All posts by Keira O'Brien

Meanderings about food, wine, people and places. I'm a 30 something winemaker and wine educator, food writer in hiatus, music lover and changemaker living in Hobart. Via Brisbane and North East Victoria. Also, I really like toast.

Talk About The Blues

mojo vague

Some say that with all the urban renewal and cafes, Brisbane’s lost its soul. Then there’s those who view Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s greatest gift to the city as the period of oppression that led to an artistic and musical underground movement which gave birth to bands like The Saints, The Hard Ons, The Survivors and The Go Betweens. But even the biggest music fans of that era now have mortgages, kids and careers, left with foggy memories and songs to sing along to as they drive from board meetings to rugby training to the automatic gates of their suburban home. I sometimes wonder if the irony of singing along to punk tales of disenfranchisement is lost on them.

Resistant to the suburbs and childless, I find myself with a ticket to a festival in the Valley on a Saturday night at a venue I’m not familiar with. It turns out none of us know the address printed on our tickets for the Queensland Festival of Blues.

The venue is an old picture theatre, at the end of town otherwise populated by strip clubs, drunks and meth heads. It was a live music venue a few years back, before being shuttered for reasons which are now unclear. Its just been given a lick and and a polish and this is the first gig under its new custodians. A mate who runs a shop up the street tells us there was a problem with the venue’s license, some hold up that means they can’t open their bar tonight. It seems improbable. The short walk from dinner at Thai Wi-Rat in the Chinatown mall to the venue is lined with buskers, cheap amps and electric guitars each one, and as we walk Santana, Hendrix and Metallica wail and waft. Anyone can play guitar. SUVs with P plates cruise past, driven by private school kids in Ralph Lauren and improbably deep tans. A couple of drunks sleep sprawled on flattened boxes around a shuttered shopfront door.

We head down the steeply pitched stairs to find that it really is BYO alcohol, for tonight at least. For $3 for our party, the venue will keep our drinks behind the bar and give us some glasses if we want them. The venue’s profits for the night evaporated before they even open the doors. Our Czech beers get the job done, even if we wind up with bits of coloured foil on our lips and in our mouth with each swig we take.

Over the sound of Morningside Fats wrapping up their set, I’m introduced to Harry, a bespectacled, smartly dressed man in his fifties. He’s a fixture at these events who every one seems to know. My friend whispers to me about the underground blues venue Harry runs from his house, a soundproofed subterranean haven from licensing and noise complaints.

On the small makeshift stage to the right of bar, 8 Ball Aitken strides around with a beat up metal body guitar, a bandanna across his forehead and wavy red hair flowing to his waist. With his flaccid cheeks and Celtic looks he seems an unlikely proponent of the blues. But I wonder in Queensland in the year 2013, can anyone truly can have the blues? Almost with out exception everyone here looks well fed, clear eyed and on the surface, well adjusted. There’s Harry again and I notice for the first time that his t-shirt reads “I don’t need sex, I’m getting f*cked by the government every day’. I guess the devil takes forms.

From the confused range of accents and lyrical matter it seems Aitken hails from North Queensland via Nashville. He wraps up his set with the bawdy crowd favourite ‘Outback Booty Call’ a song about ‘a girl with “I love the blues” tattooed somewhere that you’d usually sit down’. Women of a certain age shimmy and shake to the very end as he spruiks by way of song his $25 CD which he guarantees has ‘at least $26 worth of music on it’.

Trucker caps, pork pie hats and flat caps bob and weave as Mojo Webb and his band take the main stage. The sound quality in this part of the venue defies the spartan surrounds. In front of the stage the dance floor begins to fill. Sinewy, leather skinned women with cheap dye jobs and flowing skirts dance to a tune not audible to me, while burly blokes in checked shirts bust a move along with suburban couples having a night on the town. The blues don’t discriminate. The tight trio of guitar, bass and drums is joined later by a white guy with dreds on keys, Dillion James. You can tell by the nods and easy segues that they’ve played together before once or twice. There’s no doubting Mojo plays a mean guitar, but his stray cat howls of siren’s calls and snarls of love gone wrong are what pull you in and under his spell. All original material, in the best blues tradition they’re lyrically either confessionals or pleas for mercy to a lover, God or the devil. Mojo plays gigs at venues widely varied in Brisbane and the US but it’s here amongst the faithful that he’s in his element. His wiry frame and frenetic hands spark and snap with electricity.

Aglow with the elation that comes from being lost for a few hours at a good gig, we emerge from the underground into the warm fug of another Queensland night, and onward to our respectable homes and neighbourhoods.

