Blintz on Tour: Cha-Ya, San Francisco

A holiday observation: Dogs are acceptable absolutely everywhere in San Francisco. I saw them on streetcars, in stores (macaws are also apparently acceptable in thrift stores), and yes, even in restaurants. I didn’t notice the little dachshund hidden under a patron’s coat at Cha-Ya until it barked imperiously at a server.

I was at Cha-Ya because I was suffering slightly from an overindulgence in Mexican food. You see, California does Mexican food very, very well, and I may have got overexcited and partaken with a bit too much gusto (Sulagna and I *may* have recoursed to Chipotle several times by this point. Also a lot of Melbourne’s Mexican tastes like Chipotle, so maybe we got a bit too excited there guys). Anyway, I had started to think keenly about noodles and sushi and miso and so very much needed a Japanese lunch.

Luckily, San Francisco happens to be home to Cha-Ya, an entirely vegan Japanese restaurant. The menu is huge, and was full of all the things I’d been longing for – agadashi tofu, maki rolls, gyoza, edamame, my head was turned every which way as I bounced from choosing the vege tofu curry, the sea vegetable salad or a plate of fried loveliness in the form of vegie tempura.

In the end I decided to go with the lunch set, as then I would be able to have the choice from a list of big bowlfuls of assorted vegies alongside a small bowl of warming miso. The hana gomoku, or sushi rice bowl, looked to be the ticket: sushi rice mixed with seasoned shiitake, green beans, carrots, lotus root, sliced tofu pouch, yam cake and hijiki, topped with seasonal vegetables.

After enjoying the miso, which was delightfully salty and filled with threads of seaweed, the hana gomoku was just the hit of vegies I craved. The almost overflowing bowl sat on a mound of sticky sushi rice, and the highlights included warm shiitake wedges that had been broth blanched, meticulously carved carrot pieces, big half moons of lotus root, and many shiny orbs of bright green edamame. It was the perfect dose of hearty, generous vegie health that I’d been longing for, and very much satisfied my craving.

The service was very efficient and kindly, and the staff are equipped to deal with the unexpected (like barking hidden dogs) with aplomb. Cha-Ya is a definite must for vegans traveling in San Francisco, or anyone who likes a fresh bowl of vegie delights.

Cha-Ya

762 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415 252 7825

Kappaya Soul Food Cafe

Nadine is completely obsessed with the Abbotsford Convent, and most particularly with all the food venues tucked away among its formally ecclesiastical eaves. She once went to the Convent’s Lentil As Anything outpost four times in the space of a week, true story. So when Maddy and I made some Saturday lunch plans to meet Nadine at the Convent, I assumed that we would inevitably end up at Lentil. But a secret part of me was hoping that we might get a chance to tick off one of my long held must-visit places – Kappaya and it’s Japanese soul food.

It turned out Nadine also had a vested interest in visiting Kappaya, as it’s daytime only opening hours means that it had been closed during many of her previous visits. So it was excitement all round on discovering it was open.

The interior does that cosy, mismatched furniture look really well, so it actually succeeds in being a super comforting space to be in. Cosy-ing up on some squishy plush vintage chairs, we were pretty instantly overwhelmed by the menu, with Maddy and Nadine eventually being drawn to the bento box options.

While the vegie bento did indeed sound good, I had my eye drawn by the all-day breakfast option of a rice and soup combo plate: you get mixed rice crowned with a gooey poached egg, served with miso-dressed mixed salad leaves, and a nice fat cup filled with pumpkin soup. Pumpkin soup for breakfast! REVELATIONS. It was a darn good pumpkin soup too, served in a heavy earthenware cup that felt solid and significant in my hands, with a thick, grainy consistency. It was less creamy than you would ordinarily encounter, but ratcheted up the spice considerably, and I was also given a shaker of flavour salt filled with black sesame seeds and other savoury bits and bobs, never give me shaker of savoury bits, it all just ends up going on EVERYTHING.

