183 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Phone: 9663 3316

Stalactites is an institution. For years, it’s been a go-to destination, usually at about 2am, and maybe it’s more of a stumble-to destination.

Mr D and I were wandering around the city looking for somewhere to eat, with the caveat of ‘not-Asian’. We were both hungry, and feeling indecisive, which often leads to bad decisions. Bad decisions which usually come about with Mr D making a half-joking suggestion of somewhere rather mediocre to eat, and me taking that as a challenge and heartily accepting. It’s like that episode of the Wonder Years where Mr and Mrs Arnold are picking out drapes. He picks something he likes, she picks something she likes, and then they settle on something nobody on earth could possibly like.

Not that nobody on earth could possibly like Stalactites. That would be a harsh and unfair assessment. There are plenty of things to like… the faux cave interior, the cramped tables, the brusque and desultory service, and the screaming children which come along with the territory of eating at a family-friendly tourist trap. Oh, wait, I’m still being harsh; my bad. But honestly, I think Stalactites is one of those places that does one thing well, which is serve up a good souvlaki.

This visit, I had the open lamb souvlaki. Which, when it arrived the first time, wasn’t open. I don’t know about you, but I feel a little odd ordering from a menu and getting a souvlaki in a paper bag on a plate. So I sent it back, and another one came out pretty quickly.

Like I said, Stalactites does one thing well, and that’s souvlaki. Juicy lamb, with plenty of those dark, charred, salty edges, and a good amount of salad and garlic sauce. If you’re on a date, you might want to avoid the garlic sauce. We thought things might be a bit meaty, so ordered a side of chicory.
Which was pretty disappointing. It had been boiled till it was soft and had lost any semblance of freshness. Even the addition of lemon juice wasn’t enough to bring it to life. Like I said: one thing done well. Chicory was not it.

So go to Stalactites if you must, but don’t go expecting anything more than a good souvlaki. I recommend the takeaway option.

Stalactites on Urbanspoon

Plume (Maribynong)

200 Rosamond Rd, Maribynong
Phone: 9318 6833

Whenever people ask me for yum cha recommendations, Plume in Doncaster always gets a mention. It’s a bit of a trek, but over the years, it has remained reliably good. So when Penny suggested impromptu yum cha at Plume over in Maribynong, I immediately said yes. Even though I was over the other side of town on an(other) Ikea mission.

Expectations were high, which in fairness, probably wasn’t fair.

The one thing Plume Maribynong has over its Doncastrian sister is ample parking. It backs on to the Knifepoint shopping centre car park, so it’s easy even on a Sunday afternoon to find a park. We arrived at around 2pm, which is towards the end of the yum cha session. I’m hoping that somewhat explains the lacklustre fare with which we were assaulted.

First up was my favourite – deep fried taro dumplings.

The flavour of the filling wasn’t bad, but the entire experience was somewhat let down by the fact they were lukewarm. Lukewarm fried dumplings? That would be strike one.

Henry was keen on the fried calamari tentacles, which I’m not a huge fan of, mostly because they always come in a huge serve, and everybody only ever wants one or two, so the rest sit there getting cold, until there’s a lull in the service, and then I fall into the trap of having another one while we wait for more dumplings, and am disappointed when I find their only characteristics are rubbery and oily.

So this would be ball one. Not Plume’s fault, I’m just not a fan.

Chicken’s feet. What I love about going to yum cha with seasoned tea drinkers is I don’t need to worry when ordering weird stuff that I’m going to end up eating it all myself.

These chickens feet were flavoured quite well, though felt like they could have done with more time cooking. The skin was soft, but nothing was falling off the bones. First base, just.

The others ordered some congee, but it being a morning-after-drinking, I had no time for that ‘healthy’ stuff. The fat content quite plainly wasn’t high enough. So I won’t comment on its quality.

Apparently Penry go to Plume primarily for the sui gao (prawn soup dumplings – like big won tons). They’re not a part of the regular yum cha fare circulating the restaurant in carts; you have to order them specially.
One bite, and I could see why they keep going back. The dumplings are plump and springy, with huge chunks of prawn meat. Second base.

The bao cart rolled around, and since we were only a table of three, I had to choose between the char siu and the egg custard buns. I went for the char siu, because we weren’t ready for the sweet stuff yet.

What we got was the sweet stuff anyhow. While bao dough is supposed to be sweet, this is usually offset by a savoury char siu filling, which has an elemnt of sweetness to it, but also a hefty amount of salt. The char siu at Plume was too sweet for my liking. A bit disappointing, as the surrounding bun was reasonably soft and pillowy.

Then came the dumpling parade.We went for the classics: siu mai, haar gao and one of my favourites, the prawn and chive dumplings.

