Howler

HOLD UP EVERYONE, did you know that Howler do $12 burger deals on a Wednesday night? It is TRUE and it is GLORIOUS, and I needed to share it with you as soon as was humanly.

Okay so here is the deal. Howler have seven different burgers on their menu, and if you go and order on a Wednesday for your $12 you not only get a burger, but you get a side of fat chips with it, and a pot of Monteiths beer or cider. IS THAT THE BEST BURGER DEAL IN TOWN? I RECKON.

I’d been to Howler a couple of times to either see bands or films and I’m a little bit in awe of the space they have set up there. In the front beer garden you can hole away in booths to drink and eat or surround the ping pong tables and have a game in between pints. Out the back is the band room/cinema/whatever they are doing in what is a versatile space.

ON TO BURGERS. Now there are two vegie burgers, one of which is vegan, to choose from if you need vegetables. The vegan has a quinoa, wild rice, almonds and beetroot patty with beanshoots, pickled ginger, Asian herbs and vegan wasabi mayo, while for vegie you can have the saganaki burger with cucumber, tomato, basil, house relish and chipotle aioli, If you all know me well enough you all know that I definitely went with the SALTY DELICIOUS CHEESE BURGER.

It’s a damn generous slab of cheese too, thick and fat and poking out very generously from under the eaves of the floury bun. Really all the ancillary vegies and sauces are just there to provide empty vitamins that will be instantly snuffed out by unadulterated saganaki. And how can there be anything better than that? Well, the chips do come close, crispy and crunchy, with winsome fluff within. Teamed with a cider, and I was terribly content. What a deal, what a deal.

Howler

7-11 Dawson Street, Brunswick

Ph: 9077 5572

www.h-w-l-r.com

Blintz on Tour: Grasslands, Toronto

The funny thing about Toronto is that the subway doesn’t operate on a Sunday until 9am. This obviously made it a little difficult for me to get to the 9am film screening I’d planned to attend on this particular Sunday, but no matter – instead I decided to go on a nice long walk through the University and Chinatown, ending up on Queen Street West in the hope that Grasslands might be open at the end of my hike.

Steph was so effusive about her visit to Grasslands back in June that before I left for Toronto she essentially grabbed me by the lapels to shout “GO TO GRASSLANDS OR YOU WILL BE FORFEIT TO ME AS A PERSON.” Well, I did not want to be FORFEIT, so I was pleased that Grasslands was indeed open by the time I loped into the Queen Street neighbourhood.

I remembered Steph heartily recommending the hangover plate, but I liked very much the sound of a morning burrito, so went with the breakfast burrito: house scrambled tofu, corn, black beans, mushrooms, daiya cheddar cheese, onions, peppers and guacamole wrapped in a flour tortilla, served alongside a house salad of dressed greens, cabbage, red onion and slivered almond bits, another mound composed of house fries, and, delightfully, two pieces of watermelon.

The meals at Grasslands are served on these long platters with each component laid out end to end, which is perfect for weirdos like me who like their food SEPARATE, for ease of individual component tasting. Moving down the platter, firstly the breakfast burrito was nicely sized, big enough to feel like a solid handful, but not, you know, the size of your head, which is initially exciting but ends up after a while feeling like the kitchen is just trying to intimidate your stomach. The tofu mixture inside was properly spicy and will definitely wake you up should you be having a sleepy morning. Also, everyone was right about daiya being the only vegan cheese worth bothering with – no nasty chemical overtones, actual proper cheesy taste achieved. I’m not sure what is stopping daiya from being widely available in Australia but we have to get on that, stat.

The salad was lightly dressed in a mayo-ish sauce and provided an excellent creamy crunch. Also crunchy were the fries, and I would like to put forward that my Official Stance is that fries for breakfast are entirely acceptable and I would like to see more of it, MORE I SAY. And of course the sweet juicy burst of watermelon to finish and cleanse the palate was a very thoughtful touch.

Grasslands also has a nicely varied drinks menu. While I could of started the morning in an alcoholic fashion with a breakfast cocktail I decided to be slightly sensible for once and instead chose one of the mocktails, a cucumber lemonade complete with a sugared glass rim, all tart and refreshing and just what was required to hit that spot.

Steph was right (she always is) that Grasslands was a Toronto must. You must, you must, you must.

Grasslands

478 Queen Street West, Toronto

Ph: +1 (416) 504-5127

www.grasslands.to

Shebeen

Tucked away in Manchester Lane, Shebeen has quietly become one of my favourite city hangouts in the past few months. This has a lot to do with the fact that Speakeasy Cinema is held there, and there’s been nothing nicer than to book in to see some Xavier Dolan and munch away on dinner treats that are not only pretty delicious, but have a social conscious to them as well.

