Friday, 28 December 2012

Blancharu, Elizabeth Bay

Blancharu does simple French-Japanese fusion with strong emphasis on 'Japanese' and 'simple'. It's not to say that the food isn't tasty, but it's lacking in many respects. My reaction at the end of the night? "It's alright. Nothing memorable about it."

Blancharu's location in Elizabeth Bay doesn't help, either. There is limited street parking, and if you're willing to pay for the fairly steep rates, the Kings Cross Car Park can be quite convenient (it's a couple of minutes' walk away). But there, you can see part of the problem. If the food is excellent, people are more willing to overlook the difficult location. If the food is only mediocre, it can be more trouble than it's worth.

The process of locating Blancharu might be a little tricky, as the signage is a little small and street numbers aren't very prominent. Look out for the blackboard, the wall of glass, and the zen-like water feature on the side.

The service is unobtrusive and respectful. I made my booking online and received confirmations via email as well as, on the day we were expected, over the phone. Our glasses of water were refilled before we noticed they were empty and it was easy to get the attention of the staff. Though a couple of the waitresses had limited English, they understood enough to take notes of our dietary requirements (a frustrating and, at times, life-endangering process).

Our table decided on the 5 course degustation for $49, refraining from the 7 course menu as we weren't willing to fork out the additional $39 for 2 courses in foreign territory.

Prior to the first course, a waitress came round with a tray of complimentary bread. They had 2 types of buns on offer - sourdough and french onion. I prefer my bread plain, so I selected the sourdough. It tasted more like white bread than sourdough but it wasn't bad. It was also sadly quite small - it would have been nice if we were offered another round of buns.

Sourdough bun
The first course was cold eggplant caviar (which I later learnt is the name of the dish) with crab meat and avocado, served up in a small ceramic mug. The mini croutons and crab meat complemented the moussey texture of the dish, and it was pretty tasty. There was a fairly strong taste of crab, though, so my friends who were less favourably disposed to seafood did not enjoy it. Personally quite liked it.

Eggplant caviar with crab and avocado
The second course was my least favourite of the night. The gazpacho was a cold, sour tomato soup which, aside from the salt content, tasted pretty much like a pureed tomato. The 'summer vegetables' didn't taste like part of the dish (as if they were tossed on top as an afterthought) and consisted of a cherry tomato and bits of bean, corn, onion and broccoli. The pea mousse was creamy but only slightly offset the sourness of the tomato gazpacho, which I had to swallow quickly (tomato really isn't a favourite of mine). I think their use of  two cold soupy entrees in a row was overdoing the summery theme - if they really wanted to stick with two chilled entrees, it would have been more palatable to make the second course a dish with solids - like sashimi. Thankfully the food improved.

Gazpacho with vegetables and pea mousse
 One of my friends was allergic to nuts and apparently the gazpacho contained them. She was offered a choice between prawn and scallops. She chose scallops and I think she got a better deal than us - presentation-wise, it's a lot more impressive.

Aburi scallops and Yuzu dressing
 The third course was a fish of the day - steamed John Dory with cauliflower puree and balsamic vinegar sauce. As awful as balsamic vinegar sounds with fish, the sauce was sweet and didn't taste like the usual balsamic vinegar that you have with garden salads. The presentation wasn't great but the fish was tasty, falling apart easily yet retaining some firmness.

Steamed john dory with balsamic vinegar sauce
The fourth course forced me to whip out my phone to do a quick Google search on some terminology. That night I learnt that 'yakitori' = skewers and 'sansyo' = pepper. It was nice to have warm food in the belly, and the tender quail paired with the miso sauce was pretty mouthwatering. I can't say that the pile of vegetable with sesame seed on top did much for the dish though.

Yakitori quail breast with miso sauce and sansyo
The photo below looks deceptive because the dessert was actually pretty small - relative to a mango, the bowl would only have been slightly larger. So what was in the bowl? The dessert was (very melted) coconut ice cream with chopped mango, a bit of light cheese and meringue that tasted like honeycomb. It was sitting in a deliciously chilled orange glaze. The dessert was tasty but something that made you feel like you could replicate it easily at home - a bad thing when restaurants are expected to churn out extraordinary desserts.

Dessert of the day
All in all, the simplicity of each dish made me feel like the meal was not worth paying $49, even though there were five courses in total. The portions are also fairly small, resulting in it taking a long long time before feeling fairly full. The menu is skewed towards chilled dishes, which means that the menu is probably for the more adventurous to sample. Having said that, the dishes are pretty ordinary, so it would be nice to see more skill invested in the food. Will not be back.