The siu mai were a little odd, with chunks of pork instead of a smooth texture formed by finer mincing – we all know I approve of mincing, right? – and Penny and I agreed that the skins on the haar gao were far to thick. The chive and prawn dumplings, however, were great! With more tapioca starch in the skins, they had a more delicate, glassy appearance, though upon biting into them, I found this was also due in part to the fact the skins were thinner as well. The filling was super tasty, and still stickily moist. In fact, I think the gloriousness of these dumplings outweighs the disappointment of the other two, so Plume just managed to sneak third.

We had to order the haar cheong fun (steamed rice noodle), which you would think would be a good thing – it’s made to order, it must be better, right? Wrong. The noodles were thick and claggy, and just a general fail. Strike two.

Rather unimpressed by the mixed results, we thought we’d just move onto dessert. I ordered the yum cha classic maanguo bou-ding (mango pudding).
OK, three strikes, and you’re out! The pudding was far too firm – too much agar? – and generally a bit bland. There were a couple of chunks of mango in it, but overall there wasn’t enough mango flavour.

Similarly, Penny’s doufu faa (tofu dessert) was disappointing. The tofu wasn’t smooth enough, and in a dessert which is pretty much about the quality of the tofu, there’s pretty much no redemption after that.

Henry did promise to make some homemade tofu sometime though, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s a shame that the food was so sub-par, because Plume is such a convenient place to head for yum cha. As I said, I hope this might have something to do with the fact we came towards the end of the service. I’ll be back, but next time I’ll be sure to go earlier. Hopefully they might get a home run next time.

Plume on Urbanspoon

Collins Kitchen – Afternoon Tea

123 Collins St (Grand Hyatt), Melbourne
Phone: 9653 4671

Some things are worth waiting for. High tea appears to be one of them. My cousin C and I had been planning a high tea get-together for about two years. First I ran off to Viet Nam, then she had another child while I was gone, and well, one thing after another kept popping up, so back in September, we booked it in our calendars for Nov 20th.

The day arrived, and we managed to rope in my sister and our other cousin T, so it was going to be a ladies’ day out (well, plus me). Cousin T had also brought her daughter T along, so there was much cooing and talk of child-rearing to be had. While she’s already adorable at 8 months, from all the stories I hear, I think my plan is to adopt a three year old, so I can skip the baby stuff and enjoy the toddler years. Am I being naive? Probably.

I’d been to Collins Kitchen before, so I knew it was a stylish and sleek atmosphere, and that the quality of the food was going to be good. I’d contemplated booking at the Langham or the Windsor, two places renowned for their high tea, but on weekends, their prices seem rather exhorbitant. Collins Kitchen offers ‘Afternoon Tea’ for $38 per head on weekends, with finger sandwiches, scones, waffles, and a buffet dessert bar.

The one thing I will say about traditional afternoon tea is don’t go unless you have something of a sweet tooth.

The finger sandwiches are the oasis of savoury respite in a sugary desert of, well, desserts! The sandwiches on offer were a smoked salmon and cucumber on rye, air-dried wagyu (bresaola?) with a touch of mustard on white, and a traditional egg salad with cress on multigrain. They were all a little lacklustre, to be honest.
The dessert buffet, on the other hand, was anything but lacklustre! The scones were good, and that berry compote – although a little unwieldy armed only with a butter knife – was delicious! The macarons, however, were something of a disappointment. There was a lack of chewy inside, and the ganaches and creams which held them together were altogether too runny. It seems I have become one of those macaron snobs.

Of course, it being a buffet, and me being me, I went back for more. Cute little tarts (the apple one had a touch too much honey in it, the strawberry and pistachio one was much better) and creme brulee were next up!
The creme brulee had an excellend toffee lid, but the custard beneath was a bit too thick for my liking. All the ladies seemed to love it, however!

I finished the afternoon off with some pineapple and strawberries, and a decent caffe latte. It was a wonderful afternoon; refined, civilised and altogether sweet to catch up with family. We’ve decided that our next get-together will be a more traditional (for us, anyway) yum cha outing. Sweetness is great, but we’re all sweet enough anyway, so bring on the savoury! 😛

Collins Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Naked for Satan

285 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9416 2238

I toyed with the idea of not publishing this post because Naked for Satan has already had enough press in recent months, but I figured I really had to put my $2 in on the pintxos – “PINTXOOOOOOS!” – bar which introduced me to my latest love. He goes by the name of Pedro Ximinez. And he’s sweet as all get out. Unfortunately, he’s not all that much to look at, but looks aren’t everything, right?