See, one hundred percent of Shebeen’s profits go to projects in the developing world. There’s tons and TONS of info on their website that goes into extreme detail as to where all the money goes, how they source their products such as beer, wine, cider, etc, from and how they’re making sure that producers receive proper payment and support that helps their businesses thrive. So that’s rather nice. I’m not quite sure how they’re managing to make such a model sustainable in the long term (where does rent money come from?), but since Shebeen recently celebrated it’s first birthday, clearly it’s working.

Anyway, my most recent visit was in the company of a posse of old uni friends for a long overdue catch up. We started on some nibbly snacks, because nibbly snacks are always a good idea. The wasabi broad beans had a good whack of heat to them, but I was especially keen on the spicy crunchy corn, which I would like to see become a standard bar snack at all my favourite watering holes, please thank you very much.

Maddie and I went with the smoked tofu bahn mi with crispy noodles, peanut-pineapple sauce and fresh coriander. It comes inna giant bun! A bun that is enormously stuffed full of sweet-sauced tofu, which with the addition of generous fronds of coriander manages to trick you into thinking the whole deal is a touch lighter than it really is. I’m meant to be avoiding eating too many yeast products at the moment, but lordy, the tofu bahn mi is going to be a wicked temptation every time I pop into Shebeen.

Cass had the Mexican organic quinoa salad with cherry tomato salsa and blue corn chips. Vegan and gluten-free! Hoorah! And damn good it looked too, all healthy and hearty and whatnot. I really want to use blue corn chips as dip scooping implements for everything now.

Ellie had the black bean noodle salad with miso lime dressing and slivered almonds. I’ve had this dish on another, aforementioned Speakeasy occasion, and texturally it’s really interesting, what with the unusual weight of the black bean noodles contrasted against the almonds. It’s a deceptively hefty dish too, so will fill you up nicely, though I did eventually find it a bit samey towards the end of my scoffing. But another vegan and gluten-free dish is not to be sniffed at!

Jacinta had the pork belly bahn mi with bulldog sauce. Equally giant bun! The bahn mi are definitely the business for those looking for a substantial dinner option.

I would be intrigued to try some of the vegan ice creams on offer – I was particularly keen on the idea of a choco-coconut icy pole – but got distracted by some of the more fruity cocktails and got a pineapple mojito for dessert instead (TOTALLY COUNTS AS DESSERT, THERE WERE PINEAPPLE SLICES AND EVERYTHING). The drinks menu is very interestingly varied, so if an evening of pure drinking was on the cards you could actually have a very entertaining time working through it.

Shebeen is a really darn nice place to hang out and get some good, reasonably healthy food on the cheap, even without the pleasing social consciousness angle. It’s low-key and, somewhat surprisingly, not at all as hipstery as the mismatched furniture and mustachio’d waitstaff implies. I’ve happily added it to my (rather small, it must be admitted) list of CBD hangouts guaranteed to be cruisey and coming forth with deliciousness. Go and see if it fits the criteria for your own list, I insist.

Shebeen

36 Manchester Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9560 6931

www.shebeen.com.au

Blog Amnesty: The Beaufort, Baby, and ShanDong MaMa

As you may have noticed, posts have been thin on the ground here at Ballroom Blintz lately, as my life has been comprehensively taken over by my day job (speaking of my day job, EVERYONE COME SEE ALL THE FILMS AT MIFF!). Despairing slightly at my backlog of posts, I decided to take a leaf out of Claire from Melbourne Gastronome’s book and declare blog amnesty and do a few quick round ups of places I’ve recently visited before they completely slip out of my mind.

THE BEAUFORT

I’ve been wanting to visit The Beaufort for basically forever since hearing about it’s American-inspired pub food and the high level of friendly service from it’s staff. I popped along with a large group of friends (we were able to book a table, which is always nice these days), and we were all pretty impressed with the nautical fit out, and the fact that a place that had all the hallmarks of too-cool-for-schoolness was actually enormously welcoming.

Drinks-wise, there’s a lot of cocktails and mixes that are a bit of fun and won’t burn holes through your pockets in terms of price. I enjoyed both my Jerry ‘n’ cherry – Sailor Jerry with cherry coke and a slice of lime – and my Perfect Storm – Sailor Jerry with ginger beer and lime (honestly, name a drink after a film and I will order it every time no matter what’s in it).

For savoury I had the portobello mushroom burger, which I remember as being slightly a bit too sloppy for my liking due to the chefs going to town on the sauces, but otherwise it was enormously tasty, very American diner reminiscent. It’s also worth noting that The Beaufort do a lot of vegie and vegan dishes, so no one has to miss out on deep-fried treats.

