Lunch at the Royal Pita Maha

lunch 4

The Balinese are the most accommodating people on earth and a group of young men stand at the door to welcome us into the Royal Pita Maha, a spectacular hotel sitting high above a bend in the Ayung River. The four of us walk through the grand open reception area, past statues of Hindu gods and down a lift to start our journey to the river for lunch at their organic restaurant. Michael and Geoffrey are expatriate Australians who have retired to Bali, and to thank them for their generosity my friend and I are taking them for lunch.  Despite two lifts, there are still many flights of uneven stairs, paths that wind around villas flanked by ponds full of large carp and goldfish, which swim along next to us, mouths wide open hoping for food. We walk past a sacred pool, which is not for menstruating women, to reach our pavilion by the river.

The pavilion is set up just for our group and overlooks a set of rapids where a constant caravan of rafting tourists swing around the corner, get pushed onto the rocks and flail around helplessly until their hard working Balinese helmsman gets them off and heads them in the right way. Those that manage the rapids seamlessly often give us a jaunty wave of pride before disappearing around the corner.

Rafting on the Ayung River

The menu is western and the service Balinese. Bali is not an island for wine connoisseurs and the choice always limited. After some toing and froing with the waiter it became clear there was only one lone bottle of white wine and it was a chardonnay and that would be fine, thank you very much. The menu read like a modern western menu – seared tuna, organic greens, pastas and organic chicken. For entree, I ordered a roasted zucchini, lentil and fennel salad. What turned up was a salad with cos lettuce, shredded carrot, beetroot and fennel but it was all freshly prepared and prettily piled up on the plate.

lunch 5

The mains were not so successful. I had a marinated chicken in a sweet chilli sauce on mash, and like much of the local poultry, it was stringy and dry. I managed to separate some meat from the bone and to make a meal from it. Geoffrey’s was less successful. He asked for the lamb rump, medium rare. What came were three hard, little buttons of meat which he quickly pushed away and declared inedible. The concern by our waiter was heartbreaking, but Geoffrey was firm that he did not want another dish and instead he put his energy into coercing the waiter to find another bottle of wine. Again, after more toing and froing, he came back with a bottle of sauvignon blanc, which had the distinct perfume of a men’s urinal. The rest of us declined the privilege to have a glass and  left that particular pleasure to Geoffrey.

Michael, a former chef who had worked in restaurants in Ubud, explained the Balinese relationship with food. ‘The western menu is learnt by rote by the kitchen staff,’ he said. ‘So they cannot accommodate changes or special requests because this is not their food culture’.

‘For the Balinese, food is fuel. The mother cooks a large pot of something in the morning and it sits there all day and the family come and go and eat when they need to. They don’t sit down together to eat’.

Michael explained that what we get from sharing a meal – pleasure, companionship, social connection – they get from the temple. This is where they worship, not at the dinner table. I saw how alien our fetishisation of food must appear to the Balinese. Yet they are so accommodating to visitors. They learn to sear tuna and make organic salads and try and produce bottles of wine and watch us as we ooh and aah at the table and pick our way through course after course.

After lunch, we made our way slowly back up the hill, past the sacred pool and the carp ponds and up the uneven steps into the lift and out to the foyer. At the front door a group of young men, all in traditional sarongs, namasted us with beautiful smiles as if it had been such a pleasure to have our company at the hotel. The pleasure had been all ours.

lunch 6
The sacred pool

Dinner at Nusantara


bali food 1As visitors to Ubud in Bali know, there are two kinds of Ubud. The glossy magazine Ubud with beautiful people sipping cocktails in artfully designed restaurants. And then the everyday Ubud. Broken walkways, open drains, building sites abandoned, their materials spilling onto the road. To Australian eyes, the lack of regulation is mesmerising.

In Ubud and the surrounding villages there are thousands of warungs, cafes and restaurants. The knowledge of what is good and where to go is passed from visitor to visitor like a sacred text. At the top sits Locavore, with its degustation menu and international reputation. Next come tips on the good local restaurants serving Indonesian, western style cafes for the unadventurous, and the local warungs, the street side cafes, which are scattered every few metres along the road.

For our second night in Ubud, we are going high end with a restaurant for Nusantara, the sister restaurant to Locavore, and opened a couple of months ago. It specialises in regional Indonesian dishes and a seat in their stylish restaurant needs to be planned for and booked. The food served is a much more considered version of Indonesian cuisine than you find in the local warung.

