Saturday, 15 December 2012

Station Hotel (Footscray) - Inclusive

Not to be confused with the Station Hotel in Prahran which incidentally is closing at the end of December 2012, the Station Hotel in Footscray is a magnificent if not random find. I knew it wasn't far away from Costco in Docklands but for whatever reason it wasn't until just the other day that I ventured there for a late lunch.

Looking at the building on the corner of Napier and Hyde Streets you would think that you were in a small country village in England. It looked quaint and nothing like I imagined that I would find in multicultural Footscray of all places.

I had to reference a Psychology textbook when considering the Station Hotel and what I observed after entering. We are all familiar with "locals" that frequent bars and pubs, and in this case, the trendy term can be applied, "gastropub" where locals are "Insider's" and all the others are considered "outsider's" which are in turn highly evocative terms. Insiders are supposed to be "in the know," which sounds positive, but they may also be seen as having an unfair advantage. Outsiders are ambiguous, often being seen as being excluded and negative, but occasionally as having an objectivity or freedom not possessed by people who have a stake in their membership in a class or system. An outside observer of a family or business may be an "outside agitator" but may also make observations and offer good advice because he or she is not so involved in the rewards and punishments of the system. I suppose I am the outside observer of sorts.

Since starting this blog five months ago, I have frequently seen the "Inside/Outside" contrast alive and well in places that I normally would not visit and all too frequently in places that I either like or actually consider myself a local. With the all that in mind, this concept although seemingly valid by looking around the venue, once you dig deeper, chat and listen, I have found it to be one of the few places where you can feel included despite how you are dressed, what you may do for a living (some patrons were on furlough from an office building, others appeared to have been doing roadworks in the morning) or if you are a tourist, hipster, local or even an interested party like me looking for good value, good times and good food. It was refreshing and humbling to say the least.

Having only have heard good things about the steak on offer at this place, I instead opted for the Gippsland lamb rump with pommes boulangeres, local asparagus and sauce Navarin ($38) and I am so pleased that I did. It arrived a perfect medium rare, with a nice charred flavour and cooked simply which I would be so bold as describe as the Heston Blumenthal technique. The lamb had obviously been rested and it was the perfect temperature when served. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy and full of flavour. After my recent trip to Attica, I wondered if this produce was farmed in Ben Shewry's garden as it was so good. My dining companion enjoyed the Penne, spicy bolgnaise, peas and fresh ricotta ($18) and he couldn't stop saying how good it was and was slightly taken back by the large portion size.

I kept myself hydrated with 4 Pines and Mountain Goat Beer whilst enjoying this gastropub experience. There is a small beer garden of sorts that would have made a relaxed place to dine and hang out however on this occasion it was raining so I thought better of it.

If only the Station Hotel was within walking distance to Southbank, I would make it my local. I haven't felt at "home" as much as I did in this pub since I lived in Sydney and made the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel my home away from home. The great thing about the Station Hotel though is this exciting menu where I look forward to returning many times. I was also happy to learn that The Wayside Inn is its sister venue which is within walking distance from me so I am keen to visit it and as you would expect, report back on here soon.

Station Hotel, Footscray, Melbourne
Station Hotel
Link to review
59 Napier Street  Footscray VIC 3011
(03) 9687 2913
My Rating: 13.5/20
Service: 2.75/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 4.5/5
Value For Money: 3/5

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

At the time of this post, 85% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like the Station Hotel.

Station Hotel on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Attica - Blown Away

Attica always seems to remain off my radar because I know that I have to take private transport (or good god, public transport) to get to it in Ripponlea from the Melbourne CBD. My twelve minute or thereabouts ride on the train though seemed minuscule really when you think how long it takes to walk to various Melbourne eateries when you factor in the traffic on the footpath in and around town. Not to be hard done by the train though, we presented ourselves early for our 8:30 PM booking.

An enthusiastic yet professional greeting was had upon introducing ourselves at the door. Like with my recent experience at Ezard, we were not given the best table in the house but it was by far from bad. Attica can best be described to have a cosy table configuration in the centre of the restaurant where the best tables in my opinion border the perimeter. I had the pleasure of dining a table on the perimeter however it was the closest to the front door. In the winter, I would hate to experience the blast of cold from the outside as the elements would frequently invade the restaurant when the door was propped open for long periods of time as diners oddly made their exit and had to communicate their platitudes to all and sundry. As it was a warm evening in Melbourne on the night I had the pleasure of dining at this place, I took no notice of this malfeasance if not inconvenience for some.

