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.



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

Hot Times at the Tinderbox

OK, I’ve been holding out. I was through the door at the Tinderbox pretty much when they opened in November last year and have been a regular ever since. Tinderbox is the noisy baby brother of PJ McMillan’s Harveys and sits just behind it off James Street.

Sitting outside
Sitting outside

Tinderbox doesn’t take bookings, except for large groups, which means it can be hard to squeeze a table out of them on the weekend, giving me an incentive to reduce traffic. On a recent Friday, however, the swarms have moved on. So I invite you all to enjoy the delights of Tinderbox.

The restaurant is bright and breezy with seating outside and in and is set up for casual dining. Close to the Palace Centro, the restaurant is a good place to meet up on the weekend for a glass of wine and dinner. The centrepiece of the inside space is the wood-fired oven, around which the menu is based.

A lot comes out of that oven with roasted meats, creative vegetables and pizzas as the basis of the menu. You can go a couple of ways. Order the roast or one of the Italian inspired pasta dishes with some sides from the Market Garden part of the menu or head for the pizzas. The last couple of visits I have not been ale to go past the pizza with Mooloolaba prawns, chili, zucchini, fior de latte and cherry tomatoes ($23). This pizza is guaranteed a crisp base from the woodfired oven, though on the right side of chewy, with fresh and flavoursome toppings. For the gluten adverse, gluten free bases are available.

Mooloolaba prawn pizza
Mooloolaba prawn pizza

The stars of the menu are the vegetable dishes. The wood-roasted leeks are soft and silky and at the moment they come with capers and goat’s cheese ($12). There is also a William pear salad with rocket and parmesan ($12) and fire-roasted mushroom with balsamic onions and blue cheese ($12).The menu is seasonal means recent favourites can suddenly disappear.

Leeks with goat's cheese
Leeks with goat’s cheese

The same happens with the small, though carefully chosen wine list. The staff sold me on a marsanne roussanne, a style I had never tried before, and after enjoying it a couple of times, it went the same way as some vegetable favourites. None of this I think is bad. The philosophy is to deliver produce driven and seasonal food which means sacrificing some preferred choices as the seasons turn.

The one source of anxiety at the Tinderbox is occasional difficulty in flagging down the wait staff. The staff are under pressure on busy nights and can sail right past. It is not the sort of place to dither about ordering. Yet despite, the pressure, everyone who turns up seems to get settled, receive a drink and a feed.

The Tinderbox serves fresh food, particularly great vegetables, and has a creative and evolving menu. Just don’t get too attached to your favourites.

Tinderbox Kitchen
7/31 James Street, Fortitude Valley
Open: Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner
Phone: (07) 3852 3744 (for bookings over 8)

Turkish Delight at Beachwood Cafe

Beachwood Cafe’s ten tables are scattered across the footpath just off the main street in Yamba, and could be called a hidden gem, except the cafe is well marked on the gourmet traveller’s map. Owner Sevtap Yuce worked for Bill Granger before opening her first Beachwood in Angourie in 1994. Now the author of two cookbooks on Turkish cooking, she opens the cafe for breakfast and lunch, writing up the day’s menu on a blackboard at the front. Sevtap’s focus is on using local and seasonal produce resulting in robust dishes bursting with vegetables and bright flavours.

Beachwood cafe
Beachwood cafe

Turkish food is perfect for casual dining and sharing. For lunch we shared the roast duck salad with pumpkin, beetroot and burghal; some dolmades with a surprising chilli kick and leek and potato fritters. By then we had started on an eating frenzy and ordered large from the freshly made cakes and desserts. A rhubarb and rosewater cake, a raspberry tart with fresh cream and a prune and almond cake plus a couple of flat whites later, we were done.
Scrambled eggs with feta for breakfast
Scrambled eggs with feta for breakfast

After such delicious food, I, of course, bought the book and have been cooking from it ever since. You need to stock up on pomegranate molasses and dukkah, but otherwise the ingredients are accessible. First up was the warm lentil salad with chunks of beetroot and pumpkin. Easily put together and lifted with the pomegranate molasses and dukkah. I then tried the roast duck salad, but cheated by cooking a duck breast rather than roasting a whole duck. The salad is bulked out by burghul, beetroot and pumpkin and tossed with chilli, mint and coriander (as well as some of the ubiquitous pomegranate molasses).
Warm lentil salad
Warm lentil salad

I am on such a roll, I already have lamb chops marinating in oregano and olive oil in the fridge for dinner. So for my long suffering friends, prepare for a summer of Turkish meze.

