Saturday, November 17, 2007

France Soir, South Yarra, French food (could you tell from the name?)

[Originally published on the 11th Sept 2006]

France Soir

11 Toorak Rd, South Yarra

phone: (03) 9866 8569

prices: entrees high teens, mains low to mid 30s

Cuisine: der.

Last week our neighbour-Denis-who-is-moving-to-Hong-Kong said he would take us out for dinner to say thanks for the highly embellished reference I wrote him (we used to work together) and told me I could pick the place...

Last night, we headed off for a slap-up feast a la Mr Creosote at France Soir, home of lovely French waiters (who in my experience are NOT snooty if you ask for condiments), and French-bistroiness. It's one of my fave places to eat, even though they once felt it necessary to point out to me that steak tartare is in fact raw (admittedly I was pretty young at the time, I guess it's possible I might not have known and therefore freaked out at being served a plate of raw mince with a raw egg yolk on top...). To start with, they bring you delicious French bread and unsalted butter. No wanky dishes of oil here. And they offer you more once you guts the first lot, rather than glare at you balefully should you dare to ask, as Oliver did, for more. We followed the silver baskets of bready goodness by sharing a dozen oysters (freshly shucked when you order them), which came on a large dish of crushed ice and were accompanied by a niftily-carved lemon and a small dish of some sort of sauce (it was delicious and I think it had garlic in it, and maybe a bit of soy. Hard to say). Very good oysters. I had a fillet steak with bernaise sauce, which was utterly delicious. My dining companions had veal (poor baby cows) and minute steak. We accompanied the lot with a very nice bottle of red (it was French but I don't have a clue what it was - I will say that the wine list was in length comparable to an Umberto Eco novel) and some shared vegetables - peas & carrots with bacon lardons (which it turns out are lovely fatty cubes of bacon) and mash, and they brought pomme frites (as the French call French fries) to the table which we hadn't even ordered, which was a bonus. Although actually it's possible Denis ordered them sneakily to avoid my disapproval of the ordering of two different sorts of potato. Most of the mains don't come with veg or salad, so you do have to order them seperately.

The veal, which came in a mushroom and white wine sauce was pronounced "exotic" by Denis (although exactly how veal in a mushroom sauce could possibly be exotic I am left wondering), and also "delicious". And the minute steak disappeared (fittingly) in about a minute, accompanied by a red wine sauce, so there didn't seem to be any complaints about that, either. The pomme frites were eaten with the remainder of my bernaise sauce, so there was no need to ask for mayonnaise.

The steak tartare on a previous occasion was delicious - they prepared it "to taste" meaning you can ask for the requisite amount of spiciness and make sure it's not too full of capers (do ask about this as the time I didn't I found there were WAY too many capers). It's not as good as the steak tartare at the Macleay Street Bistro (73a MacLeay St Potts Point, (02) 9358 4891) in Sydney (where I've been told if you're lucky you may spot Paul Keating grabbing a bite of dinner), but it's pretty good. They bring yet more pomme frites with it, but I prefer to ask for some extra bread. There's nothing like steak tartare on some soft white bread with a thick layer of butter (insert Homer-style drooling here), although for anything other than tartare or a bread pudding I'd rather a rye or at least a grainy bread.

Also well worth it are the French onion soup, which is satisfyingly hearty and cheesy, and the salad with blue cheese dressing. I have had blue cheese dressing in other establishments, only to find it either too cheesy or not cheesy enough, but like Goldilocks, I found the blue cheese dressing at France Soir just cheesy enough.

If you're a vegetarian - one of the crazy sort who doesn't eat seafood at any rate (we all know it's okay to eat fish cause they don't have any feelings) - go somewhere else for dinner. You're not going to get any love here. Other than salads, there are not really any vegetarian options on the menu (even the peas have bacon in them, for heaven's sake), and they are not all that likely to be obliging if you ask, as the woman on the next table found out when she did. The waiter went away to confer with the kitchen staff and came back to tell her "We can do you some steamed vegetables" (in snooty French accents). Eventually it seemed they settled the matter of an entree by offering her an asparagus and caviar entree "without the caviar".

