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A Sydney food and restaurant blog

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    Things are not quite what they seem at Cara&Co Restaurant, which is squirrelled away within the luxe Westfield Sydney Level 4 retail shop of the same name.

    While there's window shopping aplenty in the international boutique clothes and accessories store, any preconceived thoughts of stuffy fine dining in the restaurant go right out the window.

    Amuse bouche: Olive cake with capsicum jelly and bonito cream at
    Cara&Co Restaurant, Level 4, Westfield Sydney
    Instead, it's a creative and boutique offering, much like the retail store. Firstly and lastly, it’s all about flavour and they go to great lengths at Cara&Co – through innovative techniques and new flavour combinations – to pack in awe-inspiring flavour in every instance.

    For example, our first amuse bouche was a tiny pudding-like black olive cake, topped with a disc of red capsicum jelly, bonito cream and olive crumbs. I was transported to the Mediterranean with the one mouthful of explosive and well-considered flavours – and we'd barely started the meal.

    Hand towels
    The intimate, floor-lit dining room of Cara&Co forms its own attraction, as do the knowledgeable waitstaff who are obviously passionate about the artful food that comes from the small kitchen.

    The waiters have my full attention every time they describe the components of dishes which have technique and imagination written all over them – as do the hand towels.

    Even if they initially look like large mints on the table, don’t pop these in your mouth. The compressed and scented hand towels grow into little towers with a light watering by the waitstaff, and set the scene for the innovative and creative meal to be had.

    Sour Puss cocktail
    Cara&Co has a small list of signature cocktails but can also cater to classic tastes. My Sour Puss is properly sour (oddly, an uncommon attribute of many ‘sour’ cocktails in Sydney) with big hits from calvados, sour apple liquor and plum pisco.

    Amuse bouche: Tapioca cracker with rocket puree and mushroom
    We were treated to a second amuse bouche which had me swooning. Served on a polished stone, the pock-marked cracker of tapioca was impressive on its own with a softly crisp, airy texture.

    The match with green rocket puree and a tiny half of a pickled mushroom was ingeniously fun and surprisingly well balanced – I could even imagine a pack of these crackers and a bowl of the puree as a snack in front of the television.

    Complimentary bread and butter
    In addition to having the most wildly imaginative amuse bouche, the perfectly round sourdough rolls at Cara&Co are reason alone to eat here. Crusty and warm from the oven, I’ll admit to devouring two of these excellent white rolls with lashings of black salt flake-sprinkled butter.

    Rump Kissed by the Sea
    It isn’t noticeable at first glance of the menu of cutesy-quirky named dishes, but there are no pork or pork products at all (Cara&Co Sydney owner Rozalia Alpert is Jewish). But therein sprouts innovation, such as Cara&Co’s other-worldly delicious wagyu bacon – all salty, fatty and bovine.

    It features in the wagyu rump steak entrée, which borders on a main serving size. Served as a pretty, tumbled array, the medium-rare beef showcases sous vide done well, with plenty of wagyu bacon along with sea urchin, grilled fennel, creamy potato puree and 'egg yolks' of a sweet, fruity sauce oozing out of pickled onion rings.

    Scampi Grapefruit Rhapsody No. 1
    I couldn't go past the scampi entrée, which has a tomato water poured over at the table. The scampi is lightly torched but otherwise raw, which is the perfect way to eat the shellfish.

    It's served with creamy and cheesy flavour matches in the circles of parmesan custard, blobs of cardamom cream and parmesan crisps.

    The strongly flavoured custard was the surprise match with the scampi, while the cherry tomatoes added sweetness and acidity. The strong cardamom flavours rather overpowered the delicate shellfish, but were easy enough to avoid.

    Ten Peas in a Soup
    New to Cara&Co's current menu are a selection of cold soups. I was sold on the wagyu bacon that appears again in a semi-traditional pea and mint soup. The vivid green soup came topped with milk foam and dotted with pieces of asparagus and sharp-flavoured caperberries.

    The fresh peas were contained what turned out to be rounds of apple that added sweetness and texture to the chilled soup, while the mint refreshed the palate.

    Behind the Iron Curtain almond soup
    Modern history buffs might like the chilled, creamy and toasty almond soup that's thicker and richer than the pea soup. Served with rounds of potatoes (not scallops as may look like), rolls of cucumber flesh, dill and onion rounds, salty Avruga caviar offered the finishing touch.

    Glass of 2010 Schild Estate shiraz
    We requested wines to go with our mains and there are several on offer by the glass. Most of all I adored the approachable and logical wine advice offered by the waitstaff.

    The Schild Estate shiraz was a great, mature match to the rich beef main while a lighter 2008 Yarraloch cabernet sauvignon was divinely berry-rich to match the lamb main.

    Jus being poured on When Bull Meets Goose
    The beef tenderloin main is about as luxurious as it gets – I shouldn't have been so surprised when we were told that the goose component of the dish was foie gras.

    Rounds of white onion, assorted mushrooms and I think, an artichoke puree danced around the bull and goose in pretty neutrals while the juicily pink tenderloin was beefed up with veal jus.

    When Bull Meets Goose
    But the block of fattened goose liver was the star of the show. It was pure indulgence as the foie gras mousse meltingly matched each mouthful of beef with its buttery, smooth creaminess; seriously ramping up the posh quotient.

    A Lamb's Neck of the Woods
    My main of slow-cooked lamb neck was served with an ethereal garden of green and cloudy white accompaniments, each bringing new, different flavours and textures to the ridiculously soft and tender meat.

    A Lamb's Neck of the Woods
    Crumbled pistachio was a interesting contrasting texture while the strongly flavoured anchovy foam was the stand-out flavour among comforting cauliflower and broccolini.

    Frutti di Bosca in the Tropics
    There was barely room for dessert, so a light, fruity one to share was the order. A mix of fresh berries, coconut ice cream and a green herb sorbet played the tropical notes, while the jellied coconut flan had to be the most intriguing part of the dessert.

    Petit fours (clockwise from back): Tonka bean  madeleines, passionfruit and white
    chocolate lollipop, and lemon verbena and violet marshmallows
    And yet there was more. After dessert there was still petit fours that all diners are served, and there's just as much serious pride in these after-dinner treats as with the pre-dinner amuse bouche.

    Firstly, fluffy, sweet clouds of marshmallow in two-toned blocks of lemon verbena and violet. Then my favourite, a white chocolate lollipop with a liquid passionfruit filling that exploded in the mouth into a sublime moment.

    And to finish, their trademark tonka bean madeleines which were toasty warm with crisp, golden surfaces.

    The Cara&Co dining room
    By the last bite of the madeleine, I was completely and utterly stuffed, and completely and utterly content.

    Cara&Co really is something special: while the creativity of some dishes at can be overwhelming, the flavours are always there to back up a dish. There's always a place for a flavour of creativity in Sydney dining.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Cara&Co.

    Cara&Co Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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    I will go far and wide, north and south-west for the humble dumpling. There’s just something about thin circles of dough filled with meat and vegetables that have a hold of me.

    In a quiet section near the Willoughby Hotel, the dumplings at Willoughby Dumpling House and their little Taiwanese menu friends get along extremely well with a BYO bottle of wine.

    Taiwanese style shallot pancake from Willoughby Dumpling House,
    Penshurst Road, Willoughby
    The space is small but kitted out in a modern, nostalgic fashion that hipsters wouldn’t be uncomfortable with. The laminated menu breaks down into a number of equally tempting sections but dumplings and pancakes are a good place to start.

    The shallot pancake is not your normal pan-fried, shallot-dotted flat dough – it’s deep fried and it’s better. Golden and crunchy, there’s still a soft, chewiness to the middle section and the plate is polished off hastily among the group.

    Taiwanese style pancake wrap with pork floss, fried egg and house sauce
    The soft, rolled egg pancake was a revelation to me – typical Taiwanese breakfast and street food, these pancakes filled with pork floss and egg omelette were pure comfort with pops of flavour from the dried and flavoured pork floss and sweet brown sauce.

    Hand made steamed pork dumplings with garlic chives and shallots
    I could see the steam coming off the simply steamed pork and chive dumplings, served with a chilli sauce. However, I skipped them, waiting instead for the pan fried versions which have my heart.

    Hand made pan fried pork dumplings with garlic chives and shallots
    The pork and chive dumplings were about as good and fresh as they get, with a real home-made flavour. The pan fried versions had a paper-thin layer of crisp nothing-ness around the dumpling bottoms that still amazes me.

    Hand made pan fried prawn dumplings with bamboo shoot and coriander
    Filled with a soft, white filling of minced prawn and bamboo shoot, the prawn dumplings were a lighter option than the pork but full of flavour and superb with the slow-burning chilli sauce.

    Granny's rice dumpling with pork and shitake mushroom, wrapped in bamboo leaf
    The glutinous rice 'Granny's rice dumpling' is one not something often seen on restaurant menus, despite its popularity in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines around festive times of the year.

    Expertly pyramid-shaped and wrapped in lotus leaves, the sticky rice package is filled with pork pieces and shitake mushrooms, and seemed to have a delightful, five spice flavour through the rice. The sweet sauce and crushed peanuts atop were essentially the icing and decoration on the cake.

    Steamed bun burger with pork belly, pickled mustard, coriander and peanut powder
    The Chinese-style steamed man tou bun continues to have its time in the spotlight, and with winning filling combinations – like flavour-packed braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, sweet hoi sin sauce and crushed peanuts for texture – I see no reason for it to recede.

    I thought the chopped pickled mustard greens really lifted the bun to enviable heights amid a city currently awash in pork buns.

    Steamed bun burger with roast duck, shallot, cucumber and hoi sin sauce
    There was also a version of the bun filled with roast duck, hoi sin sauce and shallots – Peking duck style with the fluffy white buns replacing the usual thin pancakes. By all accounts, it was better.

    Taiwanese fried fish cake
    There were double-takes as what looked like thick-cut potato chips arrived to the table. The fried fish cake that fooled us all had a decent, firm texture and was best had with the chilli.

    Spicy beef noodle soup
    The best spicy beef noodle places always seem to be Taiwanese. The broth in this rendition had great depth of flavour and a very noticeable spice kick, while the super-soft beef (brisket, I think) rather outshone the long white noodles.

    Sung choi bao with roast duck, mushroom, onion and crispy wonton pastry
    I rarely order sung choi bao when I’m eating out as they seem easily achievable in the home kitchen. But the finely diced filling here, with roast duck meat and bits of fried wonton pastry adding crispness, was spectacularly well-seasoned, giving me serious doubt that I could do similarly.

    Fried rice
    The Taiwanese style fried rice seemed a little more complex and substantial than the Chinese version I'm accustomed to. Tossed with dark soy sauce, egg and vegetables, the fried rice was an easy and satisfying dish to finish on.

    We'd managed to completely clear a table covered in food: snack-sized plates, full-blown rice and noodle dishes, and of course, dear dumplings as the obsession continues.

    Disclosure: Food, booze and shoes is acquainted with staff at Willoughby Dumpling House.

    Willoughby Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

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    Posted by Jan

    Grant King, head chef and owner of two-hatted Gastro Park, is doing it again. Celebrating the release of Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season on Blu-ray and DVD, Gastro Park is returning with its themed dining experience, fit for the any of the five kings battling for the Iron Throne.

    The Game of Thrones decorated bar at Gastro Park, Roslyn Street, Kings Cross
    The Game of Thrones (GoT) menu of five themed courses inspired by the second season of the hit show is available from tonight through to 25 April 2013 at the Kings Cross restaurant.

