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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 2: The adventure continues

You should go and read Part 1 HERE.

Done?

Okay, let’s go.

*    *    *
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a Very Important Course, not only because it’s one of the most talked about, but it’s also the symbol, the icon of the current Fat Duck brand, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is full of Alice in Wonderland motifs and references both sneaky and obvious. This dish is essentially a mock mock turtle soup. For anyone who doesn’t know, actual mock turtle soup is a soup made from cheap organ meats that imitate the texture of actual turtle meat used in green (non-mock) turtle soup. Yep – nothing like a bit of light 1700s food trivia. Well, there are no calves brains here at the Fat Duck in 2015, and nothing is as it appears. There is something that looks so like an egg, you would never believe it wasn’t if you weren’t told by your waiter that the egg yolk was made of swede and the egg white of turnip – not a single ounce of vessel-of-potential-chicken-embryo in it at all.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

The tea party bit goes like this – you are given a clear teapot and a clear teacup. In the teacup sits the aforementioned not-an-egg. Planted in the mock egg are tiny golden enoki mushrooms. Arranged around this are tiny cubes of ox tongue (I think!) and pickled turnip and cucumber, garnished with tiny micro parsley. Then you’re presented with a “gold watch” that is not gold nor watch, and is used like a tea bag, except it’s also not a teabag. Confused? Drop the not-a-teabag-or-a-watch in your clear teapot and when dissolved in warm liquid, it disappears and turns the darkening liquid into a beautiful mushroom-y stock. Pour this into the teacup with the not-an-egg and voilà, your mock mock turtle soup.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Mock Turtle Soup

But wait, there’s more! The soup is served with little mini sandwiches with toasted bread that includes among its delicate fillings black truffle, bone marrow butter, egg white salad and a really good mayonnaise. Of course, not even sandwiches can be presented ordinarily at the Fat Duck so the platter is decorated with a big, feathered top hat – on theme as ever.
If I had to describe this course with one word, it would be whimsical. If I had three words, I would add weird, and what-is-this-sorcery? As much as I enjoyed the experience, I honestly believe my brain was too confused to form a truly accurate and critical assessment of the actual tastiness. I think it was delicious?

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

*    *    *
Well, that chaos was followed by Sound of the Sea, another course that engaged many senses. First, you’re given a giant seashell – each person at our table had a unique one. You notice fairly quickly that there are some earphones poking out of the shell; place them in your ears and you’ll actually hear a soothing soundtrack of waves crashing on sand and other (you guessed it) sounds of the sea. The edible part of the course is served upon on beautiful glass-topped block and arranged beautifully to represent a beach. There is the fluffy foam ocean (made from seaweed stock), various flora and fauna of red samphire, green samphire, butterfish, abalone and kingfish, all resting on a bed of convincing coarse textured “sand”, magicked up using fried baby anchovies, tapioca starch and nuts.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

Despite the combination of taste and sound elements, it actually didn’t feel like a complicated dish by Fat Duck standards, at least to the diner sitting at the end of the undoubtedly painstaking preparation process. As with “Walk Through the Forest”, Heston no doubt wants to bring to mind our own personal experiences – this time, memories of sand and sea, perhaps a childhood summer at the beach. I can tell you that this worked quite well on many people, even making some diners quite emotional. Being a bit of a robot at times, I’ll say I enjoyed the dish for other reasons – I love fresh seafood in all its forms, so I loved this course, and thought it was as clever as I was coming to expect from this restaurant.

Sound of the Sea

Sound of the Sea

*    *    *
Before the next course was served, I was delivered my fourth tea – Bohea Lapsang from Fujian, China; a hong cha (straight translation: “red tea”, closest actual translation: “black tea”). The bohea had an unbelievably smoky aroma and taste, very complex, and so rich. This might have been my favourite tea, or perhaps it was only because it was by far the best tea and food pairing of the day – it went so well with the dish that came next that everyone at my table agreed that it was a better match for it than the wine.

a crowd of tea, all for me

a crowd of tea, all for me

*    *    *
The salmon poached in liquorice gel arrived at the table with little pomp and ceremony; yet the dish looked gorgeous, with the salmon encased in a glossy chocolate-coloured coat of liquorice, topped with golden trout roe, lying beside prettily browned witlof and surrounded by morsels of juicy king grapefruit, with droplets of fragrant vanilla bean mayonnaise and dots of balsamic reduction livening up the plate.

