Oscar Cooper

Sometimes, despite the overabundance of brunch date options in this town, the question of “where should we meet up to brunch?” can more often than not be met with blank, slightly panicked stares and much hmmm-ing and ahhh-ing. It’s almost as if an overabundance of good places and near-constant openings of new places, makes choice harder rather than easier (mon dieu!). Given that I am often viewed as a walking food directory, it is always relieving when before all indecisive eyes turn to me, someone pipes up with “I know a place!”

I had only vague knowledge of Oscar Cooper when it was suggested by Aimee as being a favourite of hers, so I was keenly anticipatory. Taking up a corner spot on Greville Street and St Edmonds Road, Oscar Cooper is light-filled, slightly industrial while also managing to err more on the side of cosy rather than cool, and manages to perk you up from your early morning fug from pure looks before you even spot the menu.

Determined not to start my Sunday morning with a caffeine jolt, I instead turned to the cold drinks section and ordered a strawberry, watermelon, apple and orange juice. One of several interesting fresh juice options on offer, this was a perfect burst of fruit sweetness to start the day with.

After being temporarily beguiled by both the thought of the Red Hill bircher with autumn poached fruits, and the thyme-buttered mushroom and ricotta jaffle, I ended up ordering the roasted beetroot, asparagus and Meredith goat’s cheese omelette with cherry tomatoes and balsamic glaze. It turned out to be more of an upturned baked eggs rather than an omelette, but no matter, it was still very tasty… were it not for the balsamic glaze, which was more of a sauce, and there was an OCEAN of it. It was sickly sweet, and having been recently schooled in the gloriousness of proper 25 year old aged balsamic vinegar, and how a lot of chefs will apparently try to make their vinegar last longer by cooking it down with a heap of sugar, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the quality. It’s a shame, because without the vinegar the omelette was actually very nice, all cut through with chunks of sweet vegetables, and really the last thing it needed was yet more sweet.

I feel like I may have just accidentally ordered one of Oscar Cooper’s rare bum dishes, as the rest of the table were raving about how good their choices were. Aimee had the thick cut French brioche toast with grilled banana, maple syrup, chocolate buds, strawberries and cream, which was quite blatantly dessert for breakfast and a move that I wholeheartedly applaud. Kim and Bennett both had the Oscar’s benedict on potato rosti, featuring poached eggs, Berkshire bacon, smashed avocado and hollandaise, which looked gorgeous and they both raved about the dish’s fresh and crispy goodness. Aimee also pointed out a lot of other dishes that she’s enjoyed on previous visits – I really should have gone with one of her suggestions, clearly!

So here I find myself in the funny position of sort-of recommending Oscar Cooper, with the caveat that I suggest you don’t order the dish I did. There’s certainly plenty to choose from, it’s a very wide-ranging menu. The menu also made a particular mention of the fact that Oscar Cooper strives to be coeliac friendly, and that the chefs are happy to accommodate for any gluten issues you may have, which is always nice to see. The staff are friendly and the space exudes a surprising amount of warmth, which is often an element sorely lacking in Prahran eateries. This may be one I’ll have to revisit in the future in order to reassess whether this visit was a true representation of the cafe’s capabilities, but for now Oscar Cooper is a cautious ‘give it a go.’

Oscar Cooper

160 Greville Street, Prahran

Ph: 9529 5670

www.oscarcooper.com.au

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Gramercy

This is a public service announcement. I am here to tell you the three greatest words you are ever likely to hear, should you have the right priorities, and I think you do. Are you ready?

CHALLAH.

FRENCH.

TOAST.

Got your attention? Good. Let us begin.

Gramercy is the new bistro/restaurant at the Cullen Hotel in Prahran, right next to Hu Tong, which is knowledge that should set you all a tingle. Now normally I would be slightly suspect of any restaurants attached to a hotel, but the Art Series of hotels seems to be making a fair fist of ensuring that their restaurants are keeping up with the foodie times and plating up some interesting and good food.

Gramercy models itself as an upmarket American diner experience, and the food reflects this, with the menu featuring a lot of bagels, pastrami, hero sandwiches and fancy wagyu cheeseburgers. But let’s get back to the important part: CHALLAH FRENCH TOAST.

