Sunday, December 26, 2004

I made - Christmas hampers

This year for gifts to bf's mum, uncle and dad I made little Christmas hampers instead of buying gifts. It was an opportunity to try two festive recipes that had interested me for some time: Donna Hay's Gingerbread Shortbread and a christmas spice cake I had seen on the Domestic Goddess.

The shortbread recipe, to say the least, had me screaming and swearing in the kitchen, "Stupid Donna Hay!" I don't know what I did wrong but after rolling out the cookie dough in between the baking paper and cutting out the cookies, they were so limp that it was impossible to remove them onto the baking sheet. I thought I'd chill the dough to make it firmer and easier to work with, but to no avail. I ended up scraping the dough back into the bowl and adding another 3/4 cup of flour. Thankfully this produced a more pliable cookie dough. Perhaps any cookie cookers reading this can suggest what may have gone wrong - was it my technique, or the recipe (as I'm hoping)?

110 g butter
1/3 cup caster sugar
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup rice flour
2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 egg

A food processor bowl was loaded with the dry ingredients and butter then processed until a fine crumb obtained. Subsequently egg was added and the mixture worked into a soft dough that was rolled out to 0.5 mm thick between two sheets of baking paper. Cookie cutting was attempted but the dough was far too soft. Consequently, it was scraped back into the bowl and 3/4 cup flour added to form a firmer dough. Re-rolling to 0.5 mm followed by cookie cutting gave approximately 9 stars and 3 gingerbread men.

I iced the cookies with lemon icing made from icing sugar and lemon juice. The cookies looked quite cute and rustic. Tasted ok, but they were a little on the floury side.

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The spice cakes, on the other hand, were fantastic. I was a bit concerned at a cake recipe that did not use any egg yolks, butter or oil of any kind. But the substitution of butter with applesauce, a common technique in low fat baking I hear, was quite successful. I put some extra spices in, because I like 'em spicy, and the result were cute little bars of Blueberry Spice Cake.

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The texture of these cakes was different from a conventional full-fat cake but this was ok. It was slightly chewy and did tend to dry out quickly but the blueberries made sure that enough moistness was present. This was my first time using a silicone baking mould and I'm pleased to report that this was quite successful. Though next time I will put the very floppy mould on top of a baking tray before putting the batter in as it was a small acrobatic feat getting the fully laden and wobbling mould onto the chopping board, to slide it onto the baking tray, to put into the oven.

I individually wrapped them in cellophane with festive ribbons. What a task! Thankfully there were only 16 bars. The ribbon tying and curling nearly drove me insane - next time I will use gold twist ties instead.

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The hampers looked quite nice - little gingerbread men, stars, cake bars and chocolates all covered in shiny cellophane. Bf remarked on how beautifully spicy they smelled as I carried them down the apartment stairs.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Restaurant Review - Courgette

Location: Marcus Clarke St, Canberra
Date: 5 Dec, 2004

Dearest, darling and best-beloved bf is turning 30 on Monday. Alas, he will be away in Sydney attending a training course so all celebrations of this momentous milestone must be conducted this a-weekend. He organises so much for me, so it was up to me to create something special for Saturday night. Our favourite pizza in Canberra is from Pizza Arte (to be reviewed soon) and I planned to get some pizza, some sparkling apple juice and having a nice little romantic picnic by the lakeside as the sun set.

Apparently the wrong decision; he qualified, “When I said low-key, I didn’t mean low-brow!” Oh. A new restaurant choice was needed. We had succesful dined at the Charcoal Restaurant (a place whose menu hadn’t changed since the mid-80’s and where you can still order Avocado with Vinaigrette as a starter) so elected to try the revolving restaurant up in Telstra Tower. Yes, I know these places are not known to have the best food – something about not having a fixed geospatial position whilst eating is always unnerving – I imagined numerous tossed salads flung up into the air and falling far from the bowl because of the revolution.

Alas, this was booked out for a corporate Christmas function so our dreams of an 80’s dinner celebration were dashed.

The proprietors of the frou-frou restaurant Aubergine had recently opened up a new venture, Courgette. I often joke that one day they will also open up bistro-style or budget versions of these elegant joints called Eggplant and Zucchini; maybe even an Indian incarnation: Brinjal. I was half expecting this place to be booked out or full as well. It was just becoming that kind night and I was getting grumpy from low-blood sugar, but thankfully it wasn’t. We turned up at the restaurant and a cheery maître’d showed us to a table for two in the Boardroom. The restaurant proper was full, so they had converted their function room into additional dining space. Although not as intimate as the dining room, this was a bright, white and open space built for good acoustics, it was pleasant enough.