Turkish Meze by Sevtap Yuce
Turkish Meze by Sevtap Yuce

Beachwood Cafe
22 High Street, Yamba
Open Tues to Sunday for breakfast and lunch

What’s on at Wato’s?

Without local knowledge, you would probably head down to Wato’s Fish and Burger Bar in Yamba for fish and chips. But with local knowledge , between Tuesday and Saturday night, you can walk into Wato’s and say the magic words ‘the chef’s special, please’ and a whole different world opens up for you.

Chef Tony Young offers three courses for $35 and what is on offer remains a deep mystery until the courses come out. He does check for food allergies and beyond that you are in his hands. The food is based around locally caught fish, cleanly prepared with French techniques. So what was on offer on a quiet Tuesday night?


The first dish was a big pan of prawns cooked in a burnt butter sauce to be shared with the table. The sauce was bread dippingly good with subtle garlic and lemon flavours. While these delicacies are being brought to our table, the fish and chippery is firing away. Somehow the chef fills the takeaway orders while keeping an eye on the bistro diners.

The main course is Luderick, local black bream caught in the Clarence River. The fish is served on homemade pasta with a cream caper sauce. The Luderick fillets were quickly fried and moist and the sauce, though cream based, was light.

Lastly, dessert of fresh berries in a red wine sauce with creme anglaise and vanilla ice cream.

At Wato’s the service is friendly and swift and the staff are enthusiastic about their food and keen for you to enjoy what is on offer. In a way it is the perfect business model with the fish and chips keeping the cash flow going, while being able to make the most of the local seafood with the chef’s special bistro meals. The bottle shop is across the road and they don’t charge corkage. So next time you are in Yamba stop by to see what’s on at Wato’s

Wato's Fish and Burger Bar
Cnr Yamba and Coldstream Sts, Yamba
Open seven days, Bistro from Weds to Sat nights

The Cheapskate Date goes to…..Swampdog Fish and Chips

The Cheapskate Date has many rules about Friday night dinner. It should be cheap, but value for money, and in the neighbourhood. I knew we were breaking at least one of these rules when we drove across the Story Bridge for dinner at Swampdog Fish and Chips in Vulture Street. The slightly cocked eyebrow said it all as we searched street after street in South Brisbane for a park.

While walking the mile or two from our car park to the restaurant, the Date explained his philosophy. “The idea of a Friday night adventure is an oxymoron. After a big week, what you are looking for is a psychocentric* experience. Culinary allocentrism* is for the weekend.” Yes, he does talk like that.

Swampdog on Vulture Street
Swampdog on Vulture Street

Swampdog Fish and Chips is a revamped corner shop on a little slice of land on Vulture Street. They have a philosophy on sustainability, it is written on the walls, and some gnarly looking blokes working the pans. The set-up is pretty basic. The menu is written up on a wall sized blackboard and you line up to order. You can choose basic basic fish and chips, ranging from $10.90 for the mullet to $15.90 for the barramundi. We went a bit more upmarket. and I ordered the mackerel cutlet with pineapple and coriander salsa and an Asian salad ($16.90), while the CD ordered the special, Cajun grilled cobia ($19.90).
The CD soaks up the ambience
The CD soaks up the ambience

As part of its sustainability philosophy, the accoutrement at Swampdog is pretty basic. There is a long table inside and everyone else sits around outside on some old doors turned into tables in what looks like a car park. They supply disposable knives and forks and if you want anything else, like, say, a wine glass, you bring it yourself. On a busy Friday night, everyone played along and set their own tables with colourful cloths, cutlery and wine glasses. Very urban and festive.
Table setting at Swampdog
Table setting at Swampdog

The food comes pretty quickly, is served in cardboard cartons, and the serves generous. My mackerel was a bit mackerelly but nicely set off by the Asian salad with wombok, carrot, coriander, lettuce and mint. The CD was a bit sceptical about his cobia which really tasted like mackerel as well. He was suspicious the cajun spices were there to cover up rather than to enhance the fish and being served with a Greek salad just added some cross-cultural confusion.
Mackerel and Asian salad
Mackerel and Asian salad

Swampdog is deliberately rough and ready and not an elegant night out, but if you want a bit of casual boho dining with some virtuous sustainability thrown in, it is all good.

