Monday, 22 September 2014

Self Preservation

70 Bourke Street 
Melbourne, VIC 

I admit that there’s something exciting about trying a less well-known restaurant. I very rarely visit a restaurant that doesn’t have copious amounts of good reviews backing it up – chalk that up to my very science-oriented education – so when I actually pick a place simply because I like the look of it, it’s a bit of a big deal. Not that Self Preservation is exactly hidden away, but it’s a lot more popular as a brunch pit-stop so as a result, I know that they do great coffee and nice eggs, but close to nothing about their dinner. And that’s almost as good as finding a restaurant for myself, right?

Being on the ‘Paris End’ of Bourke Street, Self Preservation fits the mould as a cosily antiquated European wine bar. Most people are here for a drink; the wine list is twice the size of the menu, though in all fairness the latter is rather compact and succinct. 

Spicy Pork and Beef Meatballs ($15) 

Spicy Pork and Beef Meatballs ($15) 

It always amazes me how wildly different the humble meatball can taste, from flavourless grizzle to succulent beauties. The Spicy Pork and Beef Meatballs ($15) of Self Preservation were rather good, the rich and spicy tomato sugo cooled with a dollop of yoghurt, and the meatballs pleasingly lean and meaty. The show was stolen though by the crunchy, smoky wood-fire grilled sourdough, with just a smidge of butter melted over it. 

Truffled Cauliflower Risotto with Seared Scallops ($23)

Like the meatballs, the Truffled Cauliflower Risotto with Seared Scallops ($23) was another staple dish done with care and elegance. The chewy grains of rice were interspersed with diced cauliflower that served to lighten the dish up considerably. The sauce was creamy but not cloying, and the chicken stock could be tasted clearly behind the polite amount of cheese and garlic. The scallops were unfortunately a bit overcooked, but still managed to remain smoky and sweet.

French Fries and Our Tomato Sauce ($8.5) 

We ordered a serve of French Fries and Our Tomato Sauce ($8.5) with no real expectations, with the intention of having them as a filler (that we didn’t end up needing), because the waitress recommended we order 4-5 dishes to share (preposterous!). They fulfilled their purpose, and I’m happy to leave them at that. 

I don’t have meals at cafes very often, as I find the food to be frequently over-priced and lack-lustre. However I actually thoroughly enjoyed having dinner at Self Preservation. Calling the food innovative and exciting would be a stretch of the imagination – it’s no more and no less than simple food done well, but that was enough.

Rating: 13.5/20 – i work close enough to come here for lunch!
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.

Self Preservation on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Shu Restaurant

147 Johnston Street 
Collingwood, VIC 

I come from Yunnan, a province in China that’s bordered by Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. The food in Yunnan is therefore vastly varied, owing to its many neighbours and the large number of ethnic minorities that call Yunnan home. But all in all, it’s not a cuisine that Melbourne is all that familiar with (though you can get some fine examples at Colourful Yunnan). However, Yunnan does have a much more well-known neighbour, culinary-wise – Sichuan, the home of chilli, oil, and chilli oil galore. Hence, I grew up eating a lot of Sichuan food as well, learning in the process that although tasty, it really isn’t a very tactful cuisine, and tends to leave one reaching for the water to wash away the film of spice, salt, and oil.

So that explained why I was utterly bamboozled (and more than a little curious) when I was invited by Shu of Shu Restaurant to try what he dubbed to be ‘contemporary Sichuan food, made with organic ingredients and served tapas-style’. Are we talking about the same Sichuan here?

Like Shu’s bold new vision for Sichuan food, the interior of his restaurant is fresh and eclectic, paying homage to his artist days as a refurbished warehouse that could double as an exhibition space. All the decorations are hand-made, including a set of wire-frame chandeliers made by Shu himself. 

And the drinks are served in beakers! How quaint! I had a moment of squeamishness when I recalled the chemical-caked beakers from my uni days, but these were squeaky clean, and have hopefully seen no chemicals outside of dishwashing liquid! Anyway, for just $60pp (or $45 per vegan-person), you’ll be treated to 12 delectable Sichuan fusion dishes served over 4 courses – definitely some of the best value I’ve come across. 

Steamed Tofu Pockets/Chilled Silken Tofu Jar/Daikon Roll

Our first course was a selection of cold dishes. Though the trio of starters included an oyster with apple lime and black caviar, my aversion to that one particular shellfish meant that we were served Steamed Tofu Pockets instead. Not that we minded of course; the firm wedge of steamed tofu, marinated in spices, was split in half and stuffed with a classic mix of roasted peanuts and crunchy preserved mustard greens.

