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.

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.

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

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.

Billy Kart Kitchen – Annerley, Brisbane

BillyKartJust a few months old and nestled in a seemingly unlikely location, Billy Kart Kitchen has quickly become a local favourite and popular all-day breakfast and lunch destination.

IMG_0925The setting is vastly different to chef/owner Ben O’Donoghue’s last venture at Southbank Surf Club, but the menu is a nod to his unchanged food ethos – fresh, simple and seasonal. The menu is concise, a little playful and thoroughly modern with superfoods, organics, pickles and some very young wines on offer.

The pulled pork I’d heard so much about wasn’t available the day we visited, so we opted instead for a rib eye steak with bearnaise and spice crusted Blue Eye with fennel and celery.

IMG_0929The trevalla was a triumph. Plump, moist flesh that pulled apart with a feather touch under a crispy crust of dukkah-inspired spices and herbs. I would give anything for the recipe for the fennel and celery dressing, which worked sublimely with the crunch of the vegetables and smokiness of the tomato salsa. A truly exciting dish that I would be hard-pressed to forego even if I could get the pulled pork .

IMG_0934Although not my  husband’s favourite cut, the steak was perfectly prepared and the bearnaise sauce silky simplicity.

Also on offer is a range of cakes, bagels, Campos coffee and owing to its corner-store roots – freshly baked bread, milk and newspapers.

Billy Kart Kitchen is open 7 days a week for breakfast and lunch and Friday evenings for dinner.