(to lunch)

Asado: a BBQ of a different variety

I first became aware of an asado while traveling through Argentina when I was invited to a traditional BBQ. I’ll never forget the spectacular feast and meat sweats that ensued and the concept has intrigued me ever since. After recently visiting Porteno, I discussed the origins of the cooking technique with a Uruguayan friend of mine who happened to grow up with head chef Elvis. What followed was a detailed explanation of the asado and a promise for my friend’s dad to prepare an asado in the traditional way. The photos tell the story.

An asado is not just a cooking technique but also a social event. On the left hand side in the pictures, wood is burnt in a steel rack and coals are placed on top to fire up and become burning embers which are then shifted underneath the grill on the right. The grill can be moved up and down to control the heat and the meat is cooked slowly and seasoned only with salt. The result is tender, moist meat that needs nothing more than the taste of the flesh itself to wow your tastebuds. That being said, a dollop of chimichurri never goes astray.

The large strips of flesh you see in the photos are beef ribs which are also confusingly referred to as asado. Basically you can go to an asado (the social event) to cook asado (the ribs) on an asado (the BBQ). We also indulged in chorizo, blood pudding (morcillas) and sweetbreads from the neck (mollejas). To counter the meat avalanche, we had a variant on the potato salad and a plethora of other salads. Over twenty people were at the asado, all of whom stood around the asado chatting and socialising with the cook taking pride of place. I can see why asados are popular social gatherings in Uruguay and the popularity of Porteno speaks volumes for the taste. Just make sure I get an invite to the next one.

Miso, Sydney

I read many a moon ago that Miso had the best tonkatsu in Sydney. Such a bold claim had to be put to the test. For the uninitiated, tonkatsu is breaded pork cutlets, crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. It’s the Japanese schnitzel, if you will, and it’s oh-so-delicious.

Hidden in a quieter arm of World Square, Miso bills itself as a teishoku eatery. Teishoku is a common and economical Japanese set meal. I was first introduced to teishoku in Osaka, where family-run restaurants serve predominantly regulars in clean simple eateries with a focus on healthy, fresh food with a touch of home-style cooking. Miso is as close to an Osakan teishoku restaurant that I’ve seen in Sydney and got a tick from me before I’d even tasted anything.

The Miso menu has an array of different choices but I was here for one thing only. Of course I went for the tonkatsu pork loin set at the tender price of $16.50. You get the main dish, in this case the tonkatsu, along with a bunch of sides like miso soup, pickled daikon, rice and other odds and ends depending on your main dish choice. Miso prides itself on using free range pork from Victoria and the preparation and thought that has gone into the dish is evident in the beautiful presentation and delicately flavoured meal.

The crunchy crumbs contrasted beautifully with the moist pork inside with the tonkatsu dipping sauce leaving you yearning for more. Hot mustard added some kick with the light Japanese salad balancing those stronger flavours. I had the in-house chilled tea much to the surprise of the waitress who, rather cutely, indicated that it was not sweetened and a bit bitter for Western tastes. I ordered it, partly out of spite, partly out of curiosity, and its mellow flavour hit the spot despite my cultural heritage.

The service was very attentive but not intrusive with several customers dining alone as you’ll often find around World Square and in Japan for that matter. The pictures on the menu are a nice touch and a nod to the eateries in the homeland with the entire experience best described as quick, cheap and delicious. You won’t come here for a special occasion but you will remember it: an everyday restaurant that is exceptionally good. 

Shop 20, World Square Shopping Centre
644 George Street
Sydney NSW 2000 
(02) 9283 9686 

Miso Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Blocks, Walsh Bay

Sydney really is attracting some creative ideas. There are pop-up restaurants like last year’s Greenhouse by Joost, the ongoing growth of intimate private gigs in private residences such as High Tea, and unique dining experiences like the home-cooked fare served in a Woollahra terrace with ingredients from just one farm at Holmbrae. And just recently we’ve had The Blocks: a self-confessed deconstructed wine and culinary experience. Don’t worry, I was confused about that as well.

The Blocks is actually an extremely well-thought out and executed marketing campaign for Penfolds. It’s a pop-up bar slash restaurant slash art gallery located in raw unused space at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay. Upon arrival a cowgirl maître d’ asks if you have a booking but is equally as obliging if you do not. You enter a dimly lit open space, the old pier, crafted with thick wooden beams contrasting with the fresh makeover highlights of steel, neon and glass to give life to The Blocks.

The bar resembles the concierge desk at a futuristic hotel and the bartenders know their vintage. It’s all Penfolds of course, which isn’t a bad thing, and a drink is prepared for you based on what you say you like, whether you are eating and the occasion. The service and knowledge of the staff is amazing. We weren’t there to eat so instead indulged in the 2010 Penfolds Bin 23 Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir, and a cocktail laced with Penfolds Grandfather Rare Tawny to give it a kick to match its amazing lemon zing.

