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.

Recipe

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 http://pinotpalooza.com.au/. 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.

Variety and the Best of Brisbane’s Young Chefs

Variety Dinner LogoEvery now and again you get the chance to combine seemingly polar passions. A few nights ago I had such an opportunity at the Variety of Young Chefs Dinner. Imagine being wowed by the fantastical gastronomic creations of six of Brisbane’s most up-and-coming chefs while delighting in the Spanish-inflected humour of Miguel Maestre and at the same time being a part of something life-changing.

On August 28, 2014 Variety Children’s Charity, with some incredibly talented and dedicated organisers, put on a dinner hosted by Restaurant Two. The five-course dinner was prepared by the  young chefs of some of Brisbane’s top restaurants, including Blackbird Bar & Grill, Bare Bones Society, Public, Restaurant Two, Stokehouse and Gerard’s Bar & Charcuterie. All of this was in support of a 15-year old award-winning gymnast who tragically broke his neck during training earlier this year and is now confined to a wheelchair.

The unrestrained courage of the young man and his family, the generosity of all who supported the event and the boundless talent of some very exciting young chefs made this a night to remember.

BeetrootBen Kaye-Smith of Restaurant Two blew us away with his beetroot, dark chocolate and cumin salt. And those walnuts … I’d guess they might have been roasted and smoked over cocoa with a dusting of sugar, but I’d be happy to be corrected. Either way, the balance, creativity and genius of this dish belie Kaye-Smith’s age (18) and put him front and centre of young chefs to watch.

Pork FilletOllie Hansford of Brisbane’s Stokehouse wrote his menu on the plate. Imagine looking at a Picasso and knowing exactly what he wanted you to experience. This young chef carried beautifully the philosophy of simple food, perfectly prepared and true to origin, to the diner. Every element on the plate – the pork fillet, maple glazed pork cheek, carrot fondant and carrot and lemon myrtle puree with smoked apple – stood out with the very many other heroes of the night.

Variety runs one of these dinners every year and if you haven’t had the joy of attending one yet, I highly recommend you do. It’s worth every cent and if that’s not enough to convince you, being that it’s for a good cause should.

If you’d like to know more about Variety go to http://www.variety.org.au.

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.

The Best of My Breakfasts in Brisbane

Some time ago I promised to write this for some friends. It’s way overdue, but at least now a little more up to date with some great new brekkie spots.

Papa Jack'sFirst to mention has to be Papa Jack’s in Fortitude Valley. Exciting. Different. Really different. Old but new, funky and just bordering on the edge of recreation, Papa Jacks 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. Imagine soft poached eggs topped with lemony hollandaise. Add fall-apart, herby pulled pork; melted Swiss cheese, a crisp baguette and you’re getting the picture. They call it the Breaux Bridge Benedict and it would almost be worth travelling to its namesake in Louisiana to get it.

Cass Breakfast editNext on the list of funky new day-starters is The Burrow in West End. Offerings like “Mad Madam Mims’ Bubble & Squeak”, “Mr McGregor’s Garden” and “Off with your Head!” gives you just an inkling of the creativity at play here. My great adventurous friend, who uncovered this gem, ordered the “Django Swinehardt” – gypsy braised pork belly with roast chestnuts, crisp sweet-potato shavings, eggs and borscht (beetroot soup). Not that everything else wasn’t absolutely perfect – the slow-braised pork, tangy pureed beetroot, shards of crispy skin and buttery potatoes – but the sweet crunch of the kumara crisps are the culinary gold nuggets in this inspired dish.

Lynne Breakfast editI opted for “Little Miss Sunshine” primarily because I’m a Persian feta and zucchini flower addict. I loved the crunch of the pepitas and sunflower seeds; the happy marriage of the basil and tomato on rye, but I’ll stick with tempura (not grilled) flowers in future.

Pearls CAfe editSpeaking of stuffed zucchini flowers – if you want the best try Pearl Café in Woolloongabba. Their rendition is tempura-battered and served stuffed with ash-infused goat’s cheese, preserved lemon and herbs. The coffee is great too.