The dessert was the crowning glory of the evening. Denis ordered a latte, Mr H had a Cafe Royale (which was delish, I tried it), and I had an Earl Grey tea. Unlike some places that do nice coffee but then give you a tea bag if you want tea, the tea was made with leaves, came in a proper pot, and (as requested) was nice and weak (nothing is more disgusting than strong Earl Grey tea - or even worse, milk in Earl Grey tea. People who drink Earl Grey tea with milk shall die by the sword when I rule the world. But I digress). And then came the Creme Brulee, with three spoons - there was unfortunately no way we were going to be able to fit in a dessert each, much as I was simply longing for the Isles flotant, which consists of floating clouds of soft meringue in a light sky of vanilla. But the Creme Brulee was the King of Creme Brulees, crunchy slightly burnt toffee surface, with light cremey goodness beneath. Despite the fact that we were all so full we were threatening to explode like Mr Creosote the dessert disappeared directly.

I can only say it was lucky they didn't offer us a wafer-thin after dinner mint, or there would have been an incident.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

URBAN SOUL, Williamstown, wood fire pizza

[Originally published 30 June 2006]

Address: 68 Stevedore St, Williamstown
Tel.: (03) 9397 6601
Open: Wed-Sun 4pm-late
Kids: Room for a pram if you book, which you are advised to on a Sat. They also have highchairs.

Prices: $10 vegetarian, $13-$14 meat, $15 seafood (standard sizes)
License: Currently BYO but license is on the way
Parking: free in street and in Cox’s Garden opposite

Ok, so trendy pizza with the ‘less is more’ attitude to toppings is hardly new, but out here in the west we’re a bit deprived. I’m happy to report that we’ve finally got our first groovy pizza café in Williamstown. (Sam’s Boatshed also does wood fire pizza, but you wouldn’t call it groovy…)

The modern interior design was done by some local designer, but the owners didn’t like the feature wall and so put their own up to cover it! Bare plywood is mounted on the whole left hand wall like an empty canvas just waiting for splatterings of pizza sauce and rejected ingredients the unruly kids didn’t like, not to mention sneezes from my 4 month old bubba in an ode to Pro Hart. Otherwise, funky green paint and a banquette seat lining one wall are the features in this chic (for pizza) café.

Pizzas. I’ve tried at least 8 of them so far, both eaten in and taken away, and they’ve all been good. The crusts are all thin so a standard size is not too much for one. There’s a few interesting ingredient combinations like #10 which has lime peppered chicken, crispy bacon and corn kernels with mozzarella & sour cream and a napoli base. Other out of the ordinary gourmet toppings include fresh pineapple, baby spinach, fior di late (cheese, like a big bocconcini), roasted pumpkin, fresh basil leaves, fresh chives, white bait, tandoori chicken, caramelised onion, goats cheese, fetta, walnuts, and sweet potato.

The best pizza I've tried is #19 – prawns & scallops, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella drizzled with basil pesto and a napoli base. The prawns are decent sized, the scallops are small but fresh and the pesto gives it oomph.

However, if you’re not into seafood on pizza, next best is either #15 (hot calabresi salami, roasted peppers, crushed olives, mozzarella drizzled with basil pesto and a napoli base), or if you like it fairly simple, #16 (prosciutto, mushroom, cherry tomatoes with fior di latte & mozzarella with a napoli base).

Vegetarians will marvel at no less than 7 vegetarian options, plus there’s another 3 seafood selections including tuna, smoked salmon and whitebait.

Of the 20 pizzas on offer, there are only 7 with meat and not a single shred of nasty pizza ham in sight. But don’t get me wrong, the meat options are delicious too! I have actually tried #10 and it was good – you just need to put the corn thing out of your mind, close your eyes and enjoy!

There are also 4 salads on the menu and the other week there was some offer in the local paper where you got a free side salad - information which they happily volunteered and gave us the salad anyway!

There’s also a couple of desserts to choose from, freshly made on the premises. So fresh in fact that my lime tart wasn’t set properly, a fact they warned me of, but at 7.30pm I felt within my rights to be disappointed. I’m sure it was just a teething issue in the first 2 weeks of trading.

