert was called the Ensalada de Fruta, the combination of fruit jelly, pandan sponge, and rice pudding custard sounded like a trifle to me! 


Ensalada de Fruta

We chewed and slurped and crunched our way through the mess of jelly, cream, and lollies. This was a delicious candy-coloured-and-flavoured concoction, and a complete riot of fun. On the side was a plantain spring roll that I didn’t like very much, and a couple of exceedingly sugary and buttery house-made fortune cookies that I liked very much indeed. 


Ensalada de Fruta

According to the master fortune teller at Pastuso (that’s who writes their fortunes, right?), both Chris and I should exercise less. 



But wait, I hear you ask, what about the wine? If you read my blog much at all, you’ll realise I’m not much of an alcohol person. Couple that with needing to drive home on my P-plates meant that I couldn’t do the matched wines justice. But I did have a go, and here it is:

Wine 1: Tiattelli Vineyards Torrontes 2013 Premium Reserve – a crisp and citrusy white, but with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.
Wine 2: Humberto Canale Estate Pinot Noir 2013 – tart but surprisingly juicy.
Wine 3: Bodega la Azul – another red, but this time the flavour was sweet and spicy.

I told you I wasn’t good at wines.

Despite it feeling a little pedestrian, I had a good time at Pastuso’s Chifa Dinner. Whilst I probably wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to have another of what admittedly felt like a mostly Chinese meal, the wagyu beef left me extremely eager to come back and explore Peru some more. Just as soon as I get a job.

Rating: 13.5/20 – keen for more.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Pastuso. 

Pastuso on Urbanspoon

Monday, 23 March 2015

Hophaus Bier Bar Grill

West end, Mid-level
Southgate Ave 
Southbank, VIC 3006
http://hophaus.com.au/

I may be a foodie, but I’m pretty chill about it all things considered. Though I am very much on the constant lookout for new places to eat (and blog), I’m happiest just stumbling across them in my own time instead of hunting them down. After all, I’m a pretty stressed person – I’ve yet to go to a masseuse who hasn’t commented on the tension in my neck and shoulders.


Because of that however, I never make the most of the myriad of foodie events that go on in Melbourne. I don’t want to learn to cook fancy dishes, I don’t want to go to a lecture about where restaurants source their produce, and I definitely do not want to eat festival-specific set-menus, as they usually turn out to be incredibly underwhelming. But when an invite turned up during the Melbourne Food and Wine festival for Hophaus Bier Bar Grill, I was won over by the promise of an all-German tasting platter. 




I was incredibly surprised by the size of Hophaus. I wandered through the restaurant with my mouth gaping, going past a beautiful bar, cosy booths, round tables, and bar seating, before emerging onto the balcony, which was glittering in the calm after the previous night’s summer storm. I also met my new best friend – a whole suckling pig on a spit, who provoked a bit of a Homer Simpson Response from me. And if you’re wondering why there’s no photo, it’s because I couldn’t get one that didn’t look so much like, well, a pig carcass. If you’re still keen however, here is a much nicer shot by Gastrology.


Tasting Board ($15)

Our Tasting Board ($15) came on a cute little wooden paddle lined with newspaper. We were treated to a selection of Germanic delights, including pulled pork, corned beef, pork and veal sausage, marinated herring, house pickle, and some toasted rye bread. 


Pulled Pork

Things made a good start with the Pulled Pork. Moist and tender, it was given a slight oriental twist with the use of cinnamon. Mixed in was some slaw to give it crunch, and the two slices of syrupy braised apple paired with the pork like peanut butter and chocolate. 


Pork and Veal Sausage/Corned Beef/House Pickle

I was equally as, if not more impressed by the Pork and Veal Sausage. It was deliciously meaty without the greasy after-taste, and the casing was satisfying snappy. Likewise, the Corned Beef was also very tasty, encrusted in a layer of spices. And to cut through all that meat, the House Pickle was crisp and refreshing – the perfect balance between sweet and sour. 


Marinated Herring

The last item on the plate was the Marinated Herring. The fat slab of fish was briny and heavily salted, and though good in small doses, I just couldn’t handle that much sodium in one go, and left most of it untouched. 


Leaves, Shredded, Radish, Creamy Dill Dressing ($7)

To balance out our meal somewhat, we ordered the Leaves, Shredded, Radish, Creamy Dill Dressing ($7) off the main menu. The first thing I have to say about this salad is that, the dressing tastes like Big Mac Sauce, and as a result, was annoyingly addictive. Which is just as well, because the rest of the salad was a profound disappointment. It consisted of mostly shredded iceberg lettuce, with only a scant few pieces of Mesclun and radish thrown into the mix. But then again, sauerkraut German food is hardly known for its salad. 

Though most of the tasting platter was pretty scrumptious, I had one major complaint – the bread. It was toasted so excessively that it each bite splintered loudly enough to make my ears ring, and my mouth was literally bleeding a little by the end. Aside from the painful bread experience and harried waitresses however, Hophaus has caught my attention enough to warrant a re-visit. I’m still not a fan of set menus for special events, but the pork knuckle sitting a few tables down has me intrigued.

Rating: 12.5/20 – but wait, let me try the pork knuckle.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Hophaus Bier Bar Grill. 

Hophaus on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Maria's Trattoria

124 Peel St 
Melbourne, VIC 
http://www.mariastrattoria.com/

As much as I hate paying for food that I can make myself, sometimes I want home-styled cooking and to be lazy. But whilst my end of town is good for dumplings and stir-fries, I’m not as fortunate when I’m craving pasta or curry. Those who live near Maria’s Trattoria however, are. 