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

I’m not normally a fan of liquorice at all (what is the point of it?) but it was quite subtle here – striking a gentle balance between its slight savoury-bitterness and the sweetness of the salmon and caramelised witloof – and the gel casing helped retain the juices of the perfectly cooked fish. Yes, the fish, by the way (having been cooked sous-vide, I’m told) was melt-in-your-mouth tender, almost creamy; and, I’ll admit that the liquorice likely had a strong hand in helping the flavour of this dish meld so perrrrfectly with the smoky bohea tea.

*    *    *

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Calling the Lamb with Cucumber the least memorable course of the day wouldn’t be untrue, but it also wouldn’t tell you that it was still a lovely dish. There was no bad food here – how could there be, with each course having be developed, refined, served and improved over many years? Nevertheless, my recollection of the main part of this lamb course is pretty fuzzy, most of my strong impressions from the stunning accompaniment of lamb consomme jelly infused with mint – dark and meltingly rich, topped beautifully by a borage flower and served with crispy quinoa biscuit. Also on the side were cubes of lamb tongue, heart and scrag, a variety of textures, each full of flavour. The main plate of saltbush lamb saddle – with cumin, cucumber with green pepper and caraway, caviar oil and a gel made from fish stock and mint butter – was as well-cooked and pleasant as you’d expect, but failed to blow me away, though others named it as a favourite dish.

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

*    *    *
The next course was understandably recommended with no accompanying beverage. Seeing that it was the Hot & Iced Tea, it would have been especially awkward to pair a “tea” with another tea. The little glass of amber liquid that turned up looked simple and unassuming, but oh boy, did it pique my interest. Exactly one half of the content of the glass was cold as iced tea and the other half (occupying the other side of the glass) was warm as, well, a nice cuppa. The drink is a somewhat thick, syrupy consistency that is not truly a liquid, but actually a gel made up of millions of tiny bits of broken down jelly – this is how the separation of the hot and cold sides is achieved (well, that’s the easy version – if you want the full method and explanation, chemistry and all, just ask Google). We were instructed by wait staff not to wait too long before drinking and not to turn the glass before drinking – advice which made sense once we understood that it was served at the perfect angle to present even proportions of the hot side and the cold side on first sip. The tea itself? As far as I could tell, it was a regular earl grey with hints of lemon and honey – tasty but not unfamiliar flavours.

it's warm, it's cool, it's hot and iced tea.

it’s warm, it’s cool, it’s hot and iced tea.

*    *    *
Okay, I’ll be honest here – I’m kind of running out of steam after writing about one, two, three… twelve courses and four teas, and the final tea (Cassia oolong from Fujian, China), served right before the dessert courses wasn’t all that memorable for me. Honestly, if you’ve read this far, then… well, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far. Anyway. Moving on.

*    *    *
First up of the sweet courses was the Botrytis Cinerea – no doubt now famous among ordinary Australians due to its starring role in the grand finale of Masterchef 2015 (and this is how I know I’ve waited too long to post this blog). This captivatingly gorgeous – and I mean seriously beautiful – dish was introduced to us as a “tribute to dessert wines on a plate”. Botrytis cinerea, we were told, is a type of mould that can grow on grapes and some other fruits.

Rather embarrassingly, my Fat Duck lunch happened well before the Masterchef season had even started, but I was grateful for Heston showing up in that final episode, because oh boy, did his explanation of this dish save me a lot of time recalling and researching and zooming in on my photos.

Botrytis cinerea - really, "grape fungus". But fancy.

Botrytis cinerea – really, “grape fungus”. But fancy.

The botrytis fungus comes in two forms – a grey rot, and a “noble” rot. It’s this second type, the result of dry conditions following wet or humid conditions, that helps create a great dessert wine grape. “The grapes shrivel up, they lose their moisture and they develop all these really complex flavours. So, what we’ve done is taken the flavour characteristics and then we’ve also looked at what molecules create those flavours and we’ve used that to inspire the ingredients.”

The base of the dish plays on the dessert wine and cheese idea, and is made of a soil of dried parmesan and Roquefort blue cheese powder. Some of the elements on the plate include peach jelly (a sort of wine gum), compressed red grape dipped in nitrogen, a grape fluid gel, citrus sorbet, aerated saffron (kind of a meringue), a green-grape coloured white chocolate sphere filled with pear caramel and popping candy, a stunning gold sugar ball filled with citrus-infused yogurt, and a stalk made of churros. And there’s more – oh, so much more. Tenplay has decided to publish the full recipe on their website, although I’m not sure how many home cooks are keen enough to attempt this thing or even have the equipment that seems to be required!