But let us also talk about the pure joy that is a softly poached egg broken over rice. Is this the most perfect experience yet devised by human people? IF NOT IT MUST BE CLOSE. I know by this point it must seem like I’m completely obsessed by gooey eggs and just having them pop and dribble over all kinds of carbs, but really, why wouldn’t you be, it is GREAT AND PERFECT. And Kappaya’s rice was already tasty from being flecked through with black sesame seeds, and the egg was just at that poached tipping point where it hovers on that edge between underdone and just right. I popped that dang egg, mixed it all through the rice and ate it like I hadn’t eaten in years. And lo, it was good.

Indeed, everything about Kappaya slotted neatly into the ever so good category. Maddy and Nadine both enjoyed their bentos – I snatched a taste of one of the tofu balls that came with Nadine’s, and it was a tasty wee thing of smoky savoury flavours. Everything just tasted fresh and lovingly hewn together using hearty recipes clearly developed for taste and comfort. Should you find yourself at the Convent during the day, I can think of no better place to look after your tum.

Kappaya Soul Food Cafe

Abbotsford Convent

1 Helliers Street, Abbotsford

Ph: 9416 0070

abbotsfordconvent.com.au

MIFF Eats 2012: Electric Boogaloo

Melbourne International Film Festival time! The film nerd Christmas in August! The greatest time of the year! And a perfect way for me to say fie at my bank account and treat MIFF as a period for good films and good food. Knowing that I wasn’t going to get the chance for any overseas traveling jaunts this year, I said to myself “bugger it”, took leave from work for the entirety of MIFF and basically went on holiday, attempting to eat myself decadently silly where I could in between the 45 films I saw. What follows is the most illustrious of the vittles I sampled.

Hako

After watching Step Up to the Plate and consequentially becoming VERY hungry, Jen and I took a stroll down Flinders Lane and ended up at Hako. I remember way back in the days when I was first becoming aware of the Melbourne foodie scene that Hako was quite talked about around town. Things seem a touch quieter at Hako these days, and although we had a pleasant enough meal with nice service and liberal libations of plum wine, there’s only one dish out of the four or so we had that’s really worth reporting, and that’s the herb salada maki rolls. Studded on the outside with seeds and inwardly stuffed with a mix of herbs and greenery, these were deceptively full of flavour and certainly had a lot more depth to them than a lot of vegetarian sushi I’ve come across. Jen and I were tempted to order another round of them, but had already racked up a decent bill so decided to let it go. Should I return to Hako in the future though, it will be for a feast solely comprised of those rolls and plum wine.

310 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9620 1881 

www.hako.com.au

China Red

Okay, I think I’ve figured China Red out. You may remember from last year’s MIFF Eats post that I was well confused about the patchy nature of the food on offer here, with some of it being really great, and other dishes proving to be almost unforgivably lackluster. But given its convenience and the fact that the food comes out super quick (both very important when it comes to trying to fit in a filling meal between films) I hit it up a few times during MIFF, mainly for the bright green vegie dumplings. The skins are still a touch too thick but that’s the only negative I can come up with, the fillings are nice and varied and the entire concoction is properly tasty. I also partook of the spring onion pancake, which was nicely crispy and not too oily, and of course that fabulous mango, coconut cream and sago dessert that just kills me dead. With China Red do your research, figure out the dishes you like and stick to them like glue. The benefits of a fast dumpling cannot be denied.

Shop 6, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9662 3688

www.china-red.com.au

Journal

Ahh, Ol’ Reliable. I went to Journal for two consecutive Sunday brunch visits during MIFF in order to prepare for an extended filmy afternoon and evening. The first contained a creamy celeriac soup, a decadent cherry danish, and a chai served with a generous pot of honey, which is my sole requirement for a good chai. The second visit yielded up a stupidly tasty tomato and basil bruschetta (another example of getting the simple things oh so right), and a flaky croissant served with the daily jam, which just happened to be rhubarb. Can we all band together and make rhubarb jam a thing, because oh man is rhubarb jam a tart-sweet bomb of sticky deliciousness! I ended up being very indelicate and used my knife to scoop up the remains that didn’t end up on my croissant and just slurped it on its own.