Naked for Satan serves up pintxos for $2 a piece. It’s like a tapas buffet plus carbs – pintxos are like a little bite of a dish served on a baguette slice – which is a great idea for a bar, but its not really somewhere I’d go for dinner. The little toothpicks which are monitored – by both cameras and security staff, it seems – are how they track how much you ate, kind of like the plates at a sushi train. They add up pretty quickly, so if you’re on a budget, you might want to keep an eye on it.

I think the pintxos selection changes pretty regularly, so I won’t go too much into particular items – but if it’s on offer, try the chilli mussels, and the one with the slab of goat’s cheese.

My only gripe with the way Naked for Satan works is that there’s the cold pintxos on display, but every so often, some warm/hot pintxos are brought out – canape style – which is fine, unless you miss out on them because you’ve gone to the toilet, or they just circulate in the wrong direction based on where you’re seated.

Anyway, I grazed on pintxos while I was sipping on my sangria, which I was a little apprehensive about when the barman prepared it on the spot, but was actually really good!

As I mentioned before, on the recommendation of one of the barstaff, I tried the Pedro Ximinez sherry. She described it as “liquid Christmas”, so who was I to object? It has since become my drink of choice to finish with – seriously, you don’t even need dessert!

Naked For Satan on Urbanspoon

Wonton House

181 Russell St, Melbourne
Phone: 9662 9882

Ambiguity is an interesting thing. Sometimes, it works for you. Like when you’ve just had your tonsils out, and you you’re in too much of an oxycodone stupor to specify what sort of ice cream you want, so your mother buys three different tubs. And sometimes it works against you, like when you visit a food court in a small shopping centre, and there’s an ‘Asian’ outlet.

The menu at Wonton House suffers a little from the second kind of ambiguity. Makes you lose focus. And often leads to mediocrity. Walking into the restaurant, I expected your typical Hong Kong style Chinese restaurant. And while I understand that, like Melbourne, Hong Kong too has food trends, I should have been wary of the xiao long bao on the menu. But I couldn’t resist.

To be fair, they weren’t that bad. But they were mediocre, at best. The flavour was a little lacking, and the skins were too thick, even though they were beautifully pleated. But in hindsight, I should have just stuck to the more Hong Kong style dishes.

I was catching up with Mr C after not having seen him in years, so I’d forgotten that he had dietary restrictions. Nothing crazy, just no seafood. Anaphylactic shock style. So the calamari and the prawns were out. We settled on a couple of classics – of different definitions. First up, a dish from my childhood. For those of you who know me well, this doesn’t necessarily bode well. My family owned a Chinese restaurant in country Victoria while I was growing up, so I have a soft spot for what I lovingly referred to as ‘bastardised Chinese food’. The sort of food that was on the menu at our restaurant, which as a Chinese family, we never ate at home.

So we ordered the beef and vegetables with cashew nuts.

To be fair, this dish isn’t in the canon of bastardised Chinese food. Though chicken and vegetables with cashew nuts is, so we’re in the ball park. And again, it’s not really that bastardised, because there are certainly versions of it in China that I’ve seen, but it’s on the bland and safe side of what Chinese food can be. Spin doctors might say ‘restrained and subtle’, but let’s be honest, it’s less adventurous than what Margaret Fulton brought to the table decades ago.

Wonton House’s version is even less inspiring. The meat had quite obviously been tenderised with soda, a common practice in many Chinese restaurants (and why chicken with cashew nuts is a superior dish) and the whole dish was not only bland, but rather oily. I have no beef with oil – see what I did there? – but in a dish like this, it’s simply not necessary.

The other dish we shared was deep-fried chicken ribs with chilli and salt. Hard to mess this dish up, and Wonton House certainly delivered the goods on this one. A mountain of chicken ribs arrived at the table, wonderfully crispy, with MSG action that was noticeable, but not overwhelming, and the chillies were not too fiery. Fiery chillies are great in some dishes, but I prefer a milder chilli with this dish, because it’s good to be able to eat the slices along with the chicken.

All in all, I think Wonton House is a reliable option, but it’s more of a fall-back position than a go-to attraction. And stick to the Hong Kong style menu items.

Wonton House on Urbanspoon

Mussel Mania at the Provincial

299 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9810 0042

November’s Flavour of the Month special at The Provincial is Monday Night Mussels. A bottomless bowl of mussels (with the requisite pommes frites, of course) for $29.50. I met up with some friends to test it out, and also to celebrate Ms A’s final exam (ever)!

The mussels come in three flavours (though I get the feeling these might rotate from week to week, so no guarantee this post will be accurate for the following two weeks). The first I tried was ‘Moules Mariniere’ – white wine, shallots, garlic and cream.

