Shu II: Christmas in August

I was lucky enough to get invited to a special pay-what-you-feel degustation dinner at Shu back at the start of August. Shu’s chef, also handily named Shu, apparently throws a Christmas in July-themed dinner every year for his friends, and this year decided to make it entirely vegan and invite some vegan-friendly food writers and bloggers too. WHAT A TREAT, especially as since my first visit I had very much been hanging out for the chance to visit Shu again, because there really is nothing else like it in town.

After starting off with a palate waker-upper in the form of a zesty cocktail involving vodka, lychee syrup, lime, Vietnamese mint, and cheeky whack of chilli, we got stuck into the menu which had been split into four sections.

For the chilled and raw portion, we had Shu’s signature dish of a daikon roll filled with enoki mushrooms, Asian herbs and lettuce with a Sichuan spicy soy sauce. These remain beautiful to look at, unwieldy to eat, but crunchy and flavour-packed and dang you can see why this stays on the menu. The silken tofu with beans and sprouts with pickled chilli relish was a gelatinous square of white topped with really just straight-up minced chilli, which made for a fiery mouthful. I particularly liked the cucumber and seaweed with soybean skin, spicy tahini and roasted pumpkin seeds which was this saucy, crunchy mouthful with a lot of complimentary flavours flying around.

On to the hot dian xin section: I was raving over the crispy beetroot and wood ear roll with green chilli dip, which was really a well-fancy spring roll, all violently magenta inside and crunchy and earthy and OH MY. The pan fried shiitake and cabbage wonton with pickled chilli jam and Chinese vinegar was a perfectly cromulent dumpling, with a nice amount of pan-fried charredness. I was also very much into the steamed tofu pocket stuffed with preserved mustard greens and peanuts, which was basically like a triangle of sandwich with the tofu acting as bread, and I do like some well-judged bitter greens.

Onto a selection of bigger shared plates! If you remember my first review of Shu, you would not be at all surprised that I was all over the home town noodles. These are still an absolute menu star and if you have the chance to have them I FIERCELY insist upon it. The pan roasted eggplant rolls, pickled vegetables and roasted cashews were good, although I didn’t find them as rave-worthy as a lot of other dishes, although they’re worth trying if you love your eggplant. The crunchy coleslaw tossed with seeds, nuts, and Sichuan pepper infused soy sauce was more my level, lots of greens and textural components to keep things exciting. I was also a fan of the assorted Asian mushroom ginger and fennel stir fry in sweet soy sauce because stir fry! Mushrooms! Ginger! All good rich stuff combined well together. The wok fried seasonal vegetables with dried chilli and Sichuan pepper required me to eat around the whole dried chillis, but was otherwise very pleasant, although by this point I was getting full! I had enough room to have a few tastes of the crispy tofu and grilled beanshoots in preserved Pixian bean paste, which had some interesting flavours but didn’t really connect lastingly with me. Fair given all the food I’d already absorbed!

I can go fifty-fifty on raw desserts, so I had a little trepidation about the raw avocado cheese cake with blackberry syrup and toasted coconut chips that finished the menu. But really, I should have have had a lot more confidence in proceedings by this point, because it was a DAMN FINE dessert, raw or not. The filling had that wonderful avocado creaminess while not having the taste dominating (avocado in desserts is another thing that often doesn’t work for me, but this hit just the right notes), with the bulk of the flavour being carried by the berry-packed blackberry syrup and surprisingly – and I say surprisingly because this is ordinarily my least favourite part of any cheesecake – the base, which was filled with so many flavours that I struggled to identify them all. Luckily Catherine is a desserts whisperer and identified them all by taste alone before we confirmed with Shu.

Shu remains unique, experimental and a proper experience. Vegan degustations happen every Wednesday night, with all-you-can-eat dumplings on Thursdays. WELL. What are you waiting for?

For more perspectives on this dinner, you can read Catherine’s take at Cate’s Cates, and also over at Veganopoulous which comes with a lot of fabulous photos.

