There are many foods out there that just don’t work or are misapplied. Here is my personal list which shows up all of my food prejudices. All correspondence will be entered into.
Bircher muesli. I love a bowl of porridge in the morning with some poached fruit. I even like uncooked oats in muesli. But I don’t understand bircher muesli. It is a soggy, mess with the consistency of puppy’s vomit. The texture is soft and cold and it adds nothing to starting the day on a good footing. In the spirit of ‘never waste a meal’, let us never waste another breakfast on bircher muesli.
Shop bought pesto . Pesto is easy to make. Whiz up some fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, parmesan and garlic with olive oil. It is the taste of summer. It is meant to come from the garden to the plate. All of the life goes from pesto as soon as it is bottled. It is not a food that keeps so is not suitable for commercial production and must be laden with preservatives to give it a shelf life. Avoid that bottle and make your own.
Soft shell crabs. My friends assure me they are delicious and I just haven’t a good one. If that is the case, there are a lot of bad ones out there. My first concern is provenance. As far as I can see they are imported from developing countries with no food regulation and appear to be harvested from lagoons flowing with raw sewage and industrial waste. My second concern is taste. When I bite in, all I get is a mouthful of crab gunk. Is there no meat in these things? And what about those icky, little legs. Until provenance is clarified, I recommend sticking to locally harvested seafood.
Aoli. Aoli falls into the misapplied category. It is everywhere and way too much of it. I am always trying to scape it off my lunchtime sandwich. The place I go to has a particularly nasty anchovy version which does nothing to enhance the flavour of a ham and salad roll. I will give it the benefit of the doubt and accept it may work on the end of a hot chip. A lot of people seem to like that, though a sprinkling of salt does it for me. Hopefully the aoli mania is peaking and we can go back to a nice mayonnaise.
Brawn. And really I mean anything gelatinous, but brawn can stand for the genus. Meat and jellyness don’t go together. It is the slippery and cold elements which don’t work for me as well as the indistinguishably of the meat used. Meat is best, grilled, baked or casseroled. Suspending shreds of pig’s ears in jelly is way too Depression-era for me.
Gerard’s Bistro is my new favourite place. Tucked in off James Street it is a lovely textured space put together with a mixture of arched wooden battening, cream bricks and Moroccan tiles. The room is divided into different eating areas. There is a formal dining area down one end, a long bar and communal table near the kitchen and outside more casual seating. Whatever your mood, Gerard caters for it. And the food is pretty good as well.
My first visit was on a Sunday night, and the restaurant was quiet. My friends ordered lambs brains crusted in spice with tahini and yoghurt ($18) and the free range quail with honey, lavender, pomegranate and sage ($26) for entree. They both looked pretty good and disappeared without too much pain. For the main, I had the best bit if beef I have had for some time. The wagyu with smoked eggplant, wilted leaves and black cardamom ($34) was not a large serving but all the elements pulled together on the plate. The charcoal wagyu sang to the smoked eggplant and with the wilted leaves, I felt my iron levels soaring. We shared a side of heirloom tomatoes, shanklish (don’t ask …oh OK – it’s a middle eastern sheep’s milk cheese) and onion crisps ($12).
For dessert we shared the blood orange creme catalan ($10) and the pistachio financier, charred quince and halva ice cream ($16). Shared is probably nor the right word. After the first mouthful, I pulled the pistachio cake closer and growled at all comers. I did get my spoon into the blood orange catalan and that was pretty damned good as well.
I have since slipped back to Gerard’s for a quick lunch just to make sure it works for lunch as well as dinner. I ordered the quail with wilted greens and again all the flavours were there. The four little quail legs sat on rice with pomegranate mixed through with citrus zest. I cleaned off the plate in under a minute and was looking for more at the end.
I do like Gerard’s Bistro. The space works for both formal dining and a casual meal. The menu is well thought out and the produce used is of a high quality. But, for me, the servings are on the small side and the prices just high enough for it to be an issue. When the two meet up, Gerard’s will cement its place as my new favourite bistro.
Those avid followers of New Farm Food Stories will know we are running a campaign to cement the service of half glasses of wine in all our favourite restaurants. It is civilised, allows you to stay under the limit and gives greater choice in matching wines with courses. However, this simple adjustment to pouring has not caught on with the majority of restaurants. Recent refusniks include ecco, The Survey Co and Bucci. All fine restaurants which could be just that little bit finer if they offered half glasses of wine.
However, there is a new star in our half glass firmament. This week’s glass half full award goes to Gerard’s Bistro. The bistro is all class with knowledgeable wait staff and great service. Our waiter not only provided half glasses when requested but also asked who was driving so she wouldn’t do a top up.
The Glass Half full campaign continues, so send in any restaurant you think is deserving of the Glass Half Full Award.
With the maturing of the food culture in Brisbane, the timing could not be better to open a bookshop specialising in books about food. Julie Tjiandra and Reyna Portillo have spotted the opportunity and opened Scrumptious Reads in the new precinct on the corner of James and Robertson Streets.
The shop opened just over three weeks ago and the owners are still sourcing specialist stock from overseas and building up the collection. Julie talks about the shop as an extension to her own library. ‘I read and collect old books,’ she said, ‘particularly books about food, including the history of food, food science and food and travel.’ As well as a beautiful collection of cooking books, the shop has reference books on food and books on specialist topics such as tea and wine.
As expected, a few chefs have made their way through the door, but the majority of customers are curious browsers looking through the collection.