Blancharu on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Reuben Hills, Surry Hills

I've been champing at the bit to visit Reuben Hills ever since I saw a mention of it in an SMH article regarding good cafes/ coffee. Sadly, I never quite got round to it until recently, even though I commute via Albion Street on the way to uni. My moment finally arrived one fine (and sweltering) Sunday afternoon. The roads around the area weren't overly busy, so it was a surprise to find that Reuben Hills was buzzing (quite loudly) inside. Reuben Hills doesn't take bookings, so we had a (thankfully short) wait in order to obtain a table for the four of us.

Reuben Hills takes rusticity to a whole new level, using a variety of glass milk bottles for water flasks, some sort of metal industrial machinery on the second level (not sure if that's part of the premises, but it fits), and tin mugs with spots of rust inside. The menu consists of traditional brunch items, Mexican food, as well as assorted desserts and drinks, exacerbating the usual ordering dilemma.

I figured that since I was there, I might as well be adventurous with the coffee, so I selected the Kenya Nyeri filter, which was described on the menu to have blackcurrant notes. The filters arrive in beaker-like containers that appear to be made out of the same material as mortar and pestle sets. Like steeped tea, the coffee is watery and is imbibed without milk. The coffee is bitter and, in the case of the Kenya Nyeri, it tasted like tart berries (which corresponds with the blackcurrant description). It was interesting giving it a go, but as I'm not partial to sour flavours, I will not be ordering it again.

Kenya Nyeri ($5)
Kenya Nyeri
I took my coffee with a brioche bun and a dulce de leche spread. The brioche was buttery and warm - very much like a soft croissant without the flakes and crunch. Combined with the caramelised and sugary dulce de leche, it whet my appetite and made me want to spoon the remainder of the confection into my mouth.

Brioche with dulce de leche ($6.00)
Alas, there was no time for dilly-dallying because my baleada (tortilla) had arrived and it was necessary to make progress on that before it got cold. It didn't really look like much, presentation-wise, but once I had a bite of it, I was glad that I'd decided to order it. The egg turned out to be an omelette, which, with the cheese, added a bit of salt to bring out the black bean and tortilla. When I read black beans on the menu, I was intrigued, as my only understanding of black beans are of the really salty beans used in Chinese cooking. These black beans tasted like chilli con carne without the chilli - very yummy!

Baleada with eggs, queso fresco (cheese) and black bean ($11.00)
After all these, I felt comfortably full. However, I was in a gluttonous mood and decided that there was plenty of room for dessert.

And so I ordered a strawberry, rose and vanilla milkshake. It was summary, milky and refreshing, with the rosewater being the strongest flavour of the three. Choosing it to accompany my cake was definitely a wise choice, as it was light and didn't result in sugar overload.

Strawberry, rose and vanilla milkshake ($7.50)
My passion fruit coconut teacake was dense, almost like a friand, and contained dessicated coconut, which had me chewing a lot at times. The only passion fruit that could be detected was in the white icing spread over the top. Despite its size, it was quite filling, so I halved it with one of my friends. The tiny three-pronged fork that came with it was also quite cute...

Passion fruit coconut teacake ($4.00)
And here is what the others consumed:

King prawn with avocado, corn salad, endive, chipotle aioli and lime ($18.00)

"Dirty bird" ($15.00)
The ice cream sandwich below had raspberry ice cream and liquid marshmallow. Had a bit. Wasn't bad.

Give a Dogg a Bone Ice Cream Sandwich ($9.00)

Reuben Hills on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Sea Bay, Sydney CBD

As mentioned in my Saap Thai post, I really wanted to check out Sea Bay, as it was recommended by a friend who said they sell cheap dumplings. Sea Bay is a slightly dingy Chinese eatery, but if you're familiar with the ones in Kingsford, you'll be too used to this kind of diner to care too much about the decor, ambience or apparent cleanliness. In this second attempt at entering the premises, we managed to score the last table and were squeezed into a corner.

One thing I was pleased about was the generous portion of chilli oil & flakes, as it's not something generally done in Sydney. The dishes were prepared quickly and came out piping hot.

The first thing I launched myself at was the plate of pan fried meat dumplings. I liked the crunch of the dumpling skin, but when I reached the meat inside, it was evident that the cook had gone wild with the salt.

Pan fried dumplings (meat) ($10.80)
 Secondly, I tried the bean noodle soup - not making the connection that bean noodles are mung bean noodles (which I adore). It was surprising to find tomatoes in the soup, but the mushrooms were standard. I can't say too much about it - tasty but not particularly memorable (and at least it wasn't as salty as the dumplings).