Don’t Believe The Hype

Heightened expectation met – and exceeded – can be exhilarating.

How much does the opinion of mainstream critics and the din of social media chatter influence your enjoyment of your dinner? Your wine? What you read? What you watch or listen to?

It could be argued that many diners enjoy a restaurant experience simply because they have been hypnotised into believing they should. Eschewing the wise words of Public Enemy, they believe the hype. Hundreds of thousands of food blogs and the publicists that feed them underline this theory. Eager to be seen to be in the know and hooked in to trends, soundbites, pitches and photo opportunities are regularly warmed over, garnished with a watermark and served up as the opinion of an ‘insider’.

But for those of us secure in our own opinions, what happens when a dining experience is instead discordant and awkward? A flaccid fettuicine here, a taste-free burrito there, a cocktail that fails to rock your world. We put it down to experience and move on. Does every meal have to be the pinnacle of deliciousness? No.

The stakes are higher with fine dining and degustation. Hats and hype aside, it’s a setting that creates expectation. For most people, dining in such a rarefied setting is infrequent for a combination of logistical and financial reasons. We harbour aspirations of the good life. We’re dressed up and we’re demonstrating our good taste. We’ve watched a few episodes of Masterchef and we’ve followed the careers of celebrity chefs. We get this. In the relative anonymity of the dining room, we are, for a few hours, King of the World.

Or are we?

I recently dined with friends who have serious credentials in restaurants, food and wine. We were privileged to secure a table at short notice at a restaurant with a reputation for detailed, exciting and vibrant food, excellent service and an amazing wine list.

Here’s what happened next.

I could detail the series of disappointments that composed our evening, except there is no way to explain without (a) revealing the identity of the restaurant (b) sounding like a whining, privileged snob. Regardless of how much my eyes watered as I signed the credit card chit.

Dining out regularly is a privilege and so is writing and sharing your experiences. It’s about informing and respecting the reader, not amplifying PR. Or ranting in a passive aggressive manner in a public forum because you’re writing about a meal you paid for, not one you were comped.

I’d like to see:

  • more good quality writing about food on digital platforms
  • a new wave of food bloggers with knowledge, integrity and transparency
  • an increase in restaurant reviews that convey a sense of the experience, not just a laundry list of dishes and photos

How about you?

Miel Container, Brisbane CBD

MielThere are times when all that will do is a burger. At their best, a good burger is an umami bomb between two halves of a slightly sweet brioche bun. Rare aged beef, sharp cheese, piquant tomato sauce, slivers of pickle, a slice of beefsteak tomato and a slick of tomato ketchup and Dijon mustard. Or maybe you want to Aussie it up with beetroot and a fried egg? Change out the beef for smoky pork belly? Add more salad? Get creative with condiments? Whatever gets your tastebuds going, this city burger cafe has you covered.

Tucked below the awning of a non-descript city office building, Miel is at its core two fire engine red shipping containers back to back. It’s just opened, though there’s no first day at school awkwardness here – smiling service, tasty burgers, beers and a place to sit in the sun while you eat. There’s a few steps to burger bliss – choose from brioche or ciabatta buns made daily for Miel by ex-Chouquette baker Sébastien Pisasale. Next, choose your protein – grass fed beef, chicken, fish or veggie pattie, then salads, cheese, sauce and any extra toppings – like bacon, egg, avocado. Stick to the basics and your grassfeed beef burger with three salad items, cheese and sauce will set you back a wallet friendly $10.50, and that includes chips and aioli. A deadset bargain for good food in the CBD. For the indecisive there’s a menu of five ‘classics’ to choose from – running from beef with the usual to Korean BBQ, Miso Pork Belly, Caprese and Tandoori.

Beers on offer are straightforward commercial brands ranging from XXXX to domestically brewed Asahi (starting at around $6) and there’s San Pellegrino soft drinks to supplement the usual suspects. An expanded range of beers and wine will soon be added. There’s also a selection of snacks like salt and pepper calamari, chilli prawns, onion rings, crumbed flathead, mixed platters and salads if you choose to forgo the burgers.

It’s no real secret that I love a good burger, and after studiously sampling them in many US cities I’m delighted to say that the guys and girls at Miel are onto a winner. Here the burgers are served on a slate with Aussie style chips rather than fries, but the grassfeed beef is tasty and the ingredients are generally good quality without being needlessly gourmet. This is a burger place in a shipping container, after all. Enjoying a good burger is a messy two-handed sauce-on-your-face experience so more sturdy napkins would be welcome.