Coffee: well by rights it should be ok as it is Grinders, but let’s face it, you don’t go there for the coffee. Ours tasted burnt.

Service was very good both times, always exceptionally friendly. Then again, we tend to get lots of strangers talking to us now that we dine with bubs in tow.

I know there is also some deal going on with the video shop around the corner where you pay about $35 and you get 10 video/dvd rental deals and 5 take away pizzas. Given this and the location just off Douglas Pde, they are clearly aiming themselves at the local market, however, given the western desert for flash pizza, the market is big.

In summary, yes I’d go there again and it has now become our standard source for take away.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

EQ Cafe Bar

Melbourne Concert Hall
100 St Kilda Road
Southbank VIC 3000
Owner - Dur-é Dara
When you have tickets for a show at the Arts Centre for an 8pm start time and you are seated at your table, no, make that bar in front of the ginormous coffee machine at 6.10pm, you don’t want to wait an hour between your entrée and your main. This causes anxiousness in diners and more than a few murmurings on walking out, complaining to the diminutive, elegantly dressed, harried round figure of Dur-é and of course, writing a review on how wronged you were by the dining experience.

We had tickets to Weird Al at Hamer Hall so we decided to forgo the temptations of Fed Square and give EQ a chance. I had gone a long time ago, when it first opened to positive reviews and great expectations, after all, an enviable location and an Australian culinary entrepreneur with stellar experience under her … caftan? Yes, I think it was a caftan, very flowy, much like a round coffee bean nestled in a truffle – but I digress.

We were told at the door by a wait staff (I am not going to mention how wrong it is for wait staff to be allowed to work with huge cold sores on their lips, ew!) that the only table available was at the bar. Okay, we were happy to take that, after all, I had already mentioned how good the fish cakes were … so we sat and perused the wine list, then the menu – the wine list is quite good, a wide range of local and international reds, whites and all the other drinkables in between. Recommended is the Wairau River Estate Riesling as its quite light and fresh with passionfruit and pepper notes. Great with fish.

After twenty minutes the barista conjuring out coffees ten a minute in front of us took pity on us and took our drink order, we didn’t want to take a risk of being ignored again so when he brought the drinks we asked if he could take our food order, I pretended not to notice the fleeting look of annoyance that flitted across his face before he said ‘sure’. We ordered fishcakes ($8) to share and these came about 7 minutes after orders, great.
They were as good as I remembered – crisp and crunchy on the outside, fluffy and tasting of baccalà and potato – served with a gorgeous red pepper dip and a few fresh rocket leaves. We were almost ready to forgive the wait for our order with the quality of the food. But it was not to be. Over an hour later with no one even so much as batting an eyelid our way to replenish our tepid water, empty drink glass or thunderous expressions. We were about to give up and just walk out when as if reading our minds, our mains arrived.
I had a sexy little salad of smoked chicken, Loganiza sausage, potato and grapes in a light mayonnaise sauce ($18) and my partner had spaghettini with a ragu of pork and beef ($23). Great flavours in both dishes, clearly chef Stephanie Maier and her crew are doing good things in the kitchen. The wait-staff who delivered our mains grudgingly brought over the basket of presliced bread and offered us a piece each - no bread plates, no butter. The rule of bread is, great bread no butter, average bread - don't serve it!

Sadly, like so many eating establishments out there, EQ sufferes from excellent food let down by shoddy service. Considering where they are located and the crowd they cater for, timing should be the strong point at EQ but it is severely lacking. As my dining partner commented, even if the food wasn’t as great, if the service was wonderful, you’d be more likely to come back because you would feel looked after. I would recommend booking ahead and not making plans for after if you want to experience good food in a vibrant atmosphere … that or just walk across to Fed Square.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Yeah Maan, South Yarra, Caribbean

[Yay!!! Our first solicited review. Many thanks Mairead. Check out her website. Pretty cool. Uses flash and everything. - Chai]

Yeah Maan
Address: 340 Punt Road South Yarra 3141
Phone Number: (03) 9820 2707

Price Range: $20-40 for a meal

Total price: $221 for seven, not including wine
$31 per person

There is only one Caribbean restaurant in Melbourne (well there is a cafe called Babble On Babylon but it is only open in the daytime). It happens to be that our local bus takes us straight there, through the city centre and out the other side, right to the nearest corner. Some friends had warned us that the food was good but the portions were tiny, but we needed to see for ourselves.

