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

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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┬áNaked 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