(to lunch)

Hunter Valley dining: Muse

Without wanting to be too verbose, Muse was an utterly surprising and exquisite culinary adventure that almost took my breath away. It sounds like I’m exaggerating yet the array of flavours, textures, smells and sights that I encountered at the restaurant needs to be experienced to be believed. Sometimes it even bordered on the ridiculous and I can safely say that several of my friends would dismiss it as too highbrow and pretentious, an ode to the white table cloth dining of the eighties and nineties. Yet for a treat after a three to four hour drive from Sydney on a busy Friday night, it excelled on all fronts and provided an intimate evening that won’t easily be forgotten.

The door of the premises was opened by the beaming maitre d’ (yes, yes!) and we were escorted through to a large room with high ceilings and a roaring fire place as its centrepiece. There was a gentle hubbub of banter, if that’s even possible, and we soaked in the surroundings of the Hungerford Hill cellar door, where the restaurant is located, while sipping on a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from that very winery. You either get the degustation ($110) or choose from two ($75) or three courses ($95) but we still got the amuse-bouche and palate cleansers inbetween courses with the latter option. Nice touch!

But enough of the atmosphere, let’s get to the food, the glorious food. For starters the gorgonzola-stuffed potato gnocchisan came out looking like the Devil’s Marbles adorned with prosciutto, garden peas (or mini-marbles), baby king oyster mushrooms and a quail’s egg that exploded with yolk when bitten as the table cloth soon found out. Only one plate over, a shoulder of local suckling pig nestled against autumn brassica vegetables and drizzled with star anise jus showed why you braise things for 12 hours: so you don’t have to use your teeth. I mouthed my way through each delicious mouthful.

Before we knew it our plates were cleared and replaced with a delightful palate cleanser of blood orange sorbet that we gratefully devoured; partly because it was an unusual epicurean delight but mostly because we couldn’t wait to see the main course. Storming onto the table and looking like a most beautiful massacre of juicy pink flesh was the slow cooked Milly Hill lamb crushing a make-shift forest of garden peas, mint and cress with a river of anchovy butter. Okay, things are getting a little bit verbose on the descriptors here, but the wordiness simply echoes the sensory overload.

Pan fried duck breast served pink with a silky smooth cauliflower puree, black figs and red wine dressing was almost shown up by the accompanying zucchini flower stuffed with duck brains. That sounds disturbing and brains aren’t usually my bag, but somehow it had all the flavour of the duck with none of the regret of offal, and worked wonderfully with the fried zucchini flower. I almost forgot to mention my favourite main: the peppered Mandagery Creek venison. Never has eating santa’s little helper been such an enjoyable experience. Meat that is traditionally thought to be tough and muscly was instead soft and delicate and garnished with baby beetroots, horseradish scented yoghurt, english spinach and pedro ximénez (a type of grape). Put simply: it was a pleasure to consume.

Putting aside the wonderful cheese plate from the Smelly Cheese shop, the dessert that shone was the ‘Turkish Delight’ made up of rose ‘nitro ice cream’, pistachio, chocolate marshmallow, coconut and essence. This wasn’t, however, the first time essence or nitro came together that evening. After mains, a bubbling concoction of liquid nitrogen scented with rose water spread a low fog over our table as our waiter enchanted us with talk of cleansing our palates via one’s nostrils and patronised us by confirming that the bowl of liquid nitrogen should not be eaten.

By this stage, however, the second bottle of wine had truly taken hold and combined with the dizzying decadence of our meals had lulled us into an intoxicating bliss. We moseyed on out, our bellies full and our yearnings for something new and inspiring well and truly quenched. What a start to a weekend away!

Muse Restaurant and Cafe
Hungerford Hill Wines
Broke Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 6777 

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Hunter Valley dining: Cafe Enzo

Stumbling upon an establishment like Cafe Enzo while touring the Hunter Valley is akin to experiencing a small moment of clarity. We had been looking for a reasonably priced place for lunch after indulging in an expensive dinner the night before and we turned off Broke Road on a whim and a prayer. Pepper Tree quenched our desire for delicious morsels by providing a beautiful country scene with sandstone buildings, charming manicured gardens and most importantly, Cafe Enzo.