And so it was that we took seven mates along there one Saturday night to see if it was anything worth talking about.

Yeah Maan is a tiny terraced building, converted from a house, with enough seating for about forty downstairs and another small dining room upstairs. Instead of the expected reggae blasting out, we were delighted to hear some classic soca tunes. We had a reservation but they didn't seem to know anything about that. We were shown to the upstairs room, and although we had explained that it was a reservation for seven people, we were asked to sit at a smaller table until we insisted we needed more room.

Once everybody had arrived we were pretty desperate for a drink - or at least some glasses for our BYO wine. In the end Orlando obliged by going downstairs himself. We thought that might shake up the waitresses, but we waited quite a long time for anybody to come and see if we were OK. It was the girl's first night so she didn't know much, but she was sweet.

Apart from myself and Orlando, we had three people who had only eaten Caribbean food in our house (Mena, Eileen and Kelvin), and two people who had no idea what they were in for (Australian Ida and Italian Viviana). The Trinidadian doubles served up were generous and talked about for days; Mena's Stamp 'n' Go was a huge portion and absolutely divine. Orlando and I both had the Pick Up Salt Fish, which was saltfish mixed with onions, tomato and peppers served on a dumpling. It reminded both of us how much we love saltfish, and I promised to go get some and start cooking it again. Pity we can't get ackee anywhere though...

The chilly janga roti (chilli prawns) were not too hot and spicy, which was probably just as well for the virgins. You could probably ask for them to be made a bit hotter. Kelvin chose the aloo pies, a huge portion of spicy potato balls which were tasty enough but nothing exciting.

The mains were even better. Eileen was served an enormous portion of jerk chicken and cassava fries, which she struggled manfully to consume, but ended up pleading with everybody to finish for her. She said it was lovely, but not as nice as Orlando's (well, you can't get Walkerswood here either).

The curried goat was really lovely, but I forgot to ask for mine to be made hot, so although it was tasty there was no kick to it. Orlando had asked for his hot, but it wasn't much better than mine. The rice and peas were made with small kidney beans (guess what? No gunga peas in Aus...) but it worked fine. Mena scored again with the ginger tamarind chicken which was beautifully seasoned, a good strong kick. The calypso chicken looked good, but even for the virgins it seemed very mildly-flavoured.

The service didn't get any better. We helped ourselves to more napkins, water and fresh glasses from behind our personal minibar in the corner, and raided the other tables for new candles for the table. Even when we wanted the bill, it warranted another trip downstairs. Maybe if we had been seated down with everybody else it might have been better.

Nonetheless, we were not in any hurry and the relaxed vibe certainly didn't ruin the evening. We put the world to rights without fear of annoying other diners with our noise, we finished a few bottles of wine and enjoyed some fine West Indian food. The rumours of small portions were well and truly scotched, and we will definitely come back again for more.

Review written by Mairead.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Stokehouse - St Kilda

Address: 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, Victoria 3182
Phone Number: (03) 9525 5555
Functions Phone Number: (03) 9536 1135
Fax Number: (03) 9525 5291

Lunch: 12pm - 2:30pm
Dinner: 6pm - 10pm

7 Days: 12pm - late

Price Range: $17 - $30 for a meal

Reviewer: BEVIS
Date: 6th February, 2007


Wifey, Sweetums and I took several family members out for dinner on Saturday night, and our restaurant of choice was The Stokehouse. We had a pram with us, and required a table for 12 (in order to cater to the pram - we were actually only 10 people).

The specials board promised a lovely-sounding lamb cutlets dish which we were informed had very small portions of lamb cutlets (instead focussing on the mash to fill the plate), so the seven or so of our number who intended to go with the lamb decided instead to order either the risotto or a gourmet pizza.

