Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Moroccan Soup Bar - Turning Hipster Part 1

I finally got around to spending a lazy day in Brunswick traversing Sydney Road and the general area and it helped that I found someone else to join me in my journey. He had also had never frequented this area of greater Melbourne so it was indeed a time to explore. It certainly made the day more amusing if not interesting to have a companion that was keen to eat, drink and wander about with reckless abandon. Our legs were put to the test when the sun set as it is a thirty minute walk from Sydney Road to St Georges Road in Fitzroy North, which is where the Moroccan Soup Bar is located and where we decided to have a "cheap and cheerful" dinner after indulging a bit at lunch.

We turned up and this place and it was heaving human bodies. We were told to come back at 7:30 PM and that a table should be ready so we retreated to the Deco Bar, which is only a few metres away, and strangely devoid of customers, to top up our blood alcohol levels before returning at 7:30 PM on the dot. We were given the best seat in the house by far, which is strangely near the entrance to the toilet. This is one of the few tables that is away from the main thoroughfare of the restaurant which is always occupied by staff or patrons coming and going.

There is no menu at this place. You have two options which are communicated by word of mouth from the server. A "banquet" for $20 and a "banquet with dips" for $25. Having stockpiled cash as everything in Brunswick seemed to only accept cash, we were happy to splash out the extra five dollars and go for gold. About two minutes later a range of dips and bread came out. There was no explanation as to what anything was, but I was able to deduce a cous cous dip which was quite nice and some seriously good bread that I used to pick up one of the dry pieces of falafel.

Being so hungry, it didn't take long to eat everything included for the dip first course. I thought it was pretty cool that just the right amount of bread was provided to clean up everything served.  Only a few minutes later, the mains were delivered. Strangely I was expecting some soups (hence the name of the place, thus my expectation if not confusion) but along with rice and beans, some curry variants were presented. The highlight of a bland lot was the vegetable stew. The dips had a bit of spice, but these mains did not however we found them quite filling and ended up leaving some behind. Other patrons who were obviously regulars had plastic takeaway containers with them (there is an IGA not far away in case you want to buy some) and were filling them up before leaving. Although there were some desserts left to come, we could not eat any more and simply just paid the bill with a gold note (another cash only venue) and retreated to the pub.

For $25 you will receive a fair amount of food that should satisfy most people that do not have high expectations. The restaurant is the closest to a machine that I have witnessed and can quickly turn over tables with their no-nonsense approach to customer service. This is probably why we were not offered anything to drink as they didn't want us to stay in our seat for an extended amount of time, let alone take the time to use the bathroom. My experience would have been highlighted if beer was available, but I suppose there is a time and a place for everything.

Moroccan Soup Bar, Fitzroy North
Moroccan Soup Bar
183 St Georges Rd., Fitzroy North, VIC 3068
(03) 9482 4240
My Rating: 12.50/20
Service: 2.5/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 3/5
Value For Money: 4/5
Comment: Cash Only, only open in the evenings Tuesday - Sunday

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

When I made this post originally, 90% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like the Moroccan Soup Bar.

Moroccan Soup Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tonka - Rajasthani Royal of the Melbourne CBD

Besides fighting off the flu, I was experiencing an even larger problem as my good self and one other couldn't decide on somewhere to enjoy some food and wine. We agreed that Twitter should provide the answer in the end and that we would frequent whatever restaurant or chef first appeared as the latest tweet in my timeline. On this occasion, Tonka on Duckboard Place in the CBD won this dangerous game of Russian roulette and I am very pleased that it did.