The menu is for sharing and we order some small dishes as well as a couple of bigger dishes and they all come together. From Sulawesi, we had the stir fried banana blossom with shallots, chillies and kaffir lime leaves and from Central Java squid cooked in ink with chilli and coconut milk. The squid was intense and rich. The banana flowers had a similar texture to bamboo shoots and were a fresh counterbalance to the other dishes. For the larger plates we ordered a whole smoked snapper baked in banana leaves which had been carefully deboned and put back together in its original shape. The other main was a crispy duck, marinated with turmeric, candle nuts, chilli and lemongrass and came to the table dark, with its sharp little bones poking through the flesh.

Bali food 2

For those used to the light and aromatic cooking of Thailand and Vietnam, many of the flavours at Nusantara were unfamiliar and seemed darker and grittier. The chilli quotient was high, too high for some at the table, and the tomato and chilli sambal which came as a side was impossibly hot for all except the most devoted chilli lover. Yet I found it an intriguing dinner of exploration. The chefs at Nusantara don’t dilute their flavours for the mostly western diners and instead present a master class in sophisticated but true flavours to showcase with pride their country’s cuisine.



Too much cutting edge? Flavour versus fashion.

menu (2)A couple of weeks ago I went to a local cafe for breakfast. I’d walked past it a hundred times but had not heard the siren call. When it popped up in a couple of ‘best of’ lists I was worried I’d missed a local gem. The cafe was in a converted old shop right on the bus stop and was always busy with quick coffees and people fresh from the gym or with dogs who sat outside at the little tables on the street. I found a small table inside in a snug corner and ordered mushrooms with poached eggs and a latte.

The food came out really quickly with everything covered in a thick layer of dukkah (Egyptian). I took the poached eggs off the top and started excavating. Sliced mushrooms sat on kale which was doused in balsamic vinegar (Italian) on top of pesto (Italian) on rye bread (middle European). This assemblage of flavours spoke to no man or woman.

A closer analysis is called for. I really don’t find dukkah a flavour enhancement to eggs and I scraped it off the poached eggs and barely tolerated it on the mushrooms. Balsamic vinegar can be a subtle undercurrent to cooking and a couple of drops will pull up the flavour of vegetables or strawberries. It is not a condiment to be poured over a dish. Pesto is a beautiful thing. Made in the height of summer when the basil bush is about to go to seed, blended with pine nuts, pecorino, some garlic and a good olive oil and tossed through a simple pasta, it will pull you right back to the Ligurian coast. I am not sure when it became a spread for toast.

It is not the cross cultural mash up I object to, but the discordant mismatch of flavours which in no way complement each other. There is nothing wrong with genuine creative cooking and experimentation but the cafe’s combination was driven by a collection of food trends and fads which appear in many combinations in the cafes of Brisbane.

Food has become as much a part of people’s identity as fashion and the technology they buy. If your identity is involved you then want to be seen as hip, creative and cutting edge. This drives cafes and restaurants to amp up unexpected flavour combinations and to create heightened eating experiences. The food must also look good on social media. The photograph is the message. This is all a big call for breakfast.

Before its recent incarnation, the old shop on the bus stop was a cafe and bookshop called Bouquiniste. Old style boho, it was owned by Meredith, with her long red hair looped over her shoulder, she turned out perfect coffee from her hissing espresso machine. Postcards from Paris covered the front of the counter and the window seat made comfortable with embroidered cushions. Colouring books lay around for the kids and bentwood chairs snuggled up to rickety tables. Yet the food was simple and true.

The avocado on toast came with a zesty dressing and some carefully picked greens. The croissants were dropped off by a bespoke bakery every morning and placed on a shelf in eyeballing proximity to where you ordered.  Bouquiniste was the sort of place where you could linger and listen to interesting chats about lost loves or lost plays about to be revived. It was restful and I would have to shake myself off the the cushions and return to the world outside.

Contemporary food has become more assemblage than cooking. A lot of flavours and textures and vogue ingredients are assembled on a plate, which too often ends up as a discordant mismatch where no elements talk to each other. Yet there is so much potential in experimenting with spices and flavours from different cultures. Yotam Ottolenghi built a food empire from such experimentation. However, at the moment we often see the prioritisation of cutting edge over other food attributes and this is what leads to the overcrowding of plates with the latest ingredient du jour.

