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.

Balla – Pyrmont, Sydney

Balla Interior1I have so often heard it said that your enjoyment (or not) of a dining experience is predetermined or at the very least enhanced or tainted by your mood, company, the occasion, etc., etc. I used to agree. Until I dined at Balla. My day was shocking. My week had been worse. I virtually ran to the restaurant (in heels) to make my booking, because the cabbie decided the distance wasn’t worth the fare and roared away, leaving me kerbside in the cold.

I’ve said this before, but as a solo female business traveller I always appreciate the ease with which some restaurants welcome the single diner. In Balla’s case, not only was my reception devoid of the raised eyebrow and loaded “table-for-one?”, it was warm, instant and genuine.

This popular and well rated restaurant offers outstanding service and exceptional food but lacks the pretention that you might expect from other similarly classed establishments. The menu is perfectly Italian, sublimely balanced with classic, modern and local influences.

Balla Squid Ink Pasta Spanner CrabI started with the instantly proffered Prosecco and ordered the squid ink tagliolini with spanner crab, broccolini, chilli and garlic. I don’t know what made me do it – I never imagined I’d eat something nature created as a deterrent. Perhaps it was a premonition that if I was ever going to try it, Stefano Manfredi – with 30 years of excellence under his hat (4 of them over the years, mind you) – would be the restaurateur to deliver it. I wasn’t wrong. The squid ink is the hero of this perfectly al dente pasta, although it doesn’t override the moist delicacy of the spanner crab, the light crunch of broccoli and hint of chilli.

Balla VenisonI love a restaurant that offers venison – better yet when it comes nestled on soft polenta, slightly gnarly mushrooms and is itself delicately charred with peppery sweetness. I paired this with a glass of Brangero Nebbiolo 2009 from Alba, Italy and couldn’t have been happier. It wielded a touch of spice, vanilla, perfect length and just enough tannin to hold its own and complement the dish. Balla Cheese BoardSo good in fact that I opted for the truffled pecorino and another glass, in lieu of dessert. A mite too much of the truffle for my taste, but a great finish to an almost perfect food experience regardless.

Red Lantern – Surry Hills & Darlinghurst, Sydney

Red Lantern CrownA while ago I took my first foray into Surry Hills and had lunch at Red Lantern on Crown. Like the buildings surrounding it, Red Lantern is steeped in history and you can almost feel the walls leaning in to tell you their stories. Dark wood furnishings are adorned with family pictures and Indochine treasures. Deep reds and an ancient fireplace extend the warm welcome of the staff.

130331 Red LanternOn this occasion I dined on my own and was delighted with the option of ordering two half mains. This is the only restaurant I know that offers the option of “down-sizing” and I think it’s a great idea. I started with the turmeric chicken rice paper rolls and chilli dipping sauce. The joy of Vietnamese food is its sublime delicacy. Getting it right requires a deft hand and absolute balance. If you want to know what I mean, this is the dish to try. I followed this with wok tossed beef and a moist herbed and delicately spiced fish, which I’m disappointed and ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of, particularly because it was one of the best pieces of fish I’ve had. Apart from the food, I was profoundly impressed with the easy comfort of eating here on my own. The staff was attentive, friendly and deeply perceptive – bringing me some of the outstanding recipe books on offer to keep me occupied while waiting for my food.

Restaurant Interior A

A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in Sydney with my husband and decided to try Red Lantern on Riley in Darlinghurst. This latest addition to the Nguyen/Jensen collaboration is bigger and more modern than its counterpart in Surry Hills, but still offers a good nod to its roots.

Being as we were happy to settle in for a bottle (or two) and soak up the experience, we opted for the tasting menu. This is my favourite way to eat – a perfectly portioned offering of the many ingredients and techniques unique to a culture and cuisine. It’s like taking an experiential walk down the culinary halls of Vietnam.

E CalamariRice paper rolls with lemongrass chicken, marinated chillies and seaweed started our journey, along with lightly battered squid and lemon pepper dipping sauce. I have seen my husband eat fish erroneously served by friends twice in the past 13 years. This time it was by choice and he ploughed through that squid as if it was a bowl of popcorn and we were watching a scary movie.

D Som TamThe twice cooked pork belly with som tam (green papaya salad) was just as successful and probably one of my favourite dishes. Who doesn’t love perfectly moist pork with crispy skin – but in a Vietnamese salad is the best way to eat it. The herbs and lime cut through the richness and I would put chilli, roasted peanuts and fried shallots on everything if I could. The duck was a bit over-smoked and so the plum sauce and tamari were not overly noticeable.