The menu was absolutely delightful and I was gasping inwardly to myself at their possible treats available. Some of the entrées were lamb’s brains, a rabbit loin with leg confit and duck confit. I chose a roasted deboned quail with mixed mushroom risotto and quail egg. I think eating deboned quail topped with a single fried quail's egg is the height of indulgence and such a luxury. Dearest, darling and best-beloved bf ordered the special entrée – sautéed prawns and pork belly. Have I mentioned to pork belly is my favourite meat? More of that to come in other posts.

I’m not much of a wine fan as I usually can’t drink a lot before I stop tasting the food. Also, I’ve drunk so many foul-tasting wines which were claimed by others, usually the host of the dinner, to be absolutely mah-vell-us that now I’m totally confused as to what a “good wine” is. I’m slowly beginning my wine re-education with bf and I’m pleased that I can actually trust my tastebuds and nose when it comes to wine too. I will mention wine in this post because this was an occasion where the pairing up of food and drink was memorable for me.

We started with a Seppelt sparkling shiraz – a sparkling wine made from red Shiraz grapes. Kinda like fizzy Ribena but alcoholic, not as sweet and a lot more classy (that last word is to be read with a high nasal über-ocker 'Strine accent). Meanwhile, a delightful pre-dinner amuse had arrived: smoked salmon and dill on a blini. Delicious, tantalising and perfect to whet our appetites. Bread rolls were next and these were the cutest little brown balls you had ever seen. Each one was a smooth matte ovoid with three little tufty peaks each like the curl on Popeye’s baby Swee’Pea’s head.

The table next to us had just finished their dessert and feeling a little jolly and talkative from the wine. My surreptitious eavesdropping informed me that it was an Italian-Australian daughter having her parents and her fiancé/boyfriend/live-in lover for dinner. It was also plainly clear that although her parents were of high breeding, this characteristic had definitely not been passed down to the offspring. She had also chosen a similarly disposed boyfriend as he loudly declared and compared the McCafé offerings in Tugerranong with the coffee and petit-fours served here at Courgette. “Yeah, the new McCafé’s rool noice too,” he squawked.

At any rate, we felt vastly superior as we sipped on our sparkling shiraz, nibbled on our bread rolls and ate our entrées. My deboned quail was absolutely delicious – moist, crisp and full of flavour. The mushroom risotto was creamy, earthy and redolent with field mushrooms. Totally scrumptious. This beautiful assemblage was crowned with a single fried quail’s egg. Now that’s what I call luxury. You must think I’m so naïve being impressed by this, but anything to eat requiring fiddly painstaking work and last-minute assembling always gets me going. Bf’s sautéed prawns with pork belly were sublime. The large sea-fresh prawns were juicy, crisp on one side but succulent on the other. The pork belly had melting tenderness and was not the least bit greasy – a perfect marriage of lean meat and fat.

Thankfully, the table alongside us had vacated and we were free to enjoy the rest of our evening sans crap-chat. We had chosen appropriate wines to match our mains: the sommelier recommended a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc for myself and a Grenache Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot for bf. I can’t recall more details (how useless, I know) but I’ll endeavour to find out if we revisit this place soon.

The choices of mains were a little less stellar compared to the entrées; we were initially tempted to order five entrées instead. However, I settled on a prawn crusted salmon with mushroom velouté and poached oysters whilst bf chose a seared fillet of cod with potato gnocchi, tomato compote and Eden Bay mussels.

At this point a loud female voice could be heard from the table located in the wine cellar, another special-event type room. A rousing discussion on the pronunciation of “gnocchi” soon followed to our amusement. Everyone knows it’s nyeeo-kee.

I was a bit worried about choosing the prawn crusted salmon as visions of a salmon fillet lined with paper-thin slices of prawn and then grilled came to mind. I wasn’t sure what the prawns would actually be adding in that case; I’m not really one for gimmicky food. The poached oysters also sounded a little odd – although I love oysters I only really like them fresh or steamed with ginger and garlic. But the waiter assured me that it was a minced prawn crust and that the thick fillet would be sautéed on only one side. I was not disappointed. I love deep-fried crunchy prawns and this was perfect. After enviously sampling a third of one of bf’s entrée of sautéed prawns I was now pleased to have a bit of prawn all to my own. The poached oysters were also delicious – a nice counterpoint to the prawns and the mushroom velouté. Again, the earthiness of the mushrooms complemented the rich and powerful protein greyness of the oysters.

