Category Archives: Restaurant Review

Short Order – West End

Despite jokes about my being unwilling to travel outside of the CBD, I do go through spurts of catching the 199 bus to visit places in New Farm, Teneriffe and West End. I know, hardly the sorts of destinations that require a map and compass (or satnav) but with around 100 places to eat and drink accessible from a single bus route, there’s plenty of scope for adventure.

The last few weeks has seen me mostly heading to the West End part of the route. Here’s some newish places and some old faithfuls I enjoyed.

The Burrow
I remember when I first moved to Brisbane and lived in the outer suburbs and my seemingly sophisticated friends used to love going to The Three Monkeys. So bohemian, milky coffee served in bowls and nachos. Huge slices of cake with cream and ice cream. Posters for all the cool gigs pinned up on the walls near where you ordered. Concert posters signed by Peter Allen and Julie Anthony, well they were less cool.

Sort of like that somehow yet not at all like that is newcomer The Burrow. Its right over the road from The Three Monkeys, and is also under a Queenslander. I visited late on a Sunday morning and loved the atmosphere. A real mixed bag of patrons enjoying the Mexican inspired breakfast menu and good coffee. There’s a comfortable mix of communal forest furniture tables and café tables closer to the front. You order at the counter and drinks are quickly brought to your table or even made as your order is taken. There’s more seating up stairs, so it’s a good option if you’re not keen on queuing at the Gun Shop Café. Few things in life are so good that I’m willing to queue and breakfast isn’t one of them.

There’s quiet quirk to the décor here, enjoyable details at every turn. Comics pasted up as wall paper, Aqua Teen Hunger Force voiced sign on the front counter, an espresso machine group handle repurposed as the door handle for the bathrooms and a variety of novelty salt and pepper shakers on the tables. But somehow avoiding that try hard hipster aesthetic that often plagues inner city cafes with reclaimed furniture. It doesn’t feel forced.

I was pretty damn happy with my breakfast ‘El Desparados Tacos’ – featuring two chipotle pulled pork filled tacos, tangy sinus clearing pico de gallo, fresh chopped salsa, poached egg and Mexican style beans with a salted lime wedge. Lots of complex flavour on the plate and quality, fresh ingredients.  If you want to turn it up there’s an optional hot sauce. “Are you a Mexican or a Mexi-can’t?” the menu asks. Today I can’t. Maybe next time. No boring breakfasts here, there’s cider braised pork belly with celeriac puree, fried egg and poached pear; beef cheek with mushroom duxelles and poached egg and Pepe Saya butter served with your toast and other tasty options.

A great place to do breakfast at your own pace, on your own or with a group of variously hungover mates.

www.theburrowwestend.com.au
37 Mollison Street, West End
Ph 07 3846 0030
Open Tuesday to Thursday 8:30am to late, Friday to Sunday 7am to late, closed Monday. Licensed.

JamJar
I liked this place so much I’ve visited a few times recently, including that time I went for breakfast and stayed for lunch. It’s not that hard to do. There’s a small bar area just inside off the street, but the place to be if you want to get comfy and graze is the courtyard out the back. As you pass the kitchen, through the narrow hall to the courtyard check out the works by local artists. ‘Courtyard’ seems an insufficient term to describe the space that greets you – stencil art, veejays, fanlight windows, souvenir teaspoons and bone handled knives and The Cramps moaning gently in the background create a kind of West End ‘mood board’. But it’s a comfortable one, and the service is smartly pitched between familiar and knowledgeable, for you to engage with at whatever level suits you.

JamJar is now the partnership of Jamie Simmonds and chef Damien Styles, back from a stint at Pope Joan and Charcoal Lane in Melbourne. Jamie and his mum Robyn look after the floor, the beer, wine and cocktails and Damien has full control of the food. If you’re yet to have the pleasure, Damien’s food at JamJar is above and beyond any other casual offering in Brisbane. Highly original and expertly realised, the dish you must try is the pink lake salt cured kingfish with sardine fossils. Salt cured kingfish finely cubed and showered with bonito flakes made on the premises combine for maximum texture and flavour with sardine crisp staligmites and nori punctuating this genre-defying signature dish. If you’re look for safer ground, there’s a dead good burger with new potato chips at lunch time, and a tasting plate to give you a feel for what the food here is all about. Pristine, ozone fresh oysters say a lot about the quality of ingredients in play. The menu is structured into ‘Smalls’ ‘Middle’ and ‘End’. You’ll get the most enjoyment here by picking a few things from each group and sharing them. The kingfish grabs your attention, but the dish of toasted dark rye, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sprout & shoots, poached duck egg, vegetable flakes and parmesan crumbs rivals its originality and textural interplay. Damien has very dark rye bread baked specifically for the dish and while it might read like some macrobiotic hippy concoction, there’s a sure hand at work here. You’ll thank me.

The wine list may be brief but you can see that everything there appears for a reason and cleverly matches the food. Beer avoids the tired selections you’ll find at neighbouring establishments and there’s proper cocktails on offer too. Interestingly, the wine list leans towards well priced imports and smaller producers.

Besides the knockout food and drink, JamJar is also astonishingly good value. Get yourself there.

www.jamjarwestend.com
138 Boundary Street, West End
Ph 07 3844 3395
Open Monday 7pm to midnight. Wed, Thurs, Fri 10:30am to 3pm; 5pm to midnight. Saturday & Sunday 8am to midnight. Closed Tuesday.

King Ahiram
A West End original, still bearing a sign with a seven-digit phone number, King Ahiram’s quietly churns out some of the best Lebanese food in town. I’ve heard there’s some place at Red Hill that does it better, but I have made my allegiance, and its to the vegetarian deluxe platter on a cheap vinyl chair under fluoro lights on Vulture Street. It’s one of the places that still links West End to it’s ethnic past, along with Mick’s Nuts and George’s Seafood, that place with giant octopuses hanging in the window.

