Saturday night at Nobu

Saturday night at Crown Casino is not for the faint hearted. There are no parking spaces and lots of teenagers. And promo girls. It’s like entering a shopping mall that never closes. Ever.

Still, we brave the crowds and arrive early for our late-sitting at Nobu. We plan on having a cocktail in the bar – but our table’s already free, so we head down straight away. As luck would have it, we are shown the least well-lit table in the room (so apologies in advance for the shadowy pics).

We are given the menus – and the spiel. You can order a la carte – but they recommend naming your price per head and letting them choose your dishes. Or going with one of the set-price set menus. But you get the feeling that ordering for yourself would be more fun. So we go a la carte and pick the dishes that appeal to us most, plus a glass of wine to start.

It takes close to 20 minutes for the first dishes to arrive. Which would be fine, except that our wines haven’t turned up and we’re forced to remind the wait staff we’re still um, waiting?

By the time our wines arrive, we’ve had: sashimi tacos of yellowtail, salmon, lobster and crab (nice – liked the side of salsa very much) and baby tiger prawn tempura with creamy spicy sauce (also good – generous with the portion size, although a bit too light on the tempura?).

Four little tacos, all in a row

Saucy prawns ; )

All is forgiven when the crispy soft shell crab arrives. This is my favourite dish – the pineapple shiso ponzu is delicious and absolutely makes it.

Soft shell crab with shiso ponzu - dish of the day!

Next comes the very pretty ‘Nobu style’ fish and chips – five pieces of tempura cod with two chunky sweet potato chips, plus two very yummy dipping sauces. This one is a winner too.

Fish and chips - Nobu style

These are followed by scallops, some tempura vegies (shitake mushroom and some suprisingly awesome broccoli) and tuna sashimi. N. loves the scallops and in particular the wasabi pepper sauce. And the tuna sashimi is pretty hard to fault.

Scallops with vegies in a very tasty wasabi pepper sauce

Tempura broccoli and shitake

My tiny tuna sashimi

Seven courses down and I feel we’ve ordered well. We keep the hat-trick going with dessert, choosing the bento box with hot chocolate fondant, green tea ice cream and a goma tuile. Although I think the waitress forgets to place our order, as she comes back 15 minutes later to ask, was it the caramel marshmallow dish we were after? We correct her and the bento box arrives soon after.

It’s so pretty – and it tastes as good as it looks. Lovely spoonfuls of warm and runny fondant coupled with refreshing green tea ice cream – delish. We almost misplace the tuile what with the low lighting and all, but thankfully I’m diligant enough to scrape the bottom of the bento box before we’re done. Crisis averted.

Dessert-in-a-bento-box

We manage to put away eight courses and three glasses of wine (not to mention our Fijian water at $12 a bottle) and the bill comes to just over $100 a head. While I can’t fault the food – it is consistently good – the service isn’t of the same standard, which is a shame. But as we finish up, the extra-late sitting keeps coming in. Clearly, when it comes to Crown, the house always wins.

Nobu
8 Whiteman Street, Southbank
www.noburestaurants.com

Nobu

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High tea at Myer Mural Hall

The last time I visited the 6th floor of the Myer Bourke Street building, it was a toy department and I was ten.

That was years ago. Since then, the top floor of Myer has done some growing up too. It’s now home to high-tech electronics – and high teas.

I’m attending a Sunday Life readers’ event for The Age – a closed screening of The Help, followed by high tea in the Mural Hall.  My mum booked us tickets. Actually, I think everyone else’s mum did too – the room is filled with close to fifty other mum-and-daughter combos. It’s a sweet sight.

Sweeter still, we’re greeted at the door with a glass of sparkling. It’s barely gone midday, but what the hey. As we walk in, there’s a quiet hush and it’s easy to understand why. Tiered towers of all things sweet and beautiful sit atop each table. It’s all very civilised indeed.

High tea-ing it up at the Mural Hall

Coffee, and of course tea, is served into our blue and white china tea-cups. There are polite exchanges about the preceding film (which was great, by the way) before someone bravely makes a start. Game on.