Mushroom and vegetable soup with bean noodles ($10.80)
  Just as with the pan fried dumplings, the boiled dumpling filling was too salty. The effect was perhaps not as bad because the skin hadn't had as much contact with salt as the pan fried skin. The meat they used was the same as the meat in the pan fried dumplings (we didn't get to choose the meat for the boiled dumpling, so the filling was a surprise).

Boiled dumplings ($10.80)
  In conclusion, my dislike of Sea Bay isn't the ear-drum-bursting lunch crowd, or the fact that they've crammed as many chairs and tables as possible into each square metre (making it virtually impossible to get in or out where you're sitting back to back), or that despite these things it's still an immense challenge to get a table. My aversion towards Sea Bay is much more basic than that.

They just need to hold off on the sodium chloride.

Sea Bay Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Queenies, Surry Hills

"I've never had Caribbean food before" was what most people informed me when I recounted one of my most recent gluttonous escapades. Neither had I until a week ago, when I made a trip to Queenies, and even then, I'm not certain as to how much of it is actually Jamaican - though with its tropical decor, loud Jamaican music and references to 'jerk' meat, it certainly is Jamaican-inspired. A quick Google search reveals that Caribbean cuisine, much like Malaysian food, is a mixed salad of different cultures' foods, uniting in a mix of fried, spicy (referring to both heat and actual spices) and fresh dishes.

 Queenies is located on level 1 of the Forresters bar. Traipsing through part of the ground level, I was pretty worried that we wouldn't be able to get a table because the bar area was absolutely packed. I grew even more worried when we came upstairs and the bloke in front of us was asked to wait for half an hour. It turned out that his case was exceptional - he was expecting a large group and so enough space had to be cleared to accommodate them.

One of their smiling waitresses took the time to explain items off the menu to us (such as what plantain is), as well as naming the most popular dishes and her own personal favourites.

The drinks menu looked so tempting that I ordered a ginger beer-based cocktail that they dubbed a 'Sugar Mamma'. I sadly don't remember what they mixed the ginger beer with, but it was one of those cocktails that didn't taste too much of alcohol but wasn't too sweet either.

Sugar Mamma Cocktail ($10.00)
While we were waiting for the food to arrive, we were served a bit of chopped cucumber with dessicated coconut and a light, spicy sauce drizzled over the top.

Amuse bouche?
Since we had ordered a large number of smaller plates, most of our meal arrived at once, barely fitting onto the table. The first thing I dug into was my half of the bammies, of which we ordered one of each kind - pulled pork and prawn. The base of the bammies is like soft tortilla, except crunchy and chewy. Personally, I think the prawn bammy made more of an impression than the pulled pork bammy. The pulled pork is tasty and tender, complete with fresh Spanish onion and pineapple. Nevertheless, it pales in comparison to the prawn bammy, consisting of flavours of seafood, mango, onion and a spicy tang.

Pulled pork & pineapple bammy ($7.00)

Prawn, mango and ginger bammy ($7.00)
I next tried the plantain (a banana looking fruit that's firmer and drier), which was accompanied with spiced mayo. Given it's similar to banana, I was expecting it to be similar to goreng pisang, the Malaysian deep fried banana snack, in terms of sweetness, crunchiness, and moistness. However, it turned out to be fairly plain and it seemed to carry out the role of a filling carb (much like French fries or mashed potato) rather than that of a main component of the meal.  The spiced mayo, I admit, was pretty appetising, and I could detect quite strong strains of curry powder, which reminds me of how the kitchen smells whenever my mum cooks Indian food. Nevertheless, I think the plantain is more of a novelty rather than one of their stronger dishes.

Fried plantain ($8.00)
Given that each table was adorned with 3 bottles of jerk sauce, I took the liberty of trying each and every one with the plantain. Of the three, the tastiest was probably the ginger mango (middle), and given it had the least sauce in the bottle, other patrons seem to have thought so too!

One of the highlights of the meal was the ceviche, a plate of thinly sliced snapper sashimi, chilli, mango and avocado. On the side were a few hard tortilla chips that we used to collect the pieces of snapper. The ceviche was juicy, fresh, and the contrast of crunch from the tortilla against the softness of the fish and mango left me wanting more.

Hellshire Ceviche ($16.00)

Another plate (or basket) we shared was a soft shell crab dish with hotstepper sauce. The sauce tasted like tom yum soup - Asian and spicy. The soft shell crab was moist and well battered. Though it was a pretty big portion, it was so addictive that it was fairly easy to polish off.