253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 4399

Little King

This little gem has easily become my favourite haunt in the city. Hidden behind St Paul’s Cathedral down the same cobblestone alleyway that features the Chapter House gallery space, it’s a tiny lace-curtained bolthole that has some of the tastiest treats and most gorgeous service about town. I have become fast addicted to the soft pumpkin, baby spinach and goats cheese baguette to the point that sometimes I’m blind to anything else that may be in the cabinet. The coffee’s damn nice, at least to a non-habitual coffee drinker like me (I think it the coffee may be done by Padre, take that for whatever it means to you coffee fiends). Best of all, there are always heaps of yummy vegan sweet treats to choose from, which you should totally be doing at all possible times. Especially the banana and dark chocolate muffin. Om nom nom.

Shop 4, 208 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 0030

littlekingcafe.com

Chin Chin

See, I wasn’t lying when I said I used this year’s MIFF as an excuse for decadent food treats! Before viewing the truly excellent I Wish, Jen, Em, Sohi and I managed to score a table at easily the most talked about joint in town (the magic time to go in order to avoid the queues, it seems, is late afternoon). Em has already blogged extensively about this visit over on her blog Enjoy Eat Watch (complete with photos!) so I’ll just do a quick rundown of what I sampled as part of the $65 per head ‘Feed Me’ option – which is OBSCENE value for money, by the way.

– vegetarian wraps with crispy tofu, that come out on a DIY platter. Piles and piles of vegies to choose from in stuffing your wraps, and the peanut satay sauce that comes with it was whizz-bang wonderful.

– crispy corn fritters served with Vietnamese mint, chilli jam, slices of fresh ginger and lettuce leaves. I have to concur with Em and agree that this was the only dish that we sampled that didn’t quite work. All these little fried babies needed was the excellently spicy chilli jam, everything else was extraneous and conflicted texturally.

– a plate of green with the lightly steamed pea and bean shoots with soy honey sauce. I’m a big fan of greens done simply with a good sauce, and this hit the spot perfectly.

– vegetarian fried rice. While nothing will ever compare to my dad’s fried rice, this was still a very satisfying version, with a good proper level of salty soy and a variety of vegie bits and bobs (you always want your fried rice to have a good amount of bits and bobs).

– extreme dessert quartet of sweet destruction: honeycomb parfait with ginger sorbet, banana roti with condensed milk sauce, corn ice cream with caramel coconut rice, and a creamy, coconutty Thai-inspired trifle. While all of these caught my interest in some way, the one that would have me going back in a second would be the honeycomb parfait. Smooth, rich, creamy parfait undercut by the sharp tang of the ginger sorbet: utter bliss.

Needless to say, I am now among the multitudes that found Chin Chin to be utterly worth the hype.

125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

chinchinrestaurant.com.au

Cumulus Inc

I hadn’t tried Cumulus before, mainly due to the fact that I had never really heard of them rated as a good dinner joint for vegos. Indeed, once I was sat at the bar and started perusing the menu, I was dismayed that it seemed to be totally dominated by listings of oysters and charcuterie items. But within the salads and comestibles section I found succour with the cauliflower, chard and taleggio gratin dotted with delicate fronds of black truffle. This is the kind of dish that was so good that I wanted to lift it above my head into the light and declare it the high god king of all that the sun touched, but you know, I would have burnt myself on the hot skillet if I’d done so, so I didn’t.

What is also good about the salad and sides selection is that all bar the gratin can be downsized into half serves. I got myself a wee bowl of the cracked wheat and freekeh salad (I was eyeing off the roasted potatoes with sage and garlic but figured it wouldn’t be advisable to then sit through two films on a tummy filled with double stodge). This was an agreeably nutty side that definitely leavened the going with my cheesy gratin, and certainly felt healthy enough that my cheese guilt lessened considerably.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cumulus was a great experience as a solo diner. Sitting up at the bar you peer directly into the kitchen and can watch the chefs at work, and they all seem more than happy to chat with you while they’re putting together desserts, or cleaning oysters with tiny paintbrushes.

45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 1445

cumulusinc.com.au

Should you be particularly interested in my filmy MIFF musings, you can head on over to 240films.com, where Jen and I are still very slowly going through our reactions to all the films we saw. By the rate we post at, we should have them all done by Christmas.

