Pako Festa, Geelong

Each Year, Geelong holds a multicultural festival on Pakington Street, the Pako Festa. They have a bit of a parade, and some musical and dance acts. General street festival mayhem ensues, as people wander to find their friends, and then to find food. There were many different ‘ethnic cuisines’ on offer (does calamari in a cone count?), though I was told by my local friends that the number of food stands this year was far fewer than in previous years.

Some photos:

Collins Kitchen – Nuffnang Foodbloggers Dinner

Collins Kitchen @ The Grand Hyatt, 123 Collins St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9653 4831

I was the guest of Nuffnang and Collins Kitchen.

Last week, the good folk at nuffnang worked with the generous people at the Grand Hyatt put on an event for Melbourne foodbloggers. I was lucky enough to score an invitation (although it still feels a bit funny to think of myself as a bona fide foodblogger).

After a quick drink in the adjoining RU-CO bar – which is a hidden gem for those of us who prefer a bar on Friday evenings that isn’t fully packed, and you can almost always find a seat – we were given a tour of the kitchen from which we were about to sample food by Chef Jason Camillo.

The Hyatt’s Collins Kitchen restaurant is powered by an open kitchen, roughly broken up into five specialty stations. There’s a sushi and sashimi section, where all the fish looked amazingly fresh, and the sushi chef adeptly worked his craft as we were told about the restaurant’s ethic of sourcing, wherever possible, local produce. Everyone got rather excited when the fresh wasabi from Tasmania was spotted. Apparently it’ll only set you back $180 a kilo!

Next, there were grill and deli sections, the grill with an impressive ‘crustacean bowl’, and the deli with a good array of cured meats – to be honest, I got a little distracted by the sushi chef working and fell behind the group at this point in the tour. Hence I have no pictures of the meats, and just a quick snap of some yabbies.

Then we moved around to the ‘wok’ section of the kitchen, which was a pretty standard (if somewhat immaculately clean) Chinese kitchen set up. Woks, steamers and noodle pots, all fired by turbo gas burners which roared like jet engines when cranked up to full power. There were also the requisite roasted meats (ducks, chicken and pork) hanging on racks, ready to be carved up on demand.

Finally, there is a patisserie/desserts section, but at this stage of the tour, I also neglected to take photos. Don’t worry though, plenty of dessert photos to come below!

The Feasting
Once the tour was complete, we sat down and were promptly presented with freshly baked sourdough rolls, which were closely followed by an amazing sushi and sashimi platter, an equally impressive antipasto plate, and a freshly baked foccacia-style pizza, simply topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella. The speed of the service was dulled a little, however, because with a table full of foodbloggers, there was a longer than usual pause for photography before we could dig in!

Everyone was excited to sample the freshly grated wasabi, to the point where impromptu fusion occurred on the plate – the liverwurst from the antipasto was adventurously paired with the fresh wasabi, with pleasing results!

For me, the highlight of this course would be the lightly seared scallops on the sashimi platter – so sweet and fresh! – and I was also a big fan of the liverwurst. The tricky thing about foods like sashimi and antipasto – essentially raw (or cured) dishes, is the quality of the produce is immediately apparent. It was immediately apparent all of the produce in front of us was exceptionally good.

Next on the menu was a Cantonese style BBQ platter – roast belly pork, soya chicken, roast duck, and char siu (I secretly sniggered inside when the waiter pronounced it “char shui” but that’s just me being a bilingual elitist – shame on me!). The platter was presented with pretty traditional dipping sauces – plum sauce, sambal, and my favourite since I was a child, a ginger and spring onion oil. It was also accompanied by choy sum and fried rice.

Now I will happily admit to being somewhat of a snob when it comes to Cantonese cuisine. So please take what I say here with a grain of salt, because this course was still a cut above most restaurants. That being said, most restaurants would probably charge about a third of what Collins Kitchen would for this fare. Still, I wasn’t paying, so that didn’t necessarily factor in my appraisal.

The roast duck was beautifully succulent, and the skin was remarkably crisp, though I found it a touch on the salty side. I really like to taste the gaminess of duck when I eat it. The roast pork was again perfectly cooked, though the crackling was a little chewy, and not quite crunchy enough on the slice I had. The soya chicken was stunning. Beautifully tender, and a nicely balanced soy marinade which had just penetrated the unbelievably thin chicken skin – this was a quality chook! I was a little disappointed with the choy sum and fried rice, both were a bit pedestrian, and suffered from too much oil. The rice was interesting in that it was a medium grain, instead of the usual long grain jasmine rice.

