27 September 2009

Singapore: Ocean Curry Fish Head

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

They can't play baseball, they don't wear sweaters
They're not good dancers, they don't play drums

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

Rolly Polly fish heads are never seen drinking cappuccino in
Italian restaurants with Oriental women.

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

The Fish Head Song

When in Singapore
there are a few things that I insist on eating, without exception: Hainan Chicken Rice, Satay, either Pepper or Chilli Crab, and lastly, Fish Head Curry. Of these favourites, I have yet to find a venue in Melbourne that produces them to the high standards of Singapore.

The recipes for these Straits Chinese dishes have evolved in the kitchens of generations of Nonya's - female Peranakan's - descendants of the Fukienese from China who married local Malays. From as far back as the fifteenth century, The Peranakan made their homes in the former British colonies of Malacca, Penang and Singapore, as well as parts of Indonesia and the Isthmus of Kra.

Some Peranakan came via Phuket and brought with them a love of sour tamarind flavoured dishes, chilli and fresh Asian herbs. All seemed inspired by the local confluence of trade, where markets were filled with an abundance of spices from India.

The Malay influence in the cooking can be found in pounded spice pastes made from candlenuts, rhizomes and belanchan. The Chinese love of pork, duck and seafood is also evident. Chinese pickles and sauces are widely used; tropical coconut and pandan leaves drift into many dishes too

Along with practicing Chinese Ancestor Worship and upholding Confucian values, educated Peranakans very much embraced Western ways. In terms of food, they took on Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, breads and pastries. From this melting pot of cultures evolved a unique fusion food that I often crave.

On our latest trip
to Singapore, we spent time with my dearest Bin, who I love as my sister. In my childhood, it was Bin's mother who cared for me in many times of family stress. And through her I was first introduced to Strait's Chinese cooking. The pull of this cooking is as strong as my link with the Hungarian food that comforted me at other times of my dysfunctional childhood.

Bin checked with her colleagues as to where to find 'The Best' Fish Head Curry in Singapore and as I expected, it was not a glamorous venue but a simple shop in Chinatown with many tables on the pavement. She cautioned us to meet her at her office by noon as the restaurants with the best reputation are full to capacity within minutes of opening for lunch.

We strode quickly to Ocean Curry Fish Head on Telok Ayer Street and grabbed an al fresco table. I gazed at the colourful old Chinese shop houses around us, while Bin went inside to the counter and ordered. Very quickly our fresh lime soda's arrived in large glass mugs and by that stage the venue was full.

Situated on a corner, the venue was open on two sides to the street, with large striped awnings sheltering customers below. We sat on red plastic stools at a round Formica topped table. A very basic set up, there were no frills when it came to accoutrements at Ocean Curry Fish Head, its reputation alone seemed to be all that was necessary to draw crowds. Furnished with cutlery and a moist towelette in an Ocean Curry Fish Head branded pack, we were equipped and anticipating a good meal ahead.

Inside, the counter, a bain marie and a TV dominated the room. A queue snaked its way to the counter as the hungry lunch time horde descended. Off to the sides, those who missed out on a table, waited like hungry seagulls, keeping eyes alert and making ready to swoop on any table where diners looked as though they might leave.

Bin ordered us stuffed squid, beans with XO sauce and a dish of Chilli clams - a dish many avoid in Singapore in fear of contracting amoebic dysentery, but we took our lives into our hands and indulged anyway, finding no side effects felt later. The dishes were simply prepared but delicious, a good foil texturally to the centrepiece to come. And then the curry arrived. Resplendent in a well used claypot, it wafted its steamy aromas seductively across the table to me.

On a hot humid day in Singapore, the heat put out by this heavy clay dish made the sweat flow freely. Beside us, local workers were mopping their brows and looking a little dishevelled by the exertions of plowing through both the heat and chilli of the dish in steamy conditions.

As I added the slurry of coconut based sauce to a mound of rice before me, the scent of fresh turmeric greeted my nostrils. A second later I felt the tickle of chilli making my nostrils flare like an impatient racehorse.