    Game of Thrones' Lady Catelyn Stark, actor Michelle Fairley
    With last year's GoT-inspired menu selling out almost instantly, I was very keen to experience the new dinner menu at the media preview launch.

    As a fan of the show, imagine my excitement when I saw actor Michelle Fairley, also known as GoT's Lady Catelyn Stark, perched on an Iron Throne when I arrived.

    Gastro Park head chef and owner Grant King with Game of Thrones'
    Lady Catelyn Stark, actor Michelle Fairley
    Renowned for his creativity and technique, chef King said: "The series’ medieval fantasy themes, brutal battle scenes and stunning settings really lend themselves to creativity and that’s what I thrive on as a chef.

    "I've had a lot of fun collecting and torching animal bones, and foraging for driftwood to create the main inspired by the aftermath of the Battle of the Blackwater, which is my favourite scene in season two."

    Gastro Park dining room all decked out
    Indeed, the Gastro Park dining room was in full theme; decked out with 'snow', skulls and candles, instantly taking me back to winter beyond the 'Wall' in the television series.

    Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season menu at Gastro Park
    The GoT menu features five elaborate courses that will surely bring a smile to the faces of fans of the showing adventurous eaters alike.

    Dragons & bones - Roast veal bone marrow with crostini and parsley salad
    Diners start on the 'Dragons and Bones' entrée, inspired by character Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons. The dish of roast veal bone marrow served on slate was a jaw-dropping sight to behold. Scoops of the roasted marrow were perfectly rich on a bit of crostini and necessarily refreshed with the parsley salad.

    The entrée was also served with 'fossils' of roasted artichokes and goat's cheese; flavoursome little nuggets which had me keenly scavenging among the roasted bones for any undiscovered treasures.

    Whole grilled flathead
    Fans of GoT will remember the ships up in flames and sinking amid green wildfire (fire that burns on water) in season two.

    Inspired by the Battle of Blackwater, the main 'Beach Fire' course of grilled flathead arrived at the table on a platter of sand and charred twigs and leaves.

    Aftermath of Battle at Blackwater – Whole grilled flathead, smoked roast almonds,
    barley crackers, wild weed and fresh milk curd
    Reminiscent of the fiery aftermath of the battle, the whole fish was served with wild green weeds, a delicate goat's milk curd, crisp barley crackers and smoked roast almonds - the latter two components adding texture and crunch.

    The whole flathead was cooked to flaking perfection with rosemary, with the flesh moist and tender although diners need to be wary of bones.

    Fondue for the kings - Fondue of cheese, roast grapes and crackers
    A cheese course snack was served before dessert. The 'Fondue of Kings' is a melted Vacharin with a sprinkle of powder that tasted of caramelized onions.

    Crackers and roast grapes (back)
    This decadent 'snack' was paired with an intriguingly warm bunch of roasted grapes. The cheese, grapes and wafer-thin crackers disappeared with haste between four.

    News from the Raven by Candlelight - Edible candles with flavours of
    hibiscus, bolero tea, plum and a letter from the raven
    The dessert course of 'News From The Raven by Candlelight' arrived at the table to incredulous gasps. It looked impressively real, with a burning wick, melting 'wax' and all.

    Edible candle with flavours of hibiscus, bolero tea, plum 
    It's intended for the flame to burn down and caramelise the white chocolate coating. Then someone needs to blow out the 'candle' before it's cracked open, revealing a filling of plum slices and a pink mousse perfumed with flavours of hibiscus and bolero tea.

    Mulled figs
    The candle is so stunning and delicious that I almost forget to try the mulled figs. Not being too keen on overly sweet flavours, it was a pleasure to tuck into the bowl of gently cooked figs in red wine and spices.

    It's an amazing menu that chef King has put together and fiction or not, one will certainly eat like a king at Gastro Park's Game of Thrones dinner.

    The Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season 5-course themed meal at Gastro Park is available for dinner from 14 March to 25 April 2013. The set menu is $100 per person (excluding beverages) with a minimum of 4 people per booking - reservations are essential.

    Food, booze and shoes attended the Game of Thrones degustation launch at Gastro Park as a guest, with thanks to One Green Bean.

    Gastro Park on Urbanspoon

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    When you get an invite to an intimate soiree with the world-famous burlesque femme fatale, Dita Von Teese, you generally respond positively.

    It's an even more exciting prospect if she's mixing drinks at The Victoria Room in her role as global brand ambassador for Cointreau - the French, orange-flavoured triple sec liqueur that's a must-have in a Cosmopolitan cocktail.

    Cointreau global brand ambassador Dita Von Teese with head mixologist
    Luke Hanzlicek of The Victoria Room, Victoria Street, Darlinghurst
    She's just stunning in person: petite, flawlessly dressed and made-up (she does all her own hair and make-up) and softly spoken. Combined with her love for the vintage styles of the 1940s and 50s, she's an altogether alluring figure.

    Von Teese had a pack of media and VIPs in silent admiration, with the occasional giggle, as she showed off her drinks making skills, making a simple and elegant Cointreau Fizz and then working with The Victoria Room's Luke Hanzlicek to make the Cointreau Dita Fizz and a 'classic' Cosmopolitan

    See the video below (excuse me for shaky hands) to see Von Teese give some mint springs a "little spanky".

    With the lady herself as inspiration and muse, the Cointreau Dita Fizz comprises Cointreau ruby red grapefruit juice, a few drops of rose water, mint leaves and soda water served tall over ice.

    Dita Von Teese serves up a Cosmopolitan cocktail
    An all-time classic Cointreau cocktail, Von Teese does well on the Cosmopolitan – made famous by girly television series Sex and The City – combining the French liqueur, a squeeze of lime and a dash of cranberry juice, shaken and served in a martini glass.

    The rest of the evening was spent in the presence of Von Teese and a million camera flashes, with Cointreau drinks and morsels of fingerfood to keep any tipsiness at bay.

    Dita Von Teese with staff from The Victoria Room
    Visitors to Taste of Sydney 2013 (which started on Thursday night and goes through to Sunday) are also able to enjoy various inventive twists on a Cointreau mixed drink at the Cointreau Fizz Lounge - look out for it (and me!) in Centennial Park over the weekend.

    Food, booze and shoes attended the Cointreau soiree with Dita Von Teese at The Victoria Room as a media guest, with thanks to Stellar Concepts.

    The Victoria Room on Urbanspoon

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    Taste of Sydney 2013, Centennial Park, Sydney
    Another year, another filling weekend spent at Taste of Sydney. Blessed by the weather gods this year, I was particularly looking forward to the four days at Centennial Park following a preview 'Taste safari' trip with the organisers and PR firm the week prior.

    The chefs of Taste of Sydney 2013
    On arrival at the Miele VIP lounge on a cloud-threatened Thursday evening, it was Laurent Perrier champagne and canapés all round as we readied for the Best in Taste awards announcement as part of the opening night gala event - a little 'Oscars' of Taste.

    It was chock-a-block in the Miele tent as Kitchen by Mike was awarded the best front of house display. Popolo won third place in the Best in Taste with its pasta offering while Longrain took out second place for its rice noodle dish.

    It was full attention for the announcement of the Best in Taste award which went to Taste first-timer Porteño for its wagyu beef brisket, cooked in an American style barbeque which was shipped over especially from the US.

    Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate from Porteño
    Post the awards announcement and a quick bubbles top-up, we made a beeline for the Porteño restaurant stall, which turned out to be a very good idea as they queues quickly grew and stayed that way for most the rest of the festival.

    It was all hands on deck with maitre'd Sarah Doyle in charge of distributing plate upon plate of barbecued goodness from the hands of Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate.

    BBQ wagyu beef brisket with BBQ sauce and pickle from Porteño
    The best dish of the festival as deemed by the judges, Porteño BBQ wagyu brisket comprised a few slices of fat-streaked beef, smoked to a point of redness and fall-apart tenderness.

    The rich meat was set off perfectly with a subtly smokey BBQ sauce and a pickle, while the crisp and creamy coleslaw mound beneath was a total highlight for me.

    Chorizo with chimmichurri from Porteño
    I couldn't resist Porteño's chorizo dish either; something I had in mind to try on my next visit to the Surry Hills restaurant.

    The chubby and chunky pork sausage burst with flavour and spiced juiciness, and was served a with fresh and herbaceous chimmichurri that was a meat-eater's match.

    Jackie M and Poh Ling Yeow at Malaysia Kitchen stall
    We scurried towards the unmistakeable spice smells of Malaysia Kitchen feature, where Jackie M, Poh Ling Yeow and a Malaysia Tourism official launched their first year of participation in Taste of Sydney.

    A demo kitchen was set up aside stalls selling Malaysian sauces, pastes and snacks, while a different pop-up restaurant was featured every day.

    Poh Ling Yeow demonstrates Hokkien noodles in the Malaysia Kitchen feature
    Poh did a quick demonstration of Hokkien noodles in a dark soy sauce, which had the tent area salivating at the aromas and queuing for the subsequent samples.

    Dilmah tea lounge
    Dilmah had quite the luxurious tea lounge on site where free cups of tea were offered alongside a high tea experience.

    Biota Dining chef James Viles in the Dilmah Chef's Skillery tent
    Also a new feature of Taste was the Dilmah Chef's Skillery which was presenting chefs in a number of up-close sessions demonstrating a particular skill, with a few tea leaves thrown in, of course.

    Bowral's Biota Dining chef and director James Viles was good fun to watch as he torched tea leaves to make a smoked tea butter, churned with a KitchenAid and 45% fat content cream from his local dairy farmer, and strained through a (brand new) blue Chux wipe and served on a river stone.

    Croquette - Southern crayfish with paleta and Biota garden onions
    Biota had a restaurant stall popping-up as part of the Destination Dining feature which this year featured three regional NSW restaurants.

    Viles' passion for his sustainable practices, and a few pre-event tweets, had me excited for his croquette offering. The crunchiest golden crumb you ever did see, or hear, held fluffy potato-ey innards with sea-sweet Southern crayfish flesh.

    And while it was the crayfish I was most excited to try, I was blown away by the creamy white onion purée served beneath the three croquettes which had sweetness and heat in equally thrilling parts.

    Roast Murray Valley prok salad, crisp rice, mint, chilli and peanuts from Longrain
    We shuffled next door to the Taste-seasoned Longrain guys whose Thai salads are a never-fail. The topping of triangles of pork crackling bode well for the roast pork salad, with the amazing crackling balanced with fresh flavours of mint, lime and a fair whack of fresh chilli.

    Chia seeds with a Nudie crushie

    Pasta from Pasta Gallery

    Chocolate, yuzu curd, miso butterscotch from Three Blue Ducks
    While there was a suitable amount of tasting to be done across the exhibiting stalls, not even including the dozens of wine stalls, we found room for dessert from Three Blue Ducks, drawn in by the promise of yuzu curd.

    It was a surprisingly harmonious combination of rather diverse ingredients with just the right amount of richness: chocolate ganache, curd, cake bits, citrus segments lightening the whole lot and even honeycomb from memory.

    Taste of Sydney weekend

    Weekend crowds at Taste of Sydney
    I returned to Taste on the weekend, where a it seems a great proportion of Sydney decided to spend a rare sunny weekend. The stiflingly hot Saturday was somewhat better than the windy Sunday, but in all, it was great outdoor festival weather, and Sydney was loving it.

    Cointreau Strawberry and Mint Fizz
    Having being introduced to the Cointreau Fizz recently (with Dita Von Teese), it was hard to resist an icy, freshly mixed drink in the heat.