First I try all the savoury vegetarian options: tea sandwiches with poached egg, mayonnaise and rocket; a delish roasted beetroot, goat’s cheese and pistachio tart and some kind of quite-yummy frittata.

Frittata + tart (love the plate)

The non-vego options include quiche lorraine and extra sandwiches (one chicken, one ham). I notice a couple of people at our table have requested gluten-free options. They’re given their own tray of gluten-free goodies, which includes cake. Good move by the caterers. Our event is hosted by columnist and blogger Sarah Wilson, who is sugar-free – I wonder what they were able toprovide for her?

The combination of champagne, coffee and tarts is actually quite filling. So I only need to sample a couple before moving on to the sweets: glazed eclairs; scones with cream and strawberry jam and perfectly-pretty macaroons.

Macaroon meets eclair

The macaroons are excellent (why don’t mine ever turn out like that?) and the scones are good. The eclair is, surprisingly, nothing special. So I sneak another macaroon to make up for it.

All the while we’re discussing the film. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, it was a time when ‘the help’ were black women serving white families, raising white children but not allowed to use the same bathroom.  There’s a lot of interesting discussion (as well as a few pointed remarks aimed at those of us who hadn’t read the book first – hey, I didn’t have time, but I’m reading it now, ok?). I’m not game enough to take the mike, but inside, I marvel at how fortunate I – a Chinese Australian woman – am to be here in Melbourne, Australia, now in 2011. And how 1960 really wasn’t all that long ago.

By the time we leave, it’s 2.00pm – I’ve eaten three kinds of sweets, watched a film and analysed key themes and triumphs in a post-theatre discourse over high tea. How productive is that?

And, I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend a Sunday in Melbourne hanging out with my mum.

Myer Mural Hall
Level 6, Myer Bourke Street building
www.muralhall.net.au

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A little gem – Lupino

For those who are familiar with the nightlife and times of Little Collins Street,  newcomer Lupino occupies an unlikely space – the former site of Champagne Lounge.

After the initial shock (the Champagne Lounge has closed!), one marvels at the transformation – gone is the DJ booth, the faux leather couches and the sticky floors. From the newly whitewashed walls to the generous displays of dried pasta, pickling olives and some very large jars of Nutella, it’s unrecognisable. From beneath the dancefloor, a little gem has emerged.

We’re in a party of nine, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We descend on a pre-booked table in the back – it’s big and square rather than long and rectangular, so we can actually converse as a group, which is great. As the owners are only six weeks in, they’re yet to establish a set menu for group bookings, so we’re asked to share a whole lot of entrees to start with, before moving to a la carte for mains and dessert. We’re more than happy to oblige, and before too long, the table is groaning with dishes.

Highlights include an amazing goats-cheese souffle with a creamy double-something white sauce (so good), the homemade olives and warm, crusty bread. We also have two pizzas (one with rosemary and sea salt and one with tomato and boccocini), with the thinniest woodfired bases. There are some antipasto and meatball dishes too, which are reportedly delicious. The service is friendly but never rushed, which gives us plenty of time to settle in and chat.

Moving on to mains. You know that unspoken rule where you avoid ordering the same thing as your other dining companions? When it comes to the gnocchi quattro formaggio, this goes out the window. I think at least four of us order it, and no-one feels apologetic. It has four cheeses, for god’s sake!

Homemade gnocchi with not one, not two, but four cheeses

We can’t quite work out what each of the four cheeses are – taleggio? Ricotta? A very mild blue? Whatever goes into that thick, thick, creamy sauce, it tastes delicious. The gnocchi is perfection, it melts.

In the meantime, I join the birthday girl in knocking back a very delicious white wine, which is a soave from the Veneto region of Italy. It went very well with all that cheese …

A few of us have room for dessert – which looks great, but I will have to save it for another time … very soon.