While this was certainly a very traditional style, I found it a little too salty. I definitely liked the crispy little garlic chips in there though.

The pommes frites were perfect little sticks of golden goodness, and in this instance, the perfect foil to the saltiness of the Mariniere.

Round Two was the tomato, chilli, coriander and pork belly (yes, that’s right… so much for my month-long moratorium on pork).
This was by far my favourite, the rich tomato sugo having just the right amount of acidity, and a present, but not overwhelming amount of chilli heat. The little pork belly lardons in the sauce were delightful, too.

Round Three – well, I had to try them all, for your reading edification, right? Mussels with Pernod, orange and fennel.

These were a little disappointing. The fennel provided a lovely aroma, but I felt there wasn’t enough orange in the mix, and overall, again it was a little too salty.

For my comeback special – that is my fourth bowl – I went back to the tomato and chilli version. I’m not sure if it was a mistake  – we did see some flames in the kitchen – but the mussels this time had a wonderful smoky flavour. The last bowl was the best bowl!

And where I should have left the night. Of course, the dessert menu came out, and I stupidly couldn’t help myself. I’d swam a kilometre in the pool earlier in the day, so I deserved some dessert, right? I ordered the Citrus Curd Tart with clotted cream.

The tart was wonderfully, well, tart, and the pastry crust was nice and short. Had I not already been gestating an obese seafood foodbaby, I’m guessing it would have tasted like a perfectly refreshing end to a meal. As it played out, it ended up tasting like regret.

The Provincial Hotel / Cafe Provincial on Urbanspoon

Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner – post mortem (post partum?)

Last Monday heralded probably the most momentous event of my short food blogging career. If you could call eating food and ranting about it a career. Some people do.

I was part of a crack team of food bloggers who took over the kitchen of Miss Jackson cafe, to cook for an audience of 45 paying guests. I guess the aim was to experience what chefs go through in running a busy kitchen every day. Flipping the coin, if you will.

Taking the lead from the Sydney Food Blogger’s Dinner, Penny had approached the kind folk at Miss Jackson to see if they’d be interested in hosting the same sort of event. They said yes, and the roller-coaster ride began!

Initially I was going to be responsible for designing the pre-dessert, which felt like a manageable and fun challenge. After another blogger was forced to pull out, I eventually ponied up and agreed to take on main course. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid, right?

Thus began my great porcine experiments of 2010. I embarked on a heavily pork-laden diet about a month, which surprisingly didn’t result in massive weight gain. During this month, I would learn how to properly tie a rolled pork loin, then render that technique redundant with the discovery of transglutaminase (thanks to Penny), as well as learning how to produce Dong Po-like gelatinous pork skin. I also taught myself to ‘turn’ vegetables, though I remain still something of a hack. My intention in participating in this venture was always to push myself and learn new things, so I was already ahead. Yet the biggest lessons were still to come!

A couple of weeks into my porcine studies, we had our team trial dinner. We each produced the ‘draft’ version of our dishes, and critiqued one another. It was such a helpful experience, and I only wish I had a team of tasters and a dry run before every dinner party I hosted! With notes made, and adjustments planned, we all went our separate ways, and honed our recipes in isolation again for the next two weeks.

I think it was a couple of days later that I started re-purposing pork into other meals. Congee became the default go-to when faced with a cooked loin of pork I didn’t know what to do with. When all else fails, double-cook it, right? Another week later, I started giving away my experimental pork, as I couldn’t face eating yet another meal of pork.

It was about this point that I thought I had the project in hand. Of course, this was a naive and foolish notion. Because although I may have perfected my recipes, cooking at home is spectacularly different from catering for a crowd of 45 in a commercial kitchen. I use the word catering here because in hindsight, the event was more like a catering event than running a restaurant kitchen. And while I think I’ve gained something of an insight into what’s involved in running a restaurant or cafe, I’ve learned a lot more about the logistics of event catering through this adventure.

The Sunday night before the dinner, the team turns up to start the prep work; stocks are prepared, meat is marinated, and about a thousand shallots are peeled. Three hours in, I have a diva meltdown moment when I realise the pork loins that the butchers have butterflied for me have been cut too thick. It was really the stuff of reality TV, though I’m really glad it wasn’t captured on video! It was completely my own fault when passing on instructions to the butchers, but a jarring setback nonetheless. But the show must go on, and I continued to roll the pork loins anyway. They ended up about double the size of the ones I’d been making at home, so cooking time was about to become a guessing game.

After a night of fitful sleep, I headed back in on Monday morning – the main event was about to begin. Having the most prep work left to do, I was the first to arrive, and was extremely grateful and relieved to find that we’d have some help from the kitchen hands at Miss Jackson. So I set to searing my pork belly and beginning the braising process, while palming off the task of peeling carrots.

