31 May 2008

Blogus Interruptus

Redang P1060185

We apologise for the interruption in transmission. Service will resume as soon as possible for your viewing pleasure.

In the interim, take a look at what I've been enjoying.

Jalan Alor, KL P1050676

Thank you to those of you who emailed wondering if I was OK. I didn't actually realise just how brain dead and burnt out I was until I slipped away on holiday. Blogging became a distant memory in my travels, but I kept a food diary and jotted down some notes along the way.
Juicy travel dining stories to come...

16 May 2008

Salix. Willow Creek Winery

The food here is so tasteless you could eat a meal of it and belch and it wouldn't remind you of anything.

Redd Foxx
American Comedian best known for his starring role on the television situation comedy Sanford and Son. 1922-1991)

What is it about dining in picturesque places? Why do the meals in rustic venues invariably not triumph over the surrounds? In the
Melbourne pantheon of super-league chefs, why is it - with the exception of George Biron and Herman Schneider - that consistently good chefs and staff seemingly have no desire to work beyond the city confines? To me it is illogical.

I can't see that their skills might be under-subscribed
out of town and successful regional chefs are often well feted. Take Steve Cumper's Vogue Entertaining & Travel award last year for 'Outstanding use of a Regional Product by a Chef' - an acknowledgement of his passion and skill, and for his outstanding efforts while at Peppermint Bay on the Huon Trail in Tasmania. And people flocked to Montalto Winery when Phillipe Mouchel was in residence, meanwhile the winery still trades off on this even though he now has his own venue at Crown.

It would seem that Galloping Gourmets seem willing to travel as far as Dunkeld for fine dining. Healesville is on the gourmet trail too, as is Rutherglen. And in addition to his celebrated Sunnybrae at Birregurra, George Biron's name pops up all over the place from Campaspe House in Mt Macedon, to Diggers Seeds cafe in the Mornington Peninsula and T'Gallant Winery in their sales pitches.

But all too often the majority of venues are a venture of style over substance, with fine buildings and vistas, but pretentious food that lacks flavour. It's like dining in Noosa, where the menus are festooned with laborious descriptions fit to enthuse the sophisticated punter, but which are undermined by the final, mediocre product that ends up on your plate. As I recall, a friend who had parents living there had remarked that one could also describe the locals with the same analogy.

Last November in the Barossa Valley, we had a surprisingly sublime meal at Appellation, on high ground at a Peppers resort, overlooking vine covered vistas. There was no publicity to be seen or heard of, yet at every winery we visited, I asked the same question - where's the best restaurant in the region? Every time the reply came back with a hushed reverence: "Appellation". So we went. They weren't wrong and the restaurant was full. It was definitely world class fine dining in a very fetching and productive part of the countryside. A rare gem indeed.

It was with this experience in mind that a friend who was with us on the
Barossa trip took us to Salix at Willow Creek Winery on Mornington Peninsula. Salix is the botanical name for the willow tree, and the environs in autumn are truly beautiful. The buildings interesting in their form and even a gloomy day did not dampen the overall first impressions of the venue.

At Salix the dining room is raised to take advantage of the vista of rising slopes of vineyards and trees. A curved glass wall hugs the space and draws the attention away from the pass to the scenery. The room is awash with white linen and diners sit relaxed, in deep cane chairs. The wine list is limited to the Winery's drops but that's not unusual. The service, although a little halting, was well meaning. The staff coped well with a full service on the day we visited, surprising considering that we were part of a large party, there for a late lunchtime seating.

I had no expectations, I just hoped for something pleasant. I know the friend who organised the lunch must have thoroughly enjoyed it on at least one occasion prior to our visit as they were very enthusiastic. So there is definitely a market for the kind of food served. But our friend's palate is possibly less educated than some.

The menu was short, which I thought was prudent. The use of local produce was flagged - thumbs up. But it did not feature any classic dishes. Instead, like a local fashion house that had plagiarised a season of Gucci exotica 2 years after they originally hit the racks, the menu read like a bunch of dated old frocks. Not so old as to be retro, but notably fashionable in recent history. As I said, it has a market.