    Most irresistible was the plastic Cointreau conical flasks the drinks were served in, with strawberry and mint or cucumber and lime or a number of other flavour combination, and Cointreau and soda water as a base. I'll be able to make my own fizz in a flask at home now too.

    Jackie M char kway teo demonstration at the Malaysia Kitchen feature
    Over the whole festival, Jackie M and Poh were alternating demonstrations in the Malaysia Kitchen feature. I caught Jackie M doing char kway two with chicken, which she told the audience wasn't exactly traditional but "whatever" - totally my attitude to cooking.

    Martin Boetz (soon to be ex Longrain) in Dilmah Chef's Skillery
    I also managed to catch Martin Boetz in the Dilmah Chef's Skillery, putting together a smoking mix for a hunk of kingfish. Green tea, various fresh and dried spices, rice and citrus peel made their way into the mix, which Boetz would normally smoke in a wok.

    His departure from the Longrain kitchen after 14 years (last day is 30 June) is bittersweet as he moves on to focus on his Cook's Co-op farm: a couple of hectares of land up Hawkesbury way where Boetz is growing produce for Sydney restaurants in an attempt to reconnect chefs to the land, to where food really comes from.

    BBQ ocean trout with tangy Mexican street salad from Peter Kuruvita's Seafood Barbeque
    Just over at Peter Kuruvita's self-named restaurant stall, the grill burners were pumping out gorgeously fresh dishes of seafood.

    The barbequed Petuna ocean trout was cooked beautifully and barring a few bones, it was an excellent match to the 'Mexican street salad' which could also have been named a tropical fruit salad given it comprised paw paw, dragon fruit and grilled pineapple.

    Fregola alla zafferano con ragu di Maialino - Saffron infused toasted fregola pasta,
    suckling pig ragu
    I made a point of trying out Popolo as it's somewhere I've wanted to visit since the restaurant opened last year. Its fregola pasta dish also achieved second place in the Best in Taste awards, probably solely for the mouthwateringly rich suckling pig ragu.

    The little pasta is much like Israeli couscous, like nubbins of a thick round noodle, and perfectly textured for the meaty sauce.

    Slow braised pork cheek with black fungus relish roll from Claude's
    The feasting continued at Claude's where the pork jowl rolls we sampled at the preview were going like hot cakes.

    Slow cooked, fatty slices of pork cheek will do that, especially when it's on a scoffable little bun with a relish of black woodear fungus to cut through the fat.

    Head chef and owner Chui Lee Luk of Claude's

    Twice baked cheese souffle from Claude's
    There's none of Claude's chef and owner Chui Lee Luk's Malaysian heritage in the Icon Dish of a cheese soufflé though. It's pure French decadence as we attack the hot, cheesy mound, made to order on site. It's almost an unfair advantage, but it might well have been the best dish I tried at Taste this year.

    Chef Mike McEnearney of Kitchen by Mike
    The Kitchen by Mike stall was also doing a roaring trade in its fairground themed offerings of sweet corn on a stick and Pluto pups.

    Mike's pluto pup (front) and sweet corn with jalapeno salsa (back) from Kitchen by Mike
    It was definitely my first battered sausage on a stick in a very long time, and I have a feeling fairground ones aren't this good with a smokey sausage inside golden batter, and a house made to tomato and capsicum sauce - an easy dish to love despite its apparent simplicity.

    Cha Begendy - Scotch fillet cha kebap on charcoal spit, eggplant and kashar puree
    It was meat central at Efendy's stall, with a couple of charcoal spits fired up over the four days for lamb, beef, eggplants and capsicums.

    , The Scotch fillet cha kebap was the easy choice with thin slices of the tender, fully cooked beef laid atop of a smokey eggplant purée I could have eaten by the bowl.

    Deboned and roasted sheep's head with local garlic and cherry tomatoes tandir
    I wasn't game or too keen on the sheep's head offering which was served deboned - although I had a funny if not ghoulish vision of sheep's skulls doing the rounds at Taste.

    By all accounts, there was meat to be had in the head, in addition to plenty of roasted sheep's brain. Eyes were not mentioned.

    Mussels and suckling pig on at Four in Hand / 4Fourteen

    Wagyu brisket coming out of the barbeque from Porteño

    Cheese plate from Salt Meats Cheese
    Inside out pizza boxes from Salt Meats Cheese were the accessory of the festival, highlighting the popularity of grazing at reasonable prices.

    The generous 'plate' of three cheeses came with copious amounts of thin, Sardinian style crisp bread; and while the super stinky soft cheese polarised some, the hard (parmeggiano or pecorino) was a definite winner.

    The Sommelier's Natural Environment session at the Plumm Taste Wine Theatre
    We spied some free seats at the Plumm Taste Wine Theatre just in time to join GT Wines' Nick Stock and a panel of sommeliers going through five wines and potential food matches.

    It was a very entertaining session with some interesting new tastes and tidbits learnt. The Between Five Bells rose was a fruity, summery highlight I'll need to seek out again.

    Chocolate dipped pistachio mastic ice cream from Booza
    I finished at Taste with the guys at Booza who were making plenty of friends over the hot weekend weather with their unique mastic ice cream. The authentic Middle Eastern flavours were made modern with a Zokoko chocolate dip and popped on a stick; just perfect for festival strolling and scoffing.

    The sesame-based halva flavour was superb although I still can't decide whether I like the rose Turkish delight or pistachio flavours more.

    Taste crowds on hot and windy Sunday
    As Taste continues to grow and mature, I once again departed the white tented stalls in Centennial Park pretty stuffed, wallet pretty emptied but pretty happy with the state of food and wine in Sydney and beyond.

    See more photos from Taste of Sydney 2013 on my Facebook page.

    The big pink Taste fork at the entrance

    Food, booze and shoes attended Taste of Sydney 2013 as a media guest, with thanks to Stellar Concepts. Food and Crowns were paid for independently.

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    I went to Singapore late lastyear and didn't manage to have a namesake cocktail, Singapore Sling (I also went to Rome and didn't go to the Vatican City, but that's a different alcohol-related story).

    Time restrictions aside, we did manage a few great cocktail bars designed to deal with the sticky humidity of Singapore.

    Martini at Ku De Ta, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
    It was a bit drizzly the night we ascended to the top of Marina Bay Sands and since the lookout was closed, we settled on martinis on the balcony at Ku De Ta, overlooking the harbour and alongside the hotel guests-only infinity pool.

    It has to be one of the most amazing pools in the world, though I wouldn't be swanning around in it while the skies were illuminated with lightning.

    The view from Ku De Ta, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
    Cocktail prices are really quite reasonable when you consider the view: the Singapore skyline just over the water, light shows and a general feeling of wonder.

    The feats of humankind seem pretty impressive from up there, but that could be the spiced gin talking.

    The view from The Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore
    Later that same evening, we moved to the other side of town; oddly enough, looking back up at where we'd been earlier in the night.

    The clear, unobstructed views of Marina Bay Sands from the rooftop bar of The Fullerton Bay Hotel are almost as breathtaking as the reverse.

    Lantern at The Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore
    Lantern is an open-air, low-rise rooftop venue beside the gleaming hotel pool. The luxe deck chairs and outdoor lounges and table service add to the glamorous and posh tent feel.

    A DJ plays live and I can only imagine the awesome club nights that could erupt here, partying away in the moonlight on a hotel rooftop.

    Lantern at The Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore
    Ice-packed mojitos were the order of the steamy night, enjoyed reclining on lounges staring at the moon that appeared and hovered over the buildings of the casino hotel and its ship-like roof feature.

    The view from The Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore

    Bartenders at work at Bar Stories, Haji Lane, Singapore
    In the Muslim quarter, it's obvious that everything old is new again - Haji Lane is all trendy fashion by day and noise-filled bars and cafés by night. Hidden away upstairs from a shopfront-turned-restaurant is Bar Stories: a tiny cocktail bar where there's not really a cocktail menu.

    Bespoke cocktails have been their thing since 2010: pick a flavour profile (sweet, sour, bitter), agree or otherwise to their key ingredient additions and wait for your own personalised cocktail.

    Berry cocktail at Bar Stories, Haji Lane, Singapore
    We were all kind of flabbergasted at this icy creation which came from an order of 'sweet' and an 'OK' to berries. Chatting away and not paying much attention too the mixology, I'm not sure what liquors made it into this sweet cocktail, but that's not remotely the point.

    Like an ice sculpture attached to the outside of a metal shaker tin, it ended up a little on the wet and drippy side but certainly worth the cooling and novelty factor while the 'boat' garnish of berries was healthy at the very least.

    Yuzu cocktail at Bar Stories, Haji Lane, Singapore
    A request for a sour cocktail and agreement to Japanese citrus fruit yuzu produced a martini-glassed fizz with foamy egg white, an inverted lime half and what looked like fennel pollen applied with metal tweezers.

    It was sweet for a sour cocktail and featured only white spirits (don't ask which).

    Passionfruit cocktail at Bar Stories, Haji Lane, Singapore
    My sour cocktail featured passionfruit and again, was too sweet for my preference, even overpowering the alcoholic taste (but perhaps that's the point here).

    Also an egg white fizz, it was garnished with a fresh half of passionfruit and dried rose leaves, and from memory had a fair few passionfruit seeds at the bottom of the pretty glass.

    The 'Merlion', Singapore
    And it was after a decent cocktail session one night that I finally got to see the Merlion - Singapore's mascot with a lion's head and fish's body - although not spurting water by night and as a result, not quite so interesting.

    This was part of my urge to do the most touristy of touristy things when I travel, just beating out my need to check out the local drinking holes. More Singapore posts to come.

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    A favourite of university students and workers from neighbouring construction sites, The Abercrombie in Broadway is part of the DrinkN Dinegroupof pubs and boasts a new menu of food to keep any dude happy.

    It's an old pub done new, Drink N Dine style, with the slightest Scottish influence within the dark and still dingy main pub bar and the light- and people-filled beer garden with loads of seating.

    One kilo of chicken wings at The Abercrombie, Broadway
    Group executive chef Jamie Thomas sure has been busy with great specials and new menu items across all the venues - it was The Abercrombie's $10 Friday special from 6-10pm on a one kilogram bucket of chicken wings that got me.

    My visions of a large tin bucket were way off though: one kilogram is a lot smaller than I was imagining and I probably could have polished off the basket of crisp, greasy, cornflake-crumbed mid wings and drumettes myself with the mild, orange-tinted 'Red Eye' mayonnaise.

    Mac and cheese balls with spiced ketchup
    I wasn't really sure what to expect from macaroni and cheese balls, but I suppose if you can make arancini balls from rice, there's no reason pasta can't be used in the same fashion. I was surprised that macaroni can be moulded to such perfectly spherical shapes.

    Mac & cheese ball innards 
    The pasta balls are best devoured straight-from-the-oil hot and heavily dunked in the accompanying tomato sauce. When hot, the cheese strings from every bite of the soft pasta, invoking immediate carb, cheese and naughtiness overload.

    Chicken Caesar salad with bacon, lettuce, queso cheese and ranch dressing
    I thought I'd lighten the load with a salad, which ended up being gigantic and having more chicken, bacon strips and corn chips than a 'healthy' dish really should.

    Add ranch dressing and grated queso cheese and you can pretty much cancel out any goodness from the cos lettuce or kernels of grilled corn.