Burying my tongue in the rice and sauce mix, I picked up ground coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, wafts of ginger, garlic and tamarind, sweetened and thickened with coconut cream. I was in raptures of ecstasy - this was a dish fit for the Gods.

I felt sweat beading on my nose as I ate. In the mix were large chunks of white fleshed fish head, and we dove in for cheeks, and I for eyes and the tongue. There were whole ladies fingers - also known as okra - slices of long slim brinjal - slender purple eggplant - onion and chunks of tomato. The concoction was odd texturally; soft and vaguely slimy elements offset by an intense, rich and spicy sauce.

I don't tend to eat a lot of rice, but in this instance it was the best way to enjoy the sauce. I would have been as happy with a big loaf of stale bread to soak up every last drop, but I doubt that I would have made it through, as the dish is deceptively filling. Like that expanding gap filler available in hardware stores, it seems to swell up from within.

The hovering, late-coming, hungry hordes, desperate to snare a table had moved just feet from our seats as we launched into the dish. And as our plates began to empty, they made their presence clearly felt standing just inches from us. So mopping ourselves down with our complimentary moist wipes, we paid up. And to the relief of the human seagulls, beat a hasty retreat around the corner to wander through hospitality-ware stores and to go to a traditional Chinese shop to eat some uniquely Singaporean Chinese desserts.

Within seconds back at Ocean Curry Fish Head, our seats had been taken and the process of enjoyment had began again, and again.

19 September 2009

Tasmania: The Red Velvet Lounge

The King will walk on Tupelo!

Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo!

He carried the burden outa Tupelo!

Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo!

You will reap just what you sow.
You will reap just what you sow.

Tupelo Written by: Cave, Harvey, Adamson 1984

Slowly raising my sleep encrusted eyelids, I peered out across the doona. A smoky eyed youth dressed casually in torn stone washed jeans and a bared six pack stared back. His blonde frosted, spiky hair was nuzzled by a barefooted woman with a huge cork screw perm and they were draped decorously over an old Buick in a field: the ultimate ‘80s pin up couple in a black metal frame. Was I dreaming? Had I gone back in time?

No. It wasn’t 1984. It was 2009 and we were in a Southern Tasmanian B&B in The Huon’s beautiful Cygnet, fifty minutes drive south of Hobart. This is the town where my friend and chef, Steve Cumper has settled. Back in ‘84, Steve and I were probably rocking around the same Punk scene in St.Kilda, Pogo-ing on sticky carpet and watching a baby faced Nick Cave tear up the stage.

It was in this momentary time-warp however and later - standing in the ensuite’s marble patterned Formica time capsule of a shower cubicle – that I began to understand the mindset of the local customer who criticized Steve for daring to break from the formulaic pub approach to meals with his wonderful evening menu at The Red Velvet Lounge.

You see Cygnet is vaguely reminiscent of Victoria’s Daylesford in 1984. Early invaders - crusty folk singing, tea cozy wearing types - are gradually making way for a trickle of self funded retirees from the mainland settling into a tree-change, alongside a small gay community who’ve also recognized the town’s potential. But forming the core of the community are those born and raised in The Huon Valley, some perhaps frozen in another era - possibly also locked in a culinary limbo - and who I suspect may still be coming to grips with Steve’s efforts to create a contemporary menu supporting local and artisanal produce.

On the periphery of the community, former Chef and Sydney Morning Herald Restaurant Reviewer, Matthew Evans can be found acting out a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall scenario whilst being trailed by a film crew around his twee sounding property, Puggle Farm. In October, they will bring their footage of Cygnet to Australian TV viewers via SBS broadcasting.

In this picture, I imagine Steve Cumper to be Tasmania’s Alla Wolf Tasker - of Daylesford’s The Lake House - or an early version of Gourmet Traveller ‘National Treasure’ George Biron of Sunnybrae, tending his own farmlet and pushing the barrow of Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical (SOLE) food.

Back in '84 there was no way that I could afford to eat at a venue such as Alla’s or George’s. I couldn’t even afford the standard issue Punk studded leather motorcycle jacket. Steve couldn’t afford a car stereo so apparently had a cassette player taped to the dash of his old car.