Bf’s cod was conceptually a total contrast to my dish. Whereas mine was all about careful composition, delicate balancing – akin to a parade of haute couture with impossibly high hats and uncomfortable shoes – his dish had a casual, fun, get-out-of-bed looking gorgeous with bed-hair aesthetic about it. The cod was silkily flaking on the fork and the crisp skin salty and oceany. The nyeeo-kee were four cute little dumplings dotted in the tomato compote. We had also ordered a side of Paris mash with our mains and I thought that this would be mashed potato with truffle oil or something exotic. But it was just a very creamy mashed potato. It arrived extruded into a deep concave shape and at first I thought that it was some sort of crispy snack or wrapper à la San Choi Bau style. Bf laughed at my food gaffe, again poking fun at me whenever an opportunity arose.

Now thoroughly replete, we sat back and enjoyed the rest of our wine while contemplating dessert. It was that type of time where you think, “I’m so full, almost to bursting point. But I still want to eat because I like the taste.” This is how people get fat, or bulimic, I think. The thought did cross my mind that I could just quickly chew and taste the food and then spit it out thus avoiding absorbing any calories. Sometimes I worry myself.

We had made it clear to the waiter that dessert was still to be ordered and as we contemplated what breathing exercises to do in order to alleviate our slight discomfort and make room for dessert, an in-between course refresher of grapefruit sorbet arrived to our delight. It’s the little touches that make the meal so special.

We debated on getting a mango tarte tatin with ginger and lime ice-cream, poached peach on sticky meringue with fresh raspberries and crème chibouse or blood orange parfait. The poached peach and parfait won out in the end, mainly because bf wanted to find out what a “chibouse” was. Perhaps some sort of creamy custard dancing with a wiggling bottom to Ricky Martin?

My blood orange parfait was rich and citrusy. The orange countered the creaminess well and the sweet and fruity sauce was delicious. Bf was having difficulty with his dessert; it was proving too unwieldly to cut his poached peach with a fork and knife. So he attempted to eat his poached peach all in one mouthful. I was glad the McCafé crowd at the former table had left, because here I was feeling all culturally superior over them and there was bf trying to stuff a whole dripping peach into his mouth. The crème chibouse felt like a thick crème anglaise to me, but I’m sure there was more to it. I blame the wine as by now I was feeling pleasantly drowsy and extremely satisfied.

We ordered coffees and I also thought I’d experiment with a Calvados. I’d heard about this apple liquer from various sources before and was keen to see what this was all about. I imagined that it would be similar to an apple-flavoured port. Since this was a special occasion I elected to try the most expensive 32-year old Calvados at $25 for 80 ml. I figured that I should try the best if I wanted to truly know what Calvados was all about.

I hated it. But finished it nonetheless as I’d just paid $25 for 80 ml of alcohol and if I didn’t like the taste, I was at least going to get the intoxicant effect of it. I kept thinking that $25 would have bought me three litres of 80% ethanol from work. I found it an extremely harsh liquer: not smooth at all. If ever I had drunk anything akin to the proverbial “firewater” this was it. There were hints of oakiness and the barest glimmer of an apple fragrance. This was definitely a drink to be taken with copious amounts of soft-membrane and tastebud destroying cigar smoke. I didn’t like at all. Oh well, chalk one up to experience.

Aside from the Calvados incident, which was entirely my fault, this dinner was altogether superb. The food and wine were beautiful, the service excellent whilst being friendly and not too formal.

Entrées: $17.50
Mains: $28.50
Desserts: $14

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The chocolate cake that never should have been

A post by umami prompted me to look through the latest issue of Gourmet Traveller. Something I'm not usually wont to do as the food just makes me envious and frustrated at not being able to learn and recreate the recipes that I know I could if I had the time. This week's feature was Slab Cakes. Basically home-made versions of the kinds of cakes you might buy in a supermarket in rectangular blocks. But GT gave a down-country hokey kind of spin to the whole article. Also, some of them were very prettily iced: meringue frosting, candied lime, etc.

I tried their chocolate slab cake:
butter, chocolate and water - melted and mixed
flour and baking powder - sifted
the ingredients combined, stirred with brown sugar and sour cream and baked.