Shu

147 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9090 7878

www.shurestaurant.com

Proud Mary

I had never been to Proud Mary before. I know, I should have handed in my hipster card as a result long ago. I’m not sure if Proud Mary is even a part of the hipster zeitgeist anymore, so out of the loop am I. Bennett, who was responsible for orchestrating this long overdue visit, is adamant that the hipsters have given over Proud Mary to the growing contingent of Collingwood yuppies, but although I spotted plenty of sartorially coordinated families complete with strollers picking up coffees, there were still far too many ugly sweaters and ironic moustaches in attendance for me to believe that the hipsters had abandoned it entirely.

I was a little concerned that perhaps the full brunt of Proud Mary would be completely lost on me given their specialty is coffee, and I’ve only got to the point where I have a flat white maybe one every couple of weeks, and I certainly don’t go in for cold drips or anything fancy like that. I managed to risk severe caffeine overstimulation by having two flat whites bookend my brunch, and they were quite lovely as anticipated, strong but not fierce, smooth with a good head of crema. And I found the bright blue duck egg cups they were served in to be darling.

Since I couldn’t experience the height of coffee orientated decadence offered by Proud Mary, I decided that I clearly had to go for the most excessive vegetarian friendly brunch item available. There are few things less fancy when it comes to vegetables than the words ‘foraged mushrooms’ so I was very easily swayed into the idea of pine mushrooms on sourdough with housemade cheese curd and a poached egg.

I understand that high levels of pine mushroom use is probably out of the reach of most cafes, but that is a shame because they are such a treat. Two giant disks of lightly sauteed mushroom sat atop a giant slice of sourdough, liberally dotted with light, enormously rich dollops of bright white curd, and once the perfectly poached egg was popped and the yellow yolk oozed all over everything I was in some class of heaven.

Bennett went with the avocado dish of charred corn, green onion tabbouleh, harissa, roasted baby tomatoes and avocado on seedy bread, minus the ricotta because he has a vendetta against cheese. This was an equally piled plate that looked very filling, and quite virtuously so too.

Proud Mary isn’t cheap, you’ll have to battle through the weekend crowds regardless of how early you arrive, and there is the aforementioned hipster factor that is off-putting for some. But even though I was braced to be disappointed in the face of years of overwhelming praise, I was inevitably won over by the food. I’d like to go back in order to have a go at the sweets end of the menu, which apart from such exciting sounding brunch items like the ricotta hot cakes with mandarin caramel, honeycomb and ice cream (!!! how does that even qualify as BREAKFAST) is also augmented by a giant cabinet that was inundated with sweet baked treats – I gave such a saucy eye to a collection of jam doughnuts that they are probably pregnant now.

Proud Mary

172 Oxford Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9417 5930

www.proudmarycoffee.com.au

Shu

In shameful Hayley-is-the-slowest-writer-EVER news, here is my report on my dinner at Shu enjoyed in the company of Steph and Cindy & Michael, which they all managed to blog about back at the start of October a mere week after out visit. I know, I am THE WORST.

Shu is a Sichuan restaurant in Collingwood that has started to do Wednesday vegan degustations, where you can enjoy 10+ dishes of vegan goodness for the princely sum of $40. No, that is not a typo, it honestly costs only $40.

Rebecca from Shu had got in contact with Steph to let her know about vegan Wednesdays and was our waitperson for the evening, so it was known from the get-go who we were and that we would be blogging about the evening. BUT we paid our way fully, and from what I observed from other tables I don’t believe we received any special treatment, but should you wish to throw a pinch of salt on my pronouncements that’s your prerogative.

A quick note on Shu’s decor before getting onto the proper business of food – sitting in this restaurant is like eating dinner in a 1980s fantasy film with a slightly skewed Chinese aesthetic. It is the very best kind of veering just short of tacky AMAZING.

The very first dish was an array of little soup spoons filled with cubes of housemade tofu siting in pools of cinnamon-infused soy sauce and topped with a rocket flower. The cinnamon soy was a fantastic flavour explosion of a concoction, more infused soy sauces I say.

Next came rounds of sliced purple carrot topped with housemade chilli, borage flowers and broad beans. Kind of unwieldy, I probably would have benefited from being able to cut them into littler bite-sized pieces rather than levering them straight into my face, which got a bit awkward. The chilli was also quite intense in a way that was actually a bit distracting.