In the eighties people my age who chose the ‘Alternative Lifestyle’ of local, biodynamic and artisanal food were presumed to be an unwashed hippie akin to Neil in The Young Ones, and not fit to dine in a fashionable restaurant. Now it’s all changed. Today SOLE food is becoming ‘de rigeur’ and Mr Sticky and I happily tucked into Steve’s special Friday evening meal at Red Velvet Lounge (RVL).

We came to RVL on what became our ‘Tasmania: Closed for the Weekend’ tour of the Apple Isle. Nearly everywhere we wanted to go was shut, in spite of advertising that they’d be open. Seems that those who could, had left Tassie for a break on the mainland. They must have flown out on one of those ridiculously cheap flights that had brought us there in the first place.

Consequently it was an unusually quiet night at RVL, with the subtle sounds of bossa nova from the stereo mingling with a few tables of polite chatter, until an aging folk music duo quietly settled on a couch in the corner of the room for guitar strumming, humming and harmonizing. There was a time where the folk music was the focus of this venue, not the food. But the balance has now changed. The diners we saw were indifferent to the music played at the front of the restaurant.

We found the service to be good at RVL. So often it is hard to manage this in regional venues, but I suspect that Steve’s nurturing nature knits this loyal group like a family. We began service with a couple of local beers, a Moo Brew from Moorilla and a ‘Cleansing Ale’ sighted on a chalkboard while considering the menu.

Although by day the Red Velvet Lounge is a small town café selling delicious wholesome daytime meals, suitable to vegan, vegetarian and omnivore alike, Friday and Saturday nights’ menu allows Steve to show off his prowess. Simple rustic sounding dishes - that won’t scare the natives - abound. But when you taste the food you realize that under the surface is a complex and imaginative array of meals that other chefs might be tempted to describe in four flowery lines of text. I love the restraint of description here. It allows you to discover the depths of Steve’s creativity orally with no major preconceptions to hinder the process.

Surveying the menu I wanted all the entrees on offer; we sampled three between us. I could not fault any of them. All wore a simple mantle that disguised the technical degree of difficulty combined with imagination that an experienced, meticulous chef can seemingly effortlessly pull off.

Between us we shared a rabbit pie floater with mushy peas and roasted parsnip which could have passed as a meal in-itself, as Steve doesn’t like to skimp on portions. There was no corner cutting here, a properly formed pie with lid sat picture perfect in the centre of the dish. Steve’s sour cream pastry was the perfect foil to the unctuous filling, offset beautifully by fluffy mushy peas and the sweetness of a roasted parsnip.

When it came time to swap plates, my nose was greeted by the wonderful aromas of the grilled Rannoch Farm quail. I lingered, inhaling it and then the saliva swarmed my palate until I just had to taste it. This was not a dish I anticipated in a regional restaurant but it was everything you would wish for – a fine mélange of fresh local flavours: delicate moist flesh with artichokes, punctuated with the tang and firmness of olives, then vine leaves and finally the verjuice, which made me think of Steve’s days with Maggie Beer in the Barossa.

Thirdly, we shared the duck neck sausage which was a thick, coarse, almost terrine like item, sliced and served with a wee jar of smooth, rich pâté, celeriac remoulade and some cornichons. The lot sat on a thin, long wooden board which was also graced by thick char-grilled slices of Steve’s famous bread, baked in the Restaurant’s original Scotch oven.

The pâté had Mr Sticky hooked, so silky and flavorsome was it. Perfectly rustic & slightly gamey, the total combination of textures and deep flavours in this entrée made it subtly sophisticated, and yet had me imagining that it would have been the ideal picnic dish for sitting by the water, watching the pod of whales that had recently graced the locals with a sighting.

When the main courses arrived, I was feeling nearly full already. But we forged on. Before me sat an impressive thick cut, crumbed pork Cotoletta upon a mound of velvety parmesan enriched mashed potato. Greed took over. Slicing in, it was perfectly moist and satisfied my wicked desire for crunchy, crumbed and fried meat. Baby rocket rounded out the vegetable content and a wicked dish of aioli flecked with local truffles sat alongside, enriching the palate further.