Next up was a grilled fruits de mer (seafood) platter, and a gargantuan grilled porterhouse for two (weighing in at 900gm on the bone). Luckily this was being shared between five of us. These came with a inspired side of sauteed mushrooms with hazelnuts, wilted broccolini and a deliciously creamy potato mash.

The seafood was all spectacular – again, scallops were a standout for me – I think I may be biased – and the salmon was cooked to perfection. The tuna, however, was a bit of a mystery. It was cooked all the way through, which seems something of a cruel way to treat tuna. We had to ask twice what fish it was! We thought it might be swordfish? Because surely a restaurant like Collin Kitchen wouldn’t serve tuna this way.

The porterhouse was beautifully juicy, though leaning on the medium-rare edge for me (I prefer my steak blue-rare). It came with a choice of green peppercorn sauce or a red wine jus. The peppercorn sauce was better, in my opinion.

And then there was dessert. Or should I say, desserts. A sharing platter of five desserts came out, much to the delight (and yet trepidation) of us all.

In order of tasting, there was a selection of mixed sorbets and ice cream (the pistachio was clearly the stand-out for me); a banana mille feuille (wonderfully delicate pastry, and I love cooked bananas in anything); a devilishly rich and gooey chocolate fondant; a strawberry and rhubarb crumble (I’m not a fan of rhubarb, but I WAS a fan of the crumble – I think almond meal was the special ingredient? – that tasted somewhat like the fresh almond cookies you get in the streets of Macau); and finally an apricot melba which was incorrectly identified as a pannacotta, and then roundly criticised as so, until we checked against the menu what the dessert actually was! It was actually quite nice though, just not a pannacotta. But then it never claimed to be a pannacotta!

Props must be given to Adrian of Food Rehab for ‘taking one for the team’ and polishing off the desserts after everyone had tasted to their satisfaction.

Thanks go out to nuffnang and Collins Kitchen for organising the event, a great way to get a better insight into one of these ritzy restaurants, and to meet up with more like-minded foodbloggers.
Here’s a list of the other foodbloggers who were there on the night:

Penny from Jeroxie
Joyce from Jetsetting Joyce
Suzanne from EssJay Eats
Adrian from Food Rehab
Melissa and Danny from Tummy Rumbles
Maria from The Gourmet Challenge
Shellie from Iron Chef Shellie
from Off the Spork
Sarah from Sarah Cooks
Thanh from I Eat Therefore I Am
Neil from At My Table

There were more, but I didn’t get to meet everyone, and I don’t have everybody’s blog URLs. *sadface*

And Nuffnang’s post about the night.

Collins Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Vi’em Cafe

345 Victoria St, Abbotsford
Phone: 9421 5227

I recently met up at Vi’em Cafe with a couple of ex-expat friends whom I’d met in Viet Nam. I suggested the place because I’d been introduced to its existence by Joyce through her search for the best rice paper rolls in Victoria St. I’d been there once myself, and the rice paper rolls were indeed great, and the bun thit nuong was pretty good too! That, and I took the waitress’ laughter at my attempts to speak Vietnamese as a challenge to come back.

We started off with the obligatory rice paper rolls with grilled pork (I forgot to photograph them!) which were, again, wonderful. Still-warm slices of grilled, fatty pork, wrapped in fresh goodness.

For mains, we shared more grilled pork (because we obviously hadn’t had enough) and the soft-shelled crab (we went the pepper and salt option). Both dishes were tasty, if a little over-salted, and between three of us, we could barely finish them (with rice, of course).

Vi’em does remind me a lot of Sai Gon – the crazy fans on the ceiling, the water feature, the indoor/outdoor courtyard feel, the waitresses who laugh at you, the sporadic service – and while the food is good, I found it a little pricey for Vietnamese food ($15-30 for mains). You can get similar quality fare at cheaper prices along the Victoria street strip. That’s not to say Vi’em is bad value, there is just better. When I mentioned the place to my aunt (who lives in Richmond, used to own a restaurant on Victoria St, and has probably eaten at most of the restaurants) her first response was that she thought it was expensive. Expensive is relative, I guess.

Vi'em Cafe Authentic Vietnamese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Ito Japanese Noodle Cafe

122 Bourke St (cnr Market Lane)
Phone: 9663 2788

While I must confess I am more than sated by my ramen experience at Ramen Ya, in the interests of being thorough, and of my belly, I continue to try more Japanese restaurants which serve ramen. On the recommendation of my soon-to-be brother-in-law, I tried Ito Japanese Noodle Cafe. He lived in Japan for a year, so I figure he would know something about Japanese food. It’s funny, but I find it hard to shake the memory of that place being a 50s style American Diner, even though Ito has been there for at least 5 years.