Tonka, Melbourne
Interior of Tonka
At the former site of Honkytonks, a place long forgotten by most as it was a pretentious dive that only let you in if you had alligator shoes on or a big wad of sweaty green notes on you, service was more than happy to escort us to the the "sommelier's table" which is a high table next to the working wine bar. A new and clean fit-out replaces what you would have found in a bad wet dream and it was easy to sit back on my perch at least and inspect the symmetrically arranged bottles on the shelf only a metre away. Thoughts soon turned to the wine list that is influenced by Travis Howe, the 2013 The Age Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year (who is shared by Tonka's big brother, Coda) and it was with no hesitation that I choose a bottle of 2012 Ocean Eight Pinot Gris ($68) to kick things off. I am a bit partial to the Ocean Eight wines and I was delighted to see this Mornington Peninsula producer on the wine list.

Executive Chef and part-owner Adam D'Sylva along with Head Chef Michael Smith have designed an intriguing Indian-inspired menu which after inspecting demanded an extended tasting session because there were just so many intriguing things on offer. Pani Puri ($4.50/each) was the first selection from the "smaller" menu to arrive after consulting with Jonathan, our all-rounder server/sommelier. True its literal meaning, this Indian "street food" with deep fried bread "Pani" intermixed with aromatic water "Puri" combined with spiced potato, mung beans, date and tamarind chutney made for a very tasty entry point to this journey across the Indian subcontinent. The addition of the aromatic water made this not only traditional but cleansed the palate and made the Pinot Gris even more accepted as my tastebuds rejoiced after being subjected to little sustenance, sudafed and sleep in the recent past. Soft-shell crab pakors ($8.50/each) with pickled cucumber, lemon, chilli and mint followed close behind the Pani Puri and I was not disappointed. It was nice to see the crab presented almost like a caricature that you would see in a drawing, or a dream and not some smooched and smashed bastardised crustacean that looked like it was hit with a copy of The Age (Good Food Guide) before being served. What was served actually looked like a crab, just suspended in time and it was cooked properly. I am always scared that the head will be mush, but that was not the case at Tonka. It was yet another addictive starter that not only was visually attractive but could be enjoyed with reckless self-abandon.
Tuna tartare, pomegranate, ginger and wasabi

The smoked trout betel leaf ($6/each) with coconut, chilli, pomelo and kaffir lime provided such enjoyment, that it required me to order another round. Rarely do I enjoy something so much that I order it again (the last time was Venison Carpaccio at Sarti, which I have so far written about) but this was truly an enigmatic and amazing starter that left my senses guessing as I consumed the leaf and everything that was placed on it. Truly complementary to the Ocean Eight Pinot Gris, like the crab, I could have been content spending the rest of my time at Tonka just eating smoked trout on the edible leaves however not to be constrained, we moved on to other offerings.

There are a plethora of items to entice you from the "Smaller" menu so we found ourselves sucked into a vortex of sorts where the only way to escape was to gorge and just hope that our stomachs would accommodate what was being offered. My favourite dish came next, the tuna tartare ($22) with rice poppadoms, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi. Pomegranate and tuna are natural pairs and I am surprised that I do not see it on menus more often. The kitchen delivered an amazing dish which not only complemented the wine brilliantly but this was also the highlight of my dining experience. We couldn't resist the Punjabi masala lamb cutlets next ($8/each) which were moist and devoid of fat however the masala is what stood out. Indian spices which really made the dish and certainly made the meat to taste even better - would have been best paired with a red wine so a 2010 Wedgetail Pinot Noir ($88) from the Yarra Valley in Victoria was ordered and quickly poured for us. This provided a bridge of sorts that had me chewing the remaining remnants of meat off the bone and disguising my inappropriate tongue action from the other diners who fortunately did not notice my ungentlemanly behavior. 

Tonka, Melbourne
The view towards Flinders Street
Char-grilled Mooloolaba prawns from Queensland ($10/each) with black pepper and kaffir lime dressing provided yet another bridge from the "Smaller" menu to the "Bigger" adult-oriented list of delights and reminded me that despite my love affair with smaller tapas-like tastes and offerings, there was another world to explore. This is where Jonathan's consulting was called upon. With so many attractive menu options, we didn't know just how much we would be able to pack in our already engorged stomachs so thinking that the bill should be damned, he suggested the remainder of the items that we happily agreed to order.