Smoky baba ganoush, garlicy smooth hommus, dolmades that aren’t out of a tin and warm flat bread are the foundation.  Fresh zingy tabouli and authentic felafel are the feature. If he died with this felafel in his hand, then it’d be a pretty good way to go. There’s a deluxe meat platter too, also good, but Lebanese is one of the greatest cuisines to go for as a vegetarian, they know how to maximise flavour without adding meat. It’s worth noting that King Ahiram is BYO, though you may wish to pack your own glassware. Or your own disposable cups, I’m not sure what would suit best.

This is a great place to fill up before you head out for drinks or to a gig at The HiFi, and its great value. The family who run the place have been going for years, and its thankfully untouched by innovation. The bags of grout stacked at the back of the dining room in readiness for a renovation have been there for a few years now, and I’m almost relieved to find them unopened each time I visit.

Make room for a baklava or rosewater rich Turkish delight to finish your meal. If you don’t like garlic or gluttony, King Ahirams may not be for you.

88 Vulture Street, West End
Ph 07 3846 1678
Opening seemingly 7 days a week from around 11am to when people stop coming.

The End
My next stop after King Ahirams, a bit further up the street in the old Trash Video premises, a few doors up from the Vietnamese bakery. It took a family outing to get me through the door, and I’ve got no idea why I resisted. The End is run by a couple of young blokes having a go and getting it right. There’s more of that reclaimed, repurposed thing happening with the décor but again it works. Rather than being a Frankie magazine style pastiche, lines are simple and uncluttered, there’s some overstuffed leather lounges, and some long bar tables made from work benches, with vices still attached and some lumpen stuffed coffee sacks that make it more likely you’ll forego sitting to get up and dance after a few drinks. The mark of a good bar for me? I could get very comfortable here and the music is good. There’s no apparent dress code, and no hipster attitude. These guys believe in good beers, decent cocktails and tunes that veer more in the direction of Talking Heads and Velvet Underground than LMFAO and PSY.

I don’t know if they do food, but I rate the Blackstar Coffee Porter if you’re looking for something a little chewier. A divine marriage of two of the world’s great beverages with a distinct West End twist. There’s usually a few house brews on tap, and a changing roster of bottled craft beers too. A smattering of reasonable wines and a well thought out yacht/resort wear kind of cocktail list. If you go on the right night, there’s handsome DJs spinning quality old time vinyl.

Given its away from other West End bars and clubs, it has a kind of independent streak you can’t help but be attracted to.

www.73vulture.com
73 Vulture Street, West End
07 3846 7271
7 nights a week from 3pm to midnight.
Capacity: 100 people ie. tiny. If you are claustrophobic, go early.

Uki Cafe, Uki

Tucked away at the bottom of Mt Warning, Uki is one pub town surrounded by a dramatic green landscape of soaring peaks. It’s not somewhere you’re likely to visit by accident but if you’re exploring the surrounding national parks, Uki is a great spot to stop for a meal. Deep in the Tweed Valley, Uki is around 15 minutes south of Murwillumbah or can be reached via Kyogle Road if you’re coming from Kyogle, Lismore or Nimbin. It’s a scenic drive from Byron Bay or Brunswick Heads if you’re staying on the coast or the mid point of an easy day trip from Brisbane.

We were in the area to check out the Border Ranges National Park and even though it was a Saturday we seemed to have the place to ourselves. It’s a World Heritage park on account of the large rainforest wilderness and the ancient caldera that encircles it. There’s some spectacular views from The Pinnacle and if you’ve never been I highly recommend it. It’s a short walk out to the lookout, less than 200 metres of gently sloping terrain.

There’s an unsealed road between The Pinnacle and Uki, so visiting both in a single trip won’t suit everyone, but a visit to Uki is a good way to soak in the mountain air without getting your boots or your car dirty. I’ve heard the local pub, the Mount Warning Hotel, is popular with bikers who are attracted to the winding roads and hill climbs, but we gave it a miss on our visit. We had a peek and decided against chancing our luck at the local last chance saloon.

There’s two well regarding cafes in town, Sphinx Rock Café and Uki Café. We choose Uki Café for its view over to Mount Warning and Sweetnam’s Humpy, overlooking the primary school and the Buttery, now a thriving arts and community centre.

Uki Café is a converted house with a most of it’s dining area on a long verandah. There’s a cool breeze and a calm vibe about the place. Arriving with fairly low expectations, we were delighted to discover simple, fresh and tasty lunches and home cooked cakes. The coffee is from Byron Bay Coffee Company and is well made. Generous amounts of super fresh salad accompanied our meals of fish and chips (flathead) and a very tasty homemade beef burger. The orange, pistachio and dark chocolate cake was a highlight for me and other choices included cheesecake, carrot cake and a selection of shortbreads. They’re licensed too if you wish to linger a little longer over a cold beer. There’s also an all day breakfast menu and a little shop next door to the dining area full of retro clothing and homewares.

It’s a delight to find a gem like Uki Café and I could happily while away an afternoon on the verandah with a few friends or a good book.

Uki Café
2 Rowlands Creek Road
Uki NSW 2484
Phone 02 6679 5351

Champ Kitchen and Bar, Southbank

It’s refreshing to see just how much quality dining is now available around Southbank, Brisbane’s tourist focal point. Sure there’s still some shockers within Southbank itself – pizza warmed in a toast conveyor, surimi ‘calamari’ rings, Subway, Max Brenner – but places like Sardine Tin, Beastie Burger, Fifth Element, Bamboo Basket and South Bank Surf Club are lifting the bar.

A recent addition to the Southbank dining scene, Champ Kitchen and Bar looks out from the ground floor of the new ABC building to the Brisbane Eye and sits at the edge of the Cultural Forecourt. Proprietor Justine Whelan has a fine pedigree in casual dining, and you might recognise her from Anouk in Paddington or Gunshop in West End.