Oh, my impressions? Delicious, interesting, delightfully varied textures, pretty – definitely favourable, but not my favourite. I tend to most love the savoury dishes in a tasting menu, or maybe I just don’t have a full appreciation for dessert wines due to my intolerance to them. However, there’s no doubt that this dish is an absolute masterpiece and I was completely in awe of its stunning presentation and complexity in flavour, textures and execution.

*    *    *
To be continued…

Still to come:

  • Egg & bacon ice cream?
  • Yet moarrr tea!
  • Clumsy me is clumsy.
  • What does a Heston kitchen look like?
  • Why was it so worth it?
I have no idea what this is. Seriously, don't ask me.

I have no idea what this is.

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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 1 (dun dun dunnnn)

The Fat Duck in Melbourne

So, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

Yes, I am still alive.

Where have I been? Well, I took a tumble down a rabbit hole recently, and let’s just say that the usual pedestrian variety of “being alive” rather pales in comparison to the magical afternoon that followed.

Down the rabbit hole...

And then there was this tiny door...

Uh huh, the Fat Duck.

With the $525 minimum price tag, you can’t exactly accidentally get to this Wonderland, but after hurtling down that rabbit hole on your own steam (nearly literally – there is a long corridor you must walk yourself down, at the end of which there is a tiny door), all of your mundane, daily worries float away, along with your ordinary, good sense.

Would I like to go with the matched tea tasting, they ask, seeing as I can’t drink wine? Sure, let’s do it! Never mind that this selection of six teas alone costs the same as a full degustation at a regular restaurant. Oh no – that sort of concern is for those poor plebeian souls not currently dining in a magical fantasy land. And a $15 juice to start? Yeah, I’ll have one of those, thanks, and then I’ll promptly spill it all over the pristine tablecloth!

strawberry and pepper juice

strawberry and pepper juice

The dining room

Never one for brevity (really, I’m just obsessively thorough), this review is a fairly massive three-parter; but I promise there will be plenty of eye candy along the way if you stick with me.

However, for those with inadequate attention spans, I’ve put together a little FAQ, which I will post here before launching into my usual diatribe. These are actual “frequently asked questions”, mind you – you have no idea how much I’ve been interrogated about my meal in the weeks following it, by all sorts of people from corporate bosses to broke-ass students, close friends to total strangers, McDonald’s lovers to strict vegans.

The Fat Duck Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: How was it?
A: Um, pretty amazing.

Q: Was it worth the money?
A: The short answer – yes, every penny.

Q: What was the food like?
A: Tasty, fun, weird – in a nutshell.

Q: Did you take photos? Can I see them?
A: Duh. Why else are we here?

The Fat Duck Melbourne clock

The icon of the Fat Duck Melbourne – the clock face represent’s the Fat Duck’s tenure in Melbourne and the hand indicates how far we are through that period

Q: What was the highlight of the experience?
A: The front of house staff. They were excellent – each great at what they were doing, and engaging and attentive without fussing over us. Also, the kitchen tour we were unexpectedly given – read to the end to find out how!

Q: Your favourite dish?
A: Tricky one; they all had different noteworthy qualities. Based on taste, probably the poached salmon or snail porridge. Based on concept and all-round entertainment, possibly the not-so-full breakfast with “scrambled eggs” ice cream, or maybe the odd and whimsical mock mock turtle soup.

Q: Did you get to meet Heston?
A: Sadly, no. I believe he’s only in Melbourne for the very start and end of the Fat Duck’s run here, and we were there pretty much right in the middle of the period. I’d say I was personally insulted but actually have to admit I’ve only rarely watched him on TV and mostly know him by reputation.

Q: Do you realise how lucky you are? I entered the ballot [insert ridiculous number] times and still couldn’t get a table!
A: Yes, yes I do. And I actually got in twice (once through a friend, once through my own entry) but decided I couldn’t justify going again. Please, don’t hate me. On second thought, go ahead and hate me – I don’t care, I went to the Fat Duck without having to survive the death struggle the booking process is reputedly, or even jump on a plane.

Okay. Serious business begins here, interspersed with pretty pictures.

By the 6th of May 2015, I’d been waiting three months almost to the day since being invited (by my friend, Erwin) to dine at the Fat Duck Melbourne and more than once during that period I’d wondered about being disappointed after so much hype and anticipation. So, I tried to go in without too much prior knowledge – for example, I diligently avoided reading any reviews of either the Melbourne or Bray restaurants so I wouldn’t have any specific presumptions about the dishes.

I’m pretty pleased to now be able say that the overall experience absolutely lived up to expectations.

Look at this massive wine list!

Get a load of this massive wine list!