Of course, its up to you to choose a winning flavour combination to make the beef and buns sing, but you could happily spend many hours sitting on the deck at Miel getting it right. A quality casual dining addition to the CBD that’s sure to be popular.

Miel Container

Premium Handmade Burgers

96 Mary Street (Cnr Albert and Mary), Brisbane City

0423 466 503

Monday to Thursday 11am to 10pm, Friday & Saturday 11am to midnight.

10 William Street, Paddington

10 William StreetIt would be easy enough to walk right past 10 William Street and this part of what I like about it. It’s got a very particular appeal, so when I read a review in a major publication last week I frowned slightly. It’s the kind of place that seeks approval from no-one and doesn’t depend on mass popularity.

I first visited at the urging of a couple of friends in the wine industry, who clearly have me pegged. The next weekend I was back with a clutch of mates, and if I lived closer we’d be up to a couple of dozen visits I’d say. Instead I’m dreaming and scheming about one day opening a place just like it – though it might be less messy (and cheaper) to move to Paddington.

Just off Oxford Street, and over the road from the Paddington Inn, it sits in a row of appealingly shabby terraces, just a little darker and handsome than its neighbours. Look up and there’s chalkboard scrawl on the balcony, it’s a sign. On paper it’s a bar that serves food. Also, it’s Italian, like it’s owners brothers Giovanni and Enrico Paradiso and Marco Ambrosino. But that undersells it.

Italian restaurants are often written about in such a stereotype-ridden, hackneyed way. Writers can fall into the trap of convenient catchalls, portraying ‘Italian’ venues as run by a rosy cheeked mamma and papa with their progeny cooking and serving bucolic and hearty meals brimming with garlic, sugo and olives and washed down with Chianti. The ‘unification’ of Italy is a relatively modern development and it’s food and people are in reality regional, former countries in fact, each with nuances and outright differences. 10 William Street has nothing to do with stereotypes. Forget them.

To begin, there’s a smouldering and attractive insouciance to the service here. In fact, wine aside, the atmosphere can be intoxicating. It’s a small space that doesn’t pretend to be bigger, no architectural trickery. That seat at the bar that looks implausibly small is perfectly adequate and gets you closer to the action. Menu and wine list are scrawled in chalk on a wall and there’s a lengthier wine list bracketed into an appropriate logic if you want to peruse it. Order something by the glass to get started, ask what’s good and let the staff direct your vinous journey from there. Don’t expect to find anything even vaguely mainstream here, rather an idiosyncratic mix of wine imported by the owners and their friends and sake imported by manager, Matt Young, also proprietor of Black Market Sake. There’s wine from some of the more exciting Australian producers too. There was no sneering when a lady beside us asked for Sauvignon Blanc, but rather a deft redirection towards an Italian Chardonnay which drew compliments.

For its undeniable wine focus, the food is by no means the understudy here. It’s as exciting and dynamic as the wine without fighting for attention. PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke’s ‘This Mess We’re In’ rather than and Britney’s ‘Scream and Shout’. A salad of tomatoes, beetroot and burrata and plate of osso bucco with handmade flat pasta studded with bone marrow are the kind of food you revel in, rather than simply eat. Chef Daniel Pepperell now helms the kitchen and with stints at Attica, Oscillate Wildly and Momofuku Ssam Bar there’s a sense that the food is morphing into something shades more daring and inventive, without losing its underlying simplicity.

There’s a quiet magic to the quality of light in this place and it’s as much a feature of the decor as the wine-inspired marker pen scrawlings that meander around the walls and tiled bar, some evidence of late night efforts censored with patches painted over. As the sun dips, the light is low and the mood of the place changes, or is that because we’ve now moved onto a Barolo? You have another bottle you think we should try? Yes please.

Upstairs, there’s a (relatively) larger dining area better suited to dining with a group of friends or with someone you’d like to give your attention to. Downstairs it’s all about losing yourself in the wine, the food and being but a player in the show.

10 William Street Wine Bar and Restaurant

10 William Street, Paddington NSW

Open Monday to Thursday 5pm to midnight, Friday and Saturday midday to midnight.

Phone: 02 9360 3310


Riverbar & Kitchen, Brisbane CBD

Riverbar and Kitchen - photo supplied.
Riverbar and Kitchen – photo supplied.

Riverbar and Kitchen replaced the ill-fated Boardwalk Bar and Bistro late last year. Part of the hospitality conglomerate best known for Aria restaurants in Sydney and Brisbane, it’s a big improvement on Boardwalk in many ways.

