Saturday, 18 May 2013

Claypots Seafood & Wine St Kilda - Space Oddity

There are still a few places around Melbourne that when I admit that I haven't visited after living here for over a year currently actually draws a gasp from the questioner. One of the most recommended places is Claypots Seafood & Wine on Barkly Street in St Kilda that I admit that I haven't visited until recently. More than a handful of people have told me to dine at this place and to put the Chilli Crabs high on my must-do list. Far be it for me not to accept a recommendation.

This is a strange place. As the entrance to the dining area is through a wine room, the first time we entered the space, there was nobody in attendance of the bar area and not a customer in sight. I thought it was strange that the front door was open but nobody was home so not wanting to be accused of anything, we left and went to Lau's Family Kitchen, which turned out to be a great experience as an aside. The second time that we attempted a visit to Claypots, we entered the wine bar area once again however there was a lady behind the bar this time. She looked at us incredulously and after inquiring about eating, she took us through the door leading to the dining room cautiously as I dawdled to look at the piano and notice a sign on the wall saying that an Elvis impersonator would be performing there at some point. I stopped to admire the fresh fish in the glass case in the dining room before sitting. An impressive selection of fish was on ice on display however the front of house seemed like she was on another planet so I refrained from asking questions about the curious things that I had just observed.

After taking a table and being provided a bottle of tap water, we were advised that the menu was on the wall along with some wines that were added as graffiti as a bit of an afterthought to the formal wine list that was presented that had nothing too out of the ordinary articulated from within its pages. As the Chilli Crabs ($55) came highly recommended, an order was placed for one serve of the crustaceans and also four Garlic Tiger Prawns ($10/each) which seemed like a reasonable amount of food for two people to share.

I went exploring and found an outside area where you can smoke however for half of the year I wouldn't want to be stuck out there eating considering the cold inclement weather. Sitting near the door that accesses this garden of sorts would also be an inconvenience for those that do not want to be bothered by second hand smoke.

After returning to the small table, the prawns were served in a thick metal bowl and were bathing in a sizzling garlic sauce. The oil and garlic hot bath made for a great dipping liquid for the hot fresh bread that was provided. We began the task of shelling the mighty beasts and removing the black intestinal tract. Although it doesn't hurt to eat this, I would prefer not to and the exposed flesh looks much better without it. Ultimately the prawn meat, the garlic bath and the bread combined to make a great starter. I am not a huge fan for working for my food and rarely will get prawns that require me to remove their shell manually but the effort was worth it in this case.

When the crabs appeared on a large long dish, stacked up on a bed of rice, with approximately twenty mussels, I was surprised and uttered blasphemy. The stack of seafood looked great however as the discard bowl, crab cracker, finger bowl and stack of serviettes appeared, we ran out of room on the table. We could have moved to a larger table at this point but it just seemed easier to get on with it.

As you can expect, when you start fiddling with the crab, it is a messy exercise. I wouldn't recommend visiting this restaurant on a date or if you need to do business as getting the crab meat from the shell is not a simple or clean task. After we each excused one another's bad manners, we employed every trick in the book to extract the beautiful crab meat using hands, utensils and frequently licking our fingers like hounds lap up food in a bowl. There was no point in being meek or timid as recovering the crab meat proves fun yet tedious and the product was well worth it. The mussels were obviously fresh when they were cooked and served with both the beard removed and the meat slightly exposed from the gasping shell. I really liked the mussels and were some of the best that I have had.

The dining room has some interesting artwork on the wall. One painting was a variation of an image that I studied in University. A giant squid with a naked woman along with some other oddities were used as decorations. Besides the large off-white painting canvass which was bare besides for the name of the genius who produced it, who's name was scribbled in the corner, the circuit breaker box was exposed on the dining room wall. The chef even appeared at one point to reset a circuit as he seemingly lost power somewhere that was near and dear to him.

What was a standout was the seafood however the other bizarre aspects like service and the ambiance made for an "interesting" experience. Specialising is one thing however when you are left talking about weird aspects of the service and fit-out it leaves amusing memories for all of the wrong reasons.

Claypots St Kilda, Barkly Street, Melbourne

Claypots Seafood & Wine
213 Barkly Street, St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 9534 1282
no web site
My Rating: 13.5/20
Service: 3/5
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, 89% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Claypots Food & Wine at St Kilda.

