Blintz on Tour: Gnome, Sydney

The second most noteworthy Sydney foodie place I got to visit with Chris and Nicole on my weekend trip was teeny Surry Hills cafe Gnome. We were on a serious mission for food, as night-before shenanigans meant that it was 3pm on a Sunday, and we hadn’t eaten. IT WAS A FOOD EMERGENCY.

It was very lucky indeed then that we chanced upon Gnome and slipped into a corner table in the tiny space. It is a tight room, but comfortable – the large windows open out so a breeze comes through to cut through the humidity, the staff are cheery and the room’s white walls are brightened up with art like colourful ceramic animal heads.

I very much needed fortifying with vitamins, so before anything solid hit the table I had a Gnome breakfast juice, which consisted of whizzed up kale, watermelon, apple and ginger. Thankfully Gnome followed the green juices rule of if you’re going to put leafy greens in a juice you need to make sure they comprise 40% or less of the total otherwise it will taste like a glass of iron-rich sludge. This juice properly woke me up with its sizable ginger kick, yet with a really pleasant undercurrent of sweetness from the watermelon and apple.

On to BUSINESS. The day clearly required hollandaise, so all three of us decided to tuck into the mini egg benny roll – poached egg, hollandaise sauce and ham (kindly omitted for me) on a brioche roll. Chris added mushrooms to his because he knows what’s what. This was just what the doctor ordered, a hot handful of recovery in a bun. I want one now, someone send a plane.

Because this was our first meal of the day at a time when we should have had two already, we had absolutely no compunction in ordering seconds, because why would you even if you’d already had five meals? While Nicole and Chris went a second round on the benny rolls, I switched to sweet with the toasted banana bread served with cinnamon butter, and honey and lime mascarpone. This was A VERY GOOD CHOICE. The banana bread was this sweet, spicy scented warm slab, which once slathered with the cinnamon butter (which melted immediately OH SO DECADENTLY) and the citric tang of the mascarpone, just erupted one’s mouth with sweet comfort.

Gnome is a little place doing a little array of things but doing them ever so right, in a way that isn’t going to empty your pockets either. If you can squeeze in, it’s well worth the time.

Gnome

536 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney

Ph: (02) 9332 3191

www.brewtownnewtown.com

Blintz on Tour: Fika Swedish Kitchen, Sydney

I recently popped up for a weekend in Sydney to spend time with the most excellent Chris and Nicole, passionate film lovers after my own heart. They also happen to be keen foodies, and were very open to my suggestions as to cafes and restaurants that I was was jumping to visit. While I initially did heaps of research, in the end there was only one place that I absolutely INSISTED that we make the effort to try, and that was Fika’s Swedish Kitchen in Manly.

The January I spent in Sweden five years ago is one of my most cherished memories, so any time I get the chance to tuck into some Swedish food (which is generally few and far between here in Oz) is enormously treasured. I was also interested to see how Fika’s Swedish food would translate to such a hot, beachy location as Manly. Very well, as it turns out.

After jumping a ferry at Circular Quay and letting Chris have enough time to acclimatise to Manly’s shores – despite being a native Sydneysider this was only his second visit ever to Manly (“Farken, it’s Bondi Two!”) – we crisscrossed the main drag in order to find Fika hidden up a sidestreet across from the library.

Fika is freaking ADORABLE, let me just put that out there first. Lots of Scandi blond wood (BUT OF COURSE) and blue and yellow touches, from signage to crockery. There are also proper Swedes serving you with big smiles and brandished menus, and the menu is very wide-ranging and filled with everything your little Scandinavian-longing heart could desire.

It was hard to tear my eyes away from the desserts (the Swedes take their cakes and baking VERY SERIOUSLY), but come on Hayley, being on holiday doesn’t mean avoiding vegetables. So I got the barley salad with asparagus, crispy apple, thick halves of fig heavy from having been poached in red wine, roasted almonds and Danish feta. This was a very good idea, rarely do you get a salad where all the ingredients have distinctly different flavours and textures and yet none work against each other. Everything was contributing to a complimentary circle of flavour building that resulted in DELICIOUSNESS. Coupled with an iced lingonberry drink and further on some cheeky cider, this was a very fresh and zingy lunch choice.

Both Chris and Nicole had the Gothenberg hot dog – beef and pork frankfurter with mash, roasted onion and house gherkin mayo in a bread roll, and served with a jar of some fermented prawn salad goodness. This was an impressively large hot dog (inches poking out the ends of the bun, make your wang jokes right here) and was very clever in taking a borders-crossing dish and making it firmly Swedish.

