Lanterne Rooms, Canberra 12-2014

The Good Food guide chef hats for 2015 saw Lanterne Rooms lose its chef hat. A sad moment, but nothing that would deter me from trying this restaurant and the modern take on Nyonya cuisine. Considering how lowly scored Canberra restaurants are on Urbanspoon, a 92% rating is quite remarkable and higher than all of Aubergine, Courgette, Ottoman and Temporada (plus almost all of the other current chef hat places).

The location is nicely away from the hustle of city life, meaning that parking is easy and the only people around are those there for the restaurant. It promotes this place as a nice dining venue for a special occasion rather than during a casual night in town. The decor has some attractive artwork and lampshades, although some actual candles and lanterns would add some extra ambience.

Given the bargain value degustation of $85, it was an easy choice, although I would like to have tried the Crispy Tofu & Eggplant entree and Pork Belly with Black Vinegar & Palm Sugar (could it be the next Longrain pork hock for me?).

- (complimentary) Oysters, pickled cucumber relish with pipette for smoked whiskey - a new dish they were generous enough to allow a sample. Mild raw oysters, tangy cucumber and a potent drunkenness-inducing whiskey. I personally would prefer a strong oyster, but that isn't for everyone;
- Cured Ocean Trout on Fennel & Carrot Confit - trout with chilli and peppers;
- Fish Otak Otak (with Banana Blossom Salad) - a delicious cubic prism of soft ground fish mixed with a strong curry paste;
- Tom Yum Crispy Prawns (with Rock Melon & Apple Slaw) - quality crispy prawns with a creamy sauce that didn't really taste like tom yum (not enough galangal or sourness) but still very nice. The rock melon was an unusual and welcome combination.
- (fish of the day 1) Steamed Ling (with peppers, pineapple sauce, Sichuan peppercorns) - nice more mature Chinese almost refined sweet-and-sour fish dish with the pleasant numbing sensation of Sichuan;
- (fish of the day 2) Fried Barramundi (in Malaysian coconut cream, turmeric, peanut curry) - my favourite dish of boneless fish pieces in a thick heavy nutty curry as they should be. Finished off the sauce with a spoon;
- Duck Rolls (with Kaffir Lime Chilli Dressing) - the most sophisticated crispy spring roll with shreds of duck meat and an exceptional kaffir chilli sauce. No need those typical Chinese pork and prawn versions any longer;
- Slow-cooked Blackmore Wagyu 9+ Beef Curry Kampung Style - probably the dish I liked the least. I've never known whether a wagyu 9+ cut is better for anything other than medium-rare sirloin seared. I didn't feel the meat was more tender than a less expensive breed and the curry sauce was quite mundane compared to the wonderful flavours of fish #2 curry and generally all the dishes;
- Warm Roasted Vegetable Salad - tastiest roasted vegetables I've ever eaten which they told me was due to a savoury sauce of miso and soy (would never have picked that);
- (dessert 1) Buttermilk Kulfi Icecream with Peppered Pineapple - Indian dessert of a *shard*-textured icecream with some "Middle Eastern nuts" (pistachios?)  and more juicy pineapple;
- (dessert 2) Zabaglione with Summer Berries - an eggy, creamy concoction which seemed a little strange cumin (which I like) and salt flakes (which I prefer not). Wanted the Chocolate & Coconut Panna Cotta with Pandan Pearls instead but sadly they were finished.

Our waiter Taiki was friendly, professional and knowledgable even suggesting a more suitable wine than one that was ordered. There were also 3 of people that served us intermittently - something I don't mind as all were good, but others who prefer one dedicated waiter may. 

I really enjoyed the south-east Asian flavours balanced with light, juicy fruit and mild chilli. Given all the restaurants I wouldn't mind returning to, this is one I actually want to return to. Give them back the chef's hat.

Next time I would order the degustation for a first visit as you get to sample so many great dishes. On a second visit, I'd opt for a la carte and stick to Duck Rolls, fish of the day and try the Tofu & Eggplant, Kapitan Duck and Pork Belly.

Lanterne Rooms on Urbanspoon

A. Baker, Canberra 11-2014

My first venture to the Nishi building was to see Gone Girl at Palace Electric. Nishi building seems like Canberra's version of Melbourne's Federation Square. It has a weird take on modern, and you either think it's cool (like I do Fed Square) or a little strange (like I do Nishi). In any case movies and food are really the only reason I can see myself in that area.