We sipped and wandered, looking at various art pieces, sneaking views of the Harbour Bridge through generous window views and casting judgment on those around us doing the same thing. Typical Sydney fodder really, yet in an environment that seemed to promote conversation and creativity. The brains behind this concept is London-based Studio Toogood, whose first foray down under did indeed enchant. With food from Executive Chef Jock Zonfrillo from Penfolds’ Magill Estate Restaurant, this really was an inspired idea, fleeting as it may have been.

The Blocks
16 March to 5 April 2012
Pier 2/3,13 Hickson Road
Walsh Bay NSW 

Blocks By Penfolds on Urbanspoon

*Culinary Intelligence*

Interesting discussion on the value of flavour.

Yuki’s at the Quay, Sydney

Yuki’s at the Quay has always been one of those restaurants that you know about but never frequent. It’s right near Quay, above Cruise Restaurant and Wildfire, and as a result I always got the impression that it might be a bit expensive. Plus it’s difficult to find, hidden on the top floor of the Overseas Passenger Terminal and accessible only by the slowest lift in the world. So when a friend of mine suggested it for lunch, I was a bit reluctant but decided to go along for the ride. It was largely a pleasant surprise.

First up, it’s not pricey. Well, not if you get the lunch menu. For $35 you get tempura and sashimi to start. The tempura was great but the sashimi was phenomenal. I’d go so far as to say that it was the best sashimi I’ve had this year: tuna, salmon and kingfish so soft and fresh that I wondered exactly where I was. My only concern was that it had been half an hour and we still hadn’t got our beers and when they did arrive they were wines. Service clearly isn’t the restaurant’s strong point.

The grilled kingfish with teriyaki sauce and seasonal vegetables was perfectly cooked, the fish seasoned delicately with each of the vegetables balancing the richness of the seafood. This is what I love about traditional Japanese food - the thought behind the ingredients and the harmony amongst the flavours. The background to our meal was a massive cruise ship although usually it would be the visual wonder that is Circular Quay. Not bad for 35 bucks and did I mention you also get dessert?

Despite asking twice, I never got the exact name of our dessert. It didn’t matter, it was some sort of pannacotta, rich and creamy, and it sat just right. There’s that harmony again. In fact, the entire meal was the perfect amount of food for lunch without feeling too gluttonous or bloated. Putting aside the forgetful waiters and the strange location, the food itself was exceptional traditional Japanese fare with the lunch menu representing true value. I’ll definitely be keeping it in mind for my next mid-week lunch.

Yukis at the Quay
Level 4, Overseas Passenger Terminal
Circular Quay NSW 2000
(02) 9252 8600 

Yukis at the Quay on Urbanspoon

Golden Century, Chinatown, Sydney

There is only one rule to remember when visiting Golden Century or GCs as it is affectionately known: don’t visit before midnight. This rule can only be broken if at least 50% of your party is already inebriated. And this, friends, is why I don’t show food porn photos of live lobster sashimi or the famous pipis with XO sauce. Rather, what you see is the aftermath: the smashed crab claws, half-empty beer bottles, discarded pipi shells, bottomless tea pots and splashes of MSG-laden sauce over the Lazy Susan. This is what GCs is all about and detractors should take note.

I can see why some diners may be upset with their GCs experience if they don’t follow the rule. The service is average, the atmosphere is stuck in the eighties and it is far from a bargain. What they are forgetting though is the tradition, the reason for the rule itself. Eating at GCs is akin to stepping back in time, to an era where restaurants were judged on the amount of sea creatures kept in tanks at front of shop, on the white starchiness of their bright table cloths and on the abundance of options available in their bible-like menus. Things have changed but GCs refuses to recognise it. This is not, however, to its detriment.

First things first: beers for the lads and white wine for the girls. The pipis with XO sauce is a must-have - the sauce is rich, thick and more addictive than crack. A seafood congee with youtiao to dip is the Chinese equivalent of dipping biscuits into coffee. Okay, not quite but you get the idea. Completing the trilogy is the salt and pepper squid which does exactly what it says on the packet, maybe a little more so, with that salty tang requiring at least another beer to quench your thirst.

Old favourites like lemon chicken, mongolian lamb, roasted duck and BBQ pork are all available and you’d be worried if they weren’t. We always try and splash out on something new. This time it was crab: deep fried with salt and pepper and steamed with ginger and shallot. It’s as fiddly and messy as you imagine and you even get a little receipt saying when it was caught or when it was received or something. It seemed very important at the time.