The team turned up as the day rolled on, and the kitchen became quite the bustling hive of activity. We definitely gave the stove and ovens quite a workout! And at the behest of Miss Jackson’s chef Sarah (with much hearty agreement from Jess and myself, but utter disdain from Mat) the kitchen’s work anthem quickly became Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair. Think what you will, ‘cos we don’t let haters keep us off our grind.

The afternoon quickly disappeared, and before we knew it, it was 6:30 and guests had started arriving. Mat and Jess kicked into high gear, knocking out platter after platter of awesome canapés. Canapés so awesome that people were quite obviously too busy eating to take photos of, as I haven’t been able to track down any! Though I’m sure Henry (our official photographer) has some, because he took over 2000 shots over one and a half days. In any case, I think my favourite thing I ate all night was still those sage and white anchovy fritters. There was also a pea veloute with slow-cooked quail egg and crackling crumbs, and bresaola with goat’s cheese and cornichons on sourdough.

Good reviews started rolling in, and the pressure was on. As soon as they were done serving, Penny set up to lead the team in plating the entrée course. Ox tongue was sliced, sauces were brought to temperature, polenta was vigorously – and unendingly – stirred in shifts, and the assembly line kicked into gear. It was really quite a marvel to see everyone working together as a team, and it still fills me with pride to think back on how well we rallied together when it came to crunch time.

Penny’s entrée was a double braised ox tongue with polenta, parsley puree and apple and sourdough crumbs. It truly was a memorable dish, and I’m fairly sure it would convert many an offal-averse punter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Once the last plate of Penny’s entrée was sent out, the team swiftly moved to clean up and get my main course ready to go. My adrenalin was pumping, and the stress level just hit an eight. The Jurassic pork loins came out of the oven, which had somehow crept up from the 150 degrees where it was supposed to be to 180 degrees in the fifteen minutes since I had last checked on it! Yeah, commercial ovens don’t have thermostats. Stress level nine.

I started the beets and carrots glazing, and left them in the capable hands of Mat and Ed. I moved to slicing up the pork belly, while the rest of the team had a last minute pow-wow about how to plate the dish. Evidently, I don’t deal well with stress level nine. My ability to multi-task goes out the window, and a wall of silent grumpiness raises itself around me, partly to shield myself from further anxiety, but I think mostly because otherwise I’d likely explode. And I don’t really do the exploding thing.

Somehow, while I was intently portioning pork belly, everything else started to come together. Remember those mighty forces? They manifested in the form of my fellow food bloggers. Swiftly executing the (overly ambitious?) boldness that was the main course I had devised. Penny, Ed and Mat managed to portion and plate the side dishes, without me needing to do any more than to check the portion sizes. Penny then set to slicing the loin. It was very much the moment of truth, and I breathed a massive sigh of relief when Penny announced that they weren’t overdone. Though in truth, I think she was just being supportive, and I would have preferred them a little less well done. Sarah and Jess started composing the plates, and they started disappearing out into the dining room.

Pork two ways: Roast pork loin with a miso panko crust with a pickled ginger aioli and cider-braised pork belly, served with baby beetroot and carrots.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

From rear, clockwise: Radish and cucumber slaw, rosemary and duck fat roasted potatoes, asparagus with anchovy butter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Was I happy with what went out? Maybe 75% happy. There was a lot of room for improvement, and of course now with hindsight, there are many things I would have done differently. They say you’re your own worst critic, and that might be true.

But I digress, because there were still two courses to be served. Most of us set to cleaning up the tornado-struck kitchen after the last main course left the kitchen, and Ed moved to prepare his avant-dessert: a green tea and mint granita soused with gin.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Not having sampled this before it went out to the customers, I was really impressed with how refreshing this little shot of granita was. It really was a great palate cleanser after all of the flavours I’d managed to pack into my main course.

At this point, we were encouraged to actually leave the kitchen and face the music, though none of us were really that eager to. It was a little daunting to meet the people you’ve just fed. When we finally did go out into the dining room, there was nothing but praise – some more muted than others – but when you’re cooking for such a supportive audience, I wonder if we could really have expected candid feedback. I for one welcome it, so if you’re reading this and you were complimentary on the night, but perhaps had some suggestions to make, please make them (anonymously if you feel the need) below. Like I said, this was meant to be a learning experience for us all.

Sarah started composing her epic three-piece desserts, comprising a trifle with strawberry liqueur and white chocolate mousse, a creme brulee tart, and a strawberries and cream semi-freddo sandwich.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

I think many people struggled to fit the desserts in, because we’d fed them a lot of food up to this point. Which was a shame, because each of those desserts was delicious.