Maybe the oven was too hot: I used a fan-forced setting instead of ordinary radiant heat. Maybe the recipe was totally wrong(!): Who melts dark chocolate, butter and water??

At any rate, the cake was overcooked on the outside but still soft on the inside. I figured after 45 mins at 180 dC it was done so I took it out of the oven, rested for 3 mins then inverted it on a rack to cool. After 20 mins I wanted to try it, so turned it onto a plate and discovered that approximately 10% of the very centre of the cake was still uncooked; a puddlet of thick brown gooey batter had oozed through the hole made by the cake-testing knife onto the kitchen bench.

Naturally, I was dismayed and a bit disappointed by this result. It also didn't help when my darling and supportive bf L charmingly pointed out, "Your cake's done POOS!" before laughing out loud, pointing and giggling at me. That over-under-cooked battery-brick mass just sat lumpenly before me, unanswering.

It tasted all right but deep in my stomach, I knew no one would eat it. A cake eaten out of Chinese-induced clean-up-your-plate guilt will believe it is worthless.(*) I committed the equivalent of patisserie euthansia and guiltily slid it into the bin.

Footnote: (*) This sentence is modified from a sign at the Teddy Bear Shop: A Stolen Teddy Will Believe He is Worthless.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Nana Diver’s Double Chocolate-Chip Supa Chunk Great Tasting

Great tasting what? You might asking yourself. What has Nana Diver made in her kitchen? The title leaves you guessing, doesn’t it? Great tasting disappointment is what it was. This is one of those chocolate chip cookies from a vending machine aka “fatbox”. I had just finished a rather gruelling step aerobics workout and needed a sugar fix in order to continue functioning. I was craving a Cookie Time cookie but I could only find Nana Diver’s bakery product.

Needless to say, it was a profound letdown. For 22g of fat, I had expected something tastier. I found one double-chocolate-chip-supa-chunk in my cookie, and it wasn’t even that “supa-” sized. The biscuit was crumbly, sweet but tasteless and there was no aroma to speak of. Quite a let down, but I should have known and read the label. It doesn’t even declare itself to be a cookie!

I want my Cookie Time. I didn’t know it was a New Zealand phenomenon, but I guess the best things come from NZ, like me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

New Mango Variety

I never thought that mango eating was such a trial. I heard on the radio, and subsequently found on the net, that a new mango variety has been launched in the Northern Territory, near Darwin. It’s supposed to be easier to eat, with a smaller seed and, get this, milder in flavour.

Apparently first-time mango eaters are deterred by the strong mango taste so they hope to capture new markets by having a bland mango variety. When I used to live in Malaysia, my aunts, uncles and extended family prized the intensely aromatic Philippine mango. They held it in the highest esteem because of the wonderful almost incense-like intense fragrance that it had. My green-thumbed grandfather had managed to coax a mango tree of the Philipine variety and I remember being taken out in the evening, when the smell was most intense, by my uncle to savour the thick aroma exuding from the one tiny mango. Unfortunately we were waiting for this mango to increase to decent eating proportions but, just like Peter Pan, it didn’t want to grow up and was attacked by my grandmother’s chickens before we could rescue it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve eaten a Philippine mango but my friend K, who recently spent 6 months in the archipelago, assures me that they are still as beautifully fragrant and delicious as I remember them.

Why would anyone choose to eat a bland mango? “Oooh, this mango’s too strong, I feel all funny – might need a lie down.” If you’re so scared of it, why not just eat a peach?

This new variety is also supposed to be easier to eat: less messy and fleshier. But I have never had a problem eating mangoes tidily. Yes, I admit that preparation is vital, and you can’t eat a mango like you would an apple; but if the cheeks are scored then inverted, little cubes of mango flesh practically jump out at you. All that’s needed is a teaspoon to enjoy. The seed is another matter, but the good host will shave the flesh off the seed into a little pile for his guests, or himself, to enjoy.

Restaurant Review - Golden Century Seafood

Location: Sussex St, Sydney
Date: 1 October, 2004

The date of a big gay dance-party isn’t usually the occasion for a feasting celebration. On the contrary, usually the months of near-starvation and frenetic gym workouts, not to mention solarium sessions and artful manscaping (body-hair trimming/removal), preclude any thought of good eating.

But this time was different. On this particularly dance-party eve, Sleaze 2004, a particular confluence of friends was in Sydney. My good friend D and his bf R both from New Zealand, my glam LA-living friend P, my adopted (unofficially) brother S and his friend (and now ours) the cyberpimp J. It was D’s first time in Sydney, let alone overseas, and he was much excited to be in town. So I had arranged for dinner and gradually the circle of six got wider until it became a party of eight.