Mr Stickyfingers and I have the same taste in food. It's one of the many things that cements our partnership. So we always swap our plates half way through, in order to enjoy twice as much from the menu.

We chose as entrees:

Confit Berkshire pork belly, jerusalem artichoke puree, ginger, fennel and ruby grapefruit...

**take a breath**

...and Pan fried thyme & potato gnocchi, cavolo nero, blue cheese marscapone, sage.

The food was technically proficient, the presentation good, even quite pretty. The pork belly skin was crisp. Sadly the meat was not super tender and was bland - as though they had forgotten to rub the meat with a delicious spicy salt prior to cooking. Along with the tasteless puree which lacked the expected nuttiness, the fennel had been shaved so thin as to make it virtually undetectable to the palate and the grapefruit too was more decorative than purposeful.

The gnocchi was golden and sweet but I couldn't detect the flavours of the herbs for the dominating strips of red onion. The wilted cabbage was oily and the gorgonzola was although delightful, a mere smear, making us wonder if they had run out and just scraped the dregs out for the dish. I needed more, much more.

Main courses:
Seared Yarra Valley Venison fillet, spiced Corella pear, savoy cabbage.

Again technically the execution was fine. The venison was tender and rare, the berries a surprise addition. But the overall taste of the meat and two fruit, was of nothing. The jus was neutral and the core ingredients were not flavoursome. They lacked spice, seasoning or character. OK, I admit that I am spoilt, eating either Hartdale Park or North Eastern venison on a weekly basis, so I know how good venison can be. Dragging my fork around the plate, I felt as glum as a bored toddler and hoped that the other main would be better.

Twice cooked half Bella Farm duck, parsnip puree, chestnut jus.

No luck here. It suffered the same affliction as the other dishes and the meat was dry and stringy. It served to push me down into a gloominess that rolled in like the autumn mist outside.

Charred fig & hazelnut semifreddo, preserved Ellisfield cherry sauce.

Held captive in a spun sugar cage, the figs were yummy as was the sauce, but I wasn't taken by the semifreddo which was super hard, tasteless and left a cloying, fatty coating in the mouth that was not broken by the sauce. I may as well have rubbed Vaseline on my teeth and gums.

Soft centred Belgium chocolate pudding, honeycomb nougat icecream & date sauce.

It's the kind of dessert that you can't refuse when there's a chill in the air, it evokes comfort. But this pud was on the dry side and lacked the expected gushing molten larvae of gooey, rich chocolate from within. The honeycomb icecream tasted slightly burnt - and I had assumed that it was burnt toffee - until I looked at the menu again. The date sauce served to anchor the tuile and made no contribution to the character of the dish.

Yes, style over substance reigns here. For a moment I thought that my Super Bug had returned to rob me of my palate. But in the car on the way home, Mr Stickyfingers explained that he had exactly the same reaction to the dishes. He concurred that we were exceptionally fortunate people, who had enjoyed better food, many times over and even sometimes at home.

I feel that Salix could be so much better. I would love to see Bernard McCarthy offer some simple classic dishes, done well and to stop approximating a turn of the century St.Kilda restaurant. Then, perhaps he should enjoy a tasting trip into town to see what is exciting diners these days, in order to build upon it. That done, the kitchen brigade might attract more attention than the view.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the clientele are not there for the food. And possibly it's the circumstance and the perceived modernity of the venue in a rustic setting that draws them in....oh, and the ability to use their trusty Entertainment Card for a discount meal after a weekend drive out of town?

As I watched the scrubby paddocks of the peninsula whiz past the car window, I wondered whether Chef/Owner Bernard McCarthy had recently lost his palate to a super bug too?

Salix at Willow Creek Vinyard

166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, Vic. Australia
Phone: +61 3 5989 7448

11 May 2008

WTF? What's that Jolly Pong?

  1. Aussie slang for 'smell'
    "When Mitch farts, he really pongs."

  2. Ancient video game, the simplest and most addictive of it's kind in which you play virtual ping pong.

  3. A verb meaning to beat someone in the testicles with a plank of wood from a picket fence.

  4. To get an apple (preferably a red one though green ones work too) whipped at your nuts at more than 55 mph.

  5. Intricate drinking game involving beer cups set up in particular formations on rectangular pieces of wood (which resemble ping-pong tables). Played using wooden ping-pong paddles w/o the handles (these are sawed off). Variations of alcohol used include: champong, martini pong, etc. Possible formations include: shrub, tree, ship, tower of boot, among others.

