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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.

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