Usually I would cook, but since I live in Canberra and everyone else was in Sydney, this wasn’t such a convenient thing to do. I had arranged for dinner at the Golden Century Seafood Restaurant: a place that L and I had previously checked out with S. That time we feasted on steamed murrawong with ginger and spring onion, hot and salty snowcrab, and chicken steamed with ginger and spring onion. This time, with a party of eight, I was looking forward to the greater variety of dishes possible.

Golden Century was reviewed during the Sydney 2000 Olympics and is probably Australia’s best seafood restaurant. It is on an upper level and from the street you can see the tanks and tanks of live seafood swimming away or sitting, in the case of the abalone and scallops. On this particular occasion, I made the bold step of choosing what we were to eat. I felt that it would be too hard to come to a consensus amongst eight people, and that a Prime Directive of Food Concept should come from one person. I had already started thinking of the menu the night before, something that L found amusing, but I thought was deadly serious. I needed to match the flavours, yet leave room to take advantage of specials, and still cater to filling bellies. Tough work, I tell ya.

I ordered:
Scallops – steamed with ginger, spring onion and soy sauce
King crab – salt and pepper deep-fried (jiu yim), steamed with ginger and spring onion, and noodles flavoured with the roe (three dishes)
Coral trout – steamed with ginger, spring onion and soy sauce
King mushroom – braised with lettuce
Ma po tofu – bean curd braised with hot spicy beef mince
Mustard green (kai larn) – stir fried with ginger and garlic

Okay, so maybe there were a few too many “ginger and spring onion” dishes, but it was busy and I was too shy to ask our waiter what were some other ways of cooking those seafoods. After taking our order, the waiter promptly went to the display tanks, caught and weighed our seafood, and brought it to our table for my inspection and price approval; before taking it into the kitchen to be cooked fresh. The fish was still convulsing in the plastic bag, which unnerved a few of my friends, but I assured them that it was “all part of the experience”.

It was way too much food for eight men, but all quite delicious. J, of Hispanic origin, was most impressed with the premiering scallops. Whilst not familiar with the “ginger and spring onion” flavouring concept, commented that these were the best scallops he’d ever tasted. I couldn’t agree more.

The king crab arrived next divided into two plates: two masses of jumbled claws and exoskeleton piled up high. The jiu yim version was tasty, the flesh firm and sweet, although I thought the deep-frying oil needed to be a touch refreshed. A little heavy on the MSG too, but not unpleasantly so. The ginger and spring onion version was coated in a cornflour thickened sauce, which I found a little unnecessary, but revealed another flavour dimension to the crab. The noodles, which were nestled within the giant body-shell of the crab, were absolutely delicious. They were a beautiful orange, rich with the crab roe colour, but still delicately flavoured to allow the seafood nature to permeate without the excessive iodine-tinge that can sometimes mar the enjoyment of roe. Even non-roe eaters such as R enjoyed the noodles.

The coral trout, although perfectly steamed and the flesh texture just right, had trouble competing against the previous splendour of the king crab. I actually found the flesh texture a bit disconcerting. It was my first time eating coral trout, and I’m more used to the texture of blue cod instead of this very firm and springy fish. One day I will have to enjoy this delicate fish on its own and to enjoy its understated and restrained flavour.

I had never eaten king mushroom before, but thought I would order it as S was on a ten-day vegetarian cleansing ritual, “I can’t eat anything with a face.” I managed to convince him that crustaceans and molluscs don’t really have a face – he was glad to find any excuse to indulge. King mushroom is quite amazing. Obviously it was developed as a vegetarian alternative to abalone, but the silky firm texture alone has meant that many would prefer it to the sea creature. I certainly do. It was flavoured in a very “meaty” sense, I suspect there was generous use of lard if not beef dripping, but the overall impression was a luxurious pale side of mushroom; as if freshly sacrificed.

After all of this, the tofu arrived. Everyone was full now, and the richness of the beef and chilli actually detracted from the prior seafood and vegetable delights. We had to give it a miss. I had actually mistakenly ordered this dish in place of Bean Curd Eight Treasure, which I really wanted.

