Thursday, March 27, 2008

Degustation at Circa

I attended Circa ( Circa, The Prince, 2 Acland St, St Kilda, 9536 1122, for the birthday dinner of my best friend, along with her parents, brother, partner, and another friend. We were seated at a round table in a corner with a door to the balcony where we could watch wedding-goers continuing their party which was being pushed into some function room as we arrived for our 6:30pm reservation. It was a tight squeeze but thanks to the billowing white curtain separating the room, behind our backs, there was enough space for the waiters to get their job done.

It was an interesting mix of people – the brother seemed to have forgotten about the dinner entirely, but the staff showed no surprise or frustration when he showed up an hour after the rest of us and told the waiter to start serving him the degustation from where everyone else was up to. The partner was only about one week out of hospital for having her gall bladder removed, and is on a strict no-fat diet as a result. It was a bit disappointing therefore when we asked the waiter if there could be any substitutions in the degustation and were told in no uncertain terms that there couldn’t. I wonder if perhaps we should have been asked why we were inquiring? After a bit of faffing around, we decided on degustation anyway, and ordered two vegetarian degustations, and five meatatarian.

Three hours passed from amuse bouche to the second dessert course, a total of 9 courses. The standard was exceptionally high, with a focus on some seriously fresh and flavourful produce, and beautifully impeccable presentation. Of course. Without the massive white plates, cleverly indented depressions for soup and artistic drizzles covering half the plate, we would all realise that degustation is nothing but a massive tease – a hook to force you to return to order what you would have preferred ten times the amount of. Personally, I would have traded in the Wagyu for the heirloom tomatoes, and skipped some amazingly rich goats cheese for extra olive oil sorbet to eat with the tomatoes. In fact when I was at Ezard a few weeks later, I ordered their heirloom tomato salad with feta and microshoots or something, and was sorely disappointed. But I digress - the masochist in me loves degustations, as does my inability to ever make a decision.

I wrote down my impressions throughout dinner using my brand spanking new Nokia with its clever little Notes function, so here goes a dot point summary of what we ate:

Amuse bouche:

Cauliflower cream, black roe, cucumber foam, globes of cucumber, NSW oyster, smoky strong aftertaste.

Course 1:

White bean soup, tiny cubes of chewy chorizo, tiny cannelini beans, shreds of flavourful crab, tiny sprigs of maybe baby sweetpea shoots, salty bits - sometimes crab sometimes bean, orange oil from the soup, which was poured at the table.

Course 2:

Flat wedge of pale brown smoked eel with a sweet frothy cream, sitting on dill, parsley and maybe baby beetroot leaves, translucent tube of striated potato with more herbs standing in it, about ¼ teaspoon of crumbled maple bacon.

Course 3:

Three small snails, lightly breaded, gently fried, garlic flavour and fried bits, small pool of oil fried in, 2 breaded fried pigs ears I didn’t eat, small squares of iceberg lettuce, vivid green lightly flavoured parsley sauce.

Course 4:

Miniature roma half, two quarter slices of maybe a beefsteak, wedge of purple green skinned and seeded strong almost smoky, half a sweet cheery tomato, sweet liquid olive oil sorbet, black olive oil which was actually oil mixed with balsemic vinegar, large chewy sweet cheesy fruity wafer.

Course 5:

Disc of dense, creamy, mild but with a slowly pungent aftertaste, white goats cheese, long irregular curls of thin cheese cracker announced as wafer.

Course 6:

Mound of small pearl barley sauteed with slippery, soft baby shallots, with small cubes and rectangular wedges of Wagyu beef scattered throughout. The beef appears to be very slowly sauteed, or maybe roasted with a lot of liquid.

Course 7:

Small square of plain dense sponge cake with a lightly aerated, gelled, smooth, subtly tangy yogurt topping about a third as tall as the cake, served with a small melon-baller scoop of lemon-celery sorbet, a very light flavour and texture.

