Tonka, Melbourne

If you had one wish what would it be? If you could take any supercar for a spin but had to choose one which would it be?

If you were doing your last trip to Melbourne for business and still had a bucket list of restaurants which would you pick?

IMG_1110For all my agonising, I finally went with my gut (sorry). Tonka may be hatted and Travis Howe may have won sommelier of the year in 2013, but there is so much more to Tonka than its accolades. Besides the fact that executive chef Adam D’Silva is genius in his fusion of Indian and Asian cuisines (with a subtle dusting of Middle-Eastern magic), the restaurant is unpretentious, offers exceptional service, inviting ambiance and such seamless precision you only realise it when you walk out on the 2 hour cut-off of your booking.

Little details – like the handy little bag/coat hooks under the bar tables, carry-through fundamental seasonal elements in the menu, exceptional pairing of rarer Italian varietals with carefully chosen glassware – is what sets Tonka apart from its contemporaries.

IMG_1129My friend and I start with the madras scallops, verbena pickled pears, caramelised onion and dill. Perfectly sweet flesh mingles with the chargrilled crust and works exquisitely with the tannic smokiness of the Tuscan Trebbiano we decided on. The cauliflower puree is shot through with a delicately spiced turmeric oil and the fusion is so perfect it would bring a cultural minister to tears.

Calamari CabbageCrispy calamari with fall-apart flesh, crunchy cabbage and apple salad throws in a little head bob of mustard seeds and a gentle inclination of green mango dressing.


Dish of the day? Without question the spanner crab with puffed rice. Besides the ridiculously delicate flesh of this extant delicacy, it is my first experience of puffed rice.  Crispy husks with soft puffy centres take me back to my childhood (and admittedly continued adult) yen for puffed wheat. My memory harks back to milky sugariness for a second, but then pops back to the present with the punch of green chilli, crunch of green papaya and roasted peanuts, earthiness of mint and Vietnamese coriander.

IMG_1126Ridiculously tender pork belly slices put the virtually obligatory crisped squares of most establishments to shame. Devoid of the usual fatty layers (although not devoid of the flavour), there is no doubt that the wholly free-range Western Range pigs this pork was derived from were exceptionally well looked after and happy.

And so it makes sense that in the food world these days it is not only about what you put out, but what you put in and how you put it out that sets you apart.

Citron – Wilston, QLD

A citron is an Asian tree bearing large fruits similar to lemons, but with a sweeter flesh and fragrant peel. The namesake is the perfect indicator of the type of food you will find at this modern Asian restaurant.  It’s been around for 10 years and two courses in I cannot believe that I haven’t been here before.

Betel LeavesA read of the menu is enough to have you salivating and more than ready to eat, but we order some canapes anyway. The sweet sandcrab, moist with a drizzle of chilli lime and crunchy with coconut shards finishes perfectly on a peppery betel leaf.

Pork Belly ScallopsButtery shavings of rare grilled beef pops with pickled daikon and sizzles with a papaya chilli jam. A classic combination of caramelised scallops, salted and slow-cooked pork belly welcomes the umami of oyster mushrooms and a slightly sweet sesame-soy glaze.

TroutStaying with umami, the roasted miso kingfish is all about subtle balance with the crunch of beans and punch of pickled ginger.

Pork Belly LotusAll dishes worth crossing town from the Eastern suburbs for at least once. The one that will have us do it again though is the sweet chargrilled pork belly with crispy lotus root and zesty chilli lime sauce.

Piggery Café – Sherbrooke, Melbourne

Owned by Shannon Bennet (of Vue de Monde), this countryesque venue is still a work in progress but the essence is there. IMG_2038

The café is all charm and no pretention, the fusion of farmhouse character with industrial chic and a splash of European sophistication hinting at the menu. It’s extensive, but not expensive. The menu of the week, offering two courses for $39 is great value, although you could lunch very well with a sausage and brioche roll or ham hock croquet Madame for half the price.

IMG_2039I’m all set for the lobster roll … until I get a whiff of the smoky barbeque wafting in on a light breeze. I start with the prawn cocktail – sizeable, perfectly succulent, smoky and slightly sweet prawns with a fiery little sauce.

