As the Gregorian calendar year draws to a close and we reminisce, in our glass, there barely seems time for reflection little lone antecedental contemplation as the new vintage is upon us – as my nine year-old daughter says “Just get over it”.
Contrary to the world’s economic decline and pandemic of austerity, the Wandering Palate has seen exponential growth in both website readership – as at 31 Dec, 5,174,006 hits for the year – and stomach size, at present over the corpulence cliff.
I had always thought (prayed) I would be late bloomer, in terms of intellectual ability, which has been elusive up until now, however it seems more than coincidence, that in the year I turned 50, so many things seemed to be making, well more sense and the stars seemed to be aligned.
Needless to say, it has been a deeply reflective year… “Waves of regret and waves of joy” but who would have thought there was hope for a dyslexic wine and food writer.
As for my girth, having been the perfect Muhammad Ali height/weight ratio for several decades, it would appear (bloody obvious) that I have tipped the scales and if there is going to be any chance of stepping back in the ring, several kilos will need to be shed. Actually, my New Year’s resolution is lose 10 kilos, which should be easy-feasible, or as my butcher puts it, “you’re like a slab of sirloin, so there’s plenty of room to trim off some fat without losing the flavour”.
The only problem I foresee, and others who know me well seem to share the same concern; everything I do is related to my stomach. Indeed, even as I reflect on this past year, a calendar has no relevance to my cognitive or sensory memory with my digestive system hard wired to the prefrontal cortex and my pancreas having complete override of all executive functions.
But let’s not concern ourselves too much about the gastronomic challenges for the year ahead and dissect the Wandering Palates stomach in 2012.
By comparison to 2011, a year when we circumnavigated the planet multiple times, 2012 was significantly constrained, by my wife imposing a travel ban over most of the summer holidays. However, this did not seem to confine our gastronomic Wandering as Singapore has been inundated with European chefs and all number of restaurants and cuisines, one assumes due to things being so dire over there!
As the economy (and property prices) defies gravity and the insatiable desire for all things Western continues unabated in Asia metropolis like Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Jakarta the dining scene is electric and eclectic. And yet with all the bling and prowess of celebrity chefs, I find myself apathetic with much of it and anything more than two sets of cutlery scares me; I fear my degustation days are over.
It might be age or just over-exposure but I now much prefer wholesome dishes; unadulterated seafood, grills, rotisseries, slow roasts, casseroles and ‘nose to tail eating’ – simple cooking with exemplary produce.
Such a subjective predilection is perhaps the sort of prejudice that a food commentator should not have, but that’s what it is, besides I get the feeling there are a lot of people out there like me, who are more interested in the provenance of produce and less fuss on the plate.
This brings me to my restaurant of the year; the chef a food hero in my books, a saviour of a cuisine in threat of extinction – the classic Parisien Bistro – only thing, it’s in Singapore. No, it’s not the travel ban that has diminished my viewpoint; we flouted this by travelling south of the equator, which somehow seemed to be exempt from the sanction.
The restaurant is called Brasserie Gavroche and the Chef Frédéric Colin, www.brasseriegavroche.com.It is a small, tastefully decorated 19th century period shop-house in an obscure backstreet of Chinatown that oozes Paris ambience. The food is classique; no surprises, timeless dishes with the added touch of recipes from Chef Colin’s Parisien restaurateur grandparents.
The sad thing about the Paris Brasserie; that is the ones in Paris is they have subsided to oblivion, so ordinary and leeched of all decency by restaurant groups profiteering on a formula almost at a McDonald’s level only the service is far friendlier at McDonald’s. Yes, I know there are those establishments whose historical ambience makes up for the substandard food and service, but it is the artisan ‘art and soul’ of the Parisien cuisine that is endangered.
The demise of the Parisien Bistro runs in parallel with the notion that French cuisine, with all its illusionary obesity in butter and sauces is perceived as not healthy, which is in reality a completely unjustified; you only have to look at Parisien woman and contemplate how they remain so slim yet maintain this staple diet.