The staff do a nice job of greeting and seating all comers promptly and this being Southbank there’s a mixed bag of patrons. The corner space is new and exposed suspended slab ceilings and ducting are softened with giant woven lamp shades and a ripple of reclaimed VJ boards wrap the space and provide warmth. Seating ranges from chairs to couches and the look is fashionable and modern, but in a relaxed and unconceited way.

We dropped in for breakfast on Sunday and enjoyed a fruit salad with passionfruit and mint, three cheese sweet corn and potato hash cakes with salsa verde and pork and beef rissole with fried egg, bacon, mushroom and tomato ragu. There’s plenty of other interesting breakfast options and a few basic ones too for the less adventurous. Breakfast here will set you back around $16 and this puts Champ’s prices a touch below its Southbank counterparts. Quality is high and the dining area large enough that finding a table shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, even at the busiest of times.

Whilst the Merlo coffee is well made, the barista seemed to be operating at half pace during our visit which got things off to a slow start. We ordered a second round of drinks but found they hadn’t been made, since the order wasn’t sent. This was quickly forgiven when I went to pay, as the cashier sought feedback and was genuine in his efforts to search out details of our experience. You can see that Justine and her team are still getting a handle on the ebbs and flows of operating in this location and I’m sure they’ll have problems like this solved in no time.

There’s a handsome selection of cakes, salads and other take away items available if you don’t have time to eat in. Champ would be a great spot to meet for a drink before you take in a show at QPAC or during the Brisbane Festival and I hope they extend their hours a little to take full advantage of this.

Champ Kitchen and Bar is well positioned for success and is a welcome addition to the Southbank set.

Champ Kitchen and Bar
114 Grey Street
South Brisbane
07 3844 4470
Breakfast and lunch 7 days a week
Dinner Thursday to Saturday

Men-Jikan Noodle Shop, Geebung

I kept hearing about the ramen and gyoza at Men-Jikan at Geebung. Geebung? It seemed unlikely.

Owner Terry Forbes is an Aussie chef who has stumbled into the clutches of the Great Ramendo and opened his unassuming restaurant in the Railway Parade strip shops opposite Geebung train station. He’s there right between the post office and the Salvos. Furnishings are basic but the food is good. This is the way of the Ramendo.

I’d heard a few people talk about the ramen and gyoza at Men-Jikan. They were particularly insistent that the gyoza was good. Then I heard that Taro of Taro’s Ramen had been inspired by Terry’s miso ramen to create his own version. This pretty much sealed the deal for me. I needed to visit Men-Jikan for myself.

I arrived a little before my dining companion, met Terry and wasted no time in ordering the gyoza. We were Terry’s only customers at around 1:30 pm and within minutes we were talking about takuan (fermented daikon pickle), Japanese breakfasts and Terry was checking out the parcel of Malaysian foods my Mum had brought back from her trip for me to try.  Somehow between chatting with us, Terry managed to cook and serve us truly delicious gyoza filled with pork mince and cabbage, perfectly cripsy on the bottom, along with takoyaki (octopus balls with bonito flakes and kewpie mayo) and a mix of Japanese pickles, including his own pickled mustard greens, takuan, lotus root and ginger.

We both had Terry’s miso ramen, mine with the addition of kimchi. The miso broth was very good, rich with plenty of depth. Bamboo shoots, firm noodles and thick slices of char sui pork along with half a boiled egg nestled in the broth. The egg is plain, rather than sho-yu tamago (boiled eggs steeped in soy after cooking), but all the ingredients work well together. Ramen prices range from $12 – $15 which makes it a good deal, particularly for the generous amount of well flavoured pork. Excellent texture too, succulent and fatty with out being cloying and mouth coating. As we chatted a couple of locals wandered in, not to eat, but with a guitar to strum and sing out behind the kitchen and chat with Terry. He’s that kind of guy.

Men-Jikan also has the unlikely endorsement of Warwick Capper, who visited and signed the wall. Capper just went up a notch in my estimation.

If you find yourself in this part of Brisbane, I highly recommend a visit to Men-Jikan. Terry’s a great host, the food is good and it’s easy to park out the front. Oh, and have the gyoza!

Men-Jikan Noodle Shop

1/16 Railway Parade

Geebung Qld 4032

07 3265 5665

Provenance Restaurant, Beechworth

It seems superfluous to tell you, but I recently had dinner at Provenance in Beechworth and it was very, very good.

You see, that was three weeks ago, and last week The Age Good Food Guide Awards crowned the restaurant as ‘Regional Restaurant of The Year’ and it’s chef and owner Michael Ryan as ‘Chef of the Year’.

I’d love to say I agree with the judge’s decisions, but the truth is I’m unqualified to opine as I don’t get to eat in Victoria as much as I’d like. What I can tell you is that there is so much enjoyment to be had in visiting Provenance. And much of that stems from the clarity of Michael Ryan’s vision and dedication to producing food that is expressive and detailed. It is that rare thing, an assured and harmonious restaurant experience.

I grew up in north east Victoria about 50 kms up the road from Beechworth and the region still owns my heart. I had returned, free of obligation, to unravel and reorder my own feelings about friends, family and loss. But it was a secret mission, and all my comrades knew of our assignment was that there would be eating, drinking and talking. It turned out this was all that was needed, along with a slower pace and no need to be anywhere other than in the moment. Dinner at Provenance folded into this mission seamlessly.

As I booked my flights, I emailed my cousin to tell her of my plans to visit Provenance. She was excited. Even though she goes to Beechworth often and had heard good things, she hadn’t found occasion to visit. I do the same thing with Brisbane restaurants, I ‘save’ them up for a celebration that doesn’t come, and more than a few times, the thing that makes them special goes away before I visit. I was pleased I could provide the ‘occasion’ to visit. She talked to her Dad and a few more emails and we’d sorted out the who, when and where – ‘a merry party’ as she said.