  6. (Jolly Pong)
    A Korean puffed wheat snackfood that doubles as breakfast cereal. Tastes a bit like Honey Smacks. Has it's own interactive website, cutsie characters and cheesy jingle that gets stuck in your head.

Jolly-jolly Pong! Jolly-jolly Pong! Jo-o-o-o-o-o-o-lly PONG!

08 May 2008

The Roti Man

The roti man or bread vendor is quite a common sight in Penang. They are usually on their rounds in the mornings and from tea time (about 4pm), plying their stock-in-trade in a road contraption that resembles a hybrid between a motorcycle and a ‘meat safe’.

During my school days in the afternoons, I would wait patiently for the ‘ting ting ting’ sound (produced by striking a metal cup-like object with an iron rod) which signalled the arrival of the roti man. And when he did arrive, I’d rush out of the house, coins in hand, calling “Roti! Roti!” (Bread! Bread!). That was how the bread man was usually addressed.

My little hands would then frantically try to undo the catch on the little glass framed doors of the ‘meat safe’. The aroma of freshly baked bread, buns, cakes, candies and savoury snacks would waft out tantalisingly.

ADRIAN CHEAH Tourism Penang

A couple of years ago in The Age, Melbourne Restaurant Critic Matt Preston, made this comment about The Roti Man in Middle Park -

'...unless the Roti Man lifts the quality of its service I can see another name being added to the "MIA" list.'

Perhaps he was referring to the fact that since Melbourne visionary, the late Donlevy Fitzpatrick vacated the same venue many years ago - in this expensive inner City Bayside suburb, to pioneer the new groove down the road in St.Kilda - many restaurants have come and gone without as much as a by-your-leave? For me there had always been an air of impermanence about the flash-in-the-pan restaurants that followed there in the wake of someone who customarily initiated the zeitgeist. And they did their dash by not really understanding what it is that the area needed or wanted, that is until The Roti Man arrived.

Two years after the Matt's review, The Roti Man is still there. And I believe that it may well have become 'the modern Indian (he) yearns for'. I wonder if he has visited there of late?

Our encounter with The Roti Man was a spontaneous one. An extraordinarily long takeaway menu had arrived in the mail box around the same time that Mr Stickyfingers was diligently tearing out soon to be expired discount vouchers from the 07/08 Entertainment Book. He noticed The Roti Man and quietly slipped the voucher in his wallet. Meanwhile I was unfurling the extra long, roll folded menu like a snake from a charmer's basket. It featured two goat curries and many other tempting dishes like Kerala Fish and Chicken Chettinadu, not usually found on local Indian Takeaway menus, so I silently made a mental note to order from them in the future.

Then, at 9pm on saturday night after visiting the recuperating Madam Roseleigh (my soon to be Mother Inlaw) Mr Stickyfingers instructed me to look in his wallet and gave me the choice of a number of vouchers hidden within. I chose The Roti Man. I was famished and by that stage really wouldn't have cared if the meal had tasted like a reheated can of Pataks, just like the familiar cheesy hits and memories produced by the many Gold FM equivalents of Indian restaurants in Melbourne.

Stepping in from the cold I noticed that the layout of the restaurant had not changed in years, but it now felt softer and warmer than it had in a long time. The high ceiling was hung with colourful saris and staff buzzed around in saffron shirts. We were cheerfully taken to a table by the fire and it was evident by the rumpled table cloths around us that the place had been packed to the rafters - including the verandah table and the street tables, which still hosted a few happy revelers. A good sign in an area where locals are just as happy to drive to St.Kilda or the city for a meal.

The dine in menu was full of promise with dishes I'd not seen on a menu in Melbourne. I wished that I was with a large group - as a number of tables were - so that I could sample many dishes. Most notably there were at least twenty vegetarian dishes on offer. We chose two curries, a salad, plain rice and two kinds of bread ($3.50-$5), which was overkill.