    Mexican dahl taco with green chilli yoghurt and sweet potato
    There was slight redemption in the vegetarian taco option with a Mexican-spiced dry lentil dahl, served in a soft taco with red cabbage, shavings of sweet potato and quite the refreshing, not-spicy chilli yoghurt.

    Korean short rib taco with slaw and sesame mayo
    The beef short rib taco was a definite winner: tender pulled short rib cooked in Korean chilli bean paste on a bed of red cabbage slaw. Coriander leaves and a flavoured mayonnaise were the icing on the cake of an impressive fusion taco.

    Reuben Dog with mustard, sauerkraut and dill pickle relish, served with chips
    The Reuben Dog is new to the menu of 'dawgs' and is described as a Reuben sandwich inside a hot dog.

    Other than the lack of corned beef - although it's a pretty decent frankfurt encased in the white roll - the tang of both the sauerkraut and lurid green dill pickle relish hinted at a Reuben, while the crinkle cut potato chips were pure nostalgia in a paper cup.

    Deep fried Golden Gaytime
    There was going to be a dessert order of The Abercrombie's infamous deep fried Golden Gaytime ice cream regardless of how stuffed we were.

    As if the original caramel/vanilla ice cream pop with chocolate and biscuit crumb coating isn't already awesome perfection, this version is battered, crumbed and deep fried as a whole, served with a fanned strawberry and drizzled with syrup.

    Inside the deep fried Golden Gaytime
    Personally, I think perfection can be left well alone, but for those inclined, dig in quick as the ice cream is on a melting path; perhaps made too sweet with the addition of syrup but itwas certainly a novel dessert that had to be ordered and shared.

    The Abercrombie beer garden
    The beer garden didn't empty much over the course of the night, with happy hour jugs keeping things rolling. There was a lot of food out in the beer garden too, proving that fun food, or grits, go a long way.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of The Abercrombie, with thanks to Folke.

    The Abercrombie on Urbanspoon

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    From memory I've only been to the opera once before, at the Sydney Opera House, so its not surprising that my knowledge of the fine art is limited.

    But even then, I've had two iconic arias stuck in my head since seeing Carmen in this year's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour at Mrs Macquarie's Point; surprisingly, one tune that most people would actually know.

    Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Carmen at Fleet Steps, Mrs. Macquarie's Point, Sydney
    It's a night at the opera like no other - it's completely outdoors and the stage is indeed, in the harbour.

    The Opera on Sydney Harbour is an Opera Australia initiative aiming to bring opera to a broader audience in a more accessible arena.

    Indeed, there's nothing stuffy about having a stage sitting in shimmering Sydney Harbour at what looks like a precariously sloping angle, with ferries passing behind and the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge just over yonder.

    The setting for Carmen
    For its second year running, Opera on Sydney Harbour is showing much-loved and passion-fuelled Carmen by French composer Georges Bizet, telling the love triangle story of passionate gypsy, a smitten soldier and a toreador bullfighter.

    The stage from the Southern Terrace
    Despite the looming dark clouds, there's an air of excitement all round the Fleet Steps area, which is completely taken over for the show.

    My extended stroll through the Botanic Gardens sees me arrive at the red carpet a little flustered, but greeted by the varied array of dining options all by Fresh Catering.

    Adina Garden Bar
    As part of bringing the opera to the masses, Fresh Catering is again taking charge of the onsite food and beverage options, and goodness, are there options.

    They've strived to cover any taste and any budget with an on-theme Spanish touch, and food outlets located conveniently in every direction and area.

    Adina Garden Bar food offerings
    Near the entry the Adina Garden Bar was serving spicy chorizo off the grill, simply in a roll with peppers, rocket and aioli.

    Southern Terrace
    At the elevated Southern Terrace I was drawn in by the smell of pastry from generously-sized empanadas and a selection of self-serve cold dishes and snacks like terrine, potato salad and antipasto plates.

    Cold food options at the Southern Terrace

    View from the Southern Terrace

    Food offerings from the Sparkling Wine Bar
    A number of Sparkling Wine Bars dotted around near the stage front had lush picnic style options including natural oysters, olives and chicken on brioche rolls.

    The Northern Cantina
    Hungry members of the audience would be found at the northern end of the area where a purpose-built three-storey structure housed three separate areas, all looking directly at Sydney's most famous view.

    The Northern Cantina
    There was plenty on at the Northern Cantina, ranging from bocadillo rolls and salads and plenty of dessert options to go with beers and wines.

    There was also the upstairs Northern Terrace offering more substantial eats: a huge range of tapas-style share plates and a specialty paella station.

    Platinum Lounge
    But for real decadence it has to be the exclusive, ticket-only Platinum Lounge where we were treated to a three-course meal, cooked to order, with table service, matching Tyrrell's wines and that view.

    The Platinum Lounge dining area

    Confit salmon with a salad of broad beans, spiced almonds and horseradish creme with asparagus and flowers
    There are a few options per course and the confit salmon caught my attention as a entreé, served with a colourful salad of baby beetroot, broad beans, asparagus, radish and crunchy spiced almonds.

    Heirloom tomato salad with broad beans, spiced almonds and horseradish creme with asparagus and flowers
    The vegetarian entreé was much the same, with halved heirloom tomatoes replacing the salmon.

    Pyrenees lamb rump with potato catalana, roasted Brussels sprouts
    with mojo sauce and shaved manchego cheese
    To mains I couldn't pass up the lamb rump, served tenderly pink with a herb-green mojo sauce, while the accompaniments of roasted Brussels sprouts and scalloped roasted potatoes were executed perfectly.

    Chocolate and orange tart with hazelnut praline
    Dessert was no after-thought in the Platinum Lounge with three options to please any diner. The chocolate offering was a Jaffa-like chocolate and orange tart, served with hazelnut praline and decadent chocolate and orange mousse.

    Seasonal fruit plate with kaffir lime syrup and orange sorbet
    The healthy option was a seasonal fruit plate served with the tempting sounds of a kaffir lime syrup and blood orange sorbet.

    Selection of Spanish cheese with quince, muscatel and crackers
    The cheese plate got my pick, with segments of a particularly pungent blue cheese and a full-flavoured hard cheese amid the lavosh, crackers, bread stick, quince paste and dried muscatels.

    The poncho-wearing audience
    While we were squirelled away in the Platinum Lounge, the looming clouds had become showers but as an outdoor event, the show goes on unless it becomes dangerous for the performers or audience.

    So, the hundreds in the crowd donned the sponsor's blue ponchos en masse and became a spectacle itself, watching and listening through the pitter-patter on the rather efficient plastic coverings.

    Milijana Nikolic as Carmen (Photo by James Morgan)Image from a different night - courtesy of Opera Australia

    James Clayton as toreador Escamillo (Photo by James Morgan)
    Image from a different night - courtesy of Opera Australia
    The night's show started in the rain and was called to a halt temporarily as the rain got heavy, but came back bravely to finish late but in full flourish, fireworks and all.

    In spite of the rain, and in fact, maybe because of it, my second experience at the opera was an unforgettably enjoyable one - and I can't wait to see what Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will be doing next year.

    See more photos on my Facebook page. Carmen runs from 22 March to 12 April 2013 - more details of the show and dining packages here.

    Food, booze and shoes attended Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Carmen as a guest of Opera Australia.

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    The idea of street food combines convenient and tasty eats, the great outdoors, hopefully reasonable pricing and a sprinkling of dust/germs/pollution from said streets.

    It is quite literally street food at Jap's Table, with part of the menu cooked and eaten on the Chippendale footpath one sunny weekend lunch.

    Cooking yakitori on the footpath at Jap's Table, Abercrombie Street, Chippendale
    Jap's Table offers Japanese yakitori grilled chicken on a skewer, as well as a smattering of other Japanese highlights of sushi and ramen.

    The sweet, smoky smells of the charcoal grill attracted quite a few looks from both passing pedestrians and cars.

    Japanese soft drinks
    The milky Calpis soft drink is a must-have for some with its subdued sweetness, while the Suntory branded C.C. Lemon is much like any lemon squash.

    Negi toro maki sushi roll
    As we waited for our hot food orders I tried out one of the pre-made sushi rolls, kept in a fridge displayed near the restaurant entrance.

    The negi toro roll comprised a filling of minced raw toro tuna belly mixed with shallots, and wasn't bad but I could have used a touch of soy sauce which wasn't to be found.

    Yokohama ramen
    They had two varieties of ramen on offer featuring different broths: pork stock for the Yokohama version and chicken stock for the Tokyo version.

    The ramen was pretty fair sized with the Yokohama one topped with Japanese style chashu roast pork, half a soft boiled egg, spinach, sliced shallots and two sheets of nori seaweed.

    The soup was decidedly tasty and porky while the noodles were on the softer side of al dente, with chilli paste additions were available on the side.

    Yakitori grill and chef
    The main game for me was the yakitori which was being grilled under a watchful eye. Every flip on the grill or dunk into the sweet, soy-based sauce looked simple enough but I'm sure was a practised art.

    Yakitori grill 
    In addition to skewered yakitori options, the menu featured a yakitori don that has grilled chunks of chicken on a bowl of rice - chicken and rice, Japanese style.

    (From top) Chicken liver, thigh and skin yakitori
    Our yakitori order arrived all at once on the one plate: skewers of chicken thigh, liver and skin, suitably charred and saucy, straight off the grill.

    The thigh, juicy with crunchy outer bits, was easy to love. The liver was overcooked, making it difficult for me (not a huge liver lover) to stomach.

    I had high hopes for the chicken skin, which appeared as squares of skin folded and skewered, pretty much like they do in Japan. The texture was more rubbery than crisp like rendered skin would be; enjoyable for a little to start with but then completely and overwhelmingly too fatty.

    Jap's Table is certainly waving the flag for street food in Sydney, and I can't wait to see it and the Sydney street food movement evolve.

    Jap's Table on Urbanspoon

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    The new Gardens by the Bay attraction by Singapore's Marina Bay was high on my list of 'touristy things to do' when I visited lastyear.

    It just happened to get ticked off one day after an impromptu lunch at Pollen restaurant - a new addition to the Singapore fine dining scene within the expansive Gardens by the Bay grounds.

    Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay, Singapore
    With all the affordable food options in Singapore, I hadn't planned for any fine dining so it was a pleasant surprise to be whizzing through Gardens by the Bay in a seatbelt-free golf cart to the Flower Dome, where Pollen awaited with its smart, climate-controlled interiors.

    Pollen at the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
    Pollen is said to be a "Mediterranean-inspired modern European" restaurant, from the same chef and group as London's popular Pollen Street Diner.

    It's most appropriate that the restaurant is located within, essentially, a huge flower and plant house showcasing flora from all over the world in a necessarily temperature-controlled environment.

    Pollen dining room
    The almost chilly restaurant interiors were a sharp change from the Singapore outdoors, though the locals didn't seem at all bothered.

    The spacious restaurant is surrounded by garden greenery, giving it quite the relaxing, getaway feel. There was very much a corporate crowd at lunch, in addition to the requisite ladies of leisure and indeed, couples of leisure.

    Plates at Pollen

    Complimentary bread
    To start there were a few varieties of bread, served with butter, olives and a decidedly Mediterranean bacalao salted cod spread that had me starting to forget that I was in Singapore.

    Pollen offers a set three-course lunch that seems reasonable at S$70 given the a la carte pricing. Our group was split between the two options, with the set menu portions noticeably smaller in the end.

    Jerusalem artichoke soup, roasted scallop, squid, eggplant puree
    Off the set menu was a creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup, served at the table from a small, shiny saucepan. The foamy soup joined a large, golden, pan-fried scallop and baby squid, tentacles and all, and was easily one of the most luxe soups I've tasted.