The talking part of the mission got underway swiftly, and as we talked about the food for lunch and then for dinner, we talked too about wine. The wine in the cellar, the wine being made in the area, wine made in far away places and we pored over maps and books and photos and in a relatively new innovation, resolved arguments about wine and food and places by googling them. We talked about the reasons to cellar wine and our own discoveries about what wines we liked and why our tastes changed. We opened some things from the cellar and talked about how they got there and theorised about why they tasted as they did. We talked less about what had happened between when they had been laid down and now. But each moment as we talked and laughed and tasted was enough that it didn’t matter.

Outside, a heavy fog was back the next morning, obscuring my view of snow capped mountains on the other side of the broad valley. Closer to home, there was bacon coming out of brine and into the smokehouse, and some cured lamb coming out of the smokehouse and into the fry pan. I called Provenance to reconfirm our reservation and Michael answered the phone. After talking to him on Twitter over the past couple of years, he was now real and we were going to his restaurant.

There’s a bit to do in Beechworth, so we gave ourselves a head start. We’d been out to buy cheese from Jones The Grocer in Albury that morning, and we added to our collection as we stopped into various shops in Beechworth. We visited The Provender and tasted Pennyweight Fino – so much freshness! I marvelled that all these celebrated Beechworth wines, so hard to get in Brisbane were all there in the room behind the deli.  I purchased what I could reasonably carry, then we walked around the corner to the Cellar Door Wine Store and I found I could carry more. My eye was drawn to Gary Mill’s Jamsheed wines and grabbed some of his Roussanne, made from fruit sourced at Smiths Vineyard just outside town.

Next stop was Bridge Road Brewers. My uncle is an enthusiastic fan of this place, and it seems this enthusiasm is infectious. It was a wet and miserable day so we warmed ourselves by the fire. If for some reason you wanted to skip the excellent brewed in situ beers, then you could opt for the A. Rodda Tempranillo. There’s some tasty pizzas and snacks on offer and a laid back courtyard area outside for sunnier days.

From Bridge Road Brewers courtyard you can walk through to Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel, one of a clutch of historic pubs in Beechworth. So we did. Up the back steps and through into the back bar. It’s a big space with plenty of character and warmth from the timber, carpets and brass furnishings and the friendly staff.  We sat in the bar talking and taking in the long wine list, on one long, lean strip of card like something from Jack Kerouac’s typewriter. So many local wines, so little time. By chance we met the owner, and my uncle charmed her into giving the three of us a tour of the pub’s many chambered cellar. It’s the place where a local ghost tour kicks off, and as we poked around we got a short lesson on Beechworth history that was long on laughs.

Well, it was time. Our collective expectations peaked and we took a deep breath and walked around the corner to Provenance. Safely ensconced by the fire in another gracious historical building, our waiter guided us through our options. There’d been considerable discussion about the menu and wine list and whether we should go for a la carte or degustation and a pact sworn that none of us must order the same dish. We made an exception for the starter of an anchovy and its fried bones and a recommended match of fino sherry. “Wow! Are you having the anchovy before the sherry, or the sherry and then the anchovy?” my uncle asked. I paused, and thought harder as I savoured the next few mouthfuls. An amazing match, and so many facets of enjoyment to be had. I loved the crunch of the bones. I could have been happy with just the bones, but with the anchovy and the fino it made for one of the most exciting food and wine matches I’ve had in a long time. Michael sent out some house made kimchi that our waiter smilingly told us he was very proud of. Justifiably so. And the prawn chips. Amazing. My cousin and I laughed later that after so many family outings as kids to Chinese restaurants it had been hard to come at ordering them. Michael’s version tastes of prawns, sweetness, more crunchy, crispy, flavoursome goodness. None of those flaccid pink food colouring jobs we used to stick to our tongues as kids.

In spite of studying the menu in advance, there was some healthy indecision when we were choosing our entrees and mains. I settled on the chestnut pasta with Mt Buffalo hazelnuts, sage, burnt butter, dried orange and pecorino. This dish starred some local ingredients I’m rather fond of.  The hazelnuts were something else, so much flavour and so fresh. Combined with the bite of the chestnut pasta, the sage, orange and pecorino this was like a quintet of dazzlingly talented virtuoso players. The local Myrtleford butter bound it up and extended each flavour. Delicious and impressive as was the accompanying Mayford Chardonnay 2009.

My main was the generously sized grass fed Yalandra wagyu flat iron, chestnut puree, Brussels sprout leaves, fried Brussels sprouts, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, pine mushroom salt. My cousin knows the people behind Yalandra, a local producer and their rib on the bone is an object of worship I’m told. Not one to order steak in a restaurant, I’m glad I did and in terms of flavour this was outstanding. The accompaniments of two textures of brussels sprouts, creamy chestnut puree and mushroom salt add satisfying textural interest and flavours complimentary  to the beef. A glass of Jamsheed Garden Gully Syrah 2010 was a fine match. I’ve since started ordering steak again, in some likely vain pursuit of recapturing the enjoyment of this dish.

Naturally, we’d planned carefully to ensure we’d all be able to enjoy dessert. There’s some properly interesting combinations, like the Earl Grey cream, prune puree, milk crisp and puffed grain granola. The detail, technique and mastery of flavours and textures that we’d enjoyed up to this point continued through to the finish.

Food, wine and service are all accomplished at Provenance, with the food showing considerable technique, a fondness for Japanese ingredients and sensibilities and a keen eye on the best ingredients the region offers. Wine too spotlights the regions strengths, including names you know like Giaconda and Sorrenberg and the opportunity to pioneer wines from other producers you’re less familiar with. Producers from around Australia and beyond round out the list which is curated by Jeanette Henderson, who has qualifications in wine making and ensures the wine keeps pace with the imaginative and assured food. It’s worth noting that local wines are keenly priced, making for an excellent opportunity to explore wines that may sit out of reach on city restaurant lists.

As we talked and listened and ate I began to sketch out my next visit. I thought about a few good friends who really needed to come to this place and about how to rearrange things at home so I could visit the region more often.