The real surprise here is the bed of rocket, itself chargrilled, giving it a slightly caramelised flavour and toning down its pepperiness. I can’t wait to try this at our next barbeque.

IMG_2041It’s a close call between the crumbed quail and the Asian flavoured lamb salad for mains, but intrigued by the idea of chargrilled mango and lightly pickled Nashi pear, I opt for the lamb. If you don’t know what Umami is, this is the dish for you.

The Piggery’s lamb hails from Tasmania’s Flinders Island and the tender flavour of the meat gives up its diet of saltbush and milk. I thought the saltiness would have done well with a slightly more acerbic accompaniment and wouldn’t have missed a little heat, but that’s just me.

No doubt I’ll return – for the beautifully scenic drive, the quail, anything with truffles when they get them going and another cup of their sublimely aromatic coffee.

Variety Young Chef Collective – South Brisbane

I have had only four other-worldly, exciting dining experiences in the past year. Two of them I can credit at least in part to Ollie Hansford and in whole to the collective efforts of some fantastic young chefs and the efforts of Variety Children’s Charity.


Callum Gray, Cormac Bradfield, Ollie Hansford & Rob Wood

Following on from last year’s highly successful Variety of Young Chefs dinner at Restaurant II, Hansford and some of his past and present compatriots from Stokehouse got together again last night in support of disabled and disadvantaged children. Not only did these guys give up their personal time to wow us for a good cause, but they arranged all the produce and brought along the exceptionally talented Stokehouse assistant sommelier, Alex Balodis to make it perfect.

A Canapes

Citrus granita oysters set the bar but not the complexity. When I said exciting I meant it. Imagine canapés of crispy carrot bark with bone marrow foam, topped with shaved seaweed. Not inventive enough? How about quince leather with cumin orange butter cream? Shows you what happens when you give some exceptionally talented young chefs carte blanche and some superb produce.

A RavioliCallum Gray’s soft-cheese, silky pillow ravioli and burnt courgette popped to life with a vibrant herb emulsion.

Chargrilled Octopus with Snow Pea JuiceCormac Bradfield’s tender chargrilled octopus with snow pea juice, chicken fat and saltbush, served with Lark Hill’s wild-fermented Mr V (Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier blend) was one of the best pairings I’ve ever had.

It’s just as well I’m South African and have no memory of (or aversion to) skippy. Otherwise I might have missed Hansford’s butter-soft pepperberry-crusted kangaroo with blackberry vinegar, beurre noisette and pumpkin.

A Kangaroo I could never have imagined though that the simplicity of a buttermilk-poached potato would have been a clincher, nor how well this dish would have worked with caramelised but slightly crunchy beer-braised onions and roasted pine-nuts. Wild but sophisticated and utterly inspired.

As for Rob Wood’s dessert … I’m not normally mad about deconstructed food. Why mess with something that has been so carefully put together? Unless it’s infinitely better, adds a few surprises and gives you that “wow” moment when you realise what it is that has your synapses firing down memory lane.

Violet parfait with lemon curd, Yorkshire tea brack, creme fraiche mousse, oat crumble, poppy seed tuille & burnt orange syrupThis may have looked like a violet parfait with lemon curd and oat crumble. If the crème fraiche mousse and crumbled Yorkshire tea cake with a side of poppy seed tuille hadn’t thrown you off, the burnt orange syrup might have. It was all so mind-blowingly good that you probably wouldn’t have cared. But when you got it all together in your mouth there is no way you could not have recognised it. Lemon meringue pie. Only it took 200 years to make it this good.

Stokehouse is one of my favourite restaurants in Brisbane. If you have a few hours spare and it’s a good summer’s day there is nothing better than whiling away a Sunday afternoon on the deck overlooking the river. The gourmet bar menu offers lighter fare and anything I’ve ever eaten in the restaurant is testament to the talent of the chefs.

Ollie Hansford will soon be joining new Grey Street restaurant Gauge as head chef, working with executive chef Cormac Bradfield (who currently heads up Sourced in Teneriffe). No doubt I’ll be one of Gauge’s first patrons.