The daikon rolls with enoki, cucumber and zucchini flowers that was next presented is apparently one of Shu’s most popular dishes. I could easily see why – it’s beautifully presented, with curled tubes of thinly sliced daikon encasing the very strikingly arranged fillings, and it was just as fresh and bouncing with flavours as I’d anticipated from the sight of them. A little awkward to eat, yes, but wholeheartedly worthwhile.

I would have been very sad if there wasn’t anything dumplingish offered as part of proceedings, so I was very pleased to see the crispy tofu, soybean and sesame dumplings hit the table. They were very good little morsels indeed, so much so it was a little deflating that there were only four of them!

Here we entered into the “oh so many greens!” portion of the menu. A mizuna, trumpet mushroom and pickled cucumber salad had a nice touch of tartness due to the cucumber, and it was followed by some sauteed kale, broccoli, cashews and garlic tops, which ran towards being slightly bitter, but I’ll happily accept kale in all its forms (yes I know I’m totally a vegetarian stereotype, I’ll let myself out).

Next, something a little more hearty in the form of chilli eggplant with broad beans, calendula and onion. Frankly for me this dish was far too busy, I had no idea where I was meant to focus with it, so left it to the others to finish.

Two tofu-based dishes were next – fried tofu with beanshoots and nasturtiums, which was a very nice dry stir-fry indeed, I really got into the lightly spiced tofu, accompanied by a saucy bowl of tofu with wild coriander slicked with chilli oil, which provided a little bit more heat (we were all actually a little surprised that there wasn’t more heat going on across the board, accustomed as we all are to the more “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH CHILLI OR PEPPERCORN” style of Sichuan cooking).

More greens! The proliferation of greens was clearly due to so many being in season all at once, and is a good thing to keep in mind whenever dining anywhere were everything is seasonal – you may get a lot of dishes including many of the same ingredients. The new broccoli and cauliflower shoots had been lightly sauteed and sauced;  it was interesting to see a use of brassicas at the start of their bloom, rather than full flower, as it were. Also served was a plate of likewise sauteed and sauced mustard greens, which were a bit too bitter for my tastes.

The penultimate dish was where we started to really lose our minds in excitement. Little individual bowls of hand-made noodles with asparagus, preserved gai lan and walnut-infused oil were such unexpected taste explosions that we all exclaimed about them loudly before shutting up to tuck properly in. I would have been happy to curl up with a giant bowl of this alone.

The very last dish was a plate of crispy, spicy potatoes. We weren’t paying attention to what the spices actually were because we were too busy devouring them with a zeal that was bordering on cult-like. These taters and the noodles, that’s what I would like to eat forever, please.

While not every dish was an unqualified success, I still feel that Shu’s Wednesday vegan degustation is something that all Melbourne residing veg*ns should have a go at. The best thing about the menu utilising seasonal ingredients is that it changes from week to week, and for $40 the value is quite honestly obscene. It’s not the kind of burn-it-up Sichuan cooking that most of us are used to, but it was actually quite lovely to experience a more subtle interpretation of Sichuan’s rich culinary tradition.

To read Steph’s account of our visit, head over here to Vegan About Town.

To read Cindy and Michael’s account, head to Where’s the Beef?

Shu

147 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9090 7878

www.shurestaurant.com

Bayte

Bayte has been on my “oh dear god you need to visit this place NOW, what is wrong with you?” list for, well, basically forever. Potential delicious Lebanese food times cannot be ignored. I was however stymied several times in visiting due to both their erratic opening hours (they see to have settled down now and are reliably open for lunch and dinner from Wednesdays to Fridays and from 9am-11pm on weekends), and the fact that whenever I tried to visit they were groaning at the seams without room for yet more patrons.

Clearly I was going to have to scheme to visit at a less popular time. Utilising my “how to walk into a table at Chin Chin” timing rule, I waited until 3pm one Saturday afternoon to saunter in with Julian in tow. Behold! Many a free table was awaiting us! See, starving yourself for hours to eat at an unfashionable time does have it’s benefits.