The dinner options for the area seem to be Mocan & Green Grout, Monster, A. Baker and Parlour. Interestingly (or not) the Urbanspoon ratings for these places all vary from 55% to 80%. Parlour's 80% is probably due to the fact the setting is nice and the food menu seems very expensive for what it suggests. I'm assured that it is good, so perhaps I'll test it next time.

The smell of the meats from A. Baker could be detected from the carparking area in between Nishi and the restaurant. I followed my nose to test the 55% Urbanspoon rating. The staff were fine on a half-full evening. Served quickly, smiled, answered questions without providing anything particularly extra (not that I need extra attention anyway). The initial serving of quality house sourdough (note the name - A. Baker) with grassy olive oil and salt satisfied my early hunger. It's interesting to note that the cured meat comes with house bread (according to the menu) but this is the same complimentary serving that you get anyway (as seen by tables around). It makes the cured meat pretty expensive for cured meat chopped into pieces.

- Longaniza Oscura (pork, pepper, squid ink) - a Spanish black sausage with a strong pork flavour. I have to admit I like the intense cured flavour of jamon/salchichon much better;
- market fish - an excellent dish of kingfish sashimi coated in a mixture of nori/green tea/charcoal powder, served with a delicious assortment of ingredients I had difficulty deciphering (salty black rice crisp wafer, mild horseradish mayo, a couple of green herbs that look similar to rosemary and coriander (now found to be land seaweed and sea spray), black rocks of salt, a green tea and roast rice powder);
- Golden Plains pork belly, heirloom carrots, endive marmalade, crackle - moist fatty piece of perfectly cooked pork belly, with a skin that had mild crackle and retained chewy flavour (I like it like this, others would prefer much more crispness), a marmalade a little too sweet for my liking and some carrot extras and an extra bit of crackling on top;
- Daily special of lamb, freekah, green almonds, curd, artichoke - the lamb (probably shoulder) is pulled apart, mashed back together and lightly pan friend. The meaty lamb was nice although I would prefer longer frying to accentuate the textures and Maillard char. The freekah and curd were nice additions. I believe the waitress said the yellow pieces were young almonds which were unusual in they were filled with a watery liquid. The downside was the artichoke which was firm and hard to chew or swallow.

Overall the food was good, the flavours and textures nice and the use of some slightly less common ingredients won me over. It isn't cheap ($13 starters, $19 entrees, $30 mains) so just be aware...

Next time I would order the market fish again. I think any of the meat dishes would be safe bets. The Fremantle octopus (smoked hot sauce, guanciale, apple, yuzu dressing) sounds like something I want next time also. I would avoid the cured meats as the value just isn't there given the bread is free anyway.

Add-on - I received a reply from the head chef Bernd Brademann who was nice enough to take a bit of time to answer my questions about certain ingredients. Very grateful.

A Baker on Urbanspoon

Camellia, Canberra 11-2014

I have some annual leave at the end of January and one of the considerations is Sri Lanka or India. Given there is only 2 short weeks available, India seems possible but perhaps short in order to cover the north and south for the once-in-this-lifetime trip. Conversely Sri Lanka seems too small to fill all that time (given my short attention span and need to move from place to place very quickly). I can't doubt the quality of flavours of Indian cuisine cultured in me from Melbourne and Bendigo (of all places) and most recently accentuated by London (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani). However Sri Lankan food has been elusive up until now.

Enter Camellia, Canberra's (only?) Sri Lankan restaurant complete with good Urbanspoon ratings and a fortunate standing in the Entertainment Book. It was a quiet Saturday night, with only 3 tables. Service was good including the chef (or owner?) coming out a couple of times to say hello, explain part of a dish and ensure we didn't require more sauce or pappadams (which were delicious with the mains).

- Katagesma (crisp fish with red ripe tomato & purple onion, capsicum in exotic devilled sauce with savoury rice, tropic salad) - sauce was extremely reminiscent of Cantonese sweet & sour. The tropical salad was great;
- Sweet chilli baby octopus, young garlicky beans & toffee almond - modest amount of octopus retaining a touch of crunchiness and softness;
- Biriyani (long grain rice cooked with aromatic exotic spices & tender lamb curry accompanied with two way cooked egg, mint coconut 30 sambol, pappadam & yoghurt cucumber salad) - biryani I've been craving and hoped this version would excite me. Unfortunately the rice was very simply flavoured with ghee/butter and a few spices. It lacked the potent complex flavours I've come to admire in Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani versions. The lamb curry was simple and tasty (shared a flavour with Malaysian-style) and the egg was nice;
- Spiced prawn (tempered with mustard seeds, onion, curry leaves & drizzle of coconut cream with savoury rice) - great quality prawns in a simple creamy sauce;
- Nawala Pineapple (pineapple cooked with tropical orange juice and flambéed with Rum and served with Cardamom flavoured ice cream) - the cardamom icecream is fantastic and something new to me. The pineapple sadly looks from a can (given the price of the dish) with a strong rum liquor. The very brief moment of burning at the table is a nice effect;
- Watalappam (steamed jaggery pudding) - very sweet heavy dessert closer to a moist cake than what I expected for a pudding.