Provenance is a truly special experience in a region with much to enjoy. Michael Ryan seems a fitting ambassador for not only the produce of the region and for cooking as an individual expression of artistry but also for the pure enjoyment of dining out.

After his Good Food Guide win, The Age proclaimed on its front page ‘A Non-Celebrity Chef Strikes Gold Twice In The North-East’. I tend to think that a chef who has both the challenge and luxury of cooking away from celebrity and capital city competitiveness has a better opportunity to produce such thoughtful, deliberate and deeply beautiful food.

There’s little point trying to disguise my bias – it’s a great region to visit if you love food and wine and Provenance makes it all the more compelling.

Provenance

86 Ford Street, Beechworth

Phone 03 5728 1786

www.theprovenance.com.au

Even if you’re unlikely to visit Provenance soon, I highly recommend following Michael Ryan on Twitter @TheProvenance for a small glimpse into his food and thoughts. He’s also very funny.

Provenance also includes a bed and breakfast that looks rather luxe. Restaurant and accommodation packages are available.

Adventures: Easter on the Tweed Coast

You could, like so many do, drive straight from Brisbane to Byron Bay. Beautiful beaches, beautiful people and bizarre people and everything in between. Byron Bay still has its charms but there’s more to the area.

Here’s a taste.

Harvest Newrybar

“Where the hell is Newrybar?” I hear you ask. It’s little more than a siding off the highway these days, so even if you visit Byron Bay regularly you’ll only find it if you go looking. The old highway ran through this small town just inland from Byron Bay and if you visit on a weekend these days, you’ll struggle to find a park. That’s because some very talented people are running Harvest, a café, restaurant, private dining room and a deli too. Arranged across three cream-painted timber clad buildings, you’d love Harvest if it were in a capital city and you’ll love it more for its rural location at the centre of a region known for its produce.

What’s great about Harvest is that they respect the local produce by letting it speak for itself. Flavours are vibrant and plating is unfussy. While ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are terms that are increasingly overplayed, the food at Harvest is what these words really mean. We had a very late breakfast and staff didn’t blink even though they were getting ready to reset for a fully booked lunch. The service here is astonishing, a well oiled machine of young local people who were unflappable despite the Easter crowds. Every one seems to know their job and do it well.

Coffee is from Allpress and expertly made by a deeply tanned barista with impressive dreadlocks. The kitchen is open to the indoor dining area and the team of chefs are as impressive as the floor staff. A verandah wraps around the dining room and its all charmingly un-designed and comfortable. Our breakfasts were delicious – sweet, flaked smoked trout encased in a super fine omlette on sourdough and pork and parsley sausages with poached eggs, grilled cheesy field mushroom and spinach. There’s lots of other delicious options, each given a bit of a twist to best use local ingredients. And to make breakfast here even more civilised there’s sparkling wine and champagne by the glass and Bloody Marys on offer too. A quick glance at the lunch and dinner menus and the wine list makes me keen to return.

The deli has just opened, but a cheese room as well as a selection of smallgoods and cured hams on the bone along with bread baked on site and plenty of other delicious things make it worth a look in it’s own right.

Harvest Cafe

18 Old Pacific Highway, Newrybar

02 6687 2644

Fat Belly Kaf, Brunswick Heads

I kept hearing about this place, so since we were in the area I rang to see if we could get a table for dinner.  We did a mid afternoon reccy and my heart sank a tiny bit. But then I was wearing the clothes I’d been in at the beach, with tangled, salty hair and thongs, hardly dressed for a night at the Ritz. It turned out we were made for one another.

Away from the other cafes and restaurants in the central part of Brunswick Heads, Fat Belly Kaf is a few streets over in Tweed Street. It’s next to the fish and chip shop with the Skilltester and the fluoro lights in one of those restaurant-at-the-motel arrangements.

It was a beautiful evening when we visited, the perfect antidote to living the city. We ate at a table outside, with geckos chirping, Jupiter and Venus burning brightly and the other side of the sky lit up by the waning moon right after Passover. At first the Motel’s ‘no vacancy’ sign over our table seemed incongruent but it made a nice light as the night grew darker.

The food at Fat Belly Kaf is a distillation of Greek, Turkish and similar cuisines. Concisely and appealingly described, the menu runs to a couple of pages ranging from small plates, larger share dishes, mains, desserts and sides. The only thing disappointing about what’s on offer is that you need a larger group so you can order all the small plates and share them. Or perhaps I’m just greedy.

We started out with a dozen Pacific oysters, a few dressed with pomegranate and shallot. All delicious. Small, sweet and briny, I didn’t ask if they were local but they seemed freshly shucked and could convincingly have come from a little further down the coast. Dressings on oysters seems hard to get right but the pomegranate and shallot was just right, not too acidic and just enough to compliment the oysters instead of consuming them.

A progression of small plates followed, nicely spaced so the table didn’t get crowded and we could appreciate what we were eating. The blue cheese croquettes with honey mayo had a winning interplay of crunchy exterior and yielding gooey interior with the honey mayo a nice counterpoint to the mild blue cheese flavour. Prawns with saganaki and tomato were also a winner, their soft, sweet tails a good indication of their freshness. I’m not usually one for crunching on prawn tails but it would have been blasphemy not to eat these.

After a few more excellent small dishes, our slow cooked lamb shoulder for two was presented on a platter. Fragrant and meltingly tender, it was served with sticky spice roasted pumpkin, roast potatoes and pan juices so good I took to spooning them over my veggies. Hardening of the arteries be damned!