Claypots Seafood & Wine on Urbanspoon

Gazi Restaurant - Calombaris Rising Further

George Calombaris has been busy shaking up his restaurant empire. His flagship restaurant, The Press Club, is closed for renovations and its little sister, which was more than just a bar, Little Press has been transformed. A metamorphosis of sorts has been completed in the old Little Press dining space and Gazi Restaurant was born as of yesterday. Even the stately Press Club plaque affixed to the cold stone wall on the exterior of 2 Exhibition Street has evolved now prominently displaying Gazi's name, transposed on top of its siblings.

At times when you enter a sushi bar, the staff shout their greetings. This is an act that no longer surprises. When this happened as we entered Gazi and no less than ten members of the team welcomed us, gave salutations in Greek and provided a sense of general enthusiasm and utter excitement that I haven't seen in a restaurant in quite some time I was a bit taken aback. In fact the energy exuded by the staff instantly put us both in a happy and excited mood ourselves and this was quite difficult considering that we were both experiencing the after effects of excessive alcohol consumption from the previous night so until the finality of the many warm greetings, mustering energy to be excited was difficult but the team and ambiance quickly sorted out those general feelings of malaise.

With an abundance of clay pots hanging from the ceiling, I was pleased that the new quirky blue plates depicting an evil eye, known as μάτι (mati), which is a charm of sorts that according to superstition and dates back to 6 BC in Greece, wards off bad luck. I was pleased the eye was watching over me as I certainly did not want one of those pots falling on my head. Given the popularity of both the restaurant on the day of its launch and the fact that George's star continues to shine from his pedigree of being The Age Young Chef of the Year from 2008 along with hosting duties on MasterChef, I do not suppose that much bad luck will befall this new buzzing establishment. Even when a guest dropped a glass on a the floor during service, it simply bounced off the ground and remained intact so the place must be charmed. The mati was watching.

A thoughtful Greek "street food" menu that certainly requires a fair amount of consideration, especially by patrons such as myself that have not classically been the biggest enthusiasts of Greek fare in the past was presented. Once again I spotted the mati looking at me on page 1, not far away from the list of dips and the Hellenic "dirty food" and as superstition stated, effectively warded off the envy that I had for others dining around me so after the loquacious staff introduced the menu and gave a very detailed breakdown of everything with a smile, we decided that the ten dish sharing menu ($69 p/p) aptly called "Doing it Greek Style" would give the best representation of what was available as it was far too hard to chose. This is a nondescript degustation of sorts so you are left to put your trust in the kitchen and hope that the mati is looking your way. Getting into the mood further, we ordered Mythos beer ($9.00) from the second largest Greek brewery (which is also available at Dan Murphy's) which is a slightly sweet lager that I found appropriate to match with the food that would quickly appear.

Two dips with accompanying soft bread were provided to tide us over until the first two and only dishes from the "Hellenic Dirty Food" menu arrived, the Salmon Tzataki a la Grecque and the Saganaki Kumquat Mustard Glyko. The Greek sauce livened up the fish that on its own would have been boring and it was a light way to ease into the menu. I was trying to keep perspective and attempt to see what Calombaris was attempting to showcase with this dish and uncover the story that it was trying to tell, instead of simply comparing it to other dishes that I have had. The Saganaki, which is a fried melted cheese appetizer was highlighted by the kumquat - a sweet but sour citrus flavour that really brought out the taste of the cheese. I really enjoyed this cheese appetizer and I am sullen that I didn't bother inquiring as to what type of cheese it was as I want to procure some. Fortunately the restaurant remains very active on Twitter so I will have to ask them later. (Update: George Calombaris sent a tweet and advised that the cheese used in the awesome Saganaki is in fact "Kefalograviera" which is a mix of cow and sheep milk. You can buy it from Elco foods or Bills Farm.)

The kitchen wasted no time in moving into the serving of the King Dory, sourced locally from Portland, Victoria, which was fresh from the wood fired grill. I really liked this fish, the way it looked and ultimately the taste as it easily fell apart when prodded with my fork. The taste of the grill was an added bonus and when combined with some additional dips and bread, was one of the highlights of this tasting menu for me. A salad was also presented that were leaves that held very thinly sliced radishes, Santorini capers and lentils. This was another surprise hit proving that you can not judge a book by its cover. What looks unremarkable is filled with flavour. I especially liked the use of the healthy serve of lentils but also the capers from the volcanic island of Santorini was indeed a winner.  