Chilled Silken Tofu Jar

The Chilled Silken Tofu Jar is something the likes of which I’ve never seen before. A stout tumbler was layered with lima beans, chickpeas, lentils, salmon fillet, house-made chilli jam, and of course, silken tofu. We were instructed to give it a good mix and I have to say, the result was fantastic. 

Chilled Silken Tofu Jar

The tastes of this unique little salad were held together by the house-made chilli jam, but it was the silken tofu and salmon, contrasting so vibrantly with the chewy medley of beans, that really caught my attention. It was fresh, it was flavoursome, and at $5 a pop on the a la carte menu, it’s hard to resist coming back just for this alone.

Daikon Roll

Continuing to surprise was the Daikon Roll. Though really just a salad of Asian vegetables and herbs, it was stunningly presented, wrapped up in a translucent sheet of daikon and placed in a shallow dish of spicy soy. Speaking of the spicy soy, this is the real stuff. Whilst the Sichuan influences have been quite subtle up until this point, the lip-numbing peppercorns in this sauce were unmistakable. 

Crispy Fried Spring Roll of Flathead and Fennel Puree/Pan Fried Pork Dumplings/Pan Grilled Organic Chicken Wings

Chris, who up until this point had battled his way through the unfamiliar herbs and unusual flavour combinations, was glad to see that the second course showcased a selection of fried items. The Crispy Fried Spring Roll of Flathead and Fennel Puree gave a new lease of life to the age-old dim sum staple, and the Pan Grilled Organic Chicken Wings were a succulent, caramelised treat, rubbed in cumin and honey soy.

Pan Fried Pork Dumplings

But it was the Pan Fried Pork Dumplings I was exceptionally fond of. Delicately pleated with a traditional filling of pork and ginger, it was the freshly chopped red chillies in the sauce that made the golden bottoms of these dumplings dance. 

Tiger Prawn Salad

Then came the entrees. The first on the agenda was the Tiger Prawn Salad, tossed once again in that peppercorn-heavy sauce that makes the lips tingle. The fire in the dish was tempered by the cool, crunchy veggies and fresh herbs.

Slow-Cooked Beef Cheek Slices

I was incredibly impressed with the Slow-Cooked Beef Cheek Slices. Whilst the marinade was nothing ground-breaking (well to me anyway, as mum uses a very similar mix of spices for her slow-cooked beef), consisting of what I’m guessing to be star anise, peppercorns, chillies, and cooking wine, amongst other things, the texture of the meat itself is a revelation. Never have I had beef that has been cooked to such unctuous tenderness; I was cutting it into pieces with my spoon. 

Pan Roasted Eggplant

Pan Roasted Eggplant

And finally, Pan Roasted Eggplant, smoky and soft, rolled up and stuffed with a mix of nuts and preserved veggies. And that’s how our savouries drew to an end. Except it turns out Shu thought that we were full (and in all fairness, I did say “we’re so full”), and kindly decided not to force the mains upon us as well. I’M SO SORRY SHU!

And you know what dishes we missed? Crispy Fried Twice Cooked Pork Belly. Sweet and Sour Organic Chicken Fillets. Slow Cooked Organic Tofu. I could’ve eaten my hat with regret.  

Organic Raw Avocado Cheesecake

But still, our meal had a sweet ending. Defying tradition one last time, Shu served up a slice of Organic Raw Avocado Cheesecake. By itself, the cake was a bit bland, though the buttery flavour of the avocado really shone through. Add in the ginger syrup and dried blueberries however, and this dessert transformed itself into a sweet and tasty treat that left a feeling of utter virtuousness.  

I like the food at Shu Restaurant, but what I was really impressed with was Shu’s vision of turning Sichuan cuisine into something quirky and elegant, and how well those ideas were translated from paper to plate. Fresh and innovative, this dinner defied all my expectations of what Sichuan cuisine can and can’t be. Good show.

Rating: 14/20 – sichuan tapas. no, seriously.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Shu Restaurant. 

Shu on Urbanspoon

Monday, 15 September 2014

Gyoza Douraku

147 Bourke St 
Melbourne, VIC 

Hey all, it’s Chris here again, taking the reins for a blog post while Ming prepares for registration exams and is generally incredibly busy. Enjoy!