Overall the food was fine without the flavours being anything particularly unique or spectacular. For this reason I did feel slightly disappointed especially as the venue is reasonably expensive. The food seems relatively safe so I think it is easy to come here and have a decent meal, but not the impact or mind-blowing introduction to a cuisine I hoped for. They are soon introducing some special events that include live music and new dishes, so I might hold out again until then.

Camellia Sri Lankan Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Rice Papr Scrs, Melbourne, 11-2014

My favourite restaurant in Melbourne (and possibly anywhere in the world) is probably still Longrain. It is a little expensive to go often and with a budget in mind, it was a good idea to find something serving similar. I haven't been to the queue frenzy known as Chin Chin and I think it's unlikely I'll make it in the near future. In any case, I seem to be quite consistently informed the hype/queue/hipness doesn't translate into unique or incomparable food (albeit far from bad as such).

Rice Paper Scissors seems like a new kid on the block around the way from Longrain and Gingerboy but with a much more friendly price tag. The concept of Asian tapas lends itself to trying lots of dishes which is great. And the 5 for $55 is a steal with an added green papaya salad

- Steamed Pork Buns (with pork belly, cucumber, shallots, hoisin sauce) - slightly different interpretation with a burger-style bun that could've used more fluffiness, but otherwise the proper combination of flavours a la David Chang and Yum Bun, and a surpassing piece of roast pork crackling and all;
- BBQ Lamb Ribs (with Mekong whiskey marinade, sticky sauce) - ribs, ribs, ribs, always my favourite and this is no exception;
- Mini Vietnamese Baguette banh mi (with crispy soft shell crab, pickled vegetables, herbs, homemade pate) - soft shell crab sandwich. Simple and tasty;
- BBQ Pork Neck (marinated in black pepper, garlic, coriander root) - tender slices of pork (perhaps could have been a touch rarer) in a sweet salty sauce;
- Crispy Coconut Wafer banh xeo (with pork, prawn, bean shoot, fresh herbs) - not what I was expecting from banh xeo. The flavour of the filling was nice but the banh xeo itself was thick like a rice cake instead of wispy thin and malleable;
- Green Papaya Salad (with peanuts, long beans, chillies) - an excellent rendition with delicious balanced nuoc mam and a moderate kick of chilli. You can pay extra for prawns or meat but it isn't necessary.

Next time I would order as many dishes as possible. All range from good to great, and that's before I've even tried some other options like Thai Fried Chicken or Smoked Scallop Betel Leaf. Will definitely be back.

Rice Paper Scissors on Urbanspoon

Hakata Gensuke, Melbourne 11-2014

The ramen craze has filtered its way to Melbourne. There were always a few that I thought were average but acceptable - Ajisen, Ramen-Ya (before they closed in the GPO) and Meshiya in QV. I can't say I ever truly appreciated the ramen joy until London. Even in multiple trips to Japan, visiting the ramen floor in Kyoto's train station building and Ippudo, to the miso/salt/soy broths in the smaller suburbs, it really took the rich tonkotsu of Bone Daddies to create the craze for me. In fact in my last few months in London, it was probably my most frequently visited place.

My attempts to find something of equivalent calibre led to me to Ippudo in Sydney, with Gumshara and Ikkyu on the list for next time. Sadly I fear they won't live up to my expectations but it won't stop me trying.

A brief online read gave me a few Melbourne names for when the opportunity arises - Little Ramen Bar, Fukuryu, Kokoro etc. The closest and possibly highest rated seemed to be Hakata Gensuke, complete with the reputation for the welcoming irasshaimase on arrival.

For the first occasion, I couldn't go past the Signature Tonkotsu with special toppings (added cha-shu slices, seaweed and boiled egg). One slice of cha-shu seems ridiculously stingy as an option and an egg is essential so looking at a minimum $21 bowl of noodles. Hmmm. Luckily the soup is a very tasty hearty and unmistakably Japanese ramen pork broth. It didn't have the same thick fatty richness coating the noodles but I won't complain. It was good. The cha-shu is remarkably non-fatty also which is a bonus too. Add a good amount of crushed garlic, chilli spices (in lieu of shichimi powder), pickles and you have a fine bowl of ramen.