Challah is that delightful Jewish bread that is chock full of eggs and has a sweetness to it as a result. I love to toast it and pile on with the butter (because I clearly don’t believe in cholesterol), but it’s also great with smears of avocado, or drizzlings of honey, or pretty much any topping or spread you can think of. So the thought that someone had been clever enough to soak it in egg, fry it, and then serve it with maple syrup filled me with GLEE.

Not only do you get a generous jug of maple syrup that properly drenches the toast, it’s also served with cinnamon-dusted bananas. The toast is properly egg battered too, so what with all the eggs in challah anyway its enough to turn you INTO an egg.

Young Doctor Ethnic also accompanied me on this challah-hunting trip, and got himself a reuben sandwich. Containing house-made pastrami, swiss cheese, sauerkraut and mustard on rye bread with an accompanying dill pickle, this was a monster sandwich that ticked all of the Doctor’s food buttons.

The service is young and friendly and mostly on point, although during my unexpected 40 minute wait for the Doctor (he got caught up in one of the sudden deluges that seem to have made a habit of sneaking up on Melbourne and vomiting rain and hail everywhere) I was offered a glass of water that then didn’t get refilled in that time, nor as the time crept ever on was I asked if I wanted to order in leu of my friend arriving. Wait staff everywhere, if a patron tells you they want to wait for the rest of their party before ordering, but then waits by themselves for over half an hour, please check in with them again. They are probably hungry enough by this point to be okay with being impolite and starting without their friends!

The space is all shiny surfaces that just avoids being a bit too slick for its own good, and is quite a nice place to while away your time in. Doctor Ethnic and I were certainly keen enough on our food picks to already be planning a follow up visit. Lord knows I need little excuse to fill myself up with bagels (always with the bread products).

Gramercy

162-164 Commercial Road, Prahran

Ph: 9098 1155

www.gramercybistro.com.au

Hobba

Let us roll back into the mists of time to the Queen’s birthday holiday just gone, and see what Muffin and I were up to on that auspicious day. Aha! We were in line at Hobba, anxiously awaiting the chance to stuff all of the eggs in our faces.

I’d been meaning to check out Hobba for quite a while, especially considering it is right near work. I popped in for a mocha a few days earlier and had been very impressed with the space, a wide, industrial possible former workshop that had been sharply utilised, dotted with blonde wood booths and communal tables down towards the back, one with a tree rising up out of the centre (no kidding).

Being a public holiday and all, Hobba was super bustling when we arrived and we did have to go on a waiting list. Normally this sort of wait would put me in a tetchy impatient mood almost instantly, but the Hobba waiters were very efficient about it, and it also helped that there was a little waiting area off to the side of the bar where people could sit and chat, which was pleasing, who wants to wait outside milling on the pavement in the cold? Nobody, that’s who.

Once ensconced in our booth, the important menu scouring began. Our waiter very kindly gave us the option of ordering from the breakfast menu due to the fact we’d been waiting so long, which was good because eggs was always the plan. Muffin went with the smashed avocado and Yarra Valley feta with a slow poached egg on toasted grain sourdough. She also added a side of house cured ocean trout. It was a very simple dish, but it is deceptively easy to mess up simple, so it was pleasing that Muffin found this dish to be fresh and enjoyable.

I had an omelette that came out looking far more like how we’ve all become accustomed to having baked eggs, cooked in a big metal pan. I was a little bit worried about this presentation initially, because I can’t stand having a metallic taste imparted onto my food, which is a real problem particularly with eggs, but in this case the metallic taste was minimal and I was far too distracted by all the cheese, silverbeet and tomatoes swirling around deliciously in amongst the eggs.

Because it was the Queen’s birthday, we simply had to share a serving on scones, it is the done thing. Two fluffy lemonade scones served with vanilla cream and raspberry Bonne Maman jam (raspberry is always the correct choice for jam, do not accept inferior substitutes. Apricot, I’m looking at you) hit the spot perfectly.