By this stage of the evening we’d met Jake, one of the new owners. Fat Belly Kaf changed hands a few months back, after previous owners Kat and Damian Williams sold the business. Jake knows a thing or two about wine and after a bit of a chat it became clear how this place came to have such a great wine list. It’s not long but it’s clever and individual and a little quirky. Since we were ordering dessert, Jake organised a bottle of the Domain Day Dolcezza, a late harvest Garganega. Usually Garganega is made into Soave, a staple Italian table wine, of the sort drunk in summer by the pool with seafood. This was a sweet though restrained wine with lemony citrus and almond oil flavours well suited to the star dessert on the menu. Not for the easily defeated, it’s a sort of inside-out Greek custard bougatsa. Served in a large pudding bowl, there’s layers of light orange blossom water flavoured cream custard and pastry topped with flaked almonds. You could share it between a couple of people, but I was pleased to have the sublime dark chocolate tart with strega soaked figs to myself. This was faultless, and I don’t think I’ve had as good at more serious restaurants.

Because good Turkish Delight is always too good too pass up, and because its presented to you in a sort of fantasy magic carpet style silver dish with silver tongs for you to select a piece, we tried some of that too. Delicious.

In the interests of a proper evaluation of the menu and wine available at Fat Belly Kaf, I plan to head back soon with a group of friends. I recommend you do the same.

Fat Belly Kaf

Old Pacific Highway (Tweed Street)

02 6685 1100

Tweed River Seafoods, Chinderah

A visit to the area isn’t complete for me without a trip to Tweed River Seafoods at Chinderah, usually for fish and chips and sometimes for prawns and oysters. Chinderah is at the northern end of the Tweed Valley, not far over the border and near the new resorts around Kingscliff, now marketed as Casuarina Beach. But there’s no gentrification here at Tweed River Seafoods, it’s the same as always, good old fashioned service and staff who are pretty comfortable in their white gumboots. Golden, crispy batter and usually good chips, but mostly really fresh fish. You can also buy super fresh prawns, bugs, oysters and a big range of filleted and whole fish here.  Make sure you phone ahead to order prawns at Christmas time if you’re visiting the area. Special mention for the way they wrap the fish and chips.

78 Chinderah Bay Drive, Chinderah

02 6674 1134

There’s lots to love about this area and with the very last bit of the border bypass being completed at the moment, there’s never been a better time to skip the Gold Coast and head for where the beaches are quiet and the food is good.

Esquire, Brisbane CBD

Curiously, people who visit Brisbane seem to enjoy Esquire.

Ryan Squires, a chef who began his career in Brisbane, having worked at French Laundry, Per Se, El Bulli, WD-50, Urbane, Buffalo Club etc has chosen to return to Brisbane to open his almost-eponymous restaurant on the Brisbane River on the CBD site once occupied by Daniel’s Steakhouse.

Esquire comprises a casual dining/bar area opening onto a balcony perched above the river and a dining room, a calm space and quietly appointed in tones of Danish furniture, polished concrete and glass. Nothing that would distract your attention from what’s on the plate. And each plate is hand spun earthenware, anchoring your view on the food and its origins.

Our waiter introduces herself and explains the degustation menu options and the matched wines. Wines to match but not with every course. Fair enough. We choose the shorter of the two degustation menus with 8 courses and choose our own wine, since we know nothing of the reputation of the sommelier. The staff, while excellent thus far seem to be of an age barely graduated from goon bags and luridly coloured vodka drinks. They approve of our choices of Torbreck Rousanne Viognier Marsanne and a ‘natural wine’ from a well known Australian producer. They don’t have the natural wine any more, too many faulty bottles that couldn’t be poured. So we go with an Oregon Pinot. Each wine was around $45.

The menu is sparingly written, which is ideal for this format of dining. The arches of my feet twitch with the excitement and adventure of what’s to come. Describing each course in detail would seem futile, since the food is highly seasonal and changeable.

Here’s a selection from the menu on the night we visited:

Scallops -Sorrel and Buttermilk

Ike Jime Coral Trout – Perilla and Wasabi

Cod Belly – Yoghurt and Nori

Pineapple – Sage and Parmesan

Campari – Orange, Curds and Whey

Before we begin, we are presented with an envelope bearing a super fine sandwich of wagyu beef. I wonder if there is a way I can eat this more regularly, the concentration of flavour is fantastic and the texture is fascinating.

The sorrel in our first course is in the form of a granita and is fresh and cleansing with the scallops cloaked in the granita and buttermilk, served in a chilled heavy earthenware bowl. I haven’t eaten sorrel since I was a kid and the memories this evokes are pleasant. Our waiter does a lovely job of explaining this dish and each ensuing dish. She seems genuinely excited about her role as our guide for the night. It’s a pretty cool gig.

Ike Jime refers to the method of preparing the fish, a Japanese technique which Chef Squires explains via an iPad video. I’m fascinated by the texture of the fish, which is quite unlike what you experience with most sashimi. Other more squeamish diners squirm and cringe. I like that the food and the format puts less artifice between me and the food, so the video makes sense for me. The wasabi is the coating of a wedge of avocado. This course is delicious and harmoniously combines some of my favourite flavours.

I can’t clearly recall the Cod Belly course, but it was studded with garlic flowers. A punchy flavour bomb that creeps up then smacks you between the eyes. An additional course of dehydrated cod belly, a sort of cod jerky with chive flowers is intriguing and delicious. It made me think about my parents vegetable garden when I was growing up, garlic flowers and chive flowers. We ate borage flowers with our salad but not these. Why not? Where have they been all my life?

You may not think that a degustation menu would be a vehicle for tapping such a seam of memory and emotions. But the food at Esquire is transporting. The format and the venue somehow focusses the senses and in doing so, your emotions and memories become joined to the experience.

The final course of Campari, orange, curds and whey was a highlight, some of the flavours I love the most. However the most eyebrow raising, sit up straight moment was the Concord grape sorbet in an additional course.

The focus and inventiveness displayed by the Esquire team is without parallel in Brisbane. This is food to get you thinking, to challenge your preconceived ideas of what a meal at a restaurant can be. Well, really, what food can be.

