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