Soft shell crab ($16.00)
 Last to arrive was our smoked pork loin main dish with crumbed mussels and mango salsa. The crumbed mussels were deep fried, crunchy and slightly fishy tasting, but they stood out and seemed to stand out more than the pork loin did. The mango salsa was, as with the other dishes, fruity and enjoyable, but I felt that there was just so much of it that it overpowered the pork.

Smoked pork loin ($24.00)
For dessert, we ordered a Brixton mess to share. According to the menu, it's made up of banana cream, rum caramel, meringue and chocolate sauce. I suppose it's a pretty accurate description, except most of it was just cream. There were chunks of meringue throughout, which reminded me of honeycomb or violet crumble. However, there was barely any rum caramel and the chocolate sauce was rendered useless with the sheer amount of cream. Apologies for the poor photo below - but even then, you should be able to see just how much cream there was.

Brixton Mess ($14.00)


As I've made pretty clear, I don't presume to know anything about Jamaican food, so I can't comment on its authenticity - in any case, sometimes our Australian adaptations of food are more pleasurable to (at least our) taste buds than truly authentic flavours. Most of the dishes that I tried were mouthwatering. A couple of their dishes are a bit of a miss. The range of food we had became a bit samey due to the excess use of mango chutney all around, and the dessert we tried was a bit of a flop. Nevertheless, these aren't big issues (at least I know now what to avoid), Queenies impressed me with what they did do well, I was stuffed to the brim with food, and overall I had a really enjoyable night out.

Queenies on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Saap Thai, Sydney CBD

My friend and I were heading towards Sea Bay because we heard they served cheap dumplings. Unfortunately, at the time it was peak lunch hour and it was absolutely packed, so we moved on to its neighbour, Saap Thai. Saap Thai is pretty small - we were sitting on one end, at the second last table, so the photo below will give you a pretty good idea of just how limited space is.

Sitting far away from the sun
They were evidently well versed with lunch crowds, as the food came soon after we ordered.

My Panang beef curry with rice was incredibly large - there was an abundance of rice (there must have been 2 rice bowls of it at least) and plenty of beef. The beef was fairly tender and the cut chosen was reasonable (most of the strips were entirely edible, not the sinewy nervy bits that cheap restaurants often give you). The curry was moderately spicy, quite sweet, and slightly milky. The beans and broccoli didn't seem old, making the overall quality of the dish excellent given the price and generous servings.

Panang beef curry with rice ($8.90)
I would like to report a similarly good experience with the sides I had, but they were pretty bland.

Firstly, the vegetarian curry puffs were limp and soggy, while the filling wasn't memorable. I don't know why I even bothered ordering curry puffs in a Thai restaurant, but evidently my mind was elsewhere at the time. 

Secondly, the spring rolls were crispy, but they went overboard with the noodles and there wasn't much else inside. Once again, they lacked flavour. I had a couple of small bites and didn't bother finishing the rest. And once again, I'll think twice before ordering spring rolls at a Thai place. The carrots on which the spring rolls and curry puffs were served looked like dried bits of carrot skin, brown and old.

Vegetable curry puffs x 2 ($2.50); Vegetarian spring rolls x 2 ($2.50)
All in all, a good place for a quick and cheap lunch. Just don't expect much more.

Saap Thai on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Boon Chocolates, Darlinghurst

Note: This post is short but will probably be continually updated - as I do intend on returning (and maybe eventually sampling the entire menu, provided they don't run out of mousse next time).

Boon Chocolates is an artisan chocolate store that believes in creating small batches of chocolate and indulging in a chocolate experience. Boon offers a number of different chocolate drinks with different characteristics, including floral, fruity and woody notes.

The site is small and consists of 2 levels. The ground level is the retail portion, where customers select from a range of homemade chocolates to take home. Sit-in patrons are directed upstairs, which is a small, cosy lounge area with a lot of artwork. It was a little awkward finding that there was a group of people already upstairs, and they had taken up the armed lounge chairs. We perched ourselves on the low stools a distance away from the other group and eventually we resumed our conversations.

The really friendly owner (presumably) escorted us upstairs and talked us through the drinking menu. He suggested that "first-time" chocolate drinkers stick to the dark or milk chocolate drinking sets - making the visit feel like a wine tasting course. It was explained that the chocolate shots were very intense and thick, suitable for more seasoned hot chocolate drinkers.

We followed his advice and selected from the range of normal hot chocolate drinking sets. Although normally accompanied by a piece of chocolate and chocolate mousse, they were out of the mousse and so we were given another piece of chocolate to make up for its absence. Hopefully it's not a common occurrence, though I suspect it might be considering we weren't late - we visited them in the early afternoon and they close at 8pm on Saturdays.