Since it was drifting into late-afternoon, the menu was restricted to the mezze options, but there were so many of these to choose from that we didn’t feel at all constricted in terms of choice. Luckily we were able to order quite a few of the items that Where’s the Beef had enjoyed during their visit, whose enthusiastic post was at the forefront of my mind.

To start with I insisted we had to have some of the chargrilled flatbread, which had been universally recommended to me by those who had Bayte-d before me, plus anything that we could smear the flatbread with. Hence the generous dishes of labne and baba ganoush that quickly arrived. The labne was handmade, as far as I could make out, ridiculously smooth and that face-twisting kind of tart that only really fresh yoghurts can create. The baba ganoush was smoky and a very impressive example of the difference between freshly made and the rubbish you get in the supermarket. A warning though that the chargrilled bread is truly excellent and you will be in danger of over-ordering it in order to eat it with everything, which could get sneakily expensive.

Being me, I couldn’t go past any mention of potato, so insisted that we order the bataata meshwi – barbequed potatoes served with homemade tomato sauce. SWEET BABY JEEBUS THESE ARE DELICIOUS POTATO CRACK. You must order these. Dunk them in the thick, also smoky tomato sauce (more a chutney or jam, really), and really savour the crispiness without and the fluffy within. UGH SOMEONE BRING ME SOME NOW.

At $5 a pop, we were rather hoping that the single felafel served with almond taratour, radish and baby coriander would prove to be the most amazing felafel to have ever graced tastebuds. Our doubting ways brought us undone – this is a felafel as close to being worth $5 as you are going to find. The felafel itself is soft and deftly combined, with no harsh grainy texture, and well spiced. Topping the felafel with the petite radish wedges was the real stroke of genius, with the sharp, juicy crispness contrasting in a delightful fashion with the felafel itself and the smooth taratour.

I very quickly followed by this pleasing first visit with an evening one a week or so later on my lonesome. On that occasion I started with the pumpkin kibbee, two fat, crumbed balls of fried pumpkin hiding a caramelised centre of onions and almonds, surrounded by a generous moat of hummus. Very more-ish indeed!

My main meal was the bamieh bi zayt, an okra, tomato and olive oil stew with walnuts, sliced chilli and scads of fresh coriander. This is the type of dish you’re not going to get anywhere else, and I really recommend ordering it with a serving of the flatbread so that you can mop the bowl clean. Perfect for the last few cold nights Melbourne has in store us.

As should be obvious, Bayte was everything that all the press and stories from friends had promised it to be. It’s possibly a *touch* expensive, but I would argue that the quality of what you receive more than shores up those few extra dollars. Besides the food, the staff are lovely, the space is so nice to sit in (seriously go back to that Where’s the Beef post and look at at the pics), it is just a complete package. Get on it, and don’t blame me once you OD on flatbread.

Bayte

56 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9415 8818

www.bayte.com.au

Bluebird

With my bird-loving mania, I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to visit Bluebird. Although this visit wasn’t even a predetermined one – I had originally asked Jen to meet me for Sunday brunch at Bayte, and spent the week prior happily imagining Middle Eastern breakfast delights. Alas, fate intervened, and Bayte was bursting at the seams and had no room for us. So, with my internal brunch venue radar scanning wildly, we made down Johnston Street towards Bluebird, praying that they would be able to squish us in.

Bluebird was equally pumping, but we arrived at just the right moment to slide into some recently vacated seats, and felt very lucky and smug as a queue started very soon afterwards. The design of the cafe does twee cuteness right, with plenty of op shop chic and bird-orientated touches. Just the sort of place I can feel at home in!

Despite the full house, this is clearly a kitchen running smoothly on all cogs, as the food came out astonishingly quickly. After much dithering over all of the many delectable-sounding options, I decided eventually to go with the mushroom melt: sourdough toast with gruyere cheese melted over thyme buttered mushrooms, with a poached egg perched on top, all hidden under a glossy mountain of dressing-drizzled rocket. I also ordered some haloumi on the side, which resulted in two giant wodges of the lovely stuff. I do love to see a generous hand when it comes to haloumi.