Firstly, the nautically inspired decor is charming and fun, and the layout makes much better use of the space without feeling any more crowded. Outside, cheery yellow and white umbrellas, banana plants and shade sails softly delineate the dining area from the sweeping Riparian Plaza boardwalk. Whitewashed veejay boards, pale timber furniture, rope-strung pendant lights and wicker basket hanging plants take the relaxed seaside theme through to the interior. The clutch of grid-packed booth seats inside are the only trade off, looking more like McDonalds circa 1982, but fortunately Ronald McDonald is nowhere to be seen.

Well-groomed staff were engaged and happy to be there on my visit, and signal the benefits of strong systems and training. You order at the bar, but even when busy there’s no queuing and an efficient pace is set.

The menu is static and relatively brief, but manages to appeal with bar food like prawn popcorn with jalapeño mayo, lamb quesadillas, potted salmon served with crisp bread and other simple wine friendly fare. The balance of the menu comprises pizzas, substantial salads and mains. Steak sandwiches, lamb shank pies and flathead with chips and tartare sound like pub food but are smartened up a little here to suit the aspirational diner. While the wine list is a whisper slim offering on the back of the tri-fold menu, it manages to cover the bases without being overtly commercial.  Most wines offered are in the $30 to $50 a bottle range and provide a good price to value ratio. There’s a somewhat anachronistic bent towards NSW wines, which is perhaps a result of the Riverbar’s Sydney based ownership.

It’s an expansive venue, open every day and as such invites a wide range of patronage – city residents and workers on weekdays as well as tourists, suburban day trippers, crowds of boisterous mates and families alike. Inside, noise is cheery but doesn’t hamper conversation. Outside, there’s a breeze and as the sun sets conversations drift out across the boardwalk and Brisbane River.

Riverbar and Kitchen is a good spot for a casual bite and offers a one of the better vantage points to enjoy a drink by the river, though it’s brilliant to see more competition emerging in this category over the last couple of years.

Riverbar and Kitchen
Boardwalk level, 71 Eagle Street
Phone: 07 3211 9020
Mon – Fri 7am to 11:30pm
Sat & Sun 8am to 11:30pm
Bar food & pizzas only after 10pm
No bookings

Clay’s Chicken Parmi

Grief is never far away, but it visits less often now.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and see parts of you in my reflection. Or I just hear Flame Trees or Khe Sanh playing inside my head. I don’t think Cold Chisel and Barnesy ever had a bigger fan than you.

I see a board outside a pub for a counter meal or a parmi and I’m thinking about you again. You always had your finger on the pulse about where the best ‘countery’ could be had.

There’s that excellent Chinese restaurant where I think we last ate together, with Phebe and the kids, that I can’t think about going back to any more. I hear they do fantastic duck pancakes, and think of how how you studied the menu and ordered the oddest thing on it, an unlikely fusion of Spanish and Chinese flavours, just because it sounded strange.

I learnt a lot from you, and you were the man of my dreams as a little girl. When I got older I realised that while you loved your family and your friends, you never held back with an opinion, even if at first it might have upset people. It wasn’t because you were a bastard, it was how you showed you cared. You weren’t always right but I came to admire your conviction and integrity. Even now sometimes when I’m feeling unsure about what to do or what to believe in when things get hard, I wish you were here to tell it to me straight. Maybe over a chocolate eclair at Henri’s.

I feel like I should have called you more often, or hung out more as we got older and our lives became busy and full of work and our own families. But our friendship wasn’t really like that. We could pick it up again whenever we saw one another.

That mischievous giggle, just like your Dad’s, and all the crazy stories of that time you ……………… Everyone who knew you has their own story about you and your crazy capers.

I have to stop myself when tears start to well up as I think about you. Even though I’d love to ask your opinion about the choices I make in my life, and to hear what you think about people, you remind me to enjoy it. Not the big deal fancy stuff, you didn’t care about that. You remind me to enjoy each day, to have better conversations, to be true to my convictions and to have a bloody good laugh along the way.

And even though you thought I was a food snob, your chicken parmis were awesome. I wish I knew the recipe.

The Spaghettihouse Trattoria, West End

I’m always dubious about restaurants with long menus. How can the kitchen possibly cook all of them well? Alarm bells went off as I was handed the menu at The Spaghettihouse Trattoria, a new Italian restaurant on Boundary Street at West End.