I’ve always known Melbourne’s CBD is wonderfully packed with great places to eat, but I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated this fact more than the night Ming and I tried Gyoza Douraku – our original plan was to go to Gangnam Pocha, only to find that they had closed down. Not fazed for even a second, Ming instead whisked us a mere 2 doors down the street to Gyoza Douraku.

Gyoza Douraku is a quaint little Japanese restaurant along Bourke St. You’d be hard-pressed to fit a large group of people through the cramped entrance, but thankfully the space opens up toward the back, showing off a cosy wooden interior.

Here you’ll find a tapas-style menu, with a wide variety of smaller dishes all available for the price of $6.50. Like any good tapas restaurant, they also have an extensive drinks list – including wines, sakes, $14 shochu cocktails and all sorts of other Japanese beverages

Tori no Karaage ($6.5)

We ordered a varied selection of their small tapas-style dishes, starting with their Tori No Karaage ($6.5). I’m not sure what makes this different from their popcorn chicken, but I couldn’t care less upon biting into one of these hot and crispy morsels. The juicy chicken was offset with a satisfying crunch from the batter, as well as the creamy mayo alongside it.

Salmon Sashimi ($6.5, 4pcs)

Contrasting with the rich fried chicken, the Salmon Sashimi ($6.5, 4pcs) that arrived next had an impressively fresh taste to it. These slices of salmon had a great firm texture to bite which gave to a softer, richer meat on the tongue.

Agedashi Tofu ($6.5)

Next up was our Agedashi Tofu ($6.5), which was plump and flavoursome in its sweet broth. Rather than some tofus which are a bit dry (and bland) or over-sauced (and soggy), this hit the sweet spot between the two.

Having taken a little longer to cook, our gyoza arrived as we were reaching the tail end of our other dishes. Provided alongside your gyoza is a DIY sauce kit, complete with Japanese Grain Vinegar, Soy Sauce, Chili Oil, Sesame Oil, Roasted Sesame Seeds, and Fresh Crushed Garlic. Unless you prefer your dumplings plain like me, chances are you’ll find something to suit you here. (It’d also be nice if the kit didn’t take up so much table space, but I doubt much can be done about that)

Pan-Fried Pork and Garlic Gyoza ($3.5, 6pcs)

The first gyoza we tried were the Pan-Fried Pork and Garlic Gyoza ($3.5, 6pcs). These tasted less of pork and more strongly of garlic than I expected, but they were nice and juicy whilst still holding together remarkably well.

Steamed Chef's Special ($6.5, 6pcs)

We also tried the steamed Chef’s Special Gyoza ($6.5, 6pcs), which were a much more balanced affair. The pork, prawn and vegetable blended in together until they were almost indistinguishable, and were rather mild when compared to the pork and garlic gyoza we had just had. However, that didn’t keep the familiar taste from being enjoyable.

Gyoza Douraku is a gem - their food set nary a foot wrong for us, and for a tapas-style menu the portions are nicely sized and very reasonably priced. We may not have tried the drinks, but we were certainly very tempted by the colourful concoctions being delivered to nearby tables. If that alongside a range of tasty $6.50 dishes appeals to you, be sure to check it out.

Rating: 13.5/20
This rating reflects my (Chris’) personal experience at the time of visit. 

Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Cutler and Co.

55-57 Gertrude St 
Fitzroy, VIC 

The stars seemed to have aligned just right this year, because just a couple months after an extravagant long lunch at Vue De Monde, I found myself at Cutler and Co, the flagship restaurant of my beloved Andrew McConnell of Cumulus Inc. fame. Did I mention I also plan on having dinner at Attica before the year wraps up?

Photo via

Chris and I have been to enough nice restaurants to have a list of places that has our favourite bread, butter, and bathrooms. Cutler and Co takes the cake for best interior though. I thought it had the air of an abandoned cottage in the woods, with a hint of the fantastical about it, whilst Chris, who was facing the bar, thought it slick and modern. We both agreed that it was gorgeous though. Unfortunately I couldn’t take (or find) any photos that did the decor justice, so you’ll have to go and see for yourself. 

Like all of Andrew McConnell’s other restaurants, the menu is very much designed to be shared. And because more is always more when it comes to food, we opted for the 6-Course Tasting Menu ($130pp) in order to try as many things as we can. When I came back from the bathroom (definitely top 3 material), there was a basket of bread sitting on our table, along with house-churned butter, sea salt, and beetroot chutney. This spread took the awards for best bread and best butter in one fell swoop, the lashings of pale, creamy butter melting into the hot rolls of sourdough, which were ensconced with a crust that crunched audibly with each bite. 