The rocket is clearly in place to make you feel a little more virtuous about your choices, but I very quickly mowed through it to get to the good stuff: fat mushrooms all shiny with melted butter and speckled with thyme, mingling with rivulets of popped egg yolk and thin melted strips of gruyere. I’m honestly doing a Homer-style drool just over the remembrance of it. This was all my favourite savoury breakfast things done just right. By all accounts cartoon birds should have all of a sudden descended from the rafters and started serenading me with a song about my good fortune.

Jen had the Mexican eggs with chorizo: a tomato-chilli mix of beans, corn and chorizo on top of a stack of tortillas, with two fried eggs peering out. Jen enjoyed the dish, finding the flavours of the beans and chorizo particularly compelling, but did find it slightly anti-climatic towards the end when the tortillas became just too soggy to function (in my experience this just seems standard of tortilla-based breakfast dishes as a whole). It did however serve to whet her appetite for wanting to sample the rest of Bluebird’s expansive and impressive menu, a task I would only be too happy to join her in undertaking.

We also each had a pot of Larson & Thompson’s earl grey tea. This is a nicely delicate blend that doesn’t overwhelm, and due to its mildness later cups don’t end up with that sour, over-steeped taste.

The only vaguely negative point I can think of about our entire Bluebird visit is that there appears to be no heating, and with the door to the courtyard left open, the very chilly wet weather made the whole place freezing! But temperature aside, I cannot fault Bluebird for anything else, it’s food, service and general vibe being a genuinely delightful experience. I am completely in simpatico with the song Bluebird is singing, and can’t wait for another chance to join in with its delicious chorus.

Bluebird

134 Johnston Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9078 7047

www.facebook.com/bluebirdespresso

Gasometer II: It Came From Budapest

When buzz hit the interwebs that Gasometer had changed its menu from its previous American soul food focus to one that sought inspiration from Eastern European cuisine, there was consternation from quite a few quarters. Where were we to get KFC-style fake chicken burgers from now? But one must not complain too much before ascertaining whether the replacement vittles are up to the same standard (and frankly I’m okay with any changes as long as those fabulous Gasometer chips stay on the menu). So, before a visit to the drive-in one chilly Sunday night, Muffin, Rob and I went on an investigatory visit.

Muffin ordered the goulash, a big expansive bowl of stew that looked terribly comforting on such a chilly night. But what I ended up coveting most was her pretzel. With fluffy, buttery dough and a soft crust flecked with crystals of sea salt, this generously sized pretzel was served with a brightly coloured mustard butter. While the mustard butter was delish, I was so impressed by the pretzel itself that I kept forgetting about condiments, and urged by Muffin just kept enjoying the texture and slightly sour flavours free of accompaniments.

I couldn’t turn away from the idea of a vegan schnitzel, which came served with a huge mound of creamy mashed potato and roasted baby carrots, beans and tiny beets. This was ridiculously impressive. The schnitz itself was all crumbed, herbed crispness on the outside, moist mock-chicken on the inside, pretty much my perfect vision of a schnitzel. The accompaniments were also of a high standard, the mashed potato constantly begging you to eat more of it with its creamy, buttery consistency, the beans and baby carrots sweet and permeated with that charred flavour that roasting imparts. And I’d never had roasted beetroot before, but those baby beets were irrepressibly more-ish.

I also completely ignored how large the serves normally are at the Gaso, and somehow thought that I was going to be able to fit in a serving of chips with aioli as well. While the chips here are still the height of potato-y joy, crispy and fluffy and crunchy, even with input from both Muffin and Rob I couldn’t finish them all. The SHAME!

Rob had… a burger. It was a meat burger, it came with chips, and Rob liked it, but that’s all either of us can remember about it. I mean, Rob has a terrible memory anyway, but I am now suffering from the sheer food-blogging shame of not remembering to take notes, or failing to interrogate Rob immediately after ingestion, I AM SORRY INTERNET.

The Gaso, thankfully, is still the king of vego pub meals whether their focus is on either side of the Atlantic pond. The three of us were quite comprehensively stuffed by the time we managed to totter onto our feet and head off for our drive-in adventure (which caused me to have nightmares about skeezy Matthew McConaughey for weeks, thanks Steven Soderbergh).