    Crab cocktail, avocado, sweet corn sorbet, caviar on toast
    One of the popular a la carte entrées was the generously filled martini glass of crab meat, served with a sorbet of sweet corn and avocado puree beneath, creating a somewhat familiar combination.

    Pimping it up was the caviar served in what looked like a beauty cream jar of crème fraiche. The set menu featured a similar entrée as a smaller size sans caviar and crisp breads.

    Roasted quail "brunch", foie gras on toast, cereals, quail tea
    From the a la carte menu, the roasted quail dish was quite the sight of earthy browns and golden surfaces. The small bird looked perfectly cooked atop a dark risotto with something that quite resembled a potato gem.

    Quail dish's foie gras on toast and quail tea
    Proving the value of the a la carte pricing, the quail dish actually came in three parts with quail "tea" consommé and foie gras mousse accompanying the elaborate entrée.

    Line-caught John Dory, saffron mash, "bouillabaisse"
    One of the set menu main options was a John Dory dish, with the fish sourced all the way from France. It was served as a lightly pan-fried boneless fillet atop of sturdy quenelle of saffron-touched mashed potato done exceptionally well.

    The squid ink-cooked squid and vegetables were really just props with the real flavour coming from the "bouillabaisse" seafood-based broth, presented and poured around the fish at the table.

    Braised Welsh lamb shoulder, lamb cutlet, baby gem, baked celeriac
    One of the other set menu dishes featured lamb two ways: a medium-rare cutlet, in all its fatty glory, propped up on a crumbed square of lamb shoulder, tenderly pulled and full of meaty flavour.

    The grilled baby gem lettuce and celeriac were much-needed additions to bulk out the dish, which looked a few cutlets short of a main meal.

    Palate cleanser: Lemongrass jelly with passionfruit espuma
    It was a memorable palate cleanser that was served after the mains: a clear jelly flavoured with lemongrass, topped with an espuma foam of high-impact passionfruit that totally overwhelmed the jelly, but was lovable nonetheless.

    "Ocumare cremeux", pistachio parfait, honey saffron ice cream, toasted brioche
    Pollen's concept and technique really seemed to shine come dessert time, with many a pretty option on both lunch menus.

    The pistachio parfait dessert looked fit for the gardens with its decorative leaf and soil-like chocolate bits beneath an intriguing honey saffron ice cream.

    Crispy and burnt lemon meringue with cucumber sorbet
    Meanwhile, I had quite the exciting dessert of many flavours and textures. Two meringues for starters: a soft, stickily torched Italian-style meringue and a hard-shelled one that the child in me loved cracking with a spoon.

    Cubes of mango and a refreshing green cucumber sorbet were offset with flakes of black - salt, perhaps - although I was too enamoured with the meringues to notice.

    "Japanese green tea", raspberry sorbet, yoghurt mousse
    It was a fun clash of colours with the green tea dessert featuring some liquid nitrogen-frozen green tea crumble - or perhaps it was the yoghurt mousse topped with frozen raspberry bits.

    In any case, the fresh raspberries, raspberry sorbet and dense, moist green tea flavoured cake made for a joyfully harmonious, if not too sweet, dessert.

    A la carte dessert
    One of the dessert's off the a la carte menu was completely too much for me to take in; mostly due to the oversized rock it was served on.

    I have no idea what the dessert was and no idea whether I'd be able to enjoy a sweet dish when I'd be too concerned over the source/weight/type/brittleness of the rock.

    Petit fours selection
    Pollen is renowned for its dessert and petit fours bar and it's no wonder really. Even for a non-sweet tooth, it was quite a sight seeing jars and row upon row of delicate hand-made chocolates, sweets and cakes just waiting for diners to finish their desserts.

    Chocolate pop

    Petit fours
    I can't even remember what I had, washed down with a macchiato, but I do remember the table's collective admiration for each little, specially crafted piece.

    View back on Gardens by the Bay
    For me - the tourist - the setting and surroundings just outclassed the food at Pollen (though not the top-notch service). However, I'm definitely glad that I got the chance to check out Pollen and its garden surrounds - one can always fit a little fine dining into a touristy schedule.

    See more photos from Singapore's Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands on my Facebook page. A final Singapore post to come, on a hawker food centre.

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    The global food movement has spoken and we now have a plethora of food movies to sate our viewing appetites.

    The latest to open nationally in Australia on 25 April 2013 is French movie Haute Cuisine (French title, Les Saveurs du Palais) which is based on the true story of French President François Mitterand's private cook, Daniele Delpeuch who was in Sydney recently.

    Haute Cuisine - in Australian cinemas nationally on 25 April 2013
    (Image courtesy of TM Publicity)
    The film, a mix of real events and pure fiction, is about "the power of cooking" and "the cooking of power", says co-writer and producer, Étienne Comar.

    Delpeuch was a farmer who left her job and husband for the role and she's described in real life as "an adventurer whose choices in life have always been connected with cooking". She was the only woman who has ever cooked in the official residence of the President of the French Republic.

    Stills from Haute Cuisine featuring actor Catherine Frot
    (Image courtesy of TM Publicity)
    Her character in the film, Hortense Laborie, is a renowned chef from the Périgord, and is appointed personal cook at the Élysée Palace for President of the Republic.

    It was filmed on location at the Élysée Palace, in regional France - which itself is pretty spectacular - and Antartica, which is where the film starts rolling.

    Stills from Haute Cuisine featuring actor Catherine Frot
    (Image courtesy of TM Publicity)

    Win a double pass to see Haute Cuisine!

    Food, Booze and Shoes is giving away five double passes to see Haute Cuisine in cinemas around Australia, with thanks to TM Publicity and Transmission Films.

    Simply email with your answer to the following question, and your postal address:

    "If you had to pick one cuisine to eat for the rest of time, what would it be and why?"

    Entries must be received by 9.00pm AEST on Saturday 20 April 2013. Winners will be announced and contacted within 24 hours, and passes will be posted to an Australian address.

    Passes valid from Thursday 25 April 2013. Not valid Saturdays after 5pm, public holidays or cinema discount days. Valid even with No Free Ticket restrictions
    Not valid for Gold Class or Vmax at Event Cinemas, Greater Union, Birch Carroll & Coyle or Village Cinemas, Hoysts La Premiere, Directors Suite, Bean Bag Cinema, Xtremescreen, IMAX or special events, Regency Cinelounge, Cinema Europa, Hayden Cremorne Orpheum, Roseville Cinema, State Cinema Hobart, Nova Deluxxe, United Avalon or United Collaroy.
    (Note: mailing addresses are used only for the purpose of sending winners' tickets).

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  • 04/17/13--18:32: Good times collective #7
  • I like autumn in Sydney but it's a reminder that winter is coming and that more than one-third of the year has gone already - where to, I'm not sure. Bars and ice cream parlours, it seems.

    A la Mode cocktail at Felix Bar, Ash Street, Sydney
    (Disclosure: Food, booze and shoes is acquainted with staff at Felix)
    There's always time for a well-made cocktail, even if I'm not quite sure what's in it - because when it comes to drinking, it's all about broadening experiences and learning.

    Felix is one of my favourite bar perches in the CBD; pre or post dinner or just for an after-work de-stressing beverage. This over-the-top dessert cocktail at Felix may well have been a special with its sweet, creamy foam and a hint of blowtorched caramelisation.

    Sweet potato chips at The White Hart, Grosvenor Street, Neutral Bay
    I have much love for sweet potato chips, and the ones at The White Hart in Neutral Bay are pretty special; each with lots of rough, crunchy bits but incredibly soft and fluffy on the inside.

    I love how they're served, piled high in a wooden vessel alongside aioli which was barely necessary as the chips were such tasty texture sensation.

    Black pudding and caramelised apple at The White Hart
    Sadly, I'm not one for black pudding - even if it was fancily plated with roasted apples and bacon flags on black slate.

    "The White Hart" wagyu burger, British cut bacon roasted tomato, crispy onion ring,
    beetroot relish, cheese and lettuce, chips at The White Hart
    The White Hart's burger is more my thing, served with thick cut chips on a board. The juicy wagyu beef pattie and melted cheese were the highlights while the pretty standard white burger bun was possibly holding it back from greatness.

    Gowings Bar, Market Street, Sydney
    The new, boutique QT Hotel made quite the splash when it opened in the historic Gowings Building last year. While I'll probably never be staying in the creative, designer rooms, the lobby and restaurant fitouts alone have me impressed.

    There's an interesting dynamic at Gowings Bar, being a hotel bar of course, but also catering to the large restaurant in the same space.

    Bringing back the Vol-Au-Vent: filled with gravlax of house made ocean trout tartare,
    Sterling caviar, quail eggs from Gowings Bar
    While I'm familiar with vol-au-vents - the iconic1970s hors d'oeuvres - I don't think I'd ever had one prior to the ones at Gowings Bar.

    But I can see their party and finger food appeal: exceptionally flaky puff pastry cases filled with delicately cured ocean trout, boiled quail egg halves and caviar - I don't know why they ever went out of fashion.

    Butter milk fried free range chicken wing tulips from Gowings Bar
    I find fried chicken wings an absolutely irresistible bar snack and the basket of butter milk fried wings were spot-hitting.

    While slightly lacking in seasoning and crunch, it's pretty hard to go wrong when you deep fry my favourite cut of chicken.

    Ice cream sundae at Window's Coffee, Bankstown
    While it is getting noticeably cooler, there's space in most stomachs and hearts for a bit of ice cream any time. A new discovery on a Bankstown corner was Window's Coffee - a Vietnamese café with tacky decorations, loud pop music on screen and an extensive ice cream selection.

    Large, multi-scoop options are served in tall oversized cocktail glasses with red syrup and paper umbrellas that verged on tackiness overload - but which also seemed to work for the venue overall.

    So, back to it - more bars and ice cream this autumn and winter.

    Felix Bistro and Bar on Urbanspoon

    The White Hart on Urbanspoon

    Gowings Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

    Window's Coffee on Urbanspoon

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  • 04/22/13--14:21: Mary's had a little burger
  • A little burger is drawing the hipster, rockabilly and hospitality crowds in hordes to a back street bar in Newtown.

    Mary’s, on Mary Street just off the main road of King Street, comes to life courtesy of a couple of guys with Porteño and Bodega pedigrees – so it’s no surprise that it’s packed out within its first weeks of opening.

    Burgers and chips at Mary's, Mary Street, Newtown
    Featuring a succinct menu of burgers and fried chicken, Mary’s has already had rapturous reviews and many a tweet about its city-conquering burgers.

    The bar has bottle beers, wines, a select few cocktails, and beers on tap including Newtown’s own Young Henry’s brews, of which the cloudy cider is the non-sweet cider drinker’s pick on a Sunday lunch.

    The bar and upstairs at Mary's
    The airy space hosts two newly renovated levels and maintains a hall feel and sound, with a kitchen nestled next to the ground floor bar. There’s table service in the upstairs section, while on the ground floor orders are taken at the bar and delivered to seated diners.

    Fried chicken - half bird
    Comprising about half of the entire menu, the irresistible fried chicken comes in half or whole bird options, and also a Larry Bird option which is apparently two whole chickens in pieces.

    Deep fried to a dark brown hue, the various cuts of the half chicken came heavily seasoned but not spicy, making it great mates for Tabasco sauce (from mini Jack Daniels condiment bottles) and a schooner or three.