A relative newcomer to this restaurant strip, I’d watched the fitout of this place with interest. That they hung their sign while the fitout was still underway signalled that there might be experienced operators behind this place. There’s nothing groundbreakingly or original about Spaghettihouse. As the name suggests, the menu has a strong focus on pasta – with no less than 28 pasta dishes listed on the menu and another 3 or 4 pasta specials scrawled on the gilt framed mirrors that line the narrow dining room. Along with this feast of pasta, there’s some typical trattoria style dishes like fritto misto, veal variously saltimbocca, scalloppine, parmigiana and involtini alla Milanese (stuffed veal bearing spinach and mozzarella and wrapped in pancetta with a marsala cream sauce). Should veal not be your thing, try the pollo alla piccata – that’s chicken Kiev given an Italian accent. By now you’re either hungry or weary. If you’re hungry, then I would commend Spaghettihouse to you.

There’s something about Spaghettihouse that makes you feel a little bit like you’ve entered a time warp. Racks of wine in the windows, raffia-matted pine chairs and European chandeliers. Jazz standards play. Is it Frank Sinatra? And no, that’s not Nat King Cole. Ah, but that is Dean Martin! Sade’s ‘Diamond Life’ is up next, unmistakable as the first track, ‘Smooth Operator’ begins to play. It’s not 1995, but in context, it all seems agreeable enough. There’s no candles in chianti bottles and no red checked table cloths, so a tip of the hat to modernity there, though they’d suit the atmosphere and the style of food. It’s an impressive feat to take a restaurant open for months not years and give it this kind of comfort-worn feeling.

Service here is attentive and charming without being polished or formal. A small troupe of young Italian men in red aprons take care of orders, wine, running plates and peripheral requests. This being West End, there’s a perfectly-audible-at-the-next-table request for a dish to be changed to accommodate the ethics and preferences of a diner. Despite the complexity of the request and the entitled attitude it’s made with, they handle it with aplomb. Back at our own table, when a dish of fried calamari isn’t available due to a technical issue, a substitute dish of grilled fontina with garlic and rosemary served with crusty bread is offered. It’s wickedly good. Service is in the warm and generous vein of Italian hospitality, even if perhaps a combination accents and background noise sometimes lead to a breakdown in communication. Another entrée of eggplant melanzane looks and tastes good, but could have done with a few more minutes under the grill to melt the cheese and colour the eggplant to give it a more pleasing silken texture and sweetness. The tomato sauce its served with is packed with flavour and richness.

It’s worth noting that prices at Spaghettihouse are pretty keen with the most expensive dishes at $26.90, which is for shellfish ‘Pasta Speciale’ dishes. With my ever reliable inclination towards expensive tastes, I opted for the saffron linguine with scampi and a cream seafood bisque. This dish hit all the right notes – just the right amount of garlic, background notes of saffron with the seafood bisque sauce providing plenty of depth of flavour without being rich or cloying. Good value too with three fresh and firm halved scampi arranged atop the nicely al dente linguine. A glass of Soave was a good match for this dish, and there’s a decent selection of Italian, Australian and NZ  red and white wines on offer, as well as some more serious Italian bottles. Each of the Italian wines has a concise and easy to operate tasting note, with prices by the glass starting from $6.50. Wine is served in quality stemless glasses, which suit the casual trattoria feel.

Desserts cleave to the Italian classics of panna cotta, tiramisu and gelato with rather delicious sounding semifreddo of mascarpone, berries and torrone (Italian almond nougat)  for something a little different. Somehow we wound up with a tiramisu being called away and glasses of Averna and limoncello presented by our unfailingly smiley waiter. The tiramisu arrived in a giant martini glass with savoiardi biscuits arranged in a sort of crown around the rim. Retro presentation aside, it tasted good, with plenty of punch from the espresso and Frangelico soaked biscuits.

Spaghettihouse offers the kind of food and hospitality that’s hard not to love. There’s nothing confronting or challenging here, and for this reason I reckon it would be a great place to meet for a family dinner or with the sort of mates who don’t Instagram their food, wine and coffee.

There’s no great heights scaled, but rather a good, solid, bums on seats, plates and glasses full kind of good time vibe to this place.

The Spaghettihouse Trattoria
Shop B, 120 Boundary Street, West End
Phone: 07 3244 4844
Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11:30am – 3pm; 5:30pm – 10pm

Chow House, Fortitude Valley

As a timid and naïve twenty-something, I had the good fortune of stumbling into a somewhat unusual job. I’d spent several years running a large roster of events for an industry association where I met some fascinating people who were generous in sharing their experience and knowledge. Working 70+ hours a week was part of the job, and in my narrow world, this was just what you did in order to have the opportunity to learn. I reached a point where I felt I’d done all there was to do in that role and began to realise that other people my age didn’t work as much as I did. Some quick sums showed my hourly rate to be about equivalent to a junior fast food worker. Time for a change.  A few missteps, and next thing I’d taken this strange job hybrid – one employer, two jobs. Working for as a legal assistant for a lawyer providing tax and estate planning advice to wealthy Asian families as well as doing marketing, accounts, payroll, etc, etc, etc for a restaurant the lawyer, Bill, co-owned with chef Timmy Kemp. There were many ‘etc’s to the job, as anyone who has worked in a restaurant will understand.

