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.

Tasting Wine & Drinking In Bars

Two very different activities.

Tasting wine an exploration, a sensory adventure or interrogation. Drinking in bars more of an opportunity for social observation.

A couple of weeks back, I received an invitation to the Royal Queensland Food & Wine Show 2012 Exclusive Wine Tasting Evening. I was so exhausted from reading the title of the event, that I had little energy to refuse such a generous invitation. It goes without saying that I’d spend a Friday evening drinking wine, so it seemed logical to taste wine and try something new, all in one convenient package.

Some minor misunderstanding about the order of events saw us arrive part way into an engaging speech from Iain Riggs, chief winemaker at Brokenwood and advocate of the wine show system. A more punctual audience appeared in no particular hurry for this formal part of the evening to conclude, which was a pleasant change to the crowds at some other large wine tasting events. The drawing of some lucky door prizes saw us free to redeem a tasting glass and work out how to approach the massed wines before us.

Almost 2,000 wines were entered into the show, and then judged in classes which are based on variety or style, age and production volume. Panels of judges award scores out of a 100 to each wine, with upper ranges of scores bracketed into Bronze, Silver and Gold. Additionally, trophies are awarded to stand out wines and producers. A full list of show results is available here.

I must admit, I would have happily stopped without heading over to the table of Gold medal winners. I enjoyed having the opportunity to taste different styles and different regional expressions side by side and completely at my own pace. I seemed to be breaking a lot of seals, and we had little competition in the non-Gold medal tasting area. That these wines weren’t Gold medal winners doesn’t mean there wasn’t some fantastic wines on offer. In fact a few of my favourites were there, some languishing at the no-medal end of their class. There was also plenty of wines I’d read about or thought about buying and one or two that I couldn’t spit quick enough. All part of the experience.

The sheer number of wines in some classes surely makes it hard for some of the quieter wines to stand out, and additionally some wines entered in 1 year old classes would surely do better entered into mature wine classes in a future show, and in a few cases, vice versa. The judges undoubtedly have a challenging task and its natural to question how valid results can be reached through the process, though equally difficult to reimagine another process that would be fairer and yet still logistically achievable. To his credit, Riggs had addressed these challenges head on in his speech earlier in the evening.

Whatever you think of the show system, this event was highly enjoyable and my only complaint was that it was over too soon. A quick sweep of the Gold medal winners, presided over by a rather fierce fellow, and a generous glass of fortified poured by a cheeky older chap who smilingly ignored him, and we were out on Gregory Terrace waiting for a cab, with our fellow tasters, or drinkers, rosy cheeked in the mild Brisbane evening.

Saturday evening and I found myself at my neighbourhood bar of choice, Super Whatnot. Brisbane’s still a pub town, and there’s very few purpose built bars in the CBD. Hotel bars just aren’t the place to be when it’s your own town. There needs to be interesting beers on tap, good wine by the glass and people behind the bar who know their way around serious cocktails. Maybe some whisky too. Oh, and I don’t want to feel like I have to dress up too much to be there. And small plates of salty, snacky things that aren’t peanuts or those Indian crackers. So really, I’m not picky. I’m also unlikely to help the venue lure in other patrons with my stunning good looks and on-trend fashions.

There’s no gimmicks about Super Whatnot. It’s in a laneway, and indirectly the result of a previous government scheme to inject ‘life’ into the CBD by supporting small venues and flexible licensing. Sounded great on paper but fizzled as other more pressing matters came along. Much has been written about its former life as a beauty school storeroom, but it’s a place with its own personality, through clever design and finely crafted details. The hexagonal motif of the Super Whatnot logo is subtly carried through to coasters, tiles and even the spigots as taps in the bathrooms. It’s a mixed crowd, loud backpackers, middle aged couples checking out that place they read about before they head somewhere else for dinner, awkward people on dates, groups of young mums and dads out on a leave pass (in separate never-to-mix groups, obviously) and representatives of one or more social stereotypes. What could be finer than sitting back, something good to drink in hand with the best view of humanity in town? Tickets to the show are free with the purchase of any drink.

The craft beers and wines by the glass change regularly, and on my recent visit I found the ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ dark ale and the Le Petite Mort chardonnay both pretty easy to drink. The ‘American style’ bar food is full of direct flavours, with Cubano sandwiches, quesadillas and a mean black bean dip some of my favourite food in town.