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

MIFF Eats

Oh Melbourne International Film Festival time, you are my absolutely favourite time of year! And in order to soothe my soul that it is once again all over for another year (*sniff*), this post is dedicated to relieving some of the food adventures I had while scuttling around the city attempting to enjoy as many filmy delights as possible over 17 days (although my Werner Herzog/Gasometer adventure is to be saved for it’s own post, it was that epic).

Wagamama

When I was on holiday in the UK a few years ago I found it ridiculously hard to find any kind of East Asian food that wasn’t crap, or served with chips (ABOMINATION). When I discovered a Wagamama in Cardiff and had a bowl of vegie ramen that didn’t make want me to write a letter of apology to Japan, I was so happy I could have cried. But I hadn’t yet tried the Melbourne outlet until I discovered that it was a perfect halfway point between the Forum and Kino.

On my first visit I ordered a vegetarian bento box for $15 (only available at lunch) and it was pretty decent. The yasai katsu curry was delicious, with panko-crumbed pieces of eggplant, zucchini and sweet potato all slathered in this great not-too-spicy sauce, which I had great fun mopping up with my ball of rice. The vegie gyoza were not as successful, the filling was nice but the wrappers were a bit stiff and probably not steamed for long enough. The edamame were a little tough too, but still tasty. And I really enjoyed the fresh green salad augmented with red dashes of rubbery pickles, it was a good way to finish off the meal. It also came with miso soup, which is always a plus for me.

Unfortunately I had a dinner there later on in the festival which was frankly a bit nasty. I ordered a vegetarian soup which was basically just a giant bowl of soba noodles and bean shoots in a very average broth. There were a few token bits of zucchini and snow pea floating around, but all in all it was uninspiring and an outrage at around $18 for the bowl. I might return for another bento, but count me out for dinner.

83 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9671 4303

http://www.wagamama.com.au/

Hoboken

The blogsphere seems to have been suspiciously quiet about this place (or at least the blogs I follow have been, apart from Carla over at Easy as Vegan Pie who mentioned it in her one of her own MIFF posts). I hadn’t heard anything about it before stumbling over it when taking a short cut to the Forum via Hosiers Lane.

First thing that Hoboken taught me is that I can totally be won over by cafes that have pots of ornamental cabbages sitting outside their front doors. I LOVE cute pots of cabbages, it turns out. I also love cute barista boys who are all “Not sure what to eat? Here, have this giant roll filled with an omelette and coriander and peri-peri sauce, it is DELICIOUS,” to which I reply “You are correct, young sir, and also congratulations on your face” (okay, I only thought that last bit, I didn’t say it. But I thought it REALLY HARD, in the hopes that he might have had telekinetic powers). They also do a very hearty mocha, which I resorted to quite frequently during the festival. To have relied so heavily on caffeine as a crutch, how shameful for an avowed coffee dissenter like myself! But sometimes nothing else will see you through five films a day.

I am deeply intrigued by Hoboken, and hope to return for several more visits.

3 Hosier Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9078 2869

Journal

Ahh Journal, such an old stand by. Sure, sometimes the staff  hide behind that wall of a bar like it’s a medieval fortification designed to keep back the ravaging hordes of Genghis Khan, but the food is deceptively simple and oh so good. Where else could something as basic as avocado on toast be such a satisfying nibble? And they craft a good mocha as well, though enticing the staff out so you can get a second one sometimes proves difficult.

253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9650 4399

Chocolate Buddha

I first discovered Chocolate Buddha during last year’s MIFF, so it seemed appropriate to visit again this year. And I was hungering for some sushi, as earlier in the day I had watched the divine documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (watch that trailer and weep), so nothing was going to stop me from chowing down on sushi dreams after that. Chocolate Buddha had a chargrilled tofu nigiri special on offer, so I figured that would suit my longings perfectly!

They sadly ended up just a tad bland (chargrilling clearly doesn’t do much for the flavour of tofu if you haven’t let it soak in the flavour of something else first), but there was enough tasty interest in the form of the accompanying pickled ginger and wasabi to jazz them up.