Fast forward 10+ years and Timmy Kemp, Thai born, French trained, long time Brisbane resident is the Chef at Chow House. Previously the site of the unremarkable James Street Bistro, the space at the entry to the Palace Cinema has been reborn as a timber and plant enclosed oasis, a casual restaurant serving ‘street food’ inspired dishes and the aromatic slow braises and duck dishes that Timmy is known for.

While I worked with Timmy, I had the privilege of eating her cooking most days. Having never worked in a restaurant before, I was surprised when on my first day, our head waiter Graham phoned my desk to ask if I was ready for him to deliver my lunch. I nervously stuttered back with a positive reply, then my mind  raced – I hadn’t expected this, what would they serve me? Should I tell them I was a vegetarian? No, that would be an insult – telling the chefs I didn’t want their food. Then – a decision. If one of the best chefs in town was going to cook my lunch and there would be meat in it, perhaps I should just eat it. I had no ethical reason for a meatless diet, simply a preference from childhood that had carried on over the years. A Thai quail salad was served, and as is the norm the small bird had been cut into pieces with a cleaver – sweet meat around what felt like knuckles of splintered bone. A somewhat brutal introduction to a more carnivorous way of eating, but just an entrée into the start of what remains an obsession. What I learnt from my time working with Timmy and Bill is the subject of a whole other discussion, suffice to say my time in their employ continues to be a big influence on my interest in food, wine and the business of restaurants.

I took my mum to lunch with me at Chow House. We were going to go somewhere else but they had just opened and weren’t ready to do a Saturday lunch service yet. So we agreed on Chow House. Mum would sometimes come and eat a late lunch with me at Brasserie Indochine, where I worked with Bill and Timmy, and still fondly recalls a dessert special of plums three ways prepared by pastry chef Amanda (surname escapes me) who had also worked at River Café, as had a number of chefs in Timmy’s brigade.

The kitchen is quite separate from the dining area at Chow House, so I was happy to eat there for the first time without any special treatment from Timmy. Mum zeroed in on a dish that featured Timmy’s trademark chilli peanut jam and chilli coriander bread, served to accompany grilled chicken on lemongrass skewers. The chilli peanut jam is here described as satay sauce, but it was reassuringly the same in flavour as the moreish version I’d first tasted all those years ago at Indochine. I may have closed my eyes and lent back in my chair a little as I tasted it, before quickly moving in to beat mum to eating the rest. I chose the prawn served on sugarcane skewers which are much chunkier than the usual mousse-y Vietnamese version that you sometimes find inside a rice paper roll or as part of a vermicelli noodle dish. There’s also a lot more coriander in these. They came with a little glass bearing a  brightly coloured assortment of quick pickled vegetables and both entrees were polished takes on the sort of street food you might find in an Asian city.

I was so entranced by my main that I didn’t even ask to try mum’s salad of coconut poached chicken with green mango, pickled vegetables with a  lime vinaigrette, but I’m not sure she would have shared. My first choice had been the slow braised beef brisket with aromatic spices. There are insufficient words to describe the heavenly scent and complex flavours of Timmy’s slow braised dishes, but on this occasion it wasn’t available. So I went with caramelised pork belly braised in star anise and served with a salad of lychee, orange segments and watercress with pig’s ear. To be honest, faced with needing to make a quick decision, I’d settled on this because I’m kind of addicted to the salty crispness of fried pig’s ears. Good choice. This dish offers the depth of flavour I’ve only ever experienced in Timmy’s slow braised dishes, cut through with the gentle tang and acid of the orange and lychee salad. The generous baton of pork belly had dense, thickly crisped crackling on top and sweet yielding meat below with the fat between rendered to melting. Sadly the wine list doesn’t scale the same heights as the food, and the accompanying glass of Leo Buring Riesling was flabby and bland. There are however better options by the bottle and a decent list of beers too.

Not everyone will love Chow House as much as I did, since for me it represents more than just ‘that new place on James Street’. I’ve always felt that Timmy’s food is a fantastic match for the climate and the way Brisbane diners like to eat. The menu descriptions of her food often underplay the detail and technique borne of her French training. With all dishes under $30 and many small dishes under $15, this is a great place for a snack and a drink or a casual dinner. There’s also a breakfast menu which offers both conventional egg plus protein plus toast options and Asian inspired dishes like black sticky rice pudding, a confit duck omelette and nasi goreng.