What really stood out for me wasn’t the taste of the dishes, but the fun of it all – the food was not only delicious, as expected, but weird and wonderful in a surprising way, as was our entire afternoon. The atmosphere was relaxed and distinctly un-stuffy. The staff members were friendly, funny and knowledgeable; they seemed like they were enjoying their jobs and were open and unpretentious. The delivery of each dish was a little performance, with playfully ridiculous stories accompanying some of them.

The tea tasting was an absolutely brilliant idea – a perfect option for those who don’t or can’t drink and normally feel left out of the matched food/beverage experience. Among those teas were some of the best I have ever tried and the taste pairings were often spot on, sometimes a better match to the dish than even the paired wine.

*    *    *

Our sixteen course journey started with the aerated beetroot, a small, spherical macaron-like appetiser which was unassumingly delicious. A fellow diner commented that it was like a “reverse Malteser”, being crunchy and aerated on the outside and creamy on the inside.

aerated beetroot

aerated beetroot

*    *    *

making nitro-poached aperitifs

making nitro-poached aperitifs

With the nitro-poached aperitifs, we had our first piece of food theatre and a refreshing palate cleanser. Wait staff with a trolley made pseudo-meringues using liquid nitrogen as we watched, the flavours based on our choice between a few options – vodka and lime, gin and tonic, or tequila and grapefruit. I opted for the vodka and lime because it sounded like a great way to wake up those taste buds, get myself good and ready for what was to come.

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

*    *    *

My first tea arrived around this time – a refreshing white tea described on the menu as Pre Rain Organic Anji Bai Cha from Zhejiang, China.

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

*    *    *

The gazpacho came next, red cabbage creating a beautiful reddish plum colour in the soup, poured over a Pommery grain mustard ice cream. Having ice cream as the third course certainly plays with your head a bit, but tasting it, you certainly won’t confuse it for dessert – it played out like a refreshing starter that just happened to be in ice cream format.

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

*    *    *

Next up was a course whose reputation precedes it – the visually fantastic Savoury Lollies, based on actual popular iced lollies/ice blocks/whatever you call them. Despite my loosely self-imposed Fat Duck media blackout, I had already seen many photos of this clever dish. The tiny Rocket popsicle is inspired by a waldorf salad, with layers for apple, celery and walnut; the retro Tangle Twister is actually rolled smoked Australian salmon with a swirly wrap of avocado and horseradish cream; finally, the miniature Golden Gaytime is a perfectly smooth and velvety chicken liver parfait coated in fig jelly and dipped in crushed almonds. Creativity earns the most points here, while the taste was nice but nothing mind-blowing.

Savoury lollies - waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

Savoury lollies – waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

*    *    *

I was then delivered a lovely, strong oolong to pair with the richness of the next few courses – a Traditional Iron Buddha Oolong (Tie Guan Yin Wu Long) from Fujian, China.

*    *    *

Walk through the Forest was the first of the two courses meant to be a multi-sensory experience. Your table is presented with a wooden block covered in oak moss, on which there sits a little plastic dispenser for each person containing what looks like a thin, translucent film, similar to those breath freshener strips. You place the strip on your tongue, and being greeted with a taste of the forest, watch as a clear liquid infused with oak moss essential oil is poured from a teapot onto the moss-covered block, which then instantly and magically turns into fragrant smoke and mist to evoke the aroma of “home fires and damp wood”. Heston wants us to engage all of our five senses here, and it works without feeling too gimmicky.

Oak moss strips

Walk through the forest – Oak moss strips

Smells of the forest

Walk through the forest – Smells of the forest

Up to this point, this course has already provided visual, aural, tactile, gustatory and olfactory stimulation and we haven’t even arrived at actual food yet. The dish proper is quail jelly drowned in an ultra-rich roasted marron cream with pea puree and a dollop of caviar sorbet, served with a thin slice of oak moss and truffle toast. Chopped very finely, the truffle packs a surprising flavour punch for the tiny size of the cracker which somehow reinforces the experience of being surrounded by the damp, dewy greenery of a forest. The marron cream is simply delicious, its richness meant to counterbalance the sharpness and freshness of the oaky, mossy, plant-based accompaniments, and it does that very well.

Walk through the forest - jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

Walk through the forest – jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

On the side, fresh bread is presented with butter infused with oak moss essential oil and truffle that grows under oak trees.