Krung Thep, Noosaville QLD

First I must apologise for the extended “dead air”. You know when life runs away from you? Well, it’s been 2 of those months.  Busy, but good months.

I’ve completed another unit of my Master’s in Gastronomic Tourism and indulged in many more experiences to share with you.

First up, the Sunshine Coast. For the past seven years one of my favourite places to eat in Noosaville has been and still is Krung Thep.NoosavilleIt’s a peaceful little walk along the river from our usual well-appointed and exceptionally managed accommodation at Noosaville Outrigger; and gives us everything that keeps us going back. Authentic Thai food, great service,  good value, an adequate wine list and the option of BYO if you want something a little extraordinary.

DuckI have tried everything from the fish cakes, spring rolls and curry puffs and Tom Yum soup to red duck curry (a favourite), chilli basil beef and jungle curry chicken. You guessed it, I like it hot.  So I was very happy with the addition of a hot and spicy duck stir-fry to the menu on our last visit a few weeks ago.  If you love duck, crispy stir-fried vegetables and a hot and sour kick without too much sweet, or are not in the mood for coconut milk, then this is for you.  Keep your wine handy though.  It packs a neat little punch.

ChickenIf your palate is milder, you wouldn’t be sorry for the sweet and sour chicken. A little more Chinese than Thai, but still with a smattering of coriander and white pepper to remind you where you are.

SatayFor a mid-ships spice hit without the in-your-face heat, the spicy rice served with the (also new) satay chicken main is perfection.

If you’re brave – and I mean very brave – and love a perfectly balanced super-hot, salty, sour and subtly sweet, tender chilli basil beef stirfry, follow in my husband’s footsteps and don’t waste your time with anything else … ever.  He’s never been disappointed and neither have I (being as the poor man never gets to eat anything without me tasting it).Beef

Spirit House, Yandina QLD – Thai BBQ Lamb Salad

BBQ Lamb SaladI love spring. My garden is popping with colour, my house is infused with the scent of jasmine and gardenias and some of my favourite foods are in season.

I also love Christmas and am not averse to a little extended anticipation. What’s not to look forward to? It’s a time to celebrate everything that’s right with the world – family, fun, peace and of course, food. It’s also a time to the share the things you love most with those nearest and dearest. So there’s no better time to share some of my favourite spring, summer and festive food with you.

As you might know from a previous blog, I have spent many happy hours at Spirit House – the restaurant and and the cooking school. I have also spent many delightful hours in the pages of their recipe books, cooking their sensational creations and sharing them with family and friends.

Spirit House Thai Cooking BookMy favourite from my almost complete Spirit House collection (and of everything else I have), is Spirit House’s first publication – Thai Cooking. It’s entirely navigable for novices, challenging enough for more experienced cooks and spans the spectrum from canapes, salads, stir-fries and curries to desserts. It’s great all year round and I turn to it almost weekly for curries in winter, stir-fries in spring and salads in summer.

My favourite spring dish celebrates not only its Asian origin, but the gorgeous produce of Australia and the season – Thai BBQ lamb salad. The good news is, because they are such nice people, the authors have given me special permission to share it with you.


They have also given me a little heads-up that a best of Spirit House cook book will be available before Christmas, featuring a compilation of their favourites as well as 20 new recipes.

In the meantime, have fun with this one and if you want to venture out for an appetiser, something really special or a little of something you won’t (unfortunately) find in any of their books yet, scroll down for a little “taste” of what’s on offer at the restaurant right now.

Salmon SoupIf you have eaten at Spirit House, cooked any of their recipes or try this one, then you’ll know that their food is balance epitomised. Authentic Thai food, celebrating local produce, using traditional but also embracing some contemporary techniques and always perfect.

Point in case their coconut soup with salmon, lemongrass and chilli oil. Delicate, moist fish is a perfect match for the hint of chilli which just cuts through the coconut milk and with finessed restraint does not overpower the subtlety of the lemongrass and kaffir lime.