Next time I would order the same Signature Tonkotsu with special toppings. I'm curious to try the Black Tonkotsu but I fear the black sesame will ruin the beauty of the broth. Willing to try once.

Hakata Gensuke on Urbanspoon

Din Tai Fung, Sydney 06-2014

Dumplings. How simple and effective and satisfying. Yet so easy to make badly - skin too soft, skin too hard, filling not tasty or too dry, sauce bad flavour. My first venture into Din Tai Fung was in Shanghai in 2010 - strange that a Taiwan company would reputedly have the best Shanghai dumplings. On that occasion I sat with no other company but the dumplings surrounding me and enjoyed my lunch. I recall the only thing that didn't impress me that day was the flavour (and cost) of their special black truffle dumplings.

On this occasion the special fluoro sampler combination plate looked too unusual to avoid. Emerald (salad green), topaz (golden corn), pink diamond (seafood), ruby (bolognaise), citrine (cheese), onyx (bbq pork), sapphire (garlic pork).

- Cha Jiang Noodle with Minced Pork - tasty noodles with spicy pork and a little bit of spice;
- Crab Meat & Roe with Pork Dumpling (8) - the classic xiao long bao with an added unclassic addition of crab flavour to the filling/soup. Delicious;
- DTF Veg Delight - the healthy aspect of the meal. Adequate;
- Dumpling Gems (7) - the colourful collection ended up being more visual gimmick than flavour sensation. They are strange and adequate but overall not particularly good. I'll be the first to admit I ordered them just so I could take a photo. Would recommend you only consider ordering it for the same reason;
- Spicy Prawn and Pork Wontons - my favourite dish of the night with succulent wontons drowned in the most delicious flavoursome chilli liquid. Need to eat these again one day;
- Taro Dumpling (4)
- Truffle Dumpling (2) - reinforced my 2010 opinion that expensive dumplings with slight truffle flavour (I suppose they could jack it up with some truffle oil although I still wouldn't order it) does not make for a worthwhile combination.

The sweet drinks are also (unsurprising for a Taiwan brand) a specialty with fresh soy bean milk and an avocado chocolate swirl countering the heat and chilli.

Next time I would order standard dumplings, maximise chilli dishes and a filler of noodles (or rice). Stay away from the gimmick dishes (eg. fluoro colours and truffles).

Din Tai Fung on Urbanspoon

Courgette, Canberra 09-2014

Reading through the lists of Canberra's best restaurants lists (eg. AGFG, SMH, GT, other), two recurring names seem to be the vegetables, Aubergine and Courgette. I couldn't find anything online suggesting these places are linked (which is surprising given the similar names) and Aubergine seems to always come out on top as #1 in Canberra. Maybe it's just me, but despite this, the online menu at Courgette always appealed to me more, and hence was the fine dining place I most wanted to try here. Now that I've had the opportunity to eat at Courgette, it seems natural that I'll have to try Aubergine sometime for comparison.

It was a small group dinner at Courgette, which meant the lucky use of the Boardroom - a private dining area that I imagine is usually filled by business people trying to impress each other. The room is beautiful and stylish, with equally impressive extra-wide chairs to fit the largest of fatcats. It does create a slight excessive distance between each guest but not really much of an issue.

The food presentation is classy and it was unfortunate I couldn't capture the pictures.

First Course
- Ricotta and sweet red pepper filled courgette blossom, heirloom tomato, garlic creamed spinach;

Second Course
- Roast quail breast and twice cooked golden plains pork belly, asian slaw, soy pearls, apple sauce - excellent flavoured quail, succulent pork belly, sadly let down by an Asian slaw that was too plain as it was without dressing;
- Seared scallops, smoked cauliflower purée, fennel crunch, fermented black garlic - perfectly cooked moderate cylinders of scallop, well supported by the other flavours and textures;

Third Course
- Mandagery creek venison loin with dijon mustard, beetroot, asparagus, sheeps milk fetta, hummus - cooked rare (which is ideal) but didn't seem to make the same impact as the entree meats or the fish main;
- Hiramasa king fish, scampi, pea puree, fennel, pomegranate, avruga caviar sauce - very nice combination of salty, sweet, slightly tangy to complement the soft fish and mildly crunchy scampi;

Fourth Course
- Windsor strawberries and cream meringue, custard, mint cloud, freeze dried mandarin - beautiful presentation, simple combination, but meringue isn't my thing;
- Caramelised nectarine, apple cinnamon pithivier, ginger and butterscotch ice cream - delicious winner, the name says everything.