We announced our intention to enjoy the eight course tasting menu with the matched wines to our server, Michael, who throughout the night remained not only professional but good-humoured and informative.

As the various amuse-bouches, yes, plural, were brought out in rapid fire I took the time to absorb the ambiance. The fit-out of the restaurant, albeit cosy  has not changed much since I last attended two years ago however as I sipped the sparking water that was being refilled almost by magic I mused as to what chef Ben Shewry was trying to communicate with the dark colours, minimal yet aggressive lighting and the configuration of the restaurant in general. I thought of the last play that I saw at the Malthouse Theatre as I pondered the surrounds and the lighting. Strangely though as I watched service deliver food and beverage to other happy diners that were seemingly in various stages of their respective degustation experiences, I thought of this restaurant as a stage of sorts. Not in the bogus sense that the diners were the audience though, but quite the opposite. The kitchen who are armed with a large centrifuge in the background peaks out at times on us diners, or should I say, us actors and actresses in the play which they have written and executed where we are left to our own devices to interpret. The track lighting making the diner the star in a very well orchestrated production that is brought to life by the superior service and support staff. Still in retrospect I suppose the play that Ben has intended is a comedy of sorts where the kitchen and staff are able to be amused at us plebeians grunting, pointing and making sounds that resemble "ew and aw" and in turn reflecting whether or not they really like what is on offer.

The highlight of the amuse-bouche phase for me being the walnut reduction served inside a walnut shell, where the innards of the shell are exposed to you by service. Subterfuge is alive and well at Attica and as you start your journey through the menu, you discover that the walnut especially will prepare your palate for the first dish - Snow Crab, Shiitake, Twelve Basils matched with a Sake from Nagano, Japan - Chikuma Nishiki 'Kizan Sanban' Junmai Ginjo, which is not only high quality Sake, but it brought the Snow Crab to life. Already having the walnut flavours on my palate heightened my appreciation of this dish and my glass of Sake had to be refilled so that I could continue to enjoy it and the residual effects of the crab. This would become a recurring theme as there is a small duration between when you receive your matched alcohol and when your dish appears.

We then were taken to Austria where a 2006 Welitsch 'Ex Vero' was provided to match with the Marron and Fermented Corn that would soon follow. Another excellent dish with a beautiful smell. I would soon learn that the majority of the produce is sourced from gardens outside of the restaurant or at the furthest extreme, Ripponlea Estate. Colourful, crisp and exciting flavours are yielded and for once it was refreshing knowing where all of the ingredients were actually sourced as a diner (or in this case an actor in Ben's play) you really take it for granted when you are at a restaurant usually unless you are made aware, usually inconveniently.

I have seen some lampoon the next dish online, the matter-of-factly called "A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown" matched with a 2007 Dario Princic 'Bianco Trebez" from Friuli, Italy. There is nothing silly or pretentious about this dish. The potato is cooked in the earth that it was grown in and I will be so bold as to say it was the best potato that I have ever had. I sliced it thinly whilst I used my tongue to compress it against the roof of my mouth where it soaked up the residual evidence of the wine as I consumed what was on offer and had another glass whilst I ruminated this technique. If Coles had not only potatoes but the actual dirt for sale, I would buy it and use it to prepare them. The dish and the preparation technique is quite exciting, if not intriguing.

Ben's wicked garden must be thriving as the next dish, a zesty offering of Cucumbers, Sauce of Burnet and Dried River Trout was presented along with a sample of the 2011 Gaia "Thalassitis" Assyriko from Santorini, Greece. My biggest complaint when I left the Press Club was that the wine man never educated my clever mate and I about the few Greek wines that were on offer so up until this point I never had a clear appreciation of anything from Greece as the wine had never been effectively marketed to me - anywhere really. I found it queer yet amusing that Banjo Harris Plane choose a Greek wine of all things to match with this produce-intensive dish however after having the wine introduced and then tasting it with the produce, I really understood and was grateful for the pair. The wine certainly highlighted the bold yet crisp taste of the crunchy and fresh cucumbers but the sauce is what matched well and nothing overwhelmed the dried trout but in fact only highlighted its simple and clean taste. This was one of the stand-out dishes of the night and it would not have been the case if the wine match was not so effective.