Aside from plotting a series of opportunities to reacquaint myself with Timmy’s cooking, I’m pleased to see a format and menu that gives her the opportunity to share her uniquely delicious food with a new audience.

Chow House
39 James Street, Fortitude Valley (Outside Palace Cinema)
07 3852 5155
Open daily from 7am until late, Breakfast from 7am until noon.

Short Order – Places To Eat

As much as I enjoy cooking, there are times when due to exhaustion when I can barely remember my own name, let alone trust myself with sharp knives and naked flames. But everyone needs to eat, and to be frank, if I’m a little stressed then eating is my safe place.

As I live in the CBD, people often remark ‘you must eat out a lot’, and it’s true that I do eat out more often than I did when I lived in the suburbs, though there’s not as many viable options as you might assume. Firstly, you can strike out soul destroying fluoro-lit foodcourts, café chains and 98 % of sushi places. I’m yet to work out a method of navigating those Korean restaurants in Elizabeth Street (guidance welcome) and regular visits to fine dining establishments quickly becomes financially unviable.

So where to go? Here’s a few of my favourite local places to eat.


Everyone needs a place like this. Unpretentious, food is good, staff are low key and wine list is comfortable and well priced. It doesn’t matter if you eat by yourself or with a group, whatever you’re there for, the guys will get it done for you with minimum fuss. The tables are topped with paper and there’s pots of crayons for your entertainment or to sketch out a business deal. Your choice. Simple Italian dishes are what’s on offer here, along with a Italian wine and beer, rounded out a good selection of Australian things.

Start with salty snacks or ‘stuzzichini’: marinated olives, arancini or crisp fried pigs ears with lemon and perhaps a negroni or Aperol spritz. Then it’s a choice between pizza, pasta and meats. I particularly like the pizza here – thin sourdough bases with just the right amount of char from the stone floor of the pizza oven. The toppings are good quality with options like sopressa, fior di latte, anchovy and prosciutto. The combinations on offer are simple and authentic. Pasta and gnocchi are made in house and the pappardelle con guance manzo or beef cheeks braised in red wine is rich and comforting. Reasonable prices mean there’s no reason to feel guilty about ordering a good bottle of Italian wine from the compact but judiciously chosen list.

Desserts consist of Italian trattoria classics like gelato, panna cotta and tiramisu.

I really like Ciccio’s and reckon it should be more well known. It just works.

Ciccio’s Pasta Bar
471 Adelaide Street, Brisbane
(Opposite Bar Barossa and a short walk downhill from E’cco, or uphill from the Marriott)
07 3831 9499
Open Monday 5:30pm to Late
Lunch and dinner Tuesday to Friday
Saturday 5:30pm to Late

New Shanghai

I am a big fan of the combination of $2 a head BYO and dumplings. Even better, New Shanghai is under 100 metres from my house.  It’s part of a rapidly growing chain of restaurants and is located just outside Coles in Queens Plaza, which had me thinking it might not be any good. But it is. The fitout is very clever and well thought out, managing to create a space separate from the shopping centre environment. There’s a mix of small tables for 2 or 4 and larger communal tables and semi private rooms. You can see that considerable thought has gone into the design and overall concept.

I’m going to say right up front that I like the food, though have no real clue as to the authenticity of the dishes. The menu is printed on a paper placement in Cantonese and English with a number for each dish and it is always busy. If timed poorly, you might spend 10 – 20 minutes in a queue before you can be seated. It’s mostly busy with Asian diners. I have been raised to make the assumption that ethnic restaurants filled with people whose nationality matches the food is a good sign, both of the authenticity of the food and the prices. Is more rigorous testing and research of this theory required? It seems to reliably lead to good food, so I’ll stick with it.

The menu is comprised of a big selection of dumplings, pan fried, soup filled, wontons in soup and otherwise. I’m just working my way through them all. So far my favourite is the shepherd’s purse and pork dumplings served with chilli oil and peanut butter. Shepherd’s purse is a green leafy plant rather than a pig’s testicle as assumed by my less adventurous dining companions. It’s a bit like a combination of spinach and sorrel.

Other favourites include the pork belly slow braised in soy and the rainbow beef. Rainbow beef is deep fried shredded beef with a sticky sweet and sour sauce and sesame seeds. By no means healthy, it’s a ‘sometimes food’. There’s some good vegetable dishes to mitigate such indulgences.  The shredded pork with Peking sauce served with steamed buns, cucumber and shallot is also delicious and has green stuff, so must be healthier.