I could tell you about the pork belly, but I’ll (almost) let this picture speak for itself. It looks sweet and it is sweet, but it’s also satisfyingly fiery with all the crisp on the skin you want.Pork Belly

Too often I’m enticed by scallops and am left more than a little disappointed by the obligatory vogue accompaniments.  Spirit House’s Thai version with puffed roti and fried green peppercorns is inspired. IScallops wish I could tell you more about it but I completely and utterly lost myself in the moment and other than telling you it is one of the best things I have eaten – ever – I’m afraid you’ll just have to try it for yourself.

New on the menu, so something we felt compelled to try, is the pulled wagyu with pickled shitakes. This dish best demonstrates the old with the new. WagyuMore savoury, but with the chilli hit you’d expect, generous shavings of wagyu work well (if not very substantially) with thick, gnocchi-like noodles, basil and wafer-thin garlic crisps.

If there is one thing that makes Spirit House work (apart from the exceptional food, service and good energy), it’s the consistency of the place and its people. I have never been there and not seen co-owner Helen Brierty close at hand and it’s telling.  In all the years I have been dining there, the gardens have always been beautifully tended, the menu true to its roots, the food and service faultless and everything weaved through with a delicate efficiency.

Spirit House

Papa Jack’s – Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

Papa Jacks

I don’t know about you, but I love a revolt against the ordinary, average, homogenized tedium that thrives in our global existence and threatens to smother not only our culture and food heritage, but snuff out its evolution without a backward glance. On the up side, I love the dichotomy it’s creating and the more and more prevalent kick-back and cross-cultural, multi-dimensional gastronomic celebration it’s cooking up. Point in case – Papa Jack’s. I’m going to borrow from my previous blog on the Best of My Breakfasts in Brisbane (because I wrote it and I can) ….“Old but new, funky and just bordering on the edge of recreation, Papa Jack’s will transport you to the Creole South the second you walk through the door. It’s soul food served with a side of swamp blues and green tomatoes.”

So impressed was I with their breakfast and hanging out for a substantial something different and  the soufflé I knew they had on the menu a little while back, I abandoned my ever-growing bucket list of new spots to hit and headed back to Papa Jack’s.

MusslesOf course I left it too long and missed the soufflé. I might have been devastated but for the creative genius of a dish that at first glance seemed a bit weird and a little off my taste chart. My curiosity overcoming my usual distaste for cold seafood and tomato juice, I felt compelled to order the applewood smoked mussels with a “virgin Mary” sauce.  Exciting, zingy and utterly refreshing. The sweet smokiness of the applewood pops out through the flicker of heat in the sauce and swirls around the delicate salty flesh of Kinkawooka mussels.

Pork BallsHaving already departed from convention I kept going, and rather than ordering something more substantial I followed my mussels with the pulled pork boudin balls. Risky, having ordered the same just a week ago at another restaurant and being bitterly disappointed with a dry, unseasoned and really rather tasteless vestige of the same. Not so here. Happily rolled up with some rice, a little spice and Chef Grant Skinner’s characteristic dollop of Creole zing in his Dijon truffle mayonnaise, these perfectly crisped, crumbed delights restored my faith.

My husband ordered “Le Big Burger” with onion rings and house-made pickles and being as our lunch was a prelude to the Pinot Palooza (Pinot Noir wine festival), could not have been happier with himself. Cheesy FriesServing up a decent burger with a difference is not easy and sometimes simplicity is best not messed with, but Papa Jack’s wagyu version with creole cream cheese is substantial, balanced and contemporary without being overtly funky. It’s enough on its own, but you wouldn’t want to miss the cheesy fondue coated fries sprinkled with bacon crumbs. In retrospect, just as well I didn’t order the substantial main I might otherwise have considered.

As for the Pinot Palooza, if you didn’t make it this year I’m afraid you’ve missed it, but if you’re a pinot noir lover and you don’t want to miss next year make sure you get on the mailing list at We had a great afternoon and spent a fabulous hour with Esquire’s Restaurant Manager, Alex Beazley, who expertly guided us through his pick of the best six pinot noirs and shared some anecdotes, experience and some particularly gorgeous tastings with us. Notably Curly Flat’s 2011 Pinot Noir (personal favourite), Crittenden’s Gepetto and finishing with a generous splash of Chambolle Musigny from Burgundy.