Dumplings Plus

Finding ourselves in the city on a Sunday night before a music gig, The Boy, his friend Jan and myself were aimlessly wandering Swanston Street looking for a place to eat. Bereft of my handy dandy list of good food places, I was struggling to remember if I was in the vicinity of anything truly fabulous (I am dead useless without that list, I truly am).

Jan came to a shuffling stop at the corner of Lonsdale. “Are we heading anywhere in particular?” he asked.

I looked about, and my eye caught the frontage of Dumplings Plus. Something stirred in my mind. “Ooh, someone said that there is good!”

“Who?” asked The Boy.

I shrugged. “Someone on the internet.” I couldn’t remember who, still can’t.

“Good enough!”

Dumplings Plus is yet another of those cheap yet cheerful dumpling bars that proliferate the CBD (and I for one am terribly grateful for such proliferance). I was terribly keen on feeding my raving dumpling addiction, though was quite disappointed to note that there was only one veggie dumpling variety on offer, the chive dumplings. My disappointment was swiftly countered by the discovery of a dish called pan-tossed black fungus. Oh, black fungus, my most decadent fungi love, how I love to encounter you on menus. Our love affair is sadly infrequent and peppered with long absences, but when we come together, it is DYNAMITE.

When the waiter came to the table to take our order, I was extremely taken aback when, upon hearing me request the chive dumplings, he flatly said “Don’t get those, nobody likes those.” In a fluster (I’m not used to having my menu choices roundly trounced before I even get to try them), I quickly scanned the menu for something else vegetarian, opting for the hot and sour tofu as that was the first thing that caught my eye.

The boys ordered a veritable cornucopia of food between them: pork buns, Sichuan beef, a lamb soup with flat noodles, and a hefty serving of dumplings that The Boy later recalled as being “steamed and ambiguous”.

My hastily ordered hot and sour tofu, as it transpired, turned out to be a bowl of chilli-slicked soup crowned with a mountainous nest of crispy fried noodles. Underneath the noodles crowded a sea of silken tofu, chilli flecks and some crunchy little brown beans that I failed to be able to identify.

The broth was indeed both hot and sour; the crispy fried noodles provided me with much enjoyment, at least while they remained above the broth. The tofu was at that gorgeous mouth-melty consistency that I adore silken tofu for, and the little beans, well, they were entertaining in terms of texture. Unfortunately, the dish kind of soured (oh ho ho, Hayley, you are rolling in the funnies today) as I continued to eat it: once the noodles came in contact with the broth they un-crisped and became unpleasantly soggy very quickly. Soggy noodles got in the way of capturing more tofu, which was disintegrating in the broth by the time I started feeling ambivalent with the dish. In short, I got bored with it, and put it aside half-finished.

The tossed black fungus, however, held my attention as soon as it was placed in front of me. I was at first a little wary to discover it was actually a cold dish, as I’d only had cooked black fungus before, but the gorgeous things won me over, of course. It was essentially a black fungus salad, with the fungi mingling on the plate with curling sprigs of coriander, long slices of spring onions and diced chillies, all tossed with a dressing that I’m guessing was a mixture of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. Light, simple, and for someone who enjoys the rubbery little darlings, a great use of black fungus.

I didn’t interrogate the boys as to how they enjoyed their meal until after we’d left and were meandering to the gig. Their responses were brief yet illuminating. Jan enjoyed his Sichuan beef, and that was pretty much the only real positive either of them came out with. The Boy found his soup to be, like mine, full of disparate elements that ended up disappointing. The dumplings were deemed “okay”, the buns “average” (I’d figured this, having noticed that both ended up fleecing the buns of their meaty centres while leaving behind the very thick dough). The funny thing was, the more we discussed the experience, the lower our verdicts became. As The Boy summerised, “if mild contemplation can lessen one’s sentiment, then it probably wasn’t that good to begin with.”

So, Dumplings Plus, a resounding “meh” from the three of us. Probably worth popping into if you’re a fan of black fungus, but otherwise I’m not that fussed with returning.