My main of the tofu ankake don was a much more complete prospect, with greens like choy sum, bok choy and wombok mingling with shiitake, silken tofu, ginger, carrot, bamboo shoots and shredded up nori sheets over white rice. If there’s anything more satisfying than a big fresh bowl of vegies and grains, I don’t want to know what it is.

Federation Square, Cnr Swanston and Flinders Streets, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 5688

http://www.chocolatebuddha.com.au/

ACMI Lounge

Did you know that ACMI Lounge does bang-up amazing soup for $11? I bet you didn’t! It’s damn huge, making it a really filling quick meal, especially when you’re a little pressed for time and have to do the film buff’s sprint to Greater Union. I ordered the potato and cauliflower soup one night, and while it was definitely stacked more on the starchy potato side of things in terms of overall flavour, it was delightfully creamy and warmingly pleasant. Best of all, it came with a piece of parmesan encrusted bread that was longer than the bowl itself. That’s how you win me over, with giant chunks of cheesy bread!

ACMI, Federation Square, Cnr Swanston and Flinders Streets, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 8663 2537

http://www.acmi.net.au/acmi_lounge.htm

China Red

I honestly don’t know how I feel about China Red. It’s in a terribly convenient location, especially during MIFF when it was just around the corner from Greater Union and made a perfect pre or post film dining spot with friends. It also retains its novelty value with the touchscreens that you use for ordering; my friends and I still haven’t lost that sense of glee in pressing buttons and then having food magically appear. I just wish the quality of the food wasn’t so damn inconsistent.

I mean, how can you go from the sublime example of one of the most deliciously perfect desserts I’ve ever encountered, which pairs coconut cream, mango puree and delicate white pearls of tapioca like they’ve been plucked from the very gardens of the gods themselves (I don’t know why the gods are growing tapioca in their gardens, just follow me for the sake of the metaphor), to charging $6 for a ‘vegetable soup’ that essentially was a few green strands and some tofu puffs floating in practically straight-up water? I have no idea.

It seems like it’s the sort of place where you have to search out for the good items and then stick with them. The brilliantly green vegetable dumplings are pretty good (although their skins are probably just a touch too thick for my tastes, although it is a reassuring sign that they are handmade), and on our last visit during MIFF Joe and I shared this incredible pumpkin dish where sticks of it had been somehow crumbed in egg yolk and fried. The riot this caused on our tastebuds was too glorious to be described.

But then for every great dish there’s one that’s just disappointingly average (vegie spring rolls, I’m looking at your generic curry tasting arses) or outrageously bad (I can’t get over that soup, I just can’t). Oh, China Red, you are confusing and I am honestly not certain how I feel about you at all.

Shop 6, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9662 3688

http://www.china-red.com.au/

Oh food and film, will there ever be a more perfect combination? No, no there isn’t, that was a rhetorical question. And as for the festival itself, what made me catch my breathe, cheered me, or utterly changed my life the most out of the 41 films I ended up seeing? Well, including the above-mentioned Jiro, let’s just say that if you were loitering in a cinema foyer and caught sight that they were playing Submarine, Attenberg, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Melancholia, Tiny Furniture, or Bobby Fischer Against the World, you’d be doing yourself a great service to immediately purchase a ticket and a choc top, settle down in the dark, and prepared to be entranced.

Mikoshi

This post should really be titled “How Hayley Discovered Sushi Hot Dogs and Flipped Out So Extensively She Essentially Has Been Incapable of Doing Anything Other Than Drawing Smiling Anthropomorphic Sushi Dogs Everywhere Ever Since.”

Hitting the harried ambiance of Fitzroy Street to find some sustenance before a gig at the Palais Theatre, Muffin and I had already bypassed a few restaurants we’d scribbled the addresses out of the Good Food Guide when we came to a stop outside Mikoshi. And all it took was for me to see the word “sushi” adjacent to the word “dog” for me to firmly state, “We are eating HERE.”

Mikoshi’s menu proclaims its food as being “Asian fusion at its best!” Now I don’t blame you if you baulk at the term fusion; a lot of late 90s/early 2000s eateries killed the idea of fusion stone dead by merging together foods into hideous abominations That Should Never Have Been. But Mikoshi’s version is not only super tasty, it’s a stroke of sensible genius. There’s nothing in these dishes that is out of place or weird. It’s simply Japanese, served in a clever fashion.