Course 8:

Glass of berry royale – sweet, rich, lingering dark berry juice topped with a moscato wine fluffy cream, served with a rich buttery pastry cracker, with a collection of fresh berries in more juice, and a scoop of beautiful cream. Perhaps the “Petite tartlet of berries, soured cream, moscato and berry royal” described on their website?

Some discrepancies emerged, such as the “black olive oil” listed on the menu in the heirloom tomato dish, which tasted suspiciously like a high quality vinaigrette of EVOO and balsemic vinegar. The maple smoked bacon from the eel was perhaps a quarter of teaspoon in total, and if I had planned to eat it (I went half-heartedly kosher for the night) I suspect I would have been disappointed. The vegetarian “organic carrot salad” was 3 halves of carrots, perhaps slightly roasted, served with yogurt – the recipients were quite let down. One serve was even sent back when it was discovered that at least one carrot piece was so woody, the knife couldn’t cut through it. I felt that the mound of pearl barley served with the Wagyu was a cop-out – it was by far the biggest of the dishes in terms of both sheer volume of food and the filling-ness of the food. And to be filled up by pearl barley in a lackadaisical broth? Meh! However as the first steak I have had since jaw surgery, the Wagyu really did deliver.

And that’s about all I can report on that was negative in any way. A bit of waxing rhapsodic is doubtless in order.

The olive oil sorbet with the heirloom tomatoes was the simplest dish, and yet my favourite. It just goes to show what my slightly less gastronomically inclined other half is starting to point out himself – good quality produce is the most important factor in creating a masterpiece in the kitchen. The tomatoes were beautiful as-is, and coated in the slightest sweetness of creamy EVOO, were just heavenly.

Snails – my goodness, how much fun are snails! I hesitated for a split-split-second and realised that my brain was thinking “snails!” and so I resolved to stop thinking about the word and just eat the small ball of fried yumminess. They were perfect – I couldn’t even tell you exactly what snails tasted like, but as oysters taste of the sea, I’m voting that snails taste of the earth. And garlic. And oil. And parsley. Those French really know what they’re doing. And so chewy! Like oysters, the texture is part and parcel of the experience.

The desserts were both examples of masterful gourmet cooking – I wouldn’t have ordered lemon-celery sorbet, and the sponge cake was fairly bland with only a slight tang to the yogurt topping, but combine them all together, and I thought I was gracefully dancing through a meadow of sunflowers and butterflies. So light and refreshing, all textures combining seamlessly and the celery working perfectly with the sponge. The royale (cue many jokes about royale with cheese) was my first experience with this dish, and while I found the top layer of moscato cream to have a slightly bitter? sour? taste, combined with the mouth-coating berry juice, whipped cream and the crisp of the pastry, a revelation.