Dumplings Plus

269 Swanston Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9663 8181

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EARL Canteen

Finding myself unexpectedly over the Spencer Street end of the city one day around lunch time, where I ordinarily never go, I thought to myself “This is uncharted territory! I should go eat somewhere awesome, considering I might not end up this side of the grid again for a long while.” Only one name was ever in contention: EARL Canteen.

Now, you have probably heard of EARL being the purveyors of the fabled pork belly-based SEX SANDWICH that has seen itself be foodgasmed over all across the internets and then some. Being vegie, I cannot partake of the fabled sex sandwich, yet I had also heard tales of a mighty mushroom sandwich that made my tummy very keen to give it a home.

The mushroom sandwich consists of roast field mushies, goats’ curd, chestnuts, rocket and pesto squished between two pieces of ciabatta. As they make everthing to order at EARL, my sandwich arrived full of mushrooms still piping hot from the pan. This was no ordinary sandwich – this was sandwich HEAVEN. The mushrooms were bursting in tasty goodness, the pesto was full of tang, and the chestnuts added this woody flavour that just kicked everything else up a notch. And the secret star of the whole thing turned out to be the goat’s curd, oh my goodness! The creaminess of it, it was obscenely good.

A quick mention of the staff at EARL, who are delightfully welcoming, friendly and courteous, and always seem up for a foodie chat. It contributes to a wonderful atmosphere, and if you’re a lingering luncher like myself it’s a lovely space to while away an afternoon in.

I also took away with me a little passionfruit macaron with a chocolate ganache centre. Firstly, a digression about macarons: despite having great respect for how hard they are to make, and getting into a frothing rage whenever I hear anyone referring to them as “macaroons”, to be honest I don’t really get the absolute passion that many people hold for them, and am quite mystified as to why they’ve become so popular. They’re just BISCUITS. They’re not even CAKE (and cake is not even PIE, this is the ascent of the dessert pyramid). And they’re very sweet biscuits at that. Too sweet. That’s right, I, the Queen of Sweet, am decreeing that macarons are too sweet!

Nevertheless, I keep trying them, convinced that if I just eat enough of the things I’ll suddenly have a lightbulb pop above my head and will finally understand what all the fuss has been about. And seeing as many macaron aficionados seemed to agree that EARL’s macaron offerings are on the impressive end of the scale, I really couldn’t walk away without trying one!

The verdict? Well, let’s just say I had at the very least a half-bulb. The macaron had a nice chewy bite to it, but I didn’t sense the passionfruit until I hit the middle of the chocolate ganache and suddenly felt a fruity burst spread across my tongue – all the passionfruit flavour had been infused into the chocolate! That was pretty impressive.  I would definitely like to try more of EARL’s macarons, they’re the best I’ve come across in my, admittedly lackdaisical, samplings, though I do think these are viciously sweet treats, I couldn’t eat more than one at a time (defeated by sweet, I am ashamed).

EARL Canteen is, simply put, delightful, and a much-needed antidote to insipid sandwich bars. For vegetarians in particular they provide exciting vegie sandwiches that tread ground far away from the over-played roast vegetable sandwich that plagues us. Get on your bikes and pay EARL a visit, scoot!

EARL Canteen

500 Bourke Street (mosey round the back to the Little Bourke courtyard), Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9600 1995

www.earlcanteen.com.au/

Monk Bodhi Dharma II: The Pear-ening

As soon as I saw on Vegan About Town that Monk Bodhi Dharma’s french toast had changed from featuring bananas to featuring poached pears (pears! The most delicious of all fruits!) I knew that I had to beat a path of sample them. The Boy and I managed to concoct a reason: celebrating our halfversary. Halfversary is the halfway point between your actual anniversary. Use this new occasion to extort breakfast dates out of your significant other!

The pear french toast is pretty much exactly the same as the banana version apart from the fruit substitution, so there’s still the citrus mascarpone  and the pistachios, although the syrup that accompanies the poached pears is the result of a primarily cinnamon and bay leaf infusion. The other difference is how the dish leaves you feeling after you’ve consumed it. The banana version was so rich that that I felt quite full and bloated afterwards (deliciously bloated though!). The pear toast, on the other hand, might be the most perfectly filling dish ever, sating your hunger yet leaving your tum as light as a feather.