*    *    *

The Snail Porridge was one of my favourite courses in terms of taste. It seemed quite technically simple and rustic, yet a famous, long-lived Fat Duck dish – a hearty, beautifully textured soup that’s a shade of vibrant parsley green with meltingly tender braised snails, Joselito ham, topped with marinated fennel shavings. As much as I enjoy escargots the French way, I loved this much more. The flavours were rich and complex yet, not being completely drowned in garlic and butter, didn’t overwhelm the neutral-tasting snails, allowing them to actually be the star of their own dish. It was one of my dining companions’ first taste of the mollusc (never having had the traditional French dish) and his opinion was much the same. Yes, this is definitely a yummy, warming, (very expensive) comfort food that I wanted more of when I reached the bottom of the bowl.

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

*    *    *

The third tea, a Japanese sencha, turned up at this stage – organic Gyokuro from Uji. The leaves were very attractive – deep green and needle-like – and brewed, it was rich and beautifully fragrant with a distinctly sweet taste which accompanied the next dishes well.

*    *    *

Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

I think the Roast Marron was probably one of the more “normal” siblings in this motley Fat Duck family of dishes, in that most of what was on the plate was actually what it looked like it was. Here, the quality of the ingredients was really able to shine and the marron was fresh and tender. Confit kombu, cured shiitake and sea lettuce lent natural saltiness and umami to balance with the sweetness of the marron. I read in another review somewhere that the writer thought there was too much going on in this dish, but I disagree. If anything, I thought it was lovely, but was slightly underwhelmed by the sheer normality. In hindsight, I think it was probably a good idea to have this little break from the surreal in preparation for the next course, which was definitely the weirdest of the lot!

*    *    *

Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come... in the next part!

Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come… in the next part!

To be continued…!

Still to come:

  • All the things!
  • Mad Hatter’s tea party and the mock mock turtle soup!
  • An iPod in a giant seashell!
  • Moarrr tea!
  • Egg & bacon ice cream?
  • That mouldy grape dessert thing from Masterchef…

Fat Duck

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MFWF 2014: Tarbert’s Table & Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent

Author’s note, or something: I feel odd about publishing a post that talks about haggis during my strictly herbivorous month – you can’t really get a lot less vegan than haggis!

A recent episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a Scottish-Mexican fusion restaurant as an example of ridiculous places that should not exist and things that “do not fuse”.

Funny, not just because it does seem pretty silly, but that in recalling my own recent food adventures, I realised that my opening weekend of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival did in fact feature both Scottish and Mexican “cuisine”.

How I Met Your Mother - 9x21

Amusing as the combination might seem, my experience perfectly represents the rich medley of events that comprise the MFWF, which in turn exemplifies the undiscriminating and incredibly ethnically diverse food culture in Melbourne.

I am so absolutely excited by variety, yet though I was vaguely aware of the MFWF before moving to Melbourne, I didn’t know just how much was on offer. Food festivals back home were one-or-two-day one-venue affairs – I had no idea it could be this incredible, colossal, city-wide celebration of food that spanned two and a half weeks! Several years on, and it’s definitely tied first with Christmas for my most anticipated time of the year. As mentioned in my opening post of the festival, this is my third MFWF run, and I already feel like a bit of a veteran, planning my way around the two and a half weeks while making sure to fit in a diverse range of events.

Each year, the festival has an overarching theme and the individually hosted events that are a part of it try to work with that as the central idea. In 2014, the theme was “Water”.

Tarbert’s Table of the Loch (Golden Gate Hotel)

A mere 24 hours after my first World’s Longest Lunch, I was heading off to South Melbourne’s Golden Gate Hotel with KP for some traditional Scottish fare. This event, called “Tarbert’s Table of the Loch” was run by the Melbourne Venue Company (MWC), who had also organised a themed lunch last year called “A Conquistador’s Adventure”. That event was held in a pub in Port Melbourne, part of a family of pub venues around the city, and was featured in my photo post summarising my 2013 participation in MFWF.

Tarbert is a village in Scotland that is built around a loch (Gaelic for “lake” or sea inlet) and so the meal features several seafood dishes, thus satisfying the MFWF’s water theme of the year.

As it was at last year’s South American feast (A Conquistador’s Adventure, mentioned above), the food was quite delicious overall. It’s a pleasant surprise (for lack of a better word) because these MWC events are catered by the resident chefing talent of the pub it is held at. Often these pubs have a strong, positive local reputation, yet are not exactly famed for their food and the chefs are unknowns.

I am not sure how the MWC managed to find some person or persons at The Exchange Hotel capable of whipping up over a dozen different Central and South American specialties in 2013, but this year one of the Golden Gate Hotel’s very own just happened to be Scottish – a young guy by the name of Fraser, the pub’s head chef.