Besides a wood fired grill, the kitchen is fitted with a wood fired spit. We were both surprised and thinking of our already bulging stomachs when the Chicken was presented next. This chicken had an amazing crispy skin and remarkably not a very salty taste. This was yet another dish that perplexed me in a playful way as this too I decided that I wanted to try to re-create at home however I fear that I would burn my unit down in the process. Having previously reset my expectations to what I would think Greek "street food" should be, I suspect this is it. Along with the chicken, the white beans and the tirokafteri added a hint of additional flavour but I just could not get over the skin of this chicken. Yet another highlight of this degustation which I was pleased that I decided to order as the kitchen was not disappointing. In between having more bottles of beer appear and also a bowl of Tiganites potato chips with feta, the table became crowded with food and almost foreboding. You will certainly not go hungry in this restaurant.

The desserts were next. A Pavlova with ruby red grapefruit curd and cream highlighted by the use of mastic - dried pieces of sap from a tree. This is one of my dessert highlights for the year and regular readers of this blog know that I am not big into desserts. All of the flavours just worked well together and the use of the mastic was bold and brilliant. Loukomathes, deep fried small donuts accompanied the pavlova, and once spruced up with the sugar that was provided in a small bowl made for a sweet end to a very large meal.

After having spent upwards to eight hours enjoying degustation menus in the past elsewhere, I was impressed that the restaurant was able to accommodate so many dishes in such a constrained amount of time as my dining partner had to get back to Sydney on an afternoon flight to show off the photo that he got taken with George, just to make his missus upset. Although I wanted an Ouzo to assist in digesting this huge meal and be left to rub my stomach like a pregnant woman would, I was left to finish my beer and exit past the phalanx of happy faces of the staff which were all still exuding energy and a sense of true enthusiasm. Ten courses for $69 dollars is great value for money considering the amount of good and honest food that you receive and is probably one of the better offers going in Melbourne at the moment. I want to return when I really have more time to enjoy some of the cocktails which looked quite intriguing on paper but also be able to spend the time at the end of the meal to digest it and take in the ambiance however for now I am left with fond memories of a degustation that works well, great service, a buzzing atmosphere and an introduction to Greek "street food" which I suspect will become a prolonged love affair.

Gazi Restaurant, Exhibition Street, Melbourne CBD

Gazi Restaurant
2 Exhibition Street, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9207 7444
My Rating: 16.25/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 3.75/5
Value For Money: 4.75/5

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

At the time of this post, 90% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Gazi however there is only a small sample of votes, so I expect this to fluctuate wildly.

Gazi on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Nine Elephants Docklands - Ring of Fire

Sometimes my hedonistic tendencies cross into sheer and utter stupidity and like a child playing with fire, when I am asked "how spicy do you want that?" I can never resist proclaiming I can take any amount of spice that you can offer. Like my love affair with sake (the Japanese alcoholic drink, not the restaurant) large amounts of spice always seem like a good idea at the time, however I tend to suffer later. After ordering a plethora of food at Nine Elephants, the question of spice was asked and answered with my usual affirmation. Despite the consequences the next morning, the taste was worth it.

The Drunken Chicken ($7.50) was the first to arrive after placing an ambitious order for two people. Three small drumsticks that did not display any taste of alcohol however there was a faint taste of ginger. The vegetarian-friendly Chive Dumplings ($9.50) was the next course of sorts. A delicate rice pastry that contained chives, herbs and a gentle amount of spice that encouraged me to start drinking Singha beer ($6.50) at a faster rate despite knowing that it would not eradicate the burning sensation in my mouth. Four Spring Rolls ($6.50) accompanied a serving of Roti Bread ($4.00) and despite being predictable in taste, assisted in differentiating the flavours inherent in the dumplings and offset the spice a bit.

Leaving the land of entrees and entering the valley of mains was the difference between night and day. Khao Ka Nah Mooh Grob ($15) included stir-fried pork belly with Chinese broccoli, minced chilli and garlic along with the requisite jasmine rice. The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the pork belly was fatty. The levels of spice were extreme and I was left taking an intermission, which almost left me sleeping on the floor holding my bottle of beer whilst I waited for the sting and raging inferno to die down in my mouth. This is when I knew - absolutely knew - that I would be suffering the next morning, but I didn't care. I had liquid courage and some damn good food. Beside the pork belly, we ordered a Gang Dang ($13.50), another vegetarian option that is incidentally also gluten-free, which is a simple beef red curry which left my mouth and tongue tingling, my nose running and required yet another Singha to artificially cool the burn. Torturing my already abused body paid dividends as in the end, we both wanted spicy Thai food and we got what we wanted.

