Sunday, February 20, 2005

Restaurant Review - Café Niki

Location: Café Niki, Bourke St, Surry Hills
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2005

It was the night of the Mardi Gras Launch; festivities were in the air, my cellphone was overflowing with SMSs "R u comin 2 the launch?" - well, two messages. I set out for Hyde Park to meet my friend S1. Halfway through my cycle, I was called away by S1 on an emergency mission: a friend was having a crisis and we were needed. I donned my Sympathy Cape and Supportive Mask to attend to his need. Isn't it amazing how the word "supportive" when used to describe any sort of garment just has a whole different connotation? Launch for us was cancelled, but we spent quality time aiding a friend in need. We went for a walk and I was starved.

Café Niki strode into view - it is set in the back streets of Surry Hills in the tree-lined avenue of Bourke St. This area has become quite pleasant and quiet to live in since the Eastern Distributor was built. The numerous one-way and bike paths discourage people from using this as a main thoroughfare and the old terrace houses give this neighbourhood a lot of character.

We chose Café Niki because it was quiet and secluded. It also had a decent reputation, i.e. no bad things had been said about it. It was within walking distance of S2's house, so very convenient. The Funky Chick showed us to our table; she was smiling and pleasant - hoping for an enjoyable night's work, but with that glimmer of foreboding present, just in case this night's customers were arseholes. We sat outside and they turned on the spotlight blinding us. We felt like we were on stage, but just as I flinched and thought to inform our waitress, the light magically dimmed. I remarked that she must have significant telekinetic powers. She agreed with me. Later I found out that she indicated the excessive brightness to the inside of the café and they turned the dimmer up.

The menu had a decent selection of simple home-style food. S2 had a fruit whip whilst S1 chose a steamed barramundi with greens while I chose a ragout with papardelle - things you might find in the latest issue of delicious magazine or Delia Smith's How-to-Cook, but more on that later.

My papardelle arrived and it was hearty, well done and satisfying. I remarked, perhaps a little too pompously, "This is great. It's exactly how I would have done it had I had the time". The pasta was elastic but pleasant to the bite. I dislike the term al dente as I don't think many people know what it means. In fact, I'm not quite sure what it means myself. I like my pasta to have a similar texture to a good noodle. All noodle-eating cultures would be familiar with the Cantonese song description of ideal noodle texture. The ragout was robustly flavoured with tomato reduction and light spices; I detected a hint of nutmeg and perhaps cloves. I couldn't quite figure out why this dish seemed so familiar though.

S1's steamed barramundi was perfectly cooked but the yoghurt and dill sauce was a little too overpowering for the delicate barramundi flavour. I've always had concerns (and made many mistakes) when using yoghurt as the cream-base for sauces, either in substitutions or intentionally. I find that the sourness of yoghurt can be especially overpowering for delicate fish flavours. I shy away from yoghurt and fish combinations preferring crème fraiche or sour cream. Strangely enough, this dish also seemed familiar.

I put the familiarity down to the fact that these dishes are "modern classics". I dislike this term, but it will do for now. I went home and looked up my cookbook collection - I had it pinned. Delia Smith has published some very similar recipes; I knew I had come across these somewhere before. Of course she did not have access to barramundi and used atlantic salmon. She also paired her fish with a sauce verte made with an egg emulsion; she would not have made the yoghurt mistake. The ragout was part of her winter series and flavoured very traditionally, as was the one that I ate. Nothing wrong with Delia, in fact, I love her ideas and overall philosophy with regard to food. It was just odd encountering her food in a café/bistro.

A dessert menu crossed our path and we were hooked. Although feeling quite satisfied already, S1 and I somehow managed to find room for a chocolate mousse. Funky Chick Waitress said that it was her favourite dessert and how could we pass up such a recommendation. The mousse was rich, thick and thoroughly decadent. Made with dark chocolate and cream, not a trace of gelatin or egg white in sight, it was creamy, velvety smooth but still unctuously frothy. If you can imagine small chocolate bubbles caught in a slow-moving stasis field breaking on your tongue, that was kinda what it was like.

We took our time over our mousses, simply because they were so rich. S1 put his fork down for an in-between dessert break - I gather he was finding his second wind - and after a deep conversation with S2 discovered that the remaining third of his mousse had been cleared away. He remarked with dismay, "I was going to eat that!" Now he'll never go to heaven; the amount of wasted food will outweigh the good that his soul contains and he'll be plunged straight to hell - or so goes Chinese mythology.