What’s even more amazing is that they managed to track down a Scottish minister from a local Scots’ church to read a Gaelic blessing before the meat course!

The other guests were a mishmash of personalities – a mix of locals who seemed to frequent the pub and probably saw a flier, people who had travelled in Scotland and missed the food, actual Scottish people who missed their food or were curious, foodies who had found the event online or their friends and spouses who were dragged along. The host or “MC”, if you will, was the very same guy who had dressed up in Spanish conquistador costume last year and was now dressed in a kilt!

Lunch began with canapes of crushed black pudding, crumbed fried scallops and smoked salmon on a sort of plain mini pancake. I thought that scallops and salmon were rather uninteresting choices (though the bite-sized servings were nice enough), but the black pudding was rich and delicious, not too dry, not too overwhelming. Even KP, who normally dislikes black pudding and morcilla sausage and the like, really enjoyed it.

The highlight of all the courses was, almost indisputably, the Cullen skink, which is similar to a rather thick seafood chowder. It was hearty, creamy, flavoursome, subtly smoky and full of fresh seafood-y goodness, topped with one large, perfectly fried potato-and-fish dumpling. Once I had cleaned my bowl, I simultaneously craved seconds and felt like I couldn’t have one more rich, lactose-laden spoonful.

Haggis came next, and it was pretty much a given that this famed Scottish fare would feature in a lunch showcasing that country’s traditional cooking. It was served with “bashit neeps” and “chappit tatties”, which mean crushed turnips and mashed potatoes, respectively – I had to giggle as I suddenly had a vision of myself, furiously BASHing turneeeeeps! There’s not much you can say about mashed veges, except I would describe, for example, bad mashed potato to have a powdery texture and taste, and good mash to be smooth, velvety and quite creamy. This was good mash, and the beaten up turnips were good, too.

I can’t have eaten haggis more than maybe twice ever, so I don’t have of a point of comparison, but I quite liked it – it actually tasted a lot like a rich pate, but with oats through it. Rather than being made in-house, it was instead purchased from a butcher in Dandenong (I think?) which was apparently somewhat well known for it. Ah, there you go, I just looked it up. It’s called Rob’s British and Irishy Butchery. Rob makes authentic British smallgoods that seem to be very popular with the immigrant communities as well as delis Victoria-wide.

The meat dish of lamb backstrap less satisfying than all the other courses – mine in particular was a little more than a touch dry and overcooked, and I seemed to also have a smaller serving with thinner slices of lamb than others at my table. The sauce was, moreover, slightly gritty, though quite tasty. I put it down to having a large number of guests to serve, and perhaps others got very juicy and delicious portions.

At the start of the meal, I let the waiters know that I wouldn’t be able to eat the dessert of Cranachan, which included whisky-soaked oatmeal. They were flustered for only a minute, but went to speak to the chef, and came back to inform me that he’d be able to whip me up one of two other options for dessert – a pannacotta or a sorbet selection. Not yet knowing how rich the meal would turn out to be, I opted for the pannacotta, later wishing I’d chosen the more refreshing sorbet! It was absolutely lovely of the chef and wait staff to accommodate my rather last-minute request for a menu modification during an event with so many people to cater for.

It turned out that some people did not seem to enjoy their cranachan dessert very much, which the host had introduced as being similar to Eton Mess (to which comparison I heard a few dissenting murmurs from the Scottish people present), but I have no comment to make as, unlike with wine, I didn’t want to risk having even a taste. My pannacotta, on the other hand, was beautifully presented and quite lovely.

This event also included a “whisky library” with cushy chairs where guests could sneak off to at any point and sample a Scotch whisky tasting flight – quite a nice thing and added great value to the experience (if not for myself!)

Overall, I really enjoyed the afternoon with good food and varied company – though I didn’t feel it was as fun or interactive as A Conquistador’s Adventure, I recognise it was probably a trickier and less “user-friendly” theme to pull off compared to last year’s theme! KP and I both stumbled home feeling full and satisfied, with the feeling of an afternoon well spent, and that’s definitely what I consider a successful event.

Golden Gate Hotel on Urbanspoon

Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent (Mamasita)

Mamasita is certainly an establishment that needs no introduction, being widely known as serving up some of the best authentic Mexican cuisine in Melbourne, and probably the Southern Hemisphere; so I’m not going to dwell in great detail on the food we experienced at this event, which was, as usual, delicious.

This night, Mamasita took on the challenge of hosting a great night and changed things up, bringing out some dishes that were quite different from their usual fare of tacos, quesadillas and deliciously marinated seafood (though we had those, too!)

