Mama Baba

“Be scathing to Mama Baba, I’m still missing my calamari.”

This was the text message I received from Nik, aka Doctor Ethnic, post our Friday lunch at Mama Baba. This isn’t the first time a dining companion has insisted that I lay into an establishment with outraged gusto, but in this case I certainly was feeling conflicted about it. Because on the one hand, in terms of space and service Mama Baba provided an amazing experience. But the food? Hoo boy, the food… there were some pretty glaring problems.

But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Doctor Ethnic is sadly cursed with a Greek grandmother who cannot cook (let us have a moment of silence for him) and is well-versed in Greek Food Gone Wrong. I wanted his knowledge alongside me as I traversed the idea of of a Greek-Italian pasta restaurant. Because despite the fact that the whole shebang is helmed by George Calombaris, I was having qualms about the idea without having even stepped through the door (oh Hayley, you perpetual Doubting Thomas). But! I am always willing to be proven wrong with good food, and since Mama Baba is only a skip and jump away from work it seemed churlish not to investigate.

Friday afternoons are the only time Mama Baba is open for lunch, and it seemed to be a nice, low-key visiting option. We were greeted very warmly by the staff, and sat down with a bag filled with a variety of breads and ample little wrapped pats of butter. The bag idea was cute, but kind of reminiscent of Adebisi’s hat in Oz, the realisation of which took me on a train to all sorts of weird thoughts.

We started off with some polenta chips to share, served with a dipping sauce made of sour cream and chilli soffritto. The polenta was lovely and smooth inside, but the fine crumbed coating was pretty tasteless and neither of us could figure out what it was spiced with, if with anything at all. And the sour cream sauce was just all-out WEIRD. It was a big blob swimming in a clear, slightly chilli-ish sauce and covered in what seemed to be cubes of carrot. No matter how we decided to eat it, there wasn’t any way that seemed to cause the dish to make sense, and Nik and I essentially made a lot of faces at each other that translated to “This just isn’t working.”

Mains time! From off the ‘Greek’ side of the menu I ordered the pastitsio, which was described on the menu in three words: “wild greens, béchamel.” Turned out it was actually a kind of pasta bake, which I’m always totally okay with, with penne tubes entrenched in béchamel sauce and a strong, parmesan-like Greek cheese (I think kefalotyri), and threaded with long seams of greens, probably kale. It was really quite lovely, although hearty and heavy, so requires a sturdy belly.

Doctor Ethnic, however, was not so fortunate in his choice. He strayed over to the Italian side of the menu with the bucanti, which was described on the menu thusly: “carbonara, calamari, crispy maple pork, pumpkin parmesan, saffron brodo.” The presentation was certainly spiffy: it came out crowned with a raw egg yolk, and the waitress poured over a clear, hot jus, the idea being that you mix it through and it turns into a sauce once all the ingredients are combined.

But after this point, things started to really Go Wrong. The second advertised ingredient, calamari, failed to materialise. Unless it had been emulsified into its base properties to the point of not tasting like calamari anymore, it was not there. The crispy maple pork was sweet to a fault, and combined with violently orange pumpkin parmesan, made the whole dish far too sweet for my dining companion’s palate. Doctor Ethnic was not pleased, not pleased at all, and I was left with that particular feeling of guilt when you drag friends along to a food place that turns out to be not as great as you were hoping.

It really is tragic that the food was quite disappointing, because the space at Mama Baba is really something. I kept thinking that it would be a great place to take someone on a fancy date, where you could be all “Oh yes, look at the lovely place that I have taken you to, where you can see into the beautiful clean kitchen and the chefs making pasta from scratch, and see that amazing bar set up on the other side with all the bottles displayed up to the ceiling, and aren’t these waiters delightful and quirky and ever so kind, yes this is all quite special, NOW KISS ME YOU FOOL.” But then it would be ruined because your date would end up angry over weird polenta chips and over-sweet, non-calamaried pasta, and you’d start regretting getting so overexcited at the chemist earlier in the day, because clearly you’re not going to need so many condoms now, and you’re starting to traitorously think that even though your pasta bake was really nice, you probably could have made a similar dish at home for a lot less trouble.

And now that I’ve depressed myself with an imaginary date scenario THAT I MADE UP, let’s all just pretend that the date was salvaged by one of our fictional daters, who ended up placing the bread bag on their head and made some quips about shanking. Because that’s what really brings people together, violent HBO dramas about prisons. Not weird pasta.