Now here’s the really impressive part of the evening – the service. I am always interested to see what a venue’s staff do when things go wrong; I always figure it’s the best indication of a place’s real worth. So when we all initially ordered our dinners everything came out very promptly, except Schaefer’s meal (who incidentally spent the whole evening saying increasingly outrageous things in the hopes of getting quoted on this here blog. I AM NOT REPEATING ANY OF THE TERRIBLE THINGS YOU SAID, YOUNG MAN, I CARE TOO MUCH ABOUT YOUR FUTURE EMPLOYABILITY VIA GOOGLE SEARCHES!). Once staff were made aware that a meal was missing, the dish swiftly made it to the table, no dramas. Then we ordered dessert. I initially went with the ice cream sandwich. Soon enough, the same staff member who’d helped us retrieve Schaefer’s meal approached me wearing a facial expression that, as a table of seasoned hospitality workers, we all knew too well: “ohh shit something’s already gone wrong with this table and I don’t want to have to tell them something else is wrong!” They had unfortunately run out of ice cream sandwiches. I wasn’t unduly fussed, and asked if I could have the rhubarb and apple crumble instead. The enormously apologetic staff member wouldn’t even take the extra few dollars difference in price from me, and the crumble was such a deliciously comforting expanse of spicy stewed fruit and oaty topping that I was well pleased.

And then the staff brought us all a round of free tequila shots.

Yep, we’ll all be back.

The Beaufort

421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton

Ph: 9347 8171

thebeaufort.com.au

BABY

For some reason I was unduly prejudiced against Baby since it launched. Not even the connection with my beloved Chin Chin could shake from me the impression that it all sounded a bit wanky – it probably had to do with hearing about the genitalia-shaped neon signs decorating the restaurant (SERIOUSLY JUST DEAR GOD WHY).

While I still stand by the opinion that wang lights are wanky as all get out, luckily the food was amazing enough to turn my doubting Thomas frown upside down. This had a lot of to with the fact that they have a PAN-FRIED PIZZA!

Seriously, don’t even bother looking any further past the buttata pan-fried with fiore di latte and cherry tomato quarters, this needs to be the very first thing you order. As it is pan-fried the dough ends up having this smoky, charred tang to it that ticked all my tastebud fancies. Throw in tons of oozing fiore di latte and this results in a happily moaning Hayley passed out under the table with a food coma.

In non-fried goodness, I also sampled the funghi pizza, which could have used a little more funghi to be honest, it was a bit sparse for my mushroom-loving liking, but otherwise thin, crispy and cheesy. I also insisted on a side of the green beans with tomato sauce as a vegetable-leavener, and ended up reveling in the fact that they were basically delicious tomato crack. Seriously, if you can even look past pizza when you go here, order the beans. Sweet, tomato-laden goodness.

Baby

631-633 Church Street, Richmond

Ph: 9421 4599

www.babypizza.com.au

SHANDONG MAMA

If you are expecting a dumplings gush-fest right now, well, that’s sort of what you’re going to get. As while I really like the vegan dumplings on offer here, it’s a very different dish that has actually stolen my heart.

Everyone across town seems to adore ShangDong MaMa, and after a couple of visits now I’m certainly in the camp of having quite a bit of affection for this wee, unpretentious dumpling house hidden away down a Chinatown arcade. The vegan zucchini steamed dumplings are the only vegie dumplings on offer, but they are definitely well worth sampling, filled to bursting with shreds of zucchini and herbs. Mix your own dipping sauce from the pots of soy, vinegar and chilli on the tables and get dumpling dunking.

I’ve had a couple of other vegetarian dishes, too, with varying levels of success. The garlic broccoli, as I was warned by a waiter, does indeed come out “European style”, with little boiled florets covered in minced garlic. Nice if you like your greens with garlic (which I do), but very basic. The sesame noodles were similarly quite rustic, with soft, handmade noodles served with shredded zucchini and carrot, and topped with a sesame paste that you mix through to coat the noodles and vegetables. Quite tasty and nicely unusual, but definitely the sort of thing that is best to share, as it gets a bit samey when tackled by yourself.

But the dish that now haunts my dreams is the scallion pancake. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as it is less a pancake than two bulky pyramids of potato strands twisted together with splashes of spring onion rounds dotted through it. The strands are crisp on the outside, and as you pull at them (this is very much a fingers dish, good table manners be damned), you uncover the soft centre where the hot potato literally melts in your mouth. It’s a textural wonderland, and deceptively flavour-packed, and if it was a person I would marry it and be contently entranced with its simple, home-crafted charms.