I jumped at the opportunity to make a booking for this event because, well, normally the restaurant doesn’t take bookings for small groups, and having been a patron in the past, and though having loved it, I’m not all that keen on queuing to get in on the nights I want to eat there. Perhaps it’s my old age.

In the same vein, probably – my main complaint of the evening would be that I ended up with a sore butt from sitting at the bar for over 4 hours – tiny stool, not so tiny butt. This was partially my fault, as I’d been given two options for seating when booking, and while neither were ideal (as I booked late), I chose the bar myself. Nonetheless, I would wager that the bar seating was not designed for long, drawn out events like a 9 course dinner. But hey, at least I got to look at all the pretty tequila bottles all night!

I felt the pacing of the courses was regular but a little drawn out – as it was quite dark and rather loud, the atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to having involved conversations to pass the considerable length of time.

We started off with a canape of braised octopus with peppers, cherry tomatoes and olives, which counted as the “eat” portion of the first course, which was lovely, but was neither introduced in any way nor served at a consistent time across the venue.

Only before the second course of the ever-amazing Mamasita elote callejero (grilled corn) was the event format and theme of pairing seafood (eating “ocean”) and tequila (drinking “succulent”) explained.

Beer, wine, and tequila were all practically free-flowing throughout the evening, with great variety and well matched with the food. However, occasionally the introductions to the beverages got lost in the din or the staff simply forgot.

Neither the aguachile nor ceviche took me back to my time on the Yucatan peninsula last year – though I did enjoy them and the seafood was fresh and sweet, the preparation wasn’t what my limited knowledge would have considered authentic.

The taco course came as a surprise – smoked eel. Eel is a fish I have never eaten outside of Japanese cuisine, but it worked pretty well. As ever, you can’t go wrong with a quesadilla if it has cheese in it, but to my even greater surprise, after I was emailed a list of the courses we’d sampled after the event, I found that I had eaten something called “huitlacoche”, which upon Googling I discovered means “corn smut“.

So what the hell is corn smut? It’s like a fungal infection that grows on top of young corn, which doesn’t sound very nice… but essentially, it’s just mushrooms. Grown on corn.

When it came to the sopes, the corn bread base was a little dry or stale but the duck and tamarind together was a tasty combination.

My favourite dish of the night was a warmingly hearty and aromatic seafood cazuela (a sort of soup or stew) of barramundi, shellfish, orange and fennel, served with tomato and garlic chilli rice.

There was only one sweet course – frozen chocolate mousse with dulce de leche, fresh cream, sesame praline and figs – and I wasn’t a fan. But then, I’m never really a fan of rich chocolatey desserts after a big meal.

Though the evening had room for improvement in various areas, the food was delicious and varied, the portions and drinks generous, and I sincerely hope Mamasita holds more reserved events like this. To their great credit, the team sent out questionnaires to the attendees, requesting feedback, and if they can take it all on board for future events, I’ll be even more impressed!

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

Thus ends my long story of how Scottish-met-Mexican in the context of my life. It may not be as memorable as seeing men with moustaches wearing sombreros and kilts playing bagpipes, but it was a fun weekend nevertheless.

Doing my best Spider Man impression

On the 23rd or 24th of May, you may see a small figure wearing shiny tight nylon springing off the side of a high-rise in Melbourne CBD. Don’t get too excited – this will be no superhero in a fancy costume, it’ll just be me wearing fabulous Black Milk get-up abseiling down a twenty-seven story building.

Well, I might not be kicking ass and fighting crime in the traditional superhero way, but I do hope to be making a positive difference by taking part in Altitude Shift – it’s an event organised by Anglicare Victoria that challenges participants to “leap outside [their] comfort zone” and in doing so, raise awareness, support and money for vulnerable kids right here in our state. Anglicare is a not-for-profit organisation that helps Victorian children by providing them with foster care and their families or carers with support services, as well as emergency relief and food assistance where most needed.

I found out about Altitude Shift while I was in the lobby of my office building, grabbing a soy cappuccino. I picked up a postcard flier while waiting for my coffee and immediately knew it was something I wanted to do – readers, you may not know this about me, but I actually love heights and high adrenalin stuff, so to not only have the opportunity to do something like this but to also support a cause so dear to me at the same time seemed like fate or something.

Let me tell you why this is important to me. I am really a huge believer in the positive lifelong impact of a nurturing and loving environment on a child. As an adopted child, I know the love and the sense of security and safety my parents gave me growing up was absolutely fundamental to my happiness, stability and success as an adult. I have never been in foster care but I absolutely believe in the good the system can do and admire the amazing families that not only take care of our most vulnerable children but in many cases help them to flourish – I want to give as much support as I possibly can to them.