Mama Baba

21 Daly Street, South Yarra

Ph: 9207 7421

http://mamababarestaurant.wordpress.com

LuxBite

Okay, you all got me. There I was for ages, all “I don’t really get the whole macarons thing!”, trying so desperately not to jump on the teetering bandwagon filled with every man and his gastronomic dog, all shouting “Macarons, ho!” Nibbling a macaron here and there, but never really wanting to admit how nice they were, always erring on the side of “Yeah, they’re good, but really guys?” All because I felt it was a little bit silly to get so exuberantly excited over what was essentially just a fancyarse biscuit.

Well, let me tell you, over at LuxBite they want you to get REALLY excited about their fancyarse biscuits. And you should be excited, because these are certainly the best macarons I’ve ever had. So good that I’m happy to now stand upon the teetering bandwagon and shout loudly “HEY EVERYONE! THESE MACARON THINGS? TOTALLY BOSS.”

LuxBite specialise in all that is sweet and decadent. It’s situated in a bright shop front that looks out on Toorak Road, decked out with cute white dollhouse tables and chairs, all just slightly mismatched in shape, and ending at the back of the space with giant display cabinets filled with desserts that may have populated your deepest, darkest sweet-filled fantasies. Do you perhaps feel like a giant macaron stuffed with pandan cream, passionfruit curd, caramelised banana and peanut brittle? Did your face just explode at the sheer delight of such a description? It should.

But! I was not there to sample the swoon-inducing cabinets. I was there to try the breakfast menu. Let me take you on a journey of tea and waffles.

The brand of tea on offer at LuxBite is called Tea Forte. It is, unfortunately, in the form of a teabag instead of tea leaves, but it is an enormously cute tea bag! My organic earl grey tea came in the form of a kind of a tea teepee, with the string ending in a paper leaf, and combined with the see-through glass of the cup, saucer and teapot, it all made for a very stylish design touch. I was more than willing to forgive a little less flavour in favour of such an attractive set-up.

To accompany my tea I ordered the “Sweet Bite”: waffles with plums poached in Heilala vanilla, served with whipped honey butter. The waffles are dark and liberally filled with cinnamon, so are delightfully sweet and spicy. The whipped honey butter was more the consistency of cream! So decadent. And the plums, well, I have an addiction to poached fruits and these were just perfect, riding that tricky line between the fruit holding its shape yet still soft and light on the tongue. And seeing all the vanilla bean flecks throughout the poaching sauce pushed all the right foodie buttons!

“But what of the macarons?” you are all undoubtedly wailing. “Tell us of their mouth-watering GLORY.” Well, those with long memories will remember that I first sampled a LuxBite macaron at Broadsheet Cafe, and while I highly enjoyed my creme brulee version, I was intrigued by the watermelon yoghurt one that one of my companions ordered. I was finally able to taste one with my second pot of tea, and goodness, it was a revelation. My secret thoughts that it would probably be too hard to translate the taste of watermelon into a biscuit format without it tasting artificial were completely scuppered. This macaron achieved a somewhat miraculous feat of not only tasting like proper watermelon, but also somehow being juicy, an impressive attempt to elude to the texture of watermelon. In a biscuit. That my friends, is some insanely awesome shit right there.

As LuxBite is only a short walk around the corner from my workplace, I am now making it my mission to try ALL of their macarons (verdict so far: the peanut butter and jelly macaron exists to reassure mankind that we are loved and that perfection is possible). Join me on a one-way trip to heaven (and diabetes), and get yourselves over to LuxBite.

LuxBite

38 Toorak Road, South Yarra

Ph: 9867 5888

www.luxbite.com.au

Oriental Tea House

DUMPLINGS! That is quite often the ravaging cry to be heard emanating from the lips of myself and a good chunk of people I know on a fairly regular basis. Though I must admit I’m struggling a little to find a really great dumpling place within walking distance from my workplace (really wish Hu Tong at The Cullen wasn’t just that little bit too far away for my stumpy, lazy gams).

The best option within walking distance is Oriental Tea House. And yes, I’ll say straight off the bat that this isn’t explode-your-face off AMAZING yum cha, but it’s easy and fun, the space is great to sit in and the staff are unfailingly friendly, and there are some dishes that happily rock me whenever I go.