Before you know it, your bellies are full, your pockets empty and it’s just another night at GCs. A place where everyone is welcome, from top chefs to try hard food bloggers, present company included. It’s all about the experience here so leave expectations at the door and relish the fact that you are eating in a Sydney institution.

Golden Century, Seafood Restaurant
393-399 Sussex Street
Sydney NSW 2000
(02) 9212 3901 

Golden Century Seafood on Urbanspoon

La Banette, Glebe

La Banette is a cute little patisserie on Glebe Point Road that almost always seems to be packed, both with customers and the sweetest of treats. You’d be forgiven for walking past the bakery without noticing it if only the the wafts of baked goods didn’t lure you into the quaint little dwelling.

The only problem with going in for a quick coffee and a pain au chocolat is that you come out with a fig tart and a ratatouille quiche. The coffee is good but the tarts will transport you to the cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter such are their perfection. Combine this with consistently good croissants and a moorish array of breads, and you can see why the queue goes out the door on Saturday mornings.

There is a lot of competition on Glebe Point Road as the area continues to gentrify and give birth to small bars and restaurants. However, the undeniable quality of La Banette’s patries and breads is sure to make it a stalwart for locals and visitors alike.

La Banette Pâtisserie
18 Glebe Point Road
Glebe NSW 2037
(02) 8095 9688

La Banette Pâtisserie on Urbanspoon

Gardel’s Bar, Surry Hills

The best thing about being rejected from Porteno at 6.15pm on a Tuesday night is that an exceptional dining experience is only a flight of stairs away. Gardel’s Bar, also run by Sydney’s favourite tattooed chefs, brings us the tapas that made Bodega a Surry Hills institution while enshrining the South American flavours that Sydney is slowly making its own.

As we were in a bar it seemed only appropriate to start with a tipple. Our poison was a 2008 Pinot Noir - the Celia Reserve from Mendoza in keeping with the Argentine decor of the place. It’s sweet smell masked a full-bodied punch which prepared us for the array of treats which were then bestowed upon us.

Half a dozen oysters served neat rapidly made way for pumpkin and fetta empanadas that were crisp on the outside and moist in the middle. A series of pork sliders with swine so tender the use of teeth became optional almost made us forget the aroma of 8 hour wood fired pig seeping up from the restaurant below.

The standout dishes though were undoubtedly the meatballs and what can only be described as the toothpicks of delight. Pork mince with fennel go together like South America and football and these balls of meat were just as popular on our table. At the same time the combination of chorizo, grilled octopus, potato and sofrito piled on a toothpick provided a sumptuous mouthful of flavour and texture that left our table quietly content. Not so content, however, that we didn’t speak up for the dessert menu.

Mendoza featured again with our dessert wine, a 2009 Del Desierto Pampa Late Harvest Viogner that was just sweet enough so as not to be sickly. It was in fact delicious and prepared us for the pièce de résistance: the postre chaja, a South American style pavlova that beautifully contrasts dulche de leche with soft meringue riddled with creamy goodness. It alone was worth the visit and would be a worthy contender for a post-date dessert stop rivalled only by Bodega’s banana split.

Everyone complains about the no bookings systems at restaurants, me included, but it often means you discover otherwise unknown gems nearby in what is becoming a world class foodie destination. Getting a late night feed in Surry Hills is now a lot classier than a falafel kebab at Fatimas, but the nod to traditional flavours remains the same. Gardel’s Bar is much more than just upstairs at Porteno.

Gardel’s Bar
Upstairs at Porteno
358 Cleveland Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(02) 8399 1440

Gardel's Bar at Porteño on Urbanspoon

Flavour Tripping

Miracle berries are amazing.

After tasting one, sour and bitter tastes become a thing of the past and for the next hour or so all you taste is sweetness. Dr Karl probably explains it a little bit better.

They are amazing for parties. After consuming miracle berries, you suddenly find that eating a lemon is like gorging on the sweetest, juiciest orange you’ve ever had. Drinking balsamic vinegar becomes sweet caramel goodness.

Experimenting with the fruit is called flavour tripping and reflects how confronting this experience is to your senses. The taste you thought you knew has suddenly been thrown out the window. It’s disarming and exciting at the same time and the feeling is not unalike being high.

There is apparently potential for the fruit to be used as an artificial sweetener which is already happening in Japan. One conspiracy theory I heard was that in the 1960s the sugar industry in the US effectively forced the government to classify the berry as artificial which stopped the berry from going mainstream. I suspect the story is a bit of a Kentucky Fried Rat, though.

Unfortunately, miracle berries are almost impossible to get in Australia. However, at least one shop online sells them in tablet form (legally) with the same effects. I cannot recommend miracle berries and flavour tripping highly enough.