We passed a wedding on our way to the cafe where the staff quickly fulfilled our request for a table in the light of day to fully appreciate the stunning autumnal sun. The order of the moment was nibbles. Lots of nibbles.  While we sipped on the very decent coffee, the kitchen prepared a selection of cured meats, duck liver pate, beetroot chutney and toasted bread with substantial servings that we were unable to finish. We were told the pate and the chutney were locally made and it showed as the sun cast shadows over the grass in front of us and groomsmen rushed about looking for the rings or the groom or a wine. Whatever.

Our pickings menu continued with a selection of antipasti including marinated feta, caper berries (like capers but berries - how did I not know about these?), kalamata olives, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke, house made onion jam and air dried beef with char‐grilled ciabatta. Some may say it is hard to mess up a selection of deli foods but too often establishments fail to use fresh ingredients. You could almost taste the extra flavour contained in these locally sourced ingredients. Then again it may have been remnants of the multiple wineries we had visited that day or even the brisk country air invading my nostrils. Whatever it was, it made for an appetising if not lazy afternoon affair.

Homemade linguini with tiger prawns, fresh chilli, baby tomatoes and Spanish sausage finished with shaved parmesan came out in an enormous mound of pasta that could have fed an army. Thankfully its taste was not compromised by its size and full bellies found room for another morsel. What I had of the barramundi also impressed. This was restaurant quality food in a cafe environment and priced so you can drop on in between wineries to line your stomach. You’ll be sure to leave satisfied with enough coin in your pocket to please the next cellar door host. Worth dropping by!

Cafe Enzo
Pepper Tree
Corner Broke & Ekerts Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 7233 

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Hunter Valley dining: Emerson’s

Nothing sets you up better for the sometimes painful car ride back to Sydney after a weekend away in the Hunter Valley than a long lunch on a crisp, sunny autumn afternoon with a lovely glass of vino to boot. Easing us into the working week was the tapas menu at Emerson’s at Pokolbin, located within the Casuarina Estate winery and recently earning a well-deserved chef’s hat by the Good Food Guide.

Spectacular Harvey Bay scallops, seared and served in their shells with a light tomato balsamic salsa taste even better than they look. Chef Emerson Rodriguez ensures the scallops are tender and juicy, the salsa the perfect complement: light and zingy to enhance the seafood rather than overpower it. And then the garlic prawns: deeply rich and sizzling, their pungency as enchanting as the country garden where we lay our scene. Before we knew it, we’d also indulged in peppered crispy squid with a creamy lemon aioli in what were generous servings for a tapas menu, let alone one inside a hatted restaurant.

The standout dish was shredded beef, patatas bravas and spanish onion. For me, patatas bravas has always been a modest dish, more peasant-like than refined: a wholesome hearty filler of potato and spicy tomato sauce. The dish at Emerson’s was more of a wink than a nod to the original with the shredded beef adding refinement to potatoes fluffy and soft in the middle and super crispy on the outside. It was a tantalising and exciting dish that was a pleasant surprise to everyone who tasted it.

I could not find fault in any of the food at Emerson’s with the only glitch on the experience receiving our house cut chips with seeded mustard aioli some time after we had eaten all our other dishes. This was hardly going to put a dampener on what was an outstanding afternoon of exceptional food and attentive service. We skipped dessert to beat the traffic but shared an espresso martini, the best I’ve ever had, and left content with the knowledge that I’ll be coming back to Emerson’s the very next chance I get.

Emerson’s at Pokolbin
Casuarina Estate
1014 Hermitage Road
(02) 4998 7733 

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The Burlington, Crows Nest

I really wanted to like The Burlington. It’s been on my restaurant hit list for years and a friend who is deeply into French food gave it his highest recommendation. So when another friend arranged her birthday there I thought the planets had finally aligned in my favour. However, a busy Saturday night didn’t do the restaurant many favours.

Due to the large number of guests in our party, we had a set three course menu with several choices for each course that was very reasonably priced at $49 per person thanks to a deal website. The stand out dish was easily the pan fried salmon fillet with colcannon, beurre blanc and crispy skin. The fish (above) was perfectly seasoned, moist and succulent and when combined with the crispy skin and smooth colcannon (basically a sexed-up mashed potatoes) produced a wonderful mix of textures that ensured not a skerrick was left on anyone’s plate.