Last time Muffin and I visited after work we sampled the vegetarian banquet. With drinks, from what I recall it cost about $40, and some of the dishes were quite good. The san choi bao and vegie roll made for good starters; I was intrigued by the fact the vegie roll was a lot less like a spring roll, and instead had a wrapper made out of thin tofu.

The serve of dumplings came out in a  steamer with just two dumplings, one regular with the thin, see-through glutinous wrapper, the other was a buckwheat-skinned dumpling. The buckwheat one seemed more mushroomy, and its skin did seem to impart a distinctly different flavour, but otherwise both were quite satisfactory, loaded up with a mix of vegies. Also included in the steamer was a vegetable bun, which had a slight paucity of filling, and is recalled as being a bit disappointing.

The main dish came out on a  large plate, containing stir-fried vegetables, a spring onion pancake, steamed rice and the DIVINE salt and chilli tofu. I am wholeheartedly addicted to salt and chilli tofu, and Oriental Tea House plate up a damn good version. The spring onion cake wasn’t any great shakes (I’m enormously fond of spring onion cakes and ones I have a low opinion of can sometimes bring my whole meal down), but the vegies were good  and the tofu, HOLY HANNAH, totally boss as always (though you do get a much smaller portion of tofu in the banquet compared to just ordering the standard dish, which aggrieved me quite a bit).

Dessert: an eggy combo of custard bun and custard tart, which were both beautifully well done. Such lovely flaky pastry on the tart, and the custard in both was strong on flavour (nice natural flavour, none of that slightly powery commercial custard taste here) and both were smooth and creamy.

Being a tea house, we really couldn’t order anything else to accompany our meal. I went with the raspberry lime ice tea, which is my favourite out of all their interestingly flavoured iced teas, it’s terribly sweet (just how I like, well, mostly everything!) and the lime gives it a refreshing kick. Muffin ordered a lemongrass and ginger tea, which when it arrived engulfed our table in such a gorgeously delicious smell it made us food-swoon quite enthusiastically.

Oriental Tea House is a good little place to grab yourself a quick, pleasant dinner. Must admit that I probably wouldn’t go the option of the banquet again, just because it seemed a little light on content considering the price and I did go away with a little bit of hunger still grousing away inside me. But there are some really great, satisfying dishes on the menu as a whole that means I’ll be back to construct my own banquet… probably entirely composed of that amazing salt and chilli tofu.

Oriental Tea House

455 Chapel Street, South Yarra

Ph: 9826 0168

www.orientalteahouse.com.au

Note: Oriental Tea House also has two other locations, one in the city at 378 Little Collins Street, and another at Chadstone Shopping Centre. I haven’t been to these other locations, but figured I’d put them up in case South Yarra is not pleasing for you geographically.

NorthSouth Eatery

It seems that in the past six months or so amazing cafe ventures have been popping up all over the south side of the river like wildfire. Along with Outpost (which I really need to get around to reviewing properly one of these days), one of my favourites is NorthSouth Eatery, which is a leisurely stroll from my workplace and provides a green refuge from the hustling bustle of Chapel Street.

When I say green refuge, I mean GREEN! Quite aside from all the lovely fresh flowers that peep out of vases everywhere, the interior is painted in this really quite gorgeous dark green colour that for some reason I find really calming. It’s a really enjoyable space to sit in with a book, and just relax, perhaps in a spot that lets you see into the open kitchen so you can watch your brunch getting made.

And I’ve experienced quite a few NorthSouth Brunches by now! The very first was in the fine company of Schaefer and Miss Brinkman on a sleepy Sunday morning. Clearly we were all in need of savoury kick-starts that morning in light of our choices!

After much deliberation, I decided to sample the avocado on toast with black pepper. It was comprised of nice thick seedy bread, bright green avocado, and gorgeous tomato slices drizzled with a little olive oil. Adding some Maldon salt from the bowl on the table made it pretty much the prettiest and tastiest breakfast around.

Miss Brinkman went with the leek and zucchini omelette. In her words, it was perfectly cooked, not rubbery or runny, a perfect consistency all the way through. The zucchini was by all accounts AMAZING, and the leek topped it all off into an eggy, savoury delight. I wanted to try a bite, but Miss Brinkman wasn’t letting anyone else touch it!