ShanDong MaMa

Midcity Arcade, Shop 7, 200 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 3818

www.facebook.com/shandongmama

The Local Taphouse

It’s always nice when friends suggest as gathering venues places that you’ve never heard of. One, because there’s no preconceptions cobbled together from reading far too many other reviews of it, and two, you get to see the places that your friends feel comfortable in, which is always a nice intimacy to share. So when Glenn suggested The Local Taphouse as the venue for his going away drinks before his relocation to New York, the intrigue of what the venue had in store distracted me slightly from the grief inherent in his leaving us all FOR(maybe)EVER! *sob*

It’s a big old pub that runs across several levels, with many a nook and secret spot. We bagsed a little balcony on the roof that we managed to all squish into, and my mind instantly turned to food.

The Local’s detailed menu runs the gamut from your standard pub meals to a few dishes that skew towards Asian influences – for instance, when was the last time you ordered pho alongside your pint? There were some interesting vegie options available; I lingered over the idea of the soba noodle salad with steamed eggplant and avocado, while later on in the night saw others order the vegie burger, which was a mighty meal indeed with a field mushroom stuffed with ricotta, surrounded by an ocean of beer-battered fries.

Jojo and I decided to share a few dishes between us from the selection of sides, which are totally big enough to easily fill you. First was the beer battered, Cajun-spiced thick cut frites. You can choose to have them without the Cajun spices, but where’s the fun in that? Especially as the Cajun spices make them even more more-ish than chips already are, we happily gobbled away at them.

The real winner, however, was the deceptively simple bowl of green beans with goats cheese and almonds. The beans were at their crisp best, the almonds had been slightly toasted so they had their natural husky flavour enhanced nicely, and… jeeze, I have goats cheese things a lot, don’t I? Well, it’s because it’s FREAKING DELICIOUS, and this was no different – very good quality nanny cheese, I was trying to surreptitiously spear as much of it onto my fork as possible, but was foiled by Jojo who was doing the same!

The Local takes it’s beer VERY seriously, which left me floundering slightly as I am definitely not a beer drinker. They did however also have Willie Smiths organic cider, a lovely, properly cloudy and most decidedly uncarbonated cider (I mean, if it’s an alternative to beer I’ll drink those bubbly ciders, but don’t pretend that they are anything close to real, traditional cider, just… no). If you do like beer, though, the beer ‘tasting platter’ was highly popular among our group – you choose five of The Local’s MANY artisan and niche beer varieties, that are then brought to you on a platter graded from lightest to heaviest. A gourmet beer experience!

The Local Taphouse is quite a nice surprise hidden away down south. Glenn mentioned that he chose the venue as the one most likely to lure his north dwelling friends across the river, and I can see why. I will definitely be keeping it in mind next time I’m thinking of a nice pubby get together on the south side.

The Local Taphouse

184 Carlisle Street, St Kilda East

Ph: 9537 2633

www.thelocal.com.au

Naked For Satan

We had a very special milestone to celebrate last month when our friend Nina took the plunge and became a fully-fledged Australian citizen. We wanted to take her somewhere that would reflect her Colombian heritage taking root in Australia – I instantly suggested Sonido, but the fact they aren’t open on Sunday nights scuppered that rather poetic idea. Eventually someone suggested Naked For Satan, because Spanish food is kind of related to Colombia? Look, food on sticks transcends all cultural boundaries.

Food on sticks, you say? Yes, the deal at Naked For Satan is that all the food is done in the style of pintxos, little tapas-like snacks popular in northern Spain, particularly in the Basque region. You choose your pintxos, and make sure you hold onto the toothpicks spearing each one, because the amount you eat and therefore pay for is tallied by the amount of toothpicks you present to the waiters when you are done.

Virtually all of the pintxos come on rounds of crusty bread, which works with some of the combinations, like those based on spreads with toppings, while the presence of bread with some of the other options is a little more odd.

My first pintxo was the carrot puree spread with garlic marinated mushrooms. This was the only vegan pintxos I spotted that evening, and it was one of the more delicious ones, with the marinated mushrooms having this sharp, slightly balsamic tang to them, but it would be nice if there were at least two vegan options so one does not end up having some kind of mushroom overdose (though that wouldn’t be a half-bad way of going out, honestly).

A quince paste and goats cheese pintxo had a few pistachios sprinkled on top, and unsurprising these three flavours worked very well together.

I bee-lined for the crumbed eggplant chip on blue cheese smeared bread pintxo as soon as I spotted it. The eggplant was all crispy crumbs on the outside and soft deliciousness within, just the way I like it. Kind of just made me want a heap of eggplant chips, and this was one pintxo where the bread round seemed extraneous to requirements.