For entree, of course we had to have a sushi dog each. I went with the seitan “cali-dog”, whereas Muffin had the tuna-filled option. The sushi comes out ostensibly as a big, regular roll, but it’s split down the middle and crammed full of exciting fillings – as well as marinated seitan mine had some tempura vegies as well. They even do a sauce and mustard style drizzle with the sushi mayo! It was ridiculously amazing.

There’s also sushi burgers, which we didn’t order, but I spied some at another table and am now intrigued by them, seeing as they appeared to be domes of iceburg lettuce that hid… what, I wonder? It’s a mystery! A potentially  delicious mystery.

We also ordered some other, less creatively exciting yet still awesomely delicious dishes. There were vegetable gyoza, with noticable chunks of shiitake inside, which is my marker these days for acceptable gyoza. Well, these were way more than just acceptable, they rated pretty highly on my “best gyoza to be had” scorecard.

I also ordered the yasai ramen. This was made with a shiitake infused broth, and the vegetables had been stir-fried before they were added to the soup. The fact that the vegies had been stir-fried gave the whole dish this amazing smoky flavour, which kind of ramped up all the other components. It was honestly a highly impressive dish, and probably the best soup discovery I’ve had in a long while (SO stealing the stir-fry method for my homemade ramen soups).

Muffin ordered the chicken bento box (Muffin likes bento boxes because she likes the fact that they’re basically compartmentalised culinary surprises). This bento was comprised of teriyaki chicken, kingfish, tuna and salmon sashimi chicken strips that seemed to have been tempura’d, tofu and wakame salad and a rice ball. She enjoyed everything greatly, and thought it was a very well put together bento.

Mikoshi has heaps of interesting vegie options, which makes me far more enamoured of it than the similar-but-nowhere-near-as-good Sushi Burger in the CDB, which I decided not to blog as it only had one vegie option. I can’t wait to go back and order a sushi burger. What lurks under that crisp lettuce shell? Oh, the delicious anticipation!

Mikoshi

151-153 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda

Ph: 9534 9559

Chocolate Buddha

Way back in August when the Melbourne International Film Festival was in full swing, I was struck down with illness right in the middle of my festival-attending schedule. To call it ‘illness’ doesn’t really express the gravity of what befell me. I was a mess: coughing, sneezing, shaking, flushing hot then cold, bleary brain fog and muscle fatigue. A whole lot of not pretty.

But I couldn’t retire to bed and bid the world ‘fie!’ for  few days in order to recover. No, I had booked festival movies! Four movies in one day in fact, and another the day after, and I love movies even more than food, so I wasn’t going to let being near death stop me from seeing them. So I hobbled around, feeling as though my head were stuffed with the many tissues that my nose was flying through, and with such a ravaged throat that I was actually rendered mute. But hey, the films were great, so it was worth it? *health-conscious peanut gallery shakes heads grimly in unison*

On my second day of debilitating muteness, I met up with Jen and Zoe after seeing my lone scheduled film. Upon hearing me squeak and wheeze pathetically, they each grabbed an arm and frogmarched me to Federation Square. “We are getting you some soup.” said Jen grimly.

“Fortifying soup!” said Zoe.

” ‘O’p.” I croaked.

We ended up at Chocolate Buddha, which I hadn’t been to in YEARS. Bowing to my friends’ insistence that I have soup, I went with the Yasai Soba: soba noodles and deep fried silken tofu with snow peas, wakame, baby corn, spring onion, and menma in a vegetable stock with ginger, sesame and chilli oil. I had neglected to explain the fact that my illness had completely nullified my sense of taste, and was glumly anticipating not being able to actually taste my soup.

However, what actually occurred was that the soup was the first thing that succeeded in breaching the sickness blockade. A growing sensation of chilli broke through to spread over my tongue; I could have cried it made me so happy. And while I didn’t get too much taste other than the chilli seeping through, it allowed me to focus on appreciating the texture of everything in the soup instead. The silken tofu, which with its thin, crisp fried coating looked as if it had been transplanted from a bowl of agedashi tofu, was delectably smooth and melted gloriously in my mouth (the sign of truly great silken tofu!). There’s a nice balance between all the vegies and the noodles, too.