Schaefer chose the scrambled eggs with bacon on toast. “Tasty,” in Schaef’s brief words. Though he did think that the toast was a bit comically thick (it was at least 3 inches thick, it was a bit absurd).

I did manage to sample something more sweet on my most recent visit: the homemade crumpets with butter and honey. These were just divine, two big crispy crumpets served with honey, a lemon wedge and a perfectly round disc of butter. You can view their beautiosity for yourself, in this awesome photo taken by Miss Brinkman that you can find on her Tumblr, right here (you can also see her muesli, our tea and espresso, and my fingertips eagerly anticipating crumpety goodness).

So there you go, one of my south side brunching favourites. Pop on in next time you’re over the river, get a crumpet, and then have fun watching all the cute dogs trotting past on their daily constitutionals.

NorthSouth Eatery

760 Chapel Street, South Yarra

Ph: 9872 6221

Edit 9/7/2011: After some ownership wranglings, it appears that NorthSouth has had a name change. It is now covered in big red signs that proclaim “BK’s on Chapel” (which has honestly got to be the worst name change in the history of ever, I mean dear lord). It is yet to be ascertained whether they are still running with the same menu.

Lawson Grove Shop

The most fabulous and marvelous Jen texted me the other week inviting me to join her for brunch at a little cafe in her neighbourhood. “Service can be weird,” said the message, “but food is mostly good!” Colour me intrigued!

Lawson Grove Shop is located on the ground level of a gorgeous art deco apartment block, and so hidden away that you wouldn’t know it’s there unless you were a local… or lucky enough to have a local show it to you! The space is quite amazing – it’s a big basement room full of wood floors and paneling, quite rustic in a way, and true to it’s name, it provides shelves and fridges full of foodie products  in a more gourmet update of the local shop.

The service was, well, Jen’s word for it was ‘weird’ but I would go with ‘disinterested’. No one greets you or comes to bring you menus, you have to get everything yourself, and when you do interact with staff they seem to wish for nothing more than for you to not be there. The glum-looking girl behind the counter who we gave our order to seemed to stare right through us, and since my visit I have heard tales of outright hostility from staff towards customers, which worries me. The space is so gorgeous it really deserves a staff of people who are excited by it, and are not making customers uneasy.

As for food, we both went with the poached eggs on sourdough with grilled tomatoes, avocado, mushrooms and relish, although Jen stuck with the original inclusion of bacon while I subbed it for spinach.

What was fab: the poached eggs were perfectly runny and hot, and no trace of the hated vinegar. The spinach was brill as well, only just wilted so it was still bright green and springy, with a light dusting of pepper and salt.

What was meh: all the other components didn’t leave much of an impression. The mushrooms were okay, I ate one half of the tomato but left the other as it had a big black blemish on the outside, and the avocado was as good as they’re going to be out of season.

We also shared a wee orange cupcake with passionfruit icing. Jen, who had quite an impassioned rant about the lack of taste in most cupcakes these days (we both agree the problem lies mainly with the icing – too much of it and too little flavour) was a little disappointed and decreed it not to be of the highest echelon of Lawson Grove’s baking skills. As for myself, not being the expert, I was pretty damn pleased with it – despite the very base being a tad overcooked, the cake itself was bursting with the taste of orange, being very reminiscent of flourless orange and almond cake (though I’m pretty sure this was a wheat flour cupcake, sorry gluten-freers). As for the passionfruit icing, it was very thinly spread across the top, but the flavour of it, it was so strong and vibrant it practically danced around my mouth.

When it comes down to it, I think Lawson Grove Shop could be a great little place, but it’s clear problem food-wise is inconsistency. My breakfast eggs could have been truly great if it wasn’t for those luckluster elements, yet the little cake offered a really exciting flavour punch that will easily entice me back to try more of Lawson Grove’s baked goods, if nothing else. But despite wonderful cakes and a truly beautiful space, I just can’t get over the bad vibe that emanated from the staff. So, go for baked goods, but don’t blame me if your head gets seared off by the angry gaze of someone glowering from behind the counter, you’ve had warning enough!

Stay tuned for the second food adventure Jen and I took on this day, an across town late lunch at the very impressive (and impeccably staffed) Bell Jar.

Lawson Grove Shop

1 Lawson Grove, South Yarra

Ph: 9866 3640