The delicious wafting smells of curry had me giddy with hunger. We chose a baby goat curry ($16.90) which was tender, spicy, rich with tomato and a coriander based masala, onions and peppers. The thick sauce in this generous portion was ideal for mopping up with bread. Mr Stickyfingers had chosen a combo of garlic and cheese naan which was thick yet fluffy and soft - outstanding. I had chosen a plain paratha which like the naan came in a basket and was so generous as to make our fragrant basmati rice virtually redundant.

The first mouthful of the Paratha whizzed me back in time to the early seventies and of patting out a small ball of the bread dough in my hand. I was only very little and standing on a stool in an Indian neighbour's kitchen in the UK, forming neat little patties with the heel of my palm. Our neighbour then took them and rolled them out with a dowel thin, foot long rolling pin that was thicker at one end. The taste was exactly as I remember it from childhood, a chewy, thin wholemeal bread with a unique fragrance I thought I would never smell again without visiting India. I curled my toes with excitement.

Another dish I thought I would never see in Australia was our salad - Behl Puri ($9.50). It is a crunchy combo mixed through with a tamarind thinned hot mango chutney. The foundation ingredients are crisp puffed rice, fried wide flat noodles, chat masala, puri chips, fresh coriander, onion, cucumber and tomato. The combination of flavours and textures is pure genius. Eaten usually as a snack, it was in this instance a large serve and the ideal foil for the richness of the goat curry.

Mr Stickyfingers meanwhile was frenzily attacking the Parsi Chicken($17), a pale, mild curry from Mumbai. The chicken itself was a little dry, but again the masala was stunning. I think I detected nigella seeds and dried coriander in the mix, the body of the sauce is made with dried apricots, yoghurt and jaggery making it unlike any of the curries Aussies currently identify with as Indian. The three dishes were an ideal combination of complimentary flavours.

I murdered a Kingfisher in the process of devouring our meal. The curries were not muddy or cloying, as I had become accustomed to eating elsewhere. The clarity of flavours meant that I could pinpoint the spices, the seasoning and the nuts and was unable to hold back from tasting mouthful after mouthful. Tearing apart the last pieces of bread and soaking up the sauces, I felt as though I had eaten enough for two. We counted ourselves lucky that we hadn't ordered entrees, though if I had two stomachs, there may have been room to squeeze in the mango or pistachio kulfis or the flambeed gulab jamun or even the chocolate roti.

Unlike Mr Preston, we were not only lulled by the warmth of the room and a table by the fire, we were charmed by our waiter - a witty raconteur - and all the staff were certainly eager to please. They also deftly and gently managed a local drunk who wandered in and was handling a tablecloth in the manner of a Matador. It was a welcome cheerful flicker of warmth that came unexpectedly after what seems like months of disingenuous or offhanded treatment in restaurants. Cheeky wit, efficiency and helpfulness were booted up another notch when I asked about the chefs. As it turns out, all the chefs are Indian, but the front of house is staffed by Malaysians, hence the Roti Man name.

It led to our discussing our plans to visit Malaysia with our waiter and we were then introduced to staff from Kuala Lumpur and Penang. On the backs of dockets, visitor itineraries and dining recommendations were jotted down. A business card was handed over and we were directed that were we to visit a certain restaurant in Penang, we would be taken care of by the sister of one of the wait staff on presenting the card. The phone number of a sibling was proffered in case we needed help or directions whilst in KL. We were overwhelmed by such kindness and it was a timely reminder of the generosity of Malaysian Indians.

I count myself lucky that The Roti Man is a local venue for us. It is indeed the kind of modern Indian restaurant that many curry munchers like myself have been waiting for. As soon as we return from Malaysia I want to introduce a group of my old friends to it so I can selfishly try more dishes - but I know they'll love it too.

The Roti Man

10-12 Armstrong St, Middle Park, Victoria.
Ph. 03 9699 4244

Roti Man on Urbanspoon

04 May 2008

Tortilla, chappati and bread riots, The Pasta Boycott and The Tomato Strike.