The other thing I keep reading about Super Whatnot is that it has a ‘New York vibe’ and I can only assume these things are written by people who haven’t been to New York. Because if we were in New York, the overly sweet drinks would cost three times as much, the music would be ten types of awful and the patrons at least twice as crass and homogenous.

Super Whatnot is a small, well-realised and original venue. The eclectic musical selections have you ordering another drink just to see what’s next. You might have guessed that I kinda like it. In fact, I’m even thinking of dressing up for my next visit. I feel I owe it to the place.

Many thanks to the RNA for their invitation to the Royal Queensland Wine Show and to Michelle Levings of Foxed Glove for making it happen.

Thanks also to Super Whatnot for helping that 30-something guy at the next table get a chance with a very patient lady last Saturday night.

Qualified Opinions

There are many reasons to write a blog and they are a little different for everyone. Given that there are now millions of blogs, the reasons grow more diverse as do the styles and topics they cover.

Being as a blog appears on the world wide web, lets take the first definition that appears in the search results:

Blog
Noun: A website on which an individual or group of users record opinions, information, etc. on regular basis.

On that basis, I’m unsure I can regard myself as a ‘blogger’ as I fail miserably at the regularity qualifier.

As for the motivations to post one’s opinions online, and in particular in the case of food bloggers, many seem to wish to share their experiences with others or feel it is their duty to warn others from venues which don’t meet with their expectations.

Yet others have a more entrepreneurial motivation, setting out to build an audience, attend launches and events, and attract the attention of public relations types and advertisers.

Other bloggers, not just those who write about food, see a blog as a way to record their experiences in a convenient, update-from-anywhere platform. The figure if they are going to write, they might as well share it with others. As a bonus, they get to prolong the pleasure of their experiences a little longer by writing about them.

All of this seems straightforward, and there is certainly no requirement to ‘decide’ what ‘type’ of blogger you want to be when you create your blog. There is no soul searching survey with hard questions when you sign up for Blogger or WordPress or whichever platform. No oath of blogging to swear.

But is blogging without responsibility? Firstly, not all food bloggers review restaurants or products. There are some fantastic blogs about cooking, recipes, produce and some which feature fabulous food photography. I suppose the responsibility there ends at posting recipes that work and perhaps disclosing when recipes feature products you’ve received as samples.

Does reviewing restaurants and cafes or products carry responsibility? For me the answer is yes. There are not that many bloggers who are powerful enough to end the business of a restaurant, but at the same time, behind these businesses are people. Owners and their employees for a start. It would be unusual for a restaurant to set out to serve bad food, though their purpose may not always be to serve the best food. Working in these businesses, particularly at start up is grueling without even looking beyond the physical work to the emotional investment and financial risk. It’s fair to say that some food bloggers fail to understand this and feel that restaurants are fair game for negative or willfully ignorant reviews.

If you are taking the time to set up a food blog, irritate your friends and loved ones by taking photographs of every plate that arrives at the table, pinching forkfuls of their food in the interests of research, and tapping away at your iPhone to make notes, then extend yourself a little and research your subject matter. If you don’t understand modernist cuisine or don’t know what a terrine is, then perhaps you should just enjoy them as a new and exciting experience and share your opinions with your friends, rather than post them on the internet and record your ignorance for all time.

To look at it from another perspective, imagine there was a review website for your profession. All of us have days where we are not performing at our best. Perhaps the work you do is highly specialised or technical and difficult to understand for those that do not work in the same industry. Would people have the right to critique your work in a public forum? If they were disappointed by the work you did or didn’t feel it was good value for money, would you expect them to speak with you about it before committing it to a public record?

Putting the ‘blogging’ aspect aside, do reviewers in mainstream media have the same responsibilities? Should they meet certain food and wine qualifications before their opinions can appear in print? Or is their ability to write in a style designed for a public audience the more important qualifier?

A couple of incidents had me pondering this. From Twitter:

This tweet from a well known chef:

“Oh dear part time bloggers….yes yes yes. lets just concentrate on what you do best. Your full time job!!”

This tweet from a well known restaurateur, a comment on a short review of Tetsuya’s that appeared in the Courier-Mail :

“I think the review of Tetsuya’s in today’s CM Qweekend maybe the strangest review I have ever read.”