A sort-of-sweet option was the poached pear with a blue cheese smear, honey and walnuts. The poached pear was gorgeously soft and sweet, contrasting with the pungent blue cheese.

Another pintxo featured an asparagus spear laid on an avocado and pea smear. This one was kind of underwhelming, which is disappointing considering I love all three green ingredients. There strangely just wasn’t much flavour going on.

Flavour was, however, totally there in spades with my favourite pintxo of the night, the potato tortilla with a stupidly tasty mayo-like sauce. The thick triangular wedge of traditional Spanish tortilla, which is quite quiche-like and is not to be confused with the Mexican flatbread of the same name, was obscenely flavoursome, I probably ate about three of them – though with the later ones I left the bread untouched as again, the bread really added nothing to the tortilla was was just texturally confusing.

I finally had some proper sweets with the cointreau-chocolate mini cannoli and the dark chocolate rum ball. These were both quite nice, the rumball in particular was strongly flavoured with a good amount of dark chocolate, although being me I would have liked a lot more sweet options to choose from.

Considering that I had been worried that I would end up terribly hungry due to the tiny portions, I was actually nicely full by the end, and had only spent my pocket change in the process (I totally recommend going on days when the pintxos are only $1 each). Although there is the distinct possibility that this fullness was probably mostly due to everything coming on bread. There also weren’t any vegetarian or vegan hot options floating around – my meat-eating friends got to sample things like piping-hot meatballs and whatnot, and it might have been nice to balance out all the room-temperature pintxos with something warming.

But the bar is plentifully stocked and has many interesting tipples to try, including ginger beer cider, which has certainly been the find of summer drinking for me! I love cider and love big heapings of ginger in everything, so it’s absolutely perfect for my tastes.

Naked For Satan is definitely worth a gander at if you like interesting wee rounds of food and an extensive drinks menu. A warning that it is very popular and doesn’t take bookings, so it’s best to rock up either very early or very late in the evening to snag a table.

Naked For Satan

285 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy

Ph: 9416 2238

www.nakedforsatan.com.au

Newmarket Hotel

Sometimes Muffin and I go on food missions, where we basically go on reconnaissance to restaurants to test and see whether they’ll be suitable for future celebratory dinners. In this case Muffin wanted to see if the revamped Newmarket Hotel would be a suitable venue to take her family to for her birthday dinner. And me, well, all I needed to hear was that the menu was Mexican-influenced and I was all on board.

The first impression of the fitout is that the Newmarket is sliiiiiiiick as all get out. Pub look on the outside, living in a gorgeous terrarium on the inside. Now I want to live in a gorgeous terrarium, particularly if the food is as good as it is here (clue: REALLY FUCKING GOOD).

Our starter was the guacamole with salsa fresca and tortilla chips. Sounds simple, but it was simple done well. The guacamole was slightly chilli-spiced, and it was all together very snackable, I couldn’t stop nibbling even after other dishes hit the table.

I was far too overexcited about the prospect of sampling the BBQ corn on the cob with chilli and queso fresco, and had indeed been telling anyone who would listen at work that day that I was having corn-onna-stick for dinner. Alas, this particular corn on the cob does not come onna stick, but it does some with finger bowls! Which is good, because otherwise you’d make a filthy mess of yourself what with all the tasty sauce. The corn was beautifully charred to the point of having a very more-ish quality, it was lucky Muffin swiftly took the other half because I was ready to gobble it up too.

Being me, I had to make sure that there were some potatoes in the mix, so I made sure to order the triple cooked bravas potatoes with two sauces. The unidentified sauces were a brown, smoky one that was probably some variant of barbeque sauce, while the other was white and reminiscent of kewpie mayonnaise. Whatever they really were, they combined with the crisp squares of potato into a quite sophisticated take on a staple.

Balancing out the potatoes was the quinoa, broad bean, pecorino and mint salad (though I have a feeling that there wasn’t any mint and that it had instead been replaced with some other herb). This was a fab palate leveler as well as a tasty dish in and of itself, the nuttiness of the quinoa all nicely complemented by the herbs and broad beans. I really love grainy salads and this was a very good representation of the type.

After all this sharing we decided to sample a quesadilla each. I went with the blue corn quesadilla with spring vegetables and asparagus. This was like a little delightful slice of spring, all greens jumping brightly off the plate, with the hint of summer approaching in the levels of chilli heat involved. Beautifully plated and flavoured, THIS is what fancy Mexican inspired food should be like.