The Boy had some corn-based fritters, beautifully plated with a lovely big smear of basil pesto and some roasted cherry tomatoes. His meal appeared, I looked away to behold my plate of delicious pears and toast, looked back – and the fritters had been INHALED! Completely gone! “Were you hungry?” I asked. “A bit, yeah,” replied The Boy with a grin. I took that as a sign that the fritters must indeed have been as delicious as they looked, and The Boy indeed was very approving of both the food and the surrounds.

I also took home with me a raspberry vegan muffin (the sweets cabinet had been calling to me all through breakfast, I could resist it no longer!). I ended up sharing it with my mum and dad, and after the shock of discovering that it was vegan, my dad decreed it to be THE BEST MUFFIN HE HAD EVER HAD! Mum and I weren’t arguing; it was beautifully soft and moist, and liberally stuffed with raspberries. Truly glorious.

So yes, Monk Bodhi Dharma, once again thumbs up all round.

Monk Bodhi Dharma

Rear 202 Carlisle Street, Balaclava

www.monkbodhidharma.com.au

Wabi Sabi Salon

Pity my poor boy for a moment, it is not easy going out with such an unapologetic movie buff as myself. Every time he suggests a date we nearly always inevitably end up staying at home while I subject him to my continuing attempts to widen his film knowledge. Not that he doesn’t end up enjoying  himself, it’s just that occasionally he likes to be reassured that there is indeed an outdoors, and also daylight.

So sometimes he will come up with a whole day or evening’s entertainment that is designed to lure me away from my beloved moving pictures. A booking for dinner at Wabi Sabi Salon lured me well and good – I’d been keen to try this particular Japanese restaurant for quite a while.

They’ve gone to a lot of trouble at Wabi Sabi to make you feel as if you’ve just stepped into Japan as soon as you enter the restaurant. It’s gorgeous in the front room where we sat, and apparently there’s another room out the back that overlooks a Japanese-style garden. The staff are all very cheery, although their attention did wain a bit once we’d given our initial order, but it was a full house the night we went so I’m happy to wave that off as the result of extreme busyness.

After a refreshing cup of miso soup each, we decided to order two entrees and two mains, figuring that that would be enough to fill us up. The entrees we chose were the vegetable tempura and an eggplant dish whose exact title has escaped me (and the website menu isn’t helping AT ALL, so we’ll all have to remain in ignorance), and for the mains we went with the seaweed salad and the tofu steaks served on a sizzling plate.

The tempura came first and was easily the best dish of the night, and probably one of the best tempuras I’d ever had. Crispy lotus root (I’d been hoping that as an authentic Japanese place that there would be lotus root, and I wasn’t disappointed), blocks of sizzling tofu, and perfectly round balls of potato all had this amazing crispness to them, the batter was in no way soggy or oily, just perfect, and the result transformed my mouth into a hive of exclamation marks. An absolute highlight.

Like Phoebe and her issues with eggs, I have issues with eggplant. I generally find that when eggplant is prepared and cooked well, it’s a truly wonderous vegetable, yet when it is cooked badly it is utterly,  revoltingly horrid. And I have had enough awful eggplant to put me off ordering it when out nearly completely. However, The Boy was determined to have eggplant, and insisted that his good-eggplant intuition was bleeping. He was right: the cubes of fried eggplant, which were served in a hollowed out eggplant (an aubergine bowl!), were melty in the mouth, not too chewy, and even the sauce they sat in warranted  a few spoonfuls once the eggplant cubes had disappeared. There were probably only five or so eggplant chunks overall, however, which I felt made the serving a bit small (unless we were expected to eat the bowl too!).

Onto the mains. The seaweed salad was a variety of seaweeds mingled with a standard mix of salad greens, with a light sesame dressing. It was so fresh and green that you could feel the nutrients seeping into you as you ate it. The seaweeds were varied, including one that I absolutely loved, it was bright pink and sprang about my mouth as I chewed in an intriguingly textural way. My one big gripe, however, is that the seaweed/salad leaves ratio was heavily stacked in favour of the salad leaves, and for $17 I found that to be a bit disappointing.