Now, I am unsure who the chef is referring to. It could be me, or I could be paranoid. The restaurateur however leaves us in little doubt, since anyone could identify the writer of the review he refers to by checking the byline on the review.

So, my questions to you dear reader: Is the writer in the Courier-Mail more qualified to write about food than a blogger? Or are they both simply writers who happen to utilise different mediums?  Does being published in a mainstream publication bestow the opinion of the writer with credibility? How do you decide whose opinion matters to you?

One of the most outstanding food writers, in my opinion, and one who continues to command respect is Alan Davidson.  Starting from a hobby in his spare time, he went on to compile the Oxford Companion to Food. Was he a ‘trained’ ‘designated’ ‘food writer’ published in mainstream publications?  No, he was a diplomat who loved food and who originally self published his writings on exotic food as a part-time passion. Perhaps if we were starting out today, he’d have a blog.

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.

The Problem With Emotional Eating

Some of us eat for sustenance while others eat for pleasure. It’s safe to assume that those who see food as mere ballast to fill a hole are unlikely to read this blog.

‘Emotional eating’ is a term used in connection with obesity in a certain sort of women’s magazine, usually in articles up the back near the horoscopes. I’ve always found it a strange term, for a number of reasons.

So far as mainstream media is concerned, it would seem that only women suffer from this condition. There are thousands of articles on the internet for women who want to break free of a cycle of weight gain caused by their compulsion to eat to relieve stress or alleviate boredom and disaffection. Male obesity is a different matter altogether, with weight gain usually framed as having occurred ‘due an increasingly sedentary lifestyle’. In tune with our expectations about gender roles, the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women in a large study who were 11 kg below average weight took home an additional (US) $15,572 while men who were 11 kg below average weight earned less than their colleagues. The researchers commented:

“Perhaps the most startling finding of this investigation is that men and women experience opposite incentives regarding weight in the very thin to average weight range. Whereas women are punished for any weight gain, very thin women receive the most severe punishment for their first few pounds of weight gain. This finding is consistent with research showing that the media’s consistent depiction of an unrealistically thin female ideal leads people to see this ideal as normative, expected, and central to female attractiveness.”

Emotional eating is a problematic term on another level, as it conveys the idea that ‘emotions’ can only be negative and unattractive. That we would only eat prodigiously when things are bad. That emotion is valid as a pejorative term. Yet the spectrum of human emotion covers from deepest black to the brightest hues of happiness. And food can provoke or match a wide range of emotions too.

Think: when do we choose to eat good food and wine? For many people, they celebrate special occasions with food, a decent steak or a roast at home with a special bottle of wine and warm company, or a meal at a restaurant, where a team of chefs take the best produce and their professional techniques to present several courses of the finest food for our enjoyment. Such an occasion is one of happiness and pleasure that is recalled fondly at a later date. Photos are taken, mementos tucked away so that we can prolong the enjoyment and recount the highlights to our friends. A whole industry is built on this that now extends to television shows, books, blogs, licensing deals and merchandising rights. Photosharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest are vehicles to parade our gustatory conquests  to others and record our good taste in food and wine for posterity. Our desire to extend the enjoyment of good eating seems boundless. These occasions are emotional and eating is central to them.

Even at a base level of choosing our food, emotions are involved. All of us have likes and dislikes, favourite foods and others we reject or avoid due to how they taste or their texture – these foods provoke feelings or emotions and are often tied to our memories of some other time when we experienced the same food. Have you ever found yourself  thinking about that amazing holiday you had by the sea years ago while your eating dinner or thinking about hanging out with your Granny as a kid as you catch the scent of your neighbour’s rose garden? Or of the dive-y sharehouse you lived in on the cusp of adulthood after you’ve just discovered a rotten onion or potato in your kitchen? Our olfactory memory is strong, smells and by extension food and flavours can bring all sorts of thoughts and feelings about the past sharply into our consciousness.

How food makes you feel is central to the act of eating. Eating is by its nature emotional, even if that feeling is simply the contentment of being able to fill your belly.

So, dear reader (I know there are at least three of you), tell me about your emotional eating experiences.

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

Winemaker and wine educator. Food writer in hiatus. Changemaker. Toast lover.