F Beef RibsThe barbecued pork ribs marinated in hoi sin sauce rewarded with a deeply infused flavour, moist flesh and a sweet glazed finish. The winner for me though was the grassfed black angus sirloin, simply wok tossed with garlic and black pepper. I suppose it’s the truly smoking oil and years of seasoning a traditional wok that H Beefimparts a caramelisation to the meat that you’d never get any other way. It’s the only time I’ve ever regretted having induction rather than gas in my own kitchen.

130906 Fat Noodle PhoIf you live in Brisbane and want to taste a little of the magic Luke Nguyen has created, try The Fat Noodle at the Treasury Casino in Brisbane. A wholly different dining experience with a menu more appropriate to the pop-in diner, but no less enjoyable – especially if you have never had Pho and want to try it. This is a staple Vietnamese soup, often eaten for breakfast. It is the most delicate yet complicated soup. Simmered for hours and hours, the result is a salty, sour and hot broth that takes years of practice to perfect. The broth is generally served with noodles, finely sliced beef (added raw just before serving) and herbs.

Of the three, I’d have to say my favourite is Red Lantern on Crown in Surry Hills -but then I’m an old romantic and love the idea that this is where it all started.

The Townmouse – Carlton, Melbourne

It’s places like these that really do separate the mice from the men. Chic industrial finishes belie the seamless complexity and beauty of the dishes here. This is what gets me really excited about food – cracking creativity pulled together with subtle sophistication and the greatest respect.

The menu is short, but by no means simple. It’s perfectly suited to a great night out with friends, but just as apposite for the lone diner – as is the service. I never fail to appreciate the easy, warm welcome and comfort some establishments are so deft at lavishing on solo travellers.

Parfait PSThe wine list is equally impressive – comprehensive and clearly crafted to complement a universal menu. A stunning variety of wines by the glass are happily conducive to the little taste travel the menu maps out. Profiterole B copy copyA sweetly oaked, subtle French chardonnay starts the journey in style with a blushing pink, silky smooth smoked duck liver parfait and carries through just as well with the goat’s cheese profiteroles with caraway, thyme and honey.

The menu is expertly fused from a diversity of the world’s best cuisines and you can literally go from France to Italy and Spain on one plate.

Chicken A Delicate poached chicken with ricotta dumplings, pickled king oyster mushrooms, Spanish avruga butter with savoury herbs and subtly infused garlic oil make the perfect entrée – or main if you start with tapas as I did and pair it with a veggie dish. Perhaps some summer beans with preserved orange and rosemary ricotta, or some slow roasted red cabbage with prune, parmesan and red apple?

If you’re curious like me, this is one of the few places you can try orange wine and I highly recommend it. I tried the 2008 Denovolo Italian orange and I’m pleased I did. It’s complexity is completely at home with the menu, although I would recommend it with a more robust dish than the chicken.

You’ll find The Townmouse at 312 Drummond Street, Carlton – a short but happy deviation from Lygon Street.

Note: I apologise for the poor quality of these photos – I literally popped in for a quick bite (sans my real camera) not expecting to be so utterly wowed and had to resort to my trusty iPhone.

L’etoile – Paddington, Sydney

Le'Toile WindowWhy did I wait so long for this exquisite experience? From the lovely little walk along Glenmore Road to the quaint old terraced houses and the rare boutiques surrounding L’etoile – I’m immersed in the European finesse which the French so rightfully lay claim to.

I am greeted at the door by the thoroughly French and fabulously attentive Didier. He delights me with a little window table in the corner … perfect for the lone diner and better yet for one with a penchant for observing life. As I sit down the sun breaks through the clouds and glistens on the drizzle.

I am the first diner to arrive and so have the restaurantScallop Sausage with Crustacean Bisque – and Didier – all to myself. I order a glass of Champagne and the Boudin de St Jacques to start – the silkiest scallop sausage with crustacean bisque. The sausage is unimaginably light but given a balanced depth with the fullness of flavour from the bisque. The roe pops delicately in my mouth and for the first time I get what all the fuss is about.