Hobba was really quite impressive, and I’m more than a little bit gleeful that it is so close to work that further visits are now essentially obligatory. Always so nice to have a good spot to have a sip and nibble before preparing for an evening of hard work.

Hobba

428 Malvern Road, Prahran

Ph: 9510 8336

http://hobba.com.au

Hanôi Hannah

It’s starting to get a little scary how quickly new food ventures in Melbourne are jumped on with enthusiastic gusto by the food-conscious populace. A while back I noticed a roller-door on High Street in Prahran emblazoned in big red spray-painted letters with the words “Hanôi Hannah”. “Hmm, that looks like it might be something interesting,” I thought. I later found out through some internet noodling that it was to be a new Vietnamese restaurant. “Oooh, south-side Vietnamese, that’s a savvy move, I hope it’s going to be good.” A few weeks later I drove past on the way to trivia and saw it was finally open. “Oh yay, I’ll have to give it a peek.”

Then on a day very shortly after, I was doing some internet doodling, and *ping!* up on Twitter popped up a new tweet from Broadsheet… reviewing Hanôi Hannah.

Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. I messaged Muffin. “We have to go have dinner tonight at a new Vietnamese place in Prahran because Broadsheet’s just reviewed it and now the trendies know about it and from now on there’s going to be queues and I hate queues and waaaaaah…”*

“Alright, alright! Vietnamese it is.”

Hanôi Hannah is in a teeny tiny space, easily picked out from the street with it’s halo of red and yellow stringed lights, and my prediction of queues was bang on. Make sure you get there EARLY. Muffin and I arrived at a little past 6.30 and got some of the last seats in the place out on the pavement. A queue formed very shortly after, and existed for the remainder of our visit. In the weeks since our visit, I have never been past it without seeing a substantial number of people waiting to get in, so beware fellow folks with a dearth of patience!

We pretty much ended up ordering all the vegetarian dishes available on the menu to share, bar the spring rolls. Our waitress, who was a bubbly delight, said “That’s pretty much what I had for lunch today, you’re going to love it!”

The tofu and shiitake rice paper rolls were filled with julienned pickled cucumber and carrot slices, and Vietnamese mint. Served with them was a thick, brown dipping sauce reminiscent of hoisin. They were very fresh, there was no hardening or crusting of the rice wrappers, which is a good indication that they are made to order.

The winner dish of the evening was the steamed bok choy with ginger and sesame sauce, topped with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds. Sometimes there’s no other phrase to use for one’s enjoyment of a dish other than an exaggerated and ridiculous OM NOM NOM. So simple, and yet so freaking delicious.

We also had the peppered tofu with carrot, cucumbers, mint and what I think were the sliced up fleshy parts of either bok choy or gai lan. This had a nice little kick to it, with the tofu chunks nicely charred and peppery.

The last dish was a vermicelli noodle salad with tofu, carrot, cucumber and mint, in a light dressing that was probably mostly rice vinegar based. This was quite a plain dish, although light and reasonably refreshing on the tongue. It definitely could have benefited from some chopped up fresh chilli, though, or a whack of ginger. We did notice (too late) that there are jars of that outrageously spicy Vietnamese chilli paste available to spoon over dishes, but I am a little surprised that there doesn’t seem to be much fresh chilli going on.

As you all know, I find it hard to not to finish on a sweet note, so I ordered a pineapple and lychee slushie off of the drinks menu. Freshly blitzed up in a blender at the bar, it was sweet and refreshing, and I particularly liked that there was still the occasional little chunk of juicy lychee to be found in the mix.

While the vegetarian options are admittedly very samey when it comes to ingredients and I’d love to see a bit more variety developed in the future, I really can’t sniff at the freshness of everything we sampled at Hanôi Hannah, and especially it’s cheapness. It’s a tightly run ship with some very nice and engaging staff, and seems to have hit on a market for cheap Vietnamese that the south has been missing. Although whether I’ll have the patience to brave the queues in order to sample seconds, well, we’ll just have to see.

Hanôi Hannah

180 High Street, Prahran

Ph: 9939 5181

http://www.hanoihannah.com.au/

*I am well aware of the irony of a food blogger complaining about people wanting to get into new food places first. I make no claims towards us being a logical breed!