Assemblage is really just one way of putting a meal together and I am missing the alchemical magic of cooking where the whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients. Some ingredients form the base note, the spices a complementary flavour and the protein transformed and on your plate a meal. Balanced and palatable, it doesn’t have to be old fashioned or stodgy. Surprising elements can go together but they play off and transform each other in the cooking process. Not everything is enhanced by being deconstructed and I always feel disappointed when the dessert I ordered comes out in its parts. The smear of lemon to signify the lemonyness of the original dessert. Sometimes a lemon meringue pie should just be a lemon meringue pie.

Yet despite these trends, there are many strengths with contemporary cooking. Neglected techniques, such as smoking and fermenting, have been revived. There is a passion for provenance. But with innovation and experimentation given primacy, you end up cooking for the kitchen, not the diner. If more could put down the camera and pick up the tasting spoon, we could all enjoy food which is fresh, creative, sustainable and satisfying.

Three Cookbooks

My brother dropped off a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book for me to have a look at. Originally published in 1893, Mrs Beeton was once the bible for the new housewife but is now a curiosity. The book was full of strictures for running a house, from which day of the week to clean the drawing room to plain family dinners for every month of the year. For her, a plain family dinner for instance on a Friday in December, was Soles souche, roast loin of pork, green, potatoes and a Cabinet pudding (a kind of bread and butter pudding made with sponge cake).

Mrs Beeton saw cooking as a sub sector of housekeeping and was concerned about meeting standards of what was right and proper. She was as concerned with the right table decoration as she was with what was cooked for the table. To her credit though, she lists the ingredients in season accompanied by recipes to make at that time. Mrs Beeton includes a wealth of technical information about cuts of meat and food preparation and her expectation of the skill of the every day housewife were high.

If you want to know how to set a table...
If you want to know how to set a table…

The reach of Mrs Beeton lasted for a long time and was evident in the first cookbook I ever owned, a present from my grandmother for my tenth birthday. The Illustrated Teach Yourself Cookery was aimed at young girls who liked to help Mother in the kitchen. Like Mrs Beeton, Teach Yourself Cookery was also keen on table setting and how to wash your dishes properly. I quickly skipped those parts and turned to the Baking for Tea section whose grubby pages still tell the tale. Despite the constant supply of cakes and biscuits being pulled out of the oven by my mother, my greedy little sweet tooth wanted more. I soon mastered cup cakes, Monte Carlo biscuits and chocolate cake.

Childhood favourites
Childhood favourites

With recipes for such family favourites as boiled salted meat, stewed mince and steamed meat pudding, they should be forever grateful I stuck to the sweetie section of the book.

The strictures on table setting are absent from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. The Ottolenghi empire rolls on with his emphasis on mixing vegetables with interesting textures and flavours into new dishes. Unlike the formality of meeting standards of earlier cookbooks, Ottolenghi encourages experimentation and creative mixing of flavours. He is a compiler of flavours and his recipes can be used as a guide rather than strictly adhering to what is laid out. Using his philosophy, I swap around the ingredients with what I have to hand. No toasted almonds? Then swap for walnuts and change the spice/herb mixture accordingly. For Ottolenghi, cooking is a creative exercise and he happily plays around with flavours and ingredients.

The evolution of cookbooks from the early emphasis on meeting standards and doing things right to being playful and creative in the kitchen mirrors the march of modernity. We have thrown off the conformity of Mrs Beeton, to all toss together pomegranate and tomato salads with Ottolenghi. Though a bit more Baking for Tea wouldn’t go astray.

New Farm Deli

At 6am the day’s choreography starts at the New Farm Deli. People in Brisbane rise early in summer and wait for the doors to open for the first coffee of the day. Vince and Maria own and run the Deli and it is Vince who conducts the floor. In the morning he either works the coffee machine orchestrating, the flow of drinks, or is nearby chatting with customers and chivvying the young staff along. Even when chatting, he is casting around the floor, checking the ebb and flow of service and quickly pointing to cups piling up or glasses to be stacked.

Breakfast at the Deli
Breakfast at the Deli

The Deli is loud and crowded. Tables are tucked close together and laughter bounces off the marble floors and the glass windows. The left side of the space is the actual deli with shelves of imported pasta, olive oil and vinegar and the large serving counter next to the fridges full of aged prosciutto, parmegiana reggiano, sopressa and mozzarella. With the Christmas stock in, hundreds of panettone hang from the ceiling and boxes of sweets and chocolate are piled up near the shelves.