To my disappointment, Ito doesn’t offer tonkotsu ramen on the menu, so I had the Ito Jumbo ramen with a shoyu broth, and the twin toppings of chashu and spicy minced pork (of which I forget the name). In fact, I think I ordered it with chashu and fried chicken (kara-age) but the fact I can’t remember the name of what I did order might suggest I made the error in ordering.

The noodles arrived quickly, and I was pleasantly surprised at their quality. In fact, I would venture to say the toothsome, or al dente quality of the noodle was actually better than that of Ramen Ya! The little knob of butter melted quickly, melding with the soup quite nicely, though I still wished for the porky goodness of tonkotsu.

The chashu lacked the essential fattiness which I desire/require in good chashu, which was disappointing, because Ito otherwise made quite a good showing. It being the jumbo bowl, I left thoroughly satisfied. While I think Ramen Ya still represents better value, Ito’s definitely a contender for Melbourne’s best ramen (so far).

Ito Japanese Noodle Cafe on Urbanspoon

Fuel Espresso Bar & Cafe

4 Margaret St, Moonee Ponds
Phone: 9375 4499

I don’t go out for breakfast on weekends as much as I used to. I think living for a while in Viet Nam changed my tastes somewhat in terms of what I like to eat in the morning. I still really miss the fact I could run downstairs from my place and grab a banh mi (Vietnamese pork roll) or some xoi cuc Ha Noi (Hanoi-style sticky rice with chrysanthemum) or even a quick bowl of pho.

So when Mr N suggested we go out for breakfast last Saturday, I wasn’t sure what to get from the menu. I settled on a breakfast pizza, with salami, bacon, mushrooms and spinach. And yes, that IS indeed a poached egg with hollandaise sauce on the top. Given the hung-over state I was in, this pizza didn’t just hit the spot, it nailed it.

Mr N had the (massive) omelette with cherry tomatoes and chorizo. I didn’t try any, but the omelette looked very fluffy, and the chorizo was sufficiently spicy enough to challenge Mr N this early in the day.

The service was quite attentive, and though the meals did take about 25 minutes to come out, they had warned us of this in advance, and it seemed fair enough, as the place was very busy.

Fuel Espresso Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Butcher’s Grill

141 Bourke St, CBD
Phone: 9639 1222
For my birthday this year, I had a rather large cocktail party. Knowing full well that I was very likely to get rather drunk, I thought it prudent to eat a substantial meal beforehand. I had been curious about Butcher’s Grill for some time, as it’s opposite my gym, and has an eye-catchingly bright red window treatment. So we stopped in for a quick dinner before heading off for cocktails.

I chose the lamb cutlets served with garlic mash and red wine glaze, which were deliciously rare (I requested them that way, because that’s usually how I like all my red meat) though a touch on the salty side. The mash was very garlicky, but in a good way, and luckily I had mints on hand for later!

My sister decided to have two entrees instead of one main course, and I have to say, she’s one wise monkey. This was the seared pepper crusted kangaroo with mustard fruits & cabbage salad.

She also had the seared scallops, potato puree and sticky pork. We did a little swapping, so I got one of the scallops, and it was cooked to perfection! Texturally, the springiness (note: not chewiness) of the scallop flesh married beautifully with the potato puree, and the sweet, salty goodness of the small piece of pork was a great accent to the fresh scallop flavour. This dish is a total winner.

The other lads had the M.S.A porterhouse steak, which was a hulking great slab of cow flesh. Both gents were most satisfied, and both gents have a great appreciation of steak in general.

Butchers Grill, Meat & Wine Cellar on Urbanspoon

Maria’s Trattoria

122 Peel St North Melbourne
Phone: 9329 9016

I’m lucky to work not too far from this great Italian restaurant. It does involve a quick ride on a tram, but it’s very much worth it. Even if you have to shell out for a 2 hour ticket just for the occasion, because the price of your lunch plus the price of said ticket is still insanely reasonable.

This day (my birthday lunch with the office colleagues) I had the fettucine with Italian sausage and broccoli. Based on prior experience, I knew to order the entree, and not the main. The main is seriously only for the brave-hearted and the cavernous bellied.

While it was quite busy (Friday lunchtime) and the food took some time to arrive, the pasta was wonderful. Fresh, al dente, and smothered in a tasty tomato sauce.

While I understand pasta is cheap to produce, I have to wonder how serving such mammoth plates for such low prices (the average entree pasta is $12.90) can result in a net profit!?

EDIT: We went back a couple weeks later for another colleague’s birthday lunch. Many more photos this time!