Ah, Lupino – where have you been all my life? Easy yet classy and modern Italian in the city, with beautiful food at reasonable prices. This could be the start of something beautiful …

Lupino
41 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
www.lupino.com.au

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Bess knows best – Bess Richmond

Newcomer Bess Richmond swept into Swan Street earlier this year with nary a fanfare nor a whisper. Blink and you’ll miss the tiny, polished plaque bearing an inscription of the premises’s new name: Bess. In fact, outside of opening hours, there’s no menu, no hours of operation and no forwarding (website) address to be seen. But a quick google search turned up a website (homepage only), a Facebook page – and a small but very strong following on Urbanspoon. So the next Saturday night, we were there.

The no-booking policy meant we could walk in and get a table. Although I would have been just as happy to take a seat at the bar if needed, and the outdoor booths will prove popular in summer. I have always liked the historic feel of the building (formerly Wild Oscars) and the good folk at Bess have done a beautiful job converting it into a cosy European-style brassiere.

Was it the wine, the crackling fire, my handsome dinner date N? It seemed that every dish was absolutely delicious. Seriously good food.

Fresh oysters for entree. For mains, the softest gnocchi I have ever tasted, with marinated ricotta, tomoto and herbs. Broccoli and parmesan gratin as a side (trying to get in some greens). And to finish, the most amazing chocolate pudding, cooked to order, hot and gooey with oozy chocolate-y insides. Did I mention it was amazing? Ah-mah-zing.

The service was friendly, and the atmosphere was warm. Perfect new local for a special dinner for two, or a small get-together with friends.

Looking forward to their brunch offering which is on its way soon.

Bess Richmond signage (almost actual size!)

Bess Richmond
105 Swan Street, Richmond
www.bessrichmond.com.au

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Easy Tiger

There are so many cute places to eat on Smith Street – and Easy Tiger is one of them.  Take a peek inside – the interior looks oh-so-inviting, modern eatery schmick with a hint of cool. On a recent visit with a couple of friends, we came across some big hits – and a couple of small misses.

From the outset, the waiter tells us Easy Tiger is ‘all about sharing’ – so why are the serving sizes not so share-friendly? At $25-$30 a main, I was expecting more. There’s enough to go around our small group of three, but I get the feeling we’re being polite (‘Oh no, I’m getting full – why don’t you have the rest?’).  The salt and pepper silken tofu, listed under ‘street food’, comes dressed with a smoked eggplant and sesame soy tapenade, which is delicate in appearance and very strong in taste. But we can’t help feeling a little hard done by trying to share just two very small pieces of tofu. We also sample the betel leaf with prawn, peanuts and coconut, and I have an oyster with red chilli nahm jim – both are nice.

Happily, we order a couple of winners. The king oyster mushrooms with rolled rice noodles are great – beautiful big flavours, rich with mushrooms and lovely chewy rolls of rice noodle.  The son-in-law eggs are also good, as is the penang curry of pumpkin.

I’m still feeling hungry, so I order dessert. This too is a absolute cracker – coconut sago pudding topped with a clear jelly of agar agar and a lovely crispy, very caramalised banana and a palm sugar sauce.

So, order well and you won’t be disappointed, but stray the path and you might end up feeling once bitten, twice shy.

Easy Tiger
99 Smith Street, Collingwood
www.easytiger.co 

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Healesville Hotel and friends

The Yarra Valley is one of my favourite day-trip destinations in Victoria. So when I heard the 2011 Archibald Prize would be held at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, I conjoured up a heady itinerary of wineries, involving much wine-tasting and of course, some art.

However, I hadn’t counted on Friday night drinks @ Newmarket Hotel the night before. So I’m afraid to say, there wasn’t a single wine tasting to be had (ironic given I was drinking Yarra Valley pinot noir by the litre the previous night…)! To get us started, we grab a couple of large coffees and a pastry from Harlequin Deli in Richmond, then hit the road.

We made it to the gallery by midday and waited patiently in line with the droves of other portraiture-lovers and out of towners. But ah, it’s such a pretty place, so we didn’t mind waiting.

I loved Adam Chang’s amazing painting of John Coetzee (People’s Choice 2011). And the 2011 winner Ben Quilty’s painting of artist Margeret Olley is so bold, so striking. I watched the way people gazed at it with absolute admiration for both Quilty and Olley – now ever-more poignant with Olley’s passing on Tuesday.