I’d like to thank everyone who came and supported our crazy cooking experiments, especially those who didn’t even know us before the event, and were brave enough to take a punt on a team of culinary unknowns. I’d also like to thank my fellow bloggers for being such an awesome crew to work with, and especially for steering me through my moments of incapacity and self-doubt. Finally, I’d like to thank the team at Miss Jackson for all of their support, patience and guidance throughout the whole process. It may have come together in a single night, but there was a lot of work leading up to that point, and it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of courage, diligence and faith from everyone involved.

If you’ve made it through this far, then you’ll probably be interested to know that Miss Jackson are planning on running this event on an annual basis after the amazingly positive response. I look forward to seeing what the next crop of food bloggers comes up with, and it’ll certainly be a much more relaxed night next year in the dining room. Because I’ll definitely be there!

So what have others had to say about the night?

Penny’s take
Bryan’s recollection

Spice Temple

Crown Entertainment Complex, Southbank
Phone: 8679 1888

Let’s just say Spice Temple was always going to be a hard sell for me. I understand that Neil Perry is was well-respected chef who has an extensive knowledge of Chinese cuisine. But in the same way that one of my friends has an inexplicable disdain for anything that encroaches on ‘authentic’ Thai culture – inexplicable because he’s not Thai – I have an underlying issue with a ‘Chinese’ restaurant without any Chinese staff in sight. And I’m also not really one for the fine dining scene, except for on special occasions.

But this was a special occasion. It was the divine Ms D’s birthday, and she booked for Spice Temple, so who am I to deny one of my BFFs? We started out with a drink at Nobu in the bar area, another place I’ve yet to try. This meant we were running a bit late for our 8:30 booking, which turned out to be just as well. When we arrived at Spice Temple, our table was apparently not ready yet, and we were escorted downstairs to the bar area to wait.

I’d just like to note that the bar area is in the basement, while the dining area is on the ground floor, at entry level. This, to me, seems a little odd. I guess it’s an efficient use of space, but it feels odd to walk downstairs to hover at the bar for five minutes, only to be led back up the same stairs to your table. Surely the basement could have been made the function room, and the bar could occupy the rather incongruous boardroom setup which is presumably the ‘private’ function space? I say ‘private’ because it’s shielded from the entry by a rather sparse curtain of glass beads. Anyway, we were off to a rocky start.

I’ll do a complete about-face right now and say that I love the fit-out of the restaurant. The vertical blinds of raw unfinished slabs of timber give a warmth to the room at night, and along with the interesting battens on the ceiling, make what is actually quite a large space feel quite intimate, acoustically. It was nice not struggling to hear anyone at the table speak, despite it being quite a busy night at the restaurant. The dim, moody lighting also helped, and I’d highly recommend the restaurant for a date, if only for the atmosphere. In fact, there was a couple over by the faux stucco brick wall who were definitely dating it up that night. I’m going to apply the word canoodling here, and leave it at that.

So, the food. We started off with the Lamb and Cumin Pancake.

Cumin-spiced lamb mince sandwiched between two thin crepe-like sheets of what I think was a rice-flour pastry, this entree wasn’t a great start to the meal. The mince was a bit fatty (but that’s authentic!) and it was a bit hard to handle – the pastry was a bit soft, and the mince wanted to fall all over the place. It came with a chilli paste, which had a nice medium kick; a kick which hardly warranted the warning from the waitress that it was only for people who liked spicy food. She obviously didn’t know who she was talking to.

Then the mains started arriving, in reasonably quick succession, but with eight people at a table sharing dishes, I think it would have been wiser to bring at least three dishes out simultaneously to begin with, instead of one at a time, leaving us to sample the dishes in a piecemeal way. We also had to ask for the steamed rice to be served, once the second dish came out. Not to make too many assumptions, but I don’t think that would have happened at a Chinese restaurant run by Chinese people. Rice is the staple, around which the meal is built, people!

Anyway, the first dish to arrive was the stir-fried wagyu brisket with baby eggplant and chilli.

Oh, by the way, the reason most of these photographs will be of half-eaten dishes (or of my potion in my bowl) is that:

a) I’ve been chided for straying from my original vision for this blog, and
b) I was seated at the ‘wrong’ end of the table, and the waitstaff seemed to think it appropriate to serve most of the dishes up the other end of the table, which would then work their way down.

But yeah, the brisket was good. It wasn’t particularly amazing, and I really don’t understand the point of wagyu if it’s brisket (the way wagyu mince in a burger perplexes me) as there wasn’t much of a flavour nor textural difference from non-wagyu brisket I’ve eaten in the past. I did really like the baby eggplant, though. Nice little slices with plenty of crispy skin, and melty, oily flesh.