But a question remains for me, the curiosity expressed at the outset. Why does it seem that visitors to our city ‘get’ Esquire, but Brisbane locals do not? We embrace GOMA, and some areas of the performing arts, and increasingly we want to believe that we are catching pace with Sydney and Melbourne, but this expression of artistry, each plate, doesn’t seem to have found its audience. I encourage you to make yourself a patron here, the value on offer is frankly astonishing. At least start your journey by having a drink and a snack at the bar. It’s a very nice time of year to perch and enjoy the climate and the view that this talented chef has chosen to pin his career and reputation to.

esquire

145 Eagle Street, brisbane

Ph: 3220 2123

Bar Barossa, Brisbane CBD

I managed to take a few days off between Christmas and New Year and particularly savoured time spent catching up on hundreds of bookmarked articles I’d gathered in an email folder over the last 9 months or so. I squirrel away all these shiny little gems like a bowerbird, and to extend the metaphor, a few of my treasures turn out to be as exciting as milk bottle lids and bread tags.

One article that provided some food for thought was this short paper from the Social Issues Research Centre on ‘Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective‘. It touches lightly on eating at restaurants and how their role has adapted to societal changes over time. My own relationship with restaurants has gone from a strange and foreign world I found myself working in to a ‘third place’ where I find myself much too frequently. A wardrobe full of size-too-small clothes testifies to this transformation.

As it’s a short walk from my office and home, Bar Barossa is one of a small group of restaurants I visit regularly. Sometimes for a chat with Darren Davis, one of the proprietors, sometimes for a wine dinner, sometimes because I’m exhausted beyond cooking and my partner wants a good steak. I’ve never had a bad meal here, but the extensive Barossa led wine list has always shone brighter than the rest of the restaurant experience. It’s been comfortably good, without being dazzling. But this has all changed.

The menu has had a bit of a rework, something that was long overdue.  Bar Barossa divides their menu into light plates, grazing plates and hearty plates, and servings are generous. There’s now a lot more colour and shade on the menu, without moving too far from the wine friendly fare that is their stock in trade. Flavours are simple and direct, with good quality beef, lamb and pork and fresh briney oysters. I’m more likely to order fish when I eat out as I rarely cook it at home, and the NT barramundi with potato cake, asparagus and beurre blanc I had on Friday night was fantastic. I’d have liked a bit more sauce, but then I mostly eat for sauces. My entrée of Cape Grim beef carpaccio with white anchovies was also excellent, with the beef seared and then sliced into glistening, translucent sheets and dressed with a just right mix of olive oil and lemony acid. A glass of Rockford Alicante Bouchet is a great match for this dish. Desserts aren’t really the strong suit of the kitchen, but the choose your own adventure cheese plate is worth a look, dressed with Barossa preserves and crispbread, as is the broad selection of stickies and fortifieds.

But the food is not the reason why I’d recommend you pay a visit to Bar Barossa. It’s the floor staff. A group of properly enthusiastic professionals, who love what they do and where they work is what elevated our meal at Bar Barossa. They’re hooked into what’s good on the menu, what works from the wine list and what’s happening around town. As Bar Barossa attracts plenty of business and tourist patronage, it’s great to see good ambassadors for our city and our dining scene. Darren was nowhere in sight, and yet service hummed along and the diners around us seemed to be enjoying themselves even more than we did.

Now in its second year of operation, Bar Barossa has hit its straps. Now if they can just squeeze in that mezzanine floor to make room for twice as many tables…..

Bar Barossa

545 Queen Street

Brisbane

Phone:    07 3832 3530

Web:  www.barbarossa.com.au

Tuesday to Friday:  Lunch and Dinner

Saturday: Dinner until late

Regular winemaker events

Brisbane’s Dumpling Wars

In the last couple of month’s there’s been a rash of dumpling houses open in Brisbane city.  No, not at Sunnybank, and not by Asian families expanding their established businesses.  All three of these new dumpling restaurants are backed by Westerners who have spotted an opportunity to provide sociable, snacky and tasty dumplings until the wee small hours.

Brunswick Social (Fortitude Valley) and Dragonfly both got on the dumpling train a little earlier with Harajuku Gyoza (Fortitude Valley) having just opened.

All do their own take of the dumpling house, running from the nightclub feel of Dragonfly to the ‘Japanese McDonalds’ feel of Harajuku Gyoza.  As I’m yet to eat at Brunswick Social (even the most dedicated eater cannot live on dumplings alone) I’ll leave further commentary for another time, other than to say the word on the street is that it has great cocktails.

Dragonfly

Opposite Queens Plaza, you descend the stairs between Rowes Arcade and Breadtop to the expansive and moodily lit dining and bar area.  It’s quite a change from its previous guise as a venue for metal and emo bands with sticky carpet and an aura of unattractive decay.  It’s a very different kind of patron lining the pavement on Edward Street now, with well groomed guys and girls replacing the goths and bikies.

Chef Josh Clunas is young, French trained and cares deeply about making great dumplings.  The venue is owned by a pub group, and while this could be a problem, there’s enough team members with a fine dining background to ensure the service is nicely balanced between attentive and informal.  The dumplings are hand made and well flavoured, with fillings and construction based on Shanghainese cuisine.

My picks are pork sui mai (pork, prawn and goji berry), pork and peanut and the sweet and succulent steamed prawn dumplings.  The menu also extends to soups, salads, pork buns and more.  The drinks list seems a little out of kilter with the food, and mostly features big brands and heavier wines, perhaps a reflection of its ownership.  Hopefully this will be tweaked with time to provide better matches for the food.

The décor and lighting provides a textured and exotic setting, where everyone looks just a little more beautiful.  All in all, it’s a very smart package and there’s also plenty of good people watching on offer as well as a DJs, regular discounts and events.