Opened literally 30 years ago, Maria’s Trattoria is very much the quintessential family-run eatery. Its aged facade is very easy to overlook, but what caught my eye was the collage of faded Cheap Eats Awards pasted on the window. I doubt the restaurant itself has changed since the day it opened, and over the years it has become antiquated and tacky, but in a homely, well-loved way. 



What really makes Maria’s Trattoria feel homely though are the staff, who are the cutest buttons you’ll ever find. See, there’s one right there, happily waving a piece of bread she’s buttering. Maria herself was also in da house, wearing a flowery apron and cooking up a storm. 


Tortellini alla Romana ($16.9, main)

Chris ignored my warnings of the portion sizes, and ordered a Tortellini alla Romana ($16.9, main), ‘just to see how big it was’. The plate it was served on was definitely closer to a platter in size, and it was piled high with plump pockets of pasta, stuffed with nuggets of veal. It was generously topped with mushrooms and bacon, and finished with a delectably tangy sauce of tomato and cream. 


Spaghetti Pescatore ($16.9, entree)

Meanwhile, my Spaghetti Pescatore ($16.9, entree) was more generous in size than the mains you’ll find at most restaurants. The classic Napoli sauce was mild but hearty in flavour, and though the spaghetti was just a touch past al dente, it was nowhere near problematic. 


Spaghetti Pescatore ($16.9, entree)

What impressed me the most however was the seafood. It was generously doled up, consisting of everything from scallops to calamari to clams. The freshness could not be faulted either, though it is unsurprising, given that they source all their produce from Queen Victoria Market across the road. Finished with a healthy Italian-sized glug of olive oil, this is a plate of pasta that’s just as good in front of the TV as it is with a glass of wine. 



Though we definitely, definitely didn’t need it, we were still given a basket of slightly-stale-but-perfectly-sufficient bread. And simply because it was there, I ended up eating two slices, soaked in the yummy tortellini sauce. 



If we’re talking about it purely from a taste perspective, there is nothing groundbreaking about Maria’s Trattoria. What (I believe) keeps everyone coming back is the genuine sense of warmth and hospitality you get the moment you step in the door. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the food is tasty, the portions huge, and the prices reasonable.

Rating: 14/20 – mama maria!
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit. 

Maria's Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 March 2015

Xeôm

194 Smith St 
Collingwood, VIC 
http://www.xeom.com.au/

As a pharmacist (and someone with common sense), I totally understand the need for the Food Safety Standards, but I can’t help but feel a little resentful that as a result, the closest we get to street food is the burger truck. As a result, I spend most of my time scurrying between, and trying to find new restaurants that serve street-styled food because hey, it’s cheaper than flying overseas. 



A while back, on my way to Peko Peko, I spied with my little eyes Xeôm – a shiny new Vietnamese street-food restaurant in the heart of hipster country. Before too long, I was back on a warm afternoon to try their selection of rolls, salads, and noodles. It seemed  like a lot of people had the same idea as me, and the hip new restaurant filled up before too long. 




I was a little disappointed to discover, upon closer inspection, that the menu was more along the lines of Vietnamese staples marketed as street food. After all, rice paper rolls are still rice paper rolls, even if you rebrand them as ‘sexy rolls’, mark up the price, and serve them in a chilled-out restaurant decked with shelves of Vietnamese canned foods. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I was still eager to see what Xeôm had to offer. 


Grilled Chicken and Spring Rolls Vermicelli Noodle Salad ($13)

Our first dish was the Grilled Chicken and Spring Rolls Vermicelli Noodle Salad ($13), aka bún. The presentation certainly won it some points right off the bat – the salad was scrubbed squeaky clean and divvied out into little portions, and the large chicken chop had tantalisingly charred edges. 


Grilled Chicken and Spring Rolls Vermicelli Noodle Salad ($13)

When mixed through with fish sauce, this was your classic Vietnamese vermicelli salad, albeit with more care taken with the ingredients. The chicken was stand-out – hot and juicy with a hint of lemongrass, but the spring rolls were disappointing in that they weren’t the crunchy rice-paper kind, but the frozen cocktail kind. The overall flavour was a bit less punchy than you’d expect for Vietnamese food, and unfortunately the only herb was a small pinch of wilted mint. Thankfully, the overall impression of the salad was of delicacy, rather than blandness.


Combination Pork and Prawn Crispy Vietnamese Pancake ($14.8) 

Combination Pork and Prawn Crispy Vietnamese Pancake ($14.8) 

The bánh xèo – or as it’s called here, the Combination Pork and Prawn Crispy Vietnamese Pancake ($14.8) – is Vietnam’s answer to crepes. Except instead of sugar and butter, the crispy rice-based pancake is seasoned with turmeric, and stuffed with protein and bean shoots. 


Combination Pork and Prawn Crispy Vietnamese Pancake ($14.8) 

Combination Pork and Prawn Crispy Vietnamese Pancake ($14.8) 

This is one of those dishes that’s as tasty as it is fun. Sure you could eat it with a knife and fork but the best way to go about it it is with your hands. Rip up a piece of the pancake (make sure to get the meat and veggies as well), wrap it in a lettuce leaf, add as much or as little of the herbs as you would like, and dip it into the fish sauce. Though not mind-blowing in any aspect, this is a dish that’s just plain enjoyable to eat. 



Though I don’t do this very often, I had to double back and get my camera so I could take a snap of this awesome sink set-up.

I’ll be honest – the food at Xeôm is more or less the same as what you’d get at a halfway decent Vietnamese restaurant, except the prices are higher, the portions are smaller, and the tables are cleaner. All that said though, I was surprised to find that I actually quite liked my meal at Xeôm, because sometimes it’s nice to eat traditional Vietnamese food without worrying about why the tables are so sticky.

Rating: 12.5/20 – worth a try.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit. 

Xeom on Urbanspoon