The portions of dumplings and mains are quite large and while the staff will provide you with a takeaway container if you order too much, it’s best to order a few things to share, then order more if you find you still want it. You can easily get out of here contentedly for $20 a head, depending on your appetite.

Interestingly, they’ve recently opened a restaurant in Shanghai, which I guess will be the real test of authenticity.

New Shanghai
Lower Level, Queens Plaza
226 Queen Street, Brisbane
07 3108 7652

Fat Noodle

Don’t let the casino location put you off, there’s a lot to like about Fat Noodle. A partnership between the Treasury Casino and TV chef Luke Nguyen, Fat Noodle focuses on hawker market style asian dishes and is open 7 days a week with  extended hours to suit casino hours, nightowls and inner city dwellers. You don’t even have to go through the casino to get in. There’s a door straight off the main steps that face Reddacliff Place, the public square with the globe shaped sculptures that seem to be formed from hundreds of colanders.

The slick yet playful decor and hotel restaurant service do feel at odds with the style of food, though many of the dishes are beautifully presented in handmade ceramic dishes and prices are very reasonable. It’s also fast, around 10 minutes from placing an order to being served your meal . You can opt to sit on a high stool at a communal table near the bar or on the verandah or (sometimes wait for) a table in the dining room. The communal area is a good choice if you’re dining alone or with a friend, but not so handy if there are three or more in your party and you want to converse over your meal. The most expensive dish is $19, and although portions are generous, you’ll probably want to order a few things, simply because everything here is so delicious and fresh.  Meals are served as the kitchen gets them ready, eschewing the Western notion of entrée, main and desserts. Spring rolls aren’t something I’d usually go out of my way to order, but Fat Noodle does an excellent version. The duck soup with egg noodles and tamarind sauce was the pick from my first visit, with good clarity to the chicken stock based soup, both in terms of flavour and appearance. Beef pho is also very good, plenty of depth and like many of the dishes is served with a generous amount of fresh herbs.

My one gripe would the rather dull and expensive drinks list. The wines are quite commercial and aren’t well suited to the food. Beers are pedestrian at best, and your safest bet is to go with a Tsing Tao or Tiger beer or stick with tea. Disappointing given the effort that is made with the food to use quality, sustainably sourced seafood and meat. Still, the excellent food and late night trade is sufficient attraction to warrant regular visits.

Fat Noodle
Open 7 days a week
Sunday to Thursday 10am to midnight
Friday and Saturday 10am to 3am
No bookings

Swampdog, South Brisbane

Off the beaten track midway between South Brisbane and West End, Swampdog is a fish and chip shop that focuses on sustainable seafood species. As much as I applaud this concept, I wasn’t sure I’d get the same enjoyment from Swampdog as the Greek run fish and chip shop of the sort I grew up with. So sentimental about the ‘traditions’ of fish and chips am I that I even asked the proprietor of Swampdog via Twitter if he wrapped his fish and chips in paper with a fold on top (they don’t – for practical reasons that become obvious when you eat there).

By chance we were walking past Swampdog tonight. As you approach from Woolloongabba, there’s a gentle glow that draws you in. Bare bulbs strung up over a courtyard with tables made from old doors, handles still attached. Charmingly so, rather than daggy and down at heel. Inside, the sustainability ethos of Swampdog is writ large, literally black on white, in proud and deliberate hand painted letters.

The food is deliciously fresh, with similar prices to other ‘gourmet’ fish and chips places around town, but without needless frills. Cooked to perfection and served piping hot with hand cut chips and salad, seasonal options are written on a blackboard. There’s also fish burgers, wraps and other dishes including a few Asian inspired options served with rice. Portions aren’t enormous, but the quality of the food satisfies. Even better, Swampdog is BYO and there’s cooling breezes to enjoy outside in the courtyard, though inside the shop is as hot as any other fish and chip shop.

I’d happily spend a lazy lunch or dinner here with a few beers or a bottle of wine, and my whiting burger with house made aioli, salad and a ginger beer was one of the best things I’ve eaten for sometime, perfect in its simplicity. It’s refreshing to know that you’re not eating some deep frozen, over-fished species, but ethics aside, this is good food. Swampdog manages to get its point across by serving food that tastes better than the others, without any pretension or preaching.

Swampdog Fish and Chips
186 Vulture Street, South Brisbane
07 3255 3715
Open 7 days from 12 noon until 8:30 pm