Located on Village Street near the Platform 28 Bar and Etihad Stadium, the restaurant can easily be overlooked because of the awkward street frontage. The room itself holds about forty people and has what seems to be a dispatch box on an elevated floor. You are almost left to wonder if Peter Slipper was going to come out of the toilet and take his place in the box to direct proceedings. Service as a whole was kind and attentive and in general helped make for a relaxed experience. With the construction in the area, the corporate types and of course Etihad stadium, a trip to this restaurant should be planned so that you are not inconvenienced by the large lunch crowds, traffic, closed roads or masses of people. Some proper planning though will lead to an enjoyable experience at what is certainly a shining star in the relatively dull Docklands precinct.

Nine Elephants, Village Street, Docklands

Nine Elephants
67 Village Street, Docklands VIC 3008
(03) 9670 9909
My Rating: 13/20
Service: 3.25/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 3.25/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5

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

At the time of this post, 89% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Nine Elephants.

Nine Elephants on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Lau's Family Kitchen - Mao Zedong Weeps

Much like a penguin, I can get easily distracted by shiny things so when I am in the area of the Prince complex on Acland Street, it is rather hard to resist the siren's call and either end up eating and drinking at either Circa, Acland Street Cantina or the Prince of Wales itself. Knowing that Chef Paul Wilson doesn't look much like a beautiful siren even on the best of days, with courage and a fair amount of intestinal fortitude, I managed to resist my carnal desire for mole and tacos and make my way just metres away up Acland Street to Lau's Family Kitchen which is often overlooked because of its location off of the colourful Fitzroy Street and of course away from the skagboys.

Being greeted at the door, you would never think that this restaurant specialises in Chinese fare or that its pedigree is from the eponymous Flower Drum on Market Lane. There are no cats waving at you, Chairman Mao's face is not staring at you and most surprising, the colour red can not be found - anywhere. This is a cozy small place far removed from what you would expect in Chinatown, which is not only refreshing but it set up so that the customer is comfortable. There is a decent amount of space between tables which are not arranged like a phalanx of soldiers, but are interchanged which took some foresight.

Water was quickly poured whilst the menu was read. The wine selections are an addendum of sorts to the proper food menu which was nice. After reading War and Peace at Rococo in the recent past, I wasn't prepared for Crime and Punishment so what was on offer was not only clear and concise but ultimately easy to interpret and was impressive.

We started with a bottle of 2012 Oceans Eight Pinot Gris, which was an excellent pair with the special crispy chicken wontons ($13.80) that started proceedings. Oddly we agreed that all of the courses articulated on the front page of the menu, the "Specials" page, needed to be sampled and we ended up making short work of everything on offer. The six crispy wontons were excellent. It isn't too often that you have wontons that are intentionally crisp however when bathed in the vegetable sauce and finished off by the residual sugars that were clearly evident in the wine, made for a great way to start.

Quail for me is something that I love to hate, mainly because so many places stuff it up. This wasn't the case at Lau's as the follow-up to the crispy wontons was the breast and thighs of the small ugly bird ($13) dressed simply with salt and pepper. Perfectly cooked and thoughtfully presented where you were able to enjoy the meat and once again, paired very well with the Oceans Eight.

Although my dining partner did not feel as adventurous, after having a chat about Flower Drum and the politics of that particular restaurant no longer serving shark fin soup, I was in the mood for the special "Seafood Soup" ($15) which proved to be full of flavour and considering the cool day was very appropriate. This seafood consommé was not only rich, but it effectively distracted me from the prizes found inside this pool of wonder - a big meaty prawn, a mussel and a scallop. None of the seafood was overcooked and all the offerings were tender, complimenting the soup itself instead of the other way around. When I finished this, I was left wanting more.

Yet another special, the duck in honey and lemon sauce ($24) appeared whilst I was still eating my soup. There was plenty of room on the table so this was not a big deal and once the bowl was vacated, I quickly had chopsticks in hand and was sampling the battered duck breast. As this was simply the breast, you were not left with any cartilage to contend with and the sweet sauce just proved once again to be an excellent match for the wine, which was fully consumed during this course. The duck however remained a standout mainly because it was not only simply presented but because of the overall taste after thoughtful preparation and the inclusion of the complementary honey and lemon sauce.

Although we originally intended to order two mains so that we didn't have to share any of the duck leg with sour plums ($34) service suggested that we share it. Being an only child I do not like to share, but the advice proved worthwhile as a fair amount of duck was served for this main. The sour plums once again complemented the duck and it was a completely different taste compared to what was enjoyed previously with the honey and lemon sauce. The duck leg was poached for two hours and served with steamed rice and was enjoyed with a Beefeater gin and tonic ($12) which turned into a three-drink love affair as I sat back and enjoyed the ambiance.