The fact is the Parisien Bistro is in suffering terminally from a lack of quality ingredients, a cancerous complacency and parasitical commerciality.
But not here in Paris-Singapore, having eaten at Brasserie Gavroche countless times now, the consistency of the food and service is impeccable; oysters arrive freshly-chucked, almost impossibly fresh when you consider they have come all the way from Cancale, Brittany, but here they are gleaming in their salt-salt juices and exhilarating in their mouth-watering briny-salty-iron-minerally burst of flavour – washed down with an edgy-Chablis.
Yes, I know freshly-chucked oysters are so basic, but why is it so many restaurants completely stuff this up. Perfection of the simplest dishes is not only the hardest to thing to achieve but is the clearest indication of the chef’s dedication to the very best produce and ability to handle it properly; if the oysters are right than you can be assured the entire menu will be deliver.
Chef Colin’s Andouille poêlée et pommes de terre moutarde is my favourite dish, the best Chitterling sausage in memory. And the Potée Auvergnate, recette du grand père Henri, Grandpa Henri’s pork hotpot with cabbage and garden vegetables is sensational, like an Alsatian Charcroute of pork bits but even more hearty in its soupy-stock – bring on the riesling!
The Tête de veau sauce Gribiche Braised, veal head with hard-boiled egg and pickles sauce is another brilliant dish, and Parmentier de canard confit, shredded duck confit with crushed potatoes gratinated, with a glass or burgundy, is halfway between heaven and heart attack. And the Steak frites et sauce Béarnaise, pan-roasted Angus sirloin with Béarnaise sauce touchstone, and the French fries perfection.
I could go on, and I do in this full review click here as Chef Colin’s entire repertoire is classique perfection. The service here is also excellent, friendly and appropriately headed by French staff along with the radiant host Madame Colin and the affable Chef Colin constantly touring the restaurant saying hello to guest – yes I know, it sounds too friendly to be like Paris – but I like it, very much. Bravo! Encore!! Visit www.brasseriegavroche.com
The ‘Best New Restaurant of the Year’, in all my travels, and yes that does include the Northern Hemisphere, moreover this restaurant would be as much at home in New York or London, as it is in Melbourne’s Collins Street, is Brooks http://brooksofmelbourne.com
Man is this one slick restaurant and pushing the boundaries of dining in Australia to new limits. It’s quirky, old-fashioned, cutting-edge contemporary, old-clubby, new groovy, moody, bright white-linen, cosy, edgy all rolled into one! The juxtaposition of the menu sets the pace, on the one hand a science lab of cooking technique and visual presentation, and on the other something our grandmothers would be delighted to see.
The chef, Nicolas Poelaert, closed his own cutting-edge restaurant, Embrasse, to team up with Gerald Diffey and Mario Di lenno of Gerald’s Bar in Rathdowne Street, Carlton North; one can only assume that he (chef) sensed the cutting-edge was going to get even sharper here.
It will not surprise Melbournian’s that Gerald Diffey is the protagonist here; he’s been pushing the boundaries around this town for decades although he’s more known for putting the mojo in pubs, late night bars and wine bars and has his own Tardis outside Gerald’s Bar with the dials permanently set on the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Vinyl records, long sideburns and stovepipe pants are the norm here.
It certainly came as no surprise to me that Diffey was having another crack at a full-blown restaurant, his last effort with Chef Tansy Good at Locarno in Greville Street, Prahran was the cutting-edge at that time and pushed the boundaries way beyond what anyone had done in Melbourne. Personally, I thought it was brilliant, with its fabulous decor and revolutionary menu, but perhaps too far ahead of its time or more brutally, a victim of time, ‘The recession’.
The wide-brimmed grin on Diffey’s face promulgates “I told you I’d be back’.
I don’t know Di lenno that well, other than his excellent good taste in beer and cider and conversation up at Gerald’s Bar, but I do know the restaurant manager at Brooks, Paul Guiney. He’s one of the best maître d‘s in the country and in my three visits thus far, he and is team work at a highly-consistent level that is the professional edge of friendly, intellectual, knowledgeable, hyper-efficient personalised service.