Harajuku Gyoza

On the site that formerly hosted Mint Indian Cuisine, Harajuku Gyoza is compact, bright and the brainchild of a couple of talented former advertising executives.  It’s clear that a lot of thought, research and capital has gone into its development with clever branding and details evident in the décor, marketing, menu and drinks.  I’d heard about the queues, so we arrived right on opening time for lunch.  Within 10 minutes, the place was full of couples, groups, young families and one table of Ma and Pa with their awkward hipster daughter.  Floor staff seem to be mostly Japanese and service is polite and friendly even if some cultural cues are missed or minor misunderstandings occur.

The menu is short with grilled and poached gyoza and a couple of sterotypical Japanese ‘izakaya’ dishes like agedashi tofu, pork katsu, beef gyudon and edamame.  The cooking of the gyoza seems a little variable, with some overcooked and others lacking construction robust enough to contain their fillings.  Whole prawn gyoza seem a little strange and are certainly difficult to eat with dignity, but the package of good Japanese beers, warm, filling dumplings and an atmosphere of fun make it worth a visit, if perhaps not a 30 minute wait in a queue at dinner time.  Details like the mix your own sauce condiment containers, Japanese pop art printed flatware and a mix of jazz and J-pop and relentlessly excitable staff add up to make Harajuku Gyoza an appealing package, and I suspect, a package that can be replicated across a number of locations.

The drinks list, while brief, deftly lists good value and Japanese food friendly beers & wines that make sense for the menu, service and likely patrons, without being condescending.

I’m keen for thoughts on how Brunswick Social compares and look forward to completing my dumpling trilogy soon.

Dragonfly

235 Edward Street, Brisbane

Phone: 07 3220 1477

Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday; Dinner Tuesday to Saturday, kitchen open until 10pm.

Harajuku Gyoza

394 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley

Open 7 days, midday until late.

No bookings

The Brunswick Social

367 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley

Phone:  07 3252 3234

Open Wednesday to Sunday from 4pm until late

Spring, Stokehouse & the New Wave of Small Brisbane Bars

It’s a busy time for restaurant openings in Brisbane with a brace of new venues at Riverbend, the new South Bank restaurant precinct as well as in the CBD.

Spring (Cnr Felix & Mary Streets, Brisbane)

One of the most anticipated openings, for me anyway, is Spring, opposite Waterfront Place and near Urbane and The Euro.  With Lizzie Loel, former restaurant critic, chef and more recently consultant to John Kilroy’s restaurant group as general manager, its fair to say there’s a keen interest from city workers and industry types alike in seeing what Spring delivers.

Spring brings together a bistro, cooking school, wine store, retail and a ‘market table’ for quick but high quality lunches and breakfasts.  I was lucky enough to have a quick tour from Lizzie prior to opening and to find out about the philosophy and intent of Spring.  Owner Sarah Hancock is a Queenslander with evident passion for interiors and design who has put together a high calibre team, with chef Andrew Clarke, formerly of Poole’s Rock Winery in the Hunter Valley heading up the kitchen and sommelier and Brisbane hospitality industry figure Peter Marchant announced this week as Spring’s Fine Wine Manager.

In its various guises, Spring will provide regional and seasonal food in a comfortable setting, designed to evoke the ambiance of a gracious country home, with chef Andrew Clarke keen to continue his use of sustainable and organic ingredients in dishes with simple, bold flavours at the fore.  As you walk towards Spring, you’ll notice the rotisserie on display through the corner glass windows which will be used to produce roast meats for market table lunches.  In another show of Spring’s philosophy of sourcing high quality products unique to Brisbane, Spring will serve Niccolo coffee, roasted in Melbourne under the direction of former Illy master, Manuel Terzi.  The blend of mostly arabica and some robusta beans is a flat white drinker’s dream.  Pastries from young Brisbane pastry chef Matt Tierney (formerly of Brew Bakers and Aria) are excellent.  Spring’s market table is open for trade from 7am for breakfast, lunch and in between snacks.

The retail offer includes homewares, condiments and both new and vintage cookbooks.  With Marchant now onboard to steer the wine offer and sommelier/consultant Liz Carey (MoVida, Universal) having laid the foundations with a  focus on organic and biodynamic wines, I’m looking forward seeing how Spring evolves as the bistro and retail components open for trade at the end of the month.  The cooking school should be popular with corporate groups and Lizzie says they plan to mix it up with local talent and producers rather than just rely on big name chefs.

Stokehouse & Stoke Bar (South Bank)

The first Brisbane foray for the Melbourne based Van Haandel Group, Stokehouse Brisbane occupies the top spot in the new Riverbend precinct and includes a fine dining restaurant and a bar.  It’s great to see more venues on the river, and as a big fan of the Stokehouse in St Kilda I’m looking forward to trying Stokehouse.  A quick peek at the bar and its menu and drinks list shows plenty of promise.

Cove Bar and Dining (South Bank)

Just along from Stokehouse, I think this is the pick of the Riverbend precinct for views and pure relaxation.  The décor is simple with seats at the bar, a scattering of banquettes, stools and tables and a contender for best view in Brisbane.  Cocktails are excellent and the wine list, while small, is well conceived with smart options by the glass.  A selection of oysters served 10 ways and a promising menu with items like charred goat ribs with black garlic, scallops with black pudding crumble and vanilla pea puree & cocoa dusted quail with ajo blanco look worthy of further exploration.

Burnett Lane Bars (CBD)

Joining Brew in the CBD’s Burnett Lane (running from around the corner from Rocking Horse Records and back up to George Street) are new bars Super Whatnot and The Survey Company Bar and Bistro.  I know little more about Super Whatnot than its hidden away location and whacky name but how can it not be good with a name like that?

Survey on the other hand has been well publicised and owner Simon Livingstone  is no stranger to operating bars and bistros with Piaf and Sardine Tin at South Brisbane both well loved and established venues.  I hope these three venues do a great job of proving beyond doubt that small bars are both supported and viable in Brisbane.  Both are close to opening – watch this space.

There’s plenty of other new places opening and it will be interesting to see them evolve and how they land with Brisbane’s sometimes novelty seeking dining public. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these new venues and which ones you’ve tried or are looking foward to trying.