For dessert, there complimentary plates of watermelon, fresh baked cookies and petits fours. These were executed in Hong Kong style, those of you who know the this particular bakery aesthetic will know what I mean. On our previous visit, with our Asian faces, S and myself had also prompted a big bowl of hot and sweet black sesame soup. Now, with our yellow moon-faces lost in a sea white powderpuffs, no such luck.

Service was quick, efficient but eerily silent. Most of the waiters did not speak good English, but had no difficulty understanding our requests. My limited Cantonese helped on occasion, but many were exclusive Mandarin speakers. The restaurant was particularly bustling that night, and we encountered no less that five birthday celebrations. Periodically when we were eating, the music would quieten down, “Happy Birthday” would be played and everyone would start clapping and cheering. There was discussion at the table that we should have a birthday at the table too - not to give into peer pressure or anything.

Overall, this was a fantastic dinner. The seafood is priced per kg, and the bill came out to approximately $95 per head. A very rare indulgence, but well worth it in the company of great friends.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Braising Sauce

I tried the braising sauce described in AromaCookery's blog today. Although the proportions of the aromatics were not given, I guessed and used:

Half a spanish onion
One lemon grass
5cm of galangal
3 cloves of garlic
2.5 tbsp brown sugar
1.5 tbsp dark soy
0.5 tbsp light soy

For about half a side of pork belly, approximately 500g.

It was delicious, but a bit too sweet. Next time I will use 1 tbsp sugar and twice the amount of garlic. But it was still very aromatic and quite delicious. I paired it with some watercress, red date and chicken soup. My grandmother would have asked, "Is that all? Only two things for dinner?" But since I'm the cook, that's enough. I have a blog to write, nana!

Saturday, October 23, 2004

I made - Apple Pie

Feeling fluey, feeling in need of mothering: I made an apple pie. I have pastry-phobia, so I went to the supermarket to buy some ready made sweet shortcrust pastry, but there wasn't any! I didn't want to use quiche pastry, so I gritted my teeth and made my own: vegetable shortening and butter, á la Delia Smith, but with added sugar for extra sweetness.

It turned out reasonably well. Very home-made looking as you can see from the pictures, but that's because I am rolling-pin disabled. I had also put too much nutmeg and mace in, whilst trying to substitute for a lack of allspice, so it was a little too nutmeggy. I made a custard to go with it, White Wings I'm afraid, but that was because we didn't have any eggs - not that I would have made a traditional custard anyway. How horrible, I hear you say, and he calls himself a cook/foodie? No eggs, no allspice, what is in that ill-stocked pantry of his? Ummm...corned beef (lite), over-ripe bananas (for Thai banana paste - really!), two-week old fish curry and pickled cabbage.

The bf liked it though, so I'm pleased. I think it tastes good too; albeit very filling, I blame it on the shortening. Think of it as homestyle, rustic even, and healing. Healing apple pie - I like the sound of that.

Restaurant Review - Mahjong Room

cross-posted, originally written 12 July 2004

Location: Crown St, Darlinghurst.
Date: Sun, 11 July

Mahjong Room was the second in the list of that night's eateries. The first, Billy Kwong, had an hour wait for a table and I had sourced Mahjong Room as a suitable backup. The bf was not impressed initially as the large bay windows showcased an empty room. But we persisted (I whined and he gave in) and we were pleasantly rewarded.

The menu is suitably simple and elegant - comprising a range of interesting Cantonese fare ranging from crabmeat dim sims to steamed fish with ginger and shallot. The selection is pleasingly constrained for a Chinese restaurant which showed that the chef had paid some attention to food matching.

Our waitress showed us through the front room, past the ornately carved antique style wooden chairs and into the back section of the restaurant. We sat in the cobblestone corridoor adjacent to another room entrance with painted chinese signs. Our table perched on the stones and our tea light candle flickered alluringly. The red plastic lampshades barely covered their bulbs, giving them an air of blatant reveal. All vaguely appropriate given its proximity to the major gay strip in Sydney. The carefully crafted decor and atmosphere elicited a slightly homesick feeling within me. I could almost believe I was in a back street in Malaysia or Hong Kong except that it was conspicuously clean and there was a distinct lack of occassional strange and wafting malodours. Such was the ambience that I almost expected a cheongsam clad Maggie Cheung to glide past, her takeaway container swinging, as she came to pick up her noodles for the night.

We decided on the roast duck platter, the jiu yim prawns and the steamed tofu and eggplant with ginger and spring onion. We were also tempted by slow cooked spare ribs and sze chuan hot pot, but as what I had convinced myself were overdeveloped obliques were actually fat deposits (as gloriously pointed out by a well-meaning friend), we chose not to overeat. Our waitress was rushed off her feet but handled all four tables with aplomb, I barely noticed her busyness until the bf pointed out she was short of breath from running from table to table.