I liked everything about Lau's Family Kitchen. The service remained attentive, helpful and amused by our dining style. At times I forgot that I was within spitting distance of the Prince of Wales complex and the madness of Fitzroy Street so the restaurant did its job well - very well in fact of transporting us to another place, where the only thing missing was a embrace from Gilbert Lau.

Lau's Family Kitchen, Acland Street, St Kilda

Lau's Family Kitchen
4 Acland St., St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 8598 9880
My Rating: 15.75/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3.75/5

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

At the time of this post, 88% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Lau's Family Kitchen.

Lau's Family Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Rococo - People Are Strange When You Are A Stranger

My fascination with all things St Kilda continues, which is evident with a recent trip to Rococo on Acland Street. Known for its Italian fare with a sort of specialty with pizza, we managed to hold back our curiosity for it mostly because of a recent trip to Innocent Bystander winery where perhaps one of the best pizzas I have ever had was enjoyed on the deck. I assumed that anything pizza related would have disappointed after the aforementioned experience and considering the absolute volume of the Italian-themed menu, there were many other items to choose from.

Despite outside seating being available, considering the skagboys that were skulking about, and of course the weather that was intermittently pleasant at times, we decided to take refuge inside and the front of house was happy to seat us in the middle of the restaurant. A large menu of food and an equally large list of wine was presented for review and I had the equivalent of a  university course of reading material to digest and ultimately be quizzed on.

After recent trips to not only the Barossa but also the Hunter Valley wine regions, I was not too interested in ordering a bottle of wine. This may sound odd because of the nature of this blog and my dining and drinking habits but after reviewing the wine list, I was a bit put off as nothing was very special. I quickly spotted bottles of wine that I had previously purchased at the cellar door and was reminded of the markup and despite it being a comprehensive list, I just wasn't excited. Water was fine as my only source of hydration for a change, which was quickly delivered to the table without being asked.

Wanting a bit of variety, we decided to start with antipasti, which you can choose five from the menu for $30 (or other quantities with proportionally higher prices) which seemed liked the right thing to do because of the plethora of choices. Prose at the top of the menu suggests that diners may want to consider ordering antipasti during the busy times as there may be a delay in your main offerings. At this point in time, the restaurant was rather dead and we ordered antipasti because it seemed like good value for money instead of a way to tide us over.

Both the Calabrese - a spicy pork salami with chilli, cayenne pepper and paprika along with Siciliano - a mild pork salami with hints of garlic, wine and pepper were really nice meats and when added to garlic and herb bread with melted mozarella ($8.50) and a sliver of Mozzarella di Bufala - cheese from Campania, Italy, made for a great merging of flavours and was really nice. Both the meats and the cheese are considered anitpasti options, and I was pleased with these three choices. Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) Prosciutto San Daniele was the final compliment of meat and it was equally good. The final dish was a grilled prawn and calamari skewer with lemon, chilli, garic, breadcrumbs with a Romesco sauce - which should be a nut and red pepper-based sauce from the area around Catalonia, Spain. The sauce was just flat and was devoid of flavour. The calamari was dry and it just wasn't nice.

Being distracted by other patrons speaking on their phones in the restaurant and pretending to be important, it gave me the opportunity to spy on what other people were ordering. Mains of pasta were popular and the servings were absolutely enormous. Not really being in the mood for a large main and rather annoyed by the diners around us, we decided to pull up stumps. Despite asking for the bill and waiting a good ten minutes, we decided not to wait and just pay at the kiosk near the door which was also managing the takeaway coffee requirements of the occasional diners.

Despite one of the servers being very switched on and taking our order (detailed above) without finding the need to write it down and consult on the menu as a whole, service was rather lax and only engaging when multiple personalities pressured us to order a main. One of my pet peeves is being hassled to order mains and having pleasant conversation interrupted, especially when you are still holding the menu. Perhaps because of the harassment and the rude diners around us, we were put off. Perhaps it was the very awkward soundtrack that they had playing. At times it was relaxing dining music, almost what you would find playing in a lift, other times it was hip hop intermixed with classic party tunes. All very strange but it fits into the whole theme associated with Acland Street - quirky and different, I suppose.

Rococo, Acland Street, St Kilda

89/91 Acland St  St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 9525 3232
My Rating: 12/20
Service: 3/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 3/5
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 Rococo.

Rococo on Urbanspoon