Naturally, I opted to go with the pizza option. I ordered ‘The Stokehouse’ pizza, which was basically a Mexicana. Wifey went with the risotto. She told me her meal was delicious and it certainly looked yummy (even to a non-rice eater like myself). Meanwhile, my pizza was spicy and perfect. Just the way I like it.

The Stokehouse, as seen from the beach

We dined ‘downstairs’ (there was a wedding reception being held upstairs), and were placed along a corner table. As we had Sweetums with us, we were eating somewhat early, but this meant we were treated to a beautiful sunset across the water – because the restaurant overlooks St Kilda beach.

The layout and organisation of The Stokehouse is such that after being seated, you make up your mind about your order, then walk to the bar and buy your meal and drinks there, giving the server your table number. When the meal comes, you’re free to eat it at your own pace, returning to the bar to buy more drinks if you want them.

This means that you’re not in a big rush to move on (no one is hovering, waiting to give you your bill), and when you finish your meal you can simply walk out (or stay for dessert if you wish). As for our group on Saturday night, we decided to follow our meal with a leisurely walk along St Kilda beach and an ice cream on the esplanade as a reward for avoiding all the syringes.

The Stokehouse (right) overlooking the beach (left)

The Stokehouse features a charming atmosphere, which – although noisy (the tiled floors make all sounds bounce around, creating quite a din which is not helped by the drunken surfers who were yelling at each other across the table) – really lifts the mood of the meal. There can be no doubt that the view helps a lot.

Parking can be a problem, as you’re in St Kilda and it’s $7 for anything longer than two hours, but if you’re travelling by tram or simply walking, it’s “behind Luna Park and a bit to the right”.

Some people (not us) enjoying
the outdoor dining section

Rating: I give The Stokehouse four out of a possible five stars.

Stars: ****


Monday, January 15, 2007

Flower Drum

17 Market Lane Melbourne

How does one approach dining at Melbourne's renowned Flower Drum restaurant? Ideally with a bulging wallet and an empty stomach. I'd heard a lot of things about Flower Drum. Mostly, people coo about the service, and then hurry to add that the food is great too. This sits uncomfortably with the scourers of the Cheap Eat, the denizens of Victoria Street, the late afternoon market shopper. Why would you want to be waited on hand and foot? Doesn't it just get awkward? Especially when you're barely out of the Dishwasher Years yourself.

The first thing that happened, after being seated in the waiting area so our table could be adjusted from Table of five to Table of four when we had an unfortunate late cancellation, was that we were all seated at our table simultaneously. Four seats, four staff, holding four chairs and placing four bottoms on them with the grace of a square dance. Drink orders were taken. So far so good.

There was an awareness of hovering wait staff. Not weightless wait staff mind you, just wait staff who discreetly waited for a break in the conversation or an glass to be emptied and placed on the table to give way for a natural opening to approach the table. I can't decide whether this is too fussy or not. I must say I enjoy familiar and sassy wait staff too - like the waitress at Borsch, Vodka and Tears who took our order by straddling the back of a chair and downing several shots of vodka with us over the course of the evening's indulgences.

The light in the large divided room is quite subdued, and decorated with Chinese prints on the walls and the most immense and elaborate flower arrangement ever in the centre. Tables were placed far enough apart to not be party to neighbouring conversations.

After looking over the extensive menu (which had no marked prices) helplessly for some minutes the waiter suggested the set banquet. For the princely sum of $150 per head one could enjoy three set entrees followed by three set mains, fruit and tea. We negotiated a substitution (steamed dumplings for snapper) and we were off.

After enjoying a fantastic Pinot Gris, first up were the dumplings. Our table had a little side trolley which served as a workstation for our waiter, who assembled much of the food before serving. At the trolley our steamed dumplings were taken from their bamboo steamers and plated. As one would expect, they were translucent and perfect. I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten one of our entrees. But the last was definitely the quail san choi bao, which was perfect but probably out of all our dishes the one I would rate most easily found on par with "lesser" restaurants.