And did the Date enjoy the evening? After much deliberation, this is his verdict. “Overall, once the driving and parking were out of the way, this Friday night psychocentric diner had an enjoyable evening. A bit of fish, a bit of fun. Worth crossing the river on a Friday night? It would be a great local, but there is enough ‘OK’ closer to home for an end of the week casual nosh without having to venture too far from the village.”

Psychocentric: A psychological term for a person who prefers the familiar and is not open to new experiences. Psychocentric travellers are said to prefer trips close to home and to seek familiar environments with which they are comfortable.

Allocentric: Outwardly focussed, interested in others, not egocentric. Allocentric travellers are said to be drawn to adventure travel.

Swampdog Fish and Chips
186 Vulture Street, South Brisbane
Ph: 32553715
Open: 7 days 12 noon to 8.30pm

The Cheapskate Date Goes To…Casa Italia

The Cheapskate Date was sceptical, and I was still traumatised from eating at the Spaghetti House, so we tentatively poked our heads around the door of the Casa Italia Community Centre. Italians, lots of them, eating and drinking and generally making merry on a Friday night.

Entrance to Casa Italia
Entrance to Casa Italia

Fabulous. It has been a couple of months since I got to inflict my execrable Italian on anyone. ‘Buona sera. Un tavola per due?’. The entree to the Italian fest was momentarily halted when the lady at the front desk explained as it was a club I needed to live more than 50km away or be a member. I couldn’t really look her in the eye and claim to be an out of towner, so I joined at a very reasonable $5 for a two year membership.

The set up is simple, with about 20 tables in what is basically a function room. The menu has eight pastas to pick from, some ravioli and tortellini under ‘Angelo’s Specials’, four scallopine dishes and a large pizza menu. To start, the Date and I shared a Penne Siciliana ($16). The pasta sauce was a neapolitan sauce with added capers, anchovies, olives, garlic and chilli. It was full of huge flavours though with a big chilli hit, which I suspect might be a bit heavy handed for some tastes.

Penne Siciliana
Penne Siciliana

For main we shared the Saltimbocca ($22) – it was a cheapskate date – and an Italian salad ($6). The veal was thin, perfectly cooked and seasoned and the salad simple and authentic.
Saltimbocca and salad
Saltimbocca and salad

“The food is intoxicating,’ said the CD halfway through the veal. Something was intoxicating but more likely the Sicilian white wine we were drinking with Friday night gusto. Sitting at Casa Italia you fell like you are part of a large Italian family. A number of people wandered past our table to check we were having a good time and when we looked like we might leave, Angelo from the kitchen urged us to stay. ‘We kick nobody out. This is a club not a restaurant,’ he said.
The CD maintains his anonymity
The CD maintains his anonymity

Casa Italia serves simple, honest, well priced Italian food. The bar service is eccentric. None of the wines on the list were actually available, so procuring a wine is through an arcane process of negotiation which neither I nor the CD mastered. The club offers the sort of food and menu you can find in a thousand family owned trattorias across Italy. But that is what I like and find comforting. The sense it is a social club for local Italian families remains strong, but at the same time they are very welcoming of other people coming along and go out of their way to ensure you enjoy the food you are served.

Casa Italia
26 Gray Street, New Farm
Tel 07 3358 4150
Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights

Around the Corner at Sixes and Sevens

Once you get over the dissonance of an Americana bar situated within a Queenslander, it is easy to get comfortable at Sixes and Sevens, on the corner of James and Arthur Streets. A brother bar to the Cru Bar in James Street, Sixes and Sevens is so crowded on the weekend, with a lively and relatively youthful clientele, it is hard to squeeze past them on the footpath. Lunch on Thursday is a much more sedate experience and a good way to do a leisurely check-out of the menu.