Muffin had the quesadilla with huitlacoche, wood BBQ mushrooms, spinach and jack cheese. I’d never tried huitlacoche before, and Muffin was kind enough to supply me with a taste. It’s very nosey, similar to when you eat a delightfully stinky cheese and all the pungency attempts to escape through your nose. Which is probably an obnoxious experience for some people, but for me just amps up the savoury factor.

We had a little rest and then decided to tackle a shared dessert together, because really how could you not? The caramelised date and banana cake with peanut butter parfait was HEAVEN. Unlike a lot of sweet dishes that combine two differing elements in taste and consistency together, this wasn’t an exercise in contrasts. The cake and the parfait were perfect together, you couldn’t eat one without the other.

We didn’t get a chance to try the Newmarket’s cocktail menu, which was a shame as from our seats adjacent to the bar we were treated to viewing the preparation of all kinds of delectable-looking beverages, it was quite a show! (Probably helped that all the bartenders were capslock level HANDSOME) We’re pretty keen to go back just for cocktails and nibbles; it’s nice that it’s a multifaceted venue in that you don’t just have to treat it as just a sit-down dinner place.

Reconnaissance achieved, you will be pleased to hear that Muffin did indeed take her family back to the Newmarket for her birthday, and it received rave reviews all round! She also sent me a drool-worthy text message detailing everything that they ate, which made me draw two conclusions: 1. The internet is truly poorer for the fact that Muffin does not have a food blog of her own, and 2. That I need to go back in order to experience the pear cazuela. Melty chocolatey pear heaven, you are destined for my face.

Newmarket Hotel

34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda

Ph: 9537 1777

newmarketstkilda.com.au

The Woods of Windsor

There are some days when trying to distill an amazing experience down into words is the hardest thing one can try to do. It’s not the same as detailing a negative experience, that is a practice that is all too easy as there are many, many delicious negative words that are far too fun to fling around in a tornado of pique. It is far, far harder, in my estimation, to really nail a positive, amazing experience down into concrete words that ends up satisfying you as a writer. Which is going to make this following post about The Woods of Windsor a very difficult writing task for me indeed.

I had taken note of the space where The Woods of Windsor was to take up residence as it was being constructed, as someone had told me that it was going to be run by the same outfit as Yellow Bird. That caught my interest, and once this glowing recommendation hit Broadsheet, I was in a tizzy. I messaged my work husband Nik (also known as Doctor Ethnic*) with alarming alacrity. “Faux husband and wife date, here, NOW NOW NOW.”

The space is long and dark, a cosy shadowy cavern, with many cute, slightly hipstery touches in terms of design especially focused on rabbit iconography (although if you have phobias involving taxidermy animals, yeah, you might have an episode). There’s seated dining towards the back of the room, but since we strolled in without a reservation (we are shamelessly lax diners), we were seated at the bar area up the front, at a long bench table abutting the windows which open out onto the street.

We started with cocktails, which is of course the correct way to go about things. Nik had a Dark and Stormy, which was a generous serving of rum with ginger ale and mint, cool, direct and refreshing. I like a cocktail that slaps you hard on the back and makes you gasp, and thus went with the Whisky Bang. It achieved that first essential gasp, and gently mellowed out as time wore on and the ice started melting. Very appreciative of the fact that the cocktails are served in tall glasses, it’s nice to have a sinfully alcoholic beverage that lasts throughout the meal.

Anyway, enough of libations, what of food? I had previously read about the zucchini flowers dish, and was so keen I didn’t even really look at the rest of the menu. This anticipation, however, didn’t quite prepare me for what was on the plate. Three neat zucchini flowers placed next each other alternating top to tail, loosely encrusted in a light, delicately thin coating of batter. Each flower was stuffed with a sweet, creamy goats cheese, and underneath each flower head rested an ever so thin slice of beetroot, about the width of a crisp. Sprinkled atop the flowers were some pan-roasted pine nuts, and little green crescents of what I think were pimento olives, as well as a garnish of sprouts. The presentation was so gorgeous to the eye that I hesitated slightly in starting to eat it, as it seemed such a shame to dismantle a piece of art.

But eat I did, and good golly, it was DIVINE. A perfect balance of all those diverse yet complimentary flavours. I must of had a very interesting expression on my face while eating it, because at one point two middle-aged ladies who were walking past caught sight of me and the zucchini flowers, and actually spoke to me through the open window to ask “Is that as good as it looks?” I garbled back “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten!” with a mouth full of flowers and then kept hoeing in.

Nik ordered the duck dish that was simply described on the menu as “spiced duck breast: quinoa, seeds.” It was quite a lot more than that simple description belies. About four fat medallions of duck breast had been placed on the plate; little brown piles of quinoa were alternated by pools of a bright yellow sauce, probably a hollondaise. “Now, here’s where it gets theatrical,” said the waitress, as she poured a thin jus out of a tiny jug with a flourish over the duck pieces. In the end Nik felt that perhaps the jus wasn’t quite needed, but was otherwise just as enthusiastic over it as I was about the zucchini flowers.