Julie and Reyna intend to make Scrumptious Reads a centre for food culture. They are working with experts in different fields and are developing a calendar of events with appreciation classes and information evenings.
If you are after a classic cookbook or want to deepen you understanding in one area of food, Scrumptious Reads meets those needs. And like all bookshops, there is the chance for the serendipitous moment when you find exactly the book you need, even though you didn’t realise it before you walked in the door.
One of the few frustrations of yum cha is waiting for the trolley to make its way across the restaurant, only to watch it run out of steamed dumplings just as it reaches your table. For those too impatient to wait, they can join the fast moving queue at Happy Little Dumplings. Despite the lunch time rush, the staff were polite and upbeat in wrangling the many and complex orders.
James Street is the second shop of this mini-franchise which started with a stall at the markets and then opened in Oxford Street, Bulimba. The yum cha menu has gourmet, vegetarian and seafood dumplings to choose from, as well as steamed buns and Vietnamese rice paper rolls. They are slowly increasing the choice with Asian salad and gluten free dumplings on the way.
Because I don’t like to miss out, I ordered a serve of Vietnamese rice paper rolls as well as two types of dumplings. The marinated chicken rolls ($7.50 for two) were huge and filled with lots of fresh ingredients such as carrot, lettuce and herbs. A serving of two would be plenty for lunch. Next, the prawn and coriander Har Gow ($2.50 each). They were gelatinous and subtly flavoured little parcels with a generous amount of prawns. The Chinese Chilli Duck Dumpling ($2.00 each) had a great chilli hit, offset by just a touch of sweetness.
Happy Little Dumplings is open seven days a week, and when I was there, a constant stream of people arrived for a quick takeaway or sit down lunch. The food is fresh, carefully made and well priced. The rituals of yum cha restaurants are pleasant. A big table, sharing lots of plates, washed down by endless cups of jasmine tea. But if you want the dumplings without the ritual, head to Happy Little Dumplings and join the queue.
Address: Shop 10, 65 James Street, Fortitude Valley
The value of doing one thing well can never be over-rated. The latest enterprise of the Bellas family, Spanakopita, in Newstead follows this principle. They do pie, Greek pie. The kitchen is in a glassed in area at the back and when you walk in there is always something warm waiting to be eaten.
Spanakopita is a modern space set up as a bakery and cafe. They cook a range of both savoury and sweet pies, as well as other Greek treats such as yoghurt cake and chocolate and fig baklava. Whole pies ($30) can be ordered for functions and parties and slices available for takeaway or to eat in the cafe.
Slices are generous ($8) and as well as spanakopita, there is prasokolokithopita (leek, roasted pumpkin and garlic) and an agginarotiropita (artichoke and feta). The pastry is crunchier than shop bought filo and nicely browned. The flavours of the fillings are robust with the spanakopita filled out by wild weeds as well as spinach and feta.
From the sweet menu I tried the galaktoboureko ($4.50), the Greek citrus custard tart. Sitting in a light, sugar syrup, the custard was perfectly set with subtle undertones of vanilla and citrus. Not at all heavy, and a very different experience from the sweet, soggy Greek pastries I was used to.
Spanakopita is a simple formula, perfectly executed. It provides high quality Greek pies that expand the repertoire of the normal Aussie Greek experience and the owners have designed the perfect space in which to do this. The cafe is modern and bright, with the added advantage of the Bellas trademark modern art on the walls. I have been there a number of times and am always surprised there is not a queue lining up for a slice. It is the sort of place that once you have tried their food, you will be looking for a reason to drop by and pick up another slice.
Address: 32A Chester Street, Newstead
Phone: 385 24130
Hours: Open for breakfast and lunchWeds-Fri 8am to 6pm; Sat 8am to 4pm; Sun 8am to 2pm.
The Cheapskate Date likes to watch his pennies when he eats out around the neighbourhood but he combines that with high standards. I am more tolerant of deficiencies at the lower end of the market but together we continue to search for the holy grail – cheap, tasty, well presented cuisine.
This search brought us to the doors of Ruen Place in Commercial Road, Teneriffe last Friday night. We walked in to be hit by fumes of chilli and deep frying coming from the open kitchen in the corner of the restaurant. This explained why the folding door at the front of the restaurant was left open to the cold air.
The restaurant, seating about 30, was three quarters full and there were a steady stream of locals coming by to pick up Friday night takeaway. While the Cheapskate Date checked the napery and turned over the plates to check provenance, I checked out the menu. It covered the usual Thai range – soups, curries, stir fries and noodle dishes. The Date spent so much time feeling the weight of the tablecloth and raising a eyebrow at the paper napkin, the long suffering waitress stopped by three times before he was ready to order.
For entree we ordered the fish cakes and a Tom Yum soup with chicken. The fish cakes ($6.50) were slightly overcooked but the eye-dabbing chilli sauce compensated. The Tom Yum ($7.50) didn’t hit that hot, salty, sour balance with an over-enthusiastic flavouring of fish sauce. For mains we shared a Thai Beef Salad ($13.90) and a Duck Curry Penang ($13.90). The Duck Curry was flavoursome with slices of pumpkin adding to the mellow flavour but the Beef Salad was the most disappointing dish of the evening. Again the hot, sour salty dressing was way out of balance with too much fish sauce and combined with the acrid taste of the oil used for frying the food left an unpleasant aftertaste.
Thai food is all about balance and that doesn’t cost anything to achieve. The basics are in place for Ruen Place to be a good, local Thai restaurant but to achieve that they will need to take more care with presenting the flavours which are the hallmark of Thai cuisine.