Christmas panettone
Christmas panettone

I often join the morning crowd for my one coffee of the day. Going to the Deli is the space between leaving home and going to work. It gives me a chance to read the Murdoch papers which I no longer pay for, but occasionally need to flick through to maintain my level of outrage at their strange and nasty campaigns. Amongst the clatter of cups and plates, I can turn half an ear to the men in crisp business suits at the next table talking property development and watch the retirees sitting over their coffee with the morning paper. Later in the morning, shoppers come in for a break and men speaking Italian wander by to chiack with Vince and down a short macchiato.

Gearing up for the lunch trade starts early and reserved signs are progressively placed on the tables by late morning. People queue to order lunch at the counter, while the floor staff allocate tables as you wait, squeezing people in to what already looks like a full café. Waiters walk by with big bowls of pasta, heavy with prawns, and generous deli salads from the kitchen, while the foccaccias, flat and salty are quickly put together at the counter. After lunch, kids are brought in after school for a cool drink and the expresso laden business meetings carry through the rest of the day.

Deli goods
Deli goods

The Deli works hard all day. There is always a small queue waiting for sliced mortadella or a scoop of olives. And the floor of the café is never quiet with the dance between customer and staff continues until the doors are finally closed on stragglers some time after 6.00 pm. Then the floors are cleaned, and chairs stacked, ready for tomorrow’s performance.

New Farm Deli
900 Brunswick Street, New Farm
07 33582634
Open 7 days for breakfast and lunch

From Bologna to Teneriffe – La Macelleria

If you are not in a position to stroll through the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, stroll down to Florence Street, Teneriffe for some real Italian gelato. La Macelleria opened a couple of months ago and through word of mouth attracts a steady stream of fans. Now sandal weather is nearly here, I would expect the queues to go out into the street. It is that good.

IMG_0721The gelateria is the work of two Bolognese – Matteo Zini and Matteo Casone. They learnt their craft in the gelaterias of Bologna and have brought that tradition of artisan skill to Brisbane. The gelato are made with fresh, quality ingredients, and a menu which covers the classic Italian flavours such as fior de latte, stracciatella and pistacchio to a range of creative specials based on imported and local ingredients. There is even a bacio Australiano with white chocolate and caramelised macadamia chips.

From the classic menu
From the classic menu
Cassata siciliana with fresh ricotta and candied fruits
Cassata siciliana with fresh ricotta and candied fruits

I have worked both sides of the menu. The flavours are subtle but reflect the real ingredients used. Try the castiglione with fresh ricotta with caramelised figs or the classic bacio with chocolate and whole hazlenuts.

The fit out is all white tiles and stainless steel, with the gelato making action happening on view behind the front counter. La Macelleria’s philosophy of using the best of imported and local ingredients is written up on the walls, as is their commitment to making the gelato fresh each day. This shines through in the quality of the gelato, which is superb.

Waiting for your order
Waiting for your order

So slap the sandals on and get into line. La Macelleria is authentic Italian gelato prepared to the highest standards. On a hot summer’s night, it will be calling you.

La Macelleria
29 Florence Street, Teneriffe
Open 7 days

Jim Clark and the Little Larder

Jim Clark
Jim Clark

Jim crosses the street to the Little Larder every day to drink a short macchiato and read the paper. Sometimes his walk is barely a shuffle and one day I watched him cross back, stopping every couple of feet to clutch his head shot with neuralgia. Jim is the father of friends of mine and washed back into Brisbane five years ago knowing he needed care.

Jim tracked the changes to the Little Larder from his fourth floor window across the road. He told me that when the old shop there closed all sorts of stories went round. Mainly that it was going to be a cafe. Who would use a cafe in this area, he wondered? Gradually the builders came in and they started to turn it into what he thought looked like an interesting place. The show windows, the polished concrete. And then the refrigerated cabinet came in. Then the timber boxes appeared. Dozens of them. Eventually he saw they were seats and then, blow me down, they put them up on the wall and the boxes became the display cabinets for the delicatessen goods.

Jim strikes me as urbane. He is the one drinking the short macchiato while I am on a weak latte. “I don’t make coffee at home,” he said. “I have a morning coffee. Sometimes I have two. It depends on how well the coffee is made. They are pretty good at making it here but sometimes you get a sour or gritty one. I insist my cup is heated with hot water.”