At $125 for my non-vegetarian degustation, I think it was very reasonably priced. I wasn’t too full by the end of the meal because I had skipped most of the barley (they got stuck in my braces), and I am a pretty light eater, but I do think the amount of food was sufficient, if not quite indulgent. Excepting that one carrot, the quality of the food was superb, so there was no feeling that we were paying inflated prices for nothing more preparation and presentation – I would happily pay the premium price for what I felt was premium produce. The service was impeccable, if a little standoffish and not quite as friendly as Ezard, but in the staff’s defence, the joint was jumping – I could swear that when we left at 11pm, I saw a table starting on their amuse bouches for their own degustation. I managed to drive home without falling asleep behind the wheel, and slept the fine, leaden sleep of the sated and content.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Chef - Teage Ezard
Location - Crossley St, City
Open - (L) M-F 12pm-2.30pm (D) M-S 6pm-Late
Food - Hawker Inspired with a touch of Sophistication
I was looking forward to this little food excursion for some time now - actually since Teage Ezard (he of the reputable 'Ezard' in Melbourne) opened the shiny glass doors of his cheeky salute to hawker inspired food of Singapore and Bangkok. I have eaten at his flagship restaurant and I knew the standard to be expected.
I booked the reservation about 10am and by 11.30am they had called to confirm the availablity (taking care to remind me that seating at 6.30pm need to vacate the table by 8.30pm). I received a text message a minute later confirming that someone would call me to make the reservation. Hmmm. I was left wondering after the conversation on the phone what they would do if we hadn't finished eating by 8.30pm - would we have a Faulty Towers episode of kicking us out? Probably not.
We were seated very promptly by Young, Hip and Trendy (my names for the red-shirt, black pants wait staff). The decor is very very sexy - think black, sleek, shiny with red compliments. Very clever bamboo painted back studded with fairy lights against one wall, comfortable padded seats on one side and fragile-looking, translucent plastic chairs on the other side. The table is set with chop-sticks, metal spoon and fork and a rather competent paper dining napkin.
I ordered one of the house-cocktails (Water Lilly - vodka, lychee and watermelon) and the boy ordered a soft drink. The menu is definitely South East Asian inspired - lots of very enticing things to tempt the tastebuds. We settled on - Chicken Satay Dumplings with Cucumber Relish, Crispy Chilli Salt Cuttlefish with Lemon and Sesame and Soft Shell Crab with Green Chilli to start.
The Cuttlefish was one of the best I have ever had - light almost tempura batter around tender white cuttlefish pieces. Enough to share but very hard to since they were so tasty. I loved the effort of a wedge of lemon in muslin. The Dumplings were excellent - meaty and packed full of chicken, peanuts and a healthy whack of chilli. I liked them more than the boy did. I was very impressed with the cucumber relish - chunks of fresh crisp cucumber scattered with tender pink tendrils of pickled shallot. The Soft Shell Crab was not on the menu, it was written on the mirrored 'specials' area - I didn't think it lived up to the hype. I like soft shell crab however these had none of the crisp lightness I expected. Maybe the dressing was too heavy but I loved the dressing - full of flavour, perfect rounds of green chilli and other aromatics in a spicy, vinegar dressing.
For our mains - we chose two 'sharing' dishes - Singapore Noodles with Coconut Laksa and Spiced Vegetables, Grain Fed Wagyu Rump with Black Pepper Sauce and Kim Chee and we couldn't resist the Fried Corn Cakes.
There was a 20 minute wait between when our entrees plates were removed and when our mains were placed before us. I don't mind waiting but when there is a timeframe involved - makes for a few uneasy moments.
Young, Hip and Trendy made quick work of clearing away the table and ensuring the glasses were refilled - they even made room for the oversized plate and bowl bearing the mains. The corn cakes were bliss. Pure and simple. Golden brown, speckled with chilli and redolent with garlic. Tender corn and fluffy batter - I wanted some of Neil Perry's Chilli Caramel sauce to make a little puddle to dunk the little darlings into. If you go for nothing else, go for the fried Corn Cakes. The Wagyu Rump were 6 tender slices of beef, cooked rare and perched atop a boat of black pepper sauce stuffed with swoon-worthy garlic pieces. The best part of the whole dish for me was the much-avoided Kim Chee - why aren't more people embracing this fierce combination of crunchy cabbage, chilli, garlic and so many other things? I love kim chee - and I don't think it smells bad in the least - I think people psych themselves up about the 'fermented cabbage' and prepare themselves not to like it. Shame really, but more for me. The Singapore Noodles with Laksa had amazing flavour. I stopped just short of tipping the bowl to my mouth and drinking the laksa - coconut rich and sweet, chilli hot, tomato sour, snakebeans to add crunch, cabbage for a tender bite ... the list goes on and on. One of the best I have had (the best is still Penang Coffee House in Hawthorne). The Singapore Noodles and Laksa is vegetarian but you don't really miss the soft succulent pieces of sweet, pink edged roast pork, shards of broth soaked chicken, tiny prawns... oh who am I kidding? I missed it. The boy and I loved the texture of the crispy noodles in the laksa - a great idea when all the other laksas are a combination of slippery thick egg noodles and thin rice noodles.
Oh yes, those awesome corn cakes to soak up the black pepper sauce and the laksa broth as well ... there is no bad way to enjoy corn cakes.
We made it out of there in under an hour - great turn around for great food and a Melbourne gem in the making. 7/10