Namaste

I was on the search for suitable pre-comedy show eats down the Trades Hall end of Lygon Street and was in a bit of a bind, being that I’m generally not all that up on restaurants in Carlton that aren’t within walking distance of the Nova Cinema (priorities). So I threw a question out on the Twitters in order to try and narrow down to a couple of vegie-friendly suggestions, and those good folks at Where’s the Beef kindly put forward three likely candidates: Hotel Lincoln, Ying Thai 2 and Namaste.

Ultimately the dining destination was in the hands of Rob, who was joining me for dinner and comedy times. As it was Passover, or “no bread for Jews time”, Hotel Lincoln was quickly dismissed, and the thought of curry was too much to resist, so to Namaste we went.

We started with a serving of aloo to share (just cauliflower rather than cauli and potatoes, which is interesting). The spices that the cauliflower florets had been fried with turned them eye-searingly pink, they were quite a sight to see! They were also deliciously more-ish, and we probably could have devoured another plate of them quite happily.

For my main I went with a dhal makhani, a black lentil dhal. It was hearty and tasty, with a deceptive spicy kick to it, which built the more of it I ate. I was just able to manage it, but any higher and it would have been the death of me. It wasn’t even a chilli-marked dish! What a spice weenie I am. Rob is an even worse spice weenie than I am, and his lamb biryani was a lot hotter than he was expecting, though he still seemed to enjoy it, being particularly pleased that as a dish it hit quite a few food groups.

Being terrible, I was completely unfeeling to Rob’s bread exile and ordered myself a serving of garlic naan, because if it’s acceptable for me to eat a dish with bread acting as cutlery, there is no power on earth that will stop me doing so. I tend to judge Indian places on the quality of their naan, and the ones I sampled at Namaste were pretty damn good: properly crisped, with a buttery touch in the hot centre, and sprinkled with crushed garlic which proved to be enhancing rather than overpowering.

Namaste is quite simple and unpretentious, and was certainly busy on a Tuesday night, with plenty of students, couples, groups of friends and even a few comedians crowding its tables and chowing down on quick dinners of dosas and lassis. I’ll certainly be keeping it in mind next time I’m feeling hungry in that part of town.

Namaste

104 Lygon Street, Carlton

Ph: 9654 0550

Haruaki

It’s a strange thing, but I often don’t get around to featuring a lot of my very favourite food places on this blog. You know, the kind of places that I’ve been a regular at for years, where I always end up gravitating towards when I can’t be bothered reaching out and chancing somewhere new. Those good, solid and dependable joints I am always recommending to friends, but that here on the blog end up getting side-lined in favour of brand spanking new places that have got me all excited often out of pure novelty.

And that is just a damn shame, because these are the places I should be sharing with you above all others! So this is how we come to Haruaki, a Japanese/Korean restaurant down the Windsor end of Chapel Street. It’s not an eye-catching space, being very simply decked out with plain wood furniture and the occasional piece of Japanese art hanging on the walls. But don’t let the humble appearance fool you: the food here means business.

Korean cuisine is easily my very favourite type of regional food, and this is because I have been routinely spoiled with it by my friend Jen, who runs her family’s Korean restaurant down on Southbank (perhaps if you are super good I will tell you all about it someday. MAYBE. Because I am greedy and may want to keep the best bibimbap in town my own delicious secret). I was adamant that I wanted Jen to give the a-okay to Haruaki before I blogged about it, and was so excited yet full of trepidations when I finally got her there. Would it pass muster?

To start with we shared a dish that I hadn’t tried before, the vegetarian dumplings. They were in the style of gyoza, and came presented on a sizzling plate, which meant that the dumplings crisped up nicely. The filling was ample and varied in terms of that you could identify several different ingredients, the the light soy dipping sauce provided a tasty compliment to the dumpling.