With savouries out of the way, it was finally time to attack the object of my long game: the pastries cabinet.  I fell in love quite fiercely with sweets such as semla and kanelbullar on my trip, and unless one makes them oneself, Swedish baked treats are hard to come by here. So I was so so pleased to take into my hands a kardemummabullar, or cardamom scroll, dotted with stark white sugar crystals and thick, dark seams of spices curling around in aromatic whorls. This was everything. If I could have a bun like this every day of my life and die from acute carbs arrest, I would.

Fika is very much worth the ferry ride, or indeed the plane trip, I took to get to it. If you reside in or are visiting the harbour city, make great haste there by whichever transportation means are necessary.

Fika Swedish Kitchen

5B Market Lane, Manly

Ph: (02) 9976 5099

www.fikaswedishkitchen.com.au

The Kettle Black

It is BUSY at The Kettle Black. Seemingly all the time. It makes sense – in this particular part of South Melbourne, just near the Domain Interchange, there’s not another quality cafe within cooee. Luckily Julian had got there before me on this day and had the good sense to put our name on the list, so the wait for me was under ten minutes. Always go to brunch with more punctual friends, it equals dividends!

The Kettle Black is very striking, aesthetically. It’s comprised of the ground level of a swisho new apartment block, all shiny surfaces and architectural whizz-bangery, which has managed to include an old, stark white terrace house as a part of the greater building. Inside walls are white, with potted plants and vines streaming their tendrils in the bright light of the wall to ceiling windows that face the street.

After a flat white, I got stuck into a plate of seasonal raw and cooked mushrooms on toast with mushroom powder and goat curd, plus a poached egg. The poached egg was served on the side, which was a little odd – surely the joy of the poached egg is to pop it open upon your bread and fixings and let the yolk ooze decadently over everything. Maybe The Kettle Black wants to advocate levering a poached egg directly into you mouth all at once, and if so I greatly dishonoured local practice by carefully transferring the egg onto the mushroom and curd mountain on toast. The cooked mushrooms were juicy and hot; I’m not 100% convinced that the raw mushrooms worked with the rest of the plate, mainly for textural reasons, but it certainly is an interesting idea. But hey, put creamy goats’ curd on things and it all tends to turn out right in the end.

Julian decided to feast on some native wildlife (okay maybe it was mostly the allure of the eggs) and went with the chilli scrambled eggs with air-dried Flinders Island wallaby, feta and leaves. The scramble was an eye-popping cadmium yellow – yes I just delved into Derwent pencil colours to get just the right descriptor – crowned with some red capsicum and little pink medallions of wallaby meat.

I also finally sampled a Doughboys doughnut, which were the crown jewels in a very impressively curated cake cabinet. I have been largely suspicious of the fancy doughnut craze, as for me a doughnut is a rebellious crap food indulgence. I don’t need quality ingredients when it comes to a doughnut, I want powdered sugar and artificial creme! But this morning I was beguiled by the fat, glazed rings calling at me from across the room. I asked the waiter to surprise me with the flavour, and he brought back a ‘lime toast’ with lemon and lime zest icing, sprinkled with toasted coconut. The dough was very light, puffy and airy, and the icing had been heavily zested with citrus flavours without being overwhelming. It was very pleasant, although I can’t say I’ve now been drawn into abandoning my crap doughnut ways.

I am not one to ordinarily advocate queuing for anything, no matter how good, but should you find yourself in South Melbourne and can snaffle yourself a spot at The Kettle Black in under ten minutes, I would recommend it as time well spent.

The Kettle Black

50 Albert Road, South Melbourne

Ph: 9088 0721

thekettleblack.com.au

Mantra Lounge

If you spend any time around the area of Melbourne University, it would take special effort not to be aware of Mantra Lounge. The advertising blitz started even before they were open, with tram stop poster displays and advertising wagons being pulled behind cars and bikes alike canvassing Carlton streets, all advertising their $7.95 meal deal as the best value vegan food in town, and it’s continued in the months since they’ve been open.

Despite this hyper level of awareness, it’s taken me a bit of a bloody long time to get to Mantra Lounge. But the lure of cheap vegan food cannot be ignored for long, and I found my way there for a weekday dinner.

Mantra Lounge is kind of set up as a hippie canteen. You grab your tray, line up and choose your meal from the board and cabinet displays. There are the aforementioned meal deals, which comprise the vegie dish of the day (you can upgrade to get the hot savoury bake of the day), salad and a square of cake, and for a very economical $3 extra you can get one of the brightly coloured homemade drinks that sit in dispensers at the very end of the counter. Pretty much everything is vegan, and there’s quite a few gluten-free options to be had as well.

I went with the meal deal that included the hot stodgy main, as they had a vegan lasagne available that looked very creamy and cheesy, and I was intrigued to see how it would stack up against a dairy version. The salad was filled with green leaves, slices of cucumber, grated carrot and beetroot, and was drizzled with some kind of harissa spiced dressing. The cake, which was placed precariously on the edge of my pasta and salad plate, was banana.