The beef Bourguignon pie, on the other hand, was a little too watery with not enough meat. It tasted okay but was not memorable like the salmon. Similarly, the roasted chicken breast and confit leg on fragrant cous cous and tagine sauce looked good on paper yet it was almost universally disliked by other guests. I only tasted a morsel of the chicken, which was quite nice so I think it may have been the cous cous that let the dish down.

For starters, the crisp pork belly with kohlrabi remoulade was yummy and the tomato tart with black olive tapenade, merlot vinegar and herb oil beautifully presented and tasty to boot. The goat’s cheese cigar with jamon, whitlof, green beans and hazelnut dressing wasn’t on the regular menu and it showed. It lacked flavour and was a real let down. I wondered if it may have been a recent experiment because it was incomparable to some of the other dishes, like the salmon.

Rounding out the end of the meal, the alfajor with yoghurt sorbet and strawberry coulis was extraordinary and reminded me of my first encounter with delicious dulce de leche alfajors in Cordoba, Argentina. Again though, there was a lack of consistency with both the bavarois (like a panna cotta) and flourless orange & almond cake failing to inspire. The service was generally friendly and attentive although they forgot our wine order twice. Overall, the experience was favourable yet the lack of consistency with the food and service means I won’t be hurrying back. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Let’s hope so as the restaurant has much promise and it’s sad for me to write an unfavourable review for what I understand is a bit of a local institution.

The Burlington
6 Burlington Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
(02) 9439 7888

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Encasa Deli, Sydney

What on earth is a bocadillo? It sounds like an exotic animal, perhaps an endangered aardvark from the Amazon rainforest, or is it a musical instrument from Spain not unalike a banjo? Neither is correct, of course, but the Hispanic reference is on the money. It is in fact a sandwich, but not quite as you know it. The team at Encasa Deli intend to make this lack of knowledge a thing of the past and the bocadillo part of Sydney’s everyday.

Essentially a bocadillo is a half-baguette filled with fresh, simple ingredients. However, to restrict it to something so seemingly mundane is to do it a discredit. Take for instance the grand daddy of Encasa Deli’s bocadillos - the pepito - a layered explosion of flavour comprising freshly cooked eye fillet medallions, fried egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato and drizzled with a delicious aioli that manages to bind all the flavours together in a way that just works. This isn’t going to appear in a Weight Watchers magazine anytime soon - it’s rich and could feed two - but with such spectacular flavours, who’s counting calories?

There’s more to the menu that just the bocadillo. I almost soiled myself in excitement when I saw guanabana juice for sale. Guanabana con leche (soursop juice with milk) was my breakfast of choice while in Colombia and a wave of nostalgia swept me into buying one. The taste can be described as a combination of berries, banana and sour citrus that is creamy and utterly moreish. It’s an acquired taste and needs to be fresh, which was perhaps a let down with my juice as you could tell the guanabana had been refrigerated. However, the flashback to South America remained intact.

While it bills itself as Spanish, it’s perhaps better described as Hispanic with excellent Colombian coffee, exotic Latin American fruit juices like guanabana and lulo, and bocadillos featuring South American sausage, Argentinian chimichurri and Portuguese chicken. The service is true to its Spanish roots with lovely warm hosts if not sometimes forgetful.

The fried calamari and chorizo bocadillos remain my favourites and I’m yet to find a bocadillo that I don’t like. It’s worth keeping an eye on the specials board as there is often an unexpected gem. The bocadillos are big and filling and you certainly couldn’t eat one to yourself everyday as you’d be the size of a house yet it’s definitely something you’ll consider after tasting your first. The deli attached to the cafe serves a wonderful array of small goods and other odds and ends, and no doubt you’ll end up leaving with a few slices of jamón ibérico and queso. Most of all, you’ll leave with a full belly and a yearning to come back to try something different.