Gasometer

484 Smith Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9417 5538

Gasometer

As you will have noticed from my previous post, if one thing is guaranteed when film festival time rolls around, it is that Melbourne eateries will receive my heavily increased patronage. While my tendency to eat out is ordinarily at a reasonably high level, during this time it skyrockets, due to increased time spent in the city sitting in cinemas for hours on end, combined with my extreme laziness in actually attempting to make my own lunches and dinners to sustain me through screenings.

And if these pre- or post-film eating sessions include fine company, well, that’s all to the better! After an afternoon session of Werner Herzog’s latest doco Cave of Forgotten Dreams at MIFF, Muffin and I could be found strolling down Smith Street gleefully recalling some of the more ridiculous lines of Herzog’s narration (“Are we just albino crocodiles overwhelmed in a river of history?” Oh, Werner).

The only way that we were feeling like crocodiles was in that we were starving, and required a good solid meal so that we could spend the evening floating bloated in a river somewhere, as I am led to believe crocodiles are wont to do. Little were we to expect that the dinner we ended up ordering at Gasometer would leave us as stuffed and satisfied as a plump antelope must do for a Nile crocodile (this post is turning into a National Geographic special).

Gasometer serves fabulous pub grub with a difference – it is extremely vegie and vegan friendly, and the kitchen goes to a real effort to make their v-dishes exciting and varied. This isn’t your standard we’re-going-to-slap-you-with-a-standard-vegie-burger pub meal. This is v-junk food in its finest incarnation.

After much dithering and being quite overwhelmed by the choice on offer, I ended up going with the southern fried “chicken” burger with chips, and a side of vegan mac and cheese. The burger is probably the closest vegies are ever going to get to experiencing KFC again, and it tastes a hell of a lot better than KFC ever did! The protein patty is deliciously seasoned, nice and crispy without and juicy within, and complimented with tomato, lettuce and a kicky sauce filled with spice.

The chips deserve a paragraph all to themselves, as they are, without a doubt, the best chips in Melbourne. You heard me. Think of a light yet intensely crispy chip with a fluffy interior and then multiply its deliciousness ten-fold. Muffin and I descended into a fierce discussion attempting to figure out their cooking method to achieve such potato finery… perhaps an adaptation of the Blumenthal method? We are continuing our research.

The vegan mac and cheese I was most curious about. How would you recreate such a rich dish without any cheese? Would it go chalky, like some cheese-replacements I’ve sampled have had a tendency to do? I shouldn’t have worried, I was clearly in safe hands. It was the richest mac and cheese, let alone ‘cheeze’, that I’ve probably ever had, and definitely one of the nicest. A more satisfying bowl of rich, stodgy goo you will never find!

Muffin bucked the vegan-trending menu by ordering the item with probably the most meat in it, the Reuben sandwich. A mountain of pastrami wedged between some mighty fine-looking slices of dark rye bread, the sandwich was accompanied by two sides, a bowl of sauerkraut and a carrot and beetroot salad. I snuck in quite a few tastes of the sauerkraut (I think Muffin and I are both quietly developing twin sauerkraut dependency syndromes) and it was gorgeously sweet and tart, a very nice kraut indeed. Muffin very wisely finished with the carrot and beetroot salad, which was a light way to finish while I struggled through the remains of my mac and cheese (so cheezy!).

The fact that we had mown through meals ample enough for a family of crocodiles was not going to stop us from ordering dessert! We’d been eying off the pumpkin pie since arriving, and after giving ourselves a moment to rest, it arrived at our table with an accompanying globe of gingerbread ice cream.

The waitress had told us that the gingerbread ice cream was the greatest thing ever, and she wasn’t wrong. I want to know how they make this, too! It’s light ginger yet biscuity touch was a perfect foil for the dense, creamy pie, which was everything I’d hoped it would be. God, I love pie.

Gasometer is highly impressive. The fact that I am desperately searching for ways to replicate both the chips and the gingerbread ice cream at home should go some way to proving how affecting I found their food to be. So make like an albino crocodile, and ponder the meanings of history, art and the human soul over a gut-busting meal of vegan decadence at Gasometer. Although I can’t imagine that Herzog would approve, considering how much he’d probably prefer you to help him in his quest to rid the world of chickens.

Gasometer

484 Smith Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9417 5538