“If I could have got away with licking the plate, I would have,” I told the waiter ruefully when he came to collect our heartily scraped dishes. “Oh, we TOTALLY encourage plate-licking!” he said cheerfully.

We weren’t quite full, so our gazes collectively turned towards a shared dessert. The summer mille feuille was a sweet tower constructed out of discs of crisp, crunchy almond brittle, held together by white chocolate mousse, and layered with raspberries, halved blueberries and cubes of watermelon and cantaloupe, topped with a few violet pansies for an edible, decorative touch. It’s very right to describe this as a summer dessert, it was so light and fresh and felt really cleansing after the amazing, zinging “Oh my there’s tastes everywhere!” excitement of the zucchini flowers.

With middle to high food prices, it’s certainly not the sort of place that you are going to be able to afford eating at every night of the week (though the pricing of the many beverage selections are more than fair). But for a special occasion evening or for those times when you feel the need to indulgently treat yourself to something more gastronomically elegant that your usual fare, The Woods of Windsor has you sorted. And I am going to be trying to find excuses to be indulgent here as often as I can!

The Woods of Windsor

108 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9512 1900

*He’s not a real doctor, he just plays one on TV.

Yellow Bird

The first time I visited Yellow Bird was over two years ago, in the company of Bennett and Leah. Bennett had been spruiking the place as one of his favourite venues for breakfast, and I was so excited I was practically pinging off the walls. Unfortunately for Bennett, I was about to experience one of the darkest dining-out moments of my life. After ordering food, none appeared for over an hour, which seemed highly odd mainly due to the fact the place was only half full. When I had the temerity to question the waitress as to whether our order was ready yet (in a wincingly polite fashion, as I’m generally terrified of complaining to waitstaff), she huffed and treated me as if I was the most annoying, unreasonable person on the planet. When the food actually appeared, it was depressingly underwhelming – when I try to recall the pancakes I ordered my memory gets suffused with a rubbery, dry sensation.

“Well, that was some high class bullshit!” I said angrily once we’d left.

“It’s ordinarily never like that…” Bennett started, but I’m pretty sure I probably didn’t let him finish and just kept reiterating “Bullshit!” while flinging my limbs around in agitation. “I’m never going there again!” I finally decreed.

Now, when I say definite statements like that, categorically stating that I’ll never, ever do or like something, it’s pretty much a guarantee that somewhere down the line, I’ll be proven empirically wrong and be forced to eat my words. Luckily in the case of Yellow Bird, they turned out to be delicious words.

It all started when, after a Sunday morning staff meeting, it was collectively decided that we all required breakfast, and the venue floated was Yellow Bird (probably by Bennett. The man is admirably consistent). The decor doesn’t seemed to have changed much since my last visit: it’s still a cross between some kind of Mexican-inspired luau and the furniture section of an outer-eastern Salvos. The staff are markedly more cheery, though some still retain a workman-like efficiency that some may find too distancing (and I personally like how you can identify the waitstaff by their giant, brightly coloured quill pens).

For this possibly redemptive breakfast, I ordered eggs florentine. Now, this was not the absolute best I’ve had – and damn have I had a lot of eggs florentine, this blog belies how much I consume it – but it was highly acceptable, with good creamy hollandaise  and dribbly poached eggs that oozed all over everything just like good poached eggs should. The only thing that could stand improving would be the spinach, which came across as a bit bland. Then again my idea for jazzing it up would include a lot more salt and butter, and maybe Yellow Bird just has a greater regard for my continued good health than I do.

I was happy with my meal, happy with the space, happy with the congenial atmosphere. So much so that in the intervening months I’ve found my way back there multiple times. I had to make sure it wasn’t an outrageous aberration! Consequently, I’ve ploughed my way through a fair chunk of the menu, starting with…

The breakfast burrito (omitting the bacon), which with scrambled eggs, guac, tomato salsa, sour cream and house-made spicy beans makes for a good, solid meal. The beans are a definite highlight, with utterly fab tomatoey sauce floating with fat white beans. A filling breakfast suitable for when you may have hit the tiles a bit too hard the previous evening.

More Mexican came in the form of a lunch of vegetable tortillas: two tortillas filled with spicy beans, jalapenos, cheese, spinach, coriander with sour cream. Even with asking for them to take it easy with the jalapenos, this was still hot hot hot! But otherwise super tasty. But seriously, cool it down, jalapenos, bit too much for this lady.