Ladro Greville Street

Shameful confession time: I had never been to EITHER of the Ladros before I received an invitation from Joe to join him at the Prahran location for his birthday dinner. Me, who has such a love for thin-crust pizza. Heavens! This was an oversight I was terribly keen to rectify.

Now, I am going to tackle this particular review a little differently to my normal meandering method. While I loved Ladro’s food with a mad passion, there were several aspects of service that I found problematic. So I’m going to get all my grumps out of the way first before plunging into the delight of the food.

First of all, the waitstaff that we encountered were quite cold in demeanor. The gent in charge of our table was taciturn, unsmiling, and attempted to rush through our ordering in an unpleasantly brusque manner. Other staff were not quite so bad, but there was virtually zero interaction apart from “Your pizza is now in front of you, now WHOOSH! off I go into the night.”

Then there was the wait for food. Now, I am a deeply impatient person, I do not like to wait for anything (reason why you will never see reviews here of any of those places that don’t take reservations and you have to wait for hours to get in. “Two hour wait for tables?! FUCK OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOFF!”). But often waits for food can be alleviated by the quality of your company, and in the case of this Ladro visit I was in extremely good company, so I was happily distracted for a good while. But then that silence descended upon the table – you know exactly what kind – where everyone simultaneously realised that we’d been waiting a very long time for food. In all, we waited 45 minutes before any food reached the table. The space had not even been half-full when we ordered, and we received no word from waiters on whether our orders would be reaching us soon, even when it became obvious that we were all getting restless and muttering, making me think that perhaps this kind of wait is the standard. Disappointing.

Now, here’s the final doozy. Let me detail how you really tick Hayley off in a pizza restaurant: give her a pizza she has to cut up herself. Seriously, can this insistence on giving customers whole, uncut pizzas just die in the arse already? Or at least can we be provided with cutlery that can actually manage the job without causing extreme discomfort? The pointer finger on my fork hand nearly bent over backwards with the pressure of trying to cut through the crust, and I wasn’t the only one in our party nursing very sore hands afterward. Nor was I the only one muttering darkly that the cutlery was exactly the same as what’s provided at Lucky Coq, and at the very least their uncut pizzas are only $4!

Right, I promise that is the last gripe out of the way, now here’s the delicious goodness!

The pizza bases at Ladro are thin. Ever so thin. They crisp at the edges and bubble with air pockets that shatter into slightly charred triangles of crunchy delight. They not only manage to be crispy, but they are also chewy, the kind of satisfying chew that massages your molars. These bases are so damn good that when I was starting to get full I seriously considered scraping off the topping and just hoeing down on the carbs.

But that is not to suggest that the topping was bad, oh no! My boscaiola – flor di latte, porcini, field mushrooms and thyme – was a gorgeously rich spread, with abundant mushrooms and melty, stretchy, pungent cheese.

Indeed, every pizza that reached our table was a beautiful thing to look at. Clare’s potato pizza was all overlapping potato slices with the occasional dot of green in the form of rosemary and basil. Catherine’s salami delivered on it’s promise and was covered in equally-spaced rounds of red salami swimming agreeably in tomato and mozzarella, like an edible polka-dot pillow cover. Schaefer’s puttanesca was undoubtably the prettiest, all full cherry tomatoes and whole black olives perched on top, although Jojo’s gamberi e piselli came close, with big fat prawns surrounded by a fringe of green peas and basil.

Joe and Muffin had the best idea though, in that they shared a boscaiola and a Scout’s pizza (tomato, taleggio, caramelised onion, dressed rocket and parmigiano) between them. It was the best idea because even though these are great tasting pizzas, they are BIG pizzas, and having a single one to yourself does get a little arduous. Both Muffin and Joe expressed their satisfaction in having a bit of variety. So I will definitely be following their example next time.