The presentation is great, the food is tasty and the setting is lovely. I'd be hard pressed to say I found anything here especially unique or rare, but I'd certainly recommend it for an upmarket meal in the capital.

Courgette on Urbanspoon

Brodburger, Canberra 2014

Burgers - the craze sweeping the world. Long gone are the dirty McDonalds, Hungry Jacks and KFC burgers (although each with their merits I suppose) and in with as gourmet and expensive as they get. 

My USA trip in 2011 with a single savoury bite of In-&-Out and the more fancy Ahi Tuna Burger at Gott's Roadside Cafe (which inspired me to make my own version) started off my recent fascination. Melbourne's best seems to be Andrew's (dirty) or Huxtaburger (slightly less dirty). 

I still can't go past the London burger revolution over the past few years. MEATliquor (cookbook coming soon!) really brought out the grease and grime deliciousness that created the first "dining" burger experience that influenced me. Once it became available without waiting in Covent Garden, there was never an opportunity not to grab one when passing by. From there things exploded - the old chains of Byron and to a lesser extent GBK, the (average to me) Lucky Chip near Broadway Market, the great reputations I didn't get to try of Patty & Bun and Dirty Burger and Honest Burgers, the really expensive overly attempted fanciness of Bar Boulud, and finally my probably favourite in the end - the Icelandic inspired Tommi's. Finally the dominant reputation of Shake Shack (Covent Garden and Dubai airport) which I can safely say should be avoided, unless there are no other reasonable options. That's a lot of burgers tried in 2-3 years.

Canberra's own is Brodburger (not Broadburger - although someone can clarify if it has some kind of Nordic pronunciation), another foodvan turned permanent setup in much the same vein. Having managed to try most of them over the past 6 months, I am happy to approve the Brodburger, the Broddeluxe (although a bit huge), Brodveg (which is probably their most unique burger as compared to the field) and to a lesser extent the Brodlamb and Brodbattered Fin (upmarket Fillet-o-Fish).

The burgers are large, the beef is cooked to default as medium-rare (I prefer rare, but there's no issue here), the buns and ingredients are fresh. It doesn't have the same dirtiness as the greasy London trend that leaves you feeling queasily guilty and satisfied and in need of wetwipes, and the seated area is clearly somewhere where you are there for food first, and socialising/drinks second.

It's very recommended to try and add to the list of burger comparators - I'm surprised there isn't more competition at the moment. MEATliquor - it's time to expand.

Brodburger on Urbanspoon

Regent Thai, North Adelaide 01/2014

There seems to be a lot of Thai restaurants in North Adelaide, all along the same street all within a few minutes walking distance of each other. It always intrigues me how this happens in any area - presumably one opens, has success and so the competitors come in? Maybe someone leaves the original and decides to try and steal the business away? Who knows. In any case Regent Thai seems to be one of the better reputed ones, but admittedly the decision to get takeaway from this place over the others wasn't overly pedantic.

The usual staples are the on menu and serve as my measures of judgement:
- Tom Kar Prawn (prawn in coconut milk flavoured with chilli, lemon, galangal, mushroom)
- Red Duck Curry (red curry, chilli, basil)
- Chilli Fish (deep fried barramundi topped with chilli sauce & basil)
- Regent Fried Rice (rice, prawn, chicken stirfried with chilli, garlic & basil)

I have recurring themes for my preferred classic Thai flavours - coconut milk, galangal, red curry and basil. The food was very nice and lasted around 4 meals. It would be difficult to say it was the best, but easy to say it was adequate and satisfying.

Regent Thai on Urbanspoon

Blue & White Cafe, North Adelaide 01/2014

One of the few "culinary(?)" delights of North Adelaide is the AB. Having never heard of it until reading up about the local area to my apartment, the AB apparently is an abbreviation for abortion - because the dish is likened to looking like an abortion. Perhaps it isn't the most appealing mental image, but the idea of chips, lamb giros and sauce on a plate doesn't sound too bad for the souvlaki-hungry person in me.

Blue & White Cafe is reputedly the original and the best, so there was no better opportunity to try it. I suppose eating this at 3am after a few drinks would enhance the experience, but it's always a good test of hangover food to try it when sober. For lunch. At 2pm.

Overall the dish is pretty average - standard chips (not as crispy on the outside as I prefer), relatively tasty lamb (not as tender or flavoursome as the souvlaki's in Melbourne I'm used to) with some garlic and chilli sauce layered on top. It isn't bad by any means, and the combination has promise, but better chips and meat would certainly elevate this further.

In any case it's always worth trying the local cuisine.

Blue  White Cafe on Urbanspoon