Although Brooks has only been open a few months, we have enjoyed three outstanding meals there; actually extraordinary meals of unparalleled inventiveness and wholesomeness. Our first meal was the on their second day open, but you would not have any inclination that restaurant had just opened its doors it was humming along so smoothly.
One the most fascinating and simply divine dishes here, indeed my ‘Dish of the Year’ is chicken parfait in a crusty rye bread casing with a dob of blackberry jam on top, served on a bed of lawn, yes lawn; it’s both visually exciting-challenging and texturally superb – a master piece of simplicity yet innovative and titillating flavour.
In complete contrast, a charcuterie platter of Warialda beef, a rare breed of beef, grass fed and dry aged, raised in Clonbinane, Victoria www.wbgbeef.com.au. The selection of air-dried and cured meats and fermented sausage (salami) served with sourdough bread and creamy butter is about as classic Basque cuisine as it comes and drags the culinary senses full circle.
Yarra Valley salmon roe, marble-sized glistening orange and explosive in fish oils, on top of their own paper-thin, crispy potato crackers with flecks of dill, and a spoon full of crème fraîche – simplicity again, but really out there and had my daughter going back for seconds, thirds.
We had a small gathering for my 50th birthday in their private room, the ‘Rhum Room”, a wonderfully intimate nautical Captains table for 8 to 10, with a 12 course menu of strictly Pig parts, that nose to tail but none of the bits you can pronounce or care to think of eating. You see I have this obsession with pigs at the present, and the chef did his utmost to indulge me. I won’t go into detail, as it’s all a bit of a blur, but it was the most fascinating meal I have possibly had in my entire life.
I was so impressed with my birthday meal in its entirety, and that includes the wine and food service, where our staff went beyond the call of duty (and you can imagine serving the likes of me is a one way mission in itself), I suggested to my good friend who was going to be in Australia around Christmas and celebrating her 50th birthday to invite a few friends for a banquet dinner.
Again, the evening was a supreme success, indeed one of the best nights I have had in memory. We grazed through piping-fresh oysters, charcuterie, the divine chicken parfait and the salmon roe. Main course was Glenloth chicken with hay, and confit legs; I can’t quite remember the hay bit, but I certainly remember it was the most tender and flavoursome chicken I have ever eaten. And we gave the wine list a serious workout, the sommelier doing an outstanding job to keep out, and a brilliantly eclectic wine list I might add. Another thoroughly convincing effort.
Again, I won’t go into more detail, with a full article in the pipeline, but just to say, from the moment you walk into this basement restaurant, with its enormous grey-white oval, curvy bar, then as you turn around see the open kitchen in full view, least behind a huge pane of glass, the emotions of thirst and hunger are heightened. It oozes intimacy and moody warmth and the immediacy of the staff and seamless service augments a level of comfort and enjoyed resonating throughout the room.
As for the food, I can only imagine that Nicolas Poelaert is just getting warmed up and will be pushing the extreme limits of his culinary journey; the man already has incredible form but on a diet of Gerald Diffey adrenaline, this is place is going set the bar even higher in Melbourne. And if it does not get the Melbourne Age ‘Best New Restaurant’, I will eat Gerald Diffey’s hat.
One of the more enlightening culinary adventures we had in our travels was on the Queensland Sunshine Coast of Australia. We were fortunate to have the run of a friend’s beachfront apartment at Mooloolaba Beach for a week…
But you will need to come back tomorrow to hear more of the Wandering Palate 2012 Stomach, as my guests are about to arrive for dinner – the 6kgs rib of free-range, grass-fed Angus from Cape Grim in Tasmania www.capegrimbeef.com.au has been slow roasting for 5 hours now, almost done and looking sensational.
I need to get the wine sorted… must dash… we will speak again.
Oh, Happy New Year!