The King George Whiting in Paperbark followed along with 2010 Yeringberg Marsanne/Rousanne from our own Yarra Valley. The fish came wrapped in bark and when it was exposed a myriad of smells were released and my senses were piqued. I separated the fish with my fork slowly and fed myself at a snails pace whilst I enjoyed the wine attempting to drag this experience out as long as I could. I would spent at least 15 minutes eating the fish a few grams at a time and immersed myself in the smells of the food and beverage - a beautiful dish which challenged and enlightened me.

When I stopped my preoccupation with sights, tastes and smells and when the pleasant conversation took an intermission I heard KC & The Sunshine Band playing "Get Down Tonight" which I thought was fitting. Not since I was last at Virginia Plain did I find a background soundtrack so appropriate but yet not intrusive at all as it took a number of courses before I would even notice it. The next song was "Porcelain" by Moby which eased me into the most exciting dish that I have had in years.

Flinders Island Wallaby, Bunya Pine and Ground Berry. Who would have thought? I knew Shannon Bennett was serving Wallaby on occasion at Vue de Monde however this was the first time that I experienced the beast. Matched with an Isole e Olena "Cepparello" from Tuscany, I savoured small tastes and would ultimately need my wine glass refreshed once more to finish this bold course. When you are seated you are informed that Wallaby is on the menu and the particular nuances involved with bringing it from Flinders Island to your plate. Some people it would seem are offended by this dish or have some sort of preconceived notion about it. All I can say it is bloody (sic) amazing and it is now one of my favourite dishes that I have ever had.

After a bit of a break, proceedings continued with Native Fruits of Australia matched with a Maidenii Vermouth 'Aperitif' from Bendigo. It was very refreshing and invigorating, yet another testament to Ben's respect for produce and the way that it is grown, prepared and presented.

The aptly named "Plight of the Bees" followed, which is a multi-layered dessert where honey is used as the primary ingredient however once all the layers are merged across your palate, when paired with the 2009 Gunderlock 'Nackenheim Rothenberg' Auslese Goldkap, it was an orgy of flavours that probably can be classed as my favourite dessert that I have ever had. I am not a big dessert person however this simply blew my away.

I did not want the experience to end so I requested more wine and also suggested that if the kitchen had anything that they were experimenting with that they could part with, we were happy to try it. Michael delivered an "Afghan" which looked like a bowl of breakfast cereal, but in fact was another dessert that contained a myriad of sweet sensations. I recently reflected after I visited Chez Dre that I do not normally eat breakfast however if this was on offer every day, it wouldn't matter if I used a spoon, my fingers or my tongue, it would end up in my stomach. Of course on the flip-side after a while my stomach would be engorged but knowing that I would have to step up the frequency of my visits to the gym to compensate is a small price to pay for this delight.

Much to my surprise, there was another twist in the play. The finale turned out to be Pukeko eggs served in a nest. Not real eggs from the purple Swamphen of New Zealand, but white chocolate egg shells complemented with brown spots to mimic the appearance of the real thing which are filled with salted caramel. You are also provided an information sheet about the Pukeko which I thought was an interesting and insightful touch as it provided a further insight to the psychology of Ben Shewry, who is a native of New Zealand.

The last meal that I reference as being the "best" that I have had was enjoyed at Vue de Monde in December 2007. The awesome degustation experience that I just wrote about comes very close to usurping Vue de Monde for its top stop in my humble opinion and it will at least be remembered for years to come. Fortunately for me I can and will come back regularly to now that I live in Melbourne and this place will consistently be referred to as one my "favourites" often.

Attica is ranked #63 on the current San Pelligrino World Restaurant rankings, has been awarded three chefs hats by The Age and for what it is worth, is ranked #1 on my list of restaurants that I have reviewed to date on this blog. 

Attica, Ripponlea, Melbourne
Link to review
74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, VIC 3185
(03) 9530 0111
My Rating: 17.5/20
Service: 4.5/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 5/5
Value For Money: 4/5

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

At the time of this post, 84% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Attica.

Attica on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Ezard - Beguiling

Although I had visited Teage Ezard's second restaurant in Melbourne, Gingerboy, multiple times over the years, attending his flagship restaurant, Ezard, on Flinders Lane somehow eluded me until last week.