The lasagne was indeed very creamy and cheesy, and most pleasingly didn’t have any kind of chemically after-tang that a lot of vegan cheeses have. It was a generous serving too, although some of the vegetable chunks within were a bit big and still had a bite to them rather than being good and mushy, but that is more of a personal lasagne preference than a real criticism. I was happy to see the variety of ingredients in the salad, and the harissa dressing certainly kicked it way above what you would expect from a side salad at this price. The square of banana cake (I am slightly worried about the fact that the cake is served on the same plate as everything else, WHAT IF IT GOT PASTA SAUCE ON IT?) was lightly crumbly yet moist, and with a nice balance between crumb and fruity bits. The mango smoothie I had to accompany my meal was smooth, lightly fragrant and very agreeable, and I was given a more than generous glass to fill from the dispenser fountain.

You definitely aren’t going to get a vegan meal this good for this price anywhere else. Really the question to ask is whether the vibe of the place will gel with you or not. The canteen process has zero frills, and you do have to tidy up after yourself and return all dishes and trays behind the counter. Given that it targets students you may, as I did, encounter large groups having some kind of extra-curricular dinner, and there is not a lot of room to queue and sound travels VERY LOUDLY in this bare-walled space. It is also, obviously, quite a hippy-dippy establishment, so if your comfort level with being surrounded by flyers for drumming circle groups and ‘mindfulness’ seminars and the kind of clientele those activities tend to attract isn’t terribly robust, you may want to give Mantra a pass. However if you are after a cheap vegan meal that is simple yet tastes pretty darn great, you really can’t go wrong.

Mantra Lounge

167 Grattan Street, Carlton

Ph: 0414 888 002

www.mantralounge.com.au

Nora

I’ve somehow wound up with a Saturday morning film reviewing gig on radio (I know, right?!) which has the pleasing bonus of causing me to be up and about way earlier that most Saturday morning foodies. All early opening breakfast spots are mine for the taking!

I’d been wanting to visit Nora since it opened – a Thai cafe serving Thai-inspired brunch meals, that’s a damn sight more exciting than plain old eggs on toast (not to disparage eggs on toast, but I consume A LOT of eggs on toast, change is good and healthy for mind and tum). It’s an extremely visually appealing space, coming across as half coffee spot, half art project, with an overall Scandi blonde wood look and the big table by the front window doesn’t appear to be for customers, instead displaying a tableau of the produce used in the menu. Very striking, although it must make things a bit crowded when there’s a full house.

The second thing you’ll notice after the space is that menu. Warning, it is LIMITED. Two options for vegetarians, out of seven dishes all up. But it’s an interesting menu, with things like smoked fish with nashi, beets and coconut ricotta, and the intriguingly named “Pig From The Ground It’s Raised From” (perhaps a nod to Ben Shewry’s renowned potato cooked in it’s own earth). Everything is just that little bit fancy, down to being served sparkling as the standard water option.

Out of the two vegie friendly options available, I decided to go with the ‘2010’ rice bircher, with longan, jackfruit, toddy palm, coconut and almonds. This was quite a visual and textural experience, being served in a heavy stone bowl, with the mass of purple-black bircher rice supporting crescents of jackfruit, ever so thinly sliced rounds of longan, roughly shaped shavings of coconut, the jelly-ish toddy palm and chopped chunks of almonds. The only component that didn’t really work for me was an unfamiliar nut or seed that had been combined in with the rice bircher and were shaped kind of like a gingko nut. These had an unpleasant texture that felt out of place, particularly in among the smooth creaminess of the bircher.

While I may not return frequently for Nora’s food given the small amount of options for vegies, I definitely will for their excellent coffee which really was gorgeous, perfectly poured with good colour, and not too strong. I’ve just started working in Carlton and Nora is within walking distance, which pleases me no end in terms of afternoon coffee breaks.

While Nora may not have enough on the menu to make regular diners out of those with specialty diets, if you are intrigued by any of their dishes I do recommend giving them a go. Perhaps you’ll even be able to snaffle one of their famous charcoal tarts, but be warned that they only make up to 100 a day, and they’re normally gone by noon!

Nora

156 Elgin Street, Carlton

www.noramelbourne.com

Blintz on Tour: Sage, Los Angeles

As the last stop on my trip, Los Angeles’ food unfortunately had to suffer from the fact that I was COMPLETELY LAID BACK IN SUPER HOLIDAY MODE by this point and was not taking notes as diligently as I should have been. I would have loved to have been able to cry rhapsodic about the first meal I had in town, an enormous stack of pancakes filled with layers of sliced caramel banana goodness which we had at a cafe near my friend Joe’s apartment and was close to the best thing I ate all trip, but I stupidly didn’t do the simplest thing of taking down the cafe’s NAME (if Joe reminds me I’ll update you all, make no mistake). Another old friend Jess took me out for a whirlwind day where we had brunch at Malibu Farm, which is right on the end of Malibu Pier, which I highly recommend, I had a delicious Thai-style tofu curry called the Vegan Coconut which I scoffed while watching fishermen try their luck outside. We also had an afternoon snack at Superba, an excellent bakery and food store where we shared a gorgeous cinnamon bun that was thick both in cinnamon seams and sticky white icing, and a beautiful little berry and custard tart.