Happy but hungry, we had a quick wander around the grounds, then headed to Healesville Hotel (say that three times fast!). It was packed, but we found a spot in the courtyard where I delicately sipped on some Punt Road apple cider ’til our meals arrived. N. had the fish and chips. The batter on the fish was thick, crispy and perfect and the tartare sauce was so good, I had to steal a few extras tastes.

Fish, chips and 'slaw!

I decided to try the chickpea kofta dish, which came with a thick roasted tomato sauce, lovely pieces of cheese baked throughout and fresh, doughy serve of flatbread. It was a lovely, hearty dish – perfect for a Winter’s day.

Mmm ... little hot pot of kofta goodness!

I was a bit sad there was no sticky date pudding on the menu, so we pushed on for afternoon tea at one of the wineries. We ended up at Domaine Chandon, where we got a table overlooking the vineyards, the tourists photographing themselves in the vineyards, and the expansive, stunning Dandenong Ranges. We shared a chocolate ganache cake over coffee and tea (still no wine for me), before picking up some Yarra Valley apples at a local produce store on the way home. Lovely.

Perfect way to finish a lovely day in the valley

 “My life and my paintings are one and the same thing.”
Margaret Olley, 24 June 1923 – 26 July 2011

Harlequin Fine Wines and Deli
207 Swan Street, Richmond

TarraWarra Museum of Art
311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville
www.twma.com.au

Healesville Hotel
256 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville
www.yarravalleyharvest.com.au

Domaine Chandon
727 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream
www.domainechandon.com.au

Healesville Hotel

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Friday night drinks @ Newmarket Hotel

Last Friday, a group of us got together for a friend’s birthday drinks at the new-ish Newmarket Hotel. The Newmarket pitches itself as a ‘tastes of California’ bar/restaurant with a cheeky wink to Mexico. First thing to note: it’s more of a restaurant than a bar. Unless you have managed to book a table for dinner (my friend emailed during the week but didn’t get a reply), there’s nowhere to sit inside. Outside, there’s a great open-air area with tables and benches (very Royal Saxon Hotel – same designers) – however it was a little chilly, even with the outdoor heaters on (but will be great in the summer!).

Secondly, the wine is on tap. Which is kind of weird. Don’t ask me how the wine is stored, but you buy it by the ounce (note to young players: 34 oz is a litre) and it’s served in a carafe. Our Yarra Valley pinot noir felt kind of like cask wine at first – but it tasted good and kept us warm. (Will have to try the sparkling wine on tap next time – by the litre!)

The dinner crowd cleared by about 10.30pm, so two hours and a litre of red later, we were seated inside. Time for some cocktail jugs! We ordered a pitcher of the ‘Straight Outta Spritzville’, which was a very tasty concoction of aperol, grapefruit vodka, rhubarb liqueur, passionfruit, lemon, bitters and sparkling grapefruit.

Our 'Straight Outta Spritzvilles' straight up!

We’d already eaten dinner, but the menu looked so good we were tempted into ordering snacks – nachos (note: very light tortilla chips, super fresh guacomole and salsa with a bit of kick) and a very delicious platter of goat’s cheese with quince and candied walnuts.

For dessert, my friend – the birthday girl – chose the cheesecake with tequila and lime sorbet. In a grand gesture of birthday benevolence, she kindly let me have a little sample (refer to pic below) – very tasty.

However, by that stage, I was somewhat preoccupied with my own dessert – a chocolate and macadamia pie, with kahlua ice cream and some extremely more-ish slices of caramalised banana on top. It’s a very decent dessert – do not share. Instead, take a piece of banana, a scoop of ice cream and a spoonful of the mousse-like chocolate filling underneath – and repeat.

Cheesecake with tequila & lime sorbet

My, my, my American pie - with lots of yummy bits on top

Then, wash it all down with another huge pitcher of drinks (sharing allowed).

Newmarket Hotel
34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda
www.newmarketstkilda.com.au

Newmarket Hotel

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