What was truly convenient was that the restaurant allowed us to order half-servings of items from the "Larger" menu so that more tastes could be experienced. A half order of lamb curry ($19) with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds appeared with another half order of Rajasthani duck ($19), cucumber, mint and buffalo curd. Not discounting the lamb, but I really enjoyed the duck and when matched with the mint and buffalo curd, the "Wow!" factor was experienced. We couldn't help but be talked into the Thirlmere corn fed chicken ($29) direct from the tandoor, an authentic clay oven that the restaurant has on-site to authentically cook not only chicken, but also Hiramasa kingfish which was also available on the menu that I regret not trying. Along with fried cauliflower ($8) and serves or rice ($6) and naan bread ($6) we enjoyed a flavoursome feast and managed to vanquish the the bottle of Wedgetail Pinot Noir with no problems whatsoever.

Throughout this three hour ad-hoc dining and feasting extravaganza, the various personalities providing service remained consultative, witty, chatty and good humoured. The setting allowed us to escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the CBD with food and beverage providing fuel for good conversation and debate. I think we managed to solve half of the world's problems just over the tuna tartare and if that is not noteworthy, nothing is. I really like what Tonka delivers, both the fare and the professionalism are standouts and I certainly look forward to returning to happily to take on the rest of the menu but to also watch this place evolve from strength to strength.

Tonka, Melbourne

20 Duckboard Place, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9650 3155
My Rating: 15.75/20
Service: 4.25/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3.75/5

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

When I made this post originally, 70% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Tonka.

Tonka on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 July 2013

Bowery to Williamsburg - Swanky

When I read that a "NYC Eatery" opened in the CBD the other week called Bowery to Williamsburg my first thought was that the Mexican craze was now officially dead and buried like WorkChoices but that to my shagrin, "American" style food was on the rise. To the point, when I think of a New York City style eatery, my first thoughts are big and bold sandwiches with a Jewish flare in a swanky yet professional environment. When the name of the restaurant makes reference to a train line that runs from the heart of Manhattan to Queens, it made me even more intrigued so it was with a fair amount of curiosity that I turned up to this place for lunch with one other.

Bowery to Williamsburg, Melbourne
Philly Cheesesteak, Macaroni & Cheese, Pretzels, Dill Pickle
The reputation of Bowery to Williamsburg proceeds itself as it comes from the pedigree of the Hardware Societe, one of the more popular laneway eateries if you believe Urbanspoon and of course my good self as I love their French-inspired breakfasts along with the warm and personable service. Following in the footsteps of its successful brother, this is another laneway haunt, within rolling distance downhill from Coda Restaurant and when we arrived we were not only greeted outside by service but advised that there would be a short wait for a table inside since that was the preference on this cold winter day. A short wait turned out to be a matter of seconds and we were happily escorted to the one long communal table inside within full view of the active and controlled food preparation area. I immediately thought that I could have been resting my arse at a Jewish deli in Manhattan as I spied the Kosher Salt, Lox (the Yiddish word for salmon) and of course bagels and a schmear of cream cheese on offer on the blackboard. Unobtrusive music plays in the background and the human machines behind the display counter creates some very attractive looking sandwiches judging from what others were eating off wooden boards next to me with a smile.