Le'Toile TroutI’m tempted by everything on the “plats principaux”, but settle on the rainbow trout fillet with Grenobloise sauce. Did you know there are 20 variations of butter sauces in French cuisine? One for each of the proteins or vegetables they accompany. This one is a butter, parsley, lemon, caper and crouton sauce. The trout is pan-fried with crispy skin and the most delicate flesh and so I’m pleased the butter is gorgeously nutted, served with adequate restraint and cut through sufficiently with the lemon. I also love the little pop from the capers and the peppery finish of the watercress.

Le'Toile Citroen TartBy now it’s started raining again and I decide there’s nothing for it but a little coffee and dessert. Didier ably predicts my choice (Crème Brulee – of course), but gently steers me towards the citron tart instead. I’m not sorry.

A gorgeous champagne and lychee gremolata cleanses my palate and prepares me for the sweetness to follow. The lemon tart is smooth, creamy and um … tart. The meringue reminds of me of marshmallows melted over a fire and the pastry is flaky decadence. Again, it’s all about balance and the raspberry and rhubarb sorbet is just the ying for the yang.

4Fourteen – Surry Hills, Sydney

130722 4FourteenI adore Surry Hills. It’s that little part of Sydney that reminds me of the best parts of Europe (and Melbourne) that have you strolling down paths of history rather than streets. No matter what pops up here … the latest bistro, bar, boutique or organic market store … it beats with that truly eccentric pulse that only few places inherently lay claim to and many others spend copious amounts of money trying to recreate.

130722 4Fourteen Bar

As much at home and with deserved conceit is 4Fourteen. For those who watched the last series of My Kitchen Rules and developed the same grudging admiration for Colin Fassnidge as I did, one bite of his ham hock croquette would qualify your belief and the contestants’ worst fear – he knows what he’s talking about. Add a dollop of mustard creme fraiche and he becomes as lovely as his Irish lilt.

130722 Dory

This is a sharing restaurant and I highly recommend going with a friend. The entrees are singularly offered to encourage a smorgasbord of personally selected delights. If you make it to the mains, they are generous.

We tried the mirror dory and leather jacket with citrus fennel stew.  Restaurant quality with home-cooked goodness. Think melt-in-your-mouth poached dory, textured and almost wildly Spanish-flavoured leather jacket, silky pearl couscous, just crunchy broccolini and the most perfectly sublime broth  – with a couple of heavenly clams for decadence.

Then there’s dessert. Which I don’t normally eat. But I was intrigued by “The Bounty”. This is not a ship … but it could sink one. Or inspire Captains and Pirates to fight to the death for the joy of eating one. Think bounty bar – whipped into the puffed perfection of a chocolate mousse, little dollops of coconut ice-cream dusted with cocoa, slivers of toasted coconut and crisp almost-salty tuiles.130722 Bounty

This is one of the few restaurants that I will without doubt go back to again and again. Even if I have to go it alone. Against my own advice.  Eat it all myself. And work my way through the entire menu. Every season.

Lemongrass – Carlton, Melbourne

For the past 3  years I have traveled to Melbourne every second to third week. Sometimes I feel like exploring and trying something new and sometimes (especially in winter) I feel like going somewhere warm, welcoming and consistently outstanding. Lemongrass is that place for me.130612 Lemongrass Facade

No surprises they have won so many awards for so many years. This is Royal Thai cuisine that pays true homage to its origin. Their chilli pastes and sauces are hand crafted with the instinct that can only be attributed to decades of handed-down experience. The decor is as delicately finessed as the food, the service as subtle as the klong thaps (steel drums) and pong langs (xylophones) playing in the background; and the prices as well balanced as the whole experience. Surprising is the respectful nod to Australian and some very fine French wines.

130612 Lemongrass Green CurryI highly recommend – well everything really – as I’ve pretty much worked my way through much of the menu over the past few years. But if I had to choose and you had only one opportunity to eat here – I’d say don’t miss the Prawn herbed salad, red duck curry or the green prawn curry (pictured). If you’re on a budget or in a hurry, their daily street food menu is great value, swiftly presented and  perfect for a quiet night in with a glass of red and your laptop.

You’ll find Lemongrass on the eastern end of Lygon Street (174 Lygon Street, Carlton for you SatNavvers). If you’re walking (as I do) but you’re new to Melbourne, brace yourself for the onslaught of Italian Maitre D’s – who will invariably and animatedly promise you everything but Nonna to dine with them.

Keep walking though. You won’t be sorry.