Jim’s world closed in a couple of years ago. He was pretty independent – shopping and cooking and going down to the Chinese Club in the Valley for Saturday lunch. Then he had a couple of stays in hospital and the Council cancelled the little local bus which took him down to the shops and to the Valley. The demise of the dirty old shop across the road and the opening of the Little Larder was a godsend.

His daughter Liddy often left money there and Kylie and Nick run a tab for him. They look out for Jim and were worried when he suddenly disappeared a couple of months ago. Liddy told them he was in hospital where he was having more tests than usual. He has a lot wrong with him and though he is old he is still sharp. All I notice is a determination to get all of the facts of a story he is telling right and in shipshape order. He will not let them slip off into a little hole in his brain and pulls them back before they find that void.

Jim has stopped policing the papers for Nick and Kylie. They have a stack for sale each morning and Jim would make sure that the yuppies who took them to read with their breakfast paid for them. Then Kylie told him not to worry about it, because they didn’t pay for the ones not sold anyway.

Wesley James Clark, father of Stephen, Liddy and Kaye. 1923 – 2014.

W J Clark esq

10 Food Questions – Gillian McLelland

Gillian McLelland
Gillian McLelland

1. Food for you is what? Enjoyment.
2. What was your favourite food/meal as a child? Lettuce.
3. What did you have for dinner last night? Fish, chips and steamed vegetables.
4. Favourite restaurant? Coronation Hotel, in its heyday.
5. Do you grow food, and if so, what? Parsley, basil and dill.
6. Local hidden gem? Double Shot.
7. Your favourite food shop? New Farm Deli.
8. What do you hope never to eat again? Tripe.
9. How often do you cook? Every day.
10. Most used cookbook? Mrs Schauer’s Cookbook.

My mother with her favourite daughter
My mother with her favourite daughter

Letter from Rome

Justin Livingston, elegant retiree (see 10 Food Question) is spending a month living in the Vittoria area in Rome.  Here is his Roman food story.


Justin Livingston
Justin Livingston

I am staying in the Vittoria area, north of the Vatican and near Piazza Mazzini. This was a working class area, but is becoming trendy, but as yet untouristy.

Street in Vittoria area

The large covered Trionfale Market is about a 15 minute walk  from my apartment and was recommend by my Roman landlord. There is a fantastic availability of fresh food – vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread and pasta. I buy the half green tomatoes which are so full of sunny flavour, as well as the reddest strawberries I have ever seen.


Fresh fruit at the Trionfale market


Because I don’t have an oven in the flat, I make dishes which I can saute on hotplates as well as salads. There is a fantastic array of fresh food, so this is not a problem. I have braised fennel, cooked delicious Italian sausages and made fiori di zuccha (stuffed zucchini flowers).

Buying cheese at the market
Buying cheese at the market

If not eating at home, I go to my local pizzeria/hostaria the Giacomelli. This is a family restaurant and absolutely full of locals. It is atmospheric, not expensive and not haute cuisine, but perfect if you are eating alone as a traveller.
Pizzeria Giacomelli

I ate there last night and had a lovely pizza with peas, artichoke, suasage and mozzerella. There is a huge range of pizzas, as well as the usual beef, veal and chicken dishes. The Padrona and her daughter are front of house, with Signora Giacomelli taking the money as people leave and her daughter Cristiana greeting customers, most of whom she knows, as they arrive.

Signora Giacomelli
Signora Giacomelli

The restaurant has been there since 1945 and is always busy with good service and a lively atmosphere. It’s just the sort of experience I wanted to have by staying here for a few weeks, longer than I have ever done before.
My shopping from the market
My shopping from the market

10 Food Questions – Donna McDonald

Donna McDonald author of  'The Art of Being Deaf'.
Donna McDonald author of ‘The Art of Being Deaf’.

1. Food for you is what? Two things – by myself it is fuel; out with my friends, it is an occasion.
2. What was your favourite food/meal as a child? Strawberry ice-cream cake.
3. What did you have for dinner last night? Pan fried prawns, with Moroccan spices, on a rocket and pear salad.
4. Favourite restaurant? Tinderbox.
5. Do you grow food, and if so, what? No, but would like to.
6. Local hidden gem? Byblos at Portside.
7. Your favourite food shop? Clayfield Market.
8. What do you hope never to eat again? Tripe.
9. How often do you cook? Every night.
10. Most used cookbook? Gwinganna Cookbook.