After having a very average "Philly Cheese Steak" at Misty's Diner last week, I couldn't help but order the "lunch special" which was just that. If anything was going to define a NYC inspired eatery in Melbourne it was that. Sure, I was tempted by the lox but I was intrigued if anything by this special offering. A side of macaroni and cheese, which would be served in a glass jar along with half of a garlic dill pickle accompanied the cheesesteak sandwich in a very reasonable time after placing the order. I was immediately pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, by the volume of this sandwich, a bulbous artifact that had cheese permeating from all directions and as I would find, effectively constraining the steam inside the sandwich which kept the tender morsels of steak moist. There was a fair amount of sweet capsicum and nothing bizarre that overwhelmed the trio of primary tastes. The bread was fresh and I was not only content but impressed. The macaroni and cheese was creamy and a well balanced accompaniment to the feature and when a bite of the crispy dill pickle was taken, there was not only a crunch, but a taste of garlic and the texture of a pickle that I would expect to find in New York, not one of the silly sweet and sour pickles that are so commonly sold in Australia. In fact, the only place I have readily found true garlic deli dills is Costco besides of course Bowery to Williamsburg.

The coffee was so good that I had two cups and enjoyed languishing at this place having pleasant conversation not only with my guest but also with service. Although the cafe has only been open a few weeks you would never know this and the impression at least that quality products has been flogged for some time is well pronounced. This is one of those laneway cafes that I personally will look forward to visiting when the weather improves as there is outdoor seating however heatlamps will warm your cold and tired bones and it does provide a different perspective albeit there is no funky music on offer. This is one of the few times I have been excited to find a "cheap and cheerful" place that I look forward to returning to.

Bowery to Williamsburg, Melbourne

Bowery to Williamsburg
16 Oliver Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9077 0162
no web site
My Rating: 14/20
Service: 3.5/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 3.5/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5
Comment: Cash Only, Open for breakfast and lunch Monday - Friday

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

When I made this post originally, 94% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Bowery To Williamsburg.

 Bowery to Williamsburg on Urbanspoon

Mart 130 - Albert Park Railway Station Converted

I really like discovering places in and around Melbourne that reuse buildings that have a fair amount of history which in turn has a story to tell. If you happen to come across Mart 130, located at the Albert Park tram stop on Canterbury Road in Middle Park you would think of it as a little innocuous cafe conveniently located actually at stop 130 on the route 96 tram line en route to St Kilda, but it is so much more.

Mart 130 is housed within the former Albert Park railway station. Like how Beacon Cove Restaurant and Pizzeria reuses the old Port Melbourne train station, the old train station in Middle Park originally opened in 1860 and was decommissioned as a physical station in 1987 when the railway line was converted to light rail. Oddly Albert Park was originally called "Butts" and it was renamed as Albert Park in 1872. 

I like this cafe because it isn't far from the Albert Park Driving Range, so it is convenient to hit a bucket of balls and then wander down to Mart 130 and get breakfast and coffee in the morning when it suits. There is a vibrant inside dining area but also a peaceful long and wide balcony which overlooks Albert Park. Not unlike the other times I have frequented this place, it is always busy and curiously it is popular with tourists. How so many large groups of tourists that arrive via the 96 Tram brandishing high end cameras found about this place is a mystery to me as I came across it quite by chance when I was out exploring the area by food after smashing some golf balls.

Although Mart 130 is somewhat known for its large breakfasts, including corn fritters which I can attest to the wonderful flavour and large portions, on my last visit, I tried the split pea and ham soup and also a pressed sausage on brioche from the limited lunch menu. The soup had not only a fair amount of ham, but was rich and the perfect winter warmer. The sandwich of sorts arrived at the same time as the soup however I didn't have any trouble powering through either. The sausage brioche not only looked nice on the plate, but it was also tasty.

This place is a spot that should be on your breakfast calendar. It is quite easy to kick back here and enjoy the newspaper, coffee and some quiet time or also make it a meeting place considering the convenience of the tram stop being at its doorstep. Wait times can be long for a table considering the popularity of this place however all good things do come to those who wait.

Mart 130, Middle Park, Melbourne

Mart 130
107 Canterbury Road, Middle Park VIC 3206
(03) 9690 8831
no web site
My Rating: n/a
Service: n/a
Ambiance: n/a
Quality: n/a
Value For Money: n/a
Comment: Cash Only

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

When I made this post originally, 89% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Mart 130.

Mart 130 on Urbanspoon