Friday, 2 November 2012

Taxi Dining Room - Be Here Now

Before my visit on All Hallows' Eve, I had not dined in at Taxi Dining Room, located on the first floor of the Transport Hotel in Federation Square since 2007. At that time, it not only came highly recommended to me and the person who was whispering in my ear at that time that was saying that restaurant was the new "it" place may have exaggerated a bit. Considering that I was doing whirlwind weekend tours of Melbourne bars and restaurants back then, I was looking for something really special and it never really left a positive or a negative impression really. Of course that was 2007 and what a difference five years makes.

Back in the bygone era of the noughties Taxi Dining Room couldn't stop winning  awards. It even managed to procure two of the coveted hats that restaurants seem to lose sleep over these days and drive mild-mannered chefs to alcoholism, depression and despair. Like with federal politics and Prime Ministers seemingly, restaurant hats come and go on a whim. Sometimes on merit, sometimes for other nefarious reasons. Whatever is the case, should the dining public re-establish a love affair with Taxi Dining Room now, they will not regret it.

The dining area remains bright, meticulously organised and as welcoming as the staff were when I presented myself with the epicurean emo. Views can be enjoyed depending on the perspective where you sit out to the Botanic Gardens, Southbank and the beautiful (sic) Yarra River or the skyline of the CBD. It was the start of a relaxed afternoon and when I learned that a seven-course degustation was on offer, I became as the proverbial dog with a bone. Proper seven-course degustation menus are seemingly rare as hens teeth for lunch so I knew I was in for an experience.

I began to ruminate about the table configuration and how appropriate it was. Not only did it make the most of the floorspace which benefits the restaurant but the tables were not so close together that you would feel like you were in other patron's personal space or be able to eavesdrop on their conversation. After my experience at The Press Club, I have become hypersensitive to being packed in like sardines in a crushed tin box as Radiohead would moan.

Quickly I learned that our server, Laura, and sommelier, Owen, exuded professionalism and were quite willing to go on our relaxed, yet wild, ride through the menu and around the world with the wines offering cold hard facts about the grapes, the reasons for the pairings and also trivia that kept us intrigued.

The meal started with Whiting sashimi with Kombu dressing. After recent trips to Nobu and Koko and thinking of the best seafood dishes that I had, this dish, not only the presentation but the dressing made it taste spectacular and be equal with the best of the best that the aforementioned specialists have on offer. The pairing of 1999 Duval-Leroy 'Authentis' from France certainly enhanced an already divine start to proceedings.

Panko crumbed pork cheek with Ngoc Cham and Prawn dust followed. The pairing of Dr Burklin Wolf 'Wachenheimer' Riesling, 2010 from Germany I thought was bold but also a great compliment. This is a very complex dish with many flavours competing for superiority on your palate however they were not intense flavours which allowed the wine to really do its job and highlight the goodness. 

Probably the most intriguing, if not special, of the dishes followed. Szechuan broth with Asian herbs and Szechuan duck. The broth was unlike anything that I have ever had before. The Szechuan duck would have been enjoying a happy afterlife bathing in this sea of flavour. Like with the Whiting earlier, Owen made a great choice with the Barbeito 'Old Reserve' Verdelho Medium Dry 10yo. -  Madeira - bold and classy and indeed a winner. This is my favourite dish and pairing of the experience which has continued to haunt me long past Halloween became a day in the past this year.

Cone Bay Barramundi with tempura mussels and garlic choi sum followed with a Denton 'View Hill' Pinot Noir, 2008 from our own Yarra Valley. Normally I remain sceptical of pairing Barramundi with Pinot Noir however this worked well and proves that if you lose yourself at times and trust the experts that you will not only gain a better appreciation for various matched flavours but also learn something at the same time.

Rabbit saddle with Lup chong and ginger followed with a 2010 Cape Mentelle Zinfandel from the Margaret River. It had been a while since I had a nice Zinfandel and I see why Owen decided to match it with the rabbit. The rabbit was prepared properly and really renewed my passion for wanting to eat the pest. Another wine, Gros Nore Bandol, 2008 (Mouvedre) was also on offer to taste with this dish and when poured directly from the Magnum, I felt like I was in a hedonistic paradise.

After a Passion fruit sorbet cleanser with coconut espuma, an Ecuador dark chocolate ganache was served for the one dessert course with a Mas Amiel Maury Rouge, 2009 (Grenache Noir) from Côtes de Roussillon, France. Very rich and powerful, which was how I wanted to end this meal with petit fours included.

Chef Tony Twitchett certainly has Taxi Dining Room on track to not only returning to the glory days but in my opinion exceeding what was achieved in the past. Most of the time, child actors are given praise as teenagers only to become ugly ducklings and never achieve much as adults. There are the rare exceptions though and I will steadfastly think of Taxi Dining Room as the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Melbourne dining scene. It was good before. It is much better now, and much like Leo will get an Oscar in the future for something, I am confident that Taxi Dining Room will end up with a few hats in the very short term if they keep up the awesome work. I look forward to returning soon.

Taxi Dining Room, Federation Square Melbourne
Taxi Dining Room
Level 1, Transport Hotel
Federation Square, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9654 8808
My Rating: 16.5/20
Service: 4.5/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 4.5/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5
Comment: Degustation+wines is awesome

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 79% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon liked Taxi Dining Room.

Taxi Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Press Club - Flame Trees in the Night

I never subscribed to the MasterChef hype and in fact have only watched a couple of episodes. The whole notion of "Celebrity Chefs" I believe are a good thing because they not only provide some healthy entertainment (as opposed to American Reality TV, Criminal Minds and Big Brother) and most importantly give people the motivation to prepare new and innovative dishes, and sometimes even healthy meals for their families. Despite some off-putting personalities I believe the Australian "Celebrity Chefs" are good role models in general and I want their restaurants to succeed, books to be sold and television shows to be broadcast as they not only educate us common plebeians but give the consumer a greater and more educated, if not critical, choice when frequenting restaurants.

I arrived with my clever companion at George Calombaris' flagship, The Press Club, to be greeted at the door and summarily shown to our table. My first impression was that I was entering the Forum with Cold Chisel performing. Tables and chairs were placed a bit too close together for my liking and I would quickly learn you can not engage in a private conversation without the guests at the table next to you actively eavesdropping and on occasion actually interrupting you and providing their outlook on life and times. It is something that I would expect to happen at a concert and I believe the proximity of the tables makes it easy for people to befoul social graces. The Press Club also subscribes to the "chefs table" notion so there are a few seats at the border of the loud kitchen. People were having fun, but it just isn't my thing. So besides the Cold Chisel concert of sorts emanating from the kitchen with groupies in the moshpit, I was getting to know my fellow concert-goers by chance and not by choice in the mezzanine.

Like with my other culinary journeys, I was interested in a tour de force, as was my clever companion which did not involve decisions. We opted for the eight course (with one extra 'add on') aptly called the "Symposium" degustation with the wine matching. Every course was "good" but nothing was truly memorable. When I think of other restaurants that I have been to lately, like Pei Modern, I think of the amazing Almond Gazpacho with Blue Swimmer Crab. When I think of Rosetta, my mouth waters when I ponder the wonderful Lobster roasted tomato, mint and chilli Fettuccine and at at Virginia Plain I yearn to return and have Andy Harmer's Ocean Trout cured in Raspberry Vinegar. The problem is despite being "good" nothing was a remarkable stand-out or anything that caused me to obsess over let alone froth at the bit to go back and have again.

The matched wines were issued like rations in a draught and I never was excited to try them. They were interesting but the service that introduced them never got us that excited. Like when Raúl Moreno Yagüe encouraged me to go outside of my comfort zone and try Slovakian and Lebanese wines at Vue de Monde, the education that I received ignited a passion. Probably because service was so blasé about the wines, they were just consumed with no pomp and circumstance or even respect to the grapes that died in battle, which is a shame really.

Service was professional although not overtly engaging throughout the night. They were quite apologetic when it was announced that a chicken dish was being served, the wine was matched and poured appropriately and then a fish dish was placed in front of us. That created some confusion but was probably, if not sadly, the most exciting thing that happened with the menu all night.

I suppose if the bill didn't come to $300 p/p (with a modest tip) I wouldn't be so disappointed. After enjoying some amazing meals that certainly excited and inspired me lately, I have been left instead feeling a bit sad and disappointed with my time at The Press Club. Fortunately I was able to catch up with my clever companion and given this experience was like attending a Cold Chisel concert, these lyrics seem appropriate:

But Oh! Who needs that sentimental bullshit, anyway?
You know it takes more than just a memory to make me cry
And I'm happy just to sit here, at a table with old friends
And see which one of us can tell the biggest lies.

The Press Club, Flinders Street, Melbourne
The Press Club
Link to review
72 Flinders Street  Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9677 9677
My Rating: 13/20
Service: 3.5/5
Ambiance: 3.25/5
Quality: 3.5/5
Value For Money: 2.75/5
Comment: Can confirm bookings via text

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 68% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon liked The Press Club.

The Press Club on Urbanspoon

Monday, 29 October 2012

New Page for Scores and Weighted Rankings

You may have noticed that there is a new addition to the menu bar called "Scores and Weighted Rankings for All Restaurants" which also can be found here. There has been a fair amount of feedback requesting that I create a page that summarises the ratings for all of the restaurants which sorts them by my weighted criteria. This page will also provide easier access to find the associated blog posts and will update rather seamlessly after I make a new post. I think this will make it a single point of reference and effectively be able to better organise the wealth of information that has been added to this blog over the last four months.

I will add the bar ratings and weighted rankings to the page in the next few days and retire the "Archive" pages which frankly are quite a pain to update and are also quite ugly.

Koko - You're Frozen (when your heart's not open)

After a very calorie intensive week spent at Virginia Plain, Pei Modern and Rosetta, I thought I would hunt down some "healthy" sushi and sashimi and try a place that has been on my list for quite a while, the amusingly named Koko located on the 3rd level of Crown Casino in Southbank.

A warm welcome was had upon entering Koko. Looking around you will find teppanyaki tables, other tables reserved for a la carte dining along the glass wall that overlooks the Southbank Promenade and the beautiful (sic) Yarra River and a small sushi bar that can seat six people. We choose the sushi bar and were immediately seated and offered water and the wine list.

The amount of fish on offer was not huge but unlike other sushi bars, like at Sake, Koko doesn't give the false impression of having a tremendous variety of fish by stacking it up in repeating intervals down the refrigerated display cocoon. I informed the chef that were we not wanting to make many decisions so we left the choices with him. The usual sashimi suspects were served which included tuna, salmon, kingfish and octopus which were all as you would expect. The highlight for the first round of food was the spicy scallop roll. It was full of flavour but highlighted by the horseradish component of the wasabi as they did not use true "real" wasabi, but the bastardised version that is primarily horseradish. A twitter follower also highlighted this to me - it is queer that they offer such a premium product but then have fake wasabi to accompany it.

To finish off my meal, I ordered sea urchin (Uni) and it was beautiful. I got talking with the chef and told him that I am usually sullen whilst enjoying sushi as Toro (the fatty underbelly of tuna) is rarely available. He said that they had some available and not having enjoyed any for over a year, it left me on a high of anticipation. I finished my meal with Toro after happily devouring my Uni with the sake however I was bemused because the Toro had been previously frozen. The chef verified this. Although it was beautiful, it was nothing like what I previously had at Azuma in Sydney which was freshly procured and served the day that it had arrived.

The restaurant is beautiful and the service was very regimented and professional. There is always someone lurking in the area waiting for a glance from you so that an order can be taken or in our case, dishes replaced, chopsticks returned to their default resting position and our sake glasses refreshed with what seemed like a never-ending bottle on the day that I visited.

What I found interesting is that in the middle of the restaurant is a pond. I asked the very affable sushi chef if anyone ever has fallen in it. He did say a few drunks had in the past and it makes for good entertainment later in the evening. That certainly would beat the cabaret experience at Dracula's and it would be something that I would return to see.

Strangely when I commenced writing this, I started thinking of the old Madonna song "Frozen" when I first thought about Koko. It is probably not the best association as I am not a Madonna fan and it isn't good to reference perhaps my favourite cut of fish being served defrosted or even the fact that such delicate flavours are complimented with fake wasabi. I thought about this occasionally over the last three days and it made me angry actually because I really wanted to have a "local" sushi bar to stop around at and I really wanted Koko to be the place. Sadly it will not be.

Link to review
Level 3, Crown Casino Southbank VIC 3006
(03) 9292 6886
My Rating: 13.5/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 3/5
Value For Money: 2.5/5
Comment: Great Uni, view and ambiance

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 84% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also liked Koko. In general I did also but as I wrote, there are still aspects of my experience that still make me angry.

Koko on Urbanspoon