Next came the ‘Hot and numbing crispy duck’, which was in my opinion, neither not nor numbing. In deciding what to eat, as a table, we’d concluded there would be some serious Szechuan pepper action in this dish.

Maybe the ‘Hot’ referred to the temperature at which the duck would be served, though even there, I’m not so sure. There definitely was no chilli, or even pepper, heat to this dish. There also was a lack of any real Szechuan pepper presence, and it seemed mostly like an apologetic Beijing-style sauce; slightly sweet, a little tangy. The duck itself was well-cooked, though it didn’t seem ‘particularly Chinese’, according to one of our dining party, to which I replied, ‘That would be the lack of star anise’. As with all poultry, I prefer the thigh to the breast, so the fact this was all breast was disappointing to me. Some things get lost in the name of ‘refinement’. I’d prefer to deal with bones, thank you Mr Perry.

Next up was the Hunan style crisp pork belly with fresh and dried chillies and mushroom soy. We decided pretty quickly as a table that we were going to get pork belly. Then there was the question of which pork belly to get. A stupid question, in my mind. ‘Why both, of course!’ But others at the table were convinced there were other items we needed to try, so we settled on the Hunan one.

This dish was really quite good. I’d happily eat it all on my own. As you can see, I managed to score an almost exclusively pork fat piece of the belly. WIN! The diced beans and mixture of fresh and dried chillies were a nice foil to the luxurious faaaatttttt….. *drool*

Despite Ms P being adamant there was table over there who had a fried whole fish, we could find no such dish on the menu, so we settled for the whole steamed Snapper with black bean and salted chilli.

A pretty classic dish, executed well. The fish was perfectly steamed, and the chilli and black bean was plentiful. The rest of the table was a little perplexed when I started in on one of the fish eyes, but I was brought up not to waste a thing, and fish eyes are a textural joy. When a fish is fresh, and has been cooked just right, there should be quite a bit of gelatinous tissue in the eyeball, though watch out for the hard, pithy centre of the eye.

On the waitress’ recommendation, we ordered the stir-fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard. She was talking up the lusciousness of the egg custard as if it were some revelatory thing; again, I don’t think she knew who she was talking to. Steamed egg custard is quite a pedestrian, homely dish.

Not to say that it isn’t wonderful, when prepared well. It completely is! I found the Spice Temple version a bit too runny, however. The quail and peanut topping was good, but the gaminess of the quail was somehow lost, and I think leaving the skin in the mix would have been a good idea. Oh, and it didn’t help that I recently had a more exciting version prepared by my friend Mr H at his home.

Finally, with some theatricality, the waitress brought out the mushroom hotpot. Hot pot of fresh shiitake, oyster, enoki and wild Chinese mushrooms, Yunnan style, to be exact. She explained the different mushrooms which were going into the earthenware pot, though she forgot some of the mushrooms’ names!

After the little presentation, we were left to divide up the fungal goodness ourselves.
I appreciate a good mushroom hotpot. I used to hanker for it regularly in Saigon, where there’s a chain of Japanese-style mushroom hotpot restaurants. While I’m sure the mushrooms in this hotpot were of exceptional quality, I think that somehow got a bit lost in the soy and chilli which dominated the flavour of this dish. Still, it was very tasty!
So what’s my final analysis? Spice temple does manage to serve up food that’s high quality, but it’s not particularly innovative. Which is fine, but there are a lot of other places which produce dishes of a similar quality, which are much better value.

So if I’m not paying more for some special and innovative food, I’d expect I’m paying more for a great dining experience? Unfortunately, this wasn’t what we experienced on the night. While the service was unfailingly warm and polite, it was quite often patchy. Wine glasses were left empty, and there were a number of times we were left craning our necks in search of a waitress for assistance. Perhaps they were a little short of staff? Hopefully these are just teething problems, and they’ll be ironed in the future. Still, I probably won’t be back soon. It’s just not my cup of oolong.

Master Restaurant

Shop184/ 83 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8796

When I was a kid, I’d come to Melbourne in the school holidays, and stay with my cousins. I’d hang out at comic stores, and go to the movies, and play games at Timezone. I remember one holiday, when I was about 10, my cousin and I spent all day at Timezone playing the skill tester machines. It seems our skills were pretty good, because we came home with a big bag full of stuffed toys. Which, to be honest, we didn’t really want, we just wanted to test our skill with the claw.