It crossed my tongue with a sigh of satisfaction. Whilst the execution was technically perfect, what made this special was that the integrity of the high quality produce was not compromised or gussied up as to become pretentious. It was a homely Mittle European style dish and for those who might be wary of modern ways, did not make a song-and-dance about the skill required to produce and prepare it.

The slow roasted leg of lamb rendered Mr Sticky speechless with admiration. Slow cooked for five hours, then pressed and finished again in the oven, it was a melt in the mouth, rib-sticking piece of deliciousness. The seasoning added richness. The lamb lost none of the honesty of its flavor in the process and did not have the cloying fattiness that some lamb dishes suffer. With the Cassoulet like braise of Cannelini beans, spinach and another side - this time of anchovy mayonnaise - it was a hearty dish that I could see my beloved was almost loathe to part with as we swapped plates. In my opinion it was an exemplary dish, the likes of which one might have presumed ought to have earned RVL a place in the 09 Gourmet Traveller Food Guide had they tried it.

I was thankful that the restaurant was quiet that night, as it allowed Steve the chance to come out and chat. At this point, chatting excitedly - albeit with food still left on our plates - I was already in a food coma. Mr Sticki however was tempted to order dessert. His choice was the chocolate mousse with peppermint praline. He may have felt full, but this slipped down quickly, lubricated with cream.

I took one mouthful and it was a trip to chocolate heaven, smooth and rich, offset by the crunch of the crumbled sugary mint candy. It was elegant and unbound by gimicry. My coffee sufficed to end my meal. Enlivened by good conversation and a fine repast, I was thoroughly sated.

One of the things I admire and respect in Steve is his optimistic and humble nature. He keeps his head down and charts his own course without hype or braggadocio. Early in his career he worked at Melbourne’s famous Tsindos Bistrot, under Ray Tsindos, son of iconic Chef George Tsindos, the man who for 40 years brought Florentino’s high repute.

Later Steve joined Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm Restaurant in The Barossa Valley, at that time regarded as Australia’s equivalent to Alice Waters. Other highlights include launching Soul Mama with Paul Mathis, raising the reputations of the Zampelis Restaurant Group and later winning Vogue Entertaining’s Award for use of local produce at Tasmania’s Peppermint Bay Restaurant. Not that he’ll wave any of that in your face. Steve is a thinker, an artisan, a talented chef and family man with his feet planted firmly in the ground while he dreams up beautiful recipes.

Similarly the venue is humble. Like a big warm hug from Nana, the venue allows you to rest in the comfort of its vaguely retro bosom. A former double fronted General store, the café-cum-restaurant features a counter and display cases showcasing Steve’s breads, jams and preserves. An open kitchen is disguised at night by an enormous floor to ceiling red curtain. There is a wood combustion stove, leather couches and heavy tables and chairs. It walks a dignified line between a busy casual breakfast and lunch café for most of the week, and an approachable rustic restaurant on Friday and Saturday evenings that doesn’t intimidate the old school locals.

Evidently Steve’s taken the softly-softly approach here, evolving the venue’s approach gradually from Crusty-Wholefood café to City style dining. So it was no surprise when Cygnet locals told us “they went spare” when RVL closed for renovations, feeling bereft without Steve’s handmade bread, asking if he could continue to service them in spite of the closure. Also the Tree-changers declaring that RVL had “The best coffee for miles” who suffered in silence before they could again enjoy their ritual caffeine hit.

After enjoying both, I can totally understand their loyalty and why the people of Hobart and beyond will drive out of their way to eat Steve’s food. For at the heart of this place is a quiet, determined passion within a spirited thinker who cares not a jot for fashion, but for what is intrinsically good in the world. If you’re visiting Hobart, I highly recommend that you book a table there one night and see for yourself....and tell him Sticky sent you.

The Red Velvet Lounge

24 Mary Street, Cygnet, Tasmania, Australia
03 6295 0466

03 September 2009

The Rose Hotel

One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.

Once in a while I hook up with old friends - and a couple of new ones - from the advertising industry to chew the fat over a lunchtime cheap eat. I love the comfort of the outing, exchanging news, experiences and ideas. I get excited and chat my head off. The Banff in St.Kilda has been a popular venue for this gathering, but it is always heaving and not a particularly comfortable venue for a medium sized group, so we adjourned today to The Rose in Port Melbourne, which is now run by the previous owners of Banff.

The Rose has been through many incarnations in the twenty odd years that I have been an irregular patron. In the eighties it was a trendy, yuppie pub, popular with the Marketing crowd, then it became a party pub, eventually a retro party pub - playing music from the yuppie era when eighties parties came into vogue - and then for a time a serious wine pub. For the last few years it has been a Gourmet Traveller and Good Food Guide vaunted Greek restaurant and bar, surviving two different ownerships. And then Port Melbourne changed.

The restaurant got increasingly quiet and even enticements to the Greek community such as live basouki music failed to draw them in. A nearby Greek Restaurant that had also once drawn big crowds at a sister venue in Swan Street, Richmond also felt the pinch and moved their focus to a generic European offering, serving cheese degustations, breakfast, coffees and a deli selling pre-made take-home meals.

The elderly Greek community began to die out and their children took advantage of sky-rocketing property prices to sell the down at the heel Port Melbourne family homes that had nurtured them since geting off the boat at Station Pier. I suppose many built Mc Mansions in Oakleigh, and with the move, the local demand for Greek Food was ably sated by Old Man Stavros' plate smashing institution in Albert Park. The Rose was regularly empty and eventually sold. The owners moved to South Melbourne to sell pizzas.

The first I heard of the new regime at the venue came in the form of a flyer - from Rose Bar Pizza - also touting Gourmet pizza albeit with a cleanskin bottle shop. "Not another pizza venue?" I said to Mr Sticky, "We already have eleven pizza joints within walking distance of home. How will they survive?"

But we were sufficiently enticed to try it, being at the end of our street, and because I wanted try Italian Sausage pizza with caramelised onions; Roast pumpkin, Gorgonzola, rocket & pine nut pizza, along with Prawn, chilli, saganaki, lemon & rocket pizza. We did not regret it.

Essentially the menu here is the same as Banff's because the former Chef is now at the Port Melbourne venue. Since her departure, I've noticed that the food in St.Kilda is less reliable and so our moving our group's lunch to Port Melbourne was a sound one. As one of my locals, their offer of a selection of 10 excellent gourmet pizzas at $5.50 for lunch Monday to Friday, and on Monday & Tuesday nights is hard to go past. And I love that this is further proof that you can get gourmet grub that beats Maccas for value.

At Rose Bar Pizza, as it is now known, the pizzas are midsized and thin based with a generous serve of quality toppings. There's no bulk bags of commercially grated cheese or ham of dubious origins here. Each pizza is flavoursome, with the right amount of crunch and chewiness. I can also recommend their salads, the potato, saganaki and rosemary pizza; Chorizo, artichokes, cherry tomato and olive pizza; Moroccan Lamb with mint yoghurt and za'atar pizza and the velvety Macaroni Cheese which arrives in a miniature paella pan.

As a chick, I never seem to be able to finish the pizza on my own so although tempted, I have yet to try the chocolate, cherry & ice cream pizza or the apple crumble & custard version. Given that they have happy hour from 3-6pm every day, I may just have to slide down there for 'afternoon tea'.

Like Banff, they also serve the delicious frothies made by Bearings Brewery in Geelong at $2.50 a pot. So today, at lunch the boys enjoyed a meal for $10.50 including a couple of beers. A couple of them tried the tasting tray at the bar to sample which cleanskin they fancied quaffing, and a good time was had by all in this large, modern yet comfortable room, with it's long marble topped communal space and walls festooned with art and customised pizza boxes decorated by regulars.

Time slipped away quickly in such convivial surrounds. I left clutching a box of my leftover pizza and a takeaway so that my beloved did not miss out. As I walked home to work again overlooking my garden, I counted my blessings: a beautiful Spring day, great friends and simply prepared quality food that didn't break the bank. Life is truly good.

Rose Bar Pizza
309 Bay Street, Port Melbourne,
Victoria, Australia ph. 9646 3580
Mon-Fri Noon until late, Saturday 5pm until late

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