    Each part of the chicken was impressively juicy inside, even the boneless breast piece and while the coating wasn't super crunchy, it was lifted with a squeeze of lime out of one of our drinks. Napkins were entirely necessary, even if you had to get them yourself from a pile near the kitchen.

    Mary's Burger with hand cut chips
    A short but noticeable time later, plastic baskets arrived with our burger and fried potato options. Unwrapping the burger from its paper wrap, the soft, glossy-sheened bun was the first surprise – like an Asian bakery bun but not as sweet.

    The Mary’s Burger has cheese, lettuce, tomato and a special sauce – not unlike a famous fast food chain’s signature burger, even in taste. The meat pattie is on the thin side and was slightly taken over by the creamy ‘special sauce’.

    Burgers come with the option of fries or hand cut chips; the latter of which are thicker, skin-on chips just the way I like.

    Shroom burger with fries
    I opted for the vegetarian Shroom burger which came unexpectedly as a single, slippery, juicy, buttery, grilled field mushroom in place of a pattie.

    It was certainly not the lesser vego option, with some great flavour encased in the shiny bun, also with lettuce and ‘special sauce’. The super salty fries can be toned down with lashings of Heinz tomato ketchup.

    I'm yet to try the Cheeseburger, add-on 'trashcan bacon' or the Mash & Gravy, but this is no light eating – come prepared for, essentially, fast food done better, with booze in a space full of character (and I don't mean Ronald).

    Aside from some delays in food (which can probably be put down to the venue's early days), the too-cool-but-still-friendly vibe, concentrated menu and the amazing space at Mary’s is on the money, making it the place to be at the moment. And everywhere that Mary went, the sheep were sure to go.

    Mary's on Urbanspoon

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    Change is afoot in Sydney's notorious Kings Cross. The strip joints are probably staying, as too the night clubs, but developments at the old Bourbon and Beefsteak are seeing the beginnings of a transformation for the beloved "seedy end of town".

    It starts with the newly and grandly renovated New Orleans-inspired restaurant, The Bourbon by C.Inc Hospitality, which also own Cruise Bar and Coogee Bay Hotel. The kitchen is helmed by ex Becasse and Etch head chef James Metcalfe, who brings his fine dining background into new light at the more casual venue.

    Pacific oysters, natural
    While there are ambitious plans for the neighbouring club, basement bar, and a rooftop bar and restaurant, for now it's all about having fun with modern twists to New Orleans cuisine - of which I have limited experience although the city is in my top two list for US destinations I want to visit.

    We started on a platter of Pacific and Sydney rock oysters in three different styles. Although I wished it were my preferred Sydney rocks served natural, the freshly shucked Pacifics were fresh and more than passable.

    Rock oysters, Bloody Mary granita
    Next up, I could taste the Sydney rocks through the icy tomato-based Bloody Mary granita which is a genius idea that peaks with a Tabasco sauce kick.

    Deep fried oysters d'jour with Rockefeller mayo
    Lastly, the crumbed and fried oysters were topped with a herb mayonnaise in recognition of the amusingly named oysters Rockefeller. The green sauce was a great partner (and distraction) to the unfortunately overcooked oysters.

    Inside The Bourbon, Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross
    There's a cocktail list with The Bourbon 'signatures' (not bourbon cocktails though) and classics of which the negroni goes down a treat.

    More interesting, though, is the range of beers of which there'll be a healthy range of US beers, including a couple from New Orleans.

    (Note: the dishes below were part of a special tasting and are not the sizes served on the normal menu.)

    Hiramasa kingfish ceviche, citrus, radish
    Ceviche has definitely taken over as one of Sydney's most popular dishes, and with good reason.

    The Bourbon presents its ceviche as thin slices of delicate hiramasa kingfish with a balanced citrus dressing, radish matchsticks, coriander and fresh red chilli with some bite to it. It was a beautiful dish that really kickstarted the palate.

    Melon and ham - watermelon, serrano, mint, chilli, white pepper vinegar
    The serrano ham wrapped watermelon triangles were quite the surprising dish. Prosciutto and rockmelon are beaten convincingly with this combination, and I don't know if it was the pairing with the juicy, sweet watermelon but this was some of the best cured ham I've had.

    More red chilli and mint gave great colour and a different kicker to every bite with the unexpectedly well-matched vinegar dressing.

    Gumbo - spicy duck broth, smoked sausage, red chilli, coriander
    The pretty sample of gumbo was quite possibly my first taste of the quintessentially Louisianan soup.

    A little fancy with a duck consomme, the soup featured okra, baby corn, red chilli, Spanish onion, coriander and a house-made smoked sausage. The gumbo was undeniably spicy, nose-snifflingly so, but with a great depth of full flavours.

    Clam and corn chowder - little neck clams, corn, bacon
    I was particularly excited to try the clam chowder; a thick soup that I can't see/read/think of without referencing The Simpsons.

    The Bourbon's version featured just-cooked little neck clams, sweet pops of corn kernels and thick-cut cubes of bacon which imparted a fantastic salty smokiness throughout the creamy soup. The chowder was like a warm, comforting hug that's perfect for the upcoming cooler weather.

    Classic Cobb salad - soft boiled egg, chicken wings, avocado, tomato, crispy bacon,
    watercress, Bellingham Blue cheese, pickled shallots
    Quite possibly the most un-salad-like salads I've ever seen, The Bourbon certainly has taken a modern take on the classic American Cobb salad. While all the key components are there, there was more than a hint of the kitchen's fine dining origins in its plating.

    The crisp perfection that was the bacon with the boiled egg gave it a breakfast air, while the blue cheese, cos lettuce, tomato, avocado and watercress returned it to firmly salad ground. The deboned fried chicken wing was the point of differentiation and excellence.

    Grilled jumbo shrimp, Creole butter, spiced salt
    It's prawns like these that quell any thoughts of lobster from my mind; indeed, they are mini lobsters. Split in half and absolutely drowned in a spiced Creole butter before grilling, the "jumbo shrimp" was seafood and spice at its best - with a liberal helping of butter and lime, that is.

    Jambalaya - spiced risotto, shrimp, chilli, lime, bacon, smoked sausage, watercress
    Again putting seafood and spice together was the very Creole jambalaya; a must-have dish where New Orleans is concerned.

    A filling main dish option, also quite spicy, jambalaya is like a paella or risotto, featuring chilli, bacon and more of that excellent smoked sausage, topped with prawns and watercress.

    Glazed beef rib - four hours slow cooked
    As part of the mains options, The Bourbon also offers a selection from the rotisserie of which the sweet glazed beef short rib is a crowd-pleaser.

    Slow cooked for four hours, the beef was full of flavour and softened tendons, served with mashed potato, deep fried kale and its cleaned bone.

    Fried green tomatoes, buttermilk dressing
    I'm pretty sure I clapped my hands in delight when the fried green tomatoes arrived, as the movie of the same title has stuck with me since the early 1990s.

    Unsure of what to expect, these golden crumbed wheels of unripe, green tomatoes were surprisingly sweet inside their crunchy coating, with the creamy buttermilk dressing adding just the right amount of richness to the tomato's acidity.

    Lime cheesecake - jelly, crumbs, cheese, coriander; and
    Pecan Tart (back, right) - burnt bourbon, vanilla chantilly
    There are a number of particularly enticing desserts on The Bourbon's menu, especially those with US origins. The lime cheesecake was a deconstructed version with tart lime jelly and cheese mix, biscuit crumbs, crispy meringues and an atypical sprig of coriander.

    Much more traditional was the pecan tart which was served as a chewy and caramelly sliced portion with a desirable tart shell.

    S'mores - biscuit, vanilla ice cream, chocolate, toasted marshmallow; and
    Beignet (right) - peppered stawberries, caramel, whipped cream
    I was most excited for my first taste of S'mores: that most unhealthy but delightful-sounding medley of roasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched within a 'graham cracker' of which I'm not sure are are widely available in Australia.

    The Bourbon ups the ante on the S'more, pushing it into restaurant dessert territory with vanilla ice cream and house made oat biscuits instead of graham crackers, covered in chocolate and topped with torched vanilla marshmallow. I'm not sure how purists will feel about it but I certainly approve.

    The deep fried round beignet of dough with a caramel sauce was surprisingly my favourite of the dessert plate; perhaps for its warmth and relatively reserved sweetness.

    Thoroughly full and Americanised, we managed a quick chat with head chef Metcalfe who's enviably off to New Orleans shortly for research purposes. I think he's done exceptionally well with the general theme he's been given, with the large menu filled with many familiar references to US dishes that most in Sydney would not have tried before.

    While change in Kings Cross will be a longer-term issue, The Bourbon definitely marks a a change in thinking in the area that can only be a good thing.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of The Bourbon, with thanks to Agency G.

    The Bourbon on Urbanspoon

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    This is the final post on my Singapore tripof latelastyear. After days of feasts of celebration, chilli crab, fine dining and more, as part of a large group we made a beeline to a locals' favourite outdoor food centre in the Newton area.

    Newton Food Centre, also known as Newton Circus, offers extensive under cover seating and row upon row of hawker stalls, all plying their specialty fare.

    Food stalls at Newton Food Centre, Newton, Singapore
    It was a relatively cool, rainy night which may have deterred the usual crowds so we had no trouble finding a table for our large group and subsequently cover it with impossible amounts of food.

    Food centres in Singapore tend to be filled with hawker-style stalls that specialise in a particular type of cuisine, much of it Singaporean and/or Malaysian.

    Cage of crabs on display
    As per Malaysian hawkerstalls, you order food at a stall - or indeed, a number of stalls - then give them your table number (which you should 'bags' or reserve first before wandering off to order food), wait for the food to be delivered to you at which point you pay for it (cash only). It's not exactly a logical system to the Westernised diner but it seems to work quite seamlessly.

    We had three separate groups disperse to make food orders and on return, it appeared double orders and eyes bigger than stomachs had completely filled our table with plastic plates of food - I'm not sure I've ever seen so much food outside of a buffet, and certainly not all on plastic plates.

    There was a rush on the cockles when they arrived, simply boiled and served with a kumquat or kalamansi lime like citrus fruit.

    This is definitely hands-on food, with a trick to opening the quite pretty, small, textured shells: give the hinge-end of the shells a squeeze, pinched between two fingers. The shells seem to magically spring open, and the sea-sweet, just chewy cockle meat can be picked out easily with a toothpick.

    Deep fried baby squid
    I'd never seen baby squid before, let alone baby squid deep fried to a crunch and covered in a caramelly sweet sauce. Their crispness gave them an air of snack food crisps and they were downright delightful and odd.

    Oyster omelette
    There's something mysterious about the oyster omelette; quite possibly in relation to the source of the oysters. Freezer, jar or shell, it doesn't matter all that much as it's about the texture within the golden cooked egg which covers most of the soft, squishy molluscs, while the tart, spicy sauce is the dominant flavour.

    Char kway kak - radish cake
    Also cooked with egg was the char kway kak radish cake dish: wok fried and diced pieces tossed to a near scrappy but deliciously moreish pile.

    Grilled chicken wings
    Simply but perfectly executed were the grilled chicken wings: sticky and tanned brown on the outside - easily making the skin the best part - with meat full of spiced, marinated flavour.

    We thought we'd add a rojak fruit and vegetable salad to up the nutrient count of the meal, and did it ever in a huge serving size.

    Apple, cucumber, pineapple and fried tofu all came slathered thick in dark, sweet sauce pungent with belacan shrimp paste and a hint of chilli, garnished with thin, dried squid or cuttlefish ribbons.