Fromage Blanc Cigars

We were treated to a mini-entree of Fromage Blanc Cigars, presented whimsically in a Cuban cigar case. We were instructed to start at the end that contained the salty olive tapenade, work our way through the centre of mild cream cheese wrapped in the crispiest of wafers, finishing with a zing at the dollop of white balsamic vinegar. Simple yet stunning, this nibble set the tone for the rest of the meal.

Cured Kingfish, Eel Brandade, Dill Oil, and Buttermilk 

Cured Kingfish, Eel Brandade, Dill Oil, and Buttermilk 

Our first dish, the Cured Kingfish, Eel Brandade, Dill Oil, and Buttermilk was a dainty sculpture sitting in a shallow pool of herbed oil and buttermilk. Thickly cut and lightly cured, the plump slices of fish balanced between the verdant fronds of dill, and the buttery eel brandade. The elements came together so harmoniously that I couldn’t believe my tastebuds; though light and fresh, it was an undeniable riot of flavours. 

Jerusalem Artichoke, Turnip, Chestnut, and Bread Sauce 

Nothing was going to top the cured kingfish, but I don’t think the Jerusalem Artichoke, Turnip, Chestnut, and Bread Sauce tried to. After the delicate yet complex flavours of the previous dish, it was good to have something so reassuring. Covered in the velvety bread sauce were chunks of crisp, sweet roasted Jerusalem artichoke. The aroma that wafted up from the soft grating of cheese was so tempting that I regretted immediately not paying the extra $25 to have some truffle on top of this dish.

Flounder, Smoked Mussels, Leek, and Brown Butter 

The Flounder, Smoked Mussels, Leek, and Brown Butter was another deceptively complex dish. The fillet of flounder was cooked to perfection, the skin brittle and crisp, the fish falling apart in silken, pearly flakes. Adding to the aroma was leek done two ways – in a buttery puree, and grilled over hot coals.  The single smoked mussel was a salty, briny spotlight amongst the sweet earthiness. 

Smoked and Cured Duck, Golden Raisin, Candy Striped Beets 

Forget turkey and cranberry sauce, the Smoked and Cured Duck, Golden Raisin, Candy Striped Beets is where it’s at. The duck, gently cooked, was allowed to remain fatty and plump, its flavour augmented with honeyed beetroot and golden currants. Sitting underneath was the most fabulous charred onions, adding an extra layer of smokiness to the duck. 

New Zealand Venison, Quince, Burnt Onion, and Morcilla 

New Zealand Venison, Quince, Burnt Onion, and Morcilla 

Our final savoury dish of New Zealand Venison, Quince, Burnt Onion, and Morcilla was a surprisingly substantial one. The stout chunks of venison were pink and juicy, rubbed with a mix of ground spices and pepper. And for that little extra bit of indulgence, a cube of rich, crumbly black pudding on the side. To balance out all that protein was the most exquisitely roasted pumpkin, and little dollops of quince jam served quaintly in onion petals. 

Coconut Sticky Rice with Ginger and Lime

Before our dessert proper, we were given a little jar of Coconut Sticky Rice with Ginger and Lime. For such a plain, and dare I say it, bland looking dessert, the amount of flavour it packed defied logic. The luscious coconut milk, the fiery crystallised ginger, the airy yet zesty lime cream – it collided in an explosion of flavours and textures, leaving my knees a little weak as I scraped the last vestiges of cream from the jar. 

Warm Pressed Apple, Bourbon, and Cream Cheese Pastry 

At long last, dessert. Taking a simpler approach, our dessert of Warm Pressed Apple, Bourbon, and Cream Cheese Pastry was a deconstructed apple pie for grown-ups. The brick of poached and pressed apple pulled apart into warm layers fragrant with cinnamon, to be eaten with the buttery layer of pastry underneath, and a scoop of heady bourbon ice cream. 

Turkish Delight

Our meal was wrapped up with little jewels of Turkish Delight. Instead of being overly sweetened and flavoured, these little sugar-dusted cubes were delicate and floral, and just a little bit sour. It melted in a way that brought to mind the Turkish delight from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. A perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Cutler and Co. has me smitten. Each dish was a work of art that had us appreciating it with every sense, and every part of our meal was dazzling in a simple, understated way. There isn’t much else to say other than ‘I love Cutler and Co.’ – it’s my new favourite restaurant for sure.

Rating: 19/20 – copping out on the 20/20 because what is perfection anyway?
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit. 

Cutler & Co on Urbanspoon