But Haruaki is always about bibimbap for me. If you are unfamiliar with bibimbap, it is basically the perfect meal. Let me set the scene for you: first you get yourself a heavy stone bowl. The stone bowl is heated over a stove-top flame until it is sizzlingly hot. First you make a layer of cooked white rice at the bottom of the hot bowl. Then you can put in a variety of ingredients; for instance the tofu vegetable bibimbap at Haruaki has carrot shreds, shiitake mushrooms, beanshoots, zucchini and crispy blocks of tofu. Top with some flakes of dried seaweed and, most importantly, a raw egg yolk and a generous squeezing of Korean chilli sauce. Then, you mix that shit up real good. What happens is that the heat from the bowl cooks all the ingredients inside it. If you do it right, the egg yolk and chilli sauce flavours the entire dish, and the rice will crisp up into crunchy little joy nuggets. PERFECT MEAL OR THE MOST PERFECT MEAL, I ASK YOU.

Jen chose the samgyetang, a dish that involves a wee whole chicken that’s been stuffed with rice and boiled up in a soup that includes ginseng, spring onions, and other cleansing ingredients. Basically it’s Korea’s version of chicken soup for when you’re feeling poorly, and is designed to be as comforting as possible. Apart from the fact that the chicken had been frozen before cooking, and as a result had bones that dissolved into shards very easily, Jen was very happy with this version of samgyetang. She was also quite pleased with Haruaki overall, which totally dialed my smug face up to level James Franco. Achievement unlocked: Delicious Korean!

Haruaki

145 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9530 2828

Milkwood

Oh north-side, I do not get to visit you as much as I would like to. Luckily for me, Phoebe insists on living in north-side, and then invites me to brunch at whatever hot little caf’ is within walking distance of her abode.

Milkwood is so hot as to be positively scalding. It was absolutely buzzing when we arrived on a pleasantly sunny Saturday morning, so much so that we were quite lucky to slip into a pavement table almost immediately. Though I do kind of wish we’d waited a little to see if we could of got a table inside, just because Nicholson Street is quite busy and the outdoor tables are placed very close to the edge of road with no kind of barrier, so I kind of felt unnerved the entire time thinking that a truck was going to sweep my brunch out from under me and take me along with it. So do try to get a cosy table inside if you can.

Being me, I was lured over to the sweet side of the menu with alacrity, and after some indecision went with the ricotta pancakes with banana, honeyed yoghurt and toasted coconut. Big fat fluffy ricotta pancakes appeared with bright yellow disks of banana piled on top, crowned with a generous mound of yoghurt and browned curls of coconut. This was a delightful, albeit heavy, brunch plate that measured the sweetness of the ricotta and banana well with the tartness of the yoghurt, and I think I’m at a point where I kind of just want toasted coconut on everything, it always sets off other flavours so well.

But there I was, all content and satisfied, unaware that I was poised for a fall. Because Phoebe ordered a dish that caused the most acute case of food envy I have suffered in a long while.

She went with the cannellini bean and rosemary mash with avocado slices served on nice crusty bread. It was a very generous serving, with three pieces of mash-topped toast, and luckily it was so big a serving Phoebe ended up donating me a slice. OH MY LORDY. It was stupidly delicious. Just this lovely, hearty, beautiful mess of sweet beans threaded through with rosemary leaves, so simple yet divine. I was so pleased I was able to share some of it, but at the same time incredibly jealous that I hadn’t thought to order it myself.

Apart from having to sit so close to marauding traffic, and being given a tea strainer with my English breakfast that hadn’t been cleaned properly and was a bit groady, I was pretty well-pleased by Milkwood. The food is top-notch brunching fare, and I’m so keen to go back and have a plate of those beautiful beans all to my greedy self.

Milkwood

120 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East

Ph: 9380 4062

Mama Baba

“Be scathing to Mama Baba, I’m still missing my calamari.”

This was the text message I received from Nik, aka Doctor Ethnic, post our Friday lunch at Mama Baba. This isn’t the first time a dining companion has insisted that I lay into an establishment with outraged gusto, but in this case I certainly was feeling conflicted about it. Because on the one hand, in terms of space and service Mama Baba provided an amazing experience. But the food? Hoo boy, the food… there were some pretty glaring problems.