So even with all my service gripes, I’m keen for there to be a next time? Yep! Ladro provided pizzas that were just as delicious and well-crafted as I had hoped to imagine, and there are plenty of vegetarian options that I am keen to explore (starting with the Scout’s pizza. Food envy!). Although I must admit that I’ll probably try out the Gertrude Street original before heading back to the Prahran location, in the hope that perhaps the level of service northside is a bit more polished.

Ladro

162 Greville Street, Prahran

Ph: 9510 2233

http://www.ladro.com.au/

Hutong at The Cullen

It’s one of those sad facts of life that dear friends will sometimes feel the need to move to the other side of the globe. It is a highly tragic circumstance, which can only ever be relieved when those friends return  to the homely nest for a weekend of highly inebriated shenanigans. That is what occurred a few weekends ago when our dear friend Rola, who has been living in Dubai, returned to remind Melbourne how to goddamn party properly.

In amongst the never-ending drinking that marked Rola’s four days in Melbourne town (my liver still isn’t quite right), we all of course wanted to fit in some fancy eating. Dumplings was decided upon, then by extension Hutong, followed by the Prahran location. And once we learned that it was BYO, well, the alcoholics within us were very happy with this dining direction.

But then! DISASTER. Just before we were about to leave for the restaurant we received a message from Sophie. “We’ve fucked up, it’s the Hutong in the city that’s BYO, not the Cullen one. We’re going to have to buy booze there.”

A collective wail of “OH NOOOOO!” was uttered. “How are we supposed to get crunked on ten dollar bottles of rose NOW?” Amelia lamented (we were totally planning on a classy night, clearly). We ended up sharing a couple of $30 bottles of various vintages between us during dinner to minimal grousing, but let us remain a cautionary tale to you: Hutong city, bring wine to cheer you, Hutong Prahran, you pay for it, fool.

But what about food? ask those whose innards aren’t lined with fermented grape juice. For entree I went with the spring onion pancake, which is one of my most favourite dishes of all time and I can’t pass it up if I encounter it on a menu. This was a very interesting version, as it wasn’t a flat, thin pancake like I’ve encountered before, but instead was a fat, puffy ring of crispy dough. A spring onion doughnut! It was very well done, with a pleasing ratio of outside crispness to soft fluffy innards, and just oily enough for there to be a bit of juice and avoid dryness.

I also ordered a set of twelve steamed vegetarian dumplings, because this is Hutong, you can’t not do dumplings. Highly impressive! I tend to judge vegie dumplings by the number of different components I can identify in the filling once I’ve cracked one open. If it’s just a sea of green cabbage-looking mess inside, no points for you. I want variety and nuance in my dumpling, dammit! Hutong totally brought exciting dumpling fillings in spades. There were the standard array of greenery, but it was exciting greenery, like little slivers of onion chives. They also contained fat juicy chunks of a variety of mushrooms, pieces of carrot, tiny lengths of translucent vermicelli noodles, it was so varied and most importantly super tasty. I’d be very happy to go back and just eat a ton of them.

Not being able to sampled the famed xiao long bao myself, I of course attempted to bully others into ordering them so that I could enjoy them by proxy. Luckily Amelia was all over it and convinced Lucy to share some with her. “So these have SOUP in them?” said Lucy. “Yes,” I said. “Stuff them in your mouth all at once otherwise the soup will escape!” “Oh my god, do not listen to her,” said Amelia, and instead instructed Lucy on how to eat them in a manner which wouldn’t kill you, which consisted of nibbling a little hole in the top and slurping out enough soup so you don’t burn yourself. The consensus on these xiao long bao was that they they were OH SO GREAT. I am jealous, where can I find vegie versions of these things?

Being that there was about fifteen of us, I’m pretty sure judging by the numbers of dishes that ended up swamping the table we probably ended up ordering everything on the menu. The staff were quite amazing at managing us, especially considering we were probably one of those huge groups hated by hospitality staff (everyone arrives at different times, no one is ready to order at the same time, no one remembers what is was they ordered: “Did I order the chicken? Did anyone else order the chicken?”), and apart for some errant glasses of water that had to be chased up, they did an admirable job in getting the obscene amount of things we ordered out to us in a timely manner.