Proceedings commenced at Gin Palace with their sublime Gin & Tonic #2's since Ezard was not expecting us until 9:00 PM. Although our intention of having the signature Ezard degustation option was announced to the restaurant when the booking was made, I was fearful that the experience would be amalgamated into a frenzy of activity and be over in the blink of an eye considering the start time. The restaurant however assured us that would not be the case and in fact that you can order the degustation menu up until 10:30 PM. That is impressive.

We arrived early for our booking taking a chance that our table would be ready and we were not disappointed. The lovely lady who greeted us at the door turned out to be our server and led us to our table. It wasn't the best table in the house by far but I was happy to be seated away from the M1: the main thoroughfare of the restaurant that borders the bar and will also take you to the lavatories.

Sparking water quickly arrived along with bread. I ordered a classic Gin & Tonic to begin with. Without looking at the menu, I announced to the server that we would be enjoying the (eight) course degustation option. She said that I should still review the menu but I indicated that I like to be surprised.

The restaurant manager, Quentin wandered over to give salutations and greetings. We both recognised each other from the old Vue de Monde on Little Collins Street as he had the (dis)pleasure in those days of looking after my table on occasion. At that point, I knew that we were in good hands.

One of the signature dishes, a Japanese inspired oyster shooter arrived in tandem with Quentin holding a bottle of 2012 Kirei Shuzo 'Karakuchi 80' Junmai Nama Genshu Sake from Hiroshima, Japan. I can certainly understand why this is considered a signature dish. An explosion of tastes ensued and when aptly paired with the Sake, not only did I have a new found respect for the restaurant but appreciated the way that the Sake did not overpower the shooter and the shooter in turn did not overpower the Sake. Most people believe that wine is best matched with raw bivalves but this is not the case. Sake in my humble opinion is the most natural and logical pair and it is very rare to find a degustation that will exploit this delicate balance for all it is worth.

Citrus and vodka cured salmon, black quinoa, olive oil jam, smoked yoghurt, tangerine vinaigrette matched with a 2000 Pol Roger Brut was the next colourful delight to be presented to us. Simple but effective matching of the delicate seafood tastes with the champagne were highlighted by the enigmatic olive oil jam. What a mysterious and intriguing taste. Beside the oyster shooter, the taste of the jam is what left the greatest impression on my palate. The diner is also left to their own devices to add a variety of spices that languish on your table and this is the dish that is best enhanced by them.

Whenever I am presented with spanner crab, I am a happy man. Fortunately for me, the third dish was a steamed spanner crab dumpling with Yarra Valley salmon roe. Spanner crab playing hide and seek in a dumpling was a novel approach that certainly worked. I am a bit biased when it comes to spanner crab as it is classically one of my favourite foods and the restaurant did not let me down.

A salad of beetroot, asparagus and Jamon Serrano, parmesan custard and a black truffle vinaigrette was next. Beetroot is usually not suited for me and I have never had it with Jamon Serrano before. The result was a pleasant surprise. It just proves if you keep an open mind that you can find simple delights in food that you would not normally appreciate. At home I want to experiment with the beetroot and a Jamon Iberico now and see what that is like.

I thought it was adventurous to pair the next dish, a pan roasted baby barramundi with carmelised eggplant, tomato and lime salad with yellow curry dressing and a Dolcetto. A 2010 G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba. The onmnipresent floral smell certainly paired well with the baby barramundi and the wine never overpowered the fish, which was the first thing that I was concerned about when I saw the match unfold.

Moving from a floral bouquet to a rich apple one followed with the slow cooked Bangalow pork belly with apple pudding, fennel, white peach and calvados jus. Just looking at the pork and you just know in theory that it should be bad for you - but the things that are supposedly bad for your health are so damn good. If the pork was any softer it would be emulsified. A very tasty dish that actually melted in my mouth.

When you order the degustation menu, you are asked to make one choice - choose between the Chinese style roast duck and the Wagyu beef. Feeling very gluttonous as we could not make a choice (nobody should have to choose between those two dishes) we opted to enjoy them both much to the surprise of the restaurant however anything is possible provided that you are willing and able to pay the surcharge for the pleasure.

The duck with green chilli and an oyster sauce dressing was matched with a 2010 By Farr "Farrside" Pinot Noir from Geelong. I love Pinot Noir and most recently have come to appreciate the offerings from Geelong (thanks Pinot Palooza!) however I thought that this big and bold Pinot went well with the duck and the introduction of the spice along with the green chilli was exciting.