'There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies and other insects. They want the windows to stay closed, so we all expire from lack of air. But we say, `Open the windows, breathe the fresh air and at the same time fight the flies and insects.'

Deng Xiaoping, October 1986

In my life I have never faced starvation. I have never gone hungry, no matter how little money I earned, I was still fortunate enough to be able to have a meal on the table and a roof over my head, running water, power and even a TV. I am one of the lucky ones, as are most Aussies but rising food prices are currently at the forefront of the news. It has prompted few local food bloggers to reveal how much they spend on nutrition or to showcase the going price for certain items around Australia. But no one is really looking at why there has been a rise in the prices of basic food items.

When Deng Xiaoping 'opened China's window' he expected to be greeted by the odd bug and some"evil winds". But was the rest of the world prepared, that a plague of hungry locusts would fly out of his window to descend on the global food market?

Twenty years on, while happily ensconced in my cocoon of Epicurean contentment, flagging my delight in my ethicurean ways - and able to afford to dine in restaurants regularly - my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach on a daily basis. I read of the consequences of the growing world population. Globally we are getting hungrier and food is becoming significantly harder to attain in many parts of the world.

On domestic TV there are bulletins about the rising price of food, as though we are the only ones affected. There are stories of Aussies having to choose between putting food on the table and paying a mortgage. But amongst them there are those who will buy cigarettes and alcohol over providing nutritious meals for their family. There are those who would sooner pay $2.50 for a 100g packet of chips than $4 for a kilo of potatoes and who are crying poor. They're the lucky ones. At least they have a home, a choice, access to education and to social security.

The fact is globally, food prices really have risen by 60%. In Senegal they have risen by 100%, and this is not scaremongering. While lower income Australians are experiencing some discomfort, in Egypt eleven people have died of exhaustion waiting in queues for subsidised bread - at 1c a piece, others died in a food riot. And they are about to protest again, with the activity mainly organised through Facebook - which means that it is an issue which is not confined to the disenfranchised overseas. In Haiti five have died and twenty have been injured in similar circumstances.

I am crestfallen that people have died in bread riots and food riots from Venezuela to the Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. I am angry that the hungry have been imprisoned for speaking out about it in both Egypt and some of the former Soviet states. I feel for those involved in the Tortilla Riots, and for the Italians who boycotted their staple dish of pasta because the price has risen by 30% in a short space of time.

I am shocked that the 1.5million Palestinian residents in Gaza who earn $1.20 or less a day must spend 66% of their income just in order to eat something. That's an even higher percentage than the Somalians who currently receive food aid. I can't bear the thought that many children in the world no longer have schooling or access to healthcare because feeding them at least a meagre meal has become the priority over education. Instead they spend hours in food queues every day.

The Buddhist in me feels stricken by what I hear. I am torn between my fortunate circumstances and the plight of others. It weighs heavily on my heart. Compassion is, after all, what Buddhism is about.

I have been flat out with work and family, but late at night when I normally might have shown you some food porn and presented some mildly distracting epicurean diatribe, I have felt uncompelled to write posts about what I have been eating. Cooing and flapping my arms about what has been consumed in the various latest Melbourne gastro-palaces has begun to feel crass and insular. So I have retreated from my frivolous feed reader of food blogs to think, and to learn about what is going on with those less fortunate and why this is occurring.

My starting point was to look at grain. Many have said that this crisis has come from issues pertaining to grain. But because there is rarely one single cause of dire situations I began to look beyond my own circumstances to see what was going on.

The locusts
I mentioned above have come in the form of new demand for dairy and meat consumption caused by the rising affluence of the enormous populations of China and also of India where consumers have shifted up from eating 20kg of meat each a year to 50kg. It is now fashionable for those with new wealth to consume more western oriented products, unfamiliar to the traditional diet. With the world population growing by more than 70 million people a year, and as incomes rise, so many more people are now enabled to consume dairy, meat and poultry products.

This huge growth in demand for beef, pork and poultry has been met with supply and demand issues, so prices have naturally been forced upwards. In order to produce more meat cheaply and quickly, grain - wheat, rice, soybeans and corn - is used to feed livestock. Farmers now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago.

Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Meanwhile grazing cattle and sheep in pasture is costly, less reliable and the animals take longer to mature, which does not help to answer demand, and again can contribute to making meat even more expensive.

So, the demand for meat has also resulted in a higher demand for grain and hence higher prices for both the stock and their feed.

Climate Change
, Global Warming - higher temperatures, floods, cold snaps, frost - soil erosion, falling water tables and drought have taken their toll on crops around the world, with poorer harvest yields than anticipated being the consequence.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have been affected by the falling water table, China and Khazakhstan are suffering from poor planning which has lead to significant soil erosion. In northern China the desert is spreading so rapidly into farming areas that 24,000 villages have been abandoned as a consequence. But we're not just talking about grain in this instance, other food stuffs have reacted badly to climate change with normally hot regions experiencing cold snaps and vice versa, with resulting higher prices from smaller harvests.

Surprsingly 2007's total cereals crop was 1.66 billion tonnes. It was the largest crop on record and 89m tonnes more than the 2006 bumper harvest
. But that still fell well short of demand. We can't produce enough to meet consumption, so the dreaded words 'genetically modified' are nudging into the equation to produce more hardy, fast growing crops. The downside of this though is that in some cases these plants can have a negative effect on the eco system and their predators can begin to attack other plants, while native flora and fauna can also be detrimentally impacted.

The next contributing factor is the steep rise in the production of the Biofuel Ethanol which is made from maize/corn. In the USA a third of the current maize crop was purchased by the government, leaving less available for food products and stock feed. The demand and higher prices created for maize also resulted in farmers ditching wheat and soybeans in order to grow corn. The shortfall in corn has resulted in higher prices in processed foods that rely heavily on corn syrup.

The global cereal shortfall would be made up were the USA to stop producing Ethanol. They could in fact follow Brazil and make a greener option from sugar cane, but Government subsidies and tariffs are preventing this from happening. The Sugar industry has sunk a great deal of money into the Republican party and this is one of the payoffs for their support. Politics is definitely a contributing factor, with some farmers overseas encouraged not to produce crops, with paid enticements from the US government on offer to governments in countries with competitive markets, in order to secure the futures of American farmers, with good prices in US markets.

So why is ethanol so big? Well, it was thought of as a way of countering the record global oil and energy prices. Regardless, the cost of fuel is still having an impact on food prices given our reliance on freighting food all over the world and for their use in manufacturing processes. As a consequence even fertilizers are also now more expensive, impacting on the cost of food production.

Australia has announced that it will donate $30million to the United Nation's World Food Program from the Federal Government's aid budget. It's a mere drop in the $808 million required to fill shortfall in funding for the World Food Program but I feel comforted that we can do this. We are after all the lucky country, with a wonderful selection of local produce available to us even if we were not to ship anything in from overseas.

It's a sobering point, but do you bit to support your local farmers and the local economy. Eat simply, go for sustainable, organic, local and ethical goods where possible and avoid buying everything you possibly need at the supermarkets.

If you click on the title of this post, you'll find that I have linked it back to the Financial Times multi media feature on the subject and accompanying articles. So if you are interested in the subject matter, this should give you further stimulation beyond what I have paraphrased from various other sources.

03 May 2008

Food on Display. Waterfront

Not to be outdone by Rockpool in the same venue, The
Zagames (Oops, thanks Gobbler for the correction, see comments below) Zampelis Group's Waterfront Restaurant is also displaying its meat. Set into a wall facing the public concourse within Crown Casino is this fridge and the following description.

Who would have imagined that the provenence of our food would become so important that venues are displaying their wares like panties on a refrigerated clothes line? Once the public would have recoiled from such displays, more common to Asian wet markets and European villages.

Also at the casino is the Salumi counter at Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons, where smoked meat hangs on display in an upmarket version of a Croatian's garage I once visited in Greensborough - where tempting home cured meats festooned the eaves.

Pearl and The Point record details of their suppliers in their menus. Asians have always preferred their seafood freshly killed, so select their meal from restaurant display tanks.

What next? Are we soon to go to restaurant kitchen gardens to forage for vegetables before the meal?