It’s been over a month since I signed up to the challenge and I’m fairly close to my fundraising target. But I’m not quite there yet.
Here’s how you can help.

  • You can donate to my campaign directly here: http://tinyurl.com/altidie
  • You can browse my garage sale and get some great bargains while supporting an amazing cause at the same time! – because 85% of the total you spend on any item over $1 will go to Anglicare and Altitude Shift!

For more info, take a look at the Altitude Shift website or feel free to contact me via this website with any questions you have, or if you have any other suggestions to help out with fundraising!

Week 2 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day 7 (Monday, April 7):
Lunch: Rainbow slaw with fried tofu and lemongrass lime dressing
Dinner: Dukkah roasted potatoes
Dessert: 1 square of Pana chocolate (mint flavour), Mister Nice Guy Lamington mini cupcake

I made a huge amount of delicious “butter chicken” (except not-butter and not-chicken) tonight – it’ll last two dinners, two lunches this week for both of us plus an additional four frozen portions. Who knew that curry with no cream or ghee or butter could taste this rich and creamy?

Day 8 (Tuesday, April 8):
Lunch: Not-butter not-chicken with a side of dukkah roasted potatoes
Dinner: More un-butter-un-chicken, with an evening snack of Alive & Radiant Kale Krunch in “cheezy” chipotle flavour

I found myself seriously looking forward to eating my curry for lunch. Look at it – can you blame me?

Hungry after work, I wanted to grab a snack on my way to a book club meeting, and it just so happened that the health store was marginally closer to the supermarket on my way to the train, so I bought this dehydrated kale chips packet. It was quite yummy, by the way, and tasted totally cheesy despite being completely vegan – raw vegan, at that! However, the irony of spending $9 on a healthy snack instead of $2 on an unhealthy one because I was too lazy to walk another 20 metres is pretty… great. Let’s just go with ‘great’.

Day 9 (Wednesday, April 9):
Lunch: Last portion of left over dukkah potatoes
Dinner: Udon with mushroom light soy broth, tofu, shiitake and oyster mushrooms
Snack: Sweet William mini dairy free chocolate bar

Day 10 (Thursday, April 10):
Lunch: Tofu mince “bolognese” with shell pasta
Dinner: Lord of the Fries burger and fries
Dessert: Smooze Mango coconut ice

Really? I’m one third of the way through the challenge? I’m really settling into things and getting used to it. I feel that by next week, there isn’t going to be anything to write about, only foodporn.

Day 11 (Friday, April 11):
Lunch: Mixed mushroom vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dessert: Orange Polenta cupcake with Popcorn topping, from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Gong De Lin – beancurd wrapper dumplings, seaweed fried rice with pinenuts, mixed mushroom hotpot

Day 12 (Saturday, April 12):
Phat Brats “Superfood Dog”, “Half-Pint Vegan Dairy” Coconut Milk Ice Cream with Coffee

I went to the newly-opened Melbourne branch of the Cruelty Free Shop today and bought all sorts of meat substitutes – up to this point, I haven’t been cooking with them, but I have a few dishes in mind next week that’ll be able to make use of some nice “chorizo” and “pork sausage”. I also bought this amazing “New Kinda Bacon” thing, which is so convincingly smokey and delicious I had to use all my willpower not to eat the whole $13 packet all at once! The shop certainly had a really good range of vegan foodstuffs, though I noticed many of the prices are high compared to the same product at other fancy grocers in Melbourne. They do have a wider variety of stuff, so I guess for a one-stop-shop, it’s pretty damn awesome.

Day 13 (Sunday, April 13):
Vege Pad Thai and “duck” pancake from Madame K Vegetarian; roast vegetable and “facon” (new-kinda bacon) cassoulet

Week two was easier than week one, even though I didn’t eat out as much – I’m definitely getting into the groove and not randomly craving buttery things all the time. I still had a few things that weren’t vegan – I had some more European milk chocolate that was still in the house, and my Phat Brats superfood dog had chilli mayo in it of the dairy variety as did my Lord of the Fries meal. I want to see if I can go the next week with even less dairy allowances.

Turns out, being a new vegetarian, even almost-vegan, is fairly easy if you just focus on all the yummy things you can eat and just don’t even think about what you can’t. At least, it seems to be working well for me so far.

I honestly don’t think I’m going to do another diary post next week – but I’ll do a round up of food highlights at the end of the month at least! In the meantime, follow the deliciousness I am eating on Instagram, hashtag #aprilvegchallenge!

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