But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Doctor Ethnic is sadly cursed with a Greek grandmother who cannot cook (let us have a moment of silence for him) and is well-versed in Greek Food Gone Wrong. I wanted his knowledge alongside me as I traversed the idea of of a Greek-Italian pasta restaurant. Because despite the fact that the whole shebang is helmed by George Calombaris, I was having qualms about the idea without having even stepped through the door (oh Hayley, you perpetual Doubting Thomas). But! I am always willing to be proven wrong with good food, and since Mama Baba is only a skip and jump away from work it seemed churlish not to investigate.

Friday afternoons are the only time Mama Baba is open for lunch, and it seemed to be a nice, low-key visiting option. We were greeted very warmly by the staff, and sat down with a bag filled with a variety of breads and ample little wrapped pats of butter. The bag idea was cute, but kind of reminiscent of Adebisi’s hat in Oz, the realisation of which took me on a train to all sorts of weird thoughts.

We started off with some polenta chips to share, served with a dipping sauce made of sour cream and chilli soffritto. The polenta was lovely and smooth inside, but the fine crumbed coating was pretty tasteless and neither of us could figure out what it was spiced with, if with anything at all. And the sour cream sauce was just all-out WEIRD. It was a big blob swimming in a clear, slightly chilli-ish sauce and covered in what seemed to be cubes of carrot. No matter how we decided to eat it, there wasn’t any way that seemed to cause the dish to make sense, and Nik and I essentially made a lot of faces at each other that translated to “This just isn’t working.”

Mains time! From off the ‘Greek’ side of the menu I ordered the pastitsio, which was described on the menu in three words: “wild greens, b├ęchamel.” Turned out it was actually a kind of pasta bake, which I’m always totally okay with, with penne tubes entrenched in b├ęchamel sauce and a strong, parmesan-like Greek cheese (I think kefalotyri), and threaded with long seams of greens, probably kale. It was really quite lovely, although hearty and heavy, so requires a sturdy belly.

Doctor Ethnic, however, was not so fortunate in his choice. He strayed over to the Italian side of the menu with the bucanti, which was described on the menu thusly: “carbonara, calamari, crispy maple pork, pumpkin parmesan, saffron brodo.” The presentation was certainly spiffy: it came out crowned with a raw egg yolk, and the waitress poured over a clear, hot jus, the idea being that you mix it through and it turns into a sauce once all the ingredients are combined.

But after this point, things started to really Go Wrong. The second advertised ingredient, calamari, failed to materialise. Unless it had been emulsified into its base properties to the point of not tasting like calamari anymore, it was not there. The crispy maple pork was sweet to a fault, and combined with violently orange pumpkin parmesan, made the whole dish far too sweet for my dining companion’s palate. Doctor Ethnic was not pleased, not pleased at all, and I was left with that particular feeling of guilt when you drag friends along to a food place that turns out to be not as great as you were hoping.

It really is tragic that the food was quite disappointing, because the space at Mama Baba is really something. I kept thinking that it would be a great place to take someone on a fancy date, where you could be all “Oh yes, look at the lovely place that I have taken you to, where you can see into the beautiful clean kitchen and the chefs making pasta from scratch, and see that amazing bar set up on the other side with all the bottles displayed up to the ceiling, and aren’t these waiters delightful and quirky and ever so kind, yes this is all quite special, NOW KISS ME YOU FOOL.” But then it would be ruined because your date would end up angry over weird polenta chips and over-sweet, non-calamaried pasta, and you’d start regretting getting so overexcited at the chemist earlier in the day, because clearly you’re not going to need so many condoms now, and you’re starting to traitorously think that even though your pasta bake was really nice, you probably could have made a similar dish at home for a lot less trouble.

And now that I’ve depressed myself with an imaginary date scenario THAT I MADE UP, let’s all just pretend that the date was salvaged by one of our fictional daters, who ended up placing the bread bag on their head and made some quips about shanking. Because that’s what really brings people together, violent HBO dramas about prisons. Not weird pasta.

Mama Baba

21 Daly Street, South Yarra

Ph: 9207 7421

http://mamababarestaurant.wordpress.com