I wandered back to Chocolate Buddha a few weeks later in order to re-sample the Yasai Soba in a nose-clear, taste-reinvigorated state. The remembrance of the soup I’d had while sick had achieved near mythical levels of appreciation in my mind, and I wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just a product of being illness addled. Turns out sickly me hadn’t been far wrong – I couldn’t detect as much chilli as I had while sick, but a fully functioning palate revealed that the stock also has pleasing sesame overtones, and that tofu is just DIVINE. Truly one of the best uses of silken tofu that I’ve come across in a while.

Chocolate Buddha, as well as doing a nice soup, really is a lovely space to enjoy a meal in, and it seems that a lot of people are remembering that, it seems to be picking up again in popularity after a few years out of the spotlight. Being in Fed Square, it’s not cheap (my soba comes in at just under $20; to be fair it’s a damn big soup), but if you’re in the area and stumped for somewhere to fill you with something good and comforting, Chocolate Buddha should serve you well.

Chocolate Buddha

Federation Square (next to ACMI), Cnr Flinders and Swanston Streets, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 5688

http://www.chocolatebuddha.com.au/

Disco Beans

I love an excuse to go to Northcote. Any excuse, though they don’t roll my ways as often as they used to. See, I used to be a massive gig pig, going to anything that involved music. Set up a man in a sticky-carpeted room tumping on a drum and I’d be there, dancing madly. The Northcote Social Club was a particularly favoured venue, not least because it gave me an excuse to have a pre-show dinner at one of the fab restaurants along the High Street strip.

But these days I’m an old woman and don’t go to as many gigs because frankly, I’m sick of all these whipper-snapper kids annoying the hell out of me! No kidding, I was a brain snap away from beating to death with my book-filled tote bag a couple standing in front of me at the last Mountain Goats gig, who not only were watching what was happening inches in front of them through their iPhones, but were talking loudly all the way through. WHO DOES THAT? ANSWER: JERKS.

But there are always some artists I will brave rude, undeserving audience members for, and this particular evening found Muffin and I searching for a dining venue to precede us watching the delightful Darren Hanlon at the Thornbury Theatre. I had read In The Mood For Noodles’ reviews of Disco Beans and was curious, and as soon as Muffin heard the name she was in. “You just HAVE to check out a place if it’s called Disco Beans!”

We were the very first customers of the evening when we entered the bright room, which is plastered from floor to ceiling with bright pictures culled from Japanese magazines. By the time we left nearly just under two hours later, Disco Beans was heaving at the seams. And there is a very good reason for that: it is AMAZING.

After starting with an appetiser of sorts with a bowl of pod-popping fresh edemame, the main event of the sunset curry with beetroot and beans and the vegan okonomiyaki arrived. Okonomiyaki tends to be tarnished with the junk food brush in my eyes; despite them being chock-full of vegies, all the frying and sauces makes me feel that they just can’t be that good for you. But this particular example with something else: despite being HUGE and lovingly slathered in sauce, it struck me as being the healthiest version I’d yet encountered, being that it was chock-full of a variety of interesting grains as well as the standard shredded vegies. It won’t bore you at all, and tastes pretty damn awesome as well!

The sunset curry has a very apt name, being that it is possesses a bright pink hue that automatically makes you think of skies shot through with gorgeous warm colours at sunset. I was a little concerned about a curry containing beetroot, thinking that the sweetness of the vegetable might not contrast well with curry spices. However, even though it was not an overly spicy curry (I have a feeling Japanese-style ones aren’t supposed to be? This is something to research), what spice there was complemented the sweet and creamy beetroot perfectly. It’s a pretty amazing dish, and if you were to have one thing at Disco Beans I’d recommend it.