But if there’s one LA restaurant I have to give the proper full-review treatment, it is Sage.

You can’t go far in Los Angeles without being reminded that the entire city rides on the back of the movie business. Sage, an all-vegan bistro that touts itself as “a cruelty-free plant based restaurant that meat eaters AND vegans and vegetarians adore” is apparently owned by Woody Harrelson. And as Joe and I ate our meal we spotted more than a few celebrity faces at other tables. But the real star here is the ENORMOUS menu, featuring purely plant-based bowls of green goodness to big mock meat extravaganzas, and everything in between.

We started with one of the specials, a plate of vegan ‘hot wings’ – fried cauliflower pieces that had been generously slathered in thick red hot sauce. They’re not lying about hot either (this is AMERICA, hot sauce is SERIOUS BUSINESS), I was glad I’d had the forethought to order a bourbon-heavy cocktail so I could gulp away the burn. With two pots of dipping sauce and sticks of celery and carrot to boot, this was a good-sized entree.

Next was the BBQ pineapple pizza: spicy housemade maple syrup barbeque sauce with grilled pineapple, Follow Your Heart mozzarella, with breaded seitan chicken. This was probably my fave, because how can you go past PIZZA especially when it has big chunks of well-seasoned mock chicken and pineapple all over it (pineapple on pizza haters TO THE LEFT).

Doubling our carbs, we also had the tuna melt sandwich: jackfruit tuna salad, heirloom tomato, avocado, iceberg lettuce, grilled red onion and mustard with spicy cashew cheese, with a side of spicy dill pickle slices and homemade potato chips. I was a little bit disappointed with this, I had a different idea of what texture the jackfruit would lend to the mock tuna and it was just a bit off from what I was expecting, which was clearly entirely my fault. But I love the idea of mock sandwiches, especially if they get served with crispy potato chips, so I would definitely recommend trying one of Sage’s many sarny options.

If I were to visit Sage again – and my goodness I really do hope I get to do so – I would probably not go as carb heavy and maybe have another of the pizzas alongside one of their salads or taco options, as by the end of this meal Joe practically had to roll me outta there. But oh, it was so very worth it, and the perfect way to cap my North America trip. Thanks Woody.

Sage

4130 Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City

Ph: +1 424 228 5835

www.sageveganbistro.com

Blintz On Tour: Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco

CAKE. That is all we really care about, in the depths of our souls (people who profess to not like cake just haven’t found the right one, don’t worry they’ll catch up one day). I had been recommended Craftsman and Wolves by my friend Jess who had spent some time living in San Francisco and assured me that there was no better venue in town for baked treats.

Craftsman and Wolves puts itself forward as a modern patisserie.  The choice of ‘craftsman’ in the cafe’s name is deliberate to express the respect and dedication to the craft of creating sweet pastry delights. SOUNDS LIKE MY KIND OF JAM. The interior of the store was very impressive and inspired in me instant goodwill – lots of dark wood paneling and wide, golden-lit displays cabinets filled with pastry treats, set up just the right way to encourage optimum ogling.

There were many sweet delights to choose from, but rather than err on the side of something familiar, I decided to have something alongside my coffee that I hadn’t experienced before, and the cube cakes fit the bill. Cube cakes are apparently a bit of a Craftsman and Wolves specialty – perfectly squared cubes of cake that look like the consistency of mousse from the outside.

I went for an apple one, a perfect cube, colour like a sandy pebble, crowded with a semicircle slice of apple that had been poached to the point that it was bright red, like a sliver of blood moon, with a tiny mound of crunchy spiced sugar for the apple crescent to sit on.

Dipping a fork in (and it really is like dipping, the cake is so soft there is only the merest resistance, I have no idea how this thing retains it’s structural integrity), the texture was really similar to mousse with only the merest crumb fluffing. In the middle was a seam of pureed apple, coming across with a texture sort of akin to almond paste, but smoother. It was, altogether, one of the most enjoyable things I have ever eaten in my goddamn life. I have no clue how it was made, I don’t need to know, I just know it was a perfect cloud of delicious wonder and if you are ever in San Francisco you should plunge your face into one toot sweet.

Craftsman and Wolves

746 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415 913 7713

www.craftsman-wolves.com