Left to right: Penne puttanesca; Spaghetti and meatballs; Tortellini con pollo e funghi

Spaghetti bolognese and Ravioli con pollo e avocado

Spaghetti con cozze (with mussels)

Maria's Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Ramen Ya

Shop 25G Melbourne GPO
Cnr Elizabeth and Lt Bourke Sts
Phone: 9654 5838

Last night, a group of ramen-o-philes (brought together by their love of noodle and twitter) descended upon Ramen Ya in the city. While the turnout was somewhat diminished by the torrential rain which had lashed the city only hours before, those of us who made it were not disappointed.

I think I can fairly safely announce that the hunt for good ramen in Melbourne is over. I will stop short of saying that it is the best, but it is certainly the best I’ve tried. I ordered the tonkotsu chashu ramen, with extra noodles, because I love my carbs, and I was feeling particularly hungies last night. When it arrived, it didn’t disappoint.

The chashu was melty and tender, with just enough fat to form a mystical bond with the overwhelmingly gelatinous tonkotsu broth. I know, it sounds a little gross when I say gelatinous, but trust me, tonkotsu broth – GOOD tonkotsu broth – should stick to your lips after you’ve finished each mouthful. It’s part of the goodness that comes from boiling down pork bones for six hours.

One thing I might do next time is ask for more soup, when ordering extra noodles. I couldn’t help slurping as much soup as I did ramen, and soon was running at a soup deficit. Which is never a good thing.

Another cute thing Ramen Ya has going for it (though let’s be honest, with ramen of that quality, it doesn’t need much else) is the handy provision of disposable bibs! Not entirely necessary in my book, but lots of fun and helpful if you’re a little sloppy, or wearing something fancy. I arrived early, and ramen being essentially a fast food, didn’t wait for everyone to arrive before ordering, and indeed, chowing down.

This meant that I finished before just about everyone else. Thankfully, the thoughtful folk at Ramen Ya have also provided neatly Japanese entertainment for just this situation. Little square sheets of paper, with origami instructions! Just a tip: get two sheets, because you can’t really follow the instructions on the sheet you’re folding!

I made the ‘inflatable bunny’.

I highly recommend you all go try the ramen at Ramen Ya. For $10 a bowl, you’d be a fool not to. Oh, and they also have a loyalty card, so I’ll be heading back soon, to fill out my card and get my 10th bowl free!

Ramen Ya on Urbanspoon

Seoulia Korean BBQ Buffet!

980 Whitehorse Rd
Box Hill
Phone: 9899 2696

It was my mother’s birthday yesterday, so the family decided to go out for dinner together. Now, being of a migrant working class come small business owner heritage, my family tends to eschew fancy expensive restaurants in favour of flavour and reasonable prices. And we’re certainly no strangers to buffets nor at-table cooking. Yet my parents were restauranteurs for over twenty years of their lives, so let’s just say they have certain standards. So when my sister suggested Korean BBQ, I was pretty sure we were on a winner. And when a little online research found Seoulia, I just knew we’d nailed it.

We arrived to find the place abuzz, but not full, with people sitting around massive boar-shaped grills, with lowered extraction fans not doing all that much to extract away the smell of grilling meats.

It wasn’t long before we’d loaded up our piggy with various bits of bulgogi, calamari and baby octopus as well.

Of course, we also grabbed some of the mountains of kim chi at the buffet.

Pro tips: the best things on offer are the beef bulgogi, and the marinated chicken giblets. Oh. My. God. I could eat those giblets all day. The chicken ribs are also good. And for those craving a little vegetable matter to go with so much animal flesh, there are mushrooms to grill, and it helps to grab lots of cucumber to munch while waiting for the meat to cook. Also, bulgogi is awesome when wrapped in lettuce (that might be my Vietnamese food heritage coming through).

When we were finally finished (and stuffed) with the meat, the waiters came and removed the massive steel boar plate, to reveal that it was in fact resting on three little mini cast-iron piggies. Too cute!

We cleansed our palates with copious orange slices and I had a cone with a scoop of chocolate ice cream – all included in the buffet!

The logistical details – Seoulia has two sittings per evening (each officially lasting for 1 1/2 hours, but with a two hour maximum, apparently – don’t worry, you’ll be well stuffed within an hour) and costs $26.50 per head ($29.50 on weekends, I think). You pay for everything in advance (including drinks – they have beer and soju, but I’m not sure abut wine) which felt a little funny, but I guess is generally how a buffet works. Oh, and there’s a $10 wastage fee if you don’t finish the meat you take from the buffet to your table, so don’t stock up on things in bulk, just make multiple trips. The tables were a little cramped, but the service was efficient.