All in all, it was probably far too classy a dinner considering that it ended up as stomach lining for those hideously blue drinks that you can get at Revellers at 5am. Only for you, Rola, only for you. (love you)

Hutong at The Cullen

162 Commercial Road, Prahran

Ph: 9098 1188

http://hutong.com.au/

Basque

“You know,” said The Boy as we sat down at the table at Basque. “It’s really hard to find a good place for vegetarians on Chapel Street.” I had charged him with the task of procuring a place to dine for the evening, because he is very ingenious and often comes up with places I’ve never heard of. But he does have that unfortunate fascination with Chapel Street common to many south-siders of my acquaintance. “Of course Chapel Street is rubbish for vegos!” I retorted. “Except for Veg Out Time. And Tusk. And Oriental Tea House is okay. But otherwise, rubbish!” Many decisive hand gestures accompanied this grand, sweeping statement.

Well, if you are vego and wandering lost and hungry upon that infernal strip, you could do a whole lot worse than to go to Basque. This Spanish restaurant lists an entire page of vegetarian tapas dishes in its menu, and although not all that we sampled was top notch, the ones that proved delicious were addictively so.

There was a lot to choose from, and it took a long while for us to settle definitely on what we wanted, but in the end we went for the ‘ensalada de garbanzos’: chickpea salad with green capsicum and carrot slivers and smoked paprika; the Spanish organic vegetable tortilla with aioli cream; and the ‘patatas bravas’: fried potato chunks sprinkled with smoked paprika salt, served with garlic aioli.

The chickpea salad came out first, with glistening chickpeas and strips of carrot and green capsicum liberally covered in paprika. The first mouthful took my head clean off. Dear god, it was nearly death by paprika. I downed my whole glass of water within two or three mouthfuls of the salad, and my mouth was buzzing wildly. The chickpeas were so well done, creamy and soft without being mushy, and I wanted to keep eating them, but the damn paprika was so strong I had to stop. The Boy had no such stung tastebud difficulties, however, and happily devoured the rest of the salad.

With a shocked and sulky mouth now, I was feverently praying that the next dish would be less of a taste riot. Luckily I was saved by the vegetable tortilla. The Boy was a wee bit confused at its presentation and asked “Did we order a quiche?”, but it turns out that a Spanish tortilla is markedly different to its more well known Mexican cousin, and does indeed look like a nice thin slice of quiche. This was the perfect way to refresh my mouth with subtle flavours, the potato and zucchini slices in the tortilla pleasing with gentle prods of tasty vegetable goodness. Totally cleansed my palate, which was just what I needed. The Boy nominated it his favourite dish of the night.

I was full of trepidations while awaiting the third dish, the patatas bravas, as the menu had promised that they too would be covered in paprika. I was fearful! They came out, little bite-sized cubes of fried potato glistening with the red powdery sheen of spice powder, all gathered around a pot of shining aioli. I gathered my courage, skewered one on my fork, dunked it in aioli, and popped it in my mouth.

It was… GLORIOUS!

You know I love anything to do with potatoes, but these golden little gems were a revelation. The paprika, instead of overwhelming all other components as in the chickpea salad, merged with the perfectly crisp potato to give a little kick of spice that was expertly contrasted by the cooling aioli. I could have eaten the entire (quite large!) bowl full all my myself, and once The Boy realised how much I was enjoying them, well he let me clean up the remaining pieces in the bowl, which I did so, with enthusiastic relish!

As we were anticipating that the remainder of our evening was going to feature a pair of the Astor’s decadent choc ices (infinitely superior to your local multiplex’s choc top), we opted out of dessert, although I finished off with a glass of sangria, as it seemed the correct thing to do.

Basque was a fun evening out. Although one dish wasn’t to my taste, the others certainly made up for it. Though I must admit the live Spanish guitar band that played throughout our entire meal made it a bit difficult to carry on a conversation: the lilting guitars were frequently punctuated by loud yells of “WHAT?!” by either me or The Boy, till we gave up and spent the rest of the meal conducting conservation via increasingly elaborate mimes.

Basque

159 Chapel Street, Prahran

Ph: 9533 7044

www.basque.com.au