The tofu steaks saw our meal take a swift, deep plunge from pleasant with some quibbles, to downright lackluster. The tofu steaks themselves, despite obviously being threaded through with Japanese mountain vegetables and sitting in sauce and sliced vegies, were bland, bland, bland. Completely tasteless. And while omnivores might snipe that tofu is inherently tasteless, it is so EASY to do wonderful things with tofu that make it a taste sensation, that to be served a dish as uninspiring as this (in a Japanese restaurant, no less, the Japanese are KINGS of tofu!) really affected my experience in a negative way. That’s not even getting into the sauce that the tofu steaks were swimming in, which had a thick, gelatinous quality that I tend to associate with suburban Chinese take-away. Which is awesome when you’re actually ordering Chinese take-away, but in this setting just seemed to cheapen the dish.

Still feeling hungry, and starting to feel somewhat desperate in our desire for Wabi Sabi to regain the esteem we’d first felt on trying the tempura, The Boy and I decided to order dessert. The green tea cheesecake was interesting texturally, yet the green tea flavour wasn’t really present at all. The trio of ice creams also featured an under-flavoured green tea scoop, although the black sesame scoop was alright, and ended up contrasting well with pieces of the cheesecake. The red bean flavoured ice cream was the clear winner, I’d never had that flavour before, and it was delightful. More red bean ice cream!

Food-wise, Wabi Sabi Salon was a mixed bag, including one of the most impressive dishes I’ve sampled this year, to one so terribly uninspired I felt deeply depressed having to pay for it. I honestly haven’t had a meal before that started out so great and ended with my dining partner and myself staring across the table at each other in a disappointed funk. Despite the wonders of their tempura, I think it will be a long while before I venture back to Wabi Sabi.

Wabi Sabi Salon

94 Smith Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9417 6119

www.wabisabi.net.au

Bebida Bar and Cafe

After our Birdman Eating brunch and an afternoon of treasure hunting along Smith Street, Phoebe had to leave us in order to go to work. Did that stop Emma and I from going on? Heck no! We required nibbles and wine to finish our day with. And we chose Bebida to provide us these life-giving morsels.

Bebida is a warm, friendly place, with a long, thin front bar and a courtyard out back. The dark red walls in the bar area create a comforting space, particularly if you’re looking for a refuge from inclement weather. It really is the perfect place to sit, sip a wine and have a lazy nosh.

Speaking of nosh, oh my goodness, let me introduce you to the new love of my life, Bebida’s green pea and sage dip. I LOVE IT WITH A BURNING PASSION, I AM GOING TO MARRY IT AND HAVE PEA DIP BABIES, WHICH I WILL THEN ALSO EAT. It comes out in a little pot on a plate surrounded by six big bits of pide. I at first eyed it suspiciously and was all “Hmm, that’s a lot of bread for such a wee pot of dip”, but oh holy Hannah, does this stuff contain a taste explosion or what! A little goes a very, VERY long way. I was in such raptures over it I think Emma thought I was having an episode.

We also had one of the desserts on the specials board, the berry cheesecake. Cheesecake is kind of just cheesecake to me (ordinarily I am a cake FIEND, but cheesecake, meh. Not to say I won’t eat it if it’s there, cake is cake), but this one was a nice generous piece and loaded with berries, and I don’t say no to berries, no sir. The crust was much tastier too than I usually find with cheesecake, though it was rather thick and we did end up leaving a bit of shell behind.

Another plus to the fabulous food is that the staff are also ridiculously friendly, and contribute to the overall feeling that Bebida is really focused on creating a place that feels like your lounge room, only better decorated, where everyone is there to relax with friends and have fun, and also there’s wine. Also, kudos to whoever decided to play the entirety of Augie March’s Sunset Studies for mood music during our visit, it prompted squeals of “This album CHANGED MY LIFE!” from myself and several others, and lent a happy air of nostalgia to proceedings.

Also, if you have to go to the little girls or boys room while at Bebida, enjoy the absolutely hilario record covers that are stuck on the back of the bathroom doors. They inspired me to have a “Bongos and Pizza” party at some point in the future.

Bebida Bar and Cafe

325 Smith Street, Fitzroy

Ph: 9419 5260

http://www.bebida.com.au/