The menu moves from snacks at the bar to share plates, such chicken wings and prawn pick-up sticks, to ‘hungry’ and ‘off the grill-carved’. You can add a number of sides, including potato bake and a green salad, as well as a cheese board and two desserts for those so inclined. We started with one of the bar snacks, a smokey eggplant with white beans a and feta dip served with some warmed sourdough ($9).  The dip was like a baba ganoush  with a spin. Garlicky and tasty.

Bar snacks

For mains, we bypassed the ‘hungry’, and went for the ‘off the grill-carved’ with a roast pork loin with the house coleslaw and a chicken supreme with a cajun rub and a corn salsa ($20). The slices of pork were slightly sweet with a southern glaze, served with a generous chunk of crackling and a finely sliced coleslaw with a decent viniagrette dressing

Cajun chicken
Cajun chicken

The servings are generous and the food well prepared and designed to complement a civilised drink in a comfortable bar. Sixes and Sevens feels like sitting inside a whiskey barrel, surrounded by dark, wooden walls and lit by large, metallic lights hanging over the small bar tables. What makes this different from a bar in America is the food. It is way, way better at Sixes and Sevens.
Inside the bar
Inside the bar

Sixes and Sevens
67 James Street, Fortutude Valley
07 3358 6067
Open 7 days 11am to midnight

The Spaghetti House

The Spaghetti House
The Spaghetti House

It was my brother’s birthday and he thought we should try the Spaghetti House in Boundary Street, West End. It opened earlier in the year and was always full, he said, and the place is so popular they recently expanded into a next door shop. Getting a booking is an energetic exercise. There is an online booking system where a number of time slots is listed. Apparently you can’t come at a time of your convenience, but of theirs. And this comes with a warning that the bookings are for 90 minutes and then they turn over the tables. How relaxing and welcoming. And they like to confirm that booking. As well as an email confirmation, I had a call from the restaurant the day of the booking and then another one as I was driving over to ensure we were still coming. It all seemed a bit excessive for a booking for three.

When you are there, the front of house staff are achingly desperate for you to like the place. The menu is long, and as expected, dominated by pasta dishes with 28 listed. They cover the usual pastas such as carbonara, primavera, pesto, lasagna and ravioli. As well, there is bruschetta and antipasto to start and a much smaller selection of secondi which includes scallopine, chicken and a couple of fish dishes. Then it gets weird again. The waiter dissuaded us from ordering a pasta as a primi and a main as being ‘too much’ despite the availability of piccolo servings of pasta.


So we quickly re-calibrated and for entree we shared fried whitebait with caper aioli ($12.90) and a caprese salad ($12.90). The servings of whitebait were huge and not helped by being cooked in not-quite-fresh oil. The caprese salad was let down by inferior tomatoes and as the basis of the dish is simple and quality ingredients, this was a disappointment. Most of the entree ended back in the kitchen.

The mains were not much better. Being the Spaghetti House, I was keen to indulge, but the spaghetti pesto ($17.90) was tasteless and the pasta overcooked. My brother’s Saltimbocca with gnocchi ($22.90) was tough and over salted. As he has a heavy hand with the salt shaker, it must have been really over salted. The third main, a filled gnocchi with scallops, was filling but not particularly subtle.

Saltimbocca with gnocchi
Saltimbocca with gnocchi

To finish off my brother ordered the semi freddo($9.90) but they forgot the semi and it was fully freddo littered with frozen strawberries and raspberries.

The 'fully' freddo
The ‘fully’ freddo

The popularity of the Spaghetti House is mystifying. There is nothing subtle or engaging about any of the flavours presented, even for quite simple dishes which only required quality, fresh produce. The wait staff are engaging but they quickly need to redirect the energy from the front of house to the kitchen to bring the food into line with their aspirations.

The Spaghetti House
Shop B, 120 Boundary Street, West End
(07) 3844 4844
Open Tues to Sunday for lunch and dinner