I’ve also done the ‘build your own’ breakfast, with scrambled eggs, hash browns, spinach and mushrooms on sourdough bread. The hash browns are actually proper grated-up-then-fried -potato, not store-bought blocks of stodge! Do you know how happy that makes me? Soooooo happy. I think this was also the visit where my compatriot Joe ordered a special of macaroni and cheese that was the size of his head. Oh, so much cheese, it was beautiful. And delightfully creamy.

Random potato-based quibble: the fries always seem to be underdone here. I’m not quite sure what’s happening there, but it makes me sad. I love crispyness in my fries! This is only real black mark that I could find against Yellow Bird during this rediscovery period, as I take crimes against the potato very seriously.

My most recent visit saw me finally sample the sweet side of the menu, with a breakfast of  porridge with honey, crushed hazelnuts and fresh strawberries. I would have preferred a bit more honey (it didn’t even hit a third of the way up the milk jug it was served in), but otherwise it was a good, hearty way to kick off a Sunday morning.

“Who orders porridge for breakfast when eating out?” asked Bennett contemptuously from over the giant plate of ‘man-food’ in front of him. “It’s wrong. Your face is wrong.”

“Your mum’s face is wrong,” I countered out of habit (fact: 58% of banter between Bennett and I is based in the noble tradition of mum jokes).

Yellow Bird, I had come to discover, is solidly reliable. You can go there and have an enjoyable meal at a price that is decent against the wallet, fills you up nicely and is low on culinary disappointments (underdone fries withstanding). No, you won’t have any heavenly revelations that will cause you to redefine the meaning of food, but in amongst good company you’ll have a highly enjoyable time. And isn’t that the point, really? That Bennett, he was totally on to something. But don’t tell him that, I’ll never hear the end of it.

Yellow Bird

122 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9533 8983

www.yellowbird.com.au

Tyranny of Distance

Yet another visit to the Astor required a dining venue beforehand. Food and movies go hand in hand for me, both are such social experiences in my circle, it always seems strange to have one without the other. And the need for more places with yummo food on or adjacent to Chapel Street is always sorely needed, so Muffin and I were keen to explore this new (to us) option.

Tyranny of Distance is just off Chapel in Union Street, and is in a big ramshackle, yet stylish, converted warehouse shed. It seems like the perfect summer drinking venue, what with it’s giant slatted windows that open up to let the sun in. It’s a friendly, cool space that I can see myself spending a lot of time at over the next few hot months, particularly if their food and drinks remain as consistently good as they were during this first visit.

Beverage wise, I can’t go past a cocktail, and I ended up ordering the strongest Manhattan IN THE WORLD! Seriously, I don’t consider myself a lightweight at all, yet this put me into tipsy giggle mode quicker than anything. The barman told me it was made to a traditional recipe, which leads me to the conclusion that early Manhattan drinkers were either tremendously gifted at retaining alcohol or stumbling around paralytic and getting bowled over by horse and carts all the time.

Muffin went with the sake mojito, which the fellow serving us said was a recipe of his own devising. I hope he keeps experimenting with recipes because this mojito was seriously the goods, all sweet yet sharp, with a lovely strong tang of lemongrass to it, who knew sake would work so well in such a context!

On to the food. Firstly we had the saganaki with olive tapanade, flatbread, rocket and lemon. What most impressed me about this was the tapanade, purely because I ordinarily don’t like olives that much. A little to kind of get a vague olive taste is alright, but too much tends to overwhelm all the other flavours and makes me all flaily hands. This was actually quite olivey but at the same time didn’t overwhelm the saganaki, it was all a delicious salty, oh my goodness I must stuff more in my face NOW combination.

Muffin had some of the pork gyoza. They looked nice and crisp on the outside, and they disappeared quite quickly, so I’m sure they must have been good.

A serving of the crisp baby potato halves with spicy aioli (which were not listed as chips and therefore did not incur a serving of my new favourite rant) were crisp while being fluffy on the inside. I’ve probably got to stop ordering potato-y things, I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about them!

We accompanied everything with the green salad with cucumber, spinach, rocket and dressing. Kind of glad we got this to augment all the frying!

For dessert we shared the chai brulee with cranberry biscotti. Holy craps, this was just… UGGGHHHHHAMAZING! That was the sound of a foodgasm, pure and true. This dish ALONE is worth you schlepping out this side of town for.

The more I keep exploring in the south east, the more I discover great, interesting places that really open my eyes and smack my north-preferring prejudices upside the head. Perhaps the northside ain’t all that and a packet of crisps after all.

Tyranny of Distance

147 Union Street, Windsor

Ph: 9525 1005

http://www.tyrannyofdistance.com.au/