For dessert, we both went for cake, surprise! One was a kind of banana cake (I neglected to write down its proper name, apologies), which was amazingly moist and filled with thick seams of pure unadulterated banana, which when smooshed together with the soy ice-cream it was served with proved a decadently delicious mouthful. We also had the awesomely named strawberry fields forever cake, which was a kind of frozen raw cheesecake, full of vegan goodness. Despite our having to wait a little for it to thaw (pinging bits across the table while it was still ice-creamy frozen was entertaining, no doubt, but we wanted cake goodness in our mouths!), it proved the winner of the cake battle. It had that great sweet nutty taste to it, due to the cashews and coconut I suspect, and a delicate strawberry flavour that proved addictive.

We rolled out of the now full and bustling Disco Beans with contented tummies, and went off to the Thornbury Theatre absolutely gushing about our dinner (Mr Hanlon put on an utterly spellbinding show, by the way, and there were thankfully no annoying punters at all). Conclusion: Hooray for Northcote!

Disco Beans

238 High Street, Northcote

Ph: 9077 4772

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

Wood Spoon Kitchen

No sooner had I waved Jess off to LA then I had to say cheerio to another of my friends who was heading overseas. It’s clearly the time to travel! And I am jealous as all hell! (Hayley, you got to go to Sweden last January, don’t get greedy)

Anyway, the delightful Miss Brinkman was most keen to see me before jetting off to London, and suggested that we do so by having dinner at Wood Spoon Kitchen, which she had discovered earlier in the week and became so enamoured with that she made several repeat visits in that week alone. I was excited as I had heard across the blogospheres that they do ongiri very well, so heck yes I was down for this plan.

We firstly ordered edemame, which is to be expected, you all know I can’t pass it up. And they were good, as expected (I seriously have never had bad edemame anywhere. Maybe you know different, though, are there places I should edemame-avoid?). We also got ourselves some agedashi tofu, which was vegan. Hoorah! In fact there’s a lot of vegan goodness at Wood Spoon, and all clearly marked on the menu. I was intrigued by this dish as instead of a traditional dashi-style broth it came out sitting in a puddle of soy sauce dressing. It was still delicious, the soy all soaked up into the crispy outside of the tofu resulting in that seductive contrast of saucy yet crisp outside with the melty tofu-gasm within that makes me write love letters to agedashi tofu pretty much every day.

On to the ongiri set, of which you can choose three from a rather extensive list; we ended up going with seaweed, teriyaki beef and sansai (Japanese mountain vegetables, and including bamboo shoots and mushrooms). The ongiri were served with yet  more edemame (never a bad thing) and tart pickled vegies.The seaweed one had standard seaweed salad threaded through it and was nice, and Miss Brinkman heartily tucked into the teriyaki beef, but my heart belonged to the sansai, oh my, it was wonderful. There’s something about sansai vegetables that I find so unusual and refreshing, I can’t get enough of them. The ongiri themselves held their shapes well as you bit into them, yet were not gluggy or gluey at all, very well done.

For her main Miss Brinkman went with the miso soup with ramen, sweet potato, pumpkin, vegies, tofu and chicken breast, which is her favourite dish. Needless to say, she liked it, she liked it a lot! For my main I had the vegie goma udon with sansai, egg, lotus and beancurd in homemade sesame dressing. This was the only dish that I wasn’t overly fond of, and actually left only half eaten, but I think this was more due to a misunderstanding by myself as to what the menu description actually meant. I figured that ‘sesame dressing’ meant a very light sauce, and was definitely not expecting a dish that was covered in a very thick dressing the texture and consistency of satay sauce. I am extremely un-fond of satay sauce, and found after I’d extracted the vegetables that I didn’t feel up to eating noodles covered in something so reminiscent of that sauce most unpleasant to my palate, so decided instead to focus on gobbling up the remaining edemame. I’m sure, however, people more in love with thick sauces than me would have enjoyed the dish.

I think I am starting to subsist near purely on plum wine. I may have an addiction. I have it every time I go out for Japanese, and as you may have noticed I go out for Japanese quite a bit. Maybe it’s all part of a greater Japanese food addiction. Miss Brinkman will not help me here, she is a Japanese food-eating facilitator! And once she returns to Melbourne’s fair shores expect more of our Japanese cuisine adventures.

Wood Spoon Kitchen

88 Smith Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9416 0588

http://www.woodspoonkitchen.com/