Mains: $12 to 17
Dessert: $8

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Restaurant review - Aria

Location: The Rocks, Sydney
Date: Thurs, 27 January 2005

A chance reunion with an old friend/flame at another big gay dance party
sparked an invitation to the opera. Lovely - we adore the opera. Fresh on the
heels of a hedonistic Australia day spent shirtless and sweaty amidst writhing bodies at Home nightclub in Cockle Bay, the following day's evening saw us at the Sydney Opera House enjoying some high culture - Così Fan Tutte to be precise.

A had generously provided an extremely drinkable Sauvignon Blanc pre-opera (I think - memory fails me slightly due to my intoxicated state) and the opera was extremely enjoyable. The angled stage did unnerve me at first, but A assured me that my eyes were not fooling me, my depth perception was still working and yes, the stage was indeed tilted up.

Post-opera dinner was at Aria as Guillaume (the restaurant at Bennelong) was fully booked. This is in the block also known as the Toaster, adjacent to Quayside. A very frou frou place, elegantly appointed with stylish and understated decor. The palette was warm but sleek and restive. I felt a right dag with my backpack but the maitre'd put it aside for me.

For entrée I ordered the pork belly with applesauce, caramelised apples and balsamic reduction. A chose the bug-meat boudin blanc, something like a sausage made with Balmain bug (a shellfish) meat. Some tourists (obviously) sat behind us and the husband loudly questioned the menu, "What does it mean, here - one course $27, two courses $57, three courses $73?" Obviously a little slow on the uptake.

The pork belly arrived elegantly presented. The rectangular slice of pork lay flat on its side on tiny circles of roasted apples and the balsamic reduction was adjacent: a flat rectangular stroke of a broad paintbrush - very creative. I had never seen balsamic reduction served this way before and it worked very well. My pork skin was crispy and the fat moist, succulent and tasty. The layering of fat and lean was perfect and the semi-sweet apples a nice contrast to the saltiness of the pork. A's boudin blanc arrived looking like a pale white extrusion. I'm sorry, I know I must be revealing my naivete at never having eaten boudin blanc, but it really didn't look that appealing. Nevertheless, he said that it was delicious.

I chose a grilled jewfish with truffle croute for my main and A chose lamb with Puy lentils. I'm a sucker for anything involving truffles as I've yet to sample the real thing. I'm trying to get an idea of what a truffle is really like - somehow though I think that truffle oil is a very very poor cousin to the pungeancy of the real thing. One day I'll eat truffle, one day.

Interestingly, the waiter asked A how he'd like his lamb done. I've never encountered this before; I've always thought that lamb was best done pink and it wasn't personal preference like steak. But I guess they were catering to all - perhaps they had several requests and now offered variations on the cooked lamb by default.

My jewfish arrived and I was heavily under the influence of the chardonnay. The accompanying pinot noir had already begun to cast its spell and we sat talking about love, life, his absolutely fantastic impending European holiday and my slow-starting scientific career. The fish was delicate and sweet but I found the crumb a little too savoury for my liking. Perhaps that was the truffle oil I was smelling/tasting. I have never had jewfish before but from the texture of the flesh it seemed to be a rather delicate tasting fish. Perhaps the croute was masking the flavour slightly, or perhaps this dish concept was about the croute and the fish, not the croute subordinate to the fish? I enjoyed the freshness of the herbs within the croute and the fish was cooked just right - as you'd expect in a place like this. I knew that everything would be technically perfect, so I was concentrating more on the chef's dining concepts.

A's lamb was quite delicious. A very earthy dish and I dare say done better than mine. However, my writing cannot be trusted at this point as the pinot noir had me well and truly within its thrall. The dessert menu was a blur but I requested an affogato from the waiter. It was a non-standard coffee item and I internally chastised myself for asking for it after he mentioned that he'd see if they had any vanilla ice-cream. They would have been embaressed if they hadn't, but I would have understood that I did make a non-menu request. Fortunately they did have some and I enjoyed my post-dinner espresso with ice-cream.

Aria is definitely a once-in-a-while experience for many. The quality of food and service were immaculate and technically flawless. Conceptually, the presentation was inspired (I'm still hooked by that paint strip of balsamic reduction) but I was a little disappointed by my fish. I have no doubt that proximity to the Sydney Opera House significantly increased the price of the meal quite significantly but I had a thoroughly enjoyable experience.