Encasa Deli
135 Bathurst Street
Sydney NSW 2000
(02) 9283 4277 

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El Loco, Surry Hills

As much as people complain about the hipsters taking over, ruining our old pubs and turning them into feux-Mexican abominations, it’s difficult to say a bad word about El Loco. The old Excelsior pub has been rejuvenated by Mr Hemmes and his Merivale posse and the result is a fun night out with delicious modern Mexican food and an array of tequila concoctions to knock your Hispanic socks off.

Dan Hong, a Merivale darling and former head chef at Lotus, has taken the reigns in the kitchen to create a menu that is sure to please the majority of your party. You come here for the $5 tacos and the Carne Asada (lemongrass beef, salsa verde, queso) and Al Pastor (spit roasted pork, pineapple salsa) should be your first choices. Surprisingly, the Queso de Soya (chilli marinated tofu, pico de gallo) was delicious even if I ordered it by mistake. I never thought a recommendation for a tofu taco would escape my lips.

The eye candy at El Loco is also worth the trip as beautiful fashionistas mingle with media types and the odd suit. Giant wooden cactuses serve as table numbers and the food is brought out quickly by sleek staff who clearly ticked the personable box on their application form. Stools and long share tables make up the furniture and are surprisingly comfortable so much so that the minutes quickly turn into hours, the margaritas into tequila shots (Herradurra anejo por favor), and a quiet Thursday night dinner ends up at Ding Dong Dang singing Karaoke in the wee hours of Friday morning.

The only real disappointment on the menu was the hot dog. Called the Excelsior Hot Dog ($9), it is made up of a grilled pork Frankfurt served on a soft bun with pickled jalapenos, pico ge gallo, mayonnaise and cheese. It’s not especially inspiring and immediately forgettable. A serving of churros with chocolate dipping sauce for dessert more than makes up for the not-so-hot dog and on the two occasions I’ve been bold enough to try a “secret taco”, I’ve not regretted it.

The folks at Merivale run a well-oiled machine and El Loco is no different. Yet somehow, it’s pub origins adds a warmth and sense of silly fun that is often lacking in some Merivale establishments. El Loco is a place you could easily call a local, either as a pub or a restaurant, and is a welcome addition to Surry Hills’ already impressive arsenal of drinking holes.

El Loco
Mexican Cantina Y Barra
64 Foveaux Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(02) 9211 4945

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Jazz City Diner, Darlinghurst

Nothing quite says America like a Belgian waffle, southern fried chicken pieces and a drizzle of maple syrup. It intrigues and disgusts at the same time. You can’t say it is without taste, it’s almost too much taste, and while the process of eating such dishes is enjoyable in doses, there is always the regret afterwards. Thankfully, not all the dishes on the menu are as elaborately decadent and obtuse as chicken and waffles.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, it is southern American food that rules the roost at Jazz City Diner. The New Orleans gumbo strewn with chicken, Andouille sausage and diced ham is thick and intense although it lacked the home-cooked feel that I got from trying similar dishes in Texas. And yes, I am aware that New Orleans is not in Texas so it could very well be that the Jazz City Diner version is on the money. It just didn’t blow my mind, that’s all.

The yam fries, which are not on the menu but can still be ordered with a nudge and a wink, were much more to my liking. As were the Jamaican jerk chicken wings served with onion rings that had a spicy, titillating kick and balanced surprisingly well with the water-like beer that is Millers. But the highlight was undoubtedly the Kansas City style pork BBQ ribs that fell off the bone, the flesh drenched in smokey BBQ sauce that was lip-smacking good. This is the dish you will talk about at the water cooler the next day.

While the whirlwind jazz flurry of Miles Davis played in the background of this tiny restaurant, our table questioned whether there was room for dessert in a stomach filled with shrimp corn dogs (they sound better than they are) and burgers (the no brainer on the menu - all sampled were tasty burgers). And of course there was room, we would make room, and the pecan pie (the winner) and banana cream pie (a close second) were shared among many, such was their richness.

Jazz City Diner fits into a small niche in the Sydney food scene - authentic southern American food - and it does so without compromise. After watching the chef work in the kitchen, it quickly becomes clear that this is a labour of love. However, many of the specialty dishes didn’t hit the mark with my fellow diners albeit there was enough on the menu for a positive experience. I’ll file this as an interesting one-off meal but unlikely to become a regular. Grab the ribs and the yam fries and you won’t leave disappointed.