The mains started with the duck. And please indulge me here; after 37 years of eating quite well, and not being a crazed fan of duck, I have never tasted anything like it. If I go back (if I can ever afford to go back) to Flower Drum it will be for the duck. It was assembled side of stage: a soft floury crepe, smeared with a streak of plum hoisin was topped with spring onion, a strip of cucumber and a few pieces of deep crimson lacquered, crispy skinned Peking duck. We were told to "eat it like a sandwich", meaning fingers were allowed. It was heaven. The crepe itself was almost skin like in texture - not at all cold and rubbery, and there was a certain magic in the flavours. I used to dream of dumplings. I will now be dreaming of these little parcels of deliciousness.

By now, after two rounds of duck pancakes, I was beginning to feel quite full. Which was a great pity, as our lobster had just arrived. I turned down lobster. Do you see? I turned it down! I pushed it round my plate like a sulky 10 year old with a plate full of brussel sprouts. This was getting tricky. There was another course to go and I had no idea what it was going to be.

Off to our side of stage I saw our waiter slicing some steaks. Good gravy, surely we couldn't be expected to eat a steak at this late juncture? But indeed we were. Eye fillet, as tender as tofu, seared only enough to brown the outer, was sliced into fat strips and served. I've certainly never tasted anything like it, and it will be the second thing I go back to Flower Drum for. I'm not sure if it was wagyu beef, but it was impossibly succulent. My only regret is that I had eaten too much already and had to leave a portion of it uneaten. Wah!

One of the perks of the intense silver service was the warm damp towels served with each course. Much nicer than say, a shiny paper napkin of dubious absorbency.

If you want to eat at Flower Drum remember that bookings have to be made about three months in advance, which is about how long you should be saving your pennies for. And maybe cut down on the cream cakes for a while as well.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Saffron Cottage

Saffron Cottage
1531 Burwood Highway, Tecoma
9754 8388

"It's a bit pricey for Indian Takeaway", someone grumbled at me when we were discussing Saffron Cottage. And yes, it is a bit more expensive than a cheap'n'cheerful takeaway place with beaded curtains to stop the flies and sticky plastic tablecloths. Then again, it's rather better food than you'd get from such a place. In fact, it's a proper restaurant (proper, in my limited definition, meaning it has linen tablecloths, waiting staff in smart clothes, a decent wine list, and let's not forget: good food).

They offer takeaway at 15% discount on the eat-in prices. Mrs. Banttha and I have two young 'uns, so we tend to eat takeaway far more often than we get to go out to dinner - hence, much of our interaction with Saffron Cottage is via the take-away they offer. Recently, Mrs. Banttha's mother came up to mind the Banttha boys, and we skipped out to enjoy a meal.

The interior decoration is interesting - a mix of rustic (exposed beams and rough wood panelling) and refined (rather swish bar, neatly-set tables, the usual stuff). It's got a cosy feel, despite being quite large. During winter they have the open fires going - the tables near those go really fast. During warm summer nights, the back porch, with its view up to the Dandenong Ranges National Park, is the place to be.

A lot of the menu is standard Indian restaurant fare that any self-respecting Melbournian would know. In my books, this is no bad thing. My sister has more than once accused me of being Lister from Red Dwarf - nothing suits me better than a hot curry and a cold beer. I'm sure she didn't mean that I'm a slob.

The curries are great - tender chunks of meat, and full flavour - even in their hottest vindaloo, all of the flavours come through beautifully. When we dined there I had the lamb rogan josh, with a glass of merlot (their wine list includes some decent reds, quite a few of them available by the glass). Mrs Banttha chose the mango chicken - between two such tasty meals, there was a long silence at our table, punctuated only by the clink of cutlery.

Two curries + rice and a serve of roti bread will set you back about $40. Add a couple of glasses of red wine ($5 - $6 per glass) and maybe a couple of entrees, and you'll still come in around $60.

It can get a bit busy at times, so booking a table for a peak night (Friday or Saturday) would be a good idea.

Quick summary: decor inviting, staff friendly, food excellent, wine list decent. Criticisms? I have none.