The Jetty Housesmoked Trout Lemon Creme Fraiche Hash BrownNot far away at the end of Oxford Street in Bulimba is one of our favourite regulars. The Jetty has been around for a while and although they have changed the menu (so I can no longer get my favourite poached eggs with avo, dukkah and candied bacon) they are still worth a mention. You can’t fault the riverside location and their juice blends – especially orange, carrot and ginger – are gorgeous on a hot summer morning. Their house-smoked trout is a treat with poached eggs, lemon crème fraiche and hash brown.

Also offering a great view is The Edge restaurant at Kangaroo Point Cliffs. I almost always take first-time visitors to Brisbane here for breakfast. Their fare is more simple, but always perfectly prepared, generously substantial and you can’t beat the view of Brisbane city on a clear day.

Further west in Paddington you’ll find Anouk – an exceptional café offering all things Middle-Eastern with contemporary flair. The menu changes regularly but anything I’ve ever had here has been beautifully prepared and presented.

Finally if you’re feeling a little nostalgic and want a simple, healthy and quick brekkie you’d be very happy with the Coffee Club’s new Salmon and Avocado Stack. I have had it at Eagle Street Pier and at Oxford Street in Bulimba and both are worth a mention.Coffee Club 2 edit

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.

Three Blue Ducks – Bronte, Sydney

Recipe Book PSI’ve been to Sydney on business just about every month for the last two years and I’ve eaten at many great restaurants. This last weekend I flew my husband to Sydney for his birthday. With only three nights at hand I spent some time agonising over which restaurants to take him to. Three Blue Ducks in Bronte was my only given – and they didn’t let me down. Thank heavens. Because one hour before our reservation we took a peek at the menu online. Looking like he’d sucked a lemon, my rather conservative and very much steak-and-veg-loving husband implored “is THAT the menu?”.

Not that he won’t try something a little different – when I cook it. I’m not sure if that’s because he knows I’m sentient to his taste or if it’s just because the poor chap hasn’t got a choice, but in general when we go out his choice is steak, spuds and greens. Nonetheless, he stepped up to the challenge and the boys prevailed. Not really three blue ducks anymore, but five, these guys have created something together that is what I can only describe as understated brilliance.

Three Blue Ducks, in the heart of Bronte, is warm, welcoming and utterly unpretentious, but the atmosphere belies the excellence underpinning its success. It may present as more of a cafe, but with ex-Tetsuya head chef Darren Robertson in the mix with home-grown and locally sourced produce, you’re in for a treat. The fusion of characters and cuisines, from five surfers with varying histories to the strong influence of Morocco and Asia, makes for an interesting result.

Of course I’ve eaten here before, popping in once for a quick lunch and great coffee, but it was lovely to take the time to soak up the salty twilight with a glass of pinot noir  and the waft of chargrill drifting across the room.

IMG_1137Did I mention the service is impeccable? Our pork and beef dumplings with ponzu (soy citrus dressing) arrived within minutes. Delicate silky dumplings with a slightly sweet, salty and sour dressing was the perfect entree.

IMG_1139The duck, cooked on the bone, served with chilli jam, greens and wild but delicate mushrooms was perfectly moist. The hero here though is the chilli jam. I could eat it with anything, on it’s own, by the jar or straight out of the pot … and now that I have the recipe, I intend to.

SteakMy husband, the fillet king, loved his flank steak – perfectly chargrilled, butter-soft and simply salted. Not partial to zucchini or squash, he devoured this almond and parmesan rendition – and I will not rest until I can make it myself (hint for your next recipe book chaps). MushroomsMy man would equally love me to recreate the mushrooms with pearl barley, macadamia bread sauce and labne he ordered on the side. Lucky for him this one is in “The Blue Ducks” recipe book and lucky for me I now have another carb to play with.

We sidestepped the smoked potato ice-cream (for reasons afore mentioned) and opted instead for the strawberries with yuzu curd, salted meringues and goat’s milk. Like everything else here, simple but exciting, crunchy and soft, sweet and salty, sour but delicate. The yuzu curd (yuzu being an East Asian sort of cross between a mandarin and a grapefruit) was knockout. Again – pot, jar, spoon.Strawberries

I couldn’t be more pleased that from wary trepidation, this turned out to be one of my husband’s favourite food experiences. Proof that if you (or your partner) is a fussy eater you may well step over the precipice into a food wonderland and not be disappointed at Three Blue Ducks.

As for me, I’m off to make a Sunday-night Blue Duck “kick arse steak sandwich”.