    Hokkien mee
    The plainest dish on the table of almost 20 plates was easily the Hokkien mee: soft Hokkien noodles in a simple sauce flavoured with soy, tossed with bean sprouts and a couple of prawns, and with a fiery sambal chilli on the side. This was pure comfort after quite the evening's gorging on big flavours and exotic food.

    But while Singapore does have the exotic, it's the simple stuff that's most pleasing and the source of most cravings. Fine dining would struggle to challenge a good Hainan chicken rice in satisfaction and comfort, but Singapore certainly makes the best of both worlds.

    So long, Singapore, I look forward to returning for the cheap-as-chips chicken rice, balmy nights on rooftop bars, more chilli crab and a Singapore Sling.

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  • 05/07/13--15:42: 'Open table' at Mahjong Room
  • Posted by Jan

    Having spent many years during university learning and playing the addictive Chinese tile game of mahjong, I had always been curious about Mahjong Room in Surry Hills, which has been serving Cantonese food on traditional wooden, square-topped mahjong tables since 2002.

    Mahjong Room, Crown Street, Surry Hills

    Owner William Hui and his chef aunt
    Owner William Hui has created a beautiful restaurant decorated with touches of bygone years throughout the venue's period decor, inspired by his home in Hong Kong where the clacking of mahjong tiles could be heard throughout the day.

    Traditional laneway dining
    The restaurant's own laneway setting has even been featured in the movie 'Mao's Last Dancer' .

    Table setting
    Along with the novel setting and charming period Chinese theming, Mahjong Room offers diners the opportunity to play a game or two; whether you're a seasoned player or a newbie who might need a quick lesson from the restaurant's waiters.

    Mahjong Room recently introduced a new "Open Rice, Open Table" menu designed for sharing, grazing or to be eaten with a game of mahjong. "Open Rice" means to start a meal in Cantonese and "Open Table" translates as opening up a table for a game of mahjong.

    Pan fried pork and cabbage dumplings
    The meal started with golden-bottomed pork and cabbage dumplings; pan-fried to a perfectly crisp surface and still juicy within.

    So full of flavour they didn't even really need any of the condiments provided, but the chilli oil proved to be my favourite ahead of the chilli vinegar and chilli sauce.

    Steamed garlic chive dumplings
    Next were some excellent steamed garlic chive dumplings with springy, translucent skins. Garlic chives can be overpoweringly garlicky sometimes in a delicate filling, but these were appropriately balanced and mild.

    Prawn and pork siu mai
    The steamed siu mai of chopped prawn and pork were wrapped in the classic yellow wonton wrapper. The goji berry garnish didn't really add to the overall flavour, not that this juicy morsel needed it.

    Deep fried prawn and chicken wontons
    I don't usually order deep fried dumplings when I go to yum cha, but the crisp wrappers of the deep fried prawn and chicken wontons weren't greasy and contrasted well with the steaming hot, minced filling and chilli dipping sauce.

    Vegetarian fried noodles
    Mahjong Room also offers daily specials (check the blackboard or ask a waiter). The fried noodles with assorted vegetables and soy sauce reminded me of fried noodles from the hawker stalls in Malaysia.

    Xiao long bao
    Xiao long bao were little dumpling buns of minced pork and a gelatin that melts when the dumplings are steamed, resulting in a lovely broth encased inside, ready to burst forth when bitten into.

    Post feasting it's time to open tables - mahjong lessons with dim sum and street food are available every Friday and Saturday lunchtime, so bring enough 'legs' (fellow players, that is) and 'open table'.

    Private dining room decorated in 1960s Cantonese style
    The Open Rice, Open Table menu will be available at Mahjong Room from 11.30am to 3.30pm every Friday and Saturday from April. The restaurant will be open as normal for dinner Monday to Saturday.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Mahjong Room.

    Mahjong Room on Urbanspoon

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    It's a rare suburb in Sydney that doesn't have a Thai restaurant and takeaway these days. The big flavours of Thai cuisine have captured the local palate and assimilated into a Sydney identity of their own.

    The Spice I Am group of restaurants is one of the city's trailblazers, along with Chat Thai, both of which have carved out respective titles among Sydney's many Thai restaurants with multiple venues.

    Golden Siam cocktail at Spice I Am, Darling Street, Balmain
    My first experience at the Surry Hills Spice I Am many, many years ago was a sweat-dripping feast of laughs and BYO beers. Since then their Balmain and Darlinghurst restaurants have both lifted the bar on dining experience while seeming to drop the heat factor for the chilli-shy masses.

    Indeed, there's even a tempting Thai ingredient-inspired cocktail list at the Balmain outlet, including the tropically sophisticated Golden Siam with dark rum and amaretto, shaken into a fizz and hidden well by a trio of pineapple, guava and lime juices.

    Mini curry puffs
    With Singha and Tiger beer by the bottle too, we nibbled on that classic Australian starter: the curry puff (of which I have a great story and recipe to share at some later date).

    They're not kidding at Spice I Am when they say mini curry puffs either - these were adorably cute, one or two-bite morsels of golden pastry filled with a lightly curried filling with plenty of potato.

    Bour tod - deep fried prawn betel leaf
    My professed love of fresh miang betel leaves was was chucked into the deep fry with the bour tod starter. Somehow, a prawn manages to stick to the surface of the deep fried Phuket style crispy betel leaf - like a surfer on a really thin and crunchy green surfboard.

    Served with a drizzle of a sweet chiili sauce, crushed cashew nuts, red chilli and coriander leaves, this oily innovation just made me crave a fresh betel leaf package even more.

    Mini pork satay
    More familiar was the pork satay with tender, charred lean pork, skewered and also served in a mini size. I could polish off plates of this with sticky rice, hot weather and a few beers.

    Yum hua plee - banana flower slad with king prawns and chicken
    To the larger dishes we started with a salad of shredded banana flower: a uniquely Thai ingredient that's leafy textured and great with spice and sourness.

    Topped with both deep fried king prawns, the slivers of banana flower were mixed with shredded chicken breast and a seriously hot combination of roasted coconut, shallots and a nam prik pao dressing with plenty of chilli.

    Homok - steamed fish curry in banana leaf
    I had wanted the homok fish curry, steamed and formed in banana leaf, to be like Malaysian otak otak. It was similar, a Phuket-style basa fish fillet minced with curry and betel leaf, although without the char goodness and the intricate spice blend, but again, it was pretty darn hot on the tongue.

    At this point, the beer bottles were starting to gather on the table, with water refills coming thick and fast.

    Pad prik khing - crispy pork belly
    I think the phrase "crispy pork belly" has become one of those triggers for Sydney diners that gets an immediate reaction and/or order.

    It worked with us, sending a red curry paste stir-fried pork belly dish with green beans, chilli and kaffir lime leaves our way. This time, the crackling skin on the pork went some way in distracting us from the searing curry and chilli heat, though I wished there were more beans in the dish.

    Prawn red curry
    There's nothing quite as disconcertingly comforting as a heat-packed Thai curry with loads and loads of steamed rice.

    The prawn red curry was fairly generously sized with large, well-cooked, tail-on prawns, and Thai eggplants and slightly bitter pea eggplants which are not always common in takeaway Thai food.

    Mango sticky rice
    While desserts aren't generally my thing, I make an exception when my tastebuds are calling for soothing help and there is beautiful, seasonal mango on offer (this visit was from late 2012).

    Thai restaurants seem to have a knack for sourcing the best local mangoes for their sticky rice desserts - this one featuring an appropriately petite pile of pandan-scented sticky rice - hands down my favourite Thai dessert.

    BTS (Better than Sex)
    The heavier, signature Spice I Am BTS dessert - well known through their House restaurant in Surry Hills - was a hot mess but not a contender for me.

    No doubt, the pandan gelato was perfection but I found the toasted brioche and "Thai caramel sauce" altogether too rich and too sweet to stomach, especially after the explosive flavours of dinner.

    Spice I Am Balmain isn't your standard suburban Thai takeaway: it is Balmain afterall, and with seductive cocktails and desserts on offer, I don't think anyone is complaining about the explosion of Thai food across Sydney's palates.

    Spice I Am @ Balmain on Urbanspoon

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    On the brink of winter months in Sydney, an elegant 12-course autumn tasting menu at Circular Quay's Japanese fine diner, Ocean Room, is a perfect way to celebrate the very probable end of stocking-less legs and beanie-less heads.

    Seated near the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, the view never gets old, even for a local - there's something romantically patriotic about dining on glistening Sydney harbour with the Opera House in full view.

    Ocean Room martini from Ocean Room, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay
    In addition to head chef Raita Noda's autumn tasting menu, Ocean Room has recently installed a new bar menu chock-full of cocktails featuring Japanese ingredients and modern twists on classics. And if you needed more encouragement, they offer 2-for-1 cocktail specials from 6pm to 7pm nightly.

    I started with the Ocean Room martini (technically a vesper) featuring gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc and three condiments in the form of house-made spherified liquid-filled balls.

    The cocktail itself wasn't a face-slappingly strong rendition, but went down well with the sweet yuzu lemon and pink grapefruit spheres while the Sicilian green olive sphere seemed a little diluted and artificial in flavour.

    Kaki - freshly shucked Sydney rock oyster, Guinness, myoga, Yamazaki silk
    It was a delight to start the meal with beautiful specimens of freshly-shucked Sydney rock oysters, of which I could have easily eaten a dozen on their lonesome.

    However, Ocean Room’s additions and garnishes made it a genuinely special starter, fancied-up with a Guinness stout dressing, myoga pickled young ginger and a gold-flecked ‘Yamazaki silk’ jelly sheet, subtly flavoured with, presumably, Japanese Yamazaki whisky.

    Ochazuke - cold-drip dashi & premium gyokuro green tea, Koshihikari rice crust, flame seared latchet, umeboshi sorbet, wasabi dust
    As part of the 12 courses I was treated to my first ever taste of ochazuke, which is quite the traditional Japanese dish of rice with green tea or dashi stock poured over the top; like a deconstructed congee.

    Ocean Room’s modern, chilled version featured crisp, puffed Koshihikari rice (the best quality rice for sushi making) rather than the steamed/boiled variety, with a combination of cold-drip dashi stock and premium gyokuro green tea poured at the table.

    Toppings for the dish included just-seared pieces of fresh latchet, a sorbet of salty umeboshi pickled plum and shallot thins, while the two-part iced vessel was rimmed with a green wasabi dust that added bite.

    In all, I think ochazuke is a dish that needs getting used to: the cold temperature of the dish, the liquid and various textures, and the slight bitterness to the green tea were all very new and surprising to my palate.

    Maguro - Yellow fin tuna, Sicilian green olive & buffalo mozzarella drops, crystallised yuzu, soy pearls, tomato chips
    Spherified ingredients made another appearance in the maguro tuna dish where the green olive sphere was spot on in flavour, as too the buffalo mozzarella one.

    The spheres were more of an amusing diversion from the main game of the tuna which was served diced like a tartare with an array of condiments to add as you pleased, along with thin wheels of dehydrated tomato 'chips' acting as a cracker for the tuna.

    Shinjo - house-made croquette, tiger prawn & calamari, yuba angel hair
    Warm dishes started with the excellently executed and unusually pretty Shinjo croquette of prawn and calamari. In a frilly costume of yuba tofu skin strips, the croquette was deep fried to a golden flaking brown to contrast with the bouncy-textured seafood balls.