My nanna also lives with my cousin’s family, so when I’d come down to Melbourne, occasionally there was the odd situation where I wouldn’t be hanging out with my cousins, and I would go out with her instead. Usually we’d go to Victoria St, because it was a short tram ride away, and she’d buy groceries. And we’d stop in at a restaurant, and have duck noodle soup. I’m not sure, because to be honest, I’ve never really asked her, but I think it might be her favourite.

So whenever I have duck noodle soup, I feel an affinity with my nanna, and it’s definitely one of my favourite meals to have, especially when I’m on my own. Maybe because it always reminds me of her, and I don’t feel so alone while I’m eating? Oh gee, let’s not get into my neuroses.

Anyway, I was out at Footscray Market the other week, shopping for groceries, and on my way home, was lured in by the beautifully mahogany brown roast ducks hanging in the window. It was a Saturday afternoon, so most of the people were sitting down to yum cha, but yum cha for one isn’t much fun, and besides, I was after only one thing.

The duck I had that day was exceedingly plump, yet lean. The meat had a rich, almost musky gaminess to it. It was let down a little by a lack of fat, and the fact the skin was paper thin, yet not crispy. I think they’d rendered too much of the fat away. Or it was just a star athlete duck! Also not helping the cause was the fact that the duck was lukewarm, but a little patience, letting it sit in the piping hot broth, soon fixed that.

Not having tried any other roast ducks in the area (notably Golden Harvest, Hong Kong BBQ, and the stand in Little Saigon market) I’m not sure how Master stacks up. But I have a feeling there is better duck to be had.

Master Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Sponsored by Nuffnang.

You know, I’ve never really been an avid follower of recipe magazines. There’s something about working within the constraints of someone else’s taste that seems less fun than experimenting and coming up with your own creations. So even if it’s just by adding a couple of extra ingredients, or substituting one spice for another, I’ll usually end up tweaking a recipe in the process of making the dish.

That being said, I find recipes useful, as a point to jump off from. Which is why it doesn’t really bother me whether it’s the Tetsuya cookbook, Gourmet Traveller, or magazines like recipes+ or Woman’s Day where I find my inspiration.

Regular readers may know that I’ve recently become the proud owner of a mortgage, so rushing out and spending $50 a pop on cookbooks is much less of an option. So I was intrigued when Magshop said they’d like me to review a food magazine.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Magshop, it’s an online magazine shop, where you can subscribe to magazines and have them delivered to you in the mail. It’s cheaper than buying the magazine at the newsagent, and the magazine comes to you, as soon as it’s released. That’s a plus if you’re kind of lazy like me and it’s always good to get mail other than bills, right? It’s also a good gift idea if you forget to buy someone a present; “Um, I got this subscription for you, but you may not get the first one for a week or two.” Yeah, of course I remembered your birthday.

recipes plus magazine
To be honest, I was surprised when my first copy of recipes+ came in the mail. I had expected relatively boring dishes that I would never be interested in, but I guess I underestimated how much the average person knows about food these days. I guess shows like Masterchef really has changed the cooking landscape in Australia.

recipe magazine Australia
The range of recipes in the magazine was actually pretty interesting, ranging from a pasta with chicken and figs, to chicken biryani, chicken pho (I’m still dubious about that one) and fattoush. And I’ll be honest, when it comes to baking, that’s the one time I will actually follow instructions! Since I had some over-ripe bananas in the fruit bowl, I thought I’d give this pecan banana loaf a shot. The recipe promised I could just beat it in the one bowl, so how hard could it be, right?

Tip: if you’re mixing a bread/cake batter in a bowl, make sure it’s a big bowl. It also helps if you’re using a proper beater with speed settings, instead of a whisk attachment that came with your stab blender which has only one speed setting: fast. Much splatter and cursing later, I had myself, and in a matter of only minutes, I was pretty much done! I put it in the oven, and kicked back on the couch.

banana loaf recipe

Fifty minutes later, and time to see if the recipe was a WIN or a FAIL.
banana loaf recipe banana loaf recipe
It actually came out pretty much perfect! Maybe it rose a little too much in the centre. I’m being picky now. But it was yummy, and wonderfully moist. So the recipes+ banana loaf was a WIN! I didn’t bother with the frosting, because it was already sweet enough for me. Anyway, if the other recipes work this well, I think I might need to get me a subscription. Though to be honest, most of the recipes tend to be for four serves, which doesn’t quite suit my bachelor lifestyle!

Unless you’re an avid racing pigeon enthusiast (they don’t stock the Australian Racing Pigeon Journal) you can probably subscribe to your favourite magazine at They stock the most popular women’s interest and men’s lifestyle magazines, like the Australian Women’s Weekly, Top Gear, FHM, Money Magazine and Australian Geographic.

Sponsored by Nuffnang.