Jazz City Diner
238 Crown Street
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
(02) 9332 2903

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Izakaya Fujiyama, Surry Hills

When I heard that a former chef from Bodega had decided to open a traditional Japanese izakaya, I thought for a moment that heaven had somehow crept into the everyday. It was within an Osakan izakaya that I fell in love with everything Japanese (especially the chindogu) and Bodega remains one of my favourite Sydney restaurants. Izakaya Fujiyama sounded about as far up my alley as anyone could go* and I’m still surprised it took me so long to visit, especially given how much I enjoyed the place.

The standout dish on the menu was Kenji’s Fried Chicken: the chef’s take on the stalwart of the Japanese beer snack, chicken karaage. The morsels were crispy on the outside, succulent in the middle, delicately spiced and utterly moreish with Kewpie mayonnaise the perfect accompaniment. I could safely dine on this alone as long as the Sapporo draft and Hop Yebisu kept flowing. Is there anything better than a dry, crisp beer and well-cooked fried chicken on a Friday night after a tough week at work? The life of a salaryman has its benefits, it seems.

Off the specials list, which was extensive, we indulged in teriyaki beef ribs that were richly flavoured although the meat didn’t fall off the bone quite like you would hope. It wasn’t a bad dish though. The fried Queensland calamari picked up where the karaage left off, lightly battered and bite-sized, and snacked upon between banter and beverages in the comfortable and bustling atmosphere of this unassuming Surry Hills eatery.

To counter the fried offerings, we ordered the sashimi plate and all fish were of the highest quality in particular the tuna, so tender you didn’t even need to use your teeth to break it apart. In a similar vein, the peppered crispy pork belly was so ridiculously tender that you were almost forced to smile in ecstasy as the fatty goodness invaded your taste buds. We weren’t dieting here folks, we were dining, and it was delightful.

A visit to an izakaya isn’t complete without edamame, which we were reluctantly gifted due to a waitress forgetting to immediately provide our order to the kitchen. Our gripe wasn’t with the mistake but the passive aggressive response when it was pointed out. But this speed bump on the evening’s generally excellent service was the exception rather than the rule and even if we had been served by the Gallagher brothers themselves, the meal and the atmosphere were so amazing it wouldn’t have mattered. We paid $180 for three and we’ll all be back next Friday, when the working week ends and the salaryman again needs to unwind.

Izakaya Fujiyama
Shop G09
52 Waterloo Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(02) 9698 2797

* Get your mind out of the gutter!

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Two Good Eggs, Surry Hills

The servings at Two Good Eggs are massive. The Two Good Eggs Breakfast (essentially their big breakfast), whether you take the vegetarian option or the regular one, will have you full the entire day. People don’t walk out of this Surry Hills cafe, they roll. That’s not to say that the chef is exchanging quality for quantity, quite the contrary. The coffee is consistently good and the kitchen dishes out their own takes on breakfast classics that will have you coming back for more.

If a big breakfast doesn’t take your fancy, the menu has many other options. The baked eggs are spot on with the Spanish version (above), laced with salami, olives and manchego cheese,  superior to the pumpkin, pesto and fetta option. The breakfast burgers are all winners, both on taste and value, with the prosciutto, parmesan, poached egg (yes, only one!), spinach and tomato relish burger outshining the others. “Goats on toast” (below) is a real surprise as French goats cheese mingles with honey and walnuts on sour cherry fruit toast that doesn’t seem like it would go together but gels superbly, like Arnie and Danny Devito.

What I like most about Two Good Eggs is the little touches. From the small chocolate on every coffee to a cute little tub of Spanish tomato relish with most egg dishes. Most of all, the basics are there: perfectly poached eggs, an interesting and dynamic specials board and friendly staff who are happy to have your custom. It might not be a cafe where you take your overseas visitors but it’s where you meet your friends every Saturday to analyse the shenanigans from the previous evening. One visit will have you coming back for more.

Two Good Eggs
Shop 2, No. 148
Corner Goulburn & Brisbane Streets
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(02) 9283 9694 

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