    With such a memorable appearance and texture complementing the seafood flavours, this was easily one of my favourite dishes of the tasting menu.

    Onsen - autumn vegetable collection, yaki-onigiri, black shichimi,
    house made anchovy & garlic bath
    I adored the concept of the Onsen dish which translates from Japanese as 'hot spring'. A selection of vegetables and a miniature yaki onigiri grilled rice ball were laid around a tealight candle-heated oil bath of anchovy and garlic, ready for a warm dip.

    Basically an Italian bagna cauda, the fresh and crisp vegetables were an absolute delight and the hands-on manner of eating mixed up the tasting menu with an element of fun.

    Sashimi - daily recommendation, seasonal sashimi selection
    We played tabletop Tetris to fit the long individual sashimi platters onto the round group table, with each variety of raw fish looking supremely fresh and enticing.

    Firm hairtail came in a bamboo container, served diced with shallots and ginger, while bar cod sashimi with slivers of shiso leaf was a first for me.

    And then there was chu-toro medium fatty tuna (although I'm sure we were all hoping for otoro), black kingfish with minced garlic and dainty shallots, and Tasmanian ocean trout with pearls of roe.

    Shabu2 - wagyu beef, grilled tofu, seasonal mixed vegetables,
    dashi consomme, lime chilli soy
    Shabu-shabu is a sure winter winner of thinly sliced wagyu beef, cooked lightly in the hot dashi consommé it's served in.

    This was comfort in a bowl with exceptional flavours in the broth flavouring the delicate grilled tofu and an array of seasonal vegetables; while the lime chilli soy sauce ably lifted the flavours from the rich, tender wagyu beef slices.

    Miso cod - signature grilled sweet miso cod fillet, ginger risotto, orange miso
    It seems every modern Japanese eatery can’t help but do their own versions of miso cod; a dish made famous at the Nobu chain of high-end Japanese restaurants.

    Also a signature at Ocean Room, the small cod fillet was perfectly coloured and flavoured with a sweet miso paste and then char grilled to a firmly flaking texture with the caramelised surfaces being the ultimate highlight.

    The ginger-scented risotto was a gorgeously appropriate accompaniment; bulking up a light but luxurious dish, while the squiggles of orange miso sauce seemed somewhat superfluous with the perfectly cooked fish.

    Butabara - simmered pork belly, melting tofu, yuzu chilli ponzu
    A cellophane-wrapped ‘gift’ arrived as the next course, served with a test tube of yuzu chilli ponzu sauce. The clear package was cut open at the table to reveal a fragrant, soupy pork belly dish with a block of silken tofu, mushrooms, carrot and cabbage in a creamy, white broth.

    It was impossible to stop after the first mouthful: the full-flavoured tonkotsu-like pork bone broth and fatty pork belly were perfect for wintry weather while the tofu, vegetables and tangy ponzu sauce lightened the load of porkiness.

    Sansui - wagyu flat iron steak, Tasmanian pepper jus, quinoa crusted king prawn, Americaine cream, agedashi taro potato
    I had reached exploding point at this tenth course; probably one of the heavier ones too featuring a luxe Japanese take on surf and turf. I was drawn to the large quinoa crusted king prawn, deep fried to a seductively golden hue although the quinoa grains were a little hard rather than crunchy.

    The wagyu flank steak was a bit more of a challenge to a (over)full stomach. With a bit of chew, the flank was full-flavoured with buttery wagyu richness paired with a unique taro potato, shaped and deep fried like a potato gem.

    Edo-mae sushi - three authentic Tokyo style nigiri sushi, chef’s daily recommendation
    The savoury courses ended with sushi, which is typically meant to fill up the stomach at the end - a task completed on me a few courses ago.

    Ocean Room do a petite Edo-Mae style nigiri sushi which I learnt about on a previous visit. The rice plays an important part in the delicate sushi while the daily fish selection included tuna, salmon and imperador – the latter of which I would describe as a sweeter, firmer white fish than kingfish.

    Amaguri - Amaguri chestnut mont blanc, green tea angel cake, spiced ice cream, chestnut puree, cognac persimmon
    While the entire degustation was undeniably seasonal, dessert was autumn on a plate. A mont blanc featuring my favourite chestnuts - very much in season in Sydney's autumn - sat alongside a wedge of brightly-hued persimmon lightly soaked in cognac.

    It was a subtle and not-too-sweet pairing with a Japanese touch in the green tea angel cake enclosed within the nutty threads of the mont blanc.

    Twelve exquisite courses (with that winning view) for $120 is serious value at this fine end of town. Chef Noda's autumn tasting menu has redefined the idea that Japanese cuisine isn't warming, comforting, cool-weather food - and it's one that will probably have diners falling over themselves to try in the cooler months.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Ocean Room, with thanks to Wasamedia.

    Ocean Room on Urbanspoon

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    Even though there's now a chill in the air, Sydney is ablaze with outdoor festivals: among two of them, Vivid Sydney which starts on Friday and Pyrmont Festival of Wine, Food and Art, which kicked off last weekend beneath glorious blue skies.

    Celebrating wine, food and art from Pyrmont and the Mudgee region, the festival runs through to this weekend too with wine and food matched meals, and art and photography exhibitions.

    The view from Ripples Sydney Wharf, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
    Last Saturday I was treated to a sunny waterside lunch at Ripples Sydney Wharf with Mudgee’s Burnbrae Wines matched to a three-course lunch featuring John Susman’s Kinkawooka mussels and Pepe Saya’s cultured butter.

    With Burnbrae offering wine tastings ahead of the meal, I could taste two whites, a rose and three reds before electing what to have with my lunch. I rather liked being tasked with matching my own wine and food, though with the delicious drops on offer, it would have been hard to go wrong.

    Burnbrae Wines tasting at Ripples Sydney Wharf
    Burnbrae's 2012 Pinot Gris was a people-pleaser - much richer in colour than your normal pinot gris with subtle pear characteristics. Meanwhile, their lightly French-oaked 2011 Chardonnay was one that would turn anyone into a 'cardonnay' drinker - perfectly balanced with minimal acidity or oakiness.

    The 2012 Rose was aromatic with notes of strawberry and boiled lollies, and almost tasted the part too. Burnbrae's 2011 Shiraz Viognier was just how I like a shiraz, big and fruity while the 4% Viognier content is meant to give the wine intense colour and length of flavour.

    Burnbrae’s famed 2008 Clive Gale is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot - the latter grape of which I'm not too familiar with although it was a distinctly chalky cabernet merlot on the palate.

    Bread rolls and Pepe Saya cultured butter
    After wine tastings with Trine Gay, general manager of Burnbrae Wines, we happily tore into warm bread rolls and foil-wrapped pats of Pepe Saya cultured butter.

    I remember the first fantastical time I tried this wondrous churned butter and it was every bit as good this time, best served as an even butter to bread ratio.

    Crispy tempura prawns with lemon & parsley mayonnaise
    There was a seafood bias in the selection of three entreés, which was more than fair given the waterside setting.

    The tail-on tempura prawns were indeed crisply battered as advertised, with five fresh, springy specimens to mop up the creamy and sprightly lemon and parsley mayonnaise. We successfully matched the Burnbrae 2011 Chardonnay to this summery option.

    Custom Kinkawooka mussels pot and Pepe Saya cultured butter
    There was no way I was going past the Kinkawooka mussels entreé, served in a custom branded pot and lid designed for shell discards with Pepe Saya butter and toast on the side.

    In what's been a very successful partnership between John Susman (for South Australia's Kinkawooka) and Pierre Issa (Tempe's own Pepe Saya), the two brands together are becoming a signature for mussel dishes in Australia.

    Kinkawooka mussels in white wine & cream finished with Pepe Saya butter & crusty bread
    The kitchen at Ripples Sydney Wharf had the plump molluscs just cooked with cream, white wine and parsley - the mussels themselves tender perfection in the light, very-drinkable sauce while heavily buttered toast was an ideal mop for all the juices alongside a glass of the Burnbrae 2012 Pinot Gris.

    The kitchen pass

    Pan seared snapper with steamed Kinkawooka mussels, leek & herb
    spaghettini and Pepe Saya butter
    Kinkawooka and Pepa Saya also featured in a main offering of pan seared snapper - a generous, pink skin-on portion of the firm fish balanced on a tangle of leek and herb spaghettini which was al dente and pleasingly green in flavour.

    The steamed mussels added needed flavour to the subtle sauce of white wine and butter while the Burnbrae 2012 Rose was an interesting wine match.

    Char-grilled scotch fillet with potato & horseradish dauphinoise,
    roasted truss cherry tomato & red wine jus
    It was steak and the Burnbrae 2011 Shiraz Viognier for my main meal, with the wine's big fruitiness pairing well with the tender, full-flavoured medium-rare scotch fillet, doused with rich red wine jus and less interesting vegetable sides.

    Warm bread & Pepe Saya butter pudding with vanilla ice cream
    Remnants of the sweet Burnbrae Rose matched nicely with desserts: an artfully neat bread and Pepe Saya butter pudding that had great flavours but a little on the dry side, helped along with vanilla ice cream sitting on a gingery biscuit crumble trail.

    Apple crumble cheesecake with apple jelly
    I hoed into my individual portion jelly-like apple crumble cheesecake, topped with an ingenious apple jelly and biscuit crumble on both the top and bottom.

    Basking in the autumn sun after lunch, Burnbrae (with my 'raffle girl' assistance) also drew a prize for a stay at the winery’s colonial-style cottage; five minutes out of Mudgee township and  five kilometres along Hill End Road.

    Unfortunately, I didn't draw my own name out of there but it seems I've drawn the autumn/winter festival spirit out of me.

    This Saturday 25 May's Mudgee wine lunch at Ripples Sydney Wharf, as part of Pyrmont Festival, features produce from Pastabilities and wines from Robert Stein. More details here.

    Food, booze and shoes attended the Burnbrae Wines lunch as a guest, with thanks to RF Media.

    Ripples Sydney Wharf on Urbanspoon

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    For a lot of Australians, coffee’s not just an eyelid-lifter – it’s a way of life. Coffee culture differs between states, and even suburbs, so The Australian Coffee Guide 2013– featuring reviews and ratings from all over the country – is a handy travel companion for coffee connoisseurs in the Australian “bean scene”.

    The Australian Coffee Guide 2013
    (Image courtesy of Piccolo PR)
    The Australian Coffee Guide 2013 founders, Izaac Trpeski and Megan Rullis, embarked on a pilgrimage around Australia to identify 100 of the best coffees in the country, included in the guide using an evaluative grading system.

    Cafés that appear in the guide have been selected based on their coffees' body, crème, aroma, acidity, temperature, roasting and subtle nuances, with food, atmosphere and ambience omitted.

    “We appreciate people have competing coffee preferences," says Rullis. "Some opt for a mild taste, others prefer an acidic kick. Our guide uses a consistent judging method for individuals to source a coffee that’s right for them”.

    Win one of three copies of The Australian Coffee Guide 2013 

    Food, Booze and Shoes is giving away three copies of The Australian Coffee Guide 2013, with thanks to Piccolo PR.

    To win, simply email foodboozeshoes @ with your answer to the question below (please include your mailing address – note: this will only be used for the purpose of sending prizes to winners):

    “What is the best coffee experience you’ve ever had?” 

    Giveaway entries must be received by 9.00pm AEST on Sunday, 2 June 2013. Winners will be selected based on the most interesting, passionate answers and will be announced on Monday, 3 June 2013 here and on Twitter. Giveaway open to Australian addresses only.

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