I had the milk chocolate drinking set. I should have probably ordered the dark chocolate set, as I thought that it was a bit too light and milky for my liking. As a drink, it was smooth and creamy, complementing the (dark) chocolates quite well. The chocolates literally melted in my mouth - one was red wine flavoured and the other was rum and raisin. I couldn't detect any red wine, but the rum and raisin had a stronger flavour. Regardless, both pieces of chocolate were full of cocoa and very tasty.

Milk chocolate drinking set ($8.50)
Dark chocolate drinking set ($8.50)

Boon on Urbanspoon

Sel et Poivre, Darlinghurst

'Sel et poivre', when translated to English, means 'salt and pepper'. It's a humble name for a humble French bistro. However, where that French bistro is situated outside of its country of origin, its status is elevated and high expectations are drawn - that one will come across actual Parisian fare eaten by real French people. Considering that thus far I've had better experiences eating French food in restaurants situated outside of France (my last expedition in the Parisian food scene did not yield much satisfaction), my biggest motivation in visiting Sel et Poivre was to reminisce over escargots.

Having spent part of my childhood in Malaysia, I grew up appreciating Western food cooked well, as when done poorly in an Asian country, it can taste very very wrong! Some of my fondest memories include visiting Lafite in Shangri La KL on special occasions and gorging on breadsticks, slices of baguette, escargots and fresh sorbet in between courses. While the style of Lafite tends towards fine dining, the largest impression that it left on my young palate was this equation: Snails = Yummy.

So what does this have to do with Sel et Poivre? Well, escargots are a bit of a rarity here in Sydney. It's hard to find them in groceries, and almost as hard to find them in restaurants. This meant I was all excitement at the prospect of seeing a dozen snail shells sitting on a silver platter immersed in garlic butter sauce.

Sel et Poivre is situated on that strip of Darlinghurst that everyone visits to eat at Gelato Messina, the Victoria Room, Wow Cow, etc. We were greeted by a friendly waitress who gave us the option of selecting where to sit. We decided on outdoor seating, facing the street.

Watching the world go by...
Using my peripheral vision, I eyed the basket of baguette and was just about to open my mouth to order it, when the waitress preempted me and asked if we wanted bread to go with the escargots.

And so our orders were taken and the escargots arrived, bathed in parsley and garlic butter sauce. I was pretty disappointed that they came without the shells - though serving only a decorative function, part of the fun in eating snails is extracting them with tongs and miniature prongs! The texture was slightly chewy, as it should be, and the sauce didn't overpower the seafood flavour of the snail meat. Nevertheless, there was something missing - maybe there was too little garlic? I can't really place my finger on it.

Escargots - 1/2 Dozen ($9.90)
 Our basket of baguette was served with standard packets of melted butter. The bread was lightly toasted, crunchy on the outside and soft, dense and warm on the inside. It was a pretty nice filler and went well with both the escargot sauce and our mains.

Basket of 1/2 baguette ($3.50)
I'd ordered the beef cheeks, which were immersed in Burgundy sauce, soft carrots, a bit of diced tomato, and mushrooms. The Burgundy sauce was incredibly rich, so I couldn't really eat too much of it. The highlight of the dish was definitely the marinated beef itself, as it was tender and fell apart with a slight motion of my knife.

Beef cheeks ($23.90)
 As my friend had also ordered something that attracted a side of fries, they combined both of our servings of fries into one basket. They weren't limp, but they weren't very crunchy either - though they became pretty addictive after dipping it in the Burgundy sauce!

I sampled the steak tartare that my friend ordered, which had the option of being uncooked or seared. She chose the seared option. It was served at room temperature, which was surprising at first, as we'd figured that the searing would have created more heat. The accompanying sauce was Bearnaise, a rich combination of butter, vinegar and egg - tasting a lot like mayonnaise.

Steak tartare ($19.90)
Afterwards we took a look at the dessert menu and were amused to see that Sel et Poivre had self-proclaimed their creme brulee to be authentic. Nevertheless, we decided to pass on partaking of the sweets there, as we were planning a dessert crawl through Boon Chocolates and Gelato Messina.

All in all, Sel et Poivre is worth a try. The decor is charming, the service is friendly, the food is alright and the portions are generous (and I think I actually heard some French being spoken on the premises). However, from what I've tasted, it's not so memorable that I would actually revisit it (particularly with all the other tempting restaurants nearby).

Cafe Sel Et Poivre on Urbanspoon