Our meals arrived promptly. The duck was gloriously tender, bone-free and served with 5-spice marinated hard tofu and fresh shitake mushrooms. Succulent, juicy and perfectly seasoned. The woody mushrooms complimented the duck and the aromatic tofu beautifully. The jiu yim prawns were a little bland for seafood, but the flesh was firm and the batter crisp and lip-smackingly tasty. The MSG flakes mingled with the chilli and garlic to give that unreal 'too-delicious' taste. I think the usual trick of applying lye water or bicarbonate of soda to 'firm up' the prawns had been used and the rinsing of excess alkali had also washed off much of the prawn flavour. The tofu and eggplant, served in a steel steaming pot, were beautifully steamed, their textures perfectly complementary. The velvety softness of the tofu was just balanced by the ever-so-slightly firmer eggplant and its associated coarser vegetable texture. I would have preferred more of a savoury flavour, but there was only a hint of this because most of it had drained through the mixture and pooled at the bottom of the rack. The remining prominent flavours were coriander, spring onion and ginger.

We were now suitable satiated, but dessert was offered. I searched, located and opened my stomach dessert pocket and we agreed to share some glutinous dumplings. We chose red bean and black sesame and these arrived in a warm sweet soup. They were deliciously chewy and the fillings pleasantly unsweet and tasty. I was a little disappointed in the soup as I had expected a sweeter ginger syrup soup, like my grandmother makes with these dumplings, but I guess this isn't the way it is done elsewhere.

Although the menu is not as creative as Billy Kwong, the flavours were pure, unadulterated and traditional. You'd probably find better value in Chinatown or Chatswood, but the quaint ambience and proximity to Oxford St are a drawcard. This is the sort of place that should serve yumchar, but in the original sense and concept, i.e. copious amounts of boutique chinese teas and just a small selection of snacks accompanied by caffeine inspired debates on ephemera. Mahjong Room is a pleasingly retro reconstruction of old chinese tearooms.

"Small eats" $13-18
Mains $17-21

Restaurant Review - Tak Kee Roast Inn

cross-posted, originally written: 17 July 2004

Wooley St, Dickson, ACT
Thursday, 15 July, 7 pm.
The bf and I had spontaneously decided to go out for dinner that night.  I had just been to the gym so my blood sugar levels were low, almost nonexistent, and a decision had to made fast.  We were initially tempted by the newly-opened Ethiopian restaurant but, and I know this sounds racist, my memory associations of food and Ethiopia are not positive.  Ethiopia, I associate more with a lack of food, rather than a developed cuisine.  I didn’t want to eat rehydrated food concentrate with a sprig of parsely.
We finally settled on Tak Kee Roast Inn.
To call this place a ‘restaurant’ (pronounced with a nasal French accent) is a little incorrect.  The more perfunctory ‘eatery’ or even ‘eating house’ is more accurate but this is not an LSD inspired maison qui mange but one of those service-less Chinese outlets awash in super-bright fluorescent lighting and white plastic melamine.
My first brush with Tak Kee was during my second month in Canberra when I was homesick and desperately in need of some homestyle food.  I saw the hanging ducks in the window, shyly walked in and asked in broken Cantonese, “Do you have roast duck on rice?”  The proprietress looked down her short flat mainland Chinese nose to the top of my higher bridged Hainanese nose, snootily said yes, then proceeded to make up a plate for me that consisted mostly of duck skin and bone.  I didn’t complain as I was desperate for animal fat at that time.  You see, I had just started obsessing about my body and nutrition whilst trying to become the Ultimate Gay Sex-object and the prior month's diet of lettuce and chicken breast had induced a primeval craving within me.
Nevertheless, Tak Kee has become a favourite haunt of ours.  Tonight we sat next to a table of two middle-aged Chinese men from Malaysia who proceeded to order loudly in Mandarin with heavy Cantonese accents.  They did not order from the menu, as only Whities do that in an establishment like Tak Kee because everyone knows what should be on the menu anyway.  When their food arrived one man asked for some fresh cut chilli and was dumbfounded when they didn’t have any.  His companion remarked, “That’s why I always carry chilli with me.  I have some in the car right now.  Do you want me to go get it?” That’s the mark of a true gourmand – someone that has their own private chilli supply on-hand.
The bf had roast duck and gow gee noodle soup which was in a clear MSG-laced broth with thin eggless (wonton) noodles.  The gow gee were fat and juicy little parcels of mixed meat, I suspect mostly pork, with some seasoning.  The roast duck was tasty and reasonably meaty.  Whilst he was eating, the same loud chilli fiend at the next table complained that there was no skin on his roast pork.  “What is this?!  No skin?  Why is there no skin on this roast pork?  Roast pork must have skin and fat.  This is all just white, with no skin at all,” he scolded the proprietress in Malaysian accented Cantonese.  She apologised for the skin falling off and provided a replacement plate of meat. 
My own dish was tasty enough, I had udon noodles with black pepper beef but I would have liked a bit more beef with my noodle.  The noodles were tender and tasty but I would have preferred the use of Szechuan peppercorns instead of the more economical black peppercorns. 
Tak Kee Roast Inn serves the usual range of chinese barbequed meats in the customary styles, e.g. noodles, soup, rice, etc.  In addition, a wide range of ‘kitchen’ dishes are available such as combination chow mein, fried rice and braised beef brisket.  Each dish can be a complete meal, e.g. roast duck on noodles, or several meat dishes can be combined to have with rice.
Price per dish:  $6-12, generally increasing with the ratio of meat to carbohydrate.

Quirky Restaurant Names

cross-posted, originally written: 19 July 2004

The transplantation of Chinese marketing concepts into Anglo-Saxon culture can sometimes be interesting.  We’ve all seen those strange sentences on t-shirts, stationery and other knick-knicks; those amusing slogans that don’t make sense but which always sound so pretty. 
Case in point, I noticed a café in Chinatown in Sydney called “Little Lamb Hot-pot”.  The picture is a cute cartoon sheep face smiling at potential customers.  This was a Northern Chinese restaurant and thus lamb features extensively on the menu, but the idea of eating Mary’s pet, especially after it had beckoned and smiled at me with those wide eyes, was not appealing at all.  I don’t know, perhaps the rampaging Mongolian influence meant that those Northern Chinese were hardened to these ‘cute’ notions. 
Another café of note is in Market City, also in Chinatown – the Blue Ice Internet Po Po House II.  This is presumably the start of a long lineage of Blue Ice Internet Po Po Houses soon to be springing up at a mall near you.  I have deduced that this place is perhaps of Taiwanese origin as it serves those strange bubble teas and other iced concoctions but it also has internet access – hence ‘Internet’ in its name.  As to what a 'Po Po' is, your guess is as good as mine.  It does mean ‘grandmother’ in various Chinese dialects, but there is nothing grandmotherly about this slick joint, awash in blue lighting, transparent plastic and neon highlights.  It would have to be pretty funky grandma that would frequent this establishment.

I’m collecting a list of strange restaurant names, so please drop me a line if you know of any.

Restaurant Review - Japanese restaurant in Yutenji (name unknown)

cross-posted, originally written: Friday, September 10, 2004

Japanese food is so good here compared to what we get in Australia. Even the humble ramen is an order of magnitude more delicious, taste and texture-wise. A Japanese meal consists of a series of entrée sized plates that are shared so we started with cold snails.

These looked like large periwinkles and came with a wooden toothpick to prise out the curled bit of muscle inside. I wasn’t very adept at this and ended up breaking my toothpick after the second snail disembowelling.

Then we had some deep-fried mini spring rolls, as always these were perfectly crisp and tasty.

We were seated in a private room upstairs, so Lynn then pressed the buzzer for the waiter to come. She placed an order for grilled mackeral, fish head, deep fried chicken pieces (kara-age) and some agedashi-doufu. In the meanwhile, a plate of Californian roll sushi had arrived as well as a verdant dish of cold cooked salty soybeans. We snacked on these while we waited for our more substantial fish dishes.

The mackeral was so tasty, a little bit on the dry side but still redolent with aromatic fish oils and char-grill. The fish head was juicy and succulent with salty crisp fish skin pieces.

All of this was accompanied with a bowl of rice and pickles.

We had the choice of dessert after this and Lynn chose some green-tea ice-cream. I chose the rai-chi burooberi dezeruto. This turned out to be a dish of six frozen lychees and about ten frozen blueberries. I guess this is appropriate for a hot summer's day, but I have never eaten frozen fruit for dessert before. These were very sweet, but the texture was…frozen-like. I found that a bit odd.