Thinking about it more, it was probably silly of me to order the additional course as I felt like I was going to explode when the eight score Wagyu beef with potato terrine, garlic, red wine jam, mushroom soil and a bordelaise jus came out. The 2002 Hans Herzog "Spirit of Marlborough" Merlot Cabernet was paired with this oddly delicate steak. I would have liked to have seen it matched with a wine from Bordeaux as that is where the recipe for the jus originated however I liked it. I was starting to like everything though as my alcohol intake for the day was starting to overwhelm my sensibilities.

A very generous serving of five different cheeses concluded our evening and although a dessert tasting place was on offer, I physically got not eat any more.

Ezard beguiled me however not in a deceptive way. It lived up to its good reputation and Quentin and the team looked after us well. Most importantly the food and wine encouraged pleasant conversation for the four hours that we were at the restaurant and made for a memorable evening (and the start of the morning) and for that I am grateful.

Ezard, Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Link to review
187 Flinders Lane  Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9639 6811
My Rating: 16.25/20
Service: 4.5/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 4.25/5
Value For Money: 4/5

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

At the time of this post, 85% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Ezard.

Ezard on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Virgin Australia Business Class Food and Beverage

Epicurean delights can be found in the most unusual places. After being loyal to Qantas until just before Alan Joyce grounded the fleet, I gave Virgin Business and their Lounge at Sydney airport a try. That was around 18 months ago and I was so impressed not only with the service afforded to me by the Lounge but also at the time, the Virgin Premium Economy offering, I switched brand loyalty and have not regretted it since.

Earlier in the year, Virgin Australia transformed its fleet and upgraded their aircraft to directly compete with Qantas Business Class. The "Premium Economy" offering was replaced with "Business Class" and I was one of the first adopters and have consistently been impressed even on the short-haul commuter flights between Melbourne and Sydney and vice-versa.

After flying Virgin flight DJ957 yesterday (10/12/12) from Sydney to Brisbane I thought it would be worth it to reflect on the food and beverage experience.

Normally I do my best to put a dent in the supply of "Fat Yak" that is found in bottles in the Lounge before boarding the plane. Business Class passengers are greeted enthusiastically at the forward entrance to the plane (and allowed to bypass the queue) where you are guaranteed space in the overhead compartment for your bags to rest. You are immediately offered a beverage whilst the passengers board and on this occasion I opted for some sparkling water which was served in a proper glass with a slice of lemon.

After departing on-time (which for me is a common occurrence on Virgin flights, compared to Qantas) the cabin supervisor, Hayley, introduced herself and advised me of the two Luke Mangan (Glass, Sydney; Salt, Singapore) designed and/or inspired food offerings. After the seat belt indicator was turned off, Hayley returned with a gin & tonic (beefeater gin with equal parts gin and tonic as she prepared it in front of me in a tall glass) and I decided on the Pumpkin and Feta salad. Normally I do not order food since I tend to have dining plans at the destination but on this particular occasion after flying from Melbourne to Sydney earlier and not eating all day, I was ravenous.

The meal that was presented was substantial when you consider the offerings typically found on aircraft. What has always impressed me is that you are provided polished and real utensils and enough to consume two light courses. The polished silverware is a nice touch.

The spinach base was fresh and chilled, as was the pumpkin. It was not too cold though. It was complemented by soft beans and very strong feta which was soft but not dry. All of the elements were rather fresh and worked well together. The bread that was provided was warm, but not hot but also soft. The butter was also formed and soft and easily mashed. Some care went into putting together this dish on the airline to achieve the various temperatures and it was obvious that the food was stored properly. A pastry was also provided (the second course) and was much colder than the salad, and was very tasty.

During service Hayley would return a few additional times to make sure that I was hydrated with a constant supply of Beefeater gin, which complemented the salad, which in turn with the bread and pastry would ultimately be able to tide me over until my dinner reservation at 9:00 PM.

Epicurean delights can take many forms and sometimes come in the most surprising places. It impressed me enough to write about it on this blog. If you get the change to fly Virgin Business Class, even if you can exchange frequent flier points for the Business Class option, it is really worth it as it also includes Virgin Lounge access, which is certainly a marked improvement on the Qantas Club, which incidentally I never renewed that membership when it expired a year ago.

Brisbane is never my destination of choice and I usually end up in Queensland by chance these days however on this trip, I remain grateful to Hayley and the crew of flight DJ957 yesterday for the great in-flight experience and